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More Anti-Terrorism Laws

Left-wing, right-wing, it makes no difference. Almost every elected government, confronted with even the slightest “terrorist threat”, responds by attacking the civil liberties of its own citizens. And the citizens often cheer them on.

Last week, the French government passed a new bill through the National Assembly that vastly expanded the powers of the country’s intelligence services. French intelligence agents will now be free to plant cameras and recording devices in private homes and cars, intercept phone conversations without judicial oversight, even install “keylogger” devices that record every key stroke on a targeted computer in real time.

It was allegedly a response to the “Charlie Hebdo” attacks that killed 17 people in Paris last January, but the security services were just waiting for an excuse. Indeed, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that the law was needed to give a legal framework to intelligence agents who are already pursuing some of these practices illegally. France, he explained, has never “had to face this kind of terrorism in our history.”

Meanwhile, over in Canada, Defence Minister Jason Kenney was justifying a similar over-reaction in by saying that “the threat of terrorism has never been greater.” Really?

In all the time since 9/11 there had never been a terrorist attack in Canada until last October, when two Canadian soldiers were killed in separate incidents. Both were low-tech, “lone wolf” attacks by Canadian converts to Islam – in one, the murder weapon was simply a car – but the public (or at least the media) got so excited that the government felt the need to “do something.”

The Anti-Terror Act, which has just passed the Canadian House of Commons, gives the Canadian Security Intelligence Service the right to make “preventive” arrests in Canada. It lets police arrest and detain individuals without charge for up to seven days. The bill’s prohibitions on speech that “promotes or glorifies terrorism” are so broad and vague that any extreme political opinion can be criminalised.

In short, it’s the usual smorgasbord of crowd-pleasing measures that politicians throw out when they want to look tough. It won’t do much to stop terrorist attacks, but that doesn’t matter as the threat is pretty small anyway.

France has 65,000,000 million people, and it lost 17 of them to terrorism in the past year. Canada has 36,000,000 million people, and it has lost precisely 2 of them to domestic terrorism in the past twenty years. In what way were those lives more valuable than those of the hundreds of people who die each year in France and Canada from less newsworthy crimes of violence like murder?

Why haven’t they changed the law to stop more of those crimes? If you monitored everybody’s electronic communications all the time, and bugged their homes and cars, you could probably cut the murder rate in half. The price, of course, would be that you have to live in an Orwellian surveillance state, and we’re not willing to pay that price. Not just to cut the murder rate.

The cruel truth is that we put a higher value on the lives of those killed in terrorist attacks because they get more publicity. That’s why, in an opinion poll last month, nearly two-thirds of French people were in favor of restricting freedoms in the name of fighting extremism – and the French parliament passed the new security law by 438 votes to 86.

The government in France is Socialist, but the opposition centre-right supported the new law too. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in Canada is seriously right-wing, but the centre-right Liberals were equally unwilling to risk unpopularity by opposing it. On the other hand, the centre-left New Democrats and the Greens voted against, and the vote was closer in Canada: 183 to 96.

And the Canadian public, at the start 82 percent in favour of the new law, had a rethink during the course of the debate. By the time the Anti-Terror Act was passed in the House of Commons, 56 percent of Canadians were against it. Among Canadians between 18 and 34 years old, fully three-quarters opposed it.

Maybe the difference just reflects the smaller scale of the attacks in Canada, but full credit to Canadians for getting past the knee-jerk phase of their response to terrorism. Nevertheless, their parliament still passed the bill. So should we chalk all this up as two more victories for the terrorists, with an honourable mention for the Canadian public?

No, not really. Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and all the other jihadis don’t give a damn if Western democracies mutilate their own freedoms, as it doesn’t significantly restrict their own operations. The only real winners are the security forces.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 9. (“Why…rate”)

The Danish Santa

Saint Nicholas (also known as Santa Claus, Kris Kringle or Father Christmas) has had to put up with a lot over the years. After the latest blow, he may not show up at all next week.

First they decided that he had to reside at the North Pole, where the temperature often falls to 50 degrees below zero and there are several months of complete darkness each year just when the work-load peaks. The south coast of what is now Turkey, where St. Nick originally lived and worked, was much nicer.

Then in a series of ads in the 1930s the Coca-Cola Company crystallised his image as a fat old man wearing clothes that are frankly a fashion disaster. And now, as a final indignity, they are trying to make him a Danish citizen.

On Monday, Denmark submitted documents claiming the North Pole as Danish territory (since the Danish kingdom includes Greenland). It was a “historic and important milestone” for Denmark, said Foreign Minister Martin Lidegaard. It was also provocative and pointless, but he forgot to mention that.

The Danish government does not actually want or need the North Pole, and does not imagine that it would derive any practical benefit from “owning” it. It is just responding to the equally baseless Canadian declaration last December that the North Pole is sovereign Canadian territory, or at least that the seabed 4,000 metres beneath it is.

The way that claim came about is quite instructive. Canada has a huge archipelago of Arctic islands, and for years Canadian government scientists have been gathering evidence to support a Canadian claim to exclusive economic rights over the seabed of the Arctic Ocean adjacent to those islands. All five countries that border the Arctic Ocean have been preparing similar claims to the seabed off their own coasts.

Until last December, Canada made no claim to the North Pole. It was only days before the country was due to submit its final claim to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government finally woke up.

The claim wasn’t in the original submission because Canada has no real case in international law. Even if the Commission ends up accepting the contention by Russia, Canada and Denmark (on behalf of its Greenland territory) that the underwater Lomonosov Ridge extends their respective bits of the continental shelf into the central Arctic Ocean, the principle of “equidistance” would give the North Pole itself to the Danes or the Russians.

For the past nine years Prime Minister Harper has travelled to the Canadian Arctic every summer to give the Canadian media a “photo op”. He promises new ice-breakers and an Arctic naval base, he stands on a submarine as fighters fly overhead, he sits in the cockpit of a Canadian F-18, he shoots a rifle in a military exercise – every year a new image of him personally defending Canadian sovereignty from some unspecified threat.

There is no threat to Canadian territory, of course, and even in terms of seabed rights Canada’s only serious dispute is with the United States (over a bit of seabed north of the Yukon-Alaska border in the Beaufort Sea). But Harper’s pose as the staunch defender of Canadian “rights” serves his conservative, nationalist agenda and plays well with the Canadian media.

So when Harper’s minions belatedly realised that the government’s scientists and civil servants had not included the North Pole in Canada’s claim to the Commission, Harper slammed the brakes on and demanded that they rewrite it. He will have been told by the experts that Canada has no legal case – but he also knows that by the time that becomes clear to the public, many years from now, he will no longer be in office.

Canada didn’t submit its final claim last December after all. The poor boffins in Ottawa are struggling to reformulate it to include the North Pole, while Harper trumpets his determination to protect Canadian “rights”. And the Danes, who were previously willing to let sleeping dogs lie, have now responded by making their own rather more plausible claim.

The Russians may be next. President Vladimir Putin also likes to be photographed in the Arctic, surrounded by military kit and bravely defending Russian sovereignty. It’s getting ridiculous – but might it also be getting out of hand?

Probably not. There has been much loose talk about allegedly huge reserves of oil and gas under the Arctic seabed, but not much actual drilling is likely to happen in the challenging conditions of the Arctic Ocean when the oil price is below $80 per barrel. (It’s currently in the mid-$50s, and will probably be down there for a long time.)

There’s really nothing else up there that’s worth fighting over.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (*The claim…Russians”; and “There…media”)

Scotland Stays

A week ago, the “Kurdistan Times” warned that “the British are exercising the old colonialist tongue to control the minds and dampen the aspirations of Scottish people who want to vote Yes (to independence).” And lo! It came to pass just as the Kurdistan Times predicted. The silver-tongued colonialists lured the Scots into voting No, and by a fairly healthy margin, too: 55 percent No, 45 percent Yes.

It is, indeed, a much wider margin for the No than the last time a proposal for secession was voted on in a Western country, in Canada in 1995. In that referendum, just 50.5 percent of Quebecers voted No, compared to 49.5 percent who voted Yes.

It was a near-death experience for Canada, in the sense that Quebec bulks much larger in Canada than Scotland does in the United Kingdom. It has almost a quarter of the Canadian population, whereas Scotland has only 8 percent of the UK population.

At the time, many Canadians thought that the country’s demolition had only been deferred, not averted. It was, after all, the second referendum on Quebec’s independence, and it was a lot closer to a Yes than the first one in 1980 (60 percent No, 40 percent Yes). Third time lucky, muttered the separatists of the Parti Quebecois. And everybody else assumed that they’d just keep holding referendums until they got the right answer.

That was when a Montreal journalist called Josh Freed coined the word “Neverendum” to describe the process, and for more than a decade that was the wheel that everybody in Quebec assumed that they were tied to. But they turned out to be wrong. Almost two decades later there has been no third referendum, nor is there any on the horizon.

Indeed, there was a provincial election in Quebec in April, and the Parti Quebecois looked set to win it – until one of its star candidates started talking about another referendum on independence, and the PQ’s vote suddenly collapsed. A recent poll revealed that 64 percent of Quebecers, and an even higher proportion of young Quebecers, don’t want another referendum.

Could it work out that way in Scotland too? That would be good, because what will probably happen if another referendum remains a possibility is what befell Quebec: a low-level depression that lasted for decades as investors avoided a place whose future was so uncertain, and existing businesses pulled out. It was not even that everybody knew that Quebec’s independence would be an economic disaster; just that nobody could be certain it wouldn’t be.

The result was that Quebec’s share of Canada’s Gross Domestic Product, which was around 25 percent when the separatist Parti Quebecois was first elected in 1976, is now less than 20 percent. That is about 90 billion dollars of lost economic activity in Quebec each year, even though another referendum on independence has been a rapidly receding prospect for at least the past dozen years.

How might Scotland avoid that fate? The only way, really, is for “Devo Max” to work so well, and so thoroughly satisfy Scots’ understandable desire for more control over their own government and economy, that nobody talks about independence any more. That will be more than a little tricky.

“Devo Max” – maximum devolution of power from London to Edinburgh – would leave little else but defence and foreign affairs to the UK parliament in London. Everything else would be decided by Scots, in Scotland, including rates of taxation and the level of spending on health and welfare.

So what’s the problem? Scotland was already more than halfway there before the independence referendum. In the panicky last days before the vote, when it briefly looked like the Yes might squeak through to a narrow victory, all three major British parties promised to deliver the other half as well.

But it will be very hard for them to keep their promises, which include placing what amounts to a proposal for a new British constitution before the Westminster parliament by next March. They are starting with three different versions of Devo Max for Scotland, and getting to a single agreed version (which also satisfies the great majority of Scots) in only six months is a tall order.

Even more difficult is the fact that Scotland cannot all be given all these powers while the other parts of the United Kingdom – Wales, Northern Ireland and even the various regions of England – stay just the same. There must be at least some more devolution for them too, but that debate has barely started.

What the United Kingdom must do in the next six months, in other words, is design and pass its first written constitution. And it will not just codify existing arrangements; it will radically change them. Meanwhile, the disappointed Scottish supporters of the Yes will be looking for opportunities to claim that the “English” (as they will put it) are reneging on their promises.

So what are the odds that Scotland will escape the “planning blight” of a long period during which a second referendum lurks in the shadows, and the economic damage accumulates? Not very good.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 6 and 14. (“It was…population”; “Indeed…referendum”; and “What…promises”)

A Scottish Neverendum

10 March 2014

A Scottish Neverendum?

The referendum on Scotland’s independence is only six months away, and suddenly the cautious sparring between the Conservative-led coalition government in London and First Minister Alex Salmond’s pro-independence government in Edinburgh has turned into open war. London won the first battles, and the “No” side will probably win the referendum in September – but it is going to be a long war.

The opening shot was fired by Chancellor George Osborne in London, who declared that an independent Scotland could not negotiate a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom. With only one-tenth of Britain’s population, Scotland is just too small to demand an equal say in how the pound is run. Besides, why would London want to keep the responsibility for Scotland’s huge and rather dodgy banking sector?

Alex Salmond responded by threatening to repudiate Scotland’s share of the national debt if London wouldn’t agree to a currency union, but the conclusion was obvious. Scotland could go on using the British pound if it wanted (like Panama and East Timor use the US dollar), but it could have no formal link.

Next was the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, who warned that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for an independent Scotland to join the European Union. Other EU members that don’t want their own autonomous regions to secede (he meant Spain) would almost certainly block Scotland’s membership in order not to create a precedent.

Independence was looking more complex and expensive by the minute – and then Standard Life spoke up. The Edinburgh-based company is the largest pension provider in the United Kingdom, managing around $400 billion in assets and employing 5,000 people in Scotland.

Ninety percent of Standard Life’s four million UK customers do not live in Scotland, however, and it warned that it might have to leave if the Scots voted for independence. A poll subsequently revealed that 36 percent of Scottish firms would consider leaving following a “yes” vote.

It was a cold shower for the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the number of people planning to vote “yes” in the referendum dropped to 32 percent, while the “noes” remained unchanged at 57 percent. Lots of Scots would like independence if it doesn’t cost them anything, but they don’t want it badly enough to risk any major changes. Unless something changes quite dramatically, the final vote will be 60-40 or more against independence.

So what are the Scottish Nationalists really hoping to achieve? Originally Salmond planned to build support for independence through a long period of successful government within the UK, but the SNP’s landslide victory in 2011, in the depths of the recession, stoked unrealistic hopes among his militants and forced his hand. Nevertheless, he probably knew he was going to lose this one.

That’s how it worked in Quebec in the 1980 referendum, which the separatists lost 60-40. The idea of leaving Canada and striking out on their own frightened the French-speaking majority in Quebec too much at the time. But it did put the question on the table, and it never really went away again.

Salmond will know the history of Quebec separatism well, for it is the best analogy to his own situation. He will be aware that the second referendum, in 1995, came within a hair’s breadth of succeeding. And he will have noticed that the separatist Parti Quebecois is still around, is likely to win the provincial election due on 7 April – and will almost certainly call a third referendum in the next few years.

It’s what English-speaking Quebecers call the “neverendum”, but it actually does end eventually. You only have to win the referendum once. After 34 years of this, the “Rest of Canada” really doesn’t care any more, so there will be no pleas to Quebec to stay this time, no special offers to sweeten the Confederation.

The “Rest of the United Kingdom” is already there: the English, in particular, seem distinctly unmoved by the prospect of Scottish independence. This may be because Scotland has much less of the UK’s population than Quebec has of Canada’s (one-tenth vs. one-fifth), and because Scotland is at the far end of Britain whereas Quebec is in the middle of Canada. So maybe it will only take two referendums in Scotland.

They should pray that this is so, because the four-decade, three-referendum scenario is pretty grim. In Quebec, it caused the most spectacular case of “planning blight” in recent history. The perpetual uncertainty about Quebec’s political and economic future drove the corporate headquarters out (they moved to Toronto), and the immigrants and the investment went elsewhere. The population numbers in Canada’s two biggest provinces tell the story.

In 1980, the year of the first referendum, there were 6.5 million people in Quebec and 8.5 million in Ontario, and the ratio had been steady for most of the century. There are now 8.2 million people in Quebec – and 13.4 million in Ontario. Montreal had always been Canada’s biggest city, but Toronto is now more than 50 percent bigger.

Salmond must know that this is where he is taking Scotland.  He presumably thinks it is worth it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 6. (“Alex…link”; and “Independence… vote”)