It’s only words….

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’ – Lewis Carroll

In recent weeks, we’ve been blessed with the political excitement of both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions in the US, and a much-derided Cabinet reshuffle here in the UK. As party conference season looms for us and politicians start flying unfeasible policy kites in preparation to appease their more insane members, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at how the politics of class is currently shaping – and being shaped by – its use of language.

The English language, with all of its ambiguities, multiple meanings, synonyms, antonyms and homonyms, has always been a bit of a gift for political rhetoric. There’s nothing so telling of the political climate of the times as seeing the prevalence of particular words and phrases, cunningly employed to drive home a political message in speeches, press releases and party-affiliated news stories.

Scenes from the class struggle with the English language


One of the most noticeable things at both the Democratic and Republican conventions was a relentless focus on the middle class. At a time of economic hardship, when hard-right policies seem designed specifically to funnel money even further towards an already massively wealthy clique, this is fairly understandable. “Ours is a fight to restore the values of the middle class,” declaimed Barack Obama, as his supporters waved banners proclaiming “middle class first”. Over in the homogenous dream world of the Republicans, ultra-reactionary VP candidate Paul Ryan set out his stall: “We have a plan for a stronger middle class, with the goal of generating 12 million new jobs over the next four years”.

So what’s missing, you might ask? Well, both parties were taken to task for neglecting to cover the “poor”. But what’s interesting is that the term “poor” seems to have supplanted the term “working class”. If you’ve a “middle class”, then you must have one above and below it, by definition. The one above it is fairly clear, both here and in the US – they’re the ones with all the money, bankrolling each country’s more rightwing party to run the government for their own advantage.

But where’s the one below it? Why is “working class” now the more pejorative “poor”? “Poor” seems to carry connotations of helplessness, dependence, and inferiority. “Working class”, by contrast has overtones of decent, hardworking nobility.

It now seems quaint and old-fashioned. In part, this is because of the aspirational culture of the last few decades. “We are all middle class now,” said John Prescott in 1997. That’s John Prescott of the Labour Party, the one that was founded by and for the working class. The same party whose current leader, nerdish school prefect lookalike Ed Miliband says he wants to appeal to the “squeezed middle”. Being a “poor but honest” worker isn’t trendy any more. If you don’t have the mortgage, the two-year-old car, and the annual foreign holiday, you probably aren’t “working” anyway.

So the lowest class is not now “working”. Instead they are “poor” or even more pejoratively, with an overtone of menace, the “underclass”. Sorry to get all Godwin’s, but it’s always worrying when politicians or political journalists use terms reminiscent of “untermenschen”.

With the rightwing holding sway politically in the UK, after the riots of last summer, another word found itself attached to that – “feral”. That’s even more disturbing. Now not only are the former “working class” the “underclass”, but they’re actually animalistic and unhuman. You can see why this makes for a worrying narrative progression.

As if to emphasise that the “underclass” are no longer the “working class”, they’re now routinely conflated with the unemployed – conveniently ignoring all those full time workers here in the UK whose wages are so low they have to rely on government benefits anyway. So the “poor” are demonised as “scroungers”, part of an “entitlement culture” whose “dependency” is on money taken unwilling from virtuous, hardworking taxpayers. For added venom, the adjectives “idle” and “feckless” tend to be used in varying combinations, in government speeches, press releases and the news stories that cover them. The result is an unhealthy climate where if you’re not “middle class”, it’s your own fault for being “idle” and “dependent”. Never mind that the minimum wage is so low and the cost of living so high that often full time employment won’t pay enough to live on.


Rebrand the rich


“For the last time, I am a job creator! You must, you will OBEY ME!!”

In tandem with the linguistic subjugation of the lower class from “working” to subhuman “scroungers” who steal from the virtuous middle class, the “upper class” have tried to twist the language describing them into more glowing, fulsome praise. The word “rich” has for many years (possibly since the French Revolution) had snobbish, uncaring and materialistic overtones. How then should the rich present themselves as altruistic and beneficial to the society whose money they’re gradually accumulating all of?

The result, initially, was the insidious term “wealth creators”. I first heard this emanating from the Republican Party in the US, and I’ve wondered ever since if somebody was actually paid to think up this asinine term. It does sound like just the sort of thing that might be focus grouped and moulded by the sort of consultants who briefly tried to rename the Post Office “Consignia”.

“Wealth creators” implied that the rich’s accumulation of material assets was good for the wealth of the country as a whole. But people cottoned on to the fact that any wealth they “created” went straight to them and stayed there, often moored in offshore tax havens so it wasn’t subject to that inconvenient burden of taxation for the good of society – “wealth hoarders” would be a more accurate description. Plus, the phrase still contained the word “wealth”, as in “wealthy”, ie “rich”. And if the wealth you’re creating is your own, you’re hardly going to be seen as contributing to the society you’re funnelling it from.

So “wealth creators”, even though it’s still in common currency, morphed into “job creators”. You can imagine some smarmy image consultant somewhere sitting back and folding his arms in satisfaction at that one. Well, if the business you’re running has made you rich, you must have “created jobs”, right? And that can only make it look like your contribution to society is more important than your employees, who pay a far greater proportion of their meagre incomes in tax than you do. Mitt Romney stated that he didn’t need to release any more tax returns; he’d definitely paid enough tax, it was a whole 13% of his $20.9 million income (2011).

But Mitt’s a “job creator”, so that’s OK .Even though most of the jobs he “created” while running Bain Capital were in India and China. Governments will find it far less acceptable to impose heavy taxes on “job creators” than they would on “the rich”. If “job creators” leave the country because tax rules aren’t favourable enough to them, who will “create the jobs”? You can see why that’s worse than “the rich” leaving the country, which by and large people don’t really care about. Ask Phil Collins.


Race to the bottom


With the upper class elevated to sainthood and the lower class reduced to the level of animals, you can see why, linguistically, “middle class” is the only uncontroversial one left. Particularly in the US. It’s been said that in the UK, the political struggle is always about class, whereas in the US, it’s always about race. That’s only half true; class does exist in the US, it’s based on money, and it often seems determined by race. Its prisons bulge at the seams with young African-Americans, many of whom turned to crime as the only refuge from a desperately poor background. Visit Southern California, and you’ll see the class divide even more starkly in racial terms. Whites have the good jobs and the nice cars; Latinos have the service jobs and the beatup but respectable older vehicles; and blacks, if they have jobs at all, may well have to travel on the bus because they can’t afford cars.

Yes, it’s a sweeping generalisation, and far from true universally. But it’s true often enough, and here in the UK too, non-white ethnicities tend to be poorer and/or jobless at a level disproportionately higher than Caucasians. In the US, where Republican state governments are passing voter ID laws that explicitly target the poor, class and race overlap. The “poor” in a state like Florida is disproportionately made up of non-Caucasians. Perhaps coincidentally, a recent poll registered African-American support for the Mitt Romney at a modest total of 0%. OK, Herman Cain and Marco Rubio will probably be voting Republican, but there’s always a margin of error. Nevertheless, that’s a poll figure that might make even the Lib Dems here in the UK feel slightly better.


Turn Left


Trying to reclaim the word “rich” from the “wealth creators”

Still, the right haven’t had the monopoly on shaping the political and class debate by distorting the English language. Since austerity (another political buzzword) bit, and income inequality (and there’s another one) became hot political topics, the left have found their own way to load words with unintended meaning. In the wake of the Occupy movement, the word “elite”, which always carried faintly nasty overtones of exclusion, took on a far more damning meaning when used to describe the tiny clique of hyper-rich people who seemed simultaneously responsible for and immune to the financial crisis engulfing the world.

In the UK, left-leaning politicos and journalists got their own back on the right by taking their pejorative adjective “feral” and applying it to that “elite”. For a while, the phrases “feral underclass” and “feral elite” were flung at each other with such frequency they ceased to have much meaning; as a result, after a brief period in the linguistic limelight, they seem to have faded somewhat into obscurity. Significantly, the terms coined by the left to describe the unfairness of the situation which stuck are not linguistic but numerical – the “elite” are “the 1%”, and the rest of us who pay a greater proportion of our income as tax are “the 99%”. Put in those terms, the injustice is hard to argue with even with any amount of “job creators” in that “1%”.


Language in a post-truth world


Politics and truth have always had a rather abusive relationship, as US journalists are finding as they struggle to adjust to the “post-truth” world in the wake of Paul Ryan’s epically inaccurate speech. The astute use of language can make an untruth seem less like an actual lie. It’s nothing new. When arch-Republican Chuck Norris claims that re-electing Barack Obama will usher in “a thousand years of darkness”, that’s hyperbole at its most extreme. Of course, Winston Churchill said something similar about Adolf Hitler, but it’s hard to equate Obama with Hitler (unless you’re Glenn Beck). Meanwhile, Fox News and other histrionic right wing news outlets pander to their sponsors by treating the words “liberal” and “progressive” as descriptions of something beneath contempt, which in turn passes into mainstream Republican discourse.

Taking poor, innocent English words and twisting them into political weapons is, of course, a longstanding practice in both the US and the UK. But in the modern era of spin doctors, image consultants , key demographics and focus groups, it’s hit an all time high that’s often ridiculous – as Nick Clegg, with his repeated meaningless blather about “alarm clock Britain” seems not to have noticed. The flexibility of the English language is both a blessing and a curse for political discourse, but it’s never less than interesting to watch. To help you out, here’s a little chart of phrases to look out for in the coming US Presidential election and UK party conference season. Have fun playing political bingo, or alternatively, use it for a drinking game. It should get you so drunk that you might stop despairing…



Middle class

Feckless scroungers

Public sector waste

Illegal immigrant

Entitlement culture

Job creators

Gold-plated pensions

Socialist healthcare

Private healthcare


Benefit fraud

Hardworking taxpayer

Big society (getting rare now, this one)

Alarm clock Britain (not rare enough)

Plan B


Liberal media

Conservative media

Bureaucratic excess



Small business

Big business


Family values



“..and I’m not making this up.”

“…well here’s the truth.”

What if God was one of us?

Some musings on the current uneasy relationship between religion and secular society…


In recent weeks, there’s been a surge of news articles which detail religion coming into conflict with states that are, nominally at least, secular.

Religion is a thorny issue for secular liberals to get their heads around. A defining factor for liberals is our insistence on tolerance and inclusivity for all, and that usually includes religious freedom. The problem comes when the religions whose freedom we’re insisting on espouse beliefs that come into direct conflict with our own philosophy of tolerance – and while it may not be true of all who follow each faith, almost every major religion has one or more group that they are actively intolerant of. Women and homosexuals tend to come top of the list, with varying degrees of intolerance directed at them notably from the mainstream of all three Abrahamic faiths. But religious dogma has been used to discriminate against other groups throughout history – and that tends to be most focused on a dislike/hatred of religious groups other than themselves.

So what do we secular, inclusive liberals do when faced with the problem of tolerance for groups who tend towards intolerance? There’s a tendency towards contorted doublethink, but it’s a hard one to address without coming across as hypocritical. At this point, it’s worth noting that objections to a religious philosophy don’t (or shouldn’t) encompass all those who follow it. I know both Christians and Muslims, and not one has a problem with either my atheism or my homosexuality. Neither do I have a problem with them having beliefs that I don’t share.

No, our objections to religion (if we have them) should be directed at religious orthodoxy – those who come up with the mainstream positions of each faith on issues that might seem reactionary in a secular, inclusive country. Even here, this is far from a clear issue. Within each major faith are any number of factions, large or small, whose feelings on such issues vary wildly. Beyond the obvious division of Christians into Catholics and Protestants, there’s a variety of smaller subsets, while Islam’s notable division into Sunni and Shiah also embraces a multitude of factions within each. Indeed, Islam is difficult to ascribe any overriding, definitive philosophy to, in the absence of a central governing body like the Anglican Synod or the Catholic Vatican.

Compounding the problem is that the lines between religious faith, culture, politics and ethnicity are extremely blurred. And if there’s anything we liberals hate, it’s racial prejudice and bigoted stereotyping. But it’s not that simple. Judaism in particular is associated with a specific ethnicity, which is to ignore the wide variety of Jewish racial and cultural characteristics. Islam tends to be associated with Arabic peoples, due to its area of origin, but encompasses huge swathes of other races in the West, Asia and Africa. Nonetheless, criticism of these religions tends to be simplified into a debate which generalises any objectors to them as racists, in a way that tends not to happen with Christianity (stereotypically, and inaccurately, viewed as a faith dominated by Caucasians).

The gold standard for this is, of course, the Holocaust, which still casts such a long shadow over history that it’s the standard reductio ad absurdum response in any debate, particularly online. Adolf Hitler, ironically, made no distinction between the boundaries of faith, culture or race in his persecution of the Jews – if you had any trace of Judaism in you, whether it be genetic or cultural, off to the camps you would go. It’s still a massively emotive historical event, as evidenced by the slightly cynical manipulation inherent in the articles by Owen Jones and Jonathan Freedland which invite you to substitute “Jew” for “Muslim” in criticism of Islam “and be shocked”. As though Judaism should, somehow, be above criticism because of its long history of pogroms and persecution.

The irony is that in reducing all criticism of religion to the accusation of racism, those commentators who most strenuously oppose interference in religion tend to be guilty of the same kind of generalisation. The current wave of articles decrying the UK’s ‘Islamophobia’ is a perfect example. There undoubtedly is an excessive media fixation on Muslims in the UK (and the US, for that matter). It’s been argued (with some validity) that Islam seems more socially acceptable to criticise than other faiths. And it is utterly ridiculous that anyone writing about Islam should be required to state their positions on the faith’s more contentious philosophies in order to be taken seriously.

But to sweep all objections to Islam into the gross generalisation of ‘Islamophobia’ is similarly bigoted. There is, I think, a wide variety of people and motives in this slew of criticism. Some, like the EDL and a disturbing number of ‘neo-Nazi’ groups in Europe, genuinely do seem to be motivated by racism, or at the very least xenophobia – the irrational fear of ‘others’ that seems hardwired into the human psyche, which civilisation strives to overcome.

Then there are those who object to all religion on principle – these tend to be militant atheists of the Richard Dawkins school, who fail to notice the irony that they are constantly proselytising for their own belief system just as much as any religion does. In fact, this kind of atheism seems blind to its own illiberal prejudices, flinging insulting terms like “sky fairy”, “invisible friend” and “childlike nonsense” at believers. I tend towards atheism myself, but I realise that it’s a belief system as much as any religious philosophy, and that we atheists would find it unacceptable for devout believers to be as insulting as we often are.

However, any religion should be able to bear criticism (in much the same way as I’ve just criticised atheists), and it’s right and fair that Islam or Judaism should not be exempted from this in secular societies. Most nominally secular Western states evolved from overtly Christian ones, and liberal commentators certainly don’t shy away from pointing out Christianity’s failings.

Islam over the last few decades has been conspicuously resistant to criticism, which ironically has probably spurred more to fixate on its perceived failings than they otherwise might have. The September 11 attacks were obviously the work of a small group of fanatical extremists (which every religion has), but even before those we had the Iranian-issued fatwa on author Salman Rushdie for his perceived blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses. And more recently, the admittedly childish provocation of the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten resulted in a hysterical outcry from some Muslims across the world, which encompassed death threats, violence and arson. This despite the fact the proscription on depicting the Prophet is a comparatively recent ruling in Islam, and not a specific commandment in the Qu’ran but an interpretation of the general antipathy towards icons in Islam.

Islam is also the only major religion to still rule over states as actual theocracies, and where it does, the leaders’ interpretation of their faith is massively intolerant in its treatment of those old bugbears, non-believers, women and homosexuals. Saudi Arabia has policies directed at its female population that would be considered repressive and totalitarian in secular states, while Iran’s treatment (frequently execution) of homosexuals would be considered barbaric in the West (except perhaps by the Westboro Baptist Church). In Pakistan, the draconian anti-blasphemy laws (ironically derived from colonial rules established by the British) make its religion almost totalitarian in nature.

But those are sovereign states with their own cultures, and despite Tony Blair’s fervent wishes, we don’t have a moral high ground to change their practices by force. All we can do is try to influence them by other means. We should, however, resist any pressure to exempt their beliefs from the rules of our own secular societies, and firmly refute any attempt to influence the law of the land in the name of those beliefs. That goes for fundamentalist Christians too, whose virtual hijacking of the Republican Party in America is abhorrent to the freedoms espoused in its Constitution.  Anyone should be free to believe whatever they like, and to practise whatever rites their faith demands – up to and until the point where those practices have a negative impact on others.

So, I would defend to the death Cardinal O’Brien’s right to believe that I am an abomination and bound for Hell. It’s when he starts using that belief to try and influence the laws of the land that he becomes fair game for criticism. I am not ‘racist’ against Celtic Catholics for objecting. Neither am I being anti-Semitic if I object to the partially secular state of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, nor rabidly Zionist when I assert Israel’s right to exist.

There’s a common consensus in most secular societies that religions have had to adapt to as their political power became less all-pervading. Christianity survived being told that it could no longer burn heretics, prohibit English translations of the Bible, or stone adulterers to death, and it will survive equal marriage. Islam as a philosophy seems to be adapting more slowly when in secular states, but it has adapted. There’s no reason to assume it won’t continue to do so (although trying to hurry it along can be tempting).

But what about that German ruling on infant circumcision? That’s an example of how none of this is clear cut or simple, as usual. Speaking from my own cultural perspective, it seems an act of irreversible bodily alteration carried out without consent (ie a negative impact), and should be resisted (though whether a state ban is the best way to resist it is a complex debate in itself). Muddying the waters is the fact that a great deal of infant circumcision has no religious motivation at all (notably in the US, where it’s more of a cultural norm, though this appears to be declining).

Defenders of the practice produce convincing scientific studies alluding to health and hygiene benefits, while opponents produce equally convincing studies arguing precisely the opposite. A wealth of data supporting both positions means that neither is conclusively convincing, and in the end it boils down to a question of cultural tradition. Tradition is a very hard thing to change, whether religious or not, and in the case of Judaism circumcision is so fundamentally bound up with Jewish identity that it’s virtually impossible. The statement on Abraham’s covenant with God, and its foreskin-removal requirement at the age of eight days, is pretty unequivocal.

Islamic circumcision is a more recent tradition, but still of very long standing. It does have the get out clause of not being mentioned in the Qu’ran itself, but the obligation is spelled out in Sunnah and is unlikely to find much appetite for abandonment. Christians, of course, manage to sidestep the whole issue via Christ’s New Covenant, which renders a number of Old Testament conventions obsolete.

A slightly less draconian regulation of the proposed German ban was tried in Sweden in 2001, and has had little effect on its frequency. Like all of the subjects touched on here, this is by no means a straightforward issue – what may seem a negative impact to me may seem quite the opposite to those inside a religious community. Obviously if we had deranged mohelim going around trying to circumcise the secular, that would be unacceptable. But we don’t – it’s a rite which affects Jews, and many would say positively.

And yet, we have legislated against other practices which religious communities would like to carry out internally – for example, forced marriage or female genital mutilation. Secular states have been able to do this because of an overriding consensus that these are ‘negative impacts’ (to put it mildly), a state of affairs we’ve yet to reach with circumcision, which is less demonstrably harmful. Given all of that, I’d say we need to work towards making the tradition less generally acceptable via education rather than the blunt tool of a state ban.

This lies at the heart of the problem with our acceptance (or not) of religious rites and influence on general society. These are practices which have become so deeply entrenched because of centuries, sometimes millennia, of tradition that they are rarely questioned – and yet, were they to be introduced now, many would be unfathomable and unacceptable. Obviously, this will always be the viewpoint of those outside religious communities.

The more longstanding the tradition, the less it’s questioned, hence the numerous exemptions from social rules that the Abrahamic faiths in particular benefit from. The First Amendment of the US Constitution has the balance about right – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – and yet the incoming President still swears the Inauguration oath with one hand on the Bible.  More recently established religions find less reverence from outsiders; Mormonism (founded in the 1820s) had to abandon its cherished practice of polygamy due to US law, and a Supreme Court ruling held that the right to “free exercise” of religion did not extend to religious practices that conflict with the law of the land.

And yet so many secular states (the UK may have an established church, but its government is nominally secular) still extend freedoms to longstanding religions that would seem distinctly peculiar if they were asked for in the present day. And in order to ensure fairness, these then have to be extended to any officially recognised religion, however bizarre it may seem (hello, Scientology).

I’d contend that in a secular society (as the US First Amendment states), we should be tolerant of religion but allow it no role in governing a populace, and further that a secular government should be able to criticise, and in some cases outlaw, traditional practices if they are judged (by majority consensus) to be unacceptable. In the UK, we should not have 26 seats in the House of Lords reserved for bishops. We should not allow religious organisations to practise outright discrimination because of their beliefs. We should not be giving state funding to faith schools whose primary raison d’etre is to perpetuate the beliefs of some of the richest organisations on Earth. And for the same reason, religious property, institutions and personnel should not be exempt from taxation (estimated to be depriving the US Treasury alone of some $71 billion a year).

Obviously I’d prefer it if everyone shared my belief system (atheism), but believers of all other stripes must feel the same, and let’s face it, it isn’t going to happen. Religions may die out – some have, over the course of history – but none of the currently prominent ones are in any danger of that. But if we are to respect them, they must respect us – and I’m not restricting that to any but ALL of them. Yes, including the Jedi.

The game of social dysfunction

After a second night of – relative – calm, it looks as if, thankfully, the orgy of rioting, looting and destruction that has swept England since last Saturday is finally over. In the aftermath of England worst civil disobedience in generations, it’s time to look for answers. Or to play the blame game – a game that, in fact, pundits and the public have been playing since Tottenham started burning last weekend. A lack of complete information has never been any barrier to humanity’s ability to jump to conclusions where events like this are concerned, even more so for those of us that live in the country that was collectively terrified for four nights.

So who is getting the blame? After all, there’s always “some bastard who is presumably responsible”, isn’t there? Blame, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, and accordingly everyone’s view of the responsibility for events is being filtered through the prism of their own politics, views and prejudices. Thus the left blamed the right, for having caused so much social deprivation with their emphasis on capitalism, big business, public spending cuts and an ever widening social divide. The right blamed the left, for decades of indiscipline, political correctness, excessive tolerance and an ‘entitlement culture’ based on benefit receipt that was easier than working. Oh, and the EDL, with predictable stupidity, blamed the blacks.

The consumer culture was responsible, in which aggressive advertising and corporate hype raised to an almost religious fervour the desirability of trendy materialistic items to those who increasingly couldn’t afford them. The spoiled nature of today’s youth, brought up on a welfare state to believe they were entitled to something for nothing, was responsible. A lack of proper parenting was responsible. The moral corruption of the nation’s leaders was responsible. Police racism was responsible. The failing economy, widening the divide between an increasing army of poor and a shrinking minority of ultra-rich, was responsible. A lack of discipline in schools was responsible. Rap music, with its glorification of sexism, homophobia, drugs and illegally obtained material items, was responsible. Twitter was responsible. Facebook was responsible. And so ad infinitum, each seeking to boil down an incredibly disparate set of circumstances that happened to come together to cause chaos into one nice, simple soundbite, so that we can do something easy and say, “there, we’ve sorted that, it’ll never happen again”.

“Criminality, pure and simple,” was the Prime Minister’s oft-repeated, scolding refrain. The former Eton prefect was presumably forgetting his own teenage trouble with cannabis and later well-documented hooliganism with Oxford University’s toffs-only drinking society, the Bullingdon Club. Criminality it was, pure and simple it certainly was not. The truth is, you can’t boil this down to one nice, simple explanation where those you don’t like get the blame. I think there are elements of all the causes listed above that have contributed, and that most people, left and right, have a point to make and some responsibility to be shouldered.

Of course, the information is still incomplete, and it may never be possible to provide proper explanations, but using the events to justify your own political prejudices is never a good idea. Particularly if you’re the EDL. In the emergency session of Parliament called yesterday, David Cameron sought, predictably, to shift the blame onto “the last government” who by his reckoning appear to have been responsible for every social ill from the sacking of Rome to the First World War. Ed Milliband, equally predictably, pointed out that it had happened during a Conservative-led government, and their savage social injustice must have caused it. Neither seemed willing to look too deep into the causes, and with good reason – beneath the usual tired rhetoric, both had a point. What we’ve seen over the last week is the huge simmering melting pot of this country’s social problems finally boiling over, and it’s been a long time coming. Or to put it another way, in the Buckaroo game of England’s social dysfunction, successive governments have piled on more and more bedrolls and crates, and the current one has just had the misfortune of putting on the last stick of dynamite that finally makes the mule kick.

So how did we get from a peaceful protest over a dubious police killing to jaw dropping footage of England’s greatest cities in flames as though the Luftwaffe had made a return visit in search of trainers and plasma TVs? Racism definitely played its part, though even that isn’t as simple as many would like to claim. There are definitely some very dubious circumstances surrounding the Metropolitan Police’s shooting of Mark Duggan last Thursday (can it be only a week ago? It seems like a lifetime). From the, as usual, limited information available, it looks like the Met reacted with totally disproportionate force, and shot a man who wasn’t offering the kind of threat that would justify this. But equally, it’s been shown that Duggan did have a gun – it was a blank-firing pistol that had been adapted to fire live rounds. The problem being that he hadn’t actually used it – it was the police that did all the shooting. Duggan, at least on the face of it, was no angel. But shooting him in the head may have been overreacting.

Some, initially, took this as evidence that the inherent racism in the Met condemned by the 1981 Scarman Report was still very much around. And they very possibly have a point, though it’s always a mistake to paint every policeman with the same colours (so to speak). There are numerous accounts of the police’s tendency to stop and search young black men far, far more frequently than any other ethnic group, even at the expense of going after other, non-black criminals who are more obviously doing wrong – my friend Chris Lancaster, a teacher in Hackney, has attested to this point with firsthand tales. But is this still the “jungle bunny, darkie, send them back to their own country” racism of the 70s and 80s, or are we looking at something more complex?

England may be far more racially sensitive than it was in those dark days, but that doesn’t mean we’ve reached any golden age of equal treatment and opportunity for all ethnicities. As a general rule, criminals have always tended to come from the poorer sections of society. Also as a general rule, even now, most of the country’s black youth have also been locked into the poorer sections of society – particularly in London, where the descendants of the Caribbean immigrants of the 50s have never managed to escape the poverty trap no matter how hard their parents worked. So it’s not hard to see the flawed chain of ‘logic’ that could lead even a non-white supremacist policeman to be prejudiced. Criminals are poor. Black youths are poor. Therefore black youths must be criminals.

But there’s an even bigger racial issue here than any kind of prejudice inherent in the police, which is the question of WHY social class can be defined by race. In a land where racism apparently has been made so much less of a problem, why are there still some races unable to escape the poverty trap? Actual racists, of whom there are still a depressing amount, would say that it’s because of black culture, entitlement, rap music, etc. Even more depressingly, they may have a point – the culture of many young black men in poor backgrounds has shaped itself into something wilfully antisocial. Obviously that’s not true of all, but enough to be noticeable, particularly for the mainstream media who focus on this minority at the expense of the rest of the black community. But that misses the point that an antisocial culture has developed because of injustice, prejudice and poverty, which in turn reinforces those things in a depressing zero sum game. It’s easy to blame rap music for causing social ills, but remember that rap music was spawned by those very social ills in the first place, and has nihilistically drifted away from its original message of political outrage and injustice to resignedly boasting, glorifying women with big butts and telling us how many guns and expensive things the rappers own. But if you see your ancestors working hard and still living in poverty, and your only hope of financial advancement is crime, it’s easy to see how that can be tempting.

None of which excuses or justifies such behaviour of course, and it’s equally true to say that plenty of people from such a background study hard, work hard, and are fine members of society. And equally, there are still plenty of honourable people in the black community who have a justifiable sense of outrage at the position they STILL find themselves in purely because of their race. Of course, the racists take this as proof of their obvious superiority – if blacks are as good as us, they argue, there wouldn’t be such a disproportionately high number of black people in poverty. This, quite frankly, is bollocks. The reason there are so many black people among England’s poor is, quite simply, that there are still racists. It’s clear that not enough has been done to address the problem of integrating Britain’s varied ethnicities. A ‘quota’ system of positive discrimination in employment is not the answer – how patronising is it to know you’ve got a job purely on the basis of your race rather than your ability? The answer, surely, is in education, in bringing all people up to respect each other as equal – not just in the classroom, but everywhere in society. Many good people are still struggling to achieve just that. But plainly it’s not working, and new racists are being brought up to hate all the time. Look at the average age of an EDL member – we’re mostly talking under 30. If young people are still being taught by those around them that some races are more equal than others, there’s plainly still a very big problem.

So it was hardly surprising that, when a group of perfectly well-intentioned people accompanied Mark Duggan’s family to Tottenham police station on Saturday to demand some answers and were met with indifference and contempt, something bad was going to happen. And something bad did, as – reportedly – a teenage girl was pushed to the ground by a policeman, for reasons that are still unclear. Angry, people started throwing things. And lo and behold, another race riot was born on the streets of London, not so far from where similar riots had spring up in the 80s.

And at that point, it’s fair to say it really was a race riot – those same issues that sparked the 80s riots had, with a depressing inevitability, flared into violence again. Depressed, but not entirely surprised, I only watched the news with half an eye that night – it was a familiar narrative, and I had the nihilistic view that again, nothing would change.

But I was wrong. Things did change – for the worse. With any riot, there’s always an extra momentum built up by mob mentality, and by those who opportunistically latch onto it for their own ends – to cause trouble, to start a fight, and always, to steal things and break things. So it was that Saturday, but the scale was unprecedented. As the night wore on, it became clear that, however it had started, this was about more than Mark Duggan and police racism now. It had become rioting, destruction and looting for its own sake, with no point to make whatsoever. Shops were looted, cars and buildings set on fire, and any message that might have been given was entirely lost.

As night followed night, it became clear that this was now ALL about the looting, the fighting and the destruction. It was like the end of Quatermass and the Pit, with apparently ordinary people drawn mindlessly into the wanton indulgence of theft and vandalism. The communities being ransacked were their own backyards – they were, to use a phrase I first heard in a Stephen King novel, “shitting where they eat”.

At this point, any easy analysis of the causes was impossible. The film and CCTV footage, and the news photos, showed a much more disparate group in terms of age, gender and ethnicity than anyone had expected. Of course, people see what they want to see – to racists, 90% of them were black, to liberals, 90% of them were socially deprived, to conservatives, 90% of them were from broken homes and living on benefits. As we’re seeing now that the mindwarping amount of them arrested is beginning to filter through the courts, it’s not that straightforward.

A breakdown of the demographics involved is not yet forthcoming, so I’m guilty of speculation myself here. But of those looters who’ve already gone through the courts, we’re seeing that plenty of them actually had jobs, in some cases quite well-paid ones. So they weren’t all on benefits. Plenty of them were in higher education – so they weren’t all stupid. Plenty of them were women – so they weren’t all men. Plenty of them were white – so it wasn’t all about racism. And while a very high proportion were teenage or younger, there were plenty of people in their 30s and even their 40s, so it wasn’t a failure exclusively confined to a new ‘feral’ generation.

So what caused such a disparate bunch to turn into the terrifying mobs of roving thieves we saw over the last week? With so many different kinds of people involved, it was obviously more than one thing. The trouble is that all the causes feed into each other, so identifying motives – or solutions – is not easy.

“It’s the madness of a consumer society, where we’re all told to buy things we can’t afford,” cried many liberals, myself included. That this had a part to play was obvious; in the words of one teenage girl interviewed on the news, they wanted “some free stuff”. And after all, the main activity of the disorder was theft. More than ever, we live in a society where we’re defined as people by the things we own. You’re in a lower social class if you don’t have the right brand of trainers, or the very latest model of iPhone. Equally obviously, these things are getting harder and harder for ordinary people to afford, even as they’re artificially made more desirable by advertising and social pressure. “Tear it all down!” cried a communist friend of mine, clearly failing to appreciate that Karl Marx would hardly have been proud of a proletariat whose sole motive was the acquisition of material things.

“It’s the recession and the Coalition cuts,” we also cried. There’s an aspect of that too, for some. Whatever you think about the Coalition’s economic policies, it’s undeniable that the social divide between rich and poor is wider than ever before. The diminishing tiny group of the wealthy get wealthier and wealthier, while the increasingly populous poor get poorer. All this in the middle of a global recession in which those perceived to have caused it – the investment banks – have been bailed out by taxpayer’s money and continue to pay themselves conspicuously obscene bonuses while governments, held to ransom by threats of corporate relocation, can do nothing but look on impotently. “We’re just taking stuff back from the rich,” commented one looter as she walked away carrying her pointless new hoard. As cries of political rage go, it was pretty inarticulate, and smacked of excuse-making at that, but it summed up the increasing anger the population are rightly feeling about the increasingly divisive economic inequality the world over.

“It’s the voice of the voiceless,” was another cry I heard as a justification for this being the only kind of revolutionary expression an inarticulate ill-educated underclass could manage. That’s as may be, but they were hardly sticking it to their oppressors; Chipping Norton and the West End went unmolested. In fact, the looters’ targets were depressingly unambitious. I mean, JD Sports? Footlocker? Miss Selfridge? As consumers, their looting choices were decidedly low-rent. That may have just been down to opportunism; Armani and Gucci don’t have too many outlets in Hackney. Still, it’s telling that the REALLY exclusive stuff wasn’t hunted for – these were the dream things of decidedly ordinary people, and even these for many were out of their reach.

But not for all. As has been pointed out, many of those doing the robbing already had some of the things they were nicking. Some, like the teenage girl whose parents own a mansion, could clearly have afforded to but them anyway. So why would people want to loot things that they already had, didn’t need, or could afford to buy? The right wingers would have us believe that it’s because of a spoiled “entitlement culture” where the Welfare State has given the population the impression that they can get something for nothing, and this was a logical extension. And you know what? I think they had a point. But only the beginnings of one. We DO live in a culture where we expect to be able to get “free stuff” without having to work for it. State benefits have to shoulder some of the blame for that; even in the 90s, when I was on benefits, I found that there were occasions when it was better for me financially to stay on benefits than get a job. Not that this is any reason for the Welfare State to be dismantled, as the right wing would immediately insist. The benefit system is certainly ripe for overhaul, though whether the current government’s plan for it will work is questionable. But that’s only part of the “entitlement culture”. After all, if benefits payments are higher than potential wages, isn’t there also a problem with the wages? For years, employees rights have been eroded to such an extent, and corporate privileges extended by so much, that wages haven’t risen in real terms since 2003. I’d say the private sector has something to answer for in making joblessness a more attractive state than working for a pittance to enrich a minority.

If Labour have given the country a too-generous benefit system though, that’s as nothing compared to the economic dreams the Conservatives fostered in the 80s. Thatcher’s dream of a classless society where everyone gets rich (except the poor, who don’t matter) led to decades of easy credit possessions. Credit which, in the middle of a financial crisis, is no longer available. Why, people may be asking, could our parents get free stuff and we can’t? Oh wait, there’s an easier way…

Not to mention (and this is admittedly being filtered through MY prejudices) the inane “celebrity” culture that’s arisen over the last decade or so. How many young people, asked what they’d like to be, will these days simply say, “a celebrity”? Fame used to be earned by talent, hard work, and yes, sometimes luck. Now a lifetime of glitzy parties, appearances in Heat magazine and a line of workout DVDs is perceived to be guaranteed simply by dint of appearing on TV shows that require an unpaid public simply to turn up and gurn onscreen for a few minutes a week. Big Brother, The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent et al have fostered this culture, and we are, in part, reaping the rewards of it. If young people’s biggest dream is to be accorded the trappings of fame without doing anything to deserve it, these have surely played their part. When young girls say that their dearest aspiration is to be a footballer’s wife, that’s a dispiriting state for future generations to be in. Fame without work has become so ingrained in our culture, it’s easy to understand how people might think they can get – and deserve – something for nothing.

“They’re taking away my EMA,” one looter stated, “so this is, like, me getting stuff back.” A decreasing amount of educational opportunities, whether real or perceived, is undoubtedly stoking the fire of social unrest, particularly in poorer areas. Having said that, this was a claim it was hard to take seriously in a lot of cases. It later transpired that many of those looting were already in Higher Education. And it was noticeable that, if the looters were so concerned about their education, they conspicuously left Waterstone’s untouched.

Nevertheless, to some the Educational Maintenance Allowance, innovation though it is, has been a genuine lifeline. Some criticise it as, effectively, paying to keep kids in education and therefore off the unemployment register. But for some, it does enable them to go to college without having to support their family with a part time job. Its loss has been felt in many communities; but I still think in these cases that it’s been more a factor in the erosion of morale than an actual contributor. Books seem to hold far less attraction for the looters than Nikes.

“These people have no community spirit!” was the clarion call of many conservatives. And they’re right there, too. When people are destroying, looting, and burning down the places where they live, when lack of concern for your fellow human beings leads to robbing an injured man’s backpack under the guise of helping him, it’s clear that large swathes of the looters had absolutely no investment in their community, or indeed humanity in general. I doubt this applies to everyone who was out there, but it’s true of a hell of a lot of them. How we get people like that to accept the idea that “no man is an island” is a knotty problem, particularly when everywhere they turn, they see so-called ‘pillars of the community’ acting out of selfish self-interest. It’s hard to have much faith in a community when you see that community’s elected representatives defrauding those who pay their wages to get themselves a new duckpond. Or a moat. Or even a flatscreen TV like those that proved so popular to the looters. And when those selfsame representatives, and their enforcers in the police, have been caught out accepting favours, hospitality and money from a vast media empire intent on making more money out of invading the privacy of grieving families, that’s hardly likely to foster a sense of community either.

“These looters have no fear of the consequences because the police have been stripped of all power to act!” Another one that is, in some ways, true. The perception fostered since the 70s by movies like Dirty Harry (which, incidentally, is intended to condemn the behaviour of its title character rather than glorify it) is that the police’s hands are so tied by the ‘human rights’ of criminals that the criminals can act with total impunity. In some ways, this isn’t far from the truth; but the police themselves have to shoulder some of the blame here. I hasten to add at this point that the vast majority of police officers are decent people who actually want to fairly preserve law and order. However, the decades of scandals in which the British police have been embroiled by an admittedly diminishing proportion of their number have left them trepidatious of taking any direct action for fear of reprisals from the public. Even now, there are still problems with this. The death of Ian Tomlinson last year, and the public outcry over the outrageous kettling of student protestors, have left senior police officers fearful to take bold action when faced with these situations. Not to mention the fact that the Met in particular is currently leaderless after its two most senior officers had to resign over their roles in the phone hacking scandal.

“What are they going to do anyway?” snorted one looter. “Put me in prison? They’re full! Give me an ASBO?” And he was right. It’s hard to see how Big Dave can honour his press conference promises of cramming the 1500 and rising looters already arrested into a prison system that’s already creaking at the seams. ASBOs, an asinine Labour invention, have done nothing to curb people’s contempt for the punitive system either. How have we ended up with so many criminals that an impressively large prison system isn’t big enough for them? Well, there is the well-known fact that the prison system does little in the way of rehabilitation; for a first-timer, a spell in jail with some hardened criminals will just result in him or her being released as a better-skilled criminal. This is not to say that criminals shouldn’t go to prison – but equally something must be done to reform a system where, when they come out, they’re more likely than not to simply go back to crime, get caught, and go back in.

To briefly bang a drum I’ve banged before, if you want to do something about the number of criminals, you might want to look at reforming the drug prohibition laws. How much crime, including that on sinkhole estates like Hackney’s Pembury, is built on the backbone of drug dealing? How much untaxed profit is floating about that the government could use to reduce the deficit? And all because, since 1971, we’ve followed the head in the sand approach of the US in saying that it’s somehow the state’s business to regulate what people put in their bodies for recreation. Pretty much all drug-related crime stems from the fact that drugs are illegal; if they were available for properly regulated sale, anyone who wanted to use them could do so without having to harm anyone but themselves.

I’m not saying that recreational intoxication is in any way a desirable state for people; but the rest of us don’t seem to have a problem with getting pissed every weekend, which is at least as physically harmful and antisocial. Legalise drugs and properly regulate their sale according to the health harms they pose, and you’d free up an inordinate amount of prison space, government money and police time – not to mention breaking the back of organised crime by removing its most profitable endeavour. And how many teenage ‘gangstas’ would idolise drug dealers if the drug dealer was just the bloke in Boots? Since people are getting and using the drugs anyway, a rational debate on this subject is long overdue. Sadly, however reasonable politicians may seem on this subject while in opposition, once in power none of them dare risk opening the political Pandora’s box of the subject. But now more than ever, it would be a debate worth having.

“Where were the parents?” was another cry. “They’re all from broken homes, with no male role model and a mother having more and more kids to sponge off the State!” This is a tough one. A stable home environment may well be better for children, though it’s hard to tell yet how many of the looting youngsters were from single parent families. But to espouse that any family which doesn’t include a parent of either sex is a dangerous path – not just from a gay perspective, but because it reinforces the already pernicious idea that single mothers are some kind of blight on society. Well, I’m the product of a single mother household, as are many of my friends, gay and straight, and I like to think most of us turned out all right – certainly none of us were out looting.

But it is true to say that there’s a real problem with some children having as little respect for their parents as they do for their teachers. Traditionally, teenagers especially have always rebelled against authority figures; the police being, in fact, the biggest target here. And the conservatives may have something in saying that it’s hard to respect and obey an authority figure who demonstrably has no power over you. Should parents, teachers, police officers and the like be allowed to give kids a thick ear if they’re misbehaving? The liberal in me says no, but it’s hard to deny that when these things were allowed, the young did have more respect for authority. I hope I’m wrong on this one, because I hate the idea of getting more right wing as I get older. But it’s increasingly seeming to me that authority figures with their hands so tied end up having no authority at all. At the very least, I think perhaps a debate on what kind of consequences can ethically be meted out to give youth some kind of discipline is in order. A rational, evidence-based one though, rather than a reactionary, knee-jerk, Daily Mail/Mary Whitehouse approach.

If this seems like a very, very long laundry list of problems, well, that’s because these are the little plastic pieces overloading the Buckaroo game that is England’s social fabric. Note, NOT the UK – Scotland, which has many of the same problems, saw no such unrest, and in fact neither did quite a few parts England. There was no looting in Newcastle, or Truro, both of which are subject to so many of these issues. One of the other questions we need to ask is why these particular parts of England and not others? Despite Big Dave’s reticence, I genuinely think the biggest waves of social disorder in decades deserve a proper, considered inquiry.

That inquiry will need to take everything listed above into account, and properly weigh up the evidence and statistics when they are finally available. Basically, what I’ve just done is try and list almost very major social dysfunction in the country – no small task, and for that reason I haven’t even got started on the topics of what we do now; how we clear up and how we stop this from happening again. Another post will follow on that later, with, hopefully more concrete information to back it up. For now though, it’s fair to say that the terror that’s gripped us all for the last week has been down to an overloaded combination of all of this.

However, if it can be boiled down to one, singular issue, it is this. Stripped of ethical, legal, political and emotional considerations, human civilisation is based on one very fragile social contract. Probably its best known summation is from Christianity: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. In other words, purely pragmatically, we condemn murder because we don’t want to be murdered. We don’t steal because we don’t want to be stolen from. And for the better part of the last week, that social contract was held in limbo by enough of the English population to paralyse the country. If that contract is now back on, it’s in no small part due to the fact that we were reminded of it on the news in an admirably dignified appeal by Tariq Jahan, whose son Haroon was killed in the Birmingham chaos. He’d lost his son, he told us. If nobody else wanted to lose theirs, they should calm down and go home. And for a wonder, they did. Now we need to ask some very searching questions.

To catch a wolf, you don’t unleash a tiger

While the racial issues that sparked the recent chaos seemed to be largely forgotten after the first night in the fury of looting and destruction, there were disturbing signs last night that a racial dimension may be rearing its head again. Prejudice and bigotry are undoubtedly part of the causes of this disorder, and it’s on all sides – looters, police and now the self-appointed vigilante mobs set up to defend their communities.

Vigilantism is a very understandable response to the situation. After three nights of seeing buildings and property destroyed or stolen with seemingly little intervention from a strained police force, it was an obvious response from communities desperate not to see a repeat of what was now filling the rolling news channels. On Tuesday, we saw groups of locals for the first time taking to the streets in defence of their homes and businesses, as a large group of Turkish shopowners massed in Dalston to hold off the looters.


Similar groups in Stoke Newington and Haringey’s Green Lanes managed to hold off the looters there with, it seems, no excessive force or violence the likes of which the looters themselves displayed.

Police concerns about vigilantism aside, this did the job, and if nothing else was a perfect example of Call-Me-Dave’s Big Society at work. Last night though, other districts of London followed suit, and some more worrying elements began to creep in.

The most noticed in the national press were in Enfield and Eltham, and to a lesser extent Millwall. These are not areas renowned for their racial tolerance historically – Eltham was the site of the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, and Millwall was notoriously the first district to elect a BNP councillor, again in 1993. So it shouldn’t have been particularly surprising when Paul Lewis, on the Guardian’s live blog of events for Tuesday posted an apparent account of a large gang of ‘drunk’ white men chasing after local youths presuming that, because they were black, they were looters .

Lewis later posted a follow-up saying that he had been “shaken” and “there were no racist chants”. However, this seems not to jibe with other reports; the Telegraph had a piece this morning in which it quoted the EDL’s leader Stephen Lennon as saying he’d been spending the day in Enfield, while the Guardian’s Matt Taylor quoted one of the Eltham group as saying “This is a white working class area and we’re here to protect the community”. While I don’t want to demonise anyone for simply describing their ethnicity as white, given the area’s history this has a worrying ring. Later a video showed a large mob of shaven-headed men ‘patrolling’ Eltham High Street chanting “E-D, E-D-L!” And however much Stephen Lennon shouts at Jeremy Paxman that the EDL is not a racist group, it was pretty noticeable that this entire group were white.

A later video showed another entirely white gang of young men running through the streets of Enfield – after what is unclear – who seem to be chanting “England! England!” While I’d never dream of criticising anyone for supporting our national football team, this seemed an odd time to be singing their praises. However, it is – dispiritingly – the traditional cry of our ‘beloved’ white supremacists in this country.

However, perhaps the most disturbing account I’ve heard of this trend is from my friend Matt Tobin, who lives in North London. Earlier today he posted on Facebook:

“I was in Enfield last night, and I have to say, it appeared that the backlash of the rioting seemed to create a race war. I actually heard a white woman scream to a black woman, ‘Get in your car! They are hunting black people!’, then I saw a mob of white people, marching down the street, chanting “Come on England!’”

As with so many other aspects of this trouble, it’s hard to generalise or to vouch for the perfect accuracy of the reports being received – though I know Matt well enough to trust his first hand eyewitness account. And I would like to stress that I doubt whether this element even makes up a majority of the people trying to defend their property, livelihoods and safety in these boroughs. But to judge by the reports and the videos, there are enough of these people out there for it to be a major worry. The Enfield group were notable for all wearing white shirts, which sounds disturbingly like a uniform of sorts. And given that several reports state the groups congregated initially in pubs in the mid-afternoon , it’s safe to say that sober restraint was unlikely to be much in evidence.

So do we really want justice to be served by a mob of half drunk white supremacists? Apart from anything else, they’ve got the wrong target. If any of them had bothered to look for even a second at the multiplicity of videos and photos all over the news and the internet, they might have noticed that the looters are a pretty ethnically disparate group. Or they might not – after all, it’s amazing how blind people can be about anything that might overturn their own convictions. This kind of actual evidence is unlikely to change the mind of any of the racists. Meanwhile, Stephen Lennon has promised that EDL members will “launch street patrols in Bristol, Manchester, Luton and Leicestershire over the coming days”. Given the sort of strife usually associated with any EDL gathering, do we really want that added to the current mix?

This chaos has brought out the small ‘c’ conservative in a lot of otherwise fairly liberal folk, again understandably. But I’ve been disturbed to see how many of my otherwise rational Facebook friends have been cheering these groups on. And one of the most cliched phrases I know keeps recurring in these postings. So a word of advice to anyone thinking of posting on the topic – if your enthusiastic support has to be qualified with “I’m not a racist, but…” maybe you should think twice about offering it.

I know people are vulnerable. I know people are frightened – I’m frightened too. And as someone who was beaten up by homophobes a couple of years ago (in Cambridge of all places) I totally understand the desire to hit back. But turning to a mob of uniformed xenophobes because they’re hard has never been a good idea. Don’t unleash the tiger to catch the wolf.

Internet of Truth

“You can’t rewrite history. Not one line.” The Doctor, The Aztecs

“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell, 1984


The truth is out there…

A couple of days ago, Charlie Brooker’s sporadically brilliant Guardian column ran a piece on the current politics meme of the moment – the ‘Milliband loop’. For the one or two unfamiliar with this chortlefest, it refers to a news pool interview carried out with the less than charismatic current Labour leader, in which he manages to answer five different questions with exactly the same, verbatim answer, mixing up the order of the phrases being the only variety – “these strikes are wrong… negotiations still ongoing… government… reckless and provocative… get round the negotiating table… so it doesn’t happen again”.

Obviously all Milliband was attempting to do was to ensure the soundbite he wanted would be selected from the interview for the tiny excerpt that would undoubtedly be played out on the TV news coverage of the public sector strikes. It’s a sad indictment of the current state of political journalism that he felt the need to do it in this way, and he’s probably rueing the fact that the BBC News website chose to display the raw footage unedited as it makes him look like a robot iPod stuck on repeat. But for me, what was slightly more interesting rereading Brooker’s piece was that its headline was quite the reverse. In fact, by the end of the day, it was on its third regeneration.

What Brooker is saying in the piece is that it’s by no means new for this to happen; it is in fact an emerging trend, and he points to similar displays by both George Osborne and Alastair Darling. Logically, then, the original title of the piece didn’t single out any politician in particular – it referred to ‘Politicians’ identikit responses’. By lunchtime this had morphed into ‘Milliband’s identikit responses’, presumably to capitalise on the hapless leader’s misfortune of going viral on the internet, making him far more noticeable than the other two examples. This, however, seemed a little dishonest and misleading, when the whole point of the piece was to bemoan a trend rather than attack one particular exponent of it. By the end of the day, though, the headline had morphed again. This time the phrase ‘Milliband’s identikit responses’ had been replaced by ‘the Milliband loop’, a phrase Charlie seems to have coined himself in the article.

While I like Charlie Brooker’s work, I’m by no means an unquestioning follower of his, and this strikes me as a disturbing trend in itself, of which he is now as guilty as anyone else. In short, the increasing dominance of newspapers’ online content means that they get to rewrite history several times a day. It’s like Winston Smith’s job from 1984, at warp speed, and doable by any half-drunk journo at his desk.

Brooker – or his editor – altering his headline is probably a fairly trivial example of this. But there are worse out there. On Friday, the day after the teachers’ strike, the Daily Mail ran one of the most scurrilous headlines I had ever seen – “Tears for girl, 13, crushed to death by a falling branch as she sat on park bench because her teachers were on strike”.

Even by Daily Mail standards, this was a jaw dropping example of gutter journalism at its worst. Using the tragic accidental death of a child to score cheap political points that support your agenda really is about as low as you can get. Perhaps whoever wrote the piece had some inkling of this; rather than credit the author by name, the website simply tells us this literary masterpiece was penned by ‘Daily Mail Reporter’. As if the headline wasn’t bad enough, ‘Daily Mail Reporter’ had also gone out of his/ her way to solicit/make up quotes from heartbroken locals about how this accident was all the fault of the teachers for going on strike.

To give them credit, even regular Mail readers were astounded by the effrontery of this, and the comments thread beneath the article rapidly filled up with the sort of disgusted reaction familiar to Mail website habitues – and yet also unfamiliar, because this time the disgust was directed at the Mail itself.

Thus it was, that, by about teatime, the headline’s implication of teacher complicity in a tragic accident had been softened somewhat. It now read, “Tears for girl, 13, crushed to death by a falling branch as she sat on park bench as her teachers were on strike” – thus making the teachers’ culpability a rather less direct implication. It was still clear enough, though, and the ‘Disgusted of Hartlepool’ comments continued to flood in. So, by the next day, any reference to teachers had been excised from the headline, which was now simply “Tears for girl, 13, crushed to death by a falling branch as she sat on park bench”. Similarly, the quotes blaming the teachers in the article itself were edited or excised altogether, and a quote from the girl’s family was inserted in which they implored (rather more reasonably than I might have done under the circumstances) that “Our beloved daughter’s death was a tragic incident, which occurred only 24 hours ago, and we do not want it to be connected to any other events.”

Thus, the Daily Mail had effectively, and without comment, rewritten a massively offensive headline and article to, presumably, protect themselves from the Press Complaints Commission – although given how toothless that worthy organisation generally is, I’m surprised they felt the need to bother. Nonetheless, the comments thread was not deleted. This is most likely because outrage over the nature of the headline now seemed nonsensical, though the article’s URL betrays rather more of its original content:

That’s a far more worrying example than Charlie Brooker (or his editor) altering the headline of a satirical piece to make it more sensationalist – the Mail’s headline was a genuinely obscene bit of journalism that they should have been held to account for. Now, they can simply claim that they altered the headline to acknowledge the offence caused – if they admit to it ever having existed in its original form at all. With no record being given of when and how the website was altered, it might well take a long and dedicated bit of cyber-detection to prove that it had been.

Yesterday, however, prompted an even more worrying example of this trend. Yet more examples had come to light, this time in an admittedly gloating piece from the Guardian, of News International’s propensity to hack the voicemails of anyone it considered likely to sell a few more copies of News of the World. This latest example, though, was rather more sinister than Sienna Miller’s love tryst texts or even Tony Blair’s confidential policy messages. NOTW, it turns out, had hacked the voicemail of the then-missing 13 year old Milly Dowler, even going so far as to delete messages when the mailbox was full so as to garner more ‘newsworthy’ material. This had, it seems, the combined effect of giving false hope to Milly’s family, who believed if she was deleting messages she must be alive, and potentially destroying valuable evidence that could have been utilised in the police investigation. The paper made no particular secret of having done this, either – contemporary articles even referred to information that had come to their attention via voicemails left on the missing teenager’s phone.

Now, it’s been notable that most of the tabloid press has been suspiciously light on coverage of the News International phone hacking stories – presumably proof of the old axiom that no-one wants to deploy a weapon that might be used against oneself. And obviously, there isn’t even a mention of the story in today’s Sun, despite Prime Ministerial condemnation and TV news saturation. Of slightly more worry, though, is the reported allegation that any such articles have now disappeared from the News of the World online archive.

Now, I must hold my hands up and say that I cannot actually verify that. Access to the NOTW web archive depends on registering with News International, something I’m not prepared to do. If true, though, it’s perhaps the most worrying example of this trend in a three day period that has thrown up just the examples I happened to come across quite casually, rather than actually looking for them. Further embarrassment for News International would be, to say the least, undesirable for them, at a time when parent company Newscorp’s full takeover of BSkyB is imminent. Not to mention the fact that News International’s Chief Executive, Rebekah Brooks, happened to be the editor of the News of the World at the time this particular bit of hacking took place.

And it could perhaps be said that, if true, the removal of these stories is a sensible measure at a time when a police investigation is still ongoing, and at a time of such sensitivity for the Dowler family. Nonetheless, if significant stories are disappearing from an online archive which apparently stretches back to 2000, deleted for political or commercial or even personal reasons – without comment – it’s a very worrying trend.

Of course, physical copies of newspapers are still sold, and those are rather harder to alter. And a dedicated researcher would be naïve to rely entirely on web archives to research news stories. But with the print media in decline, replaced by an increasing reliance on online content, how long will this be an option? And how many lazy researchers, or just plain normal people, already take what they read on a news source’s online archive at face value? Some papers at least acknowledge that web changes have been made – the Guardian is one. But even they don’t do it with any consistency – it’s usually only if a factual error has been amended, rather than an editorial change like the one to Charlie Brooker’s headline. Surely there should be, at the very least, an obligation for any organisation claiming to purvey facts to tell us when and how they’ve ‘altered the truth’ – and more importantly, why?

In 1984, Winston Smith’s job at the Ministry of Truth was to alter the past, by cosmetically changing photographs and archived newspapers – inspired by the contemporary practices of Josef Stalin, who did this as a matter of routine. Orwell depicts it as a tedious, lengthy process, that’s extremely boring and requires a degree of skill. Today’s news editors and proprietors can now do it with a couple of passes of the keyboard and a click of the mouse – and that’s very disturbing indeed.

Politics and murder: is this the way it’s going to be?

I don’t usually comment on American politics in this blog, but in the wake of the terrible events in Tucson last Saturday, it seems that everyone else online already is. Finding myself leaving ever longer comments on American friends’ Facebook pages, and trawling through the mounting hysteria on online forums, I thought I might as well add my two pennies worth. In a plea to restore sanity, if you will.

On Saturday, a gunman shot Arizona Democratic Representative Gabrielle Giffords in the head at point blank range, before turning the gun on the crowd and killing six others. The obvious assumption to make was that this act was politically motivated; the obvious suspects, as the target was a Democrat, were the Republicans – specifically, the extreme right wingers calling themselves the Tea Party. Liberals across America within hours were reposting Sarah Palin’s notorious ‘gunsight’ map of Democrat targets (which pinpointed Giffords specifically), while Republicans, with perhaps some justification, pointed out that it might be a smidgen tasteless to ascribe this tragedy to politics before anyone knew anything like the full story. Of course, the more extreme Republicans expressed this sentiment in terms unlikely to gain them any sympathy, with their usual cries that the Democrats were “like the Nazis”, and other less salubrious comparisons.


Just in case you’re one of the three people on the planet who haven’t seen this.

From the information still emerging about the gunman, 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, it seems that he was almost certainly mentally ill – his incoherent Youtube rants paint him as most likely a paranoid schizophrenic. Despite vociferous cries from many of my Democrat friends and hardcore Republicans taking the opposite stance, he doesn’t seem to have had a coherent political ideology. The much vaunted list of his favourite reading material includes The Communist Party Manifesto (left) Mein Kampf (right in some ways, left in others) and Ayn Rand (emphatically right). He is remembered by classmates as a bit left wing, but obsessed about big government conspiracy theories with the fervour of a Fox News commentator, and his fascination with the gold standard for currency was (probably coincidentally) echoed by Sarah Palin herself on Twitter not long after the incident.

Finger-pointing, then, at either party as his prime motivator seems pointless. But, tasteless though the debate may seem to some, politics itself clearly was a motivating factor – and perhaps it’s the hysterical, shrieking incoherence that has become de rigeur in American politics that fostered a similarly incoherent hysteric in his ambition to get a gun and take matters into his own hands. Like it or not, this event has thrown a spotlight on the state of American politics, and the face it’s revealed isn’t pretty.

It’s often been said that the British possess a desire to reform America that it finds baffling, primarily because the British don’t really understand that American culture is far more different to them than it seems. But equally, a bit of distance and an outsider’s perspective can perhaps be revealing. It’s difficult for us, in a country with three major political parties (well, until the next election, anyway), to comprehend quite how viciously partisan an entrenched two party system can be. And our own political parties inform our views of the Americans’ – it seems laughable to us that the Republicans cower in terror (with a suitably big gun) of the Democrats’ ‘socialist’ policies when the Democrats are actually slightly to the right of our own ‘beloved’ Conservative party.

American culture is different, and from this Brit’s perspective, seems hugely informed by three things – an ill-informed nostalgia about the War of Independence, Hollywood’s mythologising of the pioneers who conquered the West, and the 1950s Cold War hysteria over Communism. Reducing the problem to just that is over simplifying of course, but that’s exactly what the Tea Party is doing – it’s exemplified in the movement’s very name.

I’ve been reading a lot on this topic over the last few days, much of it in left-leaning UK newspaper The Guardian. The Grauniad, as it’s known after its proud tradition of typing errors, is most revealing when one reads the Comment section, particularly the user comments after each piece. Reading these threads, neither Republicans nor Democrats, Brits nor Americans, come off very well.

It is interesting that so many fairly extreme Republicans post so vociferously on the website of a UK newspaper known to have a left wing bias, but some of the comments are revealing. This Michael Tomasky article has had all of them removed (a communist-style purge, I hear some cry) for inflammatory language about the mentally ill. So, sadly, I can’t share with you the poster who took pride in his mis-spelled insults to the liberal left because he didn’t want to be “a smart asshole” like them. So to the hard right, intelligence is a bad thing? Nor, sadly, can you see the chap who told the British emphatically that if we didn’t have gun control, we might still have our Empire. Leaving aside the fact that having an Empire is not necessarily a good thing, I feel patriotic enough to point out to this idiot that we don’t have an Empire any more because we went bankrupt standing alone against the Third Reich while the United States, with all its guns, remained isolationist.

And talking of the Third Reich brings me to one of the most common themes ‘explored’ by the real right wingers on such threads – liberals, are, unfathomably, supposed to be like the Nazis. Glenn Beck, with his Godwin’s Law Tourette’s, may bear some of the blame here, but the argument makes an insidious kind of sense. After all, the Nazi Party’s full name was the National Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany. Socialist – do you see? And a totalitarian state certainly fulfils the definition of big government, the concept to which Republicans are so implacably opposed.

Unfortunately for them, that’s where the similarity ends. The ‘Socialist’ part of the name predates Hitler’s involvement with the Party; as they rose to power and once they’d gained it, they courted and got funds primarily from the middle class and businesses. Hitler banned trade unions shortly after getting into power, and targetted communists, socialists and journalists at the same time as the Jews. At the same time, he exalted the virtues of the traditional family unit, urged women to stay at home and breed, and encouraged a fanatical patriotism to the Fatherland. All that sounds socialist in the same way that the Democratic Republic of Congo actually is a democratic republic. What it does sound suspiciously like, though, is the mantra of the Tea Party. Or am I stooping to their level in making the comparison?

I should, at this point, mention that it’s a fallacy to stereotype all Republicans as Tea Partiers, in just the same way that it’s a fallacy to assume every Democrat is a pro-choice, socially inclusive gun control supporter – Rep. Giffords herself is apparently a staunch opponent of gun control. Most Republicans are, by the standards of their party, fairly moderate, as are most Democrats. But what this incident has thrown into sharp relief is that they’re not the ones who get noticed.

The viciously partisan nature of the struggle was started, let’s be honest, by the Tea Party. And it’s important to remember also that not all Tea Partiers are Republicans. But most are, and the movement does share a similarity to the Nazis in at least one way – its founding was at least in part due to a period of economic hardship. It’s been said that the Republicans tend to fare badly in power because any party who so strongly opposes big government is unlikely to be any good at being big government. The Tea Party seem to want to go further – they want to dismantle government altogether, and fall back on those good old pioneering virtues of self reliance and individual freedom.

Nothing altogether wrong with that – I have Republican friends, and while I disagree with their politics, I understand their motivations. American culture is all about aspiration to material success, and it’s understandable that those who achieve it don’t want to share any of the loot. They also don’t want the government to run every aspect of their lives – something I can sympathise with, after the last Labour government in the UK making this the most surveilled country in the world and attempting to introduce compulsory identity cards.

But the Tea Party movement have taken this mantra and under a guise of ‘patriotism’ reduced it to a level of fervent hysteria where Michele Bachmann calls for “second amendment remedies” to legislation she disagrees with, and Sarah Palin exhorts her supporters, “Don’t retreat, reload”, capitalising on the frontiersman myth of the noble gunslinger and hunter as the role model to aspire to.

That might have had some validity a couple of centuries ago, but makes little sense now. But harking back to a nostalgic, non existent golden age is what the Tea Party is all about. They want to return America to “what the Founding Fathers intended”. The trouble with that being that the Founding Fathers were from the 18th century, and some of their ideas look a bit outmoded now. For instance, the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have let Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann or Christine O’Donnell have the vote – come to think of it, they might actually have tried O’Donnell as a witch. That I can sympathise with, but it seems rather harsh on the sane women of America. The Founding Fathers also didn’t have much of a problem with slavery; though the Tea Party conveniently ignore this and if pressed point out that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican too.

They also point to George Washington’s declaration that a state must have God at its foundation – despite that bit in their beloved Constitution that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” This is where the ideal falls apart somewhat; Glenn Beck, while liked by right wing churches, is also viewed with suspicion as a Mormon.

The Tea Party, like the Republicans in general, share a hatred of “big government”. This, again, is not the clear cut issue they would like to make it. The hatred and furore surrounding Barack Obama’s fairly pitiful healthcare legislation seems mystifying to those of us in the UK, where even the Conservative party would balk at dismantling the long established National Health Service. Yet even that’s not clear cut; it’s true to say that as an overstretched public service, the National Health Service can never offer care to the same standard as private companies. But the choice still exists here, and for those who can’t afford private healthcare, they won’t face the choice of dying or going bankrupt avoiding death. Tea Partiers don’t see why it’s any of their problem to help those who can’t help themselves; if I can take a leaf out of their book and harken to the past, I might refer them to the words of John Donne:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

In other words, don’t ignore those who need help – you might need help yourself some day, and by your standards, nobody would give it. Still, we’d hate to undermine your vaunted self reliance. I’m sure you can amputate your own foot to get it out of that animal trap you set.

Similarly unequivocal is their attitude to gun control, or rather, the lack of it. The second amendment to the Constitution made perfect sense when it was drafted – in 1791. There should not, in a supposedly civilised society, be any need for every citizen to go about armed these days. But the precedent is set, and however irrelevant it may seem, the continued ownership of guns becomes a justification for the ownership of guns to protect oneself from those who own guns, in a dazzlingly circular argument. Republicans have already seized on this argument to state that if more people had been carrying guns at the Giffords event, they could have “taken Loughner down”. In practice, I seriously doubt a firefight in a crowded area would have produced particularly preferable results – we might well have been looking at twenty dead instead of six.

Still, gun control would represent having the government interfere in the liberty of individuals, and we can’t have that, can we? Oh, except where we can. The right’s determination to constitutionally ban gay marriage is surely exactly that – government legislation mandating what individuals may do with their private lives. And while  they stick vociferously to their opposition to gun control, they somehow ignore that the exact same arguments support the legalisation of recreational drugs. Big government, it seems, is fine, as long as it’s banning what you personally don’t like. But if it’s not, there’s always those “second amendment remedies”.

For a picture of what the country run by Tea Partiers might look like, here’s a good article about the state of Arizona in Harper’s. The Republican administration of Arizona, where this tragedy occurred, represent a virtual Tea Party state. Their opposition to government taxation over the years has been so vociferous that public buildings never even finished are crumbling from lack of funds to repair them, while the state as a whole has a massive budget deficit despite a healthy tourist industry. They want to cut still further, believing that only those who can afford to send their children to school should benefit from education.

Meanwhile, they pass insidious laws playing on irrational fears about Mexican immigrants, by which anyone who looks ‘a bit foreign’ can be stopped by the police and forced to present identification. Fortunately, they’ve banned any study of Hispanic literature in the state’s schools, along with many ethnic studies programmes, so none of the upcoming generation will know what a foreigner is. These measures are in the sensible hands of such as state senator Sylvia Allen, who famously stated that the Earth is only 6000 years old (because it says so in the Bible, obviously), and that trees are “stealing Arizona’s water supply”. One begins to see the rationale of the internet poster who venerated stupidity as a plank of the right wing.

They also have some of the laxest gun regulations in the Union, but these are still too intrusive for the Arizona legislature, who are taking the sensible step of allowing faculty members to carry guns on university campuses – one of the few places in the state where, until recently, one couldn’t carry a gun.

When the level of political rhetoric is raised to, essentially, “shoot whoever you disagree with”, and people with mental health problems take an interest in politics in a state where guns are virtually handed out like candy, an event like Saturday’s seems almost inevitable. Unfortunately, it was in the aftermath that the left didn’t do themselves any favours either. They jumped to the obvious conclusion – mad Tea Partier, all Glenn Beck’s fault, look at Sarah Palin’s map – before bothering to get any of the facts. Understandable, sure, but it brings liberals down to the same level as the right to exercise that kind of knee jerk reaction. And it’s come as something of a surprise to me to find so many of my liberal American friends virtually baying for Loughner’s blood like an online lynch mob – surely that’s more the province of the right, too?

And the trouble is, that kind of reaction plays perfectly into the right’s hands. The left shouldn’t try to take them on at their own game – aside form losing the moral high ground, they’re just not as good at it. Obama’s much quoted remarks about “they bring a knife, we bring a gun” (yes, I’ve seen The Untouchables too) and finding out who was responsible for the Gulf of Mexico disaster so he’d know “whose ass to kick” sound like feeble imitations of the right’s fevered exhortations. Meanwhile, online blogs’ demand grew for the shutting down of Fox News. Remember the other bit of the First Amendment, where it says “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”?  You’re better than this, Democrats.

Of course, this gave the real right wingers the excuse to play the victim. "How distasteful”, they tut, “politicising such a tragedy for which we are not at all responsible”. All while, behind the scenes, inflammatory material like Palin’s map was quietly removed from the web without comment. Guilty consciences? Surely not. Meanwhile, Glenn Beck was able to offer a heartfelt plea for peace alongside an unfortunate randomly generated image of himself impersonating Jack Bauer:

Beck gun

Still, surely this should at least give us a temporary lull in the shrieking, rabid vitriol, right? Well, we got a day or two, with Obama’s minute’s silence and John Boehner’s reasonably dignified, bipartisan condemnation. But even then, both sides just couldn’t let it go. Democrats continued to stubbornly insist that Loughner was a calculating, evil right winger, while right wing radio pundit Rush Limbaugh’s view almost beggared belief – apparently Loughner’s mad grin in the now infamous mugshot is because he knows he has “the full support of the Democratic Party”.

Nobody questioned the lack of support for those known to be mentally ill, least of all Arizona governor Jan Brewer, whose own son has been institutionalised for 20 years in a comfy private facility after copping an insanity plea for a charge of rape. Meanwhile, apparently sales of Glock handguns have soared in Arizona among those who consider the whole event some sort of consumer promotion. Never mind, the Republicans can look almost cuddly if they compare themselves to old favourites the Westboro Baptist Church, who are heading to Arizona to picket the funerals of the dead because Rep. Giffords was a “fag-promoting, baby-killing, proud-sinner”.

In the midst of all this, Gabrielle Giffords, once considered a bright hope for the first female President, fights for life in an Intensive Care Unit. Six people are dead, including a bright nine year old girl who had the misfortune to be interested in the democratic process. And the hysteria rages on, barely checked. Something is definitely wrong here. I don’t have a magic solution to it. Neither do the Democrats. Neither do the Republicans. But calming down and talking like civilised human beings would probably make a good start.

What the people who read the papers say

I’m a big fan of overhyped, ill-informed media circuses – they can be so entertaining. And it was with a rosy glow of nostalgia that I followed the recent shrieking newspaper hysteria over ‘legal high’ mephedrone. Nostalgia because it almost looks like they just dug up some old articles on Ecstasy from the early 90s and changed some of the words.

Like Ecstasy, mephedrone has apparently become a staple of the club scene, and, like Ecstasy, it appears to have caused some high-profile casualties that the ravening press have seized on as mascots in their latest cause celebre. It’s hard to forget the tabloid hysteria surrounding the Ecstasy related death of Leah Betts in 1995; perhaps easier for many people to forget that she didn’t die as a result of taking the drug, but by drinking so much water that her brain swelled up inside her skull. Never ones to learn a lesson about responsible journalism, the press have leaped on, particularly, the recent deaths of two young men in Scunthorpe to bolster a crusade against mephedrone.

Without wanting to cheapen or denigrate the grief of these men’s families, it should be pointed out that every article on this story (including the usually responsible BBC) has ignored the fact that the men in question had also consumed large quantities of alcohol and methadone. The problem was compounded by the fact that ‘methadone’ sounds so similar to ‘mephedrone’ that a number of readers who did notice this seemed unaware of the difference.

I’ve taken to reading online forums of various papers when I’ve a quiet moment at work, and what was surprising – and even encouraging – was that most people chiming in on the debate thought not only that banning mephedrone was a bad idea, but that banning any drug was a bad idea. Perhaps people genuinely are starting to think that, pragmatically, drug prohibition is an expensive, counter-productive waste of time. If that’s the case, for once the tabloids may have to change their tune. But will they? It’s a chicken and egg situation: do the papers form people’s opinions or reflect them once they’ve formed them?

Obviously, it was no surprise to find that leading the charge against what they insist on referring to as “meow meow” is that bastion of common sense, the Sun. Their insistence on calling the drug something which apparently no user ever would is in itself a clue to how ill-informed the paper seems. “Meow meow” has made many people recall Chris Morris’ classic Drugs episode of Brasseye, which now looks prophetic in its depiction of Morris asking random dealers for ‘Clarky Cat’ and ‘Yellow Bentines’. The Sun have produced such calm, clear-headed pieces as ‘Legal drug teen ripped his scrotum off’ which comes as not much of a surprise, but I couldn’t help smirking at the usually earnest Times giving the world ‘Meow meow Sank its Claws Into My Mind’ . The ever reliable Charlie Brooker has pipped me to the post in a much wittier article about the hysteria in his Guardian column so I’ll content myself by stating my view on this ‘problem’.

Mephedrone almost certainly arose as an alternative to other, probably safer drugs which are criminalised. Ban it, as politicians seem intent on doing without thought, and another chemical compound will be synthesised to do the same job. I’ve done my fair share of drug experimentation, but I have no real experience of what the stuff is or what it does, so (unlike many journalists) I wouldn’t presume to speak from a position of knowledge. But as a relatively new substance, legal or not, it’s difficult to know what the risks of taking it are, and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs should certainly be doing a study. Unfortunately, as the sacking of its former director shows, they’re not going be too keen to produce a study which contradicts the politicians and the press’ preconceived ideas concerning this substance.

The bottom line is this: drug prohibition does not work. From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, there is a demand for ‘drugs’, and has been for thousands of years. And where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Make something illegal, and the people who will provide that supply are the criminals. America’s dalliance with banning alcohol in the 20s is the textbook example, and yet people still fail to learn from it. The relatively benign cannabis is seen as a ‘gateway’ drug – this might be true, but only because you have to buy it from the same shifty dealer who also sells crack and meth. Imagine if you could buy it from your local newsagent, like that government approved narcotic, tobacco.

So again from a pragmatic viewpoint, the only way to properly control drugs is to legalise them. All of them. Educate people about them, regulate their sale, and above all, tax them. The benefits are obvious, once you get off your moral high horse. People will get the drugs whether they’re legal or not – if they’re legal, the quality is guaranteed, you save billions in ineffective anti-drug enforcement and gain billions in taxation. With the added benefit that organised crime would be crippled overnight. The anti-drugs campaigners in this country and the US love to bang on about how drug sales fund terrorism – given the amount of poppies grown in Afghanistan, they’re probably right. So, want to win your ‘War on Terror’ overnight? Take control of their funding by selling the product yourself.

There are any number of other arguments in favour of legalisation, but in the interests of even handedness, I tried to come up with some logical objections, not produced by the knee jerk moralising that you might see in the Daily Mail. There are a couple of things that count against overall legalisation. Firstly, it might give people the idea that the drugs are now, somehow, ‘safe’. This is the real problem with mephedrone – its legal status seems to convince people that a relatively untried substance won’t cause the sort of damage as the illegal ones. But this is the point where education could step in. After all, we all know how bad for us tobacco is. If you somehow missed that at school, the stark ‘Smoking Kills’ notices on the packets should clue you in. If a Health warning’s good enough for Marlboro, why not for crystal meth?

Second, it will make actually getting the drugs easier. This may sound like I’m switching position, but actually the illegality of most drugs does tend to make it difficult to get hold of them. Buying from the chemist is considerably easier than locating a dealer, gaining his trust, and running the gauntlet of potential prosecution to actually purchase something which is probably cut with baby powder anyway. Even so, by removing the rebellious glamour of a drug’s illegality, you’re probably removing a lot of its temptation in the first place. Want to stick it to ‘The Man’? If he’s the one selling the stuff, you’re not going to look like any kind of anarchist buying it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that excessive drug use is a good thing. But you could say the same thing about excessive alcohol abuse, and nobody’s calling for booze to be banned. It’s a sad thing that people feel the need to fill some perceived void in their lives by altering their minds with any substance, be it LSD or Guinness. But, again pragmatically, if people are going to do it anyway, let’s at least try and make it as safe as such an activity can be.

Sadly, while the people posting to the online debates understand the hypocrisy of legally selling the far more dangerous tobacco and alcohol, there’s still not enough people vocal about this to give any politician the courage to even mention it. Even if they did, it would only work if it were a worldwide policy, and the US are even more unlikely to put away their emotions and think logically about it. But one thing’s for sure – take away “meow meow” and something else will leap up to take its place. Perhaps we could call it “Shatner’s bassoon”…