The Wilson governments have not been regarded particularly highly by history, partly because of economic factors, and mostly because of the disastrous mid-70s government (which faced problems that no government could have dealt with). However, there’s an argument to be made that the Labour government in the mid-sixties was the third great radical progressive government of the twentieth century, after the Liberal government of the pre-WWI years and the Atlee government of the late 40s.
During a very brief period of time, and (at least at first) with a wafer-thin majority, the Wilson government gave its backing to some enormous changes to British society — usually because of Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary (and later founder of the SDP, one of the predecessor parties of the Lib Dems) putting his weight behind a Labour or Liberal MP’s private member’s bill. Abortion was legalised, male homosexuality decriminalised, theatre censorship abolished, birching ended, divorce laws relaxed, and (most importantly as far as this post is concerned), the death penalty abolished after Jenkins gave government backing to a bill brought in by backbencher Sydney Silverman.
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the last executions to take place in the United Kingdom, and I thought it deserved marking. The death penalty was popular among voters, and is still supported by a plurality, if not a majority, and this is one of those occasions which I think shows clearly that representative democracy is better than direct democracy.
So to mark the anniversary of the end of one of the most barbaric practices ever, here are a few related links.
The Howard League’s publications on capital punishment
Amnesty’s look back at fifty years without the death penalty
Reprieve — a charity that campaigns against the death penalty and repression in the US
Amnesty’s campaign to stop a man who has been on death row in Japan for 46 years and has recently been granted a retrial from being sent back to death row
And today I’m thankful that for a brief period of two years, a decade and a half before I was born, Britain had a Home Secretary who said “the permissive society is in reality the civilised society”, and who replaced the board in his office listing execution dates with a drinks cabinet…
Over the last few days, the leaders of all three main political parties have been competing to show who has the biggest dick by showing they can simultaneously bash poor people and foreigners, two groups of people who simply have too much power in this society. They’re all proving they’re real men because they can kick those at the bottom.
In particular, we’ve been hearing a lot about how Britain is simply too welcoming to immigrants, how we’re too generous to them, and how they are drains on what we must now apparently call the “welfare” system (because using the term “benefits” isn’t macho enough). “We can’t continue to have an open-door policy” say all the leaders [and before anyone starts talking about the Greens, remember that they have an immigration policy that specifically says their policy is not intended to increase the numbers of immigrants. They are no better on this than any of the major parties]. “We need to be tougher, but fair”.
Let me tell you about this “open-door policy” that we supposedly have. There are various ways that people can come over here, and the rules differ depending on where the person is coming from, why they’re coming over here, how much money they have, and so on.
I have no experience of most of these (except distantly, when I was working on a psychiatric ward with a few patients who had developed mental illnesses as a result of the asylum system, which was trying to throw them out of the country back to countries where they would be tortured), but I *do* have experience with what most people think of as one of the “good” or “acceptable” kinds of immigration.
My wife is American, and for various reasons when we got married it was better for us to live in the UK than the US. Most people I’ve spoken to about this — in fact *everyone* who hadn’t found themselves in the same position — thought this goes as follows:
We get married, she becomes a citizen.
The process is actually this [note that the process has changed, for the worse, since we did this. :
She had to go back to the US. We married over there, but if we hadn’t, she would have had to apply, while over there, for a fiancee visa. This would have cost £750 at the time — the cost now is £885. You pay that cost even if you’re turned down. That visa would have lasted six months, after which we would have had to do all the rest of the stuff below.
But as it is, we didn’t *have* the money to do that, and got married in the US. We had to pay for a marriage visa, which again cost £750, and which again now costs £885 (and would cost £1285 to do the way we did, with a same-day service at the consulate). We had to pay this in cash, because my wife is a dirty foreigner who can’t be trusted to pay by debit card or cheque, but weren’t told this until we were actually halfway through the process at the British consulate in Chicago, prompting tearful phone calls to my wife’s bank, who were thankfully able to temporarily increase her withdrawal limit.
I don’t know if you are married, and if so whether the first day of your married life was spent being bullied by bureaucrats until your spouse is in tears, while stuck in a city you don’t know and having to pay a month’s wages for the privilege of someone making the person you love cry, and with the possibility hanging over you that if at any time you make a wrong move you can end up being forbidden to live in the same country as your spouse, with no appeal. It’s not the best honeymoon ever.
We also had to provide multiple pieces of evidence that I had a job and could support her, that we really did have a life together, and so on. No-one in our position then could do this now, because while back then you just had to prove you were earning a reasonable amount (I was on £15,000 a year at the time), now you have to prove you’re earning more than the average wage.
But then she was a British citizen and had the right to live over here, right?
The marriage visa, back then, gave you permission to live in the UK for two years. That permission could be revoked at any time, and while you’re in the UK you have no recourse to public funds — no benefits, whatsoever. This was particularly wonderful when I lost my job three months after we married when the company went bankrupt, and definitely didn’t cause us to both develop major anxiety disorders which are still with us eight years later.
But THEN she was a British citizen and had the right to live over here, right?
No. When Holly came over, at the end of that two years, you had to apply for indefinite leave to remain, which involved further proofs (many of which we simply didn’t have, which required a lot of frantic pleading and begging on our part — anyone less articulate and willing to manipulate the system would have failed at this hurdle) and, yes, pay more money. That was another thousand pounds at the time, but now the amount you pay after two years is less, “only” £601. The reason for this is that now, after two years, you can’t get indefinite leave to remain, only “further leave to remain”, which gives you another three years, still without recourse to public funds.
If, after that time, your marriage hasn’t fallen apart under the strain of dealing with all this, the immigrant spouse, then and now, had to pay (£1093 is the current amount) to be granted indefinite leave to remain. They also have to take a test, which costs £50, on “life in the UK” — a test which covers all sorts of useful information like what year women were first allowed to own property, which I’m sure will come in very useful if my wife is ever transported back in time to the 19th century.
But THEN she was a citizen, right?
No. Despite people calling it the “citizen test”, it doesn’t grant you citizenship. You get indefinite leave to remain, and can finally claim any benefits to which you are entitled, but you have to (or at least this is how it was when we did it) wait another year after being granted ILR before you can become a citizen and get voting rights. This costs ANOTHER thousand pounds, and also involves an oath of loyalty to the Queen (something that no-one born over here has to do for citizenship).
Holly still hasn’t actually done that bit, even though we’ve been married eight years, because we’ve never had a spare thousand pounds just lying around. So she’s still not eligible to vote in the country where she’s lived for the last eight years.
(We’ve half-jokingly talked about running a campaign to get her on the Lib Dems’ elected list of suggested peers, because getting her into the House of Lords seems like the *least* complicated way to get her UK citizenship. Seriously.)
Of course, even if she did get citizenship, she still wouldn’t be “really” a citizen, because unlike anyone born here her citizenship could be stripped at whim by the Home Secretary, with no appeal.
Meanwhile, every time my wife, who has something not far from PTSD as a result of all our dealings with the immigration authorities, despite her having about as easy a time as it’s possible to have in our situation, goes to the pub, or turns on the TV or radio, or looks at the newspaper, there are people — including the FUCKING LEADER OF THE POLITICAL PARTY SHE AND I ARE BOTH MEMBERS OF, WHO KNOWS BETTER BECAUSE HE’S MARRIED TO AN IMMIGRANT! — denouncing immigrants, for the way they just come over here and take all our benefits, for the way “we” make it too easy on “them”.
Before you tell me that immigrants have it easy, try spending your life on a constant alert for what’s in the news, so you can warn your wife when she shouldn’t turn on Radio 4 in case she’s reduced to a sobbing fit by all the powerful people talking about how evil she is. Try holding someone in tears because the entire culture is telling her, constantly, that she is not welcome, and never will be welcome, in her home, no matter what she does.
Try facing the possibility that if you can’t pass a multiple choice quiz with questions like “Which TWO kings believed in the ‘Divine Right of Kings': the idea that the king was directly appointed by God to rule”, “The independent police complaints body is called the Independent Police Complaints Commission in which TWO countries?”, “Which two highest-grossing film franchises have been produced in the UK (Choose any 2 answers)” and “The Paralympic games have their origin in the work of which German refugee, at the Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire who developed new methods of treatment for people with spinal injuries?” you’ll be deported.
Try losing your job, being unable to claim benefits, and then *still* having to scrape together a thousand pounds out of nowhere while looking for another job, because if you don’t you’ll be deported.
And then try being told that the biggest problem this country has is that it lets all those immigrants in and gives them free money.
Before the 2010 election, and for a couple of years afterward, I used to post here a lot on political topics. Since about 2012, though, I’ve barely talked about politics except in the most abstract manner (things like my Liberal Future series, which I do intend to continue).
The reason for this is simple. My political views are all about anger, and wanting to change the things that make me angry. I’m angry about poverty, about the treatment of minority groups and women, about the erosion of civil liberties, about the lack of democracy in this country, about the way London is an evil vampiric force sucking all the attention and power from the rest of the country, about generational inequalities, about rentier capitalism… basically, I’m angry about a lot of stuff.
This means that I am, occasionally, quite articulate when it comes to talking about bad things happening in politics. I’m a fairly decent attack dog, if occasionally so strident that I push people away, but I’ve found that I’ve managed to change quite a few people’s minds on a few important points.
What I’m no good at is talking about good stuff. My reaction to same-sex marriage finally being allowed is, simply, “good”. That’s it. That’s all I have to say about the subject. It’s a very obviously good thing, and I’m glad we finally did it.
This means I am no good at celebrating achievements, I’m only good at pushing for more.
Under normal circumstances this would be fine, but the Liberal Democrats, the party I think is, despite many obvious flaws, still the best vehicle in British politics for advancing towards the kind of society I want to live in, are the minor partner in a coalition government right now.
That government has done a few very good things (all brought in by the Liberal Democrats) and quite a few very bad things (mostly ideas from the Conservatives, some things that any government would do right now because they’re at the centre of the Overton window despite being ludicrous, and one or two bad ideas from the Liberal Democrats because nobody’s right all the time). To my mind, the current government is not much better — but certainly no worse — than any of the other governments of my lifetime, and so it makes me angry at about the same rate as the others have. However, this government is *extremely* unpopular, at least among people I know (who tend to be leftish).
This leaves me with three alternatives:
I could take a panglossian tone, accentuate the positive, and post constant reminders about how tractor production has increased 4%. This would be insulting to my readers and a waste of my time.
I could attack the current government. This would be counterproductive. Everyone reading this blog knows every bad thing the government is accused of doing (many of which are even real). You don’t need me to tell you about them, and me ranting and raving about the bad things the current government has done might well turn even more people away from the Liberal Democrats. Certainly Labour supporters could use anything I posted — “See? Even a Lib Dem thinks that X, Y, and Z were stupid” — while leaving out the fact that X was a Tory policy and Y and Z are both things Labour committed to as well. It would also give the impression that the constant attacks on the Liberal Democrats are justified, when for the most part they simply are not.
Or I could just talk about something else.
Now for the first couple of years of this government, I still had things to say, because lies were being told on a regular basis by the Labour party. I don’t mean differences of opinion, but many outright lies were being reported as fact in the Guardian, and so I could usefully turn my anger against them. But as the election has got closer and Labour have realised they might have to work with us next year, that’s mostly died off. Sadly, the effects are still lasting, and I still regularly get abuse, threats of violence, and even death threats, as do most people who dare to publicly admit to being Lib Dems and who aren’t completely sheltered from the general public.
But what I want to say is this: Don’t think that my lack of posts means that I care less about those issues. Rather, while we are in government, there are better methods to change things than shouting about it on my blog. When I get angry about something this government does, as I’m in a democratic party, there are avenues I can explore to try and fix it (sometimes it even works).
Those who follow me on Twitter will also know that I regularly froth at the mouth there. The difference is that my Twitter account is locked — it’s where I vent semi-privately, and only a relatively small number of people can see what I say there, and I trust those people, even when they’re not supporters of the same party, to be sensible enough to understand the difference between an angry tweet and an attack on the party itself.
But put simply, when other parties get it wrong, I scream publicly because I have no other recourse. When the Lib Dems get it wrong, I work within the party to make sure they get it right in future. And I don’t tend to write about when anyone gets it right.
One reason I’ll be finishing the Liberal Future series, though, is to say “these are the principles I do stand for, and this is why I think that the Liberal Democrats are still the best party to advance those principles”.
But as I said in 2010, I do not support the current government, but I *do* support the Liberal Democrats within the current government. That still stands…
I posted a link to Tim Farron’s rather good speech on Tumblr yesterday. Someone who’d been following me there for a few weeks posted Standard Aggressive Rant Number Five in response (take the couple of lines saying Thatcher wasn’t utterly evil out of the context of a speech that says she was wrong about everything important, in damaging, harmful ways that will take decades to fix, and use that to “prove” that Lib Dems are “really” evil, heartless bastards who deserve to be shot). I posted this in response, and thought it worth posting here too:
This is something I’ve talked about here before, but only in comments, and it’s a subject that keeps coming up, so I thought I’d better make it a main post.
My single biggest political issue, the one I care about more than any other, is making Britain’s democracy something closer to functional. If we could get the constitutional changes I want — freedom of speech, proper federal assemblies for the English regions, increased devolution to Scotland and Wales, a fully-elected second chamber, no monarchy (or no role whatsoever for the monarchy in the lawmaking process, at the very least), no involvement of the Church in government, and every level of government elected by STV (or AV in the case of single-member roles like the Mayor of London), I would gladly let my political opponents have everything their own way, on every issue, for a full Parliament, because a properly working democracy can fix any problem, no matter how severe, while with a broken one like we have now it’s impossible to fix any of the major problems facing our economy, our environment, and our society.
So why, if democracy is so important to me (and the fact that the two major parties have spent this entire Parliament blocking those reforms while the Lib Dems have spent the entire Parliament fighting for them is, more than anything else, why I stay in the party despite any problems I have with the current government — it’s proof that they really are still better than the rest) why do I find the whole concept of referendums somewhat repellent?
There are many reasons, but it boils down to the same reason why I think that representative democracy is a real solution to many of our problems. It’s that I think people giving their informed opinions can only end up making the world a better place.
Most of us don’t have a real understanding of most of the business of government. I certainly don’t. There are issues — constitutional issues, civil liberties, technological issues, LGBT+ rights, copyright law — where I have very strong opinions based on serious long-term study of the facts and ideas in question. There are other issues — health, education, economic equality, the environment — where I have some idea of what kind of outcome I’d like to see, but no idea which of several competing policies might bring about those outcomes. And there are yet others — most economic issues, most foreign policy — where I simply don’t have a clue.
I suspect this is the case for 95% of people, or more. The areas that we know about may be vastly different, but everyone cares about some political issue enough to have an informed opinion about it, and everyone has blind spots where they’re clueless.
Now, in a referendum, the chances of any individual actually having a clue about that particular issue are small — and as we’ve seen with both the AV referendum and the Scottish independence referendum, the campaigns generate so much more heat than light that it’s effectively impossible for an ordinary voter to educate herself on the subject once a campaign has started. This means that in a referendum, noise swamps signal, and the chance of getting the “right” answer (where “right” is the one that will actually make most people happiest, or that most people would choose had they all the facts, or however you want to define it) is no better than chance.
This might suggest that democracy itself is fundamentally flawed, were it not for the fact that we have representatives.
For all that professional politicians are a despised class, they are people who are paid to spend all their working lives becoming experts on every aspect of governance at their level (that not all of them do so is partly due to the stupid system we have). Where they don’t have the expertise themselves, they defer to colleagues — in the same party so at least theoretically sharing the same values — who do. So in a representative democracy, such as I’d like to see (and, to the extent that we have one, in our present system), legislation is made by people who know what they’re talking about on every issue — something most of us (who have jobs that involve things other than knowing about every detail of politics) don’t have the time or inclination for.
So surely, then, this means that we should just have rule by our betters, and not bother with elections at all, if people don’t know as much as the politicians?
No — and this is the important bit about representative democracy, but it’s the bit that gets ignored, or glossed over, or not explained properly when we talk about this — because representative democracy is a great way of cancelling out ignorance and getting only the right answers out. It’s not a perfect way, but it’s very good.
Say you, I, and a neighbour all lived in the constituency of Hornsey & Wood Green (which I’ve picked for the example because it has one of the better current MPs), and we all have very different areas of knowledge. My big issue is democratic reform, yours is equality for LGBT+ people, and our neighbour’s is ending female genital mutilation.
I look at the candidates, see that Lynne Featherstone is good on democratic reform, and vote for her. You look at the candidates, see that Lynne Featherstone was one of the main people responsible for bringing in same-sex marriage, and vote for her. Our neighbour looks at the candidates, sees that Lynne Featherstone is campaigning to end FGM in developing countries, and votes for her. If a candidate is good on all our individual issues (and on schools, on health, on taxation, and on whatever other issues people in the area care about) then all the people who know about those areas can vote for her.
The result is that I know that the candidate I vote for is good on the areas I care about, and assume she will be good on the other issues, because she’s paid to investigate them all (and she obviously comes to the same conclusions I do where we’ve got the same information). But if I’m wrong in that assumption — if she’s very good on civil liberties but lousy on education, say — then all the people who care about education will vote for someone else.
This means that in a properly functioning representative democracy, what you end up with is a result that is better than any individual voter would have come up with, because it presumes everyone is competent in the areas that they care about, and that their competencies reinforce each other and cancel out their incompetencies. Someone who is good on most issues will be more likely to get elected than someone who is only good on one or two. Referendums, on the other hand, presume that everyone is equally competent at everything, which is dangerous nonsense.
Direct democracy is a tool for demagogues. Representative democracy is a tool for the people. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.