Monday, January 31, 2011 

Egypt and the green revolution.

Like many others, I've been scrabbling around for a reference point to the tumult in Egypt. Abu Muqawama wisely and humbly requests that we stop reaching immediately for the great European revolutions as analogies, whether of 1789, 1848 or 1989 when we are after all attempting to comment a nation that has been around for a couple of thousand more years than the territory more familiar to most of us.

He's right of course. But while we've got the revolution in Tunisia as part influence and catalyst for the uprising against Mubarak, I can't help but keep thinking back to the "green" protest movement in Iran now nigh on two years ago. That short lived taking to the streets, viciously snuffed out by the authorities was in response to what most agreed was the blatant rigging of the presidential poll in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's favour. Curiously gone mostly unmentioned is that Egypt also had elections back in November. As has always been the case under Mubarak they weren't even close to free or fair, yet in a sign of just how sure the regime was of its hold on power just two short months ago, where Muslim Brotherhood candidates standing as independents were allowed to win 88 seats in 2005, they were left with nothing this time round. Mubarak's National Democratic party won 97% of the seats in the Egyptian parliament, something which resulted in either no comment from most of the European nations which now feel they have to say something, and in a statement of "dismay" from the US. "Dismay" translated from the diplomatic means "carry on".

Another reflection of the Iranian protests is that the young and the secular have overwhelmingly taken the lead, although it's also true that the protesters themselves have been determined to show that they're united in wanting Mubarak out regardless of their personal differences. The opposition forces which have either been semi-tolerated or remained organised regardless of the repression, whether it be the MB, or the National Progressive Unionists refused to take part in last Tuesday's "day of anger", and have been playing catch up ever since. It's only now that all the forces for change have begun to come together, calling for a million to march tomorrow.

The key difference is that while the Egyptian army is now making clear that it won't put into action any demand for a Tiananmen style crackdown, the key subsections of the Iranian state, nurtured and funded by those opposed to any return to the years of relative liberalism under President Khatami remained completely loyal. The Basij especially were crucial in crushing the protests themselves, the leaders and student radicals either arrested or murdered, while the Revolutionary Guard waited in the wings if it was needed. In Egypt it's clear that while the police, widely loathed for their corruption and addiction to beatings and torture have remained relatively loyal to Mubarak, they've either disappeared in the face of the protests or drawn back, at least for now, with the army having stepped into their role. Those opposition figures that were rounded up or had been arrested prior to the elections have either been released or escaped following the breakdown in law and order. The best the police have managed in the instilling fear and terror stakes is, if we're to believe the theories of those in the major cities, their involvement in the looting and criminal damage which has resulted from the very security vacuum they created.

With the protests now affecting everyday life across the country, something is going to have to give, and with the army apparently refusing to countenance any violent crackdown, everything points towards Mubarak either being forced into standing down, perhaps by his newly appointed vice president or into a similar, humiliating dash for the exit, ala Ben Ali. Even if those now protesting repeat the mistakes made by those who fought for the overthrow of the Shah, the events, slogans, passion for freedom and heroism of the past week will reverberate for decades to come.

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Saturday, January 29, 2011 

One solution.

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Friday, January 28, 2011 

First world problems.

One of those nights where it's fairly pointless to write something major as it looks as if absolutely anything could yet happen. We can however depend on not just politicians with everything to lose from the collapse of the Mubarak regime exhibiting the usual double standards on freedom and human rights, but also our own wonderful citizens to focus on what's really important. From the BBC live blog:

Shepper from Derby, in the UK writes: "Why doesn't the British Foreign Office advise against all but essential travel to Egypt? Was going to visit the pyramids but can't cancel and get my money back until the Foreign Office advise against travel. Ridiculous. Would any normal person want to go there at the moment? Come on, FO, get the right advice posted."

The revolution won't be tweeted, but al-Jazeera is doing its best to televise it.

P.S. And the BBC is reporting Brenda Namigadde will not be deported overnight, an injunction having been granted in her favour.

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Thursday, January 27, 2011 

The more things change...

Governments may change, but much else remains the same. In July of last year the Supreme Court ruled that two gay men had been wrongly refused asylum after being told that they could live freely in their home countries of Cameroon and Iran as long as they shifted locations and "behaved" discreetly. At the time Theresa May welcomed the ruling, say it vindicated the coalition's stance.

Six months later and barring a last minute reprieve, Brenda Namigadde will today be deported back to Uganda. Namigadde's asylum claim has been rejected on the grounds that despite her claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that she's homosexual. Quite what you have to do to prove that you're gay to an immigration judge is unclear, although you'd place your bets that there's plenty of queen's counsels that would normally be most interested in the specifics. Even considering the possibility that Namigadde has lied about her sexual orientation ever since she left Uganda, it's hardly the most opportune time to deport her: David Kato, one of the men that sued the Rolling Stone newspaper after it printed a list of the country's "100 top homos" alongside a banner that called for them to be hanged, was murdered in his home yesterday. The very least Theresa May could do is intervene and ensure that Namigadde's deportation is delayed until it's certain that she's not a lesbian. She wouldn't want to join her Labour predecessors in sending "failed asylum seekers" back to an early grave, would she?

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011 

Watered down and rebranded, much like...

Don't settle for low politics and broken promises: be more demanding. So intones Nick Clegg in his introduction to the ever increasing barrel of laughs which is the Liberal Democrat manifesto of 2010. Hidden away, appropriately enough on page 94, is another of those promises which has since become a miserable little compromise: the proposed abolition of control orders. We believe that the best way to combat terrorism is to prosecute terrorists, not give away hard-won British freedoms, it pronounces solemnly. We will scrap control orders, which can use secret evidence to place people under house arrest, it promised.

Control orders have been one of those great lies that come along relatively rarely in politics. They don't only involve lying to the public, which is habitual, as well as those unlucky enough to find themselves on them, they also involve those imposing them lying to themselves. No politician can seriously believe that a control order would stop a genuinely dedicated terrorist from finding some way to do harm, nor can they even begin to like having to personally issue the orders themselves. Control orders are entirely a construct of the security services being more dedicated to the protection of their own sources and themselves should a suspect go on to commit an atrocity than they are the protection of the public. Meant to cover the very few that either can't be prosecuted or deported and on whom there is compelling "intelligence" of their criminal intentions, they're also an insight into just how we've been frightened by the powers that be over the past few years. It wasn't so long ago that we were told of how around 2,000 separate individuals were involved in plotting terrorist attacks, although that figure was never properly clarified and broken down. How many people are considered so dangerous that they have to be all but permanently monitored and subject to a form of house arrest? 8, currently.

Those 8 were doubtless eagerly awaiting the long trailed changes to the control order regime, finally announced today after supposedly months of in-fighting and battles between the coalition partners, with David Cameron wailing at one point about how it was turning into a "fucking car crash". The really objectionable thing about control orders isn't just that they unacceptably limit the liberty of someone who might well have never faced any charges whatsoever in a court, it's that the person having their civil rights restricted isn't able to challenge the evidence against them directly - instead they have appointed special advocates to act for them. Any changes on this score have been delayed until a further consultation on the use of intelligence evidence in the courts has taken place, and the omens, as shown by the determination of the government and security services to ensure that their dirty laundry is never aired publicly again ala the Binyam Mohamed case, aren't good.

As could have been expected, the intelligence agencies and the due to step down current reviewer of terrorism legislation Lib Dem peer gone native Lord Carlile have won the battle against any substantial watering down of the scheme. Instead the government, apparently to save the Liberal Democrats some face as everything else falls down around around them, has embarked on one of their periodic rebranding exercises. Control orders will become Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures, which if anything sounds even more Orwellian than the current misnomer. The up to 16 hour curfews currently in place will transform into "overnight residence requirements", which even MPs in the chamber sniggered at as Theresa May, dressed in a jacket apparently stolen from a production of a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber musical made the statement. While, as Nick Clegg desperately tried to argue, the changes will mean that those under the new orders, sorry, TPIMs, will now be able to work or study where previously it was all but impossible, it may well be incredibly difficult to do so when you're being followed around permanently by surveillance officers. It's going to take an incredibly understanding employer or college, that's for sure.

The other hardly encouraging change is that rather than being a temporary measure, as control orders always had been, the proposed legislation will make the TPIMs permanently available as an option. The orders themselves will be able to be imposed for up to two years, rather than a slightly more amenable 12 months, albeit an improvement on the current indefinite time limit. The lack of backbone from the Liberal Democrats is doubly disappointing as the other changes announced today by May are genuine changes for the better, rolling back the worst excesses of the last government, whether reducing the maximum limit for detention without charge to 14 days, reforming the outrageously abused section 44 of the Terrorism Act, or stopping councils from using the RIPA act to snoop on those it suspects of petty offences.

It therefore takes quite some chutzpah for Tim Farron to call it a "proud day" as the party completely fails to even begin to implement its promise to prosecute terrorist suspects, but the Liberal Democrats as we have seen are nothing if not shameless. The security services have once again won against those trying to bring their judgement calls even slightly into the open (and to see what we're up against, just take a glance at the redactions to "Sir" Richard Dearlove's evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, where it would have been less time consuming to just blank everything) and liberty itself is the loser.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011 

Coincidences and conspiracies.

Is it ever a good idea to sue your employer? Of course, when Andy Gray went to the high court last week in an effort to force Glenn "Trigger" Mulcaire to name which News of the World journalists had allegedly instructed him to target his mobile phone, he wasn't technically suing BSkyB directly; as any fule no, News International has only a 39% share in Sky, albeit one it wishes to turn very shortly into a full 100% stake.

It does however seem to be a strange coincidence that in the same week Gray's lawyers sought the identities of their client's former pursuers that he should so suddenly be ratted out, apparently by the same people that must have put up with similar outbursts to the one directed towards Sian Massey, the unfortunate young female referee caught in the middle of the understandable furore surrounding Gray and Richard Keys' comically clichéd views on women not being able to understand the offside law. After all, it's one thing for your antiquated and expletive strewn musings on football going mad to be leaked to the Mail on Sunday, which would be quite conceivable for an underling at Sky to do under their own volition, it's another for your own broadcaster to then add fuel to the fire by releasing an earlier exchange with a different reporter containing much the same outpourings of disbelief at a member of the opposite sex being allowed to officiate what has always been and will hopefully always remain a Man's Game.

There are, it must be said, some discrepancies to be dealt with before it can even begin to be proved that Gray has been the victim of believing he could take on his ultimate employer and still remain in a job. It could just be that Sky had finally tired of Gray's boorishness and saw an opportunity once the original leak had been made to the MoS to get rid of him. Neither was it clear that Gray could stay in his job at all, with many instantly comparing his and Keys' exchanges to the infamous racist remark which did for Ron Atkinson back in 2004. There does though seem to have been some fairly major stabbing in the back involved: the video which resulted in Gray's sacking was posted anonymously on YouTube and removed almost as quickly before being reposted by those who downloaded it while it was up, and a new video of Keys engaging in banter with Jamie Redknapp has gone up in exactly the same fashion. It also seems rather remiss, considering the warning was made as regards Gray's future behaviour for him to then be sacked over another unfunny, sexist exchange which took place at the beginning of December.

It could just as much be that with Rupert Murdoch himself in the country and with Sky trying desperately to keep under the radar while Jeremy Hunt takes his time over the decision on whether or not to refer the takeover bid to the competition commission that Gray's sacking was inevitable, removing any further embarrassment to the broadcaster, or any additional stick to beat the company with. The Mail itself points out that Gray obviously wasn't off limits for other parts of the Murdoch empire if he is now seeking to find out who authorised the alleged hacking of his phone, as well as bringing attention to stories in the Sun about him four years ago. It's doubly mysterious then that Monday's Sun contained no mention whatsoever of Gray and Keys' troubles - only today did the paper splash on it, albeit in the form of a photograph stolen from Massey's MySpace profile, although perhaps as the social networking site is wholly owned by News International they treated as if it was already their intellectual property. The paper often remains silent about the travails of employees on sister publications and broadcasters - perhaps the OK was only given to go with it yesterday as Gray's fate was being sealed, or then again, it had simply become too big a story to ignore.

Regardless of the internal politics and machinations, Gray's sacking ought to be just the beginning of a wider clear out of the supposed punditry talent not just on Sky but also the BBC. Match of the Day, once a relative joy to watch on a Saturday night has become a tired wasteland of pomposity and incompetence, Alan Hansen having long ago become a parody of himself, his relevance and connection to the modern game being just as questionable as Gray's. While Gray and Keys were criticised for their glibness and insular regard for the English game, questioning whether Lionel Messi could deal with Stoke City's tactics on a cold night, Hansen displayed much the same triteness when he commented tonight at half-time on the Arsenal Ipswich game that "continentals", as much as they bring to the game, also brought diving along with them, as if cheating and underhand tactics had only properly permeated the game once foreign chaps had infiltrated the leagues. Alan Shearer meanwhile seems to be inflicted on the nation simply to make Hansen and Gary Lineker look better by comparison, his banal, obvious insights on the game constantly refrained by the "brilliant", "incredible" or "awesome" play he's asked to comment upon. There's hardly a shortage of decent football analysers out there, as the briefest trawl of any of the former broadsheets' sports pages will attest, it's the getting out of the silly constraint that seems to have grown up that new presenters and commentators must have played the game, even if it means putting on air numerous ex-pros that can barely string two coherent sentences together, Chris "pelanty" Waddle being a case in point. In that sense we could yet come to cheer Gray being put out of his misery.

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Monday, January 24, 2011 

The brutal clarity of the Palestine papers.

When nations have standard, open diplomatic relations with each other, there may be the occasional bust-up or misunderstanding, but for the most part seemingly cordial exchanges of views are maintained at all costs. It's only, as the Wikileaks cables have shown, when those in charge go and report back to their paymasters that honesty begins to come into play. The written record can often be brutal in its contempt for those being summarily dismissed, especially when there's no one to fight their corner: the inhabitants of the Chagos islands were witheringly referred to as their home was about to be turned over to the United States as "a few Tarzans and Man Fridays whose origins are obscure". Much the same was in evidence in a more recent cable, when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Colin Roberts stated baldly that it was thanks to the Chagossians no longer being around that the surrounding islands and seawaters were in such "pristine condition". He would presumably describe the US military base which now sits on Diego Garcia as greatly improving the archipelago's ecology on the same basis.

You can't help but be reminded of such hostility, open contempt and even outright imperial arrogance when you take a glance at the Palestine papers. The difference is that views such as the one expressed by Condoleezza Rice, apparently referring to the nakba, that "bad things happen to people all around the world all the time" were made to the faces of those she was supposedly meant to be negotiating or cooperating with. Rice, a specialist on the Soviet Union, may well have been thinking of the Ukranian famine or dekulakisation and the devastating effects of both; the difference surely is that the Palestinians have now been waiting for a state for over 60 years when one could be established in a matter of months if the likes of Rice were prepared to put the necessary pressure on Israel to accept a deal.

Instead, as the logs of the negotiations between the representatives of Fatah, Israel and the US show, the connivance between the two nations is almost total. Neither it seems is even approaching serious when it comes to continuing to regard the two state solution as a viable option, despite so many fine words being expressed on so many occasions. Rice couldn't have been much more blunt than when she told Saab Erekat that the Palestinians simply wouldn't have a state if they objected to the settlements of Ariel and Ma'ale Adumim, both in the West Bank and both illegal under international law remaining Israeli. Tzipi Livni, for her part, was completely honest about the policy Israel has been pursuing, while claiming personally that her party was not:

At a west Jerusalem meeting in November 2007, she told Qureia that she believed Palestinians saw settlement building as meaning "Israel takes more land [so] that the Palestinian state will be impossible"; that "the Israel policy is to take more and more land day after day and that at the end of the day we'll say that is impossible, we already have the land and we cannot create the state". She conceded that it had been "the policy of the government for a really long time".

At the end of 2007, though, "it is still the policy of some of the parties but not the government".

Like someone desperately trying to win over the favour of a prospective partner, the Fatah negotiators are shown to be willing to debase themselves and engage in the most pathetic of flattery, all to no avail. Abu Ala told Livni that he would vote for her, Mahmoud Abbas considered Ariel Sharon to be a friend, and said that "every bullet that is aimed in the direction of Israel is a bullet aimed at the Palestinians as well", while Condoleezza Rice was vomit-inducingly told that she brought "life to the region" every time she came. The only sign of anything even resembling a reciprocation in kind was from Livni, whom on being offered the best terms the Palestinians had ever put across the negotiating table, including the "biggest Yerushalayim in history", said she "appreciate[d] it" even as she rejected them out of hand.

Livni and the Bush administration were simply going through the necessary motions. With Likud and other smaller right-wing parties now in power, even the motions have been abandoned. As Saab Erekat put it so elegantly, the Palestinians are no longer even being offered a fig leaf, and this from the president so risibly described as "completely committed to achieving the objective you want". The Israelis have the equivalent of the entire pack of cards in their hands: it simply isn't in their interests to accept a peace settlement when they are able to create reality on the ground. Despite all their protestations, they can quite happily put up with the irritant of Gaza and the occasional home-made missile landing on surrounding towns and cities if it means they can annex ever more land in the West Bank and carry on building up the settlements as they are at an alarming pace. They also know that the longer they stall and the longer the US continues to fail to force the issue, the more support Hamas gains, ever increasing the chances of a coup in the West Bank to follow the earlier one in Gaza, and therefore forever removing the "partner for peace" it currently doesn't have in Fatah.

Either way, the end result is the same: an entire people effectively impoverished and imprisoned, their demands for justice denied while the Arab world either actively colludes with Israel or watches from afar powerless. And all the while, the festering grievance which motivates so many Islamists and puts so many others on the path towards radicalisation only continues to grow.

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Saturday, January 22, 2011 

Girls from Codeine City.

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Friday, January 21, 2011 

Bang! And Coulson is gone!

Courtesy of Lib Con and @nick4glengate.

(Apologies for the dreadful headline.)

mid ever greater insecurity and doubt, there is always something you can rely on in the world of politics: commentators with a supposed direct line to the pugilists themselves getting it horribly wrong. Here's Benedict Brogan, the Telegraph's sage and conduit writing on Tuesday on how Andy Coulson would conduct his resignation, should it come to it:

What happens next is anyone’s guess. I had always imagined that having decided to enter Number 10 with Dave, Mr Coulson would give it a year and then move on to even greater things. A statement between now and Easter, say, confirming that he will move on after the May elections for example would not have surprised me. Now it’s not so easy. As is always the case in these situations, finding a quiet moment when such a move can be announced without appearing to be a reaction to headlines is tricky. Mr Coulson has shown that one of his greatest skills is loyalty, so it may be that he will know better than his boss when the time has come to make that announcement.

Coulson, an apprentice to Labour's spin machine to the last, chose to do so as Tony Blair was giving evidence for a second time to the Chilcot inquiry. A truly quiet moment, and certainly not planned with the intention of attempting to bury the bad news. Brogan, almost inevitably, starts his entry on Coulson's departure with the claim that he was right.

To invoke and paraphrase Lady Bracknell, as is almost required, to resign once over something you profess you knew nothing about is unfortunate; to do so twice looks like carelessness. The real issue isn't that it was always has been and remains laughable that Coulson didn't know about phone hacking when he helmed the most salacious, sensationalist and disreputable of all the mass-selling tabloids, it's that David Cameron and presumably everyone else involved in appointing him as the party's chief spin doctor either believed him and fell for the "rogue reporter line", or they felt that it was irrelevant to his new job of dealing with the self-same scum suckers he had presided over previously. It's not even as if Coulson's only offence while working for the Screws was to be apparently completely oblivious to what his other executives were authorising;
he was also personally involved in the bullying of a sports reporter who failed to stand up a story about the colour shirt Arsenal were to play in the following season. As I've repeated here many times, Alastair Campbell's worst offence while a journalist was to get involved in a fist fight with Michael White on the day of Robert Maxwell's death; his abuses took place while chief press officer. Coulson's potential complicity in the illegality of blagging and phone hacking was hardly a secret.

If anything, it seems to have been Cameron's reliance on his "golden Essex boy" that's meant he hasn't resigned sooner. Did Coulson
really want to give evidence in the Tommy Sheridan perjury trial while still in his position, for instance? He surely must be worried if the rumours Ian Edmondson is prepared to tell all are true that there won't just be the very distant possibility of a charge from the review of the original evidence, but also the potential for his words in the witness box to come back to haunt him. He didn't just deny any knowledge of phone hacking whilst at the paper, as he did during his appearance before the culture, media and sport parliamentary committee, he also claimed to know nothing about the other man at the centre of the scandal, Glenn Mulcaire, something which seems even more risible.

Quite why Cameron thinks so highly of Coulson is itself something of a mystery. Important and as helpful as he must be when it comes to dealing with Murdoch and News International, he's hardly helped make the Conservatives the natural party of government once again. For all his supposed skill and nous, he and the Tories couldn't take the worst recession since the 1930s and Labour's general unfitness to continuing governing and turn it into an outright election victory. He may have helped "decontaminate the brand" and give an insight into what the average News of the World readers wants in a politician, yet he failed to win enough of them over or back when it came down to it. The past week has seen the Sun lead an
increasingly vitriolic campaign on the price of fuel, something else that seems to have all but passed Coulson and Cameron by. Some in the party will not be sad to see him go, even if the circumstances could have been better.

Where this leaves the continuing inquiry into the phone-hacking inquiry is less clear.
As set out on Tuesday, it does give News International an opportunity to be more open and admit its past mistakes now it no longer has to also defend the virtue of its past editor in quite the same way. Whether it takes it up is something else entirely, especially when you consider at every step of the way so far it has chosen to rely on secrecy and increasingly ludicrous denials instead of even attempting to look somewhat accountable. Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade), it's worth remembering, said that the Guardian's reporting had "substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public". David Cameron had no qualms about spending part of his Christmas in the company of someone with such a breathtaking line in cant.

The most important thing we should take from Coulson's resignation though is that the Murdoch press and those who work for it, despite everything that seems to stand in the way, can be brought down to size. Most of the media, either through embarrassment at knowing they were just as much involved in phone-hacking as the Screws was or through the old belief that dog doesn't eat dog initially downplayed or all but ignored the scandal. It's been the tenacity of the Guardian and Nick Davies especially in refusing to let the story die, repeatedly finding new angles that has eventually led to today, helped along by the Independent, New York Times and the broadcast media being similarly indefatigable. The only way now for the entire debacle to be laid to rest is through a judicial review of all the evidence. Those who had their privacy infringed by a newspaper that even by its standards was out of control deserve nothing less.

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Thursday, January 20, 2011 

A watershed moment.

Today marks a watershed in the politics of the last five years. Not due in any way, shape or form to Johnson going out and Balls going in (booya!) but instead to the policy which both prior to the election supported and defended being allowed to expire: the detention of "terrorist suspects" beyond a nominal 14-day limit. No other policy pursued by New Labour with the exception of the war in Iraq was so indicative of the party's surrender to the authoritarian, populist right-wing, whether it be best represented by the Sun newspaper in both cases, or the scaremongering panic merchants then in charge of the Metropolitan police. The MPs who voted against the original proposal for up to 90 days detention were daubed on the following day's Sun front page as "TRAITORS", as if they personally had acted in concert with those we were told were just waiting for such an opportunity to do us all harm. Blair himself said that he hoped that those who voted against would not "rue the day" they had done so, while the likes of Kitty Ussher, since very happily retired, wrote of how the country was less safe as a result and how those responsible would have "blood on their hands" should an attack ever take place thanks to the police not having enough time to hold suspects.

Indeed, if we're to believe Anthony Seldon's account of Gordon Brown's time as prime minister, his subsequent doomed and dismal attempt to extend the without charge limit to 42 days was an attempt to come across as "tough" to the Murdoch press. It's not much of a surprise that they felt they had to at least try and return the favour, with Kelvin MacKenzie, the Sun's ex-editor and now "star" columnist looking into the possibility of standing against David Davis after he resigned to make a stand against the government's general authoritarian drift.

What then has changed over the two years since the last attempt to extend the limit? Even at the time Brown got the vote through the Commons, only for it to fail in the Lords, the mood was beginning to change. Memories of 7/7 and the days after the atrocity were beginning to fade, and the realities of the liquid bomb plot, although always treated in a hysterical fashion both by the media and government were simply becoming an inconvenience for those flying. Moreover, the security sources that had either stayed quiet or supported the government first time round either contradicted the claims of ministers and hacks as to how urgently necessary it was to have the extra time even if it was never used, while the director of public prosecutions came out in opposition.

The actual answer is that very little to nothing has changed, at least to go by what's happened over the past year. The "official" threat level remains at severe, only a month ago an alleged plot involving attacks in the West Midlands and Whitehall led to charges being brought, and in October one of the "printer bombs" planted by al-Qaida in Yemen was intercepted at East Midlands airport. What we don't have is the impending sense of utter doom that the media and at one time the government apparatus seemed to want to propagate, whether it was Tony Blair informing the world that the rules of the game had changed, John Reid telling us to look out for the telltale signs of radicalisation, the former head of MI5 taking apparent pleasure in talking about 30 plots and 2,000 individuals involved in terrorist activities, or Ian Blair looking up and seeing the sky as "dark".

You could explain the change if you were so inclined to the very different political priorities of then and now. Just as 9/11 and those responsible defined the politics of the next 6 or more years, so will the crisis brought about by the sub-prime banking collapse take precedence for some time yet to come. Terrorism was a distant and over-egged threat, while the economic crisis and recession has affected everyone.

As neat as this seems, it doesn't even begin to answer why our politicians resorted so quickly to such extreme measures which were never needed, or why now when the threat is supposedly just as real as it ever was that they're letting the limit lapse back to 14 days with nary a whimper. It doesn't explain why the Sun doesn't seem today to have made any mention whatsoever of this outrage making us less safe, nor why the police or those others formerly in favour of 90 days are not making their voices heard. If 14 days wasn't long enough in 05 and 08, why is it plenty less than two years later? It isn't just that the full 28 days available was only ever used in the aftermath of the liquid bomb plot, and even then that three of those held for the full period were released without charge. It isn't either that we've now got a government that "believes in civil liberties" and wants to unravel New Labour's worst excesses.

It's that the whole political obsession which built up around the illusion of providing total or near total security and safety has for now been replaced by something else. Politicians could no longer give us jobs for life, prevent acquisitive crime or stand firm against immobile evil empires which could either invade or send missiles a moment's notice, but they could try as hard as they could to protect us from exploding brown people or violent crime. Instead they're trying to convince us that salvation will come through getting the deficit under control and by cutting now for prosperity in the future. It's an all encompassing narrative into which almost everything the coalition is doing fits. In time it too will fade and we'll look back on it wondering how we could have opposed and challenged it better, but for now it's all but impossible to escape from and contradict.

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011 

This is a post about sex.

Treacherous as it may be to comment on subjects I know little about (although that's hardly stopped me in the past), the position taken by Peter and Hazel Bull, the devout Christian couple who have been found to have acted unlawfully in denying a double room to Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy at their private hotel in Cornwall does seem to have more than a few flaws in it.

If Fawlty Towers taught us anything, it was that hoteliers seem to have incredibly arbitrary rules as well as more than a few quirks, something more than reflected here. The Bull's case was that, rather than discriminating on the grounds that Hall and Preddy were gay, their long-held stance was that only married couples were allowed to rent rooms with a double bed. As the ruling, which is worth reading in full makes clear, this was stated on their website on the booking form. Preddy found the Bull's hotel on the internet, but booked by phoned. Mrs Bull happened to be feeling ill on the day she took the booking and so didn't make clear the rule on double rooms as she would normally have. Believers in fate will doubtless reach the conclusion this was simply meant to happen.

What soon becomes clear is that the whole debacle is just as much about the apparent sacred nature of the marital bed, whether it's at home or on holiday as it is about pre-marital or homosexual intercourse. The Bull's beliefs, quoted by Judge Andrew Rutherford as

monogamous heterosexual marriage is the form of partnership uniquely intended for full sexual relations between persons and that homosexual sexual relations (as opposed to homosexual orientation), and heterosexual sexual relations outside marriage, are sinful

are somewhat undermined by the fact that they have apparently never had any problem with unmarried or even gay couples renting a room with two single beds. It certainly isn't impossible to have sex in a single bed, or for instance, in the bath or in the shower, especially if the rooms are en-suite and so avoiding the chance of being caught in flagrante, or even on the floor, standing up in the room or perhaps, if a couple were feeling really adventurous, in the wardrobe. None of these may be as comfortable or as conducive to a extended session as a double bed with a sturdy structure, the mattress kitted out in clean linen, yet there's definitely far worse places where coitus has been interrupted.

This is of course if we believe the Bull's. The judge at the outset says that the case was in one sense a pleasure to try as he didn't think any of the five individuals directly involved were deliberately setting out to mislead the court. The only point of real doubt is the mentioning of a newspaper article back in 1996 which made clear the Bull's views on "
their refusal to allow unmarried couples to share the same room". They could have become less strict since then, or it could be an issue of semantics, as the whole use of "double room" to mean a room with a double bed rather than a room with two single beds is.

Then there's this to consider. Just how many couples actually do have sex while staying at a small private hotel for only one or two nights, especially one where it's clear that their hosts hold traditional views on the matter? The answer I would hazard, and I'm really engaging in uneducated guesswork here, is not all that many. While it's understandable that they don't want their guests to even have the opportunity to commit an act of "sin" in a hotel they run on Christian principles (although apparently they're willing to take the chance with those who rent twin singles), doesn't that say more about their preoccupations and neuroses than it does about the potential for their guests to start breaking out the dutch caps, KY jelly and love eggs? Traditional, orthodox and good decent people they certainly are, but there's still something self-defeating going on beneath the surface.

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Tuesday, January 18, 2011 

Phone hacking: something must break.

Are we at long last approaching the denouement of the News of the World phone hacking saga? Since the suspension of Ian Edmondson, the news editor appointed to the post by Andy Coulson, ever more celebrities have been applying for court orders to see whether they were in the sights of Glenn "Trigger" Mulcaire, while the Crown Prosecution Service has announced a supposed "comprehensive" review of all the relevant material held by the Met, no longer trusting the police to have truly exhausted all lines of inquiry contained in the original seized evidence.

Most damaging of all is that Mulcaire is understood to have confirmed to the High Court that he was asked to hack into the voicemail of the sports agent Sky Andrew by Edmondson, building on the submissions from the lawyers acting for Sienna Miller which suggested he had played a similar role in authorising the surveillance of the actress. As well as directly fingering Edmondson, Mulcaire has also apparently admitted that other executives at the News of the World knew about the scale of the blagging and message interception taking place on the paper's editorial floor, albeit while refusing to name them on the sound basis of not incriminating himself further. As most are convinced that Mulcaire's escalating legal fees are being met by News International themselves, there's good reason to believe that a new strategy from the company is now in place. Having originally placed all the blame on Mulcaire and Clive Goodman, it now looks as though Edmondson is also being hung out to dry.

The key question is whether anyone else is going to join these two "rogue" reporters. Already being fingered on the same basis as Goodman and Edmondson have is Greg Miskiw, the former assistant editor of the Screws. Documents produced in court by Andy Gray's lawyers show that Mulcaire had put Miskiw's name in the margins of the notes he kept on the football commentator, the same unfortunate practice that helped to damn first Goodman and now Edmondson. Miskiw, who no longer works for News International, was first linked into the phone hacking investigation when the Guardian leaked the details of the paper's settlement with Gordon Taylor. Miskiw had signed an additional contract with Mulcaire, promising £7,000 if Mulcaire could provide information on Taylor which led to the publication of a story. While that was damning enough, this new revelation widens even further the number of those who were directly involved in commissioning Mulcaire's illegal fishing expeditions.

Embarrassing as the constant drip-drip of new allegations has been, while the focus has been almost entirely on Andy Coulson rather than News Corp things have been allowed to progress as they have. Such a relaxed position has become impossible as the Murdochs battle to convince Jeremy Hunt that they should be allowed to swallow BSkyB whole. The difficulty is that almost from the very beginning the company has denied everything in incredibly specific terms, while alleging their detractors have been either "selective and misleading" or outright motivated by commercial concerns, as Bill Akass claimed in his response to the New York Times' investigation of last year. Going from the extreme of almost complete denial to total transparency was always going to be impossible, even if it would be in News Corporation's best interests to come clean and put an end to the whole sordid affair.

Andy Coulson's apparent offer to resign as David Cameron's chief spin doctor has to be seen in this light. As Matthew Norman puts it, this would make him the first person in history to resign over something he knew nothing about twice, which would outdo even the likes of Peter Mandelson and David Blunkett. His departure would free News International to be more honest than it has been so far, and remove any possibility of Cameron having to face the prospect of currently employing someone who has not only repeatedly lied, but even potentially done so under oath. Something simply has to break, and the most likely outcome has to be Coulson going at some point fairly soon. The other options for all involved are simply far too awful to contemplate.

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Monday, January 17, 2011 

Thatcherism, Blairism, Blameronism?

There's something seriously odd about the Conservative half of this government. British politics ever since the breakdown of the post-war, nominally social democratic, one nation consensus has been dominated by two all but interlocking personalities and philosophies: Thatcherism and Blairism, to the extent that both overwhelmed their successors. If the pattern is to continue, then Cameron has to start setting out his own related, but still distinct brand of governance.

While it isn't so strange that Cameron has shown no signs of beginning to do so, what is unique is that he's so clearly wedded to continuing and building on the public service reforms started by Blair and in their view, frustrated by "vested interests", for which read trade unions, never the public sector workers which make up those organisations, and Gordon Brown. Even taking into account the seven year gap between Thatcher and Blair, it would have been electoral and political suicide for him to openly state his allegiance to her methods of doing things. Cameron today did the diametric opposite: he name-checked Blair twice, said he had read his "intriguing" memoir and made clear the lesson he had drawn was that he needed to act both quickly and forcefully in pushing through reform.

To be sure, this isn't the first time it's been apparent just how closely the Cameron set has been following the Blairite book of politics. The child benefit cut was arguably an attempt at playing the party off to the benefit of the leader, although one which was flawed. Michael Gove has also long made clear his, as far as we know, unrequited lust for Blair. Never before though has Cameron been so completely transparent in where his inspiration and influence is coming from, not from past Conservative heroes, but from the most successful "Labour" leader of all time, at least in terms of winning elections. His entire speech today could have conceivably been given by Blair at any point during his first term; while it lacks his trademark verb-less sentences and other ticks, it makes up for it in the sheer belief which to the cynical looks like rank insincerity and to seemingly everyone else as evidence of the passion it requires to change obdurate and unyielding bureaucracies. He even uses the term globalisation to describe the pressures facing the British economy, a neologism which has somewhat fallen out of favour over the last few years.

Cameron's trick to define him and the coalition as different is to compare and contrast the approaches of the last Conservative and Labour governments, without doing so terribly accurately. He stereotypes Thatcher and Major as introducing choice and competition to public services without respecting their ethos, while Blair and Brown overemphasised the state and relied on bureaucracy and targets for their improvements. Naturally this leaves Cameron to insert his pet "big society" into the middle, a concept now so voluminous as to encompass private sector providers of healthcare within it. This is nothing more than cover for the extension of Blairite policies without New Labour's way of measuring their effectiveness - the targets which in healthcare the coalition has already gone some way towards abolishing. New initiatives meanwhile, such as Gove's oxymoronic English baccalaureate, have been imposed with the same level of contempt and lack of warning which characterised the worst Blairite interventions in policy.

The key difference is that Blair's reforms took place as spending was inexorably rising - now Cameron is proposing to do even more just as austerity bites, indeed even claiming that he will be focused on getting more for less in our public services. That old impossibility is already becoming a reality in those NHS trusts which are banning operations they can't afford to perform, something that goes unmentioned underneath the rhetoric of liberation for the workers and competition for the companies who have long wanted to get a slice of the NHS pie. Cameron's evidence of how everyone wants this is just as weak as Blair's ever was: it's not exactly surprising that high-performing schools have signed up for the increased freedoms of the academy system when it was originally designed to turned failing schools around, nor is it overwhelming that so many GPs have already organised themselves into consortia when if they don't the government will do it for them in a couple of years' time.

Also missing, even if Cameron refers to the coalition six times, is any real mention of the Liberal Democrats. Vince Cable referred to some of the proposed reforms in his unofficial interview with the Telegraph "as a kind of Maoist revolution ... they haven't thought them through ... [W]e should be putting a brake on it." Even if there aren't immediate signs of more mass mutinies such as the one over tuition fees in the offing, it's clear the party has far less electoral authority than the Conservatives with which to introduce such dramatic reforms; their manifesto was vague or opposed across the board to such measures. Nothing however quite equals the chutzpah of Cameron, trying to avoid recognising the coalition has broken their promise on top-down reorganisations of the health service, claiming that turning commissioning over to GPs is in fact a reform from the bottom-up. It was enough to wonder whether he had been given verbal diarrhoea due to a doctor somewhere similarly confusing which end to put the suppository in.

There is one thing that Cameron and his cohort of Blair fanciers haven't factored in, just as Blair himself didn't, and that's the public themselves. No amount of persuasion is going to convince some that these reforms are about people's lives, rather than the ideology or theory, and should they go as wrong as Iraq did then the fallout will be even more far reaching. It took seven years before Blair's certainty, messianic tendencies and ever more ridiculous rhetorical flights of fancy began to bring him down. Cameron seems prepared to emulate just those mistakes in record time.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011 

Memories of Hessle.

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Friday, January 14, 2011 

A few things the Oldham East result tells us.

1. Phil Woolas would have won without trying to make the "white folk" angry

Despite increasing their share of the vote by 10.2%, Debbie Abrahams only won 532 more votes that Woolas did back in May last year. The Labour vote in the constituency is remarkably solid: those that stayed at home this time round were almost certainly made up for by a few defecting Liberal Democrats. While Woolas and his team's panic was understandable considering the performance of the Lib Dems in the opinion polls, he would have almost certainly won without resorting to smearing Elwyn Watkins.

2. Don't believe the opinion polls on the Liberal Democrats

Even taking into account the history of the Liberals in Oldham, for the party to increase their share of vote by 0.3%, albeit mainly due to the Tory collapse when they're between around 8% and 12% in the national polls is a brilliant result (although the local polls were about right). Much the same happened on election night: the polls that told us the party was catching up on Labour were utterly wrong. Whether the polls are weak on accurately gauging third party support or those taking part are giving fashionable answers only to change their minds when it comes down to it is worth trying to work out.

3. The only place the Tory vote can go is down

There are plenty of caveats when considering the huge drop in Conservative support, many being made by the party themselves: they hardly bothered campaigning, they wanted to shore up the Lib Dem vote, it was always going to be difficult in a northern seat with the cuts about to bite, their voters themselves didn't believe the party was even in a with a chance this time, etc. Truth is that even in 97 the Tories managed to get 10,000 votes, and over 7,000 in 01 and 05; 4,481, even for a by-election with a lower turnout is a shocking result. If a similar drop occurs in Barnsley Central and at the local elections in May, the party really should begin to worry.

4. The British National Party is in meltdown

When the BNP loses its deposit in a by-election where it centred its entire campaign around "Muslim paedophiles grooming white girls" and its candidate was treated in the usual counter-productive fashion by his political opponents, the party really is in trouble. Add in how Labour didn't dare repeat Woolas's playing of the race card, as well as how well the BNP have performed in the constituency since the 2001 riots, and it suggests the party's rise has been firmly checked, at least for the moment.

5. Spending vast amounts of money and taking the moral high ground doesn't win you elections

You almost have to feel sorry for Elwyn Watkins, although he must have had an inkling that proving his opponent was a liar was hardly going to automatically win him the seat. As it is, he can at least be proud of his performance and for taking out one of the most vile, shameless and opportunistic Labour politicians of the past decade, even if not at the ballot box. Was it worth however much Watkins himself sank into the two campaigns though?

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Thursday, January 13, 2011 

The fickle media and a need for a narrative.

The media has always been a fickle beast, and in these fascinating days of 140 characters, 24-hour news cycles and other truly exciting web 2.0 developments it's somehow managed to gain an even shorter attention span. Before Christmas almost everyone was in agreement that Labour was doing horribly and that Ed Miliband was completely hopeless. The party was in disarray and some were already manoeuvring towards overthrowing the man who hadn't even been in the job for 100 days.

A couple of weeks later and it's clear that such thinking was absurd. Ed Miliband is now doing superbly, making himself seen and besting the government over the VAT rise. The polls, despite changing very little and still showing Labour way behind on the economy even if they're in the lead overall (as they were prior to Christmas) make clear that the party has gained momentum. This will be definitively sealed if they win the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election tonight, as predicted, and will correspondingly cast the Liberal Democrats into an existential crisis, or a score draw, as they're unfathomably spinning it. Perhaps they're trying to outdo the hyperbole of the hacks.

For those ever so slightly cynical, it should be noted that the only real change that's taken place is that Miliband has brought in a new head of press and "director of strategy and communications", both of whom just happen to have been journalists. Tom Baldwin was a chief reporter and Washington correspondent at the Times, and one of those accused by Lord Ashcroft (pots kettles etc) of leading a smear campaign against him which was formally settled with a front page clarification, although not before Ashcroft accused him of being thoroughly acquainted with certain exotic white powders, while Bob Roberts was political editor of the Mirror, a job formerly held by one Alastair Campbell. The sudden uplift in Labour's profile couldn't possibly be connected to two hacks networking with their former colleagues. Such things simply don't happen.

The middle of the road reality is that if things hadn't started looking more rosy for Labour come the turn of the year, Miliband really should have begun to get worried. Everyone knows the cuts are now about to fall or have already started to, many working locally in the public sector have been warned they're either at risk of losing their job or are being let go, and there's been the rise in VAT, with its direct effect on the price of fuel. Labour's biggest problem isn't Miliband, even if he's still showing up in the polls as an ineffective leader, it's that the coalition, sorry, Tory-led government's biggest success has been painting the party as being wholly responsible for the deficit. Even if the polling is coming towards the party on the cuts being bad for the economy and not being done fairly, they're still not trusted to run it themselves, with the key reason being the stewardship of the past administration. It doesn't matter whether or not Labour did what it had to, through the constant repetition from both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats that everything they're now doing stems from Labour's economic incompetence, they've successfully managed to win the battle of the narratives.

This is why it's especially daft to posit that this is the perfect time to get rid of Alan Johnson as shadow chancellor. This isn't to deny that he's out of his depth, or at the least hasn't even bothered to read that economics primer for beginners as he half-joked when first appointed, it's that the very last thing Labour should be doing is putting either Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper back in charge of policy when both are so associated with the Treasury and Gordon Brown. While Labour could attempt a real fightback against the coalition's countervailing narrative, as Miliband somewhat tried, it isn't likely to succeed as the party has so few allies in the wider media. It's also to deny the inevitable: the party, despite make clear that it would cut the deficit more slowly than the Tories, hasn't proposed closing the gap entirely through taxation. Cuts are going to have to be made somewhere, just not as brutally or as cruelly as the coalition is doing. Alongside this the party should make the case for raising public spending again once the deficit has been closed, something the coalition has if not entirely ruled out then mostly suggested it will not be doing. This, sensibly, seems to be the position the party is moving towards. It might just help with the yo-yoing press coverage too. That really would be something.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011 

Blood libels and alarm clock Britain.

If there was ever a better moment to contrast the difference in political rhetoric between the United States and our own benighted, septic isle, it must have happened sometime prior to the establishment of this blog. After all, how else do you react to criticism over your incendiary metaphors and campaigning, such as calling for Julian Assange to be hunted down and advising your supporters to reload rather than retreat or other than by suggesting that your enemies are committing a "blood libel"? Either Sarah Palin is even more phenomenally ignorant and crass than anyone could have possibly imagined, using phrases which she doesn't know the origin and long history of in an attempt to play the victim when six other people are dead, or as an evangelical Christian she's referring to the attempted murder of a Jewish woman in the sense that she's being smeared in a similar way to Jews have throughout the past 2000 years, first with being responsible for the murder of Christ, and more latterly with baking their passover bread with the blood of Christians, usually children.

The first explanation is the more palatable: she could well have plagiarised it from Glenn Reynolds, who also used it apparently without thinking much about its historical legacy in the Wall Street Journal. While some have quickly looked up other instances of commentators and politicians using "blood libel" outside of its anti-Semitic context, there's nothing to suggest it's even begun to become removed from its origins. Palin might have meant to use the phrase in its simplest terms, that she's been libelled due to the connections made between her and the attack on Giffords, yet any potential leader of a nation ought to be aware of other possible connotations of the words they use, or have them checked beforehand. That however seems to be absolute anathema to her: unwilling to admit she was wrong to use crosshairs on that now infamous image which Giffords herself criticised at the time for having potential consequences, she instead turned everything that has happened since Saturday back onto how badly she feels she's been treated. Given an opportunity to express humility or deliver a conciliatory message, to recognise or suggest that language on both sides might have gotten out of hand and that even though she bore no responsibility for Jared Lee Lougher's actions, it was time to tone things down, she rejected it entirely.

How very far removed from the latest cynical construction to describe those that politicians most want to appeal to back over here. We've had to put up with Ed Miliband's ludicrous "squeezed middle" for quite some time already, a corset that apparently all those earning between £16,000 (way below the average wage) and £50,000 (more than double the average) a year are being painfully constricted by, and now we've been presented with the "alarm clock Britons". Unlike Sarah Palin alighting upon a phrase that she thinks will sound good, you know as soon as you hear it that "alarm clock Britain" has gone before innumerable focus groups, all of whom despite doubtless secretly loathing it said that it was a fantastic description, either of them personally or of those other hard-working folk who get woken up at ungodly hours either by a hypnotic beep or the blasting white noise of a radio at maximum volume. It seems most likely to be a direct carry-on from that charming observation made by George Osborne about who he wanted to be supporting: the low paid worker going out in the dark, frustrated and angry at the blinds being pulled down at the house opposite.

As Paul Sagar notes, Nick Clegg's entire article in the Sun based around this mythical "alarm clock Britain", as well as containing even more cliches than the average football commentary, is all about creating dichotomies. While the likes of Palin just come right out and say just how much they hate those they're opposing and how what they're doing is ruining the country, we instead have Clegg celebrating the hard-working, sneering at those on "state handouts" (not benefits, which is a far less harsh way of describing those down on their luck or sick) and insulting Ed Miliband for err, being prepared "to hide beneath the duvet". The problem is that it's wholly unconvincing, as the derisory 11 comments the piece has received suggests, and that has to be partially because it's staggeringly obvious Clegg had no role whatsoever in writing it. Whether ghosted by a Sun hack or Andy Coulson, Sun readers know when they're being played or patronised: they might take such bullshit from an unsigned editorial, but not delivered to them as the authentic words of a politician. You can only create divisions properly when there's either real feeling or breathtaking cant behind the message: Clegg and almost all British politicians have absolutely nothing on our American brothers and sisters in that respect.

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