About Guy Aitchison

Guy Aitchison is a contributing editor for OurKingdom's Great Charter Convention. He researches and teaches at University College London (UCL) where he specialises in political theory and human rights (@GuyAitchison).

Articles by Guy Aitchison

This week's editor

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Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy’s Editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

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.

UK to extend UN rights convention to child immigrants

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): The Government has decided to sign up in full to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, according to the BBC. The Convention requires that in dealing with under 18s, states must make their "best interests" their primary consideration (rather than some social goal, say, like "national security"). For the past 17 years the UK has retained an opt-out allowing child migrants and asylum seekers to be locked up for months on end without any judicial scrutiny. This led to some very serious criticisms of the UK by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The decision by Government to change its mind on the issue comes after ministers reached the view that making the "best interests" rule apply to immigrant children would not compromise the UK's control of its borders. It is a welcome step towards a more just and humane immigration policy and - we can only hope - towards the understanding that human rights are universal and not simply a privilige of citizenship.

More magical thinking on Britishness

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): You may recall Anthony Barnett having some fun over the summer with a peculiar pamphlet on Britishness written by Liam Byrne, our Minister of State for Borders and Immigration. Byrne's description of his encounter with an "eloquent of lady of Edgbaston", who convinced him that we can learn to live together if only "we put our minds to it", provided the theme for OK's summer limerick competition, which attracted some eloquent entries of its own.

The Minister was clearly impressed with her words as they also form the springboard for the discussion of Britishness in his latest pamphlet, A More United Kingdom (pdf), published this week by Demos (it's quite long - you can also hear Byrne talk about the report in this Demos podcast). "In this remark", he says, "you hear captured the strong sense that the time is right for Britain as a country to do more to celebrate the things that we do have in common. A national day would be the perfect way."

The idea of a Britishness day was first touted by Byrne in a pamphlet (pdf) for the Fabian Society which he produced with Ruth Kelly. Published as Brown took power last year, it provided an early indication of what one of the central themes of his Governance of Britain agenda - and indeed his premiership - would be. Today, as the Brown agenda crumbles amidst economic disaster and backbench plotting, we have Byrne's latest proposals. They are the product of an eight-week-long journey around the country with his Home Office cohort in which he discussed with the public questions of immigration, identity and belonging.

Donate to No2ID and Rowntree will double your money

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Lib Dem blogger Steph Ashley has news of a generous offer from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in support of No2ID. Any new donations received by No2ID will be doubled by Rowntree. Steph has the details:

From 1st September 2008, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd has generously agreed to match, pound for pound, any *new* income that NO2ID receives. Which means that for every pound you give from 1st September NO2ID will receive TWO pounds to spend campaigning against the ID scheme and database state.

Please send your donation by cheque to our office (please mark your envelope 'JRRT'):

The NO2ID Campaign
Box 412
19-21 Crawford Street
London W1H 1PJ

Or you can donate by credit card or via PayPal using the 'Donate' button on our website, http://www.no2id.net (left hand column)

Double your money offers like this don't come along very often so please, dig deep - encourage your friends, family and colleagues to make a donation. With your help we can stop this.

While you're at it, why not join the campaign, join a local group and take the NO2ID Pledge?

This is a direct repost (with permission) from the journal of superactivist "diffrentcolours"
Hat-tip Lib Con.

A new Bill of Rights for Britain?

In the latest contribution to the OK debate on Labour after Brown, Guy Aitchison looks at proposals for a progressive new Bill of Rights for Britain.

You can find the rest of the Labour after Brown series in the box on the left of the site.


The Joint Committee on Human Rights report (pdf) on a UK Bill of Rights was released on Sunday. It was in August when Parliament was not sitting. Nonetheless, it is an important reminder that somewhere, amidst the slow train wreck of Brown's Government, the Governance of Britain agenda with which he launched his premiership limps on.

The Joint Committee is made up of 11 MPs and peers from the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems with one cross-bench peer. Understandably, much of the media reaction has focussed on their recommendations that social and economic rights be included in any new bill. This is the second JCHR report that has shown itself open to movement on social and economic rights; membership was different last time. That Parliament is now prepared to think seriously about a Bill of Rights containing welfare rights as well as other rights outside the "classic" list of liberal rights in the European Convention is something to be welcomed. The new report signals a remarkable positive shift in the attitudes of parliamentarians since the advent of the Human Rights Act ten years ago. The Tory peer Lord Onslow, for example, started out on the Committee as something of a human rights sceptic. Today he is amongst the first to raise "Convention points" in the Lords and has contributed to a report which may serve as a landmark in the development of our constitutional discourse.

In what follows I try to set out in some detail what the parliamentary proposals are and what they might mean in practice.

More details emerge on devolution "super department"

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Last week I reported on Government plans to abolish the territorial departments of state and replace them with a new devolution "super department". I argued that this move should have been carried out long ago since it would have provided for a more ambitious, creative and coherent government policy on devolution as well as a more formalised, and hence more effective, system of intergovernmental relations. Some of our commenters were more suspicious of the proposal.

Writing in today's FT, George Parker provides more details on the re-structuring, now expected to take place late September. Contrary to earlier speculation, government officials have said that the new department will not have any responsibility for the English regions. There will be no Department for the Nations and Regions, then, but a single central Department focussing on work presently carried out by the Scotland, Welsh and Northern Ireland offices.

Sunny prepares brief against Anthony Browne

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Sunny Hundal is soliciting help from his readers to put together a briefing document on Boris Johnson's new policy director and former head of Policy Exchange, Anthony Browne. He's asking readers to send in any articles, websites or miscellaneous info on the man that Londoners should be made aware of. And if you have no idea what any of this is about, or if you just need reminding, read Dave Hill's excellent article in today's Guardian.

MoJ grants for democracy ideas

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): The government will be rewarding fresh ideas for getting people involved in democracy under a £150,000 scheme aimed at all charities, community groups and NGOs. Launched today, the Innovation Fund will award grants to projects aimed at "developing new ways to help people participate in public discussions and influence government policy."

For any OK readers who think they have an idea that qualifies (and I've certainly read a few in the comments) this has to be worth a shot. Previous winners include Speakers' Corner Trust, which established a speakers' corner in Nottingham, and the South Kesteven District Council, which developed a process for online citizens' juries.

Another successful project was FixMyStreet website which allows people to tell their local authority and others in their area about broken civic infrastructure. Users post photos of the problem on the website and tag a map to provide its location. The website then forwards the report to the appropriate authority.

To get involved go to www.buildingdemocracy.co.uk. And do let us know how you get on. Applications close 26 September 2008.

Who speaks for England?

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Voice matters. Indeed having a voice and using it is pretty vital when it comes to being heard by others - the first step to getting what you want. What kind of country is it then that isn't happy with its own voice?

The answer comes in the form of a recent SpinVox survey of several thousand British adults. It reveals that a stunning three quarters of Brits don't like the sound of their own voices! Expressed in this way, however, the findings can be misleading. Disliking one's own voice isn't a feeling shared across the nations of these isles. Whilst the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish are more than happy with their voices, it is the English who most want to change theirs.

Only one regional accent bucks this national trend. Can you guess which one? Clues are: Ant and Dec; "Haway man!"; the bloke who narrates Big Brother.

Plans for new devolution "super-department"

Guy Aitchison (London, OK):The territorial departments of state are set to be scrapped as part of Gordon Brown's autumn reshuffle according to Wales on Sunday. Under the plans the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland offices will be merged into one single Department for Nations, Regions and Local Government. The move is long over-due. The existence of individual territorial secretaries of state was always an anomaly once devolution was introduced. It has become even harder to justify now that the National Assembly and Scottish Parliament have become assertive and well-established bodies, demanding and - in the case of the Assembly - receiving ever-more powers from Westminster. The absence of any comparable English "voice" at Cabinet has also contributed to the perception that the other nations of the UK are receiving privileged treatment.

The Constitution Unit has been calling for this move for years. It has advised the Government that a single department with overall responsibility for the nations and regions would be in a much better position to develop a joined up and coherent policy on devolution. As it is government thinking on devolution has been a complete mess. (It's not hard to think of examples; think Prescott's lame plans for regional assemblies, the out-dated Barnett formula and Wendy's embarrassing call to "bring it on".)

The travelling Ministry

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Last week John Jackson blogged on the heroic efforts of Michael Wills to drive through the Governance of Britain agenda in the face of hostility from his parliamentary colleagues and the press and as the government of which he is a part implodes. As part of the process Wills has been travelling around the country holding open table discussions on different aspects of the agenda. He recently stopped off in my hometown of Bristol to discuss plans for the British Statement of Values, the Bill of Rights and Responsibilies, community engagement and barriers to voting.

The good people of Bristol offered sage advice to the Government, captured in this MoJ document. Not least they pointed out that any "public engagement had to be meaningful and worthwhile to the participants involved and that their contribution is going to be taken into account as part of the decision-making process." Next stop Nottingham, followed by Newcastle, Brighton and London. If you attend a discussion do let us know your thoughts on how it went.

 


R.I.P the Acre c1300-2008

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Have we seen the last of the "British" acre? The 700-year old land measurement has apparently been banned by the EU following a meeting in Brussels last week.

The Sun (as you may have guessed) is not best pleased, informing its readers that "Britain" (don't they mean England?) has used the acre to measure land since " the late 13th century under Edward I’s reign." The word acre is apparently derived from the Old English for "open field" and was considered the amount of land tillable by a man behind an ox in one day. The measurement was eventually defined by law under Queen Victoria in the Weights and Measures Act of 1878 as being 4,840 square yards or 43,560 square feet.

This history was brought to an end last week when a "lowly Whitehall official" nodded through the EU orders that sealed the acre's fate. What do OK readers think? Surely the humble acre deserved better than this.

Vote for your Top Ten Blogs

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Iain Dale is compiling his annual Guide to Political Blogging to be published in September and wants your votes for the Top Ten Political Blogs in the UK. To vote simply email your top ten (ranked from 1 to 10) to toptenblogs@totalpolitics.com with Top 10 in the subject line. The deadline for submitting your Top 10 is Friday August 15th. You can also leave your Top 10 in the Comments on Iain's blog here.

A "democratic" case against an elected second chamber?

Guy Aitchison (Bristol, OK): Is there a democratic case to be made against an elected second chamber? Anthony Barnett has made the case on OK for the Athenian practice of sortition as an alternative and democratic form of citizen engagement that could help renew the second chamber. David Marquand was not convinced.

Now Lord Norton has put the "democratic" case for appointment. In a series of posts in response to the Government's recent White Paper on the Lords, first on Lords of the Blog and now on Conservative Home, the Tory peer has been making the case for an appointed chamber on the basis of "core accountability". The British constitution, claims Norton, has the benefit that there is one body - the Government, chosen through elections to the House of Commons - that is responsible for public policy. If the electorate disapproves of these policies it can vote it out at the next election. To elect other bodies "that can then claim the mandate of the popular vote undermines that core accountability." Come election time the various elected bodies will each be holding the others responsible for policy failures and a confused electorate will not know who to blame. Democracy is undermined.

GB and DD exchange letters

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): Courtesy of Benedict Brogan's blog is the following exchange of letters between Gordon Brown and David Davis. Davis had written to the PM, as well as Cabinet Ministers, last week to challenge them to a debate on 42 days and the state of freedom in Britain. Davis even suggested Labour MPs have been gagged by Brown to stop them engaging in the debate. Here is Brown's reply:

Dear David

As you know, Prime Ministers are available once a week at Question Time to debate all the issues of the day, and I was disappointed that you chose to step down as a Member of Parliament in advance of Question Time on Wednesday, 11 June rather than coming to the House to debate with me the issues around the use of CCTV and DNA evidence, and the measures we have taken to protect our national security.

Nevertheless, the leader of your party has the opportunity each week to ask six questions on those issues that caused you to leave his Shadow Cabinet. He has had two such opportunities to date, but he has yet to ask any such question. He has two further opportunities to raise these issues before the 'by-election' on July 10th, and I am sure that if he shares your strong feelings about them, he will not duck those opportunities.

Gordon Brown

Government thinking on the Bill of Rights

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): There's an interesting article by Unity on the Bill of Rights debate over at Liberal Conspiracy. He argues that since all three main parties are now promising a Bill of Rights they should be clear about what it is they are proposing in their next manifestoes so voters aren't forced to sign a "blank cheque." I think this is an important point though I would add that the parties should also be clear about the process they are proposing to arrive at such a Bill. I responded to Unity's article in the comments with a few thoughts on the Government's current thinking based on my time at the Compass conference last week. I wasn't going to blog this since it's similar to other stuff I've written about the Governance agenda recently, but seeing as people are now talking about it here's a tidied up version of the comment I left which may be helpful to people:

At the Compass conference last week I attended an Unlock Democracy seminar on a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities at which Michael Wills, Minister for Constitutional Renewal, was speaking (along with Francesca Klug and Trevor Phillips). I asked the minister whether including "responsibilities" in the Bill wasn't really about "disciplining" the population (It was only half tongue in cheek when I suggested a model here might be the USSR Constitution, Articles 60 through 69 of which defined the Soviet citizen's duty to work and observe labor discipline; to protect socialist property and oppose corruption and to be "uncompromising against anti-social behaviour"). He assured me that it wasn't about this at all and that rights would not be "contingent" on the performance of duties. He implied it was partly a tactical move to keep the Right on board by emphasising that the enjoyment of rights does not absolve one of social responsibilities.

David Davis explains why he supports 28 but not 42 days

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): In the first post on his campaign blog David Davis expands on the arguments he made on last night's Question Time (blogged earlier by Anthony), expaining why he supports 28 days but not 42 days detention without charge. Some have labelled his position inconsistent but - whether you agree with him or not - I think Davis sets out a pretty straightforward case on his blog. On the basis of evidence he has looked at with the Met and the Crown Prosecution Service he says he "can support 28 days pre-charge detention - as a necessary evil - but not a day more. Once we have introduced intercept evidence and post-charge questioning, and developed the use of plea-bargaining, it may be possible to reduce the limit below 28 days, without any risk to our security." Read the post in full here.

 

Davis campaign must examine Tory record on freedom

Guy Aitchison (London, OK): If we're going to support David Davis, then one thing we shouldn't let him do is frame the freedom debate in partisan terms.

Labour's current attempts to secure legislation allowing for 42 days detention without charge should be seen in the context of a two decades long erosion of civil liberties began under Thatcher (a point made by Michael Peel in the FT today).

It was the Tories who got the ball rolling by exending pre-charge detention to a week (justified or not) and it was they who in 1994 banned the right to silence and gave police more powers to stop protests and raves.

The debate to be had is not about the policies of any one government, or indeed any one party. It is a debate about how and why our political system has allowed the state to secure ever-more powers for itself without proper debate - and what can be done about it.

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