Monday, June 30, 2008

A Very Bad Idea

Well, we've just reached the end of one of the greatest European Championships of all time. And what have UEFA's member countries voted to do: you've guessed it- radically change the format. The Mail on Sunday reports:

"England will have no excuse in future if they repeat their failure to qualify for Euro 2008 after a proposal to extend the European Championship from 16 to 24 teams by 2016 won unanimous approval from UEFA's 53 member countries yesterday. SFA chief executive Gordon Smith said: "We just missed this tournament behind Italy and France but under the proposed new regulations we would have qualified". UEFA president Michel Platini said: "I'm not worried about increasing the number of teams. Countries like England have the quality to take part."

Well, extending the number of teams playing in the European Championship finals may well give England and Scotland a greater chance of qualification, but it's still a lousy idea. A 24-team tournament would mean six groups of four teams, with presumably the last sixteen being made up of the twelve first and second placed teams, together with the four third placed teams with the best record. In other words we'd play two weeks of group matches just to eliminate eight teams. Such a system would encourage negative, defensive football, as teams would probably be able to qualify for the knockout stages with three draws.
Much of the excitement of the final games in the group matches (just think Czech Republic v Turkey) would be lost.

A 24-team tournament would undoubtedly mean a lowering of quality- as well as devaluing the European Championship qualifiers.

It's quite clear that once again, financial -and not sporting considerations are being put first. The more teams in the tournament, the more matches, the more advertising revenue- and the richer everyone gets- so the argument goes. But a 24-team tournament, involving several mediocre teams, is much more likely to be a bore for viewers than a 16-team one, restricted to Europe's best.

The truth is that there is nothing wrong with the current European Championship format, as the last four weeks have shown. To quote a very old adage, which is ignored far too often in these money obsessed times: If it ain't broke, why fix it?

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Euro 2008 Dream Team

Well, with only 30 hours or so to go before the last match of what has been the most fabulously entertaining football tournament for decades, it's time to compile our Euro 2008 dream teams. Here's mine:

1. Casillas (Spain)
2. Hamit (Turkey)
3. Lahm (Germany)
4. Simunic (Croatia)
5. Kovac (Croatia)
6. Schweinsteiger (Germany)
7. Deco (Portugal)
8. Ballack (Germany)
9. Nihat (Turkey)
10. Fabregas (Spain)
11. Villa (Spain)

Subs: Volkan (Turkey) Corluka (Croatia)Von Bronkhorst (Holland) Sneijder (Holland) Modric (Croatia) Semih (Turkey) Van Nistelrooy (Holland) Torres (Spain).

My team is rather biased towards attacking players- I'm sure it would be involved in some high scoring games, and with the number of Turks and Germans in it, I'm equally sure it would keep playing right until the final whistle! The manager would be the inspirational Fatih Terim of Turkey, above.

Who would make your Dream Euro 2008 XI -and who would you have on the sub's bench?

Friday, June 27, 2008

Serbia's Socialists ditch socialism- and betray Milosevic

This article of mine appears in The Morning Star. Since it was written, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) has, as predicted, announced that it would enter into a coalition with Boris Tadic's DS.

As a keen horse-racing fan I've enjoyed attending many big race meetings around the world. But by far my most politically instructive day at the races occurred in Belgrade back in the 1990s, when I was lucky enough to attend the Yugoslav Derby.

About midway through the afternoon my Serbian friend pointed out a figure in a private box at the top of the stands. It was a middle-aged man wearing an immaculate suit, surrounded by three beautiful women. The champagne was flowing and the man was puffing on an enormous cigar. "That's Zoran Djindjic". my friend informed me. "He's an opposition politician and probably the biggest critic of President Milosevic", he went on. Later that afternoon we saw Djindjic- and his female admirers - leave the racecourse in a luxurious car. Whenever I hear western politicians or journalists describe Slobodan Milosevic (pictured above) as a 'dictator' I always think of that day at the races and the first time I saw Zoran Djindjic. For an opposition leader and critic of the government in a 'dictatorship', Djindjic certainly didn't seem to be having too bad a time of things.

Of course, the description of Yugoslavia under Milosevic as a 'dictatorship' was pure hogwash. A vibrant multi-party democracy was in operation- but the only thing wrong with the system from the west's viewpoint was that the wrong party- i.e. Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) kept winning the elections. Unlike other Socialist parties in the region, who by this time had morphed into pro-globalist New Labour style parties, the Serbian Socialists didn't ditch socialism. Under Milosevic around 70% of the economy remained in social ownership. The government's policies put the interests of ordinary people- and not global capital- first. Faux-leftist critics of Milosevic in the west routinely point to the privatisation of Serb Telecom- and the role played by former British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd in brokering the sale for the Nat West Bank as evidence that Milosevic's government wasn't really 'socialist' But they usually neglect to mention that only a minority stake in Serb Telecom was sold and the sale only came about as an emergency measure to raise money for state coffers to counter the impact of western sanctions- the most draconian sanctions ever imposed on a European state.

The fact was that the government in Belgrade refused to adopt the neoliberal policies the west- and its agencies such as the World Bank and the IMF insist upon. And for their refusal to 'liberalise' the Yugoslav economy, both Milosevic and his party, were to pay a heavy price. Having been toppled in a coup d'etat, organised, choreographed and financed (to the tune of $70m) by the US State Department, Milosevic then had to suffer the ignominy of being illegally kidnapped, and bundled into a RAF aeroplane to stand trial at The Hague-to answer politically motivated charges before a tribunal staffed and financed by the very powers who had waged an illegal and brutal war against his country only two years earlier. And the Serbian politician responsible for Milosevic being handed over to his country's enemies was- you've guessed it -Zoran Djindjic-who had become Prime Minister following the anti-socialist coup.

While Djindjic lived the life of Riley as an opposition leader in the years of Milosevic's 'dictatorship'; there was to be no days at the races for Milosevic, sipping champagne and smoking cigars, when the men's roles were reversed.

But the West- and their agents in Serbia- didn't just need to remove Milosevic from the political scene- they needed to neutralise the Socialist Party of Serbia.

In the aftermath of the 2000 coup, SPS offices were raided and destroyed and officers of the party were attacked and beaten. The party was marginalised and denied access to the state media, now in the hands of the opposition. Many members of the SPS left the party to join the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) which began to adopt more left-wing policies.

But after seven years of seeing its fortunes decline, the Socialist Party is once again a factor in Serbian politics. In May's general election, the party was left holding the balance of power. From being the pariahs of Serbian politics, the SPS is now the party that everyone wants to be friends with. And that includes the fanatically pro-EU 'Democratic' Party (DS)-the party of the late Zoran Djindjic. The DS's current leader, the Serbian President, Boris Tadic, having spent most of his career attacking the policies of the Milosevic era, is now sounding rather more conciliatory as he attempt to entice the SPS into a 'pro European coalition'."I'm convinced that the SPS is prepared for permanent reforms and finding a way out into the future," Tadic told a meeting of his party last week- urging them to "join hands with those you fought against during the Nineties".

Sadly, it seems increasingly likely that the SPS leader, Ivica Dacic will accept Tadic's offer. The pressure is coming not just from Tadic, but from western powers desperate to prevent the SPS from joining the SRS and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) in a 'patriotic' coalition that would defend Serbia's national interests. The Dutch daily Handelsblad, has quoted an unnamed Western diplomat in Belgrade as saying that the American and British ambassadors "are in the cockpit of forming the new Serbian government". While not denying that he has met with Dacic, the British Ambassador says he doesn't' feel as if he is "directing people" but "discussing the situation with them, explaining how would Europe see certain issues."

If Dacic does do what the US and Britain want -and take his party into a DP led- coalition, he will be ignoring the opinions of the vast majority of his party's supporters, who loathe the DP and its neoliberal allies.

Serbia's leading philosopher Mihajlo Markovic, who is also one of the founders of the SPS, has warned that Dacic joining a DS-led coalition would be a death blow to both the SPS and to Serbia. "Already this year there is a shortage of the money received from privatization in the state budget. How shall we fill the budget in the future, when the plunder and the wholesale of everything this society has created in the past five decades soon comes to its end?" Markovic said.

In an attempt to assuage concern among the party's supporters, SPS Vice-President Slavica Dukić-Dejanović has pledged that the party would never disown the legacy of Slobodan Milosevic. "We didn't do that even when we were at our lowest ebb, and when they wanted to pull us apart. He was the founder of the party and a historical personality, and we have to move towards reinforcing an ideological and reformist spirit". But it is difficult to see how entering a coalition with the party whose former leader was responsible for sending Milosevic to The Hague- and signing up to a pro-privatisation, neoliberal 'reformist' economic agenda can be seen as anything other than disowning the legacy of the former Yugoslav President.

It seems that the upper ranks of the SPS would like the party to go the way of all the other Socialist Parties in the region-in other words, to ditch socialism and do exactly what the west tells it to do.

Let's hope the party's members can yet save the day.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

We love you Turkey, we do.....

Well, they may have eventually lost to Germany, but there's no doubting who were the moral victors of last night's epic Euro 2008 semi-final.

Turkey, with five of their first team players missing due to injuries and suspension, were quite simply amazing. They took the game to their alleged superiors, and could - and should- have been two or three goals up at the interval. They dominated the second half too- but when Germany grabbed a goal, against the run of play with 12 minutes to go, due to a goalkeeping error by second-choice keeper Rustu, it looked like 'normal service' was to be resumed. But Turkey don't only have great technique- they have tremendous spirit, and with just four minutes remaining grabbed a dramatic equaliser- the fourth time in succession they have come from behind and equalised with a late goal. Sadly, there was still more drama to come, as Germany broke forward and scored in the final minute to record a thoroughly undeserved victory.

So Turkey are out of Euro 2008. But I'm sure football fans the world over will never forget this remarkable team.

UPDATE: Some great news: it's just been announced that Fatih Terim, Turkey's brilliantly inspirational coach, is to stay in his position until at least 2010. That's great news not just for Turkey, but for everyone who likes attacking football.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The West's favourite ethnic cleanser

From Svetlana's Byzantine Sacred Art blog:

Former US Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith who testified before the Hague tribunal on Monday, confirmed that ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Serbian Krajina region was a deliberate systematic operation and the state policy of Croat leadership, headed by Franjo Tudjman (pictured above), which lead to the mass scale ethnic cleansing in two blitzkrieg operations in 1995, codenamed Storm and Flash.

As a prosecution witness in the case against Tudjman's generals Ante Gotovina, Mladen Markaca and Ivan Cermak -- accused for conducting military operations aimed at forced and permanent removal of Serbian population from the Krajina region, including killing Serbian civilians and prisoners, expulsion, deportation, plunder of Serbian property, merciless destruction of Serbian-populated towns and villages and inhumane and cruel treatment -- Galbraith stressed that this was Croatia's state policy that continued to be enforced afterwards, preventing the expelled Serbs from returning to their homes and land in Croatia. Galbraith confirmed that Tudjman was saying that only "up to 10 percent of Serbs can remain in Croatia", and that Serbian Krajina region ought to be cleansed of Serbs and populated by the diaspora Croats. Emphasizing that his goal was a nationally "homogeneous", i.e. an ethnically clean state, Tudjman was also openly advocating "moving the population" and dividing Bosnia and Herzegovina, Galbraith revealed.

During his Hague testimony on June 23, Galbraith expressed regret he had lied in the trial against former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, claiming that there was no ethnic cleansing during Operation Storm. He said that this was a "technical explanation", because many of the Serbs left the town of Knin before the Croat troops entered.

You can read more of this story over at Svetlana's.

Don't expect to read too much about it elsewhere: Tudjman in his wicked, racist schemes was backed by the west- in common with all the other extremists who wanted to destroy the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Wally of the Week: Andrew Roberts

Well, there were other contenders as always, but this super-creepy comment piece in the Sunday Telegraph, in which Roberts doesn't just lick the posterior of the current U.S. President but climbs into it, won it by a country mile for our diminutive history man.

Roberts, the 'eminent' historian who, in the lead up to the war with Iraq compared the threat posed by that sanctions-devastated country, with its Dad's Army and non-existence air-force, with the threat posed by Nazi Germany at its peak, believes that history will say that we 'misunderestimated George Bush'.

Furthermore he claims that:
"history will also shine an unforgiving light on those ludicrous conspiracy theories that claim that the Iraq War was fought for any other reason than to implement the 14 UN resolutions that Saddam that had been flouting for 13 years."

Yes, that's right, the US went to war, without UN Security Council support, in order to enforce UN Resolutions. Like they do all the time when UN Resolutions are flouted......

UPDATE: Freddy Gray at The American Conservative blog has a great post about Roberts' sycophancy, and why it might lead to some rich rewards.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Arrivederci Azzurri! (and good riddance)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote that I have never been a big fan of the Italian football team. That's putting it mildly: to quote the immortal Edmund Blackadder, I'd rather French-kiss a skunk than see the Azzurri win a major tournament. For far too long Italy have tainted international football with their negative approach- they don't play football, they play anti-football. They bored their way to the final of the 1994 World Cup, where their ultra-defensive tactics ensured the most sleep-inducing World Cup final of all time. They bored their way to the final of Euro 2000, defeating an adventurous and ultra-positive Dutch team on penalties in the semi-finals. The final of Euro 2000 was needless to say a mega-bore: most finals are if they involve Italy. In 2006 they not only bored their way to the World Cup final again, they actually won the tournament. And last night, they went out on the pitch against Spain in the quarter-final of Euro 2008- determined to put us all to sleep for two hours and steal the match on penalties. But for once, the Italian 'master-plan' didn't come off. Spain held their nerve and the Italians went out. But the victory didn't just represent a deserved victory for Spain, who at least made an effort to win the match in normal time; it was, as Alan Hansen correctly said in the BBC studio, a victory for football.

Is it possible to get the Azzurri banned from future tournaments on the grounds that they don't play football, but anti-football? It's surely worth a try.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

One Hundred Years of Old Age Pensions

Here's my article to mark the centenary of old age pensions, from the Daily Express. And if, like me, you think it's about time that Britain's political elite gave our OAPs the fair deal they deserve, then please lend your support, in whatever way you can to the National Pensioners Convention. The key hallmark of a civilied society is how it treats its old folk-and by that measure Britain, with the lowest state pension in the EU, is failing badly.

It has been described as the most momentous date in British social history, the day on which the modern welfare state was born. One hundred years ago (on 7th May 1908), Prime Minister Herbert Asquith announced his government’s intention to introduce an Old Age Pensions bill. For the first time in British history, the elderly would receive a pension from the state.

The idea of a universal old-age pension, payable to all elderly people as of right, was first raised in the French Revolution of 1789–99. It was however, to be another hundred years before Germany became the first country in the world to introduce pensions.

A further nine countries followed Germany‘s lead, before the British government finally decided it was time to act.

With improvements in medical knowledge, people were living longer than ever before. Yet there was no state provision for old age. In 1906, almost 20% of the population over 65 were officially classed as paupers. Women fared particularly badly; around three-quarters of the recipients of ‘outdoor relief’ were elderly women. Old people who could not rely on the kindness of relatives to look after them often ended their days in the dreaded workhouse (pictured above). By the end of the Victorian period the largest group of workhouse inmates were the elderly.

Workhouse life was made as harsh and humiliating as possible, so that the able-bodied poor would apply for relief only as a last resort. But while the system was designed to discourage the work-shy, it also meant that the elderly, through no fault of their own, were also penalised. Aged pauper couples were not allowed to share a bedroom. Workhouse inmates had their clothes confiscated and were forced to wear uniform akin to prisoners. Many suffered from malnutrition: hardly surprising considering that the standard dinner was 6oz of bread and 2oz of cheese.

The scandalous treatment of the elderly in what was then the richest country on earth led to growing calls for state intervention. In 1891, the philanthropist Charles Booth published his first old-age pensions proposals. In 1899, a Parliamentary select committee investigated and advocated non-contributory old age pensions. In 1902, a campaign group called the National Committee of Organised Labour on Old Age Pensions was formed; its founder George Barnes, defeated the Conservative Cabinet minister Andrew Bonar Law in the 1906 general election.

The fiery Welsh Liberal Party politician Lloyd George, who became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1908, had long advocated old age pensions and was determined to take action that, in his own words, would "lift the shadow of the workhouse from the homes of the poor". But though his Old Age Pensions Act was groundbreaking, its provisions could not be described as over-generous. A pension of up to 5s (25p) per week would be paid to single men and women only when they reached the age of 70; married couples were to receive about 7s6d (35p). The pensions, although non-contributory were means tested: anyone over 70 who had some form of income had this deducted from their pension. Only British subjects resident in the country for twenty years were eligible, anyone who had been in receipt of poor relief in the last twelve months or in prison within the previous ten years was barred. In addition, pensions were not available to those who were deemed to have habitually failed to work according to their “ability, opportunity and need”.

As limited as the provisions were, Lloyd George’s proposals were for some, the thin end of the wedge. Old age pensions would prove “profoundly demoralising” and would “weaken the moral fibre of the nation”, critics like the Tory peer Lord Robert Cecil claimed.

But the government’s scheme proved hugely popular. The cry “God bless that Lord George” was heard across the country when the first pensions were paid on 1st January 1909. A huge bonfire was lit on the White Horse Hills. In Bromsgrove the streets were hung with bunting and bands paraded the streets. In Kettering all the pensioners of the town were entertained at tea and two of them moved a vote of thanks to the government. The National Society of Amalgamated Brassworkers sent a telegram to the Prime Minister which read: “Brassworkers wish you and the Chancellor of the Exchequer happiness and prosperity for the New Year. Express gratitude for State recognition of veterans of industry generally on this Glorious Pensions day”.

Over 400,000 pensions were soon being paid to nearly 45% of the population over 70. In order to remove any stigma in receiving the benefit, the scheme was administered by the Post Office rather than the parish or Poor Law. It wasn’t all plain sailing: old people who were unable to write and who failed to bring in a relative or friend to sign for their pension in the presence of officials, were told they could have no money.

Over the years, state pension provision gradually became more generous.

In 1925 a contributory State scheme for manual workers and others earning up to £250 a year and available from the age of 65 was established. The measure nearly doubled the income of pensioners. Bigger changes followed after World War Two. The 1946 National Insurance Act extended contributory State pensions to all and lowered the retirement age to 65 for men and 60 for women. In 1975, the State Earnings Related Pension Scheme (Serps) was introduced, providing a second tier pension paid by the State financed by National Insurance contributions.

Yet in more recent years, the value of the state pension has declined markedly.

In 1980, the link between state pension increases and average earnings was broken by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. Pension rises would thereafter be linked to prices: but because average earnings generally rise much faster than retail prices, the real value of pensions soon began to fall. It’s been calculated that if the link with earnings had not been broken, a basic state pension for a single pensioner would now be worth £145.15 a week.

One hundred years after their introduction, British pensions are now the lowest in European Union. A recent survey found that the basic state pension of £90.70 a week is equivalent to just 17% of the average earnings, compared to the EU average of 57%. The 25p a week top-up for over 80s has not been raised since its introduction in 1971: then it bought a bag of coal, now it doesn’t even cover the cost of a second-class stamp. One in five British pensioners lives below the official poverty line, the vast majority of them women.

Moreover, the UK also has one of the highest retirement ages in Europe at an average of 62.6 years, with 57% of people aged between 55 and 65 still working. The government has pledged to restore the link between pensions and average earnings in 2012, but only if it can afford to. If not, the change will have to wait at least another three years. And even then the government’s reforms are part of a package that will also raise the retirement age to 68 from 2044.

It’s often said that a civilised country is judged by the way it treats its old people. As we mark the centenary of the introduction of old age pensions wouldn’t it be nice if our politicians gave Britain’s pensioners the fair deal they deserve?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Inanilmaz! Turkey do it again.....

Well, I thought in over 30 years following the sport I'd seen all there was to see in football.

Then came Turkey.

A stoppage time winner against Switzerland after they'd been 1-0 down. Three goals in the last 14 minutes to knock out the Czechs. And then last night, an astonishing extra-time comeback against Croatia. Croatia took the lead in the last minute of extra time and celebrated as if they'd won the match. They clearly forgot that they were playing Turkey.

To come back from the dead once might be considered lucky. But to do it three times?
Turkey have reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008 having been in the lead for just TWO MINUTES in their four matches to date!

The feats of escapology by Turkey that we've witnessed over the past week or so have been nothing short of remarkable. They've stunned the Swiss, the Czechs and now the Croats with their late, late heroics. Will it be the Germans next?

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Top Ten Neo-Liberal Jokes

The neo-conservative and staunch anti-communist commentator Daniel Finkelstein has posted, on the Times comment central site, what he believes to be the 'Top Ten Communist Jokes', or rather the Top Ten Jokes about communism. In the interests of political balance, I thought I'd list my Top Ten Neo-Liberal Jokes.

1. Britain's privatised railway system (which leads to commuters who have spent thousands of pounds on hideously overpriced season tickets having to stand in toilets).
2. Britain's privatised utilities.
3. The works of Dr Milton Friedman.
4. The Adam Smith Institute (those bright sparks who gave us (1) above).
5. The EU's oh-so-popular Lisbon Treaty.
6. George Bush.
7. The 'trickle-down' theory.
8. The idea that privatisation is good for the taxpayer.
9. The Terminal 5 fiasco.
10.New Labour.

If you've got any neoliberal jokes of your own, please send them in!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Anti-Democratic Democrats are out in force

Splintered Sunrise, one of my favourite blogs, has a great post up on the reaction to the Irish 'No' Vote by so-called pro-EU 'democrats'

We’ve also seen various European politicos holding forth, most notably Denis MacShane and Daniel Cohn-Bendit. Of this pair it can fairly be asked, could you possibly find a bigger pair of wxxxxxs to fight the EU’s corner? More seriously, their general point was that it’s unfair for 1% of the Union’s population to hold the other 99% hostage. Perhaps it’s escaped the attention of our progressive internationalists that the other 99% weren’t allowed a vote. It’s an odd situation where that tough old conservative, Czech president Václav Klaus, emerges as the champion of democracy. But perhaps it makes my point about liberal elitism.

You can read the rest of the article here.

And in answer to Splintered's question: No.

UPDATE: The anti-democratic democrats really are going into overdrive. The EU's response to the democratic verdict of the people: get them to vote again and again until they vote the 'right way'.
From today's Guardian:

Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg's foreign minister, said Ireland would need to have a second vote. "The question is, how can we prepare it so that it can be won."
Sarkozy, who takes over the EU's presidency in 10 days' time, let it be known he wanted the 26 other member countries to ratify the Lisbon treaty as swiftly as possible. His foreign policy adviser said Ireland should rerun its ballot.

You really couldn't make this stuff up, could you?

An Exile Exclusive

Our good blogging friend The Exile has got himself something of a scoop. He's running guest posts by the candidates in the Haltemprice and Howden by-election. You can read the first of the posts, by anti-corruption campaigner David Craig, here.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

R.I.P Cyd Charisse

Some sad news: the actress and dancer Cyd Charisse has died at the age of 87.
One the ten reasons to forgive Texas, Ms Charisse possessed what were, without doubt, the finest pair of legs ever captured on celluloid. And if you don't believe me, watch this:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A Black Day for France

No, I'm not referring to their ignominious exit from Euro 2008, but something much worse.

Robert Fox writes:

President Sarkozy has announced the most radical shake-up in France's defence and security policy for more than 40 years - since 1966 when President De Gaulle hauled France out of the military alliance of Nato as a very Gallic gesture of independence from America.
Sarkozy told 3,000 French officers today that their country will rejoin the integrated military command of Nato.

One thing I'm sure of: the greatest Frenchman of the 20th Century will be turning in his grave.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Euro 2008: The Best since 1984

Or possibly the best ever? We have witnessed an extraordinary ten days of football- capped by last night's remarkable match in Geneva between Turkey and the Czech Republic. Having followed football for over 30 years I thought I'd seen all the game had to offer, but last night's extraordinary finale really was something else.
Euro 2008 has been fabulously enjoyable- and to think there's still two weeks to go!
(You can watch all the goals from last night's epic encounter above, and see extended highlights here)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

David Davis' greatest service

I can only echo those commentators who have said 'bravo' to Shadow Home Secretary David Davis (above) for resigning over the 42 day detention without charge issue.

Probably the greatest service Davis has done by resigning over this issue is to expose the would-be totalitarians in our midst.

People like Kelvin Mackenzie, who says that The Sun (the paper which he used to edit) would 'frankly' be quite happy with 420 days detention without charge. The Sun sets itself up as a defender of 'British values' - well, if 'British values' means banging people up for 420 days without charge, my name's Cristiano Ronaldo.

On the blog of writer Melanie Phillips it states:
"Styled a conservative by her opponents, she prefers to think of herself as defending authentic liberal values against the attempt to destroy western culture from within".
Clearly holding people for six weeks without charge is not included in Ms Phillips’definition of 'authentic liberal values'.

Then there's the ubiquitous neo-con slimeball and hypocrite Denis Matyjaszek (aka Denis MacShame)- signatory to the principles of the warmongering Henry Jackson Society. MacShame claims to support the spreading of 'democracy' and 'human rights' around the world yet sneers at Davis - saying his resignation was "like something out of an Italian opera". It will come as no surprise to readers to learn that MacShame also believes that the Irish people’s rejection of the Lisbon treaty means that "things haven’t changed so utterly after all": the man’s contempt for democracy really has no limits.

Davis has done us all a favour- he's exposed the would-be totalitarians in our midst. Isn't it revealing that those most in favour of spreading 'democracy' and 'human rights' abroad by an aggressive, militaristic foreign policy, seem to be much less keen on them here?

Friday, June 13, 2008

Danke Deutschland!

Would there be an independent state of Croatia today without German support?

It’s highly unlikely.

And how do the Croatians repay their patrons? Not only by dumping them unceremoniously out of the World Cup in 1998, but by beating them again- in Euro 2008 yesterday. There’s gratitude for you!

More seriously, the events of the past week, demonstrate for anyone who had any doubts, the level of sporting excellence in the former Yugoslavia.

The delightful Serbian tennis player Ana Ivanovic won the French Open (beating compatriot Jelena Jankovic in the semi-final). (Svetlana at Byzantine blog has a great write-up of Ana’s triumphant return to Belgrade at the weekend which you can read here). It was the second Grand Slam to be won by a Serb this year- following Novak Djokovic’s memorable victory in the Australian Open. What chance of a Serbian double at Wimbledon, due to start the week after next? And what chance a ’former Yugoslavia’ double, with Serbian players winning both titles at Wimbledon, and Croatia landing Euro 2008? As I predicted last week, Croatia are in for a big tournament- their players have great technical ability-(as England found out at Wembley last November) and, in Slaven Bilic (pictured above), they have one of the best young managers in the world.

If Croatia do win Euro 2008, they will be achieve something which Yugoslavian national team never did. Yugoslavia- nicknamed the 'Brazil of Europe' for their ultra-skilful style, came agonisingly close on many occasions, but never won a major international football tournament. But in 1992, they had a fabulous side (built on Red Star Belgrade’s 1991 European Cup winning team) and were strongly fancied to make an impact at that year’s European Championships. But UEFA barred them from taking part due to the wars of secessions then taking place. Denmark, who had finished second to Yugoslavia in their qualifying group, got a late call-up to replace Yugoslavia in the tournament- and duly won it. 1992 should have been Yugoslavia’s year- but due to the west’s- and in particular Germany’s desire to break the country up by supporting secessionists in Slovenia and Croatia- it was not to be. So I suppose you could say, that looking at the bigger picture, Germany’s two defeats at the hands of Croatia are a form of poetic justice. And if you’re German, don’t blame Joachim Low for the defeat, blame your former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Danke Deutschland!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Not so suicidal after all

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

It was famously labelled (by the embryonic New Labourite Gerald Kaufman) as "the longest suicide note in history". Labour's 1983 manifesto was blamed by many – including the former prime minister, James Callaghan – for the party suffering a calamitous defeat in the general election held 25 years ago this week.

But was the manifesto really that bad?

Labour planned to counter a savage recession, which had led unemployment to rise to its highest level for 50 years, with an unashamedly Keynesian £11bn "emergency programme of action". The programme involved a five-year economic plan and massive investment in industry. To make sure the extra spending was not soaked up by imports, and to safeguard key industries, import duties would, if necessary, be imposed. Labour's manifesto also promised to re-impose exchange controls – scrapped by the Tories in 1979 – in order to "counter currency speculation and to make available – to industry and government in Britain – the large capital resources that are now flowing overseas".

To help its programme of industrial regeneration, Labour advocated the setting up of a "national investment bank" to put new resources from private institutions and from the government – including North Sea oil revenues – "into our industrial priorities".

Regarding North Sea oil itself, Labour pledged to set up a new "powerful national oil company" in pursuance of its objective of bringing the North Sea oil industry into public ownership. The Tories' programme of privatisation would be halted – and a new programme of public ownership initiated. In addition to re-nationalising the industries already sold off, "significant public stakes would be taken in electronics, pharmaceuticals, health equipment and building materials; and also in other important sectors, as required in the national interest".

Acknowledging that its "radical, socialist policies for reviving the British economy" would be in conflict with the rules of the treaty of Rome, Labour said it would withdraw from the EEC within the lifetime of the next parliament.

In foreign policy, Labour pledged to help improve relations between east and west by restoring detente and promised to work "consistently for peace and disarmament". The party called for the ratification of Salt II and opposed the deployment of Cruise and Pershing missiles in western Europe.

In its mission to create a "fairer Britain", Labour pledged to restore the link between pensions and average earnings – broken by Thatcher in 1980. A new annual tax of personal wealth would be introduced, targeting the richest 100,000 of the population. Part-time workers were to be given the same employment rights as full-time workers.

Some of the 1983 proposals – such as devolution to Scotland and Wales, a Freedom of Information Act, and equal rights for part-time workers – were eventually enacted by Labour after it came to power in 1997. But the bulk of the manifesto was never implemented. A relentless anti-Labour campaign by much of the media – aided by rightwing figures within the party – together with the splitting of the anti-Tory vote on account of the SDP secession, meant that the Conservatives were returned in 1983 with a greatly increased majority, even though their share of the vote was actually lower than in 1979.

A quarter of a century on and we're still experiencing the consequences of that victory.

That moment in 1983 was the last great opportunity to derail the neoliberal bandwagon before it did lasting damage to the UK's economic and social fabric. Labour's emergency programme of action would have halted the de-industrialisation of Britain and removed the spectre of mass unemployment from the land. The re-imposition of exchange controls would have put a break on the growing power of international finance; thanks to Thatcher's deregulatory measures – money power was soon to rule the roost.

The yawning wealth gap, already starting to develop in 1983, would have been reversed by Labour's staunchly progressive tax policies.

Pensioners would have seen their living standards rise, due to the link being restored between average earnings – it's been calculated that if the link had not been broken, a basic state pension for a single pensioner would now be worth £145.15 a week.

The huge increase in homelessness that Britain witnessed in the late 1980s would have been avoided, due to Labour's halting of council house sales and its commitment to public housing.

As to the issue of privatisation – is there anyone, outside of extremist neoliberal thinktanks and those who made a financial killing from it – who still thinks it was a success? Britain has the most expensive and unreliable railway system in Europe (despite receiving over four times more in taxpayer subsidy than British Rail). Our privatised airports are an international disgrace, while the hiving off of key services in NHS hospitals, such as cleaning and catering, has proved disastrous. "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" – the verdict not of a "hard left" ideologue, but the businessman and designer Sir Terence Conran.

Then there's North Sea oil. Labour's plans for public ownership of North Sea oil was derided by the free-market fanatics back in 1983. Yet there was a country that did follow a statist path to developing its oil wealth: Norway, which now has the second highest per-capita GDP in the world. Adherence to free-market dogma meant Britain squandered the massive financial bonanza that North Sea oil represented; money that could have been spent on industrial regeneration instead went on paying people not to work.

In foreign policy, Labour's espousal of detente would have made more likely the dream of many progressives that the cold war would end not with the "victory" of one side over another, but with a fusion between east and west: with the communist countries in the east becoming progressively more liberal, and western countries becoming progressively more socialist. And pulling out of the EEC would not only have saved British taxpayers a fortune, but enabled Britain to maintain its national sovereignty, free from EEC/EU constraints on state intervention in the economy.

In truth the real "suicide note" in 1983 election was the Conservative party manifesto, which, with its dogmatic espousal of free-market policies, put on us on the road we are today: a debt-ridden, privatised service economy with massive differentials in wealth; a country where the majority of people – working class and middle class – are exploited by an unaccountable, transnational corporate and financial elite. A society where everything has a price, but nothing a value, where the profit motive dominates every aspect of our lives. Worse still, the Thatcherite, neoliberal model is one that has been exported to other countries around the world, including eastern Europe, with similarly disastrous consequences.

"The defeat for the Labour party in the early 1980s was not only a defeat for the Labour party but also a defeat for decency all over the world" said Michael Foot (pictured above), the party's much maligned leader in 1983.

The events of the past 25 years have proved him absolutely right

Ireland's chance to save Europe

"Fear is stalking Europe's chancelleries and boardrooms. There is bewilderment in Brussels and dismay in Dublin. Against all protocol and best practice, the people of Ireland have been given a free vote today on whether to accept a further centralisation of power and entrenchment of corporate privilege in the European Union. There are few things that make the blood of EU officials run as cold as the prospect of a referendum. But not only do the Republic of Ireland's three million voters have a chance to do what has been denied to the rest of the union's 490 million people and have their say on the laboriously constructed Lisbon treaty, alias the European constitution: the signs are that they might even throw it out - and sink the entire package for Europe as a whole.

Naturally, the Irish establishment has closed ranks and threatened the most dire consequences if Ireland dares to vote no. The new Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, backed by all the main political parties and business barons, warned it would put the country's economic future at risk; the former Irish EU commissioner Peter Sutherland, who now chairs BP and Goldman Sachs International, said the consequences of a no vote would be "devastating"; the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, declared that the Irish would be the "first victims" if they voted the wrong way. And as the first poll to show the no campaign in the lead was released last week, the bullying and scaremongering was ratcheted sharply upwards.......

Subordination to the US or an undemocratic neoliberal superstate is no choice at all. Instead, political alliances need to be constructed for a different kind of Europe. If Irish voters are intimidated into backing the treaty today, public alienation from the EU will continue to grow, along with rightwing nationalism. But if they manage to boot it out, they could help kickstart the essential process of change and give a voice to millions across the continent".

You can read the whole of Seumas Milne's brilliant piece on the importance of a 'No Vote' in today's EU Treaty Referendum in Ireland here.

Come on Ireland- sink the neoliberal EU treaty!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"The Largest War Profiteering in History"

When the US goes to war, corporate America goes too.
There are contracts for caterers, tanker drivers, security guards and even interrogators, many of them through companies with links to the White House.
Now more than 70 whistleblower cases threaten to reveal the scandals behind billions of dollars worth of waste, theft and corruption during the Iraq war.

Last night's Panorama told the story of what "may well turn out to be the largest war profiteering in history". If you weren't able to watch the programme, you can watch a trailer here and you can see the whole programme shortly on the BBC's iplayer. And I particularly urge those of you who still think the Iraq war was about 'spreading democracy' or 'liberating' the Iraqi people, to take a look.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Tangerine Dream: Sing Dinge-Dong

I've never been a fan of the Italian national football team. For too long they've bored us with their ultra-defensive tactics; tactics which sadly have proved quite effective, as the last World Cup showed. So it was great to see them get their just desserts last night by the Netherlands, and to see the so-called masters of counter-attacking football, caught on the break not once, but twice!
The Netherlands' stunning victory provides us with a great excuse to remind ourselves of another international triumph for the Dutch- in the 1975 Eurovision Song Contest. Take it away, Gettie!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Afghanistan: What are we fighting for?

The deaths of three British soldiers in Afghanistan yesterday means that the British death toll in that conflict has now reached 100.

Anyone care to explain what we are fighting for?

UPDATE: The Exile gives his thoughts on this most unwinnable of wars, here.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

A Classic Sporting Saturday

The first Saturday in June means one thing: Derby Day. Those interested in the history of the great race, can read my Daily Telegraph interview with the remarkable Lettice Miller, the oldest living Derby winning owner, (she owned the 1937 winner Mid-day Gun,) here. As to what's going to win this year's renewal, well for what it's worth, I like the Sir Michael Stoute trained pair Tartan Bearer and Doctor Fremantle. Tartan Bearer won the Dante, the best Derby trial in recent years, while Doctor Fremantle, who has been supplemented for the race finished second to yesterday's Oaks winner Look Here as a juvenile. This year it looks a particularly wide open race and good luck with whatever you decide to back.

But it's not only at Epsom that there'll be high class sporting action today. Over in Paris, the lovely Ana Ivanovic (above)- a wonderful ambassador for Serbia- bids to win her first Grand Slam in the Final of the French Open.

And in Switzerland, the Euro 2008 Football championships kick off. Germany look the most likely winners of the tournament, but I'll also be having an each-way interest in Greece- again overpriced as they were in 2004- and Croatia, who I think will have
a big tournament.

Let the action commence!

Friday, June 06, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere......

The Campaign For Public Ownership quotes a report from The Sunday Express:

Major water companies will this week unveil profits estimated at more than £1bn just weeks after anouncing inflation-busting price rises for householders. Quoted groups United Utilities, Northumbrian Water, Pennon and Severn Trent, which serve millions, are poised to post pre-tax profits adding up to an estimated £1.054 billion. This will not please consumers whose water costs have risen. This year's bills will be 6% up on last year's, at £330 on average. Since the water industry was privatised in 1989, householders have been clobbered with an increase in real terms of 42%.

An increase in real terms of 42%. In a country where it never seems to stop raining.

Anyone like to argue that privatisation has been good for anyone but the greedy profiteers who now run the industry?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Costs of Neoliberalism

Forty years ago a single skilled manual wage was enough to provide a living for a working-class man, his wife and family. Now even a middle-class couple with both partners working can't bring in enough to make ends meet.
The golden age for the salaried worker across all the OECD countries was between 1945 and 1973, when ordinary working people gained their highest percentage share of GDP. Since then the real wages of the middle and working class have stagnated or fallen, while income for the rich has rocketed and that of the super-rich has hit the stratosphere.
The facts are astounding. Contrary to the delusions of the free-market fundamentalists, the Thatcher/Reagan revolution has come at a great cost to the working and middle classes. In the US, the top one per cent have seen a 78 per cent increase in their share of national income since 1979 with the bottom 80 per cent of the population experiencing a 15 per cent fall.
Far from being a tide that raises all boats, neo-liberalism has undermined the wealth and security of the majority of the working population. In Britain for example, the liquid wealth of the bottom half of the populace has fallen from 12 per cent in 1976 to just one per cent in 2003, while the top 0.01 per cent in Britain are taking a larger share of national income than at any time in modern history and have seen their incomes rise by more than 500 per cent in under a generation.

You can read more of Philip Blond's excellent First Post piece on the consequences of the neoliberal counter-revolution here.

It is clear that what we have witnessed over the past thirty years is a massive redistribution of wealth from the working class and middle class- to a new group of global super-rich. Their enormous wealth has been made at the expense of you and me, me dear reader, and it's time we- the majority- did something about it.

UPDATE: In similar vein, here's Seumas Milne writing in today's Guardian:

The absurdity is that, precisely when the breakdown of the orthodoxy of deregulated markets, the small state and corporate privilege is plain for all to see, the main political parties are clinging to it ever more tightly. Locked into a free-market framework, it is impossible to tackle the growing crisis of inequality, insecurity, social immobility and falling living standards - because those are the very policies that caused it. But that also creates opportunities for those, inside and outside Labour, pressing for a genuine alternative.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008


Forty years ago tonight, Robert Kennedy was assassinated.

Would he have been a great, progressive President who acted in the interests of the majority of Americans and not just the big corporations and the rich? Or would he have proved a huge let-down?

Of course, we'll never know. John Pilger, who travelled around with Kennedy during his ill-fated Presidential campaign and was actually present in the hotel when Kennedy was shot, puts the case for the prosecution here. If you'd like an alternative, pro-Kennedy view, then Martin Meenagh, who knows more about American political history than any person I have ever met in my life, is your man.

While we'll never know what kind of President Bobby Kennedy would have become, we do know one thing. That Kennedy was one of the most eloquent politicians who ever lived. Listen below to the speech he gave in Indianopolis in April 1968, when he announced to a crowd of African-Americans the tragic news that Martin Luther King had been assassinated. Can you imagine George W. Bush or indeed any contemporary US politician quoting Aeschylus?

And above you can watch the end of the 2006 film Bobby, which includes Kennedy's very moving 'mindless menace of violence' speech.

"What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another".

Forty years on the need for "love, wisdom and compassion" is greater than ever, not just in the United States but across the whole world.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Why the world needs Biggles more than ever

Forty years on from the death of Captain W.E.Johns, here's my article from the Daily Telegraph on why we need his wonderful creation more than ever.

He fought and defeated the Germans in two world wars. He foiled plans for a Russian invasion of Britain and scuppered a Japanese plot to poison Allied pilots with chewing gum and chocolates.

He faced certain death on countless occasions, not just at the hands of humans but from giant snakes and octopuses, too. But despite his numerous brushes with the Grim Reaper - and the fact that he was a lifelong heavy smoker - he was still going strong and thwarting evil-doers into his late sixties.

The man in question is Captain, Major and later Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth, DSO, DFC, MC, the most famous airman in English literature and surely a candidate for the greatest Briton of all time.

The stories of Biggles's amazing adventures, chronicled in 96 books spanning four decades, enthralled and inspired generations of schoolboys around the globe. As we mark the 40th anniversary this month of the death of Biggles's creator, Captain W E Johns, it's time for a fresh appraisal of a series of books which are sadly neglected today.

Biggles made his first appearance in the short story "The White Fokker", published in April 1932 in the aviation magazine Popular Flyer, of which Johns was editor. The tales that followed were published later that year in book form in The Camels are Coming.

The early Biggles stories were set in the First World War and were based on Johns's own experiences as a bomber pilot on the western front. Johns only served six weeks before he was shot down and imprisoned. It was a fate which was to befall his fictional creation on several occasions, but Biggles - unlike Johns, who had to wait until after Armistice Day to be released - always managed to escape.

With the Great War over, Johns gave Biggles a new career as a freelance charter pilot. Together with his loyal companions, his cousin Algy and his youthful protegé Ginger, Biggles was able to fly around the world, battling international conspiracies, searching for buried treasure and getting involved in hair-raising escapades from Bolivia to Barcelona.

When the air-raid sirens sounded again in 1939, Biggles was back to answer the call of king and country. He not only fought against the Nazis in Norway and Finland, but defied the Japanese in the Orient, rescued a Sicilian princess from the clutches of Mussolini's Blackshirts and did his bit as a Squadron Leader in the Battle of Britain.

In fact, Biggles played a key role in Britain's "finest hour" in more ways than one. It was said that the intrepid airman, by now the idol of millions, did more for RAF recruiting than a thousand posters. Peter Beresford Ellis and Piers Williams note, in By Jove, Biggles: the Life of Captain W E Johns (1981), that during the war, Reynolds News interviewed a leading British fighter pilot and asked him to what he owed his success. "Biggles," he replied. There was also the tale of the RAF officer who escaped from a PoW camp by employing methods learned from Biggles.

Having helped save the world from the Axis powers, Biggles and his pals (who by now included the monocled Lord Bertie Lissie), were then drafted into the newly formed "Air Police Service" and, once again, the adventures came thick and fast.
Into the Sixties, Biggles was going strong: a Unesco survey in 1963 found that he was the most popular schoolboy hero in the world. But it was in this decade that the anti-Biggles backlash began.

Complaining that Biggles's attitude to other races was "outmoded", William A Taylor, borough librarian of St Pancras, informed the Evening Standard that when children asked for Biggles books, his librarians would "recommend other books we consider better".

Ipswich's chief librarian denounced Biggles, a man who had risked imaginary life and limb defying the swastika, as a "fascist", while a Merseyside race relations officer called for all public libraries to destroy their Biggles books.

Needless to say, the charges against Biggles were ludicrous. "While men are decent to me I try to be decent to them, regardless of race, colour, politics, creed or anything else" is hardly the credo of an Alf Garnett in flying goggles.

Far from being an apologist for Anglo-Saxon supremacy, Biggles, like his creator, was an instinctive anti-imperialist whose ethos can best be described as live and let live. Other races are more often than not portrayed sympathetically, far more so than the westerners seeking to exploit their natural resources for material gain.

The misguided assault on Biggles did nothing for the cause of race relations, but only prevented a generation of library users from enjoying some of the best written adventure stories in the English language. And by Jove - as Algy might say - what wonderful stories they are!

Johns was a gifted writer whose matter-of-fact style made the most implausible plots seem believable. The pace of his writing is terrific, and the depth of his characterisations will surprise those who believe Biggles's world to be peopled by cardboard cut-outs.

Biggles himself is no stiff-upper-lipped goody-two-shoes, but a man who gets angry and irritable and feels the waste of war like any sensitive human being. His arch-foe, the Prussian Von Stalhein, is not a "boo-hiss" stereotype either: he even becomes a friend of Biggles after the war.

Although they are generally regarded as children's books, the quality of Johns's writing, and the fact that he never insulted his readers' intelligence, means that the Biggles stories can be equally enjoyed by adults. I devoured the adventures as a child, but my pleasure is undiminished when I re-read the books today.

Biggles reminds us of human qualities that are now in all too short supply. In Biggles's world, a self-sacrificing esprit de corps still exists. When Biggles is presumed captured or dead in enemy-occupied Monaco in Biggles Fails to Return there is no question that his pals will risk their own lives to try to rescue him.
Monetary gain means little to Biggles and his chums, and they hold those who put commercial motives before doing the "decent thing" in particular contempt.

The exotic and varied locations of the stories also adds to their appeal. One minute Biggles is shivering in the Antarctic, the next he's on the look out for oases in the Sahara desert: the books provide the most entertaining geography lessons you're ever likely to get.

And, of course, there's the flying. Biggles takes us back to the golden age of aviation, long before the horrors of Terminal Five and concerns over carbon footprints turned the most romantic method of transport into such a stressful, angst-ridden activity.

Biggles's world is an exciting, fascinating and colourful place. The more sanitised and standardised the 21st-century world becomes, the more we have need of W E Johns's inspired creation.