Saturday, 24 January 2015

Dances in the Kingdom of Sand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Three Men in a Debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Wake Up! The Tories are coming...

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

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Asking the Wrong Question - Cameron and The Greens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Reaching for the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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