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Random British Blogging: Speech, the Royals, & NI

[ 40 ] January 18, 2013 |

The House of Lords comes to the rescue of the “proud tradition of free speech” in Britain, as the non-sequitors continue to leap from my keyboard.  And just what did the House of Lords do, one might ask?

They stripped the crime of uttering “insulting” words from Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act.  This only leaves threatening or abusive words remaining in the criminal category.  Such cutting edge legislating has not gone without its critics, of course:

The view expressed by many in the police is that Section 5 including the word insulting is a valuable tool in helping them keep the peace and maintain public order.

“Now there’s always a careful balance to be struck between protecting our proud tradition of free speech and taking action against those who cause widespread offence with their actions.”

To my mind, you don’t have a proud tradition of free speech if uttering insulting words could be a criminal act.

Apparently the Royals still enjoy an informal (?) pre-clearance power over some pending legislation:

The new laws that were required to receive the seal of approval from the Queen or Prince Charles cover issues from higher education and paternity pay to identity cards and child maintenance.

In one instance the Queen completely vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, a private member’s bill that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament.

A constitutional lawyer quoted in the Guardian article referred to this as the Royals’ ”nuclear deterrent”.  I know, constitutionally, that the Queen could refuse royal assent to a parliamentary bill at her pleasure, but this hasn’t been done since 1708, nor has it been so much as considered since George V, at least twice, but not since 1914.

It seems to me as though this could be construed as declining Assent through the back door, without the inevitable backlash if done so publicly and formally.  However, I’m far removed from claiming an understanding of the British Constitution, a situation only made more difficult because there isn’t one.

Finally, loyalists in Belfast are pissed off because the city hall no longer flies the British flag each and every day.  The initial expected expression of loyalist dissatisfaction hasn’t ebbed, six weeks on.  The Economist article gamely attempts to distinguish between political and cultural expression, arguing that this is the latter (hence more dangerous).

Of course, here on what passes for the mainland in the UK, it’s unusual for a local council to fly the Union flag each and every single day (it’s not British tradition, according to the Royal College of Arms).  Sinn Fein and the SDLP wanted to eliminate the flag altogether,and without the intervention of the non-sectarian Alliance Party’s amendment (for flying it only on ‘designated days’) it wouldn’t be flying at all. Unionist and loyalist “thugs” have taken to threatening members of the Alliance Party for voting on this compromise, to the point where the Alliance Party felt the need to issue an FAQ on the issue.

At least it’s not only the tea-party wing of the Republicans who believe compromise to be anathema to a functioning democracy.

Comments (40)

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  1. jalrin says:

    An important caveat to note: The military authorization bill was blocked because the cabinet asked the Queen to do so. This was publicly stated at the time. Like so many weird features of the British system, it exists because it never is applied in a manner that affects anything most people care about.

    • ajay says:

      Yes, that does seem like a fairly important thing to mention…

    • Dave Brockington says:

      Not terribly surprising that the cabinet suggested against it, as it was a private members bill. What is somewhat surprising is that the media coverage this week of the heretofore ‘secret’ consultations between the government and the royals fails to mention the cabinet’s involvement in that case.

      • Anonymous says:

        So the Queen can veto a private member’s bill, but not a bill carried by the majority, because of the fiction that the Queen follows the guidance of her ministers?

      • Pestilence says:

        Makes for a better schlock shock story, so entirely natural for the british press

      • guthrie says:

        The media here are naff, and the few remaining journalists are either too young to remember political goings on in 1999 or do’t have enough time to check. And it sounds dramatic enough, so onto the front page it goes.

  2. William Burns says:

    Oh, good God, not the old “an unwritten constitution isn’t a constitution” drivel again. The term constitution originated at a time before written constitutions, and until relatively recently written constitutions were exceptional.

    • Mrs Tilton says:

      And indeed, William, most of the British constitution is in fact written. It is not, I grant you, written in a form that easily lends itself to being stuffed into the pocket of some dumbass American conservative with a sinecure at Dead Breitbart.

      There is a real problem with the British constitution from a US perspective, or any perspective suspicious of absolute parliamentary supremacy. The problem is not that the British constitution is unwritten (or even that a few parts of it are). The problem is that it is not justifiable. That is, a court cannot quash an act of Parliament for being repugnant to the constitution.

  3. J. Otto Pohl says:

    I have never understood the European aversion to flags except during football games when not only are flags mandatory, but so is nationalist violence. All other times European “progressives” behave as if all their nation-states had already been dissolved into a utopian European Union. If northern Ireland is still legally part of the UK then the British flag should fly on government buildings there. Otherwise give it over to the ROI and they can fly the Irish flag. In Ghana the flag of the republic is everywhere. It is much more widely flown and put on stickers, cars, t-shirts, etc. than the US flag is in the US.

    • Murc says:

      If northern Ireland is still legally part of the UK then the British flag should fly on government buildings there.

      Northern Ireland has kind of a history of sectarian violence and still has a whole lot of people living there who think murdering brits until they give up and leave is a viable strategy.

      In that situation, you make compromises and spend a lot of time wrangling over things that are idiotic because it keeps the body count down. The flag thing is dumb, but people care about it, so it has to be taken seriously.

    • NonyNony says:

      I think someone needs to review a few hundred years of Irish history and then come back again. This isn’t about “European progressives” – it’s actually about a real disagreement that the Irish have about their governance.

      As a bit of a hint – the flag is just a symbol, it isn’t what the argument is really about.

      • I have relatives there who are practically foaming at the mouth over this flag thing. While they aren’t out there throwing the rocks and patrol bombs themselves, they don’t particularly seem to have a problem with it, either.

      • Dave says:

        Except that the people who want the flag flown aren’t “Irish”.

        Personally, I think we could tie this all up nicely – Scotland can f*** off and have the independence its political leadership allegedly want, IF they take their transplanted Scots in Ulster with them. Scotland and Ireland can have co-dominion over the Six Counties, and they can all stop bothering England. Unless there is some expectation that bothering England has become their birthright, since we bothered them for so long….

        • guthrie says:

          No no, Ulster is a British problem, although it started with the English being imperialist bastards. In fact Robert the Bruce’s brother spent a few years over there helping the Irish against the English.
          And you’ll find that lots of the unionists think it’s union with England, not Scotland, so good luck persuading them.

          • Leeds man says:

            And you’ll find that lots of the unionists think it’s union with England, not Scotland

            You have a point. Ugliest fucking flag in the world.

          • Mrs Tilton says:

            The unionists think it’s union in a united kingdom that has three other countries in it, actually, two of those countries being England and Scotland. If you are under the impression that unionists imagine they are, or wish to be, English, let me bring you along you to an IRE-ENG rugby match some time.

          • ajay says:

            No no, Ulster is a British problem, although it started with the English being imperialist bastards.

            Not at all – the original invasion of Ireland was by a combination of Norman, Flemish and Welsh troops, at the invitation of the exiled King of Leinster. Henry landed a few years later, to the delight of the rest of Ireland, which was getting worried about the Normans doing to them what they did to England…

        • Mrs Tilton says:

          Also, Dave, the people who want the flag flown are Irish in every aspect that matters (including the aspect of not being Scottish). That most unionists decline the label “Irish” (for the sake of contrast with “British”) is a relatively recent phenomenon.* (Nor is it universal; if you ask Ian Paisley what he is, Irish is what he will answer.) The people who make up the bulk of the PUL population have been living in Northern Ireland longer than anybody (except the Native Americans) has lived in North America, so the Yanks can all fuck off back to wherever before you start expelling Ulstermen.

          You’ll find there are few Irish people left (and that’s “Irish” in the narrow sense, the sense in which it is too often used, the sense that has driven so many unionists to conclude they must be something else) whose proposed solution to the NI question is “Learn to swim”. (You’ll also find that, although many in the South will still utter the obligatory pieties when called upon to do so, a flotation of shares in the Dundalk-to-Derry Fortified Moat Company Teo would be oversubscribed in minutes.)

          * Times change. Until about 250 years ago, a great many Irish people — people about whose “Irishness” there would be no controversy today — would have thought themselves English rather than Irish. To the extent one can judge by surnames (admittedly, a limited extent), the descendants of those people make up a plurality of the Republic’s population. And just as many northern unionists began a couple of generations ago to abandon the label “Irish”, the nationalist (including post-nationalist) population of the North is beginning to do so as well, though they are not adopting “British” in its place. A minority, but a significant and growing one, prefers the term “Northern Irish” to “Irish”. Labels aren’t especially helpful to begin with, to my way of thinking, but once you start attaching significance to them, things very quickly grow complicated.

          • Dave says:

            I never said anything about expelling people. I was merely pointing out that, for English folk, this is and has long been an inexplicably barbarous conflict perpetuated by groups of arseholes on both sides, none of whom most of us are really interested in sharing a country with. So since, they actually live in a different country we wouldn’t mind if they all fucked off and stopped demanding to stay part of this one.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        I addressed the issue. If you don’t think the UK flag should fly over Northern Ireland there is currently a procedure for the majority of the population to vote to join the ROI and fly the Irish flag over government buildings. They have not yet done so. When I talked to the Irish ambassador to Estonia in 2005 he said that the ROI was okay with the current arrangements of leaving Northern Ireland under British rule until there was such a referendum. Has Dublin changed its policy in this matter in the last eight years? Otherwise I don’t see how the “Irish” as opposed to some Irish in Northern Ireland have a serious problem with the current state of governance in Northern Ireland.

    • Leeds man says:

      I have never understood the European aversion to flags

      Unlike Americans and apparently Ghanaians, most Europeans are aware of which country they live in.

      • Cody says:

        I know what country I live in. The Confederacy, duh!

        • J. Otto Pohl says:

          You are Fante? The Fante Confederacy’s flag is still widely flown in Ghana. It has an elephant on it. It is the flag of the NPP (National Patriotic Party) now in opposition. Ironically the NPP is mostly Asante and most Fante seem to prefer the NDC. But, it is not unusual to see Ghanaian men driving pick up trucks listening sporting the Fante Confederacy flag and blaring country music.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        Except when they play football and paint themselves as flags and beat up everybody painted differently.

        It is not just Americans and Ghanaians that like flags. The Kyrgyz flag is everywhere in Bishkek including a giant flag in front of the National Museum across from Ala-Too that has two armed guards and a daily elaborate changing of the guard ceremony. In fact in every country in the world I have been outside Europe and Canada and even here there are exceptions like Estonia people take pride in their national flag.

    • Pestilence says:

      Europe has been sick with nationalism for a long time, and while it is now convalescing, it is – like many convalescents – averse to reminders of its travails

    • Mrs Tilton says:

      As so often, Otto, Things Are Not That Simple. What the rioters are rioting over is a new arrangement under which the flag will be flown to the same extent it is flown in the rest of the UK. In other words, they are rioting because Ulster is to be made as British as Finchley.

      If you are interested in what is happening in Northern Ireland, you could do wrose than read the Slugger O’Toole website, featuring comment from across the spectrum.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        I would rather find a blog that deals seriously with the problems of Africa. First world problems really do not interest me so much.

        • Mrs Tilton says:

          And yet you have found the time to splatter us with your wisdom on the state of affairs in Ulster. Jolly thoughtful of you, I must say.

          • J. Otto Pohl says:

            Well actually I wasn’t. I was commenting on how the European aversion to flags was silly. But, if flying the UK flag everyday is the biggest issue left in the NI conflict then it appears to be pretty close to being solved. If there had been an African thread on this blog I would have commented there instead.

            • Leeds man says:

              “I was commenting on how the European aversion to flags was silly.”

              Interesting that you seem to think that not flying flags everywhere translates to an aversion. But OK, let’s say aversion. You’ve brought up a possible reason for this yourself. Flag-flying is associated with jingoism, tribalism and war.

  4. Leeds man says:

    Unionist and loyalist “thugs”…

    Why the quotes?

  5. desertrat says:

    As god is my witness, when the headline said ‘NI’ all I thought of were large knights in the woods asking for a shrubbery….

  6. dick gregory says:

    Here on what passes for the mainland in the UK

    Irish people don’t always see it that way.

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