Thursday, 28 September 2017

A Narrative of Failure – 3 Para in Afghanistan

Recently, a friend lent me a book that he’d just bought – “3 Para”, by Patrick Bishop. The book covers the six-month deployment of the Third Battalion of the Parachute Regiment to Helmand Province in Afghanistan, beginning in April, 2006. I was a little reluctant to read this book, as I knew the ending of our military adventures as part of the so-called “War on Terror”: failure. The failure in Helmand Province was much less ignominious than that in Iraq, but a failure it was. Nonetheless, I resolved to give the book a chance.
The Paras set off for Afghanistan following a month’s training in Oman, expecting to see little combat, if any, while aiding in reconstruction projects. They soon changed their minds about that; things went wrong from the outset. As Bishop says:
“The size of the “force package”…had been the subject of long debate in London. Men and material were in short supply owing to commitments in Iraq.”
Besides this, there was no worse place in Afghanistan for British troops to be stationed. As Frank Ledwidge says in his book “Losing Small Wars”, the local Helmand populace had long memories of previous British incursions into their land:
“…the British were simply sticking to their role as the regular invaders of their country.”
James Fergusson, in his book “A Million Bullets” says:
“To the Afghan mind the return of the Brits looked like an Allah driven invitation to a punch up”.
If the Paras went to “Afghan” expecting a said punch up, they got one. By June, conflict with the Taliban had begun. All “hearts and minds” activity ended, and the Paras, together with some Fusiliers, Irish Rangers and Gurkhas were engaged in desperate defensive actions against continuous Taliban attacks. Most of Bishop’s book is devoted to descriptions of these attacks, and little purpose is served by detailing them here. Even Bishop admits that the Taliban showed remarkable tenacity in continuing to attack, despite severe losses. Inevitably, the Paras suffered casualties as well. Fourteen were killed, two of whom, Corporals Brian Budd and Mark Wright, were awarded the Victoria Cross and George Cross respectively. Forty-six soldiers were wounded, many suffering life-changing injuries. The Taliban succeeded, by their constant, if costly, attacks in thwarting the principal stated aim of the Paras’ mission. Bishop again:
“The reconstruction mission had become a memory. 3 Para and their comrades were fighting a desperate war of attrition. Most of them were besieged in…”platoon houses”…fighting off daily attacks by the Taliban, who, despite taking murderous losses, kept on coming”.
Unsurprisingly, these constant battles were highly destructive of the towns and villages in which our troops were stationed. They also served the purpose of further alienating the local civilian population by destroying homes and livelihoods, and by being seen to support a corrupt local government, the worst aspect being an unbelievably corrupt police force. Ledwidge again:
“Most police posts had their “fun boy” – child catamite – and the British estimated that over 80% of policemen were regular smokers of hash…”
Small wonder then that, towards the end of the Paras’ tour, as Bishop comments:
“…the attitude of the local people seemed to have turned to one of indifference or hostility”.
The Paras themselves seem to have sensed the futility of their activity. Bishop quotes a Para officer as saying:
“What was it all about?...Well, I flattened the town and I killed a lot of Taliban…did that achieve a good effect? I don’t know”.
After six months and 498 engagements, the Paras and their comrades were withdrawn. Writing in 2007, Bishop ends the book by observing that the Paras were getting ready for another deployment to “Afghan”, as they did in 2008. Bishop went with them, writing yet another book about the conflict: “Ground Truth”. I shan’t be reading it. I might not know the details, but I know the ending for the British military. I know that the Taliban changed their tactics, resorting to less costly (for them) planting of multiple IEDs. I know that many of the places in Helmand that the Paras fought so hard to hold have since fallen to the Taliban. President Trump’s decision to continue to deploy US troops might stave off defeat for the Afghan government. How long for, no-one knows. I finished this book full of admiration for the Paras and the other soldiers and equally filled with anger at the people who sent them on an ultimately futile mission. Our memories of our Afghan adventure, and the names of those who fell in action, are slipping into history as something we would rather forget. I shall return the book to my friend when I see him, with thanks. He bought it – a hardback- in a charity shop for £0-99. Somehow, that seems to speak volumes - a sad commentary on our contribution to the "War on Terror".
3 Para soldiers in Helmand Province.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

The Parsons Green Outrage: Searching for Explanations

We all agree: it could have been worse. If the Parsons Green Tube bomb had been better constructed, we would have seen a tube carriage full of corpses, rather than the scores of people injured by flame. It is a relief to me that two men have been arrested, one in Dover and another here in Hounslow. If these two alleged perpetrators are brought to trial, it will be a relief we all share. Our present sympathies, of course, go out to the victims and to Ronald and Penelope Jones, M.B.E., who are believed to have fostered an 18-year old, allegedly one of the two men arrested.
This is the fourth terrorist incident in the capital this year, but differs in some ways from the others. No-one was killed, more by luck than judgement. A timer device was used for the first time with the IED on the tube train. Also, the attack was unusual in that the attacker left the scene before the bomb exploded; usually, they explode the bomb themselves in a suicide attack, as with the Manchester Arena and 7/7 bombings. This might indicate a change in tactics by ISIS/Daesh; they might have realised that suicide bombings are somewhat wasteful of manpower - especially when you're losing a war elsewhere.
What we are not doing, I believe, is questioning whether or not our analyses of the motivation for these attacks are correct. I don't claim to have the answer, but I believe that some of the current views, held by different shades of political opinion, bear closer examination and evaluation.
We hear a good deal about the government de-radicalisation programme, but little about its effectiveness. According to The Guardian in 2016:
"Almost 4,000 people were referred to the UK government’s flagship counter-terrorism scheme last year (2015) – nearly triple the figure in the previous year, and an average of 11 people a day".
This is done with good intent, but did not prevent terrorist attacks this year. In the same 2016 article, The Guardian noted:
"In October last year, a 14-year-old boy from Blackburn who had been on the deradicalisation programme was jailed for life for plotting the Anzac day beheading of Australian police officers. Worried school staff had referred the boy, who cannot be named, to Channel in 2013 but caseworkers were forced to call in police when the boy paid only “lip service” to their efforts, the judge said in sentencing."
This is not to say that the programme is ineffectual, but it does point to a weakness in the thinking behind it. It is based on the conservative thesis that revolutions, strikes, unrest, terrorism are all stirred up by a small minority of troublemakers that people blindly follow: "All we like sheep are gone astray", as it says in The Old Testament. This simple-minded view takes a very patronising attitude of human beings who, apparently, cannot think or act for themselves. So then, rather like naughty children who just need a good talking-to, a de-radicalisation programme will sort out these deluded individuals. However, we are not dealing with naughty children. While de-radicalisation may prove successful in many cases, it may actually cause more dedicated Jihadis (or Fascists, Anarchists, etc...) to become even more determined in their radical views. No-one likes being talked down to; it is perfectly possible to undergo ideological re-programming and your views remain unchanged. Just because you are in a room with a proponent of a differing view does not mean you have to listen.
From the Left, we get a different perspective on these events. Stop the War Coalition have not yet seen fit to comment upon the Parsons Green bombing, but if they did, they would probably say something like this:
"Yes, well, Comrades, this bomb attack is deplorable but we really should remember that all these terrorist attacks have come about because of the illegal and imperialist invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Let's not forget, also, that millions of innocent Muslims have died in those countries even though the casualties at Parsons Green deserve our sympathy."
The problem with this view, which is every bit as simple-minded as the first, is that it is anachronistic and reductionist. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, wrong though they were, happened in a previous decade. Today's Jihadis are not acting out of anger about the invasions 15 years ago; they believe that Daesh provide the way for all Muslims to follow now. Nearly all the Jihadis arrested or killed in the UK were born here, not Iraq or Afghanistan. By ascribing the invasions as a prime moving force for terrorism, we ignore other factors - and the passage of time.
I believe that those who resort to terrorism in the name of Allah in the UK are possessed of a deep-seated feeling of alienation. Events abroad may well have considerable influence, but there are other possible factors. One might be mental illness; some (unlikely, I admit) may arrive at their Jihadi beliefs through argument and intellectual persuasion. However, I think we should look at the way Asians, and Pakistanis in particular, have been treated in this country since the advent of mass immigration after WW2. Have we forgotten "Paki-bashing"? Rajni Bathia wrote in 2007:
"It's a word I heard all too often in my formative years and one which still stirs up bad memories of bovver boots, skinheads and "Paki-bashing"."
Today's young Asians will have heard of this from their forbears: about racist violence, discrimination, Enoch Powell and being rejected by so much of white society. It should come as no surprise that for a small minority of young Muslim Asians, there is an inherited sense of resentment which has caused them to listen to the equally alienated anti-Western rhetoric of the Jihadis. We often hear about our imperial legacy; I believe that our problems today are partly the result of our post-imperial legacy.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Veterans on Trial and the Achievements of Tony Blair

On Sunday morning, a name I recognised came out of the past. I was watching the BBC programme, "Sunday Morning Live", where a group of people were discussing the necessity of trials for alleged acts of murder committed by British soldiers during the Ulster conflict. The discussion grew distinctly acrimonious, with supporters and opponents of the proposed trials becoming very angry. During the squabbling, the name of one alleged murder victim of the British Army was mentioned, and it took me back 45 years to what now seems a different world.
The name that came up was that of Joe McCann, shot dead by paratroopers on April 15, 1972. McCann was a "stickie" - Belfast parlance for an Official IRA member. He was commander of the Officials' Third Belfast Battalion, and thought to have been behind a number of terrorist attacks. However, he was unarmed at the time of his death and running away from the paras, who are alleged to have shot him about 10 times. In November, 1972, I was in the company of some soldiers of the Royal Artillery who had just returned from a tour in Ulster. One of them gave a more graphic account of McCann's death, too gruesome to write here. The Officials declared a cease fire on May 29 that year, and the military campaign torch was taken up by the Provisional IRA.
Two former soldiers, both now greatly advanced in years, are to stand trial for McCann's death, and many others are being investigated for their role in similar circumstances. This has caused considerable resentment, with Army veterans calling it a witch hunt. They point out, perhaps rightly, that Tony Blair, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, betrayed his own soldiers, because, as "The Sun" says:
"...a total of 156 IRA suspects enjoy total immunity as part of the Good Friday Agreement struck by former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Dozens of other IRA fighters received “comfort letters” assuring them they would not face prosecution."
The Sun might have mentioned that this applied to scores of Loyalist terrorists as well, but they are correct in saying there was no such concession awarded to soldiers and RUC men. I have mixed feelings on this issue as, I freely admit, if Joe McCann were a relative of mine, I would want justice for him. On the other hand, unlike many of my generation, I own up to the fact that, at the time, I rejoiced to learn of the killing of IRA operatives. Only with the passing of the years did I become politically aware; only in the late 70s did I finally realise that there was no military solution to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I also freely admit that I wholeheartedly supported the hunting down of Nazi war criminals such as Adolf Eichmann and Klaus Barbie. Despite this, I have grave reservations about the arraignment of Army veterans on such old charges.
Now, I am well aware that some people will accuse me of double standards here. "If you were happy to see old Nazis tried", it may be said, "why do you demur at the trials of elderly British soldiers? Aren't you being hypocritical?". At least, that's the cleaned-up version.
My answer is this: the British Army and the German Nazis were two different types of organisation, despite the propaganda of Irish Republicans, the Troops Out Movement and, to a lesser degree, the Stop the War Coalition. The British Army in Ulster had a painfully difficult task, which they didn't understand at first. We can argue about whether they should have been in Ulster at all, but that's not relevant here. The fact is that they were subject to due legal process and bound by rules of engagement. They did not always observe those rules, as on Bloody Sunday and in alleged extra-judicial killings for which these old men in their70s and 80s are facing trial. However, it needs to be said that many of these veterans have been investigated already, if not to everyone's satisfaction. Also, let's not forget: both sections of the IRA, Official and Provisional, had a "shoot to kill" policy, and no-one now is castigating them. Anyway, I anticipate that, should any of these British Army vets be acquitted, there will be a huge outcry of "white wash!" from the organisations mentioned above. I strongly suspect that their calls for justice are nothing more than a clamour for revenge. Conversely, should any be found guilty, there will be strident protests from veterans' organisations, politicians and many others - not all of them on the political right. It will be very difficult for all involved in the judicial process, knowing they will be condemned as biased, whatever verdict is passed.
I do understand the feelings of the relatives of those killed by the military in Ulster, in the same way that I understand those of the relatives of the dead, maimed and injured in the M62 coach bombing, the Birmingham pub bombings, the Hyde Park bomb attacks, the Enniskillen and Omagh atrocities and the Warrington bombing. The families of the victims of IRA atrocities have to live with the knowledge that the culprits will never be brought to justice. They have been told that this is all part of the peace process. No-one has asked them for their views on the matter.
Lastly, let's examine what Tony Blair has achieved here. The Good Friday Agreement was considered to be his crowning glory. We are now seeing old soldiers reviling him as a traitor for casting them to the wolves, while sparing terrorists. The Left, and the peace movement, loathe him for his military adventure in Iraq. He has alienated old soldiers and peace activists - very few British politicians have done that.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

"The State" - A Warning to Daily Mail Readers

If the Daily Mail comments disparagingly on a TV programme, it can't be all bad, especially since the criticism is usually inaccurate. An example of this is the Mail's reaction to "The State", which was screened on Channel Four over four evenings last week. For those who did not see it, the programmes follow the fates of two British men and two women who go to Syria to join Isis, where they are segregated with only the men being trained to fight, and all four are encouraged to forget their past lives in the UK. The Mail thundered that:
"The State is no sort of truthful drama, as it claims to be. This is a recruitment video to rival Nazi propaganda of the Thirties calling young men to join the Brownshirts."
Having watched all four episodes, I can testify that the Mail got it wrong. As far as I am concerned, after watching the final episode, I was wondering (briefly) how to enlist with the Kurdish troops fighting ISIS (I'm overage). There is nothing in any of the episodes that could remotely be considered pro-ISIS propaganda. If anything, it is very much the opposite.
The four ISIS recruits arrive in the Islamic State radiant with enthusiasm for the cause, but disillusion rapidly sets in.  These recruits are Ushna, 18, a timid student; Jalal, 19, whose brother died fighting for ISIS; Shakira, 26, a mother and doctor; and Ziyaad, 19, Jalal's friend and a school dropout. The two girls are "encouraged" to find husbands, which Ushna accepts, but Shakira doesn't. Shakira, who goes to the State to practise medicine, finds herself restricted in all manner of ways. She escapes being pressured into marriage to the Hospital Director (a nasty piece of work) by marrying a doctor who is secretly gay. After he is killed (doctors have to fight), and her 10-year old son is training to go to the front line, she escapes back to the UK, where she is pressurised by security forces into becoming an informer in the Muslim community.
Jalal witnesses some of the vile atrocities of ISIS: public execution, beheadings, etc., and is forced into beheading a prisoner (guilty of helping his Christian wife escape) but cannot bring himself to do it. He attempts to escape by car with a woman, presumably Yazidi, whom he bought for $200 along with her child. Alas, they are caught escaping in the final episode. Their car is stopped, the poor woman and her child are shot, and he is dragged away to an uncertain future. It will take another series to find out what happens.
As you may gather, this series pulls no punches and no ISIS atrocity is excluded. The writer, Peter Kosminsky, who wrote "Wolf Hall", has said of The State:
  “I absolutely hope it will have a deterrent impact”.
I concur in this, although there is a point to be made about the timing. Was it right to show such a series after the terrorist outrages that happened so recently in this country and in Europe? As The Guardian comments:
" Kosminsky, who directed the successful BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, said this month he feared being “accused of being an apologist for a truly nasty organisation” because to understand why young Muslims joined a “horrific death cult” he had needed to show what attracted them to it."
It has to be said: there would have been no good time to show this series and others like it, as terrorist attacks are so frequent.
But there is one possible negative point that neither the Guardian or Mail have considered. ISIS have a small, secret, but dedicated presence in this country. They are significant enough to have planned and mounted terrorist crimes, and significant enough to compel Britons who have fought for the Kurds, after returning to this country, to change addresses. Peter Kosminsky has succeeded in creating a fictional warning against Jihadist radicalisation; Mr Kosminsky had better watch his back.

Monday, 7 August 2017

OFSTED and Adventure in the Playground

For those who do not know, the lady in the adventure playground pictured above is Amanda Spielman, the new Head of OFSTED, the schools inspection service. Like her predecessors, Ms Spielman has begun her tenure as OFSTED Supremo by making an amazing non-discovery about something amiss in education unnoticed by previous holders of the post. Well, it's one way of making an impression, I suppose. 
Ms Spielman has set out to stamp her authority upon schools and education in general by accusing schools of mollycoddling pupils. As the BBC says:
"Teachers must stop trying to wrap children in cotton wool with over-the-top health and safety policies, the chief inspector of schools has said.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Amanda Spielman said it stopped the children developing resilience and grit".
She notes with displeasure that schools are over cautious in their Health and Safety measures such as banning conkers, yo-yos and making children wear high-visibility jackets on school trips. The Chief Inspector goes on to say:
"My message to schools is this - keeping children safe from harm should always be your overriding concern but... make sure you distinguish between real and imagined risk.Trying to insulate your pupils from every bump, germ or bruise won't just drive you to distraction, it will short-change those pupils as well, limiting their opportunity to fully take advantage of the freedom of childhood..."
On the surface, this appears to be fair comment; those of us over a certain age often remark that today's children don't have the freedoms we had, but I'll leave that for later.
We should first take a look at Ms Spielman and the way MPs reacted to her application to become OFSTED boss.Put simply,the Education sub-Committee did not want to give her the job. Ms Spielman is not a qualified teacher and thus lacks experience of schools and school administration, which is not ideal training for her present role. I am no fan of OFSTED, as readers of this blog well know, but at least previous Chief Inspectors had worked at the chalkface and taught in the classroom. Without that experience, a crucial understanding of the pressures upon teaching staff is lacking.
Besides this, Ms Spielman, as the BBC says:
"... failed to show "passion" or an understanding of the "complex role", education select committee MPs said". 
In spite of this, Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, overruled the sub-committee's misgivings and Amanda Spielman was given the job. Hardly a promising start!
It is also useful to examine Ms Spielman's concerns about excessive Health and Safety regulations in schools. These measures receive a good deal of attention in the media from time to time, and it's worth looking back over some of them.
1. There was a primary school in Leeds which banned the game of "Tig".
2. The old playground game of "British Bulldogs" is seemingly banned in many schools. In 2011, over a quarter of 653 school staff surveyed by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said it had been banned from their school.
3. Schools in Wiltshire, Cumbria and Clackmannanshire introduced a ban on conkers over fears the horse chestnuts could trigger anaphylactic reactions.
4. In January, birthday cakes were banned at a Blackpool primary school as teachers "do not have time" to check ingredients for pupils with allergies.
On the face of it, our schools are overrun by rules that are preventing a whole generation of our children from having fun and experiencing the world. As a primary teacher for 34 years, now retired, I can attest that this is a purely superficial impression. If we examine the evidence, it is only one school out of thousands that has banned "Tig" - I have never encountered such a ban on this game or "Bulldog". As for the conkers ban, please note: only three LEAs banned conkers. In my experience, children do not play conkers because they regard this activity as being old-fashioned or simply do not know of the game. I have known birthday cakes to be banned for some children, but as a result of parental pressure, rather than a busybody school administration.
It is ridiculous to single out schools as over-protective agencies holding children back from becoming seasoned adventurers. If anything, the whole of society plays this role. Most people of my generation think we remember a golden age when our parents sent us out to play in the morning - but with firm instructions to be back in time for tea. That golden age, if it ever existed, has been transformed into abiding fears for children's safety - Mary Bell, the Moors Murderers, the killers of Jamie Bulger, Rhys Jones, Millie Dowler and many other young victims have seen to that. Schools simply reflect the anxieties of wider society on this issue.
To conclude: I am not impressed with Amanda Spielman's debut on the educational stage. In this, she is no different from previous holders of the post of Chief Inspector for Schools.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Passchendaele - No Comforting Blanket

I wondered how the Battle of Passchendaele, which, 100 years ago today, had been raging for about 24 hours, would be remembered. Such occasions can so easily become sugar-coated exercises in nostalgia. However, as Michael Morpurgo, who played a key role in the commemoration events on Sunday evening, said: "You can't draw a comforting blanket over the First World War." That is very well said and can surely not be contradicted. As the Evening Standard says:
"Although it is difficult to calculate exact numbers, around 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German soldiers died in the Battle of Passchendaele.
Among the Allied deaths were 36,000 Australians, 2,500 New Zealanders, 16,000 Canadians. Some 42,000 bodies have never been recovered."
The Evening Standard is wrong here; the figures it quotes are for all battle casualties, dead, wounded and missing. Nevertheless,such statistics, and the terrible conditions in which the Allies and their German opponents lived, fought and died, are no cause for sentimental indulgence. The remembrance services, and the secular commemorations by singers and actors, have been conducted with good taste and respect for the fallen. No attempt has been made to gloss over the conditions and horrors of this appalling battle, even though some awkward facts about it have not been stressed enough.
The battle is sometimes known as the Third Battle of Ypres. Two previous battles, in 1914 and 1915, had led to the creation of an ongoing slaughterhouse for the Allied armies, known to history as the Ypres Salient.  Salients, in simple terms, are little more than bulges in a defending army's front line which can be fired upon from three sides. This happened in the Ypres Salient and much worse - the Germans held the high ground around the fringes of the salient which gave them an unrestricted view of all Allied activity. Even during "quiet" periods, their artillery and snipers had a ready supply of targets; in the build-up to the Passchendaele slaughter, their observers were able to detect signs of a coming attack. The Allies are said to have clung on to Ypres for symbolic reasons - it signified a last vestige of unoccupied Belgium and (I can't believe this!) prevented the Germans from reaching the Channel ports. The fact that this created a perfect killing ground for the Germans was overlooked for reasons of prestige.
Lyn Macdonald, in her marvellous book, "They Called it Passchendaele", comments:
"The sensible thing would have been to withdraw from the salient, abandoning Ypres, and to establish a stronger line in the rear beyond the (Ypres-Comines) canal bank".
General Horace Smith-Dorrien, regarded by historians as one of the few able senior British officers of WW1, advocated just such a move in 1915 and was sacked for it by the Commander of the British Forces, Sir John French.
A number of factors are said to account for the costly slowness of the British advance. Chief among them is the mud. It is undeniable that the August rain contributed to this, but the heavy artillery bombardment before the initial assault played its part by destroying the underground dikes that drained the local terrain. Another is the famed incompetence of British generals. As the Liverpool poet, the late Adrian Henri, said:
It seems that Haig was misled by his Intelligence chief, Brigadier General John Charteris, who kept providing Haig with optimistic reports about a German collapse, encouraging Haig to continue attacking. How that excuses Haig is beyond me - it was his responsibility to check the truth of those reports.When it came to intelligence reports in any case, Haig seems to have ignored information that he did not want to believe. Norman Dixon, in his book "On the Psychology of Military Incompetence" says:
"Haig's intelligence service knew that the Germans expected the offensive. Haig was evidently undismayed".
Lloyd George, the prime minister, was said to be critical of Haig - but did nothing to get him to call off the offensive, either before or during the slaughter.
There is one factor, however, that was not mentioned during the memorial events, and that is the effectiveness of German defensive tactics. Before they went over the top on the first day, British troops were astonished to find themselves under artillery fire. The German batteries had not been knocked out in the preliminary bombardment. As the "Time Team" stalwart, Peter Barton, says:
"We had been unable to cow their artillery...The British were amazed that the Germans were still able to fire back. The Germans had carefully sighted their guns and moved them at night sideways and backwards, and they had fake batteries as well. They would light a fuse in these fakes to draw the British fire."
The Germans had been preparing defences for two years, which gave the attacking troops some nasty surprises. Barton again:
"When the attack started ...whole battalions along here were reduced to husks. The British had no idea how many of these pillboxes the Germans had because they were covered by earth and so were almost invisible to aerial reconnaissance. But there were 15,000 of them and as soon as the British bombardment ended the Germans would rush out and place their machine guns on the top of them, cutting swathes through the British lines. The pillboxes were so well concealed the British would run over the top of them and then be shot in the back."
Anyway, the battle petered out in November, 1917. Passchendaele village, after which the battle is named, was captured by Canadian troops on November 6th. The high ground around Ypres had been captured.  The many thousands who fought, suffered and died won a five mile advance of the Allied front line, making the name of the battle a symbol of the futility of war. The stated aims of the offensive - to break through the German line and capture the Channel ports - were not achieved. Strangely, no-one spoke of a partial Allied success or a German defensive victory. Perhaps they all knew it was a shattering blow to both sides.
A bitter postscript for the British survivors of the battle was the fact that when the Germans went on the attack in the spring of 1918, Passchendaele and the ridges around Ypres were abandoned. The British and Empire troops fell back over the bloodsoaked ground of the salient to a small defensive position around the town of Ypres and its outskirts. As Lyn Macdonald observes at the end of her book:
"It was precisely the size to which General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien had proposed to reduce it in 1915.He had been sacked for his pains. But no-one remembered that. By 1918 that was a lifetime and some 200, 000 lives ago".
I fully support the remembrance of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice at Passchendaele and honour their memory. Their names and voices live on in memorials, memoirs and the memories of relatives. It does not dishonour them to point out that much of their suffering and sacrifice could have been avoided. The last word goes to Siegfried Sassoon from his poem, "Memorial Tablet":

Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight
(Under Lord Derby’s scheme).  I died in hell—­
(They called it Passchendaele); my wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back, and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duck-boards; so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light.
In sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare;
For though low down upon the list, I’m there:
“In proud and glorious memory”—­that’s my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France for Squire;
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed;
Once I came home on leave; and then went west.
What greater glory could a man desire?

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Mr Angry and the Growth of Intolerance

If we can describe the man in the cartoon as "Mr Angry", we might well ask what he is angry about. He might be cross for legitimate personal reasons; he might be angry over Brexit; he could be furious at the way his favourite football team has played; he might simply be cross because someone disagrees with him, and he hates that. The last of these possible factors seems to be coming more common in our society, and I think it worth considering here.
I am driven to discuss this by the appalling news that staff at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital in London (GOSH) are being subjected to threats and abuse over the baby Charlie Gard issue. As "The Guardian" reports:
"Thousands of abusive messages, including death threats, have been sent to doctors and nurses at the children’s hospital in London, the chair of the hospital revealed. She said that staff were also facing abuse in the street. Families visiting their sick children had also been “harassed and discomfited,” they said."
I fail to understand the mental processes (or lack of them) of the people who send these threats. The hospital's decision concerning the treatment of Charlie would have been taken by a small management team; the vast majority of staff would not have been involved. Still, as the old saying goes:
"The mob has many heads but no brains."
And this type of mob, unlike street mobs, is difficult to counter. This mob's presence, for the most part, is not physical, but online. No amount of police can stop anonymous emails or casual insults by individuals in the street. To be fair, poor Charlie's parents have condemned the abuse against GOSH staff, having received abuse themselves.
This disgusting affair points to one question, I think: is Britain becoming more intolerant? In many ways, the answer would appear to be "No". In my lifetime, I have seen many positive changes. Racism is now widely frowned upon, despite the efforts of Enoch Powell and the far right in the past. Gay rights for men and women have become established in our society; even the Conservative Party has openly gay ministers in Parliament. Women now enjoy equal pay and employment status with their male counterparts; I can remember when women were paid less than men for doing the same job - and how many people thought this natural.
And yet - a number of commentators have expressed the view that disagreement between people on political and social issues is becoming more fraught. According to this view, for many people of left, right and centre political persuasions, the expression of a differing point of view to their own is regarded as being almost a hate crime. Rational debate, it seems, is becoming a thing of the past. Instead, people are entrenching themselves behind walls of bigotry, indulging in abuse and being abused, rather than engaging in constructive dialogue or discussion.
This state of affairs can be seen at its worst in debates between pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians over Gaza and Palestinian rights. Having watched a number of events of this type, I have been appalled how two sets of people can sit in the same room barking invective at each other, each considering themselves to be right, and totally unwilling to achieve any rapprochement. Anyone (such as myself) who says anything critical of either side is immediately attacked as being an enemy. As Mussolini said:  "O con noi o contro di noi"—You're either with us or against us."
I hope this attitude does not become more widespread in Britain, nor can I accept that it will happen to the extent feared. If it did, society could not function. Simple disagreements would escalate into full-scale battles at the drop of a hat.
Nevertheless, during the benighted EU referendum campaign, we did see the polarisation of the UK into two opposing Leave/Remain camps, which led to a good deal of acrimonious disputation and invective, both before and after the referendum date. The campaigning divided political parties, workplaces, friendships and families. The division caused contributed to the violent death of a Manchester man, Duncan Keating, a "Leave" supporter, after an argument with a "Remain" supporting neighbour, Graham Dunn. And there is no doubt that it played a part in the killing of Jo Cox MP by the fascist, Thomas Mair.
Jo Cox's murder points to the fact that the intolerant minority in our society is becoming more active. They certainly mobilised for action during the recent election campaign. It was so bad that Theresa May has ordered an investigation into intimidation of election candidates. What is of note is that both sides of the political divide were targeted. Diane Abbott, in particular, was the subject of some horrendously vile abuse. She told "The Guardian":
“There was an EDL-affiliated Twitter account BurnDianeAbbott, I’ve had rape threats, described as a pathetic, useless, fat, black, piece of shit, ugly, fat, black bitch.” 
From the other side:
"Simon Hart, the Conservative MP who called the debate, said the party’s whips office had been dealing with “at least three credible threats to colleagues every week, including death threats, criminal damage, sexism, racism, homophobia, antisemitism and general thuggishness around and after the election”. 
I could be wrong here, but my guess is that the perpetrators of these despicable attacks, whatever their politics, are pretty similar in a number of ways. They are probably the kind of people who shout at the TV over issues that bother them but, before the advent of the internet, never vented their feelings in ways other than expounding their views in private or down the pub. At most, they would write a vitriolic, anonymous letter. Email, Facebook and Twitter have changed all that. As the much-abused MP, Diane Abbott, says:
 “I think the rise in the use of online has turbocharged abuse because 30 years ago, when I first became an MP, if you wanted to attack an MP you had to write a letter, usually in green ink, you had to put it in an envelope, you had to put a stamp on it and you had to walk to the post box,” she said. “Now they press a button and you read vile abuse which 30 years ago people would have been frightened to even write down.” 
I think we need to explore ways of returning to rational discussion and tolerance of others' points of view. If we let these squalid trolls of left and right dominate political discussion, then our democratic rights suffer. Not only our rights, but so do we in many other ways. As the great Maya Angelou says:
"If we lose love and self respect for each other, this is how we finally die".

Friday, 9 June 2017

Theresa May, Hubris and a Decline in Classical Education

Seeing this on Facebook today gave me some food for thought. This is the second example of a Conservative Prime Minister initiating a vote, expecting to win - and then losing. David Cameron fully expected to win the referendum on Britain staying in the EC, convinced he would gain a Remain victory which did not happen, and was forced to fall on his sword and resign. Theresa May called this General Election confidently expecting a Tory landslide, based upon a very strong showing in the opinion polls. She appeared on TV this morning looking surprisingly calm and without a red face, which she ought to have been wearing, following a humiliating failure at the ballot box.
I think this all points to one thing: a lack of knowledge of the classics, and a decline in the teaching of Latin and Greek. Mrs May went to a grammar school which later became a comprehensive, so probably never got to study Latin or Greek. David Cameron went to Eton, where, as Wikipedia says:
"His early interest was in art. Six weeks before taking his O-Levels he was caught smoking cannabis. He admitted the offence and had not been involved in selling drugs, so he was not expelled but was fined, prevented from leaving the school grounds, and given a "Georgic" (a punishment which involved copying 500 lines of Latin text)."
This punishment might well have affected Cameron's attitude to the Greek and Latin languages. Either way, neither Mr Cameron or Mrs May seem to have understood the word "Hubris" before they announced their disastrous votes.
Hubris is a word that gets bandied about a lot, so it's important to clarify what it means. Generally speaking, it means foolish pride or reckless overconfidence. As Wikipedia (not always wrong) says:
  "In its ancient Greek context, it typically describes behavior that defies the norms of behavior or challenges the gods, and which in turn brings about the downfall, or nemesis, of the perpetrator of hubris...In its modern usage, hubris denotes overconfident pride combined with arrogance. Hubris is often associated with a lack of humility. Sometimes a person's hubris is also associated with ignorance. The accusation of hubris often implies that suffering or punishment will follow, similar to the occasional pairing of hubris and nemesis in Greek mythology."
In Biblical terms, this is expressed in Proverbs 16:18 as:
"Pride goeth (goes) before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall".
Both David Cameron and Mrs May must now rue neglecting their classical and religious education.
If we look back through literary fiction and historical fact, we find numerous examples of hubris.
There is John Milton's Paradise Lost, where Lucifer tries to incite other angels to worship him, but is cast into Hell by God and His loyal angels. Victor in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein manifests hubris in his attempt to become a great scientist by creating life through technological means, but eventually regrets this previous desire - as might some atomic scientists of the 20th century. Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus portrays the "hero" as a scholar whose arrogance and pride lead him to sign an agreement with the Devil, without any regard for the consequences. The most prominent example of hubris in classical literature, of course, is that of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, which led to his (literal) downfall.
If we look back through history, we can see hubris at work in the massacre of the Roman legions in the Teutoburger Wald slaughter in AD 9 through to Hitler's last stand in Berlin, 1945. There is the ignominious defeat of the Second Crusade in 1147. and, much later, the Battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 which was, as Saul David says:
"...a squalid episode...characterized by Custer's naked ambition, lack of regard for his men and foolish contempt for his foe".
Custer is quoted as saying after he launched his doomed attack:
"Where did all those damned Indians come from?"
This same recklessness was displayed by E. J. Smith, captain of the Titanic, Lord Chelmsford at Isandhlwana, 1879, General MacArthur in Korea, 1950 and by French generals at Dienbienphu in Indo-China, 1954. And there are many more such examples for those interested.
Looking back over all these debacles makes me wonder why David Cameron and Theresa May did not take account of them - but, that's hubris for you. Or is it caused by a decline in the study of the classics and the ancient Greek and Latin languages? In 2015, Harry Mount, writing in the Daily Telegraph, in his article, "The Greek Tragedy in our Classrooms", laments:
"The game is up for ancient Greek in comprehensives.
From now on, the high-minded, mind-expanding beauties of Greek will be confined to public and grammar schools. The gap between comprehensive and selective education will yawn wider and wider..."
Oh, well, perhaps that is why Theresa May called this election. Her school became a comprehensive while she was there. Mount continues:
" The 1988 Education Reform Act didn’t include Latin in the National Curriculum. Within five years, the number of students studying Latin in state schools halved."
None of this excuses David Cameron, of course. Fee-paying schools still teach Latin and Greek. Perhaps his Latin punishment turned him against the wisdom of Socrates, Sophocles, Marcus Aurelius and all the other great minds of antiquity?
If any adverse consequences flow from this election, just think: it could all have been avoided by greater attention to classical literature by two Conservative Party leaders.
"Caveant, consules!"

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

"Denial" the Movie - Truth on Trial

On Monday, I received the DVD of “Denial”, the film about the 2000 David Irving libel trial starring, among others, Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall. The trial was highly publicised at the time, and it is no spoiler for the film to say that Irving lost his case.   Some people think the trial was about Irving being tried for Holocaust denial, but in fact, the action was brought by Irving against American historian Deborah Lipstadt. As Tom Robey says, Irving claimed:
“… she’d libelled him repeatedly in her book Denying the Holocaust. The case went to the English High Court – where the burden of proof is on the defendants, unlike in the US, where the burden’s on the plaintiff”.
In her book, Lipstadt accused Irving of being a Holocaust denier, a bigot, a racist, and a bender of documentary evidence. The film, and the book of the same title, details the efforts of Lipstadt and her legal team to prove that Irving had distorted historical fact in an effort to whitewash Hitler and deny the systemic nature of the Holocaust.

Irving was on the radar of anti-fascists and the Jewish community in the UK for many years before he tried to sue Professor Lipstadt. He began his career as a “historian” following an unsuccessful university career by writing a book about the Dresden bombing, in which he grossly inflated the civilian casualty figures. In 1967, he wrote “The Destruction of Convoy PQ-17”in which he libelled a Royal Navy veteran who successfully sued Irving, who was forced to pay out £40 000 in damages. In the 1970s, he wrote “Hitler’s War”, in which he claimed that Hitler did not order the Holocaust. He made numerous trips to Germany where he addressed meetings of neo-Nazis; he provided public support to an openly Nazi student at London University and his books featured on the reading lists of the National Front and British Movement.
On this evidence alone, it is no exaggeration to say that Irving can, at the very least, be described as sympathetic to the Third Reich. In the 1980s, I found confirmation of this when I ill-advisedly borrowed “Hitler’s War” from the local library. In the first couple of chapters, I found clear evidence of Irving’s bias when I read his unusual expression of sympathy for the French people after D-Day. According to Irving, the French were plagued by Allied troops who looted everything in sight, while the well-behaved Germans had never dared to do such things. I took the book back.
None of this was used in the trial, nor does it appear in the film. Suffice it to say that the team of legal experts and historians who supported Lipstadt were able to refute all of Irving’s silly arguments and win their case convincingly. Given some of Irving’s antics before and during the trial (at one point, he called the trial judge "Mein Fuhrer"), it should have been a push against an open door. For example, Irving was on record as saying:

"I say quite tastelessly, in fact, that more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz”.

"I don't see any reason to be tasteful about Auschwitz … It's baloney, it's a legend.”

“I'm going to form an association of Auschwitz Survivors, Survivors of the Holocaust and other liars, or the ASSHOLS."

In fact, the trial does not move as smoothly as that, but, as I think we should all watch the film, I will say no more about the plot. As for the film, I was left thinking that, able as Rachel Weisz is, an American actress might have been a more appropriate choice to play Deborah Lipstadt. Much praise has been lavished upon Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Irving, but, good as it is, it presents Irving sometimes as little more than a pantomime villain. Irving, as his books reveal, is no joke.

Some critics have said that the film suffers from the lack of a moment of supreme, Hollywood style, emotionally-charged courtroom drama, but this is eyewash, in my opinion. The film succeeds, as did Ms Lipstadt’s defence team, by a gradual demolition of Irving’s “arguments”. To do anything otherwise would have been an Irving-like distortion of the truth.
On that note, I think that this is the main point of the film: the primacy of the truth. In an age when “false news” is so influential, it is important that we do not compromise on this issue. The Holocaust happened; Donald Trump attracted a smaller inauguration crowd than Obama; David Irving was imprisoned for Holocaust denial in Austria in 2006. Oh, and Elvis is not working in a chip shop in Brighton. This film, despite its artistic flaws (can any film be flawless?), is a clarion call for honesty and the defence of historical veracity. As Peter Bradshaw said in The Guardian:
“…denial is fashionable again. Irving himself is gloating at the way “alt–right” fascists are threatening to make him and his poisonous flat-earthery acceptable once more. The US president himself believes in “alternative facts”. So for me this film, telling its story with punchy commitment and force, was a breath of fresh air”.

For those worried about David Irving, who was bankrupted after the failure of his libel suit: do not be concerned. He now lives in the Scottish Highlands, in a 40-room mansion near Nairn provided by an anonymous benefactor. Besides this, Irving claims that his books are selling well, his YouTube blurbs are doing famously, and well-wishers are sending him money:
“It used to be small amounts, and they still come in, but people are now giving me very large sums indeed – five-figure sums. I now drive a Rolls-Royce. A beautiful car. Though money is completely unimportant to me.”

The struggle continues.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

ISIS, Simple Arithmetic and the London Bridge Atrocity

ISIS, which is slowly losing ground militarily in Iraq, is reacting like a mortally wounded beast, lashing out wildly in all directions. There is little point in quibbling about whether or not last night's murderers were ISIS members; the late attackers (not late enough) were clearly acting in accordance with ISIS encouragement and, by all accounts, met with online ISIS approval for their actions.
This is the third major terrorist attack in the UK this year (so far) and there is a chilling sense of normality creeping over us. Last year on this blog, I was often writing about the danger to us all from released homicidal mental patients. This year, I find myself writing about murderous terrorists. I have to pinch myself at times to be able to distinguish between them. The same epithets I used about one (appalling, hideous, atrocious, etc) I use about the other. Another common factor seems to be their demeanour while carrying out their attacks. Holly Jones, a BBC reporter who witnessed the slaughter of pedestrians on London Bridge last night, said of the driver of the van that mounted the pavement:
"He didn't look scared. he looked demented".
The same could be said of any of the mentally deranged killers who have featured on this blog before. As we seem to have accepted murders by such people as part and parcel of the risks of everyday life, we are, perhaps, becoming inured to terrorist atrocities, keeping calm and carrying on. Perhaps.
While I share the revulsion that we all feel about last night's massacre, and salute the security forces for their prompt action in liquidating the perpetrators, I was interested in Theresa May's analysis of the root cause of the problem, which, coincidentally, I discussed in my last blog post. The PM said today:
" ...while the recent attacks are not connected by common networks, they are connected in one important sense. They are bound together by the single evil ideology of Islamist extremism...It is an ideology that claims our Western values of freedom, democracy and human rights are incompatible with the religion of Islam."
All well and good, but no clear indication was given how to combat this ideology. As ISIS can be described as "the active arm" of Salafism, Mrs May must surely know that Saudi Arabia finances Salafism in the UK and elsewhere. But then, Saudi Arabia is our ally, and buys huge amounts of weapon systems from our arms manufacturers.
As for the attack, and others, it is understandable that people are baffled yet again at these horrific events. After the terror attack in Tunisia in 2015, a friend of one of the victims said:
"I can't make sense of it, I just can't understand the logic of what they have done."
Similar sentiments were expressed after the Westminster Bridge incident, the slaughter of the innocents in Manchester, and yesterday's massacre.
The trouble is, if we examine what ISIS has done in the past, and their stated reasons for their actions, it is possible to discern an underlying strategic rationale, with several objectives:
1. Revenge upon the nations that fight against it in the Middle East.
2. Such acts maintain the morale of their fighters and activists who perceive these horrors as being victories.
3.These actions, if persistent enough, as in Iraq and Syria, create a climate of fear.
4. Their atrocities keep Daesh in the public eye via media publicity, reminding us that they are still a force to be reckoned with.
5. The attacks, while punishing the citizens of enemy countries (who are all guilty because they do not share the ISIS dogma), tie up huge resources.
Anyway, while we mourn our dead, our politicians make statements and we engage in gestures of defiance and solidarity with the victims, ISIS will be doing some simple arithmetic and analysing last night's events in London with an eye to the planning of further crimes against humanity. Back in June, 2015, I commented that ISIS would be making calculations from the results of the Tunisian murders, carried out by the late and unlamented Seifeddine Rezgui . In exchange for his "martyrdom", 38 innocent tourists died. ISIS bragged that they had 4000 operatives in Europe and I postulated that, if ISIS were doing their sums and if each operative killed as many people as Rezgui, 152 000 European citizens would die.
Last night's crime will give ISIS much food for thought. In the space of eight minutes, their three operatives inflicted 55 casualties, dead and wounded. Rounding up the decimal point, that equals 7 victims a minute. Now, this happened in central London, with a well-trained police firearms squad not far away. If their next atrocity happens in a less well protected location like a country town or a seaside resort, it will take longer to deploy a force to deal with them, and the toll of victims will be higher. A half-hour's rampage at the same rate would inflict 210 casualties. For the strategic planners of ISIS, humanity does not enter the reckoning; it is a matter of simple and brutal arithmetic. As it is with all terrorist movements, they do not count the cost of their actions to their victims; what matters to them is the simple arithmetic of the body count.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Tom Holland, ISIS and a Search for Answers

A few nights ago, Channel Four screened a documentary made by the historian Tom Holland: “ISIS – The Origins of Violence”. It was a sobering, sombre film which pointed towards answers to the question all sane thinking people ask : why do ISIS/Daesh carry out the hideous atrocities for which they are notorious? The usual explanations are either limited and/or superficial. Either Daesh are dismissed as “Islamofascists” (by people like me), as the product of the invasion of Iraq (by Stop the War Coalition and their ilk), or they carry out their atrocities to terrify all opposition (by ISIS/Daesh prisoners).
Whatever the merits of these arguments, they fail to explain the ideological justification for the evil behaviour of ISIS. Alexander Solzhenitsyn once said: “Men can only commit great acts of evil if they believe they are doing good”. Thus, the driving idea of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen was their belief that they were creating a better world by slaughtering Jews and Communists. The Soviet secret police state apparatchiki saw their brutal regime as a necessary step towards creating a socialist state. Holland takes the courageous step of identifying the tenets of ISIS beliefs which drive their fanatical urges to commit crimes against humanity.
At the start of the film, like a good historian, Holland links the past to the present by visiting Paris and showing harrowing film of the massacres and the Charlie Hebdo murders. Holland says: “Isis have a thing about Paris". The “thing” is that ISIS regard France in general as the place where the Crusades began and Paris in particular as a city of vice and prostitution. He further explains that ISIS see themselves as re-establishing the caliphate ended by Kemal Attaturk in Istanbul, 1924. He also, interestingly, describes the impact that Napoleon’s impact upon Islam following his invasion and occupation of Egypt in1798, which led to a subtle change in the way Muslims regard Mohammed – as a neo- Napoleonic warrior leader, rather than a mystical force. The concept of Jihad, says Holland, changed from the struggle of the soul on a spiritual journey to an active war against unbelievers, following two failed attempts by Muslim armies to capture Constantinople in the 14th and 15th centuries.
It is to Holland’s credit that he highlights these matters which most commentators tend to pass over. These historical events might not figure large in our world view, but they do for ISIS. Where Holland is at his best, however, is where he locates the central tenets of ISIS thinking in the Koran itself. As Rosamund Urwin says in the Evening Standard:
“He (Holland) argues that Isis “self-consciously draws on Islamic scriptures, texts and episodes from Mohammed’s life to justify what they’re doing”.
Besides this, Holland asserts that ISIS/Daesh regard themselves as returning to the essential scriptures and following the true path of Islam. This gives me an eerie feeling of Deja vu – evangelical Christians said something similar to my younger self when they talked of “getting back to the Bible”. The Muslim equivalent is known as “Salafism”, aka "Wahabism". As Holland says in the “New Statesman”:
“Salafism today is probably the fastest-growing Islamic movement in the world. The interpretation that Isis applies to Muslim scripture may be exceptional for its savagery – but not for its literalism. Islamic State, in its conceit that it has trampled down the weeds and briars of tradition and penetrated to the truth of God’s dictates, is recognisably Salafist”
In short, Holland sees ISIS as having brought about an internal crisis in Islam itself. He acknowledges that most Muslims deplore what ISIS do, but he argues that mainstream Muslims need to take more assertive action. A “firewall”, as he calls it, is needed if ISIS can truly be described as UnIslamic. Holland continues:  
“Such behaviour (ie, ISIS violence) is certainly not synonymous with Islam; but if not Islamic, then it is hard to know what else it is.”
It is not for me to prescribe the next step, but, overall, Holland has raised some interesting questions and provided a penetrating analysisof ISIS thinking (if that’s the right word). I was impressed, also, with his reporting of the plight of the Yazidis under ISIS, and the world’s indifference to their persecution. As he told the ES:
“Holland is angry that the Yazidis have been so overlooked. “The massacres and enslavement was going on while Israel was attacking Gaza. There was talk about ‘Israeli genocide’. Israel was not committing genocide. It was not engaging in a deliberate attempt to kill civilians. All the world’s press was in Gaza, writing this, while at the same time an authentic genocide was going on, and no one paid it any attention. What happened to the Yazidis was authentically Nazi.”
This was no surprise to me, but it helps that a historian of Holland’s stature chooses to highlight the matter. He also reported on another story that never makes the headlines: the persecution of Christians by ISIS. He visited a monastery where the only worshippers are two resident monks and looked out over what were once Christian lands, but are now occupied by Daesh. If anything, Holland understates the persecution of Christians by ISIS. He says that ISIS tolerate Jews and Christians under their rule, as long as they pay a tax called the Jizya. This gives a misleading impression, as “The Spectator” says:
“Isis has stopped pretending. A 2016 issue of Dabiq blew cover, outing Christians repeatedly as ‘pagans’ and encouraging followers to ‘break crosses’ while boasting of having murdered scores of priests since their last publication. All pretence that Christians were afforded special treatment has evaporated. So why does the international community keep trotting out this lie?"
Why indeed?

Two photographs that need no explanation.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Diane Abbott - Pots and Kettles

After the disastrous Dieppe Raid of 19 August, 1942, the German and pro-Nazi media exploded with a protracted period of gloating. This seemingly unrelated event came to mind when I saw the outbreaks of mirth from the right-wing press over Diane Abbott's "car crash" interview with Nick Ferrari on LBC. Quentin Letts, in yesterday's Daily Mail said:
"..the BBC forced her to listen – while a TV camera was focused on her face – to her bloopers on the Ferrari show."
With what seems to be purely malevolent relish, Letts goes on to say:
"The poor pudding just sat there and her mouth alternated between flickers of a smile and something more sad, possibly close to tears."
Even the irritating Michael Gove, whose tenure as Minister for Education was a standing joke, seized upon the opportunity to attack an opponent in trouble:
“... it would be uniquely dangerous if we were to allow them (i.e. Labour) to come to power because not enough people had voted Conservative at this election, and they were able to preside over some ramshackle chaotic coalition which would pitch this country into danger.”
Mr Gove knows a lot about chaotic coalitions - he used to belong to one.
I cannot deny that Ms Abbott's performance on LBC was substandard and she needs to learn from her mistakes, but the malicious glee with which she has been attacked is disgusting. This is all part and parcel of the right-wing media's campaign to smear the Labour Party leadership and their policies. The personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn are well enough known - he has been labelled everything from a supporter of terrorism to a Wurzel Gummidge lookalike. What is less well known is the vilification of Diane Abbott on social media, in phone calls, emails and letters. Anyone who doubts this can type her name into YouTube and see some of the vile stuff that surfaces. She is abused for her ethnicity and for being a woman. She is regularly subjected to racist abuse and threats of rape and murder. Since the killing of Jo Cox, such threats cannot be taken lightly. Quentin Letts, patronisingly, concludes his triumphalist article by saying:
"Politics, like farce, is a hard game. You trifle with it at your peril."
Really, Mr Letts? The pressures faced by Diane Abbott and all female and ethnic minority MPs are no laughing matter. And since when did a hard game have to be dangerous to life and limb?
Nor is Diane Abbott the only politician or public figure ever to make foolish gaffes when facing the questions of the press. There was the famous occasion when the Green Party leader, Natalie Bennett, was interviewed by Nick Ferrari before the 2015 Election. Ferrari asked Ms Bennett how her party would pay for an additional 500,000 new social homes. Ms Bennett's reply was a masterpiece of vagueness:
Ms Bennett said:
“Well, what we want to do is fund that particularly by removing tax relief on mortgage interests for private landlords. We have a situation where…”
Mr Ferrari asked how much that would raise, to which Ms Bennett stumbled: "Erm... well... it's... that's part of the whole costing."
Then there was Gordon Brown's blunder in describing a constituent, Gillian Duffy, as "a bigoted woman" - for which he later apologised. But perhaps the car crash interview that resonates the most is that of Margaret Thatcher in 1983. As The Mirror says:
"...Margaret Thatcher was floored by a member of the public who asked her about the sinking of the Belgrano.Appearing on Nationwide during the 1983 election campaign Mrs Thatcher was grilled by a voter, Diana Gould, on the sinking of the Argentine warship the General Belgrano during the previous year's Falklands war."
Nor are car crash interviews exclusive to Britain:
 Sarah Palin of Alaska enlivened the 2008 US presidential race when first nominated — until her lack of knowledge of current affairs became an embarrassment. Just before the election, she could not name a single newspaper or magazine she read daily:
. “All of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years. I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news.”
Then, in 2011, there was the awful interview given by Tony Abbott (no relation to Diane). When Abbott was leader of the Australian parliamentary opposition, a TV interviewer asked him about an appallingly tactless remark he  made about the death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan -"Shit happens". During the interview, Abbott did not speak at all. He simply stared at the interviewer and nodded his head.
To conclude, Diane Abbott does need to take stock of her blunder and make sure she never again gives the malicious Tory press such an easy propaganda victory. However, she is not the first politician to make a mess of things on air and she won't be the last.