Friday, October 30, 2015 


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Thursday, October 29, 2015 

Want to come over and Netflix and Chilcot?

(I am once again sorry for the title.)

The temptation to simply make bad jokes about the Chilcot inquiry at this point is all but overwhelming.  Iraq war inquiry still not to be over by Christmas.  No shock and awe as Chilcot says report to be launched within 45 years.  De'Chilcotisation process still not achieved, despite intervention of Daily Mail.  

And indeed, for all the protestations of Chilcot and his relatively few friends in the media, it is absurd that a report on a war that lasted 7 years should take an equal amount of time to gestate before finally emerging.  Delayed as it has been by the death of panel member Sir Martin Gilbert and incessant, interminable hold-ups over just what can and cannot be released of the conversations between Tony Blair and George Bush, the responsibility ultimately is on Chilcot himself.  If during the early stages he realised it was to be an even more mammoth task then he assumed, as he must have done, then he should have requested extra resources.

Far from all the blame can be laid at Chilcot's door, however.  Nor can it be pinned on Blair, or on the Maxwellisation process of contacting those due to be criticised for a response as a whole.  Such has the focus been on whether or not Blair will finally be held to account (spoiler: he won't) that it seems to have been forgotten Chilcot's remit was across the board, as it had to be.  Blair, both rightly and wrongly, has become defined by Iraq.  It will be how he's principally remembered, and yet this is far too simplistic a view of how we came to find ourselves riding the coattails of an even by historical standards exceptionally right-wing Republican administration's plan to remake the Middle East.  Blair was the driving force, certainly, but there are meant to be safeguards in place across government to prevent a prime minister from taking his country to war on such flimsy grounds.  They failed, with much of Whitehall working in concert with the prime minister to ensure Britain took part in a war it had no need to.

It's this that somewhat explains why Chilcot's task has taken so much longer than it should.  Gordon Brown delayed the inquiry itself until the last minute, no doubt partly because he hoped he'd be gone by the time it came to report.  The Tories' fervour for an inquiry, driven by the hope that it would further damage Labour, has long since transformed into the realisation that it'll be under their watch a potentially damning report will be published.  Cameron's public statements, that he wants the report published as soon as possible, mask what has in fact been an alliance with the Cabinet Office to delay it as much as possible.  Whether or not Richard Norton Taylor's reports are entirely accurate on Whitehall providing documents to those set to be criticised which Chilcot himself did not receive, it's apparent there has been a refusal to cooperate, at the very least in a timely fashion, that Chilcot will hopefully address in the report itself.

As argued previously, the idea the report will provide the "closure" some want sadly doesn't reflect how previous such inquiries have gone.  At best, Chilcot will be critical across the board, as that's precisely where responsibility does lie.  The idea Blair got his way in the face of resistance is nonsense: the intelligence agencies, the civil service, the military, other government departments, other ministers, the opposition Conservative party, all either acquiesced at the slightest prompting or actively went along with war plan Iraq.  Any criticisms that were made took place behind close doors (with the obvious exception of Clare Short), and either ignored or dismissed.  Some of this was also down to how they believed the war would be over quickly; no one suspected there would be such resistance, from both Sunni and Shia militants, let alone that a terrorist group to rival al-Qaida itself would emerge from the rubble.

The same cannot be said now, which again helps to explain why there have been such delays.  Should Chilcot's criticism go further than expected, it will only highlight how the same deficiencies, same refusal to plan for the worst, same touching belief in the power of bombing countries better persists.  You only have to look at the response from the government to parliament's refusal to vote for air strikes on Assad to see how practically nothing has changed: it wasn't that the government had failed to make an even remotely convincing case, it was everyone else's, whether Ed Miliband's or that of a country supposedly coming over isolationist all of a sudden.  Just as with Iraq, the attorney general assured everyone it was all above board legally, and an incredibly lacking intelligence briefing was also provided.  It's no coincidence that by next July a decision one way or the other will likely have been made on joining the action in Syria against Islamic State, when without doubt the same old arguments and same old practices will have reared their heads once again.

After all, Blair if nothing else recognises that Islamic State owes its existence to his war.  By contrast, the more out there interventionists still with us maintain that our involvement in Libya has no connection whatsoever to what has happened since, and to believe so is to fall into the ad hoc fallacy.  Casuality apparently doesn't exist.  Others argue that Libya would have descended into chaos if we hadn't intervened, which is probably true, but not an argument for having done so.  Chilcot, whatever conclusions he reaches, will not change the debate one iota.  How could he?

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Wednesday, October 28, 2015 

Appeasing the Saudis.

In a way, you can almost understand the apparent consternation of our good friends the Saudis at what they see as the sudden downgrading of our "strong alliance".  Following the decision to cancel a memorandum of understanding on the supply of training to Saudi prison officers, as well as adverse coverage about floggings and beheadings, they just can't be sure where it is they stand.  What's more, as voiced by the Saudi ambassador Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz (crazy name, crazy guy?!), this "alarming change" has come at the same time as the red carpet has been rolled out for our new best pals the Chinese.

This must be all the more confusing because China and the Saudi Arabia, while very different nations, have often shared the same diplomatic strategy.  They affect to be incredibly thin-skinned, to the point where mentioning human rights within 10 miles of their embassies is the equivalent of suggesting their collective mother wasn't just a woman of ill morals, but also inclined towards the farmyard.  David Cameron merely meeting the Dalai Lama, a man deemed a terrorist by Beijing, was enough for relations to be downgraded at a stroke.  When the Commons foreign affairs committee declared it was to hold an inquiry into a couple of Gulf states, including Saudi, the government had to an order a report into the Muslim Brotherhood and its involvement in the UK to placate them.

Xi Jinping being invited round to hobnob with Queenie, Kate and all the rest must then have been all the more bewildering.  China might not be quite as repressive as Saudi, especially for women, nor do the Chinese go in for flogging, but both are liberal when it comes to the use of capital punishment.  If there was any discussion of human rights with Xi, then precisely in what way it was it was addressed and how it was responded to we simply don't know.  Despite the BBC putting the best possible gloss on Xi's answer to the only allowed question from Laura Kuenssberg, his point was fairly clear: everyone had lessons they could learn on human rights.  From China, presumably.

There are nonetheless subtler ways of making clear your displeasure than the way bin Abdulaziz chose.  Rare is it that a supposed diplomat decides to directly channel the Krays, rarer still that a newspaper like the Telegraph would choose to publish the resulting column and present it as though it was anything other an outright attempt to intimidate.  Abdulaziz's message is, as David Allen Green has pointed out, nice country you've got here, would be a shame if anything was to happen to it.  It really is that crass, that tone deaf.  Flogging, public executions, treating women as chattel, all these things are mere local traditions and customs, and just as the Saudis respect our traditions and customs, they expect us to respect theirs.  If our extensive trade links are to be subject to "certain political ideologies", i,e. Jeremy Corbyn daring to suggest we shouldn't be training torturers or the jailers of human rights dissidents, then everything is on the table, including intelligence cooperation.  Why, David Cameron says Saudi intelligence has saved hundreds of lives, or rather according to the ambassador, "thousands".

This is hardly the first time the Saudis have threatened to withdraw intelligence cooperation.  Indeed, it's their rhetorical weapon of choice: just when the Serious Fraud Office was about to break open their probe into corruption in the Al-Yamamah weapon deal, the Saudis informed the British ambassador if the inquiry was not stopped that "British lives on British streets" would be at risk.  The message was that blunt.  To make such a threat over the potential uncovering of precisely what the Saudi royals are so often accused of is one thing; to do the same over a paltry £6m memorandum of understanding, which had not yet so much as been committed to is something else.

Such are the deep links within various government departments to the Saudis, not to mention inside the arms firms which the British state often acts as salesman extraordinaire for, it's all but impossible to know precisely where direct Saudi influence ends and the curious devotion to some of the most unpleasant people on the planet begins.  There is however clearly more than meets the eye to foreign secretary Philip Hammond's unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia than merely to announce that Karl Andree, imprisoned for over a year for the heinous offence of having homemade wine, will be released shortly.  That ever reliable conduit for the intelligence agencies, Frank Gardner, says the visit was meant to "smooth ruffled feathers", and yet it also looks remarkably like being part of an agreed stick and then carrot PR exercise, with the ambassador wielding the stick and Hammond then coming away with a prize regardless.

Perhaps the true reason for the trip is to soothe Saudi nerves over the possibility that we won't be able to carry on supplying planes, bombs and spare parts to their airforce, currently involved in reducing Yemen to rubble as part of the second on-going proxy war between the Sauds and Iran in the region.  Perhaps it was also to reassure them that Iran being invited to the talks over Syria is not about anything other than a extremely belated attempt to reach a peace settlement.  It still though highlights just how deep in the Saudi pocket government ministers are.  Very few other nations could get away with making such blatant threats, in our very own media no less, and not as a result be told where to go.

The truth is we are scared of the Saudis, just as it seems the Americans are also.  Not because they can turn off the oil taps as they once did and could, but at what potentially they could do if we finally called their bluff on their wider role in the region and in the spreading of the Wahhabi creed worldwide.  British lives on British streets, or American lives on American streets, and not merely as a result of stopping the sharing of intelligence.  The threat seems far more implicit than that, a message backed up by how regardless of their protests, it's a fact that the Saudis have been funding jihadist groups in Syria, if not necessarily either Islamic State or the al-Nusra Front.  As David Allan Green again writes, there's a name for our response to this open intimidation: appeasement.  Just don't expect those usually first in line to decry Western "weakness" to be in the vanguard on this occasion.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015 

In the long term we are all dead.

There is something uniquely grim about this time of year.  Putting the clocks back an hour, giving for a few weeks slightly more light early in the morning at the expense of it being pitch black by the time most people go home only accentuates what is a neither one thing nor the other period.  It's not yet winter, and you can't yet either look forward to or dread the approach of Christmas, but nor does it truly seem like autumn, as the trees are stubbornly for the most part hanging onto to their leaves.  Not even the change in colours alters what seems to be a state of limbo.

To add to the gaiety, the end of October start of November also heralds the yearly descent into the festival of remembrance.  If it feels odd that the further we draw away from 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 the more important it seems to have become that we remember the sacrifices of those desperate times, then few pop their head up above the parapet.   Only recently has the poppy come to be omnipresent on screen for around the three weeks prior to November the 11th, mostly out of the fear that if someone fails to wear the red emblem it will be seized on as proof of a lack of something on the part of the individual or organisation they represent.

We can't of course know whether Moina Michael would have approved say of football clubs putting poppies on the shirts of teams mainly made up of players born abroad, being an American and all, but we also can't know that she wouldn't.  Nor can we speculate on how she or the others who were involved in first establishing the poppy as the symbol of remembrance might think of how the Royal British Legion now offers Battle of Britain Spitfire Poppy Cufflinks, at the moment on sale at £79.99, reduced from a ton.  Those with shallower pockets can opt instead for a poppy dress, a snip at £50, or a Union Jack Poppy brooch for a mere £15.  Any objections from say nationalists in Northern Ireland, who have long rejected the poppy due to the role of the British army during the Troubles, were presumably ignored or not so much as thought about.

It is all for a good cause, and how people choose to spend their money is no business of ours.  It does though rather encourage an arms race in those who want to show just how on side with the cause they are; is a mere paper poppy enough, regardless of how much the donor put in the pot when they picked it up? Conversely, does putting down £15 or more for a brooch then mean you can just get it out in subsequent years without making a donation?  Such are the potential hazards of what seems on the surface to be a very straightforward issue.

For instance, before he started agitating for Scottish independence, Stuart Campbell was a video games journalist.  A damn fine one in fact.  What most people might not know is the poppy is trademarked by the Royal British Legion, as Campbell discovered when he put a poppy on the cover of Amiga Power, as was also used by Sensible Software on the packaging of their game Cannon Fodder.  The Daily Star, back when it was almost a newspaper, duly tried to whip up outrage at this unauthorised use of the poppy for commercial purposes.  The Legion itself was less than amused by how the game's tagline was "war has never been such fun".  Despite the tagline and (ironic) title, Cannon Fodder in fact treated the death of the soldiers you controlled with the utmost reverence; those who died were remembered at the end of each mission, and they also each received a headstone on the main screen, far more than almost any game before or since has bothered to do.

You don't have to think the increase in the prominence of the poppy appeal, or at least in the period of remembrance is an attempt to foster the same kind of "support the troops" attitude prevalent in America to find it all rather curious.  There is not the slightest danger in our forgetting WWI, the suffering, the sacrifices, the privations, let alone WW2.  Quite the contrary in fact: previously neglected, the last few years have seen memorials dedicated to Bomber Command springing up, first the monstrosity in Green Park, now a taller than the Angel of the North spire in Lincolnshire.  

As the years pass, it's no longer clear precisely what it is exactly we're remembering.  WW2 offers much in the way of moral certainties, at this remove quite possibly to our detriment, where every dictator or new threat is the new Hitler or new Nazis, where not acting with an iron fist is to repeat the mistakes of appeasement.  WWI might focus more on the humble British Tommy marching off to war, but even here there has increasingly been an attempt on the part of revisionists to paint it as just as necessary as the war it inexorably led to.  One wonders if instead it has become another of those debates where there cannot possibly be any shade of grey: to question it to be unpatriotic; to suggest one day it will be as remote as Agincourt is to us now to be an insult; to view it as little more than an excuse for glorifying in war, an attempt to crush any dissent about maintaining support for military involvement overseas now.

Perhaps the answer in fact lies elsewhere, in our apparently insatiable desire for nostalgia.  Rather than try to understand the ever more confusing rhythm of our lives now, we seek comfort in the hinterland of our collective past.  Whether it be Magna Carta or Back to the Future, the past or our version of the past remains in our consciousness.  Remembrance and a sense of duty, to keep doing something even if it means little to us personally is enough to quash any wider questioning of the how and why.  Like it or not, there will come a time when Hitler, the few, the Somme and the Kaiser will be nothing more than ciphers.  Saying as much ought not to be controversial.

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Monday, October 26, 2015 

Hubris, but not yet nemesis.

It wasn't meant to be this way.  Despite the slightness of their majority, the Conservatives were euphoric at their victory in May.  They had triumphed in spite of themselves, in spite of 5 years of austerity, in spite of the opinion polls.  To add to their delight, the opposition went into full on meltdown: the main leadership contenders and many others in the party seemed to be accepting almost completely they had lost because they weren't the Conservatives.  Interim leader Harriet Harman whipped her party to abstain on the welfare changes the new government pushed through at the first opportunity, as to oppose them would to be disagree with the electorate's verdict at the ballot box.  George Osborne was feted as a strategic genius, taking any opportunity given to lead his opponents into political traps from which there was no escape.  With the utmost chutzpah, the Tories declared themselves the true workers' party, the only party able to deliver true equality.

Hubris almost always leads to nemesis.  The government's defeat in the Lords tonight on tax credits is without doubt a result of the Tories' hubris, but nemesis has not arrived yet.  One defeat does not a crisis make.  It does however show that beneath the façade, the Tories' ability to get their legislation through parliament is slight.  The claims from the Tories that the Lords voting to block the cuts until the government sets out how it intends to alleviate the losses working families will suffer is a constitutional outrage is nothing more than a distraction technique.  This is mess of their own making, and they know it.  Osborne, the master manipulator, has stumbled right into one of his own traps.

Opinions vary on whether or not the intention always was to cut tax credits.  Certainly, as Rick has pointed out, cutting tax credits by £3bn (others are saying the cuts amount to £4.4bn) is the only way Osborne can eliminate the deficit by 2019-20 without cutting public services further or raising taxes.  The refusal to set out exactly how welfare would be cut by £12bn during the election campaign may have been just another part of the grand negotiation strategy they believed they would have to enter into with the Liberal Democrats for a second coalition.  Given a surprise majority mandate, rather than back off from the extremes promised in their manifesto, they've for the most part steamed ahead.

Except of course tax credits weren't in the manifesto.  While David Cameron didn't specifically say tax credits would not be cut, he did say that child tax credits would not be.  This nonetheless created the impression that tax credits themselves would be spared.  Come the budget, while still announcing the now expected cuts, Osborne pulled from his hat the new "national living wage".  It soon became obvious this higher minimum but not true living wage wouldn't come close to making up for the cuts to tax credits, but praise was lavished on Osborne for this stealing of Labour's clothes regardless.

Rather than put the cuts through the main finance bill following the budget, the government instead opted to implement the changes through what's known as a statutory instrument, in this case using the initial legislation that brought in tax credits, through which it can delegate changes to the rates and thresholds.  It's rare for the Lords to vote down a statutory instrument, but not unprecedented by any stretch of the imagination, despite what the Tories are now claiming.  In any case, the "fatal" motion in the Lords failed, with the two "regret" motions, which essentially ask the Commons to think again passed.  In any case, it's always amusing to hear ministers complain about "constitutional outrages".  Once we have a written constitution which definitively has been breached, then we'll get angry.

If the Tories had a whopping great majority then it might have more of a case.  It doesn't.  If they had set out the cuts in their manifesto the Lords would have only been able to block the plans for a year, before the parliament act could then be used to force it through.  If Osborne and Cameron hadn't been so hubristic as to claim they were now the party of working people, when one of their first major acts would be to screw those very people over to the tune of thousands of pounds, they wouldn't now be forced into such a humiliating u-turn.

How Osborne can then protect the lowest paid while still making the savings required to fill the gap in his overall economic plan isn't clear.  Unless he relents on reaching his surplus, as any sane chancellor would do, then he has to either cut further or raise taxes elsewhere.  If the Lords decides that his changes don't go far enough, they are perfectly entitled to reject them again, meaning they will have to go some way to meeting the Institute for Fiscal Studies test.  Whichever way he goes about correcting his mistake, it isn't going to be cheap.

In less than a month the Tories have gone from looking impregnable, the media for the most part lapping up Osborne and Cameron's speeches at the Conservative party conference despite the air of unreality to both, to being breached by a load of doddery old unelected peers.  It's an especial blow to Osborne, who refused to see the portents of defeat, from Michelle Dorrell on Question Time to Tory MP Heidi Allen using her maiden speech in the Commons to voice her and many other Conservative MPs fears over the cuts and the effect they would have.  Cabinet ministers claimed he was in listening mode, as though Osborne listens to anyone other than those who tell him what he wants to hear.  Just as he went ahead with all the various stupidities in the "omnishambles" budget, thinking he was the smartest guy in the room, so too he has been shown up now.

Damaging as this is the short term, it's by no means fatal.  The parliamentary Labour party had little to no role in the defeat, as it's still far too self-obsessed at the moment to offer a real challenge to the Conservatives, let alone encourage Tory MPs other than David Davis to vote with them.  Indeed, in the longer term, the cuts being defeated can only be to the Tories' advantage.  Had they passed the Lords unscathed, Labour would have had an issue they could have coalesced in opposition against, the obvious unfairness of the measure and the way it penalised those doing the "right thing" an open goal.  So long as Osborne's compensatory measure does what it's meant to, the attempt to penalise workers will soon be forgotten.

It ought also to knock some sense into the Tories: regardless of the opposition or lack of as it is currently, the idea they can stroll to 2020 and another victory is ludicrous.  The media's lovebombing lulled them into a false sense of security, when the truth is their majority could easily disappear over the course of a couple of years.  Should another worldwide economic crisis occur, as more and more commentators fear could be on the horizon, there's hardly any room for manoeuvre on policy, as Osborne must know.  Hubris can all too quickly turn to nemesis.  Or, even worse, Boris.

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Friday, October 23, 2015 

Blue skies.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015 

Trouble at Milne.

(I am very sorry for the title.)

The response to Jeremy Corbyn appointing Seumas Milne as his director of communications has been pretty much as you would expect.  Considering every past statement and allegiance of Corbyn himself was excavated to be considered fairly and properly by both the media and every other informed person with a social media account, going through Milne's back catalogue of columns in the Guardian has become something of a fun parlour game.  Ooh, look, he said the murder of Lee Rigby was not terrorism in the true sense!  He accused NATO of being the one intent on expansion, rather than Russia!  Milosevic in his view should not have been tried at the Hague!

And so on.  Without a doubt, choosing Milne is the equivalent of a middle finger to all concerned: the media, whom he'll supposedly be dealing with; the rest of the party; and specifically the Guardian, currently going through throes over its next political editor and whether or not he or she will be more sympathetic to Corbyn than Patrick Wintour and his likely successor, Nick Watt will be.  This said, it's of a piece with what's happened to Corbyn so far.  Both he and the media have made it clear where they stand: they don't like each other, it's not likely to change, so what's the point of doing much other than continuing the mutual antagonism?  It's not much of a strategy, but is there another on offer?  The same goes for the party: paranoia is so rife about Momentum, Corbyn's post-campaign campaign group and how as a result every MP millimetres to Corbyn's right will be shortly on notice for deselection it's a wonder the parliamentary Labour party is operating at all.

Few seem to have considered if Milne was anything like Corbyn's first choice, nor have there been many suggestions forthcoming as to whom he should have picked instead.  How many would have drank from what looks such a poisoned chalice?  Milne himself has not left the Graun, apparently instead taking leave, so he doesn't seem sure of how long it's going to last either.

All this said, the response has been as laughable as it has predictable.  Milne is not a great columnist, but he makes what are often fairly standard socialist arguments with force.  Some weeks he's dead wrong and some weeks he's right in spite of himself.  Probably his most objectionable column is the one dealt with by Adam Barnett on Left Foot Forward, as written in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack.  Let's not pretend Milne is the only person on the left to have sullied himself on that score, as hopefully most of those who also equivocated at the time now recognise.  That said, one has to hope his "still less" statement on the Jewish victims was just a slip rather something more revealing.

Milne's appointment should then be considered in relation to the reasons why Corbyn won in the first place.  Lesser factor as it is, foreign policy cannot be discounted entirely.  Labour can essentially be divided into four camps when it comes to interventionism: the irreconcilables, like Corbyn and a few others; those who can be convinced, but are always sceptical; the humanitarians, like Jo Cox; and the prestigious, as Jim Murphy has revealed himself to be in his quite remarkable article for the New Statesman.

It's a fair assumption that not many of those who voted for Corbyn are keen on interventions full stop, let alone missions without any apparent point, as the one proposed for Syria is.  Despite the defeat of the coalition almost by mistake on Syria in 2013, if anything it seems there are now more MPs in the latter two groups than there were previously, as suggested by the 50 or so reckoned to be likely to vote for joining the raids on Islamic State if and when the Conservatives decide to bring it before the Commons.  Some of these are no doubt part of the "spite" group, determined to vote against Corbyn given the slightest opportunity, but others genuinely do think getting involved in Syria despite everything that's happened is a fantastic idea.

There's not much I can add to the Rodent's post on Murphy's raging bone-on for air strikes that he openly admits won't achieve anything, but will still be a "legitimate posture for a P5 nation".  It does seem odd for him to quote Dean Acheson, on how Britain after Suez and the empire had not yet found a role for itself.  This was in 1962, when US involvement in Vietnam was already beginning to ramp up.  Acheson, notably, later turned against the war despite originally supporting it.  

If nothing else, Murphy is at least being honest.  And yet shouldn't the public and the troops themselves know if essentially what they're being asked to do is not in any sense practical, but merely to keep up with our allies, expressing our power by blasting fuck out of a country on the other side of the world?

Which is precisely the problem with the argument being made by the government for joining in the bombing of Islamic State.  There is absolutely no sense of strategy behind it; what difference will our involvement make beyond taking a tiny amount of the slack off the Americans and others that have been taking part up till now?  Into this breach have stepped the likes of Jo Cox, and yet as previously argued, they apparently don't see any point in explaining how either a no fly zone or safe havens would work in practice, rather than merely in rhetoric.  I tried getting an answer out of Clara Connolly when she wrote in support of Cox, only to be told that it would be a "doddle" to impose a no fly zone, although understandably it would be far more difficult to persuade the Russians to cease operating in such zones.

As for the safe zones, answer came there none.  Others, like Dan Fox, have set out how, posing six questions, none of which are easily answered and almost certainly never will be.  He nonetheless supports intervention, although he also voices the bizarre opinion that only two forces are currently bombing in Syria: the Syrians themselves and the Russians, rather overlooking all the other nations that have done so in the very recent past or still are.  The fact of the matter is that for all these fine words, we're not interested in establishing such zones, and even if we were the problems and potential to be playing into the hands of one side or the other were we to try are all but insurmountable.  Turkey has been arguing for some time for such zones, only for it be dismissed out of hand by the Americans and ourselves, most likely for the simple reasoning that no group on the ground in Syria can be trusted to protect civilians in such a way, and so it would require either a UN peacekeeping force or Western "boots on the ground", in the cliche.  Whom would straight away be a target for the jihadists who prize killing Westerners over everything else.

In spite of all this, for some, like Kate Godfrey, something must be done even if it is simply to bomb for the sake of it.  To her, Seumas Milne is an apologist for fascism, and she knows because she has been to Syria and Iraq, rather than just sat here and pontificated about it.  She appeals to authority, her own, makes clear how she has seen the suffering, and that as a result to appoint Milne is to devalue everything Labour stands for, to be ashamed in front of the world.

Her argument, taken on its own, is fair enough.  Over the top, but fair enough.  It is this very argument though, as well as the way that it's made, the self-righteousness combined with the belief that we have to help such people without considering the practicalities, all while ignoring past failures, that is a factor in the rise of Corbyn.  As Murphy urged us to get over Iraq, like Connolly in her response to me blamed Iraq for the failures in Syria, both are forgetting Libya.  It's easy to forget, so I don't blame them.  Nor is it just Libya, it's Afghanistan too.  Many are tired of war for the sake of the war, not least when the arguments made in its favour are so lacking or completely transparent.  Much of what has happened in Syria for instance is a direct result of the Libyan intervention, the invoking of the responsibility to protect and the subsequent using of the UN resolution to force regime change, without anyone accepting the concept has been devalued by that very abuse.  When these arguments are still being made after the Russian intervention has changed everything, and still the same people would like us to go further to the point where they're seemingly willing for there to be a showdown between the West and Russia to see who blinks first, it's difficult to not respond in kind.  

Over to you, Seumas.

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Wednesday, October 21, 2015 


This might just be me, but there are days when such is the weight of general arsebaggery and overall cuntitude, you pray to the empty sky for a cataclysm.  Our great country has after all played host to many shows of depravity down the years, some in recent memory.  Few though have been quite as revolting or nauseating as the transformation of central London into little Beijing for the duration of Xi Jinping's state visit, the Chinese premier treated in a way usually reserved only for US presidents, and even then it feels embarrassingly over the top.  Generally, the criteria for addressing both houses of parliament if you've not been elected yourself is to be the monarch; such niceties can however be suspended if you're about to sink massive amounts of cash into nuclear plants.

It's not just that Jinping has been welcomed in a style so sycophantic that it makes our usual shows of pageantry look restrained, it's the way in which our representatives and then those reporting it have gone about doing so also.  For John Bercow and Prince Charles to be the heroes of the day, for respectively introducing Jinping while making reference to Aung San Suu Kyi, flawed as she is, and finding something else to be doing rather than attending the banquet, is something in itself.  Not his old man's mutterings for Wills however, who bravely brought to the attention of Jinping the suffering of China's wildlife.  Kate meanwhile wowed the tabloids by wearing red, clearly demonstrating her dedication to Marxist-Leninism, topped off with a tiara that the Chinese first lady, Peng Liyuan, probably thought a bit proletarian.  Queenie for her part was given two whole albums worth of Liyuan's popular folk warblings, to be filed alongside her Slayer CDs.  And while Cameron and Jinping discussed their mutual passion for keeping the workers down, being served up for their delectation was roasted loin of Balmoral venison, most likely shot by Philip himself.

This was all happening as Tata laid off workers at three of their steel plants, in part down to China dumping its own excess onto the world market at rock bottom prices.  One union representative appeared on the news to state that he and the company's representatives had calculated that even if they worked for nothing, they still wouldn't be able to compete.  Having boasted at the beginning of the year of the success of the steel industry thanks to the strength of the rest of the economy, any help beyond commiserations from the government has been solely lacking.  Sajid Javid stood up in the Commons and stated this wasn't something governments could do much about, rather than it being something that governments have made the choice to leave to the market.  In the words of Simon Crutchley, at the Scunthorpe plant collecting a delivery, "he's ruining fucking everything, Cameron".

Not that he could give a stuff.  Unfortunate as it is that the nation's steel industry is collapsing just as the leader of the country principally responsible arrives to be fawned over, and bad as it looks, Dave can rest safe in the knowledge that those workers, their families and all the other people the plants will have supported are not likely to have voted Tory.  It makes something of a mockery of George Osborne's beloved Northern Powerhouse™ also, but really, what's more important, Chinese investment in nukes or laughable claims about revitalising a whole area of the country?  We couldn't possibly borrow the money at still historically low rates rather than put something as vital as new nukes under the control of the Chinese, and besides, doesn't it make perfect sense to ask the Chinese and French states to build power plants rather than doing so ourselves?

Our politics has become so deranged on the fiscal front that keeping on the lights has been put in the hands of a French company majority owned by the French state which has not yet completed any of the plants of the European pressurised reactor design mooted for Hinckley Point (the Chinese plants of the same design are also yet to come online).  Moreover, once it is up and running, which will be 10 years time at the earliest, we'll be paying the Chinese and the French twice what the market rate was in 2012, not including inflation.  This could only make sense to politicians who have made a fetish out of the deficit at the expense of everything else.  The Conservatives claim to be acting in the interests of the country's economic security, and yet have concluded a deal that will see future taxpayers' money going straight into the coffers of an authoritarian state that can be trusted about as far as it can be thrown.

Like the cancelling of the contract for a training programme for guards in Saudi Arabian prisons, which led to Michael Gove being feted for his role when surely the idea ought to have been so demonstrably wrong that not helping one of the most repressive governments on the planet torture its citizens is the bare minimum we expect, so too the Chinese have promised in return for handing over vast wads of cash to not steal any British company's intellectual property.  Chinese cyber-attacks are more than likely exaggerated by those with an interest in doing so, but if we're equals why on earth is such an understanding so much as required?   As others have pointed out, there has been next to no debate about this sudden decision to place our faith and our infrastructure in the hands of a state that so many of our traditional allies are suspicious of, rightly or wrongly.  It wouldn't be as bad if this was being done because we genuinely could not do it any other way; instead, this is a choice by politicians who are determined at the same time to renegotiate our relationship with Europe.

Forgive me then if the attention paid to reaching an arbitrary date in a film and still not having a fucking hoverboard does smack a bit of well, decadence.  Just as it's a reflection on us as a people that the politicians we produce regret not their inability to stop the government of the day passing things like the bedroom tax, but instead not projecting our strength as a nation by launching a military attack that would have achieved precisely nothing.  As the Roman empire collapsed, so the distractions, the circuses, became ever more exotic.  This tends to be how these things end.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2015 

Impotence before the SNP juggernaut.

If there's one thing other than politics guaranteed to bring out the worst in some people, it's competitive international sport.  Orwell might have said that only English intellectuals were ashamed of their nationality, but then he died long before anyone dressed up as a crusader to attend a football match, chanted about not surrendering to the IRA, singing that goes on to this day (and was just last week targeted against James McClean in the Premier League), or booed the opposition's national anthem.  Obviously, you shouldn't hate the player, you should hate the game.

These things are though all but indivisible, at least to some.  After Scotland's last minute defeat to Australia on Saturday, dear old JK Rowling tweeted Scottish Rugby to say they did the country proud.  The response of Stuart Campbell, of the Wings Over Scotland blog, was to tell her and Muriel Gray to "fuck off, as you don't think we're a nation at all".  Rowling, who no doubt gets plenty of such tweets since she has both donated to Labour and opposed the Yes campaign last year, could have just ignored it.  Instead she responded to Campbell and then others in a calm and measured way.  She comes out of it once again looking the model of benevolence, while Campbell in his often obtuse fashion has responded to the wider media coverage of the exchange by focusing on the "fuck off" part, rather than his implying that Rowling cannot support Scotland and oppose independence without being a hypocrite.

Is an online exchange between a political blogger and the Harry Potter author really front page news, however, as it was deemed to be by the Scotsman and the Telegraph?  Campbell might continue to laughably claim that Wings is an independent site when it has never featured a critical word about the SNP, but the idea Nicola Sturgeon has any kind of control over what the most ardent and belligerent independence supporters get up to is nonsense.  That was proved by the reaction of some to Sturgeon's address to the SNP conference, all but ruling out another referendum if as expected the party repeats its success of last May in the Holyrood elections next year.

Such coverage is in fact grist to the SNP mill.  Any other party that has been in power for the past 9 years would be expecting the public and probably even its own supporters to be starting to tire of it.  With the SNP the opposite is the case, and part of the reason for that is the sense of grievance and victimhood that soon bubbles to the surface when the slightest heat is applied.  Fringe gatherings at the conference saw all the old canards voiced: the biased BBC, with even the weather map favouring England, everything being against the SNP despite its success in the face of such apparent adversity, and the odd whinge about not being given their due internationally just to lighten the tone.

To an extent, all parties complain of how unfair the media is to them, and to an extent they occasionally have a point.  When it's a party of government doing the complaining, even if it's just the supporters and MPs rather than the leader themselves, especially one so popular, it becomes that bit more sinister.  And yet it would be perverse to argue that the vast majority of the media wasn't diametrically opposed to Scottish independence, just as it would be to claim that the Better Together campaign wasn't based around fear.  It's this sense that because the SNP's very raison d'etre is so ferociously fought against, even if in truth it took the YouGov poll suggesting the Yes campaign had pulled ahead to really concentrate minds in Whitehall, that drives the ongoing belief the SNP is still an insurgent force rather than an accountable and responsible party of government.

The continuing focus on Cybernats is more than anything a reflection of the impotence of the media.  Independence was defeated, and yet the SNP emerged victorious, having lost the economic argument but won the emotional, patriotic one overwhelmingly.  Having made its case in such terms, convincing if not the 45% then a substantial percentage that opponents of independence are siding with the Westminster elite or are even actively traitorous, it's not surprising when the most vociferous then lash out in response to what to everyone else will see as completely innocuous.  The apparent belief on the part of the media, that by linking Sturgeon to such people she and the SNP can begin to be undermined just doesn't follow.  Even if most weren't of the opinion that the wider media is hopeless biased, it's just another instance of journalists seeming obsessed with themselves and the medium rather than the reality.  Most Scots will have had just as virulent if not more so arguments during the campaign itself; why would they be so disgusted by the abusing of someone as liked as JK Rowling when they will have experienced as much themselves?

Instead, it's far more likely to serve as further reinforcing of already entrenched positions.  More evidence of the media focusing on the irrelevant, trying desperately to link a political leader to online idiots as it can't lay a finger on her otherwise.  Alternatively, more proof of how the SNP has succeeded in splitting Scotland down the middle, to the point where it can't even come together over a rugby match without fingers being pointed and insults being thrown.  Most delightfully of all, we've got our own version of this fast approaching.  I don't know about you, but I can't wait.

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Monday, October 19, 2015 

The doublethink of counter extremism.

For those not aware, weeks, sometimes months in advance the government will set out all known upcoming events on a grid, in order to plan how it intends to sell its message of the day to a sometimes cynical, sometimes laughably supine, sometimes actively cooperating media.  It's not then just an unfortunate coincidence that on the same day as Chinese president Xi Jinping lands in the country to be wined, dined and (steady) fawned over for a couple of days by that other bunch of appalling waxworks, the royals, the government is also launching its counter-extremism strategy.  Said strategy is merely the latest document to extol our "distinct, British values" as David Cameron describes them in his foreword, "the liberty we cherish, the rights we enjoy and the democratic institutions that help protect them" (PDF).

Also among our distinct, British values are of course hypocrisy, humbuggery, obsequiousness to foreign despots so long as they are on our side and doublethink, the ability as Orwell described it to "hold two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accept both of them".  Cameron and the Tories do then believe deeply and sincerely in our distinct British values, while at the same time welcoming with open arms a leader who has further cracked down upon freedom of speech and opposition to one-party rule in both China and Hong Kong.  Our relationship is being hailed as going through a "golden era", and any objections from either human rights blitherers or the Americans, concerned as ever about security rather than our economic well-being, can be dismissed out of hand.  You've got to be a realist about these things, is the message being sent, even if ministers themselves cannot be so blunt.

In a similar way, at the very heart of the government's Counter-Extremism Strategy is a contradiction.  According to David Cameron we have built something truly extraordinary in this green and pleasant land: "a successful multi-racial, multi-faith democracy ... more vibrant, buoyant and diverse than ever before in our history."  And yet this successful, vibrant and diverse democracy is threatened more than it has ever been not by a foreign nation state, but by extremism.  Extremism which according to Theresa May is "operating at an unprecedented pace and scale".  Not at such an unprecedented pace and scale that either May or Cameron can point to events in this country itself as proof, as they remain lacking.  Instead, flagged up is Islamic State in Syria, the attacks in Paris in January and the attack in Tunisia in June.

Don't however take my word for it.  Included as evidence to just how popular and pervasive extremist material is are a few stats.  Quoted is a neo-Nazi group which we're told has 1,500 followers on Twitter, and the video of a Syria-based UK terrorist viewed over 55,000 times.  Videos (note the plural) by both far-right groups and Islamist preachers have been viewed more than 5,000 and 59,000 times respectively.  Not included is just how many of these viewers or followers are actually from the UK, but you get the point, or rather don't.  Hate crime since 2010 has risen as overall crime has fallen, but it's not clear whether this is down to better recording and people being more willing to come forward or if there has been a true increase in intolerance, which is not the same thing as extremism in any case.

By historical standards, the idea that either violent Islamism or the few remaining knuckledraggers on the extreme right pose any sort of threat to the life of the nation is laughable.  If anything, it's an insult to the people who lived through the age of totalitarianisms that are still with us to suggest these are more dangerous times, or that our new enemies are operating at an "unprecedented pace and scale".  Adherents to the "ideology" of extremist Islamism, as though there are a coherent set of beliefs behind the working of Islamic State (to be clear, there very much is a coherent ideology behind al-Qaida style Islamism, just as there is behind the Muslim Brotherhood/Hamas Islamism, whereas Islamic State makes it up as it goes along) as opposed instead to what Mao described as all "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun", may be operating at such a scale, but that is not by any means the same thing.

This is not to suggest that extremism, racism or other kinds of discrimination are not serious problems.  They are, and will without doubt remain so.  We are however far more resilient than governments and the media almost ever give us credit for.  While there is much to potentially take issue with in the introduction to the document on how we became this successful democracy, the fact is that while true representative parliamentary democracy is a relatively new innovation, it has often been thanks to the people themselves rather than governments that we have arrived at where we are now.  Incidentally, the introduction also states that our values are not exclusive to Britain, which rather puts the whole kibosh on the entire "British values" the government is so determined to bang on about.

Not that such chauvinism is surprising when so many of the proposed solutions to the problem of extremism are to in fact either limit liberty or restrict freedom of speech.  Interestingly, freedom of speech is not mentioned as one of our fundamental values, probably because we have long rejected the wacky Americans and their wacky interpretation of the concept.  Considering also that David Cameron was so keen to flag up in particular the continuing discrimination that Muslims face in his conference speech, it seems somewhat odd that one of the recommendations is a full review of the potential for "entryism" in state institutions.  The "Trojan Horse" affair, where any evidence for pupils being moulded into extremists, let alone radicalised is still lacking, is the justification.  It's not clear why extremists would want to infiltrate the NHS, to pick up on just one other possible example, but we can no doubt rest assured this will not turn into a search for jihadists under the hospital bed.  Also confirmed is that the government will attempt to ban extremist organisations that promote hatred and draw people into extremism but do not break the law, introduce orders on known individual extremists who act similarly and close down premises which are used to support extremism.  It's not explained how any of this will be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, just that it will most certainly not curtail the right to protest or close down debate.  The law will also be subject to a high level of judicial scrutiny, just in case that doesn't convince you.

The most fundamental problem with the strategy though is the politicians behind it.  Theresa May in her conference speech argued the exact opposite of the document she now seeks to sell: that far from it being our very diversity that is behind our success, too much in fact prevents our society from being cohesive.  The document speaks of "our belief in equality", as though the Conservatives or indeed we as a people have always believed in such things.  The same government that wants to make landlords check the passports of renters on pain of fines in a bid to make the country a hostile environment for illegal immigrants, a move guaranteed to lead to discrimination, wants "everyone" to "enforce our values right across the spectrum".  Extremist groups and individuals, while a threat, if not an unprecedented one, have nothing like the impact that elected politicians and the mainstream media can have on community relations and levels of hate and fear, as Xi Jinping could perhaps attest to.   Being concerned that our values are threatened is one thing; regarding them as so flimsy they can be destroyed by such pitifully weak opponents, at the same time as maintaining they are so universal and strong is quite another.

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Friday, October 16, 2015 

Corbyn's shit and you can't take it!

It's over lads.  Time to go home.  Rob Marchant on Labour Uncut has spoken:

It is now taken as accepted everywhere in British politics, with the exception of some parts of the Labour Party’s rank and file, that Labour cannot win an election with Corbyn at the helm.

Yes.  We cannot possibly wait for as long as say next May, and see whether there is any sort of uptick in Labour's fortunes in Scotland or in the local elections.  Barely two months into Corbyn's leadership, it's accepted everywhere that he cannot win an election.  Why, he's been denounced by everyone other than the Corbynistas, who will Corbsplain to you precisely why it is he will take 100% of the vote in 2020 and lead us all to the promised land of facial hair and teetotalism.  He will wipe away every fear of austerity from our minds, and there will be no more Cameron, or Farage or Sturgeon or Kendall anymore, for the former things will have passed away.

Everything, you see, is either Corbyn or McDonnell's fault.  No one can deny that  Monday's u-turn on the fiscal charter reflected extremely badly on the leadership, suggesting that McDonnell had not so much as read the document itself.  Yet, rather than vote with the new leadership once they had made the right decision, 21 MPs abstained for reasons of pure spite.  If only, some ought to reflect, there had been a similar near riot akin to the one at Monday's meeting of the parliamentary Labour party after Harriet Harman's fuckwitted we cannot oppose the welfare bill epiphany, Corbyn might not be leader now.

Besides, I realise we all have ten second memories, but I do recall that Miliband's first choice as shadow chancellor was only half joking when he said the first thing he needed to do was get an economics for beginners primer.  I'd rather have someone who admits his mistake, embarrassing as it was, than someone who doesn't have a clue.

Worth recalling also is what the Labour whips thought of Corbyn and McDonnell's own rebellions.  Corbyn was a "lost cause", while McDonnell was a "shit".  At the moment, Corbyn's opponents for opposition's sake are acting like the latter.  It isn't a good look.

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Thursday, October 15, 2015 

Us and them.

Being away last week I missed the fun of the Conservative party conference.  Opening with the grand spectacle of the hoi polloi daring to invade the personal space of Tories and journalists, and closing with David Cameron's 5th reuse of the speech he first gave to the conference in 2010 as prime minister, it went almost exactly as expected.  Theresa May set about trying to banish memories of the days when she thought her party could use some lessons in detoxification by out nastying those she once lectured, Boris Johnson once again enthralled his audience by doing everything other than whipping his cock out and stroking it right in front of them, and George Osborne was, well, George Osborne.

It was all in all very comforting for both the delegates and media.  Getting eggs thrown at them, being spat at and denounced as "Tory scum" means they're doing something right, at least in their eyes.  The usual suspects immediately demanded that Jeremy Corbyn condemn anyone who so much as gave evils in the general direction of right-wing sixth formers in their first suits, because obviously the left, and these protesters were demonstrably of the left, are all one and the same.  It was rather strange then that the hacks couldn't seem to get their heads round why it was they were subject to the same treatment as the people they were covering; perhaps their disgust influenced their subsequent reports of the speeches, which were almost entirely positive, some even adulatory.  Perhaps they genuinely thought that Osborne and Cameron meant what they said about becoming the true party of working people, Cameron claiming that he would be spending the rest of his time as prime minister trying to force social reform.

Alternatively, they might have seen right through it, as anyone with the slightest knowledge of what the Tories have spent the last five years doing, what their manifesto promised to and what their policies currently going through parliament will do did, and just barely bothered to point it out anyway.  Cameron's address was all but a carbon copy of his past conference speeches, and yet no one felt it polite to say so.  It was all there: the faux-furious denunciation of Labour for daring to consider itself the protectors of the poor, the terrible jokes, the claims to being the true believers in equality and drivers of social mobility, just slightly updated and with the added attack on Corbyn hating his own country.

The myriad contradictions in the speech, from how in one breath Cameron lambasted continuing discrimination, especially against Muslims, then in practically the next went on about madrasas and FGM, as though the latter is in some way a religious rather than a cultural problem, were deemed unimportant.  The BBC didn't so much as bother to point out Cameron's quote of Corbyn's statement on the death of bin Laden was only part of what he said; that was left to Have I Got News for You.  Also few and far between was any reference to how Cameron didn't so much as mention tax credits, despite Boris Johnson having alluded to the controversy over the cuts the previous day.  Anyone expecting a repeat of the deservedly sniffy reaction to Corbyn's speech was to be disappointed, with any criticism mainly focusing on Theresa May's claims about immigration.

You could call it the Ian Hislop deficiency: there he was on HIGNFY, outraged that Lord Ashcroft's smear on David Cameron had been the subject of such mirth and frivolity, rather than treated as a despicable piece of score settling.  He didn't seem to understand that it was as much a reaction to how there had been months of smears and personal attacks on first Ed Miliband and then Corbyn; hypocrisy mattered less to the boot finally being on the other foot.  That it was the hated Mail that had serialised Ashcroft's book only made it all the sweeter, rather than making it less believable.

The fact is that as Ian Dunt recognises, the relationship between the media and the consumer has fundamentally shifted.  No longer are many prepared to remain passive when it's so easy to let journalists know precisely how they feel; that they tend to target not the "enemy", as it were, but hacks ostensibly on the same side, or those who are required to be impartial, is down to how they feel they aren't playing the role they should be.

This is not by any means an entirely positive development.  Demagogues can quicker than ever whip up the sort of atmosphere that leads to marches like the one seen against BBC Scotland, orchestrated by Alex Salmond.  Intimidation is still intimidation regardless of whether it's a self-styled anti-Westminster movement doing it or the government.  The effect is the same.  The rise in the number of those who are wilfully blind to "their" side's deficiencies, or alternatively spend much time rebutting that there is anything remiss at all is as worrying as it is discombobulating.  The response it invites is not one of reconsideration on the part of the target, but of doubling down.  Unless of course it's a broadcaster like the BBC, which is damned if it is and damned if it doesn't.

Nonetheless, it's easy to understand why this is happening now, particularly to members of the commentariat, when you read articles like yesterday's by Rafael Behr in the Graun.  Superciliousness, complacency and snobbery drip from every paragraph.  Behr sneers at amateurs, specifically Nigel Farage, who in Behr's view was seen off by Cameron in the same way as Miliband.  Farage failed as "enough people recognised that the limit of his capabilities was channelling anger not crafting solutions".  And it's true, in terms of actually winning his own parliamentary seat or UKIP making the same breakthrough as it did at the European elections a year earlier, Farage did fail.

Except on practically every other measure, far from being a failure Farage has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.  Behr is so set on making the point that it's professionals who play by the approved rules who win in the end that he refuses to see how Farage pulled the Tories and the political centre ground to the right.  Without Farage, the wider UKIP threat and the constant need to appease his backbenchers as a result Cameron would not have been forced into promising a referendum on our membership of the EU, a referendum it is by no means certain the remain campaign can win.  The debate on immigration has been made all the more toxic by UKIP's unanswerable point that we simply cannot control the numbers that come here from the EU, exacerbated further by the Tories' ridiculous decision not to drop their unachievable tens of thousands target.  Moreover, as though it needs stating again, UKIP won 4 million votes at the general election, a remarkable performance that only didn't result in substantial representation in parliament because of the bankruptcy of our electoral system.  Farage lost, and yet was victorious.

Rather than look at the two biggest shocks of this year, the Tories winning a majority and Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, neither of which almost any commentator predicted, and seeing if there isn't something they've missed, the response on the whole has been to carry on regardless.  We're not wrong, it's politics at the moment that it is in flux, and very shortly the equilibrium will be restored.  Perhaps it will.  Alternatively, the changes that have been threatened since the crash coupled with the retreat into personal echo chambers on social media might have altered the landscape if not permanently, then for years to come.  The best, like John Harris, at the same as noting that something new is happening are asking whether it can be sustained or if the approach taken by Corbyn and his supporters can truly work.  As for the rest, if nothing else there will always be a need for someone to cheer on our current overlords.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2015 

If Tom Watson should apologise, then so must plenty of others.

Tom Watson is a self-publicising tool, never happier than when he is at the very centre of attention.  Until that is he resigns in a huff, as he has done more than once previously.

The above could easily have been written before he had so much as voiced any sort of opinion on child sexual abuse.  More than anyone else Watson coat-tailed on the work of Nick Davies on phone hacking, and he did very well out of it.  Taking on Rupert Murdoch and News International was as righteous a cause as any, even if the motivation behind doing so was party political, having seen what the Sun did to Gordon Brown.  He also though has a habit of making an arse of himself, as he did when questioning James Murdoch, referring to him as a "mafia boss".  It took effort to make Murdoch junior look human, but Watson almost managed it, undermining at the same time his otherwise forensic attempts to get at the truth.

Having established himself as this crusader for the underdog, it's not surprising that he became the go to man for anyone who felt their problems had been ignored, their cause shat upon, their battle with the state and/or anyone else covered up.  Nor is it surprising that thanks to this new status and what must also be damn hard work, his efforts in encouraging victims of abuse to come forward have resulted in three convictions, and that's only so far.

You do then have to wonder if, more than anything, Watson's real failure is one of spreading himself too thinly, difficult as that is to imagine.  His doors have been so open that it reached the point where he either couldn't keep up, or he was so overwhelmed that he wasn't able to differentiate between all the accounts he kept on being given.  He might well have taken extra pleasure in how the claims he first raised at prime minister's questions of a Westminster paedophile ring mainly involved Conservative MPs of the Thatcher era, but he was also involved in the campaign to get the (Labour) Lord Janner to at least face a trial of the facts.

Watson is after all very far from the only person to have reported the claims of abuse victims as though they were incontrovertible.  Watson's main accuser since last week's Panorama, the Mail, has done a very abrupt about turn from revelling in the allegations being made to now declaring them without any hesitation a "witch-hunt".  The home secretary, Theresa May, apparently in reference to the claims being made by the likes of "Nick", said that "only the tip of the iceberg" of the extent of abuse had thus far come to light.  A very different attitude to the one of the prime minister, who on Monday invited Watson to "examine his conscience".  Simon Danczuk, who if anything has been even more vocal than Watson about cover-ups and was at the forefront of demanding that anyone with the slightest link to Leon Brittan be excluded from the overarching inquiry, now claims that he always felt Chris Fay, one of the key links between the actual accusers and the allegations about the Elm Guest House, was "wholly unbelievable and some sort of fantasist".  At the same time as Watson was penning his "close to evil" piece on Brittan, Danczuk was exclaiming on how he feared Brittan's death would mean an end to any answers on the whereabouts of the Dickens dossier.

The response to last Tuesday's Panorama has shown in microcosm everything wrong with the media, social media, the police and politics in their current state.  To start with, it should not take a taxpayer funded broadcaster to point out the gaping flaws in a police investigation so well resourced and funded.  Daniel Foggo's hour-long report was not sensational; it was even-handed, and did not reach conclusions.  They were left for the viewer to draw.  For the Metropolitan police to do their hardest to try and stop the programme from being shown, as they did, and to essentially criticise the BBC for doing their job for them was quite incredible.  The message from both the police (and Exaro News for that matter) was that only they were capable of investigating these cases, and for anyone else to do so would only confuse and potentially damage the chances of justice being done.

Second, where has the rest of the media been in all this?  They've known just as well as the BBC of the questions over "Nick's" credibility, and it's only been as the much-advertised Panorama approached that the likes of the Mail and Telegraph started to raise doubts also.  It's almost as though it needed one respected outlet to break the silence before anyone else would.  We know these are not new allegations; Chris Fay has been bandying his supposed list from the Elm Guest House around since the late 80s.  Nick's claim of a friend he could not so much as recall the second name of being run down by his abusers, fairly easy to check out, was left for the BBC to do.  Any fear of undermining the police investigation surely had to be measured against how in 9 months no one has been arrested despite the police declaring Nick's allegations to be "credible and true", and yet lives and reputations have been turned upside down regardless.

The fact is there has been much for some to gain from the misery of others.  I don't doubt Tom Watson started down this path with the very best of intentions; for him to use it as a reason for why he should be deputy Labour leader, as he did, and to respond to the demands for an apology by in turn asking for an apology for the previously ignored victims, as though he has been and still is their spokesman, is distasteful in the extreme.  It can be argued that by writing to the director of public prosecutions asking for a review of the decision not to charge Lord Brittan over rape allegations was overstepping the mark; presumably then the outrage that met the decision not to charge Lord Janner, from MPs and media alike, which resulted in the review that led to the upcoming trial of the facts should be judged similarly.  It's also now open season on Exaro News, which has managed to stay afloat almost solely through its claiming of exclusivity on those making the most lurid claims of abuse.  How very different from when the press and the BBC also worked through them to further publicise the allegations.

Panorama's case was that the police had gone from one extreme, from being too eager to dismiss and disbelieve, to being all too credulous, uncaring of the effect the raids, leaks and appeals for witnesses were having on those unable to clear their name.  Exactly the same could be said of the media, and indeed many on social media, all too willing to believe the worst and then claim the moral high ground.  Yes, the exposing of Savile has led to many being believed who previously weren't, of convictions of abusers thanks to other victims coming forward thanks to the publicity.  At the same time, others have been accused wrongly or acquitted in precisely the same fashion.  There is no easy balance.  For the Tories and the Mail to now attack Watson in such a hyperbolic way, partially in an effort to get Corbyn through his deputy, partially out of revenge for Watson's role in the Leveson inquiry and partially because they can, only lowers proceedings even further.  That Simon Danczuk and John Mann have been all but ignored despite playing a similar role speaks for itself.

The danger has always been that by focusing on the sensationalist, the lurid, which is subsequently disproved, you don't help survivors of abuse, you run the risk of once again returning to a situation where they are routinely belittled and ignored.  Esther Baker's allegations might also turn out to be unsubstantiated, but the Liberal Democrat MP would not have been able to dismiss them in the way he has today had it not been for the mistakes of so many.  It certainly isn't just Tom Watson who should be examining his conscience.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015 

Never seen a tinderbox I didn't want to light.

(This was written yesterday, but I unfortunately arrived home to find my desktop no longer so much as wants to power on.  Updates are likely to be sporadic until it's fixed, as while writing posts on a phone is fine, formatting and adding links in the usual way is an utter chore.)

Let me get this straight.

Israel looks to be in the first stages of the third intifada, the Palestinians having lost hope in either Hamas or Fatah being able to deliver their own state.  The world looks on as the Israelis themselves become ever more hardline, as ever more territory is stolen and as ever more settlements are built.  Resistance now is to throw stones, stab ordinary Israelis.  Both are responded to with bullets.

In Turkey, for the second time, a march by Kurds and socialists is attacked by suicide bombers.  As on the first occasion in Suruc, the Kurdish HDP accuses President Erodgan's AKP party of being involved, either turning a blind eye to Islamic State plotting, or actively collaborating with the jihadists.  For it to happen once can be dismissed.  For it do so again, with the AKP having embarked on a new conflict with the PKK as part of a cynical manoeuvre to try and gain a majority in the second general election in the year, the charge is all the more difficult to dismiss.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, the Saudi coalition continues under the authorisation of a UN Security Council resolution to bomb whatever it feels like, the aim supposedly being to defeat the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.  Thousands are dead, and there is practically no media coverage as it is all but impossible for reporters to gain access, not to forget the potential danger of being in what may as well be a free fire zone.

And then we have Syria and Iraq, where currently pretty much everyone and their mother is either bombing one or the other, or if not bombing then funding or funnelling arms to one side in what are both civil conflicts, but also proxy wars and grand theatres for leaders to show just how serious and tough they are by chucking high explosives at people who might be bad men but might equally be secular and moderate or civilians.

Somehow, quite incredibly, despite politicians knowing all of this, not least because some of them have been authorising the vapourising of British citizens who otherwise would have been coming right for us, one of the few people saying hang on, perhaps we shouldn't add to this chaos by getting even further involved is the one getting criticised.  According to John Woodcock MP, Diane Abbott is trolling her own party by continuing to argue that what's being proposed currently will not help Syrian civilians one iota.

The very best case currently being made for our own little intervention in Syria was set out jointly by Andrew Mitchell and Jo Cox.  According to them, Syria is our generation's test, our Rwanda, our Bosnia, our Kosovo, our responsibility.  They say we must get back to basics, that primarily Syria and the Syrians themselves are the issue.  Their first two recommendations are that both the humanitarian effort to help refugees and the diplomatic effort to try to reach a political solution must be intensified.  No one could disagree.

Then we have the proposed military component.  The word how is not used once.  It is "not ethical to wish away the barrel bombs", they write, without explaining how they can be stopped.  "We need a military component that protects civilians", they say.  They do not propose how.  Any safe havens will need to be protected by forces on the ground, and a no fly zone, which would also be needed, would have to be enforced.  They do not suggest which or whose ground forces would be used, whether it would be the Kurdish militias (now also being accused of razing villages), "moderate" rebels, Turkish troops or Western forces.  They do not explain how a no fly zone could possibly work when the skies are full of planes and drones from numerous nations, nor how the Russians would react when just this weekend they have been in talks with the Americans on how to avoid any potential misunderstandings or clashes between the two sides.

"Preventing the regime from killing civilians, and signalling intent to Russia, is far more likely to compel the regime to the negotiating table than anything currently being done or mooted," they argue.  This is about as absurd a reading of the conflict as it's possible to imagine.  They seem to imagine that if only the Syrian government was prevented from killing more civilians it would throw in the towel, when the Russian intervention makes it pretty clear it was the gains being made by the non-Islamic State rebels that were causing real concern. The Russian involvement has changed everything, and yet still they seem to think there's room for yet more slinging around of missiles, as the safe zones idea is now even more of a non-starter than it was previously.  

When those making the best possible case still can't answer the most basic questions of how and who, it makes clear just how removed from reality our discourse has become that it's the critics who get the articles written about them.  We simply cannot get used to the idea of not getting off when everyone else has already shot their bolt.  Not even the potential of an incident with the Russians and all that would involve dissuades them.  We see chaos, and the only response is to want to create more.

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