31 August 2007

Another Winner Announced!

The September issue of The Difference is due off the presses this coming week, so it is time again to thank everyone for visiting this blog†, especially those who have taken the time to contribute to the many debates and discussions, either by posting a comment or taking our regular opinion polls. This issue's winner of our ongoing Comment Competition is Andrew Kennedy — Congratulations! A free copy of the magazine will be arriving through your letter box in a couple of days!

Andrew's winning comment was both insightful and deeply personal — if you missed it at the time, you can find it at Saviour Siblings or Spare-part Kids? Next issue will be out in October, so start posting your comments to be in with a chance of being next month's winner!

† Although August was a relatively quiet month, to date we have had over 14,000 unique visitors and more than 20,000 page loads.

China's Lucky Eights

At 8pm on 8th August 2008, China will showcase itself to what will probably be the world's largest television audience. In response to international pressure and a threatened boycott, the country yesterday announced that it is to withdraw all its support for Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe except humanitarian aid. The largely unpublicised move represents a significant shift for Chinese foreign policy and holds out hope that they will also soon start making concessions over their support of the Sudanese regime.

Here are the results of our recent poll, which showed a surprisingly high level of support for the boycott proposed by Conservative MEP Edward McMillan-Scott. Keep an eye on the sidebar in the coming days for our next poll!

Should British athletes boycott the Beijing Olympics?
Yes  16% (18 votes)
If no improvement nearer the time  12% (14 votes)
No  72% (82 votes)
Not sure  0% (0 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 114

Sarkozy & Brown's Darfur Push

"It is the combination of a ceasefire, a peacekeeping force, economic reconstruction and the threat of sanctions that can bring a political solution to the region –– and we will spare no efforts in making this happen."

Containers being offloaded by Sudanese army soldiers from a Russian-supplied Antonov 12 freighter aircraft onto military trucks at the military apron of El Geneina airport [Credit: Amnesty International]At first glance, the call in today's Times (and Le Monde) by Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy for intense action to secure a ceasefire in Darfur appears a welcome step towards stopping the genocide in Sudan. They acknowledge that the ceasefire "cannot on its own resolve such a complex conflict" and that "we need a political settlement that addresses the root causes of the violence." They also go further than last month's UN Resolution 1769 in that they threaten "further sanctions against those who fail to fulfil their commitments, obstruct the political process or continue to violate the ceasefire." They are also right to "look beyond Darfur, to the issues affecting Sudan and the region," including the need for better security and greater humanitarian assistance among the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the conflict across the border into Chad.

And yet, underneath, they seem to be accepting a number of false presuppositions:

  • They describe the weak UNAMID operation as the deployment of a "robust force," though it has no authority to disarm the militias or to pursue and arrest suspected war criminals indicted by the International Criminal Court.
  • They make reference to the meeting of Darfur's rebel groups in Tanzania earlier this month, but neglect to mention that the Sudanese Government's subsequent escalation of violence is already causing the rebels to reconsider attending full negotiations.
  • They also make no mention of breaches in existing sanctions, notably by China and Russia, including photographs (such as the one above) published by Amnesty International just last Friday showing military equipment being supplied by Russia at West Darfur's Geneina airport.
  • Perhaps most fundamentally, they appear to believe that a political solution will be the inevitable outcome of the supposed ceasefire and the recently agreed peacekeeping force, whereas in reality a political solution must be found first if any ceasefire is to hold.
To quote both Rodolphe Adada, the new UN-AU mission head, and Mark Kroeker, the retiring UN police chief, once again, although UNAMID is sure to be one of the main tools for forwarding peace in Darfur, "it's only a peace operation — you need to have peace to keep," and "The countries that have been talking about Darfur need to now do something about Darfur with their deployment of police in probably the most desperate place in the world."

30 August 2007

Jim Carrey on Burma's Unsung Mandela

Jim Carrey on BurmaLest yesterday's Mandela freedom-fest in Parliament Square should go to our heads, actor Jim Carrey appears in a new YouTube video campaigning for the release in Burma of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and calling for the end of the General Than Shwe's oppressive military regime which placed her under house arrest in the city of Rangoon:

"She's a champion of human rights and decency in Asia, and a symbol of hope to all struggling people. Even though she's compared to a modern-day Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, most people in America still don't know about Aung San. And let's face it, the name's a little difficult to remember. Here's how I did it: Aung San sounds like 'unsung,' as in unsung hero. Aung San Suu Kyi is truly an unsung hero."
His video comes after nearly two weeks of street demonstrations in the most sustained defiance of the junta in a decade, sparked by a sudden sharp rise in prices for fuel and cooking gas on 15th August.

Mandela's statue should remind us — and our politicians, every time they pass it — that the global fight for freedom against oppression goes on around the world. The bronze figure should not merely "commemorate and celebrate for the ages triumph in the greatest of causes" but should daily call us to action.Pro-democracy demonstrators linking arms to protect prominent activist Su Su Nway from arrest

Sudan Violence Surge

unexploded bomb in Sudan [Credit: DarfurGenocide.org]Just days before UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to visit Sudan next week, Darfur rebels have accused the Sudanese government of today bombing South Darfur — but the latest attack in an aerial campaign that has driven thousands of people from their homes over the past month.

Some, such as Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, argue, "We should have a no-fly zone over Sudan because the Sudanese government bombed the villages before and after the Janjaweed come and we should make it very clear to the government in Khartoum that we're putting up a no-fly zone. If they fly into it, we will shoot down their planes. It's the only way to get their attention."

However, aid agencies are unanimously against the prospect of a no-flight zone, fearing that Khartoum might respond by forcing them to leave and, even if they were allowed to stay, would almost certainly ground humanitarian aircraft. If this happened, Darfuris would soon suffer lethal food and health crises, as millions who rely on humanitarian assistance for food, shelter and clean water can only be reached by air, with some agencies delivering as much as 90% of their supplies using aircraft and United Nations and African Union traffic accounting for 90% of flights in Darfur. Besides which, given that Darfur covers an area greater than Iraq and that the nearest airfields in Chad are a vast distance from any NATO base, enforcing any no-fly zone would be a phenomenal challenge.

No, as the retiring UN police chief, Mark Kroeker, says, "The countries that have been talking about Darfur need to now do something about Darfur with their deployment of police in probably the most desperate place in the world" — that means us, not just the new joint UN-AU peacekeeping force UNAMID.

"Mend Our Broken Society"

Cameron on NewsnightWell, much has already been written about Cameron's Newsnight interview last night, both in the dead tree press and across the blogosphere. If I were to recommend one opinion, it would be Dizzy's, who describes David's tack on immigration as "a brilliant piece of triangulation against Labour and the traditional Left":

Cameron's decision to frame the question of immigration around the idea of its potential impact on the public services makes the possibility of the instant knee-jerk charge of racism very difficult for Left to do. After all, if they just reject his comments out of hand they are effectively saying they don't care about the quality of the public services, and they're not going to do that now are they?
Personally, besides the overall strength of his performance (despite the distracting shadows caused by the vertical lighting), I came away with two main impressions. Firstly, his opening emphasis on his vision statement for a Conservative government, to mend our broken society. Secondly, his responses to questions about the European Union, which I thought probably wouldn't go down particularly well the EU-sceptics (let alone the eurosceptics) in the Party, but which surely serve as a rebuttal to anyone claiming that he is "lurching to the right."

29 August 2007

Remembering, Ten Years On

Ten years ago, the world lost a rare and unique individual who selflessly lived for higher purposes, whose devotion to the care of the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged was one of the highest examples of service to our humanity.

I speak, of course, of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu — better known as Mother Teresa, who died on 5th September 1997. Rather than celebrate her example, however, our media continues to obsess over another death — as the title of a piercing piece in the International Herald Tribune puts it, "Meanwhile: The blind cult of Princess Diana":

Britain's version of Elvis week reaches its crescendo Friday with a memorial service marking the 10th anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales...

Beauty covers a multitude of sins, and Diana, like all of us, had plenty of them. We forgive her multiple affairs and her manipulative tactics because we love her looks. She makes us feel good still. We desire her even in death...

We are prepared to believe lies if they affirm our deepest desire to feel good, if not about ourselves, then about a goddess statue that can be as devoid of spiritual power as the false gods created by pagan peoples.
Citing Germaine Greer's "devastatingly honest essay" in last weekend's Sunday Times, it finishes, "Cults ultimately disappoint, and the Diana cult will, too. Germaine Greer concludes by writing that Diana was a 'desperate woman seeking applause.' No wonder so many still love her, because they are seeking the same thing."

Meanwhile, the work of the Missionaries of Charity and millions of other unassuming humanitarian workers and neighbourly citizens quietly minister to the world's needy — the homeless, the sick, the orphaned, the disabled, and the dying. They give all they have and seek no applause. These are the true celebrities, the saints to whom we ought to be looking for inspiration in this individualistic age.

Freedom Fighter Or Terrorist?

Nelson Mandela at the unveiling of his bronze statue in Parliament SquareToday's unveiling of the former South African President's statue in Parliament Square affords the opportunity to ask what the distinction is between a freedom fighter and a terrorist.

Strangely, despite several international conventions against terrorism, there is no agreed definition about what the term refers to and more than 100 definitions have been used in recent decades. Consider just the following four:

  • The FBI opts for "the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."
  • The CIA accepts "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience."
  • The British Terrorism Act 2000 refers to "the use or threat of action designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause" that "involves serious violence against a person, involves serious damage to property, endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action, creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system."
  • The European Union deems terrorist offences to be intentional acts "which, given their nature or context, may seriously damage a country or an international organisation where committed with the aim of: seriously intimidating a population, or unduly compelling a Government or international organisation to perform or abstain from performing any acts, or seriously destabilising or destroying the fundamental political, constitutional, economic or social structures of a country or an international organisation."
As can be seen, the term is widely used but, in each case, definitions tend to reflect a bias towards the status quo, where any attempt to oppose the established order through violence is labeled "terrorism" while violence by established governments is presented as "defence" — even when that claim is questioned by some. Definitions can even embrace, for instance, mere disruption of a computer system in British law or groups of protestors in European law, leading some to voice concerns that "Methods of political protest available to ordinary people are under attack." On the other hand, even the actions of Mugabe's Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe would seem to be covered by most definitions.

Which brings us back to our initial question, is it possible to distinguish between a terrorist group and a liberation movement?Brian Haw's lone peace protest outside Parliament

28 August 2007

It's Time To Fight Back

It's Time To Fight Back: How a Conservative Government will tackle Britain's crime crisis [pdf: 687KB]Last Friday, David Cameron said crime-fighting measures would fail "if we don't build the prisons and train the necessary staff to run them." Today, he published It's time to fight back, his party's plans for tackling the country's crime crisis.

In contrast to the Government's failed "one-dimensional approach" of hyperactive legislation, the document proposes a three-stage solution to fighting crime: in the short term, getting more police back on the street; in the medium, reforming schools and the criminal justice system; and in the long run, strengthening families and communities. It contains many excellent recommendations, including: facilitating a permanent police visibility on the streets, scrapping the Early Release Scheme, reforming alcohol licensing, providing local control over policing, introducing a UK Border Police, and abolishing the Human Rights Act.

Among the proposals, Cameron pledges "A Conservative Government will build more prison places." However, a poll published in today's Guardian indicates that the public no longer believes tough prison sentences are the best way to tackle crime:

Politicians in all parties routinely assume that voters think prison works. But 51% of those questioned want the government to find other ways to punish criminals and deter crime...

Opposition to more imprisonment is driven by a widespread belief that prisons make crime worse. More people agree with the statement "prison doesn't work, it turns people into professional criminals who then commit more crime" than think "prison punishes crime, keeps criminals off the streets and deters others".

Only 42% of all voters, and 39% of women, think prisons are an effective punishment, against 49%, and 52% of women, who say they fail to work.
Quite clearly, whoever is in power has much to do if public faith in the prison system is to be restored. It is therefore encouraging to see that the thinking behind the Conservatives' prison building proposals is not merely to "keep criminals off the streets" but that "reducing overcrowding is the key to reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners." Furthermore, in view of suggestions made by this blog for an altogether more creative approach towards justice, it is good to read that the Conservatives are committed to transforming prisons from Labour's overcrowded "human warehouses" into "places of education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration."

The policy document continues: "A Conservative Government will reform prison regimes to help break the cycle of reoffending, and we will ensure appropriate provision for the mentally ill and offenders with drugs problems. Furthermore, we believe that far more needs to be done to assist and supervise ex-offenders on their release from prison. Here there is a central role for the voluntary sector." This too, as previously suggested by this blog, would surely also prove an invaluable step in restoring faith in the whole justice system. Moreover, given that 90% of prisoners have at least one significant mental health problem†, providing proper treatment for those who are mentally ill might also go some way to addressing the prison overcrowding problem!

As always, let us know in the comments what you think should be done.

Source: recent Hansard reference to "Psychiatric morbidity among prisoners in England and Wales" (Office for National Statistics, 1998)

27 August 2007

Planet Relief

Planet Earth painted face [Credit: azTeen Magazine]First there was Live Earth. Now, yet again, the BBC is unashamedly revealing its blatant environmentalist agenda. Today's Guardian reports:

BBC news chiefs attack plans for climate change campaign

Two of the BBC's most senior news and current affairs executives attacked the corporation's plans yesterday for a Comic Relief-style day of programming on environmental issues, saying it was not the broadcaster's job to preach to viewers.

The event, understood to have been 18 months in development, would see stars such as Ricky Gervais and Jonathan Ross take part in a "consciousness raising" event, provisionally titled Planet Relief, early next year.

But, speaking at the MediaGuardian Edinburgh International Television Festival yesterday, Newsnight's editor, Peter Barron, and the BBC's head of television news, Peter Horrocks, attacked the plan, which also seems to contradict the corporation's guidelines. Asked whether the BBC should campaign on issues such as climate change, Mr Horrocks said: "I absolutely don't think we should do that because it's not impartial. It's not our job to lead people and proselytise about it." Mr Barron said: "It is absolutely not the BBC's job to save the planet. I think there are a lot of people who think that, but it must be stopped."
Martin Durkin, producer of The Great Global Warming Swindle, possibly speaks for all who are tired of the BBC's bias: "The thing that disturbs me most is that the BBC has such a leviathan position in Britain. If it decides that it is going to adopt climate change as a moral purpose, I have got a lot of trouble with that. I don't think it is the role of the BBC to spend my money on a moral purpose."

26 August 2007

Earned Legalisation for Illegal Immigrants

Welcome to Great Britain: Rolling out the red carpet [based on cartoon at the Intrepid Liberal Journal]Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Nick Clegg, has taken up the call of human rights organisations for some kind of amnesty for illegal immigrants. Writing in Sunday's Observer, the MP widely expected to succeed Sir Menzies Campbell as party leader proposes an 'earned' amnesty for illegal immigrants who have 'lived in the UK for many years.'

Although Clegg is at least partially right in opposing Government plans to grant residence to tens of thousands of long-term asylum applicants, Shadow home secretary David Davis is even more correct when he says the Lib Dem's alternative ideas are "irresponsible" and "unfair":

"This is irresponsible because on the one hand it will encourage people to come here illegally as well as being unfair to those who have obeyed the law and tried to enter the UK legally. It will act as a green light to a new future wave of illegal immigrants who will be told by their criminal handlers that if they remain in the UK long enough they will be allowed to stay permanently."
As I noted back in April, precedents elsewhere in Europe make clear that amnesties do nothing to reduce the problem of illegal immigration and may in fact exacerbate it. Just this week, publication of the annual immigration and quarterly asylum statistics revealed that the Government continues to remove fewer failed asylum seekers than arrive and the number of migrants from accession countries claiming benefit has trebled in the last quarter alone.

We do not need an amnesty to solve this crisis. Neither do we need a common asylum policy to ensure further "harmonisation" across Europe on this issue. What we need is for tighter control of our borders and stricter enforcement of existing legislation, for instance to tackle illegal employment.

25 August 2007

Defending the Socially Responsible

"We should ask not just what we expect from our government in response to these dreadful crimes - but what do we expect from ourselves and from society? Just as the Military Covenant sets out what we - society - must do for our military, so today we should consider our obligations in tackling crime and building a stronger society."

William Golding: Lord of the FliesWhat hope have we really got of realising the Conservative's vision for a socially responsible society when a train guard who was attacked by a group of disorderly youths after he asked them to take their feet off a seat is fired from his job? Southeastern railway say he should have walked away, but as the sacked guard, Robbie Moran notes, "Walking away and abandoning your passengers to someone that's being aggressive, that's not customer care to me."

Even before questions about the murder of 11-year-old Rhys Jones by a BMX-riding teenager in Croxteth have ceased being asked, today we learn that a 23-year-old man with learning difficulties, Brent Martin, has died in hospital after being "savagely attacked" by a gang of up to five youths on Sunderland's Town End Farm estate — an area of low-level anti-social behaviour and relatively low level crime.

David Cameron is surely right when he suggests we need "a national recognition that it is not just up to the Government to take responsibility for the state of our nation, it is up to all of us":

To me this is what social responsibility is all about. Not just sitting back and saying that the government must act, but all of us saying: this is my country, my society, my responsibility - and I must play my part.

It means parents taking responsibility for bringing up children properly. It means schools playing their part in instilling discipline and good values. It means all of us recognising our obligations not just as parents but as neighbours, as members of a community and understanding that those obligations are as important as simply paying our taxes and obeying the law. It means understanding and acting on that age old maxim that it takes a village to raise a child. It means retailers stopping the sale of alcohol to young teenagers. It means music companies, media companies, games manufacturers, not just thinking "what is my social responsibility as a company in terms of the projects I support and the charities I back, good and important as they are" but asking: "what is the effect of the music I produce, the games I market and the programmes I broadcast?"

That is true social responsibility.
We should be a country that defends the actions of people like Mr Moran, not one that always seems to take the side of the bully, even to defend the "rights" of killers such as Learco Chindamo.

Is William Golding's Lord of the Flies even required reading in schools still?

24 August 2007

First Impressions

Fresh back from a wonderful time in Venice and the best part of a week completely without listening to or reading any news, my first thoughts are "We're becoming as bad as America" — Police shot at in an M5 pursuit, just days after biker Gerry Tobin was murdered on the M40, and Liverpool's 11-year-old Rhys Jones the country's latest victim of gun crime.

Commenting on a past post about gun crime, Jeremy from Liverpool suggested using dog training to help reform disruptive teenagers. Has anybody else got any suggestions about how the worsening trend towards a gun culture might be reversed, besides the Government's usual more legislation?

UPDATE #1: I have now seen Iain Duncan Smith's excellent piece in the Daily Mail:

This social decline has come about because of the breakdown of the family, rampant drug and alcohol abuse, and the collapse of any political will to uphold the law.

Britain is now truly the sick man of Europe, with the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, divorce, alcoholism among the young, drug misuse and educational failure.
He suggests introducing a policy of zero tolerance towards all anti-social behaviour, ensuring the courts act more efficiently in dealing with offenders, and that the police, who he says "are not only weighed down by bureaucracy but have been rendered almost powerless against offenders by the State's obsession with human rights" must reclaim the streets. Picking up on last month's Social Justice Policy Group report, he also discusses practical steps to tackling family breakdown, reforming the welfare state and dealing confidently with drug and alcohol abuse.

In case anyone had forgotten, this is but one very solid reason why we need a Conservative Government after the next general election.Zero Tolerance: Use a gun in a crime and you will serve time. Guaranteed.UPDATE #2: "Anarchy in the UK"

I see that Cameron has also been busy while I was away, calling for the Human Rights Act to be scrapped and replaced with a new Bill of Rights and for a strengthening of family and community bonds to help counter the rise of yob culture:
We need to make men realise that having children is an 18-year commitment - not a one-night stand. We need to make mothers realise that it's work, not welfare, that offers their family the best future. We need to help couples stay together, not drive them apart with the tax and benefits system. And we need to make society as a whole - that's you and me - realise that we all have duties to our neighbours.
Now I just need to check out Louise Bagshawe's Reasons to vote Conservative at ConservativeHome.

18 August 2007

Deedes - a gentleman, a scholar

Lord Deedes [From The Daily Telegraph]On the day that we learn of the passing of Lord Deedes, an extraordinary journalist and commentator, I am struck by the chasm between his history of words, and the likely words of Tony Blair.

Whilst Bill Deedes is proven beyond compare as a writer of eloquence, insightfulness, and care, we are now faced with a bidding war over the memoirs of an ex-prime minister whose sought-for 'legacy' failed to materialise in reality, and therefore now needs to be created in a fact-fiction collaboration.

Is it really necessary for us all to relive once again the past ten years of presidential presumption, and the side-lining of parliament? Are we likely to learn anything more than some insider gossip of a government that perpetuates the myth that legislation changes hearts and minds? And does the UK really benefit from the previous prime minister, from a now un-elected and un-accountable position, writing about important events that are bound to include the current prime minister, and based on their stormy relationships, in a possibly not too rosy light?

I'm unconvinced, (as you might be able to tell), about the appeal of such memoirs. I'd much rather be directed to a file of articles by W F Deedes, from which I am likely to learn much more about political institutions, leadership - and the manners of a gentleman and a scholar.

17 August 2007

North Atlantic Panic Drifts

"Evidence that a vital North Atlantic current is slowing down as a result of melting ice in the Arctic has been blown out of the water." [NewScientist news feed]

Venetian gondolasLater today I'm heading off on holiday for a week, including three days in Venice with just the wife {hopefully the children will behave for the grandparents!} to mark our tenth wedding anniversary. Thankfully, we'll be flying out of Stansted, so shouldn't be affected by the environmentalist fanatics threatening Heathrow. I notice from current visitors statistics that a third of readers already seem to have taken leave of their computers this month. For those of you who have faithfully stuck with us during this quiet period, I am pleased to inform you that another member of The Difference team should keep you plied with food for thought each day in my absence, so hopefully you won't miss me too much — do take the effort to leave a comment or two so things don't get too lonely around here! Soon after I return, you can look forward to receiving the next issue of the magazine — so if you haven't yet ordered your copy, you might want to do so now.

North Atlantic DriftIn the meantime, as I depart, let me leave you with the above article from the New Scientist — the latest in what is becoming a long series of scientific observations inconveniently undermining the sensationalism of the AGW extremists:

The North Atlantic is stirring fitfully. A new monitoring system has shown that the ocean's currents change rapidly, surging or slowing from one week to the next... The overturning circulation fluctuates wildly, between 35 million tonnes a second and just 4 million tonnes a second. All the earlier measurements lie within that range.
So much for previous claims that the vital "overturning circulation" of the North Atlantic had already slowed by 30% and risks plunging Europe into a new ice age.

Freeing Britain to Compete

Freeing Britain to Compete: Equipping the UK for Globalisation - Submission to the Shadow CabinetHow do we summarise the Economic Competitiveness Policy Group report, given that it has already been drip-fed to the media for almost a week? Rather than listing specific proposals, such as the abolition of inheritance tax, perhaps we should simply quote John Redwood's co-author, the chief executive of Next, Simon Wolfson, who says the two most significant messages are:

  1. Regulate both the private and public sector less, and
  2. Invest in British infrastructure.
Alternatively, we could just go with Shadow Chancellor George Osborne, who declared on the Today programme that once again it is now OK to admit "I'm a Conservative who believes in lower taxes."

Download the full report from Stand Up, Speak Up

16 August 2007

Airport Protests

Officers at the Camp for Climate Action outnumber the 600 protesters by two to one. [The Guardian]

airport protestor in a gas maskIs this really how we want to use our overstretched police? If the anarchist elements within the climate change movement pose such a threat — and, according to Sky News, are planning to cause disruption inside Heathrow — why not just shut the camp down and redeploy our tax-funded police officers to patrol our streets and protect the likes of Dr Victoria Anyetei, stabbed on her doorstep in Dartford on Tuesday, and Tyrone Gilbert, the father-of-three shot at a wake in Manchester last Friday?

15 August 2007

End of Happy Hour?

Happy hour"Alcohol is too cheap and too readily available and is too strong. Young people cannot handle it."

Really? Cheshire's chief constable, Peter Fahy, clearly thinks so. Certainly Labour's extension of licensing hours appears to have sent as clear a signal on binge drinking as their declassification of cannabis did on drugs. But would raising the legal drinking age to 21 have any impact on the country's underlying social problems? What do you reckon?

14 August 2007

Fresh Presidential Showdown

Abdullah GulForeign Minister Abdullah Gul was a member of the Islamist Welfare Party cabinet ousted by the Turkish army ten years ago for being too Islamist. Today, despite recent protests, the country's ruling AK Party has announced that it supports his renewed bid to become Turkey's next president.

You may wish to comment on the following, which I received from one of our correspondents in Turkey:

What the great Kemal Ataturk established in 1923 was a country that held all people in high esteem regardless of race or religion, hence the popular saying "insan insan olsun" — let all people be people. If we are to understand the events of today in Turkey we need to view them in their historical setting — something I think the foreign office in more than one country fails to do when considering this part of the world.

The Republic of Turkey and its constitution were born of the Ottoman Empire. This is a source of pride, but nobody would want to return to the days of a "Universal Empire" any more than those who take pride in "Great Britain" would want to go back to colonialism. Instead we want to build relationships with other countries for mutual benefit and work together to live in a better world. To quote Ataturk, "Peace at home, peace in the world."

What threat do Abdullah Gul and Tayyip Erdogan make toward this very normal and modern thinking? They were welcomed into office and many people were delighted at their appointment as Prime Ministers. There was no threat to the secular constitution as long as President Sezer was in office and overseeing the all important Army - the defenders of the secular constitution. That guarantee is now under threat and that is what the people are disturbed about. Many members of this political party are linked to other parties that used to promote an Islamic state in Turkey. It is feared that they could rewrite the precious constitution in favour of an Islamic constitution. Yesterday Iran, tomorrow Turkey?

Would they do it? Looking at the history of the prime minister, who was photographed with known terrorists, and with so many of the party historically associated with a pro-Islamic constitution, one can understand the concern of the people. We will hear statements from the EU and the USA about democracy and human rights. Yet these democracies have a history of supporting the likes of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in the name of promoting democracy, so I hope they will think a little longer before expressing their opinions about Turkey and consider more deeply the issues that these great people are working through.

For further analysis, see CNN: The man splitting Turkish society

13 August 2007

A Scanner Darkly

The Internet Movie Database: A Scanner Darkly

What does a scanner see? Into the head? Into the heart?
Does it see into me? Clearly? Or darkly?

"If they do not get the permanent card, they cannot live here, they cannot get government benefits, and that is a way for the government to control the population in the future."

Remember all those science fiction films/books showcasing police states that feature retina or face recognition scanners? Well, the future has arrived:

At least 20,000 police surveillance cameras are being installed along streets here in southern China and will soon be guided by sophisticated computer software from an American-financed company to recognize automatically the faces of police suspects and detect unusual activity.

Starting this month in a port neighborhood and then spreading across Shenzhen, a city of 12.4 million people, residency cards fitted with powerful computer chips programmed by the same company will be issued to most citizens.

Data on the chip will include not just the citizen's name and address but also work history, educational background, religion, ethnicity, police record, medical insurance status and landlord's phone number. Even personal reproductive history will be included, for enforcement of China's controversial "one child" policy. Plans are being studied to add credit histories, subway travel payments and small purchases charged to the card.
The article in yesterday's New York Times goes on to note that "New York police announced last month that they would install more than 100 security cameras to monitor license plates in Lower Manhattan by the end of the year. Police officials also said they hoped to obtain financing to establish links to 3,000 public and private cameras in the area by the end of next year; no decision has been made on whether face recognition technology has become reliable enough to use without the risk of false arrests."

What do you think? How do you feel about Britain's "surveillance society" and the prospect of face recognition software being used to enhance the power of the 4,000,000+ CCTV cameras already operating across the country? Are civil rights activists right to fear that cameras are a violation of the right of privacy contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights? What about identity cards? Are you happy to pay the Government to track your movements in the name of improved security?

12 August 2007

Economic Competitiveness

I find the media coverage of John Redwood's economic competitiveness report, due to be released this Friday, rather amusing. Compare these headlines and see if you can match them to the papers on the right (reveal the answers by hovering over each headline):

1. Tories plan to make £14bn savings in radical move to slash red tapeA. Daily Mail
2. Cameron on offensive with call for tax cutsB. The Guardian
3. Cameron would slash services to pay for tax cutsC. The Telegraph

Meanwhile, as Iain Dale rightly notes, the BBC has consistently revealed its left-wing bias throughout the day by commencing each of its bulletins about the report with the words, "The Labour Party has today criticised..." Now, the Blair/Brown British Broadcasting Company wouldn't be just a tad upset at Redwood branding their treasured licence fee a "poll tax," would they?!
John Redwood MP
If you can't wait until Friday and want to find details about the report, the Sunday Telegraph has a summary of what Redwood describes as a "tax cut by any other name." Among other proposed cuts in red tape and regulation, it calls for a repeal of working time regulations, originally set by Brussels, along with all data protection laws, which it claims are an "expensive bureaucracy which fails to protect people's data." It also calls for the recently introduced Home Information Packs (Hips) to be scrapped and for Britain to opt out of the EU directive on food supplements.

Dictating Respect

Black Male Forum 'Made in Britain' Campaign: Campaigning to promote positive images of black boysThe Conservative's prospective parliamentary candidate for Hammersmith, Shaun Bailey, makes some good points in the Independent on Sunday about Thursday's Reach report, which proposed setting up a structured national role model programme for black boys:

The problems that affect our young people go way deeper than just providing positive role models, although this could be a helpful step. We need to relearn what the parental and family role should be, and not rely on an ever-growing state that has shown it cannot answer the problems affecting many families. If you know children who are doing well, I bet you see parents who are involved with them, set a good example and take a leading role in their lives.

I would hate it to be thought that these are problems facing the black community exclusively. They are rife in the white community, too. If you think I'm wrong, take a look at the rates of sexually transmitted infection among teenagers, or our growing teenage prison population, or the number of children leaving school unable to read. These things are a problem for us all, black or white.
Have a read and let us know what you think.

10 August 2007

Global-Warming Deniers

Newsweek: Global Warming Is A Hoax* Or so claim well-funded naysayers who still reject the overwhelming evidence of climate changeTaking issue with Newsweek for plying "the worst kind of advocacy journalism," The National Ledger claims:

The extremists committed to the man-made global warming theory―that humans are causing the world to get hotter and that we have to drastically raise taxes and/or ration energy in response―are on the run. How else does one explain the sensational Newsweek cover story with the provocative headline, "Global Warming is a Hoax,*" over a photo of a boiling sun?
I'm not sure that I would agree that they are on the run, nor would I necessarily call them extremists, but they are right when they say:
"In fact, while most observers and experts agree that the climate is changing and may even be warming over the long term, the real debate is over whether human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, are responsible, and whether we can do anything about it. The critics of the theory cast doubt on that connection, noting the lack of definitive evidence of a cause and effect."
Hitting back against the Newsweek claim that it is only "well-funded naysayers"† who still reject the "overwhelming evidence" of anthropogenic global warming, the National Ledger also notes:
"While those skeptical of the man-made global warming theory have received some $19 million, the forces favored by Newsweek have taken in closer to $50 billion, much of it from American taxpayers and channeled through federal and global agencies. This figure, of course, doesn’t include the dollar value of all of the media coverage in support of the theory ... The well-funded lobby, in truth, is financed by U.S. taxpayers. This is the story Newsweek won’t tell."
It also has an interesting anecdote about how carbon offsetting is promoting the manufacture in China of large quantities of HFC-23, "a greenhouse gas that scientists say is thousands of times more potent than CO2 and that is a byproduct of the manufacture of a common refrigerant, HCFC-22."

Have a read of the two articles, and let us know what you think.

For the record, this "naysayer" is most definitely not well-funded by anyone, but is always open to offers!

09 August 2007

Russian Provocation

Tu-95 bomberOn Monday, two Russian "Su-type" jets launched a missile that landed just outside the Georgian village Tsitelubani, 60km north-west of the capital Tbilisi, though did not explode.

Yesterday Russia resumed its Cold War practice of flying long-haul missions to areas patrolled by NATO and the United States, with one of its Tu-95 "Bear" bombers undertaking a 13 hour sortie to an American military base on the Pacific island of Guam, where they "exchanged smiles" with US pilots who had scrambled to track it.

Last month, two Russian Tu-95 bombers briefly entered British air space but turned back after British fighter jets intercepted them. Norwegian F-16s were also scrambled when two Tu-95s headed south along the Norwegian coast in international air space.

Coming on top of Russia's "conquering" of the Arctic seabed and desire to restore its permanent base in the Mediterranean, its withdrawal from the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, threats to aim its missiles at European targets, and debates with the West over Iran's nuclear programme, Kosovo's possible sovereignty, and America's missile defence plans, can anyone now deny that a new Cold War has begun?

The question is, how should we respond? To what extent should we turn a blind eye to Russia's deliberate and calculated challenges?

Olympic Boycott

China Boycott Union: Olympics cartoonEdward McMillan-Scott, Conservative MEP for Yorkshire & the Humber and a vice-president of the European Parliament, is calling for a Europe-wide debate on whether athletes should boycott the Beijing Olympics in response to continuing evidence of persecution, and even genocide, in China. He says, "The civilised world must seriously consider shunning China - and using the Beijing Olympics to send the clear message that such abuses of human rights are not acceptable."

What do you think? Should British athletes stay away next year? Take the poll in the sidebar and leave any further thoughts in the comments.

See also: The Genocide Olympics and Olympics Rights Torches

08 August 2007

Abolish Prisons?

Mark Oaten in a prison cellThis evening, Lib Dem MP Mark Oaten is to argue that "we should abolish prison" on Radio 4's "Hecklers" at 8pm. (In case you read this after the event, it will be repeat at 10.15pm on Saturday). This is an idea he first proposed last October:

I would sell the grotty Victorian prisons for housing redevelopment and use the proceeds to move the 30,000 violent offenders to new, modern and secure units outside of town and away from the general public. Drug abuse within these units would be stopped, and the prisoners would have a tough working day.

For the 50,000 prisoners who have no history of violence, a new system of education and training must be implemented. Half of our prisoners have the reading capacity of an 11 year old and over two thirds are innumerate; worst of all, recent studies show that as many as 60% of the prison population doesn’t even have the language skills to cope with the education programmes currently run by the government in prisons. I would implement a compulsory training programme, teaching them to read, write and count.

I would also like to see prisoners involved in business programmes. In Reading, a pilot scheme has been set up whereby non-violent offenders on day release work for the construction industry. Not only are they taught new skills, they are also given the opportunity to contribute to society. By the end of the scheme many were offered jobs and more importantly the re-offending rate dropped to 7%.

Finally, the punishment should also include taking part in community service schemes, chosen by the public itself. Their aim would be to enable the offender to help improve the local environment and amenities, and work towards a gradual re-integration of the prisoner back into his local community.
Can I invite you to revisit a couple of my past posts, Justice: Retributive or Restorative? and Prisons Need Inner Change, and then let me know what you think?

Not the EU Constitution

Open Europe has this delicious must-read about Europe's new "amending treaty":

Freudian slip

A couple of weeks ago Gordon Brown accidentally talked at a press conference about how he had discussed "the Constitution" with the Irish PM.

But he isn't the only one making that Freudian slip. It turns out that the Portuguese presidency of the EU have also left in a couple of references to "the Constitution" in the new text of the Constitution "Reform Treaty".

Article 4 of the "new" treaty (a.k.a. Article I-14 of the Constitution) states that "The Union shall share competence with the Member States where the Constitution confers on it a competence which does not relate to the areas referred to in Articles [I-13 and 17].

Article 188c(6) of the "new treaty (a.k.a. article III-315 of the Constitution) states that: "The exercise of the competences conferred by this Article in the field of the common commercial policy shall not affect the delimitation of competences between the Union and the Member States, and shall not lead to harmonisation of legislative or regulatory provisions of the Member States insofar as the Constitution excludes such harmonisation."
As they say, "Ooops!"paper chain europeans : the cut-and-paste treaty [Credit: European anti-poverty network]

07 August 2007

A Lost Virtue: Excellence

Chart showing pupils reaching level 4 in national curriculum science, English and maths tests 1999-2007"Primary tests results improving" reads the encouraging BBC headline ... the "best set of Key Stage 2 results we have ever seen," according to Schools Minister Andrew Adonis.

Now, I always thought that a headline was supposed to summarise the most significant point of what followed. Yet the article reveals "the overall results show that four out of 10 children have failed at least one part of the tests." Put another way, just 60% of the 600,000 11-year-olds about to enter secondary school next month are able to read, write, and count properly?! The headline should read "Education Failing Next Generation"!

What kind of foundation does this lay for the future? We are talking about the unfulfilled potential of hundreds of thousands of individuals — and the devastating impact of an uncompetitive economy for decades to come. And the head of the National Union of Teachers is right: it is not the fault of the teachers, who continue to provide the best service they can; Labour is to blame, with its unhealthy obsession with tests, targets and tables. This above all is surely why we need a new government — one "that is for excellence and opportunity for all." In the meantime, perhaps the only hope is for every parent to have their children join the scouts or some other such club where they might yet have a chance of learning to aspire for excellence.

NB. Of course, in the wider context of school examinations having got significantly easier since the end of the 1980s — as proven by a study carried out by Durham University’s curriculum, evaluation and management centre and summarised by Burning Our Money — even the claim that 60% are ready for secondary school should probably be questioned.

Darfur Blog

Dr Neil Fletcher in Africa: Malnourished child in east Chad

The Health Centre today resembles a cattle market. There are people everywhere. Children crying everywhere. I do a quick triage of women and children sitting on a large collection of mats outside. Right at the back of the queue I notice a little baby that looks very poorly indeed. I usher both mother and child through to my (grim) consulting room. My seat is a chair made of straw. It looks about 30 years old and I'm sure would provide many exciting hours of study for a Microbiologist and his petri dishes! The back of the chair consists of a grubby piece of rope holding together two wooden legs. The baby is nine months old and looks very marasmic and wasted. Just a thin layer of skin covers her ribs. I put a MUAC (mid-upper arm circumference) bracelet on her and it reads ''red- severely malnourished''. Her whole body is moist with beads of sweat. I give her one week's supply of Plumpinut. This is a high-energy ready-to-eat French product that is stuffed with calories and nutrients. In addition I give Mum a mosquito net and a prescription for a collossal dose of Vitamin A, Measles jab, rehydration solution and antibiotics. This child really needs to be admitted and watched by nurses like a hawk. But we just don't have the human resources or capacity. She has her treatment and takes her chances. I arrange to review her tomorrow and spend a great deal of time and effort giving the Mum advice. She is this baby's only nurse. I also insist that Mum doesn't sell the Plumpinut on the market or feed it to her other kids. This does, unbelievably, commonly happen. Mum gives me her word and I fast track her to the front of the pharmacy queue. Onto the next patient.......
Ever wondered what life must be like for the aid workers trying to help Darfur's refugees and internally displaced people? Médecins-Sans-Frontières doctor Neil Fletcher recently started working in Eastern Chad and is keeping a diary online at www.drfletcherinafrica.co.uk

Your Summer Reading

What will you be reading this summer? The BBC has conducted a survey of MPs and claims "Labour MPs are questioning the existence of God - but the Tories are more worried about the existence of Gord" — though in fact their top choice is William Hague's biography of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce. Here are their top three for each of the main parties:


  • The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
  • William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner by William Hague
  • The Blair Years by Alastair Campbell
  • William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner by William Hague
  • Sir Robert Peel: A Biography by Douglas Hurd
  • Gordon Brown by Tom Bower
Lib Dems
  • William Wilberforce: The Life of the Great Anti-Slave Trade Campaigner by William Hague
  • The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by JK Rowling

Real Respect

Broken window: David Cameron unveils the Real Respect agendaFour weeks ago in Breakthrough Britain, the Social Justice Policy Group called for greater third sector delivery of public services. Today, the Conservatives' Social Enterprise Zones Task Force reinforces this call for charities and other non-governmental organisations to play a bigger role in boosting deprived neighbourhoods and communities.

Emulating the economic "enterprise zones" set up in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher to create jobs, wealth and opportunity, local authorities would be able to designate deprived areas as "social enterprise zones" in which social entrepreneurs would receive tax breaks to fight poverty. A Community Bank could also be created to channel funds and allocate tax relief where it might have the best effect. In addition, a new National School Leaver Programme would offer every young person the chance to participate in community activity at home or abroad after leaving school.

The Community Development Exchange: Community self-helpIf we really want to promote community regeneration and attract investment in disadvantaged communities — if we are to have any hope of getting to grips with the sub-culture of drugs, knives and guns in places such as Hulme, the site of Manchester's latest shooting, less than a mile from where Jessie James was shot in Moss Side last September — then these "Real Respect" proposals are precisely the kind of localised, "bottom-up" solutions that government should be facilitating and supporting. As David Cameron notes in today's Guardian, these are social problems that require social as well as statutory solutions and it is a serious failing that, at present, the government typically works with large, national charities rather than smaller, locally based voluntary organisations, which are more often than not the ones most effective at combating entrenched deprivation.

The choice at the next election, whenever it comes, is clear: another four to five years of the present Government, that thinks the state knows how to run our lives better than we do, or a Party that will actually trust the people.

06 August 2007

North-South Divide

Gross Value Added (GVA) per head by region (%)
Chart showing the output (or Gross Value Added) per head by region (%) in 1997 and 2005Compared to the UK average, economic output per head has reportedly risen in London (and very marginally in the South East and South West) under Labour. Consequently, it has therefore fallen in other areas, most noticeably in the West Midlands and Yorkshire & the Humber (and to a lesser degree in the North East and North West of England).

Given the disproportionate investment that the Government has channelled from the south to the north, it is easy to see why the Institute for Public Policy Research says this represents a failure for the Government. Accepting Labour's current premise that we need to "reduce the persistent gap in growth rates between the regions," the think tank is calling for "a new target to reduce the absolute gap in levels of GVA between regions." However, while I understand why the failure to enforce a strict equality between and within all regions would constitute a disappointment in a Communist state, can anyone explain why differences across the country should be interpreted as a bad thing in a market economy?

05 August 2007

Brown's Pension Revolution

pensioners warning sign"Ignoring council tax, pensioners' net incomes have been rising faster than average earnings."

... Which would be fine, if only pensioners didn't have to pay council tax, which has doubled since Labour came to power in 1997. The reality is, together with energy prices soaring and food prices set to rise even further as a result of the recent flooding, Chris Grayling, the shadow work and pensions secretary, is right when he notes Britain's poorest pensioners are seeing their incomes falling by up to four per cent a year — costing them on average more than £250 — and that the gap between better-off and poorer pensioners is getting wider.

So much for Government claims that more than one million pensioners have been lifted out of relative poverty under Gordon Brown's economic management.

04 August 2007

Home-Grown Biosecurity Threat

defra - NO ENTRY - Notice: This footpath is closed on account of foot-and-mouth diseaseSo, it seems the latest crisis to affect our country's struggling farmers is down to lapse of security at the Institute for Animal Health at Pirbright, just three miles from the farm where an outbreak of foot-and-mouth has led to the slaughter to more than five dozen cattle, further culls of other herds on neighbouring farms as a precautionary measure, and a national ban on livestock movement.

I trust the farmers affected will be duly compensated...

Russian Ambition

Russian flag being planted under the North PoleFollowing its successful Arctic stunt to plant its flag on the seabed 14,000 feet beneath the north pole this week, Russia has again ramped up the Cold War rhetoric with the country's senior admiral calling for the establishment of a permanent naval base in the Mediterranean for the first time since the Soviet era. The Washington Post quotes Admiral Vladimir Masorin as saying "The Mediterranean Sea is very important strategically for the Black Sea fleet" and calling on the Russian Navy to restore its permanent presence there.

03 August 2007

Planning Disaster

First the Government took away powers for planning from our elected local councils and gave them to unelected regional assemblies. Then, last December, the Barker Review of Land Use Planning called for a new national planning body to have the final say on major infrastructure projects such as power stations, with the aim of speeding up planning decisions. Now that ministers have incorporated this proposal into the Government's Planning White Paper, a coalition of the country's main environmental, conservation, and civic organisations with a collective membership in excess of 5,000,000 has published a map of where all the potential major developments could be built without local communities being properly consulted.

cars going nowhere fastExpecting to find bad news, I went to Planning Disaster — only to find that my nearest project is a local traffic bottleneck that would have been solved almost a decade ago had Labour not come to power in 1997, since when they have repeatedly and effectively indefinitely postponed the project. Sadly, even with a national planning body, I suspect we will still have to wait until we get a Conservative government again and/or regional assemblies are abolished and their powers returned to our elected local representatives before this development takes place.

Slaves to the Environmentalists

Enslaved by fears of global warming [Credit: Leading Design]On the Today programme this morning, Lord Puttnam attempted to draw a parallel between the abolition of the slave trade and the government's plans for tackling climate change.

However, the comparison is spurious in the extreme. The slave trade was a very lucrative business and Britain became the premier trader from the seventeenth century onwards. It is believed that 40% of the 6,000,000+ Africans enslaved in the eighteenth century were transported in British vessels. After Britain abolished slavery, British patrols effectively ended trade in slaves along the Gold Coast, up to Senegambia, and when the port of Lagos was taken by the British in 1840, the slave trade from the Bight of Benin also collapsed.

In contrast, Britain's annual carbon footprint amounts to just 2% of the global output and is dwarfed by the weekly new-build of power stations in China. Were we to cut our emissions even by 100%, it would make no noticeable impact and we would be in no position to police the rest of the world in the way that the Navy could the Atlantic two centuries ago. The proposed target of 60% by 2050 will simply damage our economy without any benefit to the world around us. Besides which, let us not forget that even if America had signed up to Kyoto, it would have made negligible difference to global temperatures — even those who believe that average global temperatures are increasing (and given the manipulation of the actual data, even this is a highly questionable premise) and that human carbon dioxide emissions are responsible for this increase accept that the impact of Kyoto would have been at most 0.4 of a degree, more likely less than 0.2.

No, our politicians need to be a lot more certain of their ability to provide a secure and affordable alternative source of energy before they heed calls from the joint committee on climate change to make the government's "groundbreaking" draft Climate Change Bill tougher and legally enforceable.

Picture credit: Leading Design

02 August 2007

Saviour Siblings or Spare-part Kids?

test tube babyFirst, prospective parents could attempt to have a baby by in vitro fertilisation.

Next, parents were permitted to screen test-tube embryos to seek a match for an existing child with a potentially terminal illness.

Now the parliamentary committee charged with reviewing the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill is proposing that parents should be allowed to create so-called "saviour siblings" in an attempt to treat older brothers and sisters with non-life-threatening conditions.

What do you think? Should we heed the transhumanists and embrace every technological chance to improve on the design of humans? Or is this just another example of the slippery slope, another step towards creating "designer babies"?

Best Environmental / Green Issues Blog

Witanagemot: English BlogsI have just heard that I have been awarded third place for "Best Environmental / Green Issues Blog" in the Witanagemot 2007 Political Blog Awards.

Given my politically incorrect, scientific perspective on the AGW debate, this probably says as much about the bloggers who took part in the survey as about the rigour of my analysis. Nevertheless, to celebrate this August occasion, here is a comment that I recently left at Burning Our Money, responding to a question about data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which others found "amazing" and "truly jaw-dropping."

(For comparison, I also include the corresponding chart showing global temperature anomalies since 1880.)

One of the most interesting graphs from the NOAA is this one showing the effect of the adjustments they have made to the actual ("raw") temperature observations. As you will see, most of the "global warming" since 1960 appears to have been caused by these adjustments! Yet, given how little we understand (as evidenced by both the huge differences in future predictions and our inability to explain present observations) it is quite reasonable to suppose our adjustments are wrong, especially when it comes to the effects of urbanization. See The Difference: climate change for more.
Difference between raw and final USHCN data sets 1900-1999Jan-Jun Land & Ocean Surface Mean Temp Anomalies: Global / Northern Hemisphere / Southern Hemisphere