Friday, 30 August 2013

The government is defeated but no one should celebrate

The vote this evening is a moment of huge political embarrassment for the prime minister. Many will be thrilled the government has been defeated; we are not going to war with Syria. We will not fire a shot in anger, no matter what Bashar al-Assad does to his people in Damascus and elsewhere in that horribly destroyed country.

But in fact, for those who wish British foreign policy to be more than that of Lithuania or Belgium, it is a terrible result. It could well severely hamstring British foreign policy, regardless of which party is in power, for years to come.

Judging from the level of insults emanating from Downing Street officials, it seems pretty clear the decision not to make the vote tonight about authorising the launch of cruise missile strikes was due to Ed Miliband deciding to push to give the UN more time. The Labour leader was a f****** c*** (foolish chap) for tabling his own motion, but he was right to call for a pause. According to the timetable which appeared to be rushed from nowhere into the news schedules, tomorrow or Saturday we were starting to attack. With UN weapons inspectors still on the ground, no one knew why it needed such a short deadline.

The Prime Minister wanted to be strong. Presidents Obama and Hollande were keen to go; we don't have a presidential system. David Cameron knew he couldn't simply go ahead without support. But, he underestimated the bitterness left by Iraq. Like Poe's Raven, the shadow was on the floor; impossible to ignore. MP after MP complained how they were duped by intelligence reports and spin to support the Iraq invasion - forgetting the huge opposition and the multiple reasons why that war was so misguided - and yet the government offered a few flimsy sheets of A4 as evidence of the intelligence services certainty Assad was to blame. It was a hopelessly inept strategy.

Obama and Hollande may well continue with their Syrian adventure. It's hard to imagine a US leader, particularly Obama, rushing for support from Britain for foreign adventures, any time soon. Obama will make tender words but will raise his eyebrows at the farce. The special relationship is nothing more than a general election tag line; it has no contemporary significance.

None of this is any help to the people of Syria. Their suffering will continue. Neither Labour, nor any opponents, were giving succour to Assad but it's hard to think the Syrian leader won't be pleased by the farcical consequences of tonight's vote.

For make no mistake, the atrocities will continue in Syria. Already, there are suggestions a napalm attack has taken place in Syria. We won't flex a muscle. If a Rwandan-style genocide started tomorrow. A finger wouldn't twitch. Cameron won't risk such humiliation again. 

Is this really what we want?

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Will we be saying 'never again' once more? Part two

* This is an update to an article first published by Metro here

Taking a moral stance, no matter how flawed and imperfect it may be, is sometimes easier than negotiating murky political waters. Being prepared to engage militarily with a state which has used chemical weapons against its own people is the right thing to do; but rushing headlong into such a campaign while the truth of such a heinous attack has not been established as surely as possible would be reckless and a significant failure of leadership.

Understandably David Cameron wanted to be decisive over the Syrian attack. He rushed back from holiday while Nick Clegg cancelled a trip to Afghanistan, where he was due to cheer up our lads on the front. It was fairly clear the recall of parliament was inevitable. And for days, the signals emanating from the government have been that MPs would be expected to decide whether to back armed assault on Bashar al-Assad and his military. And such action could even begin by the weekend.

This is no longer the case. Weapons inspectors on the ground are still trying to verify what actually happened in the Ghouta region, east of Damascus last week. They will not apportion blame. It seems almost certain a nerve gas attack launched by the Syrian regime is to blame; but, while UN inspectors will apportion no blame, it's worth waiting a few days for confirming details.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said inspectors needed four more days on the ground and the Labour opposition indicated it would not support an attack on Syria unless inspectors were given more time.

Some, bizarrely, started to claim Labour were behaving deceitfully and playing politics with a critical situation; but very quickly, once people gave it a moment's thought, waiting a few days seemed an eminently sensible thing to do. Not waiting for the report from UN weapons inspectors did Tony Blair's government no good as they rushed headlong into invading Iraq.

So now we are left with something of an oddity; MPs are returning tomorrow to express their outrage at events in Syria, agree a humanitarian response is necessary and that 'legal, proportionate' military action may be required. 

The motion criticises the UN for its inaction over the horrors of Syria and calls for necessary time to be given to inspectors to carry out their work.

Only the most pacifist will find a word in the document to complain about. Tomorrow's debate and vote has gone from something critical into a pointless charade; there will be no British involvement in action against Syria without a further parliamentary vote.
Full clarity is unlikely to emerge. We will only ever think we know that Assad's regime was responsible for the awful attack. But unless significant doubt is raised about the identity of the perpetrator, we still must take a stand. Our values remain unmoved. Finding political excuses to avoid taking responsibility now will only lead to regret later. 

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Will we be saying 'never again' once more?

This morning Adam Holloway, the Conservative backbench MP, and former Grenadier Guard, appeared on the Today programme and warned against intervention in Syria.
‘What’s the strategy here?’ he pleaded. ‘Reaction to horror is not a strategy. I would be completely up for a military attack if we could predict what the end state would be, if we knew that a limited strike of the kind that is being described here was going to bring people to the negotiating table.
‘Apart from remaining with our dear friends the Americans, I don’t know what the UK national security interest here is. Can someone tell us?’
It strikes me that Mr Holloway’s comments provide the ultimate excuse never to get involved in any conflict again, unless a direct military threat is felt by these islands. Read more

Signal problems ahead for HS2

Another day, another report emerges battering High Speed 2 (HS2); this time it’s the Institute of Directors (IoD), dubbing the project ‘a grand folly’. A theme has developed now; lobby group after lobby group emerges to lambast the scheme and one wonders which political party will be the first to burst the consensus and decide it’s just too much of a risk.

The latest survey finds just 41 per cent of IoD members think HS2 will be important to their business; a sizable minority but a big fall from the 54 per cent who thought the same back in August 2011.

And it pours scorn on the always daft notion – and part of HS2’s business plan – that time spent on a train is wasted. Even on commuter cattle trucks, emails are checked and plans are made. On inter-city services, the comfort and lack of interruption can make the train a wonderful place to work. And the IoD survey found just 6 per cent of directors saying they never worked on a train.

Part of me really wants to champion HS2. I adore train travel; the familiar rhythms, the views, the sense of freedom. I get inordinate pleasure from indulging in daft conversations with the Herne Hill station master about the creation of the Sydenham to Penge tunnel, much to my wife’s embarrassment. And last year my wife and I went on a European holiday by train. It was sublime. Rather than suffer the stress and indignity of flying, our adventure began the moment we arrived at St Pancras. The Eurostar was efficient, smooth and not quite long enough; the TGV through France, magnificent. And it even stocked decent wine. And here are all of Britain’s main political parties willing to spend billions on a new rail system. Why shouldn’t Britain have some of this?

A major problem is a matter of timing. France opened its first TGV line all the way back in 1981. It heralded a renaissance in French long-distance rail travel which was emulated across Europe. High speed rail is now a well-established feature of European travel, with a web of lines spreading across the continent; France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium are all connected.

HS2 is not of course Britain’s first high speed line, but it is certainly our first major investment in such a system. But if things go to plan – and that’s an exceedingly big ‘if’ – the first stage of HS2 will open in 2025, a mere 44 years after France’s first dalliance with high speed rail. In what will our European neighbours be investing then? Is there not a danger that it’s a little too late to play catch up? Wouldn’t it be better to spend the £42.5billion, leading, instead of following, with another form of infrastructure; having truly nationwide, superfast wi-fi access, reducing the need to travel – thus freeing undeniably necessary capacity – in the first place, for example?

HS2’s backers are convinced it is not too late. Pete Waterman – such a train enthusiast that when he speaks on the subject it is as though he’s discussing a giant train set equipped with model stations and carefully placed bottle brush trees – wrote passionately in yesterday’s Telegraph, claiming HS2 ‘could transform the skills base of the country’ and would be a ‘beacon for any young people looking to the future’.

And Andrew Adonis, Labour’s excellent former transport secretary, who appears to be getting jumpy at the increasing anti-HS2 vibes emerging from his party, used a column in the New Statesman to claim the case for HS2 ‘is as strong now as when Labour committed itself to the project in March 2010’. The plan is going through the ‘classic “cold feet” period which bedevils every major British infrastructure project’. Cancelling it would be an ‘act of national self-mutilation’.

I really want to agree with him. I just can’t see how.

Maybe my concerns are not worthy. Perhaps the project is for the best and us naysayers are simply following an ignoble parade, trouping behind Luddite vandals, gloomy conservative whingers, enthusiastically unimaginative town planners, and romantic pew-seated High Church traditionalists.

One of the most intriguing aspects about the anti-HS2 lobby is how it appeals across the political spectrum, from the green left to the libertarian right. Yet, while they are on the same side, they are there for different reasons. The libertarian, self-styled, Taxpayers’ Alliance call HS2 ‘a terrible waste of money’ and a ‘politicians’ vanity project’, while the green left yearn for such capital spending to be directed towards alternatives, with renationalisation of the system clickety-clacking constantly in the back of their minds.

Opponents cannot simply be dismissed as shire-dwelling nimbys, a slander against the hundreds of people who face losing their homes around Euston Station. And other problems go unaddressed; the route, the almost inevitably disappointing passenger numbers HS2 will attract (just look at HS1), the dangers of sucking businesses towards London rather than the other way, and the horrifying, and unknowingly enormous, cost. 

Thursday, 15 August 2013

What's wrong with Sociology?

You would have thought the government would go out of its way to congratulate all A-levels students today. It’s bad enough having to sit exams without politicians of all colours using their grades as political ammunition for one cause or another.

But no, as ever, coalition ministers – as Labour’s did before them – can’t resist using results day as an easy opportunity to claim their policies are working. This is year, admittedly, is somewhat unusual as today’s line appears to be ‘hey look, aren’t we doing our job well? A-level grades are going down. For the second year running. And about time too. No more dumbing down. Harrumph!’

And, while they may have a point about grade inflation, it’s not really what students want to hear, today of all days. I struggle to understand why politicians never appreciate this.

More egregious are the various messages and press releases zipping around, proclaiming how great it is more pupils are taking maths and sciences. Indeed it is, especially as England risks a real shortage of science and maths teachers. But it's possible to celebrate this rise without implicitly telling students of other subjects - humanity students, social scientists and those focusing on more vocational topics - they are somehow inadequate.

This is what the Conservative Party Press Office tweeted earlier today:

Of course, universities value Chemistry, Physics, Maths and Further Maths, as they always have done but it must be a little dispiriting for any students opening their results for their English, history, music, art, geography, divinity exams etc. Universities value such subjects enormously. Chemistry is surprisingly useless as a basis of studying history or music at university.

Similarly, the @toryeducation twitter feed, which appears to be Michael Gove's rogue pet Rottweiler used exclusively to attack former children's minister Tim Loughton and anyone actually involved in education, tweeted this last night:

How nice. And, what's wrong with sociology anyway?

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Godfrey Bloom tries to shock, SHOCK

The outrage that has greeted Godfrey Bloom’s ‘bongo bongo land’ comments is understandable – though his remarks will come as no surprise to anyone who has paid the slightest interest in his career.
His casually racist comments follow a litany of similarly unpleasant and dim asides which have pockmarked his political life. Bloom is an attention seeker who pops up like a whack-a-mole puppet, equipped with opinions – frequently underpinned by heroic levels of ignorance – on often difficult subjects, consistently reducing conversations to levels which normally occur only after a few pints. Read more

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Ten charities who weren't exposed by the Telegraph

International development charities found themselves under fire this morning as the Daily Telegraph focused on their top earning staff and deemed it a worthy line of attack. The paper managed to uncover 30 members of staff at 14 aid charities who earned more than £100,000, a jump from 19 over the last three years.

Curiously though, as’s @JohnnyCov pointed out during a robust exchange with the ever-lively former News of the World exec @neilwallis1, the Daily Telegraph oddly only chose to mention the salaries heads of international development charities.

So here’s ten other charities, with page number and link to the relevant report at the end of each entry, the Telegraph could have focused upon:

1 - One member of staff at Eton College – a registered charity – earned, including pension contributions and other benefits, between £230,000 and £239,999 during 2012, just one of the 40 members of staff who were paid over £100,000 in the same year. p23

2 – In 2012, the RNLI had four members of 'receiving emoluments' of more than £100k in 2012. p28

3 – Similarly, no mention of the one member of staff who earned, including benefits, between £160,001 and £170,000 at the NSPCC in 2012, or the other six members of staff who got over £100,000. p38

4 – Barnardo’s top remuneration package was someone recceving between £150,000 to £159,000 in 2012. Two others were on more than £100,000. p32

5 – The RSPB has one member of staff who received a total of more than £100,000 in 2012. p31

6 – The RSPCA had one member of staff whose package was between £150,000 and £159,000 in 2012, along with another three who received more than £100,000. p30

7 – The Donkey Sanctuary also has one member of staff who received a total between £100,000 and £110,000 in 2012. p46

8 – In 2013, Cancer Research, excluding benefits and pensions, has one person earning between £220,000 and £230,000, another getting more than £210,000 with a further 33 earning more than £100,000. p32

9 – Meanwhile, the British Heart Foundation had one member of staff receiving emoluments of between £170,000 and £180,000 with another six with six figure packages. p41

10 – The National Trust, in 2012, including redundancy payouts, paid one member of staff between £170,000 and £179,000, and a further 20 with packages of over £100,000. p63

All these figures can be found in the respective charity's annual report. I do not question the worth or justification for any of these salaries; indeed I have even supported some of them. They clearly all do valuable work in their respective fields. I am merely pointing out how the Daily Telegraph specifically highlighted international development charities, with no mention of their international value or work, neatly tacking into their on going theme of questioning Britain’s aid budget.

And while I haven’t checked all the charities in my list above but I imagine most, if not all, benefit from indirect government and EU money, through grants and lottery funding.

The common theme which linked the charities selected by the Telegraph was the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the umbrella organisation of international aid charities which collectively appeal at times of global catastrophe. In recent years, they have held mass fundraising efforts for the Boxing Day Tsunami, the Pakistan earthquake, the wretched suffering in Haiti, East Africa and most recently Syria. In the last five years, 96 per cent of DEC appeal funds have gone to member charities and the organisation pledges at least ’50 per cent of appeal funds’ is spent on supplies and materials, and says the figure is ‘typically more than 60 per cent’. It adds:

‘The remainder pays for aid support, including employing staff who may organise food distributions in Pakistan or run medical programmes to prevent children dying of cholera in Haiti. Support costs can also include transport and monitoring the effectiveness of aid programmes.’

All of the above are vital tasks in times of crisis. And inevitably, in emergencies such as those mentioned, the government donates money to DEC appeals; I don't know whether Priti Patel, the Conservative MP who seems to be behind the story, would like the British government to simply turn a blind eye to intense suffering in Syria, Pakistan or Haiti.

Ms Patel ‘helped compile’ the figures for the Daily Telegraph (ie, read publicly available annual reports). She told the newspaper:

‘Hard-pressed taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent and will be shocked to see so many highly paid executives in charities that are dependent on public funds.
‘This money should be focused on delivering front-line services rather than lining the pockets of unaccountable charity executives.’

It is an outrageous statement of ignorance from an MP who apparently belongs to a party which boasts of its belief in the free market. The irony of allowing her not wanting her beloved free market to set the rate for chief executives of organisations which deal with the flow of hundreds of millions of pounds some with thousands of employees, seems to escape her. Instead she appears to want an artificial intervention; perhaps charity bosses should wear hair shirts too.

And the nasty insinuation that these chief executives are somehow secretly lining their own pockets when their financial details are published in annual reports and far more accessible than the accounts of any MP, is unwanted and dispicable; an ignorant smear by a grasping politician hoping for some attention. A modicum of research would show her there are few sectors more transparent than the the third sector.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Sorry, I 'inadvertently' may not be telling the truth

It's worth reminding ourselves of the first statement issued by the Metropolitan police over the death of Ian Tomlinson:

A member of the public went to a police officer on a cordon in Birchin Lane, junction with Cornhill, to say that there was a man who had collapsed round the corner.
That officer sent two police medics through the cordon line and into St Michael's Alley where they found a man who had stopped breathing. They called for LAS [London Ambulance Service] support at about 1930.
The officers gave him an initial check and cleared his airway before moving him back behind the cordon line to a clear area outside the Royal Exchange Building where they gave him CPR.
The officers took the decision to move him as during this time a number of missiles - believed to be bottles - were being thrown at them.
LAS took the man to hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Contrary to what actually occurred, this statement, agreed with the IPCC as per procedures and issued on April 1 2009, portrays police as heroes. While senior officers apparently aren't aware of the truth - that a member of the Territorial Support Group has pushed Mr Tomlinson to the ground who has subsequently died - they are aware of the heroism of officers who tried to save him despite a barrage of missiles thrown by those wretched demonstrators.

On April 4, the now struck off Dr Freddy Patel ruled that Ian Tomlinson died of 'natural causes' with the cause of death being 'coronary artery disease'.  At the time Dr Patel was on the preferred Home Office list of pathologists and he was the only one of three pathologists involved in the case to examine Mr Tomlinson's intact body. In his final report, he found 'intra-abdominal fluid with blood about 3l with small blood clot'. The significance of this could not be examined by the other pathologists involved, Dr Kenneth Shorrock and Dr Nathaniel Cary, as Dr Patel didn't 'retain' the fluid. (NB: A further pathologist was involved, Dr Ben Swift, who acted for Simon Harwood at his subsequent trial).

It was only after the emergence of footage of the attack upon Ian Tomlinson that the IPCC launched its investigation, on April 8. It is hard to believe knowledge of what the actual events were not well known prior to this time within police circles.

Charges did not appear after that first IPCC investigation. It took the jury's verdict unlawful killing at the inquest to change the CPS' mind and pursue - always a long shot in my opinion - to happen. And PC Harwood was of course acquitted.

And it's taken until today for this unpleasant and tragic saga to come to an end. It is settled as the Metropolitan Police has apologised 'unreservedly' and paid the Tomlinson family an undisclosed sum.

It remains a deeply unsatisfactory situation though. While the apology from Deputy Assistant Commission Maxine de Brunner has drawn a line under the affair, the Met refuses to acknowledge the possibility that it may have lied.

She apologised for Simon Harwood's 'use of excessive and unlawful' force. DAC de Brunner was also sorry for the 'ill-considered comments made in the media in the immediate aftermath of Mr Tomlinson's death' and for the 'information given by a Metropolitan police officer to Dr Shorrock and Dr Swift that misled them initially as to the cause of death'. The officer's actions were of course 'inadvertent' and 'not designed to mislead the pathologists'.

'Inadvertent'. 'Ill-considered'. Just innocent mistakes in the heat of the moment apparently. And the police hope public confidence will be restored with this apology.

And, glaringly, there's still no mention of the role of the officers who just stood and watched Simon Harwood push over Ian Tomlinson as he shuffled innocently away from their line. Perhaps they thought it was all just another day at the office.