31 October 2007

Let Parents Decide

Here's something you don't hear me say very often: Gordon Brown is right. Today he told us:

"We can no longer tolerate failure, no longer will it be acceptable for any child to fall behind, no longer acceptable for any school to fail its pupils, no longer acceptable for young people to drop out of education without good qualifications without us acting. No more toleration of second best in Britain. No more toleration of second best for Britain."
However, he is mistaken in thinking that the state should take over or close down schools that fail our children. Instead, it is time to let the market decide.

Rather than controlling schools from the centre, the state should pay schools on a per-pupil basis via a voucher or tax credit scheme, allowing parents and guardians to choose the school they would like to send their children to, promoting higher standards, innovation and competition. Failing schools will be taken over by successful education providers or be forced to close down by parental choice.

Of course, it will come at a cost: no more expensive central bureaucracy.

Cash For Muslims

In an effort to tackle extremism among young British Muslims in "ungoverned spaces" such as internet chat rooms, Communities Secretary Hazel Blears is to give £70m of tax-payers' money to set up websites to encourage young Muslims to talk about their identities and grievances.

Nice work if you can get it ... and we thought it was just oppressive governments such as Sudan's that offered cash incentives exclusively to Muslims! Of course, we are assured, this funding in no way discriminates against people of other faiths. Yet, as with providing a successful service to prisoners or some of the country's most needy children, or simply expressing one's faith through the wearing of small items of jewellery at school or in the workplace, this does come across as yet another case of double standards and a playing field in serious need of levelling.

What next ... state-funded madrasahs?

30 October 2007

Kidswear ... Made By Kids

Forced child labour in Uzbekistan's cotton fieldsNewsnight has just shown an excellent report by Simon Ostrovsky documenting the forced child labour that is involved in Uzbekistan's annual harvest of its "white gold" — the cotton that is then exported to Asia and ends up in the clothes that we buy from shops such as Matalan, Burton and Asda.

If you missed the programme, do watch it online to understand how what you buy and wear may be sourced by what amounts to modern slavery, with an estimated 450,000 pupils taken out of school for more than two months each year to harvest the crop by hand.

Our Arabian "Shared Values"

The Huffington Post: Laura Bush Dons Hijab, Will Opprobrium Follow?With Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells suggesting that Britain and Saudi Arabia could unite around our "shared values," I thought I'd see what this year's Country Report on Human Rights Practices said about Saudi Arabia:

The following significant human rights problems were reported: no right to peacefully change the government; infliction of severe pain by judicially sanctioned corporal punishments; beatings and other abuses; inadequate prison and detention center conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention, sometimes incommunicado; denial of fair public trials; exemption from the rule of law for some individuals and lack of judicial independence; arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence; and significant restriction of civil liberties--freedoms of speech and press, including the Internet; assembly; association; and movement. The government committed severe violations of religious freedom. There was a widespread perception of serious corruption and a lack of government transparency, as well as legal and societal discrimination and violence against women. Other religious, ethnic, and minority groups faced discrimination. There were strict limitations on worker rights, especially for foreign workers.
Which somewhat explains why the likes of the Jerusalem Post are upset at America's First Lady, Laura Bush, donning the hijab in Saudi Arabia — as they conclude, it's not exactly a symbol of the freedom and liberty that her husband claims to have spent his presidency trying to introduce to the Middle East.

Irrespective of the cultural significance of the headscarf, Dan Hannan is surely right to observe about King Abdullah's state visit:
"When a free democracy lowers its standards in order to accommodate a sleazy autocracy, the former is diminished and the latter magnified. We are, all of us, slightly cheapened by the readiness of our leaders to appease a handful of rich men. And don’t fall for any nonsense about British jobs, by the way. We pay the same price for Saudi oil that other purchasers do, and they the same price for our luxury goods. Our foreign policy is not, or at least ought not to be, synonymous with the interests of BAE Systems."
I for one am looking forward to the new complete English translation of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, undertaken by Cambridge University's Professor Malcolm Lyons and due to be published next year, the first since Burton's in 1885.

29 October 2007

GM Growth Challenge

GM maize cultivation in the EU [Source: BBC]Last week the European Commission warned President Nicolas Sarkozy that a proposed temporary freeze on the planting of genetically modified crops in France contravenes European law and today we learn that the area planted with such crops in Europe increased by 77% last year, giving the biotech industry cause to claim this proves their product is appealing to farmers and safe for the environment.

In the current issue of The Difference, retired animal geneticist John Hodges asks what risk cloned meat and milk might present to consumers, expresses fears that unknown abnormalities may be transferable to humans through food as happened with Mad Cow Disease (BSE) and variant Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (vCJD), and calls upon the UK and the EU parliaments to take an independent position on cloned-animal products for human consumption:

"The decision not to label is contrary to the economic principle that markets work effectively when decisions are made by customers with access to full information – “the customer is right”. This whole scenario is unethical and has the flavour of vested business interests successfully pressuring government quickly to approve their desired objective. One suspects they know that hypothetical polls have already shown consumer resistance. Further, the limited tests do not offer authentic scientific guarantees of food safety for a novel technique whose long-term hazards upon the whole population are unknown. Normal ethical standards for such an important issue cry out for public debate, for legislative rather than delegated executive action, for science relevant to the risk and for consumers’ rights and wishes to be respected. The issues are too important to be left to the ideology of market forces alone."
Let us know what you think — and if you haven't seen Hodges' article, order your copy of The Difference today!

28 October 2007

Rifkind's East Lothian Compromise

Today's constitutional debate has its roots in the unfinished business of Scottish devolution and picks up on a proposal presented at the start of the month by Sir Malcolm Rifkind to a conference fringe meeting in Blackpool.

Since Labour first started creating havoc with the country's historic institutions, there has been an unresolved issue of why Scottish MPs can vote on issues that only affect England but that English MPs cannot vote on issues that only affect Scotland. The former lord chancellor, Derry Irving, maintained that the best answer to this so-called "West Lothian Question" (it was first raised by Tam Dalyell, the former West Lothian MP) was not to ask it, for fear of damaging the Union. Such a position is, of course, untenable.

Sir Malcolm's suggestion, dubbed the "East Lothian Compromise" as the MP for Kensington and Chelsea still regards his house at Inveresk in East Lothian as his main residence, is to create an English Grand Committee, similar to the long-established Scottish Grand Committee, which would allow English MPs exclusively to consider English domestic legislation. Less simplistic than an "English votes on English issues" policy, such a committee would not have the executive powers of a full English Parliament and whatever it decided would theoretically be subject to the will of the entire Commons. However, there could be a convention whereby Parliament would agree never to overrule the committee's decisions, in the same way that Westminster is precluded from exercising its power to overturn decisions by the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh or Northern Ireland assemblies.

Rifkind is to be applauded for his creative plan and, when Kenneth Clarke's democracy task force reports to the Conservative Party, it can only be hoped that it finds such workable solutions to all areas of Labour's constitutional vandalism, such as its unfinished reform of the House of Lords.

ON SECOND THOUGHTS: And yet ... do we really need another committee when the simple alternative would be to devolve to county councils those powers that have been devolved to Scotland, thereby negating the whole West Lothian question and re-empowering local democracy in one swoop?

27 October 2007

Biofuels "Crime Against Humanity"

Every five seconds a child under ten dies from hunger or disease related to malnutrition and there are 854 million hungry people in the world.

Last month I asked when we were going to begin getting a proper sense of perspective on questions surrounding biofuels, food security and the environment. At last, people appear to have taken notice:

Earlier this month, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler described current approaches to biofuels as "a total disaster for those who are starving."

Last week, in its October 2007 World Economic Outlook, the International Monetary Fund voiced concern that the increasing global reliance on grain as a source of fuel could have serious implications for the world's poor.

Earlier this week, in the Parliamentary debate to establish the first fixed targets for biofuels, the Shadow Minister for Transport, Julian Brazier warned, "If biofuels are to play a successful part in the fight against climate change, it is absolutely vital that they come from sustainable sources. Without clear and binding rules on sustainability, this proposal could damage the environment not protect it. It would be madness if UK biofuel targets actively encouraged people to rip up the rainforest."

Now, the UN's Jean Ziegler has described the conversion of food crops to fuel as a "crime against humanity" and has called for a five-year moratorium on biofuels. He suggests the ban would allow scientists to develop ways to make biofuels from other crops without diverting land from food production, such as a pilot project in India using trees planted in arid areas unsuitable for food crops. He also criticised European governments for choosing a military response to those fleeing famine and chronic hunger from sub-Saharan Africa and wants a new human right to be created in favour of these "refugees from hunger."

Let us hope good sense will prevail over the economic interests of the climate change lobby.

Immigration: Not A Racial Problem

Once again, Simon Heffer does not mince his words in today's Telegraph:

This week, we were told there were 11,000 foreigners in our prisons – one in seven of those inside – and the Government, with typical incompetence, is struggling to negotiate deals to have these people serve their sentences back home.

Yesterday, an independent body called the National Housing and Planning Advice Unit said that the Government's plans to build three million new homes by 2020 were not nearly adequate.

Of course they are not, because of the state's determination to allow unlimited immigration and, with it, the end of the indigenous cultural identity. The tensions of what used to be called "multi-culturalism" are dangerous enough: but so are the practical issues.

Large parts of England will be concreted over to accommodate all these new people. There will have to be new roads, railways and airports. And since we are already full up, and our public services buckling, where are we going to put everyone?

Labour has covered up its failure to control our borders by saying that our economy needs immigrants.

Well, if you are determined to have a welfare state that tolerates about eight million economically unproductive people of working age – the unemployed, those in "training" and those on various benefits because they believe they are unfit for work – then of course you will. It is time someone got serious.

26 October 2007

Living Sustainably

GEO4 environment for developmentThe United Nations Environment Programme's Global Environment Outlook: environment for development (GEO-4) report claims to be "the final wake-up call to the international community," warning that the human population is living far beyond its means and inflicting damage on the environment that could pass points of no return.

This fourth such report in ten years concludes that unprecedented population growth combined with unsustainable consumption has resulted in an increasingly stressed planet where natural disasters and environmental degradation endanger millions of humans, as well as plant and animal species. It suggests that 250% more fish are being caught than the oceans can produce in a sustainable manner and that the overall demand for resources would have to be cut to 15.7 hectares per person from its present 21.9 hectares per person if we are to stay within existing, sustainable limits.

Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable LivingAs this blog has argued repeatedly before, it is on this question of sustainability, not inconclusive arguments about unproven theories of anthropogenic global warming, where the environmental debate ought to be focused. But how should we respond? In a newly published work, Christianity, Climate Change and Sustainable Living, Nick Spencer & Robert White present a constructive and distinctive faith-based response to these questions and suggest eight principles for sustainable living:

  1. We should value and protect creation, seeing that as a joy rather than a burden.
  2. We should reflect the close bond between society and environment in our decisions.
  3. We should pursue justice for the vulnerable and marginalised.
  4. We should not confuse wealth and value; our goal should be relational health rather than money or personal freedom.
  5. We should favour regulated, market-based solutions that take account of natural, human and social capital.
  6. We should express commitment to our immediate environment and favour local solutions.
  7. We should aim to offer just and equitable access to natural resources.
  8. We should respond seriously and with hope.

24 October 2007

Law For The Irresponsible

Despite the insistence by some neonatal consultants that significant numbers of children born before 24 weeks survive if they are treated at top specialist centres — as many as 42% — Health Minister Dawn Primarolo will today tell MPs on the Select Committee of Science & Technology that she sees no evidence for a change in the law on abortion.

Forty years ago, Lord David Steel was influenced by the reading of Alice Jenkins' polemic, Law for the Rich, highlighting how rich or educated women were getting round the abortion ban by claiming their life was threatened by the danger to their mental health, while "ordinary" women were left turning to backstreet abortion clinics or to self-induced abortions at home, resulting in the deaths of 30 to 50 women a year.

Today, a whole generation's experience of this shadowy alternative is limited to their viewing of films such as Vera Drake and abortion has almost become a way of life or an alternative to contraception, with almost a quarter of all pregnancies ending in an abortion — 193,737 were carried out in the UK last year, an increase of 3.9% on the year before, with almost a third (32%) performed on women who had already had at least one previous pregnancy terminated and 19-year-olds the most likely of any age group to have an abortion — and this despite the introduction of the morning-after pill.

Thus, the 1967 Abortion Act no longer seems to be about saving the lives of pregnant women dying at the hands of back street abortionists or by suicide but instead appears to have become a law for the irresponsible. Yet, at the end of the day, whether you have greater sympathy for the pro-choice or the pro-life lobby, as Lord Steel notes, abortion itself is not the problem. The problem is the unwanted pregnancy. However, sex education and availablility of contraception have done nothing to prevent this trend. Instead, we will only really be able to tackle the issue when we see a shift in culture away from today's individualistic society towards one in which each person acknowledges that they have a place in a network of relationships radiating out from the family to the wider community and that even their individual and private decisions have an impact on this network.

23 October 2007

The Giant of Excess

Attacking last week's Foresight report that claimed individuals could no longer be held responsible for obesity, a leading Government adviser, Professor Julian Le Grand, argues that a completely fresh approach is needed to reverse problems caused by the "excess consumption" of tobacco, of food, of alcohol, of illegal drugs, and of indoor leisure. Suggesting that the new "giant of excess" has arisen alongside the "five giants" identified by William Beveridge when he founded the welfare state — namely, those of want, disease, ignorance, squalor, and idleness — Le Grand says that instead of requiring individuals to opt in to healthy schemes, they should have to opt out to make the unhealthy choice, for instance by being required to buy a smoking permit before being able to purchase cigarettes.

Such "libertarian paternalism" is certainly not as extreme as prohibition, yet it still smacks of Labour's nanny state, so is perhaps not quite as radical as the professor would have us believe. For instance, when I go to work, I do so to work. I would not want my company to be required to designate an hour in the working day as the "exercise hour" — I would rather continue exercising with my family out of work hours. Equally, requiring supermarkets to sell alcohol separately from groceries or restricting the sale of alcohol to off licences would simply inconvenience and annoy customers, not change their drinking habits. As for the idea of the Health Secretary sending parents details of their children's weight measurements at the ages of five and ten, I can not think this is going to make any difference to any family's eating and exercise habits.

What Le Grand's analysis misses is that the state itself has become our biggest giant to be tackled. A truly "completely fresh approach" would involve the Government meddling less and trusting people more. It would require the Government rediscovering for which areas it properly exists and returning responsibility for those in which it should never have made society irresponsible. Only then might we begin having an impact on the symptoms of our broken society.

22 October 2007

Muslim Desecration Silence

I am willing to bet that if a Christian leader had incited 500 villagers to invade the local mosque, plaster dung on its walls, and cut the loudspeaker wires to prevent the call to prayer from being heard, Muslims worldwide would be in uproar and every newspaper front page would have covered the story. If the Christian leaders had subsequently been forced into signing a humbling apology, again, we still wouldn't hear the end of it as the incident would continue to be raised for months afterwards.

That you probably have not heard any report of just such an incident carried out by Muslims against a church in Pakistan, goes to show the difference in treatment given by the media to the two religions and puts last week's Common Word letter in context.

Muslims Apologize After Desecrating Village’s Christian Church

Muslims have submitted a written apology to Christians in a place called Gowind on October 12; two days after about 500 Muslims stormed New Apostolic Church in this village near the India-Pakistan border.

Shouting slogans against Christians, the Muslims cut the loudspeaker wires and plastered dung on the walls while 20 Christians were at an evening prayer service. They were protesting the church’s use of its own loudspeaker to broadcast its morning service. Muslim clerics then issued calls over mosque loudspeakers for a “social boycott” of Christians.

However, three Muslims — Daler Khan, Haji Yaseen Gardor and Tariq Mehar — signed the apology at the local police station while another 100 Muslims stood outside. The apology states : “We apologize to the Christians for desecrating the church and hurting their religious sentiments.”

21 October 2007

What Brown Really Thinks

Just back from a very relaxing weekend in Hampshire's sun. Three thoughts briefly tempted me to blog but, as you'll have noticed, I resisted. The first and third, taken together, seem to reveal much about what our Scottish Premier thinks about this nation:

1. Yesterday's leader in the Telegraph, MPs must be held to their word on EU treaty:

The Prime Minister is just one man. There are another 645 Members of Parliament, and 637 of them were, like Mr Brown, elected on the basis of a promise that they would give voters the final say.

Those 637 MPs must now decide whether they are true parliamentarians. Are they simply a block vote, agents of one man’s will? Or are they independent legislators, acting in accordance with what they judge to be their constituents’ interests and wishes?
2. Simon Heffer's piece also in yesterday's Telegraph, We should listen to what Watson says, on the controversial comments from Nobel-winning geneticist Professor James Watson on intelligence and race:
But how boot-faced, wicked and totalitarian of the Science Museum to cancel a lecture Prof Watson was due to give there because of the "offensive" nature of this subject.

How, for pity's sake, will we know Prof Watson is wrong if he is banned from airing his claims and having them held up to scrutiny?

Doesn't the museum understand that it is in its way as ignorant as the academic authorities were 200 years ago, when they forbade the teaching of geology because it might provoke the "offensive" idea that the Creation had not been as scripted?

What if that ban had been maintained?

Why does the Left only believe in academic freedom when it suits their own bigotries?
3. The lack of enthusiasm or apparent inability of the Prime Minister to sing the national anthem at last night's Rugby World Cup final. So much for all that talk of Britishness, national pride, and patriotism. Yes, even I, sports unenthusiast that I am, watched the game!

19 October 2007

No Need For Referendum, Then?

As expected, the Prime Minister has returned from Lisbon declaring, "The reform treaty has now been agreed. The red lines have been secured. The British national interest has been protected."

The Foreign Secretary has helpfully added, "The constitution is dead. Last night marked the end of the constitution... there was finally the legal text agreed in all languages which showed very, very clearly that by no measure - by no measure of legal structure, by no measure of legal content and by no measure of political consequence - could this be called a constitution."

Well, how reassuring...Britain disappearing down the European sink

18 October 2007

Young Love Under Shari'a Law

Do you remember your first kiss? Having posted about Britain's appalling teenage pregnancy rates under the heading "Teenagers Looking For Love?" earlier today, I thought you might like the following news story, which perhaps sheds a little extra light on the worldview of the Muslim leaders who penned last week's Common Word letter:

A young Muslim couple tried to speed off when Malaysian police caught them making out in their car but got into an accident, causing a five-car pile up, a report said Wednesday.

A police patrol car spotted the couple locked in an intimate embrace late Monday in their car parked at a hypermarket in Muar town in southern Johor state, The Star newspaper said. As the patrol car neared them, the couple sped out of the car park onto a main road and collided with a passing car, causing three other vehicles to crash, the report said.

Unmarried Muslim couples found alone together in a private place can be charged for "khalwat," or "close proximity," which is a crime under Malaysia's Islamic laws and carries a jail sentence of up to two months.
Before you ask, the 2000-2005 adolescent fertility rate for Malysia is 1.5% compared with our 2.7%, so the Shari'a law doesn't seem to put too much of a dampener on young love(!)

Source: Fox News

Teenagers Looking For Love?

Teenage Pregnancy Rates (%)
Adolescent Fertility 2000-2005 (births per 100 women aged 15-19) [Source: Reproductive Risk Index, Population Action International]A new report by Population Action International, A Measure of Survival, confirms that Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in western Europe. It also concludes that our maternity services are worse than those in Hungary, Slovakia and Cuba and ranks us just 17th out of 29 European countries on health services overall.

Anybody else remember the Government's Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, which not only failed to stem the rise in teenage pregnancies but has fuelled record levels of STIs and, where implemented most heavily, has resulted in the biggest increases in underage pregnancies? Anybody else think there might be a correlation with British children having the worst physical and emotional well-being and the worst relationships with family and friends among the world's wealthiest nations?

17 October 2007

When Strategic Interests Conflict

The Citizen: Bush asks China to open talks with Dalai LamaWhat's the difference between human rights abuses in China and human rights abuses in Turkey? On one the US is willing to ignore threats from its counterpart, bestowing the Congressional Gold Medal, its highest civilian honour on the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama today. On the other the US is backing off from legislation approved last week by a congressional panel to call a vote on a measure declaring the World War I-era killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks an act of genocide.

The proximity of Turkey to the ongoing conflict in Iraq might explain the apparent inconsistency...

Our Obesogenic Society

The reporting on obesity does annoy me. First we're told it's an epidemic, when quite clearly nobody can catch the condition from anybody else. Then we're warned it's a threat "deadlier than smoking" and "worse than climate change" (which is not necessarily saying very much, of course). Now we're informed that it's "an inevitable consequence of a society in which energy-dense, cheap foods, labour-saving devices, motorised transport and sedentary work are rife" and that "individuals can no longer be held responsible for obesity."

Despite admitting there is absolutely no proof that any anti-obesity policy works, the Government-commissioned "Foresight" report claims that dramatic and comprehensive action is required to stop the majority of us becoming obese by 2050 — no doubt at a substantial cost to us tax-payers. What next from this interfering, predeterministic Government? That criminals are genetically predisposed to commit their crimes so should be locked up before they offend but absolved after the event? Oh yes, we have already had that line from them (here and here).

% Obese adults by gender 1993-2005 [Credit: BBC]No, as we learnt earlier this year, the issue of obesity is linked to others such as race and class that have got worse over the past decade: just 9% of Indian children are overweight or obese compared with 23% of White and 33% of Black Caribbean children, while children in more advantaged areas of England and Scotland are less likely to be overweight or obese than those living in less advantaged areas. While there clearly is a wider cultural question to address in the West — namely, why we overfeed and underexercise ourselves and our children, despite knowing the obvious health risks — it is clear from the above graph that the problem has become increasingly serious as the nanny-state has grown increasingly strong. Therefore part of the remedy must surely involve returning a sense of personal and social responsibility to individuals and their communities.

16 October 2007

Stupidity in Practice

"One day we will all wake up to the namby-pamby, politically-correct approach that for economic reasons seems to be adopted to save the police paperwork - instead of letting them get on with their jobs."

Jailing a serial thief who stole a pensioner's purse, but was given just an £80 on-the-spot fine after committing an identical offence two years earlier despite a string of more than 30 previous thefts, Judge Timothy Nash has condemned the Government's policy of on-the-spot fines:

"The issue of a penalty notice ticket for the criminal offence of shoplifting as a device is stupidity in practice. It means, not infrequently, that people don't have their difficulties addressed by a court, which is better able to deal with shoplifters than anybody issuing what is in effect a parking ticket."
The judge thus maintains that, in sparing almost 200,000 offenders every year the humiliation of a court appearance, Labour's policy is unfair to the community and leads to offenders not getting help from the courts. But then, as we have discussed before, this Government appears to think criminal justice is solely about punishment and seems completely closed to the possibility of transformative justice. In Labour's Big Brother world, transgressors are to be punitively controlled, not reformed, let alone helped back to the point where they can make a positive contribution to society.

Making British Poverty History

Citing evidence from former leader Iain Duncan Smith's landmark reports Breakdown Britain and Breakthrough Britain, David Cameron has pledged that the next Conservative Government will "make British poverty history." However, he warns that "we need to make twentieth century welfare dependency history first."

He suggests that, despite good intentions, Gordon Brown has failed the country by focusing on top-down, mechanical state interventions instead of developing policies that focus on people — a flawed, one-dimensional approach that has resulted in almost five million people out of work and on benefits, almost four million people in problem debt, and over eight million people with alcohol and drug disorders.

He described a Conservative, holistic approach as one that would take into account the importance of families, communities and incentives to work:

"In place of Gordon Brown's misguided couple penalty, we will increase the Working Tax Credit that couples receive - bringing tax credits fully into line with the rest of the benefits system."

"Instead of the revolving door of people flitting in and out of benefits and work, we will draw on successful examples of welfare reform from all over the world to overhaul our welfare system. These are tailored to the individual, and they harness the private and voluntary sectors, rather than government bureaucracies, to help people get back into work."
Unfortunately, we really cannot afford to put off the radical welfare reform and the social changes that everyone knows we need for yet another two or three years until Mr Cameron becomes Prime Minister. So, let's hope that this new agenda will be the latest idea to be "stolen" by Gordon Brown...

Self-Defence Poll Results

Here are the fairly unequivocal results of our last poll, which asked about your views on the use of "proportionate, reasonable force" permitted by the Criminal Law Act 1967:

Do we need an urgent review of the law protecting those who intervene in criminal situations?
Yes.  91% (29 votes)
No.  9% (3 votes)
Not sure.  0% (0 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 32

Our new poll asks whether the ABC classification system for drugs should be replaced with an "index of harms."

Alternative to Misuse of Drugs

Yesterday's controversial proposals to legalise all drugs, made in the thirty page report "Drugs Policy: A Radical Look Ahead?" by the chief constable of North Wales, Richard Brunstrom, have today received further support from a former chief inspector of prisons, Lord Ramsbotham: "I used to reckon that 80 per cent of those people received into prison were misusing a substance of some kind when they came in. The amount of acquisitive crime connected to drug abuse is immense. That is why there needs to be a new approach."

Of course, they are not alone in claiming that drugs policy has been based on "moralistic political rhetoric" rather than evidence. Earlier this year the independent UK Drug Policy Commission reported that both government education schemes and treatment of addicts have had little impact, while the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) suggested that UK drug law had been "driven by moral panic" and was "not fit for purpose." Indeed, the chief constable even quotes John Reid as acknowledging that "prohibition doesn't work" and the Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, as conceding "it drives the activity underground."

Nevertheless, the Government and the likes of Ken Jones, the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, have predictably dismissed the proposals. Yet, in calling for the repeal of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, Mr Brunstrom is not calling for an "anarchic free-for-all," as some reports seem to suggest. Instead, he proposes replacing the current ABC classification for drugs with a new, scientifically-based "Hierarchy of Harm" including tobacco and alcohol, and decoupled from criminal penalties:

"Drugs and psychotropic substances are simply not going to go away as if by magic. And so, if drugs cannot be eradicated (and the evidence that they cannot is now overwhelming), then the principal object of public policy should be to reduce as far as possible the great harms that they can and do cause."
This is precisely the same as the index of harms classification system for drugs proposed by the Commons Science Select Committee last year and supported by the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy when it recommended replacing the Misuse of Drugs Act with a broader Misuse of Substances Act earlier this year. When we read statistics such as that the cost of alcohol and tobacco to the NHS in England is double that of all illegal drugs and that in Scotland in 2004, tobacco killed about 13,000 people and alcohol 2,052, while just 356 died from all other illegal drugs put together, Brunstrom is surely right to dismiss the ABC system as "indefensible, both legally and ethically" and "arbitrary, and subject to politically-motivated manipulation" and to call for a national debate on the issue, isn't he?Credit: BBC 'Drug classification rethink urged'

15 October 2007

And In Other News...

Now that Sir Menzies Campbell has stolen the headlines for the next few hours by resigning as leader of the Liberal Democrats, I feel it is down to me to bring a few of the day's other stories worth noting...

Perhaps most significant is the European Union's adoption of a package of measures against Burma's military junta, including an embargo on the export of wood and metals and gemstones. Less encouragingly, despite still being "seriously concerned about the human rights situation in Uzbekistan," the EU has eased sanctions that were imposed against the Central Asian republic after the Uzbek authorities rejected demands for an international probe into a deadly uprising in Andijan province two years ago. As a spokesman for Human Rights Watch has observed, "Suspension in the face of no progress is nothing less than capitulation."

As for leaked suggestions that Britain should switch to long-life milk to reduce the emissions that the climate change lobby claim are responsible for global warming, I for one will most positively be sticking with fresh, full-fat. In the wake of foot and mouth and bluetongue, the Government (whose lab was responsible for the former and whose mismanagement was responsible for its re-emergence days after the all-clear was given) should be supporting our country's dairy farmers, not adding to the pressure they are under.

You might like to read A Rough Guide to the UK Farming Crisis, which concludes:

"Farmers, environmentalists and people concerned about social justice have a common cause: the transformation of the current damaging and highly exploitative food system and the creation of a pattern of food production based on respect for the land and the needs of local communities rather than exploitation and greed. None of us will succeed in this cause until we learn to work together."

Iran Has The Last Word

Reuters: Iran calls on Muslims to boycott peace conferenceIs there not a degree of irony that, while the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has now welcomed last week's "Common Word" claims by 138 of the world's top Muslims that Islam is a religion of "peace", Iran's top cleric, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has urged Muslim countries to boycott a US-sponsored international peace conference on Palestinian statehood next month?

14 October 2007

Muslim Leaders' "Common Word" Letter

This week's letter, "A Common Word Between Us and You," by 138 of the world's most powerful Muslim clerics, scholars and intellectuals to leaders of the worldwide Church is being hailed by many as something of a miracle. However, such a response is not just overly optimistic but hopelessly naive.

In a display of supposedly unprecedented unity, the letter calls for peace between Christians and Muslims, arguing that the most fundamental tenets of Islam and Christianity are identical: love of one (and the same) God, and love of one's neighbour.

There are two crucial points to make in response. Firstly, the Muslims who penned the 29-page statement are in fact seeking a one-way dialogue on their own terms: "As Muslims, we say to Christians that we are not against them and that Islam is not against them - so long as they do not wage war against Muslims on account of their religion, oppress them and drive them out of their homes." Yet, as the Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, quoted by Archbishop Cranmer, rightly notes:

"What the Qur’an condemns, we do not believe. Whatever our doctrine of God, there are fundamental issues that must be addressed, such as refugees fleeing because of their faith and because of persecution ... But what I would stress is that dialogue between partners must be conducted in the integrity of each faith. One partner cannot dictate the terms on which dialogue must be conducted ... We may disagree about the nature of God but there are many other important areas of dialogue as well. There is justice, compassion, fundamental freedom, freedom to express beliefs, persecution of peoples. All these are matters of dialogue. Only one of them, the need for peace, is mentioned here."
Secondly, there is more to Islam than simply "peace" — there is also "jihad." And to quote the new Baroness Cox biography, "Eyewitness to a broken world" by Lela Gilbert:
"A key development in the concept of jihad is contained in this verse in the Koran:

Fight against those who believe not in Allah, nor the Last day, nor hold that forbidden which has been forbidden by Allah and His Prophet, nor acknowledge the religion of truth (i.e. Islam) among the People of the Book (Jews and Christians), until they pay the jizya (tax) with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. (Sura 9:29, Medina)

... It must be noted that there are other verses in the Koran that speak of peace and respect for other people, especially "People of the Book" — Jews and Christians... However, traditional Islamic teaching has resolved any inconsistency between the verses of peace and the verses of war by adopting the principle of "abrogation", whereby the later revelations of the Prophet abrogate, or override, the earlier revelations. Unfortunately, this means that the more aggressive militaristic interpretations of jihad, associated with violence and terrorism, prevails over peaceable interpretations.
The most fundamental tenets of Christianity have given rise to Western democracy as we know it. Yet the most fundamental tenets of Islam set it on a course of conflict with what we all believe (believers and unbelievers alike) on a whole range of human rights issues, from the freedom of religion to equality of the sexes. As Baroness Cox warned earlier this year, "The time has come to draw a line in the sand: to say that, while we in Britain value cultural diversity and enshrine the principle of tolerance, we must also ensure that such values and principles are not used in ways that destroy the fundamental freedoms on which our democracy is built."

13 October 2007

Marriage Best For Kids

In the latest Government U-turn and adoption of Conservative Party policy, Andy Burnham, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has told the Daily Telegraph, "I think marriage is best for kids. It’s not wrong that the tax system should recognise commitment and marriage."

While on the one hand delighted that New NuLabour appears to be accepting the error of its ways, I can but refer you to my comments from earlier this week, on the need for a coherent vision for the country, and my follow-up post on the role of the extended family in society.

12 October 2007

Participatory Capitalism

Remember the days when everyone knew their bank manger and the Man from the Pru would visit to collect his premium? It's not that long ago since people still seemed to have an important place in financial transactions. Now, though, everything seems to be automated or online — even applying for a loan or larger overdraft. Having unquestioningly accepted the flexibility and convenience that technology has offered our individualistic age, it might seem strange to hear anyone calling for a people-centred economy in which morality replaces mathematics in tackling problems caused by global capital. Yet, in criticising the global economic system for creating "material and spiritual poverty," that is precisely what the World Council of Churches programme executive for Economic Justice, Poverty and Ecology has done.

The Tanzanian Rogate Mshana suggests that one solution to the globalisation of capital could be the introduction of "participatory capitalism, which provides a way to connect people to their economy, their community, to their work place, and to each other," for instance through employee ownership schemes. He also called for the promotion of fair trade to respect the needs of small-scale farmers in poor countries and the support of economic initiatives that focus on social rather than economic performance.

I am reminded of an observation made in the ground-breaking Jubilee Manifesto (by Michael Schluter & John Ashcroft), it its discussion of the consequences of the debt-based financial system that has predominated in the West in recent centuries: "It is ironic that anti-globalisation campaigners decry the activities of multinational companies because of their scale, their dissociation from local communities and the frequent excesses of executive pay. These are all the inexorable results of the principle of limited liability, but rarely does one hear the correct diagnosis of the underlying problem."

If the Conservatives are serious about tilting the domestic and international balance back from "economy-friendly families to family-friendly economies" — or even, if I might be so bold as to suggest, community-friendly economies — then they would do well to listen to the likes of the WCC's Mshana.

Source: Ecumenical News International

Zimbabwe Petition Pressure Mounts

Dan Hannan MEPEvery Saturday afternoon for the last five years, protestors have held a vigil outside the Zimbabwe Embassy in the Strand — with its colourful banners, singing and dancing, the group is easy to spot and welcomes new members! Tomorrow we will join one of the largest demonstrations ever to mark five years of protest against human rights abuses by the Mugabe regime and to campaign for free and fair elections in the country. Along with the Zimbabwe Vigil Coalition, we will be presenting a copy of The Difference petition to Kate Hoey MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Zimbabwe, to hand to the Prime Minister.

During last week's Conservative Party conference, almost 1000 people signed our petition, including a large number of MPs and MEPs such as Dan Hannan (pictured, right), with the total number of signatories now standing at 1100. However, we must continue highlighting this issue. For, as William Hague noted in his endorsement of our campaign: "The Zimbabwean people deserve our full support and their misery must not be allowed to continue."

Taking The Educational Temperature

The Primary Review ... children, their world, their educationThe big news of the day is the report from The Primary Review, which notes that primary school children and their parents are suffering from "deep anxiety" about modern life, with primary schools engulfed by a wave of anti-social behaviour, materialism and the cult of celebrity.

In view of our plea last made only yesterday for an end to government interference in our public services and the devolution of power to local professionals, perhaps most striking is the following observation: "The report also records that gloom could turn to hope when witnesses felt able to act rather than merely comply, whether as children working on projects for sustainable development, teachers taking control of the curriculum, or schools using their entrepreneurial talent to enhance staffing and facilities. This finding is a timely corrective to the belief that for every educational challenge there should be a high-profile government initiative or national strategy."

At the end of the report, it lists 44 questions for the next stage of the review. Here's a "top three" for you to consider and let us know what you think:

  • If, as witnesses tell us, there has been a loss in recent years of social cohesion, community and concern for others, and a growth in selfishness and materialism, how might primary schools both help children to cope with the adverse consequences of these changes and play their part in redressing the balance?
  • Is it the case that the profile of identified special educational needs is changing, with a rise in the incidence of behavioural difficulties? Why is this? Are current SEN and inclusion policies able to meet these changes? Is SEN provision equitable, both geographically and in relation to the range of needs which are identified?
  • Is the day-to-day work of primary schools excessively controlled and constrained by central government, as witnesses claim? Will the ‘flexibility’ and ‘freedom’ offered by the Primary Strategy be sufficient to discount such claims or should the balance of national, local and school be radically reconfigured? Does the notion of a national strategy or agency defining the precise nature of school-level freedoms embody a certain contradiction?

A League Apart

Breaking News: The 2007 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to environmental campaigner Al Gore and the UN panel on climate change, the IPCC.

I merely repeat the question I asked a couple of days ago: Can anyone seriously tell me he is in the same league as Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi?

11 October 2007

Treating Symptoms Not Causes

As anyone who has seen today's news will know, following the deaths of 90 hospital patients from Clostridium difficile, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust has been seriously criticised for focusing too much on balancing the books and meeting waiting-time targets, at the expense of patient care and infection control.

If Kent police have launched an investigation into whether the trust should be prosecuted for the deaths, who is going to challenge the Government for imposing its misguided and distorting targets in the first place? It's time the state stopped interfering in our public services and returned power back to the professionals who work in our local communities.


10 October 2007

Convenient Untruths

Just last week, the envirocrats again attempted to flood the news airwaves with their apocalyptic message that the fabled opening of the Northwest Passage means the Arctic is melting at a disasterous rate and constitutes the latest catastrophic evidence of global warming — when, in truth, scientists told us earlier this year that the ice sheets are not losing their mass through melting but because the ice is flowing into the ocean faster than the snow is replacing it and that, without knowing why this is happening, it is impossible to predict the extent of future sea level rises, especially as climate modelling predicts that snowfall on the ice caps will increase over the coming century.

It was therefore a good day for science and education today when, despite Al Gore being tipped as the favourite to win the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of the climate change lobby [Can anyone seriously tell me he is in the same league as Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi?!], a High Court judge ruled in favour of Kent father Stewart Dimmock, who accused the Department of Children, Schools and Families of trying to "brainwash" children by sending thousands of copies of Gore's "shockumentary" An Inconvenient Truth to schools across the country. The judge concluded that the Oscar-winning film should only be distributed if it is accompanied by new guidlines explaining the numerous scientific errors contained in the former US vice-president's "one-sided" views — errors that he attributed to "alarmism and exaggeration."

As has previously been commented on this blog, if the Government were to send the failed presidential candidate's propaganda to every secondary school, then a copy of Martin Durkin's The Great Global Warming Swindle should also be sent, to encourage proper debate and help develop the next generation's critical thinking skills.

The Times lists the nine errors identified by the judge:

Error one

Al Gore: A sea-level rise of up to 20 feet would be caused by melting
of either West Antarctica or Greenland “in the near future”.

The judge’s finding: “This is distinctly alarmist and part of Mr
Gore’s ”wake-up call“. It was common ground that if Greenland melted it would
release this amount of water - “but only after, and over, millennia.”

Error two

Gore: Low-lying inhabited Pacific atolls are already “being inundated
because of anthropogenic global warming.”

Judge: There was no evidence of any evacuation having yet happened.

Error three

Gore: The documentary described global warming potentially “shutting
down the Ocean Conveyor” - the process by which the Gulf Stream is carried over
the North Atlantic to western Europe.

Judge: According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC), it was “very unlikely” it would be shut down, though it might slow down.

Error four

Gore: He asserted - by ridiculing the opposite view - that two graphs,
one plotting a rise in C02 and the other the rise in temperature over a period
of 650,000 years, showed “an exact fit”.

Judge: Although there was general scientific agreement that there was
a connection, “the two graphs do not establish what Mr Gore asserts”.

Error five

Gore: The disappearance of snow on Mt Kilimanjaro was expressly
attributable to global warming.

Judge: This “specifically impressed” David Miliband, the Environment
Secretary, but the scientific consensus was that it cannot be established that
the recession of snows on Mt Kilimanjaro is mainly attributable to human-induced
climate change.

Error six

Gore: The drying up of Lake Chad was used in the film as a prime
example of a catastrophic result of global warming, said the judge.

Judge: “It is generally accepted that the evidence remains
insufficient to establish such an attribution. It is apparently considered to be
far more likely to result from other factors, such as population increase and
over-grazing, and regional climate variability.”

Error seven

Gore: Hurricane Katrina and the consequent devastation in New Orleans
to global warming.

Judge: There is “insufficient evidence to show that”.

Error eight

Gore: Referred to a new scientific study showing that, for the first
time, polar bears were being found that had actually drowned “swimming long
distances - up to 60 miles - to find the ice”.

Judge: “The only scientific study that either side before me can find
is one which indicates that four polar bears have recently been found drowned
because of a storm." That was not to say there might not in future be
drowning-related deaths of bears if the trend of regression of pack ice
continued - “but it plainly does not support Mr Gore’s description”.

Error nine

Gore: Coral reefs all over the world were bleaching because of global
warming and other factors.

Judge: The IPCC had reported that, if temperatures were to rise by 1-3
degrees centigrade, there would be increased coral bleaching and mortality,
unless the coral could adapt. But separating the impacts of stresses due to
climate change from other stresses, such as over-fishing, and pollution was

Burma's Steve Biko?

Ko Win Shwe, a 42-year-old member of Aung San Suu Kyi's besieged National League for Democracy in Burma, has died as a result of torture during interrogation after being arrested on September 26th for his active support and participation in the monks' demonstration. Dead bodies of monks have also appeared in the Pazundaung River in Rangoon in the past few days.

Source: Assistance Association for Political PrisonersThe body of Steve Biko in a prison in King Williamstown, South AfricaThe body of Steve Biko in a prison in King Williamstown, South Africa. Leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, Biko was arrested on August 1977, and died soon afterwards. In 1997 five former members of the South African security forces admitted to killing Biko, who died a year after the Soweto riots which rocked apartheid South Africa. [Al-Ahram Weekly]

Extended Family Care

In Labour's first term, the Royal Commission on Long-Term Care called for all personal social care to be made free to the patient. Eight years on, the state only pays for the care of people with assets less than £12,000, with many elderly people having to sell their homes to pay for care.

Given the observations made by David Willetts a month ago about intergenerational solidarity and older people being reluctant to borrow against their accumulated wealth, perhaps it is a good thing that people should need to liquidise some of their assets in retirement. After all, we do not want the state merely to take on more financial responsibility for our care, unnecessarily increasing the burden placed on the tax-payer, do we?

And yet, if we continue to develop our political vision (or "big idea" as the BBC chose to call it this morning) that values the family, perhaps we should welcome government proposals to scrap means-testing for long term care of elderly and disabled people as long overdue. For, the present system is clearly unsustainable, overly-complex and unfair. However, once again, this is not simply a question of economics but also social capital. Figures published last month by the University of Leeds for Carers UK value the unpaid support provided by carers at £87 billion a year — more than the annual total spent on the NHS and more than four times the amount spent on social care services by local authorities each year. This sum represents a vast network of extended family relationships and other friendships that would be lost if the state made any attempt to assume the same responsibility for care.

I remember when my parents moved a few years ago to be closer to my sister and her family, they attempted to arrange for my great-aunt to be moved to a care home nearer to their new home. However, they were told they would be required to pay the difference in the residential care funding provided by the two counties' social services as the county where my aunt had previously paid council tax would be responsible for funding her care but that their level of provision was lower than where my parents wished to move her. As a consequence, rather than living close to her extended family, with all the benefits that would bring such as more frequent visits from her family, my aunt lives two hours from the rest of us.

Given the rising challenge posed by our changing demographics and ageing population, surely government should be encouraging families, even through tax breaks or tax credits, to stay together and should be looking to maximise independence and choice for people being cared for and their carers.

09 October 2007

UN Fiddles While Darfur Burns

Darfur's surge in violence, that saw a town of 7,000 citizens burnt to the ground just a couple of days ago, continues...

A Sudanese army assault killed at least 45 people in the Darfur town of Muhajiriya, where bodies littered the streets amid burned out buildings ... Some analysts say the recent surge in violence in Darfur is an effort by warring parties to gain land before AU-U.N. mediated peace talks in Libya this month. Others said Khartoum may be trying to drive rebels from the peace process. [Reuters]
With Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) gathering in large numbers in at least six towns in northern Darfur, including Tine, Kornoy, Um Baru, and Kutum, further attacks are expected before the peace talks in Tripoli are due to begin, on 27th October.

Yesterday's attack, 130 kilomotres west of that in Haskanita, was allegedly supported by an SAF Antonov, painted white — the colour of the United Nations. Meanwhile, Jan Eliasson, the UN Special Envoy for Darfur is in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, for talks with Government officials. No doubt he will be as forceful as ever...

Pick'n'mix Politics

Having forced the Conservatives to reveal some of their trump cards last week (in readiness for the election that never was), the Government is being accused after today's pre-budget report and comprehensive spending review statement of "stealing" Conservative and LibDem policies — notably, on raising the inheritance tax threshold for married couples and those in civil partnerships, on reforming aviation duty so it is paid per plane rather than per passenger, and on reviewing loopholes for non-domiciled tax payers. However, if all our elected representatives have our best interests in mind, then surely we want the Government of the day to draw upon the best ideas from across the political spectrum and it doesn't matter who gets to implement them?

Except that "pick'n'mix" politics is unlikely to result in a stable economy and strong society. In order to achieve that, one needs a coherent vision and clear objectives. Only once core values have been identified and principles and beliefs clearly defined, is anyone in a position to evaluate how effectively any given policy fits into the overall scheme for the nation and what contribution any particular set of policies might make towards stated goals.

So, if your vision recognises marriage and the family as a means of fostering strong local communities and family-based support networks, it makes sense to introduce transferable tax allowances between spouses — on income tax, not just inheritance tax. However, it would also make sense to exempt the main family home from inheritance tax — and makes no sense to have a conflicting tax credit system that penalises couples who want to get together or who are struggling financially and want to stay together!

The reason I supported David Cameron in the leadership contest two years ago is that, whenever he spoke, he appeared to be presenting an overall vision for the country rather than piecemeal policies. He has spent the last two years first defining the aims and values of his party (in "Built to Last") and then conducting wide-ranging policy reviews. Now that each of the policy groups has reported, the Conservative leader is in a position to evaluate their many proposals against his broader vision for society.

In contrast, Gordon Brown repeatedly tells us that he has a vision but has so far failed to tell us what that vision is, which begs the question as to whether he really has one — or even understands the need for one. Ultimately, it is this that means Labour's "plagiarism politics" will fail to transform the breakdown in society and the slowdown in the economy — and why, to coin a phrase, it is time for change. Sadly, it seems we're going to have to wait two or three years more until we are given the opportunity to effect that change.

Don't Be Fooled

Helpful bunch the European Scrutiny Committee. Their report on the European Reform Treaty questions, perhaps even undermines, just about all the government’s main claims for that controversial text.
So begins Mark Mardell's assessment of the verdict of MPs that the European Treaty is "substantially equivalent" to the previously rejected constitution.

Call me over-cynical but, given that Labour MPs make up the majority on the cross-party committee, unless Gordon Brown has completely lost control, I suspect the report's much-trumpeted calls for "concrete evidence" will pave the way for the Prime Minister to return from next week's Lisbon Council claiming that he has provided the necessary evidence to satisfy the European Scrutiny Committee, that our "red line" opt-outs remain intact, and that we need no longer fear any "further erosion of transparency and accountability" as he has secured the requested safeguards against the "ratchet clause." In sum, that there is therefore no need for a referendum.

08 October 2007

Shibboleth: Political Art

Shibboleth at Tate ModernColombian artist Doris Salcedo's 500-foot crack, Shibboleth, in the floor of Tate Modern is supposed to be a statement about racism, representing "borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred, the experience of a Third World person coming into the heart of Europe."

Clearly intended to be a more serious installation than Carsten Höller's Test Site, let us know if you think the artist has been successful ... or is this just another expensive piece of modern art whose sole function is to separate the liberals from the traditionalists?

Brown's Economic Wizardry

Now you see it, now you don't!Gordon Brown repeatedly boasts that he was the first chancellor to preside over almost a decade of economic growth. Today, uSwitch.com gives us the figures: a 42% rise in the cost of essential household goods means that disposable income now stands at its lowest level as a proportion of overall income since 1997. Despite a rise in average household incomes, the amount of "disposable" income has dropped 2% and net household income as a proportion of gross household income is down 5% compared with when Gordon Brown took control of British domestic policy.

The closer we look at the Prime Minister's economic record, the less competent he appears as a leader.

07 October 2007

A Question Of Convenience

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestAs with the over-medication of children and euthanasia, I find myself asking to what extent convenience is the driving factor behind the request of Alison Thorpe, the mother who has asked doctors to give her 15-year-old daughter Katie a hysterectomy to stop her from starting menstruation — on the basis that Katie suffers from cerebral palsy and "would be confused by periods and they would cause her indignity."

If Mrs Thorpe's doctors are granted legal approval, a dangerous and disturbing precedent will have been set. And if anyone has difficulty understanding why that might be so, perhaps it's time to re-read Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (or to re-watch the 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson)

Lest We Forget Sudan

A Darfur town has been burned to the ground and its residents forced to flee, days after 10 African Union troops were killed there in an attack.

More than 7,000 residents of Haskanita fled into the bush or to other towns after it was torched, a spokeswoman for the U.N. said, adding a huge aid operation would be needed to bring them food, shelter and water.

The only buildings to survive were a mosque and a school.

A large armed group attacked a small African Union base in Haskanita on September 29, killing seven Nigerian peacekeepers and three other soldiers from Mali, Senegal and Botswana. [Reuters]
Other news sources add, "Yesterday rebels claimed that Haskanita had been left a smouldering wreck after being levelled by Sudanese troops, with 100 civilians dying in the process."

06 October 2007

Is Pakistan Really Democratic?

If you are lucky enough to see any real news today (i.e. anything besides Gordon Brown's decision not to give us a general election), you might chance upon report from Pakistan that President Pervez Musharraf has won a controversial presidential vote — controversial because the country's Supreme Court has yet to decide whether the General was able to stand while still serving as the head of the army.

Although Musharraf has again given an "offer of reconciliation to all political parties," Pakistani Christians are now saying that the election commission rejected the nomination of their presidential candidate, Joseph Francis, the leader of the Pakistan Christian National Party, citing article 42 Pakistan's constitution, which bars non-Muslim candidates from running for president. At a time of heightened religious tensions, with violent attacks against churches and some Christians being threatened to convert to Islam, if the president is serious about wanting to create stability in the country and "to eliminate terrorists and eradicate extremism," he will need to work not just with his political rivals but also with the country's religious minorities. Given that Musharraf is one of the West's strongest regional allies in the New Great Game (aka what used to be called the "fight against terrorism"), one can but hope that quiet diplomatic pressure will be exerted to persuade the one-time coupe leader to include all Pakistani citizens in his "National Reconciliation Plan."

05 October 2007

Korean Endgame

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, left, toasts with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il after declaring a joint reconciliation pact [Credit: Spiegel Online]Someone contacted me via Facebook to ask what I make of the South Koreans having talks with North Korea. As often, the IHT provides an excellent analysis:

The urgency from the North Korean perspective today derives from an understanding that America's presidential alternation often wipes out diplomatic momentum, and indeed, where the last two changes in Washington were concerned, wiped the policy slate clean toward Pyongyang altogether, requiring long, costly efforts to get going again.

Kim Jong Il, who is widely believed to have serious health concerns, and also appears to be preoccupied with engineering his own dynastic succession, likely feels that now is the best time to strike a deal that would end the state of war, win badly needed economic assistance, establish diplomatic guarantees for his regime and help ensure its survival.
Clearly, there is still a long road ahead for the peninsula but, 54 years after the end of the Korean War, we can but pray that the nuclear regime gets the help that it so urgently needs from the outside.

Conviction Politics & Media Spin

Having yesterday joined the international bloggers' day of silence for Burma (and also having spent the day catching up with life after the conference), I have now caught up with some of the news and comment that I missed over the past few days. More than anything else, I am amazed how coverage of highlights from the Conservative conference contrasts with what so many experienced and were saying behind the scenes at the time. Quite clearly, if we are ever to see a return of conviction politics, spin is a problem to be addressed as much by the media as by political parties. Credit then to Daily Mail blogger Ben Brogan for his honest appraisal of the IDS speech:

Something quite extraordinary happened in the hall a short while ago. Iain Duncan Smith gave a speech, without notes, about repairing Britain's broken society with tolerance. He finished it with a heart-stopping appeal to "make it your life". The response was a huge standing ovation, and this time it was real. In fact, it just went on and on. He just stood there looking deeply moved. At one point his face started to crumple and there was a distinct glint of tears in his eyes. Was he recalling the horror of four years ago in the same hall, when 17 staged standing ovations failed to save him from the chop? And was this a case of apology by applause? A telling moment in a conference that is turning into a triumph.
Iain Duncan SmithWhat was most striking was that Iain spoke not merely "without notes" (a feat that the media made much of when Cameron more or less repeated the act) but also with such great passion — he was truly inspiring, which is why both men and women were moved to tears. As one of Brogan's commenters says, "Unfortunately unless you were at Blackpool, you won't know anything about IDS's speech. The BBC haven't covered it at all - and apparently nor have Sky. I've been reading about it on blogs and am now feeling seriously deprived. How can anyone make an informed decision in an election if the media fix the news stories like this? It just isn't right."

See also: Quentin Letts' report in The Daily Mail: "Iain Duncan Smith, the 'Quiet Man' of politics, the former Tory leader so long trashed and traduced as a loser from another age, gave an absolute scorcher of a speech. No notes. No lectern. Packed with gestures and variety and oompf."

04 October 2007

Free Burma!

Free Burma!

03 October 2007

Cameron Highlights

"While our economy is getting richer, our society is in many ways getting poorer."

I'm not sure that the economy is actually getting stronger - though Gordon Brown would like to convince us that it is - but David Cameron, picking up on what Iain "The Passionate Man" Duncan Smith said yesterday, is surely right that society is getting poorer. As he noted earlier in his speech, "We've got to make families stronger and society more responsible."

Yet, somehow I have yet to hear any politician make the crucial observation that would transform our whole approach to the challenges facing our country and our world. Namely, life is all about relationships. Family relationships, community relationships, corporate relationships, international relationships - everything we treasure most and everything that determines the opportunities available to us - revolves around relationships.

Yes, Britain is broken. Society needs mending. However, I think we have yet to grasp the full extent of the problem ... and, therefore, also of the solution.

02 October 2007

Go To Work To Save Lives

What can I say? If you weren't here or, even if you were but you missed Iain Duncan Smith, you missed what everyone is already saying will have been the best speech of the conference - or, indeed, that anyone has seen for some conferences.

"Moving" - as so many have said - is simply an understatement. As for the three-minute standing ovation - as one former MP put it: it was an ovation the likes of which we haven't seen since the days of Mrs Thatcher.

Speaking of those who work in the charity sector and help former drug addicts to turn their lives around, some of whom who we saw interviewed on video, Iain said, "Every day they go to work, they go to work to save lives." May that be the passion behind what each of us does each day. And, as he concluded, in contrast with Labour who last week told us they want power "to destroy the Conservatives," let everyone be clear that the Conservatives want power to rebuild our country - to mend our broken society.

Hague on Mugabe's Knighthood

"Zimbabwe stands as a monument to the truth that while the power of a good government to do good is not infinite, the power of a bad government to do bad knows no limits."

Repeating calls he made in yesterday's Human Rights Commission fringe meeting, William Hague has not only echoed calls for tougher sanctions against Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe, but has just told the conference the dictator "Still enjoys an honorary knighthood from Britain. It is time it was stripped from him."

To much applause, he has also pledged that the next Conservative government will enact legislation that will require all future governments to submit any proposal for passing more powers to Europe to a national referendum.

If all these policy commitments prove sufficient to motivate those who would traditionally be inclined to support the Conservative Party to get out and vote, then Gordon Brown might find a closer fight on his hands - when he does pluck up the courage to announce a general election - than the opinion polls might presently suggest.

William Hague MP, Shadow Foreign SecretaryThe Shadow Foreign Secretary has endorsed The Difference campaign, saying:

"I fully support The Difference magazine's campaign urging greater international action on Zimbabwe.

Robert Mugabe is a repulsive dictator who has brought devastation to his country for twenty-seven years and it is time for the international community to take firm and concerted measures against his regime. The European Union should apply additional European sanctions to Zimbabwe without delay: widening the scope of the EU asset freeze and travel ban to include all relatives and business associates of members of Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, and subjecting the Governor of Zimbabwe's Reserve Bank to similar sanctions would be a clear signal of our intent. Beyond the EU, Zimbabwe's neighbouring countries, in particular South Africa, must also join the rest of the international community in pursuing a clear strategy to resolve the crisis.

The Zimbabwean people deserve our full support and their misery must not be allowed to continue."

01 October 2007

Conference Rush on Zimbabwe Petition

I had been thinking of going to the "fixing our broken society" debate at 2.30, but now realise the afternoon has flown by without my noticing - such has been the interest from people wanting to sign The Difference petition calling for tougher sanctions against Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe! Literally hundreds have been coming forward to sign, a good number sharing their recollections of the country, one even having served for eight months in Zimbabwe's army because he didn't read the small print when he went to live there for two years!

If you haven't yet signed the petition, follow the link at Zimbabwe: Will Anybody Help? to do so online.

(Someone has just told me that the debate was excellent, with a number of contributors receiving standing ovations.)

George Hits Home

Raising the threshold for paying inheritance tax to £1000000 - now that's what the Party's been wanting to hear and was received with a huge cheer. But has it come too late?