Dignity and freedom in the eyes of the law


Today’s US Supreme Court decision to invalidate same-sex marriage bans has been rightly heralded as historic. On a day when the world desperately needed good news (migrants dying in Europe, tourists murdered in Tunisia, worshipers slaughtered in Kuwait and a beheading in France) it was welcome relief. Freedom has an intrinsic value.

However, when arguing against the ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas defines human dignity only in only its “innate” or “inner core” sense (i.e. something all humans are born with and cannot lose). What then happened to dignity as “freedom” (something which can all too easily be lost)?


I have written before why freedom matters – on the day of the Charlie Hebdo attack. Fear crowds the mind, it makes simplistic solutions to complex problems seem appealing. This is why it is important to look beneath stones. Not all the US Supreme Court Judges were of the same mind. Justice Clarence Thomas registered “a fervent dissent” to the same-sex marriage ruling and backed his argument by evoking the concept of “dignity” as well as the Magna Carta and the work of John Locke. He wrote:

“Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved… the government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away”

In other words, according to Justice Thomas, those petitioning for same-sex marriage had not lost their liberty, or their innate dignity, “they have been able to travel freely around the country, making their homes as they pleased”. Now I would agree with the Justice that homophobia in the USA, or some other countries, is not at  the level of persecution suffered by slaves, or even the discrimination that many other minorities face in the USA today. Although there are some countries where direct parallels can be drawn. But that is not the point. The point is that the judge wishes to define human dignity purely in terms of being innate and irreducible to the human condition regardless of circumstance.

But there is no single definition of “dignity” in society or even in law. Some scholars  have traced the legal roots of “dignity” back 2,000 years to Roman law, where it meant much more about “status” than any innate sense of human worth. It is true that at the time when the US Constitution was written, leading thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Paine had started to define dignity more as an essential core within humanity and we owe much to this thinking today. From Emmanuel Kant to Chancellor Merkel, or many of the excellent speeches given by the current Pope, it is a good thing to regard all human beings as being equal in “dignity and in rights”.

But this is not the end of the debate. There is a very honourable tradition, no better represented than Martin Luther King or Gandhi, that has seen dignity as “freedom”. If the USA means anything to world, in its best moments, then it is the values of freedom and liberty. For Justice Thomas to define dignity (or rather not to define dignity at all) purely in its “inner core” sense denies that there are at least three competing definitions in law (“status”, “inner core” and “liberty”) is misleading and is to evoke dignity as a “bedrock” to end all argument, when actually it is the contradiction between definitions of dignity that really matters.

This is what the Supreme Court ruling means. The majority opinion was that same-sex marriage ban was predominately an issue of liberty. This is also a ruling that recognises dignity in these terms. It is true that dignity has a “inner core” sense which must be legitimately argued, but the ruling of the Supreme Court was not one that ignored the true meaning of dignity – rather it balanced the definitions and came to a sound ruling.

Freedom matters – human dignity requires nothing less. The majority opinion of the Supreme Court says it best, in the words of Justice Kennedy:

“It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

The social licence and the Bank of England


Mansion House speech, City of London, 10 June 2015

Inspiring to hear the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, use the term “social licence” so much in his Mansion House speech in London tonight when making the case for greater accountability. Excellent. Lets hope his audience were listening.  Here are some quotes:

On Markets:

“Markets are not ends in themselves, but powerful means for prosperity and security for all.  As such they need to retain the consent of society – a social licence – to be allowed to operate, innovate and grow.  Repeated episodes of misconduct have called that social licence into question.”

… “Real markets are resilient, fair and effective.  They maintain their social licence.”

On Financial Reform:

“This reform agenda has increased the effectiveness of FICC [fixed income, commodities and currencies] markets and reinforced their social licence.  It is frustrating for us all that such major progress risks being overshadowed by misconduct problems.”

On the Governance of the Bank of England:

“The Bank’s arcane governance blurred the Bank’s accountability and, by extension, weakened the social licence of markets.”

Mark Carney’s full speech can be found here. For more on the social licence.


10 reasons why UK MPs should accept their 10% pay rise


Defending transparency and accountability is hardest when it is perceived to be in your self-interest.

It is not popular to defend the £7,000 pay increase for MPs that the independent parliamentary body has recommended, increasing their pay from £67,000 to £74,000 a year before tax (just over US $110,000). But there are, I believe, very important reasons for making such a defence.

First to say that their existing annual salary of £67,000 is a lot of money for most people: it is well above what most UK workers can ever expect to earn: the minimum annual salary being about £13,000 and the average being just over £26,000.

Over the past two days, nearly all leading MPs across all the main parties have lined up in the media to state how much against the proposal they are. Many claim that they will not be accepting the increase, donating it to charity or keeping it in a separate fund. David Cameron, the UK’s Prime Minister, has asked the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) to drop the proposal, although as an independent parliamentary body, this is a request and not an order.

It has, most definitely, become a public relations issue – with no perceived reputational or political pay off for any MP that defends the increase. It is perhaps a reflection on how deep the trust deficit surrounding Westminster has become that MPs should behave in this way. I will argue here that conversely, the legitimacy and trust of parliamentary activity requires better paid politicians. The social licence of MPs and of Parliament, requires some longer-term thinking and political bravery as there are deeper issues at stake – the transparency and accountability of elected bodies in the UK and around the world. And yes, even if this means MPs being accused of standing up for their own financial interests on this one occasion, much better it is done within the antiseptic fresh air of public scrutiny than some of the corruption of the past.

1.  It is true that public sector pay in Britain has largely flat-lined over the past six years whilst the richest in society continue to get richer. This is heavily unfair and speaks to an increasingly unequal society. But the issue of MPs pay has not effectively been dealt with since the expenses scandals of 2009 and, let it be said, before that many MPs had regarded their expense claims to be more or less unofficial salary top ups. So MP pay issues in the UK go back much further in time and were also related to the other income they might receive from other forms of employer, shares or consultancies. The old ways of doing things were opaque, and sometimes corrupt, lets not return to that.

2.  The increase would bring MPs in the UK onto a par with those in Germany (this seems a fair benchmark) but still well below MPs in countries such as Japan, the USA or Italy (some better benchmarks than others perhaps). Other public professions in the UK: head-teachers, senior civil servants and hospital administrators can all earn significantly more. There is never a good time to try and correct this imbalance, now is as good as any other.

3.  Allowing MP salaries to continue to fall behind other professional benchmarks favors rich MPs. A 10% pay increase matters very little if you are independently wealthy, like some leading UK politicians are, but matters a great deal if you started with very little and trying to work 80 hours a week to serve your constituents and tackle inequalities. One shocking indicator are the number of UK MPs that have attended private school – a huge social class indicator in the UK which still surprises many of my overseas friends. Only 7% of the UK population attends private school, but they represent 54% of current Conservative MPs, 41% of Liberal Democrats and 12% of Labour MPs. This is perhaps a better benchmark for representational legitimacy than the pay rise issue.

4.  The issue of trust and legitimacy in the eyes of the public is not just about the amount earned, it has been about the lack of transparency and accountability. The two should not be confused. Now that an objective process is in place, MPs should not pussyfoot around the recommendations of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) for reasons of short-term perception. How does this help trust and legitimacy over the longer term?

5.  IPSA was created with the very mandate to place the pay increase decision, as well as other related issues, outside of political considerations and benchmarked against external indicators. To not implement this recommendation undermines the ability for objective oversight of such procedures within Parliament.

6.  Creating ‘ring-fencing’ schemes for the increase will cause chaos and the kind of lack of transparency that IPSA was created to avoid. If an MP wants to give some or all of the salary to a charity, fine, but it should not be linked to the pay increase issue. They should also make sure that the name of the recipient charity is publicly declared, as such external interests are indeed an issue of public concern, particularly when it is in effect public money which is being re-routed.

7.  We want the best MPs we can across the three countries (England, Scotland and Wales) and one province/region/country (Northern Ireland) of the UK – not just the richest, privately schooled Oxbridge educated middle-class or a Parliament dominated by the zealots. If it is true that Sepp Blatter earned $10million a year, and some UK bankers and CEOs do still not earn much less, shouldn’t UK MPs earn the equivalent of 1% of this, especially when they are meant to rein in the corrupt?

8.  Giving a pay rise to MPs might create a stronger moral argument for ending public sector pay restraint elsewhere, particularly those professions blighted by poor pay such as residential care.

9.  IPSA have clearly stated the pay award can be funded by the savings in MP expense claims and so there is no negative impact on the parliamentary budget.

10.  If the IPSA recommendation is rejected by parliamentarians it will send a very perverse message on the UK’s commitment to transparency and accountability. Lets not forget that other parliaments around the world – some of which pay MPs more even in less developed economies – do not have similar oversight bodies. IPSA was very late in coming in the UK but, unless its work is supported by MPs, it will be undermined at home and is unlikely to be a model for reformers elsewhere around the world.

Yes, this is an instance where political bravery means an extra £7,000 a year before tax and where each MP (how ever uncomfortable it might be) will need to look their low-paid electorate in the eye during constituency surgeries and justify why it is in the longer term interests of the country. Not according to them but according to IPSA. Isn’t that what independent oversight is mean to be about?