Sunday, January 31, 2016

The lamentable decline in the standard of public debate


For all of its faults during the time of empire, the United Kingdom used to be a thriving hotbed of intellectualism. Not only was the United Kingdom the driver of the industrial revolution, it was also a land of rapid intellectual, scientific and political development. 

These days, as the standard of public debate continues sinking to every more dispiriting lows, I think it's worth looking back and considering how the hell have things gone so wrong.

Background

Its obviously an over-simplification to start at any arbitrary point, but we must start somewhere, so the rise of liberalism in the 17th Century seems as good a point as any. It was from this period onward that the persecution of non-conformism declined dramatically.

In the 17th Century the philosophers Thomas Hobbes and John Locke established the concepts of the social contract and natural rights that gradually eroded the tyranny of the monarcy-state-church nexus.

The English Civil War resulted in the fall of the monarchy, but the powerful political elites who took the place of the monarchy imprisoned and marginalised radicals like John Lilburne ("Freeborn John") and the Levellers to prevent an egalitarian reformation of British society. Despite these efforts by the powerful elites to stamp out political and religious radicalism by persecuting non-conformists like the Levellers, Seekers, Quakers and the Diggers, the unstoppable trend towards liberalism and tolerance of of religious non-conformism had been set in motion.


It was never the case that persecution of non-conformity was eliminated entirely, but from the late 17th Century onwards the people of Great Britain found ever more freedom to express non-conformist political views, and to practice whichever religion they liked, or none at all for that matter. 

Another visionary liberal philosopher to spring up in 17th Century Britain was to inspire the independence revolution in the United States. Thomas Paine's revolutionary essays inspired the movement that excised the monarchy-state-church nexus from vast territories of North America.

The vestiges of the tyrannical monarchy-state-church nexus persist in Britain to this day. The UK state is an anachronism with its monarch serving as joint head of state and head of the established church, its antiquated and unrepresentative electoral system and its unelected religious clerics in its bloated and entirely unelected House of Lords. However the power of the state to silence, imprison and execute critics of the establishment order has been gradually eroded, such that we can publish our republican sentiments, our anti-establishment political views and our non-conformist theological thoughts with little fear of being economically sanctioned, imprisoned or garotted by the monarchy-state-church nexus for airing such views.


The 19th Century heyday

The 19th Century wasn't just the heyday of the industrial revolution, it was an age of rapid public enlightenment and social progress: Libraries, educational institutions and museums sprang up all over the nation; education and basic literacy gradually became the norm rather than the privileges of the wealthy; and barbaric practices like slavery and child labour were abolished.

Against this backdrop of rising standards in literacy and freedom from oppression, Britain played host to an extraordinary array of political movements. Liberals, anarchists, religious non-conformists, Owenites, socialists, communists, libertarians, laissez-faire capitalists, free-thinkers, mutualists and syndicalists all competed for attention from an increasingly literate population.

Non-conformists and hetorodox political thinkers had a much more difficult time on the continent. A look at the lives of many of the most interesting European political thinkers of the age (Proudhon, Bakunin, MichelGalleani, Malatesta, Blanqui ...) reveal lives interrupted by prolonged periods of imprisonment and exile. Britain was not free of political persecution by any stretch of the imagination, however the more liberal environment meant that London became a safe haven for all kinds of heterodox political thinkers including Marx, Engels, Herzen, Mazzini, Kossuth and Kropotkin.

In response to a furious letter from the Spanish embassy decrying Britain for harbouring political exiles in 1871 the British government declared that "all foreigners have an absolute right to enter the country and remain", and that they have the same right as British citizens to be "punished only for offences against the law".


Public intellectuals

The growing tolerance of unorthodox political and religious thought in the United Kingdom led to the rise of countless public intellectuals, many of whom worked to educate the public through the publication of essays and literature and were deeply involved in the political affairs of their age.

It's impossible to provide a definitive list of 19th Century public intellectuals, however naming just a few high profile individuals from the period goes to show how intellectuals were held in high public regard: 
John Stuart Mill, William Morris, George Holyoake, Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Francis Galton, Herbert Spencer, Alfred Marshall, Alexander Graham Bell.

The high public profile accorded to intellectuals continued well into the 20th Century. It's unlikely that anyone but the most determined early-mid 20th Century dullard would have managed to remain completely unaware of the writing and political views of the likes of 
H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, C.S. Lewis, John Maynard Keynes, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley...

The late 20th Century onwards


Who are the great British public intellectuals, philosophers and political theorists of the 21st Century?


There are obviously a great deal of very intelligent people in Britain, who could rightly be considered public intellectuals, however, it seems to me that very few of them have a large enough public profile that they would be recognisable to the majority of people.

Tim Berners-Lee deserves enormous credit for inventing the World Wide Web, but how many people could tell you what he was famous for just from hearing his name or seeing his photograph? The same goes for a number of other modern day intellectuals. What percentage of the general public could even identify the likes of Robert Skidelsky, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Tariq Ali, Susie Orbach, AC Grayling, Andrew Motion, Alan Bennett, Mary Beard or Roger Penrose?

The only high profile public intellectual I'm completely confident that the majority of British people could identify is Stephen Hawking.

When it comes to politics the situation is utterly embarrassing. When a revisionist halfwit like Michael Gove is considered to be one of the great intellectuals of the Tory party, and a the likes of Tristram Hunt and Gordon Brown are lauded as the great intellectuals of the Labour Party we know that we're in trouble. 


Anti-intellectualism and stupification

The United Kingdom has turned from a country that celebrated intellectualism to one that treats it with suspicion and contempt, especially if intellectuals (these days so often prefaced with "so-called" by the tabloid press) dare to voice a political opinion that goes against the established orthodoxy. When people speak out against the right-wing economic orthodoxy that has dominated UK politics for almost four decades, they are hounded by the tabloid press.
In my view an awful lot of public intellectuals are afraid to speak out against the right-wing economic orthodoxy for fear of the abuse they'll suffer from the right-wing press. 

The hounding of public figures who speak out against the orthodoxy is not the only way in which the tabloid press helps to control public debate. Newspapers like The Sun and The Daily Mail are deliberately written in the vocabulary of children in order to make their glib right-wing political tropes accessible to even the least intelligent adults. It's not just conjecture that the tabloid newspapers have contributed to the stupification of the British public either. Research has shown that reading a tabloid newspaper is worse for your vocabulary than not reading a newspaper at all, and that "the presence of tabloid newspapers in the home during childhood has been linked to poor cognitive attainment at age 16".

It's not just the tabloids that are to blame. Generations of politicians have turned the UK education system into an absolute shambles, where children who attend state schools are denied the absolute basics in critical thinking, philosophy and economics and taught that correct answers are handed down to them by authority to be uncritically rote learned and regurgitated upon demand in order to obtain rewards in the form of grades. It obviously makes no sense for the establishment to teach future generations critical thinking skills and basic macroeconomics, otherwise they'd grow up to ask questions and find out that their own rational self-interest is not best served through continued support for an out-of-touch establishment minority that is clearly intent on hoarding political power for their own class and enacting ideologically driven economic policies that enrich the already rich at the expense of everyone else.

The declining standard of political debate
 

The standard of political debate in the UK continues suffering a steep decline. People seem to no longer even understand the meanings of fundamental political words and phrases. Terms like "communism", "anarchism", "liberalism" and "socialism" have been weaponised, so that simply calling somebody a "communist" is somehow considered sufficient to discredit their entire position, without any obligation for the term communist to even be understood, let alone it be demonstrated that the accused actually subscribes to any of the numerous communist ideologies.

We live in a world where hurling words like "communist" around as if they're crude insults rather than political words with specific meanings or publishing pictures of the opposition leader looking odd while he eats a bacon sandwich are considered dynamite by the political right. Meanwhile many on the left seem to think that simply calling David Cameron a "pigfucker" (instead of criticising any of the countless socially and economically destructive policies Cameron's government have inflicted on the UK) is a debate winning tactic, rather than the kind of crude unsubstantiated assertion that makes the left look like a bunch of ranting extremists.

The rise of someone like David Cameron was pretty much inevitable given the stupification of the electorate. Cameron has proven himself an egregious liar, an abuser of the English language, a snide and manipulative person who refuses to answer direct questions or act in good faith and a coward who is terrified of having to think on his feet (hence his refusals to participate in unscripted public debates). However, despite all of this evidence that David Cameron is a fundamentally dishonest charlatan and clearly the least intellectually capable Prime Minister in living memory, somehow over 11 million people saw fit to actually vote in favour of keeping him in power!


It doesn't matter whether you agreed with the likes of Benjamin Disreali, John Stuart Mill, Winston Churchill, William Beveridge or Clement Attlee, it's pretty much impossible to argue that they were stupid people who just read out a load of scripted nonsense and ran away from any form of actual debate. These were intelligent men of principle who knew what they were talking about and were unafraid of open honest debate.

I'm not Tory but I'm pretty damned sure that the likes of Disreali and Churchill would be utterly appalled that the Conservative party is now being led by such an intellectually stunted, snide and downright dishonest chancer like David Cameron.


What can be done?

It seems that little can actually be done as long as the parliamentary authorities allow David Cameron to continue repeatedly evading questions and blatantly lying to parliament, and as long as the mainstream media refuse to hold David Cameron and the Tories to account for their litany of lies and broken promises to the public.

David Cameron can sign a "contract with the electorate" then simply have every trace of it deleted from the Tory website when it became clear that they'd broken nearly every pledge it contained; he can lie to parliament that the UK has been "bankrupted"; he can lie to the public that the Tories are reducing the national debt (when they've actually created more new debt since 2010 than every Labour government in history combined); he can use all kinds of Orwellian language to claim that black is white and white is black; and he can lie over and over and over again about the leader of the opposition. He can do all of this and get away with it because virtually nobody holds him to account for it.

Even if David Cameron is removed from power, if the means to lie, distort, adopt bad faith positions and spout logical fallacies remains so desperately unchallenged, his successors would be fools to limit themselves to honest, good faith debate.


The poet WH Auden once wrote that "Whatever the field under discussion, those who engage in debate must not only believe in each other's good faith, but also in their capacity to arrive at the truth". Surely nobody believes that it's possible to engage in this kind of honest debate with the likes of David Cameron? Surely nobody believes that David Cameron would voluntarily stick to the truth, argue in good faith or answer direct questions (rather than repeatedly evade them with a load of heavily scripted and largely inaccurate tabloid style rhetoric and snide political point scoring).

Unfortunately, until the public begin to demand a higher level of public debate from their politicians, any politician who does try to adopt the traditional British form of debate (by limiting themselves to 
avoiding lies and smears, arguing in good faith and actually answering the questions they're asked) would be voluntarily tying their hands behind their back while allowing other less scrupulous politicians to repeatedly punch them below the belt to cheers of delight from the tabloid-minded masses.


 Another Angry Voice  is a "Pay As You Feel" website. You can have access to all of my work for free, or you can choose to make a small donation to help me keep writing. The choice is entirely yours.






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Friday, January 29, 2016

Dog whistles and dead cats



In January 2016 David Cameron kicked up a storm of protest by describing refugees as "a bunch of migrants" in a snide, blatantly dishonest and evasive attack on Jeremy Corbyn who had asked him a question about the sweetheart deal with Google to allow them to pay a tax rate of below 3% on their corporate profits.

Dog whistles and dead cats

The "bunch of migrants" comment was read by many as a dog whistle to the kind of extreme-right xenophobe who follows Britain First. This argument has a lot of merit. It doesn't really seem to matter to right-wing xenophobes that David Cameron and Theresa May have overseen the biggest inflow of migrants into the UK ever recorded because they are typically immune to stuff like facts, information and logical analysis. The Tories know that what they want to hear is the kind of empty anti-immigrant rhetoric that fires up that burning sense of hatred that makes them write their barely literate hate-filled diatribes all over the Internet.

Others have argued that using dehumanising language to describe refugees on Holocaust Memorial Day was actually a "dead cat strategy" designed to distract public attention away from a number of other issues that the Tory party would rather not have people talking about.

The theory goes that if you throw a dead cat onto the table, people are unlikely to talk about any of the other stuff you've been up to.

The Independent outlined five issues that the Tories might have wanted to distract public attention away from with David Cameron's scripted dead cat evasion to Jeremy Corbyn's question about the sweetheart Google tax deal.

Cameron was obviously successful in distracting attention away from the sweetheart deal with Google, because the news focused on his misleading and inflammatory comments about refugees, rather than the fact that he completely evaded Jeremy Corbyn's question.

Other issues that were bumped down the news agenda by Cameron's dead cat tactics include:

  • Transparency international accusing the UK government for their 'extraordinarily inept' attempts to water down Freedom of Information laws and slamming the Tories for 'cosying up' to despotic regimes like Saudi Arabia and China. 
Evasive, misleading and downright snide

If we look at David Cameron's response to Jeremy Corbyn's question about the Google tax deal in more detail, it's easy to see how evasive, misleading and downright snide it is.

The first thing to note is that (as usual) Cameron completely evaded the question. He said nothing about how the Google tax deal was negotiated, nor any explanation of how a 3% rate of tax represents a "major success".

Instead he launched a bizarre diatribe against Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Cameron's first assertion was that Labour had met with trade unions to give them "flying pickets", which is a crude misrepresentation at absolute best. There is no evidence that Corbyn actually met unions to offer them the right to sympathy strikes (a right that was taken away from British workers in 1980 but still exists for workers in countries with less right-wing labour laws), in fact the accusation seemed to stem from Jeremy Corbyn expressing a personal opinion on the Andrew Marr show. In reality what Corbyn and McDonnell had been promoting that week was their pretty good syndicalist proposal that workers should have the right to buy their own companies.

Cameron's second assertion was that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell had "met with the Argentinians" and that they "gave them the Falkland Islands". Corbyn and McDonnell did not meet with any representatives of Mauricio Macri's right-wing Argentinian government, and as the shadow government they clearly don't have the power to give away the Falkland Islands either. Again, these comments are a desperately inaccurate misrepresentation of one of Jeremy Corbyn's personal views. I actually agree with Corbyn that it would make sense to negotiate some kind of settlement with the Argentinians to end the trade boycott that exists between the Falklands and the continent of South America. Corbyn was still spectacularly naive for raising the idea though, because there is clearly a lot more political capital for the Tories in stirring up anti-Argentine sentiments than there is for Labour proposing some kind of deal to end the trade embargo on the Falkland Islands.


The third assertion about the "bunch of migrants" is the dead cat that got the press talking, but very few people bothered to even point out the glaring inaccuracy of the accusation. In this case (unlike the two previous allegations) Jeremy Corbyn did actually meet with refugees in Calais, but David Cameron's interpretation of what happened there was a glaring lie. According to Cameron "They met with a bunch of migrants in Calais and said they could all come to Britain". What Corbyn actually said is that the UK should do more to help refugees with connections to the UK, but still, criticising what your debating opponent actually said, rather than slamming a straw-man misrepresentation clearly isn't in the debating rule book at Eton.

Cameron's conclusion that the only people Labour never stand up for is the British people and hard-working taxpayers" really takes the piss. Anyone with a few grains of sense knows that the Tory party are the class enemy of ordinary hard-working people, and their track record of overseeing the longest sustained decline in real wages since records began is proof of it. If we return to Cameron's first assertion about Corbyn and McDonnell's fictional meeting with "the unions", it's worth noting the obvious incompatibility with Cameron's conclusion. The only way that his conclusion that they never stand up for hard-working people could be true is if none of the 7 million people who are represented by trade unions are British working people!

It would be bad enough if any of this dishonest and fundamentally incoherent rubbish had been blurted out on the spur of the moment by a man under pressure, but everyone knows that David Cameron's answers are scripted and rote learned. The truth is that someone actually wrote this pathetic shit in the belief that a significant section of the British public are thick enough to imagine it chocolate cake.

The idiocracy


There is only one way that it makes sense for Cameron's scriptwriters to give him such dishonest and inherently contradictory drivel to read out. The only way it makes sense is if they believe that a big enough percentage of the population are idiotic enough not to see through such a snide bombardment of lies, misrepresentations and logical contradictions.

Cameron's scriptwriters are obviously extremely confident that the public will accept David Cameron's tactic of completely evading the question and replying with a load of dishonest and fundamentally incoherent tabloid style bluster.

The main reason that the 93% of kids who go to state schools get very little education in stuff like critical thinking, analytic philosophy, economics, debating techniques or logic. The Tories are confident that an education system that teaches kids that correct answers are handed down from authority is perfect for producing the kind of dullard who is smart enough to do what they're told by their boss, but stupid enough to rote learn their political opinions from drivel they read in the right-wing press and fail to subject David Cameron's shouty rhetoric to even the most rudimentary critical analysis.


Conclusion

The Tories believe that as long as the plebs are kept in their place, educated to be compliant and uncritical to authority, then drip-fed with right-wing propaganda, they'll always vote Tory.

The more people out there who actually read and think about things for themselves the better. It really doesn't take a lot of brainpower to see though David Cameron's bullshit and bluster, but unfortunately under our bizarrely unrepresentative electoral system it only takes 24% of the electorate to hand the Tories a majority government.

In order for this to change, some of the 11 million people who bought into David Cameron's lies and rhetoric need to be convinced to learn some critical thinking skills and actually subject what the Tories say to some kind of basic critical analysis.


 Another Angry Voice  is a "Pay As You Feel" website. You can have access to all of my work for free, or you can choose to make a small donation to help me keep writing. The choice is entirely yours.






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Thursday, January 28, 2016

12 things you should know about the Psychoactive Substances Bill


The Tory government's draconian Psychoactive Substances Bill is a shamefully irrational and anti-scientific piece of legislation that seeks to criminalise anyone who dares to attempt to alter their mood, other than through the use of government pre-approved drugs such as cigarettes, alcohol and prescription anti-depressants. 

The blanket ban on any substance that is not awarded a place on the government's pre-approved list (even substances that haven't even been discovered yet) demonstrates beyond any doubt whatever that the policy is driven by ideology, not evidence. Banning substances that don't even exist yet is about as far from evidence based drugs policy as it's possible to imagine because it's literally impossible to have any evidence about the relative harms of substances that don't even exist yet.

In this article I'm going to run through twelve considerations that are pertinent to the debate.

Prohibitionism just doesn't work

There is an absolute mountain of evidence that ideological prohibitionism doesn't work. From the abject failure of alcohol prohibition in the US, to the huge rise in availablilty and use of recreational drugs in the UK since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs act in 1971. If the object of prohibitionism is to reduce, or even eliminate drugs and drug use, it's clearly a spectacularly unsuccessful approach.

Aside from the mountain of evidence that prohibitionism doesn't work, there's also evidence that drug use actually falls amongst teenagers and problem users when prohibitionism is abandoned, as it did after Portugal decriminalised drugs in 2001.

Prohibitionism is an example of spectacularly naive magical thinking. Instead of understanding that by prohibiting substances you just create an illegal, untaxed, unregulated market for those substances, the prohibitionist imagines that the substances will just magically go away. It really doesn't matter how much evidence they're presented with to prove that prohibitionism doesn't work, the ideological prohibitionist will tend to cling to their magical thinking like a toddler clings to their comfort blanket.

Ireland


Anyone who gives the remotest damn about the evidence knows that ideological prohibitionism doesn't work, yet the Tories are pushing ahead with their ridiculous "let's just ban everything" agenda anyway.

What makes the Tory Psychoactive Substances Bill so much worse is the fact that a very similar "let's just ban everything" bill introduced in Ireland in 2010 led to a dramatic increase of synthetic designer drugs usage from 16 to 22% of the teenage population. Ireland has the second fastest rate of increased synthetic designer drug usage in the entire EU, and by far the highest overall rate of usage.

Anyone who naively assumes that the politicians pushing this ban actually looked at the available evidence from Ireland must conclude that the objective of the ban is not to reduce drugs associated harms as they like to repeatedly claim, but actually to get as many of our teenagers using synthetic designer drugs as possible!

The only other explanation is that they simply refused to look at the evidence from Ireland.


Not just "legal highs"
 

The Tory government and mainstream media have tried to create the narrative that this blanket ban is being introduced to combat synthetic designer drugs ("legal highs"), and all you'll get out of the kind of tabloid rote-learners who support the ban is feeble "legal highs are bad m'kay" platitudes, occasionally mixed with a few dollops of sketchy anecdotal evidence.

The fact is that this legislation not only bans a range of "legal highs", it also bans several other substances too including alkyl nitrates aka poppers (rated as one of the least harmful drugs in research published in the Lancet), salvia (a naturally occurring plant that has been used by humans for centuries), ayahuasca (another naturally occurring substance that has been used for centuries), and most ridiculously of all, every single psychoactive compound that hasn't even been discovered yet!

There's very little evidence to suggest that the variety of other substances that are being swept up by this legislation are seriously harmful, and there's obviously no evidence at all about whether substances that have yet to be discovered are harmful or not.


Why do novel designer drugs even exist?

Even if we neglect the fact that this botched piece of legislation sweeps up all kinds of substances instead of specifically tackling the problem of synthetic designer drugs, the slightest examination of the claim that it's meant to crack down on dangerous "legal highs", presents a huge problem for the ideologically driven prohibitionist to explain.

It's beyond doubt that the rise of synthetic drugs like Spice are a direct consequence of the prohibition of cannabis (the naturally occurring substance that Spice has been designed to imitate).

If people are taking potentially harmful synthetic drugs to imitate the effects of a relatively harmless naturally occurring substance that humans have been consuming for at least ten thousand years, surely the sensible solution is to end prohibition of the relatively harmless substance rather than hand control of the market for the synthetic substitute over to unregulated, untaxed criminal gangs too?

The justification is a lie


The fact that the bill bans a load of substances that are relatively harmless in comparison to killers like cigarettes and alcohol, as well as substances that don't even exist yet is an absolutely clear indicator that the stated harm reduction justification is an absolute lie. How is it even remotely possible to know anything about the relative harms of substances that don't even exist yet?

If the government really intended to address the harms associated with substance abuse, the first place to look would be the alcohol and cigarette industries. However they're sacred cows, so they get their exemptions to carry on selling government approved poisons to the masses.

If the government actually gave a damn about the stated problem of dangerous "legal highs", the really obvious solution would be to decriminalise the less harmful substances that these "legal highs" were designed to imitate instead of introducing an ideologically driven ban that will just drive the trade in "legal highs" underground and likely cause a massive upsurge in usage as was the case in Ireland. 


If it's so clear that the stated justification is a lie, then what is the real reason for the ban? One argument is that it's an effort to protect the territory of the alcohol industry from encroachment; another is that it's a convenient tool for the state to discriminate against and imprison non-conformist people; another is that it's just Victorian style moral puritanism causing revulsion amongst the political class that ordinary people are out there having fun; another is that the political class are so terrified of the tabloid press that they're afraid of adopting evidence based drugs policies for fear of the ensuing wave of character assassinations they'd suffer for it.

In reality it's probably a combination of all of those factors, but the one thing this appalling piece of legislation is certainly not inspired by is a genuine desire to reduce substance related harms. 


Evidence based drugs policy vs ideological puritanism


There are two schools of thought when it comes to the drugs debate. There are ideological puritans who believe in magical thinking (drugs problems will just go away if we ban the drugs and criminalise the users) and there are people who believe in evidence based drugs policies.

People who believe in evidence based drugs policy tend to believe that it's rational to set achievable objectives such as reducing the social and economic harms associated with drug use, while the ideological puritan tends to believe in the fantastical objective of eradicating drug use entirely through the strategy of handing control of the drugs market to criminal gangs!

An evidence based approach to the problem of "legal highs" would be to assess which of them are the most harmful, then introduce carefully considered measures to deter people from using the dangerous ones. The approach of the ideological puritan is to ban all legal highs, no matter how harmful, and just use magical thinking to assume that this will make the problem go away, rather than handing control of the "legal highs" market to unregulated, untaxed and likely unscrupulous criminal gangs.


Swimming against the tide

In seeking to further criminalise people who take psychoactive substances the Westminster political class are swimming against the political tide. Despite decades of fearmongering lies and rhetoric in the pages of the right-wing press, utterly bizarre government propaganda campaigns and absurd anti-drugs propaganda dressed up as independent drugs advice from organisations like Talk to Frank, public opinion is gradually moving against ideological prohibitionism and towards rational drugs policies.

The legislative tide is turning across the world. Several countries have decriminalised drug use and others have gone further, fully legalising the use of previously banned substances. Uruguay has fully legalised cannabis, Portugal has decriminalised all drugs (leading to a rapid decline in crime and drug related deaths), 
possession of small amounts of drugs has been decriminalised in Ecuador, the Czech Republic and Costa Rica too, Argentina has recognised the right to take psychoactive substances as a constitutional right, and even in the US (the country that pushed ideologically driven prohibitionism on the rest of the world in the first place) cannabis has been fully legalised in five states, decriminalised in fourteen other states and decriminalised for medical use in eleven others.

In October 2015 the United Nations were due to announce a relaxation in their stance on recreational drugs use, but apparently one country vetoed the change of policy towards the decriminalisation of recreational drugs use. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the country that vetoed the policy change announcement was the United Kingdom, given the way the Westminster establishment seem so desperately keen to swim against the global tide that is flowing towards rational drugs policy and away from ideologically driven prohibitionism.


Legislating against human nature

Human beings have searched out new ways of changing their conscious state since long before they developed the ability to write. The evidence is absolutely clear from preserved archaeological remains that humans have been taking psychoactive substances for thousands of years.

Criminalising people for taking psychoactive substances is to criminalise basic human nature.


Economics

Ideological prohibitionism defies economic logic. Given that it is human nature to seek out mood altering substances, there will always be economic demand for mood altering substances.

If the government intervenes to restrict the supply of such substances through prohibitionism, the logical economic consequence is a rise in price, not an elimination of demand. The worst thing about prohibitionism is that the price paid for society to fulfil the natural human tendency to take mood altering substances is increased, while the suppliers in the market do not pay anything back through taxation on their business interests.

Essentially what the cack-handed Psychoactive Substances Bill does is to exempt certain industries from the tax system. Instead of taking steps to regulate the sale of mood altering substances through legalisation, the government have decided to hand an even bigger share of the mood altering substances market over to untaxed, unregulated criminal gangs.


Psychoactive substances are useful

Banning psychoactive substances that haven't even been discovered yet is yet another attack on scientific progress, especially in the fields of neuroscience and psychology. There is an ever growing body of evidence that psychoactive substances are both important tools for understanding the working of the human brain, and also very useful in helping people overcome mental health issues such as PTSD, anxiety, stress, addiction and depression.

Professor David Nutt once said that attempting to do brain science without the use of psychoactive substances is the equivalent of attempting to do astronomy without a telescope, or biology without a microscope.

It should be completely unacceptable to anyone of a rational disposition that a political class, driven by 
ideological puritanism, tabloid hysteria and magical thinking, continues to put legislative obstacles in the way of extremely promising scientific research into the beneficial effects of psychoactive substances. 

Making an ass of the law

One of the most damaging aspects of this ill-conceived legislation is the way that it makes a complete ass out of the law. Not only does it criminalise people for using a wide range of relatively harmless substances, whilst exempting two of the most deadly and addictive substances of all (cigarettes and alcohol), it also bans substances that haven't even been discovered yet.

It's hard enough for ideologically driven moral puritans to justify the proposition that alcohol and cigarettes should remain legal, while users of demonstrably less harmful and addictive substances are criminalised, but the idea that substances that haven't even been discovered yet should be criminalised in order to keep people safe is the kind of ludicrous gibberish that must make any right thinking person begin questioning the validity of the law.

The Psychoactive Substances Bill makes a huge public demonstration that the political class continue to put ideologically driven anti-scientific magical thinking ahead of evidence and rational analysis when it comes to substance use. This ridiculous bill doesn't just show that our drug laws are completely unfit for purpose, it shows that the political class are hopelessly unfit for purpose too.


Moral puritanism and bigotry

Anyone who is familiar with the history of ideological prohibitionism knows that there is an undeniable link between the kind of interfering moral puritan who thinks they have a right to tell other people what they can do with their own bodies, and the kind of bigot who thinks that it's fine to persecute people for their ethnicity, sexual preferences, or theological beliefs.

Many of the first prohibition laws in the United States were introduced as a form of persecution against specific ethnic minorities. Cannabis was prohibited because it was used by the Mexican and Black communities, and opium was prohibited because it was used by Chinese immigrants.

Looking back to the "reefer madness" propaganda of the 1930s and '40s, there are countless examples of overt racism from the purveyors of ideological prohibitionism. Harry Anslinger who was the boss of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930 until 1962 had a few interesting things to say about cannabis. According to Anslinger "
Marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes" and "Reefer makes the darkies think they’re as good as the white man…. I wish I could show you what a marijuana cigarette can do to one of our degenerate, Spanish-speaking residents". Any politician pushing the prohibitionist agenda should be thoroughly ashamed to be continuing the socially and economically destructive legacy of a racist like Harry Anslinger.

The racist undertones of prohibitionism continue into the modern era. Theresa May's ban on the mild stimulant Khat (which is about as harmful and addictive as caffeine) clearly had more to do with the fact that the majority of users were Somalian than any real concerns about public safety.


On the day that the ridiculous Psychoactive substances Bill was voted through parliament an extremely homophobic message was posted onto the Another Angry Voice Facebook page complaining that poppers should be banned because gays use it to give themselves "sexual pleaser" and that the Tory MP Crispin Blunt is a disgusting degenerate who shouldn't be allowed to be an MP because he's a gay man who admits to using poppers.

It's not surprising that ideological prohibitionism and displays of overt bigotry go hand in hand. After all ideological prohibitionism is a manifestation of hatred towards perceived outsiders too. The prohibitionist hates the fact that some people like to do things that they don't, but instead of adopting a liberal "live and let live" attitude, they support efforts to criminalise 
the users of certain psychoactive substances and to turn them into social pariahs. 

Conclusion

The tide is turning against ideological prohibitionism elsewhere in the world, so hopefully one day the bigoted attitudes and magical thinking that drive absurd legislation like the Psychoactive Substances Bill onto the statute books will dissipate. However I advise the rational people amongst us not to hold their breath waiting for evidence based drugs policies while the most evidence averse right-wing authoritarian UK government in living memory controls the levers of power.


 Another Angry Voice  is a "Pay As You Feel" website. You can have access to all of my work for free, or you can choose to make a small donation to help me keep writing. The choice is entirely yours.






MORE ARTICLES FROM
 ANOTHER ANGRY VOICE 
         
Ending the ideological "war on drugs"
           
Who are the real extremists?
                     
There was nothing scientific about John Snow's whitey
       

How gullible would you have to be to believe the Tory "hardworking people" propaganda?
                             
How the mainstream media frame the political debate
                
Why you should use your critical thinking skills 
(whatever the information source)
                      
The Tory ideological mission
                                
Margaret Thatcher's toxic neoliberal legacies
  



Friday, January 22, 2016

De-privatisation of the rail network, but only for London


The Tory announcement that they plan to incrementally de-privatise the London rail network should come as an unexpected surprise to anyone with the remotest understanding of what the Tories stand for and what they've been up since 2010.

Of course nobody could complain that creating a fully integrated publicly operated transport system for London is a bad idea in itself. Little could be worse than allowing heavily subsidised corporate profiteers to continue raking money out of the London transport system whilst providing such desperately substandard levels of performance. The outrageously poor service provided by the private rail franchises are a blight on the London transport network, and something needs to be done to fix the shambles.

The idea of de-privatising failing rail franchises in London is not a bad one at all. However it's beyond obvious that the Tories are just stealing the idea off rival parties for opportunistic reasons to do with the London Mayoral election. The Tories have a fundamentalist ideological opposed to public ownership, so adopting such a socialist policy to steal the thunder of rival political parties is about as blatant a display of naked political opportunism is it's possible to witness.

There's also the fact that de-privatisation for London is desperately unfair to other regions of the UK that must still suffer inadequate disjointed transport services run by private sector profiteers while London gets a sensible integrated public transport system.


In this article I'm going to go through these principal objections and several other things too.

Opportunism

The reason the Tories are pursuing such a blatantly socialist policy in London is incredibly simple. They're terrified that the next out-of-touch old Etonian rich boy they've got lined up to rule over London might end up getting beaten by the Labour candidate, so they're simply stealing one of Labour's most popular flagship polices even though the whole idea of renationalisation is so fundamentally incompatible with the core Tory pro-privatisation ideology.

If you're naive enough to think of the Tories as an ideologically coherent party of course it makes no sense for them to casually hop over to the other side of the ideological fence like that to embrace a solidly socialist policy. The only way to understand what they're up to is to realise that they're a pack of desperately cynical opportunists who will do literally anything in order to try to cling onto as much political power as possible.

The Tory ideology

Anyone with a grain of political sense knows that the Tory modus operandi is to distribute public assets to the private sector at bargain basement prices and to outsource public work to rip-off private corporations that greedily milk the public finances to subsidise their corporate profits.

The Tories have been distributing public assets at cut-down prices and awarding inflexible and desperately one-sided corporate outsourcing contracts at a faster rate than any government in history. The scale of George Osborne's cut-price giveaways and outsourcing scams makes the speed of Margaret Thatcher's privatisation agenda dwindle in comparison.

I feel like I'm being patronising explaining this stuff, but apparently there are millions of people out there who simply fail to understand that the core economic strategy of the Tory party is to swindle the public by ripping off the assets they've paid for through their taxes, then distribute them at bargain basement prices to private owners, who are then free jack up the prices and live the high life at the public expense.

So if that's the Tory game, how is it possible that they are intent on pursuing such a clearly socialist policy in London, when the rest of the country is suffering under their appalling barrage of ideologically driven privatisations and crippling funding cuts?

What gall the Tories have to propose a plan to bring the London rail network back under public ownership while the rest of the country must continue suffering the rip-off private franchises that the Tories set up in the first place.


The taxpayer

Taxpayers in general have a right to be furious because this de-privatisation scheme for London is a clear admission that publicly operated integrated transport is a good idea. In selling this plan to the people of London the Tories are clearly admitting that integrated publicly owned transport systems are a logical way of organising things, and good for the economy of London. They couldn't possibly sell de-privatisation on the premise that public ownership is bad for the London economy could they?

Essentially the whole policy is a glaring admission from the Tories that their whole rail privatisation agenda has been conducted at the taxpayers' expense, and to the detriment of the UK economy.

Yorkshire, the north east and Scotland


The people with the most right to be furious about this Tory de-privatisation policy for London are the regions served by the the East Coast mainline that the Tories controversially handed back to the private sector in 2014. This ideological re-privatisation was done against massive public opposition, and despite the fact that under public ownership the line had returned over £1 billion to the taxpayer since the previous bunch of private profiteers bailed out of the contract in 2009.

Under public ownership the East Coast mainline outperformed all of the private rail franchises and provided a consistently high standard of service, yet the Tories decided to bulldoze through re-privatisation, presumably because they couldn't tolerate such a shining example of public sector superiority over the privatised shambles they created when they carved British Rail to pieces in the 1990s.

How can they go from bulldozing through such an unpopular and uneconomical re-privatisation in 2014, to actively proposing the de-privatisation of the London rail services within just two years?

Isn't their adoption of this de-privatisation strategy a glaring admission that they were completely wrong to re-privatise the highly successful publicly operated East Coast mainline? The people who opposed the re-privatisation of the East Coast mainline have a right to be blood spittingly furious at such opportunistic hypocrisy from the Tories.

The rest of the country

The people who just had their publicly operated rail services snatched by the Tories have the most right to be furious, but anyone who ever uses the rail network in other parts of the country has a right to be extremely angry too.

If you believe that if it's good for London to cast off the private franchise profiteers then it would logically be good for you region too, then you have a right to be furious at the Tories for handing out special favours to London.

London bias

The de-privatisation policy for London is yet another extraordinary demonstration of the bias that exists towards London. Not only do London residents benefit from vastly higher rates of spending per person on public infrastructure (£24 spent per London resident for every £1 spent per resident in the north east for example), now they get to have a sensible, integrated, publicly owned transport network while the rest of the country must continue to suffer a ridiculous, over-priced, fragmented mess run by gangs of private sector profiteers.

It's already absolutely shocking that London residents benefit from such an enormous infrastructure spending subsidy compared to the rest of the UK, and now it's absolutely clear that London gets to be treated like a special economic case that deserves special immunisation against the wealth extraction scams operated by unaccountable profiteers that the rest of the country will have to continue to endure.

The rest of the UK that has suffered the economic blight of transport network profiteers have a right to be angry, and to demand an equal right to a sensible, integrated publicly operated transport network instead of a disconnected shambles run for the benefit of profiteers.

The public ownership debate

Despite decades of appalling pro-privatisation propaganda in the mainstream media, public ownership of vital infrastructure assets remains a very popular policy with the UK electorate. It's no wonder Labour have adopted rail renationalisation as a policy for the whole of the UK (not just for London). Public ownership was a founding principle of the Labour Party and remained extremely popular even though Tony Blair and Gordon Brown decided to ditch the Labour commitment to public ownership in order to suck up to Rupert Murdoch for approval.

It's good to see Labour moving back towards one of the main purposes the party was created for. It's also good to see that the extremely popular public ownership position has more political representation than just the Green Party (as was the case during the 2015 General Election).

It's absolutely staggering that the Tories have adopted a public ownership policy when they have such a a burning ideological hatred of the concept of public ownership. It really does illustrate what a bunch of hypocritical opportunists they are that they would hop over to the other side of the ideological fence in order to try to win an election.

If the people of London want an integrated publicly operated transport system, surely it makes more sense to elect politicians who actually believes in such things to implement them, rather than leaving the plan to a bunch of political opportunists who just nicked the idea at the last minute in a desperately hypocritical effort to pinch votes from other parties?

Idiot claims that "it's not renationalisation"

I've already seen some Tory twerps trying to pretend that the plan to de-privatise these London rail franchises doesn't represent a renationalisation because Transport for London is defined as a statutory corporation!

The idea that a publicly owned local government body like Transport for London is not a state operator because it's official definition has the word "corporation" in it has to be one of the most remarkably stupid political arguments I've ever heard. It's an especially stupid argument in light of the fact that British Rail used to be a statutory corporation (in fact the entire concept of a publicly owned statutory corporation was devised in order to develop nationalised industries like British Rail, The National Coal Board and the BBC).

The mayoral election

It's obvious that Zac Goldsmith and the Tories have adopted this policy as a desperately hypocritical effort to steal Sadiq Khan's thunder. They know that it goes against their core ideology but they can see no way that it's possible to impose another Eton educated Tory as mayor of London without stealing one of Sadiq Khan's most appealing policies.

The Green candidate for Mayor Siân Berry doesn't seem to have any realistic chance of winning, so the choice is between Sadiq Khan who has a genuine ideological commitment to public ownership and Zac Goldsmith from a party that is ideologically opposed to public ownership and only proposing it out of sheer desperation.

If I was a resident of London I know which one I'd trust more with the future of the London transport network.


The London Assembly election 

The Green Party deserve the most credit for their consistency in promoting a return to public railways. If you want to vote for a party that has a genuine ideological commitment to running a successful publicly operated transport system then they would be a sensible party to vote for in the London Assembly election.

The London Assembly election is conducted on a proportional basis, so it's one of the rare occasions that a vote for the Green Party is not rendered a "protest vote" like it is by the profoundly unrepresentative Westminster voting system.

If Labour and the Green Party achieve a majority between them in the London Assembly, then parties with a proper ideological commitment to public ownership would be able to implement and oversee the process rather than leaving the process to a Tory party only offering it as policy they don't really believe in out of sheer desperation.

What are Tory promises worth?

It's dumbfounding that so many people are gullible enough to believe Tory election pledges. Take George Osborne's promises not to raise VAT (raised just two months later after the 2010 General Election); David Cameron's "no more top-down reorganisations of the NHS" lies (followed by the biggest top-down reorganisation in the history of the NHS); Cameron's statement that student bursaries would always be protected (they're currently being scrapped); Cameron's pre-election promises that he wouldn't try to cut Tax Credits (a post-election plan only defeated after a House of Lords rebellion); The whole damned "contract with the electorate" the Tories signed, then subsequently deleted off their website in the desperate hope that everyone would simply forget about it when it became clear they were breaking every damned pledge it contained.

If a Tory tells you the incredible story that they've decided to go all socialist and renationalise significant swathes of the London transport network do you really, honestly, truly believe that there's no chance at all that they'll just backtrack on the whole idea after their Eton boy is installed in power?

A hammer for the opposition to hit the Tories with

Even if the Tories fail to win power in London with such a cynical ruse, the opposition parties could have an absolute field day at the Tory expense if they coordinated their efforts.

Whether the Tories win in London or not they would severely struggle to counter the opposition argument that the rest of the UK rail network should be de-privatised too. The argument that "if it's good for London, why isn't it good enough for the rest of the country?" would force Tory MPs to perform the most ridiculous mental gymnastics to defend their policy of continued privatisation for the rest of us.


Every time a private rail franchise comes up for re-tendering the opposition parties should be backing Tory MPs into impossible corners by forcing them to defend their re-privatisation plans in light of their decision to champion de-privatisation for London.

Conclusion

Adopting such a blatantly socialist policy is an astonishing piece of political opportunism, even by Tory standards. Surely nobody could be stupid enough to fall for such a blatantly attempt to steal the thunder of other parties by nicking their policies?

What is certain is that the opposition parties can have a field day with this display of cynical opportunism by attacking the barefaced hypocrisy of it.

Opposition MPs from all over the rest of the country should rightly be asking "if de-privatisation is good enough for London, why is it not good for us too?" and tying Tory MPs in impossible ideological knots in the process. 



 Another Angry Voice  is a "Pay As You Feel" website. You can have access to all of my work for free, or you can choose to make a small donation to help me keep writing. The choice is entirely yours.






MORE ARTICLES FROM
 ANOTHER ANGRY VOICE 
         
Asset stripping "bankrupt" Britain
           
That Tory "contract with the electorate"
                     
The campaign for fair votes
                             
How the mainstream media frame the political debate
                      
The Tory ideological mission
                                
Margaret Thatcher's toxic neoliberal legacies