Friday, March 02, 2007


George Orwell's epic Nineteen Eighty-Four set out a chilling vision of Britain under totalitarian rule. But for New Labour, the novel seems to be regarded not so much as a warning as a blueprint for action. The machinery of the state is taking on ever larger powers of intrusion into our lives, bullying, lecturing, taxing and watching. Driven by the ideologies of equality and environmentalism, civic bureaucrats see themselves as the masters of the people rather than servants, hence their enthusiasm for ID cards, racial monitoring and, now, the continual surveillance of motorists.

Local government is a central part of this process. Our town halls are filled with officials who have lost the concept of public service. Instead, they feel they have the right to demand more money from us, to threaten us about the way we dispose of our rubbish, to spy on our every car journey, and to hector us about the joys of multicultural diversity.

Municipal pen-pushers are fast becoming the shock troops of Big Brother Britain, as was graphically demonstrated by the news that councils may be given authority to tag cars and use the council tax revaluation exercise not only to take more of our cash, but also as a means of acquiring detailed information on every household.

In a dramatic extension of town hall extortion, residents could find themselves having to pay higher taxes because they live in a quiet neighbourhood, are close to local facilities or have made improvements to their properties. Inspectors could be given powers to demand entry into homes to take photographs and demand information from the owners.

During the council tax revaluation in Wales in 2005, people were warned that, if they did not fill in detailed questionnaires about their houses, they could face forcible entry from officials. In a typical piece of political deceit, the Welsh were promised that there would be no overall increase in taxation, but the revaluation led to huge rises, with four times as many homes moving up the tax bands as down.

Now the experiment is likely to be repeated across England. Individuals are to be punished for wanting to enhance their home or enjoy a prosperous, tranquil neighbourhood. This is socialism with a vengeance, class envy masquerading as fiscal rebalancing. Local government is being turned into a mafia-style protection racket: pay more if you want a quiet life.

What is disturbing is the way that self-important bureaucrats may be allowed, supposedly for council tax purposes, to ask for data about our lifestyles as well as our properties. In fact, the programme for the municipal revaluation includes a section with no fewer than 287 different questions about personal lives, covering everything from holidays or political party membership.

Ministers will no doubt claim that the tax reassessment will concentrate purely on property values. But that will hardly be convincing, given Labour's sorry record. The 2001 Census was transformed from a straightforward headcount into a national farce by the obsession with ever more detailed questions, especially on ethnicity. Similarly, because of the institutional neurosis about "equality of access", students applying to university now have to provide details about their parents' economic and social status.

Nor has local government shown much respect for personal privacy or individual freedom. Bullying the public has become one of the central characteristics of the modern town hall and, like all forms of political oppression, it is usually carried out in the name of the public good. So, brimming with self-righteous zeal over the nation's health, councils are recruiting thousands of anti-smoking officers to enforce the ban on smoking in public places, which comes into effect in July. Similarly, they are using bogus concern about the environment to enforce increasingly complex rules on recycling, abandoning traditional weekly collections and threatening heavy fines, even jail terms, against those who show insufficient adherence to the fashionable new green creed.

In one outrageous recent case, a 78-year-old wheelchair-bound multiple sclerosis sufferer was sent a letter by Burnley council after he made the understandable error of placing an empty orange carton in a container meant for cardboard, warning him that any further recycling misdemeanours would result in a 1,000 pound fine and a criminal record.

It is unlikely that the town hall inspectors will show much restraint over revaluation. Yet this exercise could be far less complex and controversial if local authorities were less grasping. The reason council tax is becoming ever more hated is because municipalities are so spendthrift. On average, tax bills have doubled in the past 10 years, though the public has seen little improvement in services.

Last week, the Audit Commission, the independent financial watchdog, reported that the majority of councils had raised their standards of management over the past year. They were, however, starting from a worryingly low base and a substantial number of councils have actually become weaker. In truth, the education system is a national scandal, failing to provide basic literacy and numeracy and only sustained by bloated subsidies and inflated exam results. The quality of elderly care, social services, and street cleaning hardly reflect the large sums they receive.

Too many authorities are self-perpetuating bureaucracies, squandering money on paper-shuffling hierarchies of top-heavy management and armies of overpaid, unnecessary officials. Just as an example, Lambeth Council, named by the Audit Commission as one of the worst-performing authorities, is recruiting a œ79,000-a-year "Director of Campaigns and Communications", the aim of whose job is to "build a lasting dialogue with our citizens". It is unlikely that any Lambeth citizens would notice if the post were to remain unfilled. Waste is endemic in local government.

Productivity in the workforce is low, absenteeism high. And too much activity is geared towards social engineering rather than providing efficient services, as reflected in the disastrous drive to promote multiculturalism, which has done so much to tear apart the fabric of urban Britain.

If local authorities were properly managed and less bureaucratic, they would not have to make such excessive demands. The need for all the stealth taxes and bullying inspections would disappear. But that would entail a wholesale change in the culture of the state sector, for the contempt for the taxpayer only reflects a wider arrogance towards the public. It is up to all of us to sound a trumpet blast against the march of official tyranny. When the inspectors come knocking, we should show them the door. Unlike Winston Smith, we must never learn to love Big Brother.


Rhode Island Attorney General Imposes Same-Sex "Marriage" Recognition on State

Attorney General Patrick Lynch effectively imposed legal recognition of same-sex unions on the state of Rhode Island last week when he issued a letter calling for the recognition of homosexual unions performed in Massachusetts.

Lynch's sister is lesbian--one week before issuing the letter, the attorney general attended the same-sex "marriage" of his sister and her partner in Massachusetts. Pro-family groups have said the situation is a clear conflict of interest on Lynch's part and amounts to an abuse of power. "This abuse of power should sound the alarm for Rhode Island's pro-family voters and spark a movement to introduce a marriage protection amendment so that the state's position on marriage is no longer in doubt," Americans For Truth said in a statement.

Lynch denied that his personal interests were at play in the decision, saying his sister's situation had "zero impact" on his decision to offer support to homosexual unions. While Lynch's letter is a non-binding opinion, it will carry significant weight in the state. Many state agencies are expected to begin recognition of same-sex unions based on the attorney general's explicit approval of the move.

Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin, of Providence, RI, spoke out against Lynch's move and accused the attorney general of allowing himself to be swayed by homosexual activists, Catholic World News reported Feb.26. "It is clear that the attorney general's thinking on this issue has been influenced by the relentless gay agenda so prevalent in our state," Bishop Tobin said.

He pointed out that Lynch made his announcement on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Catholic penitential season of Lent, and said the move toward recognition of same-sex unions "has given us another reason to repent of our sins."

Massachusetts' Superior Court Judge Thomas Connolly ruled that the state should grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples from Rhode Island, in a decision released last October. At the time, Lynch said the ruling would not change Rhode Island's prohibition against homosexual "marriage".

"This ruling does not authorize same-sex marriages in Rhode Island, and it does not mean that Rhode Island will recognize a same-sex marriage performed in Massachusetts," Lynch said in a statement.

While Rhode Island's marriage laws use the terms "bride" and "groom" in defining marriage, the state does not have a constitutional amendment in place that specifically prohibits homosexual "marriage."



For all that Hollywood pretends otherwise

It is rare that a Hollywood film takes up a subject like William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the British parliamentarian who devoted nearly his entire 45-year political career to banning the British slave trade. Alas, a lot of people watching "Amazing Grace," Michael Apted's just-released film, may get the impression--perhaps deliberately fostered by Mr. Apted--that Wilberforce was a mostly secular humanitarian whose main passion was not Christian faith but politics and social justice. Along the way, they may also get the impression that the hymn "Amazing Grace" is no more than an uplifting piece of music that sounds especially rousing on the bagpipes.

In fact, William Wilberforce was driven by a version of Christianity that today would be derided as "fundamentalist." One of his sons, sharing his father's outlook, was the Anglican bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who wrote a passionate critique of "The Origin of the Species," arguing that Darwin's then-new theory could not fully account for the emergence of human beings. William Wilberforce himself, as a student at Cambridge University in the 1770s and as a young member of Parliament soon after, had no more than a nominal sense of faith. Then, in 1785, he began reading evangelical treatises and underwent what he called "the Great Change," almost dropping out of politics to study for the ministry until friends persuaded him that he could do more good where he was.

And he did a great deal of good, as Mr. Apted's movie shows. His relentless campaign eventually led Parliament to ban the slave trade, in 1807, and to pass a law shortly after his death in 1833, making the entire institution of slavery illegal. But it is impossible to understand Wilberforce's long antislavery campaign without seeing it as part of a larger Christian impulse. The man who prodded Parliament so famously also wrote theological tracts, sponsored missionary and charitable works, and fought for what he called the "reformation of manners," a campaign against vice. This is the Wilberforce that Mr. Apted has played down.

And little wonder. Even during the 18th century, evangelicals were derided as over-emotional "enthusiasts" by their Enlightenment-influenced contemporaries. By the time of Wilberforce's "great change," liberal 18th-century theologians had sought to make Christianity more "reasonable," de-emphasizing sin, salvation and Christ's divinity in favor of ethics, morality and a rather distant, deistic God. Relatedly, large numbers of ordinary English people, especially among the working classes, had begun drifting away from the tepid Christianity that seemed to prevail. Evangelicalism sought to counter such trends and to reinvigorate Christian belief.

Perhaps the leading evangelical force of the day was the Methodism of John Wesley: It focused on preaching, the close study of the Bible, communal hymn-singing and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Central to the Methodist project was the notion that good works and charity were essential components of the Christian life. Methodism spawned a vast network of churches and ramified into the evangelical branches of Anglicanism. Nearly all the social-reform movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries--from temperance and soup kitchens to slum settlement houses and prison reform--owe something to Methodism and its related evangelical strains. The campaign against slavery was the most momentous of such reforms and, over time, the most successful.

It is thus fitting that John Wesley happened to write his last letter--sent in February 1791, days before his death--to William Wilberforce. Wesley urged Wilberforce to devote himself unstintingly to his antislavery campaign, a "glorious enterprise" that opposed "that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature." Wesley also urged him to "go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it."

Wesley had begun preaching against slavery 20 years before and in 1774 published an abolitionist tract, "Thoughts on Slavery." Wilberforce came into contact with the burgeoning antislavery movement in 1787, when he met Thomas Clarkson, an evangelical Anglican who had devoted his life to the abolitionist cause. Two years later, Wilberforce gave his first speech against the slave trade in Parliament.

As for the hymn "Amazing Grace," from which the film takes its name, it is the work of a friend of Wilberforce's named John Newton (played in the movie by Albert Finney). Newton had spent a dissolute youth as a seaman and eventually became a slave-ship captain. In his 20s he underwent a kind of spiritual crisis, reading the Bible and Thomas … Kempis's "Imitation of Christ." A decade later, having heard Wesley preach, he fell in with England's evangelical movement and left sea-faring and slave-trading behind. Years later, under the influence of Wilberforce's admonitions, he joined the antislavery campaign. The famous hymn amounted to an autobiography of his conversion: "Amazing grace . . . that saved a wretch like me." In the most moving moment of the film--and one of the few that addresses a Christian theme directly--the aged and now-blind Newton declares to Wilberforce: "I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior."

This idea of slaving as sin is key. As sociologist Rodney Stark noted in "For the Glory of God" (2003), the abolition of slavery in the West during the 19th century was a uniquely Christian endeavor. When chattel slavery, long absent from Europe, reappeared in imperial form in the 16th and 17th centuries--mostly in response to the need for cheap labor in the New World--the first calls to end the practice came from pious Christians, notably the Quakers. Evangelicals, not least Methodists, quickly joined the cause, and a movement was born.

Thanks to Wilberforce, the movement's most visible champion, Britain ended slavery well before America, but the abolitionist cause in America, too, was driven by Christian churches more than is often acknowledged. Steven Spielberg's 1997 "Amistad," about the fate of blacks on a mutinous slave ship, also obscured the Christian zeal of the abolitionists.

Nowadays it is all too common--and not only in Hollywood--to assume that conservative Christian belief and a commitment to social justice are incompatible. Wilberforce's embrace of both suggests that this divide is a creation of our own time and, so to speak, sinfully wrong-headed. Unfortunately director Apted, as he recently told Christianity Today magazine, decided to play down Wilberforce's religious convictions--that would be too "preachy," he said--and instead turned his story into a yarn of political triumph. The film's original screenwriter, Colin Welland, who wrote the screenplay for the acclaimed and unabashedly Christian "Chariots of Fire," was replaced.


Random breath testing and how to lie with graphs

Excerpt from Prof. Brignell

The Times came up with the perfect illustration of how the media collude with the State to justify draconian legislation and curtailment of liberty. The headline was Random breath tests to hit drink-drivers. The graphic artist employed two of the main elements of chartmanship (suppressed zero and bizarre aspect ratio). To the uneducated eye it looks like a cut and dried case for oppressive action:

Here is the same chart without the chartmanship:

Even the most innumerate bigot would not offer this as evidence for the most innocuous of laws. An experienced experimentalist would conjecture that it represents a constant with added random noise. Yet it is essentially exactly the same graph.

No doubt there is further dubiety in the original data. What is meant by drink-drive fatalities? Do they include cases where an entirely blameless party subsequently fails a test? At this point activists would be offering accusations of condoning child murder etc. When reason fails, appeal to emotion. It is perhaps fair enough to say that such an individual took the risk and must accept the punishment, but that is quite a different matter from including the case in data purporting to establish causality. Given the track record of the authorities, it would be entirely reasonable to expect various further fiddles.

Random breath tests are tantamount to wrongful arrest, a deprivation of liberty without justification. It has long been illegal in our society. Once random arrest creeps in for one circumstance, it is easy to add it in for others. Police suddenly have the right to make people queue at road blocks for hours while they process them. You would no longer need any laws to apprehend people. You could stop them for wearing the wrong football favours or political rosettes."It's purely random, Mate!" That is how free societies come to an end: death by a thousand small and entirely reasonable cuts.

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