Impeachment exists for a reason – the arguments for and against the second impeachment of Donald Trump

9th January 2021

‘Impeachment’ and ‘indictment’ are sister words, sharing the suffix ‘-ment’, and they describe two ways by which a person can be tried and then either convicted or acquitted.

One practical difference (at least in modern times) between the two is that impeachment is usually a political process, while a trial on indictment is a matter of criminal law.

And one effect of this distinction is that if a sitting president of the United States is immune from prosecution in the criminal courts, there is always the alternative route of impeachment.

*

There are only eleven days before this presidential term ends, by automatic operation of law, on 20th January 2021.

The electoral college vote has been certified by congress and so there is no constitutional impediment (as far as this English lawyer is aware) to Joseph Biden becoming president on that day.

The question is whether Donald Trump should continue to be president in the meantime, given what he did and what happened on 6th January 2021.

As eleven days is such a short period, there is merit in the view that we should just wait it out – especially as he no longer has access to his Twitter platform (and the implications of such a ban was discussed on this blog yesterday) and the speaker of the house of representatives has has assurances on the president’s access to the nuclear codes.

And there is something also to be said that it would still be wrong, even now, to in effect override the result of the 2016 election – there was a democratic process and Trump as president was the result at the end of it.

*

But.

Impeachment exists in the United States constitution for a reason.

And if a president inciting a mob to invade Congress so as to disrupt the certification of the electoral college vote (in what this blog avers was an attempted coup) does not fulfil the requirement of a high crime and misdemeanour, then it is difficult to imagine what else would do so.

Even with only eleven days to go, such an extraordinary event should not go unmarked and shrugged-off.

Impeachment and conviction can also disqualify Trump from holding office again.

(And so, in respect of the presidency, such disqualification would place Trump in the same position as if he had not been born in the United States.)

On this basis there is a strong – if not compelling – case that Trump should be impeached and convicted – both in terms of what has happened and of the future.

*

Yet.

You do not sustainably solve a problem caused by hyper-partisanship with more partisanship.

And so any impeachment and conviction should ideally be on a genuinely non-partisan basis – and not just the Democratic bloc with a few Republicans.

Here the United States constitution is helpful – as a conviction by the senate has to be with the ‘concurrence of two thirds of the members present’.

Therefore there would have to be a substantial number of Republican senators in favour – but even if there were sixteen or so such Republican senators, it would still savour of partisanship, unless the Republican congressional leadership were also in favour of conviction.

This is not to say that there should not be an impeachment and conviction if enough Republican senators are in favour – sometimes you just have to do the right thing anyway – but a warning that such an exercise will not be the once-and-for-all end of the problem of Trump and Trumpism.

But, then again, there may not be any solution to that problem.

*

There is another way that could be employed to displace Trump.

The twenty-fifth amendment provides an elaborate mechanism by which the vice president and members of the cabinet can declare that the president is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office.

In these circumstances the vice president will become the acting president.

This approach has the attraction of being inherently non-partisan – as those making the decision are Republican politicians – and also the attraction of pragmatism – as it deftly yanks Trump away from exercising the powers of the president.

The problem, however, is that it is not – at least not directly – a mark against the encouragement of the attempted coup, and nor does it disqualify him from future office.

(Or Trump could – like Nixon – just resign in an attempt to pre-empt any of the above – but it is hard to imagine Trump bringing himself to sign that piece of paper.)

*

Of course, whatever does happen will then look as if it were inevitable all along.

But whether or not Trump is impeached and convicted, there will still be two truths.

First, impeachment is there for a reason.

And second, what the president did on 6th January is such a reason.

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Trump’s social media ban in perspective – the unpalatable difficulties of regulating political and media activity in the internet age

8th January 2021

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, mass political parties and national media organisations were themselves novelties.

Both were responses to the emergence of popular democracy and widespread literacy in the late 1800s.

Political parties and media organisations (for example, ‘Fleet Street’) were ways by which the relationships were mediated between the elite and the governed.

The means of political organisation and of publication – and, later, of broadcasting –  were in the hands of the few.

Indeed, until the 1990s, it was difficult (if not impossible) for any person to publish or broadcast to the world, without going through the ‘gatekeepers’ of a national newspaper, or a publishing house, or a national broadcaster.

Similarly, it would be difficult (if not impossible) for any person or group of people to obtain significant political influence – at least in the United Kingdom as a whole – without going through a national political party.

So – although both politics and the media on a national level had opened up to the population as whole – the ultimate means of political and media control were still quite centralised.

Top-bottom, command-and-control.

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And when power is concentrated it is easier to regulate.

So, just as modern political parties and media organisations emerged at the end of the 1800s, so did the regulation both of political parties and of the media.

Back in October 2019 I set out at Prospect why the electoral law of the United Kingdom that was developed in different circumstances was no longer fit for purpose.

Similar points can be made about media law: for example, there is no real point tightly regulating certain news titles or national broadcasters when the same content can be circulated – often even more widely – on social media platforms by those outside such creaking regulatory regimes.

*

If traditional political parties and media organisations did not already exist as hangovers from the time before modern technology and communications, they probably would not now be invented, at least in a recognisable form.

And that therefore must follow for how political and media activities are regulated.

Just as traditional political parties and media organisations were once novel responses to new social and economic conditions, we need to think afresh about the nature of political and media power and about the extent, if at all, it can be regulated.

For now anyone with an internet connection and access to certain platforms can publish and broadcast to the world, or can seek and obtain significant political influence or power.

*

To ‘regulate’ a thing is to make it possible that the thing would have a different outcome, but for the regulation.

If a regulation can have no effect, then the thing supposedly being regulated carries on regardless, and the regulation is a polite fiction. 

Futility is the enemy of sound regulation.

*

And now we come to President Donald Trump and his recent temporary ban from Twitter and his indefinite ban from Facebook.

Neither Twitter nor Facebook are traditional media organisations – indeed both were formed within the lifetime of anyone reading this post.

But they are not only media organisations – they have also taken on some of the functions of traditional political parties – as the practical means of political organisation, mobilisation and sharing of information.

This is not to say that the social media platforms are beyond the law – they are (in theory) subject to terms and conditions, laws on equality and non-discrimination, laws on data protection and intellectual property, and so on.

It may be that these general laws are not enforced, or perhaps not enforceable – but there are laws which apply.

The issue is that those laws are general laws and not specific legal regimes covering media and political activity.

And so what we have are platforms of immense media and political power – and without any specific media and political regulation.

They are, in effect, private organisations – and (subject to general laws) are entitled to suspend and terminate, or to enable, the accounts of any politician.

They can even suspend the social media account of (arguably) the most powerful politician in the world.

And they have done so.

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For many, the way to deal with the political and media power of social media platforms is easy.

Regulate!

Something must be done, and so something will be done, and that something that will be done will be to ‘Regulate!’

But asserting that a thing should be regulated is not the same as it being capable of regulation.

One may want the tides of the sea or the weather to be different, but it does not follow that they can be made any different.

So it may be that although social media platforms – huge private corporations – have immense political and media power, it does not follow that they can be easily regulated, or regulated in any meaningful way at all.

And even if regulation was possible, it is almost certain that it cannot be on the same basis of the top-down, command-and-control regulation of political and media activity that we have inherited from previous times.

For example, social media platforms have millions of publishers and broadcasters, not just a handful.

There are no elaborate steps before publication and broadcast as with a Fleet Street title or established book publisher.

They are no limits on how much political propaganda can be published and to whom it can be circulated.

If any of this can be ‘regulated’ then it almost certainty will not be by tweaking old pre-internet regulatory models – and this is because the things being regulated are of a fundamentally different nature.

And – and this will be very hard to accept for those who believe every real-world problem has a neat legal solution – it may be that social media activity can no more be regulated meaningfully than conversations in the street or in the town square.

That the age of specific regulations for media and political activity are over, and all we are now left with are general laws.

Many will not be comfortable with this – and will insist that ‘something must be done’.

Yet futility is the enemy of sound regulation.

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Perhaps something should have been done in respect of President Donald Trump’s unpleasant, dishonest, reckless and dangerous use of his social media account before this week.

And what has now been done is too little, too late.

Others would say that silencing an elected politician’s means of communication should not be at the fiat of a private social media platform.

Views will differ.

But the wider questions are:

If a thing is to be done about the use and abuse of a social media platform by those with political and media power, who should have the power to do this?

And on what basis should they make that decision? 

And to whom (if anyone) should that decision-maker be accountable?

And if the social media platforms themselves are left to regulate what political and media activity can take place and what content we can read and watch, who (if anyone) can regulate them?

*

‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?‘ – who watches the watchmen? – is one of the oldest and most difficult questions in the history of organised societies, and it is a question that sometimes has no answer.

And now our generation gets to ask and to try and answer this question.

*

POSTSCRIPT

Later on the day of this post, Trump’s Twitter account was permanently suspended.

 

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The contest between violent populism and constitutionalism – and why it was not inevitable that yesterday’s attempted coup in the United States would fail

7th January 2021

Yesterday we watched, in real-time, an attempted coup in the United States.

Was it an attempted coup?

Some are already fussing about the ‘coup’ word – that it was merely a security violation, a mere matter of public order.

That view is not correct, for three reasons.

It was an attempted coup.

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First, an essential constitutional stage for a peaceful transfer of power was disrupted.

The constitutional stage – usually a formality – was the certification of the electoral college vote by congress.

It is this certification that would make the inauguration of a new president happen on 20 January 2021 by automatic operation of law.

No certification, no certainty of inauguration of a new president.

The disruption was the object and the effect of the disorder.

And until and unless the electoral college vote is certified then the 20 January inauguration is uncertain.

(The resumed Congress is still considering the electoral college votes as I type.)

*

Second, the disruption was at the behest of the losing candidate – or, if you nod-along with plausible deniability, it was at least done so as to ensure he stayed in office.

It was disruption with the purpose of keeping a losing candidate in office.

And that candidate then praised these ‘special’ people for what they did.

Indeed, for the candidate’s daughter, these disruptors were ‘patriots’.

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And third, the disruption was forceful.

The mob forced their way in, and there are reports of fatalities and injuries.

This was not a peaceful protest or an exercise in civil disobedience.

*

So a group (a) used force to (b) disrupt an essential constitutional process (c) at the behest of (or in the interests of) a politician – and if that disruption had succeeded, the inauguration of a new president would have been rendered uncertain.

That was an attempt at a coup.

*

One significant detail in what happened yesterday was that the order to deploy the national guard came from the vice president, not the president.

As Sherlock Holmes would have said, this was a ‘curious incident‘.

This means that, left to the president, there would have been insufficient coercive power to disperse the mob.

As any A-level history student knows – or should know – for a rebellion to succeed requires not only rebels, but also a weakness in the regime that is being rebelled against.

Usually the weaknesses of the regime are not deliberate.

But here the president seems to have wanted to maximise the disruptive power of the mob.

*

Another significant detail is how light-touch the policing was generally.

As a liberal, I am all in favour in light-touch policing.

The priority in such a situation should be public safety rather than the use of brutal – or lethal – force.

Yet the contrast with the policing of, say, the Black Lives Matter protest is stark – and telling.

If those who rioted yesterday had different colour skins then they would have been no doubt arrested or shot by police officers dressed up like Robocops.

Instead, there were hardly any arrests, and the rioters were just allowed to go home.

The photographs of some of the rioters – posing here and there in the Capitol – would be unthinkable if they were not white.

What happened yesterday was an expression of white privilege.

*

This attempted coup is what you get when politicians play with the monster of populist nationalist authoritarianism.

So often in history, politicians believe they can tame this beast, and that the beast will serve them.

And those politicians usually end up being devoured by the creature.

*

Today, it look like the attempt at a coup failed, and that the new president will be inaugurated on 20th January 2021.

Yesterday was a contest between constitutionalism and violent populism.

It was not inevitable that constitutionalism would always win this contest.

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How the Trump experience both weakens and strengthens the case for a ‘written constitution’

6th January 2021

Imagine – just for the sake of this post – that the United States did not have a written constitution.

And now imagine that there had been a president like Donald Trump in office over the last four years who had pretty much done what Trump had done – every outrage, every attack on a minority, every sacking and every appointment, every manipulative or threatening telephone call, every high crime and misdemeanour, and so on.

There would be pundits who, when presented with such a catalogue of wrongful conduct, would assert confidently: ‘you see, this shows the need for a written constitution!’

But the thing is: there was a written constitution, and all these bad things happened anyway.

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Back in November 2020 – and more in hope than expectation – my column at Prospect magazine was entitled ‘Why we need to stop talking about a written constitution’.

My three main contentions were as follows.

First, a written constitution (that is, for the purpose of discussion, a codified constitution) is inherently neither a good nor a bad thing – and, indeed, such a constitution can either entrench or mask illiberalism or tyranny.

Accordingly, the knee-jerk demand for a written constitution at every constitutional trespass is misconceived, as such a constitution is not a panacea.

Second, in England (and, as presently constituted, the United Kingdom) there is no plausible path to entrenching any constitutional code, regardless of any theoretical attractions.

And third, the demands for a written constitution whenever there is a constitutional trespass are too often a substitute for attempting any actual constitutional improvement.

All a pundit will announce is ‘you see, this shows the need for a written constitution!’ and nothing else will be said.

And this insistence on an absolute ideal in any conversation about the constitution, instead of any practical suggestions, was and is (in my view) part of the problem.

*

But.

Regardless of the (provocative) title of that column, there are times to revisit the debate about the merits and otherwise of a codified constitution.

This morning, the news reports from the United States are that the Democrats may have won both Georgia senate seats – and, if so, that would mean the Republicans will lose control of the senate.

Today the United States congress will meet and it is expected that the electoral college vote will be certified, meaning Donald Trump has lost and Joseph Biden has won.

The Trump presidency will thereby end, and the Biden presidency will begin, on 20 January 2021 by automatic operation of law.

These are welcome political developments for anyone opposed to the nasty authoritarian nationalist populism of Trump and his Republican supporters.

They have lost.

So surely: this shows the merits of a written constitution?

*

Tony Benn famously posited the five questions of any democracy:

‘What power have you got?’

‘Where did you get it from?’

‘In whose interests do you use it?’

‘To whom are you accountable?’

‘How do we get rid of you?’

Of these five questions, the one which (in my view) has the most power is the last one: ‘How do we get rid of you?’

And applying this question to the Trump experience, the answer is stark and indeed unavoidable.

Donald Trump has been got rid of because of the provisions of the constitution of the United States.

As the events since his election defeat have shown, there is nothing he would not resort to doing so as to keep office.

In an extraordinary and significant intervention, all living former United States defense secretaries wrote in the Washington Post warned against the armed services being used to affect the result of elections.

The same newspaper also released a similarly extraordinary and significant telephone conversation where Donald Trump was placing illegitimate pressure on the Georgia secretary of state to overturn an election result.

The grim reality is that if Donald Trump could find a way to stay in office he would use it.

And if this grim reality is accepted, then it must also be conceded that the only reason he has not stayed in office is because there was something more powerful in his way.

And that thing which is more powerful is the (codified) constitution of the United States.

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Being, on one hand, critical of constitutional trespasses and abuses and, on the other hand, sceptical of the claims made for codified constitutions, has the merits of being an independent and (I hope) intellectually consistent point of view – even if it appears not to have the benefit of also being a popular one.

The Trump experience does not show (at least to me) the merits of a written constitution – every single bad thing that has happened over the last four years has happened despite there being a written constitution in place.

Every single one.

And this evidences, if not proves, that a written constitution is not a panacea – and those in favour of codification should stop pretending otherwise.

But.

Taking the last of Tony Benn’s questions seriously, it also has to be admitted that codification, in certain extreme situations, can help in getting rid of those in power who seek to abuse power.

(Of course, the tyrant can seek to amend such a constitutional provision – but at least it provides an additional high hurdle.)

The outstanding constitutional question, however is not about how Donald Trump was finally removed from office, but how he was allowed to get away with so many wrongs in the meantime?

And that is a far more difficult question for supporters of codification to answer.

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Another national lockdown – but what is needed more than laws and their enforcement is credibility, sound policy, and for voters to care that ministers now get it right

5th January 2021

Another lockdown in England and the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom.

Another dollop of regulations containing restrictions backed by criminal sanctions, and another dollop of governmental guidance and ministerial exhortations.

This is the third national lockdown in England, and the sound of the official starting whistle is now familiar.

Will it work?

And if not, why not?

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If the lockdown is to work, it will not be by law alone.

As this blog has previously averred, law is not magic, and regulations are not spells.

It does not matter how solemn the law-making ceremony is, and how solemnly the laws are then pronounced. 

To have effect any laws need to be clear, comprehensible, and accessible.

And this has been the fault now, for over a year, with the coronavirus regulations – they are difficult to find, at least in their up-to-date and consolidated form, and impossible for a non-lawyer to follow.

Indeed, it is rumoured that there is only one person – Adam Wagner, a barrister in London – who has read and understood all the legal instruments enacted over the last year in England.

(I happen to be an experienced former government lawyer, trained in drafting statutory instruments, and with a speciality in public law and an understanding of emergency legislation – and I gave up trying to keep on top of the ever-changing increasingly complicated lump of coronavirus legislation last Autumn.)

And if the laws are not clear, comprehensible, and accessible, then – regardless of any other factor – law-making is a futile exercise.

More than mere law is needed.

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The second thing that is needed is enforcement.

Criminal laws that are not enforced are official fictions.

They are nothing more than the sort of item you get on those lists you see from time to time, of ridiculous laws from yesteryear that are still nominally in force but ignored.

And for criminal laws to be enforced, there needs to be be resources and an understanding of the law by those entrusted to enforce the law.

There also needs to be a working criminal justice system.

And there is little evidence of there being resources in place for laws to be enforced either by by police or by the courts.

Without credible enforcement, it does not matter if you keep increasing the supposed penalties to incredible amounts – like some Dr Evil boasting of a ransom of one million dollars. 

 

But more than enforcement is needed.

With a challenge of the sheer scale of a pandemic, only a totalitarian state could perhaps rely on laws and enforcement alone

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For the lockdown to work in a modern non-totalitarian society, there needs to be consent.

In essence: laws and sanctions should only have any effect at the margins, because the mass of the people will do the ‘right thing’ anyway.

And this engages the normative issues of legitimacy, accountability, fairness, and credibility.

There cannot be one law for the many, and another for those who go on day trips to Barnard Castle.

There cannot be one law on a Monday, allowing children to go back to school after the Christmas vacation, and then suddenly another law on the Tuesday.

There cannot be a demand for schools to be closed, just days after the government was – literally – threatening a council with a High Court mandatory injunction so as to keep schools open.

There cannot be many things – that is if a government genuinely wants to be taken seriously in imposing a lockdown.

*

But even laws and sanctions, resources and enforcement, and consent and credibility, are not enough if the underlying policy is not sound – or seen to be sound.

And this is also a challenge for this government.

The fundamental mistake with government policy on coronavirus, as with Brexit, is that it has approached something complex as if it were quick and easy, and ministers have kept preferring crowd-pleasing gestures to dealing with the problems that they put-off.

Most of the problems of Brexit policy, and many of the problems in coronavirus policy, were foreseeable and foreseen.

Ministers were told at the time.

But ministers shrugged, and made the mistakes anyway.

Unless there is sound policy in place, blowing the official whistle for another lockdown – with all the paraphernalia of laws and guidance, and ministerial broadcasts – will not work, and cannot work.

Ministers need to get policy right – and then other benefits will follow.

This is the rub – ministers keep shrugging and crowd-pleasing and getting policy wrong, because they know they can get away with it.

In other words: ministers know that a sufficient number of voters do not care enough whether politicians are candid and competent on coronavirus, as with other things.

And so until a sufficient number of voters do care that politicians are candid and competent, we are likely to keep on hearing the whistle sound of bad policy-making and implementation, and for as long as the pandemic persists.

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The real origin of the European Union ‘supranationalist’ state – and why it still matters

4th January 2021

There is a view held by many in the United Kingdom that the European Union – and its predecessors – was not always a ‘supranational’ organisation.

That it was not always an entity which routinely transcended national boundaries.

The view is that it was once a mere innocent trading association and an international organisation – and that it was only after the United Kingdom joined in 1973 that it corrupted into a supranational organisation, which took rule-making and decision-making out of the hands of member states.

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Some will know this is not true and will point, say, to the Treaty of Rome of 1957, which established the European Economic Community, with its express determination that the treaty would lay the “foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.

Others will point to the 1960s caselaw of the European Court of Justice, such as the Costa v ENEL judgment of 1964 that made it as plain as a pikestaff (the lawyers’ equivalent of ‘absolutely clear’) that the domestic law of a member state was subordinate to the provisions of both the Treaty of Rome and the legal instruments made thereunder.

The United Kingdom thereby knew exactly what it was joining in 1973, and only a fool or knave could (and did) pretend otherwise.

*

Yet the supranational essence of what the United Kingdom joined in 1973 was older than the Costa case of 1964, and was even older than the Treaty of Rome of 1957.

Here it is important that the United Kingdom did not just join the European Economic Community in 1973 but also another community, the deceptively unglamorous-sounding, and older, European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) of 1952.

For some, the historical fact that the United Kingdom joined more than one community in 1973 is nothing more than an answer to a quiz question, or the reason why the European Communities Act 1973 employs the plural form of community.

But it was a lot more significant than that.

*

To understand why, we have to go back to the years after the second world war and the problem of what should be done about Germany – in particular, the industrial areas of Rhineland and Saarland.

In 1944 the plan was to eliminate much of this industrial capacity; and in 1946 another plan was to give France control.

But by the late 1940s neither of these strident approaches seemed sustainable, especially in view of the need to not de-stabilise (what was then) West Germany, and so another approach was needed.

In 1950, a suggestion was made that there be a ‘high authority’ be put in place, overseeing French and German coal and steel production.

And by 1951 – with the Treaty of Paris – this idea had developed into an array of supervisory institutions – not only a high authority, but also an assembly, a council of ministers and – significantly – a dedicated court, with these further institutions balancing the executive power of the high authority.

The high authority furthermore had the power to issue decisions and recommendations binding the signatories – France, West Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries (who were already heading towards economic unity).

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So we have in 1952 the establishment of the ECSC – with a supranational group of institutions in place and with the power to make law and adjudicate disputes, ensuring adherence to shared treaty obligations.

And the key element of this arrangement was not that it was aspirational – notwithstanding the heady language of integration that accompanied it – but that it was a solidly, deeply practical solution to a problem – of what should be done in respect of the post-war industrial relationship of France and Germany.

Just as, say the Good Friday Agreement used an imaginative cross-border approach to a thorny cross-border problem, so did the Treaty of Paris.

What the Spaak Report of 1956 and the Treaty of Rome of 1957 then did was to employ this supranational approach (with shared institutions and shared law-making) on wider economic questions, as it was seen as an approach that would work.

So when the United Kingdom joined the communities in 1973, the fact that it was joining a practical supranational enterprise had been – well – as plain as a pikestaff for over twenty years.

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What makes this ‘pre-history’ significant is that it is often the view of critics of the European Union that its supranational nature is somehow airy-fairy – that it is impractical and unrealistic.

And this is seen as a contrast to rugged Anglo-Saxon empiricism and practical common sense.

The reality is that the European Union, as with its predecessor organisations the European Economic Community and ECSC, regards its supranational nature as eminently practical, as was as embodying certain ideals of European unity.

That it works.

Supranationalism is thereby an approach which has worked since 1952 – and not just somehow inflicted by surprise on the united Kingdom after 1973.

It is not as if the debate is between an unrealistic pro-European Union camp and a realistic band of critics.

The problem that the United Kingdom had for a long time when a member of the European Union is that it rarely wanted to work within a supranational organisation.

Supranationalism was, it seemed, for other people.

The United Kingdom regarded supranationalism as a bug of the European Union, and not as a feature.

So the United Kingdom sought – and obtained – opt-out after opt-out, until 2015-16 when it sought a ‘re-negotiation’ only to find the European Union could and would shift no further.

*

The supranationalism of the European Union is seventy years old.

The United Kingdom in its modern form as a collection of four nation states has only existed since 1922 – and so is a mere thirty years older than the first of the European communities. 

As this blog has previously averred, political unions come and go – and no political union can be seen as eternal.

And given that the supranationalism of the European Union is regarded as practical as well as an ideal, there is no inherent reason why the European Union will not last longer than the United Kingdom as a union of nation states.

*****

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The last of the legal correspondents, and the true crisis in the public understanding of law

3rd January 2021

At the end of last year two legal correspondents retired.

Owen Bowcott at the Guardian:

And Clive Coleman at the BBC:

It is an end of an era.

Yes, there are still full-time legal correspondents in the United Kingdom: at the Times and at the Financial Times.

But in both those cases the journalism is behind a paywall – and that is not an accident, as funding full-time specialised correspondents in any area is an expensive business, and if you want good specialised journalism in this internet age you do have to pay for it.

With the retirements of Owen Bowcott and Clive Coleman there is now no longer (as far as I am aware, and I would be delighted to be corrected) any full-time specialised legal correspondent at any news provider whose reporting is available generally to the public.

The nearest we have is Joshua Rozenberg, who is not exclusively attached to any news organ, providing reportage and comment at a number of titles and now on his own blog.

*

Does this matter?

This demise of the legal correspondents comes at the same time where an understanding of how law works is as – if not more – important than ever.

Without legal correspondents it will be left to generalist journalists to report on, say, high-profile legal cases and the legal aspects of government policy.

And this in turn will increase the influence of (so-called) litigation PR specialists (who effectively provide copy to the media favourable to their clients involved in legal cases) and ministerial special advisers leaking spin-ridden and distorted accounts of law-related policy.

This is not to say there are not good generalist journalists reporting on legal matters but to observe that there will be an imbalance between the time-poor reporter without a bank of expertise and the well-resourced or well-informed but highly motivated source.

Having a specialised legal correspondent at a news title who was not reliant on PR or governmental sources meant there was detachment and reliability in their reports from court and the frontline of legal activity.

And this has now gone.

Something has been lost, and it will not be regained.

*

The demise of the legal correspondents, however, comes at a time where reliable legal information is more freely available than freely before.

In the United Kingdom, for example, legislation is set out at the legislation.gov site and jusdgments at the BAILII site.

The Supreme Court has an outstanding site that not only provides case reports but also summaries and other useful information, and the UK judiciary site provides not only newsworthy case reports but also the judges’ sentencing remarks in high-profile and controversial cases.

It has never been easier for the spirited citizen to gain information about the law and to understand its application in particular examples.

*

But.

Few lay people will bother – as screens full of dry text are daunting and the law is (or at least looks) complicated.

A screen suddenly full of legal verbiage is as scary or bewildering to a lay person as a page suddenly full of source code.

Legal information may well be free to all – but unless you have relevant experience and know your way round legal instruments and other legal documents, such access is only of theoretical value.

*

But what of legal bloggers and tweeters?

Surely they (we) can step in and fill the gap between the law and the public understanding of law?

Here there are two problems.

Many leading legal bloggers and tweeters are of two types.

First, there are the legal academics – and many are as brilliant in explaining substantive ‘black letter’ law to lay people as they are to their lucky students.

But the academic exposition of substantive law is only one aspect of the public understanding of law – few legal academics will report from the courtroom in trials where there is little of academic interest, nor will they be routinely invited to Whitehall press briefings, nor develop sources such as judges and practitioners just for providing news.

And, analysis and commentary – however outstanding – is not the same as reportage.

Much the same can be said of the second group of legal bloggers and tweeters – legal practitioners such as barristers (and a few solicitors).

The additional problem with this second group is that – even more than academics who often need to show ‘outreach’ – such legal communication is voluntary and often haphazard.

Blogging and tweeting barristers (and solicitors) are not paid for explaining the law to the public and – with controversial legal topics – not compensated for the hassle and abuse they will get.

There will be uneven coverage – a lawyer will tend to only write about matters as and when they feel they have something to say about something they know about – and so this can lead to some areas of law being over-represented and other areas of law being neglected.

Blogging and tweeting lawyers  – both academics and practitioners – are a boon to the public understanding of law – but they (we) are no substitute for specialised full-time legal correspondents dealing with law-related news stories as they emerge on any topic, with detachment and perspective.

For that you need, well, full-time specialised legal correspondents at news organisations – and they are coming to an end.

*

But there is an even more disconcerting problem, at this time of hyper-partisanship, ‘post-truth fake news’, and populism.

In the United States there are still many specialised courts and legal correspondents – and they have been diligent in exposing and reporting on the various abuses of law and legal process by President Donald Trump and his allies.

Each presidential assault on constitutional and legal norms in the United States has been documented and explained.

And it has made very little difference.

Many people do not care.

As this blog averred on New Year’s Eve – there is no point in the observant Benjamin the Donkey in Animal Farm being more public-spirited, if the other farm animals would not have cared less.

And so, in the United kingdom, even if every news title had a squadron of legal correspondents detailing the many abuses and misuses of law from this supposedly ‘law and order’ government then – looking at the United States – there is no reason to believe it would make any difference.

This, therefore, is the crisis in the public understanding of law referred to in the title of this blogpost.

The crisis is not that we are at the end of specialised reporting of legal news.

The crisis in the public understanding of law is that most of the public do not want to understand law.

A significant portion of the public do not want to understand the law, or care about how the law is misused or abused.

And how do you promote the public understand of law when so few of the public care?

*****

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary please do support through the Paypal box above.

Suggested donation of any amount as a one-off, £1 upwards per post found useful or valuable, or £4.50 upwards on a monthly profile.

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

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Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

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The four ways the government of the United Kingdom is abusing and misusing the law – and the reason the government is getting away with it

2nd January 2021

Those with political power tend to want more power, and those who want more power will tend to then abuse it.

This is not a new observation, and it is perhaps one which can be made of most if not all human societies.

The role of law and government is thereby not so often to enable such abuse of power, but to acknowledge the likelihood of abuse and to seek to limit or prevent it.

That is why those with power are often subject to conventions and rules, why there can be checks and balances, and why many political systems avoid giving absolute power to any one person.

That those with power want to use, misuse and abuse that power is not thereby a feature of the current government of the United Kingdom, but a universal (or near-universal) truth of all those who seek and have political power everywhere.

Those with political power will tend to try and get away with misusing or abusing it.

*

The current government of the United Kingdom, however, is remarkable in just how open it is in its abuse and intended abuse of law, and in at least four ways.

And what is also striking is what has changed politically so as to enable them to be so open.

*

First, the current government sought to give itself the power to break the law.

This was in respect of the Internal Markets bill, and the ability to break the law was stated as the intention by a cabinet minister in the house of commons.

This proposal led, in turn, to the resignations of the government’s most senior legal official and a law officer in the house of lords.

And then it was even supported by a majority of the house of commons.

The proposal has now been dropped – and some would say that it was only ever a negotiating tactic.

But even with this excuse, it was an abuse of legislation and legislation-making, requiring law-makers to become law-breakers, and signalling to the world that the government of the United Kingdom does not take its legal obligations seriously.

There was no good excuse for this exercise.

Yet the government sought to do it anyway.

*

Second, the government of the United Kingdom is seeking to place itself, and its agents, beyond the reach of the law.

This can be seen in two bills before parliament: one effectively limiting the liability of service personnel for various criminal offences, including for torture and other war crimes, and the other expressly permitting secret service agents to break the law.

 

From one perspective, these two proposals simply give formal effect to the practical position.

It has always been difficult to prosecute members of the armed services for war crimes.

And domestic secret service agents have long relied on the ‘public interest’ test for criminal activity (for any criminal prosecution to take place there are two tests: whether there is sufficient evidence, and whether the prosecution is in the public interest, and guess who routinely gets the benefit of the latter).

And secret service agents abroad have long had legal immunity back in the United Kingdom, under the wonderfully numbered section 007 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994.

The primary significance of these two current proposals is that the de facto positions are being made de jure.

The government believes (rightly) that it can legislate to this effect and get away with it.

*

The third way – when the government cannot legislate to break the law or to make it and its agents beyond the law – is for the government to legislate so as to give itself the widest possible legal powers.

Again, this is not new: governments of all parties have sought wide ‘Henry VIII clauses’ that enable them to bypass parliament – legislating, and amending and even repealing primary legislation by ministerial decree.

But what is new here is the scale of the use of such legislation – both the pandemic and Brexit have been used as pretexts of the government to use secondary legislation for wide ranging purposes – even to limit fundamental rights without any parliamentary sanction.

And as I have argued elsewhere, there is no absolute barrier under the constitution of the United Kingdom to an ‘enabling act’ allowing ministers to have complete freedom to legislate by decree.

*

The fourth way is the flip-side of the government seeking more legal power.

The government is seeking ways to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for it to be challenged in the courts.

This can be done formally: by reducing the scope of judicial review or the reach of the laws of human rights and civil liberties, or by ‘ouster’ clauses, limiting the jurisdiction of the courts.

It can be done practically (and insidiously): by creating procedural impediments and by cutting or eliminating legal aid for such challenges.

It also can be achieved by the government either promoting or not challenging attacks on the judiciary and the role of courts in holding executive power to account.

If the government cannot break the law, or make itself immune to the law, or give itself wide legal powers – it certainly does not want citizens to be able to challenge it.

Of course, this impulse is also not new – and examples can be given of governments of all parties seeking to make it more difficult for legal challenges to be brought.

But again, what is different from before is the openness of these attempts.

There is no self-restraint.

The government is going to get away with as many of these barriers as it can.

*

The big change is not that those with political power want to abuse it – and to stop those who can check and balance that abuse.

That is a problem no doubt as old as law and government itself.

What is remarkable is how the United Kingdom government is now so brazen about it.

The government just does not care about being seen doing this – and if there is any concern or even outcry – that is regarded as a political advantage.

The ‘libs’ are ‘owned’ and those with grins will clap and cheer.

In this current period of hyper-partisanship there is no legal or constitutional principle that is beyond being weaponised.

What perhaps restrained the United Kingdom government – and other governments – from being so candid in their abuses and misuses of power was once called ‘public opinion’.

People cared about such things – or at least those in government believed people cared.

But, as this blog averred on New Year’s Eve, what happens if a public-spirited donkey does tell the animals on the farm that power is being misused or abused – and the animals still do not care.

‘The animals crowded round the van. “Good-bye, Boxer!” they chorused, “good-bye!”‘

*

And this brings us back to the key problem for liberalism – and for the principles of transparency and accountability – in this age of Brexit and Trump.

It is not enough to point out the lies and misinformation – or to show the misuses and abuses of law – if a sufficient number of people do not care that they are being lied to or misinformed and that the law is being misused or abused.

And there is nothing the media or commentators can do about this (though we should still be public-spirited donkeys anyway).

This requires a shift – not in media and communications – but of politics and of political leadership.

Only if enough citizens care about the government abusing or misusing the law will the government stop doing it, at least so openly.

And until then the United Kingdom’s indifference towards the rule of law and other constitutional norms will just be a register of the public’s general indifference about the government getting away with it.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

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*****

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

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The Koch Snowflake of Brexit

New Year’s Day, 2021

Alan Moore, in the appendices to his graphic novel From Hell, uses Koch’s Snowflake to illustrate the historiography of his subject.

Moore’s point is that every book on his subject – either with new minor details or imaginative theories – cannot go beyond certain central facts. 

New details and new interpretations can be added infinitely – but the significant events were finite.

(On the Whitechapel murders, do click and buy here for Hallie Rubenhold’s outstanding book.)

*

What Moore says can, of course, be said also of any group of connected historical events.

Take, for example, Brexit.

The central events of Brexit are: (1) the decision to hold a referendum on 23 June 2016; (2) the referendum result; (3) the Article 50 notification on 29 March 2017; (4) the extensions of the Article 50 period; (5) the United Kingdom departing the European Union on 31st January 2020; and (6) the end of the transition period yesterday, 31st December 2020.

These are the six tips of the Koch’s Snowflake of Brexit.

Now and in the future there will be far more detail: about the politics and the negotiations, about the content and effects of legal instruments; and about the impact of decisions made.

And there will be endless interpretations of what actually happened in these five or so eventful and exhausting years, and endless explanations of why it happened.

The amount of new detail on Brexit, and of new ‘takes’ about Brexit, is no doubt infinite.

But all the new details and all the new interpretations will not change the six central (procedural) facts of Brexit.

*

None of those six events were inevitable, of course.

Each event could have happened differently, or even not happened at all.

But those were the events that did happen, and so they are the things which ultimately do need to be explained.

And, as this blog has previously averred, even if certain crucial events of Brexit had turned out differently, we could have ended up with just a different form and manner of Brexit.

*

Now that this stage of Brexit is over – though the overall story of Brexit is far from being at an end, and may never end – it is time for me to finally complete the book I was asked to write on Brexit.

You can pre-order the book here – though the actual publication date will be later than April.

I had been waiting for the outcome of the transition period, and to discover whether there would be a relationship agreement, or not

I needed to know what would be the sixth tip of the Koch’s snowflake of Brexit.

The circumstances of the departure from the transition arrangements may explain more about else has happened since the 2016 referendum.

Of course, I could have told the story of Brexit with indifference to what happened at the end of the transition period – and there are many excellent books on Brexit already published.

But that was not the story I wanted to tell – or was able to tell in book form.

The story I want to tell as a book is how the United Kingdom went from a general election in 2015, where each major party was in support of European Union membership, to the United Kingdom leaving not only the European Union, but also (with the end of the transition period, and with special arrangements for Northern Ireland) the Single Market and Customs Union, in just five years.

People in the future will be struck by how much happened, so quickly.

(As some people are already.)

Brexit is the most extraordinary political-policy-legal-constitutional-economic group of connected events in the modern history of the United Kingdom.

It should be an interesting story to try to tell, and I hope for you to read.

A Happy New Year to all my readers and followers.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.

Benjamin the Donkey from Animal Farm, and the limits of political commentary

New Year’s Eve, 2020

Tomorrow Animal Farm and other works by George Orwell come out of copyright in the United Kingdom.

To mark this, and to do something different on this blog on New Year’s Eve, this is a tribute to – and critique – of Benjamin the donkey as a political commentator.

(And, just for the rest of today, the many quotations in this post are ‘fair dealing with a work for the purpose of criticism or review’ under the Copyright etc Act 1988.)

*

Benjamin has qualities which would (or should) make him a great political commentator.

First – and this is key:

Benjamin could read as well as any pig…’

In Animal Farm, the two key textual reveals to the other other animals are because Benjamin can read as well as any pig:

‘”Fools! Fools!” shouted Benjamin, prancing round them and stamping the earth with his small hoofs. “Fools! Do you not see what is written on the side of that van?”‘

And:

‘[Benjamin] read out to her what was written on the wall. There was nothing there now except a single Commandment. It ran:

ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL
BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS’

Benjamin is capable of understanding, and explaining, anything done by those who have sought and obtained political power – it is not for him obscure or forbidden knowledge.

He is not of the political world, but can understand it as well as those who are powerful.

And so he can see and describe what is actually happening:

‘…Benjamin was watching the movements of the men intently. The two with the hammer and the crowbar were drilling a hole near the base of the windmill. Slowly, and with an air almost of amusement, Benjamin nodded his long muzzle.

‘”I thought so,” he said. “Do you not see what they are doing? In another moment they are going to pack blasting powder into that hole.”‘

*

Second, Benjamin is impartial in a hyper-partisan world:

‘Old Benjamin, the donkey, seemed quite unchanged since the Rebellion. […] About the Rebellion and its results he would express no opinion. When asked whether he was not happier now that Jones was gone, he would say only “Donkeys live a long time. None of you has ever seen a dead donkey,” and the others had to be content with this cryptic answer.’

And:

‘The animals formed themselves into two factions under the slogan, “Vote for Snowball and the three-day week” and “Vote for Napoleon and the full manger.” Benjamin was the only animal who did not side with either faction. He refused to believe either that food would become more plentiful or that the windmill would save work. Windmill or no windmill, he said, life would go on as it had always gone on–that is, badly.’

And:

‘Only old Benjamin refused to grow enthusiastic about the windmill, though, as usual, he would utter nothing beyond the cryptic remark that donkeys live a long time.’

*

Third, Benjamin has a stock of knowledge and historical perspective:

‘Only old Benjamin professed to remember every detail of his long life and to know that things never had been, nor ever could be much better or much worse–hunger, hardship, and disappointment being, so he said, the unalterable law of life.’

*

And Benjamin is (for want of a better word) humane and (privately) kind:

‘Nevertheless, without openly admitting it, he was devoted to Boxer; the two of them usually spent their Sundays together in the small paddock beyond the orchard, grazing side by side and never speaking.’

And:

‘…Benjamin urged Boxer to work less hard’.

And:

‘…Benjamin warned [Boxer] to take care of his health’.

And:

‘…Benjamin [laid] down at Boxer’s side, and, without speaking, kept the flies off him with his long tail.’ 

*

So: what more could you want in a political commentator?

Benjamin is worldly yet impartial, and he has historical perspective and a stock of knowledge, and he also is (at least privately) kindly.

But Benjamin fails as a commentator.

His impartiality has hardened into quietism, and he leaves everything too late.

Of course, Benjamin does not actively collaborate with those with political power:

‘He did his work in the same slow obstinate way as he had done it in Jones’s time, never shirking and never volunteering for extra work either.’

But he also does nothing when it would have made a difference to stop abuses of power.

For example, the constant re-wordings of the commandments which culminate in the addition of ‘BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS’ is left to others to read who do not have the donkey’s understanding.

And when Boxer is taken to the glue factory, Benjamin’s late realisation is futile.

His private kindness made no difference to this very public and brutal act of power.

Had Benjamin been engaged from the beginning of the rebellion, the pigs may have got away with less and Boxer would have enjoyed a retirement.

(That is, if Benjamin had not – ahem – disappeared.)

*

T. S. Eliot famously turned-down Animal Farm for publication, writing to George Orwell that all the farm really needed were ‘more public-spirited pigs’.

That is, better conduct and more self-restraint by those who achieve and exercise political power – the essence of Toryism.

But left to themselves, those who achieve and exercise political power will tend to abuse that power – and that is why wiser people than Eliot also want checks and balances.

And one check and balance is an independent media.

A media which is worldly, impartial, and has historical perspective and a stock of knowledge, and which also – if not kindly – is certainly not cruel.

But as the example of Benjamin shows, even these wonderful qualities are not enough, if not constantly applied.

What was perhaps needed on the farm was not ‘more public-spirited pigs’ but a more public-spirited donkey.

*

Yet – this is a question which Orwell does not really address – the animals would also need to have cared if the donkey had told them what was happening in time.

For the experience of Brexit and Trump indicates that even if Benjamin had been more vigilant about abuses of power, many of the animals may not have cared.

‘The animals crowded round the van. “Good-bye, Boxer!” they chorused, “good-bye!”‘

So commentary may not be enough: there is limited point to explaining about lies and abuses of power if people do not care that they are being lied to and power is being abused.

And that is the fundamental challenge of politics in the age of the promised windmills of Trump and Brexit.

But providing commentary is a public good in itself, even if it is not heeded.

And so this blog will carry on into the new year as the work of a public-spirited donkey.

Happy new year to all my readers and followers.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.