Friday, February 05, 2016 

Shaker.

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Thursday, February 04, 2016 

"An extraordinarily nice man to work with" redux.

As an addendum to the recent post on Cecil Parkinson, worth sharing is Private Eye's tribute to the great man.  Which you'll probably have to click on to not strain your eyes.


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The search is over.


Update: This guy only beat me to it by 12 hours or so. Using the exact same Sooty photo no less. Memes and originality, eh?

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Wednesday, February 03, 2016 

Very well, alone.

Every so often you get a sudden burst of articles on the same topic.  This week it's loneliness, general wellbeing, and that topic we talk about while not talking about it, mental health.  Not that these articles generally tend to dwell on what my personal experience of these things has been: I can't say I get lonely at work for one, I'm not old, and it doesn't exactly come as a surprise that the people most likely to report the least satisfaction with life are what we would have used to call middle-aged.  You hit 40, you've got a mortgage, kids that are old enough to be embarrassed by your very existence, you start getting routine aches and pains, your face begins melting, you might have started waking up without an erection; all those things are bound to get you down.  Come 59, you've either got used to the idea of life now being one grand downhill slalom into the grave, or on the horizon there's the hope of living long enough to be just as awkward to your offspring as they've been to you.

Then again, there is also the nagging suspicion that surveys asking an individual to quantify their quality of life are always going to be subject to the mood of the day.  Can it really be true when personal experience would suggest that by far the most miserable people you'll come across on a daily basis are the over-60s, and whom for the most part you tend to give a pass because frankly, life for more than a few over-60s, especially those on their own or caring for a partner is unenviable?  To really get an accurate picture, you'd want to drill down further into the data by socio-economic status as well as age and gender, to see whether class and wealth have an effect, as you'd have to suspect they would.  You also have to wonder if the 40-59 group's data isn't being skewed by how men of that age, often single, are now most likely to take their own lives, and so correspondingly would report less satisfaction with life.

Nor does ranking your wellbeing and happiness on a scale of 1 to 10 really cut it when thankfully relatively few of us go through life constantly on the edge of the abyss.  Everyone's experience of depression is different, and some are constantly affected by it, but far more hit a plateau, with occasional descents and sometimes peaks.  These troughs can be terrible, and go on for a long time, but usually you come out of them.  Likewise, the peaks can be euphoric, if far shorter-lived.

The thing is, some of us, I, have no real problems.  I have no real worries.  I'm not in debt.  I don't have anyone dependent on me.  I have a reasonable amount of disposable cash.  Compared to previous generations, we have a quality of life, of health, of pretty much everything that they could only dream of.  There are endless distractions, new things to see, do, play.

And yet you still want more.  Want to think that there is more to this, to life, than just existing.  More than anything, I suppose, I increasingly find myself thinking about the emptiness of being by myself.  Of course, I'm not alone.  None of us are really.  But there is no one there that I really share myself with.  The closest thing I have is a friend that I can't thank enough for putting up with my bullshit, only he's sadly 50 miles away down the train line.

I don't ask for much.  Someone who'd sit alongside me, watch Netflix or whatever it is the cool kids do, eat lamb pasanda.  The Mark from Peep Show dream life.  It doesn't have to be Isy Suttie or Dobby doing the sitting, mind, and we could occasionally mix it up with a chicken madras or a Chinese, but otherwise it sounds all right.  Put up with my horrendous taste in exploitation cinema, preferably enjoy the X-Files, have a tolerance for dubstep, that sort of thing.  Not have a problem with my slamming a keyboard for a few hours of a week night, or shouting obscenities at the television when the news is on.  Enjoys long walks going nowhere in particular.

What I'm saying is there reaches a point in the loner's, loser life where the mundane becomes the most extreme fantasy.  The odd, not odd thing is that you feel the same pangs: of looking in the mirror of a morning knowing you're only getting older and uglier, having done none of the things that people of your age are supposed to have done.   Seeing a father with his daughter alongside him on a scooter, or with his son controlling a remote control car, and smiling, while knowing almost for certain that you'll never do the same, and at the same time as not wanting the responsibility, when you've never really had a relationship to speak of anyway, and when such feelings would so short a time ago have been so alien.

Loneliness to me is knowing there is no escape.  However much I want there to be a way out, I know secretly there isn't, or that I'm just not capable of one.  The truth is I'm happy being sad.  I'd rather wait for something to happen to me that won't than take the risk of doing anything.  I can point to the usual, same old excuses, and they do inhibit.  I can blame the fact I live in a cultural wasteland where there is nothing other than populism on offer, and yet it's not as though my standards are high.  It's that I don't think I'm worthy, deserving of anything other than this.  Or it's just too much trouble.  Complaining without being willing to do something about it yourself is about as low as it gets.  That's me, right there.  Pointing, mocking, contributing nothing.  Feeling entitled to something.

Even the Mona Lisa is falling apart.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2016 

Cameron's gamble with everyone else's chips.

David Cameron, Matthew d'Anconservative wrote only yesterday, is "like almost every Tory of his generation, a Eurosceptic to his fingertips".  This Eurosceptic to his fingertips, a leader who has at every turn given in to the demands of his backbenchers, has now been served up what can at best be described as very thin gruel in the form of European Council President Donald Tusk's proposed deal on renegotiation.  "Hand on heart", Dave insisted, the deal fulfils the promises made in the Conservative party manifesto.  Presumably with hand still on heart, he also said that if Britain wasn't an EU member and these were the terms on offer to join, he would do so.

Cameron is not and has never been a Eurosceptic.  Above everything else, Cameron has always been an opportunist.  Combined with his belief that through the sheer force of his will and combined animal magnetism he can achieve practically anything, he has made every appearance of being a Eurosceptic while never for a second believing the nonsense spouted by the more virulent within his party.  His move to leave the EPP grouping in the European parliament?  Utterly meaningless and incomprehensible to anyone outside the Tory party, but it helped convinced those uncertain about him that he was truly one of them.  Likewise, his much garlanded wielding of the veto back in 2011 achieved precisely nothing, other than help soothe the tendency within the Tories that regarded his failure to win the 2010 election and necessary coalition with the Lib Dems as little short of treachery.

And yet, each time he refused to call the bluff of his restive MPs, it encouraged them to push for something else.  Finally, in 2013, Cameron gave them what they had long demanded, a referendum on our membership of the EU.  As has been comprehensively proved since, Cameron has never thought for one second that Britain would be better off out.  Cameron is many things, but he's not an idiot.  For every negative, there is a positive. More than anything else, the idea that Britain will somehow manage to get a better deal on exit than either Norway or Switzerland managed having never been members is just as fanciful as the SNP's claim that once independence was won, the rUK would delight in the necessary negotiations on how to share the pound and split oil revenue etc etc.

Whether Cameron honestly believed he would win the majority necessary to hold the referendum we don't know.  Still, once achieved he had to push on, knowing full well that short of bringing back the head of Jean-Claude Juncker on a silver platter the Eurosceptics in his party would moan incessantly about how feeble his renegotiation was.  He did so also knowing full well that the the rest of the EU, dealing with a refugee crisis Cameron refuses to lift a finger to help with over, was not for so much as a second going to offer anything like the concessions on immigration and benefits that have become the proxy for public debate on the EU.

To give Cameron some credit, he has got something that didn't look to be on offer until very recently.  The emergency brake, allowing for the restricting of in-work benefits to EU migrants is roughly analogous to the ban promised in the Tory manifesto.  No one thought for a minute that Cameron would get four years, and while he hasn't quite got that, he's got something similar, albeit tempered by how migrants will get "gradual" access to in-work benefits once they've been paying into the system, probably after a couple of years.  Likewise, on the sending of child benefit to children back in their home countries, he hasn't got an outright prohibition but has won a concession that will mean the benefit will be paid most likely at the same rate as it would be if the claimant was doing so back home.  On fairness if nothing else that passes muster.

Except, of course, this has been a phony war from the beginning.  Cameron and the Tories know that benefits are not a draw for migrants; they come for the jobs and the wages, not to claim.  Every possible effort has been made to prove that benefits are a pull factor for migrants both legal and illegal, and not once has anything approaching conclusive evidence been turned up.  Cameron knew the rest of the EU would never agree to a "brake" on the free movement of labour, and so was reduced to instead attempting to convince the public into believing that rather than it being down to how we were one of only three EU nations that opened our borders in 2005 without restrictions, or to how the British economy has recovered faster than most other EU states post-2008, it's all been about tax credits.  This went alongside the attempt to restrict tax credits overall, since abandoned, meant to be made up for part by the increase in the minimum wage.  Evidence for the minimum wage being a draw is far higher than it is for benefits, so if the aim has partly been to reduce net levels of migration, it's a far bet Cameron's renegotiation will achieve little other than saving the relatively slight amounts currently claimed back in tax credits.

Most of the other concessions, including the "red card" national parliaments could wield against proposed new EU laws if 55% vote against, are relatively minor or were always going to happen when the rest of the EU undoubtedly wants Britain to stay.  Judged against the letter sent to Tusk that started this process, Cameron has got most of what he wanted.  Then again, what he wanted has no connection whatsoever with the "full-on treaty change" or fundamental reworking of our relationship with the EU once promised, and which the more naive Tory backbenchers thought they might get.  The others, those who were always going to treat whatever was served up as not good enough, have a deal they can be justifiably dismissive of.

As for the public, excepting the relative few who go along with the UKIP narrative on loss of sovereignty and the eleventy trillion pounds sent to Brussels every day, most will care only about the impact it has on migration.  Which will be next to none.  To judge by the response to the deal, which has been tepid to say the least, most quite rightly don't give a stuff about the EU.  It's there, it does things, it occasionally impacts on us, but for most it means little other than open borders and free movement of labour, for better, for worse, and that itself is threatened by the aforementioned refugee crisis.  Trying to get people who weren't bothered enough to vote in the general election to interest themselves in a referendum on something relatively arcane and on a day in high summer, should it take place on the "preferred" date of 23rd of June, is going to prove far more challenging than many seem to think.

Which only reinforces the view that Cameron and his relatively slight band of fellow Tories who don't like the EU much but prefer it to the alternative have backed themselves into a corner out of pitiful weakness, and now have to sell their gruel to the country.  Perhaps the thinking is that the engaged, the pro-Europeans versus the Eurosceptics will balance themselves out, leaving Project Fear 2.0 to work its magic on those undecided and who can be bothered to interest themselves.  Perhaps, as Lord Ashcroft's polling and research suggests, Cameron himself can win enough people over by his leading the remain campaign.  Perhaps the fact that the leave campaigners themselves seem to accept they cannot win on immigration alone, and so will have to put their otherwise easily countered and pretty feeble arguments out for public consumption, made by politicians and business leaders no one has much affection for, will count against them.

From this remove, with no solution in sight to the refugee crisis, much that can happen between now and June, and with the voter coalition he formed to win the election liable to be against him on this occasion, Cameron's great gamble looks just as mad and as hostage to fortune as it did three years.  The only real advantage he has, as then, is himself.  If it proves to not be enough, with all it will set in motion, a likely second Scottish independence referendum, inevitable resignation and a country ever more uncertain of its true place in the world, will it have been worth it?

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Monday, February 01, 2016 

A fundamental lack of imagination.

At the weekend, out-going chief inspector of prisons Nick Hardwick gave a blistering interview to the Graun.  All but told his services were no longer wanted after he proved to be one of the most critical of inspectors in what has often been a post filled by those of an independent bent, he made clear he was in fact glad to be leaving, fearing that he was at the point of becoming desensitised to the problems of the prison estate.  Levels of self-harm and suicide are at record levels in a system that Hardwick declares has deteriorated further in the 5 years since the coalition government promised a "rehabilitation revolution".  

The only bright spot is Chris Grayling, who Hardwick relates attempted to interfere with his annual report, has since been moved on from his role as justice secretary, replaced by Michael Gove.  Amazingly considering his record as education secretary, Gove is now without doubt the best minister of a very bad lot, if only because he has spent almost the entirety of his time cleaning up the mess left by Grayling.  In little more than six months Gove has lifted the ban on sending parcels to prisoners, scrapped the criminal courts charge, reversed further planned cuts to legal aid, and persuaded David Cameron to put an end to the proposed link up with the Saudi Arabian prison system.

As Hardwick outlines in his interview, there are manifold things wrong with the prison system, but one of the most obvious is that there are still far too many people in jail who either shouldn't be or who would be far better cared for elsewhere.  Policymakers, he says, have two major failings: "lack of imagination and failure of empathy".  This could be expanded from just policymakers to be a criticism of the justice system as a whole, afflicting not just politicians and those who put pressure on them, but also the police, prosecutors and judges.  It affects not just those being processed through the system, but victims too: witness how 20 years after her death the family of Cheryl James have only now managed to obtain a second inquest, thanks to the Human Rights Act the government wants to repeal.

The absurdity of the system as it stands is perhaps best illustrated by the lack of consistency in decisions made by prosecutors.  Approaching a year after they left, the four school girls from Bethnal Green academy who travelled to Syria to join Islamic State will still apparently be treated as victims should they return to the UK, despite it would seem having no intention whatsoever of doing so.  As I've pointed out on a number of occasions, it seems doubly perverse to prosecute the sad sacks who do return home after quickly discovering they are not cut out for life in a war zone, the Mashudr Choudarys, the Nawazses, and now most notably of all, Tareena Shakil, the 26-year-old who travelled to the capital of Islamic State's self-declared caliphate, Raqqa, only to make her escape less than 3 months later.

Shakil it's safe to say is also the most perplexing character of all the jihadis so far charged on their return.  She apparently loved shows like The Only Way is Essex, seems to not always worn the hijab, let alone the full veil that she would have been required to in Raqqa, and it's not disputed that her brief flirtation with the jihadi cause came after the breakdown of her marriage.  Whether she genuinely was radicalised online by contact with individuals who told her she would go to hell if she didn't live under Sharia law, as well as by other notorious online figures Aqsa Mahmood and Sally Anne Jones we can't know, but it seems more realistic a claim than in many similar instances where families have insisted their loved ones were preyed upon.

Also not in dispute is that whatever the reality of how she managed to make it out of Raqqa, bribing a tax driver and then slipping past Islamic State fighters on the border as she told the court after first telling police she had been kidnapped, she did so because she had become disillusioned with life in Syria.  The claim made by the police that she posed a threat to this country has not been substantiated in the slightest by the evidence heard in court, nor by her conviction for being a member of IS and sending messages inciting terrorism.  She genuinely was escaping, not attempting to return without being noticed with the aim of either proselytising for IS once back in the country, or worse, launching an attack.  Some of the case presented against her was downright laughable: a "senior security analyst" insisted that women in Raqqa were only allowed access to weapons if they were members of an IS police unit, as clearly Shakil couldn't of borrowed a gun for the pictures she posed for from one of the other 30 women she was living with.

This is not to overlook how utterly irresponsible it was of Shakil to take her young son with her, nor how shocking and perverse it was to allow him to be photographed by the side of an AK-47, or wearing a hat with IS insignia.  We can't know for certain how much of a choice she had in much of what she did once in Raqqa, especially when like most radical organisations IS is paranoid in the extreme about spies, where refusing to do what is asked of you can soon result in suspicion and potential execution.  Nonetheless, after admitting the truth of her decision to travel to Raqqa, she has also said she doesn't want sympathy.  Nor does she deserve any for that decision.

What she does deserve sympathy for is realising the terrible mistake she made.  While it doesn't seem to have been reported what has happened since to her child, one would presume he is either now with his father or in care.  Precisely what benefit the public receives from imprisoning her for six years, of which she will likely serve three, is not immediately obvious.  Is it meant to send a message of deterrence to others in a similar position, thinking of travelling to Syria, when we know full well that such thoughts are often furthest from their minds?  Is it meant to make clear you can't "join" a terrorist organisation and then come back as though nothing has happened, regardless of regrets?  


Would it not make far more sense to let individuals like Shakil tell their story, once it has been confirmed they pose no threat, when the only people those at risk of radicalisation are likely to listen to are those whom for whatever reason felt the same way they did?  Wouldn't it be a far better use of police time and court resources to ensure that those who do pose a threat, like Siddhartha Dhar, aka Abu Rumaysah, the man thought to be in the IS video directly addressing the UK are not able to skip bail?  Shouldn't we have learned at least a few lessons by now about the way Islamic State operates, and that while we must be suspicious about anyone attempting to return, the IS view in general is that to leave is to disassociate yourself, to go back to the land of unbelievers?

Indeed, the other message the sentence sends to others who've travelled to Syria is that there is no escape.  You can leave, try and repudiate what you've done, but you'll still likely go to prison for years.  Life after prison is hard enough for most offenders, let alone those branded for life as a terrorist, needing to report to the police for years afterwards as Shakil will.  Knowing that awaits, it's hardly surprising that few whether still believing in the cause or not have made the journey home.  As Hardwick identified, fundamentally it comes down to a lack of imagination.  Shakil could have been an asset in the fight against IS.  Now she'll rot in a cell.  Terrorism aside, her fate is the same as many others who could have been helped previously, who could still be helped, but won't be until our criminal justice policy is completely re-evaluated.

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Friday, January 29, 2016 

No justice.

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Thursday, January 28, 2016 

The commentariat is always wrong. Probably.

Steve Richards is very good in the Political Quarterly on the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, but this part on the commentariat is worth reflecting on also:

Here is one other general observation before I explore why Corbyn rose to the top of his party and reflect on what might happen next. I find in British politics that what we think is happening is almost always the reverse of what is actually happening. That is my polite way of suggesting that the media consensus at any given time is nearly always wrong. So, for example, at the moment the orthodoxy in the media is that Cameron and Osborne are commanding and the Conservatives have already won the next election, while the rise of Corbyn is an unqualified catastrophe. My instinct is to assume these assumptions must be wrong, partly because the commentariat is always wrong.

To judge by the polls, which themselves are tarnished by last year's failure, the commentariat in this instance seem to be right: Corbyn is not doing well, and the Tories are doing far better than a party with a majority of 12, 5 years into government and with so many potential problems on the horizon should be. Point is, when the commentariat are so focused on Corbyn being a disaster, it's incredibly hard not to be drawn into thinking the same, as while there are "good" columnists and "bad" columnists they invariably reach the same conclusions. Besides, as we know, there is wisdom in crowds.

This is only multiplied when said commentariat is now asking whether Labour might split, with the no longer Pollyanna Toynbee urging it not to, Pol being older and wiser for having helped Thatcher into power in 83 with the SDP, although of course she doesn't put it like that. The New Statesman meanwhile, which seems to have decided to be critical of Labour at all times whether in government or not, poses the question on its front page, even if its conclusion is ultimately the same as Pol's.

Labour it barely needs saying isn't going to split.  You only need to look at the utter state of the Lib Dems to see that there is barely any room at the moment for a centrist party, let alone for two competing parties of the centre left.  Whom is going to lead this split anyway?  As Richards goes on to say, part of the reason Labour is in this mess is down to how Blair and Brown commanded the party for so long, without ordaining successors as either Thatcher tried to or as Cameron is now attempting with Osborne.  Say what you like about Burnham, Cooper or Kendall, all are tribally Labour.  Nor are any of the great white hopes, again whoever they are now, Dan Jarvis seeming the only name with the slightest lustre, going to do a Gang of Four, let alone take others in the party with them.

Things then we should also assume are wrong due to how they are being pushed, or probably wrong: firstly, that Labour will lose seats in the local elections.  I doubt it, and even if they do, Sadiq Khan is going to be the next London mayor, which despite the commentariat also assuming is a done deal, could be the exception that proves the rule.

Second: that whatever EU renegotiation Cameron comes up with, the remain campaign will win.  This seems to assume that the sheer rhetorical force of Dave and friends will win the day, and completely ignores that the same coalition the Tories put together that won the election, of older people, former Lib Dem voters outside of the cities and those put off/unconvinced by Miliband/Labour's record on the economy/not hating immigrants/benefit claimants enough are those most likely to be unfavourable towards the EU also.  Cameron would seem to be counting on the very people who haven't and will never vote for him to effectively do so on this occasion to take him over the edge.  Now it could happen, we might see a UK wide reprise of Project Fear from the Scottish independence referendum that convinces just enough people the risks of leaving aren't worth it, and there's the fact the most notable people involved with the leave campaigns are unpopular populists in an age when populism done properly is very popular.  Or we could end up in the worst of all worlds, outside the EU without any say in anything but with much the same obligations, and with Cameron having to resign, plus Osborne supremely damaged in turn.


Which would leave Corbyn and Labour where?  Not in quite as bad a place, if nothing else.

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