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The Porter-Blair debate.
June 28, 2006 10:08 PM   Subscribe

Henry Porter is the British Editor of Vanity Fair. In the current issue he attacks what he describes as "[Tony] Blair's campaign against rights contained in the Rule of Law". The article follows a series of columns for The Observer and an extraordinary exchange of email between the two men, and has resonance in probably all countries in the Western world.
posted by Neiltupper (37 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
wow. that's incredible.
posted by shmegegge at 10:19 PM on June 28, 2006


.
posted by russilwvong at 10:35 PM on June 28, 2006


Wow. I disagree with Blair on pretty much everything in that e-mail conversation, but even if you assume that the messages were written by aides, that's an impressively open and considered exchange for a politician.

But I did think this was naive: Porter writes, "The fear of terrorism has allowed you to bring in laws that a Conservative government would not have dreamed of." I think a lot of people might have felt, before Bush, or before Nixon, or before Reagan, that while a Republican government might back-pedal on civil rights, or the environment, or protection for workers, it remained a party distrustful of government excess and would never condone routine abridgements of due process, national ID cards, warrentless searches and surveillance, the shifting of the burden of proof onto the accused, etc. Boy, were they ever wrong.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 10:39 PM on June 28, 2006


No kidding. I can't imagine any American political figure corresponding with a critic like that. Is this unique over there, too?

Also, I love that all the comments at the bottom of that last link are followed with "Offensive? Unsuitable? Email us!" We should have an "unsuitable" flag.
posted by brundlefly at 10:40 PM on June 28, 2006


I've never felt any particular urge to read Vanity Fair, but for some reason I've always been pleased by the idea that such a peculiar magazine exists.
posted by Alex404 at 11:14 PM on June 28, 2006


'Who cares what you think?'
posted by matteo at 11:35 PM on June 28, 2006


I've alwasy thoguht that Tony Blair was an amazingly gifted communicator. And you can see why.
posted by wilful at 11:52 PM on June 28, 2006


The UK...they're the ones who rebelled from the monarchy and formed a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, right? If only we could live in a place like that.

I also wish we had intelligent people running our government. That would be really nifty.
posted by mullingitover at 12:03 AM on June 29, 2006


The Parliamentary system has huge upsides--a PM has to actually stand and deliver, weekly if I'm not mistaken.

Most US presidents couldn't come close to handling it. Bush II? Please. Other than DUI's I don't think he's had an unscripted moment in his life.
posted by bardic at 12:24 AM on June 29, 2006


Tony Blair is a douche. Amazing how much of his schtick sounds like a kindler, gentler vintage Reagan.



What a puke.
posted by stenseng at 12:38 AM on June 29, 2006


I can't help but agree with some of what Blair says there. He is right in many respects, it's just that there seems to be no alternative, no middle ground to the suggestions he makes to dealing with 21st century crime.
posted by longbaugh at 1:31 AM on June 29, 2006


I've never felt any particular urge to read Vanity Fair, but for some reason I've always been pleased by the idea that such a peculiar magazine exists.

Vanity Fair is essentially Hello! magazine for people with bachelor's degrees. But I love it anyway—self-regard, political petulance, ghastly celebrity photo-shoots, and random, creepy sex memoirs by the likes of Gloria Vanderbilt.

This article, on the other hand, is actually quite good.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:49 AM on June 29, 2006


And, in related news ....
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:54 AM on June 29, 2006


As someone who works in government, I'm frankly amazed at the response that Blair has put out there. Knowing how the system works, I'm frankly amazed that Blairs response reads less like what I think it would normally have been the product of (a team of media advisers) and more like an actual response from the man himself. Of course, the latter prospect is unlikely. It is probably the amalgum of the two methods; Blair probably saying what he thinks should be said and then the media advisors stepped in to put a nice shine on it. Still, it is probably one of the more frank responses I have ever seen come from high office.

The fundamental premise of this exchange, that Blair has reduced civil liberties, is an interesting one. I mostly agree with it. But it's probably important to note that it's also pretty relative from where you sit. Here in Australia I think Britain, despite its new laws, is remarkably more free than Australia and its restrictive new anti-terrorism laws. I also think that political discourse is much more left wing over there than it is here, but that is little wonder given that, despite their faults, Britain still has a social democratic party ruling it, compared to the ultra conservative fuckwads we have ruling the place here. And yet I am still glad that I live here, rather than say America, where I think civil liberties have been curtailed even more than here and in the UK. Meanwhile, I'm sure many people living in China or North Korea would yearn for the liberty that all three countries could potentially offer them.

Blairs problem is simple. He's been in power too long. It happens to all governments, be they left wing or right. Many start off fairly moderate, but as their time in office drags on, ultimately they start looking for more and more ways to control the plebs and in doing so, hopefully consolidate their own position. Britains problem, however, is far more difficult. Blair and probably even the Labour Party needs to go, but the Torries are so inept that they can't even hope to govern the country yet. Frankly, they need another term in Opposition just to be ready for Opposition.

But that dosen't mean I don't completely abhor everything Blair has done in his pathetic pandering to Bush and co. and the political scare mongerers in the world at large. Terrorism is insidious and no one wants to see repeats of September 11, the London bombings or Bali, but what many politicians fail to see when implementing new laws to prevent more attacks is that they really are letting the terrorists win. Whether Blair or Howard or even that half wit in the White House were good intentioned in implementingthese laws or whether they were (more likely) simply jerking their knees in an electorally friendly move to be seen to be doing something, these laws are doing little more than providing something for our quote unquote enemies to laugh at. Porter hits it right on the head. They, the terrorists, have suceeded in changing our way of life by scaring us so silly that we and our leaders think the only way to protect us is to curtail fundamental civil liberties that it took us hundreds of years to fight for.

The real joke, the very thing that will provide the terrorists with something to laugh at, is that even with these new laws, we're still vulnerable. Homeland Security admitted as much in the US, Alexander Downer admitted as much here in Australia and I'm sure someone did so at some point in the UK. They've changed our way of life, almost overnight, and they can still kill us if they really want to.

I keep hoping, and praying, that the current political situation, both here and overseas, changes and some of these truly draconian laws start to get pulled back. But I know that won't happen. Even if Labor wins here, or the Democrats win in the US, or the Torries in the UK, no party will want to be seen as making it easier for terrorists to attack us, even though that argument is technically flawed. There's just no votes in it.

So frankly people, this kind of discourse in enlightening, and great, but these sorts of laws are here to stay, and as Blair indicated, will only get worse. To put it simply, nothing short of a revolution will save us now.
posted by Effigy2000 at 2:00 AM on June 29, 2006 [1 favorite]


The government and especially the Home Office should be given a hard time for attacking human rights in the name of authoritarian populism. (And so should the Tories for their ridiculous opting-out-of-the-Human-Rights-Act plan.) But I don't think the cause is helped by having Henry Porter on the case - he's a middleweight hack, a prolific author of duff thrillers and, sadly, a pretty representative figure of where the
Observer's at, gravitas-wise, these days.

And while Blair is articulate compared to the likes of you-know-who, he has people to write his emails for him. (I'm pretty sure he's on the record saying he doesn't know how to send emails on his own.) Cf the hodgepodge of his comment piece in the Guardian the other day, analysed by Catherine Bennett about halfway down this column.
posted by Mocata at 2:23 AM on June 29, 2006


Go and talk to people living on estates blighted by anti-social behaviour. Until the new laws allowed them to put restrictions on offenders, close down houses used for drug dealing, seize dealers' assets, disperse gangs of youths, fine vandals on the spot, the victims had nothing to protect them except the usual process of the criminal law, which was hopelessly inadequate. Recently I visited East Manchester and Camden, where, I am proud to say, Labour councillors had, with the police and local residents used the new laws to put some respect and decency back into their communities.

This is cant, pure and simple.

Everything complained of is already illegal, either under statute or local bylaw. If the usual process of the criminal law is not working to apply those laws, the answer is not to strip rights from the (presumed) innocent, but
- to have more plods on the ground
- to rip up and rebuild urban areas where the geography fosters crime
- to remove delays from the criminal justice system
- etc etc

If existing law is not enforced justly, then what can new laws do?

But the fact is that reducing civil liberties is easy and cheap, whereas improving the quality of justice and preventing crime is hard and expensive.

And then there's the bullshit about how bad today's crime is. Ooh, we owe to the victims. Ooh, 7/7, drugs, terror, young people are rude. Fucking bullshit, button-pressing, tight-arsed cant, shat through the constricted anus of a finger-wagging Tory in drag.

Decency. Legislating for decency. Yeah, if you want to live in Singapore.

Victorian England was worse in every respect, whether murder, assault, public drunkeness, filth, you name it. As far as I can tell improvements in these things through the early 20th century were the result of an improving economy and the welfare state.

Grrrrrrrrrrr. (these wowsery bastards are polluting my local Labour party in New Zealand too).
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:28 AM on June 29, 2006 [2 favorites]


Oh yeah, this is germane.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:37 AM on June 29, 2006


From where I'm standing I think Blair came off better from that exchange than Porter did. Where Porters arguement got broader and broader with each email, Blair's arguement stuck to its principles, giving practical examples to back himself up. I can agree with and understand both arguements, its just that Porter could have been more toe to toe.

I'm still ashamedly on the fence on this. :s
posted by Po0py at 3:08 AM on June 29, 2006


'Who cares what you think?'

In the end, that *is* the same substance of what Blair is saying, only in a much more articulate, polite, intelligent, skillful manner. Blair is the kind of savvy politician that, if you listen to him long enough, could convince you of anything. It's like hypnosis. He starts really smooth by saying how much he respects his critic and plays on genuine concerns for ordinary people, then sneaks in appalling statements like "whose civil liberties?", a three word dismissal of the very foundation of a legal system. As if civil rights aren't for everyone. If you don't give due process to suspected criminals, who do you give it to? That's who it's for!

And all that "we are trying to fight 21st century crime by 19th century means. It hasn't worked. It won't work. The terrorism is different. The street crime is different" is the same old excuse for the war in Iraq, Guantanamo, etc. everything is changed so... let's disregard legal principles we built our society on. But it's not the principles that are ineffective. It's the political strategies.

I do think some of the criticism is exaggerated and fear-mongering in its own right - specifically on ID cards, per se they're not an 'attack on civil liberties', it's just a document, another kind of passport, on the other hand, taunting them as a solution to fraud, terrorism, crime, is a pure and simple lie. It's a handy piece of paper, it doesn't have the power to reduce freedom, but it also doesn't have the power to do a thing against any of those issues.


But the fact is that reducing civil liberties is easy and cheap, whereas improving the quality of justice and preventing crime is hard and expensive.

Exactly. It's not so much a conspiracy to pave the way for a totalitarian state as a very easy populist trick.
posted by funambulist at 3:13 AM on June 29, 2006


[i]But the fact is that reducing civil liberties is easy and cheap, whereas improving the quality of justice and preventing crime is hard and expensive.[/i]

But can't you also argue that terrorism is such a hard and expensive crime to combat that there is few other options that can keep innocent people safe?
posted by Po0py at 3:25 AM on June 29, 2006


Today, even business people from the City of London are marching on Downing Street to protest at the draconian measures and capitulation to the US of this executive. It is highly unusual for these people to leave their leather chairs and air-conditioned offices to protest the government on these issues as they are usually the least affected by liberty eroding legislations.

My fear is not how this government will use these powers (their aims don't seem to stray far from measured and well-intentioned) but how future governments will (ab)use them.

The existing laws could, and should, work but often do not. This failure is not going to be solved by new legislative powers. They only give the illusion of action.
posted by Shave at 3:32 AM on June 29, 2006


He is right in many respects, it's just that there seems to be no alternative, no middle ground to the suggestions he makes to dealing with 21st century crime.

WHERE'S YOUR THIRD WAY NOW, BLAIR?
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 4:20 AM on June 29, 2006


I think Blair is 100% right.

Fraud: Jury of peers is losing footing as a useful measure in today's society. I'm not saying I know how to fix it, but in cases where you'd need to have an undergrad degree in accounting to understand what took place - it makes sense that rather than educate the jury to an undergrad level we seek some alternative.

Silence: While it's a good idea not to force people to testify against themselves, when they don't chose to answer, why can't we assume they can't?

Reform: We need something like this. Actually, we need this and a National Referendum system. We have too much law that should be gotten rid of. Why do people want big government for everyone else and small government for themselves?

Anti-social behavior: Blair is dead on. It is not NOT NOT NOT the law and the basic rights which should be protected, it is the OUTCOME of these rights and laws. When the law ceases to protect and freedom lost, we have to devise new rights and new laws. Little old ladies get to leave the house any time of day they like and have a right to safety. Whatever legal system we need to support this, we need to support.

DNA printing: The state is entitled to identify you. If you don't like this, then go and live somewhere where there is no law and no civilization. Finger prints are not sufficient now. People talked this EXACT SAME SMACK when finger printing was first implemented. Please stop already.

The bottom line: It isn't the laws which we should fight to keep, but our standards for safety and freedom. When you don't feel safe or free, then you vote them out.

And don't confuse "freedom" with "not providing my DNA fingerprint to the state" or "getting to disrupt the public peace".

Freedom has never been, and will never be, "freedom from accountability."
posted by ewkpates at 4:42 AM on June 29, 2006


Fucking bullshit, button-pressing, tight-arsed cant, shat through the constricted anus of a finger-wagging Tory in drag.

Top quality swearing mate, nice one.
posted by vbfg at 4:43 AM on June 29, 2006


Effigy2000 and i_am_joe's_spleen, I salute you. Excellent comments both.

Fascinating email exchange and great thread. Who said MeFi can't do politics well?
posted by MrMustard at 5:26 AM on June 29, 2006


It doesn't matter what you want to change, there's always a slippery-sloper convinced that if it happens we will be inexorably set on a course towards one intolerable extreme or another. Frankly I'm tired of this shit:

Successive laws passed by New Labour have pared down our liberty at an astonishing rate

I think the control orders are too strong and need to be revised. I'm willing to listen to arguments about any aspect of New Labour policy that are not purely dogma-based. But this kind of hysterical nonsense just makes people look stupid.
posted by teleskiving at 5:50 AM on June 29, 2006


I think Blair is 100% right.

I think you are entitled to your opinion, however much you sound like a Daily Mail letter writer.

What iam_joe's_spleen said.

Blair - facking cant.
posted by asok at 5:58 AM on June 29, 2006


I think this section is perhaps the most disturbing:

And yes, I would go further. I would widen the police powers to seize the cash of suspected drug dealers, the cars they drive round in, and require them to prove they came by them, lawfully. I would impose restrictions on those suspected of being involved in organised crime. In fact, I would generally harry, hassle and hound them until they give up or leave the country.

Has Blair forgotten what the word 'suspected' means? It means that maybe you're innocent. You can pretty much re-write it like this:

And yes, I would go further. I would widen the police powers to seize the cash of innocent people, the cars they drive round in, and require them to prove they came by them, lawfully. I would impose restrictions on those innocent people. In fact, I would generally harry, hassle and hound them until they give up or leave the country.

See?
posted by reklaw at 6:02 AM on June 29, 2006


Whether or not Blair wrote that, I can readily accept that those are mostly his actual reasons. I like that, because I don't believe a single thing the Bush people say for the reasons behind anything they do.

Blair might be dick, but he's not being overly mendacious.
posted by bonaldi at 6:12 AM on June 29, 2006


Mendacity and rhetoric are Blair's greatest, if not only, ability, as this article amply demonstrates.
posted by MetaMonkey at 6:33 AM on June 29, 2006


But can't you also argue that terrorism is such a hard and expensive crime to combat that there is few other options that can keep innocent people safe?

Well, you can. On the other hand, you'd probably be substantively wrong - in the UK, at least, terrorism kills far fewer people a year than drink-driving. You could argue that the individuals involved in terror are so dangerous that one needs to try to identify and isolate them as quickly as possible, which is probably substantively true, but at present I'm not sure how government activity is advancing or slowing that process. The outcome of some government or police activity appears to be counterproductive. For example, to 30 September 2005, 895 people had been held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2000, of whom only 23 had actually been convicted. Most recently, a young man was shot in his own home during a raid that appears to have been based on false intelligence and pushed forward by the Home Office. These are harmful statistics; even if one is ready to accept the arrests as a regrettable necessity to catch the genunely bad appples, the sense that innocents, and in particular innocent Muslims, are being targetted is damaging recruitment and intelligence services that might be more useful in averting future terrorist activities than pre-emptive arrests based on single informant information.

So, that's problem the first. Problem the second is that in particular ASBOs (anti-social behaviour orders) are not intended to fight terroris, but rather to do duty for the binding over that might result from a prosecution for any number of minor or public order offences. Recently, for example, I believe an ASBO was issued banning somebody from having loud sex. This is of limited immediate utility in the fight against terror.
posted by tannhauser at 6:34 AM on June 29, 2006


As Effigy2000 rightly said, "no party will want to be seen as making it easier for terrorists to attack us" and yet New Labour are making it easier for terrorists to recruit more terrorists to attack us. I suspect the Tories would do likewise.

The general public of this country (and the US, I suspect) are failing to take this fully into account due to the constant din of sabre-rattling from our leaders and media.
posted by Shave at 6:38 AM on June 29, 2006


can't you also argue that terrorism is such a hard and expensive crime to combat that there is few other options that can keep innocent people safe?

That is his argument, but I find it very weak. Ordinary crimes of violence are still prevalent in every Western society yet we don't feel the need to throw away our rights to prevent them.

Feel the terror. Throw away your common sense. Trust us. We'll stop them hurting you.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:48 PM on June 29, 2006


Roper: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you - where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast - man's laws, not God's - and if you cut them down - and you're just the man to do it - d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:05 PM on June 29, 2006


Bravo, spleen, that was my favorite quote from that great play. You are a MeFite for All Seasons.
posted by wendell at 1:30 PM on June 29, 2006


Thank you, wendell. I am afraid I cribbed the quotation though. Hat tip.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:34 PM on June 29, 2006


Top quality swearing mate, nice one.

Here in the colonies we do our best to maintain standards in the obscene arts.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:02 PM on June 29, 2006


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