Thursday, September 30, 2004

Like political stuff?

Then check out DocuTicker (with the obligatory ta to Metafilter) - "a daily update of new reports from government agencies, ngo's, think tanks, and other groups."

Looks like a superb blogging resource, providing handy summaries of and links to various wonderful long-winded documents on a vast range of subjects. Hurrah!

From one of the recent posts:

"Recent audits expose serious failures in American oversight of Iraq's revenues and U.S. reconstruction funds, said a report by the Open Society Institute's Iraq Revenue Watch project. The audits-released in late July by the Coalition Provisional Authority Inspector General (CPA-IG)-paint a picture of disorder and negligence. Contractors made little effort to control costs, while the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was in charge of managing Iraqi reconstruction funds, failed to adhere to federally mandated procedures for awarding and overseeing contracts"

Another moan about the "yes" campaign...

Let me know if I'm boring you...

I just posted this as a comment to this post on EU Referendum. I ended up going on a bit, along the same lines as I did the other day...

The pro-European campaign has been in disarray for decades, so no surprises there. The problem is, as you hint at, that it's all being left to the second-stringers. McShane is not a good spokesman for the European cause - not only is he practically unknown in the real world, but he lacks the subtlety or knowledge to present a good case. If we don't have McShane, we get the likes of the smarmy Hain or distrusted liars Mandelson and Blair. Added to this is the fact that the only people who seem prepared to stand up and argue the case are faced with eurosceptic arguments which are often couched in black and white terms, and are foolish enough to respond in kind.

If some respected, intelligent heavy-hitters like Patten actually bothered to get involved then the debate might hot up to a level where genuine issues, benefits and problems might be discussed. Unfortunately the most prominent anti-Europe arguments are coming from the likes of Kilroy-Silk and his UKIP bretheren, and are largely based on distortions and half-truths. Rather than turn around and tell them they're talking bollocks, pro-Europeans need to demonstrate that their concerns are either unfounded (as is often the case) or that concessions are obtainable.

The EU has a lot wrong with it, certainly - that is part of what the constitution was supposed to address, but it was left in the hands of a bitter Frenchman who still hasn't quite got over how Roy Jenkins managed to get his own way at the Commission back in the late 70s. The constitution on offer is therefore not an ideal one by any means, and that is part of the problem.

After thirty+ years of prevarication we're now charging ahead with an excessively long and detailed document which isn't doing Europe any favours. Most of us pro-Europeans are such for the GOOD that the EU can offer, while being fully aware of the bad that's there. Unfortunately, to find the good in the proposed constitution is far, far more difficult than it is to find the bad.

In short, you eurosceptics have a very easy job. The public know practically nothing about the way the EU works, so will believe anything you tell them. You're working with a national press that is largely sympathetic to your arguments. You've been making the case against Europe for decades. Us pro-europeans, meanwhile, have been faffing about for as long as I can remember, certain that eventually everyone will come around to our way of thinking because, to us, it seems the right way, and mistakenly concentrating on the details that you eurosceptics keep on raising. The details are important, certainly, and even entire chunks of the EU project like the God-awful CAP (which even pro-Europeans have been trying to get reformed for at least a quarter of a century), but the broader picture is what we should ALL focus on. Flawed details can - eventually - be changed; this doesn't prevent the project as a whole from being beneficial.

And yes, before anyone points it out, I know I haven't made any specific arguments as to why I think the EU is a good thing...

1,191 : 15,033

1,191 : 15,033

Isn't liberation grand? If a similar ratio of liberating military to civilian deaths had been the case during the freeing of Europe in World War II, the total civilian dead on the continent would have been in the region of 76.4 million (as opposed to the actual top-end estimate of c.8.45 million - including holocaust dead).

In WWII there was systematic carpet-bombing of major cities (Dresden, Coventry etc.), there was the attempted genocide of an entire people, there were concentration and death camps, almost the entire continent was overrun by the Nazis and had to be won back in street-by-street fighting across several hundred miles, umpteen towns, cities and villages, and several different countries.

Yet despite all the chaos of WWII (and despite the fact the Nazis were deliberately killing civilians left, right and centre) still proportionately far fewer civilians were killed during that conflict than have been killed in Iraq.

War - huh! What is it good for?

Still, it's not as bad as it could be...

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Growls and barks in Greek, German, Polish and several other languages

Intense workloads have prevented me from posting about the questioning of the new EU Commissioners that is going on from now until 8th October. Updates on the hearings seem to be cropping up on EurActiv most of the time.

The barks and growls were in response to the appearance of Neelie Kroes, the Dutch Commissioner who has been nominated as the person in charge of competitions policy - one of the Commission's most powerful positions. Accusations of numerous conflicts of interest have been pursuing her for weeks over her past positions on the boards of twelve separate companies. Her defence is reasonable enough, ""My role is that of a referee ... We demand impartiality in applying the rules, but we also want our referees to know the game inside out," but it's not going to be enough to convince everyone, even though she has resigned all her private posts, and even though she will not handle any cases which might involve her former employers.

With Britain's own controversy-monger, Peter Mandelson (appointed to take over the Trade portfolio), still to appear, there could be some rough patches between now and 1st November, when the new Commission is set to take over. You'd think we'd all try and avoid placing more controversial figures into what is already one of the least-understood and most corrupt parts of the Euro regime, but apparently not...

Oddly, "the Parliament can only approve or vote down the entire commission and cannot pick out individual candidates for veto." This could make for tough work for the new Commission president, José Manuel Barroso. Not only has he had no say in who his subordinates are (they are nominated by individual member states and he has to work with what he's got), but he's also been lumbered with some dodgy-sounding ones.

After all the controversy of the last bunch, who were dogged throughout with the usual charges of corruption and lack of democratic accountability, it's a bit of a shame (to put it mildly) that the entire working of the Commission wasn't rethought before the new lot take over. The fact that France and Germany are both a bit miffed that their candidates haven't been given higher profile roles could create added difficulties.

Ever since Roy Jenkins' presidency, the successive heads of the Commission have been trying to get more control and say over the organisation they have to run, but to little avail. Not only does the Commission face opposition from the European Parliament, but from national governments as well. Yet without a strong Commission it is very hard to get anything done.

The whole process needs a rethink. Unfortunately, we - like Barroso - have to work with what we've got, and reform - as the efforts to sort out a workable, acceptable constitution have proved - is a tough thing to get going.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

God, we're useless

Despite my last post, the "yes" campaign has a long way to go. As long as we continue to bitch among ourselves, the stronger the "no" campaign will become. Although they may seem obvious to us, the benefits of closer co-operation with our European brothers and sisters are not at all obvious to many others, as the MORI poll results in my last post demonstrate.

We're already fighting petty-nationalism and xenophobia hanging on from not only the two World Wars, but even from the Napoleonic and Hundred Years wars. We're already fighting ignorance and an entrenched euroscepticism in the mainstream press. If we start slagging each other off, and if the "yes" vote can't finally get its arse in gear and present some logical and sensible cases for continued and ever-closer membership, then we deserve to lose.

In fact, there's a very good chance that the EU would be better off without us anyway. We're the ball and chain around the European project's ankle, constantly retarding its progress with petty objections and refusals, and moaning about how if we'd joined in '57 we could have been in charge of the whole thing. Well, guess what? We didn't join in '57, and no amount of whinging about it is going to let us adopt our "rightful place" at the heart of the EU.

We can't spend all our time throwing our toys out of the pram in a huff and then expect them to give us our own way. Sooner or later we'll end up getting a well-deserved spanking - just like we did in '61 when our application to join the original six was flatly rejected. I don't think much of De Gaulle as a politician, it must be said, but he had it spot on with that one...

We've done nothing but cause trouble ever since we entered. It's meant to be a partnership of equals - that means co-operation and compromise are essential for its success. In our relations with the EU, we have been acting just like the US is currently behaving towards the entire world: arrogant, demanding, and unsatisfied until we've not only got our own way, but got everyone else to admit we were right.

We seem to be incapable of shedding our Imperial arrogance. Well, guess what? The globe's no longer pink. It's time for Britain to accept its place as a second string nation, snuggle up nice and close to its own kind, and not go gallavanting around the shop pretending to be as influential or as powerful as the USA. If we can accept that reality then the EU may just seem like a much nicer prospect.

Oh, and before any accusations of this being "unpatriotic" start appearing, answer me this - which is more unpatriotic - acting in partnership with as many other countries as possible in an attempt to increase the chances of a peaceful and prosperous existence for your country, or irritating people left right and centre with belligerency which not only invites both violent and diplomatic retaliation but also drains your country of finances which could be spent on healthcare and education?

Europhobic or Euroignorant?

The eurosceptic EU Referendum blog points me in the direction of The Foreign Policy Centre's website, and a pdf download entitled "The Referendum Battle". It is, as EU Referendum points out, effectively a plan of attack for the "yes" campaign, and as such looks like interesting reading. (Well, interesting if you're interested in that sort of thing - otherwise it's probably mind-numbingly tedious...)

Some bits, in a vague attempt at a summary of a 42-page document which I don't really have time to read properly:

"At present a major disadvantage for the 'yes' cmpaign is the widespread ignorance about the European constitutional treaty in particular and the EU ingeneral. This allows the euro-sceptic press to print scare stories and misinformation about the EU including the claims that the constitution will be a threat to national identity and will lead to a European super state... MORI shows that the more people know about the EU, the more likely they are in favour of it."

Us British are insular nationalists. Hurrah! (No indication of regional splits, however, or of the relative levels of support/opposition in Scotland and Wales compared to England, or of how ethnic minority voters feel about the situation, although there are later gender, age, political party allegiance and social class comparisons...)

"most Britons do not think of themselves as European - 62 per cent consider themselves 'British not European' rather than partly or totally European. this is easily the highest level among the EU15 average of 40 per cent... in the same survey 55 per cent of Britons declared themselves 'very proud to be British'... the corresponding figures for the French and Germans were 38 per cent and 19 per cent respectively. In such a climate of opinion, a supra-national body whose opponents portray it as weakening British nationality and independence needs to argue a strong case to gain acceptance."

But it's not all doom and gloom:

"On none of the three issues [the constitution, the euro and continued EU membership] have even half the public definitely made up their minds."

"Hostility to the EU does not necessarily imply opposition to a constitution which will in some ways restrict its operations. Indeed... Britain is in favour of 'a constitution for the European Union' by 42 per cent to 24 per cent. But there seems to be much less support for the specific constitution now being proposed - or, at east, for that constitution as it is perceived, filtered through the reporting of the British media and interpreted by its political supporters and opponents."

One to make us smarty-pants types feel smug:

"Support... increases the higher the level of educational achievement. People with no formal qualifications are nine times more likely to say they strongly oppose the constitution than strongly support it."

And some hope for the "yes" campaign":

"there is a qualitative difference between the majority of strong opposers of the constitution and those who are 'generally opposed' but might change their minds - they differ not just in strength of vies on a single scale but in the whole foundation of those views" two-thirds of committed opponents are anti-EU in principle, while the same is true of only a handful of waverers. The latter must not be treated as if they are simply a more moderate version of the hard-line Eurosceptics, but recognised as a different species of voter altogether."

The major problem:

"Almost three-quarters of the public assess their knowledge of 'the european Union, its policies, its institutions and bodies' at 5 or less on a 10-point scale. More objective measurements of knowledge point in the same direction. Only 41 per cent of the british public have even heard of the EU Council of Ministers; 55 per cent say positively that they have not..."

"The British public's acceptance that it has a low degree of knowledge of Europe's political institutions has several implications. First, it may lead to an underestimation of the Eu's real importance, thereby reducing the issue's salience (and feeding a vicious circle of further reluctance to find out more about it). This also implies a low level engagement with European political institutions, and low turnout at European elections, and perhaps also at the referendums."


"this feeling that, in the normal routine, Europe is not an issue to be worried about seems to relect a perception that, at the moment at least, the EU is not important. Also... MORI found that the European Union is seen as having less impact on people's everyday lives than either national or local political institutions, and less than the media and business."


In other words, eurosceptic claims of Brussels bureaucracy interfering in people's lives are not believed. There is hope for us yet...

Press speculation ahoy!

The Guardian, Times and Independent all seem to have read more into Brown's speech yesterday than was necessarily there. Is this the usual nonsense, or is there actually something going on?

Guardian: Chancellor Swipes at Blair and Milburn

Times: Turf War Haunts Blair's Speech

Indy: Brown's Assault by Stealth

This is all especially confusing as, in another article, the Guardian states that "Party chiefs in Brighton last night breathed a collective sigh of relief after the chancellor's annual conference speech... was judged to be a unifying force and not the feared assault on Blairism."

Hang about - confusing? what am I saying? It's the same old rubbish as always. Neither Blair nor Brown are stupid enough to bugger around with the leadership at this stage. If there is going to be a change of leader it will almost certainly be a mutual decision, and almost certainly come after the next General Election, not before.

And yes, I do see the irony of slagging off speculation and then indulging in it myself...

Monday, September 27, 2004

The materials are there. It is just time that's short.

A very good piece by Linda Colley on the US elections (as if there aren't already enough pieces on the bloody things) in today's Guardian which I've only just noticed. It says nothing particularly new, by it is a very good clarification of the problems that Kerry is facing. Worth a look at any rate.

Europe to Bush: Go Away

The San Francisco Chronicle wins today's best headline award, as well as the award for stating the bloody obvious. A majority of Europeans would prefer to see Bush lose in November? Well I never!

Meanwhile, oil prices hit a record high - largely thanks to the foreign policies of failed ex-oilman George W Bush - and the world continues to go to hell. The only people who can save us all are the US voters who seem incapable of deciding who's better to have as a head of state - a recovering alcoholic religious fundamentalist (who happens to be fairly charismatic) or a genuinely intelligent and reasonable war hero (who happens to be a bit dull).

And so, on this side of the Atlantic, the EU vs US debate will continue to hot up over the weeks leading up to the inevitable Bush victory, as Europe collectively shits itself at the prospect of four more years of the man's warmongeringly disasterous foreign policy. In the Guardian, Roy Hattersley argues not just that a European superstate is inevitable, but that it's a good thing (something EU-Serf evidently has some strong opinions about), and EU Referendum counters with a pro-America, anti-Labour diatribe.

Yep, in the absence of a US President that anyone other than the most rabid political maniacs can agree with (failed Tory party leader Iain Duncan-Smith on why Bush is great here - reg required), the Euro squabbles are going to continue for a fair while yet.

Who knows? Perhaps if (when) Bush gets his second term the sheer horror may be enough for the eurosceptics to overcome their aversion to their European cousins. Four more years of helping the US blow the living hell out of third world countries while being rewarded by trade embargos, increased pollution and ever-increasing risks of terrorist retaliation may just be enough to demonstrate that maybe the "Special Relationship" isn't quite all it's cracked up to be...

Could Bush inadvertantly end up the saviour of the European project? Could this be the silver lining of the Bush presidency that we've all been searching for for so long?

Propaganda, pledges and polls

Well, the Labour membership have apparently managed to force a vote about the Iraq war at the conference, but this still doesn't stop the party's website clogging itself up with unintuitive design, little easily-accessible content, constant demands for money, and Q&A sessions filled with stooge questions. Could this be because genuine members might ask slightly awkward ones, perchance?

Meanwhile Gordon Brown chugs on apace as the new face of caring, sharing Labour:

"Last night Mr Brown pledged £100m a year to help debt relief for 32 of the poorest nations. He promised to write off Britain's share of the countries' debts to the World Bank and the African Development Bank. The move, part of increased aid budgets announced in this summer's three-year spending review, was designed to encourage the international community to speed efforts to write off Third World debt."

Elsewhere, more reports of Brown's speech seem to make it look like he's going for the business vote alongside the fair trade one:

"Facing a global recovery that is uneven and still fragile, where oil prices have doubled and imbalances worsened, I will tell the G7 and IMF when I travel to Washington later this week that we will take no risks with inflationary pay deals ... no short-termism, no easy options, no irresponsible pre-election promises."

Can Brown really appeal to all constituencies simultaneously? Hell, why not - Blair managed it back in '97, after all...

Oh, and speaking of Blair, The Times runs one of those classic pointless polls which tells us nothing we don't know already - namely that Blair's less popular than he was, but that no one's going to vote Tory anyway. Hurrah!

And even as I write this, the full text of Gordon Brown's speech pops up online - he had a three minute standing ovation, apparently. Not amazing, but it'll be interesting to see how Tony's received in comparison. But was this bit somewhat pointed?

"I believe that we have shown that when we make a compelling case and trust the progressive instincts of the British people we can build a shared sense of national purpose, we can build a progressive consensus that inspires the country..."

Plus Gordon manages to slag off both the US and EU:

"learning from but different from America whom I admire for its enterprise but where - with 45 million without health insurance - great economic success is not matched by great social justice... learning from but different from the rest of Europe which has greater social cohesion but where, with 19 million out of work, that social cohesion is not matched by economic dynamism."

Is he really starting to build up the patriotic argument? What is Brown's game at the moment?

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Gordon's Alive!

Well, well, well... Seems like the Chancellor's all over the shop in the run-up to the Labour Conference. Following yesterday's fluff-piece in the Guardian magazine, today Gordon Brown gets a surprsingly favourable interview in the pro-Tory Telegraph (registration required) and the Sunday Times magazine runs a long article which effectively concludes that Gordon Brown is the best Chancellor of the Exchequer pretty much ever:

"Following the ERM humiliation, our economic record has enjoyed the longest period of growth for at least 200 years and a performance superior to most of our competitors for the first time in the modern era... The Treasury, more than any other government department, affects all our lives. The Gordon Brown era... has seen it extend its influence greatly. The Treasury has masterminded the huge increase in funding for health and education... It can claim to be presiding over a new golden age of prosperity for our households."

What does this all point to for the Conference? The media-friendly Blair has kept a low profile since the Ken Bigley kidnapping business; Brown usually tries to stay away from the limelight, and rarely gives interviews, now two come along at once. Why is he allowing the media spotlight to focus on him once again? Are there moves afoot in the Brown camp? Will this conference finally see the long-speculated about leadership challenge?

It is doubtful a direct challenge will happen - Brown's far too astute to risk a contentious leadership battle with (almost certainly) less than a year to go before a General Election. But if, as the Telegraph suggests and as was reported a couple of weeks back, Blair really has been considering stepping down, could the infamous Granita deal finally be amicably concluded?

The only worry is the US elections. If Bush stays in, as looks increasingly likely, keeping Blair as PM would be sensible for the extremely (scarily?) close relationship the two men seem to have built up. If Kerry gets in, it makes far, far more sense for Brown to take over - he and Kerry are already close friends, and together they can set about clearing up the messes the Blair/Bush partnership has created.

Ignoring the impact of diplomatic relations, if Blair were to announce that he is going to step aside in favour of Brown after the next General Election, it could be a very sound move in terms of building domestic support. Blair's current unpopularity threatens to damage Labour in the polls and perhaps seriously threaten the party's majority in the Commons, whereas Brown is fairly clear of blame over the whole Iraq thing and continues to be as popular and apparently as successful as ever.

By announcing he'll step aside after the election, Blair could spin it that any seat losses were due to the leadership uncertainty, rather than on the public's dislike for him and his policies. At the same time he can ensure that Labour maintains the appearance of a united front - and that the party continues to be fronted by one of the most successful political figureheads of the post-war era throughout the run-up to the election. Meanwhile, via interviews, television appearances, positive comments from unlikely sources and the like, Brown can slowly build up the public's perception of him to one which more closely matches that of a potential Prime Minister - the loving, affable, hard-working and intelligent family man that he apparently is.

This conference could turn out to be interesting...

Between Iraq and a hard place

Kerry has pretty much ditched attempts to fight the election on the basis of domestic policy and is staking it all on ruining Bush's credentials over foreign policy and the war on terror. So, will this work?

The smart money says no, but Kerry is not in a position to choose the issues that will dominate media coverage (if not necessarily the minds of the electorate). The sad fact is that the Democrats have been trying to put domestic policy on the agenda; trying and failing. This is there only option, and it is an equally sad fact that the Iraq debacle has not caused anything like the level of dissent seen in the UK, or in America during the Vietnam era.

However, let's see how things stand in a few more years.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Running across the hills of Fife while talking about international development policy

Great profile/interview with Gordon Brown in today's Guardian magazine - here.

"When people talk about party politics it is almost purely in the sense of ambitions - who's up, who's down, who's in, who's out. But it would be outrageous if that's what drove people on. The only point of being around is to get something done."

But rather than the politics, this is a great insight into Brown the man. Could the Guardian be trying to build up public sympathy for him prior to a full-on leadership bid? Who cares? It's a nice piece, and he comes across as a genuinely decent bloke. A rare thing in politics...

Turkish Delight

Bad pun, sorry... But there seems to be a lot of interest over the possibility of Turkey joining the EU at the moment.

Turkey should, I believe, at some stage become a full member of the EU. It is, after all, already a member of NATO; it has a decent stock of gold to help maintain its moderately successful economy; its political system is suitably "Western" (a President is elected for seven year terms, but has no role in the executive and cannot be linked to a political party, the 550-seat Grand National Assembly is elected by proportional representation on five year terms); it has been constitutionally secular since 1928, despite remaining primarily Islamic; as part of the former Ottoman and Byzantine Empires, it shares a common history with Europe.

There are two major problems with Turkish entry, however. The first is the country's horrendous record on human rights. But this is apparently set to change. The second is its massive, practically unpolicable border to the south and east, which could enable a massive influx of illegal immigrants and/or terrorists into the EU. And we all know how much everyone hates illegal immigrants and terrorists...

There is, in certain quarters, another concern, and one which demonstrates that some people still haven't quite worked out the mistakes of the past. Europe is linked by culture, certainly, but by no means simply by Christianity, as some would have it - that has been one of the most divisive elements throughout European history, splitting east from west during the Great Schism and tearing the west apart further during the hunts for heretics, the Reformation and the Wars of Religion. As Josep Borrell, the President of the European Parliament, has himself said, "The Issue of Turkey's EU membership should not be assessed on religious terms."

It matters not a jot that Turkey is a Muslim country - what matters is that it is a constitutionally secular one. At the moment its justice system needs reforming, its human rights record needs severe improvements, and its economy could do with a boost (plus there's the slight problem of Cyprus, and that it is only just over twenty years since the last military coup). There is opposition to be overcome, but there are few genuine reasons to refuse Turkey entry.

Most importantly, Turkey has long been the gateway between Europe and Asia, and the meeting-point of European and Arabic cultures. It was through Turkey that Europe rediscovered the lost texts of Ancient Greece and Rome, and managed to emerge from the Dark Ages; it was through Turkey that Europe discovered the spice trails to India and China, opening up a whole new world of trade. Without Turkey's impact, Europe would be a very, very different place - no Aristotelian philosophy, no cinnamon sticks to stir your coffee with. Yes, this was all centuries ago and I'm being rather glib again, but we still owe them something, and the major point is we share a common history with Turkey just as much as with Russia, Hungary and Spain.

Turkey should be confident. The objections will quickly be overcome if Turkey can reform itself. The danger will come if Turkey fails to reform itself enough, or if certain European nations scupper the plans for it to join. Pushing Turkey closer to the more extreme Islamic nations of the Middle East - when it could be acting as a negotiator and ideological bridge to improve European relations with them - would only be a bad thing, for Europe, for Turkey, and for the world.

Friday, September 24, 2004

UN-decisive

Even people like me who think the UN is a superb institution agree that it needs to be reformed. I agree that it failed in the Balkans, and I'd suggest it's currently failing in the Sudan. Expanding the Security Council is the current proposal - whether this will work, or just ensure that there are even more potential vetoes on any UN action, and thus that it becomes as ineffectual as certain Americans seem to think it is already remains to be seen.

Either way, it is about time that Japan and Germany were considered for permanent places on the Council. They are two of the largest economies in the world, and both have direct experience of being caught up in internal madness which has led to lots of death and destruction. The insight this might allow into future conflicts and the need for intervention could be invlauable.

Nonetheless, I can see where former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt is coming from when he says "It's not in Germany's interest to take part in every important decision over war and peace around the world and be responsible for the consequences" - after all, look at the consequences facing Britain and the US after intervening in Iraq...

And while it seems only the Germans have a problem with Germany joining, Japan's potential membership is not so popular. the Japanese have been singularly unsuccessful in convincing their neighbours that they are no longer the same country that viciously invaded, raped, burned and gassed their populace during the 1930s and 1940s. Plus there's the slight problem of the Japanese Constitution which, though not quite so much of a sacred document as its American counterpart (on which it was heavily based) is nonetheless avowedly pacifist. How can a pacifist nation make a useful contribution to a council whose purpose is to decide on military intervention?

More confusing still is the inclusion of Brazil and India on the list of nominees. Include India, Pakistan will be pissed off - hardly a good idea after the on-off nuclear standoff in the Indian sub-continent of the last decade. Include Brazil, there is another country with a permanent seat (after China and, depending on who you ask, Russia) with a horrendous record of human rights abuses.

The UN needs to reorganise, that's for certain, but this whole thing sounds rather like it hasn't been properly thought through, or considered for long enough. A bit like my last post, now I come to think about it...

The latest threat: Frail 87-year-olds

I'm still trying to work this out. According to Crooked Timber, the highly-respected 87 year old Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has been deported from the United States. It seems like no one is quite aware yet what the reasoning is.

But the fact remains that Hobsbawm is a highly respected figure in the world of academia, and - just to emphasise the point - EIGHTY-SEVEN YEARS OLD. What danger can he pose? When I saw him give a lecture at Birkbeck College, London (of which he is President) a couple of years back, he was already looking frail. I doubt the intervening two years have improved his health to the extent he could be considered a threat to anyone.

Are his well-known opinions, which have been espoused in umpteen books stretching back five decades and disputed by umpteen others, really so subversive? And if they're getting rid of Hobsbawm, who mostly pronounces on the 19th century, how long until "subversive" views on more recent events start to be suppressed? How long until the Chomskies and Moores of this world find Uncle Sam come banging at their door?

Yes, Hobsbawm is an unapologetic communist, but I thought we'd stopped fighting those guys already? In fact, didn't we win that one? After the Cat Stevens business the other day, it's beginning to make me wonder if the US has finally forgotten that little thing called "The Constitution" of which they always seems so proud. I seem to recall it mentioning something about freedom of expression and stuff in there...

EDIT: D'oh! Colour me stupid. Fell for it hook, line and sinker. Crooked timber folks, you are bastards. Still, it wouldn't actually surprise me...

Thursday, September 23, 2004

"I would fight him with my fists, my feet and my teeth..."

As autumn draws in with frosty crispness and burnished leaves thoughts naturally turn to Teddy Roosevelt, whose comment to a friend on how he would fight off a would-be assassin (he came to the presidency after the murder of President McKinley in 1901) is paraphrased above.
He occupied the White House from 1901 to 1908, declining a third term (almost guaranteed because of his immense popularity) due to the long held tradition of a two-term limit, going back to Washington's own refusal to serve for a third time.
Writer, rancher, cowboy, New York Police Commissioner, Deputy Secretary of the Navy, Nobel peace prize winner and Colonel in the Spanish-American war, Roosevelt remained fiercely independent and idealistic, storming into the pro-industrial Republican party at a time when clashes between labour and capital were coming to prominence. Roosevelt straddled the delicate tightrope between the two, neither bowing to populism on the part of the workers nor to pressure from the big-money men of American industry. This was unacceptable to the industrialists who wanted a puppet president and were greatly cheered when Roosevelt bowed out, leaving pleasant but pliable William Taft.
In 1912, disgusted at what he perceived as a blatant pro-industry bias on the part of the Taft administration Roosevelt threw his hat into the ring for the Republican nomination (there was no formal limit to Presidential terms until after the 12-year reign of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and 40s). The clear winner in the primaries, shady backroom deals at the convention denied Teddy the nomination.
Undeterred, Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate (or fourth - also in the running was the socialist Eugene Debs). The 1912 election was a true watershed in American politics. It was here, with the rise of Woodrow Wilson, that the Democrats took on their internationalist reputation (their agrarian, anti-industrial roots developed into future close links with organised labour). It was here that American socialism came closest to recognition (Debs was subsequently jailed by a vindictive Wilson for making remarks against his administration). And it was here that the Republicans became the party we know today. the party that, for better or worse, believes in free-market over regulation and - logically therefore - in capital over labour.
Moreover, it was here that the last progressive Republican was defeated. From here on in, the party would be represented by good ole industry boys like Hoover, Coolidge and Bush (jr), foaming-mouthed reactionaries like Goldwater and Reagan, or grey functionaries like Bush (sr), Dole and Ford. The exceptions to this are one bang on MOR conservative (Eisenhower) and a foul-mouthed crook (and admittedly founder of the almost defunct EPA) - Nixon.
Theodore Roosevelt was the last renaissance man to serve as president. He was the last Republican to do so whom one could refer to as moderate (or even radical) rather than conservative. He has to rank on a par with Kennedy and Reagan in terms of popular appeal. And he's the all-action hero of a cracking comic book.
If a better man of such fully-rounded character and uninhibited idealism has occupied the presidency, I'd like to know about him.
So charge your glasses, and drink to Theodore Rex!

Compare and Contrast

Via Bloggerheads, an interesting post pointing out the somewhat unusual attitude the UK seems to have towards terrorism, which was itself a follow-up to another interesting post.

Why am I bemoaning the UKIP for being fascist? We're pretty much living in a fascist state anyway. Hurrah for David Blunkett! The terrorists are winning.

“One of the greatest acts of political plagiarism ever”

Yep, Twatty McTwatface is at it again, accusing Michael Howard of nicking his wonderful ideas on immigration. (The fact that the UKIP's immigration policy which Howard has supposedly pinched was itself copied off Canada and Australia seems to have been conveniently forgotten. But Kilroy's never been one for understatement, let's face it.)

Howard is a disaster. I doubt I need to explain why beyond point out that the Tories have singularly failed to make any significant gains in the polls despite Labour continuing to go through one of its most disasterous and unpopular periods in office. They're getting desperate, and still vainly trying to appeal to the right when they should be trying to win over the centre, where the majority of swing voters lie.

This latest wheeze also means the Tories now openly and consciously share policies with fascists. Because the UKIP are fascists, make no mistake. Cuddly ones, maybe, but biggoted, racist fucks all the same. Considering Howard's Jewish heritage, you'd think he'd know better.

Oh, but sorry - I'm being ignorant. The UKIP "are not racist. We vehemently and vigorously reject all racist language and action. We will not tolerate any discrimination on the grounds of race – or colour or creed, or indeed age or sex. We will be oustpoken in condemning racism wherever and whenever it occurs."

So that's alright then. And it's good to see that they're so critical of racism that they'd never ponder hiring anyone who, say, got sacked from two jobs for writing a racist article in a piss-poor national newspaper.

Hiring Kilroy's certainly got the UKIP a lot more press than they deserve. But his high-profile and tendency to speak out without permission seems to be getting on their tits - why else would they issue a press release stating "We wish to make it crystal clear that Roger Knapman is the Leader of the UK Independence Party"?

"I need you to help me now, Mr Blair,

because you are the only person on God's earth who can help me... I don't want to die, I don't deserve it and neither do the women deserve to be prisoners... Mr Blair, I am nothing to you. It's just one person in the whole of the United Kingdom, that's all. With a family like you've got a family, with children, like your children, your boys, your wife. Please, you can help, I know you can. These people are not asking for the world, they're asking for their wives and the mothers of their children."

For fuck's sake. Kenneth Bigley will almost certainly be dead by the end of today. No concessions are going to be made to his kidnappers (no concessions HAVE been made, despite appearances yesterday) and he will be beheaded on video like the rest.

Was it worth it, Mr. Blair? Was your pathetic excuse for your illegal war worth it?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Everyone hates the UKIP

In my continuing trawl of blog type things, I happened across this little entry from a eurosceptic blog I noticed a while back. Sounds like the UKIP MEPs are (surprise, surprise) a bunch of thugs. However,

"Strangely, although there were journalists present, nothing of the fracas reached the pages of the UK national press. Nor was there any report published of Kilroy-Silk's campaigning speech in Hartlepool last Saturday, even though the venue was well attended by "Fleet Street's finest".

"Described as "overtly racist" by one observer, one wonders why more was not made of it."


My own views of Kilroy have already been aired. The guy is not charming, intelligent or amusing, he's a tit. As are the rest of the populace of his sorry party. It started off as a fairly respectable, if misguided, coalition - now it is just a joke:

"the UKIP MEPs are regarded as "English buffoons" in the European parliament, a bunch of clowns who do not have the first idea of what they are doing"

Crap CAP

Good point, well made. It certainly is about time to sort out the CAP - probably the EU's single biggest failure, I can't deny it.

However, opening up the EU market to third world nations probably wouldn't make that much of an impact in itself, as they'd likely find transport costs prohibitively expensive and wouldn't be able to compete with local produce (which would, under any kind of CAP reform, almost certainly remain subsidised). I mean, have you noticed the price of "Fair Trade" coffee? It's extortionate in comparison to the often equally decent "unfair" alternatives...

What would certainly make a difference is if the EU stopped dumping its surplus on poorer nations, thus driving down prices and making it practically impossible for the local agrarian economies to flourish. There have been suggestions that the EU's surplus produce could be given away as aid, but that wouldn't help stimulate depressed third world economies either. It's the whole "give a man a fish" scenario all over again.

In any case, nice to see another Euroblogger, even if I imagine we probably disagree on more issues than not...

Choice

The Lib Dems are exasperating more than just me by the looks of things. An interesting post here by Oliver Kamm (who I haven't come across before, so have yet to make a judgement beyond him seeming perhaps a tad pretentious, like most of the rest of us bloggers) points out their current attempts to come up with a new description for their political ideology are a tad shaky.

All that many British Labour voters are looking for is an alternative party, and the Lib Dems should be the ideal choice - after all, they were founding by a bunch of former Labour MPs, share many of the same views, but don't have Blair in charge and aren't the Tories. What more could you want?

But Kamm's post also pointed me towards a Guardian article that I'd missed somehow. In it, Matthew Taylor, Chairman of the Lib Dems, makes some interesting points, not least that

"Liberal Democrats refuse to be pigeonholed into left or right. We believe that the 20th-century division into left and right failed... Take this example. David Blunkett and David Davis would both leave asylum seekers destitute, want every citizen to carry an ID card and have supported the removal of the right to silence. Left and right, but equally illiberal. Liberal Democrats oppose these measures because we believe it is vital to protect the citizen from an over-mighty state. So the press label us leftwing. We say it's liberal."

That's pretty much my position - on certain issues my views would be considered right-wing, on others I'd be on the left. It isn't necessary to buy completely into one set political ideology - that's when the problems start (and why I doubt I will ever join any political party) and is unhealthy for any democracy.

The whole point of a democracy is freedom of choice, so why tie yourself to one set of opinions or one party when there might be better viewpoints and alternatives if you bother to look around a bit? Blind voting for the Tories led to 18 years of disappointment and anger; blind voting for Labour seems to be leading to a similar number of years of frustration. This doesn't HAVE to be a two-party system - after all, look at the trouble America's in...

Oh, and here's a thought - why is it that in Britain if you are pro-European you are automatically labelled left-wing? The EU is dedicated to furthering trade and industry, and effectively promoting protectionist policies to anyone outside its little club. You can't get much more capitalist than that - so why are most right-wingers in this country opposed to it? It couldn't, perchance, be because they're xenophobic racists?

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Three (and a half) lessons in basic etiquette

1) Greeting of your guests is always important. When welcoming delegates to the United States, saying " Welcome to the United States of America" is a perfectly respectable way to go about it. But make sure you are actually IN the United States when you do it, and not in the central chamber of the United Nations. People might get the idea you are trying to stamp your authority on a place in which all nations and delegates are meant to be more or less equal.

1a)
Would you greet Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with "Hey Liz! How ya doin'?" followed by a sturdy slap on the back? Would you greet the Pope with a "Hey, Johnny!"? No. So don't greet the Secretary General of the United Nations like that.

2) If you are trying to outline the largely beneficial humanitarian aid programmes you have helped instigate to combat the likes of AIDS and tuberculosis, try not to spell out precisely how much you have given to the recipients. Not only is it rather vulgar to brag about one's charitable donations, but the recipients might begin to get the impression that perhaps you want something in return, and maybe even that future promised donations may not be forthcoming unless they comply with your requests. This feeling may be heightened if you pointedly look in their direction while spelling out the statistics.

3) Using idealistic-sounding calls to arms at the end of a speech, such as "Each of us alone can only do so much - together, we can accomplish so much more" is always a nice touch. But try and sound as if you mean it, even if you are beginning to tire out a bit. Certainly don't appear to give a little grin to your advisors, who are all hoping that this can take the wind from a certain political opponent's sails by pinching his line. Also, it might be remembered that actions speak rather louder than words.

Yes, George Bush spoke today before the United Nations. The written text of the speech makes it sound almost exceptionally reasonable - the subtext was all brought out in the delivery, and it was faintly terrifying. (The "Hey Kofi" bit was from some pre-speech BBC footage shown earlier this evening on the BBC's excellent Newsnight.)

---

As an addendum - I do like Kofi Annan. Having recently declared the Iraq war illegal, thus effectively labelling Bush, Blair and their cohorts aggressive international criminals on a par with Osama Bin Laden, he now makes a pointed reference to certain countries' tendencies to be less than enthusiastic when it comes to enforcing human rights.

Could he also be suggesting that America may have a few issues in this regard when pointing out that "Again and again, we see fundamental laws shamelessly disregarded - those that ordain respect for innocent life, for civilians, for the vulnerable... No cause, no grievance, however legitimate in itself, can begin to justify such acts. They put all of us to shame... we must start from the principle that no-one is above the law, and no-one should be denied its protection... Those who seek to bestow legitimacy must themselves embody it; and those who invoke international law must themselves submit to it..."

Hurrah for Kofi Annan! The world needs more like him.

Amidst all the excitement of Boris

I missed the launch yesterday of another new political blog, courtesy of Blogcritics. This looks like it could well be worth following as a handy aggregate of a number of different perspectives on the US political scene.

If anyone knows of any other particularly fine political blogs - especially Eurocentric ones (preferably English, but French works at a push) - please do let me know. I'm still fairly new at this blogging business, and am spending a lot of my time following links around the shop in desperate search for the best sources of inspiration available. Can't be relying on The Guardian all the time, after all...

Sporting unity

Some good points raised by A Gentleman's Commonplace about the recent European Ryder Cup victory:

"There is, after all, nothing like a common enemy... to bring Europeans together and for once the UK can join the party."

As anyone in Britain during the football earlier this summer, or the rugby earlier in the year, cannot have failed to notice, for some reason sport does seem to unite people behind their country like very little else. Golf is hardly the ideal vehicle, being somewhat dull to put it mildly, but sport could well serve as a useful way of getting us notoriously anti-European Brits thinking like the Europeans we geographically and culturally are.

Quite what other sports would lend themselves to having a European team I don't know. But Rugby might be a good test case. We already have the British Lions, made up of the best players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales - why not include decent players from France and Italy, and stage exhibition matches against a combined force of the southern hemisphere? Not only would that make for a damn fine match, but it would gain support for a joint European venture from the traditionally Eurosceptic middle-class middle Englanders who are rugby union's biggest fanbase. A small step, mayhap, but potentially an important one. Or what about a combined European football team against a combined Latin American one? Give me a single soccer fan who wouldn't want to see that one.

The EU needs to continue fostering a shared identity between its disparate member states if the project is going to advance. I'm not by any means advocating a shift to federalism here, but it is simply the case that if the EU is going to continue to achieve anything at all, the common ground between all us Europeans needs to be emphasised more than it has been so that political agreements can more easily be reached. Is golf the first step?

Lib Dems policy problems

As it's conference season and all, it's only proper to have a looksee. This blog is mostly focussing on foreign affairs, but for a change, a bit of UK domestic policy - specifically, the dole.

On coming to power, Labour made a number of changes to unemployment benefits, one of the best of which was the New Deal. The basic idea is simple - after a few months on the dole, you'd be sent on training courses to improve your employability and encouraged to do voluntary work / work expereience to bolster your CV. In fact, without doing this, technically you would become unable to claim benefit. At the same time, firms would be part-subsidised to employ New Dealers, thus lessening the drain on the state that continuing to fund people sitting on the dole would entail.

All very well and good, and a halfway decent system (should you buy into the concept of a welfare state, that is). The only trouble is it allows for no distinction between the unemployable layabout with no qualifications (and no interest in or hope of getting a job) and the kind of highly-qualified, experienced professional that may find themselves temporarily redundant. Sitting in a dole office being offered courses in basic MS Word, "keyboard skills" and the like is hardly relevant for someone who has spent the previous six years in an office, but has had a run of bad luck when it comes to finding work.

So, at their conference, the Lib Dems have announced their plans to scrap the New Deal. I personally wouldn't go so far as to say it's a "shambolic failure", although the statistics quoted by Paul Holmes (Liberal Democrat Shadow Minister for Work) certainly do seem to demonstrate that it needs a rethink.

Holmes notes that "Making people jump through unnecessary hoops in a 'one size fits all' system is not the way to tackle entrenched unemployment." Very true. But what are the Lib Dems' proposals going to be other than scrap it, and how are these plans going to tally with Lib Dem Shadow Chancellor Vincent Cable's assertion that "Economic discipline and credibility are essential. But we intend to balance these economic imperatives with greater social justice"?

It's all very well prioritising pensions, policing and education, but does this mean the little money there currently is being channeled towards helping people back to work is going to be redirected to pensioners who can no longer work? How will that help the economy, exactly? How does this tally with Cable's professed belief that "Without wealth creation there is no wealth to spread"? He then states "That is why I emphasise the traditional liberal message - from Adam Smith to today - that markets must be allowed to work; trade should be free; private enterprise should not be shackled by excessive regulation; and private and state monopolies should be opened up to competition." But subsidising private enterprise to help reduce unemployment figures, which is partly what the New Deal does, can surely only help stimulate business, not only by reducing outlay on salaries, but by getting private enterprise to provide on-the-job training and thus produce a new generation of skilled workers. What, if anything, do the Lib Dems propose to replace the New Deal with?

You see, the thing is I actually genuinely like the Lib Dems. Might even vote for 'em. But they, like the Tories, have a tendency to talk in very vague terms, making broad generalisations and identifying flaws in the government's policies without coming up with specific alternatives of their own. If they are going to succeed in their aim to overtake the Tories as Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition they need to pull their fingers out in the remainder of this conference week and give a public dying to have an alternative to Blair a reason to vote for them.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Boris goes live!

Hurrah! Everyone's favourite British politician starts his own blog, and all thanks to the sterling efforts of Manic.

Here it is, the long-awaited Boris Johnson.com!

Hurrah! Let's keep our fingers crossed he finds the time to stick with it.

Victimisation

Gary Younge writes an interesting piece in the Guardian on the tendency of America and others to excuse irrational behaviour through claiming the moral high ground of victimisation. It seems as though other people are beginning to feel the same way I do.

"They portray America's pain as a result of 9/11 not only as unique in its expression but also superior in its intensity.

"When 3,000 people died on September 11, Le Monde declared: "We are all Americans now." Around 12,000 civilians have died in Iraq since the beginning of the war, yet one waits in vain for anyone to declare that we have all become Iraqis, or Afghans, let alone Palestinians. This is not a competition. Sadly, there are enough victims to go around. Sadder still, if the US continues on its present path, there will be many more. Demanding a monopoly on the right to feel and to inflict pain simply inverts victimhood's regular contradiction - the Bush administration displays material strength and moral weakness."

Blair, Brown and the Euro

The rather bitter-sounding book by Derek Scott, one of Tony Blair's former advisors, is getting a lot of coverage at the moment. A section was extracted yesterday in the eurosceptic Sunday Times, which (amongst the vitriol, speculation and attempts to sound clever) had some good points that can help to clarify thinking on British attitudes towards European monetary union (Emu). I'm quoting bits here as much for my reference as anything:

"Views in Britain about European monetary union (Emu) can be divided into three camps. First, those for whom the economics of the single currency are irrelevant, such as Edward Heath. Next, there are those who think it is economically flawed and politically a step too far. A third group want to join because they believe that there are distinct political advantages, but they think that the economics have to be “right” — and it is not always clear what “right” means."

I'd certainly go with that, to an extent. There is also a fourth group - the rabid "patriots", the xenophobic and racist mindset which is against the Euro because they want nothing to do with the frogs and the krauts and the deigos and the spicks. They dress it up in clothes of being bad for the UK, but never explain precisely HOW (except for lies and distortions about the power of Brussels).

I'd put myself in the third group, only with a proviso. The economics may not be "right" at the moment; they may become "right" at some point in the future - if we join then, that will be beneficial for Britain. But economic conditions fluctuate unpredictably all the time. No one predicted the Wall Street Crash.

In other words, joining the Eurozone will ALWAYS be a risk, just as staying out will always be a risk. Economics is not predictable. So we may as well take the plunge now - we have no idea how Britain will continue to survive outside the Eurozone, we have no idea what will happen if we join. The only reason the economic conditions need to be "right" is for the political campaigning advantage that would lend the yes campaign. To wit:

"Nobody should underestimate [Blair and Brown's] determination and effectiveness when working together in pursuit of their separate but dependent political objectives. In the right conditions they would make a powerful team if they decided it was time to enter Emu.

"The electorate would be softened up and any opponents of Emu branded as opponents of Europe or even anti-British. The “patriotic case”, a popular theme of both prime minister and chancellor, would be to the fore. It would not be easy but in the right circumstances it could work.

"Gordon Brown would continue to protect his flank in speeches and articles that drew attention to the failings in euroland. But at some stage along the road, when economic conditions were temporarily more propitious, Gordon might be prepared to jump off the fence in pursuit of his own political ambitions and the hope for proponents of entry would be that his vaunted “prudence” and perceived scepticism in the past would carry disproportionate weight as the government tried to take Britain in."


Sounds to me like a very cunning tactic. Risky, but cunning. It might just work, even now the strategy has been brought out into the open...

Friday, September 17, 2004

I’ve had a comment which deserves a full response

It was basically complaining at my rather off-hand dismissal of American fears of and reactions to terrorism. (For the full comment, which is reasonably argued, and should really be read in full before reading this post, see here.) I’m sorry if this goes on a bit, but it sort of has to.

I’ll quote the final bit, and then make a few basic retorts: “please, spare us the sarcasm and self-righteousness. And indulge our paranoia and our desire to protect our diplomats and citizens; our apprehension is not without basis.”

I’m writing a semi-anonymous political blog. Of course the tone is self righteous. But enough with the glib…

America has had the constant threat of terrorist attacks for three years. In London (and Britain as a whole) we’ve had it for thirty. We know what it’s like. I know what it’s like:

On 12th October 1984, a few miles from my house, a massive IRA bomb blew a huge chunk out of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, nearly wiping out the entire government. I remember seeing Norman Tebbit pulled from the rubble. I remember the dazed, dust-covered faces of the conference delegates as they stumbled onto the street. It was my first experience of terrorism.

On 30th July 1990, my MP – the great man who was Ian Gow – was blown up outside his house by the IRA. He lived less than two hundred yards from the primary school my brother had attended. He lived next door to one of my best friends. My friend found pieces – yes, pieces - of Mr Gow in his treehouse, thirty yards from where the carbomb detonated.

On 9th February 1996 I was on my way up to London to check out my future university and meet my uncle for dinner in the evening, once he’d finished work at the Sunday Telegraph at Canary Wharf. The IRA had other ideas. For several hours we had no idea whether he was alive or dead. He thankfully wasn’t. But nonetheless this got my grandmother, who worked as a nurse in London throughout the Blitz, so worried that I might be killed that she started trying to bribe me to go to university elsewhere. This coming from someone who experienced London when thousands of bombs were going off a day...

On 30th April 1999 I was meant to be in Soho, visiting a movie memorabilia store in Brewer Street with a couple of friends. Afterwards we were going to head to a pub in Greek Street, passing down Old Compton Street to get there. Instead we decided to get drunk. Just as well, because otherwise we would have been walking past the Admiral Duncan when the nailbomb went off. For once, it wasn’t the IRA, just some right-wing lunatic. He still caused a lot of death and injury.

On 2nd August 2001, the "Real IRA" detonated a bomb outside a pub in West London. It thankfully injured nobody seriously, but came on the back of an attack on the MI6 building the previous September and a bomb attack on the BBC a few months earlier. I, and everyone I know, spent the next few weeks worried about every car we passed.

On 11th September 2001 I, like countless others, watched in horror as the World Trade Centre smoked. I saw the second plane hit on live television. I saw both towers collapse. My reactions were the same as yours, and words cannot do justice. What some American readers may not realise is that there was panic in London as well. An investment banker friend of mine saw his entire office in the city evacuated, and as essential staff he was to be transferred to a secure bomb shelter. Another friend of mine, working at the House of Commons, had to continue working at a site which everyone knew was a prime target. For weeks afterwards we were all terrified that ‘planes might start dropping out of the skies.

None of these attacks had anything to do with complacency about security. They had everything to do with people trying to lead normal, free, everyday lives. In Britain, life carried on as normal during the period the IRA were campaigning, despite the occasional attack (and they were anything but occasional), because we didn’t want to give in to the bastards.

Yes, we could have locked up every Irishman in the country if we wanted to, and we could have happily shipped them off to an offshore processing facility, denied them a trial, and left them to rot while telling anyone who complained to piss off because we were at war. We could have stopped and searched every single boat coming across the Irish sea. It would have irritated and inconvenienced a lot of innocent people, but we could have done it. And instead the IRA would have hired mercenaries to plant their bombs, or entered the country by a different route.

In February 2002 I started work at the House of Commons. You may not realise this, but there’s a flight-path directly over the Houses of Parliament. It’s one of the major approaches to Heathrow which, being only a few miles away, means that the 'planes are pretty low. Every time I saw one approach Westminster from the south I realised how vulnerable we were.

The point of terrorism is to cause terror. Those responsible for 9/11 achieved this expertly, but the reason I continue to be terrified is not because I live in fear of a ‘plane smacking into me every day, or the knowledge that any unattended bag on the tube could contain a bomb or Sarin gas. The likelihood of me being the victim of a terrorist attack, despite living in one of the prime targets, and despite going through Westminster every day on my way to work, is minimal.

What terrifies me now is the reminder I get every time I see the security barriers outside the House of Commons, every time I see armed police on the streets of London and people not batting an eyelid, every time I hear someone willingly give up their hard-won civil rights because a tiny, insignificant minority of fanatics might, just possibly, do something. Terrorists will always find a way to spread fear – that is what they do. The way to deny them their power is to keep efforts at countering them as unobtrusive as possible.

As was pointed out in the reply to my earlier post, yes someone broke into Buckingham Palace this week, and yes, people managed to get into the Commons chamber. The Commons has the same high-profile, highly visible security measures as the US Embassy – concrete barriers, police with automatic weapons etc. etc. It didn’t do them any good. It wouldn’t do the US Embassy any good either.

In Britain we know terrorism, as they do in Spain. For Americans, with their limited experience of living with the constant threat of attack, to lecture Brits or Spaniards (as happened after the Madrid bombs) on the correct response is somewhat rich. In time, the US will learn to live with it too. It never gets any easier when the terrorists do strike, but it gets a lot easier not to be constantly thinking about the next time they might.

And, lest we forget, and as I pointed out earlier, there are several flight paths right over central London. As we all noticed three years back, ‘planes can cause a lot of damage in the wrong hands. What good is a bobby with a tommy-gun and a concrete barrier going to do against a 747? If you alter the flight-paths (which considering the air congestion over western Europe and London in particular is practically impossible) it would still take only a few minutes for a hijacked ‘plane to be re-routed to central London. Fighter aircraft may well be on constant patrol, but the order to destroy the ‘plane – filled with innocent civilians and flying over populated areas which would be hit by the falling debris – would not be taken lightly, and couldn’t be taken until it was obvious what was happening. By then, as became apparent back in September 2001, it is too late.

So, if the so-called security precautions are actually not going to do anything other than terrify the local population, thus doing the job of the terrorists for them, what useful purpose do they serve?

That was the point I was trying to make.

Making torture fun

It has to be said, Manic has a great talent for getting things spot on:

1. The War on Terror is a lie that will not protect you from terrorists
2. The War on Terror is being used to curb civil liberties and human rights
3. The War on Terror has been used by the Bush administration to justify torture
4. Including the torture of people who aren't terrorists
5. One day, it will be you with a bag on your head, and you'll wonder how it all came to be

A Plea To Americans

You came in rather late, but thanks for saving our asses in WW1.

Again with the lateness, but you did it again in WW2. It's appreciated.

Now, if it's not too much trouble, we need you to save us from WW3.

It's going to take more than your vote. You also have to reach out to the people around you and show them what's really going on. And it's not going to be easy.

Tim Ireland, 17th September 2004

A short piece on hunting

Yesterday's Daily Mail was amusing, but has got some people pissed off.

It's a load of overblown bollocks, that's for sure. But one thing this whole business has done is turn me from loosely pro-hunt (I grew up in the countryside, and have seen the damage foxes can do etc. etc. etc.) into really not giving a flying fuck about their cause. Especially after they fucked up the hillside near my parents' place.

Without their pathetic pissing about there could have been a proper debate on the subject (perfectly legitimate parallels could be drawn between the pro-hunting minority's fight to be allowed to do what they want to do and the homosexual minority's fight to do what they wanted to do during the 1950s - both pursuits are seen as fine by the people who do them, but as morally reprihensible by their opponents).

But never mind eh?

Note to people planning on any future political protests: try being amusing or maintain the moral high ground through peaceful protest. Don't act like a twat.

US Eyesore

Interesting piece in the New York Times about the US Embassy in London (here registration required). Well, I say interesting, but for anyone who's had the misfortune of wandering through Grosvenor Square at any point in the last three years every point the article makes is blindingly obvious:

"It is impossible to miss the American Embassy, hulking menacingly in genteel Mayfair with all the subtlety of a man wearing sunglasses and body armor to tea at the Ritz."

What is interesting is the fact that this has been noticed by a major newspaper in the US itself (even if it is the supposedly left-wing Times). Everyone is a bit miffed at the US at the moment, and it must be said that the security measures in place round the US Embassy seem somewhat more appropriate to some kind of warzone than the capital city of America's closest ally. It's been three years, guys - time to redecorate...

This and this is what Grosvenor Square used to look like; this is the Embassy pre-9/11 (it was pretty ugly then). Perhaps surprisingly, photos of the defences themselves are hard to come by. But this and this is the sight that greets you as soon as you get within a couple of hundred yards of the Embassy.

For our American cousins a quick reminder - we don't really have guns in the UK. The sight of a policeman in a flak jacket and armed with a sub-machinegun in the centre of London only ever used to happen after IRA attacks. To turn the corner and be greeted by one of these guys scares the living hell out of me every time. I always think a bomb's about to go off.

"This is Mayfair, one of the toniest little enclaves in town, where housing prices are in the millions, the streets are thick with luxury-goods stores and "unattractive" is a four-letter word... the scary-looking eyesore in this otherwise elegant area has become, to some, a symbol not just of American vulnerability, but also of its arrogance and excess."

Unfortunately it's not going to change any time soon - according to the head honcho at the Embasssy: "'We have a lease here that's almost 1,000 years long' - it expires in 2953 - 'and we plan to stay until the end of that lease'." Hurrah...

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Commons' portly protector

Yay for Sir Patrick Cormack!

OK, I'll admit here I'm biased as I used to work for the man, like him personally and still meet him for a drink on a semi-regular basis, but top work!

"By this time, and we're talking about a few seconds after the incident began, MPs had snapped into action. They were giving the young men some very cross looks. Only Sir Patrick Cormack decided to become a have-a-go hero, and tried to grab one youth in an armlock.

"My goodness, I thought, if they had been terrorists armed with machine guns, some of the least known MPs in the country would be lying dead by now.'

"Sir Patrick addressed one of the youths. 'Get out!' he said. "I am furious! This is disgraceful!'"

Even before all this our man Sir P had tried to calm it down:

"Sir Patrick Cormack, MP, one of the strongest of supporters for the protest, shouted angrily: 'Don't let off those bloody things, they're not good for the horses, and you should know more about horses.'"

This is what British democracy is all about - moronic protestors break in to the heart of the country's political machinery, forget what they were there to say, and then get a stern ticking off. I doubt it would work with hardcore terrorists, but wouldn't the world be a much nicer place if it did?

The United States of America: hypocritical and patronising?

According to Fareed Zakaria (the editor of Newsweek International, but writing in Foreign Policy), Europe is "the only other player with the resources and tradition to play a global role... U.S. and European goals on most issues are quite similar. Both want a peaceful world free from terror, with open trade, growing freedom, and civilized codes of conduct. A Europe that charts its own course just to mark its differences from the United States threatens to fracture global efforts—whether on trade, proliferation, or the Middle East. Europe is too disunited to achieve its goals without the United States; it can only ensure that America’s plans don’t succeed. The result will be a world that muddles along, with the constant danger that unattended problems will flare up disastrously. Instead of win-win, it will be lose-lose—for Europe, for the United States, and for the world."

The rest of the article is fairly bland stuff (but thanks to Metafilter for pointing it out nonetheless), and says nothing especially new or interesting. But one bit of that paragraph got me thinking - is that really how they see it? Do they really think that the European experiment is incapable of succeeding without American help?

So it got me thinking, just what does America think it can contribute to the European project? It has jettisoned any chance it once had to act as mediator, as half the continent despises the current administration. Having had its latest escapade declared to be illegal by the Secretary General of the United Nations, and having seemingly decided that unilateral action is the only way to get anything done, can the US really contribute any specialist knowledge or advice to what is essentially a plan to get a group of nations working harmoniously together as one? Although it may be a federation of sovereign states in principle, the USA is to all intents and purposes a single entity, and a single entity with a very poor record when it comes to foreign affairs.

Now I'll be the first to admit that yes, immediately after the Second World War we very much did need US finance to get our feet back on the ground. After the devastation of the Blitz and the drain on the British economy that the years of diversion to military production necessitated, the UK was effectively bankrupt; mainland Europe, meanwhile, had been all but turned to rubble.

But the Marshall Plan was hardly the ideal solution, as the good intentions of some within the US government were swiftly subverted by the growing anticommunism of the Truman Doctrine. This was an early example of an on-going and worsening problem - the United States' apparent inability to see that it is highly hypocritical to go on about "promoting democracy" all the time and then use force or threats to compel sovereign nations to accept a system of government acceptable to the US.

This is hardly a new idea and certainly not a phenomenon exclusive to the United States - pretty much any nation which has been in a position to dominate others has tried to impose their own governing ideas on them, from Egypt to the USSR (and countless others, including Britain, of course).

The only thing is, it always seems to backfire when the US does it: try to get friendly regimes installed in Cuba, end up with a standoff lasting five decades; try the same in Latin America, end up with fascistic military dictatorships and a pissed-off populace; try it in Iran, get a rabidly oppressive and anti-American bunch of religious fanatics in charge; Afghanistan - Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and a severe attack on the American mainland as thanks; Iraq - Saddam Hussein, two wars, tens of thousands of deaths, and what looks to be a rapidly approaching civil war. There are countless other examples - Grenada, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Korea, Mexico, etc. etc. etc. It rather looks as if the only times American intervention has actually made a positive difference was during the two World Wars - and on both occasions they were somewhat reluctant participants.

Then there's the rampant hypocracy of the US stating their current aim is to promote democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan while simultaneously having the absolutist monarchy of Saudi Arabia and the military dictatorship of Pakistan as two of their closest allies. Everyone seems to have forgotten that "President" Musharraf seized power in a military coup five years ago. No one in the American high command seems to remember that Saddam himself was also once a "friendly dictator", or to see the irony.

This has ended up fairly rambling, but considering the majority of visitors to this blog seem to be American I am genuinely intrigued to find out what you lot think about the potential for US-EU co-operation and friendship. In Britain we are often presented with a binary choice by the eurosceptic press - either become the 51st state (not sure what Puerto Rico would have to say about that, but still...) or join forces with a bunch of countries we've spent most of the last millennium at war with. It seems to be a different story in mainland Europe, where America plays little part in the calculations.

But how does the US really see the EU? As a friend or as competition?

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Constitutional conundrums

Looks like the European Constitution debates are going to continue to hot up. The upcoming Labour conference could see a clash between the pro and anti camps within the party come into the open.

This could be a good thing, as raising the profile of the debate over the constitution could well finally see some of the benefits highlighted, but let's not forget the problems that European divisions caused for the Tories back in the 90s.

In a week which has already seen announcements that Blair nearly quit, and after a fortnight of press speculation about the significance of Alan Milburn's return to government for the Labour election manifesto, can the party really afford to seem even more divided? It was the lack of unity of John Major's government - especially over Europe - which did in for the Tories in 1997 nearly as much as the irritation of 18 years with the same party in charge and the allegations of sleaze. Labour is rapidly appearing to be putting itself in the same situation.

It's the same story in France, where everything seems to be going tits up. After the chaos of the last French Presidential elections, which saw the fascist Jean Marie Le Pen shock much of Europe by getting through to the final ballot, the French political situation is precarious to say the least.

Sooner or later, the pro-Europe camp is really going to have to pull its finger out. Unfortunately, if the Yes campaign continues to appear to be little more than a partisan grouping, and fails to build cross-party support with high-profile supporters (and by this I don't mean the likes of Eddie Izzard, as amusing and committed to the cause as he may be), then the better-organised No campaign (with the BNP, UKIP, Tories and majority of the British press on its side) is going to wipe the floor with them. End result? Britain ends up isolated and powerless, and will be forced to suck up to America even more than we do already in a desperate attempt to get by in the world.

Isn't politics fun?

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Talking with terrorists 20 years on

Gerry Adams, the leader of the IRA's political wing Sinn Féin, writes in the Guardian about his hopes and doubts for the new Northen Irish peace talks due to take place later this week, nearly twenty years after the IRA nearly succeeded in wiping out the entire British Cabinet. What he says is, as can only be expected from a man who has spent the majority of his life talking in doublespeak, a combination of sensible-sounding insanity and attempts to do down his opponents. His words need not be paid attention to too much - that is not the point.

What this article does do is demonstrate how opening up a political dialogue with terrorists can work. After all, when was the last IRA bomb in mainland Britain? . Not all the problems have been sorted out, and wreckers from both the "loyalist" and republican sides have doen their utmost to destroy any chance of the Good Friday Agreement working, but the violence has calmed down, and both sides have, on occasion, felt that they are actually being listened to. Britain has learned from her mistakes. Gone are the days when Gerry Adams' voice could not be heard on British television or radio. Gone are the days of IRA attacks.

In Spain, as the superb documentary Basque Ball makes abundantly clear, the old Anzar government closed all lines of communication with ETA, even outlawing their political wing. They have yet to learn from Britain's mistakes.

In Russia, as we have learned these last couple of weeks, attacks by Chechen rebels are met with extreme force, calls for revenge, press censorship, illegal detentions, and ever-increasing central control. They have yet to learn from Britain's mistakes.

In Israel, each new suicide bombing leads to attack helicopters being sent into the Palestinian territories and the massacre of tens of supposed militants, the demolition of entire villages, the erection of "security fences", and violent rhetoric attacking any Palestinian with whom the Israelis may stand a chance of opening a dialogue. They have not learned from Britain's mistakes.

In America, we all know what happens after a terrorist attack - the most disproportionate response imaginable (full text here). They have not learned from Britain's mistakes.

The list goes on. And for those who argue that Britain's case is the exception, or that Islamic fundamentalists are impossible to reason with - read up on the Irish situation. Twenty years ago the idea that the British government would find itself sitting at the same table as the terrorists, who were about to launch an attack on its very heart, would have prompted derision from both sides. (Speaking of which, there's an interesting interview here with the Brighton bomber.)

The IRA were fanatics. It has taken time to talk them around to a more civilised way of working out their grievances, but come around they (just about) have. There remain a few hardcore psychopaths in the so-called "Real IRA" who continue to cause trouble, but the majority have - at least for now - packed away their guns and their bombs. It will take time to talk around al-Qaida, the Chechen rebels, the Palestinian freedom fighters, the Basque Seperatists, and all of these lot as well. Simply saying "they're fanatics - they can't be reasoned with" is rubbish until this has actually been tried and perservered at. Sadly it appears that very few countries in the world have the patience of Britain when it comes to tackling terrorists.


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