OPINION... 

More than 100 rights groups in southern Spain have raised the alarm over plans to hand police details on illegal migrants following a political deal with the far-right Vox party.  The measure was agreed by the regional government following a deal with Vox, prompting the Association for Human Rights of Andalusia (APDHA) to threaten legal action.  The budget clause refers to “a proposed cooperation agreement with the interior ministry” which the APDHA said would facilitate the collection of data from doctors and social services to identify and expel undocumented migrants.  In a joint statement, 125 rights groups said such a move would “constitute a flagrant attack on the fundamental rights of migrants,” warning the Andalusian government legal action.   In March, the Andalusian government estimated there were more than 32,000 people living illegally in the southern region.

 

Spain’s top criminal court opened an investigation into whether Russian tycoon Mikhail Fridman artificially depressed the share price of supermarket chain Dia before buying the firm.  The Kremlin-friendly oligarch appeared in court in Madrid last month as part of a separate similar case in which judges are investigating allegations he acted to bring down the value of another Spanish takeover target, digital entertainment firm Zed Worldwide.  He denied all charges in that case in a statement released after he was questioned in court.

 

Franco260BSpain exhumed the body of Francisco Franco from a grandiose state mausoleum, reburying it in more discreet grave.  The operation began in the Valley of the Fallen and ended some four hours later at a state cemetery outside of Madrid, was hailed by the government as ending “an insult to Spanish democracy”.  “This decision puts an end to the moral outrage of the glorification of a dictator in a public space,” said Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

 

Brexit260IT HAS BECOME PERCEIVED wisdom that we are heading for a ‘people vs parliament’ election. But that is a false construct. Who gets to sit in parliament is the one matter in our political system over which the people have almost total control. The battle currently underway is to limit the powers that parliament has, putting certain issues beyond the reach of democratically-elected politicians. At its heart lies a fear of democracy, a fear of the decisions that people might make when more of UK life is under the control of those sent to parliament by UK voters. It is worth looking at this democrophobia in some detail, as it is an ailment that afflicts both Labour and Tory MPs and lies behind much of current political debate.

The arguments against Boris Johnson’s EU Withdrawal Bill offer a classic case in point. The Labour front bench refuses to support the Bill on the grounds they feared it would lead to the erosion of workers’ rights. It equates repatriation of controls to the abolition of such controls.

A cross-party group of MPs have tabled an amendment demanding that environmental standards will not be watered down. Yet the Withdrawal Bill is not about either issue: it simply sets out the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU. It would mean that such issues can be decided in future by Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, or whoever the next leader is. So the attempt to have these laws inserted now, and mandated at the European level, makes sure they cannot be changed by a new Prime Minister later. This means fleeing from the forces of democracy.

We can see Tory MPs too also worrying about what the voters, collectively, might decide to do. The Tory rebels, who tend to be patrician types, products of England’s finest schools and universities, talk as if they seek a permanent establishment. And that the threat of Brexit is that it would allow a whole swathe of issues to be decided by the sort of people who voted to leave the European Union in the first place. They see in the European project a means of keeping various issues (such as immigration control or Corbyn’s nationalisation) off the agenda.

The Brexit-supporting Tories say that they are the true democrats. But even they are often unwilling to trust ‘the people’. For example, one might think that a government that has just been dragged through the courts over the prorogation of parliament would be cautious about giving courts more powers. Yet the Queen’s speech included a proposed environment bill which would have exactly that effect: it would set up a quango with the express purpose of ensuring an elected government hits various environmental targets and principles. The whole idea is to place this policy out of the reach of democracy. David Cameron did this too when he passed a law mandating that governments must spend 0.7% of GDP on overseas aid. Passing a law means that this policy is now guarded by lawyers, rather than politicians. It was an admission that the policy was unlikely to sustain democratic consent.

More so even than now, decisions such as whether to go ahead with a third runway at Heathrow or HS2, which should be political decisions, will now ultimately be made by judges. Those close to Boris Johnson privately admit that they hope the courts or a quango will block the Heathrow expansion so he doesn’t have to lie down in front of the bulldozers. But the decision about whether or not to go ahead with such infrastructure projects is ultimately political, and politicians should be accountable for them.

To have a permanent infrastructure of fundamental principles built into the constitution, with which elected politicians cannot interfere, is an idea used by many countries, so long, that is, as those principles are limited to fundamental freedoms and human rights. The widely admired constitution of the United States introduced that concept more than two centuries ago, and since the 1940s most countries have chosen to be bound by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, and many to the European Charter of Human Rights, too.

But the existence of written rules immediately passes power to the lawyers and courts that interpret them. In Britain, our constitution can be summed up by a single sentence: what the Queen enacts, through parliament, is law. We leave politics to the politicians, and law to the lawyers. This is what has given our legal system a global reputation for fairness: the notion of activist judges is still foreign to us. The British model, common law that emerges through custom, and a parliament whose members fear the people, has given us perhaps the most responsive democracy in the world. This is what Brexiteers say they seek to protect.

Constraining the remit of democracies, and elected politicians, is not a new idea. It has been part of the culture of the EU since its foundation. Often for good reasons. Many of its member states had mixed results with democracy, and now seek checks and balances to stop demagogues taking over the apparatus. That noble concept has been abused by lobbyists intent on using the unelected European Commission in order to bypass democracy on all sorts of minutiae of law, from the number of hours which employees can work to how long a migrant worker can live in a country before being eligible for out-of-work benefits.

So we now have issues where control lies in the court, or in supra-national organisations like the EU. This is what voters are reacting against: here, with Brexit and on the continent by voting for populist parties. This has also led to the view of the EU as a source of instability, preventing governments from responding to new concerns from citizens. Rather than produce stability, this is the recipe for populism.

Brexit was, from the offset, intended to realign democracy with public concern from retrieving sovereignty. An opportunity to repatriate powers, not just to national governments but to the general public. It will have been a pointless exercise if, instead of allowing us the freedom to be able to make our own laws, politicians think of new ways of putting such powers out of reach.

 Newspaper260FORTY YEARS AGO MOST newspapers in the UK were printed at the back of the building that held the entire newspaper business. In a typical Fleet Street newspaper more than 400 printers, working on noisy Victorian hot-metal machines, self-appointed, all-male, often absentee, often drunk, everything run by the trade unions.

I loved it because I was young, but in fact the place was a mess. The combination of very old technology and massive over-manning meant that although the papers, on average, sold a staggering 1.2 million copies a day, they barely broke even.

This was the early Thatcher era, and union power still held sway. It got so bad that if the print unions disliked something written in a leading article they would sometimes down tools unless it was removed. I remember them one evening crowding into the Editor’s office to do this.

In the mid-Eighties, everything changed. The unions were smashed. The number of printers fell to about 25. New technology was introduced in a different site. A golden age ensued. We felt free at last.

During the eighties, new technology sparked a golden age for the print media

Unfortunately, there are always powerful forces which instinctively dislike freedom. In our own time, they have returned in very different form. In 1979, the struggle was about economic control. Forty years on, it is about thought control.

The list of subjects on which comment is circumscribed grows ever longer. This is enshrined in press regulation and sometimes even in the criminal law. Everything about race, sexuality, gender, disability, religion, age is minutely scrutinised.

These are sensitive matters, and the press has often had a bad record for handling them crassly. But two aspects are really alarming. One is the idea of putting group rights ahead of the rights of each citizen. These means that the lobbies of those who shout the loudest can prevail over individuals. The other is the idea that if something offends a group, it must not be allowed. Since the offence is so often defined as being in the eye of the “victim”, this allows almost anything to be classified as offensive, and therefore banned. 

Islam260Right now, an attempt is being made to force the various media to accept a definition of “Islamophobia”, itself a loaded concept. We could not be a free press or a free country if we could not criticise the doctrines and practice of any great religion or of that religion’s adherents. This is not “phobia”: it is free thought. Yet one can already see the repressive onslaught. Forty years ago, I saw those militant trade union leaders in an editor’s office telling him what his paper should say. How long before it is a group of imams?

 

Welcome to November 2019, welcome to Streetwise Magazine 

 

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