Thursday, 31 December 2015

Underreported Stories of 2015

That last, I do have to say, has been covered four times this year in The Lanchester Review.

2015: A Most Confusing Year

Or was it, asks Neil Clark?

An Almost Peronist Flavour

Iain Martin writes:

Viewers tuning into STV, the Scottish version of ITV, will be treated to a Hogmanay special hosted by the talented (if politically misguided) actress Elaine C. Smith, who will present from a replica of her parents 1970s living room. This is not a wind-up; it is true.

Smith is a raving Scottish Nationalist, but this does not make her unusual and political affiliations should be no bar to presenting couthy television shows.

What is deeply weird though is the choice of guests on the show. The SNP leader and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and her mother and her sister are the main attraction. The other guest is a pro-SNP “comedian”.

Any SNP supporter who cannot see that this initiative is mildly disturbing, that it has an almost Peronist flavour, needs to consider how bizarre it would look if ITV in England put on an “at home with the Camerons” special on Christmas Day.

It simply wouldn’t happen. Cameron would refuse. No television executive alive in London would consider asking anyway. The broadcasting regulators, mindful of bias, would have a heart attack if anyone tried.

Yet, in SNP-controlled Scotland this is the new normal.

Never mind Northern Ireland or the Falkland Islands.

One of the reasons for the abject failure of the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn by reference to long ago disputes over those two is that Middle England now wants rid even of Scotland, or is at most indifferent to the prospect of that loss.

Middle England would not have fought for the Falklands if it had meant that bombs might have gone off in England, or at any rate in the South. For exactly that reason, Middle England never wanted to fight for Northern Ireland, either.

That fight was abandoned as soon as there came to be much in the way of wider middle-class political influence on such matters, something that there had never really been before the 1990s.

While dominating the British economy, society, culture, and body politic, the middle middle classes have barely joined the Armed Forces in decades. Indeed, for about as long as they themselves have been an identifiable category.

They now almost never do so, and they have always been more or less defined by their contempt for those sections of society which did and do still send any great numbers of people into military service.

Other than hitting it in the wallet, which is absolutely guaranteed to work and which much of the earth can now do to Britain with barely any effort at all, terrorism at home is the only way to get the attention of this mighty bloc.

And since no one else wants the territory on which those people themselves live, they will cheerfully give anywhere else whatever to anyone who wants it enough to make a fuss. In return for the retained or restored quietness of their own lives, the bottom line of which is always the bottom line.

Ask the Israelis. Or the IRA.

People who imagine that anything in Sadiq Khan's background might make it remotely difficult for him to be elected in London should bear in mind that it was not until 2008 that London first declined any of its many opportunities to elect Ken Livingstone to anything, and even then it did not do so by very much.

In six or seven months' time, Livingstone may well have been restored to Parliament by the city that has never missed an opportunity to elect Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell.

London is not allowed to flood, but other places are. Steelworks can go bust, and the last mines can close, but the City's banks must be rescued without their even being required to pay any tax.

And one Republican bomb in London, or probably anywhere in the South of England, would result in an immediate and unconditional British withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

The economically, socially, culturally and politically dominant class would refuse to countenance any other response.

The rise of that class has coincided precisely with the simple abandonment of great swaths of the globe, sometimes because keeping hold of them was nothing more than mildly inconvenient, and especially if that retention had become at all expensive.

Thus were routinely left behind, without a second thought, "kith and kin" populations that were larger than the Unionist vote in Northern Ireland, and colossally larger than the population of the Falkland Islands.

Not that that process began with the almost accidental expansion of the middle class in the 1950s. As the Second World War raged in the Pacific, Churchill had been all ready to hand over Australia and New Zealand to the Japanese.

Just as, in May 1940, he had been all ready to give Mussolini Gibraltar, among several other places, including the ones inhabited by the white settlers in Kenya and Uganda.

Then again, Fascist rule might have suited the Happy Valley set down to the ground. But whether or not it would have done so was of no interest to Churchill.

Who in Middle England would now see anything kith-ish or kin-like in Happy Valley, or in 1940s Australia, or in 1970s white Rhodesia, or in the Unionists of Northern Ireland (when did they ever?), or in the Falkland Islanders' carefully contrived depiction of themselves as the rural South from three or four generations ago?

Middle England no longer sees that even in Scotland.

Moreover, it has contentedly allowed the North of England to flood in order to provide somewhere to locate, in the event of Scottish independence, the Trident that it has compelled the British State to buy instead of flood defences.

Tone and Content

Gwyn Topham writes:

Train companies have been told to act with “propriety” and curb any “political bias” after the taxpayer-funded rail industry mouthpiece sent a barrage of pro-privatisation emails and attacked Labour policy during the party’s conference.

The Department for Transport has issued new rules for the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the train operators and Network Rail, following complaints from Labour.

The RDG was set up as a cross-industry alliance of train operators and Network Rail in 2011 to find ways of making the railways run more efficiently.

But it has become the main lobbying voice against public ownership of rail services – a key Labour commitment since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader.

Philip Rutnam, the DfT’s permanent secretary, intervened after Lilian Greenwood, the shadow transport secretary, raised concerns over the RDG’s use of public funding to promote rail privatisation.

Half the RDG’s costs are now met by Network Rail, a publicly owned and funded body.

Network Rail’s contributions were ratcheted up to £1.3m in 2014-15 from £240,000 the year before, to allow the group to take charge of drawing up and communicating policy for the entire rail industry – which included a series of emails to journalists arguing that Britain’s railways had prospered since privatisation in 1994. 

In a letter to Greenwood, Rutnam said the RDG had now “adopted a communications protocol ... ensuring political impartiality in its communications activity”. 

The rules include a commitment to “at all times demonstrate propriety in communications activity, ensuring it is objective in both tone and content”. 

The RDG must also take caution “not to communicate in ways that could give rise to criticism of party political bias or that public resources are being used for party political purposes”. 

Greenwood said:

“It’s long been suspected in the rail industry that the Rail Delivery Group was displaying a political bias and I’m grateful to [Rutnam] for providing such an unambiguous clarification.

“It was clearly inappropriate that train companies were using taxpayers’ money to fund pro-privatisation publicity drives, especially when they have a direct financial interest in maintaining the status quo.

“If the train companies want to make the case for rail privatisation then they should not use public funds to do so.

“I suspect that passengers would be particularly surprised to learn of this arrangement ahead of the fare hikes in January, especially as they were always told that rising ticket prices were paying for investment and not political activity.”

Train fares will rise on 2 January by 1.1%. An RDG spokesman said:

“Our organisation exists to help the different parties involved in running the railway tackle the most difficult issues affecting the whole industry so that services can be improved for passengers, freight users and the economy.

“Everyone working on the railway recognises the need for further improvements, but we should also use objective and independent data to celebrate the industry’s successes for passengers and rail workers.”

Peace On Earth

Michael Cohen reminded us last week that most of the world is at peace:

While intrastate wars have seemingly become more deadly, interstate war still remains an almost unheard-of occurrence.

The Russian “invasion” of Crimea would seem to undercut that notion, but it is actually the exception that proves the rule.

Indeed, in broad swaths of the world—North America, East Asia, South America, Europe and much of Africa—peace and stability remain the norm.

This is true, and yet judging from the panic and fear dominating our foreign policy debates one would reach the opposite conclusion.

Fear-mongering hawks absurdly declare that WWIII is upon us, pundits routinely exaggerate instability overseas and the fragility of the “international order” to make events seem more menacing and significant than they are, and advocates of U.S. “leadership” seize on any conflict as proof of what comes from America’s supposed “retreat.”

Much of the current panic over the world’s few serious conflicts is a byproduct of of the general decline in armed conflict around the world.

We are now so used to a much greater level of stability that any disruption anywhere seems much more dangerous and alarming than it would have at an earlier time.

There were many more wars–and more destructive wars–during the Cold War than there have been since its end, and in some parts of Africa even the 1990s and early 200s were a far bloodier time than the last ten years have been.

The unfounded notion that “the world is on fire” prevails in so many quarters today in part because our foreign policy debates and media coverage focus excessively on the Near East and North Africa to the exclusion of much of the rest of the world, and these regions are indeed suffering from several conflicts (including several that the U.S. has fueled and made worse to one degree or another).

If one’s vision is focused narrowly on this part of the world, it will not only seem that “the world” is coming apart, but there will also be no awareness that the vast majority of the world’s nations are faring reasonably well.

Furthermore, peaceful and secure countries rarely receive as much coverage as those wracked by conflict, and so almost all of the news from abroad that anyone sees is news of upheaval, violence, and disorder.

It’s worth remembering that these things are newsworthy in part because they stand out sharply from the state of the rest of the world.

Americans in particular are now so accustomed to our military forces being sent to police, join,or start this or that conflict for the last twenty-five years that it has presumably created a false impression that the world is being constantly roiled by conflict when it is not.

Finally, because so many of our political leaders and pundits insist that the U.S. must act as the world’s so-called “policeman” (though few of them will use that name), they have an incentive to minimize the relative peace and prosperity in much of the world and to emphasize the disorder that the U.S. “must” combat.

The public is therefore exposed to countless stories of disaster and chaos and relatively few that reflect the real state of affairs in most places.

A Bomb On The Comfortable Assumptions

For all the many faults of Barth, Giles Fraser writes:

It will be a century this coming summer that the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth began his revolutionary commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans

A quiet and studious man of simple tastes, Barth was an unlikely revolutionary.

He listened to Mozart, smoked his pipe and read the paper: “Theology is done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,” he said. But mostly he sat and wrote.

His Church Dogmatics is more than six million words. And no, I haven’t read it all. But his considerably shorter Epistle to the Romans, written earlier, was the decisive turning point in 20th-century theology.

It was a book that dropped a bomb on the comfortable assumptions of German liberal thought. And it’s a bomb that needs dropping again – but this time much closer to home.

Barth’s target was the sort of theology offered by his tutor, Adolf von Harnack.

For the universally admired Harnack, Christianity was a religion of inner morality – of good people, in their local congregations, who sought nothing more than personal transformation. They respected the state and didn’t cause trouble.

It was, to use the language familiar today, religion as a private matter, equally suspicious of outward forms of ritualism and popular superstition. Cultured and rational, it stayed out of party politics and set its mind on higher things.

For Harnack, Christianity was fundamentally a religion of individual righteousness.

On the day war was declared between Britain and Germany, the Kaiser gave a speech to the assembled members of the Reichstag in which he made the moral case for Germany going to war.

The speech was partly written by Harnack. Two months later, an open letter by 93 German intellectuals – 11 of whom, including the great theoretical physicist Max Planck, went on to be Nobel prize winners – made the same case.

The war was a sacred mission. It was a question of survival for a superior culture that had given the world Goethe, Beethoven and Kant.

Harnack’s name was among the 93 signatories. And Barth’s world was in tatters.

“In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realised that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible.”

He suddenly saw how the individual religion of good, non-trouble causing Christians was easily purloined to beat the drum for war.

Running together the sacredness of the state with the mission of the church, even the non-political were swiftly requisitioned into the war effort.

When it came to the Kaiser’s call to arms, German Christians went over like a giraffe on roller skates.

The problem, for Barth, was that the religion of “good people” had become just another sphere of human activity – like playing golf or going to a concert.

And, as a consequence, its theology had come to be imprisoned by the dominant cultural imagery.

Locked away in private prayer, Christianity abandoned its critical engagement with the fullness of reality, and so had no grounds for objection when the state shaped a pliant and deferential cultural Christianity for the purposes of statecraft.

Germany had sacralised the culture-state complex, and by so doing, had come to worship something other than God: the military-industrial complex. Something Barth called Woden, the Nordic God of war.

Which brings me to David Cameron’s message of Christmas cheer, that we are a “Christian country”.

Given the rapid decline in the number of church-going Christians, and given Cameron’s sketchy relationship to faith, what he probably meant is that we are a Christian culture; that the ethos of Christianity is woven into the warp and weft of British institutional life.

Oh, what a slippery word “ethos” is – Christianity in homeopathic doses. Barth would not have approved.

For what is frittered away in this mutually back-slapping accommodation between faith and the state is the ability of the church to stand up to the state’s propensity for war.

Indeed, the point of saying that Jesus is Lord is to say that Caesar isn’t. Neither Caesar nor his armies nor his civilising institutions.

Which is why Christians should always call time on their religion being used as a deodorant to mask the stench of war and death.

Resulted In Disaster

Peter Oborne writes:

In their interview in the Christmas edition of The Spectator, Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth asked the Prime Minister whether he now considered that his intervention in Libya had been a mistake.

David Cameron accepted that matters could have gone better since the fall of Gaddafi, but insisted that ‘what we were doing was preventing a mass genocide’. 

Like Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Gaddafi’s genocide seems to have been a fiction. 

It was reiterated over and over again by government and in the media in order to whip up support for the imposition a no-fly zone in March 2011. 

However, there was never any convincing evidence. 

Later that summer the International Crisis Group concluded that ‘There are grounds for questioning the more sensational reports that the regime was using its air force to slaughter demonstrators, let alone engaging in anything remotely warranting use of the term “genocide”.’ 

Whatever the true reason for the Franco-British intervention in Libya, there is no question that it resulted in disaster, as The Spectator warned at the time.

When I arrived in Benghazi last week, I asked to be taken to Liberation Square, where Mr Cameron promised Libyans that he would ‘stand with you as you build your country and build your democracy for the future’. 

I was told this would not be possible as, in common with almost all of central Benghazi, it was in rebel hands. 

One third of the population have been driven from their homes, the economy has collapsed by 50 per cent, the school system doesn’t work and assassination squads roam the streets. 

When I visited the mayor of Benghazi in his temporary office (the town hall being in rebel hands), he told me that since the fall of Gaddafi, ‘We have lived through the worst five years of our history.’ 

Meanwhile Britain is making matters even worse, supposing that was possible, by failing to support the Libyan government.

Based in the east of the country, it is internationally recognised, having been democratically elected in the spring of 2014.

It has, sensibly enough, sought to take control over its own resources and finances by establishing a national oil company and a central bank, but has been blocked at every turn by Britain and the international community.

This means that it has no money to fund schools, hospitals or support public services, let alone fight the latest menace to have turned up on its doorstep — Daesh. 

A month ago the Libyan prime minister, Abdullah al-Thani, wrote to Philip Hammond offering to cooperate against Daesh, and also the people-smuggling rackets that funnel migrants from sub-Saharan Africa across the Mediterranean into Europe.

He still hasn’t received a reply.

Instead, over Christmas, the British have sanctioned a United Nations move to oust Mr al-Thani and impose an unelected prime minister.

As far as I can discover, this is the first time that the UN have sanctioned a coup d’etat against a democratically elected government.

Predictably this latest initiative has been rejected not just in eastern Libya but also in Libya’s rival power in Tripoli (where it is impossible for any person or institution to operate except with the support of the coalition of militias that totally control the city). 

The UN have compounded their policy failures by an arms embargo, making it even more difficult for the government in Tobruk to take on and defeat Daesh.

Are there any Canadians out there?

Heroic Major Akram Algomatey is one of 800 policemen and officials targeted for assassination in Benghazi since David Cameron made his vainglorious pledge to stand with Libya in Liberation Square. Akram crawled alive out of his car after it was bombed.

Unfortunately, he says, ‘I left my leg behind.’ Within six months he was back at his desk, and he has arranged — and paid for — a new leg to be fitted in a Canadian hospital.

But the authorities are taking their time over a visa. Major Akram has promised his fiancée they will not marry until the operation is complete.

I can think of few worthier cases. Perhaps Prime Minister Trudeau could speed things up?

At an army base I had lunch with one of the few men who has taken on the SAS and won.

Special forces commander Abdulah al-Shaafi, a veteran of 40 years in the Libyan army, told me how he had captured a detachment of British soldiers and intelligence officers when they were found wandering round the desert at the start of the Libyan uprising in 2011, then handed them over to the UK chargé d’affaires

He claimed it had all been good-natured. Now Colonel al-Shaafi is dealing with another problem — Daesh. 

His Brigade 204 in Fweihat, west Benghazi, is fighting Daesh and the other Islamist groups which control large parts of the city.

The commanding officer, Colonel Mahdi, told me he was leading a force of civilian volunteers, 100 of whom have been killed over the last year.

What were Daesh fighters like? Colonel Mahdi told me, ‘They are smart but act like idiots.’ He explained they were skillful fighters but lacked support among local people. 

‘They are well-trained but the main factor is their beliefs,’ he said. ‘You have to fight the fighter, and you have to fight his beliefs.’

See also Andy Newman.

Perfectly Within Its Rights

The Wall Street Journal story revealing that the Barack Obama administration used the National Security Agency (NSA) to listen to phone calls made by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides is being spun in a number of different directions depending on one’s political proclivities.

Sen. Rand Paul told Fox News that he was “appalled by it… you could see how it would stifle speech if you’re going to eavesdrop on congressmen and that it might stifle what they say or who they communicate with.” 

But whom the congressmen speak to and regarding what is precisely the point, as they were elected to represent their constituents in the United States of America, not the Israeli government. 

Understanding that, the Obama White House was perfectly within its rights to move aggressively against Netanyahu. 

The snooping program itself was initiated with bipartisan support towards the end of Obama’s first term, when there were concerns that Netanyahu would order a unilateral attack on Iran that would drag the United States into an unwanted war. 

In early 2015 its focus shifted to Israeli interference in the U.S. government’s secret involvement in negotiations relating to a possible international agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. 

It was clear that the Israelis were obtaining classified information on the state of the negotiations and were leaking that information selectively to influence both Congress and supportive organizations within the U.S. regarded as part of the Israel lobby. 

Obama was not eavesdropping on American legislators—he was working against a foreign country that was actively spying against the United States and using the information it obtained to interfere with U.S. policy formulation. 

That was more than sufficient reason to try to find out what Netanyahu was up to. 

The fact that he was talking to congressmen in an attempt to line them up against the White House is deplorable, but if the congressmen did not exchange classified information with the Israelis then their consciences should be more or less clear, if not completely untroubled. 

How dare we spy on the head of a “friendly” government? 

Cries of outrage are coming from the usual sources—National Review, the Weekly Standard, and theWall Street Journal—as this is America’s “greatest friend and closest ally” that we are talking about. 

Or is it? 

Israel spies on the United States more than any other ostensibly friendly government does. It has never hesitated to put its own interests first without concern for blowback against the American people. 

When it is caught out it lies: it did so in the 1954 Lavon Affair, when it would have blown up a U.S. government building; in 1967, when it tried to sink the USS Liberty; and yet again in 1987 to cover up the Jonathan Pollard spy case. 

Nor is Israel shy about interfering in American politics. It openly supported Mitt Romney against Barack Obama in 2012. 

In 2009 Congresswoman Jane Harman was contacted by an Israeli intelligence “agent” and asked to attempt to influence a reduction of the espionage charges in the then ongoing trial of accused American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) spies Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman. 

In return, Harman’s contact promised to support her bid to become chairman of the House Permanent Committee on Intelligence. 

The Israeli caller, who some suspect was leading Democratic Party donor Haim Saban himself, indicated that he would pressure House speaker Nancy Pelosi using threats to withhold political contributions if Harman were not given the position. 

Harman was later spoken of as a possible candidate to become Director of Central Intelligence and, without the FBI recordings of her phone conversations, which were made known to Pelosi, she might have obtained either position, or possibly both in succession.

(Saban, who has claimed that “I’m a one-issue guy, and my issue is Israel,” is currently poised to become the Hillary Clinton campaign’s principal financial contributor.)

So Washington was tapping Netanyahu’s phones to determine what he was up to and who was leaking classified information.

And when the phones were tapped, something interesting developed.

A number of congressmen were identified speaking to the Israeli officials, who were apparently trying to find out what inducement it would take to obtain a vote against the White House on Iran.

And, of course, there might have been more than that, with some congressmen possibly offering to give the Israelis a little encouragement or even help.

As the details of the conversations and the names of the congressmen have been redacted in the transcript version that went to the White House, we might never know exactly what happened, but it should be observed that the provision of classified information to someone representing a foreign government is a clear violation of the Espionage Act of 1918.

The NSA is not obligated to turn over information it obtains to the Justice Department for prosecution.

Nevertheless, given the possibility that there were criminal violations impacting on national security, it would be very interesting to find out who said what to whom in the transcripts of the complete conversations retained by NSA.

Then there are the Jewish organizations that were evidently being briefed, coached, and organized by the Israeli Embassy to oppose the White House proposals.

That would be a violation of the Foreign Agent Registration Act of 1938, which requires any organization offering to work on behalf of a foreign government to register.

That means, among other indignities, revealing their sources of funding.

As most pro-Israel organizations have 501(c)(3) educational foundation tax status, that might prove most embarrassing and provide yet another bit of evidence to substantiate criticisms of how the Israel lobby is organized and operates to the detriment of American interests.

The final question has to be: who leaked the story to the  Wall Street Journal?

The authors of the piece claim to have numerous present and former officials as sources, which may be true, suggesting that it is a White House leak, which authorized a number of employees to provide information anonymously or off-the-record to the paper.

If that is so, the story might be intended to send a warning shot to some congressmen regarding phone conversations that would best be forgotten.

Not coincidentally, Congress is currently preparing to begin work on a new series of sanctions intended to disrupt the final stages of the nuclear agreement with Iran.

That the White House would play hardball in this fashion is sheer speculation, but there is a certain plausibility to it.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Right Up To The Point

"Our flood defences worked really well, right up to the point at which they failed."

The Right Honourable Elizabeth Truss MP, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

It is no wonder that in this Government, even Oliver Letwin can appear to be the intellectual in the room.

The Hunger Games

Happening everywhere, this is a shocking indictment both of the Conservatives and of the SNP.


Congratulations to Diane Abbott on having beaten Oliver Letwin at Hackney North and Stoke Newington in 1987. Doubtless, her victory was due to her bad moral attitude.

Who might repeat the trick at Surrey Heath, in the rather unlikely even that its present MP sought re-election in 2020?

Bad Moral Attitudes

Oliver Letwin's views would be beyond the Pale now.

But they were then.

He would never have stated them publicly even in 1985.

Think on.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

And Gambling's For Fools

"But that's the way I like it, baby, I don't want to live forever."

Even so, bet on the impossibility of immortality only when Keith Richards and Courtney Love are both as dead as Lemmy is.

And not a moment before then.

But don't wait for the Queen or Prince Philip. They exist outside time altogether.

National Security, Indeed

When he is not turning up at flood sites in order to offer his condolences but without any policy prescription, then David Cameron is issuing Christmas messages, or trailing in The Spectator that he may start delivering a "State of the Union Address".

But in comes Jeremy Corbyn, to remind him that he is merely a politician by challenging him to an annual State of the Nation Debate.

Never mind that pub bores' perennial red herring about overseas aid.

Corbyn should ask how we could afford Trident, and the airstrikes in Syria, but not the real defence of this country, namely against floods.

We Are At Such A Moment Again Now

The year ends with urgent cries for more public spending and Government action.

Not for the first time, apocalyptic pictures of water rising above parked cars and gushing in to homes trigger a political consensus.

The Government must act now and do more in the future to protect us from violent weather. The Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, accepts that the scale of the flooding will lead to a review. 

The media is as one in demanding Government help for those evicted from homes. The victims and potential victims turn desperately to the Government and its various agencies for help. 

There is not a single one demanding that the state gets off their backs and let them deal with this as individuals. 

They have every right to expect protection from wild weather – as all of us expect protection from terrorists, or treatment when afflicted by bad health, or when banks are on the verge of going bust.  

But let us roll back a few months to build-up to the 2015 general election.

The political consensus was the exact opposite of the one that forms now in response to floods.  The key test for the parties was how little they would spend if elected. 

Imagine if Ed Miliband had pledged to invest significantly more in flood defences as he sought to prove he was a responsible leader in the early months of this year. All hell would have broken loose, in a political rather than climate sense. 

George Osborne would have popped up to declare that once again a Labour government planned to spend recklessly. Most newspapers would have screamed that Miliband was an irresponsible spender.

Newsnight would have staged a debate between two pundits agreeing that the pledge on flood defences showed Labour had still not learned from past spending sins and would never win an election until it did. 

Osborne and the pundits would remind voters of the joke left by Liam Byrne, the outgoing Labour minister, that there was no money left. 

Before long, Miliband would have been under intense pressure to announce that, because of the fiscal constraints, there would be no additional investment on flood protection measures after all or, at best, that such investment would be paid for through phasing out a tax relief that few knew they had. 

A U-turn in which he announced he would not spend any more money would have been widely greeted as a sign that Miliband was becoming more responsible. 

Now let us move a little closer to the present. 

Last month, Osborne unveiled his Autumn Statement. On the whole it was hailed as another act of political genius, with the Chancellor portrayed as commanding the so-called “centre ground” of British politics. 

The statement included plans for sweeping cuts to most Government departments, including the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), responsible for protecting us against the consequences of extreme flooding. 

The praise for Osborne was another vivid reminder that public spending cuts are welcomed in general, but when anyone bothers to pay attention to the specifics, alarm bells ring. 

The Conservative chair of the parliamentary committee that monitors the department, Neil Parish, warned last month:

“We welcome Defra’s commitment to a six-year capital flood defence programme... But the increasing risk of more extreme flood events will stretch these budgets thinly.” 

The Daily Mail  asked, “Will £350m funding black hole threaten our flood defences?” That was before the floods returned over Christmas. 

Such is the power of the new consensus in favour of public spending that Osborne will find more money. 

He discovered imaginary cash based on estimates of future growth in November, when he announced that he would no longer need to cut tax credits for the working poor. 

With lives wrecked by the storms, he will find extra cash quickly for flood protection. 

In doing so – albeit belatedly – Osborne will get better value rather than spending a fortune in helping people to recover from poorly protected wreckage.

He would get widespread support for further investment. As the chair of the Defra committee and the Daily Mail put it, such investment makes good financial sense. 

Unlikely figures or institutions move to the left in a crisis. When the banks collapsed, the bankers who had argued for government to keep away from them pleaded for state intervention. 

Suddenly there was political consensus that regulation was too light and the banks needed watching very carefully. Then memories subsided and older arguments about the virtues of light regulation reasserted themselves. 

The same applies to crises in the NHS. But then the debate returns to the old familiar one about public spending being a waste and that a surplus, quickly reached, must be the only overwhelming objective whatever the consequences.

In noting the justified calls for more spending at the end of an election year in which “cuts” were the overwhelming theme, I do not make the case for reckless profligacy.

Every halfpenny of public spending should be accounted for. There is always scope for efficiencies.

But the insane pre-election “tax and spend” debates are deeply harmful to the quality of life in a country that suffers still from relatively under-funded public provision. 

Roy Jenkins noted long ago that the UK wants European levels of public services and US levels of taxation. 

It is more complicated: most of the time it might want US levels of taxation but every now and again it discovers the virtues of public investment.

We are at such a moment again now. There are wider lessons about the role and responsibility of Government when the storms erupt.

Two, Three, Many Chalabis

Emma Ashford writes:

Ahmad Chalabi’s death on November 3rd brought him back to public prominence for the first time in years.

As the avalanche of editorials exploring Chalabi’s life showed, Americans are still divided about his motivations—conniving or noble—and the extent of his role in misdirecting Middle East policy.

But whether he was a master manipulator or merely manipulated, Chalabi was little different from any archetypal Westernized, pro-democratic exile.

His life and influence in Washington should serve as a warning to U.S. policymakers: beware exiles who promise much but possess their own agendas. Chalabi was the face of American policy toward Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, cultivating strong ties with the U.S. military and intelligence agencies.

Though he had been an exile for much of his life, his influence was predicated on his supposed knowledge of and connections inside Iraq.

Indeed, his Iraqi National Congress was a vehicle for U.S. opposition to Saddam Hussein throughout the 1990s, receiving millions of dollars from both the CIA and directly from Congress.

Yet Chalabi’s sway within Iraq was less than he implied to policymakers.

Despite U.S. financial support, his attempted coup against Saddam in 1995 collapsed when the Iraqi army failed to fold as he expected, leading to the deaths of a number of his own men.

Though the CIA largely stopped supplying Chalabi after this debacle, his influence in Washington continued to grow, in particular among a subset of influential neoconservative politicians—including Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld—who were receptive to Chalabi’s pro-democratic pronouncements.

After the 9/11 attacks, these relationships were to prove key in the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Though many point to Chalabi’s role in providing flawed intelligence—the Iraqi National Congress was behind the defectors whose unsubstantiated claims pointed to Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction—his quiet conversations with policymakers may have been more instrumental.

He convinced administration insiders that the takeover of Iraq would require few American troops, that Iraqis themselves would rise up, and that the country would transition easily to democracy.

There is little to be gained from further recriminations about Chalabi’s role in the Iraq War. But policymakers could certainly learn from this episode.

Though Chalabi was perhaps the most prominent example in recent history, the role of exiles on the political scene is not new.

Nor is their influence limited to Washington: groups such as Boris Berezovsky’s London-based group of Russian exiles have attempted to influence British policymakers to oppose the Putin regime.

The appeal of such exiles to Western policymakers is obvious: these individuals promise insider information about some of the world’s most closed regimes, like the Soviet Union of old, Libya, or North Korea.

As Chalabi proved, however, exiles also have a strong incentive to mislead. The role of exiles in U.S. Cuba policy during the 1960s was similarly catastrophic.

Among the most prominent of these exiles was José Miró Cardona, a former confidante of Fidel Castro.

Under his leadership, the Cuban Revolutionary Council cooperated closely with the Kennedy administration in its anti-Castro activities, culminating in the Bay of Pigs disaster.

Like Chalabi’s 1995 coup, that operation failed in part because the Cuban exiles dramatically overestimated their support within Cuba.

From Chiang Kai-shek in the 1960s to Garry Kasparov today, U.S. policymakers have often looked favorably on opposition politicians when they visit Washington, regardless of their actual levels of support at home.

And with the possibility of American taxpayer aid of millions or billions of dollars in the balance, the incentive for foreign dissidents to overrepresent their own support and underestimate the difficulties associated with regime change is high. Policymakers in Washington are not blameless in this.

A recent invitation by Congress to the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group, to testify before the House Subcommittee on Terrorism on issues relating to Iran and ISIS highlights how little scrutiny such groups sometimes face.

Though certainly a vocal opponent of the regime in Tehran, MEK was only removed by the State Department from the list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2012, after heavily lobbying Congress.

The group is communist and is often described as a cult. It is so extreme and so unrepresentative of the Iranian opposition in general that other regional experts testifying before Congress refused to appear on the same panel.

In today’s Syrian conflict, the lack of a well-connected opposition-in-exile has made it somewhat easier for policymakers to resist calls to overthrow the Assad regime.

If there were a Syrian Chalabi, it might well be the case that the U.S. would be attempting regime change in Damascus rather than concentrating on ISIS.

What Chalabi’s story highlights is the need for skepticism among policymakers.

Machiavelli once warned: “How vain the faith and promise of men who are exiles. Such is their extreme desire to return to their homes that they naturally believe many things that are not true, and add many others on purpose … they will fill you with hopes to that degree that if you attempt to act upon them, you will incur a fruitless expense or engage in an undertaking that will involve you in ruin.”

Ahmad Chalabi epitomized this problem—and there are many more like him.

Wessex Waters

"The floods didn't kill the Tories in Somerset"?

No, but they were not already widely and deeply hated in Somerset. 

They were in the North.

Where they are now finished.


Nor could they expect to do too well down there, either, if the floods came back and it was clear that insufficient, if any, effort had been made to prepare for them.

They Have Proven Themselves Unworthy

Rob Sanders writes:

2015 was an amazing year for Jeremy Corbyn – but many would agree that mistakes have inevitably been made.

One of the most glaring – most public – was Corbyn’s decision to people his Shadow Cabinet with appointments selected from across the spectrum of opinion in the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Natural allies were kept waiting in the wings while dissenting voices were invited upon the stage. They were given the time and opportunity to come together in a chorus of unity. 

This did not happen. 

No doubt the vast majority of commentators believe this to be Corbyn’s fault. That he wasn’t enough of a unifying figure or flexible enough to meet the different expectations of cabinet members and the wider party. 

But the Labour Party is a broad church and the reality is that a contortionist would have failed to meet such requirements. Still, it’s a mistake not to be repeated.  

There are rumours of a New Year’s Shadow Cabinet reshuffle and it would be easy to frame this in terms of revenge and resolution. 

While it is hard to imagine the Labour leader unaffected by the betrayals of past weeks, it is more likely to be another piece of the puzzle that is Corbyn the leader. 

The cabinet appointments can be viewed less political mistakes than failed experiments.  

Experiments are performed to see what works and what doesn’t. Corbyn received some predictable results but his willingness to explore such possibilities is the mark of a man who wants to get it right. 

They are the actions of a future leader, not those of a man who merely wants to give the appearance of being one.   

As the months go by and a new kind of politics emerges from the fug of political and press hostility, the public are increasingly exposed to Corbyn’s positive qualities – in this case, fairness. 

It is a quality people on both sides of the political spectrum admire.

It is present in the best of our everyday decision-makers: the judicious magistrate; the fair but firm teacher; the impartial parent. 

It should be present in the words and deeds of our political leaders, but rarely is.  

Corbyn was fair in his appointments to the Shadow Cabinet – even down to the pursuit of gender equality. A number of those appointed, however, have not been fair in return. 

Rather than commit to the debate and dialogue Corbyn so desperately wanted, several briefed against him and made public their disagreements with the leader who had empowered them. 

Like naughty children at home or in the classroom, they were given extra responsibilities and they abused them.  

This was particularly apparent during the Syria vote a few weeks ago, where Corbyn demonstrated his fairness once again in offering Labour MPs a free vote. 

In voting with the Tories and rallying around an entirely contradictory argument – as presented in a speech by the Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn – certain members of Corbyn’s cabinet made it painfully clear how they were going to repay their leader’s faith in them.  

Chief among these was Benn himself, the true architect of the vote’s success. 

Benn is an opportunist who pushed himself to the fore and whose actions have come closest to splitting the party. 

If the Parliamentary Labour Party was a ship, then Benn would be chief mutineer – a would-be captain without the authority to lead beyond a very public gun to his leader’s head. 

This has been emphasised further by media attention to Hilary Benn’s speech and a number of commentators heralding him as a future leadership candidate, despite the fact that he has been an unremarkable public servant up until now. 

Benn and his supporters would have the Labour Party be nothing more than a photocopy of a photocopy. 

A party of diminishing returns, unwilling to learn the lessons of the recent past and intent on further losing its grasp on what it means to be an actual Opposition. 

It might simply be an inconvenient truth that these people find it easier to agree with a person like David Cameron than a person like Jeremy Corbyn.  

But, like the good teacher or parent, come the New Year, Jeremy Corbyn will need to be both fair and firm. 

He has given divisive members of the Shadow Cabinet the opportunity to prove themselves – and prove themselves they have. 

They have proven themselves unworthy of their position.  

It is time for a reshuffle and to give others the opportunity - whether they agree with their leader or not - to contribute in a more constructive way. 

As polls bear out, Corbyn increasingly has a sense of which direction the wind is blowing. Like any captain, he shouldn’t tolerate mutineers.

He needs a crew that are capable of negotiating the coming storm and making the most of good weather.

They Deserve It

James Wharton writes:

The sight of soldiers filling sandbags has become something we can expect to see on the news year in, year out. Soldiers aren’t just there to fight wars or respond to security threats; we want them to man fire engines or cull sheep when need be, as well.

But spare a thought to the hundreds of service men and women who had their Christmas leave cancelled, mostly on Christmas Eve, to head to the North and provide much-needed assistance to organisations like the police and the Environment Agency, organisations that should be better equipped and funded to deal with this themselves.

Spare a thought to the countless service children who woke up on Christmas Day to not find their mummy or daddy waiting to unwrap presents; our forces are yet again sacrificing so much to help those in need.

And I know for a fact every last one of them haven’t given it a second thought, going about their duty with commitment and due attention.

These soldiers deserve something back; these soldiers deserve a reward. I know first-hand what it feels like to be crashed out in circumstances similar to this.

I know what it's like to lose leave because a decision has been made in the comfort of a Whitehall office to get the cheap labour the army can provide in a crisis - a crisis that has ultimately been caused by the failings of individuals paid vastly more than the typical 19-year-old soldier now rescuing the elderly or attempting in haste to build a flood defence to save an entire village.

The COBRA ‘conference call’ held on Boxing Day is a world away from the 24-year-old Troop Leader fresh out of Sandhurst trying to find the words to inspire his young soldiers to carry on through the night filling sandbag after sandbag in the wet and cold. Is this what they signed up to serve in the military for?

The fact is, time after time, the army can provide the answer to big issues.

The army is every Prime Minister’s trump card, something he can pull out of his pocket and use to score popularity points and more, use to save his own bacon.

Firemen calling a strike? No problem, crash the army out. Foot and Mouth outbreak in Devon? That’s fine, we can send the army in.

It's raining in Yorkshire and the assurances and funding to prevent this happening on this scale again have failed; not to worry, take the Christmas holidays away from the army who have worked hard all year, and they’ll sort it out.

After all, everybody loves the sight of soldiers pulling together to save a community, not least the Government.  It’s brutally unfair, but the soldiers puts their boots on and deliver.

Will there be a Christmas bonus in their pay package this coming Thursday? Not so much as an extra penny; it's scandalous. 

Now, I’m a realist and I fully understand that when you need manpower and, conveniently, a group of workers who don’t have any representation by way of a union or the like, the army is that ultimate tool which seldom fails, and never answers back.

But isn’t it time we rewarded these individuals financially for the immeasurable contribution they provide every time a national crisis kicks off?

Why is it the police and Environment Agency will be well rewarded in pay for the extra hours they’ve had to work throughout the bank holiday period and no doubt the time off in lieu they’ll be assigned by way of further compensation?

Where is the fairness?

If we truly are ‘in this together’, an apparent catchphrase of the government’s, why then will the soldiers putting the most effort and hours into this flood crisis, getting worse by the day, not be getting any reward for their significant work?

Without the troops, people would have died this week; why aren’t our men and women in uniform being remunerated appropriately?

I could suggest a million ways to do this - tax relief, more time off - but the most simple, and most appealing way for the soldiers concerned, is to simply give them more money.

A one-off reward in the salary just for the troops who have saved the day in the North of England; it wouldn’t even have to be much. A small £100 bonus would go down very well among the ranks, I know.

We are proud, and we are grateful of our troops… but is the government?

Because paying quite handsomely one group of civil servants for working on Christmas Day in the most miserable conditions imaginable is unfair if you don’t pay the other.

It's saying, ‘We value your work as an Environment Agency representative, but we don’t value yours as a soldier.'

Give our uniformed men and women some reward - give them a Christmas bonus on Thursday, Prime Minister. 

They deserve it.

A Test of National Solidarity

Martin Kettle writes:

Growing up in postwar Leeds, you always knew where the Yorkshire Post stood on the issues of the day. You knew where its sister paper the Yorkshire Evening Post stood, too.

The clue was in the name of the Victorian-era company that owned them both – Yorkshire Conservative Newspapers Limited. 

These were monopoly local papers which, in the manner of Tories of the Harold Macmillan era, routinely refused to use the word Labour, always preferring to talk about the Socialists. 

The Tory bias was a big reason why, though we lived in Yorkshire, my family always took, along with the Daily Worker, the more liberal Manchester Guardian. 

The Yorkshire Post has been through various ownerships and incarnations since the owners finally dropped the C-word in the 1960s. 

But it’s a paper whose political loyalties to the Conservative cause have rarely wavered until quite recently. 

Which is precisely why David Cameron and his party ought to take the Post’s angry localist eloquence about the Christmas floods in Leeds and elsewhere very seriously indeed. 

Monday’s Evening Post front page was a devastating piece of local journalism, but the timing ensured it also attracted national political attention. 

Under the one-word headline “Indefensible”, it marked the Leeds floods with a rare and excoriating front-page editorial. 

“Rain and the inevitable rise in river levels is a fact of life in England, and always will be,” the paper wrote. 

“The fact remains, however, that such events as witnessed in Leeds this weekend are unthinkable in the capital and much of the south-east, where state-of‑the-art flood defences have long been in place.” 

Leeds was “the beating heart of northern England” it continued – a claim that will be read with scepticism on the other side of the Pennines [and, indeed of the Tees]. 

But the conclusion surely spoke for Lancashire and Cumbria as well as Yorkshire and the north-east. 

“We demand that prime minister David Cameron announces immediate action to ensure that this situation is not repeated in Leeds, or anywhere else, EVER AGAIN.” 

Whether or not you accept all the premises in the argument, and some of them are questionable, the Post spoke with great force for two pressing national priorities. 

Any political party that fails to speak for both of them may find itself as much at risk of destruction as the inadequate flood defences around York proved to be last weekend. 

As the Post itself said, a northern powerhouse is nothing when it’s under water. 

The first is the recognition that flooding is now an imminent threat to ordinary people in large swaths of the north of England, from farming areas like Cumbria’s Eden Valley and the Yorkshire Ouse catchment area, to northern towns from Carlisle in the north-west down to Selby in the south-east. 

With the arrival of serious flooding in larger cities such as Leeds, however, the stakes have got much higher. 

Not only does the flooding of cities affect far more people, it also threatens to make a mockery of things that hold a nation together, like transport and essential services. 

The scale of this shared awareness of the threat of floods to devastate lives on a wide and enduring scale is something new. 

There have, of course, been serious floods before – ask an inhabitant of Cockermouth or York. What is new is that flood prevention has become a national economic and societal priority to a previously unimagined degree. 

The scale and repeated nature of the recent damage require it.  The need reaches everywhere that the waters have reached, and beyond. 

But there is only one agency that can grip the task decisively, fairly and in the shared interest – and that is the state. Nothing else can do this. No one else has the money or authority. 

So flood prevention has become a test of the credibility not just of this government but of the British government in general. 

That’s where the second big threat to the established order comes in. These floods are not just a security issue but a northern issue too. 

They have highlighted the reality of the north’s subordinate place in the London-dominated scheme of English things and the potent bubbling resentment against it expressed by the Evening Post’s outburst of passion. 

Yorkshire, with its large population and its strong sense of identity and pride, is a much more troublesome tribune for this outlook than any other area in the north.

It’s not just that most of the floods happen to be in the north, as last weekend’s map of flood warnings eloquently illustrates. 

It’s that people in the north feel their needs have consistently been given less priority than those of people in the south and London. 

Only the absence of nationalism stops the north being, politically speaking, another Scotland. 

Whether it feels unfair in low-lying parts of the Thames or Severn valleys I’m not so sure. As the Bible says, it rains on the just and the unjust alike. 

But you only have to look at the London focus of so much infrastructural renewal, never mind the mere existence of the Thames Barrier, to see why there is a genuine grievance here.

London gets the projects it wants, while the people of Kirkstall and Rochdale have to brush the water and the dirt out of their flooded homes. 

The most important thing about the Christmas floods of 2015 is, without doubt, the misery of having your house, your street, your village and now even your city under water. 

But it’s almost as important that it is our country, northern England, where this is happening, though perhaps it just doesn’t feel like that in Chelsea or Shoreditch. 

This is a test of national solidarity as well as government.

Unless we also see the floods as an episode in the continued loosening and perhaps even the collapse of the UK, we will not see their full danger and potency. 

It will take more than a visit by Cameron in his wellies to persuade the victims that the government is on their side. It will take more even than government money, projects and activism, even supposing these are on offer. 

It will take an enduring conviction that the north matters just as much as anywhere else in Britain. And at the moment, that conviction just is not there.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Any Still Currently

"Interested to hear from any still currently Labour, who would leave/give up on party were @HackneyAbbott to be made Shadow Foreign Secretary," tweets Louise Mensch.

This racist resident of New York's denial that black people are fit for public office has been duly copied to Barack Obama (who is unlikely to read it, but someone must monitor his account), the Reverend Al Sharpton, the NAACP, the New Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, Black Lives Matter, and the Black Agenda Report. Over to them to deal with her as they see fit.

Doubtless, some sort of welcoming committee could be organised if Mensch were to return to these shores. She should never have been in politics, of course.

She is possibly too thick even for the present Government, which includes George Osborne, Philip Hammond, Matthew Hancock, and the Liz Truss under whose incompetence much of the country is literally drowning.

We all know how Truss got where she did. She is nothing but a vagina with a gob stuck on the top of it.

Mensch has delighted us all for a very great deal more than long enough, and we may hope that the Americans feel similarly.