Friday, August 31, 2007

The Cock, the Chicken and the Egg

David Cameron's appearance on Newsnight last night was interesting. I see he's been working on his super sincere "I've got gravitas" face. Impressive...

On marriage, he said something which had me scratching my head.
The evidence shows that marriage is a good institution that encourages people to commit to each other and to stay with each other.
He then acknowledged that some marriages do break up, fair enough, but what evidence is he referring too which demonstrates that marriage encourages people to stay together? He helpfully outlined it:
There is some very interesting evidence that Iain Duncan Smith put in his report which is that if you take an unmarried couple with a child, by the time that child reaches the age of five, half of them have separated. The figure for married couple is one in twelve.
Well, that is certainly evidence. I'll even give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it's true for now. What conclusion can be drawn from this evidence, Mr Cameron?
That to me is a figure we really have to look at and think marriage is a good institution, we should back it, and I think including in the tax system.
In summary, the argument is that because married people with children tend to stay together longer than unmarried couples, the institution of marriage causes these couples to stay together longer.


The detailed reasoning behind this argument is apparently contained in a previous report called Fractured Families. A helpful link to that report is provided in the newer one (pdf, page 13) but, alas, 404 Not Found doesn't really advance the case a great deal.

Without being able to access the details, it does seem like there might be just a tiny wee hole in this "evidence".

In the conclusions to the new report we find this comment (page 107):
As the chairwoman of OXPIP [an organisation which helps parents to bond with their children] said to us, ‘Marriage is the natural consequence of two adults being able to commit to each other because their own emotional development is secure and has given them the necessary confidence.’
To put it another way, marriage might well be a result of the relationship between two people who are already more likely to stay together than other couples.

The figures quoted by Cameron certainly don't prove that marriage "encourages people to commit to each other and to stay with each other". They might just as easily suggest that people who feel they are ready to get married under the current legislative framework are people who are already more likely to be able to maintain a stable relationship over a prolonged period. If the second suggestion is true, Cameron's policy proposals are only going to increase the divorce rate by encouraging marriages between people who are not actually ready to make that commitment.

Bizarrely, as if this has somehow registered subconsciously in the minds of the authors, they wrote this as the response to the comment on marriage as a natural consequence of emotional development:
It is for this reason that we have resisted incentivising marriage although our measures strongly encourage it.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

We'll Say Anything, We Will

There seems to be something in the air this week. On Monday, Tory poster boy Iain stuck it too the big supermarkets for being beastly to traditional Conservative voters. Maybe he believes that putting political expediency before principle is a good way to rebuild public confidence in the integrity of the political system.

Yesterday, the Tories launched "It's Time to Fight Back" (pdf) proving first of all that they really didn't think very hard about the title of their document on ways to decrease violence in the UK.

The report contains this:
Parents need the support of wider society. Too often, the positive lessons learnt by children at home are undermined by negative lessons taught by popular culture... [T]he music industry, and in particular the lyrics and videos of rap, hip-hop and R&B... often explicitly popularise gangs, guns, a culture of unconstrained acquisition, and...
Hold on a minute there. Promoting "a culture of unconstrained acquisition" is a negative lesson? For the Tories?

Now you really are 'avin a giraffe.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Oh dear. It looks like Iain's dog whistle is malfunctioning. That post was only supposed to be noticed by farmers and other country folk, not people with awkward questions about his apparent abandonment of conservative free market principles (see the comments for details). Iain almost sounds like one of those supermarket hating lefties who want us all to eat only beetroot grown on our communal grounds or something...

Ah, the hazards of politics.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Witness Protection

The death of Rhys Jones is a tragic event. Sadly, the media's almost orgasmic delight at having such an emotive story to cover during the silly season is helpful only to those looking to boost sales/viewing figures. Obsolete has written an excellent post on that.

What I'd like to do is focus on just one point from this case. There is undoubtedly a real problem in some areas with violent groups intimidating people into silence when something like this happens. The police are trying very hard to reassure the public that they will be protected if they come forward with evidence.

From the BBC:
Speaking at a press conference near the spot where Rhys was shot, Ch Supt Chris Armitt said: "We understand that people are concerned about giving information to the police, we understand that people are frightened.

"[But] what I want to say to people is, listen, they've got to stand up and they've got be counted.

"We have ways of protecting members of the public who come forward with information, we can protect their identity."
That's perfectly sensible.

And this is from the same report:
Police have confirmed they have spoken to a woman seen pushing a pram near the Fir Tree pub just before the shooting.
That's utterly barking.

Apparently, these Einstein's have not worked out that if this women has seen the perpetrators of this crime, there's a strong possibility that they'd have seen her too and that they might know who she is. If you were that woman, how would you feel next time you had to wheel your pram past the Fir Tree pub? Or the next time you hear a funny noise in the middle of the night?

This police confirmation and the media reporting of the same must be some new form of identity protection involving double bluff and...

No, sarcasm won't do. This is absolutely ridiculous. How many other witnesses have been put off from coming forward because of this announcement? We'll never know now.

Many years ago my mother saw two men syphoning petrol from the row of cars in the street in front of our house. My father was away on business so she phoned a neighbour (a prison warder) and asked him to contact the police; being a young mother alone with three children in the house, she didn't want to phone directly and have the police come to our door in sight of the men. The police came, caught the culprits in the act, locked them in the back of the car, went to the neighbour's door, took a brief statement and them came to ours to do the same. They did this in full view of the two men in the back of the car. Although no further harm came to the family as a result of this idiocy, it did have an effect on my mother and on her attitude towards the police. She felt that they had needlessly endangered herself and, more importantly, her children.

In recent conversation with her, I've argued that things have improved considerably in the intervening years. Today, as we sat together watching a BBC bulletin containing the information above, I had to concede that they might not have improved that much.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


Yesterday, Bush drew parallels between the Iraq and Vietnam wars. I presume that a few spoilt brats in the National Guard, those with influential fathers perhaps, have managed to avoid being sent to Iraq too so he does have a point.

Bush played up the consequences of US withdrawal from Vietnam but failed to mention the consequences of US participation.

Let's just take one of those consequences. The US military dropped approximately 20 million gallons of Agent Orange and other "herbicides" over Vietnam during the course of the war. Here are some photos of the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese population. More than 30 years after the war, parts of Vietnam are still highly contaminated and people are still suffering as a result.

The American government has set up a programme to help US veterans who've been affected by exposure to Agent Orange. Under the heading "Agent Orange and Birth Defects", the government website highlights the fact that "The Veterans’ Benefits Act of 1997 granted benefits for children of Vietnam veterans who were suffering from spina bifida". Despite that, the US government has resisted paying compensation to Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange.

In 2005, when Vietnamese victims tried to take the manufacturers of the chemical to court, the case was dismissed. The judge ruled that they had not proved that Agent Orange caused birth defects and illness. This despite the fact that in 1984, several chemical companies paid $180m (£93m) to settle a lawsuit with US war veterans, who said that their health had been affected by exposure to the substance.

Perhaps there's some scientific reason why American veterans are more susceptible to the ill effects of Agent Orange than the Vietnamese people who had the stuff dropped on themselves, their animals, their farmland and their water. Any scientists out there want to tell me what it is?

There are some signs that the US government may be slowly moving on this, due, no doubt, to the softening of relationships between the two countries rather than any humanitarian concern for the victims. Give it another 10 or 20 years and some sort of reparation might be on the cards for those who're still alive.

And perhaps, in another 30 years time, people will again draw parallels between Iraq and Vietnam.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Free Web Traffic Ahoy!

I've just been having a wee poke around with the Wikiscanner. For those who've not seen it, it allows you to track anonymous Wikipedia edits through IP addresses.

See if you can see what all of these edits from the last 28 days have in common. Deep breath...
  1. Conrad Black
  2. John N. Gray
  3. Gustave Courbet
  4. Ingmar Bergman
  5. Cobalt Bomb
  6. Travels in the Scriptorium
  7. The Lay of the Land
  8. Martin Amis
  9. The Mission Song
  10. John le Carre
  11. J. G. Ballard
Have you guessed what it is yet? OK, I'll tell you. Every one of the above edits was to add a link to articles from either The Times or the TLS.

And can you guess who the IP is registered too? Go on, have a guess...
The Encyclopedia Of Decency

Oh, I say. That's very good.

Via this freedom hater.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Brainwashing the Right

Here's a little riddle.

I believe that Rupert Murdoch, an Australian with US citizenship, has far too much influence over politics in this country and that he uses his media outlets to push his political agenda at every opportunity.

It is accepted by all but the most confused individuals that the output of News Corp is habitually politically biased. It is also undeniable that British politicians feel they must court him in order to ensure that he doesn't set his attack dogs on them and that he has had considerable influence over the policies of New Labour. Lance Price famously described him as the 24th member of Blair's cabinet and he has access to the Prime Minister the likes of which ordinary members of the public could only dream of.

This is not good.

Whenever I try to draw attention to this, there will always be someone who broadly shares Murdoch's political views ready to tell me I'm a patronising git. "That's so typical of a condescending bruschetta munching Guardianista. You assume that the great unwashed are stupid mindless drones being helplessly brainwashed by this bias. People are smarter that that, you know. You leftists just can't come to terms with the fact that people can think for themselves..."

That sort of thing.

Here's the riddle.

Murdoch's newspapers, and others who would benefit from the removal of a reasonably neutral news service, constantly harp on about the damaging affects of the alleged bias of the BBC.

So, can the media shape public opinion or not?

And can I have my cake and eat it a the same time?

(I've left all the rest of the stuff about alleged BBC bias out because I really just want to focus on this one question. You probably won't be surprised to learn that I do already know that the license fee is compulsory for anyone who receives or records television programmes in this country.)

Friday, August 17, 2007

It's A Quagmire

Says Dick in 1994.


What else is there to say?
Over at the Ministry of Truth, splendid work on banners to support the We Can't Turn Them Away campaign.

How you can help:
  1. Watch the video.
  2. Write to your MP.
  3. Let us know if you get a response.
  4. Sign the petition.
  5. Join the list of supporters.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

We Can't Turn Them Away

Last week, Neil Clark wrote an extraordinary piece on Comment is Free opposing the campaign to pressure the government into giving political asylum to Iraqi employees of the British. Unsurprisingly to most, but shockingly for Nick Cohen, an overwhelming number of comments condemned Neil's position. CiF had to shut down the thread after only three hours.

The central thesis of Cohen's book is that liberal people have turned their backs on the victims of totalitarian movements. How then does he explain the enormous response to Clark's article? It's clear that "liberals" lined up in droves to argue that our government should protect these Iraqis who are at particular risk from death squads. Is this not exactly the sort of thing which Cohen maintains no longer happens? It seems pretty clear that in the real world, Clark's view is very much a minority one.

In any event, Clark's article didn't make sense to me so I decided to see if I could narrow down the reason why he arrived at the conclusion he did. On his website, he has now written a number of posts attempting to defend his stance. After reading them, I did try to engage with Neil in the comments to the last of those posts and he did offer one reply. My next question, however, has not seen the other side of the moderation queue. My guess is that the Blogger gremlins ate it; this seems to happen surprisingly often when you ask awkward questions of certain bloggers.

There's lot's of stuff there but ultimately, it all boils down to this from the original article:
If more Iraqis had followed the example of the interpreters and collaborated with British and American forces, it is likely that the cities of Iran and Syria would now be lying in rubble.
The argument is that if Iraq had stabilised as the Bush administration thought it would, they'd have then moved on to invade other countries in the Middle East. In effect, by working with the occupying forces, the "quislings" were aiding and abetting the neo-con project.

It is certainly true that the Bush administration did want to use military force to reshape the entire Middle East. The "axis of evil" rhetoric was not just rhetoric. General Wes Clark recalled asking another general at the Pentagon whether the administration was still set on invading Iraq back in late 2001. The answer:
“Oh, it’s worse than that... I just got this down from upstairs” -- meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office -- "...This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran."
Given the scale of their ignorance as to what would happen when they invaded Iraq, however, this plan was never realistic. The neo-con project, as was, was defeated the day Bush ordered the invasion. It is important to keep attacking the simplistic notions of the neo-con "Bombing for Freedom" brigade and yes, many neo-cons still want to take military action against Iran but they have been hugely weakened both politically and militarily. The sweeping land invasions they'd dreamt of are still alive only in the heads of the most deluded armchair generals.

With that in mind, in the anarchy of post-Saddam Iraq, attempts to limit human suffering should be given top priority. Iraqis have already suffered far more than pampered Westerners like ourselves can ever understand.

Furthermore, despite the many failings of this catastrophic war, Iraqis should not be punished for attempting to help turn their country into a stable, peaceful, tolerant democracy. You could argue that some were naive for believing that the coalition could deliver what it promised but that goal itself does have value. Who could possibly blame Iraqis who had suffered under Saddam from attempting to help build a better country by working with the coalition? Understandably, they just did what they believed was best for themselves, their families and their country. After failing to deliver on its promises, the government of this county owes a specific duty of care to these people.

It has been argued that the government owes a duty of care to all Iraqis whose lives are in danger because of the invasion. I agree in principle but it simply, tragically, isn't realistic to suggest that the government would offer asylum to the approximately 4 million people who've been displaced by the violence in Iraq.

The We Can't Turn They Away campaign is a practical effort to achieve what is hoped to be a realistic goal. It's about saving the lives of as many people as possible in the aftermath of this most bloody of interventions. Please do consider writing to your MP before it's too late.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The 51st State

This almost clever spam turned up in my inbox today.
Unity 08 - Your Voice in Politics

Unity08 has launched a unique online study that allows you to rank the presidential candidates and the issues facing the country.

To start the study, click here.

We've invited you to take and publish this study because we've seen that your site actively discusses politics and the state of the nation. It is crucial for us to include as many American citizens as we can so that we can truly start discussing the "crucial" issues facing the country and how to resolve them... before it is too late.
So near and yet so far.
How will Gordon Brown's review help this family?

From The Times:
Mohammad, 25, father of a six-month-old son, was the first interpreter to be killed — or at least his was the first killing to be recorded — since Gordon Brown promised to review the Government’s refusal to give interpreters special help in seeking asylum.
Two sentences in the Times report provide a clear snapshot of the state of security in Basra today.
Threats from the militia forced Alaa to move to the base permanently three months ago. He could not even leave to attend his brother’s funeral yesterday.
Tim is compiling a list of supporters of the campaign to save Iraqi employees from torture and death. Please do consider getting involved if you're not.
Wee Jack is off.

He might not have been the architect of the relentlessly negative Labour election campaign, that seemed to come from the Labour big guns down south, but he was nominally the leader of the SLP at the time of the unprecedented election defeat.

Ha ha.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

As things stand, the popularity of the SNP in Scotland is not matched by a desire for independence. Plans to hold a referendum are not likely to get very far. It's an interesting situation for Salmond and for the country.

Also interesting is the fact that I agree with the Labour Party on this one:
The Labour party argues that the nationalists with their independence pledge only emerged the largest party by one seat in the May elections of this year so the party has no mandate.
Of course, I haven't spent the last few years wandering around Westminster shouting "look at the size of my enormous mandate"to all and sundry so I don't feel even slightly hypercritical for adopting that position.

Monday, August 13, 2007

What's Wrong With That?

Here's yet another post bashing the US, UK and Israeli governments. He never writes about China's human rights abuses. Typical America hating leftist...

It's an old chestnut but it does seem surprisingly common considering just how easy it is to refute. It's all about degrees of separation; as a UK citizen, my first concern is to the UK government's policies and actions. In a democracy, it is every citizens right, you might even say duty, to try to ensure that their government lives up to certain standards of behaviour. Scrutiny and criticism of your democratically elected government is not only acceptable, its an essential part of the democratic process.

From that key principle, it's easy to see why the closest allies of your democratically elected government should also be subjected to greater scrutiny than distant governments over which your own has little or no influence. It's a sort of responsibility chain; the closer to home, the more responsible you are and the more influence you can generally exert. In short, it's about trying to keep your own house in order.

This above is so obvious that it feels a bit silly typing it but it does appear that it needs to be said. Anyway, for the reasons above, I feel the need to mention the latest report from the Foreign Affairs Committee.
[T]he committee, in its report entitled Global Security: The Middle East, said a quicker response from the government in July last year "could have led to reduced casualties amongst both Israeli and Lebanese civilians whilst still working towards a long-term solution to the crisis".

It called some of Israel's military actions in Lebanon during the war "indiscriminate and disproportionate".

It particularly highlighted the attacks on United Nations observers and the dropping of more than 3.5 million cluster bombs (90% of the total) in the 72 hours after the UN Security Council passed the resolution which effectively ended the war.
So the committee has concluded that the British government, by refusing to call for an immediate ceasefire, helped enable the continuation of the conflict. At the time, Blair waffled as people died. And why did the government adopted the policy it did when it refused to call for an immediate ceasefire?

From the full report (article 100):
At the time of the conflict, many believed the United States was obstructing calls for an immediate ceasefire to give Israel a chance to defeat overwhelmingly Hezbollah's militia. The BBC journalist Ed Stourton raised this theory with John Bolton, who had been the US Ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the war. Mr Stourton asked him if the US had been "deliberately obstructing diplomatic attempts" to bring an end to the war so that "Israel could have its head." Mr Bolton asked "what's wrong with that?" and added that he was "damn proud of what we did."

We wrote to Dr Howells to ask him about Mr Bolton's comments. In his reply, he asserted: The UK was certainly not involved in collusion with either the US or Israel to support the continuation of hostilities or to block a ceasefire. Whilst I cannot speak for the US position [on] this matter, I do not believe they acted differently.
The committee offers three possible reasons for this discrepancy.
  1. Mr Bolton misled Stourton by suggesting that the US blocked diplomacy at the UN because it wanted to give Israel the opportunity to destroy Hezbollah.
  2. The US did indeed block attempts to find a quick diplomatic solution to bring about a ceasefire, but that the UK was not made aware of this collusion with Israel.
  3. The UK was in fact brought into, or at least aware of, the efforts to obstruct the diplomatic process.
The committee does not reach a conclusion as to which possibility might be the truth but it seems unlikely that Bolton would have lied. To what end? In fact, giving the Israelis the time and space and cluster bombs so that they could teach Lebanon a lesson fits exactly with the type of thinking which is so common in the Bush administration. It also ties in exactly with what Ehud Olmert said as hostilities began: "Lebanon is responsible and Lebanon will bear the consequences of its actions".

Given the above quotation, it is perhaps unsurprising that a UN report found that there was "a significant pattern of excessive, indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force by the IDF against Lebanese civilians and civilian objects, failing to distinguish civilians from combatants and civilian objects from military targets... Further, the Commission is convinced that damage inflicted on some infrastructure was done for the sake of destruction." It is hard to avoid concluding that the Israeli government decided to adopt a policy of collective punishment against the Lebanese people in an attempt to pressure them into doing something about Hezbollah.

What's wrong with that? Well, morals aside, it's specifically outlawed by Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

The British government, silent during the conflict, has remained silent in its aftermath. It has not condemned the dropping of 3.5 million cluster bombs after the conflict was essentially over nor has it condemned the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure for no useful military purpose. That continuing silence can only be seen by Israel and indeed by the rest of the world as a tacit approval of the actions of the Israeli government and the IDF. It seems to me that there is something very wrong with that.

Friday, August 10, 2007

From Tim, the plight of Iraqi interpreters (explained with post-it notes)

The petition is here.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Since the Grant Shapps "1234 incident", I've noticed that Iain Dale has written a few posts on the subject of Labour and the interwebs. Today, taking the lead from Dizzy, he suggests that the Labour Party has been up to no good filming interviews in parliament without permission from the Serjeant at Arms and loading them up onto Google video.

In this case, you can almost hear the straws crackling under his grasp. 15 Labour MPs have filmed interviews in the same spot in Westminster Hall. Given that the filming of interviews is specifically allowed without need for permission in one part of Westminster Hall and given that one of the MPs filmed was the one who gave the answer linked above, I think it's safe to assume that permission wasn't require in this instance.

Scandalous, I'm sure you'll agree.

Still, to give him his due, he did update the post with a sort of acceptance that the videos probably weren't against the rules. What class.

PS: the reason why it was Iain's blog I commented on rather than Dizzy's was because of Iain's post title. Iain has something of a record when it comes to putting forward dodgy propositions in the shape of questions.


I had mistakenly attributed a shred of decency to Iain when I suggested that he'd accepted that the videos were not against the rules. In the comments yesterday evening, he told me he'd done no such thing and that Dizzy was checking with the Serjeant at Arms. I have to admit that I wasn't sure whether Iain and Dizzy would be hugely forthcoming with the answer if it wasn't the one they wanted so I sent an email to the parliamentary authorities asking them to clarify the position regarding those videos.

This morning, I received an reply.
Dear Mr. Hamster,

Filming within Westminster Hall is permitted by the House authorities and was cleared by our office.
I wonder if that'll be enough for Iain?


Since John Bolton was ousted from his position as US ambassador to the UN, he appears have taken up permanent residence in the Newsnight studios. Last night, complaining that the IAEA under Elbaradei has refused to say exactly what the neo-cons want him to say on Iran, Bolton came out with this:
"All that Elbaradei has said, and he is an apologist for Iran, in effect, is that he doesn't have evidence of the programme. I think the intelligence is there for all to see."
Has a familiar ring to it, wouldn't you say? Hands up all those who remember being called an apologist for Saddam back in the day.

Bolton was, of course, one of the cheerleaders for the war against Iraq. And he was in the lead in the Bush administration's attempt to block Elbaradei's reappointment as head of the IAEA in 2005. Being good at the job and displaying integrity in the face of enormous pressure is not acceptable when it exposes the extent to which political dogma overrides the facts in the Bush Whitehouse. Fortunately, Bolton lost. For the record, 34 of the 35 members of the IAEA board member countries supported Elbaradei's reappointment. Only one was opposed.

In the now traditional ironic style, the war on Iraq which Bolton was so enthusiastic about has actually strengthened the position of the Iranian regime to unprecedented levels. Bolton should have himself shot for aiding the enemy.

And Iran, unlike Iraq, could theoretically acquire the ability to build nuclear weapons in the not too distant future. Whether they are attempting to, as Elbaradei rightly points out, remains open to doubt. Not for Bolton and chums, of course, but for rational people not blinded by ideology.

There are plenty of commentators who argue that after the monumental disaster of Iraq, the US would not possibly take military action against Iran. I disagree. It is important to realise that Bolton, and indeed the Bush regime generally, are absolutely unable to learn from their own mistakes because they are almost entirely impervious to the facts.

And if that doesn't scare you, you're a lot braver than me.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

So Brown has decided to review the decision to refuse asylum to Iraqis who are in specific danger because they worked for the British armed forces. Des Browne will report back in the autumn.

What's that over there in the long grass? Why, it's people having their kneecaps drilled out. Still, out of sight, out of mind, eh?

Please consider signing the petition and writing to your MP if you've not already done so.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Inflatable Fun Time

On Comment is Free yesterday, Roy Hattersley wrote about liberty and the "out-of-date" views of John Stuart Mill. Describing Mill's view of liberty, Hattersley wrote:
The first principle asserts that "all errors which (a man) is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good". Only cranks believe that now. If it were a generally held view, we would not prohibit the use of recreational drugs or require passengers in the back seats of motor cars to wear safety belts.

I was a member of the cabinet that first discussed the desirability of making back-seat safety belts compulsory. Millite ministers initially objected. They were reconciled to the "infraction of liberty" by the argument that a passenger flying through the windscreen might injure the pedestrian whose life had initially been saved by the emergency stop. And Mill's second precept makes a distinction between "the part of a person's life which concerns only himself and that which concerns others". In short, we are free to damage ourselves but are not at liberty to behave in a way that harms other people.
Roy appears to be getting rather confused in his dotage. He's used Mill's second precept to argue against his first in a bizarre attempt to do something or other. In truth, compulsory seat belts for rear seat passengers protects the safety of those in the front seats, a position entirely consistent with Mill's views on liberty. It is true that the distinction between self-harm and harm to society is more difficult to draw in today's world - who pays the bills for the emergency services when an impoverished libertarian accidentally crashes into a tree at 120mph at 3am on an empty road and has to be cut from the mangled remains of his vehicle and fed through a tube for the rest of his life? - but that does not negate Mill's basic principles.

Nevertheless, the conviction underpinning Roy's position, that in an interdependent society the State must place limits on personal liberty, does have some validity. It is how we act on this that matters. In this country, we have newspapers from opposing ends of the traditional political spectrum (I'm thinking the Daily Mail and the Guardian) constantly telling us of the need to place controls on the great unwashed for their own good and for that of society. Likewise with politicians. What's missing from the debate, it seems to me, is any real consideration as to what this sort of attitude does to our notion of personal responsibility.

Here's a little incident which will hopefully encapsulate what I'm getting at. It doesn't concern the State but does say something about British attitudes towards freedom and responsibility. (Warning: conclusions may contain some generalisations.)

For the last two weeks, we played host to a Dutch family with four children aged eight to fifteen. The whole family loves swimming so we arranged to visit the local swimming pool one morning during one of their "Inflatable Fun Time" sessions. This, it turns out, was something of a misnomer. To set the scene, there were about thirty people swimming and five supervisors/life guards. It's a 25m pool and two thirds had been roped off for the one large inflatable; swimming and mucking about (within reason) was only allowed in the shallow third. Access to the inflatable was controlled by one of the guards - one at a time please - and when one person fell off - swim to the left only please, the left only, quickly please - the next person was allowed on. The Dutch father was whistled at twice within the first three minutes. He then politely asked one of the guards if they might explain exactly what he was allowed to do to save any further confusion.

My Dutch friends were absolutely astonished by all of this and ended up rather enjoying the absurdity of it all. On the way out, the eldest daughter filled in a Comment Form stating that "you weren't allowed to do anything". That was inflatable fun time, British style.

Later that day, to much wonderment, I explained what Aberdeen city centre is like on a Friday or Saturday night. In the Netherlands, they live in a city of pretty much exactly the same size but of an entirely different character. Sure, it has problems, but nothing like the drink fuelled mayhem which descends on British towns and cities at the weekends.

Why that's the case is all about our two societies' very different attitudes to freedom and responsibility. In the Netherlands children are taught about freedom and responsibility from an early age and encouraged to demonstrate their understanding at every opportunity. They are not distrusted and controlled by authority at every turn. As such, they are much better able to handle the transition from child to adult than those nannied to distraction by the British system.

The freedom they learn about is not the freedom of the "cult of the individual"; The distinction Mill drew between "the part of a person's life which concerns only himself and that which concerns others" is fundamental. Parents seek to teach their children that for a society to be truly free, each person must respect the rights of others and understand the impact of their actions on those around them. This philosophy creates not a nation of selfish "me first" individuals but a genuine feeling of society, a society where people believe in people.

To create such a society in this country would obviously require an enormous sea change in attitudes. For a start, Dutch people don't have the same rabidly scaremongering tabloids constantly telling them how dangerous everyone and everything is. (Our Dutch family's reaction to the Sun "newspaper" and to the news that it's the highest selling paper in Britain was something to behold.) In Britain, our faith in the ability of people to safely think for themselves and take decisions for themselves is under constant attack. Given the way we treat each other, it has now become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The question is, can we break the chain and if so, how?

Monday, August 06, 2007

New Front In War on Terror

The world is stunned today after new evidence emerged which proves that the U.S. Government is supplying arms to evil Iraqi insurgents. Up to 190,000 U.S. supplied weapons may have made their way into the hands of our sworn enemies in the War on Terror. The word from Washington is that President Bush has decided to declare war on his administration in the autumn of this year...

I'd could expand that out but the reality is quite ridiculous enough. It's a recurring theme of U.S. and U.K. foreign policy in the 21st Century.

Something like 30% of the weapons supplied to Iraq over the last three years are missing. The U.S. government really has flooded the streets of the highly unstable sectarian battleground which is today's Iraq with large numbers of AK47's and pistols. The distribution method the Pentagon decided to adopt was apparently modelled on that of Widow Twankey giving out sweets at the Christmas panto. Guns anyone? Who wants guns?

Here's the intro to the report (PDF):
As of July 2007, DOD and MNF-I had not specified which DOD accountability procedures, if any, apply to the train-and-equip program for Iraq. Congress funded the train-and-equip program for Iraq outside traditional security assistance programs, providing DOD a large degree of flexibility in managing the program, according to DOD officials. These officials stated that since the funding did not go through traditional security assistance programs, the DOD accountability requirements normally applicable to these programs did not apply.
Read that first sentence again. Note the "July 2007" and particularly the "if any".

Here are the "Recommendations for Executive Action" from the report:
To help ensure that U.S. funded equipment reaches the Iraqi security forces as intended, we recommend that the Secretary of Defense take the following two actions:
  1. Determine which DOD accountability procedures apply or should apply to the program.
  2. After defining the required accountability procedures, ensure that sufficient staff, functioning distribution networks, standard operating procedures, and proper technology are available to meet the new requirements.
Four years on and countless dead and they've still not decided on an accountability procedure for the hundreds of thousands of weapons they're shipping to Iraq. Four years on, they still need others to tell them the tragically bloody obvious.

Generally speaking, anyone whose staggering incompetence results to massive loss of life can expect to find themselves in a spot of bother. Promotion probably isn't on the cards for the policeman who leaves his loaded Heckler and Koch MP5 submachine gun in a kebab shop for some drunken fool to find and take on a killing spree down the high street. Saying "yes, it was my gun but it was the evil drunk man who pulled the trigger, not me" probably won't be enough to save his career.

In politics, apparently, things are rather different.