Saturday, August 13, 2005

The one, the only... Hitler kitten!

I'm off to sample the delights of British Columbia on my first proper overseas holiday in about 18 months to climb mountains, swim in the Pacific and drink huge quantities of Canadian beer - back around the 26th.

In the meantime, have some pictures of my mate's new kitten like wot bears an uncanny resemblance to Adolf Hitler:

And some slightly less sinister ones:

Isn't Hitler cute?

Friday, August 12, 2005

Is the government making laws that it doesn't need to make in a vain effort to look like it's doing something when it doesn't know what can be done? I wouldn't be at all surprised...

Headline of the day: Vandals continue attacks on beavers - apparently, "This time, four beavers were targeted. Reader Beaver, Beaver Crete and Busta Moves Beaver were blasted with white paint sometime before Thursday morning. Bib's Beaver was partially unclothed last week."


Yvonne Ridley: traitor or just a silly bint?

Hard to tell in the present circumstances. Either way, using an explicitly non-political meeting to commemorate the victims of the London bombings to instead spout a load of over-the-top bullshit about Blair, Israel and the US - including calling for a boycott of Israeli goods because "Every time you make your purchases you are putting bullets in the backs of Palestinian children", comparing Tony Blair to Pol Pot and then seemingly trying to incite violence by vomiting up crap like "Tony Blair, if you really want war with Islam, bring it on!" has got to put her in the top league of fucking idiots.

Christ - just imagine what would happen if her and Galloway had kids together...

You see, it's people like Ridley who discredit all opposition to the latest half-arsed anti-terror measures. People like Ridley who stir up trouble between Muslims and the rest of us. If some radical Imam shot his mouth off with this rabid, foaming at the mouth rubbish, he can be dismissed fairly easily as simply being an extremist. But when a white woman - or a Scot with a 'tache - start off on this kind of rhetoric, it lends far more "justification" to the cause.

So, control orders all round?

Update: Having just slagged off Gorgeous George, it's only fair to acknowledge that at his most recent opportunity to spout off he resisted the urge to go utterly mental. You may disagree with his take, but unlike Ridley he kept his rhetoric in check. His last point in particular is hard to disagree with (although I will concede that his first could be interpreted in a number of different ways, not all of them commendable, and that this was likely deliberate...):

"It is a crime, a sin in any language, in any religion, to punish innocent people for the cause of the guilty people.

"The guilty men are not travelling on buses or on the London Underground. If you bomb people, some of them will want to bomb you back, it is obvious.

"We will not be silenced. The country has to change course and it will not change course so long as Blair remains at number 10 Downing Street."

Got m4d w3b 5k177z? Want to help democracy and stuff? Go lend your services to Tim Ireland with The Political Weblog Project. More info here:
"I want to get more elected officials blogging properly. I want to do this by offering them a full blogging package at rate they can afford... on pretty much the sole condition that they use it properly... So, if you can design, build, code and/or host a weblog and think this is a good idea, I'd like you to get in touch: manic AT bloggerheads DOT com"
Don't forget, this is the guy who got Boris Johnson blogging. He's got a good track record with this stuff, and his committment can't be doubted. If you can help, do.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Another group to be added to the "potential terrorists to be scared of" list: (apparently) white Americans with no prior connection to any extremist groups.

Right, so that's anyone in traditional Muslim dress, Arabs, Pakistanis, Jamaicans, East Africans, people with dark hair or skin carrying bags, people with dark hair or skin wearing large coats, Brazilians, woman, children, Chinese men with cancer, white Americans, and anyone who could be mistaken for any of the above.

That'll make getting to work without shitting ourselves nice and easy...

A wonderful example of the current insanity:

Pissing hell - the world really has gone mental. I'm agreeing (almost) wholeheartedly with Max Hastings. Highlights:

"Whatever steps a society takes to defend itself, these must be subject to extra-parliamentary review. Democracy in Britain is already in poor health. Such is the power of the executive, so feeble is the influence of Commons backbenchers, so weak are the Lords and local government, that today the judiciary represents the only substantial check upon the excesses and follies of government....

"The outbreak of active terrorism in this country indeed demands new laws, rendering necessary a shift of the balance between civil rights and public protection. It will be surprising if judges do not show sensitivity to this. But the greater the powers of the state - especially custodial powers - and the more vital becomes the sceptical, scrutinising role of courts...

"None of this is intended to make a case for the British government to respond feebly to the threat from violent Islamism. It is merely to argue that legislation on new security measures should be reasoned, rather than reflexive. This is difficult in the current overcharged mood, both at Westminster and among the public."
Has old man Hastings had a forced lobotomy since he started writing for the Guardian? This is pretty much spot on.

Update: There's a fairly predictable discussion of the latest witch-hunt over a Guardian opinion piece in the comments.

Russian Liberals, Communists Ask European HR Court to Cancel 2003 Elections. They won't get anywhere, but still... And in other Russian "travesty of democracy news", Putin's most detested opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former boss of the oil company Yukos which Putin fucked royally in the arse before imprisoning the guy, is considering running for election from prison, even though he almost certainly won't be allowed to and will face reprisals for even suggesting it (follow-up here).

Afghanistan elections relying on Canadian ink and donkeys - hurrah for incredibly confusing 400 candidate ballot papers! Yay for donkeys! Woo for Canadian ink high in silver nitrate! Huzzah for me going on a proper holiday on Monday for the first time in nearly 18 months!

Reuters - UK holds 10 foreigners deemed to be security threat. The BBC >reports these include some of the tabloids' favourite bogeymen like Abu Qatada. Who's already been banged away without charge for two years and is also subject to a control order. (Which would surely tend to suggest that control orders are a waste of time?)

Anyway, looks like they'll all be deported without any kind of trial, and probably without the right to appeal. Despite this being utterly illegal.

Yay for Tony "cunting fuck" Blair and his tough anti-terror measures which are protecting our way of life! (God, I hate him.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

This could prove interesting - can it really be a "Human right" to terminate the life of another human, albeit one that's not yet been born?

Abortion is a tricky issue at the best of times, but when you've got 25 countries involved - many of which are Catholic - it gets even more so. Which is precisely why there are currently no EU laws on abortion.

Are foetuses covered by the European Convention of Human Rights? If these women lose, it would tend to imply they are - and so surely abortion should become illegal throughout the EU? If they win, the European Court of Human Rights will essentially be declaring Catholic doctrine to be against human rights - which would itself surely be a breach of the "human right" to freedom of religion?

94 years of equivocation and "the Eastenders factor"

Ninety-four years ago today, the 1911 Parliament Act was passed, stating the following:

"And whereas it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it is at present exists a second chamber constructed on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot immediately be brought into operation"
I'd imagine that most people would consider "not immediately" to mean "relatively soon" - not "the best part of a century". So today is Lords Reform Day, and I have agreed to post about it to raise awareness of the fact that we're still working with a half-arsed parliamentary system. (Other bloggers' views are being collated here.)

The most important fact to consider is simply that the House of Commons does not have either the time or the manpower sufficiently to debate and scrutinise every piece of legislation which passes through its doors - especially under the current, legislation-happy government.

This is why we have Select Committees. This is why All Party groups are formed. This is why we now have Westminster Hall debates, running parallel to those in the main chamber. This is also part of the reason for the party system, the whips, even for the Cabinet and post of Prime Minister. All of these exist, at the most basic level, to enable the proper scrutiny, debate and prioritisation of bills and their various amendments.

But the Commons STILL hasn't got the time or the manpower to analyse everything which affects this country - European Union legislation being the prime example. You don't have to be a eurosceptic to agree that directives issued in Brussels should be properly examined before being put into force, or to see that an body not directly involved in drawing up the legislation is more likely to be able to take a more objective view of the implications.

The Commons currently has no time or real framework to discuss EU legislation. Hell, it barely has time to read its own legislation or prepare properly for its own debates - witness the much-lauded performance of the recently-departed Robin Cook in the Scott Report debates in 1996. He was given just two hours to read and digest 2,000 pages of dense material and prepare his argument attacking the Major government. He succeeded, but such fortitude and intellect is rare amongst MPs.

The Lords, however, in part due to its larger membership (even if this has been drastically reduced since January 1999, when there were 1,165 active members), in part thanks to the lack of pressure from constituency work, finds far more time to analyse what the EU is up to - spotting and making public potential problems BEFORE they become official. Even if no one ever pays any attention...

The House of Lords European Communities Select Committee, set up in 1974 on the advice of the Maybray-King committee, is just one example of the vital yet largely unknown work that the upper House conducts on a daily basis. It is not all old men in grey suits droning on amidst red leather luxury, nor is the Lords' sole function to hold up legislation.

Yet the holding up of legislation is also absolutely vital to our democracy. Especially in times of a government with a large Commons majority, bad legislation (ID cards, detention without trial etc. etc. etc.) could otherwise be sped through with even more ease.

It was with the 1832 Great Reform Act, bringing in popular elections (if not universal suffrage) and disciplined political parties, that the Lords became a reviewing and suspending body. But the Conservatives ended up with a majority in the Lords, and this was where - as so often - the problems started. When the Liberals' 1909 "People's Budget" (with its strangely Blairite name) was thrown out via the Conservatives' Lords majority, a crisis was provoked.

And so we see the real key to the problem - party politics and outright majorities.

After various proposals (like the 1917 Bryce report) and various new changes (like the 1949 Parliament Act, 1958 Life Peerages Act, and 1963 Peerage Act), in 1968-9 an inter-party conference finally came to some relatively sensible decisions:

1) the second chamber should complement but not rival the Commons
2) hereditary membership should be eliminated
3) no one party should possess a permanent majority
4) powers should be restricted - especially regarding subordinate legislation
5) membership should be divided between voting and non-voting peers.

The Lords, being fully aware that their position was increasingly anachronistic in an age of hippies and women's lib, acknowledged that the proposals were in the best interest of the country and - as they did again in 1999 when the hereditary peers voted to abolish themselves - acted like the proverbial turkeys, voting in favour of the House of Lords Reform White Paper by 251 to 56.

But then petty politics got in the way again. The Commons rejected the White Paper, despite all parties having previously agreed, after a filibuster from a cross-party coalition opposed to the then government's position on proposed UN Sanctions on Rhodesia. Which, let's face it, had very little to do with the future of British democracy - but such is the nature of parliamentary politics - point-scoring against one's political opponents is often just as important as actually getting things done.

And this is why - even though this "Lords Reform Day" has been promoted by the Elect the Lords campaign, I cannot advocate an elected upper chamber.

If we accept that the Lords' prime purpose is to scrutinise legislation that will affect the country, identifying flaws and oversights and suggesting possible remedies. If we accept that their prime purpose is to ensure that we end up with the very best laws possible, I do not think that this can be done within a party-political system. And that is what - if we had an elected upper House - we would end up with, because elections cost time and money. Those standing for election would need the kind of support that only a party could provide.

Once you accept party support and allegiance, you lose a certain amount of independence - party support does not come for nothing. They will expect you to help them out in return, and will cut off funding and support if you refuse to comply.

Likewise, once you are beholden to an electorate, and rely on re-election to maintain your position, you are less able to act on your conscience, instead having to second-guess what the people who will be voting for you might want. And the people most certainly do not always know what is best - witness the fact that The Sun is Britain's most popular daily paper. The customer is NOT always right - often, as anyone who has ever dealt with customers will tell you, the customer is not only entirely wrong but also an absolute twat.

The US Supreme Court works largely because those appointed to it are appointed for life. The judges can therefore criticise the sitting government's proposals based exclusively on their expert interpretations of the constitution, with no fear of any kind of reprisals - either through party whips and funding being withdrawn or at the ballot box. The only problems with the Supreme Court appear to arise when it is perceived to become imbalanced, so that conservative interpretations of the constitution outweigh progressive ones, or vice versa.

This is yet another example of how, in a body whose prime purpose is to act as a check on the government of the day, overall majorities of one viewpoint are a BAD THING. With elections - even staggered elections over extended periods based on proportional representation systems - overall majorities can be hard to avoid.

An imbalance of opinion is, however, somewhat easier to achieve with the US Supreme Court than it would be with the House of Lords as there are only nine judges, yet hundreds of peers. It took Tony Blair nearly eight years to appoint enough life peers to give Labour more lords than any other party, but even so he hasn't managed to gain an overall majority, and the presence of the unaligned Cross-benchers (about a third of the total) should ensure that this never happens.

There's another useful comparison from our own country - the Bank of England. Since the 1998 Bank of England Act, the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee has had sole right to set the UK's interest rates, working to promote price stability and economic growth entirely independently of the government. As with the US Supreme Court, none of the Committee's members have been elected - they are there by dint of having been recognised as experts in the field by their colleagues. As with the US Supreme Court, the Committee does not necessarily act in the interests of the government, but in the interests of the country.

And it is this - "the interests of the country" which is how the Lords should (and usually does) act. Thanks to their lack of need for party support or to suck up to the electorate, peers who sit for life can act on their conscience. The honour of having been recognised as worthy of a peerage simply underlines the fact that peers should act with honour - this is not an appointment based on who spent the most on advertising or who managed to find more dirt on their opponent but, technically at least, on merit.

The peers are not just some schmuck who managed to suck up to the right person at party HQ - like the majority of MPs. They are supposed to be the country's best and brightest. They include experts in almost every field on which the government may legislate: economics, law, science, media - you name it, there are members of the House of Lords who are world-leaders on the subject at hand. Would we be able to ensure such a spread of expertise through election? Such independence?

If we accept the very first point - that the Commons doesn't have the time or manpower to properly examine all legislation - then we can accept that Lords exists to scrutinse. To properly scrutinise, you need people who know what to look for. Some random bloke who stands for election is not necessarily going to know what to look for. So we need the very best, the people with the most expertise in every area going. The Lords does not need democracy - it needs meritocracy.

And so the solution to how to appoint the Lords? Well, the 1917 Bryce report proposed a House three-quarters elected indirectly on a regional basis, one quarter chosen by a joint standing committee of both houses, with a proportion of hereditary peers and bishops. I'd obviously ignore the elected part. I'd scrap the hereditary peers. I'd scrap the majority of bishops (although as long as the church remains established we'd need a few in there - but we'd also need leading expert representatives from all the other major religions in this country to help scrutinise religious legislation).

So we'd be left with the joint standing committee of both houses to make appointments. That would remove the Prime Minister's patronage issue and so prevent the ability of the government of the day to whack its buddies in the upper House and then give them high-powered jobs (Lord Adonis, anyone?). It would enable debate and scrutiny of every potential member to ensure that they are up to the standards required. It would maintain a cross-party make-up, and be able to bring in non-parliamentary experts to advise on the qualifications of potential new peers. And once its decisions had been made, appointments would remain - bar disciplinary procedures allowing expulsion which would probably be sensible - for life.

It is only with a meritocratic system in the Lords that legislation can be properly examined. Rushing towards a democratic system simply for the sake of democracy is not only foolish, but dangerous. The electorate is easily distracted and confused and, given a straight choice between voting for the world's leading biochemist or someone who used to be on Eastenders, we all know that they'd likely opt for the latter. And as much as Martine McCutcheon may have a lovely bubbly personality and a surprisingly OK singing voice, I wouldn't trust her to examine my shit, let alone a bill proposing a broad range of new legislation for the pharmaceuticals industry.

And that, in short, is why the Lords should not be elected - the Eastenders factor. We've got enough democracy with the Commons - and people hardly bother to vote for that.

(We'll leave the lack of separation of powers and the lack of a directly-elected executive for another time, I think...)

Best. Front page. Ever.

The Sun. (Prop. R. Murdoch.) Britain's best-selling daily. Getting its priorities right.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Not too happy about giving them my details though... Heh...

Is this true? Is the US really drawing up plans for a nuclear strike on Iran in the event of another terrorist attack on the American mainland? Anyone seen any verification of this anywhere, or is it just a rumour? I fucking hope so.

Because, let's face it, another terrorist strike on US soil is pretty much inevitable (as our own dear Metropolitan Police keep pointlessly telling us is the case with London). If anything, it's amazing they've got away without another one for nearly four years...

Somebody got what I was trying to say - thank God for that. Thought I might have been going mad for a while there...

The German election race looks to be getting more interesting - Schröder could be making a comeback. And if he does get back in, Blair's chances of reshaping the EU in his image are screwed. Worth keeping an eye on.

Update: Don't know anything about the German political system? This is a good place to start

Update 2: Via Jérôme in the comments, a very nice introduction and discussion to the German elections at European Tribune that I missed yesterday.

Blood & Treasure on Britishness - top - "It is not British to elect a new people if the old one doesn’t suit the government"

I'm still trying to work out whether, under the new "hyphnated Britons" thing, I would be a "Franco-Celtic-Norse-Saxon-Norman-Germano-Pictish-Briton", or whether they'd merely stick to "English".

One thing we do need, though, is a better term than "Asian" to describe anyone with black hair and slightly darker than caucasian skin, stretching (apparently) from the Middle East to Japan, and covering several billions of people. Bloody stupid - especially as the Americans generally mean "south east Asian" and we mean "Indian/Pakistani" when trying to be specific with it.

(Oh, and more from Qwghlm - "we'll call ourselves whatever the fuck we want to" - yay! I want to be a trappist cantaloupe Briton! Can I be a trappist cantaloupe Briton please Ms Blears?)

"I will blog about the situation in Uzbekistan, supporting call for sanctions on Uzbek cotton on September 1st but only if 20 other people will too."

It's one of those dodgy Central Asian regimes with a weird name ending in "stan", and few people know much about it. Hell, I'll freely admit I know little about it beyond the fact it's politically repressed, protestors have been shot there (accused of being terrorists), it's effectively a police state and we turn a blind eye because it's one of our "key allies". A key ally to whom we supply arms and training for government enforcers, despite the highly suspect nature of the regime in charge...

This strikes me as an ideal opportunity to find out more. Sign up. Start with the Wikipedia page. Check out the archives at Publius Pundit and Registan (plus the sidebar links at the latter) and let's spread the word. (Good work, Disillusioned Kid)

(Note: I'm not too sure about sanctions being the solution here (it hardly worked against Saddam, after all - or Castro, for that matter). They have a tendency to hit the poorest worst, and they're having a bad enough time as it is. Others think differently. Either way, a swell of public outrage that our government is helping this highly unpleasant regime maintain power could well do some good in the current climate. They want to prove they have the moral high ground to kick off their anti-terrorism measures? Fine, let them prove it. Let's get our own house in order - and that includes the friends we keep.)

Monday, August 08, 2005

UK Blog stuff - of interest to fellow bloggers only, no doubt

Heads up UK bloggers: Our man Worstall (of Britblog Roundup fame) is actually getting somewhere with his BlogAds UK scheme. Could be a way of actually wrangling us some money for the stress and effort this blogging lark costs us. Check it out, and check with the man for more details. If I understand correctly, the more people who sign up, the more we're likely to be able to charge.

From la Worstall:

Two things everyone needs to remember about Blog Ads.

1) You set your own prices.

2) You can refuse any ad you wish. Everything gets offered for your
approval and you have to make a positive choice to add it.
He's also trying to get us all actually using Trackbacks to help foster cross blog debate a bit more on this side of the Atlantic. Nice idea - I keep forgetting to ping people thanks to being lazy (and due to "ping" sounding both silly and potentially rude at the same time...)

It's also worth remembering that if auto-pings don't work for your Trackback system (as they don't appear to with my Haloscan lark), you can manually ping Trackbacks via this handy site - well worth bookmarking. You can even do it if you don't have trackbacks enabled on your own blog. (Although as Haloscan doesn't cost a penny and is so simple to set up that even I managed it, you haven't really got an excuse...)


A new post over at The Sharpener.

Time to start being suspicious of Chinese people on the tube/bus: A man dying of lung cancer set off a homemade bomb aboard a bus in downtown Fuzhou, capital of Fujian Province, this afternoon, killing himself and injuring 23 others.

But wait - that can't be right... I thought it was supposed to be only Muslims who did the whole suicide bombing thing? And that they were all meant to be "Asian-looking"? (Well, apart from that Somalian one. And the Jamaican...). "Huang Maojin" doesn't sound especially Muslim/Somalian/Jamaican to me... And presumably he was "Asian-looking" only in the American sense...

Update: More info - "Pictures from the scene showed the side of the bus ripped apart and debris strewn across the floor of the vehicle. The injured were shown being stretchered out of windows... Attacks of this kind are common in China, often carried out by angry residents who feel wronged by society or the communist party government."

Terrorism common in a communist country, eh? Maybe all those people who accuse the Socialist Workers' Party of being terrorist fellow travellers for criticising the war and stuff have got a point after all...

Turkish diplomat in charge of EU accession talks resigns - cites "personal reasons", but speculation is that he had got pissed off not only at the slow pace of the talks (especially thanks to French reluctance to even consider the prospect of Turkey joining) but also at the slow pace of reform within Turkey itself, necessary before it signs up.

This could screw a few things up. Either for good or ill, depending on your point of view - and opinion is split among the pro-EU camp as much as the anti. Because, let's face it, Turkey's position is pretty much unique, and it's bloody tricky to work out what would be best - for them, for the EU, or for every other member state. Will it invite more problems - thanks to an EU border with Iraq, for example - or enable renewed dialogue with the Islamic world? Will it boost the EU's economy, or lead to an influx of Turkish organised crime? Either way, the carrot of EU membership has prompted a number of reforms in Turkey which are long overdue - withdrawing it now could reverse the gains in human rights seen in recent years. Which can't be a good thing, surely?

What Would Juvenal Do? - a potentially promising new current affairs type blog with the added benefit of words of wisdom from some guy who lived 2,000 odd years ago. So kind of like those weird Christian ones you find all over the US blogosphere, but without the self-righteousness or the all-powerful beardy bloke on a cloud:
Whate’er men do, or say, or think, or dream,
Our motley paper seizes for its theme.
(Juvenal, as translated by Pope in Tatler, 1709)

Sunday, August 07, 2005

RIP Robin Cook

Well that was unexpected. I didn't always agree with Cook. But I did meet him once, while he was Leader of the House and I was a but a lowly researcher for an opposition MP. And he was thoroughly nice. I'm rather shocked, and rather saddened. Even though he may have been marginalised in the Labour party of recent years, it is a loss to them and a loss to the country.

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