A new muzzle from Nicola

It is as bad as they say. Nicola Sturgeon’s SNooPy has long gagged the press by denying access to those deemed unfriendly, and is now about to enact a muzzle on speech for everyone, in the ‘Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill’.

Many a column has discussed and condemned the changes, and I cannot dissent from this: it is a truly sinister Bill. The main charge is that it will gag free speech – and it will do so in ways more effective that the cold wording of the Bill suggests. There is more to it than the gag too.

The defence of the new proposal has been a familiar one, that the law will only prohibit ‘hate speech’ and with the implied threat that to oppose it is to support hatred, but anyone who has not been asleep for the last twenty-odd years will know the reality of such accusations.

Before the gagging provision comes a gentle introduction: Clause 1 of the Bill takes the familiar provision that a crime motivated by racial prejudice should attract a higher sentence and takes it to a new level: it now covers a long list of prejudices and alleged prejudices, and applies if the offender evinces “malice and ill-will based on the victim’s membership or presumed membership” of a group in the long list; even if there is no specific victim. But then it says that “Evidence from a single source is sufficient to prove that an offence is aggravated by prejudice” – not sufficient evidence to suggest but to prove, so if a victim claims mendaciously that the thug who attacked him called out “oi, you [whatever epithet fits]”, that is that. Then Clause 2 gets serious: it is not enough for the sheriff to take this into account while thinking privately “well, he just said a bad word in the heat of the moment”: the court must state the matter in sentencing and say how much lighter the sentence would have been had the bad word not been uttered. Judges, it seems, are not to be trusted. Virtue signalling is something that must not only be done but must be seen to be done.

The main issue though is Part 2: ‘stirring up hatred’, and empowering the police to raid homes and seize unPC material. No one is sage (well all right; no one without the right political connections is safe, and even that can be withdrawn, as Alex Salmond found).

The whole of Part 2 needs a more fulsome description. In essence it will make a criminal offence any insult addressed by reference to any of a long list of characteristics. (That would make every conversation I have ever heard in Glasgow a crime.) It covers actions, publications, mere speech. It specifically targets plays, making the producer guilty, and the actor too. It covers websites anywhere in the United Kingdom.

There are two savings for “Protection of freedom of expression”: religion and sexual orientation, but they are so limited as to be meaningless: the exemption for religion is simply freedom for proselytising (including promoting atheism) and discussing or criticising religion. It does not however permit actual religious teaching, so quoting the Gospel (or the Koran, which I understand can be rather unPC) will still be a crime if the passage in question is insulting to a privileged group. Neither does the Bill contain any licence for scientific examination or for papers which are deemed insulting by self-appointed representatives of the listed groups

It is the actions of these self-appointed representatives which are the danger: they are the insulters and the haters, but they are to be protected while they accuse others, using a damning Act which will effectively allow no defence and will demand heavy retribution.

The breadth of the Bill belies its subtlety in squeezing out all defence. That needs a longer look next week.

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Books

Fill(et)ing the Lords – 2

The House of Lords is the largest parliamentary chamber in the world apart from China’s rubber-stamp assembly, but few attend at any given time, and no wonder. Stoppard (the most British playwright ever to come out of Czechoslovakia) had it right: “The House of Lords, an illusion to which I have never been able to subscribe – responsibility without power, the prerogative of the eunuch throughout the ages.”

There is frequent talk of cutting the numbers down, but those in the seats hold their position for life, and Prime Ministers do insist on sticking more cut-price peers in the House than leave it in the natural way. There should be a moratorium, except that it would leave in place those elevated in the last lot’s packing-the-benches exercise.

In the absence of the French solution (which is both illegal and immoral), the House of Lords can only be shrunk by stripping the rights from existing peers.

Not every Lord has a right to sit, but only those who receive at the opening of each session a writ of summons. Since Blair’s constitutional games, the hereditary peers (most of whom would be fitter on those benches than the rejected politicos who have been shoved in there) may not receive a summons unless given a life peerage. A peer otherwise entitled may request leave not to be summoned, and so must stay out unless he withdraws that request. Furthermore, certain lords are excluded by law, including holders of judicial office, those under 18, bankrupts, foreigners, those convicted of treason or those who have not attended for six months. It would be but a little stretch to add more reasons to withdraw a summons.

What of those who cease to provide substantial public service outside the House? They are the nominal nobility of the land, and noblesse oblige: a true nobleman (if not the paper noblemen of the current House of Lords) recognise that with the privilege of the title and wealth comes a duty to public service. Many a Lord serves as a magistrate or in the Army, or commands a local TA unit. Some sit for little reward on committees of national or local import, or for no reward as charity trustees (and those charities may be worthy ones, not the fake charities which besmirch the name).

On the other hand, some of this generation of pound-shop peers have got there simply for sitting on quangos, without necessarily doing a good job or making the quango actually worthwhile in its existence. Once such a person might have received an OM or MBE as a thank-you: now honour-inflation gives them a peerage. Such service if it is a career should not be enough and might be better as a disqualification. The army, the justices’ bench and public service for duty not for career are noble. If the ermine is just for show or to give a leg-up in a career drinking taxpayers’ money, it should be stripped off their backs.

Come to that, it would be a good exercise to keep out of the Lords any whose main income is derived from taxpayers’ money, apart from an army officer’s salary.

The rules also exclude a peer from sitting if he or she is a member of the European Parliament. That one is by the board now, but what of others who are in the pay of foreign powers, or in thrall to them? What of peers who conspire with foreign powers, which is easy for a susceptible man to slip into? They should not be in Parliament. They know who they are.

Maybe some of the less worthy lords could be bribed to go away. If that sounds underhand, it is no more dishonest that living the high-hog on taxpayers’ money.

New conditions on the writ of summons would be valuable. The lurking danger is that wokeists will hijack the idea, and force exclusion for imagined transgressions and a careless word here or there, or they could take over the approval panels and impose those rules where there are no rules. Quis judicat ipsa judices? This needs careful work.

It may be that in these ways so many would be hurled from the benches that the House shrinks to manageable size. It may be that so many are sent away that more peers are needed. Appointing peers – that is another challenge.

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Fill(et)ing the Lords – 1

It is only a few months since we were comparing the House of Commons to its behaviour before the Civil War. Now we have a Cavalier Parliament in the Commons, but with Cromwellian disdain for the House of Lords.

It is not that the Lords are positively rebellious, blocking the Commons, but they are either potentially threatening or useless. The live question is whether to attempt to reform it. The last person who did was Tony Blair, and while his changes looked as if they could shrink the House to a manageable size and fill it with experts, it has swollen even more and been filled with cast-off cronies. That was always going to be the end of the Blair reforms: William Hague said as much in an infamous speech he made at the time.

The remedy is harder, because no one can agree on what the ideal House of Lords would be.

We in the general public may see it the way Oscar Wilde did in A Woman of No Importance: “We in the House of Lords are never in touch with public opinion. That makes us a civilised body.”

That is not a satire though: it is the ideal. In America, the Senate was devised to be the elder, learned body restraining the passing enthusiasms of the popular house; the “fickleness and passion” as Madison put it. Bagehot thought it valuable as “formidable sinister interest may always obtain the complete command of a dominant assembly” needing a second chamber of an opposite sort to oppose the captive chamber; but he also observed that “The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it.”

Idealism fails. The Commons may be captured by an enthusiasm for a few years, and often are, but in the Lords it may be embedded for a generation. The best characterisation of the House in its reality is one of Tony Benn’s observations: The House of Lords is the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians.

The Liberals wanted to replace the Lords with an elected chamber back in Gladstone’s day, and it has never happened, because MPs will not brook a rival set of chancers like themselves. Every parliament has those promising unspecified reform, or abolition, election or goodness knows what.

Until the ideal is determined, the remedy cannot be. Most other countries have a second chamber, because they follow at a distance the Westminster model. We can look at what they have done, and that is enough to put us off reform. No other though has our Outer Mongolia for retired or failed politicians (Outer Mongolia by the way has no second chamber).

Pound-shop peerages handed out like toffee have made the House of Lords intolerable or embarrassing. Boris Johnson has promised to consider reform, but did so just after handing out more toffees.

What to do? Another article, I feel.

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Enter Ross

There stands a new party leader: Douglas Ross, chosen swiftly without contest when lesser candidates withdrew in the sight of his coming. The new Leader of the Scottish Conservatives is barely known outside his own circle, or at least so the BBC would leave it, as they know no one but the main players. (The political newsmen also seem to have a mental block over anything north of the Tweed.)

I will admit that I had hardly heard of the man but to note his triumph over the SNP in Moray, which had been their fiefdom for years – it was the awful Margaret Ewing’s seat. He also glinted into publicity recently by resigning a ministerial post over Dominic Cummings, and I thought he would slip into obscurity, for Boris does not forget these things easily.

On the other hand, Douglas Ross is a man born in Aberdeen, which is Michael Gove’s home town and so he has a recommendation at the top. He is not a university man, studying instead to take over his father’s farm, and a man of the soil always has a common touch to recommend him. He is not a titled man (Fay tells me his title is “the Dashing”, but I’ll pass over that). He studied in Forres, as in ‘How far is’t call’d to Forres?’ and is rooted in the soil of Morayshire. He has been politically sacked and politically resigned, suggesting more independence of mind than is healthy in a dedicated party politician, but which is an advantage to one who would make an impact on his own.

He has a heavy task ahead of him. The BBC do not entirely block Scotland from their coverage – it is just devolved, which means it is forgotten for most of the country. The corps of journalists o’ the North, so they say, would sell their souls to win an interview with ‘Nicola’, and Snoopy (sorry, the SNP) control access, forbidding it to any who are unfriendly – it ensures positive coverage of the Snoopy government at all times.

As Holyrood is looking to muzzle speech more effectively now under cover of hate-speech legislation, breaking through is to be harder still.

Ross might well lament like his namesake who also came to Forres:

Alas, poor country!
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be call’d our mother, but our grave; where nothing,
But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not mark’d; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy; the dead man’s knell
Is there scarce ask’d for who; and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.

Courage though. Ruth Davidson made a breakthrough, somehow, by making an impact, and Douglas Ross has more conventional charm to turn upon the voters.

Actually, I feel more admiration for Jackson Carlaw, his immediate predecessor. Carlaw resigned without warning, without a great uprising in the ranks. He did so for the best and most rare reason – he felt he was not up to the task. What other politician has ever admitted this without facing actual defeat? The cause of Conservatism is more than one man.

For that I saw the tyrant’s power a-foot:
Now is the time of help; your eye in Scotland
Would create soldiers, make our women fight,
To doff their dire distresses.

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Books

Labour: wear a mask when shopping on-line

This week’s Labour health spokesmxn, Jonathan Ashworth, expressed outrage that the Government has not gone far enough in enforcing face muzzles. The government’s half-measures are all for show, he spluttered: all the headlines are about shops and theatres, but the staff of online retailers are the forgotten working class. Shopfloor workers have protection from customers in muzzles and there must be a level playing field to protect jobs and lives, he said: customers doing their online shopping must wear facemasks at all times, because the workers behind the screens need protection from these notorious computer viruses.

Week one of the face-lockdown. The shops are emptying again satisfactorily. Now I get a chance to see what’s on the rails without elbowing dawdlers out of the way. I can’t see much though with this thing right under my eyeline.

Not everyone must wear the cloth. As I gathered after interviewing Mat Hancock, while he was trying to run away:

  • It’s to protect other people in case I have the dread disease;
  • Although I don’t have it;
  • Unless you’ve actually got the Wuhan flu, it’s as pointless as a chocolate chastity belt;
  • You don’t need to wear a muzzle if it causes you breathing problems;
  • Which is what you’d have if you get COVID-19;
  • So if you do get the smit, don’t wear a mask – better to infect the carriage than choke to death.

I wear it: I have a very dinky one which the maid made for me, which beats the designer face-muzzles I’ve seen: my, you should see the green envy. (The rivalry over masks is quite a thing to watch in the salons – all from a lacey lingerie-style, all holes and imagination, down to one that looks as if it was last worn in a trench outside Ypres.) It is taken very seriously – the fashion, at least, and I do wear it on trains. Of course I take it off when I need to make a call or to have a good cough, but I have it for a good show of concern.

I am my usual, cheery self in the shops I deign to frequent. I greet the shop assistant with my eyes, we admire each others’ muzzles, and I ask “Mmmm ngh ngh mmmnnnn!”, which never fails to elicit an appreciative “rrrrr, mngh, ghghgh mmmm.”

What next week will bring, we cannot tell. I am quite looking forward to getting the illness – better now I’d say than in the winter when I have a cold too to cope with. That COVID-19 party was a mistake though, without a nurse to hand. Another member of staff down.

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