Thursday, March 26, 2015 

Just who are the domestic extremists?

Back in the 70s, Ted Heath was not exactly complimentary about MI5's way of working. "They talked the most ridiculous nonsense, and their whole philosophy was ridiculous nonsense.  If some of them were on the tube and saw someone reading the Daily Mirror they would say - 'Get after him, that man is dangerous, we must find out where he bought it.'"  Predictably, Christopher Andrew in his official history of MI5 claimed the reality was often the government itself asking MI5 to keep tabs on MPs they had suspicions about, rather than MI5 becoming convinced various left-wingers were serving Soviet and not British interests.

By the 1990s the bad old days of MI5 and Special Branch keeping tabs on any vaguely left-wing group were meant to have passed.  When it's subsequently revealed Special Branch apparently left their files open on such notorious subversives as Harriet Harman, Jack Straw and Peter Hain, by this point all ministers in the Labour government, it does make you wonder just who they deemed to not be worthy of monitoring.  Frank Field, maybe? Gerald Kaufman?  Or were they too secretly meeting behind closed doors to plot and sing the Internationale?  Considering that Jenny Jones, the Green member of the London assembly recently discovered she was on the Met's current database of "domestic extremists" perhaps we shouldn't be that surprised.

It also brings into sharper focus the Erol Incedal debacle, the first trial to be heard in such a high degree of secrecy since the war.  Despite being found guilty of possession of a document on bomb-making, the jury at Incedal's retrial (the jury at the original trial failed to reach a verdict) was apparently convinced by his explanation as to why emails the prosecution claimed to refer to the Mumbai attacks and AK-47s were nothing of the kind and so cleared him of plotting some sort of attack.  I say apparently as this was part of the trial held in complete secret, with not even the posse of accredited hacks allowed into some of the behind closed doors sessions ordered out.  Further on the surface incriminating details have emerged as a result of the judge's summing up in the second trial - Incedal apparently met with a British jihadist known only as Ahmed on the Syrian border, who allegedly suggested carrying out an attack.  The bug planted in Incedal's car additionally picked him up praising Islamic State commanders.

Just as intriguing is how Incedal came to the attention of the police in the first place.  Arrested for speeding, the BBC reports he "made demands" the police couldn't accommodate, and they also stopped an interview so they could "digest" a written statement.  Whether it was this which prompted the police to make a thorough search of his car, finding the home address of Tony Blair on a piece of paper hidden in a glasses case we don't know, but it seems to have disquieted them enough to plant the bug in his car.  Incedal maintained at both trials he had a "reasonable excuse" for having the explosives manual, an excuse which caused the jury enough reasonable doubt for them to decide to acquit on the more serious charge.  We can't however know what the excuse was, such is the apparent impact it could have on national security.

Or at least we won't unless the judge decides tomorrow that the reporting restrictions on the sessions when the accredited hacks were allowed in but the public wasn't can now be made public.  Both the Graun and the BBC quote Sean O'Neill, the Times's crime and security editor, known to be the kind of journalist memorably described by EP Thompson as "a kind of official urinal in which ministers and intelligence and defence chiefs could stand patiently leaking", as saying there was a lot heard that should not have been secret.  Surely then we can expect the judge to throw some light on the subject?

Except the fact the security services, ministers, the CPS and the judge himself all initially felt the trial should be held entirely in secret, with Incedal and his co-defendant identified by initials, something only prevented by the media challenging Mr Justice Nicol's ruling at the Court of Appeal, more than suggests that avoiding further embarrassment is likely to be order of the day.  The QC for the media at the Court of Appeal hearing argued that "the orders made involve such a significant departure from the principle of open justice that they are inconsistent with the rule of law and democratic accountability".  As Theresa May reaffirmed on Tuesday, the rule of law is one of those British values that is non-negotiable, and to reject it is one of the definitions of extremism.  The law is though there to be changed, especially if meddling judges decide that letters from a prince preparing to be king to ministers must be revealed, as David Cameron has said.  And when the security services and police are so often a law unto themselves, the rule of law is very much what the government of the day decrees it to be.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015 

What you could of won.

I don't know about you, but I never took David Cameron for a wannabe Frank Carson.  You see, according to Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, George Osborne and a whole host of other Tories sequestered to explain the unexplainable, it's all in the way he tells 'em.  Cameron in saying he didn't intend to be around for a third term was just answering a straight question with a straight answer, a highly admirable thing in a politician.  What's more, it's not arrogance to set out where you intend to be in five years time when the public will be deciding your fate in just over a month.  No, it's the exact opposite; it's humility, it's knowing when to get out, being a true public servant rather than wanting power for its own sake.  And if you don't buy any of that, and frankly who would, it was just a statement of the obvious, dismissing the impossible, nothing more.

Being as absurdly presumptuous as the prime minister was for reasons we are no nearer to understanding in turn necessitates equally absurd defences.  All Cameron had to do was say I've got to win this election before I start worrying about the next one, and yet he didn't.  That he then expressly set out the frontrunners to succeed him rather than try and row back makes clear how calculated it was.  You can only guess at what the calculation was, and so too it seems can his allies, but at least we don't have to claim that black is white to incredulous journos.

The aforementioned Gove wasn't scheduled to be on Newsnight, but there he was doing his bit.  Not so long ago he might have hoped to be among the names reeled off by Cameron, and yet now his task was to try and provide some clarity.  He did so by constantly referencing the American system, as though it's worth emulating a model where a two-term president has essentially four years in which to achieve something, the other four years taken up with campaigning for re-election and then as a lame duck.  The introduction of fixed term parliaments has on its own meant we've been anticipating the election now for over a year, a situation which hasn't turned out to be an immediate improvement over the one where it was up to the discretion of the prime minister as to when to dissolve parliament.

That Gove had to be wheeled out in any case was evidence by itself of the Thick of It style panic which must have descended following the Cameron interview, although considering his way of putting it in perspective was to go all West Wing, most likely Crosby and pals wished they hadn't bothered.  By morning the message was at least slightly more coherent, if still utterly transparent.  When the AgeUK conference laughs at the prime minister repeating the I was being a pretty straight kinda guy line, it's fairly apparent just what a self-inflicted wound this has been.

Perhaps the Tories will console themselves that it at least knocked the Afzal Amin disaster down the news agenda.  Dealing as we are with absurdities, the story of the prospective Tory MP for Dudley North making a deal with the EDL whereby they would announce a demonstration then call it off following mediation with Amin, along with an exchange of hard cash to make it worth their while has to rank up there.  As well as Amin claiming that he was drawing on his experience of "dealing with the Taliban", having served in Afghanistan, although whether his claims about counter-insurgency are bullshit or not is anyone's guess, Alex notes that Amin's company succeeded in wrangling a contract out of the Department for Communities and Local Government to giving inspiring talks on Commonwealth soldiers who fought in the world wars.  Whether Amin might perhaps have a case for being stitched up, as he claims, is open to question: we are after all relying on both the Mail on Sunday and Tommy Robinson himself, who secretly recorded and filmed their meetings, as to the veracity of what went on.  Speaking of Robinson, considering he was supposedly meant to have put his EDL days behind him thanks to the work of the Quill.i.am Foundation, that he was negotiating alongside the new EDL chairman with Amin raises the question of just what, if anything, their "deradicalising" of aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon amounted to.  Quilliam hasn't as yet commented on their
protégé's latest attention grabbing exploits, oddly.

They have though welcomed Theresa May's speech on how a majority Conservative government would deal with extremism, which seems to amount in practice to more schemes like those provided by Amin's Curzon firm with a further blurring of the lines between what's considered to be Islamic conservatism as opposed to extremism.  Purists, i.e. people like me will also take issue with how on the one hand we must be robust in our promotion of "British values", those intrinsically British virtues such as participation in and acceptance of democracy (presumably meaning 35% of eligible voters are extremists based on the 2010 turnout) and respect for minorities (no further comment necessary), and at the same time deny extremists who aren't quite extreme enough to fall foul of anti-terrorist legislation their right to freedom of speech by extending banning orders.

Then there's how despite British values being so universal and unquestionable they also need to be promoted by a "positive" campaign.  Like the superb Britain is great one presumably, and not like the one telling Romanians and Bulgarians how awful it is here.  You could also question the commitment of governments past and present to the self-same values now deemed to be non-negotiable, such as respect for the rule of law, not utmost on the agenda of Iain Duncan Smith, or equality, which is so wide a concept as to mean something different to almost everyone.  When British citizens are imprisoned for making offensive jokes or posting riot "events" on Facebook you also have to wonder just which definition of freedom of speech it is we're deeming to be a "British value".  Not the American one, that's for definite, despite this seeming to be the first step towards an American-style drilling into kids of just how exceptional their country and its values are.  Seeing as May also ended the speech with a you're either with us or you're with the extremists flourish, last employed by a certain former president, it's not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Not that it makes much odds as there isn't going to be a majority Conservative government, therefore rendering the entire speech all but completely pointless.  Here's what you could of won: a prime minister who doesn't, repeat doesn't believe he was born to rule, a prospective MP who would have got away with it if wasn't for the meddling EDL, and a home secretary who fought against Michael Gove's "draining of the swamp" only to then decide it needed dredging after all.  What fools we all must be.

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Monday, March 23, 2015 

Advantage Labour.

Baffling.  Alex Massie has it dead right.  Of all the mistakes Tony Blair made, what on earth has possessed David Cameron to repeat the one that guaranteed he most certainly would not serve a full third term?  At the time, Blair's declaration made something approaching sense: polling behind his party and as we now know having seriously considered resigning in 2004 at the peak of the why the fuck haven't we found any weapons of mass destruction imbroglio, making clear he wasn't going be around forever looked to be a way of placating his enemies and being straight with the public.  As it turned out, all it did was make Blair a lame duck, Gordon Brown and his (then) supporters went on manoeuvres, and the messiah was off to get ludicrously rich via his dictator frotting services not even half way through his "full" third term.

Cameron though is more popular than his party, something that itself can only be explained as being the work of alchemy.  Unlike Blair, he hasn't so much as managed to win a single election, let alone two.  Unlike Blair, he does not have an obvious successor.  Indeed, while Labour was half-bullied and half-sleepwalked into anointing Brown as leader, a Tory leadership contest promises to be hard fought and potentially bloody, not least when all three of Theresa May, George Osborne and Boris Johnson are proficient in the dark arts. There would almost certainly be other candidates too, including from further to the right, with all the baggage they carry.  Lastly, for all the distrust and hostility towards Cameron on said right of the party, he's managed to hold it together reasonably well in the face of the UKIP insurgency, and also kept it in the coalition for the whole 5 years, something that most certainly wasn't assured.  He is without doubt the party's greatest asset, yet he's effectively just admitted both that he doesn't expect to win this time either, and that his party will get rid of him as a result.

There is absolutely no other explanation for going public with his plans.  As the rest of the media are saying and has been discussed before, very few expected Cameron to serve a full second term anyway.  Presuming the promised referendum on EU membership survived any new coalition agreement, a successful renegotiation and yes from the voters would have provided a perfect opportunity to stand down.  The deficit all but gone, Britain still in Europe, say what you like but it would be something approaching a legacy, and subsequently be embroidered further by the sycophantic newspapers we so love.  Coming out and saying I won't be around come 2020, as well as specifically naming May, Osborne and Johnson as his potential successors is to set off that very contest before we've so much as entered the "short" campaign.

You could understand it somewhat if Cameron was facing a more onerous campaign, such as one featuring the same three debates as were held last time.  Except he managed to humiliate the broadcasters into all but accepting the precise format he wanted, so desperate was ITV to hold any sort of debate again.  Another possibility is he doesn't have any confidence in the campaign as it stands or in the manifesto, and so thought by making it about himself, as he undoubtedly has, it would distract from the other shortcomings.  Except, again, the Tory strategy up to now has been to repeat the words long, term and plan while ripping on Ed Miliband, which if nothing else hasn't seen the party go backwards in the polls.  It could be he's looked at the way the majority of politicians are tired of increasingly quickly, and felt that by making clear he's not destined to "go on and on" he'll avoid the kind of monstering Blair (deservedly) and Brown (less so) continue to receive.

It's a decision so bewildering, in the way it's clearly been planned, made in the softest of interviews with the BBC (Blair also set out his decision to the BBC, incidentally), and so presumably was signed off with Lynton Crosby as Matthew d'Anconservative writes, that makes it all the more difficult to get your head round.  At a stroke it opens up numerous attack lines for Labour (and the rest), whether they be vote Cameron get one of these jokers, or that Cameron is taking the voters for morons, both of which have already started to ring out.  Arguably, vote Cameron get Boris could be attractive to some, but that makes so many assumptions as to be moot.  It also blows a hole straight through one of the other Tory lines we've heard so often, of competence versus chaos.  Rather than provide certainty Cameron has just ensured the next 5 years will be a mess of plotting, skulduggery and infighting, instead of the strong leadership they're so desperate to project.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming.  The way the Conservatives demanded Labour rule out a coalition with the SNP smacked of a leadership that doesn't believe it can win a majority, a line that Miliband and the rest foolishly didn't respond with.  At the weekend the Graun carried a detailed report on how a "praetorian guard" would try to save Cameron for the nation in the event of the party failing to win a majority, a further sign of just how seriously the prospect of failing to be able to govern in any capacity is being considered.  This still doesn't explain why Cameron would make such an admission now though, instead of keeping it in reserve for later in the campaign if a breakthrough in the polls still fails to materialise.

To return to Alex Massie, it really is as though no party wants to win this election.  Surely, definitively, this has to give Labour the kind of fillip they could only have dreamt of.  Cameron makes clear his weakness, his party's coming self-destruction, win or lose.  And yet still you can't shake the feeling they'll screw even this up.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015 

An epic day in politics.

"I almost spilt my coffee."  Yes, of course you did George.  While the rest of the country was trying to work out how the Sun could possibly have thought ripping off an already dire advert was a good idea, the chancellor was failing to hang on to his latte, his jaw having dropped.  It would be a difficult story to believe even if Osborne wasn't the type of person who strikes you as the kind liable to stand in front of a mirror, imagining himself all rippling muscles and shit-eating grin, a veritable gift to women.  Osborne does after all think calling someone an idiot to be devastating wit, as evidenced by his past braying reaction to Cameron's description of Ed Balls.  More indeed.

You can then see the low base from which Osborne's subsequent remark, of the Sun's genius, came from.  Only the unbelievably easy to please and those tasked with finding something, anything to crow about from yesterday's budget could have presented it as such an unvarnished triumph, let alone an "epic strut".  Do the kids still use the word epic, you imagine the Sun's hacks asking, after high-fiving each other for coming up with the take on the Money Supermarket ad in the first place.  Epic fail!  Guh-ugh-uh.

Osborne does at least if nothing else retain some self-respect.  Whoever came up with the idea for the Liberal Democrats to present their own imaginary budget, complete with hastily painted yellow box, you can but hope they've got an up to date CV.  Danny Alexander, the coalition's answer to a question that was never posed in the first place duly came out of the Treasury, rather than you know, Number 11, holding up his lunch for the approval of the interns sent along on the off chance there's a sliver of space to fill somewhere in tomorrow's paper.

Of all the various attempts at differentiation the Liberal Democrats have tried, this has to rank as both the most absurd and bizarre, and just as strange was why both the speaker and the civil service went along with it.  Alexander's presented figures for how a Liberal Democrat government would manage the public finances were even more of a farce than Osborne's actual ones, not least because his party has stopped pretending it has any chance of winning the election rather than forming another coalition.  When you can no longer deny that inevitability, how can you possibly maintain there's even a cat's chance in hell of the plans forming anything like the basis of the next government's economic strategy?  The only realistic answer to why this was signed off has to be pity for poor old Danny's chances of retaining his seat, with the SNP likely to win in Inverness.  Too bad that concern came at the expense of the rest of us.

Still, it could be worse: we could be Jack Monroe.  I have to admit to getting incredibly tired of the feel my woe school of political journalism, where those getting well remunerated for their writing or other work start out by saying how terrible it is to be abused for simply doing what they do.  All Monroe did was say I'm joining the Green party, and what do you know, the accusations of being a traitor started and the reactionaries came flooding in.  She was looking for importance to be placed on a national health service, public transport, sustainable energy and fair pay for pay work, all values which Labour under Ed Miliband have abandoned.  No, she hasn't left the Labour party, the Labour party has left her.  Vote Green and get Tories they say.  But we get Tories whoever vote for!

Well, yes, it's called democracy.  Oh for PR she writes; except we couldn't even get the alternative vote when the option was given.  Yes, she appeared in a Labour election broadcast and they supported the food bank petition, but so too did the Greens.  That some would launch attacks rather than consider why it is those like Monroe are leaving says all you need to know.  The idea they might be perturbed by how a popular figure with a following publicly abandons a party on the eve of an election on fairly spurious grounds, which are frankly what they are, doesn't seem to have occurred.  With friends like these, who needs enemies, Monroe tweeted.  Quite, Labour will no doubt reflect.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015 

Hubris and the wait for nemesis.

You can't help but get a sense of the way the election campaign looks set to pan out from the way the broadcasters have utterly capitulated to David Cameron and the Tories over the debates.  Thanks in part to ITV's apparent desperation to once again host the first debate, with all the bragging rights and ratings that go with it, Dave has made the extremely minor sacrifice of agreeing to one debate with 6 other party leaders at the very start of April.  While the precise format of the replacements for the other two debates haven't been finalised, they're likely to involve interviews with Paxman and a Dimbleby hosted Question Time-athon, each leader lightly grilled by the same audience separately.  Cameron has thus ensured he won't be shown up too much by Farage, while Miliband will be boxed in by both Natalie Bennett and Nicola Sturgeon during the one unwieldy session. He's avoided the ignominy of being "empty chaired", nor will he face off one on one against the "despicable, weak" upstart with two kitchens.  As was predictable, the commercial need to broadcast something, anything with the prime minister overcame the principle of refusing to bow to his demands.

Little wonder George Osborne felt able to act with such hubris in his final (God, please let it be his last) budget.  Few other politicians in his position would have with a straight face claimed living standards are higher now than in 2010, not least when the claim rests on a single cherry-picked statistic, itself reliant on the massive drop in inflation due to the oil price halving.  He insisted that, albeit a year later than planned, the debt-to-GDP ratio is falling, the second of his major economic promises made in 2010.  The Office for Budget Responsibility later pointed out this will only happen thanks to a mammoth £20bn in asset sales.  We heard once again the phrases designed to be used as soundbites, "Britain walking tall again", "the comeback country", liable to please the same little minds his previous "march of the makers" and "aspiration nation" did while washing over the rest of us.

There was not to be even the slightest nod to the all too obvious mistakes of this unbelievably overrated in every sense chancellor.  Plan A had long since been abandoned, but so also have we become inured to the prospect of a further 4 years of austerity.  With as little fanfare as he could get away with, Osborne rejigged the spending plans of the autumn statement that set out those "colossal" spending cuts, the same ones he thought wouldn't attract such attention.  He did this not by sensibly spreading out the extra money found down the back of Number 11's sofa in the past four months, loosening the squeeze up to 2018, but setting out a splurge in the final year of the next parliament, equivalent to the entire defence budget.  The ridiculous surplus of £23bn planned for 2020 is thus a slightly less fantastical £7bn.

Except of course these figures are illusionary.  Regardless of the make-up of the government at the next budget, the chance of anything like these plans being set out again is minute.  As the Institute for Fiscal Studies was quick to make clear, they're reliant on the further £12bn in welfare cuts Osborne has long talked about being found, alongside an equally difficult to believe £5bn being raised through clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion.  We're no closer to knowing where the hatchet will fall in the case of the former, no doubt precisely because there is no more fat to trim.  It's an utterly absurd way to run anything, let alone a state, to cut services as harshly as Osborne plans only then to ratchet spending back up again two years later, and he would have to be a complete moron to so much as contemplate doing so.

Osborne is many things, but a complete moron is not one of them.  For this was a budget less about giving activists something to base a case around than making things as difficult as possible for Labour.  Gone is the mess of Osborne's making, the back to the 30s jibe, to be replaced instead by a return to the day to day spending of 1964 instead.  Spent is some of the money earmarked for Labour's daft in any case reduction in tuition fees, Ed Balls saying it would be found elsewhere.  And then we had the "jokes" courtesy of Danny Finkelstein, only accompanied by fatuous policies in order to shoehorn them in, the most desperate of which had to be the non-gag about bands of brothers and Agincourt, at the cost of a million to commemorate it.

With that out of the way, all that was left were the priorities we've become used to from this government and chancellor.  A further lifting of the income tax threshold, which benefits middle earners the most; allowing pensioners to trade in annuities for cash, boosting the Treasury's coffers at the same time; a "Help to Buy" ISA the government will top up, without any further announcements on building the damn houses in the first place; and a new savings allowance, with the first £1,000 tax free, projected to cost £1bn in the first year.  As for those who can't afford to save, or who probably won't be able to reach the £1,000 figure, be glad you got away with your sweet FA.  It also makes ISAs less attractive as a whole, but seeing as the aim probably was for Osborne to be pictured on the front page of the Mail with the sun shining out of his arse, it's doubtful he'll give it a second thought.

Hubris can after all mask anxiety.  This wasn't a budget to win over voters so much as to yet again consolidate the party's core vote.  Bribe after bribe has been thrown at those most likely to turn out, and still the election remains too close to call.  By this point a Tory lead was meant to have developed, only for the polls to continue to suggest a dead heat.  With Osborne having done his bit, with there being little reason to expect a leap post-Budget bounce from what he unveiled, the onus is back on Cameron to haul the Tories over the line.  Thank goodness the broadcasters stood firm then, eh?

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Monday, March 16, 2015 

On not understanding the call of duty.

Call me an old softy, but I find it difficult not to recoil from war and conflict regardless of the circumstances.  It's not that I'm a pacifist, as I fervently take the position that armed struggle is permissible when every other method of getting rid of a tyrannical government has failed.  Likewise, sometimes a country operating an openly imperialist foreign policy has to be stopped from going any further.  I'm even prepared to accept there will be occasions when countries should intervene to prevent an imminent or already under way genocide from taking place or going any further.  There haven't been any past cases where it's been shown an intervention would have succeeded, but there's always the possibility.

Flying Rodent called it his "Mark-Off-Peep-Show Shame", and yep, I've read those same books, despite thinking it's reaching the time when rather than putting up new memorials to those involved in War I and War II (as Philomena Cunk would have it) we should instead begin dialling it down.  As the inestimable rodent said, "a world in which fewer people are willing to get bayonetted to death for God and country is likely to be a nicer place to live in than one with more", and it's a sentiment I can't demur from.

It does then fairly bewilder me when those who ought to know better start rhapsodising about how everyone should get behind this particular group fighting in this particular war, nearly always because they share their political outlook, or rather, think they do.  Without doubt, as I've written before, the Kurds fighting against Islamic State in Syria are taking part in a noble cause, and when compared with almost everyone else battling in that benighted country, they are probably closest in values to "us".  They are not quite though the revolutionaries Owen Jones wants to paint them as, claiming the still-banned as a terrorist group PKK (aka the Kurdistan Workers' Party) has moved from Stalinism to "the libertarian socialism of the US theoretician Murray Bookchin".  And the three bears etc.  All the same, he's probably right that if the Kurds were fighting against our good selves rather than Islamic State, they'd be hailed universally by the left rather than just the fringes.

Looking for a new angle now the "shock" of Westerners going to battle alongside Islamic State has began to fade, attention has instead moved to those fighting against IS, with the death of Konstandinos Erik Scurfield prompting tributes from his family and others.  Last week the news broke of the death of Ivana Hoffman, leading to the eulogy from Jones, ignoring the obvious similarities between someone who posed in front of a communist flag fighting for what she believed in with those who can't pose often enough with the IS flag, also fighting for what they believe in, their war or otherwise.  Before we get into the sterility of a debate centering on moral relativism, it's apparent that despite fighting for such very different things, and that the Kurds' battle is foremost a defensive rather than an offensive one, the idealism and naivety of both sides is not unrelated if still very different.

No surprise then at the anger over the charging of Shilan Ozcelik, accused of wanting to fight against IS with the PKK rather than it being the other way round.  As the PKK is still a listed terrorist group, in law the charge might well be justified.  Whether it should be enforced, however, is a different question entirely.  As we saw last week, the Met confirming the three schoolgirls from Bethnal Green would not be charged with terrorism offences if they managed to return from Syria, and with three other teenagers released today on bail after being returned from Turkey, there still doesn't appear to be anything remotely like a coherent approach to just who is and isn't likely to be charged if they decide to come back.  This is the umpteenth time I've mentioned Mashudur Choudary, and I'm going to keep on doing so until it's explained why someone who couldn't hack it in Syria was prosecuted on his return.  The same goes for the Nawaz brothers, who trained not with Islamic State but an unrelated jihadist group, the kind some felt, like the PKK, were fighting the good fight up until recently.  We're told hundreds of Brits have gone to Syria, and yet the number of cases brought numbers in the tens, if that.  As we're also told repeatedly of what a massive security risk these people are, either there's a lot of resources being used to monitor them, or else the gap year jihadis are only going to be boring everyone to death with their stories.

The other reason for my reticence is what we know about professional soldiers, some of whom fail to adjust to civilian life, some of whom just find out they enjoy killing.  Yes, they might genuinely share the Kurds' wider aims and loathe IS, but that doesn't alter their wider motivations.  There are perfectly good reasons to be suspicious of those who decide to fight in wars that don't, or shouldn't on the surface concern them.  A better approach, from the authorities at least, would be to either prosecute everyone who goes to fight in Syria, regardless of whom they join up with; or no one, excepting those where there's evidence they took part in attacks against civilians.  A better approach from ourselves might to be admit that however much we hate what those going to fight for IS believe in, in death those left behind always make the same claims for what it was they believed they were doing.

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Thursday, March 12, 2015 

The securocrats win. They always win.

Hazel Blears is, like David Blunkett, another of those New Labour figures to be sadly leaving parliament in May.  Happily for her, all the unpleasantness involving "Rockets" Rifkind meant she was the obvious choice to chair this morning's Intelligence and Security Committee press conference, announcing their extended findings into whether or not GCHQ have the biggest revenge porn collection in the world.  Rest assured, they don't.  They merely have the capability if they so wish to put together the biggest revenge porn collection in the world, and they really honestly don't, they just want to filter all those mirror shots of cocks and arseholes and underage girls duckfacing down to the point where it's just the finest, classiest self-shot images they collect and then use to keep us safe from the fifth columnists in our midst.

Excuse my ahem, rather colourful corruption of what it is GCHQ do, but reading such an obfuscatory report as the one produced by Blears and pals will do that to you.  Just like their last major release, where they detailed precisely how the security services failed to keep the killers of Lee Rigby under further surveillance (which probably wouldn't have saved Rigby's, or another soldier's life regardless) and then put all the blame on Facebook, so too here they use a similar approach.  Essentially, absolutely everything the security services do involving monitoring the internet is above board, completely kosher, totally necessary to keep us safe.  The fact that we knew precisely nothing of this prior to the Edward Snowden leaks, and the ISC itself didn't think to ask is neither here nor there.  At the same time, despite everything being a-OK as far as not breaking the law as it is stands, said laws need to be torn up and began again from scratch.

Confused?  You shouldn't be.  Basically the laws are a complete mess, and always have been rather than just rendered obsolete by technological change.  As we already knew, GCHQ's bulk interception capability, known as Tempora, is legal by virtue of the foreign secretary signing a public immunity certificate every six months.  However, the RIPA act of 2000 requires that for a specific UK based target to be monitored, as opposed to anyone up to and including every damn person on the internet, a warrant naming that person is required.  Except, due to the vast majority of the services we use being hosted overseas, the agencies distinguish between "internal" and "external" communications.  Posting on Facebook or Twitter is then an external communication, even if you're just retweeting the joke the person on the desk opposite you put up.  This means that while the agencies can't search for your name without getting a warrant, they can suck up all the information they want about you if you happen to be followed by or friends with someone living outside the UK by carrying out the surveillance on them instead.  In any case, as James Ball points out, this doesn't preclude their uncovering metadata on you, just the content.

And oh boy, essentially metadata is whatever the intelligence agencies want it to be, metadata not being defined in RIPA anyway.  The ISC outlines that only the full url of a website (page 52 of the report) is considered to be content, so while they're not allowed to know precisely which video it was you looked at on YouPorn without a warrant, they are allowed to know you went to the site.  It also means they can hoover up the location data stored by your smartphone, as that's not considered to be content either.  This is one of the few areas where the ISC isn't convinced by the insistence of the agencies that such information is unintrusive, and so suggest it be regarded as "communications data plus", with added protections under any new bill.

The one new thing the ISC did find out is the agencies have for some time now been purchasing or obtaining "bulk personal datasets" (page 55 onwards), only any further information on just what these datasets are is in the usual style of ISC reports redacted.  The assumption is they're databases put together by private companies, social networking firms, all the usual suspects, and most probably contain fairly mundane information that could be sourced through perfectly legitimate means.  The ISC notes however the agencies obtain these both through "overt and covert channels", so in other words don't believe that ticking the box saying don't share my information with third parties is going to prevent our friends in Cheltenham from getting their hands on them via unscrupulous methods.  They also set out the controls on the use of the datasets, which even by the standards seen above are flimsy, don't apply to the likes of the NSA, so if they're willing they can do the dirty work for GCHQ.

Where the report truly fails, and this again has always been typical of the ISC, is the evidence that supposedly proves bulk interception works can't possibly be shared with us plebs less it tips off our enemies (page 32).  Any further details on Tempora and just how much of the internet it has mastered are similarly redacted, again without a convincing reason as to how knowing this might help anyone wishing us harm.  It doesn't however stop the committee from ridiculing the likes of Liberty et al from rejecting bulk interception in principle (page 35 onwards), when they and we are not being provided with even the slightest evidence as to whether it works in the way the GCHQ insists to make a judgement on.  That they of course frame this by saying privacy organisations would rather there be successful attacks than a slight infringement of civil liberties only underlines the basic hostility the ISC has so often displayed towards critics, both of themselves and the agencies.  Just how useless the ISC can be at times is further shown by this non-response to allegations in the media concerning the Belhadj rendition case:



I don't know about you, but that *** has certainly reassured me.

The report in its entirety is wonderful for what it makes clear and yet cannot admit.  For all the sound and fury directed at Edward Snowden and the Guardian, all the claims of endangering the public, the soundbites from the heads of MI5 and MI6 of al-Qaida rubbing their hands in glee, the ISC all but admits the leak was accurate, and the current safeguards built into the legislation are not fit for purpose.  The ISC knows full well however that any replacement legislation will not simply bring the regulations up to date, but also enshrine in law Tempora and the further powers of surveillance the agencies have long demanded.  This will happen without the slightest evidence being presented as to the efficacy of GCHQ's attempt to master the internet, nor anything more than internal oversight to ensure individuals within the agencies are not doing precisely what I describe in the first paragraph and far, far worse.  The securocrats win.  They always win.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2015 

Just the 57 days to go, eh?

There was a rather telling moment during today's prime minister's questions.  After the never knowingly modest David Blunkett had said his piece, David Cameron took the opportunity to pay tribute to the former home secretary.  Blunkett is a remarkable, extraordinary politician (and man), and Cameron for one will never forget the strong leadership he provided after 9/11.  Dave was too kind to mention this leadership included ordering tanks to be placed outside Heathrow only a matter of days before the massive February 15th anti-Iraq war march off the back of a spurious terror alert, the introduction of indefinite detention without charge, struck down by the House of Lords, or how Blunkett, not entirely seriously, suggested dealing with a prison riot with the army if the prison service itself wasn't up to the task.  Cameron also failed to mention their mutual, likely former friend Rebekah Brooks, whom was dining with Blunkett the night she got a little too tired and emotional and ended up smacking her then husband Ross Kemp.

Prior to blowing smoke up the arse of the most right-wing home secretary of the last half century, Cameron was calling Ed Miliband "despicable and weak" for not ruling out an accommodation with the SNP after the election.  Certainly, any politician needing the support of another party to stay in power can only be damaged and reduced by the ignominy of being unable to govern alone, which must surely make it extremely likely Cameron is to be a two-time loser.  How the Tory backbenches will respond to their leader once again failing to win a majority, as the polls suggest is odds on we can't know, but it's not exactly going to further endear him to them.

That the Conservative strategy remains to portray Miliband as not capable of breaking the skin of a rice pudding even as Cameron refuses to go one-to-one with this pitiful excuse for a human being speaks of how increasingly confident they are of returning to power, whatever the make-up of the government turns out to be.  As has so often happened before as an election approaches, the opposition's lead appears to be falling away, with the Tories having gained a slender advantage over the past week.  


Of special note is this has coincided with Cameron making clear he intends to give the debates a wide berth, the latest attempt by the unholy alliance of the Graun, Telegraph and YouTube almost guaranteed to be a similarly forlorn one.  A great example of both the uselessness of opinion polls on anything more complicated than party support, and how the public doesn't know what to think is contained in ComRes's attempt to gauge feeling on the debates.  Apparently Ed Miliband is both right and desperate to challenge Cameron to a head-to-head debate at any time, while, somehow, 18% don't know whether or not the debates will be important in helping them decide how to vote.  You can only presume the same 18% don't know whether or not they like breathing.

Quite why Miliband then decided to spend today plugging away on the debates we can only guess.  Yes, most would rather like them to go ahead, but they don't care enough about them for it to change their vote.  Yes, it makes a mockery of Miliband being weak, but Cameron has the advantage of appearing prime ministerial by, err, being prime minister.  Cameron has long made up for what he's weak on, which is detail on policy, debating and negotiating through sheer chutzpah, almost charisma and the quality of looking vaguely credible.  He's always been a poor man's Tony Blair, but that seems to be good enough for most people.  Compared to Ed, who in the latest ill-advised attempt to fight back invited along the BBC to see just how normal he is, during which they went to his old school to speak to one of his teachers, the kind of thing most of us do rather than run a mile from, it's never going to be much of a contest.

Where Labour's "long" campaign has failed and where the Tories' has succeeded is that Labour has not despite the media cynicism kept banging on about their central themes.  All we've heard from the Tories day in day out has been long-term economic plan and competence not chaos.  It's utter bilge, but it seems to have worked, while Labour have tried and failed to take advantage of events like the disclosure of the HSBC files or the debates.  They've also made some bizarre if not downright foolhardy choices, such as deciding to reopen the tuition fees sore when the current system, fees of £9,000 or not, works pretty well overall.

This doesn't of course mean the Tories are going to gain enough support between now and May to be able to form a majority, especially when you factor in some of those currently saying they'll vote UKIP, SNP or Green will almost certainly return to one of the two major parties.  It does however make George Osborne's final budget next week all the more important, with the suggestion being he'll rein back the cuts even if only somewhat in order to stop Labour claiming they signal a return to the 1930s  We could nonetheless be left with a situation where the Tories are only one or two seats shy of the point where they can form a majority with Lib Dem and DUP support, and as they're in government they'll have the first go, whereas Labour's only realistic option is to govern in a vote by vote arrangement with the SNP, Liberal Democrats and lone Green, and even then the sums might not add up.  If Miliband wants to at least go down with something approaching dignity, he'll spend from now until May the 6th out on the road, not indulging in stunts or trying to cash in on events but campaigning like the weirdo he so obviously is.  He'll probably fail, but just imagine the smirk being wiped off Cameron's face when he is forced into resigning, the natural party of government still not having won an election since 1992.  That has to be a prize on its own.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015 

The ladies dost protest too much.

Let's be honest.  Good as most of us are at dishing out criticism, few of us take it quite as kindly.  At least if your self-hatred is off the charts one of the, perhaps the only benefit is there's very little going to be thrown your way you haven't already thought yourself, accurate or not.

If there's one quality I can't then abide, it's how those who should know better try and make the most out of something vaguely insulting when they're not averse to the odd bit of directing their own mob.  Witness the very much non-shrinking violets around the fringes of the Scottish independence campaign pretend to be offended by yesterday's Steve Bell cartoon in the Graun, the very same people whom just 2 weeks ago were not, emphasis not trying to get a nurse sacked for appearing on Labour's campaign material.  Indeed, if she did ended up getting sacked it would be the fault of Labour's hatred of the SNP and not those complaining about an NHS worker breaching some unlikely to be well known rules on such activities.

The way politicians and their hangers-on react to criticism can at times be even more enlightening.  You might have thought a government confident in the security services would for instance have just ignored the mostly absurd rhetoric from the charity Cage about our good friend Mohammed Emwazi, which only garnered such coverage in the first place as the media was desperate to immediately know all they could about him.  When someone describes a serial murderer as a "beautiful man", apparently a shy and retiring type until he was made into a fanatical killer by the merest of interactions with MI5, it's the kind of silliness that doesn't really merit a response.

Except of course we have both a media and political establishment that can't just stand by as slander is spoken of those brave guys and gals at Thames House.  The Mail on the Saturday after Emwazi's unveiling had as many pieces on the apologists from Cage as it did alongside the obligatory profiles of the man himself.  Asim Qureshi, Cage's director, has since been given a ritual dunking by among others, Andrew Neil and Andrew Gilligan, as though anyone hadn't been tipped off by Cage's website about their combining of genuine examples of state overreach, such as the continuing imprisonment of Shaker Aamer at Guantanamo, with their general insistence that many other convicted Islamists are in fact gentle sorts.

Cage had been approached by the Washington Post during their investigation into Emwazi, hence why they were able within a matter of hours after his naming to hold a press conference attended by the salivating media.  That Qureshi and Cerie Bullivant didn't expressly condemn the man who had previously complained to them about being harassed, something that would normally be taken as read when it comes to someone filmed beheading aid workers was enough to set in motion what has occurred since.  Cage's bank accounts had previously been closed with the arrest and charging of Moazzam Begg, since released after MI5 "remembered" they hadn't raised any objection to his travelling to Syria.  The charity's other main backers, the Roddick Foundation and the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust have since put an end to their funding.

Whether they should have supported the group in the first place is a question worth asking.  It does however seem odd at this remove for the defence secretary Philip Hammond to make such a bizarre assertion as a "huge burden of responsibility also lies with those who act as apologists for them [Islamic State et al]", as he did in his speech to RUSI today.  Does it really?  You can hold Cage accountable for not being fussy over those they choose to back, but to say they have a burden of responsibility themselves is a nonsense.  Even if you take the Gilligan line that Cage have significant traction with those who forever see themselves as victims, looking either to conspiracy theories or putting the blame on a persecuting, oppressive state which operates a foreign policy that is itself a radicalising force, then it still doesn't confer responsibility on them.  They might be irresponsible yes, but that isn't the same thing by any stretch.

It's difficult not to wonder if this shooting of the messenger isn't meant precisely as distraction.  Absurd as Cage's claims are that Emwazi's interactions with MI5 turned him into the person in IS's propaganda, there are questions to be asked of the intelligence agencies, not least made clear by Hammond elsewhere in his speech.  As he put it "Not all those countries with whom we might like to share information in the interests of our national security adhere to the same high standards".  Well quite, and we never had any definitive answers over how Michael Adebolajo, one of the two men convicted of the murder of Lee Rigby, was treated while in Kenya by an anti-terrorist squad in part funded by the UK government.  We haven't been given anything close to a defence of the seeming chief tactic of MI5 when it comes to interviewing those suspected of involvement on the fringes of involvement in terrorism of trying to recruit them, nor have they offered an answer as to why it is those in the circle around Emwazi all went abroad to various places without being stopped.

Hammond's speech was all the more remarkable for just how matter of fact it was.  He mentions just what promises the coalition did keep about reform of the intelligence agencies, but for some reason forgot about the inquiry into alleged complicity in torture, cancelled in the face of new allegations concerning Libya.  Apparently intelligence has played a key role in "providing the information to check ISIL’s murderous advance", a statement so patently absurd you wonder how Hammond delivered it with a straight face.  We did everything we could to draw Russia into the rules-based international system, you know, the one where you don't invade sovereign nations on the basis of, err, faulty intelligence, or invoke the "responsibility to protect" then use it to enforce regime change.  This was in a spirit of openness, generosity and partnership, all for our good intentions to be rebuffed.  The Paris attacks are evidence of the dangers of lone wolves, despite the links the killers had to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State.  GCHQ must be allowed to intercept bulk communications data, which they have been and still are.  The debate over such things cannot be allowed to continue forever, although seeing as the Cabinet Secretary told the Guardian the debate was over nearly two years ago now, Hammond seems late to the party.

MI5 is one of those organisations that can't win.  Its major successes only emerge years or decades later if at all, while the failures are immediately glaring.  Such a reality though comes with the territory.  Just as it should be taken as apparent that you aren't supportive of pin ups of the caliphate, so it should be obvious to be critical of the intelligence agencies is not to be against them completely.  One correspondingly obvious conclusion to be reached over how the angle grinder of government and media has been taken to Cage is a whole lot of people are protesting way too much.

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Monday, March 09, 2015 

Dear me.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Kill yourself.  It's all downhill from here.

(In all seriousness, don't kill yourselves kids.  Just don't believe life will necessarily get better, especially when you're told it will by some of the most vain, privileged and self-absorbed people to have ever lived.  They could for instance have asked their legion of followers what their problems are and given advice based around that, rather than believe their experience remains universal, although considering most of these jump-cutting preening narcissists are barely out of their teens themselves perhaps it will be.  But hey, it's for International Women's Day, so can't be too critical, can we?)
 

In other adventures in bullshit:

Matthew D'Anconservative in the Graun reckons David Cameron is not "afraid of scrutiny", not least because of his PM Direct events.  There is after all nothing quite like being asked the same questions over and over again in a controlled situation where the audience itself will no doubt have been carefully screened, as opposed to say, having monthly press conferences like both previous prime ministers did.

Which brings us to this week's example of how the Tory narrative so often becomes the media one.  Barely has the debate row simmered down before Cameron demands that Labour rule out any sort of agreement with the SNP in the event of a hung parliament.  This is nonsensical on a whole number of levels, not least that it's up to the voters to decide what the permutations will be on the morning of May the 8th, and why wiser heads should rule nothing in or out before then.  Second, Labour's response should be to mock how Cameron apparently doesn't believe he's going to win a majority, and that he seemingly doesn't trust the voters to know their own minds.  Then we have the latest ridiculous campaign ad from M&C Saatchi, really earning whatever fantastic sum it is they're getting for their 10-minute photoshop work, depicting Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond's pocket.  Presumably this means David Cameron has been under Nick Clegg's control this entire time, rather than having given away much for very little in return, as has been the reality.  Nicola Sturgeon has already said Trident renewal would not be a "red line" for supporting a Labour minority on a case-by-case basis, which by SNP standards is a major sacrifice on its own.  Lastly, as John Harris argues, playing off England against Scotland is precisely what the SNP's zoomers want, but seeing as ever since the referendum result was confirmed the Conservatives have seemed as determined as the nationalists to break the union that might be the point.

What then have the broadcasters asked every shadow minister since?  To rule out any deal with the SNP.  Jesus wept.

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Thursday, March 05, 2015 

Still mass debating the debates.

It really can't be stated enough just how much of a blinder David Cameron has played from a position of weakness on the debates, or increasingly likely non-debates, and what a spectacularly craven one the broadcasters have from a position of strength.  For months before the first proposal sources made clear Cameron would do everything possible to avoid a repeat of what he and his advisers felt was a debacle last time round, when Clegg seized the advantage they felt was rightfully theirs.

Rather than adapt their bids accordingly, they walked straight into Craig Oliver's trap.  Dave debate with Nige? Not without Natalie there to snipe at Ed and Nick from their blind sides.  Instead of saying OK and calling his bluff, they came up with the completely ridiculous and unwieldy idea of also inviting Plaid Cymru and the SNP, and to two rather than just one of the showdowns.  Why then not invite the DUP as well, or Sinn Fein, the Natural Law party, the Pirates, the Real Elvis continuity wing?  There didn't seem to have been the slightest thought put into how a 7-leader debate could possibly work, presumably because they were expecting Miliband and Clegg to now say hang on, this is becoming a joke.

Only they didn't, apparently believing the pressure on Cameron to take part would become too much.  It hasn't, as was predictable considering there isn't as much demand for the debates as the broadcasters, heady from the belief the debates were the campaign last time, and the other parties have convinced themselves.  Then you also have to factor in the lack of pressure from the press, both as they have an interest in not helping out the broadcasters and as most have already dismissed Miliband as only slightly less weird than Arnold Layne, making anything that could prove them wrong extremely unwelcome.  If it was Miliband refusing to be involved you can imagine the uproar, the jibes, taunts, the multiple interns in chicken suits that would be following him around everywhere.  As it's Cameron he'll raise the ire only of the Daily Mirror, and their stock isn't exactly high at the moment.

Now we have Oliver and Cameron's "final" offer, and it's playing the broadcasters at their own game.  You wanted 7 leaders, you've got it, but we're only doing one and before the campaign proper gets under way.  As contemptible as this is for all the reasons the other politicians have spent the day outlining, you also can't help but admire the way it's been done.  It's been Campbell-esque in its evil genius, which is no doubt why it's annoyed the man himself so much.  Having a debate before the Conservative manifesto has been published is all but pointless, as Paddy Ashdown pointed out, as is one when the very presence of at least two of the leaders is completely irrelevant to most of those watching as they can't vote for the SNP or Plaid Cymru whether they like the sound of their policies or not.  Even if answers to questions were limited to two minutes, that's nearly quarter of an hour that's going to be spent on just each leader's opening gambit.  No wonder Cameron thinks he'd escape completely unscathed from such an encounter.

And so we are once again left with the broadcasters threatening to "empty chair" Cameron.  Only because of the impartiality rules the Conservative policy would have to be outlined regardless, quite possibly by a journalist, making the spectacle even more ludicrous, and leaving the one-on-one debate with Miliband presumably transformed into either a long-form interview with Paxman or a town hall style non-event.  The question is who comes out of such silliness looking worse, and Cameron will quite happily take a few negatives headlines rather than risk Miliband appearing prime ministerial a week before voting.  Channel 4 and Sky offering to move that debate forward yesterday was all the encouragement Cameron and Oliver needed to make a final mockery of the "negotiations".  What a mess, and for all the cowardice, cynicism and calculation of the Conservatives, the incompetence of the broadcasters has been just as remarkable.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2015 

Drugs, sensationalism and paternalism.

I didn't watch Drugs Live, mainly for the reason that like most people my age I know fairly well how cannabis affects those who use it.  It doesn't instantly make you an utter prick, as say cocaine does, nor is it unpredictable in the way alcohol is.  I've also known people who've been smoking it for so long it has almost no effect on them whatsoever, or seemingly doesn't.  David Nutt then ranking hash, as opposed to skunk at the very bottom of his harm index doesn't come as a major surprise.

You can't though have a television programme in this day and age purely discussing the effects of drugs or even just how they impact on the brains of Mr and Mrs Average Punter, as that's boring and not going to get Twitter, err, blazing.  No, instead you must have Jennie Bond and Jon Snow (the other one) getting baked, purely for scientific reasons, of course.  I did happen to catch one moment when the former royal correspondent's "pleasure sections" of her brain lit up while listening to music after taking a good long pull, which was instantly declared as definitive proof that weed does make shit music sound better.  It reminded me and no doubt only me of the Monty Python Planet Algon sketch, or at least the presenting style did, so the more things change etc.

Any chance the programme had of being more than just a typical Channel 4 stunt, coming after the previous show on ecstasy and Mariella Frostrup asking couples who had just finished shagging in a box in the studio how it was for them was rendered all but academic in any case by the advance promotion.  Jon Snow declared he found being on skunk while in the MRI scanner to be more terrifying than when he'd been in war zones, to which one response is he should try it while in any smaller town's excuse for a nightclub.  Post-traumatic stress disorder would no doubt instantly descend.  Regardless of Snow's intentions, this was the cue for the likes of the Mail to declare that if someone as unflappable and worldly wise as Snow could be reduced to such a state, just what is it doing to the immature and less refined?

Coupled with the other new research into psychosis and use of high strength cannabis, the government was quick to declare it had no intention of changing the law, unless of course there's enough of an outcry to think about tightening it further.  What better time for of all people, Richard Branson to renew his call for the government to follow the example set by Portugal's decriminalising of possession, only this time joined by the man who's turned many of his own party to drink if not drugs, Nick Clegg?

Had Clegg been as explicit in his support for decriminalisation earlier in this parliament, as opposed to simply making noises in that general direction he might just have made something approaching a difference.  Leaving it this late invites cynicism that his conversion to the Portuguese model is less out of genuine belief it would reduce drug usage overall and help addicts and more about trying to retain some of the votes his party has lost.  To be fair, the Lib Dems have long called for a rethink on drugs and they did succeed in getting their comparative study published, even if it did little more than just reinforce what most already knew.

We also shouldn't get carried away, just as it was advisable not to after said report.  Branson and Clegg write that as well as remaining illegal drugs should also remain "socially unacceptable", to which the obvious response is why?  Why should it be socially acceptable, even felt to be obligatory in some circumstances to drink fermented vegetables and fruits but not smoke or chew the extracts of a plant, when the effects are often far less damaging?  Why should it be unthinkable that MDMA could ever be legal, when the real danger from "ecstasy" is from adulteration, or when the supplied pill or powder doesn't contain MDMA at all?  Why should someone be arrested for possession of small amounts of cannabis or any other number of drugs we know to pose a low risk and cause little overall harm, let alone then sent for treatment or assessment for a problem the vast majority won't have?  Surely If we're looking towards any model it ought to be the American one, where the effective legalisation of cannabis has taken the trade almost wholly out of the hands of organised crime.  This isn't to deny there will always be problem users, addicts and the potential for harm beyond that measured on a scale, but we have the worst of all worlds at the moment.

The answer to all the above is not just that we have a sensationalist approach to drugs and the harm they can cause, hence why journalists can be felt responsible enough to take them and tell us plebs what it's like, just as The Day Today satirised years ago, but we also have doctors who believe smoking should be banned in parks and squares.  When smoking is to be made socially unacceptable, regardless of your personal view on it, and my own isn't favourable, what chance is there of making any progress on drugs that are illegal but we know to be less harmful?

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Tuesday, March 03, 2015 

5 years in prison for not doing your job? Only for social workers, naturally.

It's getting to the point where it would be easier for all concerned if the government changed tack completely and passed legislation setting out what is legal as opposed to illegal.  David Cameron's major response to the latest report on child sexual exploitation is to propose those in a position of authority who fail to protect their wards could face up to 5 years in prison.  Yvette Cooper says that isn't good enough and argues child exploitation should become a specific offence.  Yesterday the ban on driving under the influence of drugs came into effect, covering both legal and illegal substances, with little in the way of an awareness campaign.  Also to be illegal before long is smoking in a car with children present, destined you have to suspect to be another law seldom used or enforced but had to go on the statute book to "send a message".

New Labour of course turned legislation into the art of seeing to be doing something.  Umpteen criminal justice acts, a smattering of terrorism acts, some of which caused unforeseen problems that had to be corrected with further legislation.  But hey, at least this constant activity at Westminster meant MPs were doing something, as opposed to now when they've got so much free time they boast about it, right?

Or perhaps it's all the free time Dave has to spend chillaxing that leads him to such counter-productive, beyond stupid ideas as further making work all but intolerable for those at the sharp-end of child protection, whether they be social workers, police officers, teachers or the councillors with overall responsibility.  It certainly didn't come from reading the Serious Case Review published today into the Operation Bullfinch grooming case in Oxfordshire, which sets out just how incredibly difficult it was for all concerned to help the victims when the control over them was so absolute and the pattern of abuse had yet to be properly identified.

Without excusing their failures for a second, it describes all the hurdles in their way, the challenging background of the girls which the abusers exploited and the almost complete lack of cooperation from the victims as a result of their grooming.  Three of the six girls the SCR focuses on had experience of sexual abuse in their family prior to being groomed.  Most had experienced parental domestic violence; the police attended one family 74 times in a two-year period (page 37).  A senior police officer related to the inquiry how one girl had as punishment been taken into a wood, where she was raped and humiliated by seven men (page 39).  Left crying and naked, the person she called for help was not a parent, a friend, a social worker or a police officer, but one of the men who had been involved in the assault.  There were a number of attempts to prosecute men involved in similar crimes to those convicted as a result of Bullfinch, one of which went to court but collapsed after the key witness refused to continue giving evidence after a defence cross-examination.  In another instance an officer described himself as "shocked" the victim was only 13, and she was also considered to be "out of control", and there were "no corroborating forensics".  Of the six girls themselves, there were a number of attempts to prosecute their abusers prior to the final court case (compiled on page 43), but only in a couple of instances did the victims cooperate prior to then.

If this all sounds familiar, the report itself notes just how uncannily similar it is to what happened in Rotherham, Rochdale, Derby and Bristol.  The two key differences are that unlike in Rotherham, the council itself isn't getting blamed and second that despite the fact five of the men convicted were of Pakistani heritage, there is no evidence and also been no suggestion of inaction due to fears of being seen as racist.  Indeed, Alexis Jay in her Rotherham report felt decision making had not been affected by fears of racism, even if councillors and others had felt pressure to downplay the ethnicity of the perpetrators.

While there have clearly not been the same problems with denial in Oxfordshire as reported in Rotherham, the report itself asks just how it was "with many professionals very worried about the girls, with considerable resources being used to keep them safe (for example, in distant secure facilities) and ‘missing’ statistics which were unusually high, why the full picture did not emerge and the issue never percolated through to governing body level such as CEOs, Boards, or Committees" (page 75).  The answer, as much as any, the report suggests, is how it wasn't until the late 00s that grooming of this type and this scale was properly identified as being such a major concern in the official guidance (page 70).  That, coupled with the sheer difficulty of trying to help victims who seemingly didn't want to be helped, and who at times, were treated as making their own choices despite their age, seem the key reasons.

This obviously doesn't tally with Cameron's denunciation of a "walk on by" culture, nor with the common assumption that it was apparent what was happening and so could have been stopped far sooner.  Quite why child sexual exploitation required a Downing Street summit now also isn't clear, or rather, is: the election's coming, and Cameron apparently fears UKIP will escalate its campaigning after Farage's disgraceful comments on Fox News.  Not that Cameron's description of sexual abuse as occurring on an "industrial scale" is helpful either, not least for the image it conjures in the mind.  Ridiculous rather than tasteless is making CSE a "national threat", without there being the slightest explanation as to how doing so will help rather than just sound good.

Much the same thinking seems behind the five years jail plan.  Social workers must wonder what fresh hell each new day will bring: damned if despite their best efforts they fail to protect a child, damned if they "overreact" and take a child of a lovely middle class family going through a few problems into care, whom then go to the Daily Mail.  Little wonder there are so many vacancies, few now wanting to go into a profession which despite being incredibly rewarding invites such hostility.  It's not even as though politicians at a national level accept they, like others, failed to see CSE as a problem, only responding once it started to receive wider attention.  Nor will it see extra resources provided to councils as their budgets are slashed further by Whitehall, as fine words and big sticks are the only things on offer.  While reports try and explain why, politicians remain interested only in the now. 

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Thursday, February 26, 2015 

The immigration monster strikes again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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