Friday, December 31, 2010 

Best music of 2010 part 2 / 10 best albums.

10. VA - Rinse 11 - Mixed by Oneman

At times, some things just come together. Oneman first got noticed mixing old UK garage with the very best of modern dubstep; now more than any other DJ he collects all that's best of the various permutations of UK bass music and fuses them together with absolutely impeccable turntable, or more accurately Serato skills. While his compilation for the Rinse series doesn't quite capture the true essence of his show on the station, not that it ever could without the dulcet tones of Asbo being present, it's the best summation of all that was evolving in the scene this year.

VA - Fabriclive 50 - dBridge and Instra:mental present Autonomic

With drum and bass for the most part continuing its increasingly depressing journey up its own arse, the likes of even the formerly reliable Hospital Records releasing the most common denominator electro-influenced trash, Fabric handing over their landmark 50th "live" release to dBridge and Instra:mental's sparse yet often hauntingly evocative 170bpm Autonomic movement was as welcome as it was potentially a risk. Any doubts over whether or not it properly works either in a club setting or as a 70-minute mix without the influences it sits alongside on the Autonomic podcasts are dispelled almost as soon as the magisterial Seems Like by Riya begins floating from the speakers, and it only gets better from there on in.

DJ Nate - Da Trak Genious

In a year in which juke and footwork inspired and influenced UK bass music's biggest stars, Planet Mu went and collected together the tracks from some of the scene's stalwarts, putting out albums from Nate and DJ Roc as well as curating the Bangs and Works compilation. Juke/footwork is certainly an acquired taste: its repetitive nature, even by the standards of dance music, is always going to leave some cold, as will the often jarring or occasionally vulgar samples used. At its best it comes close to hypnotic and enveloping, something that this collection of Nate's productions achieves repeatedly.

Actress - Splazh

Pigeon-holing Actress, aka Darren Cunningham, is an almost impossible task. He's featured twice on the Autonomic comp listed above, yet techno more than anything is the bind for this entire album, alongside the sub-bass pushes which permeate many of the tracks. Also high on the list of the influences is late 70s disco and 80s funk, as featured previously on the 12"s released under the Thriller pseudonym. To quote from Todd L. Burn's
Resident Advisor review, Splazh isn't so much post-dubstep as some have labelled it, it's more post-everything. In a field that is incredibly diverse, Actress is still out there all but on his own.

Clubroot - II

Comparing Clubroot with Burial is close to being considered de rigueur, so there's no reason to alter that here. The key difference is that where Burial came from garage with jungle influences, Clubroot first produced Ed Rush and Optical style drum and bass before falling in love with dubstep. What both share is their ability to capture emotions through little more than beats and short vocal samples: their music can be just as mournful and downbeat as it can cathartic. Dan Richmond's second album continues where his first left off, revealing something new on every successive listen.

5. Guido - Anidea

Dubstep as a movement may have come straight out of Croydon, yet there's also been a separate section running in Bristol, another musical city, for almost as long. Alongside Joker and Gemmy, those other adherents of the riff and melody heavy variant dubbed "purple", Guido has been the first to put an album's worth of material together, and it ranks up there with the very best of the year. Mad Sax alone is worthy of the plaudits the whole has received, a track so beautifully simple in execution yet so multiply layered as to continue surprising time and again, while Beautiful Complication featuring Aarya is the kind of song that with the right promotion could surely hit the charts. That seems to be the last thing on Guido's mind, to his credit and to the wider listening public's loss.

Digital Mystikz (Mala) - Return II Space

Few releases were as anticipated this year as this triple pack from the legendary Mala. If as Martin Clark thinks there isn't much mileage left in dark 140bpm halfstep beats, then there's also no one else really left making '06 style dubstep other than Mala, one of the very few people to have had such a major hand in the popularisation of the genre. Finally pressed to wax were the incredible Mountain Dread March and Eyez, the former of which just keeps building and building and building, while the latter's drop has to rank among the most teasing of any tune. In terms of pure scene impact, nothing else has even come close.

Ikonika - Contact, Love, Want, Have

Nominated for the Guardian's first album prize, Contact, Love Want, Have is by far the most cohesive ostensibly dubstep album of the year. In truth Ikonika no longer herself thinks that she's a part of the genre, and now is mainly playing at 130 rather than 140, yet her eye for melody is the same regardless of the tempo of the music. Her crushed, 8-bit inspired sound comes into its own throughout, especially on the wonderful Idiot, while the puzzlingly named Psoriasis is impossible not to love for its neon, rhythmic groove, before Look (Final Boss Stage) once again fuses the two key elements of her music together in inimitable fashion.

These New Puritans - Hidden

You'll have noticed this is the only even slightly "indie" release on this entire inane list. The key reasons for why is that the only even semi-decent indie rock now seems to be coming out of America, in the form of the National and No Age to name but two, and also because simply nothing else this year has sounded even slightly like Hidden. That's also doubtless its problem, as reviewers and those commenting have pointed out: you can admire it, but not necessarily love it and keep coming back to it. Even if you can't take the whole to your heart, We Want War and Attack Music are pure statements of intent, as thrilling, punishing and powerful as any music of the past decade.

1. Scuba - Triangulation

While Ikonika's album might work best as a whole, Paul Rose's Triangulation is the summation of 2010 in bass music terms. From the clicks and pops of the intro to Latch, the vocal samples spread throughout the stepping push of Three Sided Shape, the woodblock hits of Tracers to the breakdown of So You Think You're Special, nothing else has had the same clinical hit or the sheer ruthless production skills behind it. Whatever 2011 brings, Triangulation will be incredibly difficult to outdo.

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Thursday, December 30, 2010 

Best music of 2010 part 1.

Best Song / Track (Yes, I'm going for two as a cop-out):
James Blake - CMYK
Girl Unit - Wut

At the end of 2010 dubstep in its original form at least as a mutation of the darker side of UK garage looks to be close to running out of ideas. When no less a person than Martin "Blackdown" Clark, someone around from the very beginning and who has chronicled the scene's growth like no one else wonders just how much mileage there is remaining in "dark 140bpm halfstep beats" the end does indeed seem to be nigh. This has been especially reflected in how there really hasn't been a "true" dubstep track from this year to have united the deeper DJs and those who tend to favour the more aggressive side of the genre, as Hyph Mngo by Joy Orbison did to such great success last year.

One thing that has flowed through this year's biggest tracks has been the influence of Chicago's own mutant variation on house, Juke, whether directly in Addison Groove's Footcrab and Ramadanman's Work Them, both released on Loefah's Swamp 81 imprint, or slightly less obviously in both CMYK and Wut. While CMYK pays just as great a debt to R&B (it samples both Kelis and Aaliyah), it's the distortion of the vocals, cut up and repeated throughout to euphoric effect along with the outstanding eye for melody that Blake has that make it such an astonishing piece of music. Wut pays tribute in equal measure to early rave, complete with airhorns, while remaining indelibly despite its influences a dubstep track at heart. If such tunes are dubstep's future (especially if this is the alternative) then while the straight-up halfstep that introduced so many to it will be mourned, there's no reason whatsoever to resist the progression.

Best Remix:
Magnetic Man - Perfect Stranger (dBridge Remix)

2010 hasn't been an exactly stellar year for remixes, with there certainly being nothing to match the sheer simplicity, brilliance and majesty of Skream's perfect reworking of In for the Kill. We did finally get our hands on the simply staggering Burial remix of Commix's Be True, although as it's been knocking around for nigh on 2 years it doesn't somehow seem right to recognise it as this year's best. The last couple of weeks oddly have seen some of the best material released: Pearson Sound's (aka Ramadanman) refix of M.I.A's It Takes a Muscle, French Fries' astounding edit of One Thing by Amerie, and Kryptic Minds' tightening of the already highly taut Afterlife by Lung.

Only dBridge then could have taken Magnetic Man's Perfect Stranger, mentioned yesterday in the round-up of 2010's most disappointing, and turned it into a truly outstanding pop song. Making Katy B not sound whiny is difficult enough; to have taken her vocals and arranged them in such a way as to bring out the beauty hidden within is close to requiring the power and skill to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. That feat alone is worthy of a prize.

Best Reissue:
The Fall - The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall - Omnibus Edition

No real competition for Beggars Banquet's painstakingly complete 4-disc box set of the Fall's 8th studio album. The album itself remastered, all the singles, b-sides and rough mixes collected, BBC sessions from the time, a complete live set from a festival, a 50-page booklet stuffed with interviews and memories and best of all, available at a sensible price. Roll on the similar treatment due for This Nation's Saving Grace.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010 

Most disappointing and worst music of 2010.

Writing this post at the end of every year, I'm beginning to feel a little like I imagine the Queen must do preparing her Christmas message; how exactly am I going to say the same damn thing while making it sound different? There is, after all, only so many times you can mention just how good a year it's been for the Commonwealth and get away with it. The same goes for attempting to explain just how shit almost all mainstream music is.

For if last year was when the music industry's chickens came home to roost, this must have been the twelve months in which they had their necks wrung. Take a look at the various "best of" end of year critics' choices, and what becomes immediately apparent? Not only is there a massive paucity of "indie" bands representing our septic isle, but there's also hardly any debut records to speak of. There surely can't be a better sign of the oblivion just around the corner than the end of almost any financing or backing of artists that aren't a carbon copy of what's already well known and has sold well.

Some will doubtless argue this is a direct result of rampant piracy, or just a creative blip, rather than the music industry going from one outrageous extreme in pricing to another in such a short period of time. The truth is that there's still plenty of money to be made out there should the record companies be bothered to do so, even if the expense accounts of talent scouts are not what they once were. No, it's just far easier and cheaper to either wait for them, especially via the likes of The X Factor, to come to you or to simply jump as ever on the latest passing bandwagon. Hence the biggest breakthroughs of this year have been variously, Eliza Doolittle, ripping off Lily Allen, Plan B, going the Amy Winehouse route after his debut bombed, Professor Green, treading the already well worn path of other grime artists going pop and becoming so insipid as to be deserving of being put down, and Ellie Goulding, who's so bland that it's almost difficult to get worked up about her. I say almost as if I hear that fucking tuneless, monotonous and cretinous cover of Your Song one more time, I might just have to pierce both my eardrums with a knitting needle.

The overall outlook does in fact seem remarkably similar to that of around 11 years ago. The bands deemed to be Britpop had run out of ideas, the manufactured boy and girl groups were finding their audience was growing up fast, and into the breach stepped trance and UK garage. While this time round there doesn't seem to be an obvious successor to the "wasps in a jar" trance sound of 1998/99, UK garage has both the already mentioned grime acts and now also potentially dubstep artists waiting to crossover, both genres having emerged from the wreckage of a movement which collapsed under its own contradictions.

Even here though it's apparent just how much has changed in the decade long interim. Whereas the majority of UK garage acts which briefly flourished did so on the back of either their DJing or completely independent productions which were then signed by the major labels, this time round we have the likes of Katy B. Katy, almost entirely predictably, has emerged from the exact same set-up which has given us Adele, Kate Nash, The Kooks and La Winehouse, having been prepared for greatness by the BRIT school. In fairness to Ms B, she has unlike most of her contemporaries finished a degree (albeit in that most testing of academic subjects, popular music) and has signed to the thoroughly independent label ran by the formerly pirate Rinse FM, a station which deserves much of the credit for putting dubstep in the position it currently is, yet it's still difficult to give her the kudos which the likes of Ms Dynamite deserve, having established herself through MCing.

In one other respect she does share something with those who have gone before her, having had her vocals thrown glibly over an already produced instrumental. While Katy's efforts gel well with Benga's On a Mission, it can't be said that she's either the world's greatest singer or that her lyrics ever rise anything above either the mundane or, as on her work on the two tracks on Magnetic Man's album showcases, the completely execrable.

Magnetic Man for their part are the other example of how the music industry seems to be repeating the mistakes of the past. Comprising of two of dubstep's foremost producers and DJs, Skream and Benga, along with the even more experienced Artwork, they first performed together as part of an arts council funded project, before being signed by Columbia at the end of last year and given around six weeks to produce an album. Quite what orders if any the major label gave them are unknown, but the end result of that six weeks was an album so thoroughly underwhelming that it's difficult to shake the feeling that the pressure of working under the confined conditions got to all three. The lead single, I Need Air, an attempt to meld the traditional dubstep beat pattern with trance-like elements would have been an honourable failure if it hadn't been for the addition of Angela Hunte's vocals. Auto-tuned to oblivion, the lyrics hardly helping, they turned something that would have worked in the right settings into something all but unlistenable. The same pattern is repeated throughout the album's tracks: The Bug, which would have made for a decent instrumental is completely ruined by the auto-tuned vocals which sound ominously like the Black Eyed Peas at their worst, Boiling Water features a totally unrecognisable Sam Frank (oddly enough, an example of decent use of auto-tune is his contribution to Skream's solo album on Where You Should Be) while Ms Dynamite goes through the motions on Fire. The one moment where they truly get their act together, the amen-led Perfect Stranger, Katy B duly turns up and warbles the track to death. Even by her standards the lyrics are terrible:

Are you from another world
I never seen someone who looks like you
Beautiful stranger how do you do?
Tell me is there something I can do for you

The same is true of Crossover, where it's difficult to know what to make of the main refrain:

Crossover and come inside

Quite. Most indicative of all is that the other best track, Mad, was given away free and in an extended version to the one on the album before its release, a wonderful example of the contempt still shown on occasion towards the customer.

While it's difficult to see dubstep achieving the same overall chart success as UK garage briefly did, especially without it fracturing in a similar fashion (although arguably it already has), anything would be preferable to the continuing stranglehold which acts either from The X Factor or endorsed by the programme have over it. The Daily Mail had a hypocritical fit over Rihanna performing in her scanties on the show when the really offensive thing about it was just how awful she was and the song is. Even worse is the assault on the ears of Only Girl (In the World), which seems to be an attempt to outdo the stridency of even the most over-the-top Florence and the Machine track, except set to the most unexceptional of electronic backdrops.

Indeed, the biggest indictment of the state of music at the end of 2010 is that a boy band group put together with the most cynical of motives back in 1990 are not only top of the album chart, but also deserving of being there when compared with their competitors. This is a world in which the original version of the Christmas number one by the X Factor winner, still a fairly dismal song yet vastly superior to the cover can only reach number 8 before plummeting down to 25 the next week. Resistance really does seem to be futile.

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Friday, December 24, 2010 

It's the most miserable time of the year...


Thanks as always to those few still reading and humouring my pitiful mutterings. It really does mean a lot. Back at some point next week with the usual end of year gubbins, despite Mr Vowl's best efforts to put the mockers on it.

Keep it foolish.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010 

Frankie Boyle and Channel 4 are trolling you.

Like pretty much everyone else, I enjoyed Frankie Boyle on Mock the Week. He made what would otherwise just be another comedy panel show into something that could still surprise you. And now, much like everyone else, it's obvious that the confines of Mock the Week, with him playing off the other people and seeing their reactions to his forays into the outrageous, as well as the editors playing more than their part, were what kept him from crossing the invisible line between being humorous and offensive and just being criminally unfunny.

It's therefore ironic that one of the very few parts of his Tramadol Nights' shows which was both amusing and rising above either going for the easy targets or recycling old material has nowbeen picked out as being beyond the pale. Anyone watching or even reading what he said can see that it was intended as a satire on the news media's attitudes to our involvement in Afghanistan, where "our" dead always come in front of "their" dead, as was his riff on the Ministry of Defence formerly being known as the Ministry of War when racist attitudes most certainly were much in evidence, including from such now sainted figures as Churchill. Some will argue that any use of racial epithets regardless of context helps to normalise them, enabling them to be more easily thrown in streets and playgrounds, and while on occasion they can have something resembling a point, I don't think that's the case in this instance.

Whether Boyle is deliberately trying to get a rise out of the modern media through his act is more questionable. The other gag complained about on the first of Tuesday's TN episodes has been shorn completely of its context, its introduction being Boyle in the guise of a documentary presenter first quoting Oscar Wilde, then asking what "really" is right and what is wrong. Only then do we get someone dressed as Super Mario dancing suggestively while an hand masturbates a mushroom until it ejaculates gold coins, with Mario then saying "hello to Pakis everywhere!", before returning to the head who decides that was wrong. That, far more than the more complained about above references seems more likely to be quoted or used out of context. Notably, the canned laughter (or laughter recorded from the audience) is fairly timid in response.

Indeed the really offensive thing about TN is that Channel 4, apparently having seen what Boyle had produced, decided that it was good enough to show and defend so robustly. Not because it's so beyond the pale in content that it's unacceptable, as comedy should never be considered, but as it just smacks of complete and utter laziness and Boyle not even bothering to try. How could they have watched it and not said to him that it was unbroadcastable in its current form as it was simply terrible?

There are whole sketches where he and the production staff seem to have forgotten to put any jokes in, such as the reimagining of the A Team if they really had been Vietnam veterans,
the Thomas the Tank Engine parody, where the manager (not the Fat Controller, in case lawyers got involved) forces the trains to fellate him (if that sounds like an almost amusing idea, as it does written down, you need to see the sketch to be disabused of such a notion) or the almost unfathomable one where Boyle shoots one person after another before walking off and leading a "normal" life.

Other funny if obvious ideas are stretched out to absurd lengths, like the Wonder Woman gag where when she lassos someone with her "truth rope", forcing them to tell her what they know finishing after an interminable couple of minutes with her jerking off Superman. It's almost as if they've had to do so not because they genuinely think the humour can last the duration, but to instead make up for the pilfering of material from Boyle's stage shows which mainly makes up the short stand-up portions. That the audience, presumably given free tickets doesn't seemed obliged to laugh as much as when they probably first heard the material isn't a surprise.

Here's what most likely happened. Channel 4 saw the programmes, knew for a fact despite the awfulness of much of the content that it would receive complaints, meaning free publicity, and stuck them on waiting for the inevitable to happen. They've got their wish. As for Tramadol Nights being "cutting edge" as described by Channel 4 in defensive of the programme, it could be considered cutting edge perhaps if you're 14 and haven't seen Sesame Street or Muppets characters being offensive before; not when you know that Frankie Boyle could do so much better if he was motivated enough by his producers to do so. Insulting your audience usually only works when you do it for the first couple of minutes; stretching it out to 24 minutes times six is much more risky.

(P.S. As noted by Private Eye this week, try and find any mention of the controversy over Tramadol Nights in the Sun, either this latest outbreak of phony apoplexy or the Katie Price gag in an earlier show. Strangely, you won't. This is entirely unconnected with Boyle writing a column for the paper.)

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010 

Shorter Sun editorial on Vince Cable.

(The original follows below, as Sun editorials are not properly archived.)

The first duty of a Government (sic) Business Secretary is to be partial and sycophantic towards Rupert Murdoch.

Vince Cable displayed neither of these qualities in his rant against News Corporation's attempt to buy the shares in BSkyB it does not already own.

By stripping from Cable his important media responsibilities and handing them to the culture secretary Mr Jeremy Cunt, someone who has shamelessly brown nosed us, the normal equilibrium of Government (sic) has been restored. For this we give thanks to the quick thinking of David Cameron and his fluffer, Nick Clegg.

Instead of prancing around on the BBC, Vince Cable should just fuck off.

THE first duty of a Government Business Secretary is impartiality and fairness.

Vince Cable displayed neither in his rant against News Corporation's attempt to buy the shares in BSkyB it does not already own.

It was a massive misjudgment by a minister in a post that demands rigorous objectivity.

News Corporation is The Sun's parent company, so we declare an interest.

But the issue is not whether Mr Cable likes our company but whether he was capable of doing his job properly when by his own admission he is so biased.

The principle would be the same for any company upon which the Business Secretary was sitting in judgment.

For a Cabinet minister to talk of launching a "war" against a firm just to satisfy his own private agenda was disgraceful.

For the punishment to fit the crime, Mr Cable should have been at the very least demoted.

Instead, the Business Secretary has clung on but been stripped of his important media responsibilities.

At least by letting him stay in the Cabinet - on the principle of keeping your friends close but your enemies closer - David Cameron stops Mr Cable rocking the Coalition boat from outside.

Foolish Mr Cable has only himself to blame for his humiliation.

On Saturday he will be clowning around on TV's Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special.

After that, perhaps it'll be time for the Business Secretary to Foxtrot Oscar.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010 

He fought the war and the war won.

The Vince Cable "going to war with Murdoch" furore is one of those wonderful occasions in politics where absolutely everyone, with the exception of the person at the centre of the storm is in the wrong.

Seeing as the Telegraph kicked the whole thing off, we may as well start with them. There really is something desperately pathetic and certainly unethical about sending round hacks posing as constituents, not to expose any kind of serious wrongdoing but to instead just to secretly record gossip which can then be splashed on the front page for a cheap story in the run up to Christmas. Reading the censored transcript you can even note that Cable asked for what he was saying to not be quoted which the Telegraph completely ignored, something it would have almost certainly followed had he been talking freely to journalists. Rather than this being Cable spouting nonsense, boasting or showing off as the likes of Julian Glover have put it, it was instead him being perhaps indiscreet with two people he thought were Liberal Democrat voters. At worst he's exaggerating his influence and power in claiming he'd be able to bring down the coalition as a nuclear option by resigning, and very few politicians are guilty of humility. It's not even as if Cable said anything as originally reported by the Telegraph which the more enterprising journalist couldn't have found out and written up, even if without direct attribution; there are disagreements in any government, and anyone who isn't completely signed up to the Cameron agenda can see that their numerous reforms are going much too far far too quickly. These are hardly original thoughts, even coming from a minister.

Quite why then the Telegraph decided to omit Cable's one notable and arguably deserving of public knowledge comment, that he was going to war against Rupert Murdoch over the proposed News Corporation takeover of BSkyB, only for a "whistleblower" (read: disgruntled Telegraph hack) to leak the complete transcript to Robert Peston is a mystery, or rather isn't. Unless the Telegraph was holding it back for tomorrow's paper, something no one seems to believe, even though they have more secretly recorded conversations with MPs, then the only reason it decided not to include it is for the reason that they would have rather had someone as business secretary apparently prepared to block the takeover which they themselves oppose than say, Jeremy (C)Hunt, whose views on the constricting nature of our media ownership laws are already on record. It's a wonderful insight into how journalism, even on what used to be known as the broadsheets works: self-interest trumps everything else, including a politician potentially abusing his power.

The problem with that view is that the idea that politicians ever make decisions on their merits rather than either ideology or short-term advantage is fairly laughable. Vince Cable would have been absolutely right to block Murdoch's bid to fully own Sky on the grounds that he already has enough of a stranglehold over our media, regardless of what the European Commission thinks, even if he was against the takeover as a matter of principle. If you want a truly independent decision made, rather than just a "quasi-judicial one", as the business secretary's oversight was until today so deliciously referred to, then give it either to a judge or a quango rather than a politician. All that's been achieved by moving media and telecoms policy from the Department of Business to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is a passing of the buck, albeit one which will delight both Murdoch and the Conservatives themselves, safe in the knowledge that Hunt rather than Cable can be relied upon to make the right decision.

That, more than anything, is the real lesson from today's antics. You simply can't be in any variety of government and be against Murdoch, let alone threaten to go to war against him, especially if you favour not having your voicemail messages listened in to. This is exactly why we've had the miserable sight of both Ed Miliband and John Denham rushing out to condemn Cable, even as Labour gets chewed to pieces in the Sun, as they still believe that one day it'll be their turn to bask once again in the warm glow of Murdoch media support.

As for the coalition itself, both Cameron and Clegg know only too well that Cable is the only remaining Liberal Democrat fig leaf in the cabinet. Removing him would have exposed Clegg and his main cronies entirely, something he simply couldn't countenance. Cameron will probably be secretly delighted; the decision over BSkyB given to Hunt to wave through, Cable emasculated and the prospect of having a true believer in David Laws ready to step in once he's been given the all clear. The real worries, as from the very beginning, remain with Clegg, knowing full well that should the coalition fall apart it's his party that'll suffer, not the Conservatives. Should Cable return to the backbenches he could well lead the discontent within the party, something that for now at least has been postponed. Whether that possibility becomes an inevitability remains to be seen.

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Monday, December 20, 2010 

Time for al-Qaida to move into cloud seeding.

It almost wouldn't be Christmas in the 21st century if there wasn't the spectre of exploding brown people lurking in the background. This war on Christmas, much like the fictional separate one waged by secularists and politically correct loons in council offices up and down the country has in the past mostly been fought by politicians rather than actual combatants: back in 2006 John Reid (remember him?) warned that an attack over the holiday was highly likely, while a year later Jacqui Smith (remember her?) went one better and claimed that there could be a "dirty bomb" strike against the nation. Somehow the country went on with its business and the jihadists failed to stop jolly old St. Nick from descending down chimneys worldwide.

Following Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab starting a party in his pants to which no one else was invited on Christmas Day last year, not to mention the cargo bomb plot and the failed attack in Stockholm earlier in the month, we have to take things much more seriously. Hence presumably today's raids in Cardiff, Stoke, Birmingham and London, which John Yates (remember him?) has described as "absolutely necessary". In a way, this is an improvement over the pronouncements made in the past by police chiefs, who alongside politicians have done their best before anything has so much has been found to impress upon everyone how if they hadn't acted hundreds if not thousands of people would have shortly found their limbs separated from their bodies.

It does however also hardly inspire confidence that the police and security services are completely certain of the information they're acting upon. If you need to say disrupting an apparent plot is "absolutely necessary", it's almost as if they're expecting the coming criticism after those arrested are released without charge. Almost forgotten are the raids in Manchester in April of last year, when no less than Gordon Brown informed the nation that a "very big plot" had been foiled, only for no charges against those arrested to be forthcoming. The Americans have since come to our rescue somewhat, requesting the extradition of Abid Naseer, who earlier in the year had won his appeal against being deported to Pakistan. It says something about the differences between our two nations that while we failed to even attempt to make any charges against him stick, the US seeks him over "conspiracy to use a destructive device", on the same grounds presumably as the Times Square bomber is facing jail time over "attempting to use a weapon of mass destruction".

Whether lessons have been learned from past investigations that have ended up looking ignominious is dubious to say the least. Already those same old "security sources" are out briefing, with even the normally staid Guardian suggesting that Whitehall and "shoppers and/or revellers" in the West Midlands were the targets, potentially reprising their past glories in talking absolute nonsense to all too credulous hacks.

My cynicism is hopefully misplaced, and a serious, dangerous threat to the public could well have been stopped in its tracks. It's difficult though to come to any other conclusion that rather than continuing to depend on explosives, al-Qaida should look into acquiring some silver iodide rockets as used by China; all you need is about six inches of snow to bring the country to a grinding halt. Merry Christmas.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010 

Scientist launches...

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Friday, December 17, 2010 

Burying bad news? Never!

It's good to see that regardless of the political shade of government, unpopular decisions still get mysteriously announced on Friday afternoons when the hope is that almost no one will notice.

As far as almost inevitable compromises go, the decision to give those serving prison sentences of less than 4 years the franchise seems to be about the best that could have been hoped for. Certainly, it would have been far fairer to either allow the judge to decide who should and shouldn't be denied the vote at the time of sentencing, although that leaves things very much on his whim and could also lead to countless cases of those told they won't be allowed the vote challenging the decision when others given similar or even the same term have been, or alternatively to give the vote to everyone not sentenced to life. This might also save time and further expense: as the Heresiarch points out, the more recent Frodl case decided by the European Court of Human Rights makes clear they favour either of the two aforementioned solutions, leaving the door wide open for a further legal challenge. Whether the court will be prepared to rule against a piece of legislation specifically designed to deal with their judgement remains to be seen.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010 

A proper, rational debate on drug policy is exactly what we can't have.

Did anyone actually know that Bob Ainsworth was once drugs minister, or more accurately, a under-secretary at the Home Office? I sure as hell didn't. Admittedly, it was in the far off mists of Labour's second term, between 2001 and 2003, when there were more immediately pressing issues than the government's drug policy, yet I don't think anyone really remembered until he reminded everyone today in the most praiseworthy of circumstances.

Whether Ainsworth is the most senior former minister to come out publicly and call for the decriminalisation of all drugs (he hasn't called for the legalisation of heroin for example, legalisation and decriminalisation often being confused when they are completely separate proposals) certainly is debatable. Best known for his recent stint as defence secretary, he's probably held the highest office of state, but is most likely less well known than either Mo Mowlam, who called for legalisation in 2002, or Clare Short, whom I'm fairly certain has also done so although I can't find any authoritative sources backing that up. The real point is more that Ainsworth, probably about as a traditional Labour MP as you could find, has become convinced of the need to end drug prohibition.

Equally uncertain is Professor David Nutt's claim that most politicians are of the same view and are simply too terrified of the potential implications and difficulties of altering almost 40 years of successive government drug policy is much harder to tell. Certainly, the reasons for not doing so could hardly be more vividly shown than by the media coverage of recent years, firstly over the downgrading of cannabis to a Class C substance and the subsequent, successful campaign for it be made Class B again, with not just the likes of the Daily Mail scaremongering over the supposed increased potency of the drug and link with schizophrenia but the broadsheet press also joining in, and secondly this year's short-lived moral panic over meow meow, with apparently almost every schoolchild in the country taking it, necessitating an instant ban as advocated by the Sun. If anything, it's the few journalists that are convinced they're reflecting the views of their readership that are now more opposed to reform than most politicians are, who tend to be much better briefed and acquainted with the consequences of prohibition, not to mention the futility of the revolving-door that exists in the criminal justice system as a direct result of addiction and desperation.

Again, while polls have shown public support for a fairly draconian drug prohibition policy, this is partially the result of ignorance and press coverage, not to mention the role of government in promoting the myth that illegal drugs are inherently dangerous regardless of how and when they're taken. It's also increasingly clear that attitudes towards drugs are generational, with most boomers, despite having been those who first most widely used the now illegal substances being in favour of their current legal status. Few younger people hold the same views, although whether they will turn against liberalisation as they age in a similar fashion remains to be seen. The fact is though that most political discussion of drugs, especially those less harmful, has generally moved on from condemnation and bothering to argue that the use of them in itself a very bad thing to the even more pathetic suggestion that discussing legalisation or decriminalisation in itself is unhelpful because it sends the "wrong message". This was basically the line taken by the government when it ignored the advice of the ACMD to downgrade Ecstasy to Class C, and is also exactly what was spouted today by Ed Miliband when asked his opinion of Ainsworth's view.

The hypocrisy of this is especially apparent when anonymous briefings are given rubbishing Ainsworth for so much as raising the point while the party itself welcomes him for starting a debate, as Hopi Sen does here. It's impossible to have a debate when politicians themselves refuse to consider any alternative to the current policy, which is what both Conservative and Labour spokesmen did today without addressing any of the actual wider points he made, or indeed misrepresenting them as James Brokenshire did.

One of those was that the new government strategy on drugs announced last week wasn't different from what had gone before as claimed except in that it was worse. Rather than reducing harm, which has been the mantra ever since the Misuse of Drugs Act was first passed, the new strategy is built around the three themes of reducing demand, which no government has ever succeeded in doing through criminalisation, restricting supply, which is one of the worst things you can possibly do as it increases prices, leading to more acquisitive crime and to those addicted becoming more desperate and so likely to cause even more damage to themselves and those around them by looking for alternatives, and finally building recovery, which is made all the more difficult by treating addicts as criminals instead of needing help. The current government then doesn't just want to avoid a debate on ending the drugs war, it wants to intensify it. When it's the most unusual suspects calling for an end to the status quo, we might finally be able to start building an effective opposition to just those plans.

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010 

Opaque consultations and Andrew Lansley's NHS reforms.

As political U-turns go, the Liberal Democrat about face on tuition fees has absolutely nothing on the promise made in the coalition agreement that the new government would not indulge in top-down reorganisations of the NHS. The full pact between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives was published on the 20th of May; on the 12th of July the government published the Liberating the NHS white paper, advocating the abolition of strategic health authorities and primary care trusts. If you were feeling cynical you might fall into the belief that the two parties had no intention whatsoever of honouring the pledge made in the agreement, and had been planning all along to do exactly the opposite. Appropriately enough, the website setting out the coalition's Programme for Government has already been closed down, and is now only available through the National Archives' cache.

Today the government published its response to the consultations launched by that previous health white paper. Considering how quick the coalition was to abandon its opposition to carrying out the kind of top-down reforms which had so angered and demoralised NHS staff during Labour's years in power, you'd expect it to at the least recognise or catalogue just how many responses were either in favour of their proposals and how many were against. While this would be time-consuming as there were over 6,000 submissions, it would not only signify this government's dedication to transparency but also enable us to ensure that they aren't misrepresenting the overall tone of those responding.

Instead the document cherry picks from this vast cache of opinions, and while it does provide a small amount of space for trenchant criticisms of the original plans (paragraph 1.15, page 10), it quotes at far greater length those who were supportive, which it describes as coming from "across the spectrum". It's impossible to know whether this is an accurate summary of the consultation submissions for the simple reason that the only thing we have apart from the tiny pieces directly lifted from them littered throughout the paper is the names of the organisations that took part. These are listed in this highly professional 58 page PDF file (original mirrored here in case it's replaced), 27 pages of which are either completely blank or have what may have been the remnants of earlier edits to the document strewn across them.

This wouldn't be so bad or so hilariously hypocritical if the document itself didn't propose an NHS "information revolution" (paragraph 2.23, page 22), the kind where "information can drive better and safer care, improve outcomes, support people to be more involved in decisions about their treatment and care, and, through extending opportunities for people to provide feedback on their service experience, improve service design and quality". Such as by perhaps asking whether those responding to consultations would mind having their submissions published alongside the official government paper, ensuring that their own objections and proposals can be used to hold the department to account? A further consultation was incidentally launched on this "Information Revolution", alongside another on greater choice and control, with very little fanfare back in October (an introduction to the "IR" on the DoH website has so far received only 18 comments). Most will only now be learning of them, with the consultations closing on the 14th of January, leaving little real time for many to respond.

It may well be the case that the responses to the consultation have somewhat altered the government's plans, as it sets out (paragraph 1.13, page 8), although you certainly wouldn't know if from the way it's presented the opposing submissions. For instance, while the summary of how the government has listened suggests that it's changed its view on the commissioning of maternity services due to the response, a look at the actual relevant section (paragraph 4.97, page 79) sees four different organisations quoted as supporting the original plan while another four, described as representing the majority view, differed. Here's where it would have been incredibly useful to have the full submissions to be able to see the real strength of opinion. Without them you're left to take the Department of Health's word for it, which judging by previous performance would be a very foolish thing to do indeed.

As with so much else the coalition is proposing, speed is being favoured over properly thinking through the possible consequences of such rapid and untested reform. The response given in the white paper to those arguing that the proposed changes are a "revolutionary" leap in the dark (paragraph 1.20, page 12) is that they would be better characterised as a logical evolution of the reforms put in place by the last government, with it commenting that practice-based commissioning and GP fundholding have been around for 20 years. This is despite Andrew Lansley previously arguing that comparing the former and GP commissioning is meaningless as they are completely different things. It also doesn't make clear that £80bn of NHS funding will be going straight to the new GP consortia to allocate and spend, a truly massive change, and one which the government is yet to prove the majority of GPs actually want. The cost of this reorganisation, yet to be revealed despite the health secretary apparently knowing the figures, comes as it seems unlikely the government will be able to keep its other promise of a real terms increase in spending on the NHS without making further cuts in other departmental budgets. If no one other than NHS staff originally cared about the breaking of the "no more top-down reforms" pledge, millions of voters will come to if it leads inexorably to Cameron's "cutting the deficit rather than the NHS" policy becoming just another election soundbite.

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Tuesday, December 14, 2010 

Richard Desmond and a "fork in the road".

(Hat-tip to Anton.)

The saying goes that you can't keep a good man down. With Richard Desmond, proprietor of the Daily Express and Daily Star, the Television X softcore subscription TV channels and since the summer, Channel 5, it's more that effluent tends to float. Last July, it seemed that Desmond's apparent inexorable rise might finally be checked, and all as a result of his own insecurity and vanity. He had brought what turned out to be a disastrous libel action against Tom Bower, the unauthorised biographer, for claiming in his book on the downfall of Conrad Black that the Canadian media tycoon had "ground him [Desmond] into the dust". Integral to the case was that Desmond had played the role of a newspaper owner of the old school, interfering directly in the editorial process, or dropping the most blatant of hints to his journalists as to what they should write, including on his business rivals and enemies. Bower's win seemed to open the door to the publishing of his own biography on Desmond, titled Rogue Trader.

Almost a year and six months on, Rogue Trader is still without a publisher. Desmond, meanwhile, succeeded in purchasing Channel 5 with barely a squeak of protest, not even from the usual likes of Private Eye, and has started the same process he carried out at the Express and Star: sacking dozens of employees while cutting costs to the bone, with the focus to be on the pumping out of celebrity obsessed content, cheaply produced and piled high. Desmond, who has long cited Rupert Murdoch as the person he would most like to emulate, has gone even further than his idol in wholly owning a terrestrial British television channel. He even supposedly recently offered Murdoch a billion for News International, something the Australian-American regarded as a good price, even if he had no intention off selling.

It's not therefore much of a surprise, flush with cash as he is, that Desmond is once again objecting to paying the annual fee to the Press Standards Board of Finance, the body that funds the Press Complaints Commission, having previously spent nearly two years refusing to pay the bill, supposedly as a protest against the editor of the Daily Express having to leave the board after the payout to the McCanns. Whether this is just the usual prevarication from a businessman who objects to any variety of oversight concerning his dealings, or signals that the end of his patience has been reached with the frequency with which the Daily Star especially has been referred to the commission is not entirely clear, although if it was the latter it certainly wouldn't be a shock.

While it would certainly be a stretch to describe the Star as ever being a newspaper of repute, increasingly over the past few years it's became little more than a daily version of OK!, Desmond's downmarket version of Hello! The front page lead article is invariably more inaccurate than it is accurate; today's cover, speculating on Katie Price being pregnant for the umpteenth time is for instance completely false. When the cover hasn't been dedicated to the entire industry that seems to follow the antics of a couple of permatanned half-wits, it's been given over to even more inflammatory material, such as this story from earlier in the year on "Muslim-only" toilets in a shopping centre in Rochdale, according to the paper funded by the local council. The only problem was that they weren't Muslim-only, as anyone could use them, and they weren't put in place with the use of public money. The Star, without apologising, was ordered to recognise these facts in a clarification on page two, after the Exclarotive blogger complained to the PCC. Numerous other recent examples of the Star and Express either deliberately misleading their readers, displaying a wholesale lack of normal journalistic ethics or just a complete lack of care abound.

Should Desmond carry through his threat to withdraw funding, it's not immediately clear whether or not the PCC would just continue as it did previously: still taking complaints against the papers, simply without the ability to force them to publish adjudications or corrections. Far more serious would be if he actively took the papers out of the PCC's oversight, something which as Roy Greenslade explains has only happened previously once. Even then, it's hard to see this as being the "fork in the road" or the threat to press freedom some have already put it down as; rather, as all the other newspaper groups are dedicated to keeping up the pretence of self-regulation, almost nothing would change. Any blame would be put purely on Desmond continuing to operate as a rogue proprietor, with doubtless the other owners and editors privately trying to persuade him to rejoin. We've already seen recently how terrified government ministers are when they start to even think of taking on the likes of News International; the idea that a form of state regulation would be imposed now in the social networking age, especially when David Cameron is just as hand in glove with the Sun as New Labour ever was, is unthinkable.

More pertinently, the PCC always has been and remains a cartel rather than anything approaching an active and concerned regulator, as even a glance at their piss-poor investigations into the phone-hacking at the News of the World demonstrates. The PCC's code is hardly set in stone, and changes to it are more than possible. Extra allowances could be made for publications that dedicate themselves almost solely to the discussion of celebrities, where the facts are far more difficult to establish and where rumours are actively encouraged by the stars themselves, so often complicit in much of the content printed about them. After all, how can they possibly operate under such onerous restrictions when gossip blogs, often operated from America, only answerable to their courts can put up almost anything they like? We should never underestimate the ability of organisations under apparent terminal pressure to adapt, regardless of how their actions appear to anyone outside the industry. As all the polling undertaken has shown, trust has never been lower in the tabloid press. The readers almost expect to be lied to; why should a regulator prevent that from happening when it's almost what they want?

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Monday, December 13, 2010 

Those deadly gas canisters strike again.

Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly's failed attack in Stockholm, as many have already noted, was remarkably similar in execution to the assault launched by our old friends Bilal Abdullah and Kafeel Ahmed (aka Abu Beavis and Abu Butthead) against the Tiger Tiger nightclub and Glasgow airport back in 2007 and not just because al-Abdaly was the only one to die.

As with their attack, al-Abdaly seems to have either been trained to use gas canisters as part of his makeshift bomb or decided upon using them as obtaining explosives in the necessary quantities for a truly spectacular detonation was just too difficult. The really key connection, as yet unconfirmed and still somewhat disputed in the case of Abdullah, is that both seem to have at least some connection with the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq, the jihadist umbrella group mainly made up of the remnants of what was once al-Qaida in Iraq. The ISI claimed midway through Abdullah's trial that he had been a member and was trained by the group, only for the attack to go wrong due to his incompetence. While they haven't yet claimed responsibility for al-Abdaly's strike, the ISI have released a statement praising him and expressing approval.

Quite why, if al-Abdaly does turn out to have even tenuous connections with the ISI, they seem so set on encouraging the use of gas canisters is difficult to ascertain. While they might make up a part of the bombs used in Iraq, the notion that you can just heat up or pierce gas canisters and the end result will be a deadly explosion is a silly one,
as this article from the Register made clear back in 2007. You might, as the footage from Sweden showed, get a somewhat impressive looking fire going and create a fireball which could conceivably hurt or even kill people if you're lucky, or you might, as in London and New York (Faisal Shahzad, hilariously, is charged with attempted use of a "weapon of mass destruction") spark absolutely nothing at all. Either our Islamic extremist friends are getting something very wrong indeed once they're back in the West, or they're being actively trained to fail, as unlikely as that sounds. Jihadist thinking seems to have moved on from cells producing "spectaculars" to individual actions, where even if they fail they're still frightening people and showing that this is a war without apparent end, with the only option being to get the troops home. Conversely, it also means the authorities can keep on intensifying security whilst continuing to justify the lunacy of the war in Afghanistan. Everyone wins, except us.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010 

Swarf pot.

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Friday, December 10, 2010 

Coulson in knowing nothing shocker.

Has anyone ever been charged with perjury as a result of evidence given at a perjury trial? You have to ask on the basis of the truly astonishing performance being put in by Andy Coulson, former editor of the News of the World and still for now David Cameron's chief spin doctor, who has been all but denying he ever even worked for the Murdoch paper while being cross-examined by Tommy Sheridan. Completely unsurprising is that he's still keeping up the pretence that he was the only person in what used to be termed Fleet Street that didn't know about phone hacking and all the other illegal blagging tricks being used and abused by both the tabloid and broadsheet press.

The incredible and what could end up damning him new shtick to his act is his insistence that he had never had any contact whatsoever with Glenn "Trigger" Mulcaire, just one of the private detectives the Screws was using at the time. In fact, Coulson went even further than that:

"I didn't know him as an individual. I didn't meet him, didn't speak to him, didn't email him, never heard his name," he said.

Now, either Coulson really was completely ignorant of what went on in the Screws' newsroom, despite him boasting the exact opposite to the Press Gazette at the time, or he's telling one of the most blatant and easily disprovable lies of recent times. His explanation is that he knew of Mulcaire's company, Nine Consultancy, knew that they were being paid £2,000 a week, yet somehow didn't know the main man behind the outfit. Is it really possible that he hadn't even heard Mulcaire's name being mentioned in connection with stories that he must have been working on to earn that £2,000 a week?

Not that anyone will ever get the chance to testify against him. It was a foregone conclusion that the renewed investigation into the phone hacking allegations would end with no new charges once the police had decided to question those who had come forward disputing Coulson's account under caution. Sean Hoare and other former hacks on the paper were hardly going to incriminate themselves by admitting to working in a newsroom where the use of the "dark arts" was completely out of control. Happily this also means that the first investigation by the Met, which limited itself to just the phone hacking carried out by Clive Goodman and Mulcaire has been completely vindicated. Everything is once again right with the world, and the Met and News International can continue to have a fruitful and reciprocal friendship. Who could possibly object to that?

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Thursday, December 09, 2010 

Pure terror in her eyes (and a baton in her gob).

The protesters surely couldn't have believed their luck. There are coincidences and then there are the most fortuitous, incredible opportunities. To not have taken some sort of advantage from Prince Charles and Camilla travelling to the Royal Variety performance, their Rolls Royce lit up like a Christmas tree, presumably so they could wave to their adoring public as they went along Regent Street would have been even more criminal than what they did to the car. Right in front of them were the wonderful, obscene idiosyncrasies of our state: here was the future monarch, someone who has spent the vast majority of his life living off the taxpayer, having had everything handed to him purely as a result of accident of birth, being driven to a show which glorifies and celebrates the institution he will come to represent. Deference and patronage were brought into direct conflict with those who had just been told they would have to take on even more debt should they want to receive the same education that Charles' generation, as well as that of Cameron and Clegg, had provided for them free at the point of use.

Few photographs from this year are going to be as iconic as the one of Camilla, gob open so wide you could easily fit a police baton in there, reeling in shock at having her nice evening out shattered by a bunch of yobboes rampaging across central London. After all, that's the picture being painted by police, government and media of the end of today's protests, with the Met describing the levels of violence as "outrageous and increasing". They weren't, sadly, describing the actions of their own officers, who were as always making the most of the opportunity to swing their own weapons around, hitting the likes of Shiv Malik and others and then refusing to treat them or let them seek medical help outside the confines of the protest despite having been injured. Theresa May spoke of the wanton vandalism being committed, as though the government hadn't just done the equivalent of taking a hammer to the hopes and dreams of thousands of young people who simply can't face the prospect of having tens of thousands of pounds of debt hanging over them, even if they won't necessarily have to pay it back. Very few politicians seem to understand that so many disadvantaged youngsters know all about the realities of owing money, having seen their parents struggle to pay the bills, and desperately don't want to repeat the experience themselves. Absolutely nothing is more likely to put them off the idea of going to university.

Today's parliamentary debate and the vote that followed were great examples of just how distant politicians are from those they claim to represent. There was no need whatsoever for the coalition's implementation of the Browne report to be rushed in such a manner; it has been done purely for short-term political reasons rather than there being any great need to put the new funding scheme in place so hurriedly. As well as putting an end to the greatest source of embarrassment for the Liberal Democrats, the coalition knew full well that this threatened to be the issue around which the entire movement against the wider austerity measures coalesced. The urgency which the students and young have given to protests which could well have been helmed, organised and dominated entirely by the trade unions and wider labour movement has been remarkable, causing the government real concern over what could still be to come. Despite the overwhelmingly hostile media coverage, if anything the outbreaks of disorder on the marches have only increased the level of general awareness about what is being proposed, as well as inspiring sympathy when it has been children taking part in their first acts of political engagement who have been held against their will for hours in bitterly cold weather.

Having the vote this early was all about attempting to fracture this nascent movement. With the matter done and dusted, the establishment hope now must be that it will wither and die away, and there's no reason to suspect that anything other than that will happen. Far harder to shake will not just be the sense of betrayal many will feel at being lied to by the 34 Liberal Democrats who either voted for the opposite of what they promised or did the really cowardly thing and abstained, but also the reinforcement of the belief that politicians really are all the same. The very reason why so many were energised and encouraged by the Liberal Democrats during the general election campaign was because they seemed to offer a real, viable alternative to a tired, failed Labour government and to a Conservative party that seemed to think it deserved power purely on the basis that it was their turn to govern again. No amount of pathetic pleading that either the deficit or coalition compromises meant their policy on tuition fees was impossible to implement is going to make anyone believe a Lib Dem election pledge again.

We shouldn't incidentally let the slightly less egregious cynicism of the Labour party pass unmentioned, having commissioned the Browne report, and had they won the election would now be implementing it in almost exactly the same way as the government has. They have offered no real alternative other than the most vague outlines of a possible graduate tax, a policy which has just as many potential problems for university funding, even if it would arguably be the most fair way of paying for higher education in the long term. It's been that lack of almost anyone making the argument that education as a whole should be funded out of general taxation, a principle only recently abandoned, which has further reduced the feeling amongst those opposed to the changes that they're being even slightly represented in parliament, let alone elsewhere.

Just as 9/11 and the Iraq war were a political wake up call for those of my age, the last few months will have opened a whole lot more minds and eyes to the state we're in now. It's one where an opportunistic attack on the royals which involves more force than words is shameful, and where promises are quite literally not worth the paper they written on. It's also one where the new young urban working classes have combined with the middle class student agitators in common cause, in a showing of force which has truly given the powers that be a scare. And that is the way it should be, our legislators and representatives truly aware of the strength of feeling ranged against them. This could just be the beginning. Far more like is that it's the beginning of the end.

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