Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Krystian Zimerman: A Polish patriot

Let's hope the world famous pianist will be the first of many in 'liberated' eastern europe to speak out against what's going on in the region.

A Hungarian Zimerman is urgently required- there the new 'emergency' government says that pensions, health and education spending must be slashed due to the poor state of the public finances, yet, surprise, surprise, they've still found $1.3m to buy new military vehicles from their imperial masters.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Letters of the Week: Bob Parsons & Andrew Shaw

Once again, it's a dead-heat. There's this cracker from Bob Parsons in Friday's Daily Express which caught my eye.

Labour isn't to blame for all the country's ills. Many years ago, before Tony Blair came to power, officialdom advised my adult daughter to get pregnant to become eligible for a whole raft of benefits. And this was under a Conservative government.

The Daily Express tells us 'They' have ruined Britain, but who are 'They'? Have we so quickly forgotten the financiers and bankers given free rein in the Thatcher era who have brought the capitalist financial system to its knees.

Many people, myself included, would have preferred to see these privately owned bastions of capitalism collapse under the greed of their owners and shareholders instead of being bailed out by the taxpayer.

So a Labour government has once again saved capitalism, thanks to money that ordinary people have provided, while the perpetrators enjoy gold-plated pay-offs for failing.

Bob Parsons,
Trawden, Lancs.

And then there's this short, but very sweet one from Andrew Shaw from The Daily Telegraph.

SIR – I am not surprised at Tony Blair's despair over the new higher rate of income tax (report, April 25).
It will cost him a fortune.

Andrew Shaw
Corby, Northants

Monday, April 27, 2009

Reasons to be cheerful: (1) A Hungarian horse named Overdose

So, it seems we're all going to die of swine flu. That's of course if those dastardly terrorists based in Afghanistan don't get us first. And on top of all this we have the new 50% top rate of tax, the prospect of Michael Caine emigrating, and something called 'Harriet's mad sex war' taking us back to the 'Dark Ages' (according to the ever-cheerful Ms Melanie Phillips). Crikey, things sound bad don't they. And on top of it all, it's Monday and it's raining.

But at least, as the late Queen Mum used to say, we still have the horses.

Above you can watch a clip of the unbeaten Hungarian wonderhorse, Overdose, chalking up his twelfth victory on the bounce in the Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest last weekend. If you haven't seen the race already, you're in for a real treat. Overdose has been labelled an 'absolute freak' by the senior international handicapper and if you watch the clip, you'll understand why.

You can hear me talking about the greatest horse to emerge from Hungary since the legendary Kincsem, on the BBC World Service, here. (The feature is about 47 minutes 30 seconds into the programme).

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"The Party has lost its soul"

This interview of mine with 'woman of the moment' Alice Mahon, appears in the New Statesman.

She was born into the Labour Party. Her grandfather, a Scottish miner who moved to Yorkshire in search of work, told her how he had heard and been inspired by Keir Hardie. At the age of ten, she was delivering Labour party leaflets. At 19 she was a party member, and at 49, she became a Labour MP, for her home town of Halifax. Now, after 60 years’ association with the party, Alice Mahon has had enough.

Her resignation was announced the weekend of 18 April in a letter to her constituency chairman, in which she claimed that the party’s leadership had “betrayed many of the values and principles that inspired me as a teenager to join”. There have been many attacks on New Labour before, but Mahon’s could yet prove to be one of the most damaging.

Widely respected throughout the labour movement for her integrity and commitment to social justice, Mahon’s critique of New Labour has traction, as it chimes with what millions of core Labour supporters feel about the party’s lurch to the right. “Labour is the party of bankers, not workers,” she tells me. “The party has lost its soul, and what has replaced it is harsh, American-style politics.”

Like many on the left, she hoped that things would improve with Gordon Brown’s elevation to the leadership in 2007. “I was naive enough to think that when Tony Blair went we would get a change of direction. But it was just wishful thinking. The thing is that Brown really believes in neoliberalism. Things are getting worse in the party, not better, particularly since Peter Mandelson came back.

“Take the Welfare Reform Bill. John McDonnell was magnificent, but what I thought was deeply depressing was that – apart from Lynne Jones – there were hardly any Labour women MPs attending the debates and opposing the bill.”

The party’s “obsession” with privatisation, and the way former cabinet ministers (16 at the latest count) obtain private-sector jobs soon after leaving office, are particular bugbears. “Why are we continuing to privatise? It can’t be because privatised services work better; we only need to look at the railways to know that that isn’t true. One has to wonder whether it’s because of the rich pickings politicians can get when they leave office. They are joining companies which bid for government contracts, and there is a clear conflict of interest.”

Then there’s foreign policy. Mahon, a veteran peace campaigner, has opposed all of New Labour’s military interventions. “Labour has become the party of war. The wars against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq are all part of the same imperialist war. The Labour Party was supposed to be against imperialism. I remember seeing children being pulled out of the rubble when Israel bombed Lebanon. But the government wouldn’t say anything to condemn it. What kind of morals is that?”

For Mahon, the party is now beyond repair. “New Labour’s control of the party is total. They don’t just use smear campaigns against the Tories, but against anyone within the party who opposes them. Take the case of Janet Oosthuysen, who was selected to be the prospective Labour candidate for Calder Valley at the next election. She’s a lovely woman and very popular with local people. So what did they do? They dragged up the fact that she had once scratched her former husband’s car, and the NEC then blocked her candidacy.

“Then there’s Bob Wareing [Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby from 1983 until he was deselected in 2007]. What happened to him was disgusting; a lifelong socialist who had given great service was deselected in favour of a thrusting, ambitious Blairite [Stephen Twigg] who had lost his seat in the last election.”

Mahon, as the descendant of a miner, feels she has nothing in common, either politically or personally, with New Labour’s middle-class metropolitans. “Blair was a cuckoo in the Labour nest. New Labour is nothing whatsoever to do with the Labour Party. What do I have in common with James Purnell? He looks like a Poor Law Guardian.”

So if the Labour Party is not the answer for progressives, what is?

“I’d advise people to vote for individual candidates. I’m not going to join any other party. What parties are there? The big disappointment has been the unions, who have continued to support Labour, even when they’ve been privatising and attacking working people.”

As honest and as straightforward as any politician I have met, Alice Mahon is a throwback, in the best sense of the word, to the times when the Labour Party inspired devotion in working-class communities around the country. “When I was a child growing up in Halifax, there were three main topics of conversation in our house: Rugby League, cricket – and the Labour Party,” she recalls. One wonders in how many working-class households today the Labour Party is discussed in affectionate terms. And how many ten-year-olds will be out ­delivering party leaflets.

New Labour may have won three general elections in a row, but by alienating those like Alice Mahon, who have given a lifetime of service to the party, it could well have sown the seeds of its own demise.

Wally of the Week: Simon Heffer

Do you know anyone who earns more than £150,000 a year? No, me neither.

Yet according to Daily Telegraph columnist Simon Heffer such people constitute 'Middle England'.

Heffer claims that
"Labour's policies are shaped increasingly, if not exclusively, by considerations of how it advances the cause of its own people. Those who are not in that category – such as most of you reading this column – get what is coming to them."
Again, I wonder what percentage of Daily Telegraph readers earn over £150K. Very, very few I should imagine.

The best response to this claptrap comes from commenter 'mac', who writes:

This article laid bare the hypocrisy of Tory sympathisers. To say that 150K is representative of "middle England" shows how out of touch they are with the REAL middle Britain who earns far less than 150K. I really hope voters see what danger the Tories would actually pose to the real middle England because they would end up cutting everything for us in favour of the RICH who earn 150K or more.

That's not an argument to vote Labour. But it's certainly a good argument not to vote for the party Mr Heffer supports.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Crisis? What crisis?....for Mr George Soros

Worried about losing your job in the current downturn? Frightened that you won’t be able to pay your mortgage, or that you won’t be able to take the kids for a summer holiday? Well, don’t worry- there’s one man who is having a whale of a time.
Our old friend, the arch-globalist Mr George Soros…..

The Daily Mail reports:

The hedge fund manager who predicted the global credit crunch has said the financial crisis has been 'stimulating' and the culmination of his life's work.

George Soros, who predicted the global financial crisis twice before, was one of the few people to anticipate and prepare for the current economic collapse.

Mr Soros said his prediction meant he was better able to brace his Quantum investment fund against the global storm.

But other investors failed to take notice of his prediction and his decision to come out of retirement in 2007 to manage the fund made him $US2.9 billion.

And while the financial crisis continued to deepen across the globe, the 78-year-old still managed to make $1.1 billion last year.

'It is, in a way, the culminating point of my life’s work,' he told national newspaper The Australian.

Soros is one of 25 top hedge fund managers from across Wall Street who have defied the credit crunch crisis to reap a total of $11.6billion (£7.9bn) last year.

Hat tip: Louis Proyect.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Alice Mahon: Politician of Principle

Here is Alice Mahon's resignation letter to her constituency secretary Martin Burton.

Dear Martin,

I am resigning as a member of the Labour Party and I wanted the local party to know before I make my decision public.

First, I would like to thank you and my friends in the party for your comradeship and support over the years. This has been a difficult decision to take as I feel I was almost born into the Labour Party.

However, I can no longer be a member of a party that at the leadership level has betrayed many of the values and principles that inspired me as a teenager to join.

You will recall when I stood down I said that after the illegal decision to wage war on Iraq I could not have served another term under Tony Blair's leadership.

With hindsight I should have resigned then, but I thought this would be very unfair to Linda Riordan and labour members putting themselves forward for election to the council.

I also hoped that we might go back to being a really progressive and caring party should Gordon Brown succeed Tony Blair as leader.

In the event I could not have been more wrong.

Despite all the evidence and in the face of the credit crunch, Gordon Brown's obsession with privatisation such as the Royal Mail is inexplicable and quite simply wrong.

Labour had its chance after Blair to get its finger on the pulse in the country, more social justice not less.

That chance was squandered with catastrophic results.

He has shown not one jot of contrition as he continues to privatise what is left of our public services.

At the same time he has failed miserably to tackle the corporate greed of the bankers.

As to foreign affairs, it becomes clearer by the day that the Labour Government cooperated with the Bush regime as they rendered whoever they judged to be guilty of terrorism to despotic regimes who tortured them and offered them no access to the legal process whatsoever.

Our ministers shame us in front of the world when they give their support to the Israeli government as they commit war crimes in Palestine and the Lebanon.

Brown has just announced plans to send another 900 troops to Afghanistan, billions to be spent on an unwinnable war and pensioners dare not turn on their heating because this Labour Government will not tackle the energy fat cats.

On the domestic front we said in our 2005 manifesto that we would not privatise Royal Mail, we lied.

That same manifesto promised a referendum on the European Constitution, we re-named it the Lisbon Treaty and reneged on that promise also.

If this Treaty is ratified we can say goodbye to any publicly owned services. Article 111-147 is clear, we will be handing over to private corporations, social services, education, transport and postal services. Even the NHS will be up for grabs.

The misnamed Welfare Reform Bill now going through parliament is something the Poor Law Guardians would have been proud of. This Labour Government should hang its head in shame for inflicting this on the British public just as we face the most severe recession any of us have experienced in a lifetime.

This assault on the poor and disabled is taking place at a time when former Labour Ministers still drawing an MPs salary, line up on an unprecedented scale to take up lucrative consultancies with private companies, that as ministers they previously had dealings with.

I have written to Gordon Brown about this, he simply passed me on to a civil servant. This personal greed and possible conflict of interest did not appear to concern him.

My final reason for leaving the party is because it is no longer democratic. The personally vindictive, dishonest campaign played out on the pages of the tabloids by certain Labour party members to deselect Janet Oosthuysen was despicable, but even more shaming was the behaviour of the NEC who have uttered not one word of criticism about the Home Secretary's behaviour on expenses, but have ruined the political career of an excellent candidate whose only crime was to scratch her ex partner's car.

The undemocratic nature of that selection continues as the reselection has been conducted without much transparency and is now subject to complaints from members of the Calder Valley Party.

Quite simply I have had it with New Labour.

Yours in friendship,

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Letter of the Week: John Robertson

We're a couple of weeks behind with this feature due to Easter, so I'll be posting another very shortly.

From the week before last, this brilliant letter from the New Statesman caught my eye:

Summers of love

Both Dominic Sandbrook’s essay on football in the Seventies (30 March) and the Red Riding series recently on TV paint a bleak and frankly inaccurate picture of life for most of us in that glorious decade.

With higher wages for the working classes, access to affordable housing, free health care, free higher education and low levels of crime, all in a much less unequal society, life then was superior to life as experienced by most of us today.

In 1976, I was a fully funded sociology undergraduate on a new parkland campus. I had a lovely girlfriend, a motorbike, hair down to my armpits, Neil Young on the stereo. And it was a glorious summer. Bleak? It was bloody marvellous!

John Robertson
Ayr, Ayrshire

I've written before of the way neoliberal ideologues have tried to rewrite history in regards to life in Britain in the 1970s- and Dominic Sandbrook is a prime culprit.

Sandbrook was the man who wrote:
"When he (Harold Wilson) retired in 1976, Britain was a dingy, miserable place"

Age of Dominic Sandbrook in 1976: Two. Wilson's Britain must have looked very 'dingy and miserable' from his pram.

He also famously wrote:

"Without Thatcher's controversial reforms, Britain might look a lot more like France today "

In other words it would look like a country which had a world class, affordable and publicly-owned public transport system, and which still maintained a manufacturing base.

What a terrible place Britain would be without 'Thatcher's reforms'!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Arthur Lowe R.I.P.

On this day in 1982, we lost an all-time comedy great: the incomparable Arthur Lowe.

Above you can watch a great You Tube tribute to Lowe.

On the subject of Lowe, I wonder if there are any readers who can remember a BBC comedy/thriller series in which he starred called 'It's Murder. But is it art?', which was screened in 1972. I remember being thrilled by this programme as a child, but can't remember it ever being repeated. More details about it, including an episode guide can be found here. It also starred that fine actor Dudley Foster, in one of his last roles.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Happy Easter!

A very Happy Easter to all readers.

This weekend (or next weekend in the Orthodox Church), we commemorate the resurrection of the man correctly described by Hugo Chavez as the 'greatest socialist in history'.

If Jesus came back to earth today with his radical anti-materialist message and his championing of the poor and downtrodden, he'd once again be mercilessly attacked by the rich and powerful. In the words of the late, great George Lansbury:

"Keep in mind the fact that the Son of Man, the Christ who lived and was executed by the government of His day, was a great leader, and a leader of the common people.

It was his great message of Love and Brotherhood which brought him to his death. He knew the poor of the earth were oppressed by the rich and the wealthy, and in scathing terms denounced the money changers and all those who defiled the Temple and brought suffering to humanity"

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Stand against world tyranny

This piece of mine appears in the Morning Star.

Opposition to the tyranny of the neoliberal new world order is mounting by the day.

In the last few days, we've seen London's financial heartland brought to a standstill by anti-globalisation protesters and large demonstrations against NATO in Strasbourg and Kehl. And, two weeks ago in Belgrade, peace campaigners and anti-imperialists from all over the world met for a two-day conference to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the brutal, unlawful NATO aggression against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The event was organised by the Belgrade Forum for a World of Equals, an association set up in 2000 to promote the ideals of peace and co-operation, the equality of nations, states and peoples, the respect for social, economic, civil and other human rights and to fight all forms of domination.

The forum, which is a full member of the general assembly of the World Peace Council, supports the peaceful and just resolution of all disputes, the observance of international law and in particular respect for the UN Charter and the right of all countries, big or small, to sovereignty over their own natural wealth.
Speakers at the conference came from all over the world, including from countries which had taken part in the NATO aggression of 10 years ago.

From Britain, former Labour MP Alice Mahon, one of only 11 MPs to vote against the war in 1999, related how she had visited Yugoslavia during the bombing and saw the results of NATO's "criminal act" at the Zastava car factory, which was destroyed by 20 cruise missiles. What has emerged over the past 10 years confirms that the war against Yugoslavia lacked both legal and moral legitimacy. It set a bad example which has been followed already in Afghanistan and Iraq," she said.

Belgian anti-imperialist writer and film-maker Michel Collon also drew connections between the attack on Yugoslavia and later US-led acts of aggression.
"Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq - they are not three separate wars but all the same war," he declared. While Yugoslavia was isolated in 1999, Collon stressed the positive global developments since then and in particular events in south America, where Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has helped to inspire other countries to stand up to US imperialism.

Professor Velko Vlkanov, president of the Bulgarian Anti-Fascist Union, reminded delegates that the attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 was not only an infringement of the UN Charter but also a breach of NATO's own rules, which state that the alliance can only take military action if a member state is attacked. He urged Serbia to launch a legal action against the states who committed the aggression to the UN International Court.

From the US, former attorney-general Ramsey Clark, founder of the International Action Centre, passionately denounced NATO's actions 10 years ago and the lies that were told to justify the war.

Yugoslavia had to be destroyed because it was the last economy in central-south Europe which remained uncolonised by global capital. We can see what NATO's real objectives were by analysing its targets in the 1999 bombing campaign.
Revealingly, state-owned companies rather than military sites were specifically targeted by the world's richest nations. NATO only destroyed 14 tanks, but 372 industrial facilities were hit, leaving hundreds of thousands jobless. Not one foreign or privately owned factory was bombed.

Also present were speakers from Cuba, Palestine, Russia, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Portugal, France and from Serbia itself.

Zivadin Jovanovic, the much respected former Yugoslav foreign minister and president of the Belgrade Forum said that NATO's 1999 assault was aimed at subduing the role of the UN and reworking international law in line with self-proclaimed "American interests" worldwide.

Sadly, many on the left fell hook, line and sinker for the lie that the attack on Yugoslavia was motivated out of "humanitarian" concern for Kosovan Albanians.
By believing the pro-war propaganda pumped out incessantly by the Western media, they failed to see the significance of NATO's actions and why it was imperative for all progressives and anti-imperialists to unite in opposition to the war.

NATO's attack was designed to send out a very clear warning to all independent-minded countries which resisted the neoliberal model of globalisation - comply or die.

"The aggression against Yugoslavia was an unveiled and grim message to all the states worldwide that they could experience the same destiny unless they sided with US policy," said Belgrade Forum director Vladislav Jovanovic.

"It did not take long for the threat contained in that message to become a reality. Afghanistan was invaded first, with an extorted blessing of the UN security council, then came Iraq as well, without the security council's approval, but with the assistance of colossal lies. The next potential target is Iran."

In concluding his speech, Vladislav Jovanovic said that the 10th anniversary of the NATO aggression against Yugoslavia should help the "dawn to replace darkness" and allow the "force of law to restore its might and prevail over the law of force."

As we survey the death and destruction caused by 10 years of US-sponsored aggression from Belgrade to Kabul and Baghdad, we must indeed all hope that this dark chapter in world history is at last coming to an end.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

And they're off.....

Just hours away now from the greatest and most exciting horse race of them all: The Grand National. You can read my 2004 Guardian piece on why, in a globalised and increasingly homogenised world, this great race means so much, here. As to who's going to win this year's renewal, I think Himalayan Trail, Rambling Minstrel and Irish Invader should go well.

Good luck with whatever you decide to bet!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Don't Mention the War

This article of mine appears in the New Statesman.

Imagine if, ten years ago, your country had been bombed in contravention of international law for 78 days and nights, leading to the death or injury of more than 1,500 people, and that the reasons for the attack had subsequently been exposed as fraudulent. You would reasonably expect your government to mark the anniversary with a series of official events, and to issue a strong denunciation of those who launched the aggression.

But in Serbia, the pro-western ruling elite seems more concerned about keeping the US embassy onside than with commemorating the Nato bombing of ten years ago in an appropriate fashion.

The biggest event to mark the anniversary was an international conference, organised by the Belgrade Forum for a World of Equals, a non-governmental organisation. Delegates from around the world attended, including the former US attorney general Ramsey Clark and the Labour ex-MP Alice Mahon. Yet Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic was the only participant from the Serbian government. His speech was one of the meeting’s most low-key.

On 24 March, a major anti-Nato rally was held in Belgrade’s main square, Trg Republike. There were speakers from the US, Germany and Russia – but no input from the Serbian government. The most it came up with was a commemorative sitting of the cabinet, at which Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic declared that the attack of ten years ago was “illegal, contrary to international law, without a decision by the United Nations Security Council”. Those looking for a more passionate denunciation of Nato actions from governing circles have been disappointed.

The reality is that Serbia’s ruling elite are seeking to take the country closer to the Nato fold. Serbia is to open its first diplomatic and military mission at Nato headquarters in Brussels this summer, and military manoeuvres involving soldiers from several Nato states will take place in Serbia this autumn.

Such moves fly in the face of public opinion. “There is an overwhelming majority of those among the Serbs who believe Serbia’s entering a Nato pact would have been a bigger disgrace than if Jacqueline Kennedy had married Lee Harvey Oswald,” Matija Beckovic, one of Serbia’s leading poets, told an anti-Nato gathering late last month.

Meanwhile, pro-American politicians in Serbia continue to blame the conflict of the late 1990s on the country itself and on Slobodan Milosevic, then leader of the rump Yugoslavia. But a growing weight of evidence indicates that the 1999 war had little to do with Milosevic, and everything to do with the US’s economic and military hegemonic ambitions in the Balkans.

Lord Gilbert, the UK’s defence minister in 1999, has admitted that “the terms put to Milosevic at Rambouillet [the international conference preceding the war] were absolutely intolerable . . . it was quite deliberate”. In an affidavit to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Colonel John Crosland, the UK’s military attaché in Belgrade from 1996-99, stated that the US had decided on regime change in Serbia and had decided to use the terrorist Kosovo Liberation Army to achieve that end. Last month, a documentary on Serbian state television showed that the deaths of 40 people in Racak in January 1999 resulted from a legitimate anti-KLA police action and were only declared a “massacre” by the US Kosovo Verification mission to justify Nato actions.

“The war was not Serbia’s fault, nor the fault of Slobodan Milosevic,” Aleksandar Vucic, deputy leader of the Serbian Progressive Party, told me. “It was the fault of those who did the bombing.” Such views may not go down well in western corridors of power, but they undoubtedly chime with what most ordinary Serbs think.

With the Serbian economy in free fall and pro-western factions likely to pay the price in elections expected before the end of this year, it is probable that future anniversaries of the Nato bombing will receive more enthusiastic support from governing circles.