Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The USA's first toddler president

Donald Trump is a businessman. According to some analysts, he hasn't been anywhere near as successful in business as he should have been, given the fortune he inherited, but even so, he is undeniably very rich and is accustomed to getting what he wants. As the boss for most of his working life, since the early 70s in fact, he is used to sycophancy, complete obedience, and an unhealthy dose of flattery. People who get in his way are either sacked if they are among his staff, or vigorously counterattacked with maximum force if they are not. In short he is a man who is completely programmed to get his own way. Even his so-called reality TV show, The Apprentice, involved telling people, "You're fired!"

It is symptomatic of the vanity of the man that he decided to spend some of his fortune buying his way to the presidency of the USA, which he narrowly did - narrowly because he gained less of the popular vote than his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Despite that, the American electoral college system awarded him the victory. Smug British Facebook postings declaring that "Only in America" could such a result be achieved simply show ignorance about our own system. The UK has had had two general elections since the war when the winning party had a smaller share of the popular vote (1951 and the first 1974 election) because of the our 'first past the post' system.

His presidential style is that of the spoilt brat. He is incredibly sensitive to criticism, and seems genuinely upset by it because he isn't used to it. So accustomed is he to getting his own way, even when he was wrong, that he gives the impression of believing his own infallibility. News is what he decrees it to be, and evidence isn't necessary. He has never needed it in his business decisions and cannot adjust to having to consider different opinions as president. 

His method of responding to opposition is juvenile in the extreme: tweets that end with an insult. Meryl Streep is a mediocre actress, despite 161 awards so far; he described judges who had frustrated his anti-Muslim order as so-called judges; some tweets end up with toddler speak, such as "bad man". When Vanity Fair published a review headlined, "Trump Grill Could Be The Worst Restaurant In America", Trump commented on the magazine's "really poor numbers - way down, big trouble, dead! Graydon Carter, no talent, will be out!" even though Vanity Fair's sales have actually increased 24% under the editorship of Graydon Carter. Like a toddler, he hurls ineffectual and juvenile insults when he's been frustrated, irrespective of the facts.

He loves to repeat the phrase 'fake news', but is guilty of making it up himself, such as when he told his followers to look what happened in Sweden the night before. Nothing had happened in Sweden on that night, no deaths associated with violence or terrorist incidents. On the other hand, 32 Americans had been killed in the USA by their fellow countrymen with many others injured in 128 violent incidents involving guns on the day in question. 

Trump claimed that he had achieved a record number of votes in the electoral college, until journalists pointed out to him that Obama, Bush Sr, Bush Jr and Bill Clinton had all recorded more votes in the electoral college than he had. His assertions that 1.5 million turned out for his inauguration are not supported by photographic evidence which compared his inauguration to Obama's; it is clear that far fewer people were there. 1.8 million is the estimate for Obama's inauguration, while one estimate for Trump's bash is 250,000. The Washington Metro had carried only 193,000 passengers by 11.00am on the Friday, significantly fewer than Obama's two inaugurations and slightly fewer than Bush’s inauguration in 2005.

More recently, he has demanded that that charges be laid against Obama for tapping his phones at Trump Tower, insisting that the FBI and Congress should investigate his assertions with the same energy they are employing to investigating the Trump team's dodgy dealings with Russia during the election campaign. He didn't produce a shred of evidence to support his claims, whereas there is some evidence that there have been untoward dealings with Russia. Misspelling "tap" as "tapp", he concluded his Twitter rant with the customary childish insult, describing his predecessor as a "Bad (or sick) guy".

He is quickly becoming frustrated that his customary methods of bluster, unsubstantiated assertions, firing at will, and maximum force against anyone who opposes him that were his style as a mega-rich boss are not working as he would wish as president. He gives every indication of not understanding how the USA's system of checks and balances work by his repeated attempts to trample roughshod over them. His reintroduction of his amended Muslim banning order is evidence of this. 

We have a president whose rationality appears to be no more developed than that of a 5-year old, who seems quite unable to distinguish reality from fiction, and who believes that his own hunches, prejudices and random assertions amount to truth. To be honest, I am not quite sure whether he really is incapable of perceiving the truth, or whether he doesn't think it matters and will cynically make any assertion, or propagate any story, that suits him. My own opinion, for what it's worth, inclines to the former.

He has been in office for little more than 60 days and already those American checks and balances carefully devised by the founding fathers are being strained to the limit. We have nearly four more years of this to come from a man who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and whose finger is on the nuclear button. This means that, while we have laughed at him and we probably will do again, we mustn't underestimate how frighteningly dangerous this vain, irrational and very immature president potentially is. 

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Learning not to shoot the messenger

I am a PCS union officer who used to work in the DSS/DWP. Recently a rep for my union posted this on Facebook:
PCS has started a petition against all of the proposed [Jobcentre] closures. Please consider signing and sharing with others.
Innocent enough I'd have thought, but someone wrote underneath:
PCS scum still doing the Tories dirty work. Now you've outlived your usefulness ...
To which I replied:
Doing the government's dirty work by:
Marching to support the NHS on 4 March against Tory attacks.
Opposing fascism and racism.
Opposing Tory-approved tax gap that loses the UK economy £120 billion a year.
Opposing Tory Jobcentre closures.
Campaigning against Tory attacks on benefits.
Opposing Tory HMRC office closures.
Supporting strike action in EHRC to protect jobs against Tory cuts.
Immediately I posted my comment, a 'like' by a woman appeared, far too quickly for anyone to have read the whole comment. A few seconds later the 'like' vanished: presumably, when she actually saw what I'd written, it hadn't been what she'd wanted to read after all.

I could have added to my comment that Jobcentre closures won't just affect staff; they will cause major problems for members of the public. Many will have longer public transport journeys to appointments with, therefore, more chance of delays: lateness for appointments could lead to even more sanctions. It seems our PCS haters are so pleased about Jobcentre staff losing jobs that they've forgotten that the cuts will also hit the public that they are supposedly speaking up for. 

This exchange summarises a problem I have experienced quite a few times previously. I recall in the late 80s/early 90s trying to set up liaison with local NALGO representing social workers and council welfare rights advisers to campaign on welfare issues. They didn't have the courtesy to reply to any of my approaches.

I have argued with people who claim that PCS members should refuse to implement sanctions on principle. I've told them quite clearly that:
  • Individuals who do so of their own initiative will be disciplined; if they still refuse to do their job as required, they'd be sacked.
  • If the union told DWP staff not to implement sanctions, it would be taken to court. If it persisted in such illegal industrial action, then all its funds would be sequestrated.
  • Reps would be systematically picked off by individually being ordered to carry out sanctions, and sacked when they refused. Union organisation within DWP would disappear.
  • Members would desert PCS in droves because the union would have thrown away all their money on a political action that was doomed to failure from the start. Plus there wouldn't be any reps left anyway.
  • We would have a non-unionised DWP, which is what the Tories would love.
  • I've found that, faced with that scenario, the critic concerned usually has had no response.
I'd previously had similar arguments about Crisis Loans, my job for several years, with people who told me we should have paid everyone who applied, and not turn them down on judgemental grounds. I'd explain that if we had done that, we'd have blown our monthly budget too soon, after which we'd have had to reject every single application for the rest of the month. They too preferred to see the staff as the villains, rather than blame the people who devised the system.

There's no easy answer for DWP staff: all they can do is challenge such attitudes as and when they occur, and try to reason with any organisations if they spout such arrant prejudice, because that is what it is. In my experience, most people don't feel this antagonistic, but the minority that does is very vocal, self-righteous and sometimes ill-mannered, as above.

Attacking Jobcentre staff because of the injustices caused by sanctions is a bit like criticising hospital staff because of unacceptable waiting times in A&E. Too many people cannot distinguish the messenger from the message, but it is particularly exasperating when such political short-sightedness comes from people who, presumably being somewhere on the Left, should be capable of pinning the blame where it truly belongs. When they don't, they are falling into the Tories' favourite trap: divide and rule.

My union's petition against Jobcentre closures is here if you wish to sign it.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Austerity: economic necessity or right wing revolution?

We British have a healthy scepticism when it comes to our politicians. We also tend to accept the general view that most of us are sensible people inclined to the middle way of politics, perhaps leaning slightly to Right or Left, and dismissive of what we are told are the extremes. This mindset, part of the post-war consensus, worked reasonably well in the years after the Second World War when even the Tories would not seriously have considered changing the fundamental nature of state provision, such as the NHS.

The consensus was brought to a juddering halt in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher. With the slogan "Rolling back the frontiers of the state", she proclaimed a belief in free markets and a small state, rejecting planning and regulation of business and people's lives. Instead, government should confine itself to the essentials: defence and the currency. Everything else should be left to individuals to make their own decisions and take responsibility for their own lives.
The post-war consensus - under sustained attack since 1979
Margaret Thatcher spelt it out in 1987: "There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first." In other words, if you've got a problem, sort it out yourself because the state is not there to help. This was a direct, deliberate slap in the face for advocates of the post-war consensus, and I think it's fair to say that opponents of the new regime were extremely slow to challenge the new dogma. In some respects, nearly 38 years on, many of our politicians still haven't caught up.

Privatisation was the first large-scale manifestation of the new order. Flogging state-owned industries was made acceptable by bribing the public with under-priced shares that could be cashed in for an immediate profit. This softened the public for the next stage: the selling off of public services. So confident were they that privatisation had become acceptable that in time they decided they no longer needed to offer the public shares at all. The rhetoric of 'a share-owning society' was no more than a means to an end.

A lot of the opposition to Thatcher consisted of little more than demonising her; while hurling insults might make you feel better - getting it off your chest, as it were - it didn't achieve much, and made the opposition look boorish and extreme. The political psyche of many of Britons today is still determined by the long-gone post-war approach: while the majority continue to reject what they are told are the political extremes, they have subliminally absorbed the vilification of the Left, by both Governments and their allies in most of the capitalist press. As an example: Jeremy Corbyn's politics would not have been seen as far Left in the 1970s, and indeed Harold Wilson gave Tony Benn, whose politics were akin to Corbyn's, a cabinet post. Now the Labour leader is depicted as an outdated and hopelessly adrift Soviet-style apparatchik, and this black propaganda is succeeding.

Government expenditure is a matter of choices, not of financial necessity. For example, last year Parliament voted to replace our Trident nuclear weapons system, which will cost at least £205 billion*. In contrast, NHS providers overspent by £2.45 billion in 2015/16. In the last 16 years, we have been fighting almost continuous wars and conflicts of various kinds, while house building has ground almost to a halt, young people can't afford homes, and homelessness is hitting record levels. We could have chosen differently: most countries in the world, including many that are comparable to the UK in political and economic terms, do not have nuclear weapons of any sort, and have not engaged in constant war, a nation's most costly activity in both human and financial terms. All we have to show for the vast fortunes squandered and human lives lost is the serious destabilisation of an already volatile region of our planet.

How does austerity fit into this? We are told that cuts in public services are necessary to balance the books (a cosy euphemism if ever there was one), at both local and national levels. Local authorities (LAs) have had millions cut from their grants from Government, and many are struggling to maintain services that they are obliged to provide by law. LA functions that aren't essential to child welfare and social care, such as parks, arts centres and libraries, are especially vulnerable. Protests have been limited in their vision. To take libraries as an example, while many local 'Save Our Library' groups have been set up, and have achieved the occasional success, few of them challenged the cuts to LA funding: for the most part, they addressed the consequences, not the cause.

Cutting funding to LAs has been sold to us as an economic necessity, but in reality it is a continuation down to local, even street, level of Thatcher's rolling back of the state. If you want a library or a park, do it yourself. Recent Government statements that families should take primary responsibility for care of their elderly relatives are an extension of the same dogma into social care, and tough luck if you haven't got a family.

Since 1979, taxes have been devolved downwards from the rich to everyone else. When Thatcher was elected, VAT was 8%, but she immediately increased it to 15%, and it is now 20%. VAT is a poll tax, in that we're all charged the same, irrespective of ability to pay. At the same time she progressively cut income tax: the basic rate of tax fell to 25%, while the higher rate was slashed from 83% to 40%. This has had the effect of passing the tax burden down to the lower levels of the income ladder. It hasn't ended: in November 2016, Theresa May promised to give the UK the lowest rate of corporation tax of all the world's top 20 economies. If business pays even less tax, guess who picks up the bill?

Such moves have been justified by the myth of the 'trickle down effect', whereby the hard work of 'wealth creators' would lead to benefits for society as a whole. In reality, we have increasing numbers of workers on the minimum wage and zero hours contracts, or subjected to minimal wage rises, wage freezes or even cuts.

If the Government's rhetoric of balancing the economy had ever been sincere, then they have completely failed, because borrowing is at least £60 billion greater than planned. But they haven't failed: rolling back the state, cutting or privatising public services, reducing what they call 'dependency' are all part of the destruction of the welfare state that was designed to provide its citizens with social security 'from the cradle to the grave'.

The present Government's policies, like those of the Coalition before it, are intensely ideological, but so many of our fellow citizens, with that British scepticism of political extremes, cannot see it that way. They cannot accept that one of our mainstream parties has been waging war against the supportive society that many of us grew up in and which is being wilfully dissolved before our eyes.

Attacks upon organised labour, severely diminished in its influence though it is, are part of the plan to create a compliant workforce, grateful for whatever scraps of employment can be thrown their way, with no more bolshy unions to obstruct the progress of the enrichment of our 'betters' - as they doubtless see themselves.

It's not too late to do something - it is never too late - but the longer before we as a people reject the neo-Thatcherites, both in Government and those who lurk within opposition parties, the more disruptive the dislocation and the greater and more costly the essential task of reconstruction will be.

* This is the Government definition of a billion as a thousand million, rather than the traditional British definition (a million million).

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Donald Trump - Muslim Hater or Operator?

It is very unlikely that ISIS/Daesh will seek to assassinate Donald Trump. Following his election as US President, ISIS media outlets were chortling with delight. As The Washington Post reported last November:
"Social-media sites associated with both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda also hailed Trump’s success as the beginning of “dark times” for the United States, marked by domestic unrest and new foreign military campaigns that would sap the strength of the American superpower..."Rejoice with support from Allah, and find glad tidings in the imminent demise of America at the hands of Trump,” said the Islamic State-affiliated al-Minbar Jihadi Media network, one of several jihadi forums to post commentaries on the results of the U.S. election."
Trump's recent crackdown on Muslim travellers and Syrian refugees seeking to enter the USA would seem to be playing into the hands of ISIS. As we know, there have been vigorous protests against these travel restrictions around the world. Here in the UK, as we know, a mammoth petition has been presented to Parliament to cancel his forthcoming state visit. Even the Tory MP, Amber Rudd, has said:
“I think we can hold two things in our head, which is to say to the president of the US, ‘We find this policy divisive and wrong’, and still to respect the president of the United States and want to engage with him in the way we would engage with world leaders to try to promote UK’s interests.”
In a breathtakingly short space of time, President Trump has behaved with unbelievable ineptitude which many interpret as racism. He has alienated Muslim opinion just about everywhere, most clumsily in Iraq, which is fighting the war against ISIS, the very organisation that Trump says he wants to eradicate. In reality, Trump seems to be a bungling, counter-productive incompetent, and the best recruiting sergeant ISIS has got.
Or is he?
There is another way to evaluate Trump's actions which leads to a very different assessment of the man. Trump is a businessman, accustomed to getting his own way, commanding 100% loyalty from his subordinates and workforce. As for anyone who stands in his way, he will be adept at devising strategies to eliminate them, as he has eliminated any opposition in the firms he has run. Trump must have known that there would be widespread opposition to his travel ban. It could well be that he is provoking controversy in order to burn out popular opposition. It is very difficult to maintain mass protest at fever pitch level. Before the invasion of Iraq, a million people marched through London against it. After the invasion, nothing like that number of protesters was seen on the streets.
His travel ban could also have been designed to flush out opposition in the US Federal administration. The public (and remarkably swift) sacking of Sally Yates, the acting US Attorney General, might have been just what he wanted. He can now replace Sally Yates with one of "his people".
If true, it shows Trump to be far more wily than his opponents have believed him to be, but it will work against him in the long run. A country - especially one with a strong democratic tradition like the USA - is not a business corporation. While the people immediately around and below Trump might be his lickspittles, the American people are not his employees and he won't be able to fire them like he fired people on the US version of "The Apprentice". If anything, they might well move to fire him. Only ISIS/Daesh would miss him then.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Rhymes and Routes Christmas Message, 2016

The Rhymes and Routes Christmas message this year comes from none other than Mr. Nigel Farage, MEP. The Blogmeister makes occasional interjections in brackets.
Hello to all my fellow Brexit-happy Brits! Sorry to be so late in posting this little squib, but I've had a spot of bother with a bunch of reds called "Hope not Hate", who are nothing but a damn nuisance. I note that they have a link on this page, but it doesn't bother me. After all the blighters have threatened me with legal action for telling the truth about them, but the poor sods can't afford it! They're asking their supporters for contributions, would you believe. By the time they raise the money, I could well be living in another country. Bad luck, chaps!
Now, I could not resist writing for this miserable little blog, because the main contributor, Blogmeister, whom I shall rename "Bog Standard" (BS) and the lesser evil, RedNev, whom I am renaming "Bolshie Boy" (BB) are both wretched Remoaners. Well, I love rubbing it in with Remoaners about how they were thrashed in the EU Referendum, and here I am.
Well, what a day it was, wasn't it, when we realised that we'd won the referendum and got our country back! I'd almost given up hope, but the British people came through victoriously. I remember looking out through the window in the early morning mist and seeing everything in a different light (Was it an alcoholic haze? - B). I stepped out to take the morning air to breathe the air of freedom (It smelt the same as it did the day before to me - B) and looked forward to quitting my job as an MEP - not that I do much anyway!
Where are the dire economic effects that the Remoaners said would happen? BS and BB have no answer - neither have their comrades in Parliament. In fact, I thought it magnificent that so many Leave voters were prepared to take a cut in living standards to be quit of the European yolk (Sic - do you use eggs as a hangover cure, Mr Farage? - B). There seems to be a bit of inflation, but that's no bother, really, at least it's good old-fashioned British inflation. And should anyone find themselves in the dole queue post-Brexit, at least you'll know that the chap next to you isn't some migrant Johnny who's only come to this country to claim benefits. They'll all have gone home.
Now, there's been a fearful fuss about a rise in hate crime after the referendum, and I must say that it's all been directed towards me. I can't believe that I'm so unpopular. I can't go out for a drink now without being abused and threatened - and after all I've done, too! It's so bad that I'm thinking of taking a job with my mate, President Trump, and leaving this country altogether. But, we'll see.
Anyway, I would just like to conclude by saying to BS and BB that I bear them no grudge - not that I noticed their piffling little blog anyway - and, should I see them in my local pub, I shall buy them a drink. The way this bloody inflation's going, it's only people like me - true Brits! - who'll be able to afford it! BS and BB will see that I really know how to stick it to losers like them.
I end on a happy and triumphalist note, however: Merry Christmas to all Rhymes and Routes readers! Have a Super Brexit New Year!

Friday, 16 December 2016

Christmas Music - Don't You Just Love It?

This morning, the BBC 2 programme, Victoria Derbyshire, was discussing whether or not a charity single will be a Christmas Number 1. There are several contenders for the number 1 slot. One has been recorded by MPs protesting at the working conditions of retail workers: "National Living Rage", with all profits to the Band Aid Trust. Then there is You Can’t Always Get What You Want, which features cross-party MPs and musicians including Kaiser Chiefs frontman Ricky Wilson, Cockney Rebel’s Steve Harley, KT Tunstall and David Gray, which will raise funds for the Jo Cox Trust. Last Christmas saw the NHS Choir at Number 1, and a film is to be made of their efforts. We can only wish success to all of these efforts, all of which follow the inspiring example of Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas?" Perhaps we should buy a copy of each one?
Speaking of the working conditions of retail workers, I wonder: how do they cope with Christmas music, which often starts being played in stores early in November? How they must feel after nearly two months of listening to our old Christmas favourites is beyond imagining. Not that the rest of us escape it - we hear it in stores, shopping centres, in the street, on the radio and on TV. It's the same every year, and, while we may moan about it, we seem to be able to live happily with these aging Christmas ditties. (By this, I mean secular compositions - carols are a different matter). As we seem to love them really, I have taken a look at the stories behind some of these songs.
"Do They Know it's Christmas?", recorded by Band Aid in 1984 to raise funds for Ethiopian famine relief, began as a rejected Boomtown rats tune. Boy George, the first singer on the track, nearly missed the event altogether, having to fly back from New York on Concorde. Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran turned up with massive hangovers. Still, the track was finished on a high, thanks in no small measure to Status Quo, who said, in later years, that they were the "doctors" of the event. None of Status Quo were medically qualified...
“White Christmas” was originally written by Irving Berlin for a Broadway musical that was never produced. It was then picked up by Hollywood producers who used it in Holiday Inn, a 1942 film starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Another little-known fact is that, at the end of the Viet-Nam war in 1975, it was played on radio as a signal for the last Westerners in Saigon to make their way to the US Embassy and escape. The journalist, John Pilger, missed the signal ("Bing Crosby did not croon on my radio") and had to make his own way to the Embassy. According to Pilger in his book, "Heroes", he nearly missed Christmas that year. A drunken South Vietnamese soldier fired a shot at him as he fled his hotel ("The bullet went over my head as I ran"). The last act to hit the charts with this song was Keith Harris and Orville in 1985. It reached number 40.
Jay Livingston and Ray Evans’ holiday classic “Silver Bells” was originally titled “Tinkle Bells.” They changed it when Livingston’s wife explained that “tinkle” was often a synonym for urination. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer didn’t originate in Jonny Marks’ classic Christmas jingle. Instead, the character was created by Robert L. May, a staff copywriter for the Montgomery Ward department store as part of a series of holiday-themed colouring books.
Brenda Lee recorded the original version of “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” when she was only 13 years old.
"Jingle Bells" was never intended as a Christmas song. It was originally written by one James Lord Pierpoint to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, 1857, in the USA.It was also the first song played in space.
Slade's "Merry Xmas Everybody" beat Wizzard's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday" to Christmas No.1 in 1973. Realising that his song had staying power, Wizzard's Roy Wood decided to re-release it in 1981, but there was one significant problem. As an intriguing BBC News story from 2013 reveals, the master tape was missing (it still is), meaning a new, very faithful version was recorded in a week, with a new choir. And that's the version we hear now, 43 Christmases later.
"Stop the Cavalry" by Jona Lewie (you've heard it!), released in 1982, was never meant to be a Christmas song. As Lewie told the Guardian last year:
"I never intended for this to become a Christmas single. It started life as an antiwar song. I had this line in my head – “Can you stop the gallantry?” – and found a melody for it. Then I changed “gallantry” to “cavalry” and everything just fell into place"
One of my personal favourites, "A Fairytale of New York", by the Pogues, started life as a bet. Elvis Costello bet Shane McGowan and Jem Finer that they couldn't write an unsentimental Christmas song. In the song's video, Matt Dillon plays the NYPD cop who arrests McGowan. Contrary to the song lyrics, the NYPD does not have a choir. The NYPD pipe band seen in the video didn't know "Galway Bay", so they played "The Mickey Mouse Club March" instead.
There are lots of Christmas songs and I could continue, but I'll stop with my top personal favourite, released in 1975 by the recently deceased Greg Lake: "I Believe in Father Christmas". Actually, most of the lyrics were written by the lyricist Pete Sinfield (I didn't know that), but the song has achieved a delightfully ironic status by being played in supermarkets and shopping centres, despite its clear anti-commercial stance ("They sold me a dream of Christmas"). It could be taken as an anti-Christmas song, but redeems itself by the last verse: "I wish you a hopeful Christmas..." despite the final reality check: "The Christmas we get we deserve".
That last statement is debatable, but Greg Lake has undeniably left us a classic of the genre.
This is not the Rhymes and Routes Christmas Message of 2016 - that will appear shortly - but I wish all who read this post a Hopeful Christmas. May 2017 be good to you, also. And, unlike the narrator in "Stop the Cavalry", unlike all servicemen and women serving abroad, all sailors at sea, all homeless people, refugees and prisoners of conscience, be glad that you're home for Christmas.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe - Please Help!

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her daughter, Gabriella, both held prisoner in Iran

About two weeks ago, someone I hadn't talked to in a long time told me that his son and daughter-in-law were on holiday in Iran. Slightly shocked, I said that I hoped they would both get back safely. Iran, as any human rights campaigner will tell you, is not the best place for British citizens (or anyone else) to visit. One glance at either the Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International reports on human rights in Iran is enough to show what life is like for those who fall foul of the regime. In fact, you can find yourself arrested in Iran for no apparent reason.
Nowhere is this unjust practice better illustrated than in the current predicament of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. As Amnesty International says:
"Nazanin, a charity worker, was visiting family in Iran with her two-year-old daughter, Gabriella, in April this year. They were about to board a plane home to the UK when Nazanin was arrested. More than six months later, Nazanin is still in prison in Iran. In September, she was sentenced to five years behind bars after an unfair trial and the official charges against her remain a secret."
In a nasty little "extra", the Iranian authorities have confiscated her daughter's UK passport, effectively making two-year old Gabriella a hostage. Now, Iran has a history of holding westerners to ransom, going back to the storming of the US Embassy in Tehran back in 1979. Months of negotiation and compromise happened before the US Embassy staff, held captive, were released. It is thought that Nazanin's incarceration is happening for similar reasons, i.e. the regime wants something, and is holding her hostage to exert pressure on the British Government. As her British husband said: "Nazanin's detention and charges have always felt like she and Gabriella are being held as a political bargaining chip for internal and international politics," Mr Ratcliffe said.
"The fact that she was sentenced with unrecognisable charges the day after the UK embassy was upgraded makes this all the clearer."
This is not our concern here. What is of concern to me, human rights organisations and Nazanin's increasingly desperate family is the detrimental effect prison is having upon Nazanin's physical and mental health. She is being held in Iran's notorious Evin Prison, where, as the BBC says:
"Maziar Bahari, a journalist and former detainee at Evin Prison told the BBC it was an infamous jail with a history of executions and torture.
"Thousands of innocent lives perished in that prison and for someone like her who has not had any prison experience, being there will be a real torture," he said."
Nazanin has already been on hunger strike and is suffering terribly. For this reason, I appeal to all readers to support the campaign to keep her spirits up, and to continue to exert pressure on the Iranian authorities. Please, if you have not already done so, send a message to Nazanin via the Amnesty International page - CLICK ON THIS LINK. And - please - encourage others to do the same. Let's work to bring Nazanin and Gabriella home!

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Jo Cox - a Victim of Fascism

The trial and sentencing of Thomas Mair this week has thrust before us the issue of the threat to democracy from the extreme right. The "Fash", as some of us call them, have not been very successful at any time in this country. Oswald Moseley's Blackshirts were only a pale imitation of Mussolini's blackshirted "Squadristi", despite their violence and posturing. The National Front (NF), even in their heyday, never came anywhere near to achieving the power and influence of Hitler's Sturmabteilung (SA). Nevertheless, the sickening murder of Jo Cox, M.P., has shown that they are still among us and as violent as ever. As Nick Lowles puts it:
"While Britain’s far right might be numerically smaller than in the past, it is becoming more violent and dangerous."
The background to this, and, I would argue, to Jo Cox's death, was the EC Referendum which heightened feelings and tensions in our communities that led to the victory of the Leave Campaign, some elements of which were only too happy to play the racist and anti-migrant card. UKIP has much to answer for in this regard. The most glaring example of this was Nigel Farage and UKIP's "Breaking Point" poster, which even Boris Johnson condemned, as The Guardian commented at the time:
"Earlier, controversy over the poster had prompted Boris Johnson to distance the official leave campaign from Ukip. A string of politicians from Nicola Sturgeon to Yvette Cooper also condemned the poster."
Let's not forget, either, that Nigel Farage was the last politician of note to express sorrow for Jo Cox's death. In fact, he seemed more concerned that Jo Cox's murder might lead to a loss of support for the "Leave" Campaign.He also showed an execrable lack of good taste after the referendum vote, when he said that Britain had voted Leave "without a shot being fired". Wrong, Mr Farage. Three shots were fired - by Brexit supporter, Thomas Mair, into the body of Jo Cox.
Now, as might be expected, UKIP condemned the attack and sought to distance themselves from the Ultra-Right in Britain. This has not stopped UKIP from cementing links with far-Right parties in Europe. As "Hope not Hate" pointed out on November 4th: "UKIP has provoked anger in Sweden for its role in arranging an extreme-right networking event, to take place in Stockholm’s Grand Hotel this evening.
The “European Freedom Awards”, organised in conjunction with the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), indicates a deepening of existing ties between UKIP and the European far right."
UKIP has shown signs of possible self-generated disintegration. Let's hope it comes soon.
In conclusion, I can only express my admiration for the courage and dignity of Jo Cox's family following the sentencing of Thomas Mair. As Brendan Cox, Jo Cox's widower said:
"For her killer we have nothing but pity that his life was so devoid of love, consumed by hatred that this act was his desperate, cowardly attempt to find meaning.
"An act designed to drive communities apart has instead brought them together, an act designed to silence a voice has instead allowed millions of others to hear it.
"Although she is dead the opinions and values she held so dear will live on."
That is very noble, and I totally support the view that the best way to beat the Fash is by positive action, but I also believe they have to be watched and vigorously opposed. Jo Cox herself was writing a report on the far right in Yorkshire before her murder.
Jo Cox was a victim of one of the most evil political ideologies ever devised. As such, she joins the fallen ranks of its other victims in other countries, the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. As we remember them, we should include remembrance of her - while the sick fascist who took her life deserves nothing but obscurity and contempt. Salud, Jo Cox - No Pasaran!
Thomas Mair, sick fascist terrorist

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and the Coming Populist Crisis

Along with the entire population of the earth, with the exception of North Korea, I felt that enough had been said about Brexit, the US Presidential Election, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump without me joining in. However, the recent refusal by Teresa May to deny discussing making a peer of Nigel Farage has stung me into action.
It's not been a good year for anyone to the left of Farage and Trump. Two seismic events that I thought could never happen - Brexit and Trump becoming US President- have happened, and I, along with what Farage would describe as "remoaners", "looney lefties" and "the liberal establishment elite", am still coming to terms with the shock.
If we are to make sense of these two shocks to the political system, we have to ask what has caused the two events. Now, there are differences between Brexit and the US election results, but one outstanding common factor is "Right-Wing Populism".  Wikipedia (which is not always wrong) says:
"Right-wing populism is a political ideology that rejects existing political consensus and often combines laissez-faire liberalism and anti-elitism. It is considered populism because of its appeal to the "common man" as opposed to the elites."
Besides this, of course, is another factor: hostility to immigration. Both Farage and Trump favour an end to the free movement of labour and unrestricted immigration (Muslim and Mexican immigration, in Trump's case), but the growing refugee crisis has stimulated Populist Right parties all over Europe. As The Economist says:
" Across the continent, right-wing populists are gathering steam. This year’s migrant influx has proved a huge boon to politicians hostile to Islam, immigration and the European Union."
There is no doubt that concern about these issues greatly helped Trump in the USA, as well as Farage and the Brexit campaigners over here. Some people say that without playing the migrant card, the Brexiteers would have lost the referendum. Ironically (or should I say tragically?), The Guardian's research showed that those who experienced the highest levels of migration were the least anxious about it:
"London, which absorbed 133,000 of the 330,000 net arrivals in 2015, voted the most strongly for remain. Manchester also voted for remain – and at 13,554 had nearly double the level of net migration seen in Birmingham, which voted leave."
From this, we can discern that fear is an element in populist success. There is also a need for a crisis that can be exploited. During the EC Referendum, UKIP and the Leave campaigners campaigned very hard in areas that have been badly affected by the Tory government's austerity measures following the international banking crisis. Instead of putting the blame where it belonged, on the bankers and the government, the Leave campaigners - or at least the UKIP elements - diverted resentment towards refugees and the EC migrant communities. The rise in hate crime after the referendum is the result.
But there is a problem for populist politicians, should they come to power: what if they don't deliver on their promises? Donald Trump has already begun to go back on some of his election pledges. As the BBC point out, his stances on prosecuting Hillary Clinton, the Mexican Wall, Obamacare and banning Muslim entry to the USA are beginning to soften. He is even appointing an immigrant to one of the top jobs in his administration, as this photo of Michelle Obama shows:
Trump may well find himself unpopular with some of the more extreme and violent elements among his electoral supporters, if he is seen as backtracking on his promises.
A similar thing might happen in the UK if Leave campaigners feel themselves frustrated by the slow progress of Brexit. Nigel Farage has already threatened mass protest on this issue. The voice of the choleric Right, The Express, said:
"Sir Gerald Howarth, the Tory MP for Aldershot since 1997 has said any plans to hold back the will of the majority by going by preventing triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty could be met by angry opposition on British streets."
Farage, Howarth and their ilk are playing with unstable explosives here. If you stir up populist anger to resolve political issues, you may well find it impossible to control, as the French revolutionaries found out, nearly two centuries ago. The late Jo Cox, M.P., whose alleged murderer is on trial at the present time, was probably the first victim of that anger. Should Brexit happen, and the imagined benefits not happen, we may well see Farage, Howarth, Boris Johnson and the other Leave politicians denounced by other, more violent demagogues who will not hesitate to rouse populist passion into action on the streets. Still, I really should not go scaremongering. I may have been wrong about Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, but I am sure that such things as angry populist mob violence could never happen here...

Thursday, 10 November 2016

US election: sisters are doing it for themselves

And as of this week, 45.
Former refugee elected as first female Somali-American legislator
Ilhan Omar is the next State Representative for Minnesota's District 60B. At the age of 12, Omar fled the civil war in Somalia and spent four years in a Kenyan refugee camp. She arrived in the USA as a Muslim immigrant.

First black female senator elected since 1999
Kamala Harris is only the second black woman to be elected to the US Senate, and the first-ever black politician in US history to represent California in the Senate. She was also the first female attorney general in California. She is the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants,

First openly LGBT person elected US governor
Kate Brown has become the first openly LGBT person to be elected as governor. Although she held the post from 2015 in Oregon after the previous governor resigned, this time she was chosen by the voters. She intends to fight all forms of discrimination, thus providing some reassurance for LGBT people who may feel unrepresented by the presidential result.

Indian-American woman elected to Congress
Pramila Jayapal was an immigrant to the USA when she was just 16. In response to the hate crime caused by the 9/11 bombings, she set up the anti-hate group, OneAmerica, for which she has been praised in the Senate. Although she’s not actually the first Indian-American woman to be elected to Congress, her victory in Washington state is a triumph in view of all the anti-immigrant rhetoric during the election.

First elected Latina senator
Despite constant rhetoric about excluding the Hispanic population, Catherine Cortez Masto, the granddaughter of a Mexican immigrant, has also made history. She ran a campaign around renewable energy and protecting undocumented immigrants. She says: "I'm proud to be Nevada's first female and our nation's first Latina senator. It’s about time our government mirrors the diversity of our nation."

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Will Cornick, a Flawed Report and the Need for a Deterrent

Back on April 29, 2014, I wrote of my feelings about the murder of Anne Maguire, the Leeds teacher murdered in her classroom by one of her pupils. At the time, the name of the culprit was not known. What was clear to me was the fact that classroom violence, which was (and is) all too common in our schools had reached a new level. At the time, I said that a Rubicon had been crossed. I still think that, but, fortunately, no more teachers have faced a similar fate.
Anyway, today, as we know, the Leeds Safeguarding Children's Board (LSCB) have stated in their report that no-one other than Mrs Maguire's murderer, Will Cornick, is to blame for her murder, and there were no early warning signs that could have stopped the attack. Nick Page, the report's author, said there had been no "credible warning signs" that could have been picked up by the school about Cornick's behaviour. The report went on to say it was an "unprecedented emergency situation". He went on to say:
"Will's school friends and peers considered that he had a dark sense of humour and could talk very negatively and unkindly about people he did not like.
"None of the young people in the class or friendship group who heard Will talk about killing Ann, and were told about or shown the knives he had brought into school on 28 April 2014, had believed that he would actually carry out an assault."
I read that more than once with disbelief, as I have had experience of a pupil - primary age - bringing a knife to school. The matter was reported to me by other pupils. After summoning the pupil, I took the boy and the knife to the head teacher and the matter was dealt with accordingly. I am amazed that Cornick's classmates did not report these knives immediately. Had they done so, Ann Maguire might still be alive.
According to the BBC:
"Mark Peel, independent chairman of the safeguarding board, said: "It is also reassuring that this outcome of the learning lessons review is in agreement with the findings of the court, in that this tragic incident could not have been foreseen or prevented..."
I disagree; had those pupils been as responsible as my primary pupils of some years ago, those knives could have been confiscated.
I was also bemused at the way the LCSB quoted Cornick's explanation of his crime without any apparent critical analysis. Look at these seemingly consistent statements from the BBC article:
"Cornick, who was 15 at the time of the murder, told the report's author, Nick Page, he had gone to his Spanish class in "a red mist, not conscious of his surroundings".
We are then told:
"Earlier he had packed a rucksack containing two knives."
And then:
"He approached Mrs Maguire from behind and stabbed her in the upper back and neck seven times in front of "a large number of pupils".
The teenager then pursued her as she fled from the classroom and continued his attack, before being restrained by members of staff."
I find that the second and third statements contradict the first. If, as he says, he was unaware of his surroundings, how was he able to pack two knives? Surely that required forethought? Again, the fact that he was able to attack Mrs Maguire shows that he was clearly aware of his surroundings and of Mrs Maguire's movements.
Unsatisfactory as it is, the LCSB report stands. Perhaps they are right in their overall conclusion that nothing could have foreseen Cornick's actions. Perhaps he is the only person to blame. The one thing I find no fault with is Cornick's sentence. A more lenient term of incarceration would only have encouraged the small minority of evil pupils (yes, I know what evil means) to carry out further attacks on teaching staff. As I have said too often, I do hope that he is not sent to a mental hospital with the possibility of early release and a further possibility of killing again.
I do not know how Ann Maguire's family will react to this report. I can only send them my good wishes and those of Rhymes and Routes readers. Rest in Peace, Ann Maguire.
Will Cornick; artist's impression.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Darfur, War Crimes and the Hampshire Regiment

I recently took part in an Amnesty International (AI) research project into war crimes in Darfur. Along with 16, 299 other online volunteers, I studied aerial maps for villages at risk of attack by the Sudanese government. The research is now complete, and AI is glad for the results, as it says on its website:
" Decode Darfur was to build the evidence that will corroborate victim reports and witness testimony that shows civilians have been systematically attacked and show the international community that it has ignored Darfur for too long."
The attacks on civilians are being carried out by the Sudanese government and their militia allies - the notorious Janjaweed. These atrocities have been happening for decades, and the number of victims runs into hundreds of thousands, as the "Crimes of War" website says:
"Government security forces and their proxy militias—the Janjaweed—orchestrated a campaign of mass murder, rape, forced displacement, and destruction of livelihood. At least 200,000 people have died in the conflict, and more than 2.5 million have been driven off their lands and into camps for the internally displaced. The international community’s failure to protect civilians in Darfur echoed the failure to respond in Rwanda a decade before".
And, please note, part of the international community's failure includes the tens of thousands of well intentioned people who protest vociferously about the actions of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, yet cheerfully ignore the horrors of Darfur and Assad's crimes against his people in Syria. Still, as AI says, they are not alone, so let's not single them out. Instead, I want to focus upon the issue of war crimes and, given the recent controversy about British troops facing accusations of war crimes in Iraq, I would like to look at two incidents from WW2 which might be considered by some people to be British war crimes.
The legal definition of "War Crime" is clear, but lengthy. Anyone interested in this can do no better than consult the Red Cross website on this issue. For this post, though, let's use this basic definition from Wikipedia: "A war crime is an act that constitutes a serious violation of the law of war that gives rise to individual criminal responsibility.[1] Examples of war crimes include intentionally killing civilians or prisoners, torture, destroying civilian property, taking hostages, perfidy, rape, using child soldiers, pillaging, declaring that no quarter will be given, and using weapons that cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering.[2]".    

Starting from here, lets look at two possible war crimes carried out by British troops in WW2.
The first happened in July, 1944, during the bitter post-D-Day fighting around Caen. An isolated battalion of the Hampshire Regiment was attacked by a troop of Tiger tanks which, to use an archaic phrase, did "fearful execution" among the Hampshires. During the fighting, one of the Tiger tanks overturned and the crew baled out, trying to surrender. Furious at their own losses, the Hampshires shot the Germans down.
The second incident happened in 1945, shortly after the collapse of the Third Reich and concerns the capture of Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of the Auschwitz death camp. After the German surrender, Hoess went on the run, disguising himself as a Kriegsmarine sailor. His wife and son, however, were captured and interrogated for Herr Hoess' whereabouts. Frau Hoess, like the good Nazi wife she was, refused to talk at first, so her British Intelligence Corps (Icorps) interrogators tried a more forceful type of persuasion. The interrogation centre was located near a railway station from where trains ran directly to the Russian Zone, so the Icorps men told Frau Hoess that if she did not disclose her husband's hideout, they would put her son on a train to Moscow and she would never see him again. She talked. Hoess was tracked down and arrested, put on trial in Poland and, unrepentant to the end, was hanged publicly in the Auschwitz camp in 1947.
Now, both these events can be construed as war crimes. In the first,  the Hampshires violated the Geneva Convention by shooting troops who were surrendering; in the second, it is clear that psychological torture was employed. But, surely (for God's sake!) there are extenuating circumstances here? In the first case, the surviving Hampshires had seen many of their comrades dying horribly under onslaught from a far more ruthless enemy. Besides which, let's not forget that the German armed forces were not exactly famous for merciful treatment of their enemies either, and there is no need to labour that point. Personally, I understand completely why the Hampshires did as they did, and do not condemn them.
In the second case, the psychological pressure applied to Frau Hoess is a molehill to a mountain in comparison to the atrocities committed under her husband's supervision at Auschwitz. It was a matter of utter urgency that Hoess be caught, and I believe the Icorps men to have been right in what they did. Only a doctrinaire humbug or a neo-Nazi could argue otherwise.
So, in anticipation of a stupid question, do I believe that British troops should be exempted from prosecution for war crimes? The answer is emphatically "No". However, I do believe that all extenuating circumstances must be allowed for, if the term "Justice" is to mean anything. The danger is, at least in the case of British troops accused of crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan, that the trials will become politicised. Politicians of Left and Right are becoming involved, and these trials may well become partisan affairs, with the truth treated as being of secondary importance.
Rudolf Hoess on the scaffold; cap badge of the Royal Hampshire Regiment.