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Nov. 9th, 2010

The popularity of sharia law among Muslims who have never actually experienced it can seem odd to non-Muslims, and indeed to some Muslims who have, but it is usually because their local standards of law and justice can be shown to be so laughably low that anything else has to be an improvement, especially a system that they are promised has been divinely sanctioned. Many villagers in Pakistan and indeed Afghanistan, tired of hopelessly corrupt local law enforcement and suddenly offered swift justice in place of no justice, will leap at the chance.

The reality of sharia, which is that those who choose to implement this ascetic, reductionist and let’s say unhelpful reading of Quranic law tend to err on the side of the base and the brutal, strikes them all too late. Just because you wanted to be able to travel in safety late at night, or to see a criminal face justice instead of the case against them falling apart due to bribery or sheer apathy, doesn’t mean you ever wanted your daughter’s school burnt down or your cousin stoned to death because someone says they saw her talking to a man she wasn’t related to.[1] They didn’t realise the nature of what they had invited over their threshold until it bared its fangs in their hallway.

A similar process can be seen at work among many right-wingers in this country. “A smaller state!” cry the fervent faithful. “Axe the quangos, burn down Whitehall, privatise the lot! Everything must be local!” I’m going to leave aside the question of how many of these people in the past will have used (or at least nodded furiously at) the phrase “postcode lottery” and how much they realise that fragmenting every last aspect of society, from its taxation to its schools to its policing, will lead precisely to the largest postcode lottery ever conceived.[2] What is immediately noticeable is how they yearn for the imposition of this harsh solution, the purifying flame to cleanse the land, until the exact moment when they notice how it will affect them personally. “Do you know,” they say, wide-eyed with shock and bewilderment, “they’ve closed down the post office in my village!” That’s not what they meant when they called for the post office to be privatised; all they knew was that state ownership had to be bad.

So we’re looking forward today to the second reading in the Lords of the Public Bodies Bill, legislation that will hand executive power to the government to delete swathes of quangos at the stroke of a pen. Many noble Lords themselves, as the BBC’s Mark D’Arcy points out, are “quangocrats”:
Some worry that the whole [second reading] debate could be taken up with declarations of interest.
As a result, some of those who would normally count themselves among the fervent faithful are suddenly finding themselves thoughtful about their own prospects. There’s dark amusement to be had watching them try and juggle their ideology and reality at once.

When Cameron has talked about government “transparency” you might have thought he was talking about accountability, but it turns out he just means it in the sense of being really obvious. A noticeable number of those quangos that will disappear are bodies that in some way aim to protect citizens against sharp corporate practice, while on the whole those that remain represent only the interests of business. Even more pointed is the abolition of the Audit Commission; the body that once provided an audit of the performance of local government is to be replaced by the production of figures by each local authority and, no word of a lie, citizens sitting at home and doing their own calculations with those figures on the internet. It’s at this point you begin to suspect that the “big society” is genuinely more than a code term for wiping out state safety nets for the vulnerable[3]; it’s actually a massively subversive and knowing parody of Conservatism. Cameron’s a performance artist and we’re his canvas. I hope you’re as excited about this as I am.

[1] The Taliban’s strict proclamations on clothing, beard length, music and kite-flying added to the repression felt under their reign; in recent years, as they have fought to regain local hearts and minds in the region—a job probably made easier by the fact that they’re not the ones wiping out entire wedding parties at a time—they claim to have softened their stance on some of these, but it’s a safe bet that this won’t include anything that applies to women.  Back

[2] It’s not that nothing should be locally decided, obviously; indeed, local authorities themselves have been clamouring for more decision-making ability for donkeys’ years. However, this is being implemented by the Tories with such year-zero zeal, with so much responsibility being delegated but so much of their funding simultaneously removed, that those local authorities won’t know what has hit them. It will be interesting to see how many prove unable to cope—and what ramifications that will have for their residents.  Back

[3] If your conscience tends to trouble you, I’d recommend you don’t emotionally invest in the line touted by ministers that it’s in any way beneficial for society. The government’s stated desire to move the poor away from wealthy areas because they don’t belong there demonstrates the true nature of the project.  Back


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 9th, 2010 01:13 pm (UTC)
Even more pointed is the abolition of the Audit Commission; the body that once provided an audit of the performance of central government

Do you not mean Local Government? The Audit Commission never had anything to do with central govt, that's the National Audit Office, which isn't going anywhere.
Nov. 9th, 2010 01:19 pm (UTC)
Ha! Yes I did. Duly changed.
(no subject) - gummitch - Nov. 9th, 2010 02:25 pm (UTC) - Expand
Nov. 9th, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
Yeah. That whole "it's awful for people who work hard every day to see people who don't, occupying properties they cannot afford" lemon has shocked me afresh every time I have seen it.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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