I’ve been saying the following for months, but with the Commons vote on Equal Marriage rights finally on the doorstep, I want to reiterate it once more.
If you, like me, have the sadomasochistic tendencies required to want to read the comments sections on newspaper websites, you will be more than familiar with the argument that “marriage is between a man and a woman”. This is the same argument which, ad nauseam, we’ve been hearing from the Church for months.
Take this spectacular rendition of this horror show of an argument from Guardian contributor Lionel (who, for someone so evidently irate about the editorial practices of the Guardian, seems to have a surprisingly good knowledge of their recent publishing history – see the rest of his comment by following the link);
I’m not blinded by a fear of homosexuality or by bronze-age superstition, but it greatly distresses me to see how papers like the Guardian have agreed to go along with this unilateral attentuation of the English language. In all my seventy years on Earth, minus maybe the last two or three, the word “marriage” has denoted strictly a relationship between a man and a woman. If two homosexuals want to live under contractual conditions as close as possible analogous to what obtain between a married man and woman, fine, I am one of those many who have no objection, but why must English be interfered with? And why must a paper like the Guardian, a fine paper in its better moments, take part in this Orwellian practice of wiping out nuances?
Aside from my inability to recall the section of 1984 where Orwell warns us that the inevitable and terrible consequence of totalitarianism would be rights for gay people, I have to wonder why this commenter, like so many others, cares so deeply about the continuation and conservatism of the official definitions of language.
We could raise questions about whether, at a moral level, the impulse (for those who have it) to preserve the status of words should have any real significance, when there is so much to be gained in terms of equality, fairness and social cohesion from the opposite.
I could go on about the fluid nature of language and meaning. An important consequence of that argument would be the ability to point out that the meaning of the term “marriage” may well already have changed in the minds of many, and simply preserving the dictionary definition of it in the face of that is just stubborn folly.
Instead, for now, I want to focus on one specific thing – the sheer hypocrisy. The baffling hypocrisy of those who suddenly are so passionate about arbitrarily preserving the dictionary definition of words, yet who seem to have sat idly by for generations whilst we’ve changed the meaning of many other words, without batting an eyelid.
Every June, the publishers of the OED put up a list of the new entries they’ve created. Here’s June 2012’s. I anticipated it being long, but the sheer length even surprised me. Did these language-obsessives weep bitter tears upon the addition of the terms “paywall”, “dogtrot” and “apatosaur” to the dictionary? (An apatosaur, by the way, is a very large dinosaur from the late Jurassic period.) When the Australian Macquarie dictionary changed the definition of “mysogyny” from “hatred of women” to “entrenched prejudice against women”, were Lionel and his mates howling at their TV screens in disbelief and anguish? The definition of “flying” had probably been static for millennia prior to the invention of the airplane. I’m not sure anybody went ape about that alteration to the English language – rather, they probably welcomed it as progress.
No. People usually don’t care when the definition of words changes. In fact, they usually couldn’t care less. Because it doesn’t matter. If anyone genuinely profoundly objects to us changing the meaning of words when it’s appropriate to do so, they probably need to seek help.
The meaning of words changes all the time. One cannot selectively start objecting to this established fact now that the definition of “marriage” is going to change from a “union between a man and a woman” to a “union between two people”. Rather, you could stop stubbornly clinging to Victorian concepts against the changing tide of history.
Ricardo Patino, Ecuador’s Foreign Minister, is pretty angry about a threat by the UK to storm the Ecuadorian Embassy in Knightsbridge to arrest Julian Assange, who is seeking diplomatic sanctuary and political asylum there. Something that caught my eye reading about this was the citation on both sides of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations: the Foreign Office believes that Ecuador hosting Assange unconditionally in their Embassy is in violation of the Convention, whilst the Ecuadorians believe that the threat to storm the Embassy is in violation of the Convention. I thought, accordingly, I’d do a bit of research to try to figure out who’s right here.
The first thing to note is that this debate is always going to be a tougher battle for the UK. Ecuador can cite the very explicit Article 22 of the Convention, quoted here in full;
1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.
2. The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission of impairment of its dignity.
3. The premises of the mission, their furnishings and other property thereon and the means of transport of the mission shall be immune from search, requisition, attachment or execution.
That’s fairly clear stuff, and it’s almost as if it’s written in response to the current story – the premises are inviolable and are explicitly rendered immune from search.
The UK, however, might wish to swiftly retort with clause 3 of Article 41;
The premises of the mission must not be used in any manner incompatible with the functions of the mission as laid down in the present Convention or by other rules of general international law or by any special agreements in force between the sending and the receiving State.
That the UK considers that the use of the Knightsbridge property to secure Assange to be in contradiction with the “functions of the mission” seems fairly clear from the letter they sent to the Ecuadorians;
We need to reiterate that we consider the continued use of the diplomatic premises in this way incompatible with the Vienna convention and unsustainable and we have made clear the serious implications that this has for our diplomatic relations.
So what are the “functions of the mission”? Well, I’m no expert on international law, and I suspect we’d need one to give a definitive, all-encompassing answer to that question. A helpful start, though, is Article 3 of the Convention, which sets out the following;
1. The functions of a diplomatic mission consist, inter alia, in:
(a) Representing the sending State in the receiving State;
(b) Protecting in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and of its nationals, within the limits permitted by international law;
(c) Negotiating with the Government of the receiving State;
(d) Ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending state;
(e) Promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, and developing their economic, cultural and scientific relations.
So it seems to me that if Assange is granted political asylum in Ecuador later today, under part (b), the use off the Embassy to house him should become legitimate. But what until then? What about the situation up until now, which the Foreign Office are so obviously peeved about?
I can’t see anything clear in the above quote which sets out that they have the right to house fugitives and applicants for diplomatic sanctuary. One complication is that they are supposed to avoid using the premises in a way which might contradict functions of the mission, so alongside the potential lack of affirmative rights to house Assange, it seems they also need to consider the apparent negative impact of the contradiction to part (e) of the above quote.
At the same time, I can’t really see anything definitive which says they can’t use their embassy in that way.
It’s all a bit cloudy. The picture I’m getting, however, is that we may have a stalemate between two vague elements of the law. If Assange is granted asylum then it seems that he should then be allowed to stay in the Embassy – unless, under Article 9, the UK informs Ecuador that he is persona non grata and gives them notice to remove him to Ecuador. The thing is, that doesn’t seem in the Foreign Office’s interest, because they actually have to let Ecuador do it – i.e. they couldn’t arrest him on his way to the airport as many in the media are speculating that they might.
In short, I hope Mr Assange is comfortable in that Embassy.
Of course, a very different story emerges if he is not granted asylum. I can only see that ending with him walking out of the Ecuadorian embassy and immediately being arrested.
References to the Vienna Convention are to the UN Convention on Diplomatic Relations signed in Vienna on 18 April 1961 and enacted on 24 April 1964. Available at “United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 500, p. 95″.
Vince Cable said to much media response this week that he thinks he’d make a good Chancellor, in a blatant hint to the Prime Minister that he thinks Chancellor George Osborne needs to go. I’m skeptical about how great Cable would really be – after being elevated to the position of “politician who might actually be a decent bloke” before the election, since the origin of the coalition he’s been habitually disappointing, favouring dark, egotistical murmurings about how much control he really, secretly has over the government over actually doing anything about the deluge of crap his party has been complicit in.
At the same time, I think Osborne’s position is beginning to look rather uncomfortable. The Tories have been celebrating the announcement by self-important, American bank sponsored, credit-rating agency Standard and Poors that our prized (don’t worry, any regular readers, I’m not going to start talking about Freud again) AAA credit rating is safe (for now).
But Osborne and his OBR (no, it’s not ‘independent’) were promising us growth at this stage – steady growth at 3%, in fact. Actually, what we have are squabbles between economists over whether the official data (which suggests that we’re actually still in recession) is quite accurate or not – either way, there’s no dispute that we’re stagnating, and that nothing is getting better.
All the discourse from Osborne is that of the trenches – we will not be swayed, we will hold fast to the course, and grind it out – when what we’re all waiting to hear is a plan, something different, a novel map for how we’re going to generate growth.
At the same time, stunningly, we here speculation over how much time Osborne actually spends on his job – a job which is one of the most important in the nation. Surely he should spend every waking hour trying to come up with a way to generate growth?!
Small wonder that in a very interesting article by Will Hutton (seriously, read it), he suggests that Osborne is the worst Chancellor of recent times;
His problem is that he is intellectually wrong, very unlucky and far too political for his own good. His eight predecessors certainly made mistakes: all were too complicit in financial deregulation, none interested themselves enough in creating structures to drive investment and innovation, and the Tory group was too indifferent to unemployment. Yet all would have been more careful to preserve the fabric of the country even as they tackled today’s deficit; all would have sought a more reasonable balance between tax rises and spending cuts – and many would have experimented with Lamont’s timing about exiting a recession.
Krugman has long been talking about the ‘confidence fairy’ – the mistaken belief that if you can cut deficits and talk the talk, then this economic mess will resolve itself because everybody will become confident in the ability of the government to sort it out and miraculously start lending, spending and generating.
I dare guess that Krugman is correct to say that the fairy doesn’t exist – we’ll need something solid from the government; a change of policy, much like that suggested by the IMF last week. But the Tories are invested in the belief that it does exist, that it will emerge, and that if we hold fast to course growth will come sooner or later.
There’s three options, then. The first is to abandon that policy, and to introduce some much more significant expansionary activity. That would probably, but not essentially, involve sacking Osborne. The second is to stick tight and true to the policy of clinging on for confidence – that would necessitate ditching a Chancellor who is increasingly inspiring apathy and despair. A final option would be to continue to pay lip service to that policy whilst continuing to support Osborne, which seems almost contradictory. We will have no, or limited, policy for growth, except to hope for confidence – a message which will be pushed by a Chancellor who is achieving nothing and inspires nobody.
Despite all that, I have serious doubts over how easily Cameron can sack Osborne. Cameron is still seen as a lefty in the Tory party. In the leadership contest first round, the majority of the party voted for one of the two “right-wing” candidates, Fox and Davis. Osborne is regarded as a true Thatcherite, and popular with a lot of the party on that basis. He holds a senior position in the party itself. Could Cameron so easily set him aside?
Twitter produced an intriguing argument last night as Glenn Greenwald and Jacob Williamson exchanged handbags over the issue of freedom of speech. Williamson proceeds to set out a position of sorts here (though note it’s rather more targeted at Greenwald) and in converse Greenwald sets out some form of position here (though his position is more implied than set out – a skim through his Twitter feed in the last few days makes it clear that an easier exposition of his view on ‘free speech’ is probably something like, ‘anyone can say anything they want, to anyone they want, in any manner they desire, and has the absolute and unalienable right to do so unhindered by anyone’.)
Something that caught my eye is Greenwald’s claim that anyone who doesn’t support his position doesn’t actually believe in free speech. That’s quite a drastic claim, and I object to it, because I’d like to believe I’m a firm believer in free speech despite not sharing his hardline position.
Freedom to do something doesn’t necessarily have to mean absolute freedom to do that thing, whatever, full stop. It means freedom to do it within reason, within morally acceptable boundaries, and within the spirit of the law. Crucially, it means freedom to do it with respect to other people’s freedom to their human rights. My freedom of movement doesn’t give me the freedom to move anywhere I want – to roam into the homes of strangers on a walk through the countryside, or to take a quick stroll through GCHQ if I’m bored.
Pull out Mill and his harm principle. Mill is well known as an ardent defender of freedom of speech, especially with respect to the value of heterodox positions. Less commonly regarded, I find, is Mill’s commentary on the importance of balancing off people’s right to speak freely against the right of others to be unharmed. As he was aware, the huge difficulty here is adjudicating on what constitutes ‘harm’.
As I’m sure Greenwald would delight in quickly pointing out, people might argue that a plethora of widely expressed opinions cause ‘harm’. It is on that basis that I find this subject so difficult – what do I say to the man who tells me that my socialist economic views cause them harm?
But there’s more to it than that, and it simplifies this debate to rule out restrictions on the basis that some nut could insist that any form of speech causes them harm and should be restricted. We are capable of differentiating between harm which the state needs to act against and that which it doesn’t – we do this all the time in the judicial system. Where the lines are is indeed a difficult and complex position, but intuition suggests that there is a line there somewhere, and it falls far before the likes of antisemitic protest at a holocaust memorial.
I think it’s also worth considering why we think free speech is so valuable. For me, it’s because I believe that it’s important, for various reasons, that we need to allow everyone’s perspective on issues to be aired in public and have the potential to gather support. I don’t think it’s got much to do with some intrinsic value to the individual of being able to say whatever we want in public. This is an important distinction, because it means that we can satisfy people’s right to free expression by giving them some reasonable access to public discourse, but doesn’t necessitate giving them all and any access that they might desire – for example aggressive public demonstrations by racist groups.
Free speech is a balancing act, much like any right. By and large, I’m with Mill in believing that very, very few acts ever fall on the wrong side of that balance – it is really hard to cause so much harm with a speech act that it can be deemed illegally violent – but I’m not with Greenwald in so far as I believe it is possible.
Edit: With a hat-tip to Williamson (above) for bringing this to my attention, I now realise I was writing very similar stuff back earlier this year with regard to Boris Johnson banning those homophobic bus adverts in London. The consistency of the basic position I’ve put out in both posts accurately reflects what’s becoming quite a firm conviction for me – that there are forms of speech which the government absolutely is justified in intervening in, and this isn’t a threat to what we can still reasonably call free speech. I am hardly any closer, however, to a definitive answer on how we decide where to draw the line. Some would draw that line much further into the realms of state control than most of us are probably comfortable with, and the very compelling arguments they might advance throw up some really interesting questions. More to come.
Latest instalment on Cameron’s wet dream of removing housing benefits from under-25s: a survey suggests that the public believe that removing housing benefits from under-25s will “inevitably lead to more homelessness”.
The only thing I want to know is what on earth is wrong with the 35% who said that they don’t think it will lead to more homelessness. Nearly half of those polled who define as Conservative Party supporters said that they don’t believe it would lead to more homelessness. I can only imagine that the justification is that they firmly believe Cameron’s mantra that all under 25 can just easily move in with their parents if they find themselves in trouble. It seems David Cameron isn’t the only one frighteningly out of touch with reality.
Bagehot at the Economist argues that UKIP are a rising threat to the UK political mainstream, citing party leader Nigel Farage’s personal appeal and political/oratory skill as the reason;
At a recent public meeting outside Bristol, in south-west England, Mr Farage played the packed room (Tory-faithful types, ranging from pensioners in blazers to brawny small businessmen) like a virtuoso. Tiny model Spitfire fighters flashing at his shirt-cuffs, Mr Farage told the crowd what it wanted to hear. Britain is run by “college kids”. The dead of two world wars are being betrayed by Westminster politicians “impotent” to defend democracy. Britain has turned its back on its “kith and kin” in the Commonwealth. It is an “outrage” that eastern Europeans can come and claim benefits. “Charity begins at home,” shouted Mr Farage, and the 250-strong crowd roared.
Mr Farage is indeed good at what he does. Like most on the fringe right, his is a very straightforward and easy position to defend. The extreme unlikelihood of UKIP ever standing in an election with the ambition of actually winning means he can be gratuitous with the invective and the populism, with no concern for responsibility or realism. Come the 2015 election I think he will be a popular and important figure, dictating where a lot of votes go and shaping areas of debate.
But am I really scared that UKIP might take a chunk of seats, and start to exercise any real control? No. The reason is that, shiny-suited, smooth and silky Farage aside, the grassroots of the party is a dirty secret which will not impress the electorate.
I had the pleasure of witnessing a debate before the 2010 election at the University of Birmingham with the local candidates. The red-faced, wiry old fellow representing UKIP prefaced his opening speech with “I joined UKIP because I’m a very angry man”. He then went on to suggest that the solution to most social problems is to (a) leave the EU, and (b) reintroduce hanging, to roars of laughter from the crowd. (These are even, apparently, the solutions to problems with very little to do with European politics and nothing at all to do with crime and punishment.)
This is where I think UKIP are still a fringe pressure group who don’t pose serious challenges. Underneath the well groomed face is a shaggy, unkept mass of bigotry which just wants to shout and shake fists. Arena politics is not suited to self-confessed corybantic grumblers, nor are we likely to be indoctrinated by bizarre non-sequiturs.
As an afterthought, this is what you get when you Google ‘UKIP’;
I think it might be a pretty damning sign when you feel compelled to identify in a summary of your party that you’re “non-racist”. If you’re cutting it so fine that you need to provide clarification then there’s something very wrong…
“We have been encouraging working-age people to have children and not work, when we should be enabling working-age people to work and have children. So it’s time we asked some serious questions about the signals we send out through the benefits system.” (David Cameron)
“The problem then is that many men [sic] with families find themselves as well off, or in some instances better off ‘on the dole’ than they would be if they were working. The surprising thing is that, in spite of this, many of them actually prefer to work…” (Pilgrim Trust)
“it is a far cry from recognising the influence of these factors to Benjamin and Kochin’s sweeping claim” (Ormerod and Worswick, 1982)
So here we have David Cameron launching a full-on attack on the benefits system. This is significant for a number of reasons – firstly, the age-related housing benefit cap is an awful policy; secondly, as Jackie Ashley and Patrick Wintour ruminate over, this seems like a marked deviation from the coalition line; thirdly, some of the language I’m seeing is the clearest statement yet from Cameron that he is as wedded to a highly specific political theory about unemployment as suspected. I want to pick up on this last point for now. An article was written in 1979 which apparently had some considerable traction with the Tory group. I want to revisit this now because I think they’ve never grasped, even though it took mere months for academia to rubbish that article, that it’s fatally flawed.
Conservative thinkers have long been highly fond of an article by D. Benjamin and L. Kochin, entitled “Searching for an explanation of unemployment in interwar Britain”. This highly influential and widely debated article sets out the clearest articulation of a common conservative position – that unemployment originates from, or is at least exacerbated by, the existence of a generous welfare system. More specifically, Benjamin and Kochin’s claim is that there is a demonstrable correlation between unemployment data and wage:benefit ratios – such that an effective way to reduce unemployment would be to reduce available benefits. They believe thus that in that period, “the army of the unemployed… was largely a volunteer army.” This is still hugely popular as a theory. Whether that’s right or wrong is a debate that’s still going on to this day, but what we can say with some certainty is that the original paper by Benjamin and Kochin has big holes in it. I think this is an important point to make because people still casually cite their conclusion as if it’s an encyclopaedic fact, when it’s far from so.
In brief, then, I want to list some of the key points which arise from the expanse of available literature on why Benjamin and Kochin’s theory just doesn’t stand up. Note that the paper refers to the “interwar period”, taking data from the 20s and 30s.
Firstly, the thesis is grounded in what’s actually an unlikely assumption – that the decision to find employment or live off benefits is a relatively discretionary choice based on a kind of cost-benefit analysis. As Cross demonstrates, “genuinely seeking work” and means-based tests were increasingly influential throughout the period. Unemployment has also been shown to be a terrifying prospect which can induce and exacerbate depression and anxiety. We should not assume that benefit-dependence is a simple, rational choice. Even if it were, this would itself still be problematic for Benjamin and Kochin, as only 2% of adult men could receive benefits greater than 80% of their last working income. (In other words, if “should I get a job or not?” was actually analysed, free choice they describe, the likely answer would be “yes, I should”.)
Secondly, the fact that unemployment benefits were at similar levels throughout the post-war period, marked by radically low unemployment, should cast great doubt on Benjamin and Kochin’s theory.
Third, and crucially, the evidence employed by Benjamin and Kochin invites scepticism. They base their theory on three claims;
(1) that female unemployment declined when benefit entitlement for women was reduced,
(2) that juveniles (for whom low benefits were available) showed above-average employment,
(3) a regression-based analysis which they claim demonstrates a clear correlation between benefit-to-wage ratios and unemployment levels.
The first two can be easily dismissed – that the number of people in any group claiming unemployment benefits declines when regulations become stricter is evidence of nothing except the immediate impact of those regulations: we can draw no conclusions about the actual impact on female employment (those people may have just consequently starved). Further, it has been demonstrated that juvenile employment was a special case, characterised by short-term employment exploiting lax juvenile employment regulations.
With regard to their regression design, their use of a benefit-to-wage ratio is unconvincing, as a clear correlation is only evident using the highly selective and seemingly arbitrary values which they employ. When real values are substituted, the statistical relationship becomes much less clear. Furthermore, the use of a logarithm of net national product balanced against the trend value of the logarithm for the period is not convincing as a means of discounting such a broadly important factor as aggregate demand; they give no explanation which guarantees the effectiveness of this model, and it might be open to questions about delays between changes in demand and effects on unemployment.
Finally, Benjamin and Kochin’s use of regression data to explain what they claim is an individual phenomenon at a collective level is questionable and may lead to misinterpretation. Hatton demonstrates that unskilled workers were more likely to see unemployment due to structural reasons. Incidentally, this same group are also subject to lower wages and thus a higher benefit to wage ratio. At a collective level, this effect would deceptively appear to link the benefit-to-wage ratio to unemployment.
It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but next time you hear Mr Cameron saying things which just assume that the unemployed are voluntarily so, you know what to say.
It’s worth adding that there are a lot of other things wrong with Cameron saying things like the quote at the top of this post. It’s offensive and propagates divisive myths about the unemployed. Much could be written about that, but I really wanted to focus here on the claim itself that unemployment is a consequence of high benefit provisions. Of course, the methodological flaws in Benjamin and Kochin’s thesis do not mean that it is definitely untrue that benefits affect unemployment. Doubtless, in some cases, it is very true that they do. The significance is that their article is some of the most important work done to try to prove something rather more doubtable – that it’s a big, widespread, highly influential factor. Given it’s flaws, that proof is still very much missing. Someone let the Prime Minister know?
If you’re interested and have the time, then I really recommend a look at some of the material I’ve listed below. There’s plenty more available, but this is a summary. The best place to go if you want more on the Benjamin and Kochin thesis is the symposium in volume 90 (number 2) of the Journal of Political Economy.
Benjamin, D. and Kochin, L. “Searching for an explanation of unemployment in Interwar Britain”, Journal of Political Economy: 87(3) (1979), pp 441-478
Broadberry, S. “The Emergence of Mass Unemployment: Explaining Macroeconomic Trends in Britain during the Trans-World War I Period”, Economic History Review 43(2) (1990), pp 271-282
Collins, M. “Unemployment in Interwar Britain”, The Journal of Political Economy 90(2) (1982), pp 369-379
Cross, R. “How much voluntary unemployment in Interwar Britain?”, The Journal of Political Economy 90(2) (1982), pp 380-385
Daunton, M. Wealth and Welfare (OUP: Oxford, 2007)
Eichengreen, B. “Unemployment in Interwar Britain”, in Digby et al, New Directions in Economic and Social History vol II (Macmillan: Basingstoke, 1992)
——. “The British Economy Between the Wars” in Floud and Johnson (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain: Vol II (CUP: Cambridge, 2004)
Glynn, S. and Booth, A. “The Emergence of Mass Unemployment: Some Questions of Precision”, Economic History Review 45(4) (1992), pp 731-738
Hatton, T. “Institutional Change and Wage Rigidity in the UK”, Oxford Review of Economic Policy 4(1) (1988), pp 74-86
——. “Unemployment and the Labour Market, 1870-1939” in Floud and Johnson (eds.), The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain: Vol II (CUP: Cambridge, 2004)
Metcalf, D., Nickell, S. and Floros, N. “Still searching for an explanation of unemployment in interwar Britain”, The Journal of Political Economy 90(2), pp 386-399
Ormerod, P. and Worswick, G. “Unemployment in Interwar Britain”, The Journal of Political Economy 90(2) (1982), pp 400-409
Shamir, B. “Self-Esteem and the Psychological Impact of Unemployment”, Social Psychology Quarterly 49(1) (1986), pp 61-72