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Pray the future will never need…”

I had hoped to be the first to coin the inevitable term, “loangate” over the recent Labour funding scandal. Not surprisingly, though, The Independent has beaten me to it.

Labour sleaze: it’s real, it’s here, it’ll probably bring Blair down. Let’s just hope he takes the corrupt & cynical ID cards bill — and more importantly, now, the Abolition of Parliament bill — with him.

Labour shouldn’t be dealing in peerages at all, of course: except to abolish them. Sadly the time when Labour might possibly have abolished peerages — or even significantly democratised the upper house — seem long ago and far away, now. May 1997 seems like another time in another world. True, we knew that ‘New’ Labour wasn’t going to be the real Labour that we wanted; but it was dawn after the long Tory night, and there was a mood of optimism in the air.

I got up on the morning after the election and put Billy Bragg records on, in celebration. Though admittedly one of the tracks was ‘Ideology’, which warns about the dark side of politics.

And how dark that side has turned out to be. It strikes me as slightly ironic that the Abolition of Parliament bill should be starting to come into higher visibility at the same time as the film version of V For Vendetta has just come out.

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There is now a deadly danger to British democracy. One that is even worse than the ID cards bill.

Not for nothing are they calling it the ‘Abolition of Parliament’ bill. Its official name is the Legislative and Regulatory Reform bill, and it is, quite simply an attempt to take control of power in this country into the hands of the executive forever,and remove the possibility of parliamentary scrutiny from the exercise of that power.

The bill grants ministers the power to create, modify or strike down laws; and to introduce offenses carrying prison terms of up to two years.

It contains some limits: for example section 3(2)(c) requires that “the provision, taken as a whole, strikes a fair balance between the public interest and the interests of any person adversely affected by it”. However, remember that the bill grants the power to modify existing legislation; that does not exclude itself. So if this bill had become an Act of Parliament, there would be nothing to stop a future government from modifying the Act itself to, for example, increase the maximum sentence, or remove the limitations it contains.

This government has, after early successes in introducing the minimum wage and the Human Rights Act, been moving in a more and more authoritarian direction. Obvious examples are ID cards; the attempt to reduce the right to trial by jury; and the increase in the period of detention without trial.

But let’s not forget their support for US ‘extreme rendition’ flights, and the illegal detentions at Guantánamo Bay (they may not have actively and openly supported those, but they failed to condemn them, or do anything to stop them, which amounts to the same thing).

From ASBOs to the ‘Respect Agenda’1, it’s clear that Blair and his spineless — or perhaps totally complicit — cronies are all about applying controls and limits.

If this bill goes through, there are, as far as I can tell, two possible escape routes. Judges — even the Law Lords — might strike it down as unlawful under the Human Rights Act, since they are required to consider all new laws in light thereof. The problem there, though, is that the bill — the Act, if it passes — does not directly infringe anyone’s human rights. Instead, it is an enabler. It is laws introduced or modified using this Act that may (that will, let’s face it) infringe our human rights.

The second escape route? I can’t see one short of revolution. And that means civil war. And that’s no escape at all.

If you’re reading this, please: don’t just take my word for it. Visit the Save Parliament website and look at the resources there. Do some other research. But when you are suitably terrified, write to your MP; write to the editor of your favourite paper and ask them why they are not kicking up a fuss about this. Tell your friends. Tell your enemies. Tell people in the street

If we don’t stop this, it may not mean jackboots in the streets and the knock on the door in the night; but it will mean the effective end of democracy in the UK.

On ‘respect’: I am convinced that Blair doesn’t mean that word as the rest of us mean it. Instead, what he really wants to see more of in society is deference. When I thought of this truth several months ago, my attitude was, “Stuff it mate, we’ve left that behind us a century or more ago, and we ain’t going back to it.” But now, of course, I feel the terror that deference will be made mandatory by ministerial diktat.

New website, blog

I’ve had the domain for nearly two years, now. But it has taken me this long to actually start using it for more than a source of throwaway email addresses.

At last, though, I’ve put some readable stuff up there. So far it’s just a main page and a blog. In time, though, I might put up some stories, pictures or other material.

WordPress, which I’m using for the blog, has a nifty little plugin that allows you to automatically crosspost to LiveJournal. So you should shortly start seeing posts here with links back to original posts over there.

Pop on over and have a look; or why not add the RSS feed to your favourite feed reader?

To summarise, then: the site; the blog; the feed for posts; the feed for comments.

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Meet the new blog…

… same as the old blog.

Well, not quite the same. This one is on my own site, for one thing.

A new blog, though: just what the world needs, don’t you think?

As this is the first entry here, I can’t help but feel a certain… pressure, let’s say. Because, after all, in years to come, when this blog is one of the most popular sites on the internet1, millions of people will look back through the entries, and pay special attention to the first one. Obviously its content is critically important. Unfortunately, its content is rubbish.

Well, its content was going to be rubbish: or rather, about rubbish; about the guy who was fined for dropping rubbish into a bin.

But many people have written about the stupidity of that, and in any case, the council in question have already, and predictably, gone back on their foolish decision.

Instead I thought I might write about the hat woman. But actually that’s too boring to go into. Pubs with “no-hat” rules, though: truly madness walks among us. Actually, the scary thing about that story is that there are pubs with CCTV cameras inside them. Truly we are the most watched society in the world.

Maybe that should be the theme of this blog, if it needs one: the madness of modern society.

I’d hate to come over like some old grouch, though, railing against modernity: “It wisnae like that when ah wuz a wean, by the way jimmy.”

Or not too often, at least. No, instead, like most blogs — like all the best ones — I’ll just write about whatever the hell I feel like.

Modern weirdness, though: I just heard about the recent trends for “internet suicides” in Japan; and the fact that the US Nasdaq exchange has made an offer to buy the London Stock Exchange. Apparently there are shares in the Stock Exchange: it’s a company. For some reason I find this immensely surprising. I would have thought (if I had ever thought of such a thing) that it was some kind of public body, like the Bank of England. Apparently not, though. Life’s strangenesses, I think, will be a recurring feature here.

1. this is meant to be humorous, by the way.

The Many-Angled Pub

I went out for a drink with some people from work last night.  We went to a place in Covent Garden called The Porterhouse.

It’s a very curious place.  It extends across three or maybe four floors.  Or maybe only two, but with lots of mezzanines.  It’s full of alcoves: everything, it seems, is an alcove.  I have no idea, for example, how many bars it has.  And in fact, I didn’t go to the bar all night.  That, though, is because they have something that is remarkable in a British pub: table service.

Yes, it’s very strange.  waiters come and go, collecting glasses and trays, but also, when asked, taking orders and returning — very quickly — with trays of beers.

So I spent the night drinking Caledonian 80/-.  A taste of home, perhaps, but a) it was bottled; b) it was too cold to taste right; and c) it’s been such a long time since I drank it back home that it hardly counts.  And I always preferred McEwan’s 80/-, anyway.  Oh, and pizza.  They serve food, too, and claim a woodburning oven.

It was a good night.  But that pub.  You know the old computer game that used to say, “You are in a maze of little twisty passages, all the same”?  It was a bit like that.  But mostly it reminded me of the house in HP Lovecraft’s ‘Dreams in the Witch-House.’

Oh, I suppose the angles weren’t really that wrong; that the walls were quite straight. But there were definitely too many rooms, and bits, and stuff: if not angles.

Book Notes 5: Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

I read a review of this book in The Guardian years ago (this one, I think). It sounded absolutely fantastic, and I’ve wanted to read it ever since. But I only got round to buying it recently.

I was aware, of course, of the danger of approaching a work with unreasonably-raised expectations, so I tried not to. You can’t make yourself think “This won’t be very good,” when you actually think, “This should be pretty good.” The trick, therefore, is to convince yourself to have a slight seed of doubt. I’m not totally sure how well that can ever work, though.

I did enjoy the book, however: it starts with a light, easy style, and has an endearing central character in Sumire. The unnamed (though referred to in the back-cover blurb as “K”) narrator is a slightly-annoying, madly-but-unrequitedly in love with Sumire figure. They met at university. Sumire dropped out to write; the narrator went on to become a schoolteacher.

Shortly after the start of the book, Sumire, who has until then seemed largely devoid of any sexual or romantic feelings, falls in love with an older, married, woman; who then gives her a job as her PA. Sumire’s love is also unrequited; indeed, unspoken.

It’s when they go on a business trip to Europe, which culminates in a holiday on a Greek island, that something strange happens.

It is a curious book. It’s hard to work out what is supposed to have happened to Sumire. It is, until then, so much a realist novel that it is hard to believe that the apparently-fantastic, dream world sequence that is all the explanation we get, is meant to be taken literally.

Then when the narrator, having gone to Greece to help find out what happened to Sumire, returns home to Japan, there is an apparently-unrelated section concerning one of his pupils. He has been having a sexual relationship with the pupil’s mother, so when the boy gets into trouble, she calls him to help. This section really appears to have no connection to the rest of the story,, and no bearing on what happened to Sumire.

So while I enjoyed reading it, on looking back over it, it seems that it is deeply flawed. Or maybe I’m flawed, because I failed to fully understand it.

I expected that it would inspire me to read more of his work, but it hasn’t: or not yet, at least.

A discussion of (possibly a rant about) ID

But not cards, for a change. I was listening to a programme (essentially a religious one) on Radio 4 recently, about ‘Intelligent’ Design (ID).

It was the second time that day that I had heard SETI pulled in to support ID. The thesis seems to be that, since SETI searches for meaningful information hidden within random noise, it is “the same as” the search for a designer amidst the seeming randomness of the universe. The proponents of ID think that the complexity of the real world means that there must be an intelligence behind it. But the main thing these people need to learn is that complexity does not equal design.

Or not necessarily, at any rate. They are doubly confusing themselves — and others, who may be unsure about the realities of science and the tricks of creationists. They look at the search for order among the chaos, and liken it to — really, identify it with — the belief that order lies behind the chaos.

Let’s put it another way. SETI searches through random noise and attempts to find ordered data, all the while aware that the ordered data may not be there; indeed, to date it has not been. It further proposes that, if ordered data is found, then that may imply that there is an intelligence behind it.

The ID proponents observe the order in the universe and assume that there must be an intelligence behind it; they also see the randomness in the universe, and jump to the conclusion that SETI is doing the same thing as they are.

It is arrant nonsense, of course, but then ID is, from start to finish. Oh, don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing in the laws of physics, chemistry or biology that precludes the existence of a designer, a creator, a supreme being: a deity, in short. As, indeed, there is no need for science to be incompatible with belief in, or the existence of, a deity. Back when I was a Catholic, I remember one of my primary-school teachers explaining that, while the Bible says that God created the world in six days, a day to God might be a million years to us. Don’t take it literally, in other words.

And therein lies the problem: creationists and believers in ID (who are just very thinly-disguised creationists) take the Bible (though which version, I have to ask?) literally.

Which is a bit like taking any of humanity’s great history of myths literally. Why stop with the Christian Bible, and their strange god, “God”1? Let’s take the Norse gods literally, for example. So the next time you’re caught in a thunderstorm, remember, it’s not just the random discharge of static electricity in the atmosphere: Thor is after you.

Or the Greeks: they had some great ones. When you light the gas to cook tea tonight, say a prayer of thanks to Prometheus, OK?

Oh look, we seem to be back at my latest Book Notes post, American Gods. Which makes sense, since it is American fundamentalist Christers who want to foist their god on the rest of their country — and by extension, on the rest of the world. By the not-so-subtle device of using the law to control what can and can’t be taught in schools. What is wrong with these people? Have they never heard of the separation of church and state?

Fortunately the US courts seem to be holding the line of sanity so far; but oh my non-existent, speculative all-powerful creator-figure: I hope we don’t get a branch of the Christian Taliban trying to introduce this shite into our schools over here. I have children to bring up, so I have a direct interest in these things.

Let’s not teach our kids to be stupid.

1. As the NME used to say.

Book Notes 4: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s blog since the time when he was writing this book — as, I’m sure, have most of us, what with his site being the number one hit on Google when you search for ‘neil’.

But I hadn’t actually read the book until now. I had read the first chapter online, and I had an idea roughly what it was about: real gods (maybe all gods) walking the Earth in the present day.

And it’s a stormer of a book. The pages just keep turning, the quotes are quotable (girl-Sam’s “I believe” speech is particularly fine) and myths are mashed up in glorious style.

It’s shortcomings are, perhaps, that it slows down a bit too much in the middle section; and Wednesday and Shadow make perhaps too many visits to down-at-heel gods without anything very specific happening during them. It reads like a road movie in places (which is fine), and it would probably make a good one.

There are surprises right up to the end, though, and I’m sure I’ll read it again in the future.

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That about wraps it up for freedom

Start saying goodbye, then, to civil liberties in this country. Oh, maybe not now, and maybe not even that soon; but when the identity cards bill is passed, and the database has been built 1 then the infrastructure will be in place for the world’s largest ever experiment in social control.

We already have near-ubiquitous surveillance, with constantly-improving automatic recognition: of faces and of vehicle number plates. Add to that the national identity database with its biometrics, and the growing collection of DNA data, and I foresee the potential for a future that even Orwell in his worst nightmare wouldn’t have believed possible.

Pessimistic? Yes, certainly. It may be that the public will rebel against it when they realise how much it will cost, for example. I gather that that is what happened in Australia. But even if they do, once the legislation is in place, how can it be stopped?  It seems likely that the best we can hope for there is a change of government. And realistically, that means the Tories.

After all this time there’s no way on this Earth that I’m going to put my faith in that lot. No matter that they might have voted against the government on the bill, if they get into power and the act is in force, there isn’t a chance — not a chance in all the worlds of the putative multiverse — that they’ll repeal the legislation.

In fact, that is the true nightmare scenario: it’s possible that Blair and Brown are not actually malicious about this, just stupid and corrosively misguided. Imagine, though, what it would have been like if Thatcher’s government had had ubiquitous, mandatory ID and surveillance. Imagine (as I’ve suggested before) if that had been the situation during the miners’ strike. Or when MI5 were undermining the Callaghan government, for that matter, although that’s a slightly different nightmare.

And it just goes on and on: the Metropolitan Police are now going to drug-test their own officers. Now, you can safely argue that police officers shouldn’t be under the influence while on duty: but it is a clear violation of their personal liberty, and it just adds to the way in which our national culture is becoming more and more authoritarian. Even totalitarian.

1. I realise that that requires success in the biggest-ever government IT project, but bear with me.

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Drink, Sex and Elections

How quickly do events overrun the tardy blogger.  A few weks ago, when Charles Kennedy went public about his drinking, I started writing a piece about him, and his revelations’ potential effect on the Liberal Democrats.  I didn’t post it that day, and by the following evening things had changed so dramatically that what I said was almost useless as a post.

Later I started a replacement piece, but I never got round to completing and posting that, either.  Today’s by-election victory is slightly ironic, then, considering that what I was originally saying was  mainly that he really had to resign because he had become an electoral liability to his party.   Add to that the Lib Dem leadership election and its Shock! Horror! personal revelations, and many would have expected them to do badly at the polls the next time they had a chance.

And then we get Dunfermline.  Which suggests to me that the personal affairs of the actual and potential party leadership are minor items at best in the eyes of the voters.  And also that people (in Scotland, at least) have had enough of Blair’s repulsive Tory-lite policies, and are (not surprisingly) unimpressed by, and suspicious of, Cameron’s cuddly stealth-Tory aproach.

I hoped, in my original piece, that the Lib Dems would be able to recover from their problems, because they’re an important force in British politics.  Not least because they’re still the only ones taking a principled stand against ID cards, on which everyone but No2ID seems to have gone silent recently.  Now I’d have to add the hope that the new guy, Willie Rennie, can get himself established in the Commons in time to vote against the next reading of the Bill.

I never thought that, in my life, I would be toasting a Labour by-election defeat, while at the same time bemoaning their privatisation and (lack of) civil-liberties policies; but we live in interesting times.  Times in which Britain desperately needs a third force in politics; and it remains the case — perhaps more so than ever, today — that the Liberal Democrats can be that force.

But I wish they weren’t needed: I want the Labour party back.