Monthly Archives: November 2014

Holding police accountable

The police fulfil an incredibly complex role within society. While, on the face of it, their role is to do things like uphold law and order, investigate crimes and look authoritative, I believe they hold a far more important role in society than just this. Defining a state as an organisation which holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given area, it is more or less self-evident that the police, along with several other institutions, are that force. They are the physical means through which the power of the state is exercised.

We are often told that expecting police officers to face trial when they kill people is too much, that it will stop them from performing their jobs properly. The idea is that, if a police officer is worried about the consequences of pulling a trigger, they might not pull it when they should. I am personally of the opinion that they should very rarely be pulling triggers, and that this is no bad thing. There are far better ways of resolving situations than a bullet in a chamber, and I believe that the mere fact of having a gun to hand and not having to worry much about its usage by itself encourages unnecessary usage of that gun – why go through the hassle of negotiating with people and calming a situation down when you can just pull a piece on someone?

Certainly, I would be very worried if police in the UK were to get more guns. It should inconvenience the officer in question if they pull out a gun. It’s an ugly thing to do, to threaten someone with death or serious injury if they don’t comply with your actions, and this is what controlling a situation with a gun entails. However, overall I believe that the narrative that states that officers will be unable to do their jobs properly if they are afraid of prosecution misunderstands the true role of the police within society.

As I argued earlier, the police are the physical means through which the power of the state is exercised. This means that they are, when on duty, representatives of the state. In a democratic system in which the state is ostensibly controlled by society, this means that they become, in a sense, representatives of society at large. They derive their power from the state, which derives it from society. In practice, this means that their abuses are not just their own, but the state’s and society’s. When we give officers their badges, their cars, and their truncheons we give them the authority to do what they do, and thus we take on the responsibility for what they do.

When looking at the police from this angle, I therefore believe that part of a police officer’s job is to face trial and be accountable for their actions. Part of their job is to allow their actions, as those actions are carried out on behalf of society at large, to be judged be society at large. Only by policing the actions of the police can the abuses of individuals be disowned by the state, and only by disowning those abuses and disciplining the abusers can the state retain any right to rule over those oppressed by the police. This is not merely a process which is external to (and hinders the proper functioning of) the police. Submitting to justice and being accountable is not something that stops them from doing their job properly, it is a crucial part of their job.

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White terrorism and clashing narratives

The prosecutor in the case of Ryan McGee has “accepted that he is not a terrorist”. This is slightly strange, given that he was, at the time, on trial for a terror offence and has since been convicted. McGee, a serving soldier, had got himself a copy of the Anarchist Cookbook and produced a nailbomb, designed to inflict horrific injuries on anybody caught up in it. As well as this, he had a large stockpile of dangerous chemicals, a homemade pressure plate and live ammunition. Quite the arsenal. For all this, McGee has received a sentence of two years.

McGee did not just have the means to commit terror offences, he also had the motive. While his barrister insists that he is not a racist, it is pretty clear that at one time he was, and very possibly still is. This BBC article doesn’t even mentioned the word “racism” or “racist” once, preferring to use euphemisms like “obsessed with far-right politics”, even when there are photos of McGee wearing an EDL hoodie and, I kid you not, posing in a KKK costume in front of a confederate flag. His journal contained stories about “millions of immigrants” flooding the UK and he allegedly vowed “to drag every last immigrant into the fires of hell with me”. He also went on an EDL march and even watched videos of people being executed under a swastika, but I guess there’s no reason to jump the gun and call him a racist.

I’m not entirely clear what more he could have done to prove that he was a racist, apart from perhaps saying “I’m a racist”. Still, his barrister says he’s not a racist, and that since joining the army he’s renounced much of his far-right ideology. Furthermore, The barrister has added that, in the army, his “two best friends” were from a “different ethnic background” (no joke), so I guess he gets the benefit of the doubt on that one.

The justice system has pretty much made up its mind that McGee isn’t a terrorist, as the prosecutor “accepted that rifleman McGee was not a terrorist or intended to help a terrorist group”. What exactly one has to do to actually be a terrorist while white and right-wing is anyone’s guess. Bar actually setting off the device that he was caught red-handed with and admitted to making, it seems McGee is more or less immune from being a terrorist. The judge may have had good reason to suspect that McGee never really intended to set off the device, though this isn’t mentioned. Perhaps he meticulously plans all of his murderous plots in his weird racist diary, and this nail bomb wasn’t mentioned.

Let’s assume, however, that there was some good reason to believe that McGee never intended to use all that weaponry on people with different colour skin than him. The fact still remains that it’s very hard to imagine, in this climate of fear and stigmatisation, that a troubled young Muslim man would be shown the same level of compassion, were he in possession of similar weaponry and had an equivalent web history. An example of the compassion shown by the British establishment is that the army have been putting McGee up while he’s on trial, which is nice of them. He gets to stay in some barracks with a curfew, which is probably very different from the treatment one might face if accused of the same offence while Muslim; it is definitely hard to imagine the British army happily keeping an accused jihadist on-site.

I don’t think it’s ridiculous to suggest that, before ascertaining via a trial whether or not McGee intended to use his weaponry, it might have been a good idea to keep him detained. The weaponry and virulently racist and violent writings and web history certainly indicate that there was at least reason to suspect that McGee might be a serious danger to others. If detention without trial and other hardline measures are needed for suspected Muslim terrorists, why not suspected white terrorists? The implicit message is that some lives matter more than others.

Again, even if the court reached a sensible decision here, it’s almost impossible to envisage a similar conclusion being reached with a young Muslim man who had kept a bomb in his bedroom. The news article reporting that he was guilty of terror offences would probably not sidestep actually calling him a terrorist and the prosecutor would probably not accept that he was “not a terrorist”. Even if the man in question had renounced violence and moved towards peaceful prayer with his religion, I find it very hard to believe that a judge would accept this claim.

When senior politicians call for the presumption of guilt, not innocence, for those returning from Syria, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are applying, in what is sadly a perfectly legal manner, a far greater level of contextual analysis and compassionate understanding to white terror suspects than we are to Muslim terror suspects. McGee’s upbringing and naivety were taken into account, his claims not to intend to use his weapons apparently taken in good faith by the justice system. While this may be possible, I just cannot imagine the same level of care being applied to a case that aligns more closely with the security paradigm of a radical Islamist threat.

When the media, justice system and other public institutions treat these cases so differently based on who is involved, it is clear we have a problem. If the British state wants its “war on terror” to look less like the stigmatisation of a minority to score cheap political points, it should probably start treating terror offences from home grown white racists more seriously, and start treating those Muslims accused of terror offences like human beings. Otherwise, it’s quite hard not to view the government’s behaviour as pretty open discrimination. Similarly, the way the media handles these cases really has to improve, though I can understand that this case is extremely bad to reconcile with their “Muslims are bad, soldiers are heroes” narrative.

If we were to apply that same level of contextual analysis to the actions of suspected terrorists who are Muslim, we might realise that this differential treatment is only going to make things worse. Anyone who grew up in the UK and wants to attack it must have serious issues with some aspects of the UK, and just blaming radical preachers is way too simplistic. When courts treat far-right white terror suspects so much better than Muslim terror suspects of colour, it isn’t hard to see how someone could begin to hate this system.

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“I take full responsibility” and other ramblings on British politics.

Politicians in the UK are not a popular bunch. From expenses to plebgate, the British political class seems to lurch from one crisis to the next, deploying the same pre-fabricated scandal response package with each successive mishap. Overall, this creates an environment in which politicians are so toxic that nobody has any interest in defending them. Personally, I have some sympathy. I often struggle to get my point across and avoid saying something potentially hurtful one-on-one to people I have known for years; trying to do the same thing for sixty million people – most of whom you have never met – is a monstrously difficult and utterly thankless task.

All-in-all, this is a situation that suits nobody. It harms democracy, in that even good intentions are often taken as bad simply because nobody has any trust for the messenger. If you appear to be concealing something, that naturally invites speculation regarding exactly what you are concealing and why. Put into an atmosphere of general mistrust, this invites wild and negative speculation about true motives and intentions, and raises suspicion not just about what the politician in question has said in the past and says in the future, but the past and future comments of all politicians. The inability or unwillingness of the political class to deal with these problems is, frankly, infuriating.

You wouldn’t tolerate it in a five-year-old

At times, politicians being interviewed come across as though they were a five-year-old being quizzed about some instance of naughty behaviour. If you ask a five-year-old whether their room is tidy and they answer “my room has maintained a good level of tidiness over the past three weeks” (supposing, in this alternate universe, that most five-year-olds are media trained), you know full well that they haven’t tidied their room. Not only is it barely fooling anybody, but it’s insulting everybody who sees past the fairly shallow ruse. Avoiding answering fairly simple questions is really not that clever, yet by employing this very basic technique, politicians communicate several things.

Firstly, they communicate that they aren’t willing to answer the question. If this is the case, they should probably just say. If they’re worried about the soundbite, they should realise that a journalist determined to put a spin on an interview will probably be able to do so by selectively quoting them. For people watching the interview, however, a simple “I’m not answering that” is less cloyingly awkward than some contrived misdirection. Secondly, and somewhat by definition, they communicate that they think the technique they are employing will actually work. When people see through it, which they will at least some of the time, they will rightly feel like they are being taken for idiots. Thirdly, they implicitly communicate that, to some degree, they don’t consider the question worthy of answering, which is dangerous when some people will feel that the question deserves a response.

People are lied to all the time by all manner of people. As such, we get really rather good at spotting dishonesty. From kids, to colleagues, to partners, people are almost unnervingly good at identifying duplicity, even in those we have never met. In addition to this, dishonesty is an almost universally disliked quality. Nobody likes those who are trying to deceive them, and when the default form of political communication is oddly contrived deceit, this is a huge problem for the credibility of the system as a whole. By contrast, people are actually very used to disagreeing with others, and the vast majority of people basically accept this as an unavoidable fact of daily life. In my view, politicians ought to stop being so afraid of disagreeing with people; I find myself far more amenable to a straight-talking Conservative MP than someone like Peter Mandleson, a Labour politician who seems to find speaking honestly about as easy as fish find walking.

Fake apologies

It’s not just the blatant avoidance of difficult questions that politicians share with youngsters. They also have a remarkable propensity to issue the kind of thoroughly insincere apology normally seen when a five-year-old is forced, by an adult, to apologise to another child following some kind of dispute. We’ve probably all been there, on both sides of the insincere apology, and probably also witnessed it as a third party. It’s not convincing, and there’s an air of pointlessness about the whole ceremony.

Public apologies in the UK have a weird sense of ritual to them. Firstly, the scandal will break. The party in question will say nothing for a few days, before appearing at a press conference and pretending that the events in question were the result of some strange and temporary madness and completely at odds with their actual attitudes and behaviour. Then, they will utter a curious idiomatic expression: “I take full responsibility”, which can have a number of different meanings. Occasionally, someone will actually take full responsibility for their actions. A far more common usage, however, translates roughly as “I will pretend to be responsible for this until people stop talking about it, after which I will carry on exactly as before and suffer almost no personal consequences”. Highlighting the ubiquity and meaninglessness of the phrase, one of the suggested options on Google when searching for “I take full responsibility” is “I take full responsibility meaning”.

The phrase seems to have acquired, in the minds of those who say it, some kind of scandal-washing magic powers. However, its repeated use not only makes the phrase itself somewhat farcical, but really calls into question the attitudes of those saying it. If you say that you take full responsibility for something and do not appear to either suffer any personal consequences or meaningfully institute changes, it does somewhat imply that you don’t really consider it to be that important. It would be far better, in the long run, if people only apologised for things they actually feel responsible for and plan to do something about. Otherwise, the only realistic conclusion is that they just don’t care.

PMQs: a credibility-destroying farce

Prime minister’s question time is one of the most well-known and least-liked parts of Britain’s democratic process. With the infantile, sneering put-downs, the unfathomable shouting and jeering and general school playground atmosphere, PMQs is where what is left of a politician’s credibility goes to die. It is, at times, basically unwatchable, as grown men and women attempt to drown out those speaking, while the speaker of the chamber looks like a supply teacher on the last day of term. It is a thoroughly undignified process that, to my mind, serves no identifiable purpose and does considerable harm to the image of politics and thus the democratic process itself.

Politicians must understand that when they shout down another politician, they are not just jokingly putting down someone who they can patch things up with over a (subsidised) drink at the House of Commons bar later on. What they are also doing is shouting down all the people who hold the view being shouted over, and showing contempt for that opinion. When someone agrees with a view being expressed, how are they supposed to react when another politician won’t even let a speaker finish uninterrupted? It’s unreasonable to expect all politicians to agree with you, and virtually nobody does, but it is not too much to ask that they at least respect other politicians, and more importantly those whose views they represent, and let them finish their sentences.

A sea change is needed

A common theme running through all this is that politicians need to be less afraid and more honest. They must simply accept that, in a country of sixty million people, they simply cannot make everybody happy, nor should they expect to. When they do upset people, however they should react as they would to a friend or colleague; either apologise genuinely and sincerely, highlighting what they think they did wrong or, alternatively, stand their ground, defending and explaining their actions. When the response to every single criticism is to offer an elaborate yet meaningless apology, the politicians look spineless and the system looks farcical. A sea change is needed in the way politicians communicate with the public. Instead of viewing the public with contempt and trying to avoid question and deflect criticism, politicians need to communicate in a way that makes it look like they consider the opinions of their electorate as worthy of respect.

Of course the public and the media play a role in this ridiculous circus, demanding apologies, twisting words and generally buying into the entire soap opera. However, changing the way the public and the media treat politicians is, much to their disappointment, beyond the scope of party strategists. All they can realistically change is the way their own party interact with the media and the public, and major political parties must accept (genuinely) that they bear a lot of responsibility for the toxicity of the British political system. It is a system in which someone like Ed Miliband is ruthlessly mocked for sounding a bit weird, and doesn’t feel like he can stand up and tell people doing the mocking that they’re childish bullies. He is then criticised for not knowing how much milk costs and can’t just admit that he doesn’t really do his own grocery shopping because, as the leader of the opposition, he has more important things to be doing, all the while issuing bizarre statements about how he “feels respect for white vans” or something like that.

Politicians, who clearly don’t always believe in their own apologies, look cowardly and dishonest. They appear afraid of speaking their minds. It is this that really drives the popularity of Nigel Farage. He has views, and he sticks to them. I don’t for a second doubt that Nigel Farage wants to reduce immigration, nor do I think there is any possibility of him apologising for this desire. It is this brand of honesty (or at least partial) that forms a large part of Farage’s appeal. Instead of trying to outdo Farage on immigration and Euroscepticism and continuing to lend him unnecessary political capital, the Westminster parties should try to start communicating like him, instead of acting out of fear and repeating the same meaningless clichés time after time after time.

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