Renaming honours

Order of the British Empire Insignia, by Robert Prummel (CC licence)Former footballer Howard Gayle made headlines for a second time this week for declining an MBE, this time suggesting that the name of the honour should be changed to remove the reference to the British Empire.

It is important to remember that the “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” is an order of chivalry, so named because it was instituted during the time of the British Empire by King George V. The name is not supposed to imply that it is an honour awarded by the British Empire, any more than the Order of the Bath implies that its members are the ones who assist the Queen in bathing.

Having said that, it’s hard not to have sympathy with Mr Gayle’s view, and he is not the only one to object to an honour on the grounds of its name. Back in 2004, a committee of MPs looked into the honours system, and recommended changing the name to the “Order of British Exellence”. They reasoned that it needed to retain the same abbreviations, MBE, OBE, etc. as everyone was familiar with these, and that otherwise existing recipients would feel their honour was outdated and worth less than newer ones. One commentator at the time remarked that it sounded more like an award from a trade organisation. Quite apart from the suggested name sounding ridiculous, orders of chivalry can not just have their names changed like that. They could institute a new order, and if desired stop appointing people to the old one, but our history should not be messed around with, and I would have expected members of parliament to be better informed.

Other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand, have stopped appointing to the Order of the British Empire and instituted new, alternative orders. Existing recipients retained their old honours and postnominals such as OBE, and it seems there was no confusion or feeling that older awards were devalued. Rather than mess about with historic orders, why not create a new one? As we now have the longest-serving monarch in history, what better name than the Royal Elizabethan Order, taking the Royal Victorian Order as its precedent? It could have the same ranks as the Order of the British Empire, and postnominals ending either “EO” or “RE”. The former would match the Victorian Order, but MRE, ORE, etc. would look more similar to MBE, OBE, which would perhaps go some way towards placating people such as the MPs on that committee.

The Queen has said that she doesn’t want to see any changes to her grandfather’s Order during her reign. What better way to commemorate the Queen’s reign, whenever in the future it finally comes to an end, than by instituting a new order of chivalry in her name?

TV licensing: i-Playing fair enough

iplayerThe date has finally been set after which users of the BBC iPlayer catch-up TV service will require a TV Licence. From 1 September, viewers will need to have a licence if they are to use iPlayer legally, just as they do to watch live television. I think that is fair enough. The only reason a licence hasn’t been needed up until now is because catch-up services didn’t exist when the legislation was drafted.

Last year, I questioned which services such a law would apply to. An important principle of the TV Licence is that it is required in order to watch any television, even though the money is used specifically to fund the BBC; it is not considered desirable to think of it as a subscription to the BBC. However, in the event, the change in the law has been framed in such a way that it only applies to BBC catch-up services, in other words iPlayer. As I said last year, it is very hard to define what constitutes a catch-up TV service as opposed to an online video sharing site such as Youtube, so it is not entirely surprising that the scope of the law has been limited. Whether it is the first step on a slippery slope to a subscription model remains to be seen.

One question that has cropped up is how the new law will be enforced. Now, I don’t believe laws should be broken just because they are hard to enforce and people can get away with it. The law is the law, and citizens have a responsibility to abide by it. Having said that, I don’t think the BBC’s TV Licensing arm can possibly know whether someone using iPlayer has a TV Licence or not. It seems, for the time being at least, that there will be no log-in required, no need to enter a licence number to watch a programme. That actually puts iPlayer catch-up in the same situation as its live streams. With those, there is a warning that a licence is required, but no further measures to prevent it being watched illegally.

Some people have suggested that it will be easy to trace people using iPlayer without a licence as the IP addresses of all users can be logged. While it is true that they can log IP addresses, this won’t tell them anything about who is using that IP address. Only the viewer’s ISP knows who an IP address corresponds to at a given time, and there is no requirement for them to disclose that to the BBC or anyone else. When copyright holders have wanted to clamp down on people unlawfully downloading films, for example, they have had to obtain court orders to force ISPs to hand over the details of people behind the IP addresses from which they had detected the files being downloaded. Obtaining a court order is likely to be a costly and laborious process, so only the worst offenders have been targeted. Compare that to the matter of unlicensed online TV watching. Unlike dodgy downloads – which no-one should be using – most people using iPlayer will have a TV Licence, and will be doing so perfectly legally. How, therefore, can TV Licensing even know which users to obtain a court order for in the first place? They can’t ask for details of all the millions of iPlayer users. Not only would that be impractical, it would also be totally disproportionate, as the vast majority of people they were obtaining details for would be doing nothing wrong. The bottom line is, there is no way for the BBC to know who is using iPlayer, and whether those people are licensed, unless they require some sort of log-in, and that applies equally to the live streams.

As an aside, I have noticed comments online suggesting the solution to the above is to use “encryption”. I feel there is some confusion here between encryption and authentication. Traditionally, broadcast pay-TV, for example satellite TV, has been encrypted to stop non-subscribers from watching it. After all, anyone with a dish can pick the transmissions up. Internet catch-up TV is different. As a simplification, the video is effectively sent to each user separately as it is requested. The only consequence of it being unencrypted is that it would be possible to snoop on what someone was watching if you were listening in to their internet connection. You would have to watch the same programme as the person you were spying on at exactly the same time, rather defeating the point of catch-up TV! Stopping people from watching without a licence actually requires authentication: either the input of a TV Licence number, or a login to an account associated with a licence. The password/licence number would be encrypted when it was sent, as it should be any log-in credentials used online; the video itself need not be encrypted, as this would just add unnecessary overheads.

It will be interesting to see whether any sort of log-in does eventually appear on iPlayer. In the meantime, I’m fairly certain they have no way of knowing whether viewers are licensed or not, and they will need to rely on the public’s integrity, backed up by threatening letters from an army of TV Licensing officers, if a significant number of additional viewers are to pay for a licence.

Corbyn must go

Jeremy Corbyn, April 2016

Corbyn: Students’ Union politics

When Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader last year, it seemed rather like a sideshow to the “real” politics in the country. It was mildly amusing to see him politely ask questions e-mailed by the public at Prime Minister’s Questions, with David Cameron politely answering. More recently, the weekly sparring session returned more to its usual format, but Corbyn’s performance has been at best mediocre.

Our political system needs an effective opposition in order to function. Someone has to hold the government to account, challenge them, and provide a viable alternative administration. Amusing as Corbyn’s incumbency may have seemed at first, even back then it simply wasn’t healthy for our democracy to have him as Leader of the Opposition. Even the most ardent Tory must surely see that it isn’t in the best interests of the country to have such a poorly functioning Labour party.

Now, however, the country is facing one if its gravest challenges after the referendum vote to leave the European Union. The Conservative government is now likely to be taken over by right wingers who will further damage the country by taking us as far from Europe as possible. We need an opposition to challenge that, and to offer an alternative vision at any future election.

Jeremy Corbyn is not the right person to lead such an opposition. Not only is he a weak leader out of his depth; it’s no secret that his heart has never been in remaining in the EU either. Like all traditional left wingers, Corbyn would rather we left the EU, hence his lacklustre performance during the referendum campaign, which certainly had an impact on the final result.

Yesterday, Corbyn’s right hand man, John McDonnell, said that we must accept the result of the referendum, and appeared to imply that freedom of movement should end as a result of the vote. He later backtracked slightly, stressing this wasn’t Labour party policy, but he had already shown his true colours. On Europe, Corbyn and McDonnell could be singing from the same hymn sheet as the most right-wing anti-EU Tories.

Corbyn and his team have never really been interested in leading a serious, national political party, or at least have never realised that is what they are supposed to be doing. Instead, they pursue their own minority, left-wing policies. Corbyn might be suited to the post of a Students’ Union president, but not for Prime Minister of the country.

As someone who has never joined any political party or been a firm voter or supporter one way or the other, I’m sure many people across the country will agree with me when I say Jeremy Corbyn has to go. We need an effective opposition for the sake of our country at this difficult time.

Why give some people more democracy than others?

Oxford with EU flagThe UK’s vote narrowly to leave the EU was not uniform across the country. For example, in London, nearly 60% of people voted to remain in the EU. In Scotland, 62% voted to remain. And in Oxfordshire, nearly 57% of people wanted to stay.

However, in the post-referendum fall-out, it seems only one of these areas may be given a chance to remain part of the EU. It is likely that the Scottish government will now seek to hold yet another referendum on Scottish independence, sold as a way for Scotland to remain in the EU. The question is, why should people in Scotland be given this choice, while those of us who live in other pro-EU parts of the country are denied the same opportunity?

How can anyone who claims to support democracy, and who believes in not being isolationist, think that the answer is to go it alone, to abandon the rest of the people in the UK who share the same view? It’s “I’m all right, Jack” mentality. Surely democracy is universal? Everyone should be given the same chances to vote on the same issues.

The referendum question was whether the UK should remain a member of the EU. There is no mention of Scotland or any other part of the UK. Even if Scotland were to become independent and to be allowed to join the EU (which is far from certain), the 62% of Scottish voters still would not be getting what they voted for. They voted to the UK to remain in the EU. As over two thirds of Scottish exports are to the rest of the UK, but only about 15% to the EU, leaving the UK in favour of the EU would appear to be a rash decision. It is actually in Scotland’s best interest for the whole of the UK to remain in the EU, or at least the single market. It’s therefore slightly heartening to see this morning that Nicola Sturgeon has suggested the Scottish Parliament could block the UK’s exit from the EU. The people of London and Oxfordshire would be grateful for that.

The irony is that Scottish nationalists were always traditionally in favour of leaving the EU. Today, at least a third of those who support independence actually would like to leave the EU. Yet it is hard to imagine them voting against independence in a future referendum on the grounds that they don’t want to be in the EU. Calls for a second Scottish referendum are therefore pure opportunism.

Please, let’s have the best possible outcome for the sake of all of us across the UK who do not agree with isolationism and selfishness, whether that’s by blocking exit from the EU, or by negotiating to retain as many of the benefits of Europe as possible. Otherwise, the people of Oxfordshire want their independence referendum, too.

Selfish parents’ term-time holidays

This week, the High Court ruled that a father didn’t have to pay a fine for taking his daughter out of school for a holiday. He won due to a technicality. The law as it stands says children must attend school “regularly”. The man argued that taking his daughter out of school for a week’s holiday, when she had otherwise attended school with few absences, did not constitute regular non-attendance. It’s hard to argue with that. Hopefully, the government will now change the law to put their guidance – that no holidays should be taken during term-time – on sounder legal footing.

Whether it’s legal or not, it’s hugely selfish and irresponsible for parents to take their children out of school just to go on holiday. Parents complain that it can cost “four times as much” to go on holiday out of term-time. If they can’t afford a particular holiday at that price, why not go for a holiday that costs a quarter as much? People seem to be under the impression that a holiday has to involve jetting off to a foreign country. When I was at school, still not that long ago, holidays were spent in a caravan at various places in the UK. And thinking back, we were the lucky ones. I suspect many of my peers didn’t go away at all, or if they did, few went abroad. When did an expensive foreign holiday become a necessity?

Proponents of term-time holidays try to claim that their holidays are educational, a worthy experience for the child, which will do them more good than the week of school they missed. The father in this week’s case took his child to Disney World. It doesn’t sound that educational to me, and I find it hard to believe the educational value was the reason for choosing that particular destination. Certainly, a small number of parents might wish to take their children on an educational trip – a visit to the First World War battlefields in northern France, for example – but the vast majority of holidays are not educational trips at all, and this is just an argument that campaigners have retro-fitted to their cause.

What sort of message does it send out to children if they are taught that it is OK to take time off school whenever it suits them? Apart from giving the impression that schoolwork isn’t important, they are likely to grow up thinking it is OK to pull a “sickie” when they don’t feel like going to work.

Finally, it is the height of naivety to think that if everyone with children could go on holiday whenever they wanted, prices would drop to the level that they are during term-time. Travel companies make their money from the school holidays, and lower the prices off-season. The prices would be equalised largely by increasing them all year round.

Thankfully, the majority of parents are still responsible, and would not take their children out of school even if it were not technically illegal. It doesn’t seem fair to allow the selfish minority to profit and enjoy cheap holidays, while responsible parents have to take more modest breaks.

The campaign to allow term-time holidays is about about one thing: parents who want to go on an exotic holiday, for their own benefit, for the lowest price possible. It is about people who fail to realise that their life changed when they chose to have children, and that they can no longer live in the same way as before. It has nothing to do with it being the only way for the family to be together, or a special, educational travel experience for their child. It is another example of how people fail to live within their means. Five days off school might not seem a lot (although the 90% target for attendance to be “regular” seems rather low – does missing 10% of lessons sounds OK?) It sends out completely the wrong message to kids that it is OK to not take education seriously, and to skive. Parents who put their holiday before a child’s education are selfish, and the sooner the law is tightened up to send an unambiguous message to them, the better.

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