Category Archives: Law and Rights

Now I am ashamed to be British

My world view is broken, as finally and completely as the mirror I dropped that shattered into a thousand fragments each of which reflected back a splintered version of my shocked face as I gingerly attempted to gather them up without slicing the skin of my fingers.

I grew up believing that for all its faults (and it has many not least the blood drenched imperial past so beloved of the right wing) Britain had in the second half of the twentieth century come to stand as for a liberal, tolerant world view that was outward looking and inclusive. That it really did strive to ensure equality, fairness and justice for all. That vision of my country has been ripped up, trampled and spat on. Mirrors once broken, even if repaired, remain cracked and reflect a distorted view. In the eyes of the world and many of its bemused, dismayed and shocked citizens Britain is now broken as comprehensively as that mirror.

Birmingham this week has been brutal. Racist, xenophobic and disgusting speeches largely unchallenged by a supine, subservient and self-serving media. I remember Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968. Interestingly also delivered in Birmingham. It caused howls of outrage and his instant dismissal from the shadow cabinet. The conservative party leader at the time, Edward Heath stated “I dismissed Mr Powell because I believed his speech was inflammatory and liable to damage race relations. I am determined to do everything I can to prevent racial problems developing into civil strife… I don’t believe the great majority of the British people share Mr Powell’s way of putting his views in his speech.”

The Times newspaper declared it “an evil speech”, stating “This is the first time that a serious British politician has appealed to racial hatred in this direct way in our post war history.”
The Times response to equally nasty, if more subtle, incitement to hatred 48 years later is the feeble “May Takes Centre Stage in Appeal to Labour Voters”. Really? When did racist, xenophobic rhetoric become the centre ground of British Politics? I dare say if Edward Heath was alive today he’d be considered as unelectable as Jeremy Corbyn.

Powell’s speech was a more overt incitement to hatred but the vileness of the stuff Theresa May and Amber Rudd have been spouting is no less fascist, dangerous and incendiary. What happened to the 48% of people who voted remain? How can a 4% majority be overwhelming endorsement? A fair number (certainly more than 4%) of the Brexit camp was in favour of retaining membership of the EEC (the so called Norway option) and the concomitant commitment to freedom of movement. They, like the Remainers, have been airbrushed out. It was apparently always a  referendum on immigration and the people have spoken.  The hope that this is some kind of negotiating ploy for Brexit is rapidly receding over the horizon and we need to face the fact that Britain seems to have suffered a fascist coup. Not surprisingly the speech was applauded by Marine le Penn who is the current leader of the National Front in France.

Socrates (someone who knew a thing or two about Democracy) said “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” Theresa May said “A citizen of the world is a citizen of nowhere” – right now that sounds better than being British.

Where next for Europe?

greece gets stomped

What we have watched unfold over the last five months goes far beyond the petty inadequacies of European politicians and poses a fundamental question to all of us.

What type of society do we want to live in – what type of world view do we want our children to inherit?

The Greeks have been subject to a harsh lesson. Freedom exists only in so far as you do not test its limits. Stay within the prescribed limits and you can have the illusion that you are free. Attempt to step over the boundary and feel the sting of the lash.

Society is one of those BIG words (as Cameron abused it) but basically society is a structural and functional arrangement that reflects the norms, values and mores of the individuals within it. Democratic society governs this arrangement by way of the will of the majority – imperfect but better than the alternatives. That is why the shifting of values of individuals within the population is of such fundamental importance to those who wish to change the nature of the society in which we live. The triumph of neo-liberal ideology is that it has mastered the art of shifting the baseline of popular opinion so much better than those of us who are merely ineffectually liberal minded and tolerant.

Worms of the world unite and turn.” Maybe lacks something as a rallying cry but it is where we’re at. Further more worms are good, honest and useful creatures.

Lines in winter – for Raif Badawi

Lines in winter

                            I

Black flakes of birds, wind driven, tossed
from tree to tree across a bleak sky.
Winter stubble fields sullen and empty

tramlines of pale stalks in dark mud
even the weeds seem to have given up
attempting a foothold in this cultivated desert

The news is full of dismal stuff

Wars and plagues, immigration and austerity
and as if all that wasn’t enough
Politicians shuffling through piles of dead words

And I keep thinking of Brecht’s line
that it is almost a crime
to speak of trees for it is
a kind of silence about injustice

                           II

You think we have no reason
to write of anything beyond
personal experience, introspection,
intricacies of words and emotion
because no one will put us in prison
when our words offend?

But what is the purpose of poets
if not to focus the mind’s
attention where it is needed most;
to sing like canaries in dark mines
in the space between heartbeats?

                             III

And this skinny little man
with an impish grin and unruly hair
this twenty first century Voltaire

with his tongue and his pen,
who dares to use them to question
and to oppose oppression

and every beat of the cane
draws a line of fire  across his back
“he made no sound” the witness said
“but you could see he was in pain”

and each stroke of the lash opens
another throat to sing.  Becomes
one thousand strokes of one thousand pens;

lines of pale stalks that remain
defiant and upright after snow and storms,
gleaming against the dark of the earth

©2015  A de Grandis

Raif B 1Raif Badawi is one of us, a blogger and part of our community – he is a writer and activist who co-founded the website “Free Saudi Liberals”.  In 95% of the world he’d be doing what the rest of us do, leading his life, going to the day job, happily expressing his thoughts and opinions on his blog but not in Saudi Arabia.

In May 2012 shortly before his arrest he addressed the nature of Liberalism on his blog
“For me, liberalism simply means, live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. However, the nature of liberalism – particularly the Saudi version – needs to be clarified. It is even more important to sketch the features and parameters of liberalism, to which the other faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means. They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet. But their hold over people’s minds and society shall vanish like dust carried off in the wind.”

His final thought quoted Albert Camus: “The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
More of his writing can be found at
http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/14/-sp-saudi-blogger-extracts-raif-badawi

Raif B 2On January 9, Raif Badawi was taken from his prison cell to a public square outside the al-Jafali mosque in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he was subjected to the first fifty of the sentence of one thousand lashes.
Days later, his lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair’s prison sentence was extended to fifteen years
Then, on January 16, Badawi’s next 50 lashes were postponed because his injuries from the first round were too harsh to withstand additional flogging. They are scheduled to resume this week.  The Saudi Authorities will resume their torture once he has healed enough to withstand the next fifty lashes.

The crime that prompted this appalling punishment is that he ran a website called, with dreadful irony, Free Saudi Liberals. On this he discussed and advocated secularism, and mocked the cruel absurdities of the Saudi religious authorities, who denounce astrologers for peddling nonsense but themselves have people executed for ‘sorcery’.  He does not advocate violence and what he says would be taken as self-evident truth outside the closed, medieval and fearful world that is Saudi Arabia.

I’d urge all bloggers to take up Raif Badawi’s cause if to do no more than sign the petition that Amnesty International have organised to stop his further flogging
https://www.amnesty.org.uk/actions/saudi-arabia-free-raif-badawi-flogged-blogger

We must not forget that we enjoy our freedom to blog and to express our opinions because in our countries in the past there were individuals like Raif Badawi, writers and thinkers who dared to speak out against oppression and injustice.  I believe we owe him our support and our voices, which is what prompted me to write the poem.  I’m happy for it to be shared and used to help his cause.

Trojan horses, The Transatlantic Trade and investment Partnership and the Rule of Law

I am worried by the possibility that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, (TTIP for short) will become a binding treaty.  It’s negotiations are shrouded in secrecy, which should alert every citizen on the grounds that when our legislators, be it local councils or national governments, want to keep things quiet this is because they know we won’t like it or want it and they hope to slide it in under the radar.

The name resonates with worthy dullness, just another bureaucratic regulation of trade between the EU and USA, nothing could be further from the truth.   TTIP is different, because tariffs are already very low between the EU and US, it will focus on “non-tariff” barriers, which essentially means regulations that get in the way of trade and investment.

There are as usual  a number of disparate strands bound up in the negotiations but the one that concerns me most and should set every citizen’s alarm bells ringing wildly is the part that deals with Investor State Dispute Settlement.   This is an assault the fundamental principle of the rule of law on which our democracies on both sides of the Atlantic are based.   ISDS in effect grants multinationals the same legal position as a nation-state itself, and allows them to sue sovereign governments in so-called arbitration tribunals on the grounds that their profits are threatened by government policies.  Corporations are legal entities they are not nation states and to conflate the two is a dangerous and suicidal path for any democracy.

I read law and as part of my degree I studied Roman law.  In particular Cicero, a great Roman Jurist writing in the dying days of the Roman Republic who said ‘Omnes legum servi sumus ut liberi esse possumus’, which translates as ‘We are all servants of the laws in order that we may be free’.   Often paraphrased and understood by all of us as ‘no-one is above the law’.  The rule of law protects the individual from the overweening might of the state, from the exercise of arbitrary power.  Laws do not exist in a vacuum; law is a social institution as it relates to the larger political and social situation in which it exists.  We frame the laws we perceive as needed to create the society we want, in turn those laws inculcate in us a way of thinking about the world.

What characterises our view of a fair and just society?  Why do we invoke ideals such as Liberty, Equality, Justice?   I would be the first to admit that there is no uniformity within us as a society; individuals range across a spectrum of opinions as to what these concepts actually mean but the fact that we ask these questions, that we have some common frame of reference is the result of growing up and developing as part of a democratic society whose laws are framed to reflect the concept that no-one is above the law, that we are all entitled to vote, that we can hold public officials to account for misuse of power.   Corporations are legal entities; they are and should be subject to the same laws as the rest of us.  TTIP will enable companies to sue a government if it does something that threatens their revenues, such as banning a product on health grounds, or repealing laws allowing marketisation of a public service.  The banking sector is remarkably keen on this provision which would make it almost impossible to regulate financial services.  That alone should make all of us shudder.  The point of democracy is that we the people vote for the politicians.  They represent us and are accountable to us, so if we vote for a government that for example requires GMO ingredients in food to be clearly labelled because that is what we want, then all of us must abide by that law.  There are no exceptions, no-one should be above that law but the TTIP will put corporations in the privileged position of being able to sue the nation state for unlimited compensation for loss of their future profit not in the Courts like the rest of us but in a special non judicial tribunal organised under World Bank rules with no appeal mechanism.

We protest about many things and rightly so, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the ability of citizens to get together and say we don’t like or want this is fundamental to our democracy.  Often it is the sheer number of people who turn out or who sign petitions that lets the politicians know that pushing this piece of legislation through Parliament is very likely to lose them the next election and then they row back from it at least in the short term.   The Treaty of Lisbon introduced the European Citizens Initiative to increase direct democracy.  This allows petitions to be presented to the European parliament and the matter debated once a million signatures have been collected.  The procedure for registering the initiative is straight forward and most initiatives that fulfil the requirements are registered, (this does not necessarily mean that the initiative will succeed it merely enables the collection of the necessary signatures) interestingly registration of the ECI against the TTIP has been rejected despite already having collected 750,000 signatures in more than the minimum number of countries.   Protests and efforts to get the ECI registered continue and we shall see what the outcome will be.  Not registering it is a way of shutting the door to the citizen’s voice being heard in this matter.

Trojan Horses have become a by word for winning by stealth and this agreement is definitely a Trojan horse placed at the gates of democracy.  We need to hog tie it and remove it not drag it in through the gates and then sit in the ashes and ruins bewailing our fate.

Language and Rights

I want to continue the theme of last week’s blog about language and the meaning of words but in a much more specific context.  I have been worrying about the way in which despite the use of words that imply we have ever more freedoms and choice we are in fact losing rights and being ever more curtailed in our freedoms.   We encounter assertions of rights as we encounter sounds: persistently and in great variety.

Wesley Hohfeld died at 40, he was Professor of Law at Harvard and his published work consists of one slim book with a long title Fundamental Legal Conceptions as Applied in Judicial Reasoning.   This book was one of my study texts in my third year at university and it exercised a very profound influence on my thinking.

Hohfeld created a very precise analysis which distinguished between fundamental legal concepts and then identified the relationships between them.  His analysis of rights is a framework of elegance and simplicity revealing that most familiar rights, such as the right to free expression or the right of private property, have a complex internal structure. Such rights are ordered arrangements of basic components, much in the same way that most molecules are ordered arrangements of chemical elements.

Hohfeld identified four basic “elements” of Rights; Privileges, Claims, Powers and Immunities.  Each of these has a distinctive logical form, and the incidents fit together in characteristic ways to create complex “molecular” rights.  Each of the incidents—the privilege, claim, power, and immunity—can be a right when it occurs in isolation but each Right has an opposite and a correlative.  Hohfeld was primarily concerned with legal rights but his analysis extends equally well to moral and ethical questions.

That is probably more than enough Jurisprudence for anyone who is not a lawyer but I wanted to explain the background to my thinking that prompted this blog.

Most people who are not lawyers or philosophers would probably define ‘Right’ as meaning ‘what is just or fair’ but this is not the same as our modern subjective sense of ‘a Right’.   So why is this important?  Isn’t what we mean by ‘a Right’ clear enough for all practical purposes?  Well I would argue that it isn’t that each and every one of us needs to have a precise and clear understanding of what we mean when we talk of ‘rights.’

This is really a development of the point at which I ended last week’s blog; the way in which the language we speak limits us to the modes of perception already inherent in that language.  The form or label comes to be not merely a useful reference in a catalogue system but a limit and constraint on our thinking and we are vulnerable to other people shifting that meaning without our being aware of it.  Hohfeld identifies ‘Privilege’ as the type of right that is contained in the idea that I have NO DUTY NOT TO DO IT.  In other words there is no infringement of another’s rights in any sense in my painting my bedroom in black and red stripes or picking up a shell on the beach.  What is being steadily and in my opinion rapidly eroded is this type of right and it is going unnoticed in the white noise created by the multiplicity of assertions of rights and counter rights.

Now nobody is going to take away my ‘right’ to paint my bedroom but they are enacting legislation that will curtail and control the way I act in public.  I have no duty not to walk down the High Street wearing a hoodie but my privilege to do this may now be curtailed if it causes annoyance or nuisance, similarly if I stand outside the chip shop talking to a group of friends I may be the recipient of an order preventing me from doing this in future because it causes annoyance or nuisance.  These terms lack any legal precision and are so broad and generalized that they could be used to catch a vast range of everyday behaviours to an extent that may have serious implications for the rule of law.   These terms replace the previous test of anti-social behaviour namely behaving in a manner likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.  A far more restrictive test than annoyance or nuisance; under the new definition protesters, buskers, preachers, and young people just hanging out with friends could find themselves on the wrong side of the law.  These are laws which are capable of extraordinary abuse in the same way as the notorious ‘sus’ laws were and they will no doubt be applied equally inequitably.  I doubt very much whether anyone will hand me out an injunction for wearing a hoodie but if I was sixteen and black they might well.

What worries me is that people don’t recognise the infringement of perfectly acceptable rights that this entails.  Understanding the framework of rights and the way they build on and interlock with each other is key to preventing their erosion by stealth.