Saturday, 26 March 2011

A war we can't afford - economically, morally, spiritually

ZIMBABWE, North Korea, Uzbekistan, DR Congo; Russia, if you look at it from a Chechen position; Israel, if you take a Palestinian view. Just some of the countries whose governments could be said to threaten their own people.
So what’s so special about Libya?
And, indeed, what’s so special about Britain, France and America?
According to the government we had no choice but to get involved in what were until last weekend the internal troubles of a smallish north-African country. (Smallish, that is, by population – a tenth as many people as the UK, spread over seven times its area.)
No choice? Really?
The governments of Germany, Sweden, Spain, South Africa and Venezuela all thought they had a choice. And they made the right one – as indeed did almost every country in the world.
To keep the hell out of what didn’t directly concern them.
Ten days ago the situation in Libya was looking bad. It looks a lot worse now, since the Western triumvirate decided to go wading in with all guns blazing.
Taking sides in someone else’s civil war is seldom if ever a wise policy. History has shown it time and time again.
Of course, this isn’t actually war. Oh no. This is just “enforcing a no-fly zone”.
Which means what, exactly?
Air strikes on ground targets? First denying, then admitting, as defence secretary Liam Fox has, that the leader of another country has become “a legitimate target”?
This is “mission creep” with a vengeance. And in a remarkably short time.
Among the barrage of sabre-rattling and self-justification I’ve heard several times the suggestion that the end justifies the means. But what end do we have in view?
In any war the intended end keeps changing. Means alter ends.
Have we forgotten so soon one of the supposed key lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan – that you shouldn’t start a war without a clear idea of what you want to achieve?
Just a few weeks ago a leading Tory commentator, Matthew Parris, described William Hague as “the best foreign secretary we’ve had in years”.
The reason for this praise was Hague’s refusal to get involved in the on-going turmoil in Egypt and Tunisia.
“What should Britain do about Egypt?” asked Parris.
And answered himself: “Nothing. None of our business. Way above our pay grade; beyond our means.”
And quite right too. So why should Libya be any different?
Could it, just possibly, have anything to do with that dark, treacly substance our advanced economies so rely on?
No one in a high place will ever admit that oil had anything to do with the decision to oust Colonel Gaddafi. Just as no one ever admitted it had anything to do with the invasion of Iraq.
Did you believe it then? Do you now?
Libya, it’s said, isn’t a very big exporter of oil. But then, it’s had over 40 years of Gaddafi’s eccentric, repressive rule.
Remove that screwed-down cap, and who knows how much oil will begin to gush forth from the desert?
Of course, if it really is about the supply and price of oil, perhaps we’d better hope the downtrodden of Saudi Arabia don’t also rise to shake off their despotic rulers.
If the Arab Spring uncoils that far the holy cause of democracy might suddenly come into conflict with the cause it’s so often been a cover for.
The cause of keeping down prices at the petrol pump packs a big punch in the democratic West.
And it goes hand-in-hand with one answer to my question above: What’s so special about Britain, France and the US?
And that is: Delusions of grandeur.
More specifically, in the case of Britain and France, delusions that we still have the grandeur we once had. And in America’s case, fear of losing the grandeur they retain for now.
Interestingly, Barack Obama appears to have gained some credibility for refusing to rush Bush-like to war, for taking time to think.
At the same time, his eventual decision has not gone down well with everyone on his side of the American political divide.
Democrat congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio summed it up clearly: “While the action is billed as protecting the civilians of Libya, a no-fly zone begins with an attack on the air defences of Libya and Gaddafi forces. It is an act of war…
“Our nation simply cannot afford another war, economically, diplomatically or spiritually.”
Just so. And neither can ours.
A friend of mine complained the other day about the money being spent supporting Libyan rebels who don’t pay UK taxes.
You certainly have to wonder how many libraries, how many school roofs, how much road repair, how many bus passes, how many police jobs, how many swimming-pools add up to a few hundred Tomahawk missiles or a few thousand air miles in a Typhoon jet.
But in a sense, who pays isn’t really the issue.
If charging into someone else’s fight was the right thing to do, it would be right whoever picked up the tab.
Fact is, it would be wrong even if we could afford it.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Worst-case scenario

“WE are on the brink. We are now facing the worst-case scenario.”
The words are those of Hiroaki Koide, a Japanese expert on the nuclear power industry. He was talking, of course, about Fukushima, a place as little known to the world until last Friday as, say, Sizewell or Bradwell.
As I write this (Tuesday morning), Fukushima is already the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986 – though a case could also be made for Windscale 1957.
That worst-case scenario remains open. By the time you read this, the worst may have been averted. Or it may not.
Whichever it turns out to have been, remember that the other outcome was highly possible.
Yet just a few hours before Fukushima experienced its third, potentially catastrophic, explosion, supposed experts were still issuing calming banalities.
One, by an American professor, was headed: “Why I’m not worried…”
The Japanese, he explained, are used to things like earthquakes. They know how to build things to withstand natural disasters.
Are you worried now, prof? You should be, because it seems your credibility – among a few other more important things – just blew up.
Another thing that has been damaged is the credibility of the whole nuclear programme. And of all those who keep telling us that it is both necessary and safe.
It’s neither of those things.
And if Fukushima causes the world to wake up to that, some good might just come out of it after all.
That, of course, will be scant consolation to all those thousands of people who have lost families, homes, livelihoods to the tsunami that triggered the Fukushima incident.
I have seldom seen anything more chilling than some of the home-video footage that has emerged of the relentlessly rising waters sweeping through ordinary streets, carrying away ordinary homes.
Footage taken by people watching their towns disintegrate before their eyes. People who cannot but have wondered, even as they pointed their cameras, whether they themselves would survive.
Those grim scenes made me feel pity, horror – but not anger. Not like the continuing flow of soothing words about the supposed safety of nuclear power. That makes me angry.
As I write, with devastated north-east Japan teetering on another brink, the exclusion zone around Fukushima stands at 20km.
If Fukushima were Sizewell, that would put Halesworth, Southwold, Aldeburgh, Leiston, Framlingham, Saxmundham, Wickham Market and half of Woodbridge in the evacuation area. Kesgrave, Martlesham and half of Ipswich would be in the stay-indoors zone.
And if the wind changed? Or if the experts had maybe made yet another tiny error in their calculations? How safe would you feel?
But it’s not really like that, is it? Japan’s a long way away. We’re not in an earthquake zone here, are we?
Well, no. But.
The floods of 1953 should tell us that you never know quite what the natural environment is going to throw at you.
And that’s before you try to estimate, inevitably imprecisely, what the effects of global warming and polar meltdown will be.
And what if there was a major quake or eruption in the Canary Islands, or Iceland?
Either could cause a tsunami capable of hitting nuclear power-stations on our west coast as hard as last week's Pacific rumble hit Fukushima.
Let’s hope it never comes to that. Probably it won’t. Not in our lifetimes.
But isn’t it sensible to hope for the best and prepare for the worst?


SOMETHING astonishing happened this week.
Nick Clegg actually stood up and said ‘No’ to something David Cameron wanted to do.
Without LibDem support, the Tories can’t withdraw Britain from the European convention on human rights.
Thank goodness – and Clegg – for that.
Let’s hope Clegg enjoyed the sensation of power so much he’s prepared to wield it again. And stop a few more of the insane plans of his ultra-reactionary coalition partners.
Cuts in public expenditure are, we’re told, inevitable. Well, it’s arguable, I suppose. Especially the questions of where and how hard the axe should fall.
But the Tories aren’t planning to make savings on the NHS. Their wrecking plans don’t even have that excuse.
Their so-called “reforms” aren’t actually about making the service better, either. They’re about crippling something that mostly works quite well, probably better than it ever has.
They’re about handing power – and huge wads of our cash – to private companies.
GPs, who would end up holding the pursestrings, don’t want the changes. Hospital staff certainly don’t. Patients, if they know what’s good for them, don’t.
Andrew Lansley is the health secretary pushing these unwanted changes through. A man whose personal office was reported last year by The Daily Telegraph – a paper not known for Tory-bashing – to be funded by a private healthcare provider.
If there’s anything the LibDems should stand up and say ‘No’ to, the threatened NHS “reform” is it.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

A mouse that puts the world to rights

CLICK here to help stop the crackdown in Libya!
No, I don’t mean here on this page – though if you could do it, it would probably be about as effective as what I was invited to do online.
Since I wrote last week about the internet’s influence on Arab revolutions, intensive farming plans, and forestry sell-offs, a few things have made me wonder.
One well-meaning message urged me: “Email the prime minister now to voice your opposition to selling arms to Arab dictators.”
OK, but do you think he’d take any notice?
Then there was the invitation: “To end the brutal killing of more than 20,000 dolphins in Japan. The petition now has 1,848,627 signatures; only 151,373 more signatures needed.”
Oh, if only it were that easy.
One reader suggested to me that writing to your MP with paper and ink is a much more effective way of registering protests or opinions than clicking an online link.
Maybe – though I’m sure it depends which MP you’re writing to. Some are no doubt more influenced by letter-writing than others.
But the Facebook group or its equivalent is a very quick and impressive way for politicians to gauge public feeling, which ought to have some sway with them in a supposed democracy.
The 2009 campaign which put Rage Against the Machine on top of the pop charts may have been trivial, but it was a strong indicator of Facebook’s social power. MPs will ignore that sort of power at their peril.
Even as I was writing this column, an email arrived from the website 38degrees, which orchestrated the successful campaign against the forests sale.
“Now what?” it asked. “What new campaigns could we work on together?
“Library closures? Cuts to Disability Living Allowance? Bankers’ bonuses?”
Sure. I’d vote for – or rather, against – all of those things.
But you have to wonder whether a few mouse-clicks can really take the place of getting out in the streets and waving placards.
No doubt it’s safer – but is it any more effective?
In any case, it does depend on mass-membership host sites such as Facebook being allowed to function.
As my friend Jeremy pointed out: “The revolution in Egypt carried on despite the fact that the authorities turned off the internet. Similarly in Libya.
“Even in the United States, an internet off-switch is being mooted as a governmental self-defence mechanism.”
All true. But the fact that any government would consider imposing an off-switch for the net shows how much they fear it.
Even if, as Jeremy also remarked, Facebook is primarily concerned with serving up targeted advertising to its readers.
Which makes it not so much a tool for advancing democracy, as one for profiting from capitalism.
And where did Jeremy make this acute observation? On Facebook, of course.


SIMON is my good friend in the real world – but he won’t be my Facebook friend.
He refuses on principle to join what he calls (jokingly, I think) “the work of the devil”.
It’s not that he’s unhappy with using the internet in general. In fact, he runs one of the largest and most successful websites in Suffolk.
On that website he has this to say: “The Suffolk countryside is today being bled to death. Post Offices, shops and pubs close, the jobs on the land evaporate as the big supermarkets squeeze the life out of rural England.
“Once, not so long ago, we used to buy and sell our local produce in our villages rather than driving weekly to a massive Tesco store ten miles away.
“We had a sense of community and interdependence.”
On all of that elegy for a lost England, I agree with him – as he well knows.
But he goes on: “Now we have broadband. While her husband is something in the City, a London designer can sequester herself in her remote Suffolk second home and conference-call her clients in the States, while her children downstairs are groomed by dangerous strangers in chatrooms and on Facebook without ever meeting any of the local kids.”
Well, OK – up to a point. But Facebook as a place for “grooming” of kids by malevolent adults?
That sounds to me like buying into a popular fiction. Or, if not quite a fiction, then a stereotype so exaggerated as to have little relationship with reality.
Simon drew my attention to the sordid story of Michael Williams, the paedophile postman jailed last year in Cornwall.
As reported, Williams “used Facebook and Bebo to groom hundreds of children for sex”.
Unpleasant. Very. And also, thankfully, very rare. If predatory paedophilia was really commonplace, it wouldn’t be news.
But, few as they are, individuals of that kind will always find some way to do their dirty work. And, as it turns out, the internet was almost incidental to the way Williams did his.
He “targeted” children he met on his post round, on school runs as a taxi driver, and in his role as secretary of a football club.
So if we use his case to demonise Facebook, should we also condemn football, taxis and the postal service?