Britain’s music industry, the EU, the UK – and an early entry for Frost’s inbox

2 Mar

Some post-Brexit barriers to business between the UK and the EU are a consequence of both parties failing to clinch an agreement that one or the other or both already have with third parties – in which the loser is the industry concerned, on both sides of the channel.

Others are a product of our own bureaucracy: of government being ponderous when it might be nimble in offering advice and support.

And others still are simply a product of Brexit as we agreed it, which brings with it friction in trade with the EU, which in turn can be minimised but not eliminated.

The continuing row over the access of British musicians to the EU and EU musicians to Britain offers examples of all three.

In the first category, we have visas.  Some EU states will allow our musicians to visit without a visa for up to 90 days and other won’t.  That isn’t a problem for other third party states, such as St Lucia, Tonga or those which make up the United Arab Emirates, because they have a bileteral deal with the EU that waives the requirement.

In the second, there is VAT. UK exporters of physically recorded music and merchandise must go from paying no VAT to negotiating 27 different EU VAT systems to dealing with a single EU VAT system during this current year.  This is a classic instance of the businesses concerned needing more advice from the government as it seeks to navigate two systems within twelve months.

Finally, there will be more bureaucracy, admin and paperwork – even if the UK and the EU can sort that visa issue, and others that could reasonably be settled (such as carnets, for which there may already be an exemption for portable musical instruments taken into the EU for professional purposes).

That last category is integral to leaving the Single Market and Customs Union – which is outweighed, to some Brexiteers, by the regaining of national independence and, to others, by the gains that come from being outside the EU system and willing to act on it.  Our vaccine success alone could be worth “more than the most pessimistic assumptions about the economic damage of Brexit,” according to Jethro Elsden of the Centre for Policy Studies.

(Northern Ireland, of course, remains in the Single Market for goods and, in key respects, in the Customs Union too for practical purposes.)

Why the difficulty over negotiating a deal on visa waivers or work permits?  Because musicians are caught up in a wider issue of which their story is part: freedom of movement.

To cut a long story short, the EU made a public offer on the issue, which had wider implications for free movement, and the UK made a private one, that did not.

The former would have applied not only to musicians but to other workers and travellers, as Free Movement confirms.  But, for many people who backed Brexit, ending it was integral to the exercise.

Our proprietor’s EU referendum day poll of over 12,000 people found that a third of those who voted Leave said the main reason was that leaving “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.”

Meanwhile, Oliver Dowden says that “the reason why we rejected the offer from the European Union was that it wasn’t binding, it didn’t cover touring, it didn’t cover technical support staff, and crucially, it didn’t cover work permits.”

This continuing impasse is an early bidder for entry near the top of David Frost’s inbox as he begins only his second day as a member of the Cabinet – though if the free movement obstacle remains immovable, there will be little he can wring out of the EU.

However, Frost knows the ropes, having led the negotiation on the trade deal himself, and is so is well-placed to knock on the doors of individual member states, into whose hands most of these matters fall in the absence of an EU-wide agreement.

UK Music argues that “fishing is of course an important British industry, contributing £446 million to the UK economy in 2019 and employing 12,000 fishers”.

“But it pales in comparison with the UK music industry, which in the same year contributed £5.8 billion to the economy and supported 200,000 jobs.”

It is strange to think that there is more money in Peter Grimes, figuratively speaking, than there is in real fishing – even if because there is less than there might be because of the dispute.

There will be a £23 million fund for fisheries, and Music UK proposes, by way of parallel, a music exports office to help the sector cope with the increased bureaucracy.

Perhaps Rishi Sunak will make an offer tomorrow – after all, today’s papers are full of pre-briefing, as is way with modern Budgets, of £400 million more for theatres, museums, galleries and live music venues.

Maria Miller: Death and rape threats, abuse, revenge porn. It’s time for Government to get tough with the social media giants.

28 Feb

Maria Miller is a former Culture Secretary, and is MP for Basingstoke.

I want 2021 to be the year that we finally grasp the nettle of online abuse – to create a safer, more respectful online environment, that will lead to a kinder politics too.

The need has never been greater. Abuse, bullying, and harassment on social media platforms is ruining lives, undermining our democracy, and splintering society.

As an MP, I have had to become accustomed to a regular bombardment of online verbal abuse, rape, and even death threats. In this I am far from alone. Female colleagues across the House are routinely targeted online with abusive, sexist, threatening comments. As Amnesty has shown, black female MPs are most likely to be subjected to unacceptable and even unlawful abuse.

And while women and people from an ethnic minority background are more likely than most to receive abuse online, they are not alone. Hate-filled trolls and disruptive spammers consider anyone with a social media presence to be fair game: one in four people have experienced some kind of abuse online and online bullying and harassment has been linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

While the personal impact of online abuse is intolerable, we must not underestimate the societal effect it is having. Research by the think-tank Compassion in Politics found that 27 per cent of people are put off posting on social media because of retributive abuse. We cannot have an open, honest, and pluralist political debate online in an atmosphere in which people are scared to speak up.

Which is why I am working cross-party with MPs and Peers to ensure that the upcoming Online Harms Bill is as effective as possible in tackling the scourge of online abuse.

First, the Bill must deal with the problem of anonymous social media accounts. Anonymous accounts generate the majority of the abuse and misinformation spread online and while people should have an option to act incognito on social media, the harm these accounts cause must be addressed.

I support a twin-track system: giving social media users the opportunity to create a “verified” account by supplying a piece of personal identification and the ability to filter out “unverified” accounts. This would give choice to verified users while continuing to offer protection to those, for example whistle blowers, who want to access social media anonymously.

The public back this idea. Polling by Opinium for Compassion in Politics reveals that 81 per cent of social media users would be willing to provide a piece of personal identification (passport, driving license or bank statement most probably) to gain a verified account. Three in four (72 per cent) believe that social media companies need to have a more interventionist role to wipe out the abuse on their platforms.

Of course, this approach would need to be coupled with enforcement ,and I believe that can be achieved by introducing a duty of care on social media companies, along the lines suggested in the Government’s White Paper.

For too long, they have escaped liability for the harm they cause by citing legal loopholes, arguing they are platforms for content not producers or publishers. The legal environment that has facilitated social media companies’ growth is not fit for purpose – it must change to better reflect their previously unimaginable reach and influence. Any company that sells a good to a customer already has to abide by health and safety standards, and there is no reason to exempt social media companies. Any failure by those companies to undertake effective measures to limit the impact of toxic accounts should result in legal sanctions.

Alongside a duty of care, we need more effective laws to give individuals protection, particularly when it comes to posting of images online without consent. Deepfake, revenge pornography and up-skirting are hideous inventions of the online world. I want new laws to make it a crime to post or threaten to post an intimate image without consent, and for victims to be offered the same anonymity as others subjected to a sexual offence, so we stop needing the law to play continuous ‘catch up’ as new forms of online abuse emerge.

Finally, the Government should make good on its promise to invest an independent organisation with the power and resources to regulate social media companies in the UK. All the signs suggest that Ofcom will be asked to undertake that role and I can see no problem with that proposal as long asthe company is given truly wide-ranging and independent powers, and personnel with the knowledge to tackle the social media giants.

In making these recommendations to Government, my intention is not to punish social media companies or to stifle online debate. Far from it. I want a more respectful, representative, and reasonable discourse online. So, let’s work together over the coming 12 months to make this Bill genuinely world-leading in the protection it will create for social media users, in the inclusivity it will foster, and respect it will engender.

Andy Street: I haven’t raised a mayoral tax during my term, and commit to not doing so if I’m re-elected

23 Feb

Andy Street is Mayor of the West Midlands, and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.

As we await next week’s Budget from the Chancellor, here in the West Midlands we’ve just considered our own local financial plans for the next year. Approved by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), it is a budget of more than £900 million – funding infrastructure, regeneration and job training schemes that can support our post-Covid-19 recovery.

After such a difficult twelve months, and with significant challenges ahead, this year’s financial plan for the region stands out in terms of its ambition and breadth, delivering on my core commitments of new jobs, better transport and more homes.

But our plans aren’t just about big spending to kick-start the economy, they’re about public funds working hand-in-hand with private sector investment. This is about delivering investment into projects that are based on solid business cases.

In this column, I want to tell you about how we intend to spend that investment and also explain how, as Mayor, I believe it’s vital that I set a financial example to ask only for money when it is needed – and ensure it is used properly.

So what’s in the region’s budget? For a start, there is £142 million towards skills and training – to support people as they adapt to the new world we face and get high-quality, stable jobs in the industries of the future.

Despite the pandemic, we have already made a good start on the 20-year transport plan that I unveiled 12 months ago, and this budget includes a further £363 million towards delivering our ever-expanding Metro lines, reopened railway stations and better, greener buses.

Then there is ‘brownfield first’, our ground-breaking policy of reclaiming derelict industrial sites for development. Our budget includes £116 million towards maintaining our progress in making ‘brownfield first’ a reality, not a slogan – regenerating communities and easing the pressure on our Green Belt.

Plus, of course, millions have been allocated to other big regional investments we have secured, for a whole raft of projects that are generating jobs and sustaining livelihoods now – projects such as the Commonwealth Games, Coventry City of Culture, the rollout of 5G technology and many more.

All told, since becoming Mayor four years ago, we have brought in £3 billion of new Government funding, a figure rising every day, and topped up with millions more given to our councils, and supported by us as a regional body.

When the pandemic struck, the West Midlands economy was motoring, with record employment, record housebuilding and the strongest growth anywhere outside of London. Government support played a huge part in that success, but I believe that our ability as a region to put together compelling business cases has been crucial to winning that investment. Now, as we plot our recovery post-pandemic, this approach will be more important than ever.

It’s not surprising that I do things differently as Mayor, when you consider that I came to the role from a business background, rather than via the world of politics. My business experiences have certainly informed how I tackle the role, in terms of setting strategy, building a team, ensuring delivery and understanding that the UK’s regions are in a competitive race.

However, in financial terms, my 30 years at John Lewis have meant I build a budget based on business deals, not political decisions. Every penny we have brought into the region has been won through coherent business arguments, project by project, and working hard to make the case with Government.

Throughout my time as Mayor, I have worked with Ministers to secure the funding we need from across Government. I haven’t done this through megaphone diplomacy, or seeking out TV cameras to make demands, but through approaching each project as a business deal – and making sure we land as many as possible. Naturally, this approach also knits well with the business world, leading to big private sector investments which drive our economy forward.

There could have been another way. When it was established in 2017, the office of the Mayor was given considerable powers – powers I have often argued should be extended, for example to decentralise decision-making from London, or to give regions more ability to direct how money is spent locally.

However, there is one significant area where I have not used the powers on offer to me. During my time in office, I have not used the ability available to the Mayor to introduce a precept – an additional Mayoral tax.

In the last four years I have never used this power to tax the people of the West Midlands and, where we have borrowed, it has been to push forward projects – and never at a rate which means citizens end up with a precept.

Our model of retaining local business rates has also helped balance the books, by ensuring we benefit from the fruits of our strong economic growth, paying in part for the work of the WMCA.

I could have got our region into heavy debt to make my transport plan happen, or raised extra taxes to press ahead with Brownfield First. As a person with a business background, and someone who believes good housekeeping, this hasn’t been my way. Areas served by Labour mayors levy a precept. This has not happened here.

As households across the region face the hardships caused by Coronavirus, I’m proud to say that this year we have once again balanced our books and delivered a budget that hasn’t cost local people a penny in extra tax from their Mayor.

It is an approach I want to continue. After four years of no extra tax due to the Mayor’s office, I am planning to do the same again if I am fortunate enough to continue in this job – that’s zero tax again for another three years. I do not intend to introduce a precept.

I consider it a great privilege to be the Mayor of the region where I grew up, the place that made me what I am. I passionately believe that the office of Mayor should exist to the benefit of local people, not to their cost. By continuing to approach this job in a business-like way, I am confident I can continue to bring real money into their region, without taking it out of their pockets.

Caroline Ffiske: How non-crime hate incidents came into force. And why they should be reformed – or scrapped altogether.

18 Feb

Caroline Ffiske is a former adviser to the New Zealand Government and Conservative councillor in Hammersmith & Fulham.

Sir William Macpherson, who led the damning report into the Metropolitan Police following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, has died, aged 94. Tributes have poured in for his groundbreaking work in naming and tackling institutional racism.

However, his legacy is mixed. For it was the Macpherson report which introduced into policing, the concept of the ‘non-crime hate incident’ which has become so controversial today.

Introduced with the best of intentions, it has grown and morphed beyond reason – more so than Macpherson could surely have imagined. How can we now freely debate important and controversial political issues, when to do so might land us with a police record accusing us of hate?

The question is of growing importance. Conservative MPs are taking an increasing interest in free speech – and Priti Patel is reported to be considering an overhaul of hate crime law.

Action would be complicated. There isn’t a single piece of hate crime law that, with a tweak or two, would restore us to a Miltonian lost paradise of free speech. But the non-crime hate incident is part of the mix ,and needs reform. Before exploring options, it’s useful and timely to revisit its origin and evolution; and also to carefully consider whether and how it harms.

The origin of the non-crime hate incident

The widely publicised Harry Miller case in 2019 helped to bring the non-crime hate incident to public attention – and gave the police a jolt.

Miller received a call from the police and was told to ‘check his thinking’ – and so learned that participating in online debate about the meaning of sex and gender had earned him a police record accusing him of hate.

When he took the matter to court, the judge agreed that the behaviour of Humberside Police, in their visit to and warning of Miller, had breached the boundaries of the reasonable. Their actions were criticised as being akin to those of the Cheka, the Stasi, and the Gestapo.

However, the judge also concluded that it was perfectly correct for the police to maintain a record of Miller’s tweets. In doing so, they were following the College of Policing Hate Crime Guidance which originated in the Macpherson Report.

This introduced key components of the non-crime hate incident; the most significant being the validity of individual perception. A ‘racist incident’ should be defined as ‘any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person’. That was in 1999.

Concept creep

The College of Policing’s current Hate Crime Guidance can be found here; and the definition of non-crime hate incidents here.

As inspired by Macpherson, this says that all reported incidents must be recorded. There is a reminder of their supposed seriousness; they “should not be dismissed as unimportant; they can cause extreme distress to victims and communities”. After all, they might be “the precursor to more serious or escalating criminal offending”. This reminds us of Macpherson’s original serious intent.

But, twenty years on, nothing seems too trivial to count as a hate incident. It’s anything that anyone perceives to have been “motivated wholly or partially by hostility…the victim does not have to justify or provide evidence of their belief”. Indeed, police officers “should not directly challenge this perception…police officers may also identify a non-crime hate incident, even where the victim or others do not”. Indeed, “victims … may not be aware that they are a victim of a non-crime hate incident, even though this is clear to others”. Hostility? This from the Met: ‘evidence of the hate element is not a requirement.’

Macpherson intended the concept to tackle racism. But more ‘monitored strands’ have since been added: disability, religion, sexual orientation, and, most recently, transgender, in 2015. However, these don’t limit the concept: “non-crime hate incidents are also committed against victims who are targeted because of a non-monitored personal characteristic”.

The non-crime hate incident has become a concept without meaningful boundary – no wonder the police record people’s tweets.

The police keep notes; how is that a problem?

Firstly, the scale of the issue is not insignificant. In January last year, it was reported that police forces in England and Wales had recorded 120,000 non-crime hate incidents over the last five years.

People aren’t told when they’ve been accused of a hate incident now on police record. And there is an issue over how police handle these records.

In the Crime Report relating to Miller’s tweets, Humberside Police stated that “the suspect” was “posting transphobic comments on Twitter” and “showing hatred for the transgender community”.

This was a slur. Sarah Phillimore, a barrister who co-founded WeAreFairCop with Miller, discovered that her local police force has records describing her as ‘a barrister who has been posting hate about Jewish and transgender people‘.

Regarding her comments about Jewish people, they noted that there is nothing ‘overtly offensive’ about them, but nevertheless claimed that she had been ‘posting hate’.

Again, this was a slur. But when Phillimore asked the Wiltshire police to delete the record, they wouldn’t – and here seems to be no mechanism for review. College of Policing Guidance also indicates that records could be shared with future employers via DBS checks.

You may feel sympathy for the police as they battle the intersections of ‘culture wars’, ‘vexatious reporting’, and guidance which requires them to record trivial matters. They must, at least, minimally comply.

But here is a video from the Wiltshire Police touting for trade ‘if you experience any kind of hate crime or incident then please call us on 101 or report it online’.

More generally, the non-crime hate incident now feeds into a police culture too focused on accusing us of offence. It’s one of the building blocks, which, taken together, resulted in the police investigating Darren Grimes for a media interview with David Starkey, and arresting Kate Scottow at her home and holding her in custody for eleven hours, because of some offensive tweets.

In February 2019, Boris Johnson said of Scottow’s case: ‘Whatever the rights and wrongs of this internet feud, we are wasting too much time and resource on cases like this’.   Macpherson intended the concept to help drive community cohesion; I would argue that the non-crime hate incident has grown into a tool that can be used vexatiously to drive us apart.

Options for reform

The obvious route is a Law Commission Review. But the Commission is already mid-way through such a process – and it’s not boding well for free speech.

It’s more of the same: the Commission proposes to expand the reach of hate crime law, not limit it. It has proposed a new category of communication offence.  Here is a telling extract: “The offence does not require proof that anyone was actually harmed”.

No, the Government must take charge. Racism and discrimination must be taken seriously; so too, must free speech and open debate – and the pursuit of violent crime. None of these benefit from police focus on the inconsequential.

Here are some suggestions for reform:

  • The emotive concept of ‘hate’ is not helpful – would ‘discrimination’ be better?
  • Some degree of significance is needed.
  • If someone is accused of a non-crime hate incident, they should be informed.
  • There should be a mechanism for challenge.
  • Records should use non-emotive language; they should not slur people.
  • The police should not tout for trade.
  • Non-crime hate incidents should not be disclosed in DBS searches.

Alternatively, the government could grasp the bull by the horns; in the spirit of Macpherson, be bold. Twenty years on, the Conservatives could go full circle – and simply do away with the concept of Hate Crime altogether.

Neil O’Brien: Five lessons from the pandemic

25 Jan

Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

Planning for disaster

Years ago I was rummaging around in the basement of the Treasury and came across an old copy of the “War Book”: a big red tome setting out what to do in the event of nuclear attack.

Time had made some details rather quaint: if the Soviets were about to drop a trillion megatonnes of instant sunshine on Britain, I’m not sure “nationalise Girobank” would be the first thing on my to-do list.

But it was a huge, thorough plan. Each department had something similar.

Since the end of the cold war, thinking about civil contingencies has been lower priority. But our more connected world creates potential for new, faster crises.

Not just pandemics, but the financial contagion we saw in 2008. Our reliance on the internet, cloud, electric grid and GPS is increasing. More specialisation, plus more global chains of just-in-time production increase efficiency, but also fragility. You don’t have to be Martin Rees to think there’s new risks that we must plan against.

State capacity

It’s striking that the countries that did best in the Covid pandemic are those, like Taiwan and South Korea, which live under threat of annihilation by their neighbours. They’re dense, urban countries, but per head they had just three per cent and 0.1 per cent of the rate of cases seen in the EU.

Though we’re fastest in Europe, the world’s fastest vaccine rollout is in Israel – a country also under constant threat.

Other top performers include New Zealand and Australia.  They aren’t under such military threat, but have long been used to tough bio-borders. Australia went from one idiot releasing a couple of rabbits for fun, to having 600 million bunnies and having to build the world’s longest fence.  That was a pretty good early lesson about the exponential growth of a new organism introduced where there’s no predatorial ‘immune system’ to keep it in check.

New Zealand and Oz also imposed tough lockdowns in response to relatively few cases. At the time sceptics here said it was “absurd” and “out of proportion”. But our cousins were right, so they’ve been able to get back to normal faster. They basically followed the advice of Ripley in the movie Aliens: ‘nuke it from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure’.

Right across South East Asia and Australiasia, successful states have made their borders very tough. As vaccinations power ahead in the UK, we’re quite right to further toughen our borders against potential new vaccine-resistant variants. The cost of a vaccine dodging variant coming here would just be too high.

But there’s something more to learn from states that live under threat, about the need for state capacity.  Another top Covid performer is Singapore, where civil servants are very highly paid – but small in number, and low performers are managed out fast.  One reason the state shouldn’t be too big is exactly so that it can be strong and focussed.

China as number one

As people have pointed out, coronavirus has accelerated lots of trends: we’ve woken up in 2030. Paying for things is contactless. Videocalling friends is normal. More stuff is bought online. And China is closer to being number one.

Though some democracies managed the same feat, China’s brutal suppression of Covid-19 has been successful, meaning faster reopening, meaning the point where it becomes unambiguously the world’s largest economy is now only a few years away.

The last twelve months have seen Beijing start to throw its weight around more.

The west needs to get its act together urgently. There’s an internal economic challenge, to match their all-conquering innovation-industrial system. And a diplomatic challenge too, to reunite the democracies. At a China Research Group event last week with people close to the new Biden administration, it was clear that there’s an important role for the UK in making that happen.

Making a living

First it was the global scramble for masks and PPE.  Then ventillators.  Then diagnostics and testing kit. Now the global surge of demand for vaccine production and glass vials.

Again and again, the pandemic demonstrated why we need advanced manufacturing capacity: in a crisis, nations are utterly dependent without it.

To be sure, there were always other good reasons to back manufacturing.  Along with professional services, it’s the other part of the UK economy that really drives productivity growth: since 1997, manufacturing provided 40–50 per cent of productivity growth in places like Wales, the West Midlands and the North West.

But the pandemic underlines another reason to want such capacities here. When the international going gets tough, countries must be able to provide for themselves (topped up with firm agreements with allies for complex products).

This lesson is not lost on President Xi, who in a speech in April set out his “dual circulation” plan:

“we must build on our advantages, solidify and increase the leading international positions of strong industries, and forge some “assassin’s mace” technologies. We must sustain and enhance our superiority across the entire production chain… and we must tighten international production chains’ dependence on China.”

In case you were in any doubt, Xi also talked about “forming powerful countermeasures and deterrent capabilities based on artificially cutting off supply to foreigners”.

Since Margaret Thatcher left office, Britain has deindustrialised more than any other G20 country.

Perhaps it’s another area where we should learn from Asia: South Korea has nine times more robots per manufacturing worker than the UK, yet since the Lawson era the UK has slashed capital allowances which support such investment.

As a recent report for the Levelling Up Taskforce found, such allowances also tend to help poorer areas more.

Staying nimble

The Government was panned at the time for not joining the EU’s joint procurement of the vaccine.  But the team who secured more vaccine orders for the UK than any other large country showed the benefits of being small and agile.

We need to apply the same agility and flexibility to our exit from the pandemic.

I totally understand why people want to set hard dates to reopen. We are all desperate to get back to normality.

But there are so many unknowns: how fast cases will fall; what effect school reopening will have; how much protection people get from their first and second vaccinations; how much that stops the spread, not just symptoms; whether new vaccine-resisting strains come here; and how fast we can go on vaccinations…

Given all this we need to stay nimble in the final phase of this. On Friday we delivered 425,000 vaccination doses in England alone. Huge numbers of people are being protected each day.

We will soon jab our way to victory, and end this pandemic.

Afterwards, there’s all kinds of lessons we must learn from it.

Radical: A University lesson from the Kathleen Stock fracas. It’s harder to support her if you’re a younger academic.

19 Jan

Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical. She and Victoria Hewson, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this fortnightly column on trans, sex and gender issues.

Regular readers of this column will know that the two of us who write it have some differences of opinion. Since one of us is a classical liberal (me), and the other a classic conservative (Victoria), you might not be surprised to learn we disagree about the honours system. One of our many points of agreement, however – regardless of whether the UK should have such a system – is that there are few people in public life more deserving of public gratitude than Kathleen Stock.

Professor Stock was awarded an OBE in December for ‘services to higher education and academic freedom’. Over the past decade, she has written and spoken at increasing length about sex and gender, emphasising her concerns about the rise of ‘gender-identity’ activism. She has approached this as a trained philosopher – writing analytically about complex matters in a clear and coherent manner.

I, for one, find her approach comes as a sharp relief, amid the sea of stream-of-consciousness ‘arguments’ from ‘authority’ that make up most of the contemporary writing on these matters. And I challenge anyone to read her relevant public philosophy and fail to understand exactly what she’s saying. Now, being clear is, of course, insufficient in itself. But it’s hard to stress quite how rare it is, today – not just in public writing about sex and gender, but, sadly, in academic writing more generally.

One reason Stock focuses on the area of sex and gender (having previously written mostly about aesthetics) is evident from something she wrote last weekend:

“People such as me are going to carry on thinking and writing about [the risks of uncritically assuming gender identity to be more important than biological sex] even if many of our colleagues would prefer us to shut up. I’m afraid we can’t afford to stop. The costs to the public are too large to do otherwise.”

Two salient points to take from this are that –

a) Stock believes that if she and others stop doing the kind of thing she’s doing, serious harms will ensue; and

b) that there are many people who want her and those others to stop.

The first point relates to the substance of arguments she makes: about the risks ‘natal’ women face if ‘natal’ men who self-identify as women are permitted general access to women-only spaces;* the societal importance of acknowledging biological truth; and the requirement to respect obligations of care towards children who aren’t capable of consenting to taking life-changing drugs of the type prescribed by the Gender Identity Development Service.

The second point relates specifically to the appalling treatment Stock constantly faces at the hands of others within academia. Regular readers will be unsurprised to learn she needs extra security on campus. Beyond that, just consider the past few weeks.

After the OBE announcement, many professional philosophers denigrated Stock on social media. They claimed she’s a weak philosopher, whose work is unworthy of public honour, and even – in one notable case – that it’s totally lacking in value. Learning, however, that the OBE hadn’t been awarded for the philosophical merit of Stock’s corpus, but for her embodiment of commitment to free speech, her opponents turned to character assassination.

Hundreds of academics signed a public letter stating their dismay at the OBE, on the implicit grounds that Stock is transphobic. Whilst this un-evidenced and defamatory specific accusation isn’t directly put into words, the letter is entitled ‘Open Letter Concerning Transphobia in Philosophy’, and includes claims such as: “[d]iscourse like that Stock is producing and amplifying contributes to […] harms” against trans people.

That the letter included a serious substantive error (it stated that Stock opposed the GRA, rather than particular reforms to it) seemed of little concern to its organisers. Indeed, they stuck with the letter’s original uncorrected text for some time, preferring to present exactly what their initial signatories had agreed to (see the first attempt at an erratum), over removing untruths about Stock’s views.

This was actually helpful: it showcased the lack of value these people place in truth. This is unsurprising, of course, since dangerous truth-denying post-modernist roots lie beneath many of the ‘arguments’ that Stock’s work counters.

The letter’s organisers have now added a correction, however – in parenthesis, asterisked to an updated erratum. Even post-modernists understand the costs of being seen not to care about truth, it seems. (Of course, many of the signatories are not signed-up post-modernists. But I’d bet all of them believed signing would bring personal career benefits over costs.)

One particularly badly-thought-through take making the rounds these past couple of days explicates the matter further. Apparently, because Stock has an academic book coming out, because she’s given prestigious lectures (amid angry petitions), because she’s been able to reveal her struggles in the national press, and because she’s been awarded an OBE (suddenly of interest to philosophers all over the world..), therefore, they claim, she’s not ‘being silenced’.

Now, current obsession with the term ‘silencing’ is surely generally unhelpful. Attacks on free speech aren’t limited to instances of literal gagging. In a liberal democracy, it’s required that all members of society are able to speak out about whatever they want. Yes, certain conditions are typically placed on this, such as that constituted by J.S. Mill’s famous ‘harm principle’. But just because someone is able to speak publicly in certain privileged ways – indeed, even if they were able to shout directly into everyone’s ears, via some clever new technology – doesn’t mean their freedom of speech is not unjustifiably at risk.

Such risk can come from many places – not only from within the formal apparatus of the state, but from other institutions, groups, and individuals. A liberal democratic society must model an environment of deliberation, equally open to every member. We all have responsibilities, here. But foremost among the institutions expected to help maintain this environment are educational establishments. Within those, if you’re lucky, you’ll find some philosophers.

Philosophers are people committed to searching out truth. They understand the value of formal argument, and practise it. Not to denigrate or otherwise harm others, but to try to reach truths, by fully testing differing positions, which involve obviously firm things like scientific facts, and less obvious but nonetheless equally firm things like values and principles. We need these people badly. We need them, not least, to help us find our way through important but difficult and emotive debates.

So you should be pleased to hear of a second public letter. Entitled ‘Open Letter Concerning Academic Freedom’, its academic signatories state their consternation at the ‘public vilification’ the anti-Stock letter represents.

But, beyond concerns about the value of public letters, there’s something else worth considering. Although it’s cheering to note that many more philosophical ‘big hitters’ signed up to the second letter than the first, that doesn’t mean all’s well.

Successful older academics can say pretty much whatever they like, as long as they provide decent reasons – certainly without fear of career cost. But junior scholars don’t have that luxury. Telling a twenty-something graduate student ‘hey, don’t worry, you’re on the side of some of the most famous living philosophers!’ doesn’t mean much. Not when they know that their peers – and the academic administrators they depend on for preferment – are watching for any ‘misstep’, fingers on the screenshot buttons. Academic freedom? Doesn’t sound like it to me.

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*Stock doesn’t use the term ‘natal’ like this, anymore. I think that’s generally a good call, but I’m using it here for clarity in the context of a limited word count.

Richard Holden: Biden’s inauguration this week boosts Britain’s new opportunity to pivot to the world

18 Jan

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Office of Richard Holden, Medomsley Rd, Consett.

Some readers will have seen and many more heard of the hit American musical, Hamilton. I saw it and loved so much that I went back again a few months later to see it a second time.

One of the songs that stuck with me, even though it isn’t one of the top tunes from the show, is called “One Last Time”. It’s about George Washington’s decision to step aside rather than continue to fight for further terms as President. Washington tells Hamilton that he’s doing so to teach the fledgeling republic “how to say goodbye.”

Sadly, the turmoil in the United States that has gripped the world in the last few weeks stands in stark contrast to Washington’s idealism. The vanity of a soon-to-be former President and the violent protests he caused are appalling.

And most shamefully, what could have been a moment of unity for the United States and a marker to the world about democracy and the peaceful transition of power has distracted from a real totalitarian government elsewhere: the moves by the Chinese Communist Party to end the democratic rights of the people of Hong Kong, plus its continued oppression of the Uighur people.

Amidst this melee, a new US President will be inaugurated. He has already signalled his intent to re-establish the role of the United States on the world stage. The United Kingdom is busily involved with this change, too, following Brexit and is rightly pursuing it – especially in relation to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP for short).

The global ‘pivot to the Indo-Pacific’ has been going on for some time, and CPTPP provides two things. Most importantly, reduced tariff barriers to a new free trade zone with the established (Australia, Canada, Japan etc) and emerging and growing (Vietnam, Mexico, Chile, etc) economies of the Pacific rim. Second, with 13 per cent of global GDP (16 per cent if the UK joins) working together, this provides a strong counter-weight that, if the UK joins, will be as large as China economically.

To take advantage of this emerging space of global power, the UK needs to demonstrate that we’re up for being a long-term partner to the region via the CPTPP. Importantly, such a move would ensure that we can retain our place, with our new-found status as a newly independent trading nation, as the pre-eminent global hub for business – especially legal and financial services and high specification manufacturing exports.

Critically, as the global coronavirus pandemic has shown too, we’ve got to both look at better domestic supply chains, but also at more diverse international supply chains. That means looking further than just China to broader partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. That’s especially critical as we push to be global champions of free trade and fighting protectionism – while also tied to a rules-based international system of countries that respect the rule of law,

Following Brexit, Liz Truss and her team at the Department of International Trade have been busily signing trade deals around the world – the ones that some people said we couldn’t do or would be wouldn’t be as good for Britain, but have proved quite the opposite. The UK already has or is in the late stages of, bilateral trade agreements with nine out of the 11 existing CPTPP member countries.

With UK investments in CPTPP countries at £98 billion, these countries accounting for £111 billion worth of UK trade in 2019  and trade growing at eight per cent a year, joining now opens the way to putting nitrous oxide into our tank for increase trade with the Indo-Pacific region.

With the CPTPP removing tariffs on 95 per cent of goods traded between members and cutting other barriers to trade, there would be boosts to such sectors such as the automotive one, which exported £3 billion in cars to the CPTPP countries last year. This is massively important to help level up our regions with good, private sector jobs, which are the basis for funding our public services.

With the United Kingdom having just taken up the presidency of the G7, a new US president in place imminently, and increasing revulsion around the world at the way China is treating both the Uighur people and the people of Hong Kong, there is a new opportunity. For a new internationalism with the twin aims of rules based international security and rules based international trade in which Global Britain can play a crucial role. Accessing the CPTPP and building those bridges worldwide is a natural next step that Britain should now take with confidence.

The Conservatives have an historic opportunity to turn Britain into a world leader in gambling harm prevention with a new Gambling Act

15 Jan

Derek Webb is campaigner and philanthropist funding Clean Up Gambling. This is a sponsored post by Clean Up Gambling.

As someone who has for the past decade supported and funded campaigns for gambling reform, I was pleased to see the article on this site by Lord Smith of Hindhead, whose policy recommendations should be easy for parliamentarians of all political stripes to coalesce around. This response elaborates on Lord Smith’s analysis.

Gambling reform covers a wide range of social, economic and cultural issues. Our campaign is a broad church, drawing together advocates from all political persuasions and parties, and many have argued that reform can only be achieved through a “whole government” cross-departmental approach to legislation and regulation. That is why it has been so disappointing that the review does not formally embrace all departments, instead creating a perception that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport – the department with responsibility for gambling – is marking its own homework. Both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee identified weaknesses in Gambling Commission and DCMS oversight.

In addition to having the departments of Education and Health involved, I believe that it would have been preferable to involve both Treasury and the Ministry of Justice in the review. Gambling tax rates are an important tool in mitigating the socioeconomic consequences of gambling. Forms of gambling that are less harmful or create UK employment have a less negative net impact than offshore remote gambling.

The licensing objective of prevention of gambling being associated with crime, if interpreted logically, is being breached constantly. Persons stealing funds to continue gambling are being incarcerated, at a cost to their families and the taxpayer, with minimal assistance to avoid recidivism. At trial and at sentencing, relevant evidence regarding the conduct of the operators benefiting from the losses is not being provided to the defence. Operators in breach of anti-money-laundering laws are able to settle for amounts that are trivial to them.

Lord Smith correctly advocates that the review of gambling should be conducted fairly. Yet certain actors have a history of being unfair towards parliamentarians, the public and reformers. The offshore remote gambling sector has avoided aspects of UK taxation for 20 years, despite enjoying the benefits of holding UK licences. The whole remote gambling sector avoided gambling tax on their revenue until the introduction of the “tax at point of consumption” principle in 2014. Even then, the Gibraltar Betting and Gaming Association tried to use the EU courts to avoid this tax, and still now many of these operators avoid UK corporation tax.

It is also unfair to attribute equal weight to all “evidence”, as we learned during the campaign to reform FOBTs. The Association of British Bookmakers provided statistics that have now been “discredited” about the impact of a stake reduction on shops and jobs, which were included in a KPMG report. As well as these misleading statistics on job losses and shop closures, once the decision had been made, there were exaggerated claims regarding the length of time needed to change FOBT stakes. Incorrect statistics, speculation and a report that was not shared widely do not constitute credible evidence. Those acting in the gambling reform space do not provide evidence that is influenced by vested or commercial interests.

In the years campaigning against FOBTs, we exhibited at a few Conservative party conferences. The most common response from grassroots attendees was the desire to restrict gambling advertising. With so many vested interests in sport and media, areas for which DCMS has responsibility, we can only hope that this aspect of the review gets a fair hearing. Polling by Survation has consistently found the strongest support for gambling reform is among Tory voters who supported Brexit.

This Conservative government has an historic opportunity to turn Britain into a world leader in gambling harm prevention, but to do so DCMS has to be prepared to act on the evidence by going as far as establishing a new Gambling Act. This government should not want to see a rerun of what happened with FOBTs. Ineffective industry-funded research and initiatives were used as an excuse to delay reform from 2013 to 2019. This time around, inadequate action on the part of DCMS could turn a potential positive for this government into a negative, by ensuring that gambling stays in the political spotlight for years to come.

Neil O’Brien: Trumpism in Britain. It’s time to call out those in the media who cynically feed the cranks, rioters and conspiracists

11 Jan

Neil O’Brien is co-Chairman of the Conservative Party’s Policy Board, and is MP for Harborough.

“Defoe says that there were a hundred thousand country fellows in his time ready to fight to the death against Popery, without knowing whether Popery was a man or a horse.” William Hazlitt, 1830

When supporters of Donald Trump stormed the Capitol building last week, many people in Britain probably thought that it was just the latest manifestation of a special sort of craziness that has gripped America. That sort of thing surely couldn’t happen here. Or could it?

The same evening, to far less fanfare, the Metropolitan Police arrested 21 people outside Parliament. On new year’s day, doctors leaving St Thomas’s hospital were greeted by a large crowd of protestors chanting “Covid is a hoax”.

These things are connected. They show that the same forces at work in the US are in some ways, already at work here.

Let me wind back a bit. Obviously, I mainly blame Trump for what happened in Washington. He did everything he could to incite the riot, in a brazen attempt to reverse his election defeat.

But other people made this possible too. The ragtag army of wannabe revolutionaries smashing up the seat of Americas democracy were radicalised by a whole ecosystem of shock jocks, social media cranks and conspiracy theories.

They’ve ended up living in a world of alternative facts, in which Trump is the sole bulwark against diabolical global conspiracies, and the President is the victim of an election “stolen” by a shadowy “elite”. In a world of such illusions, almost anything can be justified.
None of this is new. Trump was in a sense following the playbook of Lord George Gordon, who in 1780 whipped up fears of shadowy Catholic conspiracies, sparking vicious riots that left hundreds dead or wounded.

New forms of media often fuel revolutions. The printing press led to the reformation and wars of religion. The Cahiers to the French Revolution. The “Big Character Posters” spread the madness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

New technology has again changed things. First, Twitter, Whatsapp and online news have simply made political organisation much easier. The ‘colour revolutions’ in eastern Europe and ‘Arab spring’ were early demonstrations of their viral power.

But now the second shoe is dropping. What we are seeing now is the power of these technologies to create communities of radicalisation. Islamism is the most obvious example. A constituent of mine who lives in a pretty, sleepy village (with a lovely tearoom) was recently charged with seven terrorism offences. More and more, attacks come from those who have radicalised themselves online.

But Islamists are just one community of radicalisation. I was chatting to an apparently normal man this summer, when conversation turned to the coronavirus. He told me, with a matter-of-fact air, that it was all a hoax, set up by the New World Order who were planning a Great Reset, in which Big Business would take over and we would all be microchipped. I’ve had several similarly alarming conversations.

When people got their news from mainstream TV and radio news with strong legal obligations to be neutral, people were exposed to both sides of most stories. As has often been pointed out, people can much more readily be wound into a frenzy if they get their information from Whatsapp groups, people they follow on twitter and from agenda-driven ‘news’ sites.

But the idea of “filter bubbles” doesn’t really do justice to what new media is enabling. People aren’t just passively consuming news they agree with. People are building communities. People they ‘know’ from chat and comment threads. Making likeminded friends on twitter.
Indeed, conspiracy theories like QAnon represent a kind of enjoyable ‘game’: crack the code to understand the shadowy conspiracy!

The US has gone further down the road of polarisation than other places. People increasingly live with in neighbourhoods with likeminded people. The national conversation has been curdling for decades into extreme left and extreme right bubbles, with disastrous effects on politics.

The same technologies are having similar effects here. If we had faced the current pandemic in, say, 1992, how would you have got news about it? Perhaps there would have been a “Covid-92” page on Ceefax.

But if you’d wanted to spread the idea that vaccines are poisons, dreamed up by Bill Gates, you had nowhere to go but Speakers Corner really. So the man I met this summer, who so readily absorbed all this nonsense, would simply have been unlikely to encounter such ideas. These days, someone like Toby Young can set up a website to give people a dose of covid-sceptic propaganda every day. Crank “scientists” can rapidly gain a huge following on twitter.

Social media has changed how we live. In my first job in politics, working for Business for Sterling in 2000, I used to fax a press summary each morning to about 20 people. At the time, there was a well-written Eurosceptic newsletter called Eurofacts, which was photocopied and posted around to about 1,000 people once a month.

Until the next month, that was your hit of single-currency-scepticism. You had to go off and think about something else. Sure, some newpapers campaigned hard on both sides of the euro question. But reading the papers, even daily, just couldn’t absorb your attention in the way social media does.

Looking back, those were the mild-ale days of political communication. These days, people can become hooked on the crack cocaine of issue-driven social media.

Take the SNP cybernats. They can read a daily newspaper promoting Scottish independence, then go on a website or twitter all day to chat with other cybernat friends and wind each other up.Did you hear the one about the “secret oilfields” the UK government is mysteriously covering up, to do down Scotland? When people form such intense groupthink bubbles, they can come to believe almost anything.

We can’t uninvent social media, which also has many benefits. But we do need to adapt to it. In the US, fringe ideas like the QAnon conspiracy theory built up online. But their spread has been accelerated by the willingness of broadcasters and politicians to flirt with them to gain clicks and exploit their energy.

If we are going to avoid our national conversation going the same toilet, we need strong mainstream media. But we also need those in positions of power in the media to behave responsibly.

For example, one of the best selling papers in the UK recently ran a piece promoting the views of an “NHS worker” who claimed hospitals were “empty” and Covid was a “hoax”. If it had taken a quick look at her Facebook page, they’d have seen her celebrating the burning down a Jewish-owned bank, as part of a “great awakening”.

We need people in positions of power in the media to practice some basic hygiene about whose views they are promoting. Parts of Britain’s media have spent the Coronavirus pandemic doing everything they can to downplay the seriousness of it and set bogus stories running by publishing the claims of cranks. Professional contrarians have fed people misleading nonsense to get clicks: carrying on their business-as-usual, even in a life-or-death situation. As hospitals hit crisis point, they should reflect on their actions.

The attempted putsch in Washington didn’t come out of nowhere. It has been decades coming. It happened not just because of one man, but because people in positions of power made short-termist decisions to feed the beast, and play along. Don’t think it couldn’t happen here.