Following the defeat of both the Labour amendment and the government’s motion on Syria in the house of commons last night, the prime minister has rightly decided that the UK will not now take part in any military action against Syria. This seems to me an excellent outcome, which reflects and respects UK majority public opinion, and averts a foreign policy blunder of significant proportions.
But I am shocked by the views widely expressed in the blogosphere and by MPs on both sides of the house of commons according to which it would have been perfectly all right to go ahead and use force against Syria even if we had failed to get the authority of the Security Council for it. This careless willingness to subvert the whole basis of the UN Charter and the central provisions in international law governing the use of force in international relations is deplorable and disreputable. The existence of a doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”, as a justification for military action without Security Council authority, and asserted by the Attorney-General in his legal advice to the government, is hotly and rightly disputed. If accepted, it makes the whole UN Charter system in chapters VI and VII redundant, and we’re back to the law of the jungle. The international community has indeed accepted that there may in certain circumstances need to be ‘humanitarian intervention’ to protect civilians from their own governments, by unanimously endorsing the new norm called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005 at a special summit of heads of state and government at the UN: but it explicitly requires that action under it must be in accordance with the Charter and that the use of force under R2P must be authorised by the Security Council in accordance with the relevant chapters of the Charter (see http://www.barder.com/4043). It’s sad to see Dominic Grieve dredging up the discredited notion of a separate ‘doctrine of humanitarian intervention’, needlessly duplicating R2P, simply to enable the government to escape from the inconvenient requirements of international law.
Several MPs and bloggers are complaining that it would be ‘madness’ to abandon our plans for a strike against Syria to deter further use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people just because one or two members of the Security Council (Russia and China) would veto any resolution authorising that action. Some go so far as to say that we should ignore such vetoes as obviously self-interested and unwarranted — an echo of Tony Blair’s ludicrous proposition in the Iraq context that “an unreasonable veto” could legally be ignored. There’s room for debate about the usefulness or otherwise of the veto provision in the UN Charter. But the fact is that the veto power exists: and had it not been included in the Charter, there’s a real possibility that either the United States or the Soviet Union (succeeded by Russia), or both, would not have become members of the United Nations, which would have rendered the UN virtually powerless and irrelevant. The proper response to a frustrating and unwelcome veto is to sit down with the government that has cast it and try to work out an alternative course of action that both (and a majority in the Security Council) can agree to. It is nonsense to say that the alternative to using force, if that is blocked by a veto, is to do nothing.
However, in any case, had the UK-US resolution to authorise a strike against Syria come to a vote in the Security Council, it’s extremely unlikely that there would have been Russian or Chinese vetoes, because in the light of the present composition of the Council, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the necessary minimum of nine affirmative votes would have been cast in favour of authorising the US, UK and France (or anyone else) to use force against Syria. Our resolution would virtually certainly have been defeated by our failure to win the required majority. In that situation negative votes by Russia and China would not have been vetoes. Russia and China might even have abstained, in order to rub in the fact that it was not their vetoes that denied us the permission to use force that we had asked for, but the fact that the majority of the Council disagreed with us. So it’s no good bleating about it being crazy to let a country like Putin’s Russia stop us doing what we wanted by threatening to use its veto. It would have been a representative selection of the international community that would have refused us the permission that we had sought. This accurately mirrors our failure to secure UN authority for the attack on Iraq in 2003: we never managed to get the required majority of Security Council members to support our attempt to get that UN authority, and had to withdraw our draft resolution for that reason. It was never a question of a Russian or French veto, as Blair falsely claimed afterwards.
Of course all this is now hypothetical, as far as the UK and Syria are concerned. But anyone who disagrees with the scenario outlined above needs to list the nine members of the present Security Council who might be open to persuasion to vote for us to bomb and rocket Syria. I can’t see it.
I am massively relieved that this marks the end of any idea of Britain joining in a foolish, counter-productive, pointless, dangerous military enterprise which would almost certainly be illegal under international law, undermine the authority of the UN and the Charter, kill innocent people for no discernible reason, and fail to deter future use of chemical weapons by the Assad government. We’re well out of it. Enough MPs reflected a sane and humane public opinion that was strongly against yet another intervention in a middle east country which poses no conceivable threat to British interests, to make it impossible for Cameron to commit this major blunder. It’s just a huge pity that Ed Miliband, as leader of the Labour Party, didn’t say loud and clear that there was no case for our military intervention in Syria and above all that such intervention would be illegal and insupportable without the authority of the UN Security Council. He had the perfect opportunity to say precisely that; but he failed to take it, perhaps because of the hot breaths of the New Labour perpetrators of the Iraq disaster down his neck. Still, by insisting (presumably under pressure from his own MPs who were rightly opposed to a strike against Syria in any circumstances) on increasingly stringent conditions for Labour to support military action, Miliband forced the government to retreat further and further from its original intention of launching a virtually immediate attack on Syria, and helped to create a space for MPs of all parties to ask devastating questions about the government’s plans to which ministers had no answers. MPs of all parties accurately reflected public opinion, and forced a delusional government to bow to it. A victory for all of us.
There have been increasingly frequent references by politicians and commentators, including some lawyers, to the internationally accepted principle of governments’ “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) their own citizens from humanitarian disasters and the responsibility (not ‘right’) of the international community to intervene to protect people who are so threatened if their own governments are unable or unwilling to do so. It’s being suggested, quite wrongly, that the R2P allows us and the Americans and others to attack Syria to punish its government for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, or to deter it from doing it again, without the need for the UN Security Council to give its approval in advance. In the hope of squelching this dangerous error, I sent the following letter to the Guardian, which published it as the lead letter in its issue of 27 August 2013, in time (I hope) to be read by MPs and others before the Syria debate this afternoon:
According to your report (Kerry: US will act against Assad, 27 August), “the UK and US have both signalled that they are prepared to act [against Syria] without a UN mandate. International law experts say intervention could be legally justified without a security council resolution under the UN’s ‘responsibility to protect’”. According to another report, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, “did not rule out Labour giving its backing to military intervention without a UN resolution”.
But the 2005 World Summit outcome document in which the heads of state unanimously approved the new international norm of the “responsibility to protect”, subsequently approved by UN security council resolution 1674, states that:
“The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with chapters VI and VII of the charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the security council, in accordance with the charter … on a case-by-case basis…” [my italics].
Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former US presidential special envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson, who co-chaired a working group on the responsibility to protect (R2P), stressed in the group’s report that “R2P’s implementation is to be done in accordance with the UN charter, which means that the central decision-making authority is the UN security council”.
I wonder who are these “international law experts” who advise, absolutely wrongly, that military action against a sovereign state (other than in self-defence) without the authority of the security council can be justified under R2P? According to another report, “Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, warned that any attack on Syria without security council sanction would be ‘a crude violation of international law’. He compared the situation to the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003″. Lavrov was right on both counts.
Attorney-general Dominic Grieve should act immediately and above all publicly to nip in the bud this dangerous misconception that R2P allows any country to evade the plain requirements of international law as laid down in chapters VI and VII of the UN charter, before its constant repetition is wrongly assumed to legitimise another US-UK act of aggression like that committed against Iraq in 2003.
It seems that Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who refers in his column in today’s Guardian to R2P as if it provided an alternative to Security Council authority for attacking Syria, had not read my letter in yesterday’s Guardian, or the key R2P documents either. This seems a little lax on his part, since he’s a lawyer and Chair of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee as well as a Conservative MP and a former foreign and defence secretary. I hope MPs who contribute to the debate this afternoon will have done their homework more thoroughly.
Footnote: “All Members [of the United Nations] shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” UN Charter, Article 2.4.
We all — well, some of us, anyway — hope that Labour will win an overall majority in the house of commons at the next election, probably not before 2015. But to do so after Labour’s defeat on such a scale in 2010 would be a feat unprecedented in modern times. Realistically, the likelier outcome, and therefore the scenario for which advance planning is essential, is that Labour will win more seats than any other party but not an overall majority.
Unaccustomed to hung parliaments and mesmerised by what happened in 2010, British (or rather English) commentators tend to assume that if Labour’s the biggest party but without an overall majority, it will have to form a coalition government with the party likeliest to hold the balance of power, and ideologically the most plausible ally, namely the LibDems. But there are two strong arguments against this, and there exists a much preferable alternative to it, described in my letter in today’s Guardian (26 Aug 2013):
Both you (Editorial, 21 August) and Martin Kettle (Comment, 22 August) urge or imply encouragement for Labour to declare, before the 2015 election, its willingness to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats if there’s another hung parliament and Labour is the biggest party. But neither of you tackles the two chief drawbacks of a 2010-type coalition: voters can’t know what they’re voting for (or against) because coalition policy emerges from inter-party horse-trading only after the polls have closed; and coalition implies that whichever main party wins, the Lib Dems will always be in government.
The solution, failing an overall majority, is surely a Labour minority government with a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Lib Dems, announced before the election. Labour could then implement its pre-election manifesto promises subject to its ability to get parliamentary approval for them, measure by measure.
Other parties responsible for blocking measures for which Labour had a manifesto mandate would have to accept the consequences at any fresh election. This would not preclude a published pre-election agreement with the Lib Dems on the main elements of a reform programme that both parties would promise to support in the next parliament, whether or not Labour had an overall majority. Otherwise the electorate has to vote blindfolded for a pig in a poke.
The arguments against LibDem participation in another coalition government, this time of the centre-left, immediately after having been the junior partners in a coalition of the far right, are surely compelling. By allying and identifying itself so closely with an unpopular Tory-led régime of the extreme right, characterised by a frontal assault on the NHS and the welfare state and on the living standards of the least well-off in society, the Liberal Democratic party has sunk to a dismally low point in the opinion polls and is threatened (like Liberal parties of old that went for a ride on the back of the Tory tiger and finished up inside it) with near-extinction unless it takes urgent steps to re-position itself on the centre-left. But apparent willingness to contemplate a coalition with Labour after its catastrophic marriage to David Cameron and George Osborne would confirm the impression that the LibDems have no core principles or values and will happily embrace any policies, left or right, that will keep them in government, regardless of election results. They could pay a high price in lost votes for giving that impression.
Many good Labour people would rejoice at the virtual annihilation of the LibDems at the polls. But that would be extremely short-sighted. If the LibDems are almost wiped out in 2015, the next biggest party in the Commons after the Tories is likely to be UKIP. The prospect of a Labour minority government forced to depend on UKIP permission to carry out a progressive programme is deeply disturbing. Worse still, it might hold out the possibility of a Tory-UKIP alliance or even coalition, able to outvote Labour and thus form a, or another, government of the extreme right, this time with the junior partner vigorously dragging the government to the far Europhobic, xenophobic right instead of gently pushing in a vaguely liberal direction as the LibDems have periodically tried to do.
The only likely obstacle to such a nightmare is a revival of the LibDems; and the key to such a revival is a public understanding with Labour, before the election, that whatever the outcome in 2015 Labour and the LibDems will both promise to support certain agreed objectives in a progressive reform programme after the election, although not in a formal coalition. Both parties would publish separate and different election manifestos but they would include in both the key elements agreed beforehand with each other. The LibDems would also promise publicly that in the event of Labour emerging as the biggest party but without an overall majority, they would enter into a “confidence and supply” agreement with Labour under which they would be free to oppose specific measures proposed by a minority Labour government but would normally support that government in votes of confidence and in measures to ensure that funds are available to keep government going. This would enable Labour to accept defeat on individual measures without being forced to resign as a result of the defeat and call fresh elections. The LibDems would be able to preserve their freedom of political choice — their political purity — without having to identify themselves with every detail of the minority Labour government’s programme. Labour would benefit by not having to accept a LibDem monitor in every department quibbling over every point of detail and objecting to its more radical reforms for fear of seeming to disown the baggage they have accumulated from the years of marriage to the Tories.
If the Labour leadership can bring itself to understand this reality, it follows that it must put a stop to the malicious (if understandable) sniping by Labour at the LibDems. However feebly they have behaved since being outsmarted by the Tories in 2010, the LibDems remain, with a handful of Greens and a few leftish nationalists, Labour’s only credible friends in an otherwise hostile political jungle. The alternative to the LibDems looks increasingly likely to be UKIP, perhaps in a working partnership with the Tories. We should be careful about what we wish for.
Above all, the nation would benefit from a loose working arrangement, short of coalition, between Labour and the LibDems. Instead of being forced to vote without any idea of what a future Lab-LibDem (or Tory-LibDem or Tory-UKIP) coalition might come up with after the election, voters would have a good idea of what a Labour government would do, whether with or without an overall majority in parliament, and also a reasonably full idea of what kind of reform programme the LibDems would support in parliament, whatever the election result. The politicians might not like to have their hands tied in this way before the election — but that’s democracy, folks. No more coalitions, unless they are formally set up with a joint agreed programme for government published in full before the election. Even then, a minority Labour government in a limited confidence and supply arrangement with the LibDems would be the next best thing, if Labour fails to win an overall majority. It’s not defeatist to plan now for such a contingency and to start now to discuss it with the progressive wing of the LibDems. It’s just common sense. And not to do it would amount to culpable negligence, at the expense of both Labour and the country. Let’s get on with it.
Of all the many opportunities now being missed by the Labour party for a vigorous, radical campaign to win over solid popular support, one of the saddest is Labour’s silence on the real possibility that in barely a year’s time, on Thursday, 18 September 2014, our fellow-citizens in Scotland may vote to leave the United Kingdom to become an independent state. Current polls show a clear majority of Scots opposed to independence, but much can change in a year, and not that many Scots seem content with the status quo. A Tory-led government at Westminster, with virtually no Conservative party support in Scotland, is waging a class war against the poorest and most vulnerable in the country, outraging widespread progressive opinion in Scotland. The Tories are appeasing their own loopiest supporters by increasingly putting British membership of the European Union — much more valued in Scotland than in England — at risk. The independence campaign is led by probably the most skilful and charismatic politician in the UK, Alex Salmond. Blandly assuming that the referendum due next year will come down against independence, and doing nothing at all to persuade the Scots to vote accordingly apart from nit-picking over the small print of the independence campaign, is a reckless gamble with the future of our country.
Yet there’s no sign of a Labour strategy aimed at offering Scotland a worth-while alternative to independence that could command support both in Scotland and in the RUK (rest of the UK). The Tories have clearly written off Scotland and have no policy for its future apart from complacently assuming that Salmond will lose his referendum and that the Scots will be content with the minor improvements to Scottish devolution in the Scotland Act 2012. The LibDems have a radical and forward-looking policy for Scotland and for the constitutional future of the UK, but no-one else seems to take any notice of it or to take it seriously. A bold Labour policy, supported by the LibDems and offering a brighter constitutional future for the UK, including for Scotland, would fill a yawning vacuum. It could form one of the key elements in an imaginative Labour programme offering an optimistic long-term alternative to the break-up of the UK, leaving a sadly diminished little England searching for a role with Wales and Northern Ireland in tow, as envisaged in a striking recent Observer article by Henry Porter. Deferring the unveiling of such a programme until the eve of a May 2015 general election will be too late: by then the Scots will have had their referendum and the die may have been irrevocably cast. The need is for a brave Labour initiative within at most a few weeks.
English lethargy in the face of the threat to the integrity of our country ought to have been brutally shaken by the publication of an important new book, Scottish Independence: Weighing up the Economics, by Professor Gavin McCrone, a distinguished former public servant and academic economist (full disclosure: Gavin McCrone is one of my oldest friends). This book is an invaluable guide to the main issues, political as well as economic, arising from the choice facing Scots next year. Short, pithy, commendably cheap, available as an e-book or paperback, written in clear English, accessible to the ordinary reader as well as to trained economists, amply supported by facts, figures and statistics, Scottish Independence could well have been published in a well-known series of handbooks and re-named Scottish Independence for Dummies. It ought to be required reading, not only for Scottish voters before their referendum next year, but also for everyone in England (and the other two UK nations) with an interest in the future of the United Kingdom. It has been widely discussed in the Scottish print and electronic media but, inexplicably, it has so far barely been noticed at all in England.
Professor McCrone, who sensibly refuses to disclose his own referendum voting intentions and remains resolutely impartial throughout his book, discusses the numerous questions that would need to be answered before Scotland could become independent, if that’s what the Scots vote for in 2014: could an independent Scotland continue to use the pound sterling and if so how much influence could it have on its own monetary and fiscal policies? on what basis would Scotland take on a fair share of the UK’s income from North Sea oil and of the UK’s national debt? could an independent Scotland afford to bail out its very large banks if they were to fail again in future? what would be the implications for both Scotland and England of Scotland going it alone on renewal energy policy? would Scotland need to apply for EU membership as a new state? what if England voted to leave the EU in the in-or-out referendum threatened by Mr Cameron, but Scotland, having voted to remain part of the UK, voted massively to remain in the EU? if Scotland applied for EU membership as a new state, would other EU member states with their own internal secessionist movements (Spain and Belgium, for example) be tempted to veto the Scottish application for fear of setting an awkward precedent? would Scottish EU membership require a new EU treaty whose ratification would trigger referendums in some EU countries, referendums that might well go against Scotland? would Scotland, if admitted as a new member to the EU, inherit a share of the UK’s EU rebate? would Scotland, as a new member, be required by current EU doctrine to join the Euro and the Eurozone, and/or the Schengen Agreement – which would mean immigration controls on the border with England?
Professor McCrone suggests possible answers to all these questions, stressing that if the Scots vote for independence, many of the most vital questions would have to be negotiated with the government at Westminster before independence could be achieved, and and that it’s impossible to predict what the outcome of those negotiations would be; and that others would fall to be negotiated with the whole of the EU, including the RUK, both before and after independence, the outcomes in each case similarly unpredictable. Professor McCrone notes that some of the principal questions have apparently not been discussed, even in a preliminary way, between Edinburgh and London or between Edinburgh and Brussels. It looks as if Scottish voters will have to make their decisions for or against independence in just a few months’ time without having the slightest idea how these questions, fundamental to their own future welfare and security, are likely to be answered. A pig in a poke indeed.
In a striking passage in his book, McCrone warns that
If independence is rejected, … there is a real danger that politicians at Westminster and officials in Whitehall may think that they can put away the files and not worry about Scotland any more. Proposals for increased devolution might then be shelved. That is quite a likely outcome but it would be a huge mistake. It would probably mean that the next time there was a big surge in support for independence for Scotland, maybe in ten or twenty years’ time [Note by BLB: I predict that it would occur much sooner], it would carry the day in a second referendum. That has been the pattern in the past over devolution. [Scottish Independence: Weighing up the Economics, Birlinn, p.147]
Here are five key elements for an urgently needed Labour strategy for the future of Scotland and the whole United Kingdom:
1. Labour should promise that if the 2014 referendum goes against independence, a future Labour government will negotiate a further significant expansion of devolution for Scotland. According to the polls, more Scots want this than want independence or the status quo, and there’s no conceivable reason not to agree to it. Why should Scotland have less control of its own internal affairs than California or Rhode Island in the US or New South Wales in Australia?
2. Labour should recognise that full self-government for Scotland will prompt pressure for the same status for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and should agree to make this its long-term aim (and to work tirelessly for a national consensus in favour of it).
3. This would result eventually in a fully federal constitution for the UK and its four nations, and would entail, eventually, a separate parliament and government for England, probably sited in the midlands or north of England.
4. The transfer of further extensive powers to the parliaments and governments of the four UK nations will greatly reduce the functions and powers of the federal parliament at Westminster, justifying a radical reduction in the size of the (already semi-federal) House of Commons and especially of the House of Lords, the latter from nearly 800 at present to a maximum of 100 in the new elected federal Senate, in which (as in the US and Australia) all four nations would have equal representation, an essential protection for the smaller nations against domination by the biggest. The creation of a new modest-sized parliament for England would thus be consistent with a sharp net reduction in the total number of UK politicians.
5. There is no other durable or feasible answer to the West Lothian question than a gradual move, over 15 to 20 years, to a federal UK constitution as proposed, supported by a broad consensus across the whole political spectrum. It would create a lasting, democratic relationship between the four UK nations and between them and the federal centre, satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Scottish and increasingly the English (and Welsh and Northern Ireland) peoples, and complete the long interrupted devolution process of which Labour is, or should be, the proud godfather.
The Tories persist in claiming that [in December 2011] David Cameron courageously and patriotically “vetoed an EU Treaty” to protect British interests, and was the first UK prime minister ever to have done so. I have just received a lengthy questionnaire from the London region Conservative MPs which includes the following ‘question’:
In December 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron vetoed a new EU Treaty which European [sic] governments wanted to pass [sic] to deal with the Euro crisis because it didn’t protect British interests. How strongly do you agree or disagree with the Prime Minister taking this action?
It is widely forgotten that on 9 December 2011 Mr Cameron returned from a summit meeting in Brussels boasting that he had bravely defended British interests by vetoing an EU treaty, on the grounds that the rest of the EU had refused to satisfy the conditions he had laid down for refraining from exercising his veto. These conditions amounted to a series of demands which were mostly unconnected with the subject matter of the proposed treaty. In fact, our prime minister had not vetoed a treaty at all: there was no draft treaty in existence for him to veto. All he had done was to try to prevent the rest of the EU from using the Commission and other EU organs and facilities for the negotiation of a new treaty designed to impose more discipline on the Eurozone. In practice this shabby attempt was easily circumvented, and the only effect of Cameron’s attempted blackmail was to ensure that Britain alone was virtually excluded from having any input into the negotiations leading up to the new treaty. (The sad and shameful tale is related in more detail in an earlier post on this blog, here: it’s well worth reading.) If that episode is a reliable indicator of Mr Cameron’s negotiating skills, and of the integrity of the account of his actions that he offers the British people, Labour should have no great difficulty in exposing the fraud, recklessness and ineptitude of the new Tory strategy for Europe, and the reactionary character of its real aims.
[Postscript to http://www.barder.com/?s=Cameron+veto+treaty of 24 January 2013]
It’s a shame that the Tories succeed in getting away with this presumably conscious misrepresentation of the facts, time after time. The true story is just a little too technical and tangled to be easily and briefly deployed in rebuttal; and most people have understandably forgotten all about it. So Mr Cameron is able to pose as the first British prime minister to have had the manly courage to stand up to all those scheming “Europeans” and veto their treaty. Yuk.
There were more than half a million official requests for “data tracking of individuals” – details of the timings, originators, recipients, etc., of emails and telephone calls, but in principle not their contents – during 2012, according to the annual report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner, effectively the snooping regulator. According to the report, “during  public authorities as a whole, submitted 570,135 notices and authorisations for communications data… the number of requests submitted in 2012 represents an approximate 15% increase on 2011″, an increase attributed by the report mainly to security activity related to the Olympics.
The report also discloses that “the total number of lawful intercept warrants issued in 2012 … was 3,372 … a 16% increase on … 2011.” These are warrants allowing a long list of public bodies, including the security services and the police, to read the contents, not just the timing, senders’ and recipients’ details, etc., of intercepted emails and telephone calls, each requiring the formal approval of the Home Secretary.
The Commissioner reported that –
During , 979 communications data errors were reported to my office by public authorities. … This figure is higher than the previous year (895). However, as the number of requests has increased by 15% this year, the overall error percentage has actually reduced from 0.18% in 2011 to 0.17% in 2012. I am satisfied that the overall error rate is still low when compared to the number of requests that were made during the course of the reporting year.
So that’s all right, then. (The Guardian’s account of the Commissioner’s report says that “nearly 979 errors were made” during interception operations, prompting the question: what figure is best described as “nearly 979″? Perhaps 978? But it’s clear from the report itself that 979 was the precise figure, so “nearly a thousand” would have been a better approximation.) Of course the 979 errors comprise only the errors which were detected and reported: we have no way of knowing how many other errors were committed but never discovered, with potentially dire consequences for private citizens wrongly fingered through their emails, texts or telephone calls. All we know is that as a result of the known and reported errors, –
Six people have been wrongly detained and falsely accused of crimes in the past year as a result of mistakes made in the official disclosure of confidential data on their internet use to the police and security services
in the words of the same Guardian article. Actually the Commissioner’s report uses a tiresome slash – “wrongly detained / accused of crimes” – that could mean either ‘and’ or ‘or’. Either way it’s remarkable that there were only six known victims of nearly a thousand known errors.
Out of the 3,372 intercept warrants issued in 2012, i.e. those allowing the contents as well as the communications data to be accessed by a public body, 55 “errors / breaches” (that ambiguous slash again) were reported to the Commissioner by public authorities, representing a 30% increase on the 42 errors reported in 2011. Those 55 errors over intercepts sound relatively few only by comparison with the 979 errors committed in connection with communications data operations. Again, 55 can only be the number of errors that were spotted and reported: heaven knows how many others were committed and never discovered, with potentially catastrophic consequences for innocent victims.
All these activities are authorised by the infamous ” Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000“. According to Wikipedia,
in September 2003 Home Secretary David Blunkett announced additions to the list of those entitled to access certain types of communications data collected under RIPA in what civil rights and privacy campaigners dubbed a ‘snoopers’ charter’. Following a public consultation and Parliamentary debate, however, Parliament approved the new additions in December 2003, April 2005, July 2006 and February 2010.
New Labour was responsible for this monstrous assault on our right to the protection of our private communications from snooping by the state. Ed Miliband’s One Nation Labour should promise now to repeal it at the first available opportunity, and to replace it by a new law reducing to a low minimum (1) the scope of these snooping powers, (2) the number of public bodies permitted to exercise them, and (3) the room left in the prescribed procedures for errors. This would require Mr Miliband to overrule the objections that would no doubt be noisily voiced by the succession of New Labour former home secretaries anxious to protect their places in history. It’s surely time for these old warriors to retire gracefully from the field and to maintain a dignified silence while the murkier elements in their legacy are cleaned up by a (small n) new and more liberal Labour government in the future.
The leaders of all three major political parties, and most of their parliamentary followers, have responded with predictable horror to the recommendation of a 9% increase in MPs’ pay made by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA). IPSA was created in 2009 by the Parliamentary Standards Act and is tasked with independently monitoring and controlling MPs’ expenses, pay and pensions. The 9% pay increase recommendation is just one of a number of proposals in a detailed and comprehensive report, ‘MPs’ pay and pensions: a new package’, which (as its title suggests) sets out a carefully balanced package under which MPs would not only receive a 9% pay increase, but would also suffer significant reductions in their pensions, severance pay and allowances. Although these proposed reductions would not fully offset the proposed pay increase, they would reduce to perfectly manageable proportions the net cost of the recommendations to the taxpayer.
Yet with few exceptions, politicians and the media have focused in their condemnation of the IPSA report exclusively on the proposed pay increase, neglecting to point out that this is largely offset by proposed reductions in MPs’ other emoluments. The BBC’s Political Editor, Nick Robinson, for example, has been shamelessly roaming the streets with a piece of paper announcing the 9% pay increase proposal, showing it to random passers-by, and inviting them to express their shock, horror and dismay to camera. This kind of shoddy journalism has had the obvious and predictable effect of inciting yet more public animus against the IPSA recommendations (or one of them) and against politicians generally. Not only have MPs been demanding that the statutory power and responsibility of IPSA be ignored and the pay award vetoed (which, to be legal, would require a fresh Act of Parliament): some have been promising not to accept the award if it is granted. This hair-shirt act is all very well for MPs with lucrative extra-parliamentary sources of income, or private wealth: it does scant service to MPs, especially those with families, who have chosen to regard being a member of parliament as a full-time job.
Every MP, including even the party leaders, and every serious media commentator, knows perfectly well that for many years cowardly governments have held down MPs’ pay for fear of the wrath of the tabloids, playing on general public distaste for politicians. Independently calculated proposals for periodic pay increases have been regularly vetoed by equally timorous Labour and Conservative governments, with the result that MPs’ pay has fallen further and further behind that of comparable occupations, including that of parliamentarians of almost all similar countries. The discreetly understood quid pro quo for this underpayment of MPs’ salaries was an explosion in MPs’ expense allowances, administered by the Parliamentary staff with the greatest laxity, as part compensation for inadequate pay. It suited everyone to turn a blind eye to this obviously unsatisfactory compromise, until a leak to the Daily Telegraph in 2009 of details of widespread abuse of MPs expenses exposed what had been going on, resulting in general public outrage, the termination of the careers of the worst offenders, and greater or lesser penalties imposed on most of the rest.
IPSA’s recommendations are meticulously argued and documented in its 74-page report. As far as I’m aware, none of its critics in Parliament, the government or the media has taken the trouble to dispute any of the report’s arguments, facts and figures underpinning its balanced recommendations. In denouncing the proposed pay increase, and demanding that it should not be implemented, MPs and commentators are implicitly calling for a return to the bad old days when MPs and governments determined their own pay and allowances. This almost universally negative reaction is based almost entirely on fear: fear of the tabloids, fear of a public opinion already prejudiced against politicians, and fear of their own inability to explain and defend the rational and statutory underpinning of the complex of recommendations in the IPSA report. As so often, the defining characteristic of those who govern and legislate for us is cowardice.
One postscript: IPSA says in its report that it found no evidence that inadequate pay for MPs had had a damaging effect on the calibre of candidates for election to the House of Commons. This seems to me the one element in the report that is wide open to question. It is far from clear what kind of evidence could be produced either to negate or to confirm the proposition that, in the terms of the cliché, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. Better pay and conditions, better work practices, more reasonable demands on MPs’ time, a work description based on a rational interpretation of the Constitution, greater freedom from the tyranny of the Whips and local party activists – all these things could reasonably be expected to appeal to people of strong character, sound principles and a commitment to public service, and attract them to what should be regarded as the honourable profession of politics. Such reforms are no doubt mostly pie in the sky. One of them, decent pay and sensible pensions and allowances, is now on offer. All the signs are that it will once again be thrown away, the victim of prejudice, ignorance and cowardice.
[Note by Brian: The following is a blog post written for Ephems by an Australian friend of long standing about the Australian Labor Party (ALP) leadership contest on 26 June 2013 between the then prime minister, Julia Gillard, and her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, whom she had herself displaced as party leader and prime minister three years earlier. A 'spill' is a leadership contest prompted by a challenge either to an incumbent leader by a rival or vice versa. A 'caucus' is a meeting of all the MPs and Senators of a party in the Australian parliament. 'John' is the writer's husband. Australian elections to the House of Representatives are due to take place in September 2013. Now read on…]
I’m furious, devastated, incredulous…. at Julia Gillard’s defeat by Kevin Rudd.
When we heard that there’d be a leadership spill, called by Julia, at 7 pm, I said to John that I’d put my money on Julia. Not because I thought that she’d win the September election so should be supported, but because she is so determined, so feisty, whereas Kevin Rudd has been a wilting lily when it’s come to leadership contests. The rumoured leadership challenge in the last few days looked as if it was in the same category.
So it was a shock that Julia lost 45 – 57 to Rudd.
As one commentator said, it was a case of caucus members assessing their electoral chances. The polling has been devastating for Labor. So in the last few weeks when leadership speculation emerged, yet again, it was against the background of the possibility of Labor losses such as the party hasn’t seen since 1966. In other words, lots of jobs lost. You could ask, well what’s changed recently? And the answer can only be, time. It’s getting closer to the election date, 14 Sept, and as it gets closer I guess incumbent politicians lose their nerve.
What is infuriating is that Labor, under Julia Gillard, has introduced some very progressive policies – a carbon tax (OK, they were pressed into it by the Greens, but that was more a matter of timing than of policy itself), a disability insurance scheme, a new and significant education funding mechanism, general dental care, plain packaging for cigarettes, increased funding for mental health care…. and that’s just off the top of my head. But recently an opinion poll showed that people supported the policies of Labor, but not the Labor Party itself.
Could it possibly be because Julia Gillard is the first female PM? Sounds very defensive, until you take into account the attacks from the shock jocks and the Murdoch press. Alan Jones’s references to ‘Ju-liar’ now seem so mild. Oh, he did say that she ought to be taken out to sea in a chaff bag, hopefully to be sunk there, but that is all mild compared to the sort of obscenities that have emerged since. It’s not mainstream, admittedly, but it defies reason to suggest that the appallingly sexist, disgusting stuff that’s been circulating hasn’t had its effect on mainstream commentary.
You over there could well ask what’s the difference between the tossing out of an unpopular PM, Julia Gillard, and the tossing out of a popular PM, Kevin Rudd, 3 years ago? To my mind, Kevin Rudd’s deposition was one which only the Canberra insiders – and the ALP numbers men/women – understood. In vote-winning terms: it was a loss of nerve, as Rudd’s popularity, although declining, was not at election-losing level. However, he hadn’t delivered much. Much was the promise, but…. So I was willing to go along with that assassination.
The public however was not. It wasn’t until last year that Labor politicians bared their breasts and admitted to why they’d axed Kevin: he was impossible to work with. Meanwhile the public perception was that Julia had knifed Kevin. Paul Keating was allowed to knife Bob Hawke, the incumbent PM, in 1991, but Julia, a woman, was not.
Julia has been dogged throughout her term as devious, a PM-slayer. Various slips – like the “no carbon tax under my government” – as they have been publicised, have contributed to the image of untrustworthiness. All bollocks, but what can you do with a print media dominated by Murdoch?
In the next few years or decades there’ll be a major revision of Julia Gillard’s reputation and record. She’s been a terrific driver of policy, an extraordinarily effective negotiator, right from the day she negotiated the arrangement which created stable government out of a hung parliament, and an incredibly courageous person.
The morning after:
I’m not the only one to be devastated at the treatment meted out to Julia Gillard. Debate is raging over whether she was or was not the victim of misogyny. And if so, why.
People who know her personally, politicians and press alike, say that Julia Gillard is a warm, witty, likeable woman. Coming from a migrant background – her parents came from Wales to Australia when she was a child – she has acknowledged that the work ethic of her working-class parents, and the opportunities open to them and their children here in Australia, are what inspire her to work for a free and fair society. Education has always been a priority, as have workplace relations where she made a name for herself in opposition when she faced off then Minister for Workplace Relations, Tony Abbott.
But somehow her warmth of personality couldn’t penetrate the TV cameras. And has she been criticised! For her (strong Australian) accent, her nasal tone of voice, her nose, her ears, her choice of clothes, her choice of partner….
Is she to the Right or Left in the party? Once upon a time she was labelled Left, but that label slipped years ago when she engineered, or at least supported, the ALP’s cringeing policy towards asylum seekers. That was in 2001, and in the elections of that year, Left-inclined ALP supporters took their vote elsewhere, swelling the Green vote to an unheard-of 10%.
Since coming to office, the Left label has fallen off completely: why do a deal with the miners that would satisfy them but reduce by billions the projected revenue from a super-profits tax? why go back on her own policy of holding non-government school funding at current Australian dollar levels while increasing government school funding in real terms? why propose (pre-2010 election) postponing for three years any price on carbon? (and then go back on that?) why undo the humane treatment of asylum seekers and for that matter go perilously close to failing Australia’s obligations to the Refugee Convention which we’ve signed up to?
Because she could. Because she had to, in a hung parliament. Therein lay the conundrum. From very early on it was hard to see what Julia Gillard stood for, but that very problem had as its flipside: that she could negotiate, and she could get results. No mean feat in a hung parliament. She did what the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, defied her to do – led a government that went its full term.
And just the opposite to Kevin Rudd who promised much but achieved very little other than a huge and growing in-tray. It was a well-known Canberra secret that departments leapt at the chance to put up policy documents for signature by Deputy PM Gillard when PM Rudd was out of the country. She always cleared the backlog!
Another opposite is her grace and her dignity, exemplified by her offer to quit politics if she lost the ballot. And she has kept her word. Kevin Rudd, by contrast, never stopped undermining her leadership, from way back before the election of 2010 when (his) damaging leaks unsettled the Gillard campaign, to his destabilising efforts throughout her tenure of office. He has hung around and hung around; Julia Gillard has always been fighting Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and at the same time the disloyal former prime minister and one-time Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kevin Rudd.
The brutality of her treatment was not confined to Wednesday 16 June, but has been a constant for three years. And yet she has introduced reforms which will make big changes to Australia for decades – and I mean ‘reforms’, not merely ‘changes’.
But it is the morning after. I find myself sharing the sadness in the looks of those of her colleagues who deserted her, clearly reluctantly. Yet there is at least some hope now that Tony Abbott will not win the election, and there is even an expectation that the size of his victory if he does win will not secure him control of the Senate, hugely important in ensuring that the legislation of the present government will not be overturned.
At least there’s going to be a real contest.
A reason for tuning in again to what has been a very depressing scene for the last year or so.
On Friday, 14 June, the Guardian reported that David Cameron had done the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, the special favour of arranging for him to “visit the Queen” during his visit to London. The Guardian’s Mr Wintour was apparently unaware that as the head of one of the Queen’s many other governments, Mr Harper needs no help from Mr Cameron to pay a call on his head of state [see http://www.barder.com/3981]. My letter to the Guardian pointing this out has not been published.
Not to be outdone, an unsigned story in today’s Guardian (17 June), on page 5, reports that at the 2009 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad “The UK delegation was headed by the Queen, with Prince Philip also in attendance, along with Gordon Brown….”. No doubt the Canadian delegation was headed by the Queen of Canada, the Australian delegation by the Queen of Australia, and so forth, and the whole shebang was chaired by, er, the Head of the Commonwealth (i.e. the Queen).
The Queen could be forgiven for complaining that she’s expected to be everywhere at once.
It’s easily and widely forgotten in Britain that “Her Majesty’s Government”, or HMG, headed by Mr Cameron at Westminster, is only one of the Queen’s 16 governments around the world. The Queen has been the head of state of 32 countries in all, the UK being just one of them. According to Wikipedia,
The Queen has had 12 British Prime Ministers, second only to George III, who had 14, and two more than the number had by Queen Victoria. She has also had 14 New Zealand Prime Ministers, 12 Australian Prime Ministers and 11 Canadian Prime Ministers. The Queen has had a total of 157 Prime Ministers during her reign.
Ignoring for the purposes of this note the intriguing reference here to ten British prime ministers who were “had by Queen Victoria”, I just want to make the point that any of the Queen’s prime ministers naturally has automatic access to her whenever he or she needs or wants it. A telephone call, letter or email to the Palace is all that’s needed. All 16 of her prime ministers are heads of government of independent sovereign states, and all are of equal constitutional status — even Mr Cameron. The prime minister of Canada discusses Canadian and international affairs with the Queen of Canada; Mr Cameron discusses British and international affairs with the Queen of the United Kingdom. When the Queen is visiting The Most Honourable Mrs Portia Lucretia Simpson-Miller, ON, MP, Her Majesty is the Queen of Jamaica. She’s the same person but she acts in different capacities.
So it was surprising to read in the Guardian newspaper of 14 June (yesterday) a report by Patrick Wintour according to which:
The prime minister was meeting continued resistance from his Canadian counterpart, Stephen Harper, over critical plans to require countries to reveal the true beneficial owners of shell companies and trusts. The measure is vital to combatting money laundering, fighting tax evasion and turning tax information exchange into something meaningful.
Cameron laid on the diplomatic red carpet for Harper, giving him the rare honour of speaking to both houses of parliament, a visit to the Queen and a lengthy bilateral meeting at Downing Street. But Harper is worried about exposing private Canadian tax affairs and fears complications arising from Canada‘s federal structure. [Emphasis added.]
I submitted a letter to the Guardian drawing attention to this constitutional nonsense:
The suggestion that in his efforts to win over the Canadian prime minister, Stephen Harper, to the cause of transparency over company ownerships for the G8, David Cameron has “given him the rare honour of … a visit to the Queen” (Cameron faces 11-th hour battle over G8 objectives, 14 June) ignores the reality that as the prime minister of one of Her Majesty’s Governments (namely her Canadian government), Mr Harper has precisely the same right and opportunity of access to the Queen as Mr Cameron, the prime minister of another of HM Governments. Mr Harper needs no help from Mr Cameron in arranging to see the Queen.
14 June 2013
With remarkable self-restraint, I forebore to mention the Guardian’s spelling of ‘combating’, focusing [sic] instead on the constitutional issue. My letter hasn’t been published (yet, anyway). I suppose it’s regarded in the newspaper’s letters section as nit-picking — as, indeed, it is. There are about 35 million Canadians, less than a half of 1 per cent of the world’s population, and it would be surprising if as many as 1 per cent of them read the Guardian. I doubt if Mr Wintour is kept awake at night by the thought of a maximum of 350,000 Canadians wincing when they read his blooper.