Friday, May 31, 2013 

Bank head.

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Thursday, May 30, 2013 

Exactly as they intended.

There is some news that simply isn't welcome.  If you want to read the full, gory details about the shocking murder of a child by a stranger, then you're spoilt for choice.  We don't know what Mark Bridger did with the body of April Jones, but we can read the full spectrum of gruesome speculation from the police, who don't believe his almost confession to a priest in prison that he left it in the swollen river Dyfi.  That might make their extraordinary 7-month long unsuccessful search for April's remains look questionable.

If on the other hand you'd like to know that we've now reached the point at which 500,000 people have used food banks over the past year, then there's far fewer places where you can do so.  Sure, it made the front page of the Independent, the Graun covers it on its second page, and the BBC news website has a "feature" on the report by Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam, if not an actual piece on its front page, but elsewhere you'll look in vain.  There's no mention of it on the Telegraph website's front page, nor on the Mail's.  The Mail does by contrast have space for a story on the "jobless mother of 4" who "screamed racist abuse at her OWN children", the truly important news that Nick Clegg has put on weight, and a report on a "lesbian benefit cheat", all clearly far more relevant to the average Mail reader's interests.

Easily forgotten is that just a few years ago there was much discussion and worry at the report by Unicef that the UK came bottom of a league table measuring child wellbeing, below even the United States.  It was about the same time as the number of shootings carried out by teenagers in London seemed to be spiralling, and both issues were woven together to criticise Labour, justifiably enough on the former issue.  And now?  A big fat nothing from the right-leaning press.

Certainly, we can question some of the conclusions of the Walking the Breadline report.  The benefit cap is still being trialled and the "bedroom tax" has only just been introduced, so neither can be blamed as yet.  Inflation also needs to be taken into account: food prices have risen by 35% in 5 years, and are likely to increase further following the harsh winter and late spring.  It's also rather facile to home in purely on tax avoidance, or "tax dodging" as the report refers to it, as something that can be easily cracked down upon.

Their wider point though remains.  It is unquestionable that this government's policies, both directly through cuts to welfare and indirectly through wider austerity have increased the number of people who are having to rely on handouts from charities.  Also unquestionable is that the increased use of sanctions, whether down to league tables and pressure on Jobcentre Plus workers or not, is having an effect, as has the abolition of crisis loans.

Moreover, things are likely to get worse, both with the full rolling out of the benefit cap and then the introduction of universal credit, which could yet make other government IT failings look benign by comparison.  Something else that has received no attention other than in the latest Private Eye is the slipped out research from the DWP on the changes to housing benefit which came into effect in 2011: rather than landlords bringing down rents as the government claimed the cap would, the burden has predictably fallen on tenants.  Meanwhile, house prices are once again increasing, the average cost in London having reached £500,000.  The gap between the comfortably off and those struggling looks increasingly like a chasm.

The quandary is whether or not this increase of those in such desperate need will be tolerated, and the sad answer is most likely that it will.  We've moved from being a society where sympathy for those without work rises during recessions to one where the opposite is now the case.  We hear from a former senior doctor at ATOS, the firm that carries out the government's reassessments of those on sickness benefits of the pressure they are under to declare people fit for work, from those administering the work programme of people referred to them who should clearly be on ESA rather than JSA, and yet all the while these stories of the harsh reality of welfare reform are shouted down by the reports of those few caught cheating the system, or the striver vs scrounger rhetoric that the government reached for at the start of the year.  We see and hear all about the outrage of the European Commission taking the UK to court over restrictions on payments to those from other EU countries who have worked here and should be entitled to benefits and have instead been refused, but not that 500,000 people have taken the drastic step of having to rely on the charity of others to eat.  The answer to John Harris's question of what sort of country are we becoming seems to be: the one that most people want.

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Wednesday, May 29, 2013 

Not quite out of the woods.

Considering the potential there was for serious unrest following the murder of Lee Rigby, such was the immediate reaction to the crime on both old and social media, a week on from the tragedy it seems as though the immediate danger to community relations has passed.  This isn't to understate the number of reported attacks on either mosques or ordinary Muslims, which are clearly unacceptably high, or the vandalising of two war memorials (although it's unclear who was responsible in that instance) but further deaths, serious injuries or significant property damage have thankfully been avoided.

In a way (and bear with me here), it's perhaps helped that the key figures on both sides of the extremist divide are either completely discredited or acted like bulls at the proverbial gate.  Taking into account the long weekend, the numbers the EDL managed to mobilise at their various rallies were pretty pathetic.  The most significant, the protest on Monday outside Downing Street, probably attracted somewhere in the region of 2,000 demonstrators, if we're to account for the usual police under counting and the usual organisers' over counting.  Nor have they helped themselves through the way they set about expressing their anger while trying also to honour Rigby: in Newcastle on Saturday one of their speakers let the mask slip when he said "send the black cunts home" to cheers from the crowd, while there are more than a few shots from Monday of various protesters doing something eerily similar to a salute most closely associated with a party that came to power in Germany in the 1930s.

The EDL's biggest mistake though was to imagine that rampaging through Woolwich last Wednesday night was in any way a good idea.  It would have been one thing to hold a vigil for Rigby; it was quite another to distribute EDL branded balaclavas to a bunch of boozed up hot-heads who then did little more than confront the police who were there to provide reassurance.  Rather than drawing attention to their long-standing campaign against Islamic extremists, as they desperately try to maintain their protests are aimed at, it only made crystal clear that their intention is to incite hatred and cause fear, which is of course precisely what those they claim to be against also set out to achieve.

Which brings us, sadly, to Anjem Choudary. You could say that if he didn't exist the media would have to invent him, except they err, partially did. No one else so thoroughly unrepresentative of those he claims to speak for has been so indulged and coddled down the years, whether by the tabloids who fell every single time for his stunts, or the supposedly more serious broadcasters who kept inviting him onto panel discussions. His appearance on Channel 4 News and Newsnight last week, where he predictably refused to condemn the murder of Rigby, however badly defended by both, at least made clear how loathed he is by other Muslim leaders who have to try and deal with his brand of false consciousness.

This said, it ought to be obvious that attempting to restrict extremists such as Choudary from getting on the airwaves is counter-productive, quite apart from being unworkable. It ought to be the case that the media could exercise common sense and not invite those like him onto our screens the day after an attack, but when images of one of the suspects addressing a camera, his hands soaked in blood, is deemed acceptable then it seems we've moved beyond that.  Rather than going about things backwards, we ought to be asking just how it is that Choudary has managed to stay on the right side of the law all these years.  If he does have some kind of relationship with either the police or the security services, then surely we've now reached the point at which his use as an informant has been completely exhausted.

To try and get things in some sort of perspective, it's worth remembering that up until last week it had been almost two years since we had heard anything from the government about tackling radicalisation.  This wasn't because the problem had gone away, clearly, more that a point had been reached where it seemed as though we had something approaching a handle on it.  With the greatest of respect to BenSix, who's dedicated a number of posts to Islamist ideologues and the invitations they've had to speak on campuses and at conferences, too much can be made of students listening to radicals.  It's true that far right figures clearly wouldn't get such a free pass, and we could do with an organisation on the left that argues and organises against extremists of both stripes, but let's not worry unduly.

The situation is more that we're in transition.  Whereas a decade or more ago radicalisation primarily took place in mosques or meetings where charismatic preachers or leaders were in control, the shift has been to the internet and smaller groups that are self-reinforcing.  Those that previously went through the ranks of Hizb-ut-Tahrir or associated with al-Muhijaroun, as one of the suspects in the murder of Drummer Rigby did are increasingly the minority.  The lone wolf tendency has also probably been exaggerated, yet it's true that the influence of Anwar al-Awlaki and al-Qaida's Arabian franchise has been significant, as in the cases of the Fort Hood shooter and Roshonara Choudhry.  Even if YouTube or Facebook/Twitter were more proactive in taking down content that incites hatred or promotes terrorism, as some MPs have demanded (if we're being extremely creditable to them, considering some as well as the Daily Mail seem to imagine Google essentially is the internet), something that isn't necessarily laudable, then those looking for it would quickly find it elsewhere.  The solution has to be to get smarter, both in our arguments and further empowering those who have spent the past few years successfully challenging and counselling those who've strayed towards the extremes.

It doesn't therefore help when politicians and newspapers continue to push the line that much of the blame can be put on extremist preachers, almost always without naming those apparently responsible.  It just plays into the EDL/BNP line that mosques are hotbeds of hatred, an argument helpfully refuted when protesters were invited inside for tea and biscuits when they gathered outside the Bull Lane mosque in York.  Sadly, that approach clearly isn't going to work when it comes to the planned BNP march in Woolwich on Saturday, which intends to end outside the Lewisham Islamic Centre, which is "said to have had one of the suspected murderers amongst itscongregation".  We aren't quite out of the woods yet.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013 

Syria: where do you even begin?

For those taken with the question set for 13-year-olds seeking a scholarship to Eton, asking them to write a speech for a future prime minister justifying the shooting of unarmed rioters, here's another hypothetical situation:

For over two years, a foreign nation has been beset by a crisis. The emergency began when protests, inspired by regional upheaval, called for political reform. The authoritarian government responded by ordering the army to shoot the demonstrators. What then had began as a peaceful uprising morphed into an armed uprising, with those who had originally called for incremental change becoming increasingly marginalised and religious extremists taking their place. Adding to the problems is the religious background of the regime, which despite being secular, is predominately made up of those who belong to a minority sect. The conflict has now reached such a peak that it threatens the stability of the entire region, with a neighbouring country experiencing an upturn in intercommunal violence, a militia from another state intervening on the side of the regime and two other authoritarian states openly funding and supplying the rebels. What do you do to try and put an end to the conflict?

If your answer is anything other than make a concerted push for negotiations between the two sides moderated by a neutral third party, then you probably would have fit right in at Windsor. William Hague of course didn't attend the school of the choice for the children of the ruling class, he merely works alongside those who did. Thankfully, he did manage to pick up a degree in PPE from Oxford, and only someone blessed with those credentials could have come up with such a utter dog's breakfast as his policy on the above extremely thinly disguised non-hypothetical situation, aka Syria. It takes real courage and effort to come up with an approach that simply makes no sense whatsoever, and that's something you simply don't get from attending lesser establishments.

Never let it be said then that we don't at times get our own way in the EU. Despite the objections of 25 of the 27 member states, as we were backed only by France, Hague succeeded in getting the arms embargo on Syria lifted, or it will at least be allowed to lapse come the end of the July. Yet If we're to believe Hague this doesn't necessarily mean that we'll be arming any rebels any time soon. No, the intention behind our move was designed to put more pressure on Assad, who clearly has far more to fear from "moderate" forces than he has from the likes of the al-Nusra front or the myriad bands of Islamists, both of whom are far more heavily armed thanks to the largesse of our erstwhile allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The only problem with this argument is that, err, it's been subtly changed over the last week. Previously, threatening to arm the rebels was designed to bring the regime to the negotiating table. When the regime then did agree to a meeting with the rebels in Geneva with hardly any prompting, something the rebels have not yet signed up to, we had to make the change. I don't think anyone noticed.

It would somewhat help if Hague was to outline exactly who these "moderates" are that so desperately need our weapons. We don't know whether they're moderate Islamists, believers in liberal democracy, moderate leftists, just that they aren't extremists. The suggestion seems to be that we're thinking of someone like Salim Idris, the commander of the Free Syrian Army. Considering that the FSA is neither free nor an army in the usual sense of the term, more a loose network of local militias, all of which will have different priorities and outlooks, this doesn't really inspire confidence that any supplied weapons wouldn't soon be in the hands of "extremists" also. Nor does Idris himself instantly strike as a model, err, "moderate": as well as warning today that the FSA would "take all measures to hunt Hezbollah, even in hell", he's also called for Lebanon itself to bombed.

Then there's another teensy problem. Exactly what in the way of weaponry is Hague proposing we supply? He presumably doesn't mean simple small arms, as Syria is awash with rifles and ammunition, despite the rebels having been complaining bitterly for months that there wasn't enough to go round. No, what they want and have been crying out for is heavy weaponry, manpads, anti-tank guns and the like. The very idea of this understandably alarms Israel, having twice already attacked convoys allegedly taking long-range missiles to Hezbollah. It should also alarm us: are we seriously thinking of sending weapons that can down planes into the middle of a civil war and hoping for the best? We've just spent the past week reacting in exactly the way extremists want to the murder of a single person. Should such weapons get in the hands of al-Qaida affiliates, it really would be something to worry about.

On almost every level I can think of, Hague's determination to at least get in a position where we can supply weaponry utterly baffles me. Previously when it looked as though the Ba'athist regime was slowly but surely on its way to extinction I cynically wondered if it was a ploy to get weapons into the hands of "moderates" so they would then be in a stronger position for a battle with the extremists for overall control of the country. With Assad now looking in a stronger position thanks to the continuing backing of Russia and the open intervention of Hezbollah, that seems less likely. It doesn't seem to be meant to ingratiate ourselves with either Qatar or Saudi Arabia, both of whom have no qualms about their weapons going to the extremists rather than the "moderates". It also isn't about weakening Iran, as the above kleptocracies had hoped, as Assad again seems unlikely to fall any time soon. It also can't be an attempt to show we aren't at war with Islam itself through supplying weapons to "good" Muslims to fight "bad" ones, as the only word it seems possible for Hague and friends to use to describe "our" rebels is moderates. Nor is it about protecting the civilians in the country who haven't fled, who we seem to have completely forgotten in all of this. The only thing that even slightly explains how we've ended up here is our continued riding on the coat-tails of US foreign policy; indeed, our role in this instance seems to be to make the running for open arming of "our" rebels as part of the process of persuading the American people it's a swell idea. Either that, or the Tories have become even more crazed in their neo-conservative yearnings than we'd imagined.

After all, you might have thought it would've dawned on the government by now that the invocation of the "responsibility to protect" in Libya was a disaster of a magnitude only slightly less than that of Iraq. Our determination to assist in the overthrow of Gaddafi not only emboldened Russia (and to a lesser extent China) to block any recurrence of the abuse of the UN process, it made abundantly clear to the remaining tyrants in the region that their only chance of remaining in power was through crushing any and all opposition. It also didn't help that we looked the other way as Bahrain destroyed the opposition movement there with the help of troops from such paragons of democracy as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. While the instability in Libya has spread to surrounding countries, the conflict has for the most part been non-sectarian. In Syria, the opposite has become the case. What may have began as an attempt to weaken Iran on the part of the Saudis and Qataris by funding Sunni rebels has metastasised into a full blown civil conflict which is having a devastating impact on both Iraq and Lebanon.

Despite all of this, or rather in spite of it, we still propose to send more weapons into a region which is overflowing with them and where hundreds of people are being killed every day, whether in car bombings in Iraq or in Aleppo, Homs, or Qusayr in Syria. Somehow, this gesture is meant both to persuade Assad to take negotiations seriously whilst also enabling our pet moderate rebels to "protect" civilians. Somehow, we've ended up on the same side as the jihadists we've spent the past 12 years fighting a "war" against, and yet we're claiming to be acting on the side of moderates and in the pursuit of freedom. Somehow, we've ended up pushing for the same policy as John McCain, who seems to want to be this decade's Charlie Wilson and who has at one point or another advocated bombing almost every single Middle Eastern state. Somehow, and most incredible of all, our representatives have learned absolutely nothing.

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Friday, May 24, 2013 

Set you free.

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Thursday, May 23, 2013 

Falling into their trap.

Considering the way that New Labour under Blair responded to 7/7 and then the foiled "liquid bombs" plot (John Reid was on Newsnight last night once again claiming 2,500 people would have been killed, ignoring the fact the cell had never succeeded in making such a bomb and that the experts themselves had major difficulties in doing so), the coalition's reaction to the murder yesterday of Lee Rigby has so far been relatively measured. David Cameron's statement this morning mostly struck the right tone: carry on as normal, as though we weren't going to anyway, and it was a betrayal of Islam as much as it was anything else.

He did of course repeat yesterday's bromides that this was an attack on our way of life and the UK as a whole, when it only was if you buy completely into the ridiculous sense of self-importance jihadists have.  This was no more an act of war or a warning of what could be coming than the four murders carried out by Dale Cregan were.  He killed two police officers out of the deranged belief that doing so would make him the ultimate big man in prison, where he knew he was inexorably heading; more pertinently however, he did it because he could.  The same was the case in Woolwich yesterday.  Elevating their barbarous act to something more meaningful than an unusually brutal murder is to give them respect they simply don't deserve.  They're not terrorists, they're pathetic, warped, criminal individuals with the most banal knowledge of the creed they claim to belong to.

It's not helpful then when those who claim to be on the left fall into the exact same trap as the politicians and media overwhelmingly have.  Yes, we can acknowledge the impact that foreign policy has had in radicalising some of those who have then gone on to commit violent acts themselves.  What it doesn't do is even begin to explain why someone moved from being against a war to the point at which they then reached the conclusion that killing someone only tenuously connected to that war was justifiable.  That can only be understood by looking beyond foreign policy to the influence of groups such as al-Muhijaroun, as we now know one of the men associated with, and their poisonous perversion of Islam.  This is not to deny that the terrorist threat from jihadists was increased by our involvement in Afghanistan and then Iraq; it wasn't created by it though, nor will it go away when we completely withdraw from the former country.

Just as daft was the comment from the defence secretary Philip Hammond that the murder underlines "how vulnerable we all are".  Well, no, clearly some of us are more vulnerable than others.  If he meant that it shows how quickly a life can be taken, which he almost certainly didn't, then he would have been closer to reality.  These men weren't indiscriminate, although they most certainly could have made a mistake in choosing their target, they were deliberate.  Others won't be, it's true, but then they can be more accurately categorised as terrorists.  The fact is that the threat from extremism of all stripes has been declining rather than increasing, and that threat has been repeatedly and wilfully exaggerated by both the media and politicians.

This hasn't been lost on either the BNP or the EDL.  Both are shadows of their former selves, and not even the attempted attack on an EDL rally had done much to revive a movement that seemed to be petering out.  Yesterday's murder was the perfect excuse for the EDL to do what it does best: descend on an area that wants nothing to do with them, get suitably lagered up and then ponce about shouting nonsensical slogans and generally making arses of themselves.  The threat they pose comes not so much from the marches as it does the idiots inspired by Tommy Robinson (or whatever he's calling himself these days) who then go and vandalise a mosque or abuse someone who looks vaguely like a Muslim.  Nick Griffin for his part, having run his once reasonably effective far-right organisation into the ground, has been tweeting like crazy, while an email has gone out to those on the BNP's message list which reads "once again followers of Islam have shown themselves to be a wicked and cruel enemy within".

Also taking their opportunity have been the securocrats and other hangers-on of the intelligence agencies, ever keen to advance their own interests.  Newsnight gave airtime not just to John Reid but also Lord Carlile, both of whom called for the proposed communications bill, aka the snoopers' charter, to be reintroduced, so vital was it to our safety, regardless of whether or not it would have done anything to prevent yesterday's murder.  For the moment at least it looks as though a "knee-jerk response" isn't on the cards, and it's more than slightly reassuring that rather than Carlile we have a new reviewer of terrorism legislation, David Anderson, who has wrote that terrorism law "gives excessive weight to the idea that terrorism is different, losing sight of the principle that terrorism is above all crime".

It's a message that our politicians and media could do well with taking on board.  When something so shocking is committed by someone with the intention of having the maximum possible impact, it's understandable that in the immediate aftermath they responded in the way they did.  24 hours on and we ought to be scaling things back: letting the family of Lee Rigby grieve in peace without being constantly reminded of how he was so cruelly taken from them.  If we can learn any lessons from his murder, whether in how we can potentially stop others from following a similar path to the two men, or if it could have prevented, although that seems unlikely, then we should.  The vast majority have done their part, whether it be the numerous Muslim organisations that have condemned the attack, those that have took on the EDL or BNP in their attempts to make political capital out of a murder, or those that have simply paid tribute to Rigby.  The rest could do theirs by not turning an act of savagery into exactly what those committed it wanted it to be seen as.

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Wednesday, May 22, 2013 


Let's get something straight.  The murder in Woolwich this afternoon was not a terrorist attack.  If it was, then there are somewhere in the region of 500 terrorist incidents a year in this country, more if you include assaults that are intended to kill but fail to do so.  It doesn't matter that reports suggest a serving soldier is the victim, although that is yet to be confirmed, that the killers shouted "allahu akbar" as they were attacking him, or that they gave justifications to camera afterwards which more than imply this was an assault influenced by jihadist ideology, first and foremost this was a murder and it will be treated as any other until the men are convicted.

Treating it as a terrorist attack and not simply as a serious crime is precisely what these two men wanted.  I have no qualms about describing attacks that aim to kill on a wide scale as terrorist, as the Boston bombings clearly were once what had happened became clear, or the previous failed attacks in this country were, however inept.  This was something quite different.  Neither of the men were interested in killing or even attacking anyone else, as they could have done had they so wished.  All they seemingly wanted to do after they were finished was to be filmed, photographed, and then once the police arrived, hopefully killed and presumably "martyred", although suicide by cop would be a far better description of their intentions.

Nor was everyone who witnessed what happened panicked or terrified. Some stopped to remonstrate with the men; others tried to resuscitate their victim while they looked on. Some will undoubtedly be deeply affected by what they saw, and if it does turn out to be a soldier who was murdered, it almost certainly will cause concern that this might not be a one-off, or it might inspire copycats. What it most certainly won't achieve is any change in government policy, if that was the aim. If the hundreds of deaths in Afghanistan haven't made our politicians think twice about our deployment there, then this certainly won't.

The fear among some in the aftermath of 9/11 was that it could have been just the first of a wave of spectacular attacks against the West. While there have been a number of attempts made since, several of which have been successful and killed large numbers of people, there has been no repeat of the events of that day. Instead, what jihadists have increasingly been reduced to is primitive measures that match their primitive ideology: crude pressure cooker bombs, or attacks such as the one today. Where once groups of men conspired, now the threat, such as it is, often comes from so-called "lone wolves". More difficult to prevent, but the threat from one or two is less in the terms of damage they can do than that of a larger, better organised cell.

If anything, more fear and worry will have been caused through the truly unnecessary screening by ITV of the footage of one of the men holding two large knives in his blood soaked hands, pretentiously and contemptibly justifying his crime, than through hearing of the act itself.  In what other circumstances would a broadcaster consider it justifiable to show the immediate, graphic aftermath of an "ordinary" murder?  It's irresponsible enough when broadcasters have in the past screened videos shot by spree killers justifying themselves, let alone when the person in this instance has the blood of his victim on his hands as he does so.  Yes, it's almost certain that the person who sent in the video to ITV would have uploaded it somewhere online himself had ITV chosen not to use it or just used the audio, but that isn't anything approaching a justification.

Equally ridiculous has been the language used by politicians who ought to know better.  No, this was not an attack on everyone in the UK, as Theresa May said; this was targeted, not indiscriminate, even if the target turns out not to be a soldier although that remains the assumption.  The army doesn't represent us as a whole any more than our politicians do.  We also really don't need the "blitz spirit" rhetoric that comes so easily, as was hurled from David Cameron's mouth.  Yes, we have had incidents similar to this before, the vast majority of which were far more serious than this one, but no, our "indomitable British spirit" has nothing to do with the fact that we'll carry on with our lives as normal.

Besides, we don't seem to have any problem with actual acts of terrorism when they're carried out by those we've allied ourselves with.  For all the talk from William Hague and the Foreign Office about "strengthening moderates" and "saving lives" in Syria, we don't have the slightest idea whatsoever about how the aid we've supplied the rebels with is being used, while it's clear that we would dearly love to be arming them (and quite probably are through back channels) at the first possible opportunity.  It's not just the likes of the al-Nusra front that have committed atrocities and carried out car bombings, as was brought home by the gruesome footage posted online last week, the vast majority of the rebels are Islamists, some of whom who are just as eager as the regime to carry out sectarian attacks.  At the same time as we denounce and fight against jihadists at home and most places abroad, we effectively enable them in the places where it suits us, not caring about the possibility of blow back in its most literal sense.

What we desperately don't need is another round of what's happened in the aftermath of attacks previously, especially when this shouldn't be treated as a terrorist incident in the first place.  These men represented only themselves, not a community, not a religion, nothing.  It was just them.  There will obviously be reviews to see whether they were known to police or the security services, but this was the sort of attack that could be carried out with next to no planning, almost on the spur of the moment.  If there isn't any evidence of more to come, then the threat level shouldn't be raised only to be then lowered again within a week.  We also don't need any new measures or laws, not the "snoopers' charter", not an extension to detention without charge, not more armed police.  Nor do we need hysteria, which even the Graun seems to have fallen into.  Let's prosecute these men to the full extent of the law, ensure the murdered man's family and friends are taken care of, and not treat this as anything other than a despicable crime.

And pigs might fly.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013 

A sort-of review of The Fall.

Whenever someone says that films or TV designed to be frightening don't scare them, it's difficult not to regard it as a boast.  It is after all typically blokeish to maintain that regardless of the atmosphere a movie tries to create, despite how much ketchup is thrown against the lens and however loud the bang that signals it's time for the audience to jump is, none of it has ever and will ever faze *me*.

The problem is that I'm most certainly not one of "those" men, and yet it's been a hell of a long time since anything I've watched on a screen with the intent of freaking me out has done so.  I do get scared, most certainly, often at myself more than anything, and there are other things I just can't watch, or rather, simply won't, but as for the mainstream it doesn't tend to happen.  The closest I've come recently was during re-watching the Exorcist, and that was thinking you can see why someone like James Ferman genuinely thought this film could scar adolescent girls for life.  He was clearly wrong, but you can see why.

Instead of being scared, I tend to be either troubled, worried, uncomfortable or even close to being upset by certain content, most often sexual violence.  Our betters at the BBFC feel the same way, except they often seem to reach bizarre conclusions on the kind of scene which in their view "eroticises" sexual violence and therefore has to be cut lest it affect the impressionable.  In theory this is a worthy system, and clearly there's a responsibility on film-makers to treat scenes of rape differently to how they would mere violence, but where's the line drawn when a film instead skirts around the edges of both?

I ask this having watched last night's episode of The Fall on BBC2.  Where the episode last week introduced us to the characters of Stella Gibson, played by Gillian Anderson (the main reason I tuned in, I have to admit) and Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), the chief investigating officer and the killer respectively, and also led inexorably to Spector murdering Sarah Kay (Laura Donnelly), the woman he had been stalking, this week's opened with an around 8-minute long sequence cutting between Spector meticulously cleaning and then posing the body of his victim, and Gibson having meaningless sex with the officer she propositioned last week.  If those switching between channels may well have been slightly surprised at a man carrying the naked, clearly lifeless body of a woman between a bath and bed so soon after the watershed, then I have to say I felt distinctly uneasy as well.  Not because there were any taboos being broken, or that the juxtaposition was unwise, more at the length and the distinct feel of reality involved.

Most certainly, I've watched films that are either more graphic or downright nasty in the way in which they depict the work of serial killers or abductors.  H6: Diary of a Serial Killer and Lucker the Necrophagus come to mind, the former being a far superior film in every way to the latter, yet neither caused me to actually pause and wonder whether someone could possibly be influenced or informed by what was depicted.  Even closer to the knuckle is the sub-genre of exploitation films that have attempted to portray the lives of real serial killers, Bundy and the Hillside Strangler being prominent examples, both of which are utterly tasteless, even if not utterly without merit.

Perhaps closer to the disquiet I felt was some of the worry that surrounded Irreversible when it was released a decade ago.  The controversy surrounded not the rape itself, which compared to some others isn't particularly graphic, but the violence that accompanies it, the sheer length of the scene, which goes on for an excruciating 9 minutes and consists of a single take, and that a penis was digitally added to the finish. The film's defenders argued that as well as being realistic, in that it accurately depicted the brutality of a stranger rape where the act is seldom over quickly, there was also no ambiguity: no one could possibly find it arousing. While it certainly doesn't eroticise the rape, the length still seems problematic: movies often make killing another human look far easier than it is in actuality, with a few notable exceptions. The Passion of the Christ is one such, and is one of the most wretched films in recent memory as a result. Irreversible isn't a terrible film by any stretch of the imagination, but it's also one that's impossible to actively like or recommend.

Which is much the same as I feel about The Fall so far. It's a cold and clinical production, the soundtrack is either lo-fi or silent, and the camera work is unorthodox, all things I admire in any work, yet the lingering on the victims, without being gratuitous, still seems a step beyond what's truly necessary to establish the calculation and perversion of this otherwise seemingly normal family man.  It also seems more than just a little clichéd that a drama set in Belfast that is otherwise so tightly scripted has to involve the continuing stand-off between the police and paramilitaries as a sub-plot.  That could yet turn out to be integral to the main plot, and with three episodes to go, there's plenty of time to make such criticisms seem short sighted.  Much like me in general. 

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Monday, May 20, 2013 

Meltdown man.

The great thing about Tory meltdowns is that they come from out of nowhere.  Look where we were just before the local elections: Cameron's handling of Maggie's funeral was mostly praised by the backbenches, even if it wasn't formally a state funeral, and Labour's year long lead of around 10 points in most polls was beginning to slipThe economy had avoided a triple-dip, it might not have even truly double-dipped, and the economic news (so long as you ignored plenty of other conflicting stats) looked encouraging.

Nor did it seem at first as though UKIP's surge at the local elections had truly spooked the party. Indeed, losing 335 seats from their high point was a pretty good result in the circumstances, just as 300, regardless of what the leadership claimed, was poor for Labour.  Where everything began to come unstuck was with Nigel Lawson's call for us to leave the EU immediately, swiftly followed by the Queen's speech, which despite some pressure failed to so much as mention the possibility of a bill for the promised referendum on the EU in 2017.  That you can't legislate to hold the next parliament to account was deemed irrelevant; as John Baron, along with Peter Bone the ringleaders behind the rebellion said, the public simply wouldn't believe a promise having had them broken previously.

A smart questioning of Michael Gove later, who said if there was a referendum now he would vote to leave the EU, a position Philip Hammond quickly echoed and Dave, who just so happened to be travelling to the US to help hammer out a deal on, err, EU trade, spent the next three days with his advisers trying to head off a rebellion he claimed to be "profoundly relaxed" about.  Those with memories similar to my own might recall that the last time Cameron said he was "relaxed" about a development was when the Graun revealed the News of the Screws' settlement with Gordon Taylor, exploding the idea that there was just one "rogue reporter" at the paper who had indulged in phone hacking.  He might well have been relaxed then when he should instead have been asking Andy Coulson what exactly had gone on; this time the reality was he was anything but.

Rather than face down the rebels, Cameron repeated what he originally did back in January: he gave in.  Ever since he proclaimed that his aim was to repatriate powers from the EU and then have a vote on this changed relationship, so long as the Tories won in 2015, the "swivel-eyed loons" have kept pushing.  The vagueness of his original promise, based on sound reasoning that you don't give away your bargaining position when you haven't even started negotiations, simply wasn't enough to satisfy those who seem to think that if you sort out Europe then you effectively sort out everything.  Nor had the Bloomberg speech had the other intended effects of dampening down support for UKIP, which instead predictably increased, or trapping Labour, with Ed Miliband sticking with the position that there are more pressing things to deal with, which there self-evidently are.

Who could possibly have guessed that the same thing would happen again?  Rather than being bought off with this new pledge, 116 Tories voted for the amendment expressing regret about the lack of a bill in the Queen's speech anyway.  Nor does the proposed bill, due to be tabled by James Wharton after he won the ballot of those wishing to publish a private member's bill stand a chance of becoming law when both the Lib Dems and Labour will oppose it.  All Cameron's appeasement has done is make clear just how weak he is and how monomaniacal a third of his party is.

It may well be the case that it's the serial rebels who do represent the majority of the Tory grassroots, those who claimed yesterday that Cameron's support for gay marriage will somehow cost the party the next election, when the polls suggest overwhelmingly that even the EU ranks higher in most people's calculations of how they'll vote.  As reflected before, the really strange thing is that apart from gay marriage and the EU, Cameron has achieved much of what his base wanted and was set out in their manifesto.  They've hijacked Labour's academy programme and introduced free schools; they've put a cap on the amount a family can claim in benefits and introduced universal credit, while continuing to cause misery through the constant reassessing of those on ESA; they've pursued self-defeating austerity despite even the IMF urging George Osborne to ease up; they've reduced immigration, albeit mainly through making the country less attractive for foreign students; and they've reduced corporation and income tax, would like to fillet employment law further if they got the chance, and have cut the public sector workforce massively.  All this, and yet it seems as though the fact that Cameron and his pals are elitist and socially liberal undermines everything else, with the fall in living standards playing a lesser role.

Whether or not Andrew Feldman did describe Tory activists pre-occupied with gay marriage as "swivel-eyed loons", and it's strange that two separate newspapers reported that an unnamed party figure did if he didn't, it's the kind of comment where the damage is done instantly.  Nothing seems more calculated to increase defections to UKIP, the new home of those on the right who want to stop the world, where ideological purity can come ahead of things like electability.  It reminds somewhat of the Tea Party in America, where the hard right holds sway over those who favour compromise and change. The result has been lost seats and a two-term Democratic president.

The widening split in the Tories threatens the party in a similar way.  It's apparent that David Cameron cannot win an election on the platform espoused by the rebels, having failed to win in 2010 on a centre-right manifesto against the walking target that was Gordon Brown.  While arguably the political census has shifted somewhat to the right since 2010, a section of support for the party has gone to UKIP and isn't going to come back regardless, such is the disenchantment.  At the same time the banging on about Europe just sends most of the country to sleep, and if anything support for staying in seems to increase the more it's talked about, while business gets ever more restless.

Just how much Cameron can do to change things now isn't clear.  One step might be a reshuffle, calling back some of those who have one foot in the rebel camp (John Redwood, maybe?) whose presence might placate the criticism that Cameron just surrounds himself with cronies and pals.  He could turn his fire on his coalition partner and stymie a Lib Dem policy, but, err, are there any?  He could hope that an improvement in the economy might trickle down enough to swing some who are currently flirting with Labour back, but that still seems a way off.  Looking at 2015 from here, and failing a UKIP pact, something extremely unlikely, it just doesn't seem possible that the Tories can even equal their showing last time.  For all the destruction the coalition has unleashed, Cameron faces the ignominy of having helmed a single term government.  Not even John Major fell to that low.

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Saturday, May 11, 2013 


Also, I'm not here next week. Although seeing as I'm now sadly smartphoned to the 9s, if something truly earth shattering occurs I might put in an appearance.

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Friday, May 10, 2013 

The real Fergie.


The very best things that Ferguson brought to the football world were borne out of his undoubted will to win, but they were completely and utterly at odds with ours and our desires as Arsenal fans. For all his talent as a manager he was rude, boorish, ignorant and incredibly, incredibly annoying. He was a hypocrite, what was good for his team was means for vociferous, spittle-flecked complaint when enjoyed, however rarely, by others.

People might laugh at ‘Fergie time’ now but think back to when a referee stuck 5 or 6 minutes of injury time on to a game in which we were holding a lead, or in a game in which we needed them to drop points only for a late goal to scupper things. Not so funny. He had a team who would berate and intimidate referees, very much in his image, yet when anyone had the temerity to question him, regardless of the legitimacy of it, he’d throw his toys out of the pram.

He danced on our pitch, he fought with our manager, he was so irritating one of our players chucked a slice of pizza in his face, and while I completely and utterly respect what he did, I didn’t like him then and I don’t like him now. I’m also sure that’s pretty much exactly how he wanted it. I realise there’s a vast difference between someone’s public image and the private reality. Lots of the tributes posted in the last 24 hours have spoken about the side of him that people didn’t see, the decent, charitable one, but having never been party to that I can only go from what he showed us.

Keith Jackson:

Because as much as I respect Fergie for everything he has done in football there is something about his character which is pretty damn difficult to like.
Often he comes across as a rather boorish bully. At times he can appear downright obnoxious.

It’s almost as if all of those who have dared to step across the threshold at Old Trafford over the last 26 years have done so in varying degrees of terror.

Unless, of course, they made it all the way into the sanctuary of Ferguson’s inner sanctum.

Those who did – be they coaches or hacks – were almost like made men. The Manchester Mob. Untouchable.

These people gush about Ferguson in truly glowing terms. The likes of Walter Smith, Alex Smith, Jim McLean and Craig Brown would not hear or utter a bad word about the man they affectionately call the Godfather.

There are others, around the greyest edges of the Press pack, who dote on him with even more reverence. Some of them go weak at the knees at the mention of his name. Their adoration is somewhat sickly. It’s tantamount to man love.

I don’t know Ferguson well enough to understand why he is capable of commanding such levels of control. In fact, I can’t claim to know the man at all.

He’s a genius. I’ll give him that much. His achievements in management are unlikely to be matched, never mind surpassed.

But that doesn’t necessarily make him a nice person.

Freddy Gray:

There’s a darker side to Fergie’s legacy, too. Sir Alex helped cultivate the with-us-or-against-us, win-at-all-costs mentality that has taken over English football – and removed whatever tiny vestiges of sporting decency might have been left in the national game. Fergie’s Manchester United taught the rest of English football how to bully the ref. The sight of pig-thick footballers surrounding match officials, screaming and gesticulating psychotically, their faces twisted in mindless indignation, is now an integral part of the Premier League circus, and every team does it. But Man U mastered the act before anyone else.  


And let’s not forget his outrageous arrogance towards the BBC, which had the temerity to produce a documentary about Manchester United’s business dealings with his son Jason. Ferguson refused to talk to the Beeb for eight years – even though the Beeb pay huge amounts of money for the broadcasting rights of Premier League highlights. He only gave up his protest after football’s authorities threatened to fine Man U every time their manager refused to be interviewed. It’s hard to imagine that, with any lesser manager, the league would have taken so long to act.

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Thursday, May 09, 2013 

Probation policies exchanged.

If the constituent parts of the coalition seem determined to do one over on their enemies within purely out of spite just at the moment, for which see the Tory backbench attempt to get a vote on the EU referendum next week, designed to make things even more difficult for poor old Dave, as well as Clegg doing the equivalent of poking his finger into the eye of Liz Truss over her beloved childcare plans, it's worth remembering that elsewhere relations seem just as cosy as ever.

Take the Home Office and Ministry of Justice.  Apart from Clegg's attempt to kibosh the "snooper's charter", the Lib Dems have barely raised a squeak over anything that's from the departments helmed by Theresa May and Chris Grayling.  True, they've made clear their opposition to any Tory attempt to withdraw from the ECHR, but then that has never been considered a serious option.

The latest policy they seem to be at one on is Grayling's pet privatising of the probation service.  As is so often the case in government, it involves one idea that could be a genuinely good reform, introducing probation for those serving short sentences in an attempt to reduce re-offending, and then covers it with two others that completely negate any potential benefit, in this instance putting the likes of G4S and Serco in charge and making life for those under supervision even more miserable than it may have been inside. Think of it as a shit sandwich reversed, which underlines just how stupid the Lib Dems have been to take a bite.

Grayling's only justification for not allowing the state to bid for the new contracts (unless the local bodies set themselves up as co-operatives, in which case their bids will be considered and then rejected) is that due to the cuts, more has to be done with less. While there is always the potential for waste to be identified, it's mostly found in the back office rather than at the stretched front line. Indeed, that the state will continue to have a monopoly in supervising the most serious offenders and those under MAPPA rather suggests that on the whole the current system is working. Why not extend that expertise rather than rely on companies and third sector organisations that are either untested or have had poor results in other payment by results schemes?

The answer is that this is another of those off the rack policies provided by Policy Exchange. Their spokesman today spoke of vested interests, but at least we know why NAPO is opposed. Policy Exchange by contrast is one of those think-tanks that refuses to say where its funding comes from, although we can make a few educated guesses based on the reports it's churned out over the years. PE has been instrumental in the pushing of the payments by results model, which so far has led to much in the way of payments (although not enough to keep some of those sub-contracted from going bust) but little in the way of results, the latest set of Work programme figures having been delayed repeatedly in the hope something will turn up (see recent Private Eyes).

Lest it be forgot, the Lib Dem position at the election was for short sentences to be all but abolished. That was never going to happen unless judges and magistrates had their discretion further eroded, which would have been a retrograde step, yet it looks as though we've somehow ended up with a system that will combine the questionable parts of community service with the alienation of prison life. It could well help some, while making things even more problematic for the majority.  Which is a perfectly good summary of what the coalition as a whole has achieved so far.

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Wednesday, May 08, 2013 

The cavalcade of idiocy rolls on.

If there's one day a year when it's impossible not to be proud to be British, it has to be on the state opening of parliament.  No other democracy can lay claim to such an awe-inspiring spectacle: the grandeur, the opulence, the incomprehensible and the entirely risible.  We might be behind most other countries when it comes to small things like having a democratically elected second chamber, but who needs a senate when you have a ceremony which involves a gentleman with a black rod entertaining the head of state? And what could be more quintessentially British than asking a 87-year-old woman to put on her finest rags, plonk a regal hat on her head that weighs about the same as a small bag of potatoes and then read out the political equivalent of a ridiculously vague shopping list, only rather than being on paper the list is inscribed on goatskin vellum? The European parliament can't even begin to hold a candle to the mother of them all.

To drop the irritating sarcasm, there can't be a better example of what can only be described as the cretinous decision to carry on with the state opening in its current form regardless of Brenda's advancing age than how even Fergie is deciding to jack it in at the end of the season.  He's 71, for comparison's sake. If we can't just dispense with the entire stupidity, then surely Charles can take the place of his mother, as is happening at the next meeting of the Commonwealth.  He is after all ever so keen to prepare for his kingship; let him announce how his mummy's government "is committed to a fairer society where aspiration and responsibility are rewarded".

Chaz would doubtless approve of the tone of the speech, if not with some of the policies (it's doubtful he approves of HS2).  If you thought George Osborne had overdone it a bit in the budget with the nonsense about how it was all for those "who want to work hard and get on", then it's probably best to avoid a television tonight, as those responsible for writing Queenie's sermon went off the deep end.  Hard work this and hard work that; those who do will be properly rewarded, not with a living wage of course, or a cut in VAT, or anything that might actually help with the cost of living, but indirectly through the continuing crackdowns on those not doing "the right thing".  Never mind, sheer aspiration and responsibility will get you there in the end.  Look at the example set by Dave's inner circle, all there purely on merit, achievement and hard graft.  What more inspiration do you need?

As for the proposed bills themselves, they're a mixture of the piss weak and the stuff that's been talked about for months already.  There's very little to object to in either the care bill, which introduces the Dilnot proposals, albeit with the cap set higher than he advised, or the pensions reform act, although we can quibble about why those who've never had it so good will be getting a further increase when everyone of working age suffers.  More objectionable are the "offender rehabilitation" bill, which will see the probation service part-privatised and those sentenced to under 12 months coming under supervision for the first time, which isn't necessarily a good thing when it's the likes of G4S and A4E that'll be "helping" them not to reoffend, and the latest in a long line of crime/anti-social behaviour acts, which looks set to further infringe on the rights of teenagers to be seen in a public place, while also holding whole families responsible for the actions of one member.

Then we have the immigration bill.  It's come to something when someone so closely associated with Cameron as Ian Birrell is denouncing this latest piece of nonsense in the most virulent of terms, but such is the point we've reached thanks to the panic over UKIP.  How many times does it need to be said that immigrants pay far more in than they take out, or that you can't make things harsher for those who few who are claiming benefits without doing the same for those born here?  For a government supposedly dedicated to reducing the burden of red tape, it has no qualms about imposing more on private landlords, who will somehow be required to check whether those renting aren't here illegally, without explaining how this will work in practice.  Are landlords meant to be the newest arm of the Home Office? Doesn't making illegal immigrants homeless increase the potential problem rather than reduce it? We can't deport every single one, as the Liberal Democrats said at the last election.  Even more concerning is the potential limit of 6 months JSA for those resident elsewhere in the EU if they can't prove they have a chance of finding a job.  Something so obviously discriminatory can't possibly be legal, unless as mentioned above it was introduced across the board.

Whether it's a good thing or not that neither the introduction of a minimum price for alcohol or requiring cigarettes to be sold in plain packets made it in is debatable.  I've long doubted something so easily dodged as making strong booze more expensive would work in practice, although evidence suggests it's had an impact in Canada.  Nor have I ever believed that the packs cigarettes come in somehow persuade people to start smoking, yet if the industry is so vehemently opposed to it then perhaps there's something there after all.  Much as I loathe the hypocrisy behind making smokers pariahs when the government benefits so massively through heavily taxing them, and the cigarette model is the obvious one when it comes to decriminalising drugs, it's exceptionally difficult to feel the pain of those who in the end profit from giving people cancer. Politically, dropping both probably makes sense for Cameron.

Does it though for Clegg? This is an overwhelmingly Tory set of bills, with very little indeed for Nick or the Lib Dems to boast about.  Clegg has also failed to fully kill off the "snooper's charter", which can still be resurrected and doubtless will be considering the lobbying of late from the security services.  As this is also likely to be the last Queen's speech before the election, it provides a dismal summary of just what they've achieved in the coalition.  As for the Tories, today just reinforced how they intend to fight the election: by blaming the continuing dire state of the economy on Labour.  Everything that's still deemed to be wrong or unreformed will be Labour's fault, and all they'll do if you let them back in will be to borrow more.  The party that demands everyone else take responsibility continues to accept none itself.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013 

Cameron: a hostage to fortune.

Although it feels like aeons ago, it was only back in January that David Cameron delivered his Bloomberg speech, pledging an in/out referendum on EU membership should his party win the next election. At the time it must have seemed a good idea, and initially it looked like it had had its desired effect: his restive backbenchers cheered him to the rafters, it seemed to have trapped Labour, and surely it would have some impact on the increase in support for Ukip.

Less than six months later and it's as though the jaws of the trap have snapped back. To further mix metaphors, it always seemed as though Cameron was setting himself up as a hostage to fortune. The man he so wanted to be the heir to never gave in to his backbenchers; instead he thrived on picking fights with them. True, Cameron failed where Blair succeeded, which partially explains the backbencher ire in the first place, yet Dave caved in at first sign of trouble.  Rather than being sated, they've demanded ever since that Cameron move faster, to the point where it looks as though legislation may be forthcoming in this parliament as a further sop.

Nor has it had the desired effect on Ukip. Indeed, they've been emboldened by it, as was predicted. As counter-intuitive as it seems, support for Ukip isn't about Europe, as is now hopefully apparent. It can be overstated just how far the popularity, such as it is, for Farage is down to a state of mind, and it'd be great to quantify how many of those saying they'd vote for the party would still do so if there was to be a vote on the EU tomorrow.  Total disaffection and/or sending a message of protest nonetheless explains much of it.  It's possible that some of those who've decamped could be won back if Cameron shifted slightly further to the right, or better yet, recruited some advisers from outside his own social milieu, but it's deeply dubious as to whether those voicing their discontent beyond a mere protest can be so easily persuaded to return.

Thankfully, it does seem as though those making clear that much of Ukip's support is irreconcilable are now in the majority.  As easy as it is to fall into stereotype, it's difficult not to meet the odd person that fits all the descriptions of being a Kipper, and they usually aren't shy in venturing their views on Britain as it is in 2013.  They might not be racist, but they certainly don't like immigrants even if they don't mind those they know of locally; they blame the EU at the first opportunity; and they are invariably complaining about something or other.  They don't have to read the Mail/Express/Telegraph, but it helps, and they regard things as being much better at some point in the past, even if they can't say exactly when.

The obvious point to make is that plenty of people also hold one or more of the above things to be self-evident, yet they either don't let everyone else know about it or would ever dream of voting for a party other than the main three.  Nor are any of these things irrational or wrong; rapid change in local communities as happened post-2004 was bound to lead to a backlash, while even those of us who would stay in the EU hardly regard it as being anything close to an unmitigated force for good.  Nostalgia also has to be taken into account: reading the Graun's pieces today on 1963 you can't help but think that was a pretty good year on the whole.  Would any of us who weren't around at the time actually want to live in that period were such a thing possible though?  Almost certainly not.

Those who have moved to Ukip also realise they can't turn the clock back.  They might want to, and they want to make clear that they do, but they know full well that Ukip isn't going to win a general election, nor necessarily would they want Farage to be the prime minister.  This is the conundrum facing the Tories: in almost every way, the party would be a better vehicle for their discontent, as many of their MPs also hold Ukip voters' prejudices, yet for any number of reasons they've lost faith in them and so would rather register their anger elsewhere.  This can't all be put down to Cameron or the detoxification strategy, nor can it be easily explained by all three parties fighting over the same territory.  It is more, as Max Dunbar writes, a lashing out at the present while coming over all rose-tinted about the past.  Perhaps it can be best explained thus: whereas the young disenchanted simply don't vote, those who feel much the same but who were brought up with the importance of the franchise drilled into them regard putting an X in the Ukip box the least worst option.

Lord Lawson's call for us to leave the EU immediately doesn't really change things much.  The EU is the least of most people's worries, although should the Tories increasingly fight over just how soon the referendum should be they might become excised at the amount of attention something arcane is receiving.  Cameron's problem is that a move that was designed to buy him more time and hopefully damage the other parties has so spectacularly backfired.  He doesn't want us to leave the EU, businesses on the whole don't want us to leave, and nor I'd wager would the electorate should the vote be held tomorrow.  He can't however take such a risk, and so the uncertainty that is so damaging will continue instead.  And all the time the boneheads within his party continue their rattling.

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Saturday, May 04, 2013 

Transmission control.

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Friday, May 03, 2013 

Surprise at the surprise.

The one thing about the supposed UKIP breakthrough in yesterday's local elections that surprises is just how it seems to have taken politicians and commentators by, err, surprise.  I mean, who could have possibly guessed that if you essentially say you agree with the party on immigration, Europe and welfare and let them get away with repeatedly abusing statistics, linking Romanians explicitly to crime and generally scaremongering in the most irresponsible way possible that they'll win over your supporters who see you seemingly not doing much about these things?  Who knew that if you dismissed them as loonies, however accurate that description is for some of its supporters, that it would simply come across as ignoring legitimate concerns? Why does it come as a shock that at a time when wages are stagnating and the cost of living is going up, with all three main parties offering either austerity or austerity-lite, that an upstart fourth party gains support regardless of its own economic policies?

Before we get into the caveats and wider perspective, it's also hardly surprising that a populist fourth party has finally established itself considering the media we have.  The Daily Express and Daily Mail are basically UKIP supporting papers (the Sun is also to a lesser extent, it's just far more comfortable with the country in 2013), it's just that their editorials urge votes for the Tories.  Both constantly fulminate against the "abuse" of human rights laws, 'elf 'n' safety, the EU, the welfare state, immigrants and modern life in general.  Neither can properly pick out when exactly it was that Britain was great, the 50s having been abandoned, although the Mail seemed to be trying its best to suggest it was the 80s as Maggie was waiting to be buried, but it most certainly isn't today.  There's been a gap for some time for a force on the hard right between the Tories and the various openly racist parties, and Nigel Farage has succeeded where others have previously failed.

Add in how little scrutiny the party received prior to the last week from the wider media, despite the likes of Paul Nuttall (nominative determinism) laughably claiming it's been smeared, as well as how Farage has been treated by the BBC (and the likes of the Graun) not so much as a politician but a likeable novelty act it would be churlish to ask serious questions of, and the party's showing in the county council elections is fairly easy to understand.  It has to be emphasised these are county council elections as I simply don't believe as yet that UKIP would have made such inroads into the cities and urban areas.  Yes, they've had strong showings in all the recent by-elections, but these can be mainly understood as protest votes, as YouGov's poll on why people have supported UKIP suggests.

Their share of the vote locally is something deeper.  Local elections have long had low turnouts, and those most likely to vote are generally older, fitting Lord Ashcroft's study that suggests UKIP most appeals to older men who are estranged from modern life and culture and don't want any part of it.  What's so odd is that on almost every point, the Tories do reflect their concerns on Europe, immigration etc.  Where they fall down is that they get the impression that they don't, and that their façade on trying to be all things to all people has further alienated them.  This goes beyond mere disenchantment though, as the Ashcroft poll suggested: this is just as much lashing out as it is expecting UKIP to make any real difference.

Which puts the Tories in such a quandary.  Cameron knows full well, even if his backbenchers don't, that he can't win a general election by being ever so slightly to the left of UKIP.  He couldn't win in 2010 on a centre-right policy platform, albeit one which made promises on protecting budgets his party would otherwise like to cut.  He therefore can steal some of Farage's clothes, cracking down harder on benefits or the perceived access that immigrants have to them, or by possibly bringing forward the EU referendum, although that will entail a battle with the Lib Dems, but go any further and the centrist support he has is likely to evaporate.  The real question is whether come 2015 those now plumping for UKIP decide they'd rather have Cameron as prime minister than Ed Miliband, and my guess is that many will come back to the Tory fold, such will be the level of propaganda about a return to power of Labour.  Some though clearly won't, and it might be those few that end up costing Cameron vital seats.

Then again, we've been here before with the sudden rise of fourth parties, almost all of which have quickly disappeared back into the ether.  Farage himself was talking about the SDP, but more apposite is the surge of the Greens in 1989, or the brief period when it looked as though the BNP might have shaken off its neo-Nazi image.  It's one thing to get elected, it's another to then keep the seat once the electorate have seen what you've done with it.  In this respect it wouldn't be a shock if, like with the BNP, UKIP fairly rapidly fades away.

Overshadowed by UKIP's success is the continuing decline of that former protest party, the Lib Dems.  To get just 352 votes in the South Shields by-election isn't just humiliating, it's catastrophic, as is the loss of another 124 council seatsIf the Eastleigh result showed us that you need a local operation to win, then the decimation the party is suffering bodes ill for 2015.  Nor was yesterday a happy day for Labour, who really ought to be doing far better than winning just shy of 300 seats at this point in the electoral cycle.  They're claiming that they're doing well in the areas which they need to win come 2015, but at the moment it looks as though the party is barely improving on its 2005 result, when disenchantment with Tony Blair was at its high point.

Strangely then, it's the Tories who probably had the second best day of it.  Yes, they've UKIP to worry about, but to lose 335 council seats from such a high point is just about the best they could have hoped for.  It's how the party reacts to the threat from its right that will define how it does over the next couple of years, and all the signs are it's going to fall exactly into the trap outlined above.

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Thursday, May 02, 2013 

The Sun ain't gonna shine (anymore).

If you're ever in need of a good laugh, and happen to share my often bizarre sense of humour, you can't really go wrong with recalling the very first editorial published in the Sun following Murdoch's takeover. We will be politically independent it said, amongst other highly amusing statements of how it meant to go on ("the new Sun will be the paper that CARES ... about truth, beauty and justice", went the leader the Saturday before the new paper emerged).

To be fair, for the first few years of its existence and while Keith was still finding his feet as a proprietor in the UK, it was pretty much independent or at the least, undecided. 10 years on though, and the paper's shift was complete. It still didn't pledge allegiance to either Labour or the Tories; rather it supported whoever Murdoch decided was both likely to win and wouldn't threaten his business interests. This has been the case ever since, only with politicians ever more willing to do obeisance before him.

Well, at least it was up until the Graun uncovered a little local difficulty at the News of the Screws. Since then only Boris Johnson and Alex Salmond have impressed the Dirty Digger, both being willing to ignore things like mass law breaking while Murdoch temporarily smiles on them.

It's hardly surprising then that the Sun hasn't endorsed anyone for today's local elections. David Cameron might have been "our only hope" 3 years ago, but he's close to being a no hoper now, such has been Murdoch's ire at the prime minister's support for the agreement between the parties on the press charter. Ed Miliband burned his bridges at the outset of the phone hacking scandal, and as for the Lib Dems and Nick Clegg, well. It does however signify that we may well have reached the point when Keith's power or rather assumed power has finally begun to dim. And if that isn't something worth celebrating, there isn't a whole lot that is.

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