Thursday, 21 February 2013

Kate Middleton, Hilary Mantel and Princess Diana: The Tragic Lives of Female Royalty

"Completely misguided and completely wrong" was what Prime Minister David Cameron said about it all - a phrase which, ironically enough, seems more at home as a critique of the manufactroversy itself than it does Hilary Mantel's essay in the London Review of Books. Of course, both the PM and his would-be successor Ed Milliband's remarks were profoundly stupid if one reads them as addressed towards the substance of the piece itself, which I would guess neither of them have read. Stupid, yes, but politically tonedeaf they were not; Ed and Dave's responses weren't meant to serve as a critique of Mantel's brilliant deconstruction of the public attitudes towards monarchy, but were instead directed towards misled and gullible tabloid readers who believed a snooty, prize-winning intellectual type had just publicly humiliated their beautiful, perfect princess. They needed to know that the politicians were on their side, dammit, and what's a political heavyweight like Dave or Ed meant to do when faced with the bloodlust, the off-with-her-head approach to debate of the tabloid media? Why, they criticise - or, to use the tabloid press' favoured verb, 'slam' the piece itself.

The tabloid media has a post-modern relationship to truth, and when faced with a dichotomy between stretching reality in order to sell papers or a rigorous approach to accuracy, will often prefer the quick sell. Anybody who actually read Mantel's piece will, of course, have found it brimming with satire, sarcasm and, most of all, empathy towards not just Kate, who features as only a minor character in Mantel's examination, but the monarchy as an institution and crucially the human beings confined within its inescapable prison of constant veneer; its requirement of endlessly chipper, dignified, exorbitant celebrity. 

Ironically, but perhaps not unexpectedly, it would fall upon the Daily Mail itself to feature the first genuinely personal criticism of Kate in publishing an 'I agree with Hillary Mantel' piece by Julie Burchill, which had nothing to do with the scope or content of Mantel's original essay, but had everything to do with what the tabloids had allowed - nay - forced it to become. When Mantel observed that Kate had become 'a jointed doll on which certain rags are hung...a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore', it was clear that the blame lay with us, the public, for holding such perceptions - why do we allow ourselves to treat people, royal or not, this way? And what about the institution of monarchy so allows us to dehumanise not just The Royals as celebrities, but ourselves as spectators to that celebrity? Julie Burchill in the Mail, meanwhile, lays the blame not with the public or the press for the dehumanised perception of royalty, but with Kate herself ('she needs to take a leaf out of her own mother-in-law Diana's book') and criticises her career trajectory before she became princess - '[her] dabbling in the family business, Party Pieces, makes us feel that she lacks backbone.'

All this hearkening back to The Time of Diana in which princesses were publicly venerated for their inhuman levels of simplistic humanity is nothing but amnesia. Whilst I was only nine years old when Princess Diana died, I remember the dishonesty of the public and press' about-face not being lost on me. My parents would occasionally read tabloid papers and they were, pre-death of Diana, replete with judgmental stories about her relationship with Dodi Fayed and more often than not treated her humanitarian efforts with patronising scorn rather than humanistic appreciation. In September 1996, less than one year before her death, the Mail on Sunday published a piece by Jessica Davies entitled 'Cunning Queen of Broken Hearts', which begins:
'The woman's a genius! She may be, in her own estimation, 'as thick as a plank', but Princess Diana has an unerring eye for bandwagons...
What a masterstroke it was to time her visit to Washington last week to coincide with the release of First Wives Club - a film about abandoned wives which has taken America by storm.
Just as the misery of dumped wives, and their triumph through revenge, became the talking point among film-goers, who should waft over and present herself as a suitable icon? Why, the brilliant, beautiful Diana - the ultimate Queen of Broken Hearts. For the first time in public she removed her wedding ring. A coincidence? I think not. 
The Daily Mirror, meanwhile, published a piece in June 1997 (two months before Princess Di's death) headlined 'Why Doesn't Di Have a Real Gal Pal?; Men Fall at Her Feet but No Woman Stays Close for Long' that recounts the apparently tempremental, hostile personality of a royal diva unable to make friends for herself:
The fact is that Princess [sic] has a way of behaving and saying things that tends to drive people away.
The large turnover in her staff is evidence enough of that. They just don't stay. Since she married in 1981, I reckon she's got through nearly 100...
For the fact is that to be a friend of Diana is hugely demanding.
You have to be prepared to take calls even at 3am to assure her she is wonderful.
You have to tell her constantly that she looks good and that the papers have been unkind to her. [Enduring England: I wonder why she would think that?]
And, when it is glaringly obvious she has behaved badly or selfishly, you have to tell her that she was quite justified in her actions.
Girlfriends are prepared to do all this up to a point, but they admit that it can become just too exhausting.
And so they walk away.
The brilliance of Mantel's piece was to examine the way royal women are (in Diana's case, literally) sacrificed onto the pyre of tabloid gossip and speculation in a way which has nothing to do with the reality of royal lives, but with the inhuman constraints and demands of monarchical duty. Is it too much to wonder if the strained quest to find perfection in the public spectacle of the Duchess of Cambridge is at least a little bit a desire on the part of the public, ventriloquised by the media, to atone for the oftentimes ghastly treatment of Diana at the hands of the scathing op-ed? The public displays of grief upon Diana's death were surely at least partially an effort at whitewashing history. Now, in Kate, we have a chance to do it all again. Don't mess things up this time, guys.

And yet still this forced love, this required worship, is no less dehumanising and no less degrading than the popular pre-death portrayal of Diana as a histrionic, maneating glory-seeker bouncing from one failed relationship to the next, all the while trying and failing to promote herself as someone who cares about anything but Princess Di. Neither work on the basis of reality, but are stories about stories - in Kate, the fairy-tale princess plucked from a life of common humility (don't laugh) into the dazzling life of royalty - the plot of a particularly unimaginative film, perhaps. In Diana, we had all this, but her narrative inevitably shifted from fairy-tale princess to Disney villain; the self-serving succubus, disruptor of public matrimonial harmony.

The only way to deal with this grotesque subversion of ordinary human decency is to do away with it entirely and such is why any humanistic approach to human compassion warrants - no - requires republicanism. It is only a matter of time, after all, until the public and the media's honeymoon with Kate Middleton ends, and the fickle, cynical whims of capitalist (should that be 'savvy') media transforms this apparently flawless individual into an object of derision, jealousy and scorn. What is the social function of an institution that brings out the worst in us and places at the center of our irrational hatreds individuals who are placed there not out of any desire, or lust for the trappings of 'celebrity experience' but by mere birthright? And woe betide those women, indeed, who happen to catch the eye of the male royals - for they will be loved, hated, publicly defended and denounced in equal measure. With the reaction to Mantel, it seems that anyone who points this out is guilty of an unpardonable sin.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Pope Benedict Behind Bars

Is unlikely, for one reason:
[Benedict's] continued presence in the Vatican is necessary, otherwise he might be defenseless. He wouldn't have his immunity, his prerogatives, his security, if he is anywhere else...
(If he lived anywhere else) then we might have those crazies who are filing lawsuits, or some magistrate might arrest him like other (former) heads of state have been for alleged acts while he was head of state 
By 'those crazies' I guess he means those people who prosecuted guys like General Pinochet. Isn't it funny that, yet again, those who have the most to lose from the exercise of universal jurisdiction are its fiercest opponents?

And so goes any possibility, barring a mostly symbolic in absentia universal jurisdiction trial, of seeing some sort of child-rape command responsibility being exercised by national courts.

And The Papers Are At It, Too: Fisking the Ross Clark Express Piece

I didn't intend my original comments on Theresa May's legal illiteracy to become a mini-series, but needs must and the problem extends deeper than simply the Home Secretary's lack of understanding. The Express has published an op-ed by Ross Clark that reeks of inaccuracy. This is really an endemic problem, spreading further than one article - as the Leveson report pointed out, most newspapers lack dedicated legal correspondents and a great deal of writers and columnists lack legal experience. Sure enough, Ross Clark's profile is notable for the fact that he doesn't appear to be a legal correspondent per se or have any notable experience writing legal commentary - he's a right-wing columnist who publishes propaganda pieces. Now, I'm not of such a technocratic mindset that I think only lawyers should be able to comment on legal matters, but it is important that newspaper editors require of their writers a level of comprehension and understanding that extends further than merely reiterating Tory propaganda. From Mr. Clark's article, it would appear that his only reading of the case is having read the Home Secretary's comments.

Clark begins his piece with sweeping, almost apocalyptic invocations of the principles of democracy versus the realities of despotism, he states that parliamentary sovereignty and democratic consent 'ensures our freedom from despotism: a political system in which power rests in the hands of elected representatives who live in constant fear of losing their jobs.' Fair enough, but the cases don't affect the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty - they are an acknowledgment that guidelines to the judiciary on the implementation of human rights law passed by The Commons, rather than the whole of Parliament, don't occupy the same legal status as legislation. To have decided otherwise would be the really radical decision. Then Ross Clark goes on to say:
'I am rather less convinced by human rights lawyers who try to claim that it is in their hands that our freedom rests.'
This is just blatant populism, and relies on the hope that you hate lawyers and people in suits more than you hate elected politicians. Suffice to say, nobody is claiming that human rights lawyers are the guardians to the keys of freedom, but that the judiciary is under an obligation to apply the law, and guidance papers are not of the same legal standing as Acts of Parliament.
On the contrary, when I see lawyers making up the law through a perverse interpretation of a principle in the European Convention on Human Rights I begin to feel a little of the same sense of powerlessness which ruled the lives of people who lived under Eastern European autocracies.
Here's where the article delves into mindless stupidity. Lawyers do not 'make up the law', but rather the judiciary is applying laws handed down by parliament itself in deportation cases, to which Article 8 claims may apply in exceptional circumstances. The comparison with Communist states is ludicrous, since the powerlessness of communist autocracies came precisely from a lack of legal oversight and human rights protection for individuals. It was a lack of lawyers, rather than an abundance of them, which is in part reasponsible for totalitarian excess.
The guidance needed issuing because the law had become a farce. Since the Human Rights Act came into effect more than 100 foreign criminals have evaded being returned to their homeland on the grounds that it would harm their family life. 
Meaning that roughly 10 cases per year are decided in favour of a defendant alleging that his/her Article 8 rights would be violated with little to no public interest being served by the deportation. There are no comparisons for us to deduce whether or not this is the norm. Placing the claim within its relevant context would require comparing it not just with the amount of times Article 8 claims fail, but in deportation cases involving criminals which don't invoke Article 8 at all. Yet Ross Clark goes to no effort to contextualise his claims, and hopes you won't notice the shoddy reporting. Unlike Theresa May, however, Ross Clark does provide some (dubious) examples:
They include Aso Mohammed Ibrahim, a failed asylumseeker who mowed down 12-year-old Amy Houston in Blackburn in 2003. In spite of the fact that he had no right to be in the country anyway – and that he had other convictions for harrassment and possessing drugs – he was allowed to stay in Britain by virtue of having fathered two children after serving his jail sentence.
This is at least a real judgment, but the lack of any links on the piece to which readers can fact-check the piece for themselves should give some indication of the general level of rigor and intellectual discipline of the summary. If readers are interested, they can look here for the facts and judgment, as well as a summary of the immigration judge's assessment.  Contrary to what the tone of Clark's summary of the judgment implies, merely having two children does not automatically establish Article 8 rights which override deportation proceedings. A quick reading of the actual judgment itself finds that the immigration judge was not just considering the Article 8 rights of the Aso Mohammed Ibrahim, but more crucially, his children:
I am satisfied that the relationship is of such significance that can genuinely be characterised as family life and that the best interests of the children is such that the Appellant should not be removed from the UK. Were it not for the children my view with regard to the matter may be [sic] different. However I find that the disruption and interference in the family lives of the children and therefore of the Appellant and [ ] would be of such significance that it is not proportionally justified to remove the Appellant from the UK.
The Upper Tribunal further noted that had Aso Mohammed Ibrahim been subject to deportation proceedings at the time of the offense, his case would have likely been unsuccessful. In the intervening seven years since he had committed the offense, however, he had fathered two children, whose best interests, said the immigration judge, would not be served by having their father sent back to Iraq. Had the deportation proceedings been started at the time of the offense, they would have likely succeeded. So really, the anger is to be directed at the government for taking so long to issue deportation proceedings, rather than at the Human Rights Act and the judiciary for allowing Ibrahim's claim to succeed. The second example Ross Clark uses is of Mr. Rohan Winfield, but since the case is unreported, I strongly doubt that Clark has actually read it. I would hope to see legal commentators in the popular press refrain from commenting on things before they've actually, you know, read them. The only reference I can find to the case is in this Telegraph piece, which goes into no detail whatsoever with regards to the judge's reasoning or the merits of the case. Therefore Ross Clark's commentary on it is, quite simply, untrustworthy.
We now have an immigration policy which turns away entrepreneurs and PhD students yet puts a large “welcome” mat out to overseas criminals. 
This is just a false dichotomy. If we're talking about the immigration policy approach to PhD students and entrepreneurs, that's another matter, but Article 8 rights of the families of criminals don't have any bearing at all on whether or not skilled workers are allowed into the country. It's simply lazy, sloppy thinking to think of them as somehow legally connected, and this is in no way a relevant or insightful criticism of UK immigration policy. Article 8 is not a 'welcome mat' and is not successful in all cases - criminals are still deported for committing crimes, but if the criminal's family would have their own rights violated (being, as they are, you know, innocent people), then it is a relevant consideration to ask what the actual objectives of deportation are, and do they outweigh the distress to the children of never being able to see their father again?
All article 8 of the Human Rights Act has achieved is to provoke a baby boom among criminals who know that if they can manage to father a child before deportation proceedings are completed they have a good chance of being allowed to stay in Britain.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Yet it seems that amongst the editors of The Express, all that will suffice is for a writer to pluck bogus claims from his arse and hope nobody notices he's making shit up. This is just a completely ludicrous, unsubstantiated, made-up piece of propagandistic drivel. If only ten cases regarding Article 8 are decided every year in favour of the defendant, not all of them will involve children. So less than 10 cases each year hardly constitutes a 'boom' amongst criminals. There is no evidence for this claim whatsoever and it shouldn't have gotten past an editor, if the editor was interested in facts rather than political spin.
Yet according to Lord Woolf the most outrageous aspect is not that violent criminals are allowed to escape deportation but that Theresa May should dare to challenge the judges who have made the rulings.
 Yesterday he claimed that her remarks “undermined the rule of law” on the grounds that a minister should not dare question the rulings of judges.
Translation: "I have not read the relevant cases, and I've only read summaries of the controversy, so I presume Lord Woolf was angry that ministers criticised judges." I'm guessing that Ross Clark used the "undermined the rule of law" quote because that's the only part of Lord Woolf's statement that isn't behind a Times paywall. Here's what he actually said:
'It behoves ministers to be circumspect in their remarks, particularly the Home Secretary, who has responsibilities for upholding the rule of law. What is said in debate in Parliament does not change the law. 
If the Home Secretary is not pleased about a decision and thinks that it is wrong or not in accordance with the law, then she has the right to go to the Court of Appeal.
If the law needs changing, she can go to Parliament...'
In other words, Lord Woolf was expressing concern at the Home Secretary's lack of understanding of constitutional process, in keeping with the criticisms expressed on this blog and elsewhere, than the fact that she dared to criticise judges.
Even if you do believe that the right of convicted criminals to choose to live in Britain should take precedence over the rights of the rest of us – which I suspect is rather a minority viewpoint – you surely must recognise the primacy of Parliament, which last July voted to approve the new guidelines.
Except that nobody has disagreed with parliamentary sovereignty, they are instead taking issue with the claim that a debate and subsequent vote in The Commons should override the statutory law, as well as the international and domestic case law.
Yet one judge quoted by May justified his ruling to allow a foreign criminal to stay in Britain with the words that the debate in Parliament amounted only to “weak scrutiny”. 
It's always a shame when columnists take two words from a judgment as evidence to back up their claims - the phrase 'weak scrutiny' was used to contrast the weight accorded to guidelines voted for by the House of Commons in comparison to primary legislation and case-law.
A democracy functions on the principle that elected politicians make the law and the courts enforce it. When judges start trying to make the law as well as enforce it we are sliding towards judicial dictatorship.
Reading this, you might be forgiven for forgetting that we are talking about an Act of Parliament, here! Article 8 was passed by Parliament in 1998 one year after a landslide victory for New Labour in 1997. It applies in cases where people have a familial interest and in which the rights not just of the criminal but of his/her family are potentially violated. If judges made a distinction between the families which are worth consideration, such as those of criminals being deemed worthy of no right to legal redress absent even an Act of Parliament saying so, then that is the legal regime which embodies more the characteristics of a judicial dictatorship.

The row over foreign criminals is part of a wider trend towards laws being made in the courts rather than in Parliament. 
Increasingly administrative decisions are being fought out in judicial reviews where a court decides whether ministers have followed correct, lawful procedures. 
Ministers, of course, are as bound to obey the law as anyone else but the constant barrage of challenges brought by well-funded vested interests is beginning to paralyse the business of government.
First we have false dichotomies and now false equivalence! This is not the time or the place to get into an in-depth discussion about judicial review, others have done that far better than I could. It's very difficult to get at what Ross Clark is arguing - is he saying that there are particular judicial review cases which were decided incorrectly, if so, which ones? Either you think that the government has a duty to follow the law and have this enforced through challenges from its citizens, or you think this whole judicial review thing is a load of nonsense and should be gotten rid of. No amount of "I'm not saying, I'm just saying" caveats will cover up columnists thinking sloppily on these matters. Although, 'the business of government' is a telling phrase, isn't it?
Few people would disagree with the original articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, which the Human Rights Act incorporated into British law, nor question that they be used to prosecute fallen dictators and war criminals.
 But the convention has grown and now contains protocols on discrimination and the like so vaguely written that they are open to wide interpretation.
They are meant to be vaguely-written, to accord a wide margin of appreciation to states in their implementation, so that the law isn't made at the international level, but reflects a process of interpretation, debate, disagreement and consensus.

I've run out of steam, but this piece wasn't just about attacking an idiotic column by an obvious propagandist in a right-wing newspaper. This demonstrates the general lack of regard much of the op-ed based tabloid media accords to legal matters and in particular issues surrounding human rights. For whatever reason, the right-wing have decided that they don't much like the human rights act, and in the absence of genuinely absurd cases (which would warrant outrage) have proceeded to make things up and publish ill-informed garbage like Ross Clark's piece. If claims are to be made by legal reporters, they should be substantiated and fact-checked, not just rushed through because they serve a political purpose. 

Theresa May: Clearly Not A Lawyer

The always-excellent UK Human Rights Blog has rightfully taken Theresa May to task for her idiotic comments in the Mail on Sunday with regards to the judiciary:
But however wrong-headed Theresa May’s critique might be, it forms part of a much wider public discourse about the nature and acceptability of human rights in contemporary Britain. This is so because May’s argument, shorn of its baseless analysis of the specific matter that she has in her sights, reduces to the bald propositions that the UK Parliament, not the judiciary, should and does have the ultimate say over matters pertaining to human rights. The former claim – a normative one – is contestable. The latter claim – a factual one – is demonstrably false.
What's more, any primary legislation enacted in order to give more weight to Theresa May's pandering to right-wing tabloid papers would still need to be read in a way which is compatible with Article 8 of the Human Rights Act. Any legislation, further still, would be subject to a challenge at the European Court of Human Rights - so the only way for the Home Secretary to get what she wants - favourable judgments in all cases without interference from human rights legislation, is to repeal the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. This, by the way, is now a mainstream policy option amongst the right-wing in the UK.

So there you have it: the profoundly illiberal bleating of a legally illiterate Home Secretary desiring to remove international checks and balances on executive power, all because she lost a couple of cases and doesn't seem to understand the constitutional process. Anyone else think appointing Home Secretaries with no legal experience might be something of a bad move?

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Dumb and Dumber: Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa May

Pictured: Article's subjects.
In what seems to be an ongoing saga of Conservative politicians saying stupid things, we have a double whammy this week from the Tory front-bench. First, from the-man-who-wouldn't-be-Prime-Minister; Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, who thinks that those who expect sufficient payment for work are snobs who think they're too good for manual labour. Secondly, we have what can now be reliably called a characteristically ignorant comment from Home Secretary Theresa May, who thinks can get away with pretending judges are incorrectly implementing Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The reason I've grouped these two outbursts together is because they both rely on a hatred of 'elites' (Iain Duncan Smith actually used the term 'smart people') who arrogantly consider their fancy-pants university degrees to be more important than the national interest. Now, both these points are so obviously political posturing rather than honest objection, but it is a shame that the modern Conservative party is relying on populist attacks on hard-working people or, in the case of Theresa May, an entire branch of the government. Of course, both these shameless panderers are wrong on all their points, so let's examine them in turn.

Iain Duncan Smith: Norman Tebbit Redux

Let's get one thing out of the way first: comparative studies have shown that workfare schemes do not work at reducing unemployment levels. They are a throwback to the Nixon Administration, and then as now were shoved through more for the reason that they were an easy sell to the public, rather than a proven, effective means to alleviate the poverty trap. A far more effective method to reduce dependency and unemployment would be, say, wage-subsidised job schemes, which manage to achieve higher levels of sustained employment without all that, you know, exploitation stuff. Perceptive readers will also notice that both those reports linked to above come from the Department for Work and Pensions, the minister for which is...Iain Duncan Smith, who is apparently failing to listen to the advice of his own department, presumably because Workfare is seen as an easy sell to right-wing voters, as it was with Nixon and his Republican base.

The problem with Workfare schemes is that they provide companies like Poundland with virtually no incentive to keep people on and cause jobseekers to waste time doing work which fails to develop their skills. This isn't about work being 'beneath' people, it's about people's opportunity and potential being realised; there is simply no need for a university graduate to work in Argos as a remedy for welfare dependency. Graduates do not have significant labour market disadvantages and the time and money spent implementing an all-round useless Workfare program could be better spent in subsidising work experience schemes that provide training and assistance with job-searching, and would provide employers with incentives to keep people on. But why invest in people's futures when you can use a court defeat of your policy to have a jab at 'smart people'?

Underlying IDS's comments is an indirect assault on university graduates - the implication being that our economic woes are in part caused by 'these people' who think they're too good to enter the labour market at the bottom rung. I'm guessing that IDS isn't stupid enough to actually believe this, and he surely knows that the problem with workfare schemes isn't just that they place people in jobs ill-suited to their skills, but that they refuse to pay them the minimum wage for doing so. Sure, that might deter some people from claiming benefits in the first place when jobseekers think that a better use of their time might be spent writing cover letters and sending out CVs. This, in turn, will allow the government to boast that it's reduced the number of people on benefits and call workfare a success, without fixing the structural problems that have caused such high unemployment, particularly amongst skilled workers and university graduates, in the first place.

Article 8 of the ECHR: Theresa May is either lying or stupid

As a human rights lawyer, I despair every time I see home secretaries use the human rights act as some kind of scapegoat for their own incompetence, or when it's used as a bogeyman to drum up popular support for some draconian policy. Teresa May has eagerly adopted the Daily Mail/Daily Telegraph tactic of simply making up bullshit about human rights cases in order to push through a legislative agenda that is based, one suspects, more on giving untrammeled power to the executive branch than on a genuine constitutional concern about judicial overreach. May's issue is with a very small amount of immigration cases in which claimants have relied on the right to a private and family life in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights to prevent a deportation. She claims that the fact that a small number of cases have concluded that an individual's right to private and family life outweigh the home secretary's desire for deportation constitutes unwarranted judicial activism. Basically, she's pissed off because she hasn't won every case that's been decided on this matter, and because the courts have rightly concluded that parliamentary guidance papers hold less legal weight than primary legislation and decades of domestic and international case law.

There are no third options: either Theresa May is ignorant of not just the law, but of basic constitutional practise, or she is aware of the means by which the UK legal system operates and is instead lying about it to make a political point. Baroness Kennedy, whose response is simply wonderful, is correct - if Theresa May is asserting that judges actively consider Article 8 an absolute right, she should provide cases where they've done this. The truth of the matter is that cases involving a balancing between Article 8 and deportation are relatively uncommon, and Article 8 is always treated as a qualified right that succeeds in exceptional circumstances. That the examples upon which the Home Secretary bases her attacks on Article 8 have often been shown to be flat-out untrue isn't even demonstrative of scraping the bottom of the barrel - it shows one is scraping the bottom of the barrel for stuff that one can lie about to support one's own legally illiterate political agenda.

Theresa May's logic must therefore be that the simple act of placing down new immigration rules should take precedence over case-law and primary legislation. That's the only way to understand her recent critique of the judiciary, since the judiciary itself recognises the weight to be accorded to the immigration rules, but acknowledges that since they are not primary legislation, they don't occupy the same privileged standpoint as Acts of Parliament. May claims that since the rules were debated by 'Parliament', they demonstrate clear intent, but it was only because it was merely The Commons rather than both Houses of Parliament that had implemented the new immigration rules that they were considered a weak form of parliamentary scrutiny. It's impossible to read May's critique without coming to the conclusion that Theresa May knows astonishingly little about the UK constitutional process and the separation of powers.

Friday, 15 February 2013

The Conservative Party: Still Awful Homophobes

Pictured: The Downfall of Western Civilisation.
This might seem like something of a moot point, since the same-sex marriage bill passed on second reading with a majority of 225 MPs, but what's bugged me about the right-wing furor around the same-sex marriage bill is the genuine lack of any arguments that aren't prima facie dumb. Now most people know me as something of a left-winger and so I am naturally biased against right-wing arguments that to me seem nothing more than a recitation of mythological dogma about, say, free-markets, or a reflexive, rather than considered, distrust of 'big government' (whatever that means). Much of this, however, has more to do with the general intellectual climate of the right-wing these days, made up as it is by chavvy disabled-hating public school types in the UK. In the US, meanwhile, well...there's an episode of 30 Rock where Liz Lemon's brother, Mitch, is introduced as having had a skiing accident which makes him mentally 'stuck' in the 80s. That's basically the GOP in 2013. It's a shame, really, because conservatism has a rich intellectual history and these charlatans are doing an extreme disservice to it. Conservatism at its best is a consideration for reason and evidence, an appreciation for the wider effect of policies billed as compassionate and a respect for intellectual rigor. Nowadays, it's more often characterised by a bullying contempt for the vulnerable.

Enter the same-sex marriage 'debate' which is only really a debate in the same way that a newborn child's incessant crying constitutes a master's thesis. Let me be blunt here - there are no good arguments against same-sex marriage. None. Nada. Zilch. Generally speaking, when there's a hot-button issue being discussed by idiotic self-publicists on forums like, say, Question Time, with a little digging one can find some sophisticated arguments in the academic literature or in high-brow publications like the London Review of Books, or something that make you glad to know that the other side aren't all gibbering idiots. Not so with gay marriage. In this clip, Janice Atkinson-Small a (surprise, surprise!) Daily Mail columnist makes the argument against same-sex marriage from an apparently libertarian standpoint that basically the government shouldn't be involved in marriage regulation at all, so she's against any government intervention in marriage. Call me a cynic, but I have a sneaking little suspicion that this is *ahem* dishonest bullshit - since as far as I can tell, Mrs. Atkinson-Small has only felt the need to raise her objection to state involvement in marriage when it concerns, you know, those gay people they have now. Perhaps a reader can link me to an article in which Mrs. Atkinson-Small passionately argues for the overturn of the Marriage Act 1994? I eagerly await the response.

Okay, so a Daily Mail columnist is stupid, that's nothing new or interesting. What is interesting, though, is that Janice Atkinson-Small's position is the single most intellectually sophisticated argument against gay marriage out there. And yet, it's a kind of moral and political means of squaring the circle to argue that libertarianism demands restricting the rights of homosexuals because the state should not be involved in marriage rights. Why only marriage rights? Why not keep the state out of enforcement of consumer rights, or contracts? They are after all, like marriage, an agreement between two consenting adults and should thus be kept free of government involvement. The logical conclusion of the libertarian opposition to same-sex marriage is, of course, that any legal recognition of human rights constitutes 'state involvement' and should be rigorously opposed. One senses these people need to go back and read their Hobbes.

In Parliament, meanwhile, whilst I saw some elements of the objective press (bless 'em) describe the marriage debate as consisting of 'emotive arguments from both sides', or something, those of us who make no pretenses towards objectivity saw it instead as an opportunity for right-wing MPs to show just what truly horrible idiots they actually are. Here's David Burrowes MP, one of the main opponents of the Bill, on his reasons for objection:
'...over the centuries Society and Church have had a united view of the essential purpose of marriage, to provide a stable institution for the care of children.'
This is an argument that doesn't require a great deal of effort to refute. In fact, Mr. Burrowes does it himself in the preceding sentence:
'Of course same sex couples raise children in loving homes and not all marriages involve children.'
Got that? Not all marriages involve children and gay people can be perfectly good parents. But because gay people can't have children and Mr. Burrowes assumes they'll be bad parents, they shouldn't be allowed to marry - it's simple. One wonders if some of these MPs actually proof-read their statements before. And here's Teresa Coffey MP, who voted against the bill:
I’ve probably had about 10 from the constituents in favour and about 350 against. So I can say candidly on people who have contacted me I’ll certainly be representing their views tonight.
Her hands are tied, guvna! It's certainly a bold move to simply blame your constitutents for your voting to deny people equal treatment before the law. Majority tyranny, indeed.

But undoubtedly the worst quote of the same-sex marriage debate came from Stewart Jackson MP:
'Rosa Parks did not refuse to give up her seat on that bus for me to go to the back of the bus as a traditional Christian.'
Yeah, he actually compared himself to Rosa Parks in order to justify his bigotry against homosexuals. This isn't just a remarkably stupid and politically tone-deaf statement that lowers the intellectual level of parliamentary debate (though it is that), it's also emblematic of the kind of conception of 'rights' that some of the anti-same-sex-marriage campaigners have. The idea being that the state, the church, MPs, whatever, also have the right to not have gay people getting married in their midst. It's this kind of thinking which in turn pervades the modern Conservative party - that the government has a 'right' to demand certain behaviour from its citizens, which supersede the individual's rights to, for instance, equal treatment, religious freedom, or even payment for work.

There were some equally stupid arguments put forth by the Conservative dinosaurs in wake of their inevitable extinction. Sir Roger Gale argued that same-sex marriage was an 'Orwellian' redefinition which logically requires legal recognition of incest, although since there is no such thing as an 'incest lobby' and the number of loving, non-exploitative incestual relationships numbers zero, it's an irrelevant point. Nadine Dorries, intellectual powerhouse as she is, objected to the bill because it made no requirement of faithfulness and 'in fact, it does the opposite' (the opposite would actually be a requirement of adultery). I'm guessing that Mad Nad doesn't actually believe this and would still be opposed to the bill if Parliament jumped through her hoops and made a faithfulness requirement, because she doesn't care about faithfulness - she cares about gay people getting married.

Outside of our Parliament, stuffed as it is by at least 175 backwards homophobes (who have some gay friends, so they're not really homophobes, honest), some columnists are arguing that this bill is unnecessary because gay people don't actually want to get married, except for Sir Elton John and a few other 'national treasures' (seriously). This argument has to be read to believed:

Nothing in Britain's gay marriage debate adds up. For example, we're told the passing of the gay marriage bill is an historic victory for the brave gay activists who despite being mocked as perverts and poofs took part in London's first gay pride parades in the 1970s. 
Yet this fantastically overlooks the fact that those marchers denounced marriage and the family as "patriarchal prisons" that "enslave women, gays and children". 
For all the harebrained attempts to doll up the passing of the marriage bill as the endpoint to 50 years of gay agitation, the truth is early gay radicals campaigned against marriage, not for it. 
Marriage is a "rotten, oppressive institution", said the 1970 Gay Manifesto. Homosexuals are "in revolt against the nuclear family structure", said the influential Gay is Good tract of 1972.
That's right - literally all gay people in the 1970s were against equal marriage, and all activism conducted between 1972 and 2013 is irrelevant, because the 1972 Gay is Good tract was 'infuential.' Andrew Sullivan's 1989 essay doesn't matter, because some gay activists 40 years ago were against equal marriage and didn't want to get married, and it's only because gay people are stupid and easily led that they're overwhelmingly in favour of equal marriage rights now, when the truth is that they don't actually want what they've been saying for the past few decades that they really, really want. We should be listening to right-wing columnists, rather than gay people themselves, to tell us what gay people want, because they themselves can't be trusted. These are the best arguments they have, folks.

Perceptive readers will notice that I haven't given any consideration to religious arguments. The simple reason being that religious arguments are completely irrelevant. Religion is a Rorschach Test and every political movement, be it racist, homophobic, Marxist, anarchist, whatever has a branch that relies on scripture to back up its assertions that if Jesus were around today, he'd definitely be a member of the NRA . Case in point - here's a biblical argument for gay marriage.

So whilst it's certainly good news that the bill passed with an overwhelming majority, was advocated by a Conservative Prime Minister and some of the most powerful arguments in favour came from Conservative MPs, it is still nonetheless the case that the Conservative party is still in majority comprised of backwards-thinking homophobes who opposed this bill on intellectually indefensible grounds. The hardcore right-wing of the Tory Party is not happy with this - as evidenced by this Sun Poll, which is revealing in its sneering disregard for the rights of minorities. Only 5% of those polled by The Sun support equal treatment for gay people, therefore the government shouldn't support it at all! I would really like to give Cameron the benefit of the doubt and think that he pushed this through out of conviction rather than politics, but he's always come across as someone who acts more on political expediency rather than outright principle. That's not a huge indictment - he is a politician after all. It is, however, ironic that a bill that was pushed through presumably in part to shed the Conservative party's image of dinosaur-minded bigots ended up exposing the majority of them for being just that.