Thursday, 29 January 2009

The Spectator reveals Brown's lie

Go and read this article at the Spectator. Now.

They run the numbers on Brown's policies, and confirm what I've been shouting for ages:
one depressing conclusion: the taxes needed to paid for this stimulus do more harm to our economy than the temporary good done this year.

That's the age-old problem with socialists: they only notice the smaller-than-expected benefit that their policies bring, and never see the opportunities that were lost as a result.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The PBR hits home today

As well as the VAT cut, the bank bailout, the other bank bailout, the car industry bailout, and so on.

Yes, today is the day to deal with this horrible document:

Except that my version has numbers on it. Horribly big numbers. And there is an equally big chunk due in six month's time.

Now, this has to come from somewhere. Specifically, it comes from the profits of my firm, which are 15% down on previous years. Oddly, my tax demands have stayed roughly the same. Yesterday, my firm accepted the inevitable and decided to look at the possibility of redundancies. Today, I am deeply distressed; these are people with whom I have been working for year, who I have got to know as people, and whom I am going to have to say goodbye to knowing what that may mean for them given the state into which New Labour have driven our economy.

And why? This money, taken from me under threat of dire consquences, is being used to prop up employment in the government's "preferred" areas of the economy. Why are those jobs more important than the jobs of the people that I employ?


Friday, 23 January 2009

Nannies are for children, not Mums

I hear that Essex mums-to-be who smoke are to be paid to kick the habit in the form of £100 of vouchers to spend at their local Co-op. Good heavens; where to start?

Mrs Patently never started smoking, partly because she always knew she would want children. She has since had 2 children, and has never smoked in her life. If this program becomes nationwide, where is our £200??

Actually, I know where our £200 is. It's being confiscated at the end of this month in order to fund two pregnant women who are so thick they need a cash incentive to give up smoking. Frankly, if the fact that every drag they take is slowly but surely harming their child is not enough to make them stop, then the child is screwed whether she smokes or not. Let's face it; if there really are women out there who don't care about their child enough to stop smoking, but do care enough about £100 of free groceries from the Co-op, then they are not exactly going to be Mary Poppins impersonators in nine month's time, are they?

The idiot Nanny-state representative that Today interviewed on the subject tried to point out that if we stop these people smoking, then we will save money in the future when they don't turn up at A&E time after time with all the inevitable health problems of smoking. And thus, he avoided the allegation of bribery by moving the debate on to how these mums could blackmail us instead. My immediate thought was that if I go on a rampage of violence and vandalism, that will cost a pretty penny. So where is my official payout for not doing so?

I've got a better idea. Let's just make sure they know that if they smoke, they are harming their child. Then accept that the State cannot feasibly do more. In a few decades, when she turns up at A&E, fag in hand, asking for (a) a light, and (b) treatment for emphysema, give her a pamphlet about cause and effect and tell her to get lost.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Email from my MP...

OK, not personal to me (as if!), but here is the response from my Conservative MP to the letter I sent yesterday concerning the vote on MP's expenses:

Thank you for contacting me about the public disclosure by Members of Parliament of their expenses.

The Government originally intended to exempt Parliament from all Freedom of Information inquiries. This would have prevented people from being able to access a full and transparent picture of how MPs are spending taxpayers’ money. I would have voted against those proposals and am therefore delighted that after real pressure was applied by David Cameron and the wider Conservative Party, Gordon Brown was forced into an embarrassing u-turn that resulted in the withdrawal of these proposals.

For a number of months now, Conservative MPs have voluntarily published a detailed list of everything they spend out of their parliamentary allowances. We are in favour of openness, so that the taxpayer can know to their satisfaction how their funds are spent. The Government’s proposal was completely contrary to the spirit of
the Freedom of Information Act.

The original Act applied to Parliament and this has been upheld by the High Court. Even though a system for the future might be designed which satisfies everybody, it is not appropriate for Parliament to create a retrospective escape route from a law which used to affect it. The law at the time is the law that should prevail.

I will continue to oppose any future Government proposals to limit transparency of MP’s expenses.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

Spot on, I'd say.

(and thanks to Raedwald for the heads-up that prompted me to write)

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

A Stupid and Naive Question

We have a credit crunch and the banking system is in huge difficulty, with bank reserve ratios at inadequate levels and the prospect of huge losses in the future as a result of their bad bets. Right?

So, in simple English, people and businesses are short of credit and the banks are short of cash. Right?

The solution is a highly complex policy in which the country borrows huge sums (from where?) and uses these to make loans to and equity purchases of banks. Banks buy insurance from HMG against their own stupid mistakes, enabling us all to pick up the tab collectively instead of the person who cocked up in the first place. Lots of lawyers write interminable prose. Lots of civil servants oversee the banks. Interest for the lenders is deducted. What is left appears in the banks' accounts and (magically) the banks decide to lend again. This apparently solves the problem of excessive reliance on credit.

What I want to know is why can't the government just, errm, stop spending so much and give us all a huge tax cut? I mean really stop spending. Defer the ID card scheme, the NHS computer, Trident and so on. Stop recruiting for any post that is not frontline (and I really do mean frontline; nurses, yes, diversity consultants, no). Cope with the equipment HMG has at present. Get spending back under control, then give us a real tax cut - not a mealy-mouthed 2% off prices, something really significant like a few pennies off the basic rate.

That way, money would go directly to the pay packets of the "Hard Working Families" that Labour claims to love so dearly. They could bank it - thereby increasing capital ratios - or they could spend it - thereby giving the economy a boost and increasing capital ratios when the shopkeeper banks it. They would feel more confident when they saw their take-home pay increase. They could be less reliant on credit in the future because they would have the cash.

Yes, the goverment would have to suffer a loss of spending power. Oh dear. That would make them, err, just like every person and every business in the country that they are supposed to represent.

Now I know the political arguments against this. I can understand perfectly well why Gordon would rather pull his fingernails out with a pair of rusty pliers than suffer the indignity of letting us mere voters decide how to spend our own money. But what economic reasons are there for not doing this?

Monday, 19 January 2009

An Illegitemate Prime Minister

I want an Election. Now.

My previous posts today have been based on a critique of Gordon's policy. The view expressed in this post is independent of that and would apply even if I agreed with everything he did.

We, as a nation, have a belief in democracy; one that we have seen fit to impose by force on others. We have a set of rules that are steeped in history and which date from a time before this country was democratic. Whilst those rules permit democracy, they do not guarantee it. Democracy has generally been achieved in recent times (despite this) through the use of conventions and accepted practices. A trivial example sof this is that we (i.e. the people) do not choose the Prime Minister; Her Majesty does so. By convention, she chooses the leader of the largest party in the Commons and thereby democracy is (usually) achieved. But that achievement is not a function of the rules per se; it is the result of the way that those rules are applied and exercised.

Gordon was not elected to his current position. In fact, he has never faced a serious electoral challenge; he represents a safe Scottish Labour seat in which his election as an MP was never seriously in doubt. He did not stand for election to the leadership of the Labour Party; instead he operated behind the scenes to prevent others from standing against him. He does not therefore have any serious credentials as a democrat.

Worse, there is no personal mandate that he can claim. Blair won the last election; Gordon was not formally presented as his deputy and therefore inherits no actual "deputy's mandate" from Blair. Of course, it was generally known that Brown was the most likely successor to Blair, but in the face of questions as to how long he could hold Brown off, Blair promised to serve a full term. The implication of that was crystal clear; Blair would not stand down mid-term in favour of Brown. Blair was elected on that basis and therefore Brown cannot claim an effective "deputy's mandate" from Blair. (We could argue forever as to whether Blair would have been elected without that promise, but it is irrelevant. That was the deal New Labour chose to offer to the people.)

Then, when an opportunity arose to call a General Election to establish his mandate, he declined.

So, thinking back, Gordon has no electoral history he can call on. He has no democratic support from elected MPs. He has no form of inherited mandate. He has declined to seek his own mandate.

His only claim to his current position is that the rules say he is entitled. Indeed, he has done nothing (so far as I am aware) that is outside those rules. However, as noted above, those rules do not guarantee democracy; to do so requires the honest application of discretion by the holders of various senior positions. Gordon has avoided this and has thereby avoided democracy.

The nearest precedent that we have is, of course, John Major. He, however, arrived at the Prime Minstership after a resignation which he was not responsible for. He was elected by MPs in a contested leadership election. Within a reasonable time, he submitted to a General Election. Admittedly, the 1992 election was held only when it became absolutely necessary, but this was still within a reasonable period after his succession at the end of 1990.

More significantly - and this is why Gordon's failures are becoming harmful - the period between the end of 1990 and April 1992 was one in which domestic politics was, generally, "business as usual". Major could therefore claim, with a straight face, that the general policy outlook on which his party was elected in 1987 was being continued. Given this, and given the nature of his arrival at No: 10, he could credibly claim an inherited mandate to govern in the way that he did.

We are now facing a wholly different outlook to that of 2005, and the policies that are being applied are wholly different to those put forward by Blair et al. A clear example is that a party which was elected after it explicitly and publicly abandoned its committment to public ownership is now nationalising a number of banks. Regardless of whether you think this is the right thing to do in the circumstances or not, there is no legitemate authority to do so granted by the people.

Gordon: you have abused the rules and conventions of our system of government in order to place yourself in No: 10 and take steps for which you have no authority. The honourable course of action would have been to call a General Election and put yourself forward for the people to approve your appointment. You did not do so; you are a dishourable holder of your office. Get out.

Out. Now.

I want an election. Now.

The Magistrate's Blog has put up a post deploring the tendency of the Police to tip off newspapers about investigations into celebs. It seems that money changes hands. This information is confidential; Bystander rightly identifies this as corruption.

My comment on that post was as follows:

Corruption is now endemic in this country. Police officers sell confidential information about future raids. Local authorites demand a "planning gain" from anyone who dares ask for permission to build something. No end of Ministers set policy to suit friends and donors. Even a seat in the Lords had an identifiable price at one point.

The losers are those who can't pay and those who won't pay. In the former group are those of modest means - exactly the sort who a Labour government should be helping. In the latter group are those with any values.

Those who are left are the ones who form our new Establishment; the immoral rich.

This Government is not only incompetent, it is institutionally corrupt. It is time that it went.

Gordon: Get Out.

Time for a Novice

I want an Election. Now.

Our highly experienced Prime Minister has apparently been working night & day to resolve the financial crisis. This has yielded:

The effective nationalisation of our banks. This has clearly failed. They are still just as sick, it seems, and are not doing what the Savour of the World wants, nor are they telling him what he wants to know. Whether or not you think that the nationalisation was a bad thing, events since then do show that the much-vaunted deal with the banks is not achieving what was promised of it. It was, therefore, a failure.

Then there is the £57bn bailout, given as part of the nationalisation package. Clearly, that hasn't worked, as He is now talking about more. Figures of £200bn are being bandied about. Last time, I was angry. This time, I'm quite simply stunned into utter speechlessness.

We also had the VAT cut. No end of bloggers said it would be pointless - within a day of it being announced. I don't think anyone apart from Mandy seriously believes this has worked. In fact, I doubt even he does.

Since the PBR, we've had the loan guarantee scheme. This, of course, is essentially a Tory idea but with three small differences. First, it is later than the Tories would have wanted it to be. Second, it is smaller. Third, it is more complex and bureaucratic.

So this so experienced PM has given us two sorts of ideas - ones that don't work, and ones that are other peoples'. This is not a choice between a novice and an experienced candidate. This is the choice between the organ grinder and the monkey.

Interestingly, the Equitable Life affair shows that HMG has been asleep at the wheel of financial regulation since 2000... so much for the financial crisis being a shock from across the water that is being resisited by a well-prepared economy.

Gordon: Get Out.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Vision Off :-(

Tony Hart died today, at the age of 83. There is good look back at his style of presenting at the BBC report.

Hart was a central part of my TV memories from my youth in the 70s. Morph was, well, a hero.

Tony, if they have a blog feed to Heaven, ..... thanks.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Raedwald is, as usual, spot on

In case you haven't seen it, may I just recommend Raedwald's excellent post on the corrosive effect on local communities of the type of central control to which New Labour is so firmly wedded.

Why would I even consider becoming a local councillor? With no real decision-making power left in local authorities, what would be the point? I would just end up spending my free time accepting responsibility for a body that does as Whitehall tells it.

Indeed, a while back I considered becoming a Magistrate - and decided I was best to keep well clear.

Why would anyone who is successful in business get involved with their community? These people will be aware of the value of their time. They will want to see that it is being used effectively. They will steer well clear of local institutions.

So where do the local boys look to for their role models? Dad, if he is there. Puff Daddy et al, if not.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The problem isn't with the jobs...

The dear old Beeb is reporting frustration in the vast serried ranks of the unemployed on benefits who, it seems, really do want to work, but find that (in the words of one of them):
the jobs going are often so insecure and poorly paid they are not worth coming off benefits for.

Oh dear. Of course, given that salaries are set by a process of supply and demand, and benefits are not, we might conclude that the salaries are actually at the right level. In which case, a 25% cut in benefits is perhaps called for?

I'm sure "Carl" (the quote's unemployed author) would be very pleased with this. After all, the tax cuts that this could fund would make work even better paid. The reduction in spending power in and around the sink estates would also increase the competitive pressure on local retailers, allowing his higher take-home salary to go further, too.

The owners of the businesses in his locality would see their tax bills drop, as well. That might make them feel confident enough to expand and create jobs - you never know.

Dream on....

Peter Mandelson tells the truth for ten whole seconds!

It was some time ago that I described my game of Just a Today Minute. I had a good game this morning.

I switched over to Radio 4 in the middle of the interview with Peter Mandelson. I decided to let him off when he spent the first few seconds claiming that the VAT cut had made a difference, but it then was all of 10 seconds or so until he said that food prices were dropping.

At which point, my rules demanded that Pink Floyd should take over.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Why are people so daft?

Yesterday's discussion on Letters From A Tory was about a couple turned down for adoption because the bloke was a bit on the tubby side. OK, he was over 24 stone and morbidly obese with a BMI of 42. He's very likely to die young, and is surprised that the adoption panel don't want to entrust him with a long-term responsibility.

What caught my eye was a comment by one of the contributors that:

Here we have what seem to be two perfectly lovely human beings wanting to give an orphan a home! Whether they are fat or not shouldn’t even come into the discussion. [...] I would have thought a loving home is far more preferable to any child than living in an institution and feeling unwanted!

It struck me that this line of reasoning is becoming more and more prevalent. Instead of solving the actual problem, let's offload it elsewhere and create a whole lot more problems. Such as:
  • Don't make childrens' homes into decent places to grow up, just lower the standards for adoptive parents instead
  • A shortage of prison places can be solved easily, by letting criminals out before they have completed their sentences
  • A manifesto committment to a referendum on a Constitutional Treaty that is obviously going to be rejected by the public is easily solved by re-naming the Treaty and not asking the people what they think about it
  • Has your economy collapsed after suddenly realised that it has been growing purely through the stimulus created by an unsustainable credit boom? Easy - just borrow more money to create a stimulus package!
  • Swallowed a fly? No worries - just swallow a spider to eat the fly...
Any other examples?

Monday, 12 January 2009

Ends, Means, and Speed Cameras

At the secondary school that I attended, there was a very large rule book. So large, in fact, that after Her Majesty's Inspectors visited, they reported that discipline was too strict and that the boys should be allowed to relax more. According to legend, the Head put the report in the bin, and academic standards remained high until his retirement.

Anyway, one of those many rules was that although boys could use the classrooms during breaks, these were to be quiet areas in which boys were to remain seated. Effectively, we were not allowed to be standing in classrooms during breaks. This seemed most unfair to me while I was younger, but when I became a prefect I realised just how very useful this rule was. There would be many times when, as a prefect, you would walk into a classroom having heard the unmistakable sounds of commotion or bullying going on inside. Naturally, this would come to an abrupt halt when you walked in, but it was always obvious who was culpable. The problem would lie in determining exactly what they were culpable of, in a way that would stand up to subsequent discussion with the deputy head if the lines that you issued were called into question. What would not be denied, however, was that they were standing up. It is very difficut to punch someone if they are sitting a desk that is just out of arms length. Not impossible, I admit, but more effort than the average bully will make.

So, as a rule it was extremely useful and allowed us to do a lot of good. By the time I left that school, I had changed my mind completely and thought it was a good rule.

Since then, I have changed my mind again and have concluded that it was a very bad rule. Less scrupulous prefects could easily use as an instrument of oppression, because you could "do" almost anyone for it if you tried hard enough. It is, after all, somewhat of a challenge to enter or leave a room via a door, whilst remaining seated. It was a rule that had to be enforced with tact and discretion; done so, the results were very good. Without those key features, it engendered a feeling that authority was there to give the prefects something fun to do, something to allow them to express their inner Adolf - and that could be very corrosive and (in the end) counterproductive.

Which brings me to the subject of speed cameras. Speed limits are necessarily arbitrary; it is trite to point out that a speed which is safe on a dry clear day is wholly unsafe on a foggy icy night, but that the speed limit remains the same. Nevertheless, a good traffic officer can usually spot a bad driver, and those driving badly also often exceed a speed limit at some point. So an officer can ticket or arrest for speeding where he can see a bad driver, avoiding the need to prove dangerous driving.

Again, this is a rule which can do a lot of good when enforced with tact and discretion. The problem is that we forgot that aspect of speed limits when we introduced speed cameras. We forgot that speed cameras enforce the rule mechanically, catching all and sundry.

Now, I'm not condoning speeding, nor am I condoning a pick-and-mix approach to the law - abiding by the ones you like and ignoring the rest. Nor, however, am I going to be all holier than thou and suggest that I would not exceed any speed limit; no safe driver that I know abides by each and every limit at all times. The difference between them and a dangerous driver is which limits they exceed, when they exceed them, and by how much. The drivers that I see who will clearly never exceed a limit tend to be pootling along at 30 on NSL roads with no awareness of who or what is around them, no feeling for the dynamic qualities of their car, and no real degree of control over their car. To me, they seem very dangerous indeed (feel free to disagree with me, but that is my opinion).

Nor do I think that all speed cameras are bad. Where the necessary discretion can be exercised fully in the decision to place the camera at the location concerned, then there does not seem to be a problem. Put in other words, if the location is one where only idiots would exceed the limit, then the camera will only catch idiots. Some camera locations meet this requirement, and (in my opinon) are a positive contribution to safety. Most do not. Even for those that do, though, they are not a replacement for all enforcement as there will be icy, foggy nights when idiots will abide by the limit and need to be caught by other means.

The majority of cameras do, I think, make our roads less safe. Just as with the "no standing" rule, I have noticed a steady loss of respect for all motoring laws over the last decade. People no longer think that points on their licence mean they are a bad driver, merely that they were unlucky and were caught. A letter from a Safety Camera Partnership is seen as a tax demand, not a wake-up call to improve your driving. This loss of respect, which I think is the result of the mechanical enforcement of speed limits, leads to a standard of driving that is less careful and less safe. Our driving might be slower, but it is not safer.

I think that the reason behind this (admittedly counter-inutuitive) conclusion is that the purpose of the law is make roads safe, but the mechanism is to measure a driver's speed. There is a correlation between these, but not a perfect one. So when the law was enforced with discretion, other factors were brought in and improved that correlation. By enforcing speed limits in a mechanical manner, we manage to "institutionally forget" what the original purpose was and effectively enforce speed limits for their own sake - while claiming (falsely) that we are improving road safety.

Richard Hammond has an interesting take on the subject. Here he is, interviewed on Five Live, trying to move the issue away from speed limits per se and back onto simple road safety:

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Money Ideas Please!

I don't know what to do, and want suggestions.

I have a reasonable amount of cash set aside, but have run out of ideas as to what to do with it. Instinct says use it to reduce my mortgage, but mine is a +.5% tracker with no collar, so money putt there is effectively on deposit at 2%. With CPI inflation at 4% (and real inflation probably higher) that is not tempting.

Leaving it on deposit is not tempting either. 4% inflation plus higher rate tax is over 6.5% and I don't see that on offer anywhere.

Gold is an obvious choice but has been rising strongly, and I don't especially like buying at the peak.

Some form of stable asset would be a good bet, but which? There isn't enough to invest in property. Common sense says to buy something that you understand and know about - for me that suggests classic (or, rather, future classic) Porsches. I suggested that to Mrs P but recieved a very stern telling-off.

So, at the moment, the money is sitting in a bank losing value slowly, until the bank collapses of course.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Legislative incompetence

There is a post over at the Magistrate's Blog where Bystander has highlighted a classic NuLab law. It creates a new offence of "causing a nuisance or disturbance to NHS staff on NHS premises". It reminded me of a critique of the current style of legislation that I once presented to a colleague, a fellow patent attorney. He was surprisingly impressed by it, so here it is for all of you.

As I have mentioned, I am a patent attorney. Our job is to prepare and file patent applications; these have to include a description of how the invention works, and (crucially) what the invention is. This latter bit is harder than it sounds. At any time during the 20 year potential life of a patent, the owner can drag any third party to Court so that the Court can decide whether the third party product uses the same invention as that set out in the patent. To decide this, the Court needs a definition of what the invention is. This is therefore set out in one or more "claims", which are in the form of noun clauses tacked on the end of the description and which define, in words, what are the essential elements of the invention.

In other words, we are writing what is in effect secondary legislation. Subject the to approval of the Patent Office (or the Intellectual Property Office as it has now been re-branded at great cost and to little effect), the claim that we patent attorneys write becomes a statement of what third parties can and cannot do.

There is a catch, however, in the form of that Patent Office scrutiny. If we draft a claim that includes within its definition something which was known before the application was filed, or which is an obvious development of anything that was known, it will be refused. We will then have to rewrite it until the Patent Office is happy. So there is an ever-present tension in the wording of the claim. Too narrow, and it covers too little. Too wide, and it will be refused. Too vague, and the Court arguments will become lengthy, uncertain, and expensive. To clear, and we are left with no wriggle room with which to cope with 20 years of technological advances.

There is an exam to test our competence at this job. I recall distinctly the advice of a senior examiner - that there are two ways to fail the drafting exam; either to write a claim that does not cover the client's invention, or to write one that covers a known arrangement.

Having explained all that (thank you for your patience!), it is quite straightforward to point out the gross defect at the heart of NuLab's laws. Having identified a behaviour that they wish to ban, they write a law containing a definition of an offence that covers that behaviour. This is, of course, akin to me writing a claim that covers the client's invention.

They fail, however, to think around the issue and consider what other behaviours might also fall within that definition - what other things might they be making illegal without intending to? In short, they would fail the patent drafting exam for the second of that examiner's reasons. They would also make incompetent patent attorneys, forever writing applications that were thrown out by the Patent Office.

Take the law which Bystander mentions, for example. This outlaws "causing a nuisance or disturbance to NHS staff on NHS premises". Now, this is evidently unnecessary as existing laws relating to assault, vandalism, tresspass and so on should be enough if enforced competently. Maybe they thought that the penalties being handed out were insufficient, in which case they should maybe reconsider the straightjacket in which magistrates are forced to operate.

But these are side issues. Let us look at what other activity is banned by this law. Two years ago, my grandfather-in-law slipped in the bath and broke his hip. He was taken straight to A&E, and for a good while I stayed with him to keep him company. During much of this time, he was ignored and left alone, evidently forgotten by the staff who were busy with other patients. Now, I was sympathetic to the staff who were clearly both dedicated and overburdened. However, I was more sympathetic to the Grandpa. In the decades since the day that I met his grand-daughter, he had been consistently kind, understanding, generous and witty. That night, he was upset and in great pain. I decided that I had to try to push him up the queue a little, to compensate for his natural shyness and reticence, and make the staff notice him more over the insistent cries of other patients.

The odd "hello" to staff as they passed had yielded no result. I decided that a little more was needed.

I decided, in short, to start making a nuisance of myself. To ask each and every medical person that I could find what was being done about Grandpa, who was dealing with it, where they were, how far they had got with it, when would they be talking to us, why hadn't they yet, what the delay was ... and so on.

It worked. He was made more comfortable - nurses put him in a position where there was less weight on his broken hip. Doctor tracked down his x-rays, and made some decisions. Within a short while, he was out of A&E and booked onto a quiet ward where he could get some rest.

In the literal sense of the word, I was making a nuisance of myself, to NHS staff, on NHS premises. Should that really be an offence? Should that really make me liable to a summons to appear before the Magistrates?

Now, as with so very many NuLab laws, I have no doubt that the Minister would assure us that it would never ever ever cross-his-heart-hope-to-die be used to prosecute someone in my position. But that is not the point. The Patent Office cut me no slack if I assure them that I'll only let my client sue really nasty infringers. Nor should Parliament. Something is either illlegal or not. If something is illegal, and I do it, I put myself at risk of prosecution. Blue Eyes commented in my previous post that "the government does seem to be putting in place the legal framework whereby a later, less "benign" authority could come in and run riot". I think he is absolutely right. Assurances about what a law won't be used for are worthless tripe, and are (also) clear evidence that it has been drafted incompetently.

If this were an isolated example, it would probably not matter much. But is it not; SOCPA outlaws a sole protester reading out the names of the Gulf War dead. RIPA makes all parents applying for a popular school a valid target for surveillance. I could go on. This is a point which is wider than mere objection to NuLab policies; even where I agree with what they want to do (such as protect NHS staff from abuse), it has to be done competently.

New Labour are simply not competent to govern.

Monday, 5 January 2009

I know you're listening

Mrs P and I have just finished watching "The Lives of Others", a film about the not-very-likely-sounding subject of surveillance and state security in the former East Germany. It was, without question, the best film I have seen for a very long time, and I commend to you to all.

Set in 1984, a date that is horribly easy for us both to remember, it is the story of a hardline Stasi officer who is allocated to listen in on an artistic couple - a writer and an actress. Previously a dedicated socialist willing to use any and all interrogation techniques against those that he saw an enemies of the state, he slowly realises that his surveillance operation is motivated by factors other than the security of the state. This erosion of his faith in the state that he has served with such dedication allows him to see that the couple are humans, too, deserving of sympathy. I won't explain any further - go and watch it. Amazon's price is ridiculously low for what you get.

As I watched, the degree of intrusion into the private lives of citizens was frightening. Initially, I consoled myself with the thought that "it couldn't happen here". That worked, until I realised that the option they discussed of leaving the dissident alone in a cell for 40 days was indistinguishable from what we do to those in Belmarsh. Then, like the Stasi officer, I began to notice more. The 40 hour interrogation that eventually breaks down the enemy of the state, for example - not allowed by PACE, but permissible in terrorist cases where there is an urgent need. And who defines terrorism or urgency?

I started watching closely, trying to find a measure used by the Stasi in the film that would not be possible here. Granted, all of the measures were used by the on a greater scale and with much (much) less provocation, but those were issues of degree not principle. I wanted, I needed to see some point of principle on which the UK in 2009 differed from the East Germany of 1984, as depicted. At last, I found something; the senior Stasi officer referred to the registration of typewriters - a measure to allow forensic evidence of a typeface to be used to identify the author of a suspect work. We do not, and have not, ever registered typewriters or other means of literary expression in this way. I was happy.

For a day or so. Then I remembered various recent posts on Letters From A Tory on the subject of regulation of the Internet, such as this one, and this one. Few of us use typewriters these days - we use the Internet. So the equivalent of registering typewriters is to begin to regulate the Internet, control what is available, set restrictions on what can be read. Restrictions such as LFAT discussed, or the (albeit temporary) recent banning of a perfectly legal page on Wikipedia. Or the introduction of a database to track our use of the Internet and telephone, for the exact same reason as the registration of East German typewriters.

Thanks, New Labour. If anyone worried that they were not really socialist, they can relax now. They are indeed socialist, to an extent that is (to me) indistinguishable from Erich Honecker.

There is one cheerful note to this post. The morning after I finished watching, xkcd posted this cartoon. Spooky.....