Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Chatham House Rules OK !

Hush, hush ! Whisper who dares. A political party is having a real debate about a life and death issue. I am, of course, referring to the Liberal Democrats who are discussing the future of Trident. Of course, we don't really want anyone to know, which may explain why all previous publicity about the Spring Conference in Harrogate talks about the major debate on Crime and one or two other matters. Oh and yes, there's also a debate on Trident. It does get a mention in the small print.

In an attempt to raise both the level and volume of debate, I have published some articles. In one of these, I quoted some of the very thin arguments advanced by members of the party's Federal Policy Committee. So far, so good. But I committed the unforgivable sin of identifying the mouths from which such wisdom gushed. If you don't know, the Chatham House Rule permits the repetition of what is spoken but forbids the identification of the speaker. If you don't know, and I didn't, this rule applies to that committee. It is perfectably understandable why anyone uttering such mindswill* as I heard at the committee would not want it repeated. What I cannot understand is the degree of indignation not to say bile, not to stay baseless slander which has bubbled, transpired and seeped from the committee.

The Chatham House Rule is a good rule and when I know it applies (e.g. at Chatham House) I respect it. I am sorry that I broke a rule which I didn't know applied. But I am much, much sorrier that there are still people in the Liberal Democrats who think that Britain still needs to waste a fortune threatening the rest of the world with weapons of mass destruction.

*"Mindswill : an unintentional neologism coined by misprint and describing arguments of no value.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Snuggery snugged

Remember snuggery - the bureaucratic brandishing of health-and-safety to banish all risk. Well here's a healthy dose of schadenfreude. A professional snugger has been snugged.

Edward Hutcheson, a health and safety expert, has been banned from driving after he was caught shaving as he overtook a line of rush hour traffic at 70mph on the A9 near Auchterarder. He was seen leaning forward to look in his rear view mirror as he used an electric shaver. He had two excuses. (1) He was late for a first aid course. (2) He had been leaning across the car at an awkward angle so he could see past a dozen mannequins he had stored in the back of his car. But Perth Sheriff Court is cut from harder granite and they banned him for six months and fined him £300. As Fife Robertson would undoubtedly have said, the people of Auchterarder will sleep safe in their beds tonight.

Normal service will be resumed...

I have had some messages complaining that I'm not blogging enough. No, really. I have two excuses, no three, no... Amongst my excuses are: tax return, gout and trying to persuade the Liberal Democrats to make up their minds about Trident. Blair says we need it (presumably to continue with our role as Deputy Dawg to Marshall Bush), Cameron says he agrees (just to show that he's also a tough guy and doesn't just go around on a bike hugging hoodies) and Ming and the Liberal Democrats respond with a resounding, "Er...wait and see". I say decide NOW not to replace Trident. Despite the fact that it is very difficult to find speakers who actually want to defend Trident, it is turning out to be very hard work to push the party off the fence. A few short arguments follow in the next post. If you want more, go to :

Trident: Seven arguments and a comment or two

The ethical argument

"What is this ethical argument that everyone talks about ?"
Michael Moore, LD Foreign Affairs Spokesman

No ethical basis exists for the use of nuclear weapons which would kill millions of innocent civilians. The ethical argument for keeping nukes is the belief that their existence deters others from using theirs. This argument depends upon a radical contradiction: we would never use nukes but our enemies must believe that we might.

The environmental argument

Protection of our environment is a cause which should be close to every Liberal Democrat heart. Urgent action on climate change is about the human rights of future generations; it is about their right to live in a habitable planet. We must not fail them.” Ming Campbell, 16/06/06

The use of nukes would have disastrous and persistent consequences for the environment, well beyond the lifetimes of the antagonists and over a wider area than their own part of the planet. By the way, nukes are not the answer to climate change or its consequences.(This may seem self-evident but the Liberal Democrat background paper includes the following statement as part of the argument for not deciding about Trident yet: "We can be fairly certain that climate change will have serious consequences, possibly leading to greater potential for conflict, as expanding populations have to manage with shrinking fertile territory.")

The non-proliferation argument
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is a bargain between Nuclear-Weapon States (NWS), who promise to negotiate in good faith to get rid of nukes, and Non-Nuclear Weapon States, who promise in return not to develop them. Hans Blix and Kofi Annan have warned that NWS, like the UK and USA, are not keeping their side of the bargain. If safe countries like the UK keep nukes, what can we say to unsafe ones, like Iran, who want them ? It’s time to end the hypocritical stance “Do as I say, not as I do”.

The military/strategic argument
Trident cannot be used for war-fighting. Nukes have not kept UK and its territories free from attack nor has lack of nukes exposed others to attack. Many senior soldiers and diplomats now oppose Trident. One retired general summarised Trident as: “useless, expensive and dangerous”. The defence of the UK actually requires more and better equipped infantry and air and naval transport. Trident is a bad use of scarce resources.

The independence argument
Trident is dependent on US co-operation; the US provides us with nuclear weapon designs and the missiles are stored and serviced in the US. This dependence influences UK governments to follow US foreign policy to the detriment of our country’s true interests and our relationships with the rest of Europe and the Middle East.

The insurance argument
Britain is more secure from direct threat from foreign states than at any time in history. If Trident is insurance against unantici­pated threats to national survival, we are paying a high premium against a highly unlikely risk. That the future is always uncertain can be used to justify the development of any weapons system (nuclear, biological or chemical or anything else) by any country.

The financial argument
New submarines would cost £20bn (capital), £75bn (capital and running costs). Instead, we should use the money to strengthen our overstretched forces and equip them properly. Taking a wider look at our country’s security we could spend more fighting against famine, disease, poverty and environmental disaster.

Nonsense on stilts: Devout vs Out

Finally it’s happened – an actual debate in the cabinet. Just when I was certain that the British Cabinet had finally joined what Bagehot was pleased to call “the dignified part of the constitution” , they sit down and have a full-scale argument. What was the issue that provoked genuine debate and a short return to the habits of democracy amongst our lords and masters, ladies and mistresses ? Was it perhaps Trident ? Was it the National Health Service ? No, of course not. This unexpected resurgence of rhetoric and reason was reserved for that vital issue of our times: “Should Roman Catholic Adoption Agencies be forced to provide services to gay couples ?”

Sorry, did I say “rhetoric and reason” ? Just rhetoric and at the heart of it, the rigmarole of rights, the rights of gay people not to suffer discrimination and the rights of religious people to have their beliefs respected. Jeremy Bentham held that all talk of rights is nonsense, but that talk of natural rights was nonsense upon stilts. I will not go so far, but I agree with him about natural rights. Rights do not come from nature or God or DNA. Rights are created by man, sitting in assemblies and congresses, conventions and courts. They are legal matters and nothing is less natural than the law. When we add the word “human” to rights, we are only asserting that we think that all human beings should have the legal protection that some of us enjoy.

No declaration or statute that I am aware of gives any human being the right to adopt a child, nor should it. Adopting a child is a privilege, not a right. The child has rights under British law, which parents and anyone acting in loco parentis must respect. To protect those rights, it is sensible to legislate for minimum standards in the conduct of adoption agencies. It is not sensible to regard the activity of adoption agencies as a consumer service like catering or interior decorating, to be regulated in the same way. If we must use the commercial metaphor, the agency’s client is the child not the parent.

On the other side of the argument, why should we treat religious beliefs as in any way superior to other beliefs ? If I as an atheist think that bringing up children to believe in supernatural entities without evidence of their existence (and indeed in the face of the evidence of pain in the world) is wrong and if I decide to set up an adoption agency which will not help religious parents, should I be stopped ? The beliefs of some Christians that lead them to oppose gay parenting are of no greater significance than my non-religious beliefs.

By escalating differences of opinion about parenting and sexual orientation into a conflict of rights, we are only making matters worse. As long as adoption agencies protect children, they should be free to apply their beliefs (religious or not) in selecting parents. So why has the Blair government got its knickers in such a twist ? Money. Money and Law. Apparently the Roman Catholic Agencies receive state funding. The deep-seated authoritarianism that lurks only just below the surface of New Labour has erupted again. The state pays so the state will decide the rules. Not completely unreasonable, but why as always reach for the statute book ? If the government feels the need, as it undoubtedly does, to micro-manage all public expenditure including grants to adoption agencies, they can attach compliance conditions to the grants. Is this different from changing the law ? Yes. It respects the vital difference between public and private, vital to any Liberal that is. Change the law and you change how every agency, private or public, can operate. Change compliance conditions on state grants and you leave private agencies without state funding free to have a different approach.

And wouldn’t it be nice if this oh-so-self-righteous cabal of ministers, who parade their concern for gay would-be fathers and mothers, would do something for actual divorced fathers who get to see their children once a fortnight if they are lucky and sometimes not at all ?