Saturday, January 14, 2006 

Patriotism: the politics of the desperate.

The first example that Brown has few ideas about where to take Labour, except for continuing Blair's legacy.

Gordon Brown will propose today that Remembrance Sunday should be developed into a national day of patriotism to celebrate British history, achievements and culture. The chancellor envisages a "British Day", equivalent to the Fourth of July independence celebrations in the United States.

In his speech Mr Brown will embrace the patriotism of the US, saying: "In any survey our most popular institutions range from the monarchy to the army to the NHS. But think: what is our Fourth of July? What is our Independence Day? Where is our declaration of rights? What is our equivalent of a flag in every garden? Perhaps Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday are the nearest we have come to a British day - unifying, commemorative, dignified and an expression of British ideas of standing firm for the world in the name of liberty."

Either way, he believes the British flag needs to be recaptured from the far right. "The union flag should be a British symbol of unity around our values ... and we should assert that the union flag is for tolerance and inclusion."

The chancellor's aides believe that a renewed patriotism, celebrating all the elements of modern Britain, is an agenda that the Conservatives cannot readily follow because in their hands it would look backward-looking and even chauvinistic.

He will say the centre and the left have failed to understand that the values on which Britishness is based - fairness, liberty and responsibility - owe more to progressive ideas than to rightwing ones.

It's all very well to look to America and admire the seeming instinctive patriotism which seems to flourish there, but it's also worth examining what that patriotism means to their culture. Critics of the Iraq war and Bush have constantly been accused of being either un-American or unpatriotic. It's been a brush to tar criticism of any sort. The other thing that makes Americans patriotic is the dream - both imagined and real - and the constitution itself. Britain has never had a written constitution, and the attacks on liberty by the government of which Brown is a part of has shown the need for one. As for a dream, has there ever been a British one? The empire has long gone, and was acquired and controlled brutally. Our finest hour and most admired part of history now seems to be WW2 - standing up to Hitler, albeit too late, the blitz spirit and of course, the old warmonger himself, Winston Churchill.

If anything though, that time is starting to look like the ancient history it is - if it only really was 60 years ago since the allies were victorious. The intervening years are already starting to blur. Instead of admiring and learning from the lessons of the cold war, we started to believe Francis Fukuyama when he said that it was the end of history. Since September the 11th, the world seems to have become more fragile again, and the politicians have realised this. They have since turned to using fear to keep in power, and turning to patriotism to make the people feel both good and to keep them from being too critical.

This is not to say that Brown's intentions are purely malign. A celebration of our lives and values should be welcomed - but only if it is purely progressive and forward looking. Brown's suggestion that the monarchy is one of our most popular institutions seem to be very much at odds with this. A group of inbred dsyfunctional people, thrust into the limelight as a result of being born is just such an example of backwards thinking and how far this country has to go. How can Britain be equal when we have a monstrosity of a woman sitting as head of state purely because of whom she was born to?

Britain should celebrate that it is a democracy and that we ourselves are reasonably free. But why should we celebrate it when we have a government that seems to be at odds with a lot of our values? Blair is trying to introduce summary justice, has tried to lock up terror suspects indefinitely without charge, wants to introduce ID cards and has had his previous home secretary repeatedly attack judges. It's a sad fact that many of our basic freedoms are being upheld either by the unelected House of Lords, or by the European Court of Human Rights. It doesn't really inspire you to be proud of who you are, does it?

If we are to have a celebration of being British day, it does need to be separated from Remembrance Sunday. That day still shows the humility and respectful nature of Britain, as we remember our dead who fought for our freedom in the only truly justified war of the 20th century. It is not militaristic or jingoistic, rather a day to reflect on what may have happened and to say thank you for the sacrifice of a previous generation. Any British day should not have that almost somnambulistic atmosphere, but should also not be jingoistic. We have much to celebrate, but the way that Brown has brought it up in this way shows his lack of ideas, and how quickly the New Labour project is running out of steam. When you turn to relying on the electorate's love of their country to lift your poll ratings, it's time to realise that everything else is certainly not going well.

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Friday, January 13, 2006 

Lib Dem leadership: Sir Menzies gets "it".

It's quickly becoming clear that Simon Hughes is likely to be the main challenger to Sir Menzies Campbell. Judging by an interview with Campbell in today's Guardian, it appears as if he has finally realised exactly what is wrong with British politics as it stands:
"Yes, I stand for same set of values now as I did when I first heard Jo Grimond and as I did when I first stood. I am a creature of the centre left. Important issue here: Blair's concerned about legacy - one of Blair's legacies will be that he has squeezed values out of politics. Along comes Cameron and says essentially 'I can do what he's doing but I'm a better manager'. One thing is certain: there isn't space for three management companies in the centre of British politics. What's required for us is a return to values, accompanied by an openness of mind. I'm more for open minds than I am for open-neck shirts."

"This is not self-indulgence. It's got to be accompanied by intellectual rigour. Our plans plus intellectual rigour should be sufficient to produce a manifesto on which we can attract support of the people of the UK."
While he is still ambiguous, talking of "values" when what he really means is ideology, it's about time that a major politician finally realised what puts so many people off politics. Both Labour and the Tories are all about control - their emphasis on spin has been increasingly clear following Cameron's election. Both are now essentially standing for exactly the same things, with Blair wanting more choice in the public sector, and Cameron saying the same, except that he would do it with even more private involvement and with even more "choice". He speaks the language which Labour is now afraid to touch on taxation:
"It's a scandal that the poorest 10% of people in this country pay higher proportion of their income in tax than the richest 10%. It's a scandal. It's a scandal that there are so many people in my constituency who will never get houses."
It's also a scandal that pay in the boardrooms is sky-rocketing even when retail companies keep preaching doom and gloom. It's a scandal that so many are getting away with tax evasion that means they pay little to nothing for the business they do in this country. It's a scandal that these same people have such an influence on this country. It's a scandal that the tabloids can conduct a witch-hunt against Ruth Kelly over a policy which has been in effect since 1997, and when ministers got the advice of doctors and psychologists on the matter of employing those who were on the sex offenders list due to a caution. On all these, either the political parties are complicit in it, silent, or joining the bandwagon. We need a political party that is prepared to speak out on all of these matters. Whether the Liberal Democrats are willing to become that party is yet to become clear. Simon Hughes started his campaign yesterday but has yet to set out any policies, but after this interview needs to play catch-up. It may well soon be time to be optimistic about politics again.

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Sun-watch: stalking and invading the privacy of a not so-ordinary lottery winner.

Not many people will feel sorry for Iorworth Hoare, a convicted rapist who won the national lottery while behind bars. He has not paid any of the £7 million he won to his victims, nor has he shown any remorse. What this man is now having to put up with though is a stalking campaign by the Sun newspaper, which last year revealed that he was costing taxpayers £10,000 a month because of the need to keep him under surveillance and to house him. That was in the public interest. Today's story is not.

Today the Sun has splashed on the front page exactly where he lives, and how close he is in proxomity to Newcastle striker Alan Shearer. This house is not being funded by taxpayers however, as he paid £700,000 out of his lottery winnings for it. He was released from prison on strict conditions under a life licence, and undoubtedly the local police, employers and schools will have been made aware of where he is now living. It all very quickly becomes clear why the Sun is so interested though:

And one worried resident said last night: “Families felt safe here. But not any more.”

Ah, a worried resident. Often when a tabloid newspaper talks about someone worried or a witness to a celebrity, they happen to be of the journalist's own imagination. This is almost that:

The Sun’s Scottish editon editor Rob Dalton, a 44-year-old father of five, also lives on the estate. He said:

This is terrifying news. This has always been an estate where people felt safe. It’s the sort of place where children can walk the streets in safety.

People will be horrified to discover that Hoare’s here. He’s most certainly not welcome. It is a particular concern that he’s now living so close to those developments.

And there is also a primary school 200 yards away.

And so it all becomes clear. Intrude on a Sun editor's patch, and you're liable to have your house splashed on the front page of the country's biggest selling newspaper.

But wait! There's more:

Hoare’s new neighbours will be disturbed to learn that one night last week he prowled for 25 minutes around the darkened streets in a vain search for an open shop.

Holy moly - what sort of person walks around looking for a shop? Certainly one who isn't rehabilitated.

When I posted about the first Sun story last September, the main problem was that someone who was contained in the community was having to be moved at more taxpayers expense thanks to the Sun's thoughtful expose. This time, no taxpayers money is involved. As the BBC story at the time makes clear, Hoare would be being dealt with by the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangement. He is now no longer living in supervised accomodation. He will be having to keep the police informed of his movements, as well as still meeting probation officers. The Sun has this time invaded the privacy of a man who has served his debt to society through prison. I agree with them that he should have been forced to pay at least some of his winnings either to his victims or to applicable charities, but there is no law forcing this, and Hoare decided not to. Whether a charity would have accepted his money is also doubtful.

Hoare will now probably have to move again, as he made the mistake of moving in too close to the editor of the Scottish Sun. Once again a tabloid newspaper has invaded the privacy of someone which is not in the public interest, and once again, they will get away it.

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Thursday, January 12, 2006 

Judge respects interference with human rights.

Thanks to Bloggerheads:

I really hope that those who protested will appeal so that the process can be started to strike down this repressive and ridiculous law. As you may know, protests within around a mile of the Houses of Parliament are banned without authorisation from the police, who require at least 24 hours notice and can also deny the request for any reason, thanks to "Serious and Organised Crime Act 2004". This was mainly designed to remove Brian Haw, who has been protesting outside the houses since just before the war on Afghanistan, but failed as it was poorly drafted. The government was also embarrassed by the protests by school children at the beginning of the Iraq war, and by the protests by the Countryside Alliance, around the time of the vote banning fox hunting. So using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, they banned all protests without first notifying the completely politically independent Met, using the risk of terrorism as an ajoining factor to get MPs to vote for it. The government succeeded, and here we are today.

It is outrageous that members of the public cannot protest at the heart of our democracy without first asking for permission. It very likely breaches the European Convention on Human Rights, as suggested by Judge Nicholas Evans, but he still felt he had to fine one of the protestors for doing nothing more than simply exercising what anyone should be allowed to do in what is meant to be a democracy. Blair and Bush want to spread "freedom" around the world, but only if you ask them nicely for permission first.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006 

Front page-watch: Bullshit's all I see.

Yet another day on which Fleet Street plumbs the depths of its own navel:

Two dream stories for the Sun, then. One involves a footballer getting his head kicked in for chatting up one of its very own Page 3 girls, while at the bottom Sun and Blair have got together to launch their "shop a yob" campaign. The paper doesn't explain how it'll manage to make sure whether those shopped actually are "yobs", but I doesn't suppose that really matters. It did remind me of a Steve Bell strip from the time when the Sun's current ginger ninja editor published photos of alleged paedophiles on the front page of the News of the Screws:

But if you thought that was bad, you didn't count on the Diana Express:

Oh yes, the Express stands for all those values the other newspapers don't, mainly the need to print a non-news story on Princess Diana without fail every Monday. On the "marriage" is a dirty word front, what the register offices are actually doing is updating their material to reflect the civil partnerships that same sex partners can now take advantage of, by changing the word marriage to ceremony. This saves them money as they don't have to print two of everything, and doesn't incorrectly describe civil partnerships as marriage. Of course, if civil partnerships actually were full-blown marriage, the Diana Express would hardly be able to contains its bile. Still, always makes a good outraged front page.

I don't really want to describe the Daily Star as a newspaper, as that gives it a legitimacy it doesn't deserve, but who could pass up this extraordinary exclusive? It seems that Jodie Marsh has been put on "suicide watch" inside the Big Brother house, after she fell out with other housemates. That she has the necessary brain power even to know that her life is utterly worthless surprises me, so I suppose it is rather extraordinary.

Speaking of worthless, here's yet another return to Moss dross with the Times publishing her so-called return shoot. It's rather amazing that within six months you can go from being a drug addict to back on the front pages for legitimate reasons, even when Moss is still supposedly on the run from the police. Anyway, it's certainly a worthwhile excuse to print an attractive woman with hefty cleavage showing on the front page. Trebles all round to those who work on the featured newspapers!

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006 

General Sir Michael Rose calls for Blair to be impeached.

Michael Rose is the first army leader to speak out publicly and condemn the war. But why didn't he do this before the election, when he might have actually made some difference? Iraq is starting to fade from the public memory already, and it hasn't been helped by the Tories and Lib Dems' continuing silence over the whole matter.

Most importantly a clear justification for the war in Iraq was never sufficiently made by Tony Blair - for the intelligence he presented was always embarrassingly patchy and inconsistent. What is more, his unequivocal statement to the House of Commons that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction that could be used within 45 minutes was made without being properly validated - for it was decided in Washington and London to launch the invasion of Iraq early, on the basis of the flimsy evidence available. This was done without asking the UN weapons inspectors, who were actually on the ground in Iraq, to investigate this allegation. Ultimately, as the inspectors suspected and as we now all know, it turned out that there were no such weapons. Britain had been led into war on false pretences. It was a war that was to unleash untold suffering on the Iraqi people and cause grave damage to the west's prospects in the wider war against global terror.

Nevertheless, today the prime minister seeks to persuade the world that the war was justifiable because Saddam Hussein was toppled and there now exists in Iraq a slender hope of democracy. The Iraqi elections are a creditable achievement by the coalition forces. But it must be remembered that a general election was previously held in Iraq in 1956, and within two years the country had fallen under military rule. Without adequate security and the necessary democratic institutions in place, there are absolutely no long-term guarantees that democracy will endure.

Before the invasion, regime change was never cited as a reason for going to war. Indeed, Mr Blair insisted that regime change was not, nor ever could be, a reason for going to war. Had such a justification been fully debated in parliament, it is exceedingly unlikely that the necessary political support would have been forthcoming. It was the apparent need to defend ourselves against a dire threat - so vividly described by Mr Blair in the Commons - that finally won the political argument.

During the build-up to war and since, most of the electorate of this country have consistently opposed the decision to invade. People have seen their political wishes ignored for reasons now proved false. But there has been no attempt in parliament to call Mr Blair personally to account for what has transpired to be a blunder of enormous strategic significance. It should come as no surprise therefore that so many of this country's voters have turned their backs on a democratic system they feel has so little credibility and is so unresponsive.

One obvious way of re-engaging these disaffected voters would be for parliament to accept that it wrongly supported the war - but only because it believed what Mr Blair told them. Now it is clear that parliament was misled by Mr Blair, either wittingly or unwittingly, parliament should also call on him for a full explanation as to why he went to war. It is not a sufficient excuse for Mr Blair to say that he acted in good faith and that his decisions were based on the intelligence he had been given. For it is the clear responsibility of people in his position to test intelligence. No intelligence can ever be taken at face value. Indeed it is negligent so to do.

Parliament should therefore ascertain how far the prime minister did evaluate intelligence regarding WMD and how he assessed the reliability of the many sources that provided that intelligence. It should ask him what corroborating evidence there was for his specific statement about WMD - and why more use was not made of the UN inspectors on the ground in Iraq to test the validity of that statement. It should inquire just how much he discounted the mass of intelligence that came in from the Iraqi National Congress - a body that had a vested interest in removing Saddam from power. The list of possible questions is huge and would no doubt be usefully expanded during any hearings.

Mr Blair is an able barrister who should relish the opportunity to put his side of the case. No one can undo the decision to go to war. But the impeachment of Mr Blair is now something I believe must happen if we are to rekindle interest in the democratic process.

Nothing will come of this because it's far too late. It was doomed today, especially with Blair announcing his "RESPEK" agenda, the Daily Mail worrying that Brits won't be able to go to Turkey on holiday without caring about the people actually living there, and with the far more important Celebrity Big Brother mesmerising the tabloids. Let's just move on, move on, and abandon all ideology. That's all old hat, according to Blair, Cameron and Oaten. So evict all the yobs, get social entrepreneurs to make them straight and then send them on Duke of Edinburgh schemes. Introduce ID cards, ban smoking, but whatever you do, don't mention the war.

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Afghanistan: Liberated from Islamic tyranny.

Amputation of hands and stoning to death will continue to be the punishment for thieves and adulterers in post-Taliban Afghanistan, country’s new Chief Justice Fazal Hadi Shinwari was reported today as saying.

Mr Justice Shinwari told the Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) that the head of the post-Taliban interim government, Mr Hamid Karzai, had informed him that the Islamic laws were to remain in force in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan is an Islamic country. The United Nations has recognised Afghanistan as an Islamic country and the head of Afghanistan’s new government has given the assurance that decisions would be made according to Islamic Sharia,’’ AIP quoted Mr Justice Shinwari as saying.

“On this basis, all three levels (district, provincial and Supreme Court) of Afghanistan’s judiciary will implement Hudood (Islamic laws) after guilt is 100 per cent proven,’’ the cleric said.

“I have been told clearly by Mr Hamid Karzai that Afghanistan’s Islamic image in the world must be maintained,’’ AIP quoted Mr Justice Shinwari as saying in an interview yesterday.

Mr Justice Shinwari said all cases would be decided in accordance with Islamic laws.

For instance, adulterers would be stoned to death when either of them or both were married. A murderer would have to pay blood money, or be executed in the manner in which the murder victim was killed, depending on the wishes of the victim’s relatives, he said.

“A thief’s hand would be cut off, and alcoholics and others would be punished under Islamic laws, but the condition would be that their crime is proved,’’ he said.

Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime had been sharply criticised around the world for prescribing the same punishments under its interpretation of Islam. DPA

One of the major reasons why the US/UK went into Afghanistan, apart from removing the al-Qaida training camps, was to overthrow the women-hating, intolerant fascists who professed to be ruling under Islamic law. Now we have, err, intolerant fascists ruling under Islamic law. When women in Nigeria were going to be stoned to death for adultery, there was a worldwide outpouring of condemnation and outrage. Now the US and Britain have installed a puppet government which has little power outside Kabul, has many of the same people who were in power under the Taliban and is imposing the same laws as the Taliban. The only major difference is that while the Taliban originally almost eradicated the opium crop, the remnants of the regime now seem to be using it to raise funds to attack the remaining coalition troops that are in the country. Think Iraq is the only foreign policy disaster? Think again.

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Monday, January 09, 2006 

Simon Hughes for leader of the Lib Dems.

While some may already be tiring or surprised at the level of interest in the Liberal Democrats spectacular political decapitation of Charles Kennedy, the real decision has just started. Who is going to be the next leader of what has become the real opposition?

Charles Kennedy himself had to go. It wasn't about his drinking at the finish. His performance since the election has been utterly woeful. It's been left to Mark Oaten and Menzies Campbell to hold up the party and appear on the television, fighting for us on civil liberties issues and over the continuing overreach of our foreign policy. It was the Lib Dems who said no to Blair and Clarke over 90 days, and the Tories who followed suit. Who then is best suited to lead the party forward?

One of the few things Blair is right on is his criticism of how the Lib Dems play different politics in different areas of the country. They flaunt their left based policies in the north, Wales, Scotland and areas with high student populations, but take on the Tories in the south. That is not the way to win over voters all over the country, and makes little sense in the long run. Menzies Campbell, while a fine man and clearly impassioned over Iraq, is far too polite and not strong enough in his denunciations. While his coined expression "false prospectus" has become one of the main criticisms of Blair's Iraq adventure, he and Charles Kennedy never hit him where it really hurt. He could pass as a fine leader to hold on until the next election, but it would better to run the battles between the different wings of the party now.

This is where Simon Hughes comes in. Popular among the activists, and also the general public, he is probably the other Lib Dem well enough known and impassioned enough to take the party further. Mark Oaten has been a more than capable home affairs spokesman, but he is from the right wing of the party, and was one of the main contributors to the so-called Orange Book of policy thinking, which would throw all the remaining differences of the party with Labour and the Tories right out the window. The last thing Britain needs is three centre-right parties. I believe that Simon Hughes would really take the battle to Blair, with a dream team of Oaten and Campbell beside him. While the toff next door can throw platitudes and imitate what he supposedly regards as the past, Hughes can really make the difference between himself and the two other parties clear. If Tory voters in the south are turned off by it, so be it. Democracy in this country is more important than that. And for Kennedy to speak of dropping the Lib Dems demand for proportional representation, what was/is he thinking? The last election showed that the public is calling out either for a real opposition or for a change from the tyrannical current voting system which means that I and millions of others were forced into voting tactically to stop the MP I really didn't want instead of voting for the candidate I did want.

It's time to be radical, and while Hughes doesn't exactly fit that description, he's the best hope the Lib Dems have.

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A million little lies.

Around two years ago, on a whim after seeing an advert on the back of the Grauniad Guide, I bought a Million Little Pieces by James Frey. A heartbreaking, no holds barred memoir of his recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, it was easily one of the best and most memorable books I had read in a while. Since then it has become hugely popular in America, mainly thanks to Oprah Winfrey giving it her seal of approval on her chat show. As a result, Frey has been raking in the cash, and has since written a sequel.

That all may now be about to come crashing down. The Smoking Gun has written an in-depth, devastating expose on many of the main parts of his narrative and story. It also claims that he originally pitched the book as fiction, and that it was rejected numerous times before one publisher told him to rewrite major parts of it as fact, and embellish any truth that was originally there. He is now predictably consulting his lawyers.

It doesn't really alter my perception of the book. It's a fine piece of writing, fiction or non-fiction. It's a shame that another person who claimed to have answers, and who has also seemingly inspired many, is just another fraud.

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