Monday, February 28, 2011 

Ignoring the Libyan people.

What, dear friends, would you have thought the two most obvious and major lessons of
the upheaval of the last 8 weeks should have been? Firstly, that almost anything can and will happen once the previous pervading sense of fear which inhibits those in autocratic states is overcome, to wildly generalise. Secondly, that you should never underestimate the power of a people all but united, their differences temporarily rendered irrelevant in the pursuit of a popular cause. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions brought down leaders whom had been in power for decades in a matter of days, to the amazement of everyone, including those who taking part in the protests. Even though the discontent and underlying factors behind the demonstrations had been coalescing for some time, next to no one expected the capitulation to be so swift or the movements established to be so broad-based and inclusive.

It's therefore just ever so slightly bewildering to witness the turn of events not in Libya itself, but back here in the West. Even by the standards set by the Tunisians and Egyptians, the Libyan uprising has been little short of astonishing. Twelve days ago many were confidently predicting the country was unlikely to be racked by the same demands for change reverberating around the rest of the Middle East, Gaddafi's state apparatus and the country's relative oil wealth mitigating against a similar taking to the streets. In that incredibly short space of time, helped along by "the Leader's" murderous response to the days of rage, much of the country has been effectively liberated; many of the country's diplomats, ministers and army divisions have defected; and only the capital and an ever dwindling section of land in the centre of the country remains under the Colonel's control.

You'd be forgiven for thinking then that the Libyans themselves have so far made a fairly decent job of organising their own revolution, and indeed of protecting their gains. Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia it's true that there have almost certainly been far higher casualties, although no one has been able to provide anything approaching a definitive tally of dead and injured, most estimates suggesting 600+. Impossible as it is to rule anything out, going by the first lesson we've identified, Gaddafi's regime looks to be into its last days. Key now is just how quickly the end will come and whether, if he can't be persuaded to leave, and judging by his interviews that seems doubtful in the extreme, just how many of his own people he might be prepared to take down with him. This is tempered by what we've already seen over the past two weeks: that the vast majority of the forces left in his control have disobeyed orders to attack the protesters. Perhaps anticipating this, he brought in an unknown number of mercenaries, who have succeeded for now in brutally suppressing the uprising in Tripoli itself.

Quite why then there's been so much talk about the potential for imposing a no fly zone is difficult to gauge, given what's happened so far and the efficacy of what one would assume to be the model for the intervention, the no-fly zones maintained in Iraq until the overthrow of Saddam. While there's been reports of protesters being bombed and raids continuing today, there's been no confirmation that they've either been the main or a major source of casualties, or that the targets being hit over the past few days, rather than being civilian have been what would normally be considered legitimate in an internal conflict, arms caches apparently having been attacked. This isn't to suggest that Gaddafi's remaining air power isn't his most deadly potential weapon should he choose to use it and his pilots be prepared to obey their orders; it's more that we seem to be increasingly willing to get involved in a uprising in which we've hardly so far played the best role possible, and when the people themselves have shown no indication that they want direct help rather than the international support they've overwhelmingly received.

After all, it is worth a moment's reflection: up until 2 weeks ago we'd continued to supply Gaddafi with assault rifles and all the tear gas and rubber bullets he could possibly desire, all part of the reward for getting rid of his WMD and opening up his country to Western businesses. Just like France was stung over Tunisia, up until two days before Ben Ali fled offering to help put down the demonstrators, and how it took the Americans an incredibly long time to finally come to the conclusion that Mubarak had to go, so we've found ourselves in the position of having cosied up to a vile dictator and then been forced by events to turn the existing policy on its head. From arming the government David Cameron is now keeping his options open on arming the opposition, as if they don't already seem to have enough seized weaponry, some of it doubtless fresh from our finest defence manufacturers. Handing out guns and missiles without much thought for the future consequences is never the brightest idea at the best of times: doing so now as an entire region finds its voice and has up till now done so peacefully is a remarkably daft idea.

We seem to have moved from one extreme to something close to the other, ordering a leader to go and threatening to barge in to help, all while not putting much to any trust in those we've ignored from the very beginning, the Libyan people. Some of the thinking behind the possible no-fly zone may well be to make up for the previous lack of care, yet it also carries with it a history which is far from being completely straight. While the no-fly zone in the north of Iraq was an undoubted success and helped towards the Kurds gaining semi-autonomy, the no fly zone in the south may have stopped the killing from the air but did nothing whatsoever to end the oppression on the ground. If anything it helped to entrench Saddam's position over those last twelve years, and the regular sorties flew in the south did not endear the population towards either the Americans or ourselves. There always needs to be contingency planning, yet the very thought of regulating Libyan air space suggests that we do not believe that Gaddafi's fall is imminent, especially considering the time it would take to impose, requiring a UN resolution. This is to ignore just how swift the capitulation has so far been, and how quickly things could and almost certainly will change. Juan Cole suggests that Libya's oil production could well be a factor in the thinking towards intervention, carrying with it all the negative connotations of Iraq. And as Andrew Exum pointed out last Friday, western intervention in any Arab country, regardless of motives, is met with suspicion and anger.

Everything then should point us towards letting the intifada take its course. The "hands off" concept however seems to be one we simply can't follow, and the real reasons behind that may well shortly make themselves properly known.

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Saturday, February 26, 2011 


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Friday, February 25, 2011 

Glib liberal interventionists.

I don't always find myself in agreement with the excellent Abu Muqawama blog, so this more than deserves repeating:

We are now paying the price for having waged two very difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that far too few Americans have participated in or been made to sacrifice for. I sometimes get accused of being a hawk because I have argued that resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaigns have represented our best chance to salvage bad situations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but my experiences in both countries also taught me that a) force has its limits and b) we should all be very cautious about committing U.S. troops to combat operations in the first place. I'm horrified to read liberal interventionists continue to suggest the ease with which humanitarian crises and regional conflicts can be solved by the application of military power. To speak so glibly of such things reflects a very immature understanding of the limits of force and the difficulties and complexities of contemporary military operations. And then there is this:

I do not see a Middle East rising up in anger at the prospect of American intervention.

Hoo boy. Have I read that before?

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Thursday, February 24, 2011 

A uniquely British security fudge.

The last week has seen another of those uniquely British security fudges played out in the Royal Courts of Justice. Having never managed to obtain the full independent inquiry into the 7/7 bombings long campaigned for and demanded by the majority of the relatives of those killed by the four suicide bombers, the equally long in coming inquest into the 56 deaths that day has had to serve in its place. With the evidence of how the day unfolded now finished, attention has turned to the long crucial questions: just how much did MI5 really know about the four bombers, and was there anything they could have done if not to stop the bombings, then at least to have identified the men beforehand?

As could have been expected from our intelligence services, so utterly wedded to operating in the shadows, they've from the very outset attempted to provide as little actual information and evidence to the coroner as they conceivably could, legally challenging Lady Justice Hallett's every decision, and thankfully have also lost on nearly every attempt. The evidence given this week by someone who can only be identified as Witness G, the chief of staff to Jonathan Evans, the head of MI5, is the product of these battles and eventual compromise. From originally having only been prepared to appear in a closed session, where only the coroner, the lawyers and the clerks of the court would be allowed to sit, MI5 was eventually forced into accepting that the families would also be allowed to see Witness G giving evidence, the coroner accepting the validity of what she termed their "whites of their eyes" argument (PDF). The media were however excluded, not apparently to be trusted with seeing a member of the security services and not blabbing about what he looked like. Considering how often they're briefed by "senior intelligence sources", this seems ever so slightly ridiculous.

Then again, much of what the security services have tried to avoid doing has been ridiculous. it hasn't been explained properly for instance why all of the above could not have been avoided entirely, by Jonathan Evans himself giving evidence. He was after all deputy director general of the service at the time of the bombings, and had previously been the most senior officer involved in international counter-terrorism. Him appearing for MI5 would have showed the organisation to be fully accountable, as say the CIA is in America, where George Tenet testified in public before the 9/11 commission, and entirely removed the need for anonymity orders, as well as any additional risk to Witness G, the claimed reason for why he couldn't appear publicly. Presumably one argument being made against would be that it would be obvious as to where such a potentially high profile target for an attack would be for a whole week, although this hardly stops the prime minister for instance from residing in what is hardly the most secure building, or indeed from walking along Whitehall with only a couple of bodyguards. Just like Evans and his predecessor have refused to appear before parliamentary human rights committees, so it seems the only public space they're willing to occupy despite their identities no longer being secret is the lecterns they give the occasional speech from.

If the inquest up till now has provided the opportunity for catharsis for all those involved either directly or indirectly on that terrible day, then it's doubtful whether Witness G's evidence will ultimately provide the closure that the relatives and survivors seek. The expression of regret for not preventing the attack was expected, although whether it really is "nonsensical and offensive" to suggest that they could have prevented an attack they had long warned would eventually come is far more dubious. Very little has been disclosed or explained in more detail than when we first learned that despite originally claiming the bombers were "clean-skins", Mohammad Siddique Khan for one had been on the periphery of counter-terrorism investigations since 2001 without ever being named. Certainly, there hasn't been anything approaching a properly adequate explanation as to why certain leads weren't followed up which can't be simply all put down to lack of resources or because they were deemed to only be involved in funding related fraud: it has long seemed extraordinary that despite MI5 following Khan and Shezhad Tanweer up the M1 after they had met with Omar Khyam, the ringleader of the fertilizer bomb plot, and taking the photograph that would be later appallingly cropped and greyscaled that they were never positively identified.

The clarity of the photograph of the two bombers is one of the few new submissions to come out of the inquest. Back in 2007 MI5 claimed that the quality was "very poor", only for the more than decent colour version to now emerge. Witness G's explanation as to why the copy forwarded to the US for supergrass Mohammed Junaid Babar to peruse was edited was unconvincing to say the least: it could have been altered to conceal the circumstances in which it was taken. To take a wild guess it looks like the product of a concealed pinhole lens, certainly something the FBI will have. In any case, expecting someone to make a identification based on such a poor copy as that sent across was optimism epitomised, or alternatively just going through the motions, which might just explain why such a poor job was made of cropping it. When in doubt, the ultimate excuse has been resorted to: Witness G couldn't provide the full details on why a significant lead in March 2005 wasn't followed up without affecting "national security". Quite how national security would be significantly damaged 6 years on by explaining in full why it wasn't followed up is anyone's guess; surely investigations aren't still continuing with links going back that far, and it seems unlikely the source(s) could be identified by doing so considering the amount of time that has passed.

Whether the families will ultimately be convinced by Witness G's final assertion that even if the leads had been followed up, there was no realistic prospect of the plot being uncovered remains to be seen. Even the most ardent critics of the security services, myself included, accept that it is impossible for every attack to be foiled, and that they are often between the proverbial rock and a hard place: assaulted for scaremongering and then also for failing when they do make mistakes. The ultimate test is whether the equally clichéd lessons have been learned, and while MI5's resources, links with police forces and capability to follow up leads have all been improved and upgraded, where they continue to fall down is in accountability and openness, as the inquest has so acutely identified. As they obviously have no interest in reforming themselves in this regard, it has to be up to the government to force them. All the signs are that this will be yet another subject the coalition will flunk.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011 

The Libyan third way.

It's being linked from just about everywhere (thanks to Jamie and commenters) yet this extraordinary piece from four years ago by Anthony "Third Way" Giddens on his visit to Libya deserves even more exposure:

Dressed in a brown-gold robe, he cuts an impressive figure. There are no guards or minders in view, and the occasion is a completely informal one. He is instantly recognisable and would be so to a great many people across the world, whatever their feelings about him might be. In a way, it is an extraordinary phenomenon. Libya is a tiny country in terms of population, with only 5.8 million people. Gaddafi's global prominence is altogether out of proportion to the size of the nation he leads. He is now 64, in power since 1969. Rumours abound that he is in failing health, but he looks robust.

You usually get about half an hour when meeting a political leader. My conversation with Gaddafi lasts for more than three. Gaddafi is relaxed and he clearly enjoys intellectual conversation. We sit close together and occasionally sip mint tea. He has a tiny notebook in front of him, into which he sometimes makes short scribbled entries. He is not a fidgety person but has a calm, articulate manner, and cracks the odd joke or two as we go along. The only other direct participant is a man who has just flown in from New York, apparently especially to do the translation.

It does show all the signs of the classic invited humbled guest being overwhelmed by the sheer political power wielded by The Leader, as Giddens assures us he is universally known as. More than anything though you would suspect it's the flattery - just as Tony Blair's grasping of the Third Way ensured Giddens's name would go down in political as well as sociological history, it was unthinkable that he'd turn down the opportunity to hear even the most ghastly dictator being complimentary about his main body of work over the past decade. Not that Gadaffi is the only autocrat Blair and friends tried to sell the Third Way to: back in 1998 he suggested to the Chinese they too were followers of the path of triangulation. That same BBC article even discusses the possibility of Giddens being ennobled and joining another load of unelected politicians: 5 years later he duly became Baron Giddens.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2011 

David Cameron thinks you're a cretin.

Last week at prime minister's questions, as wonderfully noted by Simon Hoggart, the Labour MP for Greenwich Nick Raynsford stood up and asked David Cameron what abiding image those visiting London for next year's Olympics games would take home with them. The suggestion was that it could well be the number of homeless on the streets as a result of the double whammy of the "government's economic failure and harsh housing benefit cuts". While it wasn't the sharpest of questions and in any case as past Olympics have shown such undesirables are "moved on" from the vicinity of the main gaming locations for the duration, Cameron completely ignored the implication and instead answered the question he hoped to have been asked, a ploy increasingly abused at PMQs. Even though Raynsford had explicitly made clear that one of the memories that could be taken would be a "brilliantly, successfully staged Olympic games", Cameron decided that his inquisitor had somehow besmirched the glorious 3-week long farrago of dick-measuring, replying "if the Member who represents Greenwich cannot speak up for the Olympics, there really is a problem".

As for whether Cameron was being deliberately obtuse or whether it comes naturally to him, why can't it be both? While we hardly expect prime ministers to answer every question posed to them in the chamber in the fashion in which they are asked, especially as it would set some sort of precedent, when they start acting in the same obscurantist fashion outside of parliament in a supposedly neutral venue like Kuwait it suggests firstly that they're a complete cretin and secondly that they think you are as well.

One of the best ways to do this at the same time as misrepresenting the criticism being made against you is to feign disbelief. While then Cameron has been attacked for essentially acting as the fluffer for the arms firms he's touring the Gulf states with and for deciding to go ahead with the whole shebang just as most of the oppressed peoples of the region are either rising up or planning to protest against the self-same autocrats he'll be glad-handing, he limited the entire argument just to Kuwait. Poor old Dave simply can't

understand how you can't understand how democracies have a right to defend themselves. I would have thought this argument is particularly powerful right here in Kuwait which, 20 years ago, was invaded by a thuggish bullying neighbour who disrespected your sovereignty, invaded your country and destroyed parts of your capital city.

No one, it's almost needless to say, had so much as even suggested that democracies should be denied the right to defend themselves by being entirely denied the weaponry with which to do it with. Kuwait is after all a democracy, although not one which we would instantly recognise as such. Indeed, according to Human Rights Watch freedom of speech and assembly both came under attack last year, while only on Saturday a peaceful protest was broken up using "water cannons, teargas, smoke bombs, and concussion grenades", or in other words exactly what David Cameron has gone to the country to help flog, and which aren't much use in putting down say, a renewed invasion attempt by Iraq. We could also point out that at the time Iraq invaded Kuwait we'd been clandestinely supplying weapons or their precursors to Saddam anyway, although perhaps it'd be better if we didn't go over those past Conservative-helmed indiscretions in too much detail.

In any case, as Cameron went on, when we do take part in the defence trade "we do so with probably the tightest set of export licences and rules almost anywhere in the world". So tight in fact that as we've seen, last year we sold ammunition and tear gas to Libya while Bahrain gratefully received assault rifles. Neither prior to last month's protests was anything resembling a democracy, to address Cameron's first point, while we should acknowledge that as he said it's a "difficult process to get right on every occasion". It certainly is: who could have possibly imagined what purpose Gaddafi and the Sunni absolute monarchy of Bahrain would have used tear gas for? As for the United Arab Emirates, where defence minister Gerald Howarth is currently at the Idex 2011 arms fair, to whom last year we sold heavy machine guns amongst other "controlled" exports and which Cameron will be making a stop off at some point, HRW informs us that last year things worsened, with a member of the royal family acquitted of torturing a man despite the video evidence which showed him "abusing Afghan grain dealer Mohammed Shah Poor with whips, electric cattle prods, and wooden planks with protruding nails".

Who then could possibly be ashamed of our "properly regulated trade in defence"? Certainly not our completely unembarrassed, straight-forward and honest prime minister, and most certainly not the beneficiary he went out to meet. Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al-Ahmed al-Sabah has £70bn to spend over 4 years; something of a raise on the under £7,000,000 Kuwait spent on goods sold under military licence last year. Money, as they say, talks.

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Monday, February 21, 2011 

The secret to arms sales is timing.

Say what you like about David Cameron, he has a sense of timing that many aspiring comedians would die for. Other prime ministers might well have thought twice about going ahead with an ordinary trade tour of Gulf states just as the region is in tumult, being rocked by wave after wave of protests against those very autocratic rulers he's in popping in to see. It could after all seem slightly sordid and tasteless to be flogging the nation's wares at such a time to those that are buying it with the stolen national wealth of their own citizens.

David Cameron isn't just any prime minister, though: he's the head of a government that's decided the best thing our ambassadors and embassy staff abroad can do is get out there and sell Britain. Literally.

"I want you to ask yourself every day: 'What am I doing to promote British business?' If you want to keep Britain's great ambassadorial residences then I want you to show me that every day you are using them relentlessly to open new trade links and to generate new business for Britain."

Never mind things like just how utterly revolting the regime is or whether or not doing business there involves the everyday use of backhanders; get out there and start promoting!

We should then see Cameron's decision to travel to Kuwait with eight of our finest arms manufacturers in tow as him just doing his bit for British business. Even he, blatant and brazen as he is, must have had more than a slight twinge about how this would be seen just as the Bahrani and Libyan security forces have respectively turned their Western supplied and British manufactured weapons on those demanding the same freedoms their brothers in Tunisia and Egypt have won in the last month. Whether it was his own plan or not, his time in charge of PR at Carlton still serving him well, the decision to stop off for an "unannounced" "surprise visit" in newly liberated Cairo was a master stroke. It's also the most blatant and cynical piece of spin yet resorted to by the new government, the kind which had it happened under our previous overlords would have resulted in spirited denunciations of ZaNuLiarBore and its despicable media management practices.

In any case, the main whoring out is being spiritedly conducted by Gerald Howarth, long a shadow defence minister and also one who condemned the Guardian as a "communist newspaper which has it in for BAE [Systems]", the paper having had the temerity to suggest that some of its dealings had been corrupt. He's out in Abu Dhabi, for now a haven of stability in an uncertain Middle East, at the largest regional arms fair of the year, where 93 individual British companies are touting for business. On public display will be the very equipment being deployed by those who wish to put down peaceful protest, such as rubber bullets and CS gas, and doubtless under the table as previously documented by Mark Thomas amongst others will be other devices which can easily be used to torture and shackle the more obstreperous citizens.

We can't of course put any blame on the coalition for the policy carried over involving engagement with Libya, which along with Gadaffi's giving up of his nuclear program and other weapons of mass destruction involved selling him exactly what his armed forces needed to be able to put down the current protests, the licences only now being hastily withdrawn. It's the same story with so much of the weaponry we sell - we never actually expect it to be used, and then only when the proverbial horse has bolted do we (temporarily) stop supplying it. We did however go somewhat further with Libya, as has been noted: we can be proud that ours was the biggest pavilion at the very recent Libyan arms fair held back in November.

Among the weapons on display were these ME-7,62mm Rangemaster sniper rifles, manufactured by RPA International of Tonbridge, Kent. It's a fair bet that a similar weapon fired the high calibre bullet which did this, a link you most certainly shouldn't visit if you're at work or squeamish.

The final word should then be left to Peter Luff, the defence procurement minister, speaking last year:

"There’s a sense that in the past we were rather embarrassed about exporting defence products. There’s no such embarrassment in this government."

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Saturday, February 19, 2011 

Hands in the air.

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Friday, February 18, 2011 

And the prize for worst excuse for phone hacking goes to...

Whatever Glenn Mulcaire has admitted to today in regards to the phone hacking at the News of the Screws, there was no way he could possibly top this from the lawyer for Dan Evans:

Michael Silverleaf QC, representing Dan Evans, said the evidence clearly showed that Dan Evans had dialled Hoppen accidentally. Evans remembered nothing of the calls. The keys on his phone were inclined to stick and to dial numbers accidentally. The use of his own phone to do something which he knew to be illegal would have been "quite unbelievably stupid". A search of his office and home computers had yielded no sign that he was interested in Hoppen until he was told of the allegation against him. The one occasion on which he appeared to have dialled into her voicemail was "one rogue call which nobody has yet explained", Silverdale told the court.

Yes, out of all the millions of combinations of numbers that could have been rang as a result of the keys on his phone sticking in, it just so happened, against all the odds, that Hoppen's was one of them. The use of his own phone would indeed have been "quite unbelievably stupid", as it seems is the brief expecting a court to believe the utter rubbish coming out of his mouth.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011 

The politics of apologising.

A member of parliament stepping up to the dispatch box to make an apology is a rare, strange, but welcome sight to behold. Generally, politicians only ever say sorry when forced into it, as is required when parliament has been misled, always accidentally, never deliberately, or when the time comes to apologise for a past government outrage or misdeed which the current generation can hardly be held personally responsible for. Hence Tony Blair apologised about the Irish potato famine and expressed "deep sorrow" for the British role in the slave trade, following in the footsteps of Bill Clinton, yet could never find the right words when it came to the very real role we had in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and hundreds of servicemen. When he did murmur a few platitudes at the end of his second performance in front of the Chilcot inquiry, it was in the words of those observing, "too late".

The obvious idea behind Caroline Spelman standing up and despite her claims to the contrary, humiliating herself was that it's always difficult to strike the right balance between being conciliatory and critical when someone has already admitted that they've been in the wrong, as Mary Creagh went on to show. Delivering the political equivalent of a kick to the head when they've gone down on the floor voluntarily doesn't come over well, even if it might have been deserved. There was also something of the show trial about the whole spectacle, though: Spelman wasn't really apologising on the behalf of the government; she was, as she said, taking "full responsibility for the situation". Much as the Conservatives are currently preaching about personal responsibility, it seems rather unfair for Spelman, patronising as she is, to take all of the blame. After all, whatever happened to cabinet responsibility? Didn't they nod and say nothing when it was discussed, even though their backbenchers must have told them how it was playing with their constituents? Indeed, didn't the vast majority of MPs in the coalition vote down the opposition amendment tabled only two weeks ago, a grand total of three MPs from each party rebelling?

If anything signalled that the policy of putting forests up for sale was to be cut off at the root, it was Damian Green's failure to put up anything even resembling a defence of it on Question Time a fortnight ago. When you consider that ministers in the past have defended far worse things on the show with much greater tenacity even if they didn't personally believe in the case they had to make as a member of the government, it showed just doomed the "consultation" was from the beginning.

The question therefore has to be how it came to be put forward in the first place, as it wasn't in the coalition agreement or in either party's manifesto, and furthermore how it was accepted as anything approaching a good idea. As loathsome a part of modern politics as focus groups are, surely even a couple of sessions would have shown just how unpopular and indefensible the policy was. It shouldn't have even came to that: if there's two things everyone loves, it's dumb, defenceless animals and trees, as long as they're not casting shadow on their garden. You can do just about anything you like to people and get away it, as the welfare reform plans and cuts in general show; befoul or threaten nature and you'll soon have a petition with 500,000 signatures on your desk. It's why the donkey sanctuary in Devon gets £20 million a year in donations while three which provide services for women who have suffered domestic violence and abuse received £17m combined.

Ultimately, it has to be the prime minister that takes overall responsibility, and it's further evidence that David Cameron is both unwilling to do so and that less than a year in he's already out of touch with public opinion. Some are blaming the flux as Andy Coulson has departed and his new media team are bedding in, but it goes beyond that. This early into a parliament a prime minister shouldn't have to admit to not being happy about a policy when asked about it by the increasingly effective opposition leader. It smacks of casual arrogance and a laxity from all involved. Like with yesterday, it also shows just how hopeless the Liberal Democrats continue to be at urging sanity to prevail; the influence they're supposed to wield either doesn't exist in reality or is ignored and brushed aside just as dissent was under New Labour.

Today's embarrassment will be shrugged off and eventually forgotten about, especially as the real worst is yet to come. It does however provide one valuable lesson: that this government can be browbeaten into u-turns when public opinion is seen to be overwhelming. That should warm the hearts of all those currently organising resistance.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011 

An appalling slur.

One of the absolute worst traits of the last government, of the many to choose from, was the way it characteristically over a number of years responded to judgements which went against it. A mixture of posturing verging occasionally on the bullying, both David Blunkett and John Reid during their periods as home secretary fulminated against the judiciary when they dared to suggest that they should reconsider the legal consequences of their policies, both on criminal justice and anti-terrorism. Blunkett at one point all but dared the judiciary to find fault with elements of what would become the Terrorism Act of 2006, while Reid's blunderbuss approach ultimately ended up with him being hoist by his own petard, unable to live up to the populist image of himself presented in the tabloids.

The attorney general Dominic Grieve said at the weekend that we're about to experience "what I suspect is going to be the least populist period of government that you have had for many a year". In many respects, he may well be right: Ken Clarke's prison policy has marked an end to the "incarceration works" consensus of almost the past two decades, while Nick Clegg's freedom bill will roll back many of the authoritarian measures introduced by Labour. While the latter plays better with the Daily Mail than it does with the likes of the Sun, both are little short of furious over the former. Add in how certain Conservative backbenchers have long played a happy role providing quotes to the tabloids over the latest human rights outrage, benefits scandal or prisoner privileges' passing frenzy and it's obvious that something has to give, regardless of what the Liberal Democrats think.

Hence it's time to once again beat up on the judges for interpreting the law as they see it. Last Thursday saw the Commons effectively engage in a four-hour long orgy of European Court of Human Rights bashing, with many muttering darkly, aided by a spectacularly badly researched and argued Policy Exchange report, that it's about time we disengaged ourselves from the court we created after it rather meekly suggested that we reconsider our "disproportionate" ban on all prisoners being denied suffrage. Cameron previously had ascended to new heights of hyperbole in claiming that even the thought of doing so made him feel "physically sick", surely meaning that the nausea must rise the moment he makes almost any decision about anything. That perhaps could be expected in response to a ruling emanating from "Europe", where madness is mandatory; far more disgraceful is that both Cameron and Theresa May today referred to the decision of the supreme court from last April that those convicted of sexual offences should have a right to appeal against indefinite inclusion on the state register as "appalling", and one which they would take the "minimum possible approach" to.

In fact, the "minimum possible approach" amounts to making the conditions of being on the register even more onerous, apparently out of nothing more than spite for the case being brought and for the judges who every step of the way agreed that there should be some sort of system of review in place. Those travelling abroad for even a day will now have to report their movements to the police, down from the 3 days currently in statute. Few (including myself) will quibble with 15 years having to pass before anyone can appeal against their permanent inclusion on the register, as all those sentenced to longer than 30 months' imprisonment for a sexual offence are automatically, but the police hardly seem the best agency to make an impartial and independent ultimate decision on the matter. Lord Philips in the ruling wrote "that there must be some circumstances in which an appropriate tribunal could reliably conclude that the risk of an individual carrying out a further sexual offence can be discounted to the extent that continuance of notification requirements is unjustified." The police don't even begin to fit that description.

While it's easy to complain about such potentially devious and depraved individuals as the paedophile in the popular imagination being given a state sanctioned opportunity to return to their wicked former ways, it's worth remembering that one of the two who brought the case was convicted of his offence as an 11-year-old boy. As terrible as his crime, the rape of a 6-year-old was, it is surely right that he should be able to challenge at some point the restrictions he will otherwise face for the rest of his life. We don't expect those convicted of other crimes before they are 16 to be ultimately paying for their offence until their dying day, unable to prove that they can be trusted to live without informing the authorities of their every significant move. Is it really so appalling that three separate sets of judges said that the government should think again?

Apparently it is. Theresa May even resorted to the same kind of argument constantly wheeled out by the likes of Blunkett and Reid, stating "[I]t is time to assert that parliament makes our laws, not the courts, that the rights of the public come before the rights of criminals and, above all, that we have a legal framework that brings sanity to cases such as these." The courts of course have never even began to make the law: the supreme court's ruling is not binding, nor does it strike down the current system. Martin Kettle summarised the position best when commenting on the Belmarsh ruling back in 2004:

The first is that neither judicial review nor the development of human rights law is a judicial invasion of the legislature's turf. Executive action has always had to be lawful, and it has always been for the courts to decide what is lawful and what is not. Judicial review, as Lord Irvine said in the House of Lords in 1996, promotes the rule of law. It rules only on the legality of a decision, not its correctness.

Again, like with New Labour much of this sabre-rattling is doubtless for show rather than out of real genuine conviction, or at least one would hope so. How sad however that a government which on the whole has attempted to make a clean break from the previous administration's stance on civil liberties and criminal justice finds itself so soon resorting back to the failed populist politics of the past, with the Liberal Democrats not even raising a whimper in protest.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2011 

A return to the wonderful world of Nadine Dorries.

It's been a while since we last delved into the zany antics of Nadine Dorries, the inestimable Conservative member for mid-Bedfordshire, or as some wags have taken to referring to the constituency thanks to its association with Dorries, mid-Narnia. Things have continued in much the same fashion as they were previously - when criticised or even vaguely challenged over her political convictions, Dorries doesn't so much respond in kind as instead make incredibly serious accusations which either can't be substantiated or subsequently turn out to have been completely fictitious.

This perhaps isn't surprising from someone who told the parliamentary standards commissioner that her blog was "70% fiction and 30% fact", and who in response to her new relationship becoming public recruited her boyfriend's daughter to attack her own mother in uncompromising terms. It is however coming to something when a further perfectly legitimate inquiry into Dorries' use of parliamentary expenses has resulted in yet more allegations being flung in the direction of those asking the questions. Lynn Elson, described by the Bedfordshire on Sunday as Dorries' "researcher and media inquiry representative" quit at the weekend after Tim Ireland raised questions over the amount Elson's company, Marketing Management Midlands Ltd was being paid out of the public purse. Apparently having taken lessons from Dorries' way of dealing with such irritants, she referred to Tim's investigation as "spiteful and fabricated tittle-tattle" and despite admitting that he had "never met me, spoken to me, had any contact with me" she had lodged "complaints relating to a man to both Bedfordshire and Gloucestershire police forces".

Unity, having provided Tim with some of the data for one of his posts explains in his typically forensic style exactly why Elson's employment and the amount she's been paid is unusual:

Elson’s parting smear in Bedfordshire on Sunday describes her as Dorries’ researcher and media inquiries representative, which is anything but an unusual role for an employee of an MP to fill, even if most of Elson’s national media work has consisted of fielding inquires about Dorries’ expenses and personal life. Most, if not all, MPs employ a parliamentary researcher, or ‘bag-carrier’ as they’re often referred to and MPs do have to field media inquiries, a task which routinely falls to their office staff. However most MPs, other than Dorries it seems, put their researchers directly on the Parliamentary payroll rather than employ them through a third-party arrangement with an outside company. Dorries is, so far as I can tell, the only MP to employ a researcher in this fashion, although other MPs do make use of agencies when hiring clerical/secretarial staff on a short-term basis.

In that sense, it would be unfair to make too much of Elson’s role on purely cost terms as what we’re actually seeing here are payments that other MPs make as a matter of routine but which don’t appear in the published expenses data as this excludes payments to staff employed directly through the House of Commons on a contract of employment.

However, it’s not just the manner of Elson’s employment that is atypical here. Her personal background as the middle-aged proprietor of a small and distinctly provincial public relations business – her main gig, other than working Dorries, appears to be organising a couple of local community awards events in Gloucestershire and South Warwickshire – is rather at odds with the usual collection of university graduates, student activists, local councillors and other minor politicos than tend to score jobs working for MPs as part of their personal plan to climb as far up the greasy political pole as they can possibly manage.

Then there’s the salary itself. IPSA’s current pay scales put the salary range for a research assistant at £23K-£33K a year, full time, although judging by the adverts on the W4MP recruitment website, around £25K-28K seems to be the usual going rate. Throughout her time working for Dorries, Elson was receiving payments of between £3450 and £3525 per month, the equivalent of £41K-£42K a year salary before tax and national insurance (and with no employer’s NI payable by Dorries) putting Elson right at the top end of the scale for a Senior Parliamentary Assistant had she worked for Dorries full-time, rather than splitting her time between Dorries and her other PR work back in Gloucestershire.

He also suggests what the real reason might be for Elson's sudden departure:

Looking at the payment arrangements, IR35 comes immediately to mind but then there also the little matter of the Daily Mirror report, in January, which claimed that Dorries’ expenses file has been passed to the Police for investigation, a story which appears to have confirmed by unnamed sources at the Telegraph.

What is not at all clear, as yet, is why this file was given to the police and which of Dorries’ expenses claims, if any, might be under investigation. Is it the issue of main/second home that the police are interested in, or they investigating other matters that have yet to be fully disclosed.

Whether anything comes of the file being passed to the police remains to be seen. What really is a cause for concern is that clearly vexatious complaints are being made to the police by proxy of a member for parliament who has consistently lied about and attacked those who have attempted to hold her to account. For just how much longer is the Conservative party going to stand idly by as one of their "honourable" members conducts herself in such a fashion?

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Monday, February 14, 2011 

Many ifs and Butts.

There's a rather glaring omission from today's Grauniad front page splash by Shiv Malik, revealing that jihadi turned supergrass Mohammed Junaid Babar has been released after serving than less than 5 years of a possible 70-year sentence: large sections of it are leftovers from Malik's abortive attempt at publishing a book heavily reliant on the testimony of Hassan Butt, another jihadi who supposedly turned his back on extremism, only for his credibility to come crashing down when he admitted in court that he was a "professional liar" and had taken Malik for a "right patsy".

While an accompanying box to the article (see above, not seemingly reproduced online) makes this clear, it doesn't mention the rather pertinent fact that Malik was writing the book with Butt. Indeed, this latest account Butt has provided Malik and Khurrum Wahid with makes things even murkier still. About the only thing now undisputed is that in 2000 Butt moved to Pakistan, where he worked for the now banned radical group al-Muhajiroun. After 9/11 he was joined by Babar. According to the new account given to both Wahid and Malik, Butt and Babar processed foreigners who arrived hoping to fight for the Taliban. How this tallies with Butt's subsequent proclamations both in court and when interviewed by Greater Manchester Police that he had never "been training ... been a jihadi" is uncertain.

Absolutely nothing properly tallies with Butt however. From his repeated returns to Pakistan, his profile as a "British jihadist" in Prospect magazine, his supposed realisation of the error of his ways and the numerous arrests by anti-terrorist police, only never to be charged, even after being denounced by the man that has helped convict so many others, something obviously isn't right. Finally confirmed, or at least as confirmed as anything involving Butt and Malik can be, by today's article is that Butt has long had some sort of relationship with MI5. Butt claims that he first turned to MI5 in the UK as part of the exit plan he and Babar had devised from their work in Pakistan, where they would first go even deeper into the jihadi world in an effort to show how useful they would be. Like most of Butt's tales, it seems scarcely credible: firstly, it's well documented that despite his claims of not being able to reintegrate himself into normal society, he was able to come and go from Britain to Pakistan even after he had been arrested multiple times with no problems whatsoever. If he'd really wanted to get out of al-Muhajiroun's work in Pakistan, he could have just stayed in this country. Furthermore, the idea that MI5 wouldn't have been interested in what he already knew having been involved in such a role is ludicrous: they would have been delighted to have him work for them in some sort of capacity.

Undisputed though is that Butt gave evidence at the trial of his best friend (subsequently convicted) in closed court "in the interests of national security", testimony which remains secret. This also raises just as many questions as it answers: if he really has long been some sort of MI5 double agent, why has he been repeatedly arrested and apparently very close to being charged with terrorism offences, unless it's all been for appearances? Why go through the whole doubtless heavily looked down upon "conversion" to fighting against Islamic extremism when he would have probably been getting some sort of stipend from the security services? Why continuously bring so much unwelcome attention to himself? Could it be possible that his brief period as a denouncer of those that claimed foreign policy was the main motivator for terrorism in this country was part of some sort of disinformation programme ran by the security services, only for it to all fall apart when the police insisted they had to investigate his ever wilder claims of involvement in attacks?

Certainly true is that MI5/6 offered the opportunity of work to many of those they've come into contact with in the course of investigations, including Binyam Mohamed, Omar Deghayes and Jamil el-Banna (Excuse the lack of links; the server currently hosting the blog is down, and I'm writing this relatively blind, and also not knowing when this is even going to be published). Where this leaves the main thrust of Malik's article is anyone's guess: half of the additional corroboration for Babar having contact with the Americans at the time he was organising the training camp attended by Mohammad Siddique Khan is either from the modern day equivalent of Billy Liar or someone with a tenuous connection with the UK state who can't seem to keep his mouth shut. Babar has long been someone whose full background is worthy of investigation, but the idea that he had a critical role in the leader of the 7/7 bombers becoming acquainted with explosives while a US asset seems too fantastic to be wholly accurate. One thing is absolutely undeniable: someone or some organisation somewhere is spreading a tidal wave of bullshit and misinformation and Malik seems to remain the pawn.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011 

On my own.

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Friday, February 11, 2011 

The pharaoh dethroned.

"The impact of what we do here today is going to be huge. When Mubarak falls, every country nearby is going to be shaking."

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Thursday, February 10, 2011 

Bullshit, vindictiveness and classic little Englander syndrome.

You wouldn't normally consider Denis MacShane likely to be one of the few MPs to stand up for "classic, bleeding-heart, do-gooding British liberalism". MacShane's voting record, possibly influenced by his time as a minister, includes voting very strongly for ID cards as well as 90 days detention without charge for terrorist suspects; he also made one of those poor souls administering the new expenses regime cry, later returning with chocolates in an attempt to make up for his behaviour. It's come to something then when his intervention into the debate on votes for prisoners is almost certainly the best informed and most cogently argued of the few to make the case for the extension of the franchise to some of those currently languishing in our prisons.

As to how heavy an influence the fact he's an ardent Europhile is on his opinion is open to question, but at least it's better to be somewhat consistent rather than just an eternal opportunist, a description which doesn't quite do justice to the wretched Jack Straw. There simply isn't a more loathsome individual left in the Commons than this lickspittle, a politician so repulsive that he must even have dogs vomiting when they set eyes on him. Lest we forget, Jack Straw oversaw the introduction of the Human Rights Act, which enshrined the European Convention in UK law. Since then he's done everything he possibly can to undermine it, culminating in him agreeing with the Daily Mail that it was seen as a villians' charter, all thanks to those completely irresponsible judges daring to come decisions that the right-wing press and populists everywhere simply can't abide.

No surprise then that of all people he could have shacked up with over the ECHR's judgement that some prisoners must have the right to vote, he decided to do so with David Davis. Davis at least is consistent in that he's a traditional libertarian: opposed to any restrictions on freedom for those who do no harm to others, highly punitive on those who do break the law. Even he however erred badly during the debate, saying that the concept "if you break the law, you should not make the law" is sound. This would be applicable if voters actually made the law: they do not. We elect representatives to do that for us, and that seems to have been the point most grievously missed by MPs. Those imprisoned currently, despite what some of the tabloids would have you believe, have next to no one who represents them and their concerns, and as a result prison reform is occasionally discussed but hardly ever acted upon or put into practice. It would be more than pushing it to suggest that giving prisoners the franchise would greatly improve the chances of this happening, but it would as has been previously argued put votes into it. Prisoners should be able to challenge the conditions under which they are held, something they can currently only do if they can prove their remaining rights are being infringed.

Straw meanwhile was as dependent as ever on being disingenuous. According to him to problem is not with either the HRA or the ECHR, but rather with "judicial activism", with the judges trying to carve out a role for themselves as an ultimate supreme court of Europe. Judicial activism is a phrase more associated with the right in America, used to condemn any decision which offends their morals. Anyone who reads the Hirst vs UK ruling in full will see that not only was much leeway given, but that it was also conciliatory and a majority rather than unanimous decision. It has since been built on by the Frodl vs Austria judgement, which is slightly more prescriptive, yet it's still clear that the court is not ordering that every prisoner must have the vote, only that a full ban is disproportionate. Despite much comment otherwise, and as the attorney general Dominic Grieve made clear, we are not obliged to follow the ruling to the letter, it's just that simply ignoring it completely is not an option. The Council of Europe criticised the UK last year for not introducing a full ban on smacking after we changed the law as a result of an ECHR ruling, but has not as yet gone any further. The same would almost certainly be the case if we allowed those imprisoned for two years or less to vote.

The end result, considering the media comment, was hardly as overwhelming as might have been expected. Only a third of the house voted with ministers and their shadows all abstaining, along with many others. 22 bravely voted against, MacShane strangely not among them according to the list on ePolitix, with Peter Bottomley deserving a special mention for being the only Tory to swim against the tide. We don't need so much "classic, bleeding-heart, do-gooding British liberalism" it seems as a few with a backbone prepared to stand up against bullshit, vindictiveness and classic little Englander syndrome, made even more ridiculous by how we drafted the ECHR in the first place.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2011 

A mug's game: analysing why it's kicking off everywhere.

I've come to a conclusion: trying to predict or work out where the Egyptian intifada is heading a mug's game, and there are a hell of a lot of drinking vessels out there already. One is Peter Hallward, whose article on CiF is slightly unkindly headlined Egypt's popular revolution will change the world. It isn't quite as bad as the sub-editor has tried to portray it; he has however been caught up in the fervour of the moment and forgotten the history of any number of uprisings past:

For whatever happens next, Egypt's mobilisation will remain a revolution of world-historical significance because its actors have repeatedly demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to defy the bounds of political possibility, and to do this on the basis of their own enthusiasm and commitment. They have arranged mass protests in the absence of any formal organisation, and have sustained them in the face of murderous intimidation. In a single, decisive afternoon they overcame Mubarak's riot police and have since held their ground against his informers and thugs. They have resisted all attempts to misrepresent or criminalise their mobilisation. They have expanded their ranks to include millions of people from almost every sector of society. They have invented unprecedented forms of mass association and assembly, in which they can debate far-reaching questions about popular sovereignty, class polarisation and social justice.

All of these things can be said of almost any people powered revolution of the past 200 years; the one area where it might perhaps be close to setting a precedent is the absence of any formal organisation, leading party or uniting opposition figure, and it could be argued that Twitter and Facebook have helped in this regard. This however ignores that the ultimate unifying figure is Mubarak himself, and that as long as he stays it seems so will the people.

While comment and "what this means" pieces, many written without the first clue have been plentiful, what really has been lacking is proper, rigorous analysis not just of the forces at work in Egypt and across the Middle East, but flowing across Europe and even America since the beginning of the financial crash. Newsnight's Paul Mason's twenty reasons why it's kicking off everywhere is at last a start on something resembling a condensation of the factors behind the various protests, replied to excellently by Richard over at the Third Estate. While it certainly is glib and facile to directly compare the student protests here with the genuine shaking of the very foundations of society over in Tunisia and Egypt, the differences and similarities are worth dwelling on.

One thing that seems to have been either glossed over, at least when it comes to the student protests, is class, and as 1-Speed-Bike put it, any movement that forgets about class is a bowel movement. Sunny is probably being slightly premature in declaring the student movement essentially dead, but one of its failings that he doesn't dwell on, other than how certain sections are still relying on the National Union of Students and the laughable Aaron Porter to organise things is that it comprehensively failed to attract, with some notable exceptions anyone other than those you would expect: it was thoroughly middle class, and to generalise, the upper or comfortably off middle class were over-represented. This didn't stop things from kicking off, yet it's notable when the protests were broadened to involve those protesting against the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance, affecting many of those that will be even further deterred from attending university by the increasing of tuition fees that they were positively energised as Paul Mason noted. It was these kids from our equivalent of the Parisian
banlieues, expressing their anger in terms far beyond the politeness of their peers, dancing to the grime and hip-hop they pumped out (Mason probably erred in terming it the dubstep rebellion) and completely prepared to meet violence with violence that made things truly exciting and different from what had gone before.

There was never enough momentum in simple opposition to the rise in fees, especially as the government was savvy enough to bring the vote forward to the first possible opportunity to build any wider resistance to the cuts agenda, although as Mason sets out, those truly involved from the beginning have migrated since to the UK Uncut protests and potentially even to Tahrir square. The biggest failure however has been to build on that final student protest, hindered as it somewhat was by the level of violence and the attack on the Royal shagging wagon. This is partially because the middle and working class kids don't only lead separate lives offline; they also do online. They're all on Facebook and some are probably also on Twitter, although Twitter is certainly more bourgeois than Facebook, it's that politics as we do it is of little to no interest to them. Without wanting to generalise too much and pick on easy targets, something like Netroots is completely alien, as is the point scoring nature of so much of the discourse on Twitter. Even taking into account the unifying nature of having a common enemy like Mubarak, our middle class activists, these "graduates with no future" couldn't even begin to hope to rally the sort of mass support the 25th of January movement has marshalled seemingly effortlessly.

I don't pretend to have an answer as to how the two can meet, or what either side should be doing to even facilitate such a thing. We don't however yet know just how radicalised some are going to become as a result of the cuts. While as Sunny argues most battles against them are going to be fought locally, David Seymour is right in saying that the government and Cameron especially doesn't have a vision for what the country is going to look like by 2015: today's PMQs (yes, I too go off into alien territory) showed just how intellectually threadbare he is when challenged even slightly on the bullshit of the "big society". Egypt should teach us, as if we needed to be reminded, that the possibility of a brighter tomorrow that transcends the wider social dynamic is everything.

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011 

The Maltese double cross part 5.

It's long seemed appropriate that the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi should have been shrouded in the same level of secrecy, confusion and controversy as that in which the search for those responsible for the Lockerbie bombing was and continues to be. It's also been indicative of the continuing low level of our politics, the hypocrisy of absolutely everyone involved, and what some would term as the cold, hard realities of diplomacy with dictatorships and others would regard as selling ourselves incredibly short.

The facts of the case remain completely unchanged following the cabinet secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell's review of all the papers involved, a review ordered by David Cameron almost certainly not in the interests of full transparency but instead in the hope of pulling something else out that could be blamed upon Gordon Brown and Labour, with a side order of sticking one up the Scottish National Party at the same time if possible. The background prior to al-Megrahi being diagnosed with terminal cancer surrounded the negotiation of the prisoner transfer agreement between Britain and Libya, which Libya subsequently linked to the ratification of the Exploration and Production Sharing agreement with BP. Strangely, from having previously wanted to exclude al-Megrahi from the PTA, under the weight of lobbying from BP, which was "suffering significant financial loss", Jack Straw suddenly decided that he could be included after all, although safe in the knowledge that the Scottish government would have to make the final decision. What the documents do disclose is that while opposing in public any possibility that al-Megrahi could be transferred back to Libya under the PTA, Kenny MacAskill wrote that it could be acceptable if authority over firearms legislation could be devolved and progress made over liabilities for damages concerning the Somerville judgement. This is as low as the SNP went, and in any case the UK government decided against concessions, going ahead with an exclusion free PTA regardless.

We were also previously unaware of just how far the UK government went in helping Libya with its representations to the Scottish government once al-Megrahi was diagnosed with cancer, and also how determined Labour ministers were that he should be returned. A "game plan" was drawn up, where ministers would stress that the decision was for the Scottish government to make, but would at the same time do all they could to facilitate contact between the two. In the event, much of this was rejected by the Scottish ministers as improper. Not elaborated on or redacted are exactly what threats the Libyans directly made or intimated in the event of al-Megrahi dying in custody. They were however serious enough for full contingency plans to be put in place to safeguard UK staff and nationals.

And that, more or less, is it. To say that there hasn't been the clichéd smoking gun uncovered is an understatement: the Scottish government did absolutely everything by the book. It didn't rush into making a decision as soon as it became clear the al-Megrahi was ill, it waited a further 10 months and received the medical opinion that he had less than 3 months to life, making him perfectly eligible for compassionate release. This incidentally, was almost what the US government intimated it would prefer to happen should al-Megrahi be released, the only difference being they would prefer him staying in Scotland rather than returning to Libya. It is worth being cynical about the possibility of a Scottish serial killer being released from prison in a similar fashion if he was struck down by a terminal illness, yet it's also hard to shake the feeling that the doubt about al-Megrahi's guilt also played a part in the considerations. This makes it all the more perverse or conversely, convenient, that he was all but forced into dropping his appeal before his compassionate release was announced. The embarrassment and brickbats the government would face over its decision would be nothing compared to his conviction being declared a miscarriage of justice.

The real outrage here apart from that is just how we conduct ourselves when making representations to some of the most repressive and unpleasant regimes on the face of the planet. It's worth remembering that Hosni Mubarak's 30 years in charge is nothing to Colonel Gaddafi's 41; if any Arab state is crying out for a revolution, Libya is it. While Tony Blair was Gaddafi's chief sycophant, Gordon Brown's cringe inducing letters to the tyrant, making clear how he looked "forward to developing a close and productive relationship" come fairly close. As with so much else, the "war on terror" and the apparent determination of government to help businesses regardless of any real remaining ties with the nation (BP's largest division is in America) overcame all obstacles: Libya is one of the nations we reached a wretched "memorandum of understanding" with, allowing us to deport "terrorist suspects" back to a country where torture is endemic safe in the knowledge that there'd leave the thumbscrews off just for us.

Secondary is just how pathetic and petty our politicians continue to be. Every opposition party in Scotland opposed the decision reached by the SNP, including the Scottish Labour party, almost certainly in spite of knowing just how Labour at Westminster was pushing for al-Megrahi's release behind the scenes. All, it is safe to say, would have reached exactly the same decision had they been the ones who had to make it. Much the same is the case in Westminster. Only last week did Lord Carlile signal that the UK should continue down the road of reaching MoUs with nations which we ordinarily would be unable to deport foreign "terrorist suspects" to, meaning that more authoritarian states will be dealt with in just the same fashion. David Cameron at least, in making the statement to the Commons yesterday on the report didn't tear into Labour as he could have done, no doubt for the same reason that he now finds himself sucking up to every dictator in Africa and the Middle East in much the same fashion, perhaps even more so considering the usual Conservative dedication to helping British business wherever they can, regardless of what they're doing and who it affects. I don't think I can really say it better than I did at the time:

Somewhere in all of this there is a dying man, denied the opportunity to clear his name, and over 280 families in similar circumstances, some equally uncertain of how their loved ones came to die, others outraged by the decision to release the man in anything other than a box. All are being ignored for as ever, short term political gain. This isn't going to win any elections, it isn't even going to make a difference in opinion polls; it's either, according to your view, bringing a good, humane decision into disrepute, or even further distracting attention from someone who has escaped justice. Politics is as usual struggling to pull itself out of the sewer.

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