Britain: Land of the Cowardly

Watching from the UK, America’s gun control debate seems bizarre, archaic, outlandish and fascinating. Like most progressives, I come down firmly on the side of greater gun control; but I’m not American, and don’t claim a right to participate in the decision making. But I do claim my right to help influence the decision as best I can. America’s guns aren’t just America’s problem.

They leak out, fuelling the Mexican and Central American drug war. And in buying so many guns, Americans have greatly increased the size of the global small arms industry, bringing down gun prices and creating a wealthy industry with immense lobbying power that can be used to modify the will of the people. A gun manufactured in Russia is as likely to be sold to an American consumer as to the Russian police. Without legal weapons in America, guns would be less numerous and more expensive globally. Wars in poor countries would be more difficult to fund, if only marginally.

And the “debate” over whether guns lead to an increase in violence is laughable. International data are now available at the click of a Google button. Any American can now quickly compare the murder rate in their country with that in any other, and discover that America is far more violent than any similarly developed country. America has 4% of the world’s population, yet the vast majority of mass shootings happen in the United States – more than 200 since 2006.

The pro-gun “liberty” argument is deeply flawed. The prevalence of guns tends to discourage, rather than encourage, free speech – as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gabrielle Giffords and many others have inadvertently demonstrated. With so many guns, it takes a brave person to stand up in a public place and espouse a controversial idea. Minority viewpoints are violently suppressed in the United States, usually not by the state, but by lone men with access to fire-power. One of the greatest limitations to the First Amendment is the Second.

And yet, watching the arguments from the UK, I also experience a genuine and strong respect for the importance that many Americans attach to liberty. Britain pays lip service to liberty, and yet this country appears to almost completely lack the libertarian attitudes that exist on both the left and right of American politics. Britons are far more accepting of state intervention in our lives than Americans, in many forms. The merest hint of a threat will trigger a moral panic in the media, and Britons are repeatedly happy to accept the need for a little more police power without considering the cost.

The gun libertarians may have picked a dumb fight, but at least they stand and fight for (what they believe to be) liberty. Meanwhile, over the past decade, the state has rolled over British liberties, cheered on by the media and both of the main political parties.

Last weekend, thousands of Americans demonstrated against spying by the NSA. Meanwhile in Britain, we discover that GCHQ is spying on us and sharing the information with the NSA. Here in the UK, we don’t demonstrate for our right to privacy or free speech. Nor do our leaders have the backbone to criticise the secret police; instead they issue threats against newspapers that dare reveal the erosion of our freedom.

It’s easy to draw up a long list of liberties lost in recent years, but what is most shocking is that these were taken without opposition.

  • Laws drawn up against a “terrorist threat” have routinely been used to attack other targets. When police brutality started to be routinely exposed by photographers, the police responded by using terrorist powers to harass photographers.
  • Carrying a knife is an offence punishable with prison time. The change in law came about following a moral panic over a “knife crime epidemic” which never happened. I’m not a huge fan of people carrying knives, but I’m even less of a fan of a police state with endless justification to stop and search people in the street, which is where we now live. We don’t need police stopping and searching our teenagers at their whim, especially since they choose to direct their actions against young black and Asian men – such police behaviour was a prime cause of the 2011 UK riots.
  • Possession of “extreme pornography” is punishable with prison time and addition to the sex offenders register. Possession can even constitute receipt of an “extreme” image by email. What constitutes “extreme” is the decision of puritanical politicians and regulators who seem never to have had sex lives of their own. This law is now to be extended to include “rape porn”. In practise, although sold as a law to “protect” people, this criminalises the recording of legal, consenting sex acts between adults.
  • We allow video and TV to be more tightly censored than most other democracies; now we are also ready to watch our free Internet access slip away, under the guise of “protecting children”.

Through moral panic after moral panic, draconian law after draconian law, British rights are eroded. But it seems the British people deserve this treatment. We fail to protest. We re-elect the Labour/Tory duopoly that competes to be “toughest” against the next non-existent threat to our safety. To their credit, the Liberal Democrats exhibit at least paper support for civil liberties; for this reason, it’s better that we elect Lab/Lib or Tory/Lib coalitions than either simple Labour or Tory governments.

We live in one of the safest societies on Earth. Crime in all forms has been falling for decades. And yet the average Briton seems more afraid and more prepared to surrender liberty than ever. We have become a nation of cowards (if we were ever anything else – our belief in our “glorious and courageous history” seems to largely be based on the courage of one man: Winston Churchill).

Liberty is often ugly. It means allowing people to do things that many people dislike or even fear. We’ve forgotten this in Britain, and unless we re-learn it, we will deservedly continue our slide towards living in a sham democracy where everything is monitored, and many harmless acts can result in police intervention in our lives. America, with its endless wars and regular suspension of democratic values, may not deserve to call itself the Land of the Free, but it has more right to do so than Britain does.

Why London Should Ditch Boris

Boris Johnson, our Moron Mayor
Our Moron Mayor

We’re coming up to the London mayoral election, where the second most powerful British politician is elected; the standard of debate is excellent, as it should be in such an important contest, and the media are doing their job of challenging the candidates on the many critical issues faced by London.

Not. Hopefully you were quick to spot my sarcasm. As is usually the case in important UK political decisions, the race is being trivialised and reduced to two personalities. London’s ever-moronic paper, the Evening Standard, has failed to hold Mayor Boris to account, as has most of the national press, and the entire race has been reduced to discussing smear stories against Livingstone, which are used to dispel any talk about issues and policies.

So let’s cut out the crap: it doesn’t matter if you like or dislike Ken or Boris. It doesn’t matter that Ken keeps newts and can therefore be labelled “slimy”. What matters is that one of the most powerful political positions is up for grabs, but morons are discussing Boris’s hair.

The reality is, only Ken Livingstone can defeat Boris Johnson; and here’s a selection of reasons why you should vote for him with either your first or second preference vote.

Congestion Charge

Ken was Mayor from 2000 and 2008, so there’s no need to speculate; his commitment to good public transport, and to reducing road traffic and air pollution, was nothing short of impeccable. He introduced the congestion charge scheme despite screams from the car industry and the media; he was loudly told the scheme would fail; but it didn’t. It reduced the number of cars, sped up traffic in London and reduced air pollution. He then extended the scheme to the west, again to screams from wealthy car-owning residents of Kensington and Chelsea; but the extension was again a success, and won over local people. Before the 2008 election, he announced plans to charge drivers of high-polluting vehicles (which I and many others would say have no place in a crowded city) £25 a day if they wanted to drive into the centre. This would have further cut congestion by cutting the number of super-large cars, and improved air quality by removing the worst polluters.

Boris, in order to win votes from Kensington and Chelsea drivers (one of the UK’s wealthiest demographics), promised to scrap the Western Extension Zone. This he did, to the benefit of very few and the detriment of many. Boris also scrapped plans to charge high-polluting vehicles £25 – much to the delight of Porsche, who had been suing Livingstone, and whom Boris paid an immediate £400,000 of our money in settlement. After instituting a 25% rise in congestion charge, Boris then froze the cost, benefiting car drivers and leading to an increase in congestion and air pollution. London is now regularly in breach of EU air pollution guidelines, with a resultant rise in breathing disorders and cost to the NHS. It’s worth noting that Boris’s response to worsening air pollution was to attempt a cover-up.

Public Transport

The situation inherited by Ken in 2000 was disastrous, particularly for bus users. Ken put around 5,000 more buses on the road, and enforced bus lane usage for the first time, leading to faster bus journeys. The congestion charge also enabled buses to run faster. On busy main roads, Ken introduced bendy buses which could rapidly move large numbers of people with minimal stopping time. The anti-Ken Evening Standard began a campaign, falsely labelling the buses as dangerous to cyclists; this was a straight lie. Not a single death occurred due to the introduction of bendy buses. Ken also introduced the Oyster card, speeding up and simplifying journeys, and making ticketing less labour-intensive.

In response to the farcical campaign against bendies, Boris promised to scrap them and commission a new Routemaster bus. The new bus wasn’t necessary, and turned out to be hugely expensive at £8m each; only a handful of the new buses have been introduced (“coincidentally” just in time for the mayoral election) but for the same price, 96 hybrid buses could have been rolled out instead. The new bus turns out to be nothing but a multi-million pound election campaign ad for Boris, funded by us, and although it’s admittedly pretty, has done nothing to improve London’s transport.

And let’s not forget: while holding down the cost of congestion charge, Boris introduced huge fare rises – up to 83% in some cases.

Cycling

Boris has introduced two initiatives: the Barclays-sponsored cycle rental scheme, and cycle super-highways. The former is a nice idea that already works well in Paris, Barcelona and elsewhere. I joined it the moment it appeared, and it worked well, for a few weeks. Then, demand picked up and the scheme’s mismanagement and under-funding meant that it became increasingly difficult to use. The cycles tend to distribute themselves unevenly – for example, in the mornings, they migrate from the outer stations such as Euston and Waterloo to the centre of London. If the scheme is to remain usable, cycles must be collected from full docks and put in empty ones. This redistribution system appears to have completely failed; it’s rare to be able to complete an end-to-end journey – either no bike is available at the start, or no free dock can be found at the end. It’s a simple management issue, but as so often noted, Boris doesn’t do management. I quit the scheme after the first year.

Boris’s other cycling “achievement” was the introduction of the “cycle superhighways”. Great name – useless scheme. For a mere £100m or so, Londoners got shiny new blue paint on the roads to mark out the highways. Unfortunately, that’s about all they got. The blue lanes aren’t protected by any kerbs or physical obstacles to motor vehicles, and cars are allowed to drive in them if they want. Inevitably, deaths have occurred on the super-highways; the scheme joins the new bus as an example of an expensive but worthless high-profile scheme whose ultimate aim seems to be the promotion of Mayor Boris.

London Pride

The introduction of the position of Mayor gave London its first chance to develop a city-wide identity since Thatcher scrapped the GLC in the 1980s, and Ken took full advantage. I remember three areas that stood out, and heralded a return of pride in our city.

The first was London’s response to the Iraq War. Our Prime Minister Tony Blair had dragged the UK into an illegal war, against the wishes of the British people. A few months after the start of the war, in late-2003, Bush came to London on a state visit. A huge rally was held in Trafalgar Square to protest the presence of a war criminal in Buckingham Palace. Meanwhile, a few miles further east, Ken Livingstone hosted an anti-war event to show the disgust of Londoners against Bush, Blair and their acts of mass murder. He had also spoken brilliantly at London’s immense anti-war march in February 2003. It was a moment to be proud of London at a time when many were ashamed to be British. It goes without saying that Mayor Boris has not repeated such an event, and has left London devoid of a sense of community or leadership.

The second was the redesign of Trafalgar Square itself. London’s places of beauty had slowly been torn apart by the car lobby, and Trafalgar Square itself became a dirty, polluted roundabout. Ken’s redesign saw a large part of the square pedestrianised, and reclaimed from cars by pedestrians. Artworks were displayed and a sweeping staircase led from the square up to the National Gallery. The new Trafalgar Square is a testament to Ken’s love of London, and his hard work as mayor. Conversely, Boris seems to work little and care even less.

The third was the magnificent RISE festival, a free music festival with an anti-racism theme, that attracted top music acts, and brought together Londoners from all communities in a day of celebration. This became London’s second festival, after the Notting Hill Carnival, and an important community hub. Boris, elected at a time when racial tensions were rising and far-right groups gaining in strength, virtually scrapped the festival. It was rescued by trade unions, but is now a far smaller event with a much lower profile.

Housing

London councils are being forced by the government to relocate poor families – not just the unemployed but many who work – to towns far from London. London is being socially cleansed; property prices are spiralling in a frenzy of speculation, and the poor are squeezed out. This is detrimental not just to our culture, but to the economy too; a city filled with bankers and media executives still needs lower-skilled workers. Boris has said, and done, nothing. He has failed in his duty to defend our city against the right-wing onslaught from central government.

Ken, as mayor, flew the flag for affordable housing and the maintenance of diverse communities. Indeed, he happily admitted that his prime reason for backing the London Olympics bid was to get East London redeveloped, and get large amounts of affordable new housing built.

Policing

The great bendy bus myth was one of two big lies used by the pro-Boris media to help him defeat Ken. The second was far more serious: the misreporting of a “knife crime epidemic” that didn’t actually happen. This resulted in an increased fear of crime and increasingly heavy policing. Random stop and search by police increased dramatically, and was especially used against young black and Asian men. The mayor has a duty to ensure London is being properly policed and listen to community concerns – but Boris has been the absent mayor. Community groups increasingly warned the mayor of an increase in anti-police feeling, and a breakdown in police-community relations. There were clear warnings of riots. And when they arrived in August 2011, few Londoners were surprised. Boris’s response? He turned up a few days later for a photo opportunity with local people who were sweeping the streets clean. He appeared to have little understanding of the issues; he didn’t go to Tottenham, the source of the riots. In short, he failed to lead.

We have an Alternative Vote system – so you can vote for Green, Liberal Democrat or whoever else you like. But Livingstone is the only one who can beat Boris, and deserves your second vote, if not your first. It really doesn’t matter if whether you think Ken is “slimy” or not – London is one of the world’s great cities, and deserves a leader who – pardon my language – gives a fuck about it.

Boris’s Imaginary Knife Crime Epidemic

KnivesEveryone, in London and beyond, will remember the horrendous knife-crime epidemic of early-2008. The story was spread far and wide – indeed, friends of mine from France and the United States mentioned it in conversation at the time. The opposition Conservative party and most of the British media picked up the story, and used it to show us just how dangerous life had become in Britain’s capital. It should have been a scary time for me, my friends and family here in London… but it wasn’t.

Why? Because the “knife crime epidemic” of 2008 was a lie. A scare story concocted by the (then in opposition) Conservative party, most of the British press, and in particular, London’s Evening Standard. The timing of the story was no coincidence; it came in the run-up to London’s mayoral election, in which the Conservative challenger, Boris Johnson, was to defeat Labour’s Ken Livingstone – London’s mayor from 2000 to 2008. Livingstone had a long record in London politics, having won the top job way back in the 1980s, and he was (and still is) hated by the conservative media, especially the Standard.

London is an incredibly safe city for its size – one of the world’s safest – but being a city of eight million people, it’s easy to find a violent crime to report any day of the week, if the press so chooses. Beginning in early-2008 the Standard suddenly began to pay more attention to violent crimes, and especially stabbings. There is roughly one murder every two days in London (New York sees around five times the number of murders), so the Standard quickly managed to create the impression that London was in the grip of a sudden surge in knife crimes, even though there was no surge. In fact, as you can see below, the knife crime rate in London has been fairly flat, and had been higher in 2004/5 than in 2008. Certainly, there is nothing that could be called an epidemic.

Crime rate 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008–09 2009–10
Knife enabled crime[34] 10305 12985 12367 12301 10699 12345 12611
Rate per 10,000 London 13.7 17.3 16.5 16.4 14.3 16.4 16.8

Source: Wikipedia Crime in London page

The knife-crime-epidemic-that-never-was contributed heavily to Boris Johnson’s victory in the May 2008 election, and has been resurrected regularly by the press ever since. It was also used by the increasingly authoritarian Labour government of the time to introduce draconian sentences for carrying a knife.

If there was an epidemic in London, it came after the mayoral election; and it wasn’t a knife crime epidemic, but a plague of police stop-and-searches, using the imaginary knife crime epidemic as an excuse, along with the never-ending “terrorist threat”. This new policy was carried out aggressively by the Metropolitan Police, with the strong backing of Mayor Boris, and disproportionately targeted young black and Asian men. This in turn created a surge in anger and resentment against the Metropolitan Police. When a young mixed-race man, Mark Duggan, was shot by police officers (who then lied that he had been carrying a gun), the anger boiled over and led to the Tottenham riots of 2011, which spread around the UK.

A “knife crime epidemic” invented by the Conservative Party and right-wing press in 2008, in order to get Boris Johnson elected mayor, had eventually led to harassment of hundreds of thousands of young men, and helped trigger last year’s riots. Boris has never admitted this dangerous lie, which has proved divisive and damaging to London. While the Standard yet again runs daily smear stories against Ken Livingstone for being “slimy”, nobody is holding Boris Johnson to account for unleashing brutal policing on London.