Saturday, July 29, 2006

That McKeating is rather good on newspaper columnists, blogs and the like. I may expound on this myself at some point, beyond my mere interjections in the comments there.

From what I can tell, we're beginning to see a new phase emerge in the media's response to blogs. From "hey, cool - blogs prove that EVERYONE wants to be a journalist, and therefore we're skill", they're beginning to realise that us bloggers could be a threat. Not to newspapers or TV news, obviously, but to the vastly overpaid opinion-mongering columnists, who rake in £100k+ per annum while the lowly staff journalists who do all the legwork of bringing us actual NEWS are lucky to hit the national average wage, despite infinitely longer hours and far high stress. Bloggers will never be able to do the latter better than the proper media (although there's no reason why an online-only newspaper couldn't work, given enough funding in the set-up phases) - but opinions are ten a penny, and there are already hundreds of bloggers out there who I'd far rather read than a Polly Toynbee or a Simon Jenkins.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Subsidy abuse

The Department for the Environment, Foor and Rural Affairs (Defra) under Margaret Beckett - now off fixing the Middle East as Condoleeza Rice's bitch Britain's Foreign Secretary - has repeatedly cocked up farm subsidy payments through an ongoing mismanagement that could yet bugger up the struggling agricultural sector even more than did the same department's balls-ups over BSE, Foot and Mouth and Bovine TB.

Which makes me wonder how Britain has managed to get away with just €2.39 million in EU-imposed agricultural penalties - none for mismanagement or poor payment systems - when Greece has been told to pay back €6.46 million for "various weaknesses in the system for management", Ireland €0.17 million for "administrative deficiencies" and Spain €4.99 million for "non-respect of payment deadlines". This all part of the European Commission's attempt to reclaim subsidy money via a system of penalties for dodginess - 7 out of 25 EU member states being penalised.

The country with the largest penalties? Let's think - which country is likely to have abused the farm subsidy system the most? Which country can possibly be responsible for more than half of the €161.9 million the Commission is claiming in penalties?

Yep, step forward France! €87.97 million in total, of which €77.13 million is for giving subsidies out for "ineligible land". Yep, France has been claiming farming subsides for non-arable land.

This is where we've been going wrong - don't stick to the letter of EU law, hustle. Work it. Let's learn from our cousins over the water, and start scamming. Let's claim farm subsidies for Hyde Park. Hell - let's claim them for the Bluewater Shopping Centre's car park...

Of course, the only trouble is that as long as Defra's in charge of managing the things, they'll end up stuck in some kind of managerial limbo, only to emerge in some dim and distant future where all livestock and crops have died of bureaucratic oversight and mankind has devolved even further into some kind of feral rodent hybrid, subsisting purely on alcopops and knife fights, and incapable of movement without the aid of an undersized BMX powered solely by envy and rage.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

We must ban Britain's most popular daily newspaper, and we must ban it now: Sun kills 60,000 a year, says WHO:
"Laura-Jane Armstrong, cancer information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "This report provides clear evidence of the dangers of over-exposure to the sun".

Rachel's had more bad luck, seemingly losing or having her passport stolen at the 7th July memorial service (which she attended, if you're coming in late, due to being only a few feet away from the King's Cross bomb) - which she's only just discovered, meaning she's likely to miss her long-planned, long-overdue holiday.

Justin's had an idea, Mat's provided a template (though better to come up with your own as identially-worded letters/emails are instantly ignored) - email Home Secretary John Reid, who has met Rachel and is in charge of passports, and ask him to abuse his position to allow her to go overseas. Try Write to Them or email homesecretary.submissions@homeoffice.gsi.gov.uk

No, this isn't likely to happen - Rachel isn't, after all, John Reid's mistress' nanny and Reid can hardly be seen to be fiddling the system (for what would be seen as little more than an attempt to generate positive PR) so soon after slagging his department off for being rubbish. Still, no harm in trying, eh?

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Is Poland going potty?

OK, so they've got a set of identical twins running the country - unusual, but not necessarily mad - yet they do seem to be ushering in some potentially worrying electoral changes and acting somewhat vindictively towards political opponents.

Now Poland - the largest and likely most important of the new EU member states who joined two years ago - appears to be shifting away from Brussels. This despite the Prime Ministerial Kaczynski twin's vaguely pro-EU tone on his coming to office a few days ago. Now, however, the twins have launched a purge of pro-EU officials, apparently being pitched as an attempt to clamp down on communists. (And no, my anti-EU friends, this is not an excuse for you to churn out the usual tedious "EUSSR" rubbish and claims that the EU is a communist plot in the comments.)

Is this part of the rightwards shift (NYT reg req.) in the country, as seen in the rise of the skinheads in anti-Gay riots and racially-motivated attacks both in Poland and in Germany during the World Cup? Is there something even more sinister at work in this country with a history of, shall we say, "strong leaders"? Or is it merely a childishly petulant toys out of pram moment prompted by those potato jibes from Germany?

Of course the question is, if this right-wing sibling pair move away from Brussels and simultanously start persecuting former communists, where are they going to look for allies? I can hardly imagine Russia's ex-KGB President being too pleased at teaming up with a country trying to remove his former secret police colleagues from positions of influence.

But then again, I'll freely admit to knowing next to nothing about Poland. Some blogs that may help include that of the Economist's Edward Lucas, p3, The Beatroot (currently on holiday), Our Man in Gdansk, and Polish Police and Administrative Corruption. Any others you know of, let me know. Something odd's certainly happening over there, and it will have serious implications for the rest of the EU if Poland goes mental...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A meme

I've been tagged to list my five favourite "social media" sites. These are, apparently, "the online tools and platforms that people use to share opinions, insights, experiences, and perspectives with each other. Social media can take many different forms, including text, images, audio, and video." As such, and largely because of that New Media Awards thing I went to last night meaning I've been vaguely pondering the merits of the web and such, I'll go for the following:

Ain't it cool: not that I visit much (if ever) these days, but this was the first site - really a grandiose blog before the term was even invented - on which I actually bothered interacting with other interweb types, back in the heady days of 1997 when I first dipped my toes into the online waters. At the time one of the few sites where you could get decent info about upcoming films (even the indispensible IMDB was rather shaky back then), it made my task as a budding film journo a hell of a lot easier, and the film geeks in the talkbacks and chatroom were, back then at least, surprisingly entertaining, intelligent and civil. It was also the first website to have the joy of some of my writing published on it, if I recall correctly. I used a different pseuonym then and it all went downhill after about 1999, mind. (Update: Just remembered - they were also sweet enough to review my first book, largely positively, so I ought to be nice...)

b3ta: How can I not? That's where the "Nosemonkey" pseudonym originted, it's where I taught myself photoshop, and it's what kept me sane during long hours of tedium before I took up blogging. I'd been lurking for about a year and a half before I joined - which was apparently 2 years, 10 months ago today. Haven't been on in aaaages though - no photoshop any more, the talkboard took too much time, and you can see all the best images ripped off without credit in the Daily Mail these days.

Blogger: Simply because it was one of the first free blogging tools (and the only one I'd heard of when I first tried blogging back in around 2000, hence still using it now). It's a bit crap, but it's easy, and it got me quoted in the papers and some free booze and a small amount of money and stuff, so I suppose I ought to be grateful despite the lack of automatic topic archiving and daily frustration of dodgy HTML... It's a love/hate thing.

Wikipedia: Again, simply can't be ignored. Yes, a lot of its articles are still riddled with errors, but it's still just about reliable enough to save a hell of a lot of time running to the library for some quick research. Supposedly it should simply keep on getting better through self-correction and constant expansion - though when it's already got articles on this lot I begin to wonder if they haven't already covered everything there is to know...

Erm... That's it, I think. I'm meant to do five though, so I'll say mininova - only recently discovered BitTorrent site which is very useful for... erm... sharing files and TV shows and suchlike entirely legally... Honest...

I'll tag Justin, Chris, Chris, Jonn and Alex, because they're all more geeky than me and may come up with some more obscure ones than those on offer in my defiantly mainstream (aka unimaginitive) selection...

New Statesman piss-up report

(Although I think that should technically read "New Statesman New Media Awards report", but that contains rather too many "New"s, especially as neither the magazine nor the awards really are.)

Anyway, as Guido's still hungover, Paul got lost, Katie vanished, Tim missed his train, Recess Monkey seemed too busy with his ethics advisor (yes, really), Alan is no doubt busy with "work", and Jonn hasn't got anything up yet, it's doubtless time for me to add my tuppence worth to that of Clive - who has proved that these northerners are better drinkers by already having something up despite having missed his train back to the sticks.

Other than the bloggers, who won lots of free booze but very little else, MySociety deservedly done good, with awards for Contribution to Civil Society for Write to Them and Advocacy for Pledgebank, other awards going to OpenDemocracy (Independent Information), Derek Wyatt MP (Elected Representative), BBC Backstage (Innovation), Love Lewisham (Modernising Government), The Commission for Social Care Inspection (Accessibility), and Sonic Postcards (Education). Nope, I hadn't heard of most of them either.

Still, "blogging" minister David Miliband was on hand to dole out the pieces of plastic (insert ID cards joke here), and was actually rather impressive. Kept up the standard "make a joke to get the audience onside" thing for a good five minutes before moving on to the tedious stuff, and gave me a good idea of why he's being talked of as future leadership material. Despite me despising a large chunk of what he stands for, he managed to seem likeable. (The fact that he quoted extensively from Devil's Kitchen's insults to him - "That David Miliband has lost his fucking mind... batshit mad" - as an example of the kind of nutters he's had to put up with since starting his blog almost got me wanting to buy the man a pint...)

Gossip-wise, there was surprisingly little that's juicy - although I was present for the historic meeting of Guido and Georgina "Why do they all hate me?" Henry, I'll leave it to the bearded one to give his version of events, as his account will doubtless be far more amusing (if also significantly less accurate...)

As can no doubt be gathered from the utter tedium of this post, I'm still feeling a bit delicate. Good amounts of alcohol and very few nibbles combined with the heat of an awards ceremony conducted in what appeared to be a giant condom outside the Serpentine Gallery has caused a level of dehydration that will doubtless soon be patented by some Californian plastic surgeon as a revolutionary new weight-loss technique. If I remember anything worthwhile, I shall update.

Update: Oh yes, and Peter Tatchell needs Google-juice. He's got a new campaign starting up revolving around former workers at the British Embassy in Baghdad who, despite having received death threats from "insurgents" for "collaborating" have been refused asylum in the UK. Sounds like a worthwhile one to me - though there's less than no info out there. (And yes, I did try and convince him to start a proper blog, rather than merely list his recent articles and hope that the occasional piece for Comment is Free will attract notice...)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Started a loosely British blog in 2006?

We want to hear from you.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Governmental consistency

Yesterday Home Secretary John Reid announced an end to lenient punishments for people who are caught red-handed and own up to being guilty of breaking the law.

Today, John Prescott excapes punishment for being caught red-handed in breaching the ministerial code because he owned up to it.

Erm...

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Via Tim and Justin, a welcome new addition to UK online political comment, with the Independent's Simon Carr launching a blog-style parliamentary sketch site. Very promising thus far, though sadly no comment facility as of yet...

Annoyed at EU legislation? It's our own fault

I've long been convinced that a sizable amount of the anger generated by EU legislation is due more to the British government's own implementation than the legislation itself. In the UK, we always seem to implement directives and other Brussels-generated laws far more stringently than our continental cousins, following things to the letter rather than taking a more flexible approach.

Now, however, we would appear to moving towards some measure of proof, thanks to initial findings from an under-reported Treasury consultation by Lord Davidson, which has found that

"Government teams responsible for applying European Union laws are often under-engaged, poorly resourced and prone to making mistakes because they are in a hurry"
More information can be found at the Cabinet Office's site, including a bunch of .pdf summary findings so far.

In his introduction, Lord Davidson notes that
"creating obligations additional to the EU minimum requirements - where it cannot be demonstrated that the benefits exceed the costs - can hamper UK productivity, innovation and competitiveness"
And therein lies part of the problem in terms of public perception of the EU. If a law is brought in "because the EU told us to", the assumption is generally that the law is also brought in "in the manner the EU told us to" - and therefore if and when said law starts causing problems, it is the EU that gets the blame.

Though Davidson's findings have not yet been finalised, it would appear that evidence is building to support my suspicions that in a large number of cases it is actually the incompetence of the UK government's implementation of those laws rather than necessarily the laws themselves which are causing the problems.

After all, other EU member states never seem to have quite the same problems that the UK does when it comes to EU legislation, and always seem to manage to find loopholes - why can't we? (New Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett's piss-poor attempts to ensure British farmers receive their EU subsidies in a timely manner while she was at DEFRA being a prime example of the UK being utterly rubbish at working with EU systems when every other member state copes fine.)

Of course, a lot of the problem is thanks to there still - more than three decades after having joined what is now the European Union - no real system in place in Westminster to scrutinise EU legislation. The closest we've got is the Commons' European Scrutiny Select Committee and Lords' European Union Select Committee - neither of which have the manpower or resources to keep tabs on everything.

As such, it is very easy, as Davidson's report notes, for departments to implement legislation badly or excessively - it is, after all, easier to simply rubber-stamp than to analyse, and quite simple to attach additional demands for governmental purposes and then blame it on Brussels:
"Over-implementation of European legislation may arise in a number of ways, including: extending the scope of European legislation; bringing EU-derived obligations into force earlier than required; failing to streamline the overlap between existing legislation in force in the UK and new EU-sources legislation; or uncertainty created by lack of clarity about the objectives or status of regulations and guidance."
Of course, what we really want to know, when Davidson publishes his final report at the end of the year, is to what extent this is due to incompetence, to what extent deliberate deception on the part of the government. Because blaming Brussels is a very easy cop out, and has been an extremely handy excuse for government after government ever since we joined.

Were our government forced finally to make a real effort when it comes to EU legislation, it's just possible that we might end up with fewer scare stories about EU bureaucrats banning things left, right and centre or imposing burdensome new rules on our businesses. At a push, people may even start to be able to see benefits from EU legislation which has, seemingly thanks to our own government's inability to do its job properly, to date been seen as largely negative.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The dangers of blogging, part 549

Petite Anglaise has been sacked for writing her award-winning blog (or "gross misconduct", as they called it) - and has launched a test case before an employment tribunal claiming compensation of two years' salary. The Telegraph has more, as does (of all places) The Gulf Times.

It has to be said, I can't see her winning this one - you write a blog at work, using work computers, in breach of company policy (as I am doing now, in fact), you can hardly complain when they throw the book at you, surely? Yes, it may be an over-reaction to a fairly harmless bit of spare-time musing, but - as bloggers are wont to say all the time when it comes to their comments boxes - their gaff, their rules. It may be a bit nasty of them, they perhaps could have reached a compromise, but it's hardly cause for compensation, surely? Or am I missing something here?

(I, meanwhile - and without wanting to brag - have recently been offered a pay rise and a decent amount of additional responsibility at work, largely thanks to the blogging. This, in turn, has ensured that I've got rather less time for the blogging of late. Life works weirdly - and these things seem to be the luck of the draw.)

Very important note: This is not to say that I don't have a lot of sympathy and think PA's former employers are probably a bunch of shits, in case this sounds overly insensitive and leads to a bunch of her many loyal fans assuming I'm trying to flame the poor girl. I'm just not a fan of compensation culture - especially people trying to get compensation when it is they who have done something wrong. I'm also not a fan of people being sacked, but that's life. These things happen.

Update: More from Petite at Comment is Free, including more detail over the sacking. The lack of warning could, possibly, give her some ground for complaint - although she does note that "a clause about 'loyauté' is included in most French employment contracts". An odd one...

Monday, July 17, 2006

Following last Wednesday's worrying Ukraine update, more rather concerning analysis from Scott at Foreign Notes:
"in a country where there is no rule of law, and Kushnaryov’s statement that they would install Yanukovych as PM no matter what the president did is just more evidence of this, it matters who controls the buildings. If you control the right buildings you control the bureaucracy, the documents and the stamps. That is the key to power here... To get anything done you have to have them and that often means paying a “fee” to get them. So the coffers begin to fill up again as your cronies are entrenched in centers of power. Just like it used to be. Power means more money and more money means more power...

"And no court order and no presidential order, nothing short of a revolution, will dislodge these people from their positions of power, that is, from the buildings... That is what it took last time, but the people have no stomach for it again, I’m afraid...So I don’t know which is worse, new elections or letting the goons back in the door. Between two bad ideas, which one?"
Meanwhile, Orange Ukraine notes despairingly that
"Even assuming there were a chance of bringing back the Orange coalition, neither new elections nor protests will help."
All is very far from well in Ukraine - yet the English language press seems utterly unconcerned at this crisis on the EU's borders.

Blair, Brown, Cameron and the future of British international relations

One of the perennial problems for an aspiring UK Prime Minister is the need to juggle domestic popularity with workable international relationships - especially with our EU partners. Because if you're seen to suck up too much to the French and Germans, the rantings of the eurosceptic press combined with a public all too willing to believe that the EU is the root of all evil will swiftly ensure a massive drop in domestic popularity. (Sucking up to the US, meanwhile, seems fine.)

Over the last few years Gordon Brown has done a fairly decent job of giving the impression that he thinks the EU is a bit of a disaster. Be it his famous "Five Economic Tests" over joining the Euro (so famous that no one can ever remember what they are), which promise to keep the UK out of the Eurozone for the forseeable future, or occasional rants about how other EU countries should follow his wonderful example when dealing with all things fiscal, his slagging off of the EU and other EU countries seems to have been calculated to create a domestic image of a sensible, rationally sceptical figure, unwilling to leap headlong into the tepid waters of further EU integration without having tested them first.

In contrast to Blair's disastrous management of his relationship with the EU - where domestically the Prime Minister looks like a rabid Europhile, willing to give away the rebate and God knows what else, yet our EU partners see him as one of the biggest obstacles to any settlement - Brown has relitively successfully cultivated an image of euroreticence in an attempt to avoid being attacked for europhilia. This has, of course, ensured that our continental partners are not particular fans of the Chancellor - they admire his abilities, but find him personally a difficult man to work with.

With Bush not able to remain in the Oval Office for more than another couple of years, Britain's relationship with the US could well dramatically change by the next General Election. No one has any way of being able to suck up to the future President before November 2008, and will not be able to risk alienating any of the candidates just in case. As such, the one constant in our international relations over the next few years will be the EU - so any future Prime Minister would be a fool not to try and forge their own personal alliances.

David Cameron's plans are still being formulated, but show some promise - Gordon, as of yet, appears to have no foreign policy objectives at all. This may sound like a blessed relief after the best part of a decade with Prime Minister who seems to care more about what people overseas think than those of us who are his electorate, launching wars and jetting off all over the world on expensive jollies like there's no tomorrow, but it's hardly feasible for Prime Minister to ignore international relations to the extent Brown seems to have done. Yes, he's fairly well up on British trading relations and the economy - but without the personal relationships with other heads of state he'll never be able to get anything done.

Say what you like about Blair - through a combination of arrogant self-belief and sucking up to the US he's managed to build himself an international reputation that puts him on the level only of Thatcher and Churchill in terms of Prime Ministerial profiles. Whether it's Brown, Cameron or some wild card who follows him in to Number 10 as PM, they're going to have a tough time maintaining the insanely prominent position Blair has occupied on the world stage during his time in office.

So is it a sign of imminent movement on the Labour leadership front that Gordon has dispatched his most loyal minion to Brussels to start buttering up the bureaucrats? While Gordon's been starting to stick his oar in to issues of terrorism and civil liberties on the domestic front, this is the first real sign of him making a move on the international scene. Has the countdown begun on Brown's long-awaited move?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Blog admin

I've finally got around to a mini-update of the blogroll after months of stagnation (which has left a whole raft of good bloggers like Gavin Ayling, the NHS Blog Doctor, Iain Dale and Davide Simonetti, some of whom I've been reading for well over a year, along with top-notch new projects from the likes of Unity and Bondwoman languishing forgotten). I blame my brief experiment with RSS feeds.

I've no doubt forgotten a bunch more, however, so any suggestions of people I've missed (as I type I'm remembering a few, in fact, like Andrew Bartlett and Murky) would be much appreciated. I know that there have been a bunch of new(ish) European blogs I've stumbled across in recent months, yet I've always failed to keep a record of them, because I'm useless. Those in particular I'd be grateful of reminders of.

(And no, no I haven't got around to updating the topic archives again yet - and haven't done so since January. This is because Blogger STILL doesn't have an automated topics system, so I have to do it manually. This would now take forever - perhaps I'll get around to it when I finally switch this blog over to a dedicated domain - a plan that's been in the works since February but has yet to happen due to me being technologically illiterate and not understanding how website hosting works.)

And now for something less tedious - this week's Britblog Roundup.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Yet more Labour crises

Hurrah for John McDonnell, who seems to be about to set himself up as a stalking horse candidate for the inevitable post-Blair leadership election. Precisely what he's intending will remain unclear until the official announcement tomorrow, and it sadly looks like there's a good chance he's not actually trying to provoke an election at the next party conference, merely to ensure that Gordon Brown's succession isn't uncontested.

Still, a quick glance at his voting record shows he could be quite an appealing figure for the few old Labour types who haven't deserted the party in the last few years: he's one of the most rebellious Labour MPs going, firmly against Iraq, tuition fees, foundation hospitals, the curtailment of civil liberties, ID cards, etc. etc. etc. - in the absence of any more feasible traditionally Labour candidates to take on the Chancellor, could he be worth a flutter?

(Oh, and though his surname might sound Scottish, he's a London MP, so the Tories couldn't attack him for being a tartan-clad, ginger-haired, woad-covered, haggis-eating, caber-tossing Pictish savage, as they seem intent on doing with Brown...)

Meanwhile, yet another part of the government's ill-conceived anti-terrorism laws could receive a hearty blow as the Independent Police Complaints Commission apparently recommends that the officers involved in the repeated shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes a year ago should be charged with manslaughter.

(Minister appearing on the TV to complain about how this will undermine the government's ability to prevent further atrocities, and how the blood will be on the prosecutors' hands in 5... 4... 3...)

Boring hidden news

As chaos continues all around, spare a thought for less glamourous scandals than ID cards, police mergers and the arrest of the government's Middle East Envoy (at a time when a fresh war is breaking out between Israel and Lebanon).

Pensions are boring, no one understands the things and we all ignore them. They are, however, rather important. This, therefore, is somewhat interesting - especially following the recent proposals to raise the age of retirement:

"Trusting in the Pensions Promise (March 2006), related to the official information produced by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) about the security of occupational pension schemes. The Ombudsman found that the information was inaccurate, incomplete, unclear and inconsistent and that having relied on this information, some people in schemes that had wound up with insufficient assets to meet their obligations were experiencing hardship and distress. In a move without precedent the DWP has not accepted the Ombudsman's findings or recommendations, and its response continues to be negative."
So, while Lord Levy was prancing round tennis courts begging for cash, while Prescott was off playing cowboy with gambling magnates, and while billions of pounds were being set aside for a pointless ID scheme, bad government advice has screwed a bunch of pensioners - at precisely the time our dear overlords started making noises about how we all need to save more for our old age as we can no longer rely on the state. And, of course, the official response is - as usual - denial. Charming.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Is the Labour project in total freefall? As it emerges that Lord Levy, the party's chief fundraiser and chap in the ermine robe at the heart of the loans scandal, has been arrested, could we also have a new Hutton on our hands as the body of a former colleague of one of the "Natwest Three", due to be extradited to the US thanks to a bad treaty constantly again defended by Blair, is discovered? And all this on the back of months of consistent reports of failures and dodgy dealings, from Tessa Jowell's hubby (soon to appear before an Italian judge) to Prescott's penis. What else can go wrong for them?

Ukraine update - it's chaos

For those who haven't been keeping up, Ukraine's Orange Revolution of November 2004 - optimistically and wildly inaccurately lauded at the time as a triumph of democracy over the forces of post-Soviet repression - has had rather a rocky time of it over the last year and a half. It was all so easy to see the scenes in Kiev all those months ago as a repeat of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, as with so many popular uprisings throughout the former Soviet bloc in the last few years, once the images of jubilant protestors had left our screens, so the little progress that appeared to have been made seemed to evaporate.

Now it appears finally to have stuttered and died as the Revolution's main opponent, Viktor Yanukovych (often described as "pro-Russian", but that's hardly accurate either), looks set to be made Prime Minister, the old Orange coalition of Viktor Yuschenko (grey-haired and haggard through poison) and Yulia Tymoshenko (glamorous and sexy, in a Swiss milkmaid kind of a way) has once again failed to overcome the massive egos and financial interests that always seem to have lain behind the political machinations of the country.

The events in Ukraine were never - really - about democracy, though many of the people donning their Orange gear may sincerely have believed and hoped that it was. They were all about the ongoing power struggles of a small political elite. Once the west's eyes were once again averted, the internal squabbles once again rose to dominate in a country that, though it may be split right down the middle on political lines, is unlikely to see any real stability for a long time yet. Fifty years after Hungary made the first moves to shake off the Soviet system, its after-effects still dominate. Ukraine showed signs of hope, and there is still hope there - but it could all too easily go the route of Belarus and slide slowly towards dictatorship.

As ever, Neeka has the background/summary, and Foreign Notes all you need to get up to speed.

It's well worth paying attention to, this one. After the spats over gas pipelines and elections, Ukraine could end up being the testing ground for the future evolution of the relationship between Russian and the EU. And as the EU gradually absorbs more and more former Soviet states into its sphere of influence, some kind of confrontation is long overdue - and instability on the eastern frontiers of Europe could spell disaster for those of us safely tucked away on the Atlantic fringe.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

As the all-powerful ID card scheme faces possible delays, would you look at that? "News" emerges that "Organised fraudsters tried to steal more than half a billion pounds from the government's tax credit system in 2005/06". So as doubts about the desirability of a government scheme touted to tackle fraud begin to become widespread and public, the government releases alarmist figures to support the need for a government scheme to tackle fraud? Well blow me - you could knock me down with a particularly fragile feather...

Home Office policymaking 101

1) Find out problem via leak to national newspaper
2) Issue denial
3) Have former Home Secretary who everyone hates slag the decision off
4) Face media storm
5) Wait a few months, then capitualte once everyone's started looking the other way.

(Cf. tuition fees, top-up fees, on the spot fines, prison overcrowding, Blunkett leaving office, Clarke leaving office, ID cards, police force mergers, etc. etc. etc.)

Today's colour-coded "Labour idiocy threat level" stands at Puce (middling to high idiocy), a slight decline from last week's Prescott-inspired Vermillion and the weekend's ID-card and Super Happy Fun Public Terror Threat Indicator prompted Burundy alerts.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Good news for the end of the week: Berlusconi to be tried for fraud. And, please note,
"Lawyer David Mills, the estranged husband of British Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, has also been ordered to stand trial."

Something utterly non-political to lighten the mood:


Obligatory one year on post

It is 9:20am on Friday 7th July 2006. At this time on Thursday 7th July 2005, I had been hunting around the interweb for quarter of an hour, trying to find out whether the bang that I'd heard tell of was anything sinister. It soon became clear that it was. Meanwhile, across London, Rachel, Holly, Steve, Mitch, Bumble Bee, Hamish, Weaselbitch, Yorkshire Lass, Andrew and countless others were having a rather worse time of it, stuck in the dark deep underground, many surrounded by scenes they'll never be able to forget.

Make no mistake, being in a city during a major terrorist attack is not much fun.

BUT.

Though the response on the day from the emergency services and volunteers alike was hugely impressive, the last 12 months have not given much room for hope that anything has been learned. A public inquiry has repeatedly been ruled out, despite so many questions still left to be answered and so many reccomendations ignored. Those in charge of the Metropolitan Police have, throughout this time, done little other than repeatedly shooting an innocent man in the head, stirring up anger and resentment through raids based on little evidence, crushing political dissent near Parliament, making repeated public statements of their inability to prevent further attacks, and taken to pointlessly whacking huge numbers of officers in tube and mainline stations on random days (often Thursdays), ostensibly "to reassure".

Today, central London is packed with police. Thousands of them infest the city in their luminous jackets, milling around aimlessly - and scaring the living hell out of everyone chugging in to work and trying to forget the events of last year. Do they have torches, first aid kits and breathing apparatus so they can dash below ground and help out at the first sign of a repeat performance? No. Are they searching everyone trying to get on the underground? No. Is their presence on the streets today anything other than a pointless, wasteful PR stunt? No.

Because how can the police and security services prevent further attacks when they still have no idea quite what caused the last lot? Nobody has any idea what made four Muslims with British passports become so filled with hate that they wanted to kill and maim indiscriminately. There may be no answer to the "why?" - but there's surely a better one than the standard "they were eeeeeeeeeevil".

So, while we sit back at midday for the two minutes' silence and think about those people a year ago whose lives were ended or forever altered through the actions of a small group of maniacs; while we ponder what life must be like in Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan and the Sudan, where events like 7/7 come almost daily; while we think how grateful we are to have got through it - think also about how little we know about that day and the events leading up to it, and call for a public inquiry.

And then, once that's done, let's get on with our lives - the best possible way to stick two fingers up at the tiny minority of bigoted, faith-drunk totalitarians who want to change the way we live with bombs.

Update: A reminder.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Friend of Europhobia Alan Connor has done a nice summary of the state of the political interweb in the UK for the BBC's The Daily Politics - along with lovely little video clips where his cheeky face crops up in all kinds of glamorous locations, from Speakers' Corner to outer space (for some reason). For newcomers to blogland it's a handy introduction (plus puts me in the linklog category, a handy reminder that I've been neglecting this place of late...)

An apology

Had I gone to some press junket as I was supposed to, rather than head home to watch the France/Portugal game (fairly tedious), I would have been within easy assassination distance of Margaret Thatcher last night. I have failed in my duty.

(Even though I'm actually one of those annoying people who thinks Thatcher did more good than bad - but ssssshhhh! I'm supposed to be a bit of a lefty, apparently.)

I must also apologise for bringing you no news of the EU for a while. Nothing on the new Finnish presidency, nothing on the failure of the Common Fisheries Policy, nothing on the supposed revival (once again) of that damn constitution, nothing on populist Europe-wide anti-paedophile drives, because so much of it is simply incredibly boring.

Instead, have a brief summary of a few important EU developments from the last few days:

1) The EU has offered Russia a free trade deal - really designed to head off any more energy crises, but with the potential finally to bring Moscow back towards Europe where (if you're a fan of the likes of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev and their ilk) she belongs.

2) European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso has slagged off Gordon Brown, hinting that with Brown as PM Britain would be further isolated within the EU (registration required for the Spectator's site, but doesn't seem to work all the time, so see the Telegraph for a summary).

3) As from today, MEPs are significantly more powerful and so the EU significantly more democratic, as the European Parliament gains the ability to revoke Commission decisions for the first time. (Please note, Danish eurosceptic MEP Jens-Peter Bonde, whose criticisms of this advance are quoted extensively in that EU Observer report, is the husband of the owner of, erm... the EU Observer.)

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

As Russia's lovely, cuddly Vladimir Putin throws his weight around on the international stage, the BBC has been offering the chance to pose questions for the corrupt, dictatorial ex-KGB nutter via its Have Your Say Forums.

It must be said, judging by the "readers recommended" comments the Russians have learned a fair amount about astroturfing - whole teams of agents desperately signing up with BBC accounts to ensure only the most banal questions reach the top. Only one question about Chechnya and nothing whatsoever about his merciless destruction of political opponents - but plenty of moaning about visa requirements to visit Moscow to see the ballet... All the rest (mostly soft balls about corruption and racism) seem designed for a Blair-like "Ah, I'm glad you asked that" policy announcement.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Biometric Information Roadshow

Ever heard of that? Me neither, and - like the majority of UK political bloggers - I'm a geek about these things.

A google search turns up nothing, yet here's a report from Morley Today, the website of the Morley Observer & Advertiser, a wee rag from up north as far as I can make out, which seems to suggest that the government is spending yet more of our money on a low-profile propaganda trek around the country. So low-key, in fact, that they've brought out the utterly anonymous Joan Ryan, MP for Enfield North and apparently the Under-Secretary of state for nationality, citizenship and immigration.

Ryan was apparently appointed, with little fanfare, on 6th May, and has an overwhelming number of really rather important responsibilities, including:

ID cards
the Forensic Science Service
refugee integration
E-borders
extradition and judicial cooperation
the Criminal Records Bureau
Home Office research and science
improving regulation
design and green issues
In other words, technically she's in charge of ensuring all those nasty foreign criminals are deported, providing internet security for the entire country, using the latest forensic techniques to track down criminals and terrorists, helping immigrants become acclimatised to the British way of life, keeping track of everyone who's committed a crime in this country, and every single research project in the Home Office (even though these were all put on hold last week for no apparent reason), as well as implementing the single most complex and expensive IT project in history with the ID cards scheme.

It's quite a portfolio - has John Reid got anything left to do? And what about her supposed boss, Immigration Minister Liam Byrne - what does he get up to all day?

Still, Joan seems to be just the sort of Labourite they need to pimp this ID nonsense to the ignorant masses. Although she's only spoken in six debates in the last year (595th out of 646 MPs) - and apparently only once in both 2003 and 2004 - she's attended 93% of Commons votes (23rd out of 644 MPs). You'll doubtless be unsurprised to learn that she was strongly in favour of all of the most controversial Blairite legislation, from the anti-terrorism nonsense through ID cards, foundation hospitals, student top-up fees and the Iraq war inclusive.

But still, what is this "Biometric Information Roadshow" and why is there so little information available about it? Well, after some digging, apparently it was launched in Manchester back in September, and offers some wonderful attractions:
"Members of the public will be able to have their irises and fingerprints recorded"
Yay! Sign me up! Where do we get our barcodes tattooed? Forehead, or back of the neck?

But still - if their aim is to improve recognition of the benefits, why so little promotion? Why such a no-mark MP fronting the thing? Are they beginning to doubt their little scheme, or is this a new approach, attempting to convert us all one at a time (and harvesting our biometric details in a fun and informative way as they go, naturally)?

How much effort would it have been to set up a page on the Home Office's website for those of us unfortunate enough to have missed this lovely roadshow? How are ignorant refuseniks like me (not that it did me much good) going to come around to seeing the benefits of this massively expensive and unnecessary new instument of state control - sorry, valuable tool for tackling fraud, terrorism and organised crime - if there's no readily-accessible information about it? Why do I have to rely on stumbling across a link to a story in a local newspaper from a town which I couldn't point to on a map to find out about a government information initiative about an important topic that will affect us all?

Monday, July 03, 2006

Busy weekend...

As if by magic, as England get booted out of the World Cup and the country basks in a heatwave, all sorts of New Labour unpleasantness has bubbled to the surface once more, the stench cunningly hidden by the reek of booze-addled mourners. (Note to Blair: Beckham resigned as Captain in a timely manner in order to enable his successor plenty of time to settle into the job before the next major tournament... Hint hint...)

So, this weekend has seen rumours of another 1,000 troops being sent to Afghanistan, where "we face defeat" - just the most prominent of a vast array of stories which would tend to suggest (as if we didn't know already) that the government is staggering around grasping for a purpose like a Blunkett without his dog.

So, why has the Home Office suspended all research projects? Dsquared was on the case, ready to trawl through the dross with an army of volunteers, but "Research Thursday" was cancelled without fanfare or prior warning.

"A spokesman said: 'There's a pause while we reaffirm what the department's main objectives are. Research has got to feed into policy and we want to do research into high-priority areas.'"
These high priority areas are, it would appear, likely to include finding ways of removing protection from government whistleblowers, providing further justification for again rejecting calls for a proper inquiry into the 7/7 attacks, changing public perceptions that Blair has failed on crime (note to the Home Office - it's easier to be "tough on the causes of crime" if you, erm, actually do some research into what those causese might be), changing businesses' perception that the government will always sacrifice their interests to those of the United States, finding ways to overturn the centuries-old right to trial, getting over yet another defeat in the Labour heartland, hiding the ridiculousness of the utterly barmy (yet strangely sinister) protest exclusion zone, finding excuses for deportation tactics so harsh that even former Home Secretary Jack Straw thinks they're a bit off, and coming up with yet more excuses for holding any and all of us for 90 days without trial, courtesy of Gordon Brown.

Expect more anti-terror nonsense throughout this week in the run-up to the anniversary of the 7th July attacks on Friday, as Gordon tries to show us how tough he is and the rest of the government continue to try and make excuses for the utter lack of any progress in protecting us from swivel-eyed maniacs with bombs.

What, you don't seriously think you're any safer now than you were this time last year, do you? Of course you aren't. It is still just as easy to smuggle a load of bombs onto the underground, a bridge, a bus, a train etc. etc. etc. as it was on the 7th or 21st July 2005.

Because no matter how many draconian, high-profile measures they put in place supposedly to prevent another attack, no matter how many armed police they put on the streets, no matter how many people they lock up just in case, preventing another attack is impossible. Just look at Israel.


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