Marriage is dead on its feet, but it’s still the best safeguard for a future Baby P

A glorious example of the pocket intellectual’s most basic argumentative error today from ‘Peter’ Hitchens:

“The Canadian figures show that  a child is 50 to 100 times safer with natural parents than with a step-parent in the home. The British research found married homes were 33 times safer than those with serial boyfriends. Stable marriage safeguards children.”

Correlation is not causation, nor does it imply causation. I see ‘Peter”s  research and I raise him, as an example, Sidebothama, Heron and ALSPAC Study Team (2006) Child maltreatment in the “children of the nineties”: A cohort study of risk factors Child Abuse and Neglect 30:497-522:

“This study supports previous research in the field demonstrating that a wide range of factors in the parental background, socio-economic and family environments affect the risk of child maltreatment. By combining factors within a comprehensive ecological framework, we have demonstrated that the strongest risks are from socio-economic deprivation and from factors in the parents’ own background and that parental background factors are largely, but not entirely, mediated through their impact on socio-economic factors.”

The Office of National Statistics don’t collect data on marriage by socio-economic status, but taking a couple of proxies, we can have reason to believe that it is deprivation which is underlying both marriage rates and incidence of child abuse in the UK. Taking the most recent data on marriage rates in the UK¹: starting on page 36, table 3.1 – married couples with dependent children tend to be better educated than either co-habiting or lone parents with dependent children². Turning to maps 5.2 on page 74, the geographical distribution of marriage/co-habiting/lone parent families broadly mirrors the geographical distribution of wealth. If you’re unmarried with dependent children, you are more likely to live in a poor area and have a poor quality education. Taking these as proxies for socio-economic status, unmarried people with dependents are more likely to be poor than their married counterparts. Given the research linking poverty to likelihood of abuse, it seems likely that poverty is co-determining abuse and marriage, providing a sensible alternative explanation to their correlation.

On this basis, ‘Peter”s conclusion is somewhat wide of the mark:

“But all those who have connived at the dismantling of marriage, and continue to connive at it, should recognise their own grave guilt in sacrificing the welfare and happiness of children to the selfishness of ‘liberated’ adults who ought, above all, to be shielding the young from harm.”

Marriage is not the good we should be pursuing, but a distraction. Consider how we might ‘promote’ marriage – the discussion tends to be around tax breaks and other financial incentives. Leaving aside for the moment considerations of the efficacy of such policies³, given that you’re more likely to be married with children if you’re middle class to start with, these policies would have the immediate effect of redistributing wealth to the middle-classes. This wouldn’t necessarily entail a decrease in funding for poverty reduction, but would be less effective in reducing abuse than a comparable increase in poverty reduction spending would be. If our object is reducing abuse, giving money to those who already don’t abuse for living lives emblematic of their low likelihood of abuse as an incentive merely to remain in that emblematic state seems counterproductive. To put it more simply, if marriage is merely a symptom of being well off, and abuse a symptom of being poor, we should be treating the root causes of poverty and the marriage will look after itself.

It’s easy to look at the world at some arbitrary point in the past (‘Peter’ chooses 1965 as the date when, for him, everything started going badly wrong), pick differences between then and now and see patterns. We could draw graphs linking global temperature and Tesco’s market share, women in parliament and divorce, number of countries in the EU and UK birth rates. Their correlation, however, would not be enough to imply a link, or enough to base policy on. The fact that you’re less likely to be abused if your parents are married is not a good reason to promote marriage if it’s only another way of saying you’re less likely to be abused if you’re well-off. It would be nice to believe, as ‘Peter’ seems to, that marriage is the panacea for all social ills, but it’s almost certainly more complicated than that.

————

¹ Incidentally, if you’re looking for an eloquent precis of the difference between correlation and causation, you could do worse than the box on page 39.

² Tables 3.9a and b, page 43, show the knock-on effect from this, as you’re more likely to continue in education if you’re in a family with married parents, educational status and marriage acting in a declining spiral.

³ Such policies seem to rest on the assumption that people will happily live together if only there was enough financial incentive – that a couple of hundred a year from the government will save troubled marriages, or that such money will encourage people whose relationship is not solid enough for them to choose to marry currently to form a stable and lasting marriage. Which n those terms, it seems more likely that such policies will merely reward people who were staying together anyway.

Advertisements

Mrs T defeated the miners – and then replaced them with homophobia outreach workers

One of the striking things about the Mail‘s columnists in general is their lack of positive vision – take today’s column from ‘Peter’ Hitchens:

“Margaret Thatcher was a failure. It is time, 30 years after she entered Downing Street, that her admirers forced themselves to admit it.

For a start, if she had been the great success they claim, we would never have needed to suffer the current rule of Gordon Brown, or the disastrous years of Anthony Blair.

Almost every good thing Mrs Thatcher achieved has already been overturned, reversed and wiped out.

By contrast, the Labour Party devotes much of its time to making sure that the damage it does can never be undone.”

So far fair enough – the bit about Labour is entirely negative, but by saying Thatcher failed ‘Peter’ is suggesting at least some sort of positive plan against which her time in government can be measured.

“True, she reduced the number of direct employees of Whitehall.

But the jungle of quangos grew and grew, and so did the slithering, choking, parasitic bindweed of local government and the unwieldy, Soviet-scale monstrosity of the NHS.”

Here we have hints – ‘Peter’ is broadly for smaller government. This isn’t especially visionary, as it assumes that small government is good in itself – particularly in terms of quangos, local government and the NHS – without justifying this or saying where the benefits lie, but it’s a start. We can assume from the Soviet comparison, for example, that smaller government would be less bureaucratic and thus more responsive, so there may be some implicit positive vision. As it stands though, this is essentially an unjustified statement of negation of the current state of things.¹

“Challenged to come up with a lasting achievement of Thatcherism, her admirers often tell us how hard it was, in the days before British Telecom, to try to get a new phone installed.

So it was. But have any of these people had any recent dealings with that fearsome, greedy and arrogant monopoly, BT?

BT and the other former nationalised giants are now regulated by the State but responsible – in reality – to nobody. Is this an improvement?”

This would seem to be quite positive – ‘Peter’ wants renationalisation of State infrastructure – but this positivity is hedged by the sense that we’re returning from the negative present to the negative past. BT, it would appear, was horribly under-regulated both then and now. Taken with ‘Peter”s earlier desire for an end to quangos (which include regulators), it’s unlikely that this would a much better world than the one we live in now. Alternatively, ‘Peter’ wants to retain BT’s freedom, but with tighter regulation from a state employing less regulators, which seems somewhat over-hopeful. We’re left with the feeling that ‘Peter’ is pushing change despite the lack of obvious benefit, purely because he doesn’t like BT.²

“We also used to have a number of state industries – coal and steel – which, for all their faults, made or provided things the nation needed.

They’ve gone. Now we have regiments of condom outreach workers, facilitators and homophobia monitors, all costing much more than coal miners, and far less useful.”

Again, this seems to be a hint of positive vision – ‘Peter’ wants a break with market forces that reduced the costs of steel and coal by making them more cheaply overseas and a return to statist economics where a premium was paid for keeping people in employment. How he hopes to make this fly in the cut-throat capitalist world we’re living in, or how to do this without increasing people employed directly by Whitehall or building up a ‘Soviet-scale’ monstrosity at the Ministry of Industry, he doesn’t say. It’s a bit like those conversations you have in the pub where you suggest bringing Shearer and Cole back to sort out England’s problems up front – it’s positive to be sure, but not the most sensible of visions. It, too, suffers from being hedged slightly as it appears to only be there as a comparison for the list of people currently employed by the State. The idea is that we couldn’t afford either, but at least the coal miners were less unaffordable. Like the return to the unpleasant past when BT really was B, ‘Peter’ wants to go back to the days when the police beat gays with impunity but coal was plentiful. Alternatively, ‘Peter’ might be making the even less nuanced point that everything is rubbish, coal and community work both, and we should scrap the lot. Which isn’t so much a positive vision as an fully negative view of both past and present.

“But what about the unions? Didn’t she defeat them? Well, sort of. But who needs stroppy shop stewards now that we are chained up by the intrusive labour laws of the European Union, so that every employer, large or small, lives in constant fear of a ruinous employment tribunal claim?

The European Union is at least as much of a threat to jobs and profits as the Transport and General Workers’ Union ever was.”

Here, at least, we have some idea of what ‘Peter”s bright new future looks like – a free hand for those whose money is made from the surplus value created by their employees. It’s negatively defined in terms of the removal of the hard-won rights of employees to be treated as human beings and the European Union’s on-going project to stop companies passing things off as things they aren’t³ This, presumably, is where his smaller state is coming from – less rules means less oversight is required and thus less overseers. Essentially we institutionalise the arrogance of BT, even if we are now renationalising it, or at very least shift its arrogance onto its workforce and not its consumers.

“Above all, she failed to fight the cultural revolutionaries who wanted to undermine marriage, dissolve the family, sexualise children and use State schools as an egalitarian sausage machine, turning out brainwashed Leftists by the million.”

Again, we have equivocal positivity – a vision defined in opposition to the present. The case isn’t made for marriage, the circumstances which led to the dissolution of the family or sexualisation of the family (and so whether any government could have held them back) are not considered , the aspects of the school system which are problematic are not named. We’re left to assume that the ideal government would have done something. We’re back in the pub saying that what England need to do is score more and concede less. Which leaves us with the conclusion:

“The real counter-revolution, more badly needed than ever, will have to come from somewhere else.”

The revolution in favour of what? The present is bad, fine, but the past was as well. ‘Peter’ wants less of the bad things of the present – if only we got rid of the bad things, without re-instating the bad things of the past, we’ll be OK. We could regulate some things more, some things less, by employing less people doing different things more cheaply and, hey-presto, inevitable utopia. Things will be better purely because there will be less bad things. As an idea, that’s sound enough, but I can’t help but think it’s a little simplistic – how will things be better, and what effect will the removal of the bad things make (after all, if they’re fully bad, someone would have removed them already)? Running things down is easy, but without an alternative it is completely pointless and does nothing but add to the nihilism and depression that it claims to rail against.

—————-

¹ Looking still at the NHS example, we would have some serious questions, starting with ‘what form does this smaller NHS take?’ – are we talking more private provision, the same provision on a smaller/cheaper staff, an increase in treatments offered, a decrease in treatments offered? Where do the benefits lie – lower taxes, better service for some, for all, a re-adjustment of treatment priorities to maximise utility, an end to ‘post code lotteries’?

² This isn’t to say that our situation wouldn’t be greatly improved by returning national assets to the nation – simple economics suggests that if a company isn’t paying a dividend to faceless investors in return for their purchasing of its shares from a third party in the hope of getting a dividend then that company has that much more money to invest. ‘Peter’, however, doesn’t say this.

³ For every piece of legislation demanding straight bananas, there are any number preventing companies pretending that their ground-meat sandwiches constitute burgers.

From that spiteful 50p tax to Harriet’s mad sex war, Labour is blasting Britain back to the dark ages

A particularly gloomy take on current events this morning from Melanie Phillips:

“For with the economy in far worse shape than even the most pessimistic among us had imagined, we appear to have entered a time machine which is blasting us back to the dark ages of state control and economic paralysis.”

There are instantly problems with this comparison – to take the obvious, it’s only really the banking sector the state has started moving into, and you’d be hard pushed to say that it ‘controlled’ banks when it can’t even get those it owns to lend money to small businesses. The idea of the machine ‘blasting us’ towards a point where it’s not just the banks the state controls is scare-mongering – the state has no money to take over anything particularly impressive, we still remember things not working so well the last time it tried, the government is currently trying to offload the state-owned postal service suggesting little appetite for further state expansion and the likely candidates to form the next government are opposed to any such expansion. It also misses the way we got into this mess in the first place – through historically lax state control leading to a necessary take-over of the banking sector. Although there is some comfort to be gained from seeing current events through the prism of history, we shouldn’t let superficial similarities scare us into believing the two are the same – this focuses our fears on the wrong things, meaning we miss the real issues while paranoidly waiting for unrealistic evils to befall us. For example,

“The 50p tax rate has left the out-manoeuvred Blairites aghast for the very reasons that the fossilised Left is triumphant. By singling out the wealthy as scapegoats for the failure of government policy, it implicitly classifies as the enemies of society people whose efforts are essential to its prosperity.”

There are a few things to note about this. Firstly, the Mail was, not so long ago, leading a witch-hunt against the well paid (eg.), which arguably does more to mark out the well-off as enemies of society. More crucial though, the duties on fuel, cigarettes and alcohol all went up in the budget – these all disproportionately affect those on low incomes, making them at least equal targets of the Chancellor’s disapprobation.¹

“It punishes them for the crime of achievement and acts as a powerful disincentive to others to seek success or advancement, thus ensuring the stagnation of the country. It is a throwback to a primitive era of class prejudice and economic illiteracy. It is the dogma of political and economic cavemen.”

This is debatable – one could easily argue that they are being rewarded for high achievement by being offered the opportunity to contribute mote to society, adding additional incentive to succeed. On this argument, the problem here is not the tax, but the ideology pushed by the mainstream media that defines success in terms of materialistic self-aggrandisement. Possibly more compellingly, a 50% rate of tax (rising to 60% with various alterations to personal benefits announced at the same time) on £150,000 leaves the earner with 50p in the pound for every pound over £150,000. Although this is 10p less than they used to get, they still have 40p’s worth of further reasons to strive.² Unlike a salary ceiling, tax brackets do continue to offer incentives to earn, they merely make it slightly more difficult to do so.

“It is also, as the rest of us can clearly see, a fruitless act of cynical spite. Far from increasing tax revenues, it may even mean less money comes into the Exchequer as people resort to various tactics to offset their losses.”

It’s worth considering, at this point, the raft of steps the Chancellor announced in the budget to make it harder to avoid paying tax. More than this, however, is the general point that the Chancellor has to do something to increase the money coming in as the economy tanks. He’s not going to be coining it from corporation tax on the banks any more, what revenues came in from the employment of low earners will be eroded by rising unemployment, a new source must be found. So up go cigarettes and alcohol, increasing incentives for people to source them on the black market to offset their losses. It’s not an option everyone will take, as the costs of such evasion will, for some at least, outweigh the financial benefits – for the increase to result in lower tax-take the number of people evading, and so dropping out, would need to out-weigh the increase secured from those not avoiding. It’s a calculated risk, but to suggest that it’s a risk not taking purely because it is a risk is to say that no tax increase should ever be made as any tax increase will carry the risk of prompting evasion.

“With this huge and increasing burden of higher taxes, red tape and ruinous regulation, yet more entrepreneurs are going to pack up and leave Britain altogether for more hospitable climes.”

There are a few things to consider about concerns of a brain drain. One relates to the Mail‘s equivocal relationship with high-earners – by their lights, it is not just the brains that will be drained, the increase in tax-rate will rebate a certain amount from the public sector and the much demonised banking sector and possibly drive some of the ‘fat-cats’ away, presumably opening the way for thinner cats or people who aren’t cats at all. This is to say nothing about the sense or justice of the measure, but only to note that, from the newspaper’s point of view, this will do much to resolve some of its recent concerns. More pressingly, the evidence of brain drain in countries with high tax rates is equivocal – looking at research into Canada, for example, while there is definite evidence of people moving to the lower-tax regime of the USA to earn more, the numbers are low and appear to be influenced by more than just taxes. This makes intuitive sense – brains need somewhere to drain to (at bare minimum, a job market where they can gain more after tax for the same amount of job which at the same time offers a comparable or better quality of life, difficult to find in the face of a worldwide recession), and to be sufficiently mercenary to be willing to drop their current home and lifestyle to do so. Undoubtedly, some will, but the extent of this is unlikely to be overwhelming.

So the 50p rate of tax is not the obviously bad idea Melanie presents. Indeed, she herself seems confused on the import of it all:

“Indeed, since it was Tory Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s 1988 Budget that reduced the top rate of tax from 60 per cent to 40 per cent, last week’s travesty can be seen as not just burying Blairism, but reverting to the era before Mrs Thatcher came along to try to arrest Britain’s apparently irreversible decline.”

If we’re trying to conclude that Labour are reverting to type using Lawson’s budget, we must also bear in mind from the same that Thatcher was more than happy for the majority of her time in power with a taxation of the rich higher than that of the current Labour government, that this high rate coincided with the arresting of our ‘apparently irreversible decline‘ and that we’re now actually reverting to the dark days before the halcyon days of the Major government (which started in 1990). As such, we should be concluding that this is a bold return to Thatcherite tax policy, and not statism at all. In her attention to the superficial similarities, in this case that Thatcher got rid of a high tax rate, she misses the obvious differences in our situations, such as the fact that the rate of tax wasn’t Labour’s alone and it wasn’t the only thing Thatcher undid.

Nothing is ever as simple as Melanie makes this. After 12 years of Labour, we need a lot more than a 5% increase on the top-rate of income tax to herald a return to ‘the dark ages of state control and economic paralysis‘. The choice isn’t between the dark forces of socialism making us all poor and the bright Reaganomics of the future where the rich get rich and trickle it down. It’s not between a Thatcherite tax regime and a mass exodus of the long-suffering rich. At the moment, the choice is between definite lower tax revenues or possibly slightly less-lower tax revenues. It’s a gloomy choice to have to make, but not as gloomy as a time machine that only took us to the 70s would be.

—————

¹ The Guardian claims that “Early indications suggested the poor would still pay proportionately more than the rich because of a rise in fuel duty.” but don’t provide anything to back the statement up.

² This section is corrected as of 29th April, thanks to Ben (see comments below). The original, incorrect text, read: “with £75,000 after tax (£60,000) – this is still a fairly impressive reason to try and earn £150,000. Taking this further, the maths of the tax-bracket system also means that what disincentive there is only kicks in on a relatively small range of salaries around the £150,000 boundary – the previous 40% rate on a salary of £149,999 meant you took home £90,000; you would need to earn £30,000 more to take home the same amount at a 50% rate. This means that you have no incentive, at £149,999, to earn anything less than £30,001 more, but it would still pay you, increasingly handsomely, to aim at a job worth £180,001 or more.” As Ben kindly and correctly points out, this reading is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the tax system. Ben is too kind to call me an idiot, but he could very fairly have done so.

Why CAN’T Gordon say sorry?

Interesting consideration of the nature of apology and of agency today from Stephen Glover:

“One questions whether this is the letter of a normally functioning human being. He [Gordon Brown] could, and should, have written that he was sorry that Ms Dorries had been hurt by the repulsive email sent by a man whom he had chosen to employ. That would have been the kind and honest thing to have said. But such sentiments are not even hinted at. And because the Prime Minister was at pains to disassociate himself from the activities of his feral sidekick, he was unable to bring himself to apologise.”

A number of claims to unpack here: that Gordon Brown could have written to say he was sorry; that he should have done so; that this normative claim is due to the fact that he had chosen to employ the person who caused the suffering; that this would have been the kind thing to do; that this would have been the honest thing to do; that Gordon Brown wanted to distance himself from Damien McBride; that this was the reason that could not bring himself to apologise. Now, one of these is uncontroversial – Brown could have apologised; one probable – that Brown was trying to distance himself from his employee; one is speculative – that he couldn’t apologise because of this desire for distance; the rest are dubious or incorrect.

Let’s distinguish here between two senses of being sorry – sorry for and sorry that.¹ Only one of these two senses is the apology which Stephen expects. I can honestly say I’m sorry that emails were sent, or that offence was caused – I think the whole affair is thoroughly lamentable. However, I can’t say that I’m sorry for sending the emails, or for causing offence, because I am in no way connected to their sending or the offence they engendered. Gordon Brown has said the second sort of sorry, the letter of his which so disappoints Stephen expressed ‘great regret’ not only for this particular bad thing, but for all bad things of the type that ‘affect the reputation of our politics’. Just so you don’t think this is mere vapidity on his part, he backs up his words with a letter tightening up rules on political advisers, doing, in his words, ‘all he can to avoid this happening again’.

This is an expression of sorrow rather than an apology and that this is insufficient for Stephen’s purposes suggests that he is gunning for the first sense of sorry, being sorry for having done something. Now, Gordon didn’t send the emails and Stephen doesn’t suggest he endorsed, condoned, solicited, commissioned, devised or so much as knew about the emails. As a result, he is seemingly expecting Gordon to apologise for something someone else did.² How meaningful would we find such an apology?

Stephen seems to suggest that Gordon is in some way culpable because he employed the person who sent the emails. It’s worth remembering at this point that Damien was breaking the rules which governed his job and doing something that Gordon regrets. It’s one thing to criticise a man for knowingly employing someone who does regrettable things, it’s another to blame him for actions his employee has done on the sly knowingly contravening the guidelines which are in place to prevent it. It’s like blaming him for funding an employee’s drink problem when that demon is exercised only after work hours – it’s true that the funding is enabling the fulfilment of the addiction, but this is neither known nor foreseeable.³

In light of this then, where do we stand on Stephen’s earlier claims? Would an apology from Gordon been the kindest, most honest thing to do, or would it have been false and inappropriate? Is the lack of apology due to Gordon trying to distance himself, or is there actually a genuine distance there? The reason this matters is Stephen’s climax:

“And now? Mr Brown may have a more developed sense of morality than Mr Blair, yet he employed as a trusted lieutenant a man who disseminated scurrilous emails that would have brought a flush of shame to the face of Richard Nixon.

Mr Brown’s character is writ large in that short, disgraceful letter to Nadine Dorries. It is a terrifying thought that he can employ a man like McBride, while continuing to reassure himself that he has a finely developed moral compass.”

This is a distraction. Stephen’s drawing conclusions on a man’s morality from the actions of an underling and a letter he sent not apologising for employing that underling. Meanwhile, the economy, schools, hospitals, transport, two wars, any amount of international development, communities, agriculture, the regions, the environment and any number of other things rage outside. While Stephen is constructing intricate orreries of political figures reputations, the world goes on. The moral character of the Prime Minister is not what should be concerning us – the spin and evasion that reduces accessibility of our elected officials, the struggle for power rather than the debate of ideas, the fact that a government employee considered this a worthwhile use of their time, these should be concerning us. The fact that this has become a morality play only further confirms in the minds of the average individual the fact that politics is completely disconnected from their lives. Even if he were responsible for the emails, the problem would not be Gordon’s character, but the fact that he wasn’t doing what he’s paid to do. The longer we waste our time on this, the more important decisions will pass by unnoticed and the more solvable social problems will be overlooked. Let’s judge people on their actions, but do so on the ones that actually matter.

—————

¹ I’m ignoring the sense of being sorry on behalf of, which would only really apply where the person who did the bad thing is unable to form an apology themselves (we apologise on behalf of children, for example), partly because I doubt Stephen wants Gordon to apologise on Damien’s behalf (I think he’d prefer it if they both apologised) and partly because there’s a fairly large debate to be had on the meaningfulness of an apology for something done by someone who isn’t actually sorry themselves.

² Imagine Gordon took this further, and tried to make amends and ask for forgiveness – would it make sense for Nadine Dorries to offer him forgiveness for Damien’s emails?

³ To Stephen’s claim that this was foreseeable  (“In other words, Mr Brown knew the kind of man he was employing. He was drawn to him. He picked him out.”), there are two obvious rejoinders: that you can legitimately hire someone for their desirable aspects even when these have undesirable flip-sides and that one would expect better from a PR guru than to be caught gossipping in writing.

At last! A judge speaks up for British laws but when will we wake up to the REAL folly of human rights?

An interesting example of how a series of assertions do not equal an argument, from Melanie Philips:

“Lord Hoffmann, the second most senior Law Lord, has questioned the court’s constitutional legitimacy, ridiculed its judgments and said it should get its nose out of our national affairs.

Given the fact that human rights law has effectively become a secular religion for the higher judiciary, this is what you might call a flying wig moment.”

The moment in question is this lecture to the Judicial Studies Board, which is a good and an interesting read. To nutshell it, Lord Hoffmann has no problem with the concept of universal human rights, but feels that their interpretation and application should be a national matter. He fears that the unelected European Court of Human Rights is appropriating political power, after the fashion of the American courts, something it is ill-placed to do given its lack of understanding of the British context in which laws are applied and its inconsistency in application. Or, as Melanie puts it:

“For this country has seen its laws and values turned inside out because of the obeisance paid to the rulings of the European human rights court.

In some cases, these have unilaterally challenged moral norms without public opinion even being consulted, and have undermined concepts such as family life, truth, social order, citizenship and law itself.”

It is very difficult to know which specific laws and values Melanie is referring to, and so how she thinks the European Court has undermined them. It would be interesting, taking just the example of the undermining of family life, to see examples, as the Court is specifically set up to defend, among other things parental rights and the respect for private life, family life, the home and correspondence. If it is undermining the concept of family life, it is doing very badly. I would suspect, given Melanie’s feelings on the subject, she is thinking here of things like the defence of civil partnerships and of adoption by, and IVF for, same-sex couples. If this suspicion is correct, I think we would disagree – here the right to a family has been extended from its conventional limits to others who previously fell outside of it; this isn’t an undermining, but a confirmation.

Moving on from these vague assertions, Melanie says:

“But the issue is much deeper than how the European judges have behaved. The real problem lies with human rights law itself.

The liberties of this country traditionally rested on the fact that rights were not codified but grew out of English common law. As a result, everything was permitted unless it was expressly prohibited.

Once codified into statute law, however, rights became dependent on what the courts said they were. So, far from expanding our liberties human rights law has diminished them.”

Which is a specific assertion, but again one that appears implausible given that our initial objection to the Court was its application of universal liberties without regard to local context. When a petitioner asks the Court to rule on whether their national law is depriving them of their human rights, and are successful, their liberties have been extended – liberties that had been denied them by their local legal system and which, through the compound interest of case law, would have meant denial for future generations, not just in identical cases but also in vaguely comparable ones. The very point of the Court is to look at things which have been expressly prohibited and extend liberties by expressly permitting them.

In addition to this, the idea that you could somehow lose rights by writing them down is an odd one. What is codified in the Human Rights Act (1998), and the principles which the Court is enforcing, are essentially a set of benchmarks, standards which laws must not fall beneath. The situation with regards courts defining rights is the same as it ever was because courts were, and still are, the arbiters of what behaviour is in correspondence with the law. The difference now is that we have an appeal against that law and its enforcement. Essentially, we all now have the liberty to question the justice of laws and their enforcement through the appeal to an outside observer. This is an exponential expansion of liberty. In the face of this, Hoffman’s objection is a somewhat weak one – the very point of a universal principle is that it ignores local context; if your trials deny human rights, they deny human rights, regardless of whether the local populous think they’re fine or historically they’ve always been that way.

Melanie is right to highlight Lord Bingham’s thoughts in this area:

“Lord Bingham, the former senior Law Lord, actually declared that the Human Rights Convention existed to protect vulnerable minorities against the majority. So majority opinion, it seemed, was essentially illegitimate and the judiciary would use human rights law to do it down.”

I don’t think I can improve on Lord Bingham himself in providing a riposte to this argument:

“It is, however, plain that the robust and independent-minded member of Parliament is rarely able to make an effective impact when faced by a determined government. Governments for their part are understandably anxious to retain the support of the electorate and accordingly concentrate on measures which will earn the gratitude of a majority of the voters. Thus Parliamentary opinion is likely to reflect the opinion of the majority and show less concern for the interests of minorities. It is accordingly possible, looking back over our history, to identify a number of groups who have been either unpopular or disregarded and whose rights and freedoms have as a result been of little or no Parliamentary interest: Jews, Roman Catholics, dissenters; vagrants, vagabonds, beggars, gypsies; married women; children; prisoners; mental patients and the disabled; immigrants of various kinds, asylum seekers, aliens; homosexuals; strikers; single mothers; paedophiles. All of these have had occasion at some time or another to feel that the defence of their rights by a sovereign Parliament was something short of whole-hearted.”

The problem Lord Bingham highlights is not the illegitimacy of majority opinion, but the fact that, where it is illegitimate, it is very difficult to overturn. The judiciary’s job is to ensure equality under the Law for everyone who comes before it – at some point that has to mean rejecting unequal laws. Or, as Melanie puts it:

“As a result, it has been used as a judicial battering ram by those determined to up-end this country’s core values. The police and even the security service have been paralysed by the fear of damaging the rights of one ‘grievance group’ or another.

Christians have come under the human rights cosh for expressing a preference for heterosexual couples to adopt children.

Most egregiously of all, human rights law reduced asylum and immigration policy to chaos and destroyed this country’s control over its own borders.

This was the result of the uniquely zealous way in which English judges interpreted Strasbourg’s rulings against torture, making it impossible to deport suspected terrorists to any country suspected of abusing human rights.”

I was not previously aware that condoning torture had been a core British value, that receiving public funding to discriminate against a minority was a core British value or that having the security services and police target and isolate specific communities was a core British value. That these are core values and, if so, that they are defensible one is something I will need to be persuaded of, which Melanie does not attempt. Notice she also doesn’t here invoke her earlier complaint about liberties being lost through codification – although in a real sense liberties have been lost, they were liberties to infringe the liberties of others, which is not a liberty that’s readily justifiable. I am not sure what the Act or the Court has done wrong here, and do not see the argument made. So when Melanie concludes:

“To some of us, of course, that is precisely why we should leave the EU, in order to restore our powers of self-government and democracy as expressed through our own laws.”

I cannot see why she does so. She appears to be yearning for the days when the law was arbitrary and political, merely because the application of external benchmarks has prevented the persecution and discrimination of groups she doesn’t like. Which is exactly the sort of diminishing of liberty she protested about the Court making.

When a bishop has to leave the Church of England to stand up for Christians, what hope is left for Britain?

An interesting exercise in differing perspectives today from Melanie Phillips, which moves from the resignation of the Bishop of Rochester to pursue missionary work overseas, through a number of slights and marginalisations of Christianity in public life through to this:

“With multiculturalism discriminating in favour of all who challenge the established values of this country, it would appear that it is Christians who have become the oppressed minority. “

It is worth remembering at this point that the head of state is also the head of the national branch of the Church, Christian religious leaders sit unelected in the second house of our legislature, the school system is predominantly a collection of Christian faith-based organisations, charity law allows tax breaks for organisations devoted to ‘advancement of religion’, our national broadcaster carries a weekly televised Christian service and Christian (and other religious) organisations have exemptions from various pieces of equality legislation allowing them to discriminate against people while still receiving public funds. For an oppressed minority, Christians do quite well for themselves.

So, how has Melanie got to the point where all the perks of Christianity are overlooked – what has generated this feeling of oppression?

“Yesterday, it was revealed that a Christian council worker was suspended for encouraging a terminally ill woman to turn to God. He says he was also told it was inappropriate to ‘talk about God’ with a client and that he should not even say ‘God bless’.

This follows the case of the nurse who was suspended for offering to pray for an elderly patient’s recovery, the Christian who lost her role on an adoption panel because she disapproved of gay adoption, and Christian adoption agencies which lost their public funding because they had the same approach.”

So, there seem to be a series of well publicised attacks on people merely for being Christian. It’s not quite Rome, but people are losing their livelihoods, merely for stating their faith. They might still have spiritual leaders in the Lords interfering with bills on science and health, but on the ground the secularists are winning.

Except, from another perspective, this isn’t what’s going on at all. The Christian council worker in question is accused by his employers of subjecting a woman who came to him to discuss her housing situation to an extended ‘religious rant’¹. Were this any other religion, or no religion, I’m not sure Melanie would feel as uncomfortable. If we give him the benefit of the doubt, and his comments were neither extended nor ranting, then rather than doing the job he was paid to do, he was proselytising, again something Melanie would probably feel less comfortable with were it on behalf of another god. Alternatively, imagine he weren’t proselytising at all, but suggesting an alternative remedy – would it be appropriate for a homelessness officer to suggest to a supplicant that they go home and eat goji berries because, even though the doctors say there’s no hope, you sometimes hear about people switching to the berries and pulling through? For a newspaper so often concerned by local government spending, the implicit claim that Wandsworth’s rate payers should be funding unqualified health advice with every housing consultation seems odd. The idea that someone should be considered persecuted because their employer expects them to do their job and leave their medical advice for after hours is equally strange.

In the case of the nurse, someone was sufficiently taken aback by her offer of prayer to complain about it – so Malanie is now asking us to accept that nurses should be allowed to make patients feel awkward and uncomfortable. The Christian who lost their job on the adoption panel did so because she wanted to base adoption not on the law or the scientific evidence which informed it, but on her private beliefs – Melanie is asking us to accept personal belief as a legitimate reason to ignore the rules which govern our jobs. The Christian adoption agency were allowed to continue to discriminate against couples on the basis of their private beliefs, but were no longer allowed to ask the taxpayer to fund that discrimination – Melanie is asking certain members of the community to happily stump up for someone else to persecute them.

In all of these cases, we can easily imagine the problems we would have were it not Christianity, but another set of private beliefs which were influencing the public behaviour. Were we to substitute racism in the adoption cases, for example. The issue is not, in this light, the persecution of Christianity, but the exclusion of certain private beliefs from the public sphere. It is not Christianity which is under attack, but the idea that private beliefs should influence your public duties.

In some ways, the confusion between the two is understandable – historically in this country, Christian private beliefs have coincided with public duties. When homosexuality was illegal on grounds of morality, the question of discrimination in adoption never arose. The problem Melanie is having is not that multiculturalism [is] discriminating in favour of all who challenge the established values of this country’, but that not all the established views are universally held and that the acceptance of this necessarily implies a retreat of all private beliefs from the public sphere. The illusion that Christianity is being persecuted arises because Christian beliefs have further to retreat. This in no ways undermines her feeling that:

“Although most people may no longer be churchgoers, Christianity infuses all this country’s institutions, traditions and values.”

Even retreating to the private sphere, Christian values will still influence public life because the worthwhile ones are universal. Christianity does not have the monopoly on tolerance, decency and the Golden Rule². Christians will still be able to agree with laws based on equality and reciprocity of expected behaviour, and with institutions which foster the same. ‘Christianity’ will still be the basis for our public conduct and discourse, we will still indulge in ‘Christian behaviour’ in as far as that basis and that behaviour overlaps with ‘human’ behaviour. That basis and that behaviour will still tolerate the discussion of private beliefs which run against our desire for equality and justice in the appropriate fora, but will still believe that such fora are not the ones funded by the public.

Even when we’ve sorted the monarchy, and the Lords, and the education system, and the national broadcaster, and the charity law, and the opt-outs of equality legislation, Christianity will still have a place in public life. That place still won’t proselytising, or ignoring the law, at the taxpayer’s expense. That’s not oppression, that’s even-handedness, which the Christian god, among others, was all for³.

———————–

¹ I’m basing my comments on this on an article in the Telegraph – oddly, only they and the Mail appear to be carrying this story.

² It’s worth noting here that Melanie is discussing Christianity as if it were a uniform monolith – the brand of the faith that is failing to love homosexuals as they love themselves is arguably missing the point sufficiently to not merit the name and to allow that particular animosity into public life would be the failure to uphold true Christian values, not its exclusion.

³ Deut 10:17-18 – For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing.

Twix bars, condoms and the betrayal of our young

Hidden beneath a piece on condom adverts is this from Amanda Platell:

“Lewis Hamilton is set to be our first sporting billionaire. He says of criticism that he is arrogant and superior: ‘I will take it on board and try to understand why it is being said.’ Here’s a hint, kiddo: perhaps people don’t like you because, the moment you hit the big time, you skipped the country to avoid tax. Now we’re in a recession, that bitterness will only grow.”

A couple of things: firstly, objections based on arrogance and superiority would seem to be conceptually distinct from objections based on tax status. While Amanda is right in suggesting that the animosity generated by the latter might give people an additional reason for airing the former, as indeed she is proving, her advice is flawed because removing one of the two objections does not remove them both. People will still think Hamilton arrogant and superior even if he returns to pay tax.

A second point is the injustice of attacking someone who leaves the country to protect their earnings. It is a solid Daily Mail principle that our tax money is routinely misspent (recent examples here, here and here). It is also a solid Daily Mail principle that people should contribute to pay for services that they use (recent examples here, here and here). So how can someone be blamed for wanting to pay their tax elsewhere, to the extent that they’re prepared to leave the country of their birth forsaking its benefits and services? It’s not as if he’s avoiding tax while living in the UK, and so not contributing to the upkeep of services he benefits from. Unlike Lord Rothermere, the Daily Mail and General Trust’s chairman. In fact, describing his activities as ‘avoiding tax’ is misleading – Hamilton is merely avoiding paying it in the UK, it would be more accurate to say that he has chosen the tax regime he wants to live under. Which makes Amanda’s complaint look more like jealousy than principle.