30 September 2007

Conference Diary - Sunday

Well, I finally made it to the sunny delights of Blackpool ... after spending 3 1/2 hours broken down on the M6 (not my car)! Like others, I applied for my conference pass back in July. Also like others, I have been phoning Fingerprint Events every day for the past week in order to find out why I still hadn't been accredited. Eventually, yesterday, somebody decided they ought to let me in after all and I didn't even have to queue for more than a couple of minutes today before being able to collect my pass, so there's no turning back now.

Before leaving home this morning, I did catch some of David Cameron's interview with Andrew Marr. Coming in as they were discussing the Conservatives' dramatic loss of strength in all the opinion polls over the past year, with Marr saying something about needing "to have an analysis of what you need to change and therefore what went wrong" in order to bring about change, I thought he was about to pick up the conference theme and ask Cameron whether it was "time for change" in the direction or even, if Marr was really unsympathetic, in the leadership of the Party. However, he let Cameron plough on to talk about crime and the breakdown in responsibility in evidence across the country.

Cameron went on to assert that "We have a real opportunity after last week where there was a long list of pledges but no explanation. No explanation of how we get there." As I noted yesterday, whether in three days' time we will have seen sufficient breadth and depth of policy announcements and whether they hold together as a coherent expression of the Party's vision to heal our broken society could determine whether Gordon Brown has the courage to opt for an early election and could determine what kind of Government this country has for the next five years: another five years of "nanny knows best," top-down, big state interference, or the chance to build a new society in which families and communities are empowered to take control of their our lives. The challenge is indeed huge. Let us all hope he rises to it, or we will all be the worse off for it.

29 September 2007

Policy Blizzard's First Flurry

Gordon Brown in a blizzardTalk of a "blizzard of conference policy announcements" has begun the "Cameron fight back" with what must surely rank as highly attractive, family-friendly changes to the tax and welfare system: the abolition of stamp duty for first-time buyers on homes worth up to £250,000 and an increase in working tax credit paid to two-parent families (worth up to £2,000 a year for 1.8 million families with children), funded by a crackdown on "work-shy" benefits claimants, including "aggressive" penalties for those who turn down jobs.

Whether it and the flurry of other manifesto suggestions to be rolled out this week are seen to bring together and build upon the many recent policy group reports and whether they will prove sufficiently appealing to close the double-figure poll lead that Gordon Brown now enjoys remains to be seen...

If you want a reminder of the policies that you, The Difference readers, said you would most like to see the Party put forward, when David Cameron first suggested a blizzard of policy ideas, visit Your Policy Ideas Results.

Fill Up This Weekend!

petrol pumpDon't forget to save yourself some money and fill up with petrol this weekend, before the Chancellor puts the price of petrol up by 2.35p per litre on Monday! Does anyone still believe that road users need to be hit by yet more green taxes?

28 September 2007

The New Great Game

General Dan McNeill [Credit: Al-Jazeera]"KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 28 — The commander of NATO said he expects Taliban forces to regroup over the winter in Afghanistan and retake areas previously secured by the British."

In a BBC radio interview, US General Dan McNeill has said that although NATO forces have had success this year in driving Taleban fighters from the valleys of Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, where about 25 British soldiers have been killed in the past six months, the Afghan national security forces have not been as successful in holding the captured territory and that there is a chance the Taleban could return to the area in coming months, forcing NATO troops to do the clearing work again.

Perhaps, as many predicted, we are now beginning to learn the lesson of The Great Game: No army has ever conquered Afghanistan ... and none ever will.

Howard 11 - Cameron 21

Michael Howard, you may recall, summed up conservatism in eleven words:

  • Cleaner hospitals, more police, school discipline, controlled immigration, lower taxes, accountability.
David Cameron is apparently to use twenty-one words:
  • Giving people more opportunity and power over their lives.
  • Making families stronger and society more responsible.
  • Making Britain safer and greener.
Anyone care to offer their alternative suggestions?

27 September 2007

Why the Silence on Zimbabwe?

"Why is there such a crushing international silence on the outrages in Zimbabwe? Is it because a defeated and damaged people cannot get onto the streets in sufficient numbers for the western media to have good pictures? Is that what it takes to get western governments these days active and concerned about such flagrant abuses of human rights?"

Reflecting on all the noise being made over Burma, John Redwood asks some pertinent questions about the international community's media-driven foreign policy. Echoing sentiments expressed on this blog yesterday, he concludes, "Will someone in western governments please do something? Will the UN wake up from its slumbers and show it has the diplomatic skills to mobilise the international community against this evil?"We know why you're in South Africa - Life in Zimbabwe is murder these days - Use your vote [Credit: Sokwanele]

Majority Favour Military Intervention

Here are the results of our last poll on military interventionism abroad. From the total number of votes, it is clear that far fewer of you than usual were prepared or felt able to express an opinion either way. However, of those that did do so, a majority were at least in favour of the principle of intervening to prevent genocide or to defend the human rights of others, even if not everyone agreed whether the conditions for intervention had been reached in either Sudan or Zimbabwe. I wonder whether anyone thinks such an approach should be taken to protect the freedom of those protesting against two decades' oppression by the military junta in Burma...?

In 2000, British troops salvaged the UN operation in Sierra Leone. Should we now take military action in either Darfur or Zimbabwe?
Yes, both.  36% (8 votes)
Only Sudan.  5% (1 votes)
Only Zimbabwe.  27% (6 votes)
No, neither.  32% (7 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 22

Make sure you take our new poll on the review of self-defence legislation.

Reasonable Self-Defence

Justice Secretary Jack Straw says the Government is to hold an urgent review of the law protecting those who intervene in criminal situations in England and Wales.

The Norfolk farmer Tony Martin perhaps most famously has been held up as an everyman's hero after he shot two intruders who had broken into his farmhouse in 1999, resulting the death of 16-year-old Fred Barras. However, as has been argued by others, his case was somewhat different from Jack Straw's "millisecond judgements" to intervene on four occasions after witnessing a robbery or burglary. For, while many of us might worry about being burgled and might install alarms and security lighting to deter intruders, few of us would acquire an unlicensed lethal weapon and wait in the dark for trespassers to strike, having first warned the police of our intentions, as Martin did after twice being broken into.

What do you think? Is the use of "proportionate, reasonable force" already permitted by the Criminal Law Act 1967 to apprehend suspects sufficient, or do we really need an urgent review? Or is this perhaps just a bit of "tough on crime" posturing before a likely election? Take the poll in the sidebar or leave a comment.

26 September 2007

Beyond Disgrace and Disbelief

So, once again, China's economic interests and veto on the UN Security Council prevents the UN from taking any effective action in another world crisis. First Zimbabwe and Sudan, now Burma. And just yesterday UN chief Ban Ki-moon was saying, "To deliver on the world’s high expectations for us, we need to be faster, more flexible and mobile. We need to pay less attention to rhetoric and more attention to results — to getting things done... The Human Rights Council must live up to its responsibilities as the torchbearer for human rights consistently and equitably around the world. I will strive to translate the concept of our Responsibility to Protect from words to deeds, to ensure timely action so that populations do not face genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity." Sadly, all just talk, once again...

The UN has proven itself this summer to be wholly irrelevant. There can be no more second chances for this sorry institution, not when so many lives are at stake. It is time for reform. At least France, Burma's biggest Western investor, is now talking about trade sanctions and even disinvestment.

UPDATE: Apparently Russia has also taken the opportunity to play games throw its weight around once more, threatening France instead of helping to send a unanimous message to the Burmese military.

British Investment in Burma

Be sure to watch the follow up to yesterday's clash between Miliband and Paxman on Newsnight in tonight's "episode" — The promised statement provided by the Foreign Office, which can be found at the Newsnight site, leaves much to be desired, as the following excerpts from the responses from Burma Campaign UK and Newsnight make plain:

"Britain's ranking as the second largest investor in Burma is due in part because for years it has allowed foreign companies to use British territory to facilitate investment. The government's refusal to close this loophole is inexplicable."

"It remains the case that Britain has not banned UK companies from investing in or trading with Burma. And we note that the Foreign Office has not provided more details to support David Miliband's claim on Newsnight that no major companies are now investing in the country.

"The Foreign Secretary also promised to investigate whether or not Britain provides any funding to "exile" groups that promote democracy. This, as we stated on the programme, was highlighted in a report from the International Development Select Committee of July 2007. The Foreign Office has not addressed this issue in today's statement."

Conservative Muslims May Be Right

When it comes to issues such as the importance of family and marriage in society, Christians can find that they have more in common with people of other faiths than they do with people of no faith. So, although you may not find me agreeing with Muslims on any points of theology, the Conservative Muslim Forum may well be right in their response to the Globalisation and Global Poverty Policy Group's report An Unquiet World:

"Regardless of the foreign policies of the United States, hostility to Iran is not in Britain's national interest. A constructive engagement with Iran offers many possibilities for progress... Instead of joining the United States in demonising Iran, Britain should assist Iran in addressing these legitimate security concerns in a manner that improves our security rather than weakening it."
In the current issue of The Difference, Christopher Catherwood argues that neither a military strike nor economic sanctions would be likely to provide a solution to the threat posed by Iran:
"To attack Iran would be to unite all Iranians against us, even those who might otherwise be deemed progressive. An attack on Iran would also, the experts claim, be logistically almost impossible to win, as the relevant nuclear material can be hidden in thousands of underground places all over the country, even if the two major installations could successfully be taken out in a large-scale strike.

But if we cannot attack Iran, and the hardliners and even moderates seem to want a nuclear capability, what can the West do? Russia refuses to get involved, as it considers anybody who damages the US or its interests as its friend, however dangerous they might be. Not only that but if Iran’s neighbours, including a majority Shia Iraq, refused to operate sanctions, then no matter how harsh the financial measures the rest of the world might want to impose, they would be unlikely to provide a solution."
So, what options are left? Well, as the GGPPG intimated in An Unquiet World, there is the possibility of applying diplomatic pressure through India which, despite having voted twice against Tehran at the IAEA, maintains a strategic relationship with Iran and "is extending ties to other countries in the region with an equal interest in restraining Iran, including Saudi Arabia. The Saudi kingdom is India’s largest provider of oil and is home to an estimated 1.5 million Indian nationals. As important, it is one of the few Islamic theocracies viewed favourably by the West, which has worked for a demilitarised Kashmir and has supported India’s observership in the Organisation of the Islamic Conference."

As this blog argued earlier in the year, there is also an opportunity for America to undermine the mullahs' theocratic regime and promote democratic reform by lifting economic sanctions. So, to answer the question about whether or not to engage with Iran, I am inclined to agree with the CMF that while we should continue to oppose Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions, our approach "should be one of negotiation and mutual dialogues, not threats" and "our primary goal should be assisting in the strengthening of Iranian state institutions to avoid any risk of the transfer of nuclear technology to non state actors."

25 September 2007

So Much For Good Intentions

BBC: In pictures: Protesters defy juntaDavid Miliband may have learnt that it's not good enough to have good intentions, but neither is it good enough for the foreign secretary to appear completely unbriefed about one of the hottest international issues of the day — namely, the protests in Burma. His inability to provide a satisfactory answer to any of Jeremy Paxman's questions about British investment in Burma [the world's second highest] or commitment to pro-democracy movements there [none] on Newsnight was appalling.

Our government should be following President Bush's lead, who today announced a tightening of sanctions against the Burmese junta:

"The United States will tighten economic sanctions on the leaders of the regime and their financial backers. We will impose an expanded visa ban on those responsible for the most egregious violations of human rights, as well as their family members. We will continue to support the efforts of humanitarian groups working to alleviate suffering in Burma, and I urge the United Nations and all nations to use their diplomatic and economic leverage to help the Burmese people reclaim their freedom."

Second Chances?

CBS News: UN Chief: World Sees 'Daunting' ProblemsWhile the Foreign Secretary David Miliband pontificates about moving on from the mistakes made in Iraq and implementing a "second wave" of foreign policy — though providing no details as to how this second wave might be any different from the first, just as Gordon Brown failed to explain in his speech yesterday how a "second decade" of Labour would be any different from the first — United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has opened the UN general assembly by saying that he expects the year ahead to be among "the most challenging in our history."

Thinking about Darfur, Zimbabwe, Iran, China, Russia, and the Middle East — to name but a few of the international issues that we have examined in recent months — I suspect he may be right. However, I also suspect he is being rather optimistic when he goes on to suggest that "together we can make it one of the most successful."

24 September 2007

DNA Database Debate

The forensic use of bioinformation: ethical issuesAt the start of the month, Lord Justice Sedley described the national DNA database as indefensible, unfair and inconsistent and called for the DNA of every citizen to be included. Then last week the Nuffield Council on Bioethics published a report suggesting that police should only be allowed to store permanently bioinformation from people who are convicted of a crime and that the potential benefits of establishing a population-wide forensic DNA database would not be great enough to justify the cost and intrusion to privacy at the current time. So who's right?

A poll was conducted for tonight's Panorama, Give Us Your DNA, indicating that 66% of the population would be in favour of everyone's DNA being sampled when they reached the age of 18, but that 64% would oppose samples being taken at birth. Thus, the programme suggested, the main objection against a universal DNA database is simply its being impolitic, rather than in any way inefficient. However, a senior forensic scientist who is the Director of Forensic Institute, Professor Allan Jamieson, believes that people put too much faith in DNA and are giving it an infallibility which it does not have. As he explained to the interviewer, "We've shaken hands. My DNA will be on your hand. You may touch something outside of this room that I have never touched, and therefore my DNA will be somewhere where I have never been."

As a geneticist, I would have few reservations about equipping the police with a tool that has proven invaluable in helping them to solve crimes, so long as adequate safeguards were in place to protect against the possibility of mistaken identity — such as not allowing cases to proceed where DNA alone is the only evidence. After all, even fingerprints, which cannot be carried off by anyone else, are not infalliable determiners of identity, as the case of PC Shirley McKie proved ten years ago.

In the current climate of CCTV, biometric passports and identity cards, however, and with our country already increasing resembling a police state or surveillance society, I cannot see how any expansion of the existing database could be achieved without damaging the relationship between citizens and the police, between people and government. No longer innocent until proven guilty, citizens treated with dignity and respect, we increasingly risk being reduced to potential suspects to be monitored and controlled by every means at every junction. Yet, healthy relationships are surely key to the social well-being of society, just as they are to the social well-being of individuals. Therefore, unless we want to lose what remains of our community structures, we must resist any moves towards a national DNA database.

To Engage Or Not To Engage...

Ahmadinejad waving from the steps of his plane"Would Columbia [University in New York] ever invite a white supremacist, or an evolutionary creationist, or an advocate of the murder of abortion doctors to speak on campus, counting on the power of dialogue to counter offensive and even odious ideas? Clearly it wouldn't."

The IHT argues that it would have been better for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to have been given permission to lay a wreath at Ground Zero to the victims of 9/11† than to be invited to speak at Columbia:

"It would have opened him up to certain questions. Maybe somebody at Columbia will ask them anyway. For example: If you're sorry about the victims of 9/11, what about the victims of the Holocaust, which you deny took place? And, When are you going to lay a wreath to the victims of violence by Hamas and Hezbollah, whom you bankroll, train and arm?"
What do you think?

Apparently this may yet happen anyway, as the visit is still on the leader's itinerary.

Germany's Ethical Foreign Policy

The Dalai Lama and Angela Merkel [Spiegel Online: China's Neurotic Petulance over Tibet]Credit to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel for consistently taking a stand on human rights, defying Chinese threats in order to meet the Dalai Lama, the 72-year-old spiritual leader of Tibet.

An example for other Western leaders to learn from, perhaps...

23 September 2007

Energy Security

The Bruges Group: EU to take control over Britain's energy policyI was amused to be at a meeting this past week in which my local MP stressed the need for our political priority in the climate change debate to be on energy security, rather than superficial emissions targets, only to be followed by one of our MEPs claiming that a Europe-wide energy network would deliver us the security we need. I can't say that I was at all convinced that such a move would give us any national control over our energy supply, so was interested to pick up the following report from the Bruges Group:

EU to take control over Britain's energy policy

The proposed treaty will give the EU power for the first time over the whole field of energy and Britain’s oil and gas reserves.
The UK’s oil industry produces £5 billion in taxes and has about 265,000 employees. But this could all be threatened by the revived and renamed EU Constitution.

Under the new Article 176a in the Reform Treaty the European Union will take control over energy policy and usage. This will be introduced under Qualified Majority Voting, meaning that Britain will not be able to veto damaging EU laws, nor protect the North Sea reserves.

The implications of this will be enormous. Article 176a reads;
    1. In the context of the establishment and functioning of the internal market and with regard for the need to preserve and improve the environment, Union policy on energy shall aim, in a spirit of solidarity between Member States, to:
    (a) ensure the functioning of the energy market;
    (This will hand Brussels the power to decide, where and how the oil and gas are sold)

    (b) ensure security of energy supply in the Union, and
    (This could mean that the UK must supply energy to another member-state if they are having problems with their network)

    (c) promote energy efficiency and energy saving and the development of new and renewable forms of energy;
    (This will make the debate in Britain about how energy is produced irrelevant because Brussels will be making those decisions)

    (d) promote the interconnection of energy networks.
    (This will give the EU a key role as the system guarantor and thus threatening British control over the North Sea reserves)

Brussels will also be able to decide issues relating to the taxation of the reserves without Britain’s Parliament having a say.

EU involvement in this area is especially worrying because the looming and renamed EU Constitution also adds another clause on energy, Article 100(1), which will force Britain to share its reserves in a time of crisis.

After concerns were raised by the oil and gas industry about the implications of Article 100(1) the proposal mentioning energy was removed from the final text of the then EU Constitution. Now, however, by slight-of-hand it has found its way back into the text of the Reform Treaty. In this respect the so-called Reform Treaty will pose more of a threat to Britain’s energy reserves than the original text of the EU Constitution.

21 September 2007

Tree-Felling Tree-Huggers

RSPB: Save the Sumatran rainforest"Breathe in. Breathe out. In that time, an area of rainforest the size of five football pitches has been lost forever."

So a piece of literature that I received in the post from the RSPB informs me. "Every minute we destroy 25 hectares of the world's forests," it continues. This set me thinking about how misguided the anti-aviation environmental campaigners are. For, in the next 24 hours, deforestation will release as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as 8,000,000 people flying from London to New York. Or, in the words of Sir Nicholas Stern, deforestation in the next four years alone will pump more CO2 into the atmosphere than every flight in the history of aviation to at least 2025!

So, while deforestation accounts for up to 25% of global emissions of heat-trapping gases (and paper makes up 35% of all the rubbish we throw away) and transport, industry and agriculture each account for 14%, aviation contributes at most just 3% of the total. Yet, the Kyoto Protocol didn't even mention, let alone attempt to tackle, this far greater issue.

Perversely, as a result of the efforts of the global warming fanatics and so-called carbon markets, countries are actually being encouraged to destroy the world's forests — take, for instance, the recent deal between China and the Philippines that could ultimately see 8.8 million hectares of "idle alienable and disposable lands and forest lands" developed for agribusiness and biofuel production to feed China's voracious appetite for fuel, threatening the Philippines' own food security.

When are we going to begin getting a proper sense of perspective on these matters?

20 September 2007

Islamic School For Kent

Jamia Mosque in Gillingham [Credit: BBC]Tonight's local news that Muslim leaders are calling for a state-funded Islamic school to be set up in Kent saw me turning to Martin Parsons article in this month's edition of The Difference, examining how Western educational values unwittingly contributed to the rise of Islamism.

The BBC quotes a spokesman for Kent Muslim Welfare Association, Anwar Khan, who runs Islamic classes outside school hours for about 100 children at Jamia Mosque in Gillingham, as complaining, "We run our schools for 10 hours a week - two hours a day, for children across the ages and from different schools. It is an extra burden for them, coming back from school, doing some work at home and having their evening meal and then coming to the mosque."

Parsons concludes his article by considering this very issue of demands from Islamic organisations for state funding of Muslim schools. Let us know what you think:

When Labour came to power in 1997 the government began to approve the creation of Muslim schools in a similar manner to voluntary aided Anglican and Catholic schools. However, the question which needs to be answered is whether these schools are inspired by a philosophy that is compatible with western democracy and seeks to promote tolerance and freedom, or Islamism, which combines western education's critical thinking with Islamic political values?

Labour clearly needs the votes of Islamic groups but doesn’t appear to want all of their agenda. It has been willing to grant some requests – such as government subsidies for courses in Islamic theology and Arabic and considering approval for a Muslim City Academy in Bradford – but has now made a significant u-turn on faith schools. First came an announcement that all faith schools would have to allocate 25% of their places to pupils from another faith or no faith, a proposal that was finally dropped after a concerted campaign by the Catholic Church. Then the government legally required all schools to promote “community cohesion”, with Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, suggesting faith schools should twin with those of other faiths.

Many have suggested that this attempt to create “community cohesion” by targeting all faith schools instead of just Muslim ones is driven by Labour’s desire to hold onto its share of the Muslim vote, which slumped in the 2005 general election. However, there is also a marked secularising tendency in liberal-left politics, coupled with an ideological assumption that the state, not churches or parents, should educate children. The recent vote of the left-leaning teaching union, the NASUWT, to oppose new faith schools well illustrates these ideological assumptions.

Yet whoever heard of voluntary-aided Church of England or Catholic schools in mainland Britain creating problems of community cohesion? They don’t for two reasons. First, because as part of the majority community – 72% according to the last census – voluntary-aided Christian schools by definition cannot create an educational ghetto. Secondly, unlike the Islamic scriptures, the Bible does not set out a distinct political system, still less require one to be imposed on non-believers. Tragically, this is a nettle that the Labour government and other members of the liberal left seem unable or unwilling to grasp.
For more on this issue, also see The Rise Of Islam.

Religion's Place in Politics

Those who claim that religion has no place in politics need to take a look at the latest developments in Burma's continuing demonstrations, where thousands of Buddhist monks have taken to the streets in defiance of Burma's oppressive military regime. Despite violence used against earlier rallies by pro-democracy activists, hundreds of monks are now leading protests right across the country's cities. The monks have also excommunicated the government and its supporters by refusing alms or donations from anyone linked to the junta.

Once again, it seems that when the going gets tough, people of faith get going. On the other hand, can you imagine similarly large groups of Christians or church leaders in this country taking such a lead on fundamental issues affecting society?Thousands of Buddhist monks marching in defiance of Burma's oppressive military regime [Credit: TIME]

NHS Needs Competition

Rudy Giuliani meeting Gordon Brown [Credit: ABC News]

"Healthcare right now in America - and I think it has been true of your experience of socialised medicine in England - is not only very expensive, it's increasingly less effective. I had prostate cancer seven years. My chance of survival in the US is 82%; my chance of survival if I was here in England is below 50%. Breast cancer is very similar. I think there's something to the idea that there are many more private options driving the system that create altogether better results."
Nothing quite like a reality check from the Republican presidential front-runner Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York ... Wonder what Gordon Brown made of that?

18 September 2007

Our Unsustainable Society

Writing in today's Times, David Willetts says he believes that increasingly we are a society divided by age. In a nutshell, his argument is that "young people have to sacrifice a lot of their income today to afford the high house prices that boost the wealth of older people. But the older people are reluctant to borrow against this wealth so their living standards don’t rise either."

Changes in the housing market and resulting wealth transfers have thus weakened the legitimacy of the intergenerational contract in areas such as the NHS and state pension — both of which are largely funded out of taxes from the working age population, while their services are drawn upon more significantly by people in retirement. As a result, the discussion paper accompanying the research referred to by Willetts, published yesterday by the International Longevity Centre, consequently poses some difficult questions:

Having seen such dramatic asset accumulation, can older cohorts expect to rely on the young to pay for them in retirement, and more generally, the costs of the UK’s ageing population? If not, how can the Government create greater awareness that older cohorts will have to use their housing wealth to fund retirement? How can the Government go about changing attitudes which are often entrenched against such an idea?
Some of the ideas mooted in response have significant merit (for instance, the possibility of incentivising down-sizing among older people by waiving stamp-duty for those in retirement moving to smaller accommodation) and quite clearly Government will have to play a role in facilitating a solution to this issue. However, both the level at which these questions are pitched and the nature of the recommendations made in the paper indicate an over-reliance on looking to the State for economic answers.

Yet, this is more than simply an economic issue — it is relational. By very nature of the intergenerational solidarity discussed in the report, the issue impacts every level of society — not just the state, but individual families. As Government "seeks to forge a new societal settlement," including "the development of other sustainable long-term care funding models for younger cohorts" such as the combined loan and savings account discussed by Willetts in the Times, perhaps we need to remember that a sustainable community is a relational community.

Once again, this is not all about politicians in Westminster passing laws, it's about social responsibility ... it's about us as neighbours in a society playing our part as well.

Liberalism and Christianity Project

"From a political perspective ‘liberal’ is often used as shorthand for ‘soft on crime’ or ‘wishy-washy’ and ineffective. Theologically the term ‘liberal’ can be used to stand for a rejection of various Christian doctrines including that of the Resurrection or the Trinity. The stereotypes linked to these uses of the term are unhelpful at the best of times, but when applied across the political/religious divide they lead to additional confusion."
Ekklesia is reporting on a fringe event at the Lib Dem conference tonight that will seek to encourage Christians that it is possible to be a political Liberal without compromising their personal faith.

As someone who is theologically and politically conservative, I can't say I would disagree with the above characterisation, put out by the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum (the LibDem equivalent of the Conservative Christian Fellowship). Nevertheless, given that I believe our political system is all the more healthy for having Christian representation across the whole political spectrum, I will be interested to see what comes out of their project.

17 September 2007

Wasting Police Time

Want to know what's wrong with policing in this country and why crime and antisocial behaviour seem out of control? Then make sure you watch Panorama on BBC1 tonight as Stuart Davidson, the police constable responsible for The Policeman's Blog goes public:

"Everyone joins the police with the aim of catching burglars, catching thieves, solving crimes. But as a uniformed officer available for deployment I would spend over half of my time writing in the office. Eighty per cent of what I did was a waste of time. There comes a point where you think, 'This isn't really why I joined.'"
By the sounds of it, the programme will live up to the blogger's strapline, "This blog will do more to put people off calling the police than anything, other than actually calling the police."

It's A Wonderful Life

Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life: bank run sceneJames Stewart on the Northern Rock crisis ... A tale for our times?

GEORGE: Hey what's going on, Uncle Billy? What's happened? All those people out there-

UNCLE BILLY: This is a pickle, George. All I know is the bank called our loan an hour ago. I had to hand over all our cash.

GEORGE: Holy mackerel!

UNCLE BILLY: Whole town's gone crazy- the bank's in the same spot we are!

GEORGE: Our charter too-

UNCLE BILLY: -What about our charter?

GEORGE: Our charter says we have to stay open till six pm. The state can take away our license if we don't!

UNCLE BILLY: How can we stay open till six without any money? George, where're you goin'??

GEORGE: Out to talk to those people. C'mon!


CROWD: (ad-libs)George, where's our money?

GEORGE: Now listen, folks! Just a minute, please!!

TOM: How about our money, George? Where's our money?

GEORGE: Wait a minute, now! Listen to me! Now you're thinking of this place all wrong. Your money's not here!

CROWD: (ad-libs) What?

GEORGE: Your money's in people's houses! In the Kennedy house, and the Mclarin house, and your house, and a hundred others. Now what are you going to do -- Foreclose on them?!?

TOM: I got two hundred and forty dollars in shares. Now lemme have it!

GEORGE: All right, all right Charlie. You'll get your money in sixty days.

TOM/CROWD: (ad-libs) Sixty days?!?

GEORGE: Now look that's what you agreed on when you bought your shares.

RANDALL: (coming up to mike) I got my money! Old Man Potter's taken over the bank!! He'll pay you fifty cents on every dollar!!!

CROWD: (ad-libs) Fifty cents on the dollar?!?

TOM: (to CROWD) Let's take our shares to Potter! Half is better than nothing!!!

GEORGE: Wait a minute, wait a minute, please folks! I beg of you not to do this. If Potter gets hold of your shares he'll be owning this building and loan. He's got the bank. He's got the bus line. He's got the department stores. And now he's after us because he wants to keep you living in his shacks and paying the kind of rent he decides to charge. Now, we can get through this thing all right, but we've got to stick together! We've got to have faith in each other!

MRS. THOMPSON: My husband's out of work! We need money!

ANGRY MAN: I got doctor bills to pay!

WORRIED WOMAN: I can't feed my kids on faith!

CROWD: (ad-libbing) Me too! What about that George!?!

MARY: How much do you need? We've still got some money!

GEORGE: Hey Mary!

MARY: Here it is, George! You told me to hold on to it. Would have made a nice honeymoon -- bought furniture, too!

GEORGE: Wait a minute, folks! Listen, I got two thousand dollars! All right, Charlie, how much do you need?

TOM: (doggedly) Two hundred and forty dollars.

GEORGE: (pleading) Now, Tom, just enough to tide you over!

TOM: I said two hundred and forty dollars!

GEORGE: Okay, okay. Uncle Billy give Tom, two hundred and forty dollars. All right Ed, how much just to get by?

ED: Twenty dollars, I suppose.

GEORGE: Now you're talking! Mrs. Thompson, how about you?

MRS. THOMPSON: Twenty dollars will do me.

GEORGE: (counting it out) Good, twenty dollars. Uncle Billy? Pay it back when you can now. All right, all right who's next?


UNCLE BILLY (excitedly): Look at the clock! Look!!!

GEORGE: (counting) Five seconds... four seconds... three... two... one... six o'clock, we made it! Lock that door Eustace, quick! Boy, we're still in business, Uncle Billy! We even got two bucks left!!
For the video, visit YouTube.

Source: Generic Radio Workshop Script Library

16 September 2007

Two-Thirds Want Child Offenders Charged

Here are the results of our last poll. A significant majority of you clearly feel that the age of criminal responsibility should be lowered by at least a year or two:

Should the age of criminal responsibility be changed?
Yes, raise it to 17 or 18  2% (1 votes)
Yes, raise it to 15 or 16  0% (0 votes)
Yes, raise it to 13 or 14  5% (3 votes)
Yes, raise it to 11 or 12  3% (2 votes)
No, keep it at 10  27% (17 votes)
Yes, lower it to 8 or 9  43% (27 votes)
Yes, lower it to 7 or younger  21% (13 votes)
Total voters for this poll: 63

Make sure you take our new poll on military interventionism abroad.

African Interventionism

"Blair's 'ethical foreign policy' is a long-forgotten memory, sacrificed upon an invasion undertaken without UN sanction."

Archbishop of York, Dr John SentamuDo not miss the Ugandan-born Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, in today's Observer, calling for "the sanctions and campaigns that brought an end to apartheid in South Africa to be applied to the Mugabe regime":

Zimbabwe cannot any more be seen as an African problem needing an African solution - it is a humanitarian disaster...

The time has come for Mr Brown, who has already shown himself to be an African interventionist through his work at the UN in favour of the people of Darfur, finally to slay the ghosts of Britain's colonialist past by thoroughly revising foreign policy towards Zimbabwe and to lead the way in co-ordinating an international response...

Like Idi Amin before him in Uganda, Mugabe has rallied a country against its former colonial master only to destroy it through a dictatorial fervour. Enemies are tortured, the press is censored, the people are starving and meanwhile the world waits for South Africa to intervene. That time is now over.
Let us know what you think — and, if you're going to the Conservative Party conference, watch out for our stand, where we'll have a copy of our Zimbabwe petition.

15 September 2007

Responsibility to Protect

Not on our watch - How many times must we say never again?Two generations ago, the United Nations promised in its 1945 Charter, "We the people of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scrouge of war..." Just two years ago, in its International Responsibility to Protect Doctrine, it determined that "the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect." More than six weeks ago, the Security Council agreed its "historic" Resolution 1706, later followed by President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Brown's call for action in Darfur.

So why, one might reasonably ask, is it still left down to thousands of grassroots activists across the world to urge the United Nations, "Don't Look Away Now"? The world's fourth Day for Darfur, tomorrow, prompts me to reproduce a letter that I wrote to The Times almost exactly a year ago:

We need action to avoid slaughter in Sudan

The Sudanese Government claims that any UN peacekeepers sent to save lives in Darfur would represent a threat to the country’s national sovereignty.

Yet, for more than a year, 10,000 UN forces have been in Sudan, and the Sudanese Government has made no claim that these troops interfere with its sovereignty. The difference is that, until now, the mandate of these Unamis forces has not included the protection of civilians’ lives.

During its World Summit last September the UN took the bold step of revising the principle of non-interference enshrined in its charter, asserting that it has a responsibility “to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.

However, in truth, it already had the authority to uphold human rights where member states have conferred sovereignty on the UN through international treaties and covenants. If the UN is going to be able to take effective action against genocidal regimes, then it must now also redefine the concept of national sovereignty.

Sovereignty surely belongs to and is bestowed on governments by the people of a country, and any regime that violates the rights of the people under it so as to strengthen its grip on power should not be considered sovereign.

Failure to address this issue will inevitably mean that the UN will remain paralysed when confronted with obstructive, tyrannical regimes and Sudan will become but the first genocide of the 21st century, not the last.
Note: As I have observed previously, even now that the UN has agreed to send in additional troops, their remit excludes adequate monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, they are to be referred to as an "operation" rather than a "force," and they will only be able to protect civilians deemed to be under threat. So, the Sudanese Government need not worry unduly about its "national sovereignty" being threatened...

14 September 2007

Middle East Optimism

While convinced that Mr Abbas needs a clear "political horizon", Mr Blair is said to accept Israel's position that it will not move to concrete final status negotiations until it is confident that such a state is coherent enough not to pose a threat to Israel's security.

In his view therefore a programme of Palestinian "capacity building"; the measures Mr Abbas needs to ease the restrictions on Palestinian economy - and boost it in areas like the Jordan valley, which Mr Blair toured this week; and the central diplomatic process, are all interdependent.

Part of this conviction stems from his experience in Northern Ireland, where he faced continuous objections from the Army to "demilitarisation" plans. But when the Army saw their objections might be blamed for holding back a political process, they were more reluctant to press them.
Tony Blair with halo of EU starsI was about to comment on The Independent's optimistic review of Tony Blair's Middle East mission, but notice that His Grace has already done so with his usual eloquence: He’s not the Messiah – he’s a very naughty boy. I am inclined to agree with his verdict:
Will he do it? Well, Cranmer has a hunch that he will. He achieved in Northern Ireland what had been deemed a religio-political impossibility, and today The Rt Hon Ian RK Paisley is governing the Province with an unrepentant terrorist at his side. It would be churlish not to put this down in very large part to the conviction, sincerity and charisma of Mr Blair.

13 September 2007

Royal Mail's "Special" Treatment

Royal Mail bin [Credit: funkypancake]Want to know why your Royal Mail delivery is so unreliable? An Australian colleague has just found out. She had to send six forms of identification, including her passport and Australian driver's licence to the DVLA in order to get a British driving licence. She also had to enclose two "special delivery" envelopes for their safe return.

On the day that the items were returned to her, the envelope had simply been posted through her door. Apparently, she learned from the neighbour, the postman had arrived and was complaining about nobody being home and muttering something about passports and driving licences, so the contractor working on scaffolding on the neighbour's house offered to sign for the package. Personally, I get on wonderfully with both my neighbours, but I would not expect either side to be able to sign for a special delivery that I might otherwise miss. I most certainly wouldn't expect a random contractor working next door to be able to get away with signing to confirm that I had received the item.

Obviously, my colleague is just relieved she hasn't now lost her identity to the fraudsters — an envelope with so many unique items of personal identification could no doubt have been worth a fortune to someone...

Blueprint for a Green Economy

"If we are to create a way of living that we can sustain, then water, waste, transport and energy, as well as farming, food, fishing and the built environment, have to be thought of as a whole."

Launching the Conservatives' Quality of Life Policy Group report, a day after the price of crude oil reached a record $80, former Environment Secretary John Gummer is surely right to place the emphasis on sustainability.

At the end of the day, for all the uncertain predictions about an imminent big freeze or, conversely, a global heatwave and for all the questions about the extent to which man has exacerbated the planet's natural cycles of climate change, one thing is certain: the world's reserves of fossil fuels will one day run out. Whether we make them last 50 years or 100 years, or even 200 years, won't ultimately affect mankind's carbon footprint. What our rate of fossil fuel use will affect is the timeframe available in which we can invest in the research and development of renewable sources of energy — during which we can answer the really big question: How can we sustain life and civilisation as we know it? Or, as the report puts it, given that there are plenty of other symptoms of the damage wrought by humans' modern lifestyles — such as desertification, soil erosion, and the destruction of forests — can we continue to be an economically successful nation and, at the same time, an environmentally and socially healthy one?

Does the report provide a satisfactory answer that is "entirely consistent with long-standing Conservative principles"? The introduction notes that "Instead of wanting the State to intervene and control, Conservatives seek only to ensure that the market framework is capable of delivering the nation’s requirements and that people, communities, and organisations, whether for profit or not, are empowered and trusted to play their proper and fullest role." Yet, about aviation, it complains:

"Growth in demand is heavily concentrated in short-haul leisure flights taken by UK residents. Between 1994 and 2004, 70% of the additional international trips that occurred were UK residents going abroad for leisure. From the perspective of the UK economy, this is arguably the wrong sort of growth. Shorthaul leisure flights exacerbate the country’s tourism deficit – the difference between what overseas visitors spend in the UK and what British citizens spend abroad – which already stands at around £15 billion. Today, over half of all air trips arriving or departing UK airports are UK residents travelling for leisure, and this proportion is set to increase." (p.355)
Thus, some of what are already its most criticised recommendations, such as no further airport expansions, rethinking Heathrow's proposed runway, and no new runways at Gatwick or Stansted, seem to burst with big state interventionism. The authors argue that "Scaling back airport expansion plans would lead to more efficient use of existing capacity, and accelerate the allocation of flight slots to parts of the market that value them most" and that this "does not mean that there would be a diminution in the cheap flights already available," but it is hard to see how such an approach could not but damage Britain's economy and international competitiveness.

I am happy to accept the premise that no government can be neutral in matters of wellbeing and we should therefore shift taxation policy towards the taxation of pollution — from 'pay as you earn' to 'pay as you burn.' However, if the shift is to be managed in an orderly manner, the Government will need to ensure that the alternatives that it wishes us to embrace are adequate. There is no point trying to tax us from flying if the rail network doesn't have the capacity to cope with the additional passenger loads. I would probably even be willing to accept that the best way of retuning growth to take account of environmental health is "by pricing carbon into the equation as the most effective surrogate for environmental cost" — so long as this genuinely is not used as a means to increase the total tax burden.

I agree that "It is time to debunk the myth that we must choose between the environment and the economy. In truth there is no either/or between environmental protection, social stability and sustainable economic growth." So, its discussions about energy efficiency — for instance in the context of the household sector discussed earlier in the week by Zac Goldsmith, which include the rejection of the Home Information Packs (HIPs) regime — are to be welcomed. In the related context of planning and also of rural life and Defra, its recommendation that "the localism agenda be used to empower the very lowest of levels of government, nearest to the people whose lives they affect" is also strongly welcome. This also applies to the subsequent discussions about reform of Europe's infamous Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, "to shift the CAP across Europe from production-related subsidies (Pillar 1) to a system of paying farmers for the public goods and services they provide (Pillar 2)." As it says, "The more complex the world gets, the more globalisation seems to remove power from people, politicians, and even nations, and the more it is important that individuals feel they have a real say about the future of their own community." It is high time that this process should be reversed.

Given that I also believe we should "tilt the balance back from ‘economy-friendly families to family-friendly economies,’" I would also not oppose the suggestion for the planning system to "prioritise the protection and enhancement of ‘town centres’ and ‘local neighbourhood shopping centres’ over and above out of town/edge of town retail development." If we wish to strengthen our local communities, then it seems vital that we maintain the economic and social viability of our towns. I expect that some of you might disagree, but I think this is an area where Margaret Thatcher's "Never call me laissez-faire" quote is probably relevant: "Government must be strong to do those things which only government can do."

Lastly, back on transport, I was pleased to see the call for increased carriage of freight by inland waterways and, in relation to proposed national road user charging, the willingness to "seek simple and transparent ways to achieve our ends and avoid grandiose schemes that rely on unproven technology and huge investment."

In conclusion, does the report tell us how we can continue to be an economically successful nation and, at the same time, an environmentally and socially healthy one in a way "entirely consistent with long-standing Conservative principles"? Given that these are merely proposals that will all go into the melting pot containing the many recommendations from each of the other policy group reports, then I believe we have to conclude that it does as least help illuminate the way forwards. The next challenge will be for the Party to compile a coherent manifesto around a single Conservative vision for the twenty-first century...

12 September 2007

Ethics Code For Politicians

Professor Sir David King [BBC]Professor Sir David King has outlined seven principles aimed at building trust between scientists and society: Rigour, respect and responsibility: a universal ethical code for scientists. How about a similar code for politicians, in addition to the existing ministers' code of conduct, to help rebuild trust between politicians and society? Here's a first draft for you to suggest improvements to, based on the proposed code for scientists:

Rigour, honesty and integrity

  • Act with skill and care in all political activities. Maintain up to date skills and assist their development in others
  • Take steps to prevent corrupt practices and professional misconduct. Declare conflicts of interest
  • Be alert to the ways in which your own political activities derives from and affects the work of other people, and respect the rights and reputations of others
Respect for life, the law and the public good
  • Ensure that your work is lawful and justified
  • Minimise and justify any adverse effect your political activities may have on people, animals and the natural environment
Responsible communication: listening and informing
  • Seek to discuss the issues that politics raises for society. Listen to the aspirations and concerns of others
  • Do not knowingly mislead, or allow others to be misled, about political matters. Present and review political evidence, theory or interpretation honestly and accurately

11 September 2007

Brain Scans Predict Voting Behaviour

Thought you might find this New Scientist report interesting:

Political affiliation could be all in the brain

anterior cingulate cortexA brain scan might one day predict your voting patterns. That is the implication of a study that found different brain activity among liberals and conservatives asked to carry out a simple button-pushing test. The study implies that our political diversity may be the result of neurological differences.

Researchers have long known that conservatives and liberals score differently in psychological profiling tests. Now they are beginning to gather evidence about why this might be...

Brain recordings taken using electroencephalogram (EEG) technology showed that liberals had twice as much activity in a deep region called the anterior cingulate cortex. This area of the brain is thought to act as a mental brake by helping the mind recognize "no-go" situations where it must refrain from the usual course of action.

The new findings are "interesting and provocative" because they could perhaps help enable researchers to predict a person's voting behaviour based on brain scans.
If you think that's just an irrelevant bit of fun, check out Tony Blair's Minority Report!

Ethical Business Pioneer Roddick

Dame AnitaI don't usually do obituaries or tributes, but since a precedent was set (Lord Deedes) while the reins for this blog were handed over during my recent Venetian break, I thought I would reproduce a Church Times interview of relevance to this blog's themes with Body Shop founder and Fair Trade supporter, Dame Anita Roddick, who died yesterday aged 64 after a major brain haemorrhage. I particularly commend the final two paragraphs to you:

Speaking to the Church Times, ahead of coming to the Festival in 2004 for the second year running, Dame Anita said: “What’s wonderful about being my age is having to face your prejudices."

And she continued: "I had no idea how big Greenbelt was. I had no idea how organised it was; how free it was; how joyful it was. And I had no idea that there was such a strong activist, trade justice plank in its platform."

“It’s really hard, when you have had your antennae up for most of these movements, to have completely ignored it. I have fallen for the zeitgeist that says anybody who has a religious inclination has no sense of rationale or intellectual understanding and therefore should be dismissed."

“I am cheering the Greenbelt festival from the top of every bloody mountain…for me, it’s like a heartbeat. And it’s youth. I’m ashamed of my bloody prejudices, but I’m delighted to be a convert. I find it wonderful.”
Source: Greenbelt Festivals

10 September 2007

Diversity of Faith in Schools

The Government has today pledged its support for faith schools, unveiling a joint declaration with Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh leaders called Faith in the System. Despite objections from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, who believe religious groups should keep out of education, at least Children, Schools and Families Secretary Ed Balls says he recognises that "faith schools are popular with many parents and make a valuable contribution to the way in which this country educates its children."

As I noted some months ago, Church schools are clearly providing something that parents are seeking and it is right that parents should be allowed a continued choice of schools. However, with reports that today's statement offers the prospect of "many more Muslim schools within the state sector," I wonder whether we'll be hearing a repeat of concerns expressed earlier this year when the Muslim Council of Britain's published Towards Greater Understanding – Meeting the Needs of Muslim Pupils in State Schools, its "guidance document" calling for schools to make concessions to Islamic cultural norms. For instance, Jameah Islamiyah Islamic school, which was searched by anti-terrorism officers last summer [Credit: Daily Telegraph]considering the wider debate over the cultural integration of immigrants and warnings that most of our educational institutions have been infiltrated by Islamist groups, would the prospect of more Muslim schools really help "build bridges to greater mutual trust and understanding" and "contribute to a just and cohesive society"?

Brown's Lurch to the Right

Protest outside M&S urges protection for British jobs [Credit: BBC]Nick Robinson and Matthew d'Ancona, among others, have commented on Gordon Brown's TUC pledge to deliver "British jobs for British workers," speculating on how such a phrase would have been portrayed by the media had David Cameron delivered it.

Looking beyond such "harsh realities of political life," the truth is that our European masters would never permit such employment protection rights. Moreover, given that employers are usually going to take on the best person for the job, then presumably the immigrants accused of "stealing our jobs" are better qualified and/or better experienced than the natives whom they are supplanting — which would seem to imply that there is something wrong with British education and training, requiring a more direct and substantial remedy than any diversionary "British jobs for British workers" sticking plaster.

Top Ten Religious Blogs

It has been brought to my attention that The Difference has been ranked #8 in Iain Dale's Guide to Blogging's Top Ten Religious Blogs. Religion - Archbishop CranmerRegular readers will know that my Christian worldview permeates my politics — indeed, is the reason for my involvement in politics at all. However, anyone visiting here in search of explicit religious views might want to browse the faith and Islam categories. Alternatively, if you want some recommendations, why not start with:

Congratulations go to Archbishop Cranmer, ranked number one in the top ten, as one would hope and expect.

Free Lunches ... Or Just Free Cash?

Under 18 conception rate by deprivation decile [Burning Our Money]When I heard Health secretary Alan Johnson announce the Government's proposal to pay expectant mothers a one-off, no-strings-attached payment of £200 from their 29th week of pregnancy, supposedly to encourage them to eat well, I thought it was such a silly idea that I didn't even think to blog about it. However, I see that Wat Tyler reckons the "Health in Pregnancy Grant" is really an attempt to get teenage mothers onto welfare:

As you will know, we have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. Every year, some 80,000 under-18 year olds conceive, of whom somewhat over half go through to maternity. And the ones that do are overwhelmingly from the lowest socio-economic groups. They are four times more likely to get pregnant than the highest groups, and only around half as likely to have an abortion if they do. Which means well over half of teenage mothers are in the bottom third of society.

Now once those girls have their child, they cop a load of state welfare: indeed, in some parts of Britain it's a major career option. But before then, it's rather more difficult. Because of their youth, they don't qualify for the same level of welfare as say a pregnant 25 year old.

So what Al is really doing here is to extend state welfare to some very young girls who in all probability are currently wholly dependent on their own parents. At a cost of about £140m pa (700,000 births pa times £200 equals £140m pa) he aims to change that and make them dependent on the state.
Of course, such theories might be easier to dismiss if it wasn't for the fact that one in three households have already been made dependent on the state for at least half their income as a result of the sweeping changes made to pensions, taxes, and benefits by Gordon Brown over the last decade. Just as I have suggested previously, Mr Tyler also believes there is much we could learn from America, where President Clinton's 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act helped reduce the number of families receiving cash benefits from the state from a record 5.1 million families to just 1.9 million.