What You Can Get Away With » Nick

By not simply crossing the floor at Westminster to join UKIP, but resigning and calling a by-election to do it, has he now set a precedent for any other Tory MPs who want to do the same? The last MP to do that for a defection was Bruce Douglas-Mann switching from Labour to the SDP in 1982 (and he lost), and MPs who’ve done it since then haven’t followed his example.

However, if there are any other Tories thinking of doing the same (and there probably are), they’ll be watching what happens in Clacton very intently as they know that if they want to switch, they’ll face lots of questions about why they’re not calling a by-election too. Indeed, a cynic might suggest that Carswell has found a way to establish himself as UKIP’s only MP (with the resulting media profile) should he win and if no one else wants to take the same risk.

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I wrote last week about doing a new series of posts that tried to explain political science concepts in an accessible and understandable way. Thanks to all those here and on Twitter who said you’d be interested in that, and I had hoped to have a first post up by now. However, things have taken longer than I expected and trying to break down concepts into simple and understandable chunks isn’t as easy as I thought it might be, and the first post is currently meandering all over the place. One thing it is doing is giving me a lot of respect for lecturers and other academics, as trying to break things down into discrete chunks of information isn’t as easy as it might seem when there’s a huge mass of interlocked concepts to disentangle it from.

Which is my way of saying that it’ll likely be a week or two before anything appears, as I need to properly plan this (instead of my usual blogging method of winging it) and am off on holiday soon, but hopefully the time away will help me to sort the different ideas and concepts out in my head. I am still planning on doing it, but perhaps not as quickly as I first hoped.

It seems that someone supports Boris’s proposal to make people guilty until proven innocent:

Britain’s most senior police chief has called for wide-ranging new powers to tackle homegrown terrorism, including a “rebuttable presumption” that anyone who visits Syria without prior notice should be treated as a terror suspect.

Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, chief constable of the Metropolitan police, also called for a return of control orders and said Britons who wage jihad in Syria or Iraq should be stripped of their passports.

When did we become a country where it’s acceptable for senior police officers, speaking in an official capacity, to call for fundamental changes in the law? And what made Bernard Hogan-Howe think it would be a good idea to do this on the same day he had to apologise for the Met breaking it’s own rules in using CS gas against lawful protesters?

But at least we have Police and Crime Commissioners to hold a senior officer like Hogan-Howe accountable. Except London doesn’t have a PCC, instead the Met are held accountable by the Mayor. Yes, the same Mayor Hogan-Howe has just been publicly supporting the proposals of…

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police_electionsWe often use the phrase ‘elective dictatorship‘ to describe the British system of government, reflecting that the nature of our system means that a Government with a majority in Parliament can do pretty much as it wants until the next election. Unlike most actual dictatorships, there are constraints to that power and a Prime Minister or Government can be removed from power if enough of their party decide they want to get rid of them.

Despite ‘elective dictatorship’ not normally being regarded as a positive description, recent years have seen it being rolled out across other forms of government. Believing that ‘strong leaders’ could wield miraculous powers, the Blair government brought in elected mayors for local authorities, concentrating most executive powers for an area in an individual, and even if a council didn’t want a mayor, most of them were forced to shift to the cabinet model – and later to the ‘strong leader’ model, where council leaders would be given effectively the same powers as a mayor, whether they wanted them or not.

This was presented as making local government more ‘democratic’ and ‘accountable’, because one of the persistent myths of British politics – and part of the ‘elective dictatorship’ – is that democracy and accountability are things that only need to happen at the ballot box every few years. Democracy is seen as an act rather than a process with accountability normally being framed as requirements to consult and consider rather than any real controls on the exercise of power. In most cases, any checks on executive power are to potentially block it after it’s announced rather than amend it beforehand.

Which brings us to Police and Crime Commissioners, another classic British case of someone coming up with a solution and then looking for – or creating – a problem that they can fix. In this case, it was the supposed non-accountability of Police Authorities, where accountability had been defined as ‘being known by the public’. Members of police authorities could be removed from their position if they weren’t doing it well, because many of them were appointed directly by councils within that police force’s area. By contrast, although PCCs were elected, no one was given the power to remove them from their office, short of them committing a crime. Police and Crime Panels are required to be consulted and can occasionally block an action by a PCC, but if the PCC’s incompetence isn’t criminal, they can do nothing to remove them from power. The person whose job is supposedly to make the police accountable is so unaccountable themselves, they can’t be removed from their office (unlike just about every other executive office in British politics). That’s why we’ve got the situation we currently have in South Yorkshire, where no one can remove Shaun Wright from office, despite even his own party thinking he should go.

(I know that’s just one part of a bigger issue, and what’s happened in Rotherham is bloody appalling but I really have very little to add to that discussion beyond ‘this is terrible’ as I don’t know how to improve child protection)

The police need to be more accountable to the public they serve (especially when senior police officers think they should be demanding fundamental changes in the law) but PCCs were an ill-thought out way to try and achieve that end. Proper democracy and accountability is an ongoing process of interacting institutions, not an occasional event that grants power to someone and the ability to use it without repercussions. If we want proper accountability it takes work to enable people to hold all power accountable, not and that’s something that can’t be delivered by a gimmick.

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American police are more trigger happy than British criminals – “Americans are three times more likely to be killed by a police officer with a gun than someone in Britain is by a criminal with one.”
‘We Have Always Fought’: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative – An essay from the Hugo-winning writer Kameron Hurley. “Half the world is full of women, but it’s rare to hear a narrative that doesn’t speak of women as the people who have things done to them instead of the people who do things. More often, women are talked about as a man’s daughter. A man’s wife.”
Ferguson: A String of Betrayals – Interesting background on how Ferguson, Missouri got to be the way it was before Michael Brown’s shooting, and how that drove the protests afterwards.
Whatever happened to the big issues? – asks David Boyle
Everything you know about Hamas is wrong – Tim Holmes looks beyond the media simplifications.

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Boris points out the first guilty man

Boris points out the first person to be presumed guilty

In addition to his occasional duties as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson finds the time to do a wide range of other things, including earning £250,000 a year as a columnist for the Telegraph. With all those things to do and so little time to do them in, it’s hardly surprising that Boris can’t devote his full attention to everything he does, and this time it’s the column that suffers. For it’s here that he’s not been paying proper attention to what he’s writing, and has let the affable, humorous Boris the buffoon mask slip to reveal the scary reality of the true Boris underneath.

Boris has declared, like so many other columnists and professional bloviators, that Something Must Be Done to stop terrorists and the Islamic State. Despite this situation having directly emerged from the Something That Was Done when the same people were calling for action against terrorism and Saddam Hussein a decade or so ago, we’re assured that this time, Doing Something is the only option, as long as it’s the Something that columnist has decreed is the right thing.

What does Boris want done? Oh, nothing much really, just a minor change in the law. It’d only be a tiny thing…

it is hard to press charges without evidence. The law needs a swift and minor change so that there is a “rebuttable presumption” that all those visiting war areas without notifying the authorities have done so for a terrorist purpose.

Yes, it’s just a minor change in the law to declare that a certain class of people (that no one will accidentally be included within, of course) will from now on be treated as guilty of a crime until they can prove that they didn’t do it. Having been branded as a terrorist, and thus subject to the control orders that Boris also wants to bring back, it’ll no doubt be a simple task for them t prove their innocence, especially when many things will be kept from them in the name of ‘national security’. Of course, we’ve now got secret courts, and it’ll only take a further minor change in the law to ensure that all those we’ve declared terrorists have to go to one to prove their innocence.

And so it turns out, if there was any doubt, that Boris is just another politician ready to fall into the politician’s fallacy of something must be done, this is something, therefore it must be done. Like so many politicians of the last decade or so, it turns out that the Something which Boris thinks Must Be Done to protect us against the terrorists is to give yet more powers to the state and the security services and take more powers away from the rest of us. As ever, these powers are only to be used against Bad People, but once the state has acquired the convenience of being able to declare people guilty until proven innocent of a certain crime, what do you think is more likely? That those powers would remain restricted to just one crime and one group of people (or even be allowed to wither away unused and be removed from the statute book) or gradually be applied to a wider group of alleged crimes and people, just because they’re such useful powers? How long until someone seriously proposes David Allen Green’s Something Must Be Done Bill because we can’t be too careful and Something Must Be Done?

Welcome to the future, where we’re all guilty of something and someone we’ve never met will be given the chance to prove our innocence behind closed doors. It’s OK, though, because Boris is Prime Minister and he’s got funny hair. Laugh at the funny man with his funny hair, and pay no attention to the jackboots behind the smile.

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Doctor Who returns to BBC One tonight with the first full appearance of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. It’s been noted many times that Liberal Democrats tend to be bigger fans of Doctor Whoand SF in general – than members of other parties, though to the best of my knowledge Nick Clegg hasn’t yet talked in public about his own views on the show. With that in mind, I’ve come up with five things that I think the new Doctor and his career could teach Nick Clegg:

1) What it’s like to be a professional actor

Clegg used to act at school and appears to have enjoyed the experience, but didn’t carry on this interest when he got older. Capaldi has had a thirty year career as an actor, and he could probably explain to Clegg just what it’s like, perhaps sating Clegg’s curiosity if he’s ever wondered what things would be like for him if he’d carried on acting.

2) What it’s like to win an Oscar

As someone not involved in film-making, Clegg hasn’t even been to the Academy Awards, let alone won one. Capaldi has won one for his short film Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life, and if Clegg hasn’t already seen or read one of the interviews with Capaldi where he talks about the experience, Capaldi could tell him what it was like.

3) How to operate the TARDIS

There are no TARDIS console props in Whitehall or Liberal Democrat HQ in Great George Street. I’m also reliably informed that Clegg doesn’t have one in his home or his constituency office in Sheffield. Capaldi, of course, has been a long time fan of the show and now he’s playing the Doctor, he’s likely to be much more knowledgeable about its operation than Clegg.

4) The qualities needed for a successful event and travel organiser

Capaldi’s just come back from promoting his new series on the Doctor Who World Tour. Clegg’s currently recruiting for a Visits and Events Officer. Capaldi could no doubt inform him of some of the things he thinks are the qualities of a person organising a successful event and travel plans.

5) How an actor might approach playing the role of Clegg in a film

Channel 4 have announced that they’re making a film about Clegg and the formation of the coalition. In his career, Capaldi has played several real people on screen including Cardinal Richelieu, King Charles I and Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. He could no doubt tell Clegg what it’s like to play a real person and how he prepares for the role, but with the caveat that the actor cast as Clegg may have an entirely different process.

That’s five things Clegg could learn from Capaldi, probably over a pleasant lunch somewhere.

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I’ve made a few slight layout and editing changes to the blog, just to make it easier to access some of my old posts, particularly those I wrote as part of a series of posts. So, if you’re looking for my writing on any of these, you can now find links for them all on their own page to help guide you through the archive:

My 2006 walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End
The 2010 General Election
The 2012 Tour de France
Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism

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secondhand-politics-booksAs many of you are probably aware by now, I’m in the middle of doing an MA course in Politics at the University of Essex‘s Department of Government. One of the reasons I wanted to do the course is that after years of being involved in practical politics, I wanted to go back and look at the academic side of it once more, not least because there’ve been some dramatic changes in it since I finished my first degree twenty years ago.

One thing that I have discovered since returning to studying is that there’s a huge difference in the way people talk and think about politics inside and outside academia. There’s a huge amount of information, concepts and theories being propagated and discussed within academic politics that barely permeates the world of conventional politics.

To be clear, I’m not saying that anyone involved in politics needs to be forced into a lecture theatre to have the full intricacies of it explained to them in gory detail, just in case someone on the doorstep wants to engage them in a debate about the differences between Burke and Mill. However, I do feel that there are plenty of people out there who like to discuss politics in more depth – whether they’re actively involved in it or not – but are missing out because there are interesting concepts within the field that aren’t widely known outside academia.

(I have a feeling that this may be something unique to politics as a field because there’s so little overlap between academics and media ‘experts’ in the field, though I could be wrong on that. This cartoon, however, is relevant to that debate.)

Of course, some of this is because a lot of the interesting academic work is locked away behind very expensive doors. For instance, in a post last week I talked about Katz and Mair’s theory of cartel parties, and if you want to read the paper that comes from you’ll have to subscribe to Party Politics. Or, I think discussions about voting in Britain would be much more informative if people had read books like Denver, Carman and Johns Elections and Voters in Britain but it’s £24 a copy and not commonly found in non-academic libraries. However, this same barrier applies in other fields too, but the information still gets out there because there are people who will report it, summarize it and popularize it.

Unfortunately in politics – and particularly British politics – that rarely happens. Occasionally a commentator will mention academic studies, but usually in the context of a quantitative study providing support for whatever their argument is that week but there’s rarely any deeper analysis going on. (Even if I don’t always agree with his conclusions, Peter Oborne is a rare exception) Our political commentary is rarely about deeper issues or helping people understand what’s going on and why, but more about short-term Westminster village gossip.

For instance, much political commentary is based on ideas from Downs’ Economic Theory Of Democracy (particularly that the only dimension of any importance is the left-right one) without acknowledging any of the debate, critiques, revisions and additions that theory has gone through over the years. There’s a whole field of ideas out there that’s not being included in the way politics is reported and talked about, which is perhaps another symptom of why it’s becoming closed off and of rapidly lessening interest to many people.

So, what I’m wondering is, in an attempt to counter this drought of information, would people be interested in an occasional (possibly very occasional, depending on the time it takes) series of posts on different areas of academic political studies and political science? I think it’d be interesting to bring some of these ideas out to try and broaden the political debate beyond who’s in and who’s out in any particular week, and it might inspire some interesting debate. If you would be interested, let me know, and also if there are any areas you want to know more about.

Too much democracy? Time for 21st century democracy. – An introduction by Martin Smith and Dave Richards to some of the themes of their book Institutional Crisis in 21st Century Britain, which I’m working through at the moment.
Forget quotas for women MPs – time to limit the number of men – Rainbow Murray flips the debate on representation.
Making policy for the policy invariant – How do you make policy if the people don’t care what the results of that policy are?
Public Statement on the Readmittance of Lord Rennard to the Liberal Democrats – Jennie Rigg says exactly what I would say.
Do political parties make any difference? – Alex Marsh with details of some new academic research that’s relevant to my interests, and also contains some information on the party’s stance on immigration that’ll be of interest to activists.

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