Tuesday, December 16, 2014 

Two nations, the same words, the same outcome.

I can't breathe.  The words spoken by Eric Garner after a NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold, before he was then slammed to the ground.  Within minutes he was dead.  The decision by a grand jury not to indict the officer who placed him in the chokehold, coming just a week after a grand jury similarly declined to indict the officer who shot dead Michael Brown, sparking riots in Brown's hometown of Ferguson, has led to protests by sportsmen and celebrities.

I can't breathe.  The words spoken by Jimmy Mubenga, after three G4S guards meant to be supervising his deportation forced him forward in his seat, despite his already being handcuffed from behind.  Except, it's now difficult to know if that's what happened as the jury at the manslaughter trial brought following the unlawful killing verdict at Mubenga's inquest found all three not guilty, and within hours of their being sent out to consider their verdict.

This isn't the first time the verdict of an inquest and the subsequent manslaughter trial have differed.  Most notably, an inquest jury found Ian Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed, dying not long after he was pushed to the ground by PC Simon Harwood.  The jury at his trial similarly was not convinced beyond reasonable doubt he was responsible for Tomlinson's death, a decision which could be rationalised by how there was a difference of opinion between the pathologists who carried out consecutive autopsies.  The first post-mortem was performed by Freddy Patel, an incompetent who was suspended at the time of the trial and has since been struck off, details the jury were not told as they were deemed prejudicial.  Patel also poured away the liquid he found in Tomlinson's abdomen, which could have determined beyond doubt the cause of death.

The jury at the Mubenga trial were not told of the inquest's unlawful killing verdict, rather more understandably, nor that two of the guards had "racist" jokes on their phones.  We can't of course know which parts of the evidence the jury accepted and those they didn't: the guards denied hearing Mubenga crying out that he couldn't breathe, something that passengers seated much further away on the plane did and testified they had.  They also denied putting Mubenga into a position known to have the potential to cause breathing difficulties, which again witnesses testified they had.  The prosecution case also included reconstructing the alleged restraint placed on Mubenga, with a section of a Boeing 777 constructed in the court, members of the jury placed in the same position as Mubenga was.

We can then only surmise at how they reached their verdict.  We know juries are reluctant to convict police officers or others in positions of authority, whether they be British or American.  Just last week a jury cleared two officers of attacking a man with autism in Luton, despite hearing a recording of one of the pair referring to him as a "fucking Paki" moments prior to the altercation.  The jury seemingly accepted the injuries Faruk Ali sustained were due to his falling into bins when grabbed by one of the officers, not the punches claimed by Ali's family.  This giving of the benefit of the doubt is perhaps explained somewhat by polls showing a healthy majority retain trust in the police, one survey finding 65% would generally trust officers to be truthful.  Only teachers, doctors and judges are trusted more.  Journalists and politicians rank along the bottom.

Jimmy Mubenga wasn't only black; he was also being deported following a conviction for actual bodily harm.  All three of the guards found not guilty are white, the youngest 39.  The jury accepted their argument they were simply "trying to do a very difficult job in difficult circumstances, to the best of their ability".  You have to suspect that Mubenga, unlike Garner, will not have footballers or say, Idris Elba, donning t-shirts featuring some of his last words in protest.

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Monday, December 15, 2014 

Oh the joy (of the next 5 months).

There are a couple of reasons why l spend inordinate amounts of time slamming away at a keyboard instead of advising the Labour party.  First off, I'm not American, nor have I been parachuted into a safe seat, more's the pity.  Second, I cannot for the life of me work out why you would effectively launch your general election campaign in the middle of fricking December when most people's minds are even further away from politics than usual.  Presumably, and I'm really clutching at straws here, the idea is to get a head start on the other parties and begin the process of drilling the 5 key pledges Labour has decided upon into everyone's skulls.  Come May, all concerned will march to the polling station, their minds focused on controlling immigration fairly and cutting the deficit every year while securing the future of the NHS.

The words under and whelming come to mind, as they so often do when the topic shifts to Labour.  If you wanted to be extremely charitable, you could say it's an indication of just how spectacularly the coalition has failed that Labour seems to have pinched wholesale two of the Conservatives' pledges from 2010.  Alternatively, you could point out it's spectacularly unimaginative and an indication of Labour's chronic lack of ambition for it to be defining itself in the exact same way as the hated Tories did.  5 fricking years ago.

Again, to be fair, we're promised Labour is getting the less pleasant of its pledges out first, with the more unique ones to follow, defined by those all time classic Labour values.  Quite why Labour has decided upon the pledge approach in the first place is a difficult one to ascertain: presumably modelled on the 1997 pledge cards (and Christ alive, the photo of Tone on the card is easily as terrifying as this year's Christmas effort), is it meant to bring to mind the good old days when Labour could win a vast majority on the most vacuous of aspirations?  They're not even pithy, as the actual pledges amount to three sentences of deathly prose.  Cutting the deficit every year while protecting the NHS would be great, if the exact same message hadn't been plastered around the country accompanied by Cameron's suspiciously taut forehead.

Dear old Ed today gave what must rank as one of the briefest speeches of his career, outlining the second pledge, emphasising how he wouldn't repeat Cameron's promise of getting migration down to a specific point, only that Labour would control it, and fairly, that distinction apparently intended for both those pro and anti to interpret as they see fit.  Call me picky, but saying you'll control something you cannot still makes you a hostage to fortune in my book.  Miliband's audience helped by moving the debate swiftly on, similarly to how the campaigning against UKIP document leaked to the Torygraph suggested Labour candidates do when the topic is broached on the doorstep.

As pointed out by Andrew Sparrow, the briefing paper is about the most sensible thing Labour has said about immigration in months if not years, recognising they're not going to win over the virulently opposed while also suggesting for most immigration is "used as a means to express other concerns".  Except as it sort of implies people aren't steaming about immigration directly, and the party for whatever reason has decided to so much as suggest this is the equivalent of not taking legitimate concerns seriously, shadow ministers have all but disowned their own strategy.  It's also meant the media can talk about the distraction rather than a boring old policy Labour are only re-announcing anyway.

Still, what a jolly 5 month long general election campaign we have to look forward to.  Already the dividing lines are set between Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats on the economy and the deficit, and they are of course the most absurd caricatures of actual stated policy imaginable.  Special marks for dishonesty must go to David Cameron, who managed to scaremonger about a difference between his party and Labour of about £25bn in borrowing terms in the most hyperbolic way possible.  Just imagine if there was another crash and Labour was once again racking up the debt!  Except, err, if there's another crash and borrowing is only falling by as much as the Tories are projecting it will, there will still be problems, although nothing as compared to elsewhere.

Labour meanwhile is making as much as possible out of the 1930s comparison on everyday spending, which is technically correct, again if the Tories mean what they say, just not particularly illuminating.  A better approach would be, as Ed Miliband somewhat tried last Thursday, to set out exactly what sort of state it is most people want.  If George Osborne carries through and magics into existence his surplus, parts of government will be left barely functioning, which really isn't to scaremonger: cutting the budgets of departments other than health, education and foreign aid (which surely won't continue to be ringfenced) by as much as needed doesn't look remotely plausible.  When the best minds are baffled by what the chancellor is up to, apart from mischief, it deserves highlighting.

Even if we look at Labour's plans in the most flattering light, Ed Balls is still promising to run a surplus as soon as possible, not because it's good economics but as a result of the way the debate has been framed.  Doing so is still going to require huge cuts, savings which the party has done the least of the main three to outline.  In the grand scheme of things, as Chris and Alex Marsh have so persuasively argued, this doesn't really matter.  The real issues affecting the economy are the collapse in productivity, and with it the decline in wages growth.  We are though operating in a climate where the difference is between "colossal" and merely "eye-watering" cuts, where the Tories claim to have succeeded on the basis they've more or less reduced the deficit to the level Alistair Darling pledged to, except they've done so on the backs of the poorest, and where it seems personal taxes will never have to rise again, despite government having apparently decided not to bother taxing companies properly either.

There's a third reason I'm not advising Labour.  I'd be even worse at it than the current lot.

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Thursday, December 11, 2014 

"Nowhere to hide".

Call me a stick in the mud, but there really is something extraordinarily aggravating about the use of hashtags, in you know, real life.  They're bad enough online, especially when campaigns such as #CameronMustGo are like, totally indicative of the feeling of the general public and for it to be ignored is a typical example of the old media's systemic bias.  Or it could be no one cares about this particular circle jerk for a good reason.  Doesn't excuse them for the ones they do, mind.  Have the Chibok girls been rescued yet, incidentally?

It could be I just despise social media.  All the same, when a group uses a hashtag offline and combines it with an incredibly self-aggrandising statement, such as #WeProtectChildrenOnline, good cause or otherwise, it rather sets my teeth on edge.  Perhaps it's that protecting children so often means infantilising adults, or indeed, the state taking responsibility for that which should be left to parents to decide upon.  We're almost a year on from the universal rollout of "on by default" filtering, and spank me silly if it's made kids safer online by as much as a fraction, the vast majority deciding they prefer the internet uncensored, thank you very much.  Not that most do anything beyond going to Facebook with the odd surreptitious glance at insert your favoured porntube site here anyway.

Ministers regardless of party tend to be at their sanctimonious worst on all matters connected with child safety and the interwebs, understandable when you consider the legitimate concerns surrounding the danger posed by sexual predators online, less so when they're often responding to exaggerated and occasionally plain wrong coverage and campaigning in the media.  You then also have people like the former head of Ceop, Jim Gamble, who seems to imagine he's fighting a one man campaign ala Frank Castle against the evil of paedophilia, only without the guns.  Or the subtlety, for that matter.

Co-opting GCHQ fully into the battle against those particularly devious perverts who hide and exchange material via the dark nets, whether it be Tor, i2p or Freenet, is then a no-brainer.  Anything that makes people forget about things like Tempora, or Optic Nerve, which must have sucked up a fair share of exactly the material David Cameron now wants GCHQ to crack down on the better.  Except, as James Ball points out, GCHQ has been doing exactly this for quite some time already, and politicians have also been flagging up their work ever since the Snowden revelations.

If Cameron's speech really does signal a new offensive by the police and GCHQ against the paedophile forums on Tor, then clearly it's to be welcomed, at least up to a point.  There are reasons to be doubtful however, not least that if the intelligence agencies have found a way to identify both users and where the servers of dark net sites are hosted, the decision to first go after some of the drug markets was a curious one.  Operation Onymous didn't so much as seize a single child porn .onion, leading most to conclude the raids were down to sloppiness on the part of admins rather than flaws in Tor itself.  It might seem counter-intuitive that admins of drug markets are less security concious than paedophiles, until you realise they've still probably got less to lose if they're exposed than paedophiles have.

The other concern is that if Tor is broken, the knowledge of how to identify users will quickly become known to other, less enlightened security agencies, with the activists whom rely on Tor for anonymity the first in the firing line.  It also suggests that despite the encouraging comments from Simon Bailey, the Association of Chief Police Officers' lead on child protection, who said it was realism to admit it was impossible for the police to go after every person viewing child abuse, and that those caught who are determined not to be a risk to children should be treated as patients rather than go before a court, politicians and others are still pretending all those who do so will be brought to justice.  They won't be, not only as the resources aren't there considering the numbers of people estimated to have a sexual attraction to children, but also as combined with a VPN, the use of Tor or i2p offers fairly substantial protection.  Most paedophiles are caught not through being tracked down via the web but due to their cache of child abuse material being discovered by someone accessing their computer in person.

The recognition that a good percentage of those who view child abuse imagery will not themselves abuse children is at least a start.  If we can help those who fear they could act on their urges by not considering every paedophile as an abuser by default, encouraging others like Eddie to come forward, we might be on the way to further preventing abuse before it happens.  Despite the suggestions there isn't any help for paedophiles in this country unless they offend, I suspect if someone was to go to their GP and tell them about their problem they might well be referred either to a psychiatrist or for CBT, but that obviously also sets up the potential for precisely the exposure most paedophiles fear.

What doesn't help is the language of there "being nowhere to hide".  It's both false and encourages paedophiles to seek out the exact "refuges" which do so much to perpetuate the abuse politicians so desperately want to prevent.  Surely, in this post-Savile era, it's time for the debate to become more informed.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014 

Look past the horror.

It's easy, reading the Senate intelligence report and the articles derived from it to be overwhelmed by the horror of the torture programme (because that's what it was, let's drop the euphemisms once and for all) established by the CIA.  With its 26 wrongly detained victims, those with broken limbs put into stress positions and chained to walls regardless of their injuries, the playing of Russian roulette with one victim, and perhaps most chilling of all, the image of Abu Zubaydah, so thoroughly broken and brutalised by his treatment that all it took for him to mount the waterboarding table was a raised eyebrow from his interrogator, to get distracted and not draw the necessary wider conclusions about what it should tell us would be thoroughly human.  Good thing I'm not then, eh?

First, it should tell us that torture affects those charged with implementing it just as much it does those on the receiving end.  With the exception of the few sadists and genuine psychopaths who are likely to find themselves in such roles, the report notes the sickened and disgusted responses of hardened CIA officers to what they both saw and were being asked to do.  Doctors who pledge to do no harm were forced to choose between refusing to treat detainees they were essentially fixing up enough so they were fit to be tortured again, and letting those under their care die, with all the potential consequences the latter option would open up.  How many would have died had it not been for medical intervention we'll never know; at the same time however, doctors were also behind the rectal feeding, as well as the forced feeding of hunger strikers at Guantanamo, itself considered to be a form of torture by the UN and condemned in journals by senior doctors.

Second, the decision by one Western state to use torture inevitably makes its allies complicit, such is the way intelligence agencies cooperate.  This puts those allies in a great quandary: do they blow the whistle, do as much as they can to avoid becoming wholly complicit in the practice, or the opposite and accept it as necessary in extraordinary times?  Our complicity in the CIA's programme can still not be properly quantified for the reasons outlined in yesterday's post.  What we do know is that just like the CIA lied to everyone concerned, including politicians themselves about what they were doing, so too did our spooks.  We know that as early as January 2002 MI6 officers reported back to their superiors that detainees at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan were being abused; this was before the torture regime proper had been established.  Those officers were told, wrongly, they were not required to intervene to prevent the abuse from continuing.  Despite these and subsequent reports, MI6 claimed it wasn't until 2004 and the Abu Ghraib scandal they properly realised the "black sites" they were aware of were being used as torture dungeons.

To believe that you have to believe the intelligence agencies are both unimaginative and lack inquisitiveness, precisely the qualities demanded of them.  We also now know about the renditions of Abdul Hakim Belhaj and Sami al-Saadi, both of whom were sent back to Colonel Gaddafi's prisons via the services of MI6 and the CIA.  Belhaj arrived back in Libya two weeks before Tony Blair went to meet his new friendly dictator.  Both he and Jack Straw deny any involvement in the rendition of the Libyans, Straw claiming that he was kept out of the loop.  MI6 respond they operate under ministerial oversight, more than suggesting Straw signed off on the rendition.

Straw though is nothing if not a serial offender.  When the first details of the rendition programme started to be leaked he said that unless he was lying and unless Condoleezza Rice was lying (we know she was; she was directly involved in the process of the setting up of the torture programme) it was little more than conspiracy theories. 

Let's not limit this to just Straw and Blair though, as a whole host of New Labour ministers also told if not lies then half-truths in an attempt to protect both the United States and the intelligence agencies.  Those with long memories for the mundane might recall the furore after the release of the "seven paragraphs", which detailed what the security services knew about the mistreatment of Binyam Mohamed, who was tortured in Morocco for the CIA before he was sent on to Guantanamo.  Alan Johnson, then home secretary, said the idea the security services didn't respect human rights was a "ludicrous lie", while David Miliband fought the courts for months in an eventually futile attempt to prevent the paragraphs being released.  This led directly to the justice and security bill passed this parliament, supposedly meant to prevent the "control principle" of intelligence from an ally being published being violated in such a way again.  That we know thanks to Edward Snowden how tens of thousands of contractors and sub-contractors have access to secret documents obviously doesn't mean the act was in fact meant to prevent ministers and the intelligence agencies being embarrassed again in such a way.

Lastly, the report shows just how quickly practices thought completely abhorrent can be implemented when national emergencies are declared and extraordinary powers handed out.  The CIA may well have lied to politicians about what it was doing and the president may not have been fully briefed, but senior figures in the Bush administration did know about and signed off on similar techniques to those adopted.  It's worth reflecting just how close we came in this country to giving the police powers akin to those of authoritarian states: not just the attempt to ram 90 days detention without charge through parliament, thankfully defeated, but also the struck down indefinite detention without charge of foreign "terrorist suspects", the law lords ruling the life of the nation was not threatened as politicians claimed.  We can argue over the additional powers still being sought which are claimed to be necessary to deal with the renewed threat, yet nothing proposed comes near to the attack on basic civil liberties Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown were behind.  The question remains whether come the next emergency we'll remember any of these lessons.

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Monday, December 08, 2014 

Satire: it's a little too ironic.

Is it ironic those who complain about the lack of satire often give the impression they've never told a joke in their lives? Perhaps, perhaps not.  It's difficult to know when irony smothers everything with such a thick layer of, err, irony, which is a bit like goldy and bronzey.  Or is it?

Owen Jones does it must be said have something resembling a point, almost obscured as per by sanctimony.  Few people like being laughed at, opposed to with.  When Nigel Farage took up Andrew Lawrence's complaint about UKIP having become an easy target for the pound shop comics and "ethnics" of Mock the Week, he transmogrified himself with the party's voters, as though laughing at him was to belittle Mr and Mrs Average UKIPer also.  Since then it's become apparent you can't poke fun at the affectations of someone who might be working class, although you can laugh and gawp all you like at the stupidly wealthy, so long as they've invited the cameras in first.  Does this disprove Jones's first book, or confirm his second, in that the establishment (and capitalism) always succeeds in co-opting what at first was radical?

If we accept Owen's point that we need satire more than ever, it could well be one of the reasons why TV has such a dearth at present is a result of the social media he praises for picking up the slack.  Taking the piss has never been easier, and as this blog has demonstrated time and again, that goes hand in hand with doing it extremely badly.  With the exception of the Daily Mash there isn't really anything or anyone consistently succeeding in finding that sweet spot where truth, humour and offence cohabit in an unholy menage a trois.  When you add in how a gag that once might still have been funny weeks after someone first came up with it can now be dead within a matter of hours thanks to constant retweeting and Facebook pasting, it leaves those who at best have to come up with jokes that are still relevant a week later and at worst months in advance in a quandary.

The other key factor is that quality, or the lack of it.  It's not for want of trying we haven't seen a true successor to Spitting Image, although those who eulogise it seem to forget that its final years were an extremely pale shadow of its 80s heyday.  There's been 10 O'Clock Live, which contrived to waste the considerable talents of Charlie Brooker and David Mitchell while somehow managing to make Lauren Laverne look even more out of her depth than usual (the less said about Jimmy Carr the better).  It proved you can put together half of a comedy dream team and still fail if the writing simply isn't good enough.  Also forgotten is 2DTV, ITV's sort of attempt to do Spitting Image again, only in animated form, and without the humour.  Nor should the TV version of Dead Ringers go without a mention, if only because its Kirsty Wark quoting song lyrics of the time Newsnight rip was amusing.  The rest of it, not so much.  About the best attempt of real note of late has been The Revolution Will Be Televised, and yet while funny, it still comes across as that little bit too consciously left-wing for comfort.

Dare it also be said that if the BBC was prepared or forced to ditch its trilogy of dead on their arse comedy panel shows, HIGNFY, Buzzcocks and Be Rather Smug About the Week all, it might just provide the space where a new format or talents could be properly nurtured.  HIGNFY was last satirical when presented by Angus Deayton, now a very long time ago indeed.  There's also the question of whether it's possible to be populist and truly satirical both - does the Margaret Thatcher puppet, along with her cabinet of vegetables really seem all that funny or cutting in retrospect, or rather just an exaggeration of the truth which fed in to her myth?  Nearer the mark was the grey John Major, although it could just as much be said that was simply following what the public had already decided.  Worth asking too is whether something like the Brass Eye paedophile special would be commissioned today, when social media opprobrium would deliver immediate outrage at satirists daring to suggest there might be just a hint of hysteria in media coverage of the subject.

It could in fact be politicians are completely the wrong targets for satire at the moment.  Politics has gone beyond parody - the leader of the fourth, possibly third biggest party urges women not to breastfeed in public "ostentatiously" lest they offend older people, some mothers presumably having taken to squirting milk into the mouth of their child while sitting on the other side of the table.  The same man blames immigrants overcrowding the M4 for his failure to reach a meeting on time, rather than it being a busy time of year.  Instead of his line in semi-offensive bullshit turning people off, it seems to only make them more determined to vote for him.  Meanwhile, the chancellor of the exchequer all but says "Britain can take it" when it comes to his proposed cuts, as the Liberal Democrats yet again confect to be outraged at what their partner in government is doing.  And Labour is just one big joke, exemplified still by the Emily Thornberry sacking.

No, if satire is to stay relevant it perhaps has to go after those newly powerful in 21st century Britain.  Let's see the mocking of the Twitter mob, whether it be those out for Emily Thornberry's head, or by contrast Julien Blanc's, or Matt Taylor's.  About the closest we get at the moment is Private Eye's From the Message Boards or the odd Craig Brown rip on a specific tweeter.  There could be a line drawn between the modern day censors who've succeeded in preventing children from seeing the hint of breasts on newspaper front pages or inside them and those who then rush for blankets to cover up feeding mothers.  Let's have all social classes and none ruthlessly mocked, whether it be the bell-ends who still have England flags up six months after the World Cup and who are so insular in their outlook they fail to notice there's a by-election on (and whom are ribbed by the rest of the working class more than anyone), the (upper) middle class prats obsessed with house prices and private schooling, and the 1% without the slightest idea as to how the rest live.  Most of all, let's see the leeches on society who make out they're above everyone brought to book, their weblogs laughed at, their own petty yearnings shown up for what they are (cont. p94)

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Thursday, December 04, 2014 

You're talking hyperbollocks.

It must be awful being George Osborne.  There you are, making gags in the Commons that would frankly disgrace those £1 packs of crackers (gosh, Ed Miliband looks a bit like Wallace, how original, and rich, coming from someone whose nose more than resembles an arse), the right-wing press mostly lapping it up, and then you have to go on the BBC after Norman Smith dares to suggest that if you scratch beneath the surface you quickly find the cuts projected amount to a "book of doom".  Perhaps even Road to Wigan Pier-esque.

Hyperbolic, raves George, expressing much the same line of faux indignation as regularly voiced by Iain Duncan Smith.  Why, the BBC were saying exactly the same thing back in 2010, and has the sky fallen?  No, we're on the way back to the sunlit uplands, the public services have not collapsed, and if anything they're more highly regarded than ever.  The NHS only needs an extra £8bn a year, which no party has yet come near to explaining how they'll find, despite agreeing with Simon Stevens on how necessary it is, and well, who cares about how beds can't be found for 16-year-olds with mental health problems, instead forced to spend an entire weekend in a police cell?  As for actual lags, prison is meant to be about punishment.  If you don't want to spend 22 hours in a cell every day, don't do the crime in the first place.  Chris Grayling knows what he's doing.

Osborne and Downing Street's ire couldn't possibly be connected to how the BBC's journalists were for once bothering to do their jobs properly.  I even filched the title for yesterday's post from Nick Robinson, who himself had stolen it from elsewhere.  The harsh reality is Osborne's cuts are unachievable, as he knows all too well.  When the Institute for Fiscal Studies describes them as "colossal" and if put in place will by necessity force a "fundamental re-imagining of the state", the kind of statements the IFS simply doesn't make unless the situation is that stark, he really shouldn't have anywhere to hide.

The truth is Osborne can't be straight on just how tough the economic situation will be after the election as it would expose his deficit reduction fetish, undermine his insistence on "trapping" Labour, and worst of all, be to admit his own failure.  The best option would be to push back further the point where the structural deficit will be eliminated, as the markets show not the slightest indication of putting up borrowing costs any time soon, not least when Europe slumps once again into recession, and to bring the cuts/tax increases ratio to something approaching parity.  He can't and won't as Cameron has already insisted on promising the very opposite as soon as the magical surplus is achieved.  Labour, rather than pointing out the impossibility of Osborne's plans, continue to insist they will do things slightly fairer and in much the same time scale.  How and why they don't explain.  As for the Lib Dems, what more can be said about a party whose leader was elsewhere as the statement he agreed to was delivered?  Vince Cable meanwhile whines and moans in the same way as he's done for the past four years, while continuing to stay in government with people he considers to be economically insane.  With politicians like these, is it any wonder so many are looking at the only slightly loopier option?

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014 

The candour deficit.

(Anyone lucky enough to have "discovered" the blog recently might want to give this post one more look.)

On Monday, Gordon Brown formally announced he would not be standing for re-election next May.  It was hardly a surprise, considering he rivals George Galloway in the rarely attending Westminster stakes, not that many other former prime ministers have knuckled down to life on the backbenches either.  With Brown leaving parliament and a whole host of other New Labour figures also heading for the exit, it pretty much signals the end of an era of politics which came to be defined by spin, media management, never-ending war (so no change there then) and whisper it, continuous growth.

For one suspects that regardless of how Brown is viewed now (indicative of the general tone is how a goddamned zombie comic portrays him in about the most sympathetic light of anything), history is likely to judge him far more kindly than it will either Blair or Cameron.  Jonathan Freedland fairly sums up why, and while you could argue that Blair and Brown are inseparable, as no doubt some of the accounts to be written shall, it remains the case Blair's failures were principally his own while Brown's were collective.  No one except the odd Cassandra said banking regulation should be tightened, nor warned they were becoming too big to fail.  Yes, Brown without doubt encouraged the City to let rip, to keep expanding, was pals with Fred Goodwin and so forth, but so would any other chancellor of the exchequer been.  The Conservatives it's worth remembering wanted to pare back regulation further.

Brown's departure will nonetheless leave us with those who love to emulate his worst traits while despising his best.  Each time George Osborne comes to the dispatch box for either the budget or the autumn statement, he morphs a little more into his supposed nemesis.  Each time he manages to confound those who said the deficit was going to be up, at least until you read the small print.  Each time he succeeds in finding a gimmick of some kind or another, usually one designed specifically to appeal to the middle-class, aspirational voters the Tories need to reject both UKIP and Labour if they are to ever win a majority again.  Each time he insists none of this would have been possible without the coalition's "long-term economic plan", a plan that has been altered radically from the one he presented in his first "emergency" budget.  And each time, he seems to get away with it, helped by a media obsessed by the very things he targets, and whose bias against Labour seems to only grow.

Osborne has after all failed miserably when judged on that first budget.  He promised a single parliament of pain, after which happy days would return.  Instead he's been forced into claiming everything's coming up Osborne despite how the country now won't be in surplus until 2018.  His big mistake, frontloading cuts in spending on infrastructure, choked off the slowing recovery and gave us two years of stagnation.  Even now, with Britain judged to be growing the fastest of any G7 economy, the quality of the jobs created is so poor and wages so low it's failing to bring in the income tax receipts necessary for borrowing to come down.  By rights, and if these were usual political times, all Labour should have to ask voters is whether they are better off than 5 years ago, and then sit back and wait for the inevitable.

Only they aren't, and if the coalition has succeeded in one area, it's in blaming Labour for the recession and everything since.  It was all the "spending, borrowing and welfare" that got us into this mess, not the most serious worldwide economic crisis since the great depression.  It doesn't matter that borrowing is now higher than it was under Labour, or indeed that the welfare bill remains stubbornly large despite the coalition's attempts to slash it, demonising the most vulnerable in the bargain, as those determined to err, do exactly what Osborne has done will never be trusted with the public finances again.  We are on the road to surplus, to prosperity.

Hidden away in the Office for Budget Responsibility's report is what it thinks of the cuts Osborne is proposing to get us there.  As they put it

The implied cuts in RDEL during the next Parliament would pose a significant challenge if they were confirmed as firm policy, one that would be all the greater if existing protections were maintained. But we do not believe that it would be appropriate for us to assume, ex ante, that these cuts would be inherently unachievable and make it our central forecast that this or a future Government would breach its stated spending limits if it chose and tried to implement them. But... we might need to include an ‘allowance for overspending’ in our forecasts, similar to the ‘allowance for shortfall’ that we currently incorporate to reflect likely underspending against DEL plans.

In other words, they're a fantasy.  All the obvious fat has already been sliced off.  Already it's resulted in this sort of situation in prisons.  Day to day spending on public services is projected to fall to 12.6% of GDP by 2019/2020.  Total public spending meanwhile as a proportion of GDP will fall to its lowest in 80 yearsAs Rick says, were this to happen it wouldn't mean shrinking the state, but closing sections of it down.

Clearly, this isn't going to happen.  Osborne is many things, but suicidal isn't one of them.  He most likely will look to further cut benefits, as he says, only as we've seen doing it in practice is far harder than in theory.  He could slow the pace of reduction further, except Cameron has already promised tax cuts once the surplus utopia is achieved, and Osborne is set to force a vote in the new year on whether Labour will sign up to his plans.  That leaves only raising taxes, with VAT being the most appealing to a Tory who won't countenance putting up the top rate of income tax, as demonstrated by his swift removal of the 50p rate.

That's all for after the election though, when a Tory government or led coalition can do whatever it likes.  Trapping Labour just as Gordon Brown stitched up the Conservatives is Osborne's game now, even if it costs him money as the stamp duty cut will.  Nothing is too much for the aspiring classes, boosting the housing market once again just as it looks to be cooling.  It also helps those buying to let, and could have the perverse effect of making those about to exchange contracts think again now the £250,000 mark won't see the stamp duty to be paid leap.  Ed Balls was smart enough to say this was Osborne catching up with the idea of taxing expensive property more, just that it wasn't enough, as indeed it's not.  The best option would still be a complete revaluation of the council tax bands, only the howling about the proposed mansion tax would be nothing compared to the wailing should any politician dare to suggest those who have seen their home double or triple (or more) in value since 1993 should be contributing more to local services.  It also wouldn't reach the Westminster coffers, another reason it's not going to happen.

As for what further damage this approach will cause to politics once everyone realises they've been had again is anyone's guess. Only the Lib Dems came near to being frank in the 2010 campaign over the scale of the cuts that were to come, and it could be the same again this time.  What made Gordon Brown more than just a cunning, always out for political advantage strategist was he thought long-term also.  Without the funding poured into public services the cuts imposed so far would have been truly devastating; had we joined the Euro we'd facing the same problems as the rest of the Eurozone; had Brown and Alistair Darling not recapitalised the banks the chaos doesn't bear thinking about.  Osborne and Cameron by contrast have no long-term vision despite their "long-term plan".  Their approach has been to mortgage the future and use us as collateral.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2014 

Syria: morals, and the lack thereof.

It's testament both to the scale of the disaster that has befallen Syria and the perseverance of the rebels' supporters in the West that even now, when by (conservative) estimate over 100,000 people have been killed and 2 million have fled, we're still getting fed stylised propaganda about the heroism of those on the ground.  Martin Chulov's piece in the Graun on Umm Abdu, the doctor who has a "steel pistol she holsters to her back", and who has used weapons and then "treated the people who were injured", is a great story, as the best propaganda always is.  It could be utter piffle, and it presents just the one side of the conflict, but that doesn't alter how compelling her bravery is, nor her determination to help those around her who are suffering.

Syria appears a unique case where all of the antagonists have failed in their aims, and where all bear some responsibility for the unending nightmare the civil war has cast so many into.  That is until you remember Iraq, where imperial hubris combined with the most base incompetence conspired to in part bring us here.  Had the Iraq war never taken place we can't say Syria would have been spared the full horror it has descended into, yet it's arguable there wouldn't have been quite so many on the rebel side completely opposed to any kind of accommodation with the Assad government, or indeed quite so brutal in their methods.  Ironically or more accurately, tragically, Assad for a long time played a role akin to Turkey's, allowing jihadis and foreign fighters to cross the border with impunity.  Some of those same muhajids have undoubtedly returned and made use of their acquired knowledge against their one time facilitator.

With the sole exception of Tunisia, where the Arab spring begun and was the most "free" society to begin with, all the various revolutions or uprisings have either been countered or collapsed into repression or worse.  Egypt has the worst of all worlds: the Mubarak state is back without the economic growth that underpinned it; Libya's own civil war continues while Benghazi, the city we sent the bombers in to "save" is under the control of a group allied with Islamic State; Bahrain's opposition movement has been comprehensively smashed without so much as a peep from ourselves; and when it comes to Syria, hell doesn't properly describe a country where beheadings, crucifixions and barrel bombings are the new normal.

Sadly, as has always been the case and will always remain, while money can be found to kill people whatever the circumstances, finding it to feed people never has quite the same priority.  You might have thought politicians would feel a certain sense of shame at how the UN reports it will have to suspend the voucher scheme it operates for Syrian refugees should the funding promised not materialise, considering how some of them have spent three years either providing "non-lethal" or very much lethal aid to the rebels, oddly in the case of ourselves and most of the coalition put together against Islamic State also without accepting our fair share of asylum seekers.  If they do, and some of them surely must have some compunction over how their policies on Syria have contributed to the situation, then so far they're hiding it.

Then again, to return to those still hankering after yet more war, the hypocrisy or sheer pigheadedness still has the power to shock.  For months the "moderate" rebels and some of the normally more credulous journalists have insisted there was either agreement between the Assad government and Islamic State or an unofficial pact whereby one side didn't attack the other.  It was always nonsense, Assad paying IS for oil as the Kurds also have aside.  When Assad does then bomb Islamic State targets, as the regime has over the past week in Raqqa, the exact same people cry over the "collateral damage", as the US would call it.  According to sources on the ground, we're meant to believe that while the US airstrikes against IS have been pinpoint, rarely killing civilians, the attacks by the regime have been anything but.  Indeed, last week State Department spokesman Jen Psaki declared the administration "horrified" at the "continued slaughter", in comments that frankly take the breath away.  Meanwhile over at Left Foot Forward, where anyone can seemingly get their bizarre opinions hosted so long as they're pro-bombing, Kellie Strom believes the failure to impose a no-fly zone at the same time as "degrading" IS is all down to appeasing Iran, and the potential deal on their nuclear programme.

This would of course be the same Iran it's rumoured the US is pressuring over the nuclear programme via Saudia Arabia and the collapse in the price of oil.  While some of the fall can be put down to the shale oil boom in the US, the continuing instability in the region would normally have the effect of pushing the price up, not down.  Equally strange is the other stated reason, that the US fears the Iranian-backed militias could attack US forces in Iraq, despite the numbers of US forces in the country remaining negligible and those militias keeping themselves busy wreaking much the same havoc IS has been.

Far more sensible is the explanation that, just as we've done from the beginning, ourselves and the Americans are still making it up as we go along.  This non-alliance with Assad is happening because of realpolitik: we spent the best part of 2 years sort-of and sort-of not arming the rebels, imagining they would quickly do away with the regime.  Instead what happened is the extremists quickly took over, thanks mainly to our pals in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and a terrifyingly violent stalemate is the result.  As the "moderate" rebels either don't exist or are next to non-existent in the militarily capable sense, not doing anything to rile Assad when his forces will be the ones fighting IS on the ground is the best option; whether it is morally is a different question.  But then, as we've noted, morals have never exactly been at the forefront of our concerns for a very long time now.

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Monday, December 01, 2014 

Jolly old Saint Nige is laughing yet again.

Black Friday.  Cyber Monday.  Suicide Tuesday.  Pornhub Wednesday.  Fatuity Thursday.  And so on.  Yes, it can only mean one thing: the most pitifully oversold, and by no coincidence miserable time of the year is here once again.  It gets dark at half-past three, the same people who every December without fail have their gaudy, depressing and garish decorations up on the first have switched the lights on, and those of us with reasons for especially disliking the "festive period" try and convince ourselves not to open our wrists at the same time as others are looking forward to opening presents.  If you were a cynic, and if you're reading this you almost certainly are, you might detect a connection between a period of the year when a hell of a lot of people have a hell of a lot of fun and perpetually sad bastards being more morose than usual.  Surely not.

Still, 'tis the season where it is more blessed to give than to receive, if that is you're still mixing up that damned old time religion with the whole fat bloke in a red suit who's pals with the magic reindeer thing.  In that spirit we obviously shouldn't question where George Osborne has managed to find an extra £2bn a year for the NHS, and just be glad he's done so.  Turns out £750m of that is "internal department savings", so isn't new money, but hey, you don't look a gift horse in the mouth, right?  Labour's pledge of an extra £2.5bn on top of the coalition's plans is by contrast, as Andy Burnham tells us, "fully costed", which means some of it will be paid for by the proposed "mansion tax".  As no one has the slightest idea how much such a tax would raise in practice, especially if we're to believe noted political commentator Myleene Klass that only little old ladies and garage owners will be hit rather than absent oligarchs, the other idle rich and celebrity bikini wearers, it's a strange old definition of "fully costed".  Best not to split hairs though, eh?

While everyone waits in anticipation of just how Osborne is going to dress up a possible rise in the deficit as evidence of how the coalition's "long-term economic plan" is working come the autumn statement on Wednesday, let's turn our attention back to Friday and David Cameron's long-awaited and much-hyped immigration speech.  For weeks the briefing went that Cameron was going to change the rules of the game, a bit like Tony Blair did after 7/7, only with less scapegoating of brown people and more of white people, albeit eastern European white people.  He was going to channel Thatcher and say no, no, no to freedom of movement, either putting a temporary halt to it altogether or restricting it through only providing a certain number of migrants with national insurance numbers.  The latter move would have most likely encouraged the abuses Cameron didn't so much as mention in his speech, the non-paying of the minimum wage and so on, so you can understand why it didn't end up in the finished version.

Unfortunately for Cameron, having backed down on directly challenging the rest of the EU over freedom of movement, rightly or wrongly, he was left with not much other than a slightly harder edged version of Labour's proposals of further benefit restrictions for migrants.  To give Dave some credit, he did at least make the argument for continued immigration, one that many other politicians have retreated from doing.  Considering only UKIP and the far-right are calling for a complete halt to immigration, temporary or not, that it's become something unusual for a politician to openly state their policy as it stands is a sign of just how removed from reality the debate has become.  Special kudos must also go to the writer of the "isolationism is actually deeply unpatriotic" line, which skewers those so keen to wrap themselves in the flag, whether it be St. George's or the Union Jack.

Sadly, that's about it for the good stuff.  The rest is exactly what has become the standard when it comes to immigration: the setting up of false dichotomies between those totally opposed to immigration and those totally opposed to limits on immigration, with casual insults of the latter thrown in; the continued blaming of the welfare system, both for immigrants coming in the first place as Brits are too lazy/were better off on the dole/were faking disability or sickness, or because the immigrants themselves are attracted by the benefits available; and finally, the obvious disjunct between saying the vast majority come here to work hard and pay their taxes and then in the next breath denying them the benefits those taxes pay for.  "No wonder so many people want to come to Britain," said Cameron, without there being the slightest evidence the benefit system, let alone tax credits and other "in-work benefits" play any role whatsoever in the choice of EU migrants as to which country to go to.  If they did, as Atul Hatwal says, they'd go to countries that have far more generous systems, regardless of whether they pay "up front" or not.

People want control, and they want fairness, Cameron said.  Fairness is obviously an abstract concept; how can it possibly be fair to deny benefits to someone purely on the basis of nationality, so that an EU national is denied tax credits while a UK resident in the same job, on the same wage, the same age and paying the same amount in tax is allowed them?  It sounds remarkably like naked discrimination to me, and yet plenty on the left seem to have no problem with immigrants having to wait four years to gain access to the same entitlements.  Whatever happened to workers of the world unite?  Forget for a second about needing to calm fears over immigration and consider the obvious end point of such a crackdown:  George Osborne remains convinced there are further savings to be found in the welfare bill.  Where could such obvious savings to be found?  By applying much the same restrictions to everyone rather than just migrants.  No benefits full stop until you've paid in four years' worth of national insurance contributions, with obvious exceptions for the seriously ill or disabled.  If it's good enough for those who do come here to work, why shouldn't our skivers be subject to the same conditions?  It's pretty much what Dan the White Van Man prescribed, and you wouldn't mess with him.

It wouldn't matter so much if you know, in-work benefits were a major factor in EU migration.  Except they're not, for all the other reasons Cameron himself outlined.  He and the rest of the parties are once again setting themselves up to fail.  If anything this is an even stupider venture than the original "tens of thousands" promise, one the Conservatives assumed could be met because they expected the Eurozone to recover broadly in line with the UK economy, only for it not to as George Osborne had the sense to (somewhat) ease austerity while Europe continues to impose it.  On this occasion they must know full well these restrictions, if implemented, will have only a minor impact.  And once again David Cameron has also raised expectations, both in suggesting freedom of movement would be curtailed, and now through putting so much onus on the one policy.  It's almost as though he expects his negotiations with the other EU leaders to fail should he still be prime minister come next May, except he wouldn't seriously put our EU membership on such a fine line, would he?

I think we can all guess what Nigel Farage wants for Christmas.

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Thursday, November 27, 2014 

He fought the plebs, and the plebs won.

There's an anecdote Mark Kermode likes to relate (and fellow Wittertainees will know Mark tends to repeat his best ones a lot) about Wes Craven, whose response on discovering Scary Movie would in the main be a parody of Scream, his own tongue-in-cheek post-modern take on the slasher genre, was to say "Wow, things move fast in this town".

As they also do in politics (please excuse the extremely tenuous link).  Lest we forget, Andrew Mitchell resigned just over a month after he swore at the police officers manning the Downing Street gate.  This time last week Emily Thornberry "resigned", or was all but sacked by Ed Miliband a matter of hours after she tweeted a picture of a cage fighting prat's collection of England flags.  After the initial furore, some have been reasonable enough to suggest that if you can't sneer at how someone hasn't taken down the flags they put up for the World Cup six months on then we might as well all just give the fuck up (not that Thornberry necessarily was sneering, as everyone has interpreted her tweet according to how they see the world, just as I did) but the damage was done.  The Sun, champion and defender of plebs everywhere, its journalists going so far to as describe their readers in such terms, spoke and the political class panicked/filled their boots.

Two years later and we at last have the denouement of the Plebgate saga.  It'd be nice to be able to say that never before has so much time, energy and money been wasted over something so unbelievably petty and which it bears repeating, Mitchell apologised over at the time, until you remember wars have started over far less.  Mr Justice Mitting was essentially tasked with deciding whose account of a playground tiff was the more plausible, and predictably enough in the circumstances, opted for the account of the police officer.

Not that Mitting didn't try and make the best of it, having a little fun with his otherwise unutterably miserable task.  He came down on PC Toby Rowland's side, mainly because, in his words, Rowland is "not the sort of man who would have had the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment an account of what a senior politician had said to him in temper".  Or, to give it a Sun-esque spin, Rowland's a bit thick.

The real question is what possessed Mitchell to imagine the verdict would be anything different.  Undoubtedly traduced by the Police Federation, once the work of the Gaunt Brothers was stripped out the case was always going to come down to whether there was significant doubt concerning Rowland's account of their exchange.  Written up and logged within 90 minutes of the incident, was it ever likely to be found substantially inaccurate, or as Mitchell alleged, a work of fiction designed to bring him down?  Rowland exaggerated about passers-by looking shocked, but otherwise there was no evidence presented that contradicted him.  Mitchell admitted he swore, that he said words to the effect of "I thought you were meant to help us" and "you haven't heard the last of this", so why couldn't he have also said the p-word?  No amount of character references from Bob "fucking" Geldof were liable to persuade Mitting otherwise.

One can only conclude that as with politicians in the distant and recent past, Mitchell refused to accept the inevitable until it finally arrived.  It's hard not to feel sorry for him: never should a understandable if perhaps revealing loss of temper have cost him so dearly, yet at the same time he also has no one else to blame.  It's clearly too much to hope for the media to perhaps show a little more understanding, considering the events of last week and when politicians themselves were so keen to make so much out of so little, but it'd be nice to think us plebs might step back and think before condemning in such uncertain terms.

On second thoughts, nah.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 

Project Mayhem urges you to stay safe.

Blame it on the ultimately superficial, shallow and obvious nature of my mind, but my first thought after seeing ACPO's "STAY SAFE" leaflets was blimey, have we really now reached the point where the police are taking pointers from Project Mayhem, aka Tyler Durden's psy-ops campaign in Fight Club?  Is the next step billboards telling everyone the best way of warding off a terrorist attack is dousing yourself in oil?

Yep, counter-terrorism awareness week is clearly in full effect.  Chiefly this seems to consist of urging Londoners to be suspicious of absolutely everyone and everything at all times, which, let's be honest, isn't exactly the most alien concept to most.  See a dog hanging around Euston without its owner?  Best report it, could be a bomb dog.  Spy a bearded gentleman with a rucksack fiddling around with its contents?  First check he isn't a hipster by looking to see if he has the obligatory tattoos peaking out from under his sleeves, and if he doesn't, kick the ever living shit out of him.  Or alternatively, duck and cover.  Err, run, hide and tell?

Quite what the point of such leaflets is always escapes me.  How else are most going to react should they be caught up in a Mumbai-style attack?  They're not going to be like me and walk towards the AK-47 wielding fanatic, thankful at last for a stroke of luck, they're going to be, err, running, hiding and phoning up our friends in CO19, who hopefully won't shoot the first Brazilian they come across.  Nor has there been the slightest indication a Mumbai in this country is a real possibility, despite Theresa May saying one had been disrupted without, naturally, giving further details.  The most recent intelligence, again, if we're to believe it, was the police themselves were the most likely target.  You don't have to be a natural cynic to wonder if the point in fact isn't to scare people, coming the same week as the rest of the hype over the jihadi threat.

It'd be easier to take also if there wasn't the all too familiar sight of otherwise intelligent people acting like dunderheads.  Malcolm Rifkind was beyond certain last night that Facebook could report every single instance of wannabe terrorists colluding if they wanted to, as they do it when it comes to child abuse.  Except of course they don't, and even if it was possible to review every single instance of an account being flagged when eleventy billion status updates are posted every day, there's no guarantee whatsoever the police or the intelligence agencies would then act upon it, as Rifkind's own report made clear.  Blaming the social networks is though a surefire win, as demonstrated by this morning's front pages, especially when so many don't realise how the systems they have in place work and when it's always easier to point the finger at the service provider rather than the individual, as we've seen in similar instances.

As for how it distracts from the other problems with the government's proposed legislation, that's a bonus.  The example today of the brothers convicted of attending a training camp in Syria indicates just how often the system of "managed return" is likely to be used in practice, unless we see a policy change from the police.

By any measure, the Nawaz brothers would have been perfect candidates for such a scheme: they joined not Islamic State but Junud al-Sham, a group which according to Shiraz Maher has since allied with Ahrar al-Sham, part of the Islamic Front, a jihadist but until recently supported by Saudi Arabia section of the rebels.  When you add how they travelled back in August of last year, when both government and media agreed how wonderful such allies of the Free Syrian Army were, it strikes as more than a trifle rich they're now starting prison terms of 4 and a half years and 3 years respectively.  The judge accepted there was no evidence they intended to do anything in this country, and the fact they returned after a month of training without fighting, albeit with trophies, also suggests they weren't cut out for the war.  If others like them are to be prosecuted, then "managed return" with its agreeing to be interviewed by the police, and possible compulsory attendance of deradicalisation programmes seems like a gesture rather than anything practical.

Instead the emphasis seems to be on confiscating passports, without it being clear whether those denied the chance to fight in Syria or Iraq will then be properly monitored.  It leaves those who do support Islamic State, such as Siddhartha Dhar, arrested with Anjem Choudary's mob of blowhards, easily able to skip bail and laugh at the intelligence agencies from afar.   As previously argued, the best policy could be to let those who want to go to do so, and then deal with them if and when they seek to return, otherwise we risk increasing the chance those desperate to be martyrs will resort to launching their own plans here.

At the moment the coalition seems to want the worst of all worlds.  Whether it be in restricting free speech on campus, promoting the frankly hopeless Prevent scheme which targets completely the wrong people, closing down the last avenue through which families might try to save their kidnapped loved ones, blaming internet companies as part of a vendetta or allowing the police to run a frankly ridiculous "awareness" week, the plans seem designed to embitter, alienate and scare without doing anything that actually might help prevent radicalisation in the first place.  Is it worth mentioning at this point how until very recently successive governments claimed our presence in Afghanistan was about stopping terrorist attacks on British streets?  Can anyone remind me how that's working out?  Or indeed whether the insane contortions of our Syria policy which saw us first lionise the Syrian opposition only to then all but side with Assad to battle Islamic State might have contributed to the current mess?  No, probably not.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2014 

The real face of 21st century insecurity.

(This is almost 2,000 words.)

To believe in most conspiracy theories, you need also to believe in the concept of all powerful government.  9/11 couldn't possibly have been the work of 19 men armed only with boxcutters and rudimentary knowledge of flying planes, that's far too implausible.  Instead, it was an inside job, possibly involving explosives that were planted in the twin towers when they were built, possibly involving holograms that looked like planes, all in the aid of justifying war and/or wars designed to take control of more Middle Eastern oil.  Or maybe the owner of the WTC wanted the insurance money, and was so motivated by greed he felt no compunction about the lives of the people in the buildings he was going to first have planes flew into, and then demolished remotely.

Except, as anyone who pays the slightest attention will quickly realise, government is not all powerful.  The intelligence agencies, despite having incredible powers of surveillance are not all knowing, let alone an panopticon.  In fact, for the most part they're just as stupid as you or I.  They rely chiefly for many of their outlandish claims on how the vast majority of the public don't remember the last time they were told about just how massive the threat level is, not to mention how the media for the most part repeats those same claims without hesitation.  More to the point, why shouldn't they when those wishing us harm say that's precisely what they intend just before they kill their latest victims?

We are then facing perhaps the most severe level of threat ever, says Theresa May.  Since 7/7 40 major plots have been disrupted, including ones we know about, such as the liquid bombs one, as well others we might not, like a Mumbai-style massacre, which could be a reference to the on-going Erol Incedal semi-secret trial.  This is the most severe level of threat since the last most severe level of threat.  For I recall former Met commissioners telling us how the "sky was dark", such was the scale of plotting going on, former MI5 heads warning of 30 on-going plots, of 2,000 individuals associated with extremism.  To be taken in by this nonsense you need to completely forget about the IRA, and more or less, every single past agitator either inside or outside the country.  In reality, the only thing that distinguished Islamist extremists from other terrorists was they didn't issue warnings, and were prepared to kill indiscriminately.

Now even that claim doesn't properly stand up.  As the Intelligence and Security Committee's report into what did or didn't go wrong with the security services' dealings with the two men convicted of killing Lee Rigby makes clear (PDF), the most pernicious threat right now is not so much from "lone wolves", those who have no contact whatsoever with other extremists, but "self-starters" (page 80, para 232).  Self-starters are those without major links to an al-Qaida franchise or Islamic State, but who are inspired by their example and decide to do something, anything.  They will be known to other extremists, probably having appeared on the periphery of investigations carried out by the police or MI5/GCHQ, just not considered an imminent threat.  Without the support and resources available to those with direct links to an AQ franchise, they're likely to think smaller and go for something achievable rather than spectacular.  Such as killing a soldier, or perhaps beheading the first person they don't like the look of.

This raises the question of just what is and isn't terrorism.  Within hours of Lee Rigby's murder his death was being defined as a terrorist act, rather than a homicide egregiously justified by his killers as revenge for British foreign policy.  The implication seems to be all someone needs to do is shout "Allah akbar" or the equivalent for their violence to be deemed terrorist inspired.  Any other factors can then be disregarded, and lessons must be learned from the failure to prevent the attack in the first place.

In the absence of there being anything or anyone to blame, or the refusal to apportion blame where it would most obviously lie based on the evidence, something else can always be found.  When it's done in such a transparent, utterly flagrant way as it has by the ISC and the government though, it just insults everyone's intelligence.  The first part of this week has been designated as a time to highlight "the threat" and demonstrate why yet more new powers are necessary, with the ISC report at the core, despite it having been ready for publication for weeks if not months.  It's a brilliant report, in that in the style of the very best it provides documentary evidence of how incompetent MI5 and MI6 can be, taking months to process intelligence and follow it up, leaving crucial details out of reports provided to the police, removing Michael Adebolajo from his status as a subject of interest, despite his links to 5 other major investigations and so on, and then reserves its real ire for Facebook for not passing on what it considers the one key piece of intelligence the security services believe could have prevented the attack.

It does this despite openly contradicting itself.  The key intelligence not passed on by Facebook was a conversation between Michael Adebowale and an extremist with links to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, where the former spoke of wanting to kill a soldier and received advice on how to go about doing so (page 127, para 378).  It seems fairly damning, until you consider how a similar piece of intelligence on Adebowale was used, or rather not used.  Back in 2012 GCHQ reported an unknown individual, not at that time identified as Adebowale, had been espousing "views includ[ing] references to operating as a lone wolf (or lone actor), and other general extremist remarks" (page 77, para 221).  The ISC notes at first sight this seems "striking", only for the committee to be reassured by the director general of MI5 that "those sorts of things said, and worse, on these sorts of [sites] are very common" and "[T]he vast majority of it, *** translates into no action at all". 

You can of course argue that going into the specifics of an attack is very different to vaguely talking of wanting to be a lone wolf, as does the contact with someone with links to AQAP, although at the time the intelligence agencies didn't know that was the case.  The same argument as made by Andrew Parker could though surely be applied to the exchange on Facebook; the vast majority of such talk would similarly translate into no action at all.  The real difference seems to be GCHQ obtained the first conversation, while Facebook didn't until after the murder discover the interaction between Adebowale and "Foxtrot", despite a number of Adebowale's accounts being automatically closed due to links to terrorism.  Adebowale closed the account used to contact "Foxtrot" himself.

Just then as Robert Hannigan, the new head of GCHQ used his first day in the job to describe social media companies and other tech giants as "facilitators of crime and terrorism" so today David Cameron was denouncing the likes of Facebook for providing a "safe haven" for terrorists, intentionally or not.  All this cant seems purely down to how accessing the personal data, meta or otherwise of everyone has been made harder by the shift towards greater encryption by the data companies.  Despite the efforts of GCHQ to master the internet, the ISC report claims in what seems to be the first official confirmation of the existence of Tempora, without naming it as such, in theory, "GCHQ can access around ***% of global internet traffic and approximately ***% of internet traffic entering or leaving the UK" (para 410, page 135).  James Ball suggests Edward Snowden believed GCHQ could access 20% of UK internet traffic, although as neither Adebowale or "Foxtrot" were under investigation at the time they wouldn't have known what to look for anyway.

Quite what the real aim is remains far more opaque.  As Alan Travis and others point out, what GCHQ and the government seem to be demanding is either that social media companies do their job for them, which is an impossibility; or, far more dangerously, that they let governments and their intelligence agencies do whatever they like with the data passing through the servers.  Even if we accept they have the very best of intentions, why should a US company hand over information without objection to a UK government agency and not say do the same for the Russians or Chinese when their requests would no doubt be made on the very same terms?  The argument they already do so when it comes to child exploitation is bogus, and more to the point, as we saw with the raids on Tor, disrupting paedophile networks still appears to come second to the war on drugs.

The report also downplays or accepts "national security" excuses for why MI5's attempts to recruit Adebolajo can neither be confirmed or denied (page 44, para 117).  Despite this, the ISC "investigated all aspects of MI5’s actions thoroughly, and [has] not seen any evidence of wrongdoing by MI5", so clearly any suggestion the "harassment" of Adebolajo may have contributed to his actions must similarly be dismissed.  MI6 was also wholly uninterested in Adebolajo's claims he was mistreated when arrested in Kenya (page 153, para 461), presumed to be intending to join up with al-Shabaab with Somalia, with the ISC concluding "we would have expected that all allegations of mistreatment would now be treated with the seriousness they merit" and that "whatever we now know about him as an individual does not detract from the fact that his allegations were not dealt with appropriately".  Again, any impact the alleged mistreatment could have ultimately had on Adebolajo's actions, considering the links between the UK and the anti-terrorism unit in Kenya codenamed ARCTIC, must obviously be disregarded.

As the Graun puts it, the "bleak truth is that it's possible nothing would have saved Lee Rigby from his awful fate".  Despite the government or the agencies themselves occasionally repeating the old adage that whereas they have to be lucky every time, the terrorists only have to be lucky once, protecting the public in the face of such odds remains one of the few things they continue to boast about.  It doesn't matter that governments wilfully redefine terrorism to be almost anything, raising the stakes even further, to the point where schools are deemed not to be doing enough to tackle extremism if sixth form societies have Facebook pages with links to radical preachers, still everything must be seen to be done, even if it turns out to be counter-productive or worse.  Continuously ramping up the perceived threat helps no one, and yet successive governments have done it.  When the intelligence agencies then fail, as they will, the blame has to be diverted.  If that in turn further helps the securocrats who are never satisfied with the material they have access to, so much the better, again in spite of how Tempora is useless against one determined person armed with a sharp knife.  All the technology, all our powers of surveillance, all our intelligence, brought low by men armed with a car, an unloaded gun and a few blades.  There is the true insecurity of the 21st century, and it's not the stuff conspiracy theories are made of.

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