Just a week in government and Cameron reprised his favoured rhetorical inanity: “British Values.”
His plot; to protect vaguely defined British Values by eroding British Civil Liberties. It was telling that Home Secretary Theresa May failed to exactly define what British Values might be when quizzed on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, on the morning her newly elected government announced they would be toughening policies aimed at stamping out “domestic extremism.”
For “domestic” - you can probably read “terrorist-sympathising,” “conservative or orthodox Muslim,” as well as “moderate Islamist,”; for all will likely fall foul of these new policies. Not to mention, at a possible future date, trade unionists, environmental activists or anti-austerity protesters. Who knows? The legislation is being left perhaps deliberately, wide open.
Justice Potter Stuart's rational technique, in the 1964 American legal case Jacobellis v. Ohio, is useful in understanding “British Values.” He was praised at the time as “realistic and gallant” for judging simply “I know it when I see it.” He was ruling on whether a film was “obscene” or not.
Fast forward half a century - “For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens, as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone,” says Prime Minsiter David Cameron on his new anti-extremism legislation.
As long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. That sounds deeply ominous, by the “I Know It When I See It” indicator.
The Twitter hive mind thought so too. On the same day Cameron announced this highly concerning tilt to Orwell-ism, thousands tweeted a sarky meme.
What David Cameron said actually seems perfectly reasonable if you're a comic book supervillain. pic.twitter.com/EHWIDq7k5F— Brigonos Chomhgaill (@BrigonChomhgail) May 14, 2015
Scrapping the Human Right Act, as the Conservatives just proposed, is another “I Know It When I See It” breach of “British Values.”The Conservatives put this in their party manifesto, and as the majority party in theory have a democratic mandate to implement it under our current voting system.Yet, as The Independent shows in this recommended video explainer, the policy to scrap was built on a web of lies, misinformation and media manipulation.As the well-informed blog of law firm One Crown Office Row additionally points out, since 1966, 97% of British cases taken to Strasbourg were deemed inadmissible, owing to exceptionally strict admissions criteria. Overall, Strasbourg takes on just thirty British cases per year. As the lawyers assessed it; “hardly a court which is mounting a “relentless attack” on British laws.”Newly appointed Justice Secretary Michael Gove will be responsible for pushing the Bill through Parliament. He is already facing a minor party rebellion over the issue, led by righteous trouble-maker David Davis MP. Given Gove's doubtful rallying abilities as Chief Whip during his pre-election and post-Education Secretary purgatory – it remains to be seen whether he can, as Justice Secretary, summon the influence to push the Bill through. Already, Cameron has announced that the Bill will now be preceded by a public "consultation."If the Bill does it make to the vote - Gove can at least count on the the bull-in-a-china-shop boors of the Eurosceptic Tory Right to throw their support behind him. They will ignore that the European Convention on Human Rights is entirely unrelated to the European Union, pre-dating it by decades. They will mislead swing UKIP-ers and outlying Conservative voters who think the two are related.Particularly vocal and eloquent Eurosceptic MPs might even hit the jackpot. Well spoken advocacy of scrapping the Human Rights Act could net them folk hero status within the cultish Right – a phenomenon proven by the rousing anti-European speeches of personalities Nigel Farage, Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell.Their YouTube rhetoric netted them huge political capital within their core vote. All this potential provides a significant personal incentive for alienated Tory MPs to bark loudly about how the ECHR protects terrorists and paedophiles – the standard dog whistles of the anti-civil liberties crowd.The government has no intention to substantively change the contents of the human rights protections British citizens have enjoyed since the Second World War. Don't expect the state-controlled media of repressive regimes around the world to report this nuance though. Britain's withdrawal from the ECHR will be used to justify the actions of horrible dictators, oppressive monarchies and terrorising political systems who tell their publics that human rights are now a discredited concept of the West, and that their citizens should stop appealing for them.Scrapping the Human Rights Act would also represent a fundamental change to the legal landscape of Europe, by rejecting a court which has played an important role in making the Continent peaceful for over half a century. It will send a mixed message to those European Union neighbours who may be tempted to join, but need to work on their own human rights records first.Michael Gove and Employment Minister Priti Patel's appointment to the government's first Cabinet also presents a worrying expression of “British Values.” While a Times columnist and admittedly nearly two decades ago, Gove argued that hanging should be re-introduced to the British legal system. This is expressively forbidden in the ECHR. Priti Patel presented her own thoughts on capital punishment on BBC Question Time in 2011 – arguing like Gove that killing people who kill people could act as a “deterrent.”(American states which don't enforce the death penalty are just as dangerous as states which do. Nine in ten American criminologists surveyed believe scrapping the death penalty would have no impact on state homicide rates, nor does, in their experience of speaking to criminals on a frequent basis for most of their professional lives – it act as any sort of actual deterrent.)Neither Michael Gove nor Priti Patel have worked a day in the justice sector or a day outside of the Westminster bubble, so perhaps we can forgive them for their ideological, rather than practical, views on crime reduction. Perhaps Patel's previous work as a tobacco lobbyist has accustomed her to dealing out death sentences en masse. Shortly after her new Ministerial appointment, Patel appeared on Sky News and cack-handedly, suspiciously and dismissively refused to disclose whether her views on the death penalty had changed.Meanwhile re-appointed Home Secretary Theresa May ecstatically rushed to write a press release after the polls closed, proclaiming that; unshackled by the balancing forces of a Lib-Con Coalition, she would be resurrecting the “Snoopers Charter.” This was one of the Liberal Democrats finer moments in government; undermining a vote on a highly invasive and very un-British Values piece of legislation, which would bring millions of citizens' personal communications within grasp of unaccountable security and intelligence services. The Snoopers Charter could be enacted by the new government as the evidence remains patchy on whether such mass surveillance techniques even stop terrorist attacks. May has since been called out for proposing major changes to OFCOM's role. Added to their remit – May proposes the regulator be given pre-broadcast powers to prevent “extremist content” being put on air in the first place. According even to Conservative Cabinet Minister Sajid Javid, this introduces a state-controlled “censor” more commonly associated with extremist “regimes.”Why do the Conservatives want to “get tough”? A mixture of ideological and self-serving political reasons, probably. The public reason is the Islamic State – a timely reminder that people across the world are threatened, to lesser and greater degrees, by state and sub-state actors disdainful of human rights for ordinary people.The new “anti-extremism” measures in particular, which are tacitly targeted at the long-suffering British Muslim community - have been hyperbolically presented as a preventative measure for the radical Islamists taking over the UK.To prevent what? The only ISIS flag I've seen flying above a Western capital is a puerile fantasy cooked up in the imagination of an ISIS follower. There aren't heavily armed ISIS militants in the street fighting it out to take over Whitehall. Cameron says we must fight to stop ISIS “undermining democracy” and “disrupting the democratic process.” Having just been elected as part of a democratic process around which political violence was conspicuously absent, instead of ISIS death squads we are enjoying a genteel post-election debate about whether something other than the first-past-the-post system would be more appropriate – a debate so technical and boring that half the electorate aren't listening. Try going to the post-election riots in Kenya in 2007-2008. That was what democracy under threat looks like. That said, a small crowd of anti-austerity protesters did recently riot outside Number Ten, at least in the eyes of the enthusiastically arresting police officers. More large scale marches are planned. Perhaps when Cameron, May, Gove and others are thinking up this extremism legislation, it isn't just the Islamic State they are worried about, but balaclaved British activists.It wouldn't be the first time the British state had spied on and restricted political dissidents, even assigning undercover cops to infiltrate their ranks.Obviously – most of these radicals and annoyed people aren't in the business of deposing democracies though, like ISIS. Instead - they're in the business of deposing people like Cameron.The Conservative Party has also shown itself happy to sacrifice the British Muslim vote – the same British Muslims who will feel the brunt of Cameron's new “counter-extremism” policies. David Cameron personally attended Conservative campaign events at Hindu, Sikh, Jewish and Christian places of worship – but not a mosque.The Muslim-dodging strategy was born out in the election results. 49% of both Hindus and Sikhs voted Conservative, compared with 41% who voted Labour. Before Election Day, The Jewish Chronicle released a poll showing nearly three quarters of British Jews would vote Conservative. Meanwhile 64% of British Muslims voted Labour, with just 25% voting Tory. In strategic terms - Cameron knows that continuing to pressure Muslim communities won't make much difference to his Party's electability next time round.ISIS chief Baku Bakr al-Baghdadi has just been confirmed alive, avoiding once again death-by-drone. But he's still having to dodge other equally capable drones, Iraqi and Western special forces, the Iraqi army, and President Bashar al-Assad. He has to deal with restless Sunni tribes, and manage his relationship with the Baathists, who according to a scoop from Der Spiegel magazine, are actually running the show.Al-Baghdadi has neither the time, the military or political resources, or the geographic proximity to co-ordinate and mount a sustained attack on Britain's democracy.Meanwhile Prime Minister David Cameron has a team of political advisers, a team of chauffeurs, a team of lawyers, a team of bodyguards, a team of cooks, a team of dry cleaners and the full legislative abilities of a majority government to implement his attacks on British Values.He can attack British Values almost at will - by scrapping the Human Rights Act, leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, appointing supporters of the death penalty to Cabinet, re-introducing the Snoopers Charter, introducing broadcasting censorship and persecuting British conservative Muslims, in a relaxed and assured manner.Yet given his government's collective inability to fully define British Values, he has left himself very open to criticism. The next few weeks are bound to see some controversial views aired by both sides, about whether the state should play Big Brother, hang people or leave the highly successful ECHR. Both sides in the debate have a probable chance of winning over the British people. The result will be brash political noise which will encourage opponents to be extremely vocal and increasingly combative in the media.
Of course there remains the horrifying possibility of lone wolf attacks. But these are, tragically, to be expected – so long as Britain maintains its barbarically unjust relationship with the Middle East.
It is inevitable given the current state of Islamism that some young men and women will continue to believe the propaganda of groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State; that the only way to fight back is to set up a medieval authoritarian state. I fail to follow the logic of beating back post-colonial over-reach with pseudo-Islamic totalitarianism, but sadly hundreds of Britons do. This narrative has been so successful that it has caused hundreds of young Britons to leave a genuine democracy, to live in a ridiculous caricature of a religious dictatorship, rife with danger, an unstable economy and with a violent war along every single one of its borders.
Some of these self-proclaimed jihadists are the product of poor education, some are Arabs, Pakistanis, Yemenis or Afghans who have seen family members killed, and some are nasty criminals who are simply selling their thuggish services to ISIS, or looking for redemption. Few are truly religious – if they were they would know what they are doing is wrong. Some are vulnerable and have been psychologically exploited, some are truly evil people.
But the fact that they travel to fight in another country in such numbers, the first time this has happened in Britain since the Thirties, is seriously concerning. Perhaps – underneath it all, the scale of the phenomenon may be because the jihadists have a point. They have entirely the wrong attitude about making that point – but their underlying grievance has some semblance of sense to it.
Perhaps there should be a recalibration on our unconditional friendships with the Gulf states and Israel, the patronising curtailment of Iran's nuclear programme through punitive sanctions, the rash of Western invasions of Middle Eastern countries, the prolonged existence of Guantanamo Bay, perhaps we shouldn't have backed the murderous Shah in Iran from 1953 to 1979, or Assad, or Qaddafi, or Hussein, or Mubarak, or Ben Ali. Perhaps Tony Blair and George Bush should be put in front of a war crimes court.
You also can't credibly blame terrorist aggression against the Western world as a product of an ideology - “Islamism.” This is the fetid logic of the Conservative Party – saying that “No, the terrorist threat can't possibly come from our own actions, it must come from outside!”
Where did “Islamism” come from? It arose from decades of Western colonialism imposed by Western powers on people who weren't Western, and had probably never even visited the West, and probably never would. Yet they endured Western rule. If the European Court of Human Rights is apparently such a great threat to Britain's sovereignty – try living in a colony.
In the West of today, with the colonial era disappearing from memory, David Cameron remains a bigger threat to British Values than ISIS is. That noisy debate I mentioned is about to happen – I hope you all join in.