Saturday, 23 August 2014

War and Peace

Here's an intelligent comment piece from The Guardian for a change written by Ian Birrell which avoids the simplistic anti-western politics of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) and accepts that there is a barbaric religious feud at the centre of events that goes back well over a thousand years.

Now like lots of other people in modern western democracies I've fought against prejudice and discrimination all my life, through my trade union background, by playing an active role in politics, by standing up for the underdog and by trying to follow a 'live and let live' attitude to life.

Yet it's still quite shocking to hear and see people betray casual prejudice which they would readily use to benefit themselves or punish others, if there were not rules, laws and norms of behaviour which confront bullying behaviour on the grounds of gender, race, religion, colour and so on.

But sadly this is a common attitude in some parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East you could argue, where there is no culture of democracy in the population at large or desire to share power with a rival 'tribe' because they are regarded as the sworn enemy, as  apostates and second class citizens rather than neighbours.

The same mindset was endemic in part of Northern Ireland only 50 years ago and still finds an echo with some people today, for example those who set out on triumphalist Orange marches to celebrate centuries old victories over their Catholic neighbours which has the effect of highlighting differences and encourages the two communities to live apart.

So there are no easy answers and contradictions exist everywhere, as Ian Birrell says, but at the heart of it all is a barbaric form of religious extremism which cannot be reasoned with because in the 21st century only religion, albeit a warped religion, is capable of justifying cold-blooded murder, the sale of women as slaves and the theft of children for conversion to Islam.

Meanwhile al Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) and other terror groups are being used as proxies in the centuries old conflict between the rival branches of Sunni and Shia Islam, and the evidence points squarely at countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar for bankrolling these appalling murderers.

In the absence of United Nations being willing and able to do anything useful, the role of 'world policeman' has fallen by default to America and other western countries, sometimes with good cause at others with less, and for sure that haven't always got things right - the track record of intervention has many failures as well as successes.

But while the 'west' cannot solve the crisis there is one one else who is able of willing to prevent killing and murder on a medieval scale - the UN sits on the sidelines while China and Russia sit on their hands ready to exploit the situation for commercial or strategic gain.

James Foley’s brutal death shows that the west can’t solve the Iraq crisis

I’ve just returned from Kurdistan, which is terrorised by Islamic State, and it’s clear that outside intervention will not heal the region’s centuries-old fissures

By Ian Birrell - The Guardian

'We support democrats in one place, despots next door. Our foreign policy sends out messages that are easily exploited.' Illustration: Matt Kenyon

The murder of the journalist James Foley is sickening. As his grieving parents said, this courageous man had his life terminated for trying to expose the suffering of the Syrian people. And among those causing that awful pain and devastation, as in Iraq, are the very same bunch of zealots who carried out his barbaric slaying.

Yet however callous, however cruel, however utterly contemptible, the beheading was far from senseless for the Islamic State jihadists. Such well-publicised savagery produces the panic that makes fearful infidels flee their advance, as I saw these past 10 days in Iraqi Kurdistan. What other group could empty a refugee camp packed with Christians in less than an hour, or a sizeable Yazidi town on a Sunday morning? This fear factor helps a comparatively small force – perhaps just 25,000 strong – to conquer and control a slab of land the size of Britain.

The killing highlights the group’s skilled use of social media to spread their warped message – such a strange but effective fusion of medieval beliefs and modern technology. I clicked on the video following a link from Twitter, then cursed myself and turned off the computer. We do not need to see those dreadful images to appreciate the disgusting nature of the deed; they offer only a voyeuristic glimpse into the corrosive and often-choreographed pornography of conflict in our age. Watch them, and you demean the legacy of a brave reporter.

Last week I spoke with an Islamic State official, a man inflicting his corrupted religious beliefs on hundreds of kidnapped Yazidi women and children. He calmly explained his organisation’s aims: to drive non-Muslims out of its self-declared caliphate and fight the US because it was using Arab rulers to attack them. He was polite, refusing only to discuss the foreign fighters thought to make up one-third of their forces, but chilling as he discussed the sale of women as slaves and the theft of children for conversion.

The key question is how to defeat such frightening fanaticism. This is a group that alarmed even al-Qaida, exploiting the Syrian civil war and sectarian rule of Iraq to amass arms, wealth and influence at immense speed. It is thought 500 Yazidi people were slaughtered in response to the first US air raids. Clearly the aim of this latest outrage – combined with the threat to kill another of the 20-odd journalists who have disappeared in Syria – is to terrify and goad the west.

The beheading of an American reporter, apparently by a British jihadist, is horrific. It is also a deliberate provocation. Foley would have been among the first to remind us that there have been many more deaths in this bloodstained and increasingly divided part of the world. It was disturbing to hear repeated claims from refugees of Arabs turning so rapidly on Christian and Yazidi neighbours, readily joining jihadists in carrying out atrocities in their towns and villages. Similar forces can be seen in west Africa and elsewhere.

Tragically, it appears that the kaleidoscope of cultures in the Middle East has been so badly shaken it may be broken for ever. Britain and the US bear some responsibility; such was the arrogance that when George Bush and his senior advisers pushing the 2003 war first met with Iraqi exiles, much of the time was spent explaining the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims – and that both were found in Iraq. But given the extreme nature of today’s crisis, both sides of this debate need to stop fighting past battles.

We must accept our own impotence. Western nations should offer sanctuary to many of those devastated refugees and collectively ban for life the return of any young fools joining the jihad. But we cannot solve this explosion of complex economic, social and political issues – let alone heal religious fissures dating back centuries. This is not to advocate isolationism, merely to suggest any fresh interventions are laced with realism.

Yes, it makes sense to use western special forces on the ground, not least to shore up the beleaguered Kurds whose accidental state is the one beneficial thing to have emerged from recent incursions. But we must banish for ever the idea that we can impose simplistic solutions.

Britain should reflect on foreign policies that seem more confused by the day, sending out conflicting messages exploited easily by extremists. So we support democrats in one place, yet despots next door: we look at banning a party that won an election in Egypt, and back a repressive general who mounts a coup; we back Israel regardless of its lethally disproportionate response to rocket attacks; and we arm a feudal regime in Saudi Arabia that exported religious extremism around the globe with devastating consequences. It is even reported that our own allies aided the funding of Islamic State.

One thing is clear from this latest evil act: the connected nature of a planet in which a possibly British man beheads an American journalist to advance religious insurgency in the Middle East, and the video is posted online. The idiocy of those who claim they have all the answers is equal only to the stupidity of those who think we can ignore global problems.

James Foley risked his life to try to explain such complexities.

Council Charges

A regular reader has been in touch over information requests to North Lanarkshire Council about employee pay records.

Apparently some folk asked for the information as a Freedom of Information (FoI) request which for some reason the Council chose to regard as a request for personal information under the Data Protection Act (DPA).

"Can the Council charge for providing the information?" is the reader's question.  

Now technically, I think it can under the DPA which is odd because the Council cannot demand a fee for answering a request under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002.

But if you ask me, it is completely outrageous for any council to charge a fee in these circumstances, especially if all that people are asking for is their own personal data.

So if I were treated in this way, I would definitely complain and I would also take the case up my local councillor, MSP and even the local newspaper - because it's no way to behave.

Independence Debate

Polly Toynbee wrote a long and boring article on the Scottish independence debate for The Guardian the other day, an extract of which is reproduced below.
"The first question is whether Scotland could hack it alone, and the answer – though Alistair Darling could not quite squeeze it out during the famous debate – is of course yes, though it might hurt. Among the most compelling yes voices is the group Common Weal. Its Robin McAlpine paints a vision of escape from the dark world of Cameron’s atomised, state-shredding, welfare-destroying society. If Scotland distributed earnings as fairly as Norway, the poorest would be on £25k and everyone would be better off, with the Holyrood treasury gaining £4bn. He talks of the awakening of unpolitical people to the possibilities of a better future – not parties but communities enlivened to take action for themselves, to thrive whichever way the vote goes, quoting “a granny” who said that from now on “I’m no going back to my sofa!”
That’s inspiring, but it is not the whole story. Though tribally anti-Tory, there’s no great sign that Scotland is more than a little to the left of Britain. Inequality is as wide, poverty as deep, and it would take an enormous shift in income distribution to match Norway. That means huge predistribution of pay and redistribution of tax and benefits. What has Scotland done with its powers so far? Neither Labour nor the SNP used any of the 3p extra they could raise in income tax: easier to do it next year with new rules, but no party dares talk of raising tax. Instead, Salmond promises a beggar-my-neighbour cut in corporation tax in a deadly race to the bottom, letting business pay even less.
Nor have the poor come first. The SNP opposed tuition fees and introduced free care and prescriptions, but all those were free anyway for the poor, so the sizeable funds spent went to those on middle incomes and above. In other words, it looks as if Scots politicians calculate their voters are not entirely different from the rest of Britain."
Now I happen to agree with Polly about the effect of policies such as free school meals and prescription charges which have benefited middle income earners rather than the low paid, since these items were free already to people on benefits and lower income groups. 
But where Polly betrays her lack of 'nous' and understanding about Scotland's politics is that the group she seems to admire, Common Weal, is right behind these initiatives which are aimed at the 'squeezed middle' so beloved of Ed Miliband and the Labour Party south of the border, while doing nothing for the poor and low paid.

Mr and Mrs

Robert Mugabe has been in power continuously for 34 years, but according to this report in The Scotsman the old despot is planning to cement his grip on power from beyond the grave by helping his wife Grace to join Zimbabwe's Government, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the way 'democracy' works in China.

But it will all end in tears if you ask me, because look what happened to many of the Spanish banks (to use a non-political analogy) which went bust after promoting people without any relevant experience or skills to their boards of directors - a completely corrupt and short-sighted practice that brought Spain's financial sector to its knees. 

So what passes for democracy in Zimbabwe is about to become even more of a laughing stock.

Robert Mugabe’s wife step closer to top job

Robert Mugabe, 90, kisses his wife Grace, 49, who has a seat on Zanu-PF s top decision-making body. Photograph: AP

By JANE FIELDS - The Scotsman

ZIMBABWE’S ruling party’s women’s league has picked president Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace to be its new head in an appointment that will ­cement his hold on power – even after he dies.

Grace Mugabe, 49, was the only candidate for the post which now guarantees her a seat on her husband’s Soviet-style politburo, Zanu-PF’s top decision-making body.

The former State House ­typist appeared nervous as she delivered her acceptance speech in front of Mugabe late on Friday, telling him and the 4,000 delegates gathered for the women’s league elections in Harare that she would “work for the nation”.

“I know that you’ll be there for me,” she said. “You’ll teach me as we go and I know if I make mistakes you’re going to correct me and hopefully we’re going to keep this unity of ­purpose.”

Her sudden entry into politics is reported to have been prompted by her 90-year-old husband’s anger at factional fighting within Zanu-PF, which threatens to split his party ­after more than 30 years in power.

Best known for her love of designer outfits and sanctions-busting shopping in western capitals, Grace Mugabe has until now confined herself to charity work, her study of the Chinese language and overseeing the family’s vast business interests.

She married Mugabe in 1996, though this month she said she had been in a relationship with him for “nearly 
30 years”. They have three ­children.

Analysts say she has been propelled forward to dilute the power of vice-president Joice Mujuru, a party “moderate” who until recently was a favourite in the battle to succeed as president.

Mujuru, whose army general husband Solomon was killed in a suspicious housefire three years ago, was defiant at the conference, opening her speech with the Shona song Some People In Our Midst Are Plotting Against Us.

The elevation of “Mother Mugabe” – as state media calls Grace – appears to benefit for now Mujuru’s main rival, ­justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa. But there is speculation that Robert Mugabe is grooming his wife to take over the presidency to safeguard his property and business empire and to stop the ruling party disintegrating. He has been in power in Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 and has said he cannot step down while Zanu-PF is so divided.

In her speech, Grace Mugabe appeared to echo her husband’s concerns, saying: “I hope this animal called factionalism will come to an end. And hopefully one day this word factionalism is something we will not talk about.”

In a sign of his frustration, the Zimbabwe president told the women’s league that all members of his politburo and central committee would have to resign before December “so new ones can be chosen”. If ­implemented, the move will ­affect more than 230 Zanu-PF officials. His wife’s position will only be made official at a party congress at the end of the year so she will not be ­affected.

Yesterday prominent Zimbab­wean newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube tweeted: “President Grace Mugabe… It now looks possible.”

The previous head of the women’s league was Oppah Muchinguri, widely believed to have had a relationship with Robert Mugabe during the 1970s war for independence.

Meanwhile, his wife has ­recently moved into chocolate production, according to official Herald newspaper reports. Her Alpha Omega dairy in ­Mazowe has imported equipment from Europe that will allow it to double milk output and start producing chocolate and “sandwich” ice-cream, said ­Alpha Omega group general manager Stanley Nhari. The dairy, bankrolled by the president, is one of the biggest in southern Africa. The Mugabes have taken over several white-owned commercial farms since the start of the land reform programme in 2000.

Costs of Equal Pay

Here's a post from the blog site archive which explains the background to my recent Freedom of Information (FoI) request to Scottish Ministers about financial support for councils in relation to outstanding equal pay claims.

Because ask yourselves this question - "Why would a Scottish council borrow money from a commercial lender when the Scottish Government has put in place a scheme to help local councils meet the costs of settling their outstanding equal pay claims?"

Now I don't know the answer to that which is why I've submitted an FoI request to Scottish Ministers. 

Meeting the Costs of Equal Pay (17 May 2010)

As reported in last month several councils have applied to the Scottish Government for additional 'borrowing consents' - to help meet the back pay costs of settling their equal pay claims.

All of the councils involved have now been approached - to see if they are prepared to make renewed settlement offers - in the light of these new circumstances.

Any developments will be reported on the blog site - but readers are free to ask the same question of their local councillors and council leaders.

Contact details will be available on your own council's web site 

Meeting the Costs of Equal Pay (April 2010)

Several Scottish councils have asked the Scottish Government for permission to borrow extra funds - to help them meet the back pay costs of their outstanding equal pay claims.

Here's what they've been allocated by way of additional 'borrowing consents' from the Scottish Government

Clackmannanshire Council

East Dunbartonshire Council

Falkirk Council

Midlothian Council 


West Dunbartonshire Council 

It seems fair to assume that having asked to borrow these additional funds - the councils involved should now get their fingers out and put firm proposals on the table.

And given that large sums of public money are involved - Action 4 Equality Scotland will ensure that there is a fair and just settlement of people's claims.

Snake Bite

My old friend Dean Nelson filed this piece for The Telegraph from New Dehli, where he now lives and works although it's a very strange story, an Asian version of 'man bites dog' rather than 'dog bites man'.

But what I don't get is how is it possible for a man to bite and kill a deadly snake, one of the most poisonous serpents in the world, yet somehow the krait doesn't manage to sink its fangs into him as well, which it's rather used to doing of course?

Now I'd like to know the answer to that question because I know quite a lot about venomous snakes, so I think I'll drop old 'Deano' a note and ask him to explain how Rai's reactions were so much quicker than the krait.  

Man bites and kills venomous snake in central India

Rai Singh feared the snake was about to bite him when he attacked the poisonous creature

File photo: Blue Krait snake, similiar to the one that Rai Singh killed Photo: Alamy

By Dean Nelson, New Delhi - The Telegraph

A man in central India killed a venomous snake by biting it after he saw the blue krait slithering towards him in bed.

Rai Singh, from Chhattisgarh, told a local television channel he feared the venomous blue krait was about to bite him and decided to bite the creature.

“At nine o’clock in the evening while I went to sleep on my bed, I saw a snake and tried to shoo it away with a stick but it attacked me. I bit it”, he told a local television channel.

His neighbour R.S Singh described the incident as “astonishing” and said it was a “miracle that he survived since this snake is highly venomous”.

Kraits are one of the four poisonous snakes which account for the most attacks in India where 50,000 people are killed by venomous bites every year.

The krait is nocturnal and often wriggles into homes at night during the monsoon season to keep dry. Its bites rarely cause pain and often go unnoticed by their victims as they sleep.

They are, however, highly venomous and up to 80 per cent of their victims die after suffering progressive paralysis.

There has been a series of attacks on snakes on the Indian subcontinent in recent years in which they were bitten and killed by people who feared they were the prey.

A gondh tribesman in Madhya Pradesh bit a snake and snapped it in half last year after it bit his hand as he was fishing in a river.

The year before a farmer in Nepal bit to death a cobra which had bitten him as he worked in a rice paddy.

Now, animal rights campaigners are calling for greater understanding of snakes.

According to Pooja Bhale, of the snake rescue and awareness group, the Protecterra Ecological Foundation, most human attacks on snakes are borne of ignorance.

“Snakes are the most misunderstood creatures and often victims of a lack of information and awareness. People react in panic without considering whether the snake is venomous or not”, she said.

They only attack if they feel cornered or threatened, Ms Bhale said.

“If the humans act cautiously and divert their attention, they can save themselves as well as the snakes”, she added.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Independence Debate

Martin Kettle wrote an interesting piece on Scottish independence for The Guardian the other day in which he argues that things might get nasty after the referendum, in the sense that:

a) The Barnett Formula will be used to cut per capita public spending in Scotland 
b) Westminster will stop Scottish MPs from voting on laws that apply only to England

Now I can't see what reason anyone would have to object to b) because it makes perfect sense to me that if England's MPs can't vote on matters devolved to the Scottish Parliament, then this should cut both ways - what's sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. 

Nor should the cuts in per capita public spending come as any surprise because that is exactly what the Barnett Formula was set up to deliver (by Joel Barnett, a Labour MP) - a means of calculating future UK public spending on the basis of population size.     

So while these forces may be thrown into stark relief by the independence debate, they have a political momentum all of their own.

Yes or no, things could get nasty after the Scottish referendum

Despite what politicians want us to believe, the English may not be inclined to reward Scots if they vote to keep the union

By Martin Kettle - The Guardian

‘A clear inference from the research is that, whatever the result, relations between the English and the Scots could become increasingly hostile in the years to come.’ Photograph: David Cheskin/Press Association

Despite occasional narrowings of the lead in some polls, it remains more likely than not that the Scots will vote no to independence on 18 September. But what will happen then? The question has not been given the attention it deserves. But the Future of England Survey published today suggests the answers are unlikely to be as benign as is often assumed.

Some observers have expressed surprise that, given its increasing probability, the post-no scenario has received so little attention in the independence debate. But this is not really so surprising, for two reasons. First, the independence debate is, inevitably, mainly about the consequences of a yes vote, not a no. Second, unionists seem understandably reluctant to say tough things before polling day about the post-no landscape that may encourage Scots to vote yes.

The Future of England Survey has no such inhibitions. It is a solid piece of survey research of English opinion by academics at Cardiff and Edinburgh universities, conducted by YouGov. And it makes clear that the English, although opposed to Scottish independence, are in no hurry to reward Scots for the survival of the union. Indeed, a clear inference from the research is that, whatever the result, relations between the English and the Scots could become increasingly hostile in the years to come. Politicians of most stripes on both sides of the border have an interest in pretending this is not so. But the message of the research is hard to deny.

The principal findings of the study are that English people want Scotland to remain part of the UK by an overwhelming margin of three to one. But by five to one they think relations between England and Scotland would not improve after a yes vote. The English are strongly opposed – by nearly three to one – to an independent Scotland continuing to use the pound. And a majority think the remaining UK should not support an independent Scotland’s efforts to join the EU or Nato. The only part of the yes campaign’s vision that wins large-scale English support is opposition to border controls between the two countries after independence.

Even after a no vote, however, the English appear in an ungenerous mood towards Scots. There is strong support, in the event of a no, for Scottish MPs to be barred from voting on English laws. By four to one they want UK public spending per capita in Scotland to be reduced to the UK average (this could suggest 10% cuts north of the border on some calculations). And a majority think the two nations will continue to drift apart. But there is support in England for greater devolution on tax and spending to Scotland.

In assessing all of this, it is important not to leap to melodramatic conclusions too quickly. The fact that English opinion is revealed as generally quite hard-line towards the Scots does not mean that English voters want to impose a unitary system on Scotland in a surviving UK. Support in England for increased Scottish devolution is high and is likely to give politicians space to pursue fresh devolutionary plans. Nor does it follow that English politicians will follow English public opinion after 18 September. “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom,” wrote Edmund Burke, and his warning is likely to set the pattern for the UK government’s response, whatever the outcome of the vote.

Nevertheless, the survey is a powerful reminder that the Panglossian scenarios about the sweetness and light that will inevitably prevail after 18 September may prove to be extremely naive. If Scots vote yes, the remaining UK will inevitably put its own interests first in the subsequent negotiations, on the currency above all. And if Scots vote no, there will be scars too. There will always be a significant tranche of English opinion, to which English politicians will need to be sensitive even if they do not automatically parrot its views, that is reluctant to reward what it sees as bad Scottish behaviour in trying to break up the union.

Anti-English feeling in Scotland and anti-Scottish feeling in England have generally and happily played little overt part in the independence referendum campaign. Most English and most Scots prefer it that way, for reasons both of high principle and low political calculation. The campaign, by and large, has been positive and high-minded. But the survey is a reminder that the resentments on which reactionary forms of nationalism often thrive, where they exist, can be a two-way street. After 18 September, things may begin to get nastier than most of us would prefer to believe, in Scotland as well as in England.