Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Tony Blair, BA (Baracus)

During the hoo-hah over the post of EU President and subsequent election (a loose term these days, here taken to mean 'executive appointment decided over dinner') it was an unidentified British EU 'official' who spoke of Tony's suitability for the job in these terms: 'The fact is that Mr Blair is the A-Team.'

What Tony thought of this comparison to a fictional crack commando squad working outside the law isn't recorded. He seems partial to the phrase, though, having since used it to describe Obama's new foreign policy team (see the report in The Times). It has also been claimed – most notably by David Cameron during Prime Minister's question time – that Blair refers dismissively to Brown and his cabinet as 'the B-Team' (see the video of PM's questions – about 15 mins in is when it kicks off – and the reference by Peter Oborne that sparked it off). Perhaps he just loves it when a plan comes together.

But just how similar are Tony and the suave-talking, cigar-chomping, bling-wearing, clinically insane retro-mercenaries? Realising that good, old-fashioned intelligence is hard to come by these days (identifying weapons of mass destruction, working out where Osama Bin Laden is etc.) here is a field guide to avoid the embarrassment of potential misrecognition.

The A-Team
In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.

Tony Blair
In 2003, Tony Blair sent Britain into a military conflict to which they did not really want to commit. Not having a military background himself, he remained in a maximum security stockade (Downing Street) while the real soldiers faced the real guns and real bombs. Today, not really wanted by government or electorate but still miraculously omnipresent, he survives by making a fortune as the world's highest paid public speaker (for unimaginable reasons he's a favourite of the Carlyle Group, a leading private equity investor in the military – see the report in the Telegraph). All this, in spite of a crime he actually did commit. If you have a speaking engagement, if you're not fussy about morality, and if you can afford his current rate of around £2,800 per minute, you can hire Tony Blair.

So, now we know.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

The Dark Lord

Some people claim that this government hasn’t achieved anything. I couldn’t disagree more.

They have sold off our bullion reserves for a knock-down price, like some dodgy dealer in a pub car park, showing all the wisdom and discernment of one of those car-boot scavenging idiots on Bargain Hunt passing over the Georgian silver in favour of a second-hand plastic toy from a Happy Meal.

They have taken the tradition of British socialism – a body of ideas and principles honed and hardened by a century of blood, sweat and toil – put it through the mincer and served it up like a pack of two-for-the-price-of-one frozen chicken nuggets, its grey pulp mixed with the ground-up corpses of Thatcherite predecessors and fed back to us like sponge-brained cattle.

They have resorted to outright lies to persuade us into an unnecessary war engineered for profit (and not even our profit!) by a bullying Big Brother who had the barely-disguised cynicism to use the entirely unrelated, tragic slaying of thousands of its own innocent citizens as a cover story.

They have, in the name of our freedom, scrapped or eroded more of our rights and freedoms than any previous government (the right to privacy, the right to a lawyer of your own choosing, the right to communicate privately, the right to freedom of expression, the right to freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of movement without surveillance, the right to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and even the right to citizenship) as if some dimwitted party drone, charged with the task of finding out where the they’d left their principles – because no one could remember what they looked like any more – had happened upon a copy of Orwell’s 1984 and mistaken it for a manifesto.

And, most recently, they’ve stoked the issue of MP’s expenses – seemingly unconcerned by the fact that they themselves come out of it looking like a bunch of money-grabbing cheats – in the hope that this sordid groping we have suffered at the hands of the moat owners and mortgage flippers would distract us from the infinitely more brutal, non-consensual rogering inflicted by the Lisbon Treaty.

Yes, they’ve achieved a hell of a lot. And – the biggest, most stunning achievement of all – they are still here. Like a character in a teen-exploitation horror movie, they’ve survived in spite of everything. Except that if this were indeed a horror movie, we’d all be howling in indignation, hurling our pizza slices and overpriced trainers at the screen in outrage at the fact that it was the irredeemably fucked up, inbred, cannibalistic psychopath – the one who makes you feel physically sick – who had emerged smugly victorious.

If ever there were a symbol of this descent into brainless, bankrupt, trough-feeding, paranoid hypocrisy – someone, seemingly, with a divine right to represent all it stands for – it is not the grinning, deluded Blair or the grimacing, desperate Brown. It is Lord Mandelson.

Take that climactic moment at the Labour Conference, in which he declared with a grin: ‘If I can come back, we can come back!’ Perhaps something is wrong with my hearing, but first time around I swear I heard this as: ‘If I can get away with it, we can get away with it!’

Now, Mandelson has parked his bullet-proof Bentley on the lawns of higher education. He has said that students need to be treated more as customers by universities, and that they need to think of themselves as such (they should, he says, be less passive, and be ‘pickier, choosier and more demanding consumers of the higher education experience’). He has also proposed that ‘top universities’ – interpreted as a particular attack on Oxford and Cambridge – take into account background when assessing students for admission, to encourage students from poorer families. Of this, he has said: ‘Nobody should be disadvantaged or penalised on the basis of the families that they come from or the schools they attended, and the way in which a simple assessment based on A-level results might exclude them.’

On the face of it, both suggestions, with their implications of empowerment and striking a blow in the favour of the underdog, seem noble aims.

But what is really being said here? That university admissions policies – policies currently based on admitting individuals on the basis of merit – are in some way unfair? Apparently so. Why? Because schools are unfair. Some schools are plain bad, and do not serve their pupils well, which means exam results may not reflect ability. Mandelson’s answer? Make universities adjust. Make universities responsible.

No, Peter. Fix the fucking schools.

How stupid does he think we are? Even judged by crass commercial standards – the analogy so beloved by the Mandelson’s of this world – state education has been ham-fistedly managed, despite the often frustrated efforts of those who understand it best – the teachers. Jesus, at least in a McDonalds or a Starbucks the quality is actually consistent from place to place.

What is staggering here is that Lord M makes his pronouncement as if the government has had no responsibility, ever, for primary, secondary and further education, as if it has been someone else’s problem all this time, and they – not government – messed it up. Maybe someone did it when they weren’t looking. Maybe they think they can palm it off on some other poor, unsuspecting bastard, like blaming the dog for eating their homework. As we all know from our school days, successful blame-shifting depends upon a careful choice of scapegoat – the thickie of the class, or some dumb animal; essentially something that doesn’t have the brains to work out what’s going on, and ideally, lacks any means of verbal communication. So, naturally, they decide to pin it on some of the most highly-educated, capable and brilliant-minded human beings in the world. Smart move, Mandy. Yeah, those shit-for-brains lawyers, heart surgeons, computer scientists and quantum physicists are never going to see that one coming.

Quite how universities are supposed to judge ability if it isn’t to be by the usual, fairly reliable method of checking whether prospective students are any good or not, is not specified. Perhaps they are expected to use their previously untapped psychic abilities. Or perhaps they’re supposed to just fling open their doors and operate a kind of honour system. ‘Well, if you think you’re up to it, who are we to argue? Come on in!’

Personally, I think there are reasonable grounds for making admission to top universities harder, not easier. Certainly there’s evidence that, in spite of everything, the occasional blithering idiot has already slipped through the net (P. Mandelson, St Catherine's College, Oxford 1973-1976). Now, Lord Mandelmort has returned to take revenge on those wiser souls who educated him, yet from whom he apparently learnt so little.

Mandelson – Secretary for Business, let's remember, not education – does not, he says, intend to dictate admissions policy to universities. But then, he doesn’t really need to. Sometimes, it’s enough to simply loom in a doorway wearing a portentous smile and dropping dark hints. ‘Nice place you’ve got here. Shame if something happened to it...’

But what is the worst that could happen to it? Well, I think Mandelson makes that abundantly clear. To illustrate, let’s just ask ourselves about his other key point. Could universities benefit from being treated more like a McDonalds or a Starbucks? And does being ‘more like a customer’ make a student less passive?

A purchase by a customer may well involve a good deal of deliberation and choice beforehand, but once the financial transaction is complete, the customer’s role is almost entirely passive. That’s the point. It’s something you now own that you didn’t have to make, or a service relieving you of the need to do it yourself. It’s entirely about sitting back and giving someone else the responsibility – to the extent that if the supplier doesn’t deliver on the deal (the customer’s responsibility – payment – is already fulfilled), you can demand your money back. To make education more like this is to make the students role more passive, not less. It also suggests that education is something that students merely have given to them – that is done to them, or done for them, but not done by them – a kind of passive, Gradgrindian filling-up with facts in which the student plays no active part, and is expected to do no work, but for which the university is made wholly responsible. A potentially catastrophic misconception, which no amount of empty rhetoric about ‘choice’ – rhetoric which ceased to convince some time in the 1980s – can entirely cover up.

What can we do to fight this? As far as Mandelson goes, nothing. He isn’t elected – just appointed by a Prime Minister, who we didn’t choose either. However, real choices are looming. Electoral choices. Our choices.

Let me nail my colours to the mast. I don’t want to see this government defeated. I want to see it smashed, and everything it has touched disinfected. I want to see each of them tarred and feathered and flung from Beachy Head, and fended off with pointed sticks if they try to swim back. But this is beside the point. The real challenge facing us, whoever we choose to vote for in the forthcoming general election, is making those we elect answerable. To have a hope of achieving that, we need to be more active in our political interactions. We need to not sit back and just let government do the business to us. It’s not enough to be a customer. We can’t return the goods and get our money back. We cannot afford to be passive. That means every one of us, whenever we can, hassling our prospective MPs, making them aware of the issues that matter to us, and making them understand that for these reasons – and only for these reasons – will we vote for them. We need to shake them out of their stupor, shatter their sense of security, make them realise what their responsibilities are. In short, we need to educate them. Like all educatiuon – real education – that means work. But we have to believe it’s worth the effort. Because if we do finally give up, and give away responsibility for ourselves and our actions, we may never get it back.

PS: As I write, Mandelson is facing a fresh inquiry into accusations that he did 'improper' favours for his Russian billionaire friend, Oleg Deripaska. Whatever comes of it, I sincerely hope that he gets precisely what he deserves – no more, no less.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Bring out the gimp

There were two extraordinary examples of British justice this week – both involving Home Secretary Alan Johnson.

The first concerned computer hacker Gary McKinnon, whose fate has seemingly been sealed by the government’s granting of extradition to the United States. He faces a potential 60-70 years in prison (estimates vary) if convicted by an American court. The claims that this punishment was disproportionate, that he was simply being made a whipping boy by a humiliated US government and that he should be tried in the UK – partly because he also suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome – fell on deaf ears at the Home Office, who seemingly are under a different kind of lash.

Alan Johnson has claimed that he had no choice but to grant extradition based on the legal advice he was given, and that he in fact had no power to prevent it. Several senior lawyers have since stated that this is not the case. When the Daily Mail requested to see that legal advice for themselves – as they are entitled to do under the freedom of information act – their request was blocked, sparking speculation that it directly contradicted Mr Johnson’s claims. Yesterday (Wednesday 9 September 2009) a cross-party group of MPs campaigning for McKinnon’s right to be tried in the UK, including David Davis, Chris Huhne and Michael Meacher, put their case to the Home Secretary. Johnson did not budge.

We cannot call Mr Johnson a liar without evidence, of course. But one cannot help but wonder why he would withhold evidence that supports his decision and demonstrates his honesty. If those senior lawyers are correct and he is able to prevent extradition but unwilling to do so, then we must ask ourselves why. Why would he mislead us, and whose interests would he be serving?

For some reason, this reminded me of a something I overheard in a recently gentrified seaside town that I visited not long ago. It was in an overpriced antique-cum-gift shop – the type that features stripped pine chests and sculptures made of driftwood with rusty nail banged in. As we were shuffling round, looking at things we were never going to buy, the shop’s proprietor was having a telephone conversation with a customer about a set of antique chairs. The scenario soon became clear: the customer on the phone had recently seen the chairs and asked for them to be reserved, but in the meantime another – who was standing by her desk expectantly, and rather uncomfortably – had come and offered more money. The proprietor was now trying to explain to the original customer why she ‘had’ to let the chairs go. ‘My hands are tied’ she said, apologetically, as she explained why the assurance she had previously given them was now worthless. Of course, her hands weren’t tied – at least, not in the sense of her having no say in the matter. As proprietor of the shop she could do whatever she liked, selling or not selling to whoever she pleased. She had simply been offered more money, and had dropped her original customer like a stone. If her hands were tied, then it was consensual bondage – for which she was being paid.

The truth of the situation was not lost on those in attendance. As we caught the eye of another browsing customer, he muttered under his breath ‘Bitch!’

The question is, whose bitch is Mr Johnson?

The second incident this week was the conviction of three men who had plotted to destroy commercial airliners with makeshift bombs, potentially killing hundreds of innocent travellers.

Given the rarity of such clear-cut moments of triumph for this government – and for Mr Johnson – one might expect the opportunity to have elicited a defiant, Churchillian response emphasising the hopelessness of the terrorists’ ambitions. Something that boosted the morale of the public, affirming that life goes on as usual in spite of the plots of a small number of malcontents, that we will not be defeated or downcast, that our police will inevitably foil them and that their efforts to intimidate us are futile.

So what did we actually get? While he did state that the police, security services and CPS had done an excellent job, he chose to begin his statement by saying: ‘This case reaffirms that we face a real and serious threat from terrorism’.

It may seem a subtle point of language, but significant events can hinge on such subtleties – what we are told, and the way in which we are told it (or, in the case of Gary McKinnon, what we are not told). Mr Johnson’s message could have been a positive one – instead it was telling us not merely to remain vigilant, but to remain afraid. Later, he even referred to the ‘complex and daring plot’. (Are we actually admiring terrorists now?)

Why on earth would Alan Johnson, our own Home Secretary, the man responsible for our security, wish us to be afraid? This, surely, is exactly what the terrorists want – for us to be too terrified to go about our normal business; to accept harsh measures that restrict our freedom and undermine our society. But what does our government want? To perpetuate fear via a phoney war, in order to make society more malleable, more accepting of controlling measures that would normally seem unacceptable, as in Orwell’s 1984? To have us stop questioning anything, including the extradition – or rendition – of UK subjects to the United States?

The Paperback Oxford English Dictionary defines a terrorist as: ‘A person who uses violence and intimidation in an attempt to achieve political aims’. If our government is indeed using intimidation to achieve political aims, then that not only puts them in league with terrorists – it makes them terrorists.

But this is all rather extreme, isn’t it? Surely, the idea that our own government would intimidate us, that it has an interest in us remaining afraid, that it would deliberately mislead us in order to achieve political aims, is preposterous?

‘Saddam Hussein's regime is despicable, he is developing weapons of mass destruction, and we cannot leave him doing so unchecked... He is a threat to his own people and to the region and, if allowed to develop these weapons, a threat to us also.’
Tony Blair, 10 April 2002, House of Commons

‘It [the intelligence service] concludes that Iraq has chemical and biological weapons, that Saddam has continued to produce them, that he has existing and active military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, which could be activated within 45 minutes, including against his own Shia population; and that he is actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability...’
Tony Blair, 24 September 2002, House of Commons

The question is, whose bitch are we?

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

McKinnon, MacShane and the shame of it all

Some people are an inspiration. They make you proud to be a part of the community to which you belong, whether it be a neighbourhood, social group or nation. A few go further still, making you feel glad to be human. Their achievements dispel cynicism and instead fill you with hope for the future of us all – because if a determined individual can achieve such things as they have, what, you begin to wonder, might we achieve together?

Denis MacShane is not one of these people.

You may never to have heard of him. But I think it’s important that you do.

Labour MP for Rotherham and a former journalist, MacShane was Minister for Europe 2002-2005 and is author of the book Globalising Hatred: the New Anti-Semitism. The independent website theyworkforyou.com reveals that he voted strongly for student top-up fees and Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, and very strongly for ID cards, foundation hospitals, and the war in Iraq. He also voted moderately against a transparent parliament, and very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war.

If you’ve heard of him recently, however, it’s very likely in connection with the case of Gary McKinnon, whose final appeal against extradition was rejected on 31 July 2009. In short, MacShane is one of those we can thank for protecting our freedom by helping to ensure that such a dangerous individual now faces a potential lifetime in a US prison.

McKinnon, you will recall, was the amateur British computer hacker who regularly broke into Pentagon and NASA computers over several years, apparently searching for evidence that the truth about captured extraterrestrial technology was being kept from the public. Inevitably, perhaps, he was caught.

The whole case revealed some of the very real dangers lurking unregarded right beneath our noses – but not, perhaps, in the way you might think.

Clearly embarrassed and angered over the woefully inadequate levels of computer security that McKinnon’s case had revealed (McKinnon didn’t even ‘hack’, he simply found machines that hadn’t had their passwords set and logged in) – and, perhaps, nervous at what he may have seen on his virtual travels – the US government invoked recent fast-track extradition laws so they could deal with him under their own legal system.

These laws – the result of the UK government’s 2003 Extradition Act and, more specifically, the US-UK Extradition Treaty – were intended for suspected terrorists post 9/11. But the UK and US are not entirely equal partners in this deal. As the BBC website explains, to extradite an American from the US, Britain must prove ‘probable cause’, while the US need only prove ‘reasonable suspicion’ for extradition of a British citizen. In other words, there is no requirement on the part of the US to present prima facie evidence – while British authorities still have the burden of proof. According to the BBC, since 2004 US courts have granted about 70% of UK extradition requests, while nearly 90% of US requests have been granted. (Don’t blame the US for this, by the way; it’s a situation our own government – the government that is supposed to protect us – put us in.)

This is not the only disparity. McKinnon’s sentence, were he to face prosecution in the UK, has been estimated at 1-2 years. In the US he faces up to 70 years in prison if found guilty. This is a man who has no connection with any act of terror, who revealed no military secrets, and who claimed to have done no damage (the US authorities dispute this – though it's worth mentioning that a minimum of $5,000 damage is required for the extradition request to stand). He was also diagnosed a year ago as suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome – a condition within the autism spectrum, which typically involves a lack of empathy in the sufferer and can lead to limited awareness of the consequences of one's actions.

And this is where MacShane re-enters the story.

In response to the obvious inequities, Tory MPs recently spearheaded a Commons debate calling for an urgent review of the treaty. Despite the serious concerns raised, the proposal was defeated. Denis MacShane was one of those who spoke out firmly in support of the government, of extradition and of the treaty. One of the ways he chose to do this, however, was telling. Speaking of McKinnon, he said:

‘I was slightly alarmed when I heard that the gentleman—who is not mentioned in the motion but about whom we are talking and the Daily Mail is campaigning—was diagnosed with his distressing condition only last year. One gets a slight hint of the famous Ernest Saunders defence: he said that he was suffering from Alzheimer's to get off a criminal prosecution, but the moment that he was out of court, he somehow skipped off and his memory came back with marvellous vigour.’

In the heat of debate, these comments went almost unnoticed, with only Dominic Grieve picking up on them as ‘cheap and revolting statements’. But no doubt it helped to sow seeds of doubt among those about to vote.

For anyone to imply, based on no evidence whatsoever, that an individual is a liar and a fraud is indeed a ‘cheap and revolting’ act. To use innuendo to suggest that the life and liberty of a vulnerable, threatened individual are somehow irrelevant, worse still. But to do it whilst seeming to stand for the rights of individuals to be treated fairly under the law, as a representative of the people whose rights you are sworn to uphold, is the very worst thing of all. It is shameful. But perhaps it does at least help to explain MacShane’s apparent support for extradition without evidence.

It’s an old politician’s trick, of course, to undermine the individual rather than their arguments, and it isn’t the only time MacShane has used the tactic. He also recently caused a minor furore on The Guardian website when his piece on the European elections suggested that Norman Tebbit was supporting the BNP by advising voters to go against the main parties in the European elections – even though Tebbit himself had specifically advised against voting BNP (on the grounds that it was ‘Labour with racism’) and had suggested, amongst others, voting for the Green Party. Of course, the whole idea neatly fitted the thesis of MacShane’s new book – that fascism is again on the rise – whilst simultaneously, by sleight of hand, casting an old political adversary in the role of chief racist. Those posting on the site immediately saw through it. But once again the seeds of doubt – or perhaps one should say paranoia – had been sown among those about to vote.

Racism is clearly a key issue for MacShane. How odd, then, that he should be so dismissive of McKinnon based on preconceived ideas, rather than established fact. Isn’t this the very basis of racism, and a thousand other shades of bigotry? What is worse is that he should get away with it in open debate in the House of Commons – the heart (or, at least, conscience – such as it is) of our democratically elected government. Can we put this down to ignorance? Or arrogance? Neither would have served as any kind of defence for McKinnon – but if I had the power to choose who, between McKinnon and Macshane, was causing more costly damage to this country, it wouldn’t be McKinnon packing his bags.

Denis Macshane is just one man, of course – merely a symptom, perhaps, of a greater malaise. But they do work for us. More than that, they represent us. So, is this how we wish to be represented? If not, it falls to us to shout – and I do mean shout – every time such a sour note is struck. I sincerely doubt such people will be easily shamed into silence or apology, but the more it is allowed, the more it becomes the accepted norm. Only when we lose that ability to feel shame ourselves are we truly lost. Do not ignore it. Do not accept it.

And, since personal attacks are all the rage, let me add my own – based on fact, this time. A few years ago, I interviewed Denis MacShane in his capacity as Minister for Europe, which he then was, on the current state of European cinema. He gave some general views on the subject, then, when the interview was over and the tape switched off, the conversation turned to the hot topic of subtitling v dubbing. He expressed a strong preference for subtitling, then added, by way of justification: 'After all, if I'm watching Olivier's Henry V, I don't want to hear some frog reciting Shakespeare...' (his emphasis).

This was the voice of a campaigner against racism, and the UK’s representative in Europe. Our representative. Your representative. I believe what this truly represents is a new kind of hypocrisy in government – one grown so arrogant, it no longer even bothers to hide.

Why should it? This is a government that attacks all prejudices but its own, that watches and suspects its people instead of standing up for them, that sells them out for the sake of an ill-defined ‘special relationship’ and lies to them to expedite a war – that ultimately makes us ashamed to belong to the nation and the people that they supposedly represent. That is a crime far in excess, far more deeply damaging, than anything perpetrated by Gary McKinnon.

McKinnon now faces extradition and up to 70 years in prison if convicted on all charges by a US court. He is supposed to have done ‘damage’ to US government computer systems. But what might that damage have been, had he been truly malicious – a member of a terrorist group, for example, rather than a UFO fanatic with Asperger’s? And had this resulted in wholesale destruction and loss of life – as, in other hands, it clearly could – what then would have been a proportionally harsher penalty than 70 years? A thousand? A million?

The obvious answer, at least to some, is ‘death’. Yet – and this is the cruellest irony of all – the UK maintains a stance of refusing extradition in cases where the individual may face the death penalty. In other words, McKinnon’s crime was not harsh enough to avoid extradition; had he brought about mass murder, he would not have been sent to the United States, because we deem the death penalty unfair and unacceptable. As David Blunkett said when the treaty and laws were being drawn up: ‘I don't believe in the death penalty. I don't believe we should have any truck with it.’ So, we trust the US judicial system – except when we don’t.

In reality, the Pentagon should be thanking their lucky stars that the end result was mere embarrassment – and thanking McKinnon for highlighting their potentially disastrous shortcomings. In a further irony, it was the 1980s US movie movie Wargames – in which a kid hacks into military computers and nearly triggers a nuclear war – that inspired McKinnon to go hacking in the first place. At the end of that film, the kid averts disaster and is hailed as a hero (in the original script, he’s even offered a job at NORAD). Such an outcome seems unlikely for McKinnon. Yet this is a message sent by the society that is now set to crucify him.

Double standards seem to be the running theme in this story. Although less likely to grab headlines, such mean hypocrisies perpetrated by governments day after day do far more harm than McKinnon ever did. It’s Orwellian doublethink, blinding us to the contradictions – to the very idea of contradiction. Blinding us, in fact, to the difference between right and wrong, and disconnecting us from our own sense of shame. Where we can, while we can, it’s time we identified those doing the real damage, and installed something better.

For more information, or to take action, go to: www.freegary.org.uk