2011: a year of unintended consequences

From OccupyLSX to Leveson, the British political system is not working well.

There are certain things which are less interesting in themselves than for the impact they have on other people.

Take for example the "Occupy LSX" protest. Whatever the protest stands for -- and there are varied and sometimes conflicting views on this -- its mere existence was enough to cause a mild crisis in the Church of England and to expose starkly the casual idiocy of those who managed a great cathedral. Now it is forcing the opaque and undemocratic Corporation of London to the High Court to defend its attempt to use legal coercion to evict the protest. And so we have the merry spectacle of a powerful and essentially private body -- with no real electoral legitimacy whatsoever -- trying to bandy "public interest" and "free expression" arguments as if they knew or cared what those concepts meant.

Or look at Julian Assange. Whatever the merits of his continual refusal to return to Sweden to be questioned about serious sexual assault and rape allegations, and notwithstanding the silly and counter-productive litigation tactics he adopted at the start of his extradition case, he has now inadvertently got the issue of the illiberal European Arrest Warrant (EAW) regime squarely before the Supreme Court. The question to be decided is a narrow one, and it is more likely or not that he will lose, but there are serious general questions to be asked about the use and misuse of EAWs and -- almost despite himself -- it may well be that this generally irresponsible charlatan will form the basis of a progressive shift in the judicial treatment of these over-powerful legal weapons.

And most of all, there is the Leveson inquiry. It cannot be over-emphasised how this inquiry did not come about as a natural consequence of a working political process. Indeed, had it not been that the Metropolitan police just had to do something back in 2005 when it was obvious the mobiles of the Royal Household were being tampered with, then there would not have been the convictions of Glen Mulcaire and Clive Goodman and -- significantly -- no seizure of Mulcaire's notebooks. In turn, there would not have been any civil litigation which uncovered the "For Neville" email and so no Gordon Taylor case. And without that litigation, there would not have been what was uncovered by last year's New York Times exposé and the dogged journalism of Nick Davies and the Guardian, and without David Cameron's lousy judgment in appointing Andrew Coulson there would have not been a political need to call an inquiry. All for the want of a less clumsy hack of Prince William's phone, the News of the World and the credibility of the British tabloid press were lost.

Along the way, each entity with the formal power and public responsibility to address the unlawful and unethical practices of the tabloid press failed to do so. The Metropolitan police closed down the investigation for no good reason; the Information Commissioner's Office took as little action as it could; and the Press Complaints Commission nodded along to what the tabloids told it. But once the scandal emerged then this lack of activity could not be sustained or justified. Something had to give.

What made the difference was the revelation that Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked. Contrary to the self-serving misdirections of those who appear to have learned nothing from the public outrage, the true significance of that sensational news was not because there had been deletions. It was instead that, at a stroke, it was apparent that hacking was not restricted to celebrities. Anyone caught up in a news story over a five to ten year period may well have had their phone hacked: soldiers, terrorism survivors, grieving or concerned parents, as well as missing school children. The spite and intrusions of the tabloids were no longer the trivial problem of famous people.

However, the true value of the Leveson Inquiry will probably not be in its proposals. No two media pundits seem to agree what would work to make the tabloid press ethical. It certainly would not be new laws and codes and enforcement bodies: all those were in place, and the abuses happened anyway. So the Leveson Inquiry undoubtedly will not so much be important for what it proposes, but what it has allowed to be revealed about others -- currently the tabloids, and soon the police. It will show what was actually going on all the time, whilst the formal public bodies did nothing to stop it.

There is something rotten about a political system where the true nature of power relations -- the very stuff of politics -- is routinely exposed by external events. No political system is perfect; but it is not wrong to expect a political system to be able to work in some fashion. Power will always tend to corrupt, and those with power will always tend to abuse it. One good test of a mature political system is to recognise and check these tendencies. But few, if any, would say that the British political system is now working at all well.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.