A daily blog on the thrills, spills, and frequent absurdities of the world's one and only 'non-imperial empire' - as Barroso himself called it - the European Union.

Anything to say? Contact me at europeandisunion@yahoo.co.uk

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Britain's Colonial Past Is Not Responsible for the Embassy Assault

Nixon and the Shah.

It's often held as a truism on the Right that the most oppressive regimes on earth can get free PR if they say something vaguely anti-American. It doesn't matter what crimes they're guilty of. As long as they stand firmly against the antics of the US of A, and maybe nationalise an oil company or two, there's no end of commentators willing to take the blame from their shoulders and heap it on the West instead.

Today, in The Independent, Robert Fisk does just that. He presents a long list of reasons for the Iranian students' assault on the British Embassy in Tehran yesterday, spanning a length of time that quite comfortably takes the oldest readers of this blog back to their early teens. In fact, he goes right back to their grandmother's time, seeing the seeds of unrest in the actions of Baron de Reuter back in the mid-1800s. Then, a brief tour of Iran's WWII history - specifically its invasion by the Allies on account of the reigning monarch's Nazi affiliations - before going on to the eventual reinstatement of the shah in the 1953 coup. In doing so, he lays the blame for yesterday's ransacking of the British Embassy directly at the feet of the British themselves.

The actions of yesteryear invariably impact the attitudes of today, that is true. But portraying the upheaval as a direct reaction to events that happened half a lifetime ago is tenuous, at best. Back then, British Armed Forces were bested by the Mau Mau: do we ransack the Kenyan embassy, for old time's sake? Do we celebrate D-Day by hounding German diplomats out of their offices? No. The world has moved up and on. Iran has, too, although they are often loathe to believe it.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

'Right To Be Forgotten' Forgotten

What do online companies know about you?

The EU does do some things worthy of admiration. Make no mistake: it would be better for them to be done by elected individuals, rather than unelected functionaries. But sometimes unelected functionaries have the right of it. Such as when they propose a 'right to be forgotten' online.

The European Justice and Fundamental Rights Commissioner Viviane Reding first came up with the novel idea back in March, in a speech before the European Parliament. It aimed to extend data protection rules, which already apply to written information and government-held data across much of Europe, onto the Internet, granting the citizens the right to see all data stored on them by online companies - searching, social networking sites, etc. - and to request its deletion.

It would have restricted employer's ability to scour the private lives of potential or current employees for any sign of not-quite-automative behaviour - or a personality, as it's known - to those willing to buy in to such an instrusive system, and would have greatly reduced the amount of information that online companies hold about you (the amount is truly frightening - and it's not solely limited to what you think you've told them. Anyone with a Facebook account feel free to try this), if you so wished. Anyone who didn't mind giving their personal information to websites in return for a more personalised service would have been free to continue under the previous system. No-one would have lost out.

At least, no-one who's not a lobbyist, a marketing executive, or an e-millionaire. The proposals has been brought down following an intense lobbying campaign. Would that the Commission was democratic so we could vote out those who were prone to such things, but, sadly, it isn't - so it looks like the 'right to be forgotten' is dead in the water. Unless our national parliament takes up the cause.

Monday, 28 November 2011

David Cameron Should Copy the Latvians on Fuel Poverty

Cutting tax for energy companies may not be a popular solution. But it will save thousands of older people.

If the coalition is really committed to keeping the elderly and the impoverished warm this winter, it should look to Latvia. The country's one-hundred member parliament, the Saeima, has just voted 84-0 to scrap the excise tax on natural gas. The move will cost the government some seven million euros - substantially more than it sounds for the tiny Baltic nation - but at least it can rest assured that poorer famileis and pensioners will no longer be faced with crippling heating bills as the winter weather rolls in.

Can we say the same here? Three million pensioner households are already living 'in fuel poverty' according to the National Pensioners Convention, and last winter twenty-six thousand elderly people died due to the freezing conditions. The system intended to stop it all is at crisis point. The government has cut the basic amount to £300, on the premise that there is no money left (they still find billions for Spain, though, don't they? Or infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa) and there are more expat Britons claiming it than ever before. The coalition has so far refused to pursue the most logical and effective option - a cap on fuel bills - on the grounds of promoting 'green' energy use (pensioners, you see, are famed for their flash sports cars and widescreen TVs).

So what else is there to do, but follow the Latvian example, and cut taxes on energy and energy production? I realise that many green activists and protestors may not like the idea of cutting taxes on 'big business,' but this will save lives. If energy companies can indulge their customers with lower prices, they will do - there's little else that they can do, in terms of competitive advantage, and expensive utilities is one area where the cheapest usually wins. All other considerations - customer service, satisfaction, etc. - aren't as important compared with the prospect of saving a few hundred quid.

Friday, 25 November 2011

This Commission Power-Grab Should be Resisted

Your taxes could be decided from the 13th floor of Berlaymont. Picture by Matthias v.d. Elbe.

Prepare for the most flagrant breach of democratic values in modern European history. Yes, even bigger than the installation of an unelected cabal as the governments of and Greece and Italy. The European Commission - that is the EU's central, appointed, unaccountable executive - has called for the ultimate power over national fiscal and economic affairs to be bequeathed to it. The proposals will, if implemented, see the Commission reviewing and editing fiscal plans put forward by national executives before elected legislatures ever read them. Countries - any country, even one that does not need international assistance - is liable to summary inspection by EU officials if the Commission wishes, and will have to submit reports on how it is carrying out reforms ordered by the troika. The Commission will also confer upon itself the power to 'recommend' to the Council of Ministers that any country be forced to accept a bailout, and the economic overhaul that comes with it, regardless of whether they actually need or want international assistance.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the Commission, says that there are no conflicts between the plans and democracy, insisting that as elected governments will approve it it's okay. But this argument relies on a colossal misunderstanding of democracy, the whole point of which is that we decide who holds the power to govern us, not those who do the governing. Besides which, once wished away, you cannot wish power back again: those who you deferred it to will be understandably reluctant to hand it back. Mr. Barroso stands to become the most powerful official in the European Union if the plans go ahead, and the Commission its most powerful institution. Will either of them willingly surrender either of those titles if people who they do not answer to tell them to?

The President has no desire to indulge a 'philosophical debate,' so I won't make one: but I will say that the power over economics and finance is the most fundamental of all, the one that ought to be most in alignment with the populace. For to control the money is to control the government. No policy can ever be implemented, if no funds are allocated to it. No law, no legislative programme. Whoever controls finance can reach right into the heart of families, and alter and adjust taxes, tarrifs, pensions, and public sector salaries. What if they could do all that without regard for the people their decisions affect?

We don't need to wonder upon that question: we know. If you're like me, and you think that Gordon Brown was economically illiterate, then you'll probably agree that the only thing that made his credit card spree bearable was the near-certainty that he'd be booted out come the next election. What if there was no election? If you're a solid fifth-generation Labour vote from north Wales, you're not going to like George Osbourne much, either. What if he, too, was immune to public sentiment? What if all you could do was wail and scream and gnash your teeth as they destroyed your pension and took away your job? What if all the public opposition in the world made not a jot of difference? That's the situation that were expose ourselves to if we - or our governments - allow the Commission's proposals to go ahead.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Riots in Greece and Italy Set to Escalate

The US Embassy in Athens: the scene of violent confrontations on Thursday. Picture by ChristosV.

The Italians and the Greeks were always bound to turn against their technocratic premiers as soon as the glitter of seeing Berlusconi and Papandreou booted from office wore off. What with the governments embarking on the same policies that had caused their predecessors to become unpopular in the first place, making the powerlessness of the electorate more apparent in the process, it was only a matter of time, and now that time is up.

Italians marched on Bocconi University - of which Mario Monti, the new Italian Prime Minister, is President, and where both he and senior cabinet minister Corrado Passera graduated - in their tens of thousands, throwing eggs at club-wielding riot police. Almost simultaneously, similar demonstrations were held in Athens, with protestors waving banners and ordering the EU and IMF to leave. Not only does this mark the end of the brief honeymoon that the parachuted-in premiers had with their disenfranchised electorates, it also marks the end of the bluff that has so far kept Greek and Italian anger aimed squarely at internal affairs. The imposition of unelected governments not only removes a layer of democracy that kept the people insulated from the harshest demands of the troika, but it also removes the mask behind which the troika operated.

As long as there was an elected politician in place to take the blame for the mess and take the fall for the decisions, the EU-IMF-ECB could limit its role to the occasional appearance on the sidelines. But now, with former European Commission men and bankers in government, it is forced to declare its hand more openly. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are publically issuing orders for the new Italian government to follow. News of the Bundestag scrutinising Ireland's budget before the Dail even knew it existed has already reached Italy. Mr. Monti himself denied that his policies were being implemented at the behest of outside powers, but with troika inspectors trawling through his policy announcements and him doing exactly as they instruct with scant regard for national feeling, his assurances ring hollow.

The riots are only going to get worse before they get better. The negative consequences of austerity measures are expected to hit home in 2012, yet any positive effects are only expected to materialise in 2013, at the earliest. In the meantime, the eurozone crisis continues to escalate, blowing over the Alps into France and lapping at the pillars of Spain, Belgium, Cyprus, and already-stricken Portugal. Further government collapses beckon as European economies slide back into recession. All this against a backdrop of unelected governments enforcing unpopular policies is always - a terrifically bad idea. Historically, in the absence of democratic recourse, the response is almost always violent.

Friday, 18 November 2011

We Need Genuine Integration. Not Cooking Classes

Indian sweets: tasty, but no good at tackling racism. Picture by Ian Muttoo.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has announced his intention to secure government backing for a college of Indian food. Open to all British nationals, the college is aimed at training up a generation of British specialists in 'Asian and Oriental cuisine' in order to fill a gap in the market, that has came about due to increased regulation on the import of chefs from abroad, and forms part of a new government push for greater integration and community cohesion.

It may succeed in its first objective: the amount of non-Indian staff in Indian restaurants is woefully inadequate, from a diversity point of view. Equality campaigners ought to be up in arms. As well as an ideal route for the unemployed to gain skills for jobs: in fact, a handy way of reducing youth unemployment, providing employment for thousands and boosting a flagging industry. Indian restaurants and takeaways - who, according to a paper entitled 'Creating the Conditions for Integration,' asked for support - could even be persuaded to contribute financially, in return for essential workers that are becoming increasingly difficult to hire from outside the UK. So the public need not be left out of pocket.

But I hardly see how it's going to succeed in the latter. There's more to culture and integration than simply knowing how to cook foreign food. You do not gain insight into the Indian community by cooking a samosa any more than you get a greater sense of Britishness if you prod your pie and mash. You don't find different cultures in a korma. Or, at least, you shouldn't. The only way to discover a different culture is through interaction with people. It needs to be a meeting of minds, rather than a clash of condiments. And a genuine meeting of minds, at that - not a falsified, fleeting one in the confines of a curry kitchen, but a real one, in the real world. Friendships, associations, and marriages.

To put it simply, the government can do more by doing nothing. It takes no effort to encourage integration - no effort at all. See how children do it. All it takes is the absence of labels. In the adult world, that's not viable: there will always be labels of some kind. But the government can do its bit to reduce the effect they have on society by not actively 'promoting' (read: exaggerating, emphasising, enforcing) difference at every available opportunity.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Italy's Cabinet Has Changed Beyond Recognition

Two of the new ministers meet the President. Picture by Presidenza della Repubblica.

There's little left of the Italian governmental system - save for President Giorgio Napolitano - that the appointment of EU-backed Prime Minister Mario Monti hasn't driven a freight train through. The President, traditionally seen as being above direct involvement in political affairs, has now created a government from scratch. The office of Senator-for-Life , formerly reserved for eminent persons in their respective fields who have made a marked contribution to Italian life, is now a springboard for propelling people into high office. And an unelected man - technocrat, expert, official, what does it matter? – now holds the second and third-highest offices in Italy. Prime Minister Monti, or ‘super Mario’ as he’s been prematurely nicknamed, expects to stay on as Italian premier until 2013 - an idea that may sound like bluster, until you realise that, in absence of elections and as the head of a government of national unity, there’s no-one to argue with him.

His cabinet, which was announced yesterday, consists of technocrats, bankers, diplomats, and soldiers. Out of sixteen ministers, none of them are elected. Only one or two of them have ever held elective public office in their lives. Many of them have also crossed paths previously, at some point in their professional or political careers: two of them worked at the same bank. One of them - a laywer, now justice minister - once counted Romano Prodi amongst her clients. He was the President of the European Commission, throughout Mario Monti’s time there.

It’s not only the faces that have changed, but the cabinet itself. Mario Monti actually holds three separate posts: one, as Prime Minister. Two, as Finance Minister. Three, as the newly-created minister for international co-operation and integration. Quite what that is remains to be seen. Six ministerial posts have vanished, including the implementation of executive policies, the civil service, youth, federal reforms (a post previously held by Umberto Bossi, the leader of the Northern League, Berlusconi’s coalition allies, who has accused the Monti administration of lacking democratic legitimacy and has thus refused to support it). There was also a ministry for the simplification of legislation, and another for families, both of which are no longer extant.

Then there are three new ‘super-ministries. One is a combination of industry and enterprise and transport links and infrastructure, headed by Corrado Passera. The other combines employment and equal opportunities under Elsa Fornero. Another combines sport and tourism under Piero Gnudi. Civilian control of the army has been removed, with the promotion of Admiral Giampaolo Di Paola, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee and key founder of relations between NATO and empowered EU institutions that were created by the Lisbon Treaty.

Overall, the government has been streamlined, simplified, and placed into the hands of a few unelected, mostly unheard-of individuals who have never faced a public ballot. They are former EU officials, bankers, consultants, chief executives, and military men. If anyone defines this as anything other than undemocratic, they don't need debate: they need a dictionary.

Monday, 14 November 2011

A Tale of Two Technocrats

Berlusconi and the Bush family in happier times.

No-one knows what's going on in Europe. Least of all Lucas Papademos and Mario Monti. The two men were, until recently, enjoying their comfortable retirement in the sultry southern Meditteranean sun. The former had resigned his post as vice-president of the European Central Bank shortly after the first Greek bailout - the buffers the whole eurozone crisis was supposed to stop at - to be an advisor to then-Prime Minister Georgious Papandreou. The other was previously the European Commissioner for Competition (1995-1999), and then European Commissioner for the Internal Market, Services, Customers, and Taxation, from 1995-2004. He then became active in the Spinelli Group, a federalist think-tank which he co-founded. Now, less than three days later, they are both premiers of European states.

It is a double blow for the former leaders - Papandreou has been replaced by his advisor, and Berlusconi by a man he refused to recommend for a third stint as European Commissioner. But what does it mean for the Greeks and Italians? One thing I will say is that both men are extremely competent. Mario Monti is a true capitalist - i.e. the kind that opposes, rather than indulgies, monopolies - and has a good level of experience in dealing with beaurocratic procedures. Lucas Papademos is renowned for his economic ability. But, nevertheless, they are still unelected: their countrymen have lost their last chance to have a democratic say on economic policy. As national unity governments provide little, if any, parliamentary opposition, they are pretty much stuffed as far as the democratic side of things goes. Their country's fiscal matters - not to mention their family budgets - are now dictated to them by the troika, through the austerity measures which their governments are compelled to implement. That means they no longer have any say over public sector salaries, pension funds, tarrifs, and, most importantly, taxes.

It is especially poignant for the Greeks, as the man installed as head of them is one of the select few men who might actually be responsible for their plight. From 1994 to 2002, he was Governor of the Bank of Greece. It was his role to convince the European Commission that Greece was ready for euro membership, using figures which we now know - and which the government knew at the time - to be bogus. Ten years later, he was vice-president of the ECB, and was thus in a position to safeguard Greek citizens' interests at the highest table. However, he sold them out for the sake of 'solidarity' - a word which roughly translates to the Greeks as 'being screwed over for the sake of France and Germany.'

He may be popular now, but it is highly unlikely that this will continue for more than a couple of months. Papandreou, the object of public anger, is gone, but it won't be long before the Greeks realise that they are still getting the same economic policies, even stronger now given the absence of an elective opposition. Greek national radio had already taken to calling their elected Prime Minister a Nazi stooge for his bending the knee to Franco-German, and, to a lesser extent, EU interests - what are they supposed to make of an unelected one, when he does the same?
You have to admit, the whole thing does look a teeny-weeny bit like a coup d'etat. Yes, it was the Italian President that appointed Mr. Monti Senator-for-Life, and the Greek party leaders did get to wrangle over how long the incoming technocrat's term should be, but the process is the same: elected leader goes out, and a new one is inserted in his place with the approval - or at the behest of - outside influences. In both instances, the democratically-elected head of a government has been stripped of his office and replaced with an unelected individual. There was no campaign - there was no election. There were no votes. The two were merely picked up and placed in the Prime Ministerial office of their respective countries.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Meet the New Boss...

The EU is taking of Greece's political and economic structures.

'Solidarity goes two ways,' says European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn, the EU's highest economic official. As the European Union purports to have stood by Greece, so Greece must stand by European union. To that end, both the outgoing Prime Minister, George Papandreou, and his immediate successor, as yet unnamed (my money's on Lucas Papademos, a former vice-president of the ECB), have been asked to sign a declaration stating that the bailout terms agreed on October 26th - at a meeting summarised here - will be fully implemented. They will do so alongside the leader of New Democracy, the chief opposition party, Antonis Samaras, and the head of the country's central bank.

It's a fine way for the EU to tie up all loose ends ahead of elections on February 19th. If both PASOK and New Democracy sign up to the deal, there is no way that a change of government can result in a change of policy. There can be no further democratic recourse from a people still smarting from the scrapping of the referendum. The heavily indebted nation will accept more loans whether it likes it or not!

That's the plan, at least. The leader of New Democracy, a conservative neoliberal party, has refused to sign the paper. He accepts the inevitability of the bailout nonetheless: he thinks for this very reason that a written declaration would be pointless. But, to an EU desperate for reasurrance that a second bailout - for a country that they said would not receive one, let alone need two - will go ahead, that counts as outright opposition. And outright opposition cannot be tolerated.

Wolfgang Schauble, the German Finance Minister, said that if the government and the opposition could not both agree that they could fulfil their 'commitments,' the sixth tranche of EU loans - worth eight billion euros - will not be paid. That is a threat that has been flaunted before. It was deployed twice against Papandreou, oh-so-long-ago, to make him back down on his referendum plans. But, successful at getting politicians to do what you want though it may be, it, too, is fraught with danger. Simply put, if the next tranche of loans is refused due to a government refusing to play ball, there won't be a government to play ball with.

The government would have no funds to pay public sector workers: the worst case scenario is more than half the country's workforce going unpaid, and almost half of its total economic output lost.  The result would be simply catastrophic. It would almost certainly lead to mass-unemployment and a colossal reducation in living standards, just at the point where the country's debt crisis comes to a head. Anyone who thinks that traditionally fragile democracy could be preserved in those conditions is deluding themselves.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The EAW Makes a Mockery of Justice

Fair Trials International takes on the European Justice Commissioner over the EAW.

Punishment without the requirement of evidence is a bad idea. There is no need to validate that statement: it's a given. Alongside the right to a fair trial and freedom from arbitrary detention, the need for evidence was a fundamental pillar of all justice worthy of the name for three hundred years. That was, until the European Arrest Warrant - pioneered by Liberal Democrat MEP for the Southwest Sir Graham Watson - turned the clock back.

The arrest warrant - valid throughout all twenty-seven EU member states, including the UK - requires a member state in receipt of one to arrest a suspect and extradite them to the state that send it. However, it does not require the presentation of evidence, nor does it particularly guarantee a fair trial, or even any trial at all. There have been instances where individuals summoned for police questioning have been denied bail, and go on to spend months - or even years - in extremely harsh conditions whilst they await trial. Many of them are later acquitted, or are convicted for minor infractions.

The lack of justice in EAW proceedings has been highlighted by a number of NGOs, human rights groups, and supra-national institutions, such as Fair Trials International and the United Nations. Now, due to the experiences of a 40-year-old secretary, it may finally become public knowledge in the UK. In 1996, Tracey Molamphy - who is suing the Portuguese authorities - was on holiday in the country with her then-boyfriend. The ordeal began when he attempted to convert one hundred and twenty pounds sterling into escudo. The notes were suspected by authorities of being counterfeit, and the couple were arrested and held for twenty-four hours before they were allowed to board the next plane back to England. Ms. Molaphy assumed that that was to be the end of it: but, twelve years later, she was detained at Munich airport by German authorities, and strip-searched. The Portuguese authorities had charged her with being an accessory to fraud, a crime which carries a maximum penalty of five year's imprisonment.

She spent two weeks in a German prison: even her boyfriend saying that it was he who ought to be in custody, not her, could not save her. She had to spend twenty thousand pounds of their savings before the case was finally dropped. She was released. Many others are not so fortunate: one thousand UK citizens faced the travesty of justice that is the EAW last year alone. As the case of Ms. Molamphy illustrates, any person can be sent from one country or another without charge or evidence, and, upon arrival, they are denied almost all of their key principles of open and fair justice. Don't even think about writing to your MP: it is a travesty that UK courts are powerless to stop. Only through the abolition of the EAW or our withdrawal from the European Union can we protect British citizens from such horrific abuses.

I would add that while contacting Sir Graham Watson himself will not help matters - the existence of the EAW is beyond electoral pressure - but it does help to relieve stress. If you could spare a minute of your time to let him know of your reservations - particularly if you live in the southwest - then please do so. His email address is graham.watson@europarl.europa.eu, and, if you want to spend your money on a worthwhile cause, you can also call his Brussels office on 003222847626.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

From the People, Without the People, Against the People

Do not underestimate the importance of democracy. Picture from here.

Barely a few days ago, Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou was riding high on a wave of popular acclaim when he announced that a referendum would be held on the country's EU-IMF-ECB-imposed austerity. The resignation rumours which have dogged him since day one of the crisis were at their lowest ebb in months, and, having swept the carpet of public outrage from under the opposition and sacking all of his chiefs of the defence staff and twelve other senior officers to reign in the 'state within a state,' his position looked as assured as it ever was.

But on Wednesday, he attended an emergency summit. On Thursday, that referendum was cancelled. The day after, the resignation rumours raced to the surface. Ministers who had not been consulted asked why, the media was filled with open comparisons of the government to Nazi-era collaborators, and, having stoked the flames of public anger, he now finds them raised higher than ever. He is set finally to resign, and his most likely replacement is a man who opposed the referendum ever since he first heard about it: his Finance Minister, Evangelos Venizilos.

If there's one service that Mr. Papandreou over his short and somewhat inhereted career has inadvertently done for us, it's laying bare crisis the extent to which the Greeks have lost control of their own government, and how much far European democracy has retreated or been pushed back. The meeting that the Prime Minister attended consisted of seven key individuals other than himself. Two of them - Sarkozy and Merkel - were elected politicians. Two of them were representatives of financial institutions. Three of them were appointed European Union officials. Yet they have more control over the Greek government's fiscal policy than the Greek government itself. They represent two things: a) how fragile popular democracy really is, and b) how quickly notions of sovereignty can be erased if they cause problems for how the elite want things to be run.

It is easy for people not to care about sovereignty if they don't see how it affects them. As long as they've got food on the table, a roof over their heads, and something good on telly they won't see a problem. As for democracy, well - if they can still cast their vote, why does it matter if it works in practice? It's always going to be there. It's easy - too easy - not to care about that, either - until you realised the horrific consequences of losing it. The Greeks are now well aware of these consequences. Britain is not. To best illustrate them consequences, conservatives - cast your minds back to Gordon Brown. Labourites, reflect on the premiership of Lady Thatcher. How often did you say or think of just how good it would feel when they were finally voted out and you'd finally get the economic government the country was crying out for?

Well, what if that election never occured? What if you never got to vote them out? What if you didn't get a say? What if Maggie and the Bottler were there to stay, whatever anyone thought about it? Welcome to Greece 2011: only the spending was ten times higher and the cuts ten times deeper. They are realising just what happens when the unaccountable and the unelected take over the reigns of government. They realised it too late.

Will we?

Friday, 4 November 2011

Censorship of Tintin is Wrong-Headed

President Roosevelt's Four Freedoms. Picture by dbking.

'I would oppose the banning of any book,' says human rights lawyer David Enright, right after he calls for the banning of a book. Or, more correctly, banning the sale of Tintin in the Congo to children. You can probably guess why. As is commonly known, the book was written by Hergé, a Belgian cartoonist, in 1930. Hence it's attitude towards black people - particular the inhabitants of the Congo, run as a private enterprise by King Leopold II from 1885-1908 -  is less than hyper-modern. David Enright and several other commentators have stated that the book has a propensity to warp young minds, and want it removed from the children's sections of book shops forthwith.

The odd thing is, the author thinks the books have the potential to warp young children's minds and 'undermine' decades of progress - yet he himself confesses to reading them when he was younger, and, judging by his impressive CV as an anti-racism campaigner, they obviously did him no harm. The progress he says Tintin can undo if allowed to fall into the hands of the impressionable was made with the books on the shelves - long before any modern liberals popped up with their censorious antics.  The civil rights movement grew up with the books as bedtime reading. It was incredibly popular with the same schoolchildren who went on to pass the Race Relations Acts 1965, and every piece of anti-racist legislation since. Progress was not hindered by the presence of Tintin books back in the 50s, when racist attitudes were far more prevalent. How will not be undermined by it now?

Other than that, the proposal is strikingly illiberal. Calling for children's books to be removed from the children's section because you don't think that children - the people supposed to be reading them - should actually being doing so is censorship, at the end of the day. It is making it unnecessarily complicated for the people most likely to want a book to actually find it. If one person - or, for that matter, any number of people - take exception to its content, then they don't have to trouble themselves by reading it. But no-one has any right at all to impose their personal moral values and opinion of the text onto anyone else, for the simple reason that no-one's personal moral values and opinion of the text is worth any more than anyone else's.

To paraphrase the article itself, the UK has come a long way since books were arbitarily removed from shelves because they were perceived to violate social norms, or, worse, because someone said that they violated social norms. Self-appointed moral arbiters - no matter how well-intentioned they may be - cannot be allowed to undermine that progress.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

David Cameron: Do Not Declare War

Iran's elite 'Jerusalem Force' are thought to be as well-trained as US squaddies.

British officials have admitted today that they will commit the armed forces to US-led action against Iran. Owing to the failure of sanctions to make a dent in the regime's resolve, and renewed fears over its nuclear weapons programme, military officials have confirmed to the Guardian that they are drawing up contingency plans for an air-and-sea based campaign, to be launched in support of an American invasion. The news follows a meeting of Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir David Richards and his Israeli counterpart, Benny Gantz, that was supposed to be secret, but has since been revealed by major Israeli news agencies. Apparently this was part of an annual event, aimed chiefly at maintaining relations - the secrecy supposedly standard British practice. But whether that's true or not, the timing - weeks after an Iranian-sponsored plot to assassinate a Saudi diplomat on US soil - couldn't make the urgency of this message any more clear: David Cameron, no more wars!

We have been coerced and cajoled, and outright cheated into war on two separate occasions. Our armed forces found themselves fighting some of the fiercest battles in living memory against a background of chronic mismanagement and thoughtless budget cuts. The objectives of these wars continually change - perhaps to disguise the fact that we're not even close to achieving any of them - and it's a safe bet that most people across the country - and most politicians - couldn't actually put their finger on what they are, much less why are we doing them. And then there's the question of how: one which not even the military top brass seems able to answer. The cost is continually mounting. Lives continue to be lost or disfigured through conflict or its aftermath, and billions that could be better spent at home, on better things besides, are being poured down a financial hole. Ten years of war have not installed a credible democracy, they have not eradicated the poppy crop, they have not seen the defeat of the Taliban. With Osama bin Laden - the architect of 9.11 - killed, Britain - which lost almost seventy people in the attack - no longer has a stake in this fight. We should pack our bags and leave as soon as the structures are in place to cover our withdrawal.

But, if continuing a war without a point is nonsense, then there are no words to describe starting another one against a much bigger country and a much bigger army when our own military forces are taking defence cut after defence cut after defence cut. The Taliban currently number around ten thousand 'hard core' fighters, and tens of thousands more part-time soldiers and seasonal recruits. They had no air force, and no army. The Iranian armed force, in comparison, have two hundred and thirty thousand professional soldiers and two hundred and thirty-five thousand conscripts. There are also millions of government-sponsored militia in the Basij, and a capable (if not by any means good) air force and navy besides. Our overstretched and under-resourced army cannot realistically be expected to take on such a force without heavy casualties: even in support of US army, the sheer number of servicemen and women killed or wounded would be horrendous compared to what we've experienced so far, and that's saying something.

One million people marched in London against the Iraq War. They were roundly ignored by Blair. Let's hope that David Cameron is a better man, and does not commit armed forces which he has done more to emasculate than anyone else in post-war political history to the third senseless war in quick succession.