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Thursday, February 23, 2006

"I'm Henry the 8th I am I am..."

I would be lying if I said I kept an eye on everything the government tries to pass through Parliament. The jaundice set in quite a time ago with me. However, the proposed so-called Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill is a frightening piece of legislation, a local version of the world wide attack on political democracy which bodies like the EU and WTO also indulge in. Fortunately, there is plenty of discussion of this in the media...

Why is the government seeking the power to pass far-reaching laws without parliament's approval?
Marcel Berlins, The Guardian Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Some have called it the Henry VIII bill; one MP thought Stalin would be a more appropriate dictator to put his name to it. A leading academic refers to it as the "abolition of parliament bill". You get the point. The bill's real title is bland and boring to the point of soporific, which may be why it hasn't been much noticed; but underneath the benign facade of the legislative and regulatory reform bill lurks a machinery that would give the government the power to pass far-reaching laws without the bother of getting the approval of parliament.

On the surface, the bill is aimed at removing regulatory burdens on business by using short-cut procedures which wouldn't require parliamentary debate. The same process would also put into law uncontroversial recommendations by Britain's law commissions, the government's legal thinktanks. All that seems not only reasonable, but positively helpful to the efficiency of law-making. But look again, and Henry VIII comes into the picture. What the government has inserted into the bill is a way of allowing laws to be passed by a minister's order, which bypasses parliament altogether.

Well, so what? We're only talking about minor, technical laws which don't raise any controversial issues, aren't we? No, we emphatically are not. Try this one. It will become possible for the government, by ministerial order, without a debate in parliament, to create new criminal offences, punishable with less than two years imprisonment. It could also, according to Cambridge law professor John Spencer (who is not alone in his analysis), introduce house-arrest, give the police stronger powers of arrest and interrogation, set up new courts, and in effect re-write the rules on immigration, nationality, divorce, inheritance and the appointment of judges. Yes, there are safeguards written into the bill supposedly to prevent this sort of dictatorial behaviour, but my experience of safeguards is that they look better on the page than they perform in practice.

OK, you say, the government may have the legal power to do all those things, but is it seriously being suggested that it will really use such methods to pass laws it doesn't feel like putting to parliament? On the whole, no - and yet, in our current overcharged political climate, it is not too fanciful to imagine the government using every procedural trick to impose laws on the quiet, rather than face a parliamentary storm.

What bothers me most is that the government wants these powers in the first place. They are constitutionally dangerous, giving to the executive what should be a function of the legislature. And they are unnecessary. It would not have been difficult to achieve the bill's admirable, limited objectives without arming ministers with such questionable, wide-ranging powers. So why is the government so insistent on keeping the Henry VIII provisions if it doesn't intend on using them?

Of course, the Government have no intention of changing anything and as the following piece from Chicken Yoghurt argues, it is those dyed in the wool friends of democracy, big business, who will benefit from the Sod Parliament Bill:

Murphy's Law, Wednesday, February 22, 2006

When I finally succumb to the massive and catastrophic stress-induced brain embolism that is to be, no doubt, my final destination, the coroner will be able to pinpoint the exact time of my terrible and furious demise to whenever the pointless junior government minister, with a dangerous and unpopular piece of new law to sell, was interviewed on either the Today programme or PM that day.

This morning it was the turn of Jim Murphy, Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office, to usher me just that little bit closer to the big dirt bath. Murphy was the luckless soul sent onto the Today programme to defend the Furtherance of Unaccountable Government Bill.

For those just coming in, otherwise known as the The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, this harmless-sounding piece of proposed legislation has bothered those of us who think that our barely accountable public servants - along with our not at all accountable public servants - should be kept on a short lead.

This is arcane, hard to engage with stuff but nonetheless has some pretty far-reaching consequences should this new legislation's power fall into the wrong hands. It's about how we are governed and what those to who we lend power do with that responsibility. Put simply, the The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill, as Marcel Berlins explained in the Guardian the other day [and above!], will make it...

...possible for the government, by ministerial order, without a debate in parliament, to create new criminal offences, punishable with less than two years imprisonment. It could also, according to Cambridge law professor John Spencer (who is not alone in his analysis), introduce house-arrest, give the police stronger powers of arrest and interrogation, set up new courts, and in effect re-write the rules on immigration, nationality, divorce, inheritance and the appointment of judges.

That's a pretty disturbing list, I hope you'll agree, particularly under this Government who are determined to be harder and nastier than anybody else when it comes to The War Against Terror. However, taking the basic premise that we're not dealing with Darth Vader and friends here, I think we can say that if/when this bill is passed into law, dissidents aren't suddenly going to find themselves locked in their homes with their knackers wired to the mains.

But this is to forget the law of unintended consequences and as I said the other day, when your thirst for efficiency, or for at least the facade of efficiency, produces the same outcome as if you'd set out to be a bastard, you can't really be too sore, in my opinion, if people start refusing to make the distinction. "I didn't mean to hurt you," often doesn't impress those on the receiving end. It's a trust thing.

Murphy, in his interview, did at least give a few a pointers as to what intentions lie behind the bill and just what the Government mean when they say they will place "safeguards" within it. As to why we need the bill, Murphy played his joker, otherwise known as the Armageddon Gambit. Don't argue your case on its merits, just scare the shit...

The real danger is what happens if we don't introduce a bill of this sort. We are trying to do all we can to maintain UK competitiveness, business competitiveness, economic growth, employment levels in a global economy where we face challenges from the emerging economies.

You hear that? If we don't get this bill, we'll be swept away by the Yellow Peril. Don't blame Jim when you're sewing Nike Trainers for a bowl of rice a day - it'll be those bastard urban intellectuals' fault for not letting him have his way.

So where's the pressure for this bill coming from? Here's the clue: UK competitiveness, business competitiveness, economic growth, employment levels. The "stakeholders" in this bill are the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors, British Chambers of Commerce.

Maybe paying a bunch of honking, low-wage conservatives massive salaries is all that stands between me and a third world lifestyle. I'm not a complete idiot, maybe British business is being choked by red tape. Frankly, I don't really care enough to find out, although anything that might make Digby Jones' life slightly less pleasant can't be all bad if you ask me.

But you would have thought that that Britain's business community would have had the law of unintended consequences closer to the front of their minds when they lobbied for this bill, particularly after Gary Mulgrew, Giles Darby and David Bermingham fell foul of the Extradition Act 2003. The CBI were sanguine about swarthy suspects being sent to Guantanamo under the act but less happy when it was applied to wholesome white collar types. Where's Martin Niemöller when you need to misquote him?

But all is well. There are safeguards to protect us:

The relevant select committees of the House of Commons will have a veto on every single proposal.

For those with rich and fulfilling lives who don't know what select committees are, here's how Charter88 defines them:

Select Committees of MPs carry out detailed investigations into policy matters and government performance, and produce detailed reports and recommendations. Sometimes they will draw up and recommend new legislation.

Hurrah, you cry, select committees will save us. Ah, well, Charter88 continue...

But there the Committees' powers end: they have no right to ensure that their reports or recommendations or proposed Bills are debated by parliament.
...and it gets worse...

Currently select committees, whose job is to investigate government actions and performance, are appointed by the government - i.e. the whips draw up the list which is then voted for en bloc in the House.

Members or select committees are placemen allocated according to the electoral makeup of Parliament. What if, and I know this is a cynical point of view, any scrutiny of new laws proposed by a government under this new power divided along party lines with the dominant (that is, government) party winning the day?

Regardless of party loyalties, however, it's still MP's faults that we need to give the Government power to do whatever it likes. As Murphy said:

We still have a one-size-fits-all approach to better regulation. So regardless of how controversial or the scale of a proposal, it still has to go through exacting parliamentary scrutiny which some times can take a number of years. That's not fit for purpose.

MPs. The lazy bastards. Clogging the arteries of the mother of parliaments. And on our dollar as well. But if that's the case - and Parliamentary scrutiny isn't always the constitutional bottleneck Murphy would have us believe - why does Andrew Miller, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston and chairman of the Commons Regulatory Reform Committee (on this occasion, granted, no placeman he) say:

Our report demonstrates that the current parliamentary procedures are not responsible for delaying regulatory reform orders.

Our evidence shows that departments themselves are slow in identifying the unnecessary regulations, in bringing the proposals for orders to Parliament and in making the orders once Parliament has made its recommendation on individual reforms.

Government departments. The lazy bastards. Clogging the arteries of the mother of parliaments. And on our dollar as well.

The interview's worth listening to if only to hear how little Murphy gave away. He's few bones to throw to the dogs on this one. Oh, and the - ha ha! - jokey exchange about Prince Charles - ha ha! - and his so-called dissidence right at the end, oh, it's a hoot.

So, as others have said it's time to do something. My MP doesn't answer my letters so I'm left whistling in the dark somewhat. Her voting record wouldn't inspire confidence even if I wasn't being ignored. So I charge you, dear reader, with the noble quest of rescuing democracy.

To conclude - with the requisite glib, broader point - in the nine years since they came to power New Labour have pretty much made it up as they went a long. That's what happens when you swap principle for power at any cost - the star you used to sail by is obscured by clouds and you have to guess where you're heading. There are no lighthouses. When Gordon Brown ascends to the throne he may find himself a Scot on the rocks.

It seems that everything worthwhile in this country can be thrown away in the name of "competitiveness". When we become just one great bloody big theme park for visiting members of the Chinese Communist Party (who will all probably go to see the Interactive Thatcher Mausoleum) perhaps someone will suggest that we took a wrong turning somewhere. One thing I can predict with a fair amount of confidence: whoever follows Blair, whether it be Gordon Brown, David Cameron or a coalition of "Reformers", I don't think The Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act (if it is allowed to come into force) will be removed from the statute books in a hurry.

No more heroes?

"This almost suicidal cavalry charge should knock off a few points off the Mordor 100 Stock Index chaps!"

When in a facetious mood, ie when I am a bit drunk, I declare that the success of Lord of the Rings movies was the result of the good guys having British accents for once. However, in more considered moments I think both the books and films are popular because they involve two things which are sometimes hard to imagine in this day and age. One is that good triumphs over evil. The other is both books and films are grand narratives. I think that the continuing popularity in British culture of World War Two is that it is the nearest historical event most people have encountered which corresponds to a grand narrative in which the good guys win (ok you have the Soviet Union winning, and the Yanks drop the bomb on Japan and have their plans dominate the world, dismantle the British Empire, collaborate with remaining fascist movements throughout the world etc etc) but it was the last true Good War.

I also think that the continuing appeal of Marxism is that has a grand narrative, which takes in all human history, and the good guys, ie ordinary people, triumph. I guess that is also some of the appeal of religion. Religions are able to interpret the flow of history and suggest ultimate victory for the good guys ie those who stick to that particular religion.

In contrast, modern capitalist society offers nothing adventurous, and its scribes suggest that we have the end of history. This is as good as it gets, they say. It is not much if one has ideals. Capitalism will collapse simply because it is so damn boring. Please don't try and tell me that venture capitalists, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and bleedin' accountants are in any sense heroic. People criticise (often quite rightly) the antics of pop stars, sports people, actors/actresses etc, but at least they inspire people. The only good thing most capitalist types have is money, and I only envy them to the extent that I would use that cash to do what I really want to do in life.

I think people are voting with their feet when it comes to politics. They want people with ideas who will inspire them. That is why so many people say their political heroes are Tony Benn and/or Enoch Powell. Compare them to blandocracy who dominate the three main parties in Britain today. We appear to be allowed a free market and choice in everything EXCEPT political ideas and policies. No wonder more and more people are giving up on the electoral process, which is a tragedy, and a disgrace in a so-called democracy.

Some stuff on China

It seems from the media that the great clash for world domination will be a three way contest between Google, Tesco and China. Seriously, is anyone surprised that despite being the worst despotism on the planet (nukes, human rights abuses, suppression of ethnic and religious minorities) that Western business and politicians treat China with kid gloves? If you co-operate with Western corporations any state is given carte blanche (minor taps on the knuckles notwithstanding) to carry on its own particular way of dealing with its subject populations.

One does not need to be a dyed in the wool eco-doomster to be worried by the thought of a billion plus Chinese acheiving US consumption levels. It can't be done, end of story! The world does not have the natural resources, as the following article suggests.

A new world order: China now consumes more of the Earth's resources than the US. Lester R Brown examines the consequences should its population devour at the American rate, and how growth is viable within our planet's boundaries
The Guardian, Wednesday January 25, 2006

For almost as long as I can remember, the experts have been saying that the US, with 5% of the world's population, consumes a third or more of the Earth's resources. That is no longer true.

China has now overtaken America as the world's leading resource consumer. Among the basic commodities - grain and meat in the food sector, oil and coal in the energy sector, and steel in the industrial sector - China now consumes more of each of these than the US except for oil. It consumes nearly twice as much meat - 67m tonnes compared with 39m tonnes in the US; and more than twice as much steel - 258m tonnes to 104m.

The important questions now are: what if China's consumption per person of these resources reaches the current US level, and how long will it take for China's income per person to reach the US level?

If China's economy expands at 8% a year in the decades ahead, its income per person will reach the current US level in 2031. If at that point China's resource consumption per person were the same as that in the US today, its 1.45 billion people would consume the equivalent of two-thirds of the current world grain harvest. China's paper consumption would be double the world's current production. Say goodbye to the world's forests.

If China were to have three cars for every four people - as in the US - it would have 1.1bn cars. Worldwide today there are 800m cars. To provide the roads and parking spaces to accommodate such a vast fleet, China would have to pave an area comparable to the land it now plants in rice - 29m hectares (72m acres). It would use 99m barrels of oil a day; the world currently produces only 84m barrels daily, and may never produce much more.

The western economic model - the fossil fuel-based, car-centred, throwaway economy - is not going to work for China. If it does not work for China, it will not work for India, which by 2031 is projected to have a population even larger than China's. Nor will it work for the 3 billion other people in developing countries who are also dreaming the "American dream".

In an increasingly integrated global economy, where all countries are competing for the same oil, grain and iron ore, the existing economic model will no longer work for industrial countries either.

Time for Plan B

Sustaining our early 21st-century global civilisation now depends on shifting to a renewable energy powered, re-use/recycle economy with a diversified transport system. Business as usual - Plan A - cannot take us where we want to go. It is time for Plan B, time to build a new economy.

Glimpses of the new economy can already be seen in the wind farms of western Europe, the solar rooftops of Japan, the fast-growing hybrid car fleet of the US, the reforested mountains of South Korea, and the bicycle-friendly streets of Amsterdam. Virtually everything we need to do to build an economy that will sustain economic progress is already being done in one or more countries.

In this economic restructuring, the biggest challenges will come in the energy economy as the world strives simultaneously to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on oil. Over the past five years, production of energy from oil and coal expanded by 2% and 3% a year, respectively, while wind and solar energy grew by some 30% a year. The transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources is under way, but, unfortunately, it is not moving nearly fast enough to stabilise the climate or slow the depletion of oil reserves.

Among the new sources of energy - wind, solar cells, solar thermal, geothermal, small-scale hydro and biomass - wind is developing fastest, hinting at what the new energy economy will look like. In Europe, which is leading the world into the wind era, wind-electric generation is sufficient to meet the residential needs of some 40 million people. The European Wind Energy Association has projected that by 2020 some 195 million Europeans - half of the region's population - could get their residential electricity from wind.

Wind energy is growing fast for the following reasons: it is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely distributed, clean and climate benign. No other energy source has this combination of attributes.

The US has enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs several times over. Wind electric generation in America, which expanded by 35% last year, is on the verge of exploding as rising natural gas prices spur investment in this cheaper source of electricity. China could easily double its current electricity generation from wind alone.

For the US vehicle fuel sector, which is widely seen as one of the most challenging segments of the world energy economy to restructure, the key to quickly reducing oil use and carbon emissions is petrol-electric hybrid cars. Fuel efficiency ratings from the US Environmental Protection Agency show that the average new car sold in the US last year travelled 22 miles to the gallon, compared with 55 miles a gallon for the Toyota Prius, a mid-sized petrol-electric hybrid.

If, for oil security and climate stabilisation reasons, America over the next 10 years replaced its entire fleet of passenger vehicles with super-efficient petrol-electric hybrids, petrol use could easily be cut in half. A change in the number of cars or miles driven would not be necessary.

Beyond this, a petrol-electric hybrid with an additional storage battery and a plug-in capacity would allow motorists to use electricity exclusively for short-distance driving, such as the daily commute and grocery shopping. This could cut US petrol use by an additional 20%, for a total reduction of 70%. Investment in thousands of wind farms across the US to feed cheap electricity into the grid would mean Americans could do most short-distance driving with wind energy, dramatically reducing carbon emissions and the pressure on world oil supplies.

Using timers to recharge batteries during the low-demand hours late at night, with electricity coming from wind farms, costs the equivalent of, or less than, 60 cents a gallon of petrol. The US has not only an inexhaustible alternative to oil but also an incredibly cheap one.

Taxing negative activities

The key to restructuring the global economy is restructuring national tax systems. In effect, lowering taxes on income and increasing those on environmentally destructive activities. This has progressed fastest in Europe, where countries are taxing negative activities, such as carbon emissions, the generation of rubbish (landfill taxes), and cars driven in cities.

A four-year plan adopted in Germany in 1999 systematically shifted taxes from labour to energy. By 2001, this plan had lowered fuel use by 5%. It had also accelerated growth in the renewable energy sector, creating some 45,400 jobs by 2003 in the wind industry alone - a number that is projected to rise to 103,000 by 2010.

In 2001, Sweden launched a bold new 10-year environmental tax shift designed to convert 30bn kroner (£2.2bn) of income taxes to taxes on environmentally destructive activities. Much of this shift - £624 per household - is levied on road transport, including substantial hikes in vehicle and fuel taxes.

Cities that are being suffocated by cars are using stiff entrance taxes to reduce congestion. The revenue from London's congestion charge for cars entering the inner city is being invested in improving the bus network, which carries 2 million passengers daily. The goal is a restructuring of the London transport system to reduce congestion, air pollution and carbon emissions, and to increase mobility.

Ecologists have long been convinced of the need to restructure the global economy in order to protect natural support systems and to stabilise the climate. China's growth is also convincing economists of the need for restructuring.

Our civilisation is not the first to move onto an environmentally unsustainable economic path. Some earlier civilisations in a similar situation were able to make the required adjustments in the time available. Others were not. We study the archaeological sites of the latter.

Of all the resources needed to build an economy that will sustain economic progress, none is more scarce than time. With climate change, we may be approaching the point of no return. The temptation is to reset the clock. But we cannot. Nature is the timekeeper.

Lester R Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilisation in Trouble, published by WW Norton & Co, RRP £10.99. To order a copy for £9.99, with free UK p&p, go to or call 0870 836 0875.

It's ironic that the current movement of the rural peasantry to China's cities (and the attendant squalor) is rather similar to that to Britain's cities during the Industrial Revolution. If only Marx and Engels were around to see it all! As the following piece suggests, the Beijing regime are trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together, which is (anticipating my wannabe Guardian piece de resistance) a bit like Gordon Brown et al trying to hold Britain together post-devolution. Don't the current lot running China not know that every ruling class creates its own grave diggers?

Karl, China needs you
Isabel Hilton, New Statesman, Monday 20th February 2006
Just when it seemed it was all over for Marx, the Chinese Communist Party has had a spectacular change of heart, writes Isabel Hilton

According to Hu Jintao, China's president and general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Marxism is still applicable in China. And, in a recent announcement that has startled analysts, the party has pledged "unlimited funds" to the cause of "reviving" Marxism in China, in an attempt to turn the country into the global centre for Marxism studies.

The project is nothing if not ambitious: 3,000 "top Marxist theorists" and academics from across the country are to be summoned to Beijing to compile more than a hundred Marxism textbooks, each one to contain contributions from between 20 and 30 scholars. Each textbook will be funded to the tune of one million yuan (£70,000). In addition, the party promises a huge investment of human and financial resources to build more research institutes, train more theorists and produce more academic papers, all with the full support of the Politburo.

Li Changchun, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and the party's chief official in charge of ideology, was reported to have told a meeting of propaganda officials and theorists that the leadership saw the project as a means of resolving various issues facing the country, and had given it "unlimited" support. The Institute of Marxism at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics will host an international seminar - on 1 April, appropriately enough - while the newly established Academy of Marxism at the notoriously liberal Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Cass) is planning one for next year. All over China, heads will be bent over translations of Das Kapital as school and university students fulfil their mandatory quota of Marxism studies. In turn, teams of translators will be hired to translate the new textbooks into foreign languages for the waiting world.

This most remarkable ideological high-wire act since new Labour abandoned Clause Four is a sign, perhaps, that the CCP's identity crisis is reaching fever pitch. Marxism, or the local variant of it, was the ideology that produced stagnation in China for the first 40 years of the revolution, an ideology that few in China today remember, let alone subscribe to, and which the Chinese Communist Party itself appeared to abandon as a working model in 1992. China's current success derives from ditching Marx in favour of Warren Buffett.

Since then the country has enjoyed such spectacular capitalist-style growth that the expectation that the Chinese Communist Party will be ruler of the world's largest economy within two decades may well be fulfilled.

In the past decade and a half, the party has dismantled the state sector, thrown hundreds of millions out of work, given up on collective agriculture, celebrated the art of getting rich (not least through its own corruption), embraced the market "with Chinese characteristics", dumped the principles of free education, healthcare and cheap housing for the workers and created one of the most unequal societies in the world. Workers are not allowed to form trades unions, have little job protection, suffer appalling labour conditions and routinely go unpaid for months on end: a recent study by the National People's Congress concluded that migrant workers were owed more than £5bn in unpaid wages. Meanwhile, the peasants suffer the depredations of greedy and powerful local officials, against whom they have no redress. China's 2005 National Human Development Report concluded that inequality was growing fast by every index and that its Gini coefficient, which measures income inequality, had increased by more than 50 per cent in the past 20 years. China now ranks 85th in the UNDP's 177-nation Human Development Index.

In the course of its rapid development, China has created conditions that capitalists elsewhere can only envy. The only shreds of former Marxist practice left are the repressive nature of the state and the party's undying conviction that, as the vanguard of the proletariat, it has the right to remain in power for ever.

But just when it looked as though it was all over for Karl, the Chinese Communist Party appears to have had a change of heart. Would Marx have any advice for a Communist Party that found itself in such a situation?

Plenty, says Cheng Enfu, executive president of the Academy of Marxism at Cass. Far from abandoning Marxism, according to Professor Cheng, China has taken the lead in its development. One of two academics invited to lecture Politburo members last year on the need to modernise Marxism, Professor Cheng said recently that the Politburo had been studying the knotty question of how to reconcile the contradictions between Marx and free-market reforms. President Hu himself had chaired a meeting of top leaders to study ways to apply Marxist precepts to China's economic modernisation, one of several held since early last year to find Marxist answers to what the president called "a series of changes, contradictions and problems in all fields".

Professor Cheng offered a clue about the approach he plan- ned to adopt to this challenge: the aim, he said, was to "modernise" Marxism by building a theoretical system with "Chinese characteristics".

Quite how the Chinese masses will respond to this resurrection, it is hard to predict. Many of them, after all, appear to be in a revolutionary mood already, although, lacking the benefit of the CCP's organisation and leadership, they have not yet turned to the overthrow of a system that Marx would have had little trouble identifying as exploitative and oppressive.

Violent protests in China have been growing as fast as the economy, according to official statistics. In 2004, the ministry of public security reported 74,000 such incidents, up from 58,000 in 2003, and 17 of them involving more than 10,000 people. The 2005 reports showed another jump to 87,000 incidents of "public order disturbances", up 6.6 per cent on 2004; events that "interfered with government functions" jumped 19 per cent, while protests seen as "disturbing social order" grew by 13 per cent.

Perhaps the leadership hopes that a revival of Marxism might stop these restless citizens asking themselves what right a Communist Party that has abandoned the notion of the workers' state has to perpetuate its own power. Just in case, however, the CCP has also been investing heavily in the million-strong People's Armed Police, the main force that the government uses to deter revolutionary thoughts among its people. In a recent article in the party's aptly named Qiushi ("seeking the truth") magazine, the two highest-ranking PAP generals promised to enhance the combat effectiveness of the paramilitary force to deal with the increasing numbers of "sudden incidents".

Last August, the government announced the institution of specialised riot-police units in 36 cities; a month later, it announced a ban on any internet material that "incites illegal demonstrations". Would that include Marx himself? After all, in his Theses on Feuerbach, the sage observed that "the philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways. The point," he wrote, "is to change it."

Radio silence broken again

At last. I haven't done much on the blog for a while. This is particularly reprehensible of me as I seem to have a rapidly expanding readership. The criteria I use is Profile Views which has shot up to the heady heights of 247 at last check. This is after ages wondering whether I would ever go above 100.

I guess a fair few may be spambots. You know, those gits who send you e-mails saying "you have a great blog! look at mine, I can sell you things!" I was fooled once last year, but no more. However, my readership grows and I must respect it. Only a liar says they don't like being read by other people.

I've had a couple of colds during the last few weeks, which has hardly helped. In fact, the Net is ideal for those under the weather! You can just click on the mouse, gawp at a site, then go elsewhere. However, to actually contribute to the ever expanding web- it's hard when you don't feel good. You become a passive consumer, like those who watch rubbish daytime tv.

I've also had some other bits and pieces which have made me feel guilty about blogging. I am trying to write an essay for a Fabian Society/Guardian competition about Britishness. If I was to win it would be £3K and a article published in The Guardian. I wouldn't say it would be my meal ticket into the big league, but it would be bloody good!!

Anyway, without any further ado, back to the blogging...

Thursday, February 16, 2006

"Customer Service"? You're Havin' a Larf!

The article below is for anyone waiting for a cheque to clear or has waited a bloody long time for someone at that call centre to answer the phone and give a straight answer to your simple question...

Don't be such a sucker
David Cox, New Statesman, Monday 13th February 2006
The bad guys of British business are out to get you, writes David Cox, but you can hit them where it hurts

Hanging on while call-centres prepare to respond to our valued inquiries in their own good time is surely one of the joys of modern life. Nice classical music soothes nerves usually still jangling from a battering by inane keypad option commands. But this enforced cultural refreshment does not come cheap.

To summon up your Vivaldi concerto, you usually have to dial an 0870 number.

In your innocence, you may have imagined such calls to be free, like their 0800 equivalents. Not so. Whenever you dial 0870, you pay, and usually well over the odds. An ordinary landline call generally costs 3p a minute in daytime, but an 0870 landline call will probably cost you 7.5p a minute.

Don't even think of using your mobile. The money is usually split between the phone company and the company you're calling, so businesses actually profit from the failings which force you to phone them.

Corporate telephone trickery doesn't stop there. Computer suppliers that no longer bother to provide manuals capitalise on their own negligence by inviting customers to dial helplines charging perhaps £1 a minute. What look like one-off payments for ringtone downloads turn out to be ongoing rental fees.

Once you've hung up your phone, British business has plenty of other ways to rip you off. When you open a savings account, you may not appreciate that the interest rate you're offered includes an "introductory bonus", which will swiftly be withdrawn once the friendly financial institution involved has you safely in its clutches. Take out an apparently low-rate mortgage and any benefit may be clawed back through a surreptitious "arrangement fee" which could run into thousands of pounds.

Seductively cheap printers turn out to require exorbitantly priced but short-lived cartridges. Apparently affordable lighting systems rely on bulbs that are equally costly and ephemeral. After- sales service proves so difficult to obtain that you give in and repurchase malfunctioning products.

Spare parts are often withdrawn, mak-ing serviceable equipment prematurely obsolete. Unnecessarily upgraded software forces you to replace peripherals still in the prime of life.

Restaurants lure you inside with special offers that turn out to be unavailable, and try to trick you into tipping when they've already charged you for service. Cinemas insist on making you pay for reservations that you need to cancel. Train companies bleed you dry if you can't book decades in advance, while utilities shake you down with "confusion pricing". Batteries are not included; DVD players come without scart leads. Loyal customers are punished with extortionate store-card interest rates.

Scams like these aren't illegal; they're just sharp practice. Yet they still cheat us out of billions of pounds a year. Together, they amount to a stealth tax, imposed on us all by business, that is at least as unsavoury as any of Gordon Brown's. By forcing us to be permanently on our guard they add to our overall weariness and generally sour the atmosphere.

They also fuel seething resentment of a corporate sector that otherwise tries desperately to persuade us it always puts customers first. So why does business treat us all so shabbily?

You might assume that the answer lies in the perhaps inevitable rapacity of faceless global conglomerates. However, giant multinationals aren't the only culprits: small local traders and not-for-profit businesses can prove just as sneaky. The introductory bonus scam is worked not just by the banks, but also by mutually owned building societies, thus in effect cheating their own owners. Now why would they do that?

When asked, they explain that they have to keep up with competitors who are playing the same game. Well, if the market is the cause of all our woes, we can use the market to fight back. Cheats only prosper when suckers let them.

Some businesses do at least try to play fair. For example, the Nationwide Building Society makes a point of avoiding dodgy ploys such as the introductory bonus. If we seek out and reward the righteous with our custom, we can help them prevail over their less scrupulous rivals.

Equally, we can chastise evildoers. Making complaints, switching accounts and reporting abuses to regulators can be tiresome and time-consuming. Yet the satisfaction of revenge justly inflicted can make the effort worthwhile. There's room, too, for harassment and sabotage. The website will help you foil the phone sharks. To sort out the utilities, try For hot tips on the latest rip-offs, read ]The Stupid Company, a report just published by the National Consumer Council.

Enlist family and friends in a struggle worthy of their doughtiest endeavours. The bad guys of British business may be bigger than us, but there are more of us than there are of them, and we can make them mend their ways if we want to enough.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Trasformismo Canadian style?

This from the Vancouver Sun:

Emerson protests continue: Calls grow for new Conservative MP to step down Fiona Anderson, with files from Kim Bolan, Vancouver Sun
Published: Monday, February 13, 2006

VANCOUVER - Angry voters rallied for the third time in as many days Sunday, demanding that newly minted Conservative cabinet minister David Emerson resign rather than represent them in Ottawa.

About 100 people shouted slogans and carried placards outside Emerson's constituency office on Kingsway, calling on the former Liberal to step down and let a byelection prove he is the voters' choice.

A day earlier, close to 700 people overflowed the auditorium of Sir Charles Tupper secondary school for a rally organized by provincial NDP MLAs whose ridings overlap Emerson's Vancouver Kingsway riding.

MLA David Chudnovsky said Saturday's rally was held in response to the many calls the MLAs have been getting from frustrated federal voters upset by Emerson's defection.

Last week, Emerson surprised almost everyone by changing parties and joining Stephen Harper's Conservative cabinet as minister of international trade after being re-elected as a Liberal just two weeks earlier.

The first of the protests took place Friday, when about 30 Liberals rallied outside Emerson's constituency office.

Many of Sunday's protesters were people who voted for Emerson as a Liberal but do not support him as a Conservative.

"I would never, never vote for a Conservative," said local resident Lynn Werner at Sunday's rally. "I do not believe in their values."

Werner said she votes for whatever party she feels brings the best social values to the community and in the last election that was the Liberals.

"We care about the child-care system. We care about care for the elderly. We care about the health-care system," Werner said. "These are things we made perfectly clear when we all voted -- 82 per cent of us -- not to have Conservative representation in this area."

The Conservatives received only 18 per cent of the vote in the riding on Jan. 23, while Emerson received 43 per cent of the vote and NDP candidate Ian Waddell received 34 per cent. The riding has elected a Conservative only once in its history.

"I don't want to hear from the rest of B.C. or other Conservatives who are so certain [Emerson] is the best person for this constituency," Werner said. "The only people who can make that decision are the people in this community."

Jurgen Claude Pierre said he would "absolutely not" have voted for Emerson if he was running as a Conservative.

Lena Warrington said Emerson lied to the voters and doesn't represent them.

"We didn't vote for a Conservative in this area," Warrington said.

Kevin Chalmers volunteered on Emerson's campaign and came to Sunday's protest to "demonstrate on behalf of western democracy."

"If [Emerson] truly believes that it was a vote for him, he has an opportunity to demonstrate that and to be a man of courage and honour and to step forward and call a byelection," Chalmers said.

The NDP's Waddell believes Emerson should submit to a byelection.

"If he had any real integrity that's what he'd do," Waddell -- who attended Saturday's rally but not Sunday's -- said in a telephone interview. And while Saturday's rally was organized by the NDP, many of those who stood up to speak said they were Liberals who felt duped and angered by Emerson's move.

Diane Jones, a former Kingsway Liberal riding president, said she felt "very disrespected." She said both she and her son have voted Liberal for as long as she has lived in the riding.

Mike Magee, creator of the website, said that almost 21,000 people had signed his online petition calling for Emerson to resign.

The Vancouver Sun was unable to reach Emerson but media reports quoted the minister or his representatives as saying Emerson would not be stepping down.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Benefits of Strong Leadership?

It reminds me of how football teams usually get better results after their manager is sacked...

Lib Dems deliver blow to Labour

The Liberal Democrats have delivered a major blow to Labour by winning the Dunfermline and West Fife by-election.

Willie Rennie overturned a huge Labour majority in a neighbouring constituency to Chancellor Gordon Brown's.

Returning officer Douglas Sinclair declared that Mr Rennie had secured 12,391 of the votes.

Labour's Catherine Stihler received 10,591 votes. The SNP's Douglas Chapman was third with 7,261 votes and Tory Carrie Ruxton secured 2,702 votes.

The seat was made vacant following the death of Labour's Rachel Squire in January.

At last May's General Election, Ms Squire won the seat for Labour with a majority of more than 11,500.

That was radically overturned by Mr Rennie who secured a 1,800 majority on a 16.24% swing. The turnout was 34,578 voters or 48.69% of the electorate - down by 11.21% on the General Election.

The former chief executive of the Scottish Liberal Democrats was elated following the declaration of his victory at the Queen Anne High School in Dunfermline early on Friday morning.

Thanking the voters who backed him, he said: "Tonight they have sent a powerful message to the Labour government that will rock the foundations of Downing Street, Number 10 and Number 11.

"Labour has taken the people up and down the country for granted for far too long, too much spin and not enough delivery - it is time that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown both got that message."

Turnout was down on the General Election last year

Mr Rennie said that the Conservatives could be seen to be irrelevant in much of Britain and that it must be a "deeply depressing" night for the SNP.

Acting Liberal Democrats leader Sir Menzies Campbell said the victory had been won because of a "very good local candidate" who had fought a "very good campaign".

"In addition to that, we had no trouble persuading Liberal Democrats to come from all over the United Kingdom to give help and assistance," he told BBC News.

"I think they saw that this was an opportunity to put the difficulty of the last few weeks behind us."

The by-election had been hard-fought and had seen interventions by political big beasts including Mr Brown, who holds the neighbouring seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.

Mr Brown had campaigned on local issues, including controversy over tolls on the Forth Road Bridge.

The victory was likely to be all the sweeter for the Liberal Democrats, currently in the middle of a leadership battle after the resignation of Charles Kennedy.

Mr Kennedy, who quit after admitting to a drink problem, had joined Mr Rennie on the campaign trail.

Responding to the result, he said: "This is a fantastic victory for the Liberal Democrats and a seismic event in Scottish and UK politics."

Scottish Lib Dem leader Nicol Stephen said: "People are getting a positive message from the Liberal Democrats and they are fed up with Labour.

"They feel Labour has neglected the area and we campaigned positively on the key issues."

Defeated Labour candidate Ms Stihler, a Scottish MEP, paid tribute to Ms Squire and said: "This is not a result which Rachel would have wanted but I think I know what she would have said.

"We have to listen to the people and we have to learn."

The Lib Dems increased their share of the vote on the last poll by 15.67% (35.83% share), while Labour's fell by 16.81% (30.63%). The SNP saw a slight increase of 2.07% (21%), but the Tories were down by 2.51% (7.81%).

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond was in upbeat mood, despite the party's third place.

He said: "This has been a strong SNP performance, with the swing varying dramatically across the various areas of the seat. I would like to congratulate Douglas and his campaign team on a fine performance."

The Scottish Tories were in fourth place, despite campaigning support from new leader David Cameron.

Willie Rennie (Lib Dem) 12,391
Catherine Stihler (Lab) 10,591
Douglas Chapman (SNP) 7,261
Carrie Ruxton (Cons) 2,702
John McAllion (SSP) 537
James Hargreaves (SCP) 411
Thomas Minogue (AFBTP) 374
Ian Borland (UKIP) 208
Dick Rodgers (CG) 103

Thursday, February 09, 2006

From Celeb Big Brother to the Clash of Civilisations

The Wall Street Journal's favourite biographer of Rosa Luxemburg he may be, but Norman Geras does put some interesting stuff on his blog from time to time. For instance, this on George Galloway:

'The last unconquered territory'

There are interviews here with George Galloway. Their most interesting feature is that they display in the clearest possible form how far, for Galloway, the role assigned in classical socialist thought to the working class, now falls to Islam. Even allowing for the fact that the interviews took place in Egypt, what he says is extraordinary:

[I]n recent years, after the fall of the Soviet Union, unconquered Islam was the only territory free from the globalisation of capitalism and its imperialist foreign policy. The only people still resisting in the world, other than the Cubans, are the Muslims. This brings them into conflict with the tyrants, because Islam forbids its believers to accept tyranny and injustice. It commands the believers to stand up against injustice. And as Bush and Blair and Co. speak the very language of injustice and are, themselves, establishing tyranny around the world, inevitably this brings them into conflict with Muslims.

Now, the good thing is that there [are] millions of people in non-Muslim countries, millions of non-Muslims, who are equally opposed to globalised capitalism and the imperialist war machine which comes from it. So, the Muslims have allies amongst non-Muslims and this is the phenomenon we have seen over the last few years. The development of a massive anti-war movement around the world where Muslims and non-Muslims were on one hand because they share a rejection of occupation, war, exploitation, despoliation of the earth, its environment.
Islam is the last unconquered territory. The Soviet Union is defeated. Socialism is defeated. Nationalism is depressed. But, Islam is unconquered. And because Islam commands the believer to reject injustice and tyranny, this makes Islam automatically in a collision course with these tyrants, Bush and Blair. And, Islam has millions of soldiers. Millions of soldiers to resist this globalisation.

Neo-Conservatism or Militant Islam...bloody hell, there has to be something better than those choices, hasn't there?

Larry Gambone on the USA

From his blog:

Thursday, February 09, 2006: Why Is US Capitalism So Barbaric?

Of course, all capitalism is barbaric, the very idea of a small minority bullying and exploiting the majority is monstrous, and something we should have thrust into history's overflowing dustbin a long time ago.

However, the British Empire, itself no soft touch, was never as vindictive as the US Empire. (1) Many a Commonwealth leader spent time in a British jail for leading an independence movement. Think only of Kenyatta, Nehru and Nkumah. Yet, after independence these countries were treated like any other. Why couldn't the US have done the same with Castro or the Sandinistas?

If the socialist or nationalist alternatives to US corporate capitalism don't work as the US ideologues claim, then what's the problem? Let people try populism, social democracy, peasant anarchism, anarcho-syndicalism, even marxist-leninism - or any combination thereof - and if such methods don't develop the economy, the people will realize it, drop it, and then do what the Gringos want. Why destroy any attempted alternative? Perhaps it is the realization that some of these alternatives might actually work and that a ruthless corporate capitalism has no answers for economic development, but is merely a means to pillage the weak.

What we have with the US Empire is a deep and bitter hostility to pluralism. Britain and France accepted the fact that many of their former colonies had self-styled socialist or even Marxist-Leninist governments. They found no trouble maintaining normal relations with these regimes. Not the US. Every dirty trick in the book has been used against governments the US disapproves of, including economic warfare, military coups and terrorism.

The Empire mirrors the mother state. Both France and Britain have been more pluralist and in some ways, more democratic than the USA, since at least the turn of the century. Labour, socialist and communist parties have long sat in parliament and no one thought anything of it. In the US, the Debsian SPUSA was hounded out of existence, as was the Communist Party. While anarcho-syndicalists have always been part of the French trade union movement, in the US they were terrorized, subject to both judicial and vigilante lynching. In France dissident intellectuals and artists are celebrities and have streets named after them when they die. In England, while not as celebrated, they are still regarded as part of cultural life. In the USA, such people, when not ignored, are vehemently condemned from press and pulpit, and Hell will freeze before you see a Noam Chomsky Street or Howard Zinn Avenue.

This anti-pluralist and anti-democratic tendency, is I think, rooted in racism, social darwinism and Protestant sectarianism. While all three are also found in England, and the first two in France, they are not as powerful, mitigated by both conservative noblesse oblige and the egalitarian sentiments of a strong social democratic movement. Racism and social darwinism were the dominant aspects of American ruling class ideology and, in spite of cosmetic changes, remain so until today. (2) As for the Protestant sects, their belief that "we are special because we are saved and all others are sinners who deserve eternal punishment" explains the mixture of pious hypocrisy and viciousness you see all the time in US foreign policy.

Take the case of Latin America. To torture and murder hundreds of thousands of people, to deliberately push millions into destitution, such crimes have to be rationalized by claiming inferior status for the victims, both racially and in the so-called struggle for survival. In the USA itself, social darwinism is blatant. The poor deserve to be poor and workers deserve low wages and lousy working conditions, for they wouldn’t be working here if they weren’t losers in the Great Competition of Life. I, on the other hand, in my gated community (sic) and my 20,000 square foot “house” , deserve everything I have, for I am a Winner, and truly, God has smiled upon me.

1. The British killed at least 20,000 people in Kenya and the French hundreds of thousands in Algeria. Hardly a soft touch, yet after independence, the relationship between the new countries and the former masters were normal. The British government did not try to wreck Kenya’s economy, nor did the French send teams of “Contras” into Algeria to rape and murder.

2. The problem is, they are exporting this foul, Nazi-like ideology under the guise of globalization and neoliberalism. Thus Canada and Europe are undermining their social democratic traditions, working and living conditions are declining for the majority, while the parasite minority becomes ever wealthier.

Unintended consequences revisited

It looks like the latest in a long line of "cunning plans" going arse over tit...

Israelis may regret Saddam ousting, says security chief
Chris McGreal in Jerusalem, The Guardian, Thursday February 9, 2006

Israel's Shin Bet security service chief has said his country may come to regret the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, because strong dictatorship is preferable to the present chaos in Iraq. Yuval Diskin, who was secretly recorded talking to teenage Jewish settlers preparing for military service, also said Israel's judicial system discriminates against Arabs.

The recording was made public on Israeli television this week. Amid a barrage of questions, mainly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mr Diskin was asked about Iraq. "When you dismantle a system in which there is a despot who controls his people by force, you have chaos. You get what happened in Iraq. I'm not sure we won't miss Saddam," he said.

Israelis initially welcomed the overthrow of one of their old enemies as helping to establish a new democratic trend in the Middle East. But political leaders have since privately voiced concerns about the growing destabilisation in Iraq and its potential to spill over to Israel's neighbours, particularly Jordan.

Mr Diskin also told the students at the Eli settlement in the West Bank that the security establishment and judicial system treated Arabs and Jewish suspects differently. "I do not see equality in the way the system handles them [Arabs and Jews] when they are guilty of the same type of offence," he said. "If I had arrested a terrorist from [the West Bank city of] Nablus and Eden Nathan Zada [the Jewish man who shot dead four Arabs on a bus last August], they wouldn't have received similar treatment in interrogation or court."

His predecessor as Shin Bet chief, Avi Dichter, who is running for parliament in next month's general election, told Israel radio he agreed with the comments. Asked if discrimination would continue, he said: "I fear it will".

Mr Diskin also said that he thought Ariel Sharon was mistaken to pull Israeli settlers and soldiers out of the Gaza Strip without the establishment of a stable Palestinian system. "From a security perspective, I am opposed to handing over territories to the Palestinians unless we know there are officials there who will take control and commit themselves to upholding the law. If there are no such officials, then I am against handing over territories to Palestinian control."

He added that "Jewish terrorists" who used violence to oppose withdrawals from the occupied territories were worse than Arab attackers. "A Jew who carries out terror attacks is a cancer in the nation. With the same determination that I pursue the terrorists of Hamas, I will pursue a Jew who wants to kill another Jew."

BTW one thing I could never get a few years ago. The Israelis kept calling on the Palestinian police to arrest wannabe suicide bombers in Gaza and the West Bank, while at the same time launching air strikes on Palestinian police stations...

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

You know, the whole Iran situation depresses me

Not for me the "Boy's Own" purple prose of Richard North on the Bruges Group blog ("We're going to give Johnny Towelhead a damn good trashing- look at all my photos of big weapons and stuff." To be honest- I wish Richard North could write anything as semi-interesting as this). There are people in three countries (Israel, Iran & the USA) who are itching for some sort of military confrontation, and all of whom think they can win.

The current regime in Tehran is one of the worst on the planet for its human rights record, but if it co-operated with the USA ie let them buy up its oil industry without too much fuss, no-one in Washington would blink an eyelid at how it treats its population. If I was an Israeli I would be worried about a country whose President talks about wiping Israel off the face of the earth and denies the Holocaust getting hold of nukes, but then again- Israel has around 200 nuclear warheads. If I lived in another Middle Eastern country I would not need to be a fanatical Muslim to worry about Israel's nuclear capability. As for the lot in the White House- they believe they should have power over all things on Earth and cannot lose.

We will see what happens. I try to remain optimistic but I can see blood being shed sooner or later and the whole thing going a way none of its participants expect. I suspect that none of the War Parties in the three would-be protagonists have any idea how much an international pariah a country that used nuclear weapons would become.

There- that's the worst case scenario out of the way: if you fear the worst it tends not to happen.

The thoughts of Robert Dreyfuss on all this:

February 07, 2006: The Wider War in Iran

Too many observers are adopting a relaxed attitude about the likelihood of a U.S. attack on Iran. Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal told us all to let our guard down, that the influence of the neoconservatives on U.S. foreign policy has evaporated: “As ‘Neocons’ Leave, Bush Foreign Policy Takes a Softer Line,” said the soothing page one story.

An attack on Iran might seem foolish by standards that reasonable people use—but so was the invasion of Iraq. Seen on its own terms, an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities seems stupid, since although it might hamper Iran’s nuclear industry it would strengthen Iran’s hard-liners, trigger an Iranian-led offensive against Israel and the United States, lead Iran to inflame its allies in Iraq against the United States, and send oilprices up sharply.

But the neocons see an attack on Iran as the next step in what Michael Ledeen calls the “war to remake the world.”

Here’s a piece from the London Times that explains the unfolding scenario:

Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Gardiner, a former US Air Force officer, predicted that knocking out nuclear sites could be over in less than a week. But he gave warning that would only be the beginning.

Iran has threatened to defend itself if attacked. It could use medium-range missiles to hit Israel or US military targets in Iraq and the region. It could also use its missiles and submarines to attack shipping in the Gulf, the main export route for much of the world’s energy needs. “Once you have dealt with the nuclear sites you would have to expand the targets,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Gardiner. “There are another 125 to deal with including chemical plants, missile launchers, airfields and submarines.”

That leads to a much wider war, in which the neocons would not only go for regime change in Iran but escalate to finish the bungled job in Iraq, too. And maybe take on Syria.

Scott Ritter issued another warning that Iran is next, adding that he'd talked to the speechwriter for John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, who said Bolton's speech about attacking Iran is already written.

Big Ones All Round!

This below from today's Independent:

Booze Britain? Drink-fuelled crime and violence slump after new licensing laws take effect
We were warned: Liberalisation of drink laws would fuel disorder
The sober truth: Serious violent crime has fallen 21% - and is down by twice that in some towns - while there are 14% fewer woundings
As for drinks firms? They are reporting no windfall profits
By Nigel Morris and Julia Kollewe, Independent, 8 February 2006

Serious violent crime has fallen by more than a fifth since the licensing laws were liberalised, police figures show.

Major industrial cities, seaside resorts and market towns from the south coast to Cumbria are reporting dramatic falls in alcohol-fuelled assaults and woundings after the country's antiquated drinking laws were overhauled.

The statistics, released today, will confound critics who warned that the Licensing Act, which allowed 24-hour drinking from November, would lead to an upsurge in violence and antisocial behaviour.

The figures cover the Christmas period which was predicted to be the first test of the impact of the new laws.

Leading brewers are also reporting only a modest increase in profits, suggesting the widely forecast drinking free-for-all has not materialised.

The Home Office will announce today that serious violent crime was 21 per cent lower in the final three months of last year than during the same period in 2004. The number of woundings fell by 14 per cent and the total for all violent crime dropped by 11 per cent. James Purnell, the Licensing minister, said: "The predictions that licensing reform would lead to an immediate upsurge in crime haven't been borne out ... It was always our argument that by getting rid of the firm 11pm closing time you would also get rid of a number of flashpoints."

Mark Hastings, spokesman for the British Beer and Pub Association, said the Act was leading to "positive changes" in drinking behaviour. "The doom and gloom merchants who predicted instant mayhem have been proved to be about as accurate as the worst astrologers."

In Bradford, in the five weeks after the Licensing Act came into force, 28 assaults and cases of disorder were reported, compared with 44 in the same period in 2004. West Yorkshire Police said there was a similar pattern across its force area.

A spokesman said: "The impact of [the Act] was vastly overestimated by the media ... it wasn't the police who said there was going to be chaos on the streets."

In Birmingham city centre, 326 instances of antisocial behaviour were recorded in December, 61 fewer than in the same month a year earlier. Police said the staggered closing times brought in by the Act had had a positive impact as revellers were not converging on taxi ranks at the same time.

Violent drink-related assaults in Swansea were down by a fifth over Christmas and the new year. South Wales Police said that the extra opening hours enabled officers to defuse problems before they escalated into violence. The number of assaults in Milton Keynes fell by 16 per cent in the festive period, while Hertfordshire Police reported 11 per cent fewer assaults and a 20 per cent drop in arrests for being drunk and disorderly. Norfolk Police said the period was "relatively trouble-free". Police in the quiet seaside Sussex town of Seaford said: "The Armageddon forecast in some of the national press has not materialised."

The reduction in violence came after a blitz on drunken behaviour by police over the festive period. But it is being viewed as statistically significant by ministers because a similar exercise was conducted in 2004.

The Government is cautious about proclaiming that the country has taken the first step towards a Continental-style café culture. But it is delighted that the figures have confounded critics, including judges, doctors, media columnists and opposition MPs, who warned that a surge in violent crime was inevitable.

The Licensing Act became law on 15 November. It gave all pubs, clubs, restaurants, off-licences and supermarkets the opportunity to apply for new flexible licenses. But only a fraction have applied to open round the clock, with the majority opting for an extra hour or two at weekends.

Millom, Cumbria: 'Closing time is no longer a flashpoint'

The prospect of 3am closing time did not bear thinking about for some residents of Millom, on Cumbria's south-west coast. Plagued by unemployment ever since the ironworks closed in the 1960s, Millom has had its fair share of drink-fuelled fights and this seemed like a recipe for more.

But to the astonishment of those doubters, there is evidence that the new licensing hours have made the town less violent. Arrests for violent crime fell 47 per cent last Christmas against 2004 - a statistic which has been attributed to the Licensing Act. "Chucking-out time used to be a flashpoint [but no] longer," says the local community police constable, Eddy Hope.

The extended hours have been accompanied by the introduction of a pubwatch scheme which means that any drink-induced crime can bring a three or 12-month ban from every establishment from Millom to Broughton in Furness, seven miles away.

"The police have steered us towards being more uncompromising," said Andrew Gardner, proprietor of the Station Hotel, Millom's biggest pub.

At the Knights pub, the landlord, Bill Wright, says he is now rid of his "11 o'clockers", who would order several pints before last orders. "It was anyone's guess what happened when they went off," he says.

The regulars seem happy. "There's no longer a scrum around the bar," says David Arthwaite. "I drink steadily but no more than I did."

Perhaps more people are drinking at home:

Seriously, it is good to see the doom mongering predictions of the "Daily Mail" going awry. Moreover, if it is true that booze is the root cause of trouble on the streets, how can the actions of this bunch of avowed teetotallers be explained?

I'll be honest: any religion that bans booze and bacon is extremely silly.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Blasphemous cartoons!

I have seen the Danish cartoons of Mohammed. They are pretty rubbish cartoons. Maybe I'm a bit infantile, but I want cartoons that make me laugh. Like a comedy programme should make one laugh, or a horror film should frighten one at least once through the proceedings. The cartoons that are causing a Muslim boycott of Danish goods (bacon? Carlsberg Special Brew?!: "He verily doth speak in tongues!") aren't very good.

Unlike the ones I've posted here. If you want to see some truly blasphemous cartoons which are quite funny and intelligent, please try out Jesus and Mo. You'll burn in hell like a Danish Embassy in a Middle East capital, but what the hell?