Saturday 28 November 2015

Syria - No, please No!

I have sent the following letter to Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats:

Dear Tim Farron,

I am writing to you as a member of the Liberals/Liberal Democrats for over 50 years, and, in a personal capacity, as President of Batley and Spen Liberal Democrats, to urge you, if it comes to a vote,  to lead all eight of our MPs into the lobbies against  the UK's joining in air strikes  on Syria.
I have read our five conditions and, frankly, they don't cut much ice. They smell of the obfuscation which is so typical of the other parties and from which we should be trying to break free

My reasons are:

  1. Our joining in the bombing would make a terrorist attack on the UK more rather than less likely. David Cameron's claim that adding to the bombing is necessary for our security is untrue.  If we bomb we shall be less secure.
  2.  UK involvement will add to the perception of "Crusader West". . . . .
  3.  . . . .and therefore act as a recruiting sergeant for ISIS, thus adding to our danger and endangering the lives of yet more deluded young Muslims.
  4.  In spite of the supposed superior accuracy of our bombs there is bound to be "collateral damage," -  in other words innocent men, women and children killed. 

Instead of adding to the bombing we can use our so-called "soft power," which we are told is considerable in the Middle East because of our long connections there, to:

  1. Promote the creation of a coalition of Muslim countries to take ownership of the problem and, if necessary, take military action.
  2. Cut off supplies of money to ISIS.
  3. Cut off their supplies of oil, if necessary by blowing up the pipeline.
  4. As members of the Security Council, the EU the Commonwealth, use our diplomatic connections to bring about a peaceful solution.

With the parliamentary arithmetic as it is at the moment there is a very real opportunity to avoid the errors made in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. I hope in this crisis you will avoid the macho temptations of David Cameron, whose main motive seems to me to be to want to be "in there with the big boys," and lead our party to act with the rationality and concern for humanity which are at the core of our beliefs.

Your sincerely,

Way back in the 1960s our then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, despite his faults, had the courage and character to keep us out of the war in Vietnam.  So when young American protesters gathered to chant:

Hey hey LBJ,
How many kids have you killed today?

. . .we didn't feel we shared the guilt.

I believe that before the civil war in Syria there were some 500 000 civilians living in Raqqa, the supposed  headquarters of ISIS.  Over half have fled, but there are still  around 200 000 (and probably not all that many ISIS fighters). If  our MPs are  blind to the experience of  the last 15 years, and vote to add to the bombing they will be complicit in adding to the killing of many innocents.

 And to what effect? To make matters worse, not better.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Osborne the Master Illusionist

 No need to spend (from) £17 for a ticket to the Shaftesbury Theatre to try to spot the tricks of Illusionists: just study George Osborne's budgetary performance, in which he contrives to turn what is in reality a humiliating defeat into what, for the time being at any rate, appears to be a career-enhancing success.

Precisely one month ago today, on the 26th October, Osborne's acolytes in the House of Lords were arguing that that cuts to Working Tax Credits must remain, that denying the chancellor's right to make them would be constitutional sabotage, they were essential to his much-vaunted "long term economic plan" and to frustrate them would endanger our economic security and, for good measure, our national security to boot. 

Multi-millionaire Lord (Andrew) Lloyd Webber was flown in from across the Atlantic to shore up the Tory vote, and billionaire Lord (Anthony) Bamford, owner and boss of JCB, was Rolls Royced (presumably) in for the same purpose.  To no avail: the Lords rejected the cuts. 

This was a massive humiliation for both the government and the Chancellor, whose ambitions to eventually become PM were though to have received a severe jolt.

Yet yesterday Osborne declared that the cuts were no longer necessary.  His excuse:  the Office of Budget Responsibility had found an extra £27bn in the public finances.

Is Osborne seriously trying to tell us that, only a month ago, he was not aware of that, or, if not the precise figure, at least the possibility?  If he didn't know than he is quite obviously not on top of his job.  If he did, then persisting with the cuts was clearly a political ploy to further shrink the state and put the blame, and the punishment, on the poorest.

In fact the £27bn is not actual money received, but what might be received if the economy grows at 2.4% for the next five years.  And it's not necessarily the result of improving figures, just a different method of calculating them. Only a few days ago I read that government borrowing last month (October) was  higher than predicted, largely because of a fall-off in tax receipts. So watch out for revisions.

Osborne's technique appears to be, before any of the great economic occasion, to drip feed bad news to the media, who faithfully report it, with accounts of the terrible struggles in various government departments as they seek to avoid the latest version of the Geddes Axe. This time, along with  social security expenditure  it was the police, who were predicted to have to endure further swinging cuts.  Having prepared us for the worst, Osborne then pulls his "surprises": the worst is not going to happen after all.   And he bows out to resounding cheers from his own side and ineffective gasping from the Opposition.

Much of the press has been deceived.  But the reality is that our libraries continue to be closed, our parks neglected, 16 to 18 and adult education strapped for cash, the NHS on its financial knees, social care crumbling, and the departments of Energy (those vital renewables), Business Innovation and Skills (productivity) and Transport (our infrastrucure) subject to yet  further reductions .

Even the Treasury itself is to be further cut.  This is the department responsible for collecting our taxes, which, if collected  effectively, are the means by which the government deficit will be reduced.

Daftest of all, the aim of a permanent government surplus, of £10bn by the end of this parliament. remains intact. As even a modestly competent A-level student would know, this is economic nonsense.  A government surplus is a leakage from the circular flow of income.  Unless it is balanced by a reduction in the other leakages, savings and imports (highly unlikely) or an increase in other injections, investment and exports (not much sign of either) then the national income remains in a downward spiral.

Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP  and Labour need to be shouting, preferably for once in unison, that the cuts continue and they are not an economic necessity but a political choice.

Monday 23 November 2015

Bombing Syria - Just say "No!"

The British media seem to be softening us up to approve our involvement in the bombing of Syria.  We are told that Mr Cameron is increasingly confident of parliamentary support, and is to present us with convincing arguments on Thursday.

A balanced discussion took place on Radio 4's "The World this Weekend" yesterday and is worth a "listen again" at:   (The discussion of Syria starts about six minutes into the programme.)

A retired major general, Tim Cross, spouts macho phrases  about using  "hard power" to "separate out" these "brutal killers" and urges that we "take on these guys", though even he admits that this won't actually solve the problem.  Others are even more cautious.  Sir Jeremy Greenstock, a retired diplomat, points out that what Isis actually want is a "great battle," that control of a territory is essential to their concept of a caliphate, and that bombing itself will not actually get them out of their territory. The Green MP Caroline Lucas points out that Isis, and part of the Muslim world, regard US military intervention as an attack by "Crusader West," that the Middle Eastern States have progressively withdrawn form the present  "coalition" and that the US bombing has done little to reduce the number of jihadist recruits - probably the reverse.

In a different context Jeremy Corbyn speaks sense when he claims that there are other ways of combating Isis, in particular a concerted international effort to cut off their supplies of money and arms.  A letter to the Guardian has aroused my  memories of "Bomber Thorpe" by suggesting that one way of doing this would be to bomb their oil pipeline.  An innumerable number of commentators point out that military retaliation by the West is exactly what Isis is trying to provoke, and that it helps them to recruit further deluded youngsters who are brainwashed into thinking that they are doing God's will.

There is almost universal opinion that this is a problem for the Middle Eastern states themselves to solve, a problem within Islam,  arising from and exacerbated by the the schism between Sunnis and Shias, and that Western involvement is almost certain to make matters worse, as has been amply demonstrated in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.  The problem will be solved, or at least ameliorated, only when other Muslim powers themselves take ownership of it.

It is difficult to avoid that view that Tory anxiety to add to the air-strikes (but not the ground war) is to be seen among the "big boys," to "walk tall" alongside the US and not be out-flanked by France as "number one chum."  I also wonder if US involvement , and UK anxiety to join in, is not so much motivated by the a quest for  a solution to the Syrian problem as to prevent Russia  and Iran from  becoming  the dominant powers in the area.

If Britain wishes to walk tall, we could use our diplomatic "soft power" to promote the necessary involvement of the neighbouring Muslim states, and give yet more help to those countries hosting the refugees on Syria's borders.

 If we must involve our army, we could sent it to Calais to set up field kitchens, latrines, Nissan huts and other facilities to provide civilised conditions for all refugees there, whilst preparing to welcome those with a right to settle in our own green and pleasant land.

I sincerely hope for a solid "No" from eight Liberal Democrat MPs if and when the matter comes to a parliamentary vote, and that the bulk of the Labour party will put triangulation behind them and follow their leader.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Corbyn's critics shoot to kill

The Labour MPs who didn't support Jeremy Corbyn as their leader seem determined to fulfil their prophecy that the party is unelectable under his leadership.

Corbyn makes the perfectly sensible statement that he he would be unhappy for the police to operate a "shoot to kill" policy.  So would I and so would most of us. A paragraph in yesterday's Guardian reads:

The number of people killed by law enforcement officers  in the US this year  has reached 1 000 after police in Oakland  shot dead a man who allegedly pointed  a replica gun at them.

Well, we're a long way from that in the UK, but in 2005 our police shot and killed the unarmed and totally innocent Jean Charles de Menezes and in 2011 provoked a riot by shooting dead Mark Duggan who, if he had a gun, had probably thrown it away.

The present law is sufficiently  flexible.  Police may use such force as is "reasonable and proportionate" to prevent harm to themselves or anyone else.  If necessary this includes shooting, preferably to "neutralise" rather than to kill.  As a senior police officer has commented: "We are not soldiers. . . .Our job is to arrest people."

Corbyn has also provoked hostility from some of his own members by stating that he cannot see how additional bombing of Syria by UK forces will help to solve solve the problem.  This is a view held by many and is in my view absolutely absolutely right.  As Nicolas Hénin, a Frenchman who was held hostage by IS for ten months, so has a deeper understanding of the terrorists' mentality than most, writes:  "IS longs to provoke retaliation.  We should not fall into the trap."

Corbyn is  in my view a breath of fresh air.  He has the attention of the public and, rather than the pompous macho sound-bites so typical of Westminster, speaks what many of us feel is thoughtful common sense.  Labour's MPs, both front and back bench, should thank their lucky stars for him and get behind him to support him, not knife him in the back

Monday 16 November 2015

Pour Paris, Psaume 90

Psaume 90

 Seigneur, tu as été pour nous  un réfuge  de generation en generation.
Avant que les montagnes  soient nées, avant que tu aies créé la terre et le monde, d'éternité tu es Dieu.
Tu fais retourner les hommes à la poussière et tu leur dis: "Fils d'Adam, retrournez à la terre!"
car mille  ans sont à tes yeux comme la journée d'hier: elle passe comme le quart de la nuit.
Tu  les emportes, semblables à un rêve  qui, le matine, passe come l'herbe.
elle fleurit le matin et elle passe; on la coupe le soir et elle sèche.
Nous sommes consumés par ta colére, et ta fureur nous épouvante.
Tu mets devant toi nos fautes, et ta lumière éclair nos sécrets.
Tous nos jours disparaissent  à cause de ta colère; nous voyons nos annéess s'éteindre comme un soupir.
La durée de notre vie s'élève  à soixante-dix ans, et pour les plus robustes, à quatre-vingt ans, mais l' orgueil qu'ils en tirent n'est que  peine et misère, car le temps passe vite et nous nous envolons.
Qui à conscience de la force de ta colère et de ton courroux pour te craindre?
Enseigne-nous à bien compter nos jours, afin que notre coeur parvienne à la sagesse!
Reviens, Eternel!  Jusqu'à quand? Aie pitié de tes serviteurs.
Rassasie-nous chaque matin de ta bonté, et nous serons toute notre vie. dans la joie et l'allégresse.
Réjouis-nous autant de jours que tu nous as humiliés, autant d'années que nous avons connu le malheur.
Que ton activité soit visible pour tes serviteurs, et ta splendeur pour leurs enfants.
Que la grâce de l'Eternal, votre Dieu, soit sur nous!  Affirmis l'oeuvre de nos mains! Oui, afirmis l'oeuvre de nos mains!

Or, as Isaac Watts (1674 - 1748) so ably put it:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast, 
And our eternal home . . . . .

This is one of those occasions when only the words of the liturgy can safely express our feelings.

Words are equally important in discussing the appropriate reaction.

I feel it is a mistake to refer to a "war" on terror.  Wars are traditionally between nations and are seen to legitimise the use of violence.  So declaring "war" on the terrorists can, in their eyes, legitimise their use of violence in return.  Rather we should be organising  police action against criminals.  This would have been a more appropriate response to to the attack on the twin towers in New York than President Bush's "War on Terror,"  with its tragic and on-going consequences in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Some years ago Game Theory was very popular in economics, and possibly still is.  It is also used in war "Games,"  but no one seems to be "gaming" the likely reaction to even more violent and indiscriminate attacks on areas dominated by ISIS, however understandable this reaction might be.  Surely the result will be to recruit yet more impressionable Muslim youngsters to take up the "cause," egged on by the deluded fundamentalists who preach hate.

Then we must be very wary of  creating a division between the allegedly Christian West and Islam.  I felt it a mistake, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, for a largely white, largely western, largely nominally Christian, line up of leaders (including Merkel, Cameron and, I think, Obama, along with President Hollande) to proclaim Je suis Charlie.  Surely this was akin to a red rag to a bull for Island fundamentalists and may have facilitated the recruitment of some of Friday's murderers.

President Obama called Friday's atrocity "an attack on our civilisation."  Indeed it was, but how does this sound in the ears of extremist Muslims, who may  adduce an implication that Islamic countries are not civilised, or not as civilised, as ours?  They may also take the view that much that passes for Western civilisation, with its emphasis on consumerism (greed), sex, alcohol-fuelled hedonism, lack of respect for the family and the elderly, is far inferior to their ideal. I know nothing of the music of Eagles of Death Metal but I suspect that their lyrics hardly count as elevated thought.

It is also possible that France's determined laïcité (forbidding the wearing of the headscarf or veil by public servants, for example) exacerbates divisions and is another provocation which assists the recruiters.  Our own more relaxed attitude (so far anyway) may be more appropriate in a world where the mixing of cultures is becoming the norm.

Today's papers a full of pictures of the murdered, with, in may cases, details of their lives.  An article on the front page of the Guardian states: 

The trauma is far from over.  There have been 132 people killed, and scores were severely wounded.  Behind those statistics  there are lives , dreams, hopes crushed.. . .

True, and also true of anyone killed in last night's retaliatory bombing of  Raqqa, those killed in various places by American drones, the thousands of dead in Afghanistan and Iraq which we didn't even bother to count, many of whom were completely innocent but whose deaths or injuries were dismissed with a shrug of the shoulders as "collateral damage" or merely "stuff happens."  And refugees seeking a better life who drowned in the Mediterranean and whom we didn't rescue because it might tempt others to try.

I realise the above is largely a catalogue of what we shouldn't do.  I have no magic solution but would suggest the following priorities:

  • refer to   "an international police operation to catch criminals" rather than  "a war against terror;"
  • search urgently for a political solution to the civil war in Syria, urging those already bombing to cut back, with the UK under no circumstances joining in:
  • stop using "Western " military force in a vain attempt to solve problems in the Middle East;
  • urge Muslim countries to take a leading role in tackling problems in Muslim or largely Muslim countries.  Only they should use (police style) force on the occasions when it is necessary;
  • urge Muslim leaders and clerics to continue to be, and be even more, outspoken in their condemnation of violence;
  • in the UK, discontinue the creation of yet more faith schools, and gradually withdraw state support for those that exist.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Cameron's EU demands - much ado about very little

David Cameron has today sent his letter to the President of the European Council with details of the demands which he says must be satisfied if he and his party are to campaign for the UK to remain in the EU.  I certainly haven't read all the letter, and don't intend to, but from the BBC's summary of the contents, though embarrassingly  mean and petty, they don't seem to amount to much.

1.  Britain to "opt out" of "ever closer union."   Britain seems to be the EU member specialising in opting out, but "ever closer union" us an aspiration from a more optimistic age.  At the moment it isn't fashionable but I believe it should remain and, when the time is ripe, we should move in that direction, just as, when the time is even riper, we should move to "ever closer union" in the UN.  The politically independent nation state is a dangerous anachronism which has caused insufferable misery in the past, and the sooner we have politicians  with the vision to move away from it the better.

2."Cutting red tape."  This is an easy target which sounds great until you ask which regulations the proposer would like to be rid of.  I suspect what Cameron has largely in mind are those regulations which protect workers and families from exploitation.  Personally I'm anxious to keep these, and rather pleased that the EU's regulations have, for example, forced us to clean up our beaches and are setting targets for such desirables as renewable energy sources.

3.  No special privileges to Eurozone members above those available to those too chicken to join.  Well, the way to get round that is to join the Euro. Yes, I know Gordon Brown is much praised, even by the Tories, for keeping us out, but it is my belief that it and we would be stronger and have fewer problems if we were in.  And I'm pretty certain that, if it survives, which I hope it will, we shall one day be begging to join.  It's worth remembering that, although the £ is said to be currently  "strong" against the Euro, it is not yet  back to the price we had to pay for one at the beginning (70.58 p. - we have to pay 71.11p today and for most of the past 15 years, despite all the Euro's troubles,  we've had to pay more.)   My guess is that when the value of the £ falls so that we have to pay £1 for every €1 we'll come round to joining.

4.  Migrant workers form the EU can't claim "in work" benefits until they've lived here for four years.  This is ridiculous special pleading. Cameron and much of the business community want to have their cake and  eat it..  For them the "single market"  seems to mean that British manufacturers and financial operators should be free to trade with the rest of the EU on the same terms as everyone else, including the domestic traders.  but when it comes to labour, oh no, the free market shouldn't operate. What nonsense.  If it's a free market for goods, capital, and services,  especially financial services, then it should be a free market for labour, so EU  workers in the UK should enjoy the same conditions as British workers  If Britain wishes to dispense with "in-work benefits" then we should force employers to genuinely living wages.

David Cameron is a superficially nice man who is good at presenting his party's policies in a favourable light.  But it takes more than that to be a successful prime minister.  In particular he seems to lack judgement, or is it backbone?  By his mishandling of the Scottish quest for independence (making an unnecessary "vow" of further substantial devolution to avoid a "Yes" vote, then the morning after turning the issue to one of "English votes for English laws,"and now, according to the SNP, reneging on his devolution promises) he is in danger of being the prime minister who presided over the break-up of the UK.  And by caving in to his Eurosceptic back-benchers and in fear of UKIP he has made his silly promise of a referendum, he is in danger of removing us from on of the most exciting and progressive political ventures of modern times.

Britain has real problems: distressingly low productivity; sluggish and unbalanced growth; rising inequality; a desperate housing crisis; a staggeringly high balance of payments deficit; a health service teetering on the brink of financial collapse  It is disgraceful that, rather than focusing on solving these problems our attention for the next eighteen months or so will be distracted by nonsensical posturing about Europe.

Friday 6 November 2015

Down and out poet

Yesterday St Martin-in-the-Fields, the church at the edge of Trafalgar Square, held its annual service to commemorate the homeless and destitute people who had died in London in the past year.  The number this year was a record 194.

Apparently the organisers try to find some personal detail to attach to each name, just to remind us that these are people, and not just a statistic.

Here is a poem written by one of them, David Rose:

After a boom there's always a bust;
Ask who's to balm and they'll tell you it's us.
It's not greedy bankers or embezzling elites;
It's somehow the fault of those with the least;.
The old, the disabled and us on the streets

Perhaps one of the exam boards could include it in GCSE English Literature:  explain the context and evaluate.

I was at college in London in the late 1950s and can't remember seeing any beggars on the streets or people sleeping rough.  Nor can I remember seeing any in Leeds, the nearest big city to my home.  There was the occasional tramp or vagrant but they, perhaps wrongly, were seen as rather romantic figures.  They were said to have a secret sign language and we learned it in the Scouts.

Mass homelessness and destitution there was not. And we are as a society some three to four times richer now than we were then.  We should be ashamed of tolerating the present situation.