Monday, January 31, 2011


Neocons Must Surely See Irony of Arab Revolutionary Activity

Along with most freedom supporting westerners I'm heartened by the changes in Tunisia and more recently the events in Egypt. Mubarak is an autocratic dinosaur who has persistently manipulated elections and employed repressive police methods including routine use of torture to extend his undistinguished years in power. Egypt has a huge wealth and income gap and the ruling elite is notoriously corrupt.

I've just seen Tony Blair saying Mubarak's fall is 'inevitable' and wondered if he and the US neo-cons he was so close to have reflected on the fact that their project seems to have been superseded by a more 'natural' political process. Rumsfeld and his cronies believed Iraqis would spontaneously rise up and welcome the western invaders rather than see them as, well, western invaders. Secondly they believed -Bush too- that a democracy in Iraq would establish a template others would seek to emulate, producing over time a democratic Middle East which it was assumed would be pro western.

Well, the crazy optimism of these assumptions has been exposed many times over by events yet now we see the possible beginnings of the very movement so desired by the neo-cons. One is tempted to think: 'If only they had waited a few years...'. It's kind of reminiscent too of the revolutions in Eastern Europe when the Iron Curtain came rattling down in the late 1980s. But there is no bipolar world divide this time and the radical Islamist threat is a new spectre sitting at the international table. The strength of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a danger that Egypt could go the way of Lebanon where Hamas represents a distinctly undemocratic tradition. Israel and the US are clearly on tenterhooks, divided between welcoming the fall of a reviled autocrat and anxiety at the potential loss of a staunch ally.

Will Mubarak survive? I rather doubt it now but the awful Burmese leadership does so unabashed having outfaced a popular uprising, not to mention fellow geriatric Mugabe. Old Hosni is no doubt cognisant of his fellow autocrats' survival as well as what happened to the likes of Saddam Hussein, Caesescu and the like. He will hold on till the last but the role of the army will be crucial. So far it has seemed very happy to mingle in friendly fashion withe demonstrators but tomorrow's mooted one million people march could prove the decisive event for the future of Egypt and possibly the wider Middle East.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


Most Convincing Proof Yet Against Blair on Iraq

I have to confess that once I was a big fan of Tony Blair and somewhat credulously believed he was above mendacity or even obfuscation. I was a long time worried over Iraq until I came finally to judge the adventure a disaster. Despite the need to rid the world of Saddam there were practical politics questions which were criminally ignored.

Even recently, afrer reading Rawnsley, Campbell, Mandelson and Blair himself, I wanted to believe he genuinely tried to achieve peace before resorting to war. However all my excuses for Blair were blown away by the recent accounts of the two former secretaries to the Cabinet. These guys are the nerve centre of government decision-making and usually have a high respect for the truth. I was myself a civil servant long enough, moreover, to know how loyalty to elected ministers is bred deeply into the DNA of such folk. It must have taken quite a series of transgressions to elicit such sweeping condemnations.

Their first charge was that the Cabinet had to choose between attacking Iraq or bringing down the PM: it was virtually asking them to sanction the sabotage of their own government. Andrew Turnbull(who entered Whitehall the same year as myself I add irrelevantly), said:

"None of those key [Whitehall] papers were presented to the cabinet so I do not accept the former prime minister's claim they knew the score ... That isn't borne out by what actually happened,"

Sir David Wilson, Turnbull's predecessor, said that if asked whether there were "proper cabinet" decisions in the run-up to war, he would say "emphatically not".

As for the rest of the Cabinet? Apart from Robin Cook, Turnbull felt there seemed to be no cavil at being kept in the dark while Tony plotted war with his inner circle. The following damning indictment by Wilson is worth quoting at length:

"This cabinet allowed Mr Blair to be extremely strong. He was extremely strong in parliament, in public opinion, in the trade union movement, in the Labour party and in his cabinet – with the exception of Gordon Brown. There was a mismatch between what the prime minister's thinking was and how much he shared with his colleagues ... By summer [2002] he had largely made up his mind when his colleagues were a long way behind... Discussions of military options were promised but did not happen."

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Consensus Seems tro be Emerging that Coalition's Strategy is Economically Illiterate

One of my regular partisan commenters accuses me in my last post of leaving 'so many open goals in my postings'. Well of course, I don't think I do. But I suppose I'm constantly dealing in an area where opinion is sharply divided so what seems like solid argument to one is an open goal to another. However, sometimes opinion coalesces on issues to provide some sort of consensus. And it looks like just such a consensus is beginning to form over Dave and George's so-called economic strategy. The surprise 0.5% contraction during the last quarter when some had predicted a 0.7 increase has set all kinds of ripples in motion, most of them of a right of centre nature. Let me mention a few of them.

1. Governor of Bank of England Mervyn King, staunch defender of Osborne's dash to austerity strategy, warned that workers were going to suffer 'the sharpest fall in real wages since the 1920s'.

2. 'It certainly adds to the risk of a double dip recession given the coming squeeze on the consumer from higher taxes and prices and reduced welfare benefits' said John Hawkesworth, chief economist at PwC.

3. 'The figures have all but wrecked Mr Osborne's plan to declare victory over both Labour and the dangers of a double dip recession before the local elections on May 5'(Grainne Gilmore and Roland Watson, The Times)

4. Even the Times's much respected and distinguished economics expert Anatole Kaletsky who cxomments on Osborne's 'controversial economic theory'

'This is the idea that private citizens and business will increase spending even as their incomes are cut by higher taxes and reductions in government spending.'

5. Sir Richard Lambert, outgoing chief of the CBI slammed the government not for lacking a strategy on cuts but for lacking a clear strategy on growth.

Rather than a big picture of the kind of economic eco-system that the Government wants to champion, we are left with a few rather vague ideas about the scope for supporting a number of predictable sectors, and the promise that more ideas will be forthcoming at the time of the spring budget".

6. George Soros, the world famed Financial guru seems to think a double dip is inevitabe:

"I think they may be right in embarking on it [the austerity programme] but I think they will probably have the sense that they will have to modify it when the effects are felt, I don't think it can possibly be implemented without pushing the economy into a recession. We will have to see it unfold. My expectation is that it will prove to be unsustainable."

I could go on, extracting quotes from the Telegraph and other right of centre publications but I feel sure Ed Balls is licking his lips as he sees Osborne struggling to excuse his cock up economics by blaming the snow. Already the public seems to be receptive to an alternative message. A Sunday Times poll asked respondents about the speed of expenditure cuts. Only 30% thought Osborne's rate appropriate while 52% thought them 'too quick and risk recession.' Oh boy! This government's troubles are only just beginning. The worrying thing is that we are all going to suffer as a result of these millionaire dilletante politicians' total lack of economic common sense.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


UK Economy Looks Even More Fragile After Shock Figures

Today's figures make grim reading for the Coalition government. Osborne plugs the excuse that it was the snow which caused it. He would say that I suppose but nerves must be jangling a bit around the Cabinet table. Especuially as once the effects of the bad weather are allowed for, the ONS still sees a 'flattish' growth picture.

This must be an opportunity for Ed Balls to advance his analysis that the cuts have been too far and too fast to the extent that our fragile economy might be pushed back into recession.

Hopes for the present quarter as scarcely bullish given the increase to 20% VAT, flat retail sales and the effects of the cuts beginning to be felt. Another quarter of shrinkage and the government will begin to look pretty feeble; Labour's alternative analysis will be looked at more closely as unemployment climbs, saving levels languish and spending power declines. Bob Carnell economist at ING Bank comments:

“These initial GDP figures are based on a fairly narrow series of production indicators and it is probable that the expenditure-based GDP figures in the next release will be less dismal. But with public spending cuts set to bite this year into what already looks a fairly soft starting point, concern over the effect of the UK’s ambitious budget restraint on its growth could begin to mount and willingness to hold sterling-based assets deteriorate.”

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Coulson Resignation Only the Beginning for Cameron

Finally the logic of his situation seems to have occurred to Andy Coulson, as well as the rest of the non Murdoch, seeing -the world -as -it -is community. It always seemed to me no editor could possibly not know how his big stories - costing quite a wedge of cash- were coming from. Moreover, evidence that the hacking operation involved hundreds of people makes it clear this was something that was common knowledge within the NOW st-up.

It was disingenuous in the extreme for Coulson and Cameron to act as if he had been somehow unfairly hounded from office. I wouldn't be surprised either if some major revelation is somewhere in the pipeline which proves culpability. Whatever, the future could see Coulson ending up in court facing the same questions as his former imprisoned colleagues. Cameron's judgment has rightly come under scrutiny and I wonder how he'll cope on his own now. According to one view he found it hard to sleep when he and Coulson disagreed over something major. As for a replacement I see various names are being mooted but my eyebrows raised skywards when I saw the name of Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes, being tipped. If a blogger is being considered, I'm sure Iain Dale would be a much better bet.

Finally, on 6th September last year I led with a headline: 'Sooner or Later Coulson is Toast'. A couple of rightwing commenters dismissed this 'reheated' story as trivial and nowhere near 'explosive' as I had described it when only The Guardian seemed to think it worth column inches. Paul Linfod, excellent fellow blogger, came to my support at the time and has also been vindicated. Well, I tend to avoid triumphalism in all aspects of my life -not that I get much opportunity to indulge such a sentiment at the best of times. But on this occasion may I say to them quietly and very sincerely: 'I did try to tell you'.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Johnson's Resignation Probably Serendipitous

Nobody, at the time of writing, knows why Alan Johnson has resigned as Shadow Chancellor. His opponents will say it's because he wasn't really making much of an impact and there is something in that jibe. Johnson is immensely likable and, possibly through his remarkable provenance, able to engage voters across the social gamut. However, when Gordon was that awful clunking millstone around the party's neck- I calculate from June 2007 to May 2010- Alan showed little sign he was inclined to take on the top job. A nice guy not cut out for conflict at the very top? I guess and suspect so.

As for Balls, there is no doubt he is itching to express an aggression which seems to be a natural characteristic. Tony Blair had occasion to feel the edge of his tongue, and allegedly Ed Balls did not always get on well, in the court of Gordon, with the man who is now his party leader. During the leadership campaign Balls was far and away the candidate who, whilst campaigning, managed to land blows on the new coalition government. I think he'll make a big difference.

There is no doubting the success of the coalition in winning the battle of who is to blame for the recession. Cameron, Clegg and Osborne have hammered away at the line that Labour's gross overspending caused the deficit whereas the truth is that the US banking caused the recession and that in turn caused revenue to dry up for the Treasury resulting in the need for massive borrowing both to bail out the banks and maintain public services. Labour recognised the need to retrench- as Darling repeated many times, though his remedy was to halve the deficit by 2015 not eliminate it. His argument- and that of some Lib Dems at the time- was that savage cuts would throw people out of work and risk frecession or at best glacial economic growth. Darling never won the argument and after the election the coalition succeeded in imposing its view of history. This has subsequently provided the rationale for everything that the government has done in terms of its programme of cuts to 'sort out the mess Labour left'.

One of the reasons Labour lost this vital trick, is that it was distracted by its leadership contest. Ed Miliband, arriving late in the day, hoped that appointing Johnson would help win back lost ground and erode the strength of the government's economic narrative. Johnson just was not up to it, I fear and Labour, whilst not languishing in the polls, has made no real inroads into the idea that the Con-Lib-Dem coalition has the best ideas on economic policy. Miliband probably wanted to avoid placing a rival in such a powerful position, as well as avoid the embarrassment of favouring Ed Balls's wife, Yvette Copper, for the top economic post.

Now the proper progression of events has occurred and I think it'll be for the best, t5hough the government will insist it's 'Brown's team back in charge of Labour's economic policy'. Already Balls is insisting it 'does not have to be like this' on all the airwaves available. As the cuts drive ever deeper, it could well be that this more loudly asserted message will replace the present narrative. As to the real reason why Johnson resigned? Unless he decided to fall on his sword, not a clue.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


Shocking Story of UK Tax Havens

What you see on the left is a picture of a beach on The Cayman Islands, probably the most active tax haven in the world. It features prominently in a well reviewed book by Nicholas Shaxon, Treasure Islands: Tax Havens and the Men Who Stole the World (Bodley Head). Extracts from the book were published in The Guardian recently. It reveals that, contrary to impressions given by international denunciations in 2008 and 2009, the offshore system has by no means been dismantled. It is in fact stronger than ever. More than half of all world trade passes through the offshore system; over half of all banking assets not to mention a third of foreign direct investment by multinationals. Shaxon reckons this system denies taxpayers the world over some £1000 billion- a sum too large even to contemplate its worth in terms of poverty alleviated or hospital/schools built.

He describes how the City of London is at the heart of this colossal corrupt system which has its origins in the activities of US gangsters seeking to launder crime proceeds to make them legitimate. To do this the British colony of Bermuda was first used but when that became too hot they moved to the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean. Despite its tiny population(30,000) these mosquito ridden islets are nominally home to 800,000 registered companies all of them paying virtually no tax. Cayman is now the world's 5th largest financial centre hosting three quarters of the world's hedge funds and $1.9 trillion on deposit, four times as much as New York banks.Wealthy people own about $11.5 trillion in offshore tax havens- one quarter of all global wealth. In 2006 700 of Britain's biggest businesses paid no tax at all in the UK.

Shaxon also relates how the British Establishment have regarded the tax havens UK has long sheltered in the inner ring of Jersey, Gernsey, Isle of Man and its residual overseas territories in the Caribbean:

In the archives, two schools of opinion emerge within the British civil service. On one side sits the Treasury, and especially its tax collectors in the Inland Revenue, who virulently opposed tax havenry and found the Cayman Islands especially obnoxious. The US authorities were clearly highly vexed too, and the British Foreign Office broadly opposed havenry, though its position was more nuanced.

On the other side sits the Bank of England, the most vociferous cheerleader for the new arrangements, and its far less influential supporter, the British overseas development ministry, which seems unperturbed by the possibility that local tax haven activities might foster massive capital flight from developing countries elsewhere.

Leona Helmsley, the billionaire property owner infamously once said: 'We don't p[ay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes...' Some people argue tax rates are so high that people have been forced into tax havens. Hmmm. How come people with so much money are 'forced' to store huge amounts of their cash in this way while still benefiting from the things taxes buy for the places where they live? And what about those fast cats who pay no tax at all? What's that got to do with the 'politics of envy' the swipe used by so many apologists for a system which enriches the few to such unjustifiable levels?

Friday, January 14, 2011


Arizona Shootings, Sarah Palin and Rightwing Rhetoric

Those of us this side of the Atlantic who despair at some aspects of American society have had more cause for head-shaking over the bullets recently fired by 22 year old Jed Loughram in Tucson Arizona. Six innocent people were killed and left Congresswoman Giffords fighting for her life. It often seems this vast, anarchic, highly libertarian country has more than its fair share of people eager to project their mental instability onto the public realm. Given this tendency we can only deplore the outpourings of the Republicn rightwing- Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the inimitable Sarah Palin- to clothe their diatribes in terms of violent insurrection. They have seemed to fix in their minds the idea that Obama represents a tyrannical government intent upon subverting the constitution. The Economist notes:

Right-wing radio and television hosts routinely indulge in the language of armed resistance to the tyranny that resides in Washington, DC, as though Barack Obama were a reincarnation of the hated King George III and they were the heroes of the revolution.

Foremost amongst such 'patriotic' voices is that of former Governor Palin. She recently exhorted her followers not to 'retreat but to reload' but more irresponsibly issued a map on here website indicating locations of Democratic representatives who had supported health reform with the cross-hairs of a rifle sight. Undaunted by the criticism she has received, Palin counter accused her critics of as 'blood libel', an extraordinary statement given its overtones:

it refers to the false accusation that Jews killed Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals. Giffords, who remains in critical condition after being shot in the head, is the first Jewish congresswoman from Arizona.

One possible silver lining of this awful affair is suggested by the excellentJonathan Freedland. He suggests that should she ever become her party's presidential nominee, she would be challenged constantly by the image of that map which arguably incited her followers to aim one of the personal arsenal of weapons which all these people are proud to own at the stricken Giffords. Maybe it's too big a stretch to blame Palin for the gunman's actions but its the kind of stretch Limbaugh and company constantly enjoin their followers to believe about Obama being a Muslim, a communist an so forth. It might just, as Freedland suggests, disqualify this loosest of cannons from ever entering the White House.

The Economist however, thinks the 'blame game' is misdirected: its cross-hairs should instead be centered over US liberal gun laws. It eloquently states its case:

In no other decent country could any civilian, let alone a deranged one, legally get his hands on a Glock semi-automatic. Even in America, the extended 31-shot magazine that Mr Loughner used was banned until 2004. As the Brady Centre, established after the Reagan shooting to commemorate one of its victims, has noted, more Americans were killed by guns in the 18 years between 1979 and 1997 than died in all of America’s foreign wars since its independence. Around 30,000 people a year are killed by one of the almost 300m guns in America—almost one for every citizen. Those deaths are not just murders and suicides: some are accidents, often involving children.

Well said.

Sunday, January 09, 2011


'Old and Sad' Contest set to be Intriguing Test for Coalition... and for Labour Too

The 1962 Orpingtpon by election is one of my earliest political memories. The plucky, but rather wet, Liberal, Eric Lubbock, rode a huge 30% swing to defeat the Tory and we all- or most of us I recall- cheered. Since then Liberals and their current incarnation, the Lib Dems, have licked their lips at by elections, anticipating a chance to feature, to be the recipient of a protest vote against a nasty uncaring government. However, as Andrew Rawnsley points out today, Thursday's Oldham and Saddleworth by election is the first time for aeons the party or its ancestors, have actually been in government and the situation they face is just a little bit different.

When it was first called, they seemed to think that they could fight in the traditional Liberal way: as the plucky outsider taking on one of the brutal, gnarled Goliaths... But how the byelection came about has been swiftly trumped by a more contemporary fact: the Lib Dems are a party of government. The hunters have become the hunted. The brilliant insurgents of past byelections are now the embattled defenders of a record.

Ranwsley argues that all three leaders have quite a bit at stake in the contest. Clegg because it is the first time the much anticipated collapse in his party's support as a result of joining the Tories, will be measured electorally. For Miliband, because his stewardship of Labour will also be tested. And for Cameron as his junior but vitally important ally's fate is integrally linked to that of the government he leads. He has done his best to stand back and allow Clegg's man a free run but as his own party was only a couple of thousand votes shy of the Labour winner last May, their will be jagged edges to feelings within his own party if Lib Dems win and within Lib Dems if they do not, especially if, disastrously, they are beaten into third place.

So what do the Polls say? Well, it's looking good for Labour at the moment. One poll gives it, Labour, 46, Lib Dems, 29, Tories 15. An ICM poll in another paper gave it as, 44, 27, 18. 28% o0f voters say they are switching to Labour, so unhappy were they over the breaking of the tuition fees pledge. A Labour victory, after their own man was found guilty of lying about his Lib Dem opponent, would be a pretty sorry way for the governmemt to start the new year.

Saturday, January 08, 2011


Oh Joy! Cricket Result is Out of this World

Apologies for my absence- I've just returned from a few days in Barcelona but forgot to flag it up on the site in the getting away rush. Upon my return I have just spent five hours glued to the telly watching recorded highlights of the Sydney test. Odd? Crazy? Probably, but sporting enthusiasm is nothing to do with rationality. During the nineties I visited West Indies, South Africa and Australia at a cumulative cost of over £14,000 to watch England sides lose hopelessly, including that historic innings dismissal for 46 courtesy Curtly Ambrose at Port of Spain.

The Brisbane loss in 1994 was no less painful. I remember an Aussie pundit opining that Michael Slater was the worst fielder in their team yet he was better than any in the Pom side. Probably true too at the time. At the end of the full series another pundit wrote that there were only two successes for England: Darren Gough and the Barmy Army. Well, times have changed a bit; Goughy has departed into dancing celebrity but the BA has graduated into a first class truly dedicated fighting unit. Revenge is so sweet. Not that cricket lovers genuinely hate the Aussies; we only pretend to in a pantomime kind of way.

Just for the record, the admirable things I saw in this England side were as follows:

1. The fielding was top notch throughout. it's the symbol of a team's professionalism and every fielder ran flat out for every ball and backed up in exemplary fashion. The catching not unrelatedly, led by the outstanding Collingwood, was out of this world.

2. The mental attitude was rock solid. As someone who used to get anxious myself at my own feeble attempts to play the sport, I was full of admiration for the likes of Strauss, Trott, Swann, Anderson as they remained ice-cool as the tension ratcheted up in front of massive crowds. Though it was interesting how they melted away as the visitors tightened the screw.

3. Strauss proved himself an excellent skipper. I was impressed by his sound judgement over use of the review system, seldom wasting an appeal and sensing when the ball had brushed shirt or pad rather than bat.

4. Of course the batting was exceptional with Cook a revelation- an average of 128 speaks for itself but four others averaged over 50.

5. And the bowling of course was key. To win three times by an innings is just unheard of.

Overall, it is fair to say, we played not like England, but like Australia: aggressive, meticulous, with cohesive teamwork and the ruthlessness which marks out top teams. Australia were a shadow it's true, but only last year, recall, they beat the formidable South Aficans and were by no means a pushover. England was just too good, something I did not think I'd ever say.

Of their team I thought Shane Watson was a bit unfairly criticised by our pundits: he did score nearly 435 runs at just under 50 and often looked threatening with the bat though seldom with the ball. Finally, I'm not sure the Aussies lost with any real grace. Ponting was very generous I thought but his team mates were churlish in not applauding Cook's magnificent Sydney knock and Hughes' attempt to claim a catch he knew had bounced was quite shameful.

Saturday, January 01, 2011


Me, the Empire and the Island of Rockall

This image staring out at me from today's Guardian brought back some memories I have to say. It seems that Rockall now might be sitting atop billions of quids worth of oil. For an inglorious two years of my life I worked in the MOD as a trainee top civil servant(I found I was wholly unsuited, so left in 1972). I worked in DS5 during 1971, the policy division advising on naval policy and worked for a while alongside Kevin Tebbitt, later the department's permanent secretary (and someone whose brilliance, I recall, was matched only by his casual arrogance). The job was disappointingly ghastly for one of my administrative autism; the only interesting job I remember doing was organizing the naval expedition to Rockall in 1971. The idea was to follow up the formal annexation of the island in 1955 with an act which I think reinforced the idea that any underlying mineral resources would legally be British and not Irish, Icelandic or Danish, depending which countries claim to the island one supported.

The Royal Auxiliary Suppport Ship, RFA Engadine, was the ship chosen to sail into Rockall's awfully stormy seas to effect the installation by Royal Marines of a navigation beacon. As the Whitehall desk man I was asked if I'd like to be the on-board coordinator; given only 30 days of the year are storm free, I declined, wisely I think though certainly not bravely. The exercise was duly carried out and my humble desk-bound preparations were rewarded by a prime place on the 6 o'clock news on the day the job was done. It now seems all that fuss was to no avail as mineral rights do not extend beneath islands: The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, states that:

"Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf."

So all that effort was wasted as well as condemned as 'an act of vandalism' by John Vidal, also in today's Guardian. I have two further memories of the episode. Firstly a member of the public, a Mr Bizony, wrote in asking to be included in the expedition and I, impressed by his amateur enthusiasm, worked hard and eventually successfully to get him accepted on board- the naval professionals were quite sniffy about it initially.

Secondly, a few days after the expedition my opposite number in the DTI Lighthouses section rang to ask when we were going to organise next years trip. Next year? Oh my god! said my superiors, can't do that, need ships for training defending the country sort of thing. Well, said the DTI, we need to do annual visits to change the batteries in the beacon or it'll stop operating. Change the batteries? why didn't you tell us? Well, we thought it was so obvious we didn't need to.Vidal said the beacon 'probably never worked. I think I know why: nobody had thought that the batteries needed changing. The sort of minor but embarrassing oversight which happens in government every day but which rarely comes to light.

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