Category Archives: Germany

The right to smoke does not equal the right to vote

It is striking to me that Theresa May has said something so straightforwardly sensible in reaffirming her wish for the voting age to remain at 18. I had always been under the impression that, given the dwindling interest in voting and sharp decline in participation over the years, politicians would be looking to 16 and 17 year olds to help beef up turnout by now.

She needn’t have bothered trying to rally the youth ahead of this election. Mrs May doesn’t exactly possess the charm that Nick Clegg displayed in attracting the youth vote during the 2010 General Election campaign, when he promised to scrap tuition fees upon getting into government.

The Tories would have just as much success rebranding themselves as the British Communist Party. Young people consistently show Left wing, liberal biases, and remain far more at home in the Labour Party or Liberal Democrats, at least until they enter the world of work and become taxpaying citizens.

I do enjoy the usual string of arguments deployed by those in favour of lowering the voting age. Especially humorous is the idea that because 16 and 17 year olds can smoke or drive they ought to be offered the vote in order to align rights with responsibilities.

Smoking and driving do not have anywhere near the impact upon public policy that voting can have, and 16 and 17 years by and large do not have the wisdom or knowledge that older voters do. Many will vote according to their parents’ biases, and not on the backs of independent thought or comparison.

It is at least a reminder that we don’t really have any coherent societal position on what exactly our ‘rights’ are. Of course, I appreciate the nuances in this argument. A 17 year old who turns 18 in July of this year might contend that he or she doesn’t lack the wisdom or knowledge of somebody a month older, and that person would probably be right.

But we need to draw lines somewhere. If we extend this argument, we can quite reasonably ask why 15 year olds ought not to be given the vote straight afterwards. It is a bottomless pit that creates nothing but problems and is never forwarded consistently.

The Prime Minister is, though, right when she claims that there are plenty of other ways to become active in politics, though the examples she gave (youth parliaments and councillors) were horrendously uninspiring. I myself used the lure of the summer’s referendum to do so, and with great personal benefits.

Most democratisation has absolutely nothing to do with government. It is arguably the workplace that is in most need of a little more democracy, since that is where adults spend most of their daily lives. I have been encouraged, for instance, by the slow growth in worker owned cooperatives in tiny pockets of the west.

Germany and Denmark operate thousands of successful, communal energy cooperatives, with many able to invest in renewable sources without the clouds of political forces hanging over their heads. A large network of worker owned enterprises has shielded Mondragon, in Spain’s Basque region, from the worst of the country’s economic hardship.

The vote often achieves very little in the way of democratisation. This is particularly so when a largely uncaring base are offered it. On the 11th November 2016, Darragh O’Reilly, a Northern Irish member of the UK’s Youth Parliament, laughably claimed in a parliamentary sitting:

“I tell you this: votes at 16 is no one-trick pony. It is nothing short of handing young people the freedom to achieve freedom. The freedom actually to fund the NHS. The freedom actually to have a decent transport system. The freedom to tackle racism.”

His statement was an enjoyable soundbite and I admire his genuine passion, but his view is baseless and most his age simply aren’t politically enfranchised. And of course no emotive political statement would be complete without a reference to the National Health Service.

Just like most other proponents of lowering the voting age, he dressed up its importance to be something other than what it actually is: a gimmick. If a genuine campaign were to emerge proposing to allow 16 and 17 year olds in the Armed Forces alone the vote, then I would be much more interested (and likely to agree).

Until then, Theresa May is correct to ensure that the voting age stays where it is. Britain is a one-party state and appears to have entered its second era of Tory dominance in the past forty years.

And 16 year olds aren’t about to change that.


Reflections on railway renationalisation and a Tory Brexit

My apologies, firstly, to readers for the general inactivity at the blog since the middle of April. This has been down to juggling work at a new job and the completion of my journalism dissertation, which I submitted on Thursday evening.

My hope is to achieve the 2.1 that will allow me to continue my studies into Masters level, with my eyes currently set upon an MSc at Royal Holloway in ‘Campaigns, Elections and Democracy’. I should now hope to return here frequently for the foreseeable future.

In my absence, this year’s General Election has gotten under way. A portion of the Labour Party’s manifesto has been leaked, and thanks to pledges to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail and energy sector, has been described as taking the UK ‘back to the 1970s’.

It may be worth remembering for a moment that Germany, a modern and well-run country, operates nationalised rail and worker-run energy co-operatives. Northern Ireland, too, (incidentally a part of the UK) retains public control of its rail system.

For the record, I don’t support renationalising Britain’s energy sector, but local, energy co-operatives, similar to those that exist on the continent do not sound like such a bad idea. I do admit to succumbing to the appeal of democratic ownership of utilities and co-operative privatisation (worker control of industry) of Royal Mail may be popular amongst postmen and women.

As far as our railways go, the ongoing debate around public and private ownership would seem to me to be a secondary issue. The primary issue is upgrading infrastructure and investment, and cancelling the vast amounts of money we seem keen to spend on vanity projects like HS2, which stands only to increase London’s workforce and damage the rural environment of the midlands. Any strong government ought to, by now, have scrapped such madness.

Britain’s rail infrastructure is predominantly Victorian and not entirely electrified, much to our national embarrassment. The billions put aside for HS2 should be re-directed towards modernising track and signalling, and towards investing in more medium-speed, medium-distance inter-city railway lines. London is too often used as a connecting city for long-distance travellers making their way across the country (and often finding themselves paying extortionate amounts).

The question of who owns rail services is made less important still by the fact that there need not be one single system of ownership, as demonstrated by the state operating of the East Coast mainline until March 2015. Britain’s rail system is not only franchised, it is regionalised, which means that, with very few exceptions, services are all co-ordinated independently of one another. The state can retain ownership of some lines whilst allowing for others to be run privately, depending on factors like performance and quality of service.

Immediate renationalisation would not make the running of rail services particularly cheap. As I have said, it is the cost of maintaining infrastructure, due to its age, that sets the cost of British rail travel above that of the rest of the continent. Upgrades to infrastructure ought to be at the centre of any debate about Britain’s railways and present a far more pressing concern than discussions over ownership.

I will not vote for the Labour Party on June 8th, but the aforementioned leaked manifesto content doesn’t look to me as if it will take us back forty years. This is merely dishonest Tory propaganda, no doubt aided by the incompetence of figures like Diane Abbott, who do nothing but discredit the Left and its labour movement.

Meanwhile, the Tories sit firmly in the driver’s seat of this election. They are rightly standing on a platform of seeing out the Brexit process, but of course, they are doing it for the wrong reasons. Many of them do not support out withdrawal from the European Union and thoroughly resent last summer’s referendum result. My vote for them in June (if I bother or indeed remember) will be more out of obligation than anything else.

I am at least glad that the Liberal Democrat leader this time around is Tim Farron, and not a young and fresh Nick Clegg, who managed to sweet talk the country into voting for him seven years ago. Thanks to Farron’s confusing position as leader of a party with which he has profound moral disagreements, the Lib Dems are not quite the force they could be.

Knowing that I was an adamant leaver, some readers might think that I am relieved the Tories are in poll position to win this General Election. This is not quite so. Something about the party’s (and indeed the Prime Minister’s) track record over the European question is cause for concern in my mind.

A couple of days ago, David Cameron made a comment that sparked some degree of doubt in my mind. He said that Mrs May needs a big majority so that she can “stand up to the people who want an extreme Brexit, either here or in Brussels.” It is a shame that UKIP can no longer muster the strength that it did back in 2014.

UKIP formed the ideal barricade against sentiments of this kind within the Conservative Party. There are many who call themselves conservatives, despite their continued existence that Britain should not govern itself and control its own affairs, who are fanatically supportive of the European project and of ceding parliamentary sovereignty.

When these people (Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke, Nicky Morgan and George Osborne to name a few others) use the expression ‘extreme Brexit’, they demonise the reasonable belief held by large sects of the country, including especially much of the Tory grassroots, that the United Kingdom should control its own trade, borders, lawmaking and judicial process, no matter the difficulties which undoubtedly lie ahead.

Mr Cameron’s comments reminded me that placing complete trust in the Tories and giving them a free hand over such an important issue might not be advisable after all. We’ve heard ‘Theresa May’s hard Brexit’ quite a lot in recent months, but increasingly my fear is that when it is all said and done, Britain will no longer be halfway in the EU. Instead, she may find herself perching halfway out in what will look like an especially embarrassing position.


Don’t arm Britain’s police in the name of terror

After a terror atrocity, it usually takes at least a few days for rational thought to creep back into political discourse. Sometimes it can be much longer than that.

It was for this reason that I waited a little while before commenting on the horrific incident in Westminster on Wednesday afternoon. I wanted to distance myself from some of the hysteria that I feel unhelpfully attaches itself to events of this kind, especially on social media.

One of the most common post-attack and counter-terrorism suggestions from the public and members of the intelligentsia has been to arm all British police officers.

This is a policy that has been advocated for years, it doesn’t just come from the screams of statists after March 22nd. As the UK’s terror threat has heightened (somehow, a terror threat can be measured), so too have the calls for arming all officers intensified.

The trouble is that the proposal is a gimmick and not a silver bullet, is opposed by most British police officers and radically transforms the nature of the relationship between police and the public.

In 1829, Sir Robert Peel, who introduced the Metropolitan Police as Home Secretary, wrote his ‘9 principles of law enforcement’. Principle number seven will interest readers:

“The police at all times should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police are the only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the intent of the community welfare.”

Officers are citizens in uniform, not a militia that, in effect, provides the state with a monopoly of force. Policing must be carried out at the consent of the public, which it is, and not at the barrel of a gun.

I think that to arm all of Britain’s police officers is a fundamental betrayal of their purpose and the values that Robert Peel had in mind when he introduced them 187 years ago (which included a period of mass public armament, lasting until 1920).

It is no surprise to me that in a recent Metropolitan Police Federation poll[1], most officers opposed the compulsory arming of all British police officers, similar to the system that currently operates in Northern Ireland.

Of the near 11,000 police officers polled, only 26% said that they believed all Metropolitan police officers ought to be routinely armed on duty, though most reported that there should be more authorized firearms officers on the streets.

Given the trials and tribulations that follow police shootings, it is not hard to see why the majority oppose forced armament. Months of stress and lengthy investigations will take their toll on any police officer.

Difficult, too, must media coverage be to deal with. Often, a person knowingly and deliberately shot by a police officer is painted as a sympathetic figure after such an incident. Those who remember the London riots of 2011 will be fully aware of this.

Police officers do not want to have to shoot people. That is the job of soldiers or specialised units with years of training and experience. Investigations on officers who do use their firearms, no matter the circumstances, will come under incessant questioning.

This poses a huge problem for forces that increasingly have to deal with policemen and women (rightly) taking time off to ease any psychological issues that they may be having. Having relatives in the job, I have seen the physical and mental impact policing can have on those who do it.

The reality is that some officers will be far too trigger-happy and others unable to deal with the guilt and burden of having to end another person’s life. We love and idolise our police officers during times of crisis and terror, but seldom do we think about them when normality resumes.

Robert Peel visualised police officers as being men and women whom we can approach at any time, place our trust in, feel comforted by, equal to and yet at the same time revere as both a source of reasonable authority and a rallying point for the frightened and vulnerable.

Like the officers surveyed, I oppose the obligatory arming of all British police officers, and indeed oppose additional armed units, whether in busy, metropolitan areas or not. We have plenty of authorised firearms officers in Britain already.

The problem created by continually expanding upon armed units is that police forces will inevitably be sucking resources away from ordinary policing. That is to say that the more money, time and manpower diverted to armed officers, the less there will be for patrolling constables and the public will feel abandoned by a force already accused of withdrawing from the streets.

As any daily commuter into London now knows (and I reference London because it is both fertile soil for these sorts of atrocities and the jurisdiction for the officers who took part in the Met’s poll), armed officers roam the capital’s busiest regions on a daily basis.

Major train stations are crawling with them, as are landmarks and buildings of significance. Even suburban shopping centres, such as Bluewater and Lakeside, and town high streets have seen a notable increase in armed police presence in recent months.

As I walk around these sorts of places, I feel a distinct unease. This is not just thanks to the sight of assault rifles, which are designed to frighten others into obedience and drill holes in human flesh, killing mercilessly.

It is also because the very visual of watching your local neighbourhood patrolled in such a sinister manner is a telling sign that we are gradually becoming a less free society.

Take a quick look outside of Britain, and focus on what is happening in mainland Europe. France, Germany and Turkey, current experiencing problems far worse than our own, all have very heavy armed police presences.

I might argue that increasing the visibility of armed officers has perhaps encouraged terrorists. It has sent out the signal that people are afraid and need protecting, and that by engaging in these dreadful acts of violence, terrorist actions are influencing public policy, leaving a legacy of their own and appealing to the vanity of other potential attackers.

Admittedly, there are structural differences between Britain and other European countries in response to terror. Strict gun laws and the English Channel make gun smuggling and possession much more difficult for criminals in the UK.

And so I think the current Islamist threat, which I believe exists but is not anywhere near as pertinent as is often suggested by politicians who will never let a good crisis go to waste, is not comparable to problems faced in, for instance, Northern Ireland prior to police being routinely armed.

For one, and unlike problems caused by the IRA, the Islamist threat can be largely countered online, through bans and monitoring, and secondly, the nature of the radical Islamic threat is changing rapidly. I also think that Islamism is more discreet and covert than the IRA-sponsored threat faced by the UK some time ago.

But when attacks do happen, increasingly we see that vehicles are the designated weapon of choice. Cars and lorries are not easily stopped by even the most highly skilled of armed police officers.

So the latest wave of support for Britain’s unarmed police to carry anything more than tasers, which I believe (as the incident at Leytonstone tube station showed) are effective enough tools for modern police, strikes me as yet another encroachment on our liberties.

Western governments are renowned for offering us the fig leaf of security in exchange for our most prized personal freedoms. I am shocked they haven’t already started hiring the many thousands of instructors (which we don’t have and can’t afford) that will be needed in order to arm all of Britain’s police.

And as I write, I am reminded by an infamous Benjamin Franklin quote, as relevant as it has ever been.

 

 

 Notes

[1] http://metfed.org.uk/news?id=7185