Europe is worth fighting for - maybe not this Europe, but a better Europe is at least worth a try

Nik Darlington 10.30am

This evening the annual Macmillan Lecture is being delivered in Parliament by Damian Green, police minister and TRG vice-president.

Mr Green will state the unequivocal Conservative case for the EU, rejecting clarion calls for an immediate exit yet insisting that the British people are overdue their say on our membership. Giving the Prime Minister his strongest backing, Mr Green will make the case for allowing negotiations to proceed and for an improved settlement to be put to the British people.

Of course, the British people have every right to reject EU membership even then. Conservatives sympathetic to the EU today are not blindly uncritical. Without democratic consent the EU is but a hollow bureaucratic shell. Indeed, a shell that in this day and age looks increasingly like a fossil.

There is a case to be made for the EU, but it has to be made on Conservative principles of free trade and democracy. It is on precisely those principles that the EU’s biggest critics have assumed to abandon the field. Europe is worth fighting for. Maybe not this Europe as it stands (or falls), but a better Europe is at least worth a stab.

Getting below the skin of democratic reform

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 10.15am

The world is a-turning. The classes shift from lower, middle and upper to under, indebted and hereditary. Real power slips through MPs’ hands into those of constitutional lawyers, NGOs and financiers. Voters are confused and apathetic, confronted with a menu of social democrats donning different ribbons, that lack either the ideas, the conviction or the courage to extract the UK from debt-ridden paralysis.  

It is in this precarious environment that democracy has to be protected. If this sounds melodramatic, consider it is complacency that has reduced us to this position. I am often accused of pessimism but I would argue, with Spengler, that i am not a pessimist - pessimism means seeing no more duties.

Parliament has become little more than an acting pit, its real purpose - the coordination of interests - occurs behind the scenes. As Charles Moore recently noted in Standpoint, politics has been reduced to an:

"all-consuming pseudo-science of trying to guess what people want and then find ways of pretending to give it to them."

Man in this barren environment uproots himself for money despite risk of grave anomie, and allows as compensation his public and private  responsibilities to plummet. Into this vacuum has seeped a state that continues to increase exponentially in size.

The global flipside has been fluid labour - i.e. immigration - encouraged by political elites who sell a Benetton advert and hide behind an aegis largely composed of rhetoric invoking diversity and inclusivity while pursuing cheap labour and the postponement of overly-optimistic pension plans.

The elites told us they loved everyone when they in fact saw everybody as equally worthless unless contributing to their own net-worth. Anybody who did not appreciate their own country becoming alien to them in matter of decades was turned into a social leper overnight by being turned into the modern equivalent of a witch - a “racist” - a word that has become such an invidious tool.

Social entropy has defiled the national fabric. Technology and urbanity has distanced us from ourselves, each other and our environments, to the point where large numbers of sybaritic younger generations who have never known any better feel vaguely apathetic about annihilation

A point that recalls Toynbee’s admission: “Civilisations are not murdered, they commit suicide”.

I harbour much hope though. UKIP’s success at council level demonstrates the seams are distressed. It is in times of crisis that the biggest and best opportunities come about. A national debate on the lifeblood and symbol of our people, our sovereignty - our parliamentary democracy - needs to take place.

Douglas Carswell MP has already started us out along a certain path with his iDemocracy. I would take his principle and extend it towards its natural conclusion. I think political parties are no longer required, they are an anachronism in an age where identities are so fluid that parties feel obliged to be concrete but alienate people with their packages or become hypocritical fudges incapable of enacting any manifestos. These parties have created what Francis Fukuyama calls a "vetocracy" - systems where myriad actors have just enough power to veto, dilute and delay decisions but no single actor has enough power to push through an agenda.

Instead we should take parties, which have morphed into a single cartel with different franchises, out of the equation. Most people have an eclectic smorgasbord of views that are very compromised by the current menu. Why not compile a government file that can be shared via an online cloud in which under the subtitles of ENERGY, DEFENCE, HOUSING etc, people add solutions, answers, resolutions, policy ideas which, after the civil service has redacted, the electorate vote on either all together at a certain time or spread out over a period?

Logistics are a bit irrelevant once the principle is admitted. After policies have been elected, people who believe their lives, their beliefs, their actions, their thoughts most fully represent certain issues or approaches that are popular can put themselves forward to execute proposals.

Referendums should be used, in a similar manner to the Swiss, for issues of great importance, and politicians should be paid in proportion to past and current salaries and posts. Politicians would also be forbidden to take up post-political jobs in which it was decided figures were trading on past public service. In all matters but defence and policing small, directly accountable councils, parishes and townships would replace the monolithic behemoths that are today’s councils.

Direct democracy, devolution and decentralisation are the three Ds that will power Britain into the 22nd century as a leader instead of a relic.

If all this sounds rather ridiculous, scary and fanciful, I can assure you that the nation has undergone far greater changes in its history and will do again. When it’s done so, it’s usually been for the better.

Follow Henry on Twitter @byzantinepower

Media trivialisation of North Korea masks the horrific extent of its crimes against humanity

Jack Hands 10.25am

The North Korean state is responsible for systematically carrying out some of the darkest crimes against humanity this world has ever seen. Yet media and political reaction to the latest diplomatic tensions has predictably focused very little on the regime’s horrific human rights record.

The trivialisation of the North Korean problem is characterised by the media focusing on the quasi-religious cult of Kim Jong Un, its mythical propaganda induced tales and the enormous, grandiose public gatherings and predictable rhetorical flares of staged hatred against the United States. Recently, the escalating tensions and the restoration of its nuclear weapons programme have seen the eyes of the world focus on North Korea’s potential threat to peace.

North Korea relishes this of course. If the regime has proven anything since the end of the Korean War in 1953 – a war which never officially ended, it has shown it is adept at strategically turning up the tension to help consolidate its own power.

North Korea’s shadowy elite are fully aware that with its military-first policy backed up with a nuclear threat, it would be foolish for its enemies and indeed the world’s media not to take any such threat seriously - however unlikely and self-defeating of its own interests launching an all out war would be.

It does so because it knows it is an effective tactic in diverting attention away from its domestic failings, human rights abuses and crucially in consolidating the position of the insecure leadership of the young Kim Jong Un. Therefore, North Korean aggression acts as the perfect smokescreen and diversion tactic for the regime’s real aim, self-preservation.

This is shown by the regime’s extreme sensitivity to the discussion of its horrific human rights record. In our own Parliament, as at the United Nations, any attempts to raise human rights abuses have been met with emphatic, aggressive responses. The UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have tabled several resolutions on the matter and on 21 March announced they will be setting up an official UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korea Human Rights abuses, a significant move.  

It is estimated there are five political prison camps called “Kwan-Li-So” in which an estimated 200,000-300,000 prisoners are today incarcerated. That figure is growing.

While many people are aware of the political prison camps there is a lack of coverage about their extremity. These are no ordinary state-driven crimes against its people; these camps are quite possibly the worst state-led systematic abuse of human rights anywhere in the world.

A report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide tracking known prisoners show some of the horrors, these people face. Take, Keum Joo Huh, a 29-year-old female Taekwando teacher who was sent to a camp for ‘collective punishment’ over her mother’s illegal job of brokering for those searching for family members that had been separated by the war. Keum Joo died from malnutrition in May 2002.

The horrors detailed by Shin Dong-hyuk, the only ever escapee from such a camp, in his sobering book Escape from Camp 14, is living testimony to these unimaginable horrors.

Shin who was born in the camp, and like Keum Joo Huh his only crime was being born into a family seen as politically dangerous. Crime by association is an effective tool in suppressing enemies which helps to explain how the North Korean regime has lasted for so long in comparison to other authoritarian rules. Mass torture, starvation, rape, killings, slave labour are a daily experience for prisoners. Nor is there any discrimination between the old, young, healthy or sick. These are crimes against humanity, yet still coverage focuses predominantly on the trivialisation of Kim Jong Un.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, rightly said in January that the huge issue of North Korea’s nuclear program should not be allowed to completely overshadow the horrendous human rights situation, which “has no parallel anywhere else in the world,” and where “self-imposed isolation has allowed the government to mistreat it citizens to a degree that should be unthinkable in the 21st century.”

George Orwell once observed, “The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous. Hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance“.

In isolationist North Korea, people are forced to believe this but in the West we have the freedom to see beyond. We have the power to make the world’s people and governments to deplore these crimes and place this issue at the top of the agenda in future diplomatic talks. Put simply, we need to provide the voice for the voiceless.

I can see no circumstances by which this blog can be regulated by the government’s attempt at press regulation

Nik Darlington

So the lacklustre rigmarole of a Royal Charter takes another turn. The House of Lords has been debating whether to exempt small blogs from the new cross-party press regulations.

The Government is considering its own response to the quandary posed by Internet blogs like Guido Fawkes that are based overseas.

It can be argued that a result of the Internet age is faster, better connected, more nimble scrutiny of the holders of power. Politicians and press barons have been in each other’s pockets for decades, and to suppose this is a new phenomenon is naïve.

Yet political bloggers are beholden to no greater power (at least that is what they claim - and most ought to be believed). Unlike newspapers with their failing business model, most bloggers have no paying market of consumers to chase.

How does a Government get to grips with curtailing them in the manner it is attempting to curtail the mainstream press? To murder a phrase, qui regulates ipsos regulatiem?

It can’t. Which is why ministers, shadow ministers and advisers are hurriedly trying to patch up this particular hole (of several) in the new regulations.

For our part, I am not entirely aware yet whether as de facto digital lessees of Tumblr, the Egremont blog falls into the same category as Guido Fawkes - i.e. an offshore concern.

That small print aside, there are no circumstances under which I can see our being subject to this attempt at regulation. Zero funding, zero revenue, and a relatively small but of course highly influential and intelligent band of readers.

So for Egremont at least, it is business as usual.

Human Rights Act: Some questions for Mr Grayling and Mrs May

Craig Prescott 10.51am

Over the weekend, Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, indicated that a Conservative majority government could repeal the Human Rights Act. Meanwhile, Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has suggested withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) itself.

These are two very different things, and there is some muddled thinking involved here; but if both were to be pursued the policy could be called ‘Withdrawal and Repeal’.

As Mr Grayling has admitted himself, there needs to be a lot of work put in to the detail (to put it mildly). But as work towards possible 2015 manifesto pledges starts, here are some questions and issues that need to be considered.

  1. Why? It can’t be for political advantage. At the last election, 3.1 per cent of people voted for a political party who advocated ‘Withdraw and Repeal’, namely UKIP. By contrast, a combined 52 per cent of the electorate voted for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who did not. Whatever Mr Grayling and Mrs May may think, the electorate has shown time and time again disinterest in tinkering with constitutional matters. This does not look like a massive vote winner to me, in face of more pressing matters such as living standards and the broader economy.
  2. Replacement? A British Bill of Rights has been suggested, but to what end? The content of such a Bill of Rights is likely to be similar, if not identical, to the content with one or two additions (such as a right to a jury trial) to make such a document ‘British’. Take a look at the Articles incorporated into English Law by the HRA, the Right to Life, Prohibition of Torture, Prohibition of Slavery and Forced Labour and the Right to a Fair Trial and so on. Would you like to live in a country that does not provide in law for these  protections? As one of the finest judges of recent times, Lord Bingham stated in his book the Rule of Law, countries that do not make such protection in law tend not to the best of places to live. Belarus or North Korea? Another issue is how are the courts going to interpret any such legislation. Experience before the HRA suggests that on the whole, the courts will take notice of the ECHR, as they do of other international treaties and case-law for interpretative guidance.
  3. Leave it to Parliament? If ‘Withdrawal and Repeal’ is pursued, then the position will be more akin to the days before the HRA, but without a route of appeal to Strasbourg. This is a dangerous option, as it risks pitting the courts and Parliament in direct opposition. It is easy to think that human rights began with the HRA, but that neglects the strong - if imperfect - vein in the common law that protected people’s rights before the HRA. One could go back to the 17th century, but during the 1990s the courts began to recognise at common law certain rights as being of ‘fundamental’ status, such as access to justice. This fundamental status means that the courts require strong signals from Parliament before the courts hold that they can be interfered with. This is an open-ended category of right, creating a clear risk of an ongoing conflict between the courts and Parliament, potentially giving more scope to the courts, the exact opposite of what the Lord Chancellor, Mr Grayling, wants. Such an approach would be destined not to end well.

There are other issues to consider. The devolved institutions are required under the devolution framework to comply with the ECHR at all times. Any amendment of this requirement is likely to require their approval, which the Commission on the Bill of Rights indicates will not necessarily be forthcoming as approval of the ECHR is generally seems to be higher outside of England than within it. (This raises concerns that the Conservative Party becoming ever more an English, and not British Party). Further, the EU is engaged in an ongoing process to become a signatory to the ECHR, meaning that even if ‘Withdraw and Repeal’ is pursued, the ECHR will still be a highly relevant to UK law as long as Britain remains a member.

All of the above is not to say that the human rights architecture of the UK and Europe is perfect. Far from it. There are issues over the length of time it takes to hear cases, and the number of appeals possible in human rights litigation are both issues about which courts themselves have voiced concerns. A close look at the process shows that the vast majority of the time, it is these problems which lie at the root of problems with human rights. After all Abu Hamza still got deported to America. Is it really necessary to embark on such a hazardous journey, jeopardising a central tenet of the unwritten constitution that Parliament and the courts respond to each other in a dialogue and understanding, to solve a problem which for the vast majority of the electorate is simply not there?

Ultimately, the problem that Mr Grayling as Lord Chancellor (who has a duty to uphold the rule of law) needs to grapple with is that some human rights are innate in the liberal democracy to which he wishes to belong and to strengthen. Any human rights apparatus constructed does not create rights but merely recognises them.

Craig Prescott is a member of the School of Law at the University of Manchester. Follow him on Twitter @craigprescott

We should all be unsettled by the reaction towards opponents of equal marriage

Nik Darlington 10.44am

Looking down the voting list from last night prompts some sadness. They are not what Downing Street might describe as ‘the usual suspects’. Neither are they the types deserving of the subsequent vitriol.

What is done, is done. There is a majority for this in the country; there is a majority for this in Parliament. To make this a partisan issue is as disappointing as it is dull. Move on.

Enough has been said on both sides of the debate about rights and wrongs. It shall do nobody any good to dredge over what are now old coals.

Instead, there are some brief observations to make about the reporting of last night’s historic parliamentary vote.

First of all, the nature of the ‘rebellion’. Broadcasters, broadsheets and tabloids are (unsurprisingly) focusing on the scale of Tory dissent, yet giving scant regard to the 22 Labour MPs who voted against, the 16 Labour MPs who abstained, the 4 Liberal Democrat MPs who voted against, and the 7 Liberal Democrats who abstained. Parliament’s vote as a whole reflects most national polling on the issue.

Though wrong to assume unthinkingly, it may well turn out to be the case that the Conservative party emerges from this difficult (and arguably ill-timed) culture war worse than it entered. So be it, one could say, for ultimately it was the right thing to do.

Nevertheless, should the Conservative party be scarred by this episode, that shall in no small part be thanks to the simultaneously superficial and spasmodic manner of its communication by the press.

Take various references across television and print to Tory MPs’ “failure” to back same-sex marriage. How is it itself a failure? I do not count myself among their number, but the many opponents of same-sex marriage (for whatever reason), not to mention opponents of this particular piece of legislation, would consider their vote a “success” rather than a “failure”.

Broadcasters - bound to impartiality by statute - ought to feel especially guilty about making such a partial editorial judgement. Indeed report that a multitude of MPs from all sides of the House of Commons “failed” to stop the Bill’s progression. That is a statement of pure and simple fact.

Yet do not presume yourself the arbiter of right or wrong. This has been a profoundly difficult situation for many people with variously strong religious, social and cultural beliefs. Nor presume to judge that those people have “failed”, have come up short, are somehow not quite as morally or intellectually vigorous as those in favour.

Time advances, opinions change, but not all at once. That is life; and there is no failure in that.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Gay marriage vote is very simple: forget the politics, vote for what you believe in

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Nik Darlington 8.42am

There is a lot for Tories - or even just any sensible observer of politics - to be unhappy about over the Government’s same-sex marriage reforms.

No mention in either Coalition parties’ 2010 manifestos. No mention in the Coalition Agreement. Neither perceived nor existential agitation for it from homosexual people or otherwise. Manifesto commitments pertaining to marriage - such as recognising marriage in the tax system - that probably ought to take priority.

So any sensible observer of politics (and there are many insensible observers giving voice) can understand why grassroots Tories are protesting and writing literally thousands of emails and letters to MPs, why there is talk of deselections, and why scores of Tory MPs intend to vote against the Bill today.

It is, therefore, an upsetting and destabilising time. One old-timer I consider to be largely sensible about these things phoned me up yesterday to bemoan politicians spending so much time fussing over it when there are more important matters at stake, whatever the merits of the policy itself (they were in favour of it). This is partially unfair, given that the Government is so sweatily ram-rodding the issue through Parliament (just one bone of contention). Though sensible observers could be forgiven for thinking this is all MPs have been doing lately, given the corybantic manner in which the media are covering it.

Yet these difficulties notwithstanding, there remains a simple, unalterable fact that for me - and I’m sure for many others - makes voting down this proposal impossible. David Cameron maybe should not have chosen this moment to pose the question. Though now the question is posed, I could not sensibly oppose it. We cannot ignore it, or wish it would go away.

It is said that some MPs couldn’t really care much for the policy, but believe the Prime Minister to have been a clod for pushing it and shall vote against (or abstain) to spite him. There are many who genuinely and deeply believe the policy to be inherently wrong - whether out of religious belief or traditional social mores. I am comfortable with it according to my own Christian faith; yet in the same vein, I must respect others’ interpretation. It is a tricky one this, to put it mildly.

The Conservative party cannot gain from this, if ever that was indeed the leadership’s intention. Thus let us forget for now the party political ramifications, even if the media refuse to. 

It is a free vote. MPs should vote according to what they believe, not whether they will gain or lose personally from it, or how it makes their party look, or whether they think they should even be having to cast a vote. Above all, let us not in the heat of the moment, with passions high, make this a more difficult matter than it is.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

There really is no credible reason to deny same-sex couples the right to marry

Nik Darlington 10.32am

The Prime Minister is right to say that society is made stronger by people’s commitment to each other. It should matter little whether those people are husband and wife, husband and husband, or wife and wife (admittedly, the same-sex marriage lexicon needs some work).

I was uncertain about the logic or need for the Government’s opening up the debate earlier this year. Few people were insisting on it, fewer still would place it highly on a list of public policy priorities in the midst of economic pain.

Yet now that the question has been put - i.e. should same-sex couples be allowed to marry? - there is no conceivable way that I could disagree, as a Christian and a citizen (the two aren’t incompatible, mind).

Several Conservative MPs cavil at the thought. One has been quoted as saying the policy would unnecessarily split the party. Considering this caucus consists of many who persist in splitting the party over other issues, not least the European Union, that’s a bit rich.

In a cogent and moving article today in the Times (£), Tim Montgomerie writes:

"Every Tory MP needs to think about how they want their vote on same-sex marriage to be remembered. Young people think homosexuality is as natural as ginger hair, skin colour or left-handedness. Tory MPs should think about the day that their children and grandchildren ask how they voted."

It’s been a while now since I was a schoolboy so maybe the ‘gay’ taunts that we would all chuck about are relics of the past. That aside, Montgomerie’s point is apt, however uncomfortably direct for some.

Many conservationist Tories (and non-political conservationists for that matter) will quite rightly insist on our not putting that Tesco megastore there, or that new ring road here, for the sake of future generations. As will environmentalists proclaim the precautionary principle.

So however guilt-inducing Montgomerie’s call to arms might be, the teleological line of argument is correct. There is no longer a convincing case (was there ever really?) for civil society to deny same-sex couples the opportunity to marry.

That this is a ‘civil’ matter is fundamental. Part of me had hoped that following the public consultation, the Government would hold firm on its ban on religious groups offering to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies. Now it seems that they will be allowed to, should they so choose (the Quakers and some Jewish synaogogues have indicated they will). My fear is this will open up legal problems for the churches - such as the Church of England - that do not opt in. The Government, however, seems sure of its legal position and we should hope this is indeed the case.

Opponents within and without the Conservative party claim the Government has no mandate for the policy. Taking 2010 election manifestos into account, those opponents have a point. Nonetheless, the forming of a coalition has oft muddied those waters already and shall continue to do so for the duration of this Parliament.

Moreover, while opinion polling is nebulous (depends on how you ask the question), there does appear to be a broad acceptance of the policy in the country. This after one of the most extensive and lengthy public consultation processes in history (something many opponents that I’ve come across have for some reason remained unaware of).

Above all, if Members of Parliament are not our democratic representatives, what are they? Put the matter to a free vote and, as Sir John Major said over the weekend (£), “the Labour party will vote for it, the Liberals will vote for it, huge numbers of Tories will vote for it.”

You can conceivably wonder why the question was put at this point in time. Yet now it’s been asked, why on Earth not?

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington