Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Adults?

David Cameron's attempt to introduce a porn filter mark the day the Conservative party embraced the nanny state.

If I had to pick one thing that I actually ever liked about the Tory party, the choice would be simple, it would be their libertine streak. You can say what you like about how they seem to like to plunder the country to line their own pockets, how they have gleefully fostered and exploited social divisions and how they tend to treat anybody without at least a knighthood as a parasite fit only for the Workfare gulag, but on issues of personal freedom they were the go-to guys during the Labour years.

The Labour Party, with the best will in the world, has never really been about fun. That Tony Blair actually volunteered to be a Catholic says all you need to know about his proclivities towards enjoying life and Gordon Brown just looked like a man who lived every day of his life with pockets full of piss. The internet knew how to have fun, it still does, and so the Labour Party going after the internet was inevitable. You could sense they were just waiting for a photogenic murder victim to validate their policies, probably with a team of bright eyed interns scouring the papers daily and a focus group on standby the vet the candidates.

Censor the porn, Labour said, because then horrible murders will stop, because apparently there was no murder before the internet. Nobody really believed that of course, but porn is not the easiest cause to fight for.

So to see that the Tories have now embraced the nanny state wholeheartedly is not just shocking, it is deeply worrying. That David Cameron would publicly declare that the internet, the single most significant British contribution to the modern world, needs to be censored should be of great concern. He leads the party that is supposed to let us be grown-ups, the party that lets us smoke, drink and gamble, while taking out ridiculously expensive loans to cover it. Even these guys now subscribe to the idea that we might see too many boobs online and be ruined for life.

We expect Labour to try to police what we see; to tell us what we like is wrong, politically incorrect, and likely to turn us all into murderers, terrorists and rapists. That’s what Labour does, because they know better than everybody else.

We don’t expect this from the Tories, not since the days of Mary Whitehouse anyway. Back when the Tories were old fashioned, blue-rinsed and God-fearing you could imagine them having plenty to say about all these horrible freedoms people are enjoying. But today’s Tories? It seems unthinkable that a bunch of Bullingdon Boys would even attempt to be seen as a credible moral authority, especially as they just burned their bridge to the Christian right and held a gay wedding in the ashes. When I saw David Cameron and his mob take over I thought at least one part of life would not be attacked for the next five years. This is a man, I thought, who might just not be a total killjoy. Or who at least might be too busy privatising all the things to find time to find the time to ruin anything else.

That the Tories would attack freedom of communication in this way under the ridiculous pretext that it is protecting children would be funny if it wasn’t a real thing that is actually happening. It is a foolish, reactionary, impractical move, and one that totally obliterates any Tory claim to being a party of individual freedom.

And so here we are, stuck in the middle. On the political right we have the born again moral guardians of the Conservative party, here to protect all of the children by flinging half-baked and technologically unsound ideas at a problem nobody seems to be able to prove exists. On the political left, of the Conservatives at least, we have Labour. The joyless overseers, making sure that wrongthink and dirtyfapping are expunged from our great nation so that we can live full and exciting lives of optimal make benefit for make great and wonderful United Kingdom.

There is no longer a political party in the UK for people who want the government to leave them alone. There is no longer a party that thinks what goes on in the bedroom or the internet browser is the business of the individual. All we will get at the next election is a choice of who gets to censor us and for what reason and this is an abysmal state of affairs.

At least when David Cameron was elected, you thought he might be too busy privatising things to ruin the internet as well. Photograph: Getty Images

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.