Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Results of a 'Crackpot Creed'

It's a country where 43% of the population are in absolute poverty; 28% of its children are malnourished (compared to 19% in 2003); 32% of internally displaced persons who need food rations can't get them; 70% of the people don't have adequate water supplies (up from 50% in 2003); 90 percent of the country’s hospitals lack basic medical and surgical supplies, 80% don't have effective sanitation; 8 million in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

Surely the country in question is a suitable case for 'western intervention' of the type favoured by the 'decent' left?

Er, no. The country is Iraq. And, in case you missed it, the 'intervention' has already occured.

The Death of a Crackpot Creed

"The era of liberal interventionism in international affairs is over. The liberal interventionism that took root in the aftermath of the cold war was never much more than a combination of post-imperial nostalgia with crackpot geopolitics. It was an absurd and repugnant mixture, and one whose passing there is no reason to regret. What the world needs from western governments is not another nonsensical crusade. It is a dose of realism and a little humility."

You can read more of John Gray's superb essay on the 'crackpot creed' of liberal interventionism here. But while neo-conservatism and liberal interventionism are both discredited creeds, one problem remains. Despite the disaster their ideology has caused, and the lack of public support for their agenda, neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists are still disproportionately represented in the corridors of power and the media. Remedying that defect is absolutely vital if we're to make sure that humanitarian catastrophes like Iraq never happen again.

What's In a Name? Quite a lot, actually

Mick Hume has a good piece in the Times today on why those who believe that Gordon Brown will prove a less of a poodle to the US than Tony Blair are living in cloud cuckoo land. He does though make one serious factual error in his article. Hume claims Labour 'bombed Serbia in the 1990s'. But the country Labour bombed in the 1990s was called Yugoslavia, not Serbia. It's an important distinction. Part of the neo-con mythology surrounding events in 1999 was that a country called 'Serbia' was attacking a place called 'Kosovo' (maps on US tv stations actually showed Serbia and Kosovo as two separate countries). In fact, what was taking place was a counter-terrorist operation carried out by Federal Yugoslav forces against Kosovan separatists, armed and financed by the West. There was no 'Serb aggression' (the stock phrase used by neo-cons when writing about the conflict): merely action taken by the Yugoslav forces (forces which contained ethnic Hungarians, Roma, Muslims and other ethnic/religious minorities) to quell foreign-backed terrorism. Neo-cons were keen to use the word 'Serbia' and not Yugoslavia' for another reason too: it fitted in with their long-standing campaign to demonise the Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, and portray him as a rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth Serb nationalist. Milosevic was of course no such thing, born into a family of Partisans, his loyalties were first and foremost to Federal Yugoslavia and not to the cause of Serbian nationalism. The fact that the country Milosevic governed was still known as Yugoslavia, was hugely inconvenient for the neo-cons, so they simply ignored the official name of the country and called it what fitted in with their propaganda.

It's a pity that a writer like Mick Hume, who opposed western aggression in the Balkans, has decided to follow the warmongers lead.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Brian Brivati's great summer reading dilemma

How a cheerleader for the Iraq war will spend summer:

"This morning I took a first glance at the bookshelves and considered what I would take to the beach this year."

How Iraqis will spend summer.

The Victims of 'Intervention'

While the sight of two journalistic supporters of the Iraq war engaging in a cyberspace custard pie fight with each other is undoubtedly amusing(Cohen v Hari is a bit like watching Chelsea v Arsenal- you want both sides to lose), let's not forget the true victims of the unspeakable crime against humanity that was cheered on by Johann Hari and Nick Cohen in March 2003.

Having opposed the war against Iraq from the start, having argued against it in print and having taken part in numerous anti-war demonstrations, my conscience is clear. As they survey the devastation that the the 2003 'intervention' has caused, how many of the so-called 'pro-war left' can, in all honesty, say the same?

Berezovsky: Who's Playing Whom?

"The four-times-married “original Russian billionaire” famously boasted in the 1990s about how he was part of a small coterie of so-called oligarchs who owned 50 per cent of Russia’s wealth. Despite this, the British people now happily accept that a man who became seriously rich in the turbulent, shadowy periods of recent Russian history has now been born again as a democracy-loving human rights campaigner, as he insists. When, further, it emerges that an attempt on his life has apparently been made we unquestioningly accept this as fact, as if real life in 2007 does in fact exactly mirror the plot of an Ian Fleming novel."

Stefanie Marsh has an excellent piece in today's Times on the way Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky has, through his enormous fortune, managed to engage in media 'spin' that Alistair Campbell would have been proud of.
But what Marsh fails to mention is the fact that Berezovsky himself is being 'played'.
Washington's neo-conservatives are using disgruntled oligarchs like Berezovsky as part of their strategy to demonise President Putin and provoke a new 'Cold War' with Russia. Colonisation of Russia and the acquisition of the country's enormous mineral wealth and other valuable assets has always been the 'end game' for the neo-cons- and siding with oligarchs like Berezovksy was the way the takeover could be achieved.
Berezovksy may well be pulling a few strings in Britain. But there are some very powerful people pulling his strings too.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Golden Sporting Summer of 1977

This essay of mine on the wonderful sporting summer of 1977 appears in today's Observer.

It was the year of the Silver Jubilee and punk rock. Of James Callaghan and Luke Skywalker. Of the last ever episode of Dad's Army and pocket calculators. Sport in 1977 reflected this fascinating mix of the old and the new in our culture. John McEnroe, the first 'punk' tennis player, made his Wimbledon debut and Ian Botham arrived with a swagger on to the Test scene, while golden oldies Geoffrey Boycott, Lester Piggott, Virginia Wade (above) and Red Rum all enjoyed an annus mirabilis.

Sport mirrored the political realities of the time. Thirty years ago, there was an exhilarating sense of everything being up for grabs. The postwar consensus was unravelling and Britain was soon to be convulsed by the Thatcherite counter-revolution. With its top-rate income tax of 83 per cent, its nationalised industries, powerful unions and foreign-exchange controls, the Britain of 1977 may have been the worst of all possible places for economic liberals, but for me, an 11-year-old sports-mad schoolboy growing up in Oxford, it was the time of my life.

The carnival began in April with Red Rum's unprecedented third Grand National victory. What is amazing about Rummy, looking back, is that in only one of the five years in which he competed in the National (1975) did he start favourite. Each year there was a new contender who, it was said, would topple the nation's favourite racehorse. In 1977, it was Andy Pandy, an up-and-coming chaser named after the children's television character.
Red Rum's only victory before the National that season had been in a three-runner race in September. Perhaps the experts were right and his powers were declining. My Uncle Stan, a loyal red, in racing as well as politics, was having none of it, and for the fifth year running stuck his £10 on Rummy's nose. My dad backed The Pilgarlic (each-way). The race was a classic, and Red Rum won again, with The Pilgarlic fourth.

The football season, meanwhile, was heading to its climax. The previous year, QPR, my dad's team, had come within 15 minutes of winning the title, but this time they were off the pace, even if their swashbuckling exploits in the Uefa Cup, which included a 5-2 win over Slovan Bratislava at Loftus Road, added richly to the season. The team of the year, however, were Liverpool. For the second year running, they won the title by just one point (this time from Manchester City) and narrowly missed out on the Double when losing 2-1 to Manchester United in the FA Cup final. On 25 May, four days after losing at Wembley, they faced Borussia Monchengladbach in the European Cup final in Rome. Liverpool took the lead in the 27th minute through Terry McDermott. Borussia equalised through Allan Simonsen seven minutes after the break and, for a spell, they were the better side. But they still had to get past Ray Clemence, whose save at the feet of Uli Stielike proved the turning point. Shortly afterwards defender Tommy Smith headed in Steve Heighway's corner and, when Phil Neal converted a penalty after Kevin Keegan had been hauled down, Liverpool's first European Cup had been won. Rome 1977 was not merely one of the classic European nights of the 1970s; it was the classic European night of the 1970s.

Seven days later, the sporting road-show moved to Epsom. Surely it was asking too much for Lester Piggott, the 'housewives' favourite', who had first won the Derby in 1954, to win it again in Jubilee Year? Back then, the Derby was still on a Wednesday, which for race-lovers meant skiving off work or in my case asking to be allowed home early from school. Lester, like Red Rum and Liverpool, didn't let us down: his skill and determination got The Minstrel home by a neck.

The next day, at Epsom, it was the Oaks. The Queen's filly Dunfermline was allowed to go off at odds of 6-1, presumably because people didn't believe another fairytale could happen so soon. But under a confident Willie Carson, the Queen's horse came home first; Dunfermline also won the St Leger later that summer, at Doncaster.

Celebrations for the Silver Jubilee were now in full swing. Could the event be marked with a British success at the centenary Wimbledon? Virginia Wade, twice the champion at other grand-slam events, had played 15 times before at the All England Club without much success. But in 1977, seemingly carried along on the mood of national optimism, the woman with the South African accent and notoriously brittle temperament was an entirely different proposition. Composed and confident, her semi-final victory against reigning champion Chris Evert was arguably the best she had ever played. But hopes of an all-English final (imagine the prospect of that today) were dashed when Sue Barker was beaten by Betty Stove in the other semi-final.

By way of compensation, the men's semi-final between Bjorn Borg and Vitas Gerulaitis was one of the championship's greatest matches. Borg, the defending champion, led two sets to one, but the flamboyant Gerulaitis, from New York, took the fourth and then, with darkness falling, had match point in the fifth. He should have won but hit long and out what should have been a simple backhand down the line after a fatal hesitation. Gerulaitis, who died in 1994, aged 40, from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty heater as he slept at a friend's house on Long Island, never came close at Wimbledon again.

Our teacher, Miss Woodward, in a bout of patriotic fervour, cancelled lessons on the afternoon of the women's final (it was then played on Friday) and switched on the big black-and-white television set so we could cheer on Ginny. It all looked bleak as Stove took the first set, but Ginny powered back to win the last two sets to keep her date with Her Majesty. Our classroom erupted - and so did the nation.
On the Saturday, Borg took on Jimmy Connors in what may have been the best men's final of the decade. As in Borg's semi-final against Gerulaitis, the match ebbed and flowed, with Connors, as aggressive and determined as ever, coming back to take the game into a fifth set. At one stage, in that final set, he was 4-0 down but fought back. But Borg eventually prevailed 6-4 in the thrilling decider, to take the second of his five consecutive titles.

Next up in the summer sportsfest was The Open at Turnberry. Through the first three days, the two outstanding golfers of the decade, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, had posted the identical round scores of 68, 70 and 65. The stage was set for an unforgettable final day, for what became known as 'The Duel in the Sun', as the two American heavyweights went head to head. Nicklaus (supported by my dad) raced to a three-shot lead after just four holes. But Watson (supported by me) clawed back to level by the 8th, only for Nicklaus to go clear again. Watson once more upped his game, a 60-foot putt pulling him level on the 15th. Watson took the lead for the first time on the 17th and when Nicklaus found a gorse bush from the 18th tee it looked all over. But the Golden Bear holed a 40-foot putt to put the pressure on Watson, who had to hole a three-footer for the title. Watson held his nerve to win.

Incredibly, the best of that sporting summer was was yet to come. The aperitif for the Ashes series had been the one-off Centenary Test in Melbourne in March, which Australia, despite Derek Randall's brilliant 174 in the second innings, had won by 45 runs. But at the end of May, the cricketing world was in turmoil as 30 of the world's leading players, including most of Australia's touring squad, signed up for Kerry Packer's World Series circus. Tony Greig, the England captain and early Packer recruit, was sacked and replaced by Mike Brearley. However, those who thought that a greedy Australian television mogul had ruined the summer were proved wrong.
There were several notable performances for England: the batting of the late Bob Woolmer, who scored centuries in the opening two Tests; the bowling of a rejuvenated Bob Willis; the wicketkeeping (and batting) of Alan Knott; and the precocity of Ian Botham, who took five wickets on his first day in Test cricket (which included the players meeting the Queen as well). But the man of the series was undoubtedly a stubborn, self-centred, but superbly disciplined 36-year-old Yorkshireman.

Geoffrey Boycott celebrated the end of three years of self-imposed exile from Test cricket by batting on each of the five days of the classic third Test at Trent Bridge. On the opening day of the next match, at Leeds, his home ground, he became the first player to score his 100th first-class century in a Test match - his drive off Greg Chappell, with Graham Roope skipping in the air at the non-striker's end to avoid the ball, became the abiding memory of the series. England went on to beat Australia by an innings and 85 runs, the first time since 1886 that they had won three Tests in a home series against Australia. The end of a glorious summer of sport.

How very different it all is today. In domestic football, the power of money means that the chance of a provincial club such as Nottingham Forest winning the league title in their first season after promotion, as Brian Clough's side did in 1977-78, has gone. Tennis, for all the grace of Roger Federer, is an increasingly dull game (oh, for a modern version of Gerulaitis or the Amritraj brothers!), with new technology playing its part in diminishing surprise and unpredictability.

Cricket, too, seems to have sold out to global capitalism, in so many ways, with a whole generation of children unable, as I could 30 years ago, to watch ball-by-ball, advert-free coverage of the summer Test series on terrestrial television. Only racing retains its magic and the ability to surprise, though it still hasn't produced another Red Rum or Lester Piggott.

It is often said - mostly by Thatcherites - that Britain in the 1970s was a depressing and grey place in urgent need of 'reform'. But now that we have had the reforms, we can see the exciting and colourful world we have lost far more clearly.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Badge of Honour

I'm a very happy bunny today. I've been called "depraved" by a man who not only supported the illegal, murderous wars against Yugoslavia and Iraq, but who also boasts about seducing into bed neo-Nazis and Islamic fundamentalists.
Being labelled "depraved" by Johann Hari is rather like being called 'immoral' by Pol Pot: you would worry a damn sight more if either man had ever said something favourable about you.

The Good Life

This article of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.

It was no surprise to read that Munich (above) was recently named the city which enjoyed the "best quality of life" in the world.
If you've never been there, believe me: the capital of Bavaria is a truly wonderful place, as the Telegraph's Michael Henderson recently found out.

"What a joy to spend time among people who are absolutely at ease with one another, in a city that holds itself with dignity. We have always known that the French and the Italians live more graciously than we do. It has something to do with the close relationship between humankind and the land, and the deeper family ties that exist in those conservative societies. But to see Germans eating, drinking and dressing so much better than we do is rather embarrassing."

I'm not too keen on the last sentence of Henderson's paragraph (why should it be a surprise to see Germans eating, drinking and dressing well?), but he's right to applaud the way life is lived in the Bavarian capital. However, Munich's charm is not just about the deeper family ties that exist there, or the greater respect for customs and traditions that have sustained local culture, (important as they are), but also has a lot to do with the type of capitalism which operates there.

In Bavaria, as in the rest of continental Europe, the economy serves the people, not the other way round. Unlike in Britain, "market forces" are not allowed to intrude into every aspect of people's lives; the most socially destructive aspects of global capitalism have, up to now, been held at bay. Many businesses, particularly shops, restaurants and cafes, are still family/locally owned and this has a great impact on enhancing the sense of community.

It seems paradoxical that the Telegraph should run a piece like Henderson's, which quite rightly lauds the way things are done in continental Europe; yet in its editorials advocate that Europe follows the same economic path that has turned so many of our towns and cities into soulless, depressing places, lacking the individuality and vibrancy, which makes Europe's cities so enticing. For make no mistake, the "economic reform", which neoliberals are keen to see the rest of the continent adopt, would only help to destroy much of what makes Europe so attractive to British visitors: the individually-owned shops, the affordable and efficient public transport, bars and cafes, which, because they are not owned by profit-hungry plcs, cater for all ages, not just the young.

"Returning from the continent, one can't help feeling that, for all our prosperity, our lives are incomplete," concludes Henderson. Quite. But why, if Telegraph writers like the life in Europe so much, does the paper they write for want the continent to copy Britain?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Gorbachev on the 'New Empire'

“The Americans then gave birth to the idea of a new empire, world leadership by a single power, and what followed? What has followed are unilateral actions, what has followed are wars, what has followed is ignoring the U.N. Security Council, ignoring international law and ignoring the will of the people, even the American people,”

You can read more of Mikhail Gorbachev's speech here.

Thought for the Day

"Anyone who supported the invasion of Iraq is not worth listening to on any subject. Period."

From Guardian commenter 'Shlick'.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

What's Left about Nick Cohen?

Want to try and earn yourself a tenner?
Guardian commenter 'leftisdead' has put out the following challenge :

(Nick) Cohen has never been a man of the left. In the 1980's Cohen wrote many articles supporting Thatcherism and was very anti-union.
If you read Cohen carefully he is always critical of any leftist intiative. If anybody can give me a left of centre view that he differs from a democratic tory like Michael Gove, I will donate a tenner.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of any issues where Cohen could be said to hold 'a left of centre view'. He certainly doesn't hold a 'left of centre view' when it comes to protecting that wonderful socialist achievement, Britain's Green Belt.

The Benefits of Not Understanding

In response to my plea to certain journalists of the liberal left to "wake up" and reconsider their position on the war against Yugoslavia in 1999, Guardian commenter Arabella Mayer writes:

Neil, so-called liberal-left journos will never wake up because, as Upton Sinclair noted:
"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it."

I always try to be optimistic, but I fear both Arabella and Upton Sinclair are right. I remember being at a party in London on the weekend before the Iraq war. Also at the party was Boris Johnson. I asked him if he honestly believed the guff about the 'Iraqi threat' and Saddam's 'WMD'. He looked me in the eye, hesitated for a few seconds and replied "You've got to admit Saddam's not a particularly nice chap".

Roughly translated: Of course I don't believe all the guff, but I've got to somehow justify this war to myself so I can support it and keep my job as editor of a publication owned by the arch neo-con Conrad Black.

Now that his previous, pro-war boss is well out of the picture, Boris has come out and attacked President Bush and his handling of Iraq. But at the time, he felt obliged to support the illegal invasion. Because for Boris, his career came before opposing a war, which he knew in his heart of hearts was wrong. He's not alone: in any country at any given time, there is a set of 'approved opinions' you need to hold- and espouse- to enhance your career. In Britain today it means supporting the 'special relationship' with the U.S., the operation of a 'free market' economy, where even renationalising the railways is ruled out, despite public support- and extolling the 'merits' of globalisation.
Of course dissent is allowed, but only within certain parameters. It is considered acceptable to express disapproval of the way the Iraq war has been executed (but not of the basic idea behind it). And it is not acceptable to criticise the 1999 war against Yugoslavia, which still, officially, is classified as a 'humanitarian intervention' and a 'great success'.

It's acknowledging this which explains why, despite the non-existent genocide, and non-existent mass graves, so few journalists and politicians have actually come out and said they got Kosovo horribly wrong. School and university fees, and no doubt the odd new kitchen extension, have been paid because journalists in Britain and the US did not print the truth back in 1999. Had they "understood" what was really going on, and exposed it in print, they and their families would not be as well-off as they are today.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Seeing the Light?

This piece of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.

Back in 2003, in the build-up to war with Iraq, the Independent's Johann Hari was one of the most vocal liberal/left-wing supporters of the invasion. "Every single anti-war protester should - on the basis of this evidence and similar material I have offered in previous columns about the real wishes of the Iraqi people - reconsider their view," he wrote in March 2003.

Four years on, it's Hari himself who is reconsidering his views. He is scathing about those who planned the invasion- and the "leftists" who thought Washington's neoconservatives could be an ally:

"It's painfully conspicuous that [Nick] Cohen's statements about neoconservatism consist solely of assertions, primarily about the personal niceness of Paul Wolfowitz. The overwhelming contrary evidence is simply ignored. A policy of systematic torture? The immediate imposition of mass privatisations, causing mass unemployment and sectarian unrest? The barricading of civilian men aged between 18 and 60 in Fallujah, a city the size of Baltimore, before attacking it with chemical weapons? Cohen does not say how these neoconservative tactics have been "fighting the Left's battles for them".

Hari goes on:
"The notion that neoconservatism is a vehicle for a global democratic revolution is a 1990s rhetorical creation. On the contrary, for most of its short intellectual life neoconservatism has been a force defending autocracy".

It's great to see that Hari is moving in the right direction. But he still has a little further to go on his journey towards the truth. Like the war in Iraq, the neocon-inspired war against Yugoslavia in 1999 - which Hari still defends - had nothing to do with "humanitarian concerns" or "spreading democracy" (Yugoslavia under Milosevic was a multi-party democracy, with a well-financed opposition media) but was purely and simply about extending Pax Americana and, to use Hari's own words the imposition of mass privatisations. In order to achieve their goal, the empire builders in Washington had to resort to deceit: in 2003, the Big Lie was that Iraq possessed WMDs, four years earlier, it was that Yugoslav forces were committing genocide in Kosovo.
Sadly, large sections of the liberal left believed the official version, and in 1999 backed the illegal war.

Messrs Perle, Wolfitowitz and Rumsfeld - all members of the executive of the Balkan Action Committee (which lobbied for US involvement on the side of the separatist leader Izetbegovic in Bosnia, and then for full scale war against Milosevic's rump Yugoslavia in 1999) would never have got the level of public support they did for their wars without the propagandising done for their cause by liberal-left writers like Nick Cohen, David Aaronovitch and Johann Hari - and of course, Christopher Hitchens.

Once the liberal-left wakes up to the fact that in Yugoslavia, as in Iraq, they were sold a pack of lies, it really is game over for the serial warmongers.

Over to you, Johann.

The Economics of the Madhouse

So there we have it. The government's 30 year 'rail strategy': no renationalisation, no double decker trains, no new high-speed lines- and even higher fares.

How can any sane individual disagree with the verdict of Gerry Doherty, the general secretary of the TSSA white-collar rail union:
“Ministers claim they want to encourage rail travel and then kick passengers in the teeth with huge regular hikes in fares. They are pricing people off rail and on to the roads. This is the economics of the madhouse. They claim they want cheaper public transport and then do everything in their power to discourage it.”

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Government's Housing Policy: A Load of Balls

The waters inundating swaths of central and western England are no reason to block urgently needed new homes, including developments built on flood plains, the Housing Minister said yesterday.

No, of course not Minister. Building on flood plains is a wonderfully sensible idea, especially as weather experts predict that our climate is going to get even wetter in the years ahead.

The Housing Minister in question is Yvette Cooper, who is married to another government minister called Ed Balls. What a shame she didn't take her husband's name. Then we could use say, a la Michael Heseltine, that the plan isn't Cooper's- it's Balls'!

Britain's Great Train Robbery

"Privatisation means that hundreds of millions are being syphoned out of the industry in profits by operators in return for very little risk. You do not have to be a card-carrying member of the Communist party to question a franchising system that is based on train operators bidding for lucrative contracts with the only risk being that if they guess wrongly, as happened with Sea Containers' GNER contract, they have to throw the towel in at very little cost."

You can read the rest of Christian Wolmar's piece on the disastrous consequences of railway privatisation here.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Case for Gerontocracy

This article of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website.

I don't know about you, but I can't help feeling that Labour overlooked the obvious candidate when it came to replacing Tony Blair.

Someone who possesses not only a great intellect, humour and superb oratory skills, but most importantly in the aftermath of Blair, is a man of complete integrity. Michael Foot (above) is 94 today. What a pity the grand old man of British politics is not celebrating his birthday in No 10.

Electing a nonagenarian as their leader would have been a powerful statement from the Labour party that their pronouncements on fighting ageism were not just hot air. China, India and Israel have benefited from geriatric leaderships - why not Britain?

A 94-year-old premier would have struck a blow at the whole cult of "yoof" and
"modernity" which New Labour has propagated so shamelessly. Many would argue that Foot's physical infirmity would make him unable, as PM, to undertake too many arduous foreign journeys. Good. We surely have had enough of globetrotting PMs involving us in costly foreign adventures that were really none of our business. A PM who would only travel as far as Venice or Dubrovnik would have been a very refreshing change. The most important thing is not Foot's physical condition, but his mental state - which, judging by the last time I saw him on television, seems in immeasurably better shape than most members of the current government.
All that would have been needed for Foot to become leader was to parachute him (metaphorically speaking, of course) into a safe Labour seat, and let the voters, and then Labour party members, do the rest.

Sadly, the Labour party chose to neglect their prize asset. But however unlikely a Michael Foot premiership in 2007 might have been, the serious point is that we in Britain are far too keen to throw good people overboard too early in public life.

Since retiring from frontline politics in 1992, Michael Foot has written a masterly biography of HG Wells and several other collections of essays. All well and good, but what a scandal that the Labour party and indeed the country could not have found a place for his talents, say on a government advisory committee. It's not just Foot that we have ignored.

While Jack Straw was addressing the UN on Iraq's non-existent WMDs, Tony Benn, over 30 years his senior, was on his way to Baghdad, armed only with a flask of tea, a sack of Mars bars and a pouch of pipe tobacco, to try to avert the threat of war. If roles had been reversed, and the septuagenarian Benn had been foreign secretary, we would have been saved being embroiled in a costly and disastrous conflict.

Likewise, for the Tories, there have been few more sagacious voices on foreign affairs in recent years than Lord Carrington (88) and Lord Gilmour (81) and Sir Peter Tapsell MP (77). But few of the gung-ho young Turks on the Tory front benches have listened to their wisdom. To their great cost, the Tories elected the 39-year-old David Cameron as their leader in 2005 and not the vastly more experienced Ken Clarke (65), despite the Beast's high popularity ratings.

Lord Healey (89), who opposed both the Kosovo and Iraq interventions, is another wise old owl whose words, based on 60 years of experience, including military service, have largely been unheeded.

Instead, in our obsession with "yoof" we prefer to place our trust in the likes of the 41-year-old David Miliband, who started off his tenure at the Foreign Office by provoking a childish diplomatic spat with Russia.

Other countries don't share our perverse belief that the young know more than the old. Modern China, the country with the fastest growth rate in the world, owes much to Deng Xiaoping, who led the country until his late 80s. Germany's miraculous post-war economic recovery was presided over by Konrad Adenauer, who was 87 when he left office, while France's was led by Charles De Gaulle, who became president for the first time at the age of 68 and stayed in office for another 10 years.

Israel has benefited enormously from a succession of experienced leaders: in the country's history only three of its 12 prime ministers have been younger than 60 when taking office. The country's new president, Shimon Peres, is 85 - can anyone imagine someone of that age being considered for high office in Britain? The world's largest democracy, India, also rewards experience: Morarji Desai was 81 when becoming prime minister in 1977; he was succeeded by the comparatively youthful 76-year-old Chaudhary Charan Singh. India's current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is 74.

When it comes to US presidents, many would rate Ronald Reagan (a month shy of 70 when first sworn into office in 1981, and 77 when he relinquished office) as one of the most effective post-war inhabitants of the Oval Office.

And in the history of post-war communist Eastern Europe, was there a country run as efficiently - and less repressively - than Hungary, whose veteran leader Janos Kadar (in office until the age of 76), impressed even ideological opponents like Margaret Thatcher with his energy and vigour.

The benefits of older, experienced leadership cuts across divisions of left and right/free-market or statist. What's good for India has been good for the free-market US, for communist Hungary and for Israel too. And it would be good for Britain as well, if only we can drop our crazy notion that young leaders make better leaders.

It never used to be like this. Britain's greatest ever prime minister, Winston Churchill, was 65 when first becoming prime minister in the darkest hours of 1940. Can anyone imagine a chain-smoking, hard-drinking politician of pensionable age getting anywhere near the corridors of power today?

Churchill left office at the age of 80 in 1955, and since that time Britain has not had a single prime minister who has been older than 70. More fool us.

Michael Foot will, alas, never become Britain's prime minister. Even so, the case for gerontocracy remains a strong one.

New Labour's Hurricane Katrina

This article of mine appears in today's First Post.

People whose homes have been damaged by the recent floods are entitled to ask where the British government's priorities actually lie.

Earlier this year, the Met Office and risk planners in Whitehall warned ministers that due to the so-called El Nino effect, this summer would be much wetter than usual, and there would be a serious risk of flooding. What did the government do? They cut back on spending at the agency which deals with flood prevention.
A month ago, a report by the National Audit Office found that 63 per cent of Britain's flood defences were not properly maintained, while in more than half of high-risk areas there was no guarantee that the defences would hold back rising waters. But while the government hasn't got money to properly protect Britain's towns and cities from floods, it can afford to pursue a costly 'interventionist' foreign policy.

The situation is remarkably similar to that in America when Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in August 2005.
Prior to the disaster, swingeing federal budget cuts had all but stopped major work on the New Orleans area's east bank hurricane levees, for the first time in 37 years. "It appears that the money has been moved in the president's budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that's the price we pay," complained emergency management chief Walter Maestri.

Hurricane Katrina was the moment when US public opinion turned decisively against the neo-conservative policies of the Bush administration, policies which put fighting 'pre-emptive' wars abroad ahead of the safety of people at home.

Gordon Brown needs to act quickly if the floods in Britain are not to turn the public against him and his government, just as Katrina effectively blew away George Bush's authority.

The Neo-Con plot to frame President Putin

"Just like the tall tales of Saddam's "weapons of mass destruction," the story of Putin's WMD – in the form of a nuclearized tea-cup in a London restaurant – is phony from beginning to end. The only problem is that, if we ever find out what really happened, or didn't happen, in the convoluted Litvinenko "murder" case, it will be far too late."

Read more of Justin Raimondo's article on the neo-con plot to frame President Putin here.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

How to solve the Army's manpower crisis

"THE head of the British Army has warned in a leaked memo that the country has "almost no capacity to react to the unexpected" because of deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sir Richard Dannatt added that reinforcements to deal with emergencies were "now almost non-existent.
His analysis is the latest high-level warning that Britain's military is feeling the pinch. In a note to fellow defence leaders, he said that only around 500 troops were available to deal with, for example, a domestic terrorist attack or a deployment overseas at short notice. "

How can the British Army solve its manpower shortage? Well, how about sending some call-up papers to the names listed under the heading 'Organising Committee' here and to those who have signed up in support of this pro-war organisation.

Surely those so keen for Britain to continue with its 'interventionist' foreign policy, would be more than happy to do their bit for the cause...?

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Best letter of the week

Introducing a new weekly feature: the best letter of a week published by a UK newspaper.
This week I've chosen one from Dr Andrew Markham-Cooper, from Thursday's Guardian. It really says all there is to be said about the barrage of neo-con induced anti-Russian propaganda we have been subject to of late. If you see a letter you'd like to nominate please send it in!

The British foreign secretary says that the present Anglo-Russian crisis is not of his country's making (Cold war diplomacy is back as UK expels spies, July 17). But over the past few years the Blair government has provocatively granted refuge to high-profile anti-Putinists, including men wanted on charges of terrorism or other criminal activities under Russian law, and let them engage in activities hostile to Russia. Repeated requests by the Russian authorities for the extradition of Boris Berezovsky and Akhmed Zakayev (the representative of a terrorist who once boasted that he would forcibly establish sharia law in Chechnya) have been refused.Britain has also participated in the US policy of encirclement, which has built a ring of hostile states and pro-US regimes around Russia, while trying to subvert it through US-funded Moscow-based agencies and organisations. The siting of a "missile defence system" in Poland and the Czech Republic, directed at Russia, is just the latest example of this policy.
Added to this is the stream of anti-Russian lies in the British media, including the claim that Russia ruthlessly turned off gas supplies to Europe during its dispute with Ukraine. It was the US stooge Viktor Yushchenko who hijacked supplies intended for Europe when Russia rightly withheld deliveries to Ukraine until it received a fair market price for them.
Now, in a return to the antics of the cold war, Gordon Brown has expelled four Russian diplomats on no other grounds than that their country will not deliver up one of its citizens to the dubious mercies of British "justice".

Dr Andrew Markham-Cooper,
Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Summer jumping under pressure

I'm a huge fan of summer jump racing and think it's been a valuable addition to the racing calendar. However, few would deny that current equine casualty rates are a concern.
Here's my report on summer jumping from today's Guardian.

There are few sights more distressing in racing than the erection of the familiar green screens around a stricken horse but that sight has become common for fans of summer jump racing this year.
Last month two horses were killed at Stratford and four at Newton Abbot in the space of two days while another three runners lost their lives at Market Rasen last week. As the summer jumps season prepares for its showpiece meeting back at Market Rasen on Saturday, the disquiet over casualty rates is growing.

"The welfare of horses is severely compromised by summer jumping," says Dene Stansall, horse racing consultant for the pressure group Animal Aid. "Without a doubt it's more dangerous than traditional winter jump racing. The going is more likely to be fast and horses are more at risk on good to firm ground. Secondly, because the fields are usually smaller, the races are not truly run. What often happens is that there is a rush for the last fence."
Stansall, who runs the website points out that 24 horses have been killed in summer jump races since the season started on April 29.

The racing authorities do not deny there is a problem. Horseracing Regulatory Authority spokesman Paul Struthers admits: "From the data we have so far on summer jumping, the equine injury rate is currently running above the national average of just over 0.4% per runner for all jumping."
Struthers points out that all courses racing during the summer aim for ground no worse than good to firm while it is mandatory for all tracks to provide an annual report to the HRA.
He stresses the process is ongoing: "We are always looking at ways in which risks can be minimised and any new workable initiatives that can reduce injuries will be implemented. These are likely to include a focus on watering practices and the special treatment of take-off and landing areas."

The HRA's stance is backed by trainer Matt Sheppard, who knows the risks involved, having lost two horses of his own this summer. Nevertheless, the Herefordshire trainer is a passionate defender of summer jumping. "The horses I lost suffered injuries that could have happened at any time of the year. When it first arrived, summer jumping offered mainly low-grade racing, but it's definitely improved.
"Even trainers like Henry Daly and Nicky Henderson who were once vehemently opposed, are now having runners in the summer. It's always sad when a horse is killed, but I'm convinced that the authorities are doing all they can to make the sport as safe as possible. Watering policies have improved and when the authorities think the ground is unsafe they abandon."

Sheppard believes there would be significant economic fall-out if summer jumping were to be axed from the racing calendar - as Animal Aid would like.
"It would be hard for me to find work for the staff in the summer months if there was no jumping. The fact we have all year round jumping is good for smaller yards - it's very hard to compete with the bigger stables in the winter."

Sheppard's enthusiasm for summer jumping is not matched by all of his fellow trainers. Leicestershire trainer Ben Pollock says: "I don't see the point of it. The injury rate is higher. It's not just the ground, the trouble is that you have a lot of moderate horses going faster than nature intended them to go.
"The authorities have done a tremendous job, but I still think everyone - trainers, jockeys and staff - needs a break. Instead of summer jumping, we'd be better off rescheduling meetings for the winter so we could have three or four jump meetings a day. That would be a better way of giving smaller trainers a chance."

It is true that the quality of horses taking part has gradually improved. Take The Stand, winner of the Summer National in 2004, finished second in that season's Gold Cup, while the 2006 winner, McKelvey, was runner-up in this year's Grand National. And summer jumping has produced its own equine heroes, with the likes of Ei Ei and Maidstone Monument attracting loyal followings. Provided the authorities remain sensitive to concerns over equine safety, summer jumping seems set to stay for a long while yet.

The Non-Sectarian Iraqi Resistance

"As al-Qaida-style suicide atrocities against civilians and Sunni-Shia sectarian death-squad killings have escalated in the past couple of years, they have tended to shift attention away from the guerrilla war against the US and British occupation forces and their client Iraqi army and police. But it is that growing war of attrition - there are now more than 5,000 attacks a month against US forces across Iraq and the past three months have been the bloodiest for US forces since the 2003 invasion (331 deaths and 2,029 wounded) - that has pushed the demand for withdrawal from Iraq to the top of the political agenda in Washington."

You can read the rest of Seumas Milne's interview with leaders of the non- sectarian Iraqi resistance here.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

More Gordon Brown inspired misery

London's long-suffering commuters must brace themselves for a "difficult period" on the underground network following the collapse of Metronet, the capital's mayor warned this morning. I wonder what the dogmatic politician who, against the Mayor of London's wishes, forced through the Public Private Partnership contracts under which Metronet was hired to maintain the tube network has to say about all of this?
Surely the wretched man will lose his job for his part in the fiasco......?

The true criminals in Parliament

So let's get this right. The only MP likely to be suspended over Iraq, is George Galloway, one of the few 'Honourable Members' who did not vote for the criminal, illegal attack.
In the words of Mark Steel:

"Suspending George Galloway for his conduct in Iraq is as if last week's trial of those failed suicide bombers ended with the judge saying "This was a monstrous crime. So I'm going to let you off, and jail the bloke who chased you through the Underground."

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

End bear-baiting now

This piece of mine appears on the Guardian's Comment is Free website

Bear-baiting in Britain was banned nearly 200 years ago. Someone obviously didn't tell Britain's new Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who yesterday ordered the expulsion of four Russian diplomats from Britain. Miliband is annoyed that Russia refuses to extradite ex-KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi, wanted to stand trial for the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. But Russia is also annoyed that Britain repeatedly refuses to extradite the billionaire oligarch Boris Berezovsky, charged with embezzling millions of dollars from the Russian national airline Aeroflot. (A trial of the Aeroflot case started in Berezovsky's absence in Moscow last week.)

Those who believe the charges against Berezovsky are politically motivated should reflect that the same man is also wanted by the authorities in Brazil for alleged money laundering. To claim that the Brazilian authorities' arrest warrant was "an extension of the Kremlin's politicised campaign" as Berezovsky has done, is clearly absurd.

Rather than indulging in moves that can only make the situation worse, the British foreign secretary should instead be on the telephone to President Putin, to make him an offer. The terms would be simple: Alexander Lugovoi is sent on the next plane from Moscow to London to stand trial for the murder in Britain, while Berezovsky is flown out to Rio to answer the charges against him in Brazil. This might be bad news for Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, Lord Tim Bell's PR company which has represented Mr Berezovksy and the oligarch's defenders in the British press but in the interests of both justice - and British-Russian relations - it is the only solution that makes any sense. Berezovsky's supporters have long argued that their man would not receive a fair trial in Putin's Russia. But what possible objections can they have to Berezovsky facing the rap in Brazil? Do they believe that the billionaire has a divine right never to appear in a court of law anywhere? It surely cannot be right that a single individual of, shall we say, controversially acquired wealth and who has called openly for the forceful overthrow of his country's elected government is allowed to sour relations between Britain and Russia, to the great detriment of both countries.

Of course Berezovsky and his influential supporters would much prefer if the British government carried on expelling Russian diplomats and in doing so provoke a new cold war with the Kremlin. But bear-baiting has already been banned once. As a serious policy option, it's time it was kicked into touch once again.

UPDATE: Surprise, surprise: Boris Berezovsky's right-hand man Alex Goldfarb has been handed over the opinion page in the Daily Telegraph today to denounce Moscow's line.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Thought for the Day

"War against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it."

George Orwell, quoted today at

Isn't it amazing that the so-called 'left-wing' supporters of the wars against Yugoslavia and Iraq, many of whom claim to be fans of George Orwell, still don't get it.

Dick Cheney wants more blood

Another typical Monday in 'liberated' Iraq: 86 dead- 180 injured. And what does vice-president Dick Cheney-one of the keenest supporters of the catastrophic intervention in Iraq want President Bush to do next? Yup, you've guessed it. Start another war.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Save the Green Belt

"Last week, both ministers (Alistair Darling and Hazel Blears) advocated ripping up Britain's green belt to solve the housing crisis. Such a retrograde step would constitute a foolish betrayal of Britain's landscape as well as Labour's values.

To think the solution to the housing problem lies simply with gutting the green belt is the politics of defeat. Sacrificing our natural and urban heritage might butter up the Home Builders Federation, but it will not make Britain a better place to live."

Read more of Tristram Hunt's excellent article in defence of the Green Belt here.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The myth of a 'Humanitarian' war

"I guess while I was there, the general attitude was, 'A dead Iraqi is just another dead Iraqi.."

Specialist Jeff Englehart, 26, of Grand Junction, Colorado, 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry, as quoted in today's Independent.
I guess many readers will have been shocked by the admissions of US soldiers like Englehart who have been serving in Iraq. They really shouldn't be.

Here's my February 2006 piece from The Australian on why war can be many things- but never humanitarian.

THE most surprising thing about the latest shocking images of prisoner abuse at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail, revealed on Australia's SBS last week, is that anyone should find them surprising. What else did those who supported the invasion of Iraq expect? This is war, after all, not a cocktail party, and in war two things are always guaranteed. One, innocent people get killed -- usually lots of them. Two, people end up doing the most unspeakable things.

In the Boer War, the British came up with the novel idea of concentration camps in which to incarcerate women and children: more than 26,000 inmates, 80 per cent of whom were children, died from starvation and disease. The widespread abuse of prisoners in World War I led to 128 countries signing the Third Geneva Convention, but that didn't make too much difference as the Germans and the Japanese, aided by the advances of science, soon took the abuse of captives to new, terrible depths.
Even when the scourge of Nazism was removed from the face of the earth and the Geneva Convention was extended to include ill-treatment of civilians, war's ability to cause mankind to sink to barbarism has continued: from Rwanda to Vietnam, from Afghanistan to the Congo.
There has not been a single military conflict in history where atrocities of one form or another have not taken place. Yet, incredibly, there were still those who believed three years ago that the Iraq war would, in some way, be different. What do these people, the ones who argued for a war not to rid Iraq of its phantom weapons of mass destruction but to "liberate" its people, say now as the latest pictures of Abu Ghraib appear on our screens?

Their first response is to come out with formulaic condemnations and to stress how important it is for those responsible to be held to account. Their second is to say that however bad the abuse may be, Iraqis were being abused a whole lot worse under Saddam Hussein.

Neither line is anywhere near good enough. No one would dispute that those found guilty of abusing enemy prisoners should be prosecuted, but what of the responsibility of the politicians whose lies and chicanery led to such an unnecessary, illegal and brutal conflict in the first place? And as to the second line of defence, did we really go to such trouble and expense merely to abuse Iraqis a little less than Saddam did?

Those who did fall for the humanitarian case for war three years ago should have done a little more homework. Just four years before the Iraq invasion came the war in the former Yugoslavia, an intervention couched in exclusively humanitarian terms. Its supporters claim it to have been a success; in reality it was anything but.
Far from preventing a humanitarian catastrophe, the NATO bombing campaign actually precipitated one: a trickle of Kosovan Albanian refugees before the bombing soon turned into a flood. Although the Yugoslav military remained undefeated, 1500 civilians lost their lives, and the high levels of cancer in areas where depleted uranium was dropped mean that the final death toll will be far higher. And since Kosovo was liberated, an estimated 300,000 people have been forced to flee the province -- Serbs, Gypsies, Jews, Egyptians and other non-Albanian minorities; an Amnesty International report details extensive abuse of human rights.

All this begs the question: If Kosovo is an example of a successful humanitarian intervention, what on earth would an unsuccessful one look like?

The problem with a humanitarian war is that wars are by nature unhumanitarian. Electricity and water supplies get cut off. Disease spreads. Innocents get killed: be they Iraqis in a crowded marketplace, Afghans at a wedding or Serbian students on a bridge. We call these casualties collateral damage. Iraqis, as Martin Samuel of Britain's The Times points out, have different words for them: Mum, Dad, Junior. The same words are used by Afghans and Serbs, too.

Does the unhumanitarian nature of war mean that it can never be justified? Not quite. The only major war in the past 100 years -- some would say of all time -- that satisfies St Augustine's criteria for a just war is World War II: in 1939, however terrible war was, to have done nothing would have been worse. The fact that out of the 165 wars in the 20th century that killed more than 6000 people, only one can be justified ought to make us pause for thought.

The next time a politician stands up and tries to convince us of the moral case for war, just remember the pictures you saw on SBS last week. And think too of the 100,000 civilians who have lost their lives since the Iraq conflict began. "Wars would end if the dead could return," said British prime minister Stanley Baldwin.

They might also end if we stopped believing that they can ever be humanitarian.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The return of Cimex lectularius

If you're planning to travel anywhere this summer, please read this article of mine from today's First Post before you go!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Iraq war cheerleaders

The piece of mine on the pro-war pundits who got it wrong- and were rewarded, appears in today's Morning Star.

A national newspaper recently ran an entertaining piece on some of the most wrong-headed predictions of modern times.

There was Margaret Thatcher's 1972 claim that "there will not be a woman Prime Minister in my lifetime". And Ken Olsen's 1977 prediction that "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home".

But sadly lacking were any of the statements from pro-war media pundits in the lead up to the war in Iraq and during the conflict's early stages.

For when it comes to getting it wrong, the lap-top bombardiers were in a class all of their own.

How about: "This will be no war -- there will be a fairly brief and ruthless military intervention.... The president will give an order. [The attack] will be rapid, accurate and dazzling.... It will be greeted by the majority of the Iraqi people as an emancipation. And I say, bring it on." That was from Christopher Hitchens.

Or: "Don’t kid yourself. There’s going to be war in Iraq unless Saddam Hussein hands over his weapons of mass destruction. He’s got them. We know he’s got them. He knows we know he’s got them." from Richard Littlejohn, writing in The Sun.

Then there's this classic from William Shawcross, writing in the Wall Street Journal on the day Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled in Baghdad:
"What a wonderful, magnificent, emotional occasion--one that will live in legend like the fall of the Bastille, V-E Day or the fall of the Berlin Wall. All those smart Europeans who ridiculed George Bush and denigrated his idea that there was actually a better future for the Iraqi people--they will now have to think again." Shawcross also authored a piece entitled "Why Saddam will never disarm".

Janet Daley of The Daily Telegraph believed the moral case against war to be "at best na├»ve, at worst idiotic". Daley believed the existence of Iraqs WMDs to have been proved by Blair’s dossier.

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum claimed: "Inspections haven't worked - that is, they haven't prevented Iraq from developing weapons." She also thought that France and Germany would "risk being completely disqualified as serious members of the international community", when Iraq's WMD showed up.

The Daily Telegraph's "Neo" Con Coughlin regaled us in the lead-up to war with tales of Iraqi superguns and claimed that there was a link between the Al-Qaeda member, Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 bombers and the Iraqi intelligence. The author of the book 'Saddam: The Secret Life' was agitated lest the Iraqi leader's acquiescence to UN inspections "could stop regime change for good".

Neo-con historian Andrew Roberts equated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq with Nazi Germany at its peak. "For Churchill, apotheosis came in 1940; for Tony Blair, it will come when Iraq is successfully invaded and hundreds of weapons of mass destruction are unearthed from where they have been hidden by Saddam's henchmen".

David Aaronovitch, a 'left-wing' advocate of war, promised "If nothing is eventually found, I - as a supporter of the war - will never believe another thing that I am told by our government, or that of the US ever again. Those weapons had better be there, somewhere."

As in the case with those who claimed that "genocide" was taking place in Kosovo in 1999, the pundits who parroted the US and Britain's deceitful propaganda on Iraq have never been properly held to account.

Far from it, they've actually been rewarded for getting things so badly wrong.

Richard Littlejohn moved from one well-paid position at the Sun, to an even better paid one at The Daily Mail. David Aaronovitch is a columnist at The Times- and- contrary to his promise, is still faithfully supporting the government who lied to the country over Iraq's WMD.
Anne Applebaum continues to play the role of Cassandra, only this time the Iraqi "threat" has been replaced by the "threats" from Russia and Iran. Janet Daley, who believed Blair's dodgy dossiers, is still writing in the Daily Telegraph.
Christopher Hitchens, despite the fact that his "fairly brief" war is still raging, continues to be accorded deferential status, turning up on BBC 's Question Time to impart his "wisdom" on what needs to be done next in the "war on terror".
Coughlin's reward for getting it so wrong on Iraq was not dismissal, but promotion to the position of the Daily Telegraph's Executive Foreign Editor. The bumptious historian Andrew Roberts, unabashed after his comparisons between the military strength of Saddam's Iraq and Nazi Germany proved way off the mark, tours America promoting his book 'A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900"- personally endorsed by one George W. Bush.

Of course, the ultimate responsibility for the war in Iraq must lie with the politicians who authorised the illegal military action. But they would never have been able to gain a measure of public support for the war without the work of journalists and writers who failed to challenge the lies Bush, Blair and their representatives were turning out on an almost daily basis.

Whereas we can raise a smile at Lord Kelvin’s claim in 1895 that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible", predictions and false claims which helped dupe the public into supporting a brutal, illegal war-one which to date has cost the lives of almost one million people- and made the world a far more dangerous place- really are no laughing matter.

It's time that we treated the journalists and writers who made them with the opprobrium which they deserve.

Merkel's Madness

The German government is preparing plans to sell up to 50% of the country's state owned railway Deutsche Bahn.


Any one who spends time travelling on Germany's state-run railway will know that it's a different class to Britain's privatised, fragmented network. Trains run to the second, are clean- and you always get a seat.
The way Deutsche Bahn responded to the extra challenge of last year's World Cup was exemplary: extra trains and carriages were laid on and supporters all praised the way that public transport was organised.

It beggars belief that a country with such an excellent, tried-and-tested system should want to copy a country -Britain- whose railway system is easily the worst in Europe.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Battle of the Champions

OK- here's a bit of Monday morning fun. Suppose the greatest Wimbledon mens' champions of the last forty years (Laver, Connors, Borg, McEnroe, Becker, Edberg, Sampras and Federer) played each other, at the peak of their game, in a round-robin tournament. They all had to use the same racket technology ie all wooden rackets or all metal rackets with the same size head face. Who do you think would come out on top and why?

PS On the subject of Wimbledon, a Professor of Criminology called David Wilson is rather vexed that the ball boys and girls at the tournament are so well behaved.......our Professor would seem to prefer it if they were wearing Hoodies and swearing at the players and other officials.....

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Vivien Leigh: Britain's finest- and most tragic- actress

Forty years ago tonight, Britain's greatest ever actress died.
Here's my piece from today's Daily Express on the tormented life of the late, great Vivien Leigh.

She is immortalised as the star of Gone With The Wind, one of the most successful films of all time, and is the only British woman to win two Best Actress Oscars. She and her husband Laurence Olivier were Britain's first celebrity golden couple. And Vivien Leigh was an astonishing beauty in her heyday. Only last year she was voted the Most Beautiful British Woman of all time, beating the likes of Diana, Princess of Wales, and Catherine Zeta Jones. Yet Vivien Leigh's life was a tragic one. She died 40 years ago this weekend at the age of just 53. The marriage to Olivier had ended in heartbreak, She suffered from tuberculosis (which killed her) and - more significantly - manic depression. For it was the latter which led to her violent mood swings and uncontrollable behaviour, which at times bordered on insanity. Worse still, her mental illness often manifested itself in nymphomania, which led her to having sex with strangers in London parks.

Certainly her gilded early life suggested nothing of the troubles ahead. She was a child of the Empire, and while pregnant, her mother spent half an hour a day staring at the Himalayas in the hope that some of their beauty would be transferred to her baby. Her faith was repaid: even at an early age is was clear that Vivian (she later changed the spelling of her Christian name) would be stunningly beautiful. It was a life of privilege; her parents were well-off and she was waited on hand and foot by servants. As an only child, she was constantly reminded by her mother that she was special. Once when she asked why fireworks were being let off on 5th November, she was told 'it's for your birthday, darling". But her pampered childhood came to an abrupt end when she was sent away to convent school in England at the age of just six and a half. Her biographer, Alexander Walker, believed the change had a profound effect on Vivien's mental health. She was two years younger than all the other children and didn't see her mother for almost two years. But it was at the convent that her interest in drama began. "When I leave school I'm going to be a great actress" she confided to a friend, demonstrating for the first time her fierce single-mindedness.

Vivien also knew what she exactly what she wanted when it came to finding a husband. In 1932, at the age of 18, she caught sight of a handsome man on horseback out riding with the local hunt. "I'm going to marry him," she told her friend. It made no difference that the man, Leigh Holman, was 13 years her senior and already engaged: Vivien, not for the last time, got her way. But settling down to a life of domesticity held no interest for the wannabe young actress. When her daughter, Suzanne was born she simply wrote in her diary "had a baby - a girl". Vivien pestered her husband to allow her to return to drama school; to gain his approval she took his Christian name as her stage surname. Her big break came in the West End production of The Mask of Virtue in 1935. The "staggeringly beautiful" young actress earned rave reviews and was soon the talk of London's theatre-world.

It was around this time that she first set eyes on a young actor named Laurence Olivier. "That's the man I'm going to marry", she told a friend once more. Again it was pointed out to her that her latest prey was married. But once again, Vivien was determined to go to any lengths to get what she wanted. She went backstage to visit Olivier in his dressing room and in front of astonished onlookers, kissed him on his shoulder. And when she learnt that Olivier and his wife were going to Capri on holiday, she went there too, taking along a friend of her husband's as cover. Soon Leigh and Olivier were having an affair. The first film they made together was Fire Over England, where they played the role of lovers. Finally, after appearing together in a production of Hamlet, they announced they were leaving their respective spouses and setting up home together. The news scandalised the socially conservative Britain of 1937.

Even after capturing Olivier, the ultra-ambitious Vivien still had more mountains to climb. Hollywood had launched a talent search to find an actress to play the part of Scarlett O'Hara in the film version of the best-selling novel, Gone with the Wind. Although she had found fame in Britain, Leigh was still a relative unknown in Hollywood. Yet Leigh was not discouraged. She immersed herself in Margaret Mitchell's novel, learning passages of it by heart. She travelled to America, ostensibly to be with Olivier, who was filming Wuthering Heights, but really to meet his agent, Myron Selznick, brother of Gone with the Wind's producer David O. Selznick. Leigh persuaded Myron to take her, dressed as Scarlett, to the set of Gone With The Wind and introduce her to the film's producer. Selznick was enchanted with the beautiful young British actress. "Her whole life was wilful, just like Scarlett," says the film historian Tony Sloman. "She would do anything she had to get what she wanted, just as Scarlett had to." Leigh's mesmerising performance won her the 1939 Academy Award for Best Actress, one of eight Oscars the film received.

Yet although she had achieved global stardom at the age of 26, personal contentment proved elusive. While filming Caesar and Cleopatra in 1944, Leigh, then pregnant, slipped and fell, suffering a miscarriage. The stress triggered a mental breakdown and Leigh entered a manic depressive state which was to blight the rest of her life. "When she was high, she was very high indeed and almost uncontrollable; when she was low she was suicidal", records Alexander Walker. In 1951, Leigh won her second Oscar for her portrayal of the neurotic Blanche Dubois in Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire. Her performance is regarded by many critics as one of the greatest in the history of the cinema, but it proved catastrophic for her mental health. Leigh later claimed that playing DuBois - who at the end of the film is taken away to a lunatic asylum - "tipped me over into madness". She even started to utter the character's phrases from the film in real life. A by-product of Leigh's mental illness was an insatiable desire for sex. In 1948, while touring Down Under with her husband, she embarked on an affair with the young Australian actor Peter Finch. Her affair with Finch resumed on the set of the 1953 film, Elephant Walk, when Leigh suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be flown back to Britain.

Leigh also had frequent sexual encounters with strangers. She propositioned taxi drivers and delivery men. "She was fiendish about sex" recalls her friend Joan Thring. "Once she rang me and asked me to have tea with her. I arrived half an hour later, but Vivien wasn't there. Eventually she returned. It had been raining- she was bedraggled, covered in mud and looked terrible. She had been in the square with someone. That sort of thing happened all the time".

While outwardly, Sir Laurence and Lady Olivier were still the golden couple of the British film and theatre world, their marriage came under increasing strain. Olivier could not satisfy his wife's sexual appetite and there were frequent rows, sometimes of a violent nature. Finally, in 1960, after 23 years together, the great romance was over. The couple divorced and Olivier married the actress Joan Plowright. Leigh was heartbroken. She blamed Plowright for the break-up, forgetting about her own affair with Peter Finch. Her manic depression continued to plague her. Today, those suffering from depression can be prescribed pills or can book into an expensive clinic. In Leigh's time, the only treatment was ECT (electro-convulsive therapy) which entailed electrodes being placed on the patient's temples. A friend of Leigh's went to see her after one such bout of treatment and recalls seeing the great Oscar-winning actress crawling on the ground digging with her hands. Leigh didn't even recognise her.

Yet while Leigh could at times be impossible to live with, she was in other ways a kind and generous person. "She had energy and ebullience all the time," remembers Cyril Kegan-Smith, a costume supervisor at the Royal Shakespeare Company. "She was a very friendly person and not at all stand-offish. We all loved her".

Leigh's last film was Ship of Fools, made in 1965. In ailing physical and mental health, she played a down-on-her-luck divorcee, giving a performance so moving that many felt she deserved a third Oscar. The parallels between her character and Leigh in real life seemed only too real. "I am a Scorpio," she once said. "And they eat themselves up and burn themselves out. I swing between happiness and misery. I say what I think and I don't pretend and I am prepared to accept the consequences of my own actions".

Friday, July 06, 2007

Game, Set and Match to Wimbledon

Can anyone out there remember a more compelling- and amazing- day's play at Wimbledon? The Djokovic-Baghdatis match was incredible theatre, one of the most enjoyable matches I've ever watched and played in a wonderful sporting atmosphere, and as for Marion Bartoli's incredible 007-inspired comeback against Justine Henin.... Then there was Richard Pasquet's stunning fightback against Andy Roddick. I would love to have seen Ana Ivanovic beat Venus Williams, but at least she didn't go down without a fight.
This year's Wimbledon has been plagued by poor weather, but today the sun shone not just on SW London, but on the whole of the wonderful, life-enhancing sport called tennis.

The neo-con charade

Why, if radical islam really is the 'greatest threat to civilisation' facing mankind since er, the last greatest threat to civilisation- did the neo-cons lobby so hard for an attack on a secular, Middle Eastern state whose long-serving Deputy Prime Minister was a practising Christian?
Perhaps any neo-cons who occasionally visit this site could enlighten us.....

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Thought for the Day

"The government values its relationship with the USA more than it values the lives of British people."

From The Exile.

The high price of 'intervention'

"It's perfectly true that al-Qaida and its "takfiri" fellow travellers have an extreme, violently sectarian and socially conservative ideology. But it is simply delusional - and flies in the face of logic and history - to fail to recognise the central link between the terror threat and Britain's post-9/11 actions in the Muslim world.
First, there were no al-Qaida-inspired attacks in Britain before the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There were against the US - starting with the World Trade Centre in 1993 - triggered by the aftermath of the Gulf war, as well as jihadist campaigns in Kashmir, Chechnya and Bosnia. But Britain was not a target until it attacked the Muslim world. If the bombers' real focus was, say, sexually liberal western lifestyles, they would presumably be attacking cities like Amsterdam and Stockholm."

You can read the rest of Seumas Milne's excellent piece on how adopting an 'interventionist' neo-conservative foreign policy has made Britain a target for terrorists here.

UPDATE: There's some more fine analysis on this issue from Rod Liddle in the latest edition of The Spectator.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Heaven is a full pipe

This piece of mine appears in today's Times.

Not everywhere has cast smokers into an al fresco wilderness. Not only is Poland still wreathed in blue fumes, but its young women are championing a surprising new trend – pipe smoking.

In the last Pipe Smoking World Championships, Poland was responsible for 135 of the 328 participants. Danuta Pytel, leader of the Polish women’s team, kept her pipe going with one light for 3hrs 8min 9sec, a world record.

Among the new generation of enthusiastic Polish pipe smokers is 24-year-old Karolina Wentland, from Poznan. “I always took pleasure in smoking cigars,” she says. “I smoked cigarettes from time to time but wasn’t addicted. I loved the smell of pipe tobacco and a friend of mine, a member of a pipe club, suggested that I take part in a competition to show me the ‘big world’ of pipe smoking.” Karolina, who favours briar pipes and usually smokes Virginia or Cavendish, adds: “There is a feeling of peace and wholeness that comes to you when you are smoking a pipe.”

With smoking bans threatened in more and more countries, pipe-smoking contests are increasingly under threat. “Poland is a smokers’ paradise, but for how long, I don’t know,” Karolina says.

UPDATE: The print copy of today's Times has a photograph of a famous lady pipe smoker next to the piece. If you've got a copy of the paper, do you know who it is?
Ten brownie points for the first person who identifies her.(Here's a clue:
she's an American with the same surname as a former England footballer...)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Road to Riches?

Quit smoking and save £20K a year!- extols Emma-Lou Montgomery.
Her arguments remind me of a classic joke from the incomparable Flanagan and Allen.
As Flanagan lights up yet another cigar, Ches says to him 'Do you know Bud, I've calculated that if you had never smoked you'd have saved enough money to buy this hotel".
Bud replies "Do you smoke, Ches".
"I've never smoked, Bud"
"Do you own this hotel?".
"Well, shut up then".

The Last Summer

"There will never be a summer like the summer of 1976 because when it ended something ended in Britain. The notion that you could live well as a working class person, in a society that tried to share its resources fairly, and in which you did not have to bust a ball to earn a buttie, has gone from the popular memory. People may tell their children about how you could change jobs on a whim - they do - but the memory of everything else that we enjoyed has gone. We need to bring that memory back and make it a political demand."

Until that happens, we will never have another summer and the winter that has now lasted for 30 years will remain."

The above is an extract from The Exile's excellent post about the summer of 1976.
As he points out, when that summer ended, so did a lot of other things: the Callaghan government signed up to the IMF's package, which helped pave the way for Thatcherism and all the social and economic devastation that was to follow.
The sun shined on Britain throughout the summer of 1976. It most definitely is not shining on us now.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

New Labour:Tough on Crime,Tough on Crime-Busters

Police announced that the first person to be arrested under the government's new anti-smoking laws was a Mr S. Holmes (pictured above), of Baker Street London.
Mr Holmes, who named his occupation as 'master detective', was arrested for lighting a pipe in a tavern in west London earlier today.
"The arrest of Mr Holmes is wonderful news. Smoking is a heinous crime, far more serious than attempting to steal the Crown Jewels. The government has shown it is not only tough on crime, it is tough on crime busters too. That's wonderful news for me and my business associates", a passer-by, Professor James Moriarty, told

UPDATE: Sam Leith has a great piece in today's Daily Telegraph on the mentality of those who 'wholeheartedly' approve of the smoking ban.

The Warmongers' Lie Machine: How it works

"In both Kosovo and Iraq, the government's war strategy seems to have been threefold: 1. In order to whip up public support for war, tell lies so outrageous that most people will believe that no one would have dared to make them up. 2. When the conflict is over, dismiss questions about the continued lack of evidence as 'irrelevant' and stress alternative 'benefits' from the military action, e.g., 'liberation' of the people. 3. Much later on, when the truth is finally revealed, rely on the fact that most people have lost interest and are now concentrating on the threat posed by the next new Hitler. "

The above is an extract from a piece I wrote for The Spectator in 2003, in which I noted the similarities between the campaign of lies which preceded the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia and the similar deceit which preceded the illegal invasion of Iraq.
Just remember the way the game works, next time you hear/read a neo-con/liberal imperialist mentioning the 'grave threat' posed by a 'nuclear armed' Iran, or indeed from any other country which the PNAC-ers deem to be in the way of their plan for global domination.