Monday, 27 May 2013

War on Terror: Time to surrender?

With the latent terror threat facing the country having been brought into sickeningly sharp focus this week by the murder of Lee Rigby, is it time to question our inclusion in any overseas campaigns capable of causing blood to be spilled on pavements back home?

Amid the groundswell of public support for our servicemen and women that perhaps epitomises the finer features of our national character, David Cameron was at pains to point out that the way to truly counter terrorism is to carry on regardless. After all, if the aim of terrorism is to engender fear, then the combative reaction would be to proudly portray that it’s just business as usual. This may indeed send the message that Britain will not bow to an extremist agenda, yet it smacks a little of rationalising inactivity, and was received as such by many twitterers, bloggers and chat-room cloggers.

Inaction may be an option the Coalition can ill afford. With voters veering away to UKIP and even murmurs of malcontent beneath the front benches, the real “swivel-eyed loons” may be those who fail to factor in the mood music beyond Westminster. And you certainly can’t hear it from Ibiza.

Amid the tributes, of course, fell the predictable backlash. The Faith Matters helpline have received over 160 reports of anti-Muslim incidents since Drummer Lee Rigby was murdered, according to the BBC, up from a normal daily average of just six. Whilst ignorant and indefensible, these attacks represent a potent but poorly articulated statement of frustration that is unlikely to be appeased by a Prime Minister sunning himself on a Spanish island. Yes, we have Blackberries and the internet, so he isn’t out of signal, but worse perhaps would be out of touch.

Speaking on Sky News, before packing his sandals and sunscreen, David Cameron said; “We will never give in to terror, or terrorism, in any of its forms." Robust rhetoric, but what is the point of a stiff upper lip, if you keep getting a bloody nose?

The chilling comments of Lee Rigby’s alleged assailant show the scale of a situation that might be better side-stepped than confronted. Explaining his actions to local Cub Scout leader Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, in the aftermath of the attack, Michael Adebolajo directly cited British foreign policy, specifically the killing of “Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

If the motivation for our meddling was preventing breeding grounds for terrorism, and so keeping our streets safe back home, then the death of Lee Rigby is a cruel reminder of its abject failure.

Overseas intervention in Iraq cost the UK over £8 billion, Afghanistan looks like nearer £20 billion. The so-called 'War on Terror' has been a truly cross-party cock-up. When Tony Blair stood ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ with George Bush after 9/11, a great big target rubbed off onto all of us. Then David Cameron took office, announcing his foreign policy priorities as; “Afghanistan, Afghanistan, Afghanistan.” He has failed on all three.

Islamic extremism has been a ticking time-bomb for years. Instead of committing billions of pounds, and countless lives, in the fruitless pursuit of diffusing it, perhaps the most responsible line of defence from our leaders would be to remove the reasons we have become a target?  

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Football Violence: Sickness or Symptom

 The so-called ‘beautiful game’ is often watched by some very ugly people, but the violent scenes witnessed during the FA Cup semi-final and north-east derby at the weekend may have very little to do with football. A sporting fixture provides the forum, arguably even the catalyst, but the frustration fuelling the fighting might have roots running deeper than rivalry. As Thatcher and thuggery make a simultaneous return to the front pages, should we now expect a renaissance of the unrest that scarred our stadiums through the 1980s?

The recession of three decades ago was the deepest since World War II. Unemployment passed three million, affecting 11.9% of the working population by 1984. As manufacturing output fell, Conservative Chancellor Geoffrey Howe increased taxes and cut public spending. Against a backdrop of class division and industrial unrest, Mrs Thatcher’s government decreed that workers coming out on strike would see their benefits slashed.

It’s not entirely true to say that football is the opera of the working class, but it is perhaps no great surprise that amid deepening discontent amongst Britain’s blue collar workers, a minority would take it onto the terraces.

Whilst the overcoming of shared hardship can produce a galvanising effect, the reverse is also true. With Thatcher’s assertion that there was no such thing as society, those on the sharp end of Eighties economics were effectively told they were on their own. The politics of every-man-for-himself is always welcomed by the winners, whether it brings a Porsche and pin-stripes or buying your council house. However, the excess of the 1980s was cold comfort for those who became the first in their families not to find work waiting at the pit, plant, or factory down the street.

The violence that erupted this week at Wembley and St James’ Park was an unpleasant echo of events that saw English clubs banned from European competition for five years, following the Heysel Stadium disaster. Such scenes are inexcusable in any context, but it would be na├»ve to simply dismiss them as unfortunate side-effects of football culture.
As members of the public and parliament alike are pausing to observe the passing of an eighties icon, many are again at the mercy of economics beyond their control. The current Downing Street tenants might allege that “we are all in this together”, but they would do well to remember that for those left disenfranchised by the politics of plenty, there’s nothing quite like the poison of poverty to pierce our all too thin veil of civilisation.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Thatcher, The Marmite Baroness.

Possibly the most polarising figure of British politics across any era, Margaret Thatcher remains as divisive in death as she was in life. Wrangling over welfare cuts and simmering brinkmanship in North Korea were temporarily tossed to the inside pages, on the announcement of the former Prime Minister’s passing. The great, the good, the guarded and the grumpy, were queuing up to extol and eulogize, or verbally eviscerate. No matter what your opinion of her, it was hard not to have one.

The PM cut short his intended itinerary in Europe, dashing to Downing Street and leaving the French President without a dinner date. Pomp before politics perhaps, but he was never going to miss this moment, or worse still, leave the tribute to a Tory titan to his Lib Dem Deputy. David Cameron paid tribute to the “patriot Prime Minister”, and her “lion-hearted love of this country”, a nation he said she not only lead, but “saved”. Perhaps conscious of an impending onslaught of less obsequious outpourings, Mr Cameron concluded with a reminder that Mrs Thatcher was also “a mother and grandmother, and we should think of her family tonight.” It appears that those popping champagne corks around the lions of Trafalgar Square may not have heard him.

The emotions erupting across every social media platform in response to her death speak to the deep division Baroness Thatcher still elicits. Time has clearly not healed all wounds. The passion with which she was both praised and pilloried suggested the rupturing of ancient, long-untapped arteries of antagonism, which were more than equal to the admiration she also inspired.

Growing up as children of teachers, our standard of living stagnated as health and education spending was steadily eroded. I may have been trained to detest the avarice which underpinned Thatcher’s economic policies in the 1980s, but the enlightenment of education and adulthood furnished me with my own reasons to continue my disenchantment.

The relaxing of banking regulation in October 1986 is directly responsible for the casino culture that caused the financial crisis, and the grand privatisations just produced companies who will always put profit before investment in infrastructure and provision of affordable public services. That is why the only thing many rail commuters can rely on today is an over-inflation fare increase every January.

Those that loved Baroness Thatcher should be allowed to mourn their loss, and as for the rest of us, surely celebrating the death of an elderly grandmother has no place in a civilised society. She may have said; “there is no such thing as a society,” but that was just another thing she was wrong about.

Thatcher died in the Ritz Hotel, while many of those on the sharp end of her economic policies would be hard pushed to meet their maker in a Travel Lodge. Tormenting her memory on twitter won’t change anything, compassion and using your vote just might.  

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Happy 40th Birthday to the 'Brick'.

If your mobile phone mysteriously orders a Maserati this week, or rashly runs off with a much younger model, it could possibly point to a mid-life crisis brought on by its 40th birthday.

The very first ‘cellphone’ call was made four decades ago by senior Motorola engineer Martin Cooper to Dr Joel S. Engel, an employee of rival telecoms giant AT&T. Although pipped at the post by his pioneering counterpart, Dr Engel probably then made the second most important discovery of the day, that you can’t slam the phone down on a mobile call, to any real degree of satisfaction anyway, without breaking it. Cooper’s prototype, the catchily titled DynaTAC, was mildly more convenient than actually carrying a phonebox around with you, but weighing in at over a kilogram, not significantly lighter. 

Interviewed on Sky News, Mr Cooper said the phone was over nine inches long, and its meagre 20 minutes talk time was actually quite sufficient, because you couldn’t hold that brick up to your ear for much longer anyway. When asked for his reaction to the development of the so-called smartphone, interestingly, he said he was rather disappointed. “We are trying to build a devise that is all things for all people,” he said, “that does not allow you to do any of them really well.” As one who has never found a better way to send a number from my contacts list in a text message, other than balancing the phone precariously on my knee and scribbling the number on my hand first, I concur. That is the most frustrating telecommunications experience I have ever had, apart from the day I bought a Blackberry, and the 712 days afterwards when I had to use it.

The global population is currently believed to be around seven billion, and the International Telecommunications Union now estimates that six billion have a mobile phone. In the UK alone some 92% of us have one, and the rest probably just left theirs in their other trousers. Disappointing or otherwise, the mobile phone is now an assumed appendage to our daily faculties. But the man who made that initial pioneering call now cautions that we mould our lives around our mobiles, rather than designing them to meet our needs. “I am looking forward to big improvements in the future”, Cooper says, “mostly aimed at customising phones to people, making the phone your slave, instead of you being a slave to the phone.”      

I would think of a deeply salient point to end on, probably suggesting the modern mobile offers those with nothing positive to say, ever increasing mediums to do so, I would, but my phone’s ringing…   

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Who needs nuclear weapons anyway?

A heavily-guarded nuclear facility 150 miles south west of Tehran is now an active production plant, according to information obtained by The Telegraph. Photographs show a cloud of steam rising from the location, to which inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency have been denied access for the past 18 months. This evidence may indicate the ‘heavy-water’ production through which a nuclear rector can generate the plutonium required to produce a bomb. Either that, or someone is making an awful lot of tea.

Although Iran is not yet believed to have the technology needed to reprocess plutonium, as required for weaponry, this development will be causing headaches in high places. The Telegraph quote Mark Fitzpatrick, a former US State Department official at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, as suggesting that Iran might acquire the required reprocessing technology from North Korea.

If Mr Fitzpatrick had any evidence as to why a reclusive totalitarian regime, communist in all but name, would ably assist an Islamic Republic almost 4000 miles away, he was not letting on. However, the implication is that people we don’t like must all know each other. Worryingly reminiscent of when we were told that Saddam Hussein was best mates with al-Qaeda, so we should attack him, or them, or preferably everybody, and we all remember how that one turned out.

Back home, it seems likely the Labour Party will echo Conservative commitments to support a like-for-like replacement for Trident. The Independent report that Ed Miliband will include the maintenance of Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent in his election pledges, leaving just the Liberal Democrats ploughing a lonely furrow of cheaper alternatives.

Robust rhetoric about defence of the realm will play well in the shires, but may not be music to every ear in times of austerity. With the UK losing its AAA credit rating, national debts of £1,111 billion and counting, stalling growth and a flat-lining economy, can we really afford to spend £25 billion replacing something we never used in the first place? Germany has no nukes, but has retained its AAA rating, has a higher GDP per capita than us and a significantly more successful football team.  

Granted, with rogue states doggedly pursuing a nuclear narrative, we need major players on the world stage with suitably armed sabres to rattle when required. That is what America is for, that and the West Wing. Only nine out of 195 sovereign states on the planet have nuclear weapons, and one of them is an island just 500km across, ranked just 23rd richest in the world by the IMF, who really can’t afford them. It’s time to have a serious conversation about whether we really need an independent nuclear arsenal. Britain isn’t a bulldog anymore, it’s a Jack Russell, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s lower maintenance.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

One Billion Rising

As 109 balloons rose up into the skies above Parliament Square on Valentine’s Day morning, a billion people across the planet prepared to rise up to oppose violence against women. The brainchild of the playwright Eve Ensler, of The Vagina Monologues fame, ‘One Billion Rising’ saw women, men, and children across 203 countries take to the streets to dance in protest, in unity, and support. Statistically, one in three women will be subjected to sexual or physical violence at some time in their lives, which constitutes a billion global victims.  

The international day of action was the culmination of a project coordinated by Ensler’s ‘V-Day’ organisation, which has raised over $85 million in the last 15 years to fund education and anti-violence initiatives across the world. In addition to messages of support from world leaders including David Cameron and his Australian counterpart Julia Gillard, a sprinkling of celebrity activists like Thandie Newton and Anne Hathaway, folk of every creed and colour were galvanised into a potent display of people power, performing Debbie Allen’s spirited choreography. 

600 Egyptians danced together in western Cairo, others on the shore of The Red Sea. Human chains stretched across Dhaka, as Polish women danced inside the Warsaw Central train station. Similar scenes were witnessed in Ethiopia, India, Mexico, the Philippines, Afghanistan, along with most major cities across the western world. Eve Ensler was among the hundreds dancing in the City of Joy, the refuge for rape victims she established in the Democratic Republic of Congo, still regarded as the rape capital of the world.

Ensler described the global response to One Billion Rising as “beyond her wildest dreams,” and she is a woman who can certainly dream big. But now the dancers’ blisters are better, and the press releases have wrapped last week’s fish and chips, what should a worldwide refocusing on the issue actually look like?  

Despite warm words and admirable intentions, the pursuit of progress faces substantial stumbling blocks on both a personal and parliamentary level. In the United States, the Guardian reports Republican resistance to the Violence Against Women’s Act, because its proposed legal protections would extend to undocumented immigrants. Would that equate to an essential economic adjustment in times of austerity? Or proof that only in a puppet democracy do human rights come with strings attached?

Our political representatives have long had an ability to water down a bit of people power into policy impasse. Just as appalling, however, were the unpublishable utterings of a knuckle dragging minority on twitter, poignantly proving the need for the project they so poisonously opposed. 

As parents, we are patently aware that whilst our offspring may not always adhere to what we tell them, all too often they hear what we say. Whether we like it or not, that puts fathers in the frontline when it comes to instilling in our sons an ingrained acceptance and respect for the women and girls around us, which endures no matter how bad your day, or how much you drink. When that respect becomes as deep and dependable in our young men's lives as the very blood in their veins, then a lot less will be spilled.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

One MP, Two Partners, and Those Pesky Penalty Points.

Note to self, Mr Huhne, when involving ones wife in a minor criminal cover-up, greater care should be taken not to leave her afterwards.

Having given up his cabinet post, and resigned as MP for Eastleigh, Chris Huhne’s diary must be about as empty as his laundry basket, now the contents have received a thorough airing in court. With hindsight, the former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change may wish he had just taken the penalty points himself, when caught speeding on the M11 back in 2003. Such was the crowded nature of his driving licence at the time, however, that it would likely have meant him losing it. Achieving his parliamentary ambitions may have proved improbable from the back of a taxpayer funded taxi, granted, but swapping Her Majesty’s Government for staying at Her Majesty’s pleasure would kick his goal of being Lib Dem party leader into considerably longer grass.

Having changed his plea to guilty, for perverting the course of justice, Mr Huhne has now popped home to pack his pyjamas. He will be sentenced at a later date, the judge having told him to “have no illusions” regarding what awaits him.  His ex-wife, meanwhile, former joint head of the UK Government Economic Service, Vicky Pryce, is pleading not guilty to a similar charge, citing marital coercion. The couple divorced in January 2011, when details came to light of an affair between Chris Huhne and PR adviser Carina Trimingham, his current partner.

The jury at Southwark Crown Court has heard recorded phone conversations between the former couple, secretly set up with the able assistance of Sunday Times Political Editor Isabel Oakeshott. The expletive ridden excerpts appear to chart Ms Pryce’s attempts to entice her ex-husband into admitting to their driving deception, albeit with limited success.

Whatever the outcome in court, they will be not be the first couple to have played pass the penalty points, nor the last to break up due to a husband’s unreliable underpants. But the fact that the former Secretary of State apparently got right through Westminster School and Oxford University without learning the phrase; “hell hath no furry like a woman scorned”, may be as big a mystery as how he thought he could possibly get away with it all.  

The case continues, his political career may not.