Iraq and the hostages

31 July, 2009

In a Guardian investigation today, there are disturbing revelations about the recent capture of British hostages. Contrary to the view that the 5 British men were kidnapped by Al Qaeda terrorists, the Guardian has uncovered evidence of Iraqi government collusion.

‘A former high-level Iraqi intelligence operative and a current senior government minister, who has been negotiating directly with the hostage takers, have told the Guardian that the kidnapping of IT specialist Peter Moore and his four bodyguards in 2007 was not a simple snatch by a band of militants but a sophisticated operation, almost certainly with inside help.’

The reason why state officials were so desperate to silence these men was that the 5 were busy uncovering ‘massive corruption in Iraq's government ministries.’

‘Moore was employed to install a new computer tracking system which would have followed billions of dollars of oil and foreign aid money through the ministry of finance. The "Iraq Financial Management Information System" was nearly complete and about to go online at the time of the kidnap.’

So is this the price we are paying for creating a new Iraqi democracy? Under Saddam, stories of financial corruption were the least of the West’s concerns about human rights. But in a twenty first century democracy, created with the military help of the West, protected with the blood of British and American soldiers, this is beyond the pale. Very disturbing indeed.


What has our political class really learnt?

28 July, 2009

You remember that expenses scandal with all those misbehaving MPs up for daily scrutiny by the Daily Telegraph. You remember how contrite they were, how they promised to reform the awful ‘system’ and provide openness and accountability. Do you remember how we were assured that this was a watershed moment which would transform the relationship between MPs and their constituents?

Well as the Telegraph reveals today, the political class (that self serving, arrogant clique in Westminster who put their own interests before those of the public) have had other ideas. In their report this morning, and as the online Green book confirms, MPs will be able to claim a £25 overnight allowance without having to produce a single receipt, potentially amounting to claims of £9,000 a year. This is something that has been agreed by a small committee of MPs headed by the current speaker, John Bercow. Like so many of Gordon Brown’s taxes, it has been passed by stealth, beneath the radar of public debate and discussion. How very New Labour!

Mr. Bercow, the man who sold himself as the ‘clean break candidate’ for Parliament may not have drawn up the £25 subsidy allowance. That honour surely goes to his far from illustrious predecessor, Michael Martin. But Mr. Bercow has not raised a word of protest about this new payment which could, of course, be open to ritual political abuse. So much for that clean break!

But what else do we expect when the other members of the committee include such paragons of virtue as Alan Duncan and Harriet Harman. Mr Duncan famously proclaimed as ‘fabulous’ a system that allowed him to repeatedly flip between properties, claiming money on each. And Ms Harman proposed a motion that would have seen MPs expenses exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, in effect meaning that we would have come to know nothing about the scandalous abuse of expenses.

Our political class has learnt nothing over the last 6 months. Consequently they will be punished by an electorate whose memories are more reliable than the promises made by MPs.


Tories remain wrongfooted on tax

24 July, 2009

The Conservatives are making a real mistake in pledging not to abolish the 50p tax rate until the end of their first term in office. Their ostensible reason is that it would be unwise to consider scrapping the rate while other tax increases, such as national insurance, are being considered. In other words, don't go easy on the rich while everyone else suffers some economic pain.

This is all rather misguided. For one thing, the money raised by the 50p rate will be marginal at best. According to many think tanks, it will be in the order of £1 billion, which is a small fraction of 1% of GDP. Presuming that some high earners refuse to leave the country (and many will), the additional revenue to the Treasury will be tiny. But it will come at a price.

A new super tax is a direct disincentive to growth, initiative, enterpise and investment - the hallmarks of a dynamic economy. Just when we need new entrepreneurs to start up their businesses, they face being penalised in the harshest manner if they come to the City. They could expect this under a socialist government which had played a role in creating this current recession, but not from a Tory administration defined by its belief in lower taxes.

In truth, the 50p rate was a cynical stunt devised by Gordon Brown to embarass the Tories and open up divisions among their MPs. He knew that any rejection of the 50p rate would give impetus to the claim that the party of Etonians and toffs was out to save the wealthy at the expense of everyone else; that they would destroy schools and hospitals before hurting the rich. It is a propaganda stunt that the Tories have fallen for.

The point needs to be made again and again - instead of higher taxes, let us see a commitment to slash public spending and reduce the size of the state. Only then can long term growth be assured.


You want more social mobility - expand the grammars!

22 July, 2009

Alan Milburn’s report on Britain’s declining social mobility contained much of promise. He noted quite rightly that the top professions, such as law, medicine and health, were closed off to all but the most privileged in society. His report highlighted how these professions were dominated by privately educated citizens with the financial means to fulfil their aspirations. He expressed concern, not just for poorer and more vulnerable sections of the community who could not afford to compete with the financial elite, but with the ‘forgotten middle class’. He understood that social mobility had stalled with a detrimental impact on millions of people. Indeed some of his suggestions, such as speeding up the removal of children from failing schools, and offering enhanced career advice, are welcome.

But what Milburn entirely failed to acknowledge was how 12 years of New Labour initiatives, as well as the interventions of previous Labour governments, had contributed to this damaging social malaise. The rot started back in the 60s with the abolition of the grammar schools. These outstanding establishments offered the fairest and most effective vehicle for social mobility. It should have been obvious to the socialist elite that destroying them would ultimately deprive poor but academically gifted students of an excellent education, and the careers that would follow. But in the interests of Labour’s equality agenda, they had to go.

In the report, and in his subsequent interviews, Milburn failed to acknowledge the importance of grammars in increasing working class social mobility in the 50s. Academic selection, primarily through the grammar school system, remains the fairest and most effective engine for social mobility. Alas, selection is a dirty word for Milburn and his Labour colleagues

But when it comes to attacking selection, his government has form. For the last 12 years, Labour ministers have railed against the private school system as a bastion of privilege and elitism. What they fail to realise is how often these schools have helped financially disadvantaged students, through the bursary scheme and additional forms of support. Labour also abolished the assisted places scheme, set up in 1980 by the Tories, and a prime means of subsidizing private education for poorer students.

With selection out of fashion, the government has tried to impose its vision of an equal society by attacking perceived class privileges. Hence Gordon Brown’s astonishing attack on ‘elitist’ Oxford University for refusing to admit the student Laura Spence, despite her excellent A level results. One of the suggestions made in the report is for universities to take into account the ‘social background’ of prospective students prior to admission. But all this does is reintroduce social engineering through the back door under the guise of progressive intervention. The divisive fires of class war have not yet been expunged.


Australia dumps Ken Loach and his bigotry

19 July, 2009

In May 2009 Ken Loach, the outspoken English film maker, pressured organisers of the Edinburgh International Film Festival to return a £300 grant from the Israeli embassy which was intended to pay for the visit of an Israeli film maker, Tali Shalom Ezer. His call, which followed an earlier campaign to boycott Israeli political and cultural institutions, led the organizers of the Film Festival to return the £300 grant, though they later apologized for their actions.

This episode was objectionable on so many grounds, not least because of Loach’s ill conceived and bigoted views. Ezer’s film, after all, was apolitical and to hold her responsible for the actions of her government was manifestly absurd. The boycott call was also one sided and based on selective denunciation i.e. there were no calls to boycott festivals funded by Iran or China.

But worse still was the behaviour of the festival organisers who, having initially rejected boycott calls on the grounds that it would politicise ‘a wholly cultural and artistic mission, caved in to the film maker’s bullying behaviour. By returning the £300 grant to the Israeli embassy, they were very much tainting a cultural event with political overtones, while associating themselves with a particularly odious political agenda.

So it is good to see that at another film festival, a firm stand has been taken against Loach and his appalling bigotry. On 13th July, Loach had written to Richard Moore, director of the Melbourne Film Festival, with a request to ‘reconsider accepting Israel as a sponsor’ in view of ‘the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, destruction of homes and livelihoods’ and ‘the massacres in Gaza.’

Moore replied by pointing out that the festival had a tradition of showing films that examined many points of view on Middle Eastern affairs, including productions that centred on the problems of Palestinian life. This was on the basis of a ‘concern to show films that deal with contemporary political issues and to allow audiences to judge these films on their own merits.’ As a result, no boycott of Israel and its cultural institutions would be acceptable. In his words, accepting a boycott would be like “submitting to blackmail." Loach withdrew his film and exited the festival yesterday.

Well, bravo to Richard Moore and the organisers of the Melbourne Film Festival! How refreshing that they stuck to their principles and refused to kowtow to mindless intolerance and prejudice - unlike their counterparts in Edinburgh.


Betrayal of the military

14 July, 2009

It has taken the death of 15 British servicemen in the last week to throw grave doubt on the mission in Afghanistan. According to one recent opinion poll, as many Britons support the country's continued campaign against the Taleban as want a speedy withdrawal. It is difficult to know how far this snapshot of opinion indicates a wider sense of disillusionment but it is, nonetheless, a telling indication of scepticism. And for this, the government must take some responsibility.

Of course, on the one hand, there is an increasing lack of tolerance for any wartime casualties. This is partly because a global human rights culture has seeped into the military, undermining the notion of mass sacrifice, especially in wars against 'lesser' powers. It also stems from a failure to understand the demands of a long war, such as a counter insurgency against ruthless opponents.

But for years, the army has also been let down by a penny pinching government which has failed to provide its soldiers with sufficient equipment. The lack of adequate helicopters, and the delay in providing new ones to the military, has led directly to soldiers using dangerous roads in Afghanistan, roads which are laid with lethal explosives. With the military denuded of resources, it is no wonder that casualties have risen with the terrible effects we are currently witnessing.

The army also seems to lack any clear mission in Afghanistan. Are they peace keepers with the task of turning the country into a 21st liberal democracy? Is it their job to impose Western values on this backward state? Or is their primary role to defeat the Taleban and Al Qaeda, forever preventing the country from becoming a hub for international Islamist terror? The army cannot do all these things, at least with its current slender resources. Thus the government is doubly guilty - withholding sufficient men and material while failing to convey a clear sense of overall military strategy.

The wider public anger is all the more tragic when one considers just how important this theatre of war really is. For the Taleban insurgency does need to be defeated, in order both to prevent both a resurgence of Islamism and a Taleban alliance with fundamentalists in Pakistan. It was the Taleban that gave sanctuary to Bin Laden in the 1990s and which terrorised its own population in the most egregious fashion. No one could look at their return with equanimity. But this requires a re-statement of the original objectives, namely to defeat the insurgency, as well as providing an urgent injection of military resources. If the government will not step up to the task, it is guilty of a grave dereliction of duty.


The Guardian's allegations

9 July, 2009

Owing to the pressure of commitments, my blogs on Afghanistan and other issues have been delayed. Rest assured, they will be completed and posted as soon as time permits this week.

If true, the Guardian’s allegations about criminal misconduct at the News of the World are barely surprising. Anyone who has read Nick Davies’ Flat Earth News, an explosive polemic about the global media, will be familiar with ‘the Dark Arts’ practised by journalists in this country.

For years, some of Britain’s top papers, both quality and tabloid alike, were willing accomplices in the illegal acquisition of confidential information. Reporters would offer cash bribes to civil servants and police officers to release confidential information; reporters would hire private investigators to hack phones and intercept messages. This was what brought down Clive Goodman, Royal Correspondent at the News of the World, and his hired investigator, Glen Mulcaire. Goodman had paid Mulcaire to hack into the voicemail messages of members of the Royal Family in order to obtain a weekly sensational scoop, in contravention of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

The allegations in today’s Guardian suggest that these dark arts were a widespread and systemic practice. They raise a number of issues, firstly about Andy Coulson, former editor of News of the world and now Communications Director of the Conservative Party. He claims, with the backing of the Conservatives, that he was in the dark over Goodman’s use of a phone hacker, yet this seriously stretches credulity. As Roy Greenslade writes in the Guardian today:

‘If he did not know, as he has previously maintained, then he is guilty of poor editorship. In my years on popular papers - as an editor and a senior executive on the Daily Mirror, the Sun and the Daily Star - it was inconceivable that any journalist could have produced an exclusive story without revealing its provenance. It was the first question an executive asked of a reporter? How did you get it? And when the executive, be it news editor, features editor, assistant editor, whoever, presented that story at a conference, any editor worth his/her salt would ask the same.’

Coulson must be called to account on how much he knew about these nefarious activities. Until he does so, his position within the Conservative party is surely untenable.

There are problems for the Press Complaints Commission too. When Coulson resigned after the Goodman affair, the PCC rather conveniently dropped its own investigation into these insalubrious activities. There were already grumblings that this regulator was nothing but a toothless tiger which was unable to control the feral tendencies of the newspaper industry. Unless it re-opens an immediate inquiry into the behaviour of the tabloids, a toothless tiger is all it will remain.

The most disturbing questions should be asked of the police. If they obtained information about the criminal interception of private phone calls, why did they choose to keep high profile victims in the dark? One of those whose calls are believed to have been intercepted is John Prescott. Surely a deputy prime minister has the right to know that people are trying to hack into his private communications, given the enormous security implications involved? And if police officers kept their silence, was this itself the result of a pay off, rather like the huge sum of money given to Gordon Taylor? The suspicion can only linger.

Of course there are times when phone hacking might be justified. If it is used to expose genuine criminality, wrongdoing and hypocrisy, it can be a valuable tool in the public interest. But when it becomes the primary means of obtaining the latest sensational scoop, it is simply immoral, shoddy and criminal.

For weeks, journalists rocked MPs with their constant expose of financial corruption and wrongdoing. Now the shoe is on the other foot. Will those same hacks who demanded transparency from Westminster now shine a light on their own practices?


The human wrongs culture

7 July, 2009

So we have yet another revelation about the shocking failures of our criminal justice system. 1,000 criminals, including dozens of murderers, rapists and violent thugs, are on the large in Britain after violating the terms of their release or committing further crimes. So do you think the police are anxious to track down these people? Are they enlisting the help of the public to bring the offenders to justice? Well, not exactly.

In the latest illustration of the human wrongs culture that obsesses PC Plod and all his merry men, it seems that some police forces are refusing to name all these criminals at large. Apparently it would breach data protection, which really means that it would breach their human rights. Well, that makes perfect sense doesn’t it? After all, you wouldn’t want to interfere with a burglar’s right to ransack property (probably belongs to some filthy rich banker anyway) or a paedophile’s right to make dodgy images, or a thug’s right to attack a few unsuspecting teenagers in the park. Criminals deserve their bit of privacy too.

Yet these are the depths of insanity to which the police have succumbed under New Labour’s stifling human rights culture. In October 2006 Derbyshire police initially refused to release the photographs of two murderers who had escaped from prison. They were concerned for protecting the criminals’ human rights and the Data Protection Act, a decision branded ‘absolute nonsense’ by Lord Falconer. In the same month the police told jeweller Isabel Kurtenbach that she could not release CCTV images of a thief who had stolen £2000 of goods on the grounds that it would breach the thief’s human rights. So she was burgled, her assailants were at large, and if she had exposed them, she would have been criminalised.

You just couldn’t make it up.


A licence to teach? More like a licence to intervene.

5 July, 2009

A licence to teach? It sounds eerily reminiscent of a James Bond thriller but it is in fact the latest piece of government gimmickry designed to prove that public services are safe in Labour’s hands. Ed Balls’ ‘masterstroke’ for our failing education system is to demand that teachers receive a licence for their profession which can be renewed every 5 years; something that would apparently put teachers on a par with doctors and lawyers. The idea is that those who don’t cut the mustard would be gradually weeded out, or forced to retrain until their levels of competence increased.

Now we all know that some teachers are just not up to the job. Many are jaded, lack passion for the profession or, in some cases, are just plain neurotic. According to the GTC, there may be as many as 24,000 of these incompetent professionals in Britain, nearly 1 in 20 of the teaching staff. But the government’s licence is the wrong solution to a real problem.

First of all, who would administer the sackings if teachers failed their 5 yearly tests? Balls would presumably say headteachers, backed up by the General Teaching Conucil. The problem is that headteachers already seem to do a shocking job when it comes to sackings, given that only 10 teachers have been dismissed for incompetence since 2001. In any case, to avoid claims of a conflict of interests, there would need to be an independent inspectorate to oversee the observation of teachers. But there already is such a body– called Ofsted. One has to ask how a new bureaucracy, staffed with thousands of new professionals, would do any better than the old one. In all probability, it would duplicate its work at tremendous cost to the taxpayer.

Once again, this is an unhelpful contribution from a government addicted to state intervention. Ed Balls should have asked himself one basic question: What makes an effective and competent teacher? And it seems that at least two things suggest themselves: a) Great subject knowledge b) A passion for being in the classroom.

If you want to ensure (a), then the first thing is to add rigour to the selection process. At the moment, if you enter teacher training college and complete the course, a job is as good as guaranteed. That sounds great until you consider that many of those teaching our students have inadequate qualifications in their own subjects, as well as poor numeracy and literacy skills. You need only a grade C in English and Maths GCSE which, considering the years of dumbing down, is simply inadequate. It is a scandal that a teacher with an E at A level could teach that very subject in secondary school. This is at least three grades too low.

As for b), there is a very real problem of churn with at least one in three teachers leaving the profession after 5 years. Teachers have become disillusioned with poor discipline and the plague of unnecessary bureaucracy. Balls' proposal fails to touch on either of these issues. Schools with real discipline problems need inspired leadership from the top, where headteachers (not the trendy lefties of the 1970s) impose strict boundaries for behaviour and take a no nonsense approach to ill discipline.

Motivation can be improved with the introduction of performance related bonuses rather than annual automatic increases, as well as a reduction in unnecessary paperwork. But what would really transform education would be to remove it from the clutches of the state altogether, through the introduction of a voucher system and parents’ passports. This would promote competition among schools, as they sought to entice new pupils. It would allow successful ones to expand and poor performing ones to close; it would also allow parents to open new schools and free them from the constraints of state bureaucracy.

In other words, what schools (and teachers) really need is independence instead of futile interventions from politicians. Now isn't that a radical thought?


Obama and the dictators

1 July, 2009

In a perceptive blog on the Telegraph website today, Nile Gardiner asks why Obama appears to be siding with dictators. Here is what he says:

‘It took Barack Obama 10 days to speak out clearly against the savage beatings and killings meted out by the Iranian regime on the streets of Tehran. It was just a matter of hours however before the Obama administration was loudly voicing its condemnation of the bloodless removal from power of populist dictator Manuel Zelaya in Honduras.’

What happened in Honduras is that Zelaya, who was elected months earlier, sought a referendum (against the wishes of Congress and the Supreme Court) which would have given him effective dictatorial powers. The army, fearing the rise of yet another populist leader in Latin America, removed him without bloodshed and installed a new leader who promised to respect the country’s democratic constitution. Yet the near universal response was an inexplicable clamour for Zelaya’s reinstatement. The loudest pro Zelaya voice could be heard in the White House.

By supporting the ousted leader President Obama has, in Gardiner’s words, ‘joined the odious likes of Hugo Chavez, Daniel Ortega and Fidel Castro in calling for Zelaya to be reinstated…Instead of siding with pro-American forces in Honduras who actually believe in constitutional democracy, Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton aligned themselves with America-haters like Chavez, Latin America’s biggest despot, and close ally of Iran.’

It took Obama more than a week to offer a robust response to the bloodshed in Tehran. He should have applauded the valiant march for freedom in Iran from day 1 and condemned Tehran’s dictators for the freedom denying, Jew hating Islamists they are. He badly misread the coup in Honduras which was about confronting a would be leftist dictator (in democracy’s guise) who wished to emulate the success of his Venezuelan ally. He should have welcomed a chance to restore genuine democracy in Latin America instead of demanding Zelaya’s return.

America’s 44th President, the ‘leader of the free world,’ appears to value stability and realpolitik over supporting the genuine voice of freedom around the world. He pays lip service to American values but he remains haunted by Bush, the leader who believed in promoting these values pro-actively, especially in regions blighted by tyranny and authoritarian government.

So when it comes to promoting freedom and American interests around the world, give me Bush and the neo cons (for all their flaws) over Obama any day of the week. He is simply on the wrong side of history.