28 September 2006

Medals galore

The news that almost 180 British soldiers have been recommended for gallantry awards for their efforts in Afghanistan, including "several" Victoria Crosses, brings to mind the last days of the siege of Stalingrad, when Junkers 52s from Hitler's Luftwaffe were despatched to airdrop container-loads of Iron Crosses to the beleaguered troops of the 6th Army.

That is not in any way to disparage the bravery of our troops but, as The Daily Telegraph remarks, the scale of the awards suggests a conflict out of all proportion to the security operation first outlined by the government when Britain committed forces to southern Afghanistan in January. John Reid, the then Defence Secretary, expressed the hope that the troops might be able to get in and out of Helmand without firing a shot.

While it is right and proper that the troops' endeavours should be properly recognised, it also has to be said that the government is getting a good deal, relying on the skill and sheer bravery of our men to make up for the pitiful inadequacies in troop numbers and equipment. Handing out medals is considerably cheaper than buying the armoured vehicles and helicopters which the Army so desperately needs.

And, if handing out medals is a cheap way of keeping troop morale high, what are we to make of the report conveyed by the BBC that Brigadier Ed Butler, the outgoing ground forces commander, is claiming that a "secret deal" has brought a halt to violence in Musa Qala, a district which had seen intense fighting.

According to the BBC's Alastair Leithead, the peace deal was struck with the elders of Musa Qala, following a "secret meeting" in the desert, since when there have been fewer number of clashes in recent days. This, Butler believes – or so we are told – is a sign that the Taleban was tactically defeated ahead of the winter. "I think we have won, we may not be quite there yet this year," he says.

This, however, simply does not match up with other reports that Taliban attacks against American forces in eastern Afghanistan have tripled since a truce was signed between the Pakistan government and pro-Taliban tribesmen in Pakistan's tribal areas, suggesting (as we indicated earlier), that the Taliban has easy access to reinforcemements.

Furthermore, the recent slacking of hostilities may have something to do with the start of Ramadan, rather than any effect British troops may have had on their enemy, which might explain why ground troops "have questioned" whether the dip in fighting is merely a sign that the Taleban is regrouping. If that is the case, the British government had better start minting some more medals.

On the other hand, if the situation is – albeit temporarily – slackening off in Afghanistan, it seems that, after months of inactivity in Iraq, action is underway by 3,000 British troops in Basra, aimed at curbing the widespread lawlessness in the province.

However, as in Al Amarah, when the British have taken a robust line, retaliation has quickly followed in the form of roadside bombing and, given that the Army has yet to receive any of the promised armoured vehicles, they are just as vulnerable to this tactic now as they have been. There is a possibility, therefore, that a hiatus in the Afghan casualty count may be replaced by an upsurge in Iraqi losses, in which case, the medal makers are going to be busy, as there is no sign that the government is preparing substantially to increase the support and equipment to these troops.

Ironically though, even if things got to breaking point, the RAF does not have sufficient airlift capacity to emulate the Luftwaffe and air drop the medals.


A matter of perspective

In one had to point to one organisation that had done more than any to demonise waste disposal and legitimise the flood of restrictive legislation on waste, Greenpeace would be a pretty good candidate.

Thus it is inevitable that, when a disaster arises in part as a result of the very legislation of which Greenpeace so much approves, they will be the last people to recognise the consequences of their own actions.

The disaster in question is a waste oil dumping scandal, involving the ship Probo Koala (pictured above), which has killed at least eight Africans, including children, and poisoned thousands of Ivory Coast residents, reported (sketchily) by Reuters via Toronto Star (which is equally uncomprehending of the underlying issues).

According to the agency's report, this "has given rare insight into the world's murky trade in waste, much of it toxic, in defiance of global trade laws", but it is to The Times that one must turn for more of the details of an incident, the genesis of which seems to go back to last July.

It was then, it appears, that the ship Probo Koala, carrying an amount of waste oil attempted to offload of it in Amsterdam – where, no doubt, the fastidious Dutch would have ensured its safe disposal. But according to the German magazine, Spiegel, Amsterdam Port Services (APS) refused to accept the waste because of high concentrations of a substance known as mercaptan.

This, The Times describes as "a poisonous residue of decaying crude oil", although it is also the odourant used in domestic gas supplies to warn of the presence of an otherwise odourless gas.

The waste, it turns out, was what is known as "Basle slops" - the residue from oil tank washing, although we are not given any detail of the origin. Doubtless, the waste generators found it easier to pass on the problem of disposal to the Greek owners of the Panamanian-registered Probo Koala – almost certainly paying substantial fees for the privilege.

Anyhow, it seems the master of the Probo Koala was instructed to dump the waste at a special facility – at an unspecified but doubtless high cost – which, we can deduce, would also have delayed the ship, the operator thus incurring a $250,000 (£131,000) penalty for its late arrival at the next port of call. Entirely predictably, therefore, the Probo Koala left Amsterdam with the waste on board, sailing out of the reach of the highly regulated Dutch waste disposal system.

Cleaning up the messFrom there the disaster started to unfold when a small company, called Tommy, and wholly owned by the Puma Energy Group, in which the Ivorian President's family is reported to own shares, won the contract to accept the waste. Then, in late August, 500 tons of waste, which the operator insists was of low toxicity, was dumped at night at more than 11 sites across the Ivory Coast town of Abidjan.

The operator is a firm called Trafigura – a Dutch oil trading firm – which has a rather seedy background, having been was fined $17.9 million (£9.4 million) for its role in the UN's Oil-for-Food scandal,

Following the dumping, a stinking cloud of fumes hung over the city and around 9,000 people have complained of rashes, vomiting, diarrhoea, migraines and nosebleeds, while eight have died.

As a sequel, the dumping has led to angry street protests in Abidjan during which the country's Transport Minister was pulled from his car and beaten, the house of the director of Abidjan was burnt down and, on 6 September, most of the Ivorian Cabinet resigned, prompting President Laurent Gbagbo to ask his Prime Minister, Charles Konan Banny, to form a new government.

Now, with the Probo Koala in Estonia, the Estonian state prosecutor has refused to allow the ship to leave pending investigations, with a view to prosecution. Greenpeace activists have hooked themselves up to the ship's mooring lines to stop it leaving (picture below left).

Returning to the Reuters report, this highlights "activists" who "campaigned against the dumping of toxic waste in Africa and the developing world in the 1980s," noting that "regulations adopted in Basel in 1989 attempted to restrain the business." Without realising the inevitability of what it reports, the agency – in a piece that is closer to editorialising than objective reporting – then tells us that Greenpeace is complaining that "the worst practices are back".

Instead of toxic waste, campaigners say the developed world is dumping old ships, often contaminated with asbestos and other poisonous chemicals, and electronic goods on poorer countries ill-equipped to deal with them. Reuters then cites Pierre Portas, deputy executive secretary of the Basel Convention Secretariat, who says, "Unfortunately, because in Europe and other places, legislation has been put in place, people were dreaming that this matter would disappear… But with globalisation, this has resurfaced, it is even on the increase."

According to Greenpeace, "unscrupulous recyclers" promise to find homes for the ever larger mountain of discarded electronic gadgets in the developing world. "The whole trend is about taking the waste out of the backyards of the West, just getting rid of it basically," said Zeina Alhajj, campaign coordinator for Greenpeace International.

The Basel Action Network, a US group campaigning for a crack-down on hazardous waste, said last year 500 containers of computers were being shipped into Lagos every month. As many as 75 percent of these ended up being dumped and burned, releasing hazardous fumes that can contain lead, cadmium, barium, beryllium, mercury and brominated flame retardants used in computer manufacture.

The United Nations estimates that 20 to 50 million tons of electronic waste is produced every year, and checks by a European watchdog last year showed that 48 percent of EU waste exports were illegal. "Consumerism has led to this problem, which we see with everything from ships, to computers to refrigerators... when you open places to trade, you also open them to illegal traffic," Portas says.

That, then is the "take" of Reuters but, as we have argued elsewhere, it is – in one sense – far more complex than that, but also much more straightforward. Basically, though, if you want to ensure that waste disposal is carried out properly and safely, you make it as simple and as cheap as possible. On the other hand, if you rule out simple and safe means of disposal, like landfill and ladle on highly restrictive and expensive regulation, you skew the costs of disposal and make economic export to less regulated countries.

All you do then is turn your back on the problem, prate about how "green" you are, and ignore the problems which unfold.

In essence, the Probo Koala disaster was one waiting to happen, one which was regulatory-driven, arising from well-intentioned idiots who have little idea of human psychology and the effects of commercial pressures and who suffer from the delusion that all you have to do to solve problems is make laws.

This, as many readers will recognise, is the classic EU delusion and it was indeed the EU which was one of the prime movers behind the Basle Convention. No doubt, the officials who piloted it though, and the Greenpeace activists who so enthusiastically supported it, sleep easily in their beds, entirely heedless of the likelihood that, because of their actions, many Africans – and doubtless others – now lie in their graves.

Others, of course, may think differently, but that is a matter of perspective.


27 September 2006

They are lining up

SecGen Kofi Annan (father of Kojo) is coming to the end of his second term in office but, I have no doubt, that his retirement will not be impoverished. Yesterday the Times devoted an editorial to the incredibly important question of who his successor might be and who it ought to be.

It seems that, according to Buggins’ turn, it will have to be an Asian personality, as the last one of those was U Thant from 1961 to 1971. He was followed by Kurt Waldheim and because the list was that way round, the Europeans are out of the consideration this time round.

Well the former Thunderer thinks that this is a very poor idea. SecGens should be chosen on the basis of merit. What kind of merit?
Any candidate must understand the challenge: putting the UN house in order will take courage, political will and an integrity that is proof against institutionalised bureaucracy or political pressure. The secretary-general has come to be seen as the world’s top diplomat; but the job specification is to run the UN, a role that has been badly neglected.
Hmm. I thought SecGen Annan was supposed to be putting the UN house in order. Whatever happened to that?The former Thunderer is backing a dark horse, the Latvian President, Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who is certainly more decorative than the other candidates. Her biography shows a personality well versed in transnational politics and, no doubt, tranzi-speak. No wonder, the Times finds her impressive, adding rather curiously, that she “should not be disqualified … by being European or a woman”. Is there some article in the UN Charter that says women cannot aspire to the position of Secretary General?

The trouble with this and any other article on the subject is a lack of discussion as to what might be wrong with the UN. It is true to say that the role of the SecGen is to run the UN but what is he or she to run that organization for?

What is the purpose of the UN? This is not an unimportant question since the organization eats up a great deal of our money. And the money is not exactly contributed evenly or fairly.

As the indefatigable Claudia Rossett notes
Iran, with 67 million people, pays .157%, or $3 million. Venezuela, with 26 million people, pays .171%, or $3.2 million.

Just to pick a handy standard of comparison, Israel, with only 7 million people, pays .467%, or $9 million. In other words, the oil-rich states of Iran and Venezuela, put together , pay only slightly more than two-thirds of what Israel contributes all by itself.

All this is utterly dwarfed by the U.S. contribution of 22%, or $423.4 million. And that’s just a small fraction of the real river of U.S. money flowing into the UN, which, including voluntary contributions, will top $5.3 billion for this year alone — more than one-quarter of the UN’s real budget of about $20 billion (when it comes to money at the UN, there’s always more to the story).
She picked Iran and Venezuela, of course, because of the supremely ridiculous and appalling behaviour of the two tyrannical rulers of those countries at the opening of the General Assembly last week. But then, their antics, particularly Chávez’s embarrassing sulphur-sniffing, were applauded by the majority of the UN delegates, who are luxuriating in New York because the money provided by the American and other western taxpayer.

The point is that most of the UN’s members have no interest in or understanding of the supposed aims of that organization. It is supposed to be dedicated to the promotion of freedom, democracy and human rights. How many of its members have those desirable political qualities within their borders?

The UN with its corruption and unaccountability reflects many of its member countries. But it goes beyond that. In the very nature of such an organization, it cannot be accountable. To whom would it be so? Therefore, its officials, its various delegates and its peacekeeping troops behave in the most appalling fashion and there is nothing we can do about it. Except for one thing – stop financing it.

Meanwhile, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who must have been astonished to see that someone could top his performance, has told the media that SecGen Kofi Annan had assured him that he need not pay any attention to the Security Council deadline for him to stop enriching uranium. The SecGen has denied these allegations and one can choose whom one believes.

So the expensive and pernicious farce that is known as the United Nations goes on. The minor detail of who actually is the SecGen does not seem to me to be all that important.

26 September 2006

Bloggers - which is it to be?

Having dealt in a little detail with the Afghan situation on Sunday, what is particularly remarkable about the piece to follow is that it cites the European Union's special representative in Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, who not only seems to make a great deal of sense but also seems to corroborate the source we used in our Sunday piece.

The details we picked up not from the UK media but off a Texan online news service with a shorter version of the same report from the Chinese news service Xinhua.

Now, before dealing with the reports and other information, the summation of which has worrying implications – a personal note.

Frankly, I am getting more than a little tired of the self-obsessed indulgence the media is currently displaying with the Tony and Gordon show in Manchester at the Labour Party conference. But that irritation also extends to the British political bloggers who seem quite content to follow in the wake of the MSM and prattle endlessly about exactly the same issues.

Often the humour and analysis is about the level one would expect of the 4th form of a second-rate boys boarding school and I have heard more intelligent comment from college students in fifth and sixth forms in the lectures I have been given to schools recently.

In a nutshell, the Tony and Gordon show is fluff – nothing is going to be decided immediately and much water is going to pass under the bridge before things come to a head. Meanwhile, we are a nation at war, we do have troops committed to a dangerous foreign venture and, if the material we have accumulated in this and our previous reports is at all representative of the situation, there is the potential for the situation to go seriously belly-up. In that case, over the winter, we could be seeing soldiers coming home in coffins in very large numbers.

And, if the MSM does not have the maturity to lead the way, it is for the bloggers to take over and demand a serious debate on a situation which is becoming ever-more unsettling. As bloggers, you can indulge in your idle tittering and puerile humour or you can act as grown ups. The choice is yours and your readers will be your judges.

Returning to the substantive issues, the details we have seen echo the report by Canadian journalist Graeme Smith, which we reviewed on Sunday, Vendrell – who lives in Kabul – says that the West must "find out more" about the Taliban insurgency in southern Afghanistan before it can defeat it.

Standing aside from the fact that we actually have an EU official who seems to be talking sense, we will take our information from where we can get it. Apparently he was speaking to journalists in Brussels – and event, as we indicated, entirely unreported by the British MSM, when he suggested that NATO and other Western institutions did not have a sufficiently clear idea of who they were fighting. He told journalists that:

We do need to seriously look at how the Taliban is composed, what goes by the name of Taliban, who are the people that we label Taliban …Are they all part of a single group under the command of Mullah Omar? Or are they autonomous groups who perhaps do not have the kind of national or Islamist agenda that the Taliban are known for, but perhaps have specific grievances regarding certain provinces in the country? We need to find out more about that.

This was precisely the issue addressed by Smith who reported that many of the “insurgents” killed in the just completed Operation Medusa were not in fact Taliban but aggrieved local tribesmen, rebelling against corrupt and violent government forces and police.

We also reported on Captain Leo Docherty warning that, "Having a big old fight is pointless and just making things worse," but Vendrell seems to be contradicting this by calling for "quick" military strikes against insurgents. But then, like other commentators, including Docherty, he says these must then be followed by reconstruction efforts to deny the Taliban new recruits.

Both Vendrell and Docherty agree on the need to avoid civilian casualties, which Vendrell says "come at a political price." As to the follow-up, he wants the area of governance by the central government extended progressively from the areas which have been taken over, coupled with immediate improvement in governance and improvement in reconstruction."

The reference to "improvement in governance" perhaps hints that all is not well with the current situation, but while Vendrell does not elaborate, he does say that the reconstruction effort must become much more visible, and that Western aid must shift from humanitarian assistance to support for the overall economic rehabilitation of the country. This Vendrell says is necessary to undermine support for the militants.

"At the end of the day," he argues, "the reason why the Taliban are able to recruit so many people is less due to ideological grounds, [and] more because the Taliban is able to pay better than the police and the army pay their own [people]."

I am not entirely sure about this last comment as Graeme Smith indicated that the police were being recruited from specific tribal groups, which was partly the cause of the problem, but it might also be the case that this tribal group is not being recruited by the Taliban. Neverthless, if government servants are not being paid enough, their loyalty certainly cannot be assured.

However, as one might expect, Vendrell supports the request of NATO commanders for more troops, and he also takes issue with Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, disputing that the deals Musharraf has agreed with tribal elders in Pakistan's Pashtun region of Waziristan provide a guarantee that Taliban infiltration will stop. He notes that after the first such agreement with Southern Waziristan, infiltration from Pakistan into the neighboring Afghan provinces of Paktia and Khost had, in fact, increased.

Putting this together so far, it is common ground that we do not have anything like enough troops in theatre and that they are seriously – if not dangerously – under-equipped. Contrary to some reports, it seems unlikely that there will be any respite for out troops this winter and, if the Vendrell report is correct, Taliban reinforcements are flooding over the Pakistan border.

To counter this, Nato troops should be holding the ground they currently occupy and extending their grip, while also pushing ahead with major development projects, which also require security.

But, from The Independent this weekend, we learn that that British forces in Afghanistan are restructuring their operations. The policy of setting up "advanced platoon houses" will be quietly abandoned and British troops will instead be concentrated in more easily defended bases near the towns of Lashkargar, Grishk, Sangin and Musa Qala, as well as their main base, Camp Bastion. The outposts in the Sangin Valley are still being manned by British troops, but they are due to be handed over to the Afghan army, and no new ones are likely to be established.

In other words, there is to be no holding of ground or accelerated development. Instead, rather as in Iraq, the British contingent is retreating to barracks for the winter, leaving the field to the Taliban, and the population at the mercy of the murderous and wholly inadequate government forces who are parties to a vicious tribal feud.

Even if the Taliban do not step up attacks over the winter – and the most likely outcome is that they will - in the Spring if not sooner, the Army will face a re-invigorated Taliban, reinforced by recruits from over the border and from local citizens who will have been, effectively deserted by Nato forces and have thus turned fighters, siding with the Taliban.

Even the Independent asserts that, "most worryingly, there appears to be no shortage of Islamist fighters coming across the porous Pakistani border to replace the killed and wounded", so the body counts of which we have been hearing so much recently are of very little significance.

The paper cites an officer saying, "We are flattening places we have already flattened, but the attacks have kept coming. We have killed them by the dozens, but more keep coming, locally or from across the border. We have used B1 bombers, Harriers and Mirage 2000s. We have dropped 500lb, 1,000lb and 2,000lb bombs. At one point our Apaches [helicopter gunships] ran out of missiles, they have fired so many."

During the winter, air cover will be harder to maintain and re-supply will be more difficult. One does not have to be alarmist to assert that there is a potential disaster in the making. The signs are all there for anyone who wants to see.

Basically, as I see it, we have two options. We either heavily reinforce the Nato contingent and urgently upgrade its equipment and logistic capability or we pull out. Anything else is to invite slaughter.

That analysis might, of course, be wrong. But I haven't seen any better and people in a position to know better than me do not disagree with it. If it is halfway right, something has to be done – soon. Not in the spring or sometime never but now. Given a grown-up opposition, this would be a main issue in the Conservative Party Conference next week, but I somehow doubt it will be.

That does, as I say, leave the bloggers. You – collectively – can continue to play your little games. Or you can show up the media and the politicians and make the running. Which is it to be?


24 September 2006

The erosion of freedoms

It is interesting to see how much energy has been expended by sections of the eurosceptic community on the remote and largely theoretical EU threat to our freedoms represented by the putative abolition of habeas corpus.

By contrast, you will see little concern – and none of any lasting effect – about the continued drip-drip erosion of our liberties that happens in a myriad of ways through the application of EU law.

One such is recorded by Christopher Booker in this week's Sunday Telegraph, under the heading, "Citronella deters insects, but it's illegal to say so".

If, like me, though, you did not even know what Citronella was, perhaps vaguely thinking that it was a branded fruit drink, then that fact that it has been banned for use as an insect repellent by the EU's Biocidal Products Directive, (98/8/EC) is not going to have you storming the barricades.

However, for Mr Nigel Furlong, whose long-established Newport company makes products for the care of horses, this is a vitally important matter. He has spent ten years and £680,000 of his own money (for which he had to re-mortgage his house) developing a highly effective and popular cream for repelling the insects which can cause serious harm to horses, particularly by infecting cuts.

One of this cream's 32 ingredients is citronella, an oil extracted from lemongrass, which has the unusual property of deterring insects without harming them, while smelling pleasant to people – which is why citronella candles are still widely advertised for keeping insects away from barbecues.

But now, it has become a criminal offence for Mr Furlong's firm to sell its most popular product, because it includes this entirely harmless ingredient which is still on sale in supermarkets, pharmacies and health shops throughout the land, not to mention everywhere else in the EU – and which can continue to be sold as long as no claims are made as to its ability to repel insects.

Mr Furlong's experience remind me of another absurdity where a Yorkshire grower sought to avoid the use of highly toxic organo-phosphorous pesticides on his cucumber crops, for which purpose a highly innovative company developed a completely safe alternative. This, oddly enough, was food starch, an ingredient of thousands of manufactured foods, considered to be so safe that it can be found in most proprietary baby foods.

In the cucumber growing business, the most important pest is white fly and it was discovered that, by spraying the plants with food starch, it formed a coating on the pupal cases which was sufficiently tough to prevent adult flies emerging, thus eliminating any infestations.

Such an option, you would think, would be highly encouraged by the authorities – but not a bit of it. Because this harmless substance was to be used as a pesticide, it came within the ambit of the "plant protection" directive (91/414/EC).

This, like the biocides directive, prohibits the use of any products unless they are on a "positive list" and, in Mr Furlong's case the fee payable to the regulatory authority (the HSE) was £89,000 plus the enormous cost of producing a "safety dossier". In the case of the starch – which was given the name "Hugtite" - the regulatory costs were in excess of £200,000 before it would be considered for approval.

In both cases, however, there is a major problem – the products are generic, widely available to a multitude of manufacturers and, once it is approved, anyone can use it. The system thus puts entrepreneurs in a situation of having to expend an enormous amount of money, for which they can gain no benefit.

Over the years Booker and I have built up hundreds of examples of this sort of thing – with hundreds of small firms either gravely disadvantaged or driven out of business. Add to that the broader trade categories, like the fishing and slaughter industries, and perhaps thousands of firms and have been put out of business, with untold effects on the economy and employment. But, more importantly, each impost is an erosion of our freedoms - every bit as important as habeus corpus - in particular the right to conduct a business and earn you living without unreasonable interference from the State.

It is thus appropriate that Booker's second piece (of two) is headed, "Whatever you do, don't mention Europe". We – or rather, the political classes – simply do not mention the EU. For sure, Booker's article today will elicit a few "tut-tuts" from his readers and one or two may be moved to write to their MPs. And that will be the end of it – especially if the correspondence goes to a Tory MP.

Writes Booker: "Europe, we are told, not least by senior Tories, is 'off the agenda'. Such a boring subject – no longer politically relevant." He continues:

One result is that the media, reporting on some controversial new law, seem more reluctant than ever to admit that it comes, as it so often does, from Brussels. There were many reports, for instance, on the law against carrying children below "135 centimetres" tall in a car without a booster seat. Almost none explained that this was forced on us by EC directive 2003/20. It took Boris Johnson, frothing with anger, to point out in The Daily Telegraph that the law had been introduced without giving Parliament a chance to debate it. (He seems not to have noticed that it was discussed in committee on July 5 and that his party did not vote against it.)

Credit also to The Observer, for revealing last week that 60 NHS hospitals are having to close whole departments because of the effect of the EC Working Time directive on the availability of doctors. It was good to see The Observer acknowledging this, since it had greeted Tony Blair's victory in 1997 by shouting from its front page "Goodbye Xenophobia" – as if that were the only motive for scepticism about the EU, rather than recognising it as an inefficient and undemocratic form of government.

Numerous articles have appeared recently on the shambles in our waste disposal system created by the switch from landfill to "recycling". There was a scarifying report in the Mail on Sunday showing how much of our rubbish collected for recycling ends up in China in vast polluting dumps, most of it going to landfill. But this, like so many others, laid the blame for our chaotic waste policy solely on "town halls" and "ministers", without any mention of the fact that our policy is now dictated by Brussels waste directives.

Apart from this column, no newspaper explained that the recent changes to "size-based pricing" for our post originated in EC legislation, even though this is there for anyone to see on the Royal Mail and Postcom websites. There has also been near-silence about the damage being done by Brussels regulations to the City, our richest economic sector, now threatened with reduction, as Irwin Stelzer says in this week's Spectator, to "second-class" status.

So the great taboo continues. Has there ever been a time in history when people were so kept in the dark about how their laws are made? It is all very well for Mr Johnson to froth with anger. But he might be doing something more useful if he could persuade his colleagues in the "Not the Conservative Party" that how we are governed is not exactly something which should just be stuffed away "off the agenda".
Interestingly, today The Observer today returns to the theme of junior doctors, recording that:

Patients are being put at risk because the number of hours' training that a doctor completes before qualifying as a consultant has fallen by around 75 per cent in the past 15 years … Junior doctors are warning that medics hoping to become specialist surgeons say they are not spending enough time in the operating theatre to make them proficient and safe. That is because junior doctors' hours have fallen considerably under the European Working Time Directive, which means they can only work 56 hours a week, including nights on call.
The story though has not been picked up by any other media outlets and, although we picked up the original story last week the British blogosphere – especially amongst the self-important "big hitter" political blogs – mirrors the situation in the MSM.

In fact, as we have remarked before, the British political blogosphere so closely parallels the MSM, with the same diet of trivia, political introspection and self-congratulation, that we might as well not have it. For them, also – in the main – "Europe" is off the agenda, confined, like Booker so often is, to the margins.


This does not look good

It must have been a slow news day yesterday because Sir Richard Dannatt, the Army's new Chief of the General Staff, stayed on most of the day's television news bulletins, springing to the defence of the RAF after Friday's attack on it.

Oddly though, Dannatt did not even hint that the Major who made his complaints about the RAF may have been mistaken – and been complaining about the wrong air force. And it is doubly odd that not one single news station (or newspaper) which reported on the affair has mentioned this. Clearly, the Major's complaints supports the media narrative that "our boys" are ill equipped and under-strength, so to cast doubt on the man would have reduced the authority of his report.

But this superficiality is getting serious. When it comes to news on Afghanistan, we as a nation are dangerously ill-informed, in two key areas – firstly, the general strategic position and, secondly, over the possible course of events during the winter.

To get some insight into the strategic position, one has to turn to a piece in the Canadian Globe and Mail and an account of the recent "Operation Medusa", another Nato operation which has been coming to a "successful" conclusion, this one in the neighbouring Kandahar province.

Headed, "Inspiring tale of triumph over Taliban not all it seems," the piece is written by Graeme Smith and it does not make for happy reading. Officially, the operation has been declared a success. A thousand Taliban have been killed, others have been routed and villagers are welcoming the return of government rule. Military officials say the operation may have destroyed up to one third of the insurgency's hardcore ranks.

But, writes Smith, interviews with tribal elders, farmers and senior officials in the city of Kandahar suggest a version of events that is more complicated, and less reassuring. The revolt, it seems, has been fuelled by tribal feuds, government corruption and police violence – all of which has been exploited by the Taliban, protecting local inhabitants from the police and government. Thus,

…many of fighters killed - perhaps half of them, by one estimate - were not Taliban stalwarts, but local farmers who reportedly revolted against corrupt policing and tribal persecution. It appears the Taliban did not choose the Panjwai district as a battleground merely because the irrigation trenches and dry canals provided good hiding places, but because many villagers were willing to give them food, shelter - even sons for the fight - in exchange for freedom from the local authorities.
And, although the government has regained control of the district, there are troubling signs that the area may be sliding back toward the same conditions that sparked the violent revolt. Smith tells us:

Unconfirmed reports suggest that Taliban fighters continue to lurk around the district, and that police in the area have resumed the abusive tactics that originally ignited local anger. Farmers say gangs of policemen, often their tribal rivals, have swept into Panjwai behind the Canadian troops to search for valuables. They have been described ransacking homes, burning shops and conducting shakedowns at checkpoints.
This will come as no surprise to anyone with even the glimmering of understanding of Afghan politics and history. This current situation always had to be much more complex than a simple "biff-bam" punch-up between Nato "goodies" Taliban "baddies", to be reduced to "Boys Own" style comic strips by a supposedly serious newspaper like The Sunday Times (below).

In this context, while we hear from the likes of defence secretary Des Browne and now from General Dannatt that the "Taliban" is proving to be a more difficult adversary for British troops in Afghanistan than expected, no one in the British media has sought to offer an explanation as to why the resistance is so strong.

We can, however, glean something of the same dynamic, as described by Smith from the piece earlier this month about the resignation of Captain Leo Docherty.

A former aide-de-camp to the commander of the British taskforce in southern Afghanistan, he has described the campaign in Helmand province as "a textbook case of how to screw up a counter-insurgency". His view is that, "Having a big old fight is pointless and just making things worse." He adds:

All those people whose homes have been destroyed and sons killed are going to turn against the British … It's a pretty clear equation - if people are losing homes and poppy fields, they will go and fight. I certainly would.
Docherty also observes that Nato lacks the capability to carry out development work and this can only reinforce what seems to be the growing impression that Nato troops are simply another version of the Soviet invaders, an occupying military force supporting a corrupt, murderous regime.

As to the second issue, we have heard from a number of media and other commentators that, with the onset of winter, hostilities will slacken off, given Nato forces – and especially the British – time to re-group and rest.

However, as numerous accounts of the Soviet invasion show, this is a myth (see here, here, here and, especially here).

In the south – unlike the north – temperatures do not fall precipitously but the weather generally does make flying more difficult and dangerous, especially for helicopters. Effectively, for sophisticated armies, logistics become much more difficult and the balance of tactical advantage shifts to the insurgents.

Far from diminishing over the winter, therefore, Nato forces can expect attacks to intensify and, given the extreme difficulty the British already have in supplying their forces, we could see a major disasters just at a time when we are schooled by the media to expect it least.

Putting the two together, it would seem that – far from entering the region to spread peace and democracy, our troops are blundering into tribal wars, where government forces themselves are tribal protagonists. By supporting the government, far from defeating the Taliban, we are creating allies which, over winter may take advantage of an improved tactical situation to strike back with a vengeance.

Whichever way you play this, it does not look good and the media, as always, has lost the plot.


22 September 2006

The European Union shows its strength, as usual

As the International Herald Tribune puts it: “Indonesia Executes 3, Despite EU Appeal”. Once again the EU’s influence is displayed for all to see. It would not matter so much if we were not told at great length by the propagandists in such organizations as the Centre for European Reform, that one of the joys of the EU was its ability to have a quiet influence on all sorts of nasty people. Not, you understand, like those nasty, brutish Americans.
"The European Union, along with many other like-minded countries, opposes the use of the death penalty in all circumstances," the Finnish ambassador, Markko Niinioga, representing the presidency of the EU, said in a letter that was delivered Wednesday to the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. "The EU finds this punishment cruel and inhuman."

The letter was read to a journalist by a European diplomat, who did so on the condition of anonymity because the letter has not been released publicly. An aide to Yudhoyono confirmed that it had been received.
The NYT article carefully does not say but there have been problems with the trial and with the sudden decision to execute. The case grew out of the internecine violence that swept Sulawesi Province from 1998 to 2002, killing more than 1,000 people of both religions. A handful of Muslims have been convicted and given considerably lesser sentences.

According to a more detailed account on WorldNet Daily,
The three men claimed their convictions resulted from irregularities during their trial. They contended, for example, the judge in the case neglected to consider the testimony of 13 different witnesses – including the defendants themselves – that would have exonerated them.

A number of other witnesses – including Irwanto Hasan, who at the time was a member of the Poso Police Intelligence Division – said the men were part of a humanitarian team when they were arrested.
The execution was stayed last month but, for some reason, was speeded up:
The execution was stayed last month by the attorney general for Central Sulawesi, Mohammad Yahya Sibe, but the official suddenly was replaced, and the order was given to proceed. The chief of police also suddenly was replaced and sent to another department.

Normally, said ICC, the appeal for the three men should last months or even a year.

The U.S. group points out Tibo, Riwu, and Da Silva were the only men charged in the Poso conflict.
Gateway Pundit, who followed the case through, has more on the subject, reporting that one outcome of the executions has been renewed riots on the island of Flores. Now, one could argue that fear of riots should not deter judicial punishment from being imposed but that would assume that the trial had been free and fair and the sentences appropriate or that there is any kind of equality between what is meted out to Christians and to Muslims.As the same blog points out:
Meanwhile, a militant cleric alleged to be a top leader in an al-Qaida-linked terror group was released from prison in June.

Abu Bakar Bashir, 68, had served 26 months for conspiracy in the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people in the world's most populous Muslim nation.
One assumes that the rather lopsided and questionable justice system is overseen by the President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the one who is refusing to reply to the various official pleas and letters.

President Yudhoyono is, apparently, considered to be a likely contender for the next Nobel Peace Prize. A few more rapidly engineered executions and the man will be a shoo-in, unless somebody nominates President Ahmadinejad.

The sky is not falling in…

If nothing else, the alarums over the meeting of justice ministers of EU member states in Tampere, Finland, over yesterday and today, provide an object lesson in the difficulties in campaigning against the steady march of European integration.

We all (well some of us) know the end destination but that is either denied or not believed, so if you shout too loudly, you are crying "wolf" – and when it finally does arrive, the further cries go unheeded. On the other hand, if you just highlight the latest step in a slow, methodical process – a series of marginal, technical moves – no one, least of all the media, is going to get the least bit excited.

Essentially, when it comes to pressing the panic button, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

Certainly, to look at yesterday's carefully phrased press releases emanating from the Finnish Ministry of Justice, there is little to worry about. The first states that "EU Justice Ministers were today agreed on the necessity of further strengthening co-operation in criminal matters". It was a "constructive meeting" which showed that:

…in spite of recent difficulties, the principle of direct cross-border enforcement of decisions issued by judicial authorities in the Member States, settled here in Tampere seven years ago, still forms the basis of judicial cooperation in criminal matters within the EU…
Thus, the ministers decided:

…to intensify negotiations on the drafting process of legislation and, at the same time, to seek other ways of finding solutions to our common problems, for instance, by observing more closely how the acts are being implemented and applied in the Member States.
The discussions, we are told:

…included the framework decision on data protection, intended to regulate the protection of personal data considered within the EU police cooperation and judicial cooperation in criminal matters. The aim is to ensure that the different levels of data protection prevailing in the Member States will not hamper the exchange of information. The project also aims at ensuring that the fundamental rights of EU citizens, above all the right to privacy and the right to protection of personal data, will be respected in the consideration of these data.
More detail can be gleaned from the original letter sent out by the Finnish presidency in June and from the presidency website.

This latter document talks about recapturing the Tampere spirit in the co-operation in justice and home affairs, following on from Tampere in 1999, during the previous Finnish Presidency that the European Council drew up the guidelines for the development of justice and home affairs.

Again in Tampere, the EU presidency was to:

…launch a discussion on how decision-making in police cooperation and judicial cooperation in criminal matters can be made more efficient. The currently valid Treaties make it possible for decisions on these matters to be made by qualified majority and together with the European Parliament. Today, decisions on police cooperation and judicial cooperation in criminal matters can be made only if all 25 Member States are unanimous. This has hampered progress in these matters. The reform would significantly change the decision-making system of the Union. Both Justice and Home Affairs Ministers will participate in the discussion on Friday 22 September.

At the meeting on Thursday morning 21 September the Ministers will, under the direction of the Minister of Justice, Ms Leena Luhtanen, discuss intensification of cooperation in civil law and criminal law, and, under the direction of the Minister of the Interior, Mr Kari Rajamäki, improvement of the implementation of the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy in the light of the recent serious attempts at terrorist acts in the EU area.

In the afternoon the Ministers will, under the direction of Minister Rajamäki, seek a common understanding as to how best to promote a common European asylum system. Minister Rajamäki will, in the context of EU immigration management, present an initiative of the Presidency on extended European solidarity in immigration, border control and asylum policies. Under the direction of Minister Rajamäki the meeting will also discuss the strategic guidelines on the EU's integrated management system for external borders and the intensification of the operational activities of the EU law enforcement authorities.
Now compare all that with the "take" from The Times which headlines, "Britain set to give up its EU veto on law and order" and then read The Guardian that has it that home secretary Reid "leads fight to retain EU veto".

Now season lightly with the dusting from the David Rennie's blog on the Telegraph website where he tells you: "I have a hunch that this is a pretty good reason why the UK is not going to back this proposal in the long run...". Flashback to the day before yesterday and Heffer's stark warning that "Britons could all too soon become slaves of Europe" and then read the report from EUpolitix which tells us: "The tide has turned against 'resistance' to reduced national vetoes on EU justice decisions, the European commission said on Wednesday."

This is one of these issues where the more you know, the less you know. American Thinker has a good stab at analysing the dynamic, writing:

Oh, well, you might say, it's just a "proposal." And it's "subject to a series of conditions." But then you don't know Eurospeak. In the Orwellian language of the EU, a proposal means a done deal. To make something "subject to series of conditions" is to get it passed without a raising a fuss among the ordinary people who vote. The mythical "conditions" will gradually disappear one by one, much like some pieces of the US Constitution and a good chunk of academic freedom. That's how the EU has operated for decades. That's how this new surrender of a critical feature of sovereignty will happen, because that's how the EU always does it.
There you have your problem. The one thing we know already, even as the Friday meeting continues, is that the sky is not falling in. But it is lowering gently... only when we're not looking. Gaze upwards and it stops moving.

The process has been going on since 1999 and will continue onwards at its current glacial pace and it may be decades before the decisions made become obvious to the man and woman in the street, by which time it will be too late to do anything.

How we convey that to the general public – which is only marginally interested at best – goodness only knows. How do you stop a slow-motion coup d'etat?

Update: article from David Rennie in today's Daily Telegraph plus a leader here. Meanwhile, Ireland's RTE News reports that, "Ireland, Britain and Germany will oppose EU plans to scrap the national veto over decision-making on police and judicial co-operation."


21 September 2006

Will you pay our fines?

Boris Johnson MPI suppose we should be grateful that The Daily Telegraph has done the booster seat law and again identified the European Union as the culprit – having had Tom Utley write about it in March.

After our complaints about The Times and The Sunday Telegraph failing to mention the EU origin of the law, it would be wholly ungracious not to recognise that on this, at least, the daily paper has a relatively good record.

Continuing on with our debate on how best to present the eurosceptic case, however, we could complain – as we did about Heffer yesterday – that giving the job to Boris Johnson actually does more harm than good.

Here we have to be a little careful as opinion is sharply divided over the merits of "Boris". Some adore him and think he is the acceptable face of the Conservative Party, while others – like both of us on this blog – think he is a cretinous buffoon who should not be allowed out on his own.

Love him or hate him, though, he has certainly brought the issue to the attention of a large constituency of people who might not have otherwise have been aware of it. But one has to wonder to what effect.

We get a flowery and highly personalised diatribe about how, "the state should now be trying to prolong our national car seat agony", and then a confession: "…I find myself shocked by the depth of my own anger", he says, continuing:

If people decide that they are not going to comply with this crack-brained law, and they are not going to buy a banquette booster-seat for an 11-year-old, then they will have my complete sympathy. If the overworked police of this country decide they have better things to do than flag motorists down and measure their children to see whether or not they are more than 4ft 5in, then they will have my full support.
If you like that sort of rhetoric, fair enough, and there is plenty more of it. For instance, Boris tells us:

I would resent this law badly enough as an infringement of my liberty to decide how to convey my own children in my own car. But the main reason why I am so angry is that this stupid and impertinent law was not even generated by the British Government. It wasn't some gentleman in Whitehall who decided he knew best about booster seats. It wasn't even the brainchild of the UK health and safety industry. It is, of course, an EU directive, which means that elected British politicians have been given neither the means nor the opportunity to contest it – or even to debate it.
As to there being no debate, that is not quite true – and that is one of Boris Johnson's great weaknesses – he is one of those "above the line" figures, so he doesn't need to do his homework. True the directive, as such, was not debated, but the regulations that implemented the directive were – and that is the way things are done. This was held by the Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation on Wednesday 5 July 2006 at which, if the MPs had so decided, they could have rejected the regulations. They didn't, of course – but then they never do.

And, of course, Mr Johnson is an MP. He has a right to attend any committee and can speak. He didn't attend this one – he never does. He could have lobbied the committee, raised a campaign and called on the media to support him, in order to force a vote against the regulations. But he didn't this time – and he never does.

Then and since, he has been silent – up until now of course, when – for a not insubstantial fee on top of his MP's salary, he is able to tell us through the pages of the Telegraph: "I find myself shocked by the depth of my own anger…". And in that same article, he then has the nerve to tell us that, "we need proper standing committees with the power to mandate ministers, and to refuse to accept directives even if they are decided at a majority vote."

We've got them, Boris, we've got them.

But, on the back of this totally spurious note, Boris concludes that:

Otherwise we will find that the law of this country – the law affecting the personal lives of millions, and their children – is not made in this country; and that is a perfect and justifiable reason for massive civil disobedience.
You will now perhaps see why we think of Mr Johnson as a cretinous buffoon. As an MP, he is highly paid - with an annual salary of £59,095 on top of the £120,000 expenses that he claimed for the last financial year, plus a generous pension. Yet, having failed to do anything about a law to which he fundamentally objects - he now advocates (for an additional fee) civil disobedience against that very law.

And will you pay our fines, Mr Johnson?


20 September 2006

Britons ever shall be slaves

That is what will happen, according to the headline over Simon Heffer's op-ed piece in The Daily Telegraph today, which tells us: "Britons could all too soon become slaves of Europe".

While I am fully aware that authors do not write their own headlines (or rarely do), one must assume that – from the tone and content of his piece – Heffer agrees with the sentiment expressed. It is also one held by many Eurosceptics and one which, via multiple e-mailings, I have been invited to share and endorse.

But I do not and, therefore, will not.

Nevertheless, I do share many of Heffer's concerns and agree with much of what he has to say. However, what I cannot do is go along with his alarmist and wholly misleading (implied) assertion that we are somehow to be bound into slavery by the "evil" European Union.

To put it succinctly, what Mr Heffer is complaining about will be done willingly by our government because it wants to do so. It will be able to do so because Parliament permits it and whatever provisions come into force as a result will only remain in force for as long as Parliament continues to permit them.

In other words, as always, this is not a question of what "Europe" is doing to us, but what our own government is doing to us – with the assent of Parliament. The enemy is within.

As to Mr Heffer's specific concerns, these relate to the matter of introducing qualified majority voting (QMV) on criminal justice matters: or – as Heffer correctly puts it “more plainly”, surrendering our veto on these. This issue has been extensively rehearsed in our post and the accompanying forum thread.

Again, I stress, some of his concerns I share, but yet again, I demur at his stridency, when he declares:

The potential for damage to our freedoms if this happens is awesome: the end of habeas corpus, a threat to trial by jury and the capability of the EU to interfere in hitherto sovereign matters such as sentencing policy are but three of the consequences should our veto go.
Habeas corpus, it seems, is something of a talisman to a certain breed of Eurosceptic – or perhaps a rallying banner – for its potential loss is always trotted out by them whenever the EU and criminal justice matters are raised in the same breath.

Frankly, though, the misty-eyed attachment to this ancient concept seems to stem more from a dislike of "foreign" ideas than any understanding of the realities. Those who have such touching faith in habeas corpus clearly have not spent any amount of time in magistrates' courts.

There, defendants are routinely led up from the cells for their "habeas corpus moment" after being charged with diverse offences, whence they are so often remanded into custody with only a perfunctory case made for their liberty by disinterested public defenders. Some 17 percent of the prison population in England and Wales is on remand, the average time spent currently being 59 days for a male (i.e., nearly two months) with 250 individuals held for over a year.

And, habeas corpus or not, if Customs & Excise or the social services decide to stitch you up respectively with drug smuggling or child abuse, your chances of bail are very slim indeed, as my colleague Booker has recorded, with dire results.

That said, I can agree with Heffer's complaint that there has been so little discussion of the abolition of the veto by the media or by politicians. His complaint is eerily familiar:

It may be abstruse and technical, but the loss of the veto in this crucial area is something to which we can all relate. Matters to do with the machinery of the EU are boring for politicians and unsexy for newspapers or television news…

We have all been obsessed for weeks with the date of Tony Blair's retirement and the possibility of his being replaced by anyone other than Gordon Brown, so there may not have been room on the political agenda for something that concerns our most fundamental liberties. Above all, the silence from Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition on this vital matter has, as is the case on so many vital matters, been ear-splittingly deafening.
Therein lie the core problems – lack of interest from the media and the opposition. The media itself could make this an issue, with or without the opposition but, if the Boy King himself raised it, it would surely be an issue that the media would have had to have covered. As it is, it has been left to the Freedom Association, Open Europe and others, to make the running. But such is their grasp of the subject that, together with their limited ability to project the issues with any clarity, they could hardly be expected to overcome the core problems.

If that sounds critical, it not intended to be in an overly harsh sense. The changes under consideration are fiendishly complicated and without mainstream political input, it is hard to see how two small pressure groups could have raised the temperature of this issue much more than they have. Clearly, though, they have succeeded in getting Mr Heffer interested, and persuaded the Telegraph to run the piece, but the tone will, possibly be counter-productive.

That begs the question of what should have been done – to which there are no easy answers. Clearly, robust attacks on the media for its failures – and also the Opposition - are necessary and must continue, but this is a long-term project. In the shorter term, there probably was no answer. The MSM is simply not interested, while the Boy King doesn't "do" Europe - and neither of those facts are going to change overnight.

We have a steep mountain to climb.


When all we can do is bitch

A man amongst women: I think they call this 'assisted suicide' - double-click to enlargeAn intriguing and illuminating article, brought to our attention by one of our forum members, dissects the relationship between the MSM, politicians and NGOs. It is an important contribution to the debate about the way we are governed, a debate which should be pursued here with much more intensity, but has hardly started.

Headed "MSM, NGOs and paranoia", and written by Nelson Ascher for Pajamas Media, the strap tells us that the article looks "at the strange symbiotic relationship between the Mainstream Media and Non-Governmental Organziations and what it means to our lives", but this is one of those occasions when the strap undersells. Ascher also tells us a great deal about modern politics.

"Nobody trusts the government," he begins, continuing with a familiar litany:

…The politicians are corrupt. The government is always lying to the people. It works against the people’s true interests and only promotes the selfish interests of its own members and their friends. Those in power invent scary threats to distract the public’s attention from their own wrongdoings.
Familiar that is, on both sides of the Atlantic so it is with some justice that Ascher declares: "No, I'm not talking about the US. Well, not exclusively at least." Then, with equal justice, he asserts:

Everything I've just said has been repeated day in day out, for years and decades, by the papers and the electronic media wherever there’s anything resembling a free press. That's the MSM's real message in all democratic nations. Whatever else they talk about is secondary.
Nelson AscherHis thesis then develops with a discussion about the migration of influence and thus power (the two being heavily interlinked in democracies) from politicians to NGOs, something we have noted many times on this blog, and to which my co-editor referred as recently as yesterday.

As far as it goes, the argument is entirely plausible and thus merits not only careful reading but also some consideration. Ascher is getting to the heart of the malaise in modern democracies and he is not offering transient thoughts about ephemeral issues.

Moreover, the qualification "as far as it goes" perhaps applies more to this side of the Atlantic than it does to America. From that American perspective, Ascher writes:

While a measure of scepticism is necessary and healthy, cynicism is counterproductive and eventually dangerous. Whatever else the MSM have been doing since at least the end of WW2, they have more often than not been treating governments, politicians, democratic institutions and public figures as guilty unless otherwise proved. Through the criminalization of normal politics, they have contaminated the public with a universal cynicism.
For the British scene, however, "cynicism" is too mild a word and does not convey the fact that there another step beyond that in the degradation of politics. The word for that is "contempt".

Where the situation probably differs between the US and Britain is that Congress still has power – as indeed does the president - and therefore individual politicians still have power. Cynicism, if it is merited, can apply to a situation where those politicians habitually abuse that power – who put "self", party and cronies before the public interest. But, in the UK, power has drained from the body politic to a plethora of other bodies, leaving an empty shell populated in the main by vain, posturing nonentities, for whom the only appropriate reaction is contempt.

Here, it is not just the European Union which has inherited the power once held by our own politicians. Much of the power to conduct routine administration – and much of the responsibility for supposedly governmental activity – has been delegated to officials in civil service departments, to agencies, to quangos and even – the bane of Ascher's life – NGOs.

Even in local government, this applies. When the agenda is not dictated by central government (and through it the EU or agency diktats), the rule of the monitoring officers and the Standards Board means that the councillors – our locally elected representatives – are in the thrall of their officials and have next to no power to make any decisions of consequence. And this goes to the core, where even (or especially) bodies like the police – supposedly under some form of democratic accountability - are a power unto themselves.

Politics in the UK, therefore, has become a sham. Ministers, rather than controlling their departments, become apologists for them. And where the power has drained away to the European Union, they complain bitterly – when challenged - that their hands are tied, or pretend that what they have been instructed to do by our central government in Brussels they were going to do anyway.

As a result, when we meet groups of politicians, the last thing they tend to do is discuss politics – not in the real sense of policies, the governance of the country and the issues that affect the lives of ordinary people. You get political small talk – endless gossip about who is "up" and who is "down", who has the ear of "Dave", what so-and-so is doing, and who is bitching about whom – a torrent of trivia which fills the working day of the average Member of Parliament and, to a similar extent, that of the average councillors and other elected representatives – for all the world like tales out of school.

This very much reflects the human condition in that we tend to worry and agitate only about things we have power over – things we can change. We cannot change the weather, for instance, so we do not agitate about it: we simply bitch. Similarly, we cannot change what the European Union does so the body politic does not agitate in any meaningful way – it simply bitches occasionally and then moves on to those very few things over which it has residual power. Hence we get the political agenda dominated by "schools 'n' hospitals", the areas over which politicians still have limited but decreasing power.

By the same token, the MSM, locked into the closed loop of the political bubble, closes its eyes to that which it cannot change – and concentrates on the same minutia that obsesses the political classes. It fury (and power) is expended on critiques of the personal peccadilloes of our politicians, its feeding frenzies reserved for those who fall foul of its purient mores but never for misrule, abrogation of power or plain incompetence.

Unfortunately, much of the British political blogging scene has caught the same disease, which is hardly surprising, dominated as it is by the same self-appointed claque of wannabes, "insiders" and groupies, their posts infected with ego-driven "wheneyes" and "eyeams", the phrases, "When I..." and "I am..." invariably to be found in the first paragraphs, if not the first sentences.

Thus, unlike the US blogs, the most hard-edged of which deal with real politics, we see the obsession with "trivial pursuits", the same diet of gossip, backstabbing and character assassination that sustains the dead tree sellers and the airwave polluters. No wonder the MSM sustain and promote their favoured few – they come from the same festering cesspit. Little minds stink alike.

This is what makes Ascher such a refreshing read. Here is a man discussing grown-up political issues in an intelligent, thought-provoking – dare I say, adult – manner. This is a skill that, in this country, we are going to have to re-learn. Otherwise, assailed by the torrent of trivia and gossip, too late will we realise that our freedoms have gone and we are left in a situation when all we can do is bitch (then only between consenting adults).


Winds of change?

HMS Victorious - one of the submarines to receive an upgraded sonarAs with Kremlinology, you look for clues where you can find them – and they are beginning to suggest that there has been a sea change in British foreign policy, away from Euro-enthusiasm and genuinely pro-US. All that just at a time when the British public seems to be turning the other way.

It is not just what Blair says - words are cheap, especially when they are uttered by our prime minister. And he tends to be one of those Walter Mitty characters who seems to agree with the last person he met.

No, the key pointers are the concrete indicators and none are more so than defence purchasing – this being one of the most active areas of European integration. It was thus the predominance of major projects purchased by the MoD that alerted us to this hidden policy of Europeanisation, which seemed to run contrary to the over Atlanticism of the Blair government.

With the row about the Joint Strike Fighter the retreat of BAE Systems from the British defence market, which we noted in April, and other signs, it seemed as if we were moving to the end game.

One of those signs was the sale of Britain's last naval sonar system manufacturer to the French company Thales and the purchase from that company by the Royal Navy of the Sonar 2087 equipment for its Type 23 Frigates. That seemed to set the seal on the Europeanisation programme.

But now, via DefenseNews comes news which seems to turn the perception on its head. In a tightly fought contest, the MoD has awarded a £30 million contract for a new sonar system for its ballistic missile submarine fleet not to Thales or another European producer but to the Maritime Systems and Sensors division of the US defence giant Lockheed Martin.

But what is really illuminating is the comment from rival bidder, Devonport-based DML that, according to the UK's recently announced Defence Industry Strategy, "sonar systems are viewed as an essential sovereign capability".

That has not in the past prevented the MoD from buying European but for this contract to go an American company does seem to signal a significant shift in British policy. That may also have been influenced by the reluctance of the "colleagues" to pull their weight in Afghanistan, demonstrating to Blair that, when the chips are down, his European "allies" are not to be trusted.

Straws in the wind, maybe but these could also be the winds of change.


19 September 2006

Outing the lobbyists

The shady world of Brussels lobbyists gets a little light shed on it today by the blog England Expects, with CorpWatch on the case as well.

Their target was Burson-Marsteller, one of the leading professional lobbying groups in Brussels, part of an industry that itself is huge, employing a workforce of some 15,000 lobbyists who spend €60-95 million ($76 - $120 million) a year to buy access to the EU's regulators.

In particular, England Expects has caught out David Earnshaw, the MD of Burson Marsteller in Brussels, part-time lecturer at the College of Europe (where he is described as a "visiting professor"), former '99 New Labour MEP candidate and co-author of UKIP Watch.

Earnshaw, it seems, has been passing himself off as an “independent expert”, claiming the title "Dr" which he has not earned, being neither an MD nor a PhD, and then bidding for and winning a contact to write an independent study on the Regulation for advanced therapy medicinal products. This is despite his role as MD in a lobbying company which has clients in the pharmaceutical industry.

When Earnshaw's report was published on the committee's web page (now apparently removed), the title "Dr." preceded his name. That title was important as, according to the EU parliament's own rules, "Successful completion of a full university course obtaining a degree related to public health," is a standard selection criteria to qualify panel members as external experts.

Not is this the first time Earnshaw has played these games. In connection with Burson-Marsteller at the "Leaderless Europe" conference at the Centre for European studies at the Britain's Hull university, he was also described as “Dr Earnshaw” and the title also appears on the front page of a paper published by his former employer, SmithKline Beecham.

That the EU parliament now seems to have removed Mr Earnshaw's paper from its site seems to vindicate the "outing" by CorpWatch and England Expects – the two sites being not unconnected – and is another victory, albeit small, for the blogging community.

In tone and nature, however, their report is very similar to the story that The Observer ran on Sunday about the activities of Roland Rudd – he of Business for New Europe - about whom we wrote yesterday.

Not only has Tony Blair's eldest son Euan spent a fortnight at Rudd's company Finsbury on a work experience placement, several of Finsbury's corporate clients, including Roger Carr, chairman of gas giant Centrica, Philip Hampton, chairman of Sainsbury, and Sir Nigel Rudd, chairman of Boots – together with representatives BNE - recently met Blair himself in Rudd's private home in London. There, he was lobbied by the group for free access of Bulgarians and Romanians to the UK labour market when these two countries join the EU.

A Downing Street spokeswoman confirmed to the Observer that Blair had attended the meeting which she said was in June. "He was invited to meet the advisory council of Business for New Europe, which he accepted," the spokeswoman said. "He met a group of eminent business people and the discussions were about reform of the EU."

Rudd is an interesting figure in that shady world of lobbyists. He is well known to politicians following his time as a political journalist on the Financial Times. Finsbury was bought by Sir Martin Sorrell's advertising giant WPP in 2001 for an estimated £50m, netting Rudd a fortune worth about £41m.

He helped canvass for Mandelson in the 2001 general election and the trade commissioner has appeared at the millionaire's luxury birthday bashes. He is known to have connections within Blairite circles. His company was drafted in by government to help with the Railtrack crisis in 2002.

Finsbury was also caught up in the political spat over tuition fees. It was hired by Universities UK (UUK), which represents vice-chancellors, to provide them with political intelligence from within the Labour machine as they struggled to sell top-up fees to members of the Labour party ahead of a crucial vote in the House of Commons.

Thus far, however, Rudd's lobbying activities on behalf of his friends in BNE seem to have failed, to judge from Reid’s hints today, which may not be unconnected with the Observer's outing.

It seems then that both the MSM and the bloggers have scored in an area which needs much, much more scrutiny, both in UK and EU politics – a more valuable contribution to the governance of our country than the torrent of lightweight pap emanating from much of the MSM and, one is ashamed to say, much of the British political blogosphere - becoming in the process more like the MSM that they profess to dislike.


Choosing sides - 1

The Parliamentary All-Party Inquiry Into Antisemitism, whose report makes for interesting reading, says the following about Melanie Phillips’s written evidence:
In her written submission Melanie Phillips expressed the view that, with Israel being blamed for endangering the free world, the only Jews who are considered respectable are those who distance themselves from Israel. She says: "British Jews who try to defend Israel against these calumnies and uphold its right to defend itself against genocide are accused of 'dual loyalty'".
I suspect most of us have come across those attitudes, not least in the main-stream media or, as Rush Limbaugh describes them, the drive-by media. I remember discussing the matter with a very proper young man who had been in the army, was doing a second degree in International Relations or Politics and, I suspect, was aiming to join the Foreign Office. When I asked whether Israel had the right to defend itself, his comment was "well, -ish". He, or perhaps his tutor, had decided in their wisdom that, uniquely, Israel had no right to defend itself and its enemies had every right to do what they liked up to and including complete genocide, as threatened by a number of leaders in the countries that surround it.

The first and only tangentally relevant point to be made here that there are several groups in this country who are actively encouraged to feel loyalty to countries other than their own: Britain. I am not talking about the Left and the MSM in general whose attitude seems to be that any anti-Western country or system is to be preferred to ours.

At its worst the various Muslim groups that have shown themselves to be hostile to this country, which has been theirs for two or three generations and to the culture under which they could, if they wished, to thrive. Instead, their leaders threaten execute violence, which some completely befuddled members actually execute, demand that Sharia law be introduced, speak of real hatred about Britain and the West. That is not even dual loyalty, yet little opprobrium is attached to it. Even the bombs of 7/7 produced sentimental twaddle about standing together and not giving in to extremism.

Even without going so far, there are problems, not least for the unfortunate people, many very young, who get caught up and find themselves without a real homeland. It’s not good pretending to be Indian if your family has lived in Britain for three generations, if you have had a British education and have, whether you like it or not, Western attitudes. You go “back” to any part of India and you find that you are seen as an outsider, while you have made yourself to be that in Britain.

The other day I received another freebie newspaper, this one produced by Hammersmith & Fulham Council, whose new leaders seem to have forgotten their promise to cut waste and taxes. Among other fascinating pieces of information about what the leader of the council may have said the previous week, there was a picture of young dancers performing Indian dances to celebrate Indian Independence Day.

Now, this is not a religious but a national festival and its celebration is appropriate to those for whom India is a country as important or, maybe, even more so than the one they live in. Dual loyalty? I have heard nothing about that.

The crucial argument here is one that both Jews and non-Jews have to understand and that is the following: to defend Israel’s right to exist in peace, to demolish the calumnies directed against it is something we should all be doing.

Partly the reason is that no country should have to live under constant murderous attacks and no country’s people should be constantly threatened by extermination. We are not talking about the past, about the Holocaust or its denial but about threats made and executed today.

But there are other reasons and they cannot be repeated often enough. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. It is a country, which has free speech, free press, free elections. Anyone who spends time shedding tears about the oppression of Arabs in Israel had better recall that there are Arab newspapers, Arab political parties and Arab members in the Knesset. There are Arab students at the University of Jerusalem (some of whom were blown up by one of those suicide/homicide bomber representatives of the religion of peace); there are Arab schools and mosques as well as churches, not just synagogues. While there is undoubted discrimination in various places, the opportunities are far greater for all citizens of Israel than they are in any Arab country. Though Arabs do not have to serve in the army, many of them, particularly the Bedouins do.

One or two Arab journalists realized what was needed during the last war in Lebanon: Israeli Arabs must unconditionally commit themselves to Israel. Only then will the present unhappy situation of mutual suspicion can start clearing up.

None of this means that Israel or its government cannot be criticized. It is one of the aspects of any democracy that the government can be criticized without there being violence either by or against that government. Try criticizing one of the Arab governments, let alone the Iranian.

There is, however, another overwhelming reason for us all to stand up for Israel and I thought of that as I sat through a public meeting called to discuss the anti-Israeli attitude of the media, a few days ago. (The second part will be about that meeting.)

Israel’s enemies are our enemies. I do not mean just the terrorists. The ones that fire hundreds of missiles into Israel are linked to the terrorists who threaten us and explode bombs or fly planes into buildings. They are linked to the people who organize violent demonstrations the moment they hear something they consider even slightly unacceptable or insulting while pouring the vilest abuse at Jews and Christians.

Who else are Israel’s enemies? The United Nations and the NGOs, as well as other transnational organizations who hate all democracies and want to see a world run entirely by themselves. (They will not get it.)

Last but not least, there is the world-wide main-stream media, the drive-by media. They, too, as we know from what passed for reporting during the war, have declared war on Israel.

Are all these people not our enemies, too?