A tale of lazy cats and self-protecting institutions.
When I was a child, we had a cat. We also had mice but they were not regarded in the same way. Tinker – the cat – was a family pet. The mice were a nuisance. They would get into the larder and chew through the corners of boxes of porridge oats. When you picked up the packet, the contents they had chosen to leave behind would spill out over everywhere. They would leave droppings on the kitchen surfaces. And they had a habit of dying under beds and sofas pervading the house with a nasty smell the source of which you could not locate.
Dying, that is, of natural causes, because Tinker took not the slightest notice of them, despite our urgings that he should do so. He preferred to sleep. He had a whole range of sleep modes. In the summer sun he would bask, as if it was his sovereign duty to be adored and courted by each and every photon. On winter days, he would lie at seemingly impossible length along a window ledge, just above a blistering hot radiator. Or he would take the most comfortable armchair and curl his back into its cushion.
Meanwhile the mice had the run of the house.
Sarcasm was wasted on Tinker. We tried it. What else can you do when you have offered your home to a creature supposedly renowned as a predator with a predilection for rodents but discovered instead that he is indifferent to everything except his own comfort and your care. I recall even talking him through Tom and Jerry cartoons – perhaps not the wisest choice given that Tom always came off worse in their encounters – in the hope that it would arouse in him the latent spirit of the mousecatcher. He just licked his paws and fell asleep.
Nothing, it seemed, would awaken Tinker to the expectations we held of him that he had a job to do and needed to get on with it.
Then one evening, we came back late from a play at the local theatre. My mother went into the kitchen to put the kettle on for some tea and screamed. My mother was not given to outbursts so we ran to her side. The kitchen looked like the end of a Hammer Horror movie. The floor was streaked with blood and entrails. Feathers were dancing in the air. A wing was lying by the stove, as if dropped carelessly by some small passing angel. And Tinker was in the middle of all this, chomping lazily on the partially eviscerated body of a thankfully utterly deceased wood pigeon.
Having got the taste for it, Tinker repeated his bird-orientated bloodfest several more times until, in the end, we had to lock the cat flap, which rather frustrated the purpose in having one.
The mice continued to prosper.
Why have I told you this?
In the scale of human indecency, there can be few things as bad as sexual abuse. I am not even going to bother to justify that assertion. I have, I regret to say, been in company where it might be challenged – “she was gaggin’ for it, mate” – but, frankly, even the stupid, inadequate arseholes who peddle that line know that it is wrong. The words themselves betray the very real understanding that without consent – invitation and willing participation – sexual conduct visited on another person is a violation of the most damaging and despicable kind.
Sexual abuse is so heinous that even to try to make gradations out of it seems shameful. But the sexual abuse of a child or a vulnerable adult has to be the primus inter pares of utter wrongs.
It is nothing new, of course. And we fool no-one with arguments that it was different in the past, somehow acceptable. Yes, for long parts of our history, there has been a cultural assumption that men have urges and women should be flattered. But there is, and was, no moral support for it. It is just, and was just, an expediency dreamed up by those who were in the position to impose and borne by those who were in no position to refuse. We can look back at it from here and say, unequivocally, it was wrong, just as we can say that slavery was wrong, just as we can say the Holocaust was wrong, just as, just as. We are the same people as our ancestors were. We have simply learned better. Some of us.
In any event, the sexual abuse of children was never legitimised in our history. At best, we have only ever been complicit in allowing it to go on.
I am getting close to my point now.
When, finally, the awful truth about Jimmy Savile started to emerge, the media did what they are best at. They whipped up a whirlwind of blame allocation. It wasn’t going to be difficult, or so it seemed. The story that emerged – of caravans and special keys, of free access to secure and supposedly protected institutions, of opportunities thrown his way – made astonishing reading. Even the old Northern adage “there’s none so blind as them as won’t see”, with which Savile was doubtless familiar, seems a flimsy excuse for what was allowed to happen for decades.
The media were probably right. Blame was what we craved. We are a nation addicted to it. But it was not necessarily what we needed. What we needed was to understand and to learn. Because, as sure as sure can be, what was happening 30 or 40 years ago is happening somewhere still. Sad as it is to say, and with every possible sympathy for past victims, we cannot save them. But we can save our own children and children still to come from the same fate.
Blame allocation inevitably inspires blame avoidance. And so Operation Yewtree was born, the offspring of the desire of the police and the CPS and politicians to appease us with dead trophies. “Look,” they seem to be saying, “We are good celebrity hunters, really. We didn’t realise this was what you wanted. Aren’t you pleased with us?”
Meanwhile the mice still have the run of the house.
We have such a poor understanding of justice. It goes with our craving for blame. We think that by inflicting punishment on the perpetrator of a crime we will in some way ameliorate the suffering of his victim. Maybe sometimes it does. Mandela thought otherwise. When he took power in South Africa, he saw a need for healing rather than retribution. Ghandi, too, thought otherwise: “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”. There are other ways to bring closure. And there are, it seems to me, better uses to put the resources of the police and the CPS to than dragging a few sick old men who behaved badly in accordance with the pernicious culture of their time through expensive show trials of arguably dubious legal propriety then locking them up to salve the consciences of our feckless institutions over their predecessors’ appalling failures.
No excuses for the past. But it is the present and the future we need to look to. All our efforts should be engaged in stopping this happening now and to ensuring it does not happen again.
It is a powerful film, there’s no doubting that; beautifully shot and containing scenes that are so well composed as to release waves of shock and indignation and some fine performances that pull comfortingly at your liberal heartstrings.
So I puzzled for a while over why I felt dissatisfied with 12 Years a Slave. More than dissatisfied, I felt decidedly uneasy. The film had had rave reviews - a must see, film of the year, and so on. Glittering audiences at awards ceremonies had been ecstatic in their outpouring of approval for its director. Who was I to have doubts?
But doubts I had. It was proclaimed as a true story. Indeed its claim to be a true story was a significant component in its power. And yet, to me, it did not ring true. It rang like Hollywood. It rang cracked and hollow.
Heaven knows, I am ready enough to suspend disbelief. I have watched - and enjoyed - Braveheart. But each scene in 12 Years seemed to be saying “This is the scene where we portray…” and when all those scenes were joined together I was left with a sense of an incomplete patchwork rather than a woven cloth. And the performances, fine as they were, had this same quality of incompleteness, of the discontinuity that renders character into caricature.
So I bought the book. And within two chapters, I had my answer.
If you haven’t read Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave I recommend that you should. It is a surprisingly easy read for a book written 150 years ago. That is, the language is easy, the style undecorated and direct and the pace carries you along.
The story is not easy. It is heart-rending and anything but comfortable as it charts the human capacity for rationalising inhumanity towards our own kind. A major factor in the power of the book is Northup’s quiet devotion to truth. He rarely allows himself the indulgence of railing, though Heaven knows, he had cause. Instead he insists on telling his story with an evenness of tone that allows your own emotions full reign.
Northup understood that a story like this needs no embellishment. Told simply and truly it cannot fail to engage the reader, and powerfully so. The true horror of the tale lies in our being unable to separate ourselves from the people it describes. We can only cry “How, in the name of God, …?”
Sadly, the makers of the film adaptation apparently didn’t trust Northup’s story to pull this off.
What am I actually saying? That the film’s a lie? No, most - most - of the events featured in the film also feature in the book. Okay, not the bit of uncomfortable sex in the cabin at the start, not the bit about the stabbing on the boat, not the bit about the slave rescued by his master on the quayside, not the bit about the naked slaves in the living room, not the bit about Solomon being left hanging from a tree by his neck, not the bit about the lynching in the forest…. And I suppose it was concern for the running time that led to a conflation of some of the story threads and the omission of some others.
But in all of this, to me at least, something very important was lost. Northup’s book is not long – 197 pages in the edition I read. Lord of the Rings, it ain’t. And yet he manages to create a narrative that is credible and characters that are readily identifiable as real. You could find them in your town, on your street, in your place of work, even now. And he treats them in just this way. His power over them as he condemns them to literary immortality is not distilled into rage, he does not demonise. He reflects, he allows, he pities. He insists on their humanity, however disgracefully they behave, and their weakness, however well. That is how he weaves his audience in until you cannot avoid looking this thing of shame, this slavery and all its casual cruelty and twisted reasoning and prevarication in the face. You can smell its stench and taste its sourness as it leans in to kiss you on the cheek and you know it was done by people: people like you.
It’s easy to make schlock horror that scares us and, save for a nightmare or two, leaves us untouched or perhaps wanting more of the thrill. It is easy to harangue us self-righteously and not care that we may switch off. It takes a lot more subtlety to make us identify with the awfulness but not turn away, to face us with, and leave us asking, the question “How could we…?”
And I am afraid that is where, for me, the film of 12 Years a Slave fails. It fails me and it fails Solomon Northup. It does his story a disservice by taking out the nuances and turning up the contrast. It lacks respect – it almost patronises Northup. And in the process it allows the compelling force of his rebuke, and plea, to humanity to slip through its grasp.
12 Years a Slave is a fine Hollywood movie. 12 Years a Slave is a considerably better book. And that’s a pity.
The girl who strides down Redbridge Lane to school,
Her hair ablaze and bowstring taut her thighs,
Unknown sets off a fire within a fool,
A bush from which he can’t avert his eyes.
A boy so tightly bound by mother’s chains
And chidings to suppress all male desire,
He cannot move for fear she will despise
And rendered dumb a heavy silence reigns
When side by side they walk through Wanstead’s mire.
So love the chance of loving her denies.
So many years now pass as gentle friends;
No touch, no kiss, no taking of a hand.
A perfect distance kept lest he offends.
Just aching sighs he hopes she’ll understand.
In time the distance grows as she moves on
And to the hobbled boy is lost to view.
When once again they meet stirred embers glow.
More beautiful she is and he has grown.
At last he tells her of his love. You? You?
What can you know of me to love me so?
This much I know, you woke me from my death.
To reach for you I broke my coffin’s seal.
You gave my newborn heart its natal breath.
I heard its cry and felt life’s raw appeal.
I woke into a different world from mine,
A world of books and film and art and thought.
For you I read and reading set me free.
To earn your smile I learned a new design.
You ask how can I know you? I was wrought,
I am your creature, you gave life to me.
And this I know and knowing makes it true,
I’m capable of love, and loved, and still love, you.
Over the past four years, I have had many occasions on which to remind myself of the fury I felt when Nick Clegg announced the deal the Liberal Democrats had done with the Conservatives to stitch up the government of the UK.
A sick rage had welled up inside me when he blithely claimed that what he was doing was both democratic and in the best interests of the people. Democratic was the last quality that could be claimed for an unholy alliance between two parties neither of which had reached a majority of votes cast or seats won and whose manifestos, on which the people had voted, were at odds on very major issues. And I could not see how it was in the interests of the people to bring who should govern our nation down to the level of horse-trading for the right to rule.
And then I watched as a reality more vicious and more egregious than even I had imagined took over. Time after time, the LibDems enabled policies to be implemented that, had they rejected the Devil’s spoon of ostensible power-sharing, they would have had no hesitation in opposing. The litany of political crimes against the people says it all: from bogus austerity measures aimed against the poorest and weakest while the underserving rich increased their wealth, through the wilful vandalising of the NHS, legal aid changes designed to impede justice, tuition fees, the underselling of public assets to private interests, callous welfare cuts… And all accompanied by lies, lies, lies.
Time and time again, Nick Clegg used his affable school-boy charm and his practised “concerned” look to assure us that it was all the fault of the previous government, that it was all for the best and that he and his colleagues were acting as a brake on their Tory partners, when, unless he was an utter dupe, he knew full well that the first was a lie and so was the second, and the third. Only in the past few months has any show been made of LibDem line drawing and it does not take much cynicism to see where that has come from, with the next General Election only a year away.
Why then, if I have all this dislike of Nick Clegg, do I find myself almost overwhelmed with sympathy for the man as he faces sustained pressure now to fall on his sword after a set of election results which have left his party not just decimated but massacred?
Because it is unfair, indecent.
In all these things which were so heinously wrong I felt it was essential to hold in mind that the fault did not lie with one man but with a coterie of them who were all more or less committed to setting aside the principles their party had stood for in order to get a whiff of power. He was just the mouthpiece of political depravity.
It is ironic that the one time Nick Clegg stood up on his own, to take on and oppose the deceit and downright dishonesty being peddled by UKIP, the one time he actually displayed courage, honour and decency, a Daniel in the hyenas’ den, all we could do was to mark him like an X Factor act and deride his performance.
And to be fair it was a poor performance by comparison with the accomplished karaoke artist he was up against. But that should never have been the basis for measurement. But again, that is how we have been schooled to treat politics by those whose interests lie in making it a beauty contest rather than a question of public interest – our interest.
It would be nice if it had been a fairy tale and we were pointing to the little boy who cried wolf as his legs were ripped off and saying “See, that’s what you get for telling porkies.” But that was not what happened in those televised debates. If Nick Clegg had stood up and spun us another web of half-truths and lies, we would probably have applauded. If he had snarled and sniped and rounded on every one of his opponent’s misrepresentations, we might well have whooped with delight and bayed for more blood. But instead, he made the mistake of remembering that these were issues he actually believed in and tried to tell us why we should too. Wrong material. Wrong audience.
But at least he did stand up. And maybe if the other so-called leaders had had the guts and the principles to stand up for the truth alongside him instead of sniping from the sidelines, point-scoring and scandal-mongering, and maybe if the media had not been preparing us like an anti-John the Baptist for the coming of the anti-Christ with pernicious, fear-mongering and falsehoods about immigrants, technocrats and sovereignty, the bogart that UKIP is could have been trapped and sent packing before it could do any real harm. They didn’t and it will.
We are all to blame for what has just happened. Those who didn’t vote, those who allowed their credulity and insecurity to be tapped into to lever the disgraceful into positions of representation and power, those of us who voted the right way but thought that was all the effort required. But most of all…
Most of all, the blame must rest with a political elite who see this as a game of thrones and us as mere voting fodder. Even now, all we hear from them is how they must learn from this how to win power back for themselves. Not once have I heard a politician saying, as they all should, -
“In our greed and our want of principle, we have let our people down. We have nurtured untruth and distortion to further our personal interests and betrayed our duty of public service. Never again. We will learn to serve and to honour truth above all else.”
Instead, we await the inevitable sacrifice, the ritual slaughter of the poor little lamb. As if all we need now is another futile gesture.
The Guardian thought police - sorry moderators - made an early strike today to exclude my response to Barbara Ellen’s article in today’s Observer in which she proposes that it is different - okay - when women use violence against men because “Men are bigger than women. And they’re not routinely the least bit scared of us”. I have put that in quotes because without them you might think I was making it up.
My post went up alongside a fair amount of strong criticism. By comparison it was calm and reasoned. But, in keeping with other occasions on which I have dared to argue with the Nora Batty of CiF, it could not be allowed.
Here it is, word for word. Judge for yourselves.
For me, CiF has once again demonstrated its contempt for the Guardian’s founder and for his principles that head up the site.
Shame on you Guardian.
"Last week, you allowed an article to go out in your name with the by-line “I’m no sexist but…” and then proceeded to make a case for women not serving on the front-line that was a master-class in sexual stereotyping: sexism.
Today’s article offers more of the same:
“The differences in physical size and/or strength between the sexes mean that most men are simply not physically scared of most women.”
I thought we had trashed bogus arguments like that back in the 80s when I was proud to be working, much against the will of the then government, on EU-supported anti-sex discrimination legislation that finally disposed of the notion that you could refuse a woman, or a man, a job using an assumption about their ability to do the job that was itself based on a stereotype or a generalisation about men’s and women’s size, strength, stamina or other physical or mental attributes.
A simple proposition: judge the person not the stereotype. That is at the heart of the fight against all discrimination, be it sexism, racism, homophobia, genderism, whatever.
It is why Eric Pickles is wrong to try to excuse UKIP as “xenophobic but not racist”. They are a racist party because they have made it clear that, given the chance, they would translate their xenophobia into action. They see people not as people but as a collection of more, or more often less, acceptable racial and cultural traits and want to treat them differently on that basis. Racism.
There is a basic proposition which you almost manage to acknowledge: violence, person against person, is wrong –
“Not that women should feel entitled to attack men”
Well, thanks for that. But the rest of this piece seems to be an attempt, and I have to say a transparent and pathetic attempt, to argue “but it’s okay, it doesn’t matter if they do.” That is sexism. Pernicious sexism.
Through the privilege of bringing up my daughter, I have been able to witness a lot of relationships between teenage girls and boys. A small sample but at least it is some evidence for you to think about. In that group, by far the greater amount of violence and mental abuse has come from the girls and been directed at the boys. The violence from the boys has been almost exclusively against other boys. When it has occasionally been turned on a girl, it has brought unanimous condemnation from boys and girls alike and frequently ended with the boy being threatened by a gang of other boys. The message is “you don’t do that”.
The easy violence of the girls ranges from sustained scorn and public haranguing to slapping, punching and kicking. It is expected and accepted. And the boys are supposed simply to “man up and take it”. That seems to me to be the worst kind of training imaginable, on both sides. On the one, violence is okay because you are a girl. On the other, suppress your instinct to retaliate because you are a boy. Sexism. And where do we suppose it will lead in later life? Where does an embedded culture of inequality and suppression of feelings generally lead us?
You know, when I look around the world, the conclusion I find most plausible as to why women are oppressed and why some men find the need to form gangs and religions and cliques to abuse and exclude them, why most crimes against women are done in dark spaces and behind closed doors, is because the men are afraid of women, seriously afraid of their power and potential. It’s not the behaviour of confident alphas for whom females hold no threat but the behaviour of those who, for all their grooming to run the world, are still, at heart, frightened children. Frightened children, like all frightened animals, are likely to lash out.
I would really like you to think some more about this, Barbara Ellen.”
I didn’t have a very good time after I reached eleven. It was okay in primary school. Once they had twigged, around the time I was eight, that the reason I wasn’t doing well was that I couldn’t make out anything on the blackboard, once I had stopped being picked on for wearing glasses, once I managed to suppress my fear that I would be slippered in front of the class for some actual or perceived misdemeanour, I came as close as I ever have to being a confident high achiever.
I didn’t have many friends – under my mother’s benevolent dictatorship we rather “kept ourselves to ourselves” - but I had some respect.
Then I moved up to the grammar school. It was 1963. The Beatles and the Stones had taken over pop culture and there I was already six feet tall and spindly, bespectacled, wearing unfashionably wide trousers with turnups, sporting my father’s preferred “short back and sides” haircut and decked out in a pristine new uniform. I could not have been better set up for hostile attention if my parents had hung a sign around my neck saying “Feel free”.
I couldn’t even find consolation in success any more. Everyone around me had got there the same way I had, by passing their 11 plus. They were at least as bright as I was. Then again, it was a school that prided itself on sports whereas my little local primary had had only a small gravel playground. I tried playing rugby but I couldn’t see without my glasses and couldn’t tackle or scrum down with them. The sports master was a sadistic little man (with, I kid you not, a Hitler moustache) who singled me out for contempt because I was a foot taller than him and so uncomfortable in my body that I was hopelessly unco-ordinated.
I did the only thing I could. I became a shadow.
They soon found other people to pick on, the bullies. I watched them, stupidly envious of their power. And one day I tried it out. Colin was another classic victim kid. Who makes these decisions is a mystery but somehow the roles coalesce and Colin’s designated role was butt. And that was where I kicked him. No reason really. I just did it, almost before I knew it, for no better purpose than to feel dominance.
I didn’t. I felt shame. I felt diminished, like when Voldemort’s curse rebounds. Colin looked round at me. In his eyes was no hurt, no surprise, just a hint of pity and the question: you too? In that moment, I learned to hate bullying from the inside and if you were to ask me now, 50 years on, what I hate most that is what I would answer.
Which I think lies at the heart of the pity I feel for the BBC. It can’t win. Its designated role is to be the object of vilification, to be bullied even by those who have no animus against it. It manages, at one and the same time, to reap criticism for being too left wing, too right wing, too pro-European, too anti-European, institutionally racist, sexist and homophobic, a part of The Patriarchy, yet too politically correct, too full of gay and lesbian anti-establishment minorities. It is criticised for dumbing down and for being elitist, for being condescendingly “down with the youth” and for ignoring youth culture, for being too timid and for being too controversial, for giving offence and for being too inoffensive, for competing with commercial TV and for not being competitive enough. Have I missed anything? I probably have.
Regardless of any objective assessment of what the BBC does or does not do, or how well or badly it does it, it has, without choosing, become the embodiment not of all things to all people but of all things hateful to them. To us. The old saying goes “you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. The BBC must feel it can’t please any of the people any of the time. You have to wonder why it even tries. Why it doesn’t just recognise the public service it provides as everybody’s favourite whipping boy and simply run 24 hours of Points of View on all channels and stations.
Bullying, it seems, has become a prevailing national characteristic. Nobody reasons any more. Nobody seeks to persuade. Well, some do but they are quickly shouted down by strident voices demanding to be listened to. We don’t want to understand, we want to assert and attack. Nothing has to mean anything, nobody has to care, we just need an opportunity to sound off, a butt to kick. Indignation, righteous and unrighteous, is our favourite state.
In response, the media, who should be studiously presenting information, are given over to the parading of comment and opinion. It is, depending on your view, either cynically exploitative or a sound business model. Perhaps both. The more outspoken the opinion the more comment it provokes, the more comment the more clicks, clicks mean revenue, and revenue is what it is all for.
If it were the good that lived after us, and if we were paying attention to anything outside our own sense of entitlement, it would take only a little while after the demise of the BBC for us to realise the value of what we had so carelessly, so self-indulgently lost. My guess is that we won’t have long to wait for the demise. Those who make their money out of conning those who make their money out of conning us into believing we need constant instruction as to what to buy hate the BBC with a passion and want it gone, or put up for sale, which would amount to the same thing. They cannot bear how expensive the BBC, with its habit of setting benchmarks for quality even in the tawdriest areas of showbiz, makes it for them to make money. Their hatred is in a way the best kind of compliment but they also have the power to fulfil it. They own our masters and they expect their support. So, as with the NHS, we are being drip-fed tales of scandalous iniquity and waste to prepare us to welcome the execution as just and fitting. We have been so schooled for so long in submission to manipulation that we will play our part in it – are already participating, willingly and vocally, on a daily basis – and will applaud the final blow like citizens rejoicing at the death of another Christian in the blood-stained sand of a Roman circus.
In this theatre of unkindness, who in the world would want to be the Governor of the BBC? As Gore Vidal said of the Presidency of the USA, “You’d have to be mad to want it, and who in their right mind would elect a madman?” Sadly most of us, it seems. But who would put him- or herself forward to be the scapegoat, however good the remuneration. Only someone who had learned not to care, who had accepted his role and his fate and could take all the punishment with just the occasional wistful glance that murmured “et tu, Brute?”.
Where is Colin when you need him?
This is an appeal to you to vote to remain in the United Kingdom. It is unashamedly emotional, and unlike all the negative hectoring crap you have had to put up with so far.
My mother brought my sister and me up with a tale of great romance.
We were, she said, descended from Scottish Reivers. I won’t need to explain what that means to any passing Scot because the Scots are proud of their heritage and generally consider education a good thing but, for the ignorant English among us, there were Reivers on both sides of the border dividing England from Scotland up until the 17th Century. The word “Reiver” comes from the Old English reafian to rob or plunder. I’ll come back to that, if I may.
For a short-sighted, skinny, middle-class English boy growing up in genteel poverty in the South of England of the 1950s, where daring, adventure and bad behaviour only existed in books borrowed from Ilford Library (yes, children did that then, before TV and computers), this was exciting stuff. But there was more.
We were, she said, the rightful heirs to a Scottish border Earldom; that Granddad had been told if he could produce a little decorated box, he would prove his title. But Granddad, she said with a mix of pride and regret, was a Fabian Socialist and had no interest in joining the aristocracy. So he and his wife brought up 8 children in a little Sheffield council house on the pay of a railwayman, which was often diminished because his good heart had seen his pay packet raided by some colleague’s sob-story on the way home from work.
Mother’s eyes sparkled as she recounted these stories, weaving for us a tapestry as remarkable as it was vivid: Granddad, born into Victorian England, had practised as an accountant (“You’ve seen his beautiful handwriting? Well, that’s copperplate and accountants kept all their ledgers in copperplate,” she said, adding a layer of verisimilitude to the story). But one day he fell ill and his doctor told him that unless he took an outdoor job, he would die. So he became a train driver …
When you are young, and your mum tells you it was so, just so, you can take all these things on board without question. I did. Later, when the doubts came, I still found that frisson of hope that some of it was true welling up through the learned acceptance that life, for me at least, was ordinary. One year, I walked St Cuthbert’s Way, from Melrose to Lindisfarne. It took us past Cessford Castle, ancient stronghold of the Kers. And as we stopped to admire the massive red stone walls, I found the thought still dancing in my head, “This might have been yours.”
The key to the story as told by my mother was also the key to its unravelling. Her family, she said, were Lawfords; and the Lawfords were a proud Border family.
And so, every time I visited Scotland, while others in the party were marvelling at the lip-curlingly twee tat that filled gift shops north of the Border, stuff that owed its manufacture more to the fiction of Sir Walter Scott than to the heritage and present reality of Scotland and seemed more of an insult to what it was to be Scottish than all the Jock jokes told by the English, I would head over to the history books and scour them for references to the Lawford clan. Which, of course, I never could find. Because, as the internet, crusher of dreams, later made it easy to discover, the Lawford family name originates in Essex.
After both our parents had died, my sister spent some time looking into the genealogy of our family. She discovered that in 300 years Sheffield was probably the furthest north that any Lawford we were related to had got. The highest social rank was that of a publican in Guildford. Granddad turned out to have been a railway porter. As far as we can tell, he learned copperplate book-keeping for the union.
I didn’t mind that. I really didn’t. I might not have had the moral and intellectual strength to be a Fabian Socialist but I was no friend of inherited privilege either. What I minded, and mourned, was the loss of that fake Scottish connection. I wanted the sense that my roots were among a people whose integrity and identity I respected. I wanted the honour of being, at least in part, a Scot.
I felt an affinity with Scotland. How else could I explain that just leaving England and crossing into Scotland lightened my depressive mood while the journey back home was all it took to reinstate it? I didn’t hate England. I just didn’t feel I truly belonged among the English.
England has much to commend it, but for me Englishness as it is displayed, as opposed to revered, is not a part of that set: a celebration of ignorance, intolerance and selfishness. Or so it often seems (q.v. Eastenders). Okay, the Scots do a good line in homophobia and substance abuse but at least they have a culture. The English, by comparison, just have a magpie acquisitiveness coupled with a commitment to intellectual and spiritual development comparable with the attention span of a goldfish. The English know the price of everything, the Scots know its value.
There, a whole paragraph of sweeping generalisations and stereotypes. But this is what happens when a polarising debate draws you into trying to be definitive about groups of people. And this, finally to move to the point of this article, is what I see happening in and around the SNP’s bid to make Scotland “independent”. The damned politicians, who have never grown out of the apelike confrontational behaviour of the schoolyard, which I guess is why they took to politics, have made it into a game of them and us. On both sides. And it is phoney, bogus. But what’s worse is that it is going to end up with a lot of hurt and bad feeling. And if I am right, that will not be the worst of it.
Don’t get me wrong. There is a lot of very bad behaviour which Scottish Nationalists are pleased to lay at the door of the English, and with some justification, though I have to say that on my reading of history a lot of the unpleasantness happened after James VI of Scotland annexed England. For example, it was he who, as James I, decided to crack down on the Border Reivers.
I said I’d come back to them. According to what I have read, though the Reivers used to prey on each other north and south of the border, there was between them a common bond; a code, a shared way of life and a mutual respect that transcended and outstripped any calls of mere national loyalty. English and Scots Reivers inter-married. And when it came to oppression, those on both sides of the border suffered. What they shared and the fact that they shared it was anathema to those wanted to dominate everything and everybody, and for whom displays of self-respect, self-reliance and self-confidence in others represented a threat. And it is around this that I want to pitch my case.
The problem, as I see it, is not between the Scots and the English. It never really was. The Reivers are proof of that but they also offer us a mirror on ourselves and the true nature of the problem. That problem is between us and those who presume to rule us, originally in the name of the divine right of kings and now in the name of an equally bogus self-serving, wealth-serving “democracy”.
It seems to me a lot of effort has gone into stressing and magnifying what apparently divides us, the unavoidable accident of nationality, imposed at birth, when in fact what unites us is blindingly obvious. Not the indisputable fact that we are all members of the human race, but the no less clear evidence that we none of us like, or trust, Westminster. Thanks to Thatcher, Blair, Brown and now the unholy and distinctly undemocratic stitch up that is the Coalition, we are all Border Reivers now. Our homes, our livelihoods, our cherished possessions (the Welfare State, the NHS, public education, job security) are all under threat. Not because of recession or real poverty – this country has talent and wealth a-plenty - but because they, the politicians, have chosen to make it so to make us more attractive for exploitation by corporate predators and an international robber gentry. We are not the problem. They are. And to meet this, it is all the more important that we stick together.
What does this Nationalism actually amount to? English Nationalism already has a bad name, co-opted by frightened racists and suborned by speculators and oligarchs who see that there are always profits to be mined around the fracturing of things and people that are naturally bound together. Scottish Nationalism has so far contrived not to be seen as a pejorative but as a positive thing. But because what happened among the Reivers – the intermarriage, the free movement across borders – also happened on a wider stage, so that the Scottish nation is not limited geographically any more than the English nation is, Scotland is the home land, but not home, for most Scots; while for many English people and for people of many other nationalities and ethnic groupings it has become home.
Scots have played and are playing a huge part in the government and development of the whole world. The UK could not have achieved much that it did across the centuries without the Scots and I doubt the UK government today could function without them. Their presence is disproportionately high. Identifying Scottish Nationalism with a location, even a location as staggeringly beautiful and diverse as Scotland is to misunderstand it. Scottish Nationalism belongs in the heart of every Scot and it goes where they go. It is the embodiment of the thing that I feel deprived of. Trying to contain it in a physical place, something that can only be achieved by the building of real and conceptual walls, undervalues its power and potential.
The negativity of the No campaign, - “you can’t keep the pound, so there”, “you can’t have the BBC, in your face”, “you can’t be in our Euro-gang” – has a hollow ring: like a host who keeps saying “Are you sure you have to leave, it’s really foul outside”, while ushering you firmly out of the door. I get an awful feeling that Westminster, unfailingly myopic, short-termist and self-serving, would like to see Scotland walk.
And I wouldn’t blame the Scottish people for one moment if they took the hint, waved a two-fingered farewell and left. But it is what the rest of us will lose that scares me.
That identity with their homeland and the strength of the protective feeling towards it which its inhabitants feel and which fuels their desire for autonomy has had an important influence on the politics of the whole UK. It has been a stubborn bulwark against the predations of the oligarchs.
It is not Scotland that has anything to fear from independence, but England, Wales and Northern Ireland. What will be left will be a kingdom burning while London fiddles. A vassal state controlled, rather than governed, by a Parliament of preening fools and rogues in the pocket of predators.
Dear Scots, if you go, I fear you are sentencing us, the English, Welsh and Northern Irish, to a future dominated politically initially by the Tories and UKIP and then, when the last vestiges of Tory unity are blown away and the paper-thin veneer of UKIP’s anti-establishment posturing is stripped off, by a new alliance: the political arm of a global corporate domination.
Now it may be that a people get the government they deserve, and yes, this can only happen if enough of us turn out and vote for them, but the people of England are looking to make a protest against their masters in 2015 and with the LibDems now shown to be devoid of moral compass, UKIP are auditioning for the role. But once they have seats in Parliament you cannot expect them to conduct themselves with the integrity of a Martin Bell. They have bigger ambitions and they will be in a position to see that nothing stands in their way.
Without you, we who are left will soon become isolated from Europe, increasingly irrelevant on the world stage, save as a money launderette for the indecently rich, and answering our insecurity with ever more strident xenophobia. You can save us from this.
I can’t help being English. It’s what I was born. If I could I would be a Scot because I see your strengths and your worth and I respect them. I am terribly afraid of what will happen to this country if we do not have you with us, fighting for decency and moral values. I am afraid for me and I am afraid for my children. I am also aware that losing this connection with you will diminish my life almost unbearably.
You have the chance to split, to leave us and by that you may seize back democratic control. But the price we will pay is subservience. I can understand your desire to go it alone but for pity’s sake don’t.
Iain M Spardagus
There are things going on outside the door. I need to be aware of some of them. I need to be a part of some of them. Some of the people I care about are waiting for me, waiting for my help. But I am standing here in front of this mirror.
It is not vanity that keeps me here. It would be a strange, perverted vanity if so. No, I am locked into position. I cannot take my eyes off my reflection. And no, it is not fascination either. It is somewhere between the trance of a transfixed rabbit, fear of breaking the spell and horror.
Somewhere, in some part of my brain, a message is being sent out “This is just a reflection, an image formed by the diverting of light.” But I – that is, the part of me that, throughout the waking day, carries on the narrative – cannot use the information. To me, what is before me now, returning my stare, is more real than I am. I am his reflection.
That is why I cannot leave. If I do, I will cease to exist.
As I stand, with almost imperceptible shifts of vision, I scan his face for signs. Signs of what? Signs of hope. What signs of hope? Signs that he is experiencing the feelings that I cannot. The tingle of the flow of life, the electricity of participation, the sparks of joy. I hope that if I can find them in his face then I can locate them in my own self. But it is a hope without hope. All I see before me is weariness. I know how that feels and wish I didn’t. I see scorn. He seems disgusted with what he is seeing. I know that feeling and wish I didn’t. I would be glad even to see despair. Despair would bring a measure of reassurance; that there is something left of me, enough self-awareness to know that I am almost, but not quite, lost. But instead I see a resolute surrender. Terrifyingly, this man who holds my identity has given up.
And so I see why I must stand here. I am holding him, detaining him. If I break the eye contact for so much as a moment, when I return to him he will have switched off the life support and my soul will be dead.
Outside the door, they are calling for me. “You okay, Pa?” “Dad, what’s for supper?” “Have you booked that time off?” And I can hear snatches of their conversation, the buzz of people getting on with life, dealing with it and with each other, feeding off each other’s energy and experiences. And every so often, I hear references to me. “He’s a great dad.” “He’s a good man.” “I love his writing.” “Can’t believe he’s so old. He only looks, like, 50.” “If only he would lighten up.” I want to respond. I want to open the door and join them. I want to be that person.
But I can’t look away from the mirror.
The Observer ran an article in its CiF pages last Sunday. It was by Carole Cadwalladr and its subject was the confusion between fact and fiction.
For a moment I was a little stunned by the coincidence of this article with a line of thought going through my head. I had just finished reading the news story of Dylan Farrow’s “detailed allegations” of abuse against Woody Allen, holding down a sense of guilt as I did so that I was indulging in the crudely salacious.
As I clicked the CiF tab and waited for its complex jigsaw of gaudy and needy ads to load, I was musing that the only things I knew, genuinely knew, about Mr Allen were that he has been a stand-up comedian – I had seen him perform – that he played in a jazz band – ditto – and that he had made some of the most witty and affecting films I had seen over the past 40 years. I knew even less about Mia Farrow, Dylan’s adoptive mother. I had seen and been touched and moved by her acting, most notably in the films made with Allen. In that context they seemed made for each other creating a beautiful synergy. Beyond that I knew, or knew where to gather, some facts: dates of birth, names of children, partners, dates of marriage and divorce. I knew what colour eyes they had.
Everything else, everything I had garnered about them was the product of journalism and I could not say I knew any of it. It lay somewhere in the band between best assumption (or conditional truth, standing in for truth until proof came along), informed speculation, conjecture, assertion and pure fiction and all of it needed to be treated with circumspection. It wasn’t that there was no more truth. Of course there was. It was just that I did not have any way of ascertaining it.
Paradoxically, however, this evidence deficit has not made a lot of people cautious about the stuff they read in the media. Quite the reverse, it seems. The facts – the little they know to be true – are less important to them than the feelings of wonder and outrage released in them by the stories they are fed. That is the buzz that drives them and they are insatiable. If the truth must not be allowed to get in the way of a good story, small wonder we confuse soaps with reality and expect reality to entertain us like a soap.
Last week the BBC documentary series, Horizon, offered an explanation for our addiction to a very damaging combination of fat and sugar in our diets. Nowhere in nature, we were told, do these two food types combine. We need both to an extent but when they are presented to us in isolation from each other, our bodies are able to limit their intake. Presented together, as they are in our commercially prepared foods, they over-ride our bodies’ controls. In a nutshell, combined, they are yummy and we can’t stop ourselves. Obesity and heart disease follow.
I fear it is much the same with our hunger for scandal. In our primitive state, we knew the natural world around us was real and we treated it with respect. Our lives depended on it. But around the fire, temporarily safe from predators, we could feed our imaginations on stories, myths, legends.
We knew the difference, broadly. But something in us craved explanation for what we could not understand and some of the story tellers got carried away with the power they found they had over us that they discovered while weaving tales to fill the gaps. Myths were built up on real world facts, lending them the cachet of realism and painting reality with the zest of magic but that combination made the fictions hard to displace when knowledge advanced with better explanations; and thus was religion was born. The rest is history, save that with religions increasingly discredited (essentially for outliving the credibility of their myths), we are left with our hunger for that potent mix of the real and the fictional. The media know this, just as the manufacturers of ready meals know the toxic addictiveness of fat and sugar. But with morality now viewed as an expedient, if all else fails, commodity, and with vast riches to be made from exploitation, who is going to stop them feeding us what we crave?
Truth is an interesting concept: from a purist viewpoint any time you mix truth with anything that is not truth (even if it is only assumption and not deliberate fiction) it ceases to be truth, however small the addition. That which is not true is false, literally fiction. And falsehood, unlike truth, spreads and corrupts like a cancer. It distorts reason and feeling and renders judgment into prejudice. When we prefer embellished truth and assertion over knowing, or accepting that we can’t know we surrender ourselves to a corrosive and addictive drug and we open the door to real and widespread damage. People’s lives and chances of happiness get trampled. And I don’t just mean the lives of the people against whom the allegations are pitched or their alleged victims. All victims of real abuse then fall to measured and judged by their presentational qualities and the novelty or spectacle of their story and its ability to feed our craving rather than with compassion for the wrong they have suffered. And the victims of crime can have no closure, as they are pushed into the glare of media spotlights and made to dance forever to the devil’s tune of the “pursuit of justice” for our pleasure. We rarely consider their right to forget, to get on with life. We are hurting the already wounded for a little bit of voyeuristic masturbation and we need to rein it in.
I don’t know whether what Dylan Farrow is alleging about Woody Allen is true. I cannot know. Only she and he can. I would not want to prevent the truth from being established, if indeed it can be, but, even with an awareness of the eventual success of the Dreyfus Affair, I seriously doubt whether open letters in the press will bring enlightenment. All my experience shows that it starts a fire in which all the protagonists are hideously burned and no-one is saved.
Gossip will always abound. To keep it in check, we need to hold truth – what we know to be true - apart from the mire of speculation and titillation, and to respect its intrinsically higher value and we need to learn not to be so afraid of what we don’t yet know or cannot prove that we would rather have a fiction that affirms than a doubt that nags. And human decency requires that we find better ways to treat other people’s injuries than turning them into circuses of villification.
I was over in Flanders just a couple of weeks back and visited the Irish memorial peace park there, outside Messines. Its full name, regrettably, is the Island of Ireland Peace Park, a touchingly clumsy effort to convey unity where until only relatively recently the predecessors of politicians who now preach it were exploiting separation and disharmony.
I dutifully read the plaque near the entrance, a “Peace Pledge” by those politicians. The park, it said, commemorated -
the thousands of young men from all parts of Ireland who fought a common enemy, defended democracy and the rights of all nations…
I had to stop myself from turning away at that point. That wasn’t what they died in their thousands for between 1914 and 1918. If only it had been, then we could find some measure of excuse for the awful carnage.
The pledge redeems itself somewhat a little further on, proclaiming -
We repudiate and denounce violence, aggression, intimidation, threats and unfriendly behaviour
A nice thought, one that reminded me of a reworking of Henry V’s great speech in a radio show from the 60s -
Once more unto the beach, dear friends, once more and who’s got the cucumber sandwiches
Well, the person delivering the line said, it sounds so much more friendly.
Elsewhere in the park, a line of stones bore inscriptions taken from some of the fallen and some who survived. One especially caught my attention. It said with unrestrained anger -
So the curtain fell
over that tortured
country of unmarked graves
and unburied fragments of men
murder and massacre
the innocent slaughtered
for the guilty
the poor man
for the sake of the greed
of the already rich
the man of no authority
made the victim of the man
who had gathered importance
and wished to keep it
[David Starret, 9th Royal Irish Rifles]
"Lest we forget" is maybe now a forlorn hope of a message for the poppy to convey. I think it is time for a change to "That we may remember".
Last Sunday, in the Observer, David Mitchell wrote an article in which he urged us not to allow the cavalier behaviour of the likes of Paul Dacre and Rupert Murdoch and their respective (if not respected) newspapers push us into legislating to curb press freedom. I was more baffled than disappointed as, to my knowledge, no-one with the power to do so was proposing to do anything of the kind. I said as much in a comment below the line.
This Sunday, Steve Coogan responded to David’s article. It was clearly a charged response, but not unreasonable and clothed in all the courtesy that befits arguments based in mutual respect. Steve clearly couldn’t understand David’s position anymore than I could. No-one was suggesting that there should be regulation of the press, indeed, everyone of significance was keen to avoid it, from Lord Leveson even down as far as David Cameron.
David Mitchell, given right of reply, was equally courteous but said he simply did not agree. With which parts, I wondered. I wanted to respond myself and waited for the Comments to be switched on. Then came the news that for “legal reasons” they would not be.
So here is my response to David. I don’t suppose he will get to read it. If he does, I would not hold it against him if he had better things to do that to reply to it. But at least my freedom of expression has been exercised.
Essentially, if I understand you, David, you are saying please do not do this little thing because though it may be justified in its own terms who knows where it may one day lead?
I wonder, when the first caveman tossed the flesh of a recently despatched antelope into the fire then pulled it out, tasted it and pronounced it good, how many of his companions shook their heads despairingly and tried to warn him of the dangers he was unleashing on a world of raw innocence: obesity, cancer of the bowel, factory farming, McDonalds.
I wonder if, when the first pilgrims were about to set sail for America, anyone tried to stop them because it might one day lead to creation of the Tea Party.
My point, in case those two thoughts are a tad too obscure, is that if we pull back from taking any step that seems a good idea at the time because of what might happen further down the line, we will never progress. We may in fact defeat ourselves. The preservation of freedom requires continual vigilance, not a retreat into the locked down bunker of total inaction leaving the enemy to walk freely over our birthright.
I assume you know that nothing can actually prevent Parliament from enacting more stringent controls on the press. No-one can fetter Parliament, not even from one day to the next. They will only need a pretext (and the courage to break away from the mafia-like protection the press barons give them as long as they play ball). They won’t say they are doing it because they dislike the investigative journalism and the constant holding of them to account, of course. Their claimed justification will be the press’s reckless and cynical disregard for decency, its constant trampling over the rights and sensibilities of ordinary citizens.
That, to me, is the strongest reason why the press needs urgently to restore itself to responsibility and accept accountability for its misdeeds. A free press in the important sense, the sense that fuelled the insistence on press freedom that the Founding Fathers wrote into the US Constitution – a press that is free – and trusted by the people - to report on abuse and shine a light on misfeasance and injustice – must be prepared to eschew mere scandalmongering, lying and manipulation (of fact and of people’s minds) and be prepared to offer appropriate redress where its standards falter and harm to an individual is the result. And it needs to do so in a way that shows a sensible degree of humility and respect for the democratic process. Accepting a Royal Charter, especially this meagre little Royal Charter, would be a small, and harmless, nod in that direction.
And, if I am right, it would remove a pretext for stronger political action to control the press.
This Royal Charter doesn’t even change the law. Royal Charters can’t do that. It just creates a mechanism for monitoring what will to all intents and purposes be self-regulation. It is only arrogance preying on ignorance that is trying to whip up a storm against such a small and unobjectionable device. The arrogance of those who will accept no limit on their self-declared divine right, even a nugatory one. The arrogance of those who have set themselves up above the rest of us and expect us to support them there regardless.
I said to you last week in a comment on your article
“think about what you are suggesting: that while we, the people, only have the right to freedom of expression, hedged about by the law, anyone who pulls out a card saying “owner of a device for printing stuff” is magically transformed into someone cloaked in something higher than diplomatic immunity.”
Because I have so much respect for you, I am trying to work out why you have joined the tyrants’ choir. I cannot fathom it and I wish I could, even if it meant my having to accept that I have got it wrong. But I don’t think I have. The issue of the Royal Charter is not whether there should be freedom of the press, nor even whether anyone in this country should be above the law or judge in his own cause, which is what the press owners want us to sign up to, but simply whether a body that is as independent as it is possible to be in a democratic society while continuing to have any public credibility should be set up to assess the adequacy of a mechanism put forward by the press for considering complaints about press behaviour.
That is all.
With kind regards,
Iain M Spardagus
You have gone to Heathrow to pick up your daughter’s pen pal… Okay I’ve lost you already, make that her Peruvian Facebook friend. Miranda. You have it written out in big felt tip pen on a bit of card that had been stiffening that new shirt.
You are waiting at the arrivals gate when you feel a hand gently gripping your elbow. A voice whispers with soft authority in your ear,
"Just come this way, Sir. No fuss, eh?"
You turn slightly and see with a flash of relief that the voice belongs to a uniformed officer of the law and not a mugger. Or so it appears. And so, as a decent, law-abiding citizen with nothing to hide, you comply.
He takes you to a room where a number of other men, uniformed and not, are standing around. The atmosphere is tense and not at all friendly.
"Sit. I said SIT."
You are tempted to look around for the disobedient dog to whom the command was issued but the only dog in view is a sad looking Alsatian lying with its head in its paws and eying you miserably. “You,” he seems to be saying, “They’re talking to you.” and at that moment you are pushed roughly behind a grey utilitarian table and into a grey plastic stacker chair that sways slightly under your weight.
"Waiting for Miranda, were we?" sneers a putty-faced shaven-headed uniform.
"Well I was,” you try, in an effort to lighten the mood.
"Funny guy," Putty Face sneers to his colleagues, "Wouldn’t you know it?"
"Right," he snarls, turning back to you, "Laptop, I-pad. On the table. Now."
"I don’t have them with me. They’re at home."
"Now, why would you leave them at home?"
"Because I didn’t expect to need them? Because this is real life, not an airport-based video game? I don’t know. Search me…”
"Thank you for your co-operation, we will. What’s this then?"
"That’ll do." Putty Face’s stubby fingers poke angrily at the tiny screen, like a drunk’s in a bar room debate. "What’s this?"
"My on-line banking app."
"I said password. Come on."
"I must warn you that under paragraph 18(1)(c) of Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000, it is an offence not to provide information when requested by an examining officer or wilfully to obstruct or seek to frustrate a search or examination under the aforementioned Schedule."
It sounds all a bit far-fetched doesn’t it? It couldn’t happen here, in 2013. But what worries me is that, in terms of legality, I am not sure that fabricated attempt to extract the on-line banking password is any more far-fetched than when David Miranda was required to handover his Facebook password. And yet the authorities and the Government are adamant what was done to him, in the name of the same Schedule was all perfectly lawful.
Really? Let’s work our way through it. See what you think.
1. We are told that David Miranda was questioned, and his property detained, under Schedule 7 to the Terrorism Act 2000. That assertion is more than just an attempt to make us feel it was all in the best possible taste. It is vital to the legitimacy of what was done. It is fundamental to upholding the rule of law that every executive act that bears upon the constitutional freedom of the citizen to go about his lawful business unhindered is not only supported by law but also constrained by it. You have the powers Parliament gave you, no less, no more. Act outside them and it is you who must answer for it.
Governments don’t like this idea, of course. Like greedy children, they are always trying to step over the boundaries of their powers. Not so long ago, however, they recognised, and submitted to, the requirement to act lawfully. Now, when their actions bring them into conflict with the courts, they blame the judges and seek ways to bar further challenges. Such is progress. But I digress.
2. Schedules, such as Schedule 7, don’t exist in isolation. They are always the extrapolation of substantive parts of an Act. Okay, that is difficult. Put it this way: they are the small print. But their legal power and purpose comes from a section or a part of an Act of Parliament. And therefore their meaning comes from that section or part too.
Schedule 7 is the small print of Part V of the Terrorism Act 2000. Part V is specifically about counter-terrorism. It is not about not offending the government, or getting up the nose of presidents and prime ministers. Counter-terrorism.
3. Schedule 7 sets out the powers of certain people – called examining officers - to stop, search and detain other people and their property. Because those powers involve an interference with certain fundamental freedoms, liberties guaranteed by the State, the law says that they have to be construed strictly, and in favour of the people against whom they are used. In other words: people detained, questioned or searched under this Act have the right to rely on the best - most favourable - interpretation of what it says. These Schedule 7 powers are not a general permission to oppress. Only tyrannies have those.
4. To understand what Schedule 7 does permit, a good point to start is its paragraph 2. Let’s see what it says:
“An examining officer may question a person to whom this paragraph applies for the purpose of determining whether he appears to be a person falling within section 40(1)(b).”
So the next question, obviously, is who is this person who might fall within section 40(1)(b)? Well, according to section 40(1)(b), he is
“a person who …is, or has been, concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”
(Note in passing that section 40(1)(a) does not come into this. That provision says that you are a terrorist if you have committed certain offences under the Act. But, to be clear, even if you have, what paragraph 2 is saying that an examining officer does not have powers to question you for the purpose of determining whether you have.)
Paragraph 2 has therefore made the purpose of the examining officer’s questioning very clearly and precisely limited.
We need to find out what “terrorism” means in this context. To do that, we don’t turn to the tabloid newspapers, to braying politicians or to self-regarding polemicists. We turn instead to section 1 of the Terrorism Act. It’s a lengthy definition but it is worth getting to grips with. It begins –
“In this Act, “terrorism” means...”
- and with these words we know that this is the meaning, and the only meaning, that is relevant.
It continues –
"…the use or threat of use of action … designed to influence the government or an international government organisation or to intimidate the public … For the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause.”
This “action” is also defined: serious violence, serious damage to property, endangering people’s lives, serious risk to health and safety, serious interference with or disruption of electronic systems.
Now we have identified another limit. Yes, of course, an examining officer can, as one citizen to another, ask any of us the time of day, and as a matter of courtesy we may choose to reply. But the only valid purpose that he has for questioning you under Schedule 7 is to determine whether you – you personally - are “concerned with the commission, preparation or instigation” of defined acts of terrorism.
Let’s just underline that for any high-ranking Parliamentarians who may need it spelled out. Not doing, or possessing, something that “might be useful to terrorists”. Not even taking tea with terrorists. Is or has been actually concerned with the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terror.
5. From just what we have seen so far, if you were just a Dad picking up his daughter’s friend or, say, a journalist’s assistant with no connection with terrorists or terrorism, passing through Heathrow in the course of returning home after lawfully meeting a law-abiding citizen in another country, you could be forgiven for assuming that no examining officer was going to think he had the right to stop and question you under Schedule 7. But it is not quite that simple. Because paragraph 2(4) says:
“An examining officer may exercise his powers under this paragraph whether or not he has grounds for suspecting that a person falls within section 40(1)(b).”
So, in fact an examining officer can question anyone then? Well yes, that is what it says. But if the only legitimate purpose of his questioning is to determine whether they are a person concerned with terrorism, after a few exchanges, most conversations with an examining officer should stop. They should stop as soon as the examining officer has, or reasonably should have, satisfied himself that you are not concerned with the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism. And, paradoxically, they should stop sooner for the journalist’s assistant than for the Dad because, of course, he will have been under surveillance anyway, so the determination will be easier to reach. End of conversation.
6. One more limitation: can the examining officer question just anyone? No, according to Schedule 7, he can only question people who are in certain locations for certain purposes. The person to be questioned has to be at a port or in a “border area” and the examining officer has to “believe that the person’s presence is …connected with his entering or leaving Great Britain.”
So not transit passengers then? Well he can also question –
“a person on a ship or aircraft”
But not transit passengers who have disembarked, apparently.
7. Far from the blinkered certainty ejaculated by Ministers, then it would see there is some scope for argument as to the legitimacy of what happened to Mr Miranda even before the questioning even began. But, you might think, what’s all the fuss anyway? Being allowed to question people is not such a great power. Not like being Superman or the Incredible Hulk. There has to be more that this. There is. Paragraph 5.
“A person who is questioned … must—
(a) give the examining officer any information in his possession which the officer requests;”
That seems like the killer punch. “Any information”? So much for the human right to privacy.
Except no. Again we must read that “which the officer requests” in the light of the limits of the examining officer’s powers. Remember point 5, above? An examining officer’s powers to request are limited to the purpose of determining whether a person is concerned with terrorism”. So no need to feel threatened by questions like “who’s your favourite boy band”. Unless it’s the Moslem Brotherhood.
But where does that leave the question of your password? Well now, it could be relevant. It can’t just be ruled out as obviously never going to be relevant. You could be concealing instructions for a bombing campaign. But again, it is not a simple matter. Let’s make the next stage of our journey.
8. What is the purpose of a password. It has no intrinsic value. As a word, if such it is, in the right context it may add meaning to a sentence, but out of that context and standing alone it is a mere collection of symbols. It gains purpose because of what it may enable: access. It is a key.
So when someone asks you for your password they are asking you not just for the word - the set of symbols. They are asking you for access to something else.
That is why a request for your password is a request for information. And therefore, it has to be assumed that if an examining officer, with a legitimate purpose in mind, asks a person whom he is entitled to ask for his password, that person, if he has it in his possession, is duty bound to provide it. Paragraph 5(a) says so. And paragraph 18(1)(a) says it is an offence not to comply.
It has to be doubtful however whether the man jabbing at your smart phone and demanding the password to your on-line bank account has passed these tests. How would accessing your on-line bank account help to determine whether you are or have been concerned with terrorism? And if he hasn’t got an answer to that, it seems to me that you shouldn’t have to either.
But I suggested at the beginning of this analysis that the request for a Facebook password was tainted with the same stain of dubious legality. Can I make good on that claim? Walk with me a little further.
9. We now need to look more closely at the examining officer’s purpose in requesting the password. We have already discovered that idle curiosity is not enough. Let’s say it again, the only legitimate purpose of his questioning is to determine whether you are actively concerned in terrorism. How can asking for your password contribute to that determination? Suppose your password was “OsamabinLaden”? It may allow me to gather that you are a strange person but it tells me nothing useful about your terror proclivities. However, knowing your password may be the key to finding out other things. Things your password protects. Things that may assist in determining if you are a terrorist.
But this line of thought necessarily takes us beyond paragraph 2 questioning and into your property: the property that the password operates on. So for the next part of our journey we must acquaint ourselves with what Schedule 7 has to say about an examining officer’s rights over your property.
Schedule 7 addresses property in three ways. It provides a power to search, a power to examine and a power to detain. We will begin with search.
Paragraph 8(1) says -
“An examining officer who questions a person under paragraph 2 may for the purposes of determining whether he falls within section 40(1)(b), … search the person"
and - take careful note of these words -
“search anything which he has with him, or which belongs to him, and which the examining officer reasonably believes has been or is about to be, on a ship or aircraft.”
Clearly, this power allows for a physical search: of you, your pockets, your wallet or purse, your luggage. But does it extend to another kind of search altogether: the search of what is stored on your laptop, your phone, your tablet, your memory stick? Again it is not obvious, to say the least. We can easily carry an image in our heads that data are stored on our devices the way books are stored in a library but this is a bogus image. All that are stored are strings and strings of values. Some values act as instructions to the device as to how it will run. Some values act as instructions to the device as to how to treat other values. And some values are, by that means, convertible into data. Data which may be numbers, symbols, words, shapes or images
A physical search of a laptop will reveal only the hardware and probably an accumulation of dust, dead skin cells and biscuit crumbs. It will not reveal the data on the machine. A search of data requires that you boot up the laptop, load up a program and run it. It is a different concept. Can we be sure that this second kind of search is within the contemplation of a provision that is in every other respect clearly and manifestly referring to a search of the first kind?
But this is not the only question of legitimacy facing the examining officer. Look again. “search anything which he has with him”.
Again it is an almost charming mistake that we make when we try to treat “documents” and “images” as “on” a computer. It is common currency these days for the news to report that “police have seized 1000 indecent images”. No, they have taken possession of a device which contains strings of values that, if ordered by the right software will produce those images.
And this is my point: increasingly those values are not even stored in our own devices. They may be located on a hard drive or a memory card or stick. But they may at the same time be located elsewhere. And in the case of your on-line banking details, your Facebook information - all those drunken, gurning photos and fatuous messages - and even your emails and documents, they may ONLY be stored elsewhere. In servers and clouds and webs that belong to others and are not with you at all.
All you do, in these cases, is to access a temporary basis a copy of your information and when you are done it is repatriated to its remote location.
Ah, you say, but I have skipped over “or belongs to him”. No, it is just the next point. We may have rights of subject access over our details, stored remotely but they do not “belong to us” in any property sense. We may own intellectual property rights on the digital copies of documents and photos we have entrusted to the Cloud. But there is no photo or document sitting up there that belongs to us: just a stream of values waiting to be assembled.
And no evidence that they have ever been on a plane or a boat.
Remember when I said, a while back, that powers that interfere with freedoms have to be construed strictly? How benign an interpretation does it take of the words “search anything he has with him or which belongs to him which has been on a ship or airplane” to get to the right to access data which you do not have with you and which does not belong to you in any tangible sense and which, in any event, has been nowhere near a ship or aircraft?
And if the examining officer cannot maintain a right to search this remotely held information what purpose is served by knowing the password that will serve only to give him access to it?
And so if knowing the password has no legitimate purpose, he has no business requesting it and you have no duty to comply.
Nearly there now.
10. Examination. Paragraph 9 of Schedule 7 allows an examining officer to examine goods
“for the purpose of determining whether they have been used in the commission preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”
Goods, it says, includes “property of any description”.
And once again we are in the territory of construction. How does one examine a laptop to discover if it has be “used in the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism”? You have to look at what is stored on it. But does that entitle you to examine things that are not? Paragraph 9 does not say so.
Nor does paragraph 9 require the owner of the laptop to divulge his passwords to allow you to.
11. Finally, then, we get to detention. Paragraph 11 of Schedule 7 deals with this. There are three specific justifications for an examining officer to detain property: for the purpose of examination; because he believes that it may be needed as evidence in criminal proceedings; and in connection with deportation proceedings. If there is no question of deportation and none of criminal proceedings at the point of detention, and there is nothing lawfully to examine, there can be no right to detain.
12. All of which tends to suggest that demanding a password so as to enable you to access an on-line bank account OR a Facebook account, or any other account or remote storage facility is not sanctioned by Schedule 7 and any threats made to elicit such a password, including the threat of prosecution and possible imprisonment would be unlawful.
Do you see how far away this all is from any properly advised examining officer, or for that matter, Minister of the Crown, being able to persuade himself that it was probably okay, let alone assuring him- or herself that the law was solidly on his or her side.
Time to sum up. First a caveat, nothing here is intended to, or indeed could, sway the judgment of the courts on this issue - for now at least, they remain the arbiters of Government’s exercise of its powers, not its partners in crime.
It seems to me, however, dubious at the very least that any examining officer duly exercising his powers under Schedule 7 could, if properly advised, have comfortably concluded that he had the powers or indeed any reasonable cause to detain a citizen of a sovereign state in transit for any purposes that did not honestly embrace the possibility - not necessarily “grounds to suspect” - that the citizen was himself actively concerned in terrorism. If he couldn’t get through that legislative gate he had no business with the citizen. But until he had got there any attempt to search or retain the citizen’s property had no legitimacy under Schedule 7. To take away and retain property that the citizen carried which did not, on visual inspection, itself appear to have any link to possible terrorist activities connected to the person detained would be improper. And to demand passwords accessing that citizen’s personal information stored remotely seems unsupportable under the Schedule even if he had achieved the level of compliance with the Schedule that allowed search and detention.
To threaten the same citizen of another country who has not set foot on British soil with prosecution if he fails to comply with an knowingly unlawful demand the would itself be unlawful, as I understand it. It would appear to involve an unwarranted threat. The law of this country, which applies to all of us equally, is available to punish such behaviour. To incite such conduct would also be unlawful.
This is not a debate about letting terrorists run free or tying our hands with the cords of our self-regarding libertarianism. Parliament made the Terrorism Act 2000 and it saw fit to build in safeguards because it understood that in the fight for freedom if we are not to lose the very freedoms that make our life tolerable we must target our weapons with care and not turn them on ourselves. If we need better laws for our protection let us make them, knowingly and deliberately. Until then, let us remember that the mark of a liberal democracy is that it always respects the letter and the spirit of legitimacy.
In due course, the courts will rule upon it all and we will have our answers.
Forgive me meanwhile if I find this business of the detention of David Miranda to have “a very ancient and fish-like smell”.
There is a delicious irony in the moderation of the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” site. Something one suspects Kafka would appreciate.
I recently commented on a piece by Suzanne Moore. The comment was allowed and attracted 91 recommendations. You can still find it there as of now.
When Ally Fogg wrote a riposte to Suzanne’s article, a poster referred to my comment with a link.
But when today the Guardian’s Readers’ Editor published a piece about the outrage her article had inspired and I responded to correct an error in one post providing the link, the comment was removed. When I re-posted my comment without the link, that too was removed.
And when I wrote again, simply commenting on the over-zealous deletion and referring those who wished to see for themselves here, that too was deleted.
As you can see here, there was nothing in my comment to offend. It was mild compared with what was being posted elsewhere. But apparently it could not be allowed to stand and any reference to it had to be airbrushed out of history, in the best traditions of Stalinism.
Because the Guardian moderators are a silent clique and a law unto themselves (which in any other context the Guardian would decry as an offence against freedom of speech) we can only speculate on the moderators’ motives. Or we can just think “silly sods”. Here it is, in full.
"In point of fact, I did respond to Suzanne Moore’s piece with a little parody of my own, “10 rules for managing your vagina (and other bits)”. I did so partly to see how the Mods would react. To my surprise and, I suppose, to their credit, they did not remove it.
I have to say the levels of fierce indignation the article provoked astonished me. Shades of a Bateman cartoon, I thought. To me, it wasn’t so much shocking as piss poor, a badly cobbled together set of sexist insults that surely only someone who had reached the dregs of her second bottle of Pinot Grigio could think amusing, (I’m not proud of my effort either but mine was, in its own defence, the product of just 20 minutes, tapping into an online box). And then the sheer incongruity of that Rule 7. It is small wonder that this caused offence, not, I believe, because Suzanne intended any but because read in the context of the rest of the leaden man-bashing, it could only be misinterpreted as anti-gay. I had to read it in isolation before I could be sure that the intention behind its incoherence was to criticise homophobia.
Suzanne can write well, I know this, but it seems a while since she did. She desperately needs the firm guidance of a good editor and that, I suppose, is the problem. The Guardian today seems to see editorial control in much the same way that 1970s comprehensives saw correction of their pupils’ work.
And in the end it is the editors that must take the blame for the piece being published: not for any offence but for the lamentable disregard of standards. But of course they won’t. For minimal effort, it proved a nice little earner, as they knew it would.
Ally Fogg’s gentle riposte was a treat. As I said at the time, I wished I had written something like it.”
Wicked stuff, eh?
Yesterday the media were full of sound and fury over what appeared to be a sneaky piece of embezzlement by the Tories and the Liberal Democrats. It concerned a substantial sum of money left to “the political party in goverment” with instructions that the party “use it as they see fit. Perhaps unsurprisingly the Tories and the Lib Dems saw fit to pocket the money. Others, led by the ever judgmental Daily Mail, for whom the political commentator Polly Toynbee came out in vigorous support, saw this as iniquitous and still others blamed the executors of the will for handing over the money.
What I think we have here, however, is something far more significant than “The nasty boys stole my lunch” or “The dumb lawyers cocked it up”, which seem to be the two prevailing approaches other than the joyous sarcasm of “Read all about it: Toynbee praises Mail. Hell reported to have frozen over.”
If I am right this little episode represents nothing less than the state of total confusion that lies at the heart of our constitution. Nothing wicked, as such, just expedience of thought bequeathed a brief and informative substance.
The essence is this. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Once upon a time, there was an Executive (the Crown) whose function it was to administer the State - to govern. Then there was a Legislature (the Parliament) that was supposed to watch over the Executive on behalf of the people. But the Parliament was made up of ambitious men (yes, dear, men - wouldn’t you know it?) who weren’t satisfied with just representing anyone. They wanted POWER. So they started to form themselves into cliques (they called them “parties”, but I prefer “cliques”) and use their combined voting strength to tip the balance the way they wanted things to go.
The Executive was finding it harder and harder to get authorisation for what it wanted to do because it had submitted some time before to the idea that it would only pass laws with the Legislature’s approval. So it hit upon a plan. It would invite the leader of the biggest clique in Parliament to run the Government. That way it would not have to worry about getting its way.
A big tactical mistake. Because it didn’t take long before the cliques started to think they owned Government. They stopped seeing it as a privilege or duty and started seeing it as a right (just as they had stopped seeing representing the people as a privilege and turned that into a right).
The cliques did not agree on much but they did agree on the language to support all this. Conveniently forgetting that the public voted for individuals to represent them, they starting asserting that the public voted for them, the cliques (or parties). This had a degree of self-reinforcing truth because it wasn’t long before the public could not choose a representative but could only vote for a candidate put up by one of the cliques. And soon, whichever clique got more of its placemen into Parliament could be heard proclaiming that it had a “mandate to govern”.
And it wasn’t much longer before the media, who were as ever chronically lazy as well as poorly schooled in all the fundamentals like truth, honesty and legality, got into the habit of referring to “the Government” when they should have been referring to which ever parcel of rogues made up the clique which happened to be providing the Crown with people to serve as Ministers, and “the Prime Minister” even when the person in question was making a purely party political point. And soon nobody batted an eyelid.
Until, that is, the day when some well-intentioned old lady decided to leave her money to “whichever political party is in government” to use “as they see fit”.
Now the Executors, reasonably, basing themselves on the language of the day and the prevailing situation, correctly identified the clique calling itself the Coalition as providing the Government of the day and handed over the money.
And the clique calling itself the Coalition thought “We own the rights to the Government. She must have meant it for us.” Because that’s just the way everyone had come to think things worked.
But the people were furious because they thought the kindly old lady meant them to have the money, which she probably did, and so they called the clique all sorts of nasty names, helped out by the media, who were very good at name-calling.
When in fact it was all just a big mistake. One that anyone who had been party to the corruption of the constitution for three hundred years could have made. And did.
Now, time to close your eyes, children, and go to sleep. And don’t worry about the Bogeymen. They are all on their holidays. Parliament is in recess.
On Wednesday, 7 August Suzanne Moore, the self-styled feminist, finally took pity on us males. In an article thrown up on the Guardian’s Comment is Free internet site, she condescended to hand down to us “10 Rules for Managing Your Penis”, a subject on which we must simply recognise Ms Moore’s claim to be an expert.
Wonderful, Suzanne. I really feel that with this article you have shown us the zenith of your writing talent, not to mention the depth of your commitment to mature dialogue between the sexes. May I, in the spirit of that dialogue, reflect your article back to you?
10 Rules for managing your vagina (and other bits)
1) Do not involve your vagina in skyping
In particular, do not take the opportunity afforded by web cams to show the world how much you can cram into it. Try to remember that you are not selling the family car, and its ability to carry suitcases is not in issue.
2) Do not neglect the packaging
Talking of men, Ms Moore wisely advises:
“And if they must encase themselves so prominently in Lycra and skinny jeans in this weather … something has to be done. Urgently.”
By the same token …
If you must teeter about in skin tight leggings and scoop-necked t-shirts that make you resemble a pair of sad orange blancmanges bursting out of a Tesco carrier bag, precariously balanced on top of a stack of saturated sandbags, do it in the privacy of your own home. With the curtains drawn. And the webcam off.
3) Do not clamp your vagina around household objects.
See 1, above.
4) Do not use your vagina, butt or mouth to decorate the High Street
When you are about to leave the bar with your friends, after you have worked out how to stand up and before you crash through the bouncers at the door, try to find the ladies’ toilet. You can piss, defecate and vomit to your heart’s content there. It is connected to the sewer. Doing it in the road or the cab is not okay.
5) Do not ever offer your vagina to someone if you don’t mean it
… even if, indeed especially if, you are drunk. It’s not just you who pays the price for this wayward generosity but all the decent women who have to live with the assumptions you are confirming in the primitive minds of frustrated men. And believe me, there are only frustrated men and they all have primitive minds.
6) Do not pretend you like your man’s penis
Look, it’s a bit of plumbing. It has its uses but it’s not pretty and deep down he knows it. Don’t give him false hopes. And while we are about it, don’t go around drooling that some fatuous boy band singer clone, or Brad Pitt or that shaven-headed, sadly under-dressed, tattooed and pierced moron who is having difficulty drinking his pint of lager because his pecs keep getting in the way “is sooo HOT and I want his babies”. It’s called objectification and I gather it is frowned on in other circumstances. Besides, you know what pathetically insecure copycats men are. We don’t want the place filling up with pot-bellied wannabe Biebers. Look at what East Enders has brought about if you need help seeing the danger.
7) Do not openly derive pleasure from your vagina with other women
Men get off on that kind of thing. It’s another false hopes thing. But it also shows them how close they are to being redundant. So, be kind to small animals. They have sharp little teeth and nasty little minds.
8) Do not try to pierce your nipples or clitoris.
It will only snag on the baby. Look, it is all going to drift south eventually without hanging lumps of metal on them. Why do you want to look like the curtain ring display in some ancient ironmonger’s anyway? If you are a woman into masochism, buy the boxed set of Top of the Pops 40th Anniversary instead. You’ll never need another fix.
9) Do no try to make your breasts bigger
The only men who like big breasts are the ones with deep psychological problems related to their mums that you are going to come to resent, about the same time that your implants become toxic and he starts looking at teenagers again. It’s a no-win no-brainer. Talking of which…
10) Do not exploit your breasts or your butt over your brain
There are no stupid women, only women behaving stupidly, discuss. You were born cognitively superior to most of the men around you. You know that men and sex are like kittens and laser pens, it’s just too easy to go that way. But if you can’t be arsed with your own self-respect, try to show some solidarity with all the women out there striving to use their abilities to forge a better world. Don’t make it harder for them. Don’t make it easier for them to be undervalued, stereotyped, sidelined and ignored.
Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, whose is the fairest…