Monday, October 31, 2005

There's no business like Roadshow business

Andy Burnham's details of the Biometric Roadshow are enlightening, and prompt a multitude of follow-on questions.

Compare, for example, (or in B-Movie speak, "Be Per-plexed!") these two statements:

"The series of road shows was developed to build public awareness of the imminent changes to the passport..."


"It would not have been able to accommodate a larger audience, had the road shows been publicised more widely [than the local media, a day in advance]."

In fact, despite Burnham's wishes for publicity ("I look forward to seeing as many people as possible as the roadshow travels round the country.") he seems to have done everything in his power to ensure that people only happen fortuitously upon the stall:

"Notice of the road shows was provided to local media [but no others] the working day before each event."

"The dates and locations of the road shows were not released to the public in advance."

"...the road show stand was designed to attract passers-by (e.g. shoppers) and the local media. It would not have been able to accommodate a larger audience..."

I never took architectury at school, so naturally I can't figure out a building-size-to-capacity correlation. From my vague A-level Physics knowledge, I seem to recall that if you want more space to put stuff, you have to build a bigger thing to hold it. Burnham et al seem to have missed this trick, and managed to design a stand to hold a relatively small number of looker-onners. Oops.

I'm also intrigued by this bit:

"As is usual practice, Ministers' movements are not confirmed in advance for security reasons."

Someone please enlighten me as to why we aren't allowed to know what any of our public ministers are up to in advance? Have anger levels really reached that point where screaming, naked NO2ID protestors are likely to run amok in a shopping centre, daubing Andy Burnham's face with barcode paint and shocking old grannies into submission by shouting "Nothing to hide! Nothing to hide!"

Or are far more mundane acts of inapproriateness (such as leafleting) included in this attack on our upright Ministers' "security" (being read alternatively as "embarassment").

As the BBC suggest, the roadshow was a nice attempt that seemed "to be preaching to the converted". But are the general public converted, or merely undecided? The decreasing popularity of the ID system perhaps indicates the latter, in which case the roadshow can onyl be seen as damage limitation.

Plan of attack

Blogging's plan of attack cos I keep forgetting to do so.

Related reading this week: Sun Tzu on The Art of War. (Alternative Translation.)

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Policies of Titanic decision: Why Booze is a Scapegoat

Theresa May claims that government plans to ban alcohol on public transport, alongside its steps for longer drinking hours, show that the government is in "complete disarray". More of her comment in the BBC article, where she backs dropping the proposals for 24 hour drinking.

There are, I think, many points being bandied around, but no-one seems to want to address any of the fundamental issues involved here. We can talk about banning booze, licensing hours and the "right" to go unharassed in the street as much as we like, but as long as we restrict ourselves to these lines, we only consider effect, and never cause.

In 1994, Rod Rhodes set out a vision of the "Hollowing Out of the State", encapsulating a group of trends that made up a loss of control by the British State. While he considered factors such as increased European governace, and increased privatisation as being part of the scenario, over the last 10 years, the situation has perhaps diversified even further. Relevant to the increased level of drink-related problems is not just the Hollowing Out of the State, but also of the Public. The difference between these two, and mirrored in their reactions, is that one has direct access to legislation, whilst the other merely has the tools that have been left to them over an extended period of disempowerment.

One of the (more sensible) observations directed towards unsavoury activity is that often there just isn't much else to do. I haven't heard of any empirical evidence to back this up (let me know if you have), but I believe that this is an important (certainly not the only) factor in explaining our current malaise. The purpose of a State is partly to combine decisions, and partly to exert power (to implement those decisions). Without either one of these, the State is effectively useless - either it can't decide what to implement (or implements badly), or it lacks any authority (at all, rather than in the -arianism sense) to have any effect. If Rhodes is particularly insightful (and I don't see why he isn't) then much of both of these have been removed from our government, for a variety of reasons (not least, for example, the 1980s).

The flipside, or perhaps simply the extension, of this, is that power has also been removed from the people the government represent. Firstly, there is the loss of power that used to be invested in government, but is now in further-removed hands as outlined above - primarily non-democratic industrial players, and European politics. Secondly, as Whitehall struggles to appear effectual in the spotlight of media attention, its grab for power/attention can often come at the expense of local government, widening the gap between the public and their "voice". And thirdly, as a new era of communication is ushered in (following the globalised industrial comms era), whereby those with the facility and the know-how to form ad-hoc alliances and pressure groups do so, the voice of the "public" is increasingly skewed towards a relative minority. This blog could be held as proof of this, perhaps...

The end result of all this is a government and the majority of a public caught in limbo, between a large, complex variety of actors and parties, all of whom have their own agenda, and all of whom are well-versed in keeping the pace of politics ticking over so fast that keeping up is difficult - especially when you work 45 hours a week, or have a mountain of paperwork to climb.

And so we are the heirs to a government that must apply ever harsher (read "media-grabbing") measures in order to court public opinion, and a public that resorts to the menu of cheap cocktails as their remaining source of choice. We are, and shall be for a while, stuck in this vicious cycle of despair, escape, revelry, and desparate measures which lead to more stringent law, and an increased lust for escape.

This is why relaxing drinking laws is both a couragous step, and a foolish one. To address one part of the cycle but not the others may have a breaking effect on it, but this will probably take a fair while more than the 4 year election cycle. If the other factors affecting the situation aren't realised at the same time - working hours, disempowerment, et al - then all that tension will simply be released into a 24 hour binge, and the plan will fail. The policy ship will jhave ploughed head first into an iceberg it thought only surface frost.

But each party involved is too concerned about how they come across to others to change anything.

Update: This quote from Lib Dem Mark Oaten sums a lot of it up... "This government seems obsessed with banning things." Jail time and heavy laws may achieve a "peaceful" society, but where's the Respecttm, Tony?

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Are you up4ID?

Into The Machine is proud to unveil its latest initiative: The up4ID campaign. For too long, the voices of the terrorist-loving, anti-public, liberalist monkeys have been the only ones occupying the stage of debate. No longer! We reveal just why an ID system is bloody brilliant, and vie for your support to help out all those poor MPs who must be feeling rather besieged by now. Click now! And tell all your (non-wimpy) friends!

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Police stop and search 'rising'

"Over half of 18 forces in England and Wales said they had stopped more people in the last three months than in the previous year." Not sure how much that gets skewed by the conference season, but it can't be a huge amount - looks like military bases and the like are more responsible for the increase in figures. Can't see a link to any source figures though.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Rhetoric vs Debate: A Truly Public Strategy

Richard Veryard looks at the information sharing aspects of the MI5 statement on the sources of information as reported by Channel 4 News. The original PDF is here, and the BBC have a report following it up, too.

The context is that, as the BBC put it, the Law Lords "are examining whether the UK government should have to check whether intelligence it uses has been obtained by torture." The document is the statement by MI5 chief Dame Manningham-Buller with respect to this, and I suggest taking a look at Richard's summary linked to above for a good account of what it contains. Lord Falconer also had some stuff to say on this a few weeks ago.

There are naturally many facets to this - the balance between revealing information and revealing sources, as Richard points out, and the ethical legitimacy of information-obtained-under-duress, which is what the Law Lords are looking at. As such, I'm not going to harp on about what decision the Lords should come to. I'm sure they have more time to look into it than me.

Instead, I'm merely going to draw some parallels amongst the arguments being raised here and the state that we find ourselves in, in order to bring attention to the rhetoric used and hopefully raise some interesting questions to answer later. In some ways, this is part of the remit of the Lords, but in others it considers broader implications that they probably aren't touching on.

There are 2 main reasons put forth by Dame Manningham-Buller in favour of not worrying about the source of information, even when it is "apparent to the Agencies that the intelligence has been obtained from individuals in detention". That is, when there is reasonable suspicion of the involvement of torture. Compare this to the "trend" in anti-terrorist legislation to define 'knowledge, belief or reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing' (or, indeed, intent of wrongdoing) as being the tipping point for a third party being implicated in the guilt as well. Should we, as public, not also have the ability to make decisions based on our suspicions? Apparently not. Anyway, to those arguments...

Life, Liberty, Happiness

The first is that "where the reporting is threat-related, the desire for context will usually be subservient to the need to take action to establish the facts, in order to protect life." (My emphasis.) This is a line we see consistently repeated - indeed it may well be the line to take, established as it has been by the PM himself on various occasions:

" can I responsibly refuse to something that will actually protect ... the most basic civil liberty which is the right to life?"

This is certainly something that needs looking at, and thinking further about, for it's clearly a sentiment designed to invoke strong emotion, polarise people's instincts, and segragate those who argue against "life". In this sense, then, the statement mirrored by both parties can be seen as a form of "non-national" patriotism, and only barbarians would argue otherwise. The difference between the two, of course, is that the role of MI5 does not extend to casting judgement over a whole nation. The important thing to remember, though, is that Mr Blair continues to prove that he is in the arms - mutually, of course - of the Police and of the Intelligence services. This can probably be traced back to the fact that populations do tend to quite like a feeling of security. (Whether they actually get given such a feeling is another matter.) Anyway, this is a powerful argument - but powerful arguments are often used to justify a large array of otherwise-questionable practices.

The question that we, as the beneficiaries of Blair and Co.'s altruistic powers, should be asking to both Whitehall and ourselves is: How far will we go to defend ourselves? Unless we are able to at least say that we do have some limit - whether it be personally and individually, or on a social basis as a whole - then we face an ever-increasing slide into becoming a nation that is willing to do anything so long as we sets out, at some point along its journey, to preserve our own life. The fact that this may involve killing members of our own population, or any other such "side-effect", becomes less and less important under this banner, and eventually a SAD (Self-Attained Destruction) State results. This is very much the direction we are headed in.

In other words, this is not as black-and-white as the politicians, the intelligence agencies and the afraid public would like it to be. The practice of using preservation of life is a dangerous justification if not backed up by concern, debate, accountability and a desire to determine what ill effects such a policy is having. Unless we have all these, and an attitude that takes human rights seriously in the face of "attack", then we leave ourselves wide open for many, many miscarriages of justice to go by completely unnoticed and unrecorded. This is a heavy burden to bear, no matter what their argument.

Diplomatic Doublethink

The second argument for ignoring suspicion of the use of torture is the "importance of co-operation between States in countering the threat from international terrorism." Furthermore, "...material [shared under this] ... includes detainee reporting which has proved to be very valuable in disrupting terrorist activity." (Note here that of the 2 cases presented in the statement, 1 - the latter - clearly starts off by demonstrating just how wrong and misleading "vidence" obtained under duress can be.)

As with the sacrifice of liberty in the name of life, above, here we again see the ceremonial parading of a "worthy goal" to undermine efforts for justice elsewhere. Again, this argument is parroted by Tony B, as he sweeps aside one wrong in order to justify another. Perhaps on this front he's been carefully learning from tactics used all over the world - for instance, per the US support for Uzbekistan.

The point here is again not to argue against the (perhaps laudable) aim undertaken by our leaders, but to highlight the balance that is often lost when one becomes fixated on a particular target. The image of a plate-spinner, juggling a dozen ceramic dishes on poles comes to mind - by tending to one potential disaster, eleven others are lining up, ready to bring destruction. The difference between the analogy and reality, though, is that our government have settled into a mode of thought in which only the one plate matters, and it is thought that it will be fine to leave the others until we have got this single, lone dish perfectly balanced, spinning forever. I hear a lot of crashing going on.

So this reveals the hypocrisy inherent in a single-focus campaign against a vague entity such as "terror". The wool to have been pulled over our eyes is to have defined "terrorism" as the evil in the world - to create the illusion that, because it can happen to us, all other injustice is of a secondary nature to this central threat to world peace. Perhaps ex-dictators can mock the Western-induced court process because they are aware of just how hypocritical this campaign is - many years of meting out injustice, and having it acknowledged - and let slide - put a very different perspective on world affairs to that presented by the spin machine.

Moreso, it is our lack of courage in admitting our international tensions that is the most telling. To uphold the image of saintliness, and to admit the realities only internally, behind the scenes, is even more damaging than acknowledging the state of global affairs as it really is. And, I feel, it is this that most disappoints the British public, and discourages them from caring, or from even questioning. The human mind is relatively good at knowing when it's being lied to. All it needs to do now is to express this in real terms.

I would like to think that the result of this is not that we should be asking tough questions of the Cabinet, or of our MPs, but that we should in fact be asking tough questions of - and demanding tough answers from - ourselves. Despite ten-a-penny authoritarian claims, public opinion is still the deciding factor in the fate of many policies. And as such, public debate and public consciousness need to be a driving framework in what kind of nation will we be in 5 or 10 years. By demonstrating that we have a grip on these subjects, as well as an opinion, the ears of those who currently feel that they have the run of the house may just be opened a little.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Terrorists don't ride bikes

Eh? The Terrorism Act was used to arrest a woman in Dundee for walking on a cycle path?

A spokesman for Forth Ports said: “We will robustly prosecute anyone who breaches these new security measures because they have been introduced by the Government and we are obliged to enforce them.”

I feel a database coming on. Not an identity database. A "dumb use of law" database - these things need to be documented. Now if only I had some time...

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

ID Cards Pass the 3rd Hurdle

The ID Cards Bill has survived its 3rd reading by majority of 25: 309 votes to 284. Expected, I think.

Encouragingly, there was at least a good level of sensible debate in the hours leading up to the vote, from what I saw. Just a shame that the vast majority of the people in it were people who had already decided against ID Cards, leaving the others under the scourge of their whip to ignore rationale.

Winds of Change

Don't be alarmed. "Blunkett is an Arse" is no more. The puerile name was fun, but a Rose by any other name is still a Rose, and the joke was getting a little old. So this is, in a way, "Arse 2.0", but in many other ways (i.e. all of them), it's still the same blog. The time is right to embrace the change.

And it's not the only change to be embraced. Today, I fear, we'll also be seeing the triumph of the 3rd ID Card reading, despite Kennedy's urges, as it were. Quite whether the issue is helped or overshadowed by other decisions to be made is up for debate. Still, I'm not expecting any miracles. I only say this so that I may be proved wrong...

More comment soon.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Wither debate? And who are our captors?

Don't worry, we're still here - watching, learning, taking stock. Things are a bit quiet at the moment due to external pressures, so until we get our teeth back into it, here's an interesting comment from Martin Kettle in today's Guardian, regarding the level of discussion surrounding the terrorism bill.

Also some interesting points currently being made on this issue on Any Questions - namely that the extension in detention to 3 months by the bill is being driven (supposedly) by the sheer amount of data the Police have to go through - CCTV footage, hard drives, links to chase up, et al. Let us ask ourselves if we are making ourselves safer through the increase of surveillance technology, or if we're further and further becoming trapped by our dependence on this culture of reliance on monitoring information. Who needs terrorism to disrupt lives when we've constructed the cage ourselves?