It’s a "yes/no" question, Minister

And so, we’re getting another referendum. Possibly. Maybe. In time.

I remember those hazy, lazy far off days when the chances of Britain getting a referendum on anything was dismissed as pinko dreaming. We don’t do referendums, the Establishment sneered, that’s European.

“This is Britain,” went the line. “We have unelected, unaccountable political appointees in the House of Lords and that’s the end of it,”.

These days there is nothing which can’t be resolved without the mention of the word “referendum”. It’s radical, it’s representative, it’s hip and now and acknowledging the power of the people and all the rest. Crucially the referendum as concept is sewing itself within the fabric of our unwritten constitution – thanks to the e-petition scheme and a combination of Facebook and plummeting confidence in the political system holding referendums  is considered the strongest tool of all inside democracy’s garden shed. You can’t go too far into the nightmare world of On-Line Comment Sections without seeing people called WhitePower84 or Orwell Was Right directing you to their e-petition against or for the kneejerk demand du jour, and I think it’s fantastic that we’re walking down this particular road. “Referendum as threat” would make a cracking dissertation.

I recall when the very notion of Britain embracing the referendum was sneered at for being unsuitable. Holding a public plebiscite was an act which others did – the Swiss, for example, with their four languages and political neutrality and chocolate and giving Celine Dion her big break. Critics argued that a general election was the only referendum Britain needed, as we transferred our right to have a say to those MPs who sat at Westminster, that somehow holding a secondary vote was invalidating the result of that election.

Things changed with the Blair government, who gave Scotland and Wales the right to support devolution, and since then the Welsh have given a further thumbs up to awarding extra powers at Cardiff Bay. Voters in Scotland will soon have a say on leaving the Union, perhaps the greatest sign of the politician’s acknowledgement of the power of the referendum. “I act upon what the people say” and all that.

Of course the greatest example of the referendum on these isles was the AV referendum. I still shudder at the memory.

The “no” vote on voting change was a kick in the constitutionals, and no mistake. Voting reform was knocked back a generation. The campaign was not edifying, nor mature, and those who campaigned on either side revelled in behaviour unthinkable in a general election.

“No” supporters used the most shallow and cynical campaign tricks – “This baby needs a life support machine and a cute little puppy and hugs from his mother, not a new voting system YOU MONSTER” – which was nonetheless successful. The power of the repeated meme and all that, and something which must be combated by “In” campaigners next time round. Anything which was good for the defeat of AV will be considered good for the Scottish Independence vote too, and that’s all for the worse in the longer term.

If Cameron does go to the country after 2015 with an EU vote the difficulties faced by the Yes2AV experience will come back with a vengeance. Those in favour of the change couldn’t agree on a theme until a few days before polling day, and even when there was a hint of a united message, some of the adverts used by them accurately described a voting system which was anything but AV. Similar mess-ups both in Scotland and the EU votes would deliver defeats before midnight.

Britain’s future is within the EU, that’s my view now  as it’s been for years. I’m not particularly confident about living in a country which purposely isolated itself from the rest of the trading world at a time when every other major power is doing precisely the opposite. If there is to be a referendum, we “In” supporters must learn from the lessons of the AV disaster. We have to agree on a simple, single message, and use that message alone. We must avoid  falling into the trite, over-emotional garbage of the No campaign, which effectively distorted the pro-message without having to do anything. Crucially there has to be meat to share round years before the vote is even announced, as the AV campaign had nothing in the cupboard beyond an old tin of golden syrup, some rice and an old -fashioned manual tin opener.

The EU vote can be won because Britain needs to remain within the club for the greater, long-term good of both country and region. It would be a folly of ridiculous proportions to pretend that a Britain alone is a Britain strengthened, the kind of isolationist, borderline xenophobic thinking which permeates the “Better Off Out” brigade. But just as with the AV vote, it doesn’t take much to gain traction with peoples emotions. A “yes” to the EU is not a “no” to Britain. It’s not patriotic to support building a wall between these islands and Germany for the sake of feeling good about defeating bendy bananas and all the rest of it.

Saying “no” to AV was a constitutional disaster, putting back real reform of our voting system a generation or more, and slamming shut any real chance of improvements to the Commons, the Lords and so much more. An “out” vote in 2017 at the EU referendum would be much, much worse – economically, socially, politically. If there’s anyone worried about how the campaign might go, look back at the AV experience, take it, hold it close, cherish it……and then throw it into the sun. 

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shoot ’em up

The US Supreme Court has given full First Amendment protections to violent video games (see coverage on CNET, LA Times, and a more specific, chin-stroking look at The Atlantic .

California’s law banned the sale of violent video games to customers under 18. Lawmakers defined “violent” as activity involving “killing, maiming, dismembering, or sexually assaulting an image of a human being.” Each violation could bring a $1,000 fine.

From the British perspective, it always seems the US obsession with creating law and subsequent trips to the Supreme Court makes the jurisdiction of anything as confusing as the results of a modelling balloon show carried out by a man on meow-meow. On the specifics of video games and their sale, the US is markedly different to Britain with its self-regulated industry, one which California (and in a related manner, Florida), had tried to regulate by State law. In Britain, the video game industry has been brought into film/cinema certificate registration, and as such stores are liable for any under-age purchase.

Has the US-approach turned out more responsible than the marzipan layers of regulation over here?

In 2003, the UK government confirmed it had chosen the Europe-wide “PEGI” classification system, over the BBFC’s ‘in house’ judgements, which resulted in the latter giving a “I don’t like it, but I’m going to have to go along with it” reaction you may recognise from the German Finance Minister talking to Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan.

The safety-net of the First Amendment is a comfort blanket for Americans across the political divide – and good heavens, is there not a more appropriate word than ‘divide’. Protecting the right to freedom of expression obviously makes some feel awkward – what one person considers the right to speech is another’s chipping away at decency. It’s something like this which shines a light on what appears to be inherent contradictions within the attitude over here – swearing and violence can be broadcast on television without many eyebrows raised, running parallel to a strict certificate policy for video games.

For the most part, video game players know their own market, and self-regulate far more than the suited legislators realise. Playing Fallout 3 or Red Dead Redemption is far for funny than fierce – however hilarious it is watching the heads of your enemies flying through the air, a very small minority of those playing would consider continuing the action outside.

(Likewise, cannabis smokers self-regulate far more than drug enforcing politicians understand, for whom the idea of quality control amongst drug dealers seems more outrageous than the concept of homes constructed from malt loaf)

Not much has changed since my earlier blog on Mortal Kombat. My view then, and now, is more in line with how the Supreme Court has seen things. There is a moral justification for a level of regulation which ensures children don’t see, for example, R18 pornography; though the ultimate responsibility must always be with guardians and not censors.

One notable, if distressing, milestone along the way in the UK was the murder of Jamie Bulger in 1993. His killers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, were known to have watched violent videos, including Child’s Play 3, which includes a toy possessed with murderous rage ultimately killed by a runaway train. No firm connection was ever drawn which connected their actions to films, never mind games. From the coverage of that story, tabloid outrage about violent films, and by extension computer games, grew into campaign for moral reinvention. Clearly the results have turned from uneven to totally haphazard – for every demand for a strict watershed (“Ban this sick filth!”) there is a general demand of, and acceptance for, realism in films which stretches across language and sexual content to violence. The Bulger case has, in time, directed attention to criminals and our attitude towards rehabilitation. What causes the most extreme of crimes, and whether constraints should be put on the freedom to choose, fades into the background of the argument.

Whether video games are influencing cinema, or the other way round, is open to debate. The US Supreme Court recognised the relationship between the two by referencing from the start how many filmic tropes appear throughout the produce of the gaming industry – from narrative structure to character development and explicit scenes. We are expected, and show pretty darn well on the whole, to understand the difference between reality and fantasy, between the world outside the door and that inside the television sets (do we still use “sets”?). Unless the media is suppressing dozens of attacks on innocent bus-stop commuters by crazed Duke Nukham addicts, I’d wager the majority of the UK population clearly can differentiate reality from fantasy, and act accordingly.

I am cheered by the opening paragraph of the Supreme Court ruling. If the United States continues to show far more libertarian attitudes towards personal freedoms in this regard, how deeply embarrassed should European governments or censors feel in comparison?

Video games qualify for First Amendment protection. Like protected books, plays, and movies, they communicate ideas through familiar literary devices and features distinctive to the medium. And “the basic principles of freedom of speech . . . do not vary” with a new
and different communication medium

London fascist week

Nick Griffin must think all his birthdays have come at once.

From the first dawn of new year 2009, the mainstream media and blogosphere have united in giving the British National Party the one thing they crave; massive and widespread coverage. For around six months the topic was “How we can stop the BNP being elected to Brussels”. When the North West of England, and Yorkshire & Humber elected one BNP member each, the former being Griffin himself, a brief flurry of discussion later has lead to a new target: the BBC, in allowing Griffin to appear on Question Time, is now in the firing range.

Deluded rent-a-quote Peter Hain, MP for Neath and Welsh Secretary – so in other words, Minister For Having Nothing To Do With How the BBC Conducts Itself – has been ranting like a wind-up toy for weeks about nothing else. He called the BNP “illegal”, which must come as some shock to the Electoral Commission whose Register of Political Parties includes them just as they do almost every other group wishing to stand in elections. In Mr Hain’s imaginarium, the BNP probably do not exist. Or else, perhaps, they do; Griffin is only one below the Archbishop of Canterbury in order of precedence, and Question Time is a CGI-laden one-off event broadcast across all frequencies and watched by literally everyone.

The BBC are completely within their rights to ask Griffin to appear on Question Time, just as they are completely within their rights not to ask a card-carrying member of the Monster Raving Loony Party: much to the annoyance of people like Hain, Nick Griffin has gone and achieved the sort of democratic mandate every trick in the book was supposed to deny. “No Platform” has resulted in dozens of councillors, a GLA member, and 2 MEPs. The one thing which could have stopped the tide of BNP success – face-to-face discussion – was dismissed as being something akin to collusion or agreement.

Allowing Griffin to appear in all his pudgy wonky-eyed glory will “prove the lie” on the strength of his party and their policies. Jack Straw represents Blackburn, so should know a thing or two about the realities of racial relations in a multi-ethnic town. Bonnie Greer has her own perspective on the difficulties – and consequences – of racism far beyond our shores. On any subject other than race – and there’s quite a few news stories circulating at the moment – Griffin will struggle. Anyone who has seen UKIP leader Nigel Farage shoehorn Europe into every single answer he’s asked to provide know how tiring it becomes hearing the subject heave-hoed up the hill each and every time.

Griffin will hang himself with his own words. It’s not as though his other interviews and appearances have ever been successful in reinventing his reputation. Those who wish to deny his voice on QT forget just how many blogs and YouTube appearances the man is getting even as I type. Let democracy and the democratic process actually happen, on a respected and popular television programme, and then react.

There are a lot of extremists on the left-wing who forget that the “spectrum of politics” can so easily be displayed not as a straight-line, but as a circle…