Thursday, March 31, 2005

Russian revolts - March madness?

It's all going a bit mental in the former Soviet Union, in case you hadn't noticed. Siberian Light's weekly news roundup has some concerning and potentially important stories which the western media certainly doesn't seem to have picked up on much. Some highlights:

After the surprise events in Kyrgyzstan, which not a single "expert" on the region managed to predict the outcome of, any of these could turn out to be something major...

However, the one from Siberian Light's excellent roundup that is most likely to make the news: Moscow has invited North Korean maniac Kim Jong Il to celebrate the 60th anniversary of VE Day in Moscow. US President George W Bush has already confirmed he will be attending. This could turn out to be a nice diplomatic incident...

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Bits and pieces

Blogger is playing up, so just a few quickies while it's working to let you know I'm still here.

Paul Wolfowitz is trying to reassure everyone that he's not going to bugger up the World Bank, and seems to be attempting to suck up to the EU to make up for his ex-boss Donald Rumsfeld's somewhat antagonistic remarks about "old Europe".

In other Euro news, here's The Bluffer’s Guide to… the Bolkestein directive on services - sounds dull, but it's likely to be a major issue as neither the right nor the left are especially happy with the thing...

Closer to home, Chicken Yoghurt sums up what must be many people's feelings in the UK right now, while Perfect has a round-up of some of the nonsense we're having to put up with.

Still it looks like the state of political debate is soon going to be raised a notch, as Blair finally answers the toughest questions. From a couple of 10 year olds on "Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway".

Christ almighty... This is how respect for the British political system ends - not with a bang, but with a faint feeling of embarrassment. It's going to be like watching your Dad drunkenly groping a teenage girl at a party.

The "interview" will likely be broadcast this Saturday - just two days before the expected announcement of the general election on Monday 4th April. Nice bit of free propaganda there from ITV. Unless they get in a couple of particularly subversive 10 year olds, that is...

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

AliddlebitofDemocracy, ladiesangennlemen

Following The Zimbabwean's online launch (anticipating Thursdays's doubtless dodgy elections) comes This is Zimbabwe, a bog from the Sokwanele opposition civic action support group. Worth a look - although sadly no comment facility up at the moment. (Hat tip Cabalamat Journal.)

Elsewhere, via Siberian Light, The Agonist has Some Things You Need to Know About Kyrgyzstan. Siberian Light also points to a Tulip FAQ and part 2, a Kyrgyz who's who.

The FAQ in turn points to a couple of blogs from Kyrgyzstan - Peace Corps Kyrgyzstan and Aileyinastan - although the latter is now being updated from Germany. The first blog has links to a number of others from Peace Corps volunteers although, unlike with Ukraine's Orange Revolution, there don't appear to be any native Kyrgyz bloggers writing in English at the moment. Nonetheless, (the blog formerly known as The Argus) continues to do a great job of keeping track of everything.

Meanwhile, Publius Pundit asks why there is no attention being paid to vote-rigging in Tajikistan, and points in the direction of an article by a resident outlining the background to the disputed elections there which, as of yet, have received scant attention from pretty much anyone outside the country.

Monday, March 28, 2005

More bullshit scare tactics

After Blogging Labour MP Tom Watson (which sparked off an interesting discussion, at least), this time it's Peter "Two Jobs" Hain spouting the guff about how if you vote Lib Dem you'll get the Tories.

As I believe someone said before - "Vote Kennedy, possibly get Howard - but vote Blair, get Blair".

Watch this. Watch this. Try and spot the difference between the two parties. Then remind yourself of some of the other crap. Then at least consider checking out Strategic Voter, Vote 4 Peace, So Now Who Do We Vote For? and Backing Blair.

Hell, judging by what happened in Birmingham last time elections were held, even if you do try and vote for another party Labour will just alter your ballot paper anyway...

Ah, it's great to be living in such a wonderfully free country, isn't it?

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Portillo in EU promotion shocker!

I did have a nice long post about a couple of nicely Eurosceptic articles in today's Sunday Times, but there was a Bloggerquake, and the entire bloody thing got lost. Being trusting in technology, I type it direct into the thing and never cut and paste from Word, so I have no backup. Piss.

Here they are, anyway, with far less well-considered commentary (which is also, thankfully, considerably shorter - I think I went into rant mode after a bit...):

First up, "French ready to spite Chirac on EU" - which takes the rather unusual line for a Eurosceptic paper of saying that because the proposed constitution should prevent a French farmer from being paid £60 an acre in subsidies (that's £60 an acre paid for by the EU taxpayer), it's a bad thing...

The rest of the article is overly simplified "us vs. them" stuff, where the current shift towards opposing the constitution which seems to be happening in France is a combination of old school French arrogance and xenophobia - largely against the British, but also against Turkey. Still, some interesting stuff in there hidden amongst the guff.

Second up is Tory ex-minister and leadership hopeful Michael Portillo, an arch Eurosceptic vby his own admission but whom I normally rather like, with a nicely constructed but overly simplistic take on the whole constitution thing:

"The integrationists want a constitution, president and foreign minister because those are the attributes of a nation state. The treaty does not bring about a United States of Europe, but it seeks to accustom us to the terminology and institutions of a country called Europe."
Yes Michael. Of course. A constitution, president and foreign minister are the attributes of a nation state and there can OBVIOUSLY be no other motivation for wanting any of these than the desire to become a nation state. Which is precisely why practically every major City company has a constitution, Chief Executive (president) and external relations manager (foreign minister) - they're all wanting to become nation states too, aren't they?

As for the old and frankly stale argument about being "accustomed" to the "terminology and institutions" of some kind of European state, this is the typical bullshit which is repeated every single time the EU is mentioned. I could accuse Portillo of precisely the same thing - the more he blathers on about the EU, its terminology and institutions, the more his readers are going to be aware of it. If they're more aware of it they might start supporting it. Load of old nonsense, in other words.

There's more nonsense in amongst the rest of the article, which I would go through and dissect line by line, but that's utterly dull and would take forever. Instead, what with it being a bank holiday and all, I'm going to crack open a beer.

(Oh, and if anyone can tell me who all the people are who are voting in the Guardian's weblog awards, I'd be grateful. By my calculations, since polls opened on Wednesday evening this site has received more votes than it has had visitors in that time - and other sites on there seem to have disproportionate amounts of support for their relative Technorati popularities. As I am only getting about an extra 30-40 visitors a day from the Guardian, is there something dodgy going on, or what?)

Happy Easter

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Bye, Jim

Former Labour Prime Minister Lord Callaghan has died the day before his 93rd birthday.

Despite being the only politician in history to have held all four major positions in British politics - Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister - he's probably unfairly, for the time being at least, going to be remembered as a bit of a failure. After all, he was only PM from 1976-79, and on losing the 1979 general election his party entered a ridiculously long period of opposition. He was also responsible for the devaluation of the pound in 1967, the deploying of the British army to Northern Ireland in 1970, and was in charge during the Winter of Discontent.

The judgement of failure is, however, unfair: while at the Department of Transport in the late 1940s he brought in both Cat's Eyes and Zebra Crossings, making our roads safer and demonstrating a strange obsession with animals which he failed to capitalise on later in his career.

God, that sounds callous. By (almost) all accounts he was a thoroughly nice chap. More from The Guardian, The Times and Wikipedia.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Putin backs the Kyrgyz rebels?

That's what it sounds like as he says "We hope the opposition will quickly take the situation under control."

Overnight there has been some rioting and looting - five are reported dead, 200 injured. The former opposition leadership, now in command, are promising elections in June. We'll have to wait and see.

For more info and background, The Argus has been doing a sterling job of compiling info, and Publius Pundit has a good introductory overview of both the country and the situation. There is also a photo album of the rebellion and a hint about the implications at EurasiaNet, and another at Transitions Online. There's more too at the always reliable Siberian Light, and Gateway Pundit likewise has loads and is being regularly updated - note especially their press reaction roundup (with links).

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Kyrgyzstan crisis kicks off

I was wondering a couple of weeks back why no one seems to be interested in the protests in Kyrgyztan. Well, against all expectations the opposition protestors seem to be getting somewhere:

"The opposition in Kyrgyzstan says it has taken control of the capital, Bishkek, after overrunning the president's palace."
This could turn nasty... But, fresh from their Orange Revolution (see "Ukraine" section to the right), the new Ukrainian government has offered to step in as intermediaries.

Watch this space.

Vote for me update!

The Guardian have sorted out their Weblog Awards thing, so now it seems clearer which one I am. As such - vote for me!

There's a lot of catch-up to be done to get up there with Lib Dem Watch after their storming early lead (even though they haven't updated in nearly a fortnight - has no one told them there's an election coming up?) - so get voting etc. Or not, whichever's easier...

The EU, US and China 2

My fellow Guardian Political Weblog Awards nominee, the bastion of the "pro-war left" that is Harry's Place, has a post up on the decision to delay lifting the embardo on arms exports to China, following a piece by Timothy Garton-Ash - the pundit of choice for pretty much everyone who wants a quick Euro hit, by the looks of the blogosphere. Can't say I rate him overly highly myself (always seems a tad overly simplistic), but I suppose I should be nice as we went to the same school and all...

Anyway, that's beside the point. Harry (for it is he) argues that

"There hasn't been much noise about the scandalous position taken by the EU on this issue. It would surely have been different if it were the other way round and the EU had a tough line of not arming a dictatorship which has long been making war-mongering grumbles against a small neighbouring state and it was the US who unilaterally announced it was going to break the agreement and start selling weapons to the free-market Stalinists?"
It may be worth pointing out once again that, despite US protestations about EU plans, 6.7 percent of Chinese defense imports come from the United States and only 2.7 percent from Europe.

This is not, of course, to defend the EU's plans to bunk arms to China on any moral level (as morality isn't really a factor and it does, after all, make perfect economic sense) - and I am certainly uncomfortable with the idea that we might be aiding any future attack on Taiwan.

But come on, people - what's with all these weak comparisons between the US and EU? They are not, as much as many from both the Eurosceptic and Europhile camps may like us to believe, actually sensibly comparable. There are vague, broad similarities, certainly - but there are far, far more differences in their structures and ways of working than anything else. If you start making silly comparisons in particular areas you can make a convincing-sounding argument about pretty much anything.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Message to The Guardian - time for one of your famous Corrections and Clarifications...

The Guardian Backbencher's Political Weblog Award shortlists are out. It would appear Europhobia has made it through.

I would ask for your votes - but sadly another, similarly-titled blog, EUrophobe, has also been nominated in the single-issue campaigns section. The Guardian, that bastion of subediting genius, has managed not only to bugger up the capitalisation of this site's name, but also their HTML.

Ten English pounds to the person who can tell me who I should click by to give myself a vote:

1) The site listed as EUrophobia - which links here but is described as a "'Europhobic' blog written by a European parliament employee. Scarily un-PC, but very funny in exposing EU wastefulness and bureaucracy." (Europhobe's description)


2) The site down as "Europhobe" - which links there but is described as "A former eurosceptic turned pro-European on politics and international relations in Europe and the rest of the world. Good stuff." (the description for this place)

I have to confess, I have no idea which of us is which... Still - thanks for the thought, Farringdon guys. Nice to see that I can have my first "Oh look the 'MSM' has got it wrong" moment in another one of these bouts of blog navel-gazing...

So, as I say - a correction and/or clarification might be in order - if only so I can work out just how badly I'm losing.

(By the way, am I on a single issue campaign? News to me... Oh, and thanks to Jarndyce&Jarndyce of The Pseudo Magazine for pointing this out - and the kind words and all.)


Can't be bothered at the moment - it's sunny and I'm overworked and knackered. Have a picture of me to cheer yourself up:

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

"A voice for the voiceless"

Thanks to efforts by The Guardian, the Zimbabwean opposition's newspaper now has its own website, launched yesterday. The Zimbabwean is more than worthy of patronage from anyone who professes to be a supporter of democracy and freedom, standing up to the insanity and ruthlessness of Mugabe. With "elections" due on the 31st, it should prove to be a valuable source of information - and one well worth helping out with a few donations, should you be inclined to put your money where your principles are...

No one cares about terrorists or foreigners

According to the latest ICM opinion poll (.pdf file), at least.

In the first question, "Which of the following issues will be most important in your decision on how to vote in the next general election?", there was a singular lack of interest in anything other than domestic issues. As per usual.

Asylum and Immigration - 8% see it as important
The fight against terrorism - 4%
Europe - 4%

A grand total of just 16% interested about anything beyond our shores - and immigration is primarily considered a domestic issue anyway. So the fact that the Tories are considered to have the best policies on Asylum and Immigration (30% to Labour's 24% - Table 5) will be small comfort.

For those of us who hoped Blair might get a bloody nose in these elections thanks to being a filthy liar who misled us all over Iraq and wants to lock us all up and throw away the key, Table 9 shows we might be in trouble - 36% think Labour have "the best policies on The fight against terrorism". Equally, Table 11 shows that 33% "much prefer Blair to Howard", with an additional 18% preferring Bliar "on balance".

We could be in trouble.

As for the EU (Table 6) - for us supposed Europhiles, it appears that 30% think Labour have the best policies on "Europe" - 30% to the Tories' 27%. Add in the Lib Dem lot as well, and 39% think that a primarily pro-European line is the "best".

Of course, you can prove anything with statistics. For another take on this poll, check out the always interesting UK Polling Report.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Blame it on Brussels

An article in The Sunday Times yesterday was a prime example of the easy cop-out of buck-passing to the EU whenever a government department makes a cock-up.

Basic story? A moronic official at DEFRA vetoed a food advertising campaign because he thought the images were "too British" (fields, cows, farmers - the sort of thing you'll find all over Europe):

"One photograph, headlined One Day with Daisy, was deemed to be too obviously of a British landscape and thus risked breaching articles 20 and 28 of the Treaty of Rome, designed to curb illegal state subsidies."
Erm... Here's the Treaty of Rome. Let's see:
"Article 20. The duties applicable to the products in List G shall be determined by negotiation between the Member States. Each Member State may add further products to this List to a value not exceeding 2 per cent of the total value of its imports from third countries in the course of the year 1956.
"The Commission shall take all appropriate steps to ensure that such negotiations shall be undertaken before the end of the second year after the entry into force of this Treaty and be concluded before the end of the first stage.
"If, for certain products, no agreement can be reached within these periods, the Council shall, on a proposal from the Commission, acting unanimously until the end of the second stage and by a qualified majority thereafter, determine the duties in the common customs tariff."
The official at DEFRA even explicitly referred to article 28: "many of the proposed articles [in the advertising leaflet] would breach article 28 of the treaty because of their focus on the British origin of the product".
"Article 28. Any autonomous alteration or suspension of duties in the common customs tariff shall be decided by the Council, acting by a qualified majority on a proposal from the Commission."
Yep - LOADS there about places of origin for foodstuffs, isn't there? Christ...

As the Commission has noted, this whole thing is simply a load of old bollocks:
"The European commission said it 'never' regarded pictures of national landscapes as posing a breach of state aid rules. A spokesman said: 'That is wrong.'"
For a change, this is not a press distortion, but a deliberate propagation of a Euromyth by a civil servant desperate to pass the blame elsewhere. Mention a few random articles or subclauses from some European treaty, the assumption is that no one can be bothered to check because these things are all so dull. Most of the time, this seems to be a safe assumption to make.

But it sounds good, doesn't it? Meddling Brussels bureaucrats interfering with or way of life, wasting our money, etc. Who cares if it's a load of old nonsense?

When it turns out to be one of our own bureaucrats, generally speaking everyone stays rather more quiet. As I've tried explaining numerous times, both here and over at Commissioner Wallstrom's blog, there's really not much difference between our own civil service and the Commission's various workers (note: not the Commissioners themselves). The only real difference is that the Commission doesn't have the luxury of being able to pass the buck...

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Electoral bribery

Yesterday's budget promised a £200 council tax rebate to pensioners. A handy bribe, with an election coming up. As Labour's Blogging Bromwich East MP notes, "Gordon Brown just gave 12,980 pensioner households in my constituency an additional £200, it's these days that make me realise just how lucky I am".

Yep, being in government is certainly an easy way to speed through bribes and corruption. The current issue of Private Eye notes the ongoing drama over postal vote fraud in Birmingham, noting that in last year's local elections "in the ward of Bordesley Green, up to 3,000 people had their postal votes forged and stolen by Labour supporters. The party won the ward with a majority of 441." The judge investigating has apparently stated that "I might come to the conclusion that this was a Birmingham-wide Labour party activity." Shades of Florida 2000, eh?

And as Chicken Yoghurt notes, this £200 to pensioners is a one off payment, purely for this electoral year.

In Tom Watson's constituency alone, this bribe is going to cost £2,598,000. How is this loss of income going to be covered without other ratepayers picking up the slack? Council Tax rises all round, then...

So, if they think about it for a moment, constituents will quickly twig that taxes will go up after the election and they'll end up worse off.

The pensioners in question will also realise that the payment is a one-off and they'll get hit for full-whack Council Tax next year (doubtless including above inflation increases, as per usual, to cover their earlier vote-winning bribes) with no corresponding increase in their pensions.

Nice one... Perhaps the words of Harold Wilson in the October 1974 Labour Manifesto might bear repeating: "We do not believe in electoral bribes - these are an insult to the intelligence and realism of the public."

The current Labour government, insulting the intelligence and realism of the public? Surely not!

(And this coming from someone who quite likes Gordon Brown...)

A reasoned American take on the IRA situation

In a comment to this post, a chap by the name of Ronnie in New Orleans, who has visited the site before on and off to have a few arguments with a wishy-washy liberal Brit, has a rather good summary of the attitude of many in the US to British exasperation over the lack of condemnation of the IRA as terrorists. As I've suddenly been inundated with work, I'll reproduce it here in lieu of any time to knock up something original. It deserves to be read more widely than just by those who click the comments link, after all:

It's not really hypocrisy, it's just reality.

As a French-Spanish Catholic with no historic or emotional stake in the situation in Ulster let me try to explain some of the problems that arise when you equate Arab terrorism against the US with Britain's problems with Ireland; and with expecting a proportional reaction from our government.

I don't think Brits in general have a real appreciation of the pure hatred, rancor, dislike, disdain, disgust, and just plain unfriendly feelings that many, and maybe most, Irish-Americans have for England. You could spend oceans of electronic ink explaining and deconstructing many of the arguments used to justify this dislike, but it won't change many minds. We have a large Irish Catholic population in New Orleans, one of our major old city areas is called the Irish Channel, but I had never really felt the weight of this animosity until I grew up and got into discussions with friends and acquaintances of Irish descent about issues related to the troubles.

It is also true that although many of the claims made regarding systematic genocide, forced starvation, and other government sponsored acts of slaughter are often exaggerated or untrue, Britain spent about 350 years or so cultivating this hatred by treating Irish Catholics as less than human. You got where you are the old fashioned way; you earned it. I don't think the same can be said for the US history with the Arabs. As a matter of convenience we have just become the hated symbol and religious whipping boy for the existence of Israel. If we would have attacked Tel Aviv instead of Baghdad all references to the Great Satsn would have disappeared as quickly as Europe's Jews.

I've been in a bar where people of Irish descent clapped and cheered when hearing of British ships being sunk in the Falklands. I've heard well educated people assert that Irish Catholics starved while the English refused to unload the grain ships sitting in Irish harbors, or sold the food on the European market... of orders given to British soldiers to crush the heads of Irish babies. And this is the "G" rated list.

At the local Celtic bar in the French Quarter rebel songs are sung with passion and meaning. I love the music but references to a "Thompson gun" sort of spoil the atmosphere. The music is good but the theme can really get tiresome. British friends come often to the bar with me because they like Celtic music, and comment that "nobody cares about that stuff anymore" though one of them did say the amount of it sung during the show was "sort of extreme." Wish it had been. Come back next week.

And this is in Southern, Conservative, Red State Louisiana. The Irish here are almost all Democrats, and represent a good portion of the Kerry support in the city during the last election. These are the folks the Brit media seems to think has all of the good sense and political nuance. Let me assure you they are not well intentioned toward Britain. Judge for yourself if that's good sense.

And there lies the problem. This is a visceral political issue for these folks, and they represent a substantial voting block, one that any politician, especially a Democrat, offends at his peril. Give some kudos to George Bush... he snubbed the IRA and in so doing forced the hand of Ted Kennedy, who would have looked to be a boot licker if he would have entertained Adams. The pull of the old hatreds is so great, however, that other members of the Kennedy clan did visit with Adams, I'm sure to tell him to lay low until the heat is off.

Is the IRA a terrorist organization? Of course.
Are they a bunch of armed criminals? Yeah.
Is Sinn Fein a political front for a gang of thugs? Sure.
Is Gerry Adams a murdering scumbag with a slick image? Absolutely.
Should SF/IRA be banned from fundraising in the US and have all of their assets seized? Yep.

But George Bush has only so much political capital to spend, and I doubt he will find it prudent to invest a large portion of it into an issue as peripheral to US interests as the Ulster/IRA/SF/GB problem, which most Americans who aren't Irish don't care about anyway. The most he can do is keep up the symbolic gestures. It will have some effect. I would sum up the prevailing independent opinion over the years as "they deserve each other."

I hope that's changing and I think it has to some degree. The stupid criminal acts by the SF/IRA coalition are having an effect on US public opinion since they can equate it to a criminal organization rather than a terrorist group. Americans are familiar with government limiting and punishing criminal organizations. It is all to the good that this is the way it is presented. Americans have long ago separated Italians from the Mafia, and the pursuit of the criminals no longer stigmatizes all Italians by association. Painting the IRA criminals as criminals is neither inaccurate or dishonest and will serve to separate the current crop of mobsters from Collins and Childers, as well as from good ole Paddy down the street. They're more like Capone. These guys are not insurgents, freedom fighters, or latter day avengers. These guys give rebels a bad name. They're just common crooks.

Up the Irish!
And the rule of law.

By -ronnie in new orleans-

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

£83.46 for each British citizen

That's how much the "War on Terror" has cost, according to the budget. £4.9 billion. That's £4,900,000,000 - a lot of zeros.

Would you look at that? This money could have been used to fund ID cards for every citizen, and still leave the government with at least £1.965 billion change.

In addition, the defence budget is being increased by £400 million. That could have paid for a new "super-hospital".

Taken as a whole, that £4.9 billion could have paid, let's face it, for a whole load of nice stuff. How about a digital set-top box for every British citizen plus change for a couple of pints? Actually, sod the digital box - how about 33 pints each?

They haven't quite got the right idea, this government. Who cares about far-off lands of which we know nothing? Get us all pissed - that's how you win votes.

Update: Well, I suppose it could be worse...

More on British vs. American attitudes to terrorism

Following this old piece of mine, an article in today's Times does much to help explain to Americans precisely why Britain has the attitude it does towards this whole "War on Terror" malarkey. I don't usually like Simon Jenkins much, but this is spot on.

I'll post the whole article in a comment in case it goes to the subscription site at some point.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

One English penny per EU citizen

That's all the Commission has allocated EU-wide for pro-constitution propaganda. (£5.5 million divided by an EU population of 456 million.)

Of that, £86,000 has been allocated to the UK (one tenth of one penny per British citizen, taking current UK population as 58.7 million). That is just about enough to buy two and a bit 30 second slots on primetime weeknight ITV (£36,000 for 30 seconds on Carlton) - only there wouldn't be any money left over to actually make the advert...

Oh, and lest we forget, Jack Straw has in any case ruled out any possibility of the government accepting any of this paltry sum.

Yep, we're simply inundated with pro-EU propaganda, aren't we? (The first link there is yet another wonderful example of the rabidly Eurosceptic Bruges Group spouting abject nonsense.)

More on this new drive (if such insignificant amounts of money can really be termed a "drive") here.

Doing the electoral maths

Well, it looks like the election will probably be called between April 4th and 7th. If you've been following the polls (latest: CON 34% (+4) LAB 39%(-3) LD 19%(+1)) or working out the odds (or taking others' odds), you're no doubt getting a tad confused.

There have been all kinds of scare stories that if you Back Blair, Vote4Peace, vote strategically or for someone else then the Tories may get back in. And that would, so everyone keeps telling me, be a disaster. Because yeah - Blair's crap and all, but the Tories MUST be worse than Labour, right? (Because, erm... you know, the sinking of the Belgrano was... erm... obviously far worse than anything Blair's been responsible for...)

Never fear. The Tories haven't got a hope in hell. Here - in insane detail - is why. Feel free to vote tactically, people. Give Blair all the bloody noses you want - votes is the only language politicians understand.

Oh and for the record, I am well nigh certain that - despite everything - Labour will still be returned with a majority in excess of 100 seats. And no, I haven't done the maths on that. It's just a slightly sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Egotistical nonsense

I've just noticed that, six months after starting up a stat counter thing, this site has clocked up 51,000 unique visitors. Hurrah!

Pot, Kettle

The US calls on the EU to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organisation and label it a threat to international security.

Well yes, yes it most probably is both.

But isn't it a tad rich considering that it's taken until now for the US to start giving Sinn Fein the cold shoulder? Considering that one of it's most prominent leaders is a convicted terrorist who still appears to be making threats to the bereaved family of an IRA victim, might it not be about bloody time the US added the IRA to their list of terrorist organisations and finally cut off US funding to Sinn Fein?

Monday, March 14, 2005

Sorry people

Blogger is shit - hence the multiple posts. It's currently not letting me delete them (having delayed their posting by nine hours), and it wasn't really worth the bother in any case.

My bad. I hate the internet.

The propaganda question

They just can't win. After repeated fuss about how the Commission is funding pro-EU and pro-constitution organisations and material, they're now being attacked for funding their critics.

"The deputy head of the Liberals in the European Parliament, Silvana Koch-Mehrin, has said it is 'scandalous' that EU money has been used to fund the anti-globalisation movement, Attac.

"Ms Koch-Mehrin told FT Deutschland that there should be a change in the way EU support money is allocated.

"'After all, Attac is a massive critic of the EU', said the liberal MEP, who has written to the Commission asking how the situation arose."

What next? Should they stop paying anti-EU MEPs like Kilroy and the UKIP lot (who currently get £59,000 a year each)?

Meanwhile, Tim Worstall spots a nice bit of anti-EU propaganda hiding in the Mail on Sunday's crossword.

Quite why the Commission needs to fund its critics when the Eurosceptics have already got backers like Associated Newspapers and Rupert Murdoch, I have no idea...

Fuck the bid

Today London Mayor Ken Livingstone is in Brussels to promote the 2012 Olympics bid. Yet more wastage in pursuit of a project which will cost each and every London Council Taxpayer an extra £20 a year for the privilege of having their city plagued by garish advertising for the next eight years and then utterly congested for two weeks at the height of summer when the event goes ahead. Brilliant. Nice one, Ken.

Thusly, a shoddily and hastily put together little piccie thing:

Sunday, March 13, 2005

The more time people spend online, the more interested in politics they become

In the absence of any energy from me, check out Tim Worstall's latest Britblog Roundup - it features a couple of things from this very site, so it must be good...

Oh, and as us bloggers (and apparently our readers) are all so omphaloskepsisary, this article from the Sunday Times on the growth of e-politics may be of interest. Apparently, "the more time people spend online, the more interested in politics they become".

Either fascinating or a load of old bollocks, depending on your point of view.

(Oh, and in case you didn't spot it, today's Word To Make You Sound Pretentious was omphaloskepsis - the act of contemplating one's own navel, or navel-gazing)

Just past midnight update: Good, if entirely unrelated, stuff from The Obscurer - "nothing short of complete totalitarianism, a sort of The Prisoner meets 1984, can prevent terrorists from murdering people if they are determined to, and if the intelligence just isn’t available."

Oh, and if you haven't already, watch this.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

This is what they want you to forget

Spot. On.

That is all.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Thank the Lord for the Lords

Overnight, the British parliament has been working exactly as it should. The House of Lords has been debating and stalling the government's God-awful anti-terror bill, and is - entirely rightly - refusing to allow this horrible piece of legislation to get a permanent place on the statute books.

Poor little Home Secretary Charles Clarke - the man who wants the power to lock up any and all British citizens without trial - has accused the Lords of "digging in its heels". Those four words from the Home Secretary are the final proof - as if any more was needed - of the current government's utter contempt for the British parliamentary system.

The entire POINT of the House of Lords is to do precisely what it has been doing over the last few days. The Lords' sole purpose is to prevent a Commons dominated by one party with a large majority from passing bad legislation via a three-line whip. The Lords is there purely to say - "hang on a minute, lads - this clause here looks rather conducive to misinterpretatition and abuse - how about changing it?"

So, thanks to the oddities of the British system, the unelected (and therefore undemocratic) House of Lords is helping to prevent the elected (and therefore democratic) government of Tony Blair from introducing fundamentally undemocratic legislation.

What Blair has done is mistake democratic legitimacy for moral legitimacy. The Lords, meanwhile, understand their moral duty far better than the compromised Commons. MPs are bound by the party line and - with an election coming up - don't want to be seen to be too rebellious lest they have their funding cut off for the campaign season. The Lords, meanwhile, are technically in the upper house purely on their own individual merit. It is a personal honour to be in the Lords - becoming an MP is far more of a group effort. The Lords thus have far more freedom of action against the party line, and are far more likely to act on their own personal belief systems than one imposed from above by the leadership.

Yes, this is largely theoretical. No one seriously thinks the Blair government will deliberately misuse the powers of detention it would grant itself with this bill. But that's part of the problem. If this bill is passed, it will stay on the statute books until the war on terror is over or another government has a sufficient majority to overturn it. As long as it remains on the statute books, there would be precisely NOTHING to prevent any future government from arresting and detaining its political opponents, or even people who might plan to vote against the government in an election. That is why this bill is so fundamentally undemocratic.

The unelected Lords are doing a better job of preserving democracy than the people we have elected to preserve our basic democratic freedoms. Blair and co. are, meanwhile, doing a better job than the terrorists of buggering up our traditional rights.

Update: Bloggerheads has more, (Oh, and while you're there, check out the new Backing Blair video)

While we're at it, perhaps a history lesson is in order?

There are a lot of angry people about, Mr Blair:

"But what do I do? Moan, vow never to vote for Labour again (nothing new there then), basically sit on my arse and complain. I suppose I should be out there putting bricks through windows or assassinating Tony Thatch-Blair (a mercy killing if ever there was one, i.e. a mercy for the rest of us).

"I suppose that all the active demonstrating that I have ever done (dating back to the mid 60s folks) has acheived - fuck nothing!"
Another take - Tony Blair is a liar, a control freak, lacks any degree of backbone and makes Robert Mugabe look like a really nice person - Mugabe comparisons a tad harsh, perhaps? (Then again, I've been known to do the same...)

Meanwhile, Lib Dem MP Richard Allan has found time to post amidst all the chaos, pointing out that "You may wish to note that today is officially still Thursday in Parliament as the House has remained in session overnight. Thursday can continue until Sunday if we keep debating and voting like this. Does that make sense? As much as anything around here I suppose."

However, "No one really knows where this is going to go. The sunset clause seems the most sensible thing here, and I am hoping the government will finally concede on this. It makes sense to force Parliament to entirely rewrite this piece of trash after one year. Doing so does not "increase the terrorist threat" or "show weakness to terrorists" as the Government is saying. This is one of the worst defences of a bad piece of law that I have ever seen, and it is making me more than a little suspicious that there is something more behind this Bill than the Government is letting on."

Meanwhile, the irony is beginning to sink in all round: "It is a sad day for British democracy when our freedom ends up being defended by a bunch of bishops, heritary noblemen and political appointees, but defend it they have done. Not only that, but a group of people notorious for falling asleep during debates stayed up until 6:00am this morning to vote down Tony Blair's attempts to ride roughshod over the rule of law."

Update 2: the BBC's Have Your Say seems to show that the majority are against, but some people still think that safety is more important than freedom.

I have the perfect solution for these people: if the new legislation is passed, the government can lock you up indefinitely, perhaps in a nice secure underground bunker. Then the terrorists won't be able to get you. After all, according to P. Bradley from Wrexham, N. Wales, "Security is very important and inconvenience is a small price to pay for safety".

(Oh, and Blogger's comments seem to be acting up - if you have anything you want to say on this and comments aren't working, bunk me an email...)

Update 3: More goodness:
"Tony Blair isn't so much a king as an emperor. Like Julius Caesar, he believes his own vision is more important than the processes and institutions of the Republic. It must be, because he's a Good Man with the world's best interests at heart. Anyone in the way is a either a Bad Man who seeks to destroy us, or a Foolish Man who fails to understand the realities of the situation."
Plus: "How much political dissent can one express in public before risking being subject to a 'control order' imposed by the State? I'd normally think the term 'police state' to be hyperbolic, but the definition in Roger Scruton's Dictionary of Political Thought is worryingly pertinent.
"police state. A state in which political stability has come to be, or to seem to be, dependent upon police supervision of the ordinary citizen, and in which the police are given powers suitable to that. [...]"
Plus The UK Today has some interesting reminders about Blair and co.'s committment to fighting terrorism:
"In 1974 Roy Jenkins, the then Labour Home Secretary, introduced the original Prevention of Terrorism Act, which went on the Statute Book in November 1974. This was at a time when terrorist activity in mainland Britain was an all-to-frequent occurence. John Prescott voted in support of two ammendments aimed at weakening the act. Yet the most significant power in this Act was to grant the police the power to detain a terrorist subject for up to a week without charge.

"The 1974 Act had to be renewed by Parliament every year. And every year Labour opposed the renewal of the Act. Some of the opponents now in the Cabinet included:

"1989: Tony Blair, John Prescott, Gordon Brown, Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett, Alistair Darling, John Reid, Paul Murphy, Hilary Armstrong, Paul Boateng, Ian McCartney.

"1994: Tony Blair, John Prescott, Gordon Brown, Margaret Beckett, Alistair Darling, John Reid, Paul Murphy, Hilary Armstrong, Paul Boateng, Ian McCartney, Alan Milburn, Geoff Hoon, Tessa Jowell, Peter Hain."
Lest we forget, this was a period when terrorist attacks were commonplace. The number of terrorist attacks in mainland Britain since mid-October 2001? Precisely ZERO.

Update 4: The Lords are still going strong as of early afternoon. Meanwhile, Charles Clarke says "the country needs a bill which prevents terrorism and protects our people". Yes, Charles, yes it does. So why the fuck hasn't the government produced one?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

"Tidying up" vs. "Federalisation" and "anti-European" vs. "anti-EU"

A couple of posts on the two semi-official pro-EU blogs have once again attracted demands from Eurosceptics for explanations and clarifications. First, over at Commissioner Wallström's place, someone asks:

"Here in the UK, our Labour politicians say that the European Constitution is only a 'tidying up excercise', while on the continent most politicians state categorically that it is the foundation of a Federal Europe. If one is right, then the other must be either lying or ignorant Where do you stand on this issue?"
As I know you're all fascinated (and so I've got a record of it), here's my wonderfully astute response:
Typically enough, both are (sort of) correct. It can happily be seen as either, depending on your point of view. It does tidy up previous treaties into one single document (notably sorting out some of the more useless parts of the shoddy Nice one), and introduces a few other areas where EU bodies can have some influence in the lives of the individual member states.

Some of these new areas could - eventually - lead to a more federal structure (after all, the EU is already federal in its loosest definition). Whether this will actually happen or not is another matter entirely. Considering each member state will retain their vetos in a number of important areas, and that new areas of Qualified Majority Voting require majorities of both member states and EU population, it is unlikely actually to lead to any kind of closer political federation unless all member states agree. As long as countries like Britian remain wary, it is highly unlikely.

It would, however, be foolish utterly to discount the possibility that at some stage in the future a closer federation may be a sensible move, so that is left as a vague possibility to appease that minority of European politicians who would genuinely like to see a "United States of Europe".

In other words, the problem with the constitution is not that it's a shift to federalism, but that it's trying to appeal to everyone at once. The fact that it has aspects that can appeal to (almost) everyone naturally means that it can be interpreted in numerous different ways. In such an insanely long and complicated document, it's hardly surprising that there's a lot of room for interpretation - but it includes safeguards to help ensure that no member state will have an interpretation of the thing imposed upon them if they disagree with it.
Meanwhile, over at the Yes Campaign blog, someone suggests that rather than pro-European / anti-European, the terms "Pro-Political Union" and "Anti-Political Union" be used instead.

Again, here's my brilliantly insightful take:
The trouble with that is that there would still be confusion over precisely what is meant by "political union". If it means union in a European superstate along the lines of the USA, then many pro-EU people who would like to see more integration and cooperation (myself included) would be opposed. Just because you are pro-EU and want to see more cooperation does not necessarily mean that you want an utterly centralised federal state to emerge from the current system.

Personally, I normally go for "pro-EU" and "anti-EU" - but even they have their problems as terms. "Pro-EU" can easily be (and frequently is) mistaken for meaning "supportive of the current EU system, everything it does, and everything it seems to be wanting to achieve". Many people (again, myself included) who would consider themselves "pro-EU" are actually highly critical of the current system. There are very, very few "pro-EU" people who would deny that the current EU has its flaws - many of them major. Nonetheless, they all think that these flaws can be rectified.

Again, however, they do not necessarily agree on what the best solutions to the current problems may be. What they do all share is a belief that it is in the best long-term interest of all European states to cooperate more closely. Quite what they mean by "long-term" is, however, yet another matter again...

Rabid self-righteous maniacs

Via Nick Barlow, some fun new Google-bombing opportunities present themselves to piss off those stuck-up heirs of irritating bint Mary Whitehouse who seem constantly to be plaguing our lives with their pathetic attempts to impose their own repressive moralities on the rest of society.

So, check out the new Christian Voice and Mediawatch UK sites. (Actual sites, for comparison, here and here).

If stuck-up religious freaks who failed to read that bit of the Bible which went on about "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" piss you off as much as they do me, might I direct you also to Mediawatchwatch, a blog I've been meaning to link for a while.

The IRA in "we're violent psychopaths" shocker!

A very odd development - if only for the fact that something everyone has known to be the case for the last 30+ years is finally out in the open, as the IRA has offered to shoot those of its members responsible for the death of Robert McCartney back in January. And - after decades of requests from the British government to stop supporting terrorists and three and a half years after 9/11 - the White House has finally seen the light and decided not to invite any representatives of the IRA's political wing to the White House for St Patrick's Day celebrations.

I am unsurprisingly not a fan of the IRA, so doubt I'm in much of a position to offer decent commentary. Instead, I suggest you check out the superb Slugger O'Toole, which is keeping a close eye on developments and reactions from all quarters. They have the full text of the IRA's statement, some interesting discussions, and lots of reasoned and knowledgable analysis. Well worth a look if you're at all interested in this forgotten war on terror.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The European Commission, lobbying and corruption

A friendly reader points out this story about moves to tighten regulation of Brussels lobbying, as moves continue apace to make EU agricultural funding more transparent. Both initiatives should be welcomed by all sides - after all, both pro- and anti-EU propaganda rarely has clear origins, and the Common Agricultural Policy is so shrouded in secrecy it's very hard to tell just how rubbish it actually is (although in case you're wondering, the answer is "VERY").

In launching his initiative to make lobbyists disclose their financial backers, the Anti-Fraud Commissioner, Siim Kallas, has made the entirely sensible point that "the issue of integrity should not be limited to public institutions". However, typically, certain critics seem to take the view that nothing's good enough, and want Brussels to run before it's got the hang of walking.

EU lobbying organisation the Society of European Affairs Practitioners (SEAP) currently has its own, very vague and entirely voluntary Code of Conduct, which effectively states that anything's fine as long as you don't get caught ("Signatories will voluntarily resign should they transgress the code" - emphasis mine - there is no procedure to sack dodgy lobbyists who deliberately mislead or corrupt).

Advice on lobbying techniques in the EU also makes clear how suspect is the current system, in which all lobbyists are desperate to get to people in the European Commission, who are perceived to have more influence than anyone at the European Parliament:

"Taking into account that the EP is a rather open and accessible Institution, it is important to realise that the EC is a less accessible house, full of specialists and national experts who crowd hundreds of committees. One of the challenges for EU Affairs specialists is to get access to the right documents on time. Also, in the beginning one will hardly get the chance to speak to senior staff but with junior officers or civil servants. EU Affairs specialists therefore should try to build up long lasting relationships with senior experts that are of relevant importance to their case."
The equivalent situation if this was going on in the UK would be if lobbyists were hanging around Whitehall sucking up to minor civil servants, hoping that by being nice to a junior researcher at the Home Office they might eventually get to an Under-Secretary, and thus subtly influence departmental policy via the typical machinations of the Sir Humphreys of this world.

A tad dodgy, I'm sure we can all agree - although also entirely understandable, as it is, after all, the lobbyists' job to gain access and influence. In the absence of any regulations, there's no reason why they shouldn't try to win over Commission workers. Except, of course, that the current system breeds conflicts of interests, greatly increases the possibilities for corruption, and threatens the distortion of EU policies to benefit individual companies and organisations at the expence of EU taxpayers. It is very easy to make someone feel obliged to help you out even without bunking them a brown envelope stuffed with cash - a drink here, a work-reducing briefing paper there. This is precisely why civil servants are meant to be free from lobbying influences, and why UK Members of Parliament are forced to declare all their extra-parliamentary activities and incomes on the Register of Members' Interests.

This move would be a good step towards cleaning up the Commission, and is yet another acknowledgement that the current system is not up to scratch. However, because there is so much work to do, any initiatives on behalf of the Commission are met with - mostly justified but often unfair - accusations of hypocrisy.

In an absolutely typical move, the suggestions that regulation of lobbyists to cut down on fraud should be implemented has been met with hefty implications that the Commission has double-standards. After all, the Commission is well-known for being corrupt, nepotistic and unaccountable - what right does it have to tell the lobbyists to clean up their act? SEAP head Rogier Chorus has said as much already:
"Chorus is... sceptical at the suggestion that lobbyists should disclose their client's identity and the amounts of money they are being paid to perform their task. 'I wouldn't accept that at this stage,' he commented, adding that the Commission should 'do its homework' and clean its own house first by making officials 'less vulnerable to bribes'."
What this, of course, fails to acknowledge is that civil servants - which is what the vast, vast majority of Commission workers actually are - should not be getting approached by lobbyists in the first place, as their sole purpose should be impartially to implement Commission and EU policy (please note - Commission workers, not Commissioners). Ban lobbyists from approaching them, they are instantly less vulnerable to bribes - be these literal or psychological.

It is, of course, very easy to take cheap shots at the Commission - and many of them are utterly deserved - but this on-going attitude that seems to suggest that the institution has no right to tell anyone what to do until it gets its own house in order is merely childish. Yes, the Commission is not directly elected; yes, it has a record of corruption. This does not mean that it is incapable of spotting and tackling corruption and lack of accountability elsewhere.

If, as should eventually happen, the Commission ends up in its rightful place as the EU's civil service, and the semi-executive power which is currently in the hands of the Commissioners is separated from those who actually implement EU-wide policy (in other words, so that the Commissioners end up more like Ministers, rather than the combination of Minister and Permanent Secretary that they currently are), it will be in part due to measures like this aimed at de-politicising Commission workers.

To resort to tired cliche, Rome wasn't built in a day. Sorting out the Commission's problems will take a long time, but it is small steps like this which can put it on the right road.

Monday, March 07, 2005

"The EU is a political project"

I'd been trying to find a link about this story on and off all day. Basically yet another of these "former advisors" of Tony Blair who seem to pop up every now and again has emerged from the woodwork, and his comments are liable to be distorted beyond all recognition. The chap in question was Tony’s policy adviser on Europe from 1997-2004, and is basically making points similar to many of those I've raised in the "EU Debate" section of the archives to the right there.

Although many of the points raised are fair enough, typically what is not acknowledged is the sheer impossibility of being "honest" when it comes to the EU. The primary contention of the ex-advisor, Roger Liddle, is that there needs to be acknowledgement that the EU is a "political project" from the pro-EU camp in the UK.

Well, erm... Yes... Obviously it's a political project, the question is to what extent - and on that no one can agree. That's the real problem.

Is it "political" in the sense that it's shifting towards political union, that it's being carried out by politicians, that it's related to governments, that it affects the people, or any of the other many interpretations of the term?

Equally Liddle could call for the pro-EU camp to "admit" that the EU is federal. Because it is - by a broad definition. What it is not is "federal" by the definition many opposed to the EU claim it to be pushing towards - namely that wonderfully scary-sounding "United States of Europe", which summons up ideas of a single, continent-wide state organised along a federal system similar to that of the USA. (Nor is there much indication that this is the direction the project is heading towards any more, despite occasional statements to that effect from various European politicians, but that's yet another question entirely).

The major problem remains that there is precisely no agreement on terminology:

  • "The EU' is often used as shorthand for the Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council of Ministers - all separate institutions - as well as all 25 EU member states (when they are in agreement), and even - scarily frequently - for non-EU bodies like the European Court of Human Rights.
  • "Europe" is also used interchangably with "the EU", despite not being the same thing.
  • "Eurealist" and "Eurosceptic" are largely interchangable, and generally mean anti-EU, despite their etymologies suggesting that they should mean something entirely different.
  • "Federal" means everything from the basic "recognising a central authority" to the loaded "dominated by a central authority".
  • "Sovereignty" is frequently mentioned, but rarely defined, and calls for its "return" are often aimed at Brussels alone while ignoring the loss of sovereignty entailed by our obligations to NATO, the UN, the World Bank and innumerable other international treaties.
  • "Integration" can be used both in the sense of harmonising existing systems to allow them to run in parallel or the sense of "gradual, ever-increasing domination by Brussels".
  • Even concepts such as "British culture" and "British law" are often used confusingly - frequently ignoring the rather different situations and experiences of Scotland.
Add to all that the lack of consistent application of standards (calls for "Democratic accountability" in particular seem to ignore many of the entirely undemocratic aspects of the British political system), and the entire thing gets very confusing.

Until we can get an agreement on the precise meanings of the terminology of the debate, honesty is - as I have pointed out many times before - impossible. This latest escapade simply proves it once more - an admission that the EU is "political" in its nature can easily be held up by those opposed to the EU as an admission that it is heading towards a superstate, when what is actually meant is something far less sinister. Because of this, such an admission simply cannot be made - it would be presenting anti-EU campaigners with an open goal, and be an horrendous PR move thanks entirely to the distortions and misunderstandings that would ensue. Simple honesty can no longer work without very careful media management to ensure that statements are taken to mean what they are intended to mean. And in the British climate, such media management is impossible.

Both sides are equally guilty in this, and have been at it for decades. It will be very hard to tackle this problem at so late a stage - and impossible unless both sides agree to sit down and agree not only to apply a consistent usage to all the various terms, but also to argue the pros and cons on an individual basis and on their merits.

Which, let's face it, is never going to happen - it's far easier to smear all anti-EU people as xenophobes and petty nationalists and all pro-EU people as federalists and traitors, and then whinge like a slapped child when the opposition uses the same tactics in return. While that's all very well and good, all that ends up happening is that regular people get ever more disillusioned with the entire political process as the debates get ever more infantile and confusing. Which is not helpful for either camp.

Rupert Murdoch wants you to work for him for free

Especially if you're a blogger, by the sounds of things.

Would you like to help shape The Times's election coverage? Do you want to write for Times Online during the campaign? If you are a reader of The Times or Times Online, we would like your help in two areas:

1. If you live in a battleground seat, we want to know how the parties are campaigning in your area. We want to see the leaflets that come through your front door and hear about any phone calls you receive or any other innovative, or irritating, techniques that the parties are using.

2. If you are a blogger or a diarist and live in a key battleground, Times Online would like to hear from you. You could become a featured online writer during the campaign.
Still, it might prove to be an interesting exercise, if they bother to stick with it. Not the sort of initiative I'd have expected from the Times, it must be admitted - strikes me more as a Guardian type idea. Nonetheless, for anyone interested in padding out their CV it might be worth a pop...

Either way, there's more here

Tuesday update: Via Martin Stabe, it seems that the BBC's Today Programme is after bloggers as well.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Why the lack of interest in Kyrgyzstan?

After yesterday's update on Ukraine, where protests at alleged vote-rigging back in November (eventually) managed to attract the entire world's attention, it struck me as particularly odd that I've heard nothing about the very similar-sounding protests going on over alleged vote-rigging in Kyrgyzstan. This could easily have been news coming out of Kiev a few months ago (via Reuters):

"I have seen tens of elections, but have never seen such "dirty" polls," Halimbay Mamajanov, 80, another voter, told IRIN. "There was an open and deliberate bribing of voters through endless free meals, alcohol to young people and distribution of 'presents'. Also it was obvious that the authorities used their administrative resources and power, while the contesting parties deployed their subordinates and some organisations that were 'supporting' them."
Whereas Ukraine's was the Orange Revolution, could Kyrgyzstan be the Lemon Revolution? There's a bit more background via EurasiaNet.

As of yet, just about the only blog I've found that's been covering events in any detail is Gateway Pundit, with posts from Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, but I don't really have time to trawl the net just at the moment.

English-language Kyrgyzstani news sources also seem not to be covering events - perhaps unsurprisingly when it is run by an ex-government man. The US has condemned the clampdown on media freedoms.

Anyone else seen this covered in more depth anywhere? By the sounds of things, the elections aren't meant to be over until the 13th - this will be going on for some time...

Update: Wikipedia's page on Kyrgyzstan may be of interest - if only to find out where the place is...

Friday, March 04, 2005

NHS propaganda - adding insult to injury

Having asked, via the interweb during the Labour party conference, a question of Tony Blair (that being "Why don't you fuck off and apologise for Iraq, you twat?"), I seem to be getting propaganda direct to my inbox. All fine and dandy, but I must say that I object to be addressed as "Dear Labour Supporter". I have never been a Labour supporter, and don't particularly intend to be.

Apparently, according to the propaganda, the party of Foundation Hospitals and piss-poor Private Finance Initiatives which have cost the taxpayer millions is the party of the NHS. The fact the email has the audacity to imply that the Tories are the main party that wants to privatize the NHS after the PFI balls-up is just ridiculous.

I can not deny that the NHS has got increased funding under Labour. I will, however, deny that it has actually got any better.

My father, a conscientious NHS Dentist, earns - in real terms - less now than he did 25 years ago. Although this is not entirely due to Labour - the decline started under the Tories - Labour have done precisely fuck all to make working for the NHS an attractive prospect and, if my father and his colleagues are to be believed, are actually going to make the situation worse through their new payment plans.

If you can't get the staff, there's no hope in hell of the system being able to work. The fact that my father also lost several years' worth of pensions contributions in the Equitable Life shambles (which the government have singularly failed to do anything constructive about) and now, shortly being due for retirement, has no hope in hell of making this back only pisses me off further.

What also pisses me off is that I don't recall ever granting Labour permission to send me this crap.

The NHS is still a great service, but the recent years of wasting millions on administrative and management staff at the expense of the doctors, dentists, nurses and pharmacists that make the thing run is crippling what was once one of the finest examples of a "socialised" medical system in the world. To give a brief indication of how incredibly wasteful the thing is, Derek Smith, chief executive of Hammersmith Hospitals (covering just a tiny section of London), last year earned between £210 and £215,000. That's £30,000 a year more than the Prime Minister himself, for fuck's sake...

The Neocons and the EU

Via Nick Barlow, an interesting post guaranteed to raise some heckles, but with many pertinent points to make about certain American attitudes towards Europe, Islam, and the future of the EU: "many of these American 'conservatives' are actively wishing for some kind of terrible collapse in Europe, into communal war or economic destitution or whatever. Why?"

Ukrainian implications

Berlin Sprouts has a nice overview of some potential post-Orange Revolution developments on Europe's easternmost fringe, three and a bit months after it all kicked off in Kiev, which nicely complements this Washington Times piece.

Ultima Thule, meanwhile, has some worrying rumours about possible Russian reactions to the apparent push for greater democracy in these former Soviet states, including a translation of a Russian article about the threat posed to Putin by the GUUAM states (Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan). Transitions Online, meanwhile, suggests that Putin must now look to Kazakhstan to maintain the Russian dream of an ex-Soviet economic alliance.

Others are also suggesting that Yushchenko's victory is having ramifications even further afield, and that Lebanon is consciously modelling its current attempts to shake off foreign dominance on Ukraine's peaceful revolution. Others are asking questions about the possible outcomes in Lebanon which sound eerily familiar to those of us who were following Ukrainian events back in November.

Orange Ukraine, meanwhile, provides a comparison between events in Ukraine in February 2005 with those of February 2004, which shows that although some things have improved, the mere installation of Victor Yushchenko as president has not been enough to sort out the country's problems.

Dan at Orange Ukraine also mentions - and dismisses - those allegations of Yushchenko having fascist connections. Suggestions he was anti-Semitic cropped up back in November - but it wasn't clear to what extent these were merely propaganda. It also wasn't clear whether the propaganda was put out by his enemies or his friends, as by all accounts in some parts of Ukraine being hostile to Jews could well be a vote winner...

Over at Neeka's Backlog, Veronica Khokhlova also mentions this worrying neofascist undercurrent in Ukraine - notably the news of the beating of an African-American diplomat in an apparently racist attack in Kiev.

In Ukraine - as in other parts of the world which have recently seen a more democratic system of government introduced, there are some improvements, but still a lot of work to be done. It's all very well getting rid of the "wrong" government, but a lot of hard graft is required to make lasting changes. The glamour of the revolutionary period may now be a fading memory, but the EU should keep an eye on events in the GUUAM states - this could be the start of something big, or it could be the herald of yet more chaos. Either way, it will have important implications for the EU's relations with Russia and its other neighbours to the east.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

"Ten concrete actions"

Busy, so a quicky. Blogging EU Commissioner Margot Wallström has launched what is described as (in typically overly-convoluted EU style) "an information note identifying the components of a structured communication and information strategy on the Constitution to support the ongoing ratification process". In other words, an outline of what will and will not be done by the Commission to ease the constitution into effect.

Unfortunately, it could be seen to be somewhat contradictory:

"The Commission has made it clear that it will not: issue propaganda on the Constitution; campaign during election periods or breach national rules on referenda or distribution of information."
Sounds good - should appease the Eurosceptics. But how can that be tallied with the next two paragraphs?
"The Commission will seek to ensure that Europe's citizens are able to take informed choices on the Constitution. To do so, it has become increasingly clear that the Commission needs to do more to demonstrate the benefits of Europe.

"The Commission will be more pro-active in setting out the political case for the adoption of the Constitution - and demonstrate its concrete benefits to citizens. The entry into force of the Constitution would enhance the ability of the European Union to deliver on its strategic objectives over the next five years. The Commission and individual Commissioners cannot therefore stand on the sidelines or refrain from entering the political debate."
The Commission promises not to issue propaganda, but then says it must be "pro-active" in showing the benefits of the constitution. Which would mean, by its very definition, issuing propaganda (albeit not necessarily in the sinister sense in which that term is now generally used). The "training seminars for national and regional journalists" likewise could sound a tad Orwellian, as could the "Constitution Packs" for students.

It all makes sense, of course, as the lack of knowledge about the constitution needs to be tackled for the electorate to be able to make an informed choice one way or the other, but considering that there have already been major objections from Eurosceptics over the - thus far fairly small - amounts of money being spent on trying to get the constitution ratified, this is just asking for trouble.

Information on the constitution needs to come from impartial sources, not from an institution which is wholly and institutionally committed to the thing. Any information coming from the Commission about the constitution will be - quite fairly - treated with suspicion. It may well be entirely factual, but the fact it will be stamped with an official logo means that it cannot be impartial, and so cannot be trusted.

The whole thing is somewhat disingenuous, methinks. Even the largely pro-EU Guardian is taking the piss out of poor old Margot, highlighting her "globe-trotting at the expense of the European taxpayer," and pointing out that "Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, who is said to wince at the mention of Ms Wallström's name, recently made clear the government would turn down any EU money to promote the constitution ahead of next year's referendum."

When are the EU bigwigs going to realise that hostility is not going to be overcome by branded official documents? When are they going to realise that "concrete actions" to convince people of the benefits of the EU are not what's required, but a demonsration of concrete benefits? The facts should be able to speak for themselves.

Of course, the problem still remains - who can be bothered to spread information about the benefits if the Commission doesn't? It's a bit of a Catch-22, and not one to which I have much of a solution.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

The UK election's biggest non-issue

Asylum. A load of fuss about nothing. "The number of asylum seekers arriving in Europe has fallen to levels last seen in the late 1980s" - in the UK, asylum applications have fallen by 61% in the last two years alone.

As for all the nonsense spouted by the likes of Robert Kilroy-Silk about Britain taking "only our fair share" and all the suggestions that we take far more than our EU partners - France is actually the world's top recipient of asylum-seekers, with 61,600 last year. The UK, in contrast, while being in third place (behind the US and just ahead of Germany) received just 40,200 asylum requests in 2004 (down from 103,080 in 2002) - or 0.7 asylum seekers per 1,000 inhabitants.

Yep, we're simply FLOODED with the buggers, aren't we?

The United Nations Refugee Agency press release has more, or download a pdf of the report itself, Asylum Levels and Trends in Industrialized Countries, 2004.

Some other blog views: Diderot's Lounge, The Pseudo Magazine, and Big Dog's Weblog.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The EU, US and China

There's been a lot of fuss recently over the EU ending its ban on selling arms to China. Being a wishy-washy liberal peacenik, I'd personally like it if we could ban arms manufacturers. That not being likely to happen any time soon, all I will say is "Hear, hear!" (Really, read the linked post (which was in response to this article) in full - it's spot on.)

Then there's the fact that, despite the ban, there were lots of loopholes (it would be illegal to sell a missile targetting system, for example, but fine to sell the components - as long as you did so separately), which ensured that the trade carried on regardless. The ban was a sham.

And, lest we forget, there's also the fact that loads of countries - including the US and some from the EU (Britain being probably the best example) - are quite happy to sell arms to various other states with shoddy human rights records as long as they're perceived to be on our side. How can the US justify sales of electric shock batons to Saudi Arabia, knowing these are likely to be used for torture? How can the EU justify weapons sales to Pakistan, knowing the country is a military dictatorship with a very recent history of belligerency?

Yes, China has a simply awful human rights record. But weapons are in their very nature intended to bugger up people's human rights in the worst ways possible - at best maiming, at worst killing.

There is no such thing as morality when it comes to the arms trade - the entire thing is immoral. Remember that whole "Thou shalt not kill" business in the Bible? That's common to pretty much every religion, and a belief staunchly held by most irreligious people to boot. Pretending there are gradients of morality when it comes to this stuff is ridiculous.

If the powers that be cared about morality they'd ban the arms trade completely. That, however, would cause fundamental economic problems throughout the western world, as the arms trade is, somewhat ironically considering the entire thing is designed to end lives, vital to our continuing existences. We cannot survive without the money generated by the arms manufacturers.

The current ban is exactly like the British government saying they're going to ban smoking in (some) pubs, because it'll help us get healthier. If they wanted us to get healthier, they'd ban the sale of cigarettes - by far the best way to stop us smoking. They can't, because they need the cash cigarette sales generate. Same with the arms trade. Both the pub smoking ban and the apparent arms export ban are nothing more than PR.

The EU's decision to lift the ban is shit, no doubt about it - you won't catch me claiming China's got a nice regime in charge. The lifting of the ban does, however, make perfect sense - it'll cut down on the black market, raise extra revenue for the various member states, and reduce the manufacturers' shipping costs, as they'll finally be able to sell their weapons whole again rather than pack them up as component parts in separate boxes. US complaints about the EU's decision are tit all to do with a concern for human rights, they are everything to do with economics, as now their own arms salesmen will have more competition.

Again, I say, "Hear, hear" -

"If we're going to have an arms embargo on China for human rights reasons, then let's have a real one and do away with the hypocrisy. Otherwise, please shut up."
Related matters:

The EU-China Human Rights Network
The EU's official page on its relations with China

Bush II: Human rights

US sounds alarm on human rights, But critics say US guilty of torture by its definition.

Interestingly, the report includes a number of key US allies - Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Russia - among the list of those with a somewhat suspect approach to treating people nicely.

Could Bush's second term finally see an end to the kind of hypocricy we've grown used to of ticking off countries America doesn't like for doing things key allies brazenly get away with right under the noses of US officials? Might Bush II see an attempt to follow a more progressive, Nixon-style foreign policy rather than the belligerent, Reagan-style approach we've seen over the last four years? Is this all just for show, or is this the beginning of a definite shift in approach?

Meanwhile, in Britain, Charles Clarke makes a mockery of the concept of parliamentary procedure, and the government's majority in passing the controversial (to put it mildly) bill proposing all kinds of authoritarian measures is reduced to 14. Clarke, despite making some minor last-minute concessions (surely demonstrating that the policy hasn't exactly been properly thought through?), has said that he will give no more.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, has condemned the government's proposals as a "profound injustice and affront to human rights and the rule of law".

Will President Bush now start ticking off Tony and co for their proposed human rights abuses? Considering the report finds space to give the UK a slap on the wrist for its overcrowded prisons, perhaps house arrests and control orders will actually be seen as an improvement...

Update: Hmmm... Could this human rights report be an attempt to compile a list of dodgy nations so that the US can quickly work out where to send people for "outsourcing"?

("Right, this chap's probably been a bit naughty - where can we send him where they'll deprive him of sleep, strip and blindfold him, and keep him in prolonged solitary confinement until he tells us what we want?"

"How about Egypt, Libya or Iran, boss?"

"Egypt it is! Right, son - you're off to see the Pharohs!")

Update 2: A rather nice overview of some of the political theory behind the current concerns in the UK, courtesy of the really rather good Transatlantic Assembly, taking in bits of Habermas, Mouffe and Laclau, and demonstrating nicely that there's really no need to rely on irrelevant 800 year old manuscripts to demonstrate that what the government is proposing is wrong:

"There is nothing more persuasive and illustrative of a liberty of a particular society as the expressed liberty of the intolerant. As it was mentioned in a metaphor of a tight-rope walker, the art of good exercise of state power is the art of the toleration of the intolerant or in other words a careful balancing of the wish to protect the constitutional order of the given state and the acceptance of the risk of its destruction. A drive towards absolute security is the main enemy of the ideal of a liberal-democratic state."
Good stuff.

Update 3: Via Bloggerheads, the new Observer blog has a link not only to the list of which MPs voted which way (handy reference for the upcoming election), but also a transcript of a superb account from Barbara Follett MP of why detention orders should be anathema to the British way of life:
"In 1961, the South African Government introduced the General Law Amendment Act, which allowed people to be detained for 12 days without trial. By 1963, that had been extended to 90 days. By 1965, it was 180 days. Two years later, it became indefinite. At the same time, the apartheid regime was issuing control orders that restricted the right of some citizens to congregate, to work and, in some cases, to leave the confines of their own homes...

"My first husband was put under house arrest because the apartheid state believed that he was a threat to its security. He probably was; he was campaigning to give black people the right to vote and join trade unions. Given the structure of the South African state, he probably was threatening it because it believed that only whites could vote and join trade unions. House arrest hampered him, but did not stop him, which was probably why, just before his five-year order was due to expire, he was shot dead in front of our two young daughters in their bedroom. I tried to comfort them in the days that followed by telling them that we were going to go to Britain, where people were not detained without trial or put under house arrest."

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