Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"the Golden Journey to Samarkand"

posted by k

"O turn your eyes to where your children stand.
Is not Baghdad the beautiful? Oh stay.

"We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.


"We travel not for trafficking alone:
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned;
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand."

It's many years since I read James Elroy Flecker's strange play, Hassan. As I recall, it's a confection of orientalism, sado-masochism and fascination with absolute power. The doom of the main characters is romanticised and torture is treated erotically. The effect was doubtless heightened in the original 1923 production (after Flecker's death) when music by Frederick Delius was added. At the end, the audience is drawn away from the tragedy by the arrival of a band of pilgrims whose song includes the repeated line, "We make the golden journey to Samarkand."

Today no-one would escape from a world of torture and state cruelty to Samarkand. Samarkand is in Uzbekhistan and Craig Murray, who was the British ambassador there, has chronicled some of the horrors of Karimov's totalitarian regime. And there's nothing erotic or glamorous about it. Imagine a country in which the state compels children to work a 12-hour day picking cotton - or in which cotton workers are effectively enslaved for life. Imagine a country in which 1 in 6 people are employed by the security services, or in which the mildest grumble about the government can lead to imprisonment or death. Imagine a country in which dissidence can end in being boiled alive or in which confessions are extracted by the torture of children in front of their parents.

Now imagine you live in a country which expects its paid servants to turn a blind eye to such torture; which describes "confessions" gained in such a way not as true but as "operationally useful"; which treats the upholders of this regime as noble allies in the War against Terror. If you live in Britain or the United States, you don't need to imagine - you already live in such a country.

We live in a country whose government lies and lies again. We are expected to believe that 1 in every 200 male muslims is an active terrorist. Of course it's not true. But the government wants to persuade us to surrender our liberties. This is what John Reid said on a recent webchat:

"The truth is that all of our liberties are under threat from extremist terrorists who have a contempt for the liberties that we value so much. Therefore, we need to protect them and in a civilised society people accept that requires some curtailment on our own liberties. For instance, while everyone agrees on the desirablility of freedom of speech, most people agree that it has to be curtailed when it comes to racist remarks or encouraging hatred against others. It is that balance which is always difficult to achieve, but I am proud that in this country we are amongst the most libertarian in the world, though we are under one of the greatest threats from terrorism."

It's rubbish. You can't protect liberties by getting rid of them. And in Britain we are not "under one of the greatest threats from terrorism". Just compare daily life here with life in Baghdad.

Of course, terrorists exist. Terrorists may even get us. But it's unlikely. Our government isn't anything like as bad as the government in Uzbekhistan. But condoning the torture of other people in a distant country indicates a rottenness which will touch us too. I'm no longer so sure than it can't happen here. I've seen people slip quietly from firm ethics to acceptance of horrors. We have taken our first steps on "the golden road to Samarkand."

For the full John Reid webchat with comments, click here.

And for further details of Craig Murray and his book, Murder in Samarkand (now available in paperback), click here.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"our duty to the City"

posted by k

Gordon Brown, unelected to the post of Prime-Minister-in-waiting, will be pronouncing on citizenship today. His latest idea is that immigrants should carry out community tasks before they are granted citizenship.

A considerable number of immigrants - and asylum-seekers - are involved in community work and voluntary organisations. They do this as a gift, not under compulsion. Making it a compulsory task devalues the gift.

Compulsory community work will turn voluntary organisations into the police of the immigration services. They will cease to be "voluntary" if their role incorporates the organisation of forced labour. The position of voluntary organisations is already compromised as they are drawn into the role of government agencies.

Immigration is strictly limited and asylum-seekers (included children) are frequently imprisoned and brutally deported. Now anyone desperate for the safety of citizenship is to be forced into unpaid work. And the spin adds that the citizenship may be removed after it has been bestowed.

There's a word for compelled, unpaid labour. It's "slavery".

This is the 200th anniversary of Britain's abolition of the slave-trade - one of the best moments in British history. Gordon Brown wants to celebrate Britishness and British history. Perhaps he'd like to take us back in time too.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

"nor quickly to assent"

posted by k

Maurice Papon, war-criminal, is dead. At his trial, he ascribed his willing assent to the arrest, internment and deportation of Jews, to the teaching he had received.

So what is education for?

Education must impart knowledge and habits of behaviour. But it must also do two things:

1. It must encourage questions and the testing of received wisdom.

2. It must provide pupils and students with an opportunity to build a world which goes beyond the imagination of their parents and teachers.

These qualities are not easily examined nor quantified for league tables. The current regime looks chiefly for the quantifiable which can be examined. From nursery schools to universities, the British government and educational establishment looks chiefly for results that can be measured and judged. Tick-lists and rote learning are valued above thought. Plagiarism, which infects schools and universities, grows from a demand that pupils and students replicate the ideas of others. Schools and universities celebrate the employment records of their students rather than their difficult non-conformity.

Independent, questioning and original thought is unpredictable in its results. It's dangerous. But it's also the best and only hope for the future.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

"No words men write can stop the war"

posted by k

Today is the 100th anniversary of W.H. Auden’s birth. As the South Bank Show on Sunday made clear, he’s still seen as a difficult figure: the poet of the left who spent the war in America. No matter that his departure was arranged in the wake of Munich nor that the decision was personal (Auden later ascribed it to a need to grow up but he’d also found a life-long partner in the young Jewish-American poet Chester Kallman); according to the thinking of the time it was the responsibility of poets to join the army or be bombed in London. Settling in New York (eventually joining the U.S. army as part of the Strategic Bombing Survey) didn’t fit the popular image of the lyric poet who should, ideally, die young.

What Auden did instead was to rethink the role of the poet and, by implication, of language itself. Before the Second World War began, Auden, who had become accustomed to speak in public on a range of subjects from documentary film to anti-fascism, discovered that he had the ability to sway an audience. The experience shocked him and may have been one of the influences on his renunciation of lyric poetry. Within the space of a single poem – “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” – he moved from the idea that Time “Worships language” to the declaration that “poetry makes nothing happen”. By 1950, in “We Too Had Known Golden Hours”, Auden observed that “words like Peace and Love,/All sane affirmative speech” had been “soiled” and “debased” by mass media and politicians, so that the only possible speech remaining was “wry” and “Ironic”. Still the “suburb of dissent” remained.

The ironic, questioning, playful voice continued until 1973, often dissenting and asking awkward questions. Auden reminds us to be mistrustful of political and media rhetoric and to avoid the easy cliché which sways opinion by avoiding thought. He reminds us too of a shared humanity.

It seems apt to recall a few of his words on what would have been Auden's 100th birthday.

“In our age, the mere making of a work of art is itself a political act. So long as artists exist, making what they please and think they ought to make, even if it is not terribly good, even if it appeals only to a handful of people, they remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous members, that Homo Laborans is also Homo Ludens.” [i.e. man who labours is also man who plays] (“The Poet & the City")

"Speech can at best, a shadow echoing
the silent light, bear witness
to the Truth it is not …" (“The Cave of Making”)

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Monday, February 19, 2007

"how strange the change"

posted by k

Time for a quiz. (Most blogs have them).

There are just three questions and no prizes.

1. Who said this?

"My father fought in the last great European war. I was born in 1953, a child of the Cold War eara, raised amid the constant fear of a conflict with the potential to destroy all of humanity. Whatever other dangers may exist, no such fear exists today. Mine is the first generation able to contemplate the possibility that we may live our entire lives without going to war or sending our children to war. That is a prize beyond value and this agreement is a great contribution to it.

"The drawing of this new European landscape has not been easy, as many in this room know better than I. Stability and prosperity are never assured, they can never be taken for granted, but throughout central and eastern Europe political and economic miracles are being wrought. People raised on suffering and pain sense stability and prosperity can now lie ahead."

2. and who said this?

The collapse of the Berlin Wall acted as a catalyst for a reappraisal of the type of Armed Forces that the UK would require to meet the security challenges which emerged to fill the vacuum of a post bipolar world. The peace dividend from the end of the Cold War was announced in the 1990 review "Options for Change", which sought an 18% reduction in manpower.

"Yet already a new strategic reality was upon us: the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait later that year confirmed that there were situations further afield which might require a military resolution. Closer to home the former Yugoslavia disintegrated into civil war and ethnic cleansing.

"This new security context was articulated in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review. It called for expeditionary Armed Forces that were deployable, agile and adaptable."

3. and who said this?

There are two types of nations similar to ours today. Those who do war fighting and peacekeeping and those who have, effectively, except in the most exceptional circumstances, retreated to the peacekeeping alone.

"Britain does both. We should stay that way. But how do we gain the consent to do it?"

There's a clue in the picture. The last two are from Tony Blair's speech aboard HMS Albion on 12th January, 2007. And the first is from Tony Blair's speech in Paris on 27th May, 1997.

It's strange to contemplate the change from hope to horror. And it's strange to observe so casual and careless an attempt to rewrite history.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"If the government becomes a lawbreaker ..."

posted by k

The Lord Chancellor is about to make a speech.
As usual, snippets of the speech have been released in advance. This helps the government manage press reaction.

One snippet is particularly illuminating. Lord Falconer will say, "In overcoming terrorism, policy must come first and the law second." This is being billed as an attack on human rights lawyers and judges. That spin suggests what the speech means.

Presumably Lord Falconer is not making the common sense point that policy decisions precede law. He is suggesting something much more disturbing: that government policy should be above the law.

Perhaps Lord Falconer should remember where laws originate. Laws come from parliament. Members of parliament enact laws by majority decision in two houses. Lawyers act within what law permits. Judges interpret laws. They do not act outside the law.

If Lord Falconer is worried about dangerous decisions made by judges, he should look at how they are appointed. Which wild revolutionary body or individual gives jobs to these dangerously anti-establishment judges? It's the Department of Constitutional Affairs, headed by Lord Falconer as Lord Chancellor. How worrying for him. He'd better investigate and sack himself.

Or is it parliament to blame? Does parliament refuse to pass government policies? Do MPs know their responsibility to their electorate and think before voting? I hope so.

Lord Falconer's words suggest a denial of his own responsibility. They disregard the careful democratic process by which laws are made. Lord Falconer indicates that government ministers want to be free of responsibility to people, parliament and law.

A government that is unaccountable to people, parliament and law is a dictatorship.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

"waiting for the end"

posted by k

I suppose we've been waiting for the next war - or the next extension of this war - for some time. It was implicit in the phrase "axis of terror". The main question, for some time, was which country the United States (and probably Britain) would attack next.

Lately, it's been narrowing down to Iran, although for a short while Syria looked the more likely target. One morning last week I heard ex-MP Lorna Fitzsimons telling the world that Iran would be able to launch a nuclear attack in 9-11 months, which sounds a little more reasonable than 45 minutes but still some way from most expert views. So far as I could follow her argument, she was responding to - and opposing - a call for diplomacy to prevent war. She was speaking, so far as I could gather, as chief executive of the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre. Those calling for greater diplomacy included Oxfam, various trades unions, Christian churches and Sir Richard Dalton who, until last year, was British Ambassador to Iran.

Now another ground for war has been offered. At a rather surprising press conference, "senior defence officials" from the U.S. have accused Iran's government of supplying particularly sophisticated roadside bombs to "insurgents". It must have been an odd occasion. No cameras were allowed. The journalists were not allowed to identify the officials making the assertions. No evidence was offered and journalists were told that there was no independent verifcation of the U.S. claims. But the anonymous officials also offered some detailed statistics on how many U.S. personnel (they weren't bothered with non-U.S. people) had been injured or killed.

There's no easy way to respond to assertions made by anonymous individuals with no evidence provided. It's hard to trust evidence in any case after the unrelaible dossiers provided to support the invasion of Iraq.

It looks as though we're being prepared for war - and no-one's asking our opinion. There's an anti-war march in London on Saturday, 24th February. How many wars will it have to oppose?

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Letter to Tony Blair

posted by k

Dear Tony Blair,

You want to catch up with people who met you on the campaign trail in 1997. I met you then.

I remember 1997 quite well. I was full of hope because it seemed that at last the years of tory indifference and sleaze might be over. I thought there might be a more equal society and that truth, justice and peace might come to have more meaning. I wanted to vote for your party.

I met you in Leicester. I was on my way back to the office from the market or the shops when one of your aides or campaigners (an American) suggested I might stop in Town Hall Square to meet the next prime minister. I was a little anxious about being late to the office but my work gives me control over my timetable and it seemed an opportunity to find out about your politics. As I said, I wanted to vote for you.

Something about your programme caused me anxiety. You were very keen to promise no higher taxes - yet I saw poverty, deprivation and need around me. I didn't see how these could be addressed without raising taxes. Some of your supporters told me not to worry because this was just a promise made to win an election and it wouldn't be kept. But I didn't think a leader's capacity to tell lies was a good ground to give you my vote. Yet the Tories had to go. At the time, I didn't believe any other party could be as bad as them.

So I waited for your arrival.

Workmen were erecting scaffolding to provide a platform. In my naivete I thought this was so that you could make a speech and be heard. It was only as the time of your arrival approached that I realised the function of the platform; if would control the camera angles of the press photographers.

Your supporters gave out souvenirs. I've still got the little credit card-sized guarantee that they gave to voters. "new Labour because Britain deserves better" it proclaims, with a picture of you looking youthful and determined. There's a rose next to the word "Labour" in the bottom left hand corner - a symbol of your love affair with the voters, perhaps. I know it reminded me of the Mills & Boon "rose of romance".

The signed election pledges on the back didn't thrill me. They were bureaucratic and target-driven, though of course I wanted my children in classes smaller than 30. Perhaps it was telling that you included "fast-track punishment for young offenders" without mentioning the "causes of crime" that played a part in your speeches. I was mildly concerned that there was nothing about principles on the card.

Your election-workers started the soundtrack. "Things can only get better" played again and again for forty-five minutes as your coach was delayed. It wasn't a good song in the first place. The election workers gave out paper caps, stickers and flags in the new Labour colour of purple - you were ever so concerned not to appear socialist.

The flags worried the assembled crowd. People held them in an embarrassed manner or concealed them in shopping and had to be persuaded into cheering and waving. I was amused as I watched but also worried. It was so very unBritish to wave a flag. But before you got there, the crowd had been persuaded (very slowly) to simulate enthusiasm, which gave way to real enthusiasm. Perhaps you had to be late to allow sufficient time.

I think you said a few words, but I can't remember them. I was fascinated by your deep tan, which contrasted with the pallor of Cherie who walked a constant two strides behind you. "She's a famous lawyer," I thought. "Surely she has something better to do than act as window-dressing." The pallor was a mistake, by the way. It led to the conclusion that you were made up for the TV cameras. (The alternative - a recent holiday in the sun - seemed unlikely, given the campaign.)

Then you started reaching out to the crowd. Everyone wanted to touch you and shake your hand - and you wanted to touch everyone. I made you stop by not taking your outstretched hand. Instead I asked you a question about poverty and how you would address that problem. (It wasn't mentioned on your guarantee card.)

We spoke for a couple of minutes. I had the chance of a supplementary question and asked you about the Youth Training Scheme and its successors - I'd seen something of the YTS in operation when temping nine years before. You looked me straight in the eyes and spoke with a greater appearance of concern and sincerity than I've ever seen in a politician - and what you said was reasonably thoughful, given the circumstances. Then you moved on.

I should have been convinced. I should have voted Labour in 1997. But that encounter persuaded me that I couldn't vote for your party while you were leader. The occasion wasn't about politics or principles, you see. It was about appearance, stage management and salesmanship. I'd been reading Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition. I didn't agree with it all. But her alarm about the loss of a genuinely political space infected me and I saw your arrival as the culmination of all that she had feared.

I was close to tears when I realised this. I wanted to hope. Almost all my friends were voting for your party. I felt like an outsider. But my decision was made.

I later discovered (from a newspaper report) that the annual vigil to commemmorate people killed in industrial accidents had been moved from its usual spot so as not to interfere with your triumphal progress. When I read that, I realised that the beggars who usually haunted the square must have been cleared as well. Someone had decided you shouldn't meet the really hurt and desolate. But you had already lost my vote.

I still celebrated when the results came in. I cheered the "Portillo moment". I arrived at work tired and optimistic the following morning.

For years I wondered if I had been wrong to vote against your party. Gradually I began to realise I had been right. Today I'm relieved I didn't vote for you in 1997.

I'll post this on the Labour Party website - just so you know.

Please don't edit it or pretend that anything in it supports you.

Please resign. And please - say sorry before you go.


"I do know but one/ That unassailable holds on his rank"

posted by k

The Ides of March are still more than a month away but the conspirators are getting ready. I don't suppose Brown, Milliband, Hain, Harman et al. are sharpening real daggers. I don't suppose Margaret Beckett will greet Tony Blair at Prime Minister's Question Time with a petition calling for the resintatement of Clare Short, nor that the Cabinet will fall on Blair, stabbing him frenziedly, until, with the last blow from Ruth Kelly, he gives way and utters his final words below a photo of John Major (or Robin Cook).

But how does anyone get rid of a Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister exercises a great deal of independent power. In theory a vote of no confidence could dethrone him, but that's convention rather than law. Constitutionally, the Queen could dismiss him, but she's unlikely to do so. She's been trained to prevent a conflict between her role as Head of State and the elected representatives in the Commons. The Labour Party could presumably call a conference and vote in a new Labour leader, but that wouldn't stop Blair remaining Prime Minister.

So the conspirators spin and hope and release anonymous briefings to the press. Meanwhile, voters experience a familiar combination of anger and cynicism. I hope it won't end with the death of the poet laureate at the hands of an angry mob, shouting, "Let's tear him for his bad verses" nor with rabble-rousing speeches and civil war.

But what's happening now is not what I would call democracy.

How do we get rid of a Prime Minister?

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Horst Wessel Revisited

With flags high and ranks closed,
New Labour marches like a predator.
Comrades suppressing dissent and reason
March in spirit with us in our ranks.

The streets are free for the thought police,
The streets are free for the therapists.
Millions, full of hope, look up at the flag.
The day breaks for mendacity and profit.

At each day's waking will the call be blown;
For the nation's work we must stand ready.
We shall fly community flags over every street;
Slavery of the free mind will last only a short time longer.

With flags high and ranks closed,
New Labour marches like a predator.
Comrades suppressing dissent and reason
March in spirit with us in our ranks.

OR The original Horst Wessel Song

Die Fahne hoch die Reihen fest geschlossen
S. A. marschiert mit ruhig festem Schritt
Kam'raden die Rotfront und Reaktion erschossen
Marschier'n im Geist in unsern Reihen mit

Die Strasse frei den braunen Batallionen
Die Strasse frei dem Sturmabteilungsmann
Es schau'n auf's Hackenkreuz voll Hoffung schon Millionen
Der Tag fur Freiheit und fur Brot bricht an

Zum letzen Mal wird nun Appell geblasen
Zum Kampfe steh'n wir alle schon bereit
Bald flattern Hitler-fahnen Uber allen Strassen
Die Knechtschaft dauert nur mehr kurze Zeit

Die Fahne hoch die Reihen fest geschlossen
S. A. marschiert mit ruhig festem Schritt
Kam'raden die Rotfront und Reaktion erschossen
Marschier'n im Geist in unsern Reihen mit



"this precious stone set in a silver sea"

posted by k

What do you call a country in which parents are dragged from their families without vital medicine, in which children are imprisoned, in which deportations happen without proper legal representation?

What d
o you call a country whose government stops an investigation into corruption? - in which one government minister reckons he has the power to veto serious charges against the prime minister, his friends and allies?

What do you call a country where the police and security services provide headline allegations against suspects who have not been charged, imperilling justice and fuelling fear and mistrust?

What do you call a country in which authorities compile a huge database of information on citizens and boast that all people are watched much of the time?

Great Britain? United Kingdom?

That's right. It's the country that, according to its prime minister, proclaims "a commitment to democracy, freedom and justice." Did I miss something? Is this really my country?