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Why can’t a leading Muslim cop tell Islam from ISIS?

24 May, 2015 - 22:57

Picture of Mak Chishty, a balding and beardless South Asian man wearing a British police uniform, sitting signing a book.Today the Guardian published an interview with Britain’s “most senior Muslim police officer”, Scotland Yard commander Mak Chishty, head of community engagement for the Metropolitan police, in which he claimed that earlier and more intrusive intervention is needed to counter radicalisation at younger ages and earlier stages, that there is Islamist propaganda so powerful that he fears his own children could be radicalised and that children as young as five are being influenced, and that the state should intervene in “private spaces”, including what people read on their mobile phones or computers or talk about in a “shisha cafe”. Needless to say, the judgement on (mainstream) Muslim social media, and even from some outside the community, is pretty damning: “batshit crazy”, intrusive, “house Muslim”, “thought police”.

There are two specific things he names that he believes are evidence that someone is becoming radicalised. He mentions that he has heard of five-year-olds saying that Christmas is “haraam”, or forbidden in Islam. This is in fact mainstream Islamic opinion. Muslim families do not celebrate Christmas; the only Muslims who take part are those from non-Muslim families who fear alienating them, children who are surrounded by it at school towards the end of the autumn term, and those who want to make a show of how “integrated” they are. Muslims otherwise do not join in other religions’ celebrations, much as they, for the most part, do not take part in ours. The five-year-old who said that probably heard it from another child in the playground who had been told it by their parents. As for not shopping in Marks & Spencer because of its supposed Jewish ownership, this rumour (along with the claim that they donate a percentage of their Saturday takings to the Israeli army as expiation for trading on the Sabbath) has been in circulation for decades, although in recent years even George Galloway has refuted it (M&S is a publicly traded company; its shareholders would not tolerate a huge cut of its takings being given away, although what its directors or owners do with their earnings is their business). M&S also has a rather fusty, middle-aged image in everything except food and underwear, despite some ranges trying to broaden their appeal (e.g. Per Una, sometimes).

He also lists among the “subtle, unexplained changes” in Muslims’ behaviour that could indicate radicalisation “sudden negative attitudes towards alcohol, social occasions and western clothing”. All these could just be signs of someone becoming more religious if they had not already been, since drinking alcohol is forbidden (a necessarily known fact of Islamic law), attending social gatherings where people are known to be drinking is as well, and wearing modest clothing is mandatory. People should be able to deepen their practice of Islam without fearing a visit from the police because someone suspected that they were under the influence of “Islamist propaganda”, or were annoyed that their favourite “normal Muslim” was slipping away from them.

Chishty claims that the use of social media by ISIS is a new thing. It is not: al-Qa’ida have been using sympathetic blogs, social media accounts and slick magazines for years (including the one with that infamous “how to make a bomb in the kitchen of your Mom” feature). They influenced people through preachers who operated openly, followers in many well-attended mosques, magazines, tapes and websites; it is not that ISIS is any more sophisticated than al-Qa’ida, but that people have more bandwidth available to them (so they can download a video rather than buy a CD or DVD) and that the social media available are more varied. He claims that “we are facing a risk, a threat which is global, which is powerfully driven by social media, reaching you on your own through your mobile phone”; for it to reach anyone’s phone or computer, they had to have sought it out somehow. They don’t spam their videos or propaganda to any email account with an Islamic-sounding name (a tactic they could use very easily). I have personally have seen much more anti-ISIS material on my social media networks than anything supporting it; the nearest thing to supportive is articles questioning some of the atrocity stories in the media.

And I am sceptical about the suggestion that ISIS’s propaganda is more potent than any other kind of propaganda, such that anyone who might possibly receive any of it should be subject to some kind of early state intervention. How potent is it even possible for propaganda to be? It’s necessary for their to be a drip-feed over several years for ideas in it to be commonly believed (the Tory press did not suddenly start saying that there was a huge problem with bogus benefit claimants after the 2010 election, and the propaganda of racist régimes does not go from nothing to advocating mass murder overnight). ISIS have been on the scene for just two or three years and their ideas are not new; what is new is that they have concentrated on taking territory and building a state rather than hiding in the shadows and trying to provoke a big world war.

That alone will impress some Muslims, young and old, many of whom feel threatened by the continual negative coverage of and accusations about Muslims in the national media and the drumbeat campaign against “multiculturalism”, not only from the right-wing blogosphere and low-circulation magazines as was the case in the late 2000s, but in mainstream newspapers and from politicians. Chishty does not mention that in his interview; the only threat to the safety of Muslims he acknowledged is backlash from terrorist acts by Muslims, not one of which has happened in the three years or so since ISIS first appeared. There has, in fact, only been one successful attack in the UK since 2001, and that was nearly 10 years ago. Chishty is trying to justify repressive government policies aimed at ordinary Muslims, not just “Islamists”, let alone terrorists, using practices that are just mainstream religious practice as examples of potential ‘radicalisation’ and a bit of scary rhetoric. The level of Muslim support here is much less than that for the original Afghan Taliban, let alone al-Qa’ida; there is no substantial body of Muslim opinion and no network of mosques or imams that support ISIS here. They do not have a base, only a small network of would-be followers on social media and obscure chat systems. His claim of an unprecedented and potent threat is wild scaremongering which can only damage the Muslim community; I do not know enough about him to know if that is its purpose.

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It’s always different when it’s you

23 May, 2015 - 17:06

Israel has many injustices. But it is not an apartheid state | Benjamin Pogrund | Comment is free | The Guardian

This bit of self-serving liberal Zionist guff was in yesterday’s Guardian — actually, it was the most prominent opinion piece on the tablet edition (I don’t get the print anymore), despite being more or less a rehash of another piece Pogrund wrote for the Guardian several years ago in which he claimed that whatever you could call Israel’s stranglehold over Palestinian life was, it wasn’t Apartheid. In this case “the A-word” raised its head when Israel’s defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, approved a scheme which would involve the segregation of buses in the occupied territories, with Arabs banned from using Israeli-run services. As someone who really knows what Apartheid is, having spent 26 years as a journalist in South Africa and having been the first non-family visitor to Nelson Mandela while he was in prison, he claims that “there are few charges more grave” and that there is no comparison. The piece boils down to a criticism of tone and presents technical details as if they were fundamental differences, with a fair element of arguing from authority and a touch of The Color Purple’s Miss Millie (“ain’t I always been good to you people?”).

His piece hinges on two facts: first being that Israeli Arab citizens, although discriminated against, can vote and that there are Arab judges, surgeons, and army brigadiers and that Jews and Arabs can use the same hospitals, parks, buses etc., and the second is that Palestinian Arabs in the occupied territories are not Israeli citizens. While the first is true and the Israeli Arabs had no equivalent in South Africa under Apartheid, it is not necessary to be entirely without rights to be oppressed, and many racist societies have such minorities. In the USA under slavery, there were some Black citizens who were not slaves; later on, under Segregation, Blacks had the vote in some Southern states (e.g. Tennessee) but not others. Muslims were not formally stripped of rights in India during the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which they were massacred and raped and their properties were burned, or after it, when according to some reports, Muslims had to disguise themselves lest they be attacked in the street. So, the fact that Arab citizens of Israel are not subject to the same régime as Palestinians in the occupied territories can vote does not negate the claim that the latter is equivalent to Apartheid, and that Israel is a racist society.

As for the “not citizens” claim, this one is straight out of the Hasbara handbook. I recall someone on a Usenet newsgroup back in the 1990s flinging this at me when I compared Israel to Apartheid. For many of us, the fact that Palestinians are denied citizenship of the country that controls their comings and goings and can lock them up on a whim is part of the charge, not the defence. In fact, South Africa set up so-called homelands for Black people which consisted of 13% of the land area of South Africa, and in 1970 passed the Black Homelands Citizenship Act, which stripped Black South Africans of their citizenship and made them citizens of their homelands or “Bantustans”. In 1978, Connie Mulder, Minister of Plural Relations and Development, told the House of Assembly that if their policy was fully implemented, not one Black citizen of South Africa would remain. So, while the ‘homelands’ were not recognised internationally, internally many Black South Africans were not South African citizens but subjects, and had “citizenship” only of petty states, all of them encircled by South Africa and none of them recognised by any other country, entites much like the one Israel is prepared to tolerate in the West Bank. So, the comparison is not that far-fetched and is certainly not obscene.

Pogrund then furnishes us with a brief back-story about how the West Bank and Gaza came to be occupied, only skimming the surface of the tyranny of that occupation: the monopolising of resources (particularly water), the theft or destruction of crops, the construction of a wall that separates Palestinian homes from farmland, the harassment and humiliation of travellers, the arbitrary arrests and detentions, including of children, the fostering of racism among Israel youth (nowadays directed not only against Palestinians but also against African immigrants), and so on. He claims:

This is occupation. It is a tyranny. It is wrong and must end. The point does not need to be embellished.

But he does not suggest how this tyranny must be ended, because it could only end with a full Palestinian state with control of its borders, or the granting of citizenship to all residents of the occupied territories. The first could only work if the settlers are moved out, or agree to live under Palestinian rule, which most would not. The second, although Arabs would still be a minority, would be rejected by Jews on the grounds that it compromises Israel’s status as a “Jewish democratic state”.

Regardless of the back-story, in any case, the facts are now that Israel, whose base entirely consists of recent Jewish settlers and their descendants, is a ‘democratic’ state to its citizens, ruling over a group of native subjects who have no vote and face severe restrictions on their movements and economic opportunities which are in many respects more stringent than those placed on Black South Africans under Apartheid. Israel has maintained this situation for years and appears to have no plans to change it, occasionally mouthing talk of a “two-state solution” which its liberal apologists continue to cling, while blaming the Arabs for always sabotaging it. It’s not exactly Apartheid and perhaps there is a place for an academic paper setting out the distinctions between the discriminatory régimes in Palestine and South Africa, but that’s not what this article is. It’s an attempt to use the “tone argument”, where a member of an oppressor class tells his or her ‘inferiors’ (or their allies) that he really sympathises with them (there is always an affectation of concern, in this case his claim that the Apartheid comparison “distracts from the main issue”, which he doesn’t name), but that they might get their message across better if they were not so harsh or strident.

Nobody ever said that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is exactly like Apartheid, but two systems do not have to be identical to be comparable, just similar in a number of important aspects, much as some régimes have been labelled Stalinist without the need for dramatic purges or state-engineered famines. To anyone not deeply invested in maintaining a Jewish-dominated state and willing to excuse whatever lengths the Israelis will go to in order to crush the native resistance to their rule, the oppression by Israel in Palestine does appear broadly similar to Apartheid, and the excuses get less valid and historical background less relevant with each day that Israel maintains the status quo. Pogrund’s position is extraordinary: a man who opposed Apartheid when he was a white man in South Africa, being tried and on one occasion imprisoned, yet after Apartheid fell (after he had left), he migrated not back to the new South Africa, but to another country where his people dominated and oppressed another.

He finishes with the standard Zionist whine against Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists: “Why do they single out Israel, above all others, for a torrent of false propaganda? Why is Israel the only country in the world whose very right to existence is challenged in this way?”. The answer is firstly that the white state he lived in that used to rule over South Africa was challenged on that basis, and fell, and secondly that there is no Zionism without the displacement and/or oppression of the native inhabitants of Palestine, and no amount of liberal good intentions will mask the oppression, except in the minds of the liberals who turn a blind eye to the racism of those they ally themselves with. Make no mistake: the white South Africans had their justifications for denying Blacks their rights as well; like Zionists, they did not think their behaviour was unreasonable (they thought Blacks were inferior; Pogrund takes a side-swipe at Israeli Arabs by claiming that they are under-represented in universities because they underperform at school). The main difference between Zionist oppression and that of Apartheid is who is doing the oppressing, and Zionists (Jewish ones especially) identify with Jews in Israel and don’t identify with the Boers in South Africa. It’s always different when it’s you doing the oppressing, but it’s much the same when you are the oppressed.

(An updated version of Phil Ochs’s Love Me, I’m a Liberal can be found here.)

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National Service? If I hear it again I’ll go Spare!

17 May, 2015 - 13:35

So, in today’s Telegraph there’s an interview with Prince Harry (right), who is set to leave the Army next month after ten years of service, in which he calls for the return of National Service because being in the Army kept him out of trouble and helped some of the men in his command turn their lives around. While Harry the Spare doesn’t have any political role, clearly when he speaks, the Establishment media listens, and while in opposition David Cameron proposed some kind of “school leaver programme” which might entail some kind of community service for a year but, as I pointed out at the time, could default to military conscription where no such civilian options were available.

There are solid reasons why we got rid of National Service and why most of the countries of the developed world have got rid of it over the past 30 years or so. It was never part of British tradition; it existed for two short periods of the 20th century, namely 1916 to 1920 and 1939 to 1960, the last conscripts leaving the Army in 1963. Only two west European countries, Spain and Austria, retain conscription. Countries that do nowadays tend to be third-world countries, often dictatorships. There are good reasons for having armed forces that entirely consist of people who chose to enter; many of them come from families where others, often several generations, have gone into the forces. It means absenteeism and desertion is low; in countries where conscription still exists, people (usually men as women are usually not called up) concoct excuses such as pretending to be gay, or flee abroad, or go into hiding. When they are deployed in a war that is not a matter of national existence (but may be of international importance, such as in peace-keeping forces), public tolerance for losses is that much less, and any setback could lead to pressure to pull out; it is, to say the least, unethical for conscripts to be used in a war of political choice.

In his interview, Harry says, “I dread to think where I’d be without the Army”, and that he joined because as a child he enjoyed “wearing the combats … running around with a rifle, jumping in a ditch and living in the rain, and stuff”. That’s all very well, but not all boys (let alone girls) are actually interested in that, and for some the world of work offers much the same opportunities for physical adventure and exercise (minus the rifles, of course). Then he says about the men under his command in Windsor:

“You know, I was a troop commander in Windsor for three and a half years, but I had 11 guys under my command.

“And some of those guys were - I mean naughty’s not the word - they were on a different level. And their backgrounds and the issues they had.

“And then over those three years to see the way that they changed is huge, absolutely huge.”

But the Army is not the only thing that can turn around a young man who is in trouble, and not everyone needs that anyway. Some young people leave school, or college, perfectly fit to go and get a job, and if there were still jobs available in many parts of the country, they might just go into them instead of hanging around with nothing to do. Prince Harry, of course, needed something to occupy his time, because he’s a Royal with no formal role or responsibilities, even personal ones, and therefore nothing to do; the same was true of his elder brother, but he has a higher profile as the heir and has a job coming up, albeit one he will most likely have to wait another 20 or 30 years for. The Army may have taught Harry a lot, but as someone remarked on Twitter earlier, most of us learn that by not having maids.

But my biggest objection is that it’s a theft of a year or two of a young person’s life when they could be establishing themselves in the world of work, and while for some they may gain skills or qualifications, for others it will consist of endless parades or “square-bashing”, to say nothing of the risk of racism and bullying. Some officers enjoy victimising those in their command, and young men frustrated at being denied their liberty or sent to unfamiliar places far from home will take it out on each other — as we already know they do in prison or in other institutions such as boarding school — or on local civilians or prisoners of war. There will be people victimised and there will be suicides and murders, as indeed there has been even in the Army as it is now. Most people accept the need for conscription when there is a war of national survival, but as things stand it’s just not necessary.

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Picking up the pieces from Thursday’s disaster

10 May, 2015 - 14:35

As anyone who reads the news will know, last Thursday there was a general election here and on Friday morning we learned that the Tories had gained an absolute majority of the seats, which means we have a Tory-only government without a Lib Dem coalition. The Lib Dems lost all but 8 of their seats (there is a full list of MPs who lost their seats at Wikipedia here); they are left with only one seat in London (Carshalton and Wallington) and none in their former south-western heartland. The Scottish National Party won all but three seats in Scotland, the Lib Dems, Labour and Tories being left with one seat each. The Tories now intend another £12m of public service cuts and have already earmarked the Access to Work scheme, which assists disabled people in finding work (so, it’s not an out-of-work benefit), for cuts; they also intend to press ahead with boundary changes which, according to the Telegraph, could “lock Labour out of power for a decades (sic)”, and to extending state surveillance powers, both of which they were unable to do while in coalition. They are also committed to a referendum on leaving the EU by 2017 and to abolishing the Human Rights Act. (More: Looking for Blue Sky, Lenin’s Tomb, Islamicate.)

There’s no doubting that this was a right-wing result: people keep repeating that the Tories ‘only’ won 36.9% of the vote, but forget that UKIP won 12.6% despite that translating only into one seat because of their wide distribution of votes. That’s a total of 49.5% of the vote, and that’s UK-wide — in England and Wales the figure would have been well over half (UKIP got around 10%, sometimes more, in several west Welsh seats although they won none). So, at least in England, there is now a clear democratic mandate for at least a referendum. David Cameron says he is in favour of remaining in a “reformed EU”, but we all know that the reforms are not going to happen. He is likely to pitch up with a series of “transitional demands” (meaning ludicrous ones) which he knows the other major EU states will reject, then go home and say “he tried but failed” to reform the EU. There are firm economic and social reasons for staying in, but supporters of the EU have a huge fight on their hands, especially given the numerical strength of UKIP, which could (depending on the credibility of its next leader, which could well be Douglas Carswell) attract more Tory defectors. Those demanding withdrawal must know that they will not have the consent of the people of Scotland or even Wales, however decisive the result in England.

The Tories won this with the help of major failings by both the Labour party and Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems’ failures I have already mentioned on here, as our local MP in Kingston and Surbiton was a Lib Dem until the last Parliament. Now, we have a Tory who was elected with 39.2% of the vote; Ed Davey’s result fell 15.3% to 34.5%. Not a total collapse, and the Tory (James Berry) gained by only 2.7%, but he won and the Lib Dems lost anyway. Labour’s vote went up 5.1% to 14.5% and the Greens also increased to nearly 4% from less than 1% last time. UKIP’s vote went up by 4.8% to 7.3%. This shows that the Lib Dems’ tactic of threatening voters “Labour cannot win here” does not work if their sitting MP has lost the trust of his voters. In some areas, like Cambridge and Norwich South, Labour took Lib Dem seats in middle-class provincial areas, which shows that they indeed can win if they make the effort. (In other areas, particularly in the south-west, there was a decisive rightward shift to both the Tories and UKIP, not a split progressive vote, which is perhaps a legacy of Cameron’s “we’re a rich country” response to the 2014 floods.)

As with before the election, the Lib Dems and their friends in the media claim they have no regrets and do not admit that they did anything wrong. For example, their former leader Menzies Campbell, who lost the seat of North East Fife to a Scottish Nationalist, said in a TV interview this morning that he did not regret going into the coalition “in the national interest” and mouthed the usual nonsense about clearing up the mess Labour made. Simon Hughes, who lost the seat in south-east London he had held since the 1980s, blamed the voters, saying “people were voting Labour because they wanted to get of a Tory government. They got rid of the MP, and ended up with a Tory government.” (In his case, however, they elected a Labour MP, as did two constituencies in north London.) Simon Hughes held an inner-city seat that should have been Labour for 30 years, and his is another case of years of hard work building up the trust of local people being thrown away for five years enjoying the privileges of office. They seem to think they made personal sacrifices, when what they sacrificed was public services and the needs of poor and disabled people.

As for Labour, it seems the timidity that has been their hallmark since the days of Kinnock has proven their undoing. Both in power and in opposition, Labour has always been cowardly when dealing with powerful actors, whether it’s the Tory media or an angry American president on the warpath. They only display a bit of muscle when there is a powerless, unpopular enemy on the floor to kick, often a recalcitrant left-winger in a local party somewhere. When the Daily Mail manufactured a scandal in 2006 about the low numbers of ‘foreign criminals’ being deported after completing their sentences, the Home Office put out a dragnet that caught many people who had lived in the UK a long time (often long enough to apply for citizenship) and who had already served their sentences, which were often for minor crimes. Labour had 13 years in office to reform the electoral system and ownership and control of the media. They did neither, because they were one of the two entrenched interests that benefited (sometimes) from First Past the Post, and because the Sun then supported them. This is why they ended up competing against an almost entirely hostile press and broadcast media in 2015.

I saw an article warning about the “delusions of the defeated”, one of which is to conclude that the party “isn’t left-wing enough”, harking back to the early 1980s Labour party which took away precisely this lesson from the defeat of 1979, and were defeated even more soundly (with a bit of help from the Social Democratic Party defectors) in 1983. The problem is that defending the last Labour government’s economic record or the public services they didn’t destroy is not left-wing; New Labour ran a mostly centre-right government. It’s not a question that they weren’t left-wing or right-wing enough; they were not courageous or forthright enough. They did not challenge the prevailing myth that Labour left the economy in a shambles; they allowed themselves to be strong-armed into accepting an economic strait-jacket; they dithered on the matter of a coalition with the SNP, which they could have resolved by insisting that there would be no referendum on independence in the next Parliament. (The SNP when in power in Scotland is not that left-wing, something they could also have stressed.) Exposing the lies peddled by the BNP, some of them given credence by the popular press, was key to sinking that party; the same must be done with UKIP’s tabloid-friendly lies. The next leader does not have to be a left-winger; he or she has to have a backbone.

An issue which has been given some attention since the election is that there may be another vote on whether fox hunting with hounds should be legalised. While I do not support re-legalising, it does not come close to the importance of preventing further welfare, disability or legal aid cuts, the privatising of the NHS, the abolition of the Human Rights Act, to name but a few threats we are now faced with. The Tories are not guaranteed to get this through Parliament as there were always Tory opponents of fox-hunting (e.g. Alan Clark) and there is a generation of young adults who do not remember when it was legal, and may be more concerned about the disruption hunts caused, as well as the danger to animals other than foxes (the turning point last time was when the hunt killed someone’s cat in an Essex village). So by all means write letters to your MP if he or she is a Tory (the others will most likely vote against), but don’t let it distract you from the big issues. Human beings, after all, aren’t vermin.

The Human Rights Act is something we have a fight on our hands to preserve. Again, this will not be a walk-over for the Tories as they have some MPs left who are not securocrats or Little Englanders, such as Dominic Grieve (former attorney general, member for Beaconsfield) and David Davis (for Haltemprice and Howden in east Yorkshire); they are likely to be the older, long-serving ones who associate the European project with keeping the peace in Europe. If we win this time, we can expect this to come back in the next, or next-but-one, Tory-dominated parliament as the old guard retire and the Tory party and press blame the HRA for everything they cannot do. (See earlier entry for why the HRA is important and why the arguments against it are unsound and heavily based on appeals to racism and white privilege, and this one on why the Magna Carta is no substitute. Abolishing it in Scotland would be a more complicated matter than in England.)

Why did the Tories win? Did years of campaigning against the Bedroom Tax, of highlighting the suffering caused to people, especially chronically ill and disabled people, by the coalition’s social security cuts, to say nothing of the young people who cannot find stable or meaningful work and cannot get housing, have no effect on people? The truth is it probably didn’t, partly because the public has been subjected to a drip-feed of propaganda about the billions lost through ‘fraud and error’, the need to ‘make savings’ to ‘fix Labour’s mess’, news reports and entire TV series about people living high on the hog on benefits (large families being housed in expensive London town-houses at public expense and so on, which would not be happening if the council houses had not been sold off), and this has been in the papers and on TV and the supposedly impartial BBC (fearing a licence fee cut) goes along with it rather than challenging it.

However, it seems the majority in Middle England really do not know (or think they don’t know) anyone affected by the cuts; their children aren’t the ones paying huge rents in tenancies that could end any time, or living in mouldy/damp/rat-infested properties and threatened with eviction if they complain (particularly outside London; there was more of a shift to Labour in the cities). And when you tell people that there is real suffering, they shrug: life isn’t fair; you only know one side of the story; it’s just the way of the world. The platitudes we all heard from adults when we were children when we said their decisions weren’t fair. The number of people who are doing OK, whether thanks to the coalition’s policies or not, clearly outweighs those who are suffering. However much we explain that living and working with disability costs money, most people will not ‘get it’ unless it affects them or their families directly, and in some cases (but not others) people’s generosity makes up for the lack of state support. And the threat of a “SNP chokehold” on a minority Labour government without the option of a Lib Dem coalition, however baseless that fear, may have driven many swing voters into the Tory camp.

The Tories themselves, it has to be stressed, really don’t give a toss. In Saturday’s Daily Mail, Max Hastings brushed away the evidence of impoverishment. “Privately, especially after watching those awful TV debates — obsessed with food banks, welfare claimants and the NHS — I feared the worst.” (Later on, he does call for the party to “present themselves as standard-bearers for a fair and decent capitalism, not the smash-and-grab kind”, but that’s always tomorrow for the Tories, never today.) David Cameron especially does not care about disabled people who are survivors; he appears to resent them, and answers any plea about the impoverishment of disabled people and their families by reminding them of Ivan. Iain Duncan Smith answers such pleas with a snigger. Some are too wealthy to care, and for some it’s all a game.

The Tories have played the ‘England card’, with the help of a partly partisan and partly sycophantic or cowed media, and won. This means that, for the next five years at least, there will be no let-up on welfare or disability support cuts, no proportional representation and no reform of the housing market. Preventing the repeal of the HRA, exit from the EU and the re-legalisation of fox hunting remain possible; we must also be vigilant for voter suppression, a common tactic of the American right who know that making it difficult to vote benefits them, and support whatever makes voting easier in future, such as making election day a public holiday. The Tories are committed to maintaining the United Kingdom and some of them are committed to dragging us out of the EU; however, they must realise that they cannot do both, as Scotland will not consent to an exit from the EU and, likely, neither will Wales. Even the Mail on Sunday today conceded that most people in the UK do not in fact want to exit, although around 18% are undecided. However, an English vote to leave the EU followed by an illegal secession by Scotland could have dire and bloody consequences, something I believe that many Tories (and some others) would not go out of their way to avoid. Anyone thinking of moving to Scotland to get away from Tory rule should bear that in mind.

Image sources: Wikimedia. 2010 map public domain. 2015 map uploaded to Wikipedia by Italay90 and re-coloured by Cryptographic.2014, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike International 4.0 Licence.

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So who’s a mensch, then? And who cares?

6 May, 2015 - 20:20

The front page of the Sun today (6th May), showing Ed Miliband eating a bacon sandwich, dropping some of it down his front, with the headline 'Save our bacon'.Today the Sun put that picture of Ed Miliband trying to eat a bacon butty and getting it all down his shirt, suggesting that if he can’t even eat without making a mess, he’ll do the same to the country if elected as Prime Minister tomorrow. A few people on Twitter have suggested that the picture is a reference to his Jewish background, because anti-Semites have a history of depicting Jews as pigs and because people will make the link if they see a Jew and pork together, even though the association is negative. I’m not so sure - if there’s one thing you can’t accuse the Sun of, it’s anti-Semitism, given that Rupert Murdoch is a noted Zionist. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t subliminal messages in the use of the picture.

1. Not ‘true’: the one thing people know about Jews is that they don’t eat pork. Now, we all know that some Jews are not practising, some are atheists and some have converted to Christianity, all of which have been true since at least the 19th century. Many people will call that a classic example of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy. But it’s still a fact that the religion prohibits it, that even minimally observant Jews do not eat it, and that even if someone’s a ‘true Jew’ by birth, as far as religious Jews are concerned they’re not one by practice if they eat pork, especially if they do so brazenly and in public. I suspect that the picture elicited an “eeew” reaction from quite a few people, and reproducing it will remind them of it. I suspect it’s not only Jews who would make this connection, and think “if he’s not true to his roots, what is he, or will he be, true to?”. The perception that he is disloyal to his people might also remind people of the Daily Mail’s “his Dad hated Britain” campaign and of how he “stabbed his brother in the back” by standing against him for the Labour leadership, an entirely baseless claim since his older brother had no more right to it than he did, but still one that some people believe.

The Sun of course knows that there is tension between the Jewish community (the religious, Zionist mainstream of it, I mean) and Ed Miliband, not only because of the bacon sarnie incident but also because he supported the vote to recognise Palestine as a state earlier this year. Jews are only 1% of the population, but they are much more than that in certain north London constituencies, and there is suggestion that the Finchley and Golders Green seat (an earlier version of which was Thatcher’s seat) might fall to Labour. So a reminder of Ed chomping on a bacon butty might convince a few people to stay loyal, and remind them that he isn’t, as Maureen Lipman put it when she announced she was switching sides last November, “a mensch”.

2. Posh: a favourite (and justified) accusation against the Tory leadership is that they’re upper class and don’t know the price of eggs (or bacon). The Sun likes to present itself as the voice of the ‘real’ working class while the Labour leadership are dominated by middle-class academics and ‘champagne socialists’ who are out of touch with their intended voters. If Ed Miliband ate bacon sarnies a lot, rather than posh food, some might think he’d know how to eat one without getting it down his front, unless of course someone hurried him away while he was in the middle of eating it. (Of course, there’s posh food that is as difficult to get in your mouth as a bacon sarnie, like paninis, but I guess they’re content to gloss over that.) It’s right-wing anti-intellectualism on display, but it’s also saying “look, he’s pretending to be a bit like you, but you can tell he’s from out of town”.

3. SOB: I couldn’t help notice that this is what the initials of “Save Our Bacon” are. Coincidence? You decide.

David Cameron sitting at a table outdoors, eating a hotdog with a knife and fork.I’m not Jewish and I don’t really care if Ed Miliband is a “true Jew” or not. I suspect that the “not true Jew” implication is thought worth making because Jews are a well-respected and privileged, predominantly white, minority; a Muslim (or person of Muslim background) seen drinking or eating pork would be thought an example of integration, because Muslims are seen as obstinately refusing to integrate, much as Jews were in the late 19th century. Differences are regularly presented as threats. But much as I don’t believe there is anti-Semitic intent behind this, the paper is giving different subliminal messages or ‘dog-whistles’ to different parts of its audience, but besides the thin impression of incompetence the picture gives, the main impression is of disloyalty and treachery, all relating to utterly baseless accusations.

(Someone also said they heard there was a ‘three-page diatribe’ including that front page. In fact, it was at least another four pages of the usual Tory propaganda, including two purporting to expose Miliband’s and Labour’s “lies”. It’s about time newspapers delivered news, especially just before elections, rather than being vehicles for the rich to advance their personal interests.)

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Word from the local Lib Dem office

4 May, 2015 - 20:50

Picture of a Liberal Democrat poster featuring two characters from the Wizard of Oz, with the slogan "The Liberal Democrats will add a heart to a Conservative government and a brain to a Tory one. Stronger economy, fairer society, opportunity for everyone"

Earlier today I left a message on the local Lib Dem constituency office’s answerphone, as our MP, who is defending his seat, is the Lib Dem Energy secretary Edward Davey. I asked him what his positions were on the matter of the Human Rights Act and us staying in the EU, as without these two things there was little to make it worth voting for him just to keep the Tories out. I didn’t get the caller’s name (it wasn’t Davey), but he did tell me that he couldn’t say if the HRA was a red line for the party but it was for Ed Davey, and that the party would agree to a referendum on the EU but would campaign for the UK to stay in. He said Davey would be writing to me himself later; I told him I’d like him to get clarification on party policy first.

On the HRA, the man told me that he knew Ed Davey to be passionate about the Act and that he had defended it on a number of occasions. However, I asked what would happen in the event that a Tory-led coalition put a bill through Parliament to abolish or replace it — if you are in the government, you are expected to vote with it or resign. He told me that he thought Ed Davey would resign in those circumstances, but hadn’t asked him that specific question. Quite frankly, given the numerous cave-ins by the Lib Dems in the past Parliament, his assurances would need to be rock solid.

On the matter of the EU, I made the point to him that in the event of a referendum, there would be some very powerful voices in the popular press arguing in favour of withdrawing and that supporters of the EU had not robustly defended it over the years. Most of what the public is aware of is news stories about nuisance legislation (e.g. “straight cucumbers”) and eastern European immigration (which, in fact, we were not required to accept and many other countries did not). I also mentioned that Labour had won three general elections on a platform that included staying in the EU, and that no party had won outright on a platform of withdrawal. As a country, we have a history of signing up to the parts of the European project that benefit business but not those that benefit individuals, such as the Social Chapter in the early 1990s, and the Schengen accord at any time. I also mentioned that parts of the press were heavily biased against, and that the public could be swayed by some brief scandal, perhaps exaggerated or even fabricated. He acknowledged that this was a danger of putting it to a vote, that it would not go our way, but it seems the party still agrees to a referendum.

I haven’t yet got that email from Ed Davey himself. Perhaps he’s taking the time to talk to his colleagues. But I find it pretty depressing that I’m contemplating voting for someone because they offer to only take the edge off a hard-right Tory government, that is if they even win enough seats, by defending two bits of legislation and not a whole lot of other very important things — Legal Aid, the Independent Living Fund, Disability Living Allowance and so on. There is no use them saying “Labour cannot win here”, as another flyer they delivered to my address today says, or that they’ll give “a heart to a Tory government and a brain to a Labour one”, if they do not distinguish themselves from the Tories. If they can’t work that out, one can assume they don’t have a brain to spare.

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Sometimes it’s the miles. Sometimes it’s the care. Sometimes it’s both.

1 May, 2015 - 10:00

The Blogging Against Disablism logo, showing stickmen of different colours on different coloured backgrounds, one of whom has a cane in his hand and another is a wheelchair symbol.This post is part of Blogging Against Disablism Day 2015.

Phill Wills, the father of Josh Wills, an autistic boy from Cornwall who has been in a hospital unit in Birmingham since 2012 and has been promised a return home for mid-June, once commented regarding the care his son is receiving that “it’s about the miles, not the care”. He or other members of his family have to make a 260-mile trek north every weekend to spend a couple of days with Josh — including during the time when the only rail link to Cornwall had been severed during the 2014 floods. However, for some families and some disabled people, the problem is both. In the last year, one of the cases I have been following has had a happy ending, while another has ended suddenly in tragedy; there have also been two inquests into deaths of people with learning disabilities in residential or NHS care, while another is to begin in the autumn, more than two years after the person concerned died.

Picture of Claire Dyer, a young white woman wearing a black and white striped T-shirt, with Andrea Orlandi, a young Italian man wearing a bright blue jacket, with his arm around her.The happy ending (well, so far) was in the case of Claire Dyer, who this time last year was under section, living in a residential unit in Swansea, spending weekends at home and seeing her family almost every day, after having been threatened with removal to a large hospital in Northampton, St Andrew’s. It appeared that they would be trying to find a bespoke placement, i.e. a house or flat with staff, in the local area. Sadly, in the summer, staff at her unit decided to send her away after all, after a brief spell of increased outbursts (triggered by another resident moving back to her care home, something she had been promised two years previously), and in July she was sent to a medium-secure unit, The Dene, near Brighton, 230 miles away from home, which did not cater for severe autism. She remained there for two full months, was then given two periods of home leave in October which passed without incident, and a third home leave was made permanent, as the clinician there decided to remove her section at the beginning of November. She is now living quite happily at home and has resumed the activities she was doing while in the unit in Swansea.

A picture of Thomas Rawnsley, a young man with Down's syndrome wearing a green/khaki T-shirt, sitting on a sofa next to Becky, a young woman with blonde hair wearing a blue and white striped T-shirt, a green jacket, black leggings and brown leather boots.The tragedy was that of Thomas Rawnsley, who died in February after having been sent to a new, privately-run unit in Sheffield, under a Deprivation of Liberty authorisation last year after having been promised a bespoke placement. Thomas had been in a string of special units and had one or two short spells at home following suffering abuse in a supported living placement. After being expelled from that unit, he was sent to an assessment and treatment unit (ATU) where he was plied with anti-psychotics to the extent that his mother found he could not talk or eat, but just dribbled. In his final unit, days before his death, his family noticed that he suffered still-unexplained injuries such as carpet burns, and was suffering from a serious chest infection. He suffered a cardiac arrest at his unit on 1st February; his life support was switched off on the 4th. He had Down’s syndrome and autism, and was only 4ft 11in tall.

The two inquests were those of Nico Reed and Stephanie Bincliffe. Nico was a young man with severe cerebral palsy, thought also to have learning disabilities although it is not clear how much of this was down to his communication difficulties, who choked to death while asleep in a supported living ‘home’ run by the NHS trust Southern Health in Oxfordshire in August 2012. An inquest last December found that he could have been saved if more checks had been made on him while asleep, but his mother revealed that the poor care was deeper than this; at boarding school he had been receiving daily physiotherapy and speech therapy which enabled him to avoid aspirating his vomit; this all stopped when he moved to the Southern Health home, resulting in vomiting incidents becoming more frequent and Nico himself becoming “thin, depressed and frightened”. As with Thomas Rawnsley, his family were trying to get him out of the unit, in this case by arranging for care to be provided at home, at the time of his death.

Stephanie Bincliffe had severe autism, and had been sectioned at age 18 after attacking a boy in a shop. She died aged 25 in August 2013, having spent most of the intervening seven years in a padded room, at the end of an otherwise all-male corridor in a secure hospital in East Yorkshire, some 75 miles from her home in Nottingham. Her weight had increased to 25 stone and she had not enjoyed fresh air or even left to wash or use the toilet, relying on wet wipes and a bedpan. The inquest recorded a narrative verdict, the coroner ruling that the hospital, run by the Huntercombe Group, had failed to tackle her weight gain, but that the three treatments usually available (bariatric surgery, appetite-suppressing drugs and a calorie-controlled diet) would not have worked for her. It apparently did not consider whether the hospital had a plan for getting her out of a padded cell and into the community; her mother, Liz, commented that if the so-called assessment and treatment unit could do neither “then there should have been some discussions with the commissioning body and us as to whether she might best be placed elsewhere rather than continue to be contained in a hospital for seven years until her death”.

Finally, the inquest into Connor Sparrowhawk’s death in July 2013 has yet to begin, although pre-inquest hearings have already taken place. His mother, Dr Sara Ryan, has detailed on her blog the various delaying tactics the Southern Health trust has used, as well as their attempts to portray his death (by drowning, during an epileptic seizure while in the bath in an NHS learning disability unit) as ‘natural’, the reports full of inaccurate information on both her and Connor, and the attempts to turn disability activists against her by making false claims about her care and theirs. Staff disciplinary procedures dragged on until this year, resulting in no significant action against any member of staff. This case is as cut-and-dried as they come, as you simply do not leave a person with epilepsy in the bath on their own — there simply is no excuse. He had been in the unit only 107 days, and as with Nico and Thomas, his family were also trying to arrange for him to be able to live at home again.

And some cases remain unresolved, meaning some people are still far away from their families and suffering. Besides Josh Wills’s case (which was ‘nearly’ resolved in February), Tianze Ni, who lived in Fife, Scotland until he was taken into hospital ‘temporarily’ last year, remains under section in Middlesbrough despite the promise of a return home within weeks. His parents have moved to Middlesbrough to be near him, and there is no date set for his release yet. He has been allowed a few trips out with them, lasting a couple of hours each, but the return to hospital is always hugely upsetting.

This issue of the removal of people with learning disabiities from their homes and familiar environments, often to institutions far away, is something that has made the news in the past couple of years entirely because the families of the victims have made a noise, and not let the matter drop, even when their own loved ones are back with their families or have found suitable care and living arrangements. Panorama notoriously uncovered one awful example of violent abuse in an assessment and treatment unit in 2011, but it did not really question why some of the people who were locked up there were there at all, and since then three young people have died in units a lot like it. People are sometimes sectioned on pretexts, held in overly restrictive environments for no good reason, blamed for behaviour that was provoked by the conditions they were held in, moved miles away regardless of their best interests or family connections, and sometimes moved because funding cuts and bureaucratic decisions mean that no inpatient care is available anywhere near them. Four years after the Winterbourne scandal, after promises were made to move all long-term residents out of short-term units — the separations, the suffering, the needless deaths are all still going on. It still takes months or years to get someone out of these situations, and sometimes a disabled person in poor health just cannot wait that long.


Lib Dems must understand why they are hated

28 April, 2015 - 08:29

Picture of Ed Davey, a middle-aged white man wearing a white-ish shirt, a patterned tie and a dark jacket.As I think I’ve said here in the past, I live in a Lib Dem constituency — specifically, Ed Davey’s constituency, Kingston and Surbiton, a constituency where the only main challenger is a Tory and Lib Dem publicity threatens us that Labour “cannot win here” (a tactic they have been using in their fiefdoms for decades — I recall seeing it while on holiday in Somerset in the mid-90s). I’ve seen quite a few of the standard Lib Dem yellow diamond signs with his name on it around, and nobody else’s that I’ve noticed. A couple of weeks ago Ed Davey (right) came to our house while I was at work and my mother spoke to him at length. He came on his own, without any minders or other help, which Mum said made her respect him a bit more, and she told him that she felt betrayed by his party’s coalition with the Tories (she and my Dad were Labour voters their whole adult lives until we moved to New Malden in 2001), and at the end of the conversation, she told him that she would consider voting for him again but could not guarantee it. Personally, I probably will vote for him as the Labour party have not put much effort in around here and so a vote for them probably is a vote for the Tories, but I can see a lot of his 2010 vote melting away, something the local party should have taken into account in good time for this election.

The attitude of the political classes and the media since the 2010 election has been generally contemptuous of Lib Dem voters. It caricatures us as protest voters, or the far left that did not want to vote Labour because of Tony Blair or the war. The standard line has been that the Lib Dems had to evolve, to grow up, from a “party of protest” to a “party of government” and that their enormous compromises to form the coalition are part of operating in the “real world”. Although the Tories blame the Lib Dems for not being able to do quite all they wanted, such as leave the EU, scrap the Human Rights Act and trample over civil liberties entirely, Tory commentators praise them for ‘robustly’ defending their record against the people who actually voted for them, as in this anecdote from the Daily Telegraph:

One Lib Dem MP recently recounted a story that has become a mini-legend in party circles. At a public meeting, a woman began assailing Clegg with the standard list of betrayals. When she had finished she received warm applause. Clegg’s adviser expected him try to placate her. Instead, he launched into an aggressive defence of his record.

By the end, those sitting either side of Clegg’s accuser were physically edging away. Watching the spectacle was the deputy prime minister’s personal protection officer. Turning to one of Clegg’s aides, the man who earns his living being prepared to take a bullet for other people, whistled, “wow, that was brutal”.

Nick Clegg’s campaign is set to be brutal, ruthless and single-minded. It has to be. His is in a fight to the death.

Some Tories, like Tim Montgomerie, have also expressed concern about the prospect of Nick Clegg losing his seat — you will notice the language of maturity: “hard choices”, rather than straightforward compromises so as to play at being in government:

If Nick Clegg loses — and high-ups in the Tory command fear he will — it’s hard to see the Lib Dems keeping Cameron in office. That would mean goodbye deficit reduction, goodbye welfare reform, goodbye schools reform. Clegg’s re-election might be the only thing between this country enjoying stable government and the Lib Dems entering a disastrous period of self-obsession in which they opted out from the hard choice they’ve so valiantly made since 2010.

(However, the Tories are still fielding a candidate in his constituency.)

This time, Clegg has said he would prefer a coalition with the Tories to one involving Labour and the SNP, and has called such a deal a “coalition of the losers” as if coming third was a greater victory than coming second, and as if coming first without a majority in Parliament constitutes winning (it does not). The Lib Dems are fond of explaining to people what they achieved in the Coalition, in terms of preventing an EU exit referendum and preserving the Human Rights Act. However, for this election, they refuse to rule the EU referendum out, and in a debate tonight (Monday) in Tottenham, north London, the host Eddie Nestor asked Tom Brake, a south London Lib Dem MP who is deputy leader of the Commons, what “red lines” the Lib Dems had for any coalition after this election, and the MP refused to name any. In other words, a Lib Dem coalition this time will not restrain the Tories from dragging us into isolation and destroying ordinary people’s rights before the State — so, what is the point of voting for them? When asked why they backed down over student tuition fees, they reply that this was one concession they could not wring out of the Tories, despite it having been a “red line” in their last Manifesto. However, what would the Tories have done to get the increase through the Commons had they not received Lib Dem support?

The Lib Dems, and all their cheerleaders in the media, remain convinced that the climbdown on university tuition fees is the sole, or at least biggest, thing that made voters feel betrayed and put them off, rather than all the other things they have enabled the Tories to do: the Bedroom Tax, the Legal Aid reforms, the disability benefit reforms, Universal Credit, the housing benefit caps which price poor people out of London, the local authority funding cuts — all things that could only have been motivated by upper-class spite and contempt on the Tories’ part, and which betray the fact that they do not care for justice or equality, even equality before the law. And perhaps this shared background explains Clegg’s preferred choice of coalition partner. I often can’t tell apart senior Lib Dems from senior Tories, having as they do the same accents, and much the same can be said for most BBC presenters, including the ones recently criticised for interrupting and talking over politicians on programmes like Today. It sounds like they all regard real-life politics as an extension of the Oxford or Cambridge debating society, whether it’s on Radio 4, where loaded political jargon like “wealth creators” is used unchallenged, or in the Commons, where Iain Duncan Smith responds to Labour pledging to end the Bedroom Tax by simply informing him, “that is a spending commitment”, and sniggers when a local MP tells of the suffering and hardship caused by the government’s policies.

Many of us do not believe for a moment that any of these things were necessary compromises. Many of us believe that the Lib Dems were eager to sit at the top table and were tempted by ministerial salaries and privileges, which they received in far greater proportion to Conservative MPs. There is no other reason why they would throw away decades of hard work building up their support base around the country, cultivating an image as a principled party which supported civil liberties and opposed pointless wars, of MPs that were well-liked locally and served their constituents, to support policies that nobody had voted for that principally target poor and vulnerable people, from a party that people had voted against when voting for them and which needed a coalition partner precisely because they didn’t win the election. They sold the trust of their voters for a miserable price, they have had their fun for five years, and they now deserve to lose this election comprehensively.

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Don’t go back

25 April, 2015 - 11:10

Picture of John Major, an elderly white man with white hair, wearing glasses with thin rims, a white shirt, blue tie and dark-coloured jacketLast week the former Prime Minister, John Major (right), popped up to have a go at the Scottish National Party, which opinion polls suggest is likely to get a majority of the seats in Scotland next month and which could all but wipe out the Scottish Labour party. He warned that a minority Labour government would be held to ransom or subjected to “a daily dose of blackmail” by the Nationalists who would nudge them further and further left, which would be “a recipe for mayhem”. Of course, this was aimed at English voters rather than Scottish ones; he knows that Tory voters north of the border are hard to come by nowadays. They have only one MP there, in Dumfries and Galloway in the far south-west.

It’s 18 years since there was last a majority Tory government and John Major was its leader. There are hundreds of thousands of young adult voters now who barely remember John Major’s time in office, so it might do to remind people of why his party then spent 13 years in  opposition. It was a miserable five years dominated by mean-spirited policies, pointless jingoism, moral crusades and sex scandals. I was a first-time voter in 1997 (except perhaps for a local election, I can’t remember) and voted Plaid Cymru as I was studying in Aberystwyth. In that election they lost every seat in Scotland and a number of what were thought to be safe seats in England, including those of cabinet ministers. Here are some of the things I remember about that time.

1. Europe. That was the era of the Maastricht treaty which the Tories fudged by signing without allowing a referendum, which there was widespread demand for, and negotiating an opt-out from the Social  Chapter. Pretty typical of British politicians’ mentality towards Europe; they want the benefits for business but not for ordinary people (the same reason we haven’t signed the Schengen agreement). His stance met with huge opposition from Tory MPs including people in his own cabinet, whom he called bastards. There was also a widely-reported incident in which he  threatened to “f***ing crucify” Tory opponents. Needless to say, this didn’t make them look like a unified or coherent party come 1997, and the Referendum Party cost a large number of Tory MPs, including David Mellor in the previously rock-solid Tory Putney, their seats in 1997.

2. Back to Basics. At the 1993 Conservative party conference, John Major gave a speech in which he claimed that the world “sometimes seems to be changing too fast for comfort”, that “for two generations, too many people have been belittling the things that made this country”, and attacked a series of Tory media devils:

In housing, in the ’50s and ’60s, we pulled down the terraces, destroyed whole communities and replaced them with tower blocks and we built walkways that have become rat runs for muggers. That was the fashionable opinion, fashionable but wrong. In our schools we did away with traditional subjects - grammar, spelling, tables - and also with the old ways of teaching them. Fashionable, but wrong. Some said the family was out of date, far better rely on the council and social workers than family and friends. I passionately believe that was wrong.

Round about the same time, various Cabinet ministers, notably John Redwood, were giving speeches attacking single mothers as women who “have babies with no apparent intention of even trying marriage or a stable relationship with the father of the child”, with Peter Lilley claiming that they do so to secure council houses and benefits, a claim which many people believed as it had been advanced by the Tory tabloids as fact for years. It just so happened that a number of his ministers weren’t satisfied with the traditional family themselves, a number of them being exposed as having extramarital affairs and one of their MPs (and former BBC education correspondent), Stephen Milligan, being found hanged in stockings and suspenders with a black bin liner over his head.

(Incidentally, the decline of some high-rise estates with walkways is also attributed to the decline of council housing in general, as the better properties were sold off under Thatcher’s right to buy scheme and the remaining estates were filled with “needy”, often troublesome, families. When first built, they were neighbourhoods that residents took pride in.)

3. Corruption: Besides the sex scandals, a number of MPs, including ministers, under John Major’s leadership were involved in corruption scandals: Michael Mates found lobbying on behalf of Asil Nadir, Neil Hamilton and two others taking cash to ask questions in Parliament, Jonathan Aitken being jailed for perjury. The term commonly used for this behaviour at the time was “sleaze” and it was a constant theme of political reporting during that time. Hamilton lost his seat in Tatton, Cheshire to the journalist Martin Bell who stood as an anti-corruption candidate, although the now Tory chancellor George Osborne re-took it in 2001.

4. Jingoism: Does anyone remember the party conference in 1995, where Michael Portillo claimed that three letters — ‘SAS’ — “send a chill down the spine of the enemy” and “spell out a clear message: don’t mess with Britain”? The one where he also claimed that Britain’s Tomahawk cruise missiles “can be launched from a submarine 1,000 miles away and guided down a single chimney”? (The latter was inaccurate; they were supposedly accurate to six metres, which means they might hit the right house.) Along with the claim that Britain had thousands of men ready to die for their country, the claims caused widespread offence in the Forces. It also showed that the party really had no fresh ideas, two years before a general election. (An article in the Independent taking apart that speech can be found here.)

Image of rows of coffins each with a green covering, with groups of people, mainly women, on each side and some among the coffins, in a valley5. Bosnia: John Major’s government sat on its hands (along with other European governments of left and right) for three years while a genocide went on under their noses, with women being raped in camps set up for the purpose, TV news showing emaciated men, and finally an outright massacre when the so-called UN safe area of Srebrenica fell to the besieging Serbs (after the UN refused to designate it a “safe haven”). British troops were sent as UN “peacekeepers” with orders to defend themselves, but not local civilians, which along with a similar debacle in Rwanda discredited the whole principle of UN peacekeeping for years to come. Major’s government refused to allow the side whose civilians were being massacred to arm themselves while the perpetrators were getting weapons from Russia, and refused to allow refugees into the country. Their master plan was to force the Bosnian government to “negotiate” the partition of their country.

6. Railway privatisation: Major’s government passed the bill to privatise British Rail in 1994, with the tracks themselves going to one large company, Railtrack, with the service provision being opened to tender. The system has been one of the most inefficient privatisations, the process itself costing hundreds of millions of public money in consultancy fees and huge parts requiring upgrades at public expense first (e.g. the West Coast signalling, the Kent and Thames/Chiltern modernisations). A favourite claim of supporters of privatisation is that British Rail featured decades of under-investment that lasted years after the Beeching closures; in fact, in the 1990s the government found money not only for those upgrades but also to re-open lines, such as the Nottingham-Worksop route.

John Major isn’t responsible for everything that’s wrong with the country today. There have been two governments and three prime ministers since. But he did preside over a catastrophic defeat for his party in 1997 including its wipe-out in Wales and Scotland, and his party’s reactionary wing fought two successive general elections with similar policies to his Back to Basics campaign — appeals to xenophobia, “common sense” and other tabloid standards, complete with the hypocrisy (e.g. Michael Howard appearing tough on illegal immigrants, until it was revealed that his father was one, and that a Labour MP had intervened on his behalf). He still remains the last Tory leader to win an outright majority in the Commons, and that was 23 years ago.

I was a teenager in the mid-90s. If you weren’t around then, you may remember the fall of George W Bush to Barack Obama — getting rid of John Major and his group of rudderless Thatcher functionaries was that much of a joyous occasion, and regardless of the criticisms — the micromanagement, the warmongering, the cowardice in the face of the Tory press and American power — Tony Blair’s first government did things that were far more radical than anything Barack Obama has done. It’s a mystery why anyone thought wheeling out John Major was a good idea; perhaps because he reminds the Tories of a time when they actually ruled the UK, including Scotland, despite having been rejected by most Scots. As Labour said in their 2001 election campaign, “don’t go back”. Those were not the good old days, unless you were a TV satirist, because they were days of meanness, hypocrisy, sleaze, scandal and decline.

Image sources (except the Guardian front page): Wikimedia. Image of John Major supplied by Chatham House under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence. Image of Srebrenica by Juniki San, licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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The Sun on migrants: vagrants, cockroaches, a disease

18 April, 2015 - 12:46

Picture of a sign at Heathrow airport, saying "welcome to Britain"Yesterday the Sun published an article by Katie Hopkins, former Apprentice contestant and professional loudmouth and bigot, suggesting that we “use gunships” to tackle the problem of migrants coming across the Mediterranean in unsafe boats, many of them drowning, rather than laying on a search and rescue mission at the taxpayers’ expense. She claims that the migrants trying to get across the Med are the same ones trying to get across the English Channel by stowing away on British trucks. She suggests that we “get Australian” by turning the boats back to “their shores” and destroying them. She also uses genocidal slurs on a number of occasions: “spreading like norovirus on a cruise ship”, “festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants”, “like cockroaches”. And her assessment of the situation at Calais is just plain inaccurate.

She alleges:

Watching them try to clamber on to British lorries and steal their way into the UK, do I feel pity? Only for the British drivers, who get hit with a fine every time one of this plague of feral humans ends up in their truck.

The fines for having stowaways on the truck are part of British government policy. It was introduced by David Blunkett under the last Labour government, and when the drivers protested, he referred to them “squealing”, like little pigs at the slaughter. The fines hit the haulage company as well as the driver, but they were in the thousands per migrant! However, since that was introduced, truckers heading for the UK and their employers have had to change their behaviour radically so as not to make it possible for migrants to get aboard: not stopping within 100 miles of the port, beefing up security at depots near the port, and sending drivers out through Dover or the Tunnel but back through other (longer but more obscure) routes such as Dieppe-Newhaven or Dunkirk-Ramsgate. The result is that it is now difficult and dangerous to get onto a truck heading for the Channel ports, a bit like jumping a freight train, and only fit young men do it, and not that many. They ride in various nooks and crannies on the chassis, not inside containers or trailers. Other migrants in Calais are looking for someone to smuggle them into the UK, not to jump aboard a truck.

In addition, in shedding tears for all the British drivers, Hopkirk has clearly not been along the motorways leading to the Channel ports any time recently and seen all the left-hand-drive trucks. Only a few British hauliers still send drivers abroad, partly because of the migrant problem at Calais but also because foreign hauliers can do it more cheaply and take British freight back to Europe as return loads. I’ve asked all the agencies I work for about work going abroad, and I’ve been told there’s hardly any.

Understand this: these two populations are the same. The migrants harassing Brit truckers at the port are the same as the vagrants making the perilous trip across the Med.

They are not ‘vagrants’ - a vagrant is someone “who has no established home and drifts from place to place without visible or lawful means of support”, according to the Brittanica entry for this term in British law. They are what are commonly called tramps or bums. Migrants are not vagrants intending to live rough for any length of time or “live idly”; they intend to make a home for themselves somewhere else. And she is wrong about the two groups of migrants being the same; many of them come from Asia and the Middle East, not north and west Africa.

She then diverges into a lazy ethnic stereotype about the Italians, before suggesting we “get Australian”:

There is a simple solution to this. It’s time for the Italians to stop singing opera, drinking espresso and looking chic in chuffing everything.

It’s time to get Australian.

Australians are like British people but with balls of steel, can-do brains, tiny hearts and whacking great gunships.

Their approach to migrant boats is the sort of approach we need in the Med.

They threaten them with violence until they bugger off, throwing cans of Castlemaine in an Aussie version of Sharia stoning.

And their approach is working. Migrant boats have halved in number since Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott got tough.

The clampdown on migrant boats goes back a lot further than Tony Abbott; it began under the previous Liberal government of John Howard in the early 2000s and was triggered largely by sensationalist and inaccurate coverage, including a well-known cropped picture which showed babies being thrown off a boat (in fact, the whole picture showed people with arms out to catch them). That was the era of concentration camps for migrants out in the desert. These camps have now been relocated to the various poor countries in the Pacific nearby, which can be easily bought and which concerned Australians can’t raid to get the migrants and refugees out, as they did when they were in the desert (so much for small hearts, though it takes bigger balls to attack a state-run camp than it does a boat full of migrants). Britain does not have a single neighbour which could be classified as a third-world country, so this option isn’t open to us.

Australia does, in fact, take a large number of accredited refugees from various conflict zones, but those on the boats may be no less refugees than those whose passage is arranged by the UN, and the countries they pass by en route will not accept them either (they will not even accept the small number of Rohingyas from Burma, whose persecution is well-documented). It’s just easier to stereotype them as a horde of uncivilised migrants.

We don’t need another rescue project. The now defunct £7million-a-month Mare Nostrum — Italy’s navy search and rescue operation — was paid for (in part) by British taxpayers. And we don’t need a campaign from Save the Children to encourage more migrants to take the journey.

What we need are gunships sendign these boats back to their own country.

You want to make a better life for yourself? Then you had better get creative in northern Africa.

Northern Africa is not the home country of many, if not most, of the migrants coming over from Libya. They come from west Africa, and if they could make a good living in north Africa one suspects they would, given that most are Muslims and all the countries of the north African coast are Muslim countries. The fact is that Libya is a war zone itself and that west African workers were attacked after the fall of Gaddafi because some locals regarded them as connected to the old régime. Algeria is just recovering from its own civil war. All of them (like southern Europe and Australia, and unlike northern Europe) are suffering from desertification and water shortages, the cause of which is very largely traceable to European and American emissions and very little of it to sub-Saharan Africa. They cannot absorb all the migrants who want to flee poverty (itself caused partly by desertification) and war in west Africa, and we cannot force them to. These problems are not of their making.

Britain is not El Dorado. We are not Elysium. Some of our towns are festering sores, plagued by swarms of migrants and asylum seekers, shelling out benefits like Monopoly money.

This is complete nonsense. Some of our towns have become run-down, largely because the government has chosen to destroy the industries that employed much of their population, or because British or foreign multinationals were allowed to do the same in search of cheaper labour abroad. This, again, is something that could have been prevented. British towns and cities with large immigrant populations are often thriving places where you can get food that you cannot obtain elsewhere in Britain.

Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit like “Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984”, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors.

Nonsense. Some of them in fact come from places where living is tough, where water and food are short, where they have to walk long distances to get either. But in fact, any human being could survive tough conditions, it’s just that most Brits who did not live through World War II or been in the Army have never had to. If they were so tough as to be indifferent to the conditions back home, why would they make the journey?

Once gunships have driven them back to their shores, boats need to be confiscated and burned on a huge bonfire. Drilling a few holes in the bottom of anything suspiciously resembling a boat would be a good idea, just for belt and braces.

That would mean sending navy boats close to the shores of countries on the north African coast, or to put it another way, invading them, to force back people who mostly aren’t their citizens and who have left. These countries may not have the military strength western countries do, but they will not take this kind of action lying down.

The Sun, unlike the Observer which printed Julie Burchill’s slur-laden rant against transsexuals in 2013, has never been considered a ‘respectable’ newspaper, but it is still a mainstream newspaper in a liberal democracy, not the organ of a totalitarian state or a genocidal insurgent movement. Calling people cockroaches, feral, a disease or similar on account of their ethnicity or status is the mark of violent racists or mass murderers — readers may have seen the film Hotel Rwanda, in which the gangs of thugs who carried out the genocide against the Tutsis habitually referred to them as cockroaches and their media used the same language while telling their listeners to find Tutsis so as to kill them. I am not suggesting that this is what Hopkins is advocating, but it is what we can expect from the likes of the Sun if things were to get tough or there was serious unrest here. Hopkins is an unbridled ignoramus; the owners and editors of the Sun and similar journals know exactly what they are doing. This is why the commercial press cannot be left unregulated.

It goes without saying that the people smugglers who carry large numbers of migrants in unsafe boats (or other means of transport) for profit are criminals and should be punished if caught. Their boats, trucks, containers etc should be confiscated and destroyed. But most migrants are not criminals; they are sometimes poor people seeking a place where they can make a decent life for themselves, and sometimes refugees fleeing war or persecution. Human beings have always migrated, the successful ones often not asking permission, and western politicians are quite apt to tell people to just up sticks and move somewhere else when it suits them (remember Tebbit’s “get on your bike” speech); the difference today is that millions poor people live in artificial countries whose borders take no account of ethnic or cultural boundaries or where there is fertile land or other resources people can live off. Living in the next country is not an option, as it would have been before Europeans came along and drew random lines on the map, so they have to move further and further away to where nobody has heard of your ethnic group or those of the next country.

I have every sympathy for the truckers faced with the migrant problem in northern France. But the problem is not of the migrants’ making; it is a product of politics, war, climate and history. Colonialists used to talk of the “white man’s burden” of bringing “civilisation” and Christianity to supposedly ignorant native peoples; the modern “burden” of absorbing a relatively small number of migrants and refugees from the countries we used to rule over is not that great and will not last forever. It is not something we can shoot our way out of.

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No, ‘patriarchy’ isn’t killing the planet: the modern lifestyle is

12 April, 2015 - 16:08

A picture of a large number of black African women in various colourful clothes and headwraps, in Abidjan, Côote D'Ivoire, for International Women's DayPatriarchy is killing our planet - women alone can save her - The Ecologist

Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, an investigative journalist best known for work on Muslim civil rights and terrorism, wrote the above article for the Ecologist website last month and posted it on the Radical Middle Way Facebook group although it really has nothing to do with Islam other than having a Muslim author. (The Ecologist still has its own website, but merged with Satish Kumar’s Resurgence magazine in 2012.) He starts off with a familiar exposition of the present environmental crisis, about how “our global system is, increasingly, in breach of the natural limits of our environment”, but drops ‘patriarchy’ in at the last sentence before giving a series of examples of how the crisis disproportionately affects women, but at no point spells out how precisely patriarchy is at the root of the global environmental crisis. The truth is that it predates it by millenia; the modern lifestyle is the cause of it.

I put ‘patriarchy’ in quotes because it is a term that is often misused and the same is true here. It does not mean mere male dominance, but a structure in which husbands and fathers have authority based on their responsibility to care for, guide and maintain their wives and children. If we look at men who are called patriarchs, they are usually grandfathers or church leaders (and when that is their title, they are usually celibate priests or monks); I have never heard of a gang leader, whose position is achieved with the use of violence and sometimes cunning, being called a patriarch. It is not the same as the ‘law of the jungle’ in which the ‘fittest’, usually strongest but sometimes the wiliest, survive or dominate. These tend to be young, strong men, in no sense patriarchs. It was noted that during the Estonia ferry disaster, the majority of survivors were young, healthy and male; only seven survived that were over 55, and no children under 12. Compare this to the Titanic, which sank in a much more patriarchal age than the present one, in which men allowed women and children to take their place in the lifeboats. Nafeez Ahmed’s article states that natural disasters consistently claim more women’s lives than men’s, but the breakdown of the kind of chivalry seen on the Titanic may have as much to do with this as patriarchy itself.

The environmental crisis is new, relatively speaking. Patriarchy is not. Patriarchy of one sort or another is clearly mandated in all the world’s major religions. The modern lifestyle coincides with the weakening of most of these; if not a lapse in belief, as with Christianity in Europe, then a weakening of the authority of tradition, as in much of the Muslim world. The environmental crisis has two major causes: climate change caused by the large-scale burning of fossil fuels, and the large accumulation of toxic or non-biodegradable waste which is the product of industry, of consumerism, of technology which continually improves, leaving much obsolete material which cannot easily be reused or absorbed. While human beings have always burned wood and other fuels for cooking, light and heating, the use of fuel on a huge scale for motorised transport and large-scale manufacturing dates back no further than the 19th century. Nations have always traded with each other, but some nations relying on the resources of others for their very way of life, such as oil as well as less obvious things such as the minerals used in mobile phones, is very new.

The modern lifestyle has its origins in the industrial revolution which took place in England in the 18th and 19th centuries. Colonialism meant that this lifestyle took root in Europe, America and japan while other nations were exploited and kept poor, except for a client or ‘comprador’ class in many countries, but in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the breakdown of communism and the opening-up of closed and repressive régimes in the global South meant that billions more people demanded, and got, access to motorised transport and technology. While some of the increased carbon output of places like China is offset by the decline in heavy industry in western countries, the rise in emissions caused by the increase in private car use and air travel in newly industrialised Asian countries is not. The main contributors are those who have access to this lifestyle: historically mostly Europeans, north Americans and Japanese, with a growing class of South and East Asian contributors in the past 20 years. This includes men and women.

Women in industrialised countries have hugely benefited from advances in technology, from the freedom and improved safety afforded by motor and air travel to the ease of communication and organising that comes from telephones, the printing press, computers, the Internet, mobile phones. Yet the cheap mass production and use of these things all requires the extraction of minerals (often from conflict zones), their transportation to factories, the exploitation of workers by cheap labour, the use of electricity (produced by burning oil or coal), its transportation to the place where it will be used (by plane or ship, also requiring the burning of fuel), powering or charging, and finally disposal when a two-year-old device can no longer compete with a new model. The same is all true whether a computer or mobile device is used to plan a war or a feminist consciousness-raising seminar, or keep a group of bed-bound chronically ill people in touch with each other. Women in industrialised countries enjoy the convenience of disposable nappies and sanitary products, yet these all produce waste which has to be incinerated or buried somewhere; reusable equivalents have fallen out of favour in my lifetime, and even though they are nowadays mostly made and sold by women, remain a niche product (of course, when cloth nappies were the norm, they were supplied by mostly male-owned companies). And while the burgeoning human population is commonly cited as a cause of the crisis, a major contributor to that is improvements in medicine, in particular vaccines, which mean children do not die of common diseases like measles — and that means that a woman need not bear twelve children to see any survive into adulthood, as was previously the norm, and remains so in less industrialised countries.

So, the modern lifestyle benefits the women who have access to it while being the direct cause of wars and political oppression, and the indirect cause of droughts and floods, in many countries that often do not benefit from it. He gives a few examples of how climate change affects women — such as being “primary collectors of fuel and water for their families” when water is getting increasingly scarcer — but surely, whatever the men are doing (presumably, working in the fields or in some industry or other) is being affected as well, and whoever collects the water, if there is less of it, that affects everyone. He mentions the heightened risk for women in conflict situations, but much as with the heightened risk of abuse for disabled women, just because it is more dangerous to be a woman in these situations, it doesn’t make it is not dangerous to be a male civilian; in some African conflicts, such as in the Congo, the gangs that rape women also rape men.

So, Nafeez Ahmed’s title claim is wrong on both counts: it is the modern lifestyle, not patriarchy, which is causing the environmental crisis, and as for “only women can save her”: which women, and how? The evidence is that women are no less likely to avail themselves of the advantages and conveniences of the modern lifestyle if it is available to them than men, and not greatly more avid to make sacrifices to lessen their environmental impact. People are easily satisfied by very small and superficial concessions to social justice and the environment as long as it keeps the flow of luxury goods and cheap technology going. Every western political movement depends on technology and the energy which powers it, including feminism and environmentalism; nobody has an immediate interest in it being less readily available. It is yet another distraction to blame “patriarchy” for the state of the planet, but history shows that patriarchy did not cause a global environmental crisis for thousands of years, that modern industry, technology and transport did in under 200, and that the countries where women have the most opportunities are among the worst contributors to climate change and have the greatest demands for the luxury goods that require cheap labour and contribute to conflict. All of us who enjoy this lifestyle are responsible.

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Will the wheels fall of Maajid Nawaz’s bandwagon now?

11 April, 2015 - 20:05

Picture of Maajid Nawaz, a middle-aged South Asian man, standing outside a branch of Barclays Bank with a yellow circular badge on his black jacket and leaflets in his handIn today’s Daily Mail there is a report that Maajid Nawaz, the founder of the so-called counter-extremist Muslim organisation Quilliam and Liberal Democrat candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn in the forthcoming election, was filmed in a strip club in Whitechapel last year during Ramadan, where he ‘received’ two five-minute lap dances, got heavily drunk (staff threatened to remove him several times) and tried repeatedly to touch the woman who danced for him, which is against club policy. (The report includes photos and a video of the incident.) Nawaz’s spokesman said that the incident was his stag night which he held with the full knowledge of his now wife; Nawaz himself tweeted:

The Mail report makes much of Nawaaz’s claim to be a feminist and his support for such issues as ending FGM, as if there were no feminists who didn’t regard abolishing the sex industry as a priority. In fact, there is a whole body of feminism which regards sex work — even prostitution, let alone lap dancing — as a job which women (and somen men) make a free choice to go into, and demands such things as the legalisation of brothels — although they do not encourage or condone men sexually harassing women in the industry and trying to touch them when they are not supposed to. I am not sure if Nawaz knows anything of that debate; he seems to be a feminist of the vague “women are people too” variety. Some feminists say that men cannot even be feminists.

That said, if a man wants to be an ally to feminists, he should think carefully before he attends places like this. It is not only that some (but not all) of the women do the work because they are desperate, and some may even have been trafficked, blackmailed or otherwise forced into it (if you have sex with someone in those circumstances, it could well be rape). It’s not only that they attract the sort of men who harass women in the neighbourhood before and after attending the clubs. It’s also that companies use trips to these clubs as ‘rewards’ or as social networking events, and anyone not that way inclined would exclude themselves, and thus be absent when important decisions are made that affect their future. Most women would not want to attend, and neither would most Muslims. The clubs foster discrimination; they are an even more egregious version of the Garrick Club-type all-male “backrooms”. This alone should be enough reason for anyone who ostensibly champions any minority to avoid them.

So, Nawaz dumps on Muslims, much like Quilliam always has done. We already knew that from his, and the organisation’s, antics and public statements. We knew it from Usama Hasan making a show of his belief in evolution (and the resulting ‘death threats’) to the non-Muslim media, and his family trying to treat the Leyton mosque as a family business when the community rejected him and his belief. Drinking alcohol and ‘receiving’ lap dances at strip clubs are both haraam, which every Muslim knows. Of course, we all know there are Muslims who drink, but most don’t make a big show of being a ‘moderate’ Muslim and a role model for anyone looking for a path out of extremism. Not only has he handed a big propaganda coup to the remaining extremists; he gives weight to the idea that refusing to embrace the ‘pleasures’ of the dominant culture is a symptom of extremism, even though many people in the general population regard some of these things as sleazy, immoral or socially harmful themselves.

I suspect his behaviour may have been part of some sort of personal crisis on Nawaz’s part, a rebound from the years spent in HT and in prison, perhaps, or the break-up of his first marriage. If this is the case, he should step down from Quilliam because, if they really are meant to be an organisation representing moderate religious Muslims, they should consider him to be an embarrassment. It is unlikely whether the Lib Dems, which as Julie Bindel noted in Standpoint magazine in 2013 is “overrun by lads and libertines” with a lower ratio of female to male MPs than either Labour or the Conservatives, a libertarian attitude to the sex industry and a history of sexual scandals, will consider this to be worthy of resignation, especially as it may be too late to replace him. But he ought to recognise that he is no longer an asset to the campaign against extremism, or a credible role model. Maajid, step down from your public roles, go and have your fun if you want, but leave us Muslims alone.

Image source: Wikipedia; picture taken by Ross Frenett, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 licence.

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A new speed limit at midnight

6 April, 2015 - 00:01

A red DAF XF articulated truck with red tractor and curtain trailer with the name "Dünya" and a globe with the land in light blue on it.Tonight at midnight, the speed limits for trucks on roads in England and Wales go up by 10mph: the maximum speed on single-carriageway roads to 50mph, and on dual carriageways to 60mph (in practice, vehicles will not be able to exceed 56mph as they are all fitted with speed restrictors). This is something the industry has been campaigning for for some time, but safety charities have criticised it as giving into law-breaking and some drivers complain that it will mean they are paid less as they can complete jobs more quickly. Personally, I welcome it, although I think it should be accompanied by speed limit adjustments for other vehicles as it still leaves trucks doing 10mph less than cars.

The speed limits at present were set in the 1950s when trucks were slower than they are today, but had less effective brakes (previously, the truck speed limit was 20mph!). The speed limits were already among the highest in Europe, where motorway speed limits for Europe are 80km/h (50mph) in most countries and lower on normal roads (for example, it’s 60km/h or 37mph on main roads in Germany) and now are probably, on average, easily the highest. In the 1950s there were no motorways (the first motorway as such was opened in 1956) and far fewer dual carriageways. These days there are sections of dual carriageways which are distinguished from motorways only by having green signs (in particular, the A2 in Kent and part of the A3 in Surrey), longer stretches where the road conditions do not merit having the lower speed limits, and wide or straight single-carriageway roads where trucks doing 40mph are an annoyance to other drivers.

These days large parts of the country do not have motorways, only long stretches of dual carriageway: most of these are away from the big cities, such as in eastern England (the Humber region being an exception) and the south-west. In other areas, dual carriageways have been built to avoid the cost or environmental impact of a previously planned motorway (e.g. the A50 from Leicester to Stoke on Trent, which was built in place of a planned motorway, the M64). These roads are not always greatly inferior to actual motorways; the M1 in particular has narrower lanes than some newer motorways, like the M40, while dual carriageways often have wider lanes. Their junctions are often (but not always) tighter, which does present a hazard, but specific speed limits can be applied in these areas rather than across the whole road.

The road safety charity Brake issued a formal response (.docx) to the changes, claiming that the limit increases “average speeds”. The problem with this is that average speeds do not cause accidents; specific vehicles’ speeds at particular moments cause or contribute to accidents, along with poor observation, lane discipline or other forms of bad driving, along with other factors such as road and weather conditions. They also claim it “sets a dangerous precedent that if traffic laws are persistently flouted; the government would rather change them than enforce them”. In fact, even the police have at times understood that the limits are an unnecessary nuisance and have encouraged truck drivers to do 50mph on long, straight stretches of single carriageway. Right now, they don’t expend much effort in enforcing the speed limits on some (long) stretches — last time I drove the A1 from Worksop to London (which I did quite frequently on one job I did last summer), there was only one speed camera north of Huntingdon.

I don’t buy the argument that higher speed limits will mean drivers will get paid less as they will finish jobs quicker. This might happen on some runs, but on others, the time saved will allow an extra drop or two which will add hours and, with it, pay, and in any case, if the journey is mostly by motorway, this time saving already exists and nobody is campaigning to bring the motorway truck speed limit down. What is more likely is that transport supervisors will expect drivers to do 50mph when previously they had been doing 40mph, when the road conditions make it safe to do 45mph or so but not 50, at least not all the way. Sometimes I’m more concerned about finishing the job quickly and getting home than I am about squeezing a bit of extra money out of it, and it’s only likely to make a big difference if you are on a long journey and can do 56 most of the way (like 20 minutes on a 200-mile journey). If you’re stopping and starting a lot, being able to do a few stretches a bit faster won’t make much difference.

I would support harmonising speed limits for different types of vehicle. On two-lane carriageways on dual carriageways, for example, I would advocate a speed limit of 60mph for everyone. Why? Because when people join these roads, especially at the tight junctions that they often have (e.g. the A1), people in the inside lane have to move across to let them on, and when someone is coming from behind at 70mph (or more), this becomes impossible, making it necessary to slow down rapidly. If the speed limit on single carriageways was 50mph for everyone, the remaining annoyance of being stuck behind a ‘slow’ truck when you ‘should’ be doing 60mph would be reduced, and a fairly large number of single-carriageway roads are not suitable for doing 60mph anyway. It would also make it easier for drivers to slow down when entering villages as they have less speed to lose.

The majority of truck drivers are responsible adults and not joy-riders or maniacs. A few already drive their trucks too fast or otherwise dangerously — tipper drivers being the worst offenders — and for these people there needs to be better enforcement on safe driving other than speed. The new limits apply on roads where a limit above 40mph, or the national speed limit, already applies; it will not mean that truck drivers can drive any faster on urban roads where the speed limit is 30mph — that isn’t changing. We also don’t want to get into accidents (particularly with other trucks, where we are more vulnerable because we sit at the front of our vehicles on top of the engine, not behind it) or put our insurance costs up. For me, the new limit will make driving a bit less stressful: I will no longer be constantly checking my speedometer, watching for police or speed cameras, or worrying about holding up other traffic or about unsafe overtakes. But don’t expect all the slow movers to suddenly speed up: if we’re fully laden, we won’t be able to go much faster, especially up hills, and some roads are just not safe to do 50mph on in a large truck.

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Leaders’ debate: my impressions

3 April, 2015 - 19:06

 Bongo-bongo Land, sluts half price".Last night there was a big debate featuring the leaders of the seven major political parties in next month’s elections (Labour, Tories, Lib Dems, Greens, UKIP, Plaid Cymru and the SNP). I was driving, so listened to the debate on BBC Radio 5 Live rather than watching it on the TV. The debates all started with questions from the floor, and covered major areas such as welfare, the economy, immigration, the NHS and education. Perhaps I missed out on a lot by not seeing it on TV, but I didn’t believe any of the leaders were particularly impressive and this includes the women, contrary to some of the opinions I heard in the debates afterwards and the opinion polls on the front of some of the papers, especially the Tory papers. (I thought the Times’s poll was aimed at scaring the Tories into action on immigration rather than reflecting reality or promoting UKIP.) You can listen to 5 Live’s broadcast here and watch the ITV version on their website here in the UK.

I was most disappointed that the Tories’ claims about the last government’s economic record went unchallenged. The fact is that nobody accused them of wild taxing, borrowing and spending until the present government came to power after Labour had borrowed extensively to bail out banks following the collapse of some of them in 2008. We did not have a substantial deficit until that point, but neither did we have a particularly generous welfare state. We did not have many council homes built to replace those sold off in the 1980s; we did not have state-funded major infrastructure projects, with rail links and much-needed road improvements taking ages to approve, and most of the new hospitals were built using Private Finance Initiatives, with the private sector having to be paid back out of the health budget and those repayments taking priority over actual healthcare spending. Labour could have taken two other courses of action in 2008; either nationalise the banks without compensation or let them collapse, resulting in hundreds of thousands of people losing their money.

Labour spent the 90s trying to crush left-wing resistance to Blair’s reforms, telling their critics they were dinosaurs, that they were helping the Tories and helping to make sure Labour remained in opposition, and so on. They used tricks to make sure right-wingers favoured by the leadership were selected as parliamentary candidates, even exploiting union block votes where they still existed, and expelled members not only for standing against their candidates, but even for publicly suggesting that people vote for other than their candidate. Yet now that a Tory-led government has hacked away at even what they left in place last time, Labour are unwilling to defend their record and to challenge the terms of debate laid down by the Tories and their corporate media.

The major revelation from the debate was from Nigel Farage. He revealed himself to be a one-trick pony, as all his answers tried to divert the discussion onto immigration or the EU. The worst incident was where, during the section on the NHS, he brought up the cost of “health tourism” and of giving free anti-retroviral drugs to anyone with HIV in this country, regardless of immigration status. This actually has some benefit to the British public as it means the recipient, if they take the medication, is at less risk of spreading the virus, either to their sexual partners or their children, which none of the other leaders challenged him on. He claimed we could re-orient British foreign policy to forge greater links with the Commonwealth, as if those countries were motherless children, and Canada and Australia had not forged their own links with neighbouring countries in the Americas and Asia since the end of the British Empire, and as if any of those countries were a mere 26 miles from our shores. He sounded like one of those bores who has a pet interest and always tries to divert discussion onto it, even butting into other people’s conversations. He also reminded me a bit of the BNP in the mid-2000s, who stood for local and mayoral elections and offered policies on immigration which they could not deliver as local councillors or mayors. As it’s a given that UKIP will not be the biggest party in the next Parliament, his attitude would have struck some as defeatist.

Farage probably impressed some viewers and listeners because his voice cut through everyone else’s. All the others reinforced every stereotype you can think of: shouty women and old-boyish, samey, dull men (I can never tell Clegg and Cameron apart when I hear them on the radio), and all often shouting over each other and none of them saying anything particularly earth-shattering, but Farage at least sounded calm and cogent. However, what he used that voice for was to blame foreigners again and again like a dinner party bore. The debates make no real difference to my vote, as I live in a Lib Dem constituency where they are the only challenge to the Tories, and the media will always say somebody “won” because it suits their agenda and allows them to manufacture a story. If you were impressed by Farage, then please remember that he had nothing to say about any other issue besides immigration and the EU. Do you know what he would do once we were out of the EU, and what he would do if he failed to deliver, perhaps because of a failure (from his perspective) of an In/Out referendum?

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Stable-door logic

29 March, 2015 - 18:22

 Why on earth was he allowed to fly?"Last week a GermanWings airliner was crashed into a moutainside in south-western France, killing everyone on board. The evidence seems to suggest that the co-pilot, Andreas Lubitz, crashed it deliberately, and investigations have turned up evidence of fairly minor mental illness and deteriorating eyesight that could have been the motive for his apparent decision. The day after the flight data and voice recorders were investigated and prosecutors announced what they believed happened, newspapers demanded to know why he was allowed to fly, as if this sort of thing could have been predicted from the evidence that was available.

Lubitz was able to shut the pilot out of the cockpit after he left to use the toilet because security systems installed after 9/11 allowed him to override his pilot’s own code. It seems that security measures implemented to prevent one kind of previously unforeseen disaster have enabled another, clearly because nobody thought that a pilot would crash his or her plane deliberately, and the most likely person to want to get into the cockpit against the pilot’s wishes was a hijacker. A system which allows control over a plane to be seized from the ground has not been implemented because of fears over safety and security, and a rule that a cabin crew member must be in the cockpit when one of the two pilots is away, so that there are always two people in the cockpit, was already in use at some airlines but not Lufthansa/GermanWings, although they have decided to adopt it now.

Every time a tragedy occurs, we assume that we could have done something to prevent it; the idea that a deranged or evil person was just too clever for us is regarded as a defeatist attitude. Readers have no doubt heard the expression “shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted”, but this is the stock response to an unforeseen tragedy or atrocity. The drive is particularly strong after an air disaster because rich and powerful people travel by air, because it’s the only quick way of getting to many places and because, although genuine accidents are rare, an attack on an aircraft can kill everyone on board quickly; a passenger is much less likely to survive than in a car, bus or train crash. The same phenomenon is seen after other terrible occurrences, such as where children are murdered. After Ian Huntley murdered two young girls at the school where he was a caretaker, for example, it was revealed that a number of accusations had been made against him, but as none were proven, he could not have been prevented from working with children. A whole new safeguarding body was set up in response to this.

While I was not particularly interested in working with children myself, I feared at the time that if someone committed a murder and it turned out that he had no previous convictions but did have a problematic school history, this also could be used to bar people like me from not only working with them but also having access to them. I mentioned this to a work colleague and he replied, “yes, but what’s worse, you not being able to get a job or a child being killed?”. When a murder is reported on, all such details reporters can find about the criminal’s past are reported, including professional or amateur diagnoses of things like Asperger’s syndrome and their obsessive behaviour (like always demanding paprika and broccoli on his pizza in Lubitz’s case), regardless of what relevance, if any, these things had to the crime. These things are weird, weirdos kill children, therefore they are relevant.

Attitudes to mental health are coloured by a lot of prejudice and irrationality. Because mental illness is heavily associated with irrationality, people often suspend their own reason when making judgements. I once heard, for example, of a woman who was raped in a public place and reported the attack to the police. When it came to prosecuting, however, the Crown Prosecution Service found evidence of past mental illness, some of whose sufferers had been known to consent to rough sex in unusual places, and as this information would likely be used by the Defence, they decided not to prosecute, and the rapist went on to rape someone else. Now that it appears that one airline pilot with depression and burnout may have crashed a plane on purpose, people insist that any pilot with a history of “mental illness” should be barred from flying even though most are no danger to anyone or indeed themselves — last week’s disaster is the first of its kind that, if the official story is correct, had no political motive.

Of course, it’s necessary that airline pilots be mentally and physically robust as their judgement could mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of passengers (and between the black and the red for their airline, although this isn’t often spoken of this soon after a disaster). Michael Moore wrote an essay some years ago about the low salaries paid to pilots on American commuter airlines, and remarked that he wanted “the people taking me with them to defy nature’s most powerful force — gravity — to be happy, content, confident, and well paid” so that they’re not thinking of where their next meal is coming from when they have dozens of lives in their hands; however, in the Observer today, pilot and aviation writer Simon Moores notes that the life of a junior pilot, particularly in the low-cost sector, is often a poorly-paid, insecure and stressful one. It could be that if we barred everyone with a “black mark” on their mental health history from being pilots, we would end up without enough pilots. His mental health may turn out to have had nothing to do with this crash at all; air crashes have taken place because the pilots were convinced they were somewhere other than where they were (such theories abound about some of the so-called Bermuda Triangle crashes, for example) so we should not rush to add more stigma to mental illness than already exists when pilot stress and resulting poor judgement may be a greater threat to airline safety.

(As an afterthought, many Muslims have been complaining that the idea that this was a terrorist attack was not even considered when it became obvious that the pilot was white. Some humorous articles have shown up on some websites, like the one in which investigators found a copy of the Qur’an in a bookshop near Lubitz’s home. The complaint basically runs that if the pilot’s name had been Mohammed, the first thing considered would have been that he intended this as an act of jihad, regardless of whether he also had a history of mental illness and had no known connection to jihadi activity whatsoever. The problem is that Muslim political movements do exist which have been known to hijack planes and crash them, causing large-scale loss of life, while right now in Germany there aren’t, and the last terroristic movements to appear in Germany did not use that particular method. It’s a more justified complaint when white Christian fanatics carrying explosives attack security checkpoints with machetes at New Orleans airport, or when neo-Nazis stockpile weapons in northern England and the incident is not prominently reported and mental illness is readily given as an excuse. Germans are even less notorious, in recent years at least, for lethal terrorist violence than right-wing white Americans, so it’s reasonable to assume that Lubitz’s action was either a mistake or had personal motives, and to at least consider the possibility of a political motive if his name had been Mohammed.)

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Muslim women silenced on Muslim women’s dress

28 March, 2015 - 20:21

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, pictured in 2009Last Saturday, the Guardian published a long-winded screed by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (or Alibi-Brain as we call her) claiming that “the veil” as worn by Muslim women constitutes a “rejection of progressive values”. It’s basically the “single transferable Yasmin Alibhai-Brown article about Muslims”, variants of which have appeared in at least two other British newspapers, and consists of some familiar false historical claims (e.g. “the veil” originates in Persia or Byzantium and its revival is backed by Saudi petro-dollars) and spurious interpretations of scripture sourced from people without any grounding in Islamic scholarship, as well as outright baseless claims, such as this one:

Like a half-naked woman, a veiled female to me represents an affront to female dignity, autonomy and potential. Both are marionettes, and have internalised messages about femaleness. A woman in a full black cloak, her face and eyes masked walked near to where I was sitting in a park recently, but we could not speak. Behind fabric, she was more unapproachable than a fort.

Actually, you might have been able to speak to her. You just didn’t try, preferring to entertain yourself with a flight of self-righteous fancy.

The article’s headline is, to us Muslims, a lie: “as a Muslim woman”. Alibhai-Brown belongs to a sect which diverged from Islam centuries ago, the Isma’ilis. This is important, as non-Muslims often define ‘Muslims’ in terms of appearance, in terms of a professed identity, of first names, of cultural characteristics. Muslims define Muslims in terms of those who believe as we believe and worship as we worship: those who believe the Two Testimonies and in what flows from them (always the tricky bit), and who affirm them and practise what they entail. As Isma’ilism is a different religion, albeit with (some) shared beliefs and history, its followers do not have the authority to tell us what Islam is and what it isn’t. And non-Muslims are deceiving themselves, or each other, if they insist on treating someone like Alibhai-Brown as one. She is not.

On Monday the paper printed three letters in response. Not one of them was from a Muslim woman living in the UK now — the first and by far the longest is by a female professor from the Aligarh university in India (an institution where women remain barred from the main library, a rule justified by its vice-chancellor on the grounds that if ‘girls’ were allowed in, there would be four times as many ‘boys’), the other two from (probably white) non-Muslim women in England, one of them (Norma Clarke) a professor of English literature and creative writing at Kingston University. (Yasmin Alibi-Brain’s spurious “Muslim” status does not compensate for the lack of a Muslim female response to her attack on them.) The section is headed “Voices behind abd beyond the veil”, but none of the authors sound as though they come from ‘behind’ it. I briefly attended that university ten years ago, and there are plenty of Muslim women there — Prof Clarke could have talked to some of them to ask why they wear the hijab (very few wear the niqab nowadays, although quite a few did back then, before the Straw affair).

Clarke’s letter attacks the supposed phenomenon of “little girls … being turned into sexual beings”, a favourite canard of feminists regarding the wearing of hijab by little girls (as opposed to those past puberty) but in fact, Islam does not require girls younger than that to wear it, or their parents to make them wear it (and young girls in most Muslim communities never wear niqaab, only the headscarf). There are three reasons why they sometimes do: one is that they are used to it by the time it becomes compulsory (and to avoid the situation of them appearing at school suddenly and it being assumed, correctly or otherwise, that they are menstruating); the second is that it is a uniform item in some Muslim schools, or considered the appropriate dress for religious activities such as reciting the Qur’an; the third is that it’s “grown-up dress” and girls wear it because it is how their mothers and other older females dress. It’s usually a compliment in our society to tell a child they look, or act, grown-up, and we call them “young man”, “young lady”, and some mothers I know (perhaps some fathers as well) call their young daughters “my little lady”. It doesn’t mean they look sexualised; a lady usually means a female of pleasant and becoming appearance and behaviour. Muslim girls can be “little ladies” just as much as other little girls.

The last letter is from one Mabel Taylor of Knutsford, someone a brief Google search reveals is a serial letter-writer whose missives have appeared in both local and national newspapers and even the New Scientist. She opines:

As an unbeliever I find it incredible that followers of religious faiths adopt rules and regulations regarding what they wear, eat and where and how they pray etc. Why on earth do they think that an all-powerful, omniscient creator would be even vaguely interested in such mundane human-inspired ideas?

Part of the answer to this is that a really omnipotent and omniscient deity would know, and concern Himself with, small matters as well as large — Abdul-Hakim Murad mentioned that this is a debate that took place in the Muslim lands in the classical era in which some suggested that Allah’s knowledge might not include “pernickety things”, and orthodoxy held that Allah is “al-‘Aleem”, all-knowing about things large and small. We also don’t believe that the rules of our religion are merely “adopted” by us, but revealed by Him through His Prophets on whom be blessings and peace. But on top of that, why is there room for a brief side-swipe at religion in general from an “unbeliever”, but not for a thorough-going critique of the original article from one of the people targeted by it?

The paper hasn’t printed any further responses since Monday. I called the Guardian’s reader’s editor on Wednesday and asked why no response to the letter from a British Muslim woman had been printed, and was told that the letters page reflected the letters that were sent, and were not solicited. I find it difficult to believe that they did not have any response from the religious British Muslims, women in particular, that Yasmin Alibhai-Brown criticised last Saturday, particularly as they sometimes include online comments among printed responses to their reviews, obituaries, Notes and Queries entries and so on. It seems the intent is to silence an uppity minority community. There is a saying that has its origins in central European political traditions, particularly in countries with a history of foreign occupation, and is nowadays used as a slogan of the disability rights movement: “nothing about us, without us”. When Muslims are talked about in the media as a problem to be solved and shut out of the discussion, this should be our stance.

Image: Simon Veit-Wilson, via Wikipedia. Released under the Creative Commons CC BY 2.0 licence.

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Race: Things we can’t say (except when we can)

22 March, 2015 - 19:38

 Ex-race tsar says silencing of debate has done devastating harm to Britain".Last Thursday Channel 4 broadcast a 65-minute-long discourse by Trevor Phillips, former head of the Commission for Racial Equality and then (after its amalgamation with all the other equality bodies) the Equality and Human Rights Commission, on the premise that people are afraid to say certain things about race, particularly in terms of making generalisations, even though these things are true. (He could, however, say them in the Daily Mail, which ran a lengthy article by him last Monday). His other contentions were that whites are often afraid to criticise anyone that is not white, even when they are clearly doing wrong, that segregation is the cause of such events as the 2005 London bombings and the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and that the rise of movements like UKIP among whites are an understandable reaction to the “liberal metropolitan elite” ignoring their concerns about these things. (Watchable here in the UK until a month after broadcast.)

The first problem with all this is that people do say these things all the time, and they have been saying them in public, mostly in papers like the Daily Mail. For decades the right-wing press have been running inflammatory stories about race, including stories about stupid things Labour (and Liberal/Lib Dem) councils were supposedly doing to promote racial diversity in schools in the 1980s (some of them fabricated), through to the articles targeted at Muslim women who wear niqab more recently. Phillips is merely playing up to a right-wing agenda of telling them what he wants to hear and being commended by them for being “brave”, when in fact these are dominant views and not indeed all that controversial among people of his own background anymore. He also got an overlength documentary broadcast in the evening on a major TV channel; hardly the treatment of a voice crying in the wilderness.

The second claim — that “whites are presumed guilty” is true in some places (I’ve seen situations where white individuals were accused of being racist for not bowing to the demands of a voluble black blogger or activist, or not doing so quickly enough), but given that there have long been two white-dominated tabloid newspapers disseminating a daily diet of bigotry, and of lies about multiculturalism and about other cultures than their own, and two major white-dominated broadsheets backing this up with “science” and long words, one can hardly blame non-whites, immigrants, their activists, social workers who work with them, and so on, for being defensive. The situation is or at least was polarised, and only the weaker side is being blamed. As for it being to blame for Haringey social workers’ failure to protect Victoria Climbié, Phillips conveniently forgets that the same department also failed a white boy, Peter Connolly, who was also murdered by members of his family a few years later. This was a dysfunctional department and blaming cultural factors was just one excuse people used to pass the buck. And who got the blame for Victoria’s death? A black, female, junior social worker, Lisa Arthurworrey.

He also mentions a film that was commissioned to warn young girls of the dangers of grooming, which heavily featured young Asian men in flash cars chatting up girls on the streets. He claims it was suppressed because portraying Asian men as the groomers was seen as racist, so another film was commissioned which showed a white abuser and a black victim. However, the film, if shown, would have given out the message “beware of Asian men in flash cars”, when sexual abusers come in every colour and economic status, and given that the film would likely have been shown well beyond Bradford or Rotherham, the message may well have been lost on many girls. Not all the ‘Asians’ that were involved looked like Pakistanis (some of the guilty men were Kurds, who are much lighter-skinned) and even in places beyond the north where the groomers were Asians, the Yorkshire accents might have lessened the impact. The majority of sexual abusers are men, and the majority of people in the UK are white. Beyond that specific set of circumstances, a white male abuser is the more likely scenario.

The third main claim is that segregation is the cause of violence, including the London bombings and the Charlie Hebdo attacks. He claims that, for example, he warned the French authorities to “get rid of the ghettoes” after the 2005 riots in French cities, and they were ignored, and the upshot was the Charlie murders this year. This is an extremely simplistic explanation. He repeatedly uses over-emotive language such as “ghetto” and “segregation” for any situation where people of kind live together, whether by choice or not. In the case of France, where the ghettoes are on the outskirts of many cities, this was not the case; in the case of many such situations in England, it was partly their choice, although dictated by such factors as needing to be around the mosque or temple, the ethnic food shop, others who spoke the same language, and for protection against racist violence. Not all such areas even have a majority population of that ethnicity, and some are in fact majority white (e.g. Brixton, although not certain estates), but outsiders will notice that there are a lot of a certain minority there and think “they’ve taken over this area”. The shops and restaurants on the high street do not always account for the houses on the back streets, but it does not stop people scaremongering about take-overs and mini Islamic republics just because there are certain areas where women are not afraid to wear the veil.

Let’s not forget, “segregation” was a legally-enforced régime where blacks were forced to use separate facilities, from houses to bus seats to water fountains, where only (usually rich) whites were allowed to vote, and where blacks and whites were not allowed to marry each other. “Ghettoes” were overcrowded Jewish enclaves in European cities, and Jews had to live there, and the more recent ones in Nazi-occupied Poland were urban concentration camps set up to allow easy deportation to the death and work-to-death camps. While they had some benefits for the minority (or some members of it), the purpose was to keep them separate and to maintain their inferiority. They were enforced and planned; they did not just establish themselves and were not for the convenience or protection of the minorities.

In blaming an exaggerated “segregation” for riots and bombings, he ignores all the other causes. The 2005 London bombings were probably years in planning, and perhaps they chose the day after the city was chosen to host the Olympics but that has never been proven. The bombers belonged to a violent extremist movement; they may have been partly motivated by British involvement in the Afghan and Iraq wars and support for Israel, but although white and Asian areas in the north are more separate than they are in London, the same extremist movement thrived in London as well, including in highly mixed areas of west and north London — it was openly tolerated and very visible throughout the 1990s until well after the 9/11 attacks. Much the same is true of the Charlie Hebdo murders, but the French state’s open hostility to Islam, displayed in such behaviour as banning girls’ headscarves in schools (and the harassment of and discrimination against women who wear it in other public places), the obstruction of Muslim schools, police harassment of young men of Arab (and African) appearance and so on, no doubt motivates some young Muslim men to turn their backs on French society (and on certain compromised ‘moderate’ imams) and join the extremists. Other riots were clearly triggered by police brutality, both here and in the USA. The separation of communities, and lack of understanding between them, can be a factor in some of this, but extremism can thrive without it, and so can state and police oppression.

Towards the end of his documentary, he shows an interview with the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, in which he asserts that his party is “colour-blind” and that he favours scrapping nearly all legislation that bans discrimination against people on the grounds of colour. This has already been widely reported and will no doubt prove damaging to his party’s electoral ambitions. He also attends their conference, and approaches one white man and asks if they might talk about the issues later. The man says “no we won’t”, and demands that Phillips go away, and then accuses him of harassing him. It’s not clear if the man is put off by Phillips’s colour, or because he knows who he is, or because of the camera crew behind him, or indeed who the man is, but Phillips uses it as an example of how the so-called “liberal metropolitan elite” is held in suspicion by the sort of “ordinary white people” that vote for and support UKIP.

However, Phillips does not really question how liberal or indeed metropolitan this elite is. The present government is dominated by rich Tories whose policies are designed to benefit the well-off and to target people dependent on benefits, even if this is dictated by disability. They are largely public-school educated, based in the south-east but not London, and are liberal only on gay rights. Their support base is suburban and provincial, not metropolitan. The myth of the “liberal metropolitan elite” is a standard American conservative political tactic, normally deployed by members of the wealthy business elite to persuade middle-class provincial whites that they are the real men of the people, and to vote against their own economic interests. Phillips also does not investigate the role of the media in hyping up the issues at the heart of UKIP’s campaign: immigration, the loss of sovereignty to the EU, nuisance legislation, political correctness.

The show ends with him visiting a school which had paid particular attention to the needs of every community which had sent children to it, to the extent that no ethnic minority was doing particularly badly, and had now decided to focus on the needs of the white working-class children who were falling behind. The screen went blank and a slogan (one of many throughout the programme) appeared: “White (& poor) is the new black”. This is another ridiculous oversimplification, confusing economic or academic underachievement with long-standing racial prejudice and disempowerment. There is nothing like the level of antagonism going back decades between young white boys and the police as there is with young black boys and men and nothing like the history of cultural antagonism with other parts of society, or malign stereotyping. The problem of poor white underachievement has been in existence for a long time, and Phillips does not question why. It suits the powers that be for this underclass to exist; it gives them an excuse to attack teachers and social workers and their unions (that so-called liberal elite again) and an unquestioning consumer base for the mass media.

The whole documentary is a case of Phillips playing the role of the “model minority”, which is why he was appointed to head the ECHR in the first place, rather than the leaders of any of the other equalities bodies. He’s a middle-class black male with a long history as a political insider, and his status gives him precious little difficulty ingratiating himself with middle-class white males, particularly when a Labour government is in power, but as this shows, the Tory press can warm to him as well. He’s someone who speaks their language and whom they can do business with; certainly a long way from the tabloids’ stereotype of the black, one-legged, blind (Muslim) lesbian that you supposedly had to be to get money out of a Labour council, and not shouty or ‘uppity’. I have a hunch that by “segregation” he really means Muslims refusing to assimilate and that he is suggesting that people shouldn’t be afraid to say that Muslims are the problem. But his evidence is weak and he fails, or refuses, to consider, or even mention, other explanations.

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Yet another thing to carry around: Apple, slimlining versus portability

15 March, 2015 - 10:04

Picture of a white man wearing a blue shirt, and behind him a picture of the side of a new MacBook with a gold finish, showing one port, with the letters 'USB-C' on the screen below it‘Power users’ need to shut up (from OSNews)

This article links to one at iMore, in which someone who calls himself a ‘power user’ but says he hates the term, tells ‘spec monkeys’ to shut up about the lack of external ports on the new MacBook (which only has a single USB-C port, which has to be used for charging and connecting every external device):

The thing that spec monkeys need to remember is that most people don’t care about what they care about. Most people buying new computers aren’t interest in how many cores a CPU has or how many GB of RAM or storage it has. Very few of the people I sell computers to have more than a passing interest. They want to know what the computer can do. What problems it solves for them.

From that perspective, the MacBook is already a success: It provides an up to date, modern OS X Yosemite user experience. It emphasizes wireless connectivity through Wi-Fi and Bluetooth — something many consumers already have ample experience with on their iPhones and iPads. It’s loaded with the software most users need to get started: Everything from a web browser to email, data management apps for contacts, calendars and so on. And it’s well-integrated into an ecosystem millions of iPhone and iPad users already depend on to store their data and make it available in the cloud. iCloud, more specifically.

The OSNews article goes on to compare this sentiment to those who criticise the latest Samsung Galaxy phones (the S6 and S6 Edge) for lacking a SD card slot, using the name logic that “less than 0.1% of people care”. Just because the majority don’t care, it doesn’t mean someone who cares is not right to do so.

Admittedly, all my smartphones since about 2012 have had no SD card slots and only the first Nexus I bought (the Galaxy Nexus) had a removable back and battery. All of the others rely on the “hold the Power button in for 10 seconds” way of forcing a reboot, and they’ve all worked, but there might come a time when a phone’s firmware is so buggy that it doesn’t work, where a battery pop-out might have done. As for the SD card slot, it’s not a feature I’ve missed since moving to Nexus (and more recently iPhone) as all of those devices had plenty of internal storage, while early Androids which had only megabytes, rather than gigabytes, of storage would fill up pretty quickly. It’s useful to be able to take the SD card out and replace it, or to transfer files physically to another device, especially if you don’t have a USB lead handy. The lack of an SD card slot has always been cited as a major disadvantage of both Nexus and iPhone, even if I’ve never missed it. Perhaps it’s going out of favour, as the cards are, let’s face it, easy to lose.

Slimming down a device does not always increase its portability. All of Apple’s Mac laptops, except the one I have (the 13-inch non-Retina MacBook Pro) nowadays rely mostly on USB, wifi and proprietary Apple connectors. They do not have, for example, an Ethernet port or a built-in optical drive. This means that if you want to watch a DVD on your laptop, you’ve got to buy, and carry, that extra drive, but of course Apple assume that you get all your music from the iTrunes store and your videos from some other online store, because of course we all have limitless broadband, don’t we. That also means that if your Mac is affected by the long-standing wi-fi bug in the latest Mac OS (Yosemite), which causes the wifi to constantly cut out or go slow after a few minutes of being connected, you don’t have connectivity, or you could be in for a very long download, unless you want to plug in that extra Thunderbolt dock, which is yet another thing to carry round when the whole point of slimming down and eliminating ports is to increase portability.

The new MacBook doesn’t even have Thunderbolt; it just has one USB-C port which connects to one of Apple’s external USB duplicators (yet another thing to carry around) which themselves only have at most one standard USB port on them (they also have a charging point and a VGA or HDMI display port), and you’ll need one of those to connect your iPhone, so besides the cost of the device (at least £1,049), these port duplicators are going to be a money-spinner for Apple (at least in the short term; as it’s an open standard, cheaper duplicators will be available before very long). One advantage of USB-C over the existing Mac power connectors is that, like with a smartphone, you could be able to plug in an external battery pack, but guess what? Yet another thing to carry around.

As I’ve always said, I’m not going to be any tech company’s fanboy. Not Apple’s, not Google’s and not Canonical’s or any other Linux development company’s either. I mainly use Apple devices now, but I’m not going to breathe in the awesome and “just shut up” when a product obviously lacks important features, just because the average new user doesn’t need them — if they never used them, how would they know how what advantages they offer? It’s significant that Apple haven’t deleted the non-Retina MacBook Pro, because they clearly recognise that some people need a traditional laptop in one box which can run other operating systems and connect a wide range of peripherals easily, rather than having to rely on external drives and port duplicators. And since when did knowing what an ethernet port is, from years of experience in using, maintaining, and developing for a range of types of computer, make you a monkey?

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The lawyer who doesn’t know a man from a dog

5 March, 2015 - 18:11

Picture of Jyoti Singh-Pandey, a young South Asian woman with long black hair, wearing a blue dress with columns of white dots down the front, and a necklace.I don’t know what sort of dignity these people have, because a lot of them are just thugs who got where they are by killing people and kicking people’s heads in. It’s more apt to call a dog a dignitary than some of these people, and even a dog is just acting out its dogginess. You can’t blame a dog for being a dog, but you can blame a human being for acting like something less than an animal.

The above words come from Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, talking about some of the rulers of the Muslim countries in a lecture called Hajj: Journey to the House of God which is actually the first lecture tape I bought from an Islamic bookshop back in the late 90s. They were brought to mind watching last night’s Storyville on BBC Four about the brutal gang-rape and murder of a young female medical student in Delhi in 2012; two of the men’s lawyers were interviewed and they came out with the most outrageous drivel, one of them comparing women to a rose and to a jewel who, if you leave them out in the street, a dog will have them. One of the lawyers announced that if his own daughter was involved in “pre-marital activity”, he would burn her to death in front of their family, and emphasised the fact that the victim, named Jyoti Singh-Pandey, was out with her “boyfriend” after dark. Thankfully, this blockhead failed to persuade a court that Jyoti was some kind of harlot who deserved to be gang-raped and then disembowelled while alive; his client is on Death Row. (You can see the programme on BBC’s iPlayer here until next Monday, if you’re in the UK. It may be available through other channels overseas.)

The other day someone on Twitter complained that she had seen people calling incidents like the Delhi rape “part of the culture”. I responded that anyone saying this sort thing was either an ignoramus or a racist. Rape as such is not part of any culture that I know of, although attitudes that certain behaviours constitute “asking for it” are fairly widespread, including in the West, while the outrage that this act caused in India is reflected in the demonstrations by both men and women shown in this programme. There are certainly aspects of the dominant culture that do contribute to rape and other violence against women, however: the ingrained preference for boys, particularly in north-west India (the worst-affected areas are immediately north and west of Delhi), results in a huge population imbalance with up to 150 boys born per 100 girls, and in many more areas, like Delhi itself, around 110 to 120 boys per 100 girls, resulting in there being a lot of young men running around who do not have partners or any real hope of finding one. The men responsible for Jyoti’s murder also had a history of petty criminality and violence, with one of them a steroid abuser. While they claimed to have acted as some sort of self-appointed morals police, part of me wonders if resentment of her education (even if they did not know she was a medical student, it might have been apparent from her way of speaking, for instance) played a part in motivating their behaviour.

While the men all came from deprived backgrounds and lived in what was described as a “semi-slum”, Jyoti’s family were also poor and had sold ancestral land to pay for her education. Jyoti herself worked in a call centre to help fund her studies, and wanted to set up a hospital in her ancestral village (this was done in her name after her death). Her family had distributed sweets after her birth, something that is normally only done for a boy, and neighbours criticised them saying “you’re celebrating as if you had a boy!”. The family were obviously very proud of their daughter, and told stories such as how she had intervened after a boy stole from her and a policeman beat him, saying “what will he learn from this?”. They did not regret spending their money on her. It showed that poor and uneducated people can have enlightened attitudes, while lawyers, who are highly-educated and often paid hansomely (although that may not be true there) can be shockingly ignorant. That alone makes this film worth seeing, if you can.

The film has been banned in India. The ostensible reason is that it concerns an ongoing legal case, although I suspect there is some element of embarrassment that Indian lawyers are seen spouting things that are so outrageous. I found the lawyers’ words more shocking than what the driver of the bus (convicted of the rape and murder, although he claims he only drove the bus) said; he, after all, is one appeal away from the rope and needs to justify or mitigate his behaviour. Even if one agrees that a ‘respectable’ woman should not be out after dark with a man who is not family, four men tricked her into boarding a bus and then gang-raped her and injured her so badly she later died. This was their choice; a dog will behave according to its dogginess (or its treatment and training by people) but a man can choose to be a human being or act worse than a dog. If a lawyer does not understand the difference between a man and a dog — and that man is responsible for his actions, which is why we even have a law — he shouldn’t be a lawyer.

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Another reason to remain in the EU

4 March, 2015 - 16:08

Picture of Firas al-Rawi (centre) and his wife and childrenA Twitter friend just flagged up this story from a Canadian newspaper. It’s about a Muslim family who are Canadian citizens being barred from boarding a flight to Florida so they could go to Disneyland and be together while the father, a doctor of Iraqi origin, attended a professional conference in Orlando. Firas al-Rawi and his wife and three children were stopped by US customs at Pearson airport in Toronto, and during a “security inspection”, officials demanded they hand over passwords to their computers and tablets, which they refused to do as it contained personal files such as pictures of the women without hijab. They were then refused entry, and a stamp was put in their passports saying they had “withdrawn”, and their computers have yet to be returned.

Canadians do not have an automatic right to enter the United States. British Citizens have an automatic right to enter the surrounding countries, because we are part of the European Union. I have always said that we should also be part of the Schengen agreement, which would enable us to travel without a passport to the neighbouring countries; we remain out of it largely because governments are afraid of a tabloid-led backlash. There are those who want us to withdraw from the EU, peddling stories of nuisance legislation and unchecked immigration (in the case of eastern Europe, this is something we did not have to agree to when those countries joined, and other member states refused); many of these people travel on the Continent on a regular basis and some have holiday homes in France and Spain. These people, being white and middle-class, are extremely unlikely to have their travel plans disrupted.

Withdrawing from the EU will make it more difficult for ordinary people to travel — it will mean foreign holidays are more involved and expensive, and take longer because of delays at the ports and customs inspections. (In the 50s and 60s, there were restrictions on what British citizens could take out of the country; you could only take a small amount of money in banknotes, for example.) It will mean jobs for young people on the Continent, which enables them to learn foreign languages, become harder to come by. But the biggest losers will be members of minorities with families on the Continent — Somalis with family in the Netherlands or Sweden, Africans (north and west) with family in France, as well as those in professional jobs or businessmen who need to travel to neighbouring countries for work. They will have to run the gauntlet of racist and ignorant immigration officials who will assume that a Muslim name means a terrorist, or at the very least a troublemaker. As whites in the same professional roles would not, it would amount to racial discrimination and a hindrance to the ambitions of anyone from these minorities.

Taking down barriers means we provide fewer opportunities for the harassment of travellers by the kind of bigoted morons who are attracted to the immigration service both here and abroad. As with human rights laws, those who want to scrap freedom to travel sell their policies on the basis that only dark-skinned people and troublemakers need such things, and that white privilege is as good as any charter. The English Channel is not the same width as the Atlantic and the United States is too powerful and aggressive and its dominant class too stupid and vicious for it to be anyone’s friend.

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