Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Death Wish III - Blair and capitulation to the Shrub on Death Penalty 

We know events progress from the first time as tragedy, the second as farce and it looks like the third time is like a puppy sick on the heartrug.

The Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, was in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, yesterday, trying to persuade African heads of state to sign up to a global moratorium on capital punishment after Britain
sank an effort to have the EU back the initiative as a bloc.

.. Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Massimo D'Alema, tried to obtain backing for the proposal at the EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels last week, Britain shot it down.British diplomats said privately that they did not wish to create difficulties for the United States at a delicate time ...

Independent 31 Jan 2007

Again Blair is unable to take a principled position as regards the oddites of the US administration...

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Haka for a really, really British School 

A story to make me dance a little, anyway.

Oxley Park School in Milton Keynes opens each school day with the pupils dancing versions of the New Zealand Haka. The School is growing rapidly, sometimes with a new pupil every day, and so building community is important.

This 280-strong school welcomes all newcomers, celebrating their diversity
along the way. And there is no sense that by doing this the inherent nature of the school will be squashed or compromised by "outsiders" - as opponents of
multiculturalism suggest.

This sense of inclusion is well expressed in the words of one of the school's songs: "I am special, you are special, we are special can't you see."

"This," says (Head Teacher) Mrs Higgins, "is really all about saying it doesn't matter if you are fat or thin, tall or short, black or white, we are all different and we are all special."

The posters and photographs that dot the school's walls, show black and white faces along with children with disabilities.

But they don't look staged like so many public service information leaflets do - they reflect what is happening in the classroom.

The pupils are also encouraged to take an interest in their wider community and are at present lobbying the Council for faster provision of cycle lanes in their area. Looks like they will be formidable citizens, hurrah.

Now, is this not really what 'Teaching Britishness' is actually about??

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Monday, January 29, 2007

The Baghdad 'Surge' and the curse of Mercaneries, aka Private Military Companies ... 

This is really not encouraging…

Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new top U.S. commander in Iraq told Congress that he might supplement efforts to secure Baghdad using the Iraqi Facilities Protection Service, a 150,000-man force that guards Iraqi government agencies. But that service is widely considered unreliable, and elements were described in July by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as "more dangerous than the
Washington Post 27 Jan 2007

If the US ‘One More Heave’ so-called surge strategy in Baghdad is relying on this kind of support to succeed we are all in more trouble than we realised..

And this might be a particular British point of recent historical shame… see this from the New York Times of 24 May 2006.

Shiite leaders are indignant about the Facilities Protection Service, a 145,000-man force spread throughout 27 Iraqi ministries, each with its own agenda. The officers, Iraqi officials say, are at the disposal of each minister."Now, in every ministry, there are 7 to 15,000 men who carry weapons and official identification cards," said Mr. Hakim, the Shiite leader. "They are under the command of the ministries. Some of them have committed many crimes."
One of the largest forces is assigned to the Oil Ministry, which maintains 20,000 troops to protect refineries and other parts of the country's oil infrastructure. According to the force's director, Mr. Thuwaini, the first 16,000-member paramilitary police force was cobbled together in a haphazard way by a British-based consulting firm that neither trained the men nor checked their backgrounds for criminal records or ties to Mr. Hussein's security services.
"The British company hired people randomly, without training — they were profiteers," said Mr. Thuwaini, a Shiite civil servant not affiliated with any of the major parties. He took over the oil protection force in July 2005. "That is what we are trying to survive now."

The question of Private Security Forces in Iraq and elsewhere has come up before… wonder which one of the alphabet soup of British it was…

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Is 'Trident' a deliberate diversion from the real nuclear debate? 

Colin Ross has done us all a service by abstracting key Libdem contributions to the House of Lords debate on Trident.

I’d like to take up two points. One is on the massive expansion of warhead building capacity at AWE (Atomic Weapons Establishment) Aldermaston, the second is on the role of BAe systems in this ‘Trident’ decision process.

The first I have not seen mentioned in the debates by anyone, certainly not by LibDem representatives – have I missed something? The second is a point our Noble Lords made that isn’t emphasised in the abstract.

Firstly, Aldermaston is seeing the biggest single building programme in Britain, larger apparently than Heathrow Terminal five.

According to a report in the Daily Mail last December, Aldermaston is installing two vital new pieces of kit – the ‘Orion’ laser and a hydrodynamics research unit. Together these give the capacity to gather the information previously only available through live testing of nuclear devices. Their only real purpose is to design new warheads. In addition two huge new computer projects have been implemented making Aldermaston the most powerful computing complex in western Europe. And 700 new staff are to be recruited over the next two years, pretty openly to build bombs.

It seems to me that the Government has taken the decision to design and build a new generation of nuclear warheads, is proceeding with this regardless of decisions on deployment and launch platforms, has done so without any public debate whatsoever, has committed thousands of millions of pounds to this, is hiding the costs of this from public scrutiny, and is using the so-called ‘Trident’ debate as a kind of smoke and mirrors diversion to make it look as if democratic procedures on ‘nuclear’ issues have been respected.

Why should the Mail, of all papers, take up this Aldermaston issue? Well it does allow them to say:

What evidence it is possible to deduce about the activities inside Aldermaston's closely guarded 700 acres would suggest that this Prime Ministerial declaration, like so many others before it, is misleading at best and an outright lie at worst.

Why are we in the LibDems not taking up this question of Aldermaston? And in particular the connection to the development of the ‘Reliable Replacement Warhead’ in the USA – a concept which would allow for the development of ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons of a kind we in the UK are supposed to have completely renounced.

The second point is on BAE.

The reality of the decision we now face is that we are to build new nuclear powered submarines. Our military-industrial complex has the capacity to build these subs. If we do not order a steady stream of these, the UK will lose this industrial capacity. Two of our LibDem peers picked up on this point and explicitly liked it to pressure from BAe systems.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire
Then there was the question of the needs of BAE Systems, a company much favoured by Mr Blair’s Government, with its specialists pleading that commitments are needed now to maintain specialist submarine-building skills in Britain by
maintaining a long-term order book in Barrow-in-Furness. We insist that there is enough time for an informed public debate, and it is not necessary—at least it is not possible—to reach an irrevocable decision now, before our current Prime Minister leaves office.
Lord Garden
However, I will just focus on why I think that the decision is being rushed. It is industrial pressure; indeed, that is what BAE Systems told the Commons Defence Committee when it gave evidence. It argued that it would need to build a new submarine every 22 months in order to maintain their design and build capability. I do not know how many nuclear submarines that means we will have by 2050, but it will be quite a lot if we have to buy one every 22 months. I do not think that the Minister necessarily can afford that many. But we are in danger of having this most important strategic decision driven by an industrial demand rather than by the right analysis.

We all know there is something funny in the woodshed in the relationship between BAe systems and the Government. Maybe the public should take more note of this? I am glad our Parliamentarians appear to be on the ball on this point.

But I am starting to think that the ‘Trident’ (really Vanguard submarine) replacement ‘debate’ is an attempt to corral discussions into predictable ‘reservations’ where participants can be marginalised through chanting predictable scripts. We do need to understand how decision makers within the system are framing the questions for themselves. But we need also to break out of the reservation if we are really going to influence the decisions now being made. In the LibDems we need to take care that our official ‘Trident’ policy, internally consistent though it may be, and convenient for political positioning, does not act as a ‘reservation’ limiting our impact and insight on the whole question of so-called Nuclear Weapons.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

MK... never been 40 years old before... 

Happy Birthday Milton Keynes... officially 40 years old today, 23rd January.

Apparently there was a fireworks display at sunrise. The advantages of being deaf, I slept through all that.

But whats with this outsider obsession with Concrete Cows? We really do have herds of real cows and sheep in the City Limits... and roundabouts are more our thing.

One of the factoid snippets floating round is this:


US troops were fighting in Vietnam and Martin Luther King campaigned for
Civil Rights

Dolby sound was invented and Radio One was born

'The Dirty Dozen' was on at the cinema, 'The Forsyte Saga' was on BBC

Breathalyser Tests were introduced on British roads

and on 23rd January 1967 - when Housing Minister Anthony Greenwood signed the official order to create the new city of Milton Keynes - The Monkees had just started four weeks at Number 1 in the UK hit parade with 'I'm a Believer'!

Things have changed or have they...

More about this pretty strange place on the Milton keynes Heritage webpages...

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

Does 'economics' corrupt our moral senses? 

As I start trying to fill some of the holes in my formal knowledge of economics, two unsettling questions. Why are economists distrusted and even loathed so much? And does studying economics degrade our moral capacities?

And are these questions relevant to current debates within the LibDems?

Georgetown University economist Pietra Rivoli notes this about her discipline:

As a classically trained financial and international economist I share with my colleagues the somewhat off-putting tendency to believe that if everyone understood what we understood – if they “got it” – they wouldn’t argue so much. More that 200 years after Adam Smith his case for Free Trade in ‘The Wealth of Nations’ we are still trying to make sure (people) “get it” because we are sure that once they understand, everyone will agree with us…

Now I wonder if reactions to this ‘evangelist’ approach explains some of the tensions between so-called ‘wings’ in this party…

And a further depressing thought culled from debates in the Management Education field. It seems that students on economics courses put their moral framework at risk. Note this from an old Simon Caulkin column, citing work by Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford Business School:

In an 'incredibly depressing' range of studies, business and economics students have been found to be more prone to cheat, free‑ride, and violate codes than those of other disciplines. What's more, unlike contemporaries, they undergo negative moral development during their courses. In other words, they more and more resemble the rational utility maximiser ‑ rational economic man ‑ that is the starting assumption of their disciplines. Economics and business courses, sums up Pfeffer, are 'hazards to your moral health'.

An increase in arrogance and a degraded moral compass – do I really want those outcomes?

Well a few crumbs of hope. Rivoli agrees this is a somewhat abrasive bias –and in her book ‘Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy’ she has a hard look at her biases. She was inspired to research her book by anti-Globalisation protesters at her University. She expected to help them ‘get it’. At the end of her study she “got” what they were talking about and addresses the importance of moral issues in trade debates, while offering a liberating message supportive of Free Trade.

And there is a massive debate in progress on how to rescue economics and business from moral abrasion. I have just downloaded some papers by Pfeffer and by the late Sumantra Ghosal to read over the weekend and mull over while delivering leaflets.
One thought from Pfeffer:

Ghoshal is certainly right when he reiterates an argument that he first made a
while ago: that the assumptions of much of economic theory and the effects of
these assumptions on people and institutions can be harmful (Ghoshal & Moran,1996). In fact, as I will discuss presently, I think Ghoshal if anything
understates the potential downside to the inculcation and acceptance of economic
language, assumptions, and theory.

Sobering warnings and reflections as I start trying to grapple with formal economics.


Rivoli, P. (2006) ‘The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: an Economist Examines the Markets, Power and Politics of World Trade’ Wiley.
Simon Caulkin "That's the theory and it matters", Observer, 1 Oct 2005
Ghosal, Sumantra “Bad management Theories are Destroying Good Management Practice” Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2005, Vol. 4, No. 1, 75–91.
Jeffrey Pfeffer “Why do bad management theories persist?” Academy of Management Learning & Education, 2005, Vol. 4, No. 1, 96–100.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Can LibDems offer something better than 'Database Culture' 

Back in January 2006 I commented on New Labour being the ‘Database Party’, and how LibDems can find something different and better in our own traditions by understanding the differences and links between Data, Knowledge and Wisdom. I am still hopeful about this - optimism perhaps?

But the current ‘Foreign Offenders’ uproar shows that Labour are still in database thrall and are illustrating the limitations of that approach.

The failure to keep the CNP records up to date illustrates once again the vulnerability of databases as administrative and political tools. Keeping a ‘live’ database up to date is an expensive and tricky operation, expensive in time and resources, tricky it terms of keeping up the quality of the data holding.

Some databases - like Criminal Records ones, or registers of disqualified drivers –are vital and must be kept up to date. The current difficulties show this is not a trivial task.

But a Supreme Database Of Us All, implied in the Prime Minister’s Government department data sharing suggestion, opens the way to innumerable delays, contradictions and injustice by creation of Data Artefacts ( imaginary connections from unrelated datasets seeming to support strange conclusions about individuals). The delays in updating of the PNC will be nothing compared to future data lag problems.

Though as Peter Black notes we may be saved because the Government will proceed through ‘a Government IT Project’…. With the usual success rate for such enterprises.

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Blair War Talk - why does hawkish rhetoric work? 

Did Blair ever ask himself this question before making this speech?

Why are hawks so influential?

A paper in the journal Foreign Policy suggest that the answer

…may lie deep in the human mind. People have dozens of decision-making biases, and almost all favor conflict rather than concession. A look at why the tough guys win more than they should.

) Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon. ‘Foreign Policy’ (Jan 2007 The core of their argument;

Social and cognitive psychologists have identified a number of predictable errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks. Biases have been documented both in the laboratory and in the real world, mostly in situations that have no connection to international politics. For example, people are prone to exaggerating their strengths: About 80 percent of us believe that our driving skills are better than average. In situations of potential conflict, the same optimistic bias makes politicians and generals receptive to advisors who offer highly favorable estimates of the outcomes of war. Such a predisposition, often shared by leaders on both sides of a conflict, is likely to produce a disaster.

And this is not an isolated example. In fact, when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found: All the biases in our list favor hawks. These psychological impulses—only a few of which we discuss here—incline national leaders to exaggerate the evil intentions of
adversaries, to misjudge how adversaries perceive them, to be overly sanguine
when hostilities start, and overly reluctant to make necessary concessions in negotiations. In short, these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.

The ‘Foreign Policy’ article is liked to a web debate on the theme available here. The articles authors respond here.

On a possibly parallel theme, might be worth taking a look at the article by Corey Robin in London Review of Books 4 Jan 2007 which looks at various books analaysing aspects of the writings of Hannah Arendt.

She was famous for her concept of ‘the Banality of Evil’, the idea that you don’t need radically wicked people to get massively evil events. People doing small things can do that. And one object of her attention was the ‘careerist’, which is her characterisation of Eichmann and many other mechanics of the Shoa. Robin’s article ends:

The main reason for the contemporary evasion of Arendt’s critique of careerism,
however, is that addressing it would force a confrontation with the dominant ethos of our time. In an era when capitalism is assumed to be not only efficient but also a source of freedom, the careerist seems like the agent of an easy-going tolerance and pluralism. Unlike the ideologue, whose great sin is to think too much and want too much from politics, the careerist is a genial caretaker of himself. He prefers the marketplace to the corridors of state power. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism may be as lethal as idealism, that ambition is an adjunct of barbarism, that some of the worst crimes are the result of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas: these are the implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem that neo-cons and neoliberals alike find too troubling to acknowledge.

Blair is certainly not someone with extraordinary vices. We here are not people with extraordinary virtues. Warnings from history? A lot to talk about perhaps

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Iraq Escalation - serious dangers for British troops 

Right, here are some things The Shrub (aka the US President) has done as part of his ‘surge’ in Iraq:

1 part of the ‘surge’ appears to consists of US combat forces being redeployed from Afghanistan

2 Amongst the new deployments to ‘bolster the security of Iraq’ is an additional Carrier Strike group – and the deployment actually in Iraq of batteries of patriot anti-missile batteries.

3 US forces have today entered an Iranian diplomatic mission in northern Iraq and seized a quantity of documents and computers.

The implications for UK combat forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are profound.

1. Who will take on the Military responsibilities in Afghanistan previously carried out by the redeployed US forces? The British and the Canadians, by any chance?

2 Who on earth in this region – apart from Iran – has the weaponry requiring anti-missile defences? Is the USA expecting hostile actions from Iran? Is this explained by the raid outlined in point 3?

3. Britain has taken the position that insurgent activities in Iraq are not directed from Iran and has based a substantial part of its deployment in Basra on a policy of offering positive engagement with Iran. If the US violation of Iranian sovereign territory – because that is what entering a diplomatic legation is, in law – leads to direct hostile actions by Iran, then UK forces are in imminent additional peril in their current deployments.
If hostilities break out involving naval forces in the Gulf then all bets are off for British ground forces on the Iraqi coast.

We need a serious and direct question to the UK government:

a. Did they know about the increased burden in Afghanistan?
b. Did they know in advance about the sudden escalation of activities against Iranian interests and the consequent increased risks for UK forces?

If they did, why did they not try to stop it? What does this say about the judgement of HMG on these issues?
If they did not, then can we trust the current US command? It has put our own forces in new dangers. Should we not seriously consider immediate withdrawal of our forces, at least from Iraq?

Bear in mind that while the BBC is correctly identifying the violators of Iranian diplomatic properties as being United States forces, statements in the USA seem to be labelling them as ‘International Forces’. We are being set up as part of the escalation.

This is a profoundly dangerous moment.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

On the road to Soviet Justice once again. 

So Tenants Groups and ALMOs are to have ASBO issuing powers. Once more the ‘Peoples Courts’ of the USSR come to mind. I had my say about them when Blair was ranting back in 2005 about ‘fighting 21st-Century crime with 19th-Century methods'. I haven’t changed my views. Too many people sufered under the Blair-Style Soviet 'Justice' justice system for me to be easy about seeing it imposed here in the UK.

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New Life for Old Economies? The end of the Dismal Science tag? 

While browsing around for more books to back up my Explorations in Economics, I found this one edited by Diana Coyle: “New Wealth for Old Nations: Scotland’s Economic Prospects” Princeton UP, Published March 2005.

This looks like an useful resource for anyone trying to develop a realistic policy for dynemic economic development in a 'regional' or 'small nation' Political framework within an increasingly integrated Europe. I’d welcome comments from Scots or Welsh people knowledgeable about this book- is it of practical relevance with the Scottish and Welsh National Elections upcoming?

Diana Coyle is the author of “Sex, Drugs and Economics” and her latest book is “The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do And Why It Matters” Due out in February 2007 and definitely on my reading list.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Nipping out for an UKI Pee 

What is happening to United Kingdom Impotence Party? Interesting times actually, as James Graham and Peter Black neatly note.

What is going on back at the battered Tory Coalface though? Well to explore that murk one needs to go to the Daily Telegraph (6th January) where we learn that Cameron must ‘heed the threat of UKIP’.

“Traditional Tory supporters – indeed, many Tory activists – are toying with voting UKIP. When they see two respected Conservative parliamentarians making the journey, their personal odysseys become that little bit easier.”

Parallel to this, (TG 8 January) UKIP is promising not to run UKIP opponents against sitting MPs who by June this year sign up to a pledge to quit the European Union. This offer actually applies to all MPs including our LibDem ones, but realistically the target is to flush out Tories. It seems that their Lordships insisted on such an UKIP initiative as part of their defection deal.

This offer to stand down in certain seats is however causing turmoil in UKIP branches, one comment in the telegraph from an UKIP local organiser talking about the risk the party being ‘split from top to toe’ on this UKIP 'standing aside' offer.

An interesting sidebar on this story is the number of comments from readers objecting to the Telegraph calling the BNP ‘ghastly’… unwanted brownie point from me to the TG but sobering thought on the realities of the political undergrowth.

For example one respondent to this rather interesting Telegraph opinion piece on ‘Cameron falling into Labours Trap’ reveals some of the Class Consciousness of some of our British politics… the reader urges Telegraph People instead of staying Tory to think of joining

“…the other small brave patriotic parties, unfairly smeared by the Establishment in which David Cameron crawls. However, be warned, the social life is different --I no longer get invited to Sherry Reception fundraisers at the big manor house of Mrs
X-Y to hear Anne Widdicomb. Instead I have pie and peas with a motly group of real patriot plumbers and lorry drivers, with their tatooes, expletives, concerns, and passionately held conservative principles.”

Sherry and Widdicomb as an attraction? It is a different world either way.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Royal Navy, contraction or expansion - confusion from the Government 

Great uproars over the future of the Royal Navy, as you will know if you glance at the Daily Telegraph reports.

The first reports that half the existing surface fleet will be mothballed as part of a MoD cost cutting exercise. This will, (supreme horrors) leave the French Navy much superior to the Royal Navy.

The second report calls into question whether the UK will proceed with the building of two new aircraft carriers. Quite apart from the cost of the carriers, each of these huge vessels needs a battle group of cruisers and destroyers to provide surface protection. So if we are to build the carriers we should need more of the kind of ships being mothballed.

One feature of the carrier deal is that

The MoD has given defence contractors a £3.6 billion budget to build the Queen
Elizabeth and Prince of Wales but the industry has insisted on a further £200 million to deliver the first ship by 2012. Further stalling has been caused by the MoD insisting on the four major companies, led by BAe Systems, effectively to unite into a single company to build the ships. Legal wrangling over this could lead to a year's delay.

This of course is the BAe Systems implicated in the Saudi Arms Deal Imbroglio. Could it be that the decision not to proceed with the bribery investigations had something to do with the need to avoid further upsetting the company in these other deals?

And where, one might ask, does the (expensive) projected replacement of the Vanguard submarines (the launch-pads for the Trident missiles) come into all this spending? Hard to say given that the spending on the Nuclear Launchpads was excluded from the last Strategic Defence Review in 1998. A tangled web here… the Navy of course regards the nuclear deterrent as a ‘Political Asset’ rather than a weapons system.

So The Navy in general, the whole Trident business, and the incredibly complex relationship between BAe Systems and HMG... looks like issues for the Party to get its teeth into... and with the longstanding defence procurement corruption threads, not issues that the Tories will necessarily be happy with.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Roundabout 40 And Still In Love 

That's the official slogan and logo for the 40th birthday of Milton Keynes, which is being celebrated in 2007.

A good choice of visuals. The abiding symbol of MK for those who live here is not ‘the Concrete Cows’ but the roundabouts – there are so many of them that the wear on the tyres of MK residents has a characteristic pattern due to the constant turning.

And believe it or not a lot of people like it here.

OK we have what it takes to make Homer Simpson happy (including a brance of his favourite doughnut shop) but we also have three farmers markets and a proper old-fashioned hardware store where you can rummage around and buy exactly the one screw you need. And lots and lots of trees - MK is the one of the biggest forestry planting projects in Britain.

Oh and a fair number of LibDems as well. What could be nicer!

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