Thursday 27 September 2007

Nazis can be charming too

Two stories this week coincide to confirm that horror is always more sinister when it wears a smiling face.

Iran’s populist / Islamo-fascist president Ahmadinejad tried to charm Columbia University at a public meeting. From the footage I saw he seemed witty and plausible; spin-doctoring is obviously not just a western phenomenon.

He boasted that there are no homosexuals in Iran –not true of course – but then to be fair he is working on it having publicly executed quite a few. And backtracked on his denial of the Holocaust, saying just that he thought more research should be done to confirm the numbers.

Appropriately also this week the New York Holocaust Museum is hosting an unusual online photographic exhibition. It doesn’t have any of the often seen horrific evidence of the genocide to which we can become desensitised.

Instead it is an album of one of the SS guards - a former bank clerk, and family man. The snap shots show them relaxing and socialising off-duty. If you didn’t know the context you’d think them a jolly bunch; drinking, doing various sports, flirting with the women’s auxiliary and playing with their pets.

Maybe there’s a few lessons there.

Wednesday 26 September 2007

The man who saved the world

That you are in a position to read this – or anything else for that matter – is down to the bloke in this picture. You probably don’t recognise him. Stanislav Petrov was a Soviet officer in a nuclear early warning bunker in the 1980’s.

On this day in 1983 he made the courageous decision not to respond to an indicated incoming pre-emptive US nuclear missile attack. He was not confident in the unreliable Soviet warning systems and knowing the consequences to be unthinkable, he ignored all the protocols and procedures, and so recorded it as a false alarm.

Had he not done so, we would all very probably either not be here at all or living in some kind of post- apocalyptic wasteland.

And if that sounds melodramatic, in the 80’s mutually assured destruction seemed to be pretty much a given. In these late stages of the Cold War, ‘accidental escalation’ was a much talked-about scenario. Only a few weeks earlier a ‘misunderstanding’ had led to the Soviets shotting down a Korean airliner, killing all on board, and tensions were running very high with all systems in a state of highest alert.

The Soviets were embarrassed: The inquiry into Petrov’s decision exposed fundamental flaws in their early warning systems and he ended up being reprimanded for disobeying orders; early retirement and a nervous breakdown followed.

It took another ten years for his actions to become known to the outside world – when they did he was honoured by the United Nations. But to this day the Russian Federation try to downplay the significance of his actions, saying that the systems were sufficiently robust that a retaliatory strike could not have been launched.

It goes to show the effect that just one person trying to do the right thing can have, even in the most fucked-up situation. I find that pretty inspiring.

Tuesday 25 September 2007

Watch this..

I used to ride to work through the run-down back streets behind Kings Cross station. Every morning I witnessed crowds of largely East European building workers gathered, waiting to be chosen to go out in fleets of beat up old vans dispatched to various sites around London. The area had been redeveloped and smartened up now but the same early morning ritual is doubtless happening somewhere else.

Ken Loach's new film 'It's A Free World', shown on Channel 4 last night, showed exactly the same scene, with work-gangs picked out from a hopeful crowd like teams in a kid's playground.

It's a grim tale about migrant workers in London, but it's also more than that. As the title suggests, it's about how the pursuit of free market economics has fucked up all aspects of society. Everyone has now become a unit of cheap labour to be brought and sold. In particular the female gang-master is trying so desperately to escape her own poverty and secure a better future for her son, that she is unaware of her spiraling descent in her inhumane treatment of the workers.

Alan Bennett wrote something about the impact that television had in the sixties, before the age of multi-channel cable. He recalled how at work, the whole nation would be talking about what they had seen the night before. In particular the enormous impact of 'Cathy Come Home' is always cited as highlighing the issue of homelessness.

If we can get past the inane shit of Ant&Dec's - I'm A Celebrity Chef Get Me Out Of - Hell's Kitchen - Come Dancing - X Factor Idol, it's maybe just possible that thirty years later the same director's latest offering could do the same for a new generation. It certainly should.

Friday 21 September 2007

'Crisis in Policing'

(NB: Since I wrote this in the morning, the news has just broken of the inquest of a 10 year old who drowned whilst a pair of "Police Community Support Officers" stood by and watched. Apparently because 'it would have been inappropriate for PCSOs, who are not trained in water rescue, to enter the pond").

This week, police blogger/whistle-blower Stuart Davidson is unmasked. He paints a picture of himself and his colleagues as misunderstood, plausible well-meaning chaps frustrated because the whole system is falling apart under a mountain of bureaucracy and political correctness.

Not really my own experience with the police.

And I’m not talking about the the numerous un-provoked and brutal attacks on peaceful demonstrations that I have witnessed over the years. Nothing as political as that. I’m thinking of the five occasions in the past ten years or so that I had dealings with them, however mundane or trivial.

• When we were burgled – living at the time on a new built estate there was a spate of break-ins. The police told us that they would mount a surveillance operation and not to be alarmed if we saw any of their plain-clothes offices in the bushes; we could easily identify them because they ‘would be white’(we live in an area with a large black community)...

• When there was a 999 call reported from our elderly neighbour’s house – two officers knocked on the door to say that a call had been made from the house but no voice could be heard – could we help ? We invited them to hop over the back fence and investigate. Not being in the best of shape they couldn’t actually make it over the fence, so , after breaking the fence and trampling the flowerbeds, they gave up. But they did tell us to get in touch if we didn’t see the neighbour for a few days or if we detected ‘any funny smells’…

• When the alarm went off at our kids’ nursery school – we got a call from the security company as we were key-holders. It was after midnight so we phoned the police station, less than a quarter of a mile away from the nursery, to ask if they would attend. They were ‘too busy’ and we were told we would have to investigate it ourselves...

* When my bike was vandalised whilst parked in the West End. A very nice bloke from the CID phoned me up to discuss it. He also had a Harley and we had a good natter about bikes ...

• When I had my Swiss army knife confiscated at our local ‘carnival’ - actually village fete would be a more accurate description but because this is a largely black area in inner London we have a massive police presence with metal detectors at the entrance. I was found to be in possession of a perfectly legal penknife that I have carried for about twenty years. I was told that whilst I hadn’t committed an offence, the police were confiscating it and got a receipt to reclaim it later. Afterwards I went to the station three times but was told; they didn’t have any record of it / it was in the safe and they didn’t have the key (!) / it had been given to CID at Area HQ and they’d get in touch. They didn’t - so I gave up ...

There you go – all absolutely true and with no embellishment.

In best New Labour fashion here are the findings from this brief survey:
20% of outcomes were positive: the police were pleasant and professional
80% of outcomes were negative; the police were at times rude, lazy, incompetent, dishonest and racist.

I would therefore suggest that the recommendations for the policing crisis are not a matter of more funding or resources, but a higher standard of police officer.

We all know that they have a difficult job to do – so why must we rely on fuckwits to do it ?

Thursday 20 September 2007

This is how it starts ...

I am deeply suspicious of the Cambridgeshire Chief Constable’s remarks about the strain that immigration is placing on policing resources.

I’m pretty sure that if a senior public servant like Julie Spence simply wanted more funding then private lobbying would be a more usual and effective tactic than calling a press conference.
I see a deliberate attempt to manufacture and manipulate an anti-immigration consensus.

It’s no accident that only last week Gordon Brown launched a back to work initiative ‘British Jobs For British Workers’, and that this week the government want to rubbish the idea of an amnesty for illegal immigrants put forward at the the Lib-Dem’s conference. Or that it won't give up on the identity card campaign

These are worrying times because I can see this consensus building and there seem to be two kinds of people who are on this ant-immigration bandwagon.

Firstly, the Little Englanders who get upset about our culture being eroded. These people live comfortable middle-class lives that are in no way threatened by the social problems posed by immigrants – they don’t compete for the same low paid jobs or the same cheap housing. With the perspective of a couple of generations these people will appear as ugly and stupid as their forebears who railed against Jewish and Irish immigration.

Secondly, the genuinely aggrieved ‘indigenous’ population who are at the bottom of the pile and are competing for low paid jobs and cheap housing. They have been abandoned by New Labour and find themselves in a classic poverty trap. As a result they are being driven into the ranks of the racists and the Xenophobes.

To stop this drift we need to point the finger not at low paid migrants but at the likes of Tescos and others in the food industry who are making obscene profits on the back of cheap casual labour in rural areas.

If we don't, to quote Basil Fawlty: ‘this is exactly how Nazi Germany started’…

(Bloody hell now we’ve even got the small time savers rushing to get their money before the bank crashes !)


Wednesday 19 September 2007

Catholics and human rights.

Some time ago the Vatican stopped its donations to Amnesty International. And now bishops in Northern Ireland have ordered Catholic schools there to ban Amnesty groups.

The reason ? Amnesty's definition of human rights includes a woman's right to choose. This was adopted not after some abstract ethical debate but as a specific policy in particular response to the widespread use of rape as a weapon of terror in the Balkans, Congo and Darfur.

Amnesty International debated this issue long and hard as it always bends over backwards to avoid adopting any position that can be seen as 'political'. I respect this and the pragmatic need to maximize their effectiveness by not compromising their 'impartial' stance. But of course ultimately it is nonsense - human rights are always going to be a political issue, and you can't help but offend someone by adopting a stance. Particularly bigots.

The kind of bigots whose message to refugees who are driven from their homes and subjected to systematic mass rape both as a means of repression and ethnic cleansing by 'breeding', is basically that they should put up and shut up. (Possibly 'offer up their suffering to God' - I never did understand that particular piece of sado-masochistic bollocks).

I shouldn't really be surprised though; this is the organisation that brought us the Holy Inquistion and the prescribed list. The real surprise is that there are any religious Amnesty groups at all.

Every religion will throw human rights out the window when it comes into contradiction with some 'sacred' belief, be it how we choose to dress, what we choose to eat, what we teach our children or our sexuality.

'Protect the human' is Amnesty's slogan these days - I would suggest that this can only genuinely be done by humanists.

Monday 17 September 2007

Guy Moquet

An unlikely and roundabout route to this story…

With defeat at the hands of Argentina in the rugby and Scotland in the football, national pride in France is at something of a low ebb. A rather bizarre technique to boast the teams before their games was to read them the letter of Guy Moquet . And even more bizarrely , the letter is such a favourite of Nicolas Sarkorzy, that one of his first presidential decrees was that it should be compulsory reading for every French schoolchild: A sentimental note written by a 17 year old boy to his family on the eve of his execution by the Nazis.

Guy Moquet was an active member of the Communist Youth Movement and the son of a Communist Party deputy in Paris. With the Nazi occupation of Paris he was arrested and imprisoned at the age of 16 by the Vichy authorities, along with other known activists.

When the German commandant in Bordeux was assassinated by the Resistance the Nazis ordered the Petain government to take reprisals. Vichy authorities handed over 50 Communist prisoners to the Germans “in order to avoid letting 50 good French people get shot.” And so it came about that Guy Moquet was killed by a firing squad in October 1941, refusing a blindfold and crying out ‘Vive La France’.

The legacy of the Vichy government shames and divides France, but also has lessons for all of us nowadays.

Practically every French town still has its memorial to the ‘deported and the shot’. It is a reminder that the collaborationst government did much of the Nazi’s dirty work for them; a quarter of all French Jews, and a much higher proportion of foreign-born Jewish refugees in France, were either deported to German death camps or perished in camps in France, guarded by French Gendarmes. Along of course with many other ‘undesirables’ and political opponents, such as Guy Moquet and his comrades.

There were French Nazis in the Vichy government, but the majority, like Marshal Petain, were simply ultra-conservatives who saw co-operation with the Nazis as the lesser of two evils in comparison to the pre-war Popular Front government and the threat of socialism. Their position was perhaps best summed up in their replacement of the French Republic’s slogan of ‘Liberty, Fraternity and Equality’ with ‘ Work, Family and Nation’.

And the lessons for us now?

Repression and reaction don’t have to come in the form of goose-stepping storm-troopers. The Vichy regime was the tyranny of small-town France and the petty-bureaucrat . De-facto fascism came in to power not by a coup d’etat but by a series of administrative measures.

And so the threat in Europe today doesn’t come from the boneheads of Combat 18 but from the populist nationalism to be found on the fringes of mainstream parties – the whole Daily Mail / Little England mentality is the home-grown descendant Vichy-ism. And asylum seekers are the Jews of the 21st century.

It is no accident that Le Pen’s Front National has distanced itself from its street-fighting wing and has sought rehabilitation for the ’mis-understood’ Vichy regime.

Friday 14 September 2007

What the fucking hell is going on here ?

It's the ultimate betrayal of a generation. The so-called Labour leader has invited round for tea the arch-enemy of the Labour movement and the destroyer of its post 1945 achievements .

OK - so she's an old lady, but her mate Pinochet was also a dodery old codger - age doesn't get these bastards of the hook.

The only possible reason that Brown would invite her is to send out a clear public message (as if we didn't know) that "we're all Thatcherites now".

He praises her as a 'conviction politician ' which I suppose she is. But when these convictions amount to 'greed is good' and a contempt for ordinary people; then I'm not sure that this is really better than being an unprincipled careerist like Brown himself.

Just imagine the bollocks we are going to have to endure when she dies - I've seen it suggested that like Churchill she may be one of the few 'commoners' to receive a state funeral.

Personally I'll be joining the queue for those waiting to dance on her grave.

Thursday 13 September 2007

‘The point however is to change it …’

… And that other old socialist darling Tony Benn always used to say ‘its about policies not personalities’. (Of course this was in an earlier, pre-Blair age when there were actually some policies that marked a division between parties).

But his words sprang to mind in reading the obituaries of entrepreneur / philanthropist Anita Roddick. Depending on your point of view, she was either a pioneering campaigner worthy of induction into the radical pantheon, or a sell-out hypocrite.

Of course she was actually neither and both of these things. She took a stand against animal testing, campaigned for the environment and human rights, and yet at the same time, wouldn’t allow her employees to join trade unions and sold her business to a multinational that pretty much stood all her values on their head.

But the point is – it’s not about personalities: The likes of Naomi Klien and George Monbiot have done a fantastic job at exposing injustices in the world but they have a problem when it comes to a programme for change. Then, what they argue for all starts to sound a bit like caring capitalism; ‘business as usual but nicer’.

Which is exactly what Anita Roddick represented. But it really doesn’t matter if businesses are run by good well-intentioned liberal types, it’s the for-profit system that fucks us in the end. And no amount of organic dewberry lip gloss in eco-friendly packaging with a percentage of the profits donated to Amnesty is going to prevent somebody somewhere in the supply chain getting screwed over.

This doesn’t change the fact that if I’d met Anita Roddick, I’m pretty sure I’d have liked her.

In purely human terms if you’re going to be a entrepreneur how much better to be one with a conscience (albeit a fallible one) than an out-and-out cunt like those who run Walmart, Shell, McDonalds, BAE, Glaxo etc etc. I’m also pretty sure she did a damn sight more practical good than most of the armchair anarchists posting diatribes on the web.

Nowadays I find myself in a position of managerial authority. I’d like to think that I try to do the right thing most of the time. But that’s a matter of personal ethics, I’m not going to kid anyone, myself included, that this is going to change the world. Even if every single manager behaved that way.

Tuesday 11 September 2007

Public trials and Madeline

In those dark days before reality TV and 24 hour cable, the hottest show in town was the public execution.

The golden age was probably the eighteenth century - just before Victorian sanctimony kicked in - but at a time when the blood-lust of a Roman arena could be married with the mass-sensationalism of easily available news-sheets and pamphlets. The ideal formula was a monstrous crime in lurid detail with either a pious confession at the scaffold or an defiant and unrepentant outlaw. Dignified exits were definitely disappointing.

Which brings us to the Madeline McCann case, where the latest developments have allowed the media, fuelled by an insatiable appetite for this sort of stuff, to revisit the entertainment value of an old time scandal-sheet.

I won't presume to venture an opinion on what the outcome of this case will prove to be, but I'm pretty sure that it will not be a happy ending. Whatever truth comes out in the end some people are going to end up looking pretty silly. If the parents are guilty; those parts of the media that championed them, or, if they are innocent; the Portuguese police and all those pop-psychologists who are now coming out of the woodwork to say 'there was always something fishy about the McCanns".

In fact, both these parties look pretty silly already.

The Mail and Express in particular are usually champions of the forces of law and order. Any time there are murmurings about civil liberties the mantra is repeated that only the guilty have anything to fear from DNA databases and increased police powers. Unless of course the suspects are white, middle-class, articulate and photogenic professionals and the authorities are some johnny-foreigner. In which case the same media becomes a crusader against mis-carriages of justice.

And of course the Portuguese police have done nothing to shake off the bumbling Clouseau-like view of them held by the xenophobic media here. From day one, when they failed to secure the crime scene, there does seem to be a litany of incompetence. More fundamentally there also seems to be a problem with the 'inquisitorial' nature of those European legal systems that are based on Roman law. Apart from anything else it appears to place the emphasis on the investigating police building a case that will produce the confession of a suspect rather than focusing on finding the missing child. As an aside, it is yet another argument for defending our peculiar Anglo-Saxon based legal system which is out of step with the rest of Europe from attempts at 'reform' by various governments.

The media circus sensationalises and scandalises on the one hand, and on the other satisfies a deep seated need for moral reassurance in mutual outrage. A sociologist would say that in this it plays an important role in social cohesion and legitimacy ( as did the scaffold at Tyburn).

But it has precious little to do with justice, or finding a missing toddler.

Monday 10 September 2007

Rugby World Cup

The start of the Rugby World Cup this weekend.

Looking at the papers and tv is would appear that our football (soccer) obsessed nation has suddenly discovered the real 'beautiful game' which it pretty much ignores the rest of the time. This process now seems to happen every four years, but I'm not convinced that it wins significant converts - even after England's victory at the last world cup, attendance at Premiership club matches was laughable by football standards.

And I'm not sure why. Even in a fairly average game of rugby there is far more passion, excitement, drama etc than in the painfully slow defensive play in football that seems to end so often in a 0-0 draw.

And from the point of view of a live spectator there is really no comparison. Rugby fans are not herded like cattle into segregated pens - in fact as a rugby fan there is usually more danger from a surfeit of Guinness than being stabbed by a rival supporter or having your head cracked open by the riot police.

Actually, I do know why rugby will probably remain a minority sport in this country; it's socio- economic demographic...

Although my enthusiasm far outstripped any ability, I loved playing rugby at school.

The fact that I even had the opportunity to do so at a state school is unusual and probably was only because it was a comprehensive that had formerly been a grammar school. I had every intention of continuing to play when I went to university. But university rugby clubs (at least at my particular institution) were (are ?) magnets for the most obnoxious, reactionary public-school wankers imaginable.

Certainly at that time in the 'eighties membership of the rugby club and of the student Left were pretty much mutually irreconcilable, and so ended my rugby-playing days.
Almost 10 years later, in a moment of madness, I ended this retirement and played in light-hearted 'social rugby' events for a couple of seasons.

I loved every minute and regretted that I had ever allowed the arseholes to put me off.

Friday 7 September 2007

Our boys

There’s a phrase that I keep hearing in the news this week: The Military Covenant.

I understand what is meant – it’s basically a campaign to ensure that servicemen and women are treated right. And I’m totally behind it. However wrong the wars that this country fights are (and the current wars are very wrong), the poor sods that do the actual fighting, along with their families, should be treated with dignity, compassion and respect.

And at the moment the housing for military families, the medical provisions for wounded troops and their general working conditions are all a fucking disgrace.

But to talk about a Military Covenant mistakes the nature of the military in this country.

We don’t have a nation-in-arms or a people’s army. In fact in the 400 years of so of the British army, it has only been that kind of army for five very distinct and relatively brief episodes:

(i) The New Model Army in the 1640’s and 50’s - the most politicised army there has ever been in this country.
(ii) Kitchener’s ‘new armies’ of 1915 – the massive wave of volunteers that flooded into the army in a tide of patriotic fervour.
(iii) The conscript armies of 1916-18 – truly a nation-in-arms now united by a shared suffering in the horror of the western front rather than by patriotism.
(iv) The conscript armies of 1939-45 - with a shared vision of fighting a crusade for democratic values.
(v) Post war national service –a generation united by a shared experience of boredom and pointless authority.

At all other times, the British Army has been a professional one fighting for ‘national interests’ that in reality meant the defence of the empire abroad and in earlier times, the status quo at home.

In the course of this the army built a reputation for excellence out of all proportion to its size, and for a peculiarly British kind of understated bravery. In fact pretty much the exact opposite of the over-blown US military. And it has done this with ranks filled by the most under-privileged sections of society along with an the officer class provided by some of the most over- privileged. (Socially not very much has changed to this today).

Throughout this time the military has invariably been treated like shit by those governments whose dirty work it has done. Badly supplied, underpaid, poor medical provision are all nothing new – a posting to the West Indies in the eighteenth century was regarded as a death sentence from disease – in the nineteenth century the mismanagement of the Crimean War became a national scandal – and in the twentieth the 1914-18 war has become synonymous with military incompetence.

Whilst public sympathy for the ‘common soldier’ has come out at various times – the sentiment of ‘lions led by donkeys’ - we are on the whole, a pretty un-militaristic nation. Certainly in comparison with both the US and other European nations.

It is no accident that whilst the French have the Gendarmerie, the Spanish the Guardia Civil and the Italians the Caribinarri all paramilitary organisations partly controlled by the military we have an entirely civil police. When Robert Peel set up the police in the 1820’s he was at pains to design a uniform that was civilian (even including a top hat !) to distance the new organisation from the army in the public eye. He knew that the restless masses with memories of the yeomanry and the Peterloo massacre wouldn't stand for any anything that looked like the army.

So what’s the point of all this history?

Well the military are very strong on tradition so it is important to question how this marries up to historical truth.

But most importantly the lesson is that how soldiers are treated reflects what they are used for. And if they are cannon fodder for empire they will, sadly, be treated as such.

Possibly the French do it more honestly. Their military tradition may date back to the Revolution, Napoleon and Verdun; the nation in arms and the ‘patrie en danger’. But until recently their enormous conscript army stayed at home peeling spuds and doing parades. Meanwhile the actual fighting in various shitty campaigns is undertaken by the mercenary Foreign Legion. And when they hold out to the last man defending some far flung last outpost of empire nobody at home really gives a toss.

Tuesday 4 September 2007

Cromwell Anniversary

Every year I get a kick out of watching the ridiculous fancy dress parade that is the state opening of parliament pass by in the shadow of Cromwell's statue.

He is there as a silent reminder of still unfinished business when it comes to democracy in this country. And this is despite his corpse being dug up by the monarchists, re-'executed' and publicly displayed.

Maybe a flawed hero - he was after all a man of his times - a time when political ideas were expressed in the language of religion - and of his class - his democracy extended only to free-men and that was defined by some sort of property. But a hero nonetheless.

In an age when the divine right of kings was a cornerstone of political consensus he dared to fight and bring to trial a king. He rejected the idea of monarchy in favour of representative government, even when he was in a position to take that power to himself. And in an age when the Church claimed the ultimate moral authority, he championed the rights of individual conscience.

In other words, he had the balls to 'turn the world upside down'.

All of which is why we should commemorate Sept 3rd, the anniversary of his death, as Cromwell Day.

And amazingly 350 years on, as I write this I can already feel the backlash from those gnashing their teeth at this eulogy.

Bollocks to 'em - I know what side they would have been on at Naesby - crypto-royalists the lot of them.

Sunday 2 September 2007

Summer Recess Over - Death in Texas

My own Summer Recess is over. Not of parliamentary proportions, just two weeks in France.

(I think the over-long and ill-deserved holidays of our elected representatives dates back to when MPs were country gentry who needed to return to their estates to oversee the harvest.)

My own recess was a bit more modest. And it was brought back to a bump when I saw my first newspaper for two weeks.

Texas has executed Ray Conner, the 400th person killed since the US brought back the option of capital punishment in 1976. Of all the states, Texas is the most trigger-happy, accounting for a third of the executions in the USA since that time.

Ten years on death row, new evidence ignored - it's an all too familiar story.

The European Union marked the milestone with a letter of protest to the governor Rick Perry. Here's what he had to say in his ungracious and morally-bankrupt reply:

"Two hundred and thirty years ago, our forefathers fought a war to throw off the yoke of a European monarch and gain the freedom of self-determination. While we respect our friends in Europe ... Texans are doing just fine governing Texas."

The ignorant redneck Republican fuck-wit doesn't even know his own history. 230 years ago Texans weren't fighting for democracy against King George's redcoats; they were largely speaking Spanish* and part of Mexico - or have you forgotten the Alamo Rick ?

As to governing themselves, well the US record puts it into a super-league of judicial killings with China, Iran, Iraq and Sudan. And as a good redneck like Rick should know, when people can't be trusted to govern themselves it's time for regime change.

* Remember when that previous arsehole-governor of Texas George Bush Jnr opposed hispanic schoolkids being taught in Spanish rather than English? - on the grounds that 'they should learn the bible in the language in which it was written.'