Saturday, 31 October 2009

By appointment: a president with previous

I RATHER like David Miliband. I have tended to think that if the Labour Party has any decent future, he might be it.
If only he wasn't so often wrong about things. And his championing of Tony Blair to be president of Europe is so wrong on so many counts it stopped me in my tracks.
For a president – whoever it might be – to be appointed, not elected, would send out a very strange message to the world.
For it to be someone who, in Miliband's phrase, would "stop the traffic", would only compound that folly.
In fact, Blair as president might well literally stop traffic through protests against his war-mongering when he was UK premier.
In terms of world credibility it would put Europe roughly where the United States was in the bad old days of the George W Bush presidency. Virtual pariah status across large areas of the globe.
William Hague is surely right to say Britain's Conservatives would regard it as a "hostile gesture" if Europe were to make Blair its figurehead.
And not only the Conservatives, either. There are plenty on the left for whom Blair would be as unpopular a choice as Brussels could contrive.
It's about 60 years since Britain reluctantly began to accept it was no longer a Great Power. That it could no longer divide up the world into "spheres of influence" with the USA and USSR.
That status was over for Britain long before Miliband was born. Yet he seems to be nostalgic for it. Which may not be the best starting point for a foreign secretary.
Of course he's not so foolish as to think Britain can ever again be in the world's Big Three. But he does see Europe managing global affairs as partner in a triumvirate with the US and China.
And it is in such a role that he imagines Blair halting movement on the streets of Beijing.
I share some of Miliband's hopes of a federal Europe. But the questions of how it is run and how it is led need to be answered properly, not by parachuting in a celebrity president.
Would you want Blair to speak for you at the world's high table? I wouldn't.
His backers, who also include his old side-kick Gordon Brown, would like to see Blair presented as a true European president. They imagine him speaking on equal terms with Barack Obama and China's president Hu Jintao.
If those three sat down together, only one – Obama – would do so with a democratic mandate.
Not that the lack of it would be all Blair and Hu would have in common.
They both have "previous" in the matter of de-stablising other countries by armed interference.


MAXIM GORKY isn't much read these days, at least not in English translation. But for me he's at least up there with Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky as a great Russian writer.
His depictions of grim life under the tsars were at least as influential as Tolstoy's in building the mood for revolution.
The Communists recognised that by changing the name of his birthplace, Nizhny Novgorod – Russia's third city, after Moscow and St Petersburg – to Gorky. Stalin himself helped carry his coffin in 1936 (whether he also helped put him in it remains an open question).
Yet Gorky was never shy of criticising the Bolsheviks and their rule, just as he had that of the tsars before them.
In 1918, at the outbreak of Lenin's Red Terror, he declared: "Physical violence will always be an incontestable proof of moral impotence. Killing proves nothing except that the killer is stupid."
Wise words that rang in my head yet again this week when the Taliban "claimed responsibility" for the slaughter of UN workers in a guesthouse in Kabul. As if it was something to be proud of.


IF the latest British Council poll is to be believed, 54 per cent of British people think creationism should be taught "alongside evolution" in school science lessons.
Good idea.
While we're at it, let's teach all about Cinderella in history lessons, Buffy the vampire-slayer in RE and Bagpuss in biology.
And of course flat-Earthism should be added to the geography syllabus right away.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Griffin's brutish nasty rabble

FROM Brutus to Hitler, from the Daily Mail’s Jan Moir to BNP leader Nick Griffin, rabble-rousers are a dangerous lot.
There’s a horrifying scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when a roused rabble are on the hunt for “conspirators” after Caesar’s death.
Coming on a lone citizen, they demand to know his name, which, tragically for him is, Cinna.
“Tear him to pieces,” demands the rabble-leader. “He’s a conspirator.”
“I am Cinna the poet,” he replies. “I am Cinna the poet. I am not Cinna the conspirator.”
You can hear his panic in the repetition as the mob carry him offstage, presumably tearing him apart as they go.
The irrationality and dangerousness of the mob is a recurrent theme in Shakespeare. And I reckon the Bard knew a thing or two.
That Cinna-the-poet moment is the reason I am against making public the names and addresses of convicted paedophiles.
Though it’s not just about the perils of mistaken identity. I don’t think public dismemberment would have been the right fate for Cinna the conspirator either.
And I don’t think stoning or lynching is the right fate for anyone who has already undergone their official judicial punishment for crimes real or imaginary.
On that basis I suppose I ought not to approve of publishing the names and addresses of members of the Brutish Nasty Party.
On the other hand, you can be pretty sure the numb-skulled bigots of the BNP are mostly in favour of the “outing” of paedophiles. So perhaps it’s only fair that their own private details should be made public.
Which is exactly what the public-spirited Wikileaks website has done (again) this week.
Mind you, I tried in vain to see who around here might be a paid-up racist. Round and round went the “Loading” symbol, but the web page wouldn’t open.
I assume it was neither censored, nor nobbled by the BNP, but simply overloaded with too many people trying to look.
I did find, though, that there is no truth in the claim that the party has a member in the House of Lords.
What they do have is a bloke from Stoke-on-Trent who styles himself “Lord”, which is not quite the same thing.
The real lord whose name he almost shares is an 85-year-old field marshall, decorated hero of World War II, former head of the British armed forces, former Lord Lieutenant of Greater London, eloquent opponent of the Iraq war and, for good measure, Knight of the Garter.
A man far too wise, intelligent, experienced and dignified to have any connection with Griffin and his guttersnipes.
Happily, Lord Bramall was not lynched or torn apart on account of the brief mistake of identity. I hope he wasn’t too embarrassed either.
Two other former heads of the Army, generals Sir Mike Jackson and Sir Richard Dannatt, are among top brass who have called on the BNP “to cease and desist” from “hijacking the good name of Britain’s military for their own advantage”.
Their spokesman James Bethell said: “People are fed up with the BNP using the honour of Britain’s armed services and the memory of fallen heroes to promote the politics of racism and extremism.”
Apparently the latest BNP list does include a number of lower-level army officers and – disturbingly – a smattering of doctors.
How many of these are “Dr”, “Captain” or “Corporal” in the same way “Lord” Brian Bramhall of Stoke is a lord is a matter of conjecture.
What is clear is that the apparently growing number of women members is still unsurprisingly outnumbered seven-to-one by men.
Aggressive, anti-social and violent behaviour by women is on the rise too, but the girls still generally lag behind the boys in such things.
The published list dates from April, so there’s no way of telling how many black or Asian people have rushed to join the BNP since the party dropped its illegal bar on non-white members last week. I think I can guess.
Shortly after GW Bush was elected president for the second time I saw a couple of maps of the USA, which as far as I know were genuine. One showed which states voted Republican and the other which states had the lowest average school grades. The two were almost identical.
The greatest concentrations of BNP membership are in the East Midlands, around the Yorkshire-Lancashire boundary and in south Essex, with another pocket in Lincolnshire. It would be interesting to plot that distribution against one of educational achievement too.
Suffolk, I’m glad to say, has very little BNP presence (just 82 members, 21 of them in Ipswich), even though Griffin was raised and schooled in the county.
Which leads me to wonder what effect it had on him to be one of only two boys in the (nearly) all-girls St Felix School in Southwold.
There might be a fascinating psychological study in that for someone. If he was worth it.
  • As a footnote, I see Griffin intends to 'complain' about the alleged bias shown towards him by the BBC after they kindly - and wholly unnecessarily - invited him to take part in last night's Question Time. Of course, should they ever get anywhere near power, the BNP would offer a free, friendly and unbiased platform to all who wished to express any dissenting opinion of any kind, wouldn't they? Yeah, of course they would.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

An insult to true Labour values

STUDENT loans, the Tote, part of a uranium enrichment firm, the Channel tunnel rail link, the Dartford crossing – they don’t exactly get the pulses racing, do they?
Which may be why Gordon Brown thought he could flog them off without causing a fuss. And why he was apparently right to think so.
The announcement that he was sticking a £16billion sale sticker on an assortment of public assets seems to have passed with barely a murmur of dissent.
The Tories and the Daily Mail (is there a difference?) put up a predictable token protest.
Which is a bit rich coming from the party that began the trade in knock-off family silver by hawking everything that was of real value in the 1980s.
But Brown’s fire-sale was shunted off the front pages after one day by the returning tale of MPs’ expenses claims (yawn). Which shows it hasn’t got people as angry as it should.
I have serious misgivings about the morality of uranium enrichment, gambling and student loans.
One is a component of an industry I consider unacceptably dangerous to us all. The other two are directly counter to the principles the Labour Party was founded on.
But that’s not the real issue here.
Neither is the fact that selling assets, especially profitable ones, is the economics of the madhouse. The despair that leads to the pawnshop.
Perhaps this short-term thinking is not surprising from a government that must know its own future is now strictly short term.
But it’s bad financial policy for the nation.
More to the point, it’s stark evidence that the party that still has the nerve to call itself Labour has utterly forsaken its roots, its tradition, its principles – in fact, its very purpose.
What we have now is a Thatcherite government – not just non-Socialist but anti-Socialist – trading under the name of Labour.
And it makes me sick.


HENRY KISSINGER, Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin, FW de Klerk, David Trimble - they're all former winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. By those standards, the choice of Barack Obama for this year’s honour doesn’t seem quite so bizarre.
But hang on. A previous Democratic US president, Jimmy Carter, completed his term in the White House 21 years before being awarded the Nobel gong in 2002.
It was given "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development".
Decades of effort.
Obama’s got it for a few months of promise.
It’s as if I were handed the Man Booker Prize for the book I haven’t yet got round to writing.


A MAN mistook his fiancée for an intruder and shot her dead the day before they were due to marry.
He has not been charged with any offence and police said everything pointed to a tragic accident.
Tragic indeed. Grim. And where on Earth could it have happened but in America?
Especially the bit about no charges.
Imagine it had happened in England. Might questions perhaps have been asked about how a loaded gun came to be in the house?
And how come it was fired at someone in the dark – presumably before any questions had been asked? Before intent or identity had been established. Without so much as a "Who goes there?"
(Actually, I’m surprised that even in Florida there were no questions about the lack of questions.)
In America, though, it’s just a tragic accident. One of life’s natural hazards.
Which is very sad. And might also seem to a suspicious person to be rather convenient for some.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Two words that changed my mind on Europe

IN June 1975, when Britain held its only nationwide referendum to date, I was a few weeks too young to take part.
My girlfriend at the time, four months older than I was, voted No to the question: “Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?”
We were both very interested in politics and seldom differed on the subject. The Europe question was the one major issue on which we didn’t see eye to eye – and it rankled with me that she could vote and I couldn’t.
Politics, incidentally, seemed a lot more genuine, a lot more visceral, then than it does now. I don’t think the difference is entirely that I was then an eager teenager and have now reached jaded middle age.
I think politics itself has become jaded and flabby. Once there was trust, belief, ideas – or so it seemed, at least. Now they’re all Tories at heart.
But the point is Europe. I believed in it then, and I believe in it now. At least, I did until this week.
I was unconvinced by the No campaigners in 1975, even though they included my greatest political heroes of the time, Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle.
I was unconvinced by the Tory Euro-sceptics of the 1980s and 90s. They always seemed to have blundered in from a Monty Python sketch.
I’m certainly not swayed by the UKIP bunch, whose idea of an attack on the gravy-train is to hop on board.
There are, of course, things I don’t like about Europe and its decision-making. There are always bound to be in any government or legislative body.
But overall, I have always been a European, intellectually and emotionally.
For so many reasons, for the UK to be a vital, functioning part of Greater Europe has always seemed to me to be a Good Thing. Until now.
And the argument which has changed my mind? The prospect – or threat – which has me doubting the whole notion of the European Union as an appropriate entity?
Just two words.
The first is “President”. And the second is “Blair”.


REACTION to my piece here last week about climate change has mostly been positive. So much so that it seems I’m not the only one round here who uses the same water bottle over and over again.
One reader in Portugal (who’d have thought it?) is puzzled, though.
Fatima wrote to me: “You talk about the climate changing, the water and the effects on the Earth. I quite agree. We must do something! As soon as possible.”
But she added: “I’ve listened to a talk show where college professors defended the idea that the effect of man on climate change was minimal. That nature itself has all the credit.
“I was quite shocked. Scientists seemed divided. Who is right on this subject?”
There seem to me to be two points worth making here.
The first is that if science is genuinely divided, we have a choice – a gamble we can take.
Imagine you’re standing on a railway line and someone yells that there’s a train speeding towards you. What do you do? Stand still and argue the point, or get off the line just in case they’re right?
The second point is that I don’t believe the scientific community is really all that divided on the issue anyway.
I think there are a few scientists who disagree to some extent or another with the majority. And because the media is obsessed with providing “balance”, those few get much more attention than their views deserve.
And why do the nay-sayers dispute what the vast bulk of available evidence seems to be telling them?
Is it simply that their thinking is woolly and wishful?
Either that or they’re paid, directly or indirectly, by vested interests such as the oil industry.
Whose barons would apparently rather see us all go to hell in an oil-burning handcart than see a dip in their bottom line.


LAST week I wrote: “It’s much easier to believe in an uninhabitable Earth than a habitable moon.”
To which a scientist replies: “Absolutely so. It would be very much easier to repair the Earth’s ecosystem than to create a new one on the moon or another planet – that is, only impossibly difficult rather than totally unbelievable.
“Even a damaged, globally warmed Earth would be a very much better starting point than any other body in the solar system.
“Not that I think the Earth will actually be uninhabitable. It’ll only be a difficult place to live, incapable of supporting more than a few per cent, if so many, of its current human population.”
So that’s all right, then.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Water, water everywhere and never a stop to think

WATER. The stuff of life. One of the crucial, necessary components without which life would never have come into being. Not on this planet, anyway.
Though the famous “canals” on Mars have long been shown to be a misunderstanding, there is indeed water there, both as a gas in the atmosphere and in polar ice-caps.
New discoveries suggest there is water on the moon too. Not in fluid, drinkable form but still present.
American scientist Carle Pieters, reviewing evidence from India’s first moon mission, explained: “When we say water on the moon, we are not talking about lakes, oceans or even puddles.
“Water on the moon means molecules of water and hydroxyl (hydrogen and oxygen) that interact with molecules of rock and dust in the top millimetres of the moon’s surface.”
So mud, then. Which may, I suppose, bring slightly closer to reality the idea of creating moon colonies where people can live.
In science fiction, such colonies are often places of escape from an Earth that has become uninhabitable.
It’s a romantic idea and one with, I suppose, a grain of plausibility.
Trouble is, it’s much easier to believe in an uninhabitable Earth than a habitable moon – never mind Mars or beyond.
And it may not be a problem just for our children’s children, either.
According to a report by scientists at the Met Office, the catastrophic effects of global warming could occur within the lifetime of most people now living.
Richard Betts, the Met Office’s head of climate impacts, told a conference in Oxford this week: “We’ve always talked about very severe impacts only affecting future generations, but people alive today could live to see a 4C rise.
“It’s an extreme scenario, but the way we are going the most severe scenario is looking more plausible.”
Four degrees may not sound that severe – but the average figure disguises the likelihood of much bigger rises at the poles. And it’s melting polar ice-caps that will cause much of the most catastrophic change.
Which brings us back to water.
There are two main reasons why a hotter Earth would be devastating news for humankind, and they both relate to water.
One is the rising sea levels that will flood many of the coastal cities where so many millions now live – and much of the farmland where our food is grown.
And the other, perhaps paradoxically, is the predicted droughts that could turn currently inhabited areas into desert.
It is feared a 4C warming could threaten the water supply of half the world’s population and wipe out up to half its animal and plant species.
It doesn’t take much imagination to foresee the wars that could result from seven billion-plus people scrapping over dwindling resources of both land and water.
This is why officials from 190 countries have gathered in Bangkok to continue negotiations on a new deal to tackle global warming. And why the United Nations will try to toughen up the existing agreements on industrial emissions in Copenhagen in December.
Let’s pray whatever they come up with isn’t too little too late. Past evidence suggests it probably will be.
It is, of course, notoriously difficult to predict the weather, let alone the climate. It is a chaotic system with more factors at play than anyone can reliably calculate.
But all this has been on the scientific agenda for 40 years and in the political arena for nearly 20. There has been time for the scientists, at least, to hone and improve their work.
And the worrying thing is that while the politicians have talked a lot and done little, the scientists’ predictions have grown more and more severe.
It’s as if a dire future has been rushing to meet us.


IF one thing symbolises the madness of our times more perfectly than anything else, it’s bottled water.
It’s not the water you pay for, it’s the packaging. In most cases, perfectly serviceable bottles which could be used over and over again are thrown away after one use.
Causing both horrendous waste of materials and a growing problem of disposal – not to mention the greenhouse gases emitted by both making the bottles and transporting them.
Now a lead has been taken against this insanity in what might seem an unlikely place.
The small Australian town of Bundanoon has banned bottled water.
One local retailer came up with the idea of selling only re-fillable bottles. The town’s other shopkeepers all agreed and a number of new public drinking fountains have been provided.
Spokesman John Dee said: “We’re saying to people you can save money and save the environment at the same time. The alternative doesn’t have a sexy brand, doesn’t have pictures of mountain streams on the front of it, it comes out of your tap.”
I’ll raise a glass to that.