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?


Thursday, 4 November 2010

What was wrong about "What the Green Movement got wrong"?

Channel 4 in the UK has just shown a very lengthy, two-part mockumentary provocatively titled "What the Green Movement Got Wrong" . Unlike a previous programme of this ilk, The Great Global Warming Swindle, it did not particularly challenge climate change, but rather tried to show that green campaigns, when successful, have done more harm than good. Three examples:

- malaria in African slums could be reduced by making the chemical toxin DDT available to spray inside houses "in small quantities", but campaigns by Greens in the 1980s to have DDT stopped from being heavily used in agriculture had led to outright bans of DDT in many countries. This in turn left people living in squalid shanty towns vulnerable to mosquito bites and malarial infection - all because of the greens. At least, that was what the scientist Dr Florence Wambugu, who had previously worked for agri-chemical giant Monsanto, was given free rein to argue. (The programme skated over the fact that Greenpeace dropped its opposition to small scale use of DDT nearly a decade ago).

The real solution to malaria - DDT powder or slum clearance?
  On the other hand, just how safe is DDT, even at low levels and especially over any protracted period? Rather than DDT, wouldn't proper investment in clearing the slums and providing decent accommodation to the people living there be better?

- genetically modified food: the successful green campaign in the European Union to ban the sale of genetically modified (GM) foods was contrasted with how widely used it is in the USA - 70% of foodstuffs in many regular restaurants in the USA are GM and declared "delcious" by a contributor. Meantime, African farmers were shown harvesting low nutrition sorghum, grown as it is resistant to drought. Much better if they could grow GM crops designed to provide better nutrition in such bad climatic conditions.

Yet, given the contrast between the health of the average American and that of the average EU citizen, perhaps the jury is out on this for now. And as for the farmers, would a better solution not be found in reforming the trade system that denudes Third World countries of its food? GM could have untold consequences for other crops.

- nuclear power: Mark Lynas, who has written powerful articles on global warming, including the book "Six Degrees", visited Chernobyl, wistfully reflecting on the dreadful legacy of the 1986 disaster. It was an old reactor, he concluded. The new ones would be much safer, he was sure. The nuclear industry had cleaned up its act since 1986 - the implication being that Chernobyl and Three Miles Island could never happen again.

More than that, because the greens had spearheaded a reaction to these disasters which led to the cancellation of planned nuclear reactors, governments instead commissioned more coal powered electricity, leading to millions of tonnes of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. A former Greenpeace activist, Patrick Moore, was put up to denounce the "anti-science" of the green movement. But there again, he is now a paid lobbyist for the nuclear power and logging industries, so could he be trusted to say anything else?

Another view, summarily dismissed in the programme, would be that given the hugely uneconomic cost of nuclear reactors, governments have shied away from building the things. The argument presupposes a choice limited to coal or nuclear, ignoring the clean alternatives - such as solar, wind and waver power- which greens argue for in place of both these different but dirty and dangerous forms of energy production. It is bizarre to hold the green movement responsible for the decisions of others.

Channel 4 devoted 2 hours to this misleading polemic. Like previous efforts in this field, it was full of holes, half-truths and dissimulation. Greenpeace set out the very real corporate lobby interests of those contributing to the programme in the guise of "new environmentalists", allegedly able to see the science and weigh up realistically what is needed for the future. Others in the green movement were portrayed as wild-eyed evangelists, proselytising for a mythical past and hostile to anything modern. "The greens can dish it out, but they can’t take it," Lynas smirks, evidently revelling in his self-assigned moniker of "turncoat".

Lynas may or may not still have as alarming views of our likely future as he has expressed often enough, but if he thinks his efforts this evening in any way will assist the long battle to stop global warming, he is sadly deluded. Even if a complaint to OfCom, the broadcast regulator, of being badly misled by the producers from one of the contirbutors is upheld, at least some damage will have been done.

Channel 4 has a remit to be controversial and, of course, any and all sides of any debate have a right to be aired. But there needs to be a distinction between what is presented as documentary fact and what is simply the personal opinion of individuals - in the latter case, where is the balance? Will the green movement now be given two hours to put a counter-case? Or will this supposedly objective film be left standing for unquestioned use as propaganda by those who wish to carry on as usual?

Everyone involved in this enterprise should be searching their consciences. Self-publicity and audience ratings can come at a high cost to others - and to the planet.

Channel 4 - what is it up to?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Half-life Huhne and the Dirty Deal

The British Coalition Government is a real cacophony of incoherence when it comes to the rather vital issue of global warming.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, flanked by Liberal Democrat pseudo-greens Nick Clegg, the Deputy PM, and Chris Huhne, Energy & Climate Change Secretary, assured the public that this will be the "greenest government ever."  In a sharp contrast with the vast majority of Conservative MPs, many of whom question the existence of global warming let alone remedial action, Huhne has pledged that the government will cut carbon emissions by an ambitious 10% in its first year.

That was in May. Now, their claims are looking decidedly suspect. Over the summer, the Coalition has decided to axe the Sustainable Development Commission, which was responsible for identifying energy cost and carbon savings in government activities, even although it achieved £70 millions in savings for an annual running cost of just £3 millions. This was a bizarre decision attacked by veteran environmentalist Jonathan Porrit as a purely ideological move. Considering that the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency, heavily subsidised by the public purse, has survived relatively unscathed (in spite of paying £5 millions in performance bonuses to managers last year), his criticism may hold some fairly heavy water.

Turning conventional wisdom on clean energy on its head, the Coalition has committed itself to supporting eight new nuclear power stations, to be operational by 2018.  After clearly opposing nuclear energy as late as mid-May, Huhne underwent a change of heart, finding room for nuclear in Britian's energy mix, a revelation now dutifully shared by his party members, never ones to let principle get in the way of a good pay cheque. The Lib Dems had stood on an anti-nuclear platform, but have deleted their "no to nuclear power" website and taken down Huhne's video forcefully proclaiming his total opposition to nuclear energy. Just in case you missed it, here it is:

Although the Lib Dems' rush to radioactivity is likely a product of their Stockholm syndrome-like association with Tory Party atomic fetishists, a consequence has been the abandonment of any strategy for developing clean, renewable energy. For example, although the Government claims to wish to develop offshore wind farms, it has cancelled a job-creating project to develop port facilities to service the planned wind farms at a loss of 60,000 jobs and the manufacturing infrastructure required for the future.

Now this week, Huhne and his colleagues have announced the Green Deal, a scheme to insulate energy-inefficient rented properties. This will somehow happen with no public funding required - DIY superstore B&Q among others will provide insulation kits on a buy-now-pay-later basis: the cost will be recouped over as many as twenty years through higher energy bills. Although the rented sector will be the first target, the aspiration is to cover as many as 14 million buildings, domestic and commercial, over the next decade to the tune of £90 billions, all of it met from people's own pockets - not a penny of public money will be committed, making it highly unlikely that any significant progress will be made.

The ideological streak running through all this is evident. Clean, alternative energy has been sacrificed on the altar of supposedly unavoidable public spending cuts - and public funding of energy efficiency measures has been slashed in favour of expensive nuclear and carbon-based projects.

For example, within days of coming the power, the Coalition ended the Low Carbon Buildings Programme, which provided grants to install alternative technologies such as heat pumps and solar power. At the same time, a pro-nuclear energy tax regime has been created and the decommissioning costs of our current nuclear plants will continue to be 60% state-funded (£1.7 billions per annum) even although they are privately owned. Likewise, another £1 billion of public money will go towards the discredited, voodoo science of carbon capture in an attempt to create clean coal-powered electricity. From 2011, there will be money allocated to the new Renewable Heating Incentive with a focus on renewable energy, but this is still partial and substantially lower than the resources going elsewhere. The fact is that in spite of his protestations to the contrary, by the logic of Mr Huhne's own argument in the video, the public will end up subsidising these new nuclear reactors to the tune of tens of billions.

There was a real alternative: the Green New Deal, formulated by environmental experts and economists in 2009 and adopted by the Green Party for the general election earlier this year. This would have invested in a nationwide programme of free insulation to bring all UK buildings up to standard within five years. It would have created hundreds of thousands of jobs, cut the costs of householders by an average of £260 per year, and significantly reduced Britain's carbon footprint. It would also, by keeping people in work, have reduced the costs of unemployment and generated tax income which this government will never see. A successful pilot scheme had been introduced by Green Party Councillors in Kirklees in the north of England.

2010 has been the second warmest year on record. The drought in Russia is now driving up food prices and across the planet the climate emergency is growing. We do not have any time for the luxury of massaging the egos of Huhne and his likes in this country or elsewhere. Their craven desire to cling to expensive, dirty energy to the sole benefit of big business and their hollow words on being the greenest government ever must be exposed relentlessly as nothing other than a huge and dangerous deceit.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Tea Party serves a Bitter Brew

It has been easy to laugh in recent weeks as Christine O'Donnell has risen to international prominence as the Tea Party-sponsored Republican candidate for Senator for Delaware in this week's mid-term elections for the US Congress. This tub-thumping evangelical  has propounded rather bizarre views on masturbation and genetics; and in seeking to impose her religious values in the name of traditional America, revealed her ignorance of the US Constitution in a toe-curling embarrassing episode. Perhaps needless to say, she is set to be decisively defeated - although current polls do show her standing improving in the closing days.

Yet even if the Tea Party doesn't make all the gains it has hoped for, there is little doubt it has led the debate throughout this campaign. Headed up by former Veep candidate Sarah Palin, it has put the Obama Presidency on the defensive with a head-on charge feeding off every conceivable source of bigotry, division and loathing. It has nourished Americans' worries about threats from inside and outside. Although for some of their leaders the focus has been on cutting tax and government, for others political debate has been eschewed in favour of an apocalyptic battle of Good versus Evil in the run up to the End Times. A fervent of fear - of Muslims, of socialism, of "Big Government" - has been whipped up in a well-funded attempt to galvanise a vote for a rather nasty, corporate-friendly right wing coup d'etat. Even the hated BP, culprit of the Gulf oil spill disaster, has got in on the act.
Oil multinational BP sponsors
the TP

It is not new. Nor, for all that we may sneer on this side of the Pond, is it peculiar to America. It is merely the latest of a range of populist phenomena that have risen in the era known, if not quite as the end of days, then as the "End of History" - the supposed final triumph of market capitalism with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Two years later, Italy saw the rise of Berlusconi's Forza Italia movement to win power barely four months after its formation, and Canada saw the Reform Party of Preston Manning wipe out the Conservative Government in a single election. So now in turn the Tea Party harvests the disaffected as capitalism's victory turns sour.

It is a tactic as old as politics itself. Just as ancient Athenian demagogues found individual scapegoats to blame for their policy failures through the ritual of ostracism, now the right wing seeks to shift blame for unemployment, inequality and social disorder onto carefully selected, vulnerable targets. In France, Sarkozy's fumbling regime recently turned its ire on Romanian gypsies, deporting them en masse. In Britain, street movements like the English Defence League, who have made common cause with the Tea Party, drunkenly demonstrate in Muslim areas. Across Europe, a dark stain of xenophobia and Islamophobia is spreading, with the far right rising in elections in Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands and throughout eastern Europe.

Underpinning the thump and thud of their jackbooted march on both sides of the Atlantic is the endlessly repeated accusation that any who are not with them are against them. Obama is castigated not merely as being in political error or misguided on the economy. Rather, he is a traitor, a fifth columnist Communist-Nazi,  a secret Muslim, or even some biblical beast heralding the Apocalypse.

Satanic Obama from
America's last brush with mass populism was the Perot insurgency in the 1992 election. The economic boom subsequently dissipated much of this, but the in the new recession, populism is breeding again, far nastier, far more vicious than Perot's quixotic adventure. The injection of an increasingly hysterical evangelical fundamentalism, with tens of millions of its followers earnestly believing that the world will end in their lifetimes, makes this movement dangerous beyond belief in a nuclear weapons state.

O'Donnell may go down in defeat tomorrow, but the diet of lies that has nurtured an atmosphere of fear will go unabated. The fact is that, just as extremists in the UK like the British National Party have leeched on the genuine grievances of poorer sections of society, mainstream politicians have abandoned them. The Soviet collapse saw politicians across the world rush to not merely expunge "Communism" from their lexicons, but "socialism" and even "social democracy" too.

The old centre-left has failed because of an unholy combination of political cowardice, lack of imagination and rank careerism. A political class quite dislocated from ordinary life has emerged as never before as corporate power has taken over more and more control of western governments, many of which now resemble little other than subsidiaries of multinationals, at the beck and call of unelected businessmen.

Consequently, taken for granted by the parties that once represented them, alienated and devalued by an exploitative system with ever increasing inequality, it is little wonder that many people are angry and looking for an alternative. The mainstream no longer works for ordinary people struggling to make their way in a world where decisions are increasingly taken by remote, faceless and unaccountable bodies and people. Politicians are pastiches of what they claim to be, arrogantly deriding and squeezing out any alternative viewpoints with the once ridiculous claim that there is only one possible poltical system. It is fertile ground for populists and the biggest mistake would be to assume that the grievances the Tea Party and its ilk speak to and exploit are not perfectly genuine, valid ones.
More than ever, the Left, in the USA, in Europe and elsewhere, needs to rise to the challenge - to show that there is a better economics, a sustainable and fairer one. We need to argue that the "free market" has failed comprehensively and won't ever work properly again. We can no longer collude with the status quo. If we don't provide that alternative, the Tea Party and its friends will do so instead, and the future they have in store for us is not a pleasant one. Not pleasant at all.
The last tea party to make any sense...