Thursday, 5 June 2008

Hiatus

I won't be blogging for a while as I get my thoughts and life together. I may even learn how to operate wordpress to move on from Blogger. Now that would be exciting.

I'll be back.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Scots Wha Hae

Stop me from generalising but, meet the average Scot, and you'll marvel at the sheer dourness that encircles them as they bewail their misery and misfortune.

Even when nothing that bad has actually happened, there's normally an arsenal of enemies awaiting character assassination, or an assortment of seemingly miserable anecdotes, to regail onlookers with over a pint or two on a Friday evening

People like to say this attitude is based on a Calvinist understanding of life that sees pleasure as sin - one that certainly resonated with my parents who approved of anything they deemed 'character-building' - but I think it's equally to do with the pleasure of watching others squirm from behind their rose tinted spectacles, as we methodically destroy their naive world views.

The funny thing is, dourness is something we Scots actively enjoy. Yankee style positivity and platitudes simply don't work in our neck of the woods. Black humour is considered the thinking man's opiate and - even when things are working out famously, with your job say, or your fiance - it just wouldn't be the done thing to applaud success or happiness, at least, not without puncturing it with the odd jibe.

I grew up with that approach to life, and it's one I both understand and appreciate. More than anything, curiously, I enjoy the looks of bewilderment passed at us by passing foreigners who simply don't get why, for the love of God, we are not more positive about life. For many Scots, moaning is a kind of humourous code, a bit of mindless banter.

But if we're not careful, it gets too wrapped up in the way we view the world, blinding us to the good things and making us focus exclusively on the bad.

As such, I've resolved to try and free myself from the desire to moan, mostly because it breeds apathy instead of action in the face of difficult situations that it would be a good deal better just to move on from and forget instead of dwelling, Bannockburn style, on the injuries of the past.

After spending far too much time resenting an array of people in my address book I am going to take the advice of Selim, the prisoner condemned to life in a light-less dungeon in Tahar Ben Jelloun's magnificently dark, yet inspriing, novel 'This Blinding Absence of Light', in which he says:

'I had no enemies. I was not giving into my worst instincts any more. I understood how draining it was to spend my time chopping into pieces all those who had done me harm. I had decided not to bother and that is how I got rid of them, which amounted to killing them without dirtying my hands or stewing forever in the desire to repay them with the same misery they had inflicted on me.

I had to move beyond the idea of revenge once and for all , become impervious to (it)...because revenge smelled strongly of death and did not solve any problems. Search as I might, I found noone to detest. This meant I had returned to a state of mind I loved above all others: I was a free man'

Moving On...

Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death. Anais Nin

Before I left York for Brussels my flatmate offered me a piece of advice: never go back.

She was right. In the year since I moved back to Brussels I've been totally unable to recreate the sense of exploration and excitement that kept me motivated here first time round.

Despite the champagne and the shopping I've been unhappy, resentful, and running to stand still, forcing myself to go through the motions of appearing interested in Commission communications on budgetary policy, asking myself the unanswerable question: should I stay or should I go?

Well, now I have my answer. And whether I jumped, or was pushed, or it was a combination of both, doesn't reduce the relief I feel that - for better or for worse - it is time to move forwards and get the hell outta here!

Sure, everyone is scared of change. But I had a revelation of sorts last week: two years off thirty, I'm damned if all those dreams I put in one corner of my mind and shut off for some uncertain 'later' will never come to fruition.

If there are things I feel need to be seen and done, aspects of me, my life, my attitudes, that need changed, then now is the time to see them, do them, change them.

Definitively.

What I liked about Herman Hesse's Siddharta is the idea that life is a series of cycles.

You can either live one sole cycle, doing what you were essentially 'born to do' because of your family background of situation or, having explored all the possibilities, and fallen into all the pitfalls, of one way of living, learn from those and move on.

Well I'm fed up of making the same old mistakes over and over and over again. I know I was wrong about a lot of things but, seriously, basta.

It's time I started learning from my mistakes, not just to save myself the pain of repeating them ad nauseum but because I think it's our moral duty to others in general to be the best people we can be.

So I am going to take a break, finish that thesis - well, if possible - and get my head in the right place so that when I next make a decision about the future its based on far, far more than simple fear of moving forwards.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

The End of the World As We Know It

I don't know what's wrong with me at the moment. Can't seem to bring myself to write about anything much. Perhaps that's because I keep being given assignments about the onset of armaggedon at work which make everything seem a bit pointless.

Last time I checked terrorists were about to cause a clash of civilisations with the muslim world that would result in a Revelations-style fight to the death.

However, unlike the (apparent) majority of my fellow citizens I have never been particularly afraid of this scenario, partly because I think those threatening to destroy Western civilisation are more than usually incompetent and partly because we have most of the money and weapons on our side.

From what I can tell there's a large number of disgruntled 16 year olds from Luton with about 2 GCSE's to rub together looking for their moment in the limelight and a short-cut to credibility with their peers.

The shoe-bomber just made me laugh, as did the jeep 'attack' on Glasgow airport where the only person that got injured was the mujahideen doctor type who set himself on fire. From shame, probably.

True the whole 7/7 London Tube incident was scary but we definitely had more to fear from the IRA than these guys.

Climate change catastrophe and rising food prices is a different story.

The past year has seen startling hikes in the cost of basic foods: Corn has jumped 31%, rice 74%, soya 87% and wheat by an astonishing 130% since March 2007. As a result 100 million people could be pushed into poverty and hundreds of thousands put at risk of starvation according to the IMF and World Bank.

As opposed to the very localised threat of a possible terrorist attack (which can spread fear, but rarely, if ever, total destruction) the current situation is so grave that Ban Ki-Moon has warned it will cancel out all progress toward the Millennium Development goals of halving world poverty by 2015. Now billions of starving and desperate people is not only a humanitarian disaster but the recipe for a real third world war.

We are faced with the threat of a world which is deforested and denuded of its natural resources. Common goods like fish stocks and fresh water are getting rarer and will likely be the trigger for major conflict in years to come. If sea levels rise we'll sea a massive increase in refugee numbers, while natural disasters, salinisation and desertification linked to climate change will ensure harvests go from poor to non-existent in many of the world's poorest areas.

People like to blame biofuels for the current rash of food price hikes and shortages, and to a certain extent they are right since biofuels increase demand for crops, which boosts prices, which drives agricultural expansion, which eats forests, which releases even more CO2, which brings armageddon another step closer.

However, using biofuels as a scapegoat is a little too simplistic. Even if we turned over agrofuel fields to food production , that won't do much to counter world population growth and industrialisation which means people are consuming far more than the world can actually produce.

Take eating habits. The average Chinaman already eats 30 kilos more beef per capita now than he did in 1980. And the average kilo of beef requires 2000 square feet of land and 13000 litres of water. Since the same nutritional content can be gained from soya at 1% of the land and water, the logic of global capitalism, the logic of demand and supply to those who can afford goods, is pretty much responsible for the fact that farmers are growing food for the rich, and leaving the poor to starve.

Not that they have much choice. Agricultural markets are amongst the most restrictive and subsidised in the world, and their distortions trap poor farmers in a cycle of poverty and give them little incentive to increase food production. Likewise, the real culprit in the biofuels saga is the United States government which props up its industry to the tune of $7 billion a year, not including basic farm subsidies, which has a knock-on effect on world food production and prices.

It is the CAP and other subsidies, not biofuels, that are the root cause of this problem. If we really want to feed the world's poor, Europe and America should stop bleating about biofuels and move to end agricultural protectionism and export restrictions; enhance agricultural development in the poorest countries; and ensure the success of the Doha Development Round to encourage free, fair, and sustainable agricultural trade at global level.

Likewise, Europe must use its collective weight at international level to ensure that climate change and sustainability criteria are effectively integrated with trade policy to stop the latter undermining the former, as is currently the case. And that means stopping the Americans, in particular, screwing everyone over with their peculiar definition of 'free market economics' which is all about protecting their farmers, and damning the rest of the world.

It also means everyone becoming a vegetarian, as called for by Paul MacCartney.

It's a long shot. I dont see it happening myself. Armageddon is - sadly - a far safer bet.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Britain's Democratic Deficit

And while I'm on the subject of democracy and human rights I would like to draw attention to our own government's rather sinister double-speak on the issue.

According to Gordon Brown and others, the anti-Olympic Torch protests were a symbol of Britain's vibrant democratic values.

Or something.

The fact of the matter is that the police are using new anti-terrorism legislation to arrest people for demonstrating democratically.

That's right, following the Labour Party's example (when an elderly delegate was expelled from its annual conference for heckling Jack Straw over the Iraq war, under the 'Prevention of Terorrorism' Act) the guardians of law and order are using their powers to suppress dissent.

Much, it must be said, like the Chinese everyone was protesting about.

According to journalist Paul Lewis: "from the outset, police identified anti-Chinese protesters and subjected them to different rules to red-flag waving spectators.

Before the relay had even properly begun, my colleague witnessed police removing T-shirts and flags from demonstrators. At Ladbroke Grove, spectators carrying Tibetan flags were relegated to a pavement across the road, kept apart from a carnival-style reception.

Several protesters were dragged away.

Demonstrators who did not obey police requests to stand in designated areas were repeatedly threatened with anti-terrorist legislationl".

A victory for democracy if ever I saw one...

As Dan Kieran points out in his magnificent call to arms I Fought the Law, Britain is swiftly becoming an authoritarian state. As such, it is definitely a suitable successor to Beijing for the next Olympic Games. And from there, onwards to Sochi, in Russia, bastion of democracy and Human Rights.

And this is what they call progress.

Backdown or Boycott?

I've heard more crap about the Olympics than I can bear in the last week.

I've watched IOC President Jacques Rogge tell the world he was "saddened' by violent protests in Europe and that the Games would bounce back from this 'crisis'.

I've watched BBC reporters deliberate on how Britain can stand up for Human Rights and yet not 'offend' China.

I've watched athletes, from Tim Henman to Steve Redgrave, tell us how we should keep politics and sport separate.

I have seen noone, at least noone in the mainstream press, talk about China's broken promises to the world. Why we should be offended by China.

Tibet is actually a side issue. Even if the protests in Lhasa had never happened the West should still be demanding a boycott.

Not for emotional reasons

Not for political reasons

But because China has never, not once, tried to live up to the legally binding promises it made the International Olympic Committee when it won the bid for the 2008 Games all those years ago.

It signed a contract promising to improve democracy, human rights and media freedom in time for the Games.

No ifs, no buts.

Instead, all three have gone backwards.

Oppression is intensifying. Dissenters are held under lock and key, sometimes even in mental asylums. The international press is barred from entering Tibet and given minders while in China proper.

And just yesterday the governor of Lhasa said that if anyone tried to disrupt the progress of the Olympic Torch on its journey to Mount Everest through non-violent democratic protest they would be severely punished.

China has backed out of every promise it made the international community in return for its month in the limelight. Indeed, in failing to publish the Host City agreement, it is happy to pretend it never made any in the first place.

So I want the world to stop worrying about offending China.

While demanding a boycott now may not encourage change the IOC and the international community must demand that China lives up to its Olympic pledges by the time the Games commence in August.

If the authorities do not live up to this contract, we should boycott the whole event.

Some nebulous form of dialogue with the Dalai Lama will not suffice: that is just diplomatic smoke and mirrors.

We need concrete change. Or they can take their billion pound stadiums and use them as detention camps for all those dissidents. That would show the world what they are really made of.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Better Living Is A Science

To update from my last post, I can now state that - in some matters at least - better living certainly is a science.

After drinking far more than is remotely advisable at a staff party last night (yes, that was a Tuesday night and yes, that is as bad as it sounds, and yes I will have to live with the teasing for weeks to come) I can say, without a shadow of a doubt, that moderation in, or indeed total abstention from, the consumption of alcohol is a preferable state of being.

It also helped me lose 7 kilos over the last two months.

Game set and match to sobriety.

I am pleased that I have resolved this moral dilemma. On to the other 99.9%.....

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

In God We Doubt

As someone who spends longer than can ever be considered healthy obsessing about theological issues, I have come to remarkably few conclusions. So few, that I have been forced to subscribe to Olin Miller's assertion that "to be absolutely certain about something, one must know everything or nothing about it". I guess that's my cynical pragmatism at work.

However that doesn't stop me wishing I could believe in something - really believe in a way that gives my life a purpose I can dedicate myself to, rather than forcing myself to swallow a grain of truth surrounded by a load of claptrap for the sake of a little solace, which seems to be the failure of most religious texts I've explored. Many people say that historical context and exegisis brings more clarity. But, no matter how much I read, I'm simply not there yet.

I also consider it rather unfair that so many so called Holy Books have rocked up on the earth's shores. It's hard enough working out, after many years of painstaking research, whether one of them stacks up let alone comparing them to the beliefs of Incas, Hare Krishna's or even just the other major world religions.

So imagine how pleased I was to discover this excerpt from a new book by John Humphrys entitled In God We Doubt. I remember the marxist vicar Giles Fraser well from my time at Wadham when he was our college chaplain.

One particular sermon of his on The Matrix and the meaning of modern life was instrumental in changing my understanding of British society at the tender age of 19, an understanding only reinforced by works like Affluenza and I Fought the Law which, despite their slightly hysterical tone, have helped prevent me ever becoming a fully functional member of a society obsessed by consumption, pleasure, and distraction.

As Humphrys himself acknowledges "For those of us who are neither believers nor atheists it can be very difficult. Doubters are left in the deeply unsatisfactory position of finding the existence of God unprovable and implausible, and the comfort of faith unachievable. But at the same time we find the reality of belief undeniable".

I agree with him that while most attempts to justify belief in God seem hopelessly naive, the hopelessness of postmodernist thought, in which we are supposed to be satisfied with a life of pleasure with nothing at the end of it, doesn't make a great deal of sense either. In fact, if human beings, like other creatures, were supposed to exist happily without a sense of an external creator why did they all go to such great lengths to create one?

After all is said and done, "There remains what the atheist philosopher AC Grayling calls “the lingering splinter in the mind . . . a sense of yearning for the absolute”. There is a profound longing for something that will stimulate and satisfy emotionally and spiritually.

In the end our choice, as Humprhys points out, is to accept the conclusion reached by Jean-Paul Sartre that “There is no purpose to existence, only nothingness” or see the purpose in religion either as revealed truth, and therefore meaning, or as a social tool that is somehow in tune with the needs of human nature, and without which we function less well.

I suspect this will be top of my wish list for my birthday.

Casanova Clegg

I couldn't decide if this was an April Fool or if Nick Clegg is simply putting the 'L' back into Liberal.

According to today's Guardian "Nick Clegg cannot be accused of forgetting his promise to make British political life as "open and accessible" as possible".

"In an unusually candid interview [with the men's mag GQ], the Liberal Democrat leader reveals that he has slept with as many as 30 women and considers himself a competent lover, but admits he has received the odd complaint."

I'll be asking for Freedom of Information disclosures on Brown and Cameron next....

Are some things not best left unsaid?

Proud to Be British?

I had to laugh during my visit to the British Embassy today.

A big poster advertises its mission to provide the 'highest standard of service', even though they summarily closed the passport office last week and relocated it to Paris to cut costs. Of the 'service' that remains in the consular section, this is what the highest standard looks like:

As I had predicted, security was tight outside the embassy with lots of menacing looking anti-tank bollards blocking the pavement. I had to hurdle over one of them to get to the consular section.

Once there, the punters are left outside in the cold until they are called, one by one, into a room where they are x-rayed, frisked, and have their phones confiscated. Woe betide those who visit the place on a rainy day.

Once negotiating the security staff you go up the stairs and wait in what seems like an interminable queue while the two staff members on duty bumble about. You reach the cash desk where there is a big poster explaining which impossibly high fee goes with which basic administrative task.

Three attested copies of my passport were to set me back 36 euros which I thought was rather steep. We're talking about some good old fashioned ink and stamps here.

However that was nothing compared to the cost of registering your marriage, at nearly 100 euros, or giving up your citizenship (which I might otherwise have been tempted to do today, given that being British can sometimes seem a lot more trouble than it's worth).

I brought the question of these 'fees' up with the woman at the desk who told me, rather apologetically, that they were set by the government to cover the costs of the embassy staff.

I said I thought that was what taxes were for. But apparently the government is too busy spending our hard-earned on illegal wars to spend any on a foreign service British nationals might actually need.

Having swallowed the fees news, I took out my card to pay. Things were looking good until the machine broke down. Apparently it had been doing that all morning. A problem connected to the telephone line. Well, fair enough, but perhaps they would accept payment in cash. Pounds to be precise?

Of course not. I would have to go to the bank, get euros (of which I had five on my person), and wait in the stupid queue again, all in order to come back the next day to get the attested copies because this apparently simple procedure was to take them a full day to complete...

This contrasts markedly with my experience at the Irish Embassy, where I went for the same purpose with my Irish passport. I walked straight in - no queues, no checks - rang the bell, took a seat, and seconds later some pleasant old soul took my passport and attested the copies I'd brought on the spot - FOR FREE!

Rule Britannia, eh?

Friday, 14 March 2008

Update: Kazemi Case Reconsidered

Good news for Mehdi Kazemi, the gay Iranian teenager first refused asylum by the UK authorities and then by the Netherlands - countries whose rhetoric on fundamental rights is belied by politically motivated anti-immigrant policies.

Mercifully, widespread public condemnation of Mr Kazemi's possible deportation, where he could face death by hanging, has forced the British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to reconsider his case.

According to the BBC she said: "Following representations made on behalf of Mehdi Kazemi, and in the light of new circumstances since the original decision was made, I have decided that Mr Kazemi's case should be reconsidered on his return to the UK from the Netherlands."

New circumstances? What new circumstances?

The only new circumstances I can see are that no one knew or cared about Mehdi Kazemi's case when it was originally heard, but, following media coverage, they do now.

But then we all know that the only truth the Labour spin machine cares about is opinion polling. So well done to all those who put pressure on this cowardly government to half-way adhere to its Human Rights obligations.

Now what are they going to do about the 1400 rejected asylum seekers who will be made destitute if they don't 'voluntarily' agree to move back to oh-so-safe-Iraq in three weeks time?

Most of these, incidentally, are Iraqi Christians who are currently undergoing a wave of repression so severe that it has been dubbed in some quarters as attempted genocide.

Unlike in Mehdi Kazemi's case, the UK government has CAUSED these people to become asylum seekers in the first place, by invading and occupying their homeland, and creating a civil conflict of mammoth proportions.

Surely we owe them, and the translators we are also failing to protect from crazy jihadists who treat them as traitors, better?

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Save Mehdi Kazemi

Mehdi Kazemi, a gay Iranian asylum seeker, has just been refused asylum in the Netherlands. He will be sent back to the UK within 72 hours.

The UK authorities had already turned down his request for asylum on the basis of sexual orientation, despite the fact that his partner was executed for the same said 'crime'.

The Home Office claims a gay person can return to Iran and avoid persecution by being "discreet". As Simon Hughes has noted, what that means in practice is denying your identity: an infringement, in and of itself, of a basic human right.

In any case, it's a bit late for a man whose sexual orientation has made him a cause celebre. I can't imagine he would outfox Iranian intelligence for that long. If he ever made it past passport control his dad would probably kill him, if the Vice Squad didn't get him first. After all, he has already threatened to do so.

A lot of rot, frankly, is talked about European Values like Human Rights in Europe and our governments are guilty of the most flagrant disregards for the ECHR.

Article 3 of the European Convention on Human rights, as well as the Charter of Fundamental Rights and international human rights law, prohibits the removal, expulsion or extradition of persons to countries where there is a serious risk they would be subjected to the death penalty, torture or other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Furthermore, EU law recognises sexual orientation as a ground for Member States to grant asylum.

As such, given the Iranian regime has a well-known penchant for executing homosexuals, it beggars belief that we can stand aside and watch this happen.

If you want to pressurise the powers that be to take their Human Rights obligations seriously please write to Gordon Brown and Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini demanding they ensure Medhi Kazemi be granted asylum or international protection on EU soil, instead of being sent back to Iran, thus ensuring that article 3 of the ECHR is fully respected.

The UK migration policy is such a mess that convicted criminals are 'lost in the system' and left to run free, but legitimate claimants, like this man, are essentially thrown to the wolves. Time for a change...

You can reach them, by email or snail mail:

Gordon Brown
10 Downing Street
London
SW1 2AA

Vice President Franco Frattini
EUROPEAN COMMISSION
B-1049 BRUSSELS
BELGIUM
+ 32 (0)2 298 75 00

email or franco.frattini@ec.europa.eu

Neologisms of Note

It was over two hundred years ago that the Brits gave up on the idea of policing the English language, as the French continue to do with their Academie Francaise, and let usage reign supreme as the arbiter of whether something is, or isn't, acceptable.

So let's start using some of the new words below, many of which seem DESIGNED with the EU institutions in mind, and see if they make it into next year's updated edition of the OED!
I got this as a foward and have posted all the non-crass suggestions it contains...Further suggestions very welcome in comments!

Now excuse me while I stop testiculating and go and perform some percussive maintenance on my computing device, so I can return to my vital 'work' in the adminisphere.

Later...

SALAD DODGER. An excellent phrase for an overweight person.

TESTICULATING.Waving your arms around and talking bollocks (accurate description of parliament's plenary sessions).

BLAMESTORMING.Sitting round in a group, discussing why a deadline was missed or a project failed, and who was responsible.

SEAGULL MANAGER. A manager who flies in, makes a lot of noise, craps on everything, and then leaves.

ASSMOSIS. The process by which people seem to absorb success and advancement by sucking up to the boss rather than working hard.

SALMON DAY.The experience of spending an entire day swimming upstream only to get screwed and die.

CUBE FARM.An office filled with cubicles.

PRAIRIE DOGGING.When someone yells or drops something loudly in a cube farm, and people's heads pop up over the walls to see what's going on. (This also applies to applause for a promotion because there may be cake.)

SITCOMs. Single Income, Two Children, Oppressive Mortgage. What yuppies turn into when they have children and one of them stops working to stay home with the kids or start a 'home business'.

SINBAD. Single working girls. Single income, no boyfriend and desperate (applies to most girls I know in Brussels...no matter how gorgeous or talented)

AEROPLANE BLONDE. One who has bleached/dyed her hair but still has a 'black box'.

PERCUSSIVE MAINTENANCE. The fine art of whacking the crap out of an electronic device to get itto work again.

ADMINISPHERE.The rarefied organisational layers beginning just above the rank and file. Decisions that fall from the 'adminisphere' are often profoundly inappropriate or irrelevant to the problems they were designed to solve. This is often affiliated with the dreaded 'administrivia' - needless paperwork and processes (believe me, this strikes a chord)

404. Someone who's clueless. From the World Wide Web error message '404 Not Found' meaning that the requested document could not be located.

OH - NO SECOND. That minuscule fraction of time in which you realize that you've justmade a BIG mistake (e.g. you've hit 'reply all').

JOHNNY-NO-STARS. A young man of substandard intelligence, the typical adolescent who works in a burger restaurant. The 'no-stars' comes from the badgesdisplaying stars that staff at fast-food rest au rants often wear to showtheir level of training.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

No Cojones

Britain won't have a referendum on the EU Constitution, sorry, Lisbon Treaty after all.

Last night the government and its supporters defeated a loose coalition of Tories and Lib Dem and Labour rebels by 311 votes to 248 to ratify the European Union treaty. The debate will now go to the Lords but is expected pass into law this summer without a hitch.

All parties found themselves in a pretty pickle over this issue, though for different reasons. As Simon Hoggart said in the Guardian

"Labour knows that it should have held a referendum, but won't because it would lose.

The Tories know a referendum would be catastrophic; it would set us back in Europe for years.

And the Lib Dems want a referendum on whether we should stay in at all because they can't think of anything else."

However, although I agree with his overall judgement I dont agree with this analysis.

Lib Dems supported the - in my opinion, rather ludicrous - suggestion that the UK hold a referendum on being in or out of the EU because they had already committed to a referendum in previous manifestos, much like Labour.

They were faced with the choice of letting the issue quietly drop and voting with the government - on the basis that we are the most europhilic party in the UK - or headlining the 'in and out' issue in an effort to move the debate onto different ground.

In the end, Clegg opted for an abstention, after the Lib Dem amendment on a referendum on EU membership was dismissed last week. Yet after ordering a three line whip to ensure party unity he was immediately undermined by 15 pro-referendum Lib Dem MPs who voted with the Tories.

This included three front bench spokesmen including the environment spokesman, Tim Farron, the Scotland and Northern Ireland spokesman, Alistair Carmichael, and the justice spokesman, David Heath. All later resigned. What a cock-up.

This is the angle the press has chosen to focus on. Yet the real reason this vote was such an unmitigated disaster is because, having imposed the whip, the Lib Dems found themselves in a position of undermining the one thing they have long fought for, namely European reform and progress.

Knowing that Labour rebels could swell the Tory ranks and defeat the government line we should have thrown ourselves behind Brown to ensure we carried the day.

Instead, after the much-dramatised 'walk out' from the Commons last week, we sat on our hands during the vote, drawing predictable criticism that the party has 'no cojones' and is simply a standing joke.

Clegg did all this despite overwhelming advice from Lib Dems in Brussels that the party should vote for its principles, namely an effective and reformed EU, instead of micro-managing its members.

Liberal Democrats know that without the Lisbon Treaty in place an enlarged EU will lack the necessary institutional tools to make effective decisions on matters of great importance from counter-terrorism, to energy security, and completing hte single market.

We know that we need to end unanimity in Council, which has blocked essential dossiers and reduced EU influence on the world stage.

We know that extending democratic scrutiny of legislation to all policy areas, including the CAP and the EU budget, is vital to ensuring decisions are made in the European, not just national, interest. And that those decisions are accountable to the public.

Yet we were prepared to play with fire for the sake of engineering a unity which
never transpired.

However Clegg should not take all of the blame for this unholy mess. It was extremely irresponsible for the party to put referendum promises in our previous manifestos, particularly in the current eurosceptic climate, where media misinformation makes having a rational debate on Europe all but impossible.

This naive gesture goes against our party's, not to mention the citizen's, best interests and is simply pandering to eurosceptic populism.

Don't give me the response about giving power to the people and acting democratically. We need to get it out of our heads that referenda are an answer to difficult questions. We were right to oppose a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty because it is far too complex a question for a plebicite.

Complex questions require thoughtful answers, not someone's (however cherished) gut reaction at the ballot box. Resolving complex questions is, indeed, why we bother electing our representatives in the first place, since few of us have the time or inclination to dedicate ourselves to reading the reams of paper required.

For Britain to have a real debate about Europe, it needs to open its eyes and eschew the kind of puerile propaganda that has passed for argumentation over the last decade or so. It is the responsibility of all political parties, regardless of their stance, to ensure this debate is carried out openly, honestly, and fairly.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Taiwan in Dire Straits?

On March 22nd Taiwan is braced for a Presidential election whose outcome could have significant repercussions for cross-strait relations and international security.

After eight years in opposition, the pro-Beijing Kuomintang (KMT) is mounting a strong challenge to President Chen Shui-Bian's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese authorities are quietly confident that KMT candidate Ma Ying-Jeou can carry the day.

Early signs show that the Blue Alliance, led by the Kuomintang, will replicate its landslide victory in January's legislative elections where it won 86 of 113 seats halving the DPP's representation in the Legislative Yuan and leaving it with less than a quarter of the seats.

However, a Kuomintang victory would not necessarily mean the Taiwanese people's desire for independence has in any way diminished.

According to recent data provided by the Election Study Center more than 62% of Taiwanese voters support independence, while many others remain in favour of retaining the status quo instead of closer political ties with China.

The answer to this conundrum lies in the fact the election is being fought predominantly on economic rather than cross-strait issues, with the KMT campaigning on an "open door economic policy" towards Beijing to win voters round, particularly the one million who currently reside on the mainland.

By contrast, the ruling DPP has made itself increasingly unpopular with investors due to Chen Shui-Bian's restrictive policies on trade with China, designed to protect Taiwanese industry, which have been roundly criticised for contributing to the recent recession.

Nevertheless, the independence issue is still live and has been stoked by threats of military retribution if a planned referendum on Taiwan's application to join the UN under its own name goes ahead on the same day as the Presidential election.

China regards the decision to hold a referendum on U.N. membership as a move toward formal independence and has said that the vote "could threaten peace in the Asia-Pacific region".

Not coincidentally, the Beijing authorities chose this month to unveil plans to increase military spending by an unprecedented 18% this year, in contravention of international norms, to a total of 417.8bn yuan or 59 billion dollars.

Despite claims that "China's limited military capability is solely for the purpose of safeguarding independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity" the government has already confirmed Taiwan will pay a 'dear price' for supporting independence, since it considers the island an integral part of its territory.

The outcome of the election could thus depend markedly on how the Taiwanese people respond to China's strong arm tactics.

Defiance would work in favour of the DPP candidate Frank Hsieh and could mean that the Kuomintang's dominance in the legislative elections is not replicated in the Presidential poll.

In contrast to the KMT line which advises retaining the name 'Republic of China' for an eventual UN seat, he continues to advocate Taiwan's full and unambiguous inclusion in the organisation as well as a robust Human Rights policy that goes against the grain of closer ties with China.

However, given the international community's opposition to the referendum which US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has branded as 'provocative', citizens may think twice before invoking the wrath of their powerful neighbour, particularly since Japan has also expressed strong reservations.

In the end, pragmatism, and Ma Ying-Jeou's clear support in the Taiwanese media could hold the day. However, Taipei's ambitions to play a greater role in global governance should not stop there.
One of the major problems with the UN's current set-up is, as is the case with the World Health Organisation, it provides no forum for non-state actors, or states which are not recognised by the whole international community.
Such a forum is vital for ensuring peace and stability in volatile regions and encouraging diplomatic solutions for conflicts that threaten our collective security.

Establishing criteria for Taiwan to participate in the essential work of the UN without creating a political crisis with the People's Republic is essential to ending Taiwan's international isolation and allowing it to work in partnership with other nations on matters of mutual concern.

This should be the international community's current priority with regards Taiwan, regardless of the outcome of the referendum and Presidential election on March 22nd.

Revealed: Contents of MEPs Expenses Report

Dutch MEP Paul van Buitenen has defied the Parliamentary Authorities and published an executive summary of the controversial report highlighting abuses of MEP expenses on his personal website.

This clearly states that the current system of staff payments, which can take numerous different contractual forms which alter depending on the MEP's nationality, is far too complicated for the Directorate General for Finance "to monitor effectively the legality, regularlity, and sound financial management of the Members' contractual arrangements".

It goes on to cite a variety of abuses, including payments of the 186000 euro staff allowance to dubious service providers who carry out irrelevant activities like child caring or trading in wood, or, in one case, no activity at all. In some cases, these providers have registered only one or indeed NO assistants to manage the MEPs office, well below the average staff ratio, and include payments to wives and family or the MEPs themselves.

In one exceptional case, an MEP was found to be the sole owner of the service provider to which he paid his allowances. This service provider was registered in a different country and did not figure in his declaration of interests (go figure!). He is now under investigation by OLAF, the EU's anti-fraud bureau.

In other forty two cases, Members who did not get re-elected paid generous 'lay-off payments' to their assistants to exhaust their budgets, one of whom received a total payout of 8890 euros from five separate MEPs over a three month period, in breach of the PEAM rules.

Other abuses related to non-payment or registration of VAT for which they are liable and inflated travel expenses for assistants (in one case, amounting to three times their annual salary).

Small wonder few wanted this to be published.

However it must be said that, if the sample of 167 MEPs is representative of the whole, the number of extreme abuses are relatively few. The really worrying thing is the fact that the vast majority of MEPs fail to register or protect their staff, fuelling fears that working for a parliamentarian often amounts to outright exploitation, particularly for stagiaires.

The audit shows that in 80% of cases, MEPs failure to register assistants with a social security scheme to protect them against unemployment or illness - a slap in the face for the majority of staff who are not recipients of their chief's largesse.

It is time the Parliament stopped trying to hide the evidence of abuses and faced up to its responsibilities, both to the staff it employs and the citizens it represents - whose tax dollar, lest we forget, is paying for these scams.

The new Members' statute, which comes into force next year, will represent a major step forwards in terms of fairness and transparency. It should be accompanied by a beefed-up assistants' statute which ensures all staff are paid a reasonable wage, through a less complex and more accountable system.

Then, and only then, can we iron out the discrepancies that make working in politics such a lottery.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Losing our Religion

I came across a comment in today's Times by Britain's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks which struck me as true.

I respect the Rabbi greatly because he is one of the few religious leaders whose writings provide a cogent critique of modern Western ethics and can appeal to readers beyond narrow sectarian confines.

This is what he has to say on the relationship between belief in God and what it means to be a human being which, in turn, has major implications for each individual's sense of purpose and of moral responsibility.

Religion claims human beings were granted dominion over all the earth. And while many would take issue with this interpretation in today's secular climate, the fact of the matter is that our dominion has never been so noticeable, so widespread, nor so destructive as it is today.

Fish stocks are almost exhausted.

Rising sea levels and global warming bring flooding and desertification in equal measure, reducing the amount of available farmland and forcing record numbers to migrate from their stricken homelands.

Species and languages are dying at unprecedented rates as globalisation's ugly cousin, homogeneity, attacks the world's natural diversity in the search for a quick profit or a sous to feed a growing family.

This is dominion all right. But it is thoughtless tyranny, dominion of the worst kind. Human beings, many argue, have a moral responsibility to themselves, to future generations, to the planet itself, to preserve the fruits of nature and cease their destructive behaviour.

But on what basis?

Rabbi Sacks points out that in the monotheistic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam,
dominion is and must be interpreted as stewardship: the recognition that living things are to serve humanity but human beings, as part of their dominion, are required to look after all living creatures.

On this reading, failure to care for the thing we exert power over is equivalent to acting inhumanly, to being inhumane in our treatment of other living things. For Rabbi Sacks, a God-centred view of human existence is one in which man (through his intelligence, his judgement, and his love for creation) can elevate himself to the viewpoint of the divine.

Failure to harness this spiritual side, however, results in an abasement that puts us on a par with non-sentient creatures.

An abasement born, if you will, of wilful ignorance because mankind's capacity for intelligent thought and forward planning is far far greater than that of other mammals. They exist. We order existence. Failure to exercise what clerics call God-given reason is thus the equivalent of acting against our (better) nature.

By contrast, modern scientific thought - as it is used by humanists and other secular groups - defines humanity as something far more limited and, fundamentally, pre-programmed: as Rabbi Sacks points out, "we are part of nature; nothing more".

A statement published in 1997 by members of the International Academy of Humanism, and distinguished scientists, philosophers and novelists, defines homo sapiens as a member of the animal kingdom stating:

"Human capabilities appear to differ in degree, not in kind, from those found among the higher animals.

Humankind's rich repertoire of thoughts, feelings, aspirations and hopes seems to arise from electrochemical brain processes, not from an immaterial soul that operates in ways no instrument can discover.”

This in turn gives rise to questions about the nature of our responsibility towards the planet and its creatures.

If we are programmed to be selfish, greedy, and destructive what possible reason could we have for stopping such tendencies for moral reasons rather than reasons of self interest?

I am not suggesting for one moment that the non-religious don't have a sense of ethics. I am simply saying that different definitions of humanity lead us to employ different forms of rationale.

Note that much of the current discussion on climate change is not about the rights and wrongs of exterminating animal and fish species, it's about ensuring their sustainable use for economic growth.

Under this way of seeing it does not matter much if the salmon comes from a salmon farm or lives wild. The essential point is that it is there for human consumption.

The modern view of human beings stresses our biology. In turn, we objectify animals, seeing them only as the source of meat or leather, as opposed to beings which have an equal right to inhabit the earth and are deserving of reasonable treatment.

If you have ever looked in a cow's eyes, let alone stroked your neighbour's cat as it sits on your knee, you will have had the feeling that a being, any being, is a good deal more than that.

Rabbi Sacks writes that "When human beings lose faith in God they lose faith in human beings" and indeed, the sacredness of creation.

Why?

Because without an extra-biological purpose informing our actions, he claims, "We will have knowledge without wisdom, technology without reticence, choice without conscience, power without restraint".

Only when we rediscover life as a miracle of creation, instead of trying to maximise its returns, will we rediscover our full potential as human beings.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Barefaced Hypocrisy

Self-serving politicians have an amazing capacity to endure, yet they occasionally cross the line and shoot themselves in the foot.

Such, I suspect, is the case with the current MEPs expenses scandal where the European Parliament's already shoddy reputation in national capitals has been further tarnished by its refusal to publish the report.

Following emergency discussions in the Conference of Presidents and the Parliamentary Bureau, the Budget Control committee voted yesterday not to make their findings public - a move supported by President Hans-Gert Pottering.

Everyone is hoping the story can be brushed under the carpet if they simply keep stum. Either because a) they are exploiting the system and fear the electoral consequences or because b) they fear a low turnout at next year's European elections, and thus, the electoral consequences.

Everyone, that is, except for a small band of feisty, media savvy MEPs who have openly aired their views to the press and are calling for those who defraud the public exchequer to be 'named and shamed'. Small wonder so many of their fellow parliamentarians are out to get them.

Sources tell me our esteemed representatives consider the threat to their livelihoods so great that they have requested large chunks of next week's Group Week to be put aside to discuss 'disciplining' these traitors.

This is the worst case of outright hypocrisy and shamelessness I have seen for some years from the peoples' representative. May they reap what they have sown when this becomes more widely known.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Thrilled to Bits :)

OMG was thrilled to discover my article on the Olympics was published in Le Monde today...just after we got a letter in the Independent on the same issue. Not, of course, in my own name, but still...Guess my journalistic talents are improving...

Here is a copy of the text: in translation, natch

"En confiant à la Chine l'organisation des Jeux olympiques de 2008 (8-24 août), l'espoir était grand, renforcé par les promesses des officiels du Parti communiste, que cet événement conduirait le pays vers plus d'ouverture, de liberté et de respect des droits de l'homme. Du reste, il s'agissait quasiment d'une obligation morale, puisque la Charte olympique indique explicitement que les villes hôtes, en l'occurrence Pékin, doivent être des exemples vivants des "principes éthiques fondamentaux" des Jeux. Force est de constater que, six mois avant le début des Jeux, ces principes sont bafoués. Les prisons s'ouvrent devant les dissidents, la liberté se ferme pour les médias.

Un peu tard, secoué par le refus de Steven Spielberg de rester le consultant artistique pour la cérémonie d'ouverture - dénonçant ainsi le soutien chinois au régime soudanais massacreur du Darfour -, le Comité international olympique (CIO) prend la mesure de son erreur. Erreur répétée d'ailleurs, car l'échec de la confiance mal placée en Chine va se réitérer en 2014 avec les Jeux d'hiver que l'on a cru bon de confier à la Russie. Qui peut croire que Sotchi, la station balnéaire de luxe des serviteurs zélés du Kremlin, pourra mieux répondre que Pékin aux exigences de la Charte olympique ? Les mêmes causes dictatoriales produiront les mêmes effets répressifs.

Car tout montre que la Russie devient un régime autoritaire, non seulement en ridiculisant la démocratie à travers des élections truquées, mais aussi en renouant avec des pratiques politiques de censure des médias, d'intimidation des contestataires, d'emprisonnement, et même parfois de meurtre, des opposants. L'arrogance russe devient telle que même une enceinte aussi diplomatique que l'Organisation pour la sécurité et la coopération en Europe (OSCE) est obligée d'en tirer les conséquences et de boycotter la présidentielle du 2 mars.

Lorsque le CIO et son président, Jacques Rogge, ont accepté la candidature russe en 2007, c'était, disaient-ils, pour des raisons pratiques et logistiques : Sotchi était l'endroit idéal en termes d'infrastructures d'entraînement et de compétition, et les bénéfices de cet événement rejailliraient sur la région entière de la mer Noire. Cet argument du pragmatisme est fallacieux. Les JO constituent en effet le plus grand symbole de reconnaissance internationale dont un pays puisse se targuer, et son Comité d'organisation ne peut ignorer cette dimension politique. En récompensant Moscou, le CIO, il est vrai avec la bénédiction de la communauté internationale, a de fait légitimé les dérives autocratiques de Vladimir Poutine.

MÊME LONDRES 2012...

Après Pékin et avant Sotchi, c'est Londres qui sera l'hôte des JO de 2012. Comme Britannique, je devrais m'en réjouir, et comme libéral-démocrate davantage encore qu'une démocratie libérale soit ainsi distinguée. Mais il n'en est rien. La démocratie libérale britannique n'est plus ce qu'elle était. Suivant docilement la doctrine sécuritaire des néoconservateurs américains, les gouvernements travaillistes de Blair et de Brown, avec la bénédiction hypocrite des Tories, ont multiplié les lois liberticides, menaçant notre habeas corpus sur l'autel de la prétendue lutte antiterroriste. Ce n'est pas par hasard que Londres a refusé de s'associer à la Charte des droits fondamentaux...

Pékin n'est donc pas simplement un mauvais moment à passer. C'est une première étape vers un relâchement général des moeurs olympiques. Si les Jeux veulent conserver une certaine crédibilité, basée sur ses valeurs et ses principes fondateurs, il est temps pour leurs promoteurs de se poser les vraies questions. A l'avenir, toute ville hôte ne devra être retenue que sur la base de normes élevées en matière de respect des droits fondamentaux et des libertés. L'idéal olympique, avant toute autre considération, devra être le critère ultime. Les JO doivent redevenir un modèle pour le monde et non plus servir à masquer ses bas-fonds.

Thursday, 21 February 2008

European Parliament Must Clean Up Its Act

The Daily Telegraph has just blown the whistle on the widespread and criminal abuse of expenses by MEPs in the European Parliament.

So endemic is the extent of the fraud, it is claimed, that the Report which documents it can only be seen by Members of the Budget Control Committee in a secret Bond-style room accessable by having your thumb prints and eyeballs scanned, or some such.

I asked around. It's on PHS Second Floor, if office gossip is to be believed. Maybe someone will leave the door open. It wouldn't be the first time security here were lax.

But I digress. Keeping something secret is one thing. All governments do that. But what is disgraceful is Parliament's subsequent behaviour when it came to light in the press.

The Torygraph reports that "Harald Rømer, the secretary-general of the European Parliament, was asked late on Monday night by Hans-Gert Pöttering, its president, and a group of senior Euro-MPs, to take measures to ensure that there was no "collateral damage" from the report".

"We want reform but we cannot make this report available to the public if we want people to vote in the European elections next year," said a source close to the decision.

Well I would have to take issue with that. Only a few months ago MEPs - the only parliamentarians in the Western world not to be held accountable for their spending - voted against plans for an annual audit of their expenses.

That they could make such a cynical move and then protest that highlighting the "criminal abuse" being perpetrated by - I'm willing to bet - a massive majority of the people's representatives would damage the image of European democracy before the 2009 elections is hypocritical in the extreme.

What they really mean of course is that, were the names to be published, the public would be so pissed at their behaviour that they might *gasp* be deselected and lose all their privileges. What a disaster for democracy.

While making this report public might be painful for Parliament in the short term it would ultimately earn it respect from even the most eurosceptic quarters, particularly if it were accompanied by a raft of radical proposals for Parliamentary Reform.

As it is, by covering up - badly - for colleagues who are essentially criminals, the good name of all, not to mention the European Project as a whole, could be damaged beyond repair.

And that would be a disaster for Europe's future influence and place in the world, whatever Torygraph propaganda might say to the contrary.

So if you want to take action, I suggest you WRITE TO YOUR MEP DEMANDING TO KNOW IF THEY HAVE MADE THEIR ACCOUNTS PUBLIC. AND IF NOT, WHY NOT.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

The Happy Teetotaler

Well I never thought I'd find myself saying this, but I'm becoming a happy teetotaler :)

I first tried the no alcohol experiment during Lent last year and it was, quite frankly, one of the most psychologically horrendous experiences of my entire life.

Counting the days and hours to go before I could next indulge in my preferred tipple, I wound myself up to the extent that I was conscious 24/7 of what I was missing out on.

Then I'd fall off the wagon, have a couple, feel guilty, and fantasise some more about the day there'd be no arbitrary limit to my G and T consumption...

Of course, come the end of Lent there was a counter-reaction of major proportions.

All the pent up desires for champagne cocktails, Belgian beer, single malts, or a simple pint of ale, resolved themselves in a six-month long fiesta that probably inflicted more damage on my poor liver than if the month and a half of abstention had never happened.

Notwithstanding last year's false start I decided to do the same again, if only to attempt to break the cycle of receptions and dinners that was adding metres, not centimetres, to my waistline.

And I'm pleasantly surprised to find it's a lot easier this time around.

Perhaps I'm just more self-aware, more mature, or just tired of over-indulgence. Perhaps it's because the calorie count of a glass of Chardonnay has finally been rammed home. Perhaps it's just because I hate hangovers even more than I love alcohol.

Whatever the reason, I feel like I don't want to go back to those old ways. I had a beer the other day - cheating I know! - but I didn't feel guilty unlike last year, when I mentally chalked up all my black marks and flagellated myself with them. I want to be in a position where a drink is just a drink, not two, three or four.

And as I was sitting in a Sushi place last night sipping green tea with a friend who's the life and soul of the party but a confirmed teetotaler for well over a year now (black outs and bad boys put an end to that apparently) I realised I was actually a lot happier like that than rolling into bed after my traditional 'few'.

If only I could transfer that attitude to my smoking habit. But noone's perfect, right?

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Vindicated

I am pleased to note that leading think tank the International Obesity Task Force, has backed my calls for a revolution in urban planning to halt the growing obesity epidemic (!!).

In previous posts I argued there was a fundamental contradiction between the pressures put on individuals to take responsibility for their health and weight issues while the social structures which surround them act simultaneously to discourage exercise and encourage over-consumption.

Decrying the "“obesogenic environment” promoted by most modern cities, the task force says simply encouraging more leisure activities is not enough to compensate for the sedentary hours we spend in our cars, at our desks, or in front of the tv.

It believes advocating more leisure activities and healthy eating is insufficient to combat the problem, and that governments must take far greater responsibility for "sustained additional changes to town planning and transport”.

Oslo and Amsterdam were both cited as examples of 'slim cities' where the built environment discourages car use and promotes walking and cycling, which in turn lowers obesity rates.

I'd like to make further recommendations in this regard. I've never liked suburbs, seeing them as sterile ghettos for social climbers, enclaves of the priveliged, and dull dull dull. Now I have a more objective reason to hate them, since living far from the office, school, or whatever means people rely on the car for just about everything.

It's clearly better for us to reinvent suburbs as out of town villages, with proper local shops (not just giant shopping malls off the motorway), decent rail access to the city centre, and schools within safe walking distance for kids. After all, we don't just need better public transport so people can cover fifty miles a day. It would be much better if everything were just that bit more local.

But how can that be engineered? Simple, I reckon. Petrol is getting dearer by the minute, and oil levels have already peaked. The resulting downturn in production should make cars a lot more expensive to own and run (think 1973 oil crisis). Which will make it unprofitable for businesses to locate themselves in the middle of nowhere, to transport goods long distance, and for people to live far from the office.

There's also an environmental factor which should be taken into account. At the moment it's houses that are unaffordable (though thankfully not houses in city centre slums, which is the end of the market I'm currently aiming at with my baseline salary). But why should cars cost nothing when they are ruining our physical health and the environment? The polluter should certainly pay in this case.

If people werent so fixated with car ownership - if they couldnt afford it - the revolution would take place almost instantly. We could relocated offices from those horrible retail parks to places employees might actually want to spend time after hours, next to parks, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, other people they know.

I can vouch for the extra productivity this will produce. My best ever job was at the Scottish Parliament, in the centre of Edinburgh, where me and my pals would spend lunchtime hiking around Holyrood Park, feeding the swans, or sitting in a ruined chapel at the top of hill having a picnic.

Sometimes the whole team would go sit under a tree brainstorming and planning. Or we'd go for a quick hours shopping on Princes Street, returning at a fast trot so as not to be out the office all afternoon. It made all the crap of the working day fade benignly into the distance, and us healthier and happier in the process. And then we got to walk home, past the magnificent Old Town architecture, to our central apartments.

It could be the norm, not the exception, if government made the incentives right.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Protecting Debate: a Right not a Privilege

Think what you will about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken critic of fundamentalist Islam. Agree or disagree with what she has to say. Refuse to acknowledge her opinions, if you like. Fly into a 'murderous' rage, if you must. But do not dispute her right to live out her life in freedom and security and leave her opinions as a matter for debate, not violence.

Those were my conclusions after listening to the notorious Ms Hirsi Ali speak before the European Parliament today, pleading with MEPs to extend her the EU's protection now that her own country, the Netherlands, is refusing to pay for the round-the-clock security necessary to shield her from would-be assassins.

Europe should not defend her because it agrees with her opinions. It should not defend her to make a statement against Islamic violence. It should not even agree to defend her because of her high profile. It should agree to defend any and all European citizens who, because of their views - however distasteful - are menaced with death.

As Benoit Hamon, the French Socialist MEP in charge of the initiative to extend EU funding to protect her, said, this is not a debate about Islam but a debate about Europe's values, and how it puts them into practice.

By forcing the former MP to choose between a living death in the Netherlands and a fuller, yet less secure, existence in the US the Dutch government has abdicated its responsibility for implementing the European Charter of Fundamental Rights which expressly states that 'everyone has the right to liberty and security of person'.

While demands for an EU protection fund might seem unrealistic at present, it clearly makes sense for EU citizenship to be linked much more closely to citizenship rights, as laid down in the Charter and Lisbon Treaty, amongst others.

With the increase in extremism on both the left and the right of the political spectrum (not to mention amongst those who have no allegiance to Europe's democratic values) it is important to assure citizens that the values Europe likes to voice in theory, are actually available in practice.

In truth, an EU right to protection (whether imposed on Member States or presented as an EU competence) is clearly in the best interests of all citizens. For, as Tom Paine famously pointed out, 'He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself".

Even Ms Hirsi Ali's most virulent detractors might like to reflect on what could happen to them were she to be murdered by a Muslim fanatic. The likelihood is that a shock wave far stronger than that which rocked Holland after the killing of Theo Van Gogh, would reverberate across Europe, making Muslim communities (innocent men, women and children) a thousand times more vulnerable to racial abuse and violence.

Failure to establish the principle of protection in law could lead to two possible outcomes. One, that Europe's prized attachment to freedom of expression would cease to be meaningful, since people would auto-censure through fear of reprisal. And two, that future governments, God forbid, future right wing xenophobic governments of the type promised by the Vlaams Belang or the Front Nationale, could put ethnic minorities at risk of reprisal - without needing to provide protection to those that stand up for minority interests.

Instead of focussing on whether Hirsi Ali is right or wrong in her depiction of Islam - as most people on either side of the secularist/islamist agenda have tended to do - Europeans must be prepared to extend freedom of speech to everyone, however tasteless their views may be.

The debate Ayaan Hirsi Ali triggered will rage on. But it should stay at the level of debate, and not descend into violence. Although her views may not always be 'sensitively' expressed, Muslims would do better to respond to her suggestions through better arguments and clearer questioning, instead of accusations and cries of offence.
For this is simply the first taste of what is to come. Religion - whether Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, or any other ism - is taking an ever more prominent place in political debate across Europe, so it is vital we create conditions where its implications be discussed openly, honestly, and frankly, under the banner of freedom of speech. And if religions can't accept occasional offence, they may have to accept the far greater prohibition of fundamentalist secularism, which would curtail all religious advances into the public realm.

Through their actions shall we know them.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Welcome to Greater Scotland?

Scottish imperialism is thriving, apparently. Not satisfied with getting their paws on the reigns of power within our current borders the Scottish National Party is busy formenting rebellion in what were Scots lands in days of yore...Bring on the battle for Berwick upon Tweed. According to the newswires,

"Christine Grahame, MSP for southern Scotland, has "invited" the people of Berwick to "come back into the fold" and swap their allegiance from England to Scotland.

Historically, the town has been a battleground between England and Scotland for centuries.
It has changed hands between the two nations no less than 13 times and was last won by the English in 1482.

But in a poll, organised by local newspaper the Berwick Advertiser, 77% of all those who voted said they would like to be governed by Scotland once more.

Keith Hamblin, deputy editor, said: "I was surprised by the result. I am a Berwick man born and bred and I regard myself very much as English.

"I think, though, that people feel the quality of life is better in Scotland since devolution.

"Also, we are losing our borough council next year. It's being replaced by a new unitary authority, so all our administration wil be run 60 miles away further south. So people feel they're going to be left out even further on the frozen north."

The town already has Scottish loyalties when it comes to football. Its team, Berwick Rangers FC, has played in the Scottish league for years.

Ms Grahame hopes the rest of the town will also become fans of the idea of being Scottish."

Watch out England. It'll be Newcastle next!!

Opening Pandora's Box

Congratulations go to the Archbishop of Canterbury for opening the Pandora's Box of our time: what it means to be a multicultural society.

A lot of fluffy nonsense has been spoken about multiculturalism in recent years, partly through ignorance. For many of those who employ the term prefer to use it as a catch-all for feelgood liberal inclusiveness while overlooking what the logic of applied multiculturalism means in practice.

Wikipedia defines multiculturalism as a "de facto state of both cultural and ethnic diversity within the demographics of a particular social space" - merging it with the concept of pluralism tout court.

Yet rather than simply referring to the existence of diverse cultural groups, official multiculturalism policies "aim at preserving the cultures or cultural identities - usually those of immigrant groups - within a unified society. In this context, multiculturalism advocates a society that extends equitable status to distinct cultural and religious groups, no one culture predominating".

Although this seems a straightforward desire for mutual respect at face value, in reality it is anything but. If no one culture predominates then it makes it very difficult to argue for 'one law for all' as the Home Secretary has repeatedly done.

For Britain's Laws (many of them ancient), as Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has rightly said, derive from Judeo-Christian principles for all the 'secular' spin that is put on them. Thus, in a truly 'multicultural society' they must be considered culturally biased rather than neutral, and thus open to opposition from other communities.

This in turn throws into relief what it means for something to have a universal value. Human Rights, for example, are often claimed to be fundamental and indivisible - acting as the framework around which all legal systems should be constructed.
Yet the concept of Human Rights derives from certain channels of thought which, while not necessarily 100% Western in origin (and here I doff my hat to Amartya Sen's critiques), certainly does not have a universal provenance. Hence one reason that the OIC drew up its own 'Islamic Bil of Human Rights' back in the day.
If we are prepared to admit that multiculturalism entails "equitable status to distinct cultural and religious groups" then our cultural relativism must extend as far as this framework of first principles, if policy making is to be coherent. Which leaves little to nothing that can be deemed suitable for legislation for society at large, based even on the principle of reasonable pluralism.

Of course, there is one further problem with a policy which requires every cultural community to make its own rules - schism and minority viewpoints. Every culture, every organisation, no matter how small, has its renegades, its leaders, and its followers. Thus the question of who makes the rules and who is bound by them is crucial.

Too often, experience across all religions shows that elderly bearded men have the monopoly on this position, giving others little say in writing the rule book. If a completely homogenous group cannot be defined it will be difficult to make legitimate law on all of their behalfs.

Not only is Sharia neither static nor homogenous (as the Archbishop acknowledges) but different schools of fiqh have differing interpretations of what it requires, to which individual Muslims adhere.
Indeed some scholars like Tariq Ramadan believe that even the shariat provisions on which these schools agree cannot be implemented because today's conditions are unlike those of the umma in the time of the prophet - poverty, for example, could be an excuse for stealing while at that time social organisation meant no one was without sufficient food - so the debate is entirely hypothetical.
And then there is the question of dissenters. The Archbishop says that those who decide to pursue justice through Sharia Councils (as in Jewish courts or Somali customary courts) must agree with the punishment meted out or their case will be referred to the Supreme Court.

Yet this is simply one more example of multicultural window dressing which is logically incoherent. If the whole point is respecting the equality of different cultural traditions it is clearly absurd to put British Law on a pedestal.
If the point is giving people choice it could well turn to the advantage of the strong, as it gives plaintiffs the opportunity to pick the version of justice which suits their interests - and pressurise the weak into accepting decisions for cultural reasons, as Earthquake Cove correctly points out in this post.

So we have a choice: either package people as community members and leave it up to their communities to dispense justice - or acknowledge we are all members of one society so we must live under one set of rules which (while open to discussion and debate) must be applied to all, with few exceptions, as is currently the case.

The truth of the matter is that the Archbishop's comments on the place of Sharia in Britain simply reflect what is already happening, since Sharia Councils, like other advisory bodies, seek solutions on non-criminal matters pertaining to their faith which, if disputed, go straight to the high court. That's what he means when he says it is an already accepted part of Britain's legal-political landscape.
What is problematic is not this kind of culturally-sensitive problem solving but the concept of parallel legal systems which is what multiculturalism entails.

Monday, 11 February 2008

No Room To Breathe

I've lived outside the UK for three out of the last five years and every time I return I notice the change.

Everything is monitored. Everyone is checked. Everything and everyone is part of a growing system of government control which has moved beyond traditional parameters of law, order, and welfare provision into the private sphere where it hopes to create and enforce the concept of the 'model citizen'.

Increasingly, there is no more room to breathe in British society. No room to live according to different norms, to espouse different beliefs, or simply exist outside the ever-extending scrutiny of the state.

We live in a country where the fingerprints of thousands of innocent schoolchildren are kept on file by the police, where an electronic snapshot of our lives can be obtained by everyone from the local authority to the Egg Marketing Board - without our permission ever being asked.

A country where the phonecalls of MPs are tapped, where people can be fired from their jobs (or never employed) for 'misconduct' in their private life, ranging from drunken pranks with their pals to an unfortunate facebook photo.

Where ID cards containing all our personal information will so be required to access any public service, at any time. Where nothing we say do or think can be kept private.

It's just a step away from the situation depicted in 'The Lives of Others', which was so well received at last night's BAFTAs. The director claims enough time has passed to critically depict East-Germany's past under the Stasi.

Yet the surveillance state is not in the past. It is alive and well in modern Britain and the film contains a warning of what could lie ahead if Britain doesn't wake up to what liberties we allow our government to take away in the name of the 'common good'. For while the current political climate may still be reasonably open there may come a time when that is no longer the case - and it will be too late to change anything.

Successive Home Secretaries have accused critics of state surveillance for being paranoid, stating that if citizens have nothing to hide they have nothing to fear.

Yet as Dan Kieran points out in his book 'I Fought the Law', even respectable middle class citizens canfind themselves blacklisted, or even arrested, for engaging in the right to protest, whether over the war in Iraq or building a ring road in an environmentally sensitive area.

Isaiah Berlin famously defined liberty as 'an answer to the question: 'What is the area within which the subject — a person or group of persons — is or should be left to do or be what he is able to do or be, without interference by other persons'.

Totalitarian regimes corrode the space of negative liberties (where our freedom of action is uninterupted as long as it does not interfere with the freedoms of others) to the extent that all actions (no matter how private) become politicised and fall under the jurisdiction of the state.

That is what seems to be happening in the UK, with the active collusion of many unwitting and 'upright' British citizens. And before you accuse me of being paranoid, let me refer you the following article by Simon Carr in the Independent.

As he says: 'What we have emerging in Britain is a general cultural movement in favour of surveillance. There is a growing sense that society generally and the state in particular should take an active interest in all individual activity. And that this is right, proper and inevitable.

...We're witnessing something like Rousseau's "general will" in a preliminary stage of development. Polls, politics, television, public opinion, the insurance industry, the state sector, they are all combining to exert public "general will" rights over the private sphere.

Laying down an approved way of doing things is one expression of this. "Best practice" it is sometime called. Or "directives" or "targets" or "operational guidance".

The State has a powerful incentive and logic driving it: it is spending so much of our money to help us that it has the right to demand appropriate behaviour in return."

Efficient public spending requires model citizens. So be prepared to conform - or be convicted.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Questionable Facts

At last!! Proof that a taste for expensive restaurants, drinks receptions, and sedentary office life does not lie at the heart of my weight control issues. It's not my lifestyle that's to blame for being a few pounds overweight - it's my genes. Thanks Mum. That should keep her quiet the next time she gets on at me for not being a size 10...

Except that it doesn't add up. After all, almost noone was obese fifty years ago - and the gene pool hasn't changed much in that time. Even if some people find it harder to control weight than others genes can hardly explain the obesity epidemic that's hit the country.

Facts are facts. Sixty percent of British people will be obese by the year 2010 because modern life is bad for our health. The majority of people exist off diets permeated by rich, fatty, nutrition-free convenience food - because they are too busy to sit down and cook. We live lives of sloth, trapped in offices like those mice scientists use for experiments, and then express surprise at the expanse of flab around our middles.

Fad diets won't change that. Only a lifestyle revolution can. And that has got to start with challenging the efficiency epidemic that encourages these characteristics in the first place

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Why Do We Bother?

I just don't understand it. While we expend vast amounts of energy frustrating Turkish attempts to join the European Union - despite Erdogan's best efforts to reform it in line with our rigorous standards - we approach Serbia, that hotbed of xenophobic nationalism and protector of war criminals, with open arms.

Indeed, if all goes 'well' the Slovenian Presidency will sign a Stablisation and Association Agreement with the Serbs this Thursday, offering them closer trade relations and relaxed visa requirements.

My question is, in exchange for what? Why exactly are we handing all of this to Serbia on a platter when there is precisely 'no evidence', according to Serge Brammaerts, the new Chief Prosecutor for the International Tribunal tasked with bringing war criminals to justice, that Serbia is cooperating in the search for Mladic?

This is the first and only main requirement the EU imposed on Belgrade for the SAA to be signed - and now we are all but ignoring it. So much for the EU commitment to upholding Human Rights.

The Presidency defends its decision on the basis that pro-Western President Boris Tadic has just been re-elected, as opposed to the pro-Moscow nationalist Tomislav Nikolic. But I'm afraid that doesn't really cut the mustard.

Firstly, the contest was exceptionally close, with almost half the population voting for closer ties with the Ruskies and in favour of ultra-nationalist sentiments. That's hardly evidence of a revolutionary change in mindset.

Secondly, both candidates came out against independence for Kosovo - one of the EU's main objectives.

And thirdly, ties with Russia have been effectively institutionalised after the same said Tadic allowed Gazprom and others to buy up almost all of Serbia's industry and major enterprises.

What we are looking at is a new Russian Satellite whose infrastructure, economy, and legal institutions are in need of nothing less than a major shakeup. Of what possible advantage could a country like this be to the EU?

However, thanks to Kostunica, we may not have to worry about that, at least for a while. He has come out against the planned agreement, accusing the EU of "directly undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia and its constitutional order" through a planned peace mission to Kosovo.

As the government coalition relies heavily on support from his faction, his move could topple the government by the end of the week. And that would mean forming a new coalition with none other than uber nationalist Tomislav Nikolic. Good to see that times have changed so definitively.
Instead of pretending that Serbia is yet in a fit state to join the Union we should focus on countries that can offer us something in return.

Turkey, with its access to and influence over Central Asia and its gas reserves, its highly educated labour force, growing economy, and potential for overcoming regional security issues, is far and away a better prospect than countries like Serbia who would simply take and not give.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Choosing the Right Way Forward

One of the main purposes of my work is convincing people that democracy and human rights are universally applicable, anywhere in the world. What I write is very black and white - because that is what my job demands. Propaganda isn't propaganda otherwise. However in private I have always -been slightly suspicious of the 'democratisation agenda': partly because it has been hijacked by American neo-cons in their quest for world dominance and partly because of an instinctive dislike of 'universalisms' which I have come to associate with thinly veiled cultural imperialism.
I don't think that makes me a cultural relativist on the other hand. I do not, for example, believe that all cultural practices are equally good. I do believe that better and worse decisions can be made and that in order to know which is which we have to make comparisons.

Yet I am also quite convinced that all cultural practices have a certain validity (that is they 'make sense') within the internal logic that governs every civilisation. Whether we are aware of it or not most of us operate on auto-pilot within our own societies, either conforming to or reacting against the unwritten rules which govern our understanding of right and wrong action.

Living within the parameters of these rules provides us with our sense of normality. We do not question why we behave a certain way, most of the time, nor do we try to justify it in our own terms. And if we are dissatisfied with the rules of the game, we react against them instead of putting in place alternative systems to govern our lives.

A good example would bethe sexual revolution which swept the West in the sixties and seventies where people swept away the suffocating social norms that governed relationships only to replace them with their diametric opposite - with little or no attempt to make sense of this seismic shift from one extreme to the other.

So we all operate within closed cultural systems mitigated only if and when we are exposed to alternative ways of living. In the past this happened rarely - through trade, or cultural exchange amongst the educated elite - but today alternatives to our own cultural norms are increasingly evident and accessible.

Migration, instant communication, the internet, even the availability of cheap foreign travel have all enlarged our horizons. Very few people alive today can claim to live culturally hermetic, homogenous lives. However it is equally true that our understanding of other ways of life remains superficial, even disneyfied.

Eating Chinese food, watching a foreign film, speaking another language, even hanging out with foreign friends, is rarely sufficient to give us more than a window onto another world. It's a bit like showing a photo of a tropical island to someone who has never been there.

They can exclaim at the beauty of the scene, perhaps remark on what people are wearing, eating, or doing, but they will not understand why those things are taking place - why they 'make sense' within the logic of that society . In fact, even if we went to that tropical island, most of us wouldn't understand a lot more about the scene in question - we would see, but we would not see clearly.

For most of us, 'our way' of doing things remains the best way. We view those who dissent from our norms - especially in our own society - on a spectrum ranging from the bizarre, to the suspect, or at worst, downright frightening.

This reaction differs from the reaction conventional people (and I speak as a British person here) have when confronted with an alternative cultural practice which is indigenous in origin, such aspeople acting like Punks, Goths, or whatever.

We are aware of where these practices come from and what they represent. And even if we dont like them we do understand them. What makes unknown cultural norms so frightening is that they don't make the remotest bit of sense to us.

So if a woman is veiled, if a Hindu refuses to eat meat, if an East Asian refuses to loosen up in our company, we don't understand why. We don't understand why these things are normal for the person in question and why any attempt to do otherwise would constitute a painful act of rebellion against their inner instincts.

It's a bit like telling your average British person to stop drinking alcohol, stop watching the football, or start going to church again, when they're an avowed atheist. These are simply things the average person does in today's Britain. They are normal. They are everyday. But are they right?

If we want to understand how best to live our lives we must put our own assumptions in question. While it may be normal for British people to drink to get drunk it certainly isn't in France. So who is right? Surely, when we make the comparison, we have to conclude that the French way of moderate drinking is preferable.

Yet other countries do not have a drinking culture. So which is better - the French way or their way? When we truly compare the effects of living with alcohol to the effects of living without we might well conclude that not drinking at all is essentially better for us even if it is, to our way of thinking, alot less fun.

So when deciding if you want to drink or not you can make a choice. You can say 'do I want to have fun and relax - and take the consequences if I cannot be moderate' or you can say 'to prevent overindulgence and its unpleasant effects on myself and others, I would do best to avoid alcohol'.

One argument derives from personal preference 'I want to have fun', the other from a qualitative, objective fact, which is personal health. As such, the best choice is probably not to drink - even though that goes against what most of us are culturally tuned to believe.

It's hard to make the 'right' choice from within British culture where not drinking is mocked as the preserve of the uptight and self-righteous. But it's much easier to make when looked at from the perspectives and norms of other cultures where the idea that you cannot 'have fun' without alcohol is an alien concept.

So we can see that enhanced cultural awareness can help us make choices and decisions about our own lives - by deconstructing our own norms and exposing much of our behaviour as the result of cultural conditioning instead of personal decision making or logic.

Once we realise this we can start to look for better ways forward. And it is here that I would like to return to democracy and human rights. Many people say that they're Western imports, a form of cultural hegemony that doesn't work for certain civilisations. That we should, de facto, respect every and all decisions made within the logic of other societies.

But that is not the case. As Amartya Sen has pointed out in 'La Democratie des autres' the idea of public debate and decision making is by no means confined to the West. Indeed, even that tradition which derived from the Athenian demos was more thoroughly reflected on in Asia Minor, the Middle East, and India many centuries ago, than it ever was in Western Europe until the current age.
Every society has had its open and closed periods, every society has times of freedom and times of dictatorship. Every society has its successes and failures. The Arab world today is a good sight less developed - both materially and culturally - than it was five hundred years ago when it was by far the most developed, open, and tolerant civilisation in the world. That is why it flourished. And why it has now ceased to flourish.

Realising this, we must be aware that certain practices are - when considered relatively - qualitatively better than others. And of all the worst qualities a society can exhibit, closedmindedness and intolerance must be amongst the worst.

That is why not only concerned foreigners but all Muslims and Afghans should be so affronted by what is happening to Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the student of journalism who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy for downloading material on women's rights and distributing it for the purpose of stimulating debate on the Qu'ran's meaning and interpretation.

This is not only wrong because Afghanistan is now a democracy, and democracies allow pluralism, but because - from the perspective of openness and critical debate which allows all societies to move forward - it is illogical to execute someone for questioning norms: even if these are religious norms, and the society in question is a religious society.

For if we question something its truth, or logic, will either be revealed or denied. Truth (maybe not absolute truth, but internal consistency, lets say) can only be established through debate and discussion. And inconsistency - or falsehood - can only be exposed that way. So please, everyone, sign the petition to free this poor man - not because you believe a bunch of secular Westerners are right but because it is the right, and the only, thing to do.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Stop The Traffik

Trafficking in Human Beings is a very clinical term for what is essentially modern slavery: the buying and selling of human beings for profit.

Every year up to 120 000 women and children are brought into the European Union by people traffickers. Most are tricked into leaving their homes with promises of a better life. Some are simply abducted. All are destined for exploitation.

Once here, they are forced into prostitution or used as a source of cheap labour by unscrupulous employers, in sectors ranging from domestic work to farming, manufacturing and construction.

Many of these vulnerable people never see a cent for their labours. Too often, their passports are confiscated and they are deprived of their basic rights, held against their will in poor conditions, beaten, sexually abused, or subjected to other degrading treatment.

Worldwide, the figure is even higher. Although it is difficult to gather accurate statistics, because the victims cannot, or do not want, to reveal themselves to the authorities it is believed that millions of people are trafficked every single year, making human trafficking the fastest growing form of international organised crime.

Yet despite the terrible human cost to its victims, trafficked people are frequently treated as criminals or unlawful aliens when they come to the attention of the authorities.

Too often their ordeal is confused with ‘people smuggling’, where migrants pay middlemen to bypass border controls and enter the European Union illegally.

As such, non-nationals without rights to residence in the country in which they are found are given little or no access the justice system and are simply deported back to their home countries with little or no assessment of the risks they may face.

Where assistance is given, it is often made conditional on victims cooperating with the police to locate their traffickers, which can put both them and their families in grave danger.

For all our talk of fundamental rights, it is rare that victims of trafficking are given access to the support they need to overcome their ordeal.

As a result of these short-sighed strategies, the psychological, medical and social consequences of trafficking, not to mention the underlying root causes, are never addressed.

And for every trafficker put behind bars, there are many more willing to take the risk. Indeed, reports suggest that some criminal gangs are making the switch from drugs to human beings, in search of higher profits at lower risk.

This makes it more important than ever to tackle this problem in a holistic and humane manner taking into account the needs of the victims and the factors which encourage trafficking in the first place - a major departure from current practice.

The entry into force of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings on 1 February 2008 will mark a major step forwards by committing participating states to criminalise trafficking, not the victims of trafficking.

However to date only fourteen Council of Europe Member States are party to this Convention, of which six - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Moldova and Norway - are non EU members, while thirty three are yet to ratify.

If the European Union is serious about its desire to promote and protect fundamental rights throughout the world it is imperative that all countries ratify and implement this convention without delay.

You can pressure our leaders to do so. Sign the petition to stop the traffik - with any luck millions of signatures will be presented to the UN in less than two weeks time - and raise awareness of this terrible crime against humanity.