Since the Paris Commune the demand for “People’s Courts” has been a fairly standard inclusion in any radical Marxist (and pseudo-Marxist) revolutionary programme. Taken beyond the point of pure rhetoric the adjective “People’s” tended to signify a demand for the election of judges and magistrates (and potentially all other sorts of court officials as well). This demand seems radically democratic enough, certainly judges hold power, are unelected, tend to represent the interests of the status quo, often (but not always) exercise reactionary agendas and are to a great extent unaccountable to anyone outside the judiciary.

A more common demand these days, one which has found its way into the manifesto of the Conservative and Unionist Party, is the demand for democratically elected police commissioners. The election of police commissioners will make the police more accountable in their actions to public (and hence political) pressure, although the powers of police commissioners to influence police tactics shouldn’t be over stated (they’re unlikely to be able to stop the local police forces from doing anything if they aren’t willing to cooperate). This seems all very positive and an unusually democratic measure for the Tories to adopt, but there is another side to all this: the election of police commissioners will make the police more accountable in their actions to public (and hence political) pressure.

The threat of the BNP (or their watered-down kin in the English Democrats or some other far-right reactionary group) getting a candidate elected and thus gaining considerable influence over policing policy is both real and disturbing. The same problem holds true for democratically elected court officials, even without the threat of the BNP, it’s not hard to imagine some “tough on crime”, “throw away the key” hanging judge getting elected amidst a tabloid frenzy.

These are specific examples of what many political theorists would consider the fine balance between democracy and the rule of law. If we take democracy to far, they say, we will have mob rule. Even civil liberty campaigner Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, on the BBC’s Question Time two weeks ago, highlighted the Tories’ plans for elected police commissioners as a great threat to civil liberties which must be opposed.

The problem with allowing any state power to be exempt from the democratic principle, in the name of “the rule of law” or “civil liberties” or any other cause (admirable or otherwise) is that such power is rarely neutral. The armed wing of the state and its judicial legitimiser can hardly be considered institutions which are truly politically neutral, and their unchecked power cannot be left exempt from any serious socialist political programme.

Democracy means the politicisation, or rather it means unveiling the already politicised (and one-sidedly so) nature, of the institution in question. Whatever potential problems may arise within this framework it is now exposed to political pressure from below, which in the long run is infinitely preferable to a self-selecting judiciary.

Optimum Population

25/04/2010

Population control is a rather unpopular idea, which remains haunted the spectre of Thomas Malthus whose apocalyptic projections famously never saw realisation. To this day any suggestion of population control or of the mere existence of an overpopulation problem is likely to be dismissed as neo-Malthusian pseudo-science.

In 2009 naturalist and TV producer David Attenborough, of whose documentaries I am quite a fan, stirred up a bit of controversy when he joined a small charity (bringing the oxygen of publicity with him) called the Optimum Population Trust (OPT).

I would argue, in defence of the OPT, that population level, and far more importantly rate of population growth, is a significant concern worthy of both scientific investigation and political action. Consider, for example, the level of criticism often levied at the People’s Republic of China (somewhat unfairly, in my opinion) for it’s rapidly growing level of CO2 emissions. Now if it were not for the highly controversial population control laws applied in parts of mainland China, the population of the PRC would be 300-400 million greater than it presently is. Accommodating for such a larger population with the currently existing standard of living (including the same availability of domestic electricity per person) would require drastically higher levels of CO2 emissions (as the population increase would be almost entirely urban). Not increasing the power generation capacity in proportion to the population increase (which would be economically infeasible anyway) would result in greatly reduced standards of living for all concerned.

This ecological argument is the focus of all modern population control efforts, including the OPT. The ecological population problem differs from the Malthusian population problem in that whereas the latter is resolved through the exponential increase in productivity from industrial capitalism, the ecological crisis is often caused by that very increase in productivity (especially in major developing economies such as China).

All this, then, if perhaps not scientifically conclusive on its own, suggests that further investigation into the potential problem shouldn’t be neglected and that great consideration should be given to efforts to reduce the global birthrate, or even better to address the climate change issue directly (and no, asking developing countries to develop less slowly while much of their population lives in poverty is not a solution).

The problem, however, is that the OPT seem to be preoccupied with campaigns which fail to address this commendable goal in any realistic way.

Firstly, I shall address the issue of their views specifically on the United Kingdom population. The UK is a densely populated country, there is no denying that. There is also no denying the fact that the population of the UK is increasing, and that net migration into the country plays a role in that. It does not, however, logically follow that it is necessary to “[bring] immigration into numerical balance with emigration” (in other words, adopt a draconian immigration policy).

Limiting immigration to the UK does not tackle global population growth (as residents in the UK, including later-generation migrants are likely to have less children that those who live in countries from which the UK receives most of its immigration, it would actually have a slight impact of increasing it). Is there a specifically UK population crisis? If so the OPT fails to make the case for it convincingly. Yes, our population has long outgrown our domestic ability to produce sufficient sustenance and to handle all our waste produce, however we are not and are unlikely to ever be dependent solely on the natural resources of Great Britain and two-thirds of Ulster.

Further restricting immigration to the UK actually defeats what was presumably its purpose. The OPT cite the ageing of the UK population as a serious concern, however restricting immigration would make this worse, by eliminating a major source of young working-age adults and their children.

The OPT could make the argument that severely limiting immigration to the UK is in the interest of its ‘native’ population (although the evidence doesn’t seem to support that position) but the OPT should realise that this not a scientific position but a political one (and a rather unpleasant one at that).

Secondly, beyond positive support for the improved availability of family planning and birth control resources, the OPT’s approach to the global population problem is thoroughly disappointing. Their “Stop at Two” campaign just seems patronising, as though third world families have many children through ignorance, rather than economic necessity.

When I first heard of the Optimum Population Trust (through the Attenborough controversy) I was interested in joining, but after reading their material I though better of it. Should they come up with some genuinely inspired campaigns and overcome their flirtations with national-chauvinistic sentiment (which I’m sure is just badly thought out policy making rather than genuine malice) I would happily take out a membership card but until then I’ll opt-out.

Popular wisdom has it that Britain is on the verge of a hung parliament for the first time since the 1970s. Opinion is divided as to whether this is a good or bad thing. The public seem to be rather pleased with this state of affairs while the Tories are horrified at the idea. Clegg the Kingmaker is understandably thrilled while Gordon Brown seems surprisingly open-minded about the idea (although that may be more him resigning himself to the fact that he’ll have to invite the Lib Dems into coalition in order to hang onto power rather than any principled conviction).

What has changed since the last era of hung parliaments is the increase of de facto presidentialism. Prime Ministers have adopted an increasing presidential style over the last few decades, and the media’s obsession with presidentialising our political system has recently culminated in the ongoing Presidential Prime Ministerial debates.

What is peculiar about our emerging Presidency is that it is still wrapped up in a formally parliamentary package. It seems we have all the disadvantages of a US-style presidential system with none of the advantages: a checks and balances system and a directly elected executive. Yet if we enter a period in which hung parliaments become the norm (whether as a result of a stronger third party or from some form of proportional representation) there is a grave threat to representative democracy. A hung parliament will mean that the ability to choose the Government even indirectly will be removed from the electorate entirely and it shall become the exclusive domain of the Liberal Democrat leader. It will become effectively impossible to oust the Government of the Lib Dems choice.

The signing of Early Day Motion 908 by left-wing MPs John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn among others has greatly worried those scientifically-literate left-wing bloggers who count ourselves among their supporters. Early Day Motion 908 called on the Government to disregard a Committee of Science and Technology report critical of homoeopathy (it pointed out that it doesn’t work). This wasn’t the first time for such a surprise. Back in 2007 the same MPs along with Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association and Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society Kelvin Hopkins, of all people, signed Early Day Motion 1240 calling for the positive recognition of NHS homeopathic hospitals.

David Tredinnick is at the vanguard of the anti-science forces in Parliament. The Tory MP is an outspoken supporter of the provision of homoeopathy and psychic healing on the NHS, and is a firm advocate of doctors consulting astrologists when considering treatments. In this general election Tredinnick is being challenged by a newcomer. Science writer Michael Brooks is standing against him as the one and only candidate of the new Science Party.

The Science Party believes that scientific ignorance among MPs is at dangerous levels. They stand for Government decisions on health policy to be based on scientific evidence, improved funding for the sciences and strategic investment to turn the UK into a high-technology economy which can compete on the global stage and oppose public spending on unproven pseudo-science.

While they’re obviously not going to win the seat it would be fantastic if their campaign raises enough publicity to put science policy on the agenda during the next Parliament and brings these concerns greater public attention.

Move to WordPress

23/04/2010

When I first set up the Reason and Revolt blog, I was faced with the same choice that all bloggers are: Blogger or WordPress. Now I new WordPress in theory have superior features and customisability, whereas Blogger was more limited. But in the end I chose Blogger (for reasons I can’t really remember) on the grounds that I could always switch to WordPress should I feel the need.

That need has been felt. I have a few reasons for the change. Firstly, the ability to create separate pages for any purpose I desire on a whim is one I have desired since finding out that you can’t do that on Blogger. Secondly, the sheer amount of spam bots that were infesting the comments section of the old blog. WordPress offer superior moderation options for comments.

Finally, I’m keen on the idea of a fresh start. One of the demands of writing a blog is the feeling that you should just write something, anything, in order to keep up activity. Very often those posts lacked the quality and level of thought that the topics they addressed deserve. They were simply below the standard which I believe I am capable of. If all goes according to plan that wont happen this time.