Tuesday, February 28, 2006

This is your past

Better late than never:
Asked if he would press ahead and put the bill into its committee stages, as well as stay in office, if the bill received its second reading only with Tory support, he said: "To get through the legislation and say 'now I should quit' - I don't think that is very sensible."
John McDonnell, secretary of the Campaign Group, reacted angrily: "Mr Blair is cutting himself loose from the Labour party and forming a national coalition government with the Tories. If he can do it on this issue, he can do it on others".
The only trouble with this argument is that Blair cut himself loose from the Labour Party years ago. As I wrote in 1997,
Blair is not simply right-wing, in the sense that Gaitskell and John Smith were right-wingers: indeed, Blair has dismissed the Gaitskellites as the right wing of 'old socialism'. To find another Labour leader so eager to meet the Conservative agenda halfway you would have to go back as far as the leader of another neologism, National Labour; and Blair, unlike MacDonald, has taken almost the whole of the Labour Party with him.
Which is precisely the tragedy of the Labour Party. Thankfully the Tories have now given up the futile quest for habitable ground to the Right of New Labour - and found a leader capable of playing Baldwin to Blair's MacDonald. (Playing him for a fool and wrecking his party, that is.) I'm afraid it's all that either Blair or the Labour Party deserves now.

(But remember, from 1931 to 1945 was only fourteen years.)

Sunday, February 26, 2006

And was Jerusalem builded here?

[Updated and edited 26/2]

In 1997 - shortly after Labour came to power - a London-based lawyer named David Mills received a sum of around half a million euro, which was paid into an off-shore account. It has been suggested to Mills that the money came from Silvio Berlusconi; Mills himself has referred in writing to his work for 'the B people' and a payment from 'the B organisation'. Mills, however, maintains that the money came from a southern Italian businessman called Attanasio, and that the stuff about 'the B people' was merely a hypothetical scenario, not a description of anything that had actually happened. Unhelpfully, Attanasio has denied being involved, claiming that he was in prison on corruption charges at the time the money was paid over. Berlusconi himself has expressed displeasure, effectively accusing Mills of trying to use his name to distract attention from his own fraudulent accounting - a charge which Mills rebutted with all the affronted dignity he could muster.

Oddly, you won't find much about the background to this case in David Lane's 2004 book Berlusconi's Shadow: Crime, justice and the pursuit of power. Lane writes for the Economist, and the book drew on the magazine's 2003 dossier on Berlusconi (reproduced here, among other places). In places, however, the book drew on the dossier rather selectively. Here's a passage from chapter 3 ('Corruption'), about an English court hearing at which Berlusconi's representatives attempted to block the transfer to Italy of potentially incriminating documents:
The court in London heard that the applicants and others were alleged by the Italian judicial authorities to have been involved in a huge fraud whereby at least 100 billion lire had been surreptitiously removed from [Berlusconi's company] Fininvest and used for criminal purposes. Prosecutions were already afoot against Berlusconi for bribing revenue inspectors ... and for making illicit donations of 10 billion lire to Bettino Craxi, the former prime minister and leader of the Italian Socialist Party.

At the heart of the four days of hearings in London were documents held by CMM Corporate Services at an address in Regent Street. (CMM stood for Carnelutti, a Milanese law firm, and MacKenzie Mills, the surname of a British solicitor who was a partner of the London arm of the Milanese firm.) The Serious Fraud Office ... had implemented a request for judicial assistance. A search warrant had been issued by the Bow Street Metropolitan Magistrate on 15 April 1996 and executed that same day.

The authorities in London believed that they needed to act quickly. ... The documents at the centre of the legal battle had previously been kept in Switzerland and evidence had come to light that one of CMM's directors had required those responsible for holding them in Switzerland to transfer them to CMM in London. The director of CMM had given the instructions at the beginning of April 1995, shortly after letters requesting judicial assistance had been sent to Switzerland from Italy. If there was an innocent explanation for this, observed the British judge, none had ever been provided.
(British judicial understatement - it's the best sort.)

No prizes for guessing the name of the "British solicitor". Here's how the same episode is covered in the Economist dossier:
Following leads from their investigation of bank accounts under Mr Craxi’s control, prosecutors eventually discovered a secret and substantial network of Fininvest companies, incorporated in the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and the Channel Islands. Tens of billions of lire had flowed through bank accounts held in these companies’ names.

In their search for Fininvest’s black funds, magistrates sent requests to foreign authorities for assistance (known as rogatorie in Italian), especially to Switzerland where many of the secret bank accounts were. This was a long procedure, involving judiciaries, ministries and embassies of both countries, and the banks where evidence of the alleged wrongdoing lay.

On March 8th and 24th 1995, magistrates sent rogatorie to Switzerland. On April 10th 1995, Tanya Maynard, then a director of CMM Corporate Services (CMM), told those in Switzerland holding the records and papers for the network of Fininvest companies to transfer them to London. CMM was a British-registered company, incorporated in 1982 under the name of So.Ge.S International. The change of name took place in 1989, and CMM was dissolved in 1997.

According to company filings, the owner of CMM in April 1995 was Edsaco Holdings (UK) Ltd (Edsaco), a subsidiary of UBS, a Swiss bank, which had bought CMM in June 1994 for £750,000. One of Ms Maynard’s fellow CMM directors, Mr Mills, the husband of Tessa Jowell, had received £675,000 for his CMM stake. Two months earlier he had increased his stake in CMM to 90%, when he bought a 65% stake held in the name of a Milanese company, run by Studio Carnelutti, a Milan law firm. Mr Mills was a partner of Carnelutti & Co, the London affiliate of the Milan firm, until he left in 1988 to set up his own practice. Mr Mills and the Studio Carnelutti company in Milan had incorporated CMM as a company to provide services to administer other companies. In other words, it was partly a name-plate operation.

Italian magistrates asked the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) in London to obtain the records and papers moved from Switzerland. In October 1996 Berlusconi petitioned the High Court in London to stop them getting the documents obtained by the SFO. The magistrates needed these documents as evidence in the case of illegal donations to Mr Craxi, whereas Berlusconi claimed the alleged offence was political. “I just cannot see corrupt political contributors...as ‘political prisoners,’” concluded Lord Justice Simon Brown, a judge in the case, though he added at the end of his judgment that his words should not “raise the least presumption of guilt”.

Of Ms Maynard’s instructions to those holding the documents in Switzerland to transfer them to London, Lord Brown said: “ If there was innocent explanation for this, none has ever been provided.” In the SFO's application for a search warrant, a senior SFO official had stated: “Those persons running CMM/Edsaco must be aware that what they have done in managing the companies…is fraudulent and might render them liable to prosecution in Italy.” Mr Mills denies any wrongdoing.
That's not all the dossier has to say about Mills. He and Berlusconi go way back. The Guardian describes Mills' relationship with Berlusconi as beginning 'within six years' of his marriage to Tessa Jowell in 1979; the Economist suggests that it began rather earlier:
Mr Mills gave evidence on Berlusconi's behalf ... at a hearing in London in March 2003. Asked when his professional relationship with Fininvest began, Mr Mills replied in 1989 or 1990, and denied any relationship as early as 1981 or 1982.

Based on company filings in Britain, these statements were untrue. Mr Mills attributes this to “a failure of memory”. In March 1980 Mr Mills incorporated Reteitalia Ltd in Britain, as a 90% subsidiary of Reteitalia Srl, Berlusconi's film and TV rights company, set up in Italy that year. Fininvest Srl held the other 10%. In other words, Reteitalia Ltd was a Fininvest company. Between May 1981 and September 1983, Berlusconi was one of its four directors, all of whom were resident in Italy. Mr Mills was Reteitalia Ltd’s company secretary from incorporation until 1989, when CMM took over.

In 1985 Mr Mills also set up Publitalia International Ltd in Britain for Fininvest, and signed the form appointing Marcello Dell’Utri, Berlusconi's close friend, as a director. In 1986 Reteitalia Ltd changed its name to Reteeuropa Ltd. A few months later, Mr Mills set up another company in Britain called Reteitalia Ltd, of which he became a director. This company changed its name to Reteitalia (UK) Ltd in 1988 and back again to Reteitalia Ltd in 1990.

The first Reteitalia Ltd (ie, the one that became Reteeuropa Ltd) bought film rights from third parties, which it then sold to other Berlusconi companies. It was a tax wheeze. Between March 1980 and December 1987, Reteitalia/Reteeuropa Ltd made $75m in pre-tax profits, which escaped British tax as the firm was deemed to be non-resident in Britain for tax purposes. This was because, while registered in Britain, it did not trade in Britain, and its registered owner and directors were not resident in Britain. After changes in British tax rules in 1988 eliminated this type of tax-avoidance scheme, Reteeuropa Ltd sold all its films rights in 1989 and wound down its activity in 1990 to very small fraction of its previous level. It made total losses of $53m between 1989-90, after the tax law had changed.

The second Reteitalia Ltd also bought and sold film rights, but, unlike its former namesake, it did trade in Britain and had some British directors, including Mr Mills. It was therefore subject to British tax, but made only meagre profits, followed by a loss in 1990. It, too, sold all its film rights in 1989.
So Mills was simply the man on the spot in Britain, helping Berlusconi to exploit a loophole in British tax law. This wasn't, perhaps, the most seemly occupation for a lawyer - let alone a lawyer married to a rising politician - but it's not as if Mills was deeply involved in Berlusconi's money-laundering activities. Oh, wait a minute...
These [the two British 'Reteitalia's] were just two of 29 companies in Fininvest “Group B”. The expression Group B was used to “differentiate the official companies of Group A from those which, although also controlled by Fininvest, should not appear as group companies and thus be kept out of the consolidated accounts”, Mr Mills told magistrates. On CMM’s summary sheet for each of the companies in Group B, were the words “very discreet”, an aide-mémoire to keep secret the link with the Fininvest group.

None of the 29 companies had any employees or any administrative infrastructure of their own. Trust companies acted as the registered agents for the companies’ shares (which were mainly in bearer form) and leading financial institutions in the Bahamas, Britain, Jersey, Luxembourg and Switzerland acted as bankers. Mr Mills claimed to the registered agents that he was the beneficial owner of three of the 29 companies. Mr G Foscale, Berlusconi's cousin, was presented as the beneficial owner of All Iberian.

CMM served as company secretary to 17 of the 29 companies. Ms Maynard was a director of Century One Entertainment and Universal One, and also of All Iberian. Mr Mills told Milanese prosecutors that Fininvest managed, directed and financed the operations of the All Iberian group. In other words, CMM was an interlocutor for Fininvest with bankers and registered agents of the Group B companies.
And so it goes on. What the Economist (and Lane's book) describes is a mind-bogglingly complex network of business and accounting entities, operating on the outer limits of legality and devoted to money-laundering and bribery. And the Economist (although not Lane's book) gives rather more than a walk-on part to David Mills.

There's more from Dave here, here and here. But of course, we should bear in mind that Mr Mills denies any wrongdoing.

Update It appears that the money paid to Mills was on-shored, if that's the word, by the interesting device of raising an appropriately-sized loan on Mills' house and then immediately repaying it by emptying out the off-shore account. What's particularly interesting is that Mills didn't have sole ownership of the house in question. His co-owner - and co-signatory to the loan - was of course Tessa Jowell. Who says:
I signed a charge over our jointly-owned home to support a loan made to my husband alone by his bank. I am satisfied that no conflict of interest arose out of this transaction in relation to my ministerial duties.
So that's all right then.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Can we turn around?

The first thing that has to be said about the "glorification of terrorism" law is that it's appallingly ill-written legislation. Here it is, courtesy of 'Unity':
Encouragement of Terrorism

(1) A person commits an offence if—

(a) he publishes a statement or causes another to publish a statement on his behalf; and
(b) at the time he does so—
(i) he knows or believes, or
(ii) he has reasonable grounds for believing, that members of the public to whom the statement is or is to be published are likely to understand it as a direct or indirect encouragement or other inducement to the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism or Convention offences.

(2) For the purposes of this section the statements that are likely to be understood by members of the public as indirectly encouraging the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism or Convention offences include every statement which—

(a) glorifies the commission or preparation (whether in the past, in the future or generally) of such acts or offences; and
(b) is a statement from which those members of the public could reasonably be expected to infer that what is being glorified is being glorified as conduct that should be emulated in existing circumstances.

(3) For the purposes of this section the questions what it would be reasonable to believe about how members of the public will understand a statement and what they could reasonably be expected to infer from a statement must be determined having regard both—

(a) to the contents of the statement as a whole; and
(b) to the circumstances and manner in which it is or is to be published.

(4) It is irrelevant for the purposes of subsections (1) and (2)—

(a) whether the statement relates to the commission, preparation or instigation of one or more particular acts of terrorism or Convention offences, of acts of terrorism or Convention offences of a particular description or of acts of terrorism or Convention offences generally; and
(b) whether any person is in fact encouraged or induced by the statement to commit, prepare or instigate any such act or offence.
I can't be certain, but I think what's happening here is that 1 (b) (ii) is qualified by 2 (a) and (b). There's the bit about having 'reasonable grounds to believe' - a kind of 'shouting Terror in a crowded theatre' clause; then there are criteria for the kind of statement which, the government believes, would give somebody reasonable grounds, etc. These criteria are twofold: you have to (a) glorify something which (b) could be emulated. The whole is then dunked in a bath of circumstantial vagueness with 3 (a) and (b) and 4 (a): following these clauses, we could reasonably see a scholarly discussion of the case for assassinating Charles Clarke go unpunished while vague but inflammatory sloganeering is punished as encouraging terrorism. Of course, in many cases vague but inflammatory sloganeering could have been punished anyway - but not reliably, and (crucially) not as terrorism. The importance of the 'terrorism' label is underlined by the reference to "Convention offences": a weird ragbag of offences, defined (or at least enumerated) here: explosives offences, hijacking, kidnapping and so forth. These are offences incorporated into British law in compliance with international (generally UN) conventions - hence the name. The offences enumerated appear already to be crimes in English and Scottish law; the effect of the 'Convention offences' labelling is to group them under the same heading as terrorist offences.

Executive summary of the new clauses: if you say anything that we think is liable to persuade other people that what we call terrorism isn't as bad as we say it is, then you're more or less a terrorist yourself - and, more to the point, you're nicked.

As for what it is that our government calls terrorism, here's the current legal definition:
1. - (1) In this Act "terrorism" means the use or threat of action where-

(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.

(2) Action falls within this subsection if it-

(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.

(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.
Let's unscramble that. (Anyone else reminded of that Robert Heinlein story where the kid is given an insanely complicated task as part of an aptitude test, and gets full marks for telling the examiner it's logically impossible?)

Terrorism equals: serious violence
or serious damage to property
or endangering life
or endangering the health or safety of 'a section of the public'
or serious disruption of 'an electronic system'
(OR threatening any of the above)
when the action involves a political, ideological or religious cause
and EITHER is intended to intimidate people or influence the government
OR involves the use of guns or explosives.

Got that? Simplifying slightly and stripping away weasel words like 'serious', the definition of terrorism we're left with is:

an organised political group hurting people, smashing things up or hacking systems - or threatening to hurt people, smash things up or hack systems - for political goals. (Or using guns or explosives, for any reason - that's right out.)

So, statements glorifying terrorism are any statements about terrorism that the government chooses to designate as such; and terrorism is any violent, disruptive or threatening political activity which the government chooses to designate as such.

As I wrote back here, this is not really about security; a government that was primarily concerned with threats to public safety would go about things a lot more quietly. This is a profoundly political strategy, which seems to be calculated to divide and demobilise (in the first instance) the Muslim community, seen as a potential source of opposition to the government. How better to divide a group against itself than by letting it be known that most members of the group are decent, law-abiding British citizens, but some are scheming alien terrorists who ought to be rounded up?

He said: "The new law will mean that if people are going to start celebrating acts of terrorism or condoning people who engage in terrorism, they will be prosecuted, and if they do not come from this country, they should not be in this country. We have free speech in this country, but you cannot abuse it."

He said yesterday's vote represented a vital signal of strength "in circumstances where the threat is not just from the individual acts of terrorism, but the people who try to entice other people or recruit other people into doing it".
Those people, they're the ones we need to deal with. Not you, obviously, but... well, you know. Them. You know the ones. You wouldn't happen to have anything you could tell us about them, would you? No? Not to worry. Mind how you go.

Update Shortly after writing the above paragraph, I read this. (Incidentally, the legality of Riz Ahmed's detention seems extremely debatable. Schedule 7 of TACT(2000) would legitimise detention in the circumstances Riz describes, but only for the purpose of establishing whether or not he was a terrorist.)
Under the threat of “prolonging” my detention, I cooperated in allowing her to go through my wallet. She took detailed notes on all its contents. All of my bankcard details were noted down, as were the details on other people’s business cards I had in my wallet.
While searching through my wallet she asked me whether I intended to do more documentary films, specifically more political ones like The Road to Guantanamo. She asked “Did you become an actor mainly to do films like this, you know, to publicise the struggles of Muslims?”. She also asked me what my political views were, what I thought about “the Iraq war and everything else that was going on”, whether the Iraq war was “right” in my view.

She then asked me whether I would mind officers contacting me regularly in the future, “in case, for example, you might be in a café, and you overhear someone discussing illegal activities”.
You really can't make it up.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The feeble and the bad

Here's a curious coincidence (as predicted by Unity).
Passers-by stopped police officers to ask why the marchers were being allowed to carry banners threatening further suicide attacks in the city. One police officer replied: "Don't worry. We are photographing them."
Here's Blair:
there is another point, on which the right hon. Gentleman touched. Let me explain why I disagree so strongly with the position of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. He mentioned the terms of the amendment that he will support, which is about “the listener”. It does not cover written statements or images. In other words, it may deal with a sermon but not a placard. It would be incredible at this moment, after what has happened in the past few weeks, if we were to dilute the proposed law in that way.
The words in the amendment that he and the Liberal Democrats support—I hope that his hon. Friends realise this—refer to “the listener”. That does not cover images, placards or written statements. Supporting that would significantly weaken our ability to prosecute the very people about whom he complained on television a couple weeks ago.
And here's Blair:
"There's a bigger piece going on, isn't there? It's not only about these counter-terrorist measures, it's also about the position of the prime minister. We can't play entirely outside that process."

Sunday, February 12, 2006

If a tree don't fall on me

Apparently I'm up to blogpost #100, a little short of the blog's first anniversary. How about some beer?

In south London, where I learned to drink, the bitter is generally tawny and malty. In south Wales and East Anglia, the next two areas where I tried the beer, the bitter is usually both malty and tawny. The types of bitter native to Scotland, Cornwall and Yorkshire, in my experience, have similar characteristics. There are variations - Cambridge beer is flat and tannic; a lot of Scottish beer tastes as if a bag of toffees has been dissolved in it (which in a sense it has); and South Walian beer is the best in the world bar none. But they're variations within a shared style: in most parts of the country, if you order the local bitter you can safely expect something T and M.

Manchester is an exception. At least since the heyday of Boddington's, there's been a distinct local style of ale: pale and hoppy, with variations ranging from light-but-sour through cyanide-with-a-hint-of-malt to just-plain-undrinkably-bitter. I am not, as you may have gathered, a fan of this style - but the brewery which owns one of my two main locals is very big on it. They brought on a seasonal ale in summer (when, to be fair, pale and hoppy styles do go down well); I tried it once and seriously considered leaving the pint unfinished. It was the bitterest thing I've ever tasted, clove oil not excepted. The brewery does three or four different bitters, but they're all pale and hoppy; most of the time the guest beers are pale and hoppy too. There's a definite demand there, too. You can tell by the way the regulars' favourite guests keep coming back - and the way their names keep including words like 'white' or 'golden'. I'm in a minority on the tawny-and-malty front. A couple of years ago I had two pints of a guest mild they had on, and the barman asked me when I wanted to have the other 62.

The local with the pale, hoppy ales I'll call Old Local. It's not particularly old - it's six or seven years old, in fact - but it looks it; the decor is classic Pub Basic. It's a small pub, tied to a small local brewery; on an average night they have four or five of the brewery's ales on, plus a couple of guests and a real cider (from a one-gallon barrel, kept in the fridge). It's less than ten minutes' walk away and handy for a good Chinese takeaway.

Then there's New Local, which was opened a little more than a year ago and looks it. It's less than ten minutes' walk away (in the other direction) and handy for a good Indian; it's a Thwaites' pub, usually serving Bomber and Thoroughbred plus a couple of guests. New Local doesn't serve real cider, and they serve the bitter a couple of degrees too cold. But it's good ale - their Thoroughbred in particular is a very nice pint, without the slightly curdled caramel heaviness of the Bomber. New Local also has a bar snacks menu consisting mainly of things like miniature salamis and Japanese rice crackers. (Old Local, to be fair, serves Kettle Chips and Bombay mix, so it's not that stark a contrast; I'm not sure where you'd go round here for pork scratchings.) Another difference between the two is that you don't hear many local accents in New Local; from what I've overheard I get the impression that most of the clientele are incomers (like me), working in the social services or education (like me).

Can you guess which of the two has a no-smoking policy?

Last October I wrote (in comments here)
I could approve of a complete smoking ban if we were arguing about the effects on pub staff, whose exposure to smoke in pubs is much more extensive than any(?) of their customers’. If we’re talking about the punters (as people discussing a ban generally are) the case is much less clear. You express puzzlement that market forces have failed to create choice between smoking and non-smoking pubs, but actually this was entirely predictable for as long as smoke actively repelled a lower proportion of pub customers than the absence of smoke. Since smokers have historically been either a majority or a large minority among pub-goers, and since non-smokers aren’t likely to suffer withdrawal symptoms from the lack of clean air, these conditions haven’t obtained; the balance has also had an added level of ’stickiness’ owing to the lack of anywhere for non-smokers to actually go. What’s happened recently is that smokers have dwindled to a small enough proportion of the population that some pub managers can afford to disregard their preferences; there’s also been a decrease in the tolerance of the non-smoking population, although I don’t think this is anything like so significant a factor. Consequently non-smoking pubs have become a reality (one opened from scratch a year ago, just down the road from me in Manchester, & is now doing a roaring trade) - which in turn makes competitive pressures that much freer to operate.

So what worries me most about the proposed smoking ban - and almost equally draconian half-measures such as the creation of airtight(!) smoking rooms - is that this nannyish attack on the pleasures of the working class* will take place precisely when it’s no longer necessary.

*Pardon my Johnreidism, but this does seem like the most class-correlated proposal I’ve seen in a very long time - and not in a good way, either.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the pending smoking ban is that it won't come into force for another eighteen months. I imagine that the imminent threat of a ban will give market forces another nudge, so that by the time the ban actually takes effect it will look even less necessary than it does now. (But then, 'market forces' only ever make sense within a given framework of law, custom and expectation.)

But it's not just clean air that the ban will promote - or rather, it'll promote clean air by promoting a broader shift of values. And that's what worries me. I'm a middle-class incomer, with an incomer's accent, an incomer's taste in beer and an incomer's habit of taking the LRB to the pub and sitting on my own reading it (or sometimes, particularly in Old Local, standing on my own reading it). Or maybe that last one's just me. But anyway - middle-class incomer I am. But I like Old Local because I can feel at home there without being entirely surrounded by other middle-class incomers; conversely, I like New Local, but I'd like it more if it wasn't quite so full of people like me. I'm settled here - I've been in Manchester for 23 years and in this specific area for 18 - but I still feel like an incomer, and I think that's appropriate: I like the fact that I share a local with people who are actually from around here, and I don't object to being reminded that I'm not. At some deep level, the opening of New Local and places like it feels like a different kind of middle-class influx - not so much immigration, more colonisation. And the smoking ban seems like a big vote of confidence to New Local, and a big 'up yours' to the Old Local crowd.

I wonder if Chris goes far enough:
To New Labour, health egalitarianism is a strong enough principle to justify restricting freedom, but not strong enough to justify seriously attacking inequality.
I think we can simplify: to New Labour managerialists, just about any principle is good enough to justify restricting working class freedoms, and just about any principle is more important than seriously improving working class life chances. (And no, the smoking ban isn't about doing just that - or if it is, it's a peculiarly limited and indirect way of achieving that goal. See Chris's post for more.)

Update A friend challenged me today to specify less coercive means of effectively protecting bar staff from passive smoking. I don't think it's that difficult. Firstly (and symbolically), you'd give legal status to smoking bans imposed by the management of pubs and clubs: you light up and it's not just the management you're taking on, there's a chance you could actually be fined. (Or at least have a fee extorted - but that's another rant.) This in itself wouldn't do much more than make it easier to non-smoking establishments to open. Secondly, you'd legislate so that the continued tolerance of smoking, in a smoking establishment, rested on the consent of the people who work there: you'd enable bar staff to hold binding ballots on converting to (or, to keep it fair, from) non-smoking status and encourage pubs and clubs to hold such ballots regularly - starting now. If there is any groundswell of support for a smoking ban, among pub customers or pub workers, this should be enough to turn it into reality. And if not, what are we doing imposing one?

Updated update: Brian's post reminds me that, with the exception of the clause about balloting the staff, I've just reinvented the 2005 Labour manifesto position on smoking. Since the Blairite takeover there have been numerous cases of people and policies moving from respectable centre to extreme left without actually changing; it usually takes a bit longer than this, though.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

No sweat at all

I agree with Michel Houellebecq, up to a point.
Atomised became a bestseller at home and abroad. It won the Prix Novembre, though it missed out on the Goncourt. The publication of Platform saw him prosecuted for incitement to racial hatred, after describing Islam as ‘the most idiotic religion’ in a promotional interview. (His exact words were: ‘La religion le plus con, c’est quand même l’Islam.’) He argued that he was entitled to criticise Islam, and that he had never conflated Muslims with Arabs; he was cleared; the book sold 200,000 copies in two weeks.
In any case, Islam's the shittiest religion of all. Now: consider Islam as a body of ideas about the source, meaning and ultimate purpose of human life, intertwined with a body of practice and ritual, both of which are incarnated in a community of believers. In short, consider Islam as a religion like Christianity. In that perspective, Houellebecq's acquittal was well-deserved; indeed, in that perspective I don't see that the remark raises any significant issues. We might disagree with it profoundly; we might see it as hostile and divisive; we might see it as counter-productive to broader political projects with which we sympathise. All of this is beside the point: religions - like other ideologies and bodies of community-based practice - cannot be protected against disrespect, and it's no kind of radicalism to insist that they should be.

On the other hand: consider Islam as the body of practice and belief which defines a minority community, whose members are born into that community and can no more cease to be members than I can cease to be English (and part-Welsh). In short, consider Islam as a religion like Judaism. If it's appropriate to consider the Muslim community as a minority ethnicity, then it's equally appropriate for the state to protect that community's identity against slurs like Houellebecq's - and for radicals to protest against its failure to do so, in line with the ruling classes' eternal divide-and-rule strategy.

I don't think there's a right answer to this question, although I do think that for conceptualisations of Islam to develop away from the ethnic perspective and towards the contemporary Christian model would be profoundly desirable. All of which means that we need to make things more complicated and qualified rather then less - even if it means our writing becomes less bracing:
There’s little point in denying that he has some profoundly fascistic tendencies (the biography reveals that he is, or at least was, a committed racist). Like Céline, he’s a right-wing misanthrope who has produced a genuinely perceptive and resonant picture of French society – obscenified and isolating. He’s also a careless writer (in his view the modern world doesn’t deserve anything better). His fiction is often crude and repetitive. His observations, bracing at first, seem specious and grating when repeated, in almost identical form, in novel after novel.
Theo Tait's conceding too much here. I realise that Damn. braces, but is frankly-expressed racism and misanthropy really bracing? We're dealing here, I think, with a kind of perverse inversion of the role Richard plays for his readers, and Tim for his: That stuff you read in the paper today? It's all a load of rubbish. You know what's really important... In Houellebecq's case what comes under fire is not so much what you read in the paper as what you think, and the flattery of the reader is rather indirect, but the basic dynamic - a kind of antinomian evangelism - is very similar. Don't believe them - you know what's really going on... It's agitprop, essentially, promoting simplification and blame. (The two go together: if the issues are so clear, why are we told they're so complex and difficult? Because they're idiots, or liars, or idiots unwittingly serving liars, or...) As literature, this kind of thing is contemptible. As political writing it's not much better.

So I agree with Martin Kettle (up to a point):
Too many haters of capitalism and the United States still cram everything into the frame of untruth and self-deception that says my enemy's enemy is still my friend because, even if he blows up my family on the tube, murders my colleagues on the bus or threatens to behead me for publishing a drawing, he is still at war with Bush, Blair and Berlusconi.
The all-embracing anti-imperialist mindset is a reality on the Left today; it's a distraction at best, at worst positively dangerous. Ironically, the alternative perspective Kettle appears to propose - one wiped clean of any allusion to socialism, which has supposedly been proved to be a utopian daydream - is not much of an improvement. Nothing in Kettle's piece is more revealing than the point when, after discussing his Communist Party background, he refers briefly to 'other' socialist currents; these are immediately qualified as 'democratic and moderate', i.e. reformist. As a post-war Communist, Kettle comes from a group which identified the revolutionary hopes of socialism with Stalinism - that weird combination of great-power realpolitik, managerialist Gleichschaltung and Fabian gradualism - and systematically denied that any rival claimant to the 'socialist' name deserved it. Even now, Kettle seems genuinely unaware of the possibility of being left of Stalin.

There is, in other words, no alternative; faced with the collapse of actually-existing socialism, Leftists must either live a lie or abandon it and embrace the more progressive elements of liberal capitalism. And if the latter course involves finding a home from home on the non-socialist Left, so much the better. (An awful lot of old CPers have ended up with New Labour; I suppose one authoritarian, bureaucratic party that blots out the rest of the Left is as good as another.)

The problem with Michel Houellebecq is less that he's a racist than that he thinks simplistically and encourages over-simplification in others, erasing qualifications and concealing viable alternatives. Unfortunately, he's not the only one.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Ere long done do does did

Quote wanted.

I'm growing dissatisfied with the 'ruthless criticism of all that exists' thing; in terms of my two great Marxist heroes, it's too much Debord and not enough Williams, too much find-the-ineluctable-points-of-contradiction and not enough celebrate-the-strength-and-creativity-that-got-us-this-far. I could change the name of the blog, but I wouldn't want to change the URL unnecessarily - and besides, 'actually existing' is a perfectly good umbrella term for things that exist and are worth affirming (useful work, the glory of cities, craft, productive conversation, music in performance, trade unions, the work of Joe Meek, etc).

So I need a new strap-line. Initially I thought of Durruti:
We have always lived in slums and holes in the wall. We will know how to accomodate ourselves for a time. For you must not forget, we can also build. It is we who built those palaces and cities here in Spain and America and everywhere. We, the workers, can build others to take their place. And better ones. We are not in the least afraid of ruins. We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world, here in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.
...but it's hard to forget those last two sentences, which have precisely the wrong resonance for my purposes - and "YOU MUST NOT FORGET, WE CAN ALSO BUILD" doesn't really cut it on its own. I also wondered about Ernest Jones' Song of the Lower Classes, but the diction's far too archaic.

All suggestions gratefully received.

PS Keats never did write "Ere long done do does did" - but the Complete Works does include such quatrains as
I am as brisk
As a bottle of whisk-
Y and as nimble
As a milliner's thimble.
which I can quite imagine Linder bringing out to fox the young Moz, one sunny day at Southern Cemetery.

The shapes between us

Peter Campbell writes in the current LRB:
Inanimate things in museums – teacups from which no one drinks, pictures which will never again be bought and sold – can, as much as stuffed animals, make one think sadly of the time when they were alive. Modern curators know this and spend much time and money avoiding notions of dust, death and mummification. Even art museums do not cram everything in the reserve collection onto the walls. But in avoiding the confusion, heterogeneity and abundance of old-style museums like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, some of what they shared with the street has gone: an ability to feed the imagination with unexplained, comical, sinister and melancholy juxtapositions, for example – the aspect of collecting the Surrealists exploited.
A well-designed and artistically curated set of exhibits, in other words, enables the viewer to experience the exhibition as a whole, rather than being constantly interrupted by lacrimae rerum for the lost use-value of each individual exhibit. However, in the exhibition that this form of curation creates - a single-minded, smoothly articulated conglomerate - more is lost than a melancholy evocation of the exhibits' past life. This kind of exhibition turns the viewer into a passive spectator, receiving and absorbing an achieved whole rather than responding imaginatively to an assembly of disjointed parts.

This critique, it seems to me, is not that far from Adina's review of Walk the Line:
the unimaginative or condescending literalness of the movie is a good reminder of what I can't stand about Hollywood style. It's not hatred of emotion, or even melodrama. I loved Farewell My Concubine, which featured a damaged artist, unrequited love, drug addiction fueled by rejection, beautiful photography, and plenty of tragedy per foot of celluloid. The bits that the viewer needs to infer make all the difference.
Or, for that matter, Ellis's argument here:
The first author opens up the thoughts of both his characters. Everything is controlled and explained. Meaning is processed for the reader. When the character speaks in German, she then helpfully provides an instant translation into English. The first author duly goes on to supply the reader with a sex scene.

The second author seems about to supply a sex scene, then abruptly and unexpectedly denies that readerly expectation. Sketches displace sexual intercourse. Looking at sketches and making more sketches becomes more attractive than sex. What the woman thinks of this is withheld from the reader. We remain inside a single mind. There are no judgements made for us about the state of this mind. The reader has to process the writing and discover for herself where the meaning lies.

There is a difference in these two passages, I think, between writing (conventional, conformist, explanatory, offering the warmth of familiarity and shared values) and literature (incomplete, resonant, resisting familiarity and a single dimension of meaning).
(You'll have to read the post to find out who the two writers are.)

The bits that the viewer needs to infer make all the difference. The meaning's in the gaps - at least, that's where you're being treated as a thinking being, a participant in communication (which is always imperfect) and not a spectator of composed images.

Monday, February 06, 2006

So close to the answer

Thanks to a post at Burningbird - and in particular some thoughtful comments from Yule Heibel - I saw the Danish cartoons today. I won't say I was shocked, but I was surprised. If offensiveness has anything to do with intention to offend, these are strikingly inoffensive images. Certainly the widespread comparison with hate speech, and with cartoons used as hate propaganda, doesn’t hold up for a second. The images have been seen as offensive because they’re portrayals of Mohammed, and because they’re critical of Islam: it’s an explosive and provocative combination, which probably shouldn’t have been attempted. (Although not because of the ‘predictable’ violent reaction - which I persist in regarding as entirely unpredictable, and entirely the fault of the people who were directly responsible.)

That said, I don’t think there’s a case for censorship, even in the case of irresponsible provocations (or rather, especially in that case - hard cases make bad law). I don’t think it’s acceptable that the Muslim community should have a veto over portrayals of Mohammed, any more than that Christians should be able to have 'blasphemy' banned. As for the political content of the cartoons, I think that the questions they ask about Islam can be asked reasonably and without racist intent. Is the subjugation of women justified by reference to Islam? Is suicide bombing? Is violence against apostates and blasphemers? Or violence against non-Muslims who commit what would be blasphemy if they were Muslims, e.g. Danish cartoonists? And, if the answer in practice is Yes (as it clearly is in the case of question 4), does this say anything about Islam as a body of doctrine and practice? Are these beliefs aberrations from the mainstream of Islam - like professed Christians supporting the death penalty - and if so how are they justified in terms of Islam? These are troubling questions, but they're open questions - or should be. As I wrote back here,
It would be absurd - and grossly insulting - to assume that full-face veiling invariably reflects personal feelings of misogyny. But it would be equally absurd to ignore the degree of 'fit' between the injunction for women to be veiled and broader misogynistic social structures, and to assume that contemporary veiling is never associated with misogyny. The conversation needs to take place, out of the shadow of the criminal law.
And, I would add, out of the shadow of accusations of racism. Christianity isn’t afforded immunity from criticism - even biased and ignorant criticism - in our societies, and I don’t think we should approach other religions any differently.

Henry Porter has it about right:
We should accept that it has caused deep offence to people whose religion we do not fully comprehend. But, equally, Muslims must allow for the error in a continent of free but flawed societies. They should understand that our societies are not simply based on godless consumption and self-indulgence, but on one or two deeply held convictions.
An anonymous commenter at Indigo Jo goes to the heart of this disagreement when [s]he writes:
there are areas [in Islam] that can be "compromised", but there are foundational areas that cannot. When you reach those core areas, a choice has to be made as to what you stand for, who you are, etc. ... your identity is not guaranteed under the law [if] the law allows for trivialisation and ridicule of those core beliefs/principles that constitute your identity. True it may not be inciting to hatred or murder, but such ridicules and trivialisation still has some effect in the society. It is only a matter of time before it culminates in the likes of Jerry Springer's portrayal of Jesus (peace be upon him), and ultimately mockery of Christianity. The outcome is evident. Religious values and its objectives are destroyed in the hearts of people.
Well, I liked Jerry Springer: the Opera, and I've got a great deal of time for the teachings of Jesus. More generally, I believe firmly that mocking the symbols and impedimenta of a belief does not mock the belief itself - and that even mocking a belief itself doesn’t destroy it: books don’t burn (Mikhail Bulgakov said that). Perhaps it’s a British (or Northern European?) thing; there have been quite long periods when Christians of different denominations have had to think of their faith as something that wasn’t protected from mockery, by the state or anyone else. I have beliefs and I expect you to respect my right to hold them, but my faith isn’t protected from criticism, mockery or abuse - and neither is yours. Between this outlook - this conviction - and the conviction that my faith needs to be protected, I’m not sure how much dialogue there can be.

But I may be wrong. And there could, in any case, be more respect - from both sides.

Postscript Ken MacLeod has the mood of much of this discussion bang to rights.
If anti-semitism is, in an important aspect, a rage against the machine, against progress, is there an opposite rage: a rage against reaction, a fury at the recalcitrance of the concrete and the stubbornness of tradition? A rage against what is sacred and refuses to be profaned, against what is solid and doesn't melt into air, against ways of life that resist commodification, against use-value that refuses to become exchange-value? And might that rage too need a fantasy object?
I'll admit to an element of rage - rant, even. I think it's partly because I was brought up Christian and still have a distinct emotional investment in religion: I know that (a certain type of) religious belief can be not only compatible with but conducive to liberal and radical politics, leading people from a vague wish to be good and do good to the shores of libertarian socialism. So seeing a violent mobilisation in the defence of religion against liberalism, with the apparent approval of socialists... well, there are people who read the New Testament and find nothing in it but what they already knew (queers are bad, abortion's bad and smacking your kids is good, essentially), and I feel pretty much the same about them. Apart from anything else, it seems such a waste - When you're so close to the answer, why don't you go in?

Anyway, Ken's comment is one of the few things I've read during this affair that has really given me pause. Read the whole thing. (Then re-read this post. Balance, y'know.)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The rich man's militia

Ian Blair:
"There's a bigger piece going on, isn't there? It's not only about these counter-terrorist measures, it's also about the position of the prime minister. We can't play entirely outside that process."
In 1983 Jean-Paul Brodeur, a Canadian criminologist, published an essay called "High Policing and Low Policing: Remarks About the Policing of Political Activities". Brodeur defined 'low policing' as the unending and mundane job of maintaining social order and responding to breaches of the criminal law. 'High policing', by contrast, is policing with an agenda and a long-term perspective: the use of police methods and resources to achieve coherent political ends. Such as, for instance, clamping down on political protest.

'High policing' is rarely advertised as such. Indeed, one of the most popular images of police work has it that there is only 'low policing': the law is above politics, and it's the police's job to maintain social order, not to maintain any particular social order. Brodeur's research demonstrated that 'high policing' is a reality, governing at least the Canadian police's approach to political activism of any type (legal or otherwise, orderly or otherwise). It also suggested the rather more disquieting conclusion that 'low policing' is at best framed by, and at worst permeated with, the political calculations of 'high policing'. 'Low policing' arrests drug-dealers and petty thieves; 'high policing' turns them into informers and lets them go. 'Low policing' lets orderly demonstrations proceed unhindered and breaks up disorderly protests; 'high policing' lets protest events continue or not according to their longer-term political significance.

The police operate in defence of the state and the status quo; the political calculations of 'high policing' will always be with us, at least until such time as the protection of the state and the status quo is a wholly apolitical aim (smiley goes here). What we can hope for is that 'high policing' operations are carried out with a degree of transparency and accountability - and, above all, that 'high policing' is not allowed to take precedence over the demands of 'low policing'. The ideals of impartiality and equity may seldom be achieved in the context of 'low policing'; in the context of 'high policing' they aren't even relevant considerations. 'High policing' sets the police at odds with the public; the immediate effects of what's happening right now don't matter nearly as much as its implications for the longer, political game. It's a sophisticated game, which can be played with an eye to the press and public opinion as well as the requirements of the government of the day: deliberately under-policing disorder may be popular in itself, or it may help forestall criticism of a subsequent crackdown. But, whatever its short-term effects, the increasing dominance of 'high' over 'low' policing is corrosive of any claim by the police to impartiality, and of any possibility of broader public trust in the police.

Which brings us to those cartoons, and that demo.

BBC, 4th Feb:
A march in which protesters chanted violent anti-Western slogans such as "7/7 is on its way" should have been banned, a leading British Muslim said. Asghar Bukhari said the demonstration in London on Friday should have been stopped by police because the group had been advocating violence.

The chairman of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee said the protesters "did not represent British Muslims". He said that Muslims were angry over satirical cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad published in European papers but it was "outrageous" for anyone to advocate extreme action or violence. "We believe it [the protest] should have been banned and the march stopped."
Guardian, 4th Feb:
Passers-by stopped police officers to ask why the marchers were being allowed to carry banners threatening further suicide attacks in the city. One police officer replied: "Don't worry. We are photographing them."
Metropolitan Police, 5th Feb:
Arrests, if necessary, will be made at the most appropriate time. This should not be seen as a sign of lack of action ... The decision to arrest at a public order event must be viewed in the context of the overall policing plan and the environment the officers are operating in.
Low policing says: "I don't care who you are or what you're protesting about, stop that and move along."

High policing says: "You lot can have your fun, we'll reel you in when it suits us."

Friday, February 03, 2006

Into the fireplace

As a postscript to this, here's Stephen Sedley from the current LRB:
When I read for the English Bar in the 1960s, the legal history lecturer stopped when he reached 1649 and explained that he was now moving directly to 1660, because everything that had happened between the trial of the king and the restoration of the monarchy was a nullity.
That's some nullity.

Sedley's reviewing Geoffrey Robertson's The Tyrannicide Brief, a vindication of the regicides collectively and Charles's prosecutor John Cooke in particular. Sedley's conclusion demurs from some of Robertson's larger claims, but leaves one significant claim intact. ('Bradshawe' is John Bradshawe, the president of the court which tried Charles.)
Robertson claims too much when he credits Cooke, first in his courtroom defence of John Lilburne, then on his own arrest, with introducing the right of silence into the common law. The supposed right, which developed in the early canon law, had by Cooke’s time acquired a mythological status: widely believed in, respected in the ordinary run of cases but ignored in favour of torture when anything serious was at stake. Cooke’s fate, however, was by the time of his arrest so firmly sealed that there was little point in pressing his interrogation. Nor, I think, could Robertson make good his suggestion that Bradshawe was breaking new ground, in anticipation of Locke and Rousseau, when he said to Charles: ‘There is a contract and bargain made between the king and his people ... The one tie, the one bond, is the bond of protection that is due from the sovereign; the other is the bond of subjection that is due from the subject. Sir, if this bond be once broken, farewell sovereignty.’ This embryonic notion of constitutional monarchy, looking – through a reluctantly commercial metaphor – for middle ground between traditional liberties and government by divine right, was by 1649 a commonplace of political theory. What was novel was Bradshawe’s pointing out to a captive king the consequence when it was the monarch who broke the contract: ‘Farewell sovereignty.’
When it comes to justified rebellion against over-mighty rulers, in other words, the Americans have nothing to teach us. The English did it first - and ushered in a decade of legal nullity, a short-lived no man's land in which the impossible could become possible. I'm not (solely, or necessarily) talking about Abiezer Coppe or Winstanley, or even about the Levellers. 1649 saw a permanent defeat at Burford as well as the brief nadir of the monarchists, but it wasn't Thermidor: Cromwell himself was venturing into terra nullius.
It was not the Bill of Rights of 1688 but Cromwell’s Instrument of Government of 1653, still lost in the official void three and a half centuries later, that first set out some of the foundational principles of a modern democracy: triennial parliaments (for a united state of England, Scotland and Ireland), not to be prorogued except by their own will; a non-hereditary Protector, empowered to legislate, tax and govern only with the consent of Parliament and to make war only on its advice; abolition of the established church, and religious toleration (except of ‘Popery and Prelacy’). But not then, or after 1660, or after 1688, did it come true.
From what I know of him, I've got a lot of respect for Charles Stuart as a person - and I certainly don't think Oliver was a nice guy. But it's not hard to choose between the two. The constitutional ferment of the English Revolution remains a landmark in the country's history: unsurpassed in many areas, in some still unattained.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

That pretty soldier's hat

Steve Bell (via) anticipated Blair's reaction to the hundredth death of a British soldier in Iraq since 2003: the deskbound patriotism of Kipling's jelly-bellied flag-flapper, in a low-key, robo-managerialist form. But Blair's actual reaction was quite different:
Mr Blair said the country had to understand why it mattered that "we see this through". It was important, he told the BBC, "because what is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq is that the people of those countries want to leave behind terrorism and extremism, and they want to embrace democracy".

Asked earlier whether the government was worried by the 100th death of a British soldier in Iraq, Mr Blair's spokesman replied: "I do not think we should do the terrorists' job for them by in some way hyping this kind of incident".
100 is just a number, it's true, but it's a number that suggests a pause for reflection, on those deaths and what caused them. That would still be true even if you ignored all the other deaths, and even if you were convinced that a hundred British soldiers had died in a good cause. Even then, those deaths and the loss they represent would deserve acknowledgment. As Chris argues, sunk (human) costs have their due. But:

I do not think we should do the terrorists' job for them by in some way hyping this kind of incident

This is monstrous.

I think the key term here is 'terrorist'. A terrorist is, essentially, a political opponent who attempts to influence you (a democratic government) through fear. Terrorists have, by definition, abandoned rational argument: there is nothing you can learn from a terrorist and nothing you can usefully say to a terrorist, except "No". Terrorism cannot be engaged with, it can only be resisted. Moreover, since terrorists have no arguments to offer, it follows that any sympathy towards them - and any wavering from your firm opposition to them - can only be explained by confusion or fear. You can afford to disregard anything the terrorists say; if people believe the terrorists, that simply shows that the terrorists have frightened them into submission, or confused them with their lies:
After Amnesty International compared American treatment of Afghan and Iraqi prisoners to the Gulag, I heard the President say: ‘It’s an absurd allegation. The United States is a country that promotes freedom around the world. It seemed like to me they based some of their decisions on the word of, and the allegations by, people who were held in detention, people who hate America, people that had been trained in some instances to disassemble – that means not tell the truth.’
It follows that your duty is to downplay any information which might add to the confusion by encouraging people to believe the terrorists or sympathising with their cause. They're bad (because they're terrorists); you're good (because you're fighting terrorists); and the people you govern are weak and confused and liable to forget what the difference is, so you can't afford to let in too many shades of grey when you're talking to them.

Even if it means a British Prime Minister refusing to honour British war dead.