The Origin of the Polity

There is one question which fascinates me about the history of political thought.  It has fascinated me for about 20 or so years.


The background to the question is as follows: once upon a time, perhaps up to about 20,000 years ago, humans presumably conducted their politics much like any other mammal.  There would be a group, and someone would become dominant.


Within this group – a troop or a tribe – power would be exercised entirely on a face-to-face basis.  From time to time, a dominant figure  would emerge, and that figure’s dominance would be on the basis of personal qualities or relationships.


Let’s call this figure ‘Silverback’.


If Silverback lost his (or her) life, or face, then their power would be lost, and a new dominant figure would then emerge.  And that new figure’s power would in turn rest upon their personal qualities and relationships.


If this was the case, then there would be no wider concept of “leader” or “king”.  It would just be that Silverback or whomsoever was dominant, and so they got their way.


But at some point – in an event which could be regarded as the political-linguistic equivalent of making a stone axe or controlling fire – there seems to have developed the abstract concept of political power, in the form (it would seem) of kingship.


As such, a figure – let’s call him Arthur – would have power not just because of personal qualities or relationships but also by reason of both he and his subjects sharing a concept of political power.


Arthur would be supported because he was king (or chief or general) as well as – or perhaps despite of – the force of personality in a web of face-to-face relationships.


Against this, the question which has long puzzled me is this: was the development of such an abstraction inevitable?


Or was it a mere ‘contingency’, as some philosophers would say.


Could human civilization have still developed without the notion of kingship (or similar), with a series of Silverbacks instead?


Indeed, could we have a society of any size or complexity (beyond a troop or tribe) without there being any abstract notion of political power?


A society, that is, without any conception of a ‘polity’?


And, if so, how different would such a society be from what we have today?


Any thoughts welcome.




Comments are pre-moderated. No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters. Other comments published at my absolute discretion.

George Orwell and the ridicule of extremists

Today’s mockery on Twitter of the Creeping Sharia hashtag prompted my friend Andrew Haydon to tweet:

“Love how #CreepingSharia amply demonstrates that there is no Defence more English than taking this piss out of extremists. Of any stripe…”


This in turn reminded me of George Orwell’s wise comments on laughing at fascists:

“One rapid but fairly sure guide to the social atmosphere of a country is the parade-step of its army.

“A military parade is really a kind of ritual dance, something like a ballet, expressing a certain philosophy of life.

“The goose-step, for instance, is one of the most horrible sights in the world, far more terrifying than a dive-bomber.

“It is simply an affirmation of naked power; contained in it, quite consciously and intentionally, is the vision of a boot crashing down on a face.

“Its ugliness is part of its essence, for what it is saying is ‘Yes, I am ugly, and you daren’t laugh at me’, like the bully who makes faces at his victim.

“Why is the goose-step not used in England?

“There are, heaven knows, plenty of army officers who would be only too glad to introduce some such thing.

“It is not used because the people in the street would laugh.

“Beyond a certain point, military display is only possible in countries where the common people dare not laugh at the army.”


Being able to openly ridicule and mock those in power – or seeking power – is perhaps a more important right than many realise.




Comments are pre-moderated. No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters. Other comments published at my absolute discretion.

The national security and anti-terrorism party

What is a political party?


So familiar are we with the established, big-P political parties, one may miss the real parties which dominate our political system.


A party, as Burke almost said, is a body of people united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.


Applying this neutral definition, one quickly sees the real parties: there is a privatisation party, pushing for “market-based” reforms in ever-more unlikely situations; there is a defence party, always urging more military spending; there is a European party maneuvering so that more decision- and rule-making is done on a EU level; and so on.


Instead of, say, three main parties and some fringe ones, what we have in effect are dozens of parties which dominate public bodies and which all remain in office, regardless of elections and the politicians passing through.


One of the scariest and most formidable of these parties is the national security and anti-terrorism party, which dominates the Home Office, the police, and the “security services”.


It matters not for the national security and anti-terrorism party if the ministers are Labour or Tory.


It is irrelevant that there is a coalition with Liberal Democratic votes supporting it.


This party will keep on with the ratchet-effect of more illiberal legislation.


Today this illiberal party is reported as having their latest success: the Coalition is now warm to monitoring emails and social media usage.


The Home Office is quoted as saying:

It is vital that police and security services are able to obtain communications data in certain circumstances to investigate serious crime and terrorism and to protect the public.


But they may as well be saying:

It is vital that police and security blah obtain data blah serious crime blah and TERRORISM KLAXON blah and to protect the public.



The depressing thing is the sense of sheer relentlessness in the promotion of such policies; and one knows that the Tories will generally nod-a-long, just as the Labour politicians did before them.


Having the Liberal Democrats in the Coalition seems to be making no difference at all.



Fortunately, for most parties there is an opposite party, even if there is often not any equality of arms.


The human rights and civil liberties party still exists, and will challenge this illiberalism in the courts and elsewhere even if the battle is lost in the legislature and government departments.


But what will be missing is any sense of democracy: no one can stop the national security and anti-terrorism party by voting.  The big-P parties are not providing any efficient way of making political choices by allowing us to use our vote.  This lack of alignment between the form and subtance of political parties is saddening, but it is difficult to see any way it will be changed.


And in the meantime, how long before the national security and anti-terrorism party entices the Coalition into reviving ID Cards?




Comments are pre-moderated.

No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

Other comments published at my absolute discretion.


My Trousers and Airport Security

(Originally posted on 13 February 2011 at my old Jack of Kent site here.)

(11 April 2012 – the post below has now been featured on the Bruce Schneier security blog, and I can confirm this is a faithful account of what happened to me when I flew from Heathrow to a middle eastern country early last year. The security officer in question and his manager were employed by the airline, not the airport.)



Late one recent Saturday evening, I am standing at a departure gate at Heathrow Airport. It is the furthest gate from the main terminal, and I am flying on the last plane out.


By now, it is just the passengers and the airline’s own staff.  The passengers are having the final passport and boarding pass check before getting onboard: a formality after a great deal of security and bag searching.


Everyone is a little tired; the rest of the airport looks dark and closed down for the night.


“Excuse me, sir. We would like to do a search?”


“We would like you to give us your handbag and step this way.”

“OK. It is a manbag, or hand luggage. But not really a handbag.”

“Yes, sir. This way.”


My hand luggage is taken off to be searched again. I am now the last passenger at the gate. The flight is due to leave in about ten minutes.

“Sir, could you go behind the screen.”

There is a screen in the corner of a kiosk, in the opposite corner to where my bag is now being searched and unpacked. The young security official from the airline follows me.


“Sir, can you take your jacket off.”

“OK.” I take off my jacket.

“And your shoes.”

I take off my shoes.

My shoes are looked at very carefully.  I think of the shoe bomber, who also lived near Bromley.  I begin to wonder if they are profiling people from urban north Kent.


“Sir, your trousers.”


“Sir, please take your trousers off.”


A pause.





The security official clearly was not expecting that response.


He begins to look like he doesn’t know what to do, bless him.


“You have no power to require me to do that. You also haven’t also given any good reason. I am sure any genuine security concerns you have can be addressed in other ways. You do not need to invade my privacy in this manner.”


A pause.


“I think you probably need to get your manager, don’t you?”.

I am trying to be helpful.


He nods, hesitantly, and goes to get his manager, a middle-aged chap in a brown baggy suit.


“Hello sir.”

“Hello.” I smile.

“You won’t take your trousers off?”

“No. It will be embarrassing and humiliating. You can’t require me to do so, and you have no good reason to ask.”


A pause.


I smile again and nod encouragingly.


“Oh,” he says.


Another pause.


“Sir, there is actually no need for you to take your trousers off.”

“Thank you. I thought not.”


I put on my jacket and shoes.

“But sir, there is a problem with your handbag.”


I pause.


This is the Edith Evans moment I have waited for all my life.


“My manbag?”


“Yes sir. It will have to travel separately.”


“We have concerns.”


I think of those who have teased me about my manbag, but I guess their doubts about me are not the same concerns as this security manager.


“You think my manbag could be dangerous?”

“It will need to go separately.”

He gives me a plastic bag with what had been the contents of my manbag.

“In the hold?”

“No, too late. It will have to travel business class.”

“My manbag is going business class?”

“Yes, sir. You can be reunited at the destination.”


Later I think I should have offered to swap, but I was too stunned to be so opportunistic.


“This way for the plane.”

I walk with the manager, me with my new carrier bag, him with my empty mangbag. We go down the slope to the aircraft.


“I bet this makes you feel safer?” he says.

“Actually, it doesn’t. Either security required me to take my trousers off, or it does not. Either my bag is too unsafe to travel, or it is not. I think this just shows bad decision-making. Bad decision-making by security does not make me feel safe.”


A pause. I am hoping he is thinking about my sensible, heart-felt words.


We get to the aircraft. The chief steward takes my manbag for its trip by business class. I go into economy class: I am stared at as the one who may have delayed the plane.


I find my seat. The chap next to me asks what happened.

“Oh, just security stuff.”

“No worries. It makes you feel safer, doesn’t it.”



I have deliberately not named the airline.

No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.

Introducing Ida Mabel Limouzin

(Republished in edited form from my old Jack of Kent blog for International Women’s Day.)





Let me introduce you to Ida Mabel Limouzin.

You will like her.


She was born in 1875 and grew up in Burma in the port of Moulmein, where her French family had conducted business since the British annexation in 1826.

The Limouzins were a well-regarded family with wide commercial interests; they even had a street named after them.  One family member remembered that the head of the family “lived like a prince”.

Ms. Limouzin was attractive – slender with striking eyes and thick wavy hair – and highly independent.

According to one author, she was certainly a “more lively, unconventional, widely-read and in every way a more interesting person” than the dullard she ended up marrying.

She insisted on a separate bedroom to the dullard.  When seen together she seemed to others to be faintly dismissive of him.  The evidence suggests she only married him on the rebound.

When she brought her young family to England – the dullard was sent off to work in India for years and so played no real part in his son and daughters’ upbringing – and she mixed with Suffragettes and attended public meetings.

She often took her children with her: she was remembered by her daughter as being a mother “for outings”.

The house was full of fanciful objects, and she had a passion for art and photography.

In essence, Ms. Limouzin was a bohemian at the turn of the twentieth century, but one devoted to her young children.


Her son grew up to be famous.

You can see him as the baby in the photograph above.

Her son was George Orwell.

And when one looks at George Orwell from his mother’s perspective, a great deal seems to make sense.


One is no longer trying to explain why the Eton schoolboy decided not to go to university but went to Burma and then Paris instead.

After all, from his mother’s side Orwell was Franco-Burmese in the first place.

We can also perhaps see where his independence of mind and unreadiness to conform came from.

(Indeed even at Eton he was distinctive.  He was known as “the college atheist” and he read books which surprised his teachers and friends.  Regarding Orwell just as a typical Etonian is in my view misconceived.)

But the British obsession with class and the sexist assumption that the paternal side is more significant tend to dominate Orwell scholarship.


As I type I have in front of me one biography of Orwell which spends six pages lovingly detailing the family and class background of the dullard fatger, including mentioning distant and titled relatives of whom Orwell was probably unaware.

The biography then deals with Ms. Limouzin in a mere couple of sentences.

I rather think it should be the other way round.




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The murder of Daniel Morgan

I have recently become interested in the case of Daniel Morgan, who was killed in March 1987.


Morgan worked as a private investigator.  His business partner was Jonathan Rees, who later became one of the main private investigators used by Fleet Street.  Rees was first arrested in connection with the murder in 1987; and in March 2011 he was acquitted of the murder when a trial collapsed at the Old Bailey.


The original police investigation into the death of Morgan was worse than desultory; it was undoubtedly corrupt.   There were then a number of inquiries and case reviews, none of which ended with a successful prosecution.  Over 25 years the case smacked of police corruption and systemic failure.  In this way, the case is akin to that of Stephen Lawrence.


Recently the case came back into the news because of an incident in 2002-3 when the police officer commanding the investigation and his wife, a presenter of Crimewatch, were subjected to surveillance by the News of the World, with whom Rees had close connections.   The wife was Jacqui Hames, and yesterday she gave sensational evidence to the Leveson Inquiry.  She alleged that the News of the World allowed its resources to be used so as to frustrate the murder investigation, which was still then ongoing.  This alllegation brings the Morgan case within the remit of module 2 of the Leveson Inquiry, on “press and police”.  The Leveson Inquiry may well follow it up.


My first post on the murder of Daniel Morgan was today at the New Statesman, and it deals with that significant allegation of Hames.  Also today, Tom Watson MP in an adjournment debate managed to get the government to order a full forensic review and to keep open the prospect of a proper judicial inquiry.


For 25 years the family of Daniel Morgan have campaigned for justice.  Their website is here and their fine campaign can also be followed on Twitter.


New Website!

I have finally got my own website!


My intention is to use this new website for blogging as well as for creating detailed resource pages on issues I write about (including BCA v Simon Singh, TwitterJokeTrial, NightJack, Johann Hari, phone and computer hacking, libel and privacy law, and so on).  I will also use this website for linking to my writing elsewhere (mainly at the New Statesman and The Lawyer), and for links to my podcasting (especially Without Prejudice) and activism (usually through Westminster Skeptics).


The old blog will remain at for now (or as long as Blogger allows), but the intention is to move most of the useful material from my posts there over here for the dedicated resource pages, which will be added to or amended over time.  These resource pages will also be open to comments.


It is rather strange starting an entirely new website; it has been four-and-a-half years since I started Jack of Kent on Blogger.  Any constructive comments on this website welcome; indeed, to begin with, so will any comments at all!  And bear with me, I may well make some mistakes here as I start something new.


Many thanks to the estimable Alan Henness for his work on setting this website up for me. I disregarded a lot of what he said, so all the faults you will notice are entirely my fault…