Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Stuff of Christmas

In the 1936 film, "Things to Come", based on the H.G. Wells novel "The Shape of Things to Come", an elderly man watches his grandchildren excitedly opening their Christmas presents and reflects a little sadly on how complex their playthings have become, pondering "I wonder sometimes if all these new toys aren't a bit much."

It is perhaps a little passe to lament that "Christmas has lost its meaning" as some are wont to do every Christmas, because the Christmas we know - of yule trees and Santa Claus and presents - is a relatively new phenomenon, driven almost entirely by commercial considerations. The Victorians were first, using it to showcase the gains of Empire when the emergent middle classes sought to keep up with their neighbours in a social arms race. As developing technology permits ever greater mass production, this trend has continued ever since. Even Santa himself, based on a 4th century Bishop who lived as a pauper and gave all his wealth to the poor, has been appropriated, his red and white uniform consolidated (though not, as myth claims, actually invented) by the Coca Cola multinational for their mass marketing in the inter-war years.

Santa Cola
Until we reach this sad pass: perhaps the first time some approving parents have posted on Youtube the reaction of disgust of a toddler when his present of a book is not sophisticated enough to match his expectations: "Books for Christmas...what the heck is that?" What would 1936's grandpa make of it?

Of course, Christmas is simply an extreme manifestation of the commercial society we live in, of the mantra that says our value is not within ourselves or our actions, but rather contained in the financial cost of our possessions. An advert currently running  shows a woman and her partner admiring their new cooker and units in their amazingly over sized kitchen, worryingly more than a little excited by their acquisition. "That will get the neighbours talking!" the voiceover proclaims smugly as a (woman) visitor appears in the doorway, similarly keen to see the shiny new cookery. "Look!" the voiceover continues, "they're here already!"

Perhaps they needed "a new kitchen", but the message is nothing to do with real need. It is about status. And, driven on by the gurus of marketing, this is what sets the pace of our society and our lives, regardless of how miserable deep down it makes us feel. The message is simple: you do not yet have enough; once you have some more, a bigger car, a wider TV, a larger house, a shinier bathroom, then, you will be happy. 

Except of course you won't. Because in a world where products are made with a deliberately inbuilt obsolescence, sooner or later you will have to replace what you have got. That's of course if you haven't already replaced it because your next door neighbour has a more expensive one. With satisfaction forever elusive, endless gratification is all that remains.


All this comes at a price to the environment as we gobble up more and more resources as foretold in Hardin's 1968 masterpiece, "Tragedy of the Commons". With emergent economies such as Brazil, India and China creating between them billions of more consumers keen to clamber up the same frenetic ladder of acquisition and consumption as the West has already ascended, there is no sign of a let up. Chillingly, if they reach the same level as the western economies, we will need four more planet Earths to sustain the unsustainable.

Just take the pills
But personally, it is not desirable either. There is a plethora of evidence that beyond a level of reasonable sufficiency (one UK survey suggests an annual income of around £30,000/$46,000, a US one £48,000/£$75,000), happiness does not increase with income - indeed, there is some indication of an actual decline. Except of course, the message of the market society is that you can buy more happiness, if you just work a little harder, longer, earn that bit extra...keep going...satisfaction is just around the corner. And if you fail, if you fall into unpayable debt or fall off the greasy pole, then it is your failure, your inability to work hard or smart enough. Your are fated not to be a Master of the Universe, as some international traders style themselves. Should you get depressed about that, of course, there's money in that for someone else too.

In a survey of British and American employees on what motivates them most, managers identified pay, benefits and promotion but by contrast, the staff identified security, fairness and control of their own work. However, society works on the basis of the first group of perceptions - capitalism sets us all up, ultimately, in competition with each other over resources and rewards - within our organisations, between them, between countries and cultures.

Social simians
Yet humans are striking not on account of our competitiveness; rather we are marked by our co-operative spirit, our community and our shared humanity. It is not without good reason that when we talk of the humane, we mean the compassionate, the caring, the empathic, the sharing. These qualities are at the heart of our development and progress on this planet - they were core to our origins as evidenced by the social nature of the apes that are our closest relatives. And these traits, too, have been central to the rise of societies of people, interacting and working with each other, caring for one another infinitely more frequently than being in conflict.

This is the true, eternal Human Spirit. The economic system we exist under, by contrast, is alien to our innate Nature and the root of much of our unhappiness and struggle with ourselves and with others. For nearly all of our existence, we have worked to different aims and values than profit maximisation and individual self-interest. Not all of these were laudable, but many were predicated on community and shared resources, and a common fate.

There is much wrong in our world. But our hopes, and the hopes for the many species whose survival now depends on what we choose to do, lie with our own intrinsic instincts of mutuality and selfless sustainability. For aeons, humans lived with our planet, nurturing its resources for future generations and for times they would not personally live to see. If, perhaps at Christmas, or New Year, or whatever moment of transition is important to each of us, we reflect on what has been, we can still, even now, make a new beginning for us all.

"It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” (Neil Armstrong)

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Gulf Stream: does the Government know it has stopped?

Is there a fundamental shift taking place in our winter climate in northern Europe, and Britain in particular? What does the Government know that it is not quite ready to tell us lesser mortals?

British Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, has been talking in the Commons today about how the transport network has been struggling in the freezing temperatures and heavy snow of the last few weeks. As footage repeated over and over by the media shows, with huge numbers of people seeking to travel in the days leading up to Christmas, nearly every form of transport is under strain. Hammond insists that, with temperatures well below freezing for days on end and a full 5C lower than normal for this time of year, many services have struggled but just about coped. Yet, crucially, he pondered if this cost-cutting Government should now invest in the equipment necessary to counter the impact of regularly severe winter weather as he felt it right to question" if there is a step change happening to our winters." The Chief Scientist is to be asked to comment.

Slipped as an aside into a parliamentary announcement on transport, this is on the one hand a startling statement by a Minister of the mainstream parties, but equally not news to those who have been warning about the consequences of climate change for many years. As world temperatures increase thanks to man-made greenhouse gas emissions - and this year has, in spite of the last few days, been the warmest in recent history - global warming is not just about constant heating up. It is also about disruption to and destruction of all sorts of local or regional micro-climates.

North-western Europe has benefited for thousands of years from the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, a channel of warm water known as the conveyor (and above it the warm air of the Jet Stream) from the Mexican Gulf and Caribbean that flows across the Atlantic to bring mild weather all year round to the European seaboard. Britain and Ireland especially benefit, greatly assisting our agriculture and reducing our energy costs. Glasgow, for example, is on the same latitude as the Russian capital Moscow, but has enjoyed a much warmer climate. As far up the western Scottish coast as places like Inverary, parallel to icy cities like Estonian Riga, the temperate climate can be seen in the flora and fauna, with even (imported) palm trees thriving.

But for years, environmentalists and greens have been warning that global temperature increases could bring the Stream shuddering to a halt. Indeed, in 2003, even the Pentagon postulated the possibility of a shutdown of the conveyor by 2010. The theory holds that, as melting ice from Greenland and the Arctic flows south into the Atlantic, this disrupts the flow of warm weather from the Gulf. The inflow of cold water onto warm increases storms and begins to slow and  eventually switch off the Gulf Stream permanently. This in turn leads to what Mr Hammond so matter-of-factly mentioned this afternoon in between the latest on flights from Heathrow and lack of de-icer at Brussels airport - substantially lower temperatures in Britain andn the rest of north-western Europe, ironically as the rest of the world warms. Especially severe winters have been predicted as a result.

Hammond made no mention of the cause of this possible step change, so why has he postulated it at all now? We have had two bad winters in a row, but as any climatologist will tell you, that is still weather, not climate. The Minister was silent, but there is very worrying evidence that the Gulf Stream has in fact stopped reaching north European shores in recent months.

Some scientists, such as Dr. Gianluigi Zangari of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Italy, who has been part of a team monitoring the Gulf Stream for the last decade, have concluded that on 12 June this year, it effectively stopped. It no longer reaches as far as Ireland. Since the late summer and early autumn, he and others have been warning of an early and severe winter in north-western Europe, and this now seems borne out by events. It may be too early to be certain that is has ceased permanently, but it has changed enough to have a very significant impact on people's lives - including ending many of them through fuel poverty, hypothermia and related effects.

Perhaps Mr Hammond and his colleagues already know this and are trying to soften us up for the bad news. More likely, it may be that they do not see the significance of all this, but in their ignorant nonchalance, our political masters betray the future. We need to act now, not in another decade or two, to stop climate disruption escalating exponentially. And that will mean some significant changes to how we live.
The Big Chill - get used to it?

As just one example, yes, it is a shame to see tens of thousands of people crammed into airport terminals, sleeping on the floor and wondering if they will make it home for Christmas. But on a normal day at Heathrow Airport, an aeroplane arrives or takes off every forty seconds: and that is just one airport of thousands round the world. Just how realistic is it to think that we can continue like this? How sustainable does anyone seriously think the level of international travel, global trade and cheap flights really is? Anyone with any knowledge of carbon fuels will tell you we are now passing Peak Oil production - we consume almost forty times more oil each year than we discover and so reserves are depleting rapidly.

We need to develop new ways of communicating - the technology is there, but it is seen as complementing travel rather than replacing it - and begin to adjust our expectations. "Local" needs to be the future - for work, for production and distribution, for leisure and relaxation. It does not mean an end to international trade and travel completely, but our desires and the possibilities have to become far more realistic and sustainable, for all our sakes.

The only alternative is to carry on partying into chaos.

It would be better to have a Government that plans for and encourages that sort of step change rather than looks, so predictably, at new style snow ploughs and de-icing chemicals as the sticking plaster response to this paradigm shift in the way we need to live.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

The Failure of Kyoto: why Cancun will not save us

World leaders are hailing the agreement at Cancun as a qualified success. With the exception of Bolivia, delegates have signed up to a new commitment to reach agreement on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions within the next two years. Alongside this, they undertook to provide $100 billion in aid by 2020 and support measures to protect tropical forests and new ways to share new clean energy technologies - a restatement of an earlier, unfulfilled pledge.

Cancun is seen as a halfway house to a reviewed/renewed Kyoto Protocol, and the agreement essentially is little more than a commitment to do something unspecified by 2012, when the current, largely unimplemented treaty is due to expire. Any hard decisions have been delayed to the next round of talks in Bonn - the reason for Bolivia's resistance to the half-hearted agreement.

The Kyoto Protocol was drawn up in 1997 and sought pledges from the international community to cut greenhouse gases -carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulphur hexafluoride, and two groups of gases, hydrofluorocarbons and perfluorocarbons- by 5.2% against their 1990 levels by 2012. But many of the worst polluters - the USA, China and Australia in particular, either dragged their feet over ratification or refused to sign completely. While some countries did make some progress - the UK under the last Labour Government did take some bold if rather incomplete steps - this was in some cases a result of reduced energy use because of economic recession rather than developing new, sustainable alternative sources such as solar or wind power. In other cases, the Protocol's controversial permitting of carbon trading as a means of reducing emissions on paper (mainly by rich countries purchasing quotas from poor countries that were never going to use their quotas in any case) allowed some to claim reductions when in fact the opposite had happened.
Business as usual on Planet Earth
In many parts of the world, "business as usual" means that industrialisation has continued apace, with voodoo solutions such as biofuels, carbon capture and seeding the seas with various minerals touted as miraculous answers to the emerging climate crisis. The consequence has been that, as of the end of 2009, rather than effecting a 5.2% reduction in gases, the world's output had increased by 41% since 1991.

Of course, with the world in recession following the banking crisis, cynics and fair weather environmentalists contend that climate action will need to wait. It is written off as a luxury we cannot afford. In the UK, the right wing point to the recent cold weather as apparent proof that global warming is a sham, invented by a conspiracy of scientists to gain government grants for their work.

But 2010 has been the warmest year on record. More and more evidence shows we are close to a tipping point such as one where warming melts the Siberian tundra to an extent that massive quantities of methane are released into the atmosphere, exponentially increasing the rate by which the planet heats up and in turn triggering more and more feedback points where increases in gases in the air lead to more and more rapid warming. Even conservative estimates accept that it is now impossible to contain global warming to 2C in the next century and far higher increases are likely.

A 5C increase is a distinct possibility in the decades ahead. Nice enough if you have that for a few weeks in the summer in the UK, but apply it worldwide on a permanent basis all year round and global catastrophe results - massive crop failures will induce mass starvation across the planet; hundreds of millions, even billions of climate refugees will result; social conflict and resource wars will burgeon; whole states will fail and some, like the Maldives, will disappear under the rising sea levels. Water scarcities will plague many places, while others will face severe flooding. Humanity's ability to survive at any civilised level will be seriously tested. And this will not be in two or three centuries time - rather much of the disruption will begin in the next few years, and many alive now will likely face the worst consequences of our collective failure to act in time.

So tackling global warming is no luxury, able to be set aside for a few years while the bankers replenish their coffers. We face the greatest threat in history not to the planet - we are arrogant to use phrases like save the planet; Earth does not need us and will long outlive our kind. The real threat is to our own species, the human race, and the time for action is now.

Friday, 10 December 2010

The Party Is Over

As I write, a Facebook group is holding the Liberal Democrats' Funeral in cyberspace. This follows on from yesterday's debate on tuition fees when the Lib Dem MPs split three ways over the proposed trebling of charges on students' attending English universities (devolution means different arrangements apply in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland).

The press today (once it got over the attack on the Prince of Wales car by students chanting "Off with your heads!") has been full of speculation about the implications for the party. Some have suggested the split - roughly between the "Orange Book" free market liberals under party leader Nick Clegg, and more progressive social liberals - is damaging but, now that the debate is over, can be put behind them. Others have suggested that the divide shows that the "real" Liberal Democrats, 70% of whom feel they are left-of-centre progressives in sharp contrast to the decidedly right wing agenda of the Coalition Government, have stood up and will begin to assert some degree of independence or at least a clearer identity for their party.
Clegg - full steam ahead to oblivion

Yet the real damage to the Lib Dems is not that they split - bad though that looks. Rather, the damage is that the proposed changes got through and the Government is unaffected in its further drive to dismantle not only education, but the NHS as we know it and the wider Welfare State, with punitive measures being introduced against disabled people and the long term unemployed. Clegg has suggested that now that tuition fees are dealt with, there are no outstanding disagreements within the Lib Dems and the Coalition will progress with its full programme - cynically, Lib Dem strategists believe that the public will have forgotten all about the tuition fee debacle by the election due in spring 2015.

So what we witness now is the real, truly strange death of the Lib Dems as a progressive force in British politics. Those who voted against the tuition fees (or perhaps even worse, the worm tongues who abstained) did so in the full knowledge that the measures would almost certainly pass. Their opposition therefore was a self-serving luxury - so they can insist to students that "it wasn't me guv" while continuing to support one of the most ideologically right wing governments in British history. Lib Dems are now at the heart of a project which is dismantling the legacy of great Liberal reformers like Keynes and Beveridge, and even Lloyd George, who played such seminal roles in establishing the Welfare State that has served Britain so well for the last sixty five years.

It is because the Coalition has survived that the Lib Dems should be afraid. Had it collapsed or been transformed into a less cohesive project, they may have been able to reassert some degree of their independence from the Conservatives, to re-establish something distinct about their contribution to the government. As it is, they are now forever sucked deep into the Clegg-Cameron programme, where they provide useful human shields for the worst Conservative reforms, cravenly defending them on dubious grounds of economic necessity. Clegg insists the Lib Dems did not win the election and so have to submit to not getting their policies adopted by the Government. Fair enough, but with barely 35% of the vote and no majority in the Commons, the Tories did not win either - so why do the Lib Dems yield again and again to policies which clearly have a deep blue imprimatur? On a whole slate of issues, they are driving through extreme liberatrian policies which even the Thatcher Government did not attempt back in the 1980s - and increasingly they are not even deploying their previous pleas of financial need. Rather, they simply do what they ideologically want to do.

The reason for this adoption of what in American terms would be seen as a pretty neo-liberal stance is straightforward - the Lib Dems are not in essence a progressive force. There are progressives in their ranks, no doubt, but as a party they have long since shed any progressive core in their thinking. Pragmatism in their coalitions and pacts at local level over local issues has perhaps infected them so badly that it has led them to both abandon all principles and attract people to join them who are essentially apolitical. To many Lib Dems politics are viewed as either a career choice or a part-time hobby rather than a belief or set of values about how society should function. For the ambitious, it is an alternative to banking; for the more casual, it can be a toss up between Focus leafleting and the local amateur drama society. Politics is largely absent from their activities or thinking.

And so, now that they are no longer in the position of being able to oppose everything, they are like rabbits in headlights, startled and overwhelmed by the choices and responsibilities facing them, clinging to Cameron's coat-tails to give them some sense of direction, however perverse that is set against their claimed progressive identity.

Freefalling to 8% support in the latest poll - barely a third of what they achieved at the election in May, a Lib Dem funeral is wholly appropriate. The party is unlikely to disappear completely, but it clearly faces massive losses in elections for the foreseeable future as well as a decline in membership and financial support. The fantasy peddled by Clegg's faction that they will be strong enough to have a further Coalition with the Tories after 2015 will remain just that - unless, as happened in the 1930s and 1940s, the Conservatives give a few favoured Lib Dems a free run in some constituencies in order to project themselves as part of a wider movement than the Tories alone.

But more than ever the question that will be most relevant about the Lib Dems will be : "What are they for?"

And answer there will be none.

Let's hope that at least it's a Co-op funeral - it might salvage a little social credibility for them at the very end; and there should be a cracking Afternoon Tea afterwards...
The Lib Dem Funeral 

"Say Goodbye To Broken Promises" - probably the most ironic and cynical party broadcast in history.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

From the Cradle of Humanity to the Heart of Darkness: Africa's Bitter Legacy

The election in Ivory Coast in western Africa last week has descended into a dangerous stand off between the supporters of the incumbent President, Laurent Gbagbo, who nearly all international monitors as well as the national electoral commission agree has lost, and his challenger, Alassane Ouattara. A political crisis threatens to develop into something much more violent - this after a campaign seen as the country's best chance in years of healing itself of its deep divisions. These had been suppressed for nearly three decades since independence, but the ousting of a dictatorship in 1999 unleashed the inherent tensions between the Muslim north and Christian south and they have featured prominently in Ivorian politics ever since.

It is a common theme across much of northern-central Africa - the faultline between the Muslim and Christian polities that skirts the northern zones of places like Ivory Coast, Nigeria and, most notably, Sudan. Much as these and other tensions have plagued similarly invented countries, such as Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and Iraq, African states have frequently struggled to overcome their internal divisions, much to the mirth of western racists and apologists for colonialism who snort that it never happened under us.

And yet, if anything is a legacy of colonialism in Africa, even more than in most other places in the world, it is the ludicrous system of states that were left behind by the retreating European powers after 1945. If the winds of change were blowing, they didn't blow quite hard enough to change the borders of what were European imposed administrative divisions into the genuine geographical boundaries of nation states. Consider Zimbabwe - there, Shona were shoe-horned into a state with the Ndebele, even although the latter had much more in common with the people of Botswana to the west. Left to their own devices, a very different map would have emerged.
A Colonial Convenience - A Continent's artifical borders

Nigeria, scene of the dreadful Biafran war, was similarly an artificial entity, created from at least three major and many smaller ethnic groups - the Muslim Hausa-Fulani in the north; the Christian Yoruba and Ibos in the south. Different cultures, different languages, different histories - their sole commonality was to have the same former Colonial Master, Britain, who had found it useful to lump them together into "Nigeria".

The Sudan was forged by British militarists, hellbent during the European "Scramble for Africa" at the end of the 19th century, to create a Red Corridor from the Suez to the Cape, so that you could travel from the north to the south of the Continent without leaving British territory. By bloody violence and conquest, they succeeded and for over five decades the Union Flag flew over the largest area of Africa, followed not far behind by the French Tricolour and the personal flag of the King of Belgium in the Congo (setting of Conrad's appropriately titled novel, "The Heart of Darkness").

When the Europeans bowed to the growing demands for independence in the 1950s and 1960s, they left behind poorly educated populations - when Belgium left the Congo, for example, in 1961, there were just 6 graduates in the entire country - hamstrung by the continued ownership of much of their land and most of their natural resources, especially minerals, by private companies from their colonial Mother Countries. With interference by these companies and their governments to ensure local regimes remained friendly, democratic institutions soon collapsed as military regimes took power and years of instability and corruption followed. Men like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (formerly Congo), the endless succession of military regimes in Nigeria and latterly the corruption of the Mugabe administration in Zimbabwe conspired to ensure that Africans in whole swathes of the Continent were denied justice and freedom or the ability to develop their potential. The white supremacy in apartheid South Africa prolonged this, sponsoring terrorist movements like the UNITA in Angola and FRELIMO in Mozambique, undermining left wing governments that, on the whole, sought African solutions to their problems.

Mobutu of Zaire - corrupt murderer and friend of the West
Indeed, in the last 15 years, democracy has swept Africa much as it had previously swept South America. It would be wrong to imply that good governance exists everywhere - the African Union itself has called for the development of far stronger institutions and much better behaviour by political leaders. But democratic rule is asserted now in the vast majority of African countries and Ivory Coast is as notable for its crisis being political in its nature as it is unusual now for an incumbent regime to refuse a transfer of power following a vote by the people.

But the tensions alluded to earlier remain - most African states would not have developed naturally into their current guises. That none of them has ever seized any territory from their neighbours is a testimony to their inherent common sense and restraint. Sudan, now embarking on a popular referendum which is likely to see it divided into two new states - a Muslim north and Christian south - may be showing a peaceful way forward. For just as it should be hoped that different ethnicities can and should learn to live together in peace and co-operation, this can only be achieved willingly and over time. It cannot be borne from the bitter, violent and rapacious legacy of Colonialism.

Europe's tribal wars killed tens of millions

And for those in the West who might sneer, let them consider a few things - our own struggle to make something of a multi-national, multi-cultural institution, the EU, is stuttering towards collapse amidst the current economic crisis. As for bloody tribal wars, surely the worst wars of all were the two that plagued Europe's tribes in 1914-18 and 1939-45? Just imagine, had some African Colonial Power lumped the south of England in with the north of France, and eastern France with western Germany and told them to live together as new, independent states - would they have lasted a week, never mind the fifty years that many African states have now existed for?

Africa was the cradle of humanity - in the final analysis, every human walking this planet is of African origins. All the more appalling then that this, our beautiful Mother Continent, and its inhabitants have been ravaged by slavers, "explorers" and armies with total disregard for any spark of humanity. Since independence, neo-colonialist covert operations, bribery and big business have continued the exploitation and through no fault of its own, Africa is now on the frontline of the climate change crisis.

Europe has no right to lecture Africa. No right to feel superior. We have only a duty and responsibility - to apologise and make reparations for the mess we made.

Monday, 22 November 2010

No Money Left, unless....

After the General Election, an unfortunate private joke by Liam Byrne, the outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury, was to provide the incoming Con Dem Coalition with all too easy a weapon. On the desk of his successor, the short-lived appointee from the Lib Dems, David Laws, he left a note saying starkly, "Dear Chief Secretary, I am afraid to tell you there's no money left."

In the weeks and months that followed, first Laws and then his own successor Danny Alexander as well as a host of other Ministers repeatedly used this to justify the cuts they proposed to everything from welfare to education funding, jobs creation and transport. The Lib Dems especially cited this as they pleaded not guilty to reneging on their promises to avoid cuts this year and protect services beyond it.

As with much of their project, this was not true. The deficit is lower now than predicted at the start of the year. But the Con Dem propaganda continues apace. Much of the public seems convinced, with a poll taken yesterday showing 49% supporting the cuts to some degree.

But today perhaps changes that and blows away for good the claim that Britain is nearly bankrupt.

Because today, with the Irish economy in turmoil, Eire finally accepted a loan from the EU totalling nearly £80 billion Euros. As a member of the EU, Britain is making a contribution. But then on top, we are making a further bilateral loan, bringing out total commitment to Eire to £7 billions.

Now, there is a lot of sense in this - although at the same time the terms of the loans unnecessarily rob Ireland of its financial and economic independence and seem likely to affect public services rather than the banks. But Britain depends heavily on exports to its smaller neighbour - the average Irish citizen spends £3,500 p.a. on British goods and far outranks anywhere else in the world for purchasing imports from the UK. On top of this, British banks, including state-owned  RBS, are heavily extended in loans to the collapsed Irish construction industry and others - to the tune of £140 billion. So needless to say the total collapse of the Irish economy would damage them further. It is also a loan as opposed to expenditure - one day, it should come back to British coffers.

But how can the Government square this with their claims that we are ourselves pretty much bankrupt? During the election, Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader, apparently underwent a secret conversion to massive expenditure cuts when he saw Greece in turmoil and feared that in a few weeks we would be in the same condition. The Tories characterised the closing days of the Brown Government as akin to "bankrupt banana republic" all but out of cash and credit. George Osborne supposedly was ashen faced when as the new Chancellor he went through the books in late May and realised things were far worse than anyone had feared.

The truth of course is that, although our deficit has risen substantially because of having to bail out the banks and pay for the Afghan war, it is far smaller in proportion to Greece's and Portugal's. Moreover, our national debt is barely a third of what it was for the bulk of the post-war period, when Britain's economy expanded and great public services like the NHS were born.
National debt as a share of GDP since its inception in 1692 

The veracity of Mr Osborne's claims has been under strain for several weeks. Now Dublin has blown it apart. Cuts are a political decision driven by Tory ideology for a smaller state. They are not an economic necessity - an investment led recovery along the lines of the Green New Deal could have preserved jobs and developed a sustainable future for our country without such dreadful austerity and the impact it will have on the most vulnerable in society.

Not that that the lie being exposed will change things - nor is it likely that, as we bail Ireland out, the Government might reflect that the Republic has got into this recessionary mess at least in part as a result of following precisely the slash and burn, tight money plans the Con Dems are now merrily enforcing on Britain.

But there again, we're not bankers. We just live here.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Never Had It So Good? The Accidental Truths of Lord David Young

The Tories' paper-thin mask of faux social concern slipped this week when Lord David Young of Graffham, Coalition Government adviser on health and safety at work law, was quoted pontificating over a good lunch on how the "so-called" recession was nothing really. The former right-hand man of Margaret Thatcher held forth on how the half million jobs set to be lost in the public sector were "within the margin of error" and how home owners "have never had it so good." There was a howl of outrage from a wide spectrum of the public and media and, in spite of an apology from Young, Prime Minister Cameron dismissed him within hours. He described the peer's words as "offensive and inaccurate". 

Offensive they were without question, but how inaccurate or not were they?
The way we were: Young and Thatcher, 1980s

No lost jobs can be dismissed as marginal errors - these are people's livelihoods, but his Lordship happily supported the disposal of several million jobs under the Thatcher Government of 1979 to 1990, when his roles included chair of the Manpower Services Commission and Employment Secretary. So job losses of any number may indeed be of marginal importance to him as he views the world from the lofty heights of the Lords, atop his fortune made in the construction industry.

Likewise, from the perspective of the people who actually matter to the Conservative Government, there is some truth in his words about mortgages. Interest rates have indeed been at a historic low for some time now, making mortgages and loans for those who have them cheaper than they have been for several decades. In particular, if you are one of the significant numbers who invested in property and especially in "buy-to-let" schemes over the last decade, the chances are you will indeed be quids in.

Buy-to-let schemes began in earnest under the Major government, significantly fuelling the boom in property speculation. In spite of widening the gap in wealth between the haves and have nots, making buying property well beyond the reach of many younger people, this phenomenon expanded greatly under New Labour. Now, more and more people face a serious struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Unable to buy, they are facing higher and higher rents - including the innovation in some areas of making sealed bids on their rents to prospective landlords. With housing benefit and social housing tenure reforms in prospect and likely to make tenancies ever harder to maintain, the rented sector is becoming more and more profitable for predatory landlords - or residential entrepreneurs, as Tories would call them.

So if Lord Young is guilty of anything, it is certainly not of being a liar: for the people he meets and spends his time with, for the people the Tories exist to serve, they indeed have never had it so good.

But what this episode does brightly illuminate is the real strategy behind the Government's actions. Young referred to the recession as "so-called", contrasting our current economic circumstances pretty favourably to past recessions. This betrays the Big Lie at the heart of the Con Dem Coalition - that massive, urgent cuts in public spending are necessary to avoid imminent national bankruptcy.

In sharp contrast to this, Young has confirmed what many critics have  suspected for months - that the hype around the deficit is just that; and that the cuts to welfare, to health and education and a range of other services are a political choice, not an economic necessity. And it is a choice which will indeed ensure that a significant, better-off slice of the populace does have it good, quite contentedly at the cost of the rest. This is a tactic they used successfully throughout the 1980s and which our archaic voting system allows to continue even in the face of the opposition of the majority of the electorate.
The way we were: 1981 revisited?

Tellingly, Young also said the Coalition Cabinet is far narrower politically than the Thatcher Government of 1979. In spite of the Lib Dems' supposed moderating presence, the unity around this new social project is greater and more far reaching than even the Iron Lady's right wing revisionism. Then, several million jobs were sacrificed, along with the hopes and dreams of millions of people. This time, who knows where we are headed, with at least an initial million jobs set to go over the next year or so? Although the Government claims that "we are all in it together", the mere fact that 23 out of 29 Cabinet Ministers are millionaires makes it hard to see how. Nearly every major move since their taking office has been regressive - on the budget, on welfare, on cutting back on resources to tackle tax evasion, it is clear where this regime's loyalties lie.

So Lord Young is an offensive man making offensive comments about the stark realities facing millions of ordinary Britons. But perhaps his words were also the most unintentionally accurate representation yet of the arrogant disdain and detached world view of our Cabinet of Millionaires.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

William and Kate: why the gods are laughing

"UNEMPLOYED WOMAN TO MARRY INTO WELFARE FAMILY", so one wag wrote online, pointedly aping the "Daily Mail"'s normal approach to any examples, real or, as often, imagined, of out-of-work people or folk with a disability having the temerity to have the same human emotions and desires as those rich enough to afford them.

The difference here, of course, is that the woman and family concerned are Kate Middleton, aka "Princess-in-waiting" since her schooldays, and the Windsors, who live in a huge house at the taxpayers' expense at the end of The Mall in London.

No such derogatory treatment for this Royal lot, who ironically refer to themselves as "The Firm" -presumably a very heavily state-subsidised one. Rather than scream about the shocking costs of a state-funded Royal Wedding, or about the extra public cash coming Prince William's way once he acquires his wife, the Press has been predictably full of photos and speculation - what will she wear? (a dress, possibly?) What jolly japes and restaurant-smashing will his stag night involve? Should he have given her his mother's ring? Will Prince Harry be at the wedding or will it be restricted to family-only? (well, I made up that last bit, or stole it from a friend - you decide!)
William and Kate - just the same as all of us, really...
No one would want to rain on any one's parade when they decide to get married. That two young people feel close enough and sure enough to make such a commitment is fine. However, as they themselves acknowledge, they are no ordinary couple: one day, he is likely to be the Head of State, with notionally supreme power over the entire government and country. If William dies while his offspring is under 18 years old, Kate will likely inherit his authority as Queeen Regent until the child comes of age.

So, rather than worry about the fripperies of their wedding day (or even the cost, obscenely great as it will be in the midst of Austerity Britain), perhaps this is as good a moment as any to reflect more fundamentally on why we have a monarchy at all.

Britain is unusual even among so called "constitutional monarchies", like Sweden or the Netherlands, in that we don't actually have a constitution - not a properly written one anyway. Instead, we have a myriad of conventions and precedents which loosely sum up how the state functions. The monarch, although so often portrayed as a passive, somehow neutral guarantor of our liberty, is actually at the heart of this web of law and ritual.

In France, you are a citizen of the Republic: the state is your servant; the President is elected for a fixed term and their authority is derived from the People. The President has a duty among other things to uphold your rights as a citizen and the functioning of the organs of the state. Not perfect and like any system open to abuse by human beings; but by contrast to Britain, it is a truly revolutionary arrangement.

In the United Kingdom, you are a subject of the King (even if the King is actually a Queen, she is still the King). In the final analysis, you are a servant of the King and the state. The King's legitimacy and authority are inherited, lifelong and absolute; his right to rule stems from the descent of the monarch (in legend at any rate) from Cerdic, the first King of the West Saxons, who pitched up around Southampton from somewhere in Germany around 490 AD. Cerdic's authority in practice probably came from the size of his axe, but also rested on his claimed descent from Odin, Father of the Gods of Valhalla.
Pagan relatives on the guest
list dilemma: Odin on
his way to St Paul's?

On this divine provenance, the unwritten British Constitution rests. And while the monarch may no longer actively participate in political life, the fact of the office's existence and its supreme power over its subjects still matters very much indeed. The King's authority now rests with the Prime Minister, who is appointed by the King with the convention that they must have the confidence of parliament - though this is something that could be changed should the monarch decide, albeit with a major political storm certain to ensue.

This arrangement may seem so theoretical as to be meaningless, except that it is used to grant the Prime Minister and Cabinet very substantial powers to act without parliamentary approval. Acts of war, for example, did not require the support of the Commons until this right was voluntarily surrendered by the last Labour Government. In areas of finance, policing, covert operations and military action, there is little real democratic restraint, all because the government can trace its powers back to the P.M.'s position as "king-in-parliament-under-God".

In a modern age, is this seriously how we want to do things? The "war on terror" of the last few years has shown how popular fears have been manipulated and exaggerated to empower the authorities without any need to account of themselves to parliament or the public. As further serious issues loom about our resources and their distribution, these powers are already being used against people and targets unmentioned when they were initially made law - trade unionists and the environmentalist movement are likely early targets as corporate power seeks to defend its redoubt in the difficult times that capitalism faces. And whatever the intent of any current set of politicians, the concentration of such absolute power, ultimately of life and death even, is all too readily open to abuse by those of ill-intent.
Government in a democracy needs to be accountable to people who are its citizens and collective masters, with their rights inalienably their own rather than granted and withdrawn at the whim of the ruler. A republic with an elected Head of State is critical to establishing the framework for this. In turn, a written constitution needs to be established, clearly setting out the recognised rights of citizens, alterable only by  wide consensus. It must enshrine the human rights we all need to be safe and secure in an uncertain world.

A republic of itself is no guarantee of good governance: plenty of dictatorships have been run as republics and the USA can hardly be described as a paragon of democratic virtue. But at least the form of a republic establishes certain precedents and concepts, of citizenship and rights, which a monarchy simply does not address. Indeed, were some of the recent actions of British governments attempted by politicians in many republican democracies, they would have collapsed before they started.

Great Uncle Edward would
 have approved.
The apparent popularity of the chocolate box Royalty of the UK is used as a brocaded veil to hang over this subversion of freedom and democracy: a supposedly happy, just-like-the-rest-of-us family, smiling and waving back at a grateful nation. And after some years of repeatedly dysfunctional goings on being exposed, from the awful circumstances around Princess Diana's bulimia, to Harry's Nazi outfit and Philip's "slitty-eyed" outbursts, the superficial normality and evidently genuine warmth for each other of Kate and William must feel like manna from heaven for the beleaguered Firm. A new franchise has been created, hopefully to tide them over for another 20 or 30 years.

So amidst the Kate tea-towels and the William mugs, the Bride-to-be front covers and the reverential tones of BBC commentators, we need to reflect that this is indeed no ordinary wedding and no ordinary couple. They may not actively involve themselves in politics, but their gleaming smiles reflect nothing less than the grinning triumph of a velvet-gloved dictatorship, resplendent still in its continuing and absolute denial of our validity and citizenship.

In Valhalla, the gods are laughing. Odin must be proud of his boy.

The grinning triumph of velvet-gloved dictatorship?

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Lib Dem Leopards and their Changing Spots

The British press has been awash with stories this weekend about the shenanigans surrounding the creation of our first proper Coalition Government since 1945. In May, by a fluke of electoral arithmetic, the election produced a "hung parliament" where no party had an outright majority over all the others. So the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed a deal to govern together.

Nick Clegg, Liberal Leopard?
Two books have just been published about the deal - one by a Conservative MP, Rob Wilson, and the other by a Lib Dem MP, David Laws - and both show how the Coalition involved the smaller, originally centre-left Lib Dems in making massive compromises to create the rightist ,Conservative-dominated programme for government. From welfare reform, through higher education to the deficit, it is hard to identify any clear trace of the manifesto the Lib Dems had so effusively put to the country just a few days earlier.

The consequences for the Lib Dems appear to be disastrous so far - down as low as 9% in the opinion polls from their 23% in the election and a very bitter reaction from now former supporters. Students in particular have understandably turned angrily on the Lib Dems for cravenly reneging on their flagship pledge to abolish tuition fees, agreeing to nearly trebling them instead.

The Lib Dems, under leader Nick Clegg, have floundered to explain themselves: firstly, they claim that they didn't know how bad the deficit was before the election (although this is hard to sustain - the forecasts prior to May in fact indicated a larger deficit than has turned out and economic growth has been marginally higher than expected). Next they argue that they did not win the election themselves and so have no mandate to implement Lib Dem policies. Compromise, they say, is essential in such a situation.

No doubt it is - to an extent. But the Lib Dems have compromised with vigour: there has been no reluctance shown in surrendering anything to the Conservatives. Wilson's book reveals how the they secretly identified a whole range of negotiable policies during the election campaign. While Mr Clegg was busy harvesting student votes by signing his pledge on tuition fees, his lieutenant, Danny Alexander, was busy writing that the party should not press this as an issue in any negotiations - advice clearly heeded in due course.
Deputy PM Nick Clegg with PM David Cameron, 
12 May 2010

Laws' book, meantime, shows how the Lib Dems' negotiating team kept the Labour Party falsely talking for five days, with the astonishing connivance of the Royal Household, while they fixed up their deal with the Conservatives. In an utter charade, in complete bad faith, they held out the prospect of an agreement with what Laws calls the "decaying corpse" of the Brown government.

These are the same men who throughout the election battered on and on about how they would deliver a new, honest politics after the litany of disasters around the MPs' expenses scandal. But by their gleeful, schoolboy-like revelling in their grubby dealing, they betray their inability to rise above their narcissistic isolation from the world outside their "Westminster Village". All to what end? Seats at the Cabinet table, and little more. No great reform of politics; no more equal society; no great move to a green country. We will have a thoroughly Tory Britain, with even the Post Office privatised and nuclear power stations under construction.

I was an active member of the Lib Dems for many years, including as a parliamentary and European candidate. I served on several national policy working parties and from 1994 onwards felt a slow but determined drift away from any ideological position in anticipation of a possible pact with the pragmatism of Blair's New Labour. A raft of radical, centre-left policies on industrial democracy, citizens' income and overseas trade were quietly dropped. Next, Clegg, Laws and Chris Huhne published the "Orange Book" seeking to embrace the free market in public services. For myself, in 2005 I left and joined the Greens, attracted by their commitment to social justice as well as to the environment.

Shortly afterwards at a friend's birthday party I was introduced to a Lib Dem councillor. My friend explained my recent switch, at which point the councillor became extremely agitated. Why would I do such a thing, she demanded. The Lib Dems had a much better prospect of power. I explained that the Greens were where my principles lay. Her response was telling - principles were superfluous because "if you ever actually get any power, you'll soon find that it's all about compromise - compromise for breakfast, lunch and dinner!"

And that is why we are where we are - they are a party no longer with any moral compass. While there remain hardworking, well-intentioned individual members, nothing matters that much to their leaders - so consequently, everything is up for review. They no longer have any abiding vision or radical imagination, no idea that anything much needs to change. The concept that politics is the infinitely flexible "art of the possible" has been raised to their sole ideology.

Nick Clegg recently told the radio programme "Desert Island Discs" that his favourite film is Visconti's "The Leopard." This epic, a powerful story of the time of the Italian risorgimento, is certainly wonderfully done, and it includes a stunningly apposite line when the Prince of Salina, played by Burt Lancaster, observes laconically, "Something has to change so that everything can stay the same."

Establishments survive by first neutralising and then absorbing any challenge to them - and we are witnessing such a moment unfold before our very eyes. 
"The Leopard" - Something has to change so that everything can stay the same

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Lest We Forget Lithium - or why we will never leave Afghanistan

I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.
~George McGovern, US Democrat Presidential candidate, 1972

Today, Remembrance Day, we commemorate the dead of the wars since 1914 - the hundred and twenty million souls, military and civilian, lost in conflict on the most massive scale in human history. And this year as for the last nine, we have to remember the dead of wars Britain is currently engaged in support of its American ally. Iraq may be over, but in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, the Afghan war continues unabated as it has ever since the US-led invasion of October 2001.

"Old men make wars, and
young men fight them."
Barely four weeks after the attack on the Twin Towers, with the participation of Britain and Australia, American forces invaded Afghanistan and joined with the Northern Alliance rebels. In a lightning campaign, they overthrew the fundamentalist Muslim Taliban government which had hosted the al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and his closest acolytes. Elections were held and the pro-western Hamid Karzai was duly installed as President. It was proclaimed that this war-torn country, at odds with first the Soviets and then with itself for over twenty years, would finally have some peace and time to repair its shattered lands.

The war was originally justified as necessary retribution for 9/11 and the incredible speed of the invasion reflected American anxieties that their high level of international support in the wake of the Twin Towers atrocity might evaporate in the event of any delay. Unlike the Iraq war, where oil was to be seen as a determining factor in the desire to invade, Afghanistan had no apparent cornucopia of raw material wealth to make an invasion a profitable option. Rather, this was a war to protect the world from terrorism, to extend democracy and, in a unique burst of right-wing altruism, to improve the position of women in a society where it had been a serious crime for a woman to emerge from the home in anything other than an all-encompassing burka.

Now, nearly a decade on, what is Afghanistan's position?

Taking to the hills in late 2001, the Taliban licked its wounds and then resumed the conflict. As the Karzai regime became more and more corrupt, blatantly stealing the Presidential election of 2009 with the approval of the Americans and British, the fundamentalists support grew again. In the conflict, over 1,200 American, 342 British and nearly 500 Canadians, French, Germans and other allied soldiers have died as well as thousands of Afghan soldiers. Largely uncounted, so too have thousands of ordinary Afghan and Pakistani civilians  perished, often caught in the crossfire or the victims of indiscriminate bombing attacks by US "drones" - robot planes piloted from the safety of a computer screen back in the United States, firing at targets on relayed satellite picture screens. The toll of dead civilians, and children especially, has been dreadful, turning more and more Afghans against the occupying forces and the government in Kabul.

As for the Americans, British and their allies, billions of dollars and pounds have been poured into a conflict in a land that has swallowed whole armies since the days of Alexander the Great. Remote and mountainous, with bitter winters and scorching summers, squaddies from Huddersfield and Glasgow and marines from Iowa have trudged across a landscape often almost as alien and inhospitable as the surface of Mars on ceaseless patrols. There, they have died under assault from snipers, guerrillas and the dreadful IED - "improvised explosive devices" - set at roadsides to destroy even well-armoured vehicles. Yet just this week, a senior British commander has warned the recent noises of optimism are misplaced and the war is as intractable as ever.

342 British soldiers have died.
So why do we continue? There is much talk of an eventual exit strategy, of handing over to the Afghan army, but  beyond vague hopes for certain conditions being met by 2014, there is no timetable. Nor will there be.

American and Britain will never leave Afghanistan unless they do so in defeat. As victory is even more unlikely, what it means is that the war will go on, but it will not continue in order to secure human rights and democracy. Rather it will continue in order to secure lithium.

Lithium is a rare white metal, the seventh (out of 32) most scarce of the chemical elements. Suitably processed, it has a wide range of applications in western society, including in medicine, but its most valuable potential is its use in electrical batteries. It is over 30% more efficient than lead acid and double as effective as zinc carbon. Currently used in the likes of laptop batteries, it will be a key resource in the years ahead as, with the world now passing peak oil production, electrical power in transport especially becomes more and more important. Electrically powered vehicles will become exponentially more practical over the next few years and the world's billion vehicles will begin a rapid transition towards battery power. Lithium will become increasingly valuable .

By an allegedly amazing coincidence, Afghanistan has suddenly been declared to be awash with valuable minerals, including huge lithium deposits - $1 trillion worth at current prices. In June the Pentagon identified Afghanistan as the "Saudi Arabia" of lithium, rivalling Bolivia as the world's largest reserve. The only problem is that much of it lies in Ghazni province, which remains largely in Taliban hands. It is perhaps more than coincidence then that, concurrent with the report, the Karzai government stepped up its contacts with the rebel movement to seek an armistice and peace talks - so far with little success.

So Afghanistan is as much an Energy War as Iraq ever was - simply about a different form of fuel. The long term strategic interests of the West come into sharp focus when George Bush's warning that the War against Terror will last for 40 or 50years. In this context, the long, slow retreat by the USA from Saudi and redeployment to Kabul takes on a very different and sinister hue to the noble war for freedom portrayed so resolutely and repeatedly by the Presidents and Premiers.

Britain invaded Afghanistan twice
in the 19th century
As we remember those who have fallen, we may also contemplate those who are yet to be cut down in their prime - the 18 and 19 year olds, fresh from school, put up against a land that held back Britain's forces a century ago and  broke the Soviet army (and arguably the entire Soviet Bloc) during the 1980s. Now, without an unforeseeable major change of policy, our forces are set to stay in one guise or role or another, dying indefinitely on the distant Bactrian battlegrounds while politicians and corporations sate their thirst for new sources of energy and money.

Caught in the midst as ever too are the Afghan people, some fighters, but most innocent, desperate victims who eke out a pitiful living at the best of times. In a just world, lithium could offer them the lifeline to a more prosperous and peaceful existence than they dare dream of for now. But just as British soldiers are set to continue to be betrayed, their bravery and bodies tossed nonchalantly by hand wringing double dealers into the cauldron of conflict, so the prospect of the Afghans' natural resources being used to the benefit of their own land seems somehow very distant still.

As the drones circle, ready to spit their latest molten arrows of death into the helpless, nameless people scattering on the ground below, we do well to recall the words of the British Opposition Leader, William Ewart Gladstone, when he railed against the second British invasion of Afghanistan in 1878:

“Remember the rights of the (Afghan)…Remember that the happiness of his humble home, remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God, as can be your own.”


Monday, 8 November 2010

Why Do They Hate Us So Much?

The ghost book of the year is published today. "Decision Points" (allegedly) by George W Bush recounts the Texan Cowboy's eight year stint at the Whitehouse and to perhaps no one's surprise is his disclosure that he actively planned for attacks on Iran. Ultimately, these came to nothing - Bush's finger was itching on the trigger for months, but even he had to stand down when in 2008 the CIA declared that there was no evidence of a current Iranian nuclear weapons programme. His successor, Barak Obama, has however repeatedly refused to rule out a military assault on Iran and the nuclear issue refuses to go away.

Bush: linked Iran and Iraq to 9/11 with
 no evidence at all
Bush's closest (maybe only) ally, the then British PM Tony Blair had similarly wielded the figurative cudgel at Iran. Blair reportedly bleated to journalist, Jon Snow, in reference to Iran, "Why do they hate us so much?" Snow in response suggested, "Perhaps because of Mossadeq..." to the blank stare of the hapless Premier. Now while most westerners would undoubtedly have shared Blair's bafflement, the would-be war leader's ignorance of Mossadeq is in fact quite inexcusable, though it is also certainly a penetrating insight into the shallow understanding of Iran among politicians in the West.

Iran was once the superpower of the world, the Persian Empire, creating many innovations, including the first postal service. Although remaining a significant realm for much of its history, by the 19th century, it was hard pressed by the two global players of the age, Russia and Britain, who saw Iran as an objective in their "Great Game" of colonial ambition. The Qajar dynasty of Shahs (kings) tried to modernise in response, reforming Iran's education and finance systems. The Majlis, an elected parliament, was established and began to assert a degree of control over the Shah's government.

A recommended history
of ancient Persia
However, Iran's blessing and curse was the discovery of massive oil fields by a British prospector, in Khuzestan in the south-west in 1901. When British dreadnought battleships converted from coal to oil for their fuel, Iran was cajoled into major concessions to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (which would later become BP). For a tiny annual fee, the country's entire oil reserves were handed over to the British, a state of affairs that would continue, with the Americans joining in, for over 75 years. And just to be sure, in 1921, with British support, a junior army officer, Reza Pahlavi, seized the throne, guaranteeing continued hegemony for the UK.

By the 1940s, however, Reza's ineffectual son, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was struggling to stem calls for democracy. In 1944, elections were held which saw success for democratic nationalists. Prominent among these was Mohammed Mossadeq, a 70 year old reformist from a patrician background elected on a ticket of nationalising the oil industry. By 1951, he was Prime Minister.

Western "democracy" - tanks
correct the election result,
Tehran 1953
Prompted by alarmed British Premier Winston Churchill, the USA actively undermined Mossadeq, who continued to plan to sequester BP's assets in his country. In 1953, the CIA and MI6 sponsored a military coup d'etat which deposed Mossadeq and placed him under house arrest for the remaining 14 years of his life. The Shah's powers were reinstated, the Majlis downgraded and the Iranian secret police, SAVAK, instituted a regime of torture and suppression of anyone suspected of the vaguest opposition to Pahlavi. While the Shah and his Queen courted the western mass media with a film-star like existence, Iranian democracy was savagely crushed. The only outlet for expression became the mosques, where even many religious leaders were harassed or driven into exile - including a cleric from the city of Qom, Ruyollah Khomeini.

Ex-Premier Mossadeq was tried and
confined for life after the coup
Over the next 25 years, the Shah's regime was slowly worn down until in early 1979 it collapsed and Ayatollah Khomeini returned from France to head a new regime. An initially pluralist revolution was quickly subverted by religious radicals and the leftist elements led by Bani-Sadr were suppressed. Yet even then Iran never quite became the monolithic Islamic dictatorship it is portrayed as in the West. The Majlis continued to be elected, although candidates are now vetted by the "Council of the Guardians of the Islamic Republic" as opposed to by the Shah. Women continued to have the vote and by the late 1990s reformists were gaining ground. Iran also played a generally supportive role towards the USA during the 1990-1 Gulf War crisis, even although the Americans' rush to defend Kuwait from Saddam Hussein contrasted sharply with their readiness to supply Iraq with arms for its long and bloody war of aggression against Iran from 1980-1988.

In 1997, President Khatami was elected on a platform of constitutional government and legal reform. Women's rights increased, with many in the cities undertaking the so-called "Lipstick Jihad" where they pushed dress code increasingly to a point of meaninglessness. The press and media became more and more plural, and some rapprochement with the USA was sought.

Following the 9/11 attacks on the US, the Iranians quickly condemned the event, with the government banning the revolutionary slogan "Death to America". In the streets, thousands of Iranians held candlelit vigils as a mark of respect for the American dead. Khatami sent envoys to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan to persuade it to side with the US invasion and to accept democratic elections. The Iranians arrested and handed over scores of suspected al-Qaeda operatives to the USA and even offered to deport Osama Bin Laden's son, Saad, in 2003 - an offer that Bush rejected, to the bewilderment of the Iranians.

But all became clear shortly after when, in return for all their gestures and actions of goodwill to the USA, Bush rounded on Iran and declared it to be part of his spurious "Axis of Evil", allegedly in league with Iraq and, even more bizarrely, with North Korea. Without a shred of evidence to back his claims, Bush then trundled his tanks into Iraq, unleashing years of mayhem and over 100,000 deaths - a higher rate than anything seen under Saddam - and repeatedly menacing Iran,now just a short Humvee ride away for the huge American forces based out of Bagdhad.

Unsurprisingly, when Iranians next went to the polls, anti-American candidates performed well and the conservative President Ahmadinejad, renowned for his anti-corruption drives when he was mayor of Tehran, was elected. The gulf between the American government and Iran soon widened further. Although in 2009 the new US President Barak Obama initially offered talks, many analysts speculate that with his recent drubbing in the mid-term elections, the chances of him undertaking a military operation have grown. He has certainly left his options open following America's partial withdrawal from Iraq, possibly with Israel as his proxy.

It can only be hoped that Obama is dissuaded from such a dreadful, self-serving course. Iran is an ancient nation which does not respond positively to the posturings and threats of others. America and the West are living with the consequences of our own hypocrisy of calling for democracy as long as it gets the "right result". It is not the first time - as Spain in 1936, Chile in 1973 and Gaza in 2006 show clearly - and it may not be the last. They may or may not hate us, but it has certainly left our victims confused and sceptical about us. And in many cases bloodied and dead as well.

Does that answer your question, Mr Blair?