Thursday, March 31, 2016 

The Donald: exposing the true GOP.

Can we, just for a moment, talk about the Donald?  So many things about the abortion extract from yesterday's town hall style interview with him on MSNBC are wonderful.  Like how condescending the Donald is to the person who poses the question, asking if they understood his blindingly simple response.  Like how the Donald flails helplessly in attempting to answer Chris Matthews' follow-up, until he manages to discombobulate his interrogator merely by asking his opinion on the matter, at which point it becomes apparent both are incredibly uncomfortable with discussing abortion, despite both attempting to speak from a position of authority.  Like how the Donald admits that banning abortion will lead to women going to "illegal places" in his very first response when asked how you ban it.  And obviously, how the Donald might be a monster, but he's not so much of a monster that he knows the bullshit argument the vast majority of American pro-lifers put forward, that it's not women you punish by banning abortion, it's the doctors who "profit" from the "industry".  Instead, as someone who all along has been saying the most right-wing things he can without necessarily believing in them, he says you have to punish the women who get illegal abortions, without knowing what the punishment will be.

This gives the whole game away.  Pro-lifers know they cannot hope to win the argument if the woman seeking to end her pregnancy will also be seen in the eyes of the law as guilty of accessory to fetal homicide.  Abortion might be murder, as the most vociferous pro-lifers argue, but it's the medics that carry it out who are the murderers, not the woman carrying the baby however defective her own moral code might be.  This might be completely inconsistent with the law on homicide in every other case, but such are the compromises if you want to put a stop to women being "like their prenatal children, victims of our horrific abortion policy", as Charles Camosy has it in his piece for the New York Daily News.

Hence Trump is not a true pro-lifer in their eyes, as he isn't jumping through the ideological constructs they think necessary in order to eventually be able to punish women in precisely the way he suggested.  And they're right, only for entirely the wrong reasons.  Yes, he most likely doesn't believe a word he's saying, but he's saying it because it's what he thinks his base wants to hear.  Those that do care don't go in for all this pious, oh, you can't blame the woman while doing precisely that half-way crap, they very much do blame the woman

Trump's brilliance, or rather luck, has been in coming up with this formula at the precise moment when social media has made it possible to be unpleasant to almost everyone and still maintain a momentum that previously would have dissipated.  It almost certainly won't win him the presidency, possibly not even the Republican nomination, but it has exposed the fissures in American politics and society both.  In all the ironies of the 2016 presidential primaries so far, that it's a populist billionaire who has done the most to expose the failings of 35 years of Reagonomics has been the most delicious of all.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2016 

It lies in the normies.

Picture the scene.  We're in the Tory communications bunker.  Someone's come up with a half-decent speech, the central thesis of which is that the young will be the most screwed over by a vote to leave the EU.  Up goes the cry: who can we get to deliver this fabulous lecture?  Who among the Tory ranks is the most down with the kids, the least likely to instantly cause the target audience to sneer and switch off?  Boris, someone shouts, the person responsible immediately taken into the next room and shot.  No one can come up with a name that doesn't seem inherently ridiculous.  Then someone has a brainwave.

And so it came to pass that education secretary Nicky Morgan gave a lecture to the younglins that contradicted every tenet of the Tory grand plan for election victory.  If the Brexiters get their way there's a risk of a "lost generation", the Tory party's answer to an unasked question said.  Never mind that Tory policy writ large is to soak the upper middle, the well off and pensioners and don't worry if everyone else sinks, it'll be leave, the uncertainty and the likely years of negotiation that'll do for the generation of "Instagram, easyJet and eBay".  In a further flourish of remarkable audacity, Morgan, the troll pencil topper for the 2010s, outlined how not voting can lead to a whole demographic being effectively dismissed.  As if this wasn't precisely what the Tory leadership has done, only to suddenly realise their favoured groups are the ones most heavily leaning against the exit and if only temporarily, they need the young.

If I could be bothered, we could take a trip down cutting off your nose to spite your face street.  We could agonise over all the variables of voting for or against the Cameron clique on this measure, but let's face it: whichever way the EU vote ends up going, the young are going to be taking it hard and fast.  Sure, it's beyond question that leaving the EU would make life even less tolerable than it already is for the sprogs, for the reasons Morgan lists.  Equally, let's not pretend that under Morgan's benevolence everything will be so much the better, that more young people will move into jobs befitting their skills, that more will be able to own their home, that more will be so much as able to afford the ever increasing rents in our buy to let paradise when so many Tory policies are focused on making life all the sweeter for the aforementioned groups.  We could get started on the insanity of forcing all schools to become academies and the effect that could have on the next generation if we wanted, but there aren't enough hours in the day.

According to Jackie Ashley, the remain campaign is failing.  This rather depends on what the remain campaign's goal is.  If the goal is to try to make a positive case for the EU, then yes, it certainly is failing.  If on the other hand the goal is to bore everyone senseless, to the point where only the most pro and anti can be bothered to turn out come June 23rd, then both the remain and leave campaigns are succeeding admirably.  Both sides accuse the other of being negative, with many toys chucked out of prams on Monday after the leavers had the audacity to bring crims from other EU countries who came here and committed further offences into it, without it apparently occurring to those commenting that both sides are equally guilty for the reason that conjuring up fears works.  This was never going to be a rerun of the Scottish independence referendum where one side made a case which for its numerous faults inspired the naive, the credulous and the dreamers to its cause, while the other, more realistic but deathly dull side won the vote but lost the argument.  Both sides in this case are dominated by pumping great bells who have nothing but contempt for every one of us.

What continues to baffle is quite why Ashley and others are so insistent that Labour should involve itself in this tussle of the flyweights, or what it would be meant to achieve.  No matter how inspiring or popular a personality, you cannot get an audience to be interested in something that simply doesn't move them.  No one other than politicos is discussing the referendum for two reasons: firstly that it's still 3 months away; and second that it's still an abstract subject.  Immigration we can never shut the hell up about, but despite the connection with the EU and immigration, the two in this case are failing to mix.  Nor is the EU, important as it is, going to stir both the heart and mind as much as nationality, patriotism and the sense of belonging always will.  For all the attempts by the leave mob to give the impression that we can't do anything without Brussels interfering, that we can't make our own laws or take a dump without falling foul of an EU directive, the vast majority have the sense to know such claims are nonsense, no matter how many times they are repeated.

None of this is to say that nearer the time the leavers won't have a good few weeks where it looks as though they could be on the brink.  They probably will, helped by an overall Europhobic press already dedicating itself to splashing on anti-EU stories day after day.  This idea of Ashley's however, that Michael Gove has made a yet to be answered case on sovereignty, or that the business names backing out are "impressive" is a complete joke.  The result of referendum after referendum, both here and from abroad suggest that votes against the status quo position are rarely successful.  It won't be support from the babbies among us that decides the result, but rather those who were never interested in the debate in the first place and find the way things are currently to be tolerable.  Praise them, for they will be the saviours, not the left, not the young, not Labour.  Here's to the normies.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2016 

Syria, Islamic State, and seeing conspiracies that weren't there.

War is not neat.  War is not tidy.  War is nearly always fought in the equivalent of a fog.  All three of these statements are such truisms they are practically cliches.  In times of struggle you often have to make tacit alliances with people you would otherwise go out of your way to avoid.

This is especially true when it comes to Syria in terms of oil.  Practically, everyone is guilty of buying and selling to each other: Islamic State sold to Assad.  Islamic State sold to Turkey.  Thieves stole from Islamic State and sold to everyone.  Trying to make some grand statement about how about one country or one side is in bed with another on the basis of oil is foolish.  Turkey until recently turned a blind eye to Islamic State and other foreign fighters travelling through her borders as they didn't care who replaced Assad, as long as he fell.  Of all the double games that have been played, Turkey's has been just about the most egregious.

And yet, even now, even after the retaking of Palmyra by the Syrian Arab Army, still this kind of nonsense is being spouted, including by the Graun:

The second conclusion is that when governments stop playing a double game in which they use extremists for their own purposes, they do better. Assad did this for a long time, leaving Isis alone so as to put more pressure on its other opponents. After the loss of Palmyra in May 2015, the Syrians abandoned that policy and tried to retake the areas they had lost, but they had not the resources and, in particular, the airpower to do so, until the Russians made up that deficiency.

To an extent, Assad did indeed leave Islamic State alone. This was for the reason that the territory taken by IS in the country's eastern, mostly desert regions was not strategically essential to the regime's survival.  The SAA gave up Palmyra in order to retrench and reinforce its other frontlines, primarily around Damascus, Latakia, and in Aleppo.  It was only after the Russian intervention at the end of September last year that the SAA alongside Hezbollah and other groups was finally able to make some headway, and then it took months.  Likewise, Islamic State has somewhat learned the lesson of the thrashing it received in Kobane, once the Americans decided the overrunning of the town would be an advance too far; they withdrew from Palmyra to cut their losses, as they also did in Sinjar in Iraq.

As Juan Cole writes, it's not immediately clear why the SAA would now retake Palmyra when the likes of al-Nusra are still much closer to home.  Part of the reasoning is no doubt for symbolic reasons, that expelling IS from Palmyra makes for good propaganda.  Whatever the exact motives, it does dispel once and for all the idiotic notion that there was some kind of accord between Assad and IS, or that the Russians were effectively Islamic State's air force, or any such gibbering.  The retaking of Palmyra has happened primarily because of the ceasefire with the groups other than IS and al-Nusra, which is holding to the surprise of pretty much everyone; without wanting to blow my own trumpet too loud, this is what I suggested was the more realistic outcome if a ceasefire happened.  Not the "70,000 moderates" fighting Islamic State for us, but the SAA backed by the Russians from the air.

Whether retaking Palmyra is purely symbolic, with the Russians having no intention of providing the backup required for the SAA and allies to retake Raqqa, the ultimate target once Deir al-Zor has been relieved, we're yet to see.  We don't for instance know if like in Palmyra Islamic State might simply retreat; the declared capital of their caliphate or not, Mosul seems more likely to be where IS would choose to make a last stand.

Last stand is in any case a relative notion.   Just as IS's previous incarnation, the Islamic State of Iraq, appeared to have been defeated, Islamic State seems unlikely to be defeated completely when its resurrection was far more an expression of the rage of Iraq's Sunnis at their on-going persecution and under-representation in post-war Iraq than it was sudden support for the group's internationalist ideology.  Also unlike in Syria, where those who have survived have been hardened and bloodied by the experience, in Iraq the army still seems to have fundamental issues with morale, continuing to run away at the first sign of Islamic State striking back.  Retaking Mosul remains an ideal, not something likely to turn into actuality any time soon.

As for whether or not you believe the reports about "hundreds" of foreign fighters being sent back to attack Europe, that the cell that first attacked Paris and then Brussels seems to be as large as it was hardly suggests a lack of ambition.  Even if IS loses the territory it holds, its success has been in updating the template laid down by al-Qaida, creating a banner to which both the disaffected and the deeply religious have been attracted.  Either it will rise again, or another group, even less scrupulous, even more murderous will take its place.  What will really matter is if we then repeat the same mistakes we have twice already.  I'm not betting on the third time being the charm.

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Monday, March 28, 2016 


Odd, isn't it, that for all the expressions of horror at the taking of Palmyra last year by Islamic State, the subsequent demolitions of treasures of the ancient world, the calls for a stepping up of the bombing of the group, even outright intervention, come the liberation of the city there is almost silence from those same people.

Well, no, it's not.  But you get my point.

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Friday, March 25, 2016 

Too close to see.

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Thursday, March 24, 2016 

That leaked Lynton Crosby list ranking Tory cabinet members in full.

G'day Dave!

Lynton here.  Here's the list you asked me to draw up of members of the cabinet (and one additional), ranking them as to whether they're hostile, neutral or core loyalists.  Now don't be a drongo, keep this eyes only, we don't want this leaking like Corbyn's did.  Otherwise we will look like a load of great galahs.

George Osborne - Core, obviously.  You might want to think about whether or not you really want to him to take over though, as frankly he's not as smart as he thinks and if anything is becoming a liability.  Your choice though mate!

Theresa May - Neutral.  Colder than a penguin's dangler, none of us have ever managed to get a proper insight to her.  Has done a reasonable job as Home Sec, more down to so much of the bloody office having been split up by Labour than any real skill.  Came round on Europe, after you threatened to sic me on her.

Michael Gove - Core negative.  A worse traitor than Quisling, a bigger bum than the Queen, possible Maoist in Tory clothing.  I warned you about him, and did you listen?

Michael Fallon - Core.  What more is there to say about our premier dead cat merchant?  Always willing to talk absolutely bullshit on mine and yours behalf, we owe him a damn huge barbie one of these nights.

Sajid Javid - Neutral.  Another of your mates with higher ambitions, with a head that could double as a solar panel, such is the beam you get back off his bonce.  Another we just about managed to win over on the EU, in this case as we threatened the Sadiq Khan treatment on him.  How many times do I have to tell you you can't trust the bloody Muslims?

Stephen Crabb - Core.  Replacement for useful until he was no longer useful idiot IDS.  Has beard, will travel.  Decent background story we will make all we can off.  Great for neutralising all the stories about us doing in scroungers and cripples.

Jeremy Hunt - Core.  Complete idiot, first made a balls up at culture, now making an even bigger balls up at health, but is totally loyal.  The kind of bloke we like.

Nicky Morgan - Core.  Or as we like to call her, the Bride of Finkelstein!  How's that for two jokes in one?  Again, thinks she is far more intelligent than she actually is, is utterly hopeless on TV or under interview, but Gove has already done the damage at education.  Has leadership aspirations; obvious candidate for suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Justine Greening - Core.  Known for discussing Rwanda when she should be voting for you, otherwise she's no threat whatsoever.  Boring, really.

Theresa Villiers - Core negative.  Northern Ireland secretary, the job we give to those without a clue and who can barely find the place on the map, naturally wants out of the EU.  One to dump the first chance you get.

John Whittingdale - Neutral.  Brexiter, but is otherwise harmless as these Thatcherite throwbacks are, and useful.  Bit thick mind.

Elizabeth Truss - Core.  Ah Lizzy, our golden girl, a true Sheila.  Will do anything for you, except that.  Out of my league, know what I'm saying?

Chris Grayling - Core negative.  The half-wit's half-wit, I'm amazed you didn't sack this bloody galah before now, like I told you.  Yeah he reaches the base, but only because the base are know nothing bumpkins.  Can't do much damage as leader of the house, just make sure to get rid of him once the EU crap's over.

Priti Patel - Core negative.  Exceptionally stupid even by Tory party standards, thinks you poms are all lazy buggers, wants out of the EU.  What more can I say?

Boris Johnson - Core negative.  Biggest buffoon I've ever bally met.  Still managed to get him elected when that drongo Ken was his opponent.  Comes unstuck the moment anyone starts asking anything like a taxing question, untrustworthy, unreliable, thinks he's a comedian, would sell his grandmother, father, Sheila, ankle biters, anything or anyone if it would help him become PM.  Will be next PM.  Sorry Dave.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016 

Operation Midland: a modern morality tale.

Operation Midland has been closed down.  Announced on Monday, happily for the Metropolitan police while attention was on Westminster and before the events in Brussels, it had been in the offing for quite some time.  After around 15 months of investigations into claims of sadistic abuse perpetrated by figures from the very top of the defence, intelligence, political and entertainment establishments, at its conclusion there was not enough evidence to so much as submit a file to the Crown Prosecution Service for their consideration.  It had already been announced that Lord Bramall, the former chief of the defence staff, had been cleared of any involvement.  Monday saw Harvey Proctor, the only other accused still alive, told that he also would not face charges.

Even at this point, it's difficult to properly get your head round how the Met could have gone about investigating the allegations of a single man with such a level of seeming incompetence.  Operation Midland has been a disaster rivalled only by the anti-terrorist operations in the aftermath of 7/7, or the corresponding failure to properly investigate phone hacking at the News of the World at the first opportunity.  Some of the mistakes were made with the best of intentions, or at least that's what we have to conclude.  Otherwise, the Met looks even more headspinningly credulous.

As the Met belatedly recognised, it was a huge mistake for Kenny McDonald to describe the allegations made to his team by the man known only as "Nick" as "credible and true".  McDonald we were later told did not accept they were true; his aim in describing them as such was to reassure any other witnesses they would also be believed.  His team believed that as with Jimmy Savile, and others since convicted of historic sex offences, the publicity would encourage other witnesses to come forward and help corroborate Nick's story.  Only two witnesses did, and they came to the police through the same proxy as Nick, via Exaro News.  One of those witnesses was decided not to be credible midway through last year.

With no other witnesses to back up Nick's highly distressing account of abuse by VIPs, it was almost as if the police didn't properly know what to do, having already described their witness as telling the truth.  Their approach, knowing they didn't have even the beginnings of the evidence needed to arrest anyone, was to carry out searches of the homes of the accused still alive, and in the case of Leon Brittan, the recently deceased.  The raids on the homes of Lord Bramall and Harvey Proctor were accompanied by leaks to Exaro News, making their names public when the police were unable to.  The relationship between Exaro and Operation Midland was far too cosy from the very start, almost as if it was Exaro rather than Nick in control of events.  It was to Exaro that Nick first went, who then provided access to Nick to the BBC and the newspapers, most notably the Mirror group.  When the police came calling, Exaro at the least accompanied Nick; other reports have suggested they sat in on the interviews.

Nick's account itself should have set alarm bells ringing.  Not just that some of the details given by Nick of his abuse are highly reminiscent of the accounts provided by those who have claimed to be the victims of Satanic ritual abuse, with Nick claiming he was tortured on Remembrance Sunday, his abusers pinning a poppy to his chest repeatedly, but that those named and the locations where the abuse was meant to have taken place have been circulating online for years.  As the Times belatedly reported, the defunct magazine Scallywag claimed over 20 years ago that abuse by senior politicians had taken place at Dolphin Square; those articles have provided the backbone to conspiracy theories ever since.  Nick's account of his abuse developed over time: he first went to Wiltshire police in 2012, informing them only of the predation by his deceased stepfather.  The following year he spoke to a documentary team, alleging that he had been abused by groups of men that on a number of occasions included Jimmy Savile.  Come 2014, his story had expanded further to include Ted Heath, the former heads of MI5 and MI6, Lord Janner and Peter Hayman, as well as the murder of three boys.  As the Needle Blog has pointed out, his story seems a conglomeration of online conspiracy theories, the Scallywag articles and the varying allegations made against Savile and Janner, with added details that only he can explain.

By the time Harvey Proctor gave his extraordinary press conference in August of last year, detailing in full what he was being accused of by Nick, it was already apparent the investigation was falling apart.  Having at first given massive publicity to the allegations, if we're being extremely charitable believing McDonald when he pronounced them "credible and true", the coverage swung in the exact opposite direction.  The Mail and the Sun went after Tom Watson, more because of his new position of power as deputy Labour leader than anything else, before turning on commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, again more out of rage at the investigations the Met has undertaken into the press than real digust at the treatment of Bramall and Brittan.  Despite reports in the Mail and Telegraph that had began to cast further doubt on the police and Nick, it was BBC's Panorama, somewhat making amends for the corporation's role in first publicising Nick's claims, that piece by piece cast doubt on the police investigation and asked why it was they apparently hadn't done some very basic fact-checking.  The police's response was to demand it not be shown, while Exaro resorted to smears directed at Panorama's reporter Daniel Foggo.

The Met, as Matthew Scott writes, still seems to believe it has done little wrong.  They will not apologise for investigating "serious allegations of non-recent abuse", as though anyone is asking them to.  If anyone is asking for apologies rather than lessons to be learned, it's for the way Operation Midland went about its investigation, or arguably, didn't.  Hogan-Howe's attempt to regain the initiative, saying that perhaps the police should not automatically believe witness testimony given to them of abuse completely missed the point: everyone wants allegations of sexual abuse to be investigated, and properly.  Victims must have confidence they will be believed.  Public trust can also be damaged however when someone's testimony is declared to be true before it has even began to be investigated, not least when that testimony it subsequently becomes clear was, as even Exaro News's editor said, "very hard to believe".  As with so much else, a balance has to be struck: until recently it was often felt police forces failed to take sexual offences as seriously as other crimes.  The public interest is not served by a tilt too far in the other direction, where the reputation of individuals can be destroyed in a moment, never to recover, thanks to leaks to the media.

More than anything, the police and Nick have done a disservice to other victims of abuse, especially those who have been the victims of people in positions of authority.  Nick himself may not be a liar or a fantasist so much as so severely damaged by what he went through as child that he no longer knows the truth of what happened to him.  We don't know how he was treated for the problems arising from his abuse, or by whom.  The Met cannot say the same.

Nor though is it just the Met or Nick.  The media, Exaro especially, has played a dangerous game, having no real care for those entrusting them with so much, thinking only of the remuneration available, or possible political advantage.  Politicians played a similar role.  So too we have seen how social media has become an echo chamber rather than an arena for debate, where dissenting views are ignored and opinions reinforced rather than challenged.  We're left depending on the Goddard inquiry for the answers, which from the preliminaries looks as though it might turn into a 5-year long saga of successive witnesses detailing accounts of abuse.  The omens could hardly be worse.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016 

On Brussels.

One of the more remarkable things about failed suicide bombers is that after their explosives have failed to blow, they often turn out to be more than willing to talk, boast and/or plea for the mercy they would deny their victims than keep shtum, as though they've almost been born again.  The Donald's immediate response to today's outrages in Brussels has been to once again make clear how he would "do a lot more than waterboarding".  The Donald can't of course be expected to know that after his arrest last week, Salah Abdesalam freely told Belgian police that he had been planning further attacks.  Abdesalam could have been talking nonsense, but the Belgian foreign minister commented saying he feared he was telling the truth, such were the weapons found and a further network uncovered in the course of tracking down the one remaining Paris attacker still on the run.

Not that today's suicide bombings are necessarily the work of the wider cell, but the assumption obviously has to be that they are.  Whether they brought the attacks forward to the first possible opportunity or the plan was for today anyway, the immediate question is whether there are still further cell members at large, something that can hardly be ruled out considering the clearly extended networks that sheltered first Abdelhamid Abaaoud and until Friday Abdesalam.  Then and only then will attention turn to whether those responsible could have been stopped from carrying out today's carnage, such were the signs an attack was imminent.

At the moment more than a few things about the attacks fail to completely add up.  The bombers at Zaventem airport took at least one AK-47 with them, only it would seem not to use it; nor is it certain at the moment if both explosions were the work of the two men pictured, or of explosives hidden in suitcases, after one such device was found and defused later.  Was the other man seen in the CCTV picture meant to be a further bomber, or to shoot down those fleeing from the explosions?  Either way, he either seems to have gotten cold feet at the last minute, much like Abdesalam, or his explosives failed to go off.  Should we read anything into the claim of responsibility from Islamic State saying that shooting had also taken place at the airport, when there are no eyewitness reports or videos to suggest there was?  Was IS aware of the plan, as was, in detail, or is it just typical jihadi hyperbole, confusion based on misreading of news reports?

Otherwise, as terrible as this sounds, this was an almost standard attack of the kind we were meant to fear before the threat was thought to have shifted to that posed by "lone wolves".  The attackers were suicide bombers, and unlike in Paris their explosives both worked and were extremely powerful; they co-ordinated their attacks, striking one target quickly after the last; the target was public transportation; and just to add further symbolism, the attack on the train at the metro station in Maelbeek happened within eyesight of the EU commission HQ.  The train bombing was especially brutal as explosions in tight, confined spaces always are and as can be seen from the photograph from Twitter that has been circulating, censored on news sites; shredded flesh, and little else left.  Again, terrible as this sounds, today's attack has been less affecting for those of us at a distance than the Paris attacks because they seem familiar, less threatening because they didn't involve the attackers hitting one area with assault weaponry, or taking over a building where a substantial number of those stopped from leaving were killed.

How far the attacks can be truly linked to Islamic State also remains unclear.  Paris was without doubt an IS authored operation; whether this was looks far more uncertain, not least because Abdesalam would have been expected to die in those attacks.  Another immediate concern is whether the bomb maker is one and the same or is still alive, as this time their work certainly didn't partially fail.  Unless the explosives were provided from another source, then the person who concocted them will have had to be trained somewhere, and again you'd assume straight off that was either in Syria or Iraq.  Were those responsible returnees from Syria, again as you'd assume based on Paris, or part of the larger network linked to both attacks?

Why it is that Brussels has given refuge to so many jihadists is also an open question.  Jason Burke gives a number of answers, while others suggest a possible link to Belgium itself being a divided, weak state.  Is it the very cosmopolitan nature of Brussels that has helped such people to hide themselves, or is it much the same problems elsewhere that have been exacerbated by the sheer number of extremists that have came from and then in turn been attracted to Molenbeek and other Brussels suburbs?

As is apparent, tonight there are far more questions than answers.  As the War Nerd has intimated, you do dread the immediate response to such attacks, the search for scapegoats, the confirmation bias on display from so many, the very lack of response from some.  Rage as he says is the most honest place to start, but also today there has been more a weariness, a feeling that something like this was going to happen sooner rather than later in Brussels, such has been the activity there the last few months.  There doesn't seem the same level of fear and uncertainty as after Paris, because the situation isn't as comparable.  Whether that is a false reassurance or not, it makes clear IS has taken over from al-Qaida as the main inspiration/instigator behind those prepared to attack the West.  It also though further makes clear that intelligence is key when it comes to preventing these more conventional plots, something that the Brussels police and intelligence agencies have not managed to cultivate.  The hope has to be that this gives us the edge against those who wish to do us harm.  Again, whether this is a similarly clutched at straw we can but wait and see.

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Monday, March 21, 2016 

A sight for sore eyes (and minds).

Is there a finer sight for sore eyes than the Conservative party in full on civil war mode?  Forget Jodorowosky's Holy Mountain, witnessing the Tories scratching away at retinas, tearing out throats, calling each other idiots and screaming about sanctimony, especially after months of Labour's massively inferior equivalent has been like waking up from a coma, wiping away the built up sleep and seeing the world anew.  It's not just that seeing the party of government fall apart within the space of a couple of days, and over the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith of all people has been so wickedly delicious, it's that it's also demolished media constructs regarded as unassailable fact until they suddenly crumbled into dust.  Like how George Osborne is a tactical genius when it's been apparent for a very long time that he's all politics and no awareness.  And how the Tories will rule in perpetuity, despite their being just as divided as Labour, with only power holding them together.

You can to an extent understand just how discombobulated the likes of Matthew d'Anconservative have been by IDS flouncing out at this stage in proceedings.  If we are to accept IDS's sudden, almost Damascene realisation that he's in a government which is doing over the poorest and most vulnerable in order to keep the upper middle and above in the style to which they have become accustomed, then you have to first presume that IDS was possessed between 2010 and last year.  Who was this man who otherwise looked liked IDS, who as the Graun has it, was one of the most gross incompetents to ever hold the position of work and pensions secretary?  If it was him, he certainly kept his feelings about how the very policies he was instituting were affecting those who would never vote Tory but need protecting regardless.  Did he not read his own party's manifesto, which was explicit on how if returned to government they would raise the 40p tax threshold, increase the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million and carry on with corporation tax cuts while slashing £12bn from the welfare budget?  Sure, perhaps he like the rest of us didn't think his party would win a majority and so introduce those policies, but then again, was he still under possession when he cheered Osborne's living wage as those cuts were announced in last year's budget?  In his Marr interview IDS insisted he had considered going last year over very similar concerns then, only to back down.

IDS claimed to be motivated only by social justice, ensuring everyone gets a fair start in life.  You can quibble about whether IDS's chosen motives would in practice achieve this, but let's take him at his word.  The fact is that universal credit has been and is a disaster, made worse without doubt by how Osborne has repeatedly raided it, and yet it's IDS's baby, his policy.  You can't achieve the goals you want to if the system itself is a failure, as UC is.  Rather than take seriously the many criticisms made, IDS has acted with spite throughout, as he has when challenged on workfare, the bedroom tax, and all the rest.  To judge by the defence given by other ministers in the DWP, with the exception of the laughable Ros Altmann, independent pensions "expert" turned gatekeeper, he ran a tight team.  It only reinforces the belief that IDS had managed to convince both himself and his underlings that he was achieving great things while doing the exact opposite.

Who then was the one dragging his work down, who was undermining everything he thought he was working towards?  George Osborne, aided by Cameron at every step.  Last week's budget, with Cameron letting Osborne make the academies announcement, the sexing up of the OBR's remarks on the EU, the giveaways to the middle classes and above meant to keep them sweet, all was designed to speed Osborne on to the leadership.  IDS it's true doesn't have any leadership ambitions himself, but few assassins are after the top job themselves.  When you then have David Davis repeating the lines established by IDS, that this isn't a government dedicated to fairness, a claim echoed by right-wingers and overwhelmingly pro-Brexit MPs who two weeks ago delighted in supporting the changes to ESA, then you'd have to be a fool to see there isn't something else going on.

And yet many journalists spent yesterday telling the world just how convinced they were by IDS claiming this was purely about his no longer being able to put up with balancing the books on the backs of the poorest.  The Graun, after nailing IDS in a likely hastily written Friday night leader today pompously intones that "impugning motives is no way of dealing with arguments".  While it has obviously been novel to a hear a resigned cabinet minister contradict the Tory spin on how they are one nation party devoted to providing security to all regardless of background, you get the impression that hacks themselves had fallen into believing the lie.  Or if they hadn't personally, they imagine the public have.  That those who did vote for the Tories might have done so not because they were promising to provide security for all at the same time as walloping scroungers, but because they were promising to wallop scroungers doesn't seem to have registered.

Little wonder Cameron apparently called IDS a "shit" in their tete-a-tete on Friday.  He and Osborne came up with this winning formula, soaking those most likely to vote while doing little to nothing to help those who don't, and here's this incompetent attacking them for doing what they said they would!  When you have right-wingers attacking social liberals for being too economically right-wing, something is up.  That IDS and others lining up behind him are right on this occasion, pointing out Osborne has become a liability who shouldn't be getting the help he is doesn't make them right on anything else.  Their aim is to damage Osborne fatally, while also undermining Cameron on the EU vote by making clear his authority is waning.  Staying in doesn't look as secure an option when the man making the argument is no longer looking as solid himself.

Osborne certainly has come out of this looking once again the knave.  From the moment it was briefed in advance that cuts to PIP would be made in order to fund giveaways to the well-off it was apparent how this would turn out.  Not even Labour in its current state could fail to score presented with such an open goal.  What possibly made the Treasury think, having u-turned previously on tax credits, that the same wouldn't end up being the case when they were specifically targeting the disabled?  This wasn't a budget where it took a day or two to unravel; it was already an obvious dog as he sat down having delivered it.  Nor having spent the first part of his speech blaming foreigners and Labour for what he was having to announce can he do so without being laughed at.  The mess he's in is down to the fiscal charter, meant to trap Labour but now traps him, and the welfare cap, for which ditto.  He can't cut tax credits, so going after the disabled was the only other option that would have brought in the needed money to get his surplus.

He did nonetheless make the right choice in deciding not to go to the Commons to answer the urgent question on the unravelling of the budget.  He looks a coward, but considering he only has one apparent mode of communication, which is smarm, smirk and wind up, sending David Gauke was the likely better option.  Cameron then came along and did his best to calm everyone down, which has likely temporarily put a lid on things.  Make no mistake though: the past couple of days are only the first rumblings of what we can expect to transpire as the referendum approaches, and once Cameron announces the date for his stepping down.  There is no obvious successor, let alone an idea of what a post-austerity Conservative party will be for.  Nothing is written, nothing is set in stone, all is still to play for.  Plus, how glorious it is to be reminded of the enjoyment there is to be had when a party other than your own spontaneously combusts.

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Saturday, March 19, 2016 

Never underestimate the cowardice of a quiet man.

Let's give Iain Duncan Smith the benefit of the doubtPerhaps he really did regard the demands of the Treasury to cut PIP to be a compromise too far.  Perhaps he really was angered by how a policy he signed up to only reluctantly was "junked" within a couple of days after a number of influential backbenchers spoke against it.  Perhaps he had been wrestling with his conscience over how the "fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political" would affect the disabled.  And it is true that he and George Osborne have long disliked each other, the DWP and Treasury clashing repeatedly over Osborne demanding cuts to welfare, universal credit especially.

Yeah, we could do that.  Or we could drop the idea this has practically anything to do with PIP and instead focus on how this has everything to do with the EU referendum and internal Tory party politics, couldn't we?  God, how instantly a ministerial resignation, no matter how absurd excites the political class.  How even the most milquetoast of criticisms of what everyone knows is about politics and nothing whatsoever to do with economics is toasted as somehow being a rapier like stab into the heart of the government.

Here's IDS's heavily caveated, unutterably weak, and yet still "blistering" attack on the government's continued raison d'etre in full:

I am unable to watch passively while certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.

Even at his most potentially damaging moment, Quiet Man is a coward. Certain policies?  That I believe are more and more perceived?  Distinctly?  Tell us what you think Iain!  Don't hold back!

Of course, IDS flouncing out with a slap at Osborne is damaging to the government, without doubt.  Despite IDS's refusal to call a spade a spade, his criticism of Osborne acting out of political rather than economic motives gives opponents a line and will further make ministers squirm when questioned.  More than anything though, this is a pre-emptive strike from the Tory right at Osborne for believing he can waltz into the top job.  If IDS had really wanted to damage Cameron, rather than just the chancellor, he could have walked out either before the budget or in the immediate aftermath, not once the government had already made clear it was going to think again.  The backtracking is what gave him the opportunity to resign, rather than the policy itself being the last straw.

Wrong as it is to view the potential Osborne rise to the Tory leadership as analogous to Brown's taking over from Blair, the comparison is still valid to an extent.  Except for Osborne's followers, the chancellor is not universally liked, let alone loved: sure, they'll cheer him when he does something they do applaud, as IDS did when Osborne announced the "living wage"; when he pulls out a dud, as happened this week, those same faces are suddenly nowhere to be found.  No one is really looking forward to Cameron going, for the reason that all of the candidates are divisive in one way or the other.  Osborne is too socially liberal, not to forget punchable; Boris is Boris; May is colder than liquid nitrogen, etc.

Then we have the EU vote, and how it's apparent there will be a reckoning against those in the cabinet who've decided to support leave.  It's handy for Cameron that the majority of them are either dunces or just plain useless at their jobs: Chris Grayling is a complete liability, Michael Gove is a traitor harbouring leadership ambitions, Priti Patel is a joke, John Whittingdale is little more than a Thatcherite totem, and then we have IDS.  As the Graun's acerbic and accurate leader has it, IDS has managed to be both hopeless and destructive as work and pensions secretary.  More than anything, the only reason he wasn't moved is thanks to how IDS has been a good shield for everything that's both gone "right" and wrong in his department, allowing Cameron to somewhat be above the fray of workfare, food banks, the bedroom tax and all the rest.  He was unsackable because of how crap he was.

Resigning now allows IDS to portray himself as still having a heart, gives him the opportunity to dedicate himself to the leave campaign, and means he avoids getting the inevitable sack that was coming either after the referendum or Osborne becoming leader.  The damage is also far slighter to the government than it initially looks.  Yes, it looks bad that a senior cabinet minister has accused the chancellor of balancing the books on the backs of the disabled for political reasons, but the majority paying attention will conclude this wasn't primarily about that for the reason that it wasn't.  Cameron has also struck the right tone in his response: IDS's resignation is "puzzling", and raises more questions than it answers.

What it does highlight is the only real thing holding the Tories together, so fractured has the party become by Europe and between its left and right, is power.  We saw this irregularly during the coalition years: the EU vote itself is a product of it.  The first sign of trouble and the backbenchers become restless.  Getting the majority and seeing Labour in such dire straits brought a wave of euphoria that is only now descending into a comedown, thanks to the referendum and the spectre of Cameron's departure.  If, and this a huge if, Labour can at least keep its own infighting to a minimum, then the cracks in the Tories are again becoming visible.  It won't take much for them to turn into chasms.

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That all purpose Labour and the left are a bunch of antisemites thinkpiece in full.

I write more in sorrow than angerCan it be that, my party, my politics, has become so infested with antisemites and antisemitism?

Yes.  Yes it can.  All the evidence is sadly there.  This is not just a case of two internet bad apples.  This is not just a case of a minority of students always having been raving numpties, and my now taking it out on them for having been one myself.

Of course I agree that anti-Zionism does not automatically amount to antisemitism.  Accusations of antisemitism were thrown around too liberally in the past in an attempt to stifle criticism of Israel.  But anti-Zionism has without doubt become a cover for overt antisemitism, of comments on big noses, shadowy conspiracies and control of the media.  The fact that one of Benjamin Netanyahu's key demands from the Palestinians is that they recognise Israel as the Jewish state, not just the homeland of the Jews is irrelevant.

This is all the fault of Corbyn.  Corbyn is not an antisemite himself, even though he describes Hamas as friends, went to meetings organised by Holocaust deniers, and has taken tea with those who have pushed the blood libel.  That Corbyn denies he knew about these things, or that they were disputed at the time, or that he was attempting to reach out to help bring peace simply isn't good enough.

Corbyn in turn has attracted those on the extreme left, those who simply hate Israel and Jews because they believe in white privilege, because they have ties with Islamists, or because they are just really nasty people, whatever it is they claim.

So yes, Labour (and the left) really does have a problem with Jews, as I think I and the other hundred commentators pushing this line have established.  Why oh why do they get so upset about Israel killing civilians, protesting as soon as so many as a dozen women and children are blown apart by weaponry supplied by Britain, while absolutely no one cares when the Russians massacre hundreds of thousands in Syria?

The Labour leadership might not care about this, but the Jewish community does, and so do all us journalists, ex-MPs, and people on the right of the party, as it's a really easy and effective way to get at Corbyn and pals.  We are in danger of becoming the true nasty party unless something is done about the racists in our midst.  Not that I'll give the party any credit if it does do more than just expel members with appalling views, but it's the thought that counts, right?

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Friday, March 18, 2016 

Four four claps.

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Thursday, March 17, 2016 

Your idols speak so much of the abyss...

Usually it's a mistake to bring morality into politics.  We're all as The Thick of It had it, in the same plague pit.  None of us have clean hands.  We all also have different notions of morality; take the weirdo that runs The Entertainer chain of toy shops.  He refuses to stock anything related to Harry Potter due to his Christianity, despite how the entire series is about the battle between good and evil.  Each to their own.  So long as politicians don't try to impose their own warped version of morality on everyone else, something that continues to be a problem in Northern Ireland if not so much for us in the rUK, then we can just about live and let live.

Normally then, John McDonnell describing the cuts to personal independence payments as "morally reprehensible" wouldn't be a good idea, especially when McDonnell has said things in that past that plenty of others would regard as similarly reprehensible.  As Robert Peston for one noted however, the £1.2bn set to be cut from PIP makes up for the loss in revenue from reducing capital gains tax and raising the 40p income tax threshold.  George Osborne has decided that the disabled, those recognised as needing help with going to the toilet and getting dressed should loss some of their benefits so the most well off get a tax cut.  Nor is it just the disabled.  While the spare room subsidy was brought in some time ago, the claimed rationale was to incentivise those affected to downsize.  A few years on, and now those in the private sector lucky enough to have a spare room to let out on sites like Airbnb are to get a tax break.  The word obscene comes to mind.

When Seema Malhotra was asked on Newsnight if she would go along with McDonnell's description, she demurred.  A bit too much of a low blow, especially when governments at the best of times involve themselves in morally dubious acts.  Malhotra would like to imagine she still might one day be at the Treasury herself, faced with making difficult decisions that will affect the poor and disabled.  Sajid Javid for his part denied furiously that he would involve himself in something as despicable as taking money from the disabled, as the money being spent overall is going up.  Which as the IFS today stated is true, with spending having increased four-fold over the past 20 years.  That doesn't make much odds to those set to lose on average £3,500 a year, nor will it those in the Work group part of ESA, down by up to £30 a week thanks to the recent vote.

Our views on who is and who isn't deserving are equally idiosyncratic.  The chancellor who complained of hard-working folk getting up early in the morning, seeing their neighbours' curtains drawn, returning home late in the evening to the same scene has no problem with handing out £1,000 in cash to those able to save £4,000 a year.  It doesn't matter whether the money put in is down to graft or given by a wealthy parent, it will get the same reward.  The IFS says this could prove extraordinarily costly, and once these sweeteners are in place the shrieks if you abolish them can prove deafening.  The obvious point is if the government has grands to splash about and growth is forecast to be tepid at best, why not give the money instead to those who will spend it rather than save it, those set to lose rather than gain from the budget?  We have an aversion to handouts, except when they go to us and those like us.  We fret about moral hazard, encouraging unethical or irresponsible behaviour when we have institutions that are too big to fail, and yet the absurdities of rewarding some to motivate them and penalising others to do the same goes on.

Not that the mixed response to the budget or such criticisms will bother George Osborne in the slightest.  The Mail applauded the giveaways to "Middle England", Middle England in the Mail's world meaning the top 7% of earners.  That's all that will matter when Osborne's sights are set purely on the prize of the top job.  Tom Clark in the Graun reckons Osborne's otherwise laughable plan for turning a £21bn deficit one year into a £10bn surplus the next is down to how he intends to call an early election once ensconced as Tory leader, with only the fixed terms parliament act standing in his way.  If so, Osborne's slow transformation into Gordon Brown is all but complete.  We can but hope he meets the same fate.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016 

Everything's coming up, George's.

What the Office for Budget Responsibility giveth, the Office for Budget Responsibility taketh away.  Last November the OBR's forecasts gave George Osborne a £27bn windfall, more than enough for him to backtrack (somewhat) on the highly unpopular cuts he had previously announced to tax credits.  Fast forward 4 months, and the OBR has done an dramatic reverse ferret: they've now taken £52bn away from the chancellor, as well as lowering their forecasts across the board, with growth and productivity hit the hardest.

And yet, somehow, despite this significant deterioration in the public finances, one that will see an increase in borrowing between now and 2020/21 of £38bn, Osborne still claims he'll hit his fiscal mandate of reaching a budget surplus by the time of the next election.  This is even more eyebrow raising when the OBR forecasts there will still be a budget deficit of £21bn in 2018/19.  Somehow, in the space of only 12 months, this will turn into a surplus of £10bn.  This is meant to be achieved by further cuts that year, a raid on public sector pensions, bringing forward infrastructure spending that was pencilled in for then to now, and deferring changes to corporation tax.  It won't be.  I can say with near certainty that the cretinous plan for a surplus will be abandoned almost as soon as Osborne moves on, whether to Number 10 or to the backbenches.

For this was a budget that made clear George is now only in it for the short-term.  The usual idea with budgets is you make the unpopular decisions as soon after winning an election as you can, then time the giveaways as the next round of voting approaches.  Osborne instead has produced a giveaway budget only a year into a five year parliament.  Everyone apart from the disabled and poorest are getting soaked.  Another rise in the personal allowance?  Why not?  A significant increase in the 40p income tax threshold, to £45,000?  Sure, go on.  Free money if you're under 40 and you're lucky enough to have a parent that can give you £4,000 a year to save?  The man from HMRC he say yes!  Yet another cut in corporation tax?  Cheers, say all those multinationals who do their utmost not to pay it anyway.  Small business rate threshold to rise by £9,000 just as the power to spend the revenue it brings in is devolved to local authorities?  Fuck knows how councils are going to pay for services, but that's to worry about another day.  A massive cut in the capital gains tax rate to 20% from 28%, excluding properties?  What better way for a chancellor to thank the hedge fund managers and masters of the universe who funded the Tories to a majority?

Except of course there are a couple of votes on the horizon.  First there's the EU referendum, and so any small chance there was of a rise in fuel duty was spiked lest it vex further any Tory backbenchers yet to make up their minds on remaining or leaving.  Far more important to George though is the Tory leadership contest, likely to happen fairly swiftly once the referendum is over, whatever the result.  Today's budget was effectively his swansong: sucking up to every core constituency he believes he needs to, and doing so before it's too late.  Should he still be chancellor for the autumn statement or next year's budget, he'll tinker around the edges a bit, knowing his work proper has been done already.  Hence why Cameron handed over to him the announcement that schools still under local authority control will be forced to become academies, backed up by the rabbit of the sugar tax on soft drinks, helping to fund an additional hour of the school day and more sports.

Ah yes, the sugar tax.  Not a tax on sugary food all told, just sugary drinks.  Those people you know who stick four sugars in their tea, they'll be fine, but anyone who prefers cold drinks or just the occasional burst of sugar is about to get their wallet felt.  It's impossible not to see this as a judgement tax, however many doctors claim that it'll massively reduce obesity; who are always pouring energy drinks and cans of Coke down their throats?  Those people, and they're costing us a bomb.  The estimate that it will raise £520m, a more than considerable sum, gives the lie to the idea drinks companies will change their formulations or that people will switch to sugar free brands as a result.  How else would it directly fund that extra school hour?  Anti-nanny state Tories be damned, Osborne couldn't let childhood obesity be on his conscience.  Child poverty, taking money from disabled people who need help to go to the toilet or dress themselves, they don't trouble him anywhere near as much.

All this was designed to mask how once again Osborne has failed by the standards he's set himself, as Jeremy Corbyn in his fairly strong response to the budget outlined.  That supposed welfare trap he set for Labour?  Osborne is set to wander into it every year.  Debt coming down as a proportion of GDP?  Nope, that's not happening either.  Keeping to the fiscal mandate?  In theory yes; in practice, knowing full well as he does that all these freebies are not going to be made up by further cracking down on tax avoidance and other stealthy tax grabs, there isn't a cat in hell's chance of a surplus come 2019/20.  All this, while at the same time still going on with the cuts to frontline spending, not to forget borrowing more, the jibe thrown at Labour every time they say they would borrow to invest as bond yields are historically low.  Osborne is the epitome of a chancer, making it up as he goes along.  He and Boris are remarkably alike in the regard, only Boris at least can tell a joke.

Osborne's hope seems to be this: he's perfectly aware that his surplus will turn out to be fictional, and yet he also knows that Labour is hardly going to make a song and dance about it.  His real difficulty is going to be in paying for all the lucre he's thrown around today, only that will be the responsibility of the poor sod who takes over from him.  Unlike with Gordon Brown, his belief is that none of it will stick to him, and why would it?  He's breached every target he's put down, and no one's called him on it.  Sure, it's going to look really bad if his successor has to raise taxes just before an election, but who else are you going to vote for?  Labour, under the stewardship of Corbo 'n' McDonnell?  The right-wing press might tear him a new one for it, but again, where else are they going to go?  To quote Joylon Maugham, Osborne is "giving the most to those who need it least and the least to those who need it most", which is exactly what he came into politics to do.  Everything's coming up, George's.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2016 

Because it might as well be.

In a move unprecedented since the paper changed its name from the Cockermouth Guardian, the Grauniad has announced it is about to undergo a new transformation.

"We've decided to rename the paper The Millennial", editor in chief Katharine Viner announced to a packed press conference of three interns and a dachshund.  "This is not a decision we have come to lightly, obviously, and there has been some opposition, mainly from the oldsters.  The fact is however that practically all our journalism is now aimed at people who imagine themselves more intelligent than they actually are, and who are also more pretentious and pompous than they admit to being, which describes millennials almost perfectly.  When we aren't pumping out articles on deep frying sage leaves and how terribly dull breakfast was before shakshuka entered our national vocabulary, we find ourselves repeating over and over again how terrible it is to be young, while using the label millennial as much as we can.  Journalists come into this building and instinctively ask each other, "have you millennialled your millennial millenialism yet, my good millennial millennial?"  That was when I knew this change had to be made.

"Of course, we're also hoping that renaming the paper The Millennial might actually prompt some people of the extraordinarily vague age group to buy the paper.  Some critics have suggested that perhaps if we hadn't decided to follow the trail blazed by Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and all those other purveyors of lowest common denominator clickbait then maybe our sales wouldn't have fallen through the floor, and that millennials are mainly entitled, spoilt bastards who expect everything to be free.  To which I can only say here are 22 reasons why it's great to be a millennial, and once you've read that you can find out why Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is anxious.  Spoiler: she's afraid she's going to get seagulled."


Amazon is selling age-restricted folding knives without checking they are safely delivered to adults, a Millennial investigation has shockingly discovered.

"This is shocking", said a Tory MP.  "It is time to bring the knife sales law up to date, as clearly knives are not every day kitchen utensils, or available from practically anywhere, nor can you relatively easily sharpen say a toothbrush or piece of plastic until it's a potentially deadly weapon.  I must praise the Millennial for this by no means tabloid expose."

In other news:
In this week's why the left are the real bigots: How this expelled antisemitic Labour party member is representative of everyone on the left
I agree, says Owen Jones
Every school to be freed from the dead hand of local authority control, transferred to the freedom of control from Whitehall
Every school to be freed from dead hand of Whitehall control, transferred to the freedom of control from the private sector
Every school to be closed - "No longer economically viable, each pupil to be given an iPad instead", says head of EduCORP
How we called every single aspect of the Russian intervention in Syria wrong, Western analysts in alternate universe admit

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Monday, March 14, 2016 

In praise of not doing stupid shit.

"Imagine," said Stewart Lee, in the first episode of his new series, in his style of not meaning it while somewhat meaning it while knowing that his audience will agree with him, "James Corden watching me.  It'd be like a dog listening to classical music."

We don't however have to imagine something highly similar.  Boris Johnson this morning accused President Obama of hypocrisy for sticking his oar in over the EU referendum vote.  Denis Healey once said that being attacked by Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep, a decent put down turned into the complete destruction of a lesser foe, thanks to how awful politicians generally are at verbally pummelling their opponents into submission.  Boris, who likes to think of himself as a classical sophisticate when not acting the upper class twit, is in every way far more like good ol' Bill Clinton.  A charismatic dilettante who has repeatedly cheated on his wife, with a far higher opinion of himself than has ever been warranted, continually getting away with it thanks to how he's, well, Boris.  Boris Johnson laying into Barack Obama is like watching a toddler trying to knock over Geoff Capes.  It's like watching Nick Grimshaw and Rita Ora sit in judgement of other people.  It's like Chris Evans trying his damnedest to be Jeremy Clarkson.  It's like spending however much it is for a ticket to go and see Adele when you could stay at home and listen to next door's cat fight the tom from down the road for free.

It's ignorant, pathetic and stupid is what I'm getting at.  Obama has not been, the consensus seem to be, the greatest of presidents.  Especially for one who came to office promising so much, only to achieve relatively little.  He has still without a shadow of doubt been the best US president of my lifetime thus far, and barring something astonishing happening, I would say is odds on to be the best US president of my lifetime full stop.

This much is apparent just from reading the superb extended interview/feature in the Atlantic, somewhat hopefully titled the Obama Doctrine.  Each president must have a foreign policy doctrine.  Dubya's was to act pre-emptively against threats, both perceived and real.  It didn't go well.  Obama's, by contrast, so much as he has one, is "to not do stupid shit".  This not doing stupid shit itself has not always worked out.  Intervening in Libya might not have been stupid, if say there had been a plan for handling the aftermath.  Sadly, there was no plan for handling the aftermath.  Likewise, the going along with the Saudi/Qatari plan for Syria, arming and funding jihadists, and from almost the outset demanding that Assad must go has been stupid.  It has though been vastly preferable to the alternative, active US intervention in Syria, as demanded and urged by most of Obama's advisers and appointees.

"Not doing stupid shit" is in fact Obama playing down his impact on foreign policy, as is the notion that his time in office has signalled something of a retreat from the world.  Obama has it's true not sent US troops to other countries in anything like the numbers that Bush did.  He has though given the go ahead to a "surge" in Afghanistan; intervened again in Iraq; intervened in Syria, if only against Islamic State; intervened in Libya; and also has authorised an unknown number of drone strikes in countries from Somalia to Pakistan.  This is without considering the backing given by the US to other states to carry out their wars, like in Ukraine and to the Saudis in Yemen.  Oh, and he killed Osama bin Laden.

Obama sums it up best himself:

“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”

Almost needless to say, most of Obama's aides and his secretaries of state, including John Kerry and a certain Hillary Clinton do follow this playbook.  Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz will without doubt follow it. Trump you can't be certain of, just as you can't be certain of anything he says, but you'd wager he'll be far more of a traditionalist than he claims he would be currently.  Clinton gets it the neck repeatedly, and deservedly, and makes clear how she would operate, saying in reference to Obama's withdrawn red line on Syria that "If you say you’re going to strike, you have to strike. There’s no choice."  Hillary was gung-ho for the Libya intervention to the point where Joe Biden is reported to have said "Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir."

Most of the reaction over here to the piece was focused on Obama's criticism of David Cameron over Libya, or as Obama apparently refers to the Libyan intervention, a "shit show".  Cameron, according to Obama, stopped paying attention, "distracted by a range of other things.”  Which is in truth a fair summary of the intervention as a whole: we went in, Gaddafi got sodomised with a knife, Dave flew to Benghazi to be garlanded by the locals, and once that was over it was time to move on.  No messing around Iraq style with trying to create a new state out of the one we destroyed; we'd just leave the Libyans to it.  What we thought we knew turned out to be wrong, and soon liberated Benghazi became a city fit to be filmed as a hellhole of anti-Americanism by Michael Bay.  A couple of MPs, including Andrew Mitchell, claimed this was all terribly unfair without really putting their all into it, for the reason that it's true.  France and ourselves were the ones who wanted the intervention for reasons known only to Sarkozy and Cameron, and Obama went along with it in the belief that this time maybe his allies would pull their weight as well as anything for a quiet life.  Instead the Americans again had to do all the heavy lifting, just as they are doing in Syria while Cameron makes a song and dance in the Commons about our magnificent Brimstone missiles that so far haven't killed any Islamic State fighters.  No wonder Obama had to make clear to Dave that 2% spending on defence was truly non-negotiable.

Obama does of course want to portray the decisions he has made in the best possible light.  It's that he does so convincingly, or Jeffrey Goldberg is skilful enough in his write-up to present it that way.  He feels constrained by the pressure put him on by the foreign policy establishment, the foreign and military funded thinktanks, the "playbookers", the Samantha Power "responsibility to protect" agitators.  He would clearly have liked to have dumped Saudi Arabia as an ally given the chance, Pakistan probably too.  You can argue that a truly radical president would have done these things, would have refused to listen to people that he believed were advising him to do "stupid shit".  You can also look back through recent American history and see that by most measures Obama's foreign policy has been relatively sane, based mostly on correcting the mistakes of his predecessors.

Whoever wins the election in November (unless there is a Sanders miracle) will almost certainly have a doctrine that abandons the not doing stupid shit rule.  Difficult as it is to believe Clinton could be worse than Trump on this score, such are the advisers she has always had by her side (Susan Rice, Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter are all long term associates), such was the way her husband used foreign policy repeatedly as a distraction from problems at home.  The rise of Corbyn here has not stopped our once similarly critical of foreign adventures prime minister from following the playbook, while his potential successors, George Osborne especially, are if anything even more minded to act.  Labour itself has a core group of MPs that have never seen a war they didn't want to get involved in, who coincidentally tend to be the most critical of Corbyn and the left.

After 8 years of Bush, Obama was the most blessed relief.  I can't help but feel we're about to plunge into the maelstrom again.

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Friday, March 11, 2016 


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Thursday, March 10, 2016 

The only legislation worse than the Psychoactive Substances Bill is the Misuse of Drugs Act.

Great as it is to see this most unholy of governments defeated on anything, it does rather sum up the priorities of the few rebellious Tories that they chose to do so on the liberalising of Sunday trading laws.  I happen to be one of those stick in the muds whom think six hours opening for big stores on a Sunday is plenty long enough, if only down to how it's a good thing that one day a week is slightly different to all the rest.  That said, considering most stores would have only opened for another couple of hours anyway, the idea it was going to be make any humongous difference, creating squillions of jobs or kept Sundays "special" is utterly specious.  Much like the SNP reasoning for opposing it, in fact.

It's not as though there's been a lack of execrable legislation to oppose of late.  The £30 cut to the Work Related Activity Group of Employment and Support Allowance was voted through just this week.  Way out on in a field all of its own is still, without a shadow of a doubt, the Psychoactive Substances Act, passed in late January.  This is quite possibly the worst single piece of law making in a generation.  Think the Dangerous Dogs Act, the "repetitive beats" part of the Criminal Justice Act of 94, the indeterminate sentences part of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the indefinite detention without charge for foreign nationals section of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 are bad?  None have anything on an act quite as scientifically illiterate and downright as idiotic as the PSA is.

The PSA is meant to deal with the problems posed by "legal highs".  Rather than criminalise each new chemical as it hits the market, the bill outlaws any substance that has a "psychoactive effect", except for all the drugs the bill later declares are exempt, i.e. caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, etc.  It does in a way make a certain amount of sense: no one can know the potential risks to health posed by these new, often slightly altered compounds of the drugs we all know and love, as they certainly aren't being subjected to double blind trials and peer review.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that Spice/Black Mamba and all the other assorted variants are more harmful with wildly worse side effects than vanilla cannabis, for instance.  Which again makes sense: if you're creating a new drug purely for "recreational" use, rather than as MDMA/LSD and other drugs were discovered in the course of research for new medicines, why wouldn't you try your darnedest to make it both more powerful and more addictive than what's already available?

Except, if the ultimate goal is to reduce harm and safeguard the public, the obvious follow on is to accept people are always going to want to enjoy themselves, a certain percentage are always going to want to get high, and almost everyone is going to experiment at some point.  Apart from the relatively few heads from places like Erowid who want to sample every new chemical that emerges, the vast majority are going to be perfectly happy with passing round a spliff of a weekend or taking MDMA when going out clubbing.  We know because of how long those drugs have been around, because of the studies that have been done on casual and long-term users, and also to an extent through common sense that while there is no such thing as a safe drug, the harms and risks associated with a whole host of currently controlled substances are no greater and often far fewer than those posed by either alcohol or tobacco.

The only reason legal highs have become so popular is because the alternatives are illegal.  Rather than look at this development, recognise that however good our intentions, prohibition has not worked, cannot work and has in fact been counter-productive, the government and politicians almost as a whole have chosen to double down.  Instead of accepting this point has been reached because the policy is a bad one, the decision has been made to make things even worse.  The only result, as witnessed in Ireland, is that the head shops that have sprang up to sell these highs will close and the trade will switch to an even greater extent to the internet and the black market.  It will not disappear.  Sure, some have pointed towards how the PSA does not criminalise personal use, which is a very slight positive, but that only underlines how wrong headed the continued criminalisation of possession for personal use of cannabis, MDMA, LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and khat is.  As was about the only widely reported take from the passage of the bill through parliament, it even bans poppers or amyl nitrate, a substance so benign and so fleeting in effect some would get more of a high off a can of Monster or a high street latte (and would no doubt enjoy it more too).

When a political party does then take the time and effort to plan out what decriminalising and establishing a controlled market for cannabis would look like, it's rather dispiriting to see what little response there was attacking the messengers.  Yes, the Liberal Democrats are a bunch of traitors Abi Wilkinson, perhaps even akin to a leery divorced dad that tries to bed one of your older schoolmates after everyone's become a little worse for wear at a party round at his place, but how about considering the content just this once, eh?  It's by no means perfect, it seems naive to say the least to expect that home growing wouldn't expand even further, and some will immediately blanch at how patrician, state-controlled and highly regulated the enterprise would be, with only three relatively low strengths available, and yet it provides an outline that can be adapted and worked on.  The whole framework is evidence based, worked on by recognised experts, and they're making themselves available to any political party, not just the Lib Dems.  If Labour had any sense it would steal the policy and the panel for itself.

Only they won't, as we're no nearer reaching the point where evidence trumps ignorance, prejudice, hypocrisy and claims to be protecting the public while doing the exact opposite.  The PSA and its procession through parliament with no real problems, despite the effect it will have on currently legitimate businesses demonstrates that.  Failing to extend Sunday trading won't create jobs or boost the economy, but what about those likely to be made unemployed thanks to the utter stupidity of the PSA?  How many more jobs could be created, how much could the economy gain, and how much tax could be brought in just by legalising and regulating cannabis?  In the end you suspect that will be what it comes down to, not the waste of time and money, not to forget life of prosecuting and jailing users and those who deal only in cannabis.  Rather it will be the amount the exchequer loses by refusing to make policy in the most sensible, decent and least harmful way.

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