Laughing in the face of Terror

With the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London over the past week or so, it’s fair to say that the UK’s resilience has been tested. With the General Election taking place tomorrow, and Theresa May promising to ‘rip up the Human Rights act’ to introduce sweeping restrictions on the Internet, and strengthen anti-terrorist legislation, it remains to be seem how things will pan out.

You can never completely overshadow the horrific consequences of fatal attacks where innocent people lose their lives, but through the dark fog of the events themselves, stories have emerged that show true humanity, rather than the bleak nihilism of the terrorists. Stories of people rushing to the defence and aid of others; fearlessly tackling armed attackers, and embracing strangers.

A couple of examples of this that have really stood out for me in particular demonstrate the best, and most ‘British’ response imaginable. In the first, a man seen ambling casually away from a pub where the attackers had struck was hailed as a spirit of defiance for taking his pint with him:

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Beer is so expensive in London mind you, that leaving a full pint behind would be the real madness.

And then, there was this guy… who when confronted with three knife wielding attackers screaming ‘This is for Allah!’, replied by rushing to fight them bare handed, shouting: ‘Fuck you, I’m Millwall!’, allowing others the chance to escape the scene. For those not familiar with Millwall football club, this sort of behaviour is perfectly normal.

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Speaking later after surviving multiple stab wounds all over his body, he said:

I thought, ‘I need to take the p*** out of these b******s’.

For me, this sums things up pretty beautifully. The point of these attacks is to make people afraid; to make nowhere feel safe… to withdraw in terror to an authoritarian regime that results in us turning on our neighbours and friends… but it’s tough to be afraid when you are laughing your ass off.

Those of us in Glasgow remember our own brush with ISIS well…

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These attacks are always heartbreaking, and we’ll mourn the people we lose, but we also need to turn things on their head, find the humour in any situation, and laugh. Laugh right in the face of those who think they can make us scared to go outside, or scared of our Muslim friends, because their attempts to destroy who we are are laughable – and if there’s one thing the British are good at, it’s taking the piss out of those who take themselves too seriously.

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On ‘British’ Rights, and the ECHR

Yesterday, the British Home Secretary Theresa May threw her log onto the fire of the ‘debate’ over the UK’s membership of the European Union; stating that whilst we should remain within the EU, we should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s important to note that the ECHR and EU are two separate legal constructs, and so theoretically you can be part of one without the other.

Not long after May’s comments were published, a video with Patrick Stewart in it was released, highlighting the various benefits we derive from being a signatory to the ECHR.

The response to this that I’ve seen from those who dislike the ECHR would make May proud, with statements such as:

[these are] all rights enshrined in the [1689] British Bill of Rights.

and

We had these because of the Magna Carta already.

Given that it’s becoming a popular riposte in any discussion regarding the UK’s continued acceptance of the ECHR to point towards ancient British legal documents to somehow prove that we know better than the rest of Europe, and should just go back to using the Magna Carta instead, it’s probably time to clear up a few things:

Bill of Rights 1689

This ‘British’ Bill of Rights was never actually a British Bill of Rights. It was enacted by the English Parliament before the Acts of Union in 1707. A separate Act was passed shortly afterwards by the Scottish Parliament, titled the Claim of Right Act 1689Good luck reading that if you’re not familiar with auld Scots.

However, despite the misty eyed pride in which opponents of the ECHR call up the English 1689 Act, it doesn’t actually have much relevance to the ECHR in terms of content. It’s actually far more about the constitutional position of the Crown in a turbulent historical period.

There is no protection in the 1689 Bill of Rights for the people’s right to be free from torture (Article 3 ECHR), to be free from slavery (Article 4 ECHR), to be free to marry (Article 12 ECHR), or to assemble freely (Article 11 ECHR). There is mention of Freedom of Speech, but it only applies to proceedings in Parliament – not the general ‘subjects’ of the Kingdom.

The sort of rights that the 1689 Bill is really concerned with are:

  • Outlawing Ecclesiastical courts.
  • Banning the ‘rising or keeping of a standing army’ that could threaten the Kingdom.
  • Protecting the right of Protestants to bear arms (yes, really – so definitely no Freedom of Thought or Religion here, as there is in Article 9 ECHR).

Whilst the English Bill of Rights of 1689 does formally recognise a few important fundamental rights that lay the groundwork for the frameworks that we have today – such as the freedom and frequency of elections – let’s not mistake or misrepresent it for anything other than what it was: a piece of law designed to protect those that were in power, not the actual people themselves.

Magna Carta (1215)

The Magna Carta is another favourite for those who oppose the ECHR. “We don’t need the bleeding heart liberals in Europe telling us what to do! We have the fucking Magna Carta!” (this is a genuine quote).

There is no doubt that the Magna Carta is a hugely significant legal document, as its international recognition clearly shows. It contains some truly brilliant and beautiful provisions, such as:

(39) No free-man shall he seized, or imprisoned, or dispossessed, or outlawed, or in any way destroyed; nor will we condemn him, nor will we commit him to prison, excepting by the legal judgment of his peers, or by the laws of the land.

and

(40) To none will we sell, to none will we deny, to none will we delay right or justice.

However, lying amongst the grand and oft-quoted provisions, there are also paragraphs such as the following:

(46) All barons who have founded abbeys, which they hold by charters from the Kings of England, or by ancient tenure, shall have the custody of them when they become vacant, as they ought to have.

(48*) All evil customs of forests and [rabbit] warrens, and of foresters and warreners, sheriffs and their officers, river-banks and their keepers, shall immediately be inquired into by twelve knights of the same county, upon oath, who shall be elected by good men of the same county; and within forty days after the inquisition is made, they shall be altogether destroyed by them never to be restored; provided that this is notified to us before it is done, or our judiciary, if we are not in England.

The Magna Carta is truly an inspirational piece of legal history. It should be of no surprise that it has gone on to inspire legal systems around the world, and used as the basis for hugely important international treaties… including, uh, the European Convention on Human Rights.

Therein lies the point. We should recognise both the historical importance, and seminal nature of the Magna Carta, without thinking that it is somehow an adequate or appropriate tool to solve the issues of 2016.

British Rights and Sovereignty

Whilst people have, and do use the Magna Carta and English Bill of Rights as broad swords to justify pulling out of the ECHR, the real argument being made by people such as Theresa May is that whilst these documents themselves would not be adequate in of themselves, our history shows that we are more than capable of producing law that enshrines protections.

This line of thought seems more coherent, but is dangerously misrepresentative. The most obvious reason for this is that we already have created a set of rights that applies to the challenges faced today – so much so that the rest of Europe followed suit. British judges were already developing the protections contained within the ECHR through our domestic common law before the Treaty was ever signed, and were instrumental in shaping its inception. This can be made no clearer than with the fact that Churchill himself called for a shared protection for rights across Europe, and led Britain to be the very first signatory of the ECHR. We already have a British Bill of Rights. It’s called the European Convention.

The response to this of course, is that the ECHR may once have been adequate, but is no longer fit for purpose. The Tories will tell you that the ECHR encroaches upon the ability of the British Parliament to deal with specific issues that we face as a nation today – and that’s why they had to defy the Strasbourg court, continuing to deny prisoners the right to vote. Instead, we need a new British Bill of Rights so that we can’t be told what to do by Europeans. We created rights after all, damnit!

Even if we accept the argument that the ECHR is no longer fit for purpose (which I do not), to think that we can create some British only version of the Convention that will give us the same protections is nonsense. The great historical documents of the Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights were brought about primarily to ensure the continued existence of the power structures of the time; they weren’t ever primarily about the rights of the people – and it would be the same situation here.

The Conservatives are not interested in the rights of individuals; they are intent on removing any barriers that prevent them from doing whatever they please whilst in power. This can be framed in terms of protecting the sovereignty of Britain, but it’s actually about protecting those in power. The rights enshrined in the ECHR protect the British people from the excesses of the British (or any other) state. The only way that they have any power to do this is by existing a level above any single government. A new British Bill of Rights would not be able to do this effectively – as there would be no external pressure, and so irrespective of what went into such a Bill, it would be toothless.

To close…

Yes, the UK has been one of the leading voices in history for the adoption of universal human rights, and that is something of which we should be proud. However, we should not and cannot look to the past to demonstrate our ancient achievements in the likes of the Magna Carta and 1689 English Bill of Rights. The natural culmination of these historical developments is in a shared, international acceptance of the basic rights we should have, as protection from the flux of political change and upheaval. This is precisely why the ECHR was used as a crucial part of the Good Friday agreement, helping to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

If we are going to talk about sovereignty, let’s talk about sovereignty of the people – not the self-serving sovereignty of the British Parliament.

 

Fighting Fear after the Paris attacks.

Seeing the news unfold from Paris that there had been yet another terrorist attack, I have to be honest: I didn’t feel too much at first.

Yes, it was awful, but the scenes played out on the screen like the plot of an action film: dramatic, but ultimately ones that we’ve seen time and time again. The world would get back to their feet, and life would continue as before.

Or at least, that’s how it should have went.

Eleven days on, when the frivolous debates over whether or not people should change their Facebook profile to a blue, white, and red tricoleur have subsided, and other humanitarian tragedies that were ignored by the Western media have been highlighted, the chaos and uncertainty remains.

That wasn’t meant to happen.

I don’t want to admit it, but I’m going to be honest: I am scared. The sort of fear that builds and grows based on over-exposure to one particular threat. I recognise that the chance of being killed in a terrorist attack is statistically lower than dying in a car crash, or even from being hit on the head by a coconut, but there is a deep, all-permeating fear that remains. This is something that isn’t helped by the fact I have to confront the issue daily at work: reviewing material such as the horrifying images of those lying dead in the Bataclan Theatre.

All of this is, of course, as many commentators pay lip service to: ‘what the terrorists want’. They want to ‘destroy our way of life’, and bring about greater divides between us and ‘the other’. It’s all very obvious and predictable.

The problem is though, that it is working.

This time, the symbolism of terrorism has captured both the imagination of the sensationalist media, and attracted the authoritarian arm of the so-called sovereign states.

The exaggerated press coverage, along with the equally disproportionate reaction of our governments from the UK to Russia gives the impression that we are trapped inside of an all consuming state of war, with danger omnipresent; gun-men just waiting for us to drop our guard to take their chance and blow us up. The BBC’s panorama report on the Paris attacks finished with an ominous statement about how the next attack could take place at any time, anywhere, and the US have issued a worldwide travel alert to its citizens to ‘be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid large crowds or crowded places’… Brussels has been ‘locked down’, with armed police filling the streets. There is literally no escape from the perceived threat, and that isn’t because of ISIS – it’s because of how our own countries are reacting – suffocating us with the same issue 24/7.

I can’t help but think back to when I was younger; growing up with the consistent threat of the IRA targetting mainland Britain. We shrugged off the idea that we should avoid ‘crowded places’, because that could be literally anywhere, and the attacks had gone on for so many years it was impossible to do so. We used to laugh when Americans couldn’t understand why there was no bins in train stations: it was just part of life. Yes, the threat was real (and far more common in this part of the world than ISIS), but the level of panic and fear was completely different.

How quickly that all gets forgotten. It’s far easier to paint the brown skinned, Muslim folk as the enemy than the pale ginger Irish ones. Easier to demand new, unprecedented surveillance and security measures on the back of an enemy that can be hiding around any corner, clutching an AK47 and a Quran.

After Paris, it is easy to feel like ISIS are everywhere; all powerful… but they are not. To conquer that feeling, we first need to recognise it, and then fight back against it. Travel to Paris. Travel to Brussels. Welcome the refugees. Don’t accept the derogatory things that others say about them. Fight for greater civil liberties, not the restriction of them. Stand up against those who would have it otherwise. Refuse to give in to the fear that not only the terrorists, but your government wants you to feel.

This is me refusing to accept it.

The Tories, Human Rights, and Scotland

Ever since they climbed into power on the shoulders of the Lib Dems, the Conservative Government has been threatening to do any number of the following:

  • Defy the judgements of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR)

  • Repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA)

  • Withdraw from the ECHR entirely

Aside from point one, where we saw the disgusting braying of mis-guided MPs as Westminster voted not to give (any) prisoners the ability to vote – thus racking up penalties against taxpayers in the process – these stated aims have so far been tempered by the unwillingness of the Lib Dems (or anybody else) to support them.

Now we hear that if the Conservatives win a majority in Parliament next year, that they will move to do some, or all of the above. Of course, we’re not entirely sure yet, as they haven’t seen fit over their entire term in power to begin to explain what a so-called ‘British Bill of Rights’ might look like. Plenty has been written on the lunacy of these plans by those far more able and influential than I, so I won’t spend time going over the same ground. However, one of the more interesting (and perplexing) possibilities that has been floated is the power and possibility of the Scottish Government blocking any removal of human rights obligations in Scotland, even if the situation is different in the rest of the UK. As the prolific blogger PeatWorrier commented:

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A few people have been discussing this possibility already, so it’s worth having a look at this in a bit more detail. Firstly, it’s important to know why the Tories are so hell-bent on attacking the conception of human rights as we know it.

Why do the Tories hate human rights so much?

The newspaper headlines will paint a story of pragmatic and concerned Conservatives who wish to deport ‘murderers, terrorists and rapists’, or stop them from having the vote. The notion of human rights as some sort of whiny legal set of technicalities akin to the dreaded ‘health and safety’ or ‘political correctness gone mad’ is presented, and almost always accompanied by sensationalist examples of people claiming that perfectly reasonable behaviour is infringing upon their rights. That these arguments don’t actually fall under the gambit of the HRA or the ECHR is irrelevant, so long as the words ‘human rights’ are in there somewhere, it’s enough to send Daily Mail readers everywhere into a frenzy-induced spell of foaming at the mouth.

However, there are two real main reasons why the Tories hate human rights. These are:

  • A dogged, and overblown sense of British sovereignty (the word British is important)

  • The inability to push through decisions whilst in Government because of the restrictions imposed upon them by the HRA and ECHR

This isn’t about any one example that we have seen over the past few years.

It isn’t about giving the prisoners the vote, or not being able to deport ‘that guy with the hook’, or even Christian Bed & Breakfast owners. This is about the Conservative Government’s ideological position – a uniquely British sense of entitlement based on a fundamental Diceyan view that nobody can over-rule a decision of the Westminster Parliament – not even Parliament itself.

This view is not without merit, and the positives of which are regularly put forward in arguments posited against the ‘meddling’ of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) in Strasbourg. The theory is that Parliament is voted for by the British people, and so that Parliament should be sovereign at any one time, not bound by the decisions of any other body, including previous Parliaments.

However, whilst this idea of Parliamentary sovereignty sounds grand and principled, and no doubt served the Empire very well in times gone past (thank you very much), it is almost certainly no longer the case. As proponents of the Union were quick to declare during the debate on Scottish independence: ‘now is not the time to fragment communities and cause division, we are better together.’ What they failed to mention of course is that the British idea of Parliamentary sovereignty is incompatible with the idea of collective governance, or supranational jurisdiction. That is the real threat to the international bonds that tie us to other countries through trade and mutual obligations – not the independent status of a country itself.

Scotland Can’t Keep the HRA or ECHR Alone

The two possibilities opened up by the Conservatives lately are:

  • The UK would ‘negotiate’ changes to the relationship with the ECHR, so that decisions of the ECtHR would merely be ‘advisory’ rather than binding to Westminster and British courts

  • Failing the above, the UK would seek to withdraw from the ECHR completely, and establish a ‘British Bill of Rights’

It’s safe to say that the chance of the first scenario happening is slim to none, so we’ll focus on the second.

To quote from the Scotsman article mentioned above:

But if the opinion of Scotland’s elected representatives at Holyrood is to keep the Human Rights Act and its final court in Strasbourg, would Mr Cameron really be prepared to override that opinion?

The suggestion is that if the UK were to withdraw from the ECHR completely, that somehow Scotland could retain the current system separately. This ignores how the system actually works in practice.

Scotland and the ECHR: 

For the avoidance of any doubt, Scotland is not an internationally recognised state, nor a (separate) member of the European Council. It would be impossible for Scotland to remain part of the ECHR if the UK was to pull out. We had our chance for this to be a possibility, and we voted no. Equally, Scotland would have no special say over any other British region in whether or not the elected Westminster Government decided to remove the UK from the ECHR.

Scotland and the HRA: 

The Human Rights Act is written in to the fabric of the Scotland Act 1998 (which brought about the creation of the Scottish Parliament). As a creature of statute, the Scottish Parliament cannot pass laws that are incompatible with the Human Rights Act 1998, and are required to make a statement effectively recognising this before a law is passed on for Royal Assent. This is part of the reason why it has been suggested that Scotland should be ‘consulted’ before doing away with the HRA. Whilst this makes for an interesting political confrontation between the Scottish Parliament and Westminster over the type of country we might want to live in, it doesn’t seem clear how exactly Scotland could be consulted, or have any sort of say in the possible repeal of the HRA.

Accountability: 

Technically, the obligations contained within the HRA could be transposed into an Act that only applied to Scotland. This would require Scottish public authorities to act in a manner which is compatible with the ECHR rights, and allow individuals to bring actions against them where their rights were breached. However, it is at this point that things begin to fall apart.

The force of the ECHR comes from the ECtHR in Strasbourg. This greater authority that exists at a level above member states is necessary to protect people from decisions of their governments. Whilst the conversation in Scotland isn’t framed this way at present, it would be difficult to see where this force would come from should Scotland retain some form of HRA separately to the rest of the UK.

For example, if a human rights claim was raised against a decision of the Scottish legal system, who would hear the case? As already explained, Scotland would not be a signatory, and so recourse to the ECtHR would not be possible. There would be no appeal to courts elsewhere in the UK either, as (god forbid) they don’t have jurisdiction, and they would be ill-equipped to do so in any event – given that they would be operating in a completely different rights based framework.

Whilst a commitment to the operation of human rights in Scotland could be adopted, and enforced by the Scottish Parliament, it would lack the necessary accountability to operate in anything but a shadow of the form that currently exists.

This renders the proposition completely unworkable.

I believe that it is right for the Scottish Government to defend the HRA, and our continued membership of the ECHR – this is something that we all need to do. However, to suggest that Scotland could somehow operate the European human rights framework separately from the rest of the UK is fanciful.

For a more detailed legal look at this topic, see this post on the UK Human Rights blog.

‘Family Friendly’ UK Government Policies. What About Immigration?

Ever seeking to be seen as the ‘family man’, David Cameron has stated that in future, all government policies should pass a ‘family friendly’ test before becoming law. (#)

It should be pretty clear to anyone with a critical mind that this is nothing more than meaningless spin and rhetoric. Cameron’s government are focussed on what benefits the privileged, not the underdog, but they have to appeal to a moral position in order to condition skeptics into voting for them. However, there’s one specific example that immediately comes to mind that should illustrate the duplicity involved with this proclamation: that of immigration.

The usual bullshit position on immigration in the UK tends to be: “we’re here and it’s our right to be here – nobody else should be allowed. Foreigners should just go home.” – worded more or less diplomatically depending on who is involved. Immigration? Pah! Why should those immigrants be considered anyway?

Interestingly enough, experience has shown that this dogma transforms (as do many others) when the issue comes closer to home. It’s easy to dismiss immigrants of a different colour or nationality in the abstract, but not so much when one of your family members is separated from a loved one because of harsh and unpredictable immigration regulations.

The fact is that immigration policy in the UK is racist, and purposively both complex and contradictory in order to make the application process as difficult as possible. There are no elements of fairness or justice in how people are dealt with, and what results is a maddeningly frustrating and expensive undertaking for anybody who dares to fall in love with somebody from another country. When the system invariably break down, people are forced to appeal to the safeguard of the European Convention of Human Rights, which is then handily used as a scapegoat for undermining national sovereignty. Few point out the responsibility of the UK government to ensure that the system is fit for purpose in the first place.

There are endless amounts that have already been written about my own experience with the UK immigration process alone, but never published. It’s something I constantly swither over making public, partly through fear of any future reprisal. After all, we still have a number of years to go before we are completely out of the woods, and at any point our hard-fought battles could be revoked. Why is so little said about this stuff in detail by those who go through it? Because we are terrified of the possible consequences that might happen. People should know about what injustices happen in the system, and freedom of speech should guarantee the ability for that to happen, but who wants to risk it when their application may be denied?

For those of us who are on the receiving end of such policies, we know how awful it is. We know that immigration is a disgusting mess; one that has no concern for families, or for keeping them together. We know that kids get used solely as an excuse to raise the barrier for entry to the UK, not treated as human beings. We know that what really matters here is ethnicity, not family values. We know that it’s a specific kind of morality that is in mind here: that of the white, mother and father, British kind. We know that all this is true, and have resigned ourselves to being subjected to that, often silently… but to then turn around and talk about the importance of ‘family friendly’ policies is just flat out insulting.

Don’t believe a word of this pish.

 

Dear Virgin Trains, stop watching me in the toilet

So thanks to users on Twitter, it appears that Virgin Trains are back up to their old tricks of using CCTV cameras in their toilets – confirming this in their responses.

When they were called out on this on Twitter, they flippantly responded that we shouldn’t worry, as the ‘cameras are angled so they don’t see anything they’re not supposed to!‘ – link goes through to the original tweet.

Uhh, right.

Amongst those to wade in was Nick Pickles of BigBrotherWatch, who helpfully pointed out that the Information Commissioner’s guidance on CCTV says this with relation to the use of cameras in toilets:

‘In areas where people have a heightened expectation of privacy, such as changing rooms or toilet areas, cameras should only be used in the most exceptional circumstances where it is necessary to deal with very serious concerns. In these cases, you should make extra effort to ensure that those under surveillance are aware.’

I wonder what these ‘exceptional circumstances’ could be… peeing on the seat perhaps? I fail to see any credible reason to have CCTV cameras in train toilets, even if they really are ‘angled away’ (in which case what is the point?).

I submitted a query via Virgin’s website, but it was unclear whether or not the form had actually been submitted, so to make it easier for others who wish to question what the hell is going on, you can e-mail the company direct at customer.relations@virgintrains.co.uk – and whilst you’re at it, bring it to the attention of the ICO via mail@ico.gsi.gov.uk.

If you’ve got Twitter, you can make your feelings clear to @VirginTrains and @ICONews

With conflicting statements being made throughout the day, Virgin should make it crystal clear exactly what the situation is with regards to the use of cameras to monitor sensitive areas.

A play with Derridean deconstruction

“Heterosexuality is the natural way for human beings to be.”

The word ‘nature’ is understood to entail that which arises naturally; organic in form. To apply the term ‘natural’ is to describe that which is part of life as it has arisen, be that from deity, evolution or other means. The word describes that which is the binary opposite of ‘un-natural’. For something to be created ‘un-naturally’ appears to be an impossibility; a sophistry without an alteration in the definition of ‘natural’ itself.

Words and concepts are meaningless in of themselves. The concept only has ‘meaning’ relative to other concepts which define its position and our understanding of it.

‘Heterosexuality’ as a concept is meaningless without its binary opposite – ‘homosexuality’. The understanding of the former is impossible without the definition and relation to the latter. One defines itself in relation to the other.

As a result, the existence of ‘heterosexuality’ determines the existence of ‘homosexuality’. If one has arisen by nature, then nature must also be the origin of the other.

– originally posted on January 30th 2011 on allmyfriendsarejpegs.com