Thursday, December 31, 2009


Bush Could but Wouldn't- Obama Would but Can't

Timothy Garton-Ash today explores a theme appropriate for the end of the first decade of the 21st century: the plethora of world problems and the dearth of available answers. God knows, we have enough problems within our own small island but as TGA points out:

We face more and more risks, threats and challenges that affect people in one country – say, Britain – but originate mainly or entirely in other countries, and can only be addressed by many countries working together. That is true of the financial crisis, organised crime, mass migration, global warming, pandemics and international terrorism, to name but a few. The need for international co-operation has never been greater, but the supply has not kept up with the demand. In some areas, we have more international co-operation than we had 10 or 20 years ago. In important ways, however, it has become more difficult to achieve.

One of the reasons for this is that the dispostions of power in the world is currently undergoing rapid change. It is moving from the west to the east with new centres emerging to the south in the form of Brazil and maybe in good time South Africa. But it is China that is the most powerful new player and, perhaps, the most inscrutably hard to read. Before Copenhagen, China was declaring it would make huge emission cuts but, come the day, it chose to wreck the conference for apparently short-term advantage. When emergent powers jostle for their place in the world order, wars often have resulted in the past- great delicacy and skill will be needed to negotiate the next few years. Obama is in the right place at the right toime for this role.

In retrospect, we can see even more clearly that the eight Bush years were such a calamity. Even a former member of that administration, Richard Haas, describes it as a 'decade of strategic distraction'- it was just another casualty of Bush's total(criminal?) lack of vision and proper perception of how the world was. TGA hopes that the USA,China and EU- producers of half the world's GDP, will increasingly work together rather than wrestle for supremacy. My fear is that EU, as was the case at Copenhagen, will be sidelined for lack of a coherent point of view.

This is where I cannot understand the idiocy of the Eurosceptics, who fear the dominance of a more integrated Europe. What is needed is not less but more power for the EU to articulate our regional political and economic interests in a way which prevents the emergence of another bipolar world, with China taking the place once occupied by the USSR.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Gary Tanaka- A Miscarriage of Justice?

I don't usually focus on individual cases in my blog but a friend of mine, Paul Haigh,has recently written a piece on Gary Tanaka, someone he met through his journalist activities. He feels Tanaka has been the victim of a shameful miscarriage of justice and is trying to publicie the case. Tanaka was co-founder, with Alberto Vilar of Amerindo Investments in 1985 has been the victim of a quite extraordinary miscarriage of justice.

In 2005, Tanaka was arrested with Vilar for allegely diverting millions of dollars of investor's money for personal use. Having read Haigh's piece it certainly seems that Tanaka has been unjustly bracketed with Vilar- who was found guilty on all 12 charges- when he had little or no day to day contact with him- living in a Britain and Vilar in the USA- and was by no means closely acquainted with his partner's business activities.

Tanaka was found guilty on three charges out of the 12 but this was enough to remove his credibility as a businessman; Haigh argues this was essentially brought about through 'guilt by association'. The main complainant against him, Lily Cates Naify, actually did not lose any of the $6m she invested in his company, as Haigh's article makes clear. Since then Tanaka has been surviving cancer- successfully as it happens- and living, for four years under virtual house arrent as the glacially moving US legal system continues to wait to announce any sentence.

Having read- admittedly only a little- about the case there seems, prime facie, to have been a mistake made born of the witchhunt atmosphere generated by the fiancial scandals of the noughties, beginning with Enron and continuing most recently with the banking crisis. Nobody could deny that public anger against the corporate villains of Enron or indeed our very own Sir Fred Goodwin, was not justified, but along with the guilty such public groundswells can also include the perfectly innocent.

Sunday, December 27, 2009


'Voters Don't Do Gratitude'

Andrew Rawnsley, today, produces his usual well balanced analysis of the political situation on the cusp of 2009-10. He sees the next election as one likely to set records:

1. If Labour win it will be their first ever 4th term victory. I think this highly unlikely. Voters are tired of Labour who they do not feel have governed with conspicuous skill and are also held responsible, wrongly, for the economic crisis. Moreover, Brown has not been able to knit together a vote-winning narrative about 'weathering the storm' of a massive worldwide crisis and when asked a huge majority of voters would hate to see him lead Labour into another win say pollsters. Even if Brown tries the 'I saved us' line Rawnsley observes: 'Voters, generally, don't do gratitude.'

2. To win the Tories need to win 117 seats, whilst not losing any of the ones they already have. A very big ask. They have not managed this since 1931 when circumstances were uniquely different. Ideally they need to take the 5% presently being claimed by the 'other' smaller parties and to lean too much in the direction of UKIP or BNP would repel the centrist votes they also really need.

3. We have not had a hung parliament since 1974, but if we do the Liberal Democrats might see an opportunity to form a coalition government. Clegg says he'd support the party with the 'strongest mandate', wisely probably, not specifying if this could be measured in votes or seats.

4. Rawnsley concludes by hoping disillusion with politicians and the political process does not produce a new low in terms of turn-out.

For this last to be minimised all parties need to appeal to the whole electorate. However, Rawnsley notes signs that Brown, perhaps mindful of a looming defeat, is pursuing a 'core vote' strategy-Labour's is about a quarter of all voters- through such policies as sustaining spending and playing up the 'class war' themes which activists love. This strategy risks a retreat into Labour heartlands and probably, a minimum two-term absence from power. For me, however, the most chilling section of the article Brown can read is this:

My friends in the polling industry tell me that no prime minister has been as unpopular as Gordon Brown and gone on to win the subsequent election. Nor has there ever been a four-term Labour government. In fact, only the Tories have won a fourth consecutive election in more than 140 years. So two very big records have to be smashed for Labour to win.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


Hooray! Obama Wins Huge Health Reform Victory

Those of us who stand in Obama's corner on all the big issues are so relieved he has secured most of what he was after in terms of health care reform. The USA spends double on health than UK, France and Germany and yet

lags behind other countries in life expectancy and infant mortality, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Assuming the bill eventually becomes law, which now seems likely, 31 million US citizens will be covered by health insurance, leaving only five million still outside the system. I feel so pleased because:

i) No Democratic predecessor has succeeded with this symbolic area of social care- it nearly did for Clinton in 1992.

ii) Having invested so much political capital in the issue it was crucial for Obama to win the fight, especially after his less than successful foray to Copenhagen.

iii) It has dished the miserable rightwingers who view any advance in social provision as steps on the road to communism or some such ridiculous rubbish. They also misrepresented the NHS as part of their shameful campaign. Republicans, aided by their rich friends in the private health business, used every trick in the book to frustrate this necessary reform.

iv) Most important, a group of people half the size of our population will be freed of the fear they might bercome ill and have no recourse to treatment.

I am so delighted the forces of darkness have been defeated, despite Obama's falling popularity ratings. I feel sure this meassure will go down as a historic advance for the disadvantaged millions of the USA.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


Televised Debates At Long Last

It's hard for some of us this side of the Atlantic to accept America is more democratic than we are. Left influenced perspectives offer a dominant business sector and a much more rightwing political culture in the USA. Some Brits like to think their Mother of Parliaments makes them automatically more democratic. But the USA elects both its legislature and executive and a host of offices in towns and cities which in UK are appointed. They also have primaries to select candidates, including 'open' primaries in which all voters and not just party members can participate. It's only in the voting system- first past the post- that America can chiefly be criticised for being undemocratic.

It should, perhaps, be mentioned that the knowledge base of the electorate, is miserably poor in both countries, though, in my experience, US voters appear to be even less informed than ours. The announcement yesterday however, that we will indeed have televised debates accompanying our 2010 election campaign is a step in the right democratic direction. The USA introduced such events as far back as 1960. We do take our time.

Will the debates prove pivotal? The most recent polls suggest little will deny Cameron his victory in May next year. A brief lift for Labour has been crushed by a sudden and deep fall in economic optimism amongst voters and it would be hard to see any realistic way back from here, whatever happens in the debates. There remain a number of problems to be sorted out regarding the inclusion of nationalst party leaders,and the question of policy debates betwween ministers and shadow ministers. But I see this innovation to be important for the future- it will hence-forwards become a regular feature of our elections as in the USA and other countries. In 1960 66 million watched the debates out of a 179 million population- in 2000 the it was 80million out of 226; I expect a similar mega audience for our first broadcasts.

Who will do best? Cameron is the most nimble and destructively witty but Brown has formidable strengths too in terms of his impressive policy expertise. However Cameron will probably win the 'image' contest as Gordon seriously lacks visual charisma. Clegg, gaining a huge boost by the inclusion of the often marginalised Lib Dems, and good on camera, might surprise us all. I wonder, though, how he will manage to maintain his alleged neutrality in the event of a hung parliament when his party is so close to Labour on so many issues?

The outcome may disappoint us all though. US presidential debates are often really boring and the advantage, as an American academic student of such debates tells us, lies in avoiding mistakes rather than landing knock-out blows.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Quite a bit of discussion about the case of Munir Hussein, the man whose family was tied up at knifepoint and threatened with death by burglars after they returned home late to their home after Ramadan prayers in 2008. One of his sons managed to free himself, alerted Munir's brother, Tokeer, whose rescue caused the thieves to flee. Munir and his brother gave chase, caught
Walid Salem and thereupon beat him so severely with a cricket bat that they broke it and inflicted brain damage severe enough to prevent the admitted thief from pleading.

But it was the sentences which have caused the uproar. Munir and his brother were judged to have used excessive force and were given custodial sentences of 30 and 39 months respectively. Walid, a career criminal, was given a suspended sentence and will spend his Christmas with his family. What do you think?

A clear case of injustice, says Jenni Russell, in the ST thinks they should not have been given any time at all but Catherine Bennett in the Observer, calls them 'vigilantes' and argues the law worked in this case just as it should. Bennett is right in that the letter of the law was followed but only in the way which makes a royal ass of it. Russell was closer I think. I'd have thought a nominal sentence of a month or so would have been about right for Munir and his brother plus something custodial for Walid too. This was an appalling decision which will encourage law breakers to continue with impunity and their innocent victims to accept such attacks with impotent passivity.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Obama Effectively 'Managing Disappointment'

Jonathan Freedland today offers a shrewdly accurate take on Obama's role in the world during the one year he has presided as the most powerful man in the world. Many of us- me included- were so delighted to get rid of the awful Bush, that we expected far too much of the raw new incumbent. We felt sure the world was now changed and for the better- and it was, but not, it has transpired, by much.

We have seen how his priority measure- health reform- has dragged its way through Congress, with no guarantee a unified bill will emerge before Christmas. We have seen how he has planned to disengage from Iraq -but the slaughter on the streets of Baghdad is by means ended. We have seen the 'surge' of another 30,000 troops for Afghanistan but frew expect things to turn around there anytime soon.

And we have seen how his hands are tied in Copenhagen. The man who wanted to save the world and whose supporters naively thought would set about doing so, has very little to offer the planet, despite being the leader of the biggest polluter on it. We need to go back to Kyoto though to realise Obama's problem here. Al Gore's promises at Kyoto in 1997 were rejected by the Senate 95 to zero. As Freedland explains:

The men and women of the US senate are, after all, only reflecting the people who vote for them. The latest BBC World Service global poll showed US concern about climate change among the lowest in the world, with just 45% of Americans regarding it as "very serious", nearly 20 points below the 23-country average. A Gallup survey found 41% of Americans believed projections of global warming were "exaggerated". It is hardly surprising that those who live in the 25 American states that produce coal are wary of controls, which they believe will kill jobs and raise their energy bills.

The prospect for a substantial deal in Denmark's capital are slight; though we might extract the first instalment of something useful at a later date. When Obama touches down on Friday at the climate change summit, it might well be the case, as Freedland observes in his excellent phrase that he will again be 'managing disappointment' for those of us who hoped and expected so much more. He isn't the new liberal president of the world; merely the president of the old US of A, a great nation and democracy but which still hides its head in the sand on so many issues.

Monday, December 14, 2009


On PBR and a Possible March Election

The intriguing questions facing us become ever more intiguing. Alistair Darling's Pre Budget Report has generally been judged at best a damp sqib- at worst a minor disaster. Andrew Rawnsley reminds us that ther PBR was invented by Gordon to:

'give him two opportunities to deliver a budget every year, two occssions to subject his Cabinet colleagues to his power, two occassions to infuriate Tony Blair by hiding what he was up to, two occasions to make the same announcements of spending promises, and two occasions to boast that he had ended boom and bust.'

Rawnsley goes on to point out that politically the PBR failed to impress the bonds markets who were looking for a credible plan that debt would be reduced. The danger now is that the costs off borrowing for Britain may soar even higher; 'the insurance premium for lending to Britain is now higher than that charged for lending to Slovakia'. Not only did Darling not convince over cuts but his increase in National Insurance was seen as a tax on jobs when unemployment is still rising sharply. The press took fulla critical advantage.

Rawnsley suggests voters were also unimpresed by what seemed to be a precurser to a series of cuts and squeezes. And if the IFS figures are correct each household will have to deliver over two grand a year in lost earnings for a total of eight years until the books are balanced. Oh Lor!

And yet the other story running alongside this is that Labour are catching up the Tories whose lead has slipped from 20 points a year ago to shrinking single figures now. Some opportunists are urging a snap election in March to avoid another budget debacle and take advantage of a voting tendency which will at least avoid wipeout and may deliver a hung parliament out of which Brown might parley a continuation in power. Wiser heads advise this would be precipitate. Professor Paul Whiteley argues the narrowing of the lead is a result of a 'feel good' factor returnng as the economy seems to retun to 'normal'. He questions whether this will continue and says the lead could shrink even more by May.

My own feeling- from the present vantage point- is that Cameron will lead the biggest party after the election and will then become prime minister as Gordon will appear to have 'lost' trhe contest. This would be in precisely the same way as Labour 'lost' in the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections and had to bow to Alex Salmond's SNP minority government.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Expenses Poison Still to Work its Way Through the Body Politic

Not sure I feel much sympathy with Austin Mitchell, the witty and media friendly MP for Grimsby. Today he sort of begs for understanding and a break for MPs 'still stuck in the stocks.'

"I blame Gordon Brown for allowing both to take their mandarin's revenge on MPs. He appointed mandarins with no knowledge of the real world and a grudge against troublesome MPs. They duly took their revenge for years of being excluded from the sofas of power and bullied by brutish parliamentarians. Legg's shakedown has now reached me with a whacking claim for repayment of an overpaid mortgage. It's largely my fault, but it's also due to the incompetence of the fees office. Yet no excuses can save me from the wrath of Grimsby. The mood produced by the Daily Telegraph is so ugly and so immune to reason"

His wife's note at the end of his piece is even more unconvincing. The fact is, MPs, (while having a kind of case for the defense),if they have any political nous should abandon it and wear the sackcloth and ashes for as long as it takes. Voters are furious, every poll on expenses proves this and thery should just recognise this fact of life and stop whingeing. Mitchell's wife bought a lovely chrome kettle for £76 and his wife is surprised there is criticism. Any voter knows you can buy a good electric kettle for under £20, so it's not surprising really is it? Just another sign of MPs 'not getting it'.

The Expenses Scandal has still to work its way thoroughly through our political system. So far 120 MPs are retiring before ther next election-more than the record 1945 figure- as they weigh up how the damage they have sustained will affect their chances: reead more about this here. Yet, I note from the splendid Callus and Dale Total Politics Guide to the 2010 Election that Hazel Blears is standing in her Salford constituency again. Now if Martin Bell fancies another spell in our Mother of Parliaments, there is a constituency in which to stand.

Monday, December 07, 2009


Decisive Days for World Lie Ahead

The Copenhagen conference on climate change wil be prove decisive for the world, though it will almost certainly only be able to pave the way for a formal agreement to cut emissions. This offers the best available chance to save the world's future and those of our descendants. And still the nay sayers- Lord Lawson, Jeremy Clarkson et. al., continue to say nay, buoyed up, it would seem by those UEA emails, which in fact do nothing to challenge the mass of evidence already available.

My feeling on the nay sayers is that they are simply choosing not to believe because it will affect their economic status and ability to consume at breakneck speed as the world has for the last half century. If the doom merchants are wrong the world will continue to continue, but if the nay sayers are wrong they are condemning future generations to oblivion. Surely too big a risk to take? As the Guardian editorial, shared with 55 other world newspapers, says 'we can go into extra time but we can't afford a replay.' The stark fact is there can be no replay

Thursday, December 03, 2009


Trouble for Cameron on Climate Change

People who question climate change baffle me. When over 90% of the world's climate scientists agree it is happening and is the result of the 30 bilion tons we have been annually emitting into the atmosphere, I tend to think they are right. Why, surely, do they say this unless they have discerned this to be the case? Deniers say it's because of their careers- if they dissent from the consensus they will lose promotion points. But there was not always a consensus; about twenty years ago it was the global warming lot who were in the minority, who were saying the earth was round when the majority either said it was flat or were unaware there ws even a problem.

Whatever the reasons people choose to disagree- most of them totally untrained as scientists of course- it does seem to me we need a really big debate, staged by the BBC maybe, where guys like Monbiot and company are pitted against those who dispute the case for cuts in emissions and all that this entails. My theory has always been that those who live in considerable comfort, hate the idea they might have to rein in their consumption to some extent. This would explain why there are more sceptics amoung the Tories than elsewhere in the political marketplace.

And this fact has now come home to husky hugging David Cameron, according to yesterday's Independent. Several of his leading colleagues are asking why Conservatives are supporting a cross-party consensus on the issue:

Nigel Lawson, former Chancellor: ‘We have entered a new age of unreason, which threatens to be as economically harmful as it is disquieting’

Douglas Carswell, rising Tory MP: ‘the facts seem to have changed. And so I have changed my mind.’

Peter Lilley: ‘There is an irrefutable scientific process on global warming. I just think it tends to be exaggerated.’

Philip Davies, rising Tory MP: ‘Everyone has gone completely mad on this. Anyone who says ‘hang on a minute’ is completely decried and treated like a holocaust denier.’

John Maples, former Cabinet Minister: ‘The only argument for acting radically now is if there is a tipping point- a point of no return. None of the scientists whom I have read predicts that.

John Redwood: ’We will benefit from then better weather for tourism, agriculture and outdoor sports’.

David Davies: ‘Why this ferocious desire to impose hair-shirt policies?’

What a pathetic argument from Redwood too: why worry about countries which might be submerged or starved, when we might have more opportunity to play cricket? I get the feeling the consensus between the parties will come under starin between now and next May.

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