Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Trump & Brexit - Who's fooling whom?

Among the many mangled sayings of George W. Bush one of the most infamous was his butchering of this aphorism:

“There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.”

It was an almost endless source of surprise to me and many that a man so inarticulate could occupy the Oval Office.  And yet he did for 8 long years, and in the aftermath of the nuclear detonation under the American body politic last night there are some who look wistfully back at a time when the debasement of politics at least had its recognised limits.

In 2008 the world was treated to Barack Obama's vaulting rhetoric and responded by recognising and endorsing the audacity of his hope.  It is obvious now, however, that there were many millions at home that did not recognise themselves in his dreams; that saw reflected in his success only their failure.

Ever since Hillary Clinton made her presidential ambitions known there has been the lurking doubt, now agonisingly realised, that she did not share Obama's ability to achieve the highest office through the vanquishing of history by the unstoppable force of destiny.

She lost to Obama because he had hope on his side and now she has lost to Donald Trump because he had anger on his.  But what new republic do the millions of Trump voters now really expect him to deliver? A basic rule of politics is never insult the voters and with her 'basket of deplorables' lapse Clinton betrayed, however fleetingly, the contempt she felt for those supporting her ogreish opponent.

Voters don't like being insulted to their face and nor will they tolerate implied slights regarding their intelligence.  Traumatic though the events of 2016 have been 2017 will be the test of whether stupidity and ignorance lies behind the coronation of Trump over there and Brexit over here or whether this ascendancy has a more nuanced source.

WE know that the Brexiteers lied before the referendum and WE know that Trump lied his way to the White House.  The question is do THEY know?  How many Brexit voters truly believed that £350 million per week would be reallocated to the NHS?  How many Trump voters truly believed that the wall will be built, Muslims banished and Clinton jailed?

I suspect the answer is surprisingly few.  The common thread is the emotional willingness of people to be lied to.  Clinton could not win the presidency through reason and appeal to the intellect because what genuine solace could she offer to the millions suffering declining living standards in the Rust Belt and elsewhere?  It is to her credit that neither could she lie in such a bare-faced way as her monstrous adversary, who had the temerity to brand her as the crooked one.

There are rarely easy answers to hard questions and I believe that the vast majority understand that in their heads, that does not mean they wish it were not so in their hearts.  Mrs May and Mr Trump both know that they can't undo globalism.  Rank opportunism has propelled them to suggest that they can.  The question that awaits an answer is what reckoning there will be when their impotence is made manifest.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Hanging Cheds & The Court of Public Opinion

The court of public opinion has no fixtures, it doesn’t even have warned lists, instead its sittings are unannounced, unexpected and often unnecessary.  It is also an unusual court because its jury is not confined to 12 in number but instead has no limit.  There is no judge, no usher, no clerk.  Rights of audience are granted to anybody with Internet access.  Its most significant peculiarity is that there are no rules of evidence save one: all opinion is admissible.

The ferocity of the firestorm of opinion generated by the Ched Evans acquittal has, even by the exceptionally high and cacophonous standards of modern outrage, been astonishing.  Some of that opinion has been well informed; very much has not.  We have not heard from the jurors involved, the barristers or the judges and it is highly like that we will not.  For those of us that did not sit through every day of two trials by jury and hearings in the Court of Appeal (Criminal Division) we are reliant on the accuracy and completeness of newspaper reporting.

If you are a legal blogger a quick way to gain an audience is to be one of the first to offer commentary on whatever is the high profile case of the day.  Many of my peers are both swift and skilled in this regard.  In my estimation they perform a valuable unpaid public service offering interpretation and commentary to legal matters that enable readers to turn to sources other than newspapers and media websites so that they can understand better the issues involved.

I am often slow to blog on topical cases.  There are a number of reasons for this.  A practical reason is that being topical requires prioritising blog writing often in the midst of professional commitments which plainly must come first.  A second reason is the difficulty of being informed.  As a lawyer, obviously, the hope and expectation is that I am informed on the law and if I am not I know how to become knowledgeable.  But it is the facts that can be so difficult.  Newspaper reporting of trials, even as high profile as Ched Evans’, necessarily contains a tiny fraction of what is actually said and shown in evidence.

Therefore in this blog I do not seek to comment on whether the verdict in this case was right or wrong, surprising or expected.  I do have the strongest possible feelings about Mr Evans’ conduct that night and believe that I would shun and censure any relative or friend who behaved similarly.

If you want to read some useful, insightful and informed commentary on it I commend; Matthew Scott (this time in The Telegraph ) and Nicholas Diable.

If you are inclined to offer your opinion don’t let me stop you.  All I will say is that I would be very slow to venture my thoughts on the outcome of complex surgery without undertaking an enormous amount of research and reading first.  Hard cases make bad law is an expression all lawyers are familiar with to which the social media coda is that ignorance makes for bad opinions. 

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Depressing regressing at Justice

When Michael Gove was unexpectedly appointed Lord Chancellor I am chastened to admit I was among some lawyers who instinctively deprecated the development.  It was Francis Fitzgibbon QC, the new and welcome chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, who reminded us that we of all people should avoid rushing to judgement.

In the event Mr Gove showed some real promise and some unexpected symptoms of reforming zeal as the months wore on.  By the time of his hubristically inglorious dismissal from government he had succeeded in reversing almost every single disastrous policy of his predecessor.  In fact many observers were looking forward with some enthusiasm to see what policy of his own he would formulate.

Problem solving courts were a promising possiblity.  Meaningful and innovative prison reform seemed to be right at the top of the agenda.  A complete newcomer to the justice system seemed intent on mastering his brief and applying his intelligence and energies to addressing some of the most intractable problems bedevilling rehabilitation.  Just one year in the job and the Brexit bombshell threatens to derail the whole programme.

Unsurprisingly given their history and with perhaps genuine distate for his machinations, less Machiavellian more Blackadderian, Mrs May decided there was no room in her cabinet for Mr Gove.  Thus the poor benighted justice system has been presented with its third leader in not as many years.  This time I held my tongue.  Liz Truss should have a chance to prove herself.  Judge a Lady Chancellor by her actions not others' words.

Unfortunately, however, today's performance before Parliament's Justice Committee suggests little cause for optimism about the prospects for justice.  The dreaded and cliched political anxiety about being soft on crime
had alread put paid to overhaul of the courts.  Now it appears any meaningful prison reform may also be off the table.  And back on it is the government's dead cat policy the British Bill of Rights.  Any time, energy and money spent on this pointless exercise in window dressing is a diversion from addressing the real and urgent issues facing justice.

Alex Cavendish has already excoriated the new Lord Chancellor's showing today, I for one hope his pessimism is unfounded.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Same same but different: Stop the bother about the other

Another day another miserable story about Muslims being treated disgracefully by an airline for the simple fact of being Muslim.  Sadly these stories seem to be proliferating, somebody reading Arabic poetry, somebody with a beard, somebody with dark skin, somebody praying; all reasons now, apparently, to be ejected from planes, to be questioned by the police, to be suspected, to be ostracised and to be hated.

The fear of the other expressed in mistrust and hatred is well documented and well known.  When times are tough blame is always apportioned and history teaches us that minorities are the first to suffer as the target of societal anxieties and ire.

It is said that familiarity breeds contempt but so often discrimination springs from contempt for the unfamiliar.  If none of your friends or family are Muslim/gay/black then how much more likely is it that the otherness of their identity will seem to challenge your own.  If you are in a position of strength and privilege then perhaps this otherness will seem less confronting and less fraught with danger for  the integrity of your own sense of self.  By way of example  London did not vote for Brexit because London does not see the EU and its immigrants as a threat to its identity.  The total opposite is true for so many of England's market towns.

I am as dismayed as any decent person that fear of otherness is slowly lending acceptability to overt Trumpian racism, prejudice and downright stupidity.  The short term dangers attendant upon the sanctioning of these base instincts are obvious: more strife, more hostility and more separation.

However my fear of these developments is dwarfed by my fear of the medium to long term problems that the globe has to grapple with, and be under no illusion, they are global problems.  Ironically my fears here stem not from otherness and human diversity but instead from our similarities.  To explain what I mean one only has to consider the example of Bhutan, the remote and inaccessible Himalayan mountain kingdom.  Tourism in Bhutan is very heavily regulated and controlled.  Its traditions have endured in large measure due to a combination of its isolation and the care with which exposure to the outside world has been controlled.  One consequence of this is that the arrival of television in Bhutan is still a relatively recent development and it was one which allowed a clear view of how a society unconnected to the world could change through the arrival of technology.  The answer was enormously, immediately and irrevocably.

As many proponents of Brexit seem not to understand you can’t opt out of globalism.  One manifestation of globalism is commonality of desire and longing: whether that is for iPhones, Coca Cola, a Mercedes or holidays abroad.  Everyone everywhere wants these things because whatever our race, colour, creed or sexual preference we share the same instincts.  We want to consume, we want to possess, we want experience and novelty and we want to expend the minimum possible effort getting it.  The problem for all of us is that the satisifcation of these desires, shared from shore to shore, will destroy our world and ourselves.

Climate change is not caused by otherness it is caused by sameness.  The dwindling of meaningful employment is not caused by otherness it is caused by sameness.  Obesity is not caused by otherness it is caused by sameness.  The solutions to some of these problems are simple but they are political anathema because they require fewer possessions and more effort.  I am frightened that there is no room and no oxygen for the essential debates that must be had about these problems because we are distracted by the phantom threats of otherness.  Our energy and will is sapped by a false fear of terror rather than by a well founded anxiety of what our actions and impulses, replicated seven billion fold around the planet, are doing to the only world we have to live in.

When we recognise that we have more reason to fear ourselves and the satisfaction of our desire for possession without effort then we are ready to combat that fear through action.  This action is not just manifested in the decisions we take in our own lives but in the policies that we demand of our politics and politicians. Stop worrying about the threat posed by others and by the other and take responsibility for the threat that comes from within.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

The war I did not fight

‘How is he?’, ‘I’m sorry?’, ‘How is he?’, ‘How’s who, Sergeant-Major?’, ‘Lord Lucan, last seen in your hair, get a haircut!’  A typical moment of NCO humour means I will never forget the first day of my abortive and very short lived stint in the Territorial Army. 

The British Army is an extraordinary institution constituted of some of the finest people this country produces.  In many respects it is the British institution par excellence.  Part of me understands the allure and lustre of being, however insignificantly, a member of it.  But sadly the international events of my adult life have compellingly illustrated the harm caused by an army put to wrong uses by politicians without the faintest idea of what soldiers are for and the limits of what they can achieve.

I signed up in the autumn of 2002 having just left university and embarked on my law conversion studies.  I thought, embarrassingly in retrospect, that joining up would be a good way to get fit and participate in some of the outward bound activities that army advertising continues to suggest is a major component of an army career.  Adolescent notions of service and camaraderie also played their part.  Finally, in my callowness, there was a nebulous feeling that without a spell in khaki mine would not be a real man’s life: seduced by a fanciful attraction to warrior scholarship.  Needless to say my mother, rightly, did not find any of these to be good reasons for putting myself in harm’s way.

Two things I had not given any proper thought to at all though were killing and obedience and, above all, killing through obedience.  Without having had any experience of army training it is very hard to describe how effectively the army fractures civilian notions of entitlement and autonomy.  Subordination of personal freedom to the demands of the unit are paramount.  In some ways this abdication of responsibility is extremely attractive; your life becomes a succession of orders to be followed.  Obviously this is felt most acutely at the outset of training when resistance to the army way is at its highest.  But even the Chief of the Defence Staff is obligated to follow orders despite decades of experience and countless promotions.

As the weeks wore on prospective recruits to the regiment fell by the wayside.  Ostensibly dropping out carried no judgement, however it was always a quiet and furtive process.  The following week there would be fewer faces at drill but they were not missed or commented upon.  But those that remained definitely felt within themselves that they were succeeding where others failed.  As time passed and the battle camp neared that marked the final stage of the selection process I grew increasingly anxious and conflicted about the whole undertaking.  I knew that a time was fast approaching when pride would prevent me from walking away and all throughout that period Bush and Blair hastened an ominous beating of the battle drums.

It seemed obvious to me, as to so many back then, that 2003 meant war in Iraq come what may.  It also seemed obvious to me that Saddam Hussein posed no threat to me or to my friends and family.  There were weapons of mass destruction but they were in the hands of US, UK and other cobbled together coalition forces.  We often overlook how recent a phenomenon the deployment of soldiers as peacekeepers is and that is certainly not what soldiers were sent to Iraq for.  It is also an uncomfortable truth that no soldier joins up hoping never to fire their rifle.  Soldiers are trained to fight and when there is no fighting there is nothing for soldiers to do but train for fighting.  I remember a farcical moment on an early weekend exercise, when we weren’t even entrusted with blanks, running around a field in Hampshire with a rifle shouting ‘Bang’ until a corporal ordered rapid fire and we had to shout ‘BangBangBang’ like lunatics.  Very silly but it was clear that one day soon there would be live bullets in the magazine.

Iraq was a war I did not want to happen and it was certainly not a war I wanted to fight in.  And so one evening, before it was too late, I asked for a quiet word with the Sergeant Major and asked to leave.  He asked me what my reason was, I had been fit enough, I hadn’t been causing the NCOs any aggro or given them lip, I was a promising candidate for selection.  Absurdly I found myself answering that I didn’t think I could kill someone.  He gave me a wry smile and suggested that perhaps I should have thought of that before signing up.

Since leaving the barracks for the last time that evening two of my school fellows have been killed on active service.  One very soon after the Iraq War started in April 2003 and the second in the last months of the main deployment to Afghanistan.  Both of them, I do not doubt, will have repeatedly reminded the soldiers under their command of the purpose of their mission, of its utility and its virtue.  How those reassurances shared with men on the ground can be reconciled with the encyclopaedic and devastating conclusions of the Chilcot Report I do not know.

Mercifully we are not living in an age of conscription nor even one of National Service.  Soldiering is the preserve of volunteers and all soldiers that sign up, from Field Marshal to Private, are free to make their own assessment of Britain, its place in the world, its politicians and the uses to which they and the army they join will be put.

The sad truth is though that over the last 15 years the brave men and women who have made that choice have been dishonoured by their political leaders.  Britain and its army has been diminished in the eyes of the world by involvement in an engagement both impossible and illegal.  2.6 million words can’t explain to the bereaved families of servicemen and women why their sons and daughters died beyond satisfying the vanity of a politician who had not one day’s experience of soldiering.

The Chilcot Report makes for a very long cautionary tale for anyone now minded to take the Queen’s Shilling.