Monday, April 27, 2009

The Afghan mess in the news again - is this the Liberal War? 

With Brown in Kabul speaking beside President Hamid Karzai, time perhaps to revisit the thoughts of Paddy Ashdown a year ago after his prospective post as UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan was vetoed by the Kabul Government.

Paddy noted amongst other things that anyone working for positive change in Afghanistan had :

a dilemma. According to its constitution, Afghanistan is a centralised state. But on the ground it is a highly decentralised one. Which end of the pipeline of governance should we start with? The answer is start at the bottom and work with the grain of the Afghan tribal structure.

This article by Paddy was written just after Mervyn Patterson and Michael Semple were expelled from Afghanistan under accusation of having attempted negotiations with the Taliban. The professional anti-British commentariat (which believes amongst other things that Britain masterminded the assassination of Benazir Bhutto as part of a plan to dismember Pakistan) calls the two of them British Spooks. A reminder that Britain will for a long time carry the historic can of the Great Game and be an attractor of automatic hostility that detracts from whatever good we might do.

Semple by the way is referenced in a book reviews in Saturday’s Guardian for Stephen Grey’s book ‘Operation Snakebite’.

Grey is unsparing of Afghan president Hamid Karzai; indeed, he says an end to the war is not possible without a new Afghan government.
Karzai has repeatedly had to deny allegations that allies and family members have been involved in the opium trade, and a militia commander that he appointed was described as a "minor thug", more suitable for a job as a nightclub bouncer, by Michael Semple, the most experienced, knowledgeable western official in Afghanistan. Semple spoke fluent Pashtu and Daria, dressed as the Afghans do, and had worked for Oxfam, the UN and then the EU. In late 2007, the Karzai government declared him persona non grata, and ordered him out of the country in 48 hours for negotiating with the Taliban and working on a plan to rehabilitate Taliban elements who wanted to switch sides.
Raymond Bonner, Guardian 25 April 2009

Grey’s book looks at the reality of military operations for UK forces in Afghanistan in its real blood guts and dust. It asks the fundamental question we fighting al_Qaeda or the Taliban – because they are not the same thing at all.

The Taliban and al-Qaida are not synonymous, and, indeed, not necessarily natural allies. The Taliban have had "few global ambitions", regardless of their having given hospitality to al-Qaida, Grey notes, and not everyone who joins does so for ideological reasons. What the Taliban leadership wants, of course, is a strict Islamic state in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Obama administration appears to have grasped this distinction. "The core goal of the US must be to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida and its safe haven in Pakistan, and to prevent its return to Pakistan and Afghanistan," the administration declared last month in the white paper on US policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan. Strikingly, the white paper mentions the Taliban only once, and then to note that, while the "hard core" has aligned with al-Qaida, the Afghan war cannot be won without reaching out to the non-ideological among the Taliban and convincing them to lay down their arms.

In today’s press coverage Brown seems to be confused about this, talking of an arc of territory that can be used as a base for terrorist attacks on us all (the al-Qaeda aspect) but referring to the Taliban…

But, the reviewer says Grey does not ask one important question:

how the hell did the Taliban learn to fight like this? They engaged in large-scale operations against the British and held their own. You don't learn this in a rudimentary camp in the mountains. It is easier to train someone to become a suicide bomber than to be a soldier in an organised, disciplined army. It is not a criticism that Grey doesn't answer this question. But somebody should.

Maybe Paddy and some others could brief us on more of this background, as Afghanistan shapes up to be the Liberal’s War?

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

University places, time for a policy discussion 

Vince Cable is rightly stressing the tough decisions we need to make to face to financial storm. Some of his suggestions are easy to accept for LibDems. Scrapping ID cards for example. But there is at least one kite being flown that takes us beyond debated party policy.

In his posting on an ‘University for Berwick’ Mark Valladares eloquently shows why the expanding University programme can have huge appeal and a positive economic and social impact. But Vince is saying we may have to abandon the goal of 50% of our young people getting University level education. That would surely put the Berwick and other proposals firmly in the freezer.

I think we need to discuss this within the party rather soon, before the kite strings get into a public tangle of incompatible commitments.

We might also take another look at the long-term University option provided by my old stamping ground the OU – to give one example.

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Having attended university in a, possibly quintessential, university town, I whole heartedly understand how universities can drive and dominate the local economy. It can provide jobs for members of the local community, and also a young labour force to supply the local economy which inevitably grows up around it. All in all, a very good thing.

However, I disagree with the idea of government decreed artificially enforced target of young people entering higher education. I believe that all those with the ability to go to university should be able to go, regardless of social or economic background, and that that higher education should be free, fair and funded.

The idea of increasing university intake to 50% will indeed dilute the value of degrees in multiple ways. Firstly, more and more people with degrees will cheapen their value in the labour market. They will no longer be the key to the higher paying jobs or fast track careers that they once were, as each "graduate" position will be inundated with equally qualified applicants. They will in essence become the A or O levels of yesteryear, with MA's or Msc's becoming the new degrees.
Secondly, this could also lead to lowering standards with our higher education system. In order to fill the places required to meet this 50% target, many institutions (although probably not many from the Russell group) will have to lower entrance requirements or introduce more and more "fluff" degree courses. This resulting in higher drop out rates and degrees no employers want.

And also Vince is right, in this time of financial crisis, we also cannot afford it.
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Friday, April 24, 2009

Prisons and Europe 

Prisons alas are likely to be in the political news over the next decade. So good news that the Government is apparently NOT going ahead with plans for three 2500-place Titan prisons.

The experience of the French (who built a 3600-place prison) suggest this is the right decision – according to HM Inspector of Prisons Ann Owers the verdict of French Ministry of Justice on such super-prisons is very clear – 'Never Again'.

However the Government still seems committed to spending something like £2.3 thousand million on 10,000 extra prison places with five new Prisons on the stocks – and at 1500 places per prison these are still pretty massive developments. It seems that CCTV will be an important part of ‘cost-saving’ in running such prisons, despite the fact that personal contact between prisoners and staff is a vital part of any genuine rehabilitation process.

This discussion in the Quaker news-sheet ‘Around Europe’ summarises a number of important aspects of the debate.

It concludes:

In July 2007, shortly after becoming Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, Jack Straw himself admitted that ‘the government would not be able to build its way out of the prisons’ crisis’.
Why then are these prisons being built? Why are the predictions of increases in future prison
populations being treated as a definite rather than as an opportunity to heed a warning, take action and develop new strategies for dealing with offenders? The current strategy of prison expansion is no strategy at all, rather a gigantic mistake.

By the way, can I recommend ‘Around Europe’ as a general information source for LibDems? Have a look at the matters dealt with in the archives from the links on this page. For example the December 2008 issue looked at Women’s health and imprisonment in Europe.

And if you want to keep an eye on the questions some concerned citizens might put to our EuroCandidates, have a look at the QCEA Euro-Election page.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Open and out in front - The OU at 40 

Yes the Royal Charter for the OU was granted on St George’s Day 1969.

The one innovation of the Wilson era Labour government that has really survived and thrived (apart from the liberalising Home Office reforms and those were due to the influence of one R. Jenkins, later of This Parish…)

The press release includes this note:

The Open University continuing to lead the education revolution
• In 2008, the OU was the first UK University to join iTunesU, the area of Apple’s iTunes store that offers downloadable educational content.
• Also in 2008, the OU launched its own online video community site called ‘ouView in YouTube’
• A wide range of free online courses is also available from OpenLearn, the OU’s award-winning open educational resource website.

Wouldst that our Party was as on the ball with the new media…

Have a look at OpenLearn here…

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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The complex roots of the piracy epidemic 

More piracy thoughts as the Somali piracy events continue to reverberate.

Piracy is not the only illegal activity rampant off the coast of Somalia according to the UN Special envoy on Somalia. Toxic waste dumping and illegal fishing in Somali waters is also happening. These are not matters covered for example in the BBC Q&A on Somali piracy.

This issue is discussed by Christopher Jasparro, an associate professor – lecturer in UK terms – at the US Naval War College in an online article “Somali’s piracy offers lessons in global governance”.

The wave of piracy off Somalia began in 1991 following the collapse of the Barre regime. Dumping of toxic and hazardous wastes by international companies (possibly with organized crime involvement) increased. Unlicensed foreign fishing vessels eagerly targeted Somalia’s fish-rich waters. Local fishermen claimed that foreign boats use intimidation tactics such as ramming and hiring local militants to harass them.

In response disaffected fishermen then began attacking foreign vessels in the early 1990s, ultimately leading to full-scale piracy and hostage-taking. In 2005 a UN agency estimated that 700 foreign fishing vessels were operating in Somali waters, many employing illegal and destructive fishing methods.

Weakly governed and failed states are themselves often exploited by foreigners, and a resolution of this situation has to go far beyond armed responses and convoys for shipping.

Authorised extracts from another lengthy book dealing with piracy off Somalia and elsewhere are at this point available online on Google Books. Violence at Sea; Piracy in the Age of Global Terrorism edited by Peter Lehr is published by Lloyds Maritime Intelligence Unit.

While discussing the toxic dumping and illegal fishing aspects, the Lehr book also suggests why Somali piracy escalated so hugely in 2005 and after. The Somali coast was devastated by the ‘Boxing Day 2004’ Tsunami. Fifty thousand Somalis are believed to have died and no Somali government our outside aid was available. Poverty stricken fishermen resorted to whatever they could do to snatch at a livelihood. At the same time the unstable clan politics in Mogadishu led to huge increase in the costs of arms needed for the internal wars and the coastal peoples are part of one of those clans and so need to generate income for the clan.

The Lehr book suggest that attention to piracy will increase if it can be presented as a kind of training ground for maritime terrorism within the ‘conceptual framework’ of a global terrorist epidemic rather than as a problem in its own right.

And it is not just off Somalia that problems persist.

There is a problem zone running from the coast of China, past Vietnam and the Philippines, through Malaysian and Indonesian waters, across the Indian Ocean and so to the current news bulletin hotspot off Arabia and east Africa. The complexities include the need for the Indian and Pakistani navies to co-operate if civil maritime security is to be maintained in both their waters, while at the same time both states are in a semi-standoff militarily.

Shooting three pirates is not going to end all this.

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To, add to this a posting on the Huffington Post expands on teh toxic waste and tsunami connection:

" In 2004, after a tsunami washed ashore several leaking containers, thousand of locals in the Puntland region of Somalia started to complain of severe and previously unreported ailments, such as abdominal bleeding, skin melting off and a lot of immediate cancer-like symptoms. Nick Nuttall, a spokesman for the United Nations Environmental Program, says that the containers had many different kinds of waste,including "Uranium, radioactive waste, lead, Cadmium, Mercury and chemical waste." But this wasn't just a passing evil from one or two groups taking advantage of our unprotected waters. The UN envoy for Somalia, Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, says that the practice still continues to this day.

It was months after those initial reports that local fishermen mobilized themselves, along with street militias, to go into the waters and deter the Westerners from having a free pass at completely destroying Somalia's aquatic life. Now years later, the deterring has become less noble, and the ex-fishermen with their militias have begun to develop a taste for ransom at sea. This form of piracy is now a major contributor to the Somali economy, especially in the very region that private toxic waste companies first began to burry our nation's death trap. "

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Old Labour roots of compulsory community work idea 

The extraordinary tin-ears Labour suggestion to conscript ‘young people’ into a compulsory volunteer workforce is no surprise to those old enough to remember the reality of Old Labour.

Way way back mumble years ago, when the SDP split from Labour and began the long dance to merger with the Liberals the now-defunct journal ‘New Society’ published a study of the attitudes of supporters of each major party to charities and voluntary organisations. As far as I can recall over a quarter-century later it suggested some fundamental differences.

Conservatives, said the article, were often involved in charitable activities, with a bias to fundraising but also for personal-involvement services like the WRVS. They tended to support what they called non-political organisations – defining non-political as not conflicting with Conservative assumptions.

Labour people presented a complex picture. For many, independent voluntary and charitable organisations were a little suspect, even where their aims were supported.

Real work had to be done ‘through Trade Unions’ so there was a parallel structure of ‘Union’ projects shadowing independent initiatives. Where Labour people (especially those with a live commitment to the Labour Party) did become involved in ‘middle-class’ non-Union voluntary activities there was a definite undercover takeover trend. Labour people had to be in control, though an independent façade was useful to suggest support for Labour positions outside that Party.

Of course any voluntarily provided service had to be inferior to a state-provided service and the evolution of society would lead to the withering away f the independent organisations as the State took on its ‘proper role’.

The Liberal Party members and supporters were found to be highly active in voluntary organisations, and to place a value on diversity and empowerment, and exploring different solutions. The article suggested Liberals were less interested in controlling or dominating and more interested in getting jobs done.

And the founding SDP members were found not to be much involved in voluntary organisations at all. (Which was the pot-stirring point of the article at that pre-merger time).

Wonder what a well-structured survey today would find?

I suspect that the instinct to centralise and dominate independent organisations so that their work can be directed into National Ends is part of Labour DNA.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Piracy and secure seas 

Anyone interested in the piracy situation off Somalia might like to take a look at the work of Combines Task Force 150.

Apart from anything else it illustrates the vast scope of the ocean covered.

It is not just off Somalia that we have pirate problems. I referenced before a book by William Langewiesche "The Outlaw Sea: Chaos and Crime on the World's Oceans” which gives the wider context.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Housing MPs then and now 

If I remember correctly, the Scot Nats once had a particularly uproarious solution to the problem of long-distance London living. After the October 1974 Westminster election, where they won 11 seats, the party took over (whether purchased or leased I know not) a small hotel in London and made it the SNP watering hole in Sassenach territory, and the English home for most if not all their MPs. Since the premises included a licensed bar the SNP political world rapidly gained a reputation for conviviality and – if you believe the likes of Private Eye - vivid interpersonal relationships. The SNP of course collapsed to two seats at the 1979 election (did the heat of vivid relationships contribute to this?) so the hostelry experiment ended then.

One reason for the social element was that Parliament still sat extraordinary hours in those days – session starting at 3.30 in the afternoon and lasting until 10.30 in the evening. MPs who attended debates to the end rarely got home before 11pm even in central London and many attended debates via the ever-open Palace of Westmisnter bars..

The idea of commuting to (say) Watford was not quite as feasible as it is today.

Another difference to today. Many old-style MPs such as Roy Jenkins (in his Labour years) never entertained this notion of living in the constituency. Roy lived near Didcot in Oxfordshire where he could conveniently catch a train to London or to his Birmingham constituency. Most other MPs were similarly at arms length to their constituents. It was the raise of the Liberals and our local campaigning that changed these expectations – our Liberal MPs had to be super-active on constituency issues, and the other parties eventually cottoned on to the fact that their own MPs were vulnerable to a ‘local activist’ insurgency and had to have a personal local base not just a constituency office.

So perhaps we are partly to blame for the crisis of expectations over many houses for MPs?

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I am a bit confused by this as parliament still tends to sit to 10.30pm on Mondays and Tuesdays.

The old system was into the morning. In some ways it was better because fewer things of importance were talked out.
John, in the old days the Commons sat until 10.30 most nights in session. It was one of New Labours reforms to bring in more morning sittings. The culture beforehand was very much one of late nights every night.
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Saturday, April 04, 2009

On First Opening Cables Storm 

“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies” … well not quite a new planet, as we all knew a bit about Vince Cable’s explorations of the ‘Realms of Gold’ and ‘Many Goodly States and Kingdoms’. Or even a Browned-Out Kingdom.

First impression of ‘The Storm’ is that it is a throwback to an honoured British institution, the Penguin Specials. These were books commissioned on matters of immediate controversy in the 1930’s and 1940’s giving a serious analysis and readable guide to matters of live and desperate public concern. So intelligent citizens could make up their own minds on what was what.

And there is a lot for us to take on board as we make up our minds.

The text is militantly plain and the discussion absorbing.

This is not an academic book so there is no barrage of footnotes. While this does increase its readability for many people it also makes it more difficult to follow up some of the points Vince raises, some in striking throwaway lines. An example; after the credit crunch of the 1720 South Sea Bubble:

… the venomous political climate .. led to legislation strengthening protectionist trade restrictions against Indian calico –wearing it became crime – thus transmitting the crisis from Europe to villages in Bihar and Bengal. (Cable 2009 p110)

Yes protectionist pressures once made it a criminal offence to wear cotton underwear in England. Only wool was permitted. Now that scratchy fact is probably familiar to most economics students, but where, general reader and political, activist (or even FOCUS writer), is one to find out more? (1)

Again there is no conventional list of source books rather asset of bibliographic notes. These make in clear that Vince made good use of John Kenneth Galbraith’s work on financial crashes, something you won’t glean from the (very sparse) index, which does not mention Galbraith. (2). This respect for JKG does please me and actually, quotes from Galbraith might well have summed up much of Vince’s case:

“Speculation buys up the intelligence of those involved”

“Financial genius comes before the fall”.

One of Vince’s major concerns is to prepare us all for hard and realistic decisions on living with the growth of India and China. Gazing at the Pacific in Wild Surmise won’t keep us alive over the next half century. So again a lot of work to be done, and much further reading for the concerned citizen.

In Party terms, this book is a bit of a risk for Vince and by extension the Party – as Job said ‘wouldst that mine adversary might write a book’. (3) If the book is right, it is a goldmine to steal from and if wrong a millstone that cannot easily be discarded. But that actually is a measure of how important Vince thinks his case is. It is more important that as many people as possible take his case seriously than that we LibDems get partisan benefits in the next election.

And no I don’t necessarily agree with everything in this book. If we can get up a debate on the details of content I will have things to say.

Now back to serious Cable reading.

(1) An excellent work on the world textile trade is Pietra Rivoli (2005) ‘The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy’. See pp152-156 for an account of the British Underwear Fiasco. Whatever was being ‘protected’ in this outburst of protectionism it wasn’t the nation’s naughty bits.
(2) Galbraith has been heavily sneered at in recent decades, classified as ‘not a proper economist’ because he didn’t indulge in complex mathematical modelling. For a representative sneer see the chapter on Galbraith in Diana Coyle (2005) ‘The Soulful Science’. Incidentally, Coyle is one of the writers associated with the concept of ‘Weightless Economics’, this being apparently something ‘new’ arising from Information Technology. No direct mention of this concept in Vince’s little book. Wonder if he would approve?
(3) Look this one up yourself, the Bible is online!

Oh yes and the poetic references...

John Keats
On first looking into Chapman’s Homer

Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft on one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

And incidentally Chapman’s translation of Homer was pretty dreadful …

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