Monday, February 29, 2016 

How to win a referendum, by Nicola Sturgeon.

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon won praise today for advising David Cameron on how to lose the  referendum on EU membership.

"David Cameron has so far gone about his campaign to stay in the EU all wrong," Sturgeon told an invited audience of muggles.  "He's put the onus on the leave campaign to spell out how Britain will be better off out, when my experience from the Scottish referendum campaign is that you have to put across a positive, overwhelmingly upbeat message about how wonderful everything will be if only you believe in yourselves.  He needs to start making clear immediately how North Sea oil will never stop flowing, how the pound will become the world's strongest currency, how every day will be the first day of spring, and how lions will lie down with sheep in the glorious utopia that will be our remaining in the European Union.

"Instead, he looks set on fighting a miserable, negative, fear-based campaign, the kind that resulted in a 10% margin of victory for No in 2014.  Unless he changes course, I can only predict a crushing defeat for the leave campaign, which will never do, as I'm desperately hoping to be able to call a second referendum on the flimsiest excuse.  Which we'll then lose again anyway".

In other news:
Woman somehow manages to one up cretin who proposed on front of Observer magazine by making arse of herself in Bristol

Film about campaigning journalists wins Best Picture Oscar; "We'll never see its like again", weeps Evgeny "Two Beards" Lebedev

Do we really still have another 4 months of this beyond tedious EU crap to go?

In non-piss taking, an opinion journalist genuinely wrote this news:

Like Thelma and Louise gripping each other’s hands as they speed over the cliff’s edge, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are powering towards the lip of the canyon marked “Brexit”. What will become of the fugitive twosome? 

Though the formal referendum campaign does not begin until 14 April, the fate of the London mayor and the justice secretary has provided the first week of unofficial skirmishing with a gripping soap opera arc. Will David Cameron ever forgive his friend Mike? And what about George Osborne, whose alliance with Gove was thought to be unbreakable?

Find out next week on BrexEnders!  Or alternatively, do the smart thing and kill yourself.

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Friday, February 26, 2016 


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Thursday, February 25, 2016 

Get down with the sickness.

Seeing as we're on a bit of a 90s bent, some of you might just recall Stewart Lee and Richard Herring's ever more incongruous looking back on it Sunday lunchtime show This Morning With Richard Not Judy.  Herring's habitual response to being called "sick" by Stew after revealing that week's attraction to whatever it was ("I love all flies.  Houseflies.  Tsetse flies.  Of course, they're all testes flies when I've finished with them") was to say "Am I Stew?  Or is it the businessman, with his suit and tie?"

Which brings us in fantastically tenuous style to yesterday's completely absurd PMQs set to.  Cameron's mother we learnt, as well as being opposed to her son's austerity, is not really very British at all.  Few of us are rude or direct enough to give advice of the kind Dave's dear old mum would to Jeremy Corbyn.  No, instead we'd criticise Corbyn's dress sense and his implicit lack of patriotism once he was out of earshot.  Dave's old cheese by contrast would say it right to the bearded lunatic leftie's face: put on a proper suit, do up your tie and for God's sake tug your forelock when it's demanded of you!  Where do you think you are, the beach?  You're leader of the opposition man, letting yourself and your side down!  Do you think Clement Attlee would have turned up with his shirt hanging out and refused to get down on his knees when ordered to by George IV?  Of course not!

Credit has been to given to Dave's PMQs preparation team, as it was clearly another came up with in advance line meant to look like an ad-lib, just in case Corbyn cited the Cameron family's concerns over the actions of the prodigal.  Instead he took the opportunity given by Angela Eagle's heckle (hence why she looks so embarrassed), as clearly you can't let a good insult go to waste.

And it was a good insult, carefully calibrated: Dave wasn't the one saying his opponent resembles a tramp and doesn't love his country, it's what his mother would, in the same way as politicians down the ages have hid behind the opinions of anonymous letter writers and concerned citizens.  It was designed to appeal to that small but vocal group of judgemental souls that believe a shirt and tie are more important than every other personal quality.  Think Telegraph writers, the people behind the proposal in UKIP's 2010 manifesto that taxi drivers should have a dress code, Basil Fawlty-alikes, assorted other eccentrics.  Some also simply admire bullies, as long as the bully is on "their" side, for which see the rise of Trump.  A few will have been turned off by Flashman making another appearance, for sure, but others will have yucked up Dave telling it like it is.

You could if you like complain about how this seems a much greater act of snobbery than say Emily Thornberry tweeting a photo without comment of a house flying an England flag with a white van on the drive.  You could bring up how it seems especially instructive of the prejudices of our social betters coming in the same week as the country is being asked to back one of two men, both of whom went to the same elite private school, both of whom were members of the Bullingdon Club and both of whom have since their tender years believed they were born to rule.  You could remark on the contrast it highlights in the treatment of one of those men, who is in part popular because of his upper class "eccentricities", who has been caught deliberately messing up his hair prior to giving interviews, who was heckled himself in the Commons on Monday and told to tuck his shirt in.

You could, but you'd just sound bitter and it doesn't get you anywhere.  For all the brown nosing, sycophancy and sneering going on, whether it be Cleaning for the Queen, or renaming the Crossrail project the Elizabeth Line, it's worth remembering that we've reached the point where the only people we really make wear uniforms and tell to stand up straight are kids.  Sure, you get the odd headteacher who decides that's not enough by itself and demands the parents don't wear pyjamas when bringing their little darlings in, but in general the etiquette following, looking down nose, know your place types are on the way out altogether.  Before long the sickos truly will be the suits.  And then we'll complain and moan about the death of class, as is our wont.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016 

The X Files: my part in its downfall.

(This is long, and if you'd prefer not to read about my adolescent love of The X Files, you can skip to halfway through where I review the new series.  If that's your bag.  Oh, and spoilers.)

I honestly cannot recall how I first came to watch The X Files.  I've got a nagging feeling that it might well have been when it was repeated on BBC2 late on a Friday night, although I might be confusing that with how I'm fairly sure the BBC repeated the first season later in the 90s.  My failure of memory seems fitting for how the show itself always held itself in a sort of vagueness: you could never truly trust what it seemed to be telling you was happening, just as Mulder and Scully couldn't trust anyone except themselves.

It's become something of an obvious go to that The X Files is symbolic of the 90s.  A decade that began with the dissolution of an empire, the crumbling, apparent extinction of any ideology other than ones that regarded the market as sacrosanct and unquestionable, the turn away from certainty towards the conspiratorial and the cynical, why wouldn't a show that contended we were all being lied to on a grand scale by governments and corporations and yet eschewed politics almost entirely be a smash hit?

On a personal level, though, The X Files to me truly is the 90s.  Memories fade of your actual day to day life, but the television shows, the films and the music you love remain, available not just to remind you but for you to relive.  It was a time before life, before I, got serious.  Quite why I somewhat precociously loved the show, as I must have started watching it when I was around 11, I again can't put my finger on exactly.  That said, I definitely identified with Mulder: the heroic, brainiac outsider, laughed at by his colleagues, toiling away down in the basement, trying to find the evidence that would prove him to be right.  In the first year of secondary school I put "Mulder" as my middle name on exercise books, and drove the English teacher up the wall with my constant reviewing of the novelisations of episodes, as well as naming characters in stories Fox and Dana.

And of course, you can't be an almost teenager on the cusp of puberty and not also have more than a bit of a crush on Scully/Gillian Anderson, as I'm sure a whole generation of boys (and girls no doubt too) did.  Unlike with other characters in shows that are often there to be little more than eye candy, or the token gorgeous woman among the males, there's not really anything to be embarrassed about in retrospect either.  Scully is attractive most of all because she develops into by far the most rounded character on the show, thanks not just to the writing but to Anderson's remarkable acting ability; she plays a character originally not much more than a foil to Mulder with such nuance, bearing and determination that after the first season she truly is his partner, rather than the sceptical subordinate following in his wake.

As for how when you think The X Files you think aliens and the paranormal, which angered a few of the more literal minded critics who saw it as being part of the Mumbo Jumbo takeover, that was never the important part for me.  I didn't then and definitely don't now believe in the supernatural, at least not the supernatural phenomenon they investigated.  I was far more interested in the "mythology" of the show than the possibility there could be some truth to the conspiracies featured.  Why would I want to get involved in looking to see if there's something more to our very dull reality when the one depicted in the show needed such deciphering on its own?

Looking back now, what once was satisfying because it didn't end, because nothing was ever truly, fully explained, is the show's biggest flaw.  The mythology doesn't add up, and those episodes centred on Mulder's pursuit of the truth, regardless of the danger it puts him and Scully in, resulting in the murder of his father and Scully's sister Melissa, Scully's cancer and miracle recovery, start to drag after you reach the fifth season.  By contrast, grown exponentially in my estimation have been the "monster of the week" episodes, the self-contained shows, the best of which are very special indeed.  Vince Gilligan, who as any fule kno got his start proper on The X Files before he went on to create Breaking Bad, is easily the most consistent, capable of both the deadly serious, as in Pusher or the light-hearted, such as in Je Souhaite.  What Darin Morgan started with his comedic episodes Gilligan perfected with Bad Blood, the 5th's season magnum opus, a vampire tale told from Mulder and then Scully's very different perspectives, and where you can see just how much fun everyone was having without it impacting on the quality as it so easily can.

As with so much else in life, the difficulty is in knowing when to let go.  The X Files really should have ended with season 7, as it was thought for a time would be the case.  Accordingly, the loose ends were sort of tied up: the syndicate behind the conspiracy involving the alien takeover of the planet was destroyed by the rebel aliens; Mulder discovered "the truth" behind his sister's disappearance; and in the last episode, Mulder himself is abducted and Scully reveals she is pregnant, despite having been rendered barren by her own abduction in the second season.  As it turned out, the show went on with David Duchovny, who having clearly tired of his role as can be seen in his performances, only appearing in a few of the 8th season's episodes. Robert Patrick, aka the T-1000, took over, with Scully becoming the believer and Patrick's character Doggett the sceptic.

While season 8 was in fact a significant improvement on season 7, this was the point where the "mythology" ought to have been stopped by the Colonel from Monty Python for having gotten too silly.  Mulder is returned, dead, half way through the season.  Only he's not dead, and is dug up, alive, after Scully realises their mistake.  Scully's pregnancy progresses, only for her to discover that her pregnancy is clearly incredibly special, such are the people who want her unborn child either dead or alive.  The season finishes with Scully giving birth witnessed by "super soldiers", actually alien replacements of humans, whom are under the impression that her son will be the leader of the resistance to their rule once the invasion begins.  They leave having decided this is not the case, only for it to turn out come the 9th season that William is indeed a special baby, so special indeed that he can turn the mobile above his cot purely with his mind.  Unable to protect him, and with Mulder on the run due to Duchovny leaving the show proper, she gives this telekinetic child up for adoption.

The series concluded for what is now the first time with Mulder on trial before a military tribunal for the murder of one of the "unkillable" super soldiers; duly found guilty, he somewhat easily escapes their clutches, the Cigarette Smoking Man receives a hellfire missile right up him, and Mulder and Scully put their faith in God preventing the alien invasion from taking place, religion having increasingly become an influence on the series courtesy of creator Chris Carter.

With it always having been the intention for there to be a series of X Files films, 2008's I Want to Believe wasn't the greatest shock when it came about.  Despite its critical reception, it's also rather good: a self-contained story about a psychic paedophile priest and his connection with one of his victims, it ends with Mulder and Scully in bed, again, apparently together and happy as the "shippers" always wanted.

Why then a new "event" series in 2015, other than for ratings and the money?  Are there still stories to be told about these two characters, indefatigable and apparently immortal as they are?  Is the time right, this far removed from 9/11, which by itself seemed to cleave the the justification for The X Files still existing in two, even while the series itself struggled on for another year and a bit?

The answer is possibly, so long as Carter does a George Lucas and gives someone else full control of any follow on.  For sadly, the reboot/event/whatever just about worked so long as he wasn't the person doing the writing.  The three episodes written by James Wong, Darin Morgan, and Glen Morgan, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively are decent, brilliant and good.  James Wong's sort-of follow on from Carter's reintroduction episode is quick paced, features classic X Files motifs and themes with the genetic experimentation on children with rare diseases and syndromes plot, and has some satisfyingly nasty special effects.  Darin Morgan's Were-Monster episode is a complete joy, as though he and Mulder and Scully have never been away.  Filled with references to his past work, it's funny, makes fun of the show and the characters respectfully without for a moment mocking them, and is an answer in itself to the questions as to why all involved are still keeping on keeping on.  His brother's episode would have been a solid monster of the week back in the day: those familiar with It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia might not be able to get by how the monster is known as the Trashman, a being willed into existence by a graffiti artist opposed to the displacement of the homeless and which takes revenge on those responsible, but otherwise it's as fine an entry into the canon as we had any reason to expect at this remove.

The same cannot be said for Carter's episodes.  The first show was always going to be partially about reminding of us how things were left off, and does have a few good lines.  Duchovny and Anderson are straight back into their roles, and well, that's about it.  As incomplete, contradictory and confusing as the "mythology" often was, why on earth would you suggest, yet again, that Mulder and by definition we also had been wrong all along?  Why would you make the deliverer of this truth a smarmy Alex Jones/Bill O'Reilly hybrid, and why would Skinner have ever taken him seriously enough to contact Mulder in the first place?  Why would Tad O'Malley have not just gone public with the alien replica vehicle he's constructed?  Surely the proof would have been enough regardless of the messenger?  Why would you apparently knock all this down again at the conclusion only to then reveal it was the truth all along in the event finale?

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.  The penultimate episode sees Carter decide to introduce jihadism to The X Files, for reasons known only to himself.  A suicide bomber miraculously survives the blast, and the FBI wants to extract any information it possibly can from the comatose fundamentalist, by any means necessary.  In what can only be put down to Carter writing the episode while on something himself, Mulder's proposed method is to trip on magic mushrooms, get on the same astral plane as the bomber and converse with him there.  We also meet two young FBI agents, and wouldn't you know it, but one's female, a redhead, a scientist and a sceptic, and the other's male, handsome and wants to believe.  Oh, and in a you really can't get away with this Chris palm to the face moment, the female agent's name is Einstein.  No, honest, it is.  Their existence can only be ascribed to Carter holding out the hope of continuing the series with these two if either Duchovny or Anderson decide not to go on, despite neither showing anything to suggest they could equal Doggett and Reyes, let alone Mulder and Scully.  The conceit turns out that Mulder goes on a clichéd journey into his mind in spite of only being given a placebo by Einstein, and he naturally does talk to the bomber, preventing a much larger cell from carrying out their attacks.  Someone I respect described it as the worst episode of the show full stop.

That accolade really should go to the finale instead, so lacking was everything about it.  What seems like a good half of the episode we spend with Scully explaining what's happening, or rather what isn't to Einstein, as though the two actresses are trying to convince themselves that the plot makes sense.  We must act quickly, Scully says more than once, reminding of Mark Kermode's review of Revenge of the Sith and his escalating anger at Lucas's own reliance on exposition.  Tad O'Malley it turns out was right all along, and rather than an alien invasion, as we thought was meant to happen on the 21st of December 2012 as the mythology previously implied, instead the takeover is to be heralded by a mass extinction of human life via DNA implanted in everyone through the smallpox vaccination, achieved once activated by the collapse of the immune system.  This is meant to explain why the invasion didn't happen and we're here now but just doesn't work, not least because Scully we learn via the re-emergence of Agent Reyes is one of the "chosen few" to survive, her DNA having been altered during her abduction.  This makes absolutely no sense, as Scully's survival along with the rest of those abducted and subjected to tests by the military in an attempt to current an alien-human hybrid depended on the chip implanted in her neck, with most of those subject to multiple abductions having had them removed and succumbing to cancer as Scully so nearly did herself.

Thankfully, Scully realises that her alien DNA can be used to create a vaccine against the now activated part of the err, smallpox vaccination, activated we're told via Tad O'Malley's show by chemtrails and possibly microwaves also.  Mulder meanwhile has been for the umpteenth time in the lair of CSM, who somehow managed to survive the massive explosion that happened right in his face and is still apparently in control of events.  Each meeting and showdown between Mulder and CSM since he first confronted him proper way back when Scully was returned in season 2's One Breath has been less climactic, and the pattern remains here.  With Scully having apparently saved the world, she rushes to find Mulder, himself stricken despite having also been abducted and tested on, only for an alien ship (or is it?) to appear overhead and the event to end on a completely miserable cliffhanger.

Could it have been any different?  Would it have been possible to resurrect the series without discounting the old mythology to an extent?  Perhaps not, but it could have been so much cleaner, so much better executed, not so seemingly lazy while also feeling strained.  Carter, it's sad to say, just seems to have ran out of ideas.  The show previously didn't, couldn't rely on him as much, not least when the shortest season was the ninth and which still came in at 18 episodes, and it meant that if you didn't enjoy the mythology then other writers with different ideas would be along shortly.  Here, and constrained to just the six episodes, there was barely any escape.

The X Files event was then a failure, albeit a noble one.  Mulder and Scully might be as strong personalities as ever, played with the same skill as was the case for the majority of the original run by Duchovny and Anderson, and yet they don't feel right in the middle of the 2010s.  The world has changed, and where our cellphone and internet using heroes were once ahead of the curve back in the 90s, they feel out of time now.  I hope this really is the end as the title legend of the concluding episode said, that characters I and so many others grew up with are allowed to go out with some dignity remaining, only that lack of ending suggests they won't be allowed to do so.  We never want to say goodbye to our friends and loved ones, but as we ought to have learned, in the end we have to.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2016 

Give me irrelevance, or give me death.

Appearances, as we know, can often be deceiving.  If you were to judge me purely by this blog, you would no doubt conclude I'm something of a politics obsessive.  And you'd be right.  But it doesn't run my life.  Part of the reason I've always resisted joining any social network is I know it would just lead to my spending even more time thinking and spouting off on the subject.  This might sound counter-intuitive, but if there's one thing the world desperately needs less of, as well as lawyers, it's politics.  There's a very good reason why most ordinary, sensible people eschew getting involved, and it's not just because they're not interested or don't have the time to spare to do so: it's often terminally dull and the same arguments occur over and over again.  The reward is minuscule in comparison to the amount of work you have to put in to get any real enjoyment out.

You can though understand why the most obsessed believe that their heroes, or representatives must involve themselves in every issue or campaign going, because otherwise why else should they do so themselves?  This isn't helped by how what was once rare has become so commonplace: debates between political candidates, if they happened at all, were usually one-off affairs.  Now, especially when it comes to choosing a party leader or a party presidential nominee, they happen practically every week.  Yes, this does to an extent weed out the also-rans, but it also has the effect of boring anyone who might have been paying attention and isn't an obsessive to death.  There are only so many times even the most anal of us can hear the same scripted lines without wanting to open up our arteries.  By the time the Democrat/Republican candidates finally face off towards the end of this year, the chances of even Trump if it is indeed he saying something original will be lower than Jeb Bush's ego.

Owen Jones then worries that Labour "risks becoming irrelevant in the [EU] referendum".  He says this despite writing of how Jeremy Corbyn "is in politics to change things, and voters know – if nothing else – that he is not there to defend the status quo or the establishment".  Jones attempts to avoid the contradiction of this anti-establishment figure arguing for the establishment position by saying that instead Corbyn should "make his own separate case", calling for a vote to stay in the EU "as a first step to the reform it so desperately needs".

It isn't clear exactly how this will work.  Most Labour supporters are it seems in favour of staying in, and yet how exactly will helping David Cameron to a stonking great victory help the party win the next election?  How will effectively signing up to Cameron's renegotiation, as a remain vote will clearly be taken as, be the first step to the reform the EU so desperately needs, especially when it will be the Conservatives in power for at least another three years?  Failing a Scottish "neverrendum" feeling taking hold, it's apparent this is going to be taken as the UK's settlement in Europe for at least a good few years.

Put it like this: irrelevance is by far the preferable position, if not for Labour, then definitely for Corbyn.  We all know he doesn't believe in the EU.  He said he voted for coming out of the Common Market in 1975, as you'd expect, and if you voted out then you have to go through a spectacular routine of verbal gymnastics to convincingly explain why you'd possibly vote to remain now.  Getting vigorously involved in a campaign to remain, even purely on a Labour platform, makes absolutely no sense.  Staying in the background and letting everyone else get on with it is by far the better bet.

Especially when it seems as though all involved are determined to send the public to sleep.  Quite why there needs to be three BBC debates, not including any held by the other broadcasters quite escapes me, especially when only one is likely to be attended by Cameron.  The right-wing press does of course regard this as the most important vote in the history of this septic isle, so naturally the BBC has to go one better, and yet Wembley Arena?  Build it and everyone other than the obsessives will find an excuse to switch the channel.  Irrelevance has never been such an attractive proposition.

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Monday, February 22, 2016 

Let them all kill each other.

Imagine, if you can, just what a vote to leave the European Union on June the 23rd would mean.  Not to us as a country, as that's all too easy, but instead to the tabloid press.  How on earth would they cope with their number one bogeyman vanquished?  Their favourite target for unvarnished often irrational hate, suddenly gone, and with no one else to blame but ourselves for just how awful everything is.  Then, you quickly realise, it wouldn't make a damn bit of difference.  Instead their fire would quickly be turned on the barmy bureaucrats tasked with negotiating our exit, then the self-same people who would be negotiating our re-entry into the free market.  Once all that was over, or rather before then, the bile would just turn ever further inward: the NHS, the BBC, the left, students, the poors, Scotland, all would get it in the neck more frequently than ever.

For the obvious irony is that for all the occasions the left or supporters of the EU are accused of lacking patriotism, not being proud enough of England, of putting the country down, for which see last week's response to Emma Thompson describing our glorious nation as a "tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island", it tends to be the right, the Conservatives, UKIP especially that have the biggest problem with the country as it is.  The Mail, if not so much the Sun, would normally nod sagely and agree with most of Thompson's sentiments, so long as they were shorn of her conclusion as to that's why we should remain in the EU.  The shouting down of Thompson pretty much amounted to yes, everything you say is true, but it's our cloud-bolted, misery-laden, grey old island, you stuck-up, out of touch, elitist, snooty luvvie.  You could if you wished compare how Thompson was told to "shut her cakehole" for speaking out, as compared to how Michael Caine was treated for saying it was time we left, but that would be too easy.

If only there was so much as a touch of glamour to the mechanical, hollow, shallow, fatuous process of phony differences and fantastical scaremongering we're about to experience for the next 4 months.  Calling politics showbusiness for ugly people has always seemed a cheap shot, but lord, how could anyone gaze on Saturday's get together of the cabinet members set to campaign for the exit and not think we have reached the absolute pinnacle of human evolution?  Not one but two bald men, chomping at the bit to fight over how many combs EU bureaucrats dancing on the head of a pin are allowed under directive 5291, the minister for Northern Ireland without an apparent care in the world for how her support for the exit would impact on her job, a supporter of the death penalty, the culture minister who barely conceals his contempt for the BBC, and an utterly deluded squit who somehow believes he could still be the next Tory leader and prime minister to the boot.

And these politicians, dear reader, are the sensible ones.  For over at the Grassroots Out party on Friday night came the unveiling of Vote Leave's secret weapon, Gorgeous George Galloway, who endeared himself to an audience made up of UKIP supporters, Tory right-wingers and the odd outright loon by declaring that he hated nationalism.  You couldn't help but feel for poor Kate Hoey, who had previously disassociated herself from all the other various out groupings on the basis they were controlled by individuals more intent on fighting each other than their opponents, only to find herself standing alongside not just Nigel Farage but a man who has alienated pretty much everyone he once associated with.  The pound-shop Donald Trump and the biggest twat in a hat since Jay Kay, together at last!

For the most ridiculous spectacle of all though you only need look at today's newspaper front pages.  Anyone would be mistaken for thinking that Boris was the second coming of Thatcher, rather than an utterly shameless opportunist who cares only for his lifelong goal of reaching Downing Street.  IDS and all the other monomaniacs you can at least respect for having always wanted to get us out; Gove and Boris are thinking solely of how this will position them, whether Cameron wins the referendum and leaves shortly after, or loses and has to resign as a result.  They believe they have nothing to lose: a remain vote might take the aura of being a winner/hugely popular away from Boris, but will gain him the respect he currently lacks with some at the Tory party constituency level.  If it's out, then he has the wind at his back and through his hair: what's to stop him from winning the leadership when his main opponents all wanted to stay?  Sure, it'll be a bit of a bugger needing to leave the EU when they must know in their heart of hearts there isn't going to be a better offer after a leave vote, more likely instead all the downsides of EU membership, open borders etc, with far less of the positives.  Who cares mind when you're the prime minister, and gaining more and more power is what your entire career has been about?

The only real joy to be had from what's ahead of us is, loathe personality politics or not, the Tories tearing chunks out of each other.  We got a taster from Cameron today in the Commons, who albeit in the language of the House, tore Johnson's arguments in his Torygraph piece to shreds.  When you have IDS talking the most absurdist nonsense about leaving the EU somehow incubating us against terrorist attacks, with Cameron and others repeatedly making clear how "secure" membership by contrast makes us, the assaults on their different positions are only going to increase.  As the attack lines become and more and more rehearsed, so in turn will the personal insults commence.  With the vast majority of the public bound to be bored senseless by the entire shebang already, all anyone's going to remember is just who called whom an idiot, who questioned whom's patriotism, who denounced whom as a Little Englander, and so forth.  All accompanied naturally by a media who seize on splits in Labour but will applaud them when they agree with the outers in the Tories.

But cry the usual voices, Europe is too important to be left to the Conservatives.  Well, it is and isn't.  There is absolutely nothing for Labour or the left as a whole to gain from joining forces with Cameron and pals, whether on platforms or off of them.  Cameron has from the beginning tried to paint his renegotiation as being the will of the British people, when it has had nothing to do with public sentiment, supportive of a referendum or not, and everything to do with the management of his party.  This is his bed, and he should lie in it.  Yes, if Cameron wins then he does have some sort of additional legacy, to have hopefully settled our place in Europe for a generation, but if he wants that epitaph when his party will forever loathe the EU and hold it against him then that's his choice.  If say it gets to June and it looks as though the Outers are in the lead, then perhaps it will be time to do something.  Otherwise, we should let Dave and his party bang heads together, watch their polling fall, and anticipate a change of leadership that will almost certainly result in someone less capable and less popular than Cameron taking over.  What's not to like?

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Friday, February 19, 2016 

Black pearl.

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Thursday, February 18, 2016 

He told us so.

The year is 2046.  30 years have passed since the great cataclysm, since the nuclear fire consumed so much of the globe.  Billions died.  Few survived.  Even fewer are alive now, as the Earth begins to repair itself.

Exterior: a lone cottage on the moor, which somehow escaped unscathed and still now stands, indefatigable.  Smoke rises from the chimney.  The windows are whitewashed out.  A bag hangs from the door knocker; through a slight hole the outlines of a dead rat's frozen face can be seen.

Interior: the only sources of light are the fire and a small oil lamp.  A table with four chairs stands in the middle of the kitchen.  Animal furs adorn the walls.  A skinned rodent lies on the draining board of the sink, where the tap drips a brown viscous fluid, clearly undrinkable.  As the camera pans we now also see that on the table is a all but worn-out typewriter, with a heavily marked piece of paper inserted in it.

Suddenly, one of the two doors also in view opens.  Through it shuffles an emaciated, wizened old man.  He is wearing what looks to be the entire pelt of a sheep, complete with the creature's eerily grinning skull on top of his own head.  His eyes are clouded, his lips shrunken and cracked, and he has not shaved in a very long time.  Hair peeks from out of his ears, nose.  He sniffs, then sits down at the table.

He peers at the typewriter, as though he cannot believe what he's about to do.  He contemplates, pulls at his curly, pure white beard, and water wells in his eyes.  Slowly, but certainly, he bangs at the keys, although we cannot yet see what it is he's typing.

Then he stops.  He pulls the paper out of the mechanism and stares at it.  Only now does a smile come across his face, and we see that he has only three teeth left of what was once a full set.

The camera focuses on the paper.  Although the ink has long since been used up, a faint imprint of the letters has been embellished on the material.  "WHY I'M STILL RIGHT, 40 YEARS ON", runs the legend.  On the next line reads "THE LEGACY OF THE EUSTON MANIFESTO".  After a gap of two further lines, "BY NICK COHEN".

The old man threads the paper back into the typewriter, and gets down to work.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016 

Ousted in a landslide: what are former Liberal Democrat MPs doing now?

Yes, it's the question absolutely no one has been asking!  Just what have the Liberal Democrats so cruelly cut down in what has become known as the May the 7th Ashdown Hat Eating Massacre been up to since they lost their seats in the Houses of Parliament?

Princip Lostdeposit - Newspaper Columnist

One of the most high profile of the Lib Dem MPs to lose their seats last year, Lostdeposit swiftly found himself back in employment thanks to the munificence of the current owner of the no longer Daily Sport.  Lostdeposit has been given a whole page to write whatever he likes - among his most celebrated thinkpieces so far are Tits: Are They Getting Bigger? and Arses: Are They Getting Smaller?

Boyd Dangleflapper - Peer of the Realm

Alongside such household names as Lynne Featherstone, Dangleflapper was one of the select few to be rewarded for their services to the Conservative party by getting nominated to the House of Lords.  Since his elevation Dangleflapper has distinguished himself by attending precisely no sessions whatsoever, instead focusing on a new business venture in PR which makes much of his experience as an MP and now Lord.

Michael Onan - Adviser to Ugandan Government

Long regarded as one of the most controversial of the 2005 intake of Lib Dem MPs, Onan was accused repeatedly of sexual impropriety, most notoriously by Downing Street cat Larry.  While Larry's allegations were never substantiated, despite the mysterious brown stains found on a discarded suit near to Number 10, Onan was nonetheless among the vanquished last year.  He has since found work advising the Ugandan government on their criminalisation of homosexuality.

Patricia Wrinklehammer - Meerkat Fancier

In spite of her reputation for being the most intellectually formidable of Lib Dem MPs, Wrinklehammer has admitted to finding work hard to come by after losing her Summer Isles seat by just 43 votes to the SNP newcomer Hamish Hamish McHamish, since suspended by the nationalists after it was discovered "he" was in fact 3 toddlers standing on top of one another concealed by a full length coat.  Filled with ennui at her situation, Wrinklehammer has devoted her time to collecting every meerkat toy from, taking out insurance policies she doesn't need in a bid to give her life something resembling meaning.

Ian Rhiannon O'Bannon - Wormwood Scrubs

In one of the lesser noticed arrests under Operation Midland, O'Bannon found himself accused by an anonymous individual who first went to Exaro News with murdering 50 homeless orphans he befriended on the streets of London.  A witness known only as "Rick" alleged that O'Bannon, along with prime minister William Pitt the Younger, King Ethelred the Unready and TV personality Pat Sharp had ripped out the throats of the children with only their teeth in an orgy of bloodlust that lasted a whole month.  While the Metropolitan police were unable to uncover any evidence to back up Rick's account, O'Bannon's laptop was found to be stuffed to the gunnels with videos of dog mongling.  He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Charles Kennedy - Dead

(That's enough former Lib Dem MPs.  Ed.)

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Tuesday, February 16, 2016 

Syria and the pessimistic imagination.

One of the best, most thoughtful posts on whether we should join the bombing of Islamic State in Syria came from Shuggy.  3 months on and if anything it's even better:

A number of people supporting this military action have said to me personally that 'things can't get any worse than this'.  This has to one of the most over-used phrases in the English language and relates to the title of this post.  What we have is a regional conflict with the Assad regime backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah on one side; Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar backing the Sunni insurgents on the other.  On top of this we have the United States and France air power.  The Assad military - depleted though it undoubtedly is - is still the largest functioning military force in the country.  It cannot win the war but now it is backed by Russian air-power, it can't lose.  Without it, the only other force capable of winning is ISIS and its affiliates.  Among the many problems the American have is that they don't want either side to win but are not - thank goodness - willing to countenance a military confrontation with both sides.  It is this horrible situation that we have been drawn into and one would have thought the dangers of this escalating into something wider and very much worse should be obvious.

In the time since things have indeed got worse, and thanks to the terror gripping the Turks, and to a slightly lesser extent the Saudis following the advances of the Syrian army towards encircling Aleppo, we are facing a situation where like it or not, the Americans may find themselves in something resembling an outright confrontation with both sides.

The strange or in fact not strange at all thing is how just as the Russians used the excuse of Islamic State to intervene on the side of Assad, despite 90% of the time attacking the other rebels, jihadist, Islamist or "moderates" alike, so our allies have done also.  Turkey claimed to be striking against Islamic State only to in fact attack the Kurds 99.9% of the time.  Now the Saudis have made the offer to send in ground forces, again supposedly to fight Islamic State.  This doesn't for so much as a moment fool Michael Clarke, former director general of the RUSI thinktank, writing in the Graun:

Militarily, the Saudi threat issued at Munich has to be made credible. If a ceasefire does not materialise soon, the Russians, Iranians and Assad himself have no incentives to quit while they are ahead. Only the possibility of Arab ground forces, from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE, heavily backed by western logistics and intelligence, air power and technical specialists, could force Assad and his backers to make a strategic choice in favour of cessation. Only the US could make that work for the Saudis and others – and only Britain could bring along other significant European allies.

How genuine the Saudi offer of ground troops is remains open to question, not least as the deployment of troops in Yemen in support of their own air strikes has been limited.  This more than suggests they have little to no confidence in their ability to achieve much that their air strikes aren't already.  Bearing in mind that the Houthis, capable as they are, do not have an air force backing them up as the SAA, Hezbollah and the other groups fighting for the government do, and that with the best will in the world the Houthis would be no match for Hezbollah, chances are the Saudis would not last long, advanced weaponry brought with them or not.

In any case, you might have imagined that after 5 years of miscalculations concerning Syria, now would be the point to fold rather than double down.  Yes, we could of course let our regional allies send in troops, and back them logistically and with air power, and possibly tempt in the process a third world war, or we could say sorry, we tried, and let everyone who still thinks Syria is worth fighting over get on with it.  Clarke sort of gets this, and sort of doesn't:

This would undoubtedly be a dangerous escalation of the conflict. But in the absence of a genuine ceasefire, the conflict is destined to escalate in any case as Russian forces and Iranian militias put a vengeful Assad back in control of a broken country. If that has the eventual effect of letting him deal with Isis in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor it will leave the west with much bigger strategic problems across the region as a whole. Fifteen years ago these would not have seemed such difficult choices. But after Iraq and Afghanistan they look like dismal options.

Yes, it's a difficult decision, isn't it? Do we put everything on black, and risk the possibility of a direct confrontation with the Russians, as would be more than plausible if things didn't go to plan and we really did have to support Arab ground forces from the air, or do we let Assad deal with Isis himself, leaving "the west much bigger strategic problems"?  These strategic problems would be seemingly not much different to the ones we faced prior to the Syrian uprising, wouldn't they?  Or is Clarke obliquely referencing how if we don't back our regional allies now, they might lose all faith in us?  Is not being aligned with governments that have backed the Syrian rebels such a terrible thought?  Earlier in the piece Clarke correctly identifies that Isis is not the crisis, but rather a symptom of the civil war within Islam in the Middle East, and the struggle for dominance between the Saudis and Iran.  Now, if we had to pick a side, my choice would most certainly not be the one that finds common cause with Islamic State, and that has armed and funded jihadist groups in Syria and around the world for that matter.  It wouldn't be the state set to be effectively fighting on the same side as Islamic State if it intervenes.

Which really does sum up how utterly deranged and mangled American policy, if not British policy also, has become on Syria.  The Americans are supporting the Kurdish YPG as the only ground force they trust against Islamic State.  At the same time Turkey, our Nato ally, has been bombing and shelling the YPG, which has also been advancing in alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces, under the umbrella of Russian air strikes.  The Turks are once again raising the idea of a "safe zone", protected by a no-fly zone, which is just by coincidence in the same area as the Kurds have advanced into.  Germany is now apparently supporting this venture, which the Americans continue to oppose on the grounds they are still resistant to getting into a shooting war with the Russians.  While Turkey is asking the Americans to choose between it and the Kurds, probably not entirely seriously, the similar game of supporting the rebels through the arming and training of "verified" groups, who routinely ally with jihadists, including the al-Nusra Front, goes on, at the same time as condemnation of Russian attacks on these "moderates" continues to be hurled.

Clarke concludes:

The west can choose a dangerous push for a settlement now, or a tepid continuation of a policy that promises a longer war and strategic failure in the region – while hundreds of thousands of desperate people wait at Europe’s doorstep.

It comes back to what Shuggy called the "pessimistic imagination". What Clarke describes as "dangerous" looks to me about the most foolish gamble imaginable, hoping that the Russians will blink over the laughable combined forces of the Saudis, Jordanians and Emirate nations, and the not so laughable backing of the West.  What happens if they don't and they start bombing them in the same way as they have "our" rebels?  How do we respond?

By contrast, a "tepid continuation" of our policy as it stands is preferable by a factor of 50.  Not offered as an option it's worth noting is telling Turkey to stop bombing and shelling the YPG, telling the Saudis their hopes of overthrowing Assad are over and that if they must carry on with their proxy war with Iran they should concentrate on Yemen, and making clear to the rebels that now is the time for a deal.  These would also be options, although presumably would add to our "strategic problems".  Perhaps, as noted above, it's about time that regional strategy was reviewed.

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Monday, February 15, 2016 

100 years ago...

Which reminded me of something Mark Ames has repeatedly said: that absolutely no one has suffered as a result of supporting the Iraq war.  Sure, in the sense that they've been somewhat diminished in the eyes of some of their peers they have been, and yet no one has truly paid the cost of being wrong in the sense of losing their job, or no longer being able to earn a crust through giving their opinions, or being denied employment at any number of financial institutions, or not being able to give speeches for hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Your Nick Cohens, your David Aaronovitches, your Hillary Rodham Clintons, your Michael Ignatieffs, your Tony Blairs, any number of others you could care to remember and bring up, they're all still around, all still giving us their hot-takes on why we should have intervened in Syria and how terrible it is that Russia is killing moderates and bombing hospitals and all the rest.

It almost gives the impression that just as some institutions are too big to fail, so too are some personalities.  No matter how many times they've been wrong, no matter how often they're wrong, no matter how badly wrong they have been, they stay in place.  Almost as though it's not the opinions that matter, but rather their other qualities that have always mattered.  Almost makes you think it's not worth bothering.  Almost.

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Friday, February 12, 2016 


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Thursday, February 11, 2016 

Syria: where our "best intentions" go to die.

If it wasn't for what's happening in Syria being horrific, you'd have to laugh.  Syria is where the West's best intentions, for which read best intentions in terms of what's best for our allies in the short-term, have come to die.  Gradually, slowly but surely, every claim of our politicians and often our media also have been shattered.

First, we were told that President Assad was doomed.  He would fall imminently.  Five years on, and he's still there.  Let's for argument's sake assume that prior to the Russian intervention last September that he was finally beginning to wobble.  This was not due to those within Syria who have supported the government from the outset withdrawing their consent, and whom we chose to pretend didn't exist.  It was down to attrition: territory gradually being taken by the rebels and Islamic State, supply routes being cut off, the displacement of millions, manpower shortages in the military, all of which you would expect after four years of brutal, often sectarian war.

Second, the claim that the rebels other than Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front are "moderates" of the kind we can work with, that some are even secular liberals who genuinely want democracy.  Regardless of the beginnings of the uprising, as the revolution became civil war it turned viciously sectarian in very short order, unsurprisingly considering the support and funding that was soon provided by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Emirate statelets, with Iran following in to help the regime.  Even now, when it could not be more apparent that the remains of the Free Syrian Army are allied with jihadist groups, whether they be the Saudi-backed Islamic Front or the Army of Conquest, the latter of which includes the al-Qaida aligned al-Nusra, we still hear of how terrible it is these moderates are being targeted without mercy by the Russians.

Third, that the Russian intervention was failing or would fail, that it was helping Islamic State, that it wasn't achieving anything.  Suddenly, as soon it became clear from the shrieks of said moderate rebels that Aleppo was in danger of being encircled, starved, according to today's Guardian editorial being "exterminated", subject to a siege equivalent to that of Sarajevo, we've been getting articles either grudgingly respectful of Putin while still slandering him, or ones that remarkably have some relationship to what's been going on quietly for months.

The most obvious example being this fine summary by Jonathan Marcus for the BBC.  He only really errs in saying many of the so-called moderate rebels are being "forced" into alliances with groups close to al-Qaida, when the truth is they've been fighting with them for months and in some cases years.  The Russian goals in Syria have been simple, and make sense, agree with them or not: ensure Assad doesn't fall in the short-term, then build his forces up in the medium-term in order to support them in regaining the territory the government needs to survive long-term.  In the process Putin has shown that Russia is still a military power to be reckoned with, displayed his new weaponry in the field to buyers around the world, and prevented a regional ally from potentially falling.  Whether once these goals are achieved Russia will turn its attention fully to Islamic State or not, who knows.  It doesn't matter so much as IS is relatively contained, if not in danger of losing as some of the more wishful thinkers imagine.

Meanwhile, just what has our policy been in Syria all these years?  Has it made even the slightest sense?  Has it looked like achieving our supposed goal, which is the end of the Assad regime and some sort of inclusive governmental system to replace his one-party rule?  As Marcus says, essentially our policy for some time has been to ally with al-Qaida against both Assad and Islamic State, while pretending that in fact we're helping moderates.  Has it worked?  The Ba'ath certainly looked in danger of falling last year, but what would have replaced it?  Something better, little different, or in fact worse?  If your answer is anything other than one of the latter two, try again.

So here we are.  Rather than say encourage genuine peace talks when it looked as though the rebels were in the ascendant, we preferred to allow them to make excuses about why they couldn't attend.  We preferred to go along with the foreign policy objectives of our regional allies, the Saudis and the Turks, helping to fund and arm the rebels through their auspices, while knowing full well who their backing always goes to.  We carried on doing this even as hundreds of thousands of refugees fled and came to Europe, as we still apparently believed that our side could win, whatever winning would look like.  Even now, we talk about "stains" on "records", as though anything we've done in Syria has been about protecting civilians at any point.  The more deranged talk about moral bankruptcy, and would it seem quite happily push the world to the brink of war to prove our "moral commitments" and "humanitarian objectives".  Sorry, boys.  You've been outfought, outplayed and outmanoeuvred.  Time to admit it and cut our losses.

Except, of course, we won't.

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016 

Trident and the new online tribes: the song remains the same.

According to no less a person than Ian Dunt, by far the worst thing about Jeremy Corbyn is his online supporters.  This it's worth noting is a claim made about every new political movement's online base, whether true or not. The same has been said, at length, repeatedly, interminably about Cybernats and Momentum.  Now it's notably jumped across the Atlantic, where the "Bernie Bros", young, strident, male supporters of Bernie Sanders supposedly ridicule anyone and everyone, but especially women thinking of voting for Hillary Clinton.  The original article about Bernie Bros could have been almost word for word written about the far noisier contingent (at least from my experience) of obsessive Ron Paul supporters around between 2008 and 2012, and who have since disappeared apparently off the face of the planet.  Or more likely are now supporting Trump.

You don't have to be particularly partial to the views of any of these groups to note those most likely to complain about them are the very people most directly challenged by their emergence.  The most virulent Cybernats will target anyone and anything that opposes independence, but they mainly focus on the already moribund Scottish Labour party.  The main complaints about Momentum were voiced during the debate on bombing Islamic State in Syria, and were wrapped up with criticism of the Stop the War group for doing little more than encouraging lobbying of MPs.  The Bernie Bros meanwhile have been criticised by no less a person than Billy Clinton himself, while supporters of Hillary have repeatedly suggested sexism is the reason Clinton has not already sown up the Democrat nomination, rather than say her support for every war going or her speeches to Wall Street execs in exchange for sackfuls of cash.  That it has since emerged much the same tactics were used against Obama back in 2008, if on a far lesser scale, doesn't seem to have stopped the moaning.

The point is clear, regardless.  The old are hardly likely to take the shock of the new gladly.  The media often finds itself siding with those claiming to be victimised by these online hoodlums, not least because the feedback experience has not on the whole been a happy one.  The Graun recently decided to stop opening comments on articles on Islam, race and immigration because the tenor had become so unpleasant.  Commentators who once only had to stomach the odd letter in green ink suddenly found themselves getting torn to shreds, called every name under the sun for only doing what they had for years.  Some attempted and still do try to engage, while others long since abandoned looking "below the line".  Almost as a whole the "mainstream" media finds itself under siege: apparently loathed and mistrusted by their own readers, increasingly ridiculed and ignored by politicians no longer on the fringes, their business models threatened by the collapse in print advertising and sales, while adblockers and social media timeline rips of their content do similar damage online.

And yet, at the same time, these groups, whether in the media or politics, still leverage remarkable power and often treat their opponents with far more contempt and arrogance than they have been subjected to.  Let's take as an example the debate, or rather lack of, on Trident, although you could just as easily focus on the response to the campaign against the Rhodes statue at Oriel college in Oxford, or practically any other issue where young and therefore stupid seems to come against older and wiser.

Trident it's worth reflecting has never sat easily with Labour, even post unilateralism.  95 Labour MPs voted against renewal back in 2007, leaving Tony Blair to rely on Tory support.  Not much truly has changed since then in the way of the threats we face, while the cost of replacing Trident has even on the lowest estimate increased.  The other change, far more key, is that Labour now has a leader who is against replacing Trident.  This leader has also taken the opportunity to appoint a defence secretary who is like minded, and to commission a review of the party's defence policy, both moves he is fully entitled to make.  Similarly, the party conference was within its right to take a vote on Trident that upheld the position in Labour's 2015 manifesto, to replace Trident.

Which group then do you think is the one screaming about the utter insanity of the other, indulging in shouting matches at meetings of the parliamentary party and chucking around insults at the first opportunity?  Not, as you might expect, the one that was so criticised for talking about blood being on the hands of MPs voting for airstrikes in Syria.  It is in fact the one that is in favour of spending billions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction while dismissing every critique, whether it be on cost, the potential for the technology to be out of date before the new class of submarines are so much as built, or on whether or not Trident is relevant in the 21st century.

It could well be right that Emily Thornberry's references to the potential for underwater drones to make the seas "transparent" is, as Lord West apparently phoned the Today programme to say, nonsense.  Lord Hutton (of Furness, which somewhat gives the game away) might be right to quote the former chief of the defence staff Lord Boyce who said we're more likely to put a man on Mars within the next six months than for the seas to become transparent in the next 30 years.  It could also be that there will emerge a technology or new weapons system within the next 30 years that does threaten Trident; 15 years ago we certainly didn't see drones playing as key a role in military action as they do now.  Hutton says you only have to look at those doing the nay-saying now to see through their new arguments for opposing; similarly, you only to have bear witness to the people who believe they know best to recognise this is about far more than just what's ultimately right for the country's defence.

The bluster and language is always the same.  They talk about "multilateral disarmament" while not for a moment believing that it is either possible, or so much as worth spending a moment attempting.  They make as many references as they can to "deterring", "nuclear blackmail" or "our independent nuclear deterrent".  They are not just convinced, they are absolutely certain that the public backs their position of renewal to the absolute hilt and that anything else is electoral suicide.  They might even bring "working people" into it, if they feel the need, just to stress how these middle class do-gooders from London don't understand how Joe Six Pints from Leeds feels about turning our missiles into plowshares.

Not that they can always get their lines straight.  Madeleine Moon, who Cameron today quoted at PMQs following her tweet about the PLP meeting, was daft enough to bring up how it's not just our nuclear weapon, it's also Nato's nuclear weapon.  Obviously it's our completely independent nuclear deterrent, but it's also Nato's totally independent nuclear deterrent.

Moon is still preferable to Jamie Reed MP, who first distinguished himself on the day of Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership by congratulating him and resigning in the same tweetHis piece for the Spectator still needs to be read to be believed.  And even then it's still not believable.  According to Reid, the party has deliberately abandoned political professionalism.  Trident renewal is not just Labour party policy, it is the "settled will" of the country.  This is presumably based on the number of votes parties committed to Trident renewal received at the election.  By the same yardstick there are whole legions of policies we know are hugely unpopular that would also be the settled will of the country, but let's move on.  Renewal is not just right, it is "morally" right.  It's always a bad idea to bring morals into politics full stop, but on Trident?  Blimey.

So it goes on.  "We should take great pride in being the standard bearers for one of Attlee’s most important legacies," Reed says.  The Attlee cabinet was so proud of its own decision that it didn't inform parliament for two years.  There is no credible case for scrapping Trident, Reed continues, and those that claim there is have the gall to call those supporting renewal right-wing!  There's nothing right-wing about protecting skilled jobs, taking pride in those communities or in seeking multilateral disarmament!  In about Reed's only salient point, he remarks there's no point in the party splitting over an issue that can't be influenced from opposition and will in any case be decided by 2020.  But by God, he'll complain about it and make absurd assumptions and generalisations, as it's nothing less than an informed choice to pursue electoral defeat.  "The leadership knows that an anti-Trident policy will lead to rejection at the ballot box. It knows that this is a litmus test of credibility. The leadership knows that an anti-Trident position means taking a pass on power; it’s an open-armed, wide-eyed, deliberate embrace of the wilderness."

In actual fact, the polling rather suggests that while there is a majority in favour of Trident renewal, it very much varies on how you ask the question and especially if you mention the cost.  But Reed obviously knows better, and knows this is the leadership deliberately making the party unelectable.  That's how deranged Corbyn and the leadership are.  Much the same points are made by Rafael Behr in the Graun.  He comments:

And everything about the conduct of that debate will accelerate Labour’s spiral away from power because it won’t really be a big, new strategic argument about the future of national defence, and whether Britain should be a nuclear power. It will be an old, parochial little bicker about the party’s torrid history and whether Labour really cares what the majority of people in Britain think.

It's fairly clear which side wants to have a strategic argument about the future of national defence and which wants an old, parochial little bicker.  It's the same side discombobulated by these new groupings, and rather than attempt to understand them, insults them.  It's the same side that as Gary Younge puts it, first derided Corbyn's base and has been throwing a tantrum ever since about being unable to win them over.  It's the same side that views and presents itself as the sensible, progressive one, in tune with the man on the street, while being just as removed as any Bernie Bro or CyberNat.  It's the same side the media has allied itself with, whether improperly or otherwise, and yet still wonders why it's regarded as part of the establishment, the problem rather than the solution.  Delusion affects all sides.  Some just delude themselves to a greater extent than others.

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Tuesday, February 09, 2016 

Even after acquittal, even after release, national security trumps all.

The continuing official secrecy surrounding the trial of Erol Incedal, as reaffirmed today by the Court of Appeal, truly boggles the mind.  Incedal, lest anyone has forgot, was charged with possessing a manual on bomb-making and planning to commit a terrorist act, only for some of the evidence to be judged by the intelligence agencies as so potentially damaging to national security that around 90% of the trial(s) had to be held in secret, or in camera.

Indeed, initially the government not only argued for the trial to be held entirely behind closed doors, it also wanted Incedal and his co-defendant Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar to not so much as be identified, instead known only by initials.  This only failed after a challenge from the media, who in the same ruling were also granted access to most of the closed sessions, with "accredited journalists" invited to observe proceedings.  They are not allowed however to disclose what they heard in those sessions on pain of contempt of court, while their notebooks, taken at the end of each session, are apparently being kept at MI5's headquarters, Thames House, lest anyone less respectful of national security decides they should be placed into the public domain.

The utter absurdity of the situation is best expressed by how the Guardian reports that Incedal has since been released from prison, presumably under licence, from his 42 month sentence for possessing the 5 page manual on explosives.  Whether Incedal is under the same restrictions as both the journalists and members of the jury is not clear, or whether they might only apply until his sentence has been served in full we don't know.  Either way, the man himself is now free.  If he so wishes, he can tell anyone he feels like exactly how and why he was found not guilty of planning a terrorist attack despite the apparently incriminating evidence against him, while the journalists who sat there in the expectation of at some point being able to explain to the public why still cannot.

Almost everything about the case reeks.  The argument for why it had to be heard in secret, at least initially, was that otherwise justice would not have been able to be done.  This would at the very least imply that the case against the accused was fairly airtight, and that having to abandon it would have damaged the public interest more than denying the principles of open justice in this one instance.  Instead, as it turned out, one jury couldn't decide on the planning an attack charge while at the retrial the jury acquitted the accused.  It has not been explained whether a bug was placed in Incedal's car after he was pulled over and arrested for speeding, Incedal having made "demands" the police couldn't accommodate, as well as producing a statement they needed time to "digest", or whether he was already someone of interest to the security services.  We are none the wiser over whether Tony Blair really was a target, as an address to his home in London was found hidden in a glasses case, or if that was something else explained to the apparent satisfaction of the second jury.  The accredited journalists themselves feel used and tainted by the experience, almost to the point of being complicit in the secrecy demanded, unable to speak of anything they heard unless they fancy a spell behind bars themselves.

What is the possible danger in knowing why someone accused of terrorism was found not guilty when that person is no longer so much as in jail?  We aren't allowed to know, so we can't know.  All we are allowed to know is that the Lord Chief Justice remains "quite satisfied ... for reasons which we can only provide in a closed annex to this judgment that a departure from the principles of open justice was strictly necessary if justice was to be done".  Albeit, in this instance, justice meant the accused being acquitted.

Not that the ruling is overly deferential to the executive and others who demanded the secrecy in the first place.  It would seem the security services were not pleased with even the merest glimpses of daylight the Court of Appeal allowed to seep in, as "in the light of some of the material provided to the court" the justices feel the need to make clear that "no part of the Executive can refuse to provide the evidence required by the DPP on the basis that it perceives that it is not in the interests of national security to provide it". "Thus," they continue, "when the decision is made by the court, subject to any appeal, they must abide by that decision even if they disagree with it. If a decision is made by the prosecutor to proceed, then the Security Services and the police must provide to the prosecutor all the assistance the prosecutor requires."  You might have thought that the security services, especially ones that the court says in its experience "are conspicuous in their adherence to this principle and these duties" wouldn't need to be reminded of things like the rule of law, but so it would seem.

The court also makes clear that while public accountability cannot currently be provided by the media, it is open to the Intelligence and Security Committee to consider "any issues it considers need to be examined and for any public accountability to be achieved in that way". While this would previously have not had the government or the securocrats shaking in their shoes, the highly critical report into the draft Investigatory Powers act by the ISC under its new chairman Dominic Grieve would suggest it might finally turn into more of a watchdog than a lapdog.  Likewise, that as a coda the justices observe that previous closed judgments were apparently not available to them as reference and "this is not satisfactory", not least as "it must always be a possibility, that at a future date, disclosure will be sought at a time when it is said that there could no longer be any reason to keep the information from the public", it's as crystal as it could be that while the courts are currently persuaded by cries of "national security", they might not always be.

When there is so little to go on it's almost pointless to speculate on precisely how national security could be damaged by the public knowing why Incedal was not in this instance guilty.  You do have to suspect though that the contact Incedal had with a British man called Ahmed, apparently based in Syria, is key, not least because MI5 and MI6 rather than just one or the other were involved in the push for secrets to remain secret.  Just as it was only remembered days before Moazzam Begg was due to go on trial for terrorism charges linked to Syria that MI5 had apparently OKed his journey, so too you have to wonder if Incedal himself had links to the intelligence agencies that are not being disclosed and which he used as his justification for not being guilty.  Then again, in a case this absurd, where the rule of law has always been a secondary thought, and where only politicians, judges and spooks can be trusted with the reality, who's to say it's not something correspondingly bizarre?

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Monday, February 08, 2016 

The fundamental lack of imagination remains.

If there's one thing worse than telling the son of a deceased political figure how ashamed or upset they would be with the decisions they've made, as clearly the likes of Alex Salmond know better than Hillary Benn how his father would have reacted, then it's squabbling over which side a passed on political behemoth would have chosen.  

Yep, in case you missed it, the big debate in the Tory press over the past couple of days has been whether Margaret Thatcher would have been on the side of staying in or leaving the EU.  Charles Powell is convinced she would have been for in, with much the same reservations as David Cameron; Norman Tebbit and assorted others regard that as heresy.  That Thatcher had gone as crazy as a coot by the end of her time in Downing Street seems to have passed them all by, as does the fact they got rid of her for precisely that reason.  You could argue the Tory worship of Thatcher is more healthy politically than Labour's attitude towards Tony Blair, and it probably is.  It doesn't alter how unutterably creepy it is, not to mention unanswerable: failing Boris Gypsy Rose Johnson managing to channel the spirit of Thatch from the other side, we're never going to be any the wiser.  Which in a way, is the point.

Quite how miserable the next few months are going to be is summed up by the big politics story of the day, the claim from Downing Street that should the referendum result in our leaving, the migrants camped out in Calais and Dunkirk will instead be setting up tent cities in Dover.  The idea is so absurd many have claimed it's another "dead cat", designed to move the debate on, and judging by the coverage of the ensuing argument compared to that of the speech Cameron gave today, it seems to have worked.  Apart from anything else, the obvious point is that if those camped in Calais and Dunkirk make it to Britain they wouldn't then be sitting around waiting to do anything; they'd be claiming asylum or moving on to find work.  The French might be less cooperative than they are now, it's true, but why would you trouble yourselves overly with people who don't want to stay in your country anyway?

We can then only ready ourselves for weeks of claims and counter-claims, all on a subject that few are truly interested in and even fewer know anything about.  If, on the other hand, there is something approaching truth in the rumours today's speech by Cameron on prison reform is part of the move to guarantee justice secretary Michael Gove's support for the remain campaign, there might be the very slightest of silver linings.

That's a silver lining dependent on first, some of Cameron's proposed measures being implemented, and two, their working.  When you then consider that Cameron himself claimed today's speech was the first in 20 years by a prime minister focusing exclusively on prison reform, when it soon turned out Dave had forgotten he gave a speech promising a rehabilitation revolution back in 2012, the omens are far from good.  It's true, as various commentators have noted, that simply hearing a prime minister saying things like prisons are "often miserable, painful environments", "full of damaged individuals" and that "being tough on criminals is not always the same thing as being tough on crime" is novel, and welcome.  Referring to prisoners as potential diamonds in the rough, and turning remorse and regret into lives with new meaning is language of the sort politicians rarely use, often for good reason as it sounds hollow and fatuous.  That it didn't coming from Cameron today is itself something to cheer.

This said, the problems of the prison estate are obvious, and there's little to suggest that Cameron or the Tories are willing to recognise them.  The first is plain and simple, funding: the cuts to the Ministry of Justice have been some of the most swingeing, and prisons are expensive.  Part of the reason there is so little chance of rehabilitation in prison and so much idleness is lack of staff, and the amount being spent on overtime for those remaining is astronomical.  Second is overcrowding.  While it is true as Cameron says that very few, only 7% he quotes, are imprisoned for a first offence, and over 70% of prisoners have 7 or more convictions to their name, most of those will be minor, or non-violent.  As he goes on to say, almost half will have an identifiable mental health problem, while others will have an addiction of one variety or another.  Reducing the prison population by say 20% would be perfectly achievable and help massively if there were alternatives available, either in the form of expanded secure accommodation for those with mental health problems or monitoring in the community for those guilty of non-violent offences, women in particular.  This might have been possible prior to austerity: now it seems laughable, despite Cameron asking Gove and Jeremy Hunt to look for alternative provision for the most severely mentally ill.

As Frances Crook writes, it doesn't matter how much independence or autonomy you give a prison governor if they don't have the staff, the resources, or the space for their ideas to take root.  More promising is the idea of "secure academies" as an alternative to young offender institutions, although the obstacles frankly look overwhelming; it's all well and good saying you want to make it "aspirational" to work in a prison and attract the best, but again why would you when there is very little here to suggest this is anything other than rhetoric?  Similar schemes in schools themselves have fell by the wayside.  Indeed, at worst, Cameron's plans smack of introducing further privatisation where the true aim undoubtedly will be on achieving savings, at the expense of the very rehabilitation and reforms he claims to want.

Great as it is to hear a prime minister saying he wants prisons to be places of care, not just punishment, the one metric we have to judge Cameron and the Tories by so far is as he apparently accepts, the reports of the chief inspector of prisons.  By that measure prisons have got worse in the last 5 years, not better, with the reasons why staring the government in the face.  Closing the worst of the Victorian jails and building replacements will do no good if they are to be just as overcrowded and short-staffed.

Last weekend Nick Hardwick criticised the "lack of imagination and failure of empathy" of policymakers.  Today's speech by Cameron showed that when pushed, politicians can be compassionate and point towards innovations that could help.  Fundamentally however, that lack of imagination or refusal to question the failed shibboleths of old remains: prisons cannot work when they are the equivalent of warehouses for the sick, the damaged and the dangerous.  For all his fine, often empathetic words, David Cameron still refuses to recognise this.

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