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“Changing a mindset”

Monday night, I and Samizdata editors Perry de Havilland and Adriana Cronin-Lukas went to the House of Commons in London for the launch of the Hansard Society’s new report on blogging. Pointing out what is wrong with the report will be tackled soon enough, but the overall message of the night is what really got to me – and not in a good way.

The launch was being held in Westminster Hall, where the Hansard Society has set up an exhibition called House to Home: Bringing Parliament and people together. The first thing about this exhibition – after the huge plasma screens showing shots from parliamentary debates and self-conscious, empty elements like stacks of chairs hanging suspended from the ceiling – that caught my attention was the large banner telling us that “Politics matters”. Not only that, but that “Politics shapes us as a society”.

You can imagine how we each reacted to that supposed axiom from the Hansard Society, the “independent, non-partisan educational charity”…whose exhibition just happened to be sponsored in part by the government’s Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Electoral Commission.

The information guide that accompanies the exhibition, copies of which were handed out to everyone present at the launch, contains even more such gems. First, some good news:

If politics comes on the TV the first reaction of many of us is to switch over…'[O]fficial politics’, the formal meetings and speeches that happen in Parliament and in Downing Street, is fast becoming a minority interest: and this worries us.

Glad to hear it. But did you know that freedom of speech – along with freedom of religion and freedom to protest – is something we only have because of the government? According to the Hansard Society:

Over time, Parliament has reached out to represent more and more of the people of the country, through the extension of the right to vote, to the granting of freedoms of speech, protest, religious practice and free education.

Hmmm. Which one of these is not like the other? “Free” education is something to which each human being is entitled just by virtue of having been born, according to the “independent, non-partisan” Hansard Society’s government-sponsored exhibition. The “educational charity” also informs us that it was the benevolent Parliament that recognised this in law – and that it was the benevolent Parliament that granted us freedom of speech, to protest, and to practice religion. What is more:

[I]t is possible we could lend Parliament even more power to speak up for us.

The Hansard Society has also provided a handy guide to “How to have your say,” including tips on how to solve the vexing mystery of which constituency you live in. The guide advises us to decide which candidate and which party is most likely to speak up for what we believe in. But what if the answer is “none of the above”? Well:

If none of the parties speak for you, stand for election yourself.

Hey, that is helpful.

Finally, on page ten of this pamphlet, the Hansard Society comes clean:

This project is about changing a mindset.

Indeed. It is about telling people that it is imperative that we “get involved” in the political process – because, don’t you know, we would not have any rights if it were not for the government! And it is about freedom of expression being something that only politics can enable. As the Hansard Society puts it:

[W]e need to explore ways to allow politics to give us greater opportunities to express our views.

Because expressing one’s views can only come about through the good grace of politicians. The scary thing is, the government is taking our money to fund the “non-partisan, independent” Hansard Society’s efforts to spread this message. That is to say, British taxpayers are funding this “independent” propaganda machine.

Ah, well. It was a night for such things. Walking along Victoria Street from the House of Commons, Perry snapped a photo for me of one of my most loathed views in London – a government propaganda ticker that repeats the same message over and over: “London is getting safer…”

Still, the night was not all dispiriting. Leaving the House of Commons, I paused to admire a police guard’s impressive guns – two Glocks in the holster and a machine gun thingy (that is the technical name, I believe) in his hands. He was eager to show them off to me, and seemed happy to encounter someone who had respect for the weapons and his proficiency with them. It was enough to make a crunchy granola gun-control activist weep – which was more than enough to make me smile.

31 comments to “Changing a mindset”

  • Whip

    “…a machine gun thingy (that is the technical name, I believe)…”

    A Heckler & Koch MP5, if I’m not mistaken.

  • That’ll be a SUB-machine gun thingy then….

  • Hi Jackie [waves]

    If you have to vote before having the “right” to protest then the Peterloo Massacre could never have happened.

    [Scratches head confusedly]

    Nah, that can’t be right…

  • Legally speaking, in the UK “free of speech” actually is granted by the government. That’s the case everywhere in Europe.

    That’s probably the single most critical difference between the America and Europe (including the UK). Our system is based on the assumption that such rights as “free expression” are “natural rights” which the government is expected to defend but is not seen as having granted.

    That was the philosophical foundation and justification for the American revolution, explicitly stated in the Declaration of Independence which was delivered to King George:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

    It’s natural that Libertarians should agree with the idea that citizen rights are not granted by government, and certainly it is a principle I strongly believe, even though I am not a Libertarian as such.

    Our Constitution makes clear that Congress does not have the power to revoke our rights. That is not a power we chose to grant Congress, and legally speaking Congress can only do those things which we as citizens decided to permit it to do.

    But the UK legal system doesn’t recognize this principle. In the UK the government doesn’t get its legal mandate to rule from the people. And Parliament can legally revoke any or all of your rights if it chooses to do so.

    In a very real sense, the kinds of things which Americans think of as “rights”, are actually privileges in the UK. Parliament had decided to grant them to you, but Parliament has the power to change its mind.

  • Steven, are you familiar with common law?

  • Steven,

    Legally speaking, in the UK “free of speech” actually is granted by the government. That’s the case everywhere in Europe.

    Try doing a little bit of research before posting rubbish like this, please.

    The right to free speech has never been ‘granted’ by the UK government. It was a custom that was respected by the judiciary and the Crown and, consequently, found its way into Common Law.

    Further (and to add insult to injury) you have absurdly conflated UK and Continental legal systems. They are entirely different beasts, the former being based on Common Law and the latter on the Code Napoleon..

    Britain is not a part of Europe except by recent political construct and the English Common Law system that you have so woefully misunderstood and misrepresented is the DNA base for the later US one.

    Please try harder next time.

  • Quite apart from any of that, the point is that a right by its very nature is something that you are born with – the right to free speech, the right to associate with or disassociate from whomever you wish, the right to defend yourself if someone tries to harm you…None of these are privileges in any country on this earth. They were rights before governments even existed. The fact that governments now do what they can to stop us from exercising them does not mean they are privileges or anything but rights.

    It is not my right to say what I wish just because the Constitution says so. I do agree with someone I was speaking to this evening who said that Americans (and I am an American) sometimes get confused about this. The Constitution is great, but it’s just the law, it is just paper, and in the end only enumerates the rights with which we are all born.

  • Jacob

    My knowledge of English history is far from adequate, as is my understanding of common law.

    But, looking at the matter from a historic perspective is seems to me that in the distant past the monarch had absolute powers, which means that the people had no rights whatsoever. Then, over time, in a series of struggles, the king was forced to grant, or to respect some rights of the nobles and the commoners. The instrument by which the King’s power was limited was, among other things, parliament. The King was forced to convene a parliament and respect it’s laws.

    Therefore, maybe it can be said that the people enjoy some rights thanks to the parliament, which wrested those rights from the King thereby enabling the people to exercise the rights.

    From another perspective we can say that the rights (freedom of expresion for example) may be natural rights in theory, but in practice it is necessary to encode those rights in legislation, in order to make possible the protection of those rights by the State.

    And lastly: Parliament is definitly capable of denying the rights, like it did with the right to own guns.

    So Parliament has a lot of influence, in practice, with the level of freedom we enjoy. Therefore it is not so totally absurd to say that the rights “are granted” by Parliament (though not by the Government). If we take the “granted” in a practical way, not in a philosophical one – then it is correct.

  • Hank Scorpio

    The great thing about the MP5 is the bolt. It’s basically set into the weapon to roll, rather than just sliding along like most weapons do. It greatly decreases kick, and lets you fire longer bursts, much more accurately. The rate of fire is also really high.

    Great weapon that I’d advise everyone to fire at least once.

  • Cydonia


    Off topic but I’m a little sceptical about the notion of a common law right to free speech. To take an example, the 18th century in England was peppered with instances of supression of pamphleteers and allied censorship by both the crown and by statute.

  • Shawn

    The rather harsh response to Steven seems a little over the top. I dont recall common law having anything to do with free speech nor with the rights to free association or freedom of religion. All of these were restricted in one way or another until fairly recently in Britain (and still are from a lib pov).

    The developement of common law is certainly a good thing and one of Britains great contributions to the world, but a little too much is being read into it by David.

    Having said that the British political and legal system should not be confused with continental Europes, which is very different.

  • There is another factor to consider. There isn’t really a “UK” legal system anyway. There is English law and there is Scots law.

    In a a famous case about the Queen’s right to call herself Elizabeth II in Scotland (where she is Elizabeth I –as indeed she is in a UK context):

    The Court of Session found against McCormick on the narrow grounds that as a private person he had no title to sue, and that the Queen’s title was a matter of her own choice within the royal prerogative, untouchable by law. Lord President Cooper, however, used his judgment to call into question the hitherto judicially unchallenged doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty – the idea that parliament has the power to make whatever laws it wants, and that the courts have no power but to enforce them. He described this as a purely English concept with no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law

  • I dont recall common law having anything to do with free speech nor with the rights to free association or freedom of religion

    Then where exactly do you think these rights come from, not just in theory (though do please answer that) but in practice? It is depressing than so few Anglosphere folks seem to have any historical understanding of the fragile rights they take for granted.

  • Shawn

    “Then where exactly do you think these rights come from, not just in theory (though do please answer that) but in practice? It is depressing than so few Anglosphere folks seem to have any historical understanding of the fragile rights they take for granted.”

    I dont take my rights for granted.

    I understand exactly where my rights come from.

    Common law is primarily, though not exclusively, concerned with property rights, and not with rights such as free speech and freedom of religious/political view. These rights did not become a part of the US Constitution because of common law precedent, but because of the desire on the part of the Founding Fathers to avoid the religious and political conflicts that had plagued Europe, and on their belief that such rights were both natural and granted by God.

    There is a good introduction to common law here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_law

    As you can see political and religious freedom are not mentioned.

    My rights come from nature and nature’s God. In practice they are established by the Constitution, and the Constitution is only partly concerned with common law property rights.

    I see no evidence that the rights to freedom of political/religious view and speech that we won in the War of Independence arose in any way from common law. For much of the time that common law held sway in England there were restrictions on religious freedom.

    It is true that common law as it developed in England and in the Anglosphere generally has and does play a strong part in establishing certain rights, most especially as I said property rights. But to claim that all the rights we do (or at least should) enjoy arose historically from common law is a stretch to say the least.

  • A_t

    How is it “better” to have a right enshrined in a constitution than declared by a parliament? Either way it’s legislation, no? And sure, it’s a natural right which we’re all born with, but formalizing an agreement saying that the govt. won’t persecute you for exercising that right seems like a worthwhile exercise to me.

    Americans are very good at looking down at the rest of us & telling us we are somehow less free than them because of some philosophical fillup. Similarly, Brits look down on our continental cousins for similar reasons.

    In day to day life, I see little difference between most western societies; each one has peculiarities of censorship & instances where freedom of expression, association etc. are curtailed. It seems to me that there’s not much to choose between them in terms of real life experience, and the philosophical grounding behind the systems counts for little. In all Western countries, people now take it for granted that they will have certain freedoms & rights & see them as natural, as the US constitution presents them (perhaps the global dominance of US media has helped spread this meme). Furthermore, I don’t see any one nation’s people as more or less likely to protest if these rights are curtailed (I think most would acquiesce sheep-like up to a point, & then hopefully start rioting etc.).

  • Jonathan L

    How is it “better” to have a right enshrined in a constitution than declared by a parliament?

    Its much easier for Parliament to change a law than a constitution. T Bliar’s vandalism of Britains unwritten constitution is an example of why such documents are needed.

    there’s not much to choose between them in terms of real life experience

    I think that this comment is sadly true, and is largely due to the “Europeanisation” of the UK since the second world war.

    Whilst it would be wrong to paint too rosy a picture of our common law past, the philosophy upon which it is based is far superior to that upon which the statist law systems of continental Europe are based. It is sad that our politicians have chosen to ignore that and the electorate have accepted this like sheep.

  • The reason the US has a right to free speech is because American law is based on English common law. The UK has distinct rights not held in other European countries. For instance in the UK you own your own organs even in death. In many Europeans your organs are actually “on loan” from the state unless you opt out.

    This is yet another reason why futher intergration with Europe is a very bad idea indeed.

  • A_t: The US Constitution is an amazing document, at least to me, because it puts huge swathes of civil society out of reach of the state and its institutions. It says that no matter how much the tyranny of the majority may wish to erode or deny certain rights to certain (or all) individuals, tough shit. As long as the US legal and political system is based on that constitution, it can’t be done. It’s called “checks and balances”.

    That said, the political class and various interests have managed to dent that protective barrier between the state and the society significantly. And the recent false dilemma of terrorism or civil liberties does not help either.

    Nevertheless, without the English common law, Americans like Steven Dan Beste would not have much of a legal system to be proud of…

    [hides from the scores of engraged flaming Yanks…]

  • Guy Herbert

    On another line:

    …politics, the formal meetings and speeches that happen in Parliament and in Downing Street, is fast becoming a minority interest: and this worries us.

    It worries me too. Don’t suppose politics and government is going away because people have lost interest in it. To the extent that people have lost interest in it, it is because government power is so great, and politics so pervasive, that they no longer feel they can affect either. Voting no longer offers to change anything much because the parties have been swallowed by the permanent establishment. The “solutions” offered to the problem by the current Government and its proxies (patsies?) in the Commission involve weakening traditional politics (e.g. the show-debates in Westminster Great Hall, drawing members away from genuine Parliamentary scrutiny), a greater politicisation of everyday life and more, not less, official hold on informal political action as they seek to “improve participation” by regulating and colonising other fora.

  • A_t

    Johnathan, I said re. Western countries: “There’s not much to choose between them in terms of real life experience”

    to which you responded:
    “I think that this comment is sadly true, and is largely due to the “Europeanisation” of the UK since the second world”

    Would you care to elaborate on that? My intended meaning was that we’re all generally ok; no reason to get complacent, but our lives are hardly lived under anything close to tyranny.

    In what way do you think the UK; legally, culturally or however, has become ‘europeanized’ since WW2 then? Exactly which freedoms are you missing now which you would have had before then? As far as I can see, we’ve gained more freedoms; obscenity rules have been relaxed a lot, no-one gets done for blasphemy, homosexuals can be open about their nature without fear of state prosecution….

    So yes, please explain what ‘euro’ factors balance out these positives to make us worse off overall.

  • Adriana,

    No need to hide. We have your GPS coordinates…

    Seriously, though, it should be noted that the Constitution doesn’t grant us our rights, it simply enumerates them. The Bill of Rights is the underlining and bold-facing of rights which We The People possess, and which only We The People can change — by a process deliberately made extremely difficult.

    Let’s take an example of religious freedom, for instance (1A).

    If Britain and the US decided to outlaw Islam within their borders, for example, can anyone deny that the Brits would have an easier time of getting the legislation passed (especially with the raft of laws already on the books concerning anti-terrorism, etc)?

    The Yanks would have a much harder time of it — because putting an asterisk in the Constitution requires a huge supermajority of states to ratify such a change, not only in both houses of Congress.

    I likewise chuckle when I read comments like “The U.S. should just repeal that stupid Second Amendment”.

    Clearly, that shows an ignorance of the way our laws work. The Second Amendment can’t be repealed, for the simple reason that there will never be a two-thirds majority in BOTH Senate and House even to send it to the states for ratification; and even supposing there were, there will always be at least thirty states who would make ratification impossible by denying the 75% supermajority required.

    If someone can prove to me that a similar situation exists in the U.K. with regard to circumscription of citizens’ rights, I’ll be happy to read about it.

  • Shawn

    “Americans are very good at looking down at the rest of us & telling us we are somehow less free than them because of some philosophical fillup.”

    I certainly wasnt doing that, I hold Britain in as high a regard as I do my own country.

  • So tell me, how big does a “sub-machine gun thingy” have to be before it is just a “machine gun thingy”?

  • Whip

    It’s not a question of size. A “sub-machine gun thingy” shoots pistol ammunition, while a “machine gun thingy” shoots rifle ammo.

  • Matthew

    But that gun that the policeman had belonged to the evil, taxpayer-funded government! You were horrified at their “propaganda”, yet you worshipped the attributes of their power! Ha!

  • The freedom of speech concept came from England. During the Glorious Revolution of 1688, King James II was overthrown, then William and Mary were installed as joint monarchs. The following year, the English Parliament secured a Bill of Rights from William and Mary that granted “freedom of speech in Parliament.” One hundred years later our founding fathers were wise enough to expand that principle to everyone, not just members of Parliament.

    Before the Glorious Revolution, open criticism of the monarch was seditious libel, and illegal.

  • I think a law to simply ban freedom of speech in the UK would be extremely difficult nigh on impossible, given the current institutions.

    The House of Lords would undoubtably block it, in just the same way the US Supreme Court has upheld freedom of speech against assaults over the years. The HoL has done much to block illiberal legislation in recent years.

    The press would, at this point, be all over the story. MPs would be getting petitions, lobby groups would kick in to high gear, the Samizdatistas would be in apoplexy. The governing party’s backbenchers would be getting nervous.

    It would fester on for a year, have to be reintroduced in the Commons a second time, and then the nuclear weapon of the Parliament Acts would be invoked. Any opposition worthy of the name would be having a field day.

    The governing party would have a hard time keeping it’s MPs together while all this is going on. Even the Labour Party would have a few who would stand up for freedom of speech in the house. I find it hard to believe the House of Commons would manage to sustain a majority against freedom of speech over the 12-24 months minimum it would have to.

    The second Parliament Act may well be illegal, so if it was used, there would be a legal challenge against the government. That would fester on for years as well.

    If all else fails, we have this.

    III. The archbishop of bishop shall say, “Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the people of this Kingdom of England, and the dominions thereto belonging, according to the statutes in Parliament agreed on, and the laws and customs of the same?”

    Chances are it’d be election time about now though, and with the above example of protracted electoral suicide, that would be that.

    Whether the above will be true in the post-EU, TonyCroniesSenate world, I have less faith in.

    Watered down laws that restrict freedom of speech, now, they might pass, but then, the USA is not immune to those either.

  • My favourite para from that report on blogging is this :-

    At the moment, political blogging is still regarded as the pursuit of internet connoisseurs rather than ordinary members of the public. While our jury found blogs easy to navigate, they found the tone of content unappealing.

    Too geeky? 😉

  • In case anyone still reads this, free speech in Germany isn’t granted by the government either but guaranteed by the constitution.

  • But that gun that the policeman had belonged to the evil, taxpayer-funded government!

    Well, I was forced under threat of violence to buy and pay for the bloody things, the least I’m gonna do is admire what the looters got for my money.

  • William S

    Does anyone know what sort of load they would be using in those weapons in that situation?