Tuesday, December 31, 2013 

The best music of 2013 part 2 / 16 best albums.

(16 just to be awkward, although technically it's actually 17.  To be honest, there's not that much between the top 7, while there's also little between the bottom 3 and the honourable mentions.  Let's do this properly, eh?)

Honourable mentions, in no order:

The National - Trouble Will Find Me
Holden - The Inheritors
Franz Ferdinand - Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action
65daysofstatic - Wild Light
Factory Floor - Factory Floor
Manic Street Preachers - Rewind the Film
Cults - Static
Young Knives - Sick Octave
Blood Orange - Cupid Deluxe
Laurel Halo - Chance of Rain
Zed Bias - Boss
Joanna Gruesome - Weird Sister

16. VA - Rinse 22: Mixed by Kode 9

As head of the ever expanding and adventurous Hyperdub label, Kode 9 has had a major hand in giving the world Burial, Ikonika, Zomby, Laurel Halo and Jezzy Lanza to name but five.  His third released mix, Rinse 22 couldn't be much further from his seminal collaboration with Spaceape on Dubstep Allstars 3, and yet you wouldn't bet against it being held in the same pantheon in a few years' time.  A perfect summation of where bass music stands in 2013, he starts off with Burial, runs through tech-house from former dubstep producers, takes in a couple of trap tracks and then ends with a whole suite of the finest footwork.  Only the grime mixes from Slackk come close to equalling this for repeated listenability.

15. Zomby - With Love

To call Zomby frustrating doesn't quite do justice to just how prickly the incognito producer can be.  Having built a reputation for either not turning up to his live dates or doing things distinctly half-arsed, his idiosyncrasies also make themselves evident on all his material, the most obvious being his refusal to make tracks that have a proper intro or outro.  The result is his music often feels like unfinished vignettes, and yet the virtuosity of so many of his productions (the ones he hasn't attempted to steal, that is) makes such objections seem slight.  Some have found With Love disappointing as a follow-up to his sort-of breakthrough Dedication, but I much prefer it, not least for the return of the jungle that underpinned his retro debut Where Were U in 92?

14. Eleanor Friedberger - Personal Record

Her second album as solo artist after Fiery Furnaces went on hiatus, the rather obvious clue to how Friedberger feels about this collection is in the title.  Where Fiery Furnaces often seemed to be doing everything other than focus on the here and now, Personal Record charts the highs and lows of a very much real life.  It's also Friedberger's most out and out pop album to date, the kind that with the right amount of push ought to have crossed over.  While it's a shame it hasn't achieved the success it deserves, it remains one of the year's most accessible while still rewarding listens.

13. Alix Perez - Chroma Chords

Drum and bass on its own may have been somewhat stale in 2013, yet those artists who cut their teeth in the genre who have since diversified have relatively prospered.  Few however have put together not just one but two commendably consistent albums as Alix Perez now has, his debut 1984 having graced this list a few years back.  Where 1984 was almost strictly D&B, Chroma Chords goes from genre to genre, taking in dubstep and trap while still remaining true to where Perez started out.  More than anything it's Perez's sense of melody that underpins Chroma Chords, a value often lost on most of his contemporaries.

12. DJ Rashad - Double Cup / RP Boo - Legacy

I'm going to cheat slightly and put these two footwork albums by stalwarts of the scene as one entry.  If I had to choose which should be higher, it would have to be Double Cup, as it's an album that looks forward, as you would expect of one full of new material, while Legacy brings together some of RP Boo's output over the past decade, but both of examples are how syncopated, seemingly simple repetitive beats can draw you in.  Double Cup is an album of collabs and occasionally suffers ever so slightly for it, but the coming together of Rashad and Addison Groove is almost worth it on its own, while The Opponent on Legacy samples Aaliyah in just about the most surprising way I've heard.  Vital music that is finally getting the recognition and wide release it deserves.

11. Sigur Rós - Kveikur

Kveikur was almost certainly the surprise of the year.  Sigur Rós as a band seemed to be fading away, each album after their enigmatic ( ) being more disappointing than the last.  The departure of keyboardist Kjartan Sveinsson seems then to have been the catalyst if not quite for an reinvention, then most certainly a reinvigoration.  Rós could always deafen with the best of their post-rock contemporaries when they wanted to, it's just that they did beauty better than almost everyone with the exception of Explosions in the Sky. While the beauty is still there on Kveikur, it's the heaviness of it as a whole that thrills, draws you in, and demands that you return.

10. James Blake - Overgrown

No one was quite as surprised as James Blake himself that his second album won this year's Mercury prize, a result that left him almost speechless, as well as making him forget to pick up the trophy as he walked off the stage.  His rise certainly has been meteoric, having started out producing off-kilter dubstep, playing at the legendary DMZ before landing a record deal that saw him transform into a singer-songwriter, and is all the more impressive due to the resolute lack of hype that's followed him around.  To use that dread description of an album, Overgrown is a more mature record than his self-titled debut, and while Retrograde and Voyeur are outstanding, I don't think it's quite as cohesive as a whole as his first.  Nonetheless, still easily one of the year's best.

9. Future of the Left - How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident

How to Stop Your Brain... is an angry record.  Andy Falkous has always come across as enraged, more at the way we live now than anything else, but here everything is furious.  The guitars saw, the drums boom and Falco himself snarls.  Recorded thanks to the funding of fans, this is the album Falco clearly always wanted to make, and it shows.  It's not without flaws, but then that seems to be the whole point of Future of the Left: we're all very far from perfect, but we could be so much better if we wanted to be.  It's a travesty of a mockery of a sham that Tom Odell gets a record deal and FotL have to work part-time jobs to make ends meet, which is exactly why you should buy this and bring a little more justice to the world.

8. Arctic Monkeys - AM

Seems I'm in the minority, but for me each successive Arctic Monkeys album has been better than the last. (With the exception of Humbug, which is nonetheless far superior to the now almost unlistenable Whatever They Say...) Yes, there's something especially thrilling about the punch of much of Favourite Worst Nightmare, yet I find Alex Turner's lyrical dexterity on Suck it and See to just about outweigh it.  AM, despite a very slight dip in the middle outdoes them all.  Boasting a series of near perfect songs, Turner and pals have packed in solos, the usual wittiness and a heavily refined sound which makes them the best successors to the Smiths we're ever likely to get.

7. Fuck Buttons - Slow Focus

Winners of the inaugural band least expected to feature in the Olympics opening ceremony award (although considering Danny Boyle used Godspeed You! Black Emperor's East Hastings in 28 Days Later it's perhaps not that surprising), Slow Focus had more than a little to live up to after the critical response to both Street Horrrsing and Tarot Sport.  Thankfully Fuck Buttons' third album is just as inspired, playful and punishing as their first two, a kaleidoscope of colour that has only been matched in recent years by Rustie's Glass Swords.

6. Savages - Silence Yourself

Another surprisingly hype free band, especially considering the almost complete dearth of exciting new guitar groups, Silence Yourself was a statement of intent.  Other bands that issued caps lock messages would be sneered at or mocked, and yet without saying Savages are "4 real", their way of communicating manages to avoid being arrogant, patronising or over-the-top.  Sounding more than slightly like Siouxsie Sioux while taking inspiration from Sleater-Kinney amongst others, and not just because they're an all girl group, no one else was quite as blistering this year.

5. Forest Swords - Engravings

Having somehow managed to miss Matthew Barnes's 2010 debut EP, I came to Engravings having never knowingly heard a note of Forest Swords.  The instant comparison was to Burial, but where Will Bevan originally took his influences mainly from garage and jungle, Barnes' pallete is even wider, encompassing roots dub and post-rock while remaining intrinsically electronic.  Barnes described Engravings as being a "balance between really intense euphoria and this almost bleakness", and for once an artist couldn't have described what they have managed to achieve any better.

4. Tim Hecker - Virgins

Another artist I've been late to discover, Hecker's soundscapes are ethereal and open to endless interpretation.  One track is called Incense at Abu Ghraib, while the cover art echoes the most infamous image to emerge from the torture and humiliation the prisoners were subject to by US forces.  The music itself is the polar opposite to that which was used as a method of sleep deprivation, recalling GY!BE's most beguiling and sensitive movements, without ever becoming as desolate as post-rock can.  An album with very little parallel this year, or any year.

3. Daniel Avery - Drone Logic

Daniel Avery is that very rare thing in the modern music industry: someone who's achieved what they have through nothing other than sheer hard work and word of mouth.  Coming from seemingly nowhere just 2 years ago to gaining a residency at Fabric, Drone Logic is an album that simply delights in the sheer versatility of house music.  It wears its influences on its sleeve, taking equal parts acid and Detroit techno, and yet it doesn't pastiche either genre or come across as pure nostalgia.  Comparisons have been made between Avery and artists as diverse as Anthony Shakir, Underworld and the Chemical Brothers, but Drone Logic stood almost in 2013 with marrying the best of the past with the sheen of the present.

2. Special Request - Soul Music

Soul Music didn't have any right to be this good.  Paul Woolford's back to the old school project isn't exactly the most original, as the mention of Zomby's debut above makes clear, yet Soul Music is far more than the sum of its parts.  Yes, in some ways it is just a techno DJ going back to the period between 91 and 96 when hardcore and jungle ruled the pirate airwaves, but it's the sheer love that emanates from Woolford's production that makes it so much more.  Without going into out and out amen terror as say Breakage did on his initial releases, there's more than enough choppage here, not least on Soundboy Killer or the epic VIP edit of Ride, while Woolford's sense of structure ensures you're never overwhelmed by one element over another.  Alongside Tessela, the year's key breakthrough.

1. Arcade Fire - Reflektor

I really didn't want to like Reflektor.  While I admired Neon Bible, it didn't begin to measure up to Funeral, while The Suburbs was an intense disappointment.  When I then found out Reflektor was a double album despite being able to fit comfortably on one CD, and discovered the first track was an interminable ten minute wait for something to happen, I was all but ready to wield the hatchet.  Problem is, what follows on until the midway point on the final track when it begins to loop is without doubt the best music of the year.  It still doesn't quite equal Funeral, but then it wasn't meant to.  Impassioned, urgent, and without doubt at times pretentious, Reflektor is a band rediscovering themselves.  Can't quite see them going over too well as headliners at Glastonbury though.

Labels: , , , ,

Share |

Monday, December 30, 2013 

The best music of 2013 part 1.

Best Song/Track
Tessela - Hackney Parrot

It's been a strange year in a number of ways, not least in how what were already fragmented scenes seem to have atomised even further, the one exception perhaps being the continuing crossover between dubstep and drum and bass, further fuelled by the slow/fast footwork influenced sound that became prevalent over the past 12 months.

This isn't to say there haven't been some great tunes that have crossed over, but for the most part everyone seems to have kept themselves to themselves.  The best in dubstep this year once again came from those associated in one way or another with Youngsta's Rinse FM show, Seven's Walter White and various tracks by Amit lording it over much else.  We also saw the long awaited release of Kryptic Minds' Badman VIP, while Mala repeated the surprise of last year, this time round pressing 2 Much Chat to wax just in time for Christmas. VIVEK gave us first the Asteroids EP, featuring the most enveloping subbass of the year, and then the Mantra EP.  Also superb, and which might yet get a further mention, was Kahn's Kahn EP, the highlight being the Flowdan featuring Badman City.

Over to what was once the post-dubstep side of things and is now really the house side of things, the reliable Joy Orbison released Big Room Tech-House DJ Tool - TIP!, while Four Tet gave us both Kool FM, a tribute to the long-established jungle station, and That Track..., a tribal house number which shouldn't work but just does.  Best grime of the year arrived from Missingno, whose self-titled EP sampled both Rihanna and R Kelly, honourable mention going to Spooky for finally releasing Coolie Joyride, while DJ Rashad unleashed the outstanding footwork bombs Rollin and Let it Go on the same EP.  Machinedrum also mined the what the fuck do you describe it as genre covering footwork, drum and bass and dubstep with both Gunshotta and Eyesdontlie.

Best of the lot by my reckoning has to be Tessela's Hackney Parrot, the kind of track that is all the better for being deceptively simple.  Almost all it is is a vocal sample, breakbeats, rumbling subbass, and a drop, and yet it slays.

Best Remix / Bootleg
Digital and Spirit - Phantom Force (Fracture's Astrophonica Edit)

Each year I say there hasn't been much action on the remix front, and no exception again this time.  There were nonetheless some fine bootlegs, especially Walton's Brandy sampling Baby, or Kingdom's take on Ciara's Goodies.  Worthy mentions must go to Special Request's retoolings of, err, Hackney Parrot and Ghostpoet's Cold Win, Andy Stott's takes on Tricky's Valentine and Kowton's Shuffle Good, Distance's revamp of Tunnidge's Seven Breaths, Tessela's rework of Alex Dust's Smoke and the again late to the party remixes by Distance and Commodo of Mala's Changes and Miracles respectively.  Best of the lot though and in pretty much every drum and bass set of the year worth listening to was Fracture's superb slow/fast remake of Digital and Spirit's Phantom Force.

Best Reissue
Ruff Sqwad - White Label Classics

Absolutely no contest this year on the reissue front (although again technically it was out in December last year and I somehow managed to not pick a copy up until half way through this one), and if I hadn't included it here it would almost certainly place extremely highly on the albums list proper is the long awaited compilation of Ruff Sqwad's classic grime white labels.  If you haven't heard of Ruff Sqwad, and chances are you might not have done, you almost certainly will have heard tunes like Pied Piper and Functions on the Low in sets by the likes of Oneman, without necessarily having had any clue what they were.  Almost every track here is incredible, foundational music, made on bare bones software by people barely out of school.  If you listen to absolutely nothing else I've talked about over these three posts, I would say go for this.  Then buy it.  And copies for all your friends.

Labels: , , ,

Share |

Friday, December 27, 2013 

The worst music of 2013.

Here's what might be a first for our annual shit room round-up: considering how low the bar was set by 2012, it's hardly surprising mainstream music in 2013 saw a general uptick in quality.  Problem is, perhaps to make up for that very slight improvement in listenable pap, the "underground" seems to have suffered as a result.  It could just be me, but by my reckoning 2013 has been mostly extremely disappointing, whether it comes to dubstep, drum and bass or bass music in general.  Perhaps this is understandable in that there has been so much innovation in recent years there was bound to come a point when productivity suffered as a result, yet it also might signal we've a few years of stagnation to persevere through, akin to the point between 2001 and 2003 when UK garage (not that I liked garage, or the commercial variety at the time) was in the doldrums and yet to mutate into both grime and dubstep.

This isn't to say there haven't been gems released this year, as there always will be, and a couple of developments have been very welcome indeed.  Dusk and Blackdown continue to carve out their own niche, with their Keysound label revitalising the too fast to be house and too slow to be dubstep/grime 130 bpm sound on its own, releasing albums and EPs galore.  Also encouraging has been the resurgence in instrumental grime, again mostly precipitated by the Butterz crew, with this year seeing the release of the Grime 2.0 compilation on Big Dada, as well as a whole EP worth of remixes of Youngstar's foundational Pulse X.

Also prevalent have been breakbeats, whether used by Tessela and Special Request to devastating effect, or as the bedrock of a couple of the best pop songs of the year.  Both John Newman's Love Me Again and Olly Murs' Dear Darlin' co-opted the amen break (or something remarkably close to it, as actually sampling Amen Brother properly would involve paying the Winstons, and extremely sadly they've seen almost no money whatsoever despite their music being integral to the development of entire genres) and while doing absolutely nothing original whatsoever with it, there's just something about that break which transforms what would otherwise be entirely run-of-the mill pop tunes into something even snobs like me can say they don't dislike.  True, Emeli Sande somewhat started the trend with her Funky Drummer sampling Heaven, without the slightest doubt her best song by a factor of a thousand, but let's not be too cynical about a trend that isn't completely ghastly, right?

At the other extreme, one of the most depressing trends of the year also involves Ms Sande.  Her album Our Version of Events, despite being released in February last year is also the best selling album of this year, or at least was 2 weeks ago with Michael Buble and One Direction bringing up the rear, having sold an incredibly puny 640,000 copies.  2013 hasn't been a stellar year for albums as we'll discover in a couple of days time, but for an album that wasn't much cop to begin with to come out on top nearly 2 years on from its release suggests the rise of streaming services and download sites allowing you to pick and choose which songs to buy could spell the end for the album as we know it, as the more hasty have been predicting for years now.  I may well be in the minority, as ever, but I like listening to a record as a whole; plenty of songs don't make proper sense listened to on their own without being complimented by the surrounding tracks.  What's more, when the biggest sites continue to churn out whole albums for £5 or less, there isn't really an excuse for not buying something in its entirety.  Add in how I can't see the bailed out and taken over HMV lasting much more than a couple of years when habits are changing so quickly, and there's an extremely uncertain future ahead.

We have though digressed somewhat from the worst music of the year, so let's plunge back in.  We may as well restart with the aforementioned La Sande, and while she hasn't been as ubiquitous this year as she was last, her presence has still been disconcertingly constant.  In keeping with the continuing promotion and celebration of mediocrity as being the height of musical aspiration, when you're constantly assailed by her collaboration with Labrinth on Beneath Your Beautiful (which was actually released last year, but seems to have been in rotation all this year as well), certain things come to mind.  Mostly that Labrinth is both an idiot and a cretin, as only someone who thinks grammar is for English teachers could possibly be.  Beneath Your Beautiful isn't only grammatically confused, it seems to be English as spoken by someone with an extremely rudimentary grasp on the language.  One presumes the protagonist of the song wants to see beneath the "beautiful" and "perfect" exterior of his object of affection, and yet that isn't clear as regardless of whether you're is misspelt as your, you cannot see beneath someone's "perfect" or "beautiful".  You can want to see what lies beneath the skin, or get to know someone as a person as opposed to an object, but this doesn't seem to be what Labrinth means either, as the implication appears to be that he wants to, err, get inside their body as opposed to their mind.  If you weren't confused or annoyed enough by the lyrics, there's also the gloopiness of the music and insipid delivery of said words by Labrinth to contend with.

Almost as bad is Sande's own Clown, yet another of those hellish tracks where producer and singer have decided less is more, meaning there's no getting away from the lyrics.  Supposedly about how awful it is being an aspiring pop singer and being subject to the indignities of interviews by record company execs, it instead strikes as yet another of example of an established star complaining about their lot in life while the rest of us proles continue to go through our far more mundane drudgeries.  Do execs really laugh at those like Sande and demand they sell everything out from the very beginning?  Perhaps if Sande had started out on a talent show you could understand it more, but she didn't; indeed, Simon Cowell gave her a boost when he said back in 2010 that she was his favourite songwriter of the moment.  It isn't quite as bad as Jessie J's Who's Laughing Now (probably not Jessie or those who decided she was the Next Big Thing, considering the way her second album has flopped), but it's not far off.

It would be remiss to not mention the two biggest "controversies" of the year in pop, both of which predictably involve naked flesh.  In a move that could only have been more cynical and transparent if it was spearheaded by an anthropomorphic jellyfish fiendishly rubbing its tentacles together, Miley Cyrus was rebranded as an extremely curious mixture of Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga, only given a wardrobe with even fewer clothes.  The video for We Can't Stop can't be called beyond parody; it can be better be described as the moment when parody died, like when satire died the moment Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  It's as though some colossal joke was being played on Cyrus and those who fill their ears with such crud, as no cliche was considered too mined or example of outlandish behaviour felt too crude.  A man then bites into a sandwich full of $100 bills, while at one point Cyrus pulls a stuffed animal of some kind on a lead, while wearing a white fur coat and holding a stuffed lamb.  If this itself was meant to be satirical, it was a point lost on pretty much everyone, unsurprising considering the rest of the video seems to be the appropriation of everything wrong with modern, "glamorous" pop music.  For Wrecking Ball any such comment was abandoned, and Cyrus instead swings on, err, a wrecking ball while buck ass naked, with a shot every so often of her licking a sledgehammer.  According to Cyrus this was indicative of the collapse of her last relationship, while everyone else just thought it was a pop star getting naked and simulating something remarkably close to fellatio.

By the same token, the entire point of the video for Robin Thicke's Blurred Lines, which in its unrated version features a variety of ladies in a state of undress from the first frame, seems to have been to delight teenage boys and wind up feminists and parents.  Like Cyrus, Thicke defended the video, saying the song was about his wife, an interpretation that is stretched to breaking point by the verse where T.I, who talks of how his "last bitch" wasn't "as bad as you", and how he wishes to give the woman "something big enough to tear your ass in two".  Quite apart from the misogyny inherent in the lyrics, even if it doesn't warrant banning as some student unions have, it's just how dire the song is that really offends.  It's one of those records that despite being terrible in every way manages to lodge itself in your head, the key as usual being its repetitiveness.  That, along with the video has been the key to its success, beating Daft Punk's diametric opposite Get Lucky to be the biggest selling single of the year.  If it reminds of anything, it's the Prodigy's Smack My Bitch Up, a track designed to get a reaction and which had a video with a "twist" ending which supposedly made everything seen before it all right after all.  It signalled the Prodigy's collapse into insignificance, and one suspects Thicke won't be around for long either.

2013 also saw the return of perennial favourite, Lily Allen.  I really can't be bothered with broaching the controversy surrounding her video supposedly satirising the way women are used in pop videos, so let's concentrate on the music instead.  Her cover of Somewhere Only We Know, which unaccountably hit number 1, isn't just mediocrity recorded, it's the sound of the very least possible being done to even constitute a song.  Allen's real crime however wasn't her personal output this year, but rather her "discovering" of Tom Odell.  Odell makes previous hand picked "critics" winners at the Brits look positively radical, such is the conservatism of his music and more unmentionable, the fact that his voice just isn't strong enough to convey the emotion he thinks are in his lyrics.  Another Love is an utter dirge, the kind that makes Adele's Skyfall seem positively lively.  The only small mercy was his album wasn't nominated for the Mercury prize, despite some columnists being disgruntled that it missed the cut.

Finally, we come to the artists the critics have either been incredibly kind to or could possibly have been "persuaded" to praise.  Lorde's Royals was a huge smash in America, and to be fair, the message of the track that pop and television often portray a very unrealistic picture of the lives of the young is a reasonable enough point to make.  It's that I just can't stand the track itself, can't understand how anyone could when the words are delivered in the most aggravating fashion imaginable, and also can't fathom how anyone could possibly say it's a better track than anything produced by Lana Del Rey, who I also didn't rate.

Even more unfathomable though has been the rise and rise of Disclosure.  Pitchfork rate Settle the third best album of the year, the Graun has it as their sixth, and yet depending how much weight you give to certain publications, the album overall is either the 8th best or, err, the 92nd (the same method does also rank Arcade Fire's Reflektor as 94th, though).  Settle does absolutely nothing that far superior artists have either done in the past, or are still doing now.  Nobody Else by Dusky knocks everything released by Disclosure into a cocked hat, for instance, with next to no recognition for doing so.  What they clearly have had is record company largesse, first to get them the likes of Eliza Doolittle to "feature" on their beats, and second some of the most laughably soft coverage a group has had for some time.  It would be easier to take if the Lawrence brothers also didn't say that they had hated dance music, or pose the question of which people would rather hear, their stuff, or the likes of David Guetta on the radio.  As Blackdown responded, there is a third way, and if your music is indistinguishable from that of 10 years ago, there's almost certainly something wrong with it.  Whether it's down to ignorance, plain bad taste or as you sometimes have to suspect, "persuasion", there's no excuse for mediocrity being a critical as well as commercial success.  Sort it out next year, please.

Yeah, right.

Labels: , , ,

Share |

Tuesday, December 24, 2013 

That David Cameron Christmas message in full.


I'm writing this message just before Sam and I sit down to enjoy a thoroughly seasonal retrospective of Breaking Bad.  The travails of a chemistry teacher with cancer who turns to producing meth might not seem festive, but I believe it carries a message for us all at this time of year.  However dismal life might seem, all you need is a little bit of aspiration and you can turn everything around.

Just look at the economy.  It's thanks to the efforts of millions who go out and work hard every day that we're making real progress.  We've proved all those naysayers who predicted a triple-dip recession at the beginning of the year wrong, and growth is now really motoring along.  There's a few people who want to try and talk down the recovery, moaning that there isn't enough full-time work, that wages are still stagnating, or that the growth is as unsustainable as that engineered by Gordon Brown, but frankly they want to take us backwards, not forwards, refusing to accept we're in a global race.

It's not all about hard-working families who want to get on though, although honestly it is.  At this time of year we should also spare a thought for those who attempt to keep on strengthening our society too - like a politician who came up with a fantastic idea to how charities and volunteers could step in and help people help themselves - yes, I'm talking about myself and the big society.  It's a idea I'll admit I haven't focused on of late, but this Christmas it's really come into its own.  Let's hear it for charities like Shelter, trying to ensure everyone has a home this festive season, and the Trussell Trust, which runs hundreds of food banks up and down the country.  Without these organisations many wouldn't have either a roof over their heads or Bernard Matthews Turkey Twizzlers to eat.  Truly, in these times of austerity the government is most grateful that the blame for such hardship is placed squarely on the individual and not on the state.

Just as we must honour those who live out to the letter that verse in Acts, that 'it is more blessed to give than to receive', we can't avoid also dealing with those who believe it is more blessed to take than do an honest day's work.  Like those people who maintain workfare is in some way unfair, as though being asked to work for your pittance is an abuse of human rights, or those who think it's funny to call the spare room subsidy the bedroom tax.  Rest assured that those stuck on benefits without hope or responsibility will find 2014 to be an even more hostile environment than 2013 was.  That also goes for any Romanians and Bulgarians who dare to venture to Britain come January 1st.  We've arranged to have Keith Vaz meet them off the plane, and if that doesn't make them think twice I don't know what will.

Lastly, as well as remembering our servicemen and women, who will shortly be returning home from Afghanistan with mission accomplished, although no one can quite remember what the mission was, we should also think of other civil servants who have been much maligned this year.  Yes, we should give thanks for the snoopers, hackers and crackers at GCHQ and their counterparts in the Security Service and the Special Intelligence Service, all of whom have been personally traduced by the accusations made against them in a rag I will not so much as name.  They've kept us safe, or at least have up to a point, and all they get in return is insults and jibes.  I personally am thankful for all that they do for us, just as we should be for the hope given to millions by the birth of Jesus Christ.  It's all some of the less fortunate have, and as both Nick and Ed don't believe in God, or Santa for that matter, it's left to me to hold Jesus's banner aloft.  Thank you, Santa Christ.

With season's greetings,

(P.S.  All the usual end of year gubbins will be up sometime between the 27th and the end of the year, if I manage to get through the backlog of albums I still have to listen to between now and then.  Tch, the things I do for this blog, eh?)

Labels: , , , , ,

Share |

Monday, December 23, 2013 

Thing of the year: the immigration monster.

Hasn't it been a fantastic year?  After the miserable period of darkness that was 2012, brightened only by the Olympics, 2013 has been a 12 months without parallel.  We've had twerking, the fourth wave of feminism, selfies, people disappearing even further up their own arseholes on Twitter and, and, and, yeah, I can't keep this up.  2013 hasn't been as bad as 2012, for the reason 2012 would have been improved markedly had the world ended on the 21st of December. We were then starting from just about as low a point as was possible.

All the same, it's still been fairly catastrophic.  We've moved from having a flatlining economy to one where growth is being driven almost entirely by the housing market and consumer spending, without so much as a indication that the rebalancing the coalition supposedly wanted is beginning to happen.  And does this worry George Osborne?  Of course not.  The man who had the audacity to criticise Labour for not fixing the roof while the sun was shining (the only reason public services have held up so well during the first few years of austerity is thanks to the billions pumped in during the good times) is so desperate for any sort of growth that he's not bothered where it's coming from.  His plan for eliminating the deficit and running a surplus by the end of the decade we now know is based on two eventualities: first, that the Conservatives will be back in opposition and so the problem will be his successor's, or second, failing that, he'll have to massively put up taxes, as it simply won't be possible to cut everyday government spending back to the same share of national income as in 1948 without something, or rather many things breaking.

The real clusterfuck of the year has however been, yet again, on immigration.  Almost as soon as Jools Holland brought in the new year the tabloids picked up on the fact that in 12 short months hordes of marauding Romanians and Bulgarians would be free to come to this green and pleasant land and despoil it by working for a pittance picking the vegetables their readers are currently shovelling into their trolleys.  Within the month the government had decided on the perfect solution: they would fund advertisements informing all the gypsies, mafia types and other assorted stereotypes that far from being a welcoming, tolerant place, life in Britain is pretty damn terrible, especially if you're a for'n and don't speak the lingo.  Incredibly, this didn't placate our famously agreeable press, and for the rest of the year the scaremongering has just kept building.  Little things like how there isn't going to be anything approaching a repeat of the '05 cock-up, when only ourselves, Ireland and Sweden opened their borders immediately while the rest of the EU put in controls on the A8 states have either gone unexplained or been ignored.

Rather than attempt to counter this by calling out the tabloids and UKIP on their nonsense, the Conservatives have just gone with the flow.  Each month seems to have seen a re-announced crackdown on migrants' benefits, with by my reckoning the restriction on claiming before 3 months set out, eerily enough, 3 times.  We have in fact reached such a point that the Tories now seemingly want new states joining the EU to have to wait far longer before their citizens gain the right to free movement, their economies needing to have caught up further before any Albanians or Serbs would be allowed to come to Blighty.  That it will be at least a decade before Albania might be able to join, meaning under the current rules it would then be a further 6 years before EU states would have to open their borders doesn't seem to matter; we need these changes in place now, damn it.  To that end, a potential yearly cap of 75,000 migrants has been mooted by the Tories, again despite how such a policy would be illegal and would almost certainly lead to other EU nations putting limits on the number of Brits they would allow in each year, as both Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have pointed out.

Such is the way things have gone that we now have the Telegraph and Tory MPs outraged that Cable should so much as mention Enoch Powell and "rivers of blood" in the same breath as talking about immigration panics.  Anyone who isn't a complete idiot will have realised Cable wasn't suggesting the Tory rhetoric was comparable to Powell's, rather bringing up past examples of panics as evidence of what happens when we don't have a sensible debate or politicians acting responsibly. Whether Cable is a hypocrite for being so critical while remaining a minister in the government that's presiding over such self-defeating policies is worth considering, but it's a separate issue.

As John Harris writes, of course it isn't racist to be worried or anxious about large-scale immigration. It's also the case that the A8 accession did transform life in a number of towns, such as Peterborough and Boston. The point is surely though that the eastern European migration was a one-off due to the aforementioned factors, and won't be repeated again. For reasons known only to themselves, rather than calm the debate, the Tories have spent much of the year stoking it.  If the idea was to then claim their changes have stopped tens of thousands coming, then any credit they might receive will be outweighed massively in the long-term by the whole situation repeating. The immigration monster isn't going to go away when you keep on feeding it. And if you think you're going to gorge yourself over Christmas period, just wait until you see it tuck into the headlines over the new year.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Share |

Friday, December 20, 2013 

Too much chat.

Labels: , , , ,

Share |

Thursday, December 19, 2013 

Rendition: one step closer to, something.

A day after saying I was right I can swiftly redress the balance by making clear I was also wrong.  There is actually very little in the Report of the Detainee Inquiry aka the Gibson report (PDF) that's been redacted.  Indeed, only one brief section of the report has been, although the main redaction consists of an entire paragraph (page 48 onwards, 5.23) which reading between the lines was an account of what MI5 and SIS officers saw on being allowed to interview detainees at Bagram airbase on the 9th of January 2002.  In what seems to be the first instance of an officer reporting back first hand the potential mistreatment of detainees, SIS Head Office responded by telegram on the 11th of January with advice that while it was "important that you do not engage in any activity yourself that involves inhumane or degrading treatment", "the law does not require you to intervene to prevent this".  In fact, international law explicitly states the opposite.  Another entire paragraph is then redacted, and this time it's impossible to know what the closed report said.

The main reason why more hasn't been redacted is immediately apparent on reading the rest of what is by inquiry standards, even one which was cancelled early, a fairly short document.  For anyone who presumed the report would deal in detail with individual cases of alleged complicity in rendition, they're likely be left extremely underwhelmed.  What the report amounts to is little more than a reprise of the narrative which those who've followed the rendition scandal from the outset will already be familiar with. This is hardly surprising when it draws heavily on the two previous reports by the Intelligence and Security Committee, 2005's detainee report and 2007's one on rendition. Both were wholly inadequate, thanks to how the ISC didn't then have the power to demand documents from the agencies, and the usual failure of the spooks to tell the truth. Gibson even fully accepts the ISC's defintion of what is and isn't an extraordinary rendition, so once again the agencies are cleared of personal involvement in rendition, despite the massive role played by MI5 in the transfer to Guantanamo of Bisher al-Rawi and Jamil al-Banna.

Despite also having almost full access to the documents requested from MI5 and SIS (the "vast majority" were released, although some, especially those requiring American consent have not been, which is interesting to note considering the NSA's horrendous failure to keep GCHQ documentation safe), new revelations are extremely few and far between. We already knew for instance that while expressing concern about conditions at Guantanamo in public when it opened, Jack Straw was agreeing the transfer of British citizens to the detention camp behind closed doors.  One new detail is that Straw, apparently looking for an alternative, suggested to David Blunkett the then being drafted Extradition Bill could try and restrict the precedent set by R vs Mullen, where the unlawful return of Nicholas Mullen from Zimbabwe had resulted in his conviction of conspiracy to cause explosions being quashed (page 35).  Blunkett reported back 5 months later saying "the obstacles to this suggestion are simply too formidable".

The key issue that remains is the one considered in chapter 6 of the report (page 73 onwards).  Despite what the then heads of MI5 and SIS said to the ISC previously, it's apparent there was more than enough evidence collected by the agencies themselves, not least from the reports of officers back to their heads, to suggest mistreatment was fairly widespread at Bagram and elsewhere.  Gibson says these "reports ... were of variable quality and viability", but when we now know that after the very first visit by British officers to Bagram they were reporting back their concerns only to be told they didn't have to worry their little heads about things like the Geneva convention, it's difficult not to conclude that some within the services knew full well what was happening.  Indeed, it seems as though as early as 2002 MI5 was conducting internal reviews in an attempt to collate the treatment of detainees in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Guantanamo.  Despite this, the report reveals, no centralised record was subsequently kept of either allegations of mistreatment or first hand accounts from officers themselves.

As to whether ministers were informed of these concerns, something that has previously been unclear, the report does little to clear things up.  Tony Blair annotated a briefing note on Guantanamo saying although he had been sceptical about claims of torture, it had to be "quickly establish[ed] that it isn't happening".  Jack Straw was also made aware of the report from Bagram, and like Blair, annotated it; he also went on to intervene in both 2003 and 2004 with the Americans with concerns on the treatment and conditions British citizens were subject to.  It wasn't until after the Abu Ghraib scandal came to light however that Straw specifically asked SIS to provide him with information on their experiences in interviewing those held in Afghanistan.  As much as it seems the security services didn't go out of their way to keep ministers informed, the ministers themselves hardly seemed to have been too bothered either.

Which, again, isn't wholly surprising when we know Straw was involved at around the same time in the transfer of Abdul Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi back to Libya.  Straw for his part responded in the Commons, once again denying that he was in "any way complicit in the unlawful rendition or detention of individuals by the United States or any other state".  The problem for Straw is that MI6 says they only acted in accordance with ministerial authority, meaning one of the two has to be wrong.

Aren't you glad then it'll be the ISC investigating once again, rather than a fusty old judge with a legion of lawyers getting fat off the taxpayer doing the interrogating?  Straw certainly must be, as no doubt are the intelligence services themselves.  Ken Clarke, who must have pulled the short straw and so gave today's Commons statement despite no longer being the justice minister, certainly didn't give anything approaching an adequate explanation as to why a judge-led inquiry can't take place now, with consideration of the alleged Libyan renditions delayed until the the court case and police investigation have concluded, whereas it seems the ISC can do both at the same time.  If nothing else, today's report makes clear that questions from parliamentarians, especially those who have previously held the same positions as those accused, are simply not going to be of the same standard as from those appointed to helm an independent inquiry, not least when the ISC is already conducting at least two other substantial investigations at the same time.

Then there's the very issue we started with.  This report has been with the prime minister for 18 months.  We can't know the battles that went on between Gibson and the Cabinet Office over the redactions, only in the end they've turned out to be relatively minor.  That it's taken such an incredible amount of time to be published does though suggest any report eventually issued by the ISC is even more likely to be affected.  I cannot possibly see how redacting that first paragraph dealing with events more than 10 years ago could affect national security now, and yet in the end Gibson gave in and allowed it to be removed.  When you also consider they've chosen to publish it on what has turned out to be a busy news day at the time of year when few are much interested in parliament, the potential for the hiding of embarrassment, let alone potentially criminal acts, remains immense.  It has at long last been stated fairly uneqovically, if carefully, that we chose to involve ourselves in rendition and the mistreatment of detainees during the initial period of the "war on terror".  It's how those involved are now held to account that matters, and the signs are that just as the CIA was allowed to get away with far worse, our own politicians and spies will be able to plead unique circumstances and get away with only stains on their character.  Those who were tortured will merely have to bear the very real scars for the rest of their lives.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Share |

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 

The futility of being right.

There are times when despite every fibre of your being telling you it makes you look an arse, you really just want to say I told you so/I was right/you people are damn fools.  In fact, it doesn't just make you look an arse, it means you almost certainly are an arse.  We hear complaints all that time that no one managed to predict the recession or the Arab spring, except of course for the tiny number some have deemed to be our latter day equivalent of Cassandras.  It doesn't matter it's more than likely those same people completely lucked out and prior to getting something right had been wrong, wrong, and thrice wrong, we tend to downplay such things in our search for those who seem to know something the rest of us dunderheads don't.

To labour the point even further, it's incredibly easy to pose a political soothsayer, not least when by far the best policy is to expect the worst and go from there.  Don't predict riots though, as even if you turn out to be right, you really do look a tool.  Chances are your hit rate if you're careful will be quite high, although considering others despite these rules have failed miserably, such as the sadly departed Mystic Mogg, or Mark "Osama bin Laden is dead" Steyn, perhaps there's more to it than there really seems.

Right, have I delayed the inevitable quite enough?  Those with longer memories will recall that back in the mists of time an inquiry into our "alleged" collusion in extraordinary rendition, helmed by a certain Sir Peter Gibson, was cancelled after further "allegations" against MI6 and Jack Straw came to light.  These "allegations" were such that almost exactly a year ago Sami al-Saadi received a £2m settlement without the government admitting any liability.  In other words, yes, we were perfectly happy to send those associated with an Islamic group opposed to Gaddafi (but which also had links to al-Qaida) back to the colonel's torture chambers, so long as it meant a few of our finest FTSE 100 companies got access to the country's copious natural resources.  A few years later, and a different government decided we would join forces with these terrorists to get rid of the man we felt we could do business with (although, if we're to believe David Shayler, we had already paid the LIFG to make an attempt on Gaddafi a few years previous to that).  Changing geopolitics, eh?

12 months on, and finally we've learned there is indeed to be a follow-on inquiry.  Only, as was predictable, rather than the judge-led independent inquiry hoped for by human rights groups and those others compensated by the governments it is instead to be carried out by, err, the Intelligence and Security Committee.  Yep, in what seems to be a deliberate joke on those of us who have been mocking the ISC for years now, the same committee that produced the ridiculous whitewash on rendition in the first place is to have a second try.  I'd like to say this boggles the mind, except as the general response to the Snowden revelations has made clear, we've come a long way from the days when the coalition was making a lot of noise about "freedom" bills and not introducing ID cards.

It does though raise the question of how such a committee can possibly even begin to hold either ministers or the security services to account.  The government seems to be asking Malcolm Rifkind, former foreign secretary, to sit in judgement of Jack Straw, former foreign secretary.  Also alongside Rifkind will be Hazel Blears, a minister at the same time as Straw was failing to stop the Iraq war and signing memorandums authorising renditions.  Will she be recusing herself?  One suspects not.  It also won't be able to get straight on with the work as the government continues to try to get Abdel Hakim Belhaj's case thrown out, meaning it's possible the inquiry won't have started until after the next election. Apparently enough then the government isn't even pretending to be interested in keeping its word any longer, and those hopes the likes of Liberty had for something better to turn up have very much not come to pass.  As even a goon like me thought was the most likely result.

We will however be getting Gibson's interim report, which will be somewhat limited as the inquiry never heard any evidence.  Seeing as it's also sat around for the best part of 18 months, it's bound to be redacted to the verge of complete pointlessness, and in the best Whitehall tradition, to blame precisely no one and also reach err, no conclusions whatsoever.  Fantastic.  It's also being published on the last parliamentary day before Christmas, no doubt alongside dozens of other unpleasant documents and statistics the government doesn't want anyone to know about.  Isn't it great being right?


Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Share |

Tuesday, December 17, 2013 

Worse than selling out.

Just about the best riposte to those quick to shout sell out came, naturally enough, from two people who despite everything, haven't really sold out (at least if you overlook all the merchandise that came out following the initial mega success of their series). Yep, we're talking about Trey Parker and Matt Stone's South Park, and that classic of the second series, Chef's Chocolate Salty Balls. Having sold his version of the Mr Hankey story to a grasping film producer and been stiffed in the process, Stan explains to Cartman that he deserves it for selling out, as anyone who makes money in the entertainment industry is by definition. Away from television but just as scatological, there's Tool's Hooker with a Penis, featuring Maynard informing an "OGT" fan who accuses him of selling out that he did so to make a record in the first place, and his critic "bought one".

Calling someone who's found success a sell out is then just about the stupidest possible criticism you can make. You can dislike an artist's output if they've watered it down so much in an attempt to find a wider audience that they fail to carry their original fans along, but then again, all of us need to eat. You can do much the same if they've done a complete change of direction, or indeed if they then fail to acknowledge their humbler beginnings, especially as success is often fleeting. Harsher, more vitriolic reactions can be justified though if either hypocrisy is involved or indeed, the individual belittles their previous work, or for that matter those who have clearly influenced them, for which see Disclosure and an upcoming end of year post.

We come then to Jack Monroe, the young woman with the austerity cookery blog, now column, soon to be one of the stars of a few Sainsbury's adverts providing tips on what to do with leftovers from joints. Monroe's rapid ascent to sort of celebrity, described by the Graun as the face of modern poverty and included in their list as one of the people of the year, has not gone unnoticed.  The ever lovely Richard Littlejohn dedicated a Mail column to Monroe and the Graun's version of what poverty is, and amid all the familiar nonsense, stupidity, deceptions and unnecessary meanness that characterises a Littlejohn column, there is something resembling a point struggling to get out.  Calling someone the face of modern poverty or as Littlejohn puts it, "a poster girl for poverty" is all well and good, except poverty no longer has a face, if it ever did.  As figures released last week revealed, more than half of those measured as being in poverty are in work, so applying easy labels or generalising becomes ever more redundant.

With the very best will in the world, nor are Monroe's recipes, despite her protestations, always the humblest or easiest to procure.  Yes, kale is an easy target, but then there's the beetroot, feta and lentil salad, or the chickpea and aubergine curry recipe.  I'd like to know where she got a large aubergine for 53p from (presumably Sainsbury's), as while you certainly can get them cheap, not everyone's going to be able find one for that price outside of say a deal or the reduced section.  She also somehow managed to get two sprigs of fresh parsley for 8 pence (try asking someone for two sprigs of fresh parsley from a market stall or in a shop and see them either laugh at you or narrow their eyes) for the smoky herring roe recipe, as well as 100 grams of green beans for 15 pence, which I again can't see as being based in reality unless they were massively reduced.  The point is that you can eat well for £10 a week, but that also assumes you have the time to find the items she suggests and to prepare them, not necessarily things those in such a situation have, or indeed an internet connection or the £1.40 for a copy of the paper she writes for to get the recipes in the first place.

This isn't to doubt Monroe's passion, and amid the many like Littlejohn who think nothing of demonising the poorest and those subsisting on minuscule amounts, anyone fighting back against such slander deserves support.  Nor is her decision to take Sainsbury's money for their adverts selling out, nor would it be had she not split the remuneration between charities and local food banks.  It does however come quite close to breaking what she wrote in her response to Littlejohn, that she didn't go in for product endorsement posts or guest or sponsored posts.  Let alone the adverts, her response to the claims of selling out is practically a paean to the supermarket and how brilliant they are.  Littlejohn, naturally, has seized upon this, and you can't for once exactly blame him.

All in all, rather than focusing attention, the pushing of Monroe has been a distraction from the harsh reality those who remain in penury are having cope with, as continues to be chronicled by Amelia Gentleman in the... Graun.  Poverty doesn't need a face; it already has far too many.  Whether we choose to acknowledge them or not is what matters, and while it's not her fault in any way, shape or form, A Girl Called Jack isn't helping.  And that's hell of a lot worse than selling out.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Share |

Monday, December 16, 2013 

We don't need no damn facts here boy.

Facts are great.  You can prove anything with facts.  But you know what's better?  Debates based around complete and total ignorance.  Yeah!  You know the ones, the kind we have when the great British public think 15% of 15-year-old girls get pregnant every year, or that 31% of the population are immigrants.  These debates are the best for the obvious reason that you can say absolutely anything, and because we simply don't have even the slightest inkling of what the reality is, everyone wins.  Did you know that 90% of 18-24 year-olds now have tattoos?  Actually, that's bullshit, the figure is closer to 25%. I don't think that's right.  Yeah, well, you're the one who's wrong, idiot.  What did you call me?*

And so on.  Much of politics does of course revolve around ignorance, whether it be from the politicians themselves, such as over internet safety/pornography, or indeed dealing with the fallout from the public's own perception of the nation, itself fuelled by the nation's finest newspapers and broadcasters.  It's surely come to something though when we have politicians at an evidence committee agreeing that we don't need any damn facts in order to have a debate.  Both Ian Austin, clearly one of Labour's finest, and Theresa May concurred that we could have just as good an in-depth and informed discussion on GCHQ and state surveillance without the Guardian having published so much as a single document from Edward Snowden.

To be fair, this is at least an improvement on the government's previous position.  First they told the Guardian that they'd had their debate and it was time to hand over all the documents; now we can have a debate for as long as we like, it's just they'd really rather like it if we didn't know GCHQ was busy mastering the internet, or failing to crack Tor, or being funded by the NSA, or has the capabilities they were demanding in the data communications bill and so we instead mainly talked of how wonderful the security services are at keeping us safe.

Theresa May is certain then that terrorists have been helped thanks to Snowden and the Graun.  She doesn't have evidence that they have, as she repeatedly failed to say whether MI5 had let her in on how the various al-Qaida nasties have been rubbing their heads with glee as revelation has followed revelation.  Merely, she was convinced by what she had "seen and heard" that national security had been damaged.  In other words, as with others who have gone before her, May seems to be suggesting that anything with the potential to help terrorists, regardless of how slight or how ridiculous it is for say the location of Faslane to remain secret should remain that way just in case someone with a beard and a backpack should turn up in the vicinity.  Thankfully, other officials with slightly more sense than our politicians decreed a few years back that not identifying army bases on maps was really fantastically stupid, and the same principle applies here.  Anyone planning on launching an attack would have to be really quite daft not to think the potential was there for either the police or MI5 to be listening in.

The predictable nonsense out of the way, the rest of the session was a bit more illuminating, and an improvement on the appearance of the chief spooks themselves.  Without saying so, May more or less made clear that only the ISC will be allowed to question our friends in the intelligence agencies, despite Parker having seemingly agreed to appear before Keith Vaz and friends.  She also doesn't think that members of the ISC should be elected, rather than chosen by the prime minister, hence why such first rate minds as Hazel Blears are on the committee rather than say anyone with a healthy scepticism of the executive.  Nor do we know if the spooks have been so much as consulted over how it was Snowden managed to get hold of hundreds of thousands of documents, or whether the access regime has been changed, as May only said she was sure they would have been consulted.  Considering the NSA still hasn't managed to work out exactly what Snowden took, you have to doubt quite how seriously they will have taken our concerns.  

May also said that 9 of the 10 people currently on TPIMs are British, whereas all of those who had been under control orders were foreign nationals.  In other words, and as Phil pointed out in the comments last month, we now have a system only slightly removed from control orders that mainly targets British citizens rather than those who couldn't be deported, and yet no one seems to be asking why it is these people can't be prosecuted as opposed to partially deprived of their liberty on the basis of secret evidence.

See, dangerous things those facts.  They cause problems, and start campaigns.  Far better that we have a monopoly on them, or better yet, dispense with them altogether.  Something they're already doing at Michael Gove's free schools.  Bad-ba-dum tsk.

*I have no clue what the real percentage is, and I also don't care.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Share |

Friday, December 13, 2013 

War cry.

Labels: , , , , ,

Share |

Thursday, December 12, 2013 

Don't break out the plant food just yet.

You have to suspect that today's Graun piece suggesting the coalition is considering introducing a regulatory regime for new legal highs rather than banning those linked to deaths after the fact is little more than a piece of enthusiastic briefing by Norman Baker. All it amounts to is including a toned down version of the New Zealand approach as an option in a consultation paper. As both Theresa May and David Cameron have repeatedly stated they are against liberalisation, with the Labour leadership also toeing the criminalisation line, the chances of there being even the slightest movement seem remote.

The plan also doesn't make sense. Why regulate drugs we know relatively little about when we could instead do the same for those we are far more familiar with? Apart from the minority who will always try something new, the only reason the legal high scene exists as it now does is precisely because of prohibition. The decline in the quality of ecstasy due to ever further restrictions being placed on its ingredients can be linked directly with the rise in alternatives. Indeed, it was only a few years ago that psilocybin mushrooms were perfectly legal to sell so long as they hadn't been prepared for use, a clearly scandalous state of affairs that New Labour saw fit to put a end to. If we wanted, we could within a matter of months have a situation where the sale of say, cannabis, LSD, ecstasy and shrooms was regulated and controlled, at a stroke decimating both the criminals who currently control the trade and the legal high merchants.

We almost certainly never will, of course, not least due to how the Sun and Daily Mail would respond. As I've previously remarked, it's fascinating how the Sun in particular reacted to the sudden rise of mephedrone in an almost textbook moral panic fashion, yet has barely commented since on the new substances that have replaced it. We've also got hell of a long way to go when it still seems khat will be banned, despite the Home Affairs committee calling on Theresa May to abandon her criminalisation of the plant. As yet there has also been no government response to the Advisory Council's recommendation that ketamine be raised to Class B from C. The last three recommendations from the ACMD have all been disregarded, as they either proposed keeping the status quo or the downgrading of the drug they reviewed. Call me cynical, but I get the feeling this time the government might just follow the ACMD's lead.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Share |

Wednesday, December 11, 2013 

Parker saved from having to stick his nose in.

Andrew "nosy" Parker, the head of MI5, will not then be giving evidence to the Home Affairs committee after all.  In what must rank as the most analogous instance of a grown man being got out of a potentially sticky situation by the equivalent of a note from his mum, Theresa May has decreed that for the chief spook to appear before another committee, albeit a select committee rather than a statutory one, would be to duplicate the ISC's work.  This is an interesting new innovation on the part of the coalition: apparently you can't have two inquiries into the same thing going on at the same time, unless of course the object of the inquiries is to try and get one over on the Labour party, in which case you can have innumerable different investigations into the Co-op Bank and Paul Flowers.  To be fair, it reminds just as much as Labour's position on a further inquiry into the Iraq war while troops were still in the country.  Once they were back home, then we could have the Chilcot inquiry.  Until then, and regardless of how in the past we'd managed to have inquiries into debacles in both WW1 and WW2 without damaging the mission, we couldn't possibly hold one.

You can at least see why Theresa May has "declined" the committee's request to call Parker.  What's the point of the ISC if the heads of the intelligence agencies can also be called to account by other, normal, parliamentary committees?  If the Home Affairs committee had been allowed to question Parker without first informing him of what they intended to ask, as the ISC did in its carefully stage managed session, then it would rather undermine the whole haven't we changed into tremendously open and answerable organisations narrative.  This doesn't explain however why security service heads have previously given evidence to the home affairs committee in private session without any such difficulties; what would be so different in doing so in public post the first ISC appearance?

Except, as was clear after Alan Rusbridger's appearance, the most pertinent question to ask of Parker is the one he doesn't have an answer to.  Both he and the government know full well there has been no real damage caused by the Edward Snowden revelations, except that is to their reputations and the "oversight" regime.  While there was no guarantee Parker would have expanded on his and his fellow spooks' answer to the ISC that they could only go into specifics in closed session, it would have been embarrassing to say the least to have to repeat his response without doing so.  The committee could also have asked some of the questions the ISC didn't, and Parker would additionally have had to confront the increasing number of those demanding reforms to the current legislation that regulates surveillance.  There was also the possibility the trial of the two men accused of killing Lee Rigby might have concluded by the time of the session, with the potential for embarrassing revelations still to emerge which Parker could have been put on the spot over.

Much the same thinking seems to have been behind David Cameron's refusal to allow Kim Darroch, the national security adviser to give evidence, after Chris Huhne revealed that the national security committee had not been informed of the existence of Tempora.  Apparently this would have set a "difficult precedent", or rather, would have been acutely embarrassing and revealing about the levels of secrecy even at the very heart of government.  As Keith Vaz said, regardless of who they are, witnesses should not be afraid of questions from MPs, nor should the prime minister or home secretary be dictating over the heads of committees who can and cannot give evidence.  The government and security service have got into this mess through their own ridiculously overblown reaction to Snowden's whistleblowing; they should not be allowed to get out of by shifting the goalposts.  That can be left to the badgers.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Share |

Tuesday, December 10, 2013 

Iain Duncan Smith: a credit to the coalition.

It must be great being Iain Duncan Smith.  After all, when you've already hit rock bottom, as he did following his defenestration as Tory leader barely 2 years after being elected to the position, the only way is up (baby).  Partly thanks to on-going guilt within the Conservatives over his treatment, his overthrow hardly moving the party on, partly due to how despite Cameron's initial attempts to soften the party it's since shifted further to the right and closer to IDS politically, and partly due to how the media almost at large has decided the welfare state must be slashed back, it doesn't seem to matter how hopeless or mendacious he is as work and pensions secretary, nothing seems to stick.  The worst that can be said is he was supposedly described as "not being clever enough" by George Osborne, which must be a bit like being called overweight by Eric Pickles.

Any other minister who had helmed such a catastrophe as the introduction of universal credit would have been sacked or demoted long ago, while at the very least the press would have been calling for their head.  By the standards of the NHS programme for IT, the IT fiasco to end them all, as yet UC hasn't cost the taxpayer billions.  Nonetheless, as Duncan Smith was forced to admit yesterday before the work and pensions committee, £41m has so far been written off as wasted due to the original software for the system being fatally flawed, while a further £91m has been written down as it covers the interim system to be used only for the next 5 years.  The National Audit Office in its second report on universal credit also points out it's not guaranteed the replacement software will either work, or be developed quickly enough to reach IDS's previous deadline of 2017.

Some of the justifications for how this state of affairs was reached were almost as eye-watering as the figures themselves.  Mike Driver, finance director general at the DWP told the committee that "this level of write-off in the software industry was not unusual for a project of this kind".  Perhaps it isn't when it comes to massive public projects, where it seems the money taps are never turned off regardless of how useless the contractor turns out to be, but elsewhere in the industry the writing off of £41m would result in some major firms going bust.

The massive waste might be easier to take if IDS and others at the DWP showed even the slightest smidgen of humility about the whole process, yet the secretary of state has blustered and bulldozed his way through even the meekest criticism of the failings at the department.  He's blamed civil servants, insisted time and again that the project was on time and on budget, and then when he finally has to admit that at the very least 700,000 claimants still aren't going to be on UC come the end of 2017, he announces it on the morning of the autumn statement, completely burying it.  He further lucked out by choosing the day of the storm surge and the passing of Mandela, so his embarrassment went almost entirely unnoticed.

Even if it is just £41m that has gone down the tubes and there are no further foul-ups, it's worth considering how that money could have alleviated some of the other problems the coalition's welfare reforms have created.  Ed Balls (yes, I know) thinks the bedroom tax is going to raise hardly anything, so it could have gone towards filling the hole of repealing that self-defeating policy.  Despite all the nonsense, the autumn statement also revealed that only 25,500 households have had their benefits capped at £26,000, way below the near 70,000 it was expected to hit, further reducing the already small amount it was projected to save.  This naturally hasn't stopped the DWP from sending out press releases to friendly newspapers pointing out how 50 families were receiving the equivalent of £70,000 a year in benefits, without making clear that a substantial part of that money was going straight into the hands of landlords via housing benefit.

Then again, the cap never was about saving money.  It was about sending a message, while ignoring the often temporary exceptional circumstances which those receiving such large amounts had found themselves in.  IDS's reign at the DWP has been based around that concept: talking tough and winning the support of those who love nothing better than to play spot the scrounger, while in the background the reforms either haven't worked or were never going to.  It's why 400,000 have been sanctioned by the Jobcentre in the last year, to make up for the failings elsewhere, with repeated reports of pressure being put on staff to issue them for either imaginary or the slightest infractions.  At some point IDS's luck is going to run out and he's going to once again plummet into the abyss, but it's anyone's guess when those currently backing him will realise just how useless he's been second time around.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Share |


  • This is septicisle


Powered by Blogger
and Blogger Templates