Former liberal commentators prepare to jump ship

Three former liberal rocks — Polly Toynbee, Mary Riddell, Nick Cohen — have begun to look as if they are crumbling.  Each has argued the case for abandoning a fundamental point of principle for defenders of liberty:  opposition to identity cards and their even uglier twin, the readily accessible, universal, national data-base and the universal DNA register, ubiquitous CCTV cameras, and the rest of the surveillance obsession;  support for reason and empirical evidence in their conflict witn non-rational religious belief;  and the absolute ban on the use of torture as a means of procuring information in the name of national or private security.  All three of these betrayals gain a kind of spurious respectability through their appearances in those temples of liberalism, the Guardian and the Observer

The following extracts give the flavour and plausibility of the arguments — so obviously flaky that point-by-point rebuttal seems unnecessary, for once, so I'll content myself with the briefest of comments.

 First, here's Polly, with a classical Guardianesque bit of middle-class guilt at fussing over ID cards when the poor are starving in the gutter:

CCTV conspiracy mania is a very middle-class disorder
Paranoid speculation on imaginary surveillance abuses betrays a moral blindness when real social injustice abounds…  Those opposed to the assembling of data are mainly from the anti-state, individualistic right. There is a sad lack of voices to praise the benign state these days….   on a scale of threats to Our Way of Life, where would you place CCTV and speed cameras, electronic health records, DNA storage or ID cards that carry the same information as passports? Most people are not in a delirium of alarm about the Big Brother potential of any of these. Surveillance conspiracy mania is a symptom of something else – the wish for the middle classes to be victims too. This is a middle-class obsession by those who are least likely to be surveyed. There is some decadence in paranoid speculation about imaginary abuses when real social injustice is all around. Why aren't people as angry about the galloping inequality in living standards between the 30% who will never own homes and the overpaid at the top who are fuelling property prices?…  ID cards is [sic] the issue these fears coalesce around… The money might be better spent in myriad other ways, but the threat to fundamental civil liberties somehow eludes me.
(Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, Tuesday November 7, 2006)

One of the many other things that seems to have eluded Polly is that the ID cards are just the tip of the monstrous national database that will bring together far more information about every one of us than the state has any reasonable need for and to which all manner of narks and bureaucrats will have almost unfettered access.  Another strangely elusive point that Ms Toynbee seems to have missed is that opposition to this whole nightmare of control-freakery that seems to her so trivial is in no way incompatible with deep concern over gross inequality in our society.  Some of us manage somehow to combine both concerns in our heads simultaneously.

Mary Riddell in the Observer thinks that a rational reluctance to believe religious propositions which are empirically improbable and unsupported by evidence is just as 'dogmatic' as fundamentalist religious belief:

Dogmatic atheism will never trump faith
What do Prince Charles and Richard Dawkins have in common? Both are defenders of faith. This may sound a curious proposition… Religious critics hint that Dawkins must spend less time studying theology than Prince Charles devotes to buying socks in Primark. But even godless readers unoffended by any lack of comparison between Aquinas and Duns Scotus may be appalled by his venom. Dawkins claims that he is no fundamentalist and has no plans for bombings, crucifixions or flattening other people's skyscrapers. But then neither, presumably, has the Bishop of Oxford. 
I am a Dawkins fan and a fellow atheist. But this book, whose stridency makes Ian Paisley sound like Kylie, takes me back to my Catholic primary school, where Sister Sabina kept an armoury of weapons against sinful five-year-olds. A board-rubber to skin the knuckles of those who couldn't say the six-times table; a cane for those who forgot their prayers. Though Dawkins favours verbal assault, his dogma is as rigid as any Carmelite's. His book, shorn of compassion and tolerance, will stir sympathy for religion even in the godless. That makes him an unwitting defender of faith…  Despite Dawkins's derision, private faith should not be subject to evidential test or external criticism.
(Mary Riddell,The Observer,  Sunday November 5, 2006)

Ms Riddell claims to be a "Dawkins fan" and generalises confidently about his latest book, yet every argument she advances is conclusively demolished with wit and flair in The God Delusion, a magnificent polemic which Mary either hasn't read or, if she has read it, hasn't understood.   Either way her column amounts to a dreadful misjudgement, despite (or because of) faithfully reproducing the knee-jerk reactions to Dawkins of far too many of the faithful.

Finally, here's the admittedly often erratic Nick Cohen, also in last Sunday's Observer, on the need for us English to be just a shade more understanding about the merits of a little mild torture when the need arises, despite our long tradition of rejecting it:

We have to deport terrorist suspects – whatever their fate
…A boy is missing and the clock is ticking; who's to say it's wrong to pin a suspect to the wall and pummel him until he talks? The [German] authorities tried and convicted Daschner, but the judge gave him a token punishment… Respectable [German] politicians of the right and left said that the case proved that there could be exceptions to the total ban on torture.I think we are going to hear the same thing here, even though for very different reasons, torture is as much a taboo for the English as the Germans. Unlike the rest of Europe, the Common Law has never accepted forced confessions. When medieval Europe discovered that Roman law allowed the torture of suspects, everyone from the Scots to the Spanish embraced the rack. Only the English held firm…This is why Lord Bingham, the senior law lord, said last year that he was 'startled, even a little dismayed' that ministers thought they could use evidence in British courts which may have been obtained by torture in the Middle East. Despite his open incredulity, torture will be all over the news in the coming weeks and, as in the Daschner affair, I suspect it is going to be hard to say automatically that what the authorities want to do is wrong.
(Nick Cohen, The Observer, Sunday November 5, 2006)

It's hard not to admire Nick's chutzpah in writing an entire column about the alleged need to 'balance' the prohibition of torture against the need for it to protect security, without once mentioning the UN Convention against Torture or the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which categorically prohibit the use of torture in any circumstances whatever, regardless of security factors, and both of which are legally binding on Britain.  The idea that any British government — or any Observer columnist — could gain international agreement to the amendment of either of these instruments in order to permit torture in even the most extreme of circumstances is simply fanciful.  All this is fully spelled out in the legal judgment delivered by Lord Bingham and his fellow law lords last December, a judgment actually quoted but seemingly not read, or if read, not understood, by Mr Cohen.  Nick and Mary really need to be a little more careful about quoting expert texts which rebut almost every word that either of them writes.  (No doubt they would say that I'm doing the same thing here.)

At a time when fundamental principles protecting our liberties and civil rights are under unprecedented attack from politicians exhibiting panic or populism, or both, and when the liberal society is threatened for the first time in many years by various forms of extremist fundamentalist religion, those who discuss those principles in the liberal press have a clear duty not to give comfort or ammunition to the enemies of freedom and reason.  Don't they?


14 Responses

  1. Peter Harvey says:

    I am glad that you give these ‘liberal commentators’ a small ‘l’ — but I don’t think they even deserve that.

  2. Dan Goodman says:

    Well Nick Cohen’s been crumbling for years now, and I don’t have a good word to say about Polly Toynbee. Oh what the heck, I’ll just quote her, she’s so eloquent in demolishing herself.

    "Press intrusion does a great deal more damage than our much scrutinised state."

    Ah, why do they let her write?

    Anyhow, the reason I’m posting is about the Mary Riddell thing. I haven’t read anything by her (I can’t stand to read the Observer), but I have to say I share her concerns about Dawkins. I must admit to not having read The God Delusion, but if it’s anything like much of the rest of his writing and speaking then I suspect I have a reasonable idea of what it’s like. Did you happen to read my blog entry about why I’m no longer in the Dawkins camp?

    Dawkins happens to be right in that there is no god, and the theists are wrong. But just being right isn’t enough. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking to myself "what an arrogant and annoying little shit" when I hear Dawkins speak, but feeling relatively benign when hearing Rowan Williams talk about his faith, even though I happen to believe the former is right and the latter is wrong. The way people present themselves is not unimportant.

  3. Carl Lundquist says:

    But Brian, you already have national data bases and, I suspect, ID cards.   What ID do you use for NHS?   Do you have a national pension system like our social security?   Does the business community of the UK use credit reporting companies as ours does.  Do you all have credit scores and reports?   Does you Inland Revenue collect income taxes and VAT based on simple volunteering by citizens?  Do they not have files and tax returns?   Do you seriously believe that your rather intrusive goverment does not have access to all this information.

    And you worry about an ID card?

  4. Brian says:

    Dan, of course I agree about the importance of presentation.  But I wouldn't accept that considerations of presentation mean pulling punches or affecting 'respect' for opinions which are so poorly based and so irrational that they don't deserve it.   I recommend that you read Dawkins's book ('The God Delusion') before repeating the common allegation that he is either dogmatic in his views (for example, he states very clearly that it's impossible to be certain that there is no god and that the furthest one can legitimately go is to say that so far there is no reliable evidence for the existence of a god and that on the balance of probabilities there is no justification for believing it, a far less dogmatic position than that of true believers in a deity and certainly not in any sense a 'fundamentalist' one) or that he is arrogant or intolerant in the way he presents them — the book is witty, pungent and cogent, but not arrogant.  

    Those like Mary Riddell who scold him for being intolerant and lacking in 'compassion' — what on earth can that mean in this context?  that he should feel sorry for those who believe in a god? — betray a lack of understanding of the nature of robust polemics, and should stay out of the kitchen if they can't stand the heat.

    Carl,  my concern is less about the ID cards as such, and much more about the 'national register' or database of which the cards are merely a relatively minor excrescence, and of which Polly Toynbee seems blithely unaware.   You pose your questions as an American.  I don't believe that more than a handful of Americans, brought up on the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights, would tolerate for five minutes some of the things that our British Labour government is doing and proposing in the accelerating rush to a surveillance society.  To take your questions seriatim:

    you already have national data bases and, I suspect, ID cards.  

    No, there is no single data-base of all UK citizens covering more than a single purpose and category of information, and we don't have ID cards.

    What ID do you use for NHS?  

    I have never been asked for ID when using the NHS.  Nor, I suspect, have most people in this country, except where a question of entitlement arises over whether someone is 'ordinarily resident' in the UK or just visiting, in which case a utilities bill or a driving licence or passport would suffice.  Moreover anyone, British or foreign, resident or visitor, is entitled to use the NHS in a medical emergency, free of charge, and no question of ID arises in such cases.

    Do you have a national pension system like our social security?  

    Yes, we have a national pension system, and no, it's not like your social security.  My wife and I both receive a state pension but neither of us has ever possessed a 'pension book' or any other kind of pension-related ID.

    Does the business community of the UK use credit reporting companies as ours does.  Do you all have credit scores and reports?

    Yes, many (but probably not most) of us do.  But access to the relevant databases is fairly strictly limited, each person on it has the right to check its accuracy, and there is no information kept on it other than that which relates directly to past performance on credit.

    Does your Inland Revenue collect income taxes and VAT based on simple volunteering by citizens? 

    Yes, very largely.

    Do they not have files and tax returns?  

    Of course.  But again, access to them is strictly controlled and their contents are confined to tax matters.

    Do you seriously believe that your rather intrusive goverment does not have access to all this information?

    Indeed, I do believe this, because access to all electronic data held by anyone on any person in this country is very strictly controlled by the Data Protection Act, whose presiding watchdog has been issuing stern warnings about the massive breaches in the principles of the Act implicit in the government's proposals for a single massive 'national register' linked to ID cards, which will not only bring together in a single database all the information now kept in separate ring-fenced systems, but which will also allow almost unlimited access to all of it by literally thousands of officials and even businesses, right down to local levels, as well as recording every use of every ID card and the purpose and place of its use.  When you recognise that this vast intrusion is accompanied by the most widespread use of CCTV cameras in almost every public space and many private ones (many more per head of population than in any other European country and possibly than any other country in the world), plus 'speed' cameras that record not only vehicles exceeding the speed limit but also the licence number, time and location of every vehicle on the roads, even if not speeding, plus the vastly expanded 'rights' of the police to demand personal information from any citizen even when there is no ground for suspicion of any offence having been committed or intended, plus the plan to give non-medical officials access to all our medical records, plus the steadily growing proclivity of our government to deprive people of their liberty (wholly or partially) not as punishment for past misdeeds but purely on suspicion of what they are thought likely to do in the future (e.g. control orders, ASBOs, new powers under Mental Health legislation), taking all these things together you really do approach a nightmare scenario of Orwellian proportions.  You can make a case, at a pinch, for a few individual items in this catalogue, looked at in isolation from each other (although certainly not for the national register and ID card scheme), but viewed in the round, it's a major threat to our historic liberties and to our right to freedom from government intrusion.  Powers as sweeping as these, derived from access to information about every aspect of our private lives, will be massively abused sooner rather than later, if not by this government then by one or more of its successors.  Your scepticism about this can certainly be forgiven:  you are a citizen of a country enjoying considerable protection from a genuine separation of powers and a written, liberal constitution.  Polly Toynbee's can not.

    PS:  Polly's assrtion that according to the opinion polls 80 per cent of Britons are in favour of ID cards is hopelessly out of date.  According to some more recent polls a majority is currently opposed to the scheme now that more information about its scope and cost has become available.

  5. Tim Weakley says:

    Brian, many thanks for your comments with which I agree, including your responses to Dan and Carl.  Regarding God and religion: I very much recommend Daniel Dennett's recent "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" – very well-written,  very fair-minded,  but it's clear where he comes down in the end (on your side and mine).

    Brian writes:  Thanks, Tim.  Dennett is extensively quoted by Dawkins in 'The God Delusion', with warm approval. 

  6. Dan Goodman says:

    Yeah, you’re probably right I should read the book before mouthing off about it.

  7. Aidan says:

    The main skill of most commentators seems to be writing confidently about topics of which they have no specialist knowledge, and often don't fully understand. What I don't understand is why they are paid so much to do so, or what benefit we might get from reading them.

    I don't bother reading Polly Toynbee, for example, because I don't think what I've read previously was sufficiently well thought out to be worth further attention.

    As an aside, they also don't seem to have much in the way of fact checking or advice on statistics, which further weakens the value of their pieces. Might as well read any old rubbish on the internet (present company excepted).

    Brian writes:  Alas, you're probably right, Aidan.  But some commentators do have specialised knowledge or experience in specific subjects or areas and are generally worth reading, I find.  I would single out Jonathan Freedland, Jonathan Steele, Martin Woollacott, Alan Watkins and (because he writes so well and has such expertise in so many quirky subjects) Simon Jenkins, as always worth reading.  But it's a rather invidious exercise and I have left out many others just as deserving of attention.

  8. Unity says:

    I missed the Riddell article, but can heartily recommend AC Grayling's semantic evisceration of Theos's newly release report over at CiF…

    Cohen: I've more or less given up on him. I can get the same kind of rubbish over at Mad Mel's and with far more entertianment value thrown in by way of her attempts at coming over like sole wild-eyed Old Testement prophet of doom. Call me perverse but there something infinitely more satisfying about pulling Mad Mel bits for all that its shooting fish in barrel.

    In Polly's case I've had my fun with her on that one already – she basically has no idea what she's talking about – and will get on to Alice Miles in the Times in due course, although I'm actually most pleased with piece I've written today on the manner in which the whole ID cards project is animated by a Positivist/Marxian view of the nature of identity that is entirely at odds with our tradition of liberal individualism…

    Actually, writing that last bit has just given me the thought of contrasting Blair's view of the nature of identity with Orwell's thought on individualism as a facet of the English character in 'The Lion and The Unicorn' just as demostration of how utterly alien Blair's position on ID cards actually is.

    Brian writes:  Thanks for this splendid contribution.  I strongly recommend following up both the links in it, and the links in them, and so on ad infinitum (which is why visiting blogs and the documents they refer you to is a full-time, 24/7 activity requiring the ability to read a computer screen and eat an organic free-range egg omelette simultaneously without spilling ketchup on the keyboard).  "Management of ID"!  Good grief.

  9. Dan Goodman says:

    I said I'd shut up about Dawkins, but Grayling is another matter. Rather than being a good article, it is in fact notable in how exceptionally awful it is (particularly given that he is a professor of philosophy). It is riddled with rhetorical tricks and the argument as a whole is very weak. My opinion in full is on my blog.

    I don't know an awful lot about Theos (I quickly looked through the report on their webpage), but I suspect that if I looked into it more deeply, I would tend towards Madeleine Bunting's rather more measured view of them.

    Brian writes:  Dan, I cheered the Grayling article before seeing your comments on it here and, in more detail, on your own blog :  but I'm bound to say that even after reading your strictures on it, I remain impressed.  A C Grayling has now posted on your blog a measured and closely argued response to your criticisms.  Your turn, I think!

    I have a mild allergy to Ms Bunting so I'm making excuses to myself for not yet reading the piece by her that you mention.  But I don't think she's really in ACG's league…

  10. Dan Goodman says:

    Well I certainly didn’t expect that! It was rather a shock to wake up and to discover an email like that from Grayling in my inbox, written only 5 hours after I posted my entry. The internet is a scary place. 😉 My response is now posted too.

  11. Carl Lundquist says:

    Yes, we have a national pension system, and no, it’s not like your social security.  My wife and I both receive a state pension but neither of us has ever possessed a ‘pension book’ or any other kind of pension-related ID.

    Interesting.  So did you make contributions from your salary to the system while working.  How do they determine your eligibility, pension rate, and age at time of application?  

    The US SS system has no book and the SS card is the most rudimentary ID that you can think of — a little 2"x3" paper card with a number and a signature block.   However, that number is all important.   It has to be furnished to every employer.   Every financial institution you deal with requires it.   Every income tax return requires it as a "tax payer number".   Every child you claim as a dependent on your tax return has to have one — which the kid will retain for life.   It is dangerous to reveal it to unreliable sources, it is the key to identity fraud.

    It has become, literally, a serial number.


  12. Brian says:


    You ask, a propos of the state pension in Britain:
    "…did you make contributions from your salary to the system while working.  How do they determine your eligibility, pension rate, and age at time of application?"

    The answer is yes, we virtually all pay what’s in effect an employment tax while we’re working, called National Insurance contributions.  Most of my compatriots believe, quite wrongly, that these are used to fund the National Health Service and that entitlement to use the NHS is in some way dependent on having made one’s NI contributions.  Actually, it’s a true tax, raised and lowered on the whim of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, like any other tax.  And it all goes straight into the Consolidated Fund, like all other tax revenues:  it’s in no sense earmarked for pensions or other social security benefits, still less ring-fenced for those purposes.  In other words, the state pension is not funded by NI contributions any more than by any other tax revenue, and the totality of state pensions paid out is unrelated to the level of NI contributions received.  

    However, the Department for Work and Pensions (or whatever it’s called this week) does keep a meticulous record of every NI contribution paid by every adult in work in the UK, and the level of pension paid out at age 60 is calculated in a wholly unintelligible manner by reference in part to the level of contributions paid by the individual over his or her lifetime.  Thus I receive a somewhat bigger state pension than my wife, because I was making NI contributions for many more years than she was (once we were both overseas because of my job in the diplomatic service, she was generally prevented from working for money, although she worked extremely hard unpaid and therefore not making NI contributions).  A curiosity of the system is that for much of the time when I was working overseas, even though always as a Crown servant, my NI contributions became voluntary, and some complex calculations convinced me that I would get a better return on the money which I could either save or spend on NI contributions by saving it than by eventually receiving a slightly bigger state pension.  But that entailed some dubious guesses and assumptions about the likely arithmetical relationship between the contributions in question and their effect on my eventual pension, not to mention about the number of years for which I could reasonably expect to go on receiving the pension!.

    We don’t really have anything similar to the American (or Canadian) social security number.  Almost everyone does have a "National Insurance number" which is used for (e.g.) tax returns, pensions correspondence, etc., but very few of us can remember what it is, and no-one tries to keep it secret.  We also have a (different) National Health Service number (I have no idea what mine is, and no record of it), an income tax reference number, and heaven knows how many more.  During what people of my age call "the war" (i.e. the spot of bother from 1939 to 1945, shorter for some) we all had identity cards, which were smallish pieces of limp brown card with a number that every Brit over the age of 65 remembers to this day. Those ID cards were all abolished fairly soon after the end of the war.   And of course when I did my national service (after the war, happily) I got an army number which I used to think was permanently engraved on my soul but which I’m alarmed to find I have now at last forgotten….  Senility, I suppose.  No, it’s just come back to me: 22714665 Trooper Barder, SIR! 

    It was all much less sinister and intrusive before computers and databases.

  13. Tim Weakley says:

    Yes, my army number is also engraved on the tablets of my mind – 22592026 – I had a different number as a temporary gentleman but I’ve totally forgotten it except that it had six digits beginning with 2.  I also had the label DNKG-13-4: not my Nat. Ins. number, must have been on my ID card or my long-since-lost National Health card.  I wonder if the ID cards ever actually led tothe arrest of spies and fifth columnists?

  1. 9 November, 2006

    […] Brian Barder highlights more political commentators failing to challenge the attack on civil liberties. Reading some of these articles has begun to make me think that advocates of civil liberties perhaps need a more positive campaign? Mostly we just complain that liberties X, Y and Z are being taken away, that this is bad because blah blah blah. What we never seem to do is outline what a state would be like which took civil liberties and issues like privacy seriously. I don’t think this should be beyond our powers, and it might make a considerable difference. […]

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