A place of politics, culture (!!) & random subjects from Airstrip One. Noel hopes it will be of interest and/or use to all sorts of voyagers in cyberspace!

My Photo
Location: London, England, United Kingdom

The Voice Of 40-Something Cynical Optimism!

Sunday, January 29, 2006

EU Uruk-hai on its way!

"Hmm", thought Aragorn, "Who said the European Union couldn't get its act together?"

This from Spectre:

European Gendarmerie Force (EGF) ready to roll, Wednesday, January 18th, 2006

On 19 January the EU Gendarmerie Force (EGF) involving para-military police forces from Italy, Spain, France, Holland and Portugal will be launched in Vicenza, Italy, where, in an interesting coincidence, a major US military base can also be found. Vicenza is the seat of Camp Ederle - the third largest US base in Italy.

The idea of creating an para-military police force in the EU capable of acting within and outside has been part of the planning for its military role. It was the EU Council at Santa Maria da Feira on 19-20 June 2000, when considering the creation of the mechanisms for “non-military crises management”, which agreed that EU states would “cooperate voluntarily” in order “to provide up to 5,000 police officers for international missions across the range of conflict prevention and crisis management operations. Member States have also undertaken to be able to identify and deploy up to 1,000 police officers within 30 days.” However, a follow-up report showed only five member states (France, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal and Finland) were prepared to make commitments. A paramilitary style force on the Italian model was favoured because, in the words of a police officer speaking at a meeting on the subject in Paris in January, 2000 “Paramilitary police forces offer, above all else, the capability for the restoration of public order where the absence of any state legitimacy reigns. They have the required expertise and capability to engage in deteriorated situations as a component of armed forces.”

Six years and numerous meetings and reports (some of them secret) later, the newly-established EGF will be authorised and equipped to operate both inside and outside the EU. Its HQ in Vicenza will have a staff of thirty with around 800 troops available within thirty days. The para-military force will work under a High Level Inter-Ministry Committee (HLIMC) drawn from Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior and Defence. This will provide “political and military coordination” including the appointment of the Commander and agreement on guidelines.

Under the heading of “Security and public order” the roles of the EGF include: public surveillance, border control, general intelligence, criminal investigation, and the “maintenance of public order in the event of disturbances”.

A further initiative is being discussed in the EU’s Police Cooperation Working Party to establish a system in which the “competent authorities” of one state could request the “competent authorities” of another to send its national “Special Task Force” to enter and act in support of the “Special Task Force” of requesting member state in “crisis situations”. The European Commission is to compile a list of the “competent authorities”.

In a week in which the European Parliament’s Strasbourg HQ has seen vigorous protests by dockers whose livelihoods are threatened by the EU’s extremist plans to privatise, deregulate and liberalise everything and anything, spectrezine is offering no prizes for guessing what will be the EGF’s primary purpose.

For more detail and links to background documents, go to

Friday, January 27, 2006

Mark Steyn- Warmongering Nutter With A Beard



Another good go at the Ugliest Canadian on Earth at

Political Correctness Gone Mad!!

Remember the Campaign Against Political Correctness, I mentioned in my report on the Bruges Group Conference a few months back? Well, I've found the brainchild behind it all- Ricky Gervais!

Hilarious! Laugh? I thought I'd never start...

More good news from the Middle East...

My own feeling is that as long as the two sides in the Arab/Israeli conflict think of themseves as primarily "Arabs/Palestinians" and "Israelis", there is hope: when they start thinking of themselves as primarily "Muslims" and "Jews" there's no hope. More thoughts from Robert Dreyfuss.

End Of The Road Map, Robert Dreyfuss, January 27, 2006

Hamas’ shocking, but not surprising, victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections on Jan. 25 is a disaster—for the peace process, and for the Palestinians.

It is indeed a shock. But it is not a surprise, because the strength of political Islam in the region is growing nearly everywhere—from Iraq, whose government is controlled by three Shiite fundamentalist parties, to Egypt, where the fanatical Muslim Brotherhood made huge gains in elections in 2005—and because Hamas was able to capitalize on anger, bitterness and frustration among Palestinians disenchanted with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

But it’s a disaster, above all, for the Palestinians themselves. It’s the equivalent of an election in the United States in which voters went to the polls and elected the Rev. Pat Robertson president. If the Christian right is bad for America—not because they are terrorists, but because their anti-abortion, anti-evolution, anti-gay, prayer-in-schools philosophy is so abhorrent—then the Islamic right is bad for Palestine. This is not because Hamas is a terrorist movement, which it is. The Islamic right is bad because its slogans—“the Koran is our constitution” and “Islam is the solution”—are incompatible with a complex, 21st-century society, and because Hamas’ vision for society is a benighted, medieval one.

The most obvious effect of the Hamas win will be its aftershock in Israel, which goes to the polls in March. The victory by Hamas will strengthen the Israeli far-right, weaken pro-peace centrists and put the Israeli left and the Labour Party on the defensive. The most likely beneficiary in Israel will be Richard Perle’s favorite Israeli politician, Bibi Netanyahu, whose Likud bloc is likely to gain. The Ariel Sharon-founded centrist bloc will be pulled to the right, and most Israeli voters will react to Hamas’ victory by seeking the protection of strongmen, not peaceniks. So polarization will intensify dramatically between Israel and the PA. The consequences are incalculable. And they will be regional, not confined to Palestine and Israel. Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond will feel the effects of the Hamas earthquake.

Does the Hamas vote indicate that Palestinian voters have suddenly become religious extremists? Certainly not. Like the Christian right in the United States, the Islamic right in Palestine has a core support bloc—but it is far smaller than the 58 percent of the total seats secured by Hamas. Many Palestinians voted for Hamas because they believed that the PA had failed to deliver social and economic benefits or to make progress toward peace. Or because Fatah, since the death of Yasser Arafat, seemed divided and rudderless. Or because the Palestinian old guard was hopelessly corrupt. Whatever the reasons, however, the vote for Hamas empowers a dangerously radical movement.

It’s important to note, as detailed in my book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam , that Israel has only itself to blame for the emergence of Hamas. After 1967, when Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank, the Israeli authorities encouraged the growth of Islamism as a counter to Palestinian nationalism and the PLO. In 1967, Israel freed Ahmed Yassin, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who founded Hamas in 1978-88, and they encouraged the Islamic right and the Brotherhood to take control of mosques and student groups. In 1977-78, the Israeli government of Menachem Begin’s Likud officially licensed Yassin’s Islamic movement and gave it official Israeli blessing. Throughout the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood fought pitched battles against the PLO. In an interview not long before he died, Arafat said: “Hamas is a creature of Israel,” and he quoted slain Israeli Prime Minister Rabin as having told him that Israeli support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood was a “fatal error.” Several U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials told me about Israel’s support for Yassin and the Brotherhood, and Chas Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told me bluntly: “Israel started Hamas.”

In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood had always been an enemy of Arab and Palestinian nationalism. Twice, Brotherhood assassins tried to kill Egypt’s President Nasser, and in 1970 the Muslim Brotherhood sided with King Hussein in the civil war against the PLO that came to be known as “Black September.”

For the Bush administration, Hamas’ victory ought to be a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in a too-rapid push for democracy. Already, the effects of instant, U.S.-imposed democracy in Iraq are daunting. True democracy requires a set of political institutions, nongovernmental organizations, media and universities dedicated toward supporting a democratic form of government. Overnight elections can’t do the trick. The authoritarian military regimes in Egypt and Syria and the monarchies in Jordan and Saudi Arabia could easily fall to Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamist forces if pushed too far, too fast toward elections.

Having started Hamas in the first place, various Israeli governments since the late 1980s, through two intifadas, have been struggling to cope with their deformed offspring. Yet through the dozens of suicide bombings targeting civilians perpetrated by Hamas, and through all the Israeli assassinations of Hamas leaders (including Yassin), both Israeli and Palestinian extremists and revanchist demagogues have fed off each other. Each now strengthens the other.

In the aftermath of the election, many voices have been raised suggesting that Hamas may opt for a pragmatic policy rather than seek confrontation with Israel—if, indeed, Israel gives it that chance. There is no guarantee that Hamas will do so. Its leaders are as fanatical and as dangerously unpredictable as their counterparts on the Israeli far right. Although it is true that the PLO under Arafat migrated from demanding the elimination of Israel to accepting a two-state solution, the PLO was ultimately a nationalist group for whom a state, even a smaller one on the West Bank and in Gaza, satisfied one of its principal political goals. But Hamas has never had nationalist goals. Its goal is not the creation of Palestine, but the establishment of a caliphate and the restoration of pure, 7th-century Islam throughout the Muslim world. Its struggle with Israel is only a stepping stone toward that larger goal.

President Bush must tread carefully. After initial bluster about never meeting or dealing with Hamas, both the United States and Israel will have to deal with the unsettling new reality on the ground. Just as most Arabs eventually came to grips with the notion that Israel exists, the Israelis (and the United States) have no choice other than to recognize the reality of Hamas. It is in the American interests, the Israeli interest, and the interests of the Palestinians themselves that Hamas be weakened. Yet that can only come not via confrontation but by lowering the political temperature and choosing dialogue over war.

Recovered from the Memory Hole

As Orwell said:

Ain't that right Don?

Strange bedfellows

Well they might want to nuke the living daylights out of each other, but it is good to see that the Presidents of Iran & the USA agree on the really important issue of our times ie homosexuality is bad. This is from the Human Rights Watch website (courtesy of Lenin's Tomb):

United Nations: U.S. Aligned With Iran in Anti-Gay Vote-Rice Must Explain Repressive UN Ban on LGBT Rights Groups

(Washington, D.C., January 25, 2006) - In a reversal of policy, the United States on Monday backed an Iranian initiative to deny United Nations consultative status to organizations working to protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. In a letter to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, a coalition of 40 organizations, led by the Human Rights Campaign, Human Rights Watch, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, called for an explanation of the vote which aligned the United States with governments that have long repressed the rights of sexual minorities.

“This vote is an aggressive assault by the U.S. government on the right of sexual minorities to be heard,” said Scott Long, director of the LGBT rights program at Human Rights Watch. “It is astonishing that the Bush administration would align itself with Sudan, China, Iran and Zimbabwe in a coalition of the homophobic.”

In May 2005, the International Lesbian and Gay Association, which is based in Brussels, and the Danish gay rights group Landsforeningen for Bøsser og Lesbiske (LBL) applied for consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council. Consultative status is the only official means by which non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world can influence and participate in discussions among member states at the United Nations. Nearly 3,000 groups enjoy this status.

States opposed to the two groups’ applications moved to have them summarily dismissed, an almost unprecedented move at the UN, where organizations are ordinarily allowed to state their cases. The U.S. abstained on a vote which would have allowed the debate to continue and the groups to be heard. It then voted to reject the applications.

“The United States recklessly ignored its own reporting proving the need for international support for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. “The State Department’s ‘Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’ show severe human rights violations based on gender identity and sexual orientation occur around the world.”

As the U.S. government acknowledged in its 2004 country report on Iran, Iranian law punishes homosexual conduct between men with the death penalty. Human Rights Watch has documented four cases of arrests, flogging, or execution of gay men in Iran since 2003. In its 2004 country report on Zimbabwe, the U.S. government noted President Robert Mugabe’s public denouncement of homosexuals, blaming them for “Africa's ills.” In the past, Mugabe has called gays and lesbians “people without rights” and “worse than dogs and pigs.” [and what's so wrong with dogs & pigs, Mugabe, you fascist scumbag?]

The U.S. has reversed position since 2002, when it voted to support the International Lesbian and Gay Association’s request to have its status reviewed. Officials gave no explanation for the change.

“It is deeply disturbing that, at the UN, the United States has shifted gears toward an aggressive stance against human rights for LGBT people,” said Paula Ettelbrick, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “Unfortunately, denying LGBT groups a voice and a presence within the United Nations – the world's most important human rights institution – is fully in keeping with the U.S.’s assault on basic human rights principles worldwide.”

In voting against the applications to the NGO committee, the U.S. was joined by Cameroon, China, Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Senegal, Sudan, and Zimbabwe. Votes in favor of consultative status came from Chile, France, Germany, Peru, and Romania. Colombia, India, and Turkey abstained, while Côte d'Ivoire was absent.

“It is an absolute outrage that the United States has chosen to align itself with oppressive governments – all in an effort to smother the voices of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the world,” said Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. “It is deeply disturbing that the self-proclaimed ‘leader of the free world’ will ally with bigots at the drop of a hat to advance the right wing’s anti-gay agenda.”

In addition to the Human Rights Campaign, Human Rights Watch, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the organizations signing the letter are:

Advocates for Youth
Al-Fatiha Foundation for LGBT Muslims
Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic, Yale Law School
Amnesty International USA
Catholics for a Free Choice
Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE)
Center for Women’s Global Leadership
Colombian Lesbian and Gay Association (COLEGA)
Congregation Beth Simchat Torah
Equality Now
Family Care International
Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
Gay Men’s Health Crisis
Global Rights
Immigration Equality
International Women’s Human Rights Clinic, City University of New York School of Law
Jan Hus Church
Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund
Latino Commission on AIDS
L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center
Legal Momentum
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center (New York City)
Mano a Mano
Metropolitan Community Churches
National Black Justice Coalition
National Center for Transgender Equality
National Coalition Building Institute Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Caucus
National Center for Lesbian Rights
New Hampshire Freedom to Marry Coalition
Open Society Institute
Queer Progressive Agenda
Queers for Economic Justice
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S.
Women's Environment and Development Organization

There has been a lot about homosexuality and politics over here in the last week with two wannabe Lib Dem leaders Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes being "outed" by the tabloids as being gay. Blimey, you'd think Breeders would not have a problem. In fact it wouldn't bother me if 99.9% of men on the planet did bat for the other team, because (i) it would keep the world's population down & (ii) I might have more of a chance when meeting females. I am immediately suspicious of any public figure (politicians, journalists & religious figures) who go on about how "bad" homosexuality is. What's your problem? I remember hearing about some experiment in the USA a few years ago where men were shown porn films featuring men basically having sex with other men. Those viewers who had expressed homophobic comments before the films were shown were found (don't ask me to go into the details here) to get more aroused while watching than those who weren't that bothered.

I suppose the best April Fool's Day headline I'd like to see in a paper (apart from "Reagan's KGB Past") would be "Littlejohn's Cottaging Shame". Richard Littlejohn, our answer to Rush Limbaugh, has made a big deal of baiting homosexuals or those he thinks are gay for years now. Now at the Mail ("my real home" he says, although I think he's too much of a pleb for the Mail), he used to be at The Sun, where posing as a man of the people he couldn't leave homosexuality alone:

Diary Marina Hyde, The Guardian, Wednesday November 10, 2004

In the Sun, former television presenter Richard Littlejohn is bothered that the latest Miss Marple remake will contain a lesbian kiss. "There's nothing remotely shocking about lesbianism ... in 2004," frets Richard. And yet, is this really correct? A nagging feeling that, to some, anything to do with homosexuality remains fascinatingly transgressive forces us to conduct the annual Littlejohn audit. Behold then the results. In the past year's Sun columns, Richard has referred 42 times to gays, 16 times to lesbians, 15 to homosexuals, eight to bisexuals, twice to "homophobia" and six to being "homophobic" (note his scornful inverted commas), five times to cottaging, four to "gay sex in public toilets", three to poofs, twice to lesbianism, and once each to buggery, dykery, and poovery. This amounts to 104 references in 90-odd columns - an impressive increase on his 2003 total of 82 mentions. There is, alas, no space for us to revisit the scientific study which found obsessive homophobes more responsive to gay porn. But Richard, we're begging you: talk to someone.

However, this obsession with homosexuality is not the preserve of the Richard Littlejohn's of this world. This I saw on the Green Party's website:

Vitriolic attack on gay-rights campaigner, 24th Jan 2006
Desi Xpress has published unjustified and prejudiced attack on gay-rights campaigner, Peter Tatchel

The Green Party are shocked and appalled by the recent attack on gay-rights campaigner, Peter Tatchell, in the Asian weekly entertainment newspaper, Desi Xpress. The attack came in the form of an abusive and prejudiced article by Adam Yosef, a leading member of George Galloway's Respect Party, in the January 6th-12th edition of the paper.

Yosef accuses Tatchell of being anti-Muslim and a 'hate-mongerer'. Yosef states that he 'needs a good slap in the face' and also suggests that Tatchell and 'his queer campaign army should pack their bent bags and head back to Australia'.

Keith Taylor, Principal Speaker of the Green Party, states "I am outraged by this totally unjustifiable attack. Peter Tatchell is labelled as a 'hate-filled bigot' and accused of being the head of a racist organisation. In view of Tatchell's commitment to campaigning against all forms of prejudice and discrimination, this is simply unfounded slander. In addition to his work for lesbian and gay communities, Tatchell has campaigned against racism for 35 years and was active in the anti-apartheid movement for 20 years.

"While criticising Tatchell as an ineffectual campaigner against homophobia, Yosef's vitriolic attack mainly focuses on Tatchell's sexuality as a cause for contempt. Yosef seems remarkably confused about his arguments and I would suggest that this article is highly damaging to its author.

"Hopefully, no one with any sense will take his comments seriously and recognise Peter Tatchell's valuable contributions to the lobby for equal rights."

Yes, that anti-gay cobblers came from a member of Respect, a political party that has been touted as the last, great hope of British Socialism (well, the last great hope for flogging copies of "Socialist Worker" to all and sundry anyway). You may think this type of reactionary claptrap was the opinion of just one member of Respect, but its main man, George Galloway, is quite ready to spout the most ridiculous rubbish to get the most backward sections of the Muslim community to vote for him:

Saturday, September 17, 2005, by Greg Palast

During his debate with Salman Rushdie at the recent Edinburgh TV Festival, someone asked George Galloway if television should broadcast an adaptation of Rushdie's novel, "Satanic Verses." According to Rushdie, Galloway replied, "If you don't respect religion, you have to suffer the consequences."

Holy Jesus! This was, unmistakably, an endorsement of the death-sentence fatwa issued against Rushdie by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Add this endorsement of killing for God to Galloway's notorious opposition in Parliament to a woman's right to choose abortion, and you get yourself a British Pat Robertson. What next? Will he be "saluting the courage, strength and indefatigability" of abortion clinic bombers, as he saluted Saddam?

The Honorable Member of Britain's House of Commons has become the new love-child of American progressives for his in-your-face accusations about our own government's mendacity in sending our troops to war in Iraq. I myself quoted Galloway with admiration.

But the man who saluted the "courage" of Saddam Hussein in 1994, who today can't and won't account for nearly a million dollars in income and expenditures for a charity he founded to buy medicine for Iraqi children is not, friends, the best choice as our anti-war spokesman.

Where did this guy come from? Who invited him here? The answer: US Senate REPUBLICANS. As Cindy Sheehan was gathering public sympathy as the Gold Star mom against the killing in Iraq, the Republican party decided to import an easier target to pummel. So they brought over the "I-salute-your-courage, Saddam" religious fundamentalist crack-pot who can't tell us where the money went.

That's why the Republicans chose him for us. This gross cartoon from abroad whose "charity" is stuffed with loot from an Oil-for-Food profiteer is the image they prefer on TV to Cindy Sheehan whom they dare not confront.

Yes, Galloway was the punching bag that punched back, and for that we are appreciative. Now GO HOME, George.

We need to repudiate this guy -- before the warmongers do, with glee.

I'm sorry, but I'm not going to let Karl Rove or some sick GOP Senator pick my heroes for me.

Some well-meaning progressives have said that my exposing Galloway plays into the hands of the "other side." Friends, this isn't a World Cup match, with sides; it's a World War, with too many dead bodies piling up.

Galloway says, "I have religious beliefs and try to live by them. I have all my life been against abortion and against euthanasia."

Well, Mr. Galloway, you may live by your beliefs -- anti-choice, fatwas, Saddam's "courage" -- but too many are DYING by your beliefs.

I admit, I was suckered by Galloway. I was the first journalist in the UK to rush to his defense on television when he was accused of wrong-doing. I wanted to believe in him, but the hard facts condemn him -- and us, if we don't act true to our moral imperative.

Mr. Galloway told the Independent newspaper, "I'm not as Left-wing as you think."

Indeed, he isn't.

However, it appears that Mr G's performance in the "Celebrity Big Brother" house has done untold damage both to his own reputation and that of Respect/SWP. I can't see why!

"Well, Pete, you can join Respect, but please don't tell all the others..."

"This truly is the people's PFI"

Gordon Brown has been a steadfast supporter of the Private Finance Initiative aka Public Private Partnership so when the Grinning One falls, don't expect anything to change on that score...

The exorbitant cost of PFI is now being cruelly exposed- The huge deficits run up by NHS trusts are part of a wider market-induced healthcare crisis: we must have a full-scale review
Allyson Pollock, The Guardian, Thursday January 26, 2006

The government's controversial private finance initiative is floundering. Patricia Hewitt's review of the £1.28bn PFI plan for the Barts and The London hospitals trust, prompted by spiralling costs revealed last December, also raises questions about the whole policy. With 39 PFI hospitals signed up for at a capital cost of £3.2bn and another 41 schemes planned, at a cost of £12bn, the policy is out of control.

So why is it that, when the government continually claims that the virtue of PFI is that it "comes in on time and on budget", runaway costs have suddenly become the most pressing issue? The answer lies in the government's new "payment by results" pricing regime. The Department of Health's policy is to privatise NHS clinical services, hence the need for a market-oriented pricing system.

This requires the NHS move from block budgets, based on contracted volumes of planned work, to a system whereby each treatment has a price tag. The price is set to reflect the "average cost" of that treatment across the NHS. And here's the rub: payment by results has unexpectedly flushed out the true cost of PFI.

Using private finance to build a hospital creates a debt, which must be paid to the private-sector consortium over a 30- to 60-year period. This debt, known as the annual PFI charge, is met from the hospital's operating budget, which pays for staff and patient care.

Since 1991 every NHS hospital has had to pay the Treasury an annual charge for the use of land and buildings. It is therefore possible for each scheme to compare the cost of capital to the hospital before and after PFI. In the case of Barts and the London, the capital cost in 2005 was £8.62m a year. This is the amount the trust must pay the Treasury, which is then paid to the health department and recycled within the NHS system. But under PFI, the cost of capital at the Barts and the London will rise more than eightfold to £67m. The money flows out of the NHS and into the pockets of shareholders and their bankers in the private-sector consortium Skanska Innisfree.

This higher annual cost - £67m compared with £8.62m - creates what is known in the PFI business as an "affordability gap". This is the difference between what the private-sector consortium charges and what the trust can afford.

The ways in which hospital trusts and the government have sought to bridge this gap in the past is well documented, ranging from selling off land and buildings to reducing services and closing acute and community hospitals, as in Kidderminster and Norfolk. Since Labour came to power in 1997, more than 12,000 NHS beds in England have been lost as part of this policy, and the closures are continuing apace.

A large chunk of the current NHS trust deficits has been generated by the annual PFI charge and by unrealistic expectations about both the income and the savings that the schemes would generate. In the case of Barts, the trust is expecting a £37m increase in income from additional patient care and at the same time must plan for total savings of £22m, or 4.2% of turnover.

But how can a hospital generate more patient treatments and income when it has to close beds, cut services and lay off staff to pay the PFI charge? Without a large injection of public funds the trust will be forced to divert hospital budgets still further from staffing to paying the exorbitant PFI charges.

Take the Queen Elizabeth hospital trust in Greenwich. It is struggling under the weight of a PFI contract that it cannot afford, and managers there estimate that £9m of its £19m deficit is down to PFI. If it defaults on the PFI charge, the government could be presented with a bill for the full £140m bond used to finance the deal.

To date the government's response has been to blame trust managers - easy whipping boys. But as the trust's auditors make clear, the Queen Elizabeth has increased its efficiency over the past five years and, when the excess costs of PFI are removed, it actually outperforms the NHS average.

As more PFI hospitals come on stream these problems will be accelerated, compounded by the new tariff system and more austere funding climate. The simple fact is that in the new marketised NHS, the PFI circle cannot be squared with expenditure.

In recent months, the trend of government policy has been to directly privatise clinical services. The halfway house of foundation trusts and PFI hospitals leaves policy too exposed. Once hospitals are fully privatised, the true costs can be hidden under the guise of commercial confidentiality, with the decisions about cuts and closures left to "market forces" and merely endorsed by the independent regulator.

The problems with the Barts and the London PFI scheme are symptomatic of a much wider market-induced healthcare crisis. It is time to commission the full, independent review of PFI that successive Labour party conferences have called for.

Professor Allyson Pollock is head of the Centre for International Public Health Policy at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of NHS plc; additional research by Mark Hellowel:

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Unintended consequences...

In replying to mynewsbot's query about where Iran fits into the Great Game I mentioned the German general Von Moltke's comment that all battle plans fall apart when the shooting starts. I suppose it is similar to the idea in economics of "unintended consequences", which in recent times has basically used as an ideological stick to cast scorn on the possibility of state planning ever producing anything useful.

In any case, it appears that an "unintended consequence" of Gulf War 2 is that many of the USA's allies may be reconsidering their place in the great scheme of things, as Robert Dreyfuss suggests.

January 25, 2006, Pushing Saudi Arabia into China's Arms

Not long ago, I took part in an informal discussion with a group of Saudi Arabian businessmen and academics visiting Washington. Their unhappiness with U.S. policies in Iraq, and with regard to the Arab-Israeli dispute, was obvious. I mentioned to the Saudis that it wasn't clear to me why Saudi Arabia insisted on maintaining the primacy of its relations with the United States in its foreign policy. Why not seek political and military guarantees from other countries? I asked. Certainly Saudi Arabia's oil would carry a lot of weight with any other nation, and by reaching out to Russia, Europe, and China, Saudi Arabia could throw a scare into the Bush administration, which has so far pretty much taken Saudi Arabia for granted.

So, I suggested, if I were king of Saudi Arabia the first thing I would go would be to get on a plane and fly to Beijing. And make nicey-nice with the Chinese.

Well (certainly not because of me) that's exactly what King Abdullah did this week. And it got the attention of the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, in the form of an intelligent, well-written op ed by Richard L. Russell of National Defense University:

It was no coincidence that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah this week chose China for his first official trip outside the Middle East since acceding to the throne in August. The two countries are laying the foundations for a strategic relationship that challenges U.S. interests.

That's exactly right. That's the fruit of the Bush administration reckless invasion of Iraq and its feckless promotion of Shiite fundamentalist parties in Iraq. The instability in Iraq, the threat of civil war, and the gains by Iran there have all scared Saudi Arabia. And the Saudis don't want to wait around to find out if the neoconservative plan for targeting Saudi Arabia, too, after Iraq turns out to be White House policy. So they are covering their bets.

Since China, with its insatiable appetite for oil, is already America's biggest rival for Persian Gulf oil, the Saudi-Chinese flirtation is a big deal. China already has good ties with Iran, and will be the main roadblock against the Bush administration's scheme to impose sanctions on Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program.

Thus-and this is a big, big irony - America's military effort to secure hegemony over the world's oil deposits in the Gulf looks like this: Iraq, a mess, governed by Iran-linked Shiites; Iran, angry once again at the Great Satan and looking toward Russia and China; and Saudi Arabia, the big enchilada, starting to learn to speak Chinese. Some hegemony.

If Saudi Arabia starts causing major ripples, expect the US to start making a big deal about its lack of democracy, awful human rights record, lack of women's rights (although I should imagine a lot of the Pat Robertson/Jerry Falwell brigade probably admire the Saudi legal system's attitude to adultery and lesbianism) and how of most of the 19 hijackers on September 11th had Saudi passports (as opposed to being described as merely "Arabs" or "Muslims")...

It's all in the mind

"A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest" Simon & Garfunkel The Boxer.

If I ever get this blog to change anyone's mind about anything, I'll be doing well...

The vain brain: It excuses our faults, or simply ignores them. It hates being contradicted and keeps our egos plump. The brain, says psychologist Cordelia Fine, routinely lies to us - and it's a good thing it does
The Guardian, Thursday January 26, 2006

On the matter of the correct receptacle for draining spaghetti, my husband demonstrates a bewildering pigheadedness. He insists that the colander is the appropriate choice, despite the manifest ease with which the strands escape through the draining holes.

Clearly the sieve, with its closer-knit design, is a superior utensil for this task. Yet despite his apparent blindness to the soggy tangle of spaghetti in the sink that results from his method, my husband claims to be able to observe starchy molecules clinging to the weave of the sieve for weeks after it's been used for draining pasta. We have had astonishingly lengthy discussions on this issue - I have provided here merely the briefest of overviews - but after three years of marriage it remains unresolved. By which, of course, I mean that my husband hasn't yet realised that I'm right. The longevity of these sorts of disagreements is well known to us all. I can confidently predict that until somebody invents a colander/ sieve hybrid, we will not be able to serve spaghetti to guests.

The writer David Sedaris, describing an argument with his partner over whether someone's artificial hand was made of rubber or plastic, also foresaw no end to their disagreement: "'I hear you guys broke up over a plastic hand,' people would say, and my rage would renew itself. The argument would continue until one of us died, and even then it would manage to rage on. If I went first, my tombstone would read IT WAS RUBBER. He'd likely take the adjacent plot and buy a larger tombstone reading NO, IT WAS PLASTIC."

What is it about our brains that makes them so loyal to their beliefs? We don't seek refreshing challenges to our political and social ideologies from the world; we prefer newspapers, magazines and people that share our own enlightened values. Surrounding ourselves with "yes men" limits the chances of our views being contradicted. Nixon supporters had to take this strategy to drastic levels during the US Senate Watergate hearings. As evidence mounted of political burglary, bribery, extortion and other hobbies unseemly for a US president, a survey showed that the Nixon supporters developed a convenient loss of interest in politics. In this way, they were able to preserve their touching faith in Nixon's suitability as a leader of their country. (By contrast, Americans who had opposed Nixon's presidency couldn't get enough of the hearings.)

In other words, we like evidence that affirms our pre-set worldview - and discount what doesn't. This was tested by a psychological study in which people already declared either for or against the death penalty were asked to evaluate two research papers. One showed that the death penalty was an effective deterrent against crime; the other showed that it was not. One research design compared crime rates in the same US states before and after the introduction of capital punishment. The other compared crime rates across neighbouring states with and without the death penalty. Surprise, surprise: which research strategy people found the most scientifically valid depended mainly on whether or not the study supported their views on the death penalty.

So evidence that fits with our beliefs is quickly waved through the mental border control, while counter-evidence must submit to close interrogation and, even then, will probably not be admitted. As a result, people can end up holding their beliefs even more strongly after seeing counter-evidence. It's as if we think, "Well, if that's the best that the other side can come up with then I really must be right." This phenomenon, called "belief polarisation", may help to explain why attempting to disillusion people of their perverse misconceptions is so often futile (just think "colander").

Part of this attachment may be because there is a sense in which our important beliefs are an integral part of who we are. To bid a belief adieu is to lose a cherished portion of our identity. Interestingly, people who have recently indulged in extensive contemplation of their best qualities (or been "self-affirmed", to use the cloying terminology of the literature) are more receptive to arguments that challenge their strongly held beliefs about issues such as capital punishment and abortion. By hyping up an important area of self-worth, you are better able to loosen your grip on some of your defining values. (Just loosen your grip, mind. Not actually let go.) Effusive flattery dulls the sword of an intellectual opponent more effectively than mere logical argument.

Flattery plays very effectively on another of our brain's constitutive characteristics: vanity.

The vain brain that embellishes, enhances and aggrandises you. The vain brain that excuses your faults and failures, or simply rewrites them out of history. The brain so very vain that it even considers the letters that appear in your name to be more attractive than those that don't.

Of course, the positive illusions fostered by your brain are essential to survival. Without a little deluded optimism, your immune system begins to wonder whether it's worth the effort of keeping you alive. And most extraordinary, it seems that sometimes your vain brain manages to transform its grandiose beliefs into reality. Freud suggested that the ego "rejects the unbearable idea", and experimental psychologists have since been peeling back the protective layers encasing your self-esteem to reveal the multitude of strategies your brain uses to keep your ego plump and happy. Let's start with some basic facts.

When asked, people will modestly, reluctantly confess that they are, for example, more ethical, more nobly motivated employees, and better drivers than the average person. In the latter case, this even includes people interviewed in hospital shortly after extraction from the mangled wrecks that were once their cars. No one considers themselves to fall in the bottom half of the heap which, statistically, is of course not possible.

Likewise, we are quick to assume that our successes are due to our own sterling qualities, while responsibility for failures can often be conveniently laid at the door of bad luck or damn-fool others. This "self-serving bias", as it is known, is all too easy to demonstrate in the psychology lab. People arbitrarily told that they did well on a task (for example, puzzle-solving) will take the credit for it, whereas people arbitrarily told that they did badly will assign responsibility elsewhere, such as with their partner on the task. The bigger the potential threat, the more self-protective the vain brain becomes. In a final irony, people think that others are more susceptible to the self-serving bias than they are themselves.

Memory is one of your ego's greatest allies. All brains contain an enormous database of personal memories that bear on that perennially fascinating question "Who am I?", or the "self-concept". But the self-concept, psychologists have discovered, is conveniently shifting. If the self-concept you are wearing no longer suits your motives, the brain simply slips into something more comfortable. The willing assistant in this process is memory. It has the knack of pulling out personal memories that better fit the new circumstances. Two Princeton researchers observed this metamorphosis directly, by tempting volunteers with an attractive change of self-concept. They asked a group of students to read one of two (fabricated) scientific articles. The first article claimed that an extroverted personality helps people to achieve academic success. The second article, handed out to just as many students, claimed instead that introverts tend to be more academically successful.

You can guess what's going to happen. Imagine: you're not any old vain brain; you're a vain brain at Princeton, for goodness' sake. Which-ever personality trait the students thought was the key to success, the more highly the students rated themselves as possessing that attribute.

There are two morals to be drawn. One, never trust a social psychologist. Two, never trust your brain. They both manipulate your perception of reality, tricking you into embarrassing vanities. But don't feel angry with your brain for shielding you from the truth. There is in fact a category of people who get unusually close to the truth about themselves and the world. Their self-perceptions are more balanced, they assign responsibility for success and failure more even-handedly, and their predictions for the future are more realistic. They are the clinically depressed.

Psychologist Martin Seligman and colleagues have identified a pessimistic "explanatory style" that is common in depressed people. When pessimists fail they blame themselves, and think that the fault is in themselves ("I'm stupid", "I'm useless"), will last for ever, and will affect everything they do. This is a far cry from the sorts of explanations that happy, self-serving people give for failure. And it seems that this pessimism can seriously endanger your health. Pessimists make more doctor visits, have weaker immune systems, are less likely to survive cancer, are more likely to suffer recurrent heart disease, and are more likely to meet with untimely death. It may be hard to cultivate a more optimistic perspective in the face of such data, but it's worth trying

© Cordelia Fine 2005. This is an edited extract from A Mind of its Own - How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, by Cordelia Fine, which is published by Icon Books at £9.99. To order a copy for £9.99 with free UK p&p go to or call 0870 836 0875.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Canadian election aftermath

Well, I would advocate UDI for Victoria/Vancouver, but apart from that...

It could have been a lot lot worse! For a start, the Cons are far short of an overall majority. They will need support from other parties, which will basically mean the Bloc Quebecois & Liberals. Stephen Harper, although a sandwich or two short of a full picnic (evangelical Christian and all that), will have to hold back the crazies further out than him (first rule of politics- there are always crazies further out than yourself!) or his government will fall, and I'm sure no-one wants to go to polls for a few years yet. So Harper is pretty much boxed in (I could say "straight jacketed" but that would be a cheap shot!).

Furthermore, they only got 36% of the vote ie almost 2/3rds of the voters didn't vote Con. That suggests to me the vast majority of people in Canada are pretty liberal. Blame the first past the post electoral system. It really is a travesty of democracy. Back in May last year Tony Blair got an overall majority of 66 in the House of Commons over here on just 36% of the vote, so count your blessings Stephen Harper didn't get the same!

In addition, I'd be encouraged by the NDP & Greens increasing their shares of the vote. Neither are perfect (this from a recently joined member of the Green Party over here) but having pressure from "the left" (I try not using such meaningless phrases) might force the Liberals to sharpen up their act.

You may also have heard the phrase coined by one-time Labour PM Harold Wilson: "A week is a long time in politics." I was in despair in 1992, when the Tories scraped in for a fourth successive overall majority (I remember staying up watching the election coverage on tv with the Sex Pistols blaring on my headphones- songs like "Anarchy in the UK", "God Save The Queen", "Liar", "Problems", "No Feelings" & "Holidays In The Sun" ["I want to go to the new Belsen..."] seemed to make a lot of sense in the circumstances). The general consensus was that the Tories would stay in power for ever. Within 6 months they were broken (£ leaving the ERM after billions were wasted on the foreign currency markets; plans to shut down our remaining coal mines caused mass protests), went on to lose the 97 election (best night of tv ever!) and only seem to be coming out of a coma in the last few months. One-time Tory PM Harold MacMillan when once asked what he feared most was "Events, dear boy, events". So wait for "events"- even Stephen Harper praying to The Lord 10 times a day can't prevent them!

However, there are positive things to do apart from waiting for the Cons to collapse. This is from Naomi Klein's website from over 5 years ago, but her proposals suggest that not a lot has happened in Canadian politics since then!

Unlabelled the Left by Naomi Klein December 20 2000

Where do we go from here? There's a big space in the political landscape for a new party, one that looks at the calls for localization and doesn't see a dire threat to national unity.

There is a very simple reason to have a left-wing alternative to the Liberal Party: People are suffering. Despite all the wealth created by deregulated markets, many Canadians are seeing no part of it.

In fishing communities from coast to coast, on family farms, on the streets of large cities, Liberal Canada's recipe for economic growth has meant people being thrown into the global market without a net.

In response, we have seen a wave of political organizing and militant protests. Students blockade trade meetings where politicians are bargaining their futures away in exchange for foreign investment. In First Nations communities, from Vancouver Island to Burnt Church, there is growing support for seizing back control of the forests and fisheries—people are tired of waiting for Ottawa to grant permission that the courts have already affirmed. In Toronto, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is occupying buildings and demanding the shelter that is the right of all Canadians.

There is no shortage of principled, radical organizing taking place, yet it is almost completely disconnected from the major political voice of the left, the NDP. Listen to the people excluded from the Liberal mainstream and you hear ideas entirely absent from the NDP platform: the deep distrust of state powers, immigration crackdowns, police harassment, punitive welfare offices, and mismanagement of community affairs.

Surveying the rage directed at Ottawa from across the country, the NDP's only response has been an action plan for better central management. In its policy book, there is no problem that can't be fixed with a stronger, top-down government.

By consistently failing to speak to the hunger for local control, or to the well-deserved skepticism of centralized power, the NDP has yielded the entire anti-Ottawa vote to the right. The Alliance is the party that offers Canadians outside Quebec the opportunity to "send a message to Ottawa"—even if it is only by demanding a refund for poor service in the form of a tax cut.

A national party of the left could articulate a different vision, one founded on local democracy and sustainable economic development. But before that can happen, the left needs to come to grips with how Canadians see government. It needs to listen to the voices on native reserves and in non-native resource communities where the common ground is a rage at government—federal and provincial—for culpably mismanaging the land and the oceans from urban offices.

Government programs designed to "develop" the regions are deeply discredited across the country. Federal initiatives to get fishermen into eco-tourism, for instance, or farmers into information technologies are regarded as make-work projects, unresponsive and, at times, destructive to the real needs of communities.

Frustration with botched central planning is not just an issue in rural Canada. Urban centres across the country are being turned into mega-cities against their will, just as hospitals where cutting-edge programs once thrived are being amalgamated into inefficient medical factories. And if you listen to the teachers having standardized testing rammed down their throats, you hear the same resentment at centralized power, the same calls for local control and real democracy.

All these local battles are, at their root, about people watching power shift to points further and further away from where they live and work: to the WTO, to unaccountable multinationals, but also to more centralized national and provincial governments. What people really want are the tools, both financial and democratic, to control their destinies, to build diverse economies that are genuinely sustainable. And they have plenty of ideas.

On the west coast of Vancouver Island, they are calling for community fish-licence banks, bodies that would keep fishing rights in the community rather than selling them back to Ottawa or to corporate fleets. Native and non-native fishermen, meanwhile, are doing end runs around the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to try to save the salmon fishery by rehabilitating spawning grounds and protecting hatcheries. In other parts of British Columbia, they talk of community forest licences: taking away Crown land from multinational forestry companies that are interested in volume-based logging, and placing sustainable forest management in the hands of local communities.

Even in Newfoundland, long written off by Ottawa as Canada's welfare case, there was talk this election of renegotiating federalism to regain control over the province's rich energy reserves and what's left of the fishery. It's the same message from Inuit leaders determined to ensure that, as the oil and gas prospectors move into their territories once again, the benefits go toward regional development rather than simply enriching multinational corporations.

In many ways, these calls for sustainable economic development are the antithesis of the free-trade model pushed by the Liberals, which insists that increased foreign investment is the key to all of our prosperity, even if it means trading away democratic powers in the process. These communities want the opposite: beefed-up local control, so they can do more with less.

This is also contrary to the Alliance model of regional resentment and tax cuts—though for many, those aren't bad consolation prizes. But there is clearly a deep desire in this country to continue to act collectively, to pool resources and knowledge and build something better than any of us is capable of building as individuals.

This presents a tremendous opportunity for a left-wing party, an opportunity that has been entirely wasted by the NDP. There is a wide-open space in the political landscape for a new party, one that looks at the calls for localization and doesn't see a dire threat to national unity, but the building blocks for a unified—but diverse—nation. In these calls for self-determination, grassroots democracy, and ecological sustainability are the pieces of a national party platform, a coherent vision that includes many Canadians who have never before been represented by the so-called left.

Right now, we have federal parties that try to hold this country together against its will, and regional parties that pit the country against itself at its peril. A new party could do something else: show the country not the differences but the connections among these struggles for localization and articulate the progressive principles of economic sustainability, self-determination and participatory democracy. Rather than fighting localization, we need to spend national resources in a way that would systematically encourage creative, local solutions, making respect for the local the centrepiece of our national project.

What is needed is a federal party that would relentlessly champion the reinvention of local democracy with the same enthusiasm that the Alliance champions tax cuts. That doesn't mean abandoning strong national standards—and stable, equitable funding—for health care, education, affordable housing, and environmental protections.

But it does mean that the mantra of a political party of the left should change from "increase funding" to "empower the grassroots"—in towns, on native reserves, at schools, in resource communities, in workplaces. This project doesn't mean less government, just a different kind of government.

Its slogan: "Protect the Local, Nationally."

Although they hardly registered on the electoral map, I think the Canadian Action Party have some good ideas, at the national level anyway. Perhaps if I was Canadian I wouldn't have voted for them this time around, but if they got involved with the NDP and Greens they may be the catalyst for challenging the two main parties over the question of true patriotism and what it means to be Canadian.

Top Ten Reasons to Vote For CAP on January 23!

1-Freedom for all in a sovereign strong nation. Despite no taxpayer funding, CAP is the only party exposing the unaccountable, unelected rulers of Canada(that is the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, former government officials, business leaders, and academics). MP's are irrelevant, emasculated, and subject to corruption so long as they submit to that influence. As such they are no good to the citizenry.

2-Put your Money to work for You-Reinstate full use of the Bank of Canada-fund infrastructure and enable universal healthcare, education, environmental protection, full employment, and an end to the GST

3-Restore our civil rights and liberty-rescind all liberty stripping legislation including the anti-terrorism law, Public Safety and Preparedness Act. Prevent new laws that spy on law abiding citizens, such as surveillance legislation, tracking devices, biometric identifiers. Remove legislation that imprisons law abiding citizens in our own country, such as no fly lists, no passport lists, security certificates.

4-Restore Canada's Military Peace-Keeping role-Canada to stay out of Northcom, Star Wars, and to withdraw from the Binational Military Planning Group

5-Take Canada out of international agreements that are anti-Canadian, anti-democratic, anti-free trade, anti-environment, anti-universal healthcare-cancel NAFTA, FTA, the Smart Border Declaration,(signed in December 2001 by John Manley Deputy Prime Minister of Canada and Tom Ridge, Director of the United States Homeland Security Department); Withdraw from the Security and Prosperity Partnership Agreement, signed in March 2005 by Fox, Martin, Bush.

6-Electoral Reform-Restore democracy-revoke Section 550 of the Canada Election Act, that prohibits election promises to be accountable to the electorate-bring in proportional representation, recall legislation, direct democracy, all to provide transparent accountability to the people of Canada

7-Reinstate and enforce the four pillars of the Canada Health Act-including universality, portability, accessibility, fully funded public health programs with a ban on private healthcare(Bank of Canada)

8-Universal access to publicly funded education from pre-school through post-secondary including low interest student loans (Bank of Canada)

9-Providing and investing in alternative energy, research and development (Bank of Canada)

10-strong Voice of opposition- standing for peace, not WAR, and promoting real security and prosperity for the people not for corporate exploitation

Finally, some advice to the NDP in BC from Larry Gambone. I'm not sure when this was written but as BC is currently run by Liberals at Provincial level it must have some applicability! I'm sure it would be of use to NDPers/Greens/CAPers etc elsewhere in Canada as well.


The recent events in BC with the Liberal government are only the latest events in a 120 year history of mis-management, corruption and downright stupidity. One might well say that the present cut-backs are the fruit of this sordid mess. We, or more correctly they, since I languish in Siberian exile, did have 3 (or was it 4?) NDP governments and the situation could have been turned around. But the NDP didn’t. Now it shouldn’t be up to me to lay out a political program for social democrats, after all, I ain’t one ’o them, but the fact that an outsider can show them a thing or two, only points out what a bunch of unimaginative losers they must be.

What can a po’ provincial govt. do? Now we might bitch a lot about Ottawa and all its powers, and rightly so, BUT, the provinces do have a lot of power – at least 75% of the powers of an independent state. Look at Quebec. These are residual powers granted to each province by the British North America Act of 1867 and expanded on since. What are these residual powers? First off, the province can organize the lower level of government as it sees fit – as we have seen to our great displeasure here in Quebec with forced municipal mergers. Secondly, the provincial government itself, as long as it remains within the tradition of parliamentary democracy and does not overstep its constitutional limits visa-vis the Feds, can also organize itself as it pleases. A provincial police force, provincial pension fund and provincial banks are also constitutional. Once again, check-out them there Queebecers. Now you’d think wouldn’t ya, that anyone with an IQ a bit larger than their shoe size, could do a lot with all these powers – a lot of things to make life in BC pleasant.

If I must, I’ll spell it out simply. Government in BC is highly centralized, more so than in the East. Government is also highly undemocratic, virtually every govt. is a govt. supported by a minority, not a majority. Once in power, a party can do what it wants. Centralization and lack of democracy means less control by the people. Less control by the people means the government is free to reward its friends from public lands and taxes, ignore the environment, grab your property, impose expensive and useless mega projects, etc., etc. and etc. Furthermore, a govt. can introduce a reform, but the next party in power can undo it. What Our Lord the State giveth, Our Lord the State can also taketh away.

What COULD have been done is this: BC could be given a proper level of local government – counties and municipalities – which would be largely autonomous. These govts. would be based on real existing communities and not be artificial creations like at present. Much of what the prov. govt. does could be handed over to these local govts. Hospitals and schools could be de-nationalized (more correctly de-provincialized) and become the property of the community. Development, provincial lands and environment could also be the right of the community. Rather than govt. revenue being concentrated in the hands of the province – and therefore much of it getting wasted by bureaucracy and pet projects – it would be disbursed immediately to the lower levels of govt. to pay – at least in part – for the hospitals, schools, streets etc.

In order to minimize corruption at the lower levels of govt., the provincial govt. would maximize democracy at these levels. Small communities would replace the mayor and council with New England style direct democracy. All issues deemed controversial – by a simple petition of say 10% of eligible voters – would require a referendum which would need 66% of all eligible voters to pass. Large cities would be broken up into Neighborhood Councils, based on real neighborhoods, and elected locally. The Neighborhood Council would elect a recallable DELEGATE to the City Council. The position of Mayor would be abolished, instead a rotating Spokesperson. The Referendum Law would also apply at the Neighborhood Council and City Council levels.

The provincial govt. would undergo the following changes: A limited proportional ballot would be introduced. Any party with more than 5% of the vote would be given a seat. However, the vast majority would represent communities. These would no longer be artificial electoral districts (or ridings as they are quaintly referred to in Canada) but would be based upon real existing municipalities and counties. Each of these – as close as possible to rep by pop. - would elect a recallable DELEGATE to Victoria. Once again, the Referendum Law would apply. A Cabinet would be elected from the Legislature and the position of Premier stripped of any powers. The Premier would become an annually rotated spokesperson. The Prov. Govt. would engage in only those areas that the lower levels of govt. desired, such as collecting and disbursing revenue, provincial parks, highways, ferries, and the maintenance of standards, health and water inspection etc. (*)

These changes in government would be incorporated within a Provincial Constitution. To tie the hands of any future government who might try to destroy these freedoms any changes to the Constitution would require the approval of BOTH 90% of the lower governments and 90% of the eligible voters.

BC would withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan and set up its own Plan like Quebec. Within no time this would become the largest investor in the province. A Ministry of Cooperative Affairs would be set up to encourage mutual aid, cooperatives and the general social economy. Rather than introducing private health care and privatizing auto insurance and BC Hydro, they would be mutualized, i.e., turned into client-owned and controlled cooperatives. With the Pension Fund, mutualism and community ownership, each person would come to own a share in the economy. In time, the bulk of the economy would be in the hands of the ordinary person.

The results? Government would be cheaper and more efficient. The environment would be better protected – who want’s to dirty their own nest? There would be less dissension since government would actually reflect the will of the people and not a minority. The economy would thrive since it would be owned by those who work it. Community would be re-inforced and rebuilt, resulting in less alienation and therefore less social problems. Voluntarism and mutualism would thrive as large, centralized institutions got broken down to human scale.

Like I said before, I’m not a social democrat, if any of you reading this are, well here’s your program. Take it, it’s yours. You don’t even need mention my name. In fact, please don’t or I’ll be forced to turn in my anarchist membership card. Claim it as your idea, for all I care.

*) Anybody thinking that I must be smoking something when writing this should be aware that a place governed on similar lines exists – It’s called Switzerland and happens to be the wealthiest nation on earth.

July 7th- what was going on?

There are not many people I have come across, least of all in the Blogosphere, to whom I defer to on the grounds of their moral authority. One such person is Rachel North. Her biog below should explain why this is so:

This blog was started to provide a place to continue my online diary that I started after surviving the 7/7/2005 London bombings, when I was travelling in the first carriage of the Picadilly line tube from Kings Cross to Russell - Square. The bomb went off in my carriage, about 7 feet behind me. 26 people died in that blast and dozens were maimed and wounded. 52 people died in total in the London blasts, plus the 4 bombers. Over 700 were injured. More were frightened and affected, many knowing people caught in the blasts. This blog is dedicated to the victims of 7/7 and to the victims of all bomb attacks, and to the journalist and writer Fergal Keane, and Gary Duffy, the UK editor of the BBC News website, who both told me I was a writer and should continue to write. And to my partner J who is a wonderful, wonderful man whom I am honoured to share my life with. And to my family, and my friends, from whom I have recieved so much love and support. KingsCrossUnited AT

Her blog has opposed conspiracy theories about the July 7th very vehemently. However, there are many unanswered questions about that day, and the run up to it (and the attempted bombings on July 21st, for that matter). I've signed the online petition for a public enquiry into July 7th, and maybe after reading this, you may feel the same as me.

Sunday, January 22, 2006: M15 'bugged July 7th bombers' leak

David Leppard, Sunday Times news reporter rang me up yesterday saying it was about a story in today's Sunday Times. After some initial confusion when I assumed he was a sub-editor fact-checking the pole-dancing piece that came out today ( I am prone to making an arse of myself like this), he told me that a leak had revealed that M15 had known about, but stopped watching two of the July 7th bombers because they' didn't have the resources'.And would I like to comment?

What David told me I found pretty staggering. We had a conversation which shocked and angered me and today this article appeared in today's Sunday Times ( front page was the poor whale that swam up the Thames on Friday then died).

'BRITAIN’S top spies knew that the ringleader of the London bombers was planning to fight for Al-Qaeda more than a year before the July 7 suicide attacks, security sources have revealed.

MI5 bugged Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, a second bomber, for two months as they talked about Khan’s desire to fight in what he saw as the Islamic holy war.

Agents also listened in as the men talked between themselves about Khan’s plans to return to Pakistan where he had attended a camp for British terrorists. They also spoke about engaging in crime to raise money for Islamic extremism.

However, police and MI5 officers ruled that the two men were not an “immediate risk” and did not present a “direct threat” to national security.

The detectives’ assessment was that the men were primarily involved in fraud rather than preparing to mount attacks in the near future. As a result, surveillance on them stopped, allowing the attacks that killed 52 people and injured 700 to go ahead'

It says a lot about how cynical I have become that my immediate suspicions were that M15 had leaked the document to get more funding. Then I wondered if the Government had leaked the document in order to make a nasty point about the Anti Terror Laws and to imply they shouldn't have been outvoted on the attempt to push through the liberties-trashing 90-Days-to-hold-suspects-without charge legislation. But no. It was a real leak ( from where? Which reminds me of an interesting previous story) and it means that Charles Clarke's claims that the bombers were 'clean skins' and the bombings 'came out of the blue' were crap. And the Security officials who said the men 'were not known' to them were talking crap too.

So could the Government have prevented Khan and his associates getting on our public transport and committing mass murder?

The article goes on to explain how Khan trained to make bombs in a terrorist training camp in Pakistan '... set up by Al-Qaeda soon after Tony Blair sent British troops into Iraq'.

Iraq. The 4 letter unmentionable word when you talk about July 7th 2005.

'MI5 has calculated that the entire plot cost less than £10,000 to carry out. It has also employed a team of in-house psychologists to analyse why the four men became terrorists.'

*Cough* I thought the Joint Intelligence Commitee gave us a steer on that in February 2003?

You know, when they explicitly told Mr Blair that that the invasion of Iraq would heighten the terrorist threat to Britain from al-Qaida? This caused Mr Blair to muse aloud at the time about the 'fear' of the 'possibility' of the 'nexus' 'between 'terrorism and WMD' in 'an event'. Such lawyerly weaseling. (See The Guardian reporting on September 11th 2005)

What an absolute balls-up: never mind WMD, never mind Saddam as a 'threat', the people of Iraq and the people of London and ordinary people everywhere are more at risk from terrorism since Iraq was invaded. What about the 'nexus' between 'terrorism and Governments starting illegal bloody wars and lying about why they are doing so and ignoring what they are warned the consequences might be?'

Oh, but, of course we can all trust in Mr Blair's 'judgement' to protect us all.

"This is where you've just got to make your judgment and it remains my judgment and I suppose time will tell whether it's true or it's not true'' said Mr Blair, when told about the heightened terrorism risk stemming from the decision concerning, and the reality of, the Iraq occupation.

For God's sake, now we know that not only was Blair was given a joint Home Office and Foreign office dossier explicity pointing out the terror threat at home in 2004, now we find out M15 were diligently listening to the conversations of the bombers for months! Judgement? I do not trust Mr Blair's judgement. I do not feel safe whilst he exercises it on my behalf and I do not trust him and this is what I say about his judgement.

It stinks. It stinks of innocent blood and explosions and preventable deaths, here and abroad.

Last month, of course, we all recall Blair refused to hold an independent or public enquiry into the London bombings, saying instead a ''narrative'' about the events would be published in the spring.

If I want to read a bloody narrative I'll nip into Waterstones. What I want is to understand is why July 7th happened. And that includes whether the Government took a knowing, calculated risk with so many lives and whether they did so knowing that this may be one of the prices of a war in Iraq.

The Government listened into the plotting of the 7th July cell, knew that the bombers were NOT 'unknown' as was originally claimed. The Government went into an illegal war to 'defeat terrorism' and because they said terrorism + WOMD = Your Worst Nightmare (TM) - yet knew there were no WMD and Iraq was 'no threat' .

Meanwhile by a hideous yet predictable irony , the terror risk of course increased. In Iraq, and at home, resulting in carnage, carnage and more carnage in Iraq, and finally in my city, on my train to work, last summer. And the wretches in power knew this, they knew the war was based on a lie and that being involved in Iraq increased the risks of terrorism, and they even listened in to Khan and his associates planning murder and mayhem.

Yet they still maintain this facile facade that there is no link between Iraq and 7th July. It beggars belief, it really does. Even the Financial Times, hardly a Galloway mouthpiece, makes the cost of this hubris, or naivete or breathtaking cynicism, or whatever the hell it is that causes this PM of mine to be so wilfully blind.

'The uncomfortable truth is that the ambitions and capabilities of the jihadis cannot be divorced entirely from the bloodshed in Iraq. The toppling of Saddam Hussein did not cause Islamist extremism but the present insurgency serves both as recruiting agent and training ground for al-Qaeda's war against the west.' ( (c) Financial Times)

I have said why we need an independent public enquiry before and the reasons have not gone away. And here is yet another compelling reason: today's leak and the realisation that the Government has been caught out yet again - the bombers, were known, not unknown, the attack did not 'come out of the blue', despite what the Home Secretary said last year.

On July 10th last year, before the identitity of the bombers was known, the Sunday Times was already reporting how young British men were being recruited into terror and hate. How much have the actions of my Government created the conditions and fanned the flames of the murderous terror they claimed they went to war to avoid?

I have had enough of these lies and evasions.

You can sign the petition for an independent public enquiry into the events of July 7th by clicking here .

Geopolitics- The Great Game In Eastern Europe

Iraq and Iran are just one part of the bigger picture.

Russia is in retreat:The gas blockade fiasco highlighted the march of the west into eastern Europe and beyond
Mark Almond, The Guardian, Saturday January 21, 2006

What did you do during the new cold war? Blink and you missed it. On New Year's Day, Russia was an energy superpower with its icy grip around western Europe's gas pipes. Alarmist strategists reported that Moscow was on the march. Estonia or Poland may be in Nato and the EU, but they were perilously vulnerable to energy blackmail. The Russian president was portrayed as a judo blackbelt with a chess grandmaster's geostrategic grasp.

The murky Swiss-based arrangements for divvying up the compromise price agreed between Gazprom, Russia's state-controlled gas company, and its Ukrainian partners cannot disguise the reality that Russia lost out in the quarrel. The EU rallied against its major energy partner, and behind Washington.

Despite Vladimir Putin's climbdown, inveterate cold warriors warn that every step back by the Kremlin is a prelude to a lunge for the west's throat. Once it was Stalinists who saw every western action as sinister. Sixty years ago, Averell Harriman, the US ambassador to Moscow, asked the diplomat Maxim Litvinov what the American government could do to reassure the Soviets of its intentions and got the reply: "Nothing."

Today, victorious cold warriors refuse to accept the Soviet Union collapsed under Gorbachev. By portraying Putin as a terrifying spook, they have elevated a minor KGB operative into Karla with nobs on. The real reason for Putin's rise was his diligent service with the corrupt mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, and then Boris Yeltsin's "family".

Many Russians hoped for something better after the years of decline under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. But, though Putin has paid pensioners and teachers on time, Russia has continued its geopolitical shrinkage under his rule. Every time there is a crisis in the former Soviet Union, we hear dark warnings of Brezhnev-style interventions - and each time the anti-Russian side wins. Think back to the Rose revolution in Georgia in 2003, or to Ukraine in 2004, or to Kyrgyzstan last year.

A Russian friend joked ruefully that in the 90s Russians had got used to Yeltsin blustering against western double standards after a few doubles. But at least he was a drunken clown. To be ruled by a sober clown such as Putin is beyond a joke. Many ordinary Russians had hoped to see in Putin what western neocons claim to fear: a cold-eyed defender of Russia's national interest, playing the Great Game for his country rather than his cronies' bank accounts.

The fiasco of Russia's gas blockade of Ukraine suggest he is no poker player. If he thought possession of gas and oil reserves would give Russia the whip hand, he miscalculated basic realities.

Iraq's bitter experience before and since 2003 shows that fossil fuels are no use if you cannot export them. Export or die is the watchword of energy-rich states. Insurgent attacks on pipelines in Iraq reminded America that Kiev, not the Kremlin, controls the bottleneck of Russian energy exports.

Ukraine's Orange revolutionaries repaid their western sponsors by switching the direction of the Odessa-Brody pipeline to suit US strategy last year. Around the same time, America and Britain were gloating over the completion of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline that cut Russia out of Caspian oil exports. Next they announced a trans-Caspian pipeline to suck central Asia's gas westwards without passing through Russia, let alone paying Putin transit fees. The west is making the running in global pipeline politics, not the Russians. In reality, the west advances as Russian troops retreat from the Caucasus and central Asia. Gazprom is upping prices to ex-Soviet republics to compensate for Moscow's loss of geopolitical clout.

The new Russian elite craves acceptance by the west, which is why hosting the G8 summit in his native St Petersburg is so important to Putin. He visibly preens himself when he is with George Bush. Scarcely veiled threats from America to cancel Russia's G8 status over the gas dispute sent the Kremlin into a tizzy. That a prestige project such as the G8 chairmanship should trump other priorities shows Putin is no grandmaster of realpolitik. In the run-up to G8, Russia can be kept in line by threats of a boycott, for instance if it protests at western intervention in the March elections in Belarus, almost Moscow's last ally, and Ukraine.

Putin's own position weakens as Russia's global role wanes. His bitter enemies, such as the London-based oligarch Boris Berezovsky, are preparing a few embarrassing stunts and surprises for Putin before he stands at the head of the receiving line in St Petersburg. Russia may have invented agitprop, but the western sponsors of people power know that an international summit is the perfect media window for trouble; tarnishing Vladimir's big day out won't be difficult.

Someone is still fighting the cold war, but it isn't Russia. The chill wind that has been blowing towards the Kremlin for decades is still coming from the west.

Mark Almond is a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford

Innocent until proven guilty?

I sent my sub off to the N02ID campaign today. It wasn't the article below which pushed me into sending it, but it was definitely in my mind.

We don't live in a police state yet, but we're heading there: With barely a protest, Britain's liberties are being eroded in the name of a dubious campaign against terrorism and crime
Henry Porter, The Observer, Sunday January 22, 2006

The argument for social control goes like this: if you've done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from a national data bank of identity/the terrorism act/the tapping of MPs' phones/the use of the public-order act to control protest and limit free expression/the new powers of arrest/the retention of DNA samples taken from innocent juveniles.
Over the past few months, I have listened to five people airily make this pitch. Not one of them was a complete fool; it's just that they haven't been paying attention to the Prime Minister's unflagging mission to increase the power of the state over the individual, to the shoal of anti-libertarian laws which have slipped through a mesmerised parliament.

If they have noticed anything, they tend, without much thought, to interpret it as a government doing its best to make us safer from terrorists and criminals. They conclude that if you are neither a terrorist nor a criminal, you have nothing to worry about. Wrong.

They have only to consider the 24,000 juveniles who have not been cautioned, charged or convicted with any crime, yet whose DNA has been retained by the police, to wonder if some extra-parliamentary commission should be set up to examine the state of liberty in Britain and the motives of this odious regime of sinister mediocrities.

On the evidence, an outsider might guess that Britain has suffered a calamitous national crisis, a convulsion of historic significance. But it has not, and neither has the rest of the Western alliance. In the four years since al-Qaeda launched its war in earnest, fewer than 5,000 people have lost their lives in attacks in, among other places, Washington DC and New York, Bali, Madrid, London and Sharm el Sheik. Large numbers were wounded - 1,460 in Madrid; 700 in London - but compare this to the Blitz, in which more than were lost and many more were wounded.

Osama bin Laden only managed a small war and, whatever the intention behind the tape released last week, it must now be sensible to look at the past four years for what they are. Shocking, yes. Baffling and sickening, yes. But a catastrophe in the widest sense, no. Western society has not been derailed. Economies continue to grow and there is much evidence of optimism and energetic evaluation of the world's real problems.

This is not complacency, but a realistic assessment of how things are. We should not belittle the people sacrificed to this lunatic's need for attention, but, equally, we should guard against the habits of fear and the opportunism of sinister forces in Number 10, the Home office and the endlessly indulged police force.

Last week, I visited a publishing house in central London. A security guard asked me to enter my name into a keyboard before I received a pass. I noticed a tiny camera on a stalk peering over the keyboard to take a snap of the visitor's face as he keys in his name. I refused and made my way to the lift without a pass, to the consternation of the security staff. Why this obsessive need to photograph, to record names and times of entry? Any serious terrorist would get round this pathetic device. Besides, the building probably rates no higher as a target than my cat. It's a pointless exercise, yet it emphasises the state we have got ourselves into over the actual threat of terrorism.

We do not yet live in a police state, but we are certainly building a society where free speech, the right to protest and conduct our lives without scrutiny by a central authority could be seriously threatened. There is no government in the Western alliance, not even America, which has taken such a bewildering lurch to the authoritarian right since 11 September and met with such little opposition, either in the media or in parliament.

It has been a stealth attack, similar to the approach the Chancellor has used to raise taxes without appearing to do so. While seeming to be friendly to the idea of personal liberty on such things as opening hours and gambling, the government has steadily pursued its campaign of social control.

If you put to one side Blair's addiction to summary justice and focus on the measures carried out in the name of security, you find two streams: those devoted to reduction of free speech and the right to protest, and those that concentrate on the surveillance and monitoring of innocent citizens.

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (Socpa) falls in the first category. Apart from increasing the police's powers of arrest, it removed the right to demonstrate within one kilometre of parliament, a right people still possess in Serbia and Ukraine. Section 44 of the 2000 Terrorism Act, meanwhile, allows police to stop and search anyone in a designated area. This has been used to obstruct demonstrations against the Iraq war, global capitalism and arms fairs and even those who heckled speakers at last year's Labour party conference. Linked with issuing Asbos, it has proved highly effective in controlling demonstrations which offend the government.

To limit what can be said in public, the government also inserted a provision in Socpa that criminalises opinions that are held to stir up religious hatred. You may not make a joke about Islam, Judaism or Christianity without risking a criminal record. And section 5 of the Public Order Act allows police to prosecute if they believe a hate crime has been committed. Last week, they were investigating a leading Muslim, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, who made remarks on Radio 4s PM programme about homosexuality being morally and medically unacceptable. Sacranie's views are daft and tasteless, but why shouldn't he express them? Why should there be any legal restraint on the doubts I may voice about parts of his faith, its views on homosexuality, for example? That is the nature of free speech and we do not need a bunch of PC Plods patrolling our exchange.

If anything, the strand of Blair's campaign devoted to surveillance and bugging is much more worrying. He has already granted MI5 and the police powers to pry on people's email and text messages. According to the Independent on Sunday, he now plans to allow MPs' communications to be intercepted by MI5. It is astonishing that parliament did not erupt. If US senators and members of Congress were being bugged, there would be an outcry. The constitution would be flourished, as it is now by Greenpeace, the Council for American-Islamic Relations and a number of well-known writers such as Christopher Hitchens and James Bamford in a case claiming the Bush administration's use of wiretaps is a violation of privacy and free speech.

We need a constitution to guarantee similar rights, but failing that, I'd like to see a bit more of that truculence when it comes to Blair's pet proposal of a national database of identity that will include no less than 50 separate pieces of information on each of us, at cost of £350-£500 per head. What business has he got charging us for invading our privacy with his ID cards scheme when so many on his own side agree it will count for nothing in the fight against terrorism and fraud?

Does anyone care about the proposals to extend the automatic numberplate recognition system throughout Britain's motorway network so that the details of every journey by every innocent member of the public are retained? I spent an entire day last week being batted from the Home Office to the Department of Transport and the Highways Agency trying to determine what legislation enables this scheme. The answer is none. I spoke to the pleasant chief constable of Hertfordshire, Frank Whiteley, who advocates this system on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers. He made points about the detection of criminals and terrorists, but conceded there was indeed a cost to civil liberties.

Piece by piece, that system is being built because the CCTV cameras already in place can also read numberplates. Yet there has been no debate in parliament, no special powers enacted, no one questioning the cost or the privacy issues. Make no mistake - we are wiring up for the police state.

The article below is from Paul Kingsnorth's blog. My basic attitude towards free speech is to what extent would you like the state to limit YOUR freedom of speech. People are too ready to condemn what other people say, but apply those criteria to yourself without being a hypocrite?

Wednesday, January 18

An interesting article by Jonathan Freedland in today's Guardian (how often do you get to write that sentence?) with which I fully concur. Freedland writes about the chill wind of state interference that is blowing across our right to free speech, and he's dead right.

Taking as his starting point some well-publicised examples of police over-zealousness (arresting a student for calling a horse 'gay'; questioning Tony Blair's advisor about whether the Prime Minister insulted the Welsh in the privacy of his own home. Etc) Freedland questions the strain being put on free speech by the rising tide of don't-offend-me campaigners. I've worried about this for a long time; it seems clear to me that free speech is being eroded fast in this country. It seems our police forces have been instructed to zero in not simply on hate-motivated crimes (which is fine, because they're crimes) but on hate itself.

Bad idea. Hatred, bigotry and nasty opinions are not, and should never be, illegal. Our status as a free society is shown above all by our willingness to tolerate beliefs we - and particularly we over-sentive liberals - find horrible. It should never be illegal to be racist. It should never be illegal to dislike homosexuality. It should never be illegal to slag off Islam or Christianity. It should be illegal to commit crimes on the back of those opinions, but that's as far as we can allow it to go.

There are two current cases going on which should test where we stand on this. Case one is that of the deeply unpleasant Sir Iqbal Sacrani, head of the deeply unpleasant Muslim Council of Britain. Sir Iqbal has always been an enemy of free speech, at least when it applies to his religion. He was in the vanguard of those calling for the death of Salman Rushdie back in the 1980s for the crime of writing a book, and more recently he has been lobbying for the government's dangerous new law to ban 'religious hatred' (ie, to publicly express distate of stupid beliefs like his). Iqbal was on the radio last week making some unpleasant and ignorant remarks about homosexuals, which he claims are the opinions of God (sigh. Will we ever grow up?). Here is what he said:

'Certainly it is a practice that in terms of health, in terms of the moral issues that comes along in a society ... It is not acceptable. Each of our faiths tells us that it is harmful and I think, if you look into the scientific evidence that has been available in terms of the forms of various other illnesses and diseases that are there, surely it points out that where homosexuality is practised there is a greater concern in that area.'

There you go: a bunch of bigoted cobblers, for which Iqbal is now being investigated by police. Naturally he has now become a stout defender of (his own) freedom to say offensive things about minorities. But it's a freedom which I feel I have to defend, even though Iqbal is an idiot who talks crap - because the idea that the state's security forces can swoop at will on people who express ideas of which the state does not officially approve is so chilling, that I would rather find myself defending morons than shouting for their imprisonment simply because I don't like them.

Which brings me on to case two, that of Class A Scumbag Nick Griffin, currently being prosecuted for inciting religious hatred. Griffin, who has a long history not only of inciting it but of putting it into practice, is a more complex example than Iqbal, because he is charged not simply with expressing his usual vile views, but urging his lowing herd of pasty followers to act on them. Here is what Griffin said to a BNP meeting about Muslims in Britain:

'It's part of their plan for conquering countries. They will expand into the rest of the UK as the last whites try and find their way to the sea. Vote BNP so the British people really realise the evil of what these people have done to our country.'

Bigoted cobblers, again. But illegal bigoted cobblers? I worry about the zealousness with which anti-fascist campaigners call for the banning of such views and those who express them, as much as I worry about those who seem to think they have a legal right not to be offended by other peoples' opinions.

Above all, I worry about free speech. I'm a strong libertarian on these matters: I believe the state has to have very, very good reasons to ban the expression of personal points of view, however unpleasant society may find them. That way lies tyranny, and I do believe we are slowly headed towards it without even knowing it. I hope we wake up soon.

Below is Freedland's "interesting" article.

How police gay rights zealotry is threatening our freedom of speech: When lawmakers decide what we can and can't say, good intentions quickly tip over into something sinister
Jonathan Freedland, The Guardian, Wednesday January 18, 2006

Future scholars might refer to it as the case of the gay horse. In May of last year, Sam Brown, an Oxford student out celebrating the end of his finals, decided to address a mounted police officer. "Do you realise your horse is gay?" he asked. Juvenile prattle, you might think. But that was not the verdict of the police. Two squad cars arrived, disgorging a group of officers who promptly arrested Brown under Section 5 of the the Public Order Act, for making homophobic remarks. He spent a night in the cells and was fined £80 - which he refused to pay. Last week the Crown Prosecution Service finally dropped the charges against him, admitting they had insufficient evidence to show that the accused was "disorderly".

The case of the gay horse now takes its place in what is becoming a bulging file. It emerged last month that a retired Lancashire couple got a knock on the door and an 80-minute police interrogation by two officers after they had put in a call to Wyre borough council. Joe and Helen Roberts had asked if they could display evangelical Christian literature in council buildings to counteract what they regarded as an abundance of gay-rights material. The council thought the pensioners "displayed potentially homophobic attitudes" and sent in the cops.

Meanwhile, the self-styled family-values campaigner Lynette Burrows had a call from the Metropolitan police after she took part in a debate on Radio 5 Live. She had argued that gay couples should not be allowed to adopt children, prompting a complaint of a "homophobic incident". The head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Sir Iqbal Sacranie, is now also under investigation for telling the Today programme that homosexuality was "not acceptable" and should be viewed as a medical problem.

Now, I don't like what Sacranie or Burrows said; I probably wouldn't have too much in common with the Robertses and I can imagine that Sam Brown was behaving like a jerk. But none of that stops me being appalled by what happened to all of them. Their treatment suggests that when it comes to the most fundamental of all freedoms - the right of free speech - a dangerous chill is in the air.

It's not just those accused of homophobia that are feeling the cold. In an episode that strains credibility, the former Downing Street spinner Lance Price was questioned for two hours after an early draft of his memoirs revealed that Tony Blair had once cursed the "fucking Welsh". Officers from North Wales police journeyed to London to investigate whether Price had been a witness to a hate crime committed by the prime minister, specifically incitement under the Public Order Act. The same force spent £4,000 probing anti-Welsh remarks made by Anne Robinson on the Room 101 television show.

What explains this loopiness, simultaneously comic and sinister? Ben Summerskill of the gay rights group Stonewall says it begins with "perfectly good intentions". Determined to reverse the mistakes of their bigoted predecessors, today's police chiefs are falling over themselves to be sensitive to the communities they once ignored. Add to that the lesson of the Macpherson inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, which concluded that a racist incident is "any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person". That logic has been extended to all forms of hatred, so that now if someone phones in and says an incident is homophobic, it is.

Enter another, specific confusion. Police guidelines distinguish between a hate crime, when a conventional offence - a mugging, beating or murder - is motivated by bigotry, and a hate incident, where no actual crime may have occurred. In the case of the gay horse and episodes like it, police seem to have lost sight of the difference, seeing any incident involving bigotry as, ipso facto, a crime. They know, for example, that once hate is part of the picture a crime becomes an "aggravated offence", to be punished with a heavier sentence. But they have apparently taken that to mean that, if prejudice is involved, what was once mere speech becomes a criminal act. Hence imagining that Tony Blair shouting at the TV during the Welsh assembly elections of 1999 could possibly be a threat to public order.

Summerskill is loth to criticise the police for this; he knows they mean well. But even he can see the danger in cases that allow the tabloid right to bellow that weariest of cliches: it's political correctness gone mad. "It risks undermining public confidence in the prosecution of crimes that are genuine hate crimes," he says.

That is not the only danger. Including anti-terror legislation, there is now an alarming abundance of laws so broadly drawn that they don't just block direct and deliberate incitement to violence - which is and should be illegal - but criminalise ideas themselves. Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty fears a "great assault" on free speech in Britain, one that can be seen even in the moves to crack down on antisocial behaviour. It's as if, she says, we are developing a new "right not to be offended or irritated". Any conduct that causes us distress, any view we find unpleasant, and we're dialling 999.

There are several intriguing elements here. One is the way the principle of gay rights has become so established that to oppose it is to guarantee one's ostracism from mainstream society: even the police have fully signed up. For this gay campaigners deserve enormous credit; it is one of the great political success stories of our time, for it now occupies a space that racial equality has struggled to reach. A small but telling example: David Cameron, desperate to show his modern, moderate credentials, does it by going to see the gay cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain on its first day of release last week. To make a statement on race would be so much more complex, but to be sound on gay matters has become a shorthand for reasonable, compassionate modernity.

Second, this recent round of police inquiries shows the inevitable morass of contradiction and hypocrisy we enter when lawmakers try to determine what speech is acceptable and what is not. Just ask Iqbal Sacranie. Having fought so valiantly to restrict free speech, through a law banning incitement to religious hatred, he now demands his right to free speech when condemning homosexuality on the radio. He must surely see that if he has the right to talk abrasively about gays, everyone else has a right to talk the same way about Muslims. So long as they stop short of directly inciting hatred, strictly defined, both should have the right to say what they like.

That's the way free speech works. Until now the government has had only the dimmest appreciation of what Tony Blair calls libertarian "nonsense". But Gordon Brown gave a thoughtful speech on Britishness at the weekend, arguing that liberty is one of the values that define us as a people. That certainly used to be true. But if it is to be part of our present and future, rather than just our past, it will mean rolling back or rewriting the gagging laws which violate our best traditions. We should have a right to say what we want - and if that offends the odd horse, so be it.