Monday, April 25, 2016 

Always bet on Boris going mad.

Peter Mandelson might not get much right, but when he does, he tends to hit it right on the head.  Speaking to the Graun last week ahead of President Obama's visit, he said: "With luck Boris Johnson will go mad again and say it is all part of a CIA conspiracy."

Which he didn't.  At least not quite.  No, Boris just chose to bring up Obama's being "part-Kenyan" as a possible explanation for why he hates us so and yet still deigns to tell us what to do.  He did this in the pages of the Sun, the newspaper owned by an Australian turned American who sees no problem in telling us Britishers how to vote not just in referendums, but in elections proper.

It was an odd weekend, all told.  Normal roles were reversed.  Usually it's the left that complains about America regarding Britain as the 51st state, or at least that was the case until Obama came along and rewired US foreign policy to a certain extent.  Generally it's the right that is pro-Atlanticist, for the very reason they dream of Britain detaching entirely from Europe, floating across the ocean and everyone through osmosis developing a disdain for our remaining social democrat foibles.  Instead the hissing from the right against Obama making a pretty vanilla case for staying in the EU was all but deafening, while the adulation from the left for a US president telling us what to do was embarrassing.

To suggest this was all a bit over the top when there's little evidence that Obama's intervention will have anything like the impact either side seem to imagine it will would have been to spoil the fun, it seems.  We do after all pretty much know what the two major motivating factors will be when it comes to voters making up their minds: the economy and immigration.  This is why the remain campaign has been banging on incessantly about how leaving the EU will lead us inexorably back to the days before we discovered fire, while leave focuses on little other than how remaining in the EU will inevitably result in every single Turk, Serb and Albanian coming to this country when they join (eventually, if they ever do) and then gain free movement (years after they join), laying waste to the NHS, schools, et al.  Michael Gove, who only last week was attempting to be slightly smarter than this, apparently felt the need to go back to basics after Bozza tossed his dead cat onto the table.

Boris's resort to the argument made most noisily by US right-winger Dinesh D'Souza, that Obama's heritage and especially his father are key to understanding why he "doesn't believe in American exceptionalism" obscured the fact that he made some very decent points about err, America's exceptionalism.  Like the refusal to sign up to the International Criminal Court, or the failure to ratify the UN Rights of the Child Convention, which the US had a major role in drawing up.  Of course, signing up to these institutions or conventions can be all but meaningless when some of the worst human rights offenders in the world are signed up and carry on executing children regardless, yet it's the message such aloofness sends.  Who is any US president to lecture us on our membership of the EU when America is one of the most insular, solipsistic nations on earth by choice, not by design?  It might not be Obama's choice, sure, but it is of much of the rest of the political establishment.  Obama's message was effectively one of telling us to accept our decline; that might be the most realistic option, and yet who would ever embrace such an option willingly?  It's self-evident nonsense that Obama has presided over an American decline, as well as an obvious dog-whistle, yet it's hardly coincidence the candidate promising to "Make America Great Again" still looks set to be the Republican going up against Hillary Clinton come November.

Indeed, there's a major refraction of America's role in setting up organisations and conventions only to reject them later in Theresa May's declaration today that we should leave the European Convention on Human Rights, rather than the EU.  You have to wonder if this is the first attempt at reaching out to the Leavers by Number 10, with the plausible May delivering the message, or if it's instead May still holding out hopes of becoming leader.  When you bear in mind that repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a British Bill of Rights was in the Tory manifesto, something that makes no sense whatsoever unless you also withdraw from the ECHR, it's almost the next logical step.  Logical in as far as the HRA is going to be repealed; it isn't, as every time it comes up for discussion the can gets kicked further along the road.

May's decision to call directly to leave the ECHR does though make you pause.  Would the Tories be cynical enough to sacrifice the ECHR to attempt to heal the wounds left by the referendum?  It doesn't matter that the ECHR is a nuisance rather than a real blocking measure; the old perennials May mentioned of Abu Hamza, Abu Qatada and votes for prisoners are notable precisely because Hamza was sent to the US, Qatada was deported to Jordan (although more because Qatada himself became fed up with constantly being detained rather than May being victorious) and the government is intent on dragging its feet indefinitely on votes for prisoners.  May seemed to infer we could all but enshrine the same rights as in the ECHR/HRA and add to them, such as guaranteeing right to trial by jury, which the ECHR doesn't; in which case, why don't we just rename the HRA to the British Bill of Rights the Tories are so very keen on?  Presumably for the reason that our own courts would still stop the home secretary from doing whatever he or she feels like, which is the real reason governments of both left and right have come to loathe the ECHR/HRA.  It's not because of what it says, it's because judges dare to disagree with them on the basis of their interpretation of the law.

If nothing else it would set up a new battle between the EU over whether or not you do have to be signed up to the ECHR to be a member once you're already in.  And as Robert Harris pointed out, the major point of the referendum has been to give the Leave crowd something to bitch and moan about, despite having been those most vociferous in demanding it in the first place.  It's enough to almost make you want Obama here telling us what to do all the time.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2016 

The calculus of political graffiti.

Is the in, out, please don't shake it all about Boris debate finally beginning to capture the public imagination?  I ask, not on the basis of yesterday's hilarious calculations from the Treasury that by the year 2095 we'll all be a gajillion pounds worse off if we vote leave, nor today's speech from Michael Gove on how if the British public votes leave we will be saving the good people of Europe from themselves.

No, I posit the question purely on how on Sunday I spied the first bit of referendum graffiti, something of a surprise as I can't recall seeing any about last May.  There had been a poet in residence down by the river, who at least until his work was recently painted over advised all passers-by to "boycott corporate muthafuckas", "burn a banker" and "save a tree".  Sadly the work I saw at the weekend was less lyrical than his, but still set the mind working.  "VOTE OUT", this successor to Gilbert and George had spray-painted on the pavement leading off an overpass near to the main shopping district.  Not "VOTE LEAVE", or any of the slogans bandied about by the leave side, but simply "VOTE OUT".

It doesn't exactly strike as the kind of issue likely to inspire someone to put in the kind of effort and risk the potential of being arrested for vandalism, after all.  Indeed, up until Jeremy Corbyn felt the need to get involved last Thursday, the entire campaign thus far seems to have been designed to turn off anyone not already a terminal political dullard.  I am a terminal political dullard, and even I've been bored to tears by Project Fears 2.0 and 2.0.1 being ran by the Remain and Leave sides respectively.

This of course shows no signs of abating, however many insults are flung from both sides about both practising it.  Today the pro-Leave press homed in how the Treasury calculations included an estimate that a further 3 million migrants would arrive by 2030 if we stayed in, as though this was some kind of horror beyond words.  That this was based on a net migration figure of 180,000 a year, well below the current peak we're experiencing seemed to suggest a missing of a trick, while also naturally ignoring how you'd have to be a cretin to believe whatever deal we manage to negotiate with the EU post a leave vote would somehow not include free movement.

Michael Gove is that cretin.  The leave side has refused to answer which kind of "model" they would like to see pursued should leave triumph, mainly because they can't agree themselves.  The Treasury's comedy figures were based on the so-called Canada model some within Leave seemed to be favouring a time back.  Gove today instead raised the possibility of Britain remaining in the European Free Trade Zone while not rejoining the single market, previously about the only part of the EU the Tories have had anything good to say about.  This apparently would be reciprocated by the rest of Europe not imposing tariffs or insisting on free movement rules applying, despite how Norway and Switzerland, both with deals on trade with the EU while remaining outside are subject to the Schengen agreement.

To add to the jollity, Gove also pronounced on how we'd go about leaving in the first place.  In Gove world, the idea the government would immediately activate article 50 of the Lisbon treaty once a vote to leave had been confirmed is absurd, not something a "responsible" government would do.  Considering that the vast majority of the Leave side have been agitating their entire political lives to get us out of the EU, should Cameron (or more likely, whoever takes over in the interim as Cameron would have to resign) seem to be stalling or, worse yet, rowing back on the idea of the vote being final, it would surely prompt an outbreak of keening so loud and overwhelming the whole country would develop tinnitus as a result.

Gove it's fair to say is Leave's most plausible advocate, and yet he remains about as appealing as a Newsnight special on the referendum.  For all his talk of "a galvanising, liberating, empowering moment of patriotic renewal", evidence for the public feeling the same way about the choice they're about to make is extremely thin on the ground.  And yet I have seen one literal piece of such evidence.  Which brings us back to where we started, and one further question: what kind of atavistic passions have been awoken by the debate that by comparison make me seem less weird?

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Friday, September 04, 2015 

The only solution to war is more war.

There's been a lot of this about the last couple of days, but the Guardian really ought to know better:

To begin restoring that hope will inevitably mean international intervention of some kind. The establishment of credible safe havens and the implementation of a no-fly zone must be on the table for serious consideration.

Except we've really gone too far now for this to be even approaching a viable solution.  Establish a no-fly zone and you undoubtedly help protect civilians, but you also give a massive advantage to the rebels, including Islamic State.  It's difficult to imagine how things could get any worse, but the bloodletting likely to follow the total collapse of the Syrian government and immediate battle for the spoils between the rebel groups will be immense.  Safe zones again sound like a great idea, but who on the ground is going to guard them?  The Kurds, the very people the Turks have launched 100x more air strikes on than IS?  The rebel groups other than IS?

Nor has there been any past argument for intervention that would have helped matters.  Unless it had evolved Libya-style into regime change, the mooted response to Assad using chemical weapons in Ghouta was to chuck a few more Hellfire and cruise missiles into the mix and hope that made clear just how serious we were about him killing people with explosives and bullets rather than more exotic weapons.

The only realistic option at this point is to push for a ceasefire between the rebel groups (excluding IS) and the government, with the promise being that once the fight has been taken to IS, Assad will depart and a settlement will be reached from there.  Even this would require a massive turnaround in current attitudes, such has been the amount of blood spilt and the belief on all sides that total victory can still be achieved.  This I'm afraid is the fault of all involved.  There are no clean hands.  And taking in an extra 4,000 refugees remains a completely pitiful gesture, considering the role we've played in Syria reaching this beyond grim juncture.

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Wednesday, September 02, 2015 

Subtext is everything.

There is always a danger in reading too much into works of art, whether they be music, film or animated comedies.  The number of obsessives that regard American Pie (the song, not the film series, you dullards) as a masterpiece with meaning and allusions so deep that it can never be fully deciphered, or have detected things that were never there in the Eagles' Hotel California is testimony to that.

And so we must then return to Rick and Morty, for which I make no apologies whatsoever, although if you have been watching and haven't reached this point yet there are obviously spoilers ahead.  The third episode of the new series ends in another exceptionally bleak denouement: after being dumped for a second time by Unity, a being that can take over the minds of the inhabitants of entire planets, Rick comes within a whisker of killing himself, passing out moments before the suicide machine he constructs would have turned him to dust.  Clearly it's not just because of Unity that he tries to do so, and it's also the case that he's not certain about what he's doing, hence why he drinks a substance that he knows will knock him out very quickly, reducing the chances he actually will die.  Does he also take it though because he doesn't want to experience even the momentary pain the instant cremation will have if he doesn't collapse before the beam reaches full power?  Has Rick reached this point despite being a world-beating albeit unrecognised genius, or is it rather because of that genius, and that despite his intelligence he cannot overcome the failings of his own sociopathic personality, which in the words of Unity, makes him better at what she does without even trying?  And as this is a world where there are an infinite number of alternate realities, as demonstrated neatly by the next episode, in just how many of those universes did Rick kill himself?

Or of course it could be that this was simply a neat way to end an episode that would get an already fevered fan base talking all the more.  Such is television.

Similar pratfalls can result if you focus on one particular issue rather than the whole.  Witness the silliness over the killing of our old friend Cecil, for instance.  You could if you so wish reflect on the impression that gave of an awful lot of people caring more about the death of an endangered animal on the other side of the world than they do plight of other humans on their doorsteps.  You could say that's understandable when animals are, unlike humans, far less complex creatures and operate only on instinct, however much we like to anthropomorphise them.  It's also easy to lose proportion when you don't have to deal with the bottom line, with nature reserves unable to survive on tourism and government funding alone.

All the same, when images like the ones today of a drowned, tiny child washed ashore in Turkey are widely shared, the sort of photographs that manage to speak of both the simplicity and difficulty of the refugee crisis gripping Europe, you can't help but note the other items that are vying for attention alongside it.  The latest on Taylor Swift's latent racism?  How about every single one of you journalists involved in bringing us the latest on this thrilling saga build your own suicide machines?  A 4-page feature on the styles for autumn 2015, including school bully hair, whether to channel the 70s or the 80s and where the only people smiling in the entire feature are notably those smug fucks that sit in the front row at all the shows?  Fashion journalism has always been about incredibly privileged white people in a tiny part of London telling each other to buy £700 trousers and £1,200 pairs of shoes, but isn't it about time you stopped trying to tell us this is of any importance whatsoever or deserving of even the small space it still gets in the national press, especially when the writing reaches ever greater heights of absurdity and insularity?

The real villains are of course not these people, although they make for easy, highly punchable targets.  According to our prime minister, taking in more refugees will do nothing to solve the root problems in Africa and the Middle East.  Well no it won't, but then I don't think anyone was suggesting it would.  It would be a gesture, a recognition that we along with a whole lot of others should play more of a role than we have so far.  Except according to Dave we already are doing our bit to bring peace and stability to these troubled nations.  It's not precisely clear what we're doing to help the situation in Eritrea, for instance, or how aid will help persuade the government there to stop terrorising its own citizens, nor is it obvious what we can do to fix Libya having helped to so comprehensively break it.  

As for Syria and Iraq, presumably the fact we're playing a role in bombing Islamic State targets in the former and the government is likely to seek parliamentary authority to do the same in the latter is what Cameron means, although considering advances against IS have only been won with a combination of air power and ground forces, their defeat is hardly expected any time soon.  Nor would IS's defeat immediately bring an end to the wider conflicts in Iraq and Syria, especially not in the latter, where for all the repeated claims that Assad's government is on the brink of collapse, the murderous stalemate continues.

This is without once again repeating the tedious argument that err, we've played quite a considerable role ourselves in creating this refugee crisis, whether by intervening in Libya and then all but abandoning the place, or by following the Saudi policy in Syria.  If you're going to bomb somewhere or provide support to the people who operate weapons like this with as much impunity as the Assad regime, the very least you can do is offer sanctuary to the people who find themselves in harms way.  

To Cameron, and it should be added a sizeable proportion of people in this country, the 200 who have been give refuge through the specific scheme and the few thousand others that have made it here through fair or foul means are more than enough.  Cameron either doesn't feel any responsibility, or believes that to do the decent, honourable thing would cost him some short-term popularity.  We know he's not going to serve a full term, his government currently faces almost no opposition except from the media; what is there to stop him from this once refusing to bow to those further to his right?  Or is it that he really is just a completely obtuse, pompous snob, from whom there is no subtext to read?

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015 

Germany: putting the rest of Europe to shame.

There is something quite extraordinary taking place in Germany.  With predictions that the country will see 800,000 asylum applications this year, a figure that some are already suggesting is likely to be an underestimate, it's all too predictable that 199 attacks of varying severity on refugee hostels had been recorded by early July.  Polls suggest 40% of Germans are opposed to taking in any more, while the rise of both the Pegida movement and the Alternative for Deutschland party have both further raised concerns.

Yet that only tells half the story.  Established a year ago, the Welcoming Alliance for Refugees, based in Berlin, now has over 1,000 supporters and regularly sees more than 300 volunteers turn out to give donations and help newly arrived asylum seekers with their claims.  Banners making clear that refugees are welcome have been waved not just at demonstrations, but at football grounds across the country.  The German media, regardless of political affiliation, has almost as a whole expressed the same message.  The populist tabloid Bild, which most closely resembles the Sun, declared at the weekend it too supported the "we're helping" movement, having in the past been accused of helping to ramp up xenophobia.  Politicians too have almost universally said that the country can accommodate the numbers coming, even if there has been criticism they have at times been slow in acknowledging as much.  Last week the government also suspended the Dublin convention, if only for Syrian refugees, making clear they would not be deported regardless of if they had already made an application in another EU state.

Indeed, in the main this has been the reaction of the locals at the sharp end of the biggest mass movement of refugees since WW2 regardless of country.  Residents of places like Lampedusa and any number of Greek islands have shown remarkable patience and made great sacrifices to help those whom have landed on their shores, a kindness that has not always been extended by the authorities themselves.  While few will begrudge the Greek government protesting about it being unable to cope, the refusal of other EU member states to agree to a quota system for refugees is one of the first signs of the possibility of the Schengen agreement breaking down.  The Schengen agreement underpins the freedom of movement rules that have become the bete noire of those opposed to "uncontrolled" immigration with the EU, with Theresa May declaring at the weekend that freedom of movement ought to mean freedom to move to a country where a job is waiting, not simply to look for work.

Der Spiegel's depiction of both a "dark Germany" and a "bright Germany" is probably to overdramatise events in the country that will on current trends take in more refugees this year than the rest of Europe combined.  Germany's stance is all the more remarkable when you realise it is motivated less by anything approaching guilt over the role played in the various wars that have led to the refugee crisis and more by memories of the suffering following the second world war, when millions were left to make their way back to places that were either in ruins or soon to be under a new tyranny.  Germany, unlike ourselves or France, refused to get involved in the NATO intervention in Libya, while it has also played a less partisan role in Syria.  The irony that it is now the major destination for refugees making their way through the failed state of Libya and has opened its borders to Syrians as a whole has not been lost on the German media: Bild for one has raged against David Cameron for shirking his responsibilities.

The attitudes of the German and British media could hardly be further removed from each other.  At the same time as the German papers have welcomed the 200,000 that claimed asylum in the country in July alone, our finest have been thundering against the 1,500 that equally desperately have been trying to make their way to this country from Calais.  Every solution other than letting those who clearly won't be put off by bigger fences and more security make their claims in France has been considered, including sending in the army.  Some might argue that our papers are more reflective of public opinion than their German equivalent, and to judge by radio and TV debates that's probably the case. 

That this merely demonstrates the nadir the debate on immigration has descended to is hardly something to say in our media's defence.   The number of asylum seekers taken in last year made up only around a tenth of the overall net figure of 330,000, a number which is itself deceptive due to how it includes students coming to study from abroad.  We've reached the point where a Songs of Praise broadcast from a makeshift church in the Calais "jungle" has become a front page outrage.  That once these same papers did on occasion welcome asylum seekers, so long as they were from the eastern bloc, with even those who would now be denounced as people smugglers regarded as heroes just underlines the way in which the default tabloid position has become one of permanent suspicion if not outright opposition.

You could say the reality of mass immigration since 2005 has led to public opposition to migration in general, whether economic or for sanctuary, and there's a smidgen of truth in that.  Easily forgotten is back in 2001-2003 the same scenes of chaos at Calais were a nightly feature on the news, with much the same reaction from the media, including alleged collusion between the Sun and the government over what the paper had deemed to be the biggest issue facing the country.  The main problem for many seems to be those in Calais trying to get to Britain aren't completely helpless: that they are breaking into trucks, sneaking onto trains, cutting fences, scaring holidaymakers means they can't possibly be victims, not least when their actions are or were having such a knock-on effect in Dover and Kent in general.  Combined with the questions over why they aren't claiming asylum in France or elsewhere in Europe, despite France taking more than double the number we have, such an atmosphere is hardly conducive to our politicians attempting to raise the tenor of the debate, let alone draw back from such self-defeating policies as the ever more ridiculous Conservative target of reducing immigration to the tens of thousands.

Credit must then be given to Yvette Cooper, for at least making the case for us to do more.  To be frank, even accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees would be a fairly minor gesture, such are the numbers not just in Germany but throughout Europe and also Syria's neighbours.  It would at least be a start, and as Cooper said, would go some way towards this country once again playing the role it has in the past.  Without going further however, and providing a way for refugees to claim asylum from outside Europe, it is both ludicrous and downright stupid to talk about those involved in getting Syrians and others into Europe as the equivalent of slave traders.  What option is there apart from paying smugglers when the other choices are staying or attempting the journey through Turkey and then the Balkans on their own?  Stripped of those boats and vehicles there would be even less hope, terrible as the sinkings in the Mediterranean and suffocation of so many last weekend are. 

That regardless Cooper is up to now the closest we've come to a politician recognising we have a responsibility, not just to Europe but to ourselves to do more is an indictment of just what a nasty, selfish and brutish country we are in danger of becoming.  The very least a nation can do when it has had such a role in breaking the likes of Libya, Iraq and Syria is to give shelter to those who were in the way.  The selflessness of Germany increasingly stands apart from a rest of Europe that seems all too willing to turn its back on its shared past.

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Monday, August 03, 2015 

Blaming the immigrants.

Those with long memories for arcane decisions by newspaper regulators might recall that the reason the PCC cleared Jan Moir's article on Stephen Gately of breaching the editor's code was because Moir had been careful not to be explicitly homophobic.  She managed not to use any of the more obvious anti-gay epithets while at the same time casting aspersions on how healthy, normal people do not suddenly just die, especially when they might have been doing something shortly before they stopped breathing that a Daily Mail columnist would naturally disapprove of, and so was not guilty, your honour.

Much the same rules are now in place when it comes to discussing immigration, or rather migrants and asylum seekers, as we have been.  So long as you don't use any language which is definitively racist, like the n-word, p-word, call those desperately trying to get to Britain from their makeshift camps in Calais the coloured masses, or anything similar, you can say absolutely anything you like.  Before the panic of the last week we'd seen human beings described as cockroaches, and most people didn't say anything because giving the person behind that diatribe attention is precisely what she wants.  When David Cameron refers to those fleeing war and oppression, some of whom are on the move from conflicts that have either been exacerbated or even in part set off by British participation as a "swarm", it's just a slip.

It isn't, of course.  Whereas in the past Thatcher and Blunkett were both heavily criticised for describing communities as being "swamped" by newcomers, this time there was just as much biteback at the relatively few who did describe Cameron's choice of words as unhelpful.  The fact is you can now say almost anything you like about immigrants or even foreners as a whole, so long as you don't specifically identify them by either their skin colour or race.  This is not because levels of racism and prejudice have increased, far from it; if anything, both continue to decrease.  Rather, it's because immigrants have been so successfully othered, in much the same way as benefits claimants have.  Once you've reached the point that the first thing those in desperate need declare is that they're not like all those others in desperate need who are scrounging bastards and deserve shooting, it's clear something fundamental has shifted.

Nigel Farage did have something of a point when he complained during one of the general election debates that the audience before him wasn't like the ones he usually encountered.  At the vast majority of events his line in blaming the delays in cancer treatment on foreners and immigrants taking up NHS resources with their bad AIDS doubtless went down a storm.  So long as you get the balance just right between being nasty but with reason, and don't go off into being nasty for the sake of it, you'll be fine.  Go home vans?  Not racist, said the majority.  And to be fair, they probably did just about land on the side of not racist.  Nasty but with reason certainly, but not racist.

Anyone tuning into radio or TV debates over the past week on the situation in Calais will have quickly realised the general consensus is the army should be out there fragging anyone who so much as approaches a truck with what could be interpreted as malign intent.  Some, but not all, will broaden their complaints to how immigrants and refugees are first come first served when it comes to housing and how the people featured on Crimewatch are all foreigners, as did one lady on a local BBC station I happened to catch, before the presenter hastily cut in that might be because such people are poor and desperate and it was time to move on.  The same presenter moments later was agreeing with another caller that clearly the army did need to be on manoeuvres and fences reaching up to space were one solution.

Voters no longer blame politicians when it comes to immigration.  If they did, they wouldn't have given Dave "tens of thousands" Cameron a majority, however small.  They've just stopped listening.  It didn't matter however many times Labour and Ed Miliband insisted it wasn't racist or prejudiced to be concerned about immigration, and how deeply sorry they were that they made a balls-up of not putting in place the temporary restrictions most of the rest of Europe did on eastern European migrants in 2005, voters kept on ignoring them.  When said lady above complained about how her son was having to live in two bedrooms in a Travelodge as his local council couldn't find him anywhere to live, and how this was clearly down to all the immigrants, she didn't think it could just as much be the result of a lack of investment in social housing, or the ultimate culmination of right to buy, she just blamed the immigrants.

When politicians then come up with idiot policies like forcing landlords to examine the passports and birth certificates of everyone they rent to on the pain of jail, they can do so safe in the knowledge that voters won't blame them for the inevitable delays and injustices that will result, they'll blame the illegal immigrants.  They know that when they come up with the idea of further impoverishing the families of failed asylum seekers, despite knowing full well that many of those failed asylum seekers cannot be deported because their countries of origin are paradoxically declared to not be safe, they won't blame politicians for their cruelty, they'll blame the immigrants.  They know that when Theresa May and the French interior minister have the audacity and cant to declare in a joint article that the streets of the UK and France are not paved with gold, they won't think this populism of the most self-defeating and stupid kind, they'll nod in agreement.  The contradictions of how the Conservatives present the UK to the world as booming, the place to be to trade, how great it is won't bother them, as the immigrants are not the target audience.  They'll take no notice of the Swedish justice and migration minister calling out the self-pitying bullshit of British and French politicians, as it doesn't matter how many different people try to explain that most don't want to come here, aren't coming here and that those who do overwhelming are seeking sanctuary, minds have long been made up.  Immigrants we know, good.  Immigration as a whole, bad.  Such is the new centre of British politics.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015 

Calais: solvable, if we really wanted to.

The continuing chaos in Calais is one of those problems that could, should have been solved years ago.  It still could be now if only there was the political will.  The main culprit is the EU's Dublin regulations, whereby an asylum seeker is usually the responsibility of the first member state they lodge a claim in, or where their fingerprints are first taken, and which have long outlived any usefulness they once had.  They weren't designed to be able to deal with the two crises of 2015: the economic turmoil in both Italy and Greece, the two main entry points into the EU for migrants; and the unprecedented number of refugees making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean.

Even if Italy and Greece could cope with the numbers arriving on their shores, many would soon be moving on anyway, never having had any intention of making a new life in either state.  As it is, there are plentiful reports of the Italian authorities helping migrants on their way, dropping them off close to the border with France.  If you think this hands-on approach might be related to the apparent lack of action from the French police to the numbers who do manage to get to Calais, one step away from this country, you'd be right.  Why waste time, money and effort on dealing with migrants who only want to stay temporarily when to get involved increases the chances of having them stay permanently due to the vagaries of EU policy?  If Scotland had become independent and gained a reputation for being more welcoming to asylum seekers than the rest of UK, difficult as that is to imagine, you can guarantee before long there would be a similar situation in Berwick or the edge of Gretna.  Such is the way we try to pass our problems onto someone else.

An obvious solution would be to do away with the Dublin regulations entirely.  Regardless of where the claim is made, the only way to deal with the numbers coming fairly is to distribute them evenly between EU member states on the basis of a country's wealth, size and number of those already settled of the same heritage, to identify just three possible factors to be taken into consideration.  This approach would have some major problems: the resettling would have to be done almost immediately after the application is made, to ensure a family or person isn't then wrenched away from somewhere they've come to call home a second time.  It would almost certainly have to happen before an application is either approved or rejected, with all the difficulties that entails for cross-border information sharing and language barriers.  It would also mean countries that have previously experienced mainly emigration rather than immigration needing to accept some newcomers.  As has been shown by both the deal forced on the Greeks and the abortive attempt to do something similar to this earlier in the year, such solidarity is already in extremely short supply.

None of these problems ought to be insurmountable.  It's no more fair for Italy and Greece to be the front line in both rescuing and providing for migrants in the immediate aftermath of their reaching Europe than it is for Sweden and Germany to bear by far the most asylum applications (if not in Germany's case by head of population).  The main reason Britain would oppose any such change to the regulations is that despite the Calais situation, we would almost certainly end up taking in more asylum seekers than we do now.  For all the wailing, Cobra meetings, cost to the economy of Operation Stack and the closure of the tunnel, it's seen as preferable to any further increase in the immigration figures, especially when the situation has in the past only been this acute for short periods.  The chaos this time has been exacerbated just as much by the ferry strikes as it has marauding bands of refugees.  The irony of borders being wide open for everyone except those most desperately in need is still yet to properly sink in.

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Thursday, February 26, 2015 

The immigration monster strikes again.

You can't help but admire the Tories' hugely successful efforts to increase net migration.  There was the campaign abroad stressing just how wonderful the United Kingdom is, the repeated loosening of the rules on claiming benefits, despite there not being the slightest evidence a country's welfare system was a pull factor, and, not unrelated, we've also seen the rise in the polls of the single issue EU-OK! party.  The government hasn't quite reached its ultimate target of 300,000, no ifs, no buts, it must be noted.  Still, 298,000 couldn't be much closer.  Considering the miserable failure to double the deficit in a single term, to all but achieve his aim on immigration is a major fillip going into the election for David Cameron.

Yep, we are once again in bizarro world.  There was never the slightest chance of getting net migration down to the tens of thousands as Cameron so foolishly promised, but it looked for a time at least as though the numbers would come down enough for some sort of progress to be claimed.  For the figure going into the election to be 50,000 above the number which prompted Cameron to make his pledge is little short of fantastic.  Indeed, you'd need a heart of stone not to laugh, if it wasn't for how immigration has long since just become another issue to beat politicians as a whole over, transforming unpopular populist bores into salt of the earth sages who can be trusted to mean what they say.

As plenty of Tory sympathisers have been quick to say, what the increase really shows is that compared to much of Europe the UK economy has recovered faster, except they naturally included the words long, term and plan, when there has never been any such thing.  And had the main parties and most commentators not decided that it was better to indulge the tabloids and public opinion by saying it was no longer enough to make the case for continued immigration on economic grounds, instead of doing so while promising to deal more effectively with the pressures on local services in the areas most affected, with the impact of the cuts naturally having the exact opposite effect, they might now not be in a mess entirely of their own making.

Those with memories longer than your proverbial goldfish might recall much of the immigration panic of 2013 was centred around our Romanian and Bulgarian friends, whom on 1st of January 2014 would have unfettered access to our glorious shores.  Estimates varied from every single person currently in the two countries emigrating to Britain to slightly more sensible guesses.  To give the doommongers some credit, the numbers from the two countries have indeed gone up on the 2013 figures, after the first estimate suggested there might have been a fall.  37,000 came, which isn't a number to be sniffed at considering the 298,000 overall net figure.  This is however an increase of only 13,000 on the previous year, when those wishing to work here had to apply for work permits.  A statistically significant one, as the ONS says, but hardly the end of the UK as we know it.  Nigel Farage can rest assured he's unlikely to be getting any new and unwelcome neighbours.

Let's not kid ourselves here, though.  There's just the one stat that will be seen and it's the headline figure.  How much it really matters is open to question, considering poll after poll suggests people tend to see things in their local area as having not been majorly affected, if at all, as most haven't, while by contrast elsewhere no one speaks English and something has to be done.  Draw a line in the sand, the Sun says, and the fact the Tories didn't have immigration in their 6 key election themes was proof Cameron didn't want to win the election.  If we're to believe Matthew d'Ancona the reason the prime minister's so frit of the debates is he doesn't want to give Farage a platform.  Someone with just a bit more courage ought to take it upon themselves to inform Dave that the very moment he came up with his ridiculous pledge he gave UKIP the kind of platform they had dreamed of for years.  You can't control immigration while you're in the EU, Nige repeats, and it's true, you can't put a cap on the numbers.

What you can do is make a case for exactly why a cap isn't necessary provided the resources are in place to deal with any problems unexpected surges will have temporarily.  What you can do is try and provide enough housing for everyone, enough jobs, introduce regulations that stop the unscrupulous from exploiting casual labour and enforce the payment of a living, as opposed to poverty wage.  You can make the point that a real sign of strength, both economically and culturally is the number of people from outside who want to live in a particular country.  What you don't is encourage the belief that it's all about an over generous welfare system when it's not, that despite previous waves of migrants being welcomed and celebrated for their achievements it's now time to say sorry, we're full when you can't, and then, finally facing that reality, decide it's time to make immigration the key factor in the debate about the EU when that's precisely what the headbangers in your party and the antediluvians in UKIP want to make it.

Considering the number of mistakes Cameron and the Tories have made, and when you factor in Andy Coulson, Libya, Syria, the bedroom tax and continuing to humour Iain Duncan Smith amongst others there's plenty to go round, the immigration target has to be the biggest.  It's not as though it's his only broken promise, that little one about eliminating the structural deficit in a single parliament also jutting out.  As a major cause of cynicism and anger it must be right up there, and yet rather than even at this late moment decide it's time to put a stop to such idiocy and level with a public that could still respect them for doing so, politicians look set to put in place further targets making them a hostage to fortune.  It seems they'd rather see the rise of blowhards and buffoons than make a case for the national interest, something they're more than prepared to fall back on when it comes to taking part in crazy foreign adventures.  Politics at times just doesn't make any damn sense.

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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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