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Mousa and Mendonca

June 1, 2007

 Baha Mousa, a Basra hotel receptionist suspected of storing insurgent arms, was arrested by British troops in September 2003 and died in their custody. A mere 41 months later, a Court Martial of various soldiers was held, including the Commanding Officer of the Battalion which seized Mousa, Colonel Jorge Mendonca. Having since been told that he a) would not and b) would face possible internal, non-criminal disciplinary action, Mendonca has now decided to quit the Army, to the fury of the Telegraph and the Mail.

 1) We don’t know how Baha Mousa was killed and we need to.

We know that Baha Mousa died as the result of being kicked and punched whilst being held in custody by the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment.

What we don’t know, because contradictory evidence was brought at the court martial of the soldiers accused of killing Mousa, is whether he was beaten to death as a result of a deliberate policy of maltreating detainees – and if so who agreed on such a policy- or if he was killed spontaneously  by aggressive NCOs and Private soldiers, angered by the recent killing of their comrades by ‘insurgents’ – and if so who the Officers were who could and should have made it their business to know of, and prevent, such maltreatment.

It is entirely possible that the killing of Baha Mousa combined both explanations: if soldiers have been told that a certain amount of maltreatment of detainees is ‘policy’, then all it takes is one or two sadists as the dominant personalities in one infantry section, or one or two men angered by the recent killing of one of their mates, for that ‘certain amount’ of maltreatment to become a matter of kicking a man to death.

This is why the rules against torture have to be as strict as possible and as strictly enforced as possible. Soldiers in Iraq are young men in an entirely foreign environment living in justifiable fear for their lives. Limits on what they can do to civilians and guerrilla suspects are not just there to protect the civilians: they are there to protect the soldiers too.

The British Army has, to its credit, followed this policy with regard to when soldiers may open fire in Iraq and what kind of weaponry they may use. It is right that British troops do not call in artillery or air strikes on crowded Iraqi towns; it is right that British troops are prohibited from firing at anyone they cannot say is directly threatening life; it is right that British troops have no American-style ‘force protection doctrine’ which privileges the lives of troops above civilians. These things are right even if British troops lose their lives as a result; they are right even if the more moronic of their British fellow-citizens are ignorant of the dangers and sacrifices that British soldiers are making. The Army  must follow the same principle with regard to detainees.

 At the original Court Martial, the Prosecution said that the Army had done so. Mendonca’s defence said that he had specifically queried the rough treatment of detainees and been told that some maltreatment was official policy. Someone is lying and we need to know who.

2) The use of ‘war crimes’ legislation was mere window-dressing.

One NCO, Corporal Donald Payne, admitted beating Mousa, though not causing his death, and was convicted under a War Crimes statute. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that his punishment would have been lighter or his conviction less likely had he been charged, as he could easily have been, under the existing British Criminal or Military Laws governing assault and homicide.  There is no reason, therefore, to believe that any deterrent effect was achieved by dragging War Crimes legislation into this squalid affair. Payne committed a crime and deserved to go to jail. But the demand for a War Crimes prosecution that is said to have emanated from the Lord Chancellor’s Department shows, yet again, the genius that this government has for focusing on the inessentials, particularly in matters of life and death.

Of course a British soldier who helps kick a detainee to death should be imprisoned. But the screeching lawyers so obsessed with charging him under their shiny new statute failed utterly, and grotesquely, to investigate the death of Mousa in a full or a timely manner.

3) The length of time taken to investigate and prosecute British soldiers is a disgrace, which hurts all involved in such cases.

It took nearly four years to prosecute the case of a man killed in detention, despite the fact that the soldiers who detained him were known to the investigating authorities, thanks to the Army’s strict record-keeping, and easily accessible for interrogation. This was not, surely, an especially complex case.

Even less complex was the case of the seven paratroopers accused of beating an Iraqi to death, which took over two years to bring to trial and collapsed humiliatingly when six prosecution witnesses admitted lying in their statements, and suddenly discovered that they could not, strangely, remember where they had buried the body of their ‘murdered’ relative. Also un-complex was the case of the tank crewman who fired a machine-gun man assaulting a comrade with a rock, whose shots killed both men: it took over three years to tell him that he would not be facing a trial for murder or manslaughter.

In all three of these cases, British soldiers have been kept waiting for years to find out if they would go to court on homicide charges; and in the Mousa case, at least, this exquisite cruelty was extended to the Iraqi relatives of a man who really had been killed unjustifiably by British soldiers. It is a disgrace that this is happening.

4) The likeliest cause of such delay is the massive underfunding of the Armed Forces in general and the Army in particular.

I would agree with anyone who says that lives may be lost if the Army cannot properly investigate and prosecute crimes allegedly committed by its soldiers, and that, to this end, the military police should be properly funded or replaced. Anyone who says that this must be the Army’s sole or main priority is a fool. Lives are being lost by the despatch of soldiers to Afghanistan with cheap Pakistani-manufactured machinegun ammunition; lives – and many of them will be civilian lives- are likely to be lost by the absurd game of sending out tiny numbers of British soldiers to the Taliban heartlands of Helmand, to be ‘cheaply’ backed up by air and artillery support.

Anyone who has been anywhere near the bases of the British military over the last few years knows the truth: everything is being stripped to the bare bones so that the Government can fight two wars whilst buying a lot of shiny and dubiously useful new weapons systems. The underfunding of military justice is a disgrace, but is of a piece with every single corner of defence policy not linked to big spending on the products of arms manufacturers located in sensitive constituencies.

5) The prosecution of Col. Jorge Mendonca is puzzling, and possibly- but not necessarily- the disgrace it has been painted.

The Mail and Telegraph have alleged in the plainest terms that Mendonca was only prosecuted after criticism of an earlier trial in which private soldiers and Junior NCOs, but not Officers, were tried for the beating and humiliation of Iraqi looters. An officer was to be charged, and Mendonca, say the rightwing press, fit the bill. Maybe, maybe not. It is a little odd, to say the least, that the Commanding Officer of a Battalion was charged and not the officers, and WOs and Senior NCOs, whose had direct responsibility for the men accused of beating Baha Mousa. Were Donald Payne and his cohorts taken from the Intelligence Section, in which case the responsible officer should be the Battalion’s Intelligence Officer, a Captain? From the Headquarters Company, which would have been led by  a Major assisted by  a Company Sergeant Major? Again, we need to know.

If it was indeed the case that the Attorney General- a man who made a deeply dishonest change of mind over the legality of an attack on Iraq at a key moment in 2003- simply ordered the scapegoating of Colonel Mendonca, that would be a serious abuse of power. It would still, though, be less serious than the killing of Mousa, a matter which the ‘Mail’ and ‘Telegraph’ seem rather eager to forget.

6) We need to get out of Iraq. Out, out, out.

There has not been an atrocious British rule in Southern Iraq: we have evidence of no massacres, no mass roundups, no bombings or shellings of densely inhabited areas. The stupider newspaper columnists, and their more credulous readers, will think that all British soldiers are all murderous thugs regardless of the evidence (and at least some of them will come clamouring for ‘military intervention’ by these same irredeemable butchers the next time there is a crisis like Sierra Leone in 2000 or Rwanda in 1994). That is irrelevant.

But many things are more pressing. We cannot fight any war on the cheap, and yet the Government is trying to fight two wars on the never-never. Yes, it is mere conventional wisdom that fighting in Iraq left us unable to fight and rebuild Afghanistan: and conventional wisdom is right.  Britain has escaped the worst of the Iraqi conflict, partly by the tact and discipline of its military- and we can and should say this even in the context of a crime like Mousa’s death- and partly because British forces were located far from the ethnic shatterzones or the concentrations of Sunni rebels.

Now things are changing. The Shi’ites of the South are competing for local power, and they will not stop at non-violent means. The Iranians are, we should admit, the dominant power across most of Southern Mesopotamia, and they are unlikely tolerate the continuing incoherent mix of threats and negotiation from the lame-duck Bush Administration. Nobody knows if it is possible to bring Sadr into an understanding with a stronger Iraqi government, should one improbably emerge. The situation in Southern Iraq is probably now as stable as it will ever get. If British troops are pulled out of Iraq now, they will go with less of their own blood spilled, and less Iraqi blood shed, than will be the case if we stay.

There are things worth fighting and killing for, but giving the Bush Administration time to search for a clue is not one of them. A sensible policy is sometimes the most radical policy: a sensible Brown policy on Iraq would be withdrawal in a maximum of six months. And we are unlikely to see that, since there are simply too many threats that the Bushites will make. 

Brown will not want to see the ‘Aid and Trade for Africa’ agenda wrecked, and Bush is easily vengeful enough and irresponsible enough to threaten that. We will continue to have troops in Iraq, in smaller numbers, with the new Prime Minister hoping that you can be a little bit of a military occupier the same way that you can be a little bit pregnant. We will continue to have insufficient numbers of troops in Afghanistan, while airpower and artillery strikes keep bases secure and kill civilians, and while British ministers vapour about ‘reconstruction’ and ‘allied contributions’.

We are heading for more British military deaths, more Iraqi and Afghan civilian deaths, a certain defeat in Iraq and a probable- and even more serious- defeat in Afghanistan. We are heading into these things with our eyes closed and our mouths open: look out for the first Brown speech about how he refuses to do ‘the easy thing rather than the right thing’ in Iraq.

The killing of Baha Mousa was a squalid and brutal affair, and the failure of all subsequent inquiries invite nothing but contempt.  But wars bring far worse  things than the death of one detainee. Leaving British troops in an ever more unstable war zone, attached to an ally flailing desperately for survival, is to invite more deaths, all squalid and all brutal and all, most importantly,  futile.

‘A Fistful of Euros’ awards

May 23, 2007

UPDATE: The polls are now closed: thanks to all those who voted for me. ‘A Fistful of Euros’ is well worth reading, as are a great many of the blogs nominated in its competition.

‘A Fistful of Euros’ is an excellent group blog on European politics, which is currently hosting the ‘Third Annual Satin Pajama Awards’ for the best blogs in Europe. I’ve been nominated for the ‘Best Writing’ and ‘Best New Blog’ awards.

If you’ve come here from the AFOE link, you’re no doubt worried about getting lost in the huge quantity of posts.  I’d recommend taking a look at this post first- it’s not a bad piece of reportage, as is  this .   Although it risks becoming a fight with another blogger, this post is a reasonable piece of analysis; this post, this one and this are all examples of polemic. Clearly I started out as a calm, open-minded reporter looking for new stories and ended up as a frothing polemicist, screaming abuse at targets he could vaguely remember reading about in the morning paper: not an unusual trajectory for a writer, but it’s quite impressive that I managed to pack it into a few weeks.

I can’t yet say who I’ll be voting for, as I have to admit I’ve only read a small fraction of the nominated blogs. I’ll read as many as I can and update this post with any recommendations.

Ethnic tension and the BNP

May 18, 2007

Daniel ‘Dsquared’ Davies has written an article on what he calls, in Brechtian fashion, ‘The Resistible rise’   of the British National Party, which is witty, intelligent, and much better than his rather shallow original piece on the subject. He also does rather a poor job of explaining what I said on the subject, but that’s okay: so did I. And Dsquared doesn’t rebut my main point at all, though he makes a vague two-fingered gesture at it in his comments thread.

Self-important though this clearly is, it’s time to revisit my earlier post; to rewrite the parts that were unclear and to restate the parts that weren’t. Doing this will hopefully clear the ground for some less self-obsessed posts on the subjects of ethnic tension in England and some awful possible parallels with the recent history of another part of the United Kingdom.

 1) A little humility would be in order from a couple of white, London-based Oxford graduates writing about ethnic tensions in the English Midlands and Northwest

 I don’t like the way I wrote my original post. And I don’t like the way Dan Davies wrote either of his two posts.

 Both of us sound like God Almighty advising the mortals on the mysteries of life, rather than a couple of bright Oxford graduates with interesting but necessarily- given the general lack of knowledge of events ‘on the ground’ in BNP-voting areas, and also given the rather specific ignorance of Messrs Hardie and Davies- somewhat speculative ideas on local politics in places where we don’t live. 

What is missing from both our posts is any sense that it might be a good idea to look for other data, or that the phenomena we’re describing might have multiple causes instead of being due entirely to our favoured explanations.

2) The BNP won’t win many elections or hold many seats, and that isn’t the damn point.

Any confusion on this point is my fault entirely. I had stated perfectly clearly in the post: ‘There will not be a BNP-ruled Britain… the party will never win a Parliamentary seat…’- to which I should add that I’d be amazed if they ever have a majority on a single Borough council, let alone any bigger Local Authority. Then I slapped on the snappy title ‘The Very Real Rise of the BNP’, which does conjure pictures of the BNP winning lots of council or even Westminster seats.

 Chris Dillow, who linked to the post, called it ‘Why the BNP do matter’. That, or ”Why the BNP might be a threat’, or the present title, would have been less punchy but more accurate. The old title was misleading because it implied that the BNP was rising to power by electoral means (which the post said it wasn’t) and also objectionable because of the unshakeable certainty it displayed- which my post, alas, entirely shared.

(Scepticism patch: yes, I might well be wrong that the BNP will never win a council or get an MP elected. But that needs a longer post, and I’m speeding through this point because Dsquared and I agreed on it.)

 3) Elected members of local government have few or no powers to affect peoples’ lives: this is also not the damn point.

Again, clearly stated in my original post: ‘the BNPers can’t or won’t run anything’, with the possible exception of local low-cost council housing, stocks of which are now very small. (Even here they will run up against Race Relations legislation and the permanent local government officers who really run most of the show, to say nothing of the Treasury who provide most of the financing, so even a BNP majority council, should there ever be one, will have a very circumscribed opportunity to favour ‘whites’ in allocating housing.)

As I said, ‘Local voting does count, even if local councillors don’t’. Why do I think that? Keep reading.

4) Signalling by a static population of racists is not really a problem…

Dsquared argues- in the comments to his second post- that if you have 20,000 racists in Blackburn who decide to tell you that they’re racist by voting BNP in largely meaningless local elections, the problem is not that they’ve declared their racism but that they were racist in the first place. Which is where I have to respond that he didn’t read, and hasn’t rebutted, the key point in my original post.

5) …Unless that signalling contributes to a process of ethnic (or ‘racial’) polarisation- and a growth in the racist population.

The key point from my original post: ‘what does a strong ‘white’ vote for the BNP do in a place like Bradford? It sends out a strong signal to Bradford Asians: lots of local whites hate you and you don’t know which ones, so best to treat them all with suspicion or even aggression.’  Further: ‘Voting is a signal even where it doesn’t really affect policy, and voting BNP is a massive signal of hatred towards your Asian neighbours. ‘

In conclusion: ‘the BNP are still a threat, because their presence is both a symptom of and a cause of increasing ethnic polarisation in a number of British regions.’

With all due humility, I’d like to say that that last sentence needs changing:  yes, the vote for an openly racist party is rather clearly ‘a symptom of’ a worrying degree of ethnic tension, but I can’t say whether it succeeds as ‘a cause of increasing ethnic polarisation’. 

 Firstly because I personally don’t know if ethnic polarisation is occurring in areas where the BNP are making a pitch for votes, or in areas where they aren’t. Secondly because I can’t (as yet) find evidence that anyone else really knows this or not. Thirdly because one can certainly imagine other ways of signalling ethnic hatred other than voting BNP, which may be more effective (or just as ineffective) a signal as a vote for Griffin’s shambling crew.

6)  We don’t know if ethnic polarisation is occurring.

 Specifically, my initial trawl of the data suggests that we don’t know very much about whether ethnic polarisation is occurring in the regions of Britain where the BNP gets some votes. More than that, there doesn’t seem to be much of a determined effort to collect such data. There are some worrying but rather ‘soft’ data points indicating that there has been ethnic polarisation in areas which the BNP have found fruitful: the Cantle Report on Bradford is a good place to start. There is some rather harder data arguing that there is considerable ethnic segregation among British schoolchildren: but this is only one working paper and might well, if we all look hard enough, contain considerable flaws, and we don’t know what bearing it has on specifically BNP-targeted areas. This paper argues in a more restrained fashion that internal migration is leading to increased ethnic concentration, but says that the phenomenon needs a lot more study. By contrast, the demographer Ludi Simpson has written a paper arguing that ‘self-segregation’ on ethnic lines is a ‘myth’, singling the Cantle report out for particular criticism. Writers decrying or praising current levels of immigration, or the hard-to-measure ‘integration’, quote whichever of these documents draws conclusions most amenable to them.

Although the links above only scratch the surface, there is a debate on ethnic polarisation and segregation among social scientists like Simpson and local government officers like Cantle. If polarisation is occurring, then the BNP are unlikely to be having a benign effect- but they may well be having only a small malign effect or possibly no effect at all. We don’t know.

7) Daniel Davies and I are worrying about different things

Dsquared argues that the rising vote for the BNP in General Elections, and their winning of (a very small number) of council seats is irrelevant because none of them puts the Party anywhere near the effective exercise of political power: I agree. He also says that the BNP’s electoral success is peaking and any peak is likely to be followed by rapid decline (the first point buttressed by this excellent post on The Gaping Silence) and I think this is very likely true. He finally points out that the BNP’s current membership and electorate probably consists disproportionately of weirdos and marginal individuals: having met a few of them, and also thinking about the social costs incurred at most levels of society by being an open fascist, I again think that this is almost certainly true.

So we agreed all along? No- and this is just stubborn misreading on Dsquared’s part. I’m not worried about these shambling apes taking over the government of the UK or even of any small town. It won’t happen.

 I’m worried about the possibility that they may not just be a signal of non-increasing white racism but a factor in increasing the number of Asians who fear that their white neighbours are racist- and hence opt to separate from the ‘white’ community

8.) Weirdos count in weird situations and small populations can generate big conflicts.

Why am I worried about the BNP- a small collection of marginal individuals believing crazy things about the Third Reich, who have just about managed to win fifty council seats, few of which they will retain?

Short answer: because I have read a great deal of Northern Irish history.  If you look at the towns in the English North and Midlands where large Asian and white working-class populations live near each other, there are just too many similiarities with the Northern Ireland of 1967, just before the most recent bout of ‘The Troubles’ got properly going.  

Northern Ireland had a population of 1.5 million in 1969: much of the Province was quiet then and remained so in the years to come. Ever been to South Belfast? A lovely place, if a little twee.  And yet this tiny population, many of whom never participated in violence in any way, and most of whom rejected extremist politics, generated a conflict which lasted three decades, and killed over three thousand people. A disproportionate amount of the violence came from the Falls and Shankill roads- both of which one can walk up and down in the span of a single afternoon.Is this alarmist? It could be. But consider this. In 1969 the leading racist demagogue in Northern Ireland- the Reverend Doctor Ian Paisley- was unable to win a seat in the local Stormont assembly, and struggled in council elections. The leading ‘loyalist’ terror group, the UVF, murdered three or four people in 1967-69; the IRA managed no killings until they defended the Catholic ghettos in the riots of ’69. Only sociopaths and weirdos attended the meetings of the UVF, or kindred groups like ‘Tara‘.

The IRA existed: as an ineffectual mixture of an Old Comrades Association and a semi-Marxist discussion group. There were areas of segregated housing, but many more streets were Catholic and Protestant families lived alongside each other. In parts of modern Britain- in Lancashire and parts of Yorkshire, in the West Midlands and the East End- the de facto segregation of ethnic communities is comparable and the death toll from terrorist violence, with 53 murdered in London under two years ago, is much higher.

 9) To summarise:

There may or may not be a process of ethnic polarisation in certain areas of modern Britain.  I think that there is pretty good prima facie evidence in three of the links above, but Ludi Simpson’s paper puts the opposite view with considerable force.

But if – if- there is racial polarisation, then we do need to worry about the BNP – and their Salafi  or Takfiri counterparts at work in the Asian communities. Of course there won’t be an elected fascist government or even an elected fascist council in this country. But when large communities live near by each other and find direct communication difficult, the hate-filled messages of weirdo minorities might help increase that polarisation, and turn polarisation into hostility. It has happened: only weirdos wanted violence in Northern Ireland in 1966 or 1967. Two years later, they had their wish, and then violence stopped being the preserve of the oddball fringe. If there is ethnic violence in the streets of your town you may not wish to participate but you cannot ignore it.  

This is what I am worried about: not the elections, but what election results may say to people living in a society which to some extent is dividing on communalist lines. We have seen something rather like this before, and it didn’t turn out well.

The abolition of playtime

May 9, 2007

It is always necessary to mock people in authority, except when they do it too well themselves. Who wrote these guys’ scripts?

 “We are not intending to have any play time,” said Alan McMurdo, the head teacher.Pupils won’t need to let off steam because they will not be bored.”…Miles Delap, project manager at the academy, said: “…We have taken away an uncontrollable space to prevent bullying and truancy.” Delap, who has run the academy project on behalf of its sponsor, Perkins Engines, and the Deacon school trust, said that playgrounds did not fit into the concept.’

This story, by an excellent journalist called Geraldine Hackett,  needs to be read in full. (Hat tip to Natalie Bennett.) At one level, this is just a cheerless gaggle of middle-management types who have forgotten what it was like to be fourteen years old, who don’t care if they are taking some kids’ childhoods away, and who won’t be the ones who have to impose discipline on a room full of adolescents who have spent all day cooped up indoors. Nothing new under the sun: every society known to us has produced people with a total lack of imagination and a relish for exercising power.

But why are they getting away with it? That is rather new, surely. Geraldine Hackett provides the necessary context:

‘Thomas Deacon… will be one of the biggest schools in Europe… and is one of the showcases of Tony Blair’s academies programme.

‘Academy schools remain in the state sector but are independent of local councils. They are sponsored by private sector firms which have some say in the management. ‘

So we can draw some wider lessons beyond that of the foolishness of Delap, McMurdo and their cohorts. The local parents were not consulted as to whether they wanted their children to be sent to a playground-less school. They now have no democratic way of changing this decision- short of hoping for a change of policy in London. That’s it, because the management of the school is answerable only to central government,  not to anybody elected locally.

 Yes, they can vote for someone else as their MP, and hope that this leads to a change of government in Westminster, and eventually to a change of policy for their academy. But perhaps the voters of Peterborough have other reasons for not voting against the Labour Party. Perhaps- very likely- they will vote against them but their votes will hardly be enough to change the party in power. And perhaps- even likelier- the local Tory candidate will make all the right noises about playgrounds and the Tory party itself, when and if it reaches power, will find it convenient to go on ignoring local parents’ wishes. A school playground in one town, whilst it is a very big deal indeed for a few thousand parents and children, is a very small matter for the government of the world’s fourth or fifth biggest economy. 

Here  we have a clear example of why local democracy can’t be dismissed as the obsession of a few anoraks.   Petty authoritarians, grasping architects, empire-building managers: these have always existed and will always do so. The way that we can keep them from doing too much damage is to give the people most affected by their policies the democratic right to vote them out of power. 

Updates: the King’s Cross violinist and email notices

May 9, 2007

If you’d like to receive emails alerting you to  new posts on my blog, just send an email with ‘subscribe’ in the subject line to: 

To unsubscribe, just email the same address with ‘unsubscribe’ in the title line. I’ll set up a proper webform in time.

A lot of people have read the first post on this blog, about the violinist at King’s Cross Station. The day after that incident, I left the UK for Singapore, and I wrote the post three and a half days after I saw her play. Since I got back to London two weeks ago I’ve been to King’s Cross a few times. There’s been no sign of her, which could be quite good news if she is off the streets, or very bad news if she is still on the streets and looking for money somewhere else. I now remember that I had seen her playing at least once before at the station: very well but with nothing like the desperation I saw that night.

The very real rise of the BNP

May 4, 2007

Daniel ‘Dsquared’ Davies has written an article on what he calls the ‘Mythical rise’ of the British National Party: it is witty, intelligent, thought-provoking and entirely wrong. UPDATE: Dsquared replies to my piece here, without (to my mind) rebutting it or properly understanding it; and no doubt he thinks the same of my latest post on the same subject, which (sorta) replies to his.

Of course, one type of BNP alarmism is equally  wrong: ReichsFuhrer Griffin will never raise a pudgy hand to salute a hundred thousand goose-steppers on Whitehall, as Parliament’s ruins smoulder in the background. There will not be a BNP-ruled Britain. There will not be a BNP presence in a British Coalition Government. In fact, the party will never win a Parliamentary seat: I’m prepared to take bets on this.

So Davies and I agree, don’t we? If there will be no BNP MPs, then there’s no rise of the BNP, and therefore no need to worry. Right? No, wrong; deeply and dangerously wrong.

The rise of the BNP is occurring and it may well harm this country very deeply. At the moment, it clearly affects only some communities, in some places: that is why the rest of us are finding it so easy to ignore, and that is precisely why the BNP will find it all the easier to poison the political atmosphere that everyone must breathe.

 Davies makes three arguments which I want to deal with here.  (There are two others: that BNPers lose seats the first time they face re-election- which I need to check, but which I think was 100% true of their first electoral breakthrough, in 1993, but is now decreasingly true; and that any policy of limited immigration is either racist or appeals mainly to racists, which is  a form of argument one hears a lot and which greatly worries me.)

First, that local election results don’t matter since only weirdos and party hacks vote.

Second, that local election results don’t matter since even if a party gains power at a local level, it is more or less impossible for it to exercise power in any meaningful way: it’s Whitehall what runs things, sonny. 

Third, even if General Election successes for the BNP also show some success, that doesn’t matter: it is simply that the national proportion of fascists is now voting for an openly fascist party, rather than assuming that the Tory Party will faithfully, if shamefacedly, represent its interests.

Let’s deal with these three points in order. It makes sense to run the first and second points together, since they are very likely to be related: there is no point in voting for a tier of government which has little or no effective power, and local councillors who are voted for by a small proportion of the electorate are in too weak a position to demand more autonomy from central government.

(Parenthetically, this prompts one interesting reflection, which doesn’t invalidate Davies’s argument. If we do see a movement to grant more powers to local government- something which the Tories are beginning to promise, particularly on policing, and which any sensible leftwinger is likely to advocate when contemplating Whitehall’s failure to regenerate the ex-industrial regions- then will it be resisted in the name of anti-Fascism? Probably, but then there is a ready-made counter-argument: if local government matters more, a greater number of people will vote and fascist nutters will cast a smaller proportion of the ballots.)

But Davies’s arguments on the triviality of local government are wrong, for these reasons. Firstly, local government administration can affect your life once you go a bit further down the income ladder. It matters for those who are so poor that they can’t rent or buy in the private market, and must instead rely on the dwindling stock of ‘council houses’. There is already a lot of local controversy, which only rarely reaches the national press, on the allocation of council houses, with too many said to be going to this or that ethnic group- the key factor, as it happens, in igniting protests in Northern Ireland in 1968.

But beyond low-rent housing- trivial for a City of London banker like Davies, rather more important for a large number of Britons- local politics  still exist, even if local government has been almost completely emasculated. Local voting does count, even if local councillors don’t. The French language makes it clearer: their word for vote is ‘voix’ – voice.

Consider how ‘voice’ works at the level of a particular locality with a strong degree of ethnic separation- and tension. Conditions in (say) Burnley, Bolton or even Barking are very different from those in Surrey, Cheshire or North London: crises can and do erupt in areas populated by a few hundred thousand people. There is already a limited degree of contact, and hence a limited degree of knowledge, among ‘whites’ in, say, Bradford about the local Asians, and vice versa. Limited knowledge is likely to lead to limited rationality. 

So what does a strong ‘white’ vote for the BNP do in a place like Bradford? It sends out a strong signal to Bradford Asians: lots of local whites hate you and you don’t know which ones, so best to treat them all with suspicion or even aggression. And of course that will likely make young Asians more aggressive towards whites, and no doubt local young whites will respond in kind and probably up the ante… Don’t we have a delightful spiral starting?

Voting is a signal even where it doesn’t really affect policy, and voting BNP is a massive signal of hatred towards your Asian neighbours. All the more convincing in that the BNPers can’t or won’t run anything, so you’re doing it purely for symbolic effect: and symbols matter like hell in tense situations.

The implication of Davies’s thesis that ‘BNP voters are just the people who used to vote Tory when it was a crypto-racist party’ is that the vote should either be uniformly distributed across the country, or distributed in a way that would correspond to the strength of the Tory vote. This does not correspond to the facts on the ground.

BNP support is very highly regionally concentrated: mainly in the North West of England and the West Midlands (areas where large working class white populations live near by large Asian populations) and in Essex- where a great many white working class people set up when they left the East End of London.

As noted above, we don’t have anything like the threat of a national takeover by the BNP, or even BNP participation in a coalition. But the BNP are still a threat, because their presence is both a symptom of and a cause of increasing ethnic polarisation in a number of British regions.

Davies thinks there is nothing to worry about in the recent electoral success of the BNP. I think it could be one half of the beginning of inter-ethnic conflict on mainland Britain. The other half, of course, is what is happening in the Asian communities, and there too Davies seems to think there’s nothing very serious afoot.  Daniel Davies and I have had a great many arguments. This is one row where I would love it, really love it, if I lost.

The Falklands War: lessons unlearned

April 30, 2007

You could almost certainly write a book on the unlearned lessons of the Falklands War. Alex Harrowell is aiming to track down a few in a typically provocative series of posts. These, however, seem like good ones to start with:

1) Infantry soldiers win wars.

Not on their own, certainly. But they are almost always needed to fight wars, and needed, if anything, even more when the task is ‘peacekeeping’ or deterrrence.

The British military, since 1945, has played a role in- not always actually ‘fought’ in- at least 26 conflicts. Some of these committments were pretty tiny and short-lived, but they include several long-running guerrilla wars (notably Palestine, Malayan Emergency, and Northern Ireland- and now the current occupation of Iraq); supporting roles in three full-scale conventional wars (Korea, the liberation of Kuwait and the invasion of Iraq) and the Falklands War itself, a full conventional air-sea-land war fought between Britain and another state.

The SAS were the key formation in Oman from 1970-75; the disastrous confrontation in the 1940s with Hoxha’s Albania was a purely Naval affair, and the RAF spent 12 years supporting the USAF in overflying, and occasionally bombing, Iraq. In every other conflict, British infantry and Para battalions, and Royal Marine Commandos, were deployed in large numbers and either won the conflict or prevented an immediate defeat.

So the lesson ought to be plain: the British military has spent 60 years relying on its infantry. Don’t cut their numbers. Logically, therefore,  the whole history of post-Falklands defence policy has been to cut infantry numbers.

Counting the 3 Royal Marine Commandos, and the Para Battalion roled as ‘Special Forces Support’ Britain now has 40 Regular infantry battalions. At the time of the Falklands, the country had 56, of which eight were deployed to the South Atlantic.

The most recent cut, of four battalions, came in 2004, at the hands of a Government that had sent troops into warzones five times and was currently attempting to fight two wars.  The rationale offered for the cuts does not appear, to put it mildly, to have been an honest one. The same is true for the even more serious problem of infantry undermanning: predictable in an Army which pays high rates to those with obviously transferable civilian skills (in practice this means the Royal Signals and very few other units) and rewards its key fighting arm with low pay. 

 With the MoD calculating that only one out of three battalions can be deployed at any one time- and with, further, a sixth of the Army’s infantry strength currently ruled out of operational deployments as they equip with the Bowman radio system- we can deploy perhaps 11 or 12 infantry battalions at any one time.

With hideous difficulties looming in both Basra and Helmand, we will need reserves – not of ‘soldiers’ but reserves of infantry- to prevent an outright debacle. And there are no reserves.

2) Wars are easy, think fools.

 The Falklands war was lethally hard, and only narrowly decided. Of course, you wouldn’t have guessed that from reading the newspapers at the time.

In its diplomatic and political context, the Thatcher government’s information management strategy becomes plain.  There was always a chance that the tendency in the Reagan Administration which favoured an Argentine military dictatorship over a democratic Britain- led, of course, by the freedom-loving Jeanne Kirkpatrick– would push their President into pressurising Britain to accept terms. This was more likely if the British seemed to be close to defeat, less likely if the British projected an air of confidence.

In the service of the latter, all sorts of stories about ‘Argies’ running away filled the tabloids. Their readers came to believe that it had been, as the football chant has it: ‘Easy…Eaz-eeee!’

 These views were never held by the Paras who took Goose Green and Mount Longdon, the Guardsmen who stormed Tumbledown or the Marines who seized Mount Harriet and Two Sisters; they were not voiced by the sailors who marvelled at the courage of the Argentine fighter pilots attacking them. They were emphatically never shared by the commanders of the Task Force: in particular, Rear Admiral ‘Sandy’ Woodward estimated at the end of the campaign that his ships could have fought for a maximum of ten more days before General Winter won the war for Argentina. There’s no doubt that Margaret Thatcher knew this too.

After the Falklands came the 1991 Gulf War- often, and stupidly, referred to as ‘The First Gulf War’, as if the Iranian and Iraqi leaders had not recently spent eight years slaughtering each other’s populations.  ‘Desert Storm’- or ‘Operation Granby’ among the prosaic British military- did genuinely seem ‘easy’: American and British casualties were very few, and a bombing offensive of a few weeks led to a ground campaign which lasted mere hours.

It was easy because the Iraqi troops were led by a cowed group of Generals owing loyalty to a gangster who understood everything about internal repression and nothing about war. Easy because there was never any chance of a guerrilla campaign. Easy because all Iraq’s neighbours wanted Saddam to lose (but remain, weakened, in power). Easy because, as General Anthony Zinni later put it, the American military had prepared for decades to re-fight the Second World War, and in Saddam Hussein they found the one man stupid enough to let them do so. And it was easy only for Coalition troops: the old realities of warfare reasserted themselves in the hills of Kurdistan and the cities of Southern Iraq.

After that there came the initially embarrassing UNPROFOR committment to Bosnia: but failures and difficulties there were largely un-noticed by the British public, all too ready to swallow the line about the ineducably savage ex-Yugoslavs. Some people drew another, seemingly sterner conclusion, and decided that the only thing preventing the Bosnian war from being easy was lack of will: a theory which Tony Blair seemed to prove in Kosovo in 1999, in Sierra Leone in 2000, in Macedonia in 2001, and in the same year, in a supporting role to the Americans, in Afghanistan. War was easy, if you had enough Will. Brendan Simms crowed, in December of that year, that only four British soldiers had been killed in  Afghanistan, Macedonia, Sierra Leone and Kosovo combined.

Well, we know where that led. To Basra, and to Helmand, where more Britons will die, Brendan Simms not among them. 

Simms, and men like him, fill me with contempt. If you are going to advocate war, do so. But not on the grounds- which would be morally frivolous even if they were not factually absurd- that war has become a risk-free business. Find out about war before you shout for it, and then if you do still call for it you will know that ‘easy’ wars are the exception; high casualties and great risks are features of most wars and are latent in all.

Of all the unlearned lessons of the Falklands, this disturbs me most. Anyone who read the memoirs of the Scots Guards Lieutenant Robert Lawrence, or of Para Toms like Ken Lukowiak and Vince Bramley, or the histories of Martin Middlebrook or Max Hastings, or who spoke to soldiers, knew that for the British military the Falklands War had been savagely fought and nearly lost. Were these books read by any of the men who formed our Cabinet in 2002 and 2003? I doubt it. They were a bunch of lawyers and lecturers who attended football matches to demonstrate their populist credentials, and they knew the rhythm of the chant: ‘Easy…eaz-eee!’

The Great Paedo Hunt

April 27, 2007

Anyone remember the Great Paedophile Hunt of The Year 2000? I think that was the moment that I began to fear that the Blair government wasn’t just a routinely opportunist, routinely semi-competent, routinely confused – but also routinely rather well-meaning- Labour administration with a bit of shiny packaging. Instead it seemed that there was, as advertised, something genuinely New about Mr Blair’s Labour. These people weren’t going to get too upset if a few innocents got hurt.

Innocents? In a paedophilia scandal? With wearisome predictability, the answer is ‘yes, especially in a paedophilia scandal’. The News of the World, the most openly pornographic of Rupert Murdoch’s publications, had been making rather obvious hay with the case of Sarah Payne, a young girl kidnapped, raped and murdered by a paedophile. The NotW bought her parents’ story, which was indeed horrific.

Rebekah Wade- the editor of the rag, the girlfriend of a corpulent and talentless soap opera performer named Ross Kemp, and by dint of both these great achievements a dinner companion of the Prime Minister and his wife- decided that making a bit of cash out of a bereaved couple’s agony was not enough. There must be a Campaign, for ‘Sarah’s Law’, which would compel local authorities to notify the public of the whereabouts of convicted paedophiles.

Actually, there was plenty to get horrified about in this case, beyond the utterly disgusting details of Sarah Payne’s death. Her killer, Roy Whiting, was indeed a convicted paedophile. The judge in his original case had advocated a lengthy period of imprisonment and recommended that if he still appeared to be a risk he should be kept indefinitely in jail. With no sign at all that he had reformed, he was released after a mere two years. This does not strike me as the work of a functioning, equitable justice system.

I do strongly believe that something should be done about the State’s treatment of paedophiles, a belief dating back to my first job after university, working in a home for disturbed children, of whom a large proportion had been sexually abused. (I didn’t last long in the job: I am mildly annoyed with myself for believing that someone so young, untrained and inexperienced had any chance of doing it well, and very angry indeed with the supposed professionals who employed me.) I have a very clear memory of reading one frequently abused girl’s personal file: at least four adults had had some kind of sexual contact with her up until the age of eleven, for which one (1) man went to jail for a total of ….thirteen months. Good job he didn’t do anything really serious.

Serious tabs are not kept on these people following their release, and at least some of them will re-offend, as Roy Whiting did. The solution to me would seem to be much longer jail sentences, for reasons both of deterrence and public protection, and then some form of rigorous psychiatric assessment and supervision before and following release. Both these options cost money, and would compel us as a society to see if our anti-paedo feelings are strong enough to accept tax rises or spending cuts. So a bit of a non-starter, then. 

But obligatory publication of the whereabouts of convicted paedophiles- ‘Sarah’s Law’- would be a standing incitement to acts of violence.  Not just against the perverts themselves- and as a supporter of the rule of law, I shouldn’t say this but I think I wouldn’t be too upset at the beating up of a few child rapists. No, a lot of the violence would be aimed at people who looked like, or whose names sounded like, the real paedophiles.  We all know how easily rumours start and how fervently they are believed; we all know that some people enjoy bullying and others are easily led.

So if a popular newspaper printed dozens of photos of ‘Paedos’ with their believed whereabouts, there were no prizes for guessing that the likeliest victims would be innocent men who looked approximately the same and lived in more or less the right districts. This is what happened, the most horrifying case being the hounding of a disabled man on a poverty-stricken Hampshire housing estate, who resembled the subjects of one of the photos because they both wore neck braces.

The Police did their job well and rescued the unfortunates. The Prime Minister of the time might have been expected to issue public condemnation of the News of the World. The Home Secretary, then? The Minister of State at the Home Office? All were rather too busy to make any comment while the mobs rampaged. (By contrast, when a satirist named Chris Morris poked a little fun on TV at the mob reaction, Tessa Jowell told us that his programme was ‘”tearing down the barriers of TV decency”, while the then Child Protection Minister, Beverley Hughes, opined it was ‘unspeakably sick.’ Morris’s programme was broadcast by Channel 4, incomparably less powerful than the  Murdoch empire.)

 At the time my disgust at the Blair Paedo Pander was tempered by  a belief, or hope, that little lasting harm had been done.  At least Blair could look at ugly consequences of inciting lynch mobs, and resolve in future to be a little less accommodating of the Murdoch Press. What a fool I was. 

There was a full-blown hysterical reaction underway, a demand that the Police ‘Do something’- and do it cheap- and so they did Do Something. Something hysterical. Something badly planned. Something that turned out to reveal the rather sinister synthesis between a certain type of modern policing operation and big business. One big business- the media combine of a tax-dodging billionaire- incited mob violence as a few pitiful louts attacked even more pitiful victims whose offence was bearing a slight facial resemblance to out-of-date photos of convicted kiddie fiddlers. And then another group of big businesses- the high street banks- told credulous and careerist detectives and Home Office bureaucrats that since there is no such thing as the fraudulent online use of credit card details, anyone whose credit card appeared to have been used online to view child porn was guilty, no need to ask questions.

No previous Labour Prime Minister would have allowed incitement to violence on the front page of a national newspaper. And it strikes me as unlikely that any post-1945 Tory PM, even those who were very close to the tabloid barons, would have done such a thing: Margaret Thatcher was prepared to use the Murdoch Press, and to do Murdoch all sorts of favours in return, but she knew that Parliament was there to protect, and the Police to uphold, the Criminal Law, and she never let him muck around with that. 

By contrast, in the third year of the New Labour Government, Rupert Murdoch defecated all over the Public Order Laws, and Blair’s responses were to invite the responsible hack to tea whilst siccing the police, briefed by dishonest bankers, on to putative child porn viewers.

 I would like to believe that this will end badly for all concerned, but I have to say I doubt it: there were just too many people, too many institutions, too much power involved in the Great Paedo Hunt for there to be an honest apportionment of guilt.  I don’t think we need a Conservative Government- but we do now desperately need conservative government. We need to conserve the rule of law and the respect for public order which our last Prime Minister found to be so unhelpful, so outmoded, so… so Old.

Robben Island Kitsch

April 18, 2007

Gordon Brown has written a book on courageous people. A serious book.

Contrasts with certain other politicians are invidious, but intelligent people are forced to make them: as Ian Jack asks the Chancellor ‘The prime minister does Catherine Tate impersonations. You write a serious book. Do you think that seriousness of purpose will work [for you, as politician] in a society that really loves trivia?’ I echo Mr Jack: let us hope that Gordon Brown’s selflessness pays off for him.

The courageous people include Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.  

…Dissolve to ‘The Office’ Christmas Special:
David Brent, displaying newly-purchased black dog to staff: ‘I’ve called him… Nelson.’ (Looks significantly at Oliver, sole black person present.)
Oliver: ‘Yes, er…. After Lord Nelson. Good choice of name, David.’
David Brent: ‘No. ‘(Voice cracks a little with emotion; looks even more significantly at Oliver.) ‘Nelson…Mandela. A great leader of his people’.

I’ve always thought that Gervais and Merchant were thinking of the old Second World War flag-waving movie ‘The Dambusters’ when they wrote that scene. ‘David would want to call it that. First thing he’d think of. ‘ ‘Yes, but even he would realise that’s too much nowadays. And he has to convince the the laydeez he’s a caring and politically aware kind of bloke’. ‘But he still looks at a black labrador and thinks of the N-word….I’ve got it.’

Raoul Wallenberg is in the book too, so that’s the Holocaust angle covered, necessary in all contemporary exercises in ostentatious moral seriousness. Gandhi isn’t, so that a certain Chancellor won’t have a recent speech on the splendours of the British Empire thrown back in his face.

Oddly enough there’s nothing on politicians who vote for wars that they don’t actually believe in, in order to stay in office, or indeed on politicians who resign from office rather than vote for such wars. There’s also nothing on any soldiers- from, say, the war against Nazism, not to mention from any more recent conflicts.  Edith Cavell gets in from the First World War, so we cover a lot of bases: Gordon can send out a nice feminine vibe, wrap himself in the Union Flag and yet not conjure up thoughts of those nasty uniformed people who are solely  responsible for the current state of Mesopotamia. 

Scapegoats identified.

April 12, 2007

 There are no bad lower ranks, only bad officers. Apply that principle to recent events, and you will conclude that a lot of British Admirals want sacking, if not shooting. But instead we are all getting terribly excited about a few underpaid- and, frankly, undertrained- sailors flogging their stories to the tabloids. They are acting as splendid scapegoats for some genuinely culpable individuals: the Naval hierarchy, the Defence Secretary and our dear Prime Minister.

Consider these undisputed facts. There was always a general threat, if British naval forces were operating near Iran, of personnel being seized and held as hostages. The Iranians  have a long-standing history of seizing captives, and successfully using them to extort concessions. The threat was recently elevated:  some Iranians on official  business-whether consuls, or spies- were grabbed by the Americans in Iraq. The United States Government was refusing to rule out military action against Iran. In the Shatt Al-Arab, Revolutionary Guards had taken British Marines and sailors hostage only two years ago, using exactly the same tactics as they reprised the other week.  

And yet the Navy sent out boarding parties without the firepower or support that would have deterred an attack- or, it would seem, without even any sense that there might be an attack. The Commodore in charge of naval forces in the Shatt al-Arab must lose his job immediately. The Chief of Naval Operations needs to give a damn good explanation of his conduct if he isn’t to follow suit.

But instead of troubling the powerful, this week a bleating flock of conservative individualists have all simultaneously noticed that Leading Seaman Turney and some of her proley colleagues are fat- this last observation having a certain piquancy as it squeezes its way out of the jowly face of Richard Littlejohn- as well as being rather unprepared for resistance to interrogation. With the exception of Max Hastings, a man who has actually been to war, no-one on the right thought to ask any of the rather obvious questions about the culpability of the top brass for the failure of an operation seemingly planned on the back of a beer mat.

 The rightwing sneerers do at least have the benefit of a few facts on their side: there are good reasons for believing that the Royal Navy and RAF, and at least some of the support services  of the Army, would prefer to behave as if there is no war on. They don’t have that option.  

Whoever is in charge of Naval training needs to remember that if we ever do fight a war at sea again, a bomb or missile strike on a ship leads to fire and every sailor aboard needs to be fit enough to haul casualties or perform fire-fighting drills. The TV pictures showed that some British sailors are frankly chubby, but we should not blame them. Nobody set them demanding fitness tests as a condition of passing their basic training or remaining in the service. 

For the Navy, physical fitness is largely an insurance policy: something that gets drawn on only in time of need. It would also act as a pretty useful toughening device.  You should be allowed to serve a tour on a Naval vessel if, and only if, you can pass some relevant fitness tests: carrying a fourteen-stone weight – aka a ‘casualty’- several hundred metres, or running with a hose whilst wearing a gas mask. If not, there are other career options.  The same goes for RAF personnel who imagine that no guerrilla will ever blow up anything on one of their bases, or Army support troops who should not rely on there being an infantry unit nearby should they run into an ambush.  

Of course, this is neither the only nor the nastiest piece of scapegoating underway. Starting last week a job lot of idiots, largely claiming to be on the Left and supplied with laff lines by a senescent comic last heard of thirty years ago,  queued up to say that the kicking to death of Baha Mousa by soldiers from the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment, or the imprisonment of detainees in Guantanamo, didn’t exactly justify the Iranian actions but did somehow make them – well, rather amusing.

Any mention of what the Iranian government does to its own people was left unsaid by the likes of the cretinous Terry Jones- and if only, if only the humiliation of poor Faye Turney was as nasty as President Ahmadinejad’s crew got. If it was, Atefah Sahaaleh would still be alive: instead of having been publicly hanged, at the age of sixteen, for committing ‘crimes against chastity’.  Ooops, don’t mention stuff like that.  What are you, a supporter of Gitmo? A Bushite? An Islamophobe?

The comment boards of the left blogosphere, of the Guardian and the Independent, are clogging up with the freely-volunteered prejudices of people who are either glad to have seen British troops publicly humiliated by a regime notorious for torture, or are at least not terribly un-glad.  Mention the record of the Iranian state against its own people, suggest that coercion or false imprisonment are wrong whoever the victims are, and the talking point likeliest to worm its way out is: ‘Baha Mousa’, the Basra hotel receptionist kicked to death by members of the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment. One such damn fool recently undertook to tell me that this thuggish killing meant the British military had ‘very little honour left’.  

If these were just fringe views I would not bother replying. But their popularity is not merely an expression of the infantilism of a few powerless comment trolls. It’s sometimes useful to hate certain people, and right now a lot of British left-liberals can see the expediency of hating ‘squaddies’.

As Mr Blair departs the scene, a great many people – Labour Party supporters, but also Liberal Democrats looking hungrily at the prospective banquet of a coalition government- will conveniently forget the record of our incoming Prime Minister in voting for, and funding, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Similar mechanisms will protect the entirely unwarlike Mr Cameron. Many people also have reason to forget that the majority of both Government and official Opposition MPs backed the invasion, and only a very few of them were voted out by their electorates. It will no longer be the done thing to blame the Iraq war on those  actually responsible for  it. 

So scapegoats are needed, and in times of need we British must turn to our  military. It was the squaddies what done it. Thus the Armed Forces have little honour left, since one man was killed- disgracefully and criminally- in the custody of one army battalion. Oh, and, er, the Americans have shipped people to Gitmo, which is quite obviously the responsibility of a few nineteen year-old Private soldiers and Able Seamen, rather than being something which a number of unimpeachably liberal Foreign Secretaries and  Ministers of State have managed not to notice.

  I suppose I could mention that the British military, in the last few years, have, at the behest of our elected government, defeated the RUF in Sierra Leone and helped chase the Taliban from Kabul. But no, the fact that one man has died in the custody of the Army (a record that, say, the Metropolitan Police would rather envy) means that the entire Armed Forces have become ‘an organisation (with) little honour left to lose’.  And besides, only racists feel the RUF weren’t the perfect government for the people of Sierra Leone (who seem rather to have felt otherwise, lacking as they did the sage advice of Seumas Milne); no doubt only Islamophobes feel that there may have been good reasons, in the winter of 2001 and later, to dislike the idea of Mullah Omar ruling Afghanistan.

 No, my first instinctive response when I hear that the British military are without honour is actually to think of  a man I know,  a man with ten years’ Navy service, a Falklands war veteran, who left the regular military and became a fireman- in which capacity he was among the first senior members of the emergency services  at the scene of one of the July 7th bombings. He’s still a military reservist because he happens not to believe that the British Armed Forces ‘have very little honour left’. In fact, I know a good many firemen and doctors and paramedics who are either ex-Forces, or current Reservists, or both.

Allow me to advise my fellow Guardian readers, my fellow left-liberals, my fellow haters of Bush and despisers of Blair and  opponents of the Iraq war. If we are going to start scapegoating, let us  start by sneering at these  men, these dastardly firemen and doctors and paramedics who have the temerity to serve as military reservists.

These men need to be told that we honour their courage when they wear one type of uniform- Fire Brigade or Ambulance Service- but that we despise it when they wear another type- the bad type, the military type. Yes, they take risks in both roles; yes, they believe themselves to be under the control of the elected government of the day- rather tighter control, when they are in the military. They need to be told that we don’t actually believe in all that guff about the military being under the control of Parliament: no, the Iraq war is all the fault of some 18 year old soldier, or 26 year-old female sailor. 

Let’s endorse the principle of collective punishment, making it plain that it applies to the ‘squaddies’ who fight our wars for us- but not to our elected representatives who authorise their despatch into combat, nor, heaven forfend, to their spotless electors.  Of course, a logical thinker might point out that making collective punishment  (which civilised folk used to call ‘revenge’) an accepted custom has some fairly horrifying possibilities.

But let’s adopt it anyway, and let’s hope that whichever slavering thug next appoints himself the avenger of the Iraqi war sees the point of our argument and kills only those Britons who wear the wrong sort of uniform. Let us hope that they share the clarity of our vision, and do not kill or kidnap our MPs or Ministers, nor our fine firemen and ambulance crews (well, maybe excepting those who were or are in the military) and certainly not us.