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About Thomas Ash

Thomas Ash was associate editor and web development consultant at openDemocracy, where he built the current site. He now works for New Internationalist magazine, and his personal website on philosophy is PhilosoFiles.com.

Articles by Thomas Ash

This week’s editors

“Francesc”

Francesc Badia i Dalmases is Editor and Director of democraciaAbierta.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

Infographic: social deprivation in riot hotspots

Correlation is not causation, so we’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Euthanasia: a good thing?

Does public prejudice condemn many to unnecessarily prolonged and painful deaths? Thomas Ash considers the philosophical arguments for and against

The Tories get the burglar vote...

Labour's disgraceful new attack on the Conservatives' opposition to their DNA database

President's questions

Watch a riveting and almost unprecedented exchange between President Obama and the congressional Republicans

I'm overdosing tomorrow - care to join?

The 10.23 campaign is organising a national homeopathic overdose to protest pseudo-science and the wasting of taxpayer money

Tony Blair and the imperial temptation in Britain and America

Ahead of Blair's testimony on the Iraq war, it is worth considering a recent exchange in the American blogosphere which illustrates the imperial temptation in the politics of both nations

We don't live in a police state, but we are going to be watched by aerial drones

Extraordinary plans by police in the UK to use unmanned spy drones to monitor antisocial motorists, protesters, agricultural thieves and fly-tippers

Dear Mandy

A satirical video complaining about Britain's proposed Digital Economy Bill

Peaceful protest, no placards allowed

A protest in support of Gary McKinnon, the British hacker who broke into dozens of US computers

Unilateral action on climate change

Why and how we should lead the way

Britain's new internet law

Britain's alarming Digital Economy Bill

Responses to Johnson on Bentham’s defense of usury

Earlier this month, Peter Johnson gave an account of Karl-Heinz Brodbeck's critique of the famous utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Benhtam's defence of usury, the charging of high rates of interest on money. Below, Tony Curzon Price and then Thomas Ash respond.

Peter Johnson on breaking up the banks

Over at openEconomy, Peter Johnson has an interesting post on recent proposals that regulators partition the banks

The Conservatives and the surveillance state

Interesting noises from the Conservatives on privacy and the database state. As you may have heard, Dominic Grieve, the shadow justice secretary, recently gave a major speech launching a policy document entitled 'Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State'. The following remarks from early in the speech give a good flavour of its tone:

No-one is suggesting we should not harness IT or surveillance technology to strengthen public protection. I am not amongst those who nostalgically yearn for some luddite return to a pre-technological age. But, the Government's approach to databases and surveillance powers is the worst of all worlds. Intrusive. Ineffective. And enormously expensive.

With its emphasis on the ineffectiveness and high price-tag of the government's measures, this is not the language of a party committed on principle to limiting state encroachment into individuals' private lives - or at least, not that of one convinced that this is as safe a face to present as is one concerned with cost and competence.  But the proposals contained in the policy document are surprisingly strong: they include scrapping the National Identity Register, the ContactPoint database and the storage of innocent people's DNA; institutionalising a concern for privacy through a strengthened Information Commissioner and clauses in a British Bill of Rights; and a host of other measures limiting the gathering and sharing of personal information. This is sensible, practical, meaty stuff.

The Conservatives' decision to put their foot out on this issue may have something to do with a sense that in the present setting doing so is not such bad politics after all. A recent PoliticsHome poll run after Ed Balls announced plans to vet all adults in regular contact with children had a fifteen point majority opposed, and 79% of respondents saying that in general the state had "too much of a say in what people can and cannot do". The Conservatives may benefit from a narrative which has Labour as overly intrusive statists - a description which could encompass not only breaches of civil liberties and privacy but also big-spending nanny statism and the profusion of initiatives and targets. This is a particularly powerful narrative to use against a party that has been in power for twelve years. To fuel it, the Tories need only make a few of the right noises - something that should be of concern to anyone worried about their commitment to the line Grieve has taken, especially given the more authoritarian reputation of others in the shadow cabinet such as Chris Grayling.

Police surveillance

From the Durham Times, an alarming expansion of police surveillance and a reminder of the power of police forces to introduce far-reaching policies - including those which pose serious civil liberty problems - by themselves and without reference to parliament:

People without criminal convictions could be subject to covert surveillance, under new police tactics revealed this week.

Durham Police has begun applying methods used to contain people found guilty of violent or sexual crimes to individuals not convicted of such offences

The Potentially Dangerous People (PDP) policy, which also involves the Northumbria and Cleveland forces, is a response to Government pressure to stop another case such as that of Ian Huntley.

[...]

People can be declared PDPs following a referral to the Public Protection Unit and a multi-agency meeting to discuss the case.

PDP could be watched or contacted by police about their behaviour.

Since the policy was introduced three months ago, eight people have been referred, with two declared PDP. 

Save election night?

Plans are afoot in several constituencies to delay election counts from the nights of votes being cast to the day after. This threat to the tradition of election night results has inspired a protest movement, complete with a 3,500-member Facebook group.

Daniel Hannan's criticisms of the NHS

Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan has been causing his party headaches by attacking the NHS on American television. The position this has earned him as a darling of the American right is ironic, given that Barack Obama is not proposing a British-style system but instead one closer to the Singaporean model that Hannan himself favours. But let's take a look at his criticisms.

First and foremost amongst these is that the NHS offers a relatively basic standard of care, at least compared with the more lavish insurance packages in the States, with longer waiting times for elective surgery and lower survival rates for prostate cancer. Some of his examples are questionable - a recent Commonwealth Fund study found that Americans endured longer waits, and the US's high prostate cancer survival rates appears to be an artefact of its more aggressive screening catching more harmless cases of this disease and then scoring them as successes (after all, Britain and America have virtually identical numbers of deaths from prostate cancer per population as opposed to per diagnosed case).

But regardless, the fact is that Britain spends about 60 percent less per capita on health care than America. Given that figure, our statistics are something of a triumph for our system, and certainly do not discredit it. Yes, our low-cost approach means that some treatments are not covered and we have what Hannan calls "rationing by queue". But this is a strange objection for a free market, small state conservative to make: it amounts to complaining that the NHS is not a generous enough benefit. Shouldn't such a person be glad that the state provides only the basic level of care that most would buy for themselves, leaving the choice to purchase more with the individual? It is important to remember that, despite the implications of some American critics of NHS "rationing", one does always have this choice if one can afford it (though the NHS does sometimes withhold treatment from those who buy treatments and services it does not offer, a cruel and pointless practice that Hannan rightly criticises). In this respect, our situation is not so different from that in America, despite Hannan's claim that "if the decision [as to whether you get a particular treatment on the NHS] goes against you that's it".

In the passage from which I earlier quoted Hannan, he asks: "If supporters of the status quo were truly confident of their case, surely they would extend their logic. I mean, why shouldn’t the state allocate cars on the basis of need, with rationing by queue?" Yes, the NHS is explicitly redistributive, and whether you agree with this will depend on your ideology. But those who do can reasonably argue that health care is a better target for redistribution than transportation. It alleviates suffering rather than providing positive goods, and this leads to greater improvements in people's lives (including those of the disadvantaged) without interfering with incentive structures in the same way. And, as already mentioned, the level of care provided by the NHS is something almost everyone would buy if they could afford it, so taxing for it does not rob people of a choice they would in practice take advantage of.

A Conservative Great Repeal Bill

Talk of a 'Great Repeal Bill' to roll back the tide of legislation and new governmental power brought us by both this government and its forerunners has come from several different quarters recently. The Liberal Democrats have a Freedom Bill ready, cast in full legislative language. OurKingdom's own Anthony Barnett used the term 'Great Repeal Bill' to suggest a publicly-drafted set of proposals that could be put to parliamentary candidates in order to get them on record about which they supported. Now Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan - whose haranguing of Gordon Brown famously went viral this spring - and MP Douglas Carswell have created a wiki of the same name, soliciting suggestions from "ordinary citizens" (alongside a "guarded" version being run in parallel).

There is no requirement that these ordinary citizens be Conservatives, but - unsurprisingly, given the project's launch on ConservativeHome - the proposals so far have a decidedly Tory bent. Among the restrictions of liberty they would do away with are employee-friendly regulations on business and old Eurosceptic bugbears like the imposition of the metric system. The legislation that would be repealed include the acts that give force to the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties. The Hunting Act and Parliament Acts would find themselves on the chopping block, as would requirements that planning decisions be taken "with the objective of contributing to the achievement of sustainable development" (which appear to be entirely toothless anyway).

That said, it is no bad thing to have a libertarian critique from the right. 'Liberty' issues typically involve trade-offs, and left-wingers who fight against the idea of trading liberty for security are sometimes slow to see that their own schemes for promoting progressive policy aims carry a similar cost. There is also a set of issues involving intrusive regulations - even banal ones like those requiring the production of Home Information Packs, which the wiki's users would do away with - that are not classic civil liberty issues, but have a clear connection to a freedom-maximising agenda, and are more typically a Conservative concern. It is good to be reminded of them too.

So OurKingdom readers left and right could benefit from examining Hannan and Carswell's wiki - and even, given its ostensibly open nature, contributing to it.

  PS: The original idea of a Great Repeal Bill was set out in The Plan, by Carswell and Hannan.

David Davis on a case of torture

In a House of Commons debate yesterday, David Davis detailed the case of Rangzieb Ahmed, a British citizen now convicted of terrorism, who was tortured by Pakistani authorities with the apparent complicity of British intelligence services. In fact, 'complicity' is too weak a word: they let him leave Britain for Pakistan despite having enough evidence to later convict him only to immediately suggest his arrest by Pakistani inter-services intelligence. His entirely predictable torture at their hands included whipping with 3 feet of tyre rubber nailed to a wooden handle, and the removal of three fingernails.

Davis drew a contrast between the way Britain and America have handled similar records:

The Americans have made a clean breast of their complicity, while explicitly not prosecuting the junior officers who were acting under instruction at a time of enormous duress and perceived threat after 9/11. We have done the opposite. As things stand, we are awaiting a police investigation that will presumably end in the prosecution of the frontline officers involved. At the same time, the government are fighting tooth and nail to use state secrecy to cover up crimes and political embarrassments to protect those who are probably the real villains in the piece – those who approved these policies in the first place.

An OurKingdom exchange: Neo-liberal nihilism?

OurKingdom, openDemocracy's group blog on British politics, has been running an exchange on the morality of neo-liberalism - and of the bankers behind the financial crisis. It began with contributing editor Thomas Ash's commentary on a Guardian column on the subject by David Maquand, and Marquand's response. The conversation has now turned to a debate between George Gabriel and Thomas Ash, with Gabriel attacking the 'moral vision' of neo-liberals and bankers, and Ash responding. Read the debate at the links below, and join in through the comment threads:

George Gabriel, 16th June

Thomas Ash, 17th June

George Gabriel, 21st June

Thomas Ash, 22nd June

 

OurKingdom welcomes submissions and the opening of new debates: send them to thomas [dot] ash@opendemocracy.net

 

Re: A neo-liberal nihilism?

An OurKingdom conversation. [History: Thomas Ash > David Marquand > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel > this post > George Gabriel]

George Gabriel is targetting "neo-liberalism as an individual code of ethics"; effectively, one of egoism. I doubt that any of neo-liberalism's defenders have ever understood it as such; most commonly, they advocate a set of policies on the grounds that they will promote some value, be it individual freedom or an increase in welfare supposedly brought about by more efficient markets. True, as George points out, they have often modelled individual economic choices as self-interested in the course of arguing that their policies will best promote these values. But for this purpose it functions only as a simplifying assumption, which needs only predict a subset of our choices (not extending to many moral ones, such as whether to offer bus seats to frail old gents, which have little impact on the efficiency of markets) with a rough degree of accuracy. The neo-liberals are commited to its doing so does not mean that they are commited to its capturing all the motives behind human behaviour, let alone to adopting self-interest as their only motive.

If neo-liberals are not commited to an egoistic code of ethics, what about bankers? The bulk of George's commentary concerns them, after all, and they are  a quite distinct group, not all possessing neo-liberal opinions about public policy (or any opinions about public policy at all). In the comment thread on his initial post, George claims that their actions show that they live by this code in practice, if not necessarily in theory. I would be surprised if most bankers' lives did contain some altruistic acts which belied this claim, but perhaps George was concerned only with their work lives. However, I struggle to see what they do in this that reflects a concern with self-interest to the exclusion of any other value. George talks of those who "short sell a productive company into oblivion, reap obscene payments for failure, and gamble the money of others". It is only possible to do the first in a highly unusual situation in which a company's survival depends on its stock price - generally a sign that it is not a succesful, productive company. The second does no harm to anyone else, and hence it shows a concern with select-interest, but not to the exclusion of any other value. And it was ultimately the bank bosses' decisions while led to investors' money being put at such risk - some of them (like Jimmy Cayne of Bear Sterns) supposedly did not understand this, and the decision was evidently against their self-interest.

Re: A neo-liberal nihilism?

An OurKingdom conversation. [History: Thomas Ash > David Marquand > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel > this post > George Gabriel > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel]

I want to make a few points about attitudes to competive markets in response to George Gabriel's post on 'neo-liberal nihilism' below.

The first concerns public attitudes to them. George describes me as saying that public anger at bankers stemmed from violations of free market norms, but it's important to read this the right way. I claimed that the anger stemmed from taxpayer bailouts. These are violations of free market norms, but that fact was not the main cause of the anger.  After all, it's not clear that most people care about these norms in general - though open to correction on this point, I'm not aware of evidence that they dislike subsidies for agriculture or car-makers, as they would if they were convinced free-marketeers.

Instead, it seemed that the main cause of public anger was public money being used for pay for bankers' compensation. A sense that this was against the rules of the neo-liberal game we'd been playing (to bankers' benefit) - because, as George says, after privatising profit it socialised risk - may have played a small part. But if so it was small indeed compared to the simple fact that it was our money being used. (Contrary to what many on the left now claim, I doubt that the average taxpayer objects to excessive salaries if they come out of banks' own money, and employers are left to pick up the tab if they prove to have catastrophically over-estimated their employee's financial value.)

So I question George's claim that "the congregation believes in neo-liberalism as a social vision, that fair and free competition will allow those who deserve it to advance in the market in the pursuit of happiness by the sweat of their brows." Even some of neo-liberalism's defenders reject the second half of that claim, if it's read to imply that all the 'deserving' (presumably those who are talented, hard-working and so on) will succeed.

Now, move on to George's own attitude to competitive markets, which I sense many on the left now share.

Marquand's hopes for "moral reform"

An OurKingdom conversation. [History: this post > David Marquand > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel > Thomas Ash > George Gabriel]

As Britain plunges from economic crisis to political crisis, it is only natural that some should hope its whole system faces a crisis from which it will emerge altered in some respect they have long hoped for. For many OurKingdom contributors, the hope is for constitutional reform. Writing in the Observer last week Henry Porter hoped for a more profound awakening. Perhaps the most ambitious hope was expressed by David Marquand in an earlier Guardian article: that our moral culture itself should undergo "reform".

Marquand's target is the vision, "virtually unchallenged", he says, in the recent "neoliberal" era, that society ought to feature free, competitive markets in which individuals calculate and pursue their self-interest. (Supporters of this vision would replace 'their self-interest' with 'what they value', allowing for altruistic ends. The interests of individuals and their families have been the most common motivators however, and the expectation that this will be so has certainly shaped our moral culture.)

Marquand hopes for the replacement of this vision. This seem unrealistic to me. He makes the familiar objection that the emphasis placed on free markets has resulted in too little concern about disparity of outcome, and then mentions public anger at City bonus hunters' greed. But if this were itself enough to provoke public anger, it would have done so long ago; the anger flows instead from bonuses being propped up by taxpayer money. This was itself a violation of the idea of a competitive market, and it is quite possible that if bailouts fails to rescue the economy this will in fact lead to increased support for that idea, at least in the sphere of finance.

Marquand also places some of the blame for the current economic crisis on the moral culture he is challenging, suggesting that it led to households taking on more debt than they could afford. It is not clear how it is supposed to have done so, since this was manifestly not in these households' self-interest. As if to concede this Marquand shifts the blame to the fact that "realism that conflicted with immediate gratification had come to seem quaint and old-fashioned". This is an entirely different phenomenon, and it seems far more ripe for a change.

The Tories' authoritarian tendencies

Craig Murray has an interesting post today about 'The Deepest Split in the Tory Party' - that between libertarians and authoritarians. It reiterates the fear, widespread among civil libertarians, that the Conservative Party has deep-seated authoritarian tendencies which are disguised in opposition but will come out in full force should it win power at the next election. Murray gives two examples - one from the party's leadership (Chris Grayling urging Jacqui Smith to tighten visa checks), and one from its base (ConservativeHome's featuring of a critique of Obama's decision to rule certain forms of torture out of bounds). I have my doubts as to whether his first example is an issue of civil liberties narrowly defined, but there are plenty of other candidates, such as David Cameron's tepid backing for David Davis's stand against the '42 days' policy. We shall have to watch carefully for these rare signs of how a Conservative government would actually act.

Mash the State

Over on Liberal Conspiracy, Adrian Short announces Mash the State, a new campaign to get governmental information available in accessible formats - RSS feeds from councils are the first example of what the campaign will seek, and you can ask your local council to provide one here. Citizens could then track, aggregate and disseminate this data in a variety of forms known as 'mashups' in internet jargon - hence the name of the campaign. A natural venue for these mashups would be community news sites of the sort that are beginning to sprout up in the States, some of which provide this very service.One modest example of what this might allow would be a service alerting residents to applications for planning permission in their neighbourhood and providing a forum in which they could discuss them. Some councils may already list these applications on their websites, but for obvious reasons few provide open comment threads or draw too much attention to them. (Readers of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy will recall Arthur Dent being told that the proposal to build a bypass over his house was available in the planning office - in a locked filing cabinet located in a disused lavatory in the basement with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’.)The technology required to make a wide array of governmental information accessible in this way is readily available, and Short observes that in most cases someone who knows what they are doing could set it up in half a day (although in fairness getting everyone involved to use the new system enter relevant information may take considerably longer - and there is always the danger that some public bodies will lack anyone who does know what they are doing, and hence pay consultants some absurd sum for the job). The difficulty, of course, will come in convincing those in charge to release information that could be used to hold them to account.

ISP data retention snuck in by EU directive

Henry Porter sounds a valuable alarm in the Guardian yesterday: Today, an EU directive comes into force which will compel all internet service providers to retain information from all emails and website visits. Data from phone calls and text messages will also be stored and made available to the government, its agencies and local authorities. Having seen how local officials have abused anti-terrorist laws, it's not hard to imagine the damage to privacy that will ensure.Nor is it hard to imagine the potential for the resultant database to be linked with domestic identity databases like those proposed in this country, enabling the government to readily match names with internet records. As Henry describes, EU directives like this one afford the Home Office a way to gain the building blocks necessary to construct such a scheme without undergoing the scrutiny parliament might give them. He even suggests that it lobbies for them for precisely this reason, securing powers sought by the British government but not by other Union members (Sweden, for example, has already announced that it will ignore the directive).

Arrested for returning a lost phone to the police

Thomas Ash (Oxford, OK): On Wednesday the Daily Mail ran a report which would have seemed like an April Fools' story were it not entirely of a piece with the many examples of obtuse officiousness collected by the Convention on Modern Liberty research team earlier this year. It describes how Paul Leicester, a college student from Southport, handed a mobile phone he had found in to the police only to be arrested for 'theft by finding' and held for four hours; you can read it here.

The Mail and its commenters unfailingly connect these stories to the narrative of New Labour control freakery, but they pop up wherever officials are given power over people without being responsible to them - and that is not just Britain since 1997. If the volume of these stories (and not simply the volume reported in a hostile paper like the Mail) have increased since Labour came to power it is because, in creating almost 4,000 new criminal offences, they have inevitably expanded such power. Paul Leicester's experience is yet another reminder of how the exercise of this power - which now includes the taking of fingerprints, DNA samples and a photo from those like Leicester - differs from the picture with which it is sold, in which those who would steal mobile phones, rather than those who would try to return them, are the only ones with anything to fear.

Coming to a billboard near you...

Thomas Ash (Oxford, OK): While jogging through the outskirts of Oxford today, I noticed this striking hoarding:

police_billboard
Note the CCTV camera watching over its children like a vigilant father.

It turns out that this poster is part of a major advertising campaign launched by the police to encourage us to give informing a go. But its placement on an access road used only by those dropping off their rubbish at the local recycling depot seemed odd - local bombers presumably have higher priority targets. This is not to suggest that the police's marketers are wasting taxpayer money - an isolated Mormon chuch sat nearby, and I imagine they were asked to target religious communities on the fringes of society. Nonetheless, a scan through the other posters they have produced suggests a more appropriate candidate:

Chemicals in bin
Infrequent bin collection: keeping you safe

With a billboard like that around, no trip to drop off our rubbish would be free from our more paranoid neighbours peering into our binbags, mobile phone in hand. The marketers know their market - these are the only people who would require assurance that an 'Anti-Terrorist Hotline' is confidential, assuming as they do that all our other calls are monitored by terrorist phone-tappers. I can only imagine some of the panicked calls the hotline staff will get; the depressing thing is that the police will presumably be expected to follow up even the most ridiculous accusations, lest they be blamed for missing the one genuine terrorist who gets reported.

We can certainly hope that those who witness something obviously suspicious will tell the police - if they do not, it will surely take more than a glitzy advertising campaign to convince them otherwise. But before we start snooping on one another's wheelie bins, a dose of perspective is needed, for which one can look to the series of counter-advertisements produced by the group Smile at the Spies:

Chemicals in bin
Copyleft Smile at the Spies

Leaked Barclays memos escape to the internet

Thomas Ash (Oxford, OK): At the start of this week, the Guardian published a number of internal memos from Barclays detailing the ways in which the Structured Capital Markets division of the firm systematically evaded British taxation through a series of staggeringly artificial manouevres. The memos had been leaked to Vince Cable by an anonymous whistleblower inside the company, allowing Barclays' lawyers to convince a judge to order their removal from the Guardian's website on the grounds that they had been obtained in breach of confidentiality agreements.

But in the age of the internet information that has been published once is like a genie which cannot be put back in its bottle; a court order may succeed in forcing a newspaper to take it down, but it will already have been saved on dozens of computers and cached by Google's crawlers. From there, it is a short step to a site like WikiLeaks, where those interested can now read the Barclays memos. Links to them have spread across the British blogosphere, to the extent that WikiLeaks is now overwhelmed by the traffic it is attracting.

This renders the order obtained by Barclays' lawyers almost pointless - the media may be too afraid to publish the leaked documents themselves, but I cannot imagine they could be prevented from referring readers to material readily available on the internet. If they are wise, Barclays will learn to accept that the genie has escaped, and that even the best lawyers cannot return it to its bottle...

Tom Griffin explores the Irish republican tradition

Thomas Ash (Oxford, OK): Shortly after the attack at Massereene army base early this month, OurKingdom's own Tom Griffin posted a brief discussion of the many attempts that were being made to paint the attackers as the "true" representatives of the Irish republican tradition. As he noted, these attempts were made not only by republicans who rejected the peace process but also by unionists keen to cast their opponents in a bad light.

Tom has now published a review of Eoin Ó Broin’s new book Sinn Féin and the Politics of Left Republicanism, which challenges this line of argument in greater detail. Anyone interested in the ideology of Irish republicans in history and the present day should take a look.

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