Saturday, June 30, 2012 

Lost in space.

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Friday, June 29, 2012 

When there's nothing left to burn.

On the same day as a judge considers whether to order a review of the Work Capability Assessment's deficiencies, a man sets himself on fire outside a Jobcentre after an apparent change in the benefit he was receiving. Still, got to be cruel to be kind, haven't you?

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Thursday, June 28, 2012 

From scandal to scandal.

The parallels between News International and Barclays are obvious. Both were/are arrogant, strutting companies, ran by arrogant, strutting individuals who believed that they were above the law. Both believed that they could either deride or injunct their critics, protected as they were by their connections with the most powerful in society. Both believed that they could obfuscate their way through a period of trouble, whether it was countless NI execs and editors claiming their problems were all the fault of one rogue reporter, or Bob Diamond saying first that the time for apologies was over, before thinking better of it and declaring how he was determined to make Barclays a "good citizen" (and therefore failing the simple test that if you think corporations should have the same rights as people then you deserve to be slapped with a fish), at the same time as it was continuing to attempt to avoid paying tax.

If it hadn't been for the Guardian, it's unlikely that News Corporation would have today announced the splitting of the publishing side of the business from that of broadcasting, with Keith himself stepping down as CEO of the new company. If he is indeed now going to concentrate on the US, then good riddance doesn't really quite cover it; the man most responsible for the coarsening of culture in this country, for the rise of the celebrity non-entity and unending, underhand attacks on those who opposed his politics has finally received his long overdue comeuppance.

It can only be hoped the same happens to those responsible at Barclays. The chief executive at the time of the fixing of the Libor rates, John Varley, was incredibly being spoken of as the next governor of the Bank of England. Bob Diamond, the current CEO, was the head of Barclays Capital when those underneath him were swapping emails talking of opening bottles of Bollinger in return for favours in manipulating the rates. Barclays, it should be remembered, only avoided being directly bailed out by the taxpayer due to it raising funds from the Qataris, although it still depended on guarantees from the British state at the same time.

The fine from the Financial Services Authority of £59.5m, despite being the largest ever imposed by a regulator pales when compared with the £170m levied in the US. The irony of the home of capitalism red in tooth and claw being far tougher on corporate crime than this supposed more social democratic nation is no longer amusing, just outrageous. George Osborne can blame Labour all he likes, but he was the one complaining back in 2006 that regulation was increasing and threatened London remaining the financial capital of the world. The case for the splitting up of the retail and investment parts of the banks is now unanswerable, and if Osborne wants to remembered for something other than creating a double dip recession, bringing the City to heal would be it.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012 

"Jeremy, I don't think many things are certain in this world."

There are two explanations for Chloe Smith's successive humiliations on various news programmes last night. First is that politics isn't really like The Thick of It after all, where following one disastrous performance the person responsible will be drilled until they are properly prepared for anything about to be thrown at them, with a lot of virtuoso swearing involved. Second is that this government is now so dysfunctional, with subjects as diverse as education reform apparently not being run past the prime minister before being leaked to the media, on this occasion the cabinet not even informed of a change that was to be made just a few hours later, that they don't care whether the junior minister tasked with defending the shambles got slaughtered.

No prizes for those who decide the latter is more likely. Indeed, if we're to believe Paul Waugh, then Conservative Central Office logged the Smith interview as a "Slight Govt win; Smith strong", apparently at the same time as Twitter (spit) was lighting up with comment on the horror of it all. 24 hours later and the encounter between Smith and Paxman has been viewed on YouTube over 70,000 times, which for a political interview that doesn't include a fight or something scatological occurring is fairly astonishing. Watching it live last night I thought I was going to die; revisiting it now it's still funny in places, but more noteworthy for just how total Smith's ineptitude is. She started her tour of the various news studios at Radio 4, moved onto Channel 4 where she was partially saved by the time constraint and Krishnan Guru-Murphy toying with her, before Paxman finally moved in for the kill. In one of those wonderful examples of life imitating satire, her performance so resembles that of Ben Swain in TTOI when faced with Paxman (Paxman's pieces for the show were incidentally cut from his filleting of a Labour junior minister) that it was wonder that she didn't start repeatedly blinking. "Like a lion raping a sheep but in a bad way", or like watching a kitten get gassed? Either pretty much sums it up.

Osborne, we're told, was spending his evening chillaxing entertaining a group of Tory MPs in Number 11, and after all, as Smith said, he did announce the change to parliament, even if prior to that only he and David Cameron knew what he was going to announce yesterday afternoon. Whereas before Danny Alexander was the minister tasked with defending the indefensible, with David Gauke usually available if Alexander was off trying to look ever more like a Muppet, apparently no one other than Smith could be found. This wouldn't have mattered if Smith had decided to answer a straight question with a straight answer: she doesn't need "PR gurus" after the event delivering a whole spiel of bullshit telling her what she should have said, all she needed to do was point out that as a very junior Treasury minister not every decision goes through her, therefore it's not surprising she didn't know until yesterday, and that they don't know at this precise moment where the money will come from exactly but will come back and say where in due course. That might not have satisfied Paxo, but it would have been a start.

Instead, as so many politicians believe, she thought she could play Paxman at his own game, and when that failed, she panicked (nice question; not many things are certain in this world; the figure is evolving somewhat; it is indeed; quite interesting in themselves; of interest perhaps in a different conversation). Which is fair enough. If I was faced with Paxman in almost any circumstances I suspect I'd make Smith look good; the point is though that if you're in government, have decided on a policy u-turn because the opposition is going to force a vote on it, and are either "unavailable" or too cowardly to come out and explain why yourself, you really ought to ensure that you're not making things even worse by sending out someone so ill-prepared to defend it that it's the only thing everyone within the political word is talking about the next day.

The actual politics involved in not raising fuel duty ought to be fairly straightforward. It isn't a very good idea to raise taxes on everyone who drives when the economy is up shit creek, to misquote Mervyn King, and while it's not going to put any money directly back in people's pockets it does sort of count as a small stimulus as long as there is money from underspend available to plug the gap. It's when you fail to even give an idea of where the money's going to be found to pay for it, giving the impression it's going to mean more cuts, as it well might, that it negates any advantage it could have given. It's a policy only slightly less lamentable than the one Osborne used before, when he surprised the energy industry by imposing a windfall tax to pay for a penny reduction in fuel duty. Both were drawn up on the back of a fag packet, and both have gone up in smoke.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012 

Deep inside... the chain pub piss dungeon?

This is why I always use the cubicles.

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Relaunch. U-turn. Repeat.

Another day, another u-turn. Anyone would have thought that the last week or so of fresh policy initiatives, even if not necessarily ones the Tories will be able to implement as part of the coalition, were part of another, if unannounced relaunch strategy. Back to O-Levels in the classroom, back to the workhouse for the poor, and now yet another postponed rise in fuel duty. We can thankfully rest assured that the £500m cost of delaying the 3p rise will be covered by "higher than expected departmental savings", or as you and I know them, cuts. Coming on the same day as higher than expected borrowing figures, and as Mervyn King warns that the economic outlook is getting worse, implausible as that sounds, one suspect there's even more bad news coming our way shortly.

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Monday, June 25, 2012 

Hating the young.

The key moment in modern British politics is not, as some might imagine, the bail-out of the banks and the subsequent recession as the collapse of Lehman Brothers reverberated around the globe. It in fact came a year earlier. Gordon Brown was still enjoying his political honeymoon, having finally taken over from Tony Blair as prime minister. Realising that it would help enormously if he had his own mandate, while at the same time bouncing a not yet ready if finally beginning to recover Conservative party into an early election, everyone in Westminster and the press was gearing up for a "surprise" November vote. Knowing that they needed something bold if they to were halt this seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, George Osborne stood up at the Conservative party conference and announced that if elected, his party would raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million.

It was a policy that ought to have been derided. Very few paid inheritance tax (about 6% of estates), the threshold being set at £300,000, shortly to rise to £325,000. It was though repeatedly complained about in both the Daily Express and Daily Mail, and many feared that even if they weren't currently over the threshold, they believed they soon would be if house prices kept going up and up as was expected. In response to Osborne's announcement, the polls shifted: either suggesting that the Tories were neck and neck with Labour or that Brown would win with a very slender majority. Unwilling to risk the possibility that he would only spend around six months in a job he had sought for 13 years, Brown called the election off. His premiership never recovered.

Apart from showing that Brown was the ditherer his opponents had made him out to be, the Tories noted it meant the home ownership revolution they had helped launched meant more to people than ever. They now not only wanted to own their own home, they wanted to pass it on to their children, regardless of whether or not they too had got on the property ladder. Where previously there had been majority support for a tax that kicked in at death on the upper classes, meaning they couldn't just pass the wealth either they or their own parents had accumulated down onto their children who potentially hadn't earned anything, this was dissipating. It could well be that they would have supported a threshold of £500,000 as much as they seemingly did of £1m, but even so it showed that attitudes were changing.

Ever since then, the Tories have become ever more daring in their defence of the upper middle at the expense of the poor and most vulnerable. They took Alistair Darling's plans for fixing the deficit which were the model of progression and all but turned them upside down; they took Labour's welfare reforms and put rocket boosters under them, abolished the future jobs fund and introduced the "work" programme, overwhelmingly dependent on making the unemployed toil away unpaid on various placements, to the point where it has driven some onto sickness benefits; they tripled tuition fees with the connivance of the Liberal Democrats, the only sweetener being that nothing is now paid upfront; and finally, they went the whole way and ignoring how the introduction of the 50p top rate rate of tax had been dodged, abolished it before there was any clear evidence of whether or not it was bringing in extra revenue.

Now David Cameron has all but declared the beginning of the end of the welfare state, with the young the first to be targeted. Partially, this must be filed alongside Michael Gove's leak to the Mail last week that "dumbed down" GCSEs would be abolished with "less intelligent" students taking old-style CSEs as part of a battle to win back right-wing Tory support, especially as Cameron also set out his stall in yesterday's Mail on Sunday. The Tories have already reached the stage where they're so worried about their polling that they've given in to backbench demands to move to the right.

Cameron's speech today shouldn't be seen as an example of his weakness however. It might have taken the budget and surrounding omnishambles for the Tories to decide that they needed to bring measures like this forward, but this is always what they planned to do. Look at what he said today and compare it to his message in the aftermath of last year's riots: they're almost identical. The themes are exactly the same: that a culture of workless, dependency and low aspirations has left us with an underclass who do nothing but drain the hard-working majority of their taxes. They believe that they are automatically entitled to houses and other benefits despite never having worked a day in their lives, while those who do the right thing find themselves having to either postpone having children, or move away from where they would like to live because they can't afford it.

The real culture of entitlement you see isn't among those at the top, who through breeding and public school drilling believe they are born to rule and walk into the best jobs, who think that taxes are things that the little people pay, and who donate massive sums of money to political parties in an effort to ensure these values are the ones everyone should aspire to, it's in fact at the bottom among those who have nothing. Call it playing divide and rule, a dog whistle, class war or whatever you like, it's all the same thing: setting the working and middle classes not against those who decide what to pay themselves, but against those who are dependent on the state almost always through no fault of their own. And it works: look at how popular the benefit cap is, which ignores individual, often unique circumstances, and we really should have seen this coming.

As politics must now be conducted, you have to understand that Cameron's kite-flying isn't a run-down of the changes to the welfare system to come, oh no, it's just the prime minister trying to start a debate. Just as we've so often been encouraged to have an honest debate about immigration, even though we've been having one now for 50 years, we must take this opportunity to discuss what the welfare state should do, despite the tabloids having being telling all their readers that it shouldn't be supporting the feckless, single mothers and all other assorted malingerers for years now.

Never before though has a prime minister set out so bluntly just how much the young (or at least the young not maintained on trust funds) should be discriminated against. No one under 25 should be eligible for housing benefit as it encourages worklessness and provides a roof that those in a job often cannot provide for themselves; that this is a disgraceful lie when the majority of those claiming HB are either in work or when most households claiming it have at least one person working goes unmentioned, including by most of the press. Cameron made no mention whatsoever that the real reason why the HB bill increases inexorably is that private landlords keep on pushing rent up and up, and didn't dare to suggest that there should perhaps be a cap as to how much can be charged, or indeed that there's a chronic lack of social housing as the council houses sold off haven't been replaced. Clearly, the fault lies with the young who believe they're entitled to move out of their parents' homes as soon as they can and that the state will provide, or with the clichéd single mother, getting pregnant repeatedly for the child benefit and free council house, no father in sight.

As for those unlucky enough to be without work and who know full well that the requirements on them are already onerous enough, Cameron believes they should be even tougher. The young shouldn't be able to exit education at 18 and start claiming straight away, regardless of whether their parents have been paying into the system all their lives, that's just madness. So is the idea that they should be able to claim when they haven't even drawn up a CV, even though many will need the help provided by the JobCentre to write one in the first place. Just as ridiculous is benefit rising in line with inflation when wages haven't; who cares if 2% or less of £500 a week is a massive difference compared to 5.2% of £64.50? And why aren't those on JSA doing community work much sooner than they are currently, when the Aussies are expected to do so after six months of claiming? Why should the prime minister have to concern himself with facts like how 49,000 claimants were sent on Mandatory Work Activity in the first 10 months of the scheme operating when it was expected that only 10,000 would be a year, a figure which doesn't include those on the other work placement schemes now intertwined with JSA? The age old points that putting someone on full-time "community work" for their benefit rather interferes with their attempts to find paying work and deprives others of an actual paying job have also gone for a Burton.

I could if I wanted spend more time pointing out the mistakes and false comparisons in Cameron's speech, such as how he twice mentions Income Support, which is the process of being abolished with everyone on it being reassessed as to whether they're entitled to Employment and Support Allowance, the vast majority unsurprisingly finding that they're not.

The point is that even though Cameron doesn't slip into simple scrounger rhetoric, instead blaming the system for these perverse outcomes, even though he knows full well that the tabloids and the "debate" he calls for will swirl with contempt and even hate for those who are reliant on benefits for whatever reason, the entire purpose of the reforms is as Cameron says not about getting the books in order, it's about the kind of society and country we want to live in. Cameron and the Tories want to make it crueller, harsher and nastier, punishing the young for being born at the wrong time. Pensioners meanwhile can be glad that for now at least they will keep all of their benefits, for the reason that Cameron promised that they would and that secondly they vote. The young mostly don't, and they tend not to support the Tories anyway. What began with the baby boomers asserting their right to pass on their houses has led directly to the young poor with abusive, stifling families holding them back being potentially denied the chance to escape until they're 25. And sadly, I expect Cameron's speech will be wholeheartedly welcomed. Perhaps it really is time to think of emigrating.

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Saturday, June 23, 2012 


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Friday, June 22, 2012 

Prometheus: explained?

As an addendum to my review of Prometheus, here's one person's interpretation of all the various symbolism in the film. I can't say I agree with all of it, and if he is right, it would in fact make me think less of the film as I'd much rather everything wasn't there to be found if you look hard enough. Might just be me though.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012 

Michael Gove is a tit.

You'd have thought that David Cameron would be used to the whole media strategy thing by now. Something you simply don't do is pass comment on individual tax cases, or if you find yourself having to then you don't then describe that individual's affairs as being "morally repugnant". This is the equivalent of declaring that it's open season on anyone with questionable tax arrangements, which unsurprisingly includes a rather large amount of people who've donated to the Conservatives or are otherwise associated with the party. Like Gary Barlow, given an OBE at the weekend, and who Cameron, err, refused to pass comment on, on the ludicrous grounds that the full details on his case were not yet known. Or Philip Green. Or Lord Ashcroft.

One suspects that Cameron doesn't much like Jimmy Carr, and as he had mocked the tax dodging of Barclays as one of the hosts of the dire 10 O'Clock Live, he went for what he imagined would be a popular intervention without thinking through the consequences. It's certainly true that Carr is an unfunny turd, and it's no surprise to find that he's a hypocrite, especially considering his reputation for hosting almost any corporate gig, but he's hardly the most egregious offender when Philip Green avoided paying £300m in tax on the obscene £1.2bn dividend paid to his wife, domiciled in Monaco, or indeed when the likes of Vodafone and Goldman Sachs have had their tax dodges accepted in good humour by HMRC. It also strikes as just a little bit rich (ho ho) when the same government that's imposing austerity makes it known that the most well off should pay less in tax at the precise time that those with the broadest shoulders should be bearing the greatest burden. What example does that set to the likes of Mr Carr when informed, as he puts it, that he could pay less and it was entirely legal?

As for being morally repugnant, morals as so often in politics shouldn't come into it. It should be a simple matter of right and wrong: regardless of your views on how your taxes are spent, and you can after all express your opinion on that at the ballot box, those who have been successful owe that success not just to their upbringing but to those who have supported them every step of the way, often employed by the state.

Someone who clearly does get media strategy is Michael Gove, who of course used to be a hack. Which paper do you chose to leak your secret plan for reverting to O-Levels to? Why, to the Daily Mail of course, the only newspaper that continues to believe we ought to return to those halcyon days of the 1950s. Delighted to get a genuine scoop, they wrote it up in the most glowing of terms: at last, an end to "Mickey Mouse" courses and dumbing down, of grade inflation and media studies! Who cares that there are currently thousands of students still sitting their GCSEs, effectively informed that all their work has been for nothing as their certificates will essentially be worthless, seeing as employers have apparently lost faith in them? It used to be that every year when the number of passes increased it was the media that complained of how this proved that the exams were easier, as it simply couldn't be possible that our kids are smarter than us, could it? Now it's the education secretary himself doing it.

This isn't to pretend that there aren't problems with secondary education, and one half of Gove's proposals are sensible: having only one exam board set a particular GCSE across the country will ensure that they can't be accused of making them easier in an attempt to get schools to set theirs. Spectacularly stupid though is returning to a system that will at 14 leave the "less intelligent" students only able to receive the equivalent of a D. At the moment they can be entered into foundation papers at the discretion of the teacher, with the possibility of then sitting highers if they ace them, giving the student the chance to show they've improved; under Gove's plans this wouldn't be possible. As Fiona Millar points out, if Gove really wanted to be radical he'd dig out Mike Tomlinson's old report, which proposed an all purpose diploma encompassing vocational qualifications as well as GCSEs and A-levels, allowing students to progress at their own pace. Instead he's relying on the worst aspects of Blairism: reform for the sake of his own ego, and cynical, self-defeating use of the media.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012 

Too early to tell.

I was going to start this post off by quoting Zhou Enlai, who when asked about the effects of the French revolution purportedly said that it was too soon to say. Only, as such witticisms often are, it all seems to have been a misunderstanding based on translation. Enlai wasn't referring to the revolution of 1789, but to the student rising of May '68, some three years previous. Still a fair while to not be able to draw a judgement, but not quite as indicative of supposed Chinese reflection on history as has been implied.

So much for that then. Except it is about time we at least took stock of where the Arab spring has led, a year and seven months on. Only Tunisia, where the protests began, can claim to have experienced both genuine revolution, and then also succeeded in following the initial phase up with free democratic elections. Even so, it can't be pretended that everything there is rosy: the Islamist Ennahada party, having won the largest share of the vote in the elections, has been remarkably indulgent of Salafist opinion and direct action, prosecuting a cinema owner who screened Persepolis after protesters claimed the film was blasphemous, while last week it blamed "provocations and insults" after Salafis defaced works of art and then rioted in the capital, leading the government to order a city wide night curfew.

In Egypt, the counter-revolution by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces looks to have been timed to perfection. Having let elections take place that resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party and a Salafi coalition dominating parliament, it waited until Mubarak's conviction was certain before striking back. A ruling has since dissolved parliament, and this week SCAF issued amendments to the interim constitutional declaration drastically limiting the president's power. This came as the MB's presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi claimed he had the won the run-off against the former prime minister Ahmad Shafiq, something denied by the latter who claims he is in fact victorious. Tonight it's being reported that tomorrow's announcement of the official result has been delayed indefinitely, ostensibly due to complaints from both parties, but coming so soon after the other interventions from the military it's hard not worry about whether this is a further attempt at a power grab.

Libya, despite or rather in spite of the NATO intervention is in an even worse state. Elections that were due to be held yesterday were postponed earlier in the month until July the 9th, supposedly on the grounds of "logistical and technical" reasons, although more likely is the fact that vast swathes of the country are still in the control of local militias rather than that of the Transitional National Council. Gone almost unreported is that four International Criminal Court officials continue to be held by the militia in Zintan, on the ludicrous grounds that Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor was passing "coded messages" to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. Far from condemning the seizure, Australian foreign minister Bob Carr seems ready to "apologise" about the mission in an attempt to free the four, who are stuck as much in the power struggle between Tripoli and the militias as they are due to disagreement with the ICC over where the trials of former regime figures should be held (can you imagine the protests if Syrian forces had taken into custody some of the UN monitors?). The battle at Tripoli airport only underlined how volatile the country remains, while Benghazi and Misrata, the two cities most associated with the revolution look as though they could go their own way, having already held local elections.

Little more really needs to be said about the disaster unfolding in Syria. In Yemen, President Saleh handed over power, but this seems to have only postponed renewed protests should any attempt be made by his successor Abdo Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi to serve longer than the two years the power transfer agreement laid out. Bahrain continues to prosecute those it claims took part in protests, the latest being an 11-year-old boy, the uprising of last year having been crushed by troops sent in from Saudi Arabia and Emirate states. With the wonderful John Yates in charge of reforming policing, having moved from deciding one group of crooks needn't be investigated to another, and the United States announcing that it will resume weapon sales to the country regardless of the continuing crackdown, things can clearly only get better for those demanding their rights in the country. Saudi Arabia itself meanwhile is mourning the death of Prince Nayef, with many governments across the world expressing their condolences. None however are likely to mention that today Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was executed having been convicted of "witchcraft and sorcery".

Certain patterns have emerged. As throughout history, those who first agitate for and succeed in overthrowing their rulers often find their revolution stolen from them or otherwise subverted, as in France (see above), Russia in 1917 with the February revolution being overtaken by the Bolshevik uprising in October, and Iran in 1979 when what had began as a rising against the Shah was transformed into an anointment of Ayatollah Khomeini. In Tunisia and Egypt the protesters were overwhelmingly young, secular and relatively liberal, and yet the main beneficiaries were Islamic parties. Partially down to the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar groupings having long dominated the underground opposition movement, it was also partially down to the usual failure of the left, liberals and secular groups in general to unite around a common party or figure. In the Egyptian presidential election the MB's Morsi faced off against five main candidates opposing him and the so-called "remnants", the end result being the inevitable run off between him and a former regime figure.

More broadly, it showcases the continuing disaster of the belief that leaderless organisations and campaigns are the future of political opposition. Facebook and Twitter may well have been instrumental in the initial success of the Arab spring; they've certainly helped Western journalists to report on the views of protesters, as well as spreading unverifiable propaganda. What those using social networking have not been able to do is put together a coherent message after the first, and relatively easiest part of the process of removing a tyrannical government from power has been achieved, let alone organise themselves to the extent of being able to win anything approaching power themselves. The most obvious example of this failure is rather closer to home: heard anything from what was Occupy LSX recently? Nope, thought not.

The end result has been only marginally less repressive forces than those which were initially ousted have taken control. Tunisia is probably slightly better off than it was under Ben Ali, and Ennahada might take decisive action against the Salafis should their demands for Sharia escalate further. Elsewhere, the picture's fairly bleak. Egypt could almost be back where it started, even if Mubarak is close to death; Libya is likely to effectively break up into constituent parts; Syria is between the rock of Assad and the hard place of the Free Syria Army; and Yemen and Bahrain are nowhere nearer true democracy than they were in December 2010. It really is too early to tell how the Arab spring will play out, but it's not exactly looking good.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012 

To kill a rational peasant.

In light of the fact there's a football game starting very shortly, here's Adam Curtis's latest post, this time on the origins of counter-insurgency and its connection with the special forces conman Jack Idema.

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Monday, June 18, 2012 

Film review: Prometheus.

(Some spoilers ahead, as you might expect.)

It's a strange thing, hype. Rare as it now is for a film to be sprung upon us, you get the feeling that the practice is self-defeating. As much as we ought to be able to rationalise it, the process of posting teaser trailers and then eventually the trailer itself online does raise often unrealisable expectations. Those behind the marketing for Prometheus went pretty much all out, uploading additional videos giving extra character background, and also creating an entire website for Weyland Industries, the company behind the journey to planet LV-223, which is not it should be noted the same planet as landed on by the ship in Alien.

Indeed, much as this is a prequel to Alien, and as much as prequels in general are a terrible idea which only highlight the lack of originality and risk-taking afflicting Hollywood at the moment, it's best to forget Prometheus has anything but a tenuous connection to the original masterpiece. Ridley Scott never intended to try to one-up or remake Alien itself; he did though attempt to add something to the series. Whether he's managed it or not seems to have split critics and punters fairly down the middle, with critics mostly giving it the thumbs-up while those expecting much from Scott seem to have on the whole came out disappointed. This isn't an exact science, as both Metacritic and IMDB have far more positive than negative reviews (it's currently rated at 7.7 on IMDB, but that's fairly meaningless when almost anything below a 7 on there is usually dire), but to judge from the correspondence on message boards, comment sections and Mayo and Kermode's film review show those most looking forward to it were left distinctly underwhelmed.

This raises the point of whether you can ruin a film for yourself. So many of those who gave Cabin in the Woods good reviews, which I hated, suggested it was one of those movies where the less you knew the better. As I only went to see it as I was on a loose end on the day, I'd read the reviews before going. Perhaps if I hadn't known how it played out I might have enjoyed it a little more; I doubt it though. With Prometheus, I have to say I wasn't expecting all that much, only watching the one trailer, although I had read a good few reviews. Has that affected my overall opinion this time, which is that I really rather enjoyed it?

Possibly. One friend, who was almost wetting himself with anticipation, ended up loathing it. And I can see why some will be absolutely infuriated by Prometheus. Opening with a humanoid alien (or a space jockey, as seen in the original film) drinking a liquid that kills him but which in turn uses his body to create new life, Prometheus returns to the well-trodden theme that life on Earth began either with a meteor strike or through direct intervention by aliens. Introduced to the characters of Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway, played by Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green respectively, on the Isle of Skye, they find cave paintings showing man pointing towards five small spheres, spheres that Shaw and Holloway are convinced represent a constellation, a motif repeated in the art of other ancient civilisations. Could it be they knew something we didn't?

It's a conceit that invites derision, but this is science fiction after all. Funded by the dying head of the Weyland corporation who shares their intrigue, they blast off to the one moon in this depicted constellation that could once have supported life, accompanied by a motley crew similar to that in Alien, including the humanoid robot David (Michael Fassbender) and the distinctly icy Vickers (Charlize Theron), who's representing the company. Of the main criticisms levelled at the film, that the script is poor and that the scientists seem remarkably ill-informed for such an important, scholarly mission, I have to admit on this occasion that I was perhaps overawed, or at least paid less attention to these failings due to the sweeping cinematography and pitch-perfect visuals. The design of the ship and the planet live up to the series' beginnings, although I can't imagine how any of the film could possibly have been improved by the 3D, having seen it in good old twod.

If you aren't drawn in as I was, I suspect you might not be able to get past the various plot holes, creaky dialogue and the odd poor performance. While Noomi Rapace is good value in her lead role, Charlize Theron is distinctly underwhelming as Vickers, coming across as wooden. This might be explained by the differences of opinion over whether or not she is also a robot, but there's no such debate over Michael Fassbender's David, who as Peter Bradshaw writes steals the entire film. Just as Ian Holm's Ash in the original had a different mission to everyone else, David is certainly sinister, and Fassbender plays the part with such cold subtlety that you know something isn't right yet still find yourself warming towards him.

The other reason I might have enjoyed the film as much as I did as that at times it resembles an episode of the X-Files with a mega budget. Sure, there isn't a Mulder or Scully, but the theme is one that the series directly addressed. Shaw does though have the same seemingly illogical religious belief that Scully had, believing in a higher power while being strictly a scientist. Even when they find the evidence that if not refuting three hundred years of Darwinism as one character says certainly puts it in a new perspective, she still refuses to accept there is no God. Who, she posits, created those who created us?

As predictably then as Prometheus plays out, the positives outweigh the negatives. It occasionally veers into the disjointed, but the set-pieces are superbly manufactured and there are even a couple of genuine scares in there, all the better for their coming out of the blue. The ending is also deeply satisfying, although you can't help but hope that this is the only prequel and that both Scott and the studio leave well be now. Not everything has to be explained or developed fully, as some of the amateur critics seem to want. Without the hype and expectation, what would have been a thoroughly decent sci-fi blockbuster has been somewhat unfairly traduced. It does what it sets out to do, does it with reasonable panache, but it isn't a classic. The real question is why anyone thought it would be otherwise from Hollywood in 2012, Ridley Scott helming the project or not.

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Saturday, June 16, 2012 

Get dumb.

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Friday, June 15, 2012 

...can use WMD within 8 seconds of an order to use them.

We certainly invaded the right country.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012 

No, he Cam't!

Yo, Blair! Two little words that seemed to express everything that had gone wrong between our last but one prime minister and the US president he had decided to affix himself to. Far from being equals, or even keeping up the pretence where others might hear, here was how the president really addressed his UK counterpart: much like he might his dog. For those who decided this was merely one of Bush's eccentricities, evidence of how you can take the boy out of Texas but not Texas out of the boy, what followed was if anything more humiliating. Offering to go out on a peace tour in an attempt to reach a ceasefire between Israel and Hizbullah, he was first rebuffed and then uttered "[B]ecause obviously if she [Condoleezza Rice] goes out, she's got to succeed, if it were, whereas I can go out and just talk." Just talk, not necessarily succeed. Such was Blair's reduced status in 2006.

Six years on, and while the text from Rebekah Brooks to David Cameron sent on the eve of his 2009 conference speech is not quite as succinct, it ought to be just as damning. Having just dumped Labour in the most humiliating fashion possible, here's the former editor of the Sun and newly appointed chief executive of News International saying "professionally, we're in this together", that they should discuss a misunderstanding over a "country supper" and lastly that "yes, he Cam!" give the speech of his life to the Tory conference. Despite no longer being the Sun's editor, the front page of the paper the day after and indeed its leader column used that exact phrase as the headline.

Apart from being toe-curling in the extreme, and away from Rebekah Brooks' transgressing the rules of etiquette (one must never refer to someone as being an Old Etonian, doncha know, hence why glam Sam Cam, daughter of a baronet, always thought Becks was a bit of a prole), it rather explained why Cameron had spent the first few hours of his testimony stressing his emphasis on television news rather than on newspapers. Yes, he explained that politicians of all stripes had gotten far too close to media proprietors and their clingers-on, and the Tories can never remind us enough of Sarah Brown hosting a pyjama party at Chequers that both Brooks and Wendi Deng attended, but you can't quite imagine Gordon Brown exchanging such hideous text messages with Murdoch himself, or indeed Paul Dacre.

Despite this chumminess and talk of professionally "being in this together", there was you must understand absolutely no deal, either overt or covert between the Conservatives and News International. After all, they had only given Andy Coulson gainful employment almost as soon as he had resigned in disgrace for not knowing about his royal editor hacking phones, an appointment that both George Osborne and Cameron admitted they had sought the advice of dear Rebekah on before they made it. No one bothered to independently verify that Coulson was telling the truth when he said he knew nuffink about hacking; why would they? Just as Coulson wasn't hired for his knowledge of politics, although he seemed to be an instinctive Tory, why should they need to worry about past unpleasantness when it was all part of the wooing needed to win back power? It was Coulson, said Cameron, who coined the "hug a hoodie" headline for his speech on understanding and showing more love towards young thugs; that was just the kind of spin doctor he needed.

There was we're informed by multiple sources no smoking gun uncovered during Cameron's evidence, as if there was ever going to be. Dave we're informed went through hours of coaching with lawyers to avoid even the possibility of suggesting that there was something untoward going on; why, he and Sam only met with Brooks and Dave's old mate Charlie every six weeks or so, despite living just down the road from them! Other red herrings also abounded: that Coulson should have received developed vetting is nonsense, and in any case the decision was made by the civil service. Just because every recent director of communications past and since has been developed vetted, including Coulson's deputy, is neither here nor there. Gordon Brown's linking of Conservative policy with support for the BSkyB bid was but an "entirely unjustified and specious conspiracy theory"; just because the Tories promised to freeze the BBC licence fee and abolish Ofcom, one of which they've achieved, and both of which were on James Murdoch's wish list doesn't a plot, understanding or even nods and winks make.

As for Jeremy Hunt, Cameron couldn't remember seeing his memo saying that James Murdoch was furious about Vince Cable holding up the BSkyB bid and that it should be passed through immediately. Anyway, even if he had, then the lawyer on holiday at the time who examined any potential for bias over the phone said that had he known about the memo he still would have said there was no reason why he couldn't act properly in his quasi-judicial role. Which part of he's staying put for now don't you understand?

And besides, no one out there in the real world cares about Leveson. No less a person than Peter Watt, that perpetually wrong contributor to Labour Uncut has said as much. No one gives a toss that the prime minister has had to spend 5 hours looking exceptionally shifty giving evidence under oath at the inquiry he set up, apparently unconcerned at the time that he could be one of the key witnesses. No one thinks that the whole Chipping Norton set stinks, and not just from all the horse shit laying around. Why should anyone spend another second wondering or worrying about collusion at the very top of the establishment between politicians, newspaper editors and police officers? We have to start concentrating on the stuff that really matters to Mr and Mrs Average, and that certainly isn't the old news being served up in front of Lord Brian of Leveson. Privacy? Pah! Deals and skullduggery? Gullyfluff! The prime minister to be and this slightly sinister, slightly strange woman exchanging teeth-achingly sycophantic texts? Nothing to see here. Just forget about it all. It's just froth created by political obsessives and media luvvies who love nothing better than to talk about themselves. That this government's reputation and poll ratings continue to plumb the depths is all about the economy. Nothing more. Really.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012 

Mandatory humiliation activity.

So now we know. The government's workfare programme, known as mandatory work activity, has nothing whatsoever to do with getting the long-term unemployed back into work. Counter-intuitive as this sounds, this is exactly what the research commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions has found (PDF). The study, which compared the outcomes between 3,000 of those put onto MWA and 125,000 on Jobseeker's Allowance who were not referred during the first three months the scheme was running, and was peer reviewed by The National Institute of Economic and Social Research, reached predictable conclusions: that only 55% of those referred onto the scheme actually started it, with 29% dropping their claim, while 17% temporarily lost their benefits for refusing to take part.

Far from this being evidence that "up to a third" of the jobless are in fact working, as has been briefed to the Sun, if anything it suggests the opposite: that the sick and disabled are being forced into working for their benefit, having wrongly been declared fit for work. As Jonathan Portes, director of the NIESR writes, after 13 weeks the impact on claiming had disappeared; instead, those referred were 3 percentage points more likely to be claiming Employment and Support Allowance rather than JSA. Either that, or the experience of being forced to work for up to 30 hours for a meagre £71 on JSA is so dispiriting and humiliating for some that their previously unsympathetic advisers at the jobcentre, as all are referred onto the scheme from there, have decided en masse that their "clients" aren't ready for work after all.

Any minister prepared to change their policy based upon evidence would have taken a look at these results, and either cancelled the scheme or announced a major overhaul of it. After all, it isn't just failing; it's actually costing the department more money because of the increase in those claiming ESA, which pays out more than JSA. Far from doing this, Chris Grayling has actually announced an increase in the number of places available by 9,000, meaning that a further 9,000 unfortunate people will on the pain of losing their benefit be forced to work for companies such as Close Protection UK, as those stewarding the jubilee were. Even if we give Grayling the benefit of the doubt and accept that the lack of impact is down to "teething problems" with the scheme, such as some gaming the system by signing off and then back on to avoid MWA, this doesn't excuse him from refusing to commission further research which would ascertain whether this is really the case.

Mandatory work activity clearly isn't then about preparing the long term unemployed for work by giving them the chance to experience it again, or at the very least it isn't for the vast majority. It's rather punishment for some of the most vulnerable in society, who haven't been able to find a job because there simply aren't any, or indeed, because as we've seen, certain companies are taking such advantage of the various work experience schemes set up by the DWP that they've cut back on the hours of their permanent staff. It helps that cracking down on "scroungers" is so overwhelmingly popular, the benefits cap of £26,000 apparently the coalition's most supported policy, but it doesn't begin to excuse Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan Smith's extreme heartlessness and refusal to accept what's staring them in the face, even when it's potentially costing their department money. Humiliating the desperate to the point of sickness is now officially the business of the government.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012 

The neurotic returns.

As someone who a couple of weeks ago finally plucked up the courage to read Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party, having not really wanted to bring back all those memories of Tony Blair's last few years, it was ever so slightly difficult to take some of Gordon Brown's testimony at Leveson yesterday seriously. Blair did repeatedly renege on apparent deals or understandings that he would step down as Labour leader, leaving the way clear for Brown, which was partially Brown's motivation for his aides briefing against him; it doesn't however explain Brown's malice against anyone who he felt had either wronged him or was advising Blair to get rid of him, who were also mercilessly targeted. When the tables were turned, such as when Alan Milburn penned an article calling for there to be a contest for leadership of the party rather than a Brown coronation, Brown immediately phoned up Blair blaming him for putting Milburn up to it.

One thing that has defined Leveson so far, the apparent amnesia which afflicts so many once they're under oath, didn't affect Brown, as Andrew Neil noted. The difference was that Brown so often seemed to be trying to tell us that white was in fact black, despite many separate independent sources having previously told us the opposite. He went so far as to say that "he was so obsessed by the newspapers that he rarely read them". This after he had spent much of the first hour of his evidence detailing how the Sun had in his last year of office set out to destroy him, and when as Steve Richards said on Newsnight last night, he was notorious for spending the first half hour he was awake while prime minister reading every newspaper, causing his aides to repeatedly remind him that he was quite possibly the only person in the country to browse all the way from the Daily Star to the FT.

The really sad thing is that this fundamental reliance on being economical with the actualite, as Alan Clark put it, only damaged the rest of his at times gripping testimony. Perhaps his refusal to own up to the briefings or to his role in the attempted coup against Blair is down to keeping something for his still to be written memoirs; if it was instead because he feared that would become the story rather than the other things he wanted to say, then he was deeply mistaken. While most of the sketch writers were sympathetic rather than incredulous as the lobby hacks were, Brown in denial was the overarching theme.

This blunted his attacks on both the Sun and the Conservatives. Despite Tom Newton Dunn tweeting the paper's defence from last year of their story on the then four month old Fraser's cystic fibrosis, it barely bothered today to repeat itself. NHS Fife's statement that a member of staff "spoke without authorisation" of his condition all but confirmed Private Eye's report from last year that it was the partner of a doctor that was the source of the Sun's story, which is not quite the same as the Sun's claim that it received it from a "concerned member of the public". The paper also didn't mention Rebekah Brooks's testimony that she absolutely had authorisation from the Browns to run the story, something repeatedly denied by both Gordon and Sarah, suggesting she is now persona non grata in Wapping.

Brown's highlighting of how the paper repeatedly attacked him over Afghanistan, including notoriously over a condolence letter he sent, was met far more harshly, the Sun calling in a favour from former chief of the defence staff General Dannatt to claim that Brown had to be pushed to increase the troop presence in the country, as though that somehow reflects badly on the former prime minister. Most disgraceful of all is Tom Bower, claiming that because the Browns left Downing Street for the final time arm in arm with their two sons that this use of them as "political props" somehow undermines Brown's evidence on the denied authorisation; how then should they have left? Out the back door that Murdoch was asked to enter through, perhaps?

Regardless of whether or not Brown did tell Murdoch that he was declaring war on his company, and it seems an odd thing for Keith to make up and then tell others had happened, his linking of the Conservatives changing their policy in line with that of News International is hardly the conspiracy theory that George Osborne claimed it was. The Tories' defence that if there was some sort of deal they would hardly have put Vince Cable in charge of authorising the BSkyB bid is laughable: they hadn't expected that they would have to form a coalition, and Cable as business secretary was one of Nick Clegg's few red lines. Osborne was effectively given the benefit of doubt in his often curious evidence purely because he is neither Jeremy Hunt, who squirmed his way through his time under oath, nor his David Cameron, due to give evidence on Thursday. The fact that according to Rebekah Brooks Osborne had been "expressed bafflement" at an Ofcom letter on the BSkyB bid during a dinner in December 2010 was explained by Osborne on the basis that on whatever happened it would annoy some of his pals in the media, therefore he didn't really have a view. This nonsense was allowed to pass all but unquestioned.

As was his evidence on how the Tories came to choose Andy Coulson as Cameron's director of communications. It wasn't that he simply worked for News International and had contacts with those working there; as a "national newspaper editor" he had a wealth of experience, broader than Alastair Campbell, who had never been an national editor. This deserved to be gaped at as some of Brown's testimony had been: Campbell had been a political editor at both Today and the Mirror, whereas Coulson had no speciality in politics whatsoever, hence why he was surprised to be approached by the Tories. Osborne's inquiring into his background also seemed to amount to asking Coulson whether there was anything else to come about the phone hacking, to which he said there wasn't, and asking Brooks whether he was a "good person". She presumably didn't tell Osborne about how Glenn Mulcaire had also been hacking her voicemail, although as we know, Coulson has never so much as met Mulcaire.

Murdoch himself was dealt another blow today when John Major, a man who was clearly fair too humble to ever have been prime minister, confirmed that he was all but offered the support of Murdoch's papers in 1997 if he changed his policies on the European Union. It wouldn't have made any difference to the election result if Major had took up the offer, but it rather punctures Keith's claim that he had never asked anything of a politician. It also led nicely on to Ed Miliband's welcome call for quotas in media ownership, effectively saying that Murdoch should have to either sell the Sun or the Times. The longer this drip drip of allegations and calls for change at News Corp goes on, the more Murdoch is going to hold Cameron's setting up of the inquiry against him. And as Nick Clegg's refusal to support Jeremy Hunt shows, it's getting to the point where the Tories need all the help they can get.

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Monday, June 11, 2012 

Drifting rightwards.

Call me naive, but I really don't think there's an intention to be specifically unpleasant to any particular group with the newly announced policy of disallowing those earning under £18,600 from bringing a foreign partner to live here. Rather, it's completely secondary that it's going to be the working classes and those born abroad who will have ensure that their love doesn't cross boundaries outside of the European Union. Sure, it's not going to be something that the UKIP tendency within the Tories are going to shed any tears over, yet it's hardly going to be a cause for celebration in the Cameron camp either.

The real reasoning behind it is two-fold: firstly, something has to be thrown towards the increasingly restive Tory grassroots, as well as the focus groups that keep reporting on the loathing for imm'igants and scroungers. Never mind that if the Euro goes down as is still possible there's likely to be an increase in both and they'll be very little we can do about it, and that the only place further cuts can be made in welfare is to pensioner's benefits, something has to be done. Second is the unrealistic promise made by the Conservatives in their manifesto, and somewhat carried into the coalition to reduce immigration from the hundreds of thousands a year to the tens of thousands, the clear implication being to return to the levels seen under the last Tory government before Labour "opened the floodgates". Numbers have instead stubbornly stuck around the 250,000 net increase level, despite the Tories repeatedly claiming that they're beginning to make progress.

To be fair to the Tories when they don't deserve it, this is a case of the cliched policy chicken of all three parties coming home to roost. At the last election all three failed to make the case for continued immigration, while at the same time defending what had gone before. No one suggested that if those who had come before had contributed so much, it was daft to say that it should now immediately cease, as that wasn't what the polls, focus groups and the tabloids were telling them. Instead of being honest, and suggesting that it was likely in the 21st century that there was little they could do to control immigration when there are 5 million Britons living abroad and the economic situation is as bad as it is, all gave the impression that the drawbridge was going to be raised. This wouldn't have been an easy thing to do, to say the least: it would have meant short-term unpopularity, and perhaps could have only been done after the election. Doing the opposite though, as all three leaders did, was to raise expectations that something would change, when they knew it was unlikely in the extreme. Disaffection, anger and unpopularity then await.

It hasn't quite ignited yet, probably because there's been so much else to quietly simmer about. All the more reason to make gestures like today's, which Theresa May made clear would do relatively little to get the numbers down. According to her Commons statement, 18% of the total is family migration, meaning that even if the entire route was closed down it wouldn't get the figures to anywhere near under 100,000. Ian Birrell makes the point that this goes dead against the Tory policy of making Britain the most family friendly country in Europe, having promised they would support families to stay together, even perhaps eventually recognising marriage in the tax system. Forcing up to 15,000 families a year to emigrate or live apart, as he writes, is "morally suspect" and even threatens the detoxification of the party.

That's a bit strong, both because the popularity of Osborne and Cameron has already slumped, and also due to how May's presentation of the measure of ensuring that the system can't be abused by scroungers rather than putting restrictions on love has mostly been swallowed whole. It does though highlight the coalition's rightwards drift: having started off with Ken Clarke's aim to reduce the prison population, we now have a new snooper's charter, secret "justice" and pointless grandstanding like "making clear" that Article 8 of the Human Rights Act is clarified, as if judges didn't already know and resent the implication that they bend over backwards to let foreign criminals stay here as long as they grow potted plants. What it does do is placate the Sun and Mail for all of a day, and at the moment, that seems to be enough.

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Saturday, June 09, 2012 


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Friday, June 08, 2012 

Syria: as much a proxy war as a civil war.

As the media as a mass come to the conclusion that Syria is descending into civil war, something that has been apparent for a couple of months now, less well reported is that it's reached this point because of the various proxies supporting the two sides. Just as Assad has been dependent on Iran for advice and training and received moral support from Russia, so has the so-called Free Syrian Army relied upon the backing of Saudi Arabia and Qatar for money and weapons. As the video posted online yesterday of a Syrian heavy vehicle exploding spectacularly showed, the FSA is starting to pose a real threat to the military's movements. It's not surprising that as a result they're increasingly using artillery.

This Saudi support comes at an especially high cost. As much as the Saudis are determined to isolate Iran, and removing Assad would heavily dent the theocracy's influence in the region, they won't provide funding without being sure that their particular bent of Islam is represented. For all the denials of the FSA, there is plenty of evidence of extensive jihadi involvement. Some of this is to be expected when Syria was the main transit point for fighters travelling to fight against the Americans in Iraq, but it's also clear that the traditional Salafi tactic of attempting to turn Shia against Sunni is being put into practice. Almost entirely unreported in the West is that FSA cadres kidnapped a group of Lebanese pilgrims travelling through the country, in the hope that doing so would enflame Shia opinion in the country and prompt intervention by Hizbullah, the Iranian-backed group having so far stayed out of the conflict over the border. A blog post by Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News, detailing how the FSA led his vehicle into a free fire zone, apparently in the hope his group would be killed so his death could then be used as further propaganda against the regime shows the depths they're willing to descend to.

This said, the depravity of the regime is unsurpassed. Any doubts about the perpetrators of the Houla massacre have been dispelled by the pathetic cover-up at al-Qubair, where the UN and reporters were today allowed in, the village having been emptied of any survivors, the scene of the crime impossible to clean. The hope has to be that Russia can be persuaded to dispense with Assad, and that a Yemen type "solution" can be put in place. One suspects though that the conflict has now reached the point of no return, where so much blood has been shed as to make compromise impossible. And sadly, the FSA is only slightly less vile than the Ba'athist regime.

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Thursday, June 07, 2012 

Ah, consistency, pt 2.

Today: no Foreign Office ministers will visit Ukraine during Euro 2012 in protest at the "selective justice" meted out to former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. (Although, strangely, most accounts of her trial for abuse of office miss out the fact that her former coalition partner Viktor Yushchenko testified against her.)

Yesterday: Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa was welcomed into the UK for a handshake with a grinning Liz. Rajapaska's leading political opponent General Sarath Fonseka is currently imprisoned, having been found guilty first of corruption and then of daring to suggest that senior government officials were responsible for war crimes at the end of the country's civil war, something now so well documented as to be undeniable. The UN Secretary General's advisory panel found that tens of thousands of civilians died in the last 5 months of the war, with most killed as a result of Sri Lankan military shelling.

(Oh, and it does seem ever so slightly hypocritical we're not officially going to Euro 2012 when very shortly dozens of state representatives from far more repressive and authoritarian regimes than Ukraine will be coming to London for the Olympics. Ahmadinejad might not be travelling, but you can bet that the Saudis will, despite it being highly unlikely that the country will field a single female athlete.)

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