Tuesday, October 21, 2014 

Farage's face, staring out - forever.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell through O'Brien offered as a picture of the future a boot stamping on a human face - forever.  It's a visceral, shocking image you want to turn away from, yet it's not as horrifying as the current vision of the future we are presented with.  It still involves a human face, only rather than it being stamped on, there's a rictus grin across its mug, the eyes bright, teeth being flashed for all their worth.  The face, all but needless to add, belongs to Nigel.

Future historians looking back on the coalition government will have plenty to examine and debate over.  They will wonder how a government which insisted it was dealing with a national emergency, the size of the budget deficit, could first choke off the recovery left by the previous government by cutting back capital spending and then conjure to provide a recovery of their own in which the deficit fails to fall.  They will try to reach conclusions over whether it was the emphasis on cuts to the welfare budget by this government that led inexorably to the dismantling of the system of social security as the country had known it post-Beveridge.  Most significantly, they will be forced to consider how despite presenting himself as a strong leader, David Cameron was in fact the embodiment of a weak prime minister, at every step giving in to the worst instincts of his party rather than pursuing what was right for the country.

The evidence for just such a finding is there in abundance.  Most fundamental will be the colossal error Cameron made in January 2013, announcing in a speech that if returned to power in 2015, his government would hold an in/out referendum on remaining in the European Union by 2017, after a successful "renegotiation" with the other member states.  Designed to win over backbenchers complaining about his leadership and the party's standing in the polls, it does for a matter of days.  Having succeeded in pressurising a leader they have never taken to and never will into making one promise, they quickly demanded he move sooner.  They make clear their displeasure at legislation not being present in the Queen's speech preparing for the referendum, and again, Downing Street soon gives in.

Not that it was only backbenchers taking the credit for Cameron's shift.  In another example of Cameron's reckless promises coming back to bite him, prior to the 2010 election he set out how a Conservative government would bring immigration down from the hundreds of thousands to the "tens of thousands".  At first it looked as though he might achieve his aim, only for the continuing economic woes in the Eurozone to result in a surge of migrants from the western European states most affected by austerity coming to the country.  Immigration duly becomes second only to fears over the NHS in people's concerns, not because of it having a personal impact on most, but as a catch-all complaint over the sense of drift, the general feeling of powerlessness most are experiencing as real wages fall and politicians refuse to offer anything resembling a vision of where the country is heading.

So desperate are the public they look anywhere for an alternative.  In any other circumstances Nigel Farage would be an incongruous figure, a deeply boring, petty man who covers up for his party's lack of policies and rigour with an overarching narrative: things ain't what they used to be, and it's all the fault of the European Union.  Nigel smokes tabs, drinks beer, and so delights a media starved by the blandness and sterility of the focus grouped out of existence political elite.  They can't get enough of him, and the publicity combined with the mood of hopelessness leads to his UK Independence Party winning hundreds of council seats, before it comes out on top in 2014's European parliament elections.  Rather than bother to submit Farage himself to anything resembling proper scrutiny, with a very few select exceptions, the media instead focus on those lower down the party structure.  All the while the personality cult of Farage continues to build, to the point where a former DJ imagines the UKIP leader at Number 10 in a calypso inspired song.  It seems and is completely absurd, and yet the main topic of debate is whether Mike Read's appropriation is racist.

Absurd is the word.  Cameron's weakness knows no apparent bounds.  Only a few weeks ago he offered to his party and by proxy the country the promise he would put freedom of movement at the heart of his renegotiation strategy.  He said he wouldn't take no for an answer.  The outgoing president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, points out the answer could only be no when the rest of the EU, imposing its own restrictions on benefits or not, has not the slightest intention of curtailing one of the EEC's founding principles and biggest successes.  Panicked further by the prospect of losing the Rochester by-election, and apparently fearing a leadership challenge in the aftermath, we now learn Cameron is set to announce some form of unilateral restriction on low-skilled eastern European migrants, most likely by refusing to issue them with national insurance numbers.  How this will affect the economy he cares not; nor does he worry over the legal implications.

Cameron's gambit has failed on all fronts.  His backbenchers, meant to be sated by his giving them what they want, now realise they have pushed to the point at which they are closer than ever to reaching their goal of getting Britain out of Europe.  Why on earth would they stop now?  UKIP, meanwhile, has had its every argument validated, continues to gain support and still can point out that the only way to truly control the borders is to leave.  All this, and the Conservatives remain behind Labour in the polls.  The only reason Cameron hasn't been called on this disaster is due to the majority of the press sharing the backbenchers' opinion on the EU, and how they can't imagine anything as terrible as Red Ed in Number 10.  I can.  It's another 5 years of Farage's fizzog staring out from every screen, every alternate sheet of newsprint, every billboard, the same silent laugh emanating from his gob.  You're the one he's laughing at, Dave.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014 

Judge actions, not just words.

It's another of those days when you look down the headlines and think, is there really nothing else going on in the world than outrages about who said what to whom, and arguments over whether the threats of one side are more reprehensible than their opponents'?  Well, admittedly, there is, it's just the other big story continues to be Ebola, which is still failing miserably to gain a foothold in the West, whereas it continues to ravage West Africa, killing poor black people, who aren't quite as important.  Also we already seem bored about the siege of Kobani, for similar reasons.

We come then to Lord Freud's comments about disabled people and the minimum wage at a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference.  If you completely ignore the context in which he was speaking, then yes, they really are as bad as they look on the surface.  Minister says some disabled people aren't worth the minimum wage!  He must resign forthwith!  Look closer however, and it becomes apparent he was responding to a question from a Tory councillor who related an anecdote about a person who wanted to work but at the same time found it difficult to do so and keep the same entitlement to benefits.  The solution David Scott found was to set him up as a company director, meaning he could do some gardening, get paid for it and not be penalised for doing so.

The conversation is admittedly not conducted in language which everyone would use: Scott talks of the "mentally damaged" not "being worth the minimum wage" and goes on to speak of "them" in a more than slightly patronising, if not outright offensive way.  He is though describing the contradiction between wanting to help the sick and disabled either back into work or to be able to work, and how the system currently immediately ends support once it's deemed someone's capable of holding down a job.  Freud in response mentions universal credit, which to a certain extent is meant to be able to adapt to fluctuations in the number of hours someone works, then agrees with Scott on "there is a small, there is a group ... where actually they're not worth the full wage".

How far Freud is agreeing with Scott on his overall point and just repeating his words is obviously open to interpretation.  He has since apologised on precisely these grounds, saying he shouldn't have accepted the "premise of the question", while making clear the disabled should "without exception" receive the minimum wage.  Certainly, if Freud really does believe a group, however small isn't worth the full wage he can't remain in his position.

Always you should consider a person, or in this instance government's deeds alongside their words.  David Cameron, reasonably enough, said he would take no lectures on looking after disabled people; perhaps though he should take some responsibility for the coalition's woeful record on the work capability assessment and how Iain Duncan Smith insisted everyone needed to go through the system again regardless.  That's not to forget the botched introduction of the personal independence payment system, still causing misery, the closing of more of the Reemploy factories or the impact the "spare room subsidy" has had on the vulnerable.  Also needing to be factored in is how many disabled people have reported feeling under suspicion, such has been the change in mood towards anyone who might be claiming benefits.  The coalition can't take the blame for all the anti-scrounger rhetoric, not least as Labour first encouraged it while in power, but it picked up where they left off.  On your works ye shall be judged, and the Tories and indeed the nice, caring Lib Dems must be.  Harshly.

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Monday, October 13, 2014 

The UKIPs are coming!

Last week's by-election results told us precisely nothing we didn't already know.  In Clacton, a popular local MP won back his own seat after resigning it as part of a marketing campaigning designed to keep the Nigel Farage beerwagon rolling.  In Heywood and Middleton Labour won back their safe seat, the party's share of the vote holding up.  Only of slight interest is how the party's majority was cut to just over 600 votes, as it shows how people vote differently in by-elections: the Tory, Lib Dem and BNP vote collapsed (the BNP, still in turmoil, didn't stand) and UKIP profited as a result.  Some Labour supporters no doubt switched to UKIP as a protest, with former Lib Dem voters going back to Labour making up the difference.  Moreover, apathy, non-interest or the pox on you all mentality were the real winners, with a turnout of just 36%.

And yet, and yet, because the former meant the UKIPs finally have a seat at Westminster, which hopefully means everyone can now shut up about it, and the latter obviously means the UKIPs could possibly, maybe, have a major impact on the outcome of next year's general election, even if they don't win more than a handful of seats, if that, all we've heard since has been the equivalent of the UKIPs are coming!  The UKIPs are coming!

Yes, just when you thought the why-oh-whying had withered slightly, the number of here's why UKIP is getting so much support articles and think pieces reaches 9,000 againThe same old points are made over and over: it's immigration stoopid; it's because the political elite are all professionals, never had a real job in their lives; they don't communicate in plain English, can't get their message across with descending into slogans and wonk-speak; they're all the same; and so interminably on.

The fact is there are clearly different explanations for why UKIP has gained support in some areas, hasn't in others and will most likely fall back substantially come next May.  I think John Harris has overstated at times the UKIP "surge", but his piece on Clacton last week nailed why Douglas Carswell was always likely to retain his seat, albeit for a different party.  Telling people just how right-wing Carswell was, the response was one of not caring.  UKIP has become a "safe" protest, an anti-immigration party that isn't racist, merely xenophobic, albeit one fronted by a former metals trader with a German wife.  Carswell's more out there politics were counteracted by his being a good constituency MP, while most former Tory voters were more than happy to support his shifting slightly further to the right.  If there was anger or doubts about the use of public money to stage an unnecessary by-election, those unimpressed stayed at home.  Clacton also fits, as John B has noted, the pissed off at the march of progress demographic as first identified by Lord Ashcroft's polling, and perhaps exemplified by Tilbury.  People who don't properly know why they're angry, who are opposed to change yet also don't want things to remain as they are.

Apart from opposition to immigration there's not much that unites them apart from contempt and a sense of being abandoned.  Hence the desperate search for just why it is they feel this way, with some of the reasons alighted upon saying more about the insecurities of politicians and journalists than getting to the heart.  Voters saying politicians don't understand their lives doesn't mean they want them all to talk like Farage, nor have they've developed an instant aversion to PPE graduates, as Owen Jones seems to believe.  An amalgam of the crash, the resulting austerity, continued anger over the expenses scandal, the belief that London and the surrounding area dominate everything, a "popular" media that focuses on the negative, while the "serious" puts undue emphasis on ephemera and identity politics as opposed to that of the everyday, along with just good old general alienation and the lack of difference between the big three parties is largely how the majority have reached this point.  They've been further encouraged by a media that is enthralled as much as some of it is appalled by UKIP, to the point where certain sections view the party almost as their creation.  The emergence of a fourth party is also exciting, or at least is in comparison with much else of politics, and so the hype feeds itself.

There's danger in both over and under-reacting to all this by the parties.  The Conservative response has been a mixture of not understanding it combined with appeasement: freezing in work benefits at the same time as promising a giveaway to the upper middle is almost precisely how not to win back working class UKIP defectors, while the moves on Europe merely demonstrate how there's little point in voting for a party that only goes halfway towards the exit and has encouraged the Carswells and Recklesses to make their move.  Labour doesn't really want to talk about immigration full stop, whereas it should recognise it made a mistake in 2004 while arguing in reality it's the least of our problems.  The Lib Dems meanwhile have just gone the complete anti-populist route, and it's not exactly won them many friends.

Should Mark Reckless manage to win in Rochester and Strood then it might be worth getting concerned.  The Tories are set to throw everything at it, while in normal circumstances it's a seat Labour should be taking in a by-election.  Even if Reckless fails, the announcement today that Farage has been invited to one of the leader's debates underlines how the media certainly doesn't want to let their little engine that could run out of puff.  If UKIP have won enough support to be represented, then surely the Greens and SNP should be too, especially when either or both genuinely would bring a different perspective to proceedings.  The Graun, lastly, also sounds an ominous note: taxes are going to have to rise after the election, and yet none of the parties have begun to so much as broach the subject.  Should UKIP fall back as some of us believe it will, it or something like it could soon be resurrected when it again turns out a harsh truth wasn't communicated.

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Wednesday, October 08, 2014 

The chronicles of Glasgow.

And so to Narnia (surely Glasgow? Ed.) for the Liberal Democrat conference.  For the second year in a row the yellow peril have decamped north of the border, opting not to go somewhere different every 12 months as the other parties tend to, presumably as booking the hall 2 years in a row was the cheaper option.  Never let it be said the Lib Dems don't know how to save money.  Indeed, such has been their dedication to making the most out of old material, at times you could be forgiven for wondering if they weren't just giving last year's speeches again, hoping no one would notice.  Certainly the media wouldn't have done, and with reports of plenty of delegates leaving before Clegg's main speech, the hall apparently less populated than it was for Vince Cable's annual bash-the-Tories-let's-hope-everyone-forgets-we're-propping-them-up oration, neither would most of the party's members.

Give the delegates their due: they've continued to oppose the leadership's worst instincts, defeating the party on airport expansion, much to Clegg's chagrin.  If anything can save the party from being all but wiped out come the election, their sacrifices and dedication just might.  What certainly won't is the strategy, or rather lack thereof emanating from the party's advisers.  They just can't work out why it is Nick is so disliked, especially when Cleggmania reigned for a couple of weeks, and when he's so personable, honest, prepared to apologise for broken promises and all the rest of it.  He's the political leader all the focus groups and people in the street when asked the qualities they most admire are effectively describing, and yet he remains less popular than Ebola.

Perhaps the contempt for Clegg and the Lib Dems in general might just be linked to how the party that once tried to be all things to all people has become disliked for that very reason.  If you're a right-wing Tory then Clegg's mob have prevented the coalition from being truly radical, while if you're a Labour supporter or even vaguely left-of-centre then by the same token they've enabled and supported a right-wing administration that's cut the public sector to the bone, privatised Royal Mail, put in place a Health and Social Care act that opens up the NHS to privatisation as never before, froze benefits and introduced the bedroom tax.  Most pertinent of all, if you were a floating voter last time around and plumped for Clegg, loathing Brown and not trusting Cameron, believing Clegg when he promised a new politics, no more broken promises and all the rest, you really have been taken for a ride.  It isn't just tuition fees, although most will point to it as the most glaring betrayal; it's the whole damn package.

Nor does it help when at the same time as they condemn the Tories as evil for proposing to slash the benefits of the working poor to pay for tax cuts for the well-off and poor old Ed Miliband for his never to be forgotten or forgiven failure to mention the deficit, everyone knows they're actively reaching out to both should there be another hung parliament, as the party itself believes.  It takes some almighty chutzpah for Clegg one moment to be going on alarming about an us vs them mentality, the tribalism of right vs left, swinging at both the other main parties, and then once again making the case for how wonderful coalition is with one of those tribes, as though his party's mere presence makes it all better, "undermining the soulless pendulum".

The voting system, for all its faults, does after all protect the Lib Dems to a certain extent.  While the party seems destined to lose most of the seats where Labour is its main opponent, in the constituencies where it faces off against the Conservatives the choice for those on the left is either the Libs or bust.  With the Tories bound to lose a uncertain percentage of support to the UKIPs, they can afford to be quietly confident about hanging on to around 30 or so seats.  It'll mean the party seeing its number of MPs cut in half sure, but the way polling continues to suggest either a dead heat or slight Labour lead it will likely still mean they hold the balance of power.  The nightmare scenario, outlined somewhat by Norman Lamb, is Labour winning the most seats but coming second in the popular vote to the Tories, while UKIP picks up a token number of seats if that but manages to come third in the popular vote ahead of the Libs.  The right-wing press would duly howl about the illegitimacy of a Lib-Lab coalition, something preventable had they err, supported the alternative vote, and the likely outcome would be a second election sooner rather than later.

This assumes of course enough former Lib Dem voters return to the fold, something not guaranteed by Clegg's address.  While Miliband spoke for over an hour and yet managed to say very little, Clegg had everyone heading for home in 52 minutes, racing through all the reasons why the party has much to be proud about and so should return to their constituencies to await their doom.  Again we heard how the Tories couldn't have stalled the recovery for 2 years without the help of Clegg and Danny Alexander, although he might have phrased it slightly differently, how the raising of the income tax threshold is the greatest single tax initiative of all time, despite how it helps the better off more than it does the poorest, and how the pupil premium has saved the lives of thousands of school children, with teachers and parents coming up to Clegg in the street to thank him.  In spite of the drubbing their anti-populist strategy took in the European elections, Clegg and his party will be resolute in standing up for liberal values, a position less brave than it seems when there's not really that much further their support can fall.

To give Clegg some credit, his speech was probably the best of an extremely poor vintage.  He's spent the week acting like someone who can go no lower, coming across happier and more content with his lot.  There were some exceptionally dodgy parts, mostly the guff about opportunity all but required by diktat and the parts about "vested interests" where he seemed to be channelling Tony Blair, but this was outweighed to a point by the announcement on mental health services, which if followed through on has the potential to be something resembling a legacy for him.  Sure, his portrayal of the Liberals as the only people who can possibly be fair to society while also strengthening the economy is completely putrid when his proposal is for the same 80/20 ratio of cuts to tax rises as the coalition has been pushing through, still leaving the country in the dark to just how savage the next round of cuts will have to be, but at least it's a start.  His and his party's chief problem is most people made their minds up long ago.  And as the rise of the UKIPs has demonstrated, something akin to realism and shallow decency aren't the sellers they once were.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2014 

The war against IS: going just swell.

Compared to the previous execution videos released by Islamic State, their fourth "message to America and its allies" was almost apologetic in tone, as though even they realised the murder of Alan Henning was a step too far.  Gone was the more obscene bombast that had accompanied the killings of James Foley, Stephen Sotloff and David Haines, the lengthier forced testimonies from the men blaming their deaths on Western leaders, with Henning made to say just a couple of lines on the parliamentary vote that authorised British attacks on IS in Iraq.  He also looked calmer, not terrified as he obviously was in the Haines video.  Perhaps he was resigned to his fate, or perhaps this wasn't the first time IS had made him give a statement to camera, on the previous occasions not following through.

Lasting not so much as 90 seconds, the video gave every indication of being hurriedly produced.  The location clearly wasn't the same as it had been in all the previous videos, it wasn't as well lit, the British jihadi (I'm refusing from now on to refer to him in the same way as the rest of the UK media have decided to) was neither as menacing, coherent or arrogant in his speech.  The only things remaining much the same were the execution, the quick fading out, displaying of Henning's lifeless body and then parading of the next likely victim.  Jihadis have and always will invent specious, quasi-religious justifications for the murder of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but even the hardcore will have struggled internally to convince themselves killing Henning was necessary: a man who travelled to Syria purely to help the very people IS claims to be defending, his life and compassion will be remembered long after his killer's banal hatred is consigned to history.

If there are crumbs of comfort to be taken from such an act of unconscionable cruelty, it's that even prior to the murder itself there had been an outpouring of condemnation from all sides, and the video itself suggests the airstrikes on the IS capital of Raqqa have already had an effect.  Elsewhere the war on IS doesn't appear to be going as planned, not that it's ever been apparent there is something resembling a plan.  In northern Iraq airstrikes, combined with the aiding/arming of the peshmerga, have stopped IS from advancing further.  This though seems to have been at the price of IS turning its attention both further south, with reports of IS consolidating its hold on territory in Anbar province, while more attention is being paid to the siege of Kobani on the Syria/Turkey border.

The same doom-laden predictions of an imminent massacre, of betrayal at the hands of the Americans and Turks, of demands for heavy weaponry to match that which IS took from the Iraqi army, all have been heard before and are now being aired yet again.  There is some truth in these latter complaints: the War Nerd points out IS took the small border crossing of Jarabulus (and in the usual grandiose fashion, declared it an emirate), 25km from Kobani in June 2013, long enough ago for all sides to have acted or prepared for just this eventuality.  It also speaks of the relative weakness of IS that it's taken over a year for the group to move the short distance from Jarabulus and try capturing the next obvious large settlement.  At work are the divided loyalties of President Erodgan's Turkish state: it doesn't especially want Kobani to fall to IS, but it doesn't want to empower the Kurds either, not least when the militias fighting IS are either allied with or directly connected with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), still designated as a terrorist group despite the long-term ceasefire agreed last year.  Until recently the Turkish border with Syria was all but wide open, allowing foreigners to join up with the rebel grouping of their choosing with relative impunity; now it's closed, especially to those wanting to reinforce the Kurdish militias.

Turkey's role in the Syrian civil war has long been opaque, as demonstrated by leaked recordings which suggested the military could have been preparing a so-called "false flag" attack on the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, in a bid to justify intervening in the country.  Erodgan today continued to demand a two-pronged strategy, to defeat both IS and Assad simultaneously, without explaining how this could possibly be achieved, only that air power alone couldn't do it.  Many Kurds for their part believe IS has received support directly from Turkey, while the Americans are understandably fuming at how a NATO member state has done little beyond place heavy weaponry along the border, despite Turkey's parliament at the weekend voting to support intervention.

For all the insults thrown at IS, including from the esteemed likes of the War Nerd, it's adapted quickly to the forces now ranged against it.  Partly this is down to how many of its fighters are relative veterans, either from Iraq or battling Assad, and so aren't strangers to being attacked from the air.  They've learned to dig in, scatter when they hear jets or blend in with the population.  The airstrikes have disrupted their ability to operate completely in the open for sure, but not to the point where it means they can't still take new ground.  Already we have the likes of Jonathan Powell urging everyone not to rule out talking to our new enemy, and he makes quite a few salient points.  Strangely, Powell doesn't so much as mention talking to Assad, something that would make far more sense and which even his former boss suggested was inevitable earlier in the year.  Powell it seems is more Blairite now than ever: not prepared to jaw-jaw with dictators when we could war-war instead, but perfectly happy to talk with the most brutal of armed groups.  One could bring up how Powell and Blair's war effectively created IS, but that would be frightfully rude.

Everyone knows IS can't be defeated through just air power.  At the same time, no one wants to admit they're wrong, and have been for the past few years.  For either Obama or Cameron to send ground forces (as opposed to special forces or military "advisers", both of whom are and have been operating in Syria and Iraq for some time now) in would be to go against their twin strategies of drawing down and back from prolonged, costly deployments in the Middle East.  To even reach a temporary accommodation with Assad would be a propaganda coup for the "illegitimate" gasser of women and children, and outrage the Saudis and Qataris whom are still keen on their proxy war against Iran.  To admit the Free Syrian Army doesn't exist and probably couldn't be trained in 8 years, let alone 8 months to a standard where it could take on IS would remove the one remaining illusion of influence we have on the ground. 

We could, of course, have chosen not to intervene; we could have told the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwaitis and all the other funders of IS and al-Nusra in no uncertain terms how they were risking the seeming advances made in Iraq; we could have pushed far harder for a peace settlement before the power of the Islamists became too great; we could have done almost everything over the past decade connected with Syria and Iraq differently.  In the same way, "boots on the ground" intervention is just a matter of time.  It's not that we haven't learned anything, it's not that we haven't had a choice, it's just that not repeating the same mistakes over and over is too difficult by half.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014 

The Tory cult of insincerity.

At the very first opportunity, the language of modern warfare descends into euphemism.  It has to, such is the mundane, horrific reality it hides.  Places where fighters might be sheltering become "command and control centres"; "a heavy weapon position", which could mean a tank or more likely, some form of artillery, is "engaged"; reports that civilians may have been caught up in the bombing are always "being looked into", while raids are invariably "intelligence led", as opposed to being carried out on the off chance.  War is a business, and since 9/11 business has been extremely good: how can it not be when a single Brimstone missile, used yesterday by the RAF to destroy an "Isis armed pickup truck" costs over £100,000?

War all the time, all of the time.  Our enemy is always intractable, impossible to negotiate with.  Always we try every possible step first, always we go into combat with a heavy heart.  Always those who rightly become ever more indignant with each new conflict are mocked, shouted down, asked what their solution is, have their arguments misrepresented.  It takes a lot for me to agree with George Galloway these days, but every single thing he said in the Commons on Friday was right.  Islamic State could not have established itself in either Syria or Iraq without the support of some of those it operates alongside; he wasn't claiming for a moment the Yazidis, Christians or Kurds were quiescent in the face of their onslaught.  The Obama strategy, our strategy, offers no solution except a fantasy one where a mythical "moderate" force in Syria overcomes IS while the Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militas that are now the de facto Iraqi "army" make nice over the border.  The one realistic option, a truce between the Syrian rebels and Assad, is off the table, such is the Syrian president's lack of "legitimacy".  As compared to what, exactly?

As for matters closer to home, the threat will once again be used to justify otherwise unthinkable restrictions on free speech and liberty.  Give credit to Theresa May: she coated her speech to the Tory conference yesterday with so many platitudes and doths of the cap to liberalism you could have almost missed she was proposing the equivalent of 19th century controls on activists and political campaigners.  If necessary she would legislate to enforce the limiting of stop and search; she quoted from the Quran in an effort to prove that the Islamic State is not Islamic (which is a completely baffling line of argument: no, IS is not in any way representative of Muslims, but to claim it has no connection whatsoever to Islam is just as ludicrous, and seems as much as anything a way of distracting from how our friends in Saudi Arabia are most responsible for spreading the Wahhabism IS and al-Qaida are indebted to); and even at times seemed to be coming near to criticising her party's own foreign policy.  "We can't just remove dictators and assume liberal democracy will follow," she said, to which you almost felt she was dying to add, like we did in Libya.

Only later did it emerge quite what her "banning orders" and "extremism disruption orders" would amount to in practice.  Banning orders the Tories have banged on about for years, constantly threatening to outlaw the likes of Hizb-ut-Tahrir without ever going through with it.  May's extremism disruption orders by contrast seem to have been designed to deal with the Anjem Choudary "problem": i.e. the gobshites who just about stay on the right side of the law and whom the media love to quote for their own purposes.  The police, suitably empowered, will able to apply for an order against someone judged to be a "threat to the functioning of democracy" or as little as "causing alarm or distress", almost exactly the standard currently in place that has resulted in evangelical Christians being arrested under section 5 of the public order act.  If granted, those sanctioned would then have to submit any online communications to the police in advance, and would also be barred from taking part in protests.

Ostensibly targeted against the far-right as well as Islamists, so broadly drawn are the plans they're an authoritarian wet dream, capable of being used against protesters of almost every conceivable hue.  Rather than being out of character, the proposals are of a piece with the Lobbying Act's crackdown on charities daring to poke their noses into politics, epitomised by Brooks Newmark's comments on how they should concentrate on their knitting.  Little wonder the Conservatives are set on repealing the Human Rights Act, knowing full well the orders would be judged to breach it.

David Cameron for his part insisted getting rid of the HRA was all about sticking two fingers up at Strasbourg, "the country that wrote Magna Carta" needing no lectures about human rights.  Not that he mentioned leaving the European Convention itself, meaning those not satisfied with the replacement "British" Bill of Rights could presumably still go to the ECHR, just at far greater expense than at present.  Perhaps the family of Trevor Philpott would like to ask if their action against Essex police would still have gone ahead under the replacement act, or indeed which rights it is exactly the HRA provides the replacement won't have, a question left unanswered before.

Considering just how low the bar was set by Ed Miliband, forgetting the deficit aside, it was always likely Cameron's speech would be seen as a success by comparison.  That doesn't however absolve the media from failing to notice Cameron has delivered essentially the same address three years in a row now.  Last year he contrived to answer the sneering of a Russian politician by pointing out how we battled fascism; this year he related his experience in Normandy with a D-Day veteran, "how when people have seen our flag - in some of the most desperate times in history - they have known what it stands for".  Well, quite.  Last year, as he has repeatedly, he built himself up into a fit of faux righteous indignation over some slight from Labour; this year he did it twice, over Labour daring to suggest the NHS isn't safe in his hands and over Labour's plans to deal with the deficit, or lack thereof.

It was nonsense, but it was nonsense decreed acceptable whereas Labour's nonsense is pounced upon.  Cameron's plea for a majority government isn't so much you've had four years of us and hated every minute, it's either me for another 5 or it's Ed Miliband, as it is I'm a bit shit, you're a bit shit, don't put your trust in someone completely shit.  As Larry Elliott points out, Cameron's tax promises today now make them the party without a plan for cutting the deficit: if cuts of £25bn already look next to impossible without certain parts of government shutting down completely, how can a further £7.2bn worth be found to finance cutting taxes for middle earners?  Just as Cameron says he's a relatively simple man, it simply can't be done, unless that is he gives with one hand and takes with the other.  Which is precisely what he's doing by raising the income tax threshold to £12,500 at the same time as freezing tax credits, hoping the lowest paid won't notice his sleight of hand, or how the continuously rising threshold helps middle earners the most.

For all its manifold, myriad faults, Cameron and the Conservatives have a vision.  It's a vision that ignores the inexorable rise of food banks, the penalising of the most vulnerable through a "spare room subsidy", the fact living standards have fallen and show no sign of recovering despite inflation coming in below 2%, and instead emphasises things could be worse.  You can only be sure of continuing mediocrity with the Conservatives, so long as you're upper middle class like they are.  Everyone just needs to work harder, do the right thing, and they'll get the same rewards.  It's the natural order.  Should they win, they'll make life even harder for those whom continue to oppose them.

Labour, meanwhile, doesn't have anything resembling a vision.  Yet still on choice of party if nothing else it retains the edge.  That's how beatable the Tories are, should be, how people want a vision of something better that isn't cod-Thatcherism from a politician who can only remind you of how much better Tony Blair was at insincerity.  You believed Blair's insincerity.  Cameron can't even pull that off.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014 

Shorter Theresa May.

We have to destroy the town in order to save it.

(More tomorrow once the nicer effects of an anaesthetic wear off.  Don't ask.)

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Monday, September 29, 2014 

I chose not to choose Osborne.

If his actions hadn't been so unfathomably stupid, you could almost feel sorry for Brooks Newmark.  Chris Bryant is still constantly reminded of his posing in a pair of y-fronts for his Gaydar profile (and I, err, seem to have also just brought it up again), but at least he kept his pants on.  Newmark, being the archetypal Tory rather than a wannabe vicar turned MP, was just a touch more classy in his exposing.  Not by deciding upon a sepia filter or anything though, which might have been trying just a little too hard.  Instead he flopped the old johnson out of his dark blue and red paisley pyjamas, apparently convinced this would ignite fires of passion in his correspondent on Twitter.  Who just happened to be a freelance hack trying his luck with the old honeypot ploy, rather than Sophie Wittams, blonde Tory PR bombshell.

Cue many complaints about entrapment and all the rest of it, moans which were few and far between when Mazher Mahmood finally met his match in Tulisa.  Admittedly, they have a point: rather than a targeted operation against someone known to be liberal in their sending of private images, this seems to have been a fishing expedition, with "Wittams" contacting a number of Tory MPs.  All the same, I can't be the only one thinking it wasn't so long back Lord Rennard was being denounced for his (alleged) threatening sexual behaviour and touching of prospective Lib Dem MPs.  Even if this was a consensual exchange of pictures, should an MP be doing such things in any case, or indeed, shouldn't it be seen as indicative of a lack of judgement?

Newmark being ensnared by the Sunday Mirror would have been bad enough for the Tories on the eve of their conference, only for Mark Reckless to join his compadre Douglas Carswell in defecting to UKIP.  Much as we could just defer to nominative determinism on this one, as many others have, it says much about the state the Conservatives find themselves in that Nigel Farage's merry band has proved more attractive to not just one but two Tory MPs with healthy majorities.  Reckless could no longer stand being in a party apparently doomed to defeat at the next election, so he's joined one that's err, even more doomed to defeat at the next election.  Still, at least he can now be happier in his own skin, no longer forced to defend his party to those in Rochester who believe themselves to be "over taxed" and "over regulated", those key complaints on the doors.  As for the cost to the taxpayer of his decision to resign and seek re-election when he could have waited a few months and done exactly the same thing at the time of the general election, more important is the Farage bandwagon.  Quite how this is championing his constituents' interests rather than his new party's isn't clear, but no doubt he can justify it to himself somehow.

Yesterday in Birmingham then felt more like a conference of a far-left sect than it did that of the main governing party, with Reckless being denounced from the platform for his lies and betrayal.  Not that you could ever imagine Grant Shapps, aka Michael Green, aka Sebastian Fox being a leftie agitator, mainly as he comes across as far too dim.  Nothing is too obvious for Shapps, no sentiment too trite, no soundbite too overcooked.  If all else fails he can perhaps look for work at GCHQ, as the Tories now do a sideline in recording phone calls without the other person's knowledge and then playing them to all and sundry.  More the actions of an authoritarian one party state than the Tories of old, but needs apparently must when it comes to exposing the double dealings of those who are Reckless.

It was still preferable to what's become the Monday ritual, the delivering of the George Osborne gospel.  Worth keeping in mind is by some difference Osborne is now the most popular and also the most successful of all the coalition's ministers: that he's been a miserable failure when judged by the goals set by err, George Osborne doesn't matter when the competition is even worse.  By any real measure Michael Gove would rank as most successful such has been his impact on education, only for his charms to be deemed just too offensive to teachers and in turn voters.  Osborne by contrast, who must inspire thoughts of doing a Mantel in many, remains in place and dividing and ruling the same as ever.

Having got off relatively lightly of late, one would hope due to the Tories realising just how unpopular the bedroom tax has become, those on benefits whether in or out of work are due to cop it once again.  Should the Tories get a majority the under 21s will face the equivalent of "community payback" once they've claimed JSA for 6 months, while they also won't be able to get housing benefit.  The benefit cap as a whole will be lowered to £23,000, while only those in the support group of ESA will see their payments rise in line with inflation for a further two years.  Meanwhile, those under 40 who can afford to buy their own home could potentially get a 20% discount whether they need one or not, and another "death tax" will be abolished, with what's left of a pension pot no longer taxed at 55%.  It really couldn't be any more stark: if you're "one of us", aspiring to own your home, wanting to pass on money to your kids, Osborne and pals will be more than glad to help.  If you're struggling to make ends meet, claiming anything from the government whatsoever (with the exception of those able to jump through the hoops of the work capability assessment and everyone lucky enough to be 65+), you're on your own.  We hear that nice Mr Miliband, the same one who couldn't even remember the deficit, instantly disqualifying him from entering the room of the Very Serious People, will be happy to have you.

You could understand Osborne's gambit more if the £3bn estimated to be saved by these changes went a lot of the way to making the savings Osborne claims they will.  The problem is this is just £3bn of the £12bn total from welfare, with another £13bn to come from savings from the non-protected government departments.  Neither figure seems likely to be achieved without extreme pain, nor does it seem realistic taxes won't have to rise in some way, despite all of Osborne's fine words, if that is he means what he says about running a surplus.  It could be just as he's failed miserably to get rid of the deficit in a single term, he could relent once the election has been won.  Equally, he could raise taxes straight away to get it out of the way, even if it was to break his promises.  Or it could be he means what he says, and to hell with the consequences.  Whichever it is, there's no evidence making his stand now will win the support he believes it will from those who favour the Tories on the economy.  Keen as he apparently is on paraphrasing Trainspotting, no doubt to Irvine Welsh's ire, he and the Tories shouldn't be surprised if we decide to choose something else.

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Friday, September 26, 2014 

That justification for a third war in Iraq in full.

We have a slightly different missile in our arsenal to the ones used by the Americans.

Well, I'm convinced.

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Thursday, September 25, 2014 

Perpetually stuck in a sepia film.

Abu Qatada's acquittal on terror charges in Jordan is an all but perfect metaphor for the entire way we've gone about fighting the "war on terror".  For the best part of 10 years an innocent man was detained without charge, either in Belmarsh, Long Lartin or in his own home under onerous bail conditions.  He finally left the UK, not because he was forced to as the government would like us to believe, but as he decided he'd rather take his chances with the Jordanian court system than continue to be locked up.  So desperate were we to be rid of ol' bird-nest face we persuaded the Jordanians to somewhat reform their system, ensuring the torture tainted evidence that convicted him in absentia was made inadmissible, apparently unconcerned he could be found not guilty.  He can't return, so why should it bother us?

Qatada's detention was not just dependent on his awaiting deportation, but as he was judged to pose a threat in general.  He was, according to judges with access to secret intelligence Qatada himself was not able to see, a "truly dangerous individual", while a Spanish judge, since defrocked, described him as "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe", something quoted ever after.  And indeed, Qatada is a supporter of al-Qaida.  He is without doubt an Islamist extremist, his writings and sermons read by those whom have gone on to carry out terrorist attacks.  Qatada himself though is not a terrorist, nor is he a takfirist; he made an appeal on behalf on Norman Kember, and most recently has denounced Islamic State's murder of three Westerners.  The other most respected Salafi ideologue, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi, while calling for the release of Alan Henning, has also wrote on his website that Qatada had asked IS directly to release Henning, with the group denying at the time it was behind the kidnapping.

Dispensing with civil liberties at the first opportunity; exaggerating the real level of threat posed by jihadists; dumping our problems on the rest of the world at the same time as maintaining our actions have been in the interest of everyone.  All were characteristic to our approach to Qatada, and while as yet the coalition hasn't signalled it believes in further dilutions of liberty in the name of security, the other two have most definitely been in evidence as parliament gears up to authorise air strikes against IS.  One of the surest indications a policy is a terrible idea is when it has almost universal support, as accepting the Iraqi government's invitation to bomb their country has, with the exception of the usual stick in the muds.  No one seriously believes simply attacking IS from the air will destroy it, nor does the government have any faith either in the Kurdish peshmerga or Baghdad's ability to win back the territory seized by IS.  Nor are we filling a vital gap in the coalition put together by the United States, especially when the Gulf states have this time shown a willingness to actually use their own military capabilities.

No, we're about to go to war again because it would be almost rude not to.  Of little to no apparent concern is how damn familiar this seems.  Western intervention in the Middle East hasn't rid the region of Islamic extremism; rather, at every turn it has encouraged it.  Starting with the funding of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, almost every single policy decision taken has put fuel on the fire.  13 years of war in Afghanistan hasn't defeated the Taliban, who remain in wait for the long coming withdrawal of Western troops.  We overthrew a secular dictator in Iraq without a plan as to what to put in his place: the result was a sectarian civil war, the creation of IS and the empowerment of Iran.  We overthrew a secular dictator in Libya in the name of the "responsibility to protect": the result is a civil war between Islamist militias.  We've supported the overthrow of a secular dictator in Syria, recognising the opposition as the "legitimate representative" of the Syrian people; that "moderate" opposition has never existed in reality, and we either turned a blind eye or didn't object when our allies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar funded and armed the self-same extremists we are now posed to obliterate from the air.

If we're concerned the targeting of both the al-Nusra Front and IS in Syria could help to repair the fitna between the groups, it's not apparent.  Nor does it worry us how Western bombing always kills civilians, always unites in anger those otherwise against the extremists.  Yet again we don't have an exit strategy, even an idea what the "degrading" of IS means in practice, nor a guarantee attacks won't be extended to Syria.  Once again it will intensify the otherwise low threat IS currently poses, ironically when that limited threat is being used as a justification for the attacks.  Once again our enemy is evil, uniquely terrible, a "network of death".  Forgive me if I recall just how many deaths the forces of freedom have been responsible for, how insulted I am at being asked to accept the same people who got us in this mess are now going to solve it, and all through once again lobbing high explosives at whichever brick shithouse in this particular area IS has set up shop.  The case for joining the truly unholy coalition stitched together by the US is, remarkably, even weaker than the one made for bombing Assad last year.  It's just it's too much trouble to say no again.  We'd rather history repeat, as it will.

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Wednesday, September 24, 2014 

See, you know, here's the thing, we're better together.

Ed Miliband's conference speech was dismal.  Not because he "forgot" to mention how Labour would tackle the deficit, or deal with immigration, as a media no longer bothering to hide its bias has focused on relentlessly for the past 24 hours.  David Cameron and George Osborne went through two conferences where the word "recession" never so much as passed their lips, where everything was Labour's fault, all without the BBC so much as picking them up on their sins of omission.  No, it was awful because it was completely tone deaf, written and delivered not to be a cohesive whole but with the intention of the important bits sounding good when edited down for the news bulletins.  Even they blanched at Miliband repeating together over and over, in a spectacularly ill-judged attempt to throw the abandoned all in it Tory slogan back in their faces.  All activists could talk of was the energy they had encountered in Scotland, whichever side they were on, and here in front of them was one reason why the Yes campaign nearly triumphed.

This isn't to be entirely fair to Miliband, but then whoever was advising on the speech wasn't fair to him either.  If there's one thing Miliband isn't, it's Tony Blair.  The messiah himself barely got away with his "you knows" and desperate attempts to speak like, you know, the common people do, and yet still they decided it was a good idea to pepper the speech with sentences starting with "so", "see" and "here's the thing" among other verbal crimes.  Then we had the what threatened to be endless personal anecdotes, mocked without mercy since.  All of them seem to have been actual occurrences of Ed talking to real people, which is at least something, it just doesn't alter how with the exception of Beatrice Bazell, who remarked to Ed on how her "generation is falling into a black hole" they didn't add anything.  It gave a speech already lacking in content yet long in delivery a too earnest, too needy air, like a clingy boyfriend resorting to the same old self-deprecating tricks in a doomed effort to stop a lover from moving on. 


Miliband's strength, as proved by his three previous conference speeches was in focusing on a central, overriding theme with the odd eye-catching policy announcement tacked on.  We had predator capitalism, one nation Labour and then last year the cost of living/energy price freeze gambit, all of which succeeded in capturing the attention of the media, the latter setting the agenda for the rest of the year.  Rather than follow the same template this time he instead spread the message far too thinly: his ten year plan, a formulation which just invites comparison with Stalinist edicts on tractor production, was a clear attempt to revive the pledges made by Labour prior to the 97 election.  Laudable certainly, but May 2015 is too distant to concentrate minds, not least when the Scottish referendum is still exciting thought.  Nor was the announcement on a £2.5bn "time to care" fund for the NHS anything like a surprise, or close to as radical as the price freeze.


There were nonetheless sections that sparkled, albeit all too briefly.  The "on your own" motif if further developed could have formed a powerful indictment of the coalition's way of governing, with Miliband's attack on the auction that saw a Russian oligarch's wife bid £160,000 to play tennis with the prime minister one of the few cutting attacks on the Tories.  He was so enamoured with this swipe he repeated it moments later, alongside urging the conference to ensure Cameron has more time to surf and play Angry Birds (yes, really) by defeating his party at the election.  The hall, struck by quite how pitiful this call to arms was, barely shifted.


Some of this failure to connect with the audience in Manchester, let alone the rest of us, has to be put down to Miliband's baffling insistence on giving the address without notes.  The wandering around the platform, arm waving, look how in touch with you I am act was a novelty for a couple of years; now it's the political equivalent of riding a bike without holding the handlebars.  Anyone can do it with practice, but you look an even bigger fool than normal if you fall off.  It's not just the whole deficit non-story could have been avoided, it's how it encourages brush strokes rather than painting a full picture.  One of the most fundamental changes in recent years has been the rise of zero hour contracts, enforced self-employment and job insecurity, something not solved by raising the minimum wage.  All earned mentions, without Miliband offering anything resembling a plan for how a Labour government will improve things or tackle the short-term business culture behind the shift.  Apparently the 21st century will be about "co-operation, everybody playing their part, sharing the rewards, the talents of all", but how this will become the norm wasn't explained.


Most commentators have interpreted the speech as Labour resorting to a core vote strategy, and it's difficult to demur from that conclusion.  Those same commentators haven't noted however both the Tories and Lib Dems made clear long ago they were going to do the same thing, if that is the Lib Dems still have a core.  Nor is there much else Labour can do: while retaining their lead in the polls, Miliband's personal ratings are worse than ever, as is public confidence in their economic competence.  The real change since 2010 is while the Tories have shifted noticeably to the right, Labour has despite claims to the contrary stayed dead centre, emphasis on the dead.  Labour clearly believes voters have nowhere else to go; the sad thing is unless you fancy another 5 years of Con-Dem benevolence, they're probably right.  As for inspiration, aspiration, a politics beyond the fear and loathing of austerity, we'll have to wait a while longer.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 

It's that time again.

The interventionists have at last got their war in Syria.  It's not the war they wanted, the feel-good bombing the fuck out of anything that looked vaguely like belonging to the Syrian military in revenge for the gassing of children war, rather a not quite as feel-good but still pleasing bombing the fuck out of anything that looks vaguely like being an Islamic State stronghold war, but a war's a war.  It means the same old white guys in uniform presenting a salivating media with grainy black and white images of death from above, completely different from the pristine high definition snuff propaganda offered up by IS.  It means the ever willing servant of the United States, Her Majesty's Government, rushing to pledge the use of its own US-bought ordnance in the battle against the forces of evil, this completely new and unprecedented threat from the marauding, advancing, terrifying IS.  This is not just a battle for Britain, it is the battle of Britain: forget that mere skirmish with the Hun, when a true coalition of the willing fought in the skies against the Luftwaffe; this is the real deal.

Just to underline how completely insane the indirect intervention in Syria before now has been, also hit at the same time as IS was the al-Nusra Front, only the US has renamed them the Khorosan group for the duration.  According to the US they were in the final stages of preparation for an attack on the West, perhaps with those fabled iPhone bombs we heard about a few months back.  Al-Nusra is of course al-Qaida's affiliate proper in Syria, albeit one almost certainly funded indirectly if not directly by the same Gulf states now allied with the US.  One wonders if a strike on al-Nusra was a Saudi condition of getting their own jets dirty, intended as a message to Qatar, the Saudis having stepped back from supporting jihadists at the start of the year in favour of plain old Islamists, having realised its clients were getting out of control.

Such are the rivalries at work in the patched together US coalition.  Kudos must go to the Saudis and Qataris, whom having played a major role in fomenting the sectarian civil war are now bombing those they eulogised as their Sunni, Wahhabi brothers.  Luckily for them such contortions are easier to explain when they also control their media.  Our media by contrast is completely free and unafraid to ask the difficult questions, hence why they didn't inquire about civilian casualties given the opportunity.  Difficult as it is to comprehend, far more lies have been told about Syria than ever were about Iraq.  Back then we didn't have any equivalent to the Graun insisting there had been an unofficial truce between the Assad regime and IS, deals between the two over oil aside.  Whole sections meanwhile fell into believing there really was something equivalent to a Free Syrian Army on the ground, rather than an extremely loosely tied alliance of self-starting battalions, the vast majority Islamist if not jihadist.  There never was and never has been a "moderate" armed opposition, with even those the US is now supposedly training in what it all but admits is little more than a PR exercise fighting alongside the likes of al-Nusra.

Not that you can necessarily blame those on the frontline when reporting on conflict gets ever more dangerous.  It isn't just that the rebels and the Syrian government both care little for the lives of journalists, although they do, it's that media organisations don't want to pay the vast sums that go hand in hand with in-depth foreign reporting, and so the local guides who play such an important role in keeping correspondents safe walk away.  James Foley and Stephen Sotloff paid a price in blood as a result.  Quite what IS hopes to achieve with the videos featuring John Cantlie isn't clear when the message he's being forced to deliver is so one note, but it is undeniable he and the other British and American hostages have been abandoned to their fate.  The refusal to pay ransoms is certainly a morally righteous position, but combined as it is with the media blackout on their captivity it means their only real chance of escaping death is a special forces raid.  You have to hope the news that IS put Alan Henning before a Sharia court which cleared of him being a spy means they could still act with mercy towards someone who only wanted to help the Syrian people, yet when you start throwing cruise missiles around with gay abandon it's hard not to fear the worst.

Striking al-Nusra at the same time as IS also lays bare how the whole non-strategy takes its cue from the Libya campaign.  Once the UN resolution was passed, NATO's interpretation was it allowed them to do whatever the hell took their fancy.  With it as yet uncertain whether the UN will be involved beyond the passing of a resolution skirting the issue, not least as Russia will veto anything that looks remotely like 1973 again, there's not even the figleaf of legality being maintained.  While there's probably more contact between the Assad government and the Americans going on than is being admitted, there's not even the pretence that should IS be "degraded" the focus won't then switch towards finishing the job.  Why else would the "moderate" Gulf states as the BBC hilariously referred to them earlier join in unless they've received assurances that Assad won't in the long run gain from the destruction of IS?

This said, IS won't crumble under the weight of air power alone.  As Juan Cole writes, shock and awe has never worked, and won't this time.  The Islamic State survived in Iraq for years without anything near to the safe havens it's established over the past 12 months, and should it have to abandon Raqqa or anywhere else it will just be a return to what it's known before.  If the intention was to go all out against IS, rather than merely contain them, the kind of truce between Assad and the "moderate" rebels proposed by Patrick Cockburn would be high on the agenda.  It's not as IS is far too useful, as proved by the non-role of Israel.  A jihadist organisation that makes Hamas look like the girl guides rampages across Syria, getting ever nearer to the one true democracy in the region™, and how does it respond?  By, err, shooting down a Syrian jet.

What then is the aim of all this?  Just as we came within spitting distance last year of attacking Syria thanks to Obama's "red lines", so now the main reason why the US has acted is down to domestic pressure to do something, anything.  As soon as the president "misspoke" by saying he didn't have a strategy it doomed him into having to find one.  Thankfully for him, most commentators haven't noticed the new strategy is just the old one with knobs on, easily distracted as they are by explosions and the usual war porn.  Islamic State must return to its old ways of blowing up markets filled with Iraqis rather than cutting off the heads of Westerners is the mission in short.  Chase them back into the desert and away from minorities while still dropping the odd Hellfire missile, and everyone will be happy.  It's "worked" in Yemen.  This doesn't solve anything whatsoever you'll note, and at some point the Saudis and Qataris are going to return to their old ways, especially if this empowers Assad as it undoubtedly will, but we'll worry about that once it happens.

Any British politician with more than a modicum of sense would take one look at this mess and run a mile.  Appearances must though be kept up.  The bloody French have involved themselves for whatever reason, probably down to Hollande trying desperately to distract from the country's economic woes, and Labour, ever the hypocrites, made a lot out of those remarks from Robert Gates about our military capability not keeping up with theirs.  The Atlanticist headbangers on the backbenches love a good turkey shoot, so any worries that getting involved will increase rather than decrease the potential for a terrorist attack must be put to one side.  America expects, you know.  We might hedge our bets, attacking only Iraq rather than Syria lest this trouble Labour unduly, but make no mistake, the war party is going to be in full swing again.  Besides, we can't possibly make things even worse, can we?

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Monday, September 22, 2014 

All transitory.

Despite everything, I still felt a pang of disappointment on waking up on Friday morning.  I'd stayed up for the first results, Clackmannanshire, Shetland, Orkney, the first setting the pattern mostly to be repeated throughout the night: Yes had come close, but still not close enough.  For all my contempt for both campaigns, for the naivety, the scaremongering, the chauvinism, shallow nationalism and baleful bigotry, had I a vote I could only have crossed the yes box.  Given the choice between a state retaining a belief in solidarity, even if not with the neighbours south of the border, something akin to a social democracy, and the atomisation offered by all three Westminster parties? There is no choice.

True, the SNP weren't in reality offering anything like that.  Independence was always just a means to an end, with everything to be determined afterwards.  The idea Alex Salmond isn't an establishment politician is as much of a hoot as Nigel Farage presenting himself as the insurgent; it's how debased and safe our politics has become that both just about get away with it.  When it came down to it, the Yes campaign's failure to answer convincingly the most basic economic questions about an independent Scotland cost it.  The undecideds stripped from the polls simply made it look closer than it was.

We can't of course without further polls know exactly what it was that made the undecideds say no.  Were they always going to, was it last minute doubts, the Daily Record "vow", Gordon Brown's interventions (or the just as electrifying condemnation of the SNP from Vicki Greig for that matter), the warnings from businesses, the horror of making Salmond even more smug and self-assured?  All we do know is the commentariat made its mind up straight away.  Scotland might have said no, but no actually meant yes.  Moreover, despite the rest of us not having a vote, Scotland's no also meant yes to more devolution for rUK.

First though, let's not get too carried away with the 85% turnout.  Present a country with a yes or no choice on whether it remains part of a 300-year old union where every vote counts, and if turnout isn't approaching that level you've got severe problems.  More concerning ought to be how 25% of the electorate of Scotland's biggest city still couldn't be persuaded to make a decision either way.  Alternatively, it could be those 25% are the smartest people around, indifferent to the political weather and perfectly happy with their lot in life.  Perhaps they should be envied, rather than getting us dead inside political junkies why-oh-whying about how they can't be reached.

By the same token, only so much can be made about those who've spent the last year or so hoping against hope Yes would pull it off at the last.  Political movements are prone to collapsing the minute after the moment has passed; remember Occupy, or indeed any real organised opposition to austerity for that matter? Thought not.  When Martin Sorrell remarks on just how quiescent the young are, dulled he no doubt believes by the very promise his advertising offers, we ought to be taking notice.  The radical independence people are most likely to be this decade's Iraq war marchers: there for the extraordinary moment, and left bitter, angry and depressed at the failure to achieve their goal.  Nor is there much comfort to be taken from the level of debate: yes, more people than ever informed themselves via the internet and made their minds up that way; no, it didn't make up for the underlying tenor, the shouting down of the opposition, the all too frequent recourse to the language of betrayal and surrender, the never-ending torrent of shit thrown in all directions by more than just the usual suspects.

Equally, you can appreciate the irony of the London media, so often to be found either bemoaning Scotland or England both suddenly desperate for these septic isles to remain united, seemingly for subconscious atavistic reasons rather than out of any real affection, but it doesn't last long.  Not least when nationalism of one variety leads all but inevitably to the rise of its equivalents, understandable grievance followed by pitiful whinging.  Of all political bores, and let's face it, we're never the most engaging of folk, the most crushingly dull are the constitutionally fixated ones. England needs its own parliament like it needs two John Redwoods, West Lothian question aside.  The word devolution means whatever those clamouring for it say it does, and it's more power for them rather than true localism.  Time and again the public has made clear it has no interest in yet more politicians, whether it be through often rejecting mayors, the north-west assembly or most recently in the derisory turnouts for the police and crime commissioner elections, a creation no one asked for and no one wanted, and yet still a section of the media and the Westminster bubble thinks otherwise.

The dream might live on.  It's just the dream, as always, is transitory.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014 

The new strategy is there is no strategy.

One thing is abundantly clear after President Obama set out his new strategy on "degrading and destroying" Islamic State: our politicians have been getting themselves in a tizzy for nothing.  Just as policy on Syria has long been to contain, if not actively prolong the civil war in the country, with the result being the rise not of moderates but the likes of the al-Nusra Front and IS, so now this will be extended into Iraq despite the containment strategy having singularly failed.  Got that?

There certainly isn't any other conclusion you can possibly reach after Obama's televised address.  The strategy he sets out is the same one his administration has long favoured, using drones and special forces while trying to empower the jihadists' foes on the ground.  This has "worked" in Somalia and Yemen, in the sense neither al-Shabaab or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have launched attacks on the west, despite the latter having made a number of attempts.  As for whether our allies in either country have been empowered, it's very much a secondary concern.  So long as the high-ups in the groups are thinned out every so often, as has just happened with al-Shabaab, it goes down as a success.

Why then all the rhetoric about destroying IS, it being a cancer needing to be cut out etc, when it's obviously a long-term aim?  Well, it's what he needed to do after he said previously there was no strategy, when he meant there was no new strategy.  There still isn't, it's just you can make it look as though he's proposing something different by ratcheting up the language, sending John Kerry round all the "friendly" American-allied despots and getting them to say they're going to do something when there's little evidence they will based on how some of them are just as much responsible for the rise of IS as the Ba'ath in Syria and the Americans themselves have been.

If this was the intention all along, it's not clear if the message got through to dear old Dave.  There he was declaring IS poses the greatest threat to the country since William the Bastard, with JTAC declaring it to once again be severe, and now it's not even apparent if the US wants us to help out by firing the odd Hellfire missile at a rag-tag bunch of wannabe headloppers.  Despite the media leaping at Obama saying he "will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria", that doesn't mean he's going to be authorising air strikes there any time soon.  Apart from the Russians making clear their displeasure, any sustained campaign against IS will only benefit Assad in the short-term.  If there really are "moderate" Syrian rebels currently being trained by the US, with Patrick Cockburn suggesting they amount to the last remnants of what was the Free Syrian Army, which was never an army in the first place, only now fully under the auspices of the CIA, the idea they can fight both IS and Assad at the same time is as ridiculous as it is amusing.  The US can't possibly imagine they'll make the difference either; the hope presumably is the Saudis, Qataris, Kuwatis etc will come round to the US approach and start funding their controlled rebels instead of the likes of the Islamic Front or IS itself.  This in turn will risk the non-IS jihadists going over to IS, but that apparently doesn't worry anyone.

The Syrian rebels are themselves still fixated on overthrowing Assad, not surprisingly considering that's err, why they rose up in the first place.  Sadly for them the mission's changed: once it was about getting rid of the Ba'ath, only the west soon realised the rebels weren't going to be any better than Assad, in fact probably worse.  Rather than admit we got all our predictions about the Syrian regime being doomed wrong, Assad "re-elected" and going nowhere, we settled on support for the rebels knowing full well neither they nor the government could strike a killer blow.  Only we didn't count on the apparently defeated and broken Islamic State of Iraq morphing into not just IS but also al-Nusra, or the Sunni Arab states using them in their proxy battle against Iran.  Or at least on IS becoming so powerful so quickly.

As for Iraq, the US is perfectly happy to send a few more units to the country, for allies to arm the Kurds and Iraqi government, and for neither to move all that quickly against the towns and cities IS controls.  Unlike the panic-mongers over here, Obama spelled out how IS currently doesn't have the intention of attacking the west, being far too busy in both countries.  No reason then to risk further unbalancing the fragility in Iraq; with the Yazidis mostly safe and other minorities having fled, the US is counting on IS once again outstaying its welcome amongst the Sunni tribes, just as it did back in 2007.

Moreover, Obama's reheated strategy is almost certainly the right one, despite its failure in Syria.  If the intention was to really deal with IS and right now it would mean temporarily allying with Assad, something we simply aren't prepared to do, both out of the sheer embarrassment it would involve and of course down to how he's a chemical weapon using tyrant.  Having morals is nice, but not losing face is far more important.

It would be great though if for once, just once, our leaders could admit how badly they've got things wrong.  We hold our hands up: we're just as responsible for the rise of IS as either Assad or the sectarian Iraqi government.  Now it's turned out this way, we're going to make it right by not making the same mistakes as we did before.  The Americans, against the odds and to their credit, have reacted in a far calmer manner than our politicians have, regardless of Cameron's rhetoric not matching the legislation proposed so far.  With the parties currently far more exercised by the little matter of Scotland potentially leaving the union, by the time parliament returns (assuming there is a no vote) the initial something-must-be-done stage might have passed.  Just don't count on it.

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