Never again.

No jolly banter today. No cheap political point-scoring. No penny-philosophy. Just ‘Never again’.

In a camp seventy-five years ago today men had waded through blood and burnt villages to reach that spot broke down and wept, and that was just one camp. I can write no more about it as many others have written more and better and with better understanding.

We can blame a disembodied evil for it, or conjure the Devil into the midst, but these were the deliberate actions of men, and the causes are in the elemental heart of man. It is the fundamental duty of society, which is to say of every man and woman whose multitude of interconnected relationships make up that intangible web that we call society, to ensure those social bonds work for the good, for we have seen how easy it is to deploy the irresistible strength of society to destruction.

From time to time the papers titillate us with displays of the everyday propaganda used by the Nazis to normalise race-hatred across their society, and we grimace or maybe think it too crude for anyone to take seriously. Then as someone speaks to me he spits out the latest conspiracy he has heard and thinks it modern, but my heart is chilled because it is very familiar, very old. It all emphasises that we must learn to speak up to challenge the re-normalisation of these ideas and say with no lessening vigour ‘Never again.’

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Flybe: Brexit to blame

Flybe’s spokesman, Rick O’Shea, has admitted the reasons for Flybe’s collapse, pinning the blame on Brexit:

“We saw tens of thousands of people on that march saying they would leave the country if Britain left the EU. We bought extra planes, landing slots, fuel, hired staff – and they are staying in droves. We planned to help businesses relocate to Europe as they said they would, but instead European businesses are relocating to Britain. We feel let down.”

He added “We hoped at least that Andrew Adonis would leave the country – but I think everyone did.”

Open Britain struck back at the government’s handing of the crisis: “We maintain that the referendum campaign was based on lies, and we have been justified: the Leave campaign claimed repeatedly that the economy would suffer only a temporary downturn, but in contrast we have seen constant growth. While it is true that a great many of our supporters did say they would leave Britain in the event of Brexit, that decision was based on figures provided by the Tory government forecasting economic meltdown, and that has proven to be yet another lie which must invalidate all three recent general elections.”

The government agreed to reschedule the troubled airline’s tax debt. They admitted “We are largely to blame. Under Theresa May the negotiation was handled so cackhandedly that the airline had every reason to think that Brexit would be followed by economic and political chaos, and the May government even published a paper claiming that middle class families would starve in the street, leading to a total, Hobbesian breakdown of society and descend into cannibalism. We must accept that when Boris sacked the civil servants involved and did the job properly, we upset their long-term business planning. Now the economy is shooting ahead of Europe’s, all those businesses which planned in good faith for collapse have suffered.”

Andrew Adonis was unavailable for comment, but he is believed not to have left the country. A plane is waiting for him.

Mill addresses no-platforming

A couple of days ago I wrote that John Stuart Mill had written about political correctness, but that was not the subject of my post so I passed on. That was to leave a question hanging, so I will make amends here. Mill was a liberal in the classical sense. His book, ‘On Liberty’, was to advocate liberty as a principle, and he held that liberty of speech was the foundation of other liberties. Those who call themselves ‘liberal’ in our day may not feel the same, but justify restrictions on free expression on utilitarian grounds, as a modern approach. It is far from modern though, and Mill looked at the same arguments back into ancient history, and into his own time, the Victorian Age.

I will spare you his excessive prose, but a most pointed passage addresses the screaming censor of our time very well indeed:

Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being ‘pushed to an extreme;’ not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case. Strange that they should imagine that they are not assuming infallibility, when they acknowledge that there should be free discussion on all subjects which can possibly be doubtful, but think that some particular principle or doctrine should be forbidden to be questioned because it is so certain, that is, because they are certain that it is certain. To call any proposition certain, while there is any one who would deny its certainty if permitted, but who is not permitted, is to assume that we ourselves, and those who agree with us, are the judges of certainty, and judges without hearing the other side.

In the present age—which has been described as ‘destitute of faith, but terrified at scepticism’—in which people feel sure, not so much that their opinions are true, as that they should not know what to do without them—the claims of an opinion to be protected from public attack are rested not so much on its truth, as on its importance to society. There are, it is alleged, certain beliefs, so useful, not to say indispensable to well-being, that it is as much the duty of governments to uphold those beliefs, as to protect any other of the interests of society.

In a case of such necessity, and so directly in the line of their duty, something less than infallibility may, it is maintained, warrant, and even bind, governments, to act on their own opinion, confirmed by the general opinion of mankind. It is also often argued, and still oftener thought, that none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs; and there can be nothing wrong, it is thought, in restraining bad men, and prohibiting what only such men would wish to practise. This mode of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and flatters itself by that means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of opinions.

But those who thus satisfy themselves, do not perceive that the assumption of infallibility is merely shifted from one point to another. The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion, and requiring discussion as much, as the opinion itself. There is the same need of an infallible judge of opinions to decide an opinion to be noxious, as to decide it to be false, unless the opinion condemned has full opportunity of defending itself. And it will not do to say that the heretic may be allowed to maintain the utility or harmlessness of his opinion, though forbidden to maintain its truth. The truth of an opinion is part of its utility. If we would know whether or not it is desirable that a proposition should be believed, is it possible to exclude the consideration of whether or not it is true?

In the opinion, not of bad men, but of the best men, no belief which is contrary to truth can be really useful: and can you prevent such men from urging that plea, when they are charged with culpability for denying some doctrine which they are told is useful, but which they believe to be false?

Those who are on the side of received opinions, never fail to take all possible advantage of this plea; you do not find them handling the question of utility as if it could be completely abstracted from that of truth: on the contrary, it is, above all, because their doctrine is ‘the truth,’ that the knowledge or the belief of it is held to be so indispensable.

There can be no fair discussion of the question of usefulness, when an argument so vital may be employed on one side, but not on the other. And in point of fact, when law or public feeling do not permit the truth of an opinion to be disputed, they are just as little tolerant of a denial of its usefulness. The utmost they allow is an extenuation of its absolute necessity, or of the positive guilt of rejecting it.

John Stuart Mill: On Liberty

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Act now!

Yes! Royal assent at last, and the Bill is now an Act; the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, after all the fighting. The commentary on this site will shortly be updated to “The Act – a commentary”, but for the moment is a time to reflect.

It has been three and a half long years, with one referendum, two general elections, three Prime Ministers, several unprecedented legal actions and many longstanding Conservative highfliers cast into the dustbin of history for rebellion.

Amongst those departed Members, we may wonder about their feelings. Are they content in their hearts that they stood for a principle even if they cannot remember what it was, or wistful that they threw their careers away in vain when they could have come aboard and still now be feted in golden coaches, or are they glad in retirement that their actions, however shocking at the time, brought about a general election that handed the Conservatives a majority of 80.

Next week will be ‘Brexit week’ culminating in the actual British Exit at 11 pm GMT on Friday 31 January 2020. We will wonder in future years how this point ran so close.

Today’s royal assent should not be momentous: it is just an Act of Parliament authorising the government to sign an agreement, and to put it into effect. The actual withdrawal was enacted under Theresa May; it is just that she could not make it stick even with a sovereign act, an Act of Parliament, commanding it. That is where it all went wrong for her.

The clog in the road was the unlucky Section 13, forced into the Bill by extreme Remainers and Labour. It said “all this means nothing unless your withdrawal agreement gets a vote in the Commons and a new Act of Parliament too”, and so the Withdrawal Act was neutered. All this, a year of political crisis, was forced by that one Section in the Act, a bastard child of K Starmer and D Grieve. The new Withdrawal Act repeals Section 13, and good riddance to it.

Therefore, quite inadvertently, this is a momentous moment, and the moment Brexit is finally, mercifully sealed.

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Mill on truth in its fragility

I occasionally read John Stuart Mill, often by accident. He lived in an age with a proliferation of philosophers, which is to say a dangerous age, and these penny-philosophers had ideas for the reform of mankind that left very little room for mankind itself.  Mill had his own ideas, not as well explained as they might have been, to battle back in the name of freedom, and it is when he writes of freedom of speech, as the most fundamental freedom to allow the freedom of society as a whole, that he writes his best.

He might be writing for our own time, as he describes with minute perfection the reasonings and actions of the movement for political correctness or ‘wokeness’ in justifying the suppression of speech.  That is something to revisit at another time.

Truth is in play in our time, its very concept.  One poignant observation Mill makes on this is to knock down the comforting believe that the truth will always prevail:

But, indeed, the dictum that truth always triumphs over persecution, is one of those pleasant falsehoods which men repeat after one another till they pass into commonplaces, but which all experience refutes. History teems with instances of truth put down by persecution. If not suppressed for ever, it may be thrown back for centuries.

To speak only of religious opinions: the Reformation broke out at least twenty times before Luther, and was put down. Arnold of Brescia was put down. Fra Dolcino was put down. Savonarola was put down. The Albigeois were put down. The Vaudois were put down. The Lollards were put down. The Hussites were put down. Even after the era of Luther, wherever persecution was persisted in, it was successful. In Spain, Italy, Flanders, the Austrian empire, Protestantism was rooted out; and, most likely, would have been so in England, had Queen Mary lived, or Queen Elizabeth died. Persecution has always succeeded, save where the heretics were too strong a party to be effectually persecuted. No reasonable person can doubt that Christianity might have been extirpated in the Roman Empire. It spread, and became predominant, because the persecutions were only occasional, lasting but a short time, and separated by long intervals of almost undisturbed propagandism.

It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error, of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even of social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either.

The real advantage which truth has, consists in this, that when an opinion is true, it may be extinguished once, twice, or many times, but in the course of ages there will generally be found persons to rediscover it, until some one of its reappearances falls on a time when from favourable circumstances it escapes persecution until it has made such head as to withstand all subsequent attempts to suppress it.

John Stuart Mill: On Liberty