Monday, March 31, 2008

A Model Democracy

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

It's a country where both of its leading supermarkets are cooperatives inspired by leftwing philosophy. The state-owned postal service runs the buses, which connect even the most remote village- in this country public transport is still run as a public service. It hasn't been involved in a war for almost 200 years and is easily the most democratic country in Europe - with the regular use of referendums. It has taken a strong line on climate change: in the most recent general election the Greens polled almost 10%. And its unofficial national motto is "One for all, all for one". Yet, the country in question is one that progressives often sneer at- and label reactionary.

I'm talking of Switzerland, which, though it lies at the heart of Europe, is one of continent's countries about which there is most ignorance.

The first myth about Switzerland is that it operates an ultra-capitalist, dogmatically free-market economic system. Although much of the economy is in private hands, if there is a conflict of interest in Switzerland between community and capital, community always comes first. Agriculture is highly protected - receiving twice the amount of subsidy than the EU average. Swiss Federal Railways in still in public ownership. Most shops close on Saturday afternoons and all day on Sunday. In Switzerland, unlike Britain, there are still areas where commerce is not allowed to go.

A second myth is that Switzerland is a boringly bourgeois and ultra-sanitised place where no self-respecting radical would feel at home. What surprises many who visit for the first time is the country's gritty and decidedly retro feel. Switzerland is dated - but in the best possible way. You can still smoke in wonderfully atmospheric railway station restaurant/cafes (I can heartily recommend the one at Thun) - and imagine it's still 1968. For someone coming from Britain, Swiss streets have a refreshingly un-globalised look. Away from the biggest cities, big international fast food and coffee shop chains, which have made British high streets such bland, uniform places, are conspicuous by their absence. Swiss cities still have a bohemian feel: there is a thriving cultural and artistic scene.

Another myth about Switzerland is that its people are narrow-minded xenophobes. The racist anti-immigration election poster of the Swiss People's party (SVP), which showed three white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag, quite rightly led to condemnation from around the world. But less well publicised were the protests the poster sparked in Switzerland and the gains made in last year's election by the unequivocally anti-racist Green party.

Switzerland's model of direct democracy is one the left should study extremely closely. Swiss citizens may challenge a law that has been passed by parliament if they can gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days. In addition, citizens can put a constitutional amendment to a national vote, provided they get 100,000 voters to sign the proposed amendment within 18 months. Binding referendums also take place at cantonal and local level. It's no coincidence that George Lansbury, the most socialist of all British Labour party leaders, spoke favourably of the Swiss model-and called for a similar system to be introduced in Britain.

Switzerland's commitment to democracy runs deep and explains the reluctance to hand over decision-making power to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. By maintaining its independence, Switzerland is able to follow its own path, and not be dictated to by those who act as if they rule the world. Despite warnings from the US embassy in Bern, Switzerland's energy trading company EGL earlier this month signed a 25-year-old natural gas contract with the state-owned National Iranian Gas Export Company. The Swiss president and foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, defended the deal, saying, "Switzerland is an independent country that has its own strategic interests to defend". If only other European nations could show such spirit when dealing with US bullying.

Forget the jibes about cuckoo clocks and the gnomes of Zurich: Switzerland has a lot more going for it from a progressive viewpoint than many on the left realise.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Great Jokes of our time: Privatisation improves efficiency

“Look at the various parts of the national infrastructure that have been privatised, and practically all of them have gone downhill: buses, trains, water, power“.
Sir Terence Conran, designer.

To the list we can also add airports and British Airways. Anyone care to argue that privatising BAA and BA has helped improve efficiency? If so, then why not pop along to Terminal 5 today and try telling some of the passengers?

Alternatively, if you agree that privatisation of our airports and national airline has been a complete disaster and urgently needs to be reversed, then this is the pressure group for you.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Four Score: The Benefits of Independence

Here are a few extracts from an essay of mine on the benefits of European countries maintaining their sovereignty from the anti-war magazine, The American Conservative. I'm afraid the whole article is not available on line, but only on subsciption to the magazine (which I can heartily recommend, as it's always a great read).

‘THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY”. The favourite refrain of totalitarians throughout history is now uttered by the serial globalisers who insist that membership of sovereignty-sapping bodies such as the EU and NATO and are the only options for any self-respecting European country.

If you’ve not surrendered your national sovereignty, then you’re missing out. But is this really true?

Now, it might just be a freak coincidence, but the four countries in Europe who have best preserved their national sovereignty: Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Belarus-none of whom are in the EU and only two of whom are in NATO, are all doing quite
well. Much better in fact than European countries who have surrendered law-making powers.

Consider Switzerland, a country which gets a bad press from Europhiles for not wanting to join the EU, and from the serial warmongers for resolutely staying out of military conflicts. The demise of Switzerland has long been predicted. We were told that once it was forced to reduce its banking secrecy, there would be a big flow of capital and the Swiss Franc would lose its position as the world’s most secure currency. Moreover Switzerland’s high-wage economy would not be able to compete in the cut and thrust of the globalised economy. Poppycock. Switzerland stands at number six in the List of the world’s richest countries, above US, Japan and Britain. Uncompetitive? -The World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness
Report currently ranks Switzerland's high-wage economy as the most competitive in the world. Growth is currently at around 3%, unemployment is only 3.3% (compared to the EU average of 7%). If Switzerland is suffering from staying out of the EU and the European Economic Area (EAA), then suffering has never been so comfortable......

Norway, like Switzerland, is thriving. In 2006, it officially became the richest country in the world, and it has reached its lofty position by doing exactly what the globalizers prescribe......

Switzerland, Belarus, Iceland and Norway all operate different economic systems. The Swiss operate a largely low tax, private enterprise economy. Iceland and Norway operate high tax, high spending welfare state models, while Belarus, in the words of its president, runs a 'socially orientated market economy'. But what all these models have in common is that they’re organic: they’ve developed in time, in accordance with national history, religion and traditions, and enjoy popular support.

By contrast, the EU is about imposing a one size- fits- all economic and social model, which takes little or no account of regional or national differences or the heritage of the countries it absorbs.

I suggested earlier that the success of the four countries might be a coincidence. Yet I don't think it is. This quartet of countries has been successful because they have managed to maintain crucial decision-making powers.

By keeping their independence, and continuing to thrive in spite of the globalizers' forecasts, they have demonstrated a truth that we should never forget.

There is ALWAYS another way.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Religion: The Ally of the Left

"Religion cannot but now find itself in conflict with the unfettered rule of money - a capitalism that seeks to dominate exactly the social and personal arena which religion has always regarded as its own preserve. And as it becomes less useful as an ideological prop for power, religion's more radical and anti-establishment strains have become stronger. That is the context in which, for example, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela declares Jesus as the first socialist and Che Guevara-style images of the founder of Christianity are carried on demonstrations in Caracas."

You can read more of Seumas Milne (above)'s excellent, and extremely important essay on how religion is now an ally of radical social change, here. Regular readers will know that I have long called for the left to ditch its antipathy to religion- such a step is I believe, crucial in helping to build a left-right anti-neoliberal, anti-neocon alliance.

Of course it's true that for much of its history, organised religion has been on the side of the oppressors. But as Seumas argues, things have moved on: the big enemy of the progressive cause today is not religion but global capital. And in its battle with the 'unfettered rule of money', the left can find common ground with religion.

Such an alliance is already being forged in South America. And the results, from an electoral point of view have been impressive.
"For decades, the Left's atheistic, socially liberal approach - in a devoutly religious, conservative continent - proved a handicap when it came to building up the mass public support necessary to supplant pro-US, right-wing regimes. But now that it has found an ally as powerful as God in its opposition to Washington-backed neo-liberalism, there really could be no stopping it",
I wrote in late 2006.

And there could be no stopping the European Left too, if it follows suit.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

British Comedy: A Question of Class

It was a shame to see Sandra Piddock of Plymouth narrowly fail in her gallant attempt to become the new UK Mastermind. Sandra's specialist subject in the Grand Final on Easter Monday was Jimmy Perry and David Croft's wonderful comedy series 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum', which regular readers will know is one of my all time favourites. By choosing the subject however, Sandra had to put up with some rather patronising treatment. In my tv guide the TV critic claims 'I'm sorry Sandra Piddock, knowing a lot about It Ain't Half Hot Mum doesn't make you brainy- it just means you didn't get out much in the 1970s'.

Worse still was the attitude of Mastermind compere John Humphrys. When discussing the comedies of Perry and Croft, Humphrys asked Sandra Piddock 'Aren't they rather simplistic?' Well, John, if you're looking for simplistic comedy, what about a certain BBC series in which a running joke is a woman vomiting when she hears the word 'black'? But, oops, we can't accuse Little Britain of being 'simplistic' because it's written and performed by public school-educated university graduates. In the same way we can't accuse the humour of Borat (aka Sacha Baron-Cohen, Haberdasher's Aske's; Cambridge University), of being 'simplistic' either. No, the humour of Lucas, Walliams and Baron Cohen might appear lavatorial and simplistic to the untrained eye, but it is in fact incredibly sophisticated, ironic, satirical, in fact all three men are total geniuses..!(not).

I've written before of the dreadful snobbery which exists when it comes to comedy in Britain today- and how BBC comedy output is now dominated by middle-class public school/university educated writers- Mitchell and Webb being the last clones to roll off the production line. For today's public school/university educated comedians the two priorities are:

1. to shock the audience; 2. to sneer at the oiks.

Making us laugh comes a very poor third.

Long Live Jimmy Perry and David Croft. And Galton and Simpson. And Esmonde and Larbey. And Clement and Le Frenais. And Johnny Speight. The sad and truly shocking thing is that none of those great comedy writers would ever get commissioned by today's BBC.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Crossing the Rubicon: March 1999

We’ve heard a lot in the last few days about the anniversary of a certain war.

But four years before Iraq, let's not forget that Britain took part in another illegal US-sponsored war of aggression on grounds which were completely fraudulent.

In 2003 Tony Bliar’s Big Whopper was that Saddam possessed WMDs which "could be activated within 45 minutes". In 1999 it was that Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia was "set on a Hitler-style genocide equivalent to the extermination of the Jews during World War Two".

The war of 1999 was, we were repeatedly told, fought 'to stop a humanitarian catastrophe'. “It is no exaggeration to say that what is happening is racial genocide' – claimed the British Prime Minister – "something we had hoped we would never again experience in Europe. Thousands have been murdered, 100,000 men are missing and hundreds forced to flee their homes and the country." Yugoslav forces were, according to the US State Department, “conducting a campaign of forced population movement not seen in Europe since WW2". One US Information Agency 'fact' sheet claimed that the number of Albanians massacred could be as high as 400,000.

In fact, the number of both Serbs and Albanians killed during the 1998-1999 hostilities between Yugoslav Federal forces and the Western-backed terrorist group the KLA, according to the ICTY figures, totalled 2,788 victims. Compare that to the 3,500 people killed by NATO’s brutal war of aggression.

A dangerous precedent - that of launching an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign state without UN Security Council was set in 1999.

Just how dangerous, we would all see four years later.

UPDATE: Svetlana has more on this week's anniversary here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Iraq by Numbers

The number of US soldiers killed in the conflict: 4000.

The number of direct relatives of the neocons who conceived the war killed in the conflict: 0

It's very easy to be in favour of a war that brings you huge profits and in which other people's children do the dying.

Friday, March 21, 2008

For the Love of the Common People

"Keep in mind the fact that the Son of Man, the Christ who lived and was executed by the government of His day, was a great leader of the common people. It was his great message of Love and Brotherhood which brought him to his death. He knew the poor of the earth were oppressed by the rich and the wealthy, and in scathing terms denounced the money changers and all those who defiled the Temple and brought suffering to starving humanity".

George Lansbury, May 1926.

Happy Easter.

New Labour's Corporate State

Many thanks to Charlie Marks for finding this truly shocking story from The Independent.

Shake-up of hospitals will open door to McDonald’s sponsorship
by Colin Brown, Deputy Political Editor

Firms such as McDonald’s and Virgin could be allowed to sponsor NHS hospital wards under radical plans announced by the Government to allow sponsorship of health services and create a new era of open competition between hospitals.
Private companies will be allowed to create some “brand awareness” such as a logo on hospital property but they would not be allowed to gain a “commercial advantage”, meaning a firm such as Durex would not be allowed to sponsor a sexual health unit, but it could sponsor another type of clinic or a hospital department.
The plans announced by Ben Bradshaw, the Health minister, came as part of a drive to give NHS patients more choice over the private or NHS hospitals in which they are treated.

Patients are to be allowed a choice of hospitals across England from 1 April, including private hospitals that are NHS approved. At the moment, the choice is limited to local providers but the NHS will be able to “shop” for health care across the country.

As Charlie points out- this nonsense won't be happening in Scotland or Wales, but it can happen here, in England, because we don't have a Parliament (I'll be posting on the issue shortly).

One further point. The Minister responsible for this appalling scheme, the shamelessly hypocritical New Labour cipher Ben Bradshaw, was one of the most obsessive critics of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Bradshaw repeatedly- and ludicrously- referred to the democratically-elected Socialist government of Slobodan Milosevic as 'fascist'. Yet, the main feature of fascism is the very close association between corporations and the state. Another is the pursual of an aggressive foreign policy. And a third feature is the belief in the right of a self-constituted elite to rule. By that measure, it's the New Labour government in Britain which better deserves the 'f' word, than Milosevic's unequivocally left-wing and anti-big business administration in Belgrade.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Neo-Cons' Contempt for the American people

From today's 'Good Morning America' on ABC:

DICK CHENEY: On the security front, I think there’s a general consensus that we’ve made major progress, that the surge has worked. That’s been a major success.
MARTHA RADDATZ: Two-third of Americans say it’s not worth fighting.
RADDATZ So? You don’t care what the American people think?
CHENEY: No. I think you cannot be blown off course by the fluctuations in the public opinion polls.

But, as Amanda ofThink Progress states:

Opposition to the war is not a “fluctuation” in public opinion. The American public has steadily turned against the war since the 2003 invasion. According to a new CNN poll, just 36 percent of the American public believes that “the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over — down from 68 percent in March 2003, when the war began.”
Even though he doesn’t care what the American public wants, Cheney still thinks he is able — and entitled — to speak for the American public. Last month, Cheney declared, “The American people will not support a policy of retreat.” If Cheney were actually listening to the “American people,” he would know that 61 percent actually supports the redeployment of U.S. troops.

Democracy? As I've said before on numerous occasions, it's the very LAST thing that the neocons want.

Honourable Members

Courtesy of Charlie Marks, here's a list of the 19 Labour MPs (plus one Independent Labour MP) who voted with the Opposition in their attempt to prevent the planned closure of 2,500 Post Offices.

Diane Abbott (Hackney North & Stoke Newington)
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North)
John Cummings (Easington)
Andrew Dismore (Hendon)
David Drew (Stroud)
Frank Field (Birkenhead)
Paul Flynn (Newport West)
John Grogan (Selby)
Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North)
John McDonnell (Hayes & Harlington)
Eric Martlew (Carlisle)
Alan Meale (Mansfield)
Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
Alan Simpson (Nottingham South)
Geraldine Smith (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester South)
David Taylor (Leicestershire North West)
Mike Wood (Batley & Spen)
Independent Labour MP Bob Wareing (Liverpool West Derby)

You'll notice that among the names is that of Bob Wareing. Bob (pictured above) opposed not only the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003, but also the equally unlawful NATO aggression against Yugoslavia four years earlier.

Bob's reward for opposing illegal wars of aggression and for standing up for the interests of his predominantly working-class constituents was to be deselected and replaced by a pro-war, pro-privatisation New Labour cipher.

Let's hope that in addition to tonight's embarrassment, New Labour will face further humiliation in Liverpool West Derby on the night of the next General Election.

The Crime of the Century

Five years ago today, a great crime was committed. The 21st Century is less than a decade old, but I'd be surprised if a greater crime will ever be committed in the next 90 years.
"Given that the invasion of Iraq was regarded as illegal by the majority of the UN security council, its secretary general, and the overwhelming weight of international legal opinion, it must by the same token be seen as a war crime: what the Nuremberg tribunal deemed the "supreme international crime" of aggression",
says Seumas Milne, in today's Guardian.

The illegal invasion of Iraq has led to the deaths of over 1m people, and created over 4m refugees. It has made not only Iraq, but many other countries in the world, far more dangerous places. Yet despite the death and destruction they have caused, those responsible for this most deceitful of wars remain free, and still stalk the corridors of power. Worse still, they are now doing all they can to propagandise for another illegal attack, this time on Iran.

As I've said before, we will not have peace until the neocons and their 'liberal interventionist' allies are properly held to account for the 'supreme international crime' they committed in March 2003.

The lesson for the West of the last five years, as Correlli Barnett states in today's Daily Mail ,is a simple one.

Never Again.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hungary defies international law

Didn't think the Hungarian government of multi-millionaire Ferenc Gyurcsany (pictured above with pal George W. Bush) could stoop any lower? They just have.

We are told that Hungary "coordinated this step with the United States and the European Union". Oh, how wonderful after years of "co-ordinating" its foreign policy with the Soviet Union, that Hungary is a free and independent nation once again!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

It's time to stub out the smoking ban

The website The Smoking Ban is Shit reports:

Pubs are closing down at a rate of nearly four a day because of poor sales and the effect of the smoking ban, the organisation which represents the industry has warned.
Last year, 1,409 pubs shut their doors, according to the British Beer & Pub Association.
"Britain's pubs are grappling with spiralling costs, sinking sales, fragile consumer confidence and the impact of the smoking ban," said Rob Hayward, the organisation's chief executive. "Pub closures at this rate are threatening an important hub of our social fabric and community history."

It's not just pubs that are closing. It's social clubs, bingo halls and snooker halls too.

Those of us who opposed the smoking ban warned repeatedly that this would happen.
But of course, the fanatical, obsessed minority got their way, as they so often do in our so-called 'democracy'.

Peter Hitchens once described the abolition of capital punishment as the most snobbish piece of legislation that Parliament had ever passed. But the smoking ban pushes it very close. It was, as I argued here, a piece of legislation motivated primarily by New Labour's middle-class hatred, both for the working classes whom they despise with a passion and the so-called 'toffs' who enjoy a post-prandial cigar in their West End clubs.

New Labour is dominated by anally retentive, prissy, puritanical, snobbish, socially insecure middle-class control freaks (Patricia Hewitt and Margaret Hodge being classic examples), who loathe the very idea of people enjoying themselves.

They never go to pubs, bingo-halls, or working-men's clubs, so what do they care if these institutions close?

Monday, March 17, 2008

Happy St Patrick's Day!

A very Happy St Patrick’s Day to all Irish readers. To celebrate, here’s a Eurovision classic from 1970. Ireland has won the contest on numerous occasions, but, with apologies to Johnny Logan, I don't think any of their subsequent winning songs can match 'All Kinds of Everything', sung by the lovely Dana.
In 1970, The Long Fellow was still Irish President (at the ripe old age of 88) and the country was still a free, unglobalised and independent nation. And it was a country where human values, came above the worship of money. Now of course, Ireland has entered ’the real world’. It’s a member of the EU and capitalism rules supreme. Am I the only one to think that something very important- something which made Ireland such a truly wonderful country- has been lost along the way?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Iraq: No debate is necessary

"Five years after the invasion of Iraq, we, as neutral observers, are going to discuss its legacy in terms of success or failure. Can you believe that? Now the worst foreign policy mistake of post-1945 Western democracy is up for deliberation, it is fair to say that anything goes.
When Jerry Sadowitz posed the question on national television “Jews and Nazis, so who's right?” I thought he was joking. Not any more. In this climate so many events that were previously off limits can be reopened.
Lee Harvey Oswald: dangerous assassin or just keeping the powerful on their toes? Nelson Mandela: shouldn't life mean life?
You want a debate, though, we'll have a debate. Is the region safer? No. Is the world safer? No. Is the West safer? No. Are the Iraqi people safer? No. Did we find any weapons? No. Did we find Osama bin Laden? No. Will it be over soon? No. Is it a recruitment poster for al-Qaeda? Yes. Did we at least get some cheap petrol out of it? No. Read my lips. Worst. Decision. Ever.

There is very little to add to Martin Samuel's brilliant article in The Times. On the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war, no debate is necessary. The only thing we ought to be talking about as we mark the fifth anniversary of the brutal, deceitful and illegal attack on a sovereign state, is how we can bring those who planned it before a war crimes tribunal.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Denmania rules at Cheltenham

Well, the race didn't deliver the thrilling finish many had hoped for, but what a superb performance by Denman (above). Although he never gave up the chase, Kauto Star never appeared to be travelling as well as he normally does and his jumping was not as fluent as his stablemate's
One part of me is saying 'wow, how lucky we are, as racing fans to witness such a truly brilliant performance'. But another part of me is saying that after a succession of Gold Cups where the race has turned into a procession, wouldn't it be nice, if next year, we had a good old fashioned ding-dong battle up the run-in?

That however looks a forlorn hope, if Denman is in the line-up!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Clash of the Titans

Back in December, I wrote:

So long as Denman, stable companion Kauto Star and Exotic Dancer can get to Prestbury Park safe and sound on 14th March, we look to be in for a classic Gold Cup.

Well, that mouth-watering prospect is now less than 24 hours away.

Who’s going to win?

It’s a very close call, but my vote (narrowly) goes to the reigning champion Kauto Star. I can't get out my head how impressive he was when winning the race last year, and he's done absolutely nothing wrong this season. That said, it wouldn't surprise me in the least to see Denman prevail, especially if the rain keeps falling. Exotic Dancer and Halcon Genelardais look the each-way value, though the former wouldn’t want much more rain.

If you can’t get to Prestbury Park tomorrow, then whatever you do, make sure you are close to a television set or radio at 15.30 GMT. And to whet your appetite, above is a replay of the classic 1989 Gold Cup. I was lucky enough to have been at Cheltenham that wet, cold and wonderful day, and seeing Desert Orchid get up the hill to beat Yahoo turned a keen interest in racing into a passion.

Whatever you decide to back in the Gold Cup tomorrow, all the very best of luck!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Dave's finest hour (and how it could have been even better)

Regular readers will know that I'm not a member of the David Cameron Appreciation Society. And, in the words of the immortal Edmund Blackadder, I'd rather French kiss a skunk than vote Conservative. But let's give credit where credit's due. Dave's Budget reply speech today was one of the finest I've seen a leader of the opposition make. It was sharp, focused and at times, very, very funny (the put down to Ed Balls : 'just because you're Minister for Children doesn't mean you have act like one' was terrific, as was Dave's likening to Alistair Darling's dull-as-dishwaster speech to a man reading the telephone directory).

But as good as Dave's attack on the government's financial mismanagement was, it could have been even better. Imagine if, instead of being in the clutches of the neocons, the Conservatives had followed a truly conservative 'defence of the realm' foreign policy and opposed both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. In today's Guardian, Leo Benedictus discusses how the government could have spent the money they have squandered on those wars in the past five years. They could have built 40 new hospitals. Or employed 45,454 extra nurses. Or doubled the winter fuel payment for OAPs in 2003. Or simply written out a cheque for £548.80 to each family in the country.

The sad fact is that when it comes to New Labour government's most criminal waste of taxpayers money, HM Opposition are unable- and unwilling- to utter a word of protest.

UPDATE: It seems that David Lindsay was not as impressed by Dave's Budget performance as I was.
Cameron was completely beyond parody, engaging in sick-making "all good public school Oxonians together" banter with Ed Balls, and delivering his whole speech in his trademark style and tone: that of a posh undergraduate who knows that he'll never need to work and who thinks that everyone else is an insolent new footman asking for the sack

The Hungarian Revolt

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

What a weekend for underdogs - and those who champion them! I refer not to the wonderful FA Cup giant-killing exploits of Barnsley, Portsmouth and Cardiff, but to equally stirring developments in European politics. In Spain, the progressive anti-war government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which pulled troops out of Iraq and refused to recognise the illegal US-sponsored breakaway province of Kosovo, has been re-elected. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy's UMP received a slap in the face in local elections.

And in Hungary, the ruling neoliberal coalition led by Ferenc Gyurcsany (above), the multimillionaire Tony Blair admirer, suffered a humiliating defeat in a national referendum.

The referendum asked the people's verdict on three key elements of the government's "reform" programme: the imposition of hospital and doctor's visit fees and the imposition of higher education tuition fees. The response could not have been more emphatic. With around 99% of votes counted, the results showed that 84.08% voted to scrap hospital visit fees, 82.42% to scrap doctor's visit fees and 82.22% to scrap tuition fees.

As much as the government tries to make light of this reverse, the vote threatens to derail the administration's entire "reform" programme.

Jubilant opposition leader Viktor Orbán warned the government that unless they repeal the controversial new law to introduce compulsory private health insurance, they would suffer another defeat in a second referendum in September.

Hungarians have been told repeatedly that there is no alternative to mass privatisation and cuts in health care, education and welfare provision. But more and more people are now waking up to the fact that far from being part of the solution, the neoliberal "reform" programme is an integral part of the problem.

Unemployment in Hungary has risen to 8.1% - the highest for 10 years. Poverty and malnutrition is on the increase: last autumn, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that 200,000 people in Hungary, including 20,000 children, were under-fed.

And as public anger with the country's corrupt ruling elite intensifies, a new and exciting political realignment is taking place.

Campaigning for a "yes" vote in yesterday's referendum were the leading conservative opposition party Fidesz, the Christian Democratic People's Party (KDNP), the Green Party and the Communist Workers Party. Hungarian conservatives and progressives may still have their disagreements, but on the most important issues of the day - such as the need to protect state health care provision, halt the privatisation programme, and preserve Hungarian society from disintegration - they are singing from the same hymn sheet.

"Senkit nem hagyunk az út szélén" ("We don't leave anyone at the roadside") was the response of KDNP leader Zsolt Semjén to the referendum result: a noble sentiment that all true progressives would surely agree with. And for good measure Semjén also praised the "socialist-hearted" people who went out to vote "yes", and talked of a new "solidarity camp".

Contrast Semjen's rhetoric with that of János Kóka, the leader of the fanatically neoliberal Free Democrats (SZDSZ), the junior partner of the governing coalition. "I would like to reassure the international money and capital markets that the government upholds its commitment to reforms and a strict and tight budget," was Kóka's response to yesterday's vote: the suffering of the Hungarian people under the government's "reform" programme is clearly of less concern to him than buttering up foreign investors.

For far too long political parties which represent capital, like the "Free Democrats", have managed to get their way because anti-neoliberal conservatives and anti-neoliberal progressives have been reluctant to join forces. But when they do forget their past differences and collaborate in campaigns to protect state provision, the result is emphatic, as it was yesterday in Hungary.

The formation of conservative/leftist/green alliances to oppose neoliberal extremism and put the interests of people before global capital, is the most effective way that the anti-democratic rule of money power can be defeated.

Hungary shows us the way.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

King of the Cads

Exactly one hundred years ago this month, Rex Harrison, one of Britain's greatest actors was born. Here's my Daily Express article on the man who was the height of urbanity on screen, but a fatal charmer off it.

He was described as ‘the greatest actor of light comedy in the world’. A star of more than 40 films, he won an Oscar for his unforgettable portrayal of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady.

Yet while Rex Harrison, who was born exactly 100 years ago this week, was the height of urbanity on screen, off it, he was a very different character. A serial womaniser, he went through six wives and had countless affairs. Two of the women who fell for him killed themselves. The fatal charmer who was given the nickname ‘Sexy Rexy’, was also loathed by the rest of his profession for his rudeness and arrogance. ‘He was one of the top five unpleasant men you’ve ever met’ said Patrick Macnee. ‘Rex was kind of an axxxxxx’ said Charlton Heston. If he hadn't been an actor, the only thing he would have been fit for was selling second hand cars on Great Portland Street, was Noel Coward's withering verdict.

So how did he come to provoke such adoration from women and revulsion from his fellow actors?

The story goes back to when he was born Reginald Carey Harrison on 5th March 1908, in Huyton, Lancashire. From an early age Harrison, who adopted the name Rex at the age of 10, after hearing someone calling it to their dog and thinking it ‘sounded rather nice‘, had wanted to be an actor. He left school at 16 to join a repertory company where he learned his craft over the next six years.

At 26, Harrison married the first of his many wives, the glamorous fashion model Collette Thomas. Thomas came from a wealthy background, and gave Harrison, a lifelong snob, the status he desired. Most importantly, she had the contacts that could help the ambitious young actor in his career.

When the Second World War began, Harrison tried to enlist but was turned down due to blindness in one eye, caused by a bout of measles. With his wife away working for the Red Cross, Harrison was free to “play the field”. He met and fell in love with the German emigre actress Lilli Palmer. Even though Harrison was still married, he set up house with his lover in London. Collette sued Harrison and Palmer for cohabitation and divorce followed.

In 1943, Harrison and Palmer married. Two years later he was offered a seven-year contract by Fox Studios in Hollywood worth an incredible $4500 a week and he and his new bride headed across the Atlantic.

Even in a place where adultery was common, ‘Sexy Rexy’’s womanising exploits became legendary. In his biography of David Niven, Graham Lord relates a practical joke that Niven and fellow actor Tyrone Power played on Harrison. Niven and Power hired two young actresses to play a ‘mother’ and ‘daughter’ and planted them at a Hollywood party where they knew Harrison had been invited. Harrison was duly mesmerised by the ‘daughter’ and invited to afternoon tea by the ‘mother‘, but when he arrived the ‘mother’ had been called away and the’ daughter’ was on her own. Just as ‘Sexy Rexy’ was getting down to business, the ‘mother’ suddenly returned catching the famous actor with his trousers down and threatening angrily to ruin his career and his marriage by telling his wife and gossip columnists. As Harrison pleaded with her to keep quiet and hopped about trying to pull up his trousers, he saw the grinning faces of Niven and Power at the window and realised that he’d been set up.

Yet Harrison’s philandering was soon to prove disastrous. In 1947 he had begun an affair with Carole Landis a tall, beautiful actress of Norwegian extraction. Although only 28, she had been married five times and had twice attempted suicide. Infatuated with Harrison, she filed to divorce her spouse, believing that Harrison would do likewise. But Harrison had no intention of jeopardising his Hollywood career with a messy divorce and on the evening of July 4th 1948 he told Landis he would not be leaving his wife. That night the heartbroken actress took an overdose of barbiturates and killed herself. Harrison claimed that he arrived at Landis‘ home the following afternoon to find her already dead. But rumours circulated that Landis was still alive when Harrison arrived and that instead of immediately calling for medical assistance, he telephoned his publicist to ask for advice. In his autobiography Harrison makes no mention of Landis. But what we do know is that Landis left two suicide notes- one to her mother, which was found, and the other to Harrison, which he bribed a police officer to destroy.

Landis’ suicide caused a scandal. Harrison was widely blamed for his lover’s death and with his contract cancelled by Fox, he left Hollywood in disgrace. To her credit Lilli Palmer stood by him- loyalty which was not to be repaid.

The womanising continued. In 1954 he became infatuated with Kay Kendall, a vivacious young actress nearly twenty years his junior. Palmer believed Kendall to be another of Harrison’s numerous lovers who would be discarded when he grew bored, but her husband was genuinely hooked.

Kendall’s appeal was heightened by the fact that at the time she first met Harrison, she too was involved in an affair, with the American actor Steve Cochran. Harrison, not used to sharing his women, was determined to win Kendall over.

After three passionate years as lovers, tragedy struck. Harrison was informed in confidence by Kendall’s doctor that she was suffering from leukaemia and had only two years to live. In his autobiography, Harrison claimed that he ‘wanted to accept responsibility for Kay’ and asked his wife if she would divorce him to enable him to marry his mistress, and then, when Kendall died, he would remarry her. But Palmer later claimed that she had urged Harrison to marry Kendall. She did promise she would remarry Harrison on Kendall’s death, but it was a promise she had no intention of honouring.

Although Harrison was in many ways a heartless man, Kay Kendall’s premature death at the age of just 32, affected him deeply. For the rest of his life he wore a ring that Kendall had given him.

By the Sixties, Hollywood had forgiven him and in 1964 he appeared in the film role for which he is most famous: Professor Higgins in the glossy MGM musical My Fair Lady. It’s a film that is loved by millions to this day, but making it was not such a happy experience for those who had to work with the temperamental Harrison. As far as Harrison was concerned My Fair Lady was his film; director George Cukor had to spend much time assuring him that he would not favour co-star Audrey Hepburn unduly.

Harrison was disliked by almost everyone who worked with him. When he left the Broadway show of My Fair Lady he gave a small party for the cast and stage hands. No one turned up. When co-star Stanley Holloway revealed this to the press, Harrison threatened to sue him.

Even his fans were not immune to feeling the lash of Harrison’s acerbic tongue. One night, after a stage performance of "My Fair Lady", an old woman stood alone at the Stage Door. When she saw Harrison she asked him for his autograph. Harrison told her to "Sod off". The old lady was so enraged at Harrison’s rudeness that she rolled up her program and hit him with it. Stanley Holloway, who had witnessed the incident observed that it was the "first time in world history that the fan has hit the sxxx!".

By the time of his Academy Award, Harrison was married again. Wife number four was the hard-living Welsh actress Rachel Roberts. It was a volatile relationship which ended in divorce in 1971. Rejection hit Roberts hard. Her alcoholism and depression increased and in 1980 she committed suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates.

In 1971, Elizabeth Harris, ex-wife of hell-raising Irish actor Richard Harris, became the fifth Mrs Rex Harrison. The union lasted only last five years, before Harrison married his sixth and final wife, the American Mercia Tinker, who was 30 years his junior. “Wives are like gilt-edged stocks. The more you have, the greater your dividends“, said the man who had by now emulated Henry VIII.

In an interview in 2000, the film producer Anthony Havelock-Allen tried to explain why Harrison, a man capable of great charm, often behaved so badly. “The more successful he became, the more difficult he became. I think he made a decision and said to himself ‘I’m not going to waste time being nice to anybody. No one has been very nice to me and if I make it, I am only going to be nice to myself”.

Harrison died in 1990, at the age of 82, three weeks after making his final stage performance on Broadway, and less than a year after receiving a knighthood. And right up to the end, he was still being rude to people.

Rex Harrison was undoubtedly one of Britain’s greatest actors. But a great human being? Sadly not.

Recalling the heady day when 'Cash' was king

We're just hours away from the start of the 2008 Cheltenham festival, the Olympics of National Hunt racing. Here's my piece from The Racing Post on Cashew King, winner of the County Hurdle exactly twenty years ago, in 1988 and who's still going strong at the ripe old age of 25.
Enjoy the best four days of jump racing of the season!

While this year’s County Hurdle contenders battle it out at Prestbury Park, Cashew King, the winner of the race twenty years ago, will be in the more relaxing surroundings of a field in Shropshire, where he has enjoyed a long and happy retirement at the yard of his former jockey, Trevor Wall.

For most of his eleven-year career, the talented gelding, who is now 25, was trained by Bryan McMahon, a man best known for his success on the Flat. "Cashew King was easily the best jumper I trained, he says. "He was very temperamental and often sweated up really badly before a race, so on the day of the County Hurdle we timed it so we only arrived about an hour and a half before the race. He didn’t go into the stables, we were in the coach car park and kept taking him out of the box for a walk."

Wall remembers being "as confident as you can be in such a race". He held his charge-a 9-1 chance- up before hitting the front just before the last, eventually landing the spoils by two lengths.

It was the only festival success for both men. “I feel tremendously privileged that I rode a Festival winner, something which many very good jockeys haven’t done" says Wall. Wall felt he owed a lot not only to McMahon -"a very loyal man",- but also to the horse who provided him with his finest hour. Happily, he was able to repay that debt.

He says: "I saw ‘Cash’ run one day in blinkers and thought ‘that’s not like him at all‘. I approached his owners and told them that when they retired him I would be able to give him a good home“.

And for the past thirteen years, he has done just that.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A surreal and wonderful FA Cup final

Well, the draw for the FA Cup semi-finals has been made. We can't have a Cardiff v Barnsley final (wouldn't that have been fantastic?), as the two giant-killers have been drawn to play each other, but the other possible final combinations are almost as mouth-watering: Portsmouth v Barnsley, Portsmouth v Cardiff, West Brom v Cardiff or West Brom v Barnsley. For the first time since 1991 none of the Big Four will be in the final(Hooray!). And for the first time since 1975,none of the 'Big Six' (The Big Four, plus Spurs and Everton) will be there.
Whoever gets there, this year's final will have a surreal look to it. After years of the competition being dominated by the same, boring old teams, won't it be wonderful to see two different teams march out at Wembley in May?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Super Sunday!

It's not just in the FA Cup that the underdogs are routing the plutocrats this weekend: the rich and powerful are getting a bloody nose in the European political arena too.

In the Hungarian referendum, there has been a resounding victory for anti-government forces. With around 93% of votes counted, 84.46 have voted 'yes' to scrap hospital visit fees, 82.2% to scrap doctor's visit fees and 82.64% to scrap tuition fees. The result is a massive blow to the ruling MSZP/SDZSZ coalition neoliberal 'reform' programme, and makes the position of the hated, multi-millionaire Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany (above) untenable.

Meanwhile in France, Nicolas Sarkozy's ruling UMP party has suffered major losses in the local elections. And in Spain, exit polls indicate that the progressive, anti-war government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero will be relected.

If we add to these three positive events, yesterday's news from Serbia that Prime Minister Kostunica has finally told his fanatically pro-EU, pro-'reform' coalition partners to take a running jump- then it really has been a weekend to savour.

The Year of the Underdog

Didn't think this year's FA Cup could get any better? It just has.

Three Little Words (that mean so much for Hungary today)

Igen. Igen. Igen.

Talpra magyar, hí a haza !
Itt az idõ, most vagy soha !
Rabok legyünk, vagy szabadok ?
Ez a kérdés, válasszatok !
A magyarok istenére
Esküszünk, hogy rabok tovább
Nem leszünk !

Rise up, Magyar, the country calls!
It's 'now or never' what fate befalls...
Shall we live as slaves or free men?
That's the question - choose your 'Amen"!
God of Hungarians, we swear unto Thee,
We swear unto Thee - that slaves we shall no longer be!

Sándor Petőfi

Saturday, March 08, 2008

We love you Barnsley, we do.....

No disrespect to fans of Manchester United and Chelski, but what a wonderful day of FA Cup football. For the first time in 17 years, this year's Cup final will be contested between teams outside of the 'Big Four' who have dominated our game since Money Power ruled the roost.

The FA Cup used to be the competition in which anything was possible, as fans of Wimbledon, Southampton, Sunderland, Coventry and Ipswich will testify. But in recent years it has become mind numbingly predictable: no team outside of the 'Big Four' has lifted the trophy since 1995. That is, until 2008. The multi-millionaires of Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelski are all out. Only Portsmouth (last Cup win 1939), Barnsley (last Cup win 1912), Middlesbrough (never won the FA Cup), Cardiff City (last Cup win 1927), Bristol Rovers (never won the FA Cup), and West Brom (last Cup win 1968), remain in the competition. For too long the 'Big Four' have had it all their own way. Isn't it wonderful to see football's plutocrats finally knocked off their perch?

R.I.P. Hurricane Smith

Some sad news: Norman 'Hurricane' Smith, Beatles engineer, record producer (the man who signed Pink Floyd), and a memorable recording artist in his own right, has died aged 85.
Above, you can listen to Smith’s greatest hit: the wonderful ‘Oh Babe, What would you say’ a top five hit on both sides of the Pond in 1972. Enjoy.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Hungarian Crunch

We're less than 48 hours away from Hungary's crucial referendum on whether to scrap the doctor and hospital visit fees and tuition fees introduced by the hated Gyurcsany goverment. Here's my piece from the Morning Star on the wider importance of Sunday's vote.

While much media attention in recent weeks has been focused on Serbia in the light of the illegal US-sponsored breakaway of the province of Kosovo, things are hotting up in Serbia’s northern neighbour Hungary too.

Public dissatisfaction with the neoliberal, pro-big business government of Ferenc Gyurcsany (above, with buddy George W. Bush) has reached an all-time high.

Gyurcsany’s ruling Socialist Party (MSZP) has slumped to just 13% in the polls, support for its fanatically pro-capitalist coalition allies, the Free Democrats (SZDSZ) is just 3%. There have been widespread strikes and numerous public demonstrations. With millions of Hungarians struggling to make ends meet because of the government’s ‘reforms’, there is increasing public anger at the country’s corrupt and arrogant political elite: homes of the MPs who support health care privatisation have been attacked.

And on Sunday, there is a crucial referendum on whether to scrap the doctor and hospital visit fees and higher-education tuition fees introduced by the Gyurcsany government.

What is at stake in Sunday’s vote is not just the future of the Hungarian health service and preventing university education from once again becoming the preserve of children from wealthy families, as it was in the 1930s, but the ruling Socialist/Free Democrat coalition’s entire neoliberal ‘reform’ package. A ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum is being supported by a wide range of patriotic and progressive forces, including the main conservative opposition party, Fidesz, the Christian Democratic People's Party, (KDNP), the Hungarian Green Party and the Hungarian Communist Workers Party (Munkaspart).

Although he operates under a ‘Socialist’ banner, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, whose estimated personal fortune of $17m was made from controversial privatisation deals in the early 1990s, has adopted neoliberal policies so extreme that to call them Thatcherite would be an understatement. Even the Iron Lady did not seek to introduce compulsory private health insurance or charge people to visit their GP, as Gyurscany has done.

“Gyurcsany is our kind of socialist“ was the verdict of a US junk bond trader- in other words, Gyurcsany, an open admirer of Tony Blair, is no socialist at all. While even conservative opposition leader and staunch anti-communist Viktor Orban has conceded that for the majority of Hungarians life was easier under the benign 'goulash’ communist regime of Janos Kadar than it is today, Gyurcsany instead launched a hysterical attack on Kadar and Kadarism at a Socialist Party’s conference last year. The attack astonished delegates- if it was so obvious that the Kadar years were bad, why waste time attacking them?

By following a pro-big business agenda, one which has seen over 170 state enterprises sold off and a tax on stock market profits abolished, Gyurcsany has avoided the criticism from western leaders that his authoritarian rule might otherwise have received. When an alleged 108 anti-government protestors were arrested after the elections in Belarus in March 2006, there was loud condemnation from the US and EU. Yet that same year, when 145 protestors were still held being by the Hungarian authorities three weeks after anti-government demonstrations were violently dispersed by riot police, the US - and the EU- stayed silent.

Under Gyurcsany’s watch, a small proportion of Hungarians have got richer, but the vast majority of ordinary people have seen their living standards plummet.

In 2005, a UNICEF report highlighted Hungary as a particularly dramatic example of the worsening situation of children, with child poverty now over 20%. And in October, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that 200,000 people in Hungary, including 20,000 children, were under-fed. Around one in 10 Hungarians lives below the poverty line, with leading sociologist Zsuzsa Ferge warning a conference of the European and Hungarian Anti-Poverty Network that this year's planned price rises would push a further three million people into poverty.

The good news is that the Hungarian people are now fighting back.

They’ve been told constantly since the political changes of 1989 that good times were just around the corner. But apart from a short period at the turn of the Millenium, all they’ve had to endure is wave after wave of austerity. Hungary's GDP fell 20 per cent in the years after 1989, it was only in 2002 that output returned to its 1989 level.

According to the Gyurcsany government, there is no alternative to "economic reorganisation" of the health service and further cutbacks in state provision. The government propaganda leading up to Sunday’s referendum has been unrelenting: the health care and education reforms, will, the Hungarian people are repeatedly told, somehow ‘improve‘ the system.

But although there’s no money for the health care, education, or for Hungary’s seriously underfunded state railway, the Hungarian government is not always so miserly. Somehow it found £7.7m to buy new medium-range air-to-air missiles from the US arms manufacturer Raytheon. And the government also spent £34.5m for "training reforms" to "adapt" the armed forces to the demands of Nato and EU membership.

At the end of the day, Sunday’s vote is not just about Hungary, but about whether ordinary people and an alliance of principled conservatives, principled socialists, communists, greens and other progressives, can defeat the anti-democratic and increasingly tyrannical rule of money power.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Parliament votes against democracy

Can't have the people deciding these things, old chap, who knows where it might lead to.....

Ten Reasons to Forgive Texas

Feeling angry with Texas for opting for Hilary the Hawk ahead of Barack Obama? Here's my New Statesman piece from 2004 on why, despite its poor voting record, we should forgive the Lone Star State.
(and if you want to see more of Cyd Charisse's legs, you can do so here.

It's given us a chainsaw massacre and J R Ewing, and has launched the careers of two George Bushes. It boasts the highest obesity rates in the world and its biggest city has 253 branches of McDonald's. For many, the case for a pre-emptive strike on Texas will already have been made. But there is another side. Although the Lone Star State's overall contribution to the happiness of the planet has plummeted since the election of George Bush II (a former governor) in 2000, plenty of Texans, down the years, have left their mark in a more beneficial way. So before you sign that "let's bomb Texas" petition, here's the case for the defence.

SCOTT JOPLIN: brilliant pianist and composer of ragtime, the first internationally popular genre in world music.

JANIS JOPLIN: the greatest white blues singer of all time, killed by an overdose of heroin at the age of 27.

KATHERINE ANNE PORTER: Pulitzer prizewinner and author of the sublime, allegorical novel Ship of Fools, published in 1962 and made into an equally sublime film three years later starring Vivien Leigh and Simone Signoret.

CYD CHARISSE: (above) possessor of the finest pair of legs ever captured on celluloid. If you don't believe me, watch Singin' in the Rain.

GEORGE FOREMAN: former world heavyweight champion boxer, whose "rumble in the jungle" with Muhammad Ali in 1974 is regarded as one of the finest fights of all time. Twenty years later, at 45, Foreman regained his title, making him the oldest man ever to wear the heavyweight crown.

BUDDY HOLLY: rock'n'roll pioneer, inspiration for the Beatles and a host of other musicians. Holly had a string of classic hits to his name when he died in a plane crash at the age of 22.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER: the 34th president of the United States may have been a Republican who liked shooting cats in his spare time but, as supreme allied commander, he helped save the world from Nazi tyranny. Later he was the first major figure to warn of the "unwarranted influence" of the "military-industrial complex" in US politics.

LANCE ARMSTRONG: to win the Tour de France six times in a row is an achievement in itself. To do so after a battle with cancer is truly Herculean. One of the great sportsmen not only of this, but of any other age.

RED ADAIR: the legendary firefighter, without whom those oil rigs would still be ablazing . . .

BEBE DANIELS: star of the silent screen who, after marrying her fellow actor Ben Lyon, came to tour Britain and stayed for the rest of her life. The couple's series Hi Gang! ran on BBC radio for ten years and on television for four. Bebe is included not only for her glittering career, but also for the unrequited kindness of buying my father, then an evacuee of 13, a bag of sweets at Bristol station in 1939.

Neil Clark is not a Texan

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Zapatero Test

Last night saw the first of a series of televised 'head-to-head' debates between the Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (above, left, with Hugo Chavez)and opposition leader Mariano Rajoy, ahead of Saturday's general election. The BBC reports that four out of five opinion polls show that Zaptero won the debate. That's excellent news. For if there is any Western European leader who deserves to be elected, it's Zapatero. As good as his word, he pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq. Furthermore, he also wrote a letter to other European leaders urging them to do likewise. Zapatero has moved his country away from the neocon foreign policy stance it adopted under his predecessor, José Maria Anzar, a strong supporter of the illegal Iraq invasion. Zapatero has developed closer ties with the progressive Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez, and despite pressure from the US, France, Britain and Germany, has refused to recognise the illegal breakaway province of Kosovo. At home, he has increased the minimum wage and old age pensions. And he's put homosexuals on the same legal footing as heterosexuals by legalising same-sex marriages.

Now, you would have thought the last point alone would make Zapatero, the darling of the liberal imperialist/Euston Manifesto crowd. But don't hold your breath.

I've mentioned before, that in order to make up for their total lack of any left-wing credentials in matters economic, the liberal imperialist/Eustonista brigade are always very keen to promote their support for same-sex marriages. But support for same-sex marriages does not, on its own, a socialist make. The issue of gay rights has been used by liberal imperialists as a smokescreen to propagandise against regimes not fully open to global capital and of whom the US State Department does not approve: Iran being the classic example. Of course, there are genuine human rights campaigners, like the admirable Peter Tatchell, who are totally consistent in their approach: Peter will berate US allies and US foes alike. But for the Eustonistas/ liberal imperalists what matters most of all is not the treatment of homosexuals, or indeed other human rights issues, but whether the country in question is 'open for business' and does what the US State Department tells it to do.

The Eustonistas and liberal imperialists do however, have a golden opportunity to prove me wrong.

They can join me, in proclaiming a very loud 'Viva Zapatero' and expressing a hope that the admirable Spanish Prime Minister is re-elected in Saturday's general election.

If they keep silent on this issue, or express support for the candidate of a party of nostalgists for the fascist blood-stained, serial human rights abusing dictator General Franco, then we can only draw our own conclusions.

Ex-Foreign Secretary in Sex Change Op

On last night's Mastermind:

John Humphrys: Which founder member of the SDP is the daughter of the novelist Vera Brittain?

Contestant: David Owen.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Happy Birthday to Two Racing Legends

Today is the birthday of not one, but two horse-racing legends.

Celebrating his 90th birthday today is 'The Voice of Racing', the one and only Sir Peter O'Sullevan (above, top). Hugh McIlvanney once famously said of Sir Peter: "His admirers are convinced that had he been at Balaclava he would have kept pace with the Charge of the Light Brigade in precise order and described the riders' injuries before they hit the ground". Sean Magee has a lovely celebratory piece in today's Racing Post entitled 'The Voice at 90', in which he quotes Sir Peter, a man of great humanity, writing about his experience as an ambulance driver in Chelsea in WW2. "The first body I helped carry from an air raid shelter that had received a direct hit was a young girl, whose right hand showed that she had one finger left to varnish when the bomb struck. Among all the 'incidents' (as they were euphemistically termed) that were to follow, this one became printed indelibly on my memory- a symbol of the obscenity of war".

Also celebrating his birthday today is the legendary Flat trainer Sir Mark Prescott (above, bottom), who is 60. They say that there are only two certainties in life: death and taxes. But there's one more: Sir Mark Prescott runners having their first run in handicaps. Sir Mark has long been one of my sporting heroes- and to commemorate his birthday, here's my Observer tribute piece to the great man, from 2004.

Sir Mark Prescott Bt, Old Harrovian son and grandson of Conservative MPs - scion of an old establishment family - might seem an odd choice of sporting hero for someone whose non-sporting heroes include 1930s Labour leader George Lansbury, Tony Benn and the Hungarian communist Gyorgy Aczel. But the principal enemies of peace and justice in the world today are not hare-coursing baronets, but rapacious multinational corporations and their political emissaries. If I had to choose between Sir Mark and his namesake, the Deputy Prime Minister, as a future leader of Britain, 'Three Cambridgeshires' would get my vote over 'Two Jags' any time.

Prescott's multifarious talents deserve to be known far and beyond the world of horse racing. He first started training racehorses in 1970. In the intervening period, he has saddled more than 1,500 winners at a strike rate that is regularly one of the highest in the country. His modus operandi of always running his horses in the suitable grade as well as scouring the programme book to find exactly the right race for them, wherever that race may be, from Sweden to Germany to France to Brighton, has stood the test of time.

Prescott sees the job of a racehorse trainer as akin to that of a school teacher: it's his responsibility to know as soon as possible what his pupils are capable of and to make sure that they are entered for the right exam. In 1980, he placed the two-year-old Spindrifter to win an astonishing 13 races in one season, equalling the all-time record for juveniles. Between 1981 and 1985, he trained Misty Halo to win 21 out of her 42 races, which is still a postwar record for a mare.

I began following Prescott's horses in the late 1980s. Others may think first of famous architects, but for me the name Quinlan Terry will for ever be associated with the gelding that in 1988 won Prescott his first Cambridgeshire, the ultra-competitive handicap first run in 1839, and in the process helped pay for my new racing bike. Buoyed by this success, a year later I ambitiously backed the Prescott duo Plain Fact and Serious Trouble to pull off a 192-1 Stewards Cup/Golden Mile each-way double at 'Glorious' Goodwood. Defeats by a short-head and a head meant the difference between an around-the-world air ticket and a weekend in Ilfracombe.

The following year the splendidly named Two Left Feet ploughed through the mud at Chester to win at 20-1 and more than made up for the agonising near-misses.

Prescott has always enjoyed the challenge of laying out a horse to win one of the Flat's major handicaps. Six years after landing his first Cambridgeshire he won his first Ebor, the most valuable handicap in Europe, with the giant grey Hasten To Add. Three years later, Pasternak, owned by Prescott's great friend, the late Observer racing correspondent Graham Rock, pulled off a memorable double in the Magnet Cup and the Cambridgeshire.

Most in racing would agree that there has never been a better trainer of moderate racehorses than Prescott. But he showed with his handling of the filly Alborada that, when the right ammunition comes his way, there is no better handler of top-class horses, too. In 1998, Alborada won three Group Twos and then the prestigious Group One Champion Stakes at Newmarket, beating among others the Frankie Dettori-ridden Daylami. This was a fine enough achievement in itself, but Prescott's feat in getting the filly to win a second Champion Stakes, on only her second start of the 1999 campaign and after a season racked with injuries and setbacks, must rate as one of the greatest training performances of all time.

The new millennium has bought fresh additions to the Prescott CV. Last year, he won his third Cambridgeshire, with a horse, Chivalry, that was making its seasonal debut. In February, Fall In Line became the first horse in a century and a half to win six races in one fortnight, while in July Masafi broke another record by claiming seven wins in 17 days.

Yet Prescott is a hero not only for producing a prolific flow of winners. There is the quality of the man himself to consider. Remember loyalty? In an age in which everything - human relationships included - is considered freely tradable, Prescott remains impressively loyal to his jockeys and staff. 'I have looked at many another woman, but I have never looked at another jockey,' he once quipped of his 30-year plus association with George Duffield, the Yorkshire miner's son with whom he established the most enduring trainer/jockey combination in modern racing history.
When Duffield was involved in a fight with millionaire owner Peter Savill, the furious Savill rang up Prescott and asked what he was going to do about it. Prescott stood by his jockey, even though it meant losing a wealthy patron.

In spite of his long hours, Prescott still manages to have a life beyond racing. He is a passionate and eloquent defender of field sports and his argument that hare coursing and bullfighting are both in the general interest of the species is persuasive. He is a film buff, theatre-goer, art connoisseur, reader and amateur boxing referee. And, as I discovered when I interviewed him for a racing newspaper last year, he has great charm and erudition.

With his dynamism, intelligence and attention to detail, Prescott would no doubt have excelled in whichever career he had decided to pursue. But one suspects that nothing would have given him quite the same thrill and sense of satisfaction as laying out one of his charges to win the Cambridgeshire, or training a horse rated as low as 86 to win a Group race at Doncaster.

A Humane Decision

Patients, staff and visitors will be able to park for free at almost every NHS hospital in Wales by the end of 2011, it has been announced. In fact, many NHS car parks in Wales will be free from 1st April.
Announcing the decision Welsh Health Minister Edwina Hart said:
"Car parking charges fall heavily on people frequently attending NHS hospitals, whether they are patients, staff or visitors. They are at best an inconvenience and at worst an unfair expense."
I'd go further than the admirable Ms Hart. Car parking charges at hospitals are inhumane. They are, as the BMA has argued, a tax on the sick- and on the loved-ones of the sick.

People don't use NHS car parks for fun, they use them to visit loved ones who are ill. To exploit people at such a time is outrageous, and a sad indictment of the mercenary, money-grabbing society we have become since the idolatry of 'market forces' replaced human values in the 1979 Thatcherite counter-revolution.

Wales will not only be without NHS car parking charges, but has already abolished prescription charges. By these two humane measures alone, the Welsh Assembly has justified its existence. Sadly, for those of us who live in England, the neoliberal 'lets rip-off the public whenever we can' ethos continues.

Privatised Utilities make the majority poorer

Many thanks to Charlie Marks for drawing my attention to this article in today's Daily Telegraph.

Bills reach £42 a day as cost of living soars
By Lewis Carter
Last Updated: 2:45am GMT 03/03/2008
The average British family is having to spend £42 a day on bills, as the cost of living continues to increase.

Household bills have risen to £3,426 a year for the typical family, it is claimed, a figure that will rise again next month when council tax and water bills increase.
Added to the average mortgage, which costs almost £12,000 a year, it brings the annual bill to more than £15,000 - or £42 a day.
Data shows that mortgage costs have increased by an average of £600 from this time last year as a result of Bank of England rate rises and the impact of the credit crunch. BUT IT IS THE RISING COST OF UTILITIES WHICH IS SQUEEZING FINANCES.

As I’ve said on many occasions before, when our utilities were publicly owned, bills were not a major factor. Now they’re a major item of expense in the household budget. It’s no good calling to ‘tighter regulation’ of our privatised utilities- the basic problem is that they are public limited companies and public limited companies overriding aim will always be to maximise profits for their shareholders. And that means ripping off the public, in whatever way they can. Such as charging their customers extra if they pay by cash or cheque.

The privatisation of our utilities, while making a tiny proportion of rich people, even more richer, has been a disaster for the majority of ordinary people in Britain. It's time to end the Great Privatisation Rip-Off and restore the utilities to their rightful owners: the British public.

Hat tip: Charlie Marks.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Why Northern Rock should stay in public ownership

Widely respected human rights campaigner and Green Party parliamentary candidate Peter Tatchell (above) makes a powerful case for Northern Rock to stay permanently in public ownership in the Guardian:

"Northern Rock should remain permanently in public ownership and should branch out into ethical investment. It could, for example, adjust its investment strategies and carve out a niche market as the high street's leading green and ethical bank.
The Northern Rock saga is not just about the fate of one bank. It is the new frontline in the battle between public versus private ownership, control and accountability.
For the left, greens, liberals and all progressives the nationalisation of Northern Rock cannot be allowed to fail; that would be another defeat for public ownership. Northern Rock must succeed to demonstrate that public ownership can work where free market capitalism has failed."

You can read the rest of Peter Tatchell's excellent article here. And if you agree that public ownership needs to be back at the top of the political agenda, then this is the campaign for you.

Save the NHS from 'free-market' dogma

Millions who exercise choice every day to find an electrician, book a holiday or buy a coffee seem incapable of understanding that unleashing competitive forces in health would mean improved productivity and better service.

writes Iain Martin in today’s Sunday Telegraph. What utter nonsense. Health care is a basic human right and the most efficient and fairest way for it to be provided is not through ‘competitive forces' which mean the rich get a better service and the poor often get none- but by a state run national insurance system. Isn’t it amazing that at the same time more and more Americans, fed up with the iniquities of their expensive, private insurance based system are demanding a free at the point of use national health care system, free market ideologues in Britain are demanding an end to a health service which is the envy of the world?

The problems which have affected the NHS in recent years (such as MRSA) are due to a deterioration of standards caused by the hiving off to the private sector of basic hospital functions, such as cleaning and catering. We don’t want more private sector involvement in health care- we want less. Much less.

Despite recent misguided reforms, the NHS is one of the few things in Britain that actually works. Unlike our privatised railway system which is the most expensive- and inefficient in the developed world. Remember, the very same people who are urging for ‘unleashing competitive forces in health’ were saying exactly the same thing about our railways fifteen years ago.