Saturday, August 30, 2008 

Weekend links.

We continue:

On Alastair Darling being misquoted and telling it straight:

Lib Con / John Band - Bad Chancellor. Bad journalists

Lenin - No shit

Stumbling and Mumbling - Darling is talking nonsense

Ten Percent - Fuk da Kredit Krunch

The Curmudgeon - On Message

In other home news:

Bob Piper - Cameron will modify Blairism

Unity ends the squabble between Sunny and DK over inequality since the 80s

Ben Goldacre, in the first extract from his book, places the blame for the MMR debacle squarely on the media, right where it belongs.

Foreign affairs:

BlairWatch - A letter from Georgia

CiF / Joschka Fischer - Realism about Russia

The Quail - The Mail somehow managed to report Obama's speech to the Democratic Convention before it had been made

Question That - On McCain picking Sarah Palin as his VP

Finally, the Mail reports on the horrors of last night's EastEnders episode:

One viewer, writing on the Points Of View message board on the BBC website, said:
'My wife was physically sick and my son of 13 was brought to tears.'

Last night I watched the brand spanking new Criterion DVD of Pasolini's Salo. The complainant's wife would probably have had a coronary.

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Friday, August 29, 2008 

The current state of affairs.

The cliché is that crises seem to develop and take place in slow motion. When it comes to the continuing Russian occupation of Georgian territory outside of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it's been anything but. Predictions of what was to come have been shown to be wrong in record time: Georgia's chances of joining Nato were said to be dead and buried after Saakashvili's murderous, hot-headed gambit, something proved demonstratively false by the meeting of Nato which looks set to accelerate the process. Additionally, no one thought that South Ossetia and Abkahzia would have their independence or, rather their absorption into Russia declared so quickly, something which President Medvedev started the process of at the beginning of the week, quite possibly in response to the Nato declaration, if not in so many words.

It is therefore probably foolish to make predictions about what is still yet to come, but that's never stopped anyone before. Firstly, for all the talk that this shows Russia awakening from a slumber, or that this means an end to the unipolar world dominated by the United States since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia still remains fundamentally weak, if not even further weakened by the war in a far off place of which we know little. Few in Russia probably expected the vehemence of the response from the West over Georgia, especially considering that beyond a shadow of a doubt it was the Georgian assault on South Ossetia, involving up to 300 gun barrels which started the brief but brutal conflict. This does not even begin to excuse the wholly disproportionate response from Russia, which still continues with the presence at Poti and outside of the breakaway regions, but it does mitigate against complete condemnation.

Indeed, what has occurred so far has been a further hugging from the West of the likes of Ukraine and Poland ever tighter, as shown by Miliband's mostly decent but at times breathtakingly disingenuous speech in the former country. As the Guardian leader noted, Nato has been expanding its role concerning energy security in the region. To believe that Nato does not have a sphere of influence and that its expansion is simply an expression of individual democracies exercising their sovereignty is absurd. Equally absurd is the idea that Russia's next move might be to annexe the Crimea, where again allegedly the country has been distributing passports. For all the hype over the Orange Revolution, Ukraine remains bitterly divided, and might still yet opt for the pro-Russian Yanukovych over Yushchenko, such has been the in-fighting and incompetence of the pro-Western parties.

The one trump card which Russia still holds is its stranglehold over Europe's energy supplies. Germany's policy towards Russia is almost certainly blunted directly because of its reliance on Russian gas. Even this though is in danger of being broken almost directly because of the conflict in Georgia; the Russian economy is increasingly reliant on these very same exports, and as Nosemonkey points out, even if Russia was to cut off supplies, something which simply isn't going to happen, the West would recover. Russia, on the other hand, would continue to die a slow death. For the moment we need each other much more than anyone is willing to admit - and this mitigates against any further action in western Europe.

Increasingly, the precedent for the Russian action and the swift declaration of independence in SO and Abkhazia is Kosovo. It's not a direct parallel because SO and Abk are quite obviously going to be absorbed into Russia proper, rather than become independent statelets like Kosovo, but the declaration of independence for the region at the beginning of this year is both the catalyst and will be used as the justification. For those of us without restive provinces, and despite the Troubles and current disagreements in Northern Ireland over policing, ours no longer really cut the mustard, this was a no-brainer; for Spain, however, still racked by secessionists in both the Basque and Catalan regions, it was also a no-brainer, with them refusing unlike much of the rest of Europe to recognise the new territory. Georgia, too, recognized the potential for where it could lead, with Saakashvili calling the decision hasty. Putin, however, couldn't have predicted the future any better, quite possibly because he knew what may be to come: "undoubtedly, it may entail a whole chain of unpredictable consequences to other regions in the world" that will come back to hit the West "in the face".

For the most part then, for all the changes, much has stayed the same. To believe that this will in any way prevent the US or the US and ourselves from stepping in more or less anywhere outside of Eurasia should there be even the inkling of a "threat" would be naive. With the insurgency apparently stepping up in Somalia, it probably won't be long before US strikes there against "al-Qaida" targets are once again in the news, in a war which is in effect being waged via the Ethiopian occupation, and it's doubtful that even Obama's election would change that. Russia still remains the same paranoid country that it has been since the beginning of the 90s, increasingly encircled but only occasionally striking out in battles that it knows it can win in its own highly diluted "sphere of influence", whether it be Chechnya or now the breakaway provinces of Georgia. Unhelpful and becoming too prominent figures such as Litvinenko and Anna Politkovskaya will continue to be rubbed out. The question has to be whether confrontation is worth it over this issues, and fundamentally, the answer is no. The current path however is that exact confrontation, and in the meantime the wholesale demonisation of Russia beyond that which it deserves will likely continue apace.

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Scum-watch updates.

If you're wondering where the regular Scum-watches have gone, both this week's posts on the paper are over on the dedicated Sun Lies blog, the first on particularly nonsensical use of figures relating to knife crime and the second, which is a doozy, on the Sun's own readers spotting the huge flaw in its attempt to paint the good burghers of Merthyr Tydfil as work-shy scroungers.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008 

All good hoaxes come to an end.

There was perhaps only two ways in which the "al-Qaida in Britain" story would end: either being completely forgotten after being dismissed as either irrelevant or low-level jihadist supporters messing around, or in those responsible being arrested.

Lancashire police have now brought charges against three men, one of whom has been charged with soliciting murder. It's being made quite apparent that the police or the security services have not foiled any genuine actual plot to kill either Gordon Brown or Tony Blair, just that those behind the message have been caught. The soliciting murder charge is by no means unprecedented - at least one of the Danish embassy protesters was successfully convicted of it - but it still seems potentially over-the-top when seen in the context of online banter which often is extreme and by no means going to be followed through. Since no weapons, let alone explosives have been found in the searches carried out by the police, this further encourages the view that this was nothing more than a serious, but not that serious hoax.

Of course, it might well be that as two of the men were arrested whilst trying to board a plane travelling to Finland, they could well have been going there as a precursor to acquiring materials which might have been used in an attempt to carry out the threat of the original message. Alternatively, and this looks like, on all we know so far, the most obvious explanation, they may just have been three young men sympathetic to the jihadist cause who thought it was a rather spiffing idea to pretend that were members of al-Qaida on a well-known message-board, where, it has to be said, their antics were treated with rather short shrift.

This professing to be members of al-Qaida, when it hardly seems feasible that they actually were, has nonetheless earned Ishaq Kanmi with the additional charge of belonging or professing to belong to al-Qaida. Now, while al-Qaida is a proscribed organisation, it does seem rather extreme for someone only pretending to be a member of the group to be charged with it as an additional offence. Justin seems to think this is not a new addition to our burgeoning terror laws but rather a hangover from the 70s, when it may have been all the rage to suggest you were a member of the IRA. It does though invite comparisons with all the other little Billy Liars and fantasists that inhabit pubs and small towns, claiming to have been members of the SAS or similar while everyone around them just humours them. It is slightly different to claim to be an al-Qaida operative, but it still seems like something incredibly likely to be joked about. Similarly, the charge of inviting support for al-Qaida is probably down to the original message's appeal for other Muslims to join "al-Qaida in Britain" in the holy war, against, well, err, the credibility of other jihadist groups, quite frankly.

The other charges are those similarly vague ones which are recent introductions, the "possession of an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism" which is so widely drawn that it can apply to any number of everyday items which might still be useful were to terrorist to use them. One of the apparently damning pieces of evidence against Hammaad Munshi was that he and his group had "personal details of members of the royal family", or as they're otherwise known, their addresses. I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that the addresses of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle are not state secrets.

I could of course be completely, additionally wrong about all of this. These men might well have been potentially dangerous - and indeed, we should take seriously all proponents of the jihadist cause, even the more dilettante ones among them - but it seems far more likely that these were rag-tag individuals at the lowest levels imaginable that probably downloaded videos from al-Ekhlass, perhaps contributed, and who thought it was a wizard wheeze to pretend to be the newest al-Qaida franchise, set-up right here in Britain. You can take this in two ways: either you can be glad that even the bottom-feeders amongst the online jihadist community are being watched, and if they step slightly out of line, they'll be picked up and dealt with; or you can be concerned that the ones we perhaps ought to be least worried about are the ones which the police and security services seem to be wasting their time with. After all, the monitoring of MSK and others was apparently curtailed because of more pressing concerns - and look where that led us. "al-Qaida in Britain" has been dissolved - but the real al-Qaida most certainly has not been.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008 

No excuses for being Andrew Lansley.

There are, according to Andrew Lansley, no excuses for being fat. Or to be slightly more specific, being obese. Apparently, the idea that biology or environment has any bearing on whether someone is overweight is simply making excuses. Making excuses is bad. As is nannying. Our government does both. That makes the government bad.

This is an extension of Cameron's speech a few weeks back that a lot of people's problems are self-inflicted. To a certain extent this is undeniably true; saying so is not something radically new, or something that has been actively discouraged, despite how the Conservatives have tried to portray it as doing so. It's more simply that somebody noticed that most bristle at being told that everything is entirely their fault; rather that doing so more subtly, not being quite so confrontational and being more feel-good tends to work far better. This isn't political correctness, this is simply being far more sensitive, which is more likely to work.

In fact, Lansley is actually taking it a step further than Cameron by rejecting the idea that there are any excuses. Cameron added:

"Of course, circumstances - where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school, and the choices your parents make - have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.

Cameron then does indeed believe that both biology and environment have their effect on obesity, which is wise, because they both obviously do.

Ignoring where you were born and what you are born into for half a second, would Lansley agree that there is an excuse for someone being overweight if the medication which they take has a side-effect of weight gain (Yes, bear with me, I'm being rhetorical, I'm sure he would)? After all, that is most certainly an excuse which some could make when they were overweight to begin with, but it could also be a valid one.

Like with Cameron, Lansley again isn't aiming this at the obese members of his own party. It's the nod and the wink - it's not the Fatty Soameses of this world that are the problem, obviously, but rather all those gigantic, wobbling, welded to the pushchair, acne-riddled layabouts that stuff their faces all day and then have the audacity to walk around our towns and cities where other members of the public might see them. Likewise, Lansley must surely agree that there are no excuses for the put upon single-mother, the kind that has to allocate every single penny of her income, the one that shops not at Waitrose or M&S or even Tesco or Sainsbury's, but at Netto, Farmfoods, Iceland, Lidl, etc. The one that doesn't have the time, or energy, to as this person on CiF says, "produce healthy food from basic ingredients". She could do that, if she wanted to be on her feet for another two hours of the day, but why bother when she can buy the economy pizzas, ready meals at however many for £5 and otherwise which can either be popped straight in the oven or straight in the microwave?

Now that we've agreed that there are no excuses whatsoever for being the size of a house, what then are Lansley's suggestions for altering the situation. Let's start with some cod-psychological behavioural theory:

If we are going to defuse the time-bomb of obesity-related ill-health, we must change the behaviour of adults today, as well as our children. Tell people that biology and the environment causes obesity and they are offered an excuse not to change their behaviour. As it is, people who see more fat people around them may themselves be more likely to gain weight. Young people who think many of their friends binge-drink are likely to do so themselves. Girls who think their peers engage in early sex are more likely to do so themselves. Peer pressure and social norms are powerful influences on behaviour and they are classic excuses. We have to take away the excuses.

Quite so. But isn't there also peer pressure not to be fat? Perhaps things have deteriorated still further since I left school, but I'm pretty certain that being overweight was not exactly a barrel of laughs, unless of course you happen to be the barrel and the laughs were directed at you and you laughed along in a feeble attempt to pretend you weren't the butt of the joke. In fact, let's not beat around the bush here: I called fat people fat. You called fat people fat (probably). I was an unpleasant little pustule (and still am) and on one occasion I told a girl that she should consider the Slim Fast plan, thinking this was devastatingly witty. She descended into floods of tears and I became enemy number one with her friends, quite rightly, for a good time afterwards. I felt like a shallow little twat and still do. I'm pretty certain that it's probably much the same in some of the more immature offices across the land, and that those especially overweight have to face up to a fair amount of abuse when they venture out. Do these things therefore balance out, or not? I don't know. I'm pretty sure that they can't simply be dismissed as "excuses", however.

For teenagers, I believe we also have to think specifically how we can deploy leadership, role models and social marketing approaches, not just to warn them about the harmful consequences of risky behaviour, but inspire them with what they can achieve by choosing healthy living. We must not constantly warn people about the negative effects of obesity – instead we must be positive – positive about the fun and benefits to be had from healthy living.

Again, perhaps I'm being a little simple here, but aren't there plenty of role models out there that are anything but overweight? Indeed, I'm struggling to honestly think of someone obese or overweight that's a positive role model, unless we perhaps count a few singers that have emerged recently, such as Adele or those two reality show debutantes, Rik Waller and Michelle McManus. Inspiring is a noble and obvious aim - but it's one that's a hell of a lot harder to do in practice than it is when making a speech.

Today, I propose that our second responsibility deal should be on public health. I have invited Dave Lewis, chairman of Unilever UK, to chair a working group of business representatives, voluntary groups and experts. Together, we will invite views on these proposals and hammer out the details of the deal. Our proposals for the responsibility deal include: supporting EU plans for a mandatory GDA-based front-of-pack food labelling system; industry-led reformulation initiatives and reduction of portion sizes; proportionate regulation on advertising and positive campaigns from the industry and government to promote better diets; a responsible drinking campaign matched by community action projects to address drug abuse, sexually transmitted infections and alcohol abuse, using a proportion of drinks industry advertising budgets and supported by the government; and incentives and a local structure, through business organisations, for small and medium-sized companies to improve the health of their employees, working with business organisations, NHS Plus and the Fitness Industry Association.

Ah, details. On the GDA front, I'm pretty certain that it's either already became law for firms to have similar details on the packaging or have rolled them out voluntarily; the Diet Coke bottle sitting in front of me has the exact scheme described on Lansley's link on the label. This is opposing the so-called traffic light scheme, which while simplistic was far easier to understand and which the Food Standards Agency set-up. Firms like Coke, and supermarkets like Tesco opposed it. On the reformulation initatives and reduction of portion sizes, again, I think most manufacturers have already been responding to that, reducing salt and fat levels, etc. They've probably not done as much as they could, but I can't see how the Conservatives rather than Labour are going to be any more successful in persuading them to do so. On positive campaigns from industry and government, it's not as if the government has not already been doing so: there's a whole Choosing Health section on the Department of Health website, and there's been a White Paper on the subject. There's currently a responsible drinking campaign being run by the government, one which I think is actually rather good, but whether such things ever have any effect is open to question, and the community action project again seems to be the Tories deciding that the voluntary and private sector will pick up the slack, whilst the last proposal just seems to be in there to make up the numbers.

In other words, Lansley seems to be more or less siding with some of the less reputable sides of the food industry in blocking the traffic lights scheme, proposing pretty much all that the government is already doing, and not a lot else. All while being slightly more in your face, less open to the idea that there are reasons for being overweight not just limited to eating too much and not exercising enough, and not offering anything approaching new except a harsher line in rhetoric. Do I really need to keep repeating the bit about the new Blairites, except with a slightly less kind face?

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008 

Going lower than ever thought possible.

Out of all the joys that the internet has brought us, the ability for those with a tendency for hypochondria to self-diagnose themselves via the easy availability of the symptoms for every disease known to man is one of the lesser benefits. Even worse though is those who then take these self-same symptoms and rather than diagnosing themselves, attempt to pin the diseases and disorders on others, especially those involving mental health. This level of sub-Freudian projection is contemptible enough when it's directed against celebrities and others in the public eye, but when it enters political discourse it represents something resembling a new low in gutter-sniping.

Witness then Guido bringing the question completely out into the open, behind the witless low-level building up of the idea which has been going on for several months now. Gordon Brown, fairly and simply, is quite possibly bonkers. The evidence presented for this is weak beyond belief. It amounts to around three things: that Brown was labelled "psychologically flawed" long ago by Blair's briefers during one of the internecine battles between TB and GB; that Brown has been acting strangely, apropos an article by that man noted for his own completely rational and inoffensive behaviour, Bruce Anderson; and lastly, that even by the standards of a politician he's been making increasingly bizarre statements. To this you could add the pathetic diagnoses by the green ink brigade of autism, or Asperger's syndrome.

You don't have to have even the slightest medical training to treat such facile, shallow nonsense with the contempt it deserves. It ought to be remembered however though that this isn't just the imaginings of the usual suspect squad of bloggers getting ever more drunk on their own delusions of grandeur: George Osborne joked when asked by Mary Ann Sieghart whether his own knowledge of dinosaurs when a child was "faintly autistic" by saying "we're not getting into Gordon Brown yet"; and for a while it almost seemed to be Conservative policy to treat Gordon Brown as weird, hence Cameron's description of him as "that strange man in Downing Street".

To give these claims the sort of scrutiny which they don't deserve, we're for a start dealing with highly conflicting descriptions of what Brown genuinely is like. While some may class him as a Stalinist or a control freak, others have talked of his mildness, even warmth in private, and have been disillusioned by his failure to show this in public. Even if we take at face value the stories of Brown's rages, almost all delivered, incidentally, by either Blairites or those predisposed against Brown, of the smashing of mobile phones and otherwise, they don't even begin to be explained by mental illness or autism: rather, this is a person under intense pressure and stress, reacting at times in ways which he doubtless instantly regrets. It might be someone not enjoying the job which they so coveted, but it is not even slightly abnormal, let alone descending into mental ill-health.

More than anything, this perhaps comes down to what you regard as the qualities that a politician should always have on display. We seem increasingly to want our politicians to always be presentable, to always instantly know what to do, and at the same time to be incredibly open with everyone. In short, we never want them to put a foot wrong, be off-message, or be consumed with anything other than constant public service. This, more than anything, is what is currently delivering us identikit politicians, overwhelming upper-middle or upper-class, with next to no experience other than from within political parties, all of whom look more or less the same and indeed, offer more or the less the same. They can deliver a speech brilliantly, pretend to empathise, emerge as brain-shatteringly normal or at least act like it, and pass the barbecue test, but none of this qualifies them in the slightest to actually run a country. Surely we ought to have learned this lesson by now, whether by the examples of either Bush or Blair, yet we seem more than ever to lap up the spin we so profess to detest while railing against the outsider, the abnormal, those who don't seem to fit in.

Surely the greatest example of how you don't always need to be of complete sound mind, even if you are, when in a position of such authority is Churchill. Everyone is aware of his life-long battle with depression, of the "Black Dog" as he called it, yet its effects did not prevent him from serving as arguably the greatest prime minister this country has ever had.

This is not of course to suggest that Brown is on anywhere near the same plain as Churchill; he quite obviously is not. Yet the whispering about his own mental ill-health, completely unsubstantiated, is designed to put the final nail in his coffin, to ostracise him completely, to persecute him for daring to be anything other than he really is. The political reality Brown has to face is that he never forced his hand early enough to force Blair out when he could still have averted Labour's apparent inexorable decline. However much some want to pin all the blame solely on his shoulders for the economic weather we are now facing, the main opposition party cannot even begin to explain what things it would have done differently to Labour, or what it would have cut or not funded to the same extent as that as Brown did. He has chosen the entirely wrong policies to pursue since becoming prime minister, such as 42 days detention and the expansion of the school academy system, not to mention the 10p tax rate debacle, but there is no evidence whatsoever, indeed, some to the contrary, that another leader would do any better. The Conservatives are heading back to power, but if they or their cyphers think that they'll earn any kudos for descending to the politics of the sewer, lower even than that which New Labour has at times sunk, then they are certainly sorely mistaken.

Related:
Lib Con - The 'Gordon Brown is insane' meme

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Monday, August 25, 2008 

A portent of things to come.


At times, this moniker I've chosen doesn't seem quite right. For someone who apparently thinks of this isle as septic, I seem remarkably unconcerned about its current state. After all, I repeatedly argue that despite the claims of the Conservatives and the tabloids that our society, for all its faults and deficiencies, is not broken. I never fail to marvel that those predisposed to empty, shallow patriotism actually seem to hate this country far more than those constantly accused of betraying it and bringing it to where it is now. My own pointless, self-serving, delusional rage is directed at other targets, for better or worse.

The Olympics ought to have been everything I've been institutionally designed to loathe. Orwell effortlessly exposed the essential pointlessness of the ranking of one person better than another at some insufferable activity in his Sporting Spirit essay. What he would have made of the obscenity which is the Premier League - where one player who can kick a ball into a net slightly more accurately than another and is in return paid more than some people will ever earn in a lifetime for less than two hours' work - is difficult to imagine. 16 days of this garbage, at immense, unimaginable cost, courtesy of one of the most despicable regimes on the planet - and that's just the IOC, never mind China - should have been over two weeks to forget.

And yet, you couldn't help but be overwhelmed by the show which the Chinese put on at both the opening and closing ceremonies. Yes, this was undoubtedly something which only the most vile dictatorship could both organise and justify, where a slightly less attractive child was elbowed aside lest anyone be horrified by her slightly not straight teeth, where the "Great Leap Forward" was strangely absent from the presented version of Chinese history, and where the contemptible idea of "protest zones" actually resulted in two old women being sentenced to re-education through labour, but you could simply not object to the Chinese having the right to put on such a show. It would have been great to have seen some more protests, especially from athletes themselves, putting further to shame those who criticised those who attempted to stop the torch relay, but when they were such onerous potential punishments for those who did, you can't blame them either for not doing so.

For those of us who went against the grain and wanted the Olympics here as much as we'd like to spend the rest of our lives in the company of Tessa Jowell, it sets a challenge, as does the success of our athletes. Somehow, whether we like it or not, or want to or not, we have to at least put on something which if not equal to the last couple of weeks, at least doesn't embarrass us by comparison.

The problem therefore is that we have such complete incompetents, morons and nonentities in charge at the moment. Behold our 8 minutes yesterday at the closing ceremony. It was never going to be great, let's face it, but it would have been nice if it hadn't been the unmitigated disaster that it was. Uncomfortably, it also has to be admitted that this is not the result of the aforementioned individuals in charge. This was British "culture" writ large, or at least the popular side of it: a double-decker bus, which for some unfathomable reason unfolded itself; a winner of a fucking talent contest; an old man playing a song from the 70s, badly; the most overrated and unaccountably famous man to have ever walked on a pair of legs, kicking a football to no one or to nowhere in particular; a dance troupe performing the worst routine the world has seen since the Black and White Minstrel Show was cancelled; oh, and who could possibly forget the smug, rotund twat that couldn't even wave a flag properly?

This, world, is our island nation. In fairness, Marina Hyde says that she watched the last few handovers and that they were no better than our meagre effort. The funniest thing though is that Boris Johnson and Downing Street were so flabbergasted by the "mistake" of the video which accompanied our 8 minutes of madness featuring Marcus Harvey's child hand-print painting of Myra Hindley. Out of the entirety of our show, that could quite easily be classified as the finest moment, a genuine work of art, going against public opinion which annoyed all the right people.

That ought to be what we base our own games' ceremonies around. Not puerile, semi-ironic stereotypical nonsense which just shows the West as a whole to be completely out of ideas and beholden only to the cult of worthless celebrity, but genuinely innovatory and potentially avant-garde politicking which ignores the advice of those who have already brought us so low. This is where those in charge will fail us; would any other country on the planet put in charge of the games a woman who can't remember little things like whether her husband was taking out a new mortgage, or a man who could rival Tory Boy himself for wit and intellect? A taster for what's to come, apart from in China itself, was presented outside Buckingham Palace. This was the "Visa 2012 handover party", just to prove that the curse of sponsorship will not just be confined to the games themselves. And what a line-up they put on! Not content with just one unspeakably awful band being involved, they chose three just to be sure: The Feeling, Scouting for Girls and McFly. You know that something has gone terribly, horrifically, child-murderingly wrong when the best artist on the bill is Katherine Jenkins; and one opera performer wasn't enough either, as she just had to be joined by Il Divo. And all around, that 2012 logo, so brilliantly conceived at immense cost by Wolff Olins, set to haunt our nightmares for the next four years and beyond.

If you think that things are bad now, it's worth remembering that within 2 years it'll be the new Blairite Conservative party that'll be in charge. David Cameron, in his past life spent his time defending the shit on a stick served up by Carlton, so at least he'll be handy when it comes to the abortion to follow. As for his taste in music, he informed Dylan Jones that he had purchased albums by both Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse and couldn't choose between them. Alongside him will be the snot-nosed cocaine-hoovering Gideon Osborne, with a face so punchable that by then the entire country would choose to have him become Team GB's newest and least trained boxing sensation. You can imagine it already, can't you? The countries parading to the strains of "She's so Lovely", followed by the main event, where the corpse of Winehouse is re-animated for her last ever gig. Septic isle indeed.

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Fuck Fox News.

Quite possibly the greatest thing ever:

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Saturday, August 23, 2008 

Weekend links.

The now becoming regular weekend round-up of sorts. For the story behind the rather strange picture, see here.

Starting with foreign affairs:

Chick Yog - Gordon Brown is right on Afghanistan

Lib Con/Conor Foley - Faith, reason and foreign policy

Lenin and Blood and Treasure on Bernard Henri-Levy's trip to Georgia.

Nosemonkey - Russia: History and Humiliation.

Shiraz Socialist - Concluding the sectarian rumpus over an article by an Alliance for Workers' Liberty member which some took as defending an Israeli nuclear attack on Iran.

The Daily (Maybe) - Obama's foreign policy is not a weakness

Simon Jenkins - We tilt at windmills as world war looms

Domestic:

New Statesman / Brian Cathcart - More on the Book of Dave

Stumbling and Mumbling - 16 years of unbroken growth? No

Anton Vowl on absolute top form - first on Richard Littlecock and general tabloid racism, then more specifically on racism from the Mail, and finally from the utterly despicable Express.

Minette Marrin and Matthew Norman both comment on the return of Gary Glitter and the tabloid obsession with him. More than anything, what's apparent is that he adores the attention; if the press really wants him to suffer, the best thing it could do would be to forget he even exists.

Finally, via PDF, the fuzzy spot gives a unique send off to a friend by disposing of his pornography, taking it to where it truly belongs - in the woods and undergrowth where the next generation can find it.

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Friday, August 22, 2008 

al-Qaida in Britain return.

It's interesting to say the least that the BBC are reporting that the arrests made in Lancashire last week are connected to the investigation into the supposed setting up of "al-Qaida in Britain". You might recall that this got certain sections of the media very excited back in January, after a message was posted on the al-Ekhlass jihadist forum which threatened both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair with death if British troops weren't withdrawn from Afghanistan and Iraq by the end of March. As both are still very much with us and there hasn't been even the sniff of a major attack for over a year, the scepticism with which it was treated outside of the confines of Newsnight and the Times seems to have been very much warranted.

The three men arrested, all in their early twenties, were apparently about to travel to that well-known hot-bed of Islamic militancy, Finland. The ages of the men perhaps further gives the game away: if this truly was another franchise of al-Qaida setting itself up, it hardly seems likely that they would have chosen three individuals hardly out of nappies to head it. From the sketches of what we know about the offshoots which have spread across the Muslim world, the leaders of the groups have tended to be veterans of past conflicts, or at least long-time adherents to the takfirist/Salafist ideology which underpins al-Qaida's thought processes. While al-Zarqawi, former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, now the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, only turned up in Afghanistan after the fighting had finished against the Soviets in the 80s, he was still considered a veteran. His successor (or at least considered real successor, with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as a figurehead, Masri serving as ISI's "minister for war"), presumed to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, was a member of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an organisation formerly helmed by Ayman al-Zahawiri himself. Elsewhere, formerly independent radical groups have pledged allegiance to al-Qaida, such as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, now known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb, keeping their leadership intact.

As a security source said at the time, this was always likely to be the work of fantasists dreaming about truly belonging to al-Qaida. The short shrift their proclamations were given on al-Ekhlass further underlined how even amongst their apparent peers they were viewed as being bullshit artists. If it does indeed turn out these three were responsible, then it will only likely further show the amateurish nature of the current "radicals" in this country.

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Thursday, August 21, 2008 

Understanding radicalisation.

The MI5 report "leaked" to the Guardian, titled Understanding radicalisation and violent extremism in the UK, does the reassuring job of telling you little which you didn't already know while confirming just that which you did.

Firstly, it makes clear the idea that there are a number of extremist preachers doing most of the radicalising, or even brainwashing is completely out of date, if it ever was the case. Rather, it's what a number of individuals have been arguing for quite some time: that those who become radicalised are often first exposed to extremist material online, become engaged in those communities, but also often have to have some sort of real world link to either a charismatic or popular local figure also versed in radical Islam. Once inside such small autonomous groupings, the emotional reward of belonging comes into play, giving meaning to a life which might have been up till then wholly lacking in it, with the other members almost becoming like an extended family, similar to criminal gangs.

Perhaps the ultimate example of this in action could be the 7/7 bombers. Whilst the ringleader of the 9/11 attacks, Mohamed Atta, has since been portrayed as an angry self-obsessed sexually frustrated, even constipated psychopath, almost the opposite is the case when you consider Mohammad Sidique Khan, the alleged 7/7 ringleader. On the face of it, MSK had everything to live for: his daughter had only just past her 1st birthday, he had previously worked as a teaching assistant and youth worker, and very few people generally had a bad word to say about him. He appears to have been conscientious, charismatic and well-liked; everything which ultimately led to those around him deciding to end their lives whilst murdering others around them.

The idea that MSK was after the promised 72 virgins for martyrs doesn't seem convincing when he was so clearly devoted both to his child and his wife; he was not, perhaps unlike the other bombers, stuck in dead-end, unrewarding jobs and so frustrated with his lot in life; and whilst he didn't talk about his religious beliefs to many people, he was certainly devout without being overbearing. He played the role of the gatherer, the charismatic leader which those around him looked up to and enjoyed the company of. The abiding image we have of him, outside of the few other video clips, including the one where he says goodbye, movingly, to his daughter, is the "martyrdom video" he recorded which was subsequently released by As-Sahab, al-Qaida's media arm. His self-serving justifications, now all too familiar, belie the man that he clearly was in private.

Also noted in the report that by no means are those who become radicalised well versed in Islam in its totality. Indeed, few are probably anywhere near as versed as this Islamist blogger suggests for training recruits, and that is mostly a collection of the familiar radical preachers. Probably closer would be the suggestions made by this forum inhabitant, both courtesy of the excellent Jihadica blog. While opinion is divided over whether Islam is inherently violent, and neither side should be dismissed out of hand, it's probably telling that those who have emerged from radical groups have done so only after they have properly assessed a far wider spectrum of theological thought, Ed Husain, Maajid Nawaz et al. Rachel North, who has more reason than most for wanting to get to the very bottom of what motivates radicalisation and subsequently terrorism, has reported that Atila Ahmet, one of those recently jailed as part of the "paintball jihad" had to be segregated from other extremists, due to his studies into Islam and renunication of his past beliefs.

Additionally left on the myth heap is the idea that all of those radicalised or involved in extremism are asylum seekers, when half of those evaluated by MI5 were born here, with the other half mostly immigrating here mainly for economic reasons, that poverty is not an issue, as shown by the amount of those stuck in "McJobs" despite in many cases having decent qualifications, and that only those who are "pure" in their past behaviour are eligible, is if that wasn't laughable enough considering the criminal schemes which those who have carried out attacks have indulged in. Also doubtful is the claim by one group which suggested that those raided often didn't have any pornography on their computers when they were searched; the report suggests that despite it being generally being considered haram to consume alcohol in Islam, some were drinkers, drug-takers and even used prostitutes, although again the 9/11 example of some of the attackers visiting a strip club the night before also should have put paid to that one. Some of this could perhaps be a result of the jihadis adopting the ideology of extremist groups such as Takfir wal-Hirja, whose members "blended in" by shaving their beards, drinking, etc, although again, it might just be that like everyone else, jihadis can't live up to their own moral standards and so can be seen as hypocrites.

There are a couple of things that do appear to be missing from the report however. There doesn't seem to be any mention, for example, of the role that foreign policy plays in the radicalisation progress. Whilst we should never fall into the trap of dismissing terrorism as being purely down to our own actions in countries considered Muslim states, it would be equally naive to dismiss the idea that it has no role whatsoever. Yet nowhere, at least in the Guardian report of the document, does it allude to our actions in either Afghanistan or Iraq, which seems strange, especially when you consider that the security services themselves warned that action in the latter would lead directly to an increase in attacks. Also, perhaps less suprisingly, there doesn't seem to be any reference to the security services' own role in helping radicalisation along. Only today we learn indisputably that MI5 were involved in the interrogation of Binyam Mohamed, currently languishing in Guantanamo and potentially facing execution, which led to his horrendous torture in both Pakistan and Morocco. Yesterday I mentioned the role of MI5 in the rendition of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna, both of whom had had direct relations with the service. This is without also mentioning the unsubtle actions of the police, for instance in the raid on Forest Gate, which contributes to the victimhood mentality which most certainly is a part of radicalisation. The report also makes clear that this is not just a mentality or illusion; racism, discrimination, inequality, "mainstream UK media coverage that perpetuates negative stereotypes of Muslims", all play a role which is heightened and repeated again and again until the only response is to strike back physically, with the religious ideology as the justification.

If all this suggests that the fight against terrorism and radicalisation is as infinitely complex as the process itself is, then it doesn't necessarily need to be so. What is clear is that the heavy-handed government approach is still at the moment part of the problem rather than the solution. Also unhelpful is the continuing demonisation of Islam as a whole, as shown recently by Peter Oborne (PDF). Instead, as if it wasn't already obvious, the fight has to be led from inside and within rather than from above. Organisations like the Quilliam Foundation are almost certainly part of the mix, although they could do with turning down the rhetoric a shade, or at least Ed Husain could. The security services need to end their complicity in torture and rendition, if they have not already. Subtlety, rather than constant new big initiatives and huge police operations, especially when accompanied by egregious exaggeration are also key.

If we exclude the apparent failed attempt by the convert in Exeter, then there hasn't been a major foiled plot or failed, serious attempt at a terrorist attack in this country now for over a year. The vast majority of those who do become radicalised in any case are mostly not interested in attacking Britain; their concerns are more with either fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan or any of the other current jihadi hot spots. The real worry might well be when those who have graduated from those "universities of terrorism" potentially return, and we can hardly say then that we were not in any way responsible for the blow-back.

Related:
Spy Blog - Whistleblower leak or propaganda briefing?

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008 

The political equivalent of Soylent Green.


There are two ways to look at George Osborne and the Tories' latest kite-flying exercise, this time on social justice, equality and fairness: you can accept that it takes a great degree of courage when very few dispute that under the Conservatives inequality sky-rocketed to levels which hadn't been seen since the early 70s, that it's the Tories recognising their past mistakes and moving onto the New Labour agenda; or you can just be staggered by the chutzpah from a group of politicians that don't seem to have any limits to how far they will go to prove that they really, honestly, truly care about subjects which they previously had very little time for.

On the basis of Osborne's article, it's difficult not to come to the second conclusion. It's with a piece with most of the recent articles by the Conservatives that have appeared in the Graun - big on rhetoric, minuscule on actual policy. The one thing that Osborne's has going for it is that unlike Oliver Letwin, who managed to write over 600 words without naming one specific policy, he actually suggests what the Tories would actually do were they to win power. The problem is that we've heard it all before multiple times, and indeed, some of it is what Yvette Cooper covered in her piece on Monday.

Instead, what we have is mostly the same old mood music, the speaking your weight which so grates, especially when it comes from someone like Osborne. This week's Private Eye, quoting from the Conservative document "A Failed Generation", dealing with the idea that schools have to be the "engines of social mobility - where talent and hard work, not background, determine success" notes that the self-same Conservative shadow cabinet which supposedly drew it up contains no less than 14 Old Etonians. Osborne himself is an Old Pauline. It's the sort of education you require to be to able say, without moments of doubt, that "after a long and bitter ideological argument over two centuries, ... the free market economy is the fairest way of rewarding people for their efforts." The new Conservatives however, being caring and sharing, now accept that "unfettered free markets are also flawed."

It would of course be lovely if the Conservatives had came to that conclusion, even if did further constrict the ideological space the three main parties are fighting over. Yet this sudden acknowledgement that unfettered free markets are also flawed seems to be incredibly opportunistic: only last year John Redwood announced his unreconciled belief in the "trickle down theory" and also proposed removing all the current "red tape" surrounding mortgages, right at the time when the unsustainable lunacy of 115% or higher mortgages has brought the likes of Northern Rock so low. In any case, Osborne doesn't actually say what the Tories would do to tame the free market; he only mentions a "robust framework". Yet isn't that exactly the red tape which the Conservatives and business so despise? He mentions also flexible working and a charge on non-domiciles, but with again without providing any details on either.

The same goes for redistribution, which Osborne believes has failed. The Conservatives, the supposed party of radical economic reform, or at least since the days of Thatcher, again don't offer an alternative here. As has been argued before here and elsewhere, the best possible alternative policy is to abolish tax credits and raise the lowest earners out of tax altogether, at the same time instituting a basic citizens' income and raising the top rates for the highest earners, or at least those of over £100,000 a year, and also cracking down far far harder on tax evasion, which by some estimates costs more than £25bn a year in lost revenue, far above that on benefit fraud and through overpayments on tax credits. All Osborne is offering are the same crackdowns on the sick and the unemployed, with an ever harsher regime that that envisioned under Purnell.

Osborne though perhaps really drops himself in it by mentioning fairness between generations. While this is a dig at the huge borrowing, it also brings to mind another tax change which the Tories have promised, that on inheritance. Their raising of threshold to £1 million is one of the only few firm pledges which the party has made, and while it goes down well in middle England, where most seem to be the under the impression that they'll be paying while it only affects 6%, and will even less considering the drop in house prices and the subsequent raises which the government has introduced, it will also mean a further drop in the receipts that the Conservatives will have to work with, as well as backing background rather talent and hard work throughout the generations.

You know full well though that none of this really matters. The Guardian's comment pages have only become more bulging with Tories of late because they think that they need to be slightly less dogmatic than in the past in order to dispense with the fusty old image of themselves not caring in the slightest about things like social mobility. It's also designed to annoy their own grassroots, exactly as New Labour and Tony Blair so often did. He seemed happiest not when he was fighting the opposite party, but instead his own backbenchers, because it so delighted the right-wing press. Here was someone who was doing their job for them, even if the policies were perhaps a bit to the left of what they would like. The difference here is that the promises are so vague as to be meaningless. No one for a moment believes that if Osborne becomes the next chancellor he'll be making many more speeches to the Demos thinktank; no, this is just another step in the public relations battle, the phony war between Labour and the Conservatives over who can occupy the tiniest piece of ground you've ever seen, situated somewhere to the right of centre on the political compass. Russia and Georgia has nothing on this.

Once again, the political choice we are left with, at the exact same time when the politicians themselves so emphasise choice in every sector but their own, is little to non-existent. Would you like James Purnell for your welfare policy Sir, with his slightly less sinister grin and tight fist, or would you prefer Chris Grayling, with his forced smile and glint in his eye? The British political scene really is an unpleasant, claustrophobic place to be in when the most attractive party looks, from here at least, to be the Liberal Democrats. And even their leader and their policies look to be degrading into the same mulch. Soylent Green for you Sir? Honestly, it's delicious.

Update: This has been posted over on Lib Con, where there are more comments. Tom Freemania also has an excellent fisk of the Conservative document underpinning Obsorne's article and speech.

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Dour.

Dour prime minister's team respond to a jokey petition with a jokey video that likely took all of 10 minutes to put together and cost precisely nothing. Dour bloggers and Tories respond by being more dour than the dourest man on Earth. World continues to turn while Dizzy's face goes a familiar shade of red.

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Scum-watch: What a difference a year makes part two.

Having wished that Jade Goody, described as ghastly and a vile pig-ignorant racist bully that will "hopefully now slither back under the rock from where she crawled", the Sun devotes not one, but two, three, four, five, six articles on her in today's paper, having helpfully been diagnosed as suffering from cancer during the silly season.

The paper's leader takes a remarkably different tone:

JADE Goody has upset some people in her meteoric career as a Big Brother celeb.

None less than a newspaper which decreed that the plebiscite for Jade to be kicked out of the Celebrity Big Brother house was the most important vote since the general election. There's nothing quite like a sense of perspective, is there?

But both critics and fans will wish her well as she arrives home from India to battle the Big C.

First to offer support was co-star Shilpa Shetty who put their “racism” clash aside and offered prayers for Jade’s recovery.


Ah, so the vile pig-ignorant racist is now so rehabilitated that the spat between Shetty and Goody can be described as "racism". Poppadom, anyone?


As The Sun has revealed, Jade’s first fear is not for herself but for her children.

The ex-dental nurse has spent her life beating the odds.

We believe her family will lend her the strength to win this struggle, too.


Indeed, she's succeeded in getting the Sun newspaper to change its mind, which is a very rare event. Isn't it incredible what cancer can do for you?

Elsewhere, we've discussed previously the incredibly strange fact that the Sun tends to big-up MySpace while it prints stories about Facebook which tend to be less positive, and today is no exception. The Sun Online editor has decided that this rather dull story about someone tracing his family through MurdochSpace is worthy of a position only slightly below the main stories. Considering it's not even written by a Sun hack, rather a "Staff Reporter", it's all a rather rum do.

And finally, the award for stinking hypocrisy goes too...

WELL-MEANING parents are wasting good money on so-called multi-vitamins.

It turns out they are little more than sweets with tiny levels of nutrients — and the only healthy thing is the manufacturers’ profits.

They should be thoroughly ashamed of playing on parents’ fears.


The Sun would of course never play on parents' fears:

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Alternative answers to asinine questions.

MI6 are apparently so desperate for operational officers that they've taken to advertising on the front page of the Grauniad.

The advert reads:

"There are three strangers in the room that you need on your side. How do you get them to warm to you?"

"Could you be an operational officer?"


"www.mi6officers.co.uk"


Well, failing getting them on your side, you could do what MI6 (SIS) and its sister organisation MI5 did in the cases of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna. Having confronted al-Banna at his home and failing to convince him to spy for them, MI5 subsequently informed the Americans that he and al-Rawi would be travelling to Gambia, and that they had a "electronic device" that could form part of an improvised explosive device, or as they're otherwise known, a bomb. What MI5 didn't tell the Americans was that this electronic device was, err, a battery charger from Argos. Still, that didn't bother the CIA too much. For them the pair's relationship with Abu Qatada was enough for them to be first flown to Bagram air base in Afghanistan, and then latterly to Guantanamo, where they "stayed" for four years.

Whether the MI6 hierarchy would regard that as another acceptable option should you apply remains to be seen.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008 

Piffle.

Finally, a politician has the guts to challenge David Cameron over our "Broken Society":

If you believe the British press, the youth of today is aimless, feckless and hopeless, addicted to their PlayStations, lacking in respect and lacking in the emotional discipline needed to cope with a big match occasion.

If you believe the politicians, we have a broken society, in which the courage and morals of young people have been sapped by welfarism and political correctness.

And if you look at what is happening at the Beijing Olympics, you can see what piffle that is. Do not adjust your set: that really is a collection of smiling, well-balanced young British people, giving pleasingly self-deprecating accounts of how they have managed to haul in medal after medal after medal.


Which politically correct left-wing lunatic dares to be so optimistic in the face of such overwhelming evidence of how awful and atomised we are? Err, Boris Johnson. Doubtless he will be swiftly treated to a re-education session courtesy of CCHQ and Andy Coulson.

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Maddie-balls: the public joins in.

I'm not sure whether to laugh hysterically at this story or do the diametric opposite:

When two British tourists spotted a woman leading a child with long blonde hair on the Croatian holiday island of Krk, they immediately thought it was Madeleine McCann.

The couple became even more convinced that the youngster was the missing Briton after secretly taking a couple of photographs.

So when the adult leading the child was not looking, the British woman grabbed the youngster's arm.

It was only then that she realised the child not only wasn't Madeleine, it wasn't even a little girl.

To make matters worse, the boy's father is a famous Croatian footballer and his mother - who was with him at the time - is a renowned glamour model.

...

Their son Leone has long blond hair like Madeleine's, but the similarity ends there - he is even six months younger than the missing three-year-old.


It really does have everything - gorgeous pouting glamour model, the irony of a couple attempting to snatch a child they believe is Our Maddie, and just to rub it in, it turns out the child isn't even female. I can't exactly comment on tastelessness involving the McCann case, but it's also incredibly questionable to have a photograph of Drpic posing alongside one of Madeleine in a similar position, almost comparing them in the style that the Mail has chosen.

The report does though illustrate in the starkest fashion the sort of hysteria which the McCann case has inspired, all of it only exacerbated by the splashing on front pages of children who look slightly similar to "Maddie" when seen from a distance. One moment the newspapers and the McCanns themselves are encouraging everyone to "keep looking for Maddie" and saying that "every sighting raises awareness", then when the inevitable happens and someone almost takes the law into their own hands, it's only thanks to an understanding and already famous couple used to attention that a situation didn't turn out to be as unpleasant as it could have been.

You have to leave it to a commenter to make a stupid situation look understandable by comparison:

A 2 year old boy mistaken for a 5 year old girl? How long before paedophiles everywhere are using the excuse of "we thought it was Madddie" when they attempt to snatch a child? How long before some idiot does grab a child from their parents and hurts them?

- Dee, East Midlands, 18/8/2008 14:51


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What a difference a year makes...


TONIGHT is a moment of truth for Britain.

Out of nowhere, a Channel 4 show watched by a few million has erupted from being a bit of a laugh to a defining moment in the way Britain is seen by the rest of the world.

Make no mistake. Much more hangs on tonight’s Celebrity Big Brother eviction vote than the issue of whether Jade Goody or Shilpa Shetty stays in the house.

At stake is whether we are happy to be seen as a nation willing to tolerate vile bullying and foul-mouthed yobbishness.

That is why The Sun urges every reader who loves Britain to pick up a phone and make sure the ghastly Jade Goody is kicked out tonight.



SANITY has prevailed. Thank Heaven for that. Jade Goody went into the Big Brother house appearing to be simply a fun-loving working-class girl canny enough to have made millions from her 15 minutes of fame. It was all a meticulously manufactured lie. She has left the house with her true personality laid bare: A vile, pig-ignorant, racist bully consumed by envy of a woman of superior intelligence, beauty and class. Incredible as it may seem, last night’s vote was the most important in Britain since the last General Election.

...

Hopefully Jade will now slither back under the rock from where she crawled before her debut on Big Brother in 2002.

And so, 18 months later:




Get well Jade: Your messages

PLEASE post your messages of support and goodwill for BB legend Jade Goody


Whether once Jade has recovered from her cancer scare she'll be required to crawl back under her rock again, or once the silly season is over, whichever comes first, is entirely at the whim of Rebekah Wade.

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