Wednesday, 31 December 2014

At the end of 2014: a glimmer of hope for 2015?

If 2014 had a dominant issue, it would have to be immigration.

Anti-immigrant feeling is on the rise across the rich nations, with some countries such as Britain, France and Sweden seeing brutally xenophobic parties of the far right advancing threateningly. Indeed, such views are affecting, or perhaps I should say infecting, the entire political establishment: the British government has even announced it no longer intends to help finance rescue missions for migrants left to drown in the Mediterranean. It seems a death sentence is a fitting punishment for people attempting to reach Europe illegally.

Citizens of a Christian nation show their compassion
Much of the hostility comes from significant sectors of the working poor, traditionally the natural supporters of the Left, so it too feels pressured to make concessions to views it should be resisting.

While there’s no excuse for it, the spread of xenophobia among the poor isn’t hard to understand. Men and women in unskilled work are on pay that barely allows them to survive. The alternative of eating or heating is starkly posed to many families, especially to the 622,000 (according to the most recent UK government figures) on zero-hour contracts, technically in employment but with no guarantee of either work or pay. It’s no surprise that Britain’s Trussell Trust, which was feeding 30,000 people at food banks in 2007, is now feeding a million.

Life for the poor is even more precarious because, in economies struggling to recover from the 2008 shock, redundancy is an ever-present threat. So yawning before them is the black hole of unemployment, an increasingly desperate state as benefits are reduced in the name of austerity, or withheld as increasingly stringent conditions of entitlement are imposed.

In these circumstances, it’s easy to believe that immigrants in unskilled work are taking jobs which might otherwise have gone to native-born unemployed. Many of these immigrants accept lower wages, so there’s the sense that they are undercutting applicants from within the country. When skilled jobs, for instance in healthcare, go to immigrants, that too can be seen as denying opportunities locally.

So it’s easy for the far right to whip up bitterness against immigrants. And yet it isn’t immigrants who introduced zero-hour contracts, but employers wanting to cut payroll costs. Nor do immigrants demand lower wages, they merely accept them as preferable to the conditions they’ve left behind. Nor, finally, is it immigrants who are keeping locals out of skilled work, but short-sighted economic policies that deny training opportunities to our young people.

The attraction of making immigration the issue is that immigrants are generally easily identifiable, whereas the corporate or political figures responsible for the real problems prefer to say out of sight. Immigrants become an easy scapegoat for all our ills, easy to fear, easy to hate. Parties based on humanity’s baser instincts, like UKIP in Britain or the Front National in France, rise on those feelings.

So it was refreshing, in this toxic atmosphere, to sense a glimmer of optimism at the end of the year. At the beginning of December, the OECD, the club of the most prosperous nations, published a study which, first, confirmed the blindingly obvious, that inequality is increasing, but then went on to assert a truth which badly needed stating: far from encouraging growth, inequality holds it back.

Estimated consequence of changes in inequality (1985-2005)
on subsequent cumulative growth (1990-2010) 
This is dynamite.

Firstly, it gives the lie to the Reagan-Thatcher sacred cow of trickle-down economics: let the rich grow richer, and their wealth will flow downwards to enrich the poor in turn. It turns out that enriching the rich just makes the rich richer. The only surprise is that anyone’s surprised.

Secondly, it shows that inequality doesn’t even encourage economic growth. Many once believed that it was better to have unjust distribution of a bigger cake, but the OECD shows that unjust distribution itself slows the growth of the whole cake. Increasing inequality between 1985 and 2005 held growth back by 8.5% on average across the OECD between 1990 and 2010.

It seems that fairness isn’t just morally preferable, it’s more economically efficient.

So, if all but a tiny minority of us are feeling poorer, it’s because we’re becoming poorer. The zero-hour contracts, the downward pressure on benefits, the cuts in public services aren’t about fixing the economy. They’re the necessary price of growing inequality, where the wealthiest 1% or even 0.1% prosper, but the least well off 40% see nothing grow but their suffering.

These are key notions, and all the more so since they’re being voiced in the wake of one of the more important publishing events of recent years: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st century. He shows, with real data to support his argument, that inequality is growing ineluctably. What’s more, while in the twentieth century there was a reduction in inequality in income, that trend is recent and by no means guaranteed. Nor has there been any corresponding reduction of inequality in wealth:

… the upper decile own 60 percent of Europe’s wealth and more than 70 percent in the United States. And the poorer half of the population are as poor today as they were in the past, with barely 5 percent of total wealth in 2010, just as in 1910.

Piketty’s central contention is that for as long as the rate of return on capital is higher than the rate of growth in the economy, the gap between the wealthiest in society and the poorest – note the depressing finding that half the people own less than 5% of the wealth – will continue to widen. And we now know this restricts overall growth.

Why do we allow this to happen? Because people with property of $100,000 or $200,000 think of themselves as on the brink of wealth, and believe their interests lie with the very wealthiest, those whose property is measured in the millions. They support measures to shore up inequality because they believe they may in time benefit from them.

Meanwhile the poorest, apparently impotent to change anything, with no voice in politics, look for an easy target. Blaming immigrants is a convenient way to explain their difficulties, and they rally behind UKIP or the Front National or their ilk.

But Piketty and the OECD, joined even by the IMF, have highlighted the real cause of their problems: inequality.

That’s what gives me some encouragement at the end of 2014. The terms of debate are beginning to change, at least at top levels of economic thought. Perhaps we can encourage some trickle-down in ideas, even if it has failed in finance. If the parties of the Left can find the courage to reject facile immigrant-bashing, and to challenge the failed economic wisdom of the Reagan-Thatcher legacy, then they may mobilise support for progressive change. Towards greater justice, and towards greater efficiency at the same time.

It wouldn’t be a moment too soon.

Happy 2015. I hope.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Maggie, the poll tax, and the danger of firmness

A benefit of the thirty-year rule for disclosure of British government papers is that it can provide a salutary reminder of just how unsavoury certain people were, at a time – three decades on – when there’s a tendency to canonise them.

For a while now, and never more than since her funeral, there has been a growing tendency to sing the praises of Maggie Thatcher. A strong woman, we’re told, a conviction politician, firm in her beliefs, determined to see them through.

That all sounds like praise indeed. So we sometimes have to remind ourselves of the irregular verb: I am firm, you are obstinate, he is pig-headed. What looks like firmness when you feel it’s in a good cause, is simply dogmatism bordering on fanaticism in a bad one.

Firm? Resolut? Or just inflexible?
The Guardian has done us a service by publishing details of the advice Thatcher received from Oliver Letwin, now a Minister but then a 29-year old special adviser, concerning the proposed move to funding local government based on a “residence charge”, later renamed the “community charge” and ultimately known to practically everyone as the “poll tax”.

This was pretty much an unmitigated disaster. Projections in 1985 showed that 44% of the population would be made worse off. The then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson – the minister responsible for Financial matters – declared the tax would mean that “a pensioner couple in inner London could find themselves paying 22% of their net income in poll tax, whereas a better off couple in the suburbs pay only 1%.” He described the scheme as “completely unworkable and politically catastrophic.”

Letwin maintained that it was the way to go, backed by Lord Victor Rothschild, now revealed to be the man who first had the idea. Letwin even supported the approach it has long been suspected Thatcher adopted, of using the Scots as guinea pigs and only introducing the poll tax in England and Wales after running it for a year north the border.

Despite the opposition of many of her most senior ministers, Thatcher made this an issue on which to prove her “firmness”. The poll tax was imposed on the rest of Britain after Scotland, amid increasing resentment and indeed resistance, culminating in widespread rioting in 1990. Her dogmatic attachment to a bad idea had lasted five years and done huge damage – not least, to herself. It was in 1990 that Tory Party grandees decided that they’d had enough of a good thing, or that Thatcher was no longer the good thing she had been, and dumped her.

She could never forgive them. Like all people who have her brand of “firmness’, she knew she could do no wrong. The poll tax hadn’t been her calamitous error, her utter failure of political sensitivity towards the real concerns of voters, it had been a policy that others hadn’t had the courage to see through, preferring instead to bring her down in an act that could only be qualified as treason.

That’s the kind of history we need to recall each time anyone speaks with nostalgia of the Thatcher period. Remember that her departure was the end of an error as well as the end of the era.

But we should also remember that the man who advised her down this destructive route was Oliver Letwin. Thatcher’s gone, but he’s still in government. The Guardian quotes Lord Rothschild expressing some reservations: “…I am nervous lest [the poll tax] is accidentally or deliberately misinterpreted, for example: ‘Tories hit the poor again’, ‘No compassion for the have-nots’.”

How ironic. Those are precisely the charges anyone with empathy for the poor makes of the government in which Letwin, architect of the poll tax, serves today.

Which demonstrates that this kind of story not only provides useful insight on the reputation Thatcher really deserves, it also reveals how balefully her legacy still affects us today.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

If you've let "The Escape Artist" escape, get him back in your clutches

It appals me how I can completely miss a film or series I really shouldn’t have. 

When I say “completely”, I really mean completely: I’d never even heard of The Escape Artist until Amazon decided to recommend it to me, and I thought I might give it a whirl, principally on the basis that I find David Tennant worth watching. Certainly, I liked him as the somewhat manic (desperately ill and, just to make sure we’ve missed none of the potential pathos, bereaved) detective inspector in Broadchurch, opposite a stunningly good Olivia Colman as his sergeant.

You didn’t see Broadchurch? One of the best British police thrillers for years – the first to have learned from the Scandinavians that you don’t need a string of bodies to make a murder drama dramatic, that just one can generate all the suspense you need (“one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic”, though I’m not sure many of us would quote Stalin as a movie critic). I strongly recommend you catch up quickly on season 1, especially since season 2 starts next week.

But then get hold of The Escape Artist

Tennant’s not a policeman in this one, but a lawyer, specifically a junior barrister. For those not familiar with the arcane ways of the English legal system, a junior barrister can be a senior lawyer – even an old one – but one who has never “taken silk”, as we quaintly refer to the moment he or she becomes a Queen’s Counsel (strictly speaking, “Queens Counsel learned in the law” – isn’t that great?) , thereby earning a silk gown (no, you don’t have to wait another ten years to get the high heels to go with it). 

David Tennant and still more junior colleague looking good at work
Some years ago I came across a barrister (the cousin of a colleague, if you must know – yes, it’s that kind of story: not quite “a chap in a pub told me” but not far off) who had suffered a nervous breakdown from having successfully defended a rapist who then went on to rape again. It’s clear, and a principle strongly stated in The Escape Artist, that everyone deserves a defence, but it must indeed be hard when someone like David Tennant’s character artfully builds the escape for a man who turns out to be – how shall I put this to avoid spoilers? – let’s just say, no better than he should be.

Incidentally, his turning out to be no better than he should be leads to the first episode ending with some of the tensest TV I’ve seen for years.

Careful: the one on the left may turn out not to be so nice after all
The result is excellent drama, in which we swing from rooting for the defence, to rooting for the prosecution, to ultimately, by a convoluted but gripping route, rooting for perpetration of a serious crime. Brilliant. It's a single–season series, with just three one-hour episodes, making it less long than two decent-length films. We watched it in one sitting: once into it, it’s hard to tear yourself away.

On the way, we even saw how the Scottish legal system differs from the English, not something many people know about. Ever heard of the verdict “not proven”, alongside “guilty” and “not guilty”? They have it in Scotland. No wonder the pressure for independence seems to grow unstoppably – why, they’re so much more subtle in their thinking.

Tennant’s Scots, as it happens. And gives a great performance in The Escape Artist. Not to be missed.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

A funny way to celebrate Christmas. Or perhaps not? Plus: a Christian story

Merry Christmas to you all.

We’ve just got back from Oxford, where we had Christmas lunch with my mother and brother. Not at home, you understand: at ninety my mother rightly feels she can put behind her all the labour and heartache of the preparation of a massive lunch.

No, we went to a restaurant that proudly proclaims itself to be open every day of the year. Having spent a long time looking, let me assure you there aren’t many places that can say the same.

Al-Shami: open 365 days
Except in leap years
Al-Shami is a Lebanese place. It’s sat right opposite the Oxford Synagogue. Indeed, it was members of the Jewish community, in which my mother has been active these last few years, who recommended it to us. They live, it seems, by their recommendations because, as lunch rolled on, more and more members of the community turned up for their own lunches.

So we enjoyed Tabbouleh and Sujuq, Shawarma Lahme and Daoud Basha, without necessarily knowing what they were, and capped it all off with one of those dishes which seem to be mostly cream, at the mere sight of which one’s tongue salivates and one’s arteries fur. All with a splendid view of the Synagogue across the street and the chatter of cheerful Jewish voices all around.

It struck me as perhaps a slightly odd way to celebrate Christmas. But then again: Levantine cooking while surrounded by Jews? Perhaps that’s rather more appropriate a way to mark the birth of Jesus than what we generally do.

The Oxford Synagogue, opposite Al-Shami
An appropriate view on a day dedicated to a Nazarene Rabbi?

Postscript: Just to mark the season – a story to illustrate the Christian message at its best (hope you’re listening David Cameron, with Christian values always in your mouth, never in your deeds).

This story was told us by friends from Dublin, dating back to the time they still lived two or three decades ago.

A friend of theirs was in deep trouble. Recently abandoned by her husband, she’d been left with two kids and no means to finance her mortgage, on which she was now three or four months in arrears and with the bank beginning to threaten foreclosure.

There was a knock on her door and her heart sank still further when she realised she was being visited by Jehovah’s Witnesses. They began to talk to her about their beliefs, and hers, until one of them suddenly interrupted the flow.

“You seem very unhappy,” he said.

“I have my problems,” she curtly replied.

“Can we come in, have a cup of tea, and talk about them?” 

She let them in and made the tea. Then, to her surprise, she found herself unburdening herself of all her problems, to these two complete strangers. They listened politely without making any judgement or offering any advice. They even asked the extent of her arrears and, again to her surprise, she told them.

They left soon after but were back on her doorstep the following day. She let them in and made tea again.

“We’ve brought this for you,” one of them said.

“This” was a cheque. For the full amount of the mortgage arrears.

Her first reaction was overwhelming relief. Out of nowhere had come a solution to her immediate problems. With that money, she could rise above her difficulties, rebuild energy and morale, and work on a future for herself and her kids – as, indeed, she later did.

But then a terrible thought occurred to her. What would they expect in return?

“I don’t plan to convert, you know,” she said, “I’m not attracted by your movement. Why, I don’t even like having Jehovah’s Witnesses on the doorstep.”

“You’ll never see us again,” they told her.

And she never did.

Dessert at Al-Shami
Great substitute for Christmas Pudding
Less appreciated by my vascular system

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

The Interview, Spycatcher and freedom of speech

Sony has decided to release its reportedly rather tedious film, The Interview. 

An excellent move, a great victory for principle against threat. The attempt by, allegedly, North Korea to blackmail the company into not showing the film has been resisted. It’s a triumph for freedom of speech over one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. A salutary and uplifting restatement of some of the most important principles on which we base our lives in the West.

Kim Jong Un: satirised in the film he tried to block
Of course, it has to be said that the controversy hasn’t done the film much harm. An apparently inferior film, which perhaps deserved no better than limited exposure before fading into untroubled obscurity, has now been given the kind of publicity no money could buy. Why, you could almost feel it a democratic duty to watch the dreary thing.

It reminds me of the fuss that was made over Peter Wright’s book, Spycatcher. Wright claimed that he’d been given the task of unmasking a mole inside MI5, and found that it was the Director General, Roger Hollis.

Maggie Thatcher, then Prime Minister, displayed all the keen judgement and commitment to democratic values for which shes famed, by deciding that no one should read this book. She banned it in the UK. Well, not actually in the UK. Since the ban was decreed under English and Welsh law, it didn’t apply in Scotland, where the book was available.

It was published in Australia in 1987. This meant that Thatcher’s ban, based on the need to protect national security, prevented only readers in England and Wales from reading the book. It’s possible, I suppose, that no one in the Russian security apparatus – famed for its commitment to high standards of ethics and honour, epitomised by men like Vladimir Putin, a KGB apparatchik – ever read it, on the basis that it would be unfair to gain an unfair advantage that Thatcher wanted to deny them. Frankly, I’m inclined to doubt it.

So we were in the fabulous position of being protected by a government that could find no better way to assure our safety than to prevent our finding out information that was already in the possession of any enemy that might use it against us.

I was so irritated by this high-handed behaviour by the sainted Margaret that I contacted a friend in the US and asked him to get a copy for me and send it over. Which he did.

Having had that assistance, I felt duty bound to reach the book. And I did. With enormous difficulty. Over a very long time. It was one of the most turgid, uninspiring books I’d ever come across. If anything could persuade me of the innocence of Hollis, it was having to read such dismal material arguing the opposite. I’d cite examples of it, but quarter of a century on, all I can remember about it was the relief at finishing it and having no more to read.

That, frankly, makes me feel that I’ve done my bit in the way of consuming dullness in the name of protecting freedom of speech. It may indeed be my duty to watch The Interview, but I feel I’ve already given. Still, I’m glad to know that I have the choice.

That’s at least one oppressive act that neither Maggie Thatcher nor Kim Jong Un got away with.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Mouse and man: the big lessons little things can teach

It’s curious how little things can teach big lessons. Or, to view the same incidents from another angle, how much you can learn from experiences which that are far from pleasant.

For instance, I can get quite high-minded about our need, as a species, to learn to share the space we inhabit with other forms of life. I find the way we’re driving species after species to extinction entirely shameful and to be resisted. Sadly, however, my commitment to this principle has certain limits.

It seems I am not overwhelmingly enthusiastic about sharing my immediate living space with those charming little rodents so endearingly anthropomorphised by Hannah Barbera as Jerry. Mice in my kitchen? No thanks, is all I can say. In fact, despite the cartoons, when it comes right down to it, to harsh reality, I’m firmly on the side of Tom.

In fact, come to think of it, we have our Tom. And a very good mouser Misty is too. He catches the little blighters all the time. Outdoors. Which is why I’m more than a little disappointed that he hasn’t rid of us of the little beggars who have chosen to make themselves a comfortable, and no doubt cosy, home in the cupboard where we keep our pans.

Endearing. But a metaphor for the problems of our time:
happy to consume, not always to deliver
I have to be careful what I say about Misty, because I think he follows this blog. He certainly makes me suffer foR it if I ever say anything about his weight, which continues to become increasingly impressive (whoops, I’m for it now). He’s not above using his teeth or claws, but often he likes to be more subtle, and merely come to lie on me in bed at night, which isn’t conducive to easy rest. It’s becoming less and less conducive as his prodigious achievements in turning cat food into cat continue relentlessly (whoops, now I’m really in trouble).

I like to tell myself that he lies on me out of affection though, frankly, it works perfectly well as a punishment. Misty’s a cat who, when he lies on you, leaves you in no doubt that you’ve been lain on.

Well, he hasn’t freed us of our kitchen infestation. I hardly dare say it, but there are times, Misty, when I’m uncertain what purpose you serve, other than to hoover up cat biscuits.

So the mice stayed put. And instead we had to invest in that other mouse trap, the type that comes in the form of an actual trap. Without fur, four claw-lined paws and a mouth full of needle-sharp teeth.

A mouse trap was the little thing that taught me a couple of big lessons.

I’d forgotten just how unpleasant those traps are. I’m not fond of lethal weapons, and these are merciless, perfectly designed to break the back of a small rodent. And I had to bait and set them myself.

Then came the test. Would I be prepared to look inside, to check on what I suppose I’d have to call the catch? It took some willpower. But in the end, I summoned it up.

Merciless. Effective. Lethal
There was nothing to see until this morning. When, having made sure my wife was well away from the dismal scene, I found two sprung traps with two sad little, and decidedly dead, bodies.

And then I made my second discovery. I felt none of the revulsion or pity I’d expected. Just satisfaction that two at least (possibly all?) of the interlopers would bother us no more. A plastic bag, an easy action on the mechanism of the traps, a quick trip to the bin, and the remains were gone.

I suppose I should be relieved it proved so simple. And yet somehow I feel I should be more guilt ridden. Two little lives viciously snapped short, and I merely feel glad to be free of their presence?

Can’t be right. Can it?

Monday, 22 December 2014

Central heating: great if you know how to use it

It’s pleasant to be home early, even if it’s only to continue working. Just being in your own space and not in an office is good for the mood. Though that’s not helped by grey weather and light fading at an impossibly early hour – barely after 4:00, for Pete’s sake. Sheesh. Call that a civilised arrangement?

The worst though is the cold. You can take it out of doors, but indoors? No. Indoors should be toast-like.

So when I got in this afternoon, I made straight for the thermostat.

Now, I didn’t turn it right up to 21 degrees (Celsius, that is; nearly 70 in that silly system some of you insist on still using). I did that the other day and was sweltering within minutes. Having to open windows and all that.

Instead, I pushed it to 19. That, I felt, should do the job.

It didn’t, though. Half an hour later, I was still freezing. Well, not really freezing, I know. Not like the homeless or anything. Not like being outside on a Russian street. Not like the inside of a Russian leader, for that matter. But for me, subjectively, still unpleasantly cold.

So up went the thermostat to 21, after all. 

Still no good though. A while later I felt as unnecessarily chilly as ever.

Great when it works. Not so good when you can't work it
By then, it was pretty well dark. 

“Ah,” I thought to myself, “psychology has a big role to play in these things. I know. I’ll turn on some cheery lights and draw the curtains. Make it look cosy and it’ll feel cosy.”

For a while I kidded myself that this was working, but as my toes started issuing frostbite alerts, I decided that I could delude myself no longer. However hard I tried to convince myself that I was now warm, all the evidence was against me. I was just as cold as when I came in.

“Just as cold?” A nasty suspicion began to form in my mind. I stalked over to the central heating boiler and opened the inspection flap.

It was as I feared. The house wasn’t cold because the thermostat had cut out the heating. It was cold because my wife, in a prudent and wise economy measure, had turned the boiler over to hot water only. The heating was off.

What’s that you say? I should have checked a radiator? I’d have known at once?

Easy to be wise after the event, my friend. Why weren’t you there offering me that advice this afternoon when I needed it? And sparing me a couple of hours of perishing cold indoors?

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Haven't seen The Fall? Make sure you see it soon...

Compelling stuff, the first season of The Fall. It stars Gillian Anderson, playing an Englishwoman – again. She was excellent as a Dickensian heroine in Bleak House, and outstanding now as a senior detective from the Metropolitan Police in London.

In The Fall, she’s in Belfast to help the Police Service of Northern Ireland track down the ritualistic murderer of a woman, and quickly establishes that his offence was not a one-off but part of a series that will extend throughout the first season.

In passing, I should say that it doesn’t do any false realism. Gillian Anderson’s character is very Gillian Anderson, with a lot of high heels and plenty of silk. Not quite the way of life one associates with the Met – Helen Mirren, as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, she certainly isn’t. But the role as written, Anderson plays remarkably well. 

The rest of cast is excellent too, most notably Jamie Dornan as the murderer.

For fans of The Good Wife, it’s also a pleasure to see Archie Panjabi again. In the American series, her bisexuality is a key element of the character, and it’s amusing to see the theme touched on (in season 2), with nothing like the same results, by the BBC.

The five episodes of the first season of The Fall, for which Flemish director Jakob Verbruggen was in charge, build an atmosphere of tension and growing horror and, to do that, use some lovingly (and painfully) detailed filming of fiendish and monstrous brutality. Since we know who the perpetrator is, there’s no suspense over his identity. Instead, it has to be conjured up by concern over how many crimes he will commit, and how horrific they will be. As a result, there’s nothing gratuitous about the violence, since the series requires the intensity, but it still needs a certain firmness of stomach to watch it.

Jamie Dornan, as the perpetrator, pacing behind his
hunter, Gillian Anderson, in The Fall
For season 2, the BBC handed over the direction to Alan Cubitt. An extraordinary transformation takes place: out go the scenes of killing and with them, most of the remaining traces of what normally makes for suspense (though there is a question mark to worry us over the fate of an abducted woman). In a paradoxical way, it’s the opposite of suspense that gives the season its tension: it’s knowing where we’re heading. As in a Greek tragedy, we know the destination, so it matters less and less; instead we focus on the journey. And quite a journey it is.

Because what is just predictability when it’s badly done, is inevitability when it’s well executed. And that’s season 2 of The Fall: six episodes of a trap slowly closing, the jaws moving unstoppably towards each other on the predator turned prey. It’s like the Oedipus story – you don’t need to be told the ending to know it’s not going to be cheerful. You can sit back and watch in amazement as what you know is going to happen, unfolds before your eyes.

Indeed, with The Fall, you don’t even have to be far into the final, feature-length episode, to know just what the end is going to be and how it’s going to happen. But again, it isn’t where you’re going, it’s how you get there that makes the difference. And the series carries us along with breathtaking skill.

If you haven’t seen it, make a point of seeing it now. Some of the scenes of Season 1 are gruelling, but the series needs them and is well worth getting through them. 

Friday, 19 December 2014

As a public service: unveiling a pattern that the bright young things seem to have missed

I’m going to explain this very carefully and slowly, so even the bright young things at the Pentagon and the Foreign Office can get it.

Iran is a really, really dangerous country. So dangerous, in fact, that we had to make sure that it didn’t get a democratically elected leader. When it tried with Mohammad Mosaddegh, back in the 50s (yep, this story goes that far back, at least), we in the West overthrew him.

So Iran got the Shah, and that was fine and dandy until in 1979 he got overthrown in turn and replaced by the awful Ayatollahs. Who were even worse than Mossadegh.

In our consternation, we turned for help to our good friend Saddam Hussein (yep, he was a good friend then), who was really running a fairly decent dictatorship in Iraq, only torturing opponents; he would later demonstrate moderation by not using poison gas on too many civilians.

We gave him lots of nice weapons to fight Iran with, which he did for eight years. At the end of that time, since it was clear that neither side was actually going to win, they decided to call it a scoreless draw and went home.

Tasteful tribute to the war dead in Iran
But then Saddam had a lot of nice American toys to play with and a bit of a taste for war (just like the Americans, as it happens. And the Brits. And the French. And the Israelis. Most of the good guys, in fact). He was pretty sure he could count on his good friends, so he invaded Kuwait.

Sadly, for some in the US this was crossing a bit of a line. So we went to war against him. We got him out of Kuwait, but not out of power. We needed something else

That wasn’t a problem. We invented some stuff about weapons of mass destruction, and to back up our point, we rediscovered the poison gassing of his civilians, and decided that maybe it wasn’t that acceptable after all. We got Tony Blair to go on TV and look honest while spinning lies, and back we went to war to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

Sadly, with him gone, we found Al Qaida trying to take power in iraq.

Another quick rethink was in order. We decided to back a government in Baghdad backed by Iranians (remember them?) and between us and our new friends, the friends of Iran, we saw Al Qaida out of the picture.

But we barely had time to draw breath before ISIS, even worse than Al Qaida, were out there torturing and beheading thousands of civilians to say nothing – and this is really serious – even a handful of Western citizens. So who did we turn to?

Why, we called on Al Qaida for help. Of course. We had some Al Qaida guys call some ISIS guys they knew to see if they could perhaps save Peter Kassig, an American hostage, and stop being really beastly any more, at least to Westerners.

Sadly, we cocked up. We didn’t tell the Jordanians that the Al Qaida guy in Jordan was a friend, unlike the Al Qaida guys who were enemies, so they arrested him and he’s locked up to this day. ISIS duly murdered Peter Kassig and things went on getting worse.

Now there is in all these events something that we students of matters historical like to call a “pattern”. In case those bright young things mentioned above are struggling to grasp it, I’ll spell it out.

It works like this. Every time we find an enemy, we knock him off his perch. Unfortunately, he’s usually replaced by someone even worse. To deal with that character, we often have to turn to the very people we were fighting against before.

Now it’s hard to imagine anyone much worse than ISIS. They seem pretty much the pits. But we shouldn’t underestimate Western ingenuity. If we really set our minds to it, we can probably conjure up something still more horrific than ISIS, and then have to turn to ISIS for help to deal with it.

Given their track record to date, would anyone doubt their ability to pull the trick off? And make us nostalgic for ISIS? As we seem to have been forced to become for Al Qaida? For Iran? Even for Saddam Hussein in his time?

If only we’d thought of that before ousting Mossadegh.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Beware the Russian bear, especially when he's wounded

For the first time for over twenty years, I was woken from a dream which I had several times as a teenager or a young man. A dream of planes, large and somehow cumbersome, moving apparently slowly across the sky as they seem to do in films, though we all know they travel at speeds almost unimaginable on earth. The fly towards me and I know they’re about to drop nuclear weapons.

In the dream, cowering around the corner of a wall from the blast, I don’t hear the noise but see the blinding light, again as shown in countless films.

Russian bombers: the stuff of dreams
Now I attach no significance to dreams. All this one represents is preoccupations that have resurfaced in my life, in all our lives, and which had receded for quarter of a century. Because Russia has moved firmly back into the “watch this space” category: it’s going broke, it’s shown no hesitation about getting aggressive with other nations, and it’s nuclear-armed.

Yesterday the rouble lost half its value against the dollar. The Russian government took emergency measure after emergency measure against the failure of its currency, but couldn’t stop it, even when interest rates went up to 17% (you’d think somebody would want to invest for that return, but no one believes the fall has stopped – so they don’t invest and the fall continues).

Part of the problem is that the oil price is on the way down (curious that energy prices in Western countries haven’t yet started falling as dramatically – curious, but not at all surprising). And Russia remains as dependent on raw material as any third world country, specifically that raw material, oil.

The Russian government has done a great job of making a small number of people extremely wealthy, but has done little or nothing for most of the people.

Nothing like Britain, you see.

Strangely, Russian voters don’t seem able to grasp that they’ve put in power people who are going to fleece them, so they keep voting for them.

Again, not at all like Britain.

The second factor is making the situation a great deal worse: Western sanctions. Now, I can see a good argument for saying that Crimea ought to be part of Russia: it always was, and was handed over to Ukraine by Kruschev, in a clumsy act of arbitrary rule. On the other hand, I can see no good argument for saying that the problem should have been resolved by force of arms.

Nor can I see any good argument for infiltrating troops and arming lawless militias in other parts of Eastern Ukraine, but Russia keeps doing it. As a result, they’re under an increasing burden of sanctions, which are making a desperate financial position still worse.

But will this undermine Russian resolve to keep on stirring things up for Ukraine, and for the West?

t’s far more likely to have exactly the opposite effect. Voters already committed to Putin to the point of fanaticism, will in all probability back him still more strongly. And they’ll want to lash out against their perceived enemies more brutally, if only to make themselves feel less bad about themselves.

They’ll justify their position with words like “pride” and “honour”. We’ll probably hear expressions such as “it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.”

A man to inspire confidence. And reassurance about peace
That’s always struck me as a particularly short-sighted view. Die on your feet, and you don’t stay on your feet. Live on your knees and there’s a chance you might be able to get up again in a while. No one has ever stood up from being dead, except allegedly one man in Jerusalem a while back, and I’m not wholly convinced by the evidence I’ve been shown.

The sensible position would be for Russians to say “it’s bloody cold around here in the winter, and food prices are shocking already. Let’s come to an accommodation with the West and even with Ukraine, and live to fight another day.”

They won’t. There’ll be stiff backs and stiffer upper lips all over the place. Stiff necks too. And there’ll be a powerful surge of support for getting their retaliation in first.

Why would they stop with Ukraine, seen as a surrogate for the West, when they have the missiles to get at the West itself?

Because, and don’t you forget it, Russian’s nuclear-armed. Well nuclear-armed.

Sweet dreams, everyone.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Western Democracy: it would be a good idea

When asked what he thought of Western Civilisation, Gandhi replied “I think it would be a good idea.”

In the same spirit, it strikes me that introducing democracy in the West might well be a good idea. That reflection was prompted by a most revealing story in the British papers this morning.

The Tories have changed the rules on election spending, increasing the limits by 23%, against the recommendation of the Electoral Commission. Since they have raised £78 million over the last four years, far more than any other party – they have the backing of the wealthiest individuals, after all – this move clearly favours them against the opposition.

David Cameron:
sincerely sorry for taking such an underhand advantage
They pulled this off on the sly, using an arcane device known as a “statutory instrument”, which avoids parliamentary scrutiny, unless one of the other parties calls for it to be reviewed in the House. Sadly, Labour failed to spot it in time.

That is the first revealing aspect of the story. It has often driven me near to distraction that the Labour Party, at least under its present leadership – fine people, but it would appear horribly out of their depth – insist on playing as amateurs in a professional league. They are constantly outmanoeuvred. They failed to spot a change in campaign laws that would cause them serious harm? Are they really up to the game at this level?

Far more striking, however, is what it reveals about the Conservative Party itself. Clearly, it has absolutely no compunction about descending to the dirtiest of tricks – rather like the Republican Party, and in particular its Tea Party wing, in the States. It doesn’t even care that it will be caught, as it must have known would eventually happen. It doesn’t care because it knows that many will vote for it anyway, despite the dirty tricks – perhaps even because of them: this may be foul play, but it’s a professional foul, and people respond well to professionalism.

But the most telling titbit in the article concerned one detail of the huge financial donations the Tory Party has received.

The Conservative Party has taken a little over £21 million in contributions from Hedge Funds. Last year’s budget removed a tax, stamp duty, from Hedge Fund transactions, worth £145 million to them.

So the cost of austerity borne by the (generally poorer) taxpayer went up by £145 million, and one-seventh of that sum went straight to the Party that made the (colossally wealthy) Hedge Funds that gift. Not a bad deal: the Funds kept six-sevenths of the windfall, and handed over one-seventh to their benefactors. Well, the agents of the benefactors: the ultimate benefactor is the population, while those who pretend to represent us handed over the largesse – and shared in the benefit.

George Osborne:
just as sorry to have given away our money and got a large chunk back
And theyve now made sure, by changing the law, that they can spend the money to try to cling on to power and keep doing that kind of high-minded deal. There are times when I look at the Tory Party, or the self-satisfied wealthy right in general, and feel them looking down on us from on high, as though proclaiming Look upon my works, ye lowly, and despair!

But we don’t despair. Because some day those chickens will come home to roost and we, the people, intent on forming a more perfect union, will break the power of money on our politics.

Then we might indeed find what a great idea Western democracy could be.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Remembering the loss of war

2014 is the start of a four-year period of centenaries, as we mark the hundredth anniversary of each of the main events of the First World War, as it turns up. 

We commemorated the outbreak of war back in August; for the war as a whole, in Britain we had the moatful of poppies at the Tower of London; now we’re on the brink of celebrations for the Christmas truces, with their attendant football games and exchanges of gifts between the front lines, a moment of hope which soon gave way to deeper despair than ever.

Poppies for the British dead at the Tower
As this process unfolds, there will be increasing debate on the war, on what it achieved, on what it cost in lives. 

There was a radical revision in assessments of the war back in the sixties, perhaps best characterised by the musical and then film, Oh What a Lovely War. The tone of the time is summed up by Adrian Henri’s line “Don’t be vague, blame General Haig”. That parody of an advert of the time (“don’t be vague, ask for Haig”) was particularly neat since the General owed his wealth to the Haig whisky business.

Where Haig's wealth came from
Judging by the results, perhaps his inspiration too
Now, though, there are signs of a new mood that would revise the revision. The war wasn’t all bad, the domination of Europe by Germany had to be broken (ironic, given where we live now), the victory was one for democracy and not just for imperialism. 

In the face of that backlash, it was illuminating to learn this week about Käthe Kollwitz (and my thanks are due, for far from the first time recently, to Neil MacGregor’s series Germany: memories of a nation). Kollwitz was an expressionist painter and sculptor and the first woman to be admitted to the Prussian Academy of Arts, though when the Nazis came to power, she was driven out as a creator of “degenerate art”.

Back in 1914, on the outbreak of war, her son decided to enlist in the German Army. Because he was under age, he needed his parents’ authority. His father refused, but Käthe came down on the boy’s side and persuaded her husband to let their son go. Within days of his reaching the front line, he was dead.

Käthe’s grief was made far more bitter by her harrowing sense of guilt. She decided to sculpt a monument to her son. The torrent of emotions she had to contend with made her reject idea after idea, and in the end it took her seventeen years to finish her work. it was unveiled in 1931.

The memorial she produced now stands in a Belgian cemetery, not far from where her son is buried. And what does it show?

Her son doesn’t appear.

There is no reference to war, neither the glory and courage of a warrior, nor the bitterness of injury and death.

All we see is two figures, for which she took herself and her husband as models, both kneeling and mourning.

Käthe Kollwitz. Grieving parents
It’s an image worth calling to  mind, especially each time we’re told that the losses of the war were a cost worth paying.


I’m indebted to the Plough website for quoting from Käthe Kollwitz’s diary, towards the end of her life, days before the end of the Second World War, in April 1945.

One day, a new ideal will arise, and there will be an end to all wars. I die convinced of this. It will need much hard work, but it will be achieved... The important thing, until that happens, is to hold one’s banner high and to struggle... Without struggle there is no life.

Second postscript

Adrian Henri’s Great War Poems from which I quoted above, is worth reading in full. I particularly like “the ghost of Wilfred Owen selling matches outside the Burlington Arcade”. I have a childhood memory of old soldiers selling boxes of matches.

Great War Poems

I. The same old soldiers walking along the same old skyline

2. Dead hand through the sandbags reaching out for the cream­and ­white butterfly

3. Mud/water under duckboards/mud/rats scamper in starshell darkness/mud/smell of shit and rotting bodies/mud/resting your sweaty forehead on the sandbags OVER THE TOP the first men in the lunar landscape.

4. “What did you do to the Great Whore, Daddy?”

5. Poppies slightly out­of­focus and farmcarts bringing in the peaceful dead.

6. The ghost of Wilfred Oven selling matches outside the Burlington Arcade.

7. Seafog. Red flaring lights from the shore batteries. The roar of shells rattle of machineguns. Water running in the bilges. My feet slipping on the damp cobbles of the quayside.


9. Four white feathers clutched in a blood­stained envelope

10. A skull nestling in a bed of wild strawberries/boots mouldering green with fungus/saplings thrusting through rusting helmets/sunken barges drifting full of leaves down autumn rivers.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Cheney, the torture report – one of them is full of it

“The report's full of crap. Excuse me. I said ‘hooey’ yesterday. Let me use the real word.”

That’s how the man who was Dubya’s Vice President, Dick Cheney, dismissed the US Senate’s report on torture by the CIA, in the measured terms to which he owes his reputation for eloquence and moderation.

Dick Cheney: Aaron Sorkin's Colon Jessup
with the charm surgically excised
He reminds me of no one so much as Colonel Nathan Jessup, from A few good men who, at the end of the film, explains behaviour which – and I’ll pick my words more carefully than Cheney – was reprehensible if not criminal. The end, he suggests, “absolutely” justifies the means. “I’d do it again in a minute.”

No, no. Sorry. That wasn’t Jessup. That was Cheney. Jessup said “I did my job. I'd do it again.”

Jessup explained “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it.”

According to Cheney, “what happened here was that we asked the agency to go take steps and put in place programs that were designed to catch the bastards who killed 3,000 of us on 9/11 and make sure it never happened again, and that's exactly what they did.”

Jessup also made clear the rationale behind a strict chain of command: “We follow orders, son. We follow orders or people die. It's that simple. Are we clear?”

Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan
the marginally more appealing version of Dick Cheney
Cheney made it clear that the same approach operated in his boss’s administration. To the suggestion that the CIA were out of control and didn’t keep the President informed, he replied “He was in fact an integral part of the program. He had to approve it before we moved forward with it.”

With wisdom as clear-sighted as we all associate with the august figure of Dubya, who can doubt that the torture service was being directed with a sure hand and enlightened judgement? And if Dubya was napping or on holiday, there was always his friend Dick to make sure that guidance was maintained.

“You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives,” Jessup declares, talking of the victim of the crime central to the film, Willy Santiago, “and my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.”

Talking of the arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is believed to have been behind the 9/11 attack, Cheney asked, “what are we supposed to do, kiss him on both cheeks and say, ‘Please, please tell us what you know?’ Of course not. We did exactly what needed to be done.” And it does need to be done, because otherwise people die: “what are you prepared to do to get the truth against future attacks against the United States?”

Fortunately, this kind of tale often has a happy ending. What a way to dismiss a vicious bully with no respect for the rule of law than to tell him “you're under arrest you sonofabitch.”

Sadly, though, such a happy ending tends to be limited to the world of fiction. Jessup is the target of the words, not Cheney.

But we can always dream….

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Torture: a good case for just saying "no"

When measures to defend a society undermine its fundamental values, just what are they defending?

The revelations by a US Senate committee of the extent of torture carried out by the CIA in the so-called “war against terror” is shocking, but hardly surprising. Anyone who believed that the CIA had been engaging only in “vigorous interrogation” – presumably intense questioning with the occasional resort to limited physical violence – was living in a dream world. It was obvious that the CIA, and no doubt MI6 and the security services of other US client states, were engaging in the most serious forms of torture they felt they could get away with.

It now turns out that these included not merely waterboarding, but “rectal rehydration” and even “rectal feeding” by the CIA itself.

It’s hard to see how any society that adopts these methods can claim to be civilised. If we are behave with the same brutality as the very enemies we denounce, how can we claim to be preferable to them? Are we not just two ugly bruisers slogging it out to decide who will dominate the other? Where does that leave our claim to moral or political superiority?

Upholding democratic values. Or undermining them?
The Senate report doesn’t even find the methods justified by the results. According to the Guardian:

After examining 20 case studies, the investigators found that torture “regularly resulted in fabricated information”, said committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, in a statement summarising the findings. She called the torture program “a stain on our values and on our history”.

“During the brutal interrogations the CIA was often unaware the information was fabricated.” She told the Senate the torture program was “morally, legally and administratively misguided” and “far more brutal than people were led to believe”.

The ineffectiveness of the torture may seem to make it even less defensible. But that would be a wrong direction for the argument to take. Three years ago, I felt obliged to admit my admiration for one of Britain’s leading spooks, Eliza Manningham Buller who had recently stepped down from the top post in the British MI5 security service. Here’s what I said about her then:

On the use of waterboarding by the United States, she said ‘torture is illegal in our national law and in international law. It is wrong and never justified.’

Like quite a few opponents of the use of torture, I’ve tended to argue that it doesn’t generate good intelligence. She on the other hand believes that it sometimes does, but points out that the argument that lifesaving intelligence was sometime obtained by it, “and I accept it was, still does not justify it. Torture should be utterly rejected even when it may offer the prospect of saving lives. I am proud my Service refused to turn to the torture of high-level German prisoners in the Second World War, when, in the early years, we stood alone and there was a high risk of our being invaded and becoming a Nazi province. So if not then, why should it be justified now?”

That’s the only wholly moral position to take. There are certain things that we decide, as societies based on rights and laws, never to do. We should never target civilians in war, even if we believe it might be effective, and the carpet bombing of German cities or the use of nuclear weapons against Japan simply cannot be justified. We should never target children and the relatives of enemy combatants, and the British use of concentration camps in the Boer War was indefensible. And we should never torture.

It’s that simple. We want to be better than our enemies. We should never stoop to using their weapons.

Whether or not they might advance our cause.