Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Slack Jaws Could Lead To War

What to make of the Wikileaks revelations about China's growing dissatisfaction (to use their favoured form of language) with their neighbours in North Korea? Well on the one hand it should hardly come as a surprise. China has made the great leap from dogmatic adherence to the communist ideal to a spectacularly successful form of authoritarian capitalism. North Korea remains cold, concrete, Stalinist and poverty stricken. It is a gangster state attempting to blackmail its more prosperous neighbours into feeding it. It is, as the Chinese are reported to have observed, acting like a spoilt child. China has shown itself to be capable of an especially ruthless form of international diplomacy. They must see that North Korea's temper tantrums and childish demands for attention destabilise the region - China's trading partners and risk war, refugees and chaos.

But what effect will these leaks have on the notoriously sensitive and proud Chinese? How will they feel about their pragmatism and double dealing being exposed in this way? They don't seem to appreciate that we in the west, thanks to our free press and open internet, are capable of seeing through their double speak to guess at their true motives and intent. They may imprison dissidents and threaten international committees who have the temerity to award them peace prizes but we retain the ability to think for ourselves.

In fact, if they could only see it, this news is reassuring to the rest of the world. It seems that China is capable of behaving responsibly. It is just that they would rather do so on the quiet without losing face. That is why this leak may create difficulties.

But then the politics of this troubled peninsula are notoriously opaque and difficult to read. This could equally be a good development. Perhaps it will further destabilise the already tottering regime in Pyongyang if they think their only ally is about to abandon them. North Korea's long suffering and starving people are already said to be increasingly ready to protest and revolt, probably on the principle of what do we have to lose? The ailing Kim Jong-Il is attempting to hand power to his son but there are sure to be many in the regime who will resent this. It is a dangerous time.

And this is why both America and China will be treading carefully. China has probably concluded, with its usual lack of sentimentality, that a united Korea with Seoul taking charge would be the best outcome, or the least worst. But how to make that come about? It isn't just the nuclear weapons that make this a delicate situation. It is the huge if ill equipped army. It is the decades of Juche that the people have been taught, encouraging them to think themselves superior to the point of fanaticism. It is the vested interests of an elite accustomed to total power and a high standard of living.

And this is why both America, China and South Korea will have been hesitating and will not welcome this leak. Nobody knows how this irrational and paranoid regime will react. Will it collapse or will it lash out once again and bring the region to war? Most of their acts of aggression have been calculated to win concessions, yet lately they have been less successful as the international community has grown weary and unwilling to be blackmailed. And so they have kept raising the stakes. But how much further are they willing to go?

Pyongyang must be very aware that, despite their nuclear weapons, their belligerent language and the lack of any real response to previous provocations, if they went too far they would stand no chance if a war were to start for real. They would quickly be wiped out. But their trump card is that before their defeat they could cause vast damage, destruction and chaos across the region. It would be a threat to the world's economy and potentially even destabilise China itself. Their neighbours would stand to lose much more and so are anxious to avoid conflict.

And all of this and more is what has been discussed quietly behind the scenes until now. The various parties know that the game is changing and that the present upheavals are an opportunity. But the stakes are high. What they did not need is for the various options to be made public. It may well be that this does indeed start a process which leads to the fall of this vile and ludicrous regime. But, given their history, nobody can be sure. They probably don't know themselves. This most unstable part of the world  could just as easily be plunged into a new and devastating war for the sake of some words which should have remained private.

Monday, 29 November 2010

No Longer Special

If these leaks on Wikileaks accomplish anything maybe it will be to cure British politicians of constant wittering about the special relationship with America. We do not have a special relationship any longer. Sometimes, when the chemistry is right between our respective leaders, they have a special relationship and that can be good for both countries. Of course it can also be bad as recent history has shown.

But these leaks have shown the disdain verging on contempt with which Britain, their most reliable ally, is held by the current administration. This makes the recent cuts to our defence altogether easier to bear. We are doing the right thing for Britain and, since they don't think much of our contribution anyway, they can easily do without. Perhaps in future we should adopt a more pragmatic French attitude towards our friends across the pond. We would probably get more respect.

RIP - Leslie Nielsen - Don't Call Me Shirley

Sad news this morning, the death of Leslie Nielsen, the deadpan master at the age of 84.

Fame and fortune came late to Nielsen, although he had a long and successful career. But it was his discovery as a deliverer of lines with authority and a straight face, starting with the doctor in Airplane that made him a household name. Who can forget: We need you in the cockpit. The cockpit, what is it? It's the little room at the front where the pilot sits, but that's not important right now. This made him a star and persuaded producers to make him a leading man in first a TV series, Police Squad and then  the hugely successful Naked Gun films playing the bumbling Frank Drebin in which he became a most unlikely romantic lead opposite Priscilla Presley. In one famous scene she climbed a ladder rearranging her stuffed animals: Nice beaver, said Nielsen/Drebin.

Some other classics:

Drebin (who is retiring): Just think, the next time I shoot someone, I could be arrested.


Dr Rumack: This woman has to be gotten to a hospital
Elaine: A hospital, what is it?
Dr Rumack: It's a big building with patients, but that's not important right now.


Jane: He's caucasian
Drebin: Caucasian?
Jane: Yeah, you know, a white guy. A moustache. About six foot three. 
Drebin: Awfully big moustache.


President Bush: Frank, please consider filling a post I am creating. It may mean long hours and dangerous nights, surrounded by some of the scummiest elements in our society. 
Drebin: You want me to be in your cabinet? 


Drebin: That's the red light district. I wonder why Savage is hanging around down there. 
Ed: Sex, Frank? 
Drebin: Uh, no, not right now, Ed. 

X X X 

I will best remember him for Airplane though, a film he completely stole. Surely, you may say, that must be one of the funniest films of all time? Well, yes it is. And don't call me Shirley.

Wiki Leaking the Bleeding Obvious

As far as I can see, the much vaunted Wikileaks revelations just tell us what we already knew or at least suspected.

A member of the royal family behaved inappropriately. We knew that, although it may pique our interest to know exactly how and which one it was.

The Americans didn't think much of British operations in Afghanistan or Iraq. This hardly comes as a surprise. Our forces were badly equipped and insufficient in number. They were called the borrowers.

The Americans spy on the United Nations? Of course they do. Why wouldn't they? America has a less rose tinted view of that expensive and useless talking shop and recognises that the notion of 'international law' is a nonsense when nobody can agree what it is and never will. But at least it is conveniently located for spying purposes even if they don't pay their parking tickets.

The serious political criticisms about David Cameron come from a couple of years ago before he became PM and are of no great consequence. They are no surprise because many in this country shared a low opinion of Cameron at the time and still do. They also confirm the Obama administration's remarkable cack handedness in all things diplomatic.

We are fearful about Pakistan's ability to secure its nuclear weapons. I should hope so. Similarly the harsh criticisms of China and Russia by US diplomats is the least one would hope for. It will do us all a great service to get them out in the open.

Hamid Karzai is driven by paranoia. Obviously.

Most of the middle east is terrified of Iran and wants America to take action against them. Even more obviously. What a pity they have dropped the ball on the issue which will probably make the world an infinitely more dangerous and expensive place to live in within the next two or three years.

The world of diplomacy then is as cynical and often selfish as most human relations. This is hardly a revelation. People are two faced, duplicitous and self serving. And so are countries. The difference is that the gossip at international level can cost jobs, billions in cash and even lives.

Julian Assange claims to be doing the world a great service in leaking these documents. But his motive is nothing like as pure as he claims. Mr Assange is just enjoying posing as some kind of defender of truth and justice.

The real truth is that he is a sanctimonious hypocrite and nihilist who has never grown up. His perverse pleasure in embarrassing the high and mighty is understandable at one level. But at the same time it is dangerous. Just as it is sometimes better to conceal the truth of ordinary human affairs or to tell a lie in the right circumstances, so it is in government. We all know that. If Mr Assange knows this he is studiously ignoring the fact. And that's not all that different from keeping a secret is it?


It seems that the royal in question is Prince Andrew, the Duke of York. This will also not come as a surprise because the man is a thick tit who has been given his 'trade envoy' role purely as a pretence. But that's what you get when people get their jobs on the hereditary principle. It's why we should all be grateful that our royal family is finally importing some fresh genes in the shape of Kate Middleton. If, as he tours the golf courses of the world communing with people who are impressed by titles, Andrew is at the same time embarrassing the country and government - or at least more than usual - then that will once more bring into question why he has been entrusted with the role. So maybe these leaks have their uses.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Red Ed: Vision Impaired

What is it with Labour leaders and the vision thing? Gordon put off an election for three whole years while he searched for his. He never found it. Now Forrest has appointed a series of committees to find one for him. It must be out there somewhere. But apparently it will take them two years to find it.

In the meantime he is instead setting out a series of vacuous soundbites to fill the vacuum. Labour, he said yesterday as part of his big relaunch, must be a party 'rooted in people's lives.'

Forrest does not seem to have noticed that one of the reasons the country became sick of his party was because they insisted on rooting themselves in every aspect of our lives. This was the party which passed thousands of new criminal laws, allowed local authorities to spy on us in case we didn't recycle or if we put the bins out early, insisted we carry ID cards and allowed a culture of authoritarianism to develop which saw someone arrested and prosecuted for Tweeting a joke.

Of course Forrest has now accepted that his party got things wrong in government. But what exactly does he mean when he says his party should be rooted in our lives? Or is that a question he hopes we won't ask, like wondering what he means by the squeezed middle?

Furthermore Forrest tells us that he and his party want to represent the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the British people. But take care that you don't aspire too high. This is the same Red Ed who believes it is right and fair to confiscate half of your earnings if you start earning too much. And if you dream of going to university or sending your kids there he wants to tax them for that too thus ensuring a future brain drain denuding this country of the very people it needs to drive success. You might call them the aspiring classes. If Ed gets his way they will either have their income confiscated until they are in the squeezed middle with whom he so sympathises or they will head off somewhere with a different definition of fairness.

Forrest says that his party cannot just wait for the coalition to screw up. Presumably this is a tacit acknowledgement that this is precisely what Labour did. But he also talks about the coalition's broken promises, apparently having forgotten Labour's flagrant broken promise on holding a referendum on the EU. And they had a thumping majority. What was their excuse? They also broke a promise, lest we forget, on creating the very tuition fee system they now claim to be so solidly against. It's no wonder he wants to now claim that the party is different and under a new generation.

Forrest it is fair to say seems a mite confused. Not only is he now disowning a programme of government of which he was a key part and at his leader's side throughout, not only does he now no longer believe in a manifesto that he wrote, he is even promising to reform a voting system in his own party that delivered him his job against the wishes of most of its members including his own MPs. On his performance thus far he may find that his party asks for a re-run.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

No More Foreign Adventures

Do you think we are missing out as a nation following the recent cutbacks in our defence capabilities? Earlier this week the iconic and venerated Harriers passed into British military history as they left HMS Ark Royal for the last time. At the same time Admiral Lord West wrote a letter to The Times complaining that this meant that we would now no longer be able to go into battle with our allies the Americans if they are forced to confront North Korea.

The two Koreas have been exchanging blood curdling language this week in addition to shells. North Korea's hilarious newscasters have chuntered away about the terrible revenge they will exact on the puppet regime to the south and their American puppet masters. Their southern cousins have responded by promising a thousand fold revenge for the deaths caused by the North's latest bout of warmongering. They are also set to engage in more war games with the Americans. To this end the U.S is sending in the USS George Washington.

It is useful at this point to contrast and compare. Here is the mightily impressive George Washington complete with its 5,500 man crew.

Now here is the Ark Royal.

Do you see the difference? It is the difference between a superpower and a middle ranking power that's skint. It is the difference between a country that projects power across the two mightiest oceans on the planet and one which can't afford to put planes on its carriers for ten years.

And we Brits don't really do blood curdling threats either. You won't hear British politicians telling our enemies or potential enemies that if they cross a frontier by 0.0001 of a millimetre they will jolly well regret it. You won't hear British politicians or generals cursing the moustaches of those who dare defy us as they are given to do in the middle east. We have been known, of course, to sail to the bottom of the world and fight a war, but we only did it reluctantly and they had to invade first. At the time we had started scrapping or trying to sell our aircraft carriers. Perhaps this is why Admiral Lord West is now concerned, since he was involved in that last naval skirmish in the South Atlantic.

But by and large we try not to get involved in that sort of thing any more. It's just not cricket. We don't want any more dodgy dossiers, we don't want to intervene in things that have no possibility of being resolved. This is not to say that we eschew all intervention for the greater good. But it has to be clear and demonstrably in our interests. It's time for us to pick our fights, to be pragmatic, to know our place and status in the world.

We were involved in that part of the world once, when the peninsula was not divided along the 38th parallel. And then British understatement got us into trouble. A brigade of soldiers were surrounded by communist forces and the commander radioed to his American colleagues. 'We're in a spot of bother,' he informed them, which meant that he and his boys were facing imminent doom as anyone speaking the English language ought to know. The Americans failed to understand the nuances and our brave boys were slaughtered without reinforcements. Even if such communications difficulties were ironed out however it's hard to see how we could avoid such slaughter if we were foolish enough to get involved again. North Koreans are as fanatical as Afghans. They have an army a million strong even though they are all starving. Any war would not end well for anyone.

The Korean Peninsula has technically been at war ever since those dark days in the 50s and it does not look as if that is going to change any time soon. It's hard to see how we can do much about that. America is there in strength and is sending in more forces as we speak. But that's about keeping the delicate peace - it is the only sensible policy. It probably is time they called Kim Jong Il's bluff and hit back the next time he starts firing off missiles or shells and promises bloody war. It might reinforce that peace. But we on this little island cannot and should not get involved. It's got nothing to do with us and that is how it should be. We cannot afford any more spots of bother in far flung places.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Red Ed's Middle Class Spread

At the beginning of this week I wrote that Ed was back and, despite the policy vacuum, he was showing definite red tendencies thanks to his insistence that the 50% tax should stay in place. He has since tried a new formula to wriggle out of this, saying that getting rid of the 50% tax would not be a high priority for any future Labour government. But the impression was there.

Today, as part of what must be the earliest relaunch of any political leader in modern times, he nevertheless reinforced the message by allowing himself to be called a socialist. He was not ashamed of this, he told Nicky Campbell on Five Live. He may live to regret it though. How can he now object to being called Red Ed?

Forrest/ Wallace/ Red Ed, call him what you will, he has not had a good start and things are getting tougher. The media are giving him a rough ride. His performances at PMQs, though not disastrous, have been uninspiring and devoid of any really telling blows or memorable moments. He seems to be struggling to find a way to tell us what he stands for, what he believes in. Does he even know? All we get is that word fairness once again.

His interviews today, as he tried to squeeze himself on to a remarkably empty news agenda, did not go well. He was a socialist one minute, but, oh yes, he wants to stand up for the so called squeezed middle classes too. But he finds it hard to define who they are. Apparently it is anyone who isn't poor and is on medium or average wages of around £25,000 but below that dreaded 50% band. So the squeezed middle is more or less everyone. He's going to stand up for them all apparently and stop them being squeezed. How? Well we'll get to that later obviously. It's as though he's trying to fill the gap recently vacated by the Lib Dems, promising to be the friend of everyone and coming up with loony pledges he cannot possibly keep.

Oh and by his definition, socialist Red Ed clearly thinks that the working class don't exist anymore - we're all middle class, which is decidedly odd considering that he owes his new job almost exclusively to the trade union vote.

And all of this leaves me with a problem too. I am as unimpressed by the new Labour leader as anyone. But then I could scarcely believe he was the new leader from the moment the party's idiotic system anointed him. But what do we call the jumped up twerp who is only having to jump because he is so out of his depth? I have been sticking to Forrest until now but I am also tempted by the Wallace comparisons above. And he is also, by his own admission, Red Ed, even if he is confused about what that means and who he is meant to be and capable of standing up for.

Red/Forrest/Wallace is making a speech this weekend. If he actually manages to say something interesting or memorable I may well feel the need to write about him again. Maybe he even has a vision. Perhaps that explains those eyes. But what to call him? Writing about the man until now known as Forrest proves that life really is like a box of chocolates. I'm spoilt for choice.

There's No Room for Grumpy in Politics

The British are famed for our sense of humour. It is one of our defining characteristics. We have a rich tradition of deploying it against the rich and powerful in this country, pricking their pomposity and sending them up. Simon Cowell may sweep all before him on TV but that does not stop the British public from continually voting for a hilarious 70s throwback who can't sing. The Strictly judges are the sort of people who take themselves terribly seriously, which I suppose is part of the entertainment (if you like that sort of thing) and so each week they are sent Anne Widdecombe to add to the nation's gaiety.

And we do have a pompous little twerp with a Napoleon complex occupying the Speaker's chair. He does love the sound of his own voice. He does take himself terribly seriously. He is, as I have argued before, a sanctimonious dwarf.

It is sadly typical of our times that someone should have had a sense of humour failure over David Cameron's actually rather funny joke at the Speaker's expense. Junior minister Simon Burns's driver accidentally reversed into the Speaker's car. Bercow appeared. 'I'm not happy,' he informed the minister. 'Well which one are you then?' replied Mr Burns.

And who has objected to this? A spokesman for dwarfs. You might even call him a sanctimonious dwarf.

After the dour, depressing and humourless Brown regime of just a few months ago, surely we should be pleased that we have a prime minister who has a robust sense of humour. The ability to not take oneself too seriously, even when one is the most powerful man in the country, is actually something we should be grateful for. It is a healthy sign in anyone, but particularly in politicians. Tony Blair had it. Gordon Brown most definitively did not.  John Major became a figure of fun in part because he became increasingly sensitive. Margaret Thatcher had to have her own jokes explained to her.

In a country in which the police go off and arrest people for making jokes which offend or, they allege, threaten, we should be pleased that we have a prime minister who likes a joke and a ribald one too. He is setting a good example. His deputy could do with following it - a joke, especially at one's own expense is extremely disarming and a useful tool in the politician's kit bag.

We should laugh at those who take offence, like the terribly serious and thus endlessly risible Yasmin Alibhai Brown and a Speaker who takes his job title literally. It happens in pubs and workplaces up and down the country, despite the best efforts of the last government. If there is one place it ought definitely to be happening it's in the corridors of power.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Actually, Howard Flight Has A Point

It is Howard Flight's and David Cameron's misfortune that his remarks about the poor 'breeding' were made at a time when there is not much news around. Into this news vacuum comes a rather crass comment and news editors shove it to the forefront with commentary wondering aloud if this is those nasty Tories emerging at last from the undergrowth.

Yet what Flight was saying, in his clumsy way, was essentially an extension of the housing benefit debate of a few weeks ago. He was not actually wrong, except in his choice of language. He is arguing that the poor are being subsidised to do what those on much larger incomes hesitate to do for lack of money. It is a point I have made myself, albeit I hope in a more reasoned way.

Having children is expensive and a huge responsibility. Yet our benefits system encourages those who are out of work and on ultra low incomes to have as many as they choose. Remember Karen Matthews and her brood of poorly fed, lice ridden children by a multitude of fathers? Indeed teenage mothers have often found it expedient to get themselves pregnant in order to jump to the head of the queue for social housing. Labour may now opportunistically be leaping on Flight's remarks and branding the Tories nasty once again, but they were very well aware of the problem prior to the election. It is a problem peculiar to Britain and is largely down to our benefits system. Gordon Brown proposed that teenage mothers be housed in special hostels rather than be given their own flats to try and address it.

In the same way that Housing Benefit has created perverse disincentives to work and enables the unemployed to live in areas they would never be able to afford without winning the lottery, so our benefits system encourages them to have children they could not afford without similar good fortune. One of the reasons women who work continue to do so until well into their thirties before having children is because they simply cannot afford kids until they are secure and have accumulated the resources they will need. Council estates on the other hand are full of women only just out of their teens with two or three children. Jobcentres see plenty of them too.

Like Lord Young last week, the soon to be ennobled Howard Flight could perhaps have expressed himself better. But he was not wrong. It's an issue we ought to be debating.

Not only are we in danger of losing our sense of humour in this country for fear of offending barmy left wing columnists or being locked up for making humorous remarks about bombing airports, we are also in danger of censoring our politicians to the point where they will only read from pre-prepared scripts approved by their party chiefs. Many already do. It's how to get ahead in politics.

But perhaps this is why our elections are now decided by just a few constituencies as the parties converge on the centre ground. Perhaps that's why so many people are turned off politics altogether. If we leap on every politician who momentarily uses words that are slightly risque, we will soon end up with a lot more days of no real news. Just like today.

Can Anyone Save This Turkey?

Are Students Revolting? Do They Understand Why?

Do the students who flocked into London and other cities around the country really understand the issues that they are protesting about? I'm not just talking about the ones who, like football hooligans, went along in the hope of a bit of vandalism and fighting having seen how much fun was had the last time in London. Clearly there is a substantial minority of callow youths intent on wreaking as much havoc as they possibly can at every opportunity. But you even hear some of them talking about Thatcher in voices filled with hate and class rage, which seems odd since they would either not have been around at the time to experience what they now claim is exciting their passion or would have been too busy eating rusks to notice.

The reason that students have become the most vocal opponents of present government policy is precisely because they were not around in the 80s and have no memories of their own of the last Conservative government. They thus believe the propaganda about the nasty Tories and those terrible savage times, the poor put upon miners and the gissa job generation. It's a very partial account of history which ignores the fact that we were going through a necessary transition from some of the old and outdated industries of the past to a newer type of economy. And yes the transition was not always handled well and perhaps might not have been necessary at all in some industries with better planning, better management and more amenable industrial relations. But it is not the black and white story that is often painted. And what they don't mention is that this was also the generation of loadsamoney and excess. It should be pointed out that loadsamoney, as depicted by Harry Enfield, was not a banker. He was a plasterer, one of the generation of C1 classes who voted Tory during the 80s, bought shares, flash cars and their own homes and did very nicely thanks very much.

But that's not what you hear now. You hear the myth put about and propagated with such success by the left to the extent that even the Tories themselves started to believe it and apologise for it. I'm not saying that Mrs Thatcher was without fault but we should perhaps remind ourselves of the state of the country she inherited and the way she left it exactly 20 years ago. Much of her legacy, so derided by Labour to their electoral advantage, was nevertheless left intact. Indeed both Labour prime ministers invited her to be their guests at Downing Street.

But it's not just history that students are misremembering or misunderstanding. They have also been misled by the whole media telling of government cuts and Labour's misrepresentation of them. Overall public spending is increasing. The cuts have not started yet and won't until next year. Spending on education will rise. Yes the government has cut back on the building schools programme but they are not cutting funding to schools overall. What they are trying to is spend the money better and reorganise the way education is run to get better results.

The same is true of the tuition fees issue which has incurred the wrath of most of those marching, despite the fact it will not actually affect them if they are already at university. And do any of them know any of the detail of what is being proposed? Do they know about the protection for those who will not be earning so much? Do they know that fees are imposed by most major countries on students and without systems which mean that the debts incurred do not have to be paid until they reach an earnings threshold?  Do they know that the universities themselves have been demanding that fees rise and that they are disappointed that they are not even higher? Do they know that, though other generations got free higher education and grants, that in those days only 5% of school leavers went to university which was why it was affordable?

The media are getting themselves into a state of high excitement about these protests thinking that it is the beginning of some mass protest movement. It isn't. It's a few excited young people caught up in an act of rebellion, supplemented by some with genuine objections to government policy and a few others who are looking for a chance to have a fight, break a few windows, have a pop at some police officers and daub some paint on public buildings. Some of the protesters were of school age. Were they there to genuinely protest or were they just taking advantage of a day off, possibly encouraged by some lefty bearded teacher?

The people who were out protesting yesterday were the same sort as those who picket power stations or airports demanding action on climate change without bothering to wonder what the alternatives are. They are a feature of any democracy and they have every right to their point of view. Yes there were others joining them but by and large they are those who haven't troubled themselves to read the arguments and go beyond the black and white world of protest. This is not a mass movement of protest. The government is not about to endure a winter of discontent.

And none of this is to diminish the clear fact that the coming cuts will hurt and we will lose things we would rather not. But, as Ireland has shown this week, these cuts are necessary and could have been a lot worse. What is being proposed is reasonable and nothing like as bad as you would think given the hysterical reaction of some.

Perhaps we should be glad that our young are becoming politically engaged and showing that they care. But it is also incumbent upon them to be more politically aware and to take on board more of the arguments before they protest.

It is one of the ironies of our modern, connected 24 hour news world that many of them are considerably less well informed than those a generation or two ago. That is not their fault. It is a failure of our lazy, sensationalist, short attention span, soundbite and gossip obsessed media. That, more than anything, is what a government trying to get its message across should be worried about.

It's Just Weather

A few years ago, when the hysteria over what was then called global warming was at its height, the Green Meanies were fond of pointing to warm, hot or freakish weather as proof that the planet was warming up and that action to mitigate this was vital. People like me pointed out that this proved precisely nothing and that it was just weather. We also pointed out that the incidence of weather is also not proof of what caused it but that is a whole separate argument.

Well now, as we enter a cold spell in what is still, strictly speaking, autumn, I can't help thinking of those days. The Green Meanies haven't had any of the right kind of weather to back their argument for some time. Temperatures have stubbornly failed to keep rising ever upwards now for a decade. Those barbecue summers keep not happening. They have been cool, wet and unremarkable. Winters on the other hand? Well we may well be about to suffer our fourth cold one in succession. The days of daffodils in February and animals not bothering to hibernate seem like a distant memory.

I remember the last time we had one of these very cold spells, the BBC's Roger Harrabin made a fool of himself (as usual) by presenting a report arguing that if it hadn't been for global warming (or climate change as they had started calling it by then) the cold snap would have been much worse. This was arrant nonsense. That particular cold spell, in the depths of winter, happened because air was coming to the UK from the frigid continent caused by a high pressure area. The current cold spell is being caused by the wind coming from the north. Harrabin compared that spell of very cold weather to a previous notorious spell in the 1960s and argued, without any evidence whatsoever, that we would have suffered a winter just as bad as that infamous spell had it not been for rising temperatures. Presumably he thought that this was the first time in 40 or more years that we had been getting our weather from the continent. Or was he just making a stupid argument out of desperation to try to combat those jokes we hear asking what happened to global warming?

The bottom line is that the weather varies. There are many reasons for it doing so. We in this island should be accustomed to that. People see patterns where none exist. When we have a couple of years of low rainfall and have a very hot summer we see hysterical headlines about some kind of paradigm change which will necessitate a change of lifestyle, wine growing in the south, invasions of mosquitoes and siestas for all. If we get a couple of years of nasty flooding then again people are urged to evacuate flood plains, the government is urged to spend billions on flood defences and experts are sought to opine that this is what we have to look forward to from now on.

So if this present weather continues and we have another bad winter, will the Green Meanies revert to a former argument and claim that we are heading towards another ice age? Will there be calls for greater investment in snow ploughs? Will there be calls for legislation to make snow tyres compulsory for reasons of health and safety? Will we get American style laws forcing households to clear the pavement in front of their homes?

Or will we just shrug and accept that this is all part of a varying cycle we only partially understand? Will we just cope as best we can and get irritated when schools close for no reason and lawyers encourage people to sue for inadequately cleared paths? Ultimately you see, whether it's hot, wet, cold or foggy it is not part of some pattern to fear and prepare for. It's just weather. It's really very simple.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Ashes - Mental Torture in the Small Hours

Something decidedly peculiar is happening down in Australia. England are going into an Ashes series as favourites. As an English man this makes me nervous. It would be worrying enough if this were a series being played at home. But in Australia?

Perhaps its the consequence of all of those high hopes turned to dust whenever England head off to a major football tournament, although at least cricket fans do not indulge in flying those little St George flags on their cars for our cricket team. But we also know what a fickle and infuriating game cricket can be in addition to being fascinating gripping sporting theatre. The Ashes is the pinnacle of the game and beating the Aussies means so much. And we currently hold that silly little urn - it feels as precious as that Chinese one sold for £43 million a couple of weeks ago.

The fact is that this England team is a decent one without being a truly great one. But perhaps this is an opportunity for them to become one. Australia are not the team they once were but they always fight hard. Yet that means we should, if we can stay up all night, be about to see a close and gripping series; perhaps, if we're very lucky, one to rival the classic of 2005 which converted an awful lot of people to our other national sport. Worrying about it is just part of our national psyche I suppose.  Although, as our football team showed six months ago, it is not without foundation.

PMQs 24th November 2010: Forrest's Back

It's Dave versus Forrest again after the boggle eyed one took a couple of weeks off. Presumably this was supposed to convey the idea of a modern and inclusive man with all of the right instincts about family and responsibility, equality, inclusiveness and similar tripe. It actually, to my mind at least, made him look like a man fond of empty gestures, soundbites and banality. Ever the opportunist, Forrest found time to break off from his nappy changing last week to call for the head of Lord Young for giving a perfectly reasonable and honest assessment of the state of the economy and people's experience of it. Dave blinked though and despatched the not noble enough lord.

Whilst away there has been a good deal of muttering in the space Forrest left behind. What does he and the new generation represent they have been wondering. We don't know. That's part of the reason he got the job in the first place. As Lord Young discovered last week, it doesn't pay to be too honest about what you really think if you want to get ahead in politics, or at least ahead of your brother. Perhaps this is what Forrest was teaching his new son these last two weeks.

Anyway, here he was again. He joined the PM as usual with condolences on a death in Afghanistan, today there were also the deaths of miners in New Zealand.

And apparently Forrest has received gifts for baby Samuel from both the PM and his deputy. We will apparently never know what these gifts were. Perhaps Forrest will be one of those dads who likes to play with his kids' toys. Maybe it was a book on how to get ahead in politics.

There was a brief exchange of humour on this issue and we got a decent joke from Cameron about children making noise - in the Commons. Not original certainly but delivered with a certain verve. Francis Maude in particular, who has clearly never heard this one before, thought it hilarious.

Forrest seems to have listened to some of the criticism of his recent PMQ performances and tried a change of tactics. He split his questions into two. This is welcome. It keeps the PM on his toes and keeps him wondering what is coming up next.

The first set of questions though, as so often, generated more heat than light. It was an exchange of jibes about school sports following government announcements on that issue this week with a major new one on education in general coming up straight after PMQs. Forrest and Labour are clearly gunning for Gove whose policies on education are amongst the government's most important and impressive. Gove has however had a difficult few months against vested interests and his department's incompetence. But Cameron's defence of the line on sports was too repetitious. It made him look more defensive than he should have been.

This is starting to become an issue with the PM. He has a line on each major question but he needs more variation and some better responses. It wasn't that his response was bad, it wasn't. But it would have had more impact if he had made it in a slightly different way. Similarly the old response of clearing up Labour's mess, though demonstrably true, is becoming a little tired.

Having said that Forrest is still deploying his he'll have to do better than that line which is only slightly better than I ask the questions.

Forrest's second set of questions were on bankers and their pay and the need for transparency. Labour want action on this now, presumably as part of Forrest's supposed fairness agenda which leads him to conclude that 50% tax should be permanent. Labour probably think that this is a winning line too since everyone hates bankers don't they - although of course on this issue as so many others they are saying they would do something they chose not to do when in government. The government though is being more cautious, rightly concluding that damaging this industry any more could be devastating to the recovery unless such measures are adopted across Europe too. Perhaps Cameron should throw back Labour's old election line at them about not damaging the recovery. Taxing people for ideological reasons can do that, especially if it is done unilaterally and makes people up sticks and move. 

The Beast of Bolsover, Dennis Skinner raised his head but his roar is much diminished these days. He asked a tendentious and silly question about immigration. Cameron swatted this aside by having the figures to hand. Most of the rest of the questions were plants and revealed little or nothing, even an intervention from Bill Cash on Europe which Cameron dealt with with ease. 

And that was about it. A low key PMQs on Forrest's return. He was solid but nothing more. He has been better in the few short weeks when he has not been on paternity leave but he has been much worse too. Cameron wasn't on top form but didn't need to be. Consequently, though he edged this exchange, it was nothing like as effortless and consummate as last week's performance against Hattie. He was momentarily on the defensive but seems to get better as the session progresses. Perhaps Forrest's change of tactics, though welcome, played into his hands. 

But this performance will not have quietened the murmurs about Forrest. PMQs alone cannot do it anyway. He needs to actually lead and show that he is leading. But these weekly sessions are good for morale. In this arena as in all others, he looks like he belongs in the nursery with his new son. 

The Tie As Political Metaphor

I have not yet seen the BBC film by Hannah Rothschild due to my lack of digital access. I may try to watch it online, although my access there is less than adequate too. I shall probably just have to wait until its shown on good old BBC2. You can watch it here if your bandwidth is better than mine.

For now then I shall have to rely on second hand reports seen in the blogosphere and on Twitter. I have seen the words 'vile' and 'vain' attached to the Dark Prince of Spin, Lord of Many Titles and, when the film was made, Minister for Everything. But this is hardly a revelation

What is a revelation is how, even then, Mandy was becoming semi detached from Gordon Brown, starting to distance himself from impending disaster. Perhaps that was why he agreed to this film. According to reports last week, he would have been less inclined to ride to Gordon Brown's rescue had the last of the coup attempts been better supported and less cack handedly mounted. Mandy was starting to despair of the mad man who should be in the attic. Not only was he serially incapable of relating to the public and seeming human as we were to see with Bigotgate, but, according to the despairing Dark Prince, he couldn't even keep his tie straight or his hair presentable. I give you the following fabulous quote courtesy of Alex Massie in The Spectator:

'I've given up. I'd settle for the tie being straight. I'd give up on the hair as long as the tie was sort of centred. I just cannot understand why he can't tie a tie like anyone else and centre it like anyone else and have it remain there, you know, in the middle between the two collars. I just don't understand it.' 

And it's a very neat summary of our former prime minister. It may seem shallow and insignificant, but of course in modern politics image is all, or at least it is a starting point for many and has been since the days of Kennedy as Andrew Marr showed in a recent documentary. Brown eschewed such things, or at least couldn't get his head around them. But even that wouldn't necessarily condemn him. Other politicians, most notably Ken Clarke, have been similarly dishevelled but he still manages to seem human and blokeish, notwithstanding the nonsense he talks about the Euro.

Brown was, in so many areas, a kind of automaton. He could not function at a human level. He only ever wore dark suits, and indeed this was all that filled his wardrobe. He devoured books but frequently left his red boxes full of vital documents unread. He could not smile convincingly and resorted to glib cliches whenever he had to talk to people. He went into hiding to try to avoid doing so even when he was prime minister and sulked and became moody when he lost control even in social settings.

Possessed of a keen mind and a prodigious memory, he nevertheless was unable to make decisions and dithered over them constantly. Creative thinking was something he was all too often incapable of, except in the limited field of political slogans and soundbites. Labour had a kind of nutty professor as their leader to whom all too many gave unswerving loyalty, possibly because they admired his ruthlessness and ability to bawl and bully his peers into acquiescence or be destroyed. Yet his ability to do so was a massive part of Labour's problem in government. His ability to stymie and obstruct reform meant that, when combined with their obsession with headlines and spin, they never made the most of those massive majorities and public goodwill. It is no accident that the only real issues that Blair felt able to go out on a limb on were in foreign affairs in which Brown had no interest.

Brown became very well aware of his failings but could do nothing about them. His colleagues could see the car crash happening but did nothing about it. But he remains a problem even now. His presence still looms over his party even as they try to erase him from the picture. Gordon Brown and all that he stands for will sully Labour's reputation for years to come. He was and remains the most disastrous legacy of their time in government - a wonky tie that cannot be straightened.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Royal Wedding: Naming the Wrong Day?

The royal wedding is to be held on 29th April next year. We will be given a day off to celebrate it. I am not alone in noting that this will thus undo any supposed benefit for the UK economy. Any boost from tourism, merchandise and the like will have to be offset against the cost, not of the security and of the wedding ceremony itself, but of lost production from UK PLC.

Yet the wedding is to be held just three days before another bank holiday for May Day, thus giving us a long weekend. The May Day holiday, which was introduced comparatively recently and has no real historic significance in Britain is a nonsense which many companies ignore. So why not cancel that bank holiday and move it to 29th April? Would that not be more sensible? Or why didn't they just have the wedding on the pre-existing bank holiday?

North Korea: The World's Problem Child Demands Attention Again

Why is North Korea firing at its neighbour whose existence it doesn't recognise? This is their standard preliminary to talks. Whenever they do something like this, from testing their atomic weapons, to firing missiles into the sea, to sinking patrol ships and now to this unprompted shelling, it is always about getting the world's, and in particular America's, attention so that they come to the negotiating table more willing to compromise.

The trouble is that it usually works. North Korea does not have a good hand other than its own belligerence and unpredictability. But being uncompromising, dishonest and baffling has suited its needs. It usually wins it concessions including fuel, food and other forms of aid thus ensuring its survival for a few more years until the next time it ratchets up tension.

We have no choice but to accept that North Korea is now a nuclear armed state. But, like the Soviet Union before it, its nuclear status is achieved at high cost - a cost illustrated in the famous picture above. Thus instead of backing down we should simply refuse them aid and leave them to their own devices. Their lies and evasions ought by now to have wearied us sufficiently to be wary of any contact whatsoever.

America should simply continue to guarantee protection for South Korea and leave the problem of the North to China. It is they who constantly frustrate any attempts to rein in these pariah states. All that we can do is contain them but otherwise ignore them. Every time the North Koreans let fly with one of these antagonistic assaults of one kind or another they are merely betraying their fear of being ignored. Its time we justified those fears.

China and the Art of Disappearing

Science fiction has a habit of coming true. We already have the personal communicator or mobile phone as first imagined by Star Trek when I was still in nappies. We don't yet have the next generation of phones that double as nifty badges as worn by Jean Luc and his crew but it can only be a matter of time. Stealth technology has of course been around for a time and, in a neat irony, such planes have often been mistaken for alien vessels. But apparently it is also likely that science and technology will soon be able to go one step further and make whole ships invisible to the eye as well as to radar as foreseen by Star Trek's cloaking devices or Harry Potter's invisibility cloak.

But as so often nature got there before us. There are plenty of animals that manage to disguise themselves to hide from predators or indeed from prey. The stripes on a tiger may help make them one of the most majestic, awesome and beautiful animals on the planet but they are there for an evolutionary reason.

And it seems people can do it too, although not without a great deal of effort. Wondering why I have published a picture of some supermarket shelves above? Take another look. There is a man, hiding, not behind but in front of them. His name is Liu Bolin, a Chinese artist, who painstakingly disguises himself before disappearing in his own special kind of art work. Here's another example:

And this is art with a purpose. After all being able to disappear yourself in a country like China is a useful gift to have if you don't want your leaders to do the same to you in a rather more brutal way. It would be particularly useful if, like Liu Xiabo, you are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The unfortunate Liu has instead vanished from view at the hands of his government for daring to ask for democracy and human rights. The Chinese are furious that the award has been given to him and are threatening the world of 'consequences' if they attend the prize giving ceremony. The Russians, who also disappear people of whom they disapprove, often using bullets or radioactive substances to make the disappearance permanent, have joined them in a boycott. Liu Bolin can be made to reappear by simply washing the paint off, or presumably just moving slightly.

Happily most nations have not been cowed by this attempt to bully us into acquiescence. China may be a rising power with huge economic clout and we may be unable to influence their treatment of supposed dissidents. But we can celebrate free speech and human rights by awarding prizes to whoever we like. We may have to accept their growing role on the world stage and their ability to frustrate our attempts to rein in brutal and vicious dictatorships, but we do not have to allow them to dictate to us. Their anger is a sign of their insecurity. But it is also, we should bear in mind, confirmation of their likely intent as their power grows and they seek to exercise ever greater control on the world.

China, as I never tire of warning, is a profoundly dangerous nation, not because of the proud, ingenious and hard working Chinese people but because of their arrogant, aggressive, cynical but profoundly insecure method of government. They have managed thus far, like tigers and Liu Bolin, to disguise themselves as merchants, seeking to trade with us and sell us cheap goods. But to do this they are using and abusing our own open market system against us, enriching themselves and growing their economic base. There is nothing wrong with these latter two aims. What should worry us is their method of achieving them and their intent once achieved. Lately, as seen with their crass attempts to bully Norway and the rest of the world over the Nobel Prize, their disguise has been slipping. The tiger is now charging and bearing its teeth. They are even now using their growing economic clout to outflank us diplomatically and economically. They are stealing our intellectual property and waging a cyber war against us.

We are only just starting to wake up to the possible future. But the tiger is uncomfortably close. All too often we assume it will be benign, just a creature to be wary of but to admire from a safe distance. But at the G20 last week China once again saw off any attempts to rein them in using their usual divide and rule strategy. It is high time we woke up and started to fight back. For now they are happy to merely bend the rules for their own ends. How long will it be before they ignore them altogether because they can? Imagine a new cold war but with an enemy rich and confident and with the resources of a billion plus population. The stronger they grow the more confident they get and the more assertive will be their demands curtailing our freedom of speech and awards ceremonies.

Science fiction, in addition to predicting wondrous new technologies, is also fond of gloomy stories of future nightmare visions, of dystopian states that suppress and oppress and make people disappear for real. These are easy to imagine because we see them all around us. But they are always highly unstable systems, prone to corruption and inner bickering. They always fall eventually, albeit usually after exacting a terrible price.

The irony is that China is only being successful by exploiting the openness and freedoms of western society. If we were to play them at their own game or shut them out of our markets their success story would disappear as easily as Liu Bolin. Their cynical enterprise has been wildly successful thus far because they exploit our democratic freedoms and constantly changing governments. It is why their autocratic rule remains so solid. But their success is now starting to endanger western lifestyles. The time is fast approaching when our politicians will feel obliged to respond and even retaliate. Can the Chinese respond pragmatically in that event or will their notorious pride cause their fall? It might even cause their disappearance.