Home > Uncategorized > The Death of Rationalism?

The Death of Rationalism?

April 9, 2012

I don’t come from a background of politics. I didn’t study it at A-level or University. I’ve never worked as an intern, for a think tank, or as a SPAD. I’m a software engineer by training, and I’ve worked in the private and charity sectors, in a factory, on a farm, but mostly in some form of IT – from programming to systems administration and now security. For me, liberalism is the most rational political philosophy, with strong intellectual underpinnings (some of which are excellently laid out in Hayek’s “The Constitution of Liberty”, which I’m currently reading).

Part of what drew me to politics was the idea that reasoned debate could win the day. My first political campaigning was with No2ID, where we took to the streets to counteract a strong emotional message (Nothing to hide, nothing to fear) with the Government’s own information and facts about the National Identity Register. It was hard work, miserable at times, but we won the argument and turned public opinion against the scheme – with a little help from repeated Government foul-ups. There was also a palpable sense of camaraderie among a group of new-found friends from across the political spectrum, who could debate all kinds of issues with mutual respect. The best of my early Lib Dem party conferences were like this too – strong debates with reasoned arguments on both sides, an audience ready to be persuaded by argument, impassioned yet informed rhetoric.

Unfortunately I no longer think this is the case – while I’ve railed at the lack of reasoned debate outside the party, the same malaise seems to have affected us internally too. I’ve voted for policy motions at Conference, trusting the authors, and later found out that the premises were false. We’ve seen the creation of new splinter groups within the party, each claiming to represent the mainstream of the party’s opinion on contradictory policy platforms, ignoring the democratic process by which the party’s policy is decided. I’ve seen people try to spin Conference votes as saying the opposite of what the policy motion passed actually stated. And now I see us scoring national press kudos over a “grassroots rebellion” concerning a series of assumptions and inferences on the “signalling” indicated by a leaked paper which, while undoubtedly concerning, is far more benign in what it actually says than is being claimed. While fabricating a divide between our ministers and the rest of the party might give us a short-term popularity boost ahead of the local elections, it’s not very sensible to inflate the narrative that the party is split – which is seriously hampering people who’d like to vote for us from doing so.

The Blair/Brown style of Government by counter-briefing and leaking disgusted me. It is a little more understandable, albeit still distasteful, in a Coalition government which is still desperately clinging to the concept of collective responsibility rather than allowing Ministers to make clear statements over what compromises each party has made on a given issue. However, if the Lib Dems are going to abandon reasoned, informed debate in favour of who can whip up the most hysteria and sling the most mud, then there is truly no place for rational people in politics.

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  1. Chris B
    April 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm

    Good piece – I’ve felt like this for some time now. I think the party is pretty messed up, and often serves as a bandwagon for someone’s misunderstanding of an issue. What concerns me most is the level of conformity – if a message comes from certain sources members seem to accept it with little debate. I’ve heard laughable motions pass at conference because a few bloggers got their mates to push it through, when it was clear nobody had a grip on the issue. Puppets are pushed on to the stage to give their support for motions they clearly have no detailed comprehension of, but liked the general gist. Illiberal and undemocratic – worse still we’ve seen MPs manipulated by third parties because they don’t understand an issue themselves, and “outsource” the thinking.

    Reactionary nonsense doesn’t help anyone, and the Lib Dems are full of it. It amazes me how many party members have exacting opinions on bills that haven’t reached draft stage, as exemplified by Tim Farron on the Beeb website today – “Tim Farron told BBC 1’s Andrew Marr Show he was prepared to look at draft legislation when it is published”. Seemed jolly decent of him to be prepared to look at draft legislation, other than it being a fundamental of his job! Whatever that legislation says he has already decided what he is going to do – I’m no fan of government internet snooping, but I like to understand what something’s about before passing comment or judgement, and that’s clearly not fashionable at the moment.

    I stopped my membership prior to the election, for these kinds of reasons (plus I never liked Clegg, I was worried it would work out this way). It hasn’t made me any less of a believer in liberal democracy; I just feel like I’m in a political waiting room, looking forward to the day when there’s something worth voting for again.

    I’m not holding my breath.

    • April 9, 2012 at 1:10 pm

      I think part of the problem is that it’s very hard to be an active party member who’s doing campaigning, and do the research necessary to have an informed opinion when either creating or debating policy motions – that’s another blog post languishing in my Drafts folder as it happens. In theory, the party’s democratic processes should allow people who are experts to stand up and give evidence supporting or opposing a motion, and people should make judgements based on those facts rather than the personalities. I’m not sure to what extent that happens in practice, but I suspect it’s rather better than some self-defined “representative” subset of the membership ganging together to bloc-vote motions through.

      As for MPs outsourcing thinking, I don’t think that it’s feasible for MPs to be technical experts on everything the Government legislates on. However, part of the reason I want to see more power devolved from Westminster to local Government is to increase the amount of time our MPs have to scrutinise national legislation.

      As regards leaving the party – I think that if I came to the conclusion that there really was no place for rationalism in politics, I’d probably just settle for making myself as rich as possible to reduce the amount of interaction I had with uncontrollable, irrational Government… but I’m not quite there yet.

  2. Chris B
    April 9, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    >I suspect it’s rather better than some self-defined
    >“representative” subset of the membership ganging
    >together to bloc-vote motions through.

    I’ve been a party member for over 20 years and this has happened many times over. If you’ve not seen it, keep looking – this party, just like the others, is controlled by whoever ceases the power and wields it…even if they’re clueless.

    >I don’t think that it’s feasible for MPs to be technical
    >experts on everything the Government legislates on.

    If you can’t understand something should you really be voting for or against it at national level? They don’t need to be experts, most issues can be simplified without changing the fundamental meaning (if you can trust whoever is doing the simplifying). There are all sorts of “black box” objects that we think with, without understanding the complexity of the content; you don’t need to grasp every line of code to understand the ins and outs of a function, it’s just that problems are often solved quicker and easier when people do.

    >I’d probably just settle for making myself as rich as
    >possible to reduce the amount of interaction I had with
    >uncontrollable, irrational Government…

    Eggzactlee!

    I’m not in any way suggesting anyone leave the party, I left for many reasons but I’m glad there are still rational members that would like something better. We just have differing (yet converging) opinions on how that might be achieved.

  3. Lev Eakins
    April 9, 2012 at 6:43 pm

    “And now I see us scoring national press kudos over a “grassroots rebellion” concerning a series of assumptions and inferences on the “signalling” indicated by a leaked paper which, while undoubtedly concerning, is far more benign in what it actually says than is being claimed. While fabricating a divide between our ministers and the rest of the party might give us a short-term popularity boost ahead of the local elections, it’s not very sensible to inflate the narrative that the party is split – which is seriously hampering people who’d like to vote for us from doing so…. if the Lib Dems are going to abandon reasoned, informed debate in favour of who can whip up the most hysteria and sling the most mud, then there is truly no place for rational people in politics.”

    I don’t understand three of the points you’ve made here:

    1. Benign

    From what we’ve been able to make out from official statements, it sounds like the Home Office want to reform RIPA to include tier 2 surveillance (universal access to ‘communication data’) of internet usage. I don’t understand why this seems a benign change to you, as it would mean everyone’s web browsing would be logged for a year. It wouldn’t take much effort for a corrupt police officer to sell someone’s browsing history to a tabloid newspaper or gossipy blog.

    2. Ministerial / party divide

    I don’t see how the letter written to Tim creates this divide. If anything, I see the letter as empowering our president to strengthen our ministers negotiating hand. The only divide or split I see this creating is that between our party and the Conservatives, which, especially on this issue, would only increase our supporters motivation to vote for us.

    3. rational debate

    We seem to have had a large amount of rational debate on this issue recently. Both at conference last month when a motion was passed supporting our position on privacy, and more recently this week on various blogs and websites where people have examined the leaked reports and given their rational verdicts:

    http://www.libdemvoice.org/the-wheels-are-coming-off-the-online-monitoring-bandwaggon-27949.html

    http://www.libdemvoice.org/opinion-why-parts-of-the-government-want-to-store-your-entire-internet-history-27963.html

    I would love to discuss this with you in person though – any chance you’ll reconsider that beer?

    • April 9, 2012 at 6:55 pm

      I didn’t say that the information we have suggests a benign scheme. I said that what it suggests could be far more benign than people are claiming, including in the Lib Dem Voice articles you link to which are full of pontification and supposition based on absolutely zero facts or evidence. As for your second point, if it were true then we wouldn’t be seeing headlines about grassroots rebellions against the party leadership over this fabricated astroturfing.

      • Lev Eakins
        April 9, 2012 at 8:14 pm

        On the benign issue – I think you can always find people (especially online) who will make hysterical claims – you can’t avoid that in any debate. Your central argument is that you feel the party is abandoning rational argument in favour of whipping up hysteria and slinging mud – however I don’t think the LDV pieces match that description.

        On Newspaper headlines – newspaper editors will always try to sensationalise this sort of thing – it’s how they sell papers. Nothing we did on our side gave any indication that we’re rebelling against the party line or our leadership. In fact, I believe we were following Clegg’s orders when he asked us last year to keep the government’s “feet to the fire” on this issue (which is why I included that quote in the letter).

        It’s think it’s a little unfair of any newspaper editor to use those headlines, but it’s also a little unfair to accuse the party of using hysterical language when we haven’t and blaming the party for something that’s happened that is beyond our control (headlines).

        I do share your desire for the party to judge policy on the basis of facts and official information, rather than innuendo, off the record briefings and leaks – but I believe there was enough evidence on this occasion to show that the main thrust of this leak matched what the government’s intentions were, and I’m glad we’ve kicked up enough fuss before our ministers had agreed to it and it was too late for us to change the fundamentals (essentially what had happened with the NHS bill and Cameron’s EU veto).

        • April 9, 2012 at 8:27 pm

          Those LDV pieces are fabrication based on assumptions based on information which isn’t in the leaked document. Some people will always sensationalise – but I’ve not seen anything on this issue from anybody in the party that is based on facts. Even you are talking about the “main thrust” and “intentions” here rather than any actual proposals.

          I’m not just talking about newspaper headlines. I’m seeing Lib Dems claiming they’re attacking Nick or Lynne or other party figures over this and using the language of grassroots vs ministers to describe their so-called opposition to these so-called proposals. It’s disgusting, and makes me not want to be a part of this party any more.

          • Lev Eakins
            April 9, 2012 at 10:35 pm

            CCDP

            It’s widely known that the government has been working on a revived version of Labour’s Intercept Modernisation Programme, now renamed the Communications Capabilities Development Programme since 2010. The Home Office’s website says so:

            “The Communications Capabilities Development programme was set up to look at how we can preserve communications capabilities to protect the public in the future, as internet-based communications technology becomes increasingly popular.”

            http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/counter-terrorism/communications-data/

            A good run through of what CCDP is and the background to it can be found here: http://wiki.openrightsgroup.org/wiki/Communications_Capabilities_Development_Programme

            When I say “the main thrust of this leak”, what I mean is the main powers that the security services have been lobbying for to be included in the CCDP. As the link above describes, this is so the security services can access internet communication data by bringing it within existing RIPA powers.

            Our response to CCDP

            The party is aware of this programme, and passed a motion at spring conference last month on civil liberties. Jenny Woods made an excellent speech (only 4 minutes) which I think you’ll agree cannot be described as either hysterical or irrational: http://youtu.be/53eQQOc-Nms

            The final motion wording (as amended) can be found here: http://www.libdems.org.uk/siteFiles/resources/docs/conference/2012-Spring/F21Civil%20Liberties.pdf

            Evidence the leak was true

            Last week The Sunday Times leaked the government’s proposals on CCDP. Generally I wouldn’t believe that The Sunday Times will run a front page exclusive on this without being 100% sure of the story – however this was on 1st of April so I dismissed it as an April fool. I was horrified to learn the next day that not only was David Davis coming out against it (meaning that he didn’t believe it was an April Fool) but no minister, including our own, were claimed the contents of the leak to be untrue.

            Furthermore, to make matters worse, Lynne confirmed the validity of the story in her letter to members when she wrote: “The proposals being considered would simply update the current rules – which allow the police in criminal investigations to find out who was contacted and when – to cover new forms of technology that didn’t even exist when the original laws were made, like Skype.

            “What this will not do is allow the government, or the police, or any other agencies, to read your emails and Facebook messages (or any other social media for that matter) at will. The content of your communications is currently, and will always be, protected by tough rules that mean a warrant is needed before any interception could take place.”

            So in layman’s terms our home office minister has confirmed in the first paragraph that internet header data (Communication Data) will be able to be monitored by security services by the “current rules” (RIPA).

            In the second paragraph Lynne tries to assure us that the contents wouldn’t be accessible without a warrant – but that only confirms again that the CCDP is bringing internet communication under RIPA as that is how RIPA works: tier 1 data is the content of communication and only accessible via a warrant, tier 2 is the header information, and can be accessed with the verbal authorisation of a middle ranking manager in any of the dozens of public organisations that has RIPA powers.

            This runs completely contrary to what was passed at conference which states:

            “5. a) Ensuring that there shall be no interception of telephone calls, SMS messages, social media, internet or any other communications without named, specific and time-limited warrants.”

            I hope that this demonstrates that there was sufficient evidence to show that LD ministers were defending a move to bring give our security services RIPA powers over internet communication.

            My response

            It was gratifying to see that the government then decided to pull back from this position to “review” it’s proposals (signalling a potential U-turn) as this gave us the opportunity to lobby our ministers to ensure that the CCDP would not make use of RIPA powers as they currently stand.

            The letter I wrote had two aims; firstly to remind our ministers that universal, rather than targeted data interception is unacceptable (they appeared to have forgotten this), and secondly to give our ministers the ammunition they need to overcome any Conservative resistance to our position (the references to the hacking scandal and how corrupt elements of the security services sold private data on innocent people to the media).

            I did this by recruiting as many members as possible, sending it to our president and making the letter public. Since then we’ve seen significant coverage of Tim’s excellent response insisting that Liberal Democrats will block any proposal to give universal access to private internet usage to the the security services.

            I don’t believe anyone can, in all fairness, describe our conference motion debate, the letter I wrote or Tim’s response as hysterical or mud-slinging.

  4. Lev Eakins
    April 12, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Paddy Ashdown writing in the Times today:

    Snoopers’ charter breaches the coalition deal

    Here is your pub quiz question for the day. You live in a country where the security services have the unfettered right to know exactly whom you spoke to on the phone, when and for how long during the past year. Where are you? China? Russia? Egypt? Some South American dictatorship? No, you are in Britain.

    In 2005 the previous Government used its presidency of the EU to lobby for a directive requiring domestic telephone and internet providers to retain full records of who contacted whom for a year and to provide the government with access to them on demand. It became law in 2009. This legislation was opposed by European Liberals and has had a very rough ride. Sweden has yet to enact it and courts in Germany, Romania and the Czech Republic have ruled it unconstitutional.

    The coalition Government promised to halt this move towards greater surveillance. But now it seems to propose not an amendment but a massive extension.

    Liberals accept, subject to safeguards decided by Parliament, that the government has a right to intercept the private communications of its citizens where it is necessary for national security and in the pursuit of serious crime, and that these powers should keep pace with the development of communications.

    But, as Nick Clegg has said, there must be safeguards, too. Any extension of these powers should be strictly proportionate to the threat. That is why we opposed the Labour Government when it tried to establish a central database in 2008.

    Any exercise of these powers must be subject to a warrant and strictly targeted at individuals where there are good grounds for believing that they are involved in serious law breaking or are a threat to the security of the State. We have always resisted a “fishing trip” approach by the security services, where they seek the right to gather information on innocent citizens merely on the ground that there may be some among them who are committing serious crime.

    The right to intercept private communications is, therefore, justified only where it is based on specific evidence and applied to an individual. It cannot be justified by treating us as a nation of suspects. It cannot be justified on the ground that the information gathered might be useful to the State at some unspecified date in the future.

    The Government’s new proposals to extend the retention of e-mail, social media, websites and internet phone records breach these basic principles; they are disproportionate and seek a generalised extension of state monitoring that applies to everyone, rather than to individuals.

    The Government claims that it will have unfettered access only to “data” (ie, sender, recipient, time and duration) rather than content, so this does not constitute “a communications interception”. That is sophistry.

    It is one of our rights as free citizens to talk to whom we wish, when we wish and wherever we wish without the State knowing about it, unless there is good cause for it to do so. It is not just the content of our communication that is private. It is the fact that it occurred at all, when and for how long. In the case of an e-mail, it would plainly reveal the whole thing from the sender through to the signature at the end.

    The “content” cannot be separated from the context. For this reason it is difficult to see how these proposals do not run counter to the coalition agreement, which states: “We will end the storage of e-mail and internet records without good reason.”

    The danger is not diminished because there will be no centralised state database of the sort that Labour proposed. That is largely an irrelevance. These proposals bring into existence a series of statutorily required databases held by others, in a form dictated by the State, to which the State will have unfettered access.

    These dangers are not dealt with by hedging the proposals around with safeguards; or by making them subject to supervision by the Interception of Communications Commissioner. The principles here are much too big to be protected by safeguards and supervision.

    Of course the security services have good reason to argue otherwise. It is their job to seek the best weapons they can to do the critical job we ask of them, especially in an Olympic year. We look to them to safeguard our national security. But we look to the Government to safeguard our liberties.

    If these proposals were to allow our security services to put a case to ministers (or a judge) to extend the holding of intercept information on an individual or even many individuals, I would have no quibble with them. That would be specific, evidence based and subject to external approval. But this is not what is being suggested.

    We should update our current interception laws to deal with the new ways criminals and terrorists communicate. But not at the expense of parting company with our principles.
    Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon is a former Liberal Democrat leader

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