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Politics, tech and media issues from a Muslim perspective
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UKIP, the ‘burqa’ and FGM

25 April, 2017 - 14:22

Paul Nuttall, a white man with a short beard, wearing a yellow and purple tartan cloth cap and jacket and a yellow and purple striped UKIP tie, standing next to Richard Gibbins, a shorter white man with glasses, wearing a black rimmed hat, cream jacket and a black and white tuxedo and bow tie underneath; both wearing UKIP rosettes, standing outside a converted shop unit on a corner with 'Paul Nuttall' displayed in big letters above the doorway along with posters showing UKIP promises.Over the weekend the so-called UK Independence Party published as part of its 2017 election manifesto an “integration agenda” which includes a ban on face coverings, which it describes as a “deliberate barrier to integration and, in many contexts, a security risk too”, the abolition of postal votes on demand which “have led to a boom in electoral fraud and vote-stealing, especially among minority communities”, a ban on “sharia being implemented in the UK” and regular checks on girls “from groups at high risk of suffering FGM”, both annually and whenever they return from overseas. While UKIP has always been known, under Lord Pearson’s leadership and now Nigel Farage’s, as a party hostile to Muslims in particular and allied with anti-Muslim politicians in Europe such as Geert Wilders, in this case they are clearly looking for policies now that their major goal looks set to be delivered.

FGM has been a pet obsession for a certain type of bigot for some time; I have written on it a few times over the years([1], [2], [3]), and as someone mentioned that fact in a sneering sort of way on FB the other day, I will say that I will stop writing about it when the media stop peddling exaggerations and scare stories about it. UKIP decided to include FGM in a section called “integration” alongside three other issues associated to various degrees with Muslims, despite the fact that in Africa (specifically the Nile valley and the region immediately south of the Sahara), where it is most prevalent, people of all religions, including Christians and followers of local religions, practise it and worldwide, most Muslims do not. Mandatory testing of all girls from those parts of the world (or whose parents are from there) with presumption of guilt for parents will be unhelpful, because parents who take their daughters ‘back home’ and cannot prevent other relatives from having them cut may simply not bring them back.

Picture of a woman wearing a black head and face coveringAs for the ban on face coverings, the suggestion that it is a “security risk” needs to be proven, and it is significant that the police or security forces have not advised that face covering should be banned in public (rather than that women are expected to show their faces for identification, or that it be prohibited in schools or when giving evidence in court), and if they had, they would have done so in 2001 or 2005 rather than some 12 years after the last Muslim-related terrorist event (I refer to targeting of the public, not attacks on individuals) in this country. When Nuttall, Farage or whatever other leaders UKIP produces are given one of their many media interviews, the interviewer should press him to give evidence of the supposed security risk or indeed any public good in banning it other than “people don’t like it”. It’s a free country and putting up with people doing things you don’t like, but which don’t affect you, is part of living in a free country.

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NHS compensation is rightful and necessary

24 April, 2017 - 12:00

Last Monday I saw an article in the Times in which a woman called Susanne Cameron-Blackie, who it turns out was the writer behind the now-removed Anna Raccoon blog (see earlier entry; she was a great supporter of Mark Neary when he was trying to get his autistic son home in 2010), who is calling for people injured by NHS treatment to stop suing it for compensation (paywalled) as it only takes away money that could be used on other patients. Ms Cameron-Blackie has terminal soft-tissue cancer which has left her “virtually paralysed”, and “is determined to spend her final weeks battling to cut the spiralling costs of litigation against the NHS”; last year, such litigation cost the NHS £1.5bn. She was given a hysterectomy without her consent after an out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the 1960s; more recently, she was given someone else’s medication, leaving her in agony.

She says:

“But I didn’t sue,” Cameron-Blackie said. “The money from the original operation would have made no difference, I just got on with my life. The second time, I would not have got anything — the money would have gone to my husband in a few years’ time. What good would that do?

“Even the valid claims where somebody gets £6m and it’s entirely justified, that money goes into the court of protection and all their needs are met by the NHS.

It’s simply inaccurate to suggest that someone who receives a large payout then has “all their needs met” by the NHS. The NHS meets healthcare-related needs; social services meet other needs, and the inujred person or their family will need to meet other needs; the NHS will not buy them a wheelchair-accessible house, or refit or extend an existing house to accommodate a wheelchair user. It does supply wheelchairs, but it might not supply the one that would best suit the user (this may be a more sophisticated model, or a more reliable and long-lasting one than the NHS prefers, or one that is lighter in the case of manual chairs). Large compensation payouts, such as those following birth-time brain injuries, also reflect the fact that the victim’s earning potential is reduced, and will have increased living costs as they need, for example, to hire carers. And the money only goes into the Court of Protection in the case of people with brain injuries that leave them unable to handle their own finances; otherwise, it may go into a trust fund, or be invested, or whatever the recipient wants.

Picture of Stella Young, a white woman of short stature in her 30s in a powered wheelchair, wearing a black dress that comes down to just below her knees, holding a microphone, against a purple backgroundCameron-Blackie was not the only woman given an involuntary hysterectomy or sterilisation just because a consultant thought they shouldn’t be having children. Sometimes this was for ‘moral’ reasons, other times because the mother had a disability, even if she was still perfectly capable of making decisions. In Australia, it was standard practice until recently to perform hysterectomies on young girls who were disabled, even if the impairment was only physical; the late disability activist Stella Young (right) said that her parents were asked to subject her to this ‘routine’ operation when she was four, though they refused. This stopped because people campaigned to stop it, and because the victims sued, both for compensation and to argue that these operations violated the law or human rights conventions. It was, and is, important for consultants in particular to realise that they are not gods, that they do not know what is best for everyone and have no right to impose their will on another person by removing or disabling part of their body, and money is an important and necessary deterrent; it is not just what the money can do for the injured person.

It is not just injuries during surgery that may merit compensation; the mental health sector has a long record of appalling abuses, from involuntary electric-shock treatment (not all of it beneficial) to housing male and female patients on the same ward for ideological or budgetary reasons, sometimes resulting in harm to the women and sometimes distress to those abused by men in the past, to denial of family visits, privacy, clothing and sanitary protection (as in this recent case and another that I know of involving a teenage girl in a Manchester Priory unit), unnecessary and sometimes unlawful denial of liberty, and so on. A large section of today’s mental health care is done by private companies such as Cygnet and the Priory Group, but the same argument might be made that hitting them for compensation (say, for prolonged mental illness, and prolonged detention caused by the conditions of detention) leaves them less money to care for patients. Like physical injuries, these acts — often motivated by arrogance or prejudice — are wrongs, and the victim is entitled to redress.

The Times suggests that “Cameron-Blackie is likely to find widespread support for her campaign”. I don’t think so; this is not the sort of issue that could start a mass campaign, though it could attract funding from a lobby group which could give the impression of a popular movement and it could attract the support of a tabloid or two. The NHS is a publicly-funded institution and as with all the other supposed “inefficiency” or “underperformance” of some NHS trusts, the root of the problem is underfunding from government; these claims should not really be detracting from healthcare. I do agree that people should not sue the NHS for hurt feelings or anything else trivial, but without the threat of litigation, some NHS (and private healthcare) staff would be a lot more arrogant and a lot less careful. Remember that consultants in particular are highly-paid people who stand to benefit from very generous pension schemes; if they make mistakes, they can have devasating and lifelong consequences, and like any other organisation, they should have to pay for them. As it’s our public health service, we all have to pay.

Image source: Wikipedia; contributed by Young herself, Public Domain.

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St George’s bank holiday? Not such a good idea

23 April, 2017 - 16:29

A Russian icon of St GeorgeSo, Jeremy Corbyn has announced that a Labour government would introduce four new UK-wide bank holidays on all four of the national saints’ days: St David’s Day on 1st March, St Patrick’s Day on 17th March, St George’s Day on 23rd April and St Andrew’s Day on 30th November. The idea of a St George’s day holiday or of making a bigger deal of the day (which is also Shakespeare’s birthday) has been mentioned a few times over the years, but this is the first time I have heard anyone suggest that all four days become public holidays throughout the UK; I guess the idea is we all celebrate a part of the UK together. However, it’s really not that great an idea and you will guess why just by looking at the dates: three of them are close together and close to other public holidays, while the other is less than a month before Christmas.

23rd April is a week or so before May Day, which is 1st May or the following Monday. May Day is an ancient spring festival, but it also coincides with International Workers’ Day so as to celebrate the Haymarket incident in Chicago in 1886, in which an initially peaceful rally for an eight-hour day and in response to the killing of workers by the police the day before (perhaps they chose this so as to maintain May Day as a holiday stripped of its ‘traditional’ baggage). This year we had a late Easter, with Easter Sunday, a religious holiday on which all shops are closed and which is surrounded by a Friday and Monday bank holiday, falling a week before St George’s Day. It looks likely that a repeat of this a few years down the line will result in calls for at least one of these holidays to be scrapped, and the one with the most ‘patriotic’ connotations, despite its novelty as a bank holiday, will be the one to survive, particularly in a truncated England obsessed with its past.

Similarly, St David’s and St Patrick’s days fall in early to mid March, a little over two weeks apart, and the second of these could easily be seen as clashing with an early Easter (which there is, next year). The upshot would be that late Winter and Spring would become overloaded with bank holidays while the second half of the year has only one (on the last Monday in August) between late May and Christmas. A better idea would be one at the end of October, which is already the point at which the clocks are restored to Greenwich Mean Time and which coincides with the school half-term holiday. This would enable parents to spend a little bit longer with their children when they are off school.

Of course, the “celebrating all the nations” concept really requires there to be a United Kingdom; this is not guaranteed in the current political climate. Rather than introduce several new bank holidays, a greater benefit would be in making all election days, especially general elections and referendums, public holidays (they should not be held on a weekend, as both Saturday and Sunday are mandatory rest days for different religions). This would make it easier for working people to vote, and enable them to vote while not in a hurry to get to work or back to work, or tired from the day’s work; it would also remove the advantage retirees have and increase the turnout of younger voters. In the case of short-notice elections like the upcoming one, perhaps a mandatory two-hour grace period at the start or end of the day would be more appropriate.

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Labour election broadcast a disaster

21 April, 2017 - 21:06

A still from a party political broadcast, showing a white woman with shoulder-length blonde hair wearing a pastel blue top and a tight pair of light grey trousers with a royal blue belt, standing in front of a yellow screen decorated with hand prints on paper.BBC iPlayer - Party Election Broadcasts: Labour - English Local Elections: 21/04/2017

I just saw the Labour Party Election broadcast, which is intended as being for the local elections next month (4th May), although it makes a nod to the general election on 8th June. It features a teacher telling a class of early primary-age children that, because of government cuts, her school can no longer afford a library or school visits and is likely to have to lay off teachers because it can no longer pay them. She then tells them that the Labour party will guarantee smaller class sizes, free school meals for all primary-age children; the camera then zooms in on her face, and she tells us that Labour will fund childcare and early learning, “progressively restore free education for all and guarantee quality apprenticeships and adult skills training”. Somehow I don’t think this video is going to inspire a lot of confidence in Labour’s ability to rebuild and manage the country’s education system.

To start with, there are some glaring factual errors. It’s not teachers who are (at least, in large numbers) being laid off because of lack of funds; it’s teaching assistants. It’s not school libraries that have closed, for the most part, but public ones. Both are important but a primary school library is nowhere near as resource-intensive to run as a public library which takes a whole building, an IT system, staff, heating and so on. When I was in primary school, it consisted of a partitioned-off area in the main hall with about six shelves full of children’s books which could, if the school can no longer buy them, be donated, as quite possibly some of these were. A large part of the reason why teachers have been leaving the profession is the workload, in particular paperwork, which has been increasing year on year since the 1980s under both Tory and Labour governments — there was certainly no let-up in the political interference in education under Tony Blair. This broadcast does not say anything about Corbyn’s Labour party’s policy regarding that blight on British state education.

The ‘teacher’ also tells the children that some subject will not be taught because of teachers leaving for lack of pay. Anyone who’s been in a primary school will know that primary school teachers are generalists. They teach one class of children for everything; it is only in secondary school that pupils have to trek from classroom to classroom for different subjects with different teachers and the claim might well be true there. It might well be true that class sizes will increase, and the curriculum has certainly got narrower due to decades of political obsession with literacy and numeracy as a result of press stories about children reaching secondary school unable to read or add up, but that doesn’t equal “fewer subjects because of less money”, and again, the broadcast doesn’t mention what Labour will do about these things.

On top of this, there’s the spectacle of a teacher delivering a party-political broadcast to a group of young children. I know it’s not real, but it looks like the sort of thing that goes on in fascist and tin-pot dictatorships; classrooms being used to deliver political or state propaganda. It’s a little bit like what the last government did in requiring all ‘education providers’ down to nurseries and childminders to deliver lessons on “British values”, a phrase nobody uses other than poltiicians and newspaper columnists. I don’t most parents of any political persuasion will want schools being used for this purpose; one commentator I follow on Twitter said it resembled “Gulag schools”.

Quite apart from the inappropriateness of the teacher delivering a political speech to her 7-year-old pupils, the whole performance just looks amateurish; it looks like they just couldn’t afford to hire professional animators and/or video editors to do a decent presentation, so they just get a few actors together in one room to make a speech and ask a few scripted questions — one would expect the organisation which boasts the highest membership of any political party in the UK to be able to put out a decent-quality political broadcast. We do not know who the ‘teacher’ is, or at least we’re not told; neither the leader nor any Labour MP or, for example, any teachers’ union leader, puts in any appearance. Policies are mentioned only very briefly, all stuff we’ve heard in the news before, and it treats this as if the local elections were the same as a general election, which they are not, and these issues cannot be addressed, for the most part, through local councils (although one national party-political broadcast for local council elections is perhaps a bad idea, but that is beyond Labour’s control). A very poor show, very amateurish and made by people who know nothing about British state education, perhaps because they do not have even the 11 years’ personal experience of it that most ordinary people have.

PS. For anyone who’s been told it’s too late to stop Brexit, the president of the European Parliament has said it isn’t:

Speaking after a meeting with the prime minister in Downing Street, Antonio Tajani insisted that her triggering of the departure process last month could be reversed easily by the remaining EU members if there was a change of UK government after the general election, and that it would not even require a court case.

“If the UK, after the election, wants to withdraw [article 50], then the procedure is very clear,” he said in an interview. “If the UK wanted to stay, everybody would be in favour. I would be very happy.”

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This is a Brexit election

19 April, 2017 - 22:49

A front page from the Daily Mail, showing Theresa May's face with the headline "In a stunning move, Mrs May calls bluff of the 'game-playing' Remoaners (including 'unelected' Lords) with a snap election and vows to ... Crush the Saboteurs".So, Theresa May has called a general election for 8th June, and Parliament has backed her up. After denying that she would have an election or a re-run of the Brexit referendum ever since she took the leadership, and since panic buttons started getting pressed after the pound sank to less than $1.20 after the pro-Leave vote, she announced yesterday morning that she would have one after all. There are various explanations: one of them was to distract from the news that some 30 individuals, including some Tory MPs, could face prosecution for expenses-related offences from the 2015 election, and another was to avoid a series of by-elections if some of them were imprisoned or disqualified over the charges. Anthony Barnett also suggests that Brexit negotiations with the EU are more difficult than anticipated:

Across the last two weeks it has become clear to May’s team that there will have to be an extensive transitional period. As the Irish Times reported, a senior Irish official in close contact with the UK over Brexit said, ‘I see signs in the contacts that we’re having, both at EU level and with the UK, of a gradual realisation that Brexit in many ways is an act of great self-harm, and that the focus now is on minimising that self-harm’. The only way to do this is with a transition agreement. But the EU have told the May government that if this is what the UK wants it is fine by the EU; however, the UK will have to remain within the full legal framework of the EU and this is non-negotiable.

I also suspect that May wants to take advantage of the weakness of the Labour leader and his unpopularity among the Parliamentary party. So far six Labour MPs have declined to stand for re-election, two of them citing age but one of them (Tom Blenkinsop) explicitly saying that Corbyn’s name is regularly mentioned on doorsteps as a reason why people are not voting Labour and one of them being Gisela Stuart, the pro-Brexit Birmingham Labour MP. However, this is the time for anti-Brexit voters to vote tactically to get pro-EU MPs into the Commons, especially where the incumbent is being replaced with an unknown or a pro-Leave MP is occupying a pro-Remain constituency.

I have seen a number of Facebook posts and a blog post telling us why they won’t be voting Lib Dem this time or why we shouldn’t. The major arguments are that the Lib Dems betrayed their voters, and everyone, in the Coalition and have said they would return to coalition with the Tories. However, they formed a coalition with the Tories under its former pro-EU leadership; that leadership has gone and has been replaced by one that is against everything the Lib Dems claim to stand for, including the Human Rights Act which I was personally assured was non-negotiable in the run-up to the 2015 election. A pro-Brexit minority Tory government would more likely seek support from Labour Brexiteers (and the DUP) than from the Lib Dems.

A second argument is that we should be concentrating on the NHS and the welfare state rather than on Brexit. In fact, there is no contradiction: both Brexit and cuts to the NHS, welfare and disability benefits, Legal Aid and a whole lot of other issues can be fought by voting tactically. The current Brexit situation means that, for example, if you are on disability benefits and even if you are not losing yours, which a number of people of my acquaintance are, they will go a lot further if the currency recovers because we import a lot of our food (fresh fruit and vegetables, for example), and we also import a lot of the things disabled people rely on, such as incontinence pads, and they’ve gone up since the currency crashed (or your health service may be supplying inferior leaky ones as the decent ones have gone up in price) — powerchairs from Sweden are going to be even further out of reach. As a country with a very weak manufacturing base, we need a strong currency if we’re going to maintain a decent health and education system. It’s surely no coincidence that the pound recovered value when the election was announced: traders thought “phew, maybe there might be an end to this madness after all”.

Third, Tim Farron’s views on abortion and homosexuality have mysteriously become the focus of discussion despite his having been the leader of the party since 2015. In answer to that: (i) those things aren’t party policy; (ii) if you’re not in Westmoreland, which is basically the area surrounding Tebay services on the M6, you can’t vote for him and (iii) he’s not going to be dictator for life and (iv) Farron in any case has a generally pro-gay voting record. His personal views are just that.

I’m not suggesting, in any case, that everyone get out and vote Lib Dem, much less join them. If you have a strong Labour MP who is both strongly anti-cuts and pro-EU, by all means vote for them. If you’re in one of the constituencies that narrowly went blue last time (e.g, Gower), vote Labour. But if you’re in an area like mine where the Lib Dems are the nearest thing to an opposition to the Tories, voting for an unknown Labour candidate (as they will almost certainly put up an inexperienced candidate who is trying to get a bit of practice) is pointless. In the Richmond by-election last year, Labour put up Christian Wolmar, a well-known pro-rail campaigner, but he lost hand-over-fist to an unknown Lib Dem; the Liberal Democrats had held the seat until 2010. But if there is a chance of unseating an unprincipled or cowardly Labour MP by voting Lib Dem (and not getting a Tory), this is something that should be considered.

There is a spreadsheet here on Google Docs giving a guide to tactical voting (it was Ava Vidal who alerted me to it; not sure if she is the author), which I broadly endorse but would advise readers to consider the views of any Labour MP on Brexit before voting for them, especially if the Lib Dems are in second place and they are running a strong campaign locally on Brexit. Similarly, in pro-Remain Tory seats like Maidenhead (Theresa May’s constituency) and Wokingham (John Redwood’s), if the Lib Dems are running a strong anti-Brexit campaign, it might be more profitable to vote for them than for an unknown Labour candidate — local voters probably do not take kindly to being called “Remoaners” or “saboteurs” by their MP or her cheerleading press (see image above). Their best chance of regaining seats is to target these places rather than their old seats in the south-west that then voted for Brexit last June. Lib Dems should also be on guard for last-minute pull-outs of right-wing Labour candidates intending to wreck things for Jeremy Corbyn, and should also consider putting fresh candidates up rather than pre-2015 MPs who lost. (Disappointingly, both Vince Cable and Ed Davey are standing to re-take the seats they lost in 2015.)

This is going to be a “nose peg” election for many people, much as was the case for many who voted for Labour during the Blair years, and particularly after the Iraq war in 2005. I believe that stopping Brexit in its tracks must be a priority for the 48% who voted against, who may be joined by many who have changed their minds or who did not (or could not) vote last time round, and 48% is a figure that wins elections if the 52% are divided. This is a vital short-term goal; rebuilding what the Tories have destroyed since 2010 will take a lot longer. It is vital that the local parties act wisely, that weak or tainted Lib Dems do not run against strong anti-Brexit Labour MPs, and that strong pro-Brexit candidates do not oppose each other simply because party rules say they have to. As Labour is in huge danger, both from the unpopularity of Corbyn and the treachery of some of its MPs, it is imperative that both Remainers and anti-cuts voters get out and vote, and vote wisely. If that means voting Lib Dem, so be it.

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The United Airlines school of Sufism

18 April, 2017 - 14:18

Image of Muslim women in various colour headscarves kneeling in prayerLast week there was outrage after a man was manhandled off a United Airlines plane in Chicago, having boarded and taken the seat he had paid for, when the airline decided that their crew needed his seat more than he, a doctor with patients to attend to in Louisville, did. There was much outrage on Muslim social media, despite the fact that the man was not a Muslim, I suspect because we all knew it could have been one of us, and if it had been, the outrage would have been shared much less widely. A number of other stories of people being removed from aeroplanes after boarding or refused boarding in the first place because the plane had been overbooked, a scam in which airlines deliberately sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, anticipating that some passengers will not show and they can pocket the difference. Usually, the passenger can be accommodated on a later flight, but this can often be much later.

Over the weekend, a Muslim lady called Shagufta Yaqub (the former editor of the British Muslim magazine, Q-News) posted an article on Medium in which she described how ladies who attended a talk by a well-known Muslim scholar in Birmingham were ejected from the hall when prayer time came before the talk could begin, and a number of Muslim men turned up late. The sisters ended up waiting in a hot, cramped hallway and staircase while more men arrived, and were ultimately expected to sit in a room downstairs where they could not hear the speaker (this was the organisers’ decision, not the shaikh’s). Shagufta and two of her friends decided to enter the main hall, at one point joined by a fourth woman, but the rest of the women attending resigned themselves to being second place yet again:

Tired, frustrated but surprisingly compliant, the women quietly expressed their disappointment among themselves and returned downstairs to a room where they would not be able to see the speaker deliver his talk or be part of the event experience. The only reassurance they received was that the Shaykh would briefly visit them after the talk and perform tahneek on their babies. There were whisperings of discontent but no real objection. Had that been evidence of spiritually elevated souls accepting a misfortune without complaint I would have been in awe of them. Instead there seemed to be an acceptance that this kind of treatment was part and parcel of being a woman at a religious gathering — a humiliation I am sure many of them would not stand for in any other aspect of their lives.

I saw parallels between this event and the United Airlines incident — the sisters were, granted, not ejected with force, although this actually did happen recently in a London mosque where the management had decided that there was no longer room for women. But the sisters had come on time to an event that had been advertised as being for men and women, and I don’t doubt that many had come from a long distance to hear the shaikh. It’s usually considered the height of bad manners for a host to remove a guest when they have taken their seat, unless it had clearly been reserved for someone else or, for example, they were a single person taking up a space designed for eight, when eight people needed it. It was not only that women who had arrived on time or early were ejected from the main hall to make way for men who had arrived late, and that the first thing that clearly came to the organisers’ minds when the influx occurred was “let’s just push the women aside”; it’s that promises were broken and Muslims didn’t keep their word. On top of this, we see the common lax attitude among Muslims to timekeeping raise its head, the issue which results in many an “Asian wedding” drag on much longer than it should, inconveniencing the guests, particularly those waiting at the reception.

We howl when airlines and other organisations outside the community that hold power over us treat us with contempt, yet — despite all the rhetoric about how Islam empowers women (Shagufta Yaquoub noted in her piece that Muslim men often take great care to accommodate non-Muslim women) — this is how we treat them when they make the effort to come out and seek knowledge, and pay for it, and besides the obvious disrespect, having them wait for an extended period in a staircase and a hallway is a fire risk to them and others (as was pointed out when this was discussed on Facebook). Let us not forget that it was children who were shunted aside as well as women; if this happens often, it will give them the impression that Islamic events will always be a source of discomfort and unpleasantness and, if they are girls, that they do not matter as much as the men. This should never be allowed to happen again.

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Pictures from the Devil’s Punch Bowl

16 April, 2017 - 21:58

Devil's Punch Bowl, 16th April 2017One of my favourite parts of being a truck driver used to be driving down to Portsmouth, as this involved driving through the Devil’s Punch Bowl in west Surrey: the road used to skirt the side of a natural amphitheatre, producing sudden and spectacular views — but also, an awful lot of slow traffic, so it was best not to hit it at peak times. Then in 2011 they opened a tunnel under the site and closed and demolished the old road, which is now a track open to pedestrians and cyclists. I drove out there earlier this afternoon and walked along the old road, taking pictures of both the scenery and the trees.

I mostly kept to the old road, most of which is now a dirt track; heather was planted along the path not long after the old road was removed (or buried; reports differ), but there is an awful lot of gorse growing both beside and on the route itself. At points the road looked somewhat eroded, sloping down into the bowl, which raises the question of whether the road will always be open for pedestrians or whether it will go the same way as the old road across Mam Tor in Derbyshire. At other points there was no single track but several little ones, none of them wide enough for, say, a wheelchair; there are also points where the track goes over an artificial steep bank or a sandbar has been built over most of the width of the track (I actually saw children cycle over these when a young girl in a wheelchair was on the other side). Given that the road was a road, it makes sense to keep it open as an accessible track; there are plenty of little paths that require climbing and scrambling, including at Hindhead.

Here’s a video shot just before the tunnel opened, showing what the road used to be like:

A few weeks ago I drove down to Midhurst in Sussex, which as well as being a pretty little town, features a ruined old mansion with a walled garden which, although not spectacular in early April, is likely to be lovely in late May as I was told. You can find the pictures here and the website for the garden here.

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Lower Thames Crossing: the worst possible option

15 April, 2017 - 13:48

A map showing the preferred route for the East Thames river crossing, linking the M25 in Essex with the A2 in KentYesterday it was announced that the preferred route for the “East Thames Crossing”, a tunnel under the Thames east of the current easternmost crossing at Dartford, had been announced. The proposed route branches off the M25 north of the current Thurrock interchange, crosses over the A13 where it meets the spur road to Tilbury docks, crosses the Thames in a bored tunnel east of Gravesend before veering south-west to meet the A2 near a village called Thong (in other words, near the last junction on the A2 before it joins the M2). The consultation considered three other routes, among them a variant on the chosen route with additional improvements to the A229, which links the M2 to the M20 at Maidstone. If any of those options should have been chosen, it should have been that one. However, I responded to the consultation and my preferred route would have been none of those, but a new northbound bridge at Dartford.

A map of the junction between the M2 and A229 in Kent, showing the two roundabouts and connecting road in betweenThe A2 is an important regional main road which links London and the Dartford river crossing (which carries traffic to most of northern and eastern England) to the north Kent towns and the Ramsgate ferry port. The main route into Kent is the M20 corridor, which runs further south and reaches Maidstone, Ashford, the Channel Tunnel and Dover — these being the shortest and fastest links between Britain and the Continent (Ramsgate is preferred by British some transport companies for inbound freight, as stowaways usually attempt to board trucks heading for Calais and the tunnel). Any new road link across the Thames into Kent needs to link to the M20 or else it will be pointless, as any private company investing in the new road will want that extra traffic if the road is to be subject to a toll, which it almost certainly will be. Currently the main link is the A229, a short stretch of dual carriageway whose interchanges with both motorways includes multiple roundabouts; if coming from the A229 onto the M2, you may have to stop at several sets of traffic lights in between. Traffic avoiding delays at the A229 junctions will then clog up alternative roads, such as the (much longer) A249, which links the M20 (and the M25 from the west) with Ramsgate and the freight ferry terminal at Sheerness, and the much slower A228, the much narrower A227 and the A260 from Canterbury to Folkestone. Signs will, of course, continue to point freight traffic heading for the Channel Tunnel and Dover via the M20, but any delays on the M25 at Dartford will result in them diverting onto the new road.

A photograph showing three lanes of slow or stationary traffic with a fourth lane coming from a flyover also full of slow or stationary traffic.As a truck driver who has to use the Dartford river crossings fairly frequently, I know that the vast majority of the delays are northbound, caused by traffic having to divide to use the two tunnels, trucks having to clear out of lane 2 because it has a 7.5T weight limit, and most of all, the left tunnel (which is now the only tunnel open to traffic joining at junction 1A for the busy south Thames road as well as those leaving at Purfleet) being regularly closed to escort petrol tankers through. All this causes congestion for traffic along that road as well as other local roads, as well as the approach roads to the tunnel itself — the M25 is frequently congested up to 6 miles away, as is the A2. The solution is to build an extra bridge at Dartford; this would require no vehicle to be escorted, no divisions of traffic and no closures. The tunnels could be retained for use when the bridges are closed because of high winds, or used for regular traffic, providing six lanes in each direction.

The preferred route is probably the worst of all the options, not only because of the above but also because it joins the A2 at a right angle rather than continuing on a straight line into the M2. It will almost certainly be financially unviable, requiring taxpayer bailouts for a private toll road, and the cause of tremendous traffic congestion on all the main roads in mid-Kent. It will make driving in that part of the country a whole lot less enjoyable for everyone. It must not go ahead.

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Nation 1.0? It never was

14 April, 2017 - 16:08

A globe from the time of the British empire, showing India large parts of Africa in pink, representing British possessionThere was an article last Tuesday in the Irish Times by Janan Ganesh: Britons don’t pine for Empire; they just want to be left alone, which claims that the people of ‘Deep England’ who voted to leave the EU last June did so not because they want “more of the world”, in the sense of a return to the imperial past, but rather less of it; a sort of “Nation 1.0” rather than “Empire 2.0”. The regions that were most associated with Empire voted to stay in (London, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Scotland) while the provincial areas that had least to do with the Empire voted Out, such as Birmingham and most of rural and small-town England and Wales. Janan Ganesh is the author of a biography of George Osborne and spent two years as a researcher at Policy Exchange (a Tory think-tank that was the source of numerous anti-Muslim scare stories in the Blair era) and five as political correspondent for the Economist; in the early 2000s he wrote for the Guardian as a “Labour activist” but more recently called Corbyn supporters “thick as pigshit”. I think he’s wrong on three counts: the concept of “Deep England”, the lack of historic basis for “Nation 1.0” and the idea that the areas that voted Out were those unconnected to the Empire.

How deep is Deep England?

The regions that shaped and were shaped by empire voted to remain, including London, the old metropole; Scotland, the source of many settlers and administrators; Manchester, not just the empire’s industrial centre but its liberal intellectual heart; and the port cities of Liverpool and Bristol.

Inland Birmingham voted to leave, as did the countryside and market towns of Deep England.

A brief look at the map of which districts voted In and which voted Out reveals that a large chunk of rural and small-town England did in fact vote in favour of remaining in the EU; a whole tract from Gloucestershire through to Berkshire and down into Hampshire and Surrey. Some of this is affluent commuter territory but not all of it; the country between Oxford and Cheltenham is largely off-rail, away from the motorways and doesn’t make good commuter land, especially for London. True, the rural areas of East Anglia, the West Country and Midlands did mostly vote to leave, and the strongest concentration of Leave voters was around the Wash. But really, the idea of “deep England” rather suggests some sort of rural idyll that looks like the set of Lark Rise to Candleford (which wasn’t all that idyllic, actually), which is untouched by the march of progress since the middle of the 20th Century, is ridiculous: rural England watches the same TV, listens to most of the same music, uses the same mobile phones, drives the same cars along roads made of the same material and wears the same clothes as the cities. It’s just whiter and has fewer students (unlike in Wales, small-town England rarely has universities). England is not a big place and almost nowhere is fewer than 50 miles from at least a small city.

When was Nation 1.0?

What those communities seem to want is Nation 1.0 – the sovereign statehood that predated the globalised era, when the population was more homogenous and the economy less exposed to foreign competition.

This is rather a myth. Sovereign statehood is rather a new concept: the self-contained ‘nation state’ that does not owe allegiance to a higher power, such as the Pope or an Emperor or Caliph. Recent examples include places like Poland and the Czech Republic after the collapse of Communism and before accession to the EU. These places did not regard their isolation as freedom, other than by comparison with the Warsaw Pact, which was by then dead; they regarded it as a disadvantage, and so did their population who seized opportunities to work abroad, including in Western Europe. The modern “silo state” convention has produced numerous open-air prisons, particularly in parts of the former colonial empires in Africa, whose populations are denied either economic opportunities or the opportunity to seek prosperity elsewhere, which is the source of the present-day refugee and migrant crisis.

Britain never was a self-sufficient nation-state. Before joining the EEC, it had the Commonwealth and before that, the Empire. Before the beginnings of Empire, England was part of Catholic Europe; it was our isolation from that under Elizabeth I that Britain looked for both trading partners and territory into which to expand further afield. At no time in the modern era has Britain not been part of a wider bloc that provided a source for raw materials and a ready market for its exports. It’s impossible to just “make the world go away” or to deal with it wholly on one’s own terms; an isolated “free” country would not become a prosperous rural idyll but an impoverished silo that the young, poor and enterprising would try to escape from.

Untouched by Empire?

It was not only London and a few other major cities, plus Bristol, whose prosperity derives from connections to the Empire. The Industrial Revolution depended very heavily on imports from the Empire; the garment industry, for example, whose factories can be found in small towns throughout the North, depended on cotton that was imported from India. Many of these places voted to leave the EU, as did many outlying areas of the large cities mentioned. Many of them have large ethnic minority populations, mostly originating from the former Empire; indeed, large industrialised towns, as opposed to large cities, with ethnically diverse populations from south (e.g. Slough, Swindon) to north voted in favour of leaving, while some more prosperous and less diverse areas, especially in the south, voted in favour of remaining. There is some suggestion that rebuilding links with the former Empire was a motivating factor for the ‘ethnic Brexit’ vote, in particular the suggestion that shutting off eastern European immigration would allow for a more liberal visa régime for people from the Indian Subcontinent, something the pro-Brexit Right never suggested was on their agenda.

Conclusion

Janan Ganesh is right in that most people who voted in favour of Brexit did not imagine a return to the “glory days of Empire”, as only the oldest people in Britain now remember it, and even then, it would be the last remaining large colonies such as those in Africa, rather than India, let alone Australia or Canada. However, the idea of “freedom” most people think we had before we joined the EEC, that we were once a “free country” that nobody told what to do, is false; we were the “mother country” of a large sea-based empire and then a Commonwealth, and we can never get that back. Years ago Dick Gaughan, a Scottish folk singer, sang a song about Scots who entertain “lies of a past that we know was never real” and politicians who talk about being “proud to be Scottish by the way, with the glories of our past to remember”; many English (and Welsh) believe similar lies about the past, about old glories a “freedom” that never was. They will be in for a rude awakening if Brexit really happens, and we are cast adrift with no ready markets and no new frontiers to explore.

One more thing: an important reason for setting up the predecessors of the EU was to ensure peace in Europe, and indeed the Franco-German wars which were a feature of European politics up until the mid-20th century have been banished. If we are only the first to leave and those wars come back, they will certainly not leave Middle England alone.

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Labour an “Apartheid party”? Really?

9 April, 2017 - 22:48

Picture of Ken Livingstone wearing a dark grey jacket, a yellow tie with a logo partly visible, and a blue scarf round his neck under his jacket. He is walking through a corridor with wooden doors with glass windows behind him.There’s an article in today’s Mail on Sunday by Dan Hodges, a Blairite columnist and former GMB union and Labour party staffer (and son of Glenda Jackson), proclaiming that anyone who remains a member of the Labour party after it failed to expel Ken Livingstone for his remarks about Hitler last year is a racist. He proclaims that it is now an “Apartheid party”, accepting everyone except Jews who are tolerated only as second-class citizens:

Imagine if a Labour member casually used the word ‘Paki’. Or accused ‘the blacks’ of being responsible for the slave trade. Or toured the airwaves claiming radical Muslims were Nazi collaborators. Retribution – rightly – would be swift and sure. But use those same slurs against Jews – ‘Zios’ is the favoured phrase – and you will be punished only with the Labour shrug.

He also accuses the anti-Corbynites who remain within the party of being responsible for “destroying [their] party”, including an anti-Corbyn MP who he doesn’t name but calls a “good, dedicated MP” who has “steadfastly refused to take the Shadow Cabinet shilling”, by talking of staying and fighting but in fact quietly acquiescing and not rocking the boat. It’s all quite ridiculous.

Hodges drops Apartheid and “institutional racism” into this article, plainly intending to use the language of minorities, of oppression of a visible ‘other’, to defend a section of the white majority from criticism or from being offended — something that members of real minorities are increasingly expected to tolerate. Apartheid was a legal régime which forced people of different races to live apart (hence the term), banned them from marrying each other and which denied everyone but the White minority the right to vote. Institutional racism was a term coined by the MacPherson report into the failure of the police to prosecute the murderers of Stephen Lawrence, a young man stabbed to death by five racist white youths in south-east London in 1993. It’s worth pointing out that the Daily Mail itself has on many occasions run stories in which the MacPherson report is attacked for lowering police morale and burdening them with bureaucracy in pursuit of equality. The Labour party does not have a special status for Jewish members; it does not require them to work apart from non-Jews or sit apart from them at conferences; if a Jew was stabbed to death at a Labour conference, I do not doubt that they would detain the stabber and hand him over to the police immediately. Police racism was associated with policies such as stop and search which disproportionately targeted Black youth; it was also not a Jewish member who was barred from attending the most recent conference on security grounds, but a Muslim one.

I do not doubt that Hodges knew that Apartheid is a common comparison for the practices of the Israeli state towards the Palestinians whose land it occupies: the illegal settlements, the water theft, the harassment of Palestinians travelling within their own country, the separate roads, the imprisonments of children for trivial aggressions against soldiers, the collective punishments such as house demolitions, the shooting of Palestinian civilians without good reason, or any reason. As I have explained here before, the comparison is not exact, but it is not far-fetched, and the Israelis’, and their friends’, justification for the status quo gets thinner and thinner as the Occupation gets older and the circumstances which led to it slip further back into history. Needless to say, the plight of Jewish members of the Labour party does not bear much resemblance to that of the Palestinians either.

A screenshot of a FB status shared by Naz Shah, showing the state of Israel superimposed in the middle of the much larger USA.Much of what is commonly likened to “anti-Semitism” is criticism or condemnation of the Israeli state and its behaviour towards the Palestinians. The entire Livingstone affair stems from an incident in which a Muslim female MP, Naz Shah, was discovered to have retweeted a meme on Twitter before she became an MP, suggesting that there was plenty of room in the USA, a country whose government has consistently supported Israel with massive financial and military aid, however atrocious its treatment of the native Palestinians, for the Jewish population of Israel. Douglas Murray, in an article for the Spectator, used the word “deportation” in this context, which was used as a euphemism for the transportation of the Jews of Europe to the Nazi concentration and death camps. However, millions of Germans were deported from countries such as Czechoslovakia and the former German territories in East Prussia after the War so that the Poles could be compensated for the seizure of their eastern territories by the USSR and so they could not be a pretext for further German aggression. Of course, the foundation of the state of Israel also required the displacement of much of the native Arab population, as has the construction of Israeli settlements and the expansion of Jersualem. The world, and the white liberal establishment accepts this, emitting the odd grumble and the occasional acknowledgement of the illegality of the settlements, yet it bridles the mere suggestion that the perpetrators be subject to the same treatment, so that their victims can live in peace in their home country.

Livingstone’s comments about Hitler supporting Zionism (he tolerated it merely as a way of accelerating the removal of Jews from Germany, not of facilitating Jewish national aspirations) are historically inaccurate, but for people who see Zionism as nothing more than a racist ideology that facilitates the displacement and oppression of Palestinians (or whoever got in their way — the British offered them territory in Uganda, though they refused it), it makes some degree of sense; the term Nazi has been thrown around at totalitarians and tyrants of all sorts since the War as well as organised racists in the West, after all. In my experience, anti-Zionist and anti-Settlement campaigners go to great lengths that it is the Israeli state or its policies they oppose, not Jews in general; those who equate Jewishness with Zionism tend to be either Zionists or anti-Semites.

It’s also a nonsense to suggest that Jews are expected to be particularly tolerant of prejudice towards them; as David Baddiel whinged in a letter published in the Guardian last Thursday (in response to Steve Bell’s cartoon on the Labour tribunal), “No black, Asian or LGBT sensibility offended by a public figure could possibly be subject to such complacent –- for want of a better word -– ’splaining by a member of the majority culture”. Quite apart from the fact that members of other minorities and less advantaged groups do frequently encounter ‘splaining (the term originated as mansplaining, but terms like whitesplaining, ablesplaining, etc. have appeared as well), the political mainstream, including the Labour Party, also offend or threaten minority populations with what seem to them like reasonable political debates. The debate on immigration, for example, translates for members of visible minorities as a licence to split families and to harass or threaten anyone who “looks like an immigrant”, i.e. a non-white person. It’s certainly not racist, much less “Apartheid”, to refuse to tolerate the open support for oppression wherever it takes place.

After the decision was made to suspend Ken Livingstone from the party for another year but not expel him, I saw a lot of tweets from MPs proclaiming their disgust at the decision, and wondered who would be the first to announce they would be resigning the whip; not one has, so far. The reason, I suspect, has a lot to do with the fact that setting up a new party may be easy, but establishing a big political party is not easy and not cheap, and the experience of the Social Democratic Party (also in response to a far-left takeover of the party) would deter any Labour MP from defecting, especially given the reduced stature of the Liberal Democrats. It might well suit the Daily Mail’s agenda for the Labour vote to be split, but that would not be high on any Labour MP’s list of priorities, which means that for now, they will sit tight until Corbyn’s moment has passed.

Image: Wikipedia, sourced from RWendland, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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The alt-right’s Barry Kent

7 April, 2017 - 22:08

 Barry Kent (played by Chris Gascoyne), a white teenaged boy with short hair and very short sides, wearing a pale blue school shirt with a striped red, white and blue tie with a dark blue and light grey coat over it, stands menacingly over Adrian Mole (off camera).Readers of a certain age will remember the character of Barry Kent from Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole series of books about a young man growing up in the Midlands (of England) in the 1980s and his progression through adult life. Barry Kent was the school bully who duffed the young Adrian up and left him hanging from a coat hook, but Mole later joined Kent’s gang (where he was known as Brains) and much to the annoyance of the ‘intellectual’ Mole, who had tried unsuccessfully to curry favour with ‘Johnny’ Tydeman at the BBC, Kent later becomes a published poet and diarist despite never acquiring the ability to write coherent sentences. The character keeps springing to mind as I read indulgent articles about Tommy Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, such as this one by James Delingpole on the Spectator’s website. Delingpole professes that, despite Lennon’s long criminal record (mortgage fraud as well as assaulting a police officer and various other violent offences, several of them committed during his time with the EDL), he turns out to like him, finding him “intelligent, quick, articulate, well-informed, good-mannered — and surprisingly meek in his politics for a man so often branded a fascist”. And some of his best friends are Black, and even Muslim.

Delingpole is out to make excuses for Lennon/Robinson’s behaviour at every turn. The “best friends” excuse, even if it is true (and I don’t know what sort of ‘Muslim’ would be friends with a man like this), is a time-honoured excuse of racists. Delingpole rewrites the history of the EDL’s founding, making it sound as if forming a group of football hooligans to intimidate Muslims was just something he had to do:

He only got into activism and street demos because he happened to be a white working-class English lad in exactly the wrong place at exactly the wrong time. It was Luton, unfortunately, that Islamist proselytiser Anjem Choudary chose as the base for his various proscribed organisations.

As a result the character of the town changed forever; and so did Robinson’s life. The trigger was a local Islamist recruitment drive for the Taleban and a subsequent protest against a parade by Royal Anglian Regiment troops returning from a tour in Afghanistan.

As he once told another interviewer: ‘I was like, they can’t do that! In working-class communities we all know somebody in the Armed Forces. I’ve got a mate who lost his legs. And these lot were sending people to kill our boys.’ So Robinson founded the protest organisation that would make him infamous — the English Defence League (he subsequently quit it in 2013).

Anjem Choudary in fact had one organisation: al-Muhajiroun, which reformed under various different names after disbanding in 2004 to avoid proscription (and each time it was re-formed, it was re-banned). Although it had some influence in the Muslim community in the 1990s and was able to attract outside speakers and fill a small hall, its shift to an explicitly “salafi-jihadi” position in the early 2000s alienated everyone outside their small band of followers. They were also notorious for hijacking other Muslim groups’ demonstrations, often claiming the publicity and appearing to discredit the original; they do not have the numbers to control a single mosque, even in Luton, and why would they when it would mean they had no excuse to cause trouble in other mosques? The demonstration that caused all the fuss in 2009 was obviously tiny, yet received media coverage quite out of proportion to its size and that of the group that staged it. Without this media coverage, the movement that became the EDL would have struggled to gain traction outside of Luton, but to suggest that the foundation of this thuggish outfit, which abused and intimidated Muslims in general rather than just ‘radicals’, let alone just al-Muhajiroun, just had to happen in light of the Anglian Regiment protest is preposterous.

Delingpole then alleges:

If you looked at social media in the immediate aftermath of the recent terrorist murders on Westminster Bridge, you might have been surprised by the extent to which the righteous rage of the bien-pensant Twitterati was directed not at the killer, Khalid Masood, and the culture that radicalised him, but rather at that culture’s most vocal critic, Tommy Robinson. According to Robinson, this is no accident.

I don’t recall much media coverage of Lennon’s ‘intervention’ after the Westminster attack, but did see a few references to it on social media. Khalid Masood, the attacker, was dead by that point; Stephen Yaxley-Lennon was not, and was videoed ranting outside Parliament about the war that “these people” had been waging against “us” for 1,400 years — a remark that belies Lennon’s insistence that his campaign is against “radicals” rather than Muslims (as do the slogans people used to chant at his EDL rallies) — and claimed that political leaders “want to invite more”. I don’t know who on Twitter or off wouldn’t condemn Lennon for turning up within two hours of the attack, before it was known who was responsible, to make a political speech and attack immigration (the attacker was not an immigrant) other than one of his fellow thug-bigots or their dishonest pseudo-intellectual alt-right admirers.

Delingpole then tells us of Lennon’s life inside prison, some of the details of which are very dubious:

While he was in prison, he refused to eat any regular food (he believed it would be poisoned or otherwise contaminated, so he stuck to tinned tuna), and made sure to cause sufficient trouble so he wound up in solitary where no one could stab him. His front teeth are all fake, the real ones having been knocked out when he got trapped in a room with eight Islamists. The only reason he didn’t die, he says, is because they didn’t have any ‘shivs’ (bladed weapons).

He’s a strong advocate of separate prisons for Muslims and non-Muslims: the scale of bullying (no one dare be caught cooking bacon, for example) and the extent of radicalisation, he argues, makes it culturally suicidal to continue as we are.

According to the Prison UK blog, prison diets vary from prison to prison, but the author does mention that sausages do feature on the menu and that some prisons have farms which rear pigs for both prisoner consumption and sale to the public, though he does also mention that there is an extremism problem in some prisons, with some Muslim prisoners demanding that their non-Muslim cellmate refrain from eating non-halal food in the cell (the cellmate eventually got moved, after a struggle). In any case, Delingpole appears to take Lennon’s stories at face value when more plausible explanations exist: maybe he was put on segregation (which is what ‘solitary’ is actually called) because he caused trouble so as to be put there where “no one could stab him”; perhaps he caused trouble because he’s a thug. As for the claim that Lennon’s teeth were knocked out when he found himself in a “room with eight Islamists”, he was in fact charged with common assault and later battery over a fight that took place during that stretch; his supporters claim that the conditions he was held under were worse than Nelson Mandela’s, which is an obscene comparison and entirely inaccurate. Segregation is often an extremely harsh environment; people are sent there as punishment, and sometimes because they ask to be (the governor has to agree) for their own protection; the usual takers are sex offenders.

While I agree that Muslims (or any other religious group) should not be allowed to totally dominate other prisoners, preventing them having the food they are accustomed to rather than simply having food they can eat, there have been occasions when Muslim prisoners have been attacked by racists in prison as well (in one notorious case a juvenile detainee, Zahid Mubarak, was murdered by his cellmate, a known violent racist); complaints about racist treatment are common but only 1% are ever upheld, a statistic the Prison Reform Trust believes is simply not credible.

Most laughably, Delingpole claims that “his kids are as yet unaware of his notoriety (Tommy Robinson is a pseudonym)”, and he does not mention Robinson’s real name anywhere. In fact, Robinson’s real name, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is common knowledge, and he would have had to explain his absences during his time in prison to his children somehow. The media do not typically refer to any other criminal by their chosen nickname and withhold their real name; why do so for this one?

Lennon has been on the scene since 2009, and there is no sign that he has developed any kind of coherent analysis of Islam, immigration or anything related in that time. It does not take a degree in politics to be able to discuss politics at an intelligent level, but if someone is going to be indulged in a political magazine on pressing subjects like immigration and terrorism, they should be able to do so at a level above that of a bigot in a pub. It’s worth observing that, although this article is based on a meeting with him, it can’t really be called an interview with him because there is next to no contribution from him. In Adrian Mole, we saw the media fawn over Barry Kent’s feeble witterings (and material plagiarised from Mole’s diaries) while ignoring the fact that he was not very bright and not very pleasant; in fawning over this vacuous hoodlum as if he were a serious political leader or thinker, the media look like a parody of themselves.

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On Ubuntu ditching Unity

6 April, 2017 - 17:58

An older version of the Ubuntu logoYesterday Canonical, the company which develops the Linux distribution Ubuntu, for a long time the most popular distribution (or ‘distro’) and the basis for Linux Mint, possibly the most popular distro at the moment, announced that it was to cease development of Unity, its main desktop shell, in favour of GNOME, which was its default until 2011 but became impracticable because of major changes in the way it operated and a major decline in its reliability. 2011 was when I started to go off Linux in a big way and switched back to Macs towards the end of that year. I have mixed feelings about the end of Unity’s development: it was developed out of absolute necessity and kept Ubuntu usable when GNOME was not and provided an elegant desktop with some Mac-derived features. However, the whole purpose of Unity was to provide a common interface between desktops, tablets and phones, and Ubuntu remained glued to the desktop; the platform never became popular on mobile devices.

I was a regular Ubuntu user until 2011; I had two PCs (a Dell desktop and a laptop) and I always had Ubuntu running on one and another, usually SUSE, running on the other (I never found Fedora reliable enough after it stopped being Red Hat Linux, and the new installer for version 18 ruined it completely for me). I did most of my everyday activities, including blogging, web surfing, emailing, photo management and even some word-processing, on it. Its main desktop was GNOME 2 which by then had become quite stable and elegant, and Ubuntu applied its own theme which is still in use on Unity. Linux desktop themes back then used a structure of widgets including menu bars, actual menus, system trays, clocks and so on, and the user could easily reposition them as they saw fit. Although it did support 3D effects (the sort that had been standard on the Mac since the early OS X days), it didn’t rely on them. While I’m sure there were some hardware items that did not work, it detected most of my hardware, such as the wifi, without any intervention from me.

GNOME 3 basically ripped up the rule book. It looked totally different from GNOME 2 and heavily relied on 3D effects, and even if you had the right hardware, it sometimes refused to start, telling you “something has gone wrong”. I found the new look harder on the eye, although the default colours and background could be changed, but customising everything was more complicated in early GNOME 3 than in GNOME 2, and some of it could not be done through the usual “options” app (people had to develop additional options apps) and some required altering scripts manually. It was so dreadful that there were three separate desktop projects spawned at that time: MATE (a continuation of the old GNOME 2 desktop, with all the old apps renamed), Cinnamon (a more conventional desktop based on the same toolkit, which was used by Mint although available on other distros) and Unity, which ensured some continuity from the old environment for Ubuntu users in terms of look and feel, while adding its own dock (GNOME 3 also has a dock) and a menu bar at the top of the screen which carries the current application’s menu, similar to how it works on a Mac, though the dock was rather less versatile (adding options to the dock menu had to be done with scripts; on a Mac, it can be done within the program itself). Unity also ditched menus for finding applications, requiring the user to search (the so-called “heads-up display”); this was often quicker, requiring two or three keypresses to find what you wanted, as long as the app was in the database and had the right tags and so on. And while the “Unity” of the name referred to the ‘convergence’ of the desktop and mobile platforms, it also provided a common look and feel for Linux desktop apps which used different toolkits which came with their own themes.

The result of all the changes was that the desktop that had been a well-regarded standard on Linux up until 2011 came to be used by only a minority after that. The new desktops were intended to bridge the gap between desktops and smaller-format devices, such as “netbooks” (basically small laptops, which were briefly popular in the late 2000s), tablets and even phones, which were being hailed as the computing devices of the future and perhaps a place where Linux could thrive, which it had not done on the desktop. The only problem was that iOS and Android were already well-established by 2011 and its competitors were failing: Blackberry, Meego, even Windows Phone. The idea that minority open-source desktops that lacked serious applications could even gain a significant foothold on the tablet or phone environment, much less compete with Android or iOS, seemed far-fetched even in 2011. The changes were greeted with anger by long-term users in the Linux community press; one letter I read in Linux User and Developer demanded “who are the ‘they’ that keep coming up with these stupid ideas?” and the magazine itself criticised the “developer knows best” attitude that had taken root. Meanwhile, the Mac offered a Unix-based platform with more and better applications than Linux had, with a bloated but free software development suite and access to all the Unix tools. I can’t have been the only Linux user who could afford to, and wasn’t bothered by the fact that it wasn’t all ‘free’ or open source, who moved to the Mac at that time.

Currently, I use OS X almost exclusively on my laptop and desktop (I also have an iPad and and Android phone), and occasionally I use OpenSUSE Linux (which runs KDE Plasma 5, not GNOME or Unity) on my Mac desktop, almost always for programming and a bit of web browsing, emailing etc on the side. I haven’t used GNOME 3 in ages, and when I ran Mint briefly on this machine, the Cinnamon desktop kept crashing. It’s tempting not to care about the end of Unity, but there is a place for an operating system which is entirely open-source, not just based-on as is the case with Mac OS, and Unity was not perfect but its concepts were interesting, it was fairly stable, it was familiar for long-time users and fairly easy to learn for the newcomers. It will be interesting to see how Ubuntu maintains its look and feel after it adopts GNOME 3. Perhaps GNOME 3 has come on in leaps and bounds since 2011; it ought to have done, and to be fair, GNOME 2 was slow when first released, but improved greatly by version 2.4 (the second maintenance release, of which there were many). If it hasn’t, making it Ubuntu’s main desktop and abandoning Unity will be suicide for Ubuntu’s desktop release. It should have been expected that not all the GNOME 3 spin-offs would survive, but I neither expected nor hoped that this would be the first one to fall.

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Brexit: Back to the 16th Century?

3 April, 2017 - 17:12

A portrait of Queen Elizabeth ILast Tuesday, there was a programme on BBC Radio 4 in which Jonathan Freedland, a Guardian columnist who was a strong Remain supporter, compared the present Brexit situation with the Elizabethan era, in which a Papal Bull basically slapped a trading embargo on England as a result of the separation of the English church from the Catholic one. As a result, British merchants were frozen out of trading centres on the Continent such as Antwerp, and as a result England turned to the Muslim world, selling metal recovered from dissolved monasteries to the Arabs and Turks who then used them to make arms to fight Catholic powers such as Spain. Eventually, the distance became too much of a disadvantage, and England made peace with Spain and began trading on the Continent again. Freedland was comparing that with the present situation of Britain exiting a large trading bloc on its doorstep and potentially having to cut deals with other countries much further away. But there was an obvious difference.

The situation of the Elizabethan era was forced on us: the Pope formally excommunicated the Queen with the Papal bull, Regnans in Excelsis (Reigning On High) in 1570, at a time when a number of powerful Catholics, including the king of Spain and the Duke of Norfolk, wanted to see Elizabeth overthrown and a rebellion was underway in Ireland, with foreign support. Europe was not a continent of parliamentary democracies but of kingdoms whose rulers all swore allegiance to the Pope. Britain today has chosen to take itself out of a union of parliamentary democracies, run mostly along the same lines as a parliamentary democracy. England then chose to trade with the enemy of its enemies when it could not trade with the countries on its doorstep. It also planted a colony in North America, initially named Virginia (after Elizabeth, the “virgin queen”) although parts of it are now the Carolinas and Bermuda. Today, the north African countries Britain traded with in the 16th century are clients of France, while those Britain favoured for trade before joining the EEC now have trade agreements with their neighbours. There are, of course, no new frontiers as there were then. There is one thing in common between the British approach to trade then and now: the sale of assets, in this case the metal from the dissolved monasteries, of which there was only so much.

Of course, England could not trade primarily with the Muslim world indefinitely, as the distance to Turkey in particular was prohibitive. While modern transport makes bringing manufactured goods from across the world easier than in Elizabethan times — for now — there is no guarantee that either the supply of oil (or its availability to us) or the openness of the seas, politically, will last; these things are a product of peace, the very thing the EU and its predecessors were set up to preserve. Having access to a ready supply of manufactured goods from across the world and having people across the world who speak the same language is no substitute for being able to trade on friendly terms with one’s neighbours, particularly when those neighbours are the source for most of our heavy equipment, such as vehicles (even those with Japanese and Korean brands are wholly or partly built in Europe). And while we import food from all over the world, we also import a lot of our fruit and vegetables from Europe. We are already seeing prices of those things increase as the Pound loses value; having a tariff imposed on them will make that problem a lot worse.

So, there really is no comparison between the situation now and that of the 16th century. Then, England faced a trade embargo intended to force it back into the Catholic fold and traded with those that were willing to trade with us. Now, we are of our own accord leaving an economic union that is of huge benefit to us in favour of international isolation, and against a backdrop of 70 years of peace, Tory politicians have been threatening war to a supposed ally, a war which will isolate us from the rest of Europe, which is likely to take Spain’s side, which will not be quick, whichever side wins, and will have huge ramifications for global trade, including ours (it will cut access to the Suez Canal from the Atlantic for the duration, for example). We cannot compare past adventures that were the product of necessity with the folly of Brexit and its consequences.

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On the problem of proving hate

1 April, 2017 - 17:15

A picture of Bijan EbrahimiYesterday I saw a post on the Disability Hate Crime Network group on Facebook about a crime in which a ‘vulnerable’ man was kept captive and tortured for more than a week by a gang of six males and one female who falsely accused him of being a paedophile. Last month all pleaded guilty to false imprisonment and occasioning grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent and were sentenced to between 10 and 13 years each (one of the males, a juvenile, received four years’ detention). The ringleader, Stephanie Titley, had offered the victim, who is still alive and cannot be named, a place to stay but became abusive when rumours were spread that he was a paedophile; the gang punched and kicked him, used knives and a machete and burned him with cigarettes, leaving him with a broken jaw and ribs. The Facebook post by Stephen Brookes notes that recorded evidence suggests that the gang were motivated not by hatred towards a real or perceived disability but by the false belief that the victim had engaged in sexual acts with children, thus it did not fit the definition of a disability hate crime. To me, this strengthens my view that proof of hate towards disability should not be required in cases of violence towards a disabled person, especially a person with a learning disability.

The press reports describe the man as ‘vulnerable’ and he has not been named; the latter is not usual in cases of people accused of sex crimes (which he formally was not, but rumours were spread to that effect), so the assumption is that he had learning difficulties. False accusations of such crimes are a common feature of violence against people with learning disabilities (as in the case of Bijan Ebrahimi, pictured, from 2013), even though false accusations of rape generally are quite rare. Why? I suspect the reason is that people associate ‘weirdness’ with ‘perverts’: we commonly refer to them as weirdos, and we tell children to be careful when outside (or keep them inside) because of “all the weirdos out there”. At the same time, people with learning difficulties also often exhibit ‘weird’ behaviour such as talking to themselves (which is quite often a nervous habit linked to past bullying) and may dress unfashionably and have such habits as carrying their belongings in a carrier bag rather than a ‘proper’ rucksack or sports bag. So, it’s easy for people to believe that someone with ‘weird’ habits is the type of weirdo that might molest a child, especially if he had been seen talking to a child he wasn’t related to, or had annoyed a woman (on purpose or otherwise).

When I was at boarding school, there was a boy in my form who was bullied for the whole time he was there, chiefly because he was fat. Towards the end, because of this and other problems (such as with his family), he took to drink and was a nightmare to live with, but was expelled for attacking a female former teacher (not sexually). Years later, I heard that the boy had spent time in prison, and another old boy I spoke to said that he was a “disgusting little boy” and as for his time in prison, he had “probably raped somebody”. Yet I didn’t believe he would have done something like that, and wasn’t convinced he was capable of overpowering an adult for that purpose. The logic ran, “he was a shit, rapists are shits, therefore he was probably a rapist”. This is the same sort of logic that would convince a group of ruffians that a ‘weird’ man who was ‘a bit slow’ might also be a child molester the moment someone even suggested it.

Of course, the majority of rapists and child-molesters are not weirdos in ill-fitting clothes; they are often respectable or admired people such as clergymen, teachers, pop stars, TV presenters and so on, or members of their victim’s family, but this does not occur to a lot of people. While it appears that the recordings of these thugs indicated that they were motivated more by the belief that he had molested a child than by his impairment, I would like to know if they contained any indication of awareness of his impairment — references to him being a “bit slow” or derogatory versions of the same, for example. As I have said in response to previous disability hate crimes, I believe that it should not be necessary to prove outright hostility to someone on disability grounds to aggravate assaults on disabled people into hate crimes, or crimes “aggravated by disability”; the culprits should have to be only aware of it, and there be no personal insult or grudge involved. This way, when a group of people abuse someone who is disabled because they thought the absolute worst of them because they acted weird, it would attract suitable punishment from the law.

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The electronics ban: malice or stupidity? Protectionism or security?

22 March, 2017 - 13:11

Picture of Donald Trump with a white cap with the words "Make America Great Again" on it, with a Boeing 757 with a dark blue, red and white livery and the word "TRUMP" on it.Yesterday, the Trump administration announced that ‘large’ electronic items such as tablets and laptops were to be banned from US-bound flights on some airlines, all based in the Arab world or Turkey, from airports in those countries to the USA. Hours later, the UK announced it would follow suit, banning such items on all aeroplanes from an overlapping group of countries to the UK. This immediately provoked an outcry, as the American ban smacked of protectionism, making the Arab and Turkish carriers uncompetitive for both business travellers, who need their laptops to write reports and so on while travelling, and families, who rely on tablets to entertain their children during long flights; the same accusation cannot be made about the new rules on UK-bound flights. There is a saying that one should not attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity, but given that the people in charge in the USA are Trump and his clique, there is plenty here that can be explained by both.

The American rules ban large electronic items on direct flights on local carriers to the US from Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia plus Morocco, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. The British rules ban them on all flights to the UK from the first five countries plus Tunisia, and Lebanon. The American rules immediately struck most people as making no sense: countries which also have current or recent civil wars or terrorist problems (Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan) are excluded, not all of which have direct flights to the US but some do. If a certain item is known to be in use as a means to smuggle bombs onto planes, the done thing is to ban them all on all flights; thus, when terrorists were found to be preparing liquid explosions to be ignited on board in 2006, the British authorities banned liquids on all flights for everyone; only drinks bought air-side after screening and bottles of less than 100ml are allowed on (if it’s baby food, you have to drink a bit of it yourself). When terrorists used knives to hijack passenger aircraft and slam them into buildings in 2001, sharp objects were banned on all flights, for everyone. Given that American airlines are owned by Americans and more likely to be used by them, their craft would be a more desirable target for terrorists than Emirati-owned craft that are full of Arab and Muslim families travelling between family homes. Particularly when Trump has promised support for American carriers against overseas, government-supported airlines and had been under pressure from their executives to do so, the accusation of naked protectionism is inevitable.

The British ban irons out some of those concerns, excluding the more stable countries (which also excludes the airlines with strong commercial links to the UK, such as Etihad and Emirates) and including some which have links to the Syrian civil war and those with recent ISIS activity, such as Tunisia which was the site of a mass shooting by ISIS operatives a couple of years ago, and whose political stability is not guaranteed, particularly if the present government attempts to ban the Islamist opposition or return to the conditions of the Bourguiba/Ben Ali régime. It makes more sense as an anti-terrorist measure, but Britain has a habit of both following the US in stupid policy and making laws that target specific populations but affect everyone — the overseas marriage bar for low-income British citizens, targeted at low-income Pakistanis, for example, but which provokes protest only when middle-class whites find that they cannot bring a spouse from the US or Singapore either. The UK, being as it is in the process of cutting itself off from the trading bloc it currently belongs to, needs to appear to be on the Americans’ side, so its participation, even on different terms, does not lend this as much credibility as if other European or Western nations had also followed suit, which so far they have not.

According to ABC, the new rules supposedly follow credible intelligence that “ISIS associates were working on smuggling explosives-laden electronics onto U.S.-bound flights”. Yet it does not explain why only locally-based airlines were targeted and not US carriers; surely, the same security procedures apply for all passengers at the same airport. If this really is the reason, it demonstrates that Trump and his team are spectacularly incompetent, putting passengers’ lives at risk by treating American commercial interests as if they were more important. We should watch how the US carriers respond; if they believe that the terrorist threat is real, they should introduce similar bans of their own; if they do not, we will know that the ‘intelligence’ does not exist and that the ban is motivated by Trump’s desire to privilege large American companies and to break links between American Muslim families and their relatives in the Arab world.

Of course, electrical items have always been regarded as potential terrorist threats; even in the 1980s, airport staff would ask you if you had had your Walkman repaired before you took it on (i.e. if it was still how it came from the factory). Many laptops have spaces where components such as hard drives, DVD drives and so on can be installed by the user or a dealer, but many don’t; newer Macs, for example, have no user-upgradeable parts (and in some cases cannot even be upgraded by Apple themselves) and any add-ons have to be through an external port. If this is a real anti-terrorist measure, some way should be found to allow sealed units, or devices whose identity can be certified, onto planes while excluding older devices which are easier to compromise. Meanwhile, stowing large numbers of lithium-ion batteries in the hold of an aircraft, to which neither passengers nor crew have access during flights, is believed to be a fire risk, while airlines cannot be trusted not to break laptops while throwing them around at the airports (they already have a woeful record on handling valuable, breakable items such as wheelchairs and musical instruments); owners are currently not accustomed to using the same kinds of protective casing for their laptops as professional musicians use for their instruments. As for the entertainment issue, I have heard it suggested that airlines provide free tablets for their passengers, but they likely will not have the same apps and are extremely unlikely to have the accessibility features switched on.

It is essential that the US government are pressed to explain the inconsistencies in their policies. Unless a satisfactory answer is forthcoming, there must be retaliation, such as the same rules being imposed on US carriers’ flights out of the same airports. Any genuine anti-terrorist security measure applies to everyone, not just to unfavoured commercial organisations.

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But it’s not Unix!

21 March, 2017 - 22:04

Picture of Matt WeinbergerA friend recently posted on Facebook this video in which tech columnist Matt Weinberger explains, in a minute and a half or so, why he switched to a Surface Book laptop running Windows 10 and never looked back. The main reasons are more new games (many games don’t even make it onto the Mac or iOS) and such features as being able to highlight things with a stylus, which Apple only offers on the iPad Pro which does not run desktop applications. Towards the end, he concedes that, yes, it is Windows and he has experienced his fair share of glitches and bugs that require a restart. I’ve been a Mac user on and off since 2004 and mostly on since 2011 and the thing that stops me going back to Windows is really quite simple: it’s not Unix.

I’m less of a geek than I used to be. I mostly use my computers (I have two Macs and an iPad Pro) for blogging, web surfing, watching TV online and email, including filing timesheets for my work. I still maintain an application (and use it for most of the entries on this blog) but I have less time for that than I did ten years ago, let alone in 2003 when I started work on it as an abortive college project. Still, a Unix base is vital for cross-platform software development: the industry standard command line shells, the compilers, editors and so on are all written to run on Unix and the conventions all come from the Unix world. Microsoft is putting off a lot of developers with its proprietary OS and developer tools. Linux is still the best platform by far when it comes to managing the software on your computer: it all comes from a central archive, updated regularly, and if you want to publish your own, you can set up your own archive and users can set the software management tools to download from it. Both Mac and Windows have such archives available, but they’re much less well-developed. Linux is the ideal platform for development; you can download what tools you need from the archives, while on the Mac you have to download an entire DVD-sized package that covers iOS development as well, just to build software for your Mac. But both are better than Windows in that regard.

I have strong memories of Windows XP, which although its appearance was nice, was a nightmare for security, while anti-virus software was a dreadful resource hog at a time when the average computer had a single 32-bit processor running at less than 1Ghz, a stark contrast to today’s four-core 2.5Ghz processors. I’ve used Windows 7 and never installed anti-virus software and never had any problems, although I wouldn’t recommend that to everyone. In 2012 I bought an Acer laptop which came with Windows 7 and made the mistake of upgrading it to Windows 8, then attempting an upgrade to Windows 8.1. It made my laptop, which by then was only a year old (a fairly cheap Acer, though hardly bargain basement), unusable and I ended up reformatting my hard drive and installing Linux on the whole thing. The next year I bought a MacBook Pro (the one that I sold to my aunt last Christmas) and the Acer went back in the case and has hardly come out since. Some might argue that Windows 10 is the new Windows 7 and that I shouldn’t be prejudiced by the upgrade disaster, but all that tells me is that Microsoft has produced a decent Windows before and then ruined it, and will probably do the same again.

I have no problems with Windows’s user interface itself. It’s elegant enough that all the major Linux desktops for a while copied it to a greater or lesser extent; KDE in the mid-2000s had only one or two elements that weren’t copied from Windows and you could easily style it to look like Windows. My problem is the underpinnings. If Microsoft ever wants to tempt me back to Windows, it will have to produce a Unix-based version of it which runs Windows and Unix software. A bolt-on “Linux subsystem” featuring a command line and a few utilities is not good enough. Unix has 50 years of history, has run on mainframes, minicomputers, micros, laptops and mobile phones (both Android and iOS are Unix-type operating systems); its source, with the exception of some System V remnants, is open to scrutiny, unlike that of Windows which remains a secret. I can’t remember the last time any of my Macs crashed or required rebooting when running Mac OS, although some apps have crashed (Safari currently has serious reliability problems, but is easily replaceable).

I realise these details don’t bother a lot of users, and they might not even be aware of them. But for me, games and a stylus are not essential features; reliability, interoperability and industry-standard command-line and development tools are. The Mac has enough applications (including Microsoft Office) to be more than adequate for my needs; I’ve recently spent a lot of money on Mac and iOS gear and can’t justify just switching and probably won’t get a review copy for the purpose; Surface Pros and Surface Books cost between £750 and £2,650 in the UK, so are easily as expensive as a high-end iPad or MacBook, and as long as videos promoting Windows continue to say “oh yeah, it crashes and I have to reboot it from time to time”, I’ll stick with my Mac. (And as for the comment that “who knows what the Mac will look like in another year”: it still looks like itself after 15 years; every new major Windows release since Vista, except 7, has been unrecognisable from the last.)

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Should we ban harmful bequests?

17 March, 2017 - 22:21

Image of two donkeys, both wearing saddles and a turquoise-coloured harness with the names Dixie and Noddy above their noses, on a sandy beach.This week, a woman who had been cut out of her late mother’s will in favour of three animal welfare charities lost her legal battle to claim a large share of the estate. The Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeal ruling that Heather Ilott, in her 50s with five children, should be entitled to some £160,000 of the estate which is worth around £500K such that she could purchase a house; this ruling reinstates a County Court ruling that she should receive only around £50K. The mother, Melita Jackson, had severed ties with her daughter when she left home to be with her boyfriend, whom she later married and to whom she remains married; attempts to reconcile the pair all failed, with both blaming the other. There is a longer article on the legal aspects of the case, written after the 2015 Court of Appeal ruling, here.

The reports do not state the reason why Melita Jackson disapproved of her daughter’s fiancé, Nicholas Ilott, although some reports suggest that the “final straw” was Mrs Ilott’s decision to give one of her daughters the same name as her mother’s sister-in-law, whom she disliked. None of them give information on who Nicholas Ilott is (there are a photographer and an Oxford scientist by that name, although the latter is clearly too young to be Mrs Ilott’s husband), but they do say that his work brought in little income (his former line of work is no longer available to him because of a back problem [PDF]), that at the time of Jackson’s death and the subsequent legal claims they were dependant on state benefits, that the house they lived in was owned by a housing association and that Heather Ilott had no pension. Melita Jackson had never even supported the three charities she named in the will, but left her money to them out of spite. Of course, the five grandchildren, who were not born when the dispute began, also lose out from this decision.

I’m a Muslim and in Islamic law, you cannot simply disinherit a child; there are fixed shares and although they are not equal, nobody closely related to the deceased is left out. You can only bequeath up to a third of your estate to people outside the group entitled to benefit from estate division, including charities. There is also a hadeeth (a saying of the Prophet, sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) that if someone lived a righteous life for 60 years but behaved unjustly when leaving their will, they would be consigned to the Fire (there are two versions, one also mentioning a woman who does the same). While I don’t suggest that Islamic law on this subject should be adopted lock, stock and barrel in Britain right now, some aspects of it could be adopted to end injustices like this case.

I believe it should not be allowed to disinherit a child altogether without good reason, such as that the child caused injury or damage to their parents, rather than mere disapproval of their lifestyle or life choices or that their behaviour caused injury to another heir resulting in permanent disability. There are other circumstances which might allow that the heir not inherit major assets, such as a business or country estate, on the grounds that their lifestyle (or lack of interest or prior involvement) might mean they were not competent to run it, but these do not justify disinheriting them entirely. And I believe that charities should not be able to receive most of an estate while the children of the deceased are dependent on state benefits.

While at present, an heir can challenge a will if they believe that the testator (the person whose will it is) had not in fact written it, or had been manipulated into doing so while lacking mental capacity, they cannot challenge a will on the basis of simple injustice, spite or caprice on the part of the testator. This should change. We should not be seeing people left in poverty because their parents took exception to the person they loved, much less innocent grandchildren punished for the behaviour of a parent years ago; charities, especially those that do not work for the betterment of people, should not receive legacies intended as insults while the state remains responsible for the upkeep of those left out. Such displays of sheer spite should be ended.

Image source: Wikipedia, contributed by SleafordSue under the GNU Free Documentation Licence.

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If in doubt, blame Corbyn

12 March, 2017 - 14:00

A map showing the locations of the remaining grammar schools in EnglandThe other day I saw an exchange on Twitter between some Labour activists in which Jeremy Corbyn got the blame for Theresa May’s announcement that the ban on new grammar schools was to be lifted. The logic was that Corbyn had opened the way for May to become Prime Minister with his lacklustre performance in the Brexit referendum campaign, without which David Cameron, who favoured academies over grammars (although the manifesto pledge was to allow good schools, including grammars, to expand), would still be PM and none of this would be happening. I said that all this was on the cards from the moment the Tories won the last election, and Corbyn was not Labour leader then; Ed Miliband was. The reply came, “I see, blaming Labour leaders is OK as long as it’s not The Great Leader?”.

I never called Corbyn a “great leader”. I’m all for criticising his performance, both as leader and in the referendum campaign, but blaming him for grammars is taking things too far. Corbyn’s history as an opponent of the EU, and the EEC before it, was well-known (perhaps it should have been more of an issue in the original leadership campaign), and Labour had many other politicians able to campaign on behalf of staying in the EU, as did other parties — Cameron and Osborne, who might have been expected to win over Middle England even if not the Labour heartlands or some rural areas of England, also supported the Remain side. It’s tempting to assume that a bigger effort from Corbyn himself could have swung the vote, but if parliamentarians had done their job and imposed a threshold, or held the vote on a public holiday so that retirees did not have an unfair advantage over people with jobs, who would have had to squeeze voting in before or after work, the disastrous result could have been better avoided, and MPs of all parties, including the pro-EU mainstream of the Labour party, were to blame for these two failings.

While grammar schools were never the vehicle for social mobility their supporters make out (see this article for the criticism from the Tory perspective, although the Trump comparison is ludicrous), I really wonder whether they are worse than some of the academies the last two governments have brought in; the showy, inflexible and often expensive uniforms, the unaccountable trusts, the prison-like appearance (and atmosphere) of some of them, as well as the forced academisation of schools whose communities did not want it. Moreover, the conservatism of the Blair era left grammar schools that were already present when they took over intact; although they banned the opening of new grammar schools in 1998, they did not force the conversion of the remaining grammar schools in the minority of areas that retained selection. This is significant as Blairites routinely argue that Labour have to be in power to make a difference, yet in power they made a difference that the Tories can easily reverse now. If Blair had abolished grammar schools altogether, there would not be a base from which to expand them now; it could not be argued, for example, that as Tonbridge has a grammar school, nearby Sevenoaks should have one as well. Yet as on so many other things, he was too wary of antagonising the Daily Mail.

Let us not forget that it was Ed Miliband that lost the last election; if it had not been for his dithering performance, his total refusal to defend Blair and Brown’s legacy in the face of a hostile Tory media and sneers from biased Radio 4 presenters (especially their handling of the economy and how the 2008-10 debt was incurred), his party’s attempt to micro-manage the Scottish party, resulting in the collapse of Labour’s Scottish vote, and so many of his other failings, there might have been a chance of Labour winning the last general election and neither Brexit nor grammar schools would be on the table now. It was the failure of Miliband and his team which led to the election of Corbyn in 2015; they were uninspiring, seeking only to “mind the shop” in the Tories’ absence. Many Labour voters do not want a Labour government that will repeat Blair’s mistakes; they want a Labour government which will leave a permanent legacy.

Map source: BBC.

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Melanie Phillips has her history wrong

7 March, 2017 - 16:32

 How Britain is creating a terror state within". It has an image of four Muslim women in niqaab, one of them pushing a child's buggy, and another giving a V-sign to a journalist.There is an article in the Times today (paywalled) in which Melanie Phillips proclaims that the Scots and Northern Irish have no right to secede at the expense of the “authentic”, “ancient” British nation and that Brexit “expresses the desire for independent self-government by a sovereign state based on the history, institutions and cultural ties that constitute a nation”, while the EU, which “reduces nations to the status of provinces”, is attractive to “weak nations and provinces as a way of boosting their status and income”. She provides us with a history lesson as to why Britain is an authentic nation while Scottish and Irish nationalism are “rooted in romanticism and myth and hatred of the other”, i.e. the English or Protestants as in the case of Ireland. However, she makes a number of major errors in history, glossing over the linguistic and ethnic history of the UK in order to dismiss the rights of the Irish and Scots to call themselves nations.

I haven’t replied to a Phillips diatribe on this blog in a few years, so it’s worth reminding ourselves of Phillips’s agenda. She is a neo-conservative and an Israel-firster and her book Londonistan (reviewed here) has been described as a contribution to the “Eurabia” genre, i.e. a set of books that portray Europe as being at best weak or supine in the face of Muslim “aggression” and at worst in league with Arab dictatorships and in danger of being taken over by its Muslim minorities, while the “Anglosphere” alone defends Western civilisation. This was particularly attractive to Jewish Zionists during the 2000s when some European nations were highly critical of Israel’s policies while the USA in particular supported it with financial and military aid. Phillips’s articles and books were liberally and admiringly quoted on anti-Muslim hate sites such as Jihad Watch and her screeds on the supposedly dire state of European Jewry were lapped up by American Jewish right-wing audiences. She is sometimes referred to as “Mad Mel” and the Guardian’s profile in 2006 described her as hysterical, but I believe she was deliberately playing to an international pro-Israel, anti-Europe and anti-Muslim gallery, and this article serves the same purpose. Britain is good because, along with the USA, it serves the interests of Israel; Europe is bad, because it refuses to unconditionally support Israel; therefore, pro-European Scottish and Irish nationalism is bad.

Her claim that the EU allows “weak nations and provinces” to enhance their status and income is false. No nation within the EU, federal or not, has split up in its entire history; all the splits in federations in Europe (former Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the USSR, the former British and Irish UK) happened before any of them, or any part of them, joined or helped to form the EU or any of its predecessors. In fact, the threat of not being able to join the EU was a factor in deterring the pro-independence vote in 2014 because it was feared that Spain would veto Scotland’s joining so as to prevent the secession of Catalonia. Europe keeps large countries together by lowering the stakes, promoting human rights and allowing the free movement of people.

She then alleges:

Scottish nationalism and Irish republicanism are cultural phenomena rooted in romanticism and myth and hatred of the other in the form of the English or the Protestants.

However, Scotland was a country unto itself until 1707; it unified with England as a way of settling debts, but retained its own legal and education system. Scottish separatism was not popular until the late 20th century, in large part because, after the suppression of the Highland uprisings and the incorporation of some of its customs (some of them really of recent invention, such as clan tartans, kilts and bagpipes) into British military and royal tradition, the union made Scotland part of the home nation of the British empire, from which it profited enormously. Solidarity between the Scottish (and Welsh) working classes and those of England also kept separatism in abeyance for decades. When the Empire broke up, the benefits for Scotland decreased accordingly, and the use of Scottish oil revenues to fund tax cuts as well as the testing of the Poll Tax on Scotland before it was rolled out south of the border led Scots to believe the English establishment saw them as a colony, not a partner in a union.

As for Irish nationalism, the facts of the Irish language, a common heritage and Roman Catholicism serve as unifiers, but opposition to English Protestant rule was quite valid as England and its barons ran the place like a colony, oppressing the native Irish and reducing them to penury and in some cases starvation. England went through numerous periods of being a Protestant fundamentalist state, penalising those who refused to renounce the Pope and hunting down and killing Catholic priests. As late as the 19th century there were anti-Catholic riots in England that used the slogan “no popery”; similar slogans are still used by Unionists in Northern Ireland. Her claim that “Ireland itself has a tenuous claim to nationhood, having seceded from Britain as the Irish Free State only in 1922” (echoing the taunt of many an online Zionist: “who was the leader of the Palestinians before Arafat?”) is erroneous; the Kingdom of Ireland (albeit with the English king as head of state) had been in existence before the Acts of Union in 1800, although the majority Catholic population was denied the vote and the right to sit in the Irish Parliament. It is quite valid to criticise the tactics of the IRA and the politics of the Irish state after independence, but the desire of the Irish population to self-determination against an oppressive British state was well-founded.

Having swatted away the Scots’ and Irish people’s rights to nationhood, she proclaims:

The nation is not, however, artificial or imagined. It is solidly rooted in a group of people united by different things at different times: geography, language, law, religion, ethnicity, history, institutions, culture.

And furthermore:

Britain, by contrast, is an authentic unitary nation. It didn’t begin with the union with Scotland but as the British Isles, an island nation defending itself (or not) against invaders from across the seas. Throughout its history, it was beset by attempts at secession by tribes across Hadrian’s Wall and across the Irish Sea.

But it isn’t. The UK as we know it did begin with the union with Scotland. There just was no UK before that: the then king exchanged the crowns of England and Scotland for that of the United Kingdom. The ‘British’ state really begins with the Norman invasions, as it was this that produced one kingdom of England which conquered Wales, both of which formerly consisted of numerous small kingdoms, some of them remembered in the names of counties, particularly in the south-east of England and in Wales. There were two distinct groups of Celts, one consisting of the Cornish, Welsh, Bretons and other groups in Cumbria and the south-west of Scotland, and another in Ireland, western and northern Scotland and the Isle of Man. There were also Germanic invaders from northern Europe, who brought the language that became English, but it was outsiders that ultimately forced a political union. As the Scottish singer Dick Gaughan wrote in one of his liner notes, “Sometimes we (Scots and Irish) forget that the first colony of the British empire was in fact England”.

She also claims:

Kingship matters because monarchs unify tribes into a nation. Wales was subsumed into the English legal system by Henry VIII and so lost its separate identity except for residual ties to the Welsh language.

Northern Ireland is different again. The Unionists hate this being said but they are not British. They’re the bit that got tacked on to Great Britain to make the UK.

This has proven true only in a minority of cases. The kings of the Holy Roman and later Austro-Hungarian empires did not unify their subjects into “one nation”, and the semblance of unity in Spain did not last long after absolutism ceased, so far for the last time, in 1975. Wales did not retain mere “residual ties to the Welsh language”; it remained the majority language until the 19th century everywhere except south Pembrokeshire and some of the eastern border regions. Northern Ireland is not Great Britain, but the Unionists (who are mostly Presbyterians of Scottish origin, settled from Scotland and England during the Ulster Plantation in the 17th century) are indeed British; the term means a UK citizen, as anyone who has ever applied for a British passport will know.

There really is nothing ancient about ‘Britain’ or the UK. The British Isles as a single political unit existed only from 1800 to 1922. Even the name Britain refers to the country’s Celtic past but only from the invading Norman French perspective — the greater land of the Britons (as opposed to Brittany), excluding the parts where forms of Gaelic were, and are, spoken. If any nation within the British Isles has the claim to be ancient, it is Ireland. Both England and Scotland are stronger for being one country instead of two, but the Scots have every right to resist being dragged into an isolated, inward-looking state by people influenced by the bigoted London commercial press for reasons largely irrelevant to them. The Irish do not have an obligation to tolerate the imposition of a border in their country for similar reasons. Being in the EU may well be the price the English have to pay to remain the biggest nation in a strong UK rather than a “rainy version of Dubai”, and if a strong UK is needed for a strong Israel, the likes of Melanie Phillips should accept that, rather than insult the Scots and Irish who prefer independence in Europe to isolation and dominance by England.

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Why should disabled people work for peanuts?

4 March, 2017 - 20:56

A bowl of monkey nuts, i.e. peanuts in their shells.Last week Rosa Monckton, wife of Dominic Lawson (son of Nigel and former editor of the Sunday Telegraph when it emitted four of Will Cummins’s Islamophobic rants in as many editions — and before anyone accuses me of an ad hominem, the BBC mentions her connections to Princess Diana and she mentions Lord Freud’s descent from the great Sigmund, so …) and former chief executive of Asprey & Garrard, jewellers to the Crown and various sporting institutions, wrote an article in the Spectator calling for disabled people to be ‘allowed’ to work for less than the minimum wage as this would allow them the ‘dignity’ of a paid job, and that the minimum wage makes it difficult for employers to hire them. She claims that work is essential for fostering a sense of human dignity, quoting Freud as saying “love and work, work and love, that’s all there is” and a DWP green paper as saying that the “evidence is clear that work and health are linked”, but that employers are not charities and cannot be expected to pay minimum wage if the employee’s net activity amounts to a loss. Her comments have provoked outrage in the disability community, and rightly so.

Monckton has a daughter, Domenica, who has Down’s syndrome, and runs a charity in Sussex called “Domenica’s Team”, which trains people with learning disabilities in “supported employment” in partnership with Brighton City College. It has a “training café”, which is open to the public, and a business where their trainees “weigh and package spices, stick on labels and parcel up the goods” and a kitchen which “is also a mini-business: they select items they would like to see sold in the café, make the shopping list, do the shopping, cook, price up and deliver to the café”. All of this is work, and sounds similar enough to work that non-disabled people do in cafés and food businesses up and down the country. None of those businesses is exempt from the minimum wage. This appears to be an educational environment, but when ordinary employees are in training, they may be paid less than a trained member of staff (especially if they are doing a job with the trainer that they would normally do alone), but never less than the minimum wage. Why should a disabled worker be treated any differently?

What anyone who has researched sheltered employment for disabled people knows is that it can be, and often is, exploitative. On the pretext of providing disabled people who would otherwise “sit and do nothing” with something to do and a bit of pocket money, it has them doing repetitive tasks for hours and earning a pittance. A few years ago I followed the case of Jenny Hatch, a Virginia woman with Down’s syndrome who challenged a guardianship placed on her parents, which left her with no rights, and won in August 2013. While under guardianship, she was forced to live in a group home, was prohibited from seeing her friends or using her mobile phone or the Internet to communicate with them, and was expected to work in a ‘sheltered’ workshop where she “put labels on boxes and snapped plastic things together all day”, as her friends told me, which she found boring. They also told me that the organisation that ran the workshop got between $67 and $89 for every hour she was there, but she had no idea how much she was getting paid and had never received a pay slip.

Mrs Lawson pleads that “money isn’t the real point”, that many people with learning disabilities live with their parents, and that they often have no understanding of money; her daughter once received a £5 tip and asked if she could go to New York, for example. However, underpaying someone because they do not know the difference between £5 and £500 is deception. There are a number of conditions which result in someone’s ability to perform mathematical tasks being impaired; we would not think it acceptable that a stroke survivor be paid a trivial sum, or less than anyone else, for doing work that is of value because they would not know they were being underpaid. A deputy would be appointed to manage the financial affairs of someone in this situation, particularly if they did not appreciate that they had the impairment.

Monckton spends much of her article stressing the importance of work, quoting a statistic that 1.3 million of the 1.4 million people with learning disabilities in the UK are out of work and saying:

When I am in our training centre, speaking to our students when they return from a work placement, I can see how changed they are. When they say ‘I’ve been to work today’, they look confident and happy.

Yet these people are on a training placement, which one presumes is fairly short. If the job these people are doing is enjoyable in itself and varied, not repetitive, they might enjoy it for its own sake, regardless of money, but the same is true of jobs done by non-disabled people and this does not justify paying them less than minimum wage. As anyone who has done tedious and repetitive work could tell the woman who ran the poshest jewellery business in the land, the novelty of such work wears off after a while; people do not do it for ‘dignity’ but to pay the bills. When people have a choice, they would not choose work that was boring and repetitive if the pay was equal (and sometimes even if it was not), and they appreciate the time they spend doing other things (workers actually had to fight to get weekends and public holidays off). And some disabled people would not rather work for the illusion of independence; this morning I read a blog article by a visually impaired woman who had just secured a job as a vacation planner on a Florida theme park, and had ended a long term relationship with a boyfriend with cerebral palsy who wanted her to move into supported accommodation with him:

His idea of a perfect life involved having me and him move in together, live off the system and food stamps, and essentially have no control over my money while his staff take care of our bills, our meals, everything.

As cushy as that sounds, I didn’t buy into it.

Now I’m not trashing that lifestyle by any means, but what he was used to given his disability and what I was used to as a person who got denied for most government benefits just never added up to me. Where would I have fit in in all of this? What purpose would I have aside from being a live-in girlfriend? So many questions, not enough answers.

Monckton fears that without low-wage supported employment, those with learning disabilities “can expect a life spent in the shadows, slumped on a sofa, eating the wrong sort of food, watching daytime television” and also mentions the closure of services and day centres. She clearly has a very low expectation not only of learning disabled people themselves but also of their families (anyone who doesn’t have Nigella Lawson for an aunt, perhaps?) if she believes they will all end up in that situation, and very much of the decline of services has happened since the last two governments cut off funding to local councils, forcing them to sell off buildings, particularly in areas with high land prices, like London. I did not hear her protest against any of this.

Monckton’s arguments against minimum wage for disabled people are standard Tory arguments against minimum wages for everyone: that they make it more difficult to create jobs and thus hurt the people they are meant to help. While this can be true if they are set too high, no minimum wage means that bosses can pay a pittance to workers while pocketing the difference. No organisation should be allowed to employ disabled people at below the minimum wage on a permanent basis; it is a door to exploitation, and if money is being used to subsidise sheltered menial work, it should be used to fund worthwhile activities.

Image source: Ark Wildlife.

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