Monday, 9 September 2013

That vote, and why we should stay out of Syria!

For the second time in a decade, the government of Britain seems intent in taking the country into a war nobody, outside  of our political leadership wants. In 2003 it was Iraq, and the regime of Saddam Hussein, this time it's Syria and Bashar Al-Assad.

Both cries for war were, and are, based on evidence about which there is much doubt. The so-called 'dodgy dossier' that helped convince so many that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, has since been exposed as having been largely plagiarised from a number of unattributed sources, and then 'sexed up,' to use Andrew Gilligan's famous phrase, to strengthen its conclusions.

The then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the American President, George W. Bush, both seemed to be convinced that a military intervention to remove Saddam Hussein was justified but were unable to get a United Nations resolution, despite a detailed presentation by then US Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But many states did not find the US case convincing, and at the very least wanted UN weapons inspectors, led by Hans Blix, to complete their task and report fully to the security council. The only permanent members of the security council who had no doubts were the United States and Britain. France believed that Saddam had a weapons programme but felt intervention would be the 'worst possible solution,' according to then Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin. France's position was not one of never going into Iraq, but wanted the inspectors top complete their work and took a 'wait and see' approach.

The Chinese took a position that  was close to France's whilst the Russians, though reluctant to enable intervention, the then President Vladimir Putin, indicated that if Iraq continued in its failure to co-operate with the inspectors, then support for a US-led intervention was possible. There was one country on the security council at the time, from the elected members, that believed Iraq was meeting all its obligations, and indeed supported the lifting of sanctions, and that was Syria which had been led by the current president since 2000.

So as 2013 unfolds, once again war looms in the middle-east, in a situation which divides the permanent members of the security council. Britain and the United States are once again allied, this time with the French, whilst the Russians and Chinese are implacably opposed, as geopolitics takes centre stage.

In March 2011, as an extension of the 'Arab Spring,' a series of demonstrations against the Ba'athist regime of Syria, ruled since 2000 by Bashar Al-Assad, who succeeded his father. These demonstrations were largely peaceful until the army attempted to quell them, and they have since escalated into a full-scale civil war.

For over a year the anti-government rebels fought as a series of disparate groups each with their own agendas, but last November seemingly got together to form a single grouping Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, led by Ahmad Jarba, who reputedly has close ties with Saudi Arabia.

Making up the fighting force for the rebels are large elements of the army who defected in 2011, and operate under the title of the Free Syrian Army. However, attached to the rebel cause is a group known as Jabhat Al-Nasra, which has very close ties to Al-Qaeda, merging with the Iraqi branch in April this year. Al-Qaeda did not operate in Iraq before the 2003 invasion, which is perhaps something to ponder?

Jabhat Al-Nasra have been responsible for a series of suicide bombings on government targets, and last December were declared a terrorist organisation by the United States, yet remain part of the opposition which Foreign Secretary William Hague was not ruling out arming as recently as July, confident they wouldn't fall into 'extremist hands.'

To complicate matters even further, Hezbollah, an Iranian funded Lebanese terrorist organisation, is supporting the Assad regime, and has participated in numerous suicide attacks, mainly on American and Israeli targets over the years.

So in effect what we have in Syria is two opposing groups with close links to active terrorist organisations, who have killing each other and over 100,000 civilians for two years, yet now the American, British and French governments have concluded that things have reached a point where a 'limited' military intervention is required against the Assad government.

The immediate trigger for this, though the forming of the official opposition group is a more medium term incentive, is an alleged chemical weapons attack on 21st August on a rebel held area of Damascus. Weapons inspectors have recently been there, and are expected to release their findings shortly, although their remit was to find evidence of chemical (WMD) weapon usage, not to apportion blame.

The leaders of the three main countries; United States, Britain and France, seeking to use military force are convinced that it was the Syrian regime that used these weapons, and according to President Barack Obama, crosses a 'red line,' he set a year previously.

The 'casus belli' is that this contravenes the UN's Chemical Weapons Convention which prohibits the production and use of chemical weapons, and calls for the destruction of facilities and stockpiles. Syria is not a signatory to the convention, and so acting without an explicit UN resolution must be of doubtful legality.

The United Nations' Security Council, however is at an impasse, as of the five permanent members possessing vetoes, Russia is dead against any military intervention, and the best that could be expected from China is an abstention, but without Russia, no resolution can pass. This is almost a return to the days of the Cold War, when it was fought by proxy.

With little prospect of a UN sanctioned intervention, the Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to get authorisation from the House of Commons, and so recalled it from the summer recess on August 29th,  to take military action, or at least that was the original intention, but Labour Party leader Ed Miliband's decision to table his own amendment, and reluctance to write a 'blank cheque' for intervention, forced Mr Cameron to change his motion to one focussing on the humanitarian aspect, but left open the prospect of military intervention if the government felt it was required:

"Agrees that a strong humanitarian response is required from the international community and that this may, if necessary, require military action that is legal, proportionate and focused on savings lives by preventing and deterring further use of Syria’s chemical weapons"

Now it must be noted that the final paragraph reads:

Notes that this motion relates solely to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives.

But overall the motion does not seem to rule out action without a UN resolution:

Believes, in spite of the difficulties at the United Nations, that a United Nations process must be followed as far as possible to ensure the maximum legitimacy for any such action

despite the many warm words seemingly in that direction.

During the debate, and following, there has been much dispute about two things, whether or not Ed Miliband said he would support David Cameron in taking action, and as to whether the Labour amendment was sufficiently different to justify its tabling, and dividing the House.

On the first point, this becomes a matter of interpretation, as the meetings between Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband were on privy council terms, and the reality is that Mr Miliband's response was sufficiently ambiguous enough that multiple interpretations were possible. It suited Mr Cameron to see it as supportive, and Mr Miliband to allow room for a different approach.

But the real point is, are there any key differences between the two motions? Malcolm Rifkind didn't think so, and neither did a number of Conservatives, but there are a few which are, in my opinion, decisive.

Firstly, although Ed Miliband accepts on a balance of probability that the regime was responsible for the August 21st attack, he wants to see,

the production of compelling evidence that the Syrian regime was responsible for the use of these weapons

and that the United nations votes on it following the inspectors report, and

There being a clear legal basis in international law for taking collective military action to protect the Syrian people on humanitarian grounds;

and also

That the Prime Minister reports further to the House on the achievement of these conditions so that the House can vote on UK participation in such action. 

So the key differences are that the regime is not blamed without clear proof, that the inspectors must report, and that the United nations must vote sanctioning 'limited' military action.

As we are well aware, both motions were defeated, and since then the accusations of politicking have been thrown at Mr Miliband, yet the large vote by the coalition partners against the Labour amendment would seem to allow such accusations against both sides, especially as the Labour amendment was, supposedly, so similar to the coalition motion.

Mr Miliband has also been accused of 'giving succour' to the Syrian President, Mr Assad, and siding with the Russians. However, I have yet to see him making the same accusations against the splendid Sarah Wollaston, former minister Crispin Blunt and former leadership contender David Davis who also voted against action.

After the desperately close vote, just thirteen, which defeated the government motion, Mr Miliband proposed a point of order asking:

There having been no motion passed by this House tonight, will the Prime Minister confirm to the House that, given the will of the House that has been expressed tonight, he will not use the royal prerogative to order the UK to be part of military action before there has been another vote in the House of Commons?

To which Mr Cameron replied:

I can give that assurance. Let me say that the House has not voted for either motion tonight. I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons, but I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is very clear tonight that, while the House has not passed a motion,the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the Government will act accordingly.

Here are the speeches of David Cameron and Ed Miliband so you can make up your own minds on their arguments.

I, along with the majority of the British population, do not believe intervention in Syria would be right or wise, and ironically it is now Mr Cameron who has completely ruled out military action, whereas the Labour amendment, and Mr Miliband's point of order, always left the door open.

Since the vote in the House of Commons, President Obama has announced that Congress would be asked to vote on military action, and President Hollande of France followed suite, although without a vote to follow. The vote in Congress is expected tomorrow the 10th September, and although the Congressional leadership is on board, there are many dissenting voices amongst representatives and senators, which could mean the vote is a close one.

Chemical weapons are an abhorrence, and we've seen their effects over the past century, from World War I mustard gas attacks, the use of Zyklon B in the gas chambers, napalm use during the Vietnam war by the Americans, the use of nerve gas on Kurdish villages by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, and allegations of other uses throughout the Middle-East especially.

So why is it imperative to act now, when we didn't in 1988 especially? In 1988, the west was supporting Iraq during what was, arguably, the first gulf war, and so turning a blind eye was deemed politik. But, of course, times change too, and President Obama and David Cameron have deemed such use unacceptable, and against international law, which I don't think many of us would disagree with.

But, in Syria, we have a situation where there aren't any 'good guys,' where accusations of the indiscriminate killing of civilians, and the possible use of chemical weapons, have been made against both sides, as well as the involvement, again on both sides, of recognised terrorist organisations, means this is a no win situation. Indeed, many have asked, why it is that it is the west who should intervene, and not the Arab League, or other regional organisations, in what is essentially a local dispute?

The movements of Russian and American ships, the presence of American ally Israel, and the various geopolitical line-ups, lead me to believe that this is a civil war that should be allowed to play itself out. There have been many questions asked as to why Assad's troops would use such weapons, when the war is going in their favour? However, a cursory study would show that over the centuries logical actions, especially during wars, aren't necessarily the way things unfold.

In many ways, the vote has done David Cameron a favour, as it has enabled him to be the voice of humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians, and the 100,000s of refugees the war has created, a role he has pursued with gusto, perhaps freed, in his mind, from having to take part in any military action, action that has not, and cannot be defined. 'Limited' has no real meaning in a military context, because once you're involved, you can't 'hit and run,' you stay until you win, or as the United States discovered in Vietnam, lose.

So, hopefully, throughout this article, I have shown why we, the British though really I mean everyone, should steer well clear of involvement in the Syrian conflict. The Labour Party have learned the lessons of Iraq, under a leader who was against it, yet the Americans apparently haven't, and their leader raised his voice against when a member of the Illinois state senate. The Americans say they have clear evidence the regime used chemical weapons, but despite promises, have yet to produce it. There are many arguments of falsification, but I believe there are sufficient reasons to stay out of Syria, outside of humanitarian assistance, without getting involved in those.

Secretary of State John Kerry today said,  'the risk of acting is greater than the risk of not acting,'  but there are occasions when it is better to do nothing, and rush headlong into a war where there will be no winners, and I believe this is one of them.

Finally, and really as an aside, this repercussions for the future could be quite stark. If it develops sensibly, the debate over the ending of the veto could begin, and systems put in place to ensure the United Nations does not become an irrelevance.

However, worryingly, David Cameron did say at the G20 on 6th September that, "Relying on the UN to act over Syria would be tantamount to 'contracting out foreign policy and morality' to a Russian veto," and perhaps the same fate as the League of Nations awaits it unless reform is forthcoming, otherwise we're in for a series of counter-vetoes as each side struggles to maintain an advantage.


Sunday, 5 May 2013

More questions than answers...........

To many Thursday's County Council election results were a 'game changer,' as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), seemed to come from virtually nowhere to win 147 councillors a gain of 136 on the same elections in 2009.

These gains were mainly at the expense of the Conservatives who were down 335 seats, although they remain the largest party in County Councils by some margin, having more than twice as many as the Labour Party.

These elections featured another poor performance by the Liberal Democrats, who lost around a quarter of their councillors. The Conservatives also lost about 25%, but they started from a much higher base, and so were always likely to suffer considerable losses.

The coalition partners then for the first time since forming the government in 2010 both suffered substantial losses, but is this just mid-term blues, or a taste of things to come?

Perhaps if the Labour Party had many more gains we could have read more into the results, but despite a gaining a very good 291 councillors, all that has happened is that Labour are back to where they were in 2009.

There were typical to and fros on Friday as both Conservative and Labour spokespeople each claimed the other had done terribly, trading figures back and forth, and really just generating more heat than light.

As a Labour Party supporter, I was pleased with the results on Thursday, especially as we made gains in areas where the party of often has difficulty making headway, such as the Sussex coastal area, the midlands and the west country. In the long run this may turn out to be more significant than whether or not Labour performed as well as they should have.

However, the real story of the 2013 County Council elections was the performance of UKIP, and whether  it heralds a sea-change in British politics (or perhaps more accurately English as UKIP's presence elsewhere is muted), or a protest vote against all the main parties, with whom the public have become increasingly disillusioned.

But UKIP have a number of problems to overcome before they could be said to have made a real impact on the political scene. True they have had candidates elected to the European Parliament for some time, but have never made much progress, until now, on the domestic scene, and still have got nowhere near having an MP elected.

In 2009's elections for the European Parliament, UKIP came second in the national vote, and many pundits are expecting that next year, they could well come out on top. But, until they have an MP elected under the UKIP banner, being taken seriously will be a problem for them.

There have been many rumours over the last year or so that a number of Conservative MP's might defect to UKIP, the principle issue being David Cameron's unwillingness to call a referendum on membership of the European Union. For Mr Cameron this is a delicate issue, as he too has problems with the EU, how it is administered and how much it costs. However, he is in the end, as is the Chancellor George Osborne, in favour of continued membership provided he can get the concessions he wants. Unfortunately for him, a substantial proportion of his own membership in including those MP's, want out altogether.

But, although a defection would cause the Prime Minister some embarrassment, losing a minor backbencher or two isn't an issue, until UKIP start to get members of Parliament elected under its own banner, advocating a UKIP manifesto.

On the face of it UKIP do present the greatest threat to the Conservative Party, but they can also affect the other main parties. Although Labour did not actually lose any councillors to UKIP on Thursday, inevitably some Labour supporters, for a number of reasons chose to vote for them, and almost certainly it cost Labour wins.

The UKIP performance also, probably, skews the performance of the Conservative party, as it is its supporters who switched here in the main, and without UKIP, the Tories losses would have been many fewer.

I think it would be dangerous to write off the UKIP performance as a mere protest vote, because politics has changed substantially over the last few years. The expenses scandal and the financial crisis has lowered people's opinion of politicians more than ever, and it's hard for leaders to make an impact. trust has gone, and UKIP leader's, Nigel Farage, bluff, bloke down the pub strategy is currently paying dividends.

As the elections drew closer, UKIP's candidates came under greater scrutiny, although not yet their policies, and demonstrated that they too have been caught out by their success, and have yet to put in place a proper candidate programme. Although as the other parties will vouch, that is no guarantee that the odd embarrassment won't slip through.

The General Election is two years away, and a lot will happen between now and then which could have a significant impact. The performance of the economy will be key, and the answers that each of the parties comes up with to deal with those issues.

Will the coalition hold together as they increasingly diverge in their approach? Will the Labour Party be able to come up with policies and rhetoric that enables the public to trust them again? Will the Conservative reaction to the UKIP threat be to lurch to the right, to allay that? Will the Liberal Democrats look to position themselves where they can benefit whichever of Conservative or Labour is the biggest party in 2015? Will UKIP make the breakthrough into Parliament they desire, and need, and become a new force in politics?

There is one other issue that may yet have an effect, and that's the referendum on Scottish independence due in 2014, only eight months before the General Election. A yes vote would create problems, as independence itself would not become a fact until around March 2016.

Would Scotland still send MP's to the House, only to have them leave once independence became a fact? If they did, and there were enough Labour MP's (Conservatives currently being weaker in Scotland than elsewhere in Great Britain) to either make them the biggest party, or even give them a big majority?

Alternatively, the Conservatives could move from being the biggest party to becoming a majority one, having once again been in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Would they dump their junior partners, and form a new government on their own?

Anyway, having strayed off the point a bit here, what does the County Council elections of 2013 tell us about the British political scene?

Not much in the end, the main parties both did pretty much as expected, UKIP did better than expected, but now they have entered the mainstream they will come under greater scrutiny. But with two years to go until a General Election, and European Elections and a Scottish independence referendum in between, there are a lot more questions than answers at the moment, so making predictions is a fool's game.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Pub Quiz Curriculum, whose facts, whose dates?

This post is cross-posted on the Labour Teachers' site.

Michael Gove the Secretary of State for Education came in office promising to shake up the teaching establishment.  From the moment he took office, he has implemented a programme of whirlwind change, as the academies programme was accelerated, and he introduced 'free schools.' But he also had a burning ambition to do something about the curriculum, and history in particular seems to have been a target.

As a history teacher myself, I was naturally interested when the new curriculum proposals were published. However, I also felt it was important to get Mr. Gove's view, so I wrote to him as I felt it would be important to understand his thinking as he attempted to change history teaching.

I received a reply from Mr. Henry De Zoete a special adviser to the Secretary of State, for which I am grateful, even if he might not agree with my analysis of the new curriculum as proposed. He opened up explaining that the new curriculum would, 'ensure that pupils are taught about Britain's place in the world - and how its past influenced its present.' Now this sounds reasonable, I think it's important to clarify that I'm not against change, but it needs to be the right kind of change.

In fact, despite the the rhetoric coming from the Department for Education, and its supporters in the media about the radicalism of Mr. Gove's reforms, they aren't new even for the Conservatives. In 1992 the then Secretary of State, John Patten, also wanted to radically reform education by severely reducing the role of local education authorities, examining bodies were to be merged, the Secretary of State would have wide powers of intervention, and complained that they had been 'education without grammar and spelling.'

This all sounds remarkably familiar to nearly three years ago when Mr. Gove walked into the, newly renamed, Department for Education, determined to return education back to its 'glory days.' Although as David Cannadine argues, this is a time that only exists in the minds of those who didn't experience it.

But it is in the changes proposed to the curriculum that I see substantial echoes, with more Shakespeare for 14-year-olds in English, and for our purposes as history teachers, studies of the British Empire and more facts and dates.

At the start of Mr. De Zoete's reply he says they would be seeking to, '(Teach) the subject chronologically - rather than as a series of disjointed topics - will mean pupils understand how key events and people link to and follow one another.'

As a starting point there's not a problem here, it would be easier for pupils to pick up themes and links if topics are covered in a more linear fashion. However, history is more than a list of dates , it is also about acquiring skills for analysing events, causes and consequences.

The skills to properly engage with history at that level need to already be in place, they can't suddenly be picked up adequately at that stage, without a firm grounding in analysis, source work, and constructing an argument as examples.

Learning history in school is as much about skills as content, and although the preamble rightly outlines these in the aims; continuity and change, cause and consequence, analysing trends, differences and similarities, because the lessons would have to maintain a breakneck speed, the time for real investigation will not be there.

This is why the second sentence of the section does worry me greatly, 'As well as increased rigour, there will be far less focus on the teaching of abstract concepts and processes in history.' This means that by the end of key stage three, those who have decided to continue with history to GCSE level, will be severely lacking the analytical skills required to succeed at that level.
Nobody has a problem with rigour, in if it would be all encompassing and consistent, but in a classroom it can mean, ' instruction that requires students to construct meaning for themselves, impose structure on information, integrate individual skills into processes, operate within but at the outer edge of their abilities, and apply what they learn in more than one context and to unpredictable situations.'

However, because there will be less emphasis on historical skills teaching, the ability to make the judgements Robyn Jackson talks about in How to Plan Rigorous Instruction will be lacking.
Naturally the historical community is split, with the likes of Niall Ferguson, Simon Sebag-Montefiore and David Starkey in favour, and Richard Evans, Steve Mastin and Peter Mandler taking an opposite view.

In an article in the Guardian on 15th February Professor Ferguson claims that the current history teaching leaves young people's knowledge in a 'parlous state.' He bases his claims on his own experience, in which he seems to have only ever met history teachers who think the same as he does, and an points to an essay by Matthew Hunter, a history teacher, in Standpoint magazine.

Matthew Hunter is, of course, entitled to his view, but I feel his point about the Napoleon portrait says more about him than the curriculum or the topic.. There are at least two ways he could of done this, the first being the way he did, though not deliberately, in which the pupils formed a view based on the picture, which he then followed by giving the pupils some context, which would have taught them that you can't always infer from a source like this without some background knowledge.Getting angry with the pupils when they are only doing what he has asked them to do, is not going to encourage them to be confident in putting forward their opinions.

On the other hand, he could have taught them some background first, so that when they came to look at the portrait, they would have a context in which to put it, providing they were also aware that David was Napoleon's official portraitist, and therefore the picture may well have been painted with an agenda of its own. This is what makes history teaching so wonderful, as pupils become aware of the many questions, answers and ways of investigating and understanding. I am not using this to criticise Matthew particularly, but really to demonstrate that there are different approaches which can be employed.

Professor Ferguson's other main gripe seems to be that current curriculum is too 'politically correct,' and that the new proposals are still a model of that because of the inclusion of Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano, 'hardly escapees from our island story,' so has difficulty understanding why many historians, and teachers like myself, are unhappy with the new proposals. It's as though he thinks offering us a sop is enough to keep us happy. The argument has always gone much deeper than who is in there, it's about a politician deciding who is relevant and not historians.

On the other side of the argument is Professor David Cannadine who like Ferguson lectures at an American university, in this case Princeton and opposed to Harvard.Cannadine decided to undertake a research project into teaching in schools in order to get first hand knowledge,the results of which were published in 2011 under the title The Right Kind of History: Teaching the past in twentieth century England.

Cannadine concludes that the vision of a 'golden-age' of history teaching, and wasn't taught to anything but a small elite, and wasn't a mainstream subject until after the Second World War. He believes the real issue isn't the curriculum or the subjects it covers, but that there's too much to teach, and not enough time to teach it in.

Indeed, Steve Mastin, head of history at a Cambridge school, points out that the trend has been towards teachers having more freedom, which Mr. Gove has insisted they need, hence academies and 'free schools' have more discretion when it comes to following the curriculum.

Ferguson also says he has taken an interest, and written 'popular history' books, so what we have here is two professors who both have some first hand knowledge, if not experience, and reaching different conclusions, which in many ways is what history is all about. Do the research, analyse the evidence, and reach a conclusion, using the evidence to back it up. Who is right is for the reader to decide, not for the teacher to direct.

At the foot of this blog is a debate between David Starkey and Richard Evans, both well-known historians (though I suspect Starkey is better known to any non-historians who read this because of his programmes on British monarchs), who take diametrically opposite views on history and how it should be taught.

Evans argues that the proposed new curriculum is overly prescriptive, a conclusion which both Ferguson and Mastin agree with, and as advisers had advised Mr. Gove against. If the pupils are only being taught a narrow curriculum designed to promote 'Britishness' will they also be allowed to question the validity? Is Oliver Cromwell a hero or a villain?

As historians, and teachers, we like to believe that the purpose of studying history is to cast light on events, and to help the readers to understand the chain of events that led to a particular outcome. But the problem with this narrow, parochial, 'great men' view of British history, is that it will present it as a series of myths, designed to promote an Anglo-centric view, in which our influence has been mostly positive.

As set, the curriculum would be 'an island story' in which pupils miss out on the wonders of the ancient civilisations of Greece and Egypt. They get Rome but that is it, it's a 'depressingly  narrow history syllabus,' as David Priestland, an Oxford history lecturer said recently. The nearest the pupils will get to world history is 'new world colonisation,' conflict with Spain (the Armada basically), Clive of India, the American and French Revolutions. It is only really in their contact with, and effect on Britain that would be taught. As Mandler asks, if Clive is a hero, who is he a hero to?

One of the reasons the pupils will not be able to question these events could is the sheer scale of the proposed new curriculum which means that teachers just will not have the time to properly examine the positive and negative effects. This is a curriculum written by those who do not understand that in many schools, pupils get an hour a week on history, and in some the subject is split with geography, spending half a term studying it at a time.

There are also many issues with the Key stage one and two curriculums, not least of which is that teachers who are not specialists, will be expected to try and get their pupils to understand difficult concepts such as democracy, nation (and nationalism) and civilisation, when it is possible they may not understand themselves.

For instance, the rivalry between Henry II and Thomas Becket, the Black Death and the Peasant's Revolt are currently taught at year 7, so during the first year of secondary education for most pupils. At this stage, the pupils can begin to really understand that events have multiple causes and consequences, short, medium and long term.

A crowded year 6 curriculum would not enable the different aspects to be covered adequately, and would be difficult for subject specialists to get across, let alone a primary teacher who might have an hour a week, or less, to explain something that they only understand vaguely themselves.

This is demonstrated starkly, as I said earlier, as the new curriculum would deal with less of the abstract, yet at Year 7, the pupils will be expected to try and understand 'The Enlightenment' in England, so they get Locke and Smith, but not Rousseau or Diderot. If you're going to ask children to understand that period, they might as well get a sweep of ideas.

Richard Evans said in the Sunday Politics debate with David Starkey that the problem is, 'it just teaches a chronicle, it doesn't teach the kind of historical skills you need to analyse the past, to make up your mind, shoving facts down schoolchildren's throats without giving them a chance to debate and make up their own minds.'

David Starkey on the other hand agrees with Niall Ferguson and  believes that there is 'profound ignorance' about historical events, and that the skills debate gets it the 'wrong way round' as you can't debate without knowledge. Of course, Dr Starkey isn't totally wrong in that argument, but teachers need to be given the space to teach both skills and knowledge.

Now very few doubt the Holocaust was other than truly terrible, but there have been other cases of genocides, Rwanda being an important recent example. In the 12th century Richard I also persecuted Jews, and indeed that is when the word holocausti was first used in relation, so persecution of the Jews isn't unique in itself.

This takes us back to the issue of prescription, which even Ferguson concedes having advised Gove against making that error, and the job of a teacher (if not a politician) is to get the pupils to understand that history often has two sides to an argument.

In the new curriculum it is proposed to teach the Holocaust as a 'unique evil.'  David Starkey asks Evans whether it should be taught as a 'moral fact' which is exactly the problem I've been outlining, is it the job of teachers to decide on the pupil's behalf what is and isn't 'moral.'. The biggest problem with Starkey's argument though is he believes the curriculum should change because it has a 'left-wing skew' brought in by a Labour government.

Now this could have been a valid argument, if he had been prepared to acknowledge the wrongness of the conservative bias in the proposed new curriculum. The two principle political figures that year 7's are supposed to learn about are John Locke, one of the founding fathers of liberalism (in its classic sense) and conservatism, and Adam Smith the author of The Wealth of Nations, a classic liberal text and there is no space to balance these views later on,with a study of Marx, for instance, who also had a profound effect on thinking.

One of the odder aspects of the new proposals, is that the Boer War is brought in, not necessarily a bad thing, but the rise of China is removed. This seems a bizarre and incomprehensible decision as China is one of the new economic powers, and may well one day be the most important trading nation in the world, let alone the east. Ignoring a coming nation, or to be truthful, reinvigorated one for a short war that means little unless they are to study South Africa at GCSE seems very short-sighted.

So in seeking to return to what he believes is a 'golden age,' Michael Gove is also reviving subjects that schools stopped spending a lot of time on when I was there. Where are is the influence of the Mogul or Ottoman Empires? Where is the growth of the European Union? It is only Britain's relations with the Commonwealth, Europe and the world that are the focus of this curriculum. Anyone would think looking at this, that not only is the growing influence of China missing, but that Japan hasn't grown to be an economic superpower in the last fifty years. Yet there is space to learn about the election of Margaret Thatcher.

So what we have being presented to us is an overly prescriptive, as historians of all views agree, Anglo-centric, didactic curriculum, in which not only will the pupils have little space for questioning and analysis, they will be actively discouraged from doing so.

Change and renewal is not the issue, but it must be the right change. As Richard Evans and Steven Mastin remind us, Michael Gove eventually ignored all the advice he was getting, even from supporters like Ferguson, and practically wrote the curriculum based on a misunderstood version of history teaching from a time before he was even born.

So, I believe it would be better to go back to the drawing board, properly debate this with all sides, and come back with something that gives pupils a sound knowledge and the analytical skills required to do well not only in exams, but in the world beyond school and pub quizzes.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Show me the Mani.....

            An Undivided Past: History Beyond our Differences by David Cannadine
            Allen Lane (an imprint of Penguin Books), London, 2013   

David Cannadine's 'The Undivided Past' is a tour de force attacking the simplification of arguments over the millennia into Manichean 'us versus them' debates. Perhaps ironically in attempting to makes this argument accessible to all, he also simplifies it but then all great books leave us wanting to know more, and encourage us to go and look for ourselves. To quote a series of well-known adverts on television, 'it does what it says on the tin,' as it explores its themes, but concludes that in fact our past is undivided, and we are more united than many would have us believe.

Cannadine's sees his task as to prove to us that this simple black and white view is not only incorrect, but in fact never has been. Indeed he seems to quite lose patience with those who read into actions or words what they want to, without looking at the subtleties within, or even the words and actions of those that are being quoted.

A good example is occurs in the chapter on 'Civilisation' when Cannadine explains how the American neoconservative and New Labour, specifically, used Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilisations to justify their views that led to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but ignore the man's statements that he did not support the actions.

In the introduction he even has a dig at his own, academic, community:

Most academics are trained to look for divergences and disparities rather than for similarities and affinities,but this relentless urge to draw distinctions often results in important connections and resemblances being overlooked.

This seems an odd claim, as it is counter to what we would teach in school, in which students are encouraged to look for and identify themes of difference, but also of similarity as we seek to help them understand that history is not a simple exercise, but one that needs careful contemplation and an urge to understand the motivations and actions of others.

What Cannadine is really doing here is demonstrating how Manichean thinking has permeated the intellectual world, and that he believes this is a simplistic approach which runs counter to the evidence of the ages.

At the beginning of the book Cannadine uses quotes from the last two American Presidents before Obama, when he shows how George W. Bush said that as he grew up the view was that it was 'us versus them,' even though you weren't certain who 'they were.'

He contrasts this with his predecessor Bill Clinton who said conversely that although the world was often ruled by the belief that our differences were more important than our 'common humanity,' he actually believed, 'our common humanity is more important than our interesting and inevitable differences.'

It is apparent very early that it is Clinton's view that Cannadine has most sympathy with opening with:

This book sets out to explore and investigate the most resonant forms of human solidarity as they have been invented and created, established and sustained, questioned and denied, fissured and broken across the centuries and around the world, and as they have defined the lives, engaged the emotions, and influenced the fates of countless millions of individuals.

Cannadine does this by exploring what he considers to be the six 'most compelling and commonplace forms of such identities,' which are religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilisation. The scope of each argument is really quite astounding as he delves into the human condition over the millennia.

He demonstrates that Newton's third law applies to human interaction as well as the world of physics, 'every collective solidarity simultaneously creates an actual or potential antagonist out of the group or groups it excludes.'

In exploring his six themes, Cannadine draws upon scholarship from many sources but particular works play more prominent roles. Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History being often quoted because they encompass so much of what he want s to say, and argue against.

But it is important to note that each chapter sweeps across time in a connected and clear way, as Cannadine looks at the arguments which demonstrates those Manichean themes, and yet shows us how wrong it is to see these arguments so simply, and that they are really excuses to explain our prejudices.

In the chapter on 'Gender,' as an example, he does indeed point out how women have been excluded from much of civil society by men over time, and how many writers such as Germaine Greer sought, at least in her early writings, to emphasise the differences in which women were fighting against men, in a Manichean, us versus them, struggle, whilst he counters that with Betty Freidan who saw it in more inclusive enterprise in which men and women fought together in a joint enterprise.

In looking at this debate across the centuries, Cannadine argues it would be simple to see it as an age old battle by women against the beliefs that women were incapable of being equal due to strength, intellect etc. yet in  The Republic Plato writes that a woman's destiny was not decided by her biology, but by the cultural impositions of men, and that women should be included fully in political social and cultural life and that it was very possible they could become philosopher rulers.

This is the general trait of each chapter, as Cannadine exposes the paucity of, as Cannadine believes, the Manichean thinkers, and demonstrates time and again that there have always existed, and been prominent those who have sought to argue that our differences are indeed merely 'skin deep,' and that what unites across these great themes is greater than what divides us.  

Cannadine's view is basically an optimistic one, in which he, like Clinton, sees that whilst we accept there are differences, it is the similarities that overall show that they 'embody and express a broader sense of humanity that goes beyond our dis-similarities.' In his conclusion he quotes William H. McNeill's biography of Toynbee:

Humanity entire possesses a commonality which historians may hope to understand just as firmly as they can comprehend what unites any lesser group. Instead of enhancing intelligible world history might be expected to diminish the lethality of group encounters by cultivating a sense of individual identification with the triumphs and tribulations of humanity as a whole.

What makes this book great, Hugh Brogan suggested it might become Cannadine's masterpiece, is that it lays it all out in an easy to read and fast-paced style that doesn't seek to speak only to those who make the study of history, and the consequences of ignoring it, their lives, but to all who are motivated by understanding more about what makes the world what it is, the good and the bad.

Perhaps the most appropriate way to finish this review is to quote Maya Angelou's 'I shall not be moved' which Cannadine did right at the beginning of the book:

I note the obvious differences
Between each sort and type,
But we are more alike, my friends,
Than we are unalike.

Professor Sir David Cannadine is currently at Princeton University, having previously been at the University of London from 1998-2003 working at the Institute of Historical Research.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Cameron's weakness and Labour's opportunity?: an in/out referendum on the EU

Prime Minister David Cameron has announced through the Downing Street press office that his 'long awaited big speech' on Britiain' s future relationship with the European Union (EU) will be made on Friday 18th January.

This is when he is expected to indicate that after the next election (depending on a Conservative majority I would think) a referendum will be held. The thing to be decided however is, what exactly will it be on?

There are many people in this country who want a straight in/out referendum on our membership of the EU, notably in the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and many in the Conservative Party.

Opinion polls on the question of our relationship appear to show around half of the population would like to withdraw, but polls should always be treated with caution as all they are is a snapshot of opinion at a moment in time.

However, our relationship with the European Union in its various guises over the decades has certainly been a difficult one. Right from when the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee refused to even join the negotiations on the Schuman Plan, which led to the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Confederation.

But it is for the Conservative Party that the issue has proved to be a fraught one, and as former Defence Secretary and leadership contender Michael Portillo once said, "Europe is the curse from which the Tory Party never escapes."

Ever since Harold Macmillan became the first British Prime Minister to attempt to take Britain into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1961 was met with a French veto, and a repeat occurred in 1967 when the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson also attempted to take the United Kingdom into what was then the club of six.

Eventually it was a Conservative, Edward Heath (who incidentally had spoken up for joining the ECSC in his maiden speech in 1950), who took Britain into the EEC in 1973, but not without a struggle, and opposition across the Conservative and Labour Parties, but eventually 67% of the members endorsed membership.

In the mid-70s the question of our continued membership arose and the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson agreed to a referendum which was held in 1975. The referendum had been pledged in Labour's February 1974 manifesto, and the eventual question was

'Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?

But although the question looks a straight in/out one, Wilson had maintained control of the debate,  and made it about renegotiated terms, and he won it decisively 67%-33%.

Margaret Thatcher's arguments with and about the EC are well known and too many to go into here, and are for another time, although perhaps two particular moments can be highlighted. The signing of the Single European Act in 1987, followed just three years later by her famous 'no, no, no!' at the prospect of even further integration. It was somewhat ironic that this was followed just five weeks later by her resignation as Prime Minister, the issue of Britain's relationship with the EC being the catalyst.

Throughout John Major's Premiership he too had his run-ins with members of his party, but unlike Thatcher who was brought down (ostensibly anyway although there was more to it than that) by the pro-Europeans in her cabinet, it was a small group of anti-EU MPs (including the 'bastards' in his own cabinet) that caused him most grief. This led to him resigning as leader in 1995 and inviting them to 'put up or shut up.' The challenge was accepted, and then Welsh Secretary John Redwood stood against him, being decisively beaten.

The Labour government of Tony Blair was much more enthusiastic about Britain's EU membership and was seen as a much more positive member of the club. Some have argued that all he did was give away too much, including a chunk of the rebate much-loved by the Conservatives after Margaret Thatcher fought so hard for it in the early eighties.

However, it was the Blair government which in 1999, despite his own leanings towards it, that decided that it was not in Britain's interests to  join the Single European Currency. In a further irony, it has been argued that the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty (1992) had already given away much of Britain's 'sovereignty.'

Ever since David Cameron became Prime Minister he has tried to tread a fine line between the various versions of Euroscepticism  amongst his MPs. He has attempted to face both ways, and appear as though he is standing up to the other principle European leader, Angela Merkel of Germany and (then President) Nicholas Sarkozy of France.

However this led to confusion as he claimed to have vetoed a treaty when nothing of the sort had happened, and he was made to look very foolish as opposition and many of his own backbenchers ridiculed him in the House.

More recently negotiations over the new EU budget caused Mr Cameron other problems and the defeat for the government's official line of insisting on a real terms freeze in the EU budget, by an unholy alliance of fifty-one Tory backbench MPs and the Labour Party in favour of calling for a cut in the budget.

The Labour Party have been accused of rank opportunism over this, although in 2007 Ed Balls wrote a pamphlet for the Centre for European Reform in which he called for many reforms in the European Union, especially the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and budget.

So now we come once again to the question of what is the United Kingdom's future relationship with the European Union, and whether our future lays inside or out. This isn't the first time this has happened in this Parliament, with a debate on whether there should be a referendum in October 2011 following a petition. I have written about that debate here and perhaps David Cameron's biggest problem is that his position hasn't moved on one iota.

He is still trying to face both ways on the debate and it's not clear exactly what it is he's going to be asking for. It seems likely he will announce plans for a referendum after 2015, but we can't be sure as to what will be the terms.

Mr Cameron has spoken vaguely of 'fresh settlements' and 'seeking consent' and will be setting "out his views on the future of the European Union, how it needs to develop and how Britain's relationship with it needs to develop."

But this language if repeated in his speech is unlikely to quell dissent within his party, as it appears to fall far short of the straight in/out question many want. Indeed, I would prefer that even though I would be working for an 'in' vote, because at least the terms of the argument would be clear.

Ed Miliband has accused Mr Cameron of 'sleep-walking' the UK out of the EU, and this is true. The irony is that both David Cameron and the Chancellor George Osborne are in favour of maintaining Britain's membership, but outside of the occasional reference, he hasn't really laid out why he does.

In fact I do think Mr Cameron's weakness lies in trying this 'all things to all men' strategy, and they seldom end well. He should state his own position clearly and stick to it. Whatever the British public might think of particular politicians, they admire those prepared to state clearly what they believe, even if they disagree.

To me David Cameron sounds like he wishes to try and copy Harold Wilson, but he lacks that old stager's wiliness, honed by years in Parliament having first been elected in 1945, and taking nearly twenty
years and experience in many portfolios before becoming leader and Prime Minister. Mr Cameron may have spent time in PR and as an adviser, but he lacks real political guile (perhaps an accusation that could be made of many modern politicians), and therefore makes too many poor judgements.

Mr Cameron has always said he wants to 'repatriate' some powers from the EU, but is reluctant to be clear as to what he wants, and there is some debate as to what he can really get. This is where he has boxed himself into a corner and is in danger of 'sleep-walking' the UK out.

If he is unable to get what he wants, he has given himself little option but to offer a straight in/out referendum, but this time handing control of the debate to those wishing to withdraw. Very few people are completely happy with the way the EU runs itself, and the arguments are over what changes can and should be made to its institutions and legislation. But the way David Cameron is conducting himself in this debate just weakens his position, and by extension  of those who wish to remain inside but seek fundamental changes.

So from my own point of view I'd like to see the Labour Party seize the initiative here, state that if we win the next election we will hold a referendum, and that we would be fighting to stay within the Union. This does carry risks, but perhaps the time has come to take one and lay this ghost to rest for the foreseeable future.

It would also enable the pro-EU supporters to set the terms of the referendum and the debate, and hopefully, unlike the disastrous AV referendum of 2011, be based on facts and interpretation of what is in Britain's interests.

The debates will be heated, with politicians, business leaders and others putting their side of the arguments, but it would be with a clear objective in mind, in or out. David Cameron is in danger of just muddying the waters of debate, and as Ed Miliband has accused him, of 'sleep-walking us out of the EU,'not because he doesn't want to stay in but because he didn't have the courage to stand up for what he really believes.

As I've said, I would campaign to stay within the European Union, which I believe politically, trade and for business reasons in the United Kingdom's interests. However, it is pointless going into details as to why here, and that can be left for a referendum itself, if it ever happens.

 As to whether a referendum would heal the enduring sore within the Conservative Party is doubtful, because the differences within the party go far deeper than whether we stay in or leave the European Union, there are fundamental disagreements over what being a Conservative is which will just continue.



Sunday, 6 January 2013

1984 rebuffed or postponed?

Earlier this year I wrote a very critical blog on the coalition government's draft Communications Data Bill which was being scrutinised by a joint committee of the Commons and the Lords. Finally the committee's report was published in early December 2012, and it was very critical of not only the bill itself, but also of the way it was written.

Right from the beginning the report gives a hint of how importantly it took its job, and its view on the government's role in security, of balancing, 'the safety and security of its citizens,' but with a duty to respect their rights, 'without avoidable intrusions on their privacy.'

The committee then get straight into their core criticism, and it is one that demonstrates why this bill should alarm us all: 

we believe that the draft Bill pays insufficient attention to the duty to respect the right to privacy, and goes much further than it need or should for the purpose of providing necessary and justifiable official access to communications data. Clause 1 would give the Secretary of State sweeping powers to issue secret notices to communications service providers (CSPs) requiring them to retain and disclose potentially limitless categories of data.

The committee is also very doubtful of the claims by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, that she would not use the powers in ways that would be considered overly intrusive and so recommends, 'that her powers should be limited to those categories of data for which a case can be made.' Indeed later on they say explicitly that current safeguards actually work better than is believed, and so prefer to see a strengthening of the roles of the Interception of Communications Commissioner and the Information Commissioner.

As I wrote in my original blog, the police and security services already have sufficient powers to investigate possible criminal and terrorist activities, and the committee is saying that is enough. Indeed they go on to say that if a case can be made for a future increase in powers then proper Parliamentary scrutiny would be required, and it should also apply if powers were to be extended beyond the many agencies, as well as the police, who already have access to the data already available.

The committee, unlike the government, seeks to enable the necessary agencies to properly investigate activities, without, 'the risk of intrusion into the privacy of the vast majority of honest citizens.'

Until 1984 who had access to communications data and what could be done with it was not protected by law, but it was in 2000 and the passing of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), that an attempt to regulate who could access what data and what they could do with it was made. But unlike the new bill it did not dictate which information should be retained, but dealt only with acquisition and disclosure. The new bill, on the other hand, expects data to be stored that is of no use to the service provider, and as I said previously, if the government don't want to access what is being said, why keep it?

I was equally critical in my previous blog of the Labour government which had a similar bill, but dropped it following protests from civil liberties groups, and the opposition in the House from all sides, including the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties and the Information Commissioner was not convinced as he wrote, "that the case has yet to be made for the collection and processing of additional communications data for the population as a whole being relevant and not excessive." Eventually the proposals were dropped due to the amount of opposition, and the impending General Election in 2010.

When the coalition was created in May 2010, the agreement stated, 'We will end the storage of internet and email records without good reason,' but as we see it hasn't taken them long to go back on that. This is despite the Liberal democrats long, and creditable record in opposing such legislation, and the Conservatives own document published in 2009 Reversing the Rise of the Surveillance State.

The report includes a large number of examples of what it calls, 'a major encroachment into individual liberty,' which is quoted in the annual report of the Interception of Communications Commissioner. These include things like there being 1.85 million CCTV cameras in the UK (1.7 million being privately owned), the DNA Database, the ELMER database of suspicious activities, the National Pupil Database, and this is all in addition to the trail we leave in our electronic communications.

There are also examples of how communications data was used to prevent a terrorist bombing in 2002 or to catch the murderer of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells. It has also been used in uncovering major cases of tax evasion, but as we can see, these already be done using the current legislation, so again I ask, why do they need to store more unless they intend to use it?

However, although the report cites many reasons as to how communications data is invaluable in catching perpetrators, this is to put it all in context, and is not to defend the intentions of the bill.

The committee spent a lot of time, and heard and read evidence from many sources on both sides of the argument. Much of the written and oral evidence can be found here on the committee's web page, although some of it remains secret.

Part of the government's defence is that some 25% of communications data is unavailable to investigators, and will increase with technological progress. But it is unclear where this figure comes from and the committee deems it to an 'unhelpful and potentially misleading' figure as there has not been a 25% drop in the amount of data available. Indeed they say that with in arrival of social networking since the passing of RIPA in 2000, the amount of available data has actually increased.

The service provider London Internet Exchange (LINX) wrote:

Certainly, as people make ever greater use of Internet‐based services, there is an ever greater quantity of data that either exists, or could be brought into existence by statutory requirement. However to say that this “is no longer always retained by communications providers” is highly misleading: communications providers are retaining more communications data than ever before and making it available to public authorities under existing law. The mere fact that even more data could be created, collected and made available hardly constitutes a loss.

However, the committee says that the real issue is not missing data, but 'a lack of ability on behalf of law enforcement agencies to make effective use of the data that is available.' That does not need new legislation to address this problem, but training and resources.

Although many service providers from the United Kingdom and overseas were invited to ask the Home Office questions, they were not consulted on the proposals, although the Home Office claims that they would have been aware of their thinking from the discussions had over time. But, and this is damning, the committee then more or less accuses the Home Office representative of lying and that the Home office were giving a different version to that of the CSPs and that 'On the face of it, there is an inconsistency between these two accounts.'

In the end the first view the CSPs had of the draft bill was under embargo, just a week before its publication. This is despicable behaviour by the government in my opinion, as they have sought to present Parliament and the service providers with a fait accompli and prevent proper scrutiny. 

The committee condemns the government's actions and attitude:

The evidence we received shows that United Kingdom CSPs were not given any details about the possible content of notices before the draft Bill was published, overseas CSPs were not consulted about the draft Bill at all, nor was there any further public consultation.

I think it is becoming plain that what the government is trying to do is predict what may happen in the future, and as we've seen with weather and economic forecasts over the centuries, these are notoriously inaccurate. The committee rightly comes to the conclusion that there is no good reason for granting such wide powers at this time, or that Parliament should do so on a 'precautionary principle.'

The committee, however, whilst aware of the dangers does seem a little complacent on the threat to web logs believing the safeguards in the bill as well as their recommendations would be sufficient. But they do go on to suggest that the Home Office investigate the technological, operational and financial implications of asking CSPs to only keep web logs on services that enable communications between individuals.

There are additional concerns which the report highlights, such as cases where information access has been self-authorised, which means that within the system abuse is possible. Another case was where it was used to track whether or not an applicant for a school place actually lived in the area, which is a ridiculous use of data supposed to prevent criminal activity.

These cases demonstrate just how easy it is for this information to be abused, and that if more data is stored then the opportunities for incorrect use will increase and that's without it being used for obviously criminal activity.

Then we come to the issue of which reasons data is accessible; national security, preventing crime and disorder, illegal financial activities, public safety, or to assist in identifying a deceased person. Now these by and large are areas where we might consider some limited access reasonable.

But then there are also a number of reasons for accessing data I find of great concern; 'interests of the economic well-being of the United Kingdom,' protecting public health, to assess or collect taxes and duties due. These seem to me to far beyond interest of national security, and although they might be in the public interest, that does not mean they should fall within the auspices of a bill such as this and are open to wide interpretation and would just be abused.

The bill does not come without an intense sense of irony, if unintended, there being an annex that links the bill to the European Convention on Human Rights which expressly says, 'Everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.' 

So once again government shows it has a different interpretation of this from the rest of us. The committee has further concerns with the reasons listed earlier and in the chapter's summary state:

We are concerned that the long list of permitted purposes for which communications data can be requested adds to public disquiet about the breadth of the Bill. While we do not make specific recommendations about how this list could be shortened, we recommend that the Government should consult on whether all the permitted purposes are really necessary.

Another issue to me is that are seven different Commissioners proposed for communications data oversight in the United Kingdom, and surely this is too many? Indeed the Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, has said something similar, 'that there ought to be either a single privacy commissioner or a sort of primus inter pares,' and that not much thought had been given to whether these roles could be carried out by existing commissioners without creating others, and the committee supports this by calling for rationalisation of the offices.

There also appears to be a lack of thought going into how those who misuse data (see examples above) should be treated, as the committee actually feels the need to call for imprisonment as a punishment where serious cases occur. This strikes me as either incredibly complacent or evidence of sloppy drafting and the bill should be rejected on those grounds alone.

The report condemns the government even more  when it comes to costs and benefits describing them as, 'misleading and fanciful,' and a new cost benefit analysis included with a new draft bill. Wider and proper consultation should be undertaken and most importantly, the impact assessment should be more detailed and not used to basically try and delude Parliament into passing the bill.

The committee's overall conclusion is:

that there is a case for legislation which will provide the law enforcement authorities with some further access to communications data, but that the current draft Bill is too sweeping, and goes further than it need or should.

Whilst it is acknowledged that technological advances over time will change the nature of communications data, I am concerned that any bill of this nature will be the government's wedge into ever expanding intrusion, and they will be wanting to actually read our communications in the future.

The Conservative chair of the committee has said there should be a 'substantial rewriting' before the bill is presented to Parliament, and the Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has agreed with the findings of the report saying:

This detailed and thoughtful report shows the Government is making a complete mess of a very important issue...It is important that the police and security services can keep up-to-date with modern technology, but this bill is too widely drawn... and gives far too much power to the Home Secretary without proper safeguards,... provides too little protection for people’s privacy...  The Government have been slipshod with this bill from the word go...the Home Secretary needs to urgently rethink this legislation and get her approach right so that the police can do their job in fighting crime whilst the public have confidence their privacy is well protected too.

Although how this will translate when or if the bill is presented in the House I don't know. The Labour Party could either go down the road of outright opposition, (and as I've said previously I would rather be hypocritical for opposing this bill when we had something similar in mind, than for proposing it when we had been against in the past) or, and more likely I would think, proposing amendments along the lines recommended by the committee.

I am unable to find an official  government response to the report as yet, but David Cameron has said it will be rewritten, but he still insists that he is committed to giving the police and security services new powers to monitor internet activity, pointing out that the committee had said that there was a justification for doing something.

Still, it became an opportunity for Nick Clegg to show just how different the Liberal Democrats are from the Conservatives by threatening to 'block' it unless there was a 'rethink.' This in effect is a repeat of what committee member Julian Huppert said early in the committee's scrutiny, 'If, at the end of the process, the Home Office cannot come up with a bill that is acceptable to Liberal Democrats, then there will be no bill.'

That is a real danger that this bill, in whatever form it is presented to the House will become about politics rather than security or public safety and catching paedophiles and other criminals. The Conservatives want to be seen to living up to their reputation as the strong party on law and order, the Liberal Democrats as the defenders of civil liberties, and Labour as standing up for freedom but needing to be seen as strong on crime and the causes thereof.

The debates will generate a lot of heat, and will not about deciding which is the best way forward, but who can score the most points off each other.  My own preference is for there to not be a bill at all, as the principle of wanting to be able store and potentially read our communications is of itself wrongheaded.
The powers to investigate all these crimes exist now, we don't need to do anything other than clarify the definitions of what is communications data, and I'm sure there is a simple way of doing that without bringing in such a bad and over reaching bill.

The report is probably one of the most critical a Parliamentary committee has ever produced regarding a proposed piece of legislation, and the rigour with which they approached the task, shows that this is an approach that should be taken to more legislation.

The weaknesses in the draft are plain to see, and this is in addition to the basic problem of the government seeking to have our communications data stored 'just in case.' I hope that there is enough support in Parliament on all sides to vote this down when the government eventually gets round to presenting the rewritten bill, though I suspect they will await the outcome of the next General Election first.