About Guy Aitchison

Guy Aitchison was a co-editor of openDemocracy's UK section, OurKingdom, and is now a PhD student in politics at University College London.

Articles by Guy Aitchison

This week's editor


Adam Ramsay is co-editor of OurKingdom.

Rowntree report on The Database State challenged

Guy Aitchison (London, CML): There's a very interesting discussion taking place of the recent JRRT report on The Database State (pdf) over at Bill Dutton's blog at the Oxford University Internet Institute. Dutton argues that the report "does not explain its methodology or the nature of the evidence on which the authors draw their conclusions." There is, he argues, no explanation as to why the 46 databases analysed in the report were chosen. This has generated some misleading headlines as journalists have assumed the sample is in some way representative of all UK public sector databases (the Guardian, for example, reported that 'Right to privacy broken by a quarter of UK's public databases, says report'). Dutton also agrees with the Ministry of Justice that the "traffic light system", which the report uses to grade databases according to their compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, is not substantiated by any evidence. The reader of the report, he says, "should not be in a position that requires us to trust the judgement of the authors, based on their authority.

Petition to Brown for Magna Carta holiday

Guy Aitchison (London, CML): Via Gareth Young of the Campaign for an English Parliament comes this petition to Number 10 to "celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta with a national holiday in England." This strikes me as a great idea - and not just because I fancy an extra holiday. One of the points that came out very strongly from the Convention on Modern Liberty last month is that people in this country, especially young people, often have a very poor grasp of the history that lies behind the rights and freedoms they enjoy (see especially the session on the Levellers with Quentin Skinner, Geoffrey Robertson and Melissa Lane). Partly this is thanks to a History curriculum that is dominated by the history of the 20th century, especially World War Two and the Nazis. A public holiday to mark Magna Carta would help remind us how long and hard has been the struggle for the very liberties we now stand to lose. We could even make it an annual thing.

Carnival on Modern Liberty. 4

Guy Aitchison (London, CML): The latest edition of the blog Carnival on Modern Liberty is brought to you by Jennie Rigg over at the Yorksher Gob. This week's edition is stuffed full of liberty-related posts from across the blogosphere brought to you in carnivalesque one liners. Get your ticket here and enjoy the ride!

Next week's Carnival is hosted by Matt Wardman. Make your submissions here.

Democracy no "luxury", says Clegg

Guy Aitchison (London, CML): Reading Anthony Barnett and Stuart Weir’s opening contributions to Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88, which deal with the early history of the organisation, one can’t help but reflect on the remarkable talent the political class in this country has for self-preservation. Over many years it has evolved a number of rhetorical techniques the aim of which is to marginalise anyone who dares challenge the basis of its authority. One favourite technique is to dismiss any concerns with the legitimacy of its power as those of the“chattering classes”, nothing that the average voter “gives a shit about” as Alasdair Campbell bluntly put it.

If that’s what constitutional campaigners are up against under normal conditions, it’s not surprising that during a time of economic crisis it’s even more difficult for them to get their message across as things like electoral reform and civil liberties are brushed aside as “luxuries” we can do without.

The Convention on Modern Liberty: spreading the word

Guy Aitchison (CML): The Convention on Modern Liberty (blogged below by Tom) launched on Facebook today. If you’re a member please join the Group here. We intend Facebook to be one of the main ways through which we organise and communicate with people about the Convention. I went for a Group rather than a FB Page to start with because of the advantages it offers in terms of messaging members directly to their inboxes and growing the group through invites. Do join the Convention Group, invite your friends and anyone who might be interested and get involved on the discussion boards where I have started a few threads.

You can also follow the Convention on Twitter

And if you're a blogger who supports the Convention and its aims, why not add the Convention feed to your site? We hope to have a nice selection of widgets to choose from soon. 


"Take Jane"

Guy Aitchison (London, CML): NO2ID launch a new video campaign this week aimed at highlighting a disturbing aspect of the national identity register (the database at the heart of the preposterous "ID cards" scheme) that is frequently overlooked. "Take Jane" is a short video monologue by a mother fleeing an abusive husband out of fear for her safety and that of their daughter, Jane. She knows that easy access to her details via the thousands of officials that operate the database means it's only a matter of time before he finds them. As NO2ID say on their site:

It is nearly certain the National Identity Register will be used, as many existing databases have already been, to harrass and to stalk individuals and to commit crimes against them.

Because it is intended to be universal, because it will contain or connect to so much information, and because it will feed other official databases, the National Identity Register has much more potential for harm than the often patchy official records that already exist.

The campaign will hopefully show the "nothing to hide" argument used by pro-ID advocates for the rubbish it is.

Confused about government plans for a huge communications database?

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Don't worry, here's Jacqui Smith to explain everything:

if we face a situation as a government where both
technology and our use of technology means that some of the most important capability that law enforcement uses at the moment is likely to be eroded, then we have to consider what is the most appropriate way to deal with that technologically (number one) and what are the appropriate legal safeguards to put around the way in which we deal with that in the future to safeguard that capability    

Clearer now? Good. Now stop worrying. We are safe in their hands.(via the No2ID email). 

Update: No2ID have the Home Secretary's fingerprints.


Correcting the neo-cons

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): In his calculated endorsement of Barack Obama in the Telegraph last week, Boris Johnson felt a clear need to justify to his readers how he had come to reach a conclusion different to that of the great sage on all things America and the West: Melanie Phillips. The Mayor does "revere" the Speccie columist and author of Londonistan, you see, and has "carefully studied her blog entires about Obama", but in the end he just couldn't buy into the idea that the next likely President of the US is a "Marxist subversive loony Lefty" on the basis of whatever tenuous associations he once held.

It is perhaps reassuring to know that the mayor of a city as international and diverse as London is unconvinced by some of the wilder more racially-charged smears coming out of the GOP. But in the neo-con world inhabited by Johnson's former colleagues at the Speccie (not to mention his current colleagues at City Hall) Phillip's clash of civilizations narrative, in which Obama plays the role of appeaser, still carries influence. That is why it is helpful to have Kanishk's Tharoor's calm measured demolition of Phillips in openUSA.

Simon Jenkins blasts MPs on liberty

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Simon Jenkins uses his valedictory column in today's Sunday Times to blast MPs for not standing up for liberty against an authoritarian Home Office.

Some highlights:

Since 9/11 there has sprung into being a war-on-terror version of the “military-industrial complex”, against which Eisenhower warned Americans as the cold war developed in the 1950s. The complex roams seminars and think tanks with blood-curdling accounts of what Osama Bin Laden is planning. Visitors need go no further than the biennial defence sales exhibition in London’s Docklands to see Eisenhower’s monsters on parade. They feed on the politics of fear, a leitmotif of this government. The entire nation is regarded as under suspicion....

 A feature of this campaign is its sheer mendacity. Smith last week promised that her surveillance regime would cover only details of electronic communication, not contents. This is incredible. It reminds me of the old Home Office lie that all phone taps “require the home secretary’s personal authority”. Smith’s apparatchiks want to read the lot...

The campaign against Thatcher's football ID

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Over at the Fabian Society blog, General Secretary Sunder Katwala, posts a short personal reflection on the career of David Evans - the Tory MP for Welwyn and Hatfield who died earlier this week - and reveals himself to have been an early opponent of ID cards and the fledgling database state. Evans - who described himself as a "very right-wing disciplinarian" - had strenuously recommended ID cards to Margaret Thatcher as a way to stamp out football hooliganism. All matches would be 100% members only, with membership serving as a self-contained identity card - a "crude piece of unConservative central control", which, the Guardian obituary notes, "was a serious runner at the time."

Sunder's first taste of direct political action was collecting signatures against the football ID card scheme at Southend United. In the end it was the glaring holes in the scheme (nicely summed up by Ed Pearce in the Guardian), rather than the work of protestors, which led to it being dropped. But as we gear up for the issue of the first ID cards on 25 November - this time by a Labour government - it's interesting to note that the head of the Fabians has a strong pedigree when it comes to opposing this intrusive and unwanted measure.

Spot the difference

If there's one name guaranteed to provoke the ire of US liberals, perhaps even more so than that of W himself, then it is surely Ralph Nader. Eight years on and the Democrats still haven't forgiven the perennial independent candidate for "spoiling" their chances in 2000 by taking enough votes in Florida to ultimately cost Gore the Whitehouse.

What Nader has consistently pointed out of course (and there are studies which back him up on this) is that his voters are not simply awkward and self-indulgent Dems - they are voters from all parties and none tired of the dominance corporations hold over the political process. With Republicans and Democrats in virtual agreement on all the main issues, he asks, why shouldn't he run? What right do Democrats have to his votes?

Ahead of his latest bid for the Whitehouse, this familiar theme is reprised by Nader in a CounterPunch article on the Presidential debates. It is an analysis which won't make it anywhere near the mainstream media of course (especially not with election day so close) but it is nevertheless a valuable reminder that amidst the feverish expectation of "hope" and "change" there are powerful and persisting institutional features that militate against any radical break in policy come January 2009.

Nader sees convergence across the board, but let's take one example: foreign policy. Nader writes:

If anyone can detect a difference between the two candidates regarding belligerence toward Iran and Russia, more U.S. soldiers into the quagmire of Afghanistan (next to Pakistan), kneejerk support of the Israeli military oppression, brutalization and colonization of the Palestinians and their shrinking lands, keeping soldiers and bases in Iraq, despite Obama's use of the word "withdrawal," and their desire to enlarge an already bloated, wasteful military budget which already consumes half of the federal government's operating expenses, please illuminate the crevices between them.

Is Nader being unfair on Obama? Obama's opposition to the Iraq war, which dates back to 2002, is frequently offered as an example of a genuinely different approach to international affairs than the belligerence of McCain - and there is certainly some truth in this. But note how Obama's critique of the Iraq war is not a principled critique, but one made on grounds of cost and efficiency. He does not deny that the US has the right to invade foreign countries in violation of the UN Charter based on some cooked-up pretext. Indeed, on both Pakistan and Iran he has declared himself willing to do much the same thing, risking even bloodier disasters than Iraq. On Afghanistan, all serious military analysts now agree that "victory" (whatever that means) is not possible, yet still Democrats in the US, like their liberal counterparts in the UK, continue to insist that this is the "good" war and demand an escalation in troop numbers. And when Obama goes out of his way to portray himself as a "friend" of Israel, the message is clear: don't expect the US to cut back on its military funding for Israel or embrace the international consensus on a two state settlement.

Take a look at the article for yourself and see if you agree with Nader about the narrowness of the political spectrum in the US. I would suggest that, even if you disagree with Nader's politics, it's difficult to dispute his claim that there is a high degree of convergence between the two main parties, and not just on foreign policy.

But, you might object, isn't this just democracy in action, with both candidates chasing the "median" voter? In a properly functioning democracy we would expect a range of views to be offered and debated. Certainly voters have a right to expect this when, contrary to popular belief and the efforts of the mainstream media, opinion polls consistently show that Americans favour a peaceful non-interventionist foreign policy, rejecting the role of the US as global hegemon in favour of multilateral engagement through international institutions like the UN. In this context, it is not difficult to understand why third party candidates like Nader can attract strong support on the rare occasions they're allowed in the media spotlight.


Digital privacy wars

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): The battle for privacy in the digital age is being fought on many fronts (a point last night's seminar on the database state - reported on below by Tom Griffin - made abundantly clear). Some of these battles are being fought more publicly than others. I've been aware of Jacqui Smith's Orwellian plans to permanently store the whole population's electronic communications, including browsing history, in a huge central database since the summer thanks to No2ID flagging up the plans here on OK. But only today was I made aware of Phorm, a sinister new behavioural tracking technology currently being trialled by the country's biggest Internet Service Provider, BT.

Phorm is the subject of a must-read exchange between Peter Bazalgette, formerly of Endemol, the producers of Big Brother (yes, the headlines write themselves), and Becky Hogge of the Open Rights Group. In a speech at the LSE (published this month by Prospect - excert in the FT), Bazalgette argues that by campaigning against Phorm, and other technologies which capture web browsing habits for the purposes of advertising, privacy groups like the ORG are helping to prevent the full economic potential of the web from being realized:

Kids: just say No2ID!

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): This little nugget from the latest NO2ID email:

A website launched by the government in July to find out what 16-25 year olds think of the national ID scheme has been closed. Visitors to the site are now greeted by the message "Site off-line: The mylifemyid community has now finished. Many thanks for your contribution. We will post a notification here when the report is published". Most of the comments posted on the site, that cost £76,249 to set up and maintain, were against ID cards and the National Identity Register so it will be interesting to see the promised report...

What I love most about this is the name the Home Office bods (or whichever private consultancy firm the 76k went to) came up with to try and make ID cards appealing to people of my age group. You can just imagine them - "The yoof love MySpace don't they? How about calling it 'mylifemyid'?"...only to be swamped by a tsunami of hostile comment, most of which was probably unpublishable. Makes yer proud, doesn't it?  

Hoon rhetoric hits a new low

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): The following remark by Geoff Hoon, which was directed at Lib Dem MP Julia Goldsworthy on tonight's Question Time, lays bare the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the Government's case for the database state:

If they are going to use the internet to communicate with each other and we don't have the power to deal with that, then you are giving a licence to terrorists to kill people

So now, it would seem, not only are opponents of the Govenment's draconian laws "ignoring" terrorism, as Jacqui Smith claimed following the 42 days climbdown, they are actively giving "licence" to "terrorists to kill people"! If this rhetorical turn tells us anything it's just how low the Government is prepared to stoop to bully these measures through.    

Update: I'm currently watching News 24 where a Fabian Society apologist is attempting to justify Hoon's outrageous remarks. So far her arguments - "I don't mind if the Government knows if I phoned my son this afternoon" - have failed to convince...

See also UK Liberty

It's not over

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): The fight against the Counter-Terrorism Bill must not end with the Government's humiliating climbdown over the 42 days proposals. There's still loads of nasties left in the Bill, not least the powers to confiscate a "terrorist's" property - including their bank accounts, vehicles, computers or even their house - without trial and potentially on the basis of secret evidence. There's more listed here in an excellent post by David Mery:

Joe who?

At certain points last night it felt like there were three people taking part in the debate: Obama, McCain and one "Joe the Plumber". Joe first popped up during a discussion of Obama's tax plan and later during the discussion on healthcare. At each mention of his name the candidates would turn sincerely to the camera and explain how they had Joe's best interests at heart.

Now I've been following this campaign pretty closely (it's a guilty pleasure - Huffington Post is my equivalent of Heat magazine) but, tuning into the debate late, I had no idea who Joe was. Was Joe the creation of clever pollsters? Were there thousands of Joe the Plumbers out there, people who would swing this election like the "security moms" supposedly did last time round? Perhaps he was simply the product of McCain's panicked imagination (he is erratic you know).  Was this new Joe any relation to "Joe six-pack"? Perhaps they were one and the same.

It was only this morning that I discovered that Joe is very much real (something I expect oD USA readers knew all along). His full name is Joe Wurzelbacher and he comes from Ohio. It was a discussion with him last Sunday that prompted Obama to speak the four short words that so disgusted Fox News readers: "spread the wealth around". After last night's debate Joe is apparently still unconvinced that Obama's tax plan won't punish small businesses like his. Asked about the repeated references to him and his business, Joe declared that it was "pretty surreal, man". Joe - if I can call you Joe - you're not wrong!

Literary attack on detention without charge ahead of Lords vote

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): On the eve of the crucial vote in the House of Lords on the issue, Liberty has published a collection of pieces by forty two of Britain's literary figures attacking the extension of pre-charge detention in terrorism cases to 42 days. They have set up a nifty little website dedicated to the collection as part of their Charge or Release campaign: www.42writers.com. It features the name of a different author in each of the forty two calendar days, illustrating quite graphically the sheer length of time the Government wants to imprison people for. It joins Amnesty's new campaign and petition against 42 Days you can sign up to here.

I spent an enjoyable half hour clicking through each of the calendar days, reading some powerful contributions from Philip Pullman, Monica Ali, Ian Rankin, Hari Kunzru and other literary big-hitters. What the authors do a great job of conveying (far better than any lawyer or political commentator could hope to) is the sheer length of time we're talking about and the intense personal trauma visited upon the innocent. I won't say much more than that because I hope people will check the site out for themselves. But I do want to quote in full the following poem by Ali Smith. By focusing on the simple passage of time, it asks the reader to empathise with the plight of an innocent detainee - a useful thought experiment perhaps for any of their lordships not quite convinced of the injustice of what is being proposed:

Can the Tories fix the broke society?

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): OK's Tom Griffin has a piece up on Comment is Free reflecting on last night's Guardian-Soundings sponsored debate which asked "Is the future Conservative?" If you do the electoral arithmetic the answer is almost certainly, Yes. But as last night's panel - ably chaired by Jonathan Freedland - recognised, if the party is to achieve any kind of ideological ascendancy it must develop a new political economy that rejects the disastrous neo-liberal thinking that lies behind the current crisis. Not easy when, as Tom notes, Cameron's entire "broken society" pitch is based on the premise that Thatcher fixed the "broken economy"!

I sat through last night's debate with Tom and I think he's right when he says there wasn't much evidence of any new economic thinking from the largely Tory panel. There were a lot platitudes offered about the restoration of civil society and Jesse Norman made the quite remarkable claim that only the Right can provide answers to the current crisis, as they alone have "moved beyond the debate between the individual and the state" (more "Third Way" anyone?).

As Tom says, the most adventurous was Theologian Philip Blond, whose recent attack on the failings of the liberal state was published here on OK. I was surprised to find myself in agreement on some issues with the self-described "communitarian" Blond. One questioner in the audience summed up my reasons well when he joked that Sarah Palin is perhaps the personification of the communitarian critique of liberalism. Beware of attacks on "individualism" from both Right and Left: they have some pedigree.

LibCon's Laurie Penny got the biggest laugh from the left-leaning audience when she asked if we'd be witnessing a public display of contrition from the Tories now that they recognise the damage their failed policies have wrought.  She might have asked the same of New Labour too of course. Alternatives may now have become thinkable, but in the case of both parties, and judging by last night's evidence: don't hold your breath.

Public says first-past-the-post a barrier to voting

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): A record response to the MoJ's public consultation on weekend voting says that first-past-the-post is a barrier to voting, according to the electoral reform group, Make Votes Count.  Question 9 of the consultation asked ""Are you aware of any barriers which prevent individuals from voting?  What are the issues and how can they be overcome?".  Almost all of the responses seen by Make Votes Count answered this question by referring to first-past-the-post. The consultation, which ended yesterday, also found that many people would rather the Government prioritised reform of the electoral system rather than change the day on which people vote. You can see a selection of the responses on the Make Votes Count website.

The responses show that the public understands the issues and provides yet another reason in favour of dumping the absurdly disproportional f-p-t-p in the skip where it belongs along with all the other embarassing relics of our constitution. In some parallel world where public consultations had some impact on policy we might expect this to happen. But as Stuart Weir noted yesterday in relation to the proposed changes to the rules of royal succession, the Government's constitutional reforms are little more than cosmetic: the fundamentals of the royalist constitution remain sacrosanct.

Weekend voting? Possibly. PR? Don't hold your breath.

Policing YouTube

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Our sister site, terrorism.oD, is carrying an article by Tim Stevens on YouTube's decision to block all videos which may relate to foreign terrorist organisations in response to demands by US legislators led by Joe Lieberman. It will be of concern to all those who are worried about the steady creep of censorship in the name of the "war on terror". The UK Home Office apparently has its own list of videos it deems undesirable and, as in the US, it is asking businesses to block material deemed unsuitable by civil servants. The material, of course, is almost exclusively related to Islamic militancy. Leaving aside the civil liberties question, the value of such a politicized form of censorship is debateable when it comes to diminishing the threat of terrorism, as Stevens argues. You can read the full article here

"A laminated polltax"

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): That's the great put-down coined today by Chris Huhne to describe Labour's revolting ID card scheme which is being rolled out on a compulsory basis in November for non-EU students and marriage visa holders. I have a feeling it may prove prophetic.

The first cards were unveiled by Jacqui Smith today. You can take a look at them on the BBC website. They are pink and blue and credit card-sized and feature, amongst other things, a photo, a "biometric chip" and remarks on work restrictions and benefit entitlements. In time these details, and a whole mountain of other personal data, will be stored on a huge central database accessible by several hundred thousand officials.

The initial introduction of the cards for foreign nationals is part of, what Phil Booth from the excellent No2ID calls, a "softening up exercise". Having been forced on the most vulerable members in society, from next year the cards will be compulsory for people in the airline industry and, after that, they will be offered to young people under 16 followed by the entire population.

Goverment wants your views on citizen engagement

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): There are just a few more days left to get your views heard in the MoJ-led discussion on a National Framework for Greater Citizen Engagement (pdf) as part of the Governance of Britain agenda. The discussion paper focuses on how to create clearer structures for Government's "engagement activities" and how to get more people involved in the policy-making process. The report is available here and you can email them at frameworkATjustice.gsi.gov.uk. You can also get involved on the Governance website where, last time I checked, Gareth Young was debating some poor MoJ moderator on the national question.

Reactions to Brown's speech

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Jon Cruddas - the star of this year's conference according to Jackie Ashley - writes in his Coffehouse diary that Brown's speech "nailed it", in part because he was more "emotionally literate" this time round. Cruddas reckons the space for the coup plotters has been shut down and anticipates a "mass defection of Labour’s Taliban to the Tories next week".

Brown's "this is no time for a novice" line will of course be the one most people remember. Double rewarding, as Iain Dale notes, because it can be interpreted to apply to both Miliband and Cameron. And following Ruth Kelly's resignation, which has somewhat overshadowed the reaction to Brown's speech, might it not apply to her as well?

The line that really stuck out for pro-Brown blogger Paul Linford though was "United we are a great movement". This, he hopes, signals a return to the idealism of the pre-Blair Labour party when the phrase "This Great Movement of Ours" was widely used by its leaders.

John le Carré hits the nail on the head

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): He's not happy about the Government's ongoing assault on rights and freedoms and explains why ahead of the Lords vote on the 42 days:

"Partly, I'm angry that there is so little anger around me at what is being done to our society, supposedly in order to protect it," said the 76-year-old in an interview in Waterstone's magazine.

"We have been taken to war under false pretences, and stripped of our civil rights in an atmosphere of panic. Our lawyers don't take to the streets as they have done in Pakistan.

"Our MPs allow themselves to be deluded by their own spin doctors, and end up believing their own propaganda."

He added: "We haul our Foreign Secretary back from a mission to the Middle East so he can vote for 42 days' detention.

"People call me an angry old man. Screw them. You don't have to be old to be angry about that. We've sacrificed our sovereignty to a so-called 'special relationship' which has nothing special about it except to ourselves."

Hat-tip Craig Murray.


A muslim call for a new "Britishness"

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): There is a short article worth reading on the relationship between "Britishness" and "Muslimness" which appears in this month's edition of emel, the "muslim lifestyle magazine". It is written by oD author and former director of City Circle, Yahya Birt. As someone who converted to Islam in later life, Birt is well-placed to offer a unique perspective on the relationship between these two sources of identity and allegiance, so often thought to be in tension with each other.

Birt notes that, contrary to popular belief, a large majority of British muslims self-identify as "British" even though patriotism in general is in decline. But recent attempts to define and re-assert "Britishness" in terms of values and institutions are inadequate, he argues. They are too vague and insubstantial and do not speak to our "sense of duty, or emotional attachment, to fellow citizens.

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