Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Don't tell me what to believe

One of the most irritating things in political discussion is people who tell you what your own views are. Usually this is a variant of a debating trick – the people who are taking one side in a debate want to be up against the most extreme form of the opposing position and claim the middle ground, so they try to paint the other side into the corner of adopting the strongest possible position.

Tony Blair is a past master at this. For example, until very recently – to be precise, until French and Dutch voters killed both the European constitution and any realistic chance of British entry to the Euro - he was always playing this game on Europe. Mr Blair and his acolytes would suggest that we had two choices with regard to the European Union – sign up to the constitution, or leave altogether. (Before that, they suggested that the two choices were to scrap the pound and replace it with the Euro, or leave altogether.)

Like the majority of British voters, who are neither federalist eurofanatics nor hardline anti-europeans, I became extremely tired of Mr Blair telling me that if I didn’t support his own European projects I had to support British withdrawal instead.

Funnily enough when the French voted down the constitution I don’t recall anyone suggesting that France might have to leave the European Union. And suddenly Mr Blair adopted our position, the existence of which he had previously denied, and now presents himself as the arch champion of a more democratic and decentralised Europe of co-operating nations.

On other issues, however, both the Blairites and often their opponents are still playing the same trick. Let’s look at a few examples

Fallacy number one – If you don’t support the war in Iraq, you must want Saddam Hussein back.

Oh come off it. It is perfectly natural to view both the thousands of deaths caused by the war and the anarchy and unrest which has followed it, and the vast numbers murdered by Saddam Hussein, as terrible disasters. It is legitimate for people on either side of the debate about the Iraq war to point to considerable loss of life which resulted or would have resulted from the opposing side’s policy. But the decision of whether or not to invade was a choice between evils, and the fact that someone has come down on one side does not mean they are happy about all the consequences unless they have actually been foolish enough to say that they support Saddam or that everything in Iraq today is wonderful.

Fallacy number two – If you want to maintain British liberties you must be undermining the war against terrorism

The need to strike a balance between security and freedom has existed as long as there has been civilisation. The human rights to freedom from arbitrary arrest and protection from being blown up by terrorists – or shot by policemen who have mistaken you for a terrorist – are all important and part of what makes this country what it is. We found out in Northern Ireland that arbitrary detention without trial does not necessarily help us defeat terrorists. Sometimes it creates injustice which leads to more terrorism. There will be circumstances where we have to give up some liberty to ensure our own protection. But this should never be done without the most careful consideration of the consequences.

Fallacy number three – if you suggest that the war in Iraq (or any other government policy) has made terrorist attacks more likely, you’re justifying those attacks.

There was no justification for 9/11 - period. There was no justification for the tube bombs - period. There is no justification for trying to change the policy of any democratic state by blowing up men, women and children - period. Those who carry out such atrocities are not soldiers or martyrs but murderers - period. (That view is shared by the vast majority of British Muslims.)

It is quite possible to combine the belief that terrorism is wrong with a wish to ask ourselves what policies will most effectively help us to combat terrorism and recognise where we got it wrong. As it happens, I think that the removal of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan probably reduced the terrorist threat to the rest of the world but that the overall effect of the war in Iraq has been to increase it.

Fallacy number four –if you want to fight racism, islamophobia, or any other evil, the best way is to pass more laws against it.

In the past few years we have seen a positive torrent of new laws, often badly thought out, often criminalising things which are already illegal, as a substitute for effectively enforcing the laws we already have. Unfortunately these laws are often badly drafted, and can end up criminalising things which should not be illegal.

I would dearly like to see a rule adopted by parliament for at least the next ten years that for every new law they pass, another one should be repealed. Sadly the flood of ill considered and useless or downright harmful legislation shows no sign of abating.

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