Thursday, July 31, 2008

Truly terrible - awful!

Is this the most corrupt man in modern politics?! Well, no. It really is a little nothing of a story involving an online poll being manipulated to create a favourable impression for the Tories (presumably among the staggeringly vast readership of the Western Morning News). But fair's fair - it was a rather dumb thing to do. But only because of the *serious* interpretation that could be placed on it. I remember rushing off to vote on an Australian online poll about the last rugby world cup (I think to vote for Jonny as the greatest ever player) - I don't remember thinking I was involved in a plot to defraud the public.
However, if it is thought that manipulating an online poll in a local paper is a deeply heinous offence, then to send out such an email was pretty damned silly. But I do take issue with something that Tim says:
Note also under comments that only Justin (here, over at Bob's) provides an example of someone other than the Tories doing anything like this. I've noticed many Tory bloggers and comment contributors making similar noises and playing this same game; they claim that the opposition is up to no good or guilty of equal/greater sins than the one they've just been caught at, but they never seem to come up with any evidence. Here, once more, I'll happily show them how it's done:
Right - well, apart from observing that Justin's piece at Chickyog is a long expose of a thousand and one manipulations of this type, this whole poll story rang a bell with me. It reminded me of a party desperate that their leader had favourable coverage whenever possible. It reminded me, in fact, of this.
The BBC closed the first round of polling for its annual Today Programme Personality of the Year award yesterday after discovering an "organised attempt" by staff at the Labour Party to distort voting in favour of Tony Blair.
Staff producing the short-list for the Radio 4 competition said they received an anonymous memo circulated to every member of staff in the party urging them to vote for Mr Blair. The note was sent by the Audience Participation Unit, a new unit encouraging members to write to newspapers and to attend political television shows, pushing the party line.
The examples that Tim gives of malefic Tories are the hapless Grant Shapps posing as a Lib Dem on a website, Iain Dale for, um, something to with ablative absolutes or something and a Tory in Guildford who voted 'no' twice on an online poll. Well, on that epic scale of irrelevance, I think that an attempt to mislead the *entire nation* on the *nation's most influential breakfast news programme* might rank a little more highly? I'm still of the opinion that the entire thing is amusing but utterly, utterly trivial.

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Something in the air...

While we all know that it's a myth that nothing happens in August, there has been a tendency for things to get blown up out of all proportion during a relatively slack time for the newspapers. Given that, and the generally depressive lethargy that seems to have overtaken the Labour Party since the Spring, I was inclined rather to write off the Miliband kerfuffle as as five-minute wonder and no more. And that may still prove to be the case. However, his non-committal interview on Five Live, coupled with his article in the Guardian add up to something like a plan. When you take this into account, it begins to look like something's up.
David Miliband quits foreign trip to spark new rumours of challenge to Brown
The Foreign Secretary suddenly announced this morning that he was calling off the trip to India, scheduled for the start of September. It had been designed to promote Britain's trade and investment interests in the country, and was considered important to encourage investment in one of the world's fastest-growing economies.
The cancellation, for which no reason was given, was unexpected as invitations to meet him had already been sent out to Indian political and business leaders.
In a move sparking further leadership speculation, it emerged that Mr Miliband had earlier this week assembled several close aides in his office and told them how grateful he had been for all of their efforts.
This has the smell of a plan falling into place...

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Oh, and on that article...

While we're talking about that Miliband article, there were one or two points that really stuck in my gullet:
The economic challenge is new. People want protection from a downturn made in Wall Street. The country needs to prepare for an upturn when new service industries — insurance, education, care, creative industries — are growing at home but also among the new Chinese and Indian middle classes.
This is tripe on two levels. The first is that the downturn is not 'made in Wall Street' but largely a result of British and European economic policy. Inflation is made much more damaging by our weak exchange rate; food prices have been inflated largely as a result of the disastrous dash to bio-fuels. And the new service industries he cites as about to grow in China and India - education and care especially - have little relevance to the domestic educational and care sectors. Unless he really believes that there is going to be a mass exodus of history teachers to the Chinese education sector.
There is not much to suggest that Miliband's the man to turn Labour around. But then, he is at present the stand-out favourite for next long-term leader (ignoring any caretaker scenarios). If Labour do go down to heavy defeat at the next election, will the party really decide that a policy wonk is their best bet to claw their way back into politics? Because there is recent precedent of a party that did that - when the Tories chose William Hague. Had they chosen Ken Clarke instead, it is arguable that the Tories would not have descended quite so deeply into the 'weirdness' category. Labour may well believe that a chatty, friendly, safe sort of leader would be better than an intense policy wonk - maybe Alan Johnson. So perhaps, if Miliband wants the leadership, he should go now while he has a good chance, rather than wait for a potentially better chance that may never arrive. There's a Tory precedent for that scenario too - Michael Portillo.

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For all the excited comment that has been attracted by David Miliband's article in the Guardian, there's one point that has rather been missed. This is a piece about the (alleged) inherent weakness of Cameron's Conservatives - accusing them of defining themselves for what they are against, because they have no idea of what they are for. That's a pretty good narrative to try to impose on the Tories, not least because conservative ideology (such as it is) is never conducive to the simplistic 'pledge card' populism that has always been the hallmark of New Labour. When Miliband contrasts the Tories' lack of over-riding principle, he contrasts them with Labour's embracing of 'the many; not the few' - a 'principle' of such staggering vacuity that it boggles the mind.
Nevertheless, this is an article about the relative merits of Labour and Conservative as parties of Government; it makes several interesting arguments; and it could be used to form a cogent line of attack. And the entire reaction to it has been to view it solely in the light of Gordon Brown's leadership difficulties. This is the problem for Brown - his position is so weak that everything that happens will be seen as a manoeuvre for the succession. People are no longer listening.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What's the problem?

So, rumours fly around (and are swiftly denied) that Miliband and Harman are actively plotting against Gordon Brown's leadership, that up to 10 ministers are ready to resign (in September) if Brown doesn't make up his mind to go: the political atmosphere suddenly looks to be electric. As I said earlier, I still have my doubts that these plots will come to anything, and still see a fatally damaged Brown administration limping towards annihilation in 2010 as the most likely outcome of all this febrility - but that may be simply wishful thinking.
But, when historians do look back on the end of the New Labour project in 2008-2010, what will be their explanation? Why were Labour so disunited? In previous administrations the wheels have fallen off as a result of ideological splits within the governing party. Think of John Major and Maastricht - or Labour and militant. What's the split in the Labour Party? Maybe it's because Labour has so little governing ideology right now, and is based so much on personality, that differences in personality are causing the trouble.

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More on murder

Murder is, at heart, a very simple crime. If you kill someone, having had the intention to kill them, or at least to injure them, then you have committed the crime of murder. There is only one complete defence to murder - that the killing was an act of self-defence. And that is a fair state of affairs.
However, the philosophy of murder is far more complicated. Although that definition looks clearcut and straightforward, it is easy to lay out circumstances that provide a stratum of culpability. I'll start off with an historic case, that of R v Dudley and Stephens. It's about as fun and interesting as law school precedents get, involving as it does shipwreck, murder and cannibalism. Briefly, the yacht Mignonette was struck by a wave and sank in the Atlantic Ocean, her three crew, Tom Dudley, Edwin Stephens, Edmund Brooks and Richard Parker, the cabin boy escaping onto the lifeboat, without any fresh water.
After two and a half weeks with hardly any food and less water, Parker sank into a coma, and Dudley and Stephens decided that, in order for them to live, they would have to eat Parker. Which, basically, they did. 24 days after they were wrecked, a sail was sighted and they were rescued. Had they not killed Parker, there is no doubt that they would have died. On return to London, they were tried for the murder of Richard Parker. They were convicted of murder; rightly, because the defence they tried - that the murder of Parker was necessity - is no defence to murder.
Dudley and Stephens are perfect examples that though the crime of murder is definable and straightforward, the culpability of the act can vary. However, such is the moral force of murder that the judiciary have extremely limited room to manoeuvre with regard to sentencing - there is now a statutory life sentence, and there was then a statutory death penalty for murder. It is for this reason that the growth in partial-defence manslaughter cases has been so rapid.
The two partial defences of provocation and diminished responsibility are pretty well summed-up by Julie Bindel here as "men lose their tempers; women lose their marbles", for that is the way in which they are predominantly used. Men see red and lash out, while women slowly build up years of resentment and then slip their husband strychnine in the soup, or stab him while he sleeps. However, the idea that women must have gone temporarily insane to commit the murder has grated with feminists for a long time - they aren't mad at all, they have just been provoked beyond endurance.
The law is being changed, in effect, to make it harder for men to claim provocation, and easier for women to claim 'partial self-defence'. It is being made much less 'acceptable' to kill in anger, and more acceptable to 'kill in fear'. Bindel justifies it thus:
These reforms, although a long time coming, are along the right lines. It is wrong to kill out of jealously, or because someone insults you. This is not serious provocation, nor should it be an excuse for murder. Whereas battered women are often trapped in their situation, with nowhere to run, the victims of "nagging" and infidelity can simply leave the relationship, without the fear of being tracked down and killed.
The principle behind both defences at present is that the murder was not done deliberately - the murderer was temporarily 'not in his right mind'. The principle is that a deliberate, pre-meditated murder, done with full knowledge of one's actions is not excusable. This is surely right. For what it is worth, the defence of provocation has been grossly abused in the past, as has the defence of diminished responsibility. There is little doubt that any new defence of partial self-defence will also be abused.
The reason they are so abused is summed up (accidentally) again by Bindel:
Why should women, such as the late Emma Humphreys, the victim of horrendous abuse by the man she killed, be labelled a murderer? Emma once told me that the stigma was almost as bad as the life sentence that came with it.
Well, she should be labelled a murderer because she deliberately killed somebody. The law, which is a reflection in this instance of the values of our society over hundreds of years, has laid down that the deliberate killing of a person is only justifiable in one circumstance - where that individual was at the moment he was killed posing an immediate threat to the life of the killer. Any other circumstances are murder. It is that simple.
Hence the defences seek to prove that the killing was not properly deliberate as the killer was temporarily not in right mind.
Partial defences seek to blur the moral clarity of the law of murder. Each defence is a legalistic fiction. The serial killer claiming insanity is bad as well as mad; the drunkard claiming provocation may have been provoked, but he deliberately chose to fight; the battered wife claiming diminished responsibility may have been abused, but she wasn't crazy when she picked up the carving knife. All are (in my scenario) in reality guilty of murder. The partial defences tamper with the offence, when they are better used to determine the punishment.
A judge should decide the sentence after the jury decide the facts. A lifetime spent cowering from a misogynistic bully should be a mitigating factor in your killing of him. Each case of murder will have different circumstances - sentences should be tailored to fit. In Dudley and Stephens, the two were sentenced to six months imprisonment. They were murderers, but the facts of the case were such that the standard penalty was simply not appropriate.

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Reaping what you sow

In those papers still sympathetic to Gordon Brown, a common theme recently has been the appalling disloyalty being shown to him by his MPs - all of whom seem to be briefing against the PM, anonymously of course. Take this leading article in the Independent this morning:
The PM and the curse of his disloyal courtiers
Labour MPs fanning the flames of regicide should be ashamed
Well, really this is a case of what goes around, comes around. Gordon Brown and a coterie of supporters spent the bulk of the last ten years briefing against Tony Blair, blocking reforms, agitating for Blair to hand over power and other acts of flagrant disloyalty. The example given was that there was no need to be loyal to the leader if that loyalty conflicted with your own personal ambition. It's hardly a surprise therefore that Brown cannot rely upon the loyalty of his party - he has done more than anyone else to destroy the value of loyalty in the Labour Party.
By the same yardstick, it was impossible for Iain Duncan Smith to call for party unity and discipline when he had first made his name as one of the more intractable rebels over Maastricht. He simply did not have the authority to call for discipline given his own background of disloyalty.


Should he stay...

Standard political wisdom seems to be veering towards the belief that Gordon Brown is not long for this world, and that an attempt to oust him will be made at some point, with opinion divided as to whether Miliband or Straw (or an A.N.Other of varying plausibility) will be the beneficiary of such a move. Steve Richards poses the two essential questions that Labour MPs must ask themselves before they try to push the button on the Brown premiership:

If I were a Labour MP, I would note the polls, all of which suggest the Tory lead is soft and that almost as many voters identify with Labour as they do with the Conservatives. There has been no fundamental sea change and, as the last year has shown, fortunes can shift dramatically. I would then pose a question: In these wildly oscillating times would a new leadership team of David Miliband and Alan Johnson have a honeymoon, with a chance of propelling Labour into a poll lead? Next, I would note that in spite of the onslaught against him Mr Brown is best placed by far with his experience to address the pivotal economic questions. I would then ask a second question: Will voters credit Mr Brown with anything as long as he remains Prime Minister? Mr Brown's fate hangs on the answer to these two questions.

The answer to the second question is surely no. Brown has lost the benefit of the doubt, and is now getting the blame for pretty much everything, whether he deserves it or not. This has not been helped, incidentally, by his habit of disowning the blame for things he is very much responisible for. It is the first question that is more difficult to answer. Is Straw, or Miliband (or Harman, Purnell, Burnham, Uncle Tom Milburn and all) really likely to prove a better leader than Brown? Not better in the sense of less uncommunicative, gloomy or weird, but better in the sense of reversing the polling situation - which, with regular Tory leads of 20 points and more is less amenable to a positive interpretation than Richards suggests. Because if there is a leadership struggle, and a new leader is chosen, the argument for a quick following election becomes almost undeniable.

If the current polling were to be reflected in a General Election, the Labour Party would be drastically reduced - to 172 seats by today's Electoral Calculus - and that's a lot of MPs losing their jobs. It may in fact be better for the Labour Party to go early, in a managed decline that might avoid a total wipeout, but try to persuade some 200 Labour MPs that it is better for the good of the Party that they lay down their seats and see how far you get. In the knowledge that an election now would be disastrous Labour MPs would probably prefer to sit tight a la Micawber and hope that something turns up.
So, I'm with Boris on this - despite the fact that Labour are utterly and definitely doomed to heavy defeat with Gordon Brown as leader, they will stick with it to the bitter end, rather than risk a premature immolation under a new leader. A mixture of short-termist self-interest and apathy is likely to keep Gordon secure in his post until he is finally put out of his misery by the electorate.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Unfortunate positioning

Sorry about this post - if you have a sensitive disposition, it's probably best to look away now.
There are two political comment pieces in the Independent today which, taken together, conjur up the most appalling image.
First make the connection...


Getting away with murder...

Cath Elliot has a piece in today's Guardian, where she argues that the forthcoming changes to the murder laws are a victory for women, in that the old defences of provocation and diminished responsibility are to be reviewed. Essentially the new reforms (although these are still in consultation) will tighten the law of provocation to make it harder for husbands to claim provocation for adultery, nagging and so forth. Quite right too. The law of homicide is a ridiculous mess.
However, fiddling about with the defences is the wrong approach. With the exception of self-defence (which is a full defence), the main homicide defences of diminished responsibility and provocation are fudges. One calls for a 'sudden and uncontrollable impulse' and the other for 'temporary mental disorder'. Neither of these are accurate depictions of what happens - they are convenient legal fictions.
The correct response would be to remove the mandatory life sentence that a conviction of murder attracts, and use the defences of provocation, diminished responsibility as mitigating factors in sentencing, rather than factors in determining charge. It's not really a gender matter as such - more a legal and moral one.


Quentin Davies-watch

Still feeling like the right decision? No scintillas of doubt over which leader possesses moral fibre? Not beginning to feel like a complete and total tit yet?


The strange death of Labour England

Ten years after winning an enormous Parliamentary majority over a Tory party that was both tired and ideologically split, Britain's ruling party was demoralised, increasingly impoverished and ruinously split on matters of foreign policy. The party suffered a split between its two factions, and never again formed a Government.

I love the smell of historical analogies in the morning. And to be fair, the circumstances that led to the death of the Liberal Party have not been repeated - thank God, seeing that the principle factor was the First World War. Nevertheless, it is instructive in that parties of the centre-left have died in the past, and there is no reason why they should not do so again. Last night's by-election defeat, in Labour's 25th strongest seat no less, could be seen not as a turning point but as confirmation that the turning point has already been reached. Wherever Labour has been forced to face the decision of the electorate - the local elections, the Mayoral elections, Crewe, Henley and Glasgow East - the results have been disastrous. Not merely bad but terrible. The worst ever results in the local elections, the first loss of the mayoralty, losing Crewe on an 18% swing, coming fifth in Henley and losing their deposit and now losing Glasgow East on a 22% swing. These are shattering numbers - the latest opinion poll deficits predict a seat share of Con: 410 Lab: 167 LD: 29. Mind blowing stuff.

And there's no reason why these numbers are going to improve either. The economic situation is going to get worse before it gets better - and even if it does improve Labour should remember the Tories' 'voteless recovery' in the late 1990s. Brown's real problems are innate and not a result of exterior forces. He cannot communicate, he has no sense of where he wants the country to go and he cannot run an effective cabinet. Brown is not going to be able to pull this one back. But on the other hand, there is no-one waiting in the wings who is likely to be any better. And even if they did go for broke, recognising that this time things really can only get better, any new leader will be faced with precisely the same situation - and with even less democratic legitimacy.

David Cameron recently said that the Tories have spent the last two years 'earning the right to be heard'. The problem for Labour is that they have effectively lost it. They have reached the stage when people turn the radio off when they here a Labour voice. The Labour Party are going to go down to a very heavy defeat in the next election. They will do this regardless of whether they go to the country now or hang on until June 2010. They will do this regardless who leads them. They will do this regardless of the economic situation - though the scale of the defeat will be affected. The really interesting question is what they will do next.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Is that really all that frequent?

Now, FAQs are generally not enormously helpful. So I guess it's a good thing that the Chinese embassy has tried to cover all the bases. But really, how often do they get this query?
I wish to organize a small acrobatic troupe to perform in China, what type of visa can I apply for?
Is there a lot of that going on just now?


Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Progress in Zimbabwe?

This is a problem for Zimbabwe and for Britain. When I first heard that Tsvangirai had entered into talks with Mugabe (even if these were merely the sort of 'talks about talks' that Ian Smith conducted with Britain on HMS Tiger and Fearless) I thought, with Travelgal, that a stitch-up was in the process of happening and that Tsvangirai would follow Nkomo into a neutered accomodation with ZANU-PF that left Mugabe and, more importantly, Mnangagwa, Mujuru and Chiweshe with their hands on all the levers of power. Under the Zimbabwean constitution (altered by Mugabe in the 1980s) there is an executive Presidency that controls nearly all the functions of the state.

The position of deputy President is a meaningless one - the current incumbents are 85 year old Joseph Msika and the delightful Joice Mujuru, wife of Solomon Mujuru the former head of the army. Previou incumbents included Joshua Nkomo - after he had renounced all ambitions for ZAPU. There is no Prime Minister in the Zimbabwean system - the President fulfills both roles.
So, unless there is a significant constitutional change, there is only one meaningful office in the Zimbabwean government - President. All other jobs are irrelevant. On that basis, talks between MDC and ZANU-PF are a waste of time - unless Tsvangirai blinks.
If he does, and accepts the role of Vice President - presumably allowing the senescent Msika to shuffle into the twilight - then what there will be is an accomodation in form but not in substance. This would bring the scenario depicted by David Blair into being - how far should Britain recognise the new regime?

There is, however, an alternative - that the constitution is redrawn, allowing for an executive Prime Minister and a constitutional head of state. This is pretty much what the state of affairs was when Zimbabwe became independent - with the late lamented Canaan Banana as President. The problem with this version is that it envisages Mugabe relinquishing power in return for a titular headship of state. It might be the best way out of this mess from an outside perspective, but I doubt that is how the old tyrant would see it.
There seem to be three possibilities here: either there is no real progress with the talks and Zimbabwe continues on its current path; or Tsvangirai accepts a meaningless settlement and the opposition in Zimbabwe is neutralised; or there is real change in Zimbabwe and Mugabe negins the process of reconciliation as he is eased out. The third is obviously the most desirable - it's also surely the least likely.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The thing with UKIP...

Now, as I'm sure you know the blogfather himself has recently put himself up for selection as a London MEP for UKIP. I'm a big fan of Tim's, and his blog was one that, more than any other, persuaded me to take the stuff up a couple of years ago. I'm also sympathetic to the whole Euro-nihilism shtick. But there's the thing with UKIP, which I seem to remember saying a while back:
The less good reason, and one I'm not proud of, is that most of the UKIP people I've met have been rather odd. I'm excluding from this the obviously delightful DK and Trixy of course, but most of them have been, well, peculiar.
Well, since then the DK has moved on but I think the point still stands. If you want a little more evidence of this, have a look at the former Tory MPs who have left the party and joined UKIP:
Seven joined UKIP: Roger Knapman; Jonathan Aitken; Neil Hamilton; Piers Merchant, Theresa Gorman, Sir Richard Body, and Bob Spink.
I mean, honestly! Does anyone out there really think that the Tories didn't get the better bargain when that lot quit?

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Does Glasgow East matter?

So, the bye-election's on Thursday. The only specific poll, though showing a 17% Labour lead, wasn't exactly a good guide to opinion on the ground. The on dit has swung from an SNP victory to a narrow Labour one. Does any of this really matter?
The spotlight that has been shone on Glasgow East has been salutary in exposing a modern-day rotten borough, drawing plenty of headlines about life-expectancy, welfare dependency and substance abuse. It may even have been helpful to Labour's new welfare to work policy. But I'm not sure that Glasgow East will be an epoch-making bye-election. Firstly, although I wouldn't be astonished by a Labour defeat there (Labour really are plumbing the electoral depths at the moment) a victory for them is still the most likely outcome. Even with a drastically diminished majority, Labour will grab hold of victory with both hands, and try to use it to draw a line under their disastrous year and start again.
But lets imagine that the SNP do manage to pull off an unlikely victory - what then? Labour's position is so dramatically awful at the moment, that their MPs seem to have succumbed to cataleptic shock. They are frozen in place staring at their impending doom, and none can stir themselves to take any action that might mitigate. Even if defeat in Scotland is added to defeat in London, Crewe and much of England there will most likely be no serious move to dethrone Gordon Brown.
For one thing there are no realistic replacements. Miliband is the obvious choice, but he is hardly blessed with charisma and has already run away from the leadership once. Who else? Jack Straw? Caretaker leaders are bad enough in opposition. Purnell? Balls? Hoon? There's such a dearth of talent on the Labour benches that Gordon Brown, for all his electoral toxicity, still looks the most plausible leader.
So, for what they are worth, here are my predictions. Labour will win Glasgow East, with such a shrivelled majority that extrapolations to the rest of Scotland make disastrous viewing. The steady chuntering of unhappy Labour MPs will get louder and louder over the summer, building to a crescendo at the conference - where no-one will actually do anything. Brown will remain as leader for the time being - which is pretty much exactly what David Cameron wants.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wishful thinking?

There's a squalid little article in the Guardian today by Robert Fox, which takes as its starting point the following assertion:
Military intelligence said allies would crush the Taliban thanks to our superior firepower. So how are the Afghan rebels routing US forces?
Routing? That's a pretty serious term to use, meaning as it does utter and humiliating defeat. So, how does Fox back it up?
This week we have the news that a well-coordinated Taliban attack by nearly succeeded in wresting the US forces' outpost at Wanat in Nuristan province from its defenders. The Taliban attacked in strength with rockets, mortars and machine guns from several directions. They breached the perimeter of the outpost and it was some hours, apparently, before they were driven off leaving nine American soldiers and dozens of their own killed and wounded...they have abandoned their outpost and the Taliban have now occupied Wanat village.
Well, first things first. Nearly succeeded is the same thing as didn't succeed. To say that an unsuccessful attack, that left "dozens" of Taliban casualties, compared to nine American casualties, is a 'rout' of the Americans is just plain wrong. And as for the abandonment of the camp, a further look at the details of the attack put things in a rather different light as well.
The base was occupied by 45 US soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division and 25 Afghan soldiers. It was only two days old when it came under fierce bombardment on Sunday morning. Taleban fighters successfully breached the outer defences and were prevented from overrunning the base only after fierce hand-to-hand fighting
Just over half of the US garrison was killed or injured in the battle, with 9 US dead and 15 injured; a further 4 Afghan troops were also injured.

Afghan officials reported that the area was occupied by Taleban fighters after the US withdrawal. Privately, Western military sources told The Times that the Wanat Combat Outpost was poorly sited and overlooked on three sides by buildings in the village, which Taleban fighters from a force estimated to be around 200 strong were able to use as firing points.
So, a badly located camp was abandoned - no bad thing really. And 45 US troops fought off 200 Taliban. And this is a rout how exactly?

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008


June's inflation figures are out - and they really aren't pretty reading.

CPI up to 3.8%, RPI at 4.6% - these aren't good figures. The blurb blames rising food prices and travel costs - which will at least allow the Government to continue their disingenuous blaming of the nation's ills on vague and ill-defined foreign problems. But the problem is that the Bank of England's remit is to restrain inflation, even though, with a stagnating economy, the requisite rise in interest rates is the last thing we need. Interesting times....

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Monday, July 14, 2008

The politics of spanking, and other serious matters

Ignoring, for a while, the tiresome ephemera of foreign policy, European politics and the like, let us turn our attention to serious matters, namely Max Mosely's bottom. In case there are any readers who haven't yet seen said posterior, or at least read about it in salacious detail from any one of a hundred news reports, blogs and so on, there's not much of a story about it. Upper class Englishman enjoys being spanked, and also enjoys spanking girls' bottoms. It's not up there among the most surprising news stories of all time is it?
Spanking, and associated activities are indelibly linked to the English - the French know it as la vice Anglais. Victorian erotica is stuffed full of spankings and birchings and so on (apparently). You can try and psycho-analyse it if you like (locked away in boarding schools, the repressed English aristocracy came to associate punishment with pleasure as the only source of intimacy available and so on). Or you can say that sex is both fun and ridiculous, and frankly there are worse things you can do that get your bottom smacked.
Either way, it's neither peculiar or particularly unusual. However, it does make a great news story. The era of the smutty postcard and the Carry On films is not really gone, and one newpaper in particular embodies the puerile and salacious attitude towards sex and 'naughtiness' more than any other: the News of the World, or as Private Eye always calls it, the News of the Screws. It reports, with a generous mixture of fact and fiction, the sex lives of the rich and famous (and Big Brother contestants). It does so by bribing girls with loose morals and looser knicker elastic to snare footballers and TV presenters; it does so with hidden cameras and secret microphones; it does so with telephoto lenses: and it does so because the British love to read about bonking vicars and kinky childrens' television stars over Sunday breakfast.
It's a lovely story of breach of privacy, prurience and hypocrisy - all in pursuit of a story. And Mosley is suing, for breach of privacy. Now, it's hard to argue that this isn't a breach of privacy - it's not as if Mosley was bending over in the High Street - but the News of the World are arguing that this was a genuine story.
The newspaper's case was that the events were "truly grotesque and depraved", he added.
There is something marvellous about how hypocritical newspapers can be. The gleeful exposes of 'Tory sleaze', the outrage over MPs fiddling their expenses - all this was so hypocritical it made the eyes water. I rather doubt that the sex lives of Screws reporters are so puritanically spotless that none of them would qualify for the "grotesque and depraved" description.

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Biffo Cowen

Talking about the Lisbon Treaty reminds me of the unfortunate new Irish Taoiseach, Brian Cowen. A pretty uninspiring man in most ways, he does, however, have the finest nickname of any serving head of state. He's known as Biffo Cowen - a name that has a certain something in and of itself. But it's when you find out what Biffo stands for that it's true genius becomes apparent.
Because the most exalted Irishman today has a nickname that stands for Big Ignorant Fucker From Offaly. Superb.

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Conservative Foreign Policy

As the likelihood increases that 2010 will see a Conservative Government, it's probably a good idea to examine what that might entail. For all the bleating on the 'purist' right and the desperate left that the Tories have no policies, there is a lot of evidence on domestic policy for what a Tory Government would look like. But domestic policy is not the be-all and end-all of modern politics. Tony Blair's regime will be remembered less for its cautious domestic half-reforms and public-sector splurges than for its bellicose foreign policy and gung-ho interventionaliam.
So what does Tory foreign policy look like? Well, there are two eternals in British foreign policy: the 'special relationship' with the United States and the relationship with the European Union. On the first of these, despite Nick Cohen's assertions, there is no reason to believe that the special relationship will be damaged under the Conservatives. It is true that the Tories have closer links to the Republicans than they do to the Democrats, but even if Obama does win, both sides will realise that friendly relations are in their best interests. For all the talk of 'close but not slavish' relations, there will be little change in Anglo-US relations regardless of the incumbents.
It's the European angle that will be interesting. The old battles that split the Tories are over - the Euro-sceptics have won. While there is a question as to whether Hannan's first law of politics (that no party is Euro-sceptic in power) will hold, it is probable that a new era of Euro-fractiousness beckons. In most ways this is a good thing. The British population is becoming more and more scpetical about the benefits of a supra-national organisation, especially one that seems to be increasingly un-democratic, even anti-democratic. It is, therefore, appropriate that these views are shared by the Government. The question is not, however, what the basic tenor of Tory European policy will be, but rather what, specifically will they do?
The first and most obvious potential flashpoint is the Lisbon Treaty. If the Irish haven't been bullied into a new referendum by the time the Tories get in, the solution is obvious and, as far as the British are concerned, uncontroversial. Hold a referendum, and campaign for a No vote. Easy. It would be dynamite in Europe, but there is now a lot of scope for a British Prime Minister to play the moral high ground. Frame it as an attempt to reverse the democratic deficit, return power to the people - that sort of thing. The problems for the Tories begin if Lisbon has been ratified - then we'll see squabbles.
However, in all probability, Tory foreign policy will be determined by how they react to unexpected and unpredictable difficulties. No-one after all, in 1995, would have predicted that Tony Blair would take Britain into war five times. In other words, people who complain that the Tories do not seem to have a coherent foreign policy are forgetting that Britain is no longer a rain-maker in global politics - we are now a reactive power. Having an approach but not a policy is not an inappropriate response.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Cor, I'm like some crazy political legend

You can tell this is a really good idea by the Tories:

The former shadow home secretary, who fought a by-election in protest at the erosion of civil liberties, is due to have a meeting with David Cameron next week to thrash out the details of the new job.
It is likely to come in the form of some kind of policy oversight role, with Mr Davis keen to make certain that the party does not slip from the positions he had established on opposing ID cards and detention without trial.

How good an idea is this? Well, it's such a good idea that I thought of it first! (Note: I may not have thought of this first - in fairness it's hardly a massive leap of imagination).
How about this: set him up as head of a small policy committee whose remit would be to identify the areas of policy and legislation where creeping authoritarianism and draconian state powers have combined to erode the British tradition of freedom and liberty, and propose either their repeal entirely, or their amendment.
Incidentally, there's one of those unintentionally lovely typos in the Telegraph article:
Mr Cameron will also want to ensure that his former leadership rival is given something to occupying his time and prevent him from becoming a loose canon on the backbenches.
I like the idea of being a loose canon. Though whether that means an inadequately fitted printer, or a clergyman with dubious morals is debatable.

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Shorter Tim Ireland

On the other hand you could read the whole thing...
I am also only really likely to have problems with other people in the future because of one person and one person only; you.

(In case you have forgotten, you also published my unlisted number on your website on more than one occasion, but I'll get onto that soon enough. I haven't even begun to begin...)
[cont. pg 94].
It includes Tim telling Phil to please try to get over yourself. Read into that what you will...


Wednesday, July 09, 2008

And again...

Once more in the Independent, and I promise this will be a quick one, Mark Steel produces a staggeringly disingenuous argument that boils down, in its essentials, to the fact that Christianity is precisely as backward an intolerant as Islam:
The most common justification for ridiculing Islam is that the religion is "backward", particularly towards women, as a fundamental part of its beliefs. The Sun's old political editor suggests this as a defence of his newspaper's stance, saying that under Islam, "women are treated as chattels". And it's true that religious scriptures can command this, such as the insistence that, "a man may sell his daughter as a slave, but she will not be freed at the end of six years as men are." Except that comes from the Bible – Exodus, Chapter 21, verse 7.
The Bible is packed with justifications for slavery, including killing your slaves. So presumably the Sun, along with others who regard Islam as a threat to our civilisation, will soon be campaigning against "Sunday Schools of Hate" where children as young as seven are taught to read this grisly book. And next Easter they'll report how, "I saw a small child smile with glee as he opened a Cadbury's egg filled with chocolate buttons. But behind his grin I couldn't help but wonder whether he wanted to turn me into a pillar of salt, then maybe sprinkle me on his menacing confectionary treat."
Right. When the universal belief of Christians is that their lives are to be lived in strict accordance to the rules laid down in the Bible, then that will be a fair analogy. If Mark Steel can name the mainstream Christian churches that believe that the laws in Leviticus should be the only source of law in this country, then I'll agree with him that there is a problem. Unless he can, he should acknowledge that he's being ridiculous.

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Disingenuous line of attack

There was always going to be an obvious line of attack on what David Cameron said the other day. It was, in fact, summed up by the Times headline of the speech:
David Cameron tells the fat and the poor: take responsibility
This angle is that the Tories are saying to the poor that it's all their own fault. Like Arabella Weir does in today's Independent:
Sure he gives a nod to social circumstances: "Where you are born – your neighbourhood, your school and the choices your parents make – have a huge impact," Cameron generously concedes "But social problems are often the consequence of the choices people make."
Doh, like, really? Like choosing to be born into a poor, woefully under-educated family to parents who didn't chose to send their kids to leading public schools. Those kinds of choices? Or maybe he means choices like not getting a job in the area you live where there's endemic, long-term unemployment?
Well, obviously not. Those would be the "where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school and the choices your parents make" bit wouldn't it? She quoted it in the previous paragraph, so you'd have thought at least that she'd have read it. There are other choices that people make that have damaging consequences: to take drugs, to smoke, to get pregnant early, to drop out of school, to have children outside of marriage.
Grasping the nettle, Cameron kept wading in. "We talk about people being 'at risk of obesity' instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise." Of course you're bleeding well "at risk" if you come from the socio-economic group most likely to eat badly as a result of being less well versed in good eating habits and with the least access to shops selling quality food at reasonable prices.
Wait - so these people aren't making a choice to eat poorly, they are directed by their socio-economic status to eat more expensive, less healthy food? This is entirely Cameron's point! No-one is 'compelled' by mysterious socio-economic forces to subsist on a diet of crisps and Irn Bru. It's not a conspiracy designed by the toffs or Old Etonians to make sure the poor die young. Everybody, but everybody, has been blasted with multifarious messages about how to eat. The most popular shows on TV are cookery shows, and not just the 'take a shaved truffle and add it to the caviar' sort either. If people are ignorant about how food works, then it really is their responsibility to sort it out. They're adults. That's the point.
Putting it another way, I'm a public-school educated Oxford graduate with Conservative leanings. My socio-economic group is particularly at risk of taking large amounts of cocaine and pouring champagne on tramps (apparently). That I didn't do either is because I am an autonomous being capable of making my own decisions about my behaviour. That's rather the point of being an adult.
Take me, for example. I'm a bit fat. Now, as Cameron suggests, I can choose not to be fat. As it happens, I actually can. I can afford a cleaning lady twice a week, and regular, reliable childcare. I have a supportive husband who organises his work to ensure he's with the kids as much as I am. I work in a well-paid industry where, in the main, I dictate the hours.
So, without any of the onerous, relentless, ordinary burdens of being a working mother I am freed up to go out running four times a week. I'm not getting any thinner but I'm definitely fitter. Mmm, Dave, I'm still a bit fat, though. Got any ideas?
I don't know, why not try eating more healthily and perhaps less? It's not Cameron's job to make you thinner though is it? It's yours, if you want to, and that's Cameron's point.
Oh, while we're at it, I'd better confess to drinking more than is officially advisable for women. My fault, again, definitely. I can afford nice wine and my life isn't so without hope that I need to drown my sorrows in a bucket of Special Brew every day so we're all right, for now. Who knows where I'd be if I'd been born in Glasgow East, for example, where a man's life expectancy is 61. Try telling him and his family their circumstances are their fault.
Well, apart from noting that you've probably got the answer to the 'why am I still fat?" question right there, lets go through this again. Probably the main reason that life expectancy in Glasgow East is 61 is alcohol and drug abuse. Saying that people drink because they're going to die young, when the reason they're going to die young is because they drink is really rather circular don't you think? No-one is really forced to become an alcoholic - and it's not the fault of an over-arching society if they do. People really are responsible for their actions, it's what makes us human.
And there is also a difference between 'it's your responsibility' and 'it's your fault' too. Entirely at random, the behaviour of your pets is your responsibility, but it isn't necessarily your fault. Being made redundant isn't your fault, but trying to find another job is your responsibility. There's a question to be asked in these cases - if it isn't my responsibility, then whose is it? Whose responsibility is Arabella Weir's weight loss programme? It isn't David Cameron's, it isn't the Department of Health's and it sure as hell isn't mine.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Fat is a conservative issue...

So, Cameron's speech. Predictably, the left are running the line that the nasty Tories are back, blaming poor people for their poverty and sick people for their illness. Mike Smithson questions how dangerous a line this is politically, while the Mirror bloviates crapulently about hugging hoodies transmogrifying into kicking grannies. On the other hand, Stephen Pollard and the DK have applauded the sentiment.
I was surprised and impressed by the absence of the usual get-out clauses and mealy-mouthedness that accompanied the speech. That the Tories have accepted that misleading and euphemistic language can exacerbate problems rather than solve them is extremely welcome. That they are finally talking the language of personal responsibility is better. We are autonomous beings; our actions have consequences. If we eat pies and drink beer we will get fat. It's like Peter Cook on Elizabeth Taylor, who blamed her weight gain on her 'glands'.
'Yes, poor woman!' he squawks in Cook's voice. 'Elizabeth would be sitting in her suite at the Inn on the Park, quite casually watching the three o'clock at Haydock, and suddenly her glands would pick up the phone and order a tray of eclairs and a bottle of Courvoisier! No, she'll scream! But it's too late! The order's gone through!' Resuming his standard delivery, Fry explains that Cook's fantasy ended 'with Taylor in the bathroom, trying to lock the door against the glands, while they smash their way in and force the food down her throat.
I agree with the DK and others that it's not for the Government to enforce morality. There's no reason why they can't remind us of our own responsibilities.

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Monday, July 07, 2008

Slating the Tories, and other plans for 2010

There was an interesting article on Comment is Free by Charlie Beckett posing the question (admittedly not for the first time) of what will happen to blogging when the Tories win the next election. Will the right become emasculated and tedious (like the left)? Will the left become fractious and oppositionist (like, um, the left)?
Tim Worstall answered this pretty neatly ages ago:
For I think there's a fault line that runs through "political blogging" which isn't in fact properly appreciated. There are those who blog for a specific group, for a party, for their tribe. And there are those who blog in support of certain ideas, or ideals. The former group will indeed be liable to capture by the centre ("don't rock the boat old boy, not now we've got back into power again") and the latter will continue to scream for their cherished goals whichever party is in power.
Well, as far as I'm concerned, and despite the title of the blog, I'm no blue dog Conservative. I'll try and maintain my general low standards of disappointed commentary and snarky asides regardless of the party in power. I doubt I'll be nearly so angry as the Devil - frankly I doubt I have the requisite amount of bile - but I won't meekly toe the party line. Well, not unless they make it worth my while...
While I'm on the subject, I'll try and get around to the burning question of whether Ray Lewis was a magistrate or only approved for the magistracy, and why this horrific scandal means that Boris is doomed as soon as I can. Just waiting for inspiration to strike...

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Does he mean it?

David Cameron gave a pretty interesting speech in Glasgow today. The Tories are often accused of not having any policies. In fact it's really the only one of Labour's attack lines that has gained any traction. It's also not very fair: there are plenty of policies, on lots of different subjects. What has been lacking is a framework for them - a sense that you know what you're getting from the Tories. It's what Thatcher undoubtedly had - the standard cabbie response of 'you knew where you were with her.' Does this speech get us any closer?
On school reform, we think the current school system must be replaced with a new system that breaks the stranglehold of the educational establishment and gives parents what they want and what their children deserve: innovation, choice and competition that delivers high standards for everyone, everywhere. We will simply not tolerate objections to our plans from the people and organisations who are responsible for the continuing failure of too much of state education in this country.
The education policy has been well set out already, and it's only because people still aren't really listening that so few people have noticed how radical it is. I know not everyone agrees with me (contrarians and the Welsh mostly) but the Tory policy of effective vouchers and the break-away from the state monopoly on publicly funded educated has the capacity to be supremely effective.
On welfare reform, we think we need to end the idea that the state gives you money for nothing. If you can work, you must work. We will insist on it, and believe me, we will stick to our guns when the going gets tough.
Fine sentiments, in my opinion, with the proviso that I'll believe when I see it, and not before. Governments of every stripe have tried this line, and they've all failed so far.
And then came a very interesting passage:
I think the time has come for me to speak out about something that has been troubling me for a long time. I have not found the words to say it sensitively. And then I realised, that is the whole point."We as a society have been far too sensitive.
In order to avoid injury to people's feelings, in order to avoid appearing judgemental, we have failed to say what needs to be said. We have seen a decades-long erosion of responsibility, of social virtue, of self-discipline, respect for others, deferring gratification instead of instant gratification.
Instead we prefer moral neutrality, a refusal to make judgments about what is good and bad behaviour, right and wrong behaviour. Bad. Good. Right. Wrong. These are words that our political system and our public sector scarcely dare use any more.
Of course as soon as a politician says this there is a clamour - "but what about all of you?" And let me say now, yes, we are human, flawed and frequently screw up. "Our relationships crack up, our marriages break down, we fail as parents and as citizens just like everyone else. But if the result of this is a stultifying silence about things that really matter, we re-double the failure. Refusing to use these words - right and wrong - means a denial of personal responsibility and the concept of a moral choice.
We talk about people being "at risk of obesity" instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it's as if these things - obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction - are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.
Of course, circumstances - where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school, and the choices your parents make - have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.
There is a danger of becoming quite literally a de-moralised society, where nobody will tell the truth anymore about what is good and bad, right and wrong. That is why children are growing up without boundaries, thinking they can do as they please, and why no adult will intervene to stop them - including, often, their parents. If we are going to get any where near solving some of these problems, that has to stop.
Too many of Cameron's speeches and articles are suffused by precisely this over-careful mealy-mouthedness. If the Tories have really discovered (or more likely are finally prepared to acknowledge) that problems that can't be properly discussed have no chance of solution, then that is cause for a good degree of optimism.
On the other hand, as someone said, politics is the art of telling people what they want to hear, even when they want to hear 'things they don't want to hear'.

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England v South Africa

These always seem to be fairly tasty series. The two teams are pretty evenly matched in terms of talent - one point separates them in the table - with neither being able consistently to dominate the other. South Africa are arriving as a fairly settled outfit, and one that will be based on deep fast bowling reserves with Dale Steyn, Andre Nel, Morne Morkel and Makhaya Ntini to choose from.
England are probably going to be outgunned in the pace department - their quickest bowlers, Anderson and Broad are upper 80s bowlers whereas Steyn hits the mid 90s, with Morkel not far behind. This might not matter so much at Lords, especially if the weather continues as gloomy and overcast as it has recently. The control and swing offered by Sidebottom, as well as the pace and swing of Anderson should be equal to the skid and bounce that the South Africans have to offer. If, however, the weather improves and the pitches harden, England should be reconsidering their options. Anderson in particular should be vulnerable - when the ball stops swinging he can look like cannon fodder.
So, any new faces? Almost certainly not. In fact, there are three possible alternatives in the fast bowling department for England, and you'll have met all of them before.
1. Andrew Flintoff.
He's quick, accurate and aggressive - just the sort to keep an end tied up while wickets fall at the other end. He's also excellent at reverse-swing, and good at rushing through the tail. He has, of course, been injured, and is only just getting back into the swing of things. His batting, a half-century against Sussex notwithstanding, has been very poor this season and there is no way he can play at number six. On the other hand, can he really be trusted to take on the 20 overs a day workload of a frontline bowler? If Flintoff does play, it should be at eight, with Ambrose at seven - and that means that a frontline batsman is going to have to produce regular overs, whether that's Pieterson, Collingwood, or someone like Bopara is open to question.
2. Steven Harmison.
OK, I know that he's woefully inconsistent, I know that he has a tendency to bowl half-trackers at 70mph, I know that he can't bat or field. Big Steve Harmison still has the capacity to bowl at mid 90s from his 6'5 - and get top quality batsman out. If England are blown away by pace in the first games, then a recall for Harmy is not out of the question. It's nice to feel that you have some artillery to reply with.
3. Simon Jones.
Another blast from the past, only this time a comeback from horrific physical injury, rather than mental heeby-jeebies. Jones is back, bowling fast, swinging it late, and taking stacks of wickets for Worcestershire. He's not actually as quick as Harmison, but his full length and late swing make him just as hard to play. He'll probably only make it into the side if someone gets injured, but if he gets a chance, I'd expect him to grab it.
The batting for England looks settled. That's not necessarily a good thing. The top six have been underperforming for a while, and there needs to be definite improvement in this series.
Strauss: At the very top Strauss now looks secure - a mental break before the New Zealand series has seen him rediscover his natural role in the side - the opening accumulator. It's not his job to be Marcus Trescothick, and he looks much better for having realised it.
Cook: Slightly difficult times for Alistair Cook, the first he's experienced. His difficulties look a bit more technical - he's playing away from his body, and well in front of his eyes. That said, there's not yet a heap of replacements for the openers...
Vaughan: Injury's the doubt here. His captaincy is still good, and his batting reaches the sublime - sometimes. But that knee isn't looking so stable... Strauss should replace him as skipper if it does go.
Pieterson: Looks like he needs to rediscover some of the joy of batting - but should be energised by playing in a Test series against South Africa. An automatic selection, as England's best batsman.
Bell: At some point he's going to have to start regularly converting those pretty forties into serious hundreds. It's infuriating that he throws away promising starts so often. Selectorial patience must be getting a bit stretched.
Collingwood: Vulnerable I'd say. He's looked in terrible nick this summer, shuffling across the crease a lot. He may as well cut his left hand off for all the good it does his stroke play. On form though, he's an ideal number 6. He sticks around with the tail, and can accelerate when needed. Out of form...?
Ambrose: He'd just better play his Test game, not his one day game - because there are a lot of options for wicket keeper. Matt Prior, James Foster, Steven Davies, Phil Mustard - it's a long list...
You would, of course, have to be a mug to make definite predictions on a series that is so often so close. South Africa, on paper, look stronger, especially in the bowling department (though England have undoubtedly the better spinner), but then they have always had problems in closing series down. On balance, I'll go for a drawn series (cop-out though it is). I'd pick the weather to win at least two of the games, and for the two teams to share the other two. Oh, and why the hell isn't this a five match series?



I spotted the Independent's headline the other day: Muslims feel like 'Jews of Europe'. Well, apart from anything else, aren't the Jews of Europe still the Jews of Europe? I do actually have some sympathy for the underlying basis to the claim - that Muslims are becoming effective scapegoats for those who are unhappy with immigration, and that inflammatory language is often used. The problem is, well, lets have a look at this paragraph:
Mr Malik, who narrowly escaped serious injury when a car was driven at him at a petrol station in his home town of Burnley in 2002, said he regularly receives anti-Muslim hate mail at his constituency office in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, which has the highest BNP vote in the country and was home to Mohammad Sidique Khan, the leader of the suicide attackers who killed 52 people in London in 2005.
You see, it's harder to raise sympathy for inflammatory language when, on the other side of the equation, there are inflammatory people. The terrorist bombings in 2005, coupled with the relatively large number of Muslims that express support for them, make a certain suspicion of Islam inevitable. Twin this with the infuriating stories about police dogs with bootees, Muslim taxi drivers that won't take blind people (dogs again) or Muslim nurses that refuse to bare their arms to scrub up and you start to form a settled narrative - that of a minority that is unwilling to adapt to life in Britain. Once that narrative has settled, it is going to be largely a case of giving a dog a bad name. Or is that offensive too?

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The Left and its heroes

People's heroes are always illuminating. There was that Tory whose hero was Ian Smith for instance. On the left of politics there has always been a trend that worshipped Fidel Castro - Harriet Harman may make an unlikely Pasionara but she for one identified the bearded old tyrant as a hero.
But while the gloss has rather come off the Cuban revolution over the last decade or so, a new hero has arisen among the left - Hugo Chavez. I'm not proposing to get into an argument here about whether or not Chavez is a democrat or not - there's enough evidence on either side - but what is barely in question is that Chavez has enough on his charge sheet to warrant caution before beatification.
Not least among these is the evidence that has been building up that Chavez has been covertly aiding the FARC terrorists in Colombia. Part of this was declamatory and rhetorical - on March 2 after the killing of a senior FARC leader Raul Reyes by the Colombian military, Chavez denounced the killing as a cowardly assassination and praised Reyes, who had 57 acts of homicide on his warrant as a good revolutionary. On January 11 he urged Europeans and others to remove the FARC from the ranks of international terrorist organizations. The FARC, Chavez announced, was a genuine army, occupying territory and fighting for the Bolivarian cause.
Evidence of more material help has come after the recovery of a laptop computer from FARC personnel - indeed from the dead Raul Reyes. Documents on the laptop, according to Bogota, show that FARC was in receipt of significant funds from the Chavez Government, as well as arms. Interpol reviewed the laptop and found that it had not been tampered with by the Colombian Government.
So, there's a potted case for the prosecution. Lining up for the defence is Johann Hari in the Independent. In reply to this allegation Hari has the following:
On 1 March, the Colombian government invaded Ecuador and blew up a Farc training camp. A few hours later, it announced it had found a pristine laptop in the rubble, and had already rummaged through the 39.5 million pages of Microsoft Word documents it contained to find cast-iron "proof" that Chavez was backing the Farc. Ingrid's sister, Astrid Betancourt, says it is plainly fake. The camp had been totally burned to pieces and the computers had clearly, she says, been "in the hands of the Colombian government for a very long time". Far from fuelling the guerrillas, Chavez has repeatedly pleaded with the Farc to disarm. He managed to negotiate the release of two high-profile hostages – hence Betancourt's swift thanks. He said: "The time of guns has passed. Guerilla warfare is history."
Well, here's a picture of the camp where the laptop was found. Finding a laptop there would not be the impossibility that Hari paints it, and anyway, unless Hari is impugning Interpol, there is no suggestion that the laptop was other than genuine. And I'd like a little more evidence for Astrid Betancourt's credentials as a forensic auditor before I take it entirely on trust. And Chavez's rhetoric on FARC, as we have seen, is a lot less clear-cut than Hari portrays as well.
There's a central accusation in Hari's piece: that Chavez is a modern saint and that we have been lied to by eeevil oil companies (and presumably George Bush, though he unaccountably fails to receive a mention). To countermand the evidence given above that Chavez really is a supporter of the FARC he gives us the testimony of Astrid Betancourt. Anything else?
As Ingrid Betancourt emerged after six-and-a-half years – sunken and shrivelled but radiant with courage – one of the first people she thanked was Hugo Chavez. What? If you follow the news coverage, you have been told that the Venezuelan President supports the Farc thugs who have been holding her hostage. He paid them $300m to keep killing and to buy uranium for a dirty bomb, in a rare break from dismantling democracy at home and dealing drugs. So how can this moment of dissonance be explained?
Yes: you have been lied to – about one of the most exciting and original experiments in economic redistribution and direct democracy anywhere on earth. And the reason is crude: crude oil. The ability of democracy and freedom to spread to poor countries may depend on whether we can unscramble these propaganda fictions.
So, we also have the thanks of Ingrid Betancourt to consider. Except that we don't really. There's a reason that Hari doesn't quote Ingrid Betancourt - her thanks to Ecuador and Venezuela came with the warning that they respect Colombian democracy, words that the Venezuelan media (laughably described by Hari as in total opposition to Chavez) found difficult:
Commentators on Venezuela's openly pro-Chavez state television bristled at her words and accused her trying to use the worldwide fame her captivity has generated to promote Mr. Uribe's politics at the expense of Mr. Chavez's leftist movement.
So, yes. You have been lied to. But by Johann Hari rather than by a faceless, unidentified Them.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

Time for a bit of expectation management

I rather agree with Mike Smithson. The heady days of Crewe, London and Henley have led lots of people, including the politics home panel, to assume that the SNP are going to win it, and that mere inconveniences like a 13,000 majority can be ignored. Well, maybe. But it's worth recognising that this is one of Labour's safest seats; that at any other time we would be saying that a monkey with a red rosette could win it.
That being so, it's probably judicious to enter into a bit of expectation management. If Labour do win this back, as by all measures and in all ways they should, it will be spun as a turning-point for Brown - proof that things are going his way again. Since it is almost a certainty that the Labour share of the vote will fall, and possibly fairly far, all the opposition parties should be running with the line that this is a very safe seat, and that the message for Brown should be a reduced vote and so forth. That way, anything other than an increased/equivalent Labour vote can be portrayed as a setback, while if the SNP did pull one out of the bag, then it starts to look like game over.
Labour have become rather bad at expectation management, for the simple reason that reality is starting to outstrip their worst predictions. When it's used properly, however, it's an effective way of making sure that your message becomes the first draft for the newspapers.


Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The West Lothian Quesion

I don't know precisely to what extent Ken Clarke has cracked it. The lasting anomaly that a Scottish MP can vote on matters that do not affect his own constituents, but apply only to England does need to be addressed; but in all honesty this is a problem that will very probably lose resonance rapidly after the next election. The circumstances where it would become acute are where Labour wins a narrow majority on the basis of its Scottish MPs and uses that majorityto force through radical changes to English public services. That looked very likely a year ago - it looks much less likely now.
That being said, Labour should try and ensure that when it is asked to put up opponents of the scheme, it tries to find MPs not from its Celtic fringe. Listening to some tuppeny-ha'penny Scottish Labour MP explaining on the Today programme this morning why it was essential that he should be allowed to vote on matters that don't concern him was irritating; reading the whingings of a Welsh Labour MP that the Tories are devaluing the Union are even more so.


Progressive Republicanism

I'm perfectly happy with the monarchy, and for me the idea of a Republic of Great Britain (or whatever) is ruined by the idea that the President would either be Gordon Brown (in the French system) or else some superannuated political nonentity (as in the Italian system) like, ooh, Tony Benn or Roy Hattersley. That prospect is enough to keep me a loyal and respectful subject of HMQ.
There are still those, however, who believe that it is simply wrong for the titular head of state to be a hereditary leftover of the Middle Ages. It's a reasonable enough point, though since it concentrates almost entirely on imagery and symbolism it leaves me rather cold. What is much less of a fair point is his snarky intro.
Parliament should vote to abolish the monarchy, declare the United Kingdom “an independent, indivisible, sovereign, secular and inclusive democratic republic nation”, then give the Royal Family a fortnight to quit the palace and turn it into a museum.
That, after all, is what the Nepalese parliament voted to do with its monarchy problem a month ago (by a majority of 560, with only four votes against). Or is Nepal now too modern and progressive a society for us to emulate?
Well, leaving aside the rather unique nature of the fall of the Nepalese royal house (the Crown Prince went nuts and slaughtered almost all of it, himself included, with an AK47) lets have a look at who the Government of Nepal is shall we? A successful Maoist insurgency, who drew their inspiration from the shining path. Mick Hume will have a different opinion I'm sure, as befits a former editor of Living Marxism, but I don't see communist terrorists as being either modern or progressive. I'll need a better example of a modern state abolishing its monarchy before I'm sold.

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