Saturday, 28 February 2009

Why did George Orwell call his novel "Nineteen Eighty-Four"?

The usual explanation for the choice of title of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that it was a play on the last two digits of 1948, the year the manuscript was finished.

This has never convinced me. I think there may be a better explanation, which comes from George Orwell's intellectual hostility to the Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton.

This post sets out this alternative explanation as to why Orwell did give his novel the title Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is culled from work I did some time ago when I was considering a higher degree. Although the coincidence on which it is based has been noticed before, I am not aware of any other attempt to assess the alternative explanation that I offer.

A choice of title

In autumn 1948, Orwell is uncertain as to the title of his new novel. He has two titles in mind, and he asks at least two people for their view. In a letter dated 22 October 1948, Orwell explains the dilemma to his literary agent:

“…I have not definitely decided on the title. I am inclined to call it either NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR or THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE, but I might just possibly think of something else in the next week or two.”

On the same day he also writes to his new publisher and makes the same unsure admission:

“…I haven’t definitely fixed on the title but I am hesitating between NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR and THE LAST MAN IN EUROPE.”

However, within a month, the first of these two titles appears to have stuck. At least other people had taken it up. In December 1948, the publisher had compiled a report on the novel, calling it “1984”, as did one of the professional readers.

By 17 January 1949, Orwell himself has clearly made his choice of title and was now discussing whether it should be entitled “1984” or “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

The book was published later that year.

The conventional explanation

The conventional account is now almost an urban myth. Everybody knows it, so to speak.

This 1948 explanation, although widely adopted, is actually not that well attested. For example, I have not found it stated anywhere by Orwell or by anyone with whom he conversed.

So far, I have only been able to trace the 1948 explanation to an American publisher called Robert Giroux, who saw Nineteen Eighty-Four through the press for the US edition.

However, Orwell was not particularly close to Giroux, and there is no reason to believe that Giroux was privy to any special information about Nineteen Eighty-Four. Although there is some correspondence between Orwell and Giroux, I have not seen any mention in that correspondence of why the book had this title.

In passing, I note that Orwell complained that he did not like what Giroux was doing to the book in the US edition. Nor did he appreciate the unsolicited requests for writing blurbs.

An alternative explanation?

If the 1948 theory is possibly not correct, why did Orwell choose to set his dystopia in the year 1984? My alternative explanation brings us to G.K. Chesterton, an earlier and very different writer to Orwell.

Chesterton was, of course, the writer of the Father Brown stories, as well as a prolific poet and journalist. But it is one of his two famous novels (the other being The Man Who Was Thursday) with which I am concerned here: The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a fantasy set in a future London. (As a fantasy writer, Chesterton has the deserved admiration of modern fantasy writers such as Neil Gaiman.) The hero is Auberon Quin, a well-meaning eccentric who suddenly becomes King. The political context for all this is set out when the story begins:

VERY few words are needed to explain why London, a hundred years hence, will be very like it is now, or rather, since I must slip into a prophetic past, why London, when my story opens, was very like it was in those enviable days when I was still alive.

The reason can be stated in one sentence. The people had absolutely lost faith in revolutions. All revolutions are doctrinal...such as the French one, or the one that introduced Christianity.

For it stands to common sense that you cannot upset all existing things, customs, and compromises, unless you believe in something outside them, something positive and divine. Now, England, during this century, lost all belief in this. It believed in a thing called Evolution. And it said, "All theoretic changes have ended in blood and ennui. If we change, we must change slowly and safely, as the animals do. Nature's revolutions are the only successful ones. There has been no conservative reaction in favour of tails.”

And some things did change. Things that were not much thought of dropped out of sight. Things that had not often happened did not happen at all. Thus, for instance, the actual physical force ruling the country, the soldiers and police, grew smaller and smaller, and at last vanished almost to a point. The people combined could have swept the few policemen away in ten minutes: they did not,because they did not believe it would do them the least good. They had lost faith in revolutions.

Democracy was dead; for no one minded the governing class governing. England was now practically a despotism, but not an hereditary one. Some one in the official class was made King. No one cared how; no one cared who. He was merely an universal secretary.

In this manner it happened that everything in London was very quiet. That vague and somewhat depressed reliance upon things happening as they have always happened, which is with all Londoners a mood, had become an assumed condition. There was really no reason for any man doing anything but the thing he had done the day before.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is, however, now more famous for its preface, entitled Introductory Remarks on the Art of Prophecy. Only a few hundred words long, it is a much-quoted source of Chestertonian wit. (It begins wonderfully with “THE human race, to which so many of my readers belong…”.)

The preface is not used to introduce the story but to undermine both modernist pretensions and radical predictions. Chesterton ridicules in turn H. G. Wells, Edward Carpenter (the early environmentalist), Leo Tolstoy, Cecil Rhodes, Benjamin Kidd ( a sociologist), W. T. Stead (a campaigning journalist), and Sidney Webb. In each instance their views are stated and then juxtaposed with an absurdly exaggerated view of an invented eccentric.

For example:

There was Mr. Sidney Webb, also, who said that the future would see a continuously increasing order and neatness in the life of the people, and his poor friend Fipps, who went mad and ran about the country with an axe, hacking branches off the trees whenever there were not the same number on both sides.

And so on. Chesterton then concludes the preface with a provocative challenge to every other forecaster or prophet. They would err as every such pundit had erred:

All these clever men were prophesying with every variety of ingenuity what would happen soon, and they all did it in the same way, by taking something they saw ‘going strong’, as the saying is, and carrying it as far as ever their imagination could stretch.


When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was published in 1904; the curtain therefore goes up in 1984.

Orwell and Chesterton

Orwell intellectually loathed GK Chesterton and other Catholic conservative writers.

If this aspect of Orwell’s thought is less appreciated today, it is perhaps because the debates changed. However, Orwell's criticism of the intellectual and moral dishonesty of Catholic conservatives was a common theme in Orwell’s journalism and other published writing, and he often bracketed Catholic conservatism and his other bugbear, Stalinism.

Indeed, one can often swap his comments on Stalinism and Catholic conservatism. They are almost invariably interchangeable.

Orwell wrote only one major political essay in 1945 (the year he started Nineteen Eighty-Four. This was Notes on Nationalism. This influential essay sets out how certain ideologies (or “nationalisms”) can undermine clear political and moral thinking. And only one writer or politician is examined in this context: Chesterton.

In the essay, Orwell introduces both Chesterton and his long held attitudes towards him:

Ten or twenty years ago, the form of nationalism most corresponding to Communism today was political Catholicism. Its most outstanding exponent - though he was perhaps an extreme case rather than a typical one - was G. K. Chesterton.

Orwell characterises Chesterton:

Chesterton was a master of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda.

And Chesterton’s method:

Every book that he wrote, every paragraph, every sentence, every incident in every story, every scrap of dialogue, had to demonstrate beyond possibility of mistake the superiority of the Catholic over the Protestant or the Pagan.

In a Tribune column in February 1944, Orwell specifically attacked Chesterton's assertions about change over time:

It is not very difficult to see that this idea is rooted in the fear of progress. If there is nothing new under the sun, if the past in some shape or another always returns, then the future when it comes will be something familiar.

Orwell continues by contrasting Chesterton's Catholic conservatism with his own democratic socialism:

At any rate what will never come - since it has never come before - is that hated, dreaded thing, a world of free and equal human beings.

Orwell and Catholic conservatism

Orwell's hostility to Chesterton has to be seen in the context of his disdain for other Catholic conservative writers. In a book review as early as 1932, Orwell is dissing Catholic writers:

Our English Catholic apologists are unrivalled masters of debate, but they are on their guard against saying anything genuinely informative.

Later, a central theme of Orwell's hostility towards ‘political Catholicism’ was its close relationship with Fascism. In 1944, he notes almost in passing,

Outside its own ranks, the Catholic Church is almost universally regarded as pro-Fascist, both objectively and subjectively.

And in a Tribune column of 1945,

The Catholics who said ‘Don’t offend Franco because it helps Hitler’ had more or less consciously helping Hitler for years beforehand.

Animosity towards ‘Catholic conservatism’ was perhaps most obvious in his weekly Tribune column. For example, two favourite straw-dollies were the right-wing, Roman Catholic journalists ‘Timothy Shy’ and ‘Beachcomber’. In 1944, Orwell warned readers that,

their general ‘line’ will be familiar to anyone who has read Chesterton and kindred writers. Its essential note is denigration of England and of Protestant countries generally.

And therefore,

It is a mistake to regard these two as comics pure and simple. Every word they write is intended as Catholic propaganda.

In a Tribune column in October 1944, Orwell discussed the writing and broadcasting of C.S. Lewis :

[I was] reading, a week or two ago, Mr C. S. Lewis’s recently-published book, Beyond Personality…The idea, of course, is to persuade the suspicious reader, or listener, that one can be a Christian and a ‘jolly good chap’ at the same time. I don’t imagine that the attempt would have much success…but Mr. Lewis’s vogue at this moment, the time allowed to him on the air and the exaggerated praise he has received, are bad symptoms and worth noticing…

A kind of book that has been endemic in England for quite sixty years is the silly-clever religious book, which goes on the principle not of threatening the unbeliever with Hell, but of showing him up as an illogical ass, incapable of clear thought and unaware that everything he says has been says has been refuted before. This school of literature started with W. H. Mallock’s New Republic, which must have been written about 1880, and it has a long line of practitioners - R. H. Benson, Chesterton, Father Knox, ‘Beachcomber’ and others, most of them Catholics, but some, like Dr Cyril Allington and (I suspect) Mr Lewis himself, Anglicans.

The line of attack is always the same. Every heresy has been uttered before (with the implication that it has been refuted before); and theology is only understood by theologians (with the implication that you should leave your thinking to the priests)…

One reason for the extravagant boosting that these people get in the press is that their political affiliations are invariably reactionary. Some of them were frank admirers of Fascism as long as it was safe to be so. That is why I draw attention to Mr C. S. Lewis and his chummy little wireless talks, of which no doubt there will be more. They are not really so unpolitical as they are meant to look

Most relevant for the purpose of connecting Orwell to The Napoleon of Notting Hill is his 1946 book review of The Democrat at the Supper Table, where Orwell forcefully attacks the author’s conservative politics and the sophistry of the novel’s central character:

Without actually imitating Chesterton, Mr. Brogan has obviously been influenced by him, and his central character has a Father Brown-like capacity for getting the better of an argument, and also for surrounding himself with fools and scoundrels whose function is to lead up to his wisecracks.

When a clergyman wrote to complain about the tone of Orwell's review, the reply elaborated on the initial attack:

Ever since W. H. Mallock’s ‘New Republic’ there has been a continuous stream of what one might call ‘clever Conservative’ books, opposing the current trend without being able to offer any viable programme in its place.

Orwell continued, appearing to have in mind the Preface to The Napoleon of Notting Hill:

If you look back twenty years, you will find people like Ronald Knox, Cyril Alington, Chesterton himself and his many followers, talking as though such things as Socialism, Industrialism, the theory of evolution, psycho-therapy, universal compulsory education, radio, aeroplanes and what-not could be simply laughed out of existence.

So did Orwell take the year 1984 from The Napoleon of Notting Hill?

Taking the stories as a whole it is not too much of a strain to see Nineteen Eighty-Four as a riposte to The Napoleon of Notting Hill. There are many points of comparison. Both books show that a belief in revolution that appears to have gone wrong, and both focus on the frustrations of a sympathetic central character as he attempts to challenge the prevailing system. Both are utopian/dystopian visions, containing prophecies extrapolated from current trends.

There are also many telling contrasts. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is written from the point of view of a Catholic populist and Nineteen Eighty-Four is by an almost secular social democrat.

It is, in many ways, a plausible explanation.

However, this alternative explanation has gaps.

For example, even though Orwell has a clear disdain for Chesterton and is antipathetic to the prophetic pretensions of Chesterton and other religious conservative writers, there is actually no direct evidence that Orwell either had read or even possessed The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

One feels he "must have done" as it is one of Chesteron's three best-known works and probably his most quoted, but one cannot invent convenient evidence. The best I can say is that it difficult to imagine Orwell committing his attacks in Notes on Nationalism without being aware of Chesterton's clearest and best known statement against "progress".

Subject to further research, the final position on the question must be inconclusive though fascinating.

However, the possibility that the title of Nineteen Eighty-Four was derived from The Napoleon of Notting Hill does allows us to explore an often overlooked part of Orwell’s political outlook: the deep hostility of a decent and progressive liberal to the intellectual and moral dishonesty of religious conservatives.


Below is the (rather laboured) conclusion to my original academic draft paper with the same title. So much work went into it, I think it surely deserves the light of day! :-) :

It is demonstrable that a literary preoccupation of Orwell in the mid-1940s becomes G. K. Chesterton, a writer whom he had always found fascinating and repulsive, and also associated writers. The relationship between Orwell and Chesterton has been often overlooked (and is sometimes - bizarrely - completely neglected); and there appears to still be no systematic study of Orwell’s attitudes towards writers, such as Chesterton, that he identified as being on the political Right. During this later period, Orwell's journalism and private writing demonstrated a deep and informed hostility towards the ‘Catholic conservatism’ of Chesterton and related writers. The failure by scholars to explore the possible significance of Chesterton's earlier use of that year is only partly because there is no major work on Orwell’s relations with the Right.

It cannot however be conclusively proved that the duplication of the date was deliberate, as Chesterton's novel is not amongst those known to be possessed or read by Orwell, even during the period of preoccupation with Chesterton’s thinking and prophecies.

On the balance of probability, Orwell at least read the Preface. Orwell often generalises confidently about Chesterton's (lack of) prophetic prowess and, in a 1944 Tribune column, there is perhaps a near paraphrase of Chesterton's famous preface to the novel. Moreover, Chesterton is often attacked, criticised, quoted and mentioned in passing, as well as being the main subject of the major 1945 essay.

Chesterton was for Orwell a powerful (if negative) influence. It is therefore arguable that Orwell at least read the famous Preface outlining Chesterton's prophetic claims. Even if this duplication of date (and setting) was a mere coincidence, it is nonetheless clear that Orwell was preoccupied with the figure of Chesterton as the exemplar of intellectual dishonesty during the conception and writing.

Indeed from around 1944 onwards, a clear theme in Orwell's writing is the re-emergence of his earlier opposition to the politics of Chesterton and related writers: the very array of attitudes that had helped Orwell towards a form of socialism in the early to mid 1930s.


References and citations available on request. I acknowedge use of copyrighted material. If such quotations are actually a substantial part of the original works, they are used for the non-commercial purpose of criticism of Orwell and Chesterton's works. Other exemptions may also apply. Please contact me at jackofkent [at]

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Is Jeremy Sherr breaking Tanzanian law?

You will recall Jeremy Sherr, the homeopath working with AIDS sufferers in Tanzania (see my previous post here).

The excellent Gimpy has now made a number of scathing posts about Mr Sherr, especially Mr Sherr's admitted disregard for ethics and his questionable scientific standards in promoting homeopathy for AIDS sufferers, see here, here, and here.

Gimpy's posts, as well as the comments by Ben Goldacre and Le Canard Noir (and others) previously here but now deleted by Mr Sherr, appear to me to be compelling and unanswerable.

Mr Sherr, in my opinion, is at best highly irresponsible.

As you will see from beneath Gimpy's posts, there has been a clamour of responses - hundreds - from those in favour of homeopathy in general and Mr Sherr's exploits in particular. All these posts are all worth a read, as not one pro-Sherr post deals squarely with the conduct issues raised. They together confirm what one fears as to the intellectual honesty and precision of the pro-CAM lobby.

(By the way, Mr Sherr also threatened to sue critics for libel. When I asked him via his site to set out why exactly the statements he describes would be libellous, he never answered, and he instead deleted the relevant page making the threat.)

As I cannot add to the critique of Mr Sherr's ethical and operational conduct, I now raise the interesting question of whether Mr Sherr is breaking Tanzanian law.

This is an intriguing query, as Mr Sherr makes a great deal that the Tanzanian state has legislated for a statutory regime for (and thereby legitimised) traditional and alternative medicine.

In asking this question, I cannot pretend to know the answer, and whether there are relevant circumstances which would go to a prosecution or a defence.

So I do this exercise for academic purposes only.

The law in question is the Tanzanian Traditional and Alternative Medicines Act, 2002. It is well worth a look.

The best starting point is section 45. Section 45(1) provides:

45.-(1) Any person who practices as traditional health practitioner or aide without being registered or enrolled as the case may be under this Act, commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding two hundred thousand shillings or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both, such fine and imprisonment.

Section 45(2) then provides a similar offence for "Alternative Medicine":

(2) Any Person who Practice as alternative health Practitioner or aide
without being registered or enrolled as the case may be under this Act,
commits an offence and is liable on convict,five hundred thousand shillings or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or to both, such fine and imprisonment.

Section 45(3) then empowers the Tanzanian court to take the relevant materials away:

(3) In addition to the penalty imposed in Pursuance of subsection (1),
and (2), the trial court may order that any traditional medicine remedies or diagnostic instruments Or appliances used by or belonging to or found in possession of a person convicted, be fortelted, destroyed or otherwise disposed of.

(Sections 46 to 48 then provide for related and ancillary offences.)

One wonders if Mr Sherr is registered as an "alternative health Practitioner" under the Act. (He cannot be an "aide", as that is limited to Tanzanian citizens, which I assume he is not.)

If he isn't, and if he is practising as an alternative health Practitioner, he may well be committing an offence under section 45(2).

To be an alternative health Practitioner, however, requires that the conditions of section 15(1) are fulfilled. This provides that an applicant must produce "any degrees or certificates from a recognized institute" and "any other relevant documents in support thereof". One wonders what such documents would look like.

Once a registered alternative health Practitioner, there are strict obligations on professional conduct and in respect of ethics and etiquette (apart from the offences under sections 45 to 48). These are set out at section 29. These are when:

(a) he neglects or disregards professional responsibilities to patients
respect of their care and treatment;
(b) he abuses professional privileges and skills;
(c) his personal behaviours and conducts are derogatory to the reputation
of the traditional and alternative health medicine;
(d) he disparages his professional colleagues;
(e) he associates in his work with unqualified persons; and
(f) his conduct would amount to an offence against the law relating
to the control of dangerous drugs.

Reading Gimpy's posts, one can form a provisional view on whether, if registered, Mr Sherr is in breach of any of these obligations. My view is, of course, that one cannot tell without all the circumstances: I could not possibly comment.

However, if in breach of any of these professional duties, a registered alternative health practitioner will face sanctions from the regulatory body.

Furthermore, in addition to these professional and ethical obligations, the Act provides for statutory duties on the registered alternative health practitioner. These are under section 35:

(1) It shall be the duty of every traditional or alternative health
Practitioner registered under this Act to attend and treat their patients
with clear knowledge, skills and right attitude.
(2) Every registered traditional or alternative health practitioner shall ensure that:
(a) he is compatible with the traditional and alternative health profession;
(b) his conduct does not amount to professional misconduct;
(c) his conduct is commensurate to traditional and alternative health
ethics and professional etiquettes;
(d) he adheres to the secrecy and confidentiality aspects of his
(e) he transfers difficult cases to hospitals or other practitioners;
(f) he has a good system of keeping records to all cases attended by
(g) he observes cleanness of himself, appliances used and premises
under which the service is rendered.

Again, reading Gimpy's posts, one wonders if Mr Sherr is in breach of any of these professional duties; and, again, I could not possiby comment.

Please note, for completeness, that even if someone is working with patients alongside a registered alternative health practitioner, the prohibiton under section 36(1) bites:

36.-(I) No person registered under this Act as a traditional or alternative
health practitioner shall allow, associate or otherwise cause a person who is not registered as such to practice as traditional or alternative practice
health practitioner.

So what could the legal position of Mr Sherr be?

Options could include:

1. he is not working as an alternative health practitioner at all (and so is outside the scope of the Act);

2. he is a registered alternative health practitioner and is abiding with his professional obligations and statutory duties;

3. he is working as an alternative health practitioner but is not registered (but this would be an offence!);

4. he is a registered alternative health practitioner but his approach to ethical and operational conduct could put him in breach of his professional obligations and statutory duties; or

5. he is working as an alternative health practitioner and is not registered (even though this would be an offence), but even if he were registered his approach to ethical and operational conduct could put him in breach of his professional obligations and statutory duties.

I simply have no idea which is the correct one (if any).

I wonder what Mr Sherr's view is?

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

What Happened Next to the "Tony Martin" Defence?

This post is about a surprising turn in English law - and how police officers now try to escape legal liability for needlessly violent arrests.

You may remember Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer who in 1999 shot two burglars who were running way.

This case prompted an enduring public debate as to the scope of self-defence and, especially, as to the rights of criminals to sue their victims if the victims had defended themselves.

In particular, there was much media attention about stories where the criminal had successfully made a civil claim for an injury suffered at the hands of the victim of the crime.

In 2003, the UK government legislated for protection for all those who faced being sued by a criminal for "trespass to the person" when that had been done was (a) someone had defended either themselves or their property, or (b) someone had sought to apprehend or arrest the criminal.

In such circumstances, the criminal was only to be able to sue if the actions were grossly disproportionate.

The law duly came into effect in January 2004.

And then something unexpected happened.

This defence has not been used once, it seems, by any civilian facing a lawsuit from a criminal.

Instead, it has been routinely invoked by police officers facing claims arising from violence used to effect an arrest.

Last month, the Court of Appeal in Anthony Adorian v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis had to consider a recent attempt by police officers to avoid being sued for violence used during an arrest.

As to the dreadful underlying facts of the case, I can do no better than repeat the summary of Sir Stephen Sedley (incidentally, by far the best and most progressive judge on the Court of Appeal):

"Shortly after midnight on 21 August 2004 the claimant was arrested in central London for disorderly behaviour.

"He was later charged with obstructing police officers in the execution of their duty, was convicted and was granted a 24-month conditional discharge.

"In the course of his arrest he suffered injuries so severe that the force medical examiner concluded that he was unfit to be detained.

"He was taken to hospital where he was found to have suffered multiple fractures of the head of the right femur and of the acetabulum, the ball and socket of the hip joint.

"This is a class of injury associated with head-on car crashes or falls from a significant height.

"But the claimant had been walking at the moment of arrest, and there is at present no evidence suggesting either that he has brittle bones or that anything happened following his arrest which is capable of explaining the injuries."

Note here that the "criminal" received only a mere conditional discharge, which signifies that although a crime had technically been committed, it was not serious enough to warrant any punishment.

(In my opinion, one could even suspect he was taken to court and prosecuted just so the police officers could afford themselves of the "defence" described above.)

Mr Adorian decided to sue the police officers who had carried out this very severe assault. And, of course, the police officers relied on the "Tony Martin defence".

Sedley again:

"In what one can call the Tony Martin situation – a sudden encounter with a crime - [the defence] gives the individual a defence of honest, even if unreasonable, belief in the need for his or her act; and it forfeits the defence only if the act was grossly disproportionate.

"There is nothing on the face of the section or in its shoulder-note which manifests an intention to afford the police a novel protection from claims by offenders for objectively unreasonable or unnecessarily violent arrests.

"The section nevertheless inexorably covers police officers as well as civilians. Indeed, so far as counsel have been able to tell us, since it was brought into force in January 2004 it is only police defendants who have invoked it.

"The consequences should not go unnoticed. In place of the principle painstakingly established in the course of two centuries and more, and fundamental to the civil rights enjoyed by the people of this country - that an arrest must be objectively justified and that no more force may be used in effecting it than is reasonably necessary - the section gives immunity from civil suits, not confined to those involving personal injury, to constables who make arrests on entirely unreasonable grounds, so long as they are not acting in bad faith, and accords them impunity for using all but grossly disproportionate force in so doing.

"Conscious of art. IX of the Bill of Rights 1689, we say only that there is no indication that Parliament was aware, much less intended, that what it was enacting would have this effect."

Sedley (sadly), did not have to deal with the merits of this particular case. The issue before the Court of Appeal was a narrow one as to whether Mr Adorian had needed the permission of the court to bring the case against the police. Thankfully, the Court has allowed Mr Adorian's case to proceed, rejecting the legal technicality relied on by the police in trying to strike his case out.

One hopes Sedley's robust and scathing skepticism as to the potential misuse of the "Tony Martin" defence by the police when being sued for their physical assaults when making "objectively unreasonable or unnecessarily violent arrests" is heard loudly and clearly in police force legal departments, and in all their canteens and offices.

Monday, 23 February 2009

On The "Middle Class" Threat To Public Order

There is often an unmistakable smell which accompanies a police officer getting their retaliation in first.

Especially when it is anything to do with "public order" offences.

This morning, a Superintendent David Hartshorn, who heads the Metropolitan Police's public order branch, was reported warning about a "summer of rage" where "middle-class individuals who would never have considered joining demonstrations may now seek to vent their anger through protests this year."

It seems, activists will increasingly be "intent on coming on to the streets to create public disorder".

See the story here.

But what does this interview really tell us?

I suggest two things.

First, the police are guessing that yet again their arrest-happy and legally-immune (but too often incompetent)officers and field controllers will fail to provide sensible and effective policing at public demonstrations. They will be seen to lose control. So an excuse needs to be put in advance: it's all the activists' fault. Hence this PR initiative by the Met.

And second, the police clearly expect that their victims are now less likely to just take any usual brutal policing at public demonstrations, and will instead complain and (try to) bring legal actions. Hence the "middle class" jibe, directed I suspect at anyone articulate and determined enough to seek accountability from police officers.

Should the police now lose control of a public demonstration, and then face numerous complaints and law suits, at least Superintendent Hartshorn can now tell us he told us so.

On The Guardian and Libel

Here is an an interesting and informative article by Alan Rusbridger on libel law and The Guardian.

What will shock many of you not familiar with legal bills and costs risks are the sheer amounts at stake.

These are the risks which Simon Singh - and others - are running in defending libel claims.

Friday, 20 February 2009

On "How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time" by Iain King

I re-surfaced this week, and I went along to a book launch at the wonderful London Review of Books bookshop, just by the British Museum.

The book was How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time: Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong.

The author is Iain King, with whom I was at university but had not seen for some fifteen years. Iain gave an engaging and thoughtful talk, a tone which is reflected fully in the book.

Iain is especially good at demolishing conventional ethical arguments, and he is also a persuasive advocate for "value" being central to any worthwhile system of ethics.


...I am afraid I see both the book and the underlying project as probably misconceived.

The book offers the possibility of moral certainty. Indeed, the title makes this offer as express and direct as it could be.

In my view, however, the ongoing possibility of one being wrong in one's moral views is a powerful civilizing force; the wider the possibilities of being wrong are shared, the better the world will be.

One problem in this world is that there is too much moral certainty, and it really shouldn't be encouraged any further.

A better task for contemporary ethics would be to restrict the bases on which there can be moral certainty, to make it more difficult for cruel and dishonest people to have the comfort of feeling they are absolutely right.

In this way, it may be that Iain's book and his project are part of the problem, and not part of the solution.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Two Fine Skeptics in Oxford

One of the real pleasures of Blogging, to be set against the misrepresentations and attacks, is to encounter really sound and good people, using the internet for the public good.

Two such fine people, David Colquhoun and Andy Lewis, are scheduled to speak in Oxford tomorrow (Saturday 7 February), see here for details.

I hope to get up to Oxford to see them; if you can get there, I urge you to see them too.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

On Foreign Pressure and English Justice: the Binyam Mohamed case

Yet again, English judges - and thereby English law generally - have deferred to the threats of foreign "friendly" states to withdraw intelligence.

Recently it was the Saudis who intervened so as to ensure that a Serious Fraud Office prosecution was dropped - see my August 2008 post here.

Now, it seems that the Americans have bullied our own Foreign Secretary, who has in turn sought to ensure that English judges do not publish significant details about torture on "our behalf" in the Binyam Mohamed case, see here.

A French Revolutionary once decried "Oh Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name".

Now, as examples of bribery, corruption, and torture all mount up, one wonders of the scale of crimes being done in our name...

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

On Hooray for Mark Thomas!

I could not really be considered a fan of the left-wing comedian Mark Thomas.

Indeed, I find him (like many such comedians) to be all rather earnest and preachy.

But on one thing he is bang on. See his piece here.

As you will see, he was "stopped and searched" by the police at a recent demonstration.

His comment that the police exercised this power just because they felt they could is depressingly plausible.

However, rather than just take all this on the nod, Mark Thomas worked with lawyers (hat tip to my learned friends at Fisher Meredith) to make a formal complaint. This complaint has now been upheld, to his (and my) astonishment.

He is now setting the ground for further legal action. I wish him good luck.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

On the Lords and that "Police Inquiry"

Sadly, it looks like I will be able to say I told you so.

The Metropolitan Police just do not know what to do with the Lib Dem call for a police inquiry.

Anyone with a grasp of the applicable law would tell you that it (as it stands) was a matter neither for criminal law nor for the police. (See, for example, BBC's Nick Robinson here.)

But, just so the Lib Dems can feel they are being taken seriously, a review will take place to see if an inquiry should take place. This is a waste of the police's time.

The Lib Dem ploy can now be seen as what it was: a mere headline-grab.

It is depressing for me that the Lib Dem "shadow" home secretary thought reporting a matter to the police, when no crime could have been committed on the facts then available, is an appropriate political manoeuvre. Such a man should never be put in charge of the police.

The Lords in question correctly face parliamentary and media censure; they may face, subject to a change in the law, expulsion from legislature, and rightly so; but to involve the police and the criminal law in a parliamentary matter was an extremely unfortunate ploy.

That is not how a liberal democracy should work.