Sunday, 21 September 2008

European Jingoism  


It is a rather curious fact that, whereas the European Union, seems to inspire anything but loyalty from its inhabitants (particularly the British), the Ryder Cup manages to inspire the sort of European jingoism that even the ultra-nationalistic USA will struggle to match.

For a sport often (understandably) labelled elitist, what is it that gives it the pull to bring about what the EU has failed to do? The answer is simply that it is Europe vs. the United States and, whether it is through envy of America's position as the only superpower, anger over its foreign policy and environmental record or a feeling of ethical or cultural superiority (or just plain xenophobia), we do love to beat the USA, even if it means admitting that we're European.

It has helped that Europe has won the last three Ryder Cup tournaments, and that they have held it since 1999; with the Olympics aside, Britain has had very little sporting success and, in order to claim some, have quickly signed up as Europeans, if only for the length of the tournament.

Is this hypocrisy healthy? Indeed, is it even healthy to have this level of jingoism directed towards a nation that shares many of its values and culture with our own, arguably more than we do with many of the countries represented in the European Ryder Cup team.

However hypocritical it may be to embrace Europe for a golf tournament, it does at least demonstrate the fact that European countries have to stand together in order to compete in this era of globalisation.

Equally, the world has changed away from the secular, liberal systems that created the European Union in the first place. China has demonstrated the success of patriotic capitalism, combining the sort of unquestioning loyalty and work ethic of fundamentalism with the economic success of capitalism.

The US has shifted towards a combination of nationalism and religion in an attempt to give its people the sort of motivation to succeed. With its history of being the definitive capitalistic state and its political system as a republic ensuring that there is a leader to look to, even to worship, it too can manage to mix capitalism with fundamentalism.

Other Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea are just as nationalistic. Indeed, as much as the West has been proclaiming the merits of democracy and urging other, less democratic, countries to join the club, the real change has been towards this new form of jingoistic capitalism.

For the European Union to be able to compete with the USA and China it would need to adopt the same level of nationalism. Due to its nature and the fact that, in countries like the UK, nationalism prevents its people from even accepting the EU and its currency, it seems difficult to believe that this could ever be possible. However, what the Ryder Cup has shown that, when a common goal is at hand Europeans, including the British can unite. Whether they can manage to do this all the time may be irrelevant, provided that in key issues like the single currency and the constitution, Europeans can manage to agree for a change.

Europe will never be a nationalistic state at the same level of China and the USA. There is too much history, too many disparate cultures for that. However, we should embrace this part of ourselves even more than the Americans and the Chinese have embraced fundamentalist capitalism. It was through the United Nations and the European Union that the countries managed to unite against fundamentalism, and to move away from the nationalism that caused two world wars.

We are heading into a new era and no-one can believe that Europe can once again be dominant. Europe had its time and now must let others define the world's direction. However, it can still compete if it believes in itself and it can demonstrate an example of openness and compassion that this new era, with the threats that nationalism can bring, could well do with.

Monday, 1 September 2008

McCain's Big Mistake  


It probably seemed like a great idea. Sarah Palin is young and fresh, in contrast to the septuagenarian, increasingly wrinkly McCain. She is also an ultra right wing evangelical, which could nullify McCain's the fears felt by the far right elements of the Republican party about McCain's own, often more liberal views. However, possibly most important of all, she is a woman and McCain probably felt he could secure the votes of women who otherwise would have voted for Hillary Clinton and are angry that she failed to secure the nomination, with their anger often directed towards Barack Obama. In one swift move McCain could add youth and vitality by choosing a former beauty queen as his running mate; he could appease the religious right and cement his position as the head of the modern, ultra conservative Republican party; and he could gain the votes of women whose main interest in voting was in order to vote for a woman. But it looks like it's all going to go wrong.

Barack Obama is a relatively inexperienced politician. This is something that senior Republicans such as Karl Rove have been referring to for sometime, and it is clear that they see it as Obama's weakest point. However, Obama's inexperience pales in significance to Palin's. Indeed, whereas many have criticised Obama's lack of experience with foreign affairs, Palin has none and only got a passport last year. She went to Kuwait and Germany to visit US troops and did not engage in any relations with either the German or the Kuwaiti governments. In fact, despite being the governor of Alaska Palin has never been to Russia and has never engaged in any discussions with Russian politicians.

As someone so devout in her evangelical views, who is pro-life and so nationalistic Palin could be seen as the ideal person to placate the religious right, many of whom had refused to back McCain. However, the more moderate wing of the Republican party (many of whom support McCain) including social conservatives and economic conservatives, have become disillusioned with the move towards the religious ultra right. As such they are unlikely to back the appointment of Palin. Equally, with the revelation that Palin's teenage daughter is pregnant, McCain's running mate does not appear to be the perfect mother those on the religious right can look up to.

Finally, McCain has underestimated the women who were so keen to see Hillary Clinton as President. It is true that women voters were far more likely to be Clinton supporters, and it is true that many were bitterly disappointed and angry when Obama was selected after such a vicious campaign by both candidates. However, the majority of women in the US are Democrats or lean towards the Democrats and this is not going to suddenly change because McCain chooses a woman as his running mate. Also, as Palin's ultra right views, particularly those on abortion become widely known it is likely that women who would ordinarily vote Democrat but are angry at the Democrats' nomination of Obama, will once again vote on policies rather than gender.

Selecting Palin as his running mate was a surprising, possibly courageous decision but it is destined to fail. And this could also lead to his failure to get into the White House.

Monday, 25 August 2008

The Day the American Empire Ran Out of Medals  


On January 11th, 1986 one of Gore Vidal's most often quoted and debated essays was published in the The Nation. The Day the American Empire Ran Out of Gas (published in its entirety on Bill Totten's blog) described how on September 16th, 1985 the USA became a 'debtor nation', and thus lost its empire. Vidal did not argue that the empire had crumbled, or even that its demise would be immediate; instead one of America's greatest, and most controversial, essayists merely stated that this change in the USA's status was the point at which its demise had started.

The USA has in fact demonstrated a great ability to sustain its position as the dominant world power. However much is made of the Beijing Olympics and the awe-inspiring show the Chinese put on, the US is still the dominant power, both economically and militarily. Indeed, the 'wars' in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown is that the USA is more than capable of obliterating conventional armies, even those it has helped to arm itself and that it can still extend its empire (with Dick Cheney in the role of James K. Polk, creating an excuse for war in order to acquire Iraq).

However, despite America's continued dominance ,Vidal's essay carries even more weight than it did over twenty years ago. Indeed the economic situation in 1985 pales in contrast to the trade deficit that has been created during George W. Bush's presidency, causing record amounts of public debt. The USA now owes a record $59.1 trillion in liabilities, and is placed 26th on the CIA's table of the world's biggest debtors as a percentage of GDP, sandwiched between Nicaragua and Cyprus. Despite the fact that the world's 2nd richest country, and one mentioned directly by Vidal as a key competitor of the United States fares even worse (Japan is second, only a few percentage points behind Zimbabwe), the US economy is in a much worse situation than it was in 1985 (when it was a mere $2 trillion) and this has really started to affect the US and the world in the past couple of years.

For years the US economy has run effectively based on borrowing money. The banks borrow money and lend it to their customers and the government has borrowed vast amounts of money (partly to pay for the ludicrous amount it spends on its military - something Vidal also highlighted in
The Day the American Empire Ran Out of Gas). The key difference now is that America has a huge trade deficit and it has borrowed so much more money. The present administration is hugely responsible as it pushed through tax cuts the country could not afford (something that has been described by one columnist as 'certifiably insane'). The USA is now in recession ( and, whereas its inhabitants have faced economic adversity before and have prevailed, it is difficult to see how it can find a way to stimulate its economy as its government does not have the money or the means to make funds, other than through increases in taxation - something the American electorate is unlikely to accept.

As mentioned, Vidal points to Japan as a key competitor and as one of the countries that will replace the United States. Vidal suggests that it would take more than one county, though:

Now the long-feared Asiatic colossus takes its turn as the world leader, and we - the white race - have become the yellow man's burden. Let us hope that he will treat us more kindly than we treated him. In any case, if the foreseeable future is not nuclear, it will be Asiatic, some combination of Japan's advanced technology with China's resourceful landmass.

This is one point I would disagree with; the relations between China and Japan have always been strained, particularly since the Second World War and things have become much worse as a result of the Japanese government's refusal to accept responsibility and its issuing of text books to high school children that glorify Japan's role in the war, without mentioning any of the atrocities it committed against Chinese and Korean civilians. I have seen at first hand the Japanese embassy in Shanghai besieged by angry Chinese people and the two governments are unlikely to join forces any time soon (if ever).

However, Vidal is correct that a part of East Asia will usurp the US as the world's dominant power, but it will be China's landmass and its advanced technology that will provide it alone with the tools to become the world's greatest superpower. Indeed, the Beijing Olympics have long been seen as China's declaration to the world - a declaration that it is ready and able to take up the baton of world leadership from the US. The success of the Chinese athletes, its stupendous venues and the ability of its people and officials to put on such a wonderful show have all demonstrated China's strength and its determination.

America did not, despite my rather facetious title, run out of medals (it was still ranked second) and it will still remain as the world's strongest power for some time. China is still a developing country and its countryside is more third world than first world. Equally, America's military superiority is truly awe-inspiring. However, the USA did come second in the medal table (below China) and it set won more bronze and silver medals than any other country whereas China took home far more golds than any other country. China has already over-taken the USA in the Olympic standings and now its overjoyed, nationalistic people are setting their sights on being the world's greatest economic power. Would you bet against them?

Vidal suggested that the USA, by linking up with Russia and its huge wealth of natural resources and its landmass, the USA could find away to retain its superiority. What Vidal could not have known in 1986 was that the West would treat Russia even worse than it has treated the 'Asiatic Colossus'. Indeed, the humiliation faced by the Russian people (reminiscent of the idiocy of the excesses of Treaty of Versaille) helped to lead to its collapse, and its subsequent move away from democracy and into the arms of Vladimir Putin. Equally, America's hypocritical condemnation of Russia's attack on Georgia has not helped relations between the two countries. Vidal was quite right - Russia does have the landmass and the natural resources required by the US - but it chooses to use its resources to further its own position in the world at the expense of the West rather than to benefit it.

China is both very old and very new. The old China was at one point the most innovative country (both in the science and in the arts) in the world. The new China has the capacity to be just as great and we should all hope it is as just as beneficent. I for one cannot help feeling that, after such a wonderful display in the Olympics, that there is great hope for the future.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Beware the Russian Bear  


The Russian Bear was, in the nineteenth century, depicted as huge but slow and cumbersome. However, like bears themselves, Russia may be large but it can be both fast and lethal when it wants to be. Indeed, Russia has, under Putin, become a country that the world can once again respect and fear.

There is little doubt that Putin in his new role of Prime Minister is continuing to rule the country. He is the new Stalin or 'man of steel' and his grip on the country is strengthening and, with it, the control of a political system which owes more to the KGB than it does to Western democracy.

Putin's biggest achievement was in prising control of his country's massive oil and gas reserves from the various oligarchs who had effectively been handed Russia's riches because of the poor decisions of a weak leader (Yeltsin). Putin's managed to do this through a mixture of political shrewdness and outright brutality. Several 'refugees' from Putin's revolution now live in London (the most famous being Boris Berezovsky) and as a result Britain has often been the target of Putin's ire.

We have thus seen, more than any other Western country, the power and brutality of the Russian state, no less in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko where the British government has made it clear that they feel the Russian state was involved. In addition, we have seen the removal of British Council workers from the country on spurious grounds along with harassment for other representatives of the UK.

Also, Russia's neighbours have been feeling the full force of Russia's might. The Ukraine has seen Russia's interference in the election of
Viktor Yushchenko, including accusations that Russia had some role in his poisoning and even Belarus, apparently in union with Russia, has been held to ransom by Russia and its control over gas and oil. Now it is the turn of Georgia and it seems astounding that the West can be at all surprised that Russia has chosen to use military means to control the former Soviet state.

Russian ministers have claimed that they are only defending the rights of the people in the breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is certainly true that the Georgian forces had attempted to enforce control over these areas, but the Russian bear made no effort at diplomacy and its military response has been excessive to say the least. Equally, in Russia's targeting of Georgia's oil pipeline they have shown a desire to maintain their control over Europe's energy.

With the current economic climate and the desperation for fuel, Russia has found its most potent weapon and the West has no answer. It is true that George W. Bush has condemned Russian military action and suggested that Russia could be held to account, but it is hard to imagine even the USA acting on its threats. Putin knows this and so the Russian bear has out-manoeuvred the West and proved that it is once again powerful and far from cumbersome.

Thursday, 7 August 2008

The Great MMR Mistake  


Ever since Dr Andrew Wakefield decided to make a name for himself by frightening the bejeezus out of us with his facetious claim that the MMR jab could cause autism (, we have been waiting for the inevitable results; that the ensuing panic would result in a huge drop in measles vaccinations and that we would face the possibility of an epidemic.

The fact that this was nonsense and that the offending artcile was disowned by The Lancet (itself hardly the most respected of science journals) did nothing to assuage the fears of parents. Part of this is because of the society we now live in; a society saturated in fear and a desire to shelter our children from the world. However, the government did not do enough to publicise the need to take the MMR jab and, given the high chance of a measles epidemic, they should have spend far more on a campiagn to reassure parents and, perhaps, to make them fear for their children unless they do give them the jab.

We are now in a position where people are talking about forcing children to take the jab. This is clearly not realistic. However, even with a fresh campaign from the government it is unlikely to reap rewards unless people are really fearful of non-action.

After the media created the fear by publicising Wakefield's claims it is now the medicine required to cure this epidemic. One child has already died as a result of measles; it is vital that the media takes a strong role in scaring the bejeezus out of us again so that parents panic into giving their kids the jab. Fortunately, this is something they are well practiced in doing.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Cameron Loses a Bicycle, but Wins an Election  


It is a little worrying that our next Prime Minister doesn't have enough sense to lock his bicycle properly. I mean, how can he possibly have thought it would be safe to fasten it to a bollard? Apart from itself being rather antisocial (one presumes that the bollard in question serves an actual purpose other than the one Cameron failed to find for it) it is worrying that he would choose an object to lock his bike to, that was entirely useless for this purpose.

Let's take a look at the image of a bollard shall we:

Anyone spot the problem? Yes, a bollard is short and does not have a top or a curve to it, thus making it easy to just pick up a 'locked' bicycle and carry it away. This is what has happened to the seemingly inept Mr Cameron. Surely, surely we can come up with better candidates for PM than Mr Cameron?

Not when the alternative is Gordon Brown. One could never imagine Mr Brown being so idiotic as to try to lock his bicycle to a post but, then again, it would be difficult to imagine the Prime Minister ever riding a bicycle to pick up some groceries from the Portobello branch of Tesco. But is that really such a great problem? Do we really need to elect media sensations like Barrack Obama or ersatz men of the people like David Cameron and George W. Bush? The short answer is no we don't need to elect these people but, in Western society we feel the need to elect these people.

There is no doubt that Brown has made a series of blunders himself: the decision to avoid ratifying the Lisbon Treaty at the same time as other leader was, frankly, an embarrassment; the decision to pump so much money into the NHS with few controls over how it was spent is part of a legacy of waste left from his time as Chancellor; the abolition of the 10p tax rate and the weak attempt at appeasing the electorate was the final nail in the coffin of this government. However, Brown as Prime Minister has personally made very few errors. It is true that he lacks style and, to some extent, even substance, but one cannot argue that his is ineffective. Indeed, the weakness attributed to him as a leader is more of a general weakness when it comes to the government as a whole.

This is a dying government. After last week's humiliating record breaking defeat ( in Glasgow, it is not surprising that Labour backbenchers and party activists are demanding Brown's head. However, it does not matter who would come in to replace Brown as he is just a figure of hate around the country - hate that is directed towards the government as a whole.

It is rare that political groups receive much attention on Facebook. Indeed , with the exception of the ubiquitous Barrack Obama , there are few that receive much attention. However, anti-Labour groups such as 'Gordon Brown is a Twat' have become increasingly popular. The fact is that the government has been in power too long and they have got far too used to choosing their policies to appease Middle England. People want a change and the Labour heartlands (such as Glasgow East) no longer see the party as representing themselves. The government are earnestly defending policies which appeal to Middle England such as identity cards and longer detention, but they have already lost the support of this part of the electorate who, with the economy being a little shaky, have run back to the Conservatives in their droves.

It is irrelevant whether Cameron is as inept a leader as he is at the rather simple task of locking a bicycle. The fact is that Gordon Brown and his Labour government cannot win the next election. Even if the Tories were to put forward a proud toff in bloodied hunting apparel, they would still win the next election; even if they put forward Iain Duncan Smith the 'quiet man 'would manage to mumble his way into office.

It is shame that we have to choose between these two leader and these two parties, and it suggests a lot about the state of our own democracy that we spend so much time thinking about the American political system. If only we could choose between Obama and McCain - we'd even be able to unite Europe in the common desire to see Barrack smile that smile and make us feel hope in the face of despair.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Crime & Punishment  


In Dostoeveky's famous novel the main protagonist, Raskalnikov, desperate from poverty and degradation, murders his hateful landlady. The rest of the novel is an exploration of guilt and the sorrow that an intelligent man feels as he comes to terms with his crime. The street kids who are filling our newspapers and 24 hour news channels - seemingly filling the general populace with fear - are not Raskalnikovs. It is true that the majority of them grow up in poor areas. However, it is not the extent of their poverty that leads them to their crimes (their situation is incomparably better than that of Raskalnikov), but rather the fact that they are the product of parents and grandparents who grew up in similar situations. Raskalnikov was an individual and as such was capable of feeling an individual's shame and regret. The gangs of feral teenagers, brought up by parents who either cannot provide the level of education that their children require or, possibly more likely, do not see the merits of an education, do not feel shame or regret for their actions because those same actions are what gives them an identity and a feeling of belonging and success. The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, in arguing that teenage knife attackers should be forced to see the results of their actions and to be confronted by the families of their victims ttp:// is trying clearly trying so very, very hard to deal with the problem. Unfortunately, she has completely misunderstood the problem. Equally, David Cameron, by arguing for the usual Tory solution of longer prison sentences has not even bothered to come up with something new. Punishment by the state has no meaning for gang members because the state otherwise makes little or no impact on their lives. The only 'state' for these kids is that they belong to a gang and it is only other gang members or other gangs who can punish them.

So what is the solution? In short there can be no quick solution. This problem has been developing over a period of generations and the only way in which to alter the situation in any meaningful way is to spend generations trying to change the entire culture of our inner cities. One of the biggest drawbacks (and paradoxically one of its biggest advantages) of a democracy is that the public look for instant solutions for long-standing problems.
Boris Johnson, as a Conservative Mayor of London and Jacqui Smith have said that they will be working together in order to improve conditions in London's inner cities. This is definitely a start, but all the parties need to get together to ensure that long term policies are implemented to ensure that inner city children throughout the UK are given the sort of education that will enable them to escape the cycle of ignorance and hatred that leads them to gangs. Equally, the gang culture that is so centred around misogyny, hatred and violence needs to be countered so that children have a real option to violence. Finally, the parents of these children need to be educated and to be helped to handle their children effectively. The media often point to rap stars and label them as bad role models. It is no doubt that the rap culture and many of the lyrics are a part of the gang culture in the United States and now in the UK.

However poor rap stars can be as role models, though, it is the parents that are crucial to a child's upbringing.
A child gains most of its characteristics by the age of 7 years - long before they have any real interest in rap music. In the case of
Damilola Taylor, all 11 of the suspects had no father figure at home ( and the high rate of fatherless children in our inner cities cannot be ignored. However, too many argue that the main problem with single parent households is that the father is not around to provide discipline. This is not the main problem and, even if these children had their fathers around, it is possible that they would not be better people. These fathers are often very poor role models and it is not just a need for father figures, but for men that these boys can respect and emulate. At the moment these boys with knives seek to emulate rap stars and gang members because there is nothing else. The only way to do this is for the fathers of the next generation to be good role models for their children. Unfortunately these fathers are those who are carrying the knives right now.

Ultimately society needs to change so that both inner city children and their parents have more to look forward to, with new horizons to aim for. This would need to include an improvement in education, ensuring that the parents encourage their children to better themselves and building a system of youth centres and clubs at schools to give the children the chances to make something of their lives.

Raskalnikov felt a release from the torment of his own guilt when he was finally punished for his crime. At the moment are best hope is that those wielding knives will eventually feel the same way without the need for shock tactics or the threat of long prison sentences.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Joey Barton  


Joey Barton has been sentenced for a second time for assault (this time for beating up his ex-colleague and team mate, Ousmane Dabo). Despite the fact that this is Barton's second GBH offence he has been spared a prison sentence and has instead been given a suspended sentence. The Newcastle midfielder has managed to show all the facets of the criminal justice system: the good face (he was imprisoned for 6 months for a brutal assault outside a McDonald's restaurant in Liverpool in December, 2007) and the bad face (that he managed to avoid a longer spell in prison despite his previous track record of criminal behaviour). There is no doubt the common man could expect to see a similar sentence handed down for the McDonald's attack; but it is extremely unlikely that anyone but a multimillionaire footballer could avoid a longer sentence when he is convicted of a second offence. Below is a list of offences before the two he has been sentenced for: Feb 2004: Sent off against Spurs Apr 2004: Storms out of ground after being left out for Southampton game Jul 2004: Kevin Keegan accuses him of starting brawl in friendly at Doncaster Dec 2004: Puts lit cigar in Jamie Tandy's eye May 2005: Breaks leg of pedestrian while driving Jul 2005: Involved in alleged fight in Thai hotel bar (taken from the BBC website) Barton also manages to demonstrate that, for all his money and for all the efforts by various coaches to believe that he has reformed (Keegan; Pearce et al) he is a thug. He is poorly educated and sees power and success through brawn and violence. By attacking people he manages to exert his authority over them and, at the same time making himself feel stronger. He is a (moderately) talented footballer but, like so many other British footballers he comes from a poor family in a dilapidated part of a city (Liverpool in his case). He is the perfect example of how money and 'bling' cannot help to change someone who grew up in the streets; he is the perfect example of a poor role model for those who are growing up in the streets. However, we need to look at Barton and others who have fallen foul of their upbringing despite their obvious advantages (Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears, Pete Docherty for obvious examples) and think about how society is failing the poor and that education is the solution, rather than just throwing money at the problem. Education would lower gang violence; education would lower common assault and anti-social behaviour and education would lower domestic assault rates. We should throw as much money as possible at this and do it now, before we have a generation of thugs and those too afraid too disinterested to want to learn.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

The Right Way  


Many would say that, with George W. Bush and his Republican Party holding onto power for the past two terms, Silvio Berlusconi regaining power (despite all the charges of corruption and incompetence which mired his previous sojourn in the top job) as the Prime Minister and even the Labour Party in the UK moving inexorably to the right, that the right of politics has finally been victorious. Indeed, despite all the excitement generated by Barack Obama's nomination as the Democratic candidate, the strongest lobbying groups in the United States remain those of the religious right - all of whom are likely to make more vociferous efforts than ever top elect a Republican considering that the alternative is a black liberal.

Politicians in the United States - even the most liberal of Democrats - avoid saying that they are liberal. The word liberal is now a dirty word and the replacement, 'Progressive' has been used in such a negative way by the right wing media such as Fox News (and particularly the infamous Bill O'Reilly) that it too has become a dirty word. Equally, across Europe (even France where Sarkozy has tried to dramatically alter France's traditionally left wing perspective) countries are moving more and more towards the right, even if they themselves are governed by supposedly left wing parties.

Part of the reason for this, particularly in Europe, is immigration. The rather melodramatic view of the right wing is that it thrives on fear. To a certain extent right wing politicians do thrive on the results of fear even if they themselves rarely engender it (I believe that the vast majority of right wing politicians are as much influenced by fear as those people they choose to represent). There is a situation where far more people are emigrating to other countries and this, in the richer Western countries, is causing the sort of xenophobia and fear that (unfortunately) seems to always arise when people are faced with what is different. Equally, the threat of terrorism, however much it is exaggerated to a ridiculous degree does mean that the right will gain more votes than the left. Frankly, pacifists are less likely to vote and the general populace seem to want revenge and security and all the things that the right promise them with hard line speeches.

The left, particularly in America, faces the twin problem that the right wing voters are always likely to vote and that the left wing voters are far less likely to vote. As such, if it is a rainy day Democrats stay at home whereas the Republicans, spurred on by their churches flock to the polls. It may well be the case that Barack Obama is far more popular than John McCain in opinion polls, but when it comes to the actual election he needs people to turn up. The right often see elections in America as a mission - a God-given mission - and that they have a duty to vote.

However, there are two last remaining hopes for Liberals in Western nations. In America it is that the Republicans, having made such an awful mess of the past eight years in power, that they have damaged the country's economy and foreign policy to such an extent that the general populace rise up and actually turn up to vote. This is a real possibility and could also be the case in Berlusconi's Italy. However, in the majority of the other European states (particularly France, Germany and the UK) the left can only see its own demise and its only hope is that it will bring the right with it.

The most powerful of the European nations are also those who are ignoring their politics the most. The British in particular have managed to elect a relatively right wing Labour Party and could soon a relatively left wing Conservative Party. In reality they are both centralist parties who share more ideologies and even policies than they would care to mention. Ultimately the left and the right are dead in these countries and there is only left that which is popular/electable. It will be a shame to see the end of true political ideologies and differences between political parties, but when a party's sole goal is to be elected it is understandable that they would rid themselves of anything that could hinder their election (such as a clear identity).

I would personally say that the American situation is preferable as at least there is a clear choice. Europe is old and tired and has lost its will for political fighting and, perhaps, for all his narcissism, corruption and frightening nationalism we need more people like Silvio Berlusconi - even if it is just as a reason to reject him with all our hearts.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Lost Anything Lately?  


OK, so I have to admit to being a little absent minded. In fact the amount of umbrellas I have left over the period of my life on various trains, buses and in bars and restaurants could fill an entire train carriage.

However, I cannot remember a time (nor can I imagine a time) where I have either:

a) Taken out and read sensitive documents (admittedly I do not tend to read such documents very often)

b) Subsequently left said sensitive documents on the train, failed to get them back, to only find where the documents are when they have been reported by the media

Okay, so I do not work in the civil service and I am unlikely to be in this position. But surely the debacle of the top secret information passed onto the BBC by a train passenger should not have been repeated within days? Surely when there has been one huge embarrassment other civil servants would take special care not to leave their paperwork on a train?

It is true that, as Geoff Hoon recently stated, the last batch of paperwork did not include secret information. However, that is not really the point - no paperwork should be left behind on a train, particularly so soon after some secret information has been left on a train!

Whoever the person is who left the 'BBC Papers' on a train should, of course, be fired. These documents should not even have been out of their office. However, it is the Heads of the department, both Civil Service and elected, who should be held to account for these failings in security. It is unlikely that these people will face any repercussions, but the government as a whole is likely to find that this is another nail in a coffin that has long since been buried.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Finally the Democrats Have a Nominee  


It has lasted longer, and more money has been spent on it, than many democratic government's entire periods in power, but finally it looks like the Democrats will select Barack Obama as their nominee.

Few would have given Clinton any hope of securing the nomination, but she resolutely stayed on, hoping that the party's 'Super Delgates' influence the vote in her favour. However, it has in fact been the opposite, as the Super Delegates have sought to elect Obama if not for any other reason because they want the whole, farcical affair drawn to a close.

Indeed Clinton has now, apparently, made it clear that she is open to becoming Obama's running mate, meaning that Obama will get many of the Hispanic votes that were reserved for Clinton when it comes to the Presidential election.

If this story is true, the these two Democratic heavy weights can truly make a play for the White House. McCain should be concerned, even if he can use the negative politics used by each of the Democrats to his own advantage.

It is true that this campaign, more than any other for a nominee for the White House, never mind a President, has been particularly vitriolic (on both sides, but particularly from the Clinton camp). Equally, it is true that the degree of waste (this time the Obama camp is very much the culprit), and the hideous amount of money and time are, for a European living in a Parliamentary system, frankly distasteful.

However, the system is what it is and it has certainly made for epic entertainment, even if, as with so many attempts at epics, it could have done with being a little shorter and much less melodramatic.

Let us now hope that the Democrats can sort themselves out and push themselves on. Obama, despite his often irritating overuse of it, is right to use the phrase 'America needs change'. It does, and the Democrats appear to be finally selecting two people who have the personalities to become good Presidential and Vice Presidential nominees. It doesn't matter what they are like when they actually get into office - just look at Bush's abysmal record - it only matters that they sell themselves to the American people. With the Republican party out of office there would be real hope that the Evangelical Church and the Hawks will have to spend at least 4 years away from the seat of power and that, finally, the world can start to live up to its name again.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

The Oil Spoil  


The truckers have revolted and London's ring roads are even more congested than usual!

I am the last person to defend driver's rights. I live in London, do not drive and, for my sins, I am an avid user of public transport. However, in this instance I feel the need to come down on the side of the gas guzzling, polluting petrol-heads. Yes, the government needs to reduce petrol duty.

There is no doubt that there is too much congestion on our roads and that London has made the right and essential choice by implementing the congestion charge. It is also true that the pollution caused by drivers, particularly those who drive larger engined, so-called 'Chelsea Tractors' is, frankly, selfish and immoral.

However, the fact is that, however idiotic the reasons, we are stuck with the combustion engine. We have taken away the trains and the canals and we have created a situation where the vast majority of our heavy goods are transported via lorries.

It is vital to the British economy to be able to transport goods and for HGV companies to be able to make a profit. Without an alternative such as canals and trains, it is essential that the HGV transport companies can work and make a profit.

Ultimately the government needs to provide alternatives to the oil dependent, polluting and expensive HGV system. However, it has made little move to do so and so it should support this vital industry. Whether a weakened Prime Minister, desperate to show leadership, will make the correct decision and support the HGV industry is another thing.

Equally, the petrol duty taken is not accounted for. Where does it go? If it was put into the public transport system (ignoring the private industries who are charging such hideous prices) then it would be possible to improve the trains, increase the number of services and provide cheaper transport. At the present time many either have no choice but to travel by car, or it is still more cost effective to do so.

The government can take a lead and have failed to do so. It is now more essential than ever that it now does so.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The Fear of Fritzl  


So we have another amazing, shocking and terrifying story! Lock up your kids, demand new laws, slap a GPS transmitter on your child - the paedophiles are here! Okay, so we all share a rather guilty fascination in the story and there are so many more elements to it than the usual paedophile shock stories.

The stories about Fritzl being a Neo-Nnazi, that his victim was his own daughter and that he had created an elaborate underground home to enjoy his 'other life' in are all well documented and reported. Fritzl managed to break every taboo known to man and did so in such an unfeeling, unemotional way that he must be a psychopath as well as, and I have to use the word, pervert. His actions in imprisoning his daughter and raping her over a period of 24 years, not to mention the abuse the children endured (including, in all likelihood, the rape of one of the children he had conceived with his own daughter) marks him out as a true monster. However, it also marks him out as a celebrity as infamous as other monsters like Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy, Harold Shipman and oh so many others.

These are the real boogie men we hope our children will not encounter and yet it is the adults, the parents who are the ones who are hiding under the bedsheets, too scared to look.

Paedophiles are the big thing right now. It's hardly news to say that the media use fear in order to sell stories. However, in the UK in particular, there is a political dimension to the newspapers' use of paedophile stories. With Fritzl the right wing newspapers are happy to tell you how much this kind of thing could only happen in a country as Germanic as Austria and yet with our home-grown paedophiles they bellow out vitriolic rhetoric, demanding stronger laws, more police and better family values. There are many problems with families in the UK but one of them is certainly not allowing their kids to roam the streets unprotected. The fact is we are keeping our children in the house on a diet of video games and no exercise making them mal-adjusted and fearful of the outside world.

It was only in 1875 that the age of consent was raised to 13. Up until then it had been 12 for sometime and brothels specialised in providing young girls to their 'customers'. Right through to the 20th century the authorities turned a blind eye to flagrant paedophilia and other abysmal crimes committed against children. And yet we are told that society is becoming worse, that paedophiles are everywhere and the right wing newspapers cry for a return to 'Victorian values'. Well I'm sorry, but those same values meant that children were regularly treated as sex slaves by sexually depraved, but otherwise 'respectable' men. We should never go back to such a dark time, however much the Daily Mail would love to.

It is understandable that parents fear for their children. However, it is a disgrace that newspapers like The News of the World should manipulate this fear and that those same parents should turn into mindless thugs. Fear is something politicians use, parents and couples use and the media was born to use, but we should all be more aware of it and its influence upon us.

There is not a Josef Fritzl living around every corner; another Ian Huntley is not likely to attack your child; the number of paedophiles is no higher than before, they are just publicised more. Do not make celebrities out of them and do not teach your children to be frightened of boogie men.

Lastly, I advise all readers to view the excellent Brass Eye mockumentary on paedophilia and try to laugh, if not at your own fears then at the fears of society as a whole.

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Monday, 5 May 2008

The Intangible Men  


Barack Hussein Obama Jr. and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson may seem worlds apart and, certainly in their backgrounds, they are. However, there are two things they share in common:

1. They spent part of their respective childhoods abroad (Obama lived in Indonesia from the age of 6 until 10 and Johnson, born in New York, was educated at the European School in Brussels before becoming an Etonian

2. They are each extremely popular politicians, one of whom has won an election to become London Mayor and one of them (providing he manages to prevent his minister from preaching any further hatred) is a serious contender for US President, and they have managed to achieve their success without having any serious policies whatsoever.

Okay, so they both have some policies. I agree with Boris (when did we all start calling him by his first name?) that bendy buses are rubbish. As a keen cyclist myself I certainly agree that they can be extremely dangerous. However, what else does Boris promise us? It seems that he swept to victory on a wave of anti-Gordon Brown, Anti-Labour feeling and the fury of the Middle England. Middle England are sure that they have got the right man to allow them to trundle their SUVs around London without the threat of paying for the pollution they have caused; they are certain that they have got the right man to sort out the delinquent, feral youths swarming the streets and threatening their very existence; they are adamant that they have got the right man to ensure that, during the credit crunch, they can still hammer away at their credit cards. He hasn't, beyond vague murmurings (the kind Boris does so well), got any polices to deal with these 'problems'. Equally, the other threat to the Middle England - people who are different - are, it appears, leaving the UK of their own accord (or possibly due to the fact that we have made them feel a little too welcome). The illegal immigrants, asylum seekers and economic migrants are leaving in their droves and, even if Boris does finally think of a policy to deal with them, it is likely that he will not need to. The fact that immigrants to the UK, including illegal immigrants, are essential to its economic prosperity (particularly the capital's) is a rather moot point.

Equally, Obama has policies beyond 'Change' (why does he keep harping on about this - one expects there to be change or else what's the point in electing someone new). Between promising to change everything he talks about, presumably for the better, he has made it clear that he has a policy on ending the war in Iraq, he has promised universal healthcare and energy independence (from Gulf states, presumably). However, like Johnson, he rarely gives any real substance to his policies.

I can't help liking these two men, however. I did not vote for Boris and, cannot imagine a parallel universe where this would be possible. I also felt a little queasy when I saw him blunder up the steps to make his victory speech, mumbling and spluttering out the words and looking thoroughly embarrassed to even be there. Even the Tories have said that his best strength will be his ability to delegate responsibility as he himself is not the sort of person to take it all upon himself. But he does seem to be a very pleasant, amusing and warm-hearted man. Sure he has insulted entire cities, but haven't we all at some point? He is gaffe-prone, but that is no reason for him not being the Mayor of London. I just hope he doesn't become Prime Minister.

Obama is a different case altogether. I'd probably vote for him in a second. If Europeans were allowed to vote in the US election the turnout would be amazing - far higher than when we elect our own leaders - and Obama would be a clear winner. We love Obama because, however irritating his constant message of change and hope is, we believe him. How can we not when his is such a beautiful orator?

The problem is, then, that we can't help loving these men without substance, these intangible men - the problem is what happens when we really need them to show substance and it fails to show.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

1st May, 2008  


Yes, it’s election time again! And we all know what that means – a poor turnout caused by voter disillusion and antipathy towards all politicians! The only thing is that, this time, being the London Mayoral elections, this is not necessarily the case.

It appears that Londoners like myself, are going to be flocking to the polling stations in order to elect a mayor. This is likely to be the most closely fought election in recent memory helped by a proportional representation system that, like with the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh assembly, allows the London assembly the mayor to be truly chosen by the all the electorate.

And, with the desire by the electorate to elect their chosen candidate as mayor, we are also going to get a higher turnout to choose London assembly members (themselves voted for by the traditional, first-past-the-post system). This can only be good for democracy in the UK in general, particularly considering the usually dismal turnout in recent local elections and even, to a lesser extent, general elections.

What, then, has made people so keen to vote in this election?

One reason that is often overlooked is the one already mentioned – the proportional representation system of voting in the mayor. The principal problem with the traditional method of voting in local and general elections in the UK is that for many their vote simply will not count. If I am a Tory supporter and live in Liverpool I would feel that my vote is wasted as there would be not chance that the Tories will win a seat in Liverpool. Equally, there is no chance that Labour can win a seat in Kensington & Chelsea. As such what would be the point of voting if a Tory supporter in Liverpool, or a Labour supporter in Kensington? There would be simply no point at all. Even more so, if I were a Liberal Democrat supporter, knowing that my party in the last election were securing nearly as many votes as the Tories, but that through the traditional voting system are never likely to go above third place, I would be disillusioned with the political system in this country. In the mayoral election all the votes count and so the winner can truly be said to be representative of the people.

Secondly, the two main candidates are clear characters with differing policies and ideologies. It is true that Brian Paddick is a bit of a damp squib and that the Liberals should have been more ambitious in their selection of a candidate (my local MP, Vince Cable would have been a wonderful choice). It is also true that ‘Red Ken’ has questions to answer regarding the possible fraudulent activities of one or two his employees and that ‘Boris’, as the Labour machine insist on calling him, has demonstrated the kind of pompous and elitist attitude which has made the Tories so unpopular with so many voters. However, it is in these two characters and their flaws that we get a clear difference between the candidates and can engage with them and their policies.

Finally, London’s successes and failures are representative of the country as a whole. It is likely that the turnout at the next general election, however much the antiquated electoral system puts many voters off, will still have a larger turnout. The present Labour administration has hit a point similar to the Conservatives in the late 1990s, where they have been in power so long that people feel they are no longer in touch with the general populace. Equally, the electorate will always want change, no matter how well or badly a government has performed. With the economy in doubt and with a leader who is not performing well in the opinion polls, it is likely that the next election, like that of the 1997 election, will result in a higher turnout and, if the present incumbents do not improve in the opinion polls significantly, another landslide. The only chance to vote right now is in the London Mayoral election and Londoners are seizing on the opportunity to express themselves.

Let’s hope that there is a move towards proportional representation (as was promised by the present administration in their 1997 manifesto) and that all UK voters get the same fever for democracy as Londoners so that all of us can say that we have had a say in our democracy.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Karen & Kate  


Two stories that have dominated the tabloids have been the 'abductions' of two very different young chlildren.

In The Independent (before Karen Matthews was arrested for having some part in her own daughter's disappearance) the newspaper contrasted the two different cases.

The McCanns' case received a cast amount of positive media coverage, monetary donations and support from celebrities, politicians and even, most famously, the pope. The Independent used the following figures to illustrate its argument that there was an unfair amount of attention given to the McCanns' case because they were middle class, successful and respectable as opposed to the Matthews case where a woman has had seven children, with five different fathers and who lives in one of the most deprived areas of the UK:

Madeleine McCann
Age: Four. Parents: Kate, 40, a GP. Gerry, 39, a cardiologist. Siblings: Twins, now aged two.
Home: Detached house, Leicestershire.
UK press stories after nine days: 465.
Rewards offered: £2.6m: the 'News of the World', Stephen Winyard, Philip Green, Simon Cowell, Coleen McLoughlin, 'The Sun', Sir Richard Branson, J K Rowling.
Public donations: £1.1m:
J K Rowling, Bryan Adams, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, John Terry, Phil Neville, David Moyes, the England cricket team.
Wikipedia profile: 2,182 words after nine days.
Shannon Matthews
Age: Nine. Parents: Karen, 32, and Leon Rose, 29. Stepfather, Craig, 22. Siblings: Six boys and girls, from her mother's partnerships with five different men.
Home: Three-bed council house, Dewsbury Moor.
UK press stories after nine days: 242.
Rewards offered: £25,500. Made up of £20,000 by 'The Sun', £5,000 from Huddersfield firm Joseph International, £500 from Wakefield pensioner Winston Bedford.
Public donations: Thousands at most, including Leona Lewis.
Wikipedia profile: 151 words after nine days.

The fact that there are so many blogs (e.g. Justice for ALL the family), that there were so many posters put up around the world (I saw several in Japan and Korea, for example) and that there was such a huge amount of international media coverage - all devoted to "Maddie"- demonstrates an unprecedented level of interest in a missing child.

The comparison between the two cases is certainly a sharp one. There are other reasons for the success of the McCanns' media drive over that of Karen Matthews. Kate McCann is slim, attractive and photogenic and her husband appears to be loyal & supportive as well as being erudite and media savvy. Karen Matthews demonstrated a very poor grasp of English and can hardly be described as photogenic.

Despite The Independent's earnest attempt to highlight an apparently wronged mother, few now believe that Karen Matthews is not in fact the wrong-doer. The tabloids have gorged themselves on stories of the 'chav' single mother being arrested for perverting the course of justice (e.g. The Sun's headline Shannon's Mum Karen in knicked); they have fallen over themselves with the arrest of Craig Meehan (Sharon's stepfather) for possessing child pornography and the Waltonesque size of her otherwise far from Waltonesque family.

The majority of the public have difficulty believing that a pretty, middle class mother could conceive of murdering her own daughter and yet, when if comes to a 'chav' from a rough estate they have no difficulty believing the worst. Karen Matthews is not guilty of murdering her daughter as she is still, thankfully, very much alive. However, Matthews is almost certainly guilty of perverting the course of justice and of being in some way behind her daughter's 'abduction'. It is hideous that that her now ex-boyfriend possessed child porn and that she allowed him and his uncle, Michael Donovan, to hide her child in the drawer of a divan while pretending to police and the public that she was an innocent victim.

She also tried to claim money from the fund set up by the McCanns to find their daughter and other missing children. It would seem that she had seen the success of the McCanns' campaign, and the millions of pounds made and wanted a piece of the action.

The story, like the McCanns', is fascinating and the public cannot wait to turn the pages of their newspapers to find more. However, it seems to me that people are interested in the Matthews case because of all the negative aspects of humanity represented by the family, whereas they are more likely to be interested in finding Madelaine safe and sound.

Perhaps these two stories are less about the abduction of a child, and more about the mothers. However poorly the Portuguese police have acted and however incompetently, they did find evidence which suggested the McCanns' guilt in their daughter's death. The DNA evidence, found in a car rented by the McCanns' two weeks after their daughter's death was not enough to convict them, but they will remain aguidos as they are (thus far) the only credible suspects. I am not saying they are guilty and, if they are innocent they have every right to use every method at their disposal to find their daughter, but there was at least some evidence to the contrary and the police are right to treat them as suspects as long as this evidence is not countered with better evidence.

The media have quickly fallen behind the McCanns' (particularly after they took the Express group to court) and have instead attacked the Portuguese police rather than admit that there is some suggestion of guilt. The taboo of a mother hurting her child is as strong as ever - provided we are thinking about a middle class doctor who was holidaying in an exclusive resort. It is not so strong when thinking of a 'chav slapper living in a dodgy estate'.

I do hope the McCanns are innocent and that they find their child, and I also hope that Karen Matthews, and her seemingly despicable family see swift justice. But, possibly naively, I hope that people will think about the two cases and examine their own attitudes.

I find it distasteful that the Madelaine McCann story took over the media's attention when there were so many other stories that needed coverage and publicity. In 2004 there were 846 children abducted in the UK and this number has been increasing. The fact that one of these children was seen as more newsworthy than the others (however much it makes sense to anyone who understands the media) is unpleasant. Equally, on the 8th of May - 5 days after Madelaine went missing and right in the middle of the first wave of media coverage - several children were killed in Iraq. The story gets a ten paragraph article gets a ten paragraph article on the BBC website. It was not reported on the BBC news itself.

Fundamentally, the police in both cases should be allowed to do their jobs. The media have made the McCann situation into a circus and the Matthews case into a freak show. As much as it is the role of the media to select and promote stories it feels are of interest to its consumers - it also has a moral duty to represent the news and not only those stories that excite the middle classes into pity (in the case of the McCanns) or loathing and feelings of superiority (in the case of Karen Matthews).

These two women are very different to one another. One of them is almost certainly guilty of a heinous crime and the other will, hopefully, find her child. What they share is the glare of the media. Rather than judge Karen Matthews ourselves, however, we should look at the two cases and judge our own reaction to them.

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Monday, 14 April 2008

Arsene Around  


Sports News

Sports news will appear in this blog occasionally and I have absolutely no idea when. Probably just when there are at least two 'SHOCK STORIES'. We are sticking with football for today's entry, as it has two such SHOCK STORIES.

The latest SHOCKER is that Arsene Wenger is a bad loser. Admittedly this fact is not too much of a surprise as he has shown, throughout his illustrious career of winning lots of things that he is not keen on failing to do so. However, he has clearly gone a little too far with his completely insane rant concluding with accusations of referees conspiring against his team. I was fortunate enough to watch the match (a pulsating affair, dominated bt Arsenal but won by Manchester United), and I can claim without bias, that William Gallas handled the ball and that it was a freekick. It is inconsequential whether Arsenal deserved to win, whether they deserved at least one penalty when they played Liverpool and whether referees make mistakes; it is farcical, offensive and downright ludicrous to accuse referees of a vast conspiracy against Arsenal. Let's not forget that Adebayor clearly palmed the ball into the net to claim Arsenal's opening goal and, however deserved it was, they should not have been given it by the referee.

The second SHOCKER was the shameful treatment of Rafael Benitez by his club's owners. Despite some often bizarre decisions by Benitez, he has been the most successful Liverpool since Kenny Dalgliesh and (unlike the latter) done this with his own team. He is popular with the fans, accomplished as a tactician and well respected by other managers. One would not bet against Benitez out-thinking Chelsea in the Champions League yet again and reaching a third final in the competition in four years. And yet the owners of his club are talking to a German who lives in California and has never managed in the Premier League or the Champions League. What is going on at Liverpool?

When one adds the owners' squabbles and Rick Parry's attempts at resolving the in-fighting by falling out with everyone, and you have the classical Premiership farce.

Liverpool are not a team to be messed with, however. With such a loyal fan base across the world and in the ground itself and with such a great history of success behind it, the current owners have to make the right choice. They are not the right people to run Liverpool FC and, even if DIC are not, they certainly cannot be worse.

It is a sad state of affairs that one of the world's greatest clubs has been handled in such a despicable way and it, like Wenger's overreaction, points to the game's biggest SHOCKER; a lack of respect in the game, and in the way its most powerful individual's treat the people who make the game what it is.


Sunday, 6 April 2008

Chaelton Heston Dies  


Charlton Heston had, quite rightly, been much maligned for the last couple of decades of his eventful life. There is no doubt that Heston's strong support for Americans' rights to bear arms and his presidency of the NRA, gave much surfeit to an industry that is responsible for the deaths of every American who has killed another human being with a gun.

However, we should not remember Heston as 'just another right-wing gun nut' and that, for Americans, arguing for the right to bear arms is not purely about guns.

It is true that it is hard to ignore images of Heston with his rifle held aloft daring anti-gun lobbyists to pry the gun "from my cold, dead hands." For Americans the right to bear arms is enshrined in the constitution as the second amendment. of the Bill of Rights. The constitution is America, and to change it would require an almighty effort; and any change to the constitution would be profoundly uncomfortable for the majority of Americans.

An amendment to the constitution has only been repealed once and that was in the case of prohibition, which was simply splitting the country apart. The fact is, quite understandably, the constitution is rigorously protected and, however antiquated and ridiculous it may sound to keep the second amendment it is understandable that Heston would feel the need to protect the constitution itself.

That is not to say that Heston was right to defend guns themselves or that I agree with him whatsoever. There is no place for guns in the 21st century and Heston's views often belonged to a previous age. However, let's not forget that Heston was once as rigorous a defender for the rights of black Americans as much as he ended his life as a advocate for guns. When anyone dies we should remember the good they brought to the world and in standing against white racism and segregation Heston helped to bring a lot of good into this world.

Ben Hur was a hell of a movie as well.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

The Terminal  


"Life is Waiting", as the tag line for the Hollywood movie, The Terminal states. The life that is waiting in the movie is that of Viktor Navorski, played by Tom Hanks. In this film, due to a mixture of bureaucracy and petted-minded cruelty by an immigration official (played by a scene stealing Stanley Tucci). Leaving aside Speilburg's usual schmaltz, the fact it could have done with being an hour shorter and Hanks' awful attempts at an Eastern European accent, the film does throw up a few interesting points about modern life and the ways in which human beings can easily be treated as passport numbers. It explores the events that can occur when something goes wrong with a system; when someone doesn't tick a box, doesn't fit into what they should, where a situation has to be decided by a human being for the benefit of another human being.

Now, to link this with the story of the weekend (easily usurping the 300 dead Iraqis in two days) - Heathrow's Terminal 5 being a bit rubbish. I am being facetious, losing a couple of people's bags is a bit rubbish - stranding between 15,000 and 20,000 bags at the airport may well have led to slightly stronger words, particularly from the passengers. How is it that Terminal 5, so recently opened by the Queen and so keenly promoted by BAA, with its slogan 'Make Way for a World-Class Airport', could have hit the ground so badly? It was built on time and on budget which, considering other recent white elephant nominees (The Dome, Wembley and very likely the Olympics) is quite an achievement. It is the largest enclosed space in the UK; it houses a Gordon Ramsey restaurant and enough designer stores to make it impossible to swing a paint-bloodied fur coat without hitting one; it is the home of one of Europe's oldest and most respected airlines. Wait a minute - British Airways? Ah, that's where it all went wrong.

Let's go for another slogan and BA's wonderfully ironic "London begins with British Airways". It seems that many passengers will be rather more interested to know when the end to their British Airways experience is, than to celebrate a less than auspicious beginning. And that end may be some time coming with so many bags in great piles around Heathrow. In fact it is likely that the majority of the passengers (many of whom are in fact just transferring at Heathrow) will not see their bags until sometime after the end of their journey. BA have apologised and have promised an extra 400 hundred staff, but the fault lies firmly at their door and their handling of the situation has been abysmal, treating the thousands of people affected as poorly as Stanley Tucci's character treated Viktor Navorski.

BA's policy of a £100 upper limit on hotel accommodation costs for delayed passengers has been rightly criticised. This limit was terrible PR, contravened European law and was just downright mean. BA is at fault for the baggage failures and it should, as a major airline, take responsibility for its actions. However, BA has not been acting like a major airline for many years and, as a result, should no longer be seen as one.

BA treats its business passengers very well. Its Club World seats are amongst the best and it has invested heavily in giving its frequent, business transatlantic travellers every comfort imaginable in a flying tin can. However, the economy flyers are not given a service relative to their class. These passengers have increasingly been treated as if they were flying with Ryanair, an airline that prides itself on its low costs and no frills service, rather than as 'The World's Favourite Airline'. Anyone who has travelled long-haul with BA will know what an excruciating experience it is. The seats are too close together, the food is awful and the flight attendants are over-worked and somewhat surly (possibly because they are forbidden from wearing certain types of jewellery and can be suspended for eating leftover food). BA's budget airline approach has even extended to the baggage it holds, where it is is now charging economy passengers if they check in more than one bag (up to £240 per bag) but this approach has not affected the prices of the tickets. In fact, as we all know, BA was found guilty of fixing its prices with other airlines and thus over-charging its customers (it was subsequently fined heavily). The BA management clearly took on some of the ideals of the budget airlines who were eating into so much of its European business and they did this while inflating their prices; making their company that most rare of things: an airline that thought it was the world's favourite, acted like the world's cheapest and failed to be either.

Lost luggage is not new to BA. In fact, BA has the worst record for losing luggage of any European airline (bearing in mind the budget airlines do not publish their figures). Is it really any surprise that BA, with such a poor record when it comes to the treatment of its passengers, and a particularly abysmal record with cabin baggage, has managed to leave so many on the Heathrow tarmac.

BA is a failure and it needs new management. It will need to be streamlined and modernised. Moreover, and more importantly, it should not be given any more preferential treatment by the government or BAA. It has been given a brand new, shiny terminal to play with and it has managed to fill the place with mounds of baggage. If BA is allowed to continue as it is it will continue to treat people like passport numbers and they will be feel that life is waiting for them in another country, just as long as it is not the UK.

Monday, 24 March 2008

The Fear of Fu Manchu  


The Olympics are almost upon us and, as with any Olympics worth its salt, the 2008 Olympics is steeped in controversy. However, this Olympics is not going to be just the usual mixture of camp ceremonies and muscle bound athletes. This Olympics is in Beijing and the Chinese have a knack of doing everything far bigger than any other country could even comprehend.

We are going to be treated to an opening ceremony beyond anything we have seen before. Imagine Chinese New Year with practically no limit on the budget. We will stare in disbelief at the magnificent Olympic stadiums, awe-struck at the ingenuity and design that has gone into the famous Bird Nest Stadium.

This Olympics is also likely to be the most rigorous with regards to testing athletes for banned substances and it should be, another Balco Labs permitting, as drug free a games as we have had in the past couple of decades.

This Olympics should see an improvement in the British performance as, after the disappointment of Athens, so much money has been poured into British athletics. We have a couple of rising stars and at least one serious hopeful in Kelly Sotherton, of being a gold medallist.

The question is, then, why are so many of us so adamant that this Olympics should never go ahead?

China undoubtedly has one of the worst human records in the developed world, with the state executing nearly 4,000 people each year, by far the largest number of state executions. This figure is even more shocking when you consider the second largest (Iran) executes a mere 159 and the US 59 (SOURCE: Amnesty International). Equally, its treatment of Taiwan and Tibet is horrific, with the former regularly threatened with military force and the latter pitifully subjugated.

Tibet has been in the news a little more than Taiwan recently, with Tibetan monks leading protests against Chinese rule. Several of the monks are missing, with Amnesty International calling for their release. There has been wide-spread brutality by Chinese riot police and its military in its efforts to quell largely peaceful protests.

China has a pretty poor record when it comes to the environment. South Korea annually feels the full force of Chinese industrial power as every Spring the country is steeped in a deep brown-yellow cloud of pollution that has floated over from China and Mongolia. I lived for two years in Seoul and I can testify from first hand to the pollution caused by the 'Yellow Cloud'. People avoid going outside when the cloud is at its most dense, staying inside to avoid choking on the dust, to prevent their eyes from stinging and becoming bloodshot and, most of all, to avoid the foul stench.

All in all the people who argue for boycotting the 2008 Beijing Olympics are more than justified to criticise China's human rights and environmental records. However, these people are certainly not justified to use these as an argument to boycott the Olympics.

Napoleon famously said "Let China sleep for when she awakes, she will shake the world". China has slept for a long time and, for a period in the early to mid 20th century, it seemed to be in a coma. It has now awakened and it is starting to stretch its limbs. From Nixon's historic visit to China, to its entry to the World Trade Organisation and on to the present day, China has been slowly opening itself to the rest of the world. However, the party leadership, however much it has embraced capitalism, has retained a desire for one China. This belief that the great landmass of China, with all its various ethnic groups and cultural traditions, should be one is held by the vast majority of the Chinese people and it has been so since the days of the First Emperor two thousand years ago. It is largely irrelevant which countries wish to break away from China, the Han Chinese who make up the vast majority of the Chinese people place the unity of their nation as central to their country's and their personal identity. As such, in arguing that China is ruled by a cruel and despotic government which seeks to subjugate and threaten any parts of its empire who dare to wish for independence, people are rather missing the point. They are, in fact, falling for the old Cold War mentality of black and white thinking and of believing that the Chinese government is run by a Fu Manchu style, melodramatic villain.

So, if the Chinese majority are so keen on unity, even to the detriment of those who wish to break away, are we in fact dealing with a nation of Fu Manchus? Of course not. Having visited China on a couple of occasions I have always been impressed by the people and their great passion for their country. It is true that Shanghai smells and that Beijing taxi drivers have a terrible habit of reversing into streams of unruly traffic; it is true that everything is chaotic and that you are more likely to have a local delicacy ripped from your hand by a beggar than to sit zen-like in a park; it is true that the level of poverty in the countryside is sickening compared to the wealth in the cities. However, everything about China is in flux, and that this constant transition so full of colour that even the considerable darkness is drowned out. I have never met anyone who has been to China who has not left in love with the country and its people.

Equally, with regards to the dictatorial and cold-blooded, Ming the Merciless mentality we have been taught to think of the Chinese authorities there are many examples to the contrary. I took my laptop through customs once with a Chinese colleague. The customs officer upon seeing the laptop wanted to take a look inside. My colleague shouted at him and demanded the laptop back and the customs officer dutifully obeyed. I am by no means suggesting that this was a good thing (it was not a bomb), but we have been brought up in the west to see East Asians, particularly the Chinese as cold and untrustworthy and as having authorities who are as cruel as they are dictatorial. This is not true.

It is true that China limits access to certain websites. The BBC website, for instance is blocked by the Chinese government as it has been critical of it in the past. However, Western countries and media organisations are largely at fault. Western countries cannot simply push their ideals upon another nation while at the same time taking its money for helping to limit those ideals. Yahoo! and Google should certainly not have made a deal with the Chinese government if they believe in free speech and Western governments could have intervened. Equally, whereas the BBC is blocked for being critical of the Chinese government, the majority of news organisations including CNN have not been. Why is this?

The 1936 Olympics went ahead despite the fact that the Nazi party's open discrimination of Jewish athletes and desire to promote its Aryan super race. The US and the UK quibbled about sending a team to the Olympics but both decided to send teams. This was the right choice for the wrong reason. As the majority of Western governments wish to have a piece of China's sudden prosperity, Nazi Germany was also suddenly powerful and countries such as the UK and the US wanted to avoid upsetting them. Governments who have understandable concerns about Chinese human rights should make their objections clear, but this should be independent of the games. Individuals should feel free to boycott the games, but they should also do so for the correct reasons and not because of some pre-existing cold war fear of the Chinese people.

However much the Olympics should be treated primarily as a sporting event it is true that it has a huge influence on a country and its citizens, not to mention its appearance to the rest of the world. China, more than any other country, wants to demonstrate its worth and it is through events like the Olympics that the Chinese government will move towards giving more human rights to all its citizens. To boycott this event is to say that China is not welcome and it will push it further away. China will fully awaken with the Olympic Games and let's make sure that it knows it is welcome.