Tuesday, 14 April 2015

The Grand Coalition of the Damned

A Green view of the political consensus between the old parties
Almost two and a half years ago, in Weimar Britain, I considered the parallels between the decline of the liberal-constitutional parties of inter-war Germany, and the exhausted "political consensus" of the three main parties of contemporary British politics. Just as the old German parties drew together around a mindless defence of market democracy in the 1920s in spite of its many failures, so their modern British equivalents have coalesced around a near identical agenda of privatisation of public services and tax breaks for the rich while, inexorably, the Welfare State is beaten down to slowly die. Its formal name is neoliberalism; its reality is people in one of the richest societies in the world unable to eat without food banks, worried about heating bills and rent rises, and consigned to marginalised employment on low wages and unknown hours.

Back in December 2012, UKIP's rise was barely begun and the later "Green surge" and the transformation of Scottish politics in the independence referendum were still a long way off. But all the signs were there - of a political class that has run its course and knows it, but is unwilling to go. An electorate disengaged far beyond apathy. And a rich elite accumulating wealth at a rate that would make the old Czarist nobility blush (indeed, by some indicators, Britain is now more unequal than pre-revolutionary Russia).

Since then of course our political system has juddered into crisis. UKIP topped the polls in the 2014 European elections; the Greens beat the Lib Dems nationwide and then saw their membership nearly quadruple in under a year while some of their poll ratings showed a 10-times increase. And the Scottish referendum brought hundreds of thousands of Scots into a level of political awareness and activity unseen in decades - and soon galvanised masses of people south of the border as well to seek new outlets for their political beliefs. The argument over whether to include UKIP as the fourth party in Leaders' debates on TV soon developed to whether or not to #invitetheGreens and in the end not four, not five, but seven party leaders stood behind podiums - with at least two others warning about legal action over their non-inclusion.

Yet if the Scottish referendum was perhaps the greatest of a whole series of catalysts in the evident disintegration of the old political system, so too was it a warning of just how hard, and how dirty, the Establishment would fight to keep its place at the top table - and defend the interests of its elite paymasters.

Just a couple of weeks before the referendum vote, one poll showed the YES to independence campaign take a narrow lead. Previously complacent Westminster politicians moved into panic mode. Prime Ministers' Questions in the Commons were cancelled as Messrs Miliband, Cameron and Clegg rushed northwards to mount a last-ditch defence of the Union. And like most ditches it was dirty - threats were repeatedly made about Scotland's inability to survive on its own, wild claims issued about capital flight and a repeated insistence of a refusal to share the Pound Sterling.

By voting day, the NO margin was restored, but at just 55 to 45% compared to a longer term expectation of a 70/75 to 30/25 voting down of independence, the result was remarkably close.

The changing faces of UK politics
An this is how it has been and how it will be. As we approach the 7 May General Election, the old parties are bust and know it.

So we have seen a media barrage against Farage (once their darling); exceedingly hostile interviews of Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, and all manner of wild tales about the SNP hordes investing Carlisle castle with siege equipment and eating babies on the way south. A satirical piece in the Daily Mash today caught the reality of what passes for debate rather well as it announced the Greens' newly launched manifesto had been banned for claiming oil won't last forever.

But the polls stubbornly point to parliamentary arithmetic which shows neither Labour nor Tory winning much above 280 seats. With the Lib Dems likely to be reduced to as low as 20, there is no prospect of either a Tory/Lib Dem or a Labour/Lib Dem Coalition reaching the magic number of 326 which is an overall majority in the Commons. With all of them locking out the SNP, who may have around 45 seats and similarly unlikely to be able to stitch a three party coalition with UKIP or the Greens without giving up more than they are willing, the final, more than obvious but only recently talked about option hoves into view.

Uniting around continuing with austerity, privatisation of health and other public services, and happy buddies on a range of laws on curbing civil rights and getting involved in foreign wars, the prospect of a Tory-Labour Coalition is far from unlikely. Like the current Grand Coalition of conservative CDU/CSU in Germany with their once-social democratic SPD rivals, the union of Tory and Labour in joint Government would actually be about the most honest thing the two parties would have done in years. Neither of them, nor their Lib Dem pet parrots, are interested in real change - quite the opposite. By uniting, they can continue to stymie calls for electoral reform and by doing so hope to lock out the new emergent parties and they can, for a time at least, buttress the defences of the rich.

The idea has already been trailed by Conservative and Labour grandees: Lord Baker for the Tories and former Home Secretary Charles Clarke for Labour; and it has was commented on favourably by both the rightwing Daily Telegraph and the notionally leftwing Guardian. Even today, with the Tory manifesto launch underway, one STV commentator explained that the two parties were stealing so much of each others' policy agenda that voters were struggling to distinguish between them.

Goering felt first-past-the-post would have helped the Nazis
A Grand Coalition may be an answer for them; but only for a time as it will finally crystallise the real fault lines in our politics - between incumbents and insurgents; between the grey status quo and a wide range of new options for change.

The extreme centre, as Tariq Ali has christened it, will not hold long. But if its proponents self-interestedly continue to refuse to reform our voting system to give all voters an equal say and all parties the representation they democratically deserve, they may want to reflect on the possible final outcome by considering the words of Nazi leader Hermann Goering at his post-war trial in Nuremberg.

Hitler had never won a majority in the Reichstag under Weimar's proportional voting system and the Enabling Act that transformed him into Fuhrer was only passed via arrests of some opponents and threats to others if they did not support it. None of this would have been necessary, the former Reichsmarschall declared, had Germany had Britain's first-past-the-post voting system because "(the Nazis) would have won every seat."

He was probably right.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Change The Tune - Green Party Broadcast Hits at Neoliberal Chorus

The Greens have launched a party broadcast for the General Election which uses a boyband parody to satirise the neoliberal consensus on austerity and privatisation that binds the other main parties together.

Caution - may contain "dad dancing".

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

China Syndrome: Britain Gets Left Behind in the Renewables Revolution

China has been leading the way in global investment in clean, renewable energy for several years now.
Any Green will have encountered it, either on the doorsteps, or in debate or in the rightwing press.
Renewable energy - it's a waste of time because even if we cover our landscape with solar panels and wind turbines, it won't make any difference because of the Chinese (and sometimes, for good measure, the Indians as well). As these countries industrialise and prosper, we are repeatedly told that it is on the back of coal, oil and gas energy sources - so many new coal power stations a week, easily blowing our puny efforts to clean the planet out of the water.

So, we might as well not bother and just keep burning away as much carbon, methane and other warming gasses as we like. Those who say otherwise are attacked as selling out to some global scientific conspiracy, or making elderly people freeze in winter because of allegedly higher "green" energy taxes and so on. It's just not British.

On cue, this week, the "greenest ever Government that never was", the Lib Dem-Tory Coalition, is phasing out subsidies to help get larger scale solar power schemes off the ground in the UK, just at the time solar panels are becoming exponentially more efficient and effective, and 70% cheaper. So although he could get much more power for our money, Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey is pushing forward with leaving solar to the whims of the free market in spite of pleas from the sector that it will quickly become unviable, at best stalling the gains of recent years. At the same time, massive tax breaks worth £1,300,000,000 in the next year are to be given to oil companies that extract oil from the ground at a cost of significantly less than $2 per barrel but sell on at apparently rock bottom prices of $55 per barrel, which is just not enough profit for the poor billionaires to get by on.

But the fact is that the arguments about China and India are no longer true, if they ever really were anything other than (no pun intended) a smokescreen for the oil lobby to entrench itself ever deeper over here.

China is now the world's biggest investor in green energy and renewables now account for over 30% of its electricity generation.(compared to around 12% in the UK). Its current investment will drive this ever upwards over the coming years, putting it way ahead of the fracking-seduced USA. Its primary goal is energy security - China has recognised what so many corporately-owned western governments cannot dare to whisper within earshot of their big business sponsors: sticking to carbonised energy isn't just polluting the planet, it is undermining the independence of nation states.

China's endemic pollution is driving a major shift to clean energy
 China does have other considerations too - as its economy continues to expand, it does continue to consume the largest amount of coal of any country, but this is falling quickly as a proportion of its energy use and is intended to be cut ever deeper. Chinese citizens have been alarmed by repeatedly persistent and thick smogs enveloping their cities in the summer and while as monolithic as ever, the Government is responding. And it is a question of scale - per head of population, China emits about half the carbon that Britain does and barely a quarter of the USA's per capita emissions.
Renewables contribution to carbon reductions in the EU, 2013

As for India, per head of population, it produces barely 3 tonnes of carbon emissions per person per year - compared to 5 tonnes in China, 8.5 tonnes in Britain and more than double that in the USA. But its government too is investing heavily in renewables with the Modi government quadrupling an already ambitious solar energy target for 2022.

Just think how different and truly independent our foreign policy could be if we no longer relied on oil from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, or gas from Russia, for our energy requirements. No more oil equals no more oil wars as well as potentially no more global warming.

But no, our rightwing so-called patriots, who denounce Greens and other environmentalists in increasingly shrill terms, are quite happy for us to continue to depend on President Putin and King Salman for our lighting and heating and the civilised life electricity provides. And so, consequently, we remain beholden to, entwined with and dragged down into endless threats and conflicts by some of the most unsavoury, dangerous people on our planet.

Britain no longer has the domestic ability to make wind turbines - we have conceded that to Germany and are dependent now on Siemens to come to Hull to manufacture turbines for the North Sea. And solar panels have increasingly been coming from China, although new EU anti-dumping tariffs may stem this flow. Meantime, back in Germany, which is like China powering ahead in its renewables revolution, the hallmark of change is widespread individual and community ownership making it a highly democratic form of energy. Interestingly, small scale ownership is being encouraged in China alongside its larger schemes.

With this week's news, Britain may now conceivably lose much of our not large solar manufacturing base. Even our carbon emission reduction target of 15% by 2020 has been specially negotiated to be lower than other major EU economies like Germany (18%), France (23%) and Italy (17%). Only Malta, the Czech Republic and Luxemburg's targets are lower than ours - quite the opposite of the impression you'd get from the likes of UKIP or the Daily Mail. Only the SNP Government in Scotland, where renewable investments and capacity is not far behind that of Germany, offers any real hope for Britain not being left behind in the renewables revolution.

It could be so different - every house could be its own power station, every community could meet its own needs, and the Big Six energy companies would vanish. We would be free to follow a truly ethical foreign policy and Britain could be in contention with the skills, jobs and manufacturing capacity needed to lead the way in clean energy. And we could make a big contribution in reality and example in stopping the world from continuing to release carbon at four times the level needed to stop runaway global warming.

A world leader, for all the right reasons.

Below: share of national energy consumption from renewables in EU states in 2012. UK was (is) in the very bottom category.
 "European-union-renewables-new" by User:Murraybuckley, User:Jklamo, User:Elekhh - based on File:European-union-renewables-fr.svgData source for EU-member states and NorwayEurostat – Share of renewable energy in gross final energy consumptionData source for other countries:Iceland (2010, source needed)Turkey (2010, source needed)Switzerland (2013, 21.1%), SFOE, renewable energy statistics 2013, page 5See: current statistics (eurostat). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:European-union-renewables-new.svg#/media/File:European-union-renewables-new.svg

Saturday, 14 March 2015

The Walking Clegg

In Liverpool, the Lib Dem conference has today voted to rule out going into any future Coalition with itself.

The baffling but meaningless decision came as local police cordoned off the meeting following reports of zombies on the Mersey waterfront. On closer inspection it turned out that it was just a group of Lib Dem canvassers wandering aimlessly, clutching faded yellow leaflets mysteriously depicting two jockeys in a race. Although many appeared fairly docile, a number were seen to be behaving aggressively, threatening passers by with benefits reassessments and forcing them to accept invoices for their education.

An expert said, "It is a tragedy, but possibly self-inflicted. The evidence suggests some of them used to be mildly nice. But they appear to have come into contact with something nasty, perhaps from people they were mixing with. Whatever it was, it has left them devoid of both empathy and judgement."

Although the scenes, which were being filmed for the final installments of the horror series The Walking Clegg, were faintly upsetting to the point of being vaguely perplexing, the authorities concluded the lost group is likely to be officially harmless within a matter of weeks.

Secrecy surrounds how it will all end but there is speculation that the horde leader is likely to face a dreadful showdown somewhere in South Yorkshire, after which the remnants are expected to quietly fade away.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Greens Rising: Britain's Syriza Moment?

The Green Party of England & Wales held its biggest conference in history last weekend in Liverpool. With a row of party flags fluttering in the breezy sunlight on the banks of the Mersey, nearly 1,400 of the party's 55,000 members participated in a long weekend of policy debates, workshops, fringe meetings, networking and music.

Party leader Natalie Bennett delivered a powerful speech (video below) on ending the politics of fear and mapping the way to a new, more equal Britain living happily in a sustainable world. "A peaceful political revolution," she dared to call it. Dared because such bold language is almost unheard of on the lips of a major political party leader - an appellation Bennett is more than entitled to claim now, with her party growing four-fold in members and poll ratings in barely a year. Greens outnumber the memberships of both the junior government party, the Lib Dems (44,000 members and falling), and the media darling pseudo-insurgents of UKIP (42,000 members), and once the 8,500 Scottish Greens and 1,000 Northern Irish are added, the Green total across the UK stands at nearly 65,000. Only the SNP after its phenomenal post-referendum surge stands between the Greens and the declining Tories and Labour.

Greens planted their flags on the banks of the Mersey
So in spite of all the headlines from the aggressive ("The Real Monster Raving Loony Party" - Daily Mail) to the offensive ("The Green Party is a Looney Tunes Alliance of Trots & Druids" - Daily Telegraph), the Greens met in upbeat mood. A poll on Friday put the party up 2% at 8 points with the Lib Dems on 6% (YouGov) while a second poll on the closing day on Monday confirmed the 8% with Clegg's party down even further on 5% (Ashcroft).

The sessions of debate were lively but serious, with major policy initiatives on the health service, including reinforcing the commitment to remove private companies from the NHS and to boosting the rights of people needing support with mental health issues. The two Deputy Leaders, Amelia Womack and Sharar Ali, renewed the party's vows to get rid of Trident nuclear missiles and to tackle global warming respectively. In a strikingly poignant moment, Ali pondered on whether the patch of ice where "vote-blue-get-green" David Cameron frolicked with huskies in 2008 was still solidly frozen or melted into the rising Arctic waters.

Greek Green Costas Likeris spoke from Athens on the rise of SYRIZA
Of particular interest though was a very popular session on Saturday afternoon, attended by as many as half of the conference, on what the election of the left-wing Syriza government in Greece and the rise of Podemos in Spain could mean for Britain. Greens Molly Scott Cato and blogger-activist Adam Ramsay spoke with Zoe Williams from the Guardian and, via Skype from Athens, Greek Green politician Costas Likeris. The common themes of anti-austerity and working for the common good (the Green strapline) were self-evident, but so too was the need for building coalitions, working beyond party boundaries to build movements of what Likeris said were "Common people doing extraordinary things."

Perhaps more quietly than would have been helpful, but helpfully nevertheless, the conference later went on to endorse a motion, proposed by Adam Ramsay, striking down an 18 year old ban on agreeing joint tickets with other parties. This opens up the possibility for Greens to ally with other parties of similarly radical viewpoints and for mutual endorsement of candidates, reaching out to build that movement for change. It augments the existing anti-austerity pact between the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru, already dubbed by some with the hashtag of the #RealOpposition . It may not transform the Left immediately, but it provides a lot of scope for Greens and parties such as Respect, Left Unity, TUSC as well as others on the left to work together in more than organising marches and meetings. Although with its surge in membership, organisation and support, the Green Party could be seen to be eclipsing these much smaller parties, the conference vote recognises that, especially with such a pernicious voting system as Britain's, pluralism is as much part of its core values as ever.

So, as our electoral system teeters on the verge of meltdown and with a major constitutional crisis possibly just a few weeks away, this principled and pragmatic move opens up all sorts of possibilities for a transformation of our politics. If for once the progressive left can put its obsession with ideology aside and endorse the pluralism offered by the Greens, Britain's own Syriza moment may not be far away and Natalie Bennett might indeed see her peaceful political revolution.

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Return of Mister Sleaze

He's back. But did he really ever go away?

Jack Straw has been vigorously defended by multimillionaire Tony Blair.
Channel 4 TV has this evening shown footage of its reporters posing as fake Chinese business people seeking to hire former Foreign Secretaries Jack Straw (Labour) and Malcolm Rifkind (Tory) to assist them in pushing their equally fake business activities. While Straw does at least talk about his work as an MP being his priority, he still names a price of £5,000 per day, which is apparently this once firebrand leftist's normal going rate when he is doing things outside Parliament.

Bad enough, but it is Rifkind who is by far the more unashamed - believing his visitors to be two young Chinese women working for their uncle's business, he tells them he is apparently self-employed with lots of time on his hands. No one pays him, apparently. Presumably the £67,000 MP's salary he gets is just some pocket money. Rather, he looks for fees of up to £8,000 and apparently will happily seek the "views" of senior officials and Government Ministers.

Rifkind's defence when he was outed by the programme was that he was not an MP-for-hire - rather it was his status as an ex-Minister that makes him such a catch for the corporates, somehow an apparently better prospect. And then later, in a new tack, he argued that it is natural for MPs to sell their services like this because it is "unrealistic" for them to manage on a mere £67,000 p.a. plus expenses.

So these two elder "statesmen" have been suspended from their parties and have reported themselves to the parliamentary standards committee, still proclaiming their righteousness.

We were told after the expenses scandals of 2008/9 that the system had been reformed so that the sleaze that permeated Westminster politics at the time would be swept away. But was it? While some, though far from all, of the most ludicrous expense claims, such as for duck houses and massage chairs, were done away with and some accounting was done over "second homes" for MPs, there remains little in the way of external scrutiny.

2009's issues have never gone far away.
But perhaps most unreformed of all has been the idea that it is ok for MPs to hold directorships and other jobs. Just a couple of days ago, we learned that Tory MPs earned over £4 millions between them in outside jobs last year, with Labour on £2 million and Lib Dems on several hundred thousand. And of course this is what Straw and Rifkind were doing. Sickening to ordinary people, who, on the national minimum wage, would need to work for 164 days to earn what "Sir" Malcolm thinks is a normal rate for one day's work.

Labour are calling for MP's to be barred from having a second job. Fine, but we need to see more than that - we need MPs to be put on the national average wage so that they finally have some connection with the mass of ordinary people and what is happening to them. We need to ban second homes altogether - set up a couple of large, comfortable and properly equipped hotels in London and let them stay there free, but don't pay for anything else.

Time to have politics that are about real life again. Time to sweep away the "political class" that has established itself as a parasitic gatekeeper for the super-rich and corporate elite to guard against the wishes of voters.

Time to sack Mister Sleaze. But if you want new politics, you need new politicians too.
You can choose in May.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

From the Green Surge to the Green Challenge

Vote for Policies - when people take a "blind" test on the policies they favour, they choose the Green Party
Over the last few months, initially quietly but surely picking up pace, the Green party saw its poll ratings for the 2015 General Election rising.

Back in the midst of the European election campaign, where the Greens were polling well for the P.R. elections, their UK election ratings were still stuck around 2%, with the odd jump up to 4% or 5% seen as a bit of an aberration. But one sticks out in my mind - on 14 May, Ipsos Mori reported a Green vote of 9% for the Euros AND 8% for Westminster.

It was such a leap, such an apparent "outlier", that few believed it, and some other polls just after took us back down to 3% or so. But, in the weeks after a creditable if disappointing Euro-result, Green membership rose steadily and by August was nudging up to 20,000 from 12,000 or so a year before. Then, after the Scottish referendum, with politically empowered Scots leading the way with joining up to anti-establishment parties, further south the Greens began to see not a flow but a surge of new members seeking to join a radical left of centre option as opposed to the rightwing UKIP. And when both the broadcasters and the established parties initially refused to include the Greens in the leadership debates for the 2015 General Election two things happened - party membership rocketed, at one point with one person joining every 14 seconds and the membership site repeatedly crashing from over-subscription. By early February, there were 52,000 members of the Greens in England & Wales, with a further 8,000 in Scotland and several hundred in Northern Ireland. With a combined UK total in excess of 60,000, Greens far outnumber now the 42,000 UKIP-ers and 44,000 official Lib Dem members.

The second thing that happened was a steady rise in the polls so that by the end of the year the Green Party reached 11% in one and is now regularly polling ahead of the Lib Dems. The UK polling report average poll of polls now stands at 7% for the Greens compared to 2% a year ago. 

And this last week, we saw yet another breakthrough - tentative, a figure within a figure, but perhaps like that poll of 14 May last year a sign of the times to come.

Ipsos Mori published a poll on 10 February with a headline figure of 7% for the Greens, who were in fourth place ahead of the Lib Dems with UKIP on 9%. But that was a figure for those absolutely certain to vote. Among those in the slightly less emphatic category of intending to vote, it was a different story: the Greens were on 9%, in third place nationally. UKIP had 8% and the Lib Dems 7%.

Not a massive lead, and within any margin of error. Yet ten months back, with UKIP polling at 27% in the Euros and the Greens still viewed as a minor party for Westminster elections, who could have imagined that it might even be possible?

As the voteforpolicies website shows, when people vote for policies blind to which party they are from, the largest number choose the policies of the Green Party. And in spite of the rubbish thrown at us in recent weeks by the rightwing commentariat and the Labour Party Anti-Green Party Unit, our ratings have consolidated and continued to grow. People want change - but not the fear-driven change promoted by UKIP and the Tories, or the continuing austerity endorsed by Labour and the Lib Dems. They want a fairer society, one where people look after each other, accept and enjoy difference rather than fear it, and where we work with nature rather than constantly damage and destroy it.

That is the task for the Greens now: to turn the Green Surge into the full-on Green Challenge - the challenge to the politics of despair; the challenge to the politics of vested interests; the challenge to show that another world is possible. And so possible too is a very different election result.
Poll Position - Greens move into third place?

Monday, 9 February 2015

If you want to see what Greens worry about...

Watch this video. It is from the Climate Council of Australia. In three minutes, you can see what capitalism is doing to our world. Not just to whales or some distant trees, bad enough though that would be. But rather all ll around us. With its ceaseless expoitation of our world in search of ever greater profit returns and its continued addiction to oil and gas and their attendant warming gasses, we risk a 4 degree rise in temperatures by the end of this century - an increase that will spell the end of civilised life on our planet.

The worst will likely come when most of us alive now are dead and gone. But don't count on things being nice and smooth between now and then, with a sudden exponential rise just as your kids retire. 2014 was the warmest year since records began - and the graph is continuing upward with all the problems of food shortages, price increases, lack of water over large swathes of the planet. And coming soon after, mass migration like we've never seen along with famine, disease and of course lots of conflict.

Pretty gloomy. Yet not inevitable if we switch to an economics of sharing and greater equality, and source renewable ways to produce our energy using an arrany of solar, wind, wave, and other clean forms of power. No more oil and the oil wars that go with out addiction to it. No more massive carbon emissions. Let the dead dinosaurs rest where they lie.

We can have a better, happier world. Not one of the sackcloth and ashes puritanism that the rightwing media accuse the Greens of wanting; nor the descent into violence and anarchy promised by rapacious capitalism as everything spirals into scarcity and eco-catastrophe. We can have instead a world based on equality, co-operaton and mutual support - the very things that are natural to our species but have been twisted so badly by our warped economics.

We can save our species and help it towards a much brighter future. And though we may not be there, we who are here now are perhaps the last generation who can do anything about it in time.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Dances in the Kingdom of Sand

Two days ago, the 90 year old King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul-al-Aziz, died.

Yesterday, British flags flew at half-mast across the UK in tribute to this ally of our country and today our Prime Minister David Cameron travels to Saudi to greet the new King, the comparatively youthful septagenarian, Salman. As well as shaking hands warmly with the new absolute ruler of the Arabian peninsular state, Cameron is going to pay tribute to the deceased monarch, who has been repeatedly described as a "reformer" since his passing. It will be all the more of an emotional event for Dave as Abdullah personally awarded him the Saudi equivalent of the Order of Merit for our PM's services to this exceptionally vicious, dictatorial regime.

Abdullah's death comes at the end of a fortnight when, unusually, the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the fiefdom of the Ibn Saud family for nearly a century, has been in the world headlines for two internal matters. They are matters that more than slightly question Abdullah's allegedly reformist credentials.

Raif Badawi
One was the administration of fifty lashes to a liberal blogger, Raif Badawi, the first of twenty planned weekly instalments to deliver 1,000 blows to his body for the crime of expressing his own views - followed by ten years in jail. This was in spite of a higher court ruling that he was not guilty of apostasy as previously decreed by a local judge. Indeed, many commentators concluded that Badawi was targeted by the regime because of a blog he set up to discuss social and religious issues rather than "insulting Islam", the charge for which he was beaten.

Still worse was the case of Lalia Bint Abdul Muttablib Basim, a Burmese woman accused of abusing and murdering her seven year old step-daughter. She was dragged through the streets, crying out her innocence, before being beheaded in a car park by a state executioner who took a sword to her neck three times before the act was completed. It was the tenth execution in just three weeks, yet by Saudi standards her brutal death was merciful - others are stoned slowly to death or even crucified. Bad enough, but all the more appalling given the random and chaotically brutal nature of the Saudi "justice" system, as evidenced by the terrifying experience of Scottish anaesthetic technician Sandy Mitchell back in 2005 - even his one year old baby son was implicated as a terrorist by the Kingdom's police.

Yet while such barbarities are rightly condemned when carried out by the Islamic State, when they occur in Saudi they pass barely mentioned as our leaders and businesses shake hands with their Jeddah counterparts.

Just yesterday President Obama hailed Abdullah as a man of "conviction" (apparently unaware of the irony of his words) and a great ally of the USA. Similarly, British Premier David Cameron expressed his sadness at the despot's passing and hoped the "long and deep ties" between the UK and the Kingdom of Ibn Saud would continue. He even lauded the dead King for an apparent commitment to peace and a desire to increase understanding between religions. Perhaps he was referring to Saudi Arabia's saturation of Libya and Syria troubled lands with weapons channelled through Abdullah's ally, Qatar. And as for religious understanding, perhaps Dave was thinking of the Saudis' execution of a woman, Amina bint Abdel Halim Nassar, for the crime of witchcraft in 2011.

King Abdullah awards Cameron a medal for "services to Saudi Arabia"
Even more striking are the Saudi links, mostly private but well known, with both al-Qaeda and ISIS. While a former head of British MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, has hinted at the latter, the British radical, Tariq Ali, outlined the first connection in his powerful, wide ranging book, The Clash of Fundamentalisms, back in 2002.

Railing against the state religion of Wahhabism, a highly puritanical form of Sunni Islam, Ali notes that it was originally sponsored by the British to help defeat the Ottoman Turks in the first world war through the ludicrously lionised agency of T.E.Lawrence (of Arabia fame). Then, with the forming of the Kingdom of the Ibn Saud warlord family in 1932, wahhabism was endorsed by their western overlords, Britain and the USA, as an effective form of total political control over what was once a very diverse and tolerant society. Sunni and Shia Muslims who failed to conform to its extreme teachings suffered at its hands, as well as those of other faiths. As time passed, some Saudis used their petrodollars to export their beliefs at the end of gun barrels.

Ali relates:
"During the war against the Soviet Union, Pakistani military intelligence requested the presence of a Saudi prince to lead the jihad in Afghanistan. No volunteers were forthcoming and the Saudi leaders recommended the scion of a rich family, close to the monarchy. Osama bin Laden was dispatched to the Pakistan border and arrived in time to hear President Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski giving open support to the jihad. One of his first actions as a pro-western freedom fighter was a raid on a mixed school, which was burnt to the ground, its headmaster killed and disembowelled. (p.323)"

Many Saudis long for the end of a state that bans all freedom of speech, belief or association - indeed, one where new laws in 2014 declared all forms of dissent to be "terrorist". Gay and lesbian people face flogging, chemical castration and even death. And for Saudi women, not only is their country a place where they are infamously banned from driving - it is also a land where women are electronically tracked so they cannot go abroad without the permission of their male "guardian". Their rulers remain firmly among the most authoritarian in the world and use a wide range of torture, repressive laws and a deeply conservative culture to slow change to a snail's pace. Corruption is rife and ordinary Saudis are completely cut out off the decisions that affect their lives. Consequently, with no prospect of liberal reform, many younger people are turning to the violence of al-Qaeda and ISIS as their compass. Were it not so dangerously tragic, these terrorist organisations' policies of adopting the extremes of the Saudi royals' own deeply conservative wahhabist outlook would verge on the satirical.

So why are our leaders so keen to do business with this regime? Why were they so anxious to overthrow the likes of Saddam, Gaddafi and Assad, all of them secular rulers who eschewed links with the likes of Bin Laden, but happily court the favours of the Ibn Saud dynasty?

British Prince Andrew is a frequent visitor to the Arabian peninsula
There are two key factors - one is the personal links many in the West have with the Saudis, as well as other royal families through the Gulf states. The Queen hosted Abdullah at her castle in Balmoral in 1998 and members of her family have frequently visited Saudi. In 2011, Prince Andrew visited the Bin Laden family in Jeddah at the British taxpayers' expense in spite of significant criticism within the UK. In the USA, the US Bush Presidential dynasty has enjoyed close connections with the Bin Laden family and many other influential Saudis, allegedly to the tune of $1.5 billion. And tens of thousands of westerners in the oil industry and its auxiliary sectors have benefitted personally from earning large tax-free salaries in the kingdom - usually complete with exceptionally low paid servant guest workers from poor east Asian countries like Burma and Indonesia.

Central to this, of course, Saudi Arabia is the third largest oil producer in the world and critical to the supply of energy to Europe and the USA, as well as a major customer of our arms manufacturing companies. The kingdom produces over 9,000,000 barrels of oil every day. In context, that is currently third in the world, just behind the USA and Russia and more than Iran, Iraq and Kuwait combined. And unlike Gadaffi's Libya or Saddam's Iraq, or Iran now, the Saudi Government, nervous of its own people, is happy to work in concert with the West in return for its support.

So our PM goes to the Arabian peninsula to continue a decades-old dance of diplomatic protocol and corporate greed with a corrupt, repressive regime markedly more brutal than other regimes he and his predecessors invested so much in destroying. It is a dance that suits both parties - the Ibn Sauds depend on their western sponsors military backing to stay in power; the western oil companies and their shareholders meantime benefit from extracting huge profits from the Saudi deserts, pillaging the resources of an oppressed people. And the Saudi people, desperate for change but held down by their medieval rulers, know this.

Tariq Ali explains how this is seen by many Saudis through an interview with the exiled Saudi novelist Abdelrahman Munif:
"The presence of oil could have led to real improvements and change, creating the opportunities for a better life and providing everyone with a future. The West is not owed the credit for the riches of the Peninsula and the Gulf. These riches come from within the earth. What happened was that the West discovered these riches and took the lion's share, the larger part, which ought to belong to the people of the region. Our rulers were brought in by the West, which used them as its instruments. We all know the sort of relationship there is currently between the West and these regimes."

As oil-addicted western states continue to "do business as usual" with the Saudi Royals, it seems rather unlikely that, in the future, their subjects will quickly forget our nations' collaboration with this most odious regime. Just as the USA/UK overthrow of Iran's democracy in 1953 for the sake of corporate oil profits ultimately drove dissent into the arms of Ayatollah Khomeini, the West's grasping alliance with the slowly crumbling House of Ibn Saud means there is little hope for progressive social change in the peninsula. Instead, when the current regime has finally sunk in the dessert sands, Arabia and the wider world face an uncertain and potentially terrifying future.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Three Men in a Debate

As I stared in the shaving mirror this morning, Radio 4 announced that Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg AND Nigel Farage had written to David Cameron urging him to take part in the Leaders' TV debates without the Greens' participation, otherwise they would go ahead on their own without him. Aping Have I Got News For You's "tub of lard" wheeze some years ago on Roy Hattersley's non-appearance, they threatened him with asking the broadcasters to set up an "empty podium" to highlight the Prime Minister's absence.

Momentarily, I paused from assaulting my hirsuteness (just as Cleggie apparently did 5 years ago when he secretly converted to austerity during his morning shave after apparently confusing the UK with Greece). How coincidental, I naively thought, that these three rivals would write to Cameron on the same day.

But my naivete was short-lived. Was the write-to-Dave stunt co-ordinated? Well, yes. In fact, it was so co-ordinated that they all sent the same letter. Yep; "Red" Ed, whom Labour supporters keep claiming has put Blairite Nu-Labour behind him shacked up with that betrayer of progressive politics, Nick Clegg. And then they got new best mate to join in. Yes, former stockbroker and doyen of the populist right, Nigel Farage.

So, finally, all the claims from Labour and Lib dems over the months that their leaders had not refused to involve the Greens now stand naked and clear - these self-interested, anti-democratic trough-swillers are prepared to actively work with UKIP to exclude the fourth party of British politics, the Greens, in order to shore up their crumbling grasp on the political stage. All on the same day that the Greens' total paid up membership figures overtook those of UKIP and on current trends are likely to overtake the Lib Dems' by early next week - over 2,000 people joined the Greens today alone.

They may be right when they claim Cameron's stance on the Greens is rooted in his own self-interest; but what is even more evident is that their own stance is so completely self-centred and exclusivist that Miliband and Clegg are prepared to debate with Nigel Farage but not with Natalie Bennett, let alone Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP or Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru.

The only cold comfort in this most cynical of moves is that our electorate is somewhat more intelligent than these machine manipulators realise. And with 300,000 signatories to a petition calling for the Greens to be given a platform and 80% support for a Green speaker in opinion polls, the voters are infinitely fairer and more inclusive that the three men who audaciously refer to themselves are the "leaders" of the people.

Shame on them, then. And may they face a full reckoning on 7 May.

Nick's letter. And Ed's...And Nigel's.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Wake Up! The Tories are coming...

As the Government splutters towards its final weeks in office, concern mounts about rumours of increasingly desparate Tory Party tactics after an alleged candidates' training video is unearthed.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Asking the Wrong Question - Cameron and The Greens

Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator for the UK yesterday morning decided effectively to bar the Greens, the one anti-austerity UK-wide party, from any significant TV and radio coverage at the General Election this May. But by the evening the Green Party unusually and ironically found itself in the national TV headlines after Prime Minister David Cameron said he would refuse to take part in the Leaders' debates on TV unless the Greens were included.

This is not news as such - Cameron first said this back in the summer when the BBC and other broadcasters issued a proposal for three debates in the run up to the polls, one of which would include UKIP but none the Greens. Ofcom's ruling covers not only the debates but all broadcast media - TV and radio news programmes and party political broadcasts in particular.

Ofcom's convoluted reasoning holds that UKIP is a major party deserving of coverage while the Greens are not. Hence we will have four pro-austerity, neoliberal parties covered, more than ever creating an illusion of choice for voters which bears just more of the same in reality. The Greens, who oppose austerity and campaign for greater equality would provide the only different narrative in any debate.

Cameron is not, of course, staking out his position for reasons of principle and fair debate, although unsurprisingly this is the argument he claims. With UKIP rising until recently largely at the Tories' cost, he has calculated that a Green presence would counter that any damage Nigel Farage inflicted on the Conservatives by the Greens impacting on Labour and the Lib Dems. Alternatively, with him as the incumbent, he knows that he is more vulnerable to attack from other leaders and so may be quite content to not have any debates while posing as a champion of fairplay.

So, all day, the media have been interviewing his confirmed opponents for the debate - Farage, Miliband and a rather hysterical Clegg (who briefly soared after the first "I-agree-with-Nick" debate last time). Why, they keep being asked, do they think Cameron is doing this? And of course, without exception, they say that he is keen to avoid the debates altogether and using the Greens as an excuse.

A more interesting question might have been to ask each of them for their reasons for not wanting the Greens to have a place. Why don't they just call Cameron's bluff and agree to have the Greens take part? Why won't they debate with the Greens? 

After all, the Greens had an MP four years before UKIP won their first one (a Tory defector who stood again in his own constituency as UKIP). Greens outpolled the Lib Dems across the UK at the European elections last May and won 3 MEPs to the Lib Dems' one. They reached 10% in the opinion polls before Christmas, one point ahead of Clegg's party and just three per cent behind UKIP - they are particularly popular among younger voters and are in second place to Labour among students. In Scotland, there are now more Green Party members than individual members of the Scottish Labour Party, while nationally 40,000 people are members of the Greens -possibly slightly more than UKIP and just 4,000 behind the Lib Dems' last declared membership figures. Nearly 300,000 people signed a petition calling for the Greens to be invited on the leaders' debates, while opinion polls show that about 4/5 of voters want them on, with clear majorities among supporters of all parties.

Greens - on rise among students, and everywhere else
So, who is really frit of the debates? Cameron maybe. But, in the absence of any other explanation or view being offered (aside from Paddy Ashdown's absurd claim that a fifth leader would confuse the voters!), Clegg, Miliband and Farage are clearly scared too - scared of a party that stands for the opposite of the dead, elitist agenda they offer. Because, in the end, bar a bit of tinkering here and there, these neolib quadruplets all offer pretty much the same - Britain PLC as a profit-seekers, privatised paradise, its people reduced to low wage service drones. All of them, in the end, have one purpose - to serve the interests of an ever smaller, ever richer and ever more bloated elite at the top of our society.

Noam Chomsky's warning has never been more appropriate: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.

So, all four of the men (and they are all men) who lead the neoliberal parties are playing a game. None of them, Cameron included, really want the Greens, or other truly different parties, to be heard. Rather, the PM hopes to have no debates at all while his rivals want ones that minimise their other competitors.

No one has asked them the questions that really matter. But then that's not news. Nor is it any surprise at all.

But we can make our views known and voices heard. Ofcom's decision is open to challenge via a consultation process now underway. You can comment by emailing them via http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/consultations/major-parties-15/  or phone them on  0300 123 3333 . The process runs until 5 February. Tweet your views as well using the hashtag #invitethegreens. Similarly, to call for the leaders' of the nationalist parties to be invited too, sign on to #leadersdebates and #fairdebate2015 .

And, whether the decision is changed or not, our fading Establishment can know that one more mask has been peeled away and one more column chipped a bit more deeply as the facade they put up for British democracy slips yet further into its terminal decay.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Reaching for the Future

Reaching for the Future - Glasgow, Saturday 13 September 2014
(author's photo)
January is named after the Roman deity Janus, god of endings and beginnings. And so on this first day of January, I thought I'd look back a little at the last year and forward into what promise to be, in the words of the ancient curse, "interesting times".

2014 opened with a sense of foreboding for many progressives - not least because of the challenges that lay ahead in a Europe littered with discredited "mainstream" governments unpopular with demoralised, austerity-abused publics. The far right was on the rise in election after election; even in Britain, although the extremist BNP was largely gone, the UK Independence Party, lampooned by some as fascists-in-suits and certainly adopting a range of beggar-thy-neighbour tactics in its divisive politics, seemed to be gaining ground with the endless encouragement of the media.

Into this stew, the Conservative-led Coalition Government proclaimed 2014 to be the time to "celebrate" the appalling war of 1914 - 1918. The then-Education Secretary, Michael Gove, proclaimed the conflict to have been a "noble" war seen as "just" by those fighting it. "In Remembrance of Lions" charts the arguments around this - the war was far from the narrative of thse armchair "warriors". At the close of the year, with the likes of Sainburys supermarkets invoking its memory to boost their Christmas sales, my closing blog, "Piping the Peace", sought to expand on the well-known story of the 1914 Christmas Truce to explore how a bitter hatred of a war that was widely held even at the time to be nothing but a power-play between competing elites led to the greatest challenge to authority by ordinary people in all of history.

The parallels between now and then have been constant through the year - and not in the superficial way desired by the likes of Gove and Cameron. The disconnect between rulers and ruled, now as then, is widening as the days pass. In a country where political leaders on the one hand continue to worsen climate change through approving massive expansion of fracking ("Inside the Mind of Ed Davey") ("No Wind Turbines to Spoil the View"), in spite of the evidence of global warming causing flooding across Britain ("When Only the Wellies are Green" ) and the slaughter of over 29,000 Britons every year from pollution-related illnesses ("Take Your Breath Away"), it is little wonder people look for other solutions. This is all the more compounded when the Establishment continue to fall back on scapegoating vulnerable groups such as disabled and unemployed people ("Choosing Poverty"), ("Having a Heart Attack? You Shirker...") while subsidising their rich friends to run public services ("The Coalition of Kleptocracy" ) and making it ever easier for them to hire and fire workers at will ("You're Fired!"). Even the one remaining, highly profitable and popular state railway company, East Coast, has been sold off to private speculators ("Keep East Coast Public") and the NHS, the most successful health service in the world, is being auctioned off piecemeal ("999 for the NHS"), a situation likely to be embedded if the Government's enthusiasm for the TransAtlantic Trade & Investment Partnership is allowed to come to fruition ("Death-Wish Lib Dems"). In response to the disaffection that inevitably has followed, all our current leaders seem capable of coming up with is surreptitious "reforms" to disenfranchise likely opponents, especially younger people ("Bite The Ballot") or threaten to deploy violence in the name of keeping order ("Water Cannon: Doing What It Says On The Tin").

As with the tumult of decades ago, first trailed back in December 2012 ("Weimar Britain"), the void deserted by mainstream politics offers up a variety of opportunities for change - some giving a glimpse of a far happier world, but others giving instead visions of a nightmare future. For myself, much of the first half of 2014 was given up to work as Campaign Manager for the Green Party European election effort in Yorkshire and the the Humber. As with Greens across the country and indeed throughout the EU, we faced a situation where much media attention was focused not on our ideas for a fairer and more sustainable world ("Neither Nick nor Nigel for the Common Good"), but rather on the prospects for rightwing "insurgents" like UKIP in Britain ("Still Nothing Worth Watching... UKIP TV")and the FN in France. In the end, while the Greens polled ahead of the Lib Dems in both votes and seats, UKIP won the election in the UK with just under 27% of the vote and in Yorkshire took 3 of the 6 seats (with barely one-third of the vote) and elsewhere other rightwing parties performed strongly on anti-immigrant, xenophobic platforms.

Echoes of the past sent a chill down the spine of many on the Left, all too aware as we are of where such visceral hatreds ultimately lead ("Don't Let The Lights Be Dimmed"). For the first time since the 1990s, Europe has been the scene of fighting, with conflict in the Ukraine ("Khrushchev's Crimea") ("Balkan Echoes"). Further afield, terror spread with the assault on Gaza by far superior Israeli forces and the kidnapping of women in west Africa by the Islamist Boko Haram ("Bloody Brothers") while self-centred western and Saudi interference in Syria led to the rise of Islamic State in the Middle East. However, in this last instance, women are a key part of the counter-attack in Kurdish areas, forming a third of the Rojavan army that is driving the slavers of ISIS back ("Sisters in Arms - Kobane, Kurdistan and Women Against ISIS").

Nevertheless, more optimistic vistas appeared as the year wore on: in Scotland, the independence referendum galvanised hundreds of thousands of people into unprecedented levels of political activity. Although a remarkably positive campaign for a separate Scotland ultimately failed under a barrage of vitriol and neoliberal State Power ("Scotland - Trust The Bankers"), the YES vote reached an unimagined 45% and tens of thousands of Scots joined up to the three pro-independence parties (the SNP, Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialists). Support for the SNP in particular has soared with the prospect now of former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond potentially brokering who will form the next UK-wide Government. Both in Scotland and more widely, the power evidently wielded by ordinary people in search of social justice rather than the cold hostility at the heart of the UKIP and Tory agendas has found new outlets which promise that things really never will be the same again ("The Last Days of the United Kingdom"). The 999 for the NHS March, Occupy Westminster Green and the Britain Needs A Payrise protests all showed how large numbers of citizens, many previously not involved politically, are now rising to make themselves heard and call for real change.

As the summer moved to autumn, UKIP continued to poll well, but now so did the Green Party throughout Britain, in spite of a much lower level of media attention. By the end of the year, its membership matched UKIP's and its poll ratings had on numerous occasions overtaken the collapsing Lib Dem wing of the Coalition - the final Ipsos-Mori survey of the year put UKIP on 13% of the vote with the Greens just behind on 10% and the Lib Dems on 9%.

In spite of this and a petition from over a quarter of a million people, the Establishment closed ranks to exclude the Greens (and the SNP) from the leaders' debates in the upcoming General Election ("#fairdebate2015"). Yet, given what is at stake if any truly insurgent party challenging the power of Big Money and the Establishment breaks through, it is little surprise that something like UKIP would be employed and promoted as a sort of "licenced" opposition, a bit like the state-sponsored "opposition" parties in Putin's Russia ("The Men in Grey"). (Separately, I wrote a piece for the online Scottish socialist magazine "The Point" on the origins of the Union of 1707, "The Whales of Kirkcaldy", which, while providing me with some fascinating reading, pointed up just how corrupt and brutal Establishments can be in seeking to secure their self-interest and preservation). Smug in its belief of its own right to power, our political class continues to believe that it can get away with a pretence of democracy ("Seeing Through the Illusion of Choice") But, as with others who have thought this would work in the past, their days may now be numbered ("1905 Again").

Of course, for change to come, we must know what the alternatives are; how might a new world work; how can we found a society based on co-operation when all around us is a world formed of conflict and competition? How can we fashion a place where we might find happy people, content with their lives, living in harmony with other species and the biosphere that lets us exist?

It was to this end that it was good to spend time towards the end of the year looking at the history and development of ecosocialism - the green socialist ideas that offer some ways forward to a world where we value sharing rather than accumulation; where we put back what we take out so that our own and future generations will have the resources to thrive; where we learn to live by the idea of "enough" rather than pursuing the illusion of happiness being found in ever "more".

"Stories of Tomorrow - Ecosocialism and The World To Come" came from a talk I gave as part of a debate on ecosocialism. And for me it was an encouraging way to draw the year to an end. A look  forward to what could be if we have the imagination and courage. A way to a very different world, but one which harnesses the co-operative spirit and compassion which are inherent to our species. These are natural human qualities, but ones long twisted and denied by our socio-economic systems, from slavery through feudalism to capitalism. As capitalism stumbles, flailing dangerously in a world of diminishing resources and global warming, only the ever more tenuous and tiny layer at the top stands to benefit from its continuation - a miniscule elite numbering at most a few hundred thousand people ("On The Big Red Bus To Oblivion") while several billions hunger and our entire planet suffers. Humanity can do so very much better than this.

Most of history is neither a beginning nor an end - days simply follow days. Although 2014 is now over, the events that traced its course seem to offer no conclusion and only a vague sense of direction. Still, in the haze and confusion, perhaps some signposts are now dimly perceptible and while the journey is far from ended, in 2015 the time of transition is perhaps that little bit closer.

Another world is possible; and, if we want it enough, it is coming.

Happy New Year and, as this blog approaches its first quarter of a million views, thank you for reading.

Reaching for the Future - Wakefield, Sunday 24th August
(author's photo)

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Piping the Peace

Tonight, one century ago, across the battlefields of war-ravaged Europe, tens and likely hundreds of thousands of soldiers laid down their weapons and crossed the desolation of "no man's land" to greet their enemies as friends and celebrate together what has become known as the Christmas Truce. Over half the British sector of the western front was involved in this Yuletide fraternisation as were huge segments of the French and, of course, their German counterparts. On the eastern front, less marked but similar reconciliation occurred between Austro-Hungarian and Russian soldiers as the poor bloody infantry ignored the threats and demands of their superiors in an act of defiant international solidarity.

British and German troops celebrate together at Christmas 1914
Well known are the games of football that were reputedly played (there is no photographic evidence, but there were professional footballers in the trenches of both sides and many reports of informal games). Gifts were exchanged, photographs of sweethearts, wives and families displayed, hymns were sung, music played and meals taken together - many Germans in particular could speak English (then as now not so the other way round). In the Belgian sector, German soldiers, who had occupied nearly all of Belgium, agreed to take letters for their opponents and post them to their families behind the lines.

The High Commands of France, Britain and Germany, safely far behind the dangers of the Front and living in extremely comfortable conditions, had been anxious for some time about what might happen in this, the first Christmas of the First World War. Nearly five months on from the heady August days when leaders on all sides had promised that victory would be theirs and it would all be over by Christmas, the troops had experienced weeks of shell-shock and near static warfare. Equipped for summer campaigns, many lacked the boots and clothing required to survive in the open winter air, never mind the shells and bullets of their enemies. Friends, neighbours and relatives had been lost, especially demoralising for regiments that were often formed from the men of the same village and even street. The enthusiasm which had greeted the war among some, though far from all, of the heavily propagandised civilian populations had already begun to dissipate as casualties mounted in this, the first large industrial-scale war. Indeed, the recovery and burial of the dead was a key part of the truce, with men helping each other inter and commemorate their dead.

A British High Command note from General Horace Smith-Dorien, dated 5 December 1914, is particularly telling about the generals' concerns about their soldiers' temperament: “It is during this period that the greatest danger to the morale of troops exists. Experience of this and of every other war proves undoubtedly that troops in trenches in close proximity to the enemy slide very easily, if permitted to do so, into a “live and let live” theory of life…officers and men sink into a military lethargy from which it is difficult to arouse them when the moment for great sacrifices again arises…the attitude of our troops can be readily understood and to a certain extent commands sympathy…such an attitude is however most dangerous for it discourages initiative in commanders and destroys the offensive spirit in all ranks…the Corps Commander therefore directs Divisional Commanders to impress on subordinate commanders the absolute necessity of encouraging offensive spirit… friendly intercourse with the enemy, unofficial armistices, however tempting and amusing they may be, are absolutely prohibited."

Live & let Live - Generals frowned on truces to retrieve the fallen.
The truth of the matter is that the Christmas truce, sanitised in the years since as a touching gesture of reconciliation by troops from three Christian nations on the eve of Christ's birth, was far from the one-off incident that many rightwing historians portray it as being (indeed, a few seem to like to imagine it didn't actually happen at all). Rather, it was the latest of a string of incidents that marked discontent and dissent among the ordinary soldiers stuck in muddy trenches facing dreadful attrition and injuries which often made death a preferable option.

From as early as the start of November, when the initial moves and counter-moves of the armies had become bogged down in trench warfare with millions of men facing each other in some places just a few yards from each other, the "live and let live" nostrum first manifested itself in unspoken agreements to respect mealtimes, while by December half hour ceasefires would be called to allow joint retrieval of the dead. During these, soldiers began to speak to each other, exchange newspapers and in some areas even visit each others' trenches. The Christmas truce, possibly kicked off by the quaint and typically out of touch decision of the German Imperial Government to send thousands of Christmas trees to their soldiers with which to decorate their trenches, in many areas lasted well beyond Christmas, with messages and joint singing reported up to and on New Years' Day 1915.

The news of the truce was suppressed by all Governments - but the Scottish and American press broke the story a few days later and soon the German and English papers followed, most of them commenting positively and lamenting the fact that the slaughter was about to begin again. But this did nothing to slacken the resolve of the High Commands - all of them reissued instruction banning all forms of fraternisation and threatening punishment of those who disobeyed.

Perhaps because of its widespread nature, there is relatively little evidence of retribution against soldiers who took part in the Christmas truce, although the film Joyeux Noel shows British officers being removed from duty and a chaplain defrocked, while the Kaiser's son personally oversees the transportation of a German unit to the Eastern Front. However, future episodes were not treated so lightly - and Christmas 1915 saw only a very partial repetition of the truce. The Church was employed to ensure that British troops in particular could find no commonality with the Germans, as Brigadier General Crozier described in 1915:
"Blood lust is taught for the purpose of war, in bayonet fighting itself and by doping their minds with all propagandic poison. The German atrocities (many of which I doubt in secret), the employment of gas in action, the violation of French women, the "official murder" of Nurse Cavell, all help to bring out the brute-like bestiality which is necessary for victory. The process of "seeing red" which has to be carefully cultured if the effect is to be lasting, is elaborately grafted into the make-up of even the meek and mild .. . The Christian churches are the finest "blood lust" creators which we have, and of them we must make full use. (The British soldier) is a kindly fellow ... it is necessary to corrode his mentality"

Yet, as fraternisation died away with the ever more overpowering destructive nature of the war, discontent turned inward. Agitation grew against the officers among the troops on all sides. Mutinies broke out - in April 1917, two months after the Russian army refused to support the Czar against the political revolutionaries in Petrograd, a battalion of French soldiers refused to go over the top at the battle of the Aisne, which had cost over a quarter of a million French lives. Four ringleaders were shot and many others imprisoned, but within a short time the mutiny spread to 68 divisions - half of the French army refused to go into battle and many talked of marching on Paris to overthrow the Government. In June, Russians units lent to their allies on the western front joined with French troops to set up a soviet council which issued a "Declaration of Soldiers' Rights".

The revolt was eventually contained with the court-martial of 3,500 troops, and 550 condemned to death (49 were actually executed). As Dave Sherry observes in "Empire and Revolution", "This was limited punishment given the scale of the mutiny. Clearly it had terrified the French generals and the ruling class."

But next mutiny spread to British, Australian and New Zealander troops following Field Marshall Haig's decision to throw them into a series of bloody and unsuccessful battles in Flanders in appalling weather. In September 1917, 100,000 troops revolted in the base at Etaples, burning down the Military Police buildings and locking up their officers. As with the French, the British High Command responded with some limited concessions and execution of the leaders, suppressing the revolt after five days - and keeping it secret for decades. More mutinies were to follow through 1918 both at the front and even back in England, with mass groups of troops refusing orders and walking out of barracks in Folkestone, Dover and Shoreham. Canadian troops rebelled as well over two days at Arras. (The 15,000 strong West Indian Volunteer force continued to obey orders until after the ceasefire when they were denied the pay rise given to British conscripts and detailed to clean toilets for white soldiers - at this point, after already enduring several years of racist treatment, they too rebelled.)

Among all sides, desertion grew the longer the war endured and as the willing volunteers of 1914 fell under the shells and bullets, they could only be replaced by forced conscription. By autumn 1918, as many as two million Germans had either deserted or avoided the draft, with 25,000 fleeing to Switzerland where many associated with Russian Bolshevik exiles.

As 2014 closes, with the British Government's David Cameron and Michael Gove's attempts to "celebrate" the conflict of 1914-1918 continuing, it is worth reflecting that this was no popular war. Although  unsurprisingly titled "The Great War for Civilisation" by the victors, this was not the battle against Nazism or totalitarianism of 1939 to 1945. It was fought essentially in the interests of elite ruling classes and at the behest of their capitalist leaders - arms manufacturers and merchants, engineering firms, oil companies, all seeking to expand their profits and, in an early manifestation of the neoliberal ethos, happily incorporating state power so that, to paraphrase Clauswitz, war became economics by other means.

Many of these rulers, with some notable exceptions, had anticipated a quick war and a few even believed their own propaganda about over by Christmas. But, writing nearly 30 years earlier, Karl Marx's colleague and friend Friedrich Engels had anticipated things very differently and, as it turned out, highly accurately:
"(There will be) a world war of an extent and violence hitherto undreamt of. Eight to ten million soldiers will slaughter each other and devour the whole of Europe until they have stripped it barer than any swarm of locusts has ever done.
The devastation of the Thirty Years' War compressed into three of four years and spread over the whole continent; famine, pestilence, general demoralisation of both armies and of the mass of the people, produced by acute distress; chaos in our trade, industry, commerce and credit, ending in general bankruptcy; collapse of the old states to such an extent that crowns will roll of the pavements and there will be no one to pick them up; absolute impossibility of seeing how it will all end...
This is the prospect when the system of mutual outbidding in armaments, taken to its final extreme at last bears its inevitable fruits. This my lords, princes and statesmen is where in your wisdom you have brought old Europe." ("Empire and Revolution", D.Sherry, p,12)

Little wonder then that the war came to an end first in the east with the Russian Revolutions of February and October 1917 and then in the west with the German Revolution of October 1918. History has come to view both as isolated, but in fact all Europe was ablaze by the final Armistice on 11 November 1918. Ten million soldiers and ten million civilians were dead; and a flu pandemic originating among in the squalid conditions of the trenches was to take between another twenty and forty million lives over the next two years.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more, shattered into at least six different entities. Soviet Republics were declared in Bavaria and Hungary and Italy endured the Bienno Rossa, two years of social upheaval which eventually birthed the fascist Blackshirts and brought Mussolini to power. The Ottoman Empire had also collapsed and Greece and Turkey faced each other in a new conflict that would lead to massive and brutal transfers of populations between Europe and Asia Minor.

In Britain, the Government invested huge military efforts and resources to subvert the new Communist regime in Moscow and for several years was spooked by the prospect of revolution - furiously sending tanks to Glasgow in 1919 to suppress protesters after the Battle of George Square. With angry, demobilised conscripts demanding the Government make its' promises of a "land fit for heroes" a reality and even the police going on strike, King George V persuaded the the Prime Minister to withdraw an offer of refuge to the deposed Russian Czar, fearing his cousin's presence would precipitate a similar royal cataclysm in the UK.

The Christmas Truce was a remarkable event. And now, more than ever, as capitalist companies seek to profit from its memory, it is all the more important that we remember the context in which it occurred and where, in time, it led. It was just the first of a number of events that eventually saw several million combatants ignore the commands of their leaders and instead make common cause with their fellow soldiers across the lines. It was an act of humanity and compassion for sure; but it was also one of the most powerful statements of defiance against authority by oppressed people in all of the last century. Let us never forget them.