Thursday, April 17, 2014 

Russian imperalism triumphs over US/NATO imperialism.

The "de-escalation" agreement reached at the Geneva meeting between Russia, Ukraine, the EU and the US is, obviously, to be welcomed.  It does however signify just how quickly Ukraine and in turn the West have adjusted, first to the Russian annexation of Crimea and now it seems to the loss of major parts of the country's east, something that less than two weeks ago the Americans and many commentators were denouncing as being an effective Russian forced break-up of a sovereign state.

It must be all the more painful as that remains precisely what the occupation of buildings and declarations of autonomous regions has been.  Regardless of the involvement of some pro-Russians on the ground, we've seen practically a carbon copy of the operation in Crimea.  Armed men without insignia seized government offices and police stations, somewhat supported by civilians, while the Ukrainians simply let them get on with it, apparently powerless to do anything, in spite of the police themselves having weapons.  All this despite there being far less support in the east of the country for alliance with Russia than there was in Crimea.  Whether out of fear or feeling no real allegiance to Ukraine as a state, the numbers of those objecting to the seizures seems relatively slight, not withstanding an apparently well-attended pro-Kiev protest in Donetsk today.

The most obvious illustration of this ambiguous relationship with Ukraine as a sovereign entity was the seizure yesterday of the 6 APCs in KramatorskAs Jamie says, those in charge were from the 25th Airborne Division, meant to be some of the most capable in the Ukrainian army, and yet they surrendered it seems with little more than a shrug, not willing to countenance getting into a situation where they might have to shoot their fellow citizens.  The unit has since been disbanded by the interim president, although whether other divisions will be more willing to put up a fight should it come to it remains in question.  Admirable in one way as it is that they stood down, can you imagine our very own heroes letting protesters, armed or otherwise, take any sort of vehicle off them in a similar situation?

A state doesn't fall apart as quickly as Ukraine has without grievances and discontent being allowed to fester for a long time.  The much exaggerated involvement of Svoboda and others on the far-right first in the Maidan protests and now the interim government has just been an handy excuse for those who have long wanted increased autonomy, with the Russians taking full advantage.  The aim it seems is not full annexation as in Crimea, instead something more akin to that in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where the country pulls the strings with figureheads in nominal power.  The Geneva agreement therefore suits Putin down to the ground: if those who have seized government buildings do pull back, it removes the threat of increased sanctions, while the promise of a new constitutional process will be open to all kinds of manipulation once attention has switched elsewhere.

As much as this is a triumph for Russian imperialism, and it really can't be described as anything else, it's also a tale of imperial overreach, mainly of the US and NATO, but also the EU.  Just as secretary of state Victoria Nuland seemed to believe the Maidan protests were there to be manipulated to the advantage of the US, deciding for Ukrainians whom their new political leaders should be, so have the Russians, just far more effectively and aggressively.  For all the posturing of NATO, including yesterday with the announcement of further deployments meant to "reassure" member states, it has been powerless to do anything to prevent Putin and friends from doing anything they feel like.  As for the EU, it can't even agree on the most basic of sanctions, such are the barriers when Russian business interests are so intertwined with those of our own top companies.

When it came down to it, we just didn't care enough about Ukraine.  Others looking to the West for hope will have to remember this hypocrisy.

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Thursday, November 28, 2013 

The cycle continues.

At times, you just have to sit back and admire the sheer cant of some of our elected representatives.  Take David Blunkett, who's rather cross that his giving an interview to BBC Radio Sheffield resulted in headlines claiming he predicted riots, something he denies so much as saying.  Whether he did or not, the national media piled into the Page Hall area of the city and came away with the distinct impression that something had to give, such was the local anger at the Roma who had moved into the community daring to stand around in groups outside at night.  They even found a bloke at Halal Fisheries who said a Romanian couple had tried to sell him their baby, as those wacky gypsies are so often trying to do.  While he might not have expressly talked about riots, the Graun does quote Blunkett talking about "explosions", "implosions" and the three northern towns that saw race rioting back in 2001.  All he wants you see is a calm debate, such as the one he instigated previously when he said the children of asylum seekers were "swamping" schools, not to mention the time he gave an interview to the Sun agreeing with them that all these asylum seekers should be sent back, guv.

You can't really blame people for being cynical though when it's become clear just what the government was up to in suddenly announcing yet another benefits crackdown for those supposedly coming here just to leech off our fantastically generous welfare state.  Rather than net migration falling towards the desired tens of thousands, as Cameron and pals pledged, it instead went up in the year to June 2013, rising by 15,000 to 182,000, mainly thanks to a fall in emigration.  Considering Dave has been chastised in the past for apparently pre-empting releases by the Office of National Statistics, it's not that big a stretch to think this might be another example of the coalition acting on information only it has seen.

We are then once again seeing the destruction wrought by the immigration monster.  No amount of facts or pleading can stop the tabloids from claiming come the 1st of January Bulgaria and Romania are going to empty out, the whole population of the two countries upping sticks and coming to sponge off our soft touch welfare system.  It doesn't matter how many Bulgarian ambassadors we hear from who point out that most applications for work permits are already accepted, and that it was 2007 when the two countries actually joined the EU that the largest number decided to start a new life in the UK, clearly the migrant horde is going to be snaking its way through Dover on New Year's Day.  Nor does it have it any impact pointing out that unlike in 2004, when the citizens of the accession 8 states had only ourselves, Ireland and Sweden to choose should they want to look for work elsewhere, this time all the states that haven't yet allowed free movement have to open their borders.  Why would Romanians and Bulgarians come here rather than chance their arm in Germany, say, or somewhere slightly more receptive?

It perhaps does bear repeating that we aren't the only country where sentiment against immigration has turned decisively.  There is also a certain amount of truth in the government claiming that the Germans and French are taking action themselves ahead of January 1st, although again this seems mainly in an attempt to placate public opinion rather than out of there being any hard evidence of benefit tourism.  Putting further restrictions on when migrants can gain access to certain benefits only encourages rather than refutes the narrative that migrants aren't here to work.  Indeed, Cameron didn't so much as attempt to argue that the concern might be misplaced, instead yet again blaming Labour for getting it wrong in 2005.  The opposition meanwhile continues to up the rhetoric, criticising the government for "panicking" at the last minute, while former ministers dig themselves further into the mire by continuously apologising for the mistake they made in thinking other countries would be opening their borders in 05 as well.  The estimate now ritually criticised was made on that assumption, which was why it was so out of line with the reality.

The latest immigration figures in fact suggest politicians are fighting the last battle; rather than it being workers from eastern Europe making the journey, there have been large increases in those arriving from the countries hardest hit by the crash.  Free movement of labour goes both ways: wanting to put an end to it might please the UKIP tendency the Conservatives are still trying to win back, but it isn't going to appeal much to businesses who are already complaining about the government's approach.

Such has been the shift from defending immigration or singing its praises to saying it must now cease while not being able to do much about it, combined with the lack of political will to confront the hysteria from the tabloids, we've reached the point where the public doesn't believe any of it.  More to the point, only a fifth were able to pick out the "tens of thousands" pledge as being government policy.  Why not then be brutally honest with everyone: whether we remain in the EU or not, freedom of movement is highly unlikely to go away when the economic benefits are fairly well established.  We could raise the drawbridge entirely, like say Israel or Australia, but is that the type of country we want to become?  Acceptance of migrants excepting the unskilled is in fact fairly high.  Besides, regardless of whether most know the tens of thousands pledge now, they will come 2015 when UKIP and Labour will doubtless make great play of the coalition's failure.  Only then might it occur to some of our politicians to break out of this self-defeating cycle.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013 

Political dog-whistling: still not working in 2013.

It took a while, but by the end of last week the government's billboard campaign telling illegal immigrants to "go home or face arrest" had attracted the wider press attention it deserved from the outset.  One of the old chestnuts we often hear when it comes to debating immigration is that politicians of old shut down debate by calling people racist.  Accurate or not, we now have the opposite problem: politicians are afraid to say that some of those opposed to immigration are racist, as one thing racists don't like being told is that they are racist.  Hence despite criticism of the campaign coming from the Lib Dems, a few Labour MPs (although not the leadership, again presumably because they fear it being used as "evidence" of their weakness) and even Nigel Farage for goodness sake, who in the next breath scaremongers about a Romanian crime wave, none have called a spade a spade.

It's therefore only lunatics on the left and the "pro-immigration industry" that believe such a straightforward message is racist, says Mark Harper, the immigration minister described by Nick Clegg as "a very good guy", given space in the Mail. He doesn't expand on just which organisations make up the pro-immigration industry, but perhaps he means the Office for Budget Responsibility, set-up by the coalition, which only last week published research on the continuing benefits. Harper for his part doesn't even bother to engage with the argument as to why the billboards are racist, which is that they reprise the old NF slogan and play on the most obvious of racist sentiments, he instead uses attack as defence, saying that those critical are encouraging the breaking of the law. To call this a non sequitur doesn't quite cover it; a billboard threatening illegal immigrants with arrest if they don't leave voluntarily is hardly the most striking example of the law being enforced. Rather, it only underlines the reality: it's completely unfeasible to deport every person here illegally.  Continuing to claim it is only raises unrealistic expectations which then feed further discontent.

For such a short piece, Harper makes up for it by packing in as many distortions as he can. He conflates perfectly legal migration with the illegal by going into the standard riff on Labour's supposed "open borders" policy, says there is evidence that migration has pushed down wages when there's plenty (PDF) that contradicts the claim, that some areas have faced "intolerable" pressure due to migration, despite services continuing to function, then tops it off by saying the government is controlling immigration, if failing to meet their target of bringing net migration down to 100,000 by 53,000 can possibly be considered controlling.

He ends by saying that if the poster campaign helps tackle illegal immigration, who could oppose it? Considering a poll for the Sun suggests that there's almost an even split between those in favour of and those opposed, a remarkable result when there's such a prevailing sentiment against immigration, it suggests plenty don't like such "stupid and offensive" campaigns, even if they don't regard them as racist.  Seeing as Harper doesn't even repeat the actual wording used on the billboards, perhaps he secretly feels the same.  Either way, someone ought to explain to Lynton Crosby that if dog-whistling didn't work in 2005, it isn't going to now.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013 

Silly racism season.

The silly season is descending, although frankly it's getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between the dog days of late July and August, and well, almost any other time of year.  Apparently, "bitchy resting face ... makes Gangnam Style look like a slow burner", at least according to Hadley Freeman, and yet somehow I had avoided encountering this cultural phenomenon until she elected to write about it. Beards have also reached their fashionable peak, doncha know, and in what seems to be an extraordinarily late April 1st joke, Kerry Katona is to be Marilyn Monroe.  Presumably alongside Peter Andre as JFK.  Oh, and Guido Fawkes, he of repeatedly declaring he can't be sued fame, threatens to sue Claire Perry.  Perry we've already established is a dangerous nincompoop, while Paul Staines is just a hypocritical tool.

Is there anything even vaguely serious going on then?  Well, sort of.  Coming from the same great minds behind the idea of putting up "adverts" pointing out how shit Britain is in Bulgaria and Romania (while at the same time declaring how great we are everywhere else), one of those billboard vans is being sent round six London boroughs telling illegal immigrants to "go home or face arrest".  Why, we'll even be kind enough to help you with your travel documents, and we'll tell the immigration officers not to "Mubenga" you, as long as you come along quietly, of course.  Who wouldn't have their head turned by such a tempting offer?

Understandably, quite a few people are suggesting this is just a teensy bit racist.  On its own, it isn't.  There aren't that many pithy formulations you could put together that are simple to understand and carry the same message.  I mean, they could have gone with "In the UK illegally and want to leave?", but that doesn't carry the same element of menace all rhetoric on immigration must now have.  "Go home" though carries decades of baggage with it; it wasn't just a National Front slogan as Sunny says, go home (or words to the same effect)  is still one of the first resorts for racists, regardless of who it's used against.  "Go back to where you came from", even if you were born here and so were your parents; your skin colour doesn't fit.

When a government is reduced to such, err, dog-whistling, it ought to be apparent that it's in trouble.  One thing the Tories remain terrified by is the likely failure to keep their promise to get immigration down to the "tens of thousands" by the time of the next election.  Almost all the decline we've seen under the coalition has come as a result of the crackdown on overseas students, those grasping, scrounging bastards who come here, take almost nothing out and put hell of a lot in (is this right? Ed.).  Hence this year, as well as being partially in response to the rise of UKIP, we've seen further punitive policy proposals, including the ridiculous prospect of landlords being asked to do the job of the UK Border Force, as though making illegal immigrants homeless is something approaching a solution.  Sarah Teather made clear just how far the Tories would like to go when she revealed the "Inter Ministerial Group on Migrants' Access to Benefits and Public Services" was first known as the "Hostile Environment Working Group".

As pointed out before, this is a great example of how the new politics works.  Politicians say they're listening to concerns, they talk tough and tighten the rules ever further, and then act surprised and chastened when the mood against immigrants hardens as the numbers stubbornly refuse to fall precisely because freedom of movement is clearly here to stay.  Rather than confront voters with a few facts and ask them if they like being able to move freely around Europe even if they don't want to at this precise moment, we just get ever more discriminatory rhetoric.  Once, that the government was paying for adverts which contained allusions to the racist slogans of years gone by would have caused a storm.  That it hasn't shows both how the Tories have succeeded and why they will also end up being hoist by that petard.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013 

Syria: where do you even begin?

For those taken with the question set for 13-year-olds seeking a scholarship to Eton, asking them to write a speech for a future prime minister justifying the shooting of unarmed rioters, here's another hypothetical situation:

For over two years, a foreign nation has been beset by a crisis. The emergency began when protests, inspired by regional upheaval, called for political reform. The authoritarian government responded by ordering the army to shoot the demonstrators. What then had began as a peaceful uprising morphed into an armed uprising, with those who had originally called for incremental change becoming increasingly marginalised and religious extremists taking their place. Adding to the problems is the religious background of the regime, which despite being secular, is predominately made up of those who belong to a minority sect. The conflict has now reached such a peak that it threatens the stability of the entire region, with a neighbouring country experiencing an upturn in intercommunal violence, a militia from another state intervening on the side of the regime and two other authoritarian states openly funding and supplying the rebels. What do you do to try and put an end to the conflict?

If your answer is anything other than make a concerted push for negotiations between the two sides moderated by a neutral third party, then you probably would have fit right in at Windsor. William Hague of course didn't attend the school of the choice for the children of the ruling class, he merely works alongside those who did. Thankfully, he did manage to pick up a degree in PPE from Oxford, and only someone blessed with those credentials could have come up with such a utter dog's breakfast as his policy on the above extremely thinly disguised non-hypothetical situation, aka Syria. It takes real courage and effort to come up with an approach that simply makes no sense whatsoever, and that's something you simply don't get from attending lesser establishments.

Never let it be said then that we don't at times get our own way in the EU. Despite the objections of 25 of the 27 member states, as we were backed only by France, Hague succeeded in getting the arms embargo on Syria lifted, or it will at least be allowed to lapse come the end of the July. Yet If we're to believe Hague this doesn't necessarily mean that we'll be arming any rebels any time soon. No, the intention behind our move was designed to put more pressure on Assad, who clearly has far more to fear from "moderate" forces than he has from the likes of the al-Nusra front or the myriad bands of Islamists, both of whom are far more heavily armed thanks to the largesse of our erstwhile allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The only problem with this argument is that, err, it's been subtly changed over the last week. Previously, threatening to arm the rebels was designed to bring the regime to the negotiating table. When the regime then did agree to a meeting with the rebels in Geneva with hardly any prompting, something the rebels have not yet signed up to, we had to make the change. I don't think anyone noticed.

It would somewhat help if Hague was to outline exactly who these "moderates" are that so desperately need our weapons. We don't know whether they're moderate Islamists, believers in liberal democracy, moderate leftists, just that they aren't extremists. The suggestion seems to be that we're thinking of someone like Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army. Considering that the FSA is neither free nor an army in the usual sense of the term, more a loose network of local militias, all of which will have different priorities and outlooks, this doesn't really inspire confidence that any supplied weapons wouldn't soon be in the hands of "extremists" also. Nor does Idris himself instantly strike as a model, err, "moderate": as well as warning today that the FSA would "take all measures to hunt Hezbollah, even in hell", he's also called for Lebanon itself to bombed.

Then there's another teensy problem. Exactly what in the way of weaponry is Hague proposing we supply? He presumably doesn't mean simple small arms, as Syria is awash with rifles and ammunition, despite the rebels having been complaining bitterly for months that there wasn't enough to go round. No, what they want and have been crying out for is heavy weaponry, manpads, anti-tank guns and the like. The very idea of this understandably alarms Israel, having twice already attacked convoys allegedly taking long-range missiles to Hezbollah. It should also alarm us: are we seriously thinking of sending weapons that can down planes into the middle of a civil war and hoping for the best? We've just spent the past week reacting in exactly the way extremists want to the murder of a single person. Should such weapons get in the hands of al-Qaida affiliates, it really would be something to worry about.

On almost every level I can think of, Hague's determination to at least get in a position where we can supply weaponry utterly baffles me. Previously when it looked as though the Ba'athist regime was slowly but surely on its way to extinction I cynically wondered if it was a ploy to get weapons into the hands of "moderates" so they would then be in a stronger position for a battle with the extremists for overall control of the country. With Assad now looking in a stronger position thanks to the continuing backing of Russia and the open intervention of Hezbollah, that seems less likely. It doesn't seem to be meant to ingratiate ourselves with either Qatar or Saudi Arabia, both of whom have no qualms about their weapons going to the extremists rather than the "moderates". It also isn't about weakening Iran, as the above kleptocracies had hoped, as Assad again seems unlikely to fall any time soon. It also can't be an attempt to show we aren't at war with Islam itself through supplying weapons to "good" Muslims to fight "bad" ones, as the only word it seems possible for Hague and friends to use to describe "our" rebels is moderates. Nor is it about protecting the civilians in the country who haven't fled, who we seem to have completely forgotten in all of this. The only thing that even slightly explains how we've ended up here is our continued riding on the coat-tails of US foreign policy; indeed, our role in this instance seems to be to make the running for open arming of "our" rebels as part of the process of persuading the American people it's a swell idea. Either that, or the Tories have become even more crazed in their neo-conservative yearnings than we'd imagined.

After all, you might have thought it would've dawned on the government by now that the invocation of the "responsibility to protect" in Libya was a disaster of a magnitude only slightly less than that of Iraq. Our determination to assist in the overthrow of Gaddafi not only emboldened Russia (and to a lesser extent China) to block any recurrence of the abuse of the UN process, it made abundantly clear to the remaining tyrants in the region that their only chance of remaining in power was through crushing any and all opposition. It also didn't help that we looked the other way as Bahrain destroyed the opposition movement there with the help of troops from such paragons of democracy as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. While the instability in Libya has spread to surrounding countries, the conflict has for the most part been non-sectarian. In Syria, the opposite has become the case. What may have began as an attempt to weaken Iran on the part of the Saudis and Qataris by funding Sunni rebels has metastasised into a full blown civil conflict which is having a devastating impact on both Iraq and Lebanon.

Despite all of this, or rather in spite of it, we still propose to send more weapons into a region which is overflowing with them and where hundreds of people are being killed every day, whether in car bombings in Iraq or in Aleppo, Homs, or Qusayr in Syria. Somehow, this gesture is meant both to persuade Assad to take negotiations seriously whilst also enabling our pet moderate rebels to "protect" civilians. Somehow, we've ended up on the same side as the jihadists we've spent the past 12 years fighting a "war" against, and yet we're claiming to be acting on the side of moderates and in the pursuit of freedom. Somehow, we've ended up pushing for the same policy as John McCain, who seems to want to be this decade's Charlie Wilson and who has at one point or another advocated bombing almost every single Middle Eastern state. Somehow, and most incredible of all, our representatives have learned absolutely nothing.

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Monday, March 25, 2013 

Haven't I heard all this before?

If there's one thing you can say about David Cameron's speech on immigration today, it's that it was clever politics.  It worked on one level, and one level only: that of the tiger repelling rock.  The government knows full well that the number of Romanians and Bulgarians likely to come here next year is going to be nowhere near as high as the numbers that came after the A8 accession states, so setting out a whole range of new "restrictions" makes perfect sense.  We ended the soft touch system we inherited from Labour and look at the results!  It won't matter that the figures overall will still show net migration of hundreds of thousands rather than tens, at least there aren't many of those nasty gyppos or other assorted stereotypes here as we feared, eh?

Other than that, it was just miserable.  It wasn't so much the actual announcements, if you can even call them that, as they were all but identical to those set out by Labour's Yvette Cooper a couple of weeks back with the exception of the requirement for those wanting social housing to have lived locally for at least 2 years.  Even this is undermined by how councils also have a requirement to house those in most need, although naturally Cameron deigned not to mention this.  It was instead that it gave in to every myth, claim and lie we've come to expect from those aiming to profit from scaremongering about immigration: that we're seen as a "soft touch", that the welfare system needs to be reformed alongside immigration itself as it clearly attracts those with no intention of working, and that under Labour immigration was out of control.  All were and are untrue.

It's not that it's wrong to publicise problems with the system, as Cameron said, it's that it's wrong to not challenge the idea that immigrants are here to scrounge rather than work.  Saying that the vast majority are hard workers but then dedicating the remainder of the speech to suggesting there are huge problems rather drowns out the reality.  The emphasis on benefits also spectacularly misses the concerns of most on immigration.  Until very recently, the main concern was not that immigrants from the EU were coming here to claim benefits, it was that they were undercutting wages, stretching the resources of local public services and changing communities beyond recognition.  Cameron today didn't address either the former or the latter, only that there would a renewed emphasis on ensuring employers aren't using illegal immigrants.

Indeed, the major announcement today has been rather buried underneath all the anti-scrounger rhetoric.  The government that ensured ID cards weren't introduced (although they were never going to be after the crash anyway) for us Brits has decided that they're fine and dandy for our friends from the EU should they want to come here, as they'll be the only way of determining just what they're entitled to.  Don't then be surprised if this inevitably leads to the rest of us also needing them at some point in the future.

The problem for Cameron today has turned out that, if anything, he's gone too far even for a press that has always led the way for politicians rather than followed.  The figures we do have suggest that the number of immigrants claiming benefits is low, and that the numbers in social housing are similarly not massively increasing.  On the NHS, ministers simply don't know how much foreign nationals are costing us: it's either £20m or closer to £200m, if we're to believe Jeremy Hunt, which isn't advised.  One suspects it's closer to the £20m figure, but either way it's a drop in the ocean considering the NHS budget is almost £100bn a year, and when as we saw last week George Osborne masterminded an underspend of £2.2bn to help get his borrowing figures in line with the forecasts.

As encouraging as it is that even the Telegraph is calling for politicians to make the case for immigration rather than keep on attempting to woo the UKIP vote (which is, as has been noted, to completely misunderstand UKIP's appeal), we've gone from a situation at the last election where we had at least one party calling for an amnesty for illegal immigrants, even if they tried to kept it quiet, to that same party fully signing up to the Tories' self-defeating measures.  It seems we are as far away as ever from something approaching an informed debate, let alone an informed policy.

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Monday, January 28, 2013 

Britain - it's shit!

There are plenty of government policies that make absolutely no sense.  Michael Gove's latest wheeze to hive off AS levels as not counting towards a full A level while also abolishing modules is spectacularly stupid and opposed by practically everyone, but then every single thing Gove has done as education secretary seems designed to annoy anyone who isn't Toby Young.  Just as dumb would be criminalising khat, although as there hasn't been any movement on that yet perhaps the Home Office is having second thoughts.  Also daft is capping benefits at one percent, which while potentially making political sense is unconscionably ignorant on an economic level.

None of the above or any of the other myriad examples of waste or foolishness quite come close though to the idea of taking out advertisements in Romania and Bulgaria telling everyone there how shit Britain is and why they shouldn't come when they gain free movement across the EU later in the year.  It's a brainfart so dense it makes the inside of your head hurt as well as stink.  What's more, even on the most basic level it falls flat on its face.  One of the oldest advertising tropes is that first off, you tell your potential customers they can't have what it is you're selling, with the obvious intention of increasing their desire for the product when you do make it available.  If we're saying they shouldn't come, they'll think, why exactly is it that they shouldn't?  Is it because Britain is in fact a land of milk and honey, benefits on tap and an atmosphere so welcoming that it resembles one of those mythical, glowingly warm pubs where everyone instantly knows your name and your pint's waiting for you?  After all, what sort of government would actively want to say their country's horrible?

Secondly, it's a tabloid idea in every sense except one.  It is the equivalent of an UP YOURS DELORS, or the Sun putting out a special French edition castigating Jacques Chirac for daring to oppose the Iraq war, or the Sun (there's a theme here) taking out an advert in the Argentinian press in revenge for President Kirchner's open letter advert to David Cameron.  Moreover, it's an idea that has been motivated by the tabloids, who've been running articles for years now scaremongering about the imminent invasion of gypsies, organised criminals and other assorted stereotypes.  Stereotypes coming over here to do battle with our stereotypes? Never!  Except, of course, actually going through with such a tabloid idea wouldn't placate the tabloids, which is presumably the intention.  Even so much as saying the idea is being thought through is the equivalent of the government saying, yep, you're right, we're about to be swamped, thereby giving them the ultimate authority to run another umpteen articles about the coming tidal wave.  Look, the government's so concerned they're taking out negative adverts!

Third, it's a mess of the government's own making.  Despite having attempted to remove targets from other parts of the public sector, whether it be the police or the NHS, with very mixed results so far, the Conservatives stupidly promised to reduce immigration from the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands.  Not just that they would reduce immigration, but would do so down to a round figure.  It's all well and good pledging to do something popular, as long as you know how it is you're going to achieve it.  The Conservatives haven't had a clue, and so have flailed around all over the place instead.  Hence the attacks on "bogus" colleges, which has had the effect of discouraging foreign students from coming here at all, the ever tightening rules on bringing back spouses, and the latest farce, the new citizenship test which expects applicants to imbibe the High Tory view of recent British history.  Undoubtedly it's a great advantage for immigrants to know more about their adopted country than the majority of those lucky enough to be born here, but isn't this getting things rather arse backwards?

Fourth is that it's completely inconsistent.  A couple of weeks back two of the spare parts of the monarchy drove a Mini through the Brandenburg Gate as part of some inane promotion of the best of British, and that wasn't even part of the government's "Britain is Great!" campaign. Add in the Olympics and the government's Britain is open for business rhetoric and the messages being sent are decidely mixed. Yes, they want investment and not unskilled labour, but either we're signed up to free movement within the EU or we're not.

Lastly, it's an idea motivated by the notion that we must be seen to be doing something, no matter how futile or counter-productive. There simply isn't going to be a repeat of 2004, when only Ireland and Sweden opened their borders at the same time as we did to the accession states.  Those wanting to try their luck elsewhere will be able to choose from the other 24 EU countries, and we're unlikely to come top of the bill when Germany is both nearer and has a growing economy.  Some undoubtedly will come, but the numbers are likely to be negligible.

Instead of pointing this out, the government seems to have actively set out to inflame the issue, delighting those who love to whinge on both about how awful this country is and all the bloody foreigners.  I'm quite partial myself to the odd bout of the former, but not to the point where I want those worse off to know all about it by sticking it on billboards.  In any case, the coalition is never going to be able to really capture the occasional grimness of this country in such a campaign, or showcase us properly without using a slogan along the lines of "Come to Britain - where even the dogs have neck tattoos!". Alternatively, they could just get this strip from the latest Viz blown up and plaster it everywhere.

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Wednesday, October 31, 2012 

Cameron gets the shit touch.

Here's a political concept that some people seem to have difficulty understanding: when in opposition, what you do first and foremost is oppose.  As long as you stay within certain boundaries, you can be as opportunistic, hypocritical and shameless as you like if the overall goal is to make the government look divided and weak, as well as pursuing the wrong policy.  The Tories, notably, did the opposite while Blair was still perched in Downing Street, supporting him and the other Blairites on academies while the party's own backbenchers voted against.  The end result?  Michael Gove's continuing attempts to wrest control of schools away from local authorities as a whole, and the almost certain eventual insertion of privatisation into education.

There are obviously limits to this approach.  Doing it too near to an election is to treat the electorate for fools; and you can't go from one extreme position to the other without doing much the same, unless the facts have changed.  For the most part, Labour have obeyed these rules: it's questionable whether opposing giving more money to the IMF achieved anything for instance, especially when err, Eurozone economies not collapsing is clearly a good thing all round, but otherwise the two Eds have mainly played safe.

While you can see why some of those who are pro-Europe within the party have then objected to today's decision to vote with the headbangers on the Tory right, it still made perfect political sense.  David Cameron after all keeps telling us that he wants to stay in the EU, but there has to be a fundamental renegotiation of our membership.  Presumably then he'd support a cut in the EU's budget in real terms, as the amendment supported by Labour called for?  Well, no.  Ever since his cack-handed "veto" last year which achieved precisely nothing, the rest of Europe have treated us pretty much as we deserve: as whining carpers who've spent the past 40 years in a perpetual sulk.  Even if Cameron wields his "veto" again, all that will happen is the budget will roll over, or increase automatically.  He's not going to win whatever happens.

For Labour, the defeat of the government is a fantastic achievement.  It's the first significant defeat for the coalition in parliament, and it came on the day Ed Miliband compared Cameron to John Major.  If anything, Cameron's predicament on Europe is worse than it was for Major: he might have had his "bastards", but they for the most part didn't want to be out of the EU completely.  This current lot do, and Cameron knows that's something he can't possibly deliver, not least due to how the vast majority of business is quite rightly opposed to leaving.  The more he talks up what he's going to do and the more he fails to achieve anything whatsoever, the more the anti-EU vote is going to desert the Tories and turn to UKIP, improving Labour's chances in the marginal constituencies they need to win back.

Moreover, calling for a cut in the budget is the right policy, whether you want to stay in the EU or not.  When member states are across the board introducing austerity, rightly or otherwise, it's absurd that the union should be getting an above inflation budget increase.  Any comparisons with what Labour did in 2005 are beside the point when the EU was about to expand eastwards and the economy was growing strongly.  In any case, no one's going to remember in 3 years time whether Labour's position was cynical or not; if they recall it at all it'll be that Cameron couldn't get his party to support him.  For a while it seemed as though it was George Osborne who couldn't do anything right.  Now the shit touch seems to have been transmitted to the prime minister as well.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011 

Everybody's talking 'bout the bad old days.

There are now it seems three, rather than two certain things in life: death, taxes, and that the Conservative party will find a way to have a fight with itself over Europe. It can't help but conjure up memories of political times past. Here with we are after all with rising unemployment, a government seemingly powerless to do anything about the state of the economy, or rather, completely unwilling to, crime increasing, riots, falling living standards, ministers resigning in disgrace and a party in power that would rather talk about anything other than the real problems facing it. Yes, whether you want to look back to the 80s or those dismal few years at the beginning of the 90s, it's impossible to ignore the similarities.

These comparisons can obviously only go so far. Unlike John Major, David Cameron was not within a couple of votes of losing his job last night. He also helms a party that far from flat-lining in the polls continues to trail Labour by only a few points, still maintaining a solid if finally beginning to decline lead on the economy. Last night's rebellion was, in these terms, merely Cameron's first parliamentary encounter with those backbenchers who seem to be under the illusion that if only Britain could shake itself free from the shackles of European red tape and regulation we would in no time be, if not ruling the waves again, then at least doing nicely for ourselves like Norway.

Cameron's problem is that like the Tory leaders who preceded him he encouraged much of this sentiment, repeatedly lambasting Labour over their dropped promise to hold a referendum on the European constitution. The difference is that unlike Hague, IDS and Howard, he then went one step further and in the Tory manifesto promised that upon any proposed further transfer of power to Brussels, a referendum would be held first. This looked to be a clever buying off tactic initially: not only would it make up for deciding not to reopen the sore over the constitution should the Tories come to power, but it would also strengthen the British bargaining position. With it looking distinctly unlikely that any new legislation resulting in power flowing to Europe was imminent, it also seemed it would never have to be put into practice. Cameron and his advisers didn't however bargain on needing to go into coalition; what should have kicked the issue into the long grass has instead simply resulted in the Eurosceptics pushing for more, angered and bitter over the Lib Dem "brake" on Conservative policy.

The petition on a referendum was then just a happy coincidence, as it's been clear for a while that some kind of issue would be found on which the Tory right could make a stand. That it has been on Europe, and that Downing Street has supposedly been both "heavy-handed" and "weak" has (to go Shaun of a Dead for a moment) exacerbated things. Cynical as it is, the argument from Cameron and Hague is absolutely right: this is an insane moment to call a referendum on membership of the EU, at the exact time that more than anything the Eurozone needs support and we, in turn, need the trade the current system guarantees and will guarantee. A referendum on EU membership at some point is necessary, if only to clear the air on this most stultifying of issues. Moreover, despite the polls currently suggesting that a vote would result in us leaving the union, we should remember that there was a similar majority in favour of AV to begin with. A hopeless yes campaign aside, it's apparent that unless there's a compelling case for a change to the status quo then it will end up being rejected. Apart from the monomaniacs, little Englanders and tabloids, there are few that want to leave the EU who don't already oppose it on an almost atavistic level.

More immediately worrying for Cameron is that this further threatens the already tenuous detoxification programme he and George Osborne (snigger) have attempted to lead. Among those who continue to pay attention when such a terminally boring topic has returned to politics (and that's as much the reason why the public have always hated the splits in the Tory party when it's over something so seemingly banal and dry) will only see already pompous blowhards be even more pompous and self-regarding than usual. Voters do take notice when someone resigns over a principle, but not if it's over having a referendum right now and it's someone they've never heard of; making such a ridiculous song and dance over it as some in the party did yesterday just results in a rolling of eyes. Ridiculous also perfectly describes Jacob Rees-Mogg, who seems determined to bring down his party from within by just being himself. Likewise, other members of the Tory right, whether they be Andrea Leadsom with her extraordinary call for sex education in schools to be opt-in rather than opt-out, Priti Patel's eyes through the fingers performance on Question Time, or Liam Fox's close to being unbelievable arrogance in his resignation statement, are not going to do anything to help a party increasingly seen as out of touch.

Gaddafi's death certainly helped to distract attention away from that particular unpleasantness. Using the passive once again, Fox accepted it was a mistake for "distinctions to be blurred", while the ministerial code had been found to "have been breached", not had been breached. There was no apology, just acceptance; and then the media, for daring to investigate those breaches, was assaulted and accused of hounding people when they almost certainly hadn't. His wife had dealt with the problems brought on by her husband with her usual grace and dignity, while he just continued to act as he always has, with bumptiousness and pathetic self-indulgence. If a Labour politician had acted in such a fashion, especially during Gordon Brown's time, then the right-wing press would have gone ballistic.

Credit then to Nick Clegg for speaking up on the "tilting at windmills" of the Tories. As Reuben points out, the real reason behind the split is partially down to the majority of large businesses, while not being overwhelmingly happy at the situation, favouring the security which the EU brings, even if that isn't the situation at the moment. They're very partial to the idea of repatriating the worker friendly social and employment laws membership of the EU has required implementing, but not a complete divorce as increasing numbers of Tory MPs want, and indeed would be the main campaign aim should a referendum take place. Even this though, happily, is unlikely to happen, not least because for the moment the Lib Dems are blocking any attempt at a renegotiation.

This is what Labour and Ed Miliband should be pointing this out, time and again: that the real reason the Tories are currently so opposed to the EU is not due to the open market it provides or the policy of open borders that led to the immigration wave after the accession states joined, nor the corruption, scandal of the budget, bureaucracy or loss of power from parliament, but because of such outrageous legislation as the Working Time directive. One thing is clear: the fabric holding together the coalition is starting to fray.

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