Friday, 27 November 2009

Song of the day

Well not quite (one wasn't enough), but with Beck, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannan involved it is floppy-haired beat and melody heaven and I couldn't wait.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Howard admits gullibility is endemic in the Conservative party

A rather fascinating interview with the perennially shifty Michael Howard.

Sometimes I just don't understand what kind of political brain this man has - does he really think that a bumbling admission of credulousness is the way to gain respect?

But let's not forget this wasn't an isolated incident - Howard has plenty of form (from his 'semantic prestidigitation' and that interview with Paxman) and hardly a week goes by when the Conservatives are cheering the wrong side (whether it is Labour's abolition of the 10p tax band or the sacking of Professor Nutt).

Don't mistake me, some of their members are highly capable, but in their headlong rush to win power they consistently subordinate good sense for common sense and the desire to be seen as popular. And for all Cameron's talk of being a decentralising party their lack of considered policy detail belies a focus on personality and belief in 'strong leadership'.

This is backed up by increasing amounts of polling evidence showing their one true quality is that they aren't Labour.

The dark clouds continue to build on the horizon the Conservatives lack of proposed solutions to the major challenges to be faced in upcoming years fills everyone with dread - so it's no wonder that the possibility of a hung parliament is again coming under closer scrutiny.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Select Committee Watch - Electoral Reform

Even if you only watch the first three minutes of this you'll be far more impressed than the majority of anything you can see in either chamber.

Now I don't agree with John Major on many issues, and I was definitely no fan of the regime he ran for seven years (yeah, count 'em and try to forget it), but he is one of only two or three people who can speak with on-the-job experience and he has clearly also gained a fresh perspective since he stood down (not least he's humanised his speaking voice considerably, although he is still a bit too formal, stilted and artificial for my taste, although I'm encouraged by his choice of tie colour for an occasion he would fully aware is recorded).

Nevertheless the campaign for electoral reform has found a significant advocate in him and I agree that all normal people would caution against the "freakish government majorities" the current system throws up - maybe this is a coded warning to and against a potential Cameron government too!

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Story time

I've got to say thanks to Elizabeth for inspiring me to write a short piece of creative prose in her comments.

It's something I do a lot less of these days and while it gives me great satisfaction to write a rounded composition, maybe my critical function has recently been taken over by editing and this is casing a block.

Anyway I looked back at this and thought it is worth reprinting for posterity on my own blog...

A Broken Silver Chain
I wrote to a Mlle Bovary once upon a time.

We quickly became pen-friends, exchanging letters for several years until the intimacy had grown that we had to make the effort to meet.

We arranged to meet at Biarritz when I was on one of my trans-continental journeys.

I stayed in a nondescript hotel, and the night beforehand I could hardly sleep for dreaming. We met before the Atlantic waves under a glacial autumn sky.

She had acquired the use of the holiday home of a family friend nearby where we stayed for the week until our desire for one another was temporarily quelled and it was time to part again - back to our lives in the suburbs.

Our passionate scribblings maintained their steady flow back and forth, always promising to break away from the suffocating ties we were bound in.

But after a year the letters suddenly stopped. Maybe she had grown tired of the waiting. Had I noticed a trace of doubt that the pledges we had made to one another were anything less than complete? Or maybe it was a growing realisation that some flowers bloom just once in their lifetime.

As time allowed my memory to fade I grew accustomed to the routine of daily expectations and I grew more settled and comfortable. But this calm was broken when I received a package one day.

Inside was a delicate silver chain - her ankle bracelet. The clasp was broken and with it was an envelope containing a short newspaper report of a car accident, and the letter she'd had with her that day. 

Monday, 9 November 2009

Tear Down These Walls

Today is the 20th anniversary of the symbolic end of the 'Cold War'.

Everybody remembers the drama which unfolded over that summer:

But fewer people remember the bureaucratic shrug which ultimately brought it down:

The Wall was a constant theme when I was younger and I remember being particularly inspired by Ronald Reagan's declaration of his liberalism overlooking the Brandenburg Gate.

In many regards I've always thought about how walls are the physical manifestation of the barriers society places between people, and in this sense they are the symbol of everything I find objectionable.

I can understand there can be a pressing need for them in certain circumstances, but that only goes to highlight the failings of the leaders who didn't avert the situation in the first place.

Anyway, here's some photos of famous walls from history:

Hadrain's Wall
The Great Wall of China
The Berlin Wall

And here's some which are still tolerated for 'political' reasons:

US-Mexican border:
Melilla (Spain/Morocco border):


Each are symbols of larger social conflicts.

When these conflicts are resolved, these walls will fall and be consigned to history too.


Update: LV publishes an African persepctive on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In contrast Slavoj Zizek notes the 'recent resurrection of anti-Communism' and says this is part of a process of redefinition according to western realistic philosophy, which equates the conditions of state-socialism to those of naziism.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Song of the day

Oblique reference disclaimer: this is somehow appropriate.

Don't expect me to explain how.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

It's the poppies, stupid!

Everywhere you go at this time of year the humble poppy can be seen on people's lapels as ordinary people show their silent solidarity with the couragous soldiers who put their lives on the line in the name of what politicians call our security interests.

The poppy appeal is particularly relevant at the moment because of the current deployment in Afghanistan and the latest news that 5 servicemen were killed in a shocking attack by a gunman who was being trained to keep the peace.

The case comes as a huge blow to British strategy and raises big questions about our presence in the country and our ability to 'win hearts and minds'.

The Chair of the Intelligence and Security committee, Labour MP Dr Kim Howells, has broken ranks with the government to argue in a strongly worded Guardian article that current policy if deeply flawed and is proving counter-productive.

He says that "Seven years of military involvement and civilian aid in Afghanistan have succeeded in subduing al-Qaida's activities in that country, but have not... succeeded in eliminating... the Taliban" and that the insufficient resources being expended could be better deployed on the streets of Britain.

Not only would this better address the consequences of the terror threat, but it would remove one of the main aggravating causes of any attacks.

Such a 'shift in focus' would require renegotiation of international treaties, but it would also switch attention from the symptons of the disease to its' underlying causes.

At its' heart is a difference of opinion over the primary motivational factor behind the violence in global societies.

The western powers blame a fundamental lack of engagement in democratic political processes and the undermining of elections in Afghanistan, criticising the controllers of the illegal drugs trade and accusing them of corruption. They concentrate on an extremist cultural trend unwilling to work within international norms and statutes.

Yet the international consensus on numerous policies are precisely what they see is killing their kinsfolk, denying their economic potential and undermining their cultural heritage!

Lest we forget, the production of opium poppies is the main economic engine in an area which has been ravaged by war for almost as long as anyone can remember: the opium trade provides a large portion of the wealth which feeds the people, and it feeds the ability of local tribes to provide for their people in a wider sense too.

Poppy cultivation continues because the economic alternatives simply don't exist. The afghani economy remains dominated by the agricultural sector, despite only 12% of land being suitable for arable purposes. The industrial and service sectors are massively undeveloped and it is estimated that as many as 40% of the adult male population are without regular employment, while 53% of the population live under the poverty line (according to the CIA world factbook).

These are exactly the conditions for popular revolt against the state forces in any country, let alone one which has been at the ends of the earth since classical antiquity. It simply doesn't matter who those forces are percieved to be.

Equality and democracy are being subverted while military power is used to impose the will of outsiders, so whatever our leaders say they are standing up for it is not that. There are no two ways about it, the ideals of the western powers are failing the majority of Afghanis.

The fact is that the western powers are prosecuting an elitist, authoritarian view of morality and legality. The threat of terrorism is mirrored by our own insecurities. The war against drugs reflects our own inability to grasp the reality that lying to young people about the real risks alienates them, builds a sense of distrust and disillusion with the law and legislators and creates widespread disengagement from society.

As we have seen only this week the government policy on drugs has been under fire from world-leading experts who disagree with the official position that increasingly punitive action is likely to reduce the harm levels caused by criminalised behaviour.

Heroin is clearly a much more serious proposition than Cannabis, and recreational usage should not be encouraged, but there is a global shortage of medicinal morphine products at the same time as fields of poppies are being destroyed in Afghanistan because the illegal trade peddled to addicts is being used to fund Taleban-backed resistance.

In other words the deaths and injuries suffered by ordinary soldiers in the line of duty are the manifest costs of a misplaced moral code and a distorted sense of legislative priority - we would not need to be in Afghanistan if our government didn't think punishment excused their failure to communicate effectively and honestly.

The conflict in Afghanistan is a consequence of our bad laws at home and the waste of lives and money being expended there are harming our ability to resolve the situation through increased education and resourcing for border controls in this country.

The two sides of the issue are intimately intertwined, and Gordon Brown has got it wrong on both counts.

As a student of history he must recognise how the loose confederation of tribal resistance forces were used by the west to defeat the might of the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s by combining into the mujahideen, so he should know that aggression against the Taliban will have the same inevitable result unless he commits wholesale genocide.

So when you see anyone wearing a poppy in rememberance of the massacres of the past, it should also work as a reminder that it doesn't give the wearer immunity from making the same mistakes as were perpetrated then.

What will be the topics of discussion at BBC Question Time in Reading tonight?

David Dimbleby and panel come to Reading tonight for the latest edition of the BBC's flagship political discussion programme.

QT has been the cause of controversy in recent weeks with the first appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin, and some heated debate is always on the cards, so it's worth asking what people think is likely to come up.

Having a look back at the past few days it seems obvious that the deployment of British troops in Afghanistan, the sacking of government Chief Scientific Advisor Prof David Nutt over drug policy and the Conservative backtracking over a promise for a referendum on the EU Lisbon Treaty will be considered.

But what other subjects do you think deserve coverage?

Monday, 2 November 2009

A political purge

So Prof Nutt has been 'asked to resign' and two colleagues (Dr Les King and Marion Walker) inhaled deeply and have walked out in sympathy.

It was inevitable (as I mentioned earlier), and it only highlights the shambles of the policy-making process of this Labour government.

Alan Johnson accused his scientific advisor of stepping outside his area of competence and interfering in the political debate. He is clearly in meltdown phase as this was to effectively admit that he stepped outside of his area of competence and is willing to interfered in the scientific debate.

But before anyone shrugs their shoulders and says this is just tit-for-tat mudslinging, it must be pointed out that while the role of 'Chief Scientific Advisor' required high academic qualifications, the job of Home Secretary simply requires membership of the order of the Brown-nose!

As a matter of fact Johnson stated he lost confidence in Prof Nutt's ability to give impartial advice, which rather belies the evidence that Mr Johnson simply disagreed with the advice.

So, as Alan Smithson notes, this is the end of any ambitions Johnson had of becoming PM. Mark Reckons agrees - and that interview merely provides the icing on the cake.

But I'd go further and say that the episode actually signals the end of Johnson's career as a frontline politician (which appears to be a position supported by the British Medical Journal). Maybe the former postie could sort out the counterproductive militancy behind the CWU strike instead... don't hold your breath!

The policy of reclassifying cannabis was not, however, one determined by the Home Secretary - it was a top-down doctrine imposed by Gordon Brown himself.

So, yes, Johnson needs to go because he has shown professional incompetence, but he also needs to go because he has shown political incompetence for allowing himself to be set up as a patsy by his boss, who regarded him as a threat.

But neither does Brown emerge unscathed by the affair.

The internal manoeuvering at the heart of the Labour party is clearly to the detriment of law-making, and for this Brown is to blame and should be held accountable.

Meanwhile the Crust of the Grouch explains how Labour has got itself into this mess because they are afraid of losing power.

Policy based on electoral calculations exemplifies the depths of cynicism Labour has now sunk to.

It is just one more example of how Labour started digging itself into a hole when it failed to take advantage of the landslide majorities it gained in Blair's first two terms: Labour's problems stem directly from their failure to deliver the promised reforms which would give a more proportionally representative democratic system.

But the final word has to go to Chris Huhne, who is straightforward and scathing. He says,
"If ministers care so little for independent scientific advice, they should save public money by sacking the entire group of experts and instead appointing a committee of tabloid editors."
In other words he is saying the sacking of the scientific advisors over political differences is tantamount to the government admitting they have already abdicated their responsibilities and handed over the reigns of control to a shadowy cabal.