Reality, or something like it

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Location: London, England, United Kingdom

Friday, April 10, 2009

Boriswatch: Caesar in London

Almost as soon as the result of the London Mayoral election had been announced, the Conservatives hailed Boris Johnson’s Mayoralty as the template for a future Tory Government. They said that what London saw under Boris, the rest of the country could expect to see under Cameron. If this is the case, I would be very concerned.

My reason for this concern is simple – Boris Johnson does not believe that he is accountable to anyone and runs London as an autocrat, rather than the democrat he promised to be. The most recent example occurred on Thursday morning when he announced the resignation of Bob Quick as the head of the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorism division. He did this despite being asked by the Home Secretary and the Police to let the Met announce Quick’s resignation. Now, fair enough, he is chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, but the Met is not just London’s force, it has a national role too, especially in counter-terrorism. Therefore, it should be answerable to the Home Secretary as well, but Boris decided he’d go ahead anyway. (As an aside, this isn’t just bad for accountability, it’s bad for the Met’s operational effectiveness – they need to have clear leadership on counter-terrorism, and not have the Mayor of London confusing their directions).

There are other examples too. Boris recently tried (and failed) to walk out of a Commons Transport Select Committee inquiry into London transport’s response to February’s heavy snowfall. His reason for this was that he didn’t like the questions and thought them partisan. And last year, when asked about charges against his Olympics advisor David Ross regarding Ross’ breach of financial regulations, his response was ‘lalala, byebyebye.’

From a man who promised accountability, this is simply not acceptable. When you are an elected politician in a democracy, you have to answer difficult questions. Gordon Brown can’t simply walk out of Prime Minister’s Questions because he doesn’t like the questions or thinks that the opposition are being partisan. This is called holding Government to account, and it’s clearly something Boris doesn’t believe in.

In a way, this is hardly surprising. Boris is a classicist and is famously a fan of the Roman Empire, so perhaps the fiefdom analogy is wrong, perhaps he sees himself more as a Caesar figure. Either way, his promises of greater accountability and greater democracy have come to nothing. This is what we can expect of a Tory Government. We know this, because they told us.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Shoes, China and the real disgrace

Last week, something disgraceful happened in Cambridge. While Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was speaking at an event at Cambridge University, a member of the audience threw a shoe at him and berated the university for ‘prostituting itself with this dicator.’ The news of this event caused widespread outrage in China, with many calling it a disgrace. However, this protestor was the only one whose actions could not be considered disgraceful.

Indeed, those most guilty of disgraceful conduct were the other members of Premier Wen’s audience, who told the protestor to sit down and shouted ‘shame on you.’ What they should have been doing was applauding him. What they actually did was applaud Mr. Wen who, while he may be well-loved in China, is still the leader of a one-party state that denies its citizens basic freedoms, such as the ability to choose their own leaders.

While the shoe-thrower’s protest may not have been the most well-mannered, he did have a point. The Chinese government is still a repressive regime, and nowhere was that better shown than in the media response to the shoe-throwing. It is no secret that the Chinese media is tightly controlled by the government and criticism of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power is forbidden. One needs only think back to the row over Google’s decision to censor their search engine in China to see just how restricted the media is there. In response to the incident, the Chinese media, as well as giving fawning descriptions of Mr. Wen’s speech, suggested that the shoe-thrower might have ‘mental problems’ and that his actions showed ‘how deeply political nonsense has permeated into European awareness.’

Presumably this ‘nonsense’ includes such ridiculous ideas that the only candidates in their elections are those approved by the government, or that there is widespread political interference in the judicial system, or that punishments such as Hard Labour (called ‘Re-education by Labour’) still exist, or perhaps that places like Tibet are subject to repressive security regimes. All of the above nonsense I managed to find in a quick look at the Foreign Office’s political profile of China. Yes, even the usually moderate and diplomatic Foreign Office, an organisation which does not want to offend the Chinese, uses the word ‘repressive’ about the Chinese government.

China may like to pretend that all is well in the harmonious society, and it may complain that too many in the West like to criticise it unjustly while ignoring anything good about China, but the truth is there is a lot to criticise China for. For all its talk about progress, it is still a country where dissent is punishable by imprisonment, religious freedom is lacking and the democracy is absent. The real disgrace about last week’s shoe-throwing incident is not that it happened but that, among the cries of ‘shame’ and ‘get out’, nobody thought to shout ‘Hear hear.’

Thursday, September 25, 2008

There is only one man for the job, and it's not who you think

There is only one man suitable to lead this country over the coming years. Of the politicians available, there is only one who has the experience, the acumen and the moral fibre necessary to guide the British ship of state through the rough seas ahead. That man’s name is Gordon Brown.

I do not mean to say that he has not made mistakes, and will not make more, nor do I mean to say that his every policy is solid gold, for there are many that are not (the 10 pence tax debacle being just one of them). But, given the choice between Brown and Cameron, I would choose Brown any day of the week, and not just because I cannot stand the idea of David Cameron as Prime Minister.

Of course Brown is less inspiring than his Conservative counterpart, he does not play the media game as well nor is he as good an orator, but he has never tried to hide who he is, or what his beliefs are. And having spent an hour of my Tuesday afternoon listening to his speech to the Labour conference, I am convinced that he genuinely believes in helping the poor and the disadvantaged, the huddled masses that are at best ignored and at worst damned by the majority of the population. I am convinced that he believes in that most British of principles: fairness, and will do more than the Conservatives to make it a reality. And, in a week when George Osborne declared that the terrible effect the collapse of the banks was simply the workings of the market, I am convinced that he is the man to rebuild the British financial system so that it favours, not the miniscule number of bankers in the City of London, but the vast and overwhelming number of ordinary British citizens.
At the next election, we will be presented with a choice about what sort of country we want to live in. On the one hand, we will have Cameron’s meretricious Conservatives – a veneer of fine and principled words about fairness and global warming, but underneath the same reactionary, elitist, callous party they have always been. On the other hand, we will have the Labour Party – a party with a membership genuinely committed to fairness, with a leader whose morality, whose desire to do good, is unquestionable. I know who I would rather have in Downing Street.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Cameron's Masquerade

Only the most callous of individuals could claim that nothing should be done to aid the poor, and so it is laudable that even the Conservative Party should wish to claim, as they did last week, to be the ‘party of the poor.’ Or rather, it would be laudable if the claim were not so false as to be insulting. Let us not forget that David Cameron has advocated the introduction of a social security system based on that previously attempted in Wisconsin. Under such a system , citizens would only be permitted to claim the pittance that is unemployment benefit for only two years of their whole life, no matter their circumstances, no matter their level of skills or education.

This was not the worst aspect of the Wisconsin system, nor do I have time or space to enumerate its countless failings. Suffice it to say, this is not the policy of the ‘party of the poor.’ It is, however, the policy of a party that does not care for the poor – whose support comes from the middle and upper classes where it is more electorally expedient to victimise the poor than to actually help them.

That the Conservatives tend to treat the poor as little more than criminals has been long established. One only needs to look back to the introduction of the minimum wage to see their wholesale opposition to measures designed aid those in dire need (every Tory voted against it, a fact that gives a new meaning to Boris Johnson’s claim that they are ‘leading the way on low pay’).

However, while this is standard practice for the Tory party, it is more surprising when it comes from a former champion of the poor – the Labour Party – who recently stated that they would not countenance increasing the rate of taxation on incomes over £100,000 in order to help the poor because it would ‘send the wrong message.’ What was wrong with the message that those who have money to spare should aid their fellow man and be responsible for the improvement of society was beyond me. One would have thought a Christian such as Brown would agree.

The mantle of ‘the party of the poor’ is a noble target, but for the Conservatives to claim it at this juncture is laughable. Tragically, the same is true of Labour. We must remember that the poor are human too, and their lives just as sacred as those of the rich. They deserve better than either party is offering – better education, better housing and better opportunities. It is wrong to condemn them to more extreme penury, as the Wisconsin model would. Until then, Oliver Letwin’s comment is simply kicking hundreds of thousands of people while they’re down.

Friday, May 30, 2008

BorisWatch: Fear and Loathing in London

It’s been almost a month since Boris Johnson became Mayor of London, so what has he done? The answer is: very little, but there are two significant measures he has introduced, both designed to tackle perceived problems with law and order (always a favourite with the paranoid right wing).

The first of these starts on Sunday and will see a blanket ban on the consumption of alcohol, or the possession of open containers of alcohol, on public transport. Boris has claimed that this will make people’s journeys on the London Underground more pleasant as they won’t have to deal with aggressive drinkers. I sincerely hope that I am not the only one that sees the massive problem with this statement, but for all those that can’t quite make it out (like, say, Boris), I’ll point it out. This policy would work if the cause of public drunkenness (which, I’ll concede, is not always edifying) were caused exclusively by people drinking on public transport. However, as anyone with a functioning brain cell will tell you, most people do not get drunk on the tube, but rather do it in the many pubs and clubs around London. Only then do they get on public transport and cause a nuisance, so how does Boris plan to deal with all of those people, who, I imagine, make up a more significant proportion of public transport users than people who drink on the tube, and are probably just as threatening.

So why is this a problem? Well, it isn’t per se, but coming from a party that claims to be against the authoritarian bureaucracy of the current Labour government, and a mayor that has frequently complained of the ‘schoolmarminess of Blair’s Britain,’ it seems just a little hypocritical to be introducing rules and regulations that will do little to improve public welfare. Not only that, but I’d prefer my Mayor (even if I didn’t vote for him) to actually implement productive policies, rather than mess about with symbolic but ultimately pointless and ineffectual gestures.

The second tactic is more frightening, more pointless and more counter-productive. They are, of course, knife arches. This is one of those policies that I hate mainly because it sounds so reasonable so people not given to close questioning of government policy, or are of the vaguely authoritarian bent anyway, but is, in fact, ridiculous. For those among you in those two categories, I’ll explain:

Firstly, on a purely organisational basis, this policy is simply impractical. Imagine the thousands, if not millions, of commuters who use London’s stations every day. Now, imagine the delay and chaos caused by making them all go through knife arches, especially as they are all guaranteed to be carrying something metal (keys, wallet, mobile phones etc. etc.). Of course, they could always use racial or some other form of profiling, it’s not as if that’s ever caused a riot…..

Then there’s the principle argument. When any one of us can be subjected to a search procedure on the whim of a police officer, without any evidence that we might be somehow guilty of a crime, we become mere objects of suspicion, with knife arches adding to our status as the most watched people in the world (and therefore, presumably, the most suspected). Oh, and for all the individuals out there who say that they don’t mind, they’ve got nothing to hide, I’ll go ahead and assume that you won’t mind having security cameras installed in all the rooms of your house, you know, just to make sure you’re not selling crack out of your kitchen. Hey, you’ve got nothing to hide.

To be honest, the worst thing about this is not the faintly authoritarian tone of the policies of a man who complained about just such policies when he was in opposition, it’s not even the fact that they’re pointless and intrusive policies. No, the worst part of it is that they are being implemented when the facts suggest that they aren’t actually necessary. While Kit Malthouse, Boris’ Deputy Mayor in charge of Policing, claims that there has been an increase in ‘death and injury caused by young people carrying and using knives,’ the Metropolitan Police’s most recent survey suggests that knife crime has actually dropped 15.7% over the past two years and that you’re twice as likely to be attacked on public transport in Perth, Australia (where many Britons go to flee the crime of their homeland) than you are on public transport in London. The first point this raises is the question: why is the Deputy Mayor not in possession of all the facts, or is he deliberately misleading the public (and if so, why?)? The second point is that, if Team Boris really wants to make Londoners feel safer, why doesn’t he tell us about these figures rather than instituting policies and making statements guaranteed to make us think the worst about our city? Surely he’s clever enough to know that it would be a better way to make us feel safer, or perhaps that Oxford education’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Kosovo Crisis

At the beginning of another century, a crisis is once again developing in the Balkans and, once again, a nation’s desire for independence is causing concern among the world’s major powers. The problem facing today’s powers is that of Kosovo and its attempt to win independence from Serbia but before I talk about the details of this particular situation, I’ll give some background.

In the late 1990s, Slobodan Milosevic began to suppress the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo. While Kosovo was part of Serbia (and, indeed, is very dear to the Serbians and viewed as the cradle of their culture), Serbs only made up 10% of the population there. In 1999, the continued persecution of the Kosovan Albanians led to a series of NATO air strikes against targets in both Serbia and Kosovo. Since then, Kosovo was governed as an autonomous region under UN and NATO protection, although it was still technically part of Serbia. Then, on 17th February, Kosovo declared independence.

That is the story so far. Now comes the difficult issue of recognition. The UK, USA, Germany and France, among others, have all decided to recognise Kosovo’s independence (or are expected to do so soon). This is done under the principles of democracy and self-determination. The government of Kosovo under Prime Minister Hashim Thaci was democratically elected by the people of Kosovo, and the declaration of independence unanimously approved by the Kosovan parliament.

Opposing them are Serbia and Russia, among others, who claim that it is a breach of international law and outside of the original UN Security Council Resolution on the Kosovan issue. For Serbia, as I have already said, Kosovo is an important place historically and they have sentimental reasons for keeping hold of it. Russia’s angle is harder to judge. It is hard to believe that President Putin is the concerned with international law, it doesn’t fit with his track record. Perhaps he fears another pro-Western government near his borders, perhaps he wishes to provoke a confrontation with the West. It is hard to say.

What is certain is this, with Serbia’s declaration in November of 2006 that Kosovo could only be removed from Serbia by force, and their recalling of their ambassador to the United States, Serbia is not going to give in without a fight. The question is whether or not they will fight with force or diplomacy.

Fighting with diplomacy will not be a great problem, but the use of military force will put the Western world in an almost impossible bind. On the one hand, they will have to defend their credibility with regards to democracy and the defence of small nations, especially ones whose independence they support. On the other, they will have to use their already over-stretched forces to fight a European war, and there is a chance that one of the West’s opponents will be Russia.

It is absolutely vital that Putin’s Russia, with its state terrorism and authoritarian government not be allowed dominance of world affairs, which the weakness of the West would give them. As bad as the USA may be, that would be far worse. It is also vital that the Western World, especially the USA and UK, stand up for democracy when it is in its greatest need. The people of Kosovo have made a declaration of their will and we must not allow would-be Tyrants to crush that democratic spirit. Hopefully we will be able to accomplish this without resorting to violence. We must exhaust our diplomatic channels before fighting, but we must prepare for all eventualities. This is a situation that could easily descend into chaos and carnage, just as it did at the beginning of the last century. Hopefully the world leaders of today will have more sense than they did then, or perhaps the terrible prospect of modern warfare will restrain them. I do not know whether or not there will be a war, but we must hope and pray that there is not. We will probably not survive it.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Tough On The Poor....

There must have been a coup. It seems we all missed it, but the government of the United Kingdom must have been overthrown and replaced by the editorial board of the Daily Mail. This can be the only explanation for the latest anti-poor policy to be announced by the supposedly socialist Labour government.

Caroline Flint, the housing minister, has proposed that those living in social housing, something which is designed to make sure that the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in society are not forced onto the streets, should actively seek work as a condition of their tenancy. The idea behind it is to use fear as a method of fighting unemployment rather than, say, improving training and education for the disadvantaged. And, as a further benefit for the government, they can threaten the working classes with the stick of homelessness and hence please the Daily Mail.

This policy will not help the problem of unemployment among those living on council estates (which is currently at around 50%). The problem does not stem from laziness and so cannot be solved with fear. The problem is caused by poor education and no amount of threats will overcome the fact that these unemployed lack the skills to help them into work. This punitive policy is designed simply to make the government look tough on the poor – something that is oddly popular.

The result of this policy will not be reduced unemployment but increased homelessness. Single mothers will have to leave their young children alone (which will, of course, do wonders for their upbringing) or face the terrible prospect of being without shelter for themselves and their children. The members of society who are least able to look after themselves will be driven further into poverty, and for what reason? It is time the government abandoned populism and started to think.