Saturday, 29 December 2012

Weimar Britain

Deployed to Glasgow - British Army tanks at the Gallowgate cattle market, 1919

"Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?"
The Watchman said, "The morning cometh, and also the night."

These words, from Isiah Chapter 21 were quoted by the German sociologist, Max Weber, in a bookstore lecture on the chaos surrounding him in the interwar German Republic. This is known to history as the Weimar Republic after the town where its "most democratic constitution in history" was drawn up by the constitutionalist parties in 1919, after the fall of the Kaiser's autocratic regime in the final days of the First World War.

We do well to recall that not even a century separates us from these turbulent times, nor were the uncertainties about the democratic settlement confined to Germany or even the nascent states arising from the collapsed Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman Empires. Britain after the Great War saw a string of strikes, violent repression by the army (tanks and ten thousand armed troops were deployed in Glasgow in the conveniently forgotten battle of George Square to suppress protests about working conditions), and concerns about a Soviet-style takeover among the Establishment that led, among other things, to a fearful King George V refusing refuge to his cousin, the deposed Czar Nicholas of Russia. The forged Zinoviev letter  linking the rising Labour Party to Soviet Russia saw off the first minority socialist government in 1924 (its dissemination carried out courtesy of the Daily Mail then as now happily peddling a few myths to buttress the status quo). Democracy was skin-deep and the forces of reaction ranged against progressives remained as ruthless as ever.

Germany embarked on a course that was to see its constitutional democracy lurch from crisis to crisis, with only a brief respite in the mid-1920s, before it collapsed into the eager arms of the Nazis under Adolf Hitler. 1919 had seen an initial rush of support for the new political system, when a range of Social Democrats, Liberals and conservative Christian Democrats combined to draft a political constitution with the intention of using it to argue out their different ideological views of society and the economics that underpinned it. However, the economic instability of the times, as well as the continuing nationalist narrative of betrayal by democrats and humiliation by foreign powers at the Treaty of Versailles, meant that Weimar Germany was on the defensive from nearly the very start. The liberal democratic parties were challenged by growing electoral forces on both the left - with the USPD (independent social democrats) and later the KPD (Communists) rising rapidly  - and on the right, where a variety of nationalists, conservatives and extremists eventually coalesced under the Nazi swastika.

The constitutionalists were typically unimaginative and unresponsive to the public need, and complacent to boot. Rather than provide genuinely different paths to voters to choose within a democratic context, they drew together, blurring their differences and putting defence of the constitution ahead of anything else - there was to be no land reform, no tackling of the excesses of the rich, no change to the autocratic running of factories and no genuine change to the lot of the ordinary person. With hyperinflation creating real hunger, scapegoats such as the Jews were created by nationalists and the myth of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (a forgery created several decades earlier by the Czarist police in Russia to justify anti-Jewish pogroms) became a deep-rooted belief among Germans of all classes as an explanation for their troubles. Arrogantly believing there to be no viable alternative, the "Weimar parties" increasingly acted as a single block trying to exclude the more ideologically focussed parties of the left and right. It was to be a vain strategy.

At the ballot box, the process of democratic disintegration was evident - the main constitutionalist parties polled over 70% of the vote in the elections of 1919; but by 1929 this had fallen to barely 51% and in the final election of 1933, just 33%. The Nazis had eclipsed the conservatives, polling 52% of the vote (along with an allied party), while the Communists still polled nearly double the vote they had taken in 1919 in spite of a violent campaign of repression by the authorities - Communist deputies were barred from taking their seats in the final Reichstag, where with the brave exception of the remaining Social Democrats, Hitler bullied and bribed enough deputies to vote through the Enabling Act that gave him total power. As the historian William Shirer was to comment, the Nazis came to power by means of one of the most democratic constitutions ever written.

Funeral oration for a democracy: Hitler speaks on the Enabling Act 1933
As we face a New Year, what are the lessons of history for us today?  Can we write off these days as events distant in time and place, or are the parallels with today, in Britain and elsewhere, sufficiently striking to provide more than a passing interest?

The British political class is as isolated and irrelevant to most of the public as were these Weimar liberals, and many other liberals of their day. For example, take the inaction of the liberals in the 1917 Provisional Government in Russia, whose near-religious belief in the apparently magical powers of a constantly delayed constitutional settlement meant no action at all on bringing the hated war to an end or reforming the ownership of land which condemned millions to starvation. In this way, quite justifiably, the Bolshevik promise of land, bread and freedom easily undermined the support the liberals had previously enjoyed after the overthrow of the Czar.

What are we witnessing now but a re-run of history? Since before the banking crisis of 2008 and the ongoing recessions, politics have been in open crisis, but a crisis of complacency rather than one of action. The boom of the the late 1990s and early 2000s, was sustained on the personal debt of tens of millions of ordinary people while market-oriented government of all supposedly different political hues adopted strikingly similar political strategies. The State has been reduced in scope; market economics and PFI deals proliferate in public services; bloated capitalists control ever bigger swathes of the economy - much of their "venture capitalism" and "social entrepreneurship"  funded and underwritten by a desperately misled public.

And, now that it has all gone sour, what true difference is there between the main parties, the managerialist politicians of Weimar Britain? Barely a jot. They squabble over the tiniest shifts in spending priorities as if these would make a huge, transformational difference to society and life, their fury and froth masking the truth - that these people are all part of the same establishment, the same tiny elite of political servants of big business and international corporations. In such a context "liberal democracy" as it is expressed and portrayed in Britain is not democracy at all - but quite the opposite. It is the semblance of democracy; a form devoid of content, existing to create the illusion of choice while in effect denying genuine choice. Governments come and go, but the Establishment remains, and ordinary people remain as powerless as ever.

And yet, under this liberal form of regime, there is ultimately, as with all regimes, a need for some sort of social contract, however transactionally Hobbesian it may be. As with even the most brutal dictatorship, some sort of equilibrium is required to sustain a regime in power, and there are plenty of signs that this equilibrium is breaking down faster and in a more sustained way than in any previous crisis in the west, such as the riots of 1968 or the industrial disputes of the 1970s. The Occupy Movement has transformed political action around the capitalist world, the first major insurrection of the internet age: what started as one day marches and "flash mob" demonstrations has morphed into a truly international, sustained movement against not just the political establishment and the odd tax dodging financier; but rather against the entire capitalist system and the lies on which it is based. And so too against the politicians who cravenly defend it and grease the palms of its elite owners.

But how the future will go remains the same conundrum raised by Weber in his bookstore lecture back in Weimar Germany - the morning cometh, and also the night. Occupy, Ukuncut, the trade unions, the green movement and others on the left argue, as yet not entirely coherently, for a new, fairer society with transformed financial relations, and with social ownership, co-operative and smaller scale economics as a response to the crisis of capitalism. There is a gradual coalescing behind broad concepts of collectivism, egalitarianism and more direct democratic forms of politics. But, perhaps reflecting the truly democratic and participatory nature of the movement, there is as yet no all-encompassing idea, and perhaps there never will be. Yet some unified and coherent platform is urgently required because, elsewhere, other more malicious forces are gathering, and Capital, with all its vested interests and incumbent power, will not go down without a fight, the likes of which we have not seen.

For the narrative that is put out repeatedly in the media, in Government legislation and the official zeitgeist, is that the problems of society are caused by scapegoats - by too much welfare, by slack workers, by red tape on health and safety and hiring and firing or by migrants either taking too many jobs or not taking enough jobs. The true causes of grief are not the tiny, tiny number of people who own the vast majority of wealth on the planet, but the disabled person who needs support accessing a shop, or the illegal migrant who, according to complete myth, is given luxury accommodation, free cars and phones (as opposed to the grim reality of working long hours for little pay in often dangerous conditions at the hands of violent gangmasters). Muslim plots to take over the world are raised up, viciously echoing the Zionist Protocols of Czar Nicholas, to sow further divisions, some of them so fantastical that they invite equally fantastical responses from conspiracy theorists (- themselves an echo of some of the thousands of messianic wandering prophets of interwar Europe).

In this direction lies the path being bulldozed by the likes of Golden Dawn in Greece, the MSI in Italy, FN in France and various currently disparate right wing parties in Britain, targeting groups of vulnerable people and minorities to divert attention from the true inequities of the wealth gap and the economic and political grip of the elite. It is a road that starts with shocking tales of individuals who fiddle social security or fake disability, or groups who look a bit different and have strange traditions, and ends up at the doors of gas chambers and on the edges of execution pits. It is an unconscionably brutal path which we pretend is distant at our peril. There is in every society a desire to find easy solutions; to conform to the norms that are drilled into us about ownership and supposed opportunity from the school desk to the retirement party; and all too often, even in the most democratic society, a willingness to find some sort of salvation in the form of a "strong" person or party. In the context of a society without genuine political choice but one with increasing economic hardship and personal insecurity, this desire grows even deeper.

And so we can see our current political class - still smugly asserting itself, wringing its hands about the deficit, blatantly lying about everyone being in it together, rewriting their manifestos and changing their offer as frequently and easily as a used car salesman reviews his prices. Personally and professionally isolated from the people they supposedly represent more than ever before - with huge numbers having never worked outside politics and many having no ideological belief whatsoever - the careerists at the heart of our system do know something is not quite right, something is wrong. But they don't get what; indeed, they can't. Isolated in their self-created bubble, they are not programmed that way. Rather, they turn to suppression of civil liberties, increasing surveillance and the all-embracing "war on terror" as a means of demonising all their opponents and entrenching their hold on power - yet, in doing so, rather than create a solid base for their own survival, they may in fact be simply paving the way for even more authoritarian elements to rise.

The turnout in elections is dripping away, lower and lower. From 84% in 1950, it decline to just 59% in 2001, rising slightly to 64% at the 2010 election, even although people were choosing a government in the midst of an economic crisis. There is a proliferation of support for the non-mainstream: UKIP, a right wing force described by some as "fascists in suits", has emerged recently as the third party in national polls and performed well in recent by-elections. It is not a Nazi party, but it is riding on a tide of xenophobia and scapegoating (while quietly proposing tax cuts and other benefits for the very richest members of society). And it is accompanied by a multitude of other parties - the BNP, the EDs, BFP, NF and other groups.

At the Rotherham by-election a few weeks ago, although UKIP stole the limelight with their showing of 21.7% of the vote, other far right candidates took a further 12% of the vote. This meant one in three voters chose hard right parties, while the left parties Respect and TUSC took nearly 10% of the vote combined. With the Tories in fifth place and the Lib Dems in eighth place, the Government parties were out polled by the non-mainstream parties of left and right by 43% to 7.5%. Even the Labour Party managed only a 46% vote share in what was once its heartlands.

Rotherham is not an isolated case - two other by-elections showed similar patterns on the same night, while Respect pulled off a stunning and largely unexpected victory in Bradford West earlier in the year. National opinion polls show the "Others" constantly polling around one in five votes and the support for the three so-called main parties is increasingly soft; identification and party loyalty is at a historic low; and no wonder, given the utter contempt of the electorate demonstrated by the main parties. It will take little to force a major change to the party political paradigm - one fear must be that a UKIP win at the 2014 European elections may mark the moment. Our complacent political class may want to reflect that the Nazis polled a meagre 2.6% of the vote in the 1928 national elections - just five years later, the length of a British Parliament, they assumed total power.

And so the question that remains is not are we in Weimar Britain, sitting precariously on the edge of momentous, potentially transformational change. The answer to that is given: we are undoubtedly in the last days of traditional politics; only the bashed, discredited system keeps what remains together. The real question is what will come next, and from what direction and in what form. In this country, as in the world, we stand at a crossroads as not since the turmoil of 1919 that rent Europe apart. One way marks the route to a fairer society where resources are shared more equally, but with the requirement that we break down big corporations, regulate our economies as never before, reintroduce some of the protective measures that were once common and change our views completely on ownership of socio-economic resources, common and collective rather than exclusive and individualist.

The other route marks a far more brutal and authoritarian course - isolated from the world, distrusting of many of our fellow citizens, targeting people in new forms of pogroms, blaming rather than sharing, controlling rather than caring for one another.

We can choose: and events will force the choice probably sooner rather than later - day or night, left or right; or, as Rosa Luxemburg put it, socialism or barbarism. Capitalism and liberal democracy are in terminal decay, their failure hastened by the gathering environmental and resource crises. The German Republic passed into history when Hitler himself screamed down the incredibly brave Social Democrat leader, Otto Wels, as he voiced the very last words of legal opposition to the Nazis, his speech in effect the funeral oration of the young democracy. If Weimar Britain is to similarly pass, it falls to those of us on the Left to ensure it passes to a better place than the gates of a new Auschwitz.

"At this historic hour, we German Social Democrats pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and Socialism. No Enabling Law can give you the power to destroy ideas which are eternal and indestructible ...."

Otto Wels - Hitler's final opponent in the Reichstag, 1933

Friday, 14 December 2012

From Their Cold, Dead Hands - the killing of innocence

Yet again, hot on the heels of the Dark Knight killer, a gunman has shot many innocents dead in the USA. In this case, at least 27 people, 20 of them very young children in a kindergarten school in Connecticut have been shot dead, apparently by the 20 year old son of a teacher in the school. Others have been injured, while some remain unaccounted for.

The coming days will see more details revealed about the pathology of the killer, perhaps his obsession with some PC game or obscure film, his apparent normality to others or his "loner" style behaviour. People around the world will fulminate about the impact of films, social media, and so forth. And also, very briefly, they will talk about America's gun culture and the ease with which people in most states can obtain firearms legally and often without needing a licence. Foreigners will shrug their shoulders, taking a view that a country with the fewest holidays on the planet and the most guns has to equal serious trouble; while Americans, even under the allegedly liberal Obama, will take no real steps at all to curb the phenomenal levels of gun ownership in their country - there are 89 privately owned guns for every 100 Americans (adults & children); 62% of US households contain more than one gun.

Taking their cue from the second amendment to their 230 year old Constitution which, responding to the 19th century needs of Frontier Conquest, confers the right to bear arms, American citizens are proportionately more heavily armed than the people of the troubled state of Yemen and possibly even the failed state of Somalia. It is little wonder then that in an environment so soaked in the power of the gun (a culture fostered by the profit-seeking gun-making business) that violence results and on far from infrequent occasions manifests itself in the appalling acts carried out yesterday.

No joke - American guns-for-Xmas advert
America is in decline; its global reach is shortening; like any decaying Imperial power, many of its people are perplexed by the levels of dislike registered towards their nation (though usually not them personally) by people around the world, and they are fearful of their future. The Patriot Act, the Tea Party, Fox News and a welter of Evangelical Christian and rightwing neoliberal Republicans add to this anxious zeitgeist by repeatedly preaching that a largely fictitious white American society is under perpetual threat from crime, terrorism, liberals, gays, people of colour and foreigners. On these grounds, with the National Rifle Association at its head, they justify the need to continue with widespread gun ownership. "From my cold dead hands!" the (now dead) Charlton Heston defiantly proclaimed to an NRA rally as he held a rifle aloft, just days after the murders of children at the Columbine school.

The consequences are obvious - little children, having barely begun their lives, destroyed by terrible acts of violence; their teachers dying as they tried to save their tiny wards; distraught parents and siblings damaged for life. All so shock jocks and fundamentalist preachers can continue to spout their spite and sow the seeds of fear and alienation that casualise and glorify violence. And each time one of these gunmen (and they always have been men) walk into a school or cinema  or workplace and take vengeance for some minor or even entirely fantastical grievance, the media attention sets the scene for the next similar atrocity.

Some liberal Americans fear it is about the very nature of their society - one friend of mine cast it thus:
Have you seen "Bowling for Columbine?" Regardless of what one feels about Michael Moore, his films are good, and that one goes through the factors involved in our school shootings. The common denominator turns out to be our culture of violence. We are a competitive, punishing, violent, isolating culture. Thankfully we can all work together in our own lives to create a supportive, loving, cooperative, & nurturing culture.

Well, culture may be part of it- a doggedly individual and overtly competitive society undoubtedly breeds more aggression and resentment than one which emphasises community and co-operation. But America is not alone in fostering such traits via its political economy and yet other countries, including increasingly neoliberal Britain, still register infinitely lower levels of gun violence and firearms offences. It seems fairly unlikely that ordinary Americans are so very different from people in other nations that they have an inherently greater tendency to undertake such appalling acts of random violence. So what is the driver?

The one thing that is different to most other socities is gun ownership and the ready ability in the USA to become a gun owner - Obama has made this even easier in recent years. Hence the huge levels of ownership of guns by private citizens. And there is evidence from the UK that gun owners are far more likely to commit violent crimes than people who don't have them.

Consider this- only 1 in 60 Britons legally own a gun; applicants for firearms certificates are background checked (though not always as thoroughly as imagined) and even many of them are not allowed to keep ammunition outside of a gun club. However, in the UK, even with these checks and restrictions, 1 in 2 domestic killings and 1 in 5 of overall murders are committed by people using a legally owned fire arm. So, putting it crudely, if you are British and your partner owns a gun, you are thirty times more likely to be killed by them than if they do not.

Britain has had three massacres carried out by lone gunmen - the shootings in Hungerford in 1987, Dunblane in 1996 and Cumbria in 2010. All of the gunmen held firearms certificates and killed their victims with legally owned guns. QED.

America and the world mourn the dead children of Newtown. They are the latest victims of a string of tragedies permitted by the selfishness of rightwingers, survivalists and pseudo-patriots. If America does not want more toddlers' and teens' blood spilt, rather than dwell too long on the psychopathy of the man who committed today's crime or argue about violent movies, it should do what is obvious to nearly everyone else in the world - get rid of the guns.

Shane left town 150 years ago.

Twisted patriot - Charlton Heston and his cold dead hands.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Looking After His Own

Well, it was a slip of the tongue but somehow it just seems so appropriate.

From the pages of the Parliamentary record, Hansard, Prime Minister David Cameron, the millionaire who leads the richest Cabinet in history (its 29 members have a combined personal wealth of £70 millions), standing up for his own....

Yep, the rich kid has taken the biscuit - probably a RICH Tea one.

"I will eat you all..."

Sunday, 9 December 2012

We Love Big Brother

"They can't get inside you," she had said. But they could get inside you. "What happens to you here is forever," O'Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover. Something was killed in your breast: burnt out, cauterized out.

But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

(Orwell, "1984")

When fiction becomes fact.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Froth of Deception

Some years ago, sitting in a Starbucks outlet in a northern city (well, it was a long time ago!), I heard an elderly gentleman remonstrating with the "barrista" that his cappuccino needed topping up.
"Look," he complained, "It's half empty and I've not even had a sip!"
"Ah, sir," the barrista responded, trying seriously to blame the customer,"You've let it stand too long. It has settled. You see sir, 50% of the product is hot air."
The customer's reply was unprintable, even here, and he immediately became an ex-customer.

Apparently, Starbucks seem to be masters of deception, a trait never more in evidence than when two of its senior executives haltingly tried to explain to British MPs earlier this week how in 15 years operating and expanding in Britain, they have made losses in all but one year and have consequently paid virtually no corporation tax at all. On sales of £3,100,000,000, it has paid just £8,600,000 in corporation tax - that's a meagre 0.2 (yes, zero-point-two) per cent. Along with Amazon and Google, who have similar records, it was criticised for failing to pay its "fair" share of tax - and so now it is likely that tomorrow it will make a pledge to pay more tax in the future.

Well, sorry if I am not partying, but how generous of them... They pledge to pay more in future. What does that mean? What about this pledge instead - they declare their true profits rather than hide them behind a charade of in house cross-charging and pay their proper whack. Starbucks had briefed their shareholders that their UK operation was making a 15% profit on turnover - very broadly, if that was the case over all 15 years, it would have generated around £450 millions profit with around £100 millions due to be paid in Corporation tax; not a mere £8.6 million. But of course the story they have given the HMRC and now MPs was rather different.

We hear endlessly from the giant corporations and their mouthpieces in the Lib Dem and Tory parties about the need for Britain to cut its already near worldwide low corporation taxes - even though it seems most of them pay a fraction of their dues (if indeed anything at all). A further reduction is pending for the next tax year. Otherwise, apparently they might go elsewhere and we would lose the alleged benefits of their presence on our shores.

Benefits? Tell that to the the countless perfectly good local coffee shops put out of business by Starbucks' undercutting them; or the bookstores - independents and even the once powerful Borders UK shops - put out of business by the march of Amazon.

And just this week, as Starbucks was finally caving into the bad publicity about its tax record, it implemented a fine wheeze to appear to be contributing to the community that succours it with one hand, while taking away with the other. The fig-leaf of its already piss poor corporate social responsibility record has never been more precariously worn.

On Monday, all its staff - mainly low paid, part-time barristas (their employment protection rights slashed since April by the Lib Dem Ministers of the Coalition), were told to sign away their contractual rights to a 30 minute paid lunch break and to some of their sick pay or face the sack. Rubbing salt in the wounds, they also told their pregnant staff no longer to expect a complimentary food hamper when their babies are born - instead they can look forward to a handy, Starbucks branded baby-gro and bib. Useful for wiping away all that deceptively frothy baby sick.

The Indian Parliament is currently debating whether to open up the third largest economy in the world to foreign direct investment (FDI).  This would open the doors to overseas corporations - with supermarket giants Walmart, Tesco and Carrefour leading the charge - to open up and start undercutting and destroying an economy currently 97% owned by small businesses, families and self-employed people. The western neoliberals and bankers claim that this will unleash a wave of creative competition in India; but the track record elsewhere shows the lie of these claims. India beware.

We can only hope that India resists the threats and charms of the multinationals; and, though sadly very much more in vain hope than genuine expectation, we can dream of the day that Britain's HMRC clamps down sufficiently on the tax games of the corporations that they do indeed depart. Because, whilst some of these mega-multinationals use their proxies in the popular press to peddle lies about immigrants, the EU and even political correctness having wrecked our way of life, it is in truth large, state-less corporations that have destroyed whole local economies, emptied our high streets and plundered our national wealth. As their tax and employment records show, they are totally self-serving and without conscience - the psychopaths of Joel Bakan's opus magnus - and we continue to treat with them at our own risk.

We have lived well without them before; we can easily and happily do so again. Just imagine if they were indeed gone, and all we had left were...bookshops, local cafes, and independent music stores.

And no more hot air in our mugs.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Police Alert: Nick Clegg for Wasting Time

And so the Police & Crime Commissioners elections roar into the record books: as the ones with the lowest turnout in modern British history. With less than 15% of the electorate voting - and one polling station in Wales having a remarkable turnout of precisely zero - the validity of the entire process has fallen into question. Record numbers of spolit papers - many deliberately so - have turned up as the citizens of England and Wales give, in effect, a decisive thumbs down to the whole farcical process.

Over £100 million of taxpayers' money has been wasted on holding this exercise in the middle of November - totally out of time with the normal voting cycle in early winter, in the dark. An additional £25 million was wasted on moving it from the original plan of coinciding with the local elections in May.

So who is responsible for this mess? Who has wasted taxpayers money and a lot of people's time? And left us with the policing system in a total mess with Commissioners formally elected but without any mandate or legitimacy at all?

Step forward our old friend, Deputy Prime Minister and Chancer in Chief Nick Clegg.

Yes, that one - whose Lib Dem Party sunk into fifth place behind UKIP and the English Democrats in Nick's own home territory of South Yorkshire, only just keeping their deposit. As brazen as ever, the Lib Dems pushed and pushed for these elections to be held in mid-November rather than the previously agreed time of May when their costs could have been reduced and (whatever your view about the posts themselves) more voters would have participated.


Quite simply, though laughably, they thought this would help them hold seats at the council elections As the BBC trailed a year ago, Lib Dem high command thought that if the police elections were held in May, they would both distract Lib Dem efforts to hold onto council seats contested at the same time and buoy up the Tory vote by creating a focus on law and order.

So, after confronting David Cameron with threats to vote down the Police & Social Responsibility Bill if he did not concede on the timetable, the Lib Dems achieved the change and, in spite of the additional £25 millions in  costs, the vote was moved to yesterday. At the time, they claimed it was an altruistic move to depoliticise the elections, but a BBC investigation found otherwise - and unlike the recent Newsnight farago, no one denied this one's findings. And besides, the refusal to provide a freepost facility as normal with this level of election effectively removed the chance for independents to seriously participate unless they were wealthy - leading in fact to very highly politicised elections.

It is therefore touchingly and wonderfully ironic that the Lib Dems' results have been relentlessly pisspoor - not only did they fail to field candidates in half the country, but where they did they were frequently beaten out of sight. With most results in, their national vote total barely reaches 7% and they have been overtaken by UKIP even although that party was also only standing in half the contests.

Clegg and his party have a lot to answer for - and a big bill to pay.

Umm..err...umm..oh, wasn't me, officer!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Positively Spoiling - Police Commissioner Ballot Today

So the most low key election in British history apparently takes place today as 41 Police & Crime Commissioners are elected for the first time across England and Wales. In an election that has cost £100 millions of taxpayers' money to hold in the dark of early winter, with little or no publicity, a combination of near-total voter lack of awareness combined with disillusion with the whole idea is likely to drive turnout down - one survey suggesting a turnout of just 15% may yet be over-optimistic.

No one asked for these posts, and only the Lib Dem wing of the Coalition wanted them at this time - apparently banking on the idea they could mobilise proportionately more supporters at this time of year than Tory or Labour. This is a strategy that has manifestly backfired as they now lack any significant support - recent polls have them hovering at 8%, often in fourth place and sometimes with the Greens withing spitting distance of driving them into fifth.

So we have elections no one wants for posts no one wants and candidates no one knows anything about. But 41 of them will be the lucky winners of annual salaries of £100,000 - nearly 50% more than MPs get and 9 times what local authority councillors receive for working 30 hours per week. As blogged before, they represent an unwelcome centralisation of scrutiny of the police in the hands of one person rather than the cross section of councillors, experts and community representatives in the current Police Authorities. This could lead at one extreme to an overly cosy relationship with the local Chief Constable through to populist grandstanding on complex issues that could compromise the police and divide communities.

What to do then? One group is advocating that rather than voting for any of the would-be Commissioners, voters opposed to the idea should not stay at home but rather should turn up at polling stations and spoil their ballot papers. They are recommending writing a statement along the lines of "No to Police Commissioners, Yes to Democracy" or something similar that makes clear it is a deliberate spoiling of the paper to make a point rather than a simple mistake. The group was established on Facebook by Greens and others following a debate in Leeds. It has a Facebook Page, Spoil Your Ballot Papers for the Police Elections, and a Twitter hashtag of #spoilpoliceballot. It's not too late to join up or comment.

Spoilt papers are separated and counted - often, they are shared with the election candidates and their agents and typically include mistakes like people voting for all the candidates or signing their names on the paper. Some put comments like "None of the above" or often more, shall we say, colourful statements of their views on the process. Spoiled ballots are not counted towards turnout however, so taking part will not increase the figures for the elections' turnout.

Some countries, like Australia, allow this option as a right, while other countries, such as Russia, require minimum turnouts of 50% before a candidate can be elected. Sadly Britain does neither, but it is perfectly legal to go and spoil your ballot paper and make a point. It shows you care enough to turnout and show your opposition - and its better than daytime TV.

Go on, take a walk, and spoil your ballot paper - you know it makes sense!

Friday, 9 November 2012

America's Choice

We know now, after a couple of weeks of uncertainty, that President Obama has been re-elected by what passes for a comfortable margin (about 2% of the vote) in deeply divided America. Although in many respects the lesser of two evils and still unlikely in the extreme to herald any genuine change, it is worth reflecting a little on the people who might have been elected in his place.

Mitt Romney, whose election victory website went live yesterday by accident, is clearly a consummate chameleon, twisting and changing his position on everything from healthcare and abortion to fiscal policy. To this end, he was content to embrace some pretty unpleasant people with unpleasant views in his pursuit of power. There were the pro-war agitators, keen to assault Iran and Syria at the earliest opportunity; the people who wanted to strip away even the minimal health protection provided to tens of millions of poor Americans by "Obamacare", and worst of all the men (and they all were) who made repeated and ever more extreme comments about female rape victims as alternately asking for it or being the subject of Divinely-ordained sexual assault. They were not even medieval in their outlook, but positively Old Testament. Even Romney's running mate for Vice President, Paul Ryan, had been involved in sponsoring unsuccessful legislation which distinguished between "forcible" and apparently "non-forcible" rape.

It is to the credit of American voters that all of these men went down in flames at the polls - and Obama led Romney by a huge margin among women voters. This led to chilling comments from a number of rightwing commentators that Obama is not the choice of white Americans, or that alternatives to voting need to be found to force through their Christian fundamentalist agenda.

Outside the mainstream, the Green candidate for President Jill Stein polled over 397,000 votes in spite of the two-party squeeze, more than doubling the Green vote since 2008, and some local gains were made with Greens elected in Maine, including one representative to the state assembly.

But among the non-major party candidates, it was former Republican Governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson, who polled best, taking 1.1 million votes as the Libertarian Party candidate running on a platform characterised by one commentator as being "founded on the concern that Americans are not yet greedy enough."

Sunday, 4 November 2012

All of Us

Today, 5th November, is Bonfire Night in Britain. This is our form of what, in many countries, is a fire festival – like Norwuz, the pre-Islamic new year festival marked in Iran by a remarkably similar combination of bonfires and fireworks. But in Britain, as we burn the “Guy”, whilst most know that the man it symbolises, Guido Fawkes, attempted to blow up both the King and Parliament in 1605, less is known about the circumstances that led him to do this – and some of the similarities to today.

Britain did not exist at the time, although by the Union ofthe Crowns of 1603, England and Scotland shared a monarch. James Stewart, the sixth of Scotland and first of England, had travelled to London from Edinburgh after inheriting the English throne from Elizabeth Tudor – his second cousin and the executioner of his mother, the Catholic Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots. James shared with Elizabeth a deep distrust of Catholicism, viewed as a threat to the sovereignty of both their kingdoms as it was the faith professed by their major Continental enemies - the Hapsburg Empire (Austria, Spain and the Spanish Netherlands) and France.

Consequently, Catholics in Elizabethan and early Stewart England had a far from happy time – Elizabeth's father Henry VIII had seized Catholic assets and declared himself the head of the established church, a position held to this day by the monarch. Opposition to the Anglican Church therefore was soon viewed on a par with opposition to the King and, as such, treason. Catholicism was outlawed; the Catholic church’s assets were seized and disbursed between the King and his followers; and priests were hunted down and killed. Their followers, real and simply suspected (or even maliciously accused) were subject to detention, torture, trial and execution.

It was against this background that Guido Fawkes and a number of co-conspirators vainly plotted to place barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament and explode it with the King and his Parliamentarians during the State Opening of 1605. Unfortunately for them, they were discovered, seized, tortured and executed - not, as one might assume, by burning, but by the equally grotesque spectacle of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Fawkes can therefore be viewed as either a terrorist or a freedom fighter depending on your point of view. Given that he and his fellow Catholics could be seized and executed by the State purely for holding their beliefs, the logic that says people can fight against tyranny - whether in the Arab Spring or the Warsaw Uprising or on the beaches of Normandy - would seem to apply to the conspirators as they dragged their barrels of powder into Westminster's cellars.

Certainly, in the last few years, the caricature of Fawkes has assumed symbolism as the "face" of opposition to the new tyranny that has swept so many western countries in recent years. Never as free or democratic as we have liked to claim, Britain and the USA in particular have introduced sweeping new laws following the 9/11 atrocities, supposedly to protect freedom, but in truth placing it increasingly at risk. Centuries of legal norms, such as habeas corpus and the right to trial by jury, have been removed or jeopardised as never before - with electronic surveillance massively increasing the power of the authorities to track and trace their opponents.

Of course, Bush and Blair, the main authors of these new measures, claimed that they were necessary to counter the grossly exaggerated claims of international terror networks supposedly threatening our way of life  apparently more seriously than the Nazis or the Soviet Union ever did. And so we have the twisted irony of having our freedoms removed supposedly to protect them!

Consider just a handful of the disgraceful actions that the new laws have allowed so far:
- the imprisonment, without trial, for years of hundreds of men, including several children like Mohammed al Gorani, in Guantanamo bay, many seized on the basis of allegations from extremely dubious single sources.

- the detention without trial of a number of people in Britain who were never allowed to know what they were even suspected of let alone see the evidence against them: none have been brought to trial and several are being held/restricted at the request of semi-dictatorial Arab regimes such as Algeria.

- the use of evidence obtained under torture: the USA especially, including under Obama, has "outsourced" torture to allied regimes, including Assad's Syria and Gaddafi's Libya so that they can claim not to carry it out themselves - this more than anything else has been the main factor behind the wave of anti-US protests across the Arab world.

- domestically, in the UK, supposedly anti-terror laws have been in the main used to detain environmentalist activists and prevent them from taking part in demonstrations. The same laws led to the prosecution of a peace campaigner, Maya Evans, for reading out aloud the names of British servicemen and women killed in Afghanistan and Iraq in front of the national cenotaph in Whitehall, while in an earlier case a Labour Party member - a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp - was arrested and held for several hours for booing the then Home Secretary.

- in both the USA and UK, and recently in Greece, anti-government protests have been faced with increasingly brutal responses: from the kettling of a heavily pregnant woman in freezing weather in a London disability protest, to the pepper spraying of an elderly woman by US police or the use of a chained young woman as a human shield by Athenian riot cops, the level of violence deployed by the state against its opponents in supposedly free societies is growing and growing fast.

- the bizarre detention of the Green Party Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates, Jill Stein and Cheri Honkala, by the police during the second Obama/Romney debate, when they were taken to a large facility, strapped to chairs and held incommunicado for eight hours.

"Dangerous" 84 year old woman protestor sprayed by US police.
More routine law was used last week to prosecute successfully a Glasgow man who shouted "no public spending cuts" at poor sensitive Prime Minister David Cameron. Meanwhile, the supposed civil rights champion, Liberal leader Nick Clegg, is pushing ahead with plans to create an electronic database that will store the records of every phone call, text message, email and internet visit by every citizen of the UK. Both the potential and likely actual abuse are massive - quite aside from the risk of hacking of such a goldmine of personal information by third parties.

Nothing puts our rights at risk more than our surrendering them to an ever more powerful state. From Magna Carta onwards, we have fought for our rights and freedoms: millions sacrificed their lives the struggles for them over centuries. To quietly acquiesce to the corrupt, overweening would-be tyrants of the modern governments that claim to foster and defend democracy by destroying it would be a betrayal of them and of ourselves. It recalls the cynical words of Lenin - that "Liberty is precious; so precious that it must be rationed." As soon as any Government is permitted to use even a smidgen of such logic, then the very nostrums that supposedly set us apart from the dictators, tyrants and ideologues who would oppress us are shredded and gone. 

And so, Guido Fawkes, by some accounts the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions, symbolises now the face of resistance to oppression and tyranny of the state over individual belief. His mask has been adopted by many in last year's Occupy movements around the world, as well as by the Anonymous  meme inspired by the movie V for Vendetta, which took the trends of post-9/11 to their possible conclusion of a deeply oppressive police state. Like the oppression of Bush, Blair and their successors (Obama has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than Bush), the state in V for Vendetta justifies its restrictive policies in the name of defending the safety of the people. And yet, as with post-9/11, where the awful deaths of 4,000 have led to wars that have killed over 2,500,000 more, any real ongoing threat is small set against the disproportionate reaction. And bad people with bad intent use the moment to assume ever greater power to force through their real agendas - against environmentalists, liberals and socialists, ultimately in the name of the Big Money corporates who reap so much from perpetual war.

No one can stop them, apart from us. However difficult it may seem, how overweening their authority - no Government, no system has any more power then we let it have over us, than we surrender to it. From Prague's Wenceslas Square in 1989, to Tahrir Square last year, or Times Square last week, ordinary people can make the difference - but only by acting together.

And so, as the fires burn tonight and rockets soar into the sky, the finale of V for Vendetta comes so appropriately to mind, and the words of Natalie Portman's character, Evey, when she is asked who V was: 
"He was my father and my mother, my brother and my friend. He was you, and me....He was all of us."

Saturday, 3 November 2012

The Green Choice: Jill Stein for President

USA - is one of the world's biggest polluters; the average US citizen's activities release nine times the sustainable level of carbon into the atmosphere - almost 18 tonnes per annum against the safe level of 2 tonnes. By contrast, the average European emits 7.5 tonnes; the average Chinese person 7.2 tonnes and the average Indian just 1.5 tonne.

The US is also the biggest user of the Earth's dwindling resources. With less than 5% of the global population, the USA consumes over one quarter of all the resources used in the world each year.

The USA is the biggest spender on weapons on the planet - the US military budget is larger than the military expenditure of almost other country on the planet combined. The USA spends more than $2,000 per person per year (4.7% of national wealth) - compared to just $428 (3.9%) by Russia, $74 (2.1%) by China and $89 (1.8%) by Iran. Only Israel and the UAE spend higher proportions of their GDP than the USA on the military.

There is another way: for a more sustainable economy putting people back to work through a Green New Deal;  using clean, renewable energy; freed from dependence on foreign energy and removed from the conflicts that have isolated America from many potential allies.

Tuesday 6th - for America, for the Planet : go and vote Jill Stein for President of the USA.

Website -

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Free & Equal: the Other Presidential Candidates' Debate

Corporate America would like the world to think that US politics is just about Romney and Obama, Republican and Democrat, two sides of the same coin, two variations on a theme. When it comes to the Big Money, that's certainly true as, hurricane aside, the current elections becomes the most expensive in US history (and by default world history). With the major parties expected to spend over $6 billion dollars on the elections for President and Congress, US "democracy" looks like a rich man's game.

The rules make it difficult for anyone outside the two main parties to participate - minor parties face countless obstacles, financial and legal, to gain ballot access, making American complaints about foul play in other countries' elections (like Russia and Iran) smack of more than a little hypocrisy. Yet, in spite of this, four minor party candidates are on ballots across the USA as rivals to Romney and Obama. They represent a diverse range of views but when they debate, they offer perhaps more real politics and real argument than the two main candidates could dare to offer.

The Free & Equal Foundation, which campaigns for greater democratic access to US elections at all levels, recently hosted a debate with the four minor party candidates, chaired by veteran TV commentator Larry King and broadcast on the net. See it here and find out more about the real choices American voters do indeed have if they decide to make them...(click names for link to campaign websites)

Rocky Anderson - Justice Party candidate
Virgil Goode - Constitution Party candidate
Gary Johnson - Libertarian candidate
Dr Jill Stein - Green Party candidate

After an online vote, the Greens' Jill Stein will face the Libertarians' Gary Johnson in a final online debate on the eve-of-poll, Monday 5th November.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Republican Rape

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Presidential election has been temporarily relegated from the headlines, although through the tour of disaster sites by President Obama and the charity drives of his challenger Mitt Romney, it is in truth never far from the surface. Only a very temporary outbreak of faux decorum has stopped the arguments between the two major rivals.

Yet we should not forget that by this time next week, the USA may have a new President-elect, as well as a new Congress. And the polls for the three major contest all show advances by the Republicans: Realclear Politics has Romney and Obama in a dead heat, one which could be disrupted if voters in predominantly Democrat-leaning states in the storm zone end up with a rather understandably low turnout next Tuesday. In the Senate, where a third of places are up, Republicans may end up short of a majority but are tipped to make gains, while they are 40 seats ahead in the forecast for the House of Representatives.

So what sort of men -as nearly all of them are - might these new legislators be? Aside from fiscal conservatives and defence hawks, one remarkably consistent strain throughout many of their pronouncements has been not merely an anti-abortion stance, but a rather warped view of rape as the quotes below show. These men are not some lonesome idiot sitting on a bar stool sounding off offensively (though who knows what some of them may get up to?). These are men already in prominent political positions in the most powerful nation in the world. These are men selected by the Republicans and endorsed by Mitt Romney, the man who may be the next President.

Judge for yourself - are people with these views fit to hold office anywhere in the world?

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

To Serve and Protect...?

Just two weeks from now, England and Wales get the rather unwanted opportunity to elect Police & Crime Commissioners in 41 districts. These new roles, as covered in an earlier post, replace the somewhat more inclusive and democratic committees that have had oversight of the police service until now. The Home Office and the Coalition Government apparently believe that having a single "personality" in charge will somehow "restore trust" in the police system, according to its website.

Prescott running for Police Commissioner
Yet just precisely who are some of these personalities? As the Guardian showed, most are simply serving or former local politicians, with some ex-police and servicemen. Perhaps the most prominent is the former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott who is standing in the Humberside region. Although now a member of the House of Lords, "Prezza" is still keen to make his mark in his native area. Given Labour's apparent inbuilt electoral strength there, he should be a dead cert; but with turnout likely to be the lowest in history, with predictions as low as 10 - 15% of eligible voters, any sort of upset is possible.

Facing Prescott is the UKIP candidate, one of their sitting MEPs, Godfrey Bloom. He has a checkered record in terms of his service as a Euro-MP for Yorkshire and Humberside, starting with all sorts of weird comments about women. In the police election, reducing the number of speed cameras and speed traps is one of his main concerns, in spite of their proven utility in reducing accidents and deaths.

But arguably one of the most controversial episodes for someone standing for a policing post was the film he made himself standing next to a Greenpeace boat applauding the bombing by limpet mines of the Rainbow Warrior by the French Secret Services back in 1985, a terrorist act which killed a photographer, Fernando Pereira, and sank the environmentalist ship. "Vive La France!" he intoned with a Eurosceptical smirk.

"Godders" seemed to think it was all a bit of a wheeze, though to be fair he had apparently forgotten about the fatality, which he found "extremely regrettable and indeed unacceptable" when I wrote to remind him back in early 2010. However, rather than go on to condemn the actual bombing, he wrote that

"The biggest threat to us today is not terrorism but eco fascism.  It is eco fascism closing conventional power stations, trying to stop the building of new ones that work.  Destroy whole communities with the ludicrous windmill fanaticisml Hundreds die every year of hypothermia, thousands more will join them after 2015.  Green taxes and significantly higher fuel bills will drive industry abroad and impoverish old age pensioners....." 
It seems that environmentalists ."..bear responsibilities for deaths on a much bigger scale than the IRA or Al-Quaeda, and all based on fraudulent and junk science of which ordinary people are now being made aware.
Yours sincerely
Godfrey Bloom"
So, if Bloom becomes PCC for Humberside, we may face some "interesting" new initiatives being proposed to the police in pursuit of his peculiar view of true crime. Voters beware.

And here, for the record, is Bloom's video:

Monday, 29 October 2012

The Revenge of Nature: the Closure of Wall Street

The world media is aghast at the prospect that Hurricane Sandy, the storm that killed 66 people in the Caribbean last week (nearly all of them poor and largely unnoticed by the world) is today combining with an Atlantic cold front to create the so-called FRANKENSTORM, a great two thousand mile weather force that is expected to hit the eastern seaboard of the USA in the next few hours.

It is to be hoped that the carnage in the West Indies is not repeated, although two lives have already been lost. Hundreds of thousands of people are seeking shelter, including tens of thousands of homeless people on the streets and in the tunnels of New York, which is in the centre of the storm's likely path. As well as 100 mph winds, a huge tidal surge is likely to bring floods of water far inland, and it is this which seems the most threatening element.

Climate scientists have long warned that global warming is already bringing more and more powerful changes in the weather. It is not purely about increasing temperatures, but about extremes: this summer saw the ice melt from the Arctic reach new record-breaking levels - and now a cold front from the Arctic is hitting a warm front from the Jet stream to produce what may be a record breaking "weather event" as the US media likes to title these things. It has been called Frankenstorm because it is close to Halloween, yet the unintentional irony is that, like Frankenstein, human actions may well have driven the life-force that is our biosphere towards this violent revenge on us, its unwitting but very culpable creators.

The storm has grabbed the world's attention because it is about to strike some of the wealthiest districts of the richest nation on earth - while hoping harm is minimalised, we can also hope that awareness is maximised: awareness of how human activity is driving climate patterns towards ever greater hostility towards our species and our way of life; awareness of how it is the poor - swept away in the tropical storms of last week and possibly washed away in the storm drains of tonight - who bear the brunt of the impact of climate change, but only for now.

And awareness, above all, that money can't buy our way out of this; wealth can shield the richest from the tempest for only so long before they like everyone else are swept aside by Nature's revenge on our wasteful, polluting ways, where profit-seeking has trampled and exploited the environment towards exhaustion, deeply disturbing the delicate balance that allows us to exist on Planet Earth.

Tonight, the US Stock Exchange has suspended business as climate overwhelms capitalism. The pompous, self-titled Masters of the Universe are impotent before Neptune's Rage; and Wall Street is closed.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Support Your Local Sheriff?

15th November sees an innovation in British law enforcement of a dubious nature. Thanks to some odd and expensive scheduling courtesy of the Liberal Democrat arm of the Coalition Government, electors across England and Wales will have the opportunity to vote for the newly created role of Police and Crime Commissioner.

This role  is charged with ensuring effective policing in its area and replaces the committees of Police Authorities. These consisted usually of 9 local councillors nominated by the councils in the Authority area, plus 8 members who were a mix of magistrates and independent appointees. These were a valuable means of oversight and governance but one where no one person was powerful enough to interfere overly with the operational activities of the police, which remained the provenance of the professional Chief Constable. Equally, having a range of views and interests represented meant that any cosy one-to-one relationship between a Chief Constable and a Police Commissioner was not possible.

The thinking behind Police Commissioners is supposedly to combine democratic control with a more directive approach to policing, just as elected mayors were once touted as the miraculous cure-all for local authorities - with decidedly mixed results (viz, Hartlepool and Doncaster). Given the choice in May this year of having more elected mayors, voters in all but two of the eleven areas voting decided against. Sadly, no such vote was ever taken on Police Commissioners and as the idea featured in the manifestos of both Coalition parties, this dreadful example of gesture politics has gone ahead.

So what do we have now that nominations have closed? Given the complete absence of any public funding for the election campaign - such as the free mailshot distribution in other elections - the only people capable of mounting a credible campaign across the large geographical areas involved will either be machine politicians or rich people with their own agenda. So we are left with a rag bag of local politicians eyeing up the significant pay packet attached to the post, along with a collection of ex-police officers possibly looking to get their own back on their former bosses and a smattering of former military people, which seems mildly worrying. Few inspire any confidence of offering any fresh start to policing. And how could they?

Effective local policing needs local input from a range of sources - community policing at its best encompasses a wide range of views and needs and while it varies in different parts of the country, there are a number of examples of good policing working well with local people and attendant reduction in crime.

None of that has involved some local would-be caped crusader offering instant salvation. Rather it has involved a lot of long-term, painstaking work by officers and communities getting to understand each other and working together in ways that defy the hot headed ranting of the likes of the Daily Mail about soft cops and ineffective courts. The result has been a steady decline in crime to its lowest level in over 30 years, but the fear of crime, thanks to the media, has grown so that the public perception is that it is worse than ever.

And this is the worry about these new posts and the election that goes with them: the candidates are just feeling their way into new campaigns for a new type of post. Most voters are unaware and quite disinterested - turnout is likely to be appallingly low (which begs the question why the Lib Dems were so keen to have them now rather than alongside other local polls in May next year). But longer term, forced to justify their tenure in office - or seeking to challenge an incumbent who will be blamed for all manner of ills - there is every likelihood of Police Commissioner votes turning into populist referenda driven by revenge-seeking stories in the press. Incumbent Commissioners will be more and more tempted to make headline-grabbing gestures, pressurizing the police into politicised agendas that can easily lead into extremely difficult territory in terms of social cohesion.

It is perhaps only because of their current organisational stasis that so few far right candidates are standing in these elections - the BNP is collapsing because of in-fighting, but the far right will not go away. There is every chance that future PC elections will become a gift-horse for their scapegoating agendas, and a Trojan Horse for those who think that this sort of vote somehow enhances democratic control of policing.

Time to stop aping America. We're not Gotham City just yet...

Monday, 22 October 2012

The Whale Who Talked

This has been getting quite a bit of coverage today - a white whale who, with incredible difficulty given the absence of a larynx, attempted to impersonate his human keepers. Humans have been known often enough to impersonate animals, usually either as a means of endearment to a pet or unpleasant mockery in less kind circumstances. It is a somewhat rarer phenomenon, outside the world of parrot-keepers, for animals to seek to return the gesture by impersonating us for whatever reason.

The whale in question was press-ganged into the service of the US Navy and after several years in captivity at its San Diego research facility, he came up with this speech to his captors, and continued to do so for four years before giving up in his attempts to make sense to them.

Who knows what he was trying to say? Given humans' willing slaughter of all manner of sentient animals in the course of man-made conflict (and apart from Boudicca and Thatcher, it nearly always is "man" made), perhaps his was a plea for peace, or at least to be left alone. Whales and other highly intelligent marine mammals, especially dolphins, have been dreadfully abused by the military around the world.

- the US Navy, as well as keeping these creatures in long term captivity, have sought to use them, amongst other things, as mine-detectors and even trained dolphins and sea-lions to catch enemy divers - this programme stretches back to the First World War, and the Soviet Union ran its own until the 1990s. Even more appallingly sinister have been unsubstantiated reports to use them as substitutes for torpedoes by teaching them to respond to directional signals and then strapping bombs to them to send them towards enemy vessels with no chance of a return swim.

She's in the programme; but who asked her?
- in other circumstances, there has been much evidence to suggest that sonar signals from submarines frequently confuses the signals whales send each other, often over hundreds of miles. This appears in at least some cases to have led to them getting lost and beaching themselves - or, in one tragic case, becoming disoriented and swimming up the River Thames into central London, where it died. There is also evidence that sonar, especially the increasingly powerful and long range systems used by the British Royal Navy, damage whales eardrums, potentially disabling them and causing slow, lingering deaths.

- and more generally, both military and civilian human activities are both emptying the seas of the fish that whales eat and poisoning the plankton that might substitute for them. Slowly, with the seas turning acidic and "dead zones" stretching for hundreds and even thousands of square miles in the seas, our species is threatening not only its own survival but the habitat of the whale as well. And all this is before we even begin to discuss the so-called "scientific research " carried out by some countries involving harpooning whales and eating their meat as an allegedly accidental by-product of the research. Or of the apparent desire of some American citizens to sail out into the Gulf to shoot or even, remarkably, pipe-bomb bottlenose dolphins, using their friendly curiosity as the perfect bait for their cruel "sport".

These are magnificent beasts - their longevity is attested to by an example from 2007 of a whale being killed and, buried in its flesh, was the remains of a harpoon that was last used in the 1890s. They have been here much longer than we have; we can only hope that if we don't save ourselves perhaps at least we can spare them the extinction we have lined up for all too many of our companions on the planet.

Listen to the whales. Whatever he was saying, his song is older and deeper than ours, and deserves our respect.