Saturday, May 31, 2008

Well done, Gordon!

Great news: the British government has done a 'U-turn' and signed up to the international ban on cluster bombs.
Clearly the British Prime Minister is a keen reader of this blog....

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Bringing war criminals to justice

I have long argued that we can never 'move on' from the Iraq war until those responsible for the 'supreme international crime' that the war clearly constituted are held to account for their actions in a court of law. Now it seems that one man- George Monbiot- is doing something about it.

George writes:

We have all but forgotten the war with Iraq. We tend to see it now as little more than a "political mistake", like the 10p tax fiasco or Labour's mishandling of the byelection campaign in Crewe. The press and public attention have moved on and focused on more pressing matters, like the price of property.
But this mistake has killed or injured hundreds of thousands of people in a country that was doing us no harm. Mistakes of this kind - an unprovoked war of aggression - were characterised by the Nuremberg tribunals as "the supreme international crime". Mistakes of this kind would, in any regime governed by international law, see their perpetrators put behind bars for the rest of their natural lives. But the great crime of the Iraq war has been normalised and domesticated.
So successful has this process of normalisation been that in three days' time one of its perpetrators will be coming here - to Hay-on-Wye, the epicentre of polite society - to promote his book and sell some copies. I do not regret the fact that he is coming here - far from it - but I see it as a sign of the extent to which the great crime he helped to commit is viewed as an ordinary part of the political process.
Only when those who help to launch illegal wars fear punishment will future governments desist from launching them. As citizens I believe we have a duty to try to deter future war crimes. So I propose that we allow John Bolton to speak here, and then carry out a citizen's arrest.
Section 24A of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 permits any citizen to "arrest without a warrant ... anyone whom he has reasonable grounds for suspecting to be guilty" of an offence.
I do not want to advocate something I am not prepared to do myself. I was planning to stay at home on Wednesday, but I now intend to come back, listen to Mr Bolton speak, and then carry out this arrest. I hope that others at Hay might join me.

Let's make sure that the arrest of John Bolton is only the beginning in a concerted international campaign to bring those responsible for the Iraq war to justice.

UPDATE: As you probably know by now, George failed in his attempt to arrest John Bolton due to the intervention of a team of heavies. (Legal expert Martin Kelly has some observations on the blatant illegality of the actions of the heavies). But though Bolton walked away from Hay still a free man, the important thing is that a precedent has been set. Monbiot's next target for arrest will be Tony Blair. "I'm aware that I've made what I believe is the first attempt ever to arrest one of the perpetrators of the Iraq War, and I believe that is a precedent and I would like to see that precedent followed up," he says. Amen to that.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The golden days of Eurovision

Not long now before the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest kicks off in beautiful Belgrade.
I've always been a big fan of the contest but would be the first to admit that the quality of songs has declined markedly in recent years.
As I wrote in The Guardian:
Hardcore Eurovision-sceptics will doubt it, but there was a time when the continent's annual music-fest did actually produce good music. The golden age of Eurovision - like the golden age of football, television sitcoms and most other things which really matter - was the 1970s.
The strength of 70s Eurovision was shown by the quality of the songs that didn't win. Italy's Gigliola Cinquetti would have romped home in any other decade with her beautiful ballad Si, but had the bad luck in 1974 to come up against a Swedish outfit called Abba. The 1975 contest was another classic, won by the Dutch group Teach-In, with Ding a Dong, arguably the best winning song of all time.

And of course, Ding a Dong was followed a year later by the classic 'Save Your Kisses for Me', a runaway winner for The Brotherhood of Man, and the biggest selling Eurovision hit single of all time.

And as a reminder of those glory days, above is real You Tube gem: a video featuring all the Song Contest winners from 1956-79. Enjoy!

Friday, May 23, 2008

Beyond Irony

The Times reports:

Tony Blair came within moments of being killed when two Israeli fighter aircraft threatened to shoot down a private jet taking him to a Middle East conference in the belief that it might have been staging a terrorist attack.
The warplanes were scrambled to intercept after the jet pilot failed to contact air traffic control. Mr Blair, the international community’s envoy to the Middle East, was flying from the World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to attend a major conference on private investment in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem.
The Israeli aircraft used to intercept Mr Blair’s plane would have been versions of the F16 or F15, armed with Shafrir and Python air-to-air missiles. Both missiles have proved to be devastatingly effective and versatile. The Shafrir 2 missile shot down nearly 100 aircraft in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

There have been some ironic ends to controversial political figures of the past.

But the killing of the most pro-US, pro-Israel British Prime Minister in history by US-made fighter aircraft of the Israeli airforce would surely have been the most ironic of them all.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

It's time to scrap the Champions League

Drooling with excitement over the prospect of Man Utd plc facing Chelski in tonight's Champions League final? No, me neither. It's time the competition was scrapped and we reverted back to the old European Cup format, which gave teams from Europe's smaller leagues- and smaller clubs from Europe's bigger leagues, like Nottingham Forest (winners in 1979 and 1980, picture above), much more of a chance. Here's my Guardian piece from 2006 on how the Champions League mirrors the greed-driven turbo capitalist age in which we live.

One of the hallmarks of the turbo-capitalist age is how the super-rich ruthlessly conspire to ensure their continued pre-eminence and to exclude others from enjoying their privileges. There is no finer example than football's Uefa Champions League, which holds its final in Paris next week.

A two-tier system operates in European football, and a massive division has opened up between the wealthy footballing nations and the rest.

The process started in 1992 with the formation of the Champions League. Prior to that, the old European Cup operated on a knockout system, giving teams from Europe's smaller leagues a fair chance of defeating their wealthier counterparts. But the introduction of the group-stage format, in which the "big" clubs were seeded to avoid each other, greatly favoured the elite.

In 1997 Uefa changed the rules again to allow more than one entrant from the biggest four leagues. The move was justified on the grounds that the leagues of England, Italy, Germany and Spain deserved extra representation by virtue of their clubs' superior record in European competitions. But the changes - and the 1995 Bosman ruling giving EU players the right to a free transfer - only widened the division between the haves and have-nots.

Prior to 1992 clubs from eastern Europe regularly competed in the latter stages of European competitions. Since the Champions League was formed, however, only one team from the east, Dynamo Kiev, has reached even the semi-finals, and none has made the final.

Western clubs from outside the four richest leagues have also slipped off the radar. Teams from Sweden contested European finals in 1979, 1982 and 1987, but none has had a sniff of glory since, while no Belgian side has appeared in a final since 1988. As within England's Premier League, TV money has played a big part in this divide. When the Portuguese champions Porto won the Champions League in 2004, they earned £13.6m, almost £6m less than Manchester United - who didn't make it beyond the last 16 - and more than £25m less than Liverpool did when they won the trophy 12 months later.

Yet the association of Europe's richest 18 clubs, known as the G14, is still not happy. In 2005 AC Milan and Manchester United complained when they were drawn to play each other in the last 16, and urged Uefa to continue the seeding system in the latter stages of the competition so that big clubs were kept apart.
Arsenal, who also exited early last year, called for changes too. "You can't afford to have big clubs who invest so much money going out in the last 16," said manager Arsène Wenger. "You will have a revolt if it continues like that." That revolt is taking shape. Earlier this year the G14 agreed a policy document outlining its intention to guarantee the dominance of its clubs. A permanent league, in which its members would be guaranteed entry regardless of domestic standings, is clearly its aim.

But instead of pandering to the G14's demands, Uefa needs to restore the competition to its earlier format. It would be wrong, on grounds of merit, for the most successful countries to have the same representation as, say, Latvia and Macedonia; but a maximum of two entrants each, together with a more equitable distribution of television revenue, would strike a fair balance.

A reformed Champions League would mean teams from outside the richest leagues would have more chance to make progress and find it easier to hold on to their best players. The widening financial gap between the top clubs and the rest would be reduced, and smaller clubs would once again have a sporting chance of challenging for honours

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Don't Panic! Just head to St Albans (or Newcastle, or Great Malvern..)

Have you seen the new stage version of 'Dad's Army' yet? If not, don't panic, you've still got three weeks. It's at St Albans this week, Newcastle next week and Great Malvern the week after (tour dates can be found here).
I was lucky enough to see the show a couple of weeks back, and really can't recommend it highly enough. For the first few minutes it seemed strange to see Captain Mainwaring, Sgt Wilson and Lance-Corporal Jones not being played by Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier and Clive Dunn, but the actors who did play the parts (including Leslie Grantham as Walker) were quite terrific. The show lasts for over two hours (excluding the interval) and features two lost episodes: 'The Loneliness of the Long Distance Walker' and 'A Stripe for Frazer' combined with the extremely funny 'Room at the Bottom', in which Mainwaring loses his captaincy and serves as a Private, and the classic episode 'The Deadly Attachment', which features the immortal line:'Don't tell him, Pike'.

Give yourself a treat and go and see the show, and take your family and friends along too.

You'll come back not only having been supremely entertained, but also with that warm glow which comes from watching the affiliative and unashamedly nostalgic comedies of Jimmy Perry and David Croft. Dad's Army is comedy from a different, and it must be said, a much gentler and kinder, era.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Cluster bombs and Nu Labour's 'ethical' foreign policy

The IHT reports:

Ireland convened diplomats from more than 100 countries Monday in hopes of negotiating a treaty banning cluster bombs, which have littered battlefields worldwide with potentially deadly "duds."
Each bomb, rocket or shell scatters "bomblets" that carpet enemy troops or armored vehicles. But some fail to detonate, creating unmapped minefields that kill or maim civilians - including children who can mistake the objects for toys - months or years later....
Most countries want a full ban. Pope Benedict XVI backed that call Sunday.
So did nine British generals in a letter published Monday in The Times newspaper of London. The signatories included former field commanders in Yugoslavia and Iraq.
"Cluster munitions were developed to combat a level of Cold War confrontation that never happened," the generals wrote. "However, in modern wars, conducted among the people, they have consistently caused civilian casualties both during and after attacks."

Britain is not among the 100 countries who want a ban on cluster bombs. Yes, that's right: the Nu Labour government which repeatedly promised us an 'ethical foreign policy' is quite happy to see these dreadful weapons remain legal.

Among other countries who oppose a ban are the U.S., Russia and China.

It's not often you see Britain, the US, Russia and China on the same side these days. What a dreadful issue on which to find common ground.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Bouquets and brickbats......

Sorry for the lack of posts over the past week: I thought that the previous post on the thwarting of the neocon plan to have The Bliar installed as EU President was such good news it deserved to stay up in pole position for at least a week, to give us plenty of time to sip our champagne and smoke our cigars.....

Anyway, a lot's been happening over the last ten days.

Bouquets for:

1. The 'true Labour' New Zealand government of Helen Clark, which has taken the country’s railway network back into public ownership. If they can do it, why can‘t we? (Charlie Marks and David Lindsay have more on this story).

2. Roy Hodgson (above)- manager of Fulham. I’ve been a big fan of Hodgson since the early/mid 1990s when I was living in Switzerland and Hodgson was the manager of the national team. He’s worked the oracle with virtually every club he’s been with- and to pilot Fulham to safety by winning by four of the last five games was nothing short of remarkable. With his vast experience of international football, Hodgson would make a great manager of the England national team-let's hope the FA see sense and give him the job when it next comes up for grabs.

3. To the fans, players and staff of Portsmouth and Cardiff City: how refreshing to see an FA Cup final not including a member of the so-called 'Big Four'. Yesterday's game was far more entertaining than last year's dull-as-dishwater Man U v Chelsea clash; let's hope that next year too, we'll have two unfashionable teams in the final. To make that more likely, why don't the FA give all teams who draw on the Big Four in the F.A. Cup a goal start? The Big Four have an enormous financial advantage and something needs to be done to level things out.

Brickbats for:

1. Boris Tadic, Serbian President and leader of the wonderfully misnamed 'Democratic Party', who said that he would not ‘allow’ parties he didn't approve of -most particuarly, the Serb Radicals, to be part of the next Government in his country, regardless of the level of public support for them. How democratic is that? Judging by the statements of its leader the most anti-democratic force in Serbia is the so-called 'Democratic' Party.

2. To the twerps (and there really is no other word for them), who called for a military invasion of Burma days after the country was hit by a cyclone. It seems that the 'liberal interventionist' brigade can’t go a few days before calling for intervention in one country or another. They'd like us to regard them as 'progressives' and committed 'humanitarians', but isn't it funny how all the countries they’d like to invade are not fully open to western capital...? The Exile has more on this twerpery here.

3. To Cherie Blair, Lord Levy, John Prescott and Alistair Campbell. The late, great Auberon Waugh used to say that mankind isn’t divided by class or political affiliation but into the nasty and the nice- and it’s fairly easy to see which category those four fall into. (Rod Liddle has written a marvellous piece on the things some people do for money in this week's Spectator, which I heartily recommend).

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

We stopped him!

The BBC reports:
Nicolas Sarkozy has withdrawn his backing of Tony Blair to become the first president of the European Union, senior sources have told the BBC.
The French president is understood to have changed his mind after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
It is thought he feels EU opposition to the former UK prime minister is too strong because he backed the Iraq war.

The neocons didn't like the 'Stop Blair' campaign, but it seems that for once, people power has won the day. Well done to everyone who has signed the 'Stop Blair' petition at the EU Tribune website. But welcome as today's news is, the job is only half done: the next task is to get Bliar before a war crimes tribunal.

PS It's a pretty bad day for the neo-cons all round!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Letter of the Week: John Batting

Time to revive a once regular feature on this blog: The Letter of the Week.
And the first winner of 2008 is Mr John Batting of Wargrave, Berkshire, England. In his letter to The Daily Telegraph, Mr Batting writes of the damaging effects supermarkets have had on our communities and the danger they pose to France's smaller shops. Regular readers will know that I have long called for a left-right anti-neo-liberal, anti-globalisation alliance, and protecting small, individually owned shops/cafe/bars from the aggressive expansionary tactics of supermarkets and large chains is a good example of a policy that can unite both traditional conservatives and paleo-leftists.

If a letter catches your eye in in the papers this week, whether in Britain or elsewhere, please send it in.

Why small is beautiful when it comes to shopping

SIR - I was saddened to read your article about the threat to France's smaller shop owners (report, April 29) and hope the French do more to stop this erosion of their communities than we did.

The arguments for supermarkets and against small shops must have seemed so compelling that no one stopped to question the long-term benefits; and the idea of greater choice, convenience and lower prices was too enticing to ignore.

What we didn't see, perhaps, was how this would be part of a move that has largely destroyed our smaller towns and villages, as well as an important part of our society.

We are beginning to see that what were supposedly disadvantages of the smaller shop - the inability to buy all your goods in one shop, the need to travel (usually walk) between shops and higher prices - would now be benefits.

Our towns and villages would be more vibrant and with a greater sense of community, we would be healthier with more walking, we would eat more local produce and probably save petrol as well.

John Batting, Wargrave, Berkshire

Monday, May 05, 2008

Vote Clinton, Get Bush

Barack Obama has been likening Hillary 'The Hawk' Clinton (above) to George Bush. On NBC tv he said, a propos of Clinton's threat to "obliterate" Iran,
"It's not the language that we need right now, and I think it's language that's reflective of George Bush. We have had a foreign policy of bluster and sabre-rattling and tough talk, and in the meantime we make a series of strategic decisions that actually strengthen Iran."

Obama is absolutely right to liken Clinton to Bush. And he's also right to say that neoconservative policy in the Middle East has actually strengthened Iran: it's a great irony that the very same people who are beating the drum so loudly for war against Iran today were the very same people who told us that Iraq was the biggest threat to world peace five years ago. Iran's strengthened position today is a lot to do with the US foreign policy of the last five years: and it beggars belief that those who told such porkies over Iraq have the nerve to make any public statements on Iran whatsoever.

For American voters the choice is clear. As far as foreign policy goes there is not a cigarette paper's width between Hillary the Hawk and George Bush. Nor for that matter is there much difference between John 'Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran' McCain and George Bush, (indeed McCain is, if anything, even more of a warmonger than the present incumbent of the White House, incredible though it sounds).

If Americans really do want something different from the last eight years they should vote for Obama. And if they want something very different, they should vote for this man.

Meanwhile it seems the smears against Obama are getting more and more ridiculous. What will they come up with next I wonder? News that Obama once broke wind at college? Or that his former girlfrend's friend's cousin's best friend's brother-in-law once said that he thought Malcolm X had a point?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The results that really matter

Well, what did you make of the results, then? Rather dramatic weren't they? No, no, no, I'm not referring to the gains made by the other wing of Britain's ruling pro-globalist, neo-liberal, neo-conservative Big Business party, in local elections in which only 35% of people voted, but something far more interesting: the final day of the Championship season.

The Championship this year has been quite terrific. A division in which anyone could beat anyone, and in which no-one could predicted until very late in the day who was going to go up and go down. After another dramatic afternoon's action, Stoke City were promoted to the top flight of English football for the first time in 23 years, and Leicester City demoted to the third flight for the first time in their history. It's great to see Sheffield Wednesday survive: I was very impressed by the Owls when I saw them at QPR back in November, and it's good to see both teams, who back then were both in the relegation zone, maintain their status. The Championship has been full of goals this year: only one team, Leicester, scored less than one goal a game; compare that to the far more defensively minded and much-hyped Premier League, where five teams have scored less than one a game. The Championship is everything the Premier League should be but isn't: ultra-competitive, unpredictable and hugely entertaining.

Can anyone imagine one of the Premiership's bottom teams going to Old Trafford and thrashing Man Utd 4-1? Well, relegated Leicester went up to West Brom, the eventual Champions and won by that same scoreline. Enough said.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

A Neoliberal Mess

A very happy May Day to all readers of this blog.

This article of mine, on neoliberal extremism in Hungary, appears in today's Morning Star.

Back in 1994, after four years of economic hardship, the Hungarian Socialist Party won a convincing election victory on a programme of retaining the best features of the ‘goulash communist’ system of the Janos Kadar years.

Western capital was horrified. Enormous pressure, through organisations such as the IMF and the World Bank, was exerted on Hungary to change course.

Prime Minister Gyula Horn, faced with a choice between defending the interests of the ordinary working class Hungarians who had voted for him, or siding with global capital, chose the latter. He sacked socialist ministers and appointed a wealthy banker named Lajos Bokros (pictured above) to devise a programme of cuts in public spending and welfare provision which the likes of John Redwood would have drooled over.

While western capital was delighted, Bokros became a hate figure in Hungary for his lack of concern with those at the receiving end of his austerity programme. Bokros made no attempt to sugar the pill: the man who introduced tuition fees famously remarked that if students had a problem making ends meet, they should give up smoking.

I was living in Hungary at the time and saw at first hand the devastating impact that ‘the Bokros Package’ had on the lives of ordinary Hungarians. I’ve disliked the man heartily ever since.

Thirteen years on, Bokros is now ‘Chief Operating Officer’ and Professor at the Central European University, a Budapest educational institution established by the Hungarian emigree currency speculator and multi-billionaire George Soros.

And, after the results of the March referendum, in which the Hungarian people massively rejected the ruling neoliberal coalition’s imposition of tuition fees and doctor’s and hospital visit fees, Bokros is not a happy man.

“It is not solidarity when pensioners vote that university students should not pay tuition fee and university students vote that pensioners should not pay fee on doctor's visits. It is highly regrettable that Hungary slumped into this state in the interpretation of social solidarity," he declared.

I suspect most Morning Star readers- and indeed most decent human beings, would agree that university students thinking of pensioners and pensioners thinking of university students is an admirable "interpretation of social solidarity".

In fact, it wasn’t just pensioners, but the vast majority of those voting (82.22%), who showed solidarity with university students. By the same measure, over 84.08% of voters voted to scrap hospital visit fees and 82.2% voted to scrap doctor’s visit fees.

It would be interesting to ask Bokros what his interpretation of ‘social solidarity’ is: I suspect he would have no answer. For the truth is that neoliberals like Bokros hate social solidarity- the idea that we’re all in this together and that the common good should come before private gain.

Instead, they prefer a selfish, dog-eat-dog, devil takes the hindmost society, where students only think of the interests of students, pensioners only think of the interests of pensioners- and of course, business only thinks about making even more money.

Bokros rejects not only the relatively benign ‘goulash communism’ of Janos Kadar, but also the mixed-economy Keynesian model which brought unprecedented levels of prosperity to ordinary working people across western Europe in the post-war era.

For fanatical neoliberals like the former Hungarian Finance Minister, no elements of the collectivist post-war consensus are safe.

In the same speech in which he decried Hungarian pensioners and students, Bokros also argued against “the subjective right to receive a pension“. With regard to the Hungarian government's plans to reform the health care system, he said that the quality of health care could be improved only if private insurance funds competed for the money of patients.

He also called for every citizen older than 18 (including pensioners) to pay a fixed 10,000 forint monthly contribution, (about £30) to pay for the services to be provided by insurance funds that would, of course, be established with majority private capital.

Bokros said nothing about the health care of those Hungarians, who in his ideal world, would be denied a pension. Nor did he say how Hungarian pensioners, who currently receive 50,000 forint a month, and faced with spiralling food and utility bills could afford to foot the 10,000-forint bill.

Bokros’s speech is worth studying as it provides us with a chilling insight into the neoliberal mindset. Nothing matters more to the Lajos Bokroses of this world than increasing corporate profits: be it by selling off state health care provision, forcing people to take out private pensions, or trapping university students into a lifetime of debt. The fact that such reforms will further impoverish vast swathes of the population, already suffering after years of ‘economic reform’, doesn’t even enter the equation.

For far too long, neoliberal fundamentalists like Bokros have set the agenda.

And it’s not just Hungarians who have had enough of their prognosis, it’s people here in Britain, in America and across the world.

Of course, those with a vested interest in ‘economic reform’ will continue to beat the drum for further privatisation and cutbacks in state welfare provision.

But the rest of us should treat their extremist ideology with the contempt it deserves.