Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Working on the rigs

Fair play to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. It may have taken them a month, but they've finally been able to massage the election numbers to a vaguely plausible result:
HARARE (Reuters) - Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai won 47 percent of the presidential election and Robert Mugabe captured 43 percent, senior government sources said on Wednesday.
One of the sources told Reuters a runoff would be needed because Tsvangirai did not win enough votes for an outright victory.
This was always going to be the next stage of the game - the real question is what happens now - whether there is any international monitoring, or whether the scene is set for a brutal crackdown, or whether, possibly, Mugabe will step down in return for a power-sharing government.

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Simon Heffer - gah!

As regular readers (anyone...anyone...Bueller?) will know, I am not a fan of Simon Heffer. I think his sneering writing style unpleasant, his views predictable and often ridiculous - that John Redwood should be brought in as a more voter-friendly Shadow Chancellor than Osborne; that anyone who plays 20-20 cricket should be barred from Test matches etc - and his writing uninspiring. I'm sure this keeps him awake at nights.
Today's excrescence is about Heffer's old boss at the Spectator, Boris Johnson.
He is pushy, he is thoughtless, he is indiscreet about his private life. None of this matters much to anyone these days, which is why he has gone so far in spite of them, and tomorrow may go further still. Lynton Crosby, the Australian public relations genius who has kept Mr Johnson out of trouble during his campaign, returns home after it. Then what? Who will guide the unguided missile? Who will support the figurehead? Who will ensure he turns up on time, or at all? How will they be accountable? Once, a man became mayor of Hartlepool dressed in a gorilla suit. Is what the main parties offer Londoners tomorrow any better? Or is London just a bit of a laugh?
No, it isn't. Both Labour and the Tories insult hard-pressed, overtaxed residents of London by failing to give them serious, strong-minded candidates to vote for tomorrow.
The rest of the article is similar - it's more or less a hatchet job. A thought does occur to me though. Has Heffer ever publicly acknowledged that it was he who wrote the infamous Spectator editorial on Ken Bigley, for which Boris was humiliatingly dragged up to Liverpool to apologise? Not the act of a gentleman, what?
Incidentally, this is reported in the Guardian as Tory commentators turn on Johnson. Heffer is no more a Tory than Polly Toynbee these days. He advocates voting for UKIP, and opposes every aspect of the Conservative Party. And good riddance, frankly.

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Just because a word sounds good

Doesn't mean it's the right word to use. Yesterday we were enlivened by a Polly Toynbee article decrying the 'effete' Boris Johnson - a word which means lacking in vigour, infertile and worn out. Given that Polly was extremely censorious a while back about Boris's vigorous womanising, and given that if one was asked which of Ken and Boris looked more tired, the answer would certainly be the pensioner it looks like an odd word. Moreover, it looks like a word that Polly thinks sounds good, but doesn't actually know the meaning of.
As with yesterday, as with today. It's Jonathon Freedland's turn to write an article puffing Livingstone as a political behemoth and denigrating Boris as useless. His word for the day is 'fop' as in It's Labour stalwart versus Tory fop - dress rehearsal for the really big one. Now, although fop sounds good - it even has sort of trace elements of class identification - it does have a specific meaning. That meaning is "A man who is preoccupied with and often vain about his clothes and manners" Which bit of that definition rings true about Boris Johnson? This is a man who is not merely dishevelled, but looks as though he has never in his life ever been remotely shevelled. Why use words if you don't know what they mean?

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Love in the tube

Apparently more than half of Londoners have found love on the Underground. I'd just like to point out that just rubbing up against someone does not count. Unless you're that rather cute brunette on the Circle Line the other morning. In which case I'll, um, stretch the point...


Voting for what now?

The plural of anecdote is not, I admit, data. However, I have been struck by just how many people I talk to, socially and at work, haven't grasped the point of the alternative vote system that will be used on Thursday in the mayoral election. I think that conceptually it's quite easy - though it does rather underline the two-party nature of British politics (go on then, have vote for the Greens, now who do you really want to win dear?). First you vote for who you'd like to win, in an ideal world. And then you vote against either the Tories or the Labour Party, depending on which you hate most.
It's really not that difficult is it?

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David Aaronovitch has an article today where he denounces Guardian journos for dropping Brown like a hot potato as soon as the going got tough. Fair point really, though he oought to be criticising them more for their wilfully blind hero-worship of the summer than for their disappointment now. Jackie Ashley responds, saying basically that comment journos twist in the wind anyway, and that's it's silly to expect anything different. Full marks for self-awareness I guess.
But she also says that the Guardian is a very broad church: we are divided, right-of-centre libertarians (Simon Jenkins), greens (George Monbiot), Blairites (Martin Kettle), Brownites (me), Labourite but less enthusiastic Brownites (Polly Toynbee and Jonathan Freedland), etc...This is a good thing. Ideological purity should be saved for sects. A newspaper should be a conversation, even a daily argument. I have absolutely no idea what the true core view of this one is, except that it is clearly left of centre and vaguely progressive. If you want "the line", buy Socialist Worker or the Spectator.
The idea that The Spectator is an ideologically homogenous paper is absurd. There is far more diversity in its contributors than in the Guardian. The comparison with the Socialist Worker is ridiculous. About the only thing that the Speccie has really coalesced on is its support for Boris Johnson - and a brief perusal of the Guardian shows equal devotion to Livingstone. I suppose it's the same old question - does Ashley not read the Spectator, and is therefore basing her argument on ignorance, or does she read it, and base her argument on disingenuity? Ignorant or mendacious - another Guardian conundrum.

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Classy politics

Since it is evidently the season for bizarre news stories from around the world, lets have a look at this truly classy story from Western Australia.
I did sniff colleague's chair, admits politician
One of Australia’s most senior conservative politicians broke down today as he tearfully admitted sniffing the chair of a female colleague shortly after she vacated it.
Troy Buswell, the leader of the opposition Liberal Party in Western Australia, was under intense pressure to resign over the incident, which happened in 2005.
He dismissed allegations on 13 different occasions that he had sniffed the seat, before finally admitting yesterday that it had in fact taken place.
“All I can confirm is that the events described in the paper [The West Australian] by the former female staffer are accurate,” he said.
Holding back tears at a news conference, Mr Buswell admitted that his behaviour before becoming party leader three months ago had sometimes been highly offensive.
He has previously admitted to snapping a woman’s bra as a drunken party trick and has been accused by a retiring Liberal MP of making sexist remarks to her.
There's a grand old Irish word, snedger, meaning someone who sniffs girls' bicycle saddles. I suppose this makes Troy Buswell (you may remember me from such political scandals as...) the world's most prominent snedger.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Best Reuters Headline Ever

Sometimes I almost think I understand Africa, that I get it. And then I realise that I don't, and probably never will.
Lynchings in Congo as penis theft panic hits capital
KINSHASA (Reuters) - Police in Congo have arrested 13 suspected sorcerers accused of using black magic to steal or shrink men's penises after a wave of panic and attempted lynchings triggered by the alleged witchcraft. Reports of so-called penis snatching are not uncommon in West Africa, where belief in traditional religions and witchcraft remains widespread, and where ritual killings to obtain blood or body parts still occur.
Rumours of penis theft began circulating last week in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo's sprawling capital of some 8 million inhabitants. They quickly dominated radio call-in shows, with listeners advised to beware of fellow passengers in communal taxis wearing gold rings.

Purported victims, 14 of whom were also detained by police, claimed that sorcerers simply touched them to make their genitals shrink or disappear, in what some residents said was an attempt to extort cash with the promise of a cure.

"You just have to be accused of that, and people come after you. We've had a number of attempted lynchings. ... You see them covered in marks after being beaten," Kinshasa's police chief, Jean-Dieudonne Oleko, told Reuters on Tuesday.

Police arrested the accused sorcerers and their victims in an effort to avoid the sort of bloodshed seen in Ghana a decade ago, when 12 suspected penis snatchers were beaten to death by angry mobs. The 27 men have since been released.

"I'm tempted to say it's one huge joke," Oleko said.

"But when you try to tell the victims that their penises are still there, they tell you that it's become tiny or that they've become impotent. To that I tell them, 'How do you know if you haven't gone home and tried it'," he said.

Some Kinshasa residents accuse a separatist sect from nearby Bas-Congo province of being behind the witchcraft in revenge for a recent government crackdown on its members.

"It's real. Just yesterday here, there was a man who was a victim. We saw. What was left was tiny," said 29-year-old Alain Kalala, who sells phone credits near a Kinshasa police station.
Rumours that the Congolese sangomas have also stolen Gordon Brown's balls are as yet unconfirmed...

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

But why aren't the Tories doing better?

Comment piece by John Harris in Guardian 23 April 2008

Tories should be making hay but Cameron just looks lost
A directionless and insubstantial leader renders the opposition unable to cash in on the government's dire state.
Look at yesterday's Guardian/ICM poll: Labour's standing up by five points, the Tories down three, their lead reduced from 13 points to a mere five.
The Daily Telegraph has the first opinion poll tomorrow since the 10p tax revolt. It makes devastating reading for Gordon Brown.

The Conservatives are now eighteen points ahead of Labour. The Tories are on 44 per cent compared to just 26 per cent from Labour – a lead not enjoyed by the Conservatives since the glory days of Margaret Thatcher in October 1987.
“A rogue pollster is one that produces figures that you don’t agree with - the degree of rogueness at any one time being directly proportional to your view of a recent survey or group of surveys.”

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Why the right keeps on winning

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown the other day posited that Boris was ahead in the opinion polls because the public is gullible; rich white folk and parts of the press love him. A friend of hers, a black social worker, who was thinking of voting for Boris was waiting to be fooled.
In the Nation, Robert Scheer reacts to the opinion polls that put McCain ahead of both Clinton and Obama by asking Are Americans unusually stupid or is it something our President put in the water?
This is the reason that it was so damaging when Obama tried to explain why he was less popular in Pennsylvania than Hillary because they had lost their jobs and as a result It's not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment.
It's like Operation Clark County all over again. The belief is ingrained that the only possible reason to vote for a conservative is that you are mentally ill, very stupid or fundamentally evil. The only way for a conservative government to get elected is if they manage to fool the public about their true evil. It is, in effect, a classic false conciousness theory - the people do not know what they are thinking, and couldn't understand it if they did.
The problem with this is that it predicates both an underestimation of one's opponents, and an elitist condescension towards 'the people' who, bless them, need the guidance of good Democrats/Socialists/bien pensants so that they know what they should be thinking. However, the one thing that's almost guaranteed to send a party down to defeat is the notion that they really only represent the elites - and the new elites are starting to look very bien pensant indeed.

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Why can't the Democrats make up their mind?

Anatole Kaletsky has a sort of answer here: it's because enough Americans are too racist to support Obama, while others are torn between two excellent candidates. The Democrats hold two perfect aces:
The fact that Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton are both such impressive candidates, intelligent, sincere, articulate and in command of the issues, while John McCain does not qualify on any of these criteria only makes matters worse.
Indeed, a Republican victory against either candidate would be truly disastrous:
The possibility of a Republican victory in November would seem to overturn every principle of proper democracy.
Except, presumably, for the one that says that it is the votes of the people that count, and not the opinions of the media. I have a rather different take on the thing. Obama and Clinton are very evenly matched candidates, and what might have been expected to have been their biggest weaknesses, respectively their race and their gender, has turned out in each case to be one of their greatest strengths. It is certainly not racist to point out, as did Geraldine Ferraro, that if Barack Obama had been an unexceptional white politician, there is simply no way he would have got this far - his CV is just too short. Equally, without Clinton's unusual personal history, there is little to make her stand out from the crowd.
But each candidate is seriously flawed; this is not a decision between paragons. Clinton first, as her flaws are most obvious. She is unconvincingly human - her positions look to be calculated rather than felt - look at her agonising flip-flops over NAFTA. She is a poor speaker, although a reasonable debater, and lacks the sort of warmth that her husband had in spades. She has an, um, uncertain relationship with the truth. Finally, she carries an awful lot of baggage - more than anyone else, she would energise the opposition.
Obama's flaws are less well known, largely due to the extremely sympathetic press he has received until recently, but they are there. The largest is that, despite his rhetoric of a new politics and his youth, he is in many ways an old-fashioned liberal politician. His talk of the bitterness of rural voters was revealing, not of contempt for working-class Americans, but of a comfortably condescending mindset. It would, for example, have sounded very familiar from a New Labour minister. His talent for oratory can conceal the emptiness of many of his ideas - sonorous platitudes remain platitudes.
Both candidates have many strengths, obviously, but the election in November will not be between a giant and a pygmy.

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Why the rebellions?

In fairness, the Labour Party in Government has not been so supine as the moist-tongued questions at PMQs might suggest. It has been unusually willing to rebel against the Government on many things - usually buoyed up by the knwoledge that the majority was so vast that a little bit of grand-standing conscience-appeasing was fine. But recently, both on the 10p tax cancellation and on 42 days detention without trial, Labour rebels have looked careless that their opposition might be enough to bring down the Bill - perhaps even the Government. Why is that?
Quite possibly it is because an air of fatalism has descended on them. The opinion polls are increasingly desperate, especially in the South, but also in Scotland. Gordon Brown, who was styled as a consummate political operator, now stands exposed as the ultimate exponent of the Peter Principle. Labour, the mood is, will unquestionably lose the next election - even if the Tories are unable quite to win it. That being so, a lot of back-benchers are wondering what on earth they are for. Loyalty to a doomed administration will win them no favours. The ministerial ladder is about to be pulled up, even for those fortunate enough to avoid the cull of back-benchers in 2010. And there's something visceral about the abolition of the 10p rate - especially as it paid for a reduction in the basic rate that will benefit middle and higher earners. If you can't oppose a measure that will, categorically, affect the poorest the worst, what are you an MP for? Lets face it, we're doomed anyway, may as well go down with a slightly clearer conscience...
Fatalism has a tendency of being self-fulfilling.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Old School politics

It's nice to know, in this furiously changing world, that some things are immutable. Italian politics for example. It was deeply cheering to see that Il Cavalieri had appointed a former Miss Italy to the post of Europe Minister. It's equally nice to see that the little traditions of domestic politics haven't changed either.
A horse’s head was found outside the office of an Italian politician yesterday, in a scene reminiscent of the The Godfather.
Let's just hope the Mayor is a reasonable man eh...

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I would recommend that you have a look at this article by Denis MacShane in the Guardian. I don't normally have a huge amount of time for MacShane (which I'm sure bothers him tremendously) but this article is really rather good. Its premise is that the left has historically got some things spectacularly wrong, and some things wrong in detail even if right in principle, and that people pointing this out should not automatically be decried as traitors and 'neo-cons'.
We marched for Ho Chi Minh. But the first act of the Vietnamese government after 1975 was to open gulags - politely called re-education camps - and put all its opponents inside. It would be embarrassing to reread the eulogies to Robert Mugabe from the left in the 1970s. The left celebrated the downfall of the Shah but is the theocratic rule in Iran with its unending attacks on gay people, workers, journalists and women as well as the non-stop export of Shia antisemitism so much to be preferred?
There are, of course, two sides to this. The left was right to oppose Giap, Smith and the Shah - all three were deeply unsavoury regimes: undemocratic, authoritarian and repressive. However, there is a difference between opposition to a regime and support for its opponents. Giap was corrupt and repressive; Ho Chi Min was efficient at repression. Smith was murderous; Mugabe is genocidal. The Shah was undemocratic; the Ayatollahs anti-democratic.
Now, anyone can be wrong, and it is human nature to focus on the immediate overthrow of what is visibly bad, and not focus on its supplanting with something that might be worse. What is more damaging, and what MacShane identifies, is the ongoing reluctance to admit that things might not have turned out for the best - that in the enthusiastic embrace of ones enemy's enemy, one might have been embracing something rather worse. This is all the more true when talking about an enemy that I, and most of the right do not and will not consider an enemy: the United States. MacShane again:
History will record that the 21st century left's embrace of the deeply conservative politics of Islamism is as foolish as the left's egregious failures in the 20th century to walk away from Stalinism, Trotskyism and Maoism as well as false gods like Khomeini, Mugabe, and Castro.
And the reason is the same - the anti-American left (and I apologise for the continuing and tendentious labelling) has not properly distinguished between the visible short-comings of the United States and the far more serious evil of its enemies. Self-identification by way of what you dislike is dangerous - it blinds you to what you are making common cause with.
UPDATE: Predictably, I suppose, the majority of the comments lambast MacShane as a neo-con Zionist. Sigh.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Foreigners smell

And they look funny too. We need to act quickly to stop this foul-smelling menace before it's too late.

Normally England is green and pleasant, with nothing but the sweetest of smells. But now? "Basically, over the last few days, we've had fresh, strong winds from an easterly direction," said Miss Holland. "As a result some of our air is coming from continental Europe." And we know what that means...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

My enemy's enemy...

Seumas Milne, a more than usually odious columnist for the Guardian, has a piece in today that is quite staggering in its relativism and its disingenuousness. Its premise is that the current focus on Zimbabwe and Tibet are evidence of western hypocrisy and racism. I'm just going to have a slightly closer look at this. He starts by identifying that something genuinely is amiss in these two countries:
There is no question that the struggle over land and power in Zimbabwe has brought the country to a grim pass...
On a different scale, there's also no doubt that in Tibet - the other central international focus of western concern in the past month - deep-seated popular discontent fuelled last month's anti-government protests and attacks on Han Chinese, which were met with a violent crackdown by the Chinese authorities.
So far, so uncontroversial. But not for long.
The British media have long since largely abandoned any attempt at impartiality in its reporting of Zimbabwe, the common assumption being that Mugabe is a murderous dictator at the head of a uniquely wicked regime.
Impartiality as regards who? And I don't think Milne is right here either. The media regard Mugabe, and are right to do so, as a murderous dictator at the head of a wicked regime. It's not uniquely wicked; it is simply wicked - using Milne's terminology. And what impartiality should they be seeking? Between ZANU PF and the MDC? One is backed by the army, by fraudulent war veterans and the common-or-garden thugs known as Green Bombers. The other isn't. One shouldn't strive for impartiality between abuser and victim.
Then there's a nice little segue into the 'but things are worse in other places' routine, where Milne points out that Somalia is more violent than Zimbabwe (well, yes, and has been since the mid 1990s) and that vote-rigging exists in Togo, Cameroon, Egypt and Jordan. Yes, democracy in Africa is a pretty fragile thing. So, how to explain Western interest in Zimbabwe?
The crucial difference, of course, and the reason why these conflicts and violations don't get the deluxe media and political treatment offered to the Zimbabwean opposition or Tibetan separatists is that the governments involved are all backed by the west, compounded in the Zimbabwean case by a transparently racist agenda.
I admit to being confused as to how a stated preference that the black leader of a black-run party, who is widely acknowledged by independent monitors to have won the election, should supplant the black leader of a black-run party who is widely acknowledged to have lost the election should be remotely racist. It strikes me as exactly analogous to Kenya, where Britain's reaction was similar and I don't see that as being racist either. Milne appears to be throwing in the racist smear with no evidence whatsoever.
But it's not just an issue of hypocrisy and double standards, egregious though they are. It's also that British and US involvement and interference have been crucial to both the Zimbabwean and Tibetan conflicts. That's most obviously true in Zimbabwe, which was not just a British colony, but where Britain refused to act against a white racist coup, triggering a bloody 15-year liberation war, and then imposed racial parliamentary quotas and a 10-year moratorium on land reform at independence. The subsequent failure by Britain and the US to finance land buyouts as expected, along with the impact of IMF programmes, laid the ground for the current impasse.
As you would expect, that's a phenomenonally simplistic and reductionist view of the history of Zimbabwe. Just for a start, Rhodesia was never a British colony - never under the auspices of the Colonial office. It was self-governing territory from 1923, and before that was the private property of the British South Africa Club. Britain exercised direct rule for all of about a month in 1980. And the idea that Britain imposed racial parliamentary quotas is absurd. Britain chaired the negotiations at Lancaster House, to which all parties signed up. And there was no 'moratorium' on land reform - there was a moratorium on constitutional reform. Britain contributed a significant amount of money to land distribution - which was under-utilised by the ZANU government throughout the 1980s. And that last sentence is quite simply ridiculous. Not least because why the hell should the US be paying for Zimbabwean land reform? What's Milne been smoking?
Meanwhile, the best chance both of settling the Zimbabwean crisis and of meeting Tibetan aspirations is without the interference of western powers, which would do better improving the human rights records of their allies and themselves. The days of colonial dictat are over and where attempts are made to revive them, they will be resisted. China is now an emerging global power - and, as the Zimbabwean ambassador to the UN said yesterday, Zimbabwe "is no longer a British colony".
Passing over the Dr Heinz Kiosk elements of this, the idea that any diplomatic intervention in Africa is reviving colonialism is absurd. Simply because Zimbabwe is an independent sovereign nation does not mean that it is immune to criticism or to persuasion. Milne remains an idiot, and the only question is whether he is an ignorant idiot who is unaware that he is talking rubbish, or a mendacious idiot, who doesn't care.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

In sickness and in health...

This by Danny Finkelstein reminds of a story about Margaret Thatcher.

In Sickness and in Power is written by the former Foreign Secretary and doctor David Owen. The relationship between health and ability to govern has long been an interest of his. I recall him returning from the funeral of the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov. He didn't think the new leadership would last long. He had shaken hands with Konstantin Chernenko and, on hearing him wheeze, thought he was suffering from emphysema. Just 13 months later that disease did indeed kill Chernenko.
On attending Andropov's funeral Thatcher asked an assistant to buy her a warm hat, as it was in Moscow in winter and bloody freezing. Assistant returned with a fine, warm but extremely expensive tall fur hat in the true Russian style. Thatcher was a bit put out, seeing as how this was hardly a long-term practical purchase. After the funeral, however, she apologised to the assistant saying that, now she had met Chernyenko she regarded the hat as an investment rather than a one off. Sure enough, a year later...

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Monday, April 14, 2008


One of the last rallying points for the dwindling band of true believers in the Livingstone campaign is the idea that Boris would be a hopeless mayor. The example they use is who you would rather have as mayor if there were another terrorist attack on London, or as Charlie Brooker puts it:
If butterfingers Johnson gets in, it'll clearly be a laugh riot from beginning to end, like a series of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em in which Frank Spencer becomes mayor by mistake. Just picture him on live TV, appealing for calm after a terrorist bombing - the scope for chuckles is almost limitless.
Now obviously the political opinions of Charlie Brooker have no significance whatsoever, after all, as he says I'm genetically predisposed to hate the Tories. It's my default, hard-wired position. There's not much room for rational argument there. But this is an argument that's now used a lot: Livingstone was statesmanlike and magisterial, Boris would be a buffoon. Well, the second half of that statement is going to be a matter of opinion - I have no doubt that Boris would be thoroughly competent in that scenario. The first half still annoys me. I remember July 7 2005 rather well - my wife was getting the tube from Edgware Road to Liverpool Street, and was just past King's Cross when the bombs went off. It all felt a bit personal. And what was Livingstone's response?
I want to say one thing specifically to the world today. This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at Presidents or Prime Ministers. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old.
Two things instantly grated on me: would it have been OK if it had been directed against the mighty and powerful? And why was an attack on London described as an attack (only) on the working class? Why could Livingstone not abandon his class dialectic even at such a time? Another question now occurs - if this is the benchmark Johnson is to be measured against, how on earth could he fail?

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Hitchens on Sullivan

There's a wee bit of a kerfuffle about what Christopher Hitchens said to Andrew Sullivan on the US political chat show Media Matters. Sullivan got a bit stuck for words when discussing Barack Obama and Hitchens, ever sensitive in these matters, helped him out:
"Don't be such a lesbian," intervened Mr Hitchens. "Get on with it."
Now, given the rather frenetic nature of American attitudes towards political correctness, you might imagine that the mighty Hitchens would be a little bit embarrassed by this outburst - but if you think that, you don't know the man.
In an email to The Independent on Sunday, the commentator wrote: "Don't know what came over me: the dear boy did suddenly seem extremely sapphic, yet I think my intuitions must have been scrambled all the same, since what I was actually thinking was: 'Andrew really wants to have Barack Obama's fucking child'. Clearly some confusion of categories on my part."


Friday, April 11, 2008

Good news, but...

George Bush has famously said that he doesn't really care about what history has to say about him - after all, we'll all be dead then - but if there is one thing that will be set in the balance against Iraq and Afghanistan in the eyes of historians (even if there is no revionist view of this) it will be his attitude to AIDS in Africa. Michael Gerson in Lusaka:
About a year and a half after the 2002 Oval Office policy session in which the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) -- the largest effort in history to fight a single disease -- was outlined in a black briefing book, Dr. Jeffrey Stringer received a call from an American embassy official. Stringer, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia, was asked if he could put 1,000 people on AIDS treatment within two months -- a nearly impossible task.
By July of this year, the center will have 100,000 patients on AIDS treatment -- twice the number treated in all of sub-Saharan Africa just five years ago. About half the people in Zambia who need AIDS drugs are receiving them, largely because of PEPFAR -- one of the most remarkable achievements in the history of public health.
Regardless of your opinion of Bush, these are impressive figures, and an excellent result. I would just be a bit cautious on this though:
Stringer also talks of a more subjective measure of success. Five years ago, when driving across Lusaka, he would need to leave himself extra time to navigate the traffic jams caused by funeral processions. Now it is no longer necessary.
I was living in Lusaka five years ago, and the traffic wasn't that bad - and even when it was that had more to do with endless potholes and lurching buses than funeral processions. Livingstone was a different story - there really were countless funeral processions.


Just what the fuck is it with Steve Bell?

Steve Bell, as funny as a man dying of pancreatic cancer, has decidedly unsubtle views on politics and what's funny. George Bush, for example, was depicted as a chimp in, ooh, about 2000 and that has remained the joke in every single cartoon since. Ah ha.
Now Boris is depicted as Hitler. Complete with the hilarious accusation that he is proposing to gas both Jews and blacks - equal opportunities see?

Quite apart from the fantastic offensiveness of this cartoon - I mean really, what the fuck were the Guardian thinking? - who really looks at Boris Johnson and thinks 'you know who that tousle-haired posh Tory from Henley reminds me of? Adolf Hitler, that's who'? It's fatuous. Incidentally, is this the least recognisable caricature ever? Even Private Eye's Boris the Menace was obviously supposed to be Boris. Bell can't even get the hair right. Still, I suppose that the combination of the deeply unfunny with the viscerally offensive is what makes the Guardian what it is...

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Succession Politics

It is indicative of the current crisis in Labour morale, brought about by bargain-basement poll ratings and the general sense of purposeless drift at Number 10, that people are already, just 290 days into Brown's tenure, speculating about who should replace him. The problem for Labour is that they have had ten years with an heir apparent who was quite ruthless in slapping down or destroying any remotely credible challenger. The end of the Blair era is strewn with political corpses - Reid, Milburn, Blunkett, Clarke - who at one point dared to dream that they might supplant Gordon.
The problem is that now there aren't any credible challengers at all. The standard question of who would take over if Gordon Brown were to be run over by a bus has no satisfactory answer - unless it were the bus driver. In such a scenario, where Brown is forced to stand down immediately, for whatever reason, the only possible caretaker leader would be Jack Straw. But at 61, and never an exciting political force, this could only ever be a temporary measure. But who else is there?
Ed Balls fancies himself as the next leader, and is dashing about frantically trying to raise his profile and take on the heir-presumptve label. But he's ghastly. He has no media presence, no speaking ability, no friends on the Labour benches apart from the Prime Minister, and far too many enemies. No-one likes a royal favourite, and Balls has been the Piers Gaveston for too long.
Miliband? Lacks gravitas to such a degree that he makes the role of foreign secretary look jejune and lightweight. Burnham, Purnell, Hutton etc? Simply too junior and uninspiring. It's really just another symptom of Brown's unwillingness to allow anybody to flourish - because he ses it as a threat. Even if it becomes obvious that the only chance for Labour to win the election is without Brown, there's no longer an alternative.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

No run-off in Zimbabwe?

News emerging from Zimbabwe is that the MDC will not participate in a second-round run-off against Mugabe. Frankly I can see their point. If the poll does go to a second round there will be widespread violence, intimidation and ballot-rigging at the end of which Mugabe will declare himself the winner.
However, this is dangerous territory. For all the ballot-stuffing irregularities of the last poll, independent observers have put Tsvangirai at a whisker under the 50% needed. If that is the case, it would be unconstitutional not to have another poll. If the MDC insists on not taking part, ZANU PF could simply ignore this, and re-run the poll anyway, claiming victory at the end.
Tsvangirai is currently in Botswana, whose new President Ian Khama has publically stated that it is time for Mugabe to go. But a victory gained through illegality would not be a good omen.

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The art of story management

So, Brown's not going to attend the opening ceremony, and has won plaudits from Hillary Clinton for this brave step. Except, of course, that he is attending the closing ceremony, and was 'never planning' to attend the opening ceremony in any event.
The problems with this for Brown are twofold. First, as Mr E eloquently points out, can this man do nothing right? It doesn't matter what happens, everything he does is turning into ridicule. The man's a walking disaster area.
Secondly, and this was touched on by Ben Brogan, this whole story appears to have been based on a misunderstanding. But then, that's really Brown's fault too - as Brogan says, last week I suggested to one Brown Centralite that the PM should start listening to the questions he's asked, and answering them.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

How to make me instantly ignore your argument

There are certain arguments, phrases, comparisons and descriptions that will always make me dismiss the speakers opinion. They grate so badly, and are either so fatuous or so instantly disprovable that I simply stop listening. A few might be, for example:
1. Tony Bliar: I didn't much like the chap, but gah, this one got on my tits. Not funny, not clever and makes the speaker sound like he's selling the Socialist Worker.
2. 'David Cameron was Lamont's special adviser on Black Wednesday...': And? He was 23 for God's sake, he wasn't devising monetary policy. It's meaningless and usually uttered in the smug tones of someone convinced they're making a show-stopping point.
3. 'The illegal invasion of Iraq': this is less irritating, I just know that I can switch off from this point on without missing any argument I haven't heard a million times before.
4. 'The rich get richer while the poor get poorer': Translates as 'I do not understand economics; please stab me in the head with a fork'.
5. 'Nazi' 'fascists' or 'apartheid': I obviously have no problem with these when they are used correctly - it's just that they never are these days. In fact, they're usually used in the context of...
6. '...Israel...': I try and switch off in self-defense now. In all honesty, I can hardly summon up the energy to give a stuff about Israel. People who obsess over it are rarely good news.
There are plenty more, but these are the ones that I have consciously noticed making me switch off. They're a verbal shorthand for 'I cannot argue, so I shall fight instead'.


Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Has it come to this?

A warm welcome to the new Ministry of the Abstract. Permanent Private Secretary, Sir Humphrey Dada and the Minister, Jim Magritte, have truly been an addition to the ferociously competent Brown cabinet. Flying mammals of all sorts can consider themselves warned.
You're next, you submarining voles...

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So it begins

This always looked like happening, once Mugabe realised that he had been so heavily defeated in the Presidential election that manipulation and ballot stuffing would be inadequate to present it as an outright victory. People have been writing as if, simply because Mugabe lost the election, this was the end of the Mugabe era. Well, maybe so but he's not going quietly.
Zimbabwe's opposition says its activists have been attacked in a campaign of "massive violence" around the country since recent elections.
"Militias are being rearmed, Zanu-PF supporters are being rearmed," said MDC Secretary General Tendai Biti.
This is going to get very ugly.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

More questions to which the answer is no

It's Mugabe season here at the Reptile, and there's a fresh brand of idiocy over at the Independent. Mugabe, in the 1960s, spent a good deal of time and energy (although he was in stir at the time, so it wasn't like he had anything else to do) negotiating with the British Government in an attempt to prevent the deportation of his wife Sally (who was, incidentally, apparently an extremely nice person. More than one analysis of Mugabe puts the critical time of his descent into lunacy as being Sally's death. Wife no. 2, Grace, is a horse of a different colour...). He was unsuccessful, which isn't that surprising as she was the penniless wife of a man who was leading what even Labour Governments at that time considered a terrorist organisation.
So, the question posed by the Indy is was this bureaucratic struggle with the Home Office the moment that finally set the Zimbabwean rebel against his former colonial rulers?
Well, no. Given that the British never were the colonial rulers in Zimbabwe.

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God, this is depressing

This, from the Times on the 'thrisis' phenomenon - where, at 35, you suddenly realise that everything in your life is pointless and depressing:
Another friend, in a reversal of the cliché, threw in the towel on the nice husband she had married at 29 just before her 35th birthday. “It wasn’t him,” she insists. “I just found myself sitting across the breakfast table from him, thinking, ‘Is this it?’ It was getting to the point where we were going to have children, and I thought, ‘I’ve got to get out.’ I felt stifled, old before my time. I literally couldn’t bear the fact that I would never feel the excitement of a first kiss again. It hadn’t bothered me when we got married, but it bothered me then.”
I think when you start to consider having children at 35 as being 'old before your time' then it's time to have a long hard look at yourself. When I was growing up, there seemed to be a nice delineation between children and adults. What was more, there was a clear progression between the two states. Matthew (probably) says, "When I was a child, I thought as a child, I spoke as a child and I understood as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things." He didn't say, "When I became a man I carried on acting like a child, just a child with later bedtimes and more pocket money."


Were sanctions the cause of Zimbabwe's collapse?

An odd article by Brendan O'Neill over at Spiked in which he puts the blame for Zimbabwe's economic collapse squarely on the shoulders of Western intervention.
A key driver of Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has been the West’s attempts to bring down Mugabe by turning the financial levers. Relentlessly, the American and British governments, and the European Union, economically punished Mugabe’s Zimbabwe for what they considered to be its political disobedience.
As to whether internal economic policy might have had anything to do with this:
It is true that foreign exchange earnings from these former white-owned farms have plummeted, causing major economic problems; but there is more to Zimbabwe than tobacco and the other cash crops once produced by the white farmers.
So, the belief that it was Mugabe’s seizure of colonial-era, white-owned commercial farms eight years ago that cause the crash is erroneous.
This is a catastrophically simplictic view - as simplistic as the view that it was only the seizure of the farms that caused the collapse. Incidentally, the majority of commercial farms in Zimbabwe had changed hands since independence, hardly surprising when one considers that the European population plummeted from 250,000 to about 50,000. In every sale of land post independence, the Zimbabwean government had the right of first refusal. Most of these farms were not 'colonial-era'.
Be that as it may, the causes of Zimbabwe's economic collapse are internal, not external. They really began in 1997, when after political agitation the veterans of the chimurenga - both real and imaginary - won traction in their campaign for financial reward. Panicked by the sight of their natural supporters turning against them, ZANU PF issued ex gratia payments of up to Z$50,000 - at a time when the exchange rate was Z$10:US$1. To pay for this unbudgeted splurge they printed extra money. The inflation that this caused led the currency to depreciate - when I was teaching there in 1997 beer, bread and newspapers (the essentials of civilized life) were still bought with coins, by the time I returned in 2000, the (real) exchange rate was already something like Z$100:US$1 - and the Z$100 note was the largest in town.
The economy was already rocky from this depreciation - apart from anything else it made imports much more expensive, and the Zim Government started defaulting on payments for oil, leading to the petrol shortages that plagued the country from about 2000 onwards. It was at this point that, alarmed by the loss of the constitutional referendum, Mugabe played the anti-colonial card and orchestrated the farm invasions. It has often been said, but it bears repetition, that agricultural exports were responsible for something like 50% of Government revenue, and 90% of hard currency. The indigenisation programme (being charitable) inevitably led to the death of the export market - landless African peasants do not have the necessary capitalisation, nor the business knowledge to continue a commercial farm.
So, with inflation already progressing, Mugabe was now faced with plummeting tax revenues. To pay the army, the civil service and doctors, teachers and so on....Mugabe printed more money. It got silly. The Government was issuing 'bearer cheques' instead of money - banknotes witrh an expiry date. They refused to print sufficiently large denomination notes 'because that might increase inflation'. Gregory Elich, quoted in Spiked, puts some of the blame on the restriction of Zimbabwean imports caused by sanctions:
The supply of oil fell sharply, and periodically ran out entirely. It became increasingly difficult to muster the foreign currency to maintain an adequate level of imported electricity, and the nation was frequently beset by blackouts. The shortage of oil and electricity in turn severely hobbled industrial production, as did the inability to import raw materials and spare parts. Business after business closed down and the unemployment rate soared...’
But this is to ignore three salient points: the first is that people were refusing to invest in Zimbabwe for good, solid business reasons: they were defaulting. The second is that Zimbabwe should be a net exporter of energy. The hydro-plant at Kariba has enough capacity to provide energy for the entire north of the country - including the energy-intensive mines at Wankie colliery. The second is that the bulk of the public power providers were coal-fired, not oil-fired, and, see above, Zimbabwe has massive coal deposits at Wankie. The third is that, even as the cash-strapped Zimbabwean Government 'couldn't afford' oil imports, they were spending a fortune in the Congo, a war in which the benefit was entirely personal - to Leo Mugabe, to Vitalis Zvinavashe and to Emerson Mnangagwa - never to Zimbabwe.
There's a nice counter-factual that suggests that a government in Zimbabwe, led by people with a basic understanding of economics, can perfectly well manage international hostility, up to and including economic sanctions significantly more onerous than the hodge-podge of ineffective and personal sanctions that have been imposed recently, without seeing their economy collapse into a death spiral of hyper-inflation, unemployment, disease, death and emigration. Because the illegal government of Rhodesia did precisely that for fourteen years of UN sanctions.
O'Neill complains that restriction of credit to a bankrupt Government have made it difficult to import oil - UN sanctions made it illegal to export oil to Rhodesia. The point about Zimbabwe is that its economic strife is entirely of its own making. In the same breath O'Neill states that the Zimbabwean Governmented was bankrupted by brutal Western sanctions, and then blames those sanctions on Mugabe's 'cheekiness' to interfere in the Congo without a green light from the US.
Zimbabwe has been destroyed by its leaders' staggering economic incompetence, and their willingess always to prioritise their personal interests over those of the country as a whole. Sanctions have, as ever, been entirely ineffective. A couple of posts back I gave an infallible method of answering articles that have questions in them: Were sanctions the cause of Zimbabwe's collapse? No.

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There, surrounded by prime ministers, presidents, international fixers and Eurocrats, everyone agrees that Brown shone. Yes, our dour prime minister was dazzling, apparently; passionate, charming, relaxed and eloquent. He loved it, I'm told, and wishes he could attend such events every weekend.

Gordon Brown: dazzling everybody.

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Scaring children, and other vote-winning ideas

I can't help thinking that the continuing success in the polls enjoyed by Boris Johnson is just too good to be true, and that we'll wake up on May 2nd to be confronted with the grinning figure of Livingstone, nasally enjoying his hold over London for at least another four years. One of the reasons that this depresses me so much is caught here in an interview with the Independent.
The mayor, "a sixty-year-old smiling public man" (as WB Yeats described himself in his poem "Among School Children") in a charcoal grey suit and undone tie, is relaxed. "You ever been to Spain?" he asks them. "How was it? Hot?" The children nod eagerly. "Well, by the time your children leave school," he tells them, "London will be as hot as that. So we'll have to plant new trees to make shade, or people will die."
Five minutes later, he's back on sewage recycling and how "the water you drink has been drunk by lots of other people right back to the dinosaurs". The children look bemused, as well they might when confronted by this kindly man who talks with such animation about people dying, weeing and waste. On the wall, one of the inspirational classroom signs bears the legend: Be a Litter Hitter. To my presbyopic eyes, it seems to read: "Be a Little Hitler."
There's something infinitely unappealing about that image: Ken Livingstone applying ludicrously exaggerated misrepresentations of climate science in order to frighten school children. And it's done in the same relentlessly demotic, mock-matey tone: it makes my flesh crawl. As john Walh says: Apart from the flood of statistics, it's that matey, smiley dirigiste strain in Livingstone's thinking that drives you nuts.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Suitable heroes?

Kevin Maguire over at the aforementioned Staggers has an interesting insight into our Supreme Leader.

Gordon Brown views himself as Demosthenes, Lycra Lout David Cameron as Cicero. The well-read premier sees a modern "parallel". Cicero made good speeches, Demosthenes got things done. Thus reopens an ancient divide in 21st-century politics.

Now, I don't expect Maguire to have any real knowledge or understanding of Attic politics in the fourth century BC, but given Gordon's historical background, I'd have hoped he wouldn't have left quite such an open goal. But then, given his knowledge of Prime Ministers in Scottish constituencies, perhaps that's optimistic.

Demosthenes, 382-322BC, was famous both as an orator (his rhetoric was described as matchless by Cicero himself) and as a statesman. Given Brown's rather tenuous ability at public speaking, as well as the spin put on it by Maguire, one can only assume that it is as a statesman that Brown wishes to be associated with him. But the history of Demosthenes as a statesman is both unfortunate and, perhaps, insightful.

He devoted his political career to the opposition of Macedon, particularly its domination of Athens. However, his vision of re-empowered Attic democracy was doomed, partly because of the relative decline of Athens's prosperity since the fifth century, and partly as a result of the collapse of the network of alliances and suzerainities after the Peloponnesian War with Sparta. Demosthenes has also been accused (by Polybius, among others) of seeing Greek politics solely through an Athenian lens, accusing Greeks from other cities as being traitors to Greece if they did not support Athens - a conflation of the 'party political' interest with the greater national interest that resonates rather with Brown.
Demosthenes's great oratory and statesmanlike skills led to the battle of Chaeronea, where Athens (and Thebes) was thoroughly defeated, securing the very Macedonian hegemony that Demosthenes had devoted his life to preventing. Interestingly, Plutarch put the defeat partially down to the poor training and equipment of the Athenian forces.
So, Demosthenes dedicated himself to the prevention of Macedonian hegemony - which hegemony his policies did much to secure. It's rather in contradiction of Maguire's description of 'getting things done'.

On the Guido side of things, there's reason for sniggering too - Demosthenes was widely criticised during his lifetime (principally by Aeschinus [actually Aeschines]) for his overly enthusiastic pederasty, as well as for abusing his position as lover of a young boy Aristarchus by getting his hands on the boy's inheritance as well as other things.

All in all, he might not be such a fantastic role model as Gordon thinks, unless a pederastic failed politician with a line in nice speeches can be considered as such.

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Questions to which the answer is no

It's a pretty good rule that whenever you see a headline with a question mark at the end, the best solution is to answer with a brisk 'no'. So, when you read in the Daily Mail 'Did ancient fish gods build the pyramids?', simply answer 'no'.
Similarly, when Sunny Hundal poses the question 'Is the problem that lefties are not angry enough?' the correct response should be pretty obvious. Especially when you consider that the problem he refers to is that the New Statesman is less popular than the Spectator.


Stabbing Mugabe in the back?

When I first saw the Guardian's front page story "Mugabe: I will quit, as long as I do not face prosecution" I was extremely sceptical. Although it would, obviously, be the best thing for Zimbabwe for him to go quietly now, even perhaps for a spirit of reconciliation to blur his recent thuggery and slaughter, it's far from obvious that Mugabe would see it that way. Reading a little further down the article, however, and I think I can see what might be going on...
The source said the party was approached by senior Zanu-PF officials who said they were speaking for Mugabe and that he is prepared to resign if there are guarantees that he and senior aides would not be prosecuted.
He said there were other demands which he did not specify but the approach was being treated with caution because officials who negotiated for Mugabe in the past had offered commitments which the president had not fulfilled. The MDC wants to talk to Mugabe directly.
This looks more than a little like some freelance negotiations are going on. I've identified the twin power bases before (Mnangagwa and Mujuru) and both of them are likely to be more than a little nervous about the prospect of their pasts catching up with them - I bet there's a warm welcome for them down in Matabeleland for example, where memories of the Gukurahundi are still pretty fresh.
My best guess is that ZANU PF is split right now between those who recognise that the game is up, and want to slip away from the table retaining as much as they can - money, freedom, and safety - and those who believe that the MDC will prove vengeful in Government, and thus that their best hope is in sticking to the Old Man for as long as he's alive, and worrying about the future later. What's not certain, of course, is who's winning the argument, or how much influence Mugabe still has...
UPDATE: Incidentally, given my view that it is the army that will ultimately decide what is allowed to happen next, it is reassuring that the same article states that the MDC's leadership has also opened direct talks with the "top, top" of the army according to the source.
The source said that the military leadership is looking for "guarantees for their conditions of service" and to keep farms confiscated from whites provided they are productive. The MDC said it has no problems with those issues
. People are clinging to Mugabe only as a guarantee of prosperity and security - if he is seen to have lost the ability to provide those, he will sink very fast indeed.

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Where now for Zimbabwe?

Well, the MDC appear to have won a very narrow majority in Parliament - probably a much narrower majority than a properly counted contest would have revealed - and look likely to have out-polled Mugabe even in the official count of the Presidential poll. But the question remains: what next?
It looks incredibly unlikely that Tsvangirai will be awarded more than 50% of the votes in the Presidential election. While it is highly probable that his actual tally was in the 60% region, ballot-stuffing and vote-rigging will be enough to make a second-round run-off inevitable. The question then will be what Mugabe will do. I doubt he will go quietly into retirement, whether in his $24m mansion in Borrowdale, or into exile in Malaysia. Mugabe's style is better fitted to raging against the dying of the light. Even at 84 I would be surprised to see him go down without a fight - even if he risks bringing the whole of Zimbabwe down with him.
So - will he resort to political violence or vote-fixing? Or both? It has been pointed out that last week's election featured a combination of strategies: first the suborning of the elctoral commission (done many years ago) then the systematic gerry-mandering of constituencies to increase the number in the rural areas where he is strong and decrease representation in the towns where he is weak; added to this was the total bias of the media, which is predominantly state run. All this was carried out well before the election took place. As it took place there was a combination of intimidation at polling stations and early closures in opposition areas. After it took place there was ballot-stuffing and miscounting. It was, in fact, a master-class in how to steal an election, with only one flaw - it's crashing lack of subtelty.
One thing that wasn't much of a feature this time around was open political violence. Unlike in previous elections, there were no reported killings, and not much outright thuggery. The risk is that, if there really is a run-off between Tsvangirai and Mugabe, this last option will be seen as Mugabe's last chance of clinging onto power. It might be about to get very messy.
Is there any way of avoiding this? Is there anyone to cut a deal? As I've mentioned before, the powers behind the tottering Mugabe throne are Emerson Mnangagwa and Solomon Mujuru, whose wife lost her seat in the election. Both have been positioning themselves as Mugabe's successors, and it is to them that Mugabe will be turning to keep him in power. A lot now depends on where these two aging thugs see their best chance of survival. Watch out for Constantino Chiwenga as well, the head of the army will be a bellwether here - if he moves away from Mugabe, it's all over for the old tyrant.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The value of a good dictionary

Another good old fashioned Heffer error on display today, in what is actually a less than usually infuriating article.

Labour has pursued policies, be they social or economic, for ideological reasons: and when they fail, as so many have, it has not been because of slipshod administration. It is because that was how things were always going to work out.

I mention this in the specific context of the House of Lords report on the benefits - or lack of them - of mass immigration. The theory applies, however, to much else, immediate or not. Some feel that mass immigration happened by accident; or that Labour's economic miracle was, indeed, so miraculous that it required hecatombs of foreigners to come here and undertake it.

Now, this is absolutely true - but it's always a good idea, when using archaic and impressive-looking words, to check that you know what they mean. The word hecatomb, for instance, looks very serious and intellectual.

a Hecatomb (Ancient Greek ἑκατόμβη / hekatómbê) was a sacrifice to the gods of 100 cattle (hecaton = one hundred)

I knew this word as it happens - it first came to my attention in a speech by Boris Johnson. He, as befits a classicist, used it in a speech about foot and mouth disease.

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