Thursday, August 25, 2011

Children without fathers. Schools without discipline. Reward without effort. Crime without punishment. Rights without responsibilities. Communities without control. Sentences without verbs.

Some people were perplexed by Dave "Call Me Tony" Cameron's attempt to draw a line from what-he-calls-health-and-safety to rampaging mobs of poor people stealing plimsolls from shops.

We have all agreed that it's quite silly to require children to wear protective headgear when playing conkers, and the fact that no one does require children to wear protective headgear when playing conkers doesn't make it any less silly, but its quite hard to spot how that sort of things causes a riot. "It says caution, may contain nuts on this packet of peanuts! Quite unnecessarily! I think I shall go and burn down a theater!"  Was his idea that bobbies-on-the-beat couldn't go and club rioters like baby seals (as a certain columnist in a certain paper helpfully put it) because they had to fill out risk-assessment forms first?

Regular readers of this column, estimated to now to be well into double figures, will have had no problem spotting what was going on, and, come to think of it, don't really need to read the rest of this article. But for anyone coming here for there first time:

The right wing propaganda machine is heavily committed to a conspiracy theory in which Health and Safety, and Human Rights are -- along with Global Warming -- more or less synonymous with Political Correctness, and Political Correctness a cover-story for a secret communist plot to bring down Western Civilisation. What all four have in common is that they force people to act against something called Common Sense: indeed, believers in the conspiracy theory hold that Political Correctness means "whatever is contrary to Common Sense." I am sorry to keep banging on about this: but it really does seem to be the central unthink which is driving the far-right's project and Dave's speech about "fighting back" against The Riots is full of it.

He doesn't use the expression "political correctness gone mad" or "cultural marxism" in the speech, but he does directly claim that there are certain things which "you just can't talk about" nowadays. The things you just can't talk about are, of course precisely those things which Prime Ministers have been rabbiting on and on about since at least the time of Robert Walpole. (Note to self: Horace Walpole was someone entirely different.)
"We have too often avoided saying what needs to be said – about everything from  marriage to welfare to common courtesy.

Sometimes the reasons for that are noble – we don’t want to insult or hurt people...

So you can’t say that marriage and commitment are good things – for fear of alienating single mothers.

You don’t deal properly with children who repeatedly fail in school – because you’re worried about being accused of stigmatising them.

You’re wary of talking about those who have never worked and never want to work – in case you’re charged with not getting it, being middle class and out of touch."
So. The Conservative Party have never before talked about children doing badly at school, single parents, the family, good manners or right and wrong but under daring Dave they are jolly well going to start doing so right about now.

Note the passive voice, by the way: you may "be accused" of stigmatising less clever children if you notice that they are doing badly at school; you may "be charged" with being too middle class -- but there is no hint as to who the accuser or the charger might be. Non Specific Man is out to get us.  
To be fair to Cameron -- and just typing those words makes me feel dirty -- his comments on human rights are reasonably nuanced. Human Rights: Good Thing. Some People's Interpretation of Human Rights Act: Bad Thing. If he has got some concrete idea about how a "bill of rights" would differ from a "human rights act" then I'd be happy to listen, or at any rate, read a leading article in the Guardian by people who have listened on my behalf. [*]  I'm sure he didn't remotely want or expect that DAVE DECLARES WAR ON HUMAN RIGHTS headline in the Nasty Express.

Yet even here he can't help drifting into the language of the Conspiracy Theory.

The truth is, the interpretation of human rights legislation has exerted a chilling effect on public sector organisations, leading them to act in ways that fly in the face of common sense, offend our sense of right and wrong, and undermine responsibility.

It would be nice to hear one concrete example of how human rights have made public organisations do nonsensical things things and things which are plain wrong. He doesn't, because there aren't any.

However when it comes to health and safety, there is no nuance:

It is s exactly the same with health and safety – where regulations have often been twisted out of all recognition into a culture where the words 'health and safety' are lazily trotted out to justify all sorts of actions and regulations that damage our social fabric.

Exactly the same as what? Twisted by whom? Trotted out by whom? Damaged in what way? What is a social fabric, in any case?

Of course there is scope for grown ups to disagree about how dangerous a world we care to live in. Dave would presumably be quite happy for his child to lose the odd finger in a woodwork accident; someone else might think it quite sensible to make the teacher think before the lesson about what could go wrong and how to stop it from doing so. But how, forsooth, do we get from "We think there should be a qualified life-saver near places where children go swimming" to "damaging the social fabric" to "burning down shoe shops". 

The language veers toward the mystical. A vague thing -- "human rights" "health and safety" -- has a vague, metaphorical effect -- "corrosion", "chilling", "damaging the fabric" on a vague thing -- "society" (which does not exist but needs to be bigger). He can't give a concrete example of how we are more rusty or colder than we used to be; but he takes for granted that this cold rusty damagedness had something to do with a few hundred cross people causing a lot of damage. None of it makes the slightest sense unless you already believe in a literal Human Rights Brigade working to destroy civilisation by making us all reject common sense.

I don't know to what extent David Cameron believes in the Frankfurt Conspiracy Theory. (Melanie Phillips thinks he's one of those actively working towards the downfall of civilisation, remember.)  But the language -- of a creeping ideological thing that is chewing away at society and will shortly destroy us all -- clearly draws on the same mythology.
David Cameron is not Melanie Phillips., and Melanie Phillips is not Anders Breivik. But I am afraid that moderate right wing lunatic gives spurious credibility to violent right wing lunatics. It's no good being a little bit in favour of human rights, or a little bit skeptical of the idea that health and safety means the end of society as we now know it. You have to denounce the whole fantasy; just like you'd denounce someone who believed in the Procols ofthe Elders of Zion. There is no human rights culture. There are no elf and safety fantatics. There is no political correctness brigade. The Queen is not a telepathic alien lizard. Nothing is eating away at the fabric of society and no-one banned Christmas. Mild mannered politicians who perpetuate fantasy worlds are part of the problem.
[*] Surely a British Bill of Rights will either say the same things as the European Human Rights charter, or else different things? If it says the same things, then lawyers who are inclined to bring frivolous cases will be just as able to do so under a Bill of Rights than under a Human Rights Act. If it says different things, then UK citizen will have rights under the European Human Rights charter that they don't have under UK law; which means that they'll be able to be appeal to Strasbourg when they've exhausted the UK legal process, as they did before 1998. Have you thought this through. At all?

[**] Except in so far as "common sense" means "whatever I feel like doing at a particular moment". It is quite possible that Tony-Lite feels frustrated when he wants to grab a quick headline in the Nasty Mail by kicking a scary looking foreigner, possibly one with a prosthetic hand, out of the country and the courts insist on checking the letter of the law and hearing all arguments on both sides. But that's an argument against the whole idea of due process, not against human rights per se.