Monday, August 27, 2007

Healey at 90

There is an interview with Denis Healey, on the eve of his 90th birthday, in the Daily Telegraph. He is a tad too far to the right for me, but obviously a clever guy (He has 16,000 books, “making one of the finest private libraries in the country”. I can’t see Thatcher with 16,000 books, unless they are old copies of Readers Digest). I always liked Healey’s sense of humour (e.g. comparing Thatcher to Castro: “all that’s missing is the beard”). He has the measure of Blair: "He has enormous personal charm but I wouldn't call him a communicator. He's a bullshitter, and very good at it. Almost everything he did after 2002 has been a disaster. He has left Brown all the problems to sort out." He is a long term opponent of the war in Iraq and argues the readiness to go to war by Blair is due to ignorance of what war means: “"My generation nearly all did at least five years' fighting. It gives more sense of how war happens, of the importance of planning and interdependence." The chaos in Iraq was, he thinks, “totally foreseeable”.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

"Honour"? I don't think so

There is – incredibly – a place called Batman in Turkey. Thursday’s Guardian carried a truly gruesome article on a wave of so-called “honour suicides” : young woman more or less imprisoned by their family and bullied into “committing suicide”. The official figure for “honour killings” (i.e. straightforward murders) is 70 a year for Turkey as a whole, but the real figure is much higher (hundreds each year). The “offences” for which killings are ordered (by the family) include “…exchanging eye contact with a boy or wearing a skimpy skirt”. Other “popular penalties” include “…a woman having her nose sliced off or head shaved”. The spate of “honour suicides” is due to tougher laws against killings; “…to save men from prison, experts believe families are instead forcing women to kill themselves”. Never has the word “honour” been so misused. If there is anything more dishonourable than a father bullying his daughter into “committing suicide” then I’m afraid I don’t know what it is. Things like this are entirely sufficient to demonstrate what is wrong with “cultural relativism”.

Saturday, August 25, 2007


One of the most mindless allegations against the anti-war left is that we are anti-American. The allegation confuses opposition to a regime and its policies with antipathy to a people and their culture. Yet it is repeated ad naseum by the Tory press and Tory bloggers. As an amusement Politaholic has decided to list some things/people about the USA he likes, and some of the things he doesn’t like (There is a lot more that could go into each category and they are not in any order).

Things/People I like

1. The First Amendment (both free speech and the separation of church and state).
2. Republicanism. (The head of state is called “Mr. President” not “Your Highness” or “Your Excellency” or “Your Magnificence” or whatever).
3. Ethnic pluralism: to be an American one does not have to belong to a particular ethnic group.
4. Movies (Casablanca, The Big Sleep, Chinatown…and many others).
5. Music: jazz, blues, rock-and-roll, rock….and Bob Dylan.
6. Animations and cartoons: Doonsbury, Charlie Brown…The Simpsons…Top Cat…Fantasia.
7. Fiction: Vonnegut, Heller, De Lillo, Roth…and many others.
8. The two greatest Americans: Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King Jr.


1. George W Bush; and Cheney, Nixon, Kissinger…and many others.
2. The near-genocide of Native Americans.
3. Slavery. And Jim Crow.
4. Invading other countries and killing the natives: from Cuba to Vietnam to Iraq…and many others.
5. Creationism. Religious fruitcakes. The impossibility of being in politics without at least feigning religosity.
6. Racism. The obsession with ethnic origin (“hyphenated-Americans”).
7. Capital punishment.
8. The movies: from The Green Berets to Rambo to that unbelievable movie with Clint Eastwood which glorifies the United States’s (population: 303 million) invasion of Grenada (population: 100,000). And many others.
9. The music: Rap (which is crap)…and some other stuff…
10. Sentimentality and emotional incontinence (“I love you guys…”).
11. All those bloody CSI programmes; and for that matter most American TV.
12. Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone…and Robin Williams. And many others.
14. The health care system.
15. Fox News…and much else.

(I know, one list is longer than another). Am I an anti-American?

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Inheritance Tax

Inheritance tax is an odd sort of tax to get worked up about. It is easily avoided and according to the government only 6% of estates pay it. (It raises about £4 billion a year, not a huge amount in terms of government expenditure. They spend more on bloody consultants). It is levied at 40% on estates of over £300,000 (due to rise to £350,000 by 2010). That obviously – especially given rising house prices – targets not just the super-rich but the comfortably-off. The raw politics of it is that, given the absolute pre-eminence of “Middle England” in electoral calculation, Brown will probably pinch the Tories clothes while they are bathing and either raise the threshold or abolish the tax. There probably is a case for raising the threshold, but personally I can’t get worked up about the plight of someone who, say, inherits a £500,000 property and is landed with an £80,000 tax bill; they are still £420,000 better-off, and this is through no efforts on their own (there is nothing “meritocratic” about inheriting wealth). I can’t see this as one of the greatest injustices in the world (the proportion of their income paid in tax by the low-paid strikes me as more scandalous). But then the middle classes are acutely sensitive to anything bearing on their own economic interests. As I say, the politics of it – the need to woo that great deity of our times, the middle-class vote – is what will decide this.

BBC liberal bias? Give us a break.

Last night Politaholic settled in front of the ITN main evening news after a few beers and the first item was about the Redwood/Osborne report, and in particular the proposal to abolish inheritance tax. The report began: "As taxes come, they don't get much more unpopular than this one...". Even as I write the Conservative bloggers are angrily firing missives at ITN executies complaining of media bias. Yeah, right.
What are we to make of the claim of BBC "liberal bias"? My initial reaction is simply to laugh out loud. It is so ludicrous. But actually there are several distinct claims bound up in the allegation. In one way the BBC does have a liberal bias; and quite right too. If a racist or a homophobe is interviewed on the BBC the interviewer is likely to indicate his distaste for the views expressed. This seems to me reasonable: it is not the job of public service broadcasting to reflect back the basest and most vile prejudices of our socety without mediation.
But other aspects of the allegation are simply crazy. It is nonsense that the BBC is "anti-American". It is not even anti-Bush (which is not the same thing). What it has done is to report e.g. the rise in anti-war feeling in the USA, the criticisms of the Bush/Rumsfeld strategy within the US military, and the chaos in Iraq. Spokesmen for the Bush regime get plenty of airtime; but critics get some airtime too. So it is with Israel. For decades we have been bombarded with news reports which routinely refer to "Palestinian terrorists" and "Israeli peacekeepers", to "Palestinian extremism" and Israeli "heavy-handedness" (a particularly loathsome euphemism), to Palestinian "bombs" and Israeli "strikes". When Israel invades another country it is called an "incursion" (a word I have never seen used in another context). Israeli spokesmen are intervewed at length and generally with a great deal of deference. But the BBC will also report e.g. that Israel uses cluster bombs, that there were many civilian causalties in the attack on Lebanon. (Then again, some things go largely unreported e.g. we hear very little of the Shin Bet torture centres. And collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and British intelligence in "Northern Ireland" - well known at the time - went unreported for years. There are many other examples). What do the critics of the BBC "liberal bias" actually want? Do they want the BBC not to report these things? Not to report what Amnesty and Human Rights Watch say about Israeli actions? Not to interview anyone who doesn't parrot the Bush-line?
As for the claim that the BBC is anti-Tory that is simply stupid. As between the main parties (those within the political mainstream) the BBC seems pretty impartial to me. Showing Redwood miming the Welsh national anthem is dictated by news values not anti-Tory bias; it reminds the viewers who he is and places the story in some sort of context (I seem to remember that when Neil Kinnock nearly feel into the sea clutching Glyns that this was shown repeatedly, and we have seen Prescott's punch a few times). The row about the "sexed up" dossier hardly showed an anti-Conservative bias, although the BBC retreat showed deference to government (and fear for the licence fee).
As I say, between the main parties the BBC shows no bias that I can discern. Outside the mainstream it is a different matter. Not much has changed in this respect since the Bad News/More Bad News research carried out years ago. The BBC overall is pretty safe, conservative (with a small "c") and establishment; it is "liberal" in so far as it discourages racism and homophobia; it is pretty fair between the main parties; it is overly respectful to the powerful, but it does allow some dissenting voices to be heard (occasionally a Pilger or a Fisk is given air time), and will report at least some well-attested facts which discomfort the powers-that-be (such as the Israeli use of cluster bombs). Let's be clear. The concerted atack on the BBC for its so-called "liberal bias" is an attempt to muzzle criticism, stifle debate, and silence dissidence; it is authoriatian in its impulse. And the people who are launching this attack speak from the heart of the establishment: the Conservative Party and the Tory press (with Tory blogggers as cheerleaders). The BBC is far too conservative and establishment for me but it is not Fox News. And thank God for that.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Military "innocents" and chickenhawks

Geoffrey Wheatcroft in yesterday’s Guardian raises an intriguing question: why it is the case that those with no military experience, who have not seen war at first hand, are often so gung-ho about going to war? Blair – a “military virgin” – is an obvious example. Bush, as is well known, had Daddy pull strings so that he could spend the Vietnam War in Texas (even as he urged others to go to Vietnam). This is the same Bush whose reaction to 9/11 was to cower in an underground bunker until his aides thought it safe to come out. Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove are also notable chickenhawks. In the case of Thatcher (which, oddly, Wheatcroft fails to mention) she was actually old enough towards the end of the war to enlist in one of the women’s auxiliary services, but patriotically choose not to do so (her career came first). Yet her thirst for war far outstripped that of those who actually saw action during the war e.g. Heath (Royal Artillery) and Healey (beach commander at Anzio). What are the psychological roots of the chickenhawk phenomenon? Is it jealousy, or an inferiority complex, a need for vicarious safe-at-a-distance excitement, or a need to compensate for not having military experience? There is no doubt that Blair hugely enjoyed strutting on the White House lawn besides Bush; so much more exciting than the tedious detail of tax-credits. Or is it just simple ignorance: do they think war is like the movies? Or is it a Master of the Universe arrogance: sure the little people will suffer but of what consequence are they (especially if their skin is brown and they speak another language/practice another religion)? Or do they have a more idealised view of war, having never seen it close-up? John Campbell suggests this in his biography of Thatcher: “She could have joined one of the women’s services when she left school, which would have got her into uniform and closer to the action; but she could never have gained that first-hand experience of combat which left such a deep and lasting impression on practically all of the young men who became her rivals and colleagues in the years ahead…emotionally but not physically involved in the conflict she was able to preserve a more idealised view of war than those who fought in it”. Wheatcroft also points to another feature of modern war: the off-loading of risk onto civilians: “When the western armies were reluctant to commit ground forces in Kosovo, as opposed to bombing from a safe height, there were rumblings from older military men about a generation of soldiers willing to fight but not willing to die, and one French general was quoted as asking whether we had reached the age of wars in which only civilians are killed”. Wheatcroft concludes (not entirely seriously, I think) that MP’s should not be allowed to vote for war unless they have “heard the proverbial shot fired in anger”. (This is, of course, silly if for no other reason than that it would rule out the great majority of MP’s and applied to the population as a whole most voters would also be disqualified…but still…I know what he means).

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Eulogising Biffen

The eulogising of John Biffen - even one or two of the Labour blogs are indulging a flair for the sanctimonious - reminds me of nothing so much as this vintage Not The Nine O'Clock News sketch. To his credit, Paul Linford reminds us that it was Biffen, as Trade Secretary, who refused to refer Murdoch's take-over of The Times and Sunday Times to the Monopolies Commission back in 1981, despite the fact that Murdoch already owned The Scum and The News of the Screws. Biffen claimed to be acting independently of Thatcher, a claim which frankly beggars belief. At the time Murdoch gave assurances that the papers would be allowed editorial independence, which were, of course, baloney.

Cheney in 1994 on Iraq: a quagmire

Dick Cheney (who was Defence Secretary under George H Bush) was not always quite so gung-ho about invading Iraq, as this clip reveals. His question: "What are you going to put in place?" is one junior might have considered in 2003.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Is it Brown or Browne?

Alex Salmond’s SNP minority administration has just published a White Paper reviewing the options for Scotland. Salmond appears to be open to the idea of a “multi-option” referendum in which voters can choose between (a) the status quo, (b) greater powers for the Scottish Parliament, and (c) independence. The three unionist parties have formed an alliance to block any referendum. At least the Labour Party and the Liberal-Democrats are consistent: they don’t want a referendum on the new EU Treaty either; but the Conservative position is hopelessly contradictory (demanding a referendum on the EU Treaty, refusing a referendum in Scotland). Refusing a referendum also plays into the hands of the SNP; they can portray themselves as the party which wants to allow the Scottish voters to decide, and the three unionist parties as “afraid of the voters” (precisely the line the Conservatives will push vis-à-vis the EU Treaty). Things may change, but currently the polls show that there is not a majority for independence (in a recent poll 31% favoured independence and 49% were against, with 20% either “don’t knows” or undecided). But my guess is that voters would opt for additional powers. Yesterday’s Guardian carried a rather confusing article (on page 10) in which the headline and first paragraph reported that Gordon Brown is planning “to press the Scottish Parliament to seek further powers” on the calculation that this would wrong-foot the SNP. But the text of the rest of the article reported that whereas the Liberal-Democrats want the Scottish Parliament to have “new powers over areas such as corporation tax, energy policy, immigration and asylum, doctor’s contracts, broadcasting and firearms”, Des Browne (Secretary of State for Scotland) has said that while Labour will “discuss” this there is “no evidence that moving such powers from London to Edinburgh would benefit Scotland”. Further, Browne said that the SNP was seeking new powers as a “Trojan horse” for independence (presumably the Lib-Dem calculation is just the opposite: new powers would weaken the demand for independence). So which is it: Brown or Browne?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Remember Peterlooo

Thursday is the 188th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, when an estimated 60,000 gathered peacefully in Manchester to demand the right to vote. They were attacked by the yeomanry and 11 were killed and about 500 injured. Incredibly, there is no proper memorial in Manchester: only a small blue plaque which does not even mention that anyone was killed (it refers coyly to the crowd being “dispersed by the military”). Now, as yesterday’s Guardian reports, there is a Peterloo Memorial Campaign campaigning for a proper memorial. Here’s my suggestion: pull down and smash to smithereens the grotesque and ugly statue of the Famine Queen in Piccadilly Gardens and put up a proper Peterloo Memorial in its place. (One can only dream).

It was Peterloo that moved Shelley to write the Mask of Anarchy:

" I met Murder on the way -
He had a mask like Castlereagh -
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:

All were fat; and well they might
Be in admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew

….Last came Anarchy: he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone;
On his brow this mark I saw -'

Politaholic is a Germanophile

Politaholic returned from holiday last week, after spendng nearly three weeks cycling in the Black Forest, and along the Danube cycle path (Donau-Radweg), with a few days in France at the end (I recommend it, but if you are thinking of cycling the Radweg an off-road bike is essential, and the Black Forest is very tough). Germany - or what I have seen of it - is very cycle-friendly. The Germans seem to like cycling as a leisure activity: all ages and shapes of people cycle, from little kids to old grandfathers, from thin sporty-types, to tubby ones (like me). There are good cycle paths, and motorists seem to respect them. If you book into a hotel they don't say: "Eh, by gum, Mavis, he's got a bicycle. There's not much call for that round here". Instead, they show you the safe place to keep your bicycle (usually a cellar in which a dozen other bicycles are also parked). Cycling is normal. The picture shows Freiburg - there are cycles everywhere, the scene is simply a fairly typical street. To return to blighty is depressing; the green paint that passes for a cycle path in Manchester (in which motorists both drive and park) simply cannot compare. Germany is light years ahead; they take it seriously. Even a quite big city like Munich is cycle-friendly. More than that, it doesn't seem to be paved with litter or full of loud-mouthed yobs, like Manchester. Why can't it be like that here? If Freiburg and Munich can do it why not Manchester? And on top of it all German lager beer is just wonderful...

Freedland loses the plot

Princess Dianna died on a Saturday night/Sunday morning. To turn on the TV that Sunday morning was a surreal experience. One would have thought she was a saint and that everyone had always thought so. But she died after the Sunday papers had gone to print, and they contained the usual crop of stories about Di, and these were not so deferential. (Not long before she had taken her kids to see a movie called “Free Willy” and I remember the papers suggesting she would be disappointed when she found out that it was about a dolphin). The next edition of Private Eye compared what various commentators had said on TV on that Sunday (and in the days that followed) with what the same commentators said in that Sunday’s papers. The result was hilarious: many had apparently simultaneously suffered both Saulite conversion and total amnesia. Di had vaulted from slag to saint. Some of the things said by apparently sane and intelligent individuals – Will Hutton, for example – were of unsurpassed idiocy.
These recollections are prompted by a piece in the Guardian by Jonathan Freedland arguing that the so-called grieving for Di was a rare “moment of togetherness”. Freedland argues that the “conventional” view is that the whole thing was media-orchestrated mass hysteria. That is my view but I doubt that it is the conventional one (and – as Freedland concedes – it certainly wasn’t at the time). Don’t misunderstand me: obviously when a young woman is killed that is sad. But, for me, it would be just as sad if it had been the barmaid at the Rose and Crown (at least there is a fair chance I might have a passing acquaintance with the barmaid at the Rose and Crown, whereas to most of those weeping and wailing Di was a complete stranger, known only via the media). The days that followed her death saw scenes of utter madness. Can you imagine queuing for 15 hours – 15 hours – to sign a book of condolence? I wouldn’t do that for Bob Dylan never mind Princess-bloody-Di (what did they do when they needed a pee?) Can you imagine saying, of the death of a complete stranger, that it has affected you more than the death of your own mother? (There were those who said this at the time). The whole thing was bloody ridiculous, and the bullying media consensus was slightly sinister. (Incidentally, Freedland refers to The Queen movie as embodying the new consensus. I haven’t seen the movie and have no intention of going to see it. Why on earth anyone would make or watch a movie about Elizabeth Saxe-Coburg Gotha is beyond me. So far as I can see her only distinguishing feature is unrestrained avarice). I do remember going to the pub around lunch-time that Sunday. Someone asked about the football only to be told it had been cancelled “because that stupid bitch has got herself killed”. A cruel remark, of course; although pretty standard for bar-room humour (dark and irreverent). But at least it reminded me that the image of a “whole nation” grieving was a media artefact. Sure there were many who felt like the dim-wits who queued for 15 hours. But others were more interested in the football. The insanity was widespread but not universal.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Vulcan at his best

Just a little reminder. Here is the man currently setting the Tory agenda.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Brown Bounce and the return of the Vulcan

Remember when the Tories were ahead in the polls and those same polls reported that, if Brown became P.M. then the Tory lead would widen? Well, the “Brown bounce” appears to be holding. The YouGov poll for The Sunday Times puts Labour 10 points ahead on 42% (the Lib-Dems are on a measly 14% which does not augur well for Ming the Monotonous). Brown seems to have gauged the Bush summit correctly: 71% see him as less close to Bush than was Blair. 65% say Brown is doing well as Prime Minister compared to 17% who say he is doing badly: a positive rating of 48%. The Ipsos-Mori poll in Saturday’s Sun showed 69% saying that Brown was the best leader to deal with emergency situations such as foot-and-mouth and floods compared to just 10% for Cameron. There is a lot of speculation about an early election, but that is unlikely for several reasons: Labour needs to sort out its finances; the SNP appear to have a big poll lead in Scotland; and Brown is an innately cautious politician who likes to play the long game. At this point it is impossible to say whether Labour can consolidate its poll lead. It will be interesting to see what the picture looks like after the party conference season. If by the end of November the Tories are still behind in the polls with a rating in the low 30’s my money is on a Cameron decapitation. Interestingly the Ipsos-Mori poll showed 43% would rather share a pint with Brown compared to 41% who would rather share a pint with Cameron. I wouldn’t have though Cameron was a pint man: isn’t Pyms more his style? Meanwhile the Observer reports the return of the Vulcan. John Redwood in his report to the Tory leadership on competitiveness will recommend tax cuts. He will try to square this with the Cameron line by arguing that, of course, this should only happen “if it does not destabilise the economy”, but reading between the lines he is clearly signalling disagreement. The report seems likely to fuel divisions within the Conservative Party. (Redwod was last heard of earlier this year arguing that global warming would be good for the tourist industry. As Steve Bell has remarked, he does not try to conceal his madness).

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Inspector Knacker on the alert

The Guardian leads with the story that the police are to use anti-terrorism laws - section 44 of the Terrorism Act (2000) - to "deal robustly" (a charming euphemism) with anti-climate change protesters. The police will use stop-and-search powers and can, in theory, hold people for up to a month without charge. One climate change protester - Christina Fraser - was held for 30 hours after being arrested while cycling near Heathrow airport. Liberty are making the perfectly reasonable point that such laws should be used to counter the threat of terrorism and should "not be used routinely against peaceful demonstrators". It was under section 44 that the notorious terrorist Walter ("The Jackal") Wolfgang was briefly detained after having the temerity to heckle Jack Straw at the 2005 Labour Party Conference (thus waking half the audience). Cycling? Heckling? These terrorists will stop at nothing.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Cycle Hero

This is fantastic.