Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Wednesday 28 April 2004

On 'hiatus' - from Friday

I'm off Friday for a brief Spring vacation so probably won't have time before leaving to post much more here, as there are some things in the real world that I must get done before departing. Although there is a landline telephone where I'll be (in a remote part of Perthshire), for urgent matters , my mobile telephone doesn't work within a radius of around 20 miles so I'll be out of reach for most of the time, mainly occupying myself with gentle hillwalking in the company of my dog.

Probably I'll be able to start posting here again sometime around Monday 10th May - meantime, have fun.
Product placement - helped along by those tiresome intervening programmes

I've just been watching a recording of last night's Channel4 broadcast 'Born Rich', about those who have been born to great wealth. The programme was put together by one Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson&Johnson empire. Some of those interviewed for the making of his programme seem nice young people, others less so - just like the population generally.

I've just seen the first ad-break, though, and was struck that one of the ads was for that great favourite of mums, and others, "Johnson's Baby Wipes" - pretty astute, if you ask me, to take advantage of what is an hour-long free company advertisement to bring one of the company's products to renewed public attention. Even more amusing, though, was the following advertisement for a completely (so far as I know) unrelated product - 'Nambarrie Tea' - one of the characters in it, the only one named, just happened to have the name for the advertisement of 'Mrs Johnston'. Different spelling, but someone at their ad agency must have been on-the-ball to place the ad in one of this programme's slots. This is the kind of thing I like to see - creative use of random opportunities.
UKIP London mayoral candidate Frank Maloney -"I don't want to campaign around gays...I don't think they do a lot for society."

Really, this gentleman needs to be more imaginative - I'm sure there are a few gays who'd support his Party's ideas (not me amongst them, though); some of us even pay [lots of] tax and do other mundane things as well. But that's not what all this is about, of course. Mr Maloney doesn't like gays, that's it in a nutsehell. Of course he says:

"I'm not homophobic, but in public let's live a proper moral life - I think that's important."

- why do homophobes always say this kind of thing, which they must surely know doesn't stand up to a moment's scrutiny and which no-one but fellow homophobes will swallow? Beats me.

I have some advice for Mr Maloney - if you're going to campaign seriously in a city that is so diverse as London then saying this kind of thing seems designed to alienate those whose votes you are trying to win. Surely a more productive, if devious, tactic would be to keep 'schtum' about this kind of thing until after you were safely elected? Perhaps he is just not a devious person. Or perhaps he is just ... not the brightest on the block. But with his kind of views, that is not really a surprise.
US Supreme Court looks at legality of detention of two US citizens held in South Carolina

This, like the deliberations last week concerning the detention of non-US citizens at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba will be, according to this article in the New York Times, of major importance in coming years in determining the limits (if any, in practise) of Presidential powers under the US Constitution. The Supreme Court Justices are projected to deliver their ruling(s) before the summer break. At a much less exalted level it may have some importance this coming November, too. We 'non-citizens' will be observing with great interest what is decided.

Tuesday 27 April 2004

British diplomats criticise strongly Blair's policy on Iraq

52 former British ambassadors have written an open letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair criticising his Iraq policy in unprecedentedly harsh terms. That a letter of this nature is written is one thing, that it be released to the media takes it to a whole new level and indicates the level of anger and alarm felt by people who, one presumes, normally conduct themselves with the utmost discretion. I reproduce the full text of the letter, also available here:

We the undersigned former British ambassadors, high commissioners, governors and senior international officials, including some who have long experience of the Middle East and others whose experience is elsewhere, have watched with deepening concern the policies which you have followed on the Arab-Israel problem and Iraq, in close co-operation with the United States.

Following the press conference in Washington at which you and President Bush restated these policies, we feel the time has come to make our anxieties public, in the hope that they will be addressed in Parliament and will lead to a fundamental reassessment.

The decision by the USA, the EU, Russia and the UN to launch a "Road Map" for the settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict raised hopes that the major powers would at last make a determined and collective effort to resolve a problem which, more than any other, has for decades poisoned relations between the West and the Islamic and Arab worlds.

... But the hopes were ill-founded. Nothing effective has been done either to move the negotiations forward or to curb the violence.

Britain and the other sponsors of the Road Map merely waited on American leadership, but waited in vain.

Worse was to come. After all those wasted months, the international community has now been confronted with the announcement by Ariel Sharon and President Bush of new policies which are one-sided and illegal and which will cost yet more Israeli and Palestinian blood.

Our dismay at this backward step is heightened by the fact that you yourself seem to have endorsed it, abandoning the principles which for nearly four decades have guided international efforts to restore peace in the Holy Land and which have been the basis for such successes as those efforts have produced.

This abandonment of principle comes at a time when rightly or wrongly we are portrayed throughout the Arab and Muslim world as partners in an illegal and brutal occupation in Iraq.

The conduct of the war in Iraq has made it clear that there was no effective plan for the post-Saddam settlement.

All those with experience of the area predicted that the occupation of Iraq by the Coalition forces would meet serious and stubborn resistance, as has proved to be the case.

To describe the resistance as led by terrorists, fanatics and foreigners is neither convincing nor helpful.

Policy must take account of the nature and history of Iraq, the most complex country in the region.

... The military actions of the Coalition forces must be guided by political objectives and by the requirements of the Iraq theatre itself, not by criteria remote from them.

It is not good enough to say that the use of force is a matter for local commanders.

Heavy weapons unsuited to the task in hand, inflammatory language, the current confrontations in Najaf and Falluja, all these have built up rather than isolated the opposition.

... We share your view that the British government has an interest in working as closely as possible with the United States on both these related issues, and in exerting real influence as a loyal ally.

We believe that the need for such influence is now a matter of the highest urgency.

If that is unacceptable or unwelcome there is no case for supporting policies which are doomed to failure.

The signatories are: Brian Barder; Paul Bergne; John Birch; David Blatherwick; Graham Boyce; Julian Bullard; Juliet Campbell; Bryan Cartledge; Terence Clark; David Colvin; Francis Cornish; James Craig; Brian Crowe; Basil Eastwood; Stephen Egerton; William Fullerton; Dick Fyjis-Walker; Marrack Goulding; John Graham; Andrew Green; Vic Henderson; Peter Hinchcliffe; Brian Hitch; Archie Lamb and David Logan.

Also: Christopher Long; Ivor Lucas; Ian McCluney; Maureen MacGlashan; Philip McLean; Christopher MacRae; Oliver Miles; Martin Morland; Keith Morris; Richard Muir; Alan Munro; Stephen Nash; Robin O'Neill; Andrew Palmer; Bill Quantrill; David Ratford; Tom Richardson; Andrew Stuart; David Tatham; Crispin Tickell; Derek Tonkin; Charles Treadwell; Hugh Tunnell; Jeremy Varcoe; Hooky Walker; Michael Weir and Alan White.

Many of the signatories have spent their diplomatic careers in the Middle East and they include former ambassadors to Iraq, Syria, Libya and Israel. Whatever one thinks of what they write, and I do not possess the detailed knowledge to make any judgement on the matter, it seems clear that their intervention cannot simply be dismissed or ignored. I must now go to bed, but one imagines there will be feverish activity tonight and tomorrow in Whitehall to formulate a reaction, although whether the public will learn what this is in the immediate future must be doubted.

Monday 26 April 2004

China denies Hong Kong right to choose next leader

China has announced that the territory will not be allowed elect its next leader because such a poll could stir social and economic instability. The decision has been criticised by both the UK and the US as an erosion of the autonomy theoretically granted to Hong Kong under the 1997 Joint Declaration between China and the UK and the Basic Law (Hong Kong's mini-constitution). Public opinion in Hong Kong is likewise not pleased, it seems.

None of this is surprising - I do not beleive China was ever going to adhere scrupulously to the spirit, or the terms, it agreed to and my own view when the agreement to return Hong Kong to China in 1997 was being discussed in the mid-1980s (when I lived in Hong Kong) was that there would be no immediate change in Hong Kong post-1997, but that there would be a gradual erosion of its automony so that by about ten years later the changes would become so significant that they could no longer be ignored. It gives me no pleasure at all to think what we are now seeing is my worst fears coming true.
Faith-based schools can't sack teachers for being gay - today's judgement

Under the government's 2003 Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) regulations, faith-based employers were granted an exemption which allowed them to refuse to employ staff, or to dismiss employees, who are gay. Under today's ruling Mr Justice Richards, a high court judge, ruled that the exemption does not apply to teachers employed by faith-based schools.

He ruled, however, that the exemption should still apply to faith-based employers other than schools. The rationale for his decisions (both of them) is not immediately clear, at least to me, and while the decision with respect to teachers is welcome I would imagine (and hope) that his other ruling will be subject to challenge and revision in the reasonably near future.
Draft legislation for ID cards published today

Home Secretary David Blunkett today published his draft Bill to provide for ID cards in the UK. The Bill contains provisions for registration to be made compulsory, but Parliament has until 2013 to decide - I am curious to know the details of this aspect and will have to read the draft Bill in due course so I understand precisely what is intended. There are many questions left unanswered in this report, which by its nature can only be a brief summary of what will undoubtedly be a very complex piece of legislation. For example, the GBP2,500- fine it mentions will presumably apply to non-registration only after this becomes compuslory, if this ever happens. However, it also mentions that the carrying of false papers will become a criminal offence and presumably this aspect will become effective immediately cards become available for issue, although what is not clear from the report are the circumstances in which sight of this form of ID may be requested (pre-2013) or demanded (post-2013). Of course, I magine that Parliament could decide subsequent to this date, at any time, to introduce legislation to make it compuslory.

I suspect that one 'tactic' that will be adopted to increase the level of take-up during the non-compuslory phase will be to make non-possession increasingly inconvenient and the fact that a much higher proportion of the UK population is now in receipt of some kind of 'benefit' from the government (as a result of policies enacted by the Labour party since it came to power in 1997) will ensure that it has the mechanism to prevail upon/coerce (take your pick) a very significant part of the population to take the easy option and pay for a card during the non-compulsory phase. For the next dozen or so years, at the very least, I will not be in receipt of any form of benefit/bribe/pension (take your pick) from the government, but presumably once I reach state pension age (currently 65 for men and 60 for women) there will be no escape if compulsory registration has happened by then. The predictions of Eric Blair (the real name of George Orwell) for the future of the UK may yet turn out to be eerily accurate ...
EU expansion - 1st May will see several new winemaking countries become members

As a wine consumer, one aspect of the accession of 10 new member countries to the EU on 1st May which interests me is that several are wine-producers. These include Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia and of course some of the others have vineyards, too. Because of over-production of wine in existing member states, strict quotas have been imposed on the accession countries which affect their ability to plant additional vine acreage. According to this report, the terms of entry negotiated by the Czech Republic's negotiators are particualry severe, whereas negotiators for Hungary have managed to obtain more favourable terms.

Of the accession countries the only one whose wines I know well is Hungary, although I have occasionally tasted wine from a couple of the others, and Hungarian wine has improved dramatically in the past fifteen years and the country will undoubtedly one day become a producer of some of the best wines, as it was prior to WWII and the era of communist rule. EU membership will give these new countries tariff-free access to the whole of the European Union and I look forward to seeing many more of their wines on sale here in coming years. I doubt very much, though, if imports from our main supplying countries (Australia, France, Italy, South Africa, Chile, Spain, etc. etc.) will suffer too much, although the increasing range of sources for wine will exert pressure on producers to make better quality wines.

Sounds good to me - Cheers!
Dr Jeffrey John hits back at anti-gay bigots in the Church

Dr Jeffrey John, the recently-appointed Dean of St Albans, responds in a sermon yesterday to criticism from evangelicals who oppose his appointment (and his earlier nomination as Bishop of Reading):

"The ability of the church to ignore the deeper implications of its own scriptures is horribly plain throughout history. Remember it took 18 centuries for Christians to realise that slavery is against the Gospel. Remember that those who supported slavery claimed to do so on biblical grounds ... Remember too that Jesus was condemned to death for his own inclusive attitudes by fundamentalist zealots who believed that they were obeying scripture.

"In all these cases those who opposed change could quote the Bible in their defence. With hindsight the church sees that they were wrong; they were killing the spirit with the letter ... In the same way the church will one day look back on the issues that divide us today and find it incredible that it once thought it right and 'scriptural' to treat women and other minorities as it does now.

"The struggle to make the church inclusive is not based on some secular, woolly 'liberal agenda' (the charge endlessly parroted against us) but on a scriptural imperative to do what Jesus did. It is the same struggle to oppose prejudice, bigotry and oppression and open the kingdom to everyone, especially the most marginalised.

"Inclusivity is not a soft option. It is harder to live in a truly diverse and welcoming community than it is to live in a community of the respectably like-minded, just as it is harder to be an intelligent student of scripture than it is to be a fundamentalist ... All of us must be challenged and changed in every department of our life, by the Gospel and by one another, whether we are male or female, black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor."

His use of scripture, quite correctly and accurately of course, is not likely to endear him to those who oppose him - because his criticism so telling. This debate is far from over.

Saturday 24 April 2004

Cyprus remains divided

Greek Cypriots today voted against the reunification agreement brokered by the UN, whereas the Turkish Cypriots voted for this in their own referendum. Thus only the southern (Greek Cypriot) part of the island will become a member of the EU on 1st May. A sad day.

The EU and the US should now fulfill their earlier commitments to end Turkish Cyprus' international isolation as soon as possible.

UPDATE: (Monday 26th April 12.44 BST) The EU is rewarding Northern Cyprus (i.e. Turkish Cyprus) for the 'yes' vote in the referendum by approving a €260m (£174m) aid package for the north, and allowing tariff-free entry of fruit and vegetables into the EU. It is being speculated, too, that the positive role played by Turkey (Ankara) in helping to change minds in Northern Cyprus bodes well for its own forthcoming renewed effort to join the EU itself. This is definitely an optimistic move which I hope will bear fruit.
Parallels with Guantanamo from sixty years ago - Germans interned in Texas in WWII

A very interesting discussion on an earlier and major example of the US holding persons under dubious pretexts is here. I had not before heard of the case of many thousands of Germans being 'purloined' from countries south of the Rio Grande, most of whom were simply farmers and even included some Jews. One Jew was taken because "many Germans used his butcher shop". The author ends his piece with a pertinent remark:

Americans and their Supreme Court should see this forgotten precedent as a cautionary tale.

For clarity, I should emphasise that I am not 'anti-war' or 'pro-war' (referring to the hosting website for the article I link to) per se - I am interested in hearing points of view from all sources provided they are well-argued and do not indulge in invective or ad hominem attacks.

Friday 23 April 2004

New link added - Giant Grizzly Twists And Shouts, by Robin

I discovered Giant Grizzly Twists And Shouts (must have been a link from another blog, I think) a couple of days ago. It was refreshing to find another well-written blog from someone in the UK: Robin, a British blogger who is gay, writes trenchantly about many things, but specially about gay-related matters. Do check it out.
Don't talk about the war!!!

Nothing to do with current events in Iraq. No, this is the catch-phrase from a classic episode of 'Fawlty Towers', a sit-com some years ago that was about a very bizarre seaside hotel in the south of England where the owner's (Basil Fawlty, by name) idea of hospitality was somewhat unorthodox and the rest of the cast were unusual in different ways, too. A very British kind of humour indeed.

The episode in question centred around the visit to this eccentic (aka 'horrible') hotel of some Germans and Fawlty's injunction to the staff forbidding them from mentioning 'the war'; as expected, they all complied with this without any problem, except of course that Fawlty himself proceeded to make increasingly absurd allusions, finally ending up 'goosestepping' around the dining room. Amazingly I understand that Fawlty Towers, and this episode in particular, is quite popular amongst many Germans.

Anyway, why do I bring this up? Well, quite incredibly, it seems that yesterday the owner of one of the UK's major newspaper publishing groups (the one that owns the Daily Express), a certain Mr Richard Desmond is alleged by senior Daily Telegraph executives to have recreated the 'goosestep' and other stereotypes associated with Nazi Germany, during a Board Meeting of a printing company owned jointly by Express Newspapers and the Telegraph Group. It is believed this was a very unsubtle allusion to the fact that Hollinger International (the owners of the Telegraph Group) is possibly going to be sold to Axel Springer, a major German publishing group.

Mr Desmond is Jewish and has, it seems, made a habit of making Nazi insinuations against others. According to the Telegraph article I link to, the Telegraph's Chief Executive Jeremy Deedes pointed out that:

... Axel Springer made the reconciliation of Germans and Jews a publishing principle and that the group's staff were required under their contracts to support the state of Israel.

It is reported by the Telegraph that this brought the retort from Mr Desmond:

"They're all Nazis."

The meeting continued to deteriorate, it seems, until the four Telegraph people decided to leave. Read the whole sordid tale here.

Added piquancy, if any were necessary, is involved in this story because only yesterday the Daily Express chose to switch political allegiance from the Labour Party (the party of Prime Minister Tony Blair), to which it had earlier offered financial support, to the Conservative Party (led by Michael Howard).

A company profile for Northern & Shell plc, the owners of the Daily Express, is here. I should record as a sort of 'full disclosure statement' (ha! ha!) that a magazine I buy regularly, called Attitude, is owned by Northern & Shell plc - Attitude is a popular monthly glossy magazine for the gay market in the UK; it does not seem to have its own website.
Molvania - a Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry

This was one of the books in my latest batch of books ordered from Amazon; I received it just a few days ago. It's a brilliantly-executed spoof of a certain series of backpacker-style travel books put out by a very well known Australian publisher . Molvania is a fictional country located somewhere in central or eastern Europe and would make a very interesting place to visit for a certain kind of slightly masochistic traveller - indeed I have lived in and visited one or two countries which bear a passing resemblance. It's a really amusing book to dip in and out of - there are a few laughs on almost every page. Here's the Amazon link for the UK site if you want to check it out - unfortunately it doesn't seem to be on Amazon's US site yet.
St George's Day - 23rd April

Happy St George's Day to all my English friends!

St George slaying the dragon - a carving from a single piece of wood, mounted on a wooden plinth, given to me years ago by an Indian moslem friend.

'Nationalism' may be a bad thing, but celebrating one's country in a joyful way is the very opposite. Within the UK, and around the world the Scots, Welsh and [Northern] Irish have always celebrated their Saints' Days, but the English don't do this so much - that's a pity in my view, so I'm doing my little bit to rectify this anomaly.
New link added - Heraldblog

I have added Heraldblog to my blogroll. He commented on one of my postings and after having visited his own blog I find him to be both a thoughtful and witty writer, well worth a place here. He tells us he is a writer and former journalist who lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Thursday 22 April 2004

More on the US Supreme Court and its deliberations on the legality of the Guantanamo detentions

I wrote about this as my first post today (scroll down the page - 'Enemy Combatants' and 'Prisoners of War'), but there is a very interesting article by Joshua Rozenberg in today's Daily Telegraph (of which he is Legal Editor) which I think makes very worthwhile reading from a non-US perspective and from the country which is the source of English common law, even if the law in the US has deviated somewhat from this over the years. Of especial note are his ante penultimate and penultimate paragraphs:

The International Bar Association brief, written by Prof Vaughan Lowe and Guy Goodwin-Gill of All Souls College, Oxford, says that "international human rights law guarantees a right against arbitrary detention, which entails a right to access judicial review, regardless of where and when the detention occurs".

Another "friend-of-the court" brief written by Sir Sydney Kentridge, QC, and Colin Nicholls, QC, on behalf of the Commonwealth Lawyers' Association, points out that if Guantanamo Bay were controlled by Britain or any other Commonwealth state, habeas corpus would be available regardless of the nationality of those detained. Indeed, it has been since at least 1772.

- and his final parapgraph lays it on the line:

That is not to say that an English or Commonwealth court would necessarily set the prisoners free. But it would examine their status and decide whether their detention was justified - which does not seem a lot to ask.

- specially, I would say, from the country which has been one of the most loyal and consistent allies of the US for a very long time.
Greek Cypriot Communist party looks set to scupper Cyprus reunification

The two Cypriot communities, Greek and Turkish, will vote this weekend on a UN-sponsored referendum on whether the two halves of the island should be reunited politicially. Opinion polls estimate 65% of Greek Cypriots are opposed, whereas a similar proportion of Turkish Cypriots are thought to be in favour. The Greek Cypriot Communist party has now withdrawn its support for reunification.

The consequences: if there is no reunification only the southern Greek Cypriot part of the island will accede to the EU on 1st May. In other words they have managed to engineer a win-win situation for themselves, at the expense of their bitter rivals to the north of the island. As the EU's Gunter Verheugen has said of the Greek Cypriot government, they:

"had taken him for a ride."

- and he is reported to have directly criticised the Greek Cypriot leader, Tassos Papadopoulos. He is reported to have said also that said the Greek Cypriot government had cheated the EU by pretending to support the unification plan while in reality campaigning against it.

A remarkable claim if true. I have already called for Slovenia's membership to be suspended until the question of its 'missing' former citizens is resolved. I think now that Cyprus must similarly be suspended, or both parts given the right to join the EU independently. This whole scheme seems to be part of a Greek effort to ensure that Turkey can never join the EU either.
Michigan passes discriminatory health legislation - aimed mainly at gays it seems

According to a report from RainbowNetwork, referring to legislation passed Wednesday by the Michigan House :

"The bill allows health care workers to refuse service to anyone on moral, ethical or religious grounds."

This seems a very widely-drawn bill which could be used to deny treatment to almost anyone on almost any grounds. The report says that as the bill was passed "dozens of Catholics looked on from the gallery". It seems that homosexuals may be their target, presumably because they consider homeosexuality to be 'immoral'.

White collar crime - don't like the 'ethics' of a person who has just defrauded clients? Sorry, no treatment for you, matey!

Some Catholics seem to think that 'Jews killed Christ'. Sorry, no treatment for you, matey!

Some people think women shouldn't be able to be priests or ministers of religion. You think they should be allowed to? Sorry, no treatment for you, matey!

The only let-out seems to be that emergency treatment cannot be refused. Other than that, 24 hours notice of a claim under the Conscientious Objector Policy Act by a health worker seems to be all that is required.

The bill now proceeds to the Michigan Senate, which the report advises is also controlled by the Republican Party, for its scrutiny.

Am I missing something here? Can what is a member state of supposedly the world's greatest democracy really be in process of passing this kind of legislation? Will people affected by it have to wear some kind of distinguishing mark, or will they be 'branded' in some way to ease recognition? Utterly deplorable!
Poll says UK public 'happy to carry ID cards'

80% of persons polled by MORI, for an IT consultancy which has done work for the government, were found to be comfortable with this. This sounds to me like a lot of polls which have been conducted in the past suggesting that people would be happy to support political parties which propose higher taxes, provided they are earmarked for education and the health service, etc. Who then proceed to elect the Liberal Democrats by a landslide - not!

The key to this poll lies I think in the 'bottom line' - almost half of those polled said they would be against being required to make an upfront payment for an ID card. An amount of GBP35 is being suggested. One presumes those on low incomes would have access to some kind of 'benefit' to fund the fee, otherwise it would be pretty pointless, wouldn't it? So many other things will come to hinge on possession of this Orwellian plastic that not to have one would most likely make life very awkward if not downright impossible. Of course, even if the government backs down and abandons the idea of imposing an upfront fee, it will still have to be paid for - through the general tax system. Just like the NHS, education and all the other methods by which the government accrues to itself the wherewithal to spend a very significant proportion of the national wealth in what is often a pretty inefficient manner.

And I haven't even begun to discuss here the danger to civil liberties which introduction of ID cards is very likely to involve. I am not comforted by the "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear" style of platitude on this subject.
Oil for food, or to support Saddam's regime?

What many have long suspected is, it seems, likely to be somewhat nearer to being proved. The scheme whereby Iraq could sell some oil, despite the sanctions placed on it subsequent to the 1991 Gulf War, in order to fund the purchase of food and medicine to relieve the suffereing of ordinary Iraqis was diverted by various means into a way of propping up the regime by siphoning off funds in the form of bribes or illegal sales of oil.

The UN Security Council has now announced approval for an inquiry into these allegations of corruption in what was a UN-run scheme. This is very welcome, but I wonder if it is doing this only because the evidence now coming to light has made its earlier inaction increasingly untenable. The presence of Paul Volcker as head of the investigative panel will, I hope, ensure that the inquiry is conducted in a rigorous, but fair, way so that whatever findings it comes up with can be judlged as credible.
'Enemy Combatants' and 'Prisoners of War'

InstaPundit links to a post by Volokh on this matter. InstaPundit is, apparently, a lawyer; I don't know if this is the case also for Volokh.

Rarely have I read such disingenuous and bare-faced rubbish.

Those held as 'prisoners of war', from both sides, during World War II were held under a status that is recognised and protected under international law. The term 'enemy combatant' is unknown to international law and was a term coined by the current US administration to seek to justify its illegal (in my estimation) detention, for an idenfinite period and without charge, of over 600 people at its base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and a couple of people in the continental US in the State of South Carolina.

Let's not try to confuse the matter further than it already is by spurious arguments about 'habeas corpus'. I understand the US Supreme Court is currently looking at the validity of the detention by the US administration of some of the persons both at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and in the continental US in the State of South Carolina. That is the proper venue, at least in the US, for this argument. So far as the rest of the world is concerned it will be most instructive to see in coming weeks and months just how much justice there is in the way the US exercises its undoubted power - there is absolutely no doubt the US can do pretty much as it pleases, but that doesn't mean to say that even close allies such as the UK must accept in silence what is being done; our government has made strenuous efforts on behalf of its citizens held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and has been at least partially successful so far in having some of them released and repatriated back to the UK where, after brief periods of interrogation, all were released without charge, there being no basis in law for their continued detention.

Finally, the notion that a particular course of action might be inconvenient because it might snarl up a legal system (the postulated idea that large numbers of so-called spurious writs of habeas corpus might be lodged as a combative tactic) is surely irrelevant if one, just for a moment, accepts that we are both (the US and the UK) supposed to be countries where the rule of law applies and applies fairly to all, without fear or favour. Matters of 'convenience' surely have no place in a discussion on 'justice'. That's the kind of perverted logic that had the US locking up some thousands of US citizens during WWII for no reason other than that they were of Japanese ethnic descent, an occurrence that much later was the subject of a formal apology by the US government.

Wednesday 21 April 2004

EU constitution debate and the UK referendum

Yesterday the government, in the person of our illustrious Prime Minister Tony Blair, confirmed that there would be a plebiscite so that the British voting public might approve, or deny approval for, ratification of the EU constitution treaty once it is finalised. This is good news, of course, but as someone who is basically in favour although who has serious doubts about the draft version published last June, I know that the path before it can be ratified will be long and rocky, if indeed it ever happens.

Today, however, at PMQs Tony Blair implied that if the public declined to approve first time around then it would be re-submitted after renegotiation. Whilst I want to see approval, it has to be the right kind of document that is presented for approval - and it has to be accepted by all that the result of a referendum is final, whatever it is. This will put the right kind of pressure on all of us, in my view. We had an earlier referendum almost 30 years ago to decide whether we should remain in the EEC (as the EU then was), or leave; we voted to remain and that too is final - depsite the views Mr Blair outrageously tried to impute to his principal opponent, Michael Howard. I am no great fan of Michael Howard or his Conservative Party (the 'gay' issue makes it difficult for me to support them just at present), but it has to be said that his views on the EU, whilst very different from mine, are clear and unambiguous.

Mr Blair has executed his U-turn by agreeing to a referendum on the constitution and he must not be allowed to manipulate this debate for his own political survival. His survival politically is of minor importance, as indeed is that of Michael Howard, when seen in the context of the long-term future of this country. I personally have read the draft constitution treaty when it was first published (just as I took the trouble to read the draft Scotland Act in 1997, which provided for devolution in Scotland); whilst it is probably unrealistic to expect that everyone else will do so, I would hope that the debate will be kept at a rational level and not descend into point-scoring by both sides. There needs to be a serious effort to clarify the major factors fairly and honestly for a wide audience so that people can make up their minds and make the refernedum a worthwhile exercise. This is where Mr Blair must direct his government and the civil service to place the greatest emphasis once the final terms of the consititution have been agreed. If he performs this public service, whilst putting forward what presumably will be the 'pro-' argument on behalf of the government, then he should not be expected to resign just because it is rejected, if that is what happens. But if he simply indulges in a classic Labour 'spin' exercise on this important matter then he will deserve to be booted out at the earliest opportunity afterwards, with opprobrium.

UPDATE: (Thursday 22APR04 14.10 BST) At a press conference earlier today, Tony Blair appears to accept that the vote in a referendum is final and can't be revisited to try and get another result. As the Guardian laconically puts it "... several reporters at the hour-long press conference appeared unconvinced.".
Homophobia watch - Northern Ireland (again)

I last wrote about this as recently as 16th April, but it seems the province has more joys in store for gays; hate crimes have doubled in the past year (they are up 60 percent for racial minorities, too), and it seems a third of young gays and lesbians have attempted suicide. As one young gay man, who left in 2002 is quoted as saying:
"It's like being stuck in a lift with half a dozen assorted people; sooner or later they get around to asking personal questions. I don't have the courage to spend my life battling the smallest of minds."

- and then there's the, unfortunately ubiquitous, religious bigotry.
Scientists warn on terror threat

The BBC: "Leading scientists say Britain is not doing enough to combat the threat of a future chemical or biological attack."

Scary ...
Ten councils may be 'capped'

The Guardian is reporting that 10 councils, accused by the government of raising their council tax rates too much this year, are going to be 'capped'. One's first reaction might be to say "well that's good, isn't it?", when in reality the truth is very probably a lot more complicated.

From the Labour government's point of view it makes a good 'sound bite', specially as we will probably have a general election during 2005 (although one is not required until mid-2006). The government contends that they have provided increased central government funding to local government, sufficient to meet realistic levels of expenditure, whereas councils plead that they are now responsible for services such as education and social services which have added to their core expenditure, without being fully funded. There are also other factors to take into account; the way that annual over- and under-spends by local government are treated when calculating central funding grants for succeeding years and changes in local government boundaries and responsibilites in certain regions (for example 'unitary' status). Where does the truth lie?

Possibly there is some truth in both arguments, but the basic problem is that the way local government is funded is bizarre. Local taxes ('Council Tax') provide only around a fifth of local expenditure on average, with the balance being provided from grants given by central government - this is what the 'capping' relates to. This has several effects: it gives central government an effective stranglehold on the way local governments run their parts of the country; it distances elected local government officials from financial responsibility for the consequences of the policies they are elected on.

One could say, well why not make local government fully responsible for funding its own expenditure and for getting its electors to vote for tax policies required to raise the necessary money, whilst reducing central government taxation to compensate. Even I, though, as a committed advocate of small government, would be chary of taking this to its ultimate cconclusion, because it seems to me necessary for a 'United Kingdom', or any kind of unified state, that social policy must be broadly similar across the whole country and funding local expenditure solely from local taxation would inevitably mean that poorer parts of the country would see their own standards drop, or that wealthier citizens in some parts of the country (who might be better represented in local government than their poorer counterparts for various reasons) might choose to keep local taxes in their areas low, because as a property-based tax they would be more likely to benefit.

There have been suggestions that the basis of raising local taxation should be income rather than property - I suspect this would at least partially rectify the problem of regional imbalance, but there would still require to be significant funding from central government to rectify the remaining regional inequalities. However, there should still be room for a reduction in central government tax levels to compensate, but I wonder whether this would be fully implemented. Whilst governments talk about their desire to devolve powers downwards, the practical result is often that what is devolved is responsibility, not the powers necessary to meet adequately those responsibilities. Central governments do not, generally, wish to devolve effective power in any way - that is the root of this whole problem, and the reason why the government may be following its current course of action.
Scotland really is going to 'that place' in a handcart!

My own rules for this website prevent me from using the word above that really fits, but the decision of postal workers in Edinburgh, members of a branch of the Communication Workers' Union (CWU), to affiliate to the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), following on from the earlier decision by the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union to do the same, is worrying. Of course, I support the notion that people should be able to support whomever they wish, within the law, but the far-left SSP is much too extreme for my liking. I doubt that the SSP is on the brink of an electoral breakthrough, although one can never ne complacent. Still, it is a worrying sign when employees in core industries seem to be edging toward radicalisation.
Kim goes home

The 'Dear Leader' is apparently training back to North Korea having completed his brief stay in Beijing. The BBC, quoting Xinhua, reports:

"Leaders of the two parties and the two countries, amid a cordial, friendly and candid atmosphere, briefed each other on their respective domestic conditions, and exchanged views and reached wide-ranging consensus on further developing the relations between the two parties and the two countries, international and regional situations and the nuclear issue of the Korean Peninsula."

The BBC also reports that, according to the South Korean newspaper Munhwa Ilbo:

"Jiang Zemin told him the possibility of the US invading North Korea is very slim, indirectly suggesting he should change North Korea's tough line."

It seems Kim also seeks aid for his beleaguered country. Fair enough, I'm sure help would readily be given - but not, I hope, in the face of the pretty bellicose language the DPRK uses. Blackmail is not the way to go. I hope the gentle advice of Beijing is noted in Pyongyang.

Monday 19 April 2004

Fancy a trip to the Spratley Islands? Now you can ...

Vietnam has just sent a boatload of 60 Vietnamese 'tourists' to these islets, it seems. I doubt very much, though, if tourism is the real objective of the trip to this tiny archipelago even if it does have teeming marine life.

The Spratley Islands are claimed by six nations (Vietnam, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei), although it seems to me that only four of those (Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei) have any plausible claim, if you judge by the islands' geopgraphic location - see map in linked article above. I am well aware of these claims from the time I lived in Vietnam. The Taiwanese and Chinese claims date from the period immediately following WWII, and those of Malaysia and Brunei date from much more recently. Even for the four I mention it is pretty minimal I'd have thought, given that each is several hundred kilometres distant.

No, the real reason for the interest is the huge reserves of oil and gas which are thought to be there. But, just for amusement's sake, read what Viet Nam News has to say about it.
Scary fantasy from the fount of illiberality (WorldNetDaily)

Mostly this nonsense makes me want to laugh at its hyperbole and absurdity, but it is of course deeply scary that in 2004 people can write such nonsense. Even more scary is that this crowd of weirdos probably has a pretty reasonable (what I really mean is unreasonable, but not negligible) following.
Am I changing my mind about capital punishment?

Probably not, but this trial in Belgium (Marc Dutroux - I'm sure you're aware of it) is possibly the kind of thing that might make me switch. There really does seem to be no doubt that this man is a monster and keeping him alive is pointless.

One of his victims who survived, Sabine Dardenne, has just been giving evidence in court. A very brave young lady indeed.

Another survivor, Laetitia Delhez, is due to give evidence tomorrow.

Sunday 18 April 2004

The hermit ventures from his lair

It is reported that Kim Jong-il, leader of North Korea, is travelling by train to Beijing for talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao. He is apparently scheduled to arrive on Monday 19th April.

The DPRK has always struck me as one of the scarier, and most dangerous, dictatorships around; let's hope the Chinese have more success in getting the 'Dear Leader' to agree the dismantling of their nuclear programme than has been the case so far.

UPDATE: (Monday 19 April 09.30 BST) Oops! Corrected arrival date in Beijing.
How I fared in the IOP Political Personality Test

This is how I did:

You are a Secular Centrist. Secular centrists like you tend to be:

Strongly supportive of gay rights.
Believe strongly in the separation of church and state.
Less supportive of affirmative action than most college students.
Less likely to be concerned about the environment than most college students.
Less likely to believe in basic health insurance as a right than most college students.
Broadly the test has classified me pretty accurately I'd say - for good or ill.

Try the IOP Political Personality Test yourself. (thru Normblog)
Should the UK have a referendum on the EU constitution?

In a word 'YES'.

I happen to be in favour of greater integration within the EU, but the only way to clarify where the British people want to go is by holding a referendum - trying to link it to overall policy at a general election would be deeply dishonest. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has said that the changes which the likely constitution will bring do not merit a referendum as they merely consolidate into one treaty what is already there in separate treaties. Even if one accepts this argument, which I do not, it seems clear that public perception is that people want their views to count on this important matter - it seems the political realities are beginning to dawn on him.

Both sides of the argument need to agree to accept the verdict of a referendum, though.
The dilemma facing Log Cabin Republicans

Log Cabin Republicans are gay Republicans, but they are faced with a dilemma. Should they support President Bush in his bid for re-election this November, in light of his stated desire to see an amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would ban 'gay marriage'?

Gay people in the UK with 'Conservative' leanings have faced a similar dilemma for some years. In my case I formally resigned from the Conservative Party at the time the former leader, Iain Duncan Smith, was elected to that position in September 2001 specifically because of the stance he forced his party to adopt on 'Section 28' and other gay-related issues, including civil partnership and adoption rights for gays. His successor Michael Howard is making some of the right noises, but I remain deeply sceptical of the practical effect this might have were his party to return to power - there remain many bigots in the Conservative Party just waiting to wreak havoc again on our civil rights.

As Chris Barron, political director for The Log Cabin Republicans has rightly said:

"We would never endorse a Democrat."

- just as I find it inconceivable that I could ever support, for example, the Labour or Liberal Democrat parties here in the UK. That is the dliemma: as people who are fundamentally 'Conservative' or 'Republican' to our cores, how should we react in response to these attacks by people whom we agree with on most other issues, when they question our right to be treated as full and equal members of society?
Sharon's illegal outrages continue

Referring to the assassination of Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said:

"The British government has made it repeatedly clear that so-called targeted assassinations of this kind are unlawful, unjustified and counter-productive."

What is most perplexing to me is the fact that the wider Israeli public has not yet wakened up to the last of these categorisations by Mr Straw - "counter-productive". Wherever Sharon is leading the Israeli people it is clearly not to a future with ANY prospect of security and peace.

Saturday 17 April 2004

Guantanamo and South Carolina detentions to come before US Supreme Court

Briefs disputing the validity of the indefinite detention without charges being brought against them of what the US Administration describes as 'enemy comabtants' come before the US Supreme Court in coming days. This New York Times discussion of the issues involved is timely and most interesting.

I await the outcome of the Supreme Court's deliberations with intense interest.

There remain a small number of UK citizens illegally detained at Guantanamo by President Bush's administration. I reiterate my view that they, and all the other detainees, should either be charged with a crime or crimes, without further delay, and brought before an internationally recognised legal forum (which does not include the kangaroo military courts the Bush administratrion has in mind) or liberated forthwith from the legal limbo in which they are held.
Dr Jeffrey John is rumoured to be up for senior Anglican appointment

The BBC (and other news media) are reporting that Downing Street is preparing to announce next Tuesday the appointment of Dr Jeffrey John as Dean of St Albans, one of the most senior posts in the Church of England.

It will be recalled that Dr John made the decision to [was prevailed upon to] stand down as Bishop of Reading last July prior to his consecration in order to end the controversy surrounding his appointment, fuelled by elements who objected to a homosexual becoming a Bishop. It is to be expected that there will be renewed controversy if the speculated new appointment takes place. I hope, this time, that the Church authorities (i.e. Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams) will mount a more robust defence this time around. What price Church unity if it is bought at the cost of succumbing to what is effectively blackmail by those who spout their messages of divisiveness and hate?

Friday 16 April 2004

Surely he can't have thought this was acceptable?

The President of the Bundesbank (central bank of Germany), Ernst Welteke, has been forced to resign having been found after an investigation to have accepted a pecuniary benefit from Dresdner Bank, a German bank which comes under the regulatory control of the Bundesbank.

Apparently Herr Welteke and his family accepted payment from Dresdner for their stay at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin during celebrations to mark the first year of the Euro as a cash currency. It seems the Adlon Hotel is amongst Berlin's most prestigious and the pecuniary benefit amounted to EUR7,600 (GBP5,000).

One imagines that it would have been normal for Herr Welteke's stay at this or another equally prestigious Berlin hotel to have been paid for by the Bundesbank (hence the German taxpayer), but it is possible that Germany would not normally cover such a bill for his wife, and almost certainly not for other family members. It seems quite extraordinary to me that his judgement could have led him to believe that accepting such a payment from a company which he regulates was even remotely acceptable, and even more extraordinary that he can have assumed it would not be leaked or 'sleuthed' by some enterprising investigator.

I assume Herr Welteke is a well-paid man. A career is ruined for what must surely be to him a relatively small amount.
The gentle face of Saudi Arabian home life

Not. Rania al-Baz is recovering in hospital. She says her husband Mohammed al-Fallatta, beat her so hard earlier this week that he broke her nose and fractured her face in 13 places. According to this BBC report, police are looking for Mr Fallatta, an unemployed singer. It seems Reuters news agency says he faces charges of attempted murder. Unfortunately violent domestic incidents happen in many countries - no country is immune. Saudi Arabia is of course notable because of the strictly segregated roles it assigns to men and women.
Homophobia watch - Northern Ireland

Londonderry (or 'Derry' if you prefer) is the place. Excrement and verbal abuse is the game. Sigh ...
A glorious celestial spectacle

I just returned from my late-night walk with my dog and the sky was glorious tonight. There seemed to be no clouds in any part of the sky and as there is no moon it is quite dark so the celestial dome is very bright. Add to this that the sea is almost flat-calm tonight - the lights of an oil rig parked at the other side of the Firth (Moray Firth) are clearly reflected across the water.

Even more remarkably, a celestial body (other than the sun or the moon, that is) was shining what seemed to be a beam of light (albeit very faint), like a torch, across the surface of the sea. After consulting sky charts I am certain that the very bright white object in the western sky which was relfected in the calm water is Venus. I have never seen this phenomenon before.

I used this to plot what I was seeing in the sky (after entering your own location, you need to confirm your time zone, etc), then you can swivel the green-highlighted sky segment around the celestial dome and what you are observing (if the sky is clear where you are) will be shown in the window to the left.

UPDATE: (Friday 16APR04 1.20PM BST) I have slightly edited the text of this post to better express what I saw last night.

Thursday 15 April 2004

Fabrizio Quattrocchi - R.I.P.

Signor Quattrocchi was only 36 years old. He was one of four Italian hostages taken captive outside Baghdad. He died at the hands of his captors by a bullet to the back of his neck.

Read a little about this man and what seems to have been his defiance in the face of his imminent death.
Spain may legalise gay marriage

According to this Reuters report, the government of incoming Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero plans to legislate to legalise gay marriage in Spain.

After the recent terrorisst outrage in Madrid, which perhaps led to the electoral upset which allowed Zapatero's party to win in the almost synchonous elections, it is pleasing to note that a positive result may flow to balance the other aspects of the victory. Undoubtedly there will be much opposition from the Holy See to the change planned for this devout Catholic nation.
New link added - Normblog (Norman Geras)

I just discovered Normblog today, written by Norman Geras, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Government at the University of Manchester. It provides a source of intelligent and what looks to be balanced commentary, pleasingly from someone in Britain; I haven't discovered too many of these on the net so far. (thru Sullivan)
'Granite City' marred by racism

Two 19-year old Aberdeen men have been found guilty at Perth High Court of assaulting two Chinese men late one night in October 2003. Ex-Aberdeen player Calum McHattie and Alan Clark, both 19, assaulted Colin Fong and Terry Ho. McHattie, of Deansloch Terrace, Aberdeen, pleaded guilty to assaulting Mr Fong and Clark, of Willowpark Road in the city, pleaded guilty to assaulting Mr Ho. The incident was accompanied by racist insults and swear words hurled at the Chinese men.

Both victims were founds with pools of blood around their heads. Mr Ho remained in a coma for 11 days and is likely to suffer permanent mental impairment making it unlikely he will ever work again.

Despite my reservations about the ubiquity of closed circuit television cameras in our cities, I must record that the perpetrators were caught largely as a result of being identified from CCTV footage.

Sentencing will take place in May at the High Court in Edinburgh. I hope these two thugs are punished severely.
Tim Berners-Lee honoured

The man credited with inventing the 'world wide web', without which my little blog would not be possible, has just been awarded a further honour having been named as the first winner of the Millennium Technology Prize by the Finnish Technology Award Foundation. The award is accompanied by a prize of Euros 1m. This modest man well-deserves this latest recognition of his contribution to many people's daily lives, not to mention his facilitation of a major new way of doing business.
Death in custody - Christopher Alder

The bald facts are these: Christopher Alder, 37, of Hull, died at Queen's Gardens police station in Hull in April 1998. An inquest in 2000 concluded Mr Alder was unlawfully killed. Police were cleared of manslaughter and misconduct after a judge directed a jury to find them all not guilty.

The father-of-two had been arrested in hospital, where he was being treated for a banged head following a scuffle outside a hotel in which it seems that he was the victim. He was arrested after becoming aggressive and refusing treatment and after being escorted off the premises by police officers who had been called to assist hospital staff. It seems, from expert testimony given on the 'Death in custody' documentary shown on BBC1 yesterday evening, and trailed throughout the day on BBC news bulletins (there is a link to a video clip in this BBC story), that such aggressive behaviour can certainly be caused by drunkenness, and Mr Alder had just exited a nightclub at around 2am when the original attack on him took place, but it can also result from concussion. It seems that after having been punched in the mouth, Mr Alder lost consciousness and fell backwards onto the pavement, knocking the back of his head when he fell. So there were two major traumas to his head, that we know of.

The BBC1 documentary shown last evening showed a copy of the CCTV footage recorded at the police station, although Humberside Police had refused to release the original footage; however, BBC reporters had been invited to view the original footage by the police. It is not clear how the copy of this footage was obtained by the BBC. Post-death, CCTV footage was discovered subsequent to the inquest - this has evidently been seen by BBC staff and by some of the lawyers who spoke on the programme, but was not included in the footage broadcast last night, presumably because it was not included in the copy they had and Humberside Police have continued to refuse to make it available. Some of the contents remains perplexing, to say the least: sounds of 'monkey noises' and laughter. Relevance? Well of course there is no justifiable relevance, but Mr Alder was of Afro-Caribbean origin.

Naturally our Home Secretary, David Blunkett, is now to call for a review into the case of this former paratrooper who choked to death in police custody. The reason? Well, it is quite obvious that the matter can no longer be kept quiet. For this one must thank Mr Alder's sister, Janet Alder, who has quite simply refused to be quiet and accept what may well turn out to be a massive police cover-up. We shall see where this review leads in due course.

Would similar indifference to his plight have occurred if the arrested person was white? It is very difficult to say, but one has the queasy feeling that the behaviour of the police on duty that night was to some extent influenced by the fact Mr Alder was black.

Wednesday 14 April 2004

To take the money, or uphold bigoted views, that is the question ...

... facing some African bishops, who oppose strongly the ordination of gay bishops. Their dilemma? They receive significant funding from their colleague churches (and in some cases potentially 'erstwhile' colleague churches) in wealthier countries where they have chosen to ordain, or allow for the ordination of, gay bishops.

It will be most instructive to see what path these bigots take after contemplating the issue. Does their Christianity mean more than upholding narrow interpretations of selected scriptures, or is theirs the Christianity which tries genuinely to help the needy and desperate. It is highly significant that it is the recipient churches who are debating this, and not the donor churches (who might have overriden their charitable leanings were it not for the fact that they seem to be following in practise the teaching to 'turn the other cheek', because they have evaluated, correctly, that their Christian duty is to help the needy and desperate, however difficult the side-issues involved).
A whimsical look at life in Britain today

The Guardian has some fun when discussing a recent guidebook to Britain put out under the title "DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Great Britain".

... and is there honey still for tea?
"From fanatacism to barbarism is only one step" - Denis Diderot

For some months this quotation has appeared at the top of my blog's main panel. Election campaigns often become quite vicious, but this latest example from the US election campaign, which I discovered through Drudge, illustrates perfectly the dangers of allowing strong views to overflow into what one must hope is simply overblown rhetoric and not a literal call for murder to take place.

What will flow from this? Outrage and gloating from one side and attempts to distance themselves from this kind of maverick activity by the other, most likely. Free speech is a wonderful thing, but this outburst is not what this is. I have made no comment about the US election so far, and plan to make very few in coming months, but what really needs to be said now is:
Calm down
Think before acting

That's all for now ...

Tuesday 13 April 2004

Britain: the 'Big Brother' country - a salutary view from abroad

This article in the Houston Chronicle very clearly illustrates the extent to which surveillance has become routine within the UK. The usual argument, mouthed at the very end of the article by one of the operatives who works in this culture, which states that "If you're not breaking the law, then you have nothing to hide, right?" is one of the more sinister and self-satisfied stances. It really comes down to this: is the citizen there to serve the needs of the state, or is the state there to serve the needs (and those needs only) of the citizen. I favour the latter, whereas those such as the police and our present 'New' Labour government under Tony Blair and his Home Secretary David Blunkett appear to favour the former. The two arguments do not need to be incompatible, but I think we have perhaps already passed the point in this country where this view could be sustained.

Saturday 10 April 2004

Leader test results

It seems this is where I come out in this test:

I'm taking a break this weekend, probably until Tuesday. Meantime, a happy Easter to everybody.

Thursday 8 April 2004

UK Foreign Office expresses its concern to China about HK ruling

As I wrote here on 2nd April the recent ruling by China, which seems to indicate an erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy following its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, is causing considerable and justified alarm in the SAR itself. I noted my conclusion, though, that whilst Hong Kong's friends abroad might protest and regret these moves, it was unlikely to have much effect on China's ultimate objectives, whatever these may be.

It is pleasing to note, therefore, that the Foreign Office has, at least, expressed its 'concerns' over what seem to be 'breaches', or at the very least 'extensions', of the measures open to China under the Basic Law. Being completely cynical, of course (which he never is - Ed.), the UK could do no less in the circumstances if it was not to appear completely ridiculous in international diplomatic circles. Still unlikely to have any real effect, though. The only thing I can see which will give pause for thought in Beijing is if the domestic opposition to the changes within Hong Kong escalates considerably, something that quite obviously most people in Hong Kong will be highly unlikely to want to see happen as like most people they want a quiet life, and they know that anyone who 'crosses' the dictators in Beijing is never forgotten and most often retribution follows eventually. It is a real dilemma for them, I am sure.

Wednesday 7 April 2004

ID Cards: legislate in haste, repent at leisure ... sigh

Our Home Secretary, David Blunkett, has now told BBC Radio5 Live that legislative proposals for ID cards will be published within four weeks.

Whilst it is clear that the security situation in this country does need strengthening, it is not at all clear to me that these proposals are not simply a knee-jerk reaction to our current difficulties, and which acquiesces in something the Police have wanted, pretty blatantly, to introduce for many years in the face of overwhelming public opposition. If this policy succeeds, together with many of the other anti-democratic proposals of this particular Home Secretary, it will mean a fundamental change to the nature of British society and give the 'State' far too much scope to interfere in the lives of mostly honest citizens. In effect we will have capitulated to the theocratic terrorists who threaten us, by transforming ourselves into the kind of authoritarian society I suspect they would, in other circumstances, be much more comfortable with.
Online payment for school meals being piloted in Surrey

This sounds like a useful tool for parents anxious to see that the money they provide their children actually gets where it is supposed to.

Undoubtedly there are many reasons why it sometimes doesn't - the child prefers to buy a Mars bar and a bag of chips instead, or even some cigrarettes, but I expect it will also avoid the danger for some children of their money being stolen by bullies. In any case, as most schools are making increasing use of IT, this is likely to spread around the country quite rapidly.

I think Highland Council (where I live), for example, started to use smart cards for school meals some years ago, although I'm not sure whether the method of adding credit to the cards is yet online, or if payment still has to be made by more traditional means. One of the features I remember hearing about at the time was that a points system helped to encourage children to choose heatlhier options when making their food selections, by awarding them extra value for certain categories of purchase.

Monday 5 April 2004

Que l'Entente Cordiale dure longtemps! (May the 'Friendly Understanding' endure!)

It has lasted so far for one hundred years and this week's State Visit to France by Her Majesty The Queen is a signal that, whatever the short-term and bitter disagreements which have marked recent times, our shared interests [along with those of our other partners] are simply too important and crucial for our long-term survival and prosperity for us to allow ourselves to be diverted. France is a country I like very much, and not just for its food and wine, with people who are sometimes infuriating (but who hasn't met the occasional infuriating British person, too?), but we have far more in common than anything which divides us.
Slovenes reject law to give the 'erased' back their rights

This is deeply troubling; 94% of those who voted rejected the law. Only 4% voted in favour. Turnout was 31%, which seems to imply that it was the supporters of the far-right Slovene National Party and from three conservative parties, who exerted the pressure for this referendum to be held, who mainly voted. It seems that the constitutional court has said the rights should be restored - leaving a stalemate over what will happen next.

Until this is clarified, I think it urgent that the membership of Slovenia in the European Union, scheduled to take effect on 1st May 2004, be suspended at least temporarily. We CANNOT have such a country as an EU member!

Sunday 4 April 2004

Slovenia and its 'erased' ethnic minorities

This is really something of a query as I have no idea about the underlying merits of what is being voted on today in Slovenia.

Slovenes are voting today on whether to adopt a law restoring residency rights to thousands of people erased from the national register after independence. It seems that when Slovenia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992 ethnic Slovenes were granted automatic citizenship, whereas those who were not ethnic Slovenes (such as minority Croats, Serbs and Bosnians) were required to apply for citizenship.

Now comes the 'killer' bit: Those who had not done so within a year were removed from the national register without any public announcement. Thus depriving them of pensions and health benefits and losing many their jobs. About 18,000 people were affected.

Slovenia is due to become a member of the European Union on 1st May 2004, so I would be most curious to know what is the attitude of the EU (and the UK, as an EU member) to this vote and to its ramifications for the human rights of those affected.

Saturday 3 April 2004

The sordid underbelly of British society

This is the part of our society most of us only get to hear about (and most of us turn our eyes away in discomfort when it impinges on our comfortable lives) when something awful happens - the recent Morecambe Bay 'cocklers' disaster, for example.

Three gangmasters have been jailed for money-laundering; over 33 months their business generated in excess of GBP4 million and their personal 'take' was around GBP1 million. Without saying so directly, there has been much insinuation in the media that most of this wicked business of dealing in illegal workers (mainly foreigners whose immigration status means they are unlikely to complain) is organisied by other foreigners, but this case gives the lie to this - two of those jailed are British.

Next time you shop in your supermarket for fresh fruit or vegetables, think for a second how it is procured and how it can be sold for such relatively low prices. The truth is, it is not just the supermarkets which rake in profits - we, as consumers, do as well and of course the gangmasters of the kind exposed in this case also take their share. Naturally this is not just a problem in the UK - it exists in most countries whose agricultural industries rely on large numbers of imported and often clandestine labour. Really what needs to happen is that the punishments for hiring of illegal labour should be much more draconian than they are at present, but at the same time western governments need to 'get real' and explain the facts of life to their pampered citizens and have a much more open and honest system of recruiting foreign workers who can then be paid openly and honestly by those employing them. Excessive profits by intermediaries, whether employers or labour recruiters and retailers need to be exposed - but for the consumer there also needs to be a realisation that prices to them will probably have to rise somewhat as well. None of us is without guilt in this matter. (PS/ for middle class folks, like me, if you hire a foreign domestic worker who is not legally in your country, so avoiding social charges, then you are just as guilty - remember that if you are tempted to deny any personal responsibility. Or if you emply someone as a 'nanny', but treat that person merely as a domestic 'skivvie')
China and homosexuality - official attitudes are slowly changing

Xinhua has an interesting story about a young man growing up 'different' - the fact that Xinhua publishes such an article is in itself something of a revelation, specially the reasonable way in which the matter is explored, by letting Wang Zheng recount his life story. Very refreshing, even if it is obvious there is still some way to to go - as there is, too, in many other countries.
Just entering my 3rd year of blogging

I began blogging exactly two years ago today, mainly to 'vent' ideas buzzing around my head. I hope readers have enjoyed the trip so far as much as I have and will continue to read my rants in the future.

Friday 2 April 2004

UK appoints first ambassador with officially recognised gay partner

James Clark, 41, has been appointed as our Ambassador to Luxemburg and was received at Buckingham Palace by Her Majesty The Queen earlier this week. It is the custom for new ambassadorial appointments to be accompanied by their partners (normally husband/wife or vice versa) when being received in audience by The Queen and Mr Clark was accompanied by his partner Mr Anthony Stewart, who was presented to The Queen along with the spouses of all the other new appointees present. This is the first known event of its kind at the Palace and marks a welcome sign that the diversity of personal relationships is, at last, being recognised.
Fears China may be beginning to squeeze Hong Kong politically

It is no surprise to me that China seems to be putting in place measures to neutralise any pretence that Hong Kong will continue to enjoy even the limited democracy supposedly guaranteed under the Basic Law negotiated when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty. And the sad truth is that, whilst some of Hong Kong's friends elsewhere will take issue with what China is doing, nothing will really be done to stop it - China is simply too important in the world, and becoming more so as the years go by, for its desires in something so close to home to be met with anything other than token gestures of protest.

Thursday 1 April 2004

Beverley Hughes, Immigration Minister, bows to inevitable and resigns

A scandal has been revealed over the past several days in which immigration applications are alleged to have been fabricated in large numbers, specially from Romania and Bulgaria, two countries which have 'associate' status with the European Union and which will most likely become full members of the EU within the next several years.

She stated in the House of Commons two days ago (Tuesday) that "I am neither incompetent nor dishonest". It is clear, I think that she is indeed not dishonest, but it has seemed clear for some time that she is incompetent - she seems now to have recognised this herself after having re-discovered an exchange of correspondence dating from about a year ago in which she acknowledged, in writing, that there was a problem that needed to be dealt with. It does seem incredible that she can have 'forgotten' that she was aware that such serious breaches existed in the execution of immigration laws, and her attempts to distance herself from these breaches over the past several days have stretched credulity, but the important thing is that she has now gone. The Home Office, and the Home Secretary David Blunkett, do have some explaining to do and a great deal of house-cleaning must quickly be undertaken to bring the practical execution of immigration policies in line with approved guidelines.

Once more, this episode has demonstrated that Tony Blair's government will only admit its faults when solid documentary evidence is available - until that time it continues its standing policy of 'Deny, Deny, Deny.' Such attitudes usually emanate from the top of an organisartion so Tony Blair must take a long hard look at how he is running his Party and our Government. He will have to answer for it one day.

Her replacement has just been announced in the past couple of moments on BBC News24 - it is to be Des Browne, currently a Minister in the Department of Work and Pensions.
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