Friday, December 29, 2006

Shadow of the rope 

The US Media report that Saddam Hussein is about to be handed over to the Iraqi authorities and could hang as early as Sunday 31st December.

Various issues arise, such as the implications for Britain being associated with an execution.

However the Iraqi authorities may be more sensitive to the rhythm of the Islamic calendar, Sunday being the date of the festival eid al-Adha – the Festival of Sacrifice.

This commemorates the story of Abraham (Ibrahim) being willing to sacrifice his son. Same story as in the Jewish and Christian Bibles basically.

Saddam has been describing his projected death as a ‘sacrifice’ for the Iraqi people. .

"I sacrifice myself. If God wills it, he will place me among the true men and martyrs"

Saddam has been cynically effective in exploiting Islamic themes, despite his own record as a secularist and oppressor of religion. It was Saddam after all who placed the words ‘alahu akhbar’ on the Iraqi flag.

Could be just a little too explosive to hang him at this time – the legend makers are proficient.

Myself I think it would be a criminal mistake to hang him anyway.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

The Day 


As we say in Lithuanian. Which means Nadolig LLawen in Welsh. This being 25th Day of 12th Month no translations should be needed

And just for a political sidebar, this by Thomas Jefferson

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Have a great day, however your beliefs light up the world.

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Saturday, December 23, 2006

The thin line on Fish 

Fish. The new EU quotas for catches are announced.

Again a political uproar, and one that is of high interest to LibDems since a considerable number of our MPs representing fishing communities. In Scotland it may sway a whole national election.

The Marine Conservation Society is not happy, saying that cod quotas should actually have been set at zero. Endangered cod falls victim to EU blunder…?

Fishing is of course a world-wide activity. The current issue (No. 65, December 2006) of the Institute for Development Studies information journal “id21 insights” is on “The Importance of Fisheries in Development”. (Version in .pdf downloadable from here). The article on 'acheiving a sustainable global fish trade' says in part:

This rapid growth has put pressure on fisheries resources, however. Modern technologies used to harvest fish often damage aquatic ecosystems, both seas and inland waters. A recent study of 11 developing countries by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation showed that the international trade in fish products has a negative impact on the fish resources of all countries. The opportunities for making profits from trade cause these depletions.
The United Nations chipped in early in December citing an UNEP report..

Will we have fish to catch in 40 years time?

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Trident, new weapons and Intelligence 

OK, so would the UK want to deploy this new non-Nuclear weapon on Trident missiles? Maybe we should at least be aware of what is possible.

According to the January 2007 issue of 'Popular Mechanics' magazine about weapons systems developments in the USA:

The plan is part of a program — in slow development since the 1990s, and now quickly coalescing in military circles — called Prompt Global Strike. It will begin with modified Tridents.
The warheads on the these missiles are not nuclear

Traveling as fast as 13,000 mph, the warheads are filled with scored tungsten rods with twice the strength of steel. Just above the target, the warheads detonate, showering the area with thousands of rods-each one up to 12 times as destructive as a .50-caliber bullet. Anything within 3000 sq. ft. of this whirling, metallic storm is obliterated.

What is the thinking behind this?

Paradoxically, the weaker our enemies have grown, the less ominous our arsenal
has become. Military theorists call it self-deterrence. "In today's environment, we've got zeros and ones. You can decide to engage with nuclear weapons — or not," says Capt. Terry J. Benedict, who runs the Navy's conventional Trident program from a nondescript office a few miles from the Pentagon. "The nation's leadership needs an intermediate step-to take the action required, without crossing to the one."
In other words Nuclear Warheads are effectively useless as weapons in any practical conflict. If you actually want to deploy weapons systems using an investment in Trident missiles you need something else. Now whether we should want that is a question and a half. The Popular Mechanics article soberly looks at the human reliability question. Like how good would the intelligence be that guides the decision to fire? Dodgy Dossiers, phantom WMD in Iraq and Niger yellowcake come to mind.

If the US deploys this system it could conventionally destroy any selected spot on the globe within 60 minutes of a decision being taken.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Money makes the world go round! 

A fair number of years ago - more than long enough for the statute of limitations to apply - OK nearly a quarter-century- I worked for an engineering firm doing business in Iraq and the Gulf States and 'elsewhere in that region'. (If you have ever had a crap in Abu Dhabi airport you have come close to some of our products).

I remember taking a train trip down from Coventry to Euston with literally a briefcase full of the firm's money in cash to hand over to an individual in the station concourse. He and his minder gave me a coffee while they discretely checked the case.

I wonder what all that was about 8:0

The current uproar about BEA making payments 'unofficially' to agents and fixers covers ground which is totally unsurprising to me.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

The Economic Psychology of marginal jobs 

With the current re-run of the standard off-the-shelf popular uproar on ‘getting on yer bike’ to look for a job, a few thoughts on the psychology of market forces may be helpful.

‘Work Secretary’ John Hutton said in a speech to the IPPR:

"The next challenge we face is to ensure the hardcore of 'can work but won't work' benefit claimants take advantage of the opportunities out there and compete for jobs alongside growing numbers of migrants who arrive in Britain specifically to look for work rather than to settle for the long term."
And he goes on to suggest benefits cuts for people who do not follow up the kind of opportunities located by migrants.

Is this realistic? Well to tackle this theme I suggest we investigate whether there is a parallel with the conflicting psychological economics of public versus private transport.

People who buy their own cars invest a big sum in capital and yearly maintenance. Having made that investment, the extra (marginal) cost of any particular journey is just the fuel cost. People who rely on public transport do not have to make that up-front investment, but any particular journey has to meet not only the fuel costs but also a visible and immediate contribution to the fixed costs of the transport provider. Really, to make a comparison between these journey costs, the private driver should factor in a cost per mile payment to make a contribution to meeting already sunk cost. In a business they would. Few of us are so businesslike in our personal accounting.

Migrant workers looking for jobs in Britain are psychologically like car owners. They have already made a big up-front investment by moving to the UK and by accepting a pattern of living that maximises ability to shift around.

People already resident and established in the UK may have investments in living that do not allow for ‘cheap’ movement around. Like public transport users they see at the point of payment for an opportunity the full economic and social costs of being mobile in the search for marginally paying jobs.

Our Green Tax proposals are aimed (in part) in revealing the real costs of a private transport journey. So what about the real costs of work?

Genuine amateur economics student question: Anyone done research on the real fixed costs of taking a job? Unless we know something about this I suspect that being ‘tough on long-term unemployed’ will be less effective than the central stick wavers expect and we will still be stuck on the ‘benefits disincentive’ merry-go round.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Saudi nightmares 

Congratulations to our Parliamentary teams for picking up on the legal and constitutional horrors in the decision to drop the Saudi arms deal bribery investigations.

Just to note though that there may well be a real political and diplomatic crisis brewing in Saudi Arabia which could well be further destabilised by revelations about financial skulduggery.

There is apparently a huge internal political row within The Family who run Saudi that in comparison makes the Blair- Brown insult factories look like a nursery pie-fight. Latest manifestation – the Saudi ambassador to the USA Prince Turki al-Faisal has just resigned almost certainly because of irreconcilable differences with the Saudi National Security Advisor Prince Bandar bin Sultan. This may be part of a power play over which of the two Princes is to be the next Saudi foreign minister – Prince Bandar being part of the Bush and Cheyney aggressive club and Prince Turki taking an anti-Bush administration position. Turki is warning that current US policies could lead to

"a terrorist super-highway stretching from Iran through Iraq and rushing through Syria and Jordan to the edge of Israel"

Booman Tribune blog has details and links.

Meanwhile The Yorkshire Ranter sets out an interesting alternative view on the actual arms contracts – saying it could actually be to the UK taxpayers financial advantage if Saudi tears up the deal.

Oh and to be really cheerful it is apparently slightly possible that Saudi Arabia is about to become a nuclear power, buying warheads and missiles from Pakistan. Read the links and decide if this one is credible and worth worrying about.

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Strong women and the history of the BBC 

Last night in the Drama Connections slot, a programme about the cult TV series Tenko which emphasised how male dominated BBC TV was at least until the 1980’s. This story of women in a WW2 Japanese internment camp was practically the first on British TV offering a woman-dominated story with strong un-stereotyped characters.

This highlighted for me the great BBC lost opportunity of the late 1940’s.

Some years ago a friend of mine who worked in the BBC just after WW2 told me that during the war women took on high powered positions backstage in the BBC including programming responsibilities and running departments. So as the peacetime world emerged and the Television service started to find its feet, how did the BBC make use of this considerable talent pool? Answer, it made it a condition of employment that any woman in the BBC had to report to a male manager. This 'made room' for men coming home from the war.

The talented women in the BBC left in disgust or were squeezed out, except for one departmental head, who was able to continue in post – managing the lost property service.

We can wonder perhaps how British TV could have evolved if women had been in positions of influence right from the start. Maybe we would not have had to wait 30 years and more for at least a few dramas and news investigations showing real lives of real women. As for the way certain kinds of news stories are reported...

Wonder if the BBC could do a programme about this episode?

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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Another chapter in the incredible story of a school 

More excitement in Bury Lawn School, the private school in Milton Keynes where the sixth head teacher in about two years has just resigned.

Background to this sorry tale explained a year ago here and here.

The latest wonderful events started at the beginning of this term when the now-just-resigned head went on four weeks special leave and in her absence the decision was announced not to offer year-12 to the current year-11 pupils. So goodbye A-levels. The Head of Senior School told the pupils this before the official notification was sent to parents, ensuring a traumatic and tear-stained evening for many families.

Parents cannot talk to the press about this –or indeed the dramatic decline in behaviour and in academic provision at the school- because the contract with the school includes giving the school the right to exclude a pupil if the parents of that pupil bring the school into disrepute by talking about it in public.

And now there is just today (7 Dec 2006) a rumour that the owners of the school (GEMS) may be trying to sell it – possibly to investors. If they try to change the land use to housing I rather think Milton Keynes Council will have a think or two to say, however.

I just want to repeat what I said a year ago:
..concerned parents over many years built up an educational community which
contrasted to most Local Authority provision and also contrasted to most Private
Sector provision, and they feel they have been royally screwed up

So much for choice.

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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Vanguard - the complexity of framing debate on 'Trident' 

How will the decision on ‘renewing’ UK nuclear weapons actually be made?

‘Replacing Trident: who will make the decision and how’ is an useful guide available from the Oxford Research Group. It includes detailed material on the issues the Government will actually be taking seriously. Some key points are not necessarily convenient to the emerging LibDem position, especially on the practical timetable for the deployment of replacements for the Vanguard class submarines. (It is more accurate to talk of the ‘Vanguard’ replacement programme rather than ‘Trident’ replacement) In particular there are projected bottlenecks in the UK naval construction programme which make it difficult to postpone decisions in the way we are suggesting.

However the overall view is that….

There are many difficult questions to be answered in the debate on Britain’s post-Vanguard strategic security policy and neither parliament, NGOs nor government have all the answers. Therefore a major step forward would be to initiate a full strategic security review to tackle these questions and see what Britain really needs for its strategic security in the first half of the 21st century.
The absence of such a review prior to a decision of this gravity is remarkable.

The full briefing paper ( in .pdf format) is available here.

The paper concludes:

Anti-nuclear activists and advocacy organisations face a difficult choice. It seems they can either advocate a significant reduction in Britain’s post-Vanguard as a pragmatic/realistic cost effective minimum whilst pushing for non-replacement and have a reasonable chance of being heard in Whitehall, or they can demand disarmament on moral grounds and risk shouting into the wind.
The moral and legal issues surrounding the possession and threat of nuclear weapons (as opposed to their actual use) are not black and white and no side in this debate can claim to know the ‘truth’ on these matters. This paper is an attempt to step into the government’s shoes, particularly MODs, in order to understand how post Vanguard decisions are likely to be made, the factors affecting that process and some of the limits and opportunities for accountability. If advocacy organisations do not engage in such a process then they can only hope to talk past government rather than with it. This is not to suggest the debate can only be conducted on the government’s terms, but to acknowledge the importance of understanding the government’s frame of reference in order to enter into constructive dialogue.

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Monday, December 04, 2006

Juggernaut: The Trident payoff questions? 

Loads of questions on the Rush to Juggernaut on the Trident replacement issue. A couple for getting on with.

Trident is not a weapons system in which the UK is independent of the USA. The UK triad (boats, missiles, warheads) is intimately linked (in operation, servicing and the prices we pay) to conditions negotiated with the USA. Is it possible that 'we' (aka Prime Minister Blair) have a particularly advantageous offer of terms from the current US administration and this offer is not necessarily repeatable under a subsequent U.S. administration, or even a subsequent Prime Minister of the UK? Could be one reason for the rush? Is this perhaps payoff for trailing along in Iraq?

Second point - I recall when the Polaris replacement debate was burning holes in our political carpets it was patiently explained that for a credible 'independent' UK deterrent we needed a minimum of four boats. This is because each boat has to be taken off duty for servicing and refit periodically, a process that lasts about 18 months. There is then a need for working up trials before a boat is ready for full duty again. With this amount of down time, to ensure that we have at least one boat deployed at sea we need four in the rota. Usually two will be available for duty. With three in the rota the chance of being without an operational boat at some time must be quite high.

Accepting a three boat rota means accepting that the UK does not necessarily have a Permanently Independent Deterrent -unquote- available. So we accept the reality of dependence on the USA in any intervals. As we LibDems seemingly are proposing a three-boat fleet in our 'agreement to proceed' strategy suggestion, do we need to be upfront about the implications? More to the point, will Blair admit this if he does settle for a three-boat strategy? Will the make a difference to the deployment of white-ensign flying patriotic justifications for a 'British' bomb?

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Friday, December 01, 2006

Nuclear independence and realities 

By a happy coincidence an article by John Harris in The Guardian on the UK-USA Special Relationship comes out on the day the debate on the renewal of the Trident nuclear system surfaces properly with the announcement of the proposals for LibDem policy on Trident.

The Guardian article has this section on UK Nuclear realities

When it comes to nuclear weapons, visions of uncoupling Britain from the US ignore a few realities that our senior politicians never mention. As Dan Plesch, the London-based academic and author who has made it his business to shine light on these things, points out, Britain's current nuclear weapons system (and, indeed, the one that looks likely to replace it) is umbilically linked to the US. The missiles themselves are leased from the US government. They depend on American maintenance -carried out at a base in King's Bay, Georgia - and American software. All this has one crucial upshot: though we got them on the cheap, paying as little as a 10th of the sum they would have cost if we built and maintained them ourselves, they fail what Plesch calls "the 1940 test": if we were at war without the say-so of the US, we probably couldn't use them. "The current system is like an insurance policy that the insurer can take away if they don't want you to use it," he says. "And how bad a deal is that?"
Without the Americans, therefore, Britain could either take a bold step into
nuclear collaboration with the French - or, as Plesch argues, adjust to life as
a non-nuclear power. In his view, the absence of the weapons would be a
worthwhile price for liberating Britain from stifling US dominance. "We would
have a much clearer and honest position in the world," he says.

I would add that to the best of my knowledge the detailed target coding for UK missiles is entirely dependent on US supply and veto.
I have thoughts on the emerging LibDem position on renewal which I will take up later but I hope our final position fully takes into account, and makes clear to the UK public, the extent that the ‘independence’ of our fleet-carried warheads is a patriotic myth.

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