Monday, 30 September 2013

Getting spooked about the White Widow

Where would we be without the spooks? They keep us safe at night. Don’t they?

And, boy, do we need protection. Right now, for instance, we live under the dreaded peril of the ‘White Widow’.

Isn’t that blood-chilling? For a few months as a teenager, my direct route home took me through a graveyard with a church tower from which, I was assured, many had seen the local ghost, the ‘Grey Lady’, leap. It certainly made the walk home an edgy experience. But what’s a ‘Grey Lady’ to a ‘White Widow’? Particularly as the widow really exists and, as an international terrorist mastermind, she has real weapons to hurt us with.

Samantha Lewthwaite, the 'White Widow'
At least, so we like to believe. Samantha Lewthwaite is the widow of one of the 7/7 bombers who killed 26 people in London in 2005, though it's possible she doesn’t really have any capacity to harm us at all. But who cares? She’s just too perfect a villain for us not to shiver at her name.

I mean, she’s white after all. Our terrorist bogeymen are supposed to be Middle-Eastern looking – and they’re supposed to be men. A woman, and a white woman at that? Wow. That’s the stuff real nightmares are made of. She’s a traitor, to her race, by Jove, as well as a deadly menace. All she needs is to make poison her weapon of choice to become a latter-day Lucrezia Borgia.

She’s been officially dubbed the ‘world’s most wanted’ by no less prestigious a voice than Britain’s Sun, which speaks with all the authority we’ve come to expect of a tabloid newspaper. Kenya has asked for an international arrest warrant to be issued against her, and Interpol has been happy to oblige, even though there’s no suggestion she was involved in the Westgate Mall attack, or even that she’s in Kenya.

In fact, that’s precisely the odd thing about this business. Not only can we not be sure she’s in Kenya, but nobody seems to know where she is. The phrase regularly used about her is that she’s ‘dropped off the intelligence radar.’

Now isn’t that interesting? Thanks to Assange and Snowden we now know that Britain’s GCHQ and the American NSA can find out pretty well anything they like about pretty much any one of us in pretty well no time. They can quickly establish whether I’ve ordered Jessie Keane’s Black Widow from Amazon, however underwhelming that novel may be, but they can’t locate the ‘White Widow’, though we’re assured she might overwhelm us all.

All that snooping. All that reading of e-mails. All that tracking of internet activity.

Come on, spooks. You tell us you only do it to keep us safe.

’t the vanishing ‘White Widow’ make it a bit hard to sustain that claim?

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Sharing the pain

We’re all in this together.

David Cameron made that pronouncement soon after he formed the current British government in 2010.

David Cameron: sharing the pain
It made sense. The crash in 2008 affected us all. It was only right that we should all pay for the consequences, and the cure.

In fact, the government has done all it can to make sharing the pain a little easier. For instance, it provided a generous tax reduction for the people with the highest salaries. It is also now taking legal action to protect the right of bankers to go on paying themselves seriously interesting bonuses, against the officious interference of the European Union.

Sadly, the opposition Labour Party isn’t getting with the mood. Its leader Ed Miliband told the Party Conference last week that if he formed a government he would freeze energy prices for twenty months. What a wet blanket, spoiling the party.

And he’s had just the reaction he deserved. The cries of outrage have been deafening. I mean, how are the energy companies going to continue paying for the investment we need in renewable energy sources if they can’t charge enough to cover their costs?

Just because one of the big six companies, Centrica, announced in February they would use £500 million of their ‘surplus’ capital to buy back their own shares, doesn’t mean they’re not investing. They have to make that kind of payment to keep their shareholders happy, and we all need to keep shareholders happy, or they won’t share the pain with us.

And Centrica’s Chief Executive took only £5 million in pay last year, which is barely 200 times the national median income.

It was explained to me that the energy companies have to keep increasing their charges anyway, because of the weakening pound. The pound was at $1.58 at this time in 2010 and it’s sunk to $1.60 now. Meanwhile a barrel of oil, which cost $71.21 on average in 2010, hit an average of $87.67 this year.

Obviously the oil price will only affect part of the costs of the energy companies, but even so that’s a massive increase: 23%. So how can anyone complain that household energy costs have grown by 40% in the same period?

The trivial objection has been made to me that industrialists squealed just as loudly in the refrigerator manufacturing sector when CFCs were being banned, from the late 1980s. When the ban was adopted, the industry quickly found alternatives and settled down to making its fridges, and its profits, again.

This is nothing like the same situation. The objection to the Labour proposal from the six companies that dominate 98% of the market isn’t just carping by a bunch of oligarchs watching the gravy train come to a stop, it’s a matter of principle. If this terrible measure is adopted, Britain might find itself in the same position as the rest of Europe, where prices are growing less quickly, or even France or Spain, where they are falling.

Let’s remember that though the six companies seem to increase their charges absolutely in step with each other, this isn’t the classic behaviour of an oligopoly, protecting profits through unjustifiable price rises. It just reflects the fact that they are guided by the views of recognised experts who interpret movements in the industry in the same way. And the fact that prices rise quickly in response to increased raw material costs, but somehow fall much more slowly when they come down, is just a natural law of the sector, about which we can no more complain than we can about the law of gravity.

Ed Miliband needs to think again. He should not draw satisfaction from the terror of the energy company executives, thinking that it implies that they, at least, expect him to win the next election. Nor should he be pleased at the apparent popularity of his proposal. He should realise that this is immature, adolescent politics, and the mere fact that’s it realisable, popular and would bring much needed relief to the poorest in society, in no way justifies his behaviour.

Doesn’t he realise we’re all in this together? That he needs to pull with the government? How else can we achieve the kind of prosperous and just society we all desire?

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Nations trek from progress, as empty causes devour flames of genius

For doomed youth, Wilfred Owen wrote, there would be flowers formed by ‘the tenderness of patient minds, and each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.’

Wilfred Owen: outstanding voice of the First World War
sacrificed to it
On 4 November 1918, with German resistance collapsing in France, French, British and American troops launched a new offensive. Apart from the war historians, nobody very much remembers what that was all about. We remember even less whether it was particularly important or not to force a way across the Sambre canal.

In fact, I have only the vaguest idea where the Sambre canal is. And in a world in which the only German soldiers on French soil are there by invitation, the idea of their fighting with each other for the possession of that obscure waterway strikes me as nothing short of madness. Germany is, after all, the most powerful and wealthiest nation in Europe and we tend to dance to its tune, without a bayonet or a bullet to enforce its will.

But back on that day in November 1918, Second Lieutenant Owen tried to take a group of men across that insignificant canal. He paid for that attempt with his life. A slow dusk came when the drawing-down of the blinds was for the poet himself. One more week and he’d have made it: yes, he died a mere week before the violence stopped in any case.

We were deprived of perhaps the finest war poet of that particularly senseless war. We may have been deprived of an outstanding poet of the peace that followed. A peace shot through with conflict, but of the social rather than the shooting kind, and which quickly degenerated again into renewed military butchery – in a single generation, as the second world war followed the first.

What words might Owen have found to sing that decline?

Poetry, of course, lived on, so that today we can read about ‘raising earthwards our cathedrals of hope’, a longing for this life rather than heaven, a hope that Owen would have recognised. As he would have resonated in sympathy with the idea of raising cathedrals ‘in demand of lives offered on those altars for the cleansing that was done long ago.’ Owen’s life was offered for a cleansing that left the world no less tainted.

Those cathedrals raised earthwards were celebrated by Kofi Awoonor, a Ghanaian prisoner of conscience who later became a Ghanaian politician and diplomat, but who was at all times a poet.

Kofi Awoonor:
another poet sacrificed to a cause
He died last weekend in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. He died when Islamist militants decided to wreak vengeance against civilians for Kenya’s military engagement against their movement in neighbouring Somalia. He died when armed believers decided to kill or maim at random, sparing only Muslims.

The blinds have come down for him too. Awoonor has been offered like Owen on an altar for a cleansing just as misguided. Owen proclaimed that ‘nations trek from progress’; so it seems do movements sure of their faiths, and one has now claimed his successor.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the imperial dreams of France, Britain, Germany, Russia and America, seemed important enough to sacrifice millions, including a poet of world stature. Today all those concerns are of little moment, but the poems maintain their capacity to move and amaze. How did the world gain by Owen’s death?

A century from now, I wonder whether the points of theological controversy that seem so crucial today, the beliefs that drive some to persecute Muslims, others to kill in the name of Islam, won’t also have lost their burning urgency.

And people will wonder what was served by the deaths of all those innocents in the Westgate mall. Or how the world was made a better place by depriving it of Kofi Awoonor.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Battle lines in Britain

Time for the gloves to come off.

An electorate with little interest in politics doesn’t need complexities and sophistication. It needs clear, simple battle lines. So it’s a relief, as the British Labour Party starts its annual conference – with only one more to come before the next election – to see some clarity beginning to emerge from the main contenders.

Ed Miliband: drawing lines
Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party, has denounced the government’s complacency in crowing over the anaemic economic recovery now taking place. As he points out, living standards have not fallen for so long since 1870.

Meanwhile, the government also likes to congratulate itself on falling unemployment, never mentioning that a million people have been excluded from the count of those out of work because they have zero-hour contracts: in other words, not technically unemployed, but tied to an employer who is under no obligation to give them any work or pay.

If there is some growth at last taking place again, it’s doing nothing to improve the position of the majority of society, and leaving the poorest way behind. As Miliband puts it, ‘the link between the growing wealth of the economy and family finances has been broken.’

That’s a message we need to hear repeated often and loud over the next twenty months leading up to the election.

The Tories are as aware of the potency of the argument, and are already hitting back. To Chris Grayling, Justice Minister under David Cameron, Labour merely want to clobber the rich.

‘So what do Labour want?’ he asks. ‘To penalise the wealth creators. Higher taxes for the rich. To pay for what Labour really desires – an ever bigger welfare state.’

Ah, yes. It’s true that Labour wants at least one increase in the welfare state. Miliband has pledged to do away with the ‘bedroom tax’, the reduction in benefit to anyone whose rent is being paid for out of the public purse. It seems that this initiative, now only six months old, has already pushed 50,000 people into arrears, leaving them facing eviction.

A great many of those people are disabled.

So Grayling’s statement is another helpful clarification of the battle lines. Miliband proposes to pay for repealing the bedroom tax by removing some tax advantages for hedge funds; by cracking down on practices in construction that deprive employees of security in order to reduce the employers
 tax liability; and by doing away with a government initiative to fund companies whose employees agree to give up hard-won, legal employment rights.

Presumably, Grayling feels that this is all part of Labour’s desire to victimise the rich. He, on the other hand, is voicing the government’s concern for those in the top 1% income bracket, who have seen their wealth grow under the Tories, while all around the rest of society watches its living standards fall.

Let’s not forget that ‘wealth creation’ under Grayling’s government has involved the handing out of those million zero-hour contracts, as well as creating an environment in which minimum wage legislation is ignored: the suggestion is that large numbers of workers are being paid under the minimum, but there have been only eight prosecutions under the act.

Again, Miliband has made it a key proposal to enforce payment of the minimum wage, and part of that initiative will involve giving the legislation some teeth.

‘At the moment, if you don’t pay the minimum wage,’ he points out, ‘the maximum fine is £5,000. If you engage in fly-tipping, the maximum fine is £50,000. That is ridiculous. If you engage in systematic abuse of the minimum wage, you should have a maximum fine of £50,000.’

No doubt Chris Grayling would regard the insistence that employers respect wage legislation as another form of clobbering the rich. Those who agree with him should vote for his party. I hope rather more of us will wonder whether an economy that can support more million-plus a year bankers than the rest of Europe put together, shouldn’t be able to pay £6.31 to its poorest workers (those million-a-year bankers are on a minimum of £800 an hour).

Anyone wondering that should be pleased that Miliband is offering an alternative home for their votes. And anyone who feels that the poorest in society, such as the victims of the bedroom tax, should at last be given a break, can surely not duck the responsibility of supporting him.

The lines are clear.

Friday, 20 September 2013

True Glory

In among all the talk about war, or possibly no war, between Syria and the West in recent weeks, I’ve taken to thinking again about what it is that truly gives a nation its glory. And, quite frankly, I have to conclude that whatever it may be do in the arts, the sciences, the law or government, what really matters is its achievements in war. A victory or two give a country the fillip it needs, however badly it may be failing elsewhere.

That’s a factor not to be discounted in all the debate about firing cruise missiles.

No nation is immune to this kind of thinking, and least of all my own, Britain. Oh yes, our fine military tradition is the backbone of our sense of ourselves. And in among all our great successes on the battlefield, none is so glorious, none puts such a spring in our step, as the great, historic victory Britain won at Waterloo.

Wellington, glorious leader leading a glorious action.
Or was he?
‘The tale is in every Englishman’s mouth,’ writes William Thackeray in that superb novel Vanity Fair, and points out that we ‘are never tired of hearing and recounting the history of that famous action.’

Of course. It was such an unambiguous victory, and so unambiguously British.

Though, to be fair, there are some who are a little less sure of that than others. 

‘There was a bit of a German element, too, wasn’t there?’ these wet blankets point out.

Ah, yes. The Prussians. But they were just johnny-come-lately’s, showing up at the end of the day, when the best of the fighting was all but over. They made sure of a victory that the British Army had already won.

Well, up to a point. The French had wasting several hours trying to capture the forward position Wellington had established at the chateau of Hougoumont, on the right of his line. That position did indeed hold out against sustained infantry assault, and then a terrible series of cavalry attacks. It never fell.

See? Heroic work by the glorious British under the genius Wellington.

Again, up to a point. The French got a bit smarter late in the afternoon. They pulled their infantry and cavalry together and launched them, not at Wellington’s right, but at his centre, another defended forward position in the farm at La Haye Sainte. And this time they succeeded: the farm fell and with that French gain, Wellington
’s hold on the middle of his line became precarious.

Wellington had been in touch with the Prussian marshal Blücher since the small hours of the morning, and was expecting him to arrive on his left. So he’d only sparsely manned that part of the line. With his right heavily committed around Hougoumont he now had little force with which to shore up his centre.

In the end it didn’t matter much. By the early evening, the Prussians were fairly pouring onto the field, and Napoleon had to detach forces to deal with them. Wellington got out of jail free. 

Maybe that’s why the British general described the battle as ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw...

Even so, he’d done well up to that point. And that was an unequivocally British success. Wasn’t it?

Perhaps not unequivocally, exactly. 

The idea of coalitions to fight wars isn’t new. Wellington headed one. Waterloo being in Belgium, then part of a combined Dutch-Belgian kingdom, Wellington’s 68,000-strong army included 17,000 – a quarter – from the Low Countries.

Still, that leaves 51,000 Brits, doesn’t it?

The King of Britain was at that time also Elector of Hanover. In Germany. 11,000 soldiers under Wellington were Hanoverian. And, as it happened, 6000 more were from Brunswick, along with 3000 from Nassau. Also both in Germany.

So actually only 31,000 of the soldiers were from the British Army. And, funnily enough, during the long years of Napoleonic occupation of Germany, other Hanoverians had escaped and made it to England, where they formed the King’s German Legion, 6000 of whom were in the specifically British contingent of Wellington’s army.

So even on Wellington’s side, only 25,000 soldiers were actually British. Slightly more, 26,000, were German. Which along with the 50,000 Prussians who rather turned the tide on the day, meant there were 76,000 Germans fighting the French – just over three times as many as there were British.

Still, we all need something to put a spring in our step. And if Waterloo does it for us Brits, why not?

Though personally, to be honest, I prefer to take something else from that epoch-making event, summed up in two other comments of Wellington’s. 

The first summed up his reaction to the dead strewn over the field of Waterloo: ‘nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.’ 

A dismal place, a battlefield. 

There’s talk today about negotiations starting at last between the two sides in the Syrian civil war. That's nothing like as exciting as a missile strike, nothing like as dramatic in outcome, nothing like certain of success. But perhaps by killing fewer people, it might be marginally less miserable than yet another battlefield, lost or won.

And Wellington’s other comment? 

‘I hope to God I have fought my last battle.’

There’s little hope that we have fired our last cruise missile. But maybe we ought to take heed of the sentiment behind the glorious general’s heartfelt wish, and be slightly less inclined to reach for the missile as a first resort rather than a last.

That would be a different kind of glory. But it might have more substance to it.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Washington shootings: which are the fundamental rights?

So it’s happened again. Yesterday, Aaron Alexis, the latest gun-wielding mass murderer to strike in the US, killed twelve people in the Washington Naval Yard, before dying himself in a firefight with police.

Oh, no. Here we go again.
The Chief Medical Officer of the MedStar Washington hospital centre, Janis Orlowski, said of a woman who survived being shot in the head and hand, that she was ‘a very, very, lucky young lady.’

Presumably Orlowski wasn’t really thinking through the implication of her words. It is, after all, a strange world where someone who has just been shot in the head is seen as lucky. Someone who was simply doing her job, in a country ostensibly at peace. That is, not currently under threat of war at home from other nations, though clearly not entirely at peace with itself.

Perhaps the most striking statement on the shooting was made by President Obama. He described it as a ‘cowardly act’. 

It seems to me that the most cowardly act of all was the failure of political leaders to take heed of his call for action to limit gun ownership in the wake of the Newtown horror.  Or for that matter to react to Aurora. Or Columbine. Or any of the other outrages that have, down the years, come along with a regularity that makes them almost habitual, without ever depriving them of their capacity to shock or, apparently, ever endowing them with the ability to galvanise society into action.

Remember the pain over Newtown? Remember the silence of the NRA as they let the dust settle? Remember them extending their tentacles a few weeks later, exercising their lobby muscle, calling in their bought Congressmen and Senators to ensure that even the mildest form of gun control became hopelessly bogged down in the legislative process?

Watch out for them doing the same again now.

And when the NRA says that the best way of stopping a bad guy with a gun is by means of a good guy with a gun, bear in mind that their point was proved yesterday: Alexis, the killer, was gunned down by the police. The NRA got that much right.

It’s true that on the way, twelve people, whose only offence had been to turn up for work, were killed, and eight more injured. Including the lucky lady.

Perhaps the NRA would say that this is the price of doing business. Protection of the fundamental right to keep and bear weapons is worth the occasional massacre of the innocents. After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

Personally, I prefer countries which establish strict controls on the ownership of guns. Funnily enough, they can serve a pretty mean omelette too. And knowing that you’re unlikely to be shot at while you’re eating it doesn’t spoil the flavour at all.

In fact, being able to eat a meal in safety seems as basic a right as carrying gun. Even more basic, in fact. And it was glaringly denied the breakfasters in the cafeteria at the Washington Naval Yard yesterday morning.

Monday, 16 September 2013

The US and Iran? Really? What brought that on?

The US might soon be talking to Iran. 

Just writing those words feels a little weird. It’s like saying that Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington have decided to meet at a café near Waterloo, to see whether they can’t patch things up over a good bottle of French White and a plate of snails.

Not that, if the US-Iran meeting takes place, it’ll necessary mean getting together in a room and talking round a table. No, that would be far too big a step for this early stage in proceedings. It’s possible that the US delegation might run into the Iranian delegation in the corridors of the United Nations building in New York, on the fringe of the General Assembly meeting, and stop to pass the time of day.

‘Good Lord! Hold on, hold on,’ Obama will say, ‘don’t tell me – it’s president Rouhani, isn’t it? I was sure I knew that face...’

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran: will Obama recognise him?
Well, the smile's hard to miss

‘President Obama,‘ Rouhani will reply, ‘big fan. Always wanted to meet you. Did you see that we had a woman competitor in the Triathlon World Championships in London? See? You can talk to us now. We’re civilised.’

Shirin Gerami
first woman for Iram in an international tritathlon
wearing the Islamic clothing that did so much for her chances

Personally, I’d be perfectly satisfied with their having a casual encounter in a corridor. I’m a great fan of The West Wing and some of the best decisions in that spellbinding and realistic series were taken while stalking along White House corridors.

Actually, any kind of encounter would be welcome. It would be the first meeting between the heads of state of the two countries since the fall of the Shah. The first step towards calming tempers since they got hot eleven years ago, over the Iranian nuclear programme. For years we’ve lived with the prospect of possible war between the two greatest powers of a tinderbox region, Israel and Iran, if not between their sponsors, the US and Russia. 

Any kind of talk to release tensions has to be good.

Let’s hope it happens and let’s hope it leads to greater things. And if it does, let’s remember what was at the start of the process: the decision not to launch missiles at Syria.

let’s not forget what was at the start of the process that led thereJust for the fun of it, here are the events that brought us the Syria breakthrough which may be gradually thawing US-Iranian relations today:
  1. Ed Miliband, leader of the British Labour Party, decided to oppose the government over action on Syria
  2. Miliband took the Labour Party into the ‘No’ lobby against joining an immediate US-led missile attack
  3. The British Parliament voted not to join that action
  4. Obama decided not to launch missiles until he’d consulted Congress himself
  5. Syria’s ally Russia took advantage of the delay to propose that Syria put its chemical weapons under international control preliminary to their destruction
  6. Syria agreed to UN control over its chemical warfare stocks
I bet Miliband had no idea that he was starting anything quite so big, when he decided that it was time, at last, to stand up to David Cameron.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The UN looks askance at a 'Christian' country

When even the United Nations, that accommodating organisation, starts to wonder about the inhumanity of Britain’s behaviour towards its own people, you might think it was time to get worried.

Raquel Rolnik: speaking with the authority of the UN
about the seamier side of the UK
Not, it appears, if you are a member of David Cameron’s government. It has reacted with fury to the suggestion by UN special rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik, that the government’s ‘bedroom tax’ might be an abuse of human rights. One cause of the government’s anger is the use of the expression ‘bedroom tax’: it prefers ‘spare room subsidy.’ 

It applies to people who are living in accommodation funded by benefit. If they are deemed to have a room more than they need, they are now being ordered to leave the accommodation they are in or accept a cut in their benefit. At a time when there is a dearth of single-bedroom accommodation, very few can move.

So instead they have to see their benefit cut, and therefore either reduce their expenditure on luxury items such as food, or incur rent arrears which will eventually gets them evicted and made homeless.

It’s no wonder the government has reacted so harshly to criticism from such an authoritative source. Deep in what passes for its heart even it must know that, among many callous policies it has inflicted, this is one of the cruellest.

In a Twitter argument on the subject, a supporter of the government retorted to me ‘she [Rolnik] made up crap and blabbed on about Human rights while ignoring the rights of taxpayers.’ I don’t believe that many could honestly believe that a few pounds a year of extra tax can be weighed against the suffering that imposed homelessness will cause among people already poor, many of them disabled.

This should be particularly true in a country of which the Prime Minister David Cameron himself said ‘we are a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so.’ The debate has been lively down the ages about just what makes a Christian, but to throw the poor onto the street to save the wealthy small change, would probably be regarded by most as not fitting fully into the gospel of love.

Curiously, one of the great debates about the nature of Christianity took place with a Jewish scholar of whom, to my shame, I knew nothing until recently. A leading rabbi from Barcelona, Moses Nahmanides, known as Ramban, took part in a public ‘disputation’ in which the central question was whether the Christians were right to believe that the Messiah had already arrived, in the form of Jesus, or whether the event was still to come, as claimed by the Jews.

'Ramban', Moses Nahmanides, honoured in Israel today
He came up with what surely must be the killer argument. 

The arrival of the Messiah was to usher in a time of peace and prosperity. And, well, frankly, there hadn’t been much sign of any such thing since the birth of Christ. Indeed, Nahmanides argued, it was the Christians themselves who seemed the most bloodthirsty of all the peoples.

He said all this in 1263. We hadn’t yet had the great persecutions, not just of Jews but of fellow-Christians, in the middles ages and renaissance. We hadn’t seen the great battles over enslavement of African peoples, and the great, bitter, cruel civil war to which it led in the United States. We hadn’t seen the monumental butcheries of two World Wars and the horror of the holocaust.

In all these terrible events, Christians have often played a central role, as perpetrators and often as victims.

Why, even at a reduced level today, around the world, who seems to be the first to reach for the gun or the bomb? Isn’t that just what the most recent debate about Syria has been about? Nahmanides would surely have recognised the bloodthirstiness, the unwillingness to practice self-restraint of so-called Christians today, so little different from what happened in his day.

He would also have recognised Rolnik’s case. She has spoken out for the weak and suffering; the mighty have replied with contempt and bitterness. She spoke against the driving of vulnerable people from shelter; Nahmanides paid for his courage and the strength of his arguments by being driven away from home and family and having to run to Jerusalem and the protection, ironically, of the then Muslim rulers of the holy land to live out his last few years.

Britain ‘basically Christian’? Well, perhaps Cameron and his friends are indeed what Christians have all too often been, and still are. What Rolnik has shown is that they are very far from what Christian doctrines of love might have taught them to be.

Friday, 13 September 2013

When the bad cops get the good cop to back off a little

So Bashar al-Assad may put his chemical weapons under international control.

It was Churchill who said that ‘to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war’. As a wartime Prime Minister who certainly didn’t shirk from conflict, he was well placed to judge. In that spirit, it
’s good to see an initiative that might just give diplomacy a chance, before a resort to missiles.

If he could express a preference for peace...
Assad’s made clear, on Russian television, that his decision had nothing to do with the threat of US force, but merely in response to the urging of his good friend Vladimir Putin. 

That’s what what you do for your mate, right? Help out when asked. If you can.

My scepticism about the value of just raining down a few missiles on Syria is second to no 
one’s, not least the Russian president’s. But I don’t like being taken for a fool, and anyone who thinks that the threat of US force had nothing to do with focusing Assad’s mind, to say nothing of Putin’s, isn’t living on our planet.

Similarly, Putin’s assertion in his New York Times article that it’s possible the chemical weapons at Ghouta were released by rebels, is the stuff of satire. It undermines the credibility of his other quite good observations: the need to respect international law and to avoid too quick a resort to violence for fear of making the Middle East still more unstable. Putin’s never struck me as a particularly nice piece of work, but nor have I ever considered him dumb; by taking a position so insincere all he does is prove just how unappealing he really is.

This isn’t to say that it’s entirely impossible that the rebels were to blame, even if they’re not known to have any chemical weapons, while Assad has huge stocks of them. It just seems extremely unlikely.

But it isn’t the change in Putin’s position or Assad’s that’s truly breathtaking. It’s the change in Obama’s.

... why did he need such pushing? And by such people?
John Kerry had always struck me as rather an admirable figure. But these last few weeks he’s been jingoistic to quite Dubya-like levels. It terrified me when he was asked what Assad had to do to avoid a missile strike. Kerry replied that Assad had to hand over his entire chemical weapons stock within a week, and added ‘he isn’t about to do that.’ This was worryingly like the runup to the Iraq war, when US spokesmen talked about setting the bar so high Saddam Hussein couldn’t jump it: they wanted war at any price.

Obama, however, has been little better than Kerry. Banging the drum for war as though only if he used weapons would he be making his point. He seemed to have fallen for temptation to belive that if you control the most powerful military force on earth, you really have to use it if only to justify your existence. All that’s needed is a pretext and Assad had provided one.

But now suddenly even Obama has changed his tune. He remains sceptical of Assad’s motives, and even of Putin’s, and keeping your pinch of salt large strikes me as highly advisable with those two (one ought also take a long spoon to dine with them). However, Obama’s prepared to give this diplomatic initiative a chance to prove itself or fail before he opens fire.

Don’t get me wrong. I think if anyone deserves a missile on his head it’s Assad. Probably Putin too, if only on behalf of Pussy Riot. But we don’t fire on Putin because the repercussions would be far too terrible. No one on the hawk’s side seems to be putting any effort into showing that the consequences of an attack on Assad would be wholly good either. In any case, it’s most unlikely that Assad
’s head would be caught by a cruise missile, though a great many innocent civilians probably would be. His capacity to wage war on his people would probably not be greatly reduced. Meanwhile some very nasty elements on the rebel side would be massively strengthened.

It’s true that by not helping the more amenable rebels we may be weakening them with respect to the extremists. There are always difficult judgement calls to make in situations this complex. But don’t you have to be pretty sure things are going to work out before you take a chance on killing a lot of people? A great deal more sure than we are today?

So I’m delighted that Obama is at least prepared to consider a non-military solution. And I love the irony that though he’s someone for whom I retain residual affection, on this occasion it’s two throughly unpleasant individuals, Putin and Assad, who’ve knocked some good sense into him at last.

Though let’s not forget one other, much more decent man, who also played his role: Ed Miliband. As leader of the Labour Party and of the parliamentary opposition in Britain, he played a key role in preventing Britain immediately opting for military action alongside the US. Things unravelled for the hawks from that point on, taking us to our present more rational state.

Not a bad achievement, on the global stage, for a mere leader of the British opposition. It makes you wonder what he could achieve as Prime Minister. And makes me all the more anxious to see him win that job.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Labour Saving

A friend of mine recently shared some observations he’d made on certain of his staff, as they strove to achieve economy of effort.

‘The message seems to be: always carry a pad,’ he told me, ‘and walk fast. You’ve got to look purposeful, as though you’re responding to some urgent call. No one will spot the fact that you’re actually just walking round and round the office and not actually doing any work at all.’

‘Surely that runs out of steam fairly quickly, doesn’t it?’ I asked.

‘Well, I suppose if you walk round too long, you get dizzy. So the next trick is to look for someone you know isn’t in.’

‘How does that work?’

‘Well, you know Nigel Sanders is off-site today. So you wander round peering in every direction and asking for him. You can even bust in on a few meetings: you stick your head round the door and say, “is Nigel in this meeting? Nigel Sanders? Has anyone seen him?” When they tell you they haven’t, you can follow that up with, “you see, I need to speak to him quite urgently.” They won’t be able to help, they may not even know Nigel, but they’ll be impressed by the energy you’re putting into dealing with an urgent matter that requires his input.’

‘Of course, you still have to have your pad, don’t you?’

‘Oh, the pad’s essential. It should have half a dozen lines of notes on it, each with a bullet, and perhaps a diagram – a few circles and rectangles, linked by arcs with arrows. That confirms how vital it is you see Nigel.’

He thought a moment. ‘Actually, I think the pad’s always crucial. Even for the next step, when you turn to the big guns and call a meeting. You have to have that pad, to show you’ve prepared the discussion, even though you haven’t. You can also use it to list all the participants, including yourself, in case you forget you were there.’

‘And what do people do at these meetings?’

‘Do? They’re not for doing anything. They’re another great device for reducing workload. You call them without an agenda. Then you turn up fashionably behind schedule and then suggest waiting for latecomers, even if everyone’s there.’

‘What if the others ask who’s missing?’

‘Why, you’re waiting for Nigel Sanders, of course.’

‘OK, so that you should kill quarter of an hour. And then?’

‘Get the group talking about something that sounds terribly important, such as “mid-term commercial review: strategic perspectives.” Strategy is good, and commercial isn’t bad. Then keep the conversation moving. If it looks as though you’re reaching a conclusion, summarise the discussion so far and make sure you include something in the summary that hasn’t been discussed – that’ll get everyone talking again. And most important of all, keep asking for more information.’

‘Why’s that useful?’

‘Well, it means you can conclude the meeting with a decision to investigate further and hold another meeting to discuss new findings.’


‘Isn’t it? Two meetings for the price of one.’

‘And what if even the meeting doesn’t do the trick?’

‘Well then, I suppose, they just have to knuckle down and get on with some work.’

‘Actually, that might be no harder than all that ingenious labour-saving.’

‘Damn right. Going that far to avoid work
’s more trouble than it’s worth.’

Monday, 9 September 2013

The postman's revenge.

It was a vile moment: my wife was out walking our dog when she came under attack from a Staffie and a mongrel.

‘she, here, I mean the dog rather than my wife, but it was a frightening experience for both of them. My wife ended up holding our dog off the ground while both the aggressors kept snapping at whatever legs they could reach, leaving her bleeding and bruised all over her body (the dog’s body, I again specify). 

Meanwhile the owner of the dogs, clearly not familiar with the concept of a dog
s lead, was explaining with some force that he saw no need to control his dogs and that, indeed, he could make the situation a great deal worse for Danielle if she provoked him to. You understand that he didn’t express himself in quite the measured terms I’ve used here. But that only made the message more menacing.

Some months later, a dog I recognised from Danielle
’s description as the mongrel, flew at my dog, in the same park. It was the Staffie that had been the real culprit before so on this occasion things ended less badly. Even so, and I’m the first to admit that I was mistaken to react this way, I decided to express my dissatisfaction to the young man in question, whom I’d also recognised from what Danielle had told me about him.

The conversation quickly degenerated into a frank exchange of views, in which I used terms of which I’m not proud, though they were more than equalled by his. When I finally decided that discretion was the better part of valour and began to walk away, my departure was hastened by a tennis ball to the neck; when I, again mistakenly, decided to cast discretion to the winds once more and get a photo of the gentleman for the police, I paid for it with the destruction of my glasses (as in spectacles, you understand: I wasn’t proposing to drink to my opponent’s health).

The police had little interest in the photo and decided there’d been faults on both sides (which was true, though they seem not to have grasped that there’d been damage on only one). It quickly became clear that they intended to do absolutely nothing about the case, but that I was free to take the other guy to court, though they warned me he also intended to press charges against me. With no witnesses and the police staying neutral at best, there seemed little hope of any kind of redress from the law.

Some days later we showed the photo I’d taken to a friend of ours.

‘That’s him!’ he exclaimed. Our aggressor was the man whose dogs had attacked him, personally; when he’d asked the owner to call them off, the response had apparently been, ‘you want me to set them on you? They’d rip you apart.’

A big claim, but not one I’d like to put to the test.

The result of all this is that we avoided our local park for a couple of weeks, but that seemed craven. And a serious privation: its parks are Luton
’s greatest asset. Instead, we now just keep an eye out for our less than friendly fellow-dog walker, and if we see him we give him a wide berth. Seems to be working reasonably well, so far.

But then on Saturday we had an experience which shone a whole new light on these events. Danielle and I were struck by the appearance of a postman we saw delivering mail and then, with one voice, proclaimed: ‘it’s him!’

Now, it was a brief moment – we were driving – and I can’t be absolutely sure that it was the same man. But, he looked so similar, and he was even wearing the red anorak he often sports, in Royal Mail colours, but which I’d never previously thought of as a postman’s.

It’s a classic, cliché of a joke, isn’t it, the story of the postman being attacked by a dog? There are cartoons aplenty making fun of the situation, though the real-life cases, of men and women savagely mauled while trying to do their work, are far from funny.

Not so funny for the victim. Who might want to get even
So it came to me: could there be something more than meets the eye behind the behaviour of the terror of our park? Is he not really the vicious, lazy, bullying dog owner I think he is, but a one-man vengeance machine, running a lone campaign to even the score between postmen and the civil population, for centuries of aggression, injury and mockery?

If so, I can understand his bitterness. But, I have to confess, it doesn’t make the prospect of meeting him any more pleasant to contemplate.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Island life without Putin

I was greatly amused to read that Putin’s spokesman had apparently described Britain as ‘a small island no one listens to.

Not sure how keen I am on having that guy listening in
Well, I’ve been saying for years that all that nonsense about Britain ‘punching above its weight’ needed to be put far behind us. It’s salutary to be reminded that when our leaders speak out on the world stage, the audience may be texting friends.

In any case, look who those leaders are. When Big Dave Cameron or his little sidekick George Osborne speaks for Britain, I can’t blame Putin for stopping his ears. I try not to listen either.

Of course, Putin’s denied every having made the comment but then he would, wouldn’t he? Strikes me that Putin’s default position is denial. Ask him whether he knows the time, and he’ll deny ever having seen a timepiece and go on vehemently to proclaim that the US government has in any case unilaterally decided to set its nation’s watches to run several hours adrift of the correct time, which is only properly determined in Moscow.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying life in our little island. One of the more appealing aspects of the insular existence is that it tends to be unpredictable. So many people, for instance, announce with portentousness seriousness what the weather’s going to do, including some who do it officially and in good suits on the TV. They’ve actually got a lot better at it recently. They’re quite often right, when they’re talking about weather arriving in a few hours, and seldom go wrong when it’s actually happening already. But they persist in claiming to be able to speak for the weather several days ahead.

So it was particularly enjoyable to go out yesterday in the pleasant warmth of late summer under blue skies, when the so-called experts had spent the week telling us to expect a catastrophic fall in temperature and torrential rain.

Today’s dawned just as lovely too. Time for me to go and enjoy it with our dog. And to indulge the thought that if our leaders could occasionally produce such cheering little surprises as the weather, instead of boring us to death with the same old threadbare nostrums, it might be worthwhile paying more attention to them.

And if Putin’s not listening to my inconsequential remarks about how lovely early September can be and how uninspiring our politicians are, does anyone honestly think I care?

In any case, the NSA in the States and GCHQ over here are allegedly listening to every word we say already. Why would I need Putin eavesdropping on me too?

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Russians are coming

Seems we’re facing a renewed red menace. Without reds.

As I pointed out recently, we seem to be as concerned with the Russians now as we ever were in Soviet times, which rather suggests that the problem wasn’t Communism, but Russia itself. And Russia seems intent on living up to the West’s jaundiced view: Vladimir Putin has been making conciliatory noises about Syria, even stopping the supply of missile parts, but has made it clear that if the US goes ahead with missile attacks without UN backing, Russia reserves its right to retaliate.

He refuses to say how, but as he’s reinforcing the Russian naval presence in the region, he has options to play with. As Georgia learned to its cost, he's not above using military muscle if he thinks he can get away with it. And as Ukraine learned, he's also more than happy to resort to other means of signifying his displeasure, such as cutting off gas supplies – a move which turned out also to be of considerable inconvenience for much of Western Europe.

’s reaction is one of the factors the US Congress has to take into account in weighing Obamas proposal for launching missiles against Syria. 

Just as in the days of Kremlinology, when observers around the West tried to work out what could possibly be going on in the minds of the Communist leaders in Moscow, so today it’s not easy to predict what Putin might do. 

Are his attempts at conciliation sincere or just a gesture to make for an easier G20 summit starting tomorrow? 

Once the summit’s over, will the smiles vanish and the aggressive glower return? 

Is the iron fist being clenched in the velvet glove?

What’s certain about Putin is that he’s a man without humour and entirely intolerant of anything that seems to undermine his standing. We know of the opponents in gaol or threatened with it, we know of the dead journalists, we know of the Pussy Riot members still rotting in a labour camp.

Why, we even know of Konstantin Altunin. He produced a painting of Putin arranging Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s hair, both of them in women’s underwear. The authorities’ response was swift and uncompromising: the museum was raided, the painting was seized, and Altunin fled to France for his own safety.

Not Putin's taste in art
Now I don’t know about the artistic value of the painting, but I’m pretty certain it wasn’t likely to be regarded as flattering by Putin (or Medvedev either, for that matter). But – it was a painting. It wasn’t going to damage either man’s health or wellbeing; the worst it could do was upset their dignity. 

But Putin
s simply not a nice man. In fact, he’s just the kind of guy you’d expect to be a friend of Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s

If he reacts with that brutality to a painting, how will he behave if his mate's country finds itself on the receiving end of Obama’s missiles? He might show restraint, if only because he’d be up against the world’s most powerful nation, but who’d count on it? He’s not always shown himself a fan of restraint.

In the days of the real red menace, we were quite careful about not stirring up the Russian bear. I
’m not saying we should never stir it up now, at any cost – that would be craven and expose us to all sorts of danger. But if we're going to provoke him, we’d better at least be sure if it’s for an awfully good reason. I’m not at all sure that missile strikes that will kill civilians and probably achieve no military aim, even come near to fitting the bill.

It would be deeply depressing if missile strikes merely provided Putin with the pretext to prove, in a some fiendishly clever way, exactly how wise the British parliament was in refusing to endorse the military action. 

I wonder whether Obama really knows exactly what he
s wishing for? 

Sunday, 1 September 2013

A new-found voice sends a message across the oceans

When the voiceless find a voice, how powerfully they sometimes speak.

Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party and therefore of the official opposition in Britain, became practically the invisible man over the summer. That left the government free to set the agenda, despite being one of the weakest and cruellest I’ve seen:

  • several hundred thousand children have been plunged into poverty 
  • 30 people a week are dying of disease after being ruled fit for work and therefore ineligible for benefits 
  • it has emerged that even as a tentative economic recovery gets underway, many on poor wages are finding permanent full time positions being replaced by insecure, part-time jobs, something also happening in the US.

Many voices began to clamour for Miliband to emerge from the shadows and speak out, including my own (not the most influential perhaps, but I’m pleased it was among them). Now he’s suddenly found the power of speech, and the effect has been astounding.

He told David Cameron that no, he wouldn’t be supporting the government’s enthusiasm to join a US missile strike on Syria.

Many have criticised Miliband for taking that position, but their arguments all seem to be about stature in the world, Britain’s as well as the US’s, and far less about the substance of the argument. Just what good would those missile strikes do?

  • Would they stop President Assad massacring his people? It seems unlikely. 
  • Would they even stop him doing it with chemical weapons? Even that seems improbable, unless the stated aim of ‘degrading’ his weapon stocks meant blowing them up, which sounds pretty reckless. 
  • Would they make the West any safer? By infuriating Russia and helping a rebellion in which Al Qaida plays a major role, it’s hard to see how that would be the outcome.
Miliband’s position led to Cameron losing a vote in Parliament to take part in the strikes, as a result of which it now seems Britain won’t. Cameron is furious, and Downing Street taken to calling Miliband names – really, stuff of the ‘expletive undeleted’ kind. The Tories seem rattled.

Proportionate? Targeted on chemical weapons? Effective
Many thought not and now they won't be taking part
Now President Obama too is going to seek Congressional approval for military action. That’s particularly telling. The Constitution vests the power to declare war in the Congress, not the presidency (Article 1, Section 8). But Presidents have got around that restriction for decades by taking ‘military action’ without declaring war. Now Obama’s setting a precedent that even for such limited initiatives, Congress must be consulted.

That’s what’s happened in Britain too. Britain is less democratic about waging war than the US: the government can use military force on its authority, exercising ‘royal prerogative’, the rights of the monarch, delegated to it. But on this side of the Atlantic, too, the precedent has been set of consulting the legislative first.

The pity, of course, is that though involving the US House of Representatives is great in principle, in practice it’s depressing, given the appalling bunch who now control it. Cameron has accused Miliband of playing politics, when actually he’s just doing politics at last. If you want to see playing at politics, you need to look at the US Tea Party: nothing the government does can be good, everything it attempts must be opposed, however wise or necessary it may be.

So Obama has a fight on his hands. Again, in principle, it’s great to see him doing battle for his beliefs at last; in practice, it’s a pity he’s chosen such a bad issue – the questionable use of missile strikes against Syria. Why couldn’t it have been healthcare or, given what’s happening in the employment market, proper jobs?

But in Britain, it’s great to see that Miliband has found a voice at last. Now we need him to keep using it, not to settle back into his previous torpor and let the government ride all over him again, as the government will certainly try to do. For instance, Prime Minister’s questions are going to be a rough ride this week.

Miliband needs to keep his nerve, to stay calm, and to keep landing the punches, with quiet, obstinate, powerful determination.

That’ll take him to office and drive out our current appalling government. Let’s hope he has the staying power to do the job.

As for Obama: well, he’s got his work cut out for him. He needs to find a strength of which he’s shown scant sign so far.

And then he needs to find a better cause, one which deserves the investment of such effort.