Tuesday, 19 May 2009

A bigger scandal than MPs' expenses

A friend in Scotland sends me this. He says the phone contained all the codes necessary for access to every part of the Faslane nuclear submarine base.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The politics of gnats and camels

The ancient Chinese saying that we live in interesting times is certainly true of British politics in 2009. I cannot remember such an upsurge of public anger at the conduct of politicians during my lifetime. The widespread antipathy to our parliamentary representatives – of all parties – amounts almost to hatred. The swelling procession of financially crooked MPs and peers whose misdeeds are being exposed daily in the media simply don’t get it. Their almost universal stock response has been to say that their greedy raids into the public purse were a ‘mistake’, or the fault of ‘poor accounting’, or even to blame ‘the rules’. Only a handful have said they are sorry (to have been found out, presumably), and none have expressed contrition that what they did was obviously just plain wrong and should never have happened in the first place.

The latest example is Labour MP Ben Chapman, who benefited by £15,000 over ten months because he was allowed by the Commons Fees Office to claim mortgage interest which he was no longer paying, having reduced his mortgage. The response of Mr Chapman, who is the latest MP to be investigated by the Whips for possible impropriety, has been to say "I do not believe I have done anything wrong." When asked if it was true that he had admitted continuing to claim for interest payments on his entire mortgage after repaying £295,000, he told the BBC: "It may be. I don't know". When it was put to him that he may have been claiming more than he was paying, the MP said: "If I've done so it was following the advice the Fees Office gave me. I'll have to discuss it with them and see how it should be tackled".

One would think that any normally conscientious person would be familiar with the exact state of their personal financial affairs, and would not respond to such a serious allegation with an insouciant “Maybe, I don’t know”. It is this type of lofty dismissiveness emanating from all sides of the Commons which has so infuriated the public, who are more and more loudly calling for prosecutions and Jail sentences for the most serious offenders.

But this expenses brouhaha is essentially a distraction, if a gruesomely entertaining one, from the real malaise of contemporary politics. It is not the gnat of MPs’ corrupt expenses claims which should preoccupy the angry voters, but the camel of inept and morally bankrupt policies being piled one upon another for years past by a government that unbelievably still claims to possess a ‘moral compass’, and which are largely nodded through by a supine and ineffective opposition. These are people who regard themselves as competent to manage the country’s affairs and are incapable of controlling their personal expenditure.

It is not just the tribal culture of MPs and peers that is wrong; it is the entire political culture which flourishes in parliament. And not only in parliament – in the country, too. It is all very well for people to rage about the personal dishonesty of politicians when they fail to rage against many of the oppressive laws made and grotesque policies pursued by these politicians in our name. It is not just Gordon Brown, or the government, or parliament, who have lost their moral compass: it is the British electorate as a whole.

Friday, 15 May 2009

A tainted government

Does anyone still remember the euphoria that greeted the advent of Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ government in 1997? We were promised a fresher, cleaner, more open style of government, and people sang “Things Can Only Get Better”. The new foreign secretary, Robin Cook. proclaimed ‘an ethical foreign policy’. What we actually got was dodgy dossiers, moonshine claims about Saddam Hussein’s WMDs that were capable of reaching the United Kingdom in 45 minutes, and Blair’s poodling up to the US illegal invasion of Iraq.

The first seeds of doubt crept in when the Bernie Ecclestone ‘Formula One’ scandal of a £1million donation to the Labour Party, allegedly made in return for modified television advertisement rules, caused the donation to be returned and Blair to appear on television protesting that he was “a pretty straight kind of guy” – invoking memories of the egregious Richard Nixon. Later, the pretty straight kind of guy had his collar fingered by Sergeant Plod over allegations of cash for peerages – reminiscent of Lloyd George, who had at least performed signal services to the nation during the 1914-18 war.

For ten years we were blessed (?) with allegedly the best chancellor of the exchequer there has ever been, a thrifty Scot whose watchword was “Prudence”. In June 2007 he became unelected prime minister, since when his keynote has been profligacy, most recently flinging billions (if not trillions) of public money at dodgy bankers who have ruined thousands of investors and brought their formerly proud institutions into disrepute. Yet this vain, stiffnecked and arrogant man appears to think of himself, and is portrayed by a dwindling number of his toadies, as the “saviour” of an ailing world economy.

By comparison the current scandal concerning MPs’ expenses claims is small beer. Compared to the great train robbers Crosby, Hornby, and ‘Fred the Shred’ Goodwin, they are petty thieves. But their insouciant attitude to their serially exposed wrongdoing shows them to be utterly unfitted for their positions. The Commons is presided over – if that is a plausible description of his clownish performance – by the worst Speaker in its history – a man who is not, as he is supposed to be, the servant of the House but is the creature of the government. He fights, tooth and nail, to prevent the shameful details of MPs’ wholesale scamming reaching the public arena. The propriety of his own expenses claims have been questioned. Those of the ineffable Blair have been shredded ‘in error’.

As yet, the dithering Brown has failed to sack a single member of his delinquent cabinet. With their feeble excuses of “it was all an innocent mistake” they resemble another set of parliamentary chancers – the peers in Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe’ who, having married en masse the fairy troupe who threatened their legislative effectiveness, pleaded that “they couldn’t help themselves” to which the Fairy Queen retorted: “It seems they have helped themselves, and pretty freely, too!”

It seems a singularly inappropriate moment for the ‘influential’ parliamentary Treasury Committee – are there still any influential parliamentary committees? – to solemnly rebuke the erring bankers for a culture of recklessness. It’s enough to make a crocodile weep.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Religion and politics

Speaking in a mosque in Amman yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI said:

"Some assert that religion is necessarily a cause of division in our world and so they argue that the lesser attention given to religion in the public sphere the better,"

"Certainly, the contradiction of tensions and divisions between the followers of different religious traditions, sadly, cannot be denied.

"However, is it not also the case that often it is the ideological manipulation of religion, sometimes for political ends, that is the real catalyst for tension and division, and at times even violence in society?"

This is an extraordinarily naïve thing for the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church to say. Throughout its history that Church has been one of the most sophisticated players in the game of politics. Indeed, for many centuries it was a sovereign territorial power, and even today the Vatican City is a sovereign state.

Catholic politics are bloodily enmeshed in the history of Europe. During the Christian era, Catholics have murdered hundreds of thousands of people in the name of 'faith'. No pronouncement which the Pope or any other Catholic priest makes does not have a political subtext. The business of the Catholic Church is to mould society nearer to its concept of a Christian state, even though it doesn’t go to the lengths of Islam in completely fusing religion and government in a pure theocracy.

In Britain, Catholic bishops meddle ceaselessly with key issues such as education and particularly with social policies concerning sexuality: sex education, abortion, divorce, adoption, and tolerance – in their case, lack of - towards homosexuals. They are the enemies of liberalism (anathematised by Pope Pius IX and all his successors, including the present pope, as the spawn of the devil), toleration, diversity, and scientific free thought. Catholicism has always been a conservative, reactionary force.

Protestant churches, too, are inherently political, as is evidenced by the history of the 19th and early 20th century battles over the control of education. Islam is an even more fundamentally political religion, and the politics of Israel and of Jewry worldwide are shaped and inspired by Judaism.

There is no such thing as non-political religion. Either the pope is utterly stupid in asserting otherwise, or else he is cynically devious.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

You couldn't make this up!

According to the BBC, "Pope Benedict XVI has warned against the misuse of religion for political ends, in a speech to Muslim leaders on the second day of his visit to Jordan".

Perhaps someone should warn him against the misuse of politics for religious ends.

Moral morass

I can’t remember a time, except for the Suez crisis of 1956, when people were so worked up and angry about politics and politicians. The recent stream of scandals and smears – the greedy bankers, the clumsy policing of the G20 demonstrations, the infamous ‘smeargate’ tapes, the damp squib of the Manchester ‘major terrorist plot’ arrests, the hyped up swine ‘flu panic, the debate on the blogs (though not in parliament or the mainstream media) about ‘legitimate’ use of torture, revelations about MPs’ expenses claims, and the accelerating decline of the prime minister from Stalin through Mr Bean to Mr Has-been – has induced a growing public mood of disquiet amounting to disgust at how our public affairs are being conducted.

The anger is compounded by feelings of helplessness. People are saying “but what can we DO about it? How can we get rid of them without a revolution?” Clearly the wheels have come off the New Labour ‘project’, but it keeps rolling on under its own failing impetus. It is a government of presumptuous incompetents deluding themselves that they are our indispensible National Nannies who always know what is best for us however loudly we kick and scream and tell them to get lost.

The ex-diplomat Charles Crawford has made an interesting suggestion on his ‘blogoir’ – namely, that the Civil Service should go on strike and refuse to work any more for this prime minister and his team. That would indeed set the cat among the pigeons, and make government unworkable. But it is a moot point whether the mandarin top brass, however restive they are at the sleaze, incompetence, and other shenanigans, have got the bottle to rebel.

What we are confronted with in contemporary government, not only in the UK but also in the USA and in many other countries around the world, is not merely a moral malaise – the collapse of morality, a moral slump, or even amorality: it is moral nihilism. As Craig Murray and others are pointing out, the only issue which concerns politicians, whether over matters of deep import such as launching a war or sanctioning torture, or over trivialities such as their venal attitude to their own pay and expenses, is not whether the thing in question is right or wrong, but whether it is in accordance with “the rules”. If the answer to the latter is ‘yes’, our rulers feel free to sanction behaviour which most ordinary folk find abhorrent and all too frequently dishonest. When they are caught devising excuses for invading Iraq or Afghanistan in the name of the Hitlerian doctrine of ‘liberal interventionism’, for inflicting cruel and unusual punishments such as waterboarding and prolonged deprivation of sleep (which most of us would describe as torture) on captives, or for paying their personal shopping bills out of the public purse, all they come up with is “well, it was within the rules”. There is no consideration of ethics.

Thus, President Obama has excused from prosecution all those agents of torture under his predecessor’s regime who honestly believed that what they were doing was sanctioned by the government – regardless of whether it was right or wrong. Unconscionable lies have been told to persuade the British public that the invasion of Iraq was essential because Saddam Hussein posed a real and imminent threat. The Americans invaded Afghanistan because the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden (who may not actually have been there) until the Americans provided evidence that he was responsible for the Twin Towers atrocity of 11 September 2001, which they were either unable or unwilling to do. The MPs currently scurrying around seeking to justify their insatiable greed plead that they haven’t broken any rules, even though the prime minister has repeatedly said that the rules are defective and must be changed.

All these people have completely forgotten the Nuremberg International War Crimes Tribunal's judgement which definitively laid down that following orders was no excuse for committing criminal acts. They deploy the 'Nuremberg Defence' which failed on that occasion, and which decent people hoped had been swept into the dustbin of history. Alas, far from it. We are wallowing in the mire of shameless excuses for wrongdoing. Public morality has collapsed, and until it is restored we shall not retrieve our tattered honour.

Monday, 4 May 2009

Charles Crawford on Torture

Charles Crawford, a former British Ambassador to Serbia and Poland, has posted a long essay on his blogoir giving his reasons for asserting that torture "works" (in the sense of sometimes eliciting true information), and that therefore its use should not be ruled out on moral grounds in extreme situations. (I hope that I have interpreted his position correctly; no doubt he will correct me if I am wrong.)

I have asked him to do another post on the morality of using torture in any circumstances, as this is the issue which primarily concerns me.

I hope that anyone interested in this topic will read Charles Crawford's posts and, if they feel so inclined, join in the debate.