Monthly Archives: July 2018

Foreign Interference

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Parliamentary Committee has recently published its report on disinformation and misinformation. (It recommends we don’t use the phrase “fake news” because nobody knows what it means.) Such manipulation of the truth, it says, is a direct to our whole democratic way of life and laws are in urgent need of updating. More regulation is required. This Committee achieved a remarkable degree of non-partisan consensus. The DCMS Committee highlighted in particular the role Russia and its “digital agents” have played in both the Leave campaign in the EU referendum and in the US Presidential election.

The UK government has, rightly, condemned Russia’s actions. But, hey, isn’t there some hypocrisy here?

USA Foreign Policy

Shock and awe
Shock and Awe in Baghdad

Since the end of World War II, a central feature of US foreign policy has been interference in elections and regime change in other countries, particularly those in South America. During the Cold War, according to the Washington Post, the USA had 72 attempts to effect regime change in other countries.

Historically, the USA’s approach has often been less than subtle. Their means of interference has been military, up to and including invasion. Wikipedia takes a longer view, starting in 1846. The USA chooses to spend around 3.5% of its GDP on its military rather than, for example, providing healthcare for its 20 million poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Or a half-decent European-style welfare system.

Russia

Russia, with its tiny economy compared to the USA, can never outspend the Americans on military expenditure. But it has learnt the art of cyber-warfare – a much cheaper option. Anyone who has studied Russian history – I confess I have only dabbled – will understand that the rapid eastward expansion of NATO countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union has spooked the Russians.

Vladimir Putin, with his KGB background, wants to restore Russia to the world’s esteem comparable to the USA as a superpower. His training and instincts towards authoritarianism has driven Russia to “fake news” and to funding organisations to undermine Western liberal democracy. He exploits the very freedoms which are democracy’s bedrock to work against the interests of the west.

US Monsters

UK and US-based fascists have exploited the situation too. The USA has spawned monsters in the form of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter. (Apple, with its obscene stockpile of cash, is in a slightly different category. It can use its money mountain to bribe any politician, senior judge or law enforcement officer anywhere in the world, or, failing that, to pay for expensive lawyers to outwit law enforcement – or to make it prohibitively expensive to pursue cases against Apple.)

With all these companies registered in the USA and with that country’s light regulation, laisse-faire attitude to business, these companies have turned into monsters. Their sheer size implies a power which prevents them from failing. Their accumulated data about our lives is on a frightening scale. (Full disclosure: I still use Twitter, WhatsApp and Google – they’re so damnably convenient!) The companies’ chiefs, Mark Zuckerberg in particular, treat democratic processes with contempt.

Perfidious Albion

Only the EU as a body has shown any appetite for taking on the monsters. Trump broadly sees fines against them as anti-American. Historically, and particularly at the height of its Imperial power, the UK played Divide & Rule with the rest of Europe and in May’s mishandling of the EU exit negotiations, continues – in a futile way – to try to do the same. It won’t work any more. So May will fail, either by October, when the EU and EU27 want clarity on the UK’s position or by December, the last gasp opportunity to avoid an “over the cliff” disaster.

Fascists and “No Deal” Leavers

Western fascists like Steve Bannon share Putin’s methods, but ultimately for a different agenda. In Russia’s case, the motive is Russian security and self-esteem. For the western fascists, it’s the overthrow of democracy to enable Free Market Fundamentalism, which benefits only the richest 1% (or even really 0.1%) to continue into the future. The Tories are beginning to learn the limitations of trying to preserve a failed economic dogma within the constraints of Parliamentary democracy. The lessons of Pinochet’s Chile have been forgotten already.

Whilst there are no desaparecidos in the UK yet, as far as I know, it’s clear we are showing worrying signs of jettisoning democratic norms in favour of more authoritarian practices: see my 2016 post Sliding into Fascism for some early examples. More recent examples include the branding of judges as “enemies of the people” and talk of “saboteurs”, “betrayal” and “traitors”. A Tory MEP has even called for an update to the treason law to suppress dissenting views, specifically “extreme EU loyalty”.

Not Special

May’s almost uncritical sucking up to Trump and our continuing delusion about the non-existent “special relationship” with the USA exposes both the UK’s weak position and our hypocrisy. (Explainer: Trump used the phrase “highest level of special” in his UK press conference. Trump, with the attention span of a gnat, will say in the moment he has the world’s attention, anything that will make him liked – just for that moment. All his other actions support the view that he treats us with contempt.)

We’re supping with the devil in a US-UK trade relationship. Use a long spoon or, better still, don’t sup at all and stick with people who share our values: the rest of Europe and the EU. I for one, don’t want to “take back control” and hand it over immediately to Trump’s America.

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Here Because We’re Here

There’s a First World song, sung, rather subversively, by the Allied troops to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. The lyrics are quite easy to remember.

We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here
We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here
etc.

It seems strangely topical. I’m referring, of course, to the total mess we’re in with the government’s negotiations to leave the EU.

elephant in room
Elephant in Room

Forces of Darkness

David Cameron made a huge strategic mistake in trying to sort out the ideological split in his party by calling a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. We have found out the hard way that, in trying to appease the irreconcilable faction of his party, he simply spread the cancer of polarisation to the whole country.

I have struggled to find the right words to describe this rabble of irrational Europhobes. I first called them the Crazies, a fairly accurate term I thought, and have taken to calling them Dunces in recent months. (DUNCE was meant to be a smart-arsed acronym for Deluded, Unhinged, Nasty, Crazy and Europhobic.) But the term “Forces of Darkness”, used by Tory Remainer Anna Soubry in a recent interview, perhaps captures better the evil nature of the people to whom I refer.

European Research Group

The core of the Forces of Darkness is the so-called European Research Group. Its current Chair is the omnipresent Jacob Rees-Mogg, a cartoon caricature of the most out-of-touch Tory imaginable. The ERG, according to Wikipedia, currently has a researcher by the name of Christopher Howarth. Is any reader aware of any actual research on Europe or the EU by this character?

The ERG, despite its name, is an extremist far-right group who wants the UK to crash out of the EU, weakening it in the process, and to establish the UK as a small-government, low regulation paradise for the mega-rich. The rest of us are there to be exploited. It’s a common feature of extremist right-wing lobbying groups to hide behind bland, neutral-sounding names: the Institute of Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange come to mind, to name just two. Another common characteristic is the total lack of transparency in their funding sources. The ERG is possibly an exception to this and has found a way to misuse MP’s expenses, within the rules, to fund their propaganda at taxpayers’ expense. (The Wiki article – link above – explains more.)

How many Tory MPs are there in these Forces of Darkness? The ERG claims 80. 62 signed the February 2018 letter to the PM and some put the true figure at 40 with a few cowardly Tory MPs willing to sign a letter for a quiet life). With May’s wafer-thin “majority” in the Commons propped up by the bigots of the DUP, that’s enough to frighten Theresa May.

A Recap

May wasted two years trying to reconcile the irreconcilable within her party: a compromise between the Crazies, Dunces or Forces of Darkness (as you prefer) and the saner Tory MPs. There’s a clear majority in Parliament of MPs who voted Remain in the referendum.

The Chequers agreement and the White Paper recently published were May’s attempt at bringing reality to bear on the negotiations. It contains elements which the government knows already will be rejected by Brussels. It led to two Cabinet resignations (plus several others) and a complete cave-in by May in accepting four wrecking amendments by the ERG before a key Commons vote last Monday. Long-standing arrangements about pairing were broken by the Tory Chief Whip Julian Smith to scrape the vote home by the slimmest of margins.

The net effect of May’s caving in to the ERG is to push the UK further apart from the EU, who remain impatient and frustrated by the lack of consistency in the UK’s negotiating position. We were already a laughing stock to the rest of the EU. The mind boggles to think what our reputation is now. “Perfidious Albion” is a phrase that’s been around a long time. We still deserve that epithet.

The Will of the People?

On a single day in June 2016, without any information of the implications, the UK electorate voted as follows:

  • 37% voted Leave
  • 34% voted Remain
  • 29% didn’t vote

The Forces of Darkness and their cheerleaders in the right-wing press – yes, Dacre, it’s you again – have tried very hard to persuade us that “the will of the people” is a hardline anti-immigration version of what 37% of us voted for. It is they who are making all the running at present. Time is short to correct this.

A Binary Choice

May’s painfully constructed compromise over two years is crumbling fast. Polarisation grows stronger by the day. The risk of a disorderly “no deal” crash out of the EU is increasing. It seems that we are heading for a simple “stay in or crash out” binary choice. So be it. I know which side I’m on.

And yet, if Cameron hadn’t been such a weak useless Prime Minister, all of this could have been avoided.

We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here…

 

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It’s Not Cricket

In my recent post A Song for Europe,  I regretted the lack of attention paid by UK media and by Parliament to the workings of the EU over the past 45 years. Another very British cultural trait seems to be our sense of fair play and sticking to the rules. Cricketing terms are frequently used: “sticky wicket”, “straight bat” and, of course, we long for a “level playing field”. There’s a fair chance that the UK Civil service is imbued with these characteristics.

B&B Insurance

A fairly inconspicuous news story caught my eye recently. It covered concerns by owners of B&Bs and Guest Houses that the costs of taking out extra insurance would force them out of business. The insurance was as a result of a new EU regulation designed to give holidaymakers the same level of protection as those booking through a website or travel agent.

It turns out that the need for insurance was NOT part of the EU regulations but had been “slipped in” by UK civil servants to the UK legislation to enact the new rules. In other EU countries, no such insurance requirements had been enacted. It’s obvious the whole government machinery is swamped with dealing with the infighting over the UK’s plan to leave the EU. So maybe that’s the reason. Or maybe somebody – Parliament, the press? – could have checked this out first?

Fisheries Policy

The UK fishing industry employs around 11,800 people: that’s about 10% more than Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, just to put it in perspective. But its political profile is much higher than its size. There has been much talk about “taking back control” of fisheries policy if/when we leave the EU. This overlooks a number of key facts. Fish can swim. They don’t recognise national boundaries, so “British” fish are, in reality “European” fish. And many of the restrictions placed on catches over the years are based upon scientific evidence of overfishing and to ensure sustainability.

The amount of fish caught by British fishermen is the result of three figures:

  1. The total amount of fish allowed for sustainability reasons, based upon scientific analysis agreed by all EU nations;
  2. The UK’s share of the EU total. This is currently around 30% of the fish caught in “British” waters. The UK has a disproportionately large area (see EU Common Fisheries Policy) owing to the British Isles being surrounded by water. Much of the fish in this is shared with other fisheries and would continue to do so if the UK were not part of the EU;
  3. The allocation of the UK’s share to individual fishermen: this is wholly under the control of the UK Government. Government policy, based upon narrow, dogmatic economic measures, tends to favour larger boats and fleets. The UK boats tend to be smaller, so the UK allocates 44% of its quota to foreign-owned fishing fleets, according to Greenpeace.

A fuller analysis can be found on this FullFact page. But my conclusion is that, if anyone is not playing fair with the fishing industry, it is the UK Government.

Railway privatisation

Perhaps the most obvious example of where the EU seems to get the blame is railway privatisation. The disastrous decision to privatise the railway industry was taken by the John Major Government. Even Thatcher baulked at the idea. New Labour were too cowardly to reverse the decision while they had the opportunity. But the other major economies of the EU, including France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, have managed to keep their railways in public hands. Indeed, their state owned railway companies now own bits of ours. Deutche Bahn (Germany) owns Arriva, Nederlanse Spoorwegen (Netherlands) owns Abellio and SNCF (France) owns a stake in Govia.

The pie chart below shows that EU-based nationalised railways own more of the UK rail franchises than the UK private sector. The small UK public share is the East Coast Main Line, “temporarily” renationalised after the third collapse of the private franchise.

The upshot of all this: being a member of the EU is not a barrier to keeping the railways in public hands.

Better Scrutiny

So what should have happened? Firstly, Parliament should do its job properly and pay more attention to the UK legislation passed on the basis of EU regulations. And the media should have spent more time in scrutiny of the way the EU and the UK parliament actually works, instead of spreading lies. Yes, I’m mainly criticising the Telegraph, Mail and Sun.

None of the countries in the rest of the EU really understands the rules of cricket And the Brits – in particular the English – don’t understand how the EU works. Perhaps that’s the underlying tragedy behind the dire position we find our country in.

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Score Draw

Firstly, congratulations to France for winning the World Cup 2018. In our parochial, patriotic fervour to heap praise upon England’s young team, British commentators seem to have overlooked the fact that France’s footballers were even younger.

french team winners
France Winners

Congratulations too to Croatia for being runners-up: a great achievement for a country of only four and a half million people.

And congratulations to Gareth Southgate and the England squad for making it through to the final four.  I must admit to getting rather swept up in all the World Cup excitement.

Sport and Politics

It’s been a very long time since the old adage “Don’t mix sport and politics” was discredited. Sport and politics are inextricably linked, to misquote Carl von Clausewitz. Particularly when it comes to FIFA, organisers of the football World Cup, throw in a shedload of corruption and backhanders and you can begin to understand their decision to award the World Cup to Russia and, above all, to Qatar in 2022. Putin and his mates come out of this with nearly all commentators singing the praises of the Russians for a well-organised set of games.

Briefly, the British (or at least the English) forgot that we had torn ourselves apart over leaving the EU and got behind our team. Let’s hope the French can do the same and disavow the fact that Marine Le Pen made it through to the last two in the Presidential Election.

paris celebrates
Paris celebrates

Fantasies

Straddling the world of football and politics, look at these three heads of state:

two presidents and a queen
Two Presidents and a Queen

The two on the left, Emmanuel Macron and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, were democratically elected; the one on the right was foisted on us 66 years ago: we had no say in the matter. The pro-Leave fantasists speak of “global Britain”, open to trade with the world. Which of the above three would you want to be the public face of your country? For my money, certainly not the one on the right wearing a stupid blue hat. Little Betty has her standard bored face – she’s got the Trumps either side of her in this cropped picture – but she could be anywhere.

I think it’s needlessly cruel to drag a 92 year-old woman out from one of her cosy palaces to meet a thug and his moll, and the whole monarchy idea is positively feudal. But Trump got his tea and his photo-op.

Pomp and Principled

Trump got his pomp too. May’s government, whilst failing to actually govern the country, found time to lay it on thick, and at vast expense.

Blenheim, Sandhurst, Windsor, Chequers
Blenheim, Sandhurst, Windsor, Chequers

Trump was whisked in his own little bubble of self-delusion: Blenheim, Sandhurst, Windsor and Chequers.

And, at Chequers, Trump got his hands on Theresa May again, just to show who’s boss.

trump and may
This way, woman

The Daily Mail did its hate-filled best to spin the story:

Anti Trump protests in Trafalgar Square
Anti Trump protests in Trafalgar Square

In the real world, 250,000 in London alone, plus other centres turned out to make it clear Trump wasn’t welcome here. The Twittersphere was awash with comments from people about the Mail’s pathetic “rent-a-leftie” barb. Most were bemused or wondering, ironically, when Corbyn was going to send them their payment for turning up to protest. We’ve got another four months before hater-in-chief Dacre finally retires. Fuck off now, I say.

The protesters obviously occupy the moral high ground here. But, in the longer term, Trump, in his bubble, will still have his photo-ops to show. So probably a score draw in the end.

High and Dry

But there’s one picture from the football final which may come back to haunt Vladimir Putin: it’s this one:

putin aloof
Putin aloof

Look at the body language here. Macron and Grabar-Kitarovic are standing in the pouring rain, getting wet and enjoying every moment. Hard man Putin has ensured he’s the only one under an umbrella: dry, if not exactly high: he’s quite short. In the long term, even hard men need friends, not just people who are nice to him out of fear. Right now, Putin has Trump as his only true friend. So, another score draw, at best.

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Burger Off

Burger, anyone?

Why would any sane person want a trade deal with Donald Trump’s USA?

Chlorinated Chicken

chicken factory farm
Chicken factory farm

Everyone seems to have heard about US chlorinated chicken. Basically, it’s OK in the States for chickens to spend their whole lives covered in their own and other chickens’ shit. After slaughter, they’re given a quick wash down in chlorinated water and put out for sale to the public. Food poisoning is three to five times higher in the USA than in Europe. That’s almost certainly an underestimate, given that, with no NHS equivalent, 20 million Americans have no health insurance cover. So incidents of food poisoning are almost certainly under-reported in the USA – by the poorest people. And the reason for the high levels of US food poisoning? Washing in chlorinated water doesn’t kill all the bugs.

EU food standards, which Theresa May and Michael Gove have stated they’ll keep, require chickens to live their lives in a clean, healthy – and shit-free – environment. US chicken, anyone?

Pig Farms and the Environment

aerial view of pig farm
Pig “Farm”

Let’s turn from chicken to pork. Pig farms in the USA are an environmental disaster. Here’s an (admittedly disputed) Wikipedia account. On long walks with our dog, we’ve seen some pretty disgustingly smelly, industrial-scale pig farms in this country. They were certainly not the romanticised picture of little piggies running free you see in children’s books. We need fewer, not more, of such monstrosities.

Despite the controversy, there seems little doubt about the effect on water quality through contamination of the water table. These effects cover an enormous area around the offending farms. US pork farm practices here? No thanks.

Beef Growth Agents

Beef production

The most worrying of all is not chickens, or pork. It’s beef. Do you want to live in a world before antibiotics? A world of incurable superbugs? Just welcome American beef and you’ll get it before long. Scaremongering? I don’t think so.

An American report (publication date unclear: probably less than 5 years old) entitled The Overuse of Antibiotics in Food Animals Threatens Public Health spells it out. A deeply troubling statistic in the report states that 80% of antibiotics sold in the USA is used in meat and poultry production, mostly beef I understand. And it’s just used as a growth enhancer. In other words, to improve the farmers’ profits. US food standards say this is all just fine: nasty government mustn’t interfere in businesses’ interests.

Superbugs are found in 80% of US supermarket meat. Superbugs: you know, the ones that are resistant to nearly all (or all) known antibiotics. The true-blue Daily Telegraph is worried. Even Jeremy Hunt, when Health Secretary, was in on the act in February.

I read somewhere that scientists had analysed faecal traces in US ground beef, i.e. what the Americans call the minced beef used in burgers. They could identify faeces from over 3000 different cows. This is as a result of the industrial scale of US beef production. This US Consumer Reports report gives an idea of the problem. I feel rather queasy about that level of mixing. We generally shop at our local butcher on a farm where all meat is traceable to individual animals. It just feels safer that way – and yes, we can afford to pay a bit more.

But the antibiotics issue is the real show-stopper.

EU standards

Both May and Gove, as I said earlier, have said they will stick to EU food standards. Although whether anything the duplicitous Gove says can be trusted is a moot point. But it should be blisteringly obvious that it’s either EU or USA standards. The two approaches are fundamentally incompatible.

Trump Always “Wins”

Trump, with his “America First” policy, is temperamentally hard-wired to be on the winning side every time. He doesn’t do “losers” and holds all those he sees as such in contempt. There is zero chance that Little Britain could “negotiate” a trade deal with the USA which is fair to both sides. And we all know who would lose.

Shit on Your Plate

shit on plate
What’s this?

Leavers wanted to “take back control”. Well, they’d better have plenty of toilet rolls handy. Just in case.

And surviving a simple, routine operation just might get a whole lot more (C) Difficile, as the French might say.

US trade deal, anyone?

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A Song for Europe

With an uneasy truce in the Cabinet and David Cameron reappearing in the shadows last week, perhaps it’s time for a little reflection on the UK’s 45-year semi-detached relationship with the EU.

45 Years

EU building brussels
EU Building, Brussels

Edward Heath was arguably our only instinctively pro-EU Prime Minister. Thatcher was a key player in pushing for the single market, motivated by her extremist free market fundamentalist ideas. She pushed the whole EU in this direction: a legacy which still prevents many in the Labour Party – not least Jeremy Corbyn – from giving the EU their full-throated support. Major had his “bastards”: some, like Bill Cash, are still there. Blair, Brown and Cameron were more calculating and found a bit of EU-bashing came in handy at times for domestic consumption.

Referendum Campaigns

The referendum campaigns were a disgrace, as was the BBC’s attempt at balance. Leavers simply told a pack of lies: an argument I won’t repeat here. But the Remain campaign, although not lies,  was pretty awful too. Labour was nowhere to be seen, leaving the debate to the two warring factions of the Tory Party. (The Lib Dems and SNP barely got a word in, at least outside Scotland for the latter.)

Cameron’s argument was aimed squarely at the “haves”; nobody spoke for the “have nots.” Project Fear was a fair accusation. With a scent of Russian influence and the breaking of electoral law by both Leave campaigns, the whole business was extremely tawdry, to say the least. How Cameron, who had been slagging the EU tactically for many years, thought, in four months, he could be convincingly a champion for the EU is beyond me.

A Song

So, a lament for could-have beens: some of the words may be familiar:

Maybe I didn’t treat EU
Quite as good as I should have
Maybe I didn’t like you
Quite as often as I could have
Little things I should have said and done
I just never took the time

You were rarely on my mind
You were rarely on my mind

Maybe I didn’t notice
That we had our cake and ate it
With our opt-outs and our refunds
But the Dunces didn’t get it
If I made you feel like enemies
Maybe now I think I’m blind

You were rarely on my mind
You were rarely on my mind
 

And the papers, all they ever did for us was lies
Forgive me, there’s just one last chance
To keep you satisfied, satisfied
Little things I should have said and done
I just never took the time

You were rarely on my mind
You were rarely on my mind

(with acknowledgements to Willie Nelson)

 

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A Convenient Lie

Pardon me if I haven’t been paying attention.

Cabinet Collective Responsibility

David Cameron, that worthless piece of shit who, unbelievably, was once our Prime Minister, started it. He suspended collective cabinet responsibility for the duration of the formal EU Referendum Campaign. May asserted after the Chequers meeting that she was reimposing this again. Excuse me, but it’s two years since the referendum. Surely collective responsibility was reimposed then. Implying it was not so is a rewriting of history – or am I missing something? This seems nothing more than a convenient lie to cover up May’s extremely weak position within her own Cabinet.

Blink

chequers aerial view
Chequers

So what do we know so far?

The Leave extremists – the Dunces – blinked first. That’s basically because they have no plan.

Attention seems to be now focussed on how long Boris Johnson can remain as Foreign Secretary. Basically this means how long until his next undiplomatic outburst and whether May meant it when she said “no more dissenting leaks”. We’ll see soon enough.

How Rees-Mogg and the backbench Dunces will react is anyone’s guess. They’re all impervious to reasoned argument.

The EU’s Position

The day-long squabble was for the cabinet to agree on a compromise between two positions already rejected by the EU. Why they should agree to what was cobbled together at Chequers is anybody’s guess, but Michel Barnier at least used warmer language in his initial response.

Don’t Mention the War

May seems to have failed in her attempt to peel off Germany from the EU and EU27 by her trip to Berlin before the Chequers “summit”.

There will be more compromises to come once the EU has had a chance to see – and reject  sections of – the White Paper. Chequers was just a preliminary skirmish. The real war within the Tory Party hasn’t started yet.

Wasted Years

The real tragedy is the fact that two years have been squandered by internal Tory Party squabbling, while we – business especially – stood by open-mouthed and helpless. Strong? Stable? In the National Interest? Pull the other one.

Labour’s Position

Iain Dale, LBC journalist, on Newsnight, asserted that many Tory Party members will be tearing up their membership cards. Good! Anyway, they’ll be dead soon. More importantly, he asserted many people will simply stop voting. Apart from the big question mark over the health of our democracy – no small issue – that’s also good, as it will ensure the Tories are out of power for a long time. But it does open up the window for a new populist, neo-fascist party on the extreme right. Some of those “non-voters” will be attracted to its siren calls.

The Labour Party must get clear its message to secure “traditional” Labour supporters by redoubling its message. It’s convenient that it also happens to be true. The EU has never been the problem for rising inequality, crumbling services, the housing crisis and job insecurity. Blame all that on Free Market Fundamentalism. Started by Thatcher, pushed by Osborne, continued by Hamilton, austerity is a political choice, not a necessity. I think the message is slowly getting through. It’s imperative Labour seizes the moment and also uses the Remain majority in Parliament cleverly and tactically.

Is Corbyn the right man to do that? We’ll see.

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