Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Data Protection

'Harriet' as a username. 'Harman' as a password. What could it possibly be that gives me the strong impression that data protection has been part of Ms Harman's cabinet brief for some time now?

Monday, 28 April 2008

Honour killings in Iraq

A depressing report from today's Independent. Not only have we failed to halt such barbarity in Afghanistan, but it has now obviously become common in Iraq too. On our watch, as it were.

These things matter because they are so at odds with all we believe about human rights. If moral obligation offers justification for the Iraq invasion it requires us to intervene here, certainly not to sit back and hand power to a government that condones such acts.

Here in the West we believe in the concept of democracy and that has left us between a rock and a hard place. It appears that many Islamic societies possess a significant majority prepared to support Sharia law, which embraces notions of morality we absolutely reject. Honour killings have no more moral justification in an approving democracy than in a despotic theocracy (and the latter may be the choice of the former anyway). To the extent that democracy lends legitimacy to the illegitimate, it is not the be-all-and-end-all of human rights that so many in the West imagine.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Did I upset Harriet? Or does she know something we don't?

Harriet Harman's blog is quite wonderful. An account of one woman's journey round England, out and about meeting ordinary voters. Ordinary voters? No, not ordinary voters at all. Rather, voters who praise Gordon and his government to the skies. Occasionally they tell her that it's 'still early days', maybe even that there's 'more to be done', one or two recently have even admitted to 'some concerns'. But never once has anyone suggested to her that Dave and his mob might do better (I left a comment once querying that, but she confirmed that no, nobody had ever mentioned David Cameron, not even in passing). Occasionally she breaks her journey, but only to speak no ill of the dead or the recently resigned (the post on Peter Hain was an absolute classic). Never once does she venture any sort of political opinion, unless your idea of a political opinion is 'we must continue our work' or similarly vague and meaningless phrases. It's an unhurried journey too; no risk of getting slowed down by traffic congestion or policemen with speed guns, by the need to meet campaign donors or by the necessity of settling any fixed penalty tickets at all; well, not that she mentions.

To say that the blog is bland would be unfair and unkind. Bland is the chariot race in Ben-Hur, Richard Hammond crashing a dragster at 10,000 mph, that sort of thing. It's hard to find a word to describe Harriet's blog at all, until you realise that it is simply surreal. Utterly, wonderfully surreal. Now, I must admit that I'm a big fan, I just love it, in fact I'm quite addicted. And not just because Harriet used to be quite a looker, not too bad for her age even now (she doesn't resort to sexing up her entries with photos; shame, that). No, it's that it's rather like watching Emmerdale or Crossroads, compulsive in it's unapologetic mediocrity, it's outrageous implausibility, it's lack of any hint of self-parody whatever. So, if I ever need a smile brought to my face, or I'm just having difficulty sleeping and need a quick cure, it's her link I click first. From time to time I like to leave comments seeing as hardly anyone else does; she deserves encouragement, the sense that she does actually have a readership out there, and that brief thrill when the 'someone has left a comment' email arrives in her inbox. In fact, if you regarded a comment count as a fair arbiter, you'd probably describe me as her #1 fan.

I like to check my stats regularly, like most bloggers I suspect, and a couple of days ago I saw that someone had arrived from the last comment I left there, and that it came from the House of Commons! Could this possibly mean that Harriet had actually visited me, possibly intending to leave a courtesy comment thanking me for all my interest? Perhaps she's bookmarked me? Sadly no comment to be found, so I thought I'd check out her post again; maybe she'd replied there. I clicked her link in hope and what did I find? A blank screen, all bar a small 'The blog is temporarily closed' in the corner.

I found it difficult to believe that my final comment had upset her that much. She had been in her speak-no-ill-of-the-dead mode, marking the departure of Gwyneth Dunwoody. "An outstanding politician and a champion in the fight for social justice", "A committed campaigner", that sort of thing, rounding out with the wonderfully predictable cliché, "We shall not see her like again." I had simply responded along the lines of "Of course we shall sooner or later. It could even be you"; nothing to take offence at there at all. Then I wondered if she'd spotted that my link to her was in the 'blogs of no interest' section. Oh dear. But eventually it struck me; she was clearing the decks in anticipation of stepping up from deputy leader to acting leader very shortly, and in prime position for the top job. She's probably feeling pretty smug already, knowing that she's got the experience (of how to run a successful election campaign), and let's be honest she absolutely sparkled when she stood in at PMQ recently, so she's anticipating transferring her blog to the Number 10 website in the very near future. Perhaps that kevlar vest was in case her colleagues were thinking of stabbing her in the back, I don't know. Well, good luck to her say I, she's just what Labour need right now, let's hope I'm right!

Since writing the above I find that Harriet's blog was more a victim of hackers than of my efforts to encourage her. So sadly it's looking unlikely she'll have the keys to Number 10 for a while yet. Shame that; the last time there were widespread strikes in the public sector it took a woman PM to sort it all out.

The hacker concerned posted a 'resignation letter' Harriet had purportedly written, announcing her defection to the Tories. A 'Back Boris' graphic was added for good measure.

It's curious, that visit from the House of Commons. Could it have been the hacker? Was it an inside job? Could the IP reveal the identity of the disloyal colleague who pulled such a malicious stunt?

It would be easy to be cynical about Harriet's claim that the post was the work of a hacker, after all it took her about 5 seconds flat to deny her campaign remarks about Iraq when she became deputy leader, and it is a woman's prerogative to change her mind, isn't it? but the spoof blog the post links to is too funny by far. In case you haven't seen the post yet, here it is (check out the link):

Harriet Harman Resigns From Labour, Defects to Tories (PRESS STATEMENT)
Posted by Harriet in Campaigning | April 25th, 2008

To friends, foes and fans,

Below is a copy of the resignation letter that landed on Gordon’s desk this morning.
I couldn’t be bothered to type a completely new one, seeing as Quentin Davies (LO-SER!) had written a perfectly good one here,
I thought I’d just change the relevant sections… a swap for a swap if you like.
All opinions are welcome. For an explanation of what led to this landmark decision, please read my much more interesting blog here

Harriet Harman Resignation from the Labour Party: Letter to David Cameron and statement to Press
Letter to David Cameron

Rt. Hon.Gordon Brown M.P.
Leader of the Labour Party/Prime Miniser
House of Commons

25 April 2008

I have been a member of the Labour Party for over 30 years, and have served for 26 years in the Parliamentary Party, in a variety of backbench and front bench roles. This has usually been a great pleasure, and always a great privilege. It is therefore with much sadness that I write you this letter. But you are entitled to know the truth.

Under your leadership the Labour Party appears to me to have ceased collectively to believe in anything, or to stand for anything. It has no bedrock. It exists on shifting sands. A sense of mission has been replaced by a PR agenda.

For the first 25 years of my time in the House, in common I imagine with the great majority of my colleagues, it never occurred to me to leave the Party, whatever its current vicissitudes. Ties of familiarity, of friendship, and above all of commitment to constituency supporters are for all of us very strong and incredibly difficult to break. But they cannot be the basis for living a lie – for continuing in an organisation when one no longer has respect for its leadership or understanding of its aims. I have come to that appreciation slowly and painfully and as a result of many things, some of which are set out below.

The first horrible realisation that I might not be able to continue came last year. My initial reaction was to suppress it.

You had come to office as Leader of the Party committed to break a solemn agreement we had with the country to give them a referendum on the European Consitution, now known cunningly as the Lisbon Treaty. For seven months you vacillated, and during that time we had several conversations. It was quite clear to me that you had no qualms in principle about tearing up this agreement, and that it was only the balance of prevailing political pressures which led you ultimately to stop short of doing so i.e You are a wimp, Gordo!
You also broke your promise to let me be Deputy Prime Minister and run the Deputy Leadership elections unopposed, just like you.

Of course I knew that you had put yourself in a position such that if you gave the referendum you would be breaking other promises you had given to colleagues, and on which many of them had counted in voting for you at the leadership election where of course you were the only contestant. But that I fear only made the position worse. The trouble with trying to face both ways is that you are likely to lose everybody’s confidence.

Aside from the rather significant issues of principle involved, you have of course paid a practical price for your easy promises. You are the first Prime Minister of this country to be completely upstaged on his recent visit to America, by his holiness the pope, who by all accounts is a doddery old man. Up to, and very much including,Tony Blair, your superior predecessor.

I have never done business with people who deliberately break contracts, and I knew last year that if you did not give the European Referendum, or make me Deputy Prime Minister I could no longer remain in a party under your leadership.

In fact you held back and I tried to put this ugly incident out of my mind and carry on. But the last year has been a series of shocks and disappointments. You have displayed to the full both the vacuity and the cynicism of your favourite slogan “When I wake up every morning, something or other”.

One day in January, I think a Wednesday or Thursday, you and Alistair Darling discovered that David Cameron was to make a speech on your disgraceful 10p tax cut. You wished toavoid the hassle. So without any consultation with anyone – experts, think tanks, the industry, even the Shadow Cabinet – you announced a visit to the US, which was so cack-handed you managed to be upstaged by His Holiness. The PR pressures had overridden any considerations of economic rationality or national interest, or even what would have been to others normal businesslike prudence.

Equally it seems that your hasty rejection of Fidel Castro as a Hero of the Left nuclear energy as a “last resort” was also driven by your PR imperatives rather than by other considerations. Many colleagues hope that that will be the subject of your next u-turn.

You regularly (I think on a pre-arranged PR grid or timetable) make apparent policy statements which are then revealed to have no intended content at all. They appear to be made merely to strike a pose, to contribute to an image.

You thus sometimes treat important subjects with the utmost frivolity. Examples are “Britishness”, “Anti-Terrorism”, most recently, mass promotion of people who are not even Labour Party Members like Digby Jones to the government (In view of your complete failure to consult with anyone, within the Party or outside it, on many of the matters I have touched on, or on many others, the latter was perhaps intended as a joke).

Of course I could go on – but I’m tired.

Believe it or not I have no personal animus against you. You have always been perfectly courteous in our dealings. You are intelligent and charming. As you know, however, I never supported you for the leadership of the Party – even when, after my preferred candidate (Myself) chickened out as she didn’t think she had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. It was blindingly obvious that you were going to win. Although you have many positive qualities you have three, dithering, dourness and a terrible habit of picking your nose in public which in my view ought to exclude you from the position of national leadership to which you currently hold and which it is the presumed purpose of the Conservative Party to achieve.

Believing that as I do, I clearly cannot honestly remain in the Party. I do not intend to leave public life. On the contrary I am looking forward to joining another party with which I have found increasingly I am naturally in agreement and which has just acquired a leader I have always greatly admired, who I believe is entirely straightforward, goodlooking and who has a towering record, and a clear vision for the future of our country which I fully share.

Because my constituents, to whose interests of course I remain devoted, are entitled to know the full background, I am releasing this letter to the press.

Statement to press
“The more I thought about it the more I realised that the only logical and honest thing to do was both to leave the Labour Party and join the Conservative Party, with which I have found myself in practice regularly in agreement.”

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Norman Geras on Iraq

Over on the wonderful normblog, Norman Geras argues passionately and persuasively in support of the invasion of Iraq, an unusual viewpoint for someone on the left. You should definitely read him if you think your own views would be seriously challenged. I doubt that I do him any justice if I summarise his position as being this: that the overthrow of a murderous fascist dictator was justification enough, and that other possibly ulterior motives by those invading were of little import set against that. To those who point out that there are plenty of other murderous fascist dictators in the world and we're not in the business of overthrowing them, he says that our failure to do the right thing elsewhere doesn't alter the fact that we did so here.

I am less clear though whether he considers that we had a moral responsibility to undertake effective 'post invasion planning' (well that's the term politicians seem to favour), and whether our failure to do so weakened the morality of invading. If the end result of our invasion is that Iraq is left in a state of civil war until another murderous fascist dictator makes his way to the top of the heap, any moral satisfaction we derive from the overthrow of the last one will be pretty meaningless.

I think that Jim Holt's lrb article is pertinent here too; he argues that US interests lie in there being continuing instability in Iraq, as this provides them with their best opportunity to secure Iraq's oil supplies. If he's right, then Britain's failure to consider the US motive for invading was wrong, because it failed to determine the (immoral) outcome they sought and might already have achieved.

My own position is that we were wrong to invade, not because there was no justification whatever for the overthrow of Saddam but because we didn't begin to consider or prepare for the entirely foreseeable outcome, let alone accept responsibility for it. The lies about WMD matter too despite what Norman says. They matter because it was the claim that Iraq represented an immediate threat to us that was the justification for invading without due consideration of the consequence.

More importantly though, I think that arguing the rights and wrongs of invading is little more than debating history right now; we are where we are and Iraq is a mess. We need politicians who take on board our present responsibility and have a clear strategy; at this point there is none and no prospect of one either, unless it's the hope that sooner or later the problem will go away if we keep our heads down long enough. Politicians who have taken us into a war (however justified) using lies and evasions are unlikely to be the ones to bring us out of it with honour.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Parkinson's Law

One of C Northcote Parkinson's less well known laws runs something like this, that the larger the sum of money involved in any decision, the less time a committee will devote to it. The £50 billion project goes through on the nod because most committee members can barely comprehend the amount involved, lack sufficient understanding to really question it, and are keen not to risk displaying ignorance by speaking up anyway. Conversely a small sum (such as a 10p increase in the cost of the committee refreshments) will have them at it hammer and tongs; all the committee understand the economic principles involved, most feel guilty that they didn't really pull their weight when it came to that earlier £50 billion commitment, and the likely outcome this time round is a deferred decision pending the report of a sub-committee set up to consider the matter further.

Thus it is with our government. Their indefensible abolition of the 10p tax band for the low paid has occupied our Chancellors (present and previous) and our representatives in parliament for some time now. Contrast that with the decision to use tax income to prop up a wildly inflated property market to the tune of £50 billion by bailing out reckless financial institutions; scarcely a murmur. The gulf between those two decisions is ironic beyond belief.

It goes almost without saying that both decisions are wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Immoral too, but then morality hasn't entered into 'New Labour' deliberations over many years now.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

The Nuclear Business

I posted recently on another blog about Marilynne Robinson's essay 'Mother Country', that argued the utter immorality of the UK's nuclear reprocessing business at Sellafield. But the nuclear trade is certainly a political matter so it belongs here too, and particularly topical as our 'green' government is keen to persuade us that it would be best if we get a new generation of nuclear power stations asap. The nuclear decision the government has reached typifies their approach to so many issues; better the short-term solution than the long-term one, particularly as they don't anticipate being the ones who have to sort the mess when it all goes wrong.

So it wasn't the happiest news for them when they learnt this weekend that the European Pressurised Reactor being built over in Normandy has already been identified as having serious structural faults, with both it's concrete base and the weld for it's steel liner developing cracks. Worse still, exactly the same faults have occurred in a similar reactor being built at Olkiluoto in Finland, causing long delays and costs to spiral out of all control. These are the only two reactors of their kind, and they are the sort that we seem to be on the verge of buying from that nice Monsieur Sarkovsky who popped by a couple of weeks ago. It doesn't look good, does it?

This though is the way the nuclear industry works - reassuringly promising that the next new (and untried) generation of reactors will provide us with safe, cheap electricity to our hearts content. Last time around it was the fast breeder reactor, the one that miraculously produced it's own nuclear material so it never needed refuelling. If they were so good, and they certainly made them sound good, why aren't we getting them now?

More trouble at Sellafield too... The THORP reprocessing plant, which reopened after a two year closure, only lasted a couple of weeks before they had to close it again, with more safety 'incidents'.

And a committee of MPs have just slammed the 'unsustainable' costs of nuclear decommissioning, with the government only budgeting over three year periods, which leaves the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's funding at the mercy of the Treasury. The Treasury's main priority at the moment is of course to bail out the financial institutions that have come a cropper with risky mortgages. And to encourage them to keep lending so that property prices stay high. Because that's what people seem to worry about unfortunately - their ability to borrow against the inflating value of their home rather than the risks inherent in pursuing means of getting 'cheap' electricity that flirt with risk of devastation for all life on the planet.

Are there any politicians able to see sense on this? If there are, they don't seem very visible. So, no more mealy-mouthed promises about 'green' policies, please.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Election Fever

It is interesting to see how effective the race to be the Democratic candidate for the US presidency has been in exposing Hillary Clinton as organisationally hopeless at best, but also how unashamedly and cynically duplicitous she is prepared to be; her campaign appears to be in it's death throes thank goodiness.

If only there had been a similar series of elections over here for the leadership of the Labour party, and hence Prime Minister. Instead Gordon Brown's 'coronation' told us nothing we didn't know already, which was not much at that - a rather dour Scot who had appeared moderately competent as Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was thought to hold beliefs more in line with traditional Labour values than Tony Blair ever had, and who had a burning desire to be PM. Now though we know the truth. His self-belief was misplaced, and his government is marked only by directionless mediocrity. A government of 'all the talents', remember that?

At least the London mayoral election is providing entertainment. The latest (shock! horror!) revelation that Ken has 5 (yes, 5!) children. What does that prove? Only that Ken is considerably better at organising his love life than Boris, I suppose... It is a sad comment on modern politics that a man who would struggle to organise a piss-up in a brewery and is known only as a bumbling TV personality is ahead in the polls, while his main opponent, for all his faults, has already shown himself to be more than competent, a man who was able to stand up to the Blair and the New Labour machine when the Tories certainly couldn't. And surely he's unique among politicians with his ability to deliver an IT project on time and within budget. Even David Cameron acknowledges Ken's successes, however much he does so through gritted teeth. I'm being unfair to Boris though, the proverbial piss-up is probably the one thing he could organise.

But the important election of course is the one in Zimbabwe, which seems to be drifting beyond the radar of the British press even as it appears to be moving slowly towards a predictable conclusion with a terrible, loathsome despot hanging on to power, and wreaking vengeance on those who threatened to end it. We are of course utterly powerless to intervene, unless you subscribe to Tony Blair's world view. He repeatedly refused to apologise for the overthrow of Saddam Hussain; maybe then he should be apologising for failing to topple Robert Mugabe. He can't have it both ways. If only Zimbabwe had vast untapped oil reserves...