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There was a time when debates in the House of commons used to matter. To an extent they still do, especially the was one yesterday in Westminster Hall on the British Army (starts about two-thirds the way down). It is worth a quick look.

I'll do a summary of it when I get time … I'm ensconced in the pointy building where they have those debates, so blogging is a bit difficult at the moment.

COMMENT THREAD

For anyone with a brain, self-doubt goes with the territory. In considering any course of action, there are usually several options and the best is very often a matter of fine judgement. It is, therefore, inevitable that one will tend to second-guess one's own decisions.

It is actually quite comforting, therefore, to read the letter from Sir Edward du Cann in The Telegraph today, where he offers an explanation for the failure of the Conservative Party to attract the support it needs to form the government.

His recipe for success is quite simple, and one which we saw being rolled out by New Labour in the dying days of the Major government. It can be summed up in one word: attack.

Thus does Sir Edward enjoin the Party (and by inference the MPs) to “attack defence ministers for the lack of adequate equipment, the massacre of the Royal Navy, and so on.” National defence, he writes, always is low priority for Labour.

That was precisely the point we were trying to make in this piece here and the lacklustre performance of the current defence team must be considered to have contributed to the lack of popularity of the Party.

However, things are not as simple as that. Some of the woes of the Armed Forces stem from the profligate spending on European projects, some of which - like the Eurofighter – stem from decisions made during previous Conservatives governments.

Other woes stem from decisions yet to be made, such as the decision to go ahead with the £14 billion FRES project, which is essential if Britain is to play a leading part in the European Rapid Reaction Force – something which the Conservative Party does not oppose in principle (or at all, if the it is to be judged by its lack of comment on the subject).

Therefore, any really serious attack on the government would invite the riposte that the Conservatives are largely responsible for many of the problems and that, in future, things would be very little different under a Conservative government.

As long as the Party in thrall to its European past and future, it will struggle to be a free agent and will always have problems with the attack mode. As always, the EU casts a long shadow.

COMMENT THREAD

A Coroner's inquiry has reported on the deaths of Pte Phillip Hewett, 2nd Lt Richard Shearer and Pte Leon Spicer – three soldiers slaughtered by a roadside bomb while they were patrolling in a "Snatch" Land Rover. Our report is here.

COMMENT THREAD

Those of us who grew up on the TV crime series Hawaii Five-O will fondly remember the last line of almost every episode with Jack Lord as Detective Steve McGarrett turning to James McArthur as Danny Williams to say: "Book 'im Danno. Murder one."

It took me a little while to work out that "murder one" is premeditated homicide while "murder two" is unintended homicide, such as accident as a result of an attack or self-defence or, even, the result of a sudden uproar.

It seems that we are to have similar distinctions in genocide. Genocide one would be that carried out with racist or xenophobic motives. Any other, common or garden genocide, such as the wholesale murder of the peasantry in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan or various parts of China (to name but a few) will count as genocide two and will, therefore carry a less serious sentence.

By sentence, I do not mean a genuine legal entity, since none of the people responsible for genocide two (except for Saddam Hussein) have been charged, let alone tried or punished. But there is a sentence of world opprobrium and, clearly, genocide carried out for political reasons does not seem to be all that important.

Well, to start with, Germany, El Presidente of the European Union, has dropped plans to outlaw the swastika throughout the European Union because of various representations by Hindu groups. Of course, the Hindu sv'astika is different from the Nazi swastika, as Christopher Booker pointed out in response to the waffle presented by that all-purpose expert, Timothy Garton Ash, but, I imagine, the Hindu groups foresaw all kinds of complications and decided to nip this one in the bud.

Incidentally, the Hindu symbol adorns many a gravestone in British war cemeteries all over the world. Would they have had to be taken down?

As for the outlawing of Holocaust denying, Germany is pushing ahead with it, hoping that all EU members come to an agreement on that at the Luxembourg meeting on April 19 – 20.
"Public incitement of violence and hatred or the denial or trivialization of genocide with racist or xenophobic motives" should be criminalized EU-wide, German officials said in Brussels on Monday. "But the plan does not include a ban on certain symbols such as swastikas."
There are times when I read pronouncements by officials and politicians and nearly give up the will to live. What kind of an idiot thinks that public incitement or violence and hatred (something that is covered by the criminal law of all member states) is the same as the denial or trivialization of any historical event, however ghastly?

First of all, define trivialization. How does this solemn prig feel about Jewish jokes throughout the ages, whose aim was to trivialize the various problems the Jews faced. There are jokes about the Nazi system, about Jews in Germany under the Nazis and even about the death camps.

One of the most moving films about the Holocaust, though it dealt with the Italian side of it, was "La Vita e Bella", in which the main character hides his little son when the other children are gassed and pretends to him that they are at a holiday camp, playing a long and elaborate game. Trivialization? Well, I barely managed to contain my tears.

What of the whole genre of labour camp jokes that grew up in the Soviet Union? Oh sorry, those camps, even when they were part of attempted genocide, were not put up with "racist and xenophobic motives" or not overtly so. They can be trivialized and even denied.

As it happens a good deal of Stalin's ferocity was directed against specific national groups and all religions were at risk. What of the Chechens, Ingushi and Tatars who were deported wholesale at the end of World War Two? What of the second big purge just before his death that was seriously anti-Semitic? Of course, he was trying to exterminate or, at least, deport wholesale, Jews because they were "rootless cosmopolitans" not because they were Jews. That, presumably, makes it genocide two rather than genocide one.

This blog fully intends to campaign for the upgrading of genocide two. The denial or trivialization of the holocaust of the Ukrainian, Russian and Kazakh peasantry must be made illegal. I am looking forward to the first trial of famine-deniers. Perhaps, it could be that of Professor Eric Hobsbawm CH.

COMMENT THREAD

Carola Godman Law is Chairman of the Lewes Constituency Conservative Association, Burgess Hill, E Sussex.

Responding to the decision of one of her members to resign from the Conservative Party and to join UKIP she observes that:

If you believe, as I do, that we live in a country ruled by a government of almost unparalleled incompetence and deceitfulness, you do not join a party the voting for which is likely to result in more of the same. UKIP has every chance of winning the next election – for Labour.
She then goes on to ask:

How would UKIP deal with the current state of our hospitals, the debt crisis and all the other disasters that Labour has created? Or does removal from the EU solve everything?
What she does not seem to realise is that there is a growing body of people who believe that the ability to govern ourselves is very much more important than the other issues which she identifies. And, in that key issue, there is nothing to chose between Labour and the Conservative Party.

In fact, in historical terms, the greatest advances in European political integration have always occurred under a Conservative government – not forgetting the Single European Act under Thatcher's watch.

Can anyone trust the Boy King not to take us in even further and, if one cannot, why should we vote for him and his merry men?

But the nub is, as we have observed before, that fatal arrogance. Carola Godman Law seems to believe that, because we are ruled by a government "of almost unparalleled incompetence and deceitfulness", that means we should vote for her party.

I think not.

In addition to its 745-acre Ithaca campus in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, Cornell University operates the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City and now the Weill Cornell Medical College in Doha, Qatar.

At first sight, therefore, it does not strike one as a poverty-stricken institute deserving of the charity of debt-laden European taxpayers.

However, that does not seem to be the view of the EU Commission which perhaps has a different agenda - like propaganda. To that effect, it is funding the University's Institute of European Studies (IES) to the tune of $100,000. And, it looks like it is getting a bargain.

The grant, we are told, is being awarded to the University "in honour of the EU's 50th anniversary" (honest, I am not making this up). Some of it goes to a "town twinning" project with Elios Proni in Greece Unite, part of a "Getting to Know Europe" local outreach project. But the IES also plans to conduct "The EU and U" business seminars, which will aim to "educate local businesses and small value-added enterprises about opportunities to do business with the countries of the EU".

Additionally, part of the EU grant will be used to fund IES's comprehensive "K-12 outreach program", which is designed to "inspire local students to understand and appreciate the European Union."

Of this, the "EU Curriculum Grant Contest" is one of the noteworthy initiatives. For its money, the IES will encourage teachers from Upstate New York schools to develop curriculum materials focusing on the politics, the history and the culture of the European Union.

Selected educators will be awarded $1,125 to implement the most promising programs and plans are in hand to run a "Europe Day Poster Contest" which will let youngsters explore their artistic talents while drawing upon the theme of the recently unveiled European Anniversary logo, "Together". And, of course, winners will be announced during the Europe Day 2007 celebration on 9th May.

David Wippman, vice provost for International Relations, said that the grant will "provide an excellent opportunity to advance the outreach and international mission of Cornell University by enlightening local residents about the important work of the EU, the rich cultural history of Europe and the abundant US-EU business and investment opportunities."

Well, they certainly bought him cheap. And for a "mere" $100,000, it seems Cornell University - reputedly the third richest in the USA - has been bought and paid-for as an organ of EU propaganda. One suspects the EU Commission is rubbing its hands with glee at obtaining so many cut-price Yanks.

You would have thought, though, that if Cornell academics were intent on selling themselves to a foreign power, the interests of which are inimical to those of the United States, they would have charged a little more.

COMMENT THREAD


These are French VBLs (Véhicule Blindé Léger - "Light armoured vehicle") in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of NATO which provides no further details. Although they do look butch, these vehicles are not much better (if at all) protected than "Snatch" Land Rovers. However, you do have to admire their style.

As always, mouse-click to get the enlarged version.

COMMENT THREAD

The US Department of Defence, in one of its routine press releases is extolling the virtues of its National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California.

There, troops are put through their pre-deployment training, prior to being sent to Iraq. In particular, they are taught how to deal with IEDs – the picture here showing a simulated vehicle-borne IED.

The unit works with the Joint IED Center of Excellence, which opened its doors in summer 2006 to share the latest counter-IED tactics, techniques and procedures with deploying troops.

However, what is of special interest to this blog is the comment from its chief of integration, Air Force Lt. Col. Rodney Taylor, the center's chief of integration.

Ultimately, countering IEDs has huge implications for US military operations in the war on terror, he says. Although IEDs may be relatively simple weapons, they have the impact of strategic weapons. "If IEDs kill enough Americans, that may change the will of the American public, which is what we require in order to stay in Iraq and get the job done," he said.

By coincidence, our own MoD has put up a press release on the opening by defence minister Adam Ingram of a £2 million extension at the UK's flagship Development, Concepts and Doctrine in Shrivenham, Wilts. We are told that it was finished early and under-budget.

The Centre is essentially the "Vatican" of the defence establishment, providing the "intellectual bases" that inform "coherent decisions" in Defence Policy, Capability Development and operations, both now and in the future (don't blame me – that's what the press release says).

In particular, the Centre develops the Armed Forces' doctrine, the detailed procedures and guides by which the Army fights its battles.

In dealing with the threat of IED, therefore, it is to Shrivenham that the Army goes for its advice. And my spies tell me that it is there where there has been some of the greatest resistance to the deployment of mine protected vehicles and other technical counter-measures.

Thus, while we hope the 100-plus staff of the DCDC are very happy in their new home, we would like to think that there is enough money left over from the savings in the budget to send some of their number to the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, where they might learn something about dealing with IEDs.

In particular, we would hope they could talk to Lt. Col. Taylor who, I am sure, would be happy to tell them about the strategic importance of IEDs, something that could take back to the Vatican and tell all their friends. If they then come up with some really "coherent decisions" on how the British Army should deal with IEDs, then the £2 million spent on their new home might just have been worth it.

COMMENT THREAD

Brian Ledbetter over at Snapped Shot has an interesting perspective on the Palestinian civil war dialogue.

Brian misses the point though. If it is not the fault of the IDF, then it must be Bush's fault. Stands to reason, as my colleague says.

COMMENT THREAD

Speaking today to an audience of 150 EU officials who met to discuss European defence policies at a conference hosted by the German Foreign Ministry, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told them:

How do NATO-EU relations stand? Let me answer that by means of a little anecdote. A few weeks ago, one of my staff told me he had been invited to a conference on "frozen conflicts". And then he added with a smile: "Of course it's about the Caucasus, not about NATO-EU relations!"

It would undoubtedly be going too far to describe NATO-EU relations as a "frozen conflict". At least the logic of a European Security and Defence Policy is not in dispute today. The ESDP has meanwhile become an inseparable part of European integration.
Er… "the European Security and Defence Policy has … become an inseparable part of European integration."

Right.

COMMENT THREAD

A classic way for a journalist to construct a newspaper report is to write up the basic details, setting the tone of the piece and then to ring up a politician or some such to get an opposing comment. Put the two together and you have your story.

Such was definitely the structure of a story yesterday in the Sunday Times, with journalist David Leppard reporting under the headline: "Blair to launch spin battalion against Al-Qaeda propaganda".

The idea itself, though, actually seems quite good – in principle. We are told that Blair is planning to set up a "joint information unit", to be based in the Cabinet Office or the Home Office, its function to seek to counter disinformation issued by Islamic terrorists.

The unit is to be modelled on the "public information office" set up by the British Army as part of the campaign to defeat the IRA in Northern Ireland. One well-placed insider says the aim of the unit is to coordinate well-argued public "rebuttals" of propaganda messages.

In a war against global terrorism where, as we have remarked, the propaganda war is a potent as the shooting war, this is not only a good idea but absolutely essential. If there is any criticism, it is that the decision to set up the unit has been revealed. Generally speaking, the few people who know about counter-propaganda operations the better.

As to the intention to set up the unit, Mr Leppard seems to have decided it is a Bad Thing. He thus colours his piece by describing it as a "propaganda unit" in Whitehall to help sway Muslim hearts and minds in the battle with Al-Qaeda.

Leppard then tells us that the plan for the new unit was one of the key recommendations contained in a report presented to Blair last month by John Reid, the home secretary. The "Reid Group" report answered a request by Blair for a rethink on Britain's response to the war on terror.

Since other recommendations from the group have been dropped, however, this opens the way for a pointed "drop in" comment from Patrick Mercer, the Tory spokesman on homeland security. Obligingly, he tells Leppard, "Given all the time and effort that went into the Reid Group's rethink on terrorism, it is extraordinary that the only thing to get approval is a propaganda organisation, which is effectively a spin machine."

In goes the comment and the story is now "balanced" – but has Mercer done himself or the Tories a favour, or is he just being used? More to the point, has Leppard really written a balanced story, or is this just his own brand of spin – a different kind of spin?

COMMENT THREAD

To give the new SecGen of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, his due, he seems at first to have responded reasonably well to the latest UN scandal, the money passed on to North Korea'’s Kim Jong-il by the United Nations Development Programme without a great deal of supervision.

I wish I could say that it was this blog that did the trick but, I suspect, it was the probability of a prolonged campaign by the Wall Street Journal that encouraged Mr Ban to pronounce on the subject.

A week ago on Friday Mr Ban’s spokesman announced that the SecGen had met with Ad Melkert, associate administrator of the UNDP (what is he associated with, one wonders) and added:
The Secretary-General will call for an urgent, system wide and external inquiry into all activities done around the globe by the U.N. funds and programmes.
The key word, as the following Monday’s WSJ editorial pointed out, is “external”. We all remember how long it took the previous SecGen, Kofi Annan (father of Kojo and brother of Kobina) to set up the independent Volcker Commission to find out what has been going on in the Oil for Food scam. Admittedly he picked a man whom he had considered to be “reliable” to chair it but, alas, the report was not quite what SecGen Annan had wanted.

The UNDP announced in a letter, published in Monday’s WSJ, that it welcomes “an independent and external audit of our operations in North Korea”. In the same letter, readers were assured that
If the member states of the U.N. and UNDP’s board were to decide that our presence there were no longer useful, we would leave immediately.
Brave words. Unfortunately, one of the members of that board is North Korea itself (it also sits on the board of UNDP’s affiliate, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and if UNICEF as well as being a member of the UN Disarmament Conference. What are the chances of Kim Jong-il’s henchmen (for who else would be sent to negotiate on these august boards) agreeing that the UNDP and its hard cash were no longer wanted in North Korea? One of the many tales of porcine aviation that the UN is so fond of regaling us with.

Meanwhile, the UNDP is twisting and turning. In a press conference last Friday the same Ad Melkert dismissed the problem with the words:
We’re not talking about hundreds of millions of dollars. … Over a period of 10 years it is, of course, tens of millions.
Oh well, that’s all right then. Actually, the sum is $27.7 million and, indeed, it is chickenfeed compared to the Oil for Food scam.

There is a long piece on North Korea, the UN and various ramifications of the problem, both nuclear and humanitarian, here.

COMMENT THREAD

There are only so many times you can write about a subject before you stand at risk not only of boring your own readers to death, but yourself as well.

Such a subject is the wreck of the Conservative Party where, even a few days ago, we said as much as we could then say on the issue.

But now the issue is back again with a vengeance. All we have to do is sit back and watch the Party self-destruct as the "professionals" struggle to catch up with the things we were writing about months ago.

Thus does Anthony King note, in respect of the current You Gov poll that, although confidence in Blair is at an all-time low, the Tories are not benefiting. He writes:

Asked, in addition, whether Britain is likely to be governed better under Mr Brown than it has been under Tony Blair, most voters give the impression of tossing a mental coin. As the figures in the chart show, roughly the same small proportions are sanguine and dubious about him, with a clear majority reckoning his eventual ascent to power "will not make much difference". Of course, the problem for the Tories at the moment is that a large majority of voters clearly think the same about them.
And now that the Boy has sided with the government against the Catholic Church on adoption, more and more party members are throwing their hands up in horror at the realisation that David Cameron is not and never was a Conservative.

We initially took against the Boy for his stance on the European Union but such is his amazing ability to sour virtually every constituency that might have supported the conservatives at the next general election that we can be confident that his views, as prime minister, will never see the light of day.

Like virtually every Tory MP in parliament outside the narrow, closed circle of the Cameron groupies, we have absolutely no doubt that the Conservatives will fail to win the next election. The only other certainty is that, when the news of their fourth failure in a row comes in, the Tories once again will blame the electorate for not voting for them.

Only one they realise that we, the voters, do not owe them a living, will the Tory party begin to make progress – and that is not going to happen for some time yet.

COMMENT THREAD

Thanks to Pajamas Media, we get this interesting story of a Lebanese blog exposing fauxtography to do with the recent Lebanese riots or disturbances, depending on how you wish to describe them.

Michael Totten covers the story in his Middle East Journal, though we take exception to his last comment:
Busting propagandists for fauxtography isn’t just for Americans any more.
Ahem, Green Helmet Guy? Did you miss that one, Mr Totten?

COMMENT THREAD

The move to make Holocaust denying illegal across the EU seems to have acquired legs, with the Commission supporting the German proposal and the egregious Justice Commissar Franco Frattini (he, who got his job because the original Italian candidate Buttiglioni was a devout and practising Catholic) announced somewhat pompously that he "very much welcomed and fully supported" these proposals.

I shall not bother to rehearse all the arguments against the ban, which have nothing to do with the horrible aspect of the event and of the need to know about it and to study it (though there are other things in history to study as well).

It is, however, gag-making to hear this sort of commentary:
While freedom of expression is part of Europe's values and traditions, its democratic societies also allowed to fight racist speech through penal law, the commissioner added.
Those European values and traditions (that, of course, include Nazism and the Holocaust as well) seem to be infinitely flexible. What Commissar Frattini should be dealing with is the fully acknowledged growth in anti-Semitic attacks across the whole of western Europe in the last few years. Most of these member states, including Italy, routinely post police guard outside synagogues because they are afraid of attacks that come from one or two barely acknowledged directions.

Compared to that, the denial of something that happened some decades ago, a denial that is, moreover, not taken particularly seriously by any respectable historian or commentator, is hardly of paramount importance. Is this another effort on the part of all our lords and masters to go for displacement activity rather than trying to deal with existing and growing problems?

As we have already said on this blog, should such a ban be proposed for legislation in the United Kingdom, we shall start campaigning for legislation that would make the denial of Communist crimes illegal. Alas, we have not enough space in courts or prisons to accommodate all those who have been and still are indulging in this activity.

Pic courtesy of: bigfoto.com

COMMENT THREAD

Some of our readers may have forgotten about the fragrant Valerie Plame [pictured left], her less than fragrant husband, Joe (I cannot quite remember what I said last week but will this do) Wilson and the entire circus of the Libby trial. Others would have read some media coverage, including articles by British journalists, apparently copied verbatim from American publications rather than reported from the court.

Time to redress the balance and find out what is really going on. And who better to explain matters to us than Clarice Feldman, who does an expert fisking on American Thinker? Read the whole piece and if you have time, follow the links she provides. Well worth it.

COMMENT THREAD


For those who missed it, here is the explanation for the gratuitous "toy" pic.

This one is a Small Unit Riverine Craft (SURC) from the USMC Dam Security Unit, against the backdrop of the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River in the Al Anbar province, Iraq. The photograph was taken on 30 April 2006 by Cpl. Justin L. Schaeffer, USMC.

The pic is posted at 800 pixels so, to get the full effect, mouse-click anywhere on the face of the picture.

Meanwhile, Strategy Page has done a compilation labelled: "Top ten myths of the Iraqi war". I particularly like number five:

The Invasion Was a Failure: Saddam's police state was overthrown and a democracy established, which was the objective of the operation. Peace did not ensue because Saddam's supporters, the Sunni Arab minority, were not willing to deal with majority rule, and war crimes trials. A terror campaign followed. Few expected the Sunni Arabs to be so stupid. There's a lesson to be learned there.
This rather points to a central truth. There is killing and mayhem in Iraq because a relatively small number of evil men are intent on killing and mayhem. From this one can conclude that, if they stopped killing and doing everything they could to undermine the government, then there would be no killing and mayhem.

Since you cannot negotiate with evil, as long as these people do what they do, they must be killed. Despite the moonbat wingeing, the US and Iraqi forces are doing a good job lately.

COMMENT THREAD

It is not only in Iraq that there is an ongoing battle for "hearts and minds". There is one raging in the Eurozone and, according to FT-Harris poll just published, the European Union is losing it.

An overwhelming majority of citizens in the big eurozone countries believe the euro has damaged their national economies. Of the French, Italians and Spanish, more than two-thirds believe the single currency has had a "negative impact". More than half of Germans feel likewise and, in France, a mere five percent said the euro has had a positive effect on the French economy.

More than half of citizens in countries using the euro say they prefer their former national currency, according to the poll of 5,314 adults in Germany, the UK, France, Spain and Italy, which was conducted between January 10 and January 22. Almost two-thirds of Germans say they preferred their former currency, the D-Mark.

Despite that, citizens of eurozone countries generally see wider benefits of the euro. More Germans, Italians and Spanish see a positive impact on the EU economy than a negative effect. The big exception is the French, more of whom see a negative rather than positive impact.

The interesting thing is though that the results coincide with a relatively buoyant time for the euro. Eurozone growth prospects have brightened, thanks largely to a pick-up in Germany, and employment prospects look better than they have for some time.

Given an economic downturn or currency crisis in the Eurozone, one can see sentiment turning even more sharply against the single currency, which means that this result is probably as good as it gets. From here, it can only get worse.

COMMENT THREAD

Emily Parker writes in Saturday's Wall Street Journal about the Chinese internet and the government's attempts to control it with President Hu Jintao asking his officials that they "actively and creatively nurture a healthy online culture".

Ms Parker points out that there will soon be 137 million internet users in mainland China, not, perhaps, a particularly large figure, given the population of that country, but no longer a tiny group either. Of course, we cannot tell how many of them use the internet simply to play games but a large proportion must read and write on various subjects. Even personal blogs become a political tool under a Communist regime.

She speculates about whether the internet and its use are likely to promote freedom and democracy in that country and the article is worth reading in full. Her conclusion seems to be that sometimes it goes up and sometimes it goes down.

The Chinese government has installed fairly effective firewalls, employs tens of thousands of internet police and is effective at closing down websites or removing postings before too many people can read it. There is also a tendency to arrest journalists or bloggers who write too many uncomfortable pieces.

Western firms who move in on the market are required to censor themselves and Yahoo even handed over the name of a journalist, who was promptly imprisoned.

Above all, the Chinese government fears uncontrolled assembly of people. We are not speaking only about tanks in Tiananmen Square but also about the inexplicably fierce crack-down on the Falun Gong, whose main crime seemed to be to bring together many thousands from all over China to Beijing in a quiet protest.

If you cannot gather or find people who share your views in the largest possible way, physically, then this may be possible on the net.
More important, though, is that for those Chinese who long harbored suspicions that their views were out of sync with the Communist Party line, the Internet created a space to learn that they were not alone. Or as I remember one intrepid, Beijing-based Internet essayist explaining to me - Now, I know who my comrades are. In his online world, there were vibrant discussions, "opinion leaders," and various intellectual camps. Peering into this universe would even lead one to imagine the root formation of political parties.
Perhaps. One can go on hoping. But even knowing who your comrades are is important for the Chinese who want to think for themselves.

COMMENT THREAD

Reports are coming in of a British dawn raid on properties in Az Zubayr, near Basra, where ammunition, light rockets, bomb-making paraphernalia, radio equipment and timer units were discovered in a house.

The raid was hastily organised and carried out by 250 soldiers from 1 Yorkshire Battlegroup, "acting on intelligence". After the raid on the house, 500 mortar rounds were seized from a compound where troops had earlier spotted men transferring weapons into two vehicles. A number of men were also detained.

Without doubt, this is a significant action, not least because it suggests that the British Army is not entirely without friends in the area. While, on this blog, we have tended to emphasise the hardware aspect of fighting an insurgency, the acquisition of local intelligence is just as important as having well-equipped troops.

Speaking of which, in the background to this photograph (right) – unless I am very much mistaken – is a Saxon APC, fitted out with slatted armour. This is definitely one we missed as we were under the distinct impression that the vehicle had been withdrawn from Iraq, largely because the thing is perilously instable.

However, this, it seems, is one of a batch of 22 upgraded Saxons, an event not entirely applauded by their users. The addition of more armour and other equipment cannot have helped its stability.

Once again, the contrast with US aspirations is extreme.

COMMENT THREAD

If global warming – man-made or otherwise – is responsible for this year's mild winter, then the Scots have reason to be thankful for it.

According to the Scotsman on Sunday, Scotland is on the brink of a power crisis after an accident at one of the country's biggest electricity plants massively reduced supplies to the national grid.

This is Longannet in Fife (pictured). It is, in fact, the second largest coal-fired power station in the whole of the UK and has been shut down after a conveyor belt carrying coal collapsed. The worst of it is that the Hunterston B nuclear power station is already off-line, leaving Scotland perilously short of power. Outages have been avoided only because of the unseasonably warm weather.

The two stations normally account for almost half of Scotland's electricity generation and, crucially, provide constant back-up electricity at times when other stations (and the wind factories) are not operating.

Since Scotland normally exports power to England, but because of the way the grid is structured, it is difficult to reverse flow and send power from England up to Scotland.

This highlights the fundamental fragility and inflexibility of the National Grid, something we looked at in December. Few people realise that, in terms of electricity supplies, we are living on the edge and, even now, we are one power station away from disaster. As we increase our dependency on wind-generated electricity and fail to invest in more stable power providers, the situation can only get worse. No one in the business, it seems, is prepared to guarantee the stability of the grid after 2010.

The time is getting close when buying that generator is becoming essential.

COMMENT THREAD


Somewhere in that lot is a Chinook helicopter - seen at the British base at Shatt al-Arab Hotel last year. As before, mouse-click anywhere on the face of the pic to get the full effect.

COMMENT THREAD

Booker has a strong piece in his column today, on how badly the EU keeps its books. But not only does it fail to meet even the most basic standards of accountancy practice, it is utterly ruthless in preventing its accounts being investigated.

And we gave this organisation £15 billion last year. Why?

COMMENT THREAD

The Telegraph's transport correspondent, David Millward, has finally woken up to the fact that "Brussels has demanded that all member state road pricing schemes should not only be harmonised, but be capable of linking with the EU's £2.3 billion Galileo satellite." He writes, in today's newspaper:

Brussels's insistence that road-pricing technology works with Galileo was seen by critics as a way of ensuring the project recoups income from licence fees paid by tolling authorities. Such demands will apply to all road pricing and toll systems introduced since the turn of the year. Existing schemes could be forced to use the same technology.

The Galileo project, a European rival to the Americans' GPS satellite — also hopes to make money from selling its services to companies making compatible satellite navigation devices.

In addition Brussels expects the onboard units, which should be harmonised across the EU, will also be capable of enforcing a wide range of road pricing schemes — from London's congestion charge to a German motorway tolling scheme and even, where possible, time spent in a garage or car park.
Of course, readers of the Sunday Telegraph could have seen this in the Booker column in June 2005, we wrote about it in the blog in the same month, but also as early as March 2005 and again the same month.

But we are talking about Directive 2004/52/EC of 29 April 2004, on the interoperability of electronic road toll systems within the Community, so I suppose it is a little harsh to expect the Telegraph to notice it in less than 2½ years.

But isn't it so good to see professionals at work!

COMMENT THREAD

In the latest issue of eurofacts Lord Pearson or Rannoch and Lord Willoughby de Broke, of whose decision to abandon the Conservative Party in favour of UKIP we have written before, have published their political statement. Together with the editor of eurofacts we have decided to reproduce it here in full, as we think our readers would be interested, though some have, undoubtedly, seen it before.

Why we left the Tory Party to join UKIP

By Malcolm Pearson and David Willoughby De Broke

Leaving a political party to which one has belonged for many years – even one with which one has come to disagree profoundly on the central political issue of the day – is a painful process. After much reflection we finally decided to do so because we have lost all hope that under its present leadership, the Conservative Party will adopt a sufficiently Euro-sceptic policy in time for the next General Election. We have joined UKIP because in our view it is the only party telling the British people the alarming truth about our relationship with the European Union:

· That the majority of our national law is now made in Brussels.

· That is law is proposed in secret by the unelected EU bureaucracy, the Commission. It is then negotiated in secret by the Committee Of Permanent Representatives form the Nation States (COREPER) and decided in secret by the Council of Ministers, where the UK is reduced to some 8 per cent of voting power. The resulting laws are then executed by the Commission having been confirmed, if necessary, by the Europhile EU Parliament and Luxembourg Court. The House of Commons and the House of Lord are irrelevant in this process.

· That our representative Parliamentary democracy has therefore become largely redundant; we have lost the power to govern ourselves. The central privilege of that democracy, for which millions have died over hundreds of years, is that the British people should have the right to elect and dismiss those who make their laws. This has been betrayed by our membership of the EU.

· That only some 10 per cent of our economy trades with the singe market. Another 10 per cent trades with the rest of the world, and 80 per cent stays right here in our domestic economy. Yet the diktats from Brussels afflict 100 per cent of our economy. And we would not lose our European trade if we left the political construct of the EU because they sell us more than we sell them. We are in fact their largest client.

· That leaving the European Union would free us from its stifling regulation and would therefore be hugely advantageous to our economy; it would create many jobs, adding substantially to our GDP. It is thus a positive, enriching and thoroughly modern thing for us to do in this globalised world. It is a policy for a better future.

· That the proposed European Constitution is going ahead fast in Brussels, despite the veto cast by the French and Dutch people in June 2005. The Eurocrats are illegally using clauses in the existing Treaties, (particularly Article 308 which allows the Community to act only “in furtherance of the operation of the Common Market” – i.e. the Free Trade Area established by the Treaty of Rome, and voted for by the British people in the Referendum of 1975) to drive ahead the Charter of Fundamental Rights, a vast EU human rights law, most of which was contained in the failed Constitution.

· That some of the initiative being pursued in Brussels will be difficult to reverse, for instance our military procurement, which is being surreptitiously aligned with EU ambitions, to the detriment of our long-term relationship with the United States and the Commonwealth.

So we also join UKIP with enthusiasm, in the hope that together we can help the British People to wake up to their predicament, and to react accordingly.


COMMENT THREAD

Although this is not explicitly stated, you can divine a sense of shock amongst the media fraternity – if you can call it that – over the news that Clive Goodman, News of the World royal editor, has been jailed after pleading guilty to intercepting phone messages.

However, his co-conspirator, "security consultant" Glenn Mulcaire, who actually got the information that enabled Goodman to hack into the phones - which included those of the royal household – was handed down six months.

The judge, Mr Justice Gross, described Goodman and Mulcaire's behaviour as "low conduct, reprehensible in the extreme", adding that Goodman had been motivated by "career advancement and protection". The nub, though, was that, "Neither journalist nor private security consultants are above the law."

What are dismaying here though are two things. Firstly, a senior journalist was not brought down through him following up any great story but from the pursuit of relatively low-grade tittle-tattle. Secondly, the News of the World paid Mulcaire over £100,000 a year to assist Goodman in obtaining the information, in addition to which Goodman paid Mulcaire £12,300 in cash for his services, between 9 November 2005 and 7 August 2006.

We are talking here, of course, of the News of the World, a newspaper in name only, which specialises in "tarts 'n' vicars" exposés, which have become its hallmark. But it says a great deal that it is prepared to pay so much for poor-grade material, as long as it is about celebrities or royalty.

By coincidence this week, I shared a fish 'n' chip dinner (that means lunchtime oop north) with a journalist on the local rag – a man who has been with the paper over 30 years and wants nothing more out of life than to write. But he says, with the advent of new-technology also came savage cut-backs in the number of reporters. Says our man, in the old days, you could take three days or more to research and write a story. Now you are lucky to get three hours. We feel we are now just processors of information, he adds.

Regular readers of this blog may have detected a slight antipathy towards the journalistic fraternity, but we have some (little) sympathy for this predicament. And when newspapers are prepared to spend ridiculous amounts of money on tittle-tattle, and even more on celebrity columnists, you cannot help but think they have their priorities wrong.

In the final analysis, newspapers are about news (and informed comment). If editors and proprietors lose sight of that, then they, ultimately, will be the losers. There are plenty of others out there who are prepared to take over from them.

COMMENT THREAD

The last few months have been a little difficult for me from the blogging point of view in that I could not get on the net at home. This meant sporadic posting from various computers as and when they were available or I was near them.

All that has changed. I am now fully equipped to write, edit and post at home and shall do so. In other words, there will be more and more frequent postings from me. Bad luck for those of our readers who have not quite grasped that this blog is run by two people. Heh!

On the other hand, I shall keep to my resolution of steering clear of the forum. I shall post my stories on it but refrain from participating in the discussion.

Re-entering the debate on the EU constitution comes pensioner Alan Pavelin, of Chislehurst, Kent, in a letter to The Daily Telegraph. A profligate writer - although more at home in the Independent (and very much opposed to nasty things like referendums) - he writes:

Sir - I would point out that the treaty was negotiated by the elected governments of all the (then) 25 member states; that 18 countries (either through their elected parliaments or by referendum) have accepted it and only two have rejected it; and that, of the countries that held referendums, the total of yes votes exceeded the total of no votes.

By all means argue against the treaty because you don't like its provisions (which include, for the first time, a provision allowing any member state to leave the EU) or because you don't think one country should have any influence in what happens in another country on important issues such as climate change or terrorism.

But please don't argue against the treaty on grounds of democracy, because this flies in the face of the facts.
So, by this token, because 18 other countries have accepted the constitution, and that comprises a majority, we too should accept it because that is democratic?

Now, imagine if you will walking down the street and being accosted by a gang of 20 youths. They decide to hold a vote – to which you are invited to join – as to whether you should give them your wallet. Needless to say, the vote goes against you by a factor of 20-1. Do you accede to the "democratic" majority?

And therein lies the flaw in Mr Pavelin's thinking. He confuses "democracy" with "rule of the majority", which is an altogether different thing.

COMMENT THREAD


Charles over at Little Green Footballs is in the habit of publishing occasional photographs for no other reason than they are good pictures. He usually themes them as a "Saturday night beach" or a "Thursday night supertanker" - or some such - and very good viewing they make.

Readers would be quite surprised to learn that, in creating this blog, quite how much work goes into background picture research – we can quite understand why so many bloggers do not post them. Finding the right pictures for every story does take up an inordinate amount of time, as indeed does processing and the actual process of posting them.

During the research, we quite often come across some stunning photos that are not useable simply because there is no immediate "handle". But so good are some that it is a shame to waste them, when they deserve a wider audience. Thus, I am going to borrow the idea from Charles and publish the occasional photo, just because it is a good photo.

Today's is a recent shot from the US Department of Defense depicting a Humvee on patrol somewhere near the US Bagram airbase, Afghanistan. It does underline the fact that by no means everything about soldiering is bad. Other than being a soldier, how else could you get to see such stunning views from your own private all-terrain vehicle, and get paid into the bargain?

I have posted the pic at 800 pixels, and if you mouse-click anywhere on the face of the pic, you can enlarge it to get the full flavour of the magnificent scenery.

COMMENT THREAD


In Washington yesterday, Turkey signed on for the next phase of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), pledging $175 million toward the aircraft's production and promising to buy 100 of the conventional-take-off-and-landing version (F-35A) of the aircraft, worth about $10 billion.

This follows the decision in October last when Turkey's Air Force decided to go for the Lightning II, dashing any hopes of the "colleagues" that the Eurofighter might be chosen.

Back in October though, only the Air Force, as the user, had made the decision - which had to be ratified by the government. It now has been. In the Pentagon yesterday US deputy defense secretary Gordon England met with Turkey's national defense minister Mehmet Vecdi Gonul and undersecretary for defense industries Murad Bayar, where they signed a memorandum of understanding, cementing the deal.

Of course, this is much, much more than an aircraft deal, as indicated by England's remarks prior to the signing. He said he had spent several years cultivating US relations with Turkey and called the Turkish officials present "dear, close friends," adding, "Our country is privileged to have such a strong and dynamic ally in Turkey … Together our two nations are standing together in the name of freedom."

This continued Turkish participation, says the US Department of Defense, reinforces the longstanding and close relationship between the US and Turkish Air Forces, "providing a solid foundation for future air operations with other allied and friendly nations in a joint and coalition environment."

But it also signals, if not a cooling in the relationship between Turkey and the EU, then certainly the reluctance to get too far into bed with the Europeans, especially in such a vital area as defence. The message will undoubtedly be received and understood in Brussels, both in the EU commission headquarters and in Nato.

COMMENT THREAD

Well, of course, it is all, but all, Israel's fault. Or Bush's. It has to be. Stands to reason.

The situation in Beirut is getting ever more tense. According to this report, the general strike ended with three dead and 176 injured. Those appear to be the accepted figures for the time being.

Four more people were killed in sectarian clashes the day after the strike and around 200 injured during fights between Shias and Sunnis or, if you prefer, Hezbollah and government supporters at Beirut university. Those are the official figures but it seems that people in the street have been attacked and beaten up on the basis of their religious affiliation.

Last night was the first time a curfew was imposed on Beirut since the civil war of the seventies but it was lifted this morning and there is general weeping and wailing. AllahPundit has an interesting tape from MEMRI with Lebanese women (and one man) cursing Nasrallah. One lady expresses the widely applauded opinion that Olmert is more honourable than the Hezbollah leader. She also mentions that this is yet another holy month in Islam and, thus, the fighting is doubly wrong.

Nasrallah has called his people off the streets. We shall see whether they will go on obeying him when he pulls them back.

As Bloomberg points out, the rioting broke out just hours after the donors in Paris had pledged "$7.6 billion in new funds to help rebuild Lebanon and lend support to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's government".

Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera reports that the celebration of the first anniversary of Hamas’s election has been "marred" by factional fighting that resulted in five dead and 11 abducted. Fatah has again called off talks about a unity government.

It just has to be Bush's fault.

COMMENT THREAD

Brought to us by the BBC television news last night, courtesy of Matt Frei, was a sneering review of the latest piece of technology to be brought out by the Americans in their continuing attempt to develop non-lethal weapons.

Officially, this is the "Active Denial System", a £30 million programme to produce a Humvee-mounted weapon which projects a high-intensity microwave beam, with a range in excess of 500 yards, causing burning sensations in the target humans. So uncomfortable is the sensation that the recipient is forced to move from the area, when immediate relief is afforded.

It has been tested on more than 10,000 people over twelve years and, in the last five years of advanced development, no one has required medical attention (which suggests that some might have needed it in the early days). Crucially, it is equally safe at its minimum range of 50ft as it is at its maximum.

Hilariously, at the first public demonstration of the equipment at Moody Air Force base in Georgia, journalists – including Elliot Minor, of the Associated Press (pictured) - were targeted by the enthusiastic crew. We are told that this was voluntary but, nevertheless, they must have enjoyed even this fleeting revenge.

However, apart from the commendable use on the fourth estate, this is a tangible fruit of the US recognition that, in asymmetric wars – where the battle is as much for hearts and minds as it is territory – collateral damage has to be avoided, as accidental deaths can be exploited by the enemy to very great effect.

But, if this technology is sufficiently novel to attract media attention, it is still experimental and at least three years away from field use. But also demonstrated at Moody Air force Bases, but ignored by all and sundry, was another development which will allow soldiers in the field identify enemy the locations of enemy gunmen, by tracking where shots are coming from.

This is achieved by using a lightweight, man-portable version of an acoustic sensor system called the ShotSpotter (pictured) which can pick up immediately the report of a shot (or multiple shots) fired, calculate the location and pass on the details to friendly forces.

But the true genius of the system is that is has been linked to Scan Eagle, a small tactical UAV with a 10ft wingspan and 4ft length.

The UAV is launched by a catapult and has an endurance of about 20 hours. On receipt of location details from a ShotSpotter system, it can home in on the shooter and send real-time video pictures to ground forces (or airborne assets), facilitating a precision response.

Under the generic name of "Ground Situational Awareness Toolkit" this reduces the need for troops to lay down high volumes of covering fire when targeted by hidden gunman, again reducing the danger of collateral damage.

Interestingly, neither Scan Eagle nor ShotSpotter are new to the military. Scan Eagle has logged more than 20,000 hours, supporting Navy and Marine missions in Iraq, and ShotSpotter is used by both law enforcement and military agencies. But the combination of the two technologies makes a formidable addition to the counter-insurgency armoury and a good demonstration of the commitment of the US to the battle.

COMMENT THREAD

There is nothing terribly wrong with Sir Keith Ajegbo’s review of the teaching of “diversity and citizenship”. It is, presumably, not his fault that the remit was phrased in that unsatisfactory way.

Sir Keith has himself been a teacher and a headmaster in difficult parts of South London and knows that the problem extends a long way beyond disaffected Muslim youngsters. He also, it would seem, understands the phenomenon of Jade Goody and the chavs, who, as we have pointed out on this blog before, are seen as fair game to the great and the good as well as just articulate middle class (unlike pretty, weepy Indian wannabe stars).
In order for young people to explore how we live together in UK today and to debate the values we share, it is important they consider issues that have shaped the development of UK society – and to understand them through the lens of history.
Who can argue with the need to teach history to all our children – history of this country, history of other countries, history of the British Empire?

Curiously enough this is a subject some of us discussed yesterday with a remarkable man, Sheikh Musa Admani, the Imam at the London Metropolitan University. Sheikh Admani is concerned with many things that can all be summed up in one important question: how to create a British Muslim identity. These are his words.

There are various problems according to him. One is that the Muslims have not gone through the process of being outside main stream society and becoming part of it in the way Jews and Catholics had to.

Then there is a lack of knowledgeable Islamic teaching in this country, a gap that has been successfully exploited by various well-funded organizations with Wahhabi links. Added to that there is the government’s incomprehensible insistence on talking only to self-styled “community leaders”, which makes it impossible for any Muslim, such as the Sheikh himself, to get through different ideas and different experiences. Most Muslims in this country come from the Indian sub-continent, that is, from a cultural and historical tradition that is very different from the Arab one. Yet an alien, oppressive and anti-Western tradition is being imposed on them through ignorance and reluctance to understand.

Two points in our various discussions remain with me. One is the Sheikh saying that people from the East find the concept of liberalism difficult and that is something they have to deal with.

Secondly, he asked me how I saw the role of Muslims in the very necessary British narrative. Actually, that’s easy. Given the history of the British Empire, it is not hard to define a strong and honourable role for Muslims in the British narrative. As my colleague says, anyone who doubts it should visit some of the British war cemeteries.

It is, indeed, appalling to think that in two world wars people of all religions volunteered to fight for a country they had never seen but was present to them as an idea. The picture shows Indian lancers in Palestine while their descendants who actually live here, are turning to a completely alien Islamist (I stress that word) tradition because they see nothing for themselves here.

The problem is wider. What do non-Muslim children see for themselves in Britain? And that brings us back to the point Sir Keith has made: it is essential for all our children to learn history, to understand how this country came to be, to grasp the ideas that have shaped and continue to shape its descendants, the Anglospheric countries. (Our newspapers and media could do its bit by trying to understand the United States instead of producing endless ignorant calumny.)

As always, if you pose a question and leave the answer to the government, you end up with a most appalling mess. Ideally, of course, the whole system of education would be taken away from it. As this is unlikely to happen for a little while (until the Conservative Party manages to pull itself out of the morass it is in at the moment), at the very least, there should be some requirement that history be taught in schools beyond the age of 14 and in a recognizably historical fashion. That, of course, is almost impossible to define.

Instead, the government with the approval of Sir Keith Ajegbo, I am sorry to say, is going for yet another version of the discredited “citizenship lessons”. These, if you please, would focus on “core British values”. As nobody knows what those core values are and anyone can pretend what they like on the subject, this is going to be an exercise in futility.

Allow me to reminisce a little about some of my chequered educational career. In the last two years of my schooling all of us, A-level students, had twice weekly compulsory Civics lessons. To this day I am grateful for them. These were most emphatically not citizenship classes or lessons in British values (it did not occur to anyone that we needed them). The lessons were in political structures.

Thanks to the headmistress of my school who took these lessons, we all found out how Parliament works, how the British Constitution works (oh yes, we do have one), how the United States Constitution works, how NATO and the United Nations are structured and so on. Some of it I have forgotten but whatever knowledge of these subjects I possess is rooted in what I was taught by Mrs Alison Munro, now Dame Alison.

Such lessons could be called hard-core knowledge-based ones and might be essential counterparts to those compulsory history lessons. Of course, teachers would have to tell the truth that is no longer convenient. They would have to tell that Parliament legislates in only a small proportion of cases in this country; they would have to tell that the House of Lords is no longer the highest appeal court in this country; they would have to explain that our democracy is something of a joke and not because President Bush is such a nasty man.

On the other hand, the teaching of English in its full and manifold glory (that includes American English, Strang and Indian English among others), the teaching of history together with a serious and truthful course in civics should open many eyes what being British should be about and what it is about these days.

COMMENT THREAD

To deal with the expected spring offensive in Afghanistan, the United States is to increase the number of its troops in the country by 3,500 – initially by extending the deployment of the 10th Mountain Division by four months.

With other adjustments to deployment cycles, the US will be fielding over the longer term an extra 2,500 troops, providing more than half of the troop contingent in the country, which wiil rise to 34,500.

To speed up stabilisation, the US government is also to ask Congress to commit an extra $10.6 billion in aid, $8.6 billion (£4.4 billion) to train and equip the Afghan army and police, and $2 billion for reconstruction projects.

Meanwhile, US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice is in Brussels, addressing NATO, telling member states that they too must raise their game if the Taliban is to be defeated. However, there are few signs that her call will be heeded. Certainly, no commitment to providing extra troops in expected to emerge from today's talks.

And does this not speak volumes for the "colleagues"? All but the most ardent anti-war campaigners will agree that the Afghan is worth fighting for, yet the "colleagues" are silent when it comes to stepping up to the plate. Neverthless, no effort is spared on the fruitless pursuit of an EU constitution, all in the name of a more powerful "Europe".

Peoples and nations are judged by their deeds not their words. By that measure, the "Europeans" are showing that, when push comes to shove, the "project" is just empty rhetoric. They are writing themselves out of the script.

COMMENT THREAD

Their representatives are meeting in Madrid today, intending to discuss how to find a way out of the "stalemate" on the EU constitution. These are the 18 Nations which have ratified the treaty (even if Germany hasn't), and they are brooking no compromise.

Not for them the idea put forward by presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, who wants a "mini-treaty" which deals only with institutional reforms, or filleting the document to find issues on which all 27 EU member states can agree.

No, under the aegis of Portugal and Spain, deputy foreign ministers are looking for ways of by-passing the blockage imposed by the French and Dutch referendums, and getting the whole treaty passed.

We are obviously dealing with some very desperate people here. Even if the thing could be got past the French and the Dutch – and that is unlikely enough – the full monte would require a referendum in Ireland, Denmark, Britain and possibly Poland and the Czech Republic. Any one of those countries could scupper the project anew and it is almost beyond conjecture that one of them might.

All the "colleagues" can possibly achieve is to re-open old wounds and seriously hack off a very large number of "European" citizens. It simply ain't going to fly.

COMMENT THREAD

There are not a few people who would have me rejoice when a newspaper takes up an issue that this blog has been "banging" on about, on the basis that the more who make a fuss, the more likely it is that there will be a solution. No more so is this true than in the lamentable treatment of the pressing defence issues, but I am not able to draw any comfort at all from enhanced media concern.

In this piece, here, I explain why.

COMMENT THREAD

The BBC conveys the report that the US ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad (pictured), has spoken of differences between the US and Britain over future strategy for Iraq.

The Blair government is planning a partial withdrawal of British forces from Basra this year but Khalilzad has broken ranks and revealed that the US would prefer UK forces to remain at their current levels in southern Iraq.

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4's World Tonight new programme, though, shadow secretary of state William Hague disagreed. The troops should be withdrawn, he said, "as we are near the limit of what can be achieved."

Interviewer Robin Lustig then chipped in, suggesting that, if it was "so quiet in southern Iraq", perhaps it was a case of the Americans expecting us to come and give them a hand in Baghdad. Amazingly, Hague did not disagree with this premise. Instead he declared that the troops were needed more urgently in Afghanistan.

Are these people mad? Surely they cannot be that ignorant of what is going on in Basra?

COMMENT THREAD


If you look carefully at the picture above, you can count no less than 22 sets of traffic lights. Those, complete with the paraphernalia of signs, barriers and bus segregation, is the classic response of the conventional traffic engineer - creating an expensive, sterile nightmare that magnifies the delays and frustration, destroying visual amenity.

Such a scheme could have been the response of the City Council of Smallingerland in Friesland, Holland. In the year 2000, the councillors and officials were about to implement a long-planned scheme to reconstruct an important traffic intersection in the City of Drachten, known as the Laweiplein.

Read more here.

COMMENT THREAD

This blog was one of the few outlets to predict that the country to suffer most from Hezbollah’s perceived victory this summer (and I stress the word perceived) will not be Israel but Lebanon.

Yes, there has been an anguished heart-searching in Israel and one hopes that it will lead to a clearer understanding of how important the media war is in the modern (and not so modern) world. Yes, the chief of staff has resigned and the President has gone on indefinite leave though that has to do with other, more personal matters. But the country stands and these matters will be sorted out in due course. If ever people want an argument for a democracy as against tyrannies of all hues and colours, look to the Middle East.

Meanwhile, in Lebanon, Hezbollah is demanding a change in the government in the same petulant way as the peace marchers demanded a change in this country’s foreign policy here. I don’t like this government; I don’t care that it was elected and has the support of a majority; it is not doing what I wanted it to do; I want it to change; boo-hoo.

One can joke about our own demonstrators and armchair revolutionaries. In Lebanon matters are more serious. Hezbollah has withdrawn from the government and called a general strike yesterday.

The strike developed into a running battle between different factions and The Ouwet Front, which bills itself as “Personal Views and Opinions of Lebanese Forces Members” has some interesting pictures.

Meanwhile, the BBC World Service website, calling its story “Warning of new Lebanon Protests”, talks of Hezbollah-led opposition (at least they don’t call it “loyal”) and describes Fouad Sinioara’s government as “Western-backed”. At least, they have stopped calling it “American-backed”.
The opposition is demanding a big enough share in government to give them veto power over any decisions they do not like - a step the Western-backed government has not been willing to take.
Right, let’s get several things straight. The Siniora government was elected by the people of Lebanon, many of whom are sick of Hezbollah, sick of Iranian interference and sick of Syria’s control of parts of their country and society.

Hezbollah is not the opposition. It is the one militia that refused to disarm despite that famed UN Resolution 1559. It wants to run Lebanon’s government and that is why it is demanding the power of veto. No government, let alone an elected one would agree to that.

Having got that out of the way, let us look at the figures. The BBC, as all western media outlets say that three people were killed in the clashes and 100 wounded.

Over on Al-Jazeera, the story is slightly different. For one thing they talk of rivals clashing in northern Lebanon and, it turns out, that there was an exchange of fire the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli.
Security forces were trying to break up the clash in the northern city of Tripoli, which started after the funeral of a Sunni Muslim government supporter killed in clashes with opposition protesters on Tuesday.

Thousands had packed the streets of the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second largest city, for the funeral of Bilal Hayek. "Sunni blood is boiling," chanted the mourners, some of them armed.
There are, as yet, no news of casualties from Tripoli but Al-Jazeera’s report talks of six people killed and 176 wounded during the strike yesterday. Whom is one to believe? And another thing: where are those Western and Muslim protests? Are those innocent Lebanese civilians no longer of any interest?

COMMENT THREAD

Even after a few days closeted in the warm embrace of the EU parliament in Brussels - where each of the MEPs' offices have beds and so much is provided under the one roof that you could live out your life in the building and never again feel the sun on your skin – the political news from the UK seems unreal.

A few days more and the mind-numbingly dull machinations of the "toy" parliament begin to look interesting and, if you try hard enough, you can even convince yourself that they are important.

I can thus imagine how British politics must look to the average American, to whom Washington is a strange, far-off country, populated by a malign species of aliens, split into warring tribes called the Democrats and Republicans.

A lot of Americans are aware of Tony Blair, because it is he who stood by the United States in the dark hours following 9/11 and sent "his" troops into bat alongside GW, when the fateful decision was made to depose Saddam Hussein. But, I bet, very few indeed are aware that he is leader of the Labour Party or that the nearest political equivalent to his party in America is the Democrats.

Most politically-aware Americans (which is a lot) will be aware of the term "conservatives" and a smaller number might be aware that, in the UK there is a political grouping called the Conservative Party. The very few that even think about it, might briefly associate that party with conservativism and leave it at that. David Cameron, aka the Boy King, will be completely unknown to all but a handful.

It is useful nevertheless, to try and explain one's own predicament though the imagined eyes of a foreigner – and American eyes are as good as any.

Thus we can describe the political scene in Britain as been dominated by a party which calls itself New Labour, which, by tradition is akin to the Democrats - representing as it does the working man – but has long since ceased to represent anything other than itself and, if anything, is closer to Republican values in some respects.

On the other hand, we have a Conservative Party which is no longer conservative and, in its attempts to get itself re-elected, is adopting the clothes of the left wing – becoming closer in spirit to the Democrats, more so even than New Labour. This, incidentally, was the party of Margaret Thatcher, who would be turning in her grave if she was dead. Fortunately, she is not, but that is her only fortune. The party she sought to re-create has been destroyed.

For most Americans, whom we are told are so stupid that they can only count to two, and then only with a calculator (although the ultimate insult is much better – I use it in respect of the old enemy – state vets. How do you pick one out in a crowd? Ask everyone to count to eleven. The vet is the man who takes his socks off.) we have to stop at two political parties.

But for the political sophisticates – i.e., those who can handle numbers larger than two – we can reveal that there are in fact three "main" parties, the third being what is laughingly called the Liberal Democrats.

The philosophy of his party is relatively easily understood if you appreciate that it is neither liberal nor democrat, and practices an advanced form of poliitcal schizophrenia. When it campaigns at a local level, it is all things to all men (and women), telling electors anything they want to hear. But, at national level, it is unashamedly Democrat, i.e., not democratic, and thus horribly left-wing.

Thus it is in the UK that we have three main parties, all of which are left-wing. And, on the issue which is of such interest to so many of us – our continued membership of the European Union - all three of those parties are in favour.

With that background, readers not familiar with the UK political scene – which includes most citizens of the UK – are now better equipped to understand Mr Simon Heffer's rant in today's Daily Telegraph.

As a "rabid" right-wing columnist, he reveals a feature of the British political scene that seems to be catching the three main political parties completely by surprise. What is happening is that many people – we call them voters – are so disillusioned with the current setup that they are saying "a pox on all your parties", and walking away.

This, of course, is not supposed to happen. Given a choice of three, we are supposed to pick one. Instead, with these parties all occupying various positions on the left, other, minority parties are moving in to fill the vacuum. Pre-eminent amongst these is the UK Independent Party which, as Heffer points out, is beginning to Hoover up the votes of the disaffected right wing.

In so doing, it is undoubtedly aided by its new leader, Nigel Farage, who Heffer tells us is, "highly articulate, plain spoken, experienced, attracting much media attention and highly politically motivated". Fortunately for UKIP, very few know - or care - that Farage is also an unprincipled, self-centred, intellectually challenged shit. Most of those who do have left (or are leaving) the party.

But, for those who would not now vote for UKIP even if hell froze over, there are other options, not least the British National Party. The problem here is that, although it is branded "extreme right-wing", it is in fact a far-left party. And while UKIP is capturing the disaffected right, BNP is Hoovering up votes from the disaffected old Labour left. In the heady days of the Thatcher revolution, these were the people - the "White van man" - who gravitated to the Conservatives and gave them 18 years of power.

Perversely, while the leaders of the main parties would all like to claim the mantle of Thatcher, the recipient of her now disillusioned support is Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP. Effectively, he is the true heir of Thatcherism.

How you see it, though, depends on how close you are to which particular coal face. In the Conservative Party, there is a diminishing rump which believes that the Boy King is the New Messiah who will lead their left-facing party to the promised land. They are happy to see the unreformed right-wingers desert the ship - heedless of the fact that these comprise the core vote of the party - crowing that they are simply consigning themselves to the political wilderness.

But, as Heffer writes, "the wilderness is getting is getting rather crowded". And there we will stay until we have a true conservative party again.

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