The rule of Humbuggery

I had no idea of the enormous and unquestionably helpful part that humbug plays in the social life of great peoples dwelling in a state of democratic freedom.

That’s yer eck-shul Churchill, that is. De reel fing. Pukka!

And the greatest exponent of Humbuggery is, as always, the All-powerful State.

A Malcolmian aside

Here’s one worth the asking: when did the United Kingdom abolish feudalism?

Well, not even yet. There are bods wandering the world, still puffing out chests and conning the natives they are of some importance, because they are allowed to flourish a baronial title.

But, on another level, after 9th June 2000, with the Abolition of Feudal Tenure etc. (Scotland) Act. As Clause 1 of the Act has it:

The feudal system of land tenure, that is to say the entire system whereby land is held by a vassal on perpetual tenure from a superior is, on the appointed day, abolished. 

Humbug 101

Here’s a simple example, to become  a British citizen one must demonstrate capabilities in English, for example:

take and pass an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) course in English with citizenship to demonstrate your knowledge of language and life in the UK, before you apply for naturalisation as a British citizen.

Mr Spock would furrow his Vulcan brow and mutter, “Illogical, Captain”. Surely that should be the qualification for English citizenship. For British citizenship it ought to be a degree of fluency in Welsh (or at a pinch Cornish). For Scottish citizenship, the Guid Scots Tongue or Gàidhlig. And then there’s Ian Adamson and his Ullans.

Advanced study

Once upon  a time we had a Freedom of Information Act. The laudable aim was the citizen should have a right to know what the public authorities, operating in her/his name, knew and were up to.

Officialdom and bureaucracy loathed it.

So Humbuggery set about by-passing it by any means, fair or foul.

An obvious means was to classify anything that wasn’t screwed down as “commercial confidentiality”. This could vary from government Department to Department, largely depending on whether or not the responsible Minister wanted to keep a job. That one was traipsed out, recently and notoriously, in the cover-up over the West Coast Main Line:

The independent report into the fiasco of the franchise for the West Coast Main Line, which runs through the West Midlands, was altered by the Department for Transport (DfT) before it was published, MPs were told.

There had been “redactions” by the department to “remove the identities” of certain civil servants involved in the flawed franchise bidding process, said businessman Sam Laidlaw, the author of the report…

Mr Laidlaw told the committee he presented his report to the DfT on November 28, the department published it on December 6, and there had been redactions to his report made by the department which were “a matter for the department”.

Asked about the changes made, Mr Laidlaw said they were done “to protect the commercial confidentiality of bidders” and “to remove the identity of certain individuals”.


Now there‘s an interesting term.

As far as Malcolm can recall it is a respectable academic expression meaning no more, no less than “editing”, particularly in the sense of cleaning up meaning and expression for a final published version. As the OED has it:

a. The action of bringing or putting into a definite form; (now) spec. the working or drafting of source material into a distinct, esp. written, form. Usu. with into, (occas.) to.
b. The action or process of revising or editing text, esp. in preparation for publication; (also) an act of editorial revision.
c. A new version of a text; a new edition; spec. an abridged version.
2. The action of driving back; resistance, reaction. Obs. rare.

redactThat, of course, is the Oxford English Dictionary: the term “redaction” implies assisting the reader’s comprehension. In British officialese, of course, the term means precisely the opposite.

At least in Tristram Shandy ,the blank pages and other devices convey some meaning. Compare and contrast the BBC’s Pollard Report (as right). For a prime example of Humbuggery consider this from the first paragraph [1] of that BBC document:

The BBC sought advice from external counsel to identify text that should be redacted in accordance with the legal grounds for redaction. The proposed redactions were considered by members of the Executive Board before being reviewed and approved by a sub-committee of the BBC Trust to ensure the Trust was satisfied that these were in line with the expectations of transparency previously set out. Then, individuals who participated in the Review were provided with an opportunity to read the material in redacted form and make representations concerning the redactions that had been applied. Those representations were then considered, with advice again taken from external counsel, before a final package of proposed redactions was reviewed by members of the Executive Board and approved by the same sub-committee of the BBC Trust.

At a quick check, that’s six separate layers of bureaucratic scrutiny and Humbuggery, before anything could be made public.

Secret courts bill

No, let’s no go there — yet.

Let’s start instead in 1166, at the Assize of Clarendon. Whether or not Goveian history embraces this seminal event, it certainly featured in Malcolm’s schooling. [On the TCD History course, it reappeared, courtesy of Stubbs’s Charters.] The significance was that it, in effect, “nationalised” the law of the land; and it led to trial on evidence, before juries, rather than the mumbo-jumbo of trials by ordeal or battle. It was, of course, something of a power-grab — not just taking authority from the baronial courts, but also from the Church’s “kingdom within a kingdom”. King Henry II was destroying an existing arrangement; but also reaching back for an older one: the juries of the Saxon tunmoots.

The Assize of Clarendon was the first of many small advances to creating the Rule of Law that we have known and loved.

The processes of recent years — getting rid of the flummeries of Latin expression and the like, but, above all, the idea of human rights — have made the law more accessible. In a world ruled by Humbuggery all that has to be put into reverse.

Yesterday the Commons retreated on so much of historical procedures. In four votes, LibDem MPs — in grotesque rejection of anything that could be “liberal” or “democratic” — were whipped to support the Tory Humbuggers. Outside Westminster the average LibDem activists must be weeping into their skinny lattes:

Its’s not been the easiest 24 hours to be a Liberal Democrat. It was very hard to watch the majority of our MPs vote to remove the right to a fair trial in civil cases where national security is deemed to be a factor.  Just seven MPs voted in favour of amendments advised by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. The fact that the JCHR had a different view from the Government should surely have raised a huge red flag. An even bigger signal that our MPs were on the wrong course was the fact that Labour were voting in favour of the JCHR amendments. The Bill as it stood was too illiberal for the Party who thought it was ok to lock people up for 3 months without charge.

I spent a bit of yesterday talking to some MPs. I appreciated the time they spent discussing with me but despaired at the way they had swallowed some of the lines they had been given on the Bill. I was asked what my response would be to the “we’re paying money to terrorists and can’t prove our innocence” line. Well, my instinctive counter to that was to say:

If I’m suing you cos you tortured me and you put up a defence that I can’t see, how am I supposed to let the Judge know that you are talking hogwash?

I have been told today that a Very Clever Person thinks that’s a good summary of what this Bill means, and why the shredder is the only place for it. There is no amendment that can make it acceptable.

Thank you for that, Caron Lindsay at LibDemVoice: it’s warming to know your party had a shred of decency left. As she goes on:

At one point, our Dr Julian Huppert asked a very important question of Ken Clarke  about whether the Bill covered civil habeas corpus – whether people could be locked up without being told the reason why. Clarke didn’t  know and he laughed about the fact that he had to get it checked out.

We really have reached the pits. The shivering spine recalls it was Hendrik Verwoerd, the primary architect of apartheid, who responded to British government criticism by saying he would give up his restrictive legislation in exchange for the British tolerated Northern Ireland Special Powers Act. That Act was designed to give maximum, even unbridled power to the Ulster Unionist ascendancy. It permitted closing pubs and clubs at a whim, banning meetings and gatherings, closing roads, occupying premises, destroying any building without any sure compensation, enforcing oaths of allegiance (the Lady in Malcolm’s Life had to take one), prohibiting inquests, outlawing “false reports or make false statements by word of mouth or in writing, or in any newspaper, periodical, book, circular, or other printed publication” (the judge of such “falseness” being the persons complained about). All to be enforced by ” if a male, to be once privately whipped”. If all that wasn’t enough,

any act if done without lawful authority or without lawful authority or excuse is an offence against the regulations, the burden of proving that the act was done with lawful authority or with lawful authority or excuse shall rest on the person alleged to be guilty of the offence.

Humbuggery hasn’t gone that far, yet …

Except this new bill allows any — any — trial which could cause political embarrassment to be held behind closed doors, unreported, with all involved (except the arraigned) declared Persil-clean and hoovered by the security services.

As the Guardian editorial has it:

The justice and security bill was cooked up in rage and embarrassment after a run of cases revealed, or threatened to reveal, UK collusion in torture and wrongdoing. There was Binyam Mohamed, the British resident who British judges ruled ended up being tortured in a Moroccan jail with the connivance of British intelligence, and then a string of others whom ministers preferred to pay off and shut up before the facts could emerge. Rather than asking what corruption of culture had embroiled a once-decent state in such indecent things, the government’s instinctive response was to ask the judges to hear the arguments in secret. When the supreme court said no in ringing terms – Lord Hope warning secrecy “cut across absolutely fundamental principles, such as the right to be confronted by one’s accusers and the right to know the reasons for the outcome” – ministers again refused to stop and rethink, but instead resolved to rewrite the law.

That editorial refers back to a Liberty pamphlet, written by Jesse Norman (now a Tory MP) which celebrates Churchill’s stand for human rights, and is prefaced by a quotation from his Fulton, Missouri, speech:

We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world and which through Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, and the English common law find their most famous expression in the American Declaration of Independence.

Oddly enough, Mr Norman does not seem to have found himself able to vote, or express a view in Monday’s debate on the Secret Courts bill.

1 Comment

Filed under Britain, censorship, Comment is Free, Guardian, History, Lib Dems, Northern Ireland, Northern Irish politics, politics, security

One response to “The rule of Humbuggery

  1. Doubting Thomas

    Throughout history the British government has always been ready to exercise the utmost secrecy to hide its actions, which have always included repression of dissent, never shrinking from sending in the military. They fear the people. The old saw said of the police that they were employed to take out the fears of their betters on the bodies of their equals. Plus ca change?

    On the matter of feudalism, another visit to Land Matters might be instructive with a crippling funny piece of propaganda from the Scottish landowners.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.