Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ann Clwyd: Blood on Her Hands

"For some, Tariq Aziz is the benign face of the Ba'ath regime in Iraq. Not so: he is as culpable for its crimes against humanity as other senior leaders"
writes pro-war propagandist Ann Clwyd (above) in her CIF piece entitled 'Blood on His Hands', in which she lauds the trial in Baghdad of the 72-year old former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister.

For those who don't remember, Clwyd, in her role as Tony Bliar's 'Human Rights Envoy' played an important role in the campaign of lies and propaganda that preceded the Iraq war. In March 2003, for instance, she wrote a piece for The Times in which she claimed that Saddam's regime used people shredders: "See men shredded, then say you don't back war". Brendan O'Neill wrote an excellent piece for the Guardian on the background to Clwyd's claim: suffice to say that five years on Saddam's people shredders have proved as elusive to locate as his WMD. But Clwyd's article, though being a load of cobblers, served its purpose: it helped sway public opinion to be more supportive of war. If anyone has blood on their hands, it's you and your fellow Nu Labour warmongers Ann.

And P.S Ann: Any news about where your infamous people shredder got to? Or doesn’t it matter anymore as you got your wretched war?

Commenter 'Mac 1000' has written an excellent response to Clwyd's article:

For some, Ann Clwyd is the benign face of New Labour. Not so: she is as culpable for the war crimes against humanity as other senior leaders in the party.

The New Labour Charge Sheet Reads:


(Mac 1000 is in fact being generous to New Labour as he/she does not include in his Charge Sheet the numbers of innocent people killed in another Bliarite illegal war of aggression- against Yugoslavia in 1999).

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A 'Mysterious Hold on Policy'

"Did any of us ask for this? Are there crowds on the streets demanding the privatisation of the NHS? Even the Tories have come out against it: David Cameron's speech last week placed them to the left of Labour. Why, after the 60-odd quarters of consecutive growth that Gordon Brown keeps boasting about, can he not maintain a public service founded in the midst of poverty and rationing? What mysterious hold on policy do the corporations possess, that they can persuade this government to wreck Labour's finest achievement and damage its chances of re-election?"

writes George Monbiot in his excellent article in today’s Guardian on the government’s plans to replace local GP surgeries with giant privately-owned polyclinics.

The ‘mysterious hold on policy' that the corporations possess is of course, money power. Money power has corrupted our democracy in the same way it has corrupted democracy in the US. On issue after issue, the policies the government adopts are not those which the majority of people want: such as renationalisation of the railways and a fairer, more progressive taxation system, but the policies the banks and the big corporations want.

And make no mistake: ending this sorry state of affairs is the greatest democratic challenge of our times.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Manchester United: 2007/8 Champion Whingers

Like many other football fans I've been thrilled by some of Manchester United's attacking football this season. What a shame though that the Red Devils have been such bad losers. On nearly every occasion United have lost this season, Sir Alex Ferguson and his charmless assistant Carlos Queiroz have blamed refereeing decisons. They were at it again on Saturday in the aftermath of United's 2-1 defeat by Chelski.
Yet, they really had very little to complain about, as video replays of the incidents in question proved. I'm no fan of Chelski, but compare the graceful way Avram Grant's side reacted to their shock FA Cup exit to Barnsley, with the way Man United behaved after being eliminated by Portsmouth. Chelski shook hands with all the Barnsley players and wished their conquerors all the best. There were no complaints from Grant about penalties that should have been given or biased refereeing. United by contrast lambasted the match officials, preferring to blame them and not their own poor finishing.

Will United prevail in the title race? Who knows. But one thing's for sure. United have already replaced Arsenal as British football's Champion Whingers.
And given Arsene Whinger's record, that's no mean feat.

Friday, April 25, 2008

More railway rip-offs on their way

The Times reports:
Passengers will lose out from a decision by train companies to stop giving refunds for tickets bought in advance and to double the fee for changes to journey times.
The move is part of what the companies are calling a simplification of rail fares into three main types, which they claim will be easier to understand. More than a million leaflets will be distributed at stations from today explaining the changes but they fail to mention that many passengers will be worse off under the new national refunds policy.

Britain's rail passengers worse off? Who'd ever have thought it!

Britain's rail misery will never end until two important steps are taken. The first, is to restore the whole railway network into public ownership. The second is to scrap 'market' pricing and instead introduce the simple distance-based pricing system which operates in the rest of Europe. In Belgium for instance, train fares don't go up at peak times, the Belgian State Railways simply lays on more trains. It really isn't rocket science.

Britain's privatised railway nightmare, with its extortionate fares and complicated, user-unfriendly ticketing is a classic example of what happens when government ditches common sense and instead follows the recommendations of neoliberal fanatics.
"We propose things which people regard as being on the edge of lunacy. The next thing you know, they're on the edge of policy"
once boasted Madsen Pirie, President of the Adam Smith Institute. Yes, but it still doesn't stop them from being on the edge of lunacy, Madsen.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Chris Rea on The Bliar's Road to Hell

There's a great interview with the very talented musician and The Exile look-alike Chris Rea (above), in the Sunday Express:

"He's best known for gentle ballads like 'On the Beach' and 'Josephine',latterly moving into cool blues, but mention our former Premier and his successor and Chris Rea's Italian blood starts to boil uncontrollably. "He's a bxxxxx murderer. How did the Catholic faith allow Blair in? I understood there had to be absolution before you could become a Catholic. What a dumb thing to do, to tell a man who sent war planes to bomb women and children that he could be a Catholic". And he's just getting started. He wants the Government to retreat from the world stage and put Britain first... "I hate Tony Blair. There is nothing more heartbreaking than a frightened child. He talks about this international xxxx while our country has children who are living on the poverty line and battered women with nowhere to run. This government wastes so much money and it has got to stop. Gordon Brown needs to sort out our hospitals and take care of the people of Britain first. Take it for granted, I'm going to be screaming at our government from the roof tops".

Well, Chris Rea doesn't just look like our blogging friend The Exile, he also shares his (and my) views on The Bliar. And if you want to stop The Bliar from becoming EU President, as the neocons would love him to be, then please spend a few seconds in signing the 'Stop Blair' petition of the European Tribune website. (And if you've already signed, please tell a friend). There's now over 26,500 signatures: that's about 26,490 more than a 'Blair for EU President' petition would be able to muster.

The Greatest Living Famous Englishman/Woman?

A very happy St George's Day to all English readers.
As it's England's national day, how about a vote on who is the Greatest Living Famous Englishman/Woman?

If I had to make a shortlist, I'd include, in no particular order: Tony Benn, Sir David Attenborough, Jimmy Perry, David Croft, Kevin Keegan, Sir Mark Prescott, Joanna Lumley, Brian Haw and Professor Tim Berners-Lee, a very nice, modest man without whom you probably wouldn't be reading this.

How about you?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Hillary the Hawk: The Neocons' favourite Democrat threatens to "obliterate" Iran

Hillary Clinton, in her most bellicose comments since the presidential race began, today threatened to “obliterate” Iran if it attacked Israel.

The Guardian reports:
"Speaking as voters went to the polls in the potentially crucial Pennsylvania primary, the New York senator said: "I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran (if it attacks Israel)."
Barack Obama immediately accused her of "sabre-rattling", saying this was the kind of language that had been used by the Bush administration over the last few years and was not helpful. Obama, responding to Clinton's interview, said: "One of the things that we've seen over the last several years is a bunch of talk using words like 'obliterate'. "It doesn't actually produce good results. And so I'm not interested in sabre-rattling."

Clinton’s statement is not only bellicose, it’s also extremely deceitful. Iran can’t launch a nuclear strike against Israel for the simple reason that it doesn’t possess nuclear weapons. Nor, as the Joint Intelligence Report concluded, does it have a nuclear weapons programme. Would Iran launch a conventional attack? To do so would be suicidal, knowing that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. The only scenario one could imagine an Iranian attack on Israel occuring is in retaliation to an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear energy facilities, as leading Israeli politicians have already threatened. And if this sequence of events did happen, then Hillary Clinton believes it would be right for the US to "obliterate" Iran.

Hillary the Hawk is forecast to win the Pennsylvania primary tonight. But let’s hope that her margin of victory is so small that it will mean that this truly wretched woman drops out of the race for the Democratic nomination.

UPDATE: Richard Silverstein has written a very good Comment is Free piece on Hillary the Hawk's statements on Iran, which you can read here.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Fools no more

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

The only surprising thing about the news that the British government lied about the whereabouts of the 15 British navy personnel who were captured by Iranian forces last spring is that anyone should find it surprising. For this is a government, which, when it comes to telling porkies, makes Carlo Collodi's famous wooden puppet look like an also-ran.

In December 1998, one and a half years into the shining new era of an "ethical foreign policy", came operation Desert Fox- a four-day bombing of Iraq, which cost the lives of up to 2,000 people. The official reason from Number 10 - and the White House - for the attacks was that Iraq had expelled the team of Unscom weapons inspectors. It was a barefaced lie. As head weapons inspector Richard Butler revealed in his autobiography, it was the US ambassador Peter Burleigh, acting on instructions from Washington, who suggested Butler pull his team out from Iraq in order to protect them from US and British air strikes which had already been planned.

In early 1999, the government's lie machine turned its attention to the Balkans. Slobodan Milosevic's rump Yugoslavia, was, we were told by the British prime minister, "set on a Hitler-style genocide equivalent to the extermination of the Jews during the second world war. It is no exaggeration to say that what is happening is racial genocide - something we had hoped we would never again witness in Europe," Blair went on. But it was an exaggeration to say that what was happening in Kosovo was "genocide". The International Red Cross lists 2,047 persons as missing from the 1998-99 hostilities in Kosovo, including approximately 500 Serbs, 1,300 Albanians and 200 members of other ethnic groups. The "genocide" in Kosovo was a complete fabrication: but it helped Blair and Clinton spin their narrative of a "humanitarian" intervention, to cloak the real economic and strategic reasons for Nato's military intervention.

Four years later, it was back to Iraq. Saddam not only possessed weapons of mass destruction - but ones which "could be activated in 45 minutes". On February 23 2003, Tony Blair, in full Pinocchio mode, told the House of Commons that "I detest [his] Saddam's regime, but even now he could save it by complying with the UN's demands". It was an outrageous fib: the decision to go to war had already been taken. Time after time in the build up to the "shock and awe" campaign, we were told that it was the Iraqis - with their repeated denials that they possessed WMD, who were lying. But the liars were, once again, much closer to home.

Even after the disaster of Iraq, the lies continued to flow, with Iran being the principal target for the government's mendacity. Last spring defence secretary Des Browne repeatedly told the House of Commons that the 15 British navy personnel taken captive by Iran were seized in Iraqi waters.
"There is no doubt that HMS Cornwall was operating in Iraqi waters and that the incident itself took place in Iraqi waters" he claimed. The reason for these statements was clear: to turn public opinion against the Iranians in preparation for another war.

It's said that truth is the first casualty of war; more accurately it's the first casualty in the lead-up to war. Since taking office 11 years ago, the New Labour government has lied us into conflicts across the globe- conflicts which have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people from Belgrade to Baghdad and beyond, and left the already hard-pressed British taxpayer having to foot the bill. But the lies are at long last catching up with them.

As a former US president once said: "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."

Thank God for that.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Wally of the Week: Lord Desai

Crackpot New Labour peer Lord Desai |(above) believes that "Gordon Brown was put on earth to remind people how good Tony Blair was". Now there are a few people, who, if they were running Britain today "would remind people how good Tony Blair was". Adolf Hitler. Josef Stalin. Pol Pot. Genghis Khan. Ivan the Terrible. Mao Tse Tung. General Franco. General Pinochet. Saparmurad Niyazov. Dr Hastings Banda. Alfredo Stroessner. Benito Mussolini. Idi Amin.

And that's about it.

There may be a few bloodthirsty neocon loons who regret the resignation of Tony Bliar, but does anyone else in this country? I certainly don't know of anyone. Bliar was a man who took Britain into a succession of illegal and catastrophic wars, and left our country in a far worse state than it was when he came to power (and it was bad enough then).
Such nonsense is par for the course for Desai. A keen advocate of health service 'reform'- ie let the private sector rule the roost- this not very left-wing leftie is a member of a health policy group organised by the pro-privatisation think tank Civitas, an off-spring of the Institute of Directors. A staunch supporter of 'free trade' he also thinks(and please, no sniggering in the back) that the WTO is "good for the poor".

It's hard to escape the conclusion that, to use his Lorship's own turn of phrase, Desai was put on earth to remind people what a brilliant and insightful thinker this individual was.

They tried to lie us into war (again)

Brilliant anti-war blogger The Exile writes:

Do you remember the British sailors who were taken prisoner by Iran in march of last year? They were well treated and released soon after. The pro-war blogs (well, he didn't write pro-war blogs, but I'm changing the word he did use as this is a no-swearing site...) had a field day as they screamed about aggression and the like. Some tried to do sarcasm, but it is impossible to pull that off when you are as much of a mong as this tosspot. Anyway, you get the basic idea: they xxxked furiously in the hope that war would come as well as them.

It has now emerged that the British sailors were not in Iraqi waters as Parliament and the British people were told, but in waters that are disputed between Iraq and Iran. So the Iranians were telling the truth and the British weren't. The government lied in other words.

Will heads roll? Probably not because we are so used to the lies that this government tells on an almost daily basis that one more added to the collection doesn't seem all that important".

The Times informs us how 'The Britons were seized because the US-led coalition designated a sea boundary for Iran’s territorial waters without telling the Iranians where it was, internal Ministry of Defence briefing papers reveal.'

I'm not going to put links to the articles in question (as a principle I don't link to warmongering fascists), but several neocon writers did use last year's incident as an opportunity to shriek for 'tougher action' against Iran. And we all know what that means. Had these truly evil people (and the word 'evil' is entirely appropriate for those, who, from the safety of warm, comfortable offices propagandise for wars of aggression which will kill thousands), got their way last spring (as they did in Iraq), hundreds of thousands of people, now living, would be dead.

As I've said before on numerous occasions, it really is very simple to know when a neocon is lying. He/She opens his mouth, or puts pen to paper, or starts typing on a keyboard. That might sound like a glib assessment, but nothing that has happened over the past ten years or so disproves the thesis. Next time you read a neocon telling us that we need to take 'tough' action against Tehran, Moscow, Beijing, or anywhere else for that matter, remember two things. First, that the grounds for taking such action are guaranteed to be fraudulent. And secondly, that it's others who will do the dying.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The tobaccophobes latest campaign

Didn't think the anti-smoking fanatics could get any more fanatical? Think again.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Good news (and bad) from Hungary

Two pieces of good news from Hungary:
1. The extremist neoliberal SZDSZ party (who have less than 2% popular support, but 100% support from foreign capital) is to leave the governing coalition at the end of the month. As RSM Williams would have said; 'Oh dear, how sad, never mind.'
2. The opposition has collected the requisite number of signatures to trigger a referendum on the government's shocking proposals to privatise health care. Another humiliatating defeat for beleagured Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany (above), is on the way, unless he drops the plans.

And one piece of bad news:
The Indie reports
"The British bus and rail operator Arriva said it had entered the Hungary and Slovakia markets for the first time with a £25m acquisiton. The company which now operates in 12 countries across Europe, said the purchase of 80% of Hungary's Interbus Invest would help it to capitalise on the privatisation of the country's regional bus sector."
Hungary had one of the best integrated, publicly owned public transport systems in the world, as anyone who has spent any time in the country would testify. It’s tragic to see them following the British example and privatise it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

An Exile exclusive: Fidel Castro in coma, death imminent

The Exile has a blogging exclusive: the former President of Cuba Fidel Castro (left) is in a coma and very near death. You can read more here.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Neo-Cons Favourite Terrorists

From today's Guardian:

Carla Del Ponte, the ex-chief prosecutor for war crimes in former Yugoslavia, has unleashed a storm of recrimination with allegations of a trade in human body parts in Kosovo and Albania after Nato bombed Serbia in 1999.

Del Ponte claims, based on what she describes as credible reports and witnesses, that Kosovan Albanian guerrillas transported hundreds of Serbian prisoners into northern Albania where they were killed, and their organs "harvested" and trafficked out of Tirana airport.

Del Ponte has long complained that the UN authorities in Kosovo blocked her attempts to investigate war crimes by Kosovan Albanians and she says that the authorities in Albania were also unhelpful. The most senior Kosovan Albanian to be tried for war crimes in The Hague, Ramush Haradinaj, a former prime minister of Kosovo and ex-guerrilla commander, was acquitted last week, sparking bitter protests in Serbia.

According to Del Ponte, a local Albanian prosecutor, who visited the house with the UN team, told her: "No Serbs are buried here. But if they did bring Serbs over the border from Kosovo and killed them, they did a good thing."

The neocons, in their determination to destroy the rump Yugoslavia, couldn't get enough of 'Kosovan guerillas' in the late 1990s.
Above you can see pictures of US special envoy Dick Holbrooke and the neocons favourite Frenchman, the 'human rights' crusader Bernard Kouchner fraternising with the charming humanitarians of the KLA.

And let's remind ourselves what neo-conservative US Senator Joe Lieberman (above, top left said about 'Kosovan guerillas' in 1999:

"[The] United States of America and the Kosovo Liberation Army stand for the same human values and principles ... Fighting for the KLA is fighting for human rights and American values."

He must be living on a different planet.

Friday, April 11, 2008

The man who makes George Bush seem like a peacenik

"It may seem incredible to say this, given past experience, but a few years from now Europe and the world could be looking back at the Bush administration with nostalgia.",
argues Anatol Lieven in the F.T.

Do you find that far-fetched?

I'm afraid it isn't.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

R.I.P. Jules Dassin: Film-maker extraordinaire

It's sad to read of the death of the great American film director Jules Dassin. Like Paul Robeson, Dassin paid a high professional price for holding the 'wrong' political views, being blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his communist sympathies. But America's loss was Europe's gain, as Dassin went on to make some great films during his exile, such as the two classic heist dramas Rififi and Topkapi. You can watch the trailer for the latter film above: if you've never watched this hugely entertaining film, with its great international cast (Melina Mercouri, Robert Morley, Maximilian Schell, Akim Tamiroff and the incomparable Peter Ustinov), you're in for a real treat. Or so a little bird told me....

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

In memoriam: Paul Robeson

Artists should, as I said a propos of Charlton Heston earlier this week, be judged on the quality of their art, and not on their political beliefs. Sadly, that didn't apply to the great American singer Paul Robeson, born 110 years ago today. It was acceptable for Robeson to sing an English version of the Soviet anthem in 1943, when the Soviet Union was a war-time ally of the US, but Robeson carried on praising the Soviet Union after the war had ended, and in the era of McCarthyism and 'reds under the beds', that meant career death. Robeson, one of the greatest singers the world has ever seen, paid a high professional price for his political beliefs. But he wasn't the first artist to do so, and sadly he won't be the last.
Above you can hear Robeson singing the wonderful 'Ol Man River' from 'Showboat'. Enjoy.

Iraq: Time for a reckoning

"Talking to dozens of Iraqis in Jordan and Syria over the past fortnight, one cannot help but feel a mixture of emotions ranging from utter despair from the scenes and stories of misery, pain and suffering to elation at the resolve of the human spirit in the face of incredible adversity.
Yet five years on, and despite every new meeting bringing a fresh perspective, a previously unheard narrative and an unseen image, one thing remains a permanent fixture; why did all this have to happen?
Another sure thing is that almost no one will be celebrating the the anniversary of the fall of Baghdad today.........
Unless we hold those who committed this crime, supported it, funded it and cheered it on, accountable, the rest of us will be seen and judged in the same light by the victims. Five years is a very long time, particularly for those who suffer pain and loss every hour of every day. However, it's never too late to make things right."
writes Anas Altikriti in today's Guardian.
It certainly isn't too late to make things right. As I argued in the Guardian last summer, holding those who planned and propagandised for the brutal, illegal and deceitful assault on Iraq to account is not just about forcing some very arrogant and conceited people to show some humility. It's about ensuring that such a disaster NEVER happens again.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

They're Privatisation crazy

This article of mine appears in today's Morning Star

First, a question. Who said:

"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".

(a) Arthur Scargill
(b) Tony Benn
(c) Sir Terence Conran, the businessman and designer.

The answer is c. (though I’m sure (a) and (b) would agree too)

The attack by a wealthy businessman like Sir Terence Conran on privatisation shows just how unpopular the process which began in Britain almost thirty years ago has become.

Even previous cheerleaders for New Labour are reconsidering their positions on privatisation and public ownership in light of recent events. Here’s Will Hutton, writing in the Observer.
“Even 12 months ago nationalisation seemed a quaint notion from yesteryear - as remote from today's concerns as big band music, ration coupons and nylons. Nobody who wanted to be taken seriously by mainstream opinion could ever champion the self-evidently economically wasteful and amoral act of nationalisation. But a credit crisis that has forced the reluctant nationalisation of one bank in Britain, Northern Rock, and the socialisation of some £15bn of loans of another in America, Bear Stearns, is forcing mainstream opinion to think the unthinkable."

Well, Will, some of us have never dropped our belief in nationalisation, however 'unfashionable' holding such a belief became in the Thatcherite/New Labour "privately owned good, publicly owned, bad" era. As the disastrous consequences of privatisation become more and more apparent- be it our rip-off utility bills, our incredibly expensive and unreliable privately-owned public transport system or the fiasco at Terminal 5, it is however good to see 'mainstream' commentators like Hutton now calling for public ownership to be put back on the agenda. And it is to put public ownership back on the agenda that I have co-founded a new pressure group, The Campaign For Public Ownership.

The CPO is a cross-party organisation which aims to harness the enormous public dissatisfaction with privatisation and will campaign for a reversal of the disastrous policies of the last thirty years. The Campaign will expose the cost to the public of privatisation, and highlight the inefficiencies and profiteering of the privatised companies. We will also be urging that the British government does not give a penny of taxpayers money to a privately owned company without the public receiving equity in that company.

The Campaign will seek to counter the negative propaganda about public ownership put about by those with a vested financial interest in privatisation such as the many ‘free-market’- thinks tanks which are bankrolled by big business.

Although the main focus of our activities will be the halting and reversal of privatisation in Britain, we hope to work with like-minded groups in other countries, who are fighting against privatisation. We will also challenge the pro-privatisation policies being imposed by unelected, undemocratic bodies such as the European Commission, the World Bank and the IMF.

Such a pro-public ownership campaign, is I believe, urgently required. Although public dissatisfaction with privatisation is at an all time high (even a majority of Tory supporters favour re-nationalisation of the railways), Britain’s leading political parties still hold to the ludicrous fiction that privatisation has been a "success".

For instance, despite the overwhelming public support for renationalising the railways, none of Britain’s leading three parties currently advocates such a measure. Even the Liberal Democrats, who fought the last election on a promise to renationalise the railways, have since dropped that commitment, with their new Blairite leader calling for the role of the state to be rolled back still further.

The British government, wedded to neoliberal dogma, may have been forced to
nationalise Northern Rock, but still plans to privatise the successful state-owned bookmaker The Tote, established by that rabid left-winger, Winston Churchill in the 1920s. Moreover, our New Labour government is pressuring other European countries to follow Britain‘s disastrous pro-privatisation path. In 2007 Britain supported a European Commission proposal for EU member states to ‘open up’ their domestic railway systems to allow foreign firms to enter the market. It beggars belief that Britain, which has the most expensive and most user-unfriendly railway system in the continent, is trying to get other European countries, which still have excellent publicly owned, integrated public transport systems, to follow our example.

It’s time to end this madness and to make our elected representatives put the needs of the long-suffering British public- and not the banks and wealthy shareholders, first.

The Campaign for Public Ownership aims to do just that.

The political threats to globalisation

From Gideon Rachman's column in today's FT:

"The challenge to the globalisation consensus comes from below. Political elites in the US, Asia and Europe are struggling to convince citizens that globalisation is not just a game that benefits the rich. If the argument is lost in any of the major world economies, the political consensus that underpins globalisation could unravel......
Political leaders around the world are struggling to contain all these pressures and maintain the consensus that has made globalisation possible. But their task is getting harder. Globalisation was made possible by political change. But what politics made, politics can take away."

Let's hope so Gideon, let's hope so.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Roll up for the newest travel trend: smoking tourism

This article of mine appears in today's Guardian.

The potential European holiday destinations for diehard British puffers looking to escape the draconian smoking ban - if only for a few days - are dwindling in number.

France, that one-time smoker's paradise, is now off limits. So too are Ireland, Italy, Scandinavia and most of Germany. And from July 1, we can also forget about lighting up in most enclosed public places in the Netherlands.

However, some smoky oases remain. In Belgium, less than two hours away from central London by Eurostar, smoking is still allowed in bars and cafes. Indeed, it is home to several specialist smokers' clubs - including the Tabaco in Hasselt, which holds regular get-togethers for female cigar smokers.

Spain, too, remains smoker-friendly, while soccer-loving smokers planning a trip to Euro 2008 are also in luck: the tournament is being held in two of the least tobaccophobic countries in the continent. In Switzerland, only the canton of Ticino has thus far imposed a ban, while Austria boasts the highest level of public opposition to a smoking ban in the EU. Central and eastern Europe also remains largely unconquered territory.

But "smoking tourism", though in its infancy, is a sector of the industry that seems certain to grow. In Germany, entrepreneur Alexander W Schoppmann is planning "Smokers' International Airways" (Smintair) for those who miss their on-flight nicotine fix. One of the biggest travel agencies in Japan is offering European tours specially designed for smokers. Estonia, meanwhile, offers short breaks for cigar smokers to enjoy their hobby in the comfort of the cigar lounges of Tallinn. It's an initiative that is likely to be followed by other countries that haven't adopted British-style bans.

Pipe-smoking holidays to Poznan? Weekend smoking breaks to Vienna? Forget tax havens: smoke havens could be the next big thing.

Breaking the nationalisation taboo

"Even 12 months ago nationalisation seemed a quaint notion from yesteryear - as remote from today's concerns as big band music, ration coupons and nylons. Nobody who wanted to be taken seriously by mainstream opinion could ever champion the self-evidently economically wasteful and amoral act of nationalisation.
But a credit crisis that has forced the reluctant nationalisation of one bank in Britain, Northern Rock, and the socialisation of some £15bn of loans of another in America, Bear Stearns, is forcing mainstream opinion to think the unthinkable."

writes Will Hutton, economics editor of the Observer. Well, Will, some of us have never dropped our belief in nationalisation, however 'untrendy' holding such a belief became in the Thatcherite/New Labour era. As the disastrous consequences of privatisation become more and more apparent- be it our rip-off utility bills, our terrible privately-owned public transport or the fiasco at Terminal 5-, it's good to see 'mainstream' commentators like Hutton now calling for nationalisation to be put back on the agenda. As I've argued before, a progressive agenda in Britain today means turning the clock back, to the days before the neoliberals wreaked their damage on our economic and social fabric. And a programme of renationalisation is the key element in such an agenda.

UPDATE: Incredibly, there are those who think that after 30 years of neoliberalism and disastrous privatisations, Britain 'still needs more Thatcherism'!! Philip Johnston in today's Daily Telegraph, writes:

"Nor were Thatcher's other reforms reversed by Labour. The privatisations that took place under her premiership (railways came later) are all accepted as normal today. There will be many people under 30 who might be amazed to learn that you once had to fly on a state-owned airline."

And equally Philip, after the B.A. Terminal 5 fiasco, there will be many people over 30 who wish that Britain still had a state-owned airline.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

R.I.P. Major Dundee

Sad to hear that Charlton 'Chuck' Heston, the legendary American actor has died at the age of 84. It's a pity that Heston moved from being a supporter of progressive causes in the 50s and 60s to becoming a supporter of George W. Bush in his later years, but artists should always be judged on their art, not on their political affiliations.
Heston turned in many memorable performances in films such as Ben Hur, The Ten Commandments, 55 Days in Peking, El Cid and last, but certainly not least, Sam Peckinpah's brilliant 1965 western Major Dundee. You can watch a trailer for the film below; if you've never seen it, you're in for a treat.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Who's going to win the National?

Well, for what it's worth, I've backed Slim Pickings (good third in the race last year when he hit the front too soon), and Butler's Cabin (former Irish National winner whose stamina is proven) ante-post. I've also backed Simon (cruising in the race last year when he fell at second Valentine's) and Bewley's Berry, who has a great record over the Aintree fences and was running a massive race in last year's National when being spooked by a loose horse at second Becher's. I'll also be having a small each-way bet on last year's second McElvey; if he's recaptured last year's form he has to go close and at time of writing he's about 25-1.
For those looking for longer-priced each-way outsiders, then Mon Mome, who has good form over marathon trips and Point Barrow, the former Irish National winner ridden by Aintree specialist Tony Dobbin, are other possibles.

Whatever you decide to back, make sure you check out the website OddsChecker first, there you can compare the various prices the bookies are offering for your selection (s).

Good luck and may the best horse win! The main thing though is that all the horses and jockeys avoid serious injuries, and we don't have a repeat of yesterday's scenes when two horses were killed in the Topham Trophy. Incredibly though, there are some warped individuals who think otherwise and who believe it is "important" that "a horse should be killed most years and a jockey every ten years or so". Needless to say, the bloodthirsty author of those words was also a keen supporter of the Iraq War.

UPDATE: Hope you had the winner, Comply or Die, (clearly named after George Bush's foreign policy). My wife Zsuzsanna did, and for good measure she picked out the third, Snowy Morning too. Slim Pickings and Bewley's Berry both ran blinders, finishing fourth and fifth respectively (fortunately I backed them both each-way, the latter with a bookies that paid up for fifth place). Slim Pickings looked the likely winner when he loomed up full of running with about half a mile to go, but the extra weight he had to carry this year made all the difference. Butler's Cabin was running a huge race when tipping up at second Becher's (will Tony McCoy ever win the National?) Simon too ran well for much of the way, before unseating his rider at the same fence he did last year. Sadly, McElvey, last year's gallant second, had to be destroyed after colliding into a rail.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Everyone's Favourite

Less than 36 hours to go before the greatest horse race in the world.
Here's my 2004 Guardian piece on the enduring appeal of the Grand National and how horse racing is the last bastion of democracy in Britain. As to who's going to win tomorrow's race, watch this space!

Clan Royal or Bindaree? Joss Naylor or Bear on Board? The late Lord Wyatt, confidant of Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch, once described betting on horses as the "only uninfluenced democratic decision" millions of people ever take. This positive view of horse-racing and gambling is not shared by many on the left, who see the sport as a corrupt anachronism. But as an unreconstructed horse-race-loving leftie, I'm with Wyatt.

First, there's the sportsmanship, unrivalled in any sport. The most beautiful sporting gesture I have ever witnessed was at the end of the 1989 Gold Cup, when jockey Tom Morgan, who had finished second, rode over to give the victorious Desert Orchid (who had just deprived him of a place in racing history) a loving pat. The racing world can teach us much about human qualities that used to be more abundant.

Remember loyalty? In an age in which all relationships seem freely tradeable, it's refreshing to consider the most enduring partnership in British sport - the 30-year-old association of trainer Sir Mark Prescott and jockey George Duffield. "I may have looked at other women, but never at another jockey," Prescott once remarked. When Duffield was involved in fisticuffs with millionaire owner Peter Savill, the furious Savill rang up Prescott and asked what the trainer was going to do about it. Prescott stood by his jockey, even though it meant losing his wealthy patron.

Riding a dodgy jumping horse over the 30 fences of the Grand National requires real courage, too. Most jump jockeys fall once every 10 rides: last year, two died from injuries. While 6 million Britons pop Prozac, jump jockeys just go out and do it.
Linked to the physical courage is the camaraderie the sport engenders. Neo-liberalism put an end to camaraderie in society at large - but in the jockeys' weighing room it still exists. Mark Brisbourne combines training a string of over 100 horses with co-managing a 500-acre farm. Up at dawn, he works a 16-hour day. Yet morning, noon or night he is unfailingly helpful whenever a journalist calls, eager for copy. Brisbourne is typical of the people racing attracts: hard-working, honest, unfailingly decent.

Finally, in making the case for the defence, let us never forget the unadulterated, life-enhancing excitement. The glorious uncertainty of racing is a magical antidote to our increasingly predictable, McDonaldised age. We know that US multinational corporations will still be ruling the world one year from now. We know that whenever you pull off a ring road you will see a Tesco's. But nobody really knows who will win tomorrow's Grand National.

"We would have had a revolution a long time ago had it not been for horseracing," bemoaned Harry Pollitt, leader of the British Communist party until 1956. But would a revolution that denied us the wonder of horse-racing really be one worth having?

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Vichy France lives again

The greatest leader France ever had must be turning in his grave at the actions of the biggest betrayer of French national interests since General P├ętain.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

How to get back Britain back on the buses

"Who could possibly object to older and disabled people travelling for free on the buses of England? Not me - but what a shame the Government doesn't realise that all bus fares need to fall",
writes Cat Hobbs of the Campaign for Better Transport on the Guardian's travel blog.

Cat's right, but the best - and cheapest way- for the government to get bus prices down is simply to bring bus transport back into public ownership.

If you're ever up in the Inverness region you may pass the grounds of Beaufort Castle. And if you're ever in Perthshire, you might also drive past the grounds of Kinfauns Castle. What have two stately homes in Scotland got to do with rip-off bus fares I hear you ask? Well, quite a lot actually. Both properties in question are owned by Ann Gloag of Stagecoach, Scotland's richest woman.

Stagecoach, together with other private bus operators have received vast sums in public subsidy- yet despite this bus fares carry on rising above inflation.
Taxpayers money should not be used to help rich people buy castles (quite a reasonable position as I'm sure you'll agree, but it seems that the British government and HM Opposition think otherwise). It should instead be used in developing a co-ordinated, publicly owned, cheap at point of use public transport system, to encourage people to get out of their cars and on to trains, trams and buses.

But this will never happen so long as our money is being hived off by the privateers.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Mass Immigration: Why the Left should oppose it

A few weeks ago I was on a anti-war panel with the socialist film director Ken Loach. Ken made the point that the large scale influx of low-wage labour was a key part of the neoliberal/neoconservative globalist agenda, designed to reduce wage rates and boost corporate profits. He's absolutely right. The House of Lords report on the economic impact of mass immigration to Britain finds, surprise, surprise, that immigration has indeed had a negative impact on the wages of the lowest paid (while equally unsurprisingly delivering an increase in the wages of the highest paid). The report concludes that large-scale immigration has had no net economic benefit for the people of Britain. But, it has of course, benefited greatly the rich, big business and global capital. The report is as big a blow to the neo-liberal/neo-con cause as was last autumn's US Joint Security agencies report that there was no evidence that Iran was developing nuclear weapons.

The serial globalists haven't taken long in their attempt to rubbish the House of Lords findings. On the Guardian's Comment is Free website, the fanatically neoliberal Philippe Legrain, while parroting Norman Tebbit's 'on your bike' philosophy' in his arguments about the benefits of an ultra-'flexible' and 'adaptable' labour force, tries to portray the report as the work of old fuddy-duddy Tories. Yet if anyone comes to this debate with an agenda, it's Legrain.

Legrain's Guardian profile informs us that he has worked for The Economist magazine and was a 'special advisor' to the director of the World Trade Organisation. He was also a director of the pro-EU, pro Euro pressure group 'Britain in Europe'. His book, 'Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them' has been shortlisted for that well-known left-wing literary prize, the Financial Times Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year award. Legrain like all of his globalist ilk is also a fanatical Russophobe.
On his website he writes:

My old friend Edward Lucas has written an excellent call to arms, The New Cold War, about the dangers to the West and Russia itself of the country's fascist turn under Putin.

In today's news, consider the divisions over whether NATO should grant Ukraine and Georgia "membership action plans" that would open the door to their eventual membership. Russia aggressively objects. While there is a reasonable debate to be had about whether Ukraine and Georgia should be admitted to NATO - personally, I think they should - Russia should not be given a veto over what its neighbours and NATO do. Appeasing Russia for the sake of NATO "unity" would be shameful and unwise.

I've mentioned Legrain's background- and his views on Russia and NATO expansion as I think it's important to highlight the agenda of those who advocate uncontrolled immigration. For too long sections of the left have supported an open door immigration policy, without realising that in doing so they were playing right into the hands of socialism's biggest enemies.

If fanatical, pro-big business globalists like Philippe Legrain want mass immigration- it must by definition, be a bad thing.

UPDATE: Philip Blond has more on New Labour's pro-big business immigration policy here.