Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Melting the Cold War: Gorbachev at 80

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, turned 80 on 2 March and this evening a gala concert is being held in London to mark the event and seek to raise millions for cancer charities in memory of his wife Raisa, who died of the illness. International pop stars and singers have gathered at some cost to remember a man whose time in power marked the end of an era, of a system and a country.

This evening, RT ran an interview with his translator and assistant, Pavel Palazchenko, the mustachioed man who seemed constantly at his side as he shuttled from Rekjavik to Helsinki and New York in the round of diplomatic initiatives that marked the end of the thirty year "Cold War". He mentioned his regrets about many of the things that happened in Russia following Gorbachev's downfall at the end of 1991, but, he remarked, compared to the world of 30 years ago, he had no regrets about his involvement with Gorbachev and his "glasnost" (openness) and "perestroika" (reconstruction) initiatives.

In some ways, he is very right - for those of us who remember the constant international tensions of the 1970s and 1980s, the Americans' increasing belligerence under Reagan with their talk of the viability of "limited nuclear war" and the ludicrous "Star Wars" programme, it does well to stop and consider that the world of today, for all its multiple ills, no longer has an international system constructed on such appalling concepts as "Mutually Assured Destruction" by mass nuclear conflagration. The very worst of the dreadful acts played out in Iraq and Libya, or the very worst imaginable al-Qaeda attack, are as nothing to the crisis of 1961, when Kennedy and Khrushchev eyeballed each other over Cuba. Nor do they compare to the potentially much worse 26 September 1983 incident when an accidental nuclear war was avoided only by the prompt thinking of Soviet airforce officer Stanislav Petrov, who correctly diagnosed as false an attack alarm.

And in the former Soviet Union, some states enjoy a degree of political freedom that was unprecedented in the Soviet era. Gorbachev's liberalism has flourished in places such as Estonia, though in others, such as Lithuania, it has been tarnished by deep seated anti-semitism, persecution of the Romany and even of ethnic Russians. Elsewhere, many of the nationalist hatred suppressed (though sadly not removed) by the Soviet era have resurfaced, often violently, and some successor states, like Belarus and Uzbekistan, have become the personal fiefdoms of dictators with powers rivalling Stalin at his worst.

And of course Russia itself, the heartlands of the former Soviet Empire, is today far from free. Putin's methods of autocratic rule are not of the level of the old days, but we see a nationalist state, with limited political choice, a managed media, over-powerful private corporations and a willingness to squash genuine dissent by extra-legal means - rather like its old rival, the United States.

In addition, the early 1990s saw the destruction of many of the highly successful social gains of the old Communist states - health and education services collapsed as industry was privatised into the hands of robber-barons, inequality rocketed and political freedoms became meaningless as people went hungry. I well recall some friends who went on a school exchange to Moscow to be hosted by a Russian family who had saved up all year to treat them to a meal in the then sole branch of McDonalds in the Russian capital - in spite of my friends' offers and protests, their hosts waited outside while they ate, unable to afford to join them but too proud to accept a treat from their guests. For many Russians, they could say what they wanted, but with empty mouths. Little wonder then that at his final shot at the Russian Presidency, the hero of Glasnost polled less than 1% of the vote.

To be fair to Gorbachev, much of the privatisation and full-on rush to naked capitalism happened under his successors, egged on by the Thatcher Foundation and other western think tanks and well-paid economic consultants. The emergent, oil-soaked kleptocracy has been labelled with all manner of opprobrium by the West, but the truth is that Russia today is a strong reflection of its critics, perhaps discomfited that it has succeeded in rivalling them once more as a world power, though one more in the Czarist than Communist tradition.

We should thank him for his positive achievements - it is too easy to forget (and for growing numbers born since the mid-1980s, something completely unknown) how truly frightening some periods of confrontation were in the early 1980s. It was not just peace campaigners who thought the holocaust could be imminent - both then and now we know many American military planners were quite eagerly contemplating circumstances where they might turn Europe into a radioactive desert, somehow believing America might acceptably survive such a scenario.

Yet on the other side, the fall of the Soviet Bloc also, bizarrely, marked a headlong rush from socialism by the Left. In country after country, Communist and Socialist groups renounced their ideologies and even their names, pandering to a zeitgeist a la New Labour that, as Fukyama prematurely declared, we had reached the end of history and liberal capitalism was the only game in town.

Gorbachev - architect of glasnost
I like to think that we know better now, understanding that the old Soviet states were neither socialist nor Marxist in the true sense of these words. And that many people across the world are slowly re-embracing the concepts of social justice, community and equality, not least to face the challenges of resource depletion and climate change. In a number of countries, the Communists or their successor parties have even been re-elected to office, amply demonstrating that the old claims that these regimes were universally hated by their citizens were nothing but western myths and lies.

So I wish Mr Gorbachev a happy 80th birthday, and hope that an evening with Elton John and Shirley Bassey does not spoil it too much for him. But his legacy is a mixed one. While we should undoubtedly be grateful that his bold efforts made the world much safer, for a time at least, and perhaps gave it the breathing space it needed to reconfigure itself to face the new, equally fatal challenges of climate change, we need to cut past any uncritical celebration of the man to remember that the "New World Order" that subsequently emerged is not the one we need to save our species from itself.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

From Tahrir to Trafalgar

The "Battle of Trafalgar Square" screams the lead story in the Mail on Sunday today, complete with dramatic pictures of allegedly violent anti-capitalist protesters silhouetted against flames. And on some leftwing internet forums and liberal papers, parallels are drawn between yesterday's anti-cuts demonstration and the Egyptian protests that toppled the Mubarak regime from their centre in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

There is more than a little hyperbole on both sides here - anyone watching the live broadcast on late night BBC TV last night could see that there was no violence and only a handful of people "kettled" by a much larger contingent of police (by then on super-overtime rates I should think). There was a fire - of placards stacked against a wall where people denied the right to leave were trying to keep warm in the chilly night. In spite of the best efforts of the BBC anchorwoman to make out that bloody violence had come to London's streets, both the rather calm footage and a phone interview with a Guardian journalist with the protesters in the Square itself belied the attempted drama.

Needless to say, the BBC and the rightwing press have seized on a handful of incidents, such as smashing the windows of a branch of corporate-tax-dodging Topshop, as typifying the demonstration and calling into question Labour leader Ed Miliband's judgement in addressing the quarter of a million people who attended, nearly all of them peacefully. With fewer than 200 arrests, it was in fact one of the most peaceful mass events ever in London, not that you'd know from a lot of the coverage.

Yet of course, Trafalgar is no Tahrir - to suggest so is to deny both the bravery and success of the Egyptians. It is true the Cameron Government is determined not to listen to the protests of those at the sharp end of their cuts programme - Vince Cable was adamant on the TV this morning that there would be no change, while Michael Gove yesterday derided the protest as meaningless. But at least we will have an opportunity to show our feelings about their policies at the local elections on 5 May, a right previously denied to the Egyptians.

The question for 5 May of course is who to vote for to make the anti-cuts voice come over as loudly as possible. On the face of it yesterday, the trade union movement continues to view Labour as the best vehicle for this, but you might question why.

Labour went into the last General Election pledged to cut even deeper - about 25 %  of public spending than the 21% target of the current Con Dem Government. The only difference was that they would have taken a bit longer to do it, so year on year the impact may have been not just quite as harsh as it is going to be. And throughout their 13 years in power, New Labour did nothing to address the fundamental issues in our society of inequality and poverty - indeed, they eased tax regulations to the benefit of the rich and their lax approach to the excesses of the City and the financial sector led directly to the banking crisis which the Tories now want the public to pay for. As yet at any rate, new leader Ed Miliband has not signalled any significant change to this approach.

So is voting Labour a real option for those opposed to the massive cuts in public spending, most of them targeted at support for the most vulnerable in our country - the elderly, the disabled, the young and the sick? It seems not and the trade unions are fools to themselves for continuing to see Labour as offering new wine in their old and chipped bottle.

There are genuine options - the Greens for example oppose the whole cuts package. Greens argued at the election for tackling the deficit by a combination of sustainable economic initiatives such as a national energy efficiency programme that would have created jobs and skills; a fundamental shift to better public transport and a massive attack on tax avoidance which costs tens of billions to the Treasury each year. They also called for a maximum wage of £150,000 p.a. and a progressive tax regime to redistribute the skewed wealth in British society.

And yet yesterday, in spite of repeated requests, the Green Party leader, Caroline Lucas MP, was denied the right to speak by the trade union organisers of the anti-cuts demonstration. The only national leader actually opposed to cuts in public spending was not allowed to put her views across to crowds opposed to the cuts: instead, the pro-cuts Labour leadership were given the platform.

Labour have a lot to answer for still: Miliband does seem mildly refreshing as being genuinely to the left-of-centre after years of essentially rightwing Blairite pragmatism, but he has given no clarion call for real reform. And rather than a root-and-branch purge of the decidedly non-socialist platform of New Labour in favour of genuinely social democratic views, he has blandly called for a rewrite of policy starting with a blank sheet - how inspiring! Indeed, how Blairite.

The opinion polls look good for Labour, mediocre for the Tories and deservedly frightening for the craven Liberal Democrats. But for genuine change, people need to be able to hear the real alternatives offered by groups like the Greens and what is left of the Respect Party and others on the socialist left. The media might be expected to be hostile to these groups, but the trade unions are making a strategic mistake by denying them a voice and continuing to hitch their wagon to the tired old nag that Labour now is, shorn of its soul and in dire need of new direction.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Killing Knut

Knut the polar bear, the cute little white ball of fluff with the appealing black nose rejected by his mother in Berlin zoo in 2006, has died very prematurely of a brain disease. Feted by the international media and quickly commodified by the zoo into everything from soft toys to fridge magnets and dvds, adoring crowds of thousands flocked to see him take his first steps in the intimacy of his enclosure, while article after article featured the close relationship forged with his keeper, who hand-reared him. Like so many anthropomorphised creatures in human zoos, Knut was turned into the essence of an manufactured life form - unnatural, cuddly as opposed to a killer, the epitome of a thousand children's Christmas tales.

Knut, 2006 -2011, r.i.p.
Yet of course the true story was much bleaker - Knut, furry and cute, was indeed still a potential killer and had to be separated from his keeper when he grew too large. The keeper was later found dead in his flat, cause unknown. Isolated in his man-made environment, Knut languished thousands of miles from his real habitat - though, thanks to human meddling by breeding several, successive generations of zoo-reared polar bears divorced from their real environment, it was a habitat that would have killed him had he been placed in it. Depressed, diseased and confined, wasn't it only a matter of time before this sad moment came to pass?

Knut's tale is far from unique. Zoos, sanitised into family adventure parks and lauded as preserving rare species, in truth are what they are: prisons for captive animals. Many zoos have come a long way from their origins - cages tend to be bigger and "safari parks" in rather unlikely locations such as Longleat  and Loch Lomond, deliberately cultivate the image of animals roaming free as People Carriers packed with holidaymakers trundle slowly through their enclosure.

Yet what does this do to the animals themselves - detached from what their Nature requires of them, urges them, and makes them need? There is little doubt of the intelligence and empathy inherent in many species of animals, yet we connive to do them the supposed kindness of caging them in climates and conditions far removed from their real homes.

I have only ever seen a polar bear once for real. It was an experience that has stayed with me all the 24 years since - for all the wrong reasons. It was in July 1987. I had just been to a graduate careers fayre in Edinburgh with some former classmates and, on a baking hot summer's day, we decided to stop at the zoo on the way home. And there she was - a huge, once magnificent creature, stuck in a direct suntrap on a single rock barely larger than her own body, positioned below the circular wall round which kids and adults alike stood, peering down, pointing at her as she baked on the rock, her white fur distinctly browned and yellowed and matted. As she swung her head ceaselessly from left to right and back again, sweet wrappers and drinks cans floated and bobbed on the dirty water surrounding her cramped perch as a zookeeper babbled on about how this apparently simulated the Arctic environment, a place she was doomed never to see.

Perhaps, ironically, there was some truth in his words. The Arctic is melting far faster than anticipated because of man-made global warming and for the first time in recorded history the once fabled North-west passage is now a reality in the summer months. Polar bears are changing their habits, having to swim ever further to find ever smaller morsels of food. In 2009, one starving bear swam two hundred miles from Greenland to Iceland, only to be shot dead on arrival. In Canada, as they move further south and by force change their diet, they are mixing with grizzlies to create a new, blond bear species - though that still does not stop the slaughter by bloodsports enthusiasts, like their helicopter hunting poster girl Sarah Palin.
The slaughter continues...

So the commodification of Knut has a double-edge to it: while some no doubt genuinely hope that it will help promote conservation work and protect endangered species (endangered by who, of course?), it turns the actual creatures in the zoos into saleable goods, marketable property, if not directly (other than to other zoos perhaps), then certainly as false images of what they are. And on that basis, many people are left unquestioning about our treatment of them, our denial of their individuality or any right to dignity and freedom. Just as, tens of thousands of miles away, we are also denying their right to a natural habitat and even their right to exist. We watch documentaries about their plight, then can go and coo at them in the zoo, be told conservation work is being done, and go home feeling ok.

In this context, the Berlin bear becomes just more tabloid fodder, another tragic soap tale set alongside the latest on Jordan's divorces and Kate Middleton's dress. His demise at such a young age is grist to the mill of pulp magazines, marking the all too early passing of this artificial creation of humanity. Poor Knut.

Let's hope some "intelligent" species never decides to conserve us - from ourselves, perhaps.

The Human Zoo...

Sunday, 20 March 2011

No Flying Into Oblivion

The United Nations "No Fly Zone" has today seen rather a lot of flying by the planes and missiles of the western allies, unsurprisingly bombing Libyan Government airforce and radar installations, but more controversially bombing military columns to create a defensive cordon around the rebel held city of Benghazi and last night bombing the Government compound in Tripoli in spite of the hundreds of civilians camped around its walls. For those of us who supported, tentatively, a "No Fly Zone" when it was repeatedly called for by the rebels and after increasingly bloodthirsty threats from the regime, the instant escalation to significantly greater military involvement than a "no-fly-zone" raises grave concerns as to what the endgame is going to be. This is especially the case when the rebel faction has made clear it is not willing under any circumstances to consider a negotiated settlement, which rather suggests we might be there a very long time indeed. 

Armed intervention, unless you are a pacifist, needs always to be a very final option in a handful of cases. And yet, genuinely humanitarian interventions are few and far between. The Bosnian intervention came three years too late to save tens of thousands of innocent Bosniac civilians - 90% of them Muslims; and although the Kosovan intervention did undoubtedly prevent a repeat massacre, the wide range of targets hit in civilian areas hinted at darker motives than purely protecting civilians. By contrast, the wars more enthusiastically waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the secret war against Iran, have somewhat more questionable motives. Ones rooted in self-serving business interests and where humanitarian concerns, including democracy, are very far removed from the real priorities of securing profitable energy resources for our oil-addicted world.

What then of Libya? What is the motive here? Given that we gladly did business with Libya in spite of previous bloody massacres of sometimes hundreds of opponents, humanitarian concerns have not been the top of the West's agenda in this relationship for a very long time. So what is the real driver now?

Oil again seems obvious, except for the fact that Libya's dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi has pretty happily engaged with western oil companies since the great rapprochement of 2004. If anything, the oil industry would be perfectly happy for him to stay - any new regime, especially a democratic one, would be likely to disturb their modus vivendi in a country where oil extraction is about as cheap and profitable as anywhere in the world.

Our man in Tripoli
Former British Premier, Tony Blair, has come under criticism for his visit to Qaddafi back in 2004, when Libya was allowed to open up to international trade after years of sanctions. In recent weeks, Coalition politicians in Britain have been queuing up to denounce him; yet their wisdom is somewhat one of hindsight. Take a look back at their words at the time and, while some were hesitant, nearly all of them supported Blair's move:

"The potential prize of helping Libya in from the cold makes Mr Blair's risk worth taking,"- Menzies Campbell, Lib Dem Foreign spokesman, 2004

Conservative leader at the time, Michael Howard, condemned Blair's visit only because he felt it was at too high a level. He supported the overall process of re-engagement.

Infamously, current Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, worked for p.r. firm GJW during the 1990s, when it was hired by Qaddafi to improve the Libyan regime's image.

The truth is that Qaddafi is one side of the capitalist coin that governs our world. Many on the Left have been seduced for years by his eclectic and self-serving adoption of supposedly progressive causes. Yet all the  while, he has ruled with a brutal iron fist at home and cavorted at every chance with the oil companies and international businessmen who have made him personally a very rich man indeed.

What has happened is this - Qaddafi has not been strong enough to crush the revolt quickly enough; had he suppressed the rebels in a few days then, as Bahrain is doing now, no matter how savage his retribution, after 18 months of purdah, he would have been welcomed back to his corporate family. As it is, he has taken too long to reassert himself and so has outlived his usefulness - Capital abhors a vacuum and so he must go. Hence the intervention has quickly become far more than a No Fly Zone. With the Chavez Peace Initiative ignored by the West and any and all prospects of a negotiated settlement compehensively rejected by the Libyan rebels, the agenda is clearly now one of regime change.

Strange as it may seem, but at least for the last decade, Qaddafi has been the West's creature - perhaps more obviously an untamed Frankenstein than the royals in the Gulf that Cameron gently admonishes for their civilian massacres - but our creature nevertheless. Just last year Britain sold £200 millions of "crowd control" equipment to him and the SAS trained his elite guard on surveillance techniques, while the French provided him with a wide range of military support.

That is why the West has in truth been reluctant to do what it is doing - until now. Qaddafi and Big Oil have profited very nicely from their mutual dealings. How annoying that the Libyan people have spoiled and confused things so terribly by getting in the way of this most symbiotic of relationships. They deserve better than this bastard of a twin-headed hydra that has buried itself deep in their troubled land. Sadly, whatever the outcome, just as Iraq is slipping back into dictatorship and Afghans are governed by a western-sponsored kleptocracy, it seems unlikely that they will get it.

From 2009:

Monday, 14 March 2011

Fat Cats Ate My Sunshine

Yes, you've seen them - the shady characters, gliding up in their electrically powered 4X4's, sharp suits crafted from recycled "Green Worlds" as they size up sites for the latest windmills - the ultimate in Battery Farming - and cashing in greedily on the sickening trade in Solar Futures: who says the Sun will always shine tomorrow? These guys are speculating on a Long Dark Night, I tell you....

This surreal fantasy is actually at the heart of current Government thinking. Just a matter of weeks after effectively abolishing corporation tax on overseas earnings for our poor struggling bankers, the Lib Dem Secretary of State has boldly set his sites on the Government's next target - the far more urgent and dangerous phenomenon of "solar fat cats".

I kid you not - the Government is set to seriously restrict the financial advantages of the "feed-in tariff" for solar energy. Apparently worried about big business cashing in on subsidies to encourage installation of solar energy panels, it has decided to cut back massively in support for non-domestic panels. Perish the thought that any public money might find its way into the hands of profit-seeking energy companies, quite the opposite of the smooth, clean, super-efficient operation of the financially solvent nuclear power industry...

Just as carbon fuel prices soar, edging ever higher with each new crisis in the Arab world, our supposedly greenest Government in history has at a stroke set back hope of a substantial increase in solar energy generation in spite of its increasing efficiency. Support will still be available to small schemes, but as soon as anyone with some serious investment began sniffing around the subsidy pot, the lid was slammed shut.

How bizarre, when the nuclear industry needs tens of billions of taxpayers money just to keep going each year (let alone the massive bill looming for decommissioning the current aging reactor plants). Mr Huhne is by contrast loathe to supply even £40 million p.a. (about 67p per inhabitant of the UK) to foster solar power (mostly recouped from higher charges and not even from the public purse itself).

Of course, it is pretty much a ruse to cut more spending - big business did not show any serious signs of piling into the industry, although there are plans for some interesting medium sized schemes. One scheme, an amusement park company, will likely lose out now and, in these recessionary times, may not proceed with their plans to become carbon-neutral. Jobs are at risk as well and Britain looks set to lose out in the valuable skills development in emergent technologies that the alternative energy industry offers. In the name of short term financial efficiencies, the longer term is being sacrificed.

You have been warned...
Yet at the same time, tens of billions of pounds are set to be handed out in tax cuts to multinational corporations under the new tax reform regulations on Controlled Foreign Companies going through Parliament - a clear case of choices being made rather than necessary cuts in public finance. While no one wants subsidies snatched and gobbled up by a handful of big players, the strategy should be to put money into encouraging an exponential increase in alternative energy rather than tax relief for capitalist pirates. This is a greenwash Government, and this episode shows just how paper thin their commitment to alternative energy is.

As we face the chaos and cost of Peak Oil, there will be a high price to pay for this most ignorant of decisions.

The only song about solar electricity to make the UK charts (at 99!).

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Palestine Elections: Voting the Right Way for Europe

British Foreign Secretary William Hague, fresh from his confused Libyan spy adventure, demonstrated his ignorance of another Middle Eastern issue yesterday. After Fatah leader, Mahmoud Abbas, one of two claimants to be President of the Palestinian National Authority, called for immediate elections to the National Council, his party's main rivals, Hamas, denounced the idea, saying there had to be a reconciliation process before any elections are held.

Hague was quick to denounce Hamas' opposition to voting:
Hamas should not be allowed to “stifle the democratic expression of Palestinians”, he thundered, or more likley croaked after his troubles of the last few days.

On the face of it, who but rabid anti-democrats would oppose elections? In liberal democratic terms, is anything more important than getting to a ballot box?

Yet what Mr Hague did not acknowledge, either from ignorance or deviousness, was that Palestinians have gone to the polls before, voted and elected Hamas as their government. Here are the results of the Palestinian General election of 2006:

    • Hamas          - 440,409 votes;  74 seats
    • Fatah/PLO   - 410,554 votes;  45 seats
    • Others          -   97,815 votes;  11 seats
At the same time, in a direct election, Fatah's Abbas was elected as President and both he and the National Council were to have a five year term with elections due again in January this year.

Yet, inspite of this, with the then Conservative Opposition's full support, the British Government and its American and European counterparts refused to acknowledge Hamas' election, repeatedly rebuffing their attempts to enter the international stage and conniving with Israel in its dreadful blockade of Gaza which continues even today. Because, just as we have seen in Egypt recently, for all the West's claims to want to export the Holy Grail of electoral democracy to the world, it turns out that elections are quite disposable if the results turn out to be wrong. For democracy to work, it seems, people have to vote the right way.

Deep in brutalised Gaza, Palestinians worry endlessly about voting reform.

And so, isolated and ignored in spite of their vital importance to any peace process, Hamas currently control the Palestinian territory in the Gaza strip after a break between them and Fatah, who control the myriad of PNA statelets scattered around the Israeli controlled West Bank. After the violence and the disputed arrangments in the territories since, a reconciliation process is absolutely vital.

Abbas is effectively grandstanding for the benefit of his Washington sponsors in calling for elections - no outcome would provide a satisfactory or peaceful settlement if it was not preceded by talks and agreement. That agreement, of course, needs first and foremost to be between Palestinians, but also vital is agreement from America and Europe - including Mr Hague (assuming he remains Foreign Secretary in spite of everything) - that they will respect the outcome of any elections as the genuine wishes of the Palestinians and undertake to engage with whoever wins.

After all, surely the sole purpose of Western foreign policy is to promote democracy around the world? That's what Iraq was about, wasn't it? And why all these people have to die in Afghanistan? And why we sold all these weapons to nice Mr Mubarak? Isn't it?

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Standing With Our Sisters - International Women's Day

A message to misogynists everywhere...
Today is (still just) International Women's Day, a day to mark both the contribution of the majority gender and to highlight the discrimination and misogyny which, even now, continues to plague so much of the planet.

Today, I have read about child brides in Yemen bleeding to death, of the public stripping of Dalit women in India by upper caste men intent on humiliating them, and of women attacked on the streets of Cairo for daring to demonstrate to have at least one solitary female voice among the many male ones busily drafting Egypt's supposedly new liberal constitution.

In many societies, violence against women is not only still legal, but even women have been drilled socially into seeing it as acceptable - for example, a survey found that 8 out of 10 Zambian women feel their husbands should beat them if they go out alone: the western press ignores that this is in a prevalently Christian country, concentrating instead on the preachings of certain Islamic scholars who accord a similar view of females in Islam.

Yet it is not only in these most horrific of cases in countries far away that there is a need for a day like today. The West, so smug in its supposedly liberal traditions and democratic zeitgeist, concentrates rather more on the statistics of how many women are in managerial jobs or taking seats in the Boardroom, important though these are, and rather less on the more salacious and sometimes truly disturbing undercurrents that continue to inform society's view of women on all too many occasions.

Consider these facts:

- American legislators, just six weeks ago, sought to redefine rape by making a distinction between forcible rape and, well, presumably some other type of rape. After a storm of protest, the Republican Party proponents of the new definition reluctantly withdrew it, but that such an idea could be seriously entertained at all in Congress is proof enough that misogyny is a long time dying. And it is little coincidence that religious fundamentalism was a key motive in the move. Indeed, the idea of "forcible rape" perhaps is rooted in the biblical passage of Deuteronomy which prescribes the killing of rape victims who do not scream loudly enough - "ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city."

- It is not only in Zambia that women believe that if they are beaten it is all that they are due. An Edinburgh Napier University study last year found alarming views among 11 and 12 year old schoolchildren in Scotland. An overwhelming majority felt that violence by men against women can be justified if there is a reason! A staggering 80% felt that it would be permissible for a man to hit a woman who had not prepared his meal on time for him. The figure rose to nearly 100% if a man discovered his wife or girlfriend was having an affair. Among British adult women, one in ten think they deserve to be hit if they flirt with someone other than their partner, and one in five people see domestic violence as acceptable at times - this even although two women are killed by their partners every week.

- Police, sometimes including female officers, have on many occasions assaulted women in ways that never quite seem to occur with men in custody - for example, the disturbing footage of British police stripping and beating a young woman who had been arrested after arguing with her boyfriend; or the American police who beat a handcuffed woman when they lost patience with her lack of co-operation. Although there is sometimes some half-hearted prosecution by the authorities when somehow the incidents leak out, convictions and even dismissals are relatively few.

I could go on. Sure, there are many other wrongs in the world, and many men suffer greatly in many ways as well as women. But given that in some countries women's testimony still counts as less than a man's in court; in others they are confined to the home or forced to cover up out of doors at threat of severe punishment, or subjected to a media that simultaneously casts women as sexualised objects and then screams in faux horror and sensationalist coverage at sexual violence, International Women's Day should give an opportunity to think and act for genuine equality.

Employment, economic and legal equality are absolutely vital. But so too is respect and dignity and valuing of the person and the current cuts in support for victims of domestic violence in the UK are sending out all the wrong signals. In a world where so much of humanity is degraded and debased by our pernicious and exploitative economic system, gender inequality and the denigrating of women in so many ways is somehow all the greater an affront to our species. Today is a chance to change and make a better world for us all, sisters and brothers together.


Sunday, 6 March 2011

Spies Like Us

The advent of box sets of old TV series can create new addicitons. Having made my way through four years' worth of Battlestar Galactica and all five seasons of Babylon 5, my more recent viewing has been the BBC historical drama "Fall of Eagles" from 1974. A little dated now, but with some solid turns by Charles Kay as Czar Nicholas, Barry Foster as Kaiser Wilhelm and the truly inspired casting of a young, but apparently ageless Patrick Stewart as Lenin, it charts the decline and fall of the European Empires of the 19th century.

Britain doesn't figure much in the series as our crumbling Empire dragged on for another three decades after Austro-Hungary ceased to exist, but we were reminded today that in one respect parts of our Government still apparently haven't quite got the message that the Great Game is long over.

A rather bizarre affair has emerged from Benghazi in Libya, the centre of the rebel revolt against Colonel Gaddafi's regime. Six members of the Special Air Squadron (SAS), Britain's elite military unit, were arrested along with two diplomats when they turned up uninvited. Suspicious locals apprehended them and took them in for questioning. Their nervousness about these strangers would be understandable given the repeated assaults on the city by the regime, but what was truly bizarre was that the SAS arrived, unannounced, by helicopter, landing on the edge of the city to proceed on foot. No surprise at all then that they were arrested - more surprising perhaps was the fact that they were not fired on or their helicopter shot down.

The Empire Strikes Back - Hague's hubris
There was at least a grain of comedy to be had in this grim situation - the British Ambassador to Libya phoned from London to a rebel leader in Benghazi and had his conversation hacked by Gaddafi's officials, who recored it and promptly played it on Libyan TV. The hesitant diplomat explained to the rebel that the British Government was keen to make contact and see what sort of humanitarian help might be needed and so wanted to send some diplomats for talks. But, he explained, they had sent a small party ahead (the SAS men in their helicopter) to find a hotel!  Yes, that's right - these gun-totting commandos were dropped out of the sky to make their way into Benghazi to check out the bed and board rates and book some rooms for the mandarins.

Now, I know the Government wants to save costs in these supposedly hard economic times, but was this the most effective way to ensure they got the best deal for the diplomats' stay? Couldn't they have used Google or or something like that? The episode is all the more incredulous given that a British navy destroyer was docked in Benghazi port at the very same time. Couldn't the Captain just have popped ashore and asked around? No wonder UK Foreign Secretary William Hague was so circumspect when asked about the incident.

But of course, the very presence of the destroyer, albeit to help evacuate people, raises questions about how even now we conduct our business in places like Libya. We happily arm the regime to the teeth - selling Gaddafi £200 millions of "crowd control" equipment last year alone - and then think when there is trouble we can arrogantly send not only ships but armed men into foreign countries to act with impunity. How would we have reacted if a group of armed Arabs turned up in London during the chaos of the student fees protest? Somehow, I suspect, with rather less restraint than that shown by the beleaguered Benghazis.

Yet aside from the farcical nature of this incident, there is one positive note - that nowhere have any of the protestors or rebels asked for any outside help, other than that we should stop our enthusiastic business dealings with the dictators. Mr Hague may like to sit in his office imagining some sort of steampunk fantasy where Britain still rules the waves and gunboat diplomacy gets results; but the rest of the world has moved on.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

A Lesson from Ireland

The Irish general election has effectively seen the emergence of a new party system - the centre-right Fine Gael party has stormed to victory in a likely coalition with the Labour Party, between them polling over 60% of the vote. They have eclisped the previously dominant Fianna Fail, notionally to the left of centre but, as someone on an English Green Party board posted, more closely associated with a mafiosi-style of pork barrel politics.

But it is not just the collapse of Fianna Fail that is of note - the election produced significant results in two other respects: one was the rise of anti-establishment parties in the shape of Sinn Fein and the United Left Alliance (a grouping of leftwing socialists) who between them have ended up with 18 seats and 12.5%; and the other was the collapse of the Green Party which had been in a rather unholy Coalition with Fianna Fail. The Greens' vote collapsed from slightly under 5% to just 1.8% and their parliamentary presence was eliminated.

It is a hard lesson, but not a new one - if you are a radical party seeking the challenge the system, it does not pay to sign up to the system for the sake of trying to appear "responsible" or to "work from the inside.". The Irish Greens used this latter argument to justify combining with Fianna Fail. And they did gain some environmental kudos - Eire increased investment in alternative energy. Yet at the same time, Greens had to support airport expansion and motorway building. As the economic crisis swept over the country after some ludicrous dealings by large construction companies and the banks that financed them, any social justice measures were quickly swept aside by the Year Zero economics imposed by the IMF. Consequently, precisely at a time when the Greens could have been showing Eire a viable, radical alternative to "business as usual", they are impotently relegated to the sidelines.

In England in recent weeks, with local councils having to set budgets that, by law, must comply with central Government strictures about cutting services to save costs, Greens have been confronted with the dilemma of whether to vote for budgets required by central diktat, or to vote against at the risk of being portrayed as either dreamers or schemers - or both. In our local area, Kirklees, the four Green Party councillors were the only party group on the Council to vote against a budget that will reduce spending on services by nearly a quarter over the next four years - including taking £20 millions out of adult social care.

The debate can be seen here and it is about a damning an indictment of the standard of political debate in British local authorities as you will find anywhere. The hostility to the Greens and the Independent who spoke against the cuts budget is palpable, the three big parties repeatedly sneering and deriding their opposing viewpoints. There is no engagement in debating the issues - simply an announcement that the budget proposed by the three big parties is the "least worst option" and any variation will not work.

It would be easy in such circumstances for Greens to accept the oft-cited argument that Councils have to set legal budgets and so vote for cuts. But only by opposing them at local level can the counter-argument be put against the received wisdom peddled by the Coalition Government that cuts in spending are essential. Greens have never accepted this approach and so why should they vote for it on the councils where there is Green representation? If they did, who would be speaking up for the alternative?

By contrast to the Irish, the Scottish Greens have worked on a case by case basis with the SNP Government over the last four years, carefully maintaining their independence and avoiding being sucked in too deep by offers of jobs and influence. Consequently, if current polls remain solid, they hold the not unrealistic hope of an increase in MSPs from 2 to 6 or more at the elections in May.

So for Green radicals, it seems Ireland is a warning signal - short term gains are just that; short term, limited and, if you are wiped out for missing the tsunami of social and economic issues confronting your voters, any small gains will as likely be not be wiped away in the twinkling of an eye. Hold steady and an electorate increasingly wearied of the mind-numbing sterility of the Establishment parties may begin to turn and look for something genuinely new.