Sunday, 28 April 2013

‘Joystick aces’ fighting wars without conscience

This week the Royal Air Force began flying unmanned drone missions from its base in Waddington Lincolnshire. Previously the ten Reaper drones were flown by RAF personnel from a USAF base in Creech Nevada, the aircraft are used for surveillance missions but have the capability to attack targets on the ground if required.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this week retired Chief of Defence Intelligence Air Marshall Sir John Walker said that ‘having a capability like the drones on the order of battle can only be a good thing,’ he likened them to the UK’s nuclear arsenal, saying they provided a strong deterrent without being used to take offensive action.

Several campaign groups including, CND, War on Want and the Stop the War Coalition opposed to the use of drones took part in a protest outside RAF Waddington yesterday.

Kat Craig of Reprieve told the BBC that the use of drone aircraft was a form of ‘aerial occupation, almost a form of collective punishment that causes huge concern and distress’ to the communities being observed.

Chris Nineham of the Stop the War Coalition said there was ‘something sinister and disturbing’ about the use of drone aircraft and that it gave governments ‘carte blanche to fight wars behind the backs of people with no public scrutiny or accountability.’

It is easy to romanticize aerial combat as a sort of high tech joust where honour is all, an image fuelled by media images of the heroics of the RAF during the Battle of Britain. The reality is, as always, very different.

War, in the air or anywhere else is always hell. A brutal marathon of crushing mental and physical exhaustion that all too often summons up the very worst in human nature. Just occasionally though in this dark maelstrom of violence there glitters the tiniest speck of conscience, a recognition of shared humanity transcending manufactured divisions shown, for example, in medics treating enemy combatants alongside their own and sailors rescuing the crews of ships they have sunk.

Creating a situation in which combat missions are flown from an office suite in Lincolnshire, by ‘pilots’ wearing according to some reports wings they have no right to, snuffs out that small speck of conscience. War then becomes what silly people have always thought it was, a sort of rough game for boys where nobody; meaning nobody on our side anyway, really gets hurt.

On one level I agree with Air Marshall Walker, having a squadron of drones in the RAF order of battle is similar to having a fleet of submarines armed with Trident missiles; but not in a good way.

Both feed the delusion that by owing such expensive military toys Britain is somehow still a ‘great power’ and encourage our politicians to adopt an imperial mindset that allows them to interfere in the affairs of smaller nations with impunity. You might think that a decade of deadlock in Iraq and Afghanistan would have taught us that this is seldom the road to success; but, of course it hasn’t.

Two years ago the UK joined America in intervening in Libya and when Colonel Gadaffi fell David Cameron was keen to present himself, ludicrously, as a great war leader. He’s rather less eager to take responsibility for the violent chaos the country descended into afterwards.

Now we look likely to intervene in Syria if reports of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons can be halfway verified. Do you think the results will be any different? I don’t and neither do most sensible people, unfortunately we seem to be governed by silly people.

Once upon a time political leaders understood the horror of war because they had often seen it at first hand as young men. That didn’t prevent them from making foolish mistakes; Anthony Eden fought in the trenches of the western front but still allowed hubris to take Britain into the shambles of Suez. You can’t help thinking though the experience of being under fire must have influenced the sealed orders someone like Edward Heath say wrote, as all prime ministers do, to be given to the commanders of submarines carrying Trident to be opened in the event of the UK being taken out by a nuclear attack.

David Cameron, like Anthony Blair before him, has never been under fire or faced any hardship worse that the wine being corked at dinner. Give politicians of his stripe the illusory means of fighting ‘clinical’ wars where only the bad people ever get hurt and they will find ever more entangling foreign wars to fight from the safety of their armchairs.

When, as is always the case, it turns out that there is no such thing as war without tears and far from helping troops on the ground misplaced drone attacks actually fuel resentment and act as an effective recruiting tool for the insurgents don’t expect David Cameron to follow the example of Anthony Eden and resign in shame.

Like the drone pilots of RAF Waddington our push button PM operates at a safe distance from reality and the consequences of his actions.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Ding- dong the division lives on.

Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady of British politics and either a defining national icon or the national equivalent of a wicked stepmother has died aged 87; in death she continues to stir up controversy.

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Milliband heaped praise on her during a special debate in the House of Commons, the deputy PM and the leader of the opposition did so with some qualifications, but the tone was valedictory to a fault. President Obama called her a ‘defender of liberty’ and the Queen granted her a ceremonial funeral at St Paul’s, the first such honour given to a commoner since the death of Winston Churchill in 1965.

Opponents of Mrs Thatcher’s economic reforms greeted news of her death with popping champagne corks and impromptu street parties and the song ‘Ding-dong the witch is dead’ from the Wizard of Oz leapt to number tow in the charts on the back of her passing. Its rise was helped by the BBC, in one of its fits of absurd piety, refusing to play more than five seconds of the song, clearly unaware of the fact that nobody takes any notice of the charts these days and that Mrs T would have been delighted by her continued ability to wind up the left more than twenty years after leaving office.

Since the announcement of the death of the political figure who squatted over my adolescence like a toad clad in twin-set and pearls I have watched the growing word blizzard of commentary and mostly failed to find anything like enlightenment about her stature and likely legacy. The best I have been able to do is to grasp at the odd passing flake and try to understand its often confusing pattern.

The first of these is marked ‘division’; Margaret Thatcher was truly the Marmite prime minister, capable of inspiring fawning adulation or foaming hatred, but never bland indifference. In the Britain she created from 1979 onwards the winners won big and the losers lost everything, whole communities were battered to a pulp by the recession of the 1980’s and have never recovered.

The next word to emerge from the blizzard is ‘connect’, like or loath her Mrs Thatcher achieved effortlessly the holy grail of modern politics, making a genuine connection with the voting public. Largely, it must be said, through appealing to their basest instincts, greed is good, society is a hindrance; the individual matters more than the collective.

This, perhaps more than anything else, stands in the way of her being a truly ‘great’ leader, as opposed to a ruthlessly efficient and highly successful one. Anyone with the right amount of eloquence can appeal to the self interest of his or her chosen constituency, a truly great leader though appeals to the things that make people nobler rather than just richer.

The last and most controversial word to come whirling out of the maelstrom is ‘legacy’. This is where the real meat of the issue resides and even considering Mrs Thatcher’s legacy requires all sides to address some profoundly awkward truths.

The left have to swallow the bitter pill of accepting that given the parlous state of the British economy in the late seventies the rise of someone like Margaret Thatcher was inevitable. A Labour government, probably led by Denis Healy, would have had to do many of the things she did and deal with the resulting angst, although you imagine with a better grasp of the social consequences of their actions.

Her supporters on the right who still get all dewy eyed when they think of her rejection of consensus and dogged refusal to change course cannot avoid recognising that her leadership style damaged politics. The four men who have occupied Downing Street since are all, whether they admit to it or not, ‘heirs to Thatcher’.

A fact evidenced by their hysterical desperation not to seem weak, tendency to bludgeon the electorate over the head with ideas and policies long after they have passed their sell by date and their obsession with squashing any dissenting voices within their own party. What they lack is the one thing Mrs Thatcher had in abundance, conviction, however muddle-headed her ideas might have been they were her own rather than the product of a focus group.

The truth is that as a country we haven’t reached an understanding of Margaret Thatcher’s legacy and won’t do for some time. At the moment enemies and supporters alike have turned her into an assemblage of quotes wrapped in an easily imitable voice, making her a heroine or a pantomime villain depending on their particular stance.

The real work of understanding how she changed this country and whether the results were harmful or beneficial will be the work of history and take decades to complete. History, of course, unlike the Iron Lady, is very much for turning. Facts not feelings are its stock in trade and its judgements are seldom kind.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

IDS should take the £53 challenge- even though he won’t learn anything from it.

Open mouth, insert foot; end up looking like a total idiot. This week must have felt like old times for Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, a reminder of those halcyon days when he led the Conservative party up a cul-de-sac of political irrelevance.

Asked by an out of work market trader ringing in to Radio 4’s Today programme if he could live on £53 a week benefits IDS airily replied, ‘If I had to I would.’ Bad move; very bad move, by midweek the petition urging him to put his money where his mouth is had grown so large the Royal Mail will have to borrow a monster truck to deliver it to Downing Street.

IDS had taken to the airwaves to defend the government’s welfare reforms, which came into force this week, on the same day George Osborne told an audience of bemused supermarket workers that the government were ‘trying to make the system fair on people like you, who get up, go to work and expect your taxes to be spent wisely.’

They’re making the system fairer by abolishing much of it, a bit like ‘saving’ a village from the enemy by burning it to the ground; only you wouldn’t trust this gang with a box of matches obviously.

Along with the infamous ‘bedroom tax’ they are also going to scrap access to legal aid for anyone earning over £32,000, get rid of the Disability Living Allowance and bring in the Universal Credit for all claimants. All of which is part of the epic struggle between ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’ the government is touting around in lieu of having a proper economic policy.

Speaking from a shared pulpit with an eloquence and sense of purpose that shames the opposition the Methodist, Baptist and United Reformed churches called the thinking behind the welfare reforms a ‘systematic misrepresentation of the poorest in society.’

Len McCluskey of UNITE said that the ‘sight of the chancellor urging the low waged in work to turn their backs on the poor out of work’ marked ‘a new low for one of the highest offices in the land.’

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls, showing his usual measured tone said the government’s plans for reforming the welfare system were ‘inhumane’ adding ‘what planet are they on? I can’t believe they are so callous.’

The case for reforming a welfare system created in the 1940’s is as compelling as the one for not doing so in the ham fisted manner favoured by the government. What we need is a welfare system that supports, educates and empowers people; what we’ve got is one that too often parks them out of sight. What we might soon have, if the government get their way, is one that abandons people completely; dressing up cynical neglect as tough love in the process.

What has surprised and saddened me, yet again, is the attitude to the poorest people in society shown by Iain Duncan Smith. For some, seemingly irrational, reason I thought he was different, a Tory grandee who had come down from his ivory tower, boogied with the poor folks for a while and actually learnt something from the experience.

What he has learnt, it seems, is that playing to the lowest common denominator is the route to political gold, at least in the short term. To this end he ramps up the ‘strivers’ against ‘skivers’ rhetoric hoping as he does so that the resulting division will hide the fact that the government he is part of has no idea how to kick start economic growth and has painted itself into a corner with its deficit reduction plans.

The welfare state isn’t an unaffordable luxury; it is a bulwark against barbarism and like it or not it is the safety net we will all fall back on at some stage of our lives. We need to spend more on it not less, with our zeal for reform focussing on making sure every penny spent produces a socially valuable return.

This is a tough message to sell, the Daily Mail and the Sun would hate it, the movers and shakers in the boiler rooms of the three main parties would feel a bit nervous too. It corresponds to none of the received wisdom about how the business of politics should be done, it costs money, won’t produce instant results and requires a level of maturity and collaboration seldom seen at Westminster.

Unlike the solutions being offered by the current government it might produce results in the long term; one day someone will have to try it, you just have to hope it isn’t too late.

Until then it might do IDS some good to live for a year in £53 a week, a 97% pay cut, if nothing else it might rid him of the misplaced notion that the poor just aren’t trying; they’re trying harder than anyone, just to survive. Then again, on his current form all he’s liable to learn from the experience of walking a mile in a poor man’s shoes is what its like to be a mile away wearing someone else’s shoes.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Not such a big brother.

David Milliband is to leave British politics because he fears being a ‘distraction’ damaging the chances of his brother winning the next election.

Speaking to the BBC on Wednesday of last week he said he felt a ‘sense of sadness’ at leaving Westminster and remained ‘passionate’ about the Labour Party, but felt he had had to make a tough decision about where he could make the most effective ‘contribution.’ Not, it would seem, on the Labour benches in the commons, since losing the party leadership ballot to his brother Ed in 2010 he has refused several jobs within the party, fearing, perhaps, that were he to accept a job it would be seen as either a snub or a position from which to launch a fresh leadership challenge.

For the past three years his relationship with his brother has been the source of endless media speculation, his resignation is, he said, prompted by a desire to see the political fight be ‘between the vision Ed Milliband has and the vision David Cameron has’, he went on to say that he didn’t want the ‘soap opera to take over the real substance of what has to be done.’

When he leaves politics David Milliband will take up a position as Chair of International Rescue, a New York based aid charity.

Responding to the news of his brother’s departure Ed Milliband said British politics would be a ‘poorer place’ as a result and pledged that if he wins the next election he will ‘make sure he serves the country in one way of another, because he has a huge talent.’

Other tributes came from former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who said he was a ‘massive loss to British politics;’ Tory party Chair Grant Shapps praised his contribution to political life and said ‘we wish him well.’ Even former president Bill Clinton got in on the act, welcoming Mr Milliband to his new job by praising him as ‘one of the ablest, most creative public servants of our time.’

Having so much praise lavished on him by the great and the good; or the plain notorious in the case of Tony Blair, must have been an odd experience for David Milliband, like reading his own glowing obituaries without having to go to the trouble of dying first.

Perhaps I am an incurable cynic but this display of filial self sacrifice rings more than a little hollow. If David Milliband really wanted to kill off the ‘soap opera’ surrounding rumours of brotherly rivalry he could have done so in 2010 by joining the shadow cabinet when asked. A month of so of conscientiously getting on with the job would have sent the press pack off to scribble about something and someone else.

Instead he chose to remain on the sidelines piously turning down job offers all the while letting the rumour mill work overtime.

The timing of his exit is suspect too; if he wanted to leave politics he could have done so at the next election rather than saddling his party with the cost of staging a by-election. They will win of course, his Sunderland seat is one of the party’s safest, but given the personalities involved the contest is bound to create the sort of ‘distraction’ he claims to want to avoid.

The truth is, I fear, that David Milliband knows only too well that he was never leadership material. He could have snatched the crown from Gordon Brown in 2008, but lost his nerve. Like Michael Portillo he likes the idea of being seen as ‘the best leader his party never had’; but lacks the guts and drive to push for the job.

Oddly enough despite a rocky start his brother Ed does have the required drive, he cuts a markedly less ridiculous figure now than he did only a year ago. He’s no longer a timid creature peeping out of the pocket of the unions, he’s a seasoned political operator comfortably cracking jokes about what David Cameron can’t organise in a brewery during PMQ’s.

This is though, like Labour’s robust standing in the opinion polls, a thin veneer covering some serious problems. Both the party and its leader lack a coherent message and a real connection with the voting public, without these however unpopular the government may be they will struggle to make real progress.

Having his brother step aside to let him (bless) have a go at being party leader without the shadow of Milliband the elder hanging over him will do Ed few favours come the next election. The media and a Tory Party desperate to cling to power will resurrect and recast this minor incident to show him as weak and a second choice leader.

That could well create a situation where it is David finding Ed a job after the election not the other way around. You don’t have to be Dr Freud to find yourself thinking maybe, at some subconscious level, that’s why he’s chosen to exit stage left now rather than in 2015.