Sunday, December 31, 2006

New Year resolutions

Well, it's that time again and I have been busy making resolutions for 2007. Here is my original list as far as this blog is concerned:

1. Be nice about the UN and its new SecGen
2. Do not attack David Cameron a. k. a. the Boy-King of the Conservative Party
3. In fact, do not attack the Conservative Party
4. Or, at least, not too often
5. Be positive about the following: tranzis, NGOs, the MSM, President Putin, Commission President Barroso
6. Accept that certain groups are just natural victims and need a great deal of understanding (and money) when they express their victimhood by blowing up schools, buses, homes etc
7. Spend more time watching pigs fly

Then again, it seems more likely that the artillery is being lined up and the charge will be laid as soon as the new year comes in.

There is, however, one resolution that I do intend to keep: to steer clear of the forum. With gritted teeth I have accepted my colleague's argument that postings on the blog must go on the forum as well. Or else. To that extent I shall make my presence known there, but only to that extent. Other members of the forum are welcome to remind me if I lapse but, sadly, in keeping with my resolution I shall not be able to reply. Heh!

A happy and prosperous new year to all our readers.


The Pink Arrows

Reacting to this stunning piece of news, I don't think the Army has quite got the right idea (double click on the pic to enlarge). I suspect, like us all, they would prefer the MoD to be spending our money on things like helicopters, rather than, "tens of thousands of pounds on advertising in the 'pink' media."

Puts a slightly different complexion on the Queen's Squadron, though. I guess they'll have to change the position of the apostrophy.


A totally boring piece

Posted here. You really don’t want to read it. There are far more important things to read.


They can stick their blue flags ....

At midnight tonight, with the dawn of the New Year, Romania and Bulgaria join the European Union, bringing it to 27 members. But that means more than them joining a cosy little club. It means that Romanians and Bulgarians have the right to enter our country. They do not, as yet, have a right to work here – unless they are self-employed – but who is checking?

It does mean, though, that their governments become part of our government. Romania and Bulgaria will supply officials, high and low, to the EU commission, which makes decisions on how we in England are required to run our affairs. Their ministers join the Council of Ministers, which decides which laws are adopted, and their heads of government become members of the European Council – and decide on "European" political strategy. For that privilege, we also pay several more billions into the kitty.

The funny thing is, I do not ever remember being asked - not by my government or anyone else - if I wanted Romania and Bulgaria as part of my government, giving their officials the right to decide on the laws that affect me. And do I mind? Hell yes! I do mind, very much indeed.

Accordingly, I will not be welcoming the latest new members into the "club". I would sooner they and all the rest celebrated our departure from it. In the meantime, they can - as the song goes - stick their blue flags up their .....


Saturday, December 30, 2006

A question of values

A British soldier dies in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq. Another, who died the previous day in Afghanistan, is named. In the best-selling national broadsheet, this is the coverage they get (left), and there is no coverage at all of this.

On the other hand, a pop star - unknown to me and undoubtedly to many readers of the newspaper - has her dog stolen. And this is the publicity she gets... in the same newspaper.

The soldiers, in their own ways, died through neglect - our neglect, the neglect of our government, our opposition and, most of all, of our media. No wonder they feel neglected and unappreciated. No wonder recruitment and retention is problematic.

The maddening thing is that, even in journalistic terms - of there being a "good" story buried in here - there is sense in giving these deaths more space. So it is a reflection of the skills of these pompous, self-important, flatulent little creatures as journalists that they give so much weight to a nonentity

But, when they tell us how important our soldiers are, and how much they care, we shall remember. Kipling had it so right.


You speak not for us

The European Union has condemned Saddam Hussein's execution, despite it being carried out with a delicious sense of justice inside one of his former torture centres.

One top EU official has even called it a "barbaric" act that could create an undeserved martyr.

And here is our response: you speak not in our name, nor in the name of the peoples of Europe. You were not elected by us and we did not appoint or authorise you to speak in our name. Nor in the name of the former citizens of Halabja, now deceased, and the hundreds of thousands of others lying in mass graves. We are with the people of Baghdad, shown here today (below), celebrating.

The "official" response is bad enough. It comes from Finland, in the dying days of its EU presidency, a nation that would have no locus and no voice but for the accident of timing that gives it the presidency – lasting only two days more.

Together with a spokeswoman for the EU's "foreign policy chief" Javier Solana, they have declared their opposition to Saddam's hanging in Baghdad at dawn for crimes against humanity.

"The EU has a very consistent view against using the death penalty and it should have not been used in this instance either, although there is no doubt over Saddam's guilt of very serious crimes against humanity," Finland's Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja told YLE television.

EU Aid and Development Commissioner Louis Michel told Reuters he believed capital punishment was at odds with the democracy Iraq's leaders were trying to build. "You don't fight barbarism with acts that I deem as barbaric. The death penalty is not compatible with democracy," he said in a telephone interview.

"Unfortunately,” he adds, Saddam Hussein risks to appear as a martyr, and he does not deserve that. He is not a martyr, he committed the worst things."

Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democrats in the EU, went even further, He told German radio "state-sanctioned murder" risked further destabilising Iraq. "It would have been possible to send a signal of reconciliation by pardoning him or by at least not enforcing the death sentence," he said.

We disassociate ourselves from the comments of officials of a supranational organisation that itself is fundamentally undemocratic and a blight on the nations of Europe. I say again: you speak not for us.


A clash of cultures

As an Afghan butcher in Kabul chops meat after slaughtering a cow in the open air - on the first day of Eid Al-Adha - watched by women in burkas, this one picture summarises the stark clash in the values of two civilisations.

In the West, we cover our meat and expose our women.

Here in Afghanistan, they see no harm in allowing fresh air to get to their meat (and have science on their side in so doing) but would be scandalised if women showed so much as an ankle in public.


One down...

From multiple sources, including The Times, the consensus seems to be that Saddam will be despatched from this earth while we in the UK sleep soundly in our beds.

But there are those amongst this lot at the Haj - more than two million pilgrims crowding on to Mount Arafat, near Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, praying for Muslims around the world - who are complaining that the timing is "insensitive". There are fears that there may be a backlash.

But, if it gets out of hand, I suppose there's always this. Interestingly, with the initials MOAB, it is known as the "Mother Of All Bombs" - rather appropriate under the circumstances. We have the technology to put an end to a very large number of lives, very quickly and, on that basis, the fact that these people are still alive is a testament to the restraint of the Western powers.

But it need not always be like this. The Muslims need to believe, methinks, that we would use one - or several - of these bombs if we are pushed too far. And it might serve to concentrate minds if we let it be known that the Haj would not necessarily be considered immune. They, like us, should know fear.


Friday, December 29, 2006

And again…

We have no more details, this photograph up for less than an hour. The caption reads:

Two British army vehicles are seen destroyed on a road in Basra, 550 kilometers 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Dec. 29, 2006. Unknown gunmen attacked a British army convoy on the southern outskirts of Basra, burning two armored vehicles, police said. AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani.
There is nothing on the MoD website (as yet) so one must assume that (fortunately) no British troops have been killed. The MoD does not routinely issue details on injuries, though – so we cannot be assured that all the troops escaped uninjured.

However, on what might be the eve of Saddam Hussein's execution, this has to be considered a bold attack. As can be seen from this above and this second photograph, the attack took place in the open – no ambush in the narrow street of Basra this. And, once again, Snatch Land Rovers are in the firing line – and found wanting.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the Daily Mail is reporting that the government's timetable to transfer power in the southern Basra province had slipped beyond the end of 2007/beginning of 2008.


They have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing

It is over 160 years since Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the most perceptive French historians travelled round the United States of America and wrote two volumes about the society he saw and analyzed. Among other matters he praised the liberty in the new country and, especially, the high level of individual involvement in public matters.

Well, it seems that the lessons have to be relearnt. According to an article in the International Herald Tribune another author, Frederic Martel, has been trying to figure out culture in America.

As we know, nobody in France (well, not in the French cultural and journalistic establishment) believes that there is any culture in the United States, despite the astonishing number of first class theatre companies, orchestras and serious periodicals per head of population.

Mais non, there is nothing but Hollywood pap and Mickey Mouse. M Martel, a former cultural attache has decided to do something about it. He has travelled round the vast country and produced a 622 page tome, entitled "Culture in America".
Now Martel, 39, a former French cultural attaché in Boston, has set out to change this. In "Culture in America," a 622-page tome weighty with information, he challenges the conventional view in Paris that (French) culture financed and organized by the government is entirely good and that (American) culture shaped by market forces is necessarily bad.
I suppose, it is a good sign that the reviews in the publications that are serious flag-wavers for French culture have been relatively positive and, at any rate, there is an inclination to debate the issues.

M Martel's conclusions were rather astonishing:
Martel then tracks the so-called culture wars, beginning with the cancellation of a Robert Mapplethorpe photography exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington in 1989 over concerns about its explicit content, which led to congressional campaigning against the National Endowment for the Arts. Even today the endowment's budget is far below mid-1980s levels and, at just under $125 million for 2006, is roughly what the French government gave the Paris National Opera this year.

Still, what really intrigues Martel is how American culture flourishes despite the indifference or hostility of major government institutions.

And that leads him to the crucial role played by nonprofit foundations, philanthropists, corporate sponsors, universities and community organizations, which in practice do receive indirect government support in the form of tax incentives.

"If the Culture Ministry is nowhere to be found," he writes, "cultural life is everywhere."
Personally, I would say that American culture flourishes because of the indifference or hostility of major government institutions.

In an odd sort of way, M Martel comes to a similar conclusion.
"What really annoys me is the way our cultural elite uses ideology to protect its privileges," he said. "It says that our culture defines a certain idea of France, that the alternative is Americanization. But it's really only defending itself against the popular classes. We cannot have 10 percent of our population stemming from immigration and deny them their culture."

To promote grass-roots culture, then, he wants decision making to be deconcentrated. "The government will still finance the arts, but we don't need a minister defining culture," he said. "We need thousands of people defining culture. Power should flow bottom-up, not top-down. That's the debate I want to provoke in the new year."
He is getting there but is unable to imagine a cultural climate in which there is no government involvement at all (well, except for tax breaks or tax incentives, perhaps). Then again, how many people in this country can envisage a situation of that kind?


Again… and again

Another soldier has been killed, this one by a roadside bomb in Iraq. And, from reading the official report, the hand of the censor becomes apparent, not in this but in yesterday's bulletin on the soldier killed in Afghanistan.

Today's report openly states that the soldier, from 2nd Battalion, The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, was taking part in a routine patrol in Basra City "when the Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicle he was travelling in was targeted by a roadside bomb."

Yesterday, however, the MoD told us that the dead soldier, this one from 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, was killed during a reconnaissance mission in the desert to the south of Garmsir, "in which a vehicle was involved in an explosion resulting in one fatality, one serious injury and two minor injuries."

For our suspicious minds, it really is too much of a coincidence that, when a soldier is killed in an armoured vehicle, the MoD is quick to identify this fact but when yet another is killed in (probably) an unarmoured or lightly armoured vehicle, the MoD is silent on the type, simply referring to an anonymous "vehicle".

If it hopes that, by avoiding any mention of the fact that our troops are being asked to patrol in dangerously inadequate vehicles, the media will gloss over the details – thus letting the Ministry of the hook – it is probably right. Reviewing all the media coverage of the Afghan incident up to midday today (GMT), only The Times, to its credit, questioned the type of vehicle involved.

The Sun, on the other hand, went to the other extreme – not only getting the details wrong (the soldier appears not to have been killed by the explosion but by the ensuing crash) but it also printed a photograph of a Viking, under the completely unwarranted caption "patrol … armoured vehicle".

As to The Times report, Jerome Starkey in Kabul and Daniel McGrory, under the headline, "Escalating conflict in Afghanistan claims 22nd British victim", note that:

The vast majority of fatalities have occurred after attacks on patrols where British forces are still without the armoured vehicles they need. …
and then tell us that, "Local police reported that the patrol was not using an armoured vehicle."

The general issue of equipment was raised on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, observing that the moral and the practical flaws of the government's policy had emerged as time has gone on, remarking that, "they have put our own troops increasingly at risk in ways that I find deeply disturbing."

This is not the first time that a cleric has commented on the moral dimension of equipping our troops and it is indeed "deeply disturbing" that the government has committed troops to two theatres without suitable equipment. But it is doubly disturbing that neither the opposition parties in Parliament nor the media have properly followed up these issues.

This shows in the government response to the attack in Iraq, as advocacy for the greater use of Warriors has been reported uncritically by the likes of Sean Rayment in the Sunday Telegraph.

But, as we have reported on this blog , two Canadian soldiers were killed in a Bison APC while others, in less heavily armoured vehicles, escaped with only light injuries. We wrote of the Bison that:

…its fatal weakness - in common with most vehicles of the type - is that it is not designed to be operated in a fully closed down condition for long periods of time. Visibility is restricted and crew comfort (especially when it is hot) suffers. By any measure, this equipment is far from ideal for use as convoy escorts or as patrols in counter-insurgency operations.
What applies to the Bison applies equally to the Warrior and, while even troops in better-protected vehicles have suffered losses (a Canadian soldier was recently killed while riding an RG-31 and, to our knowledge, at least three US RG-31s have been destroyed by enemy action), it has to be said that the Force Protection record, with its Cougars and Buffalos, still stands intact. No deaths have been reported amongst their occupants, despite over 1000 IED hits.

The Cougars, heavily modified and renamed the Mastiff by the British, should now have been in theatre. Lord Drayson made that promise in late July of this year, saying that there would be an "effective capability in place in Iraq by the end of the year."

Yet, it is not since early July that we have had an effective intervention from the Conservatives and, even now, they are ignoring the issue even as troops die for want of the correct equipment and a Minister's promise is broken.

Thus, when it comes to reckoning up the balance, it should not only be the government which is held responsible, in part, for the unnecessary deaths of our troops. We are dealing with a failure of the media to do its job and the failure of the opposition to do its.

And yes, we have said it all before. But, in this game, you have to say the same things again and again before they finally lodge in the collective consciousness. So guess what - each time an opportunity presents, we will be saying it again… and again.


Education, education, education

I hope readers of this blog will forgive me for writing about something that may not seem to be part of its remit. Except that it is. The future of this country in Europe and the world, its future within itself, depends on education as much as on what kind of toys our servicemen and servicewomen get to play with. (No, I don't decry the importance of toys, though I do think the question of whether this country is still and can be in the future a military power is very much wider.)

Most of us recall Tony Blair's comment in 1997 that the most important aspect of political life he was going to concentrate on was going to be "education, education, education". Not that many might know that Lenin said it before him. Every schoolroom in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had a poster on its back wall on which it was written in the appropriate language: "Education, education, education. V. I. Lenin"

Ten years on, education in this country has plummeted to a historically unheard of low. We have a couple of generations of semi-literate and anumerate children, the study of history, foreign languages, sciences and engineering lags so far behind most countries as to have become a joke; our universities are no longer world class and survive anywhere near that by dint of recruiting lots of foreign post-graduate students; there are fewer children from working class or poor families getting anywhere near reasonable education and, therefore, reasonable career than in most other developed countries and certainly fewer than there were under the old system of grammar schools.

The Conservatives had introduced a tiny improvement by their system of assisted places but these were abolished by the Labour government as soon as it came to power, no doubt in the spirit of "education, education, education" (well, for their own children, anyway).

The new Conservative leadership has abandoned any pretence of wanting to change the situation and allow more children to go to schools where they might receive appropriate education. First the Boy-King, in his previous reincarnation as Education spokesman, announced that the last remaining grammar schools will be abolished if (a big if) the party ever comes to power, adding arrogantly and fatuously that people did not want choice in education but wanted the government and officialdom to sort it all out. Presumably, as well as it had been sorted out all these decades.

There is no evidence that he has changed his attitude since becoming leader. This alone will prevent me from voting Conservative in the next election.

Now, we are told that there was
a decision by the Tories last month to drop plans for a full-blown voucher, in which parents would get £5,000 a year to spend at the school of their choice — state or private.
Presumably, at least one reason for that decision is a weak-kneed reluctance on the part of the Conservative leadership to fight with the educational establishment and the teachers' union. But one cannot help feeling that another reason is the overriding fear of letting people make decisions for themselves on important matters. And what could be more important than education?

I would not like to suggest that there might be a strong lack of desire to see competition from bright children from poorer families against the undoubtedly rich scions of the Tory leadership.

It is curious to see how frightened our rulers are of the very thought of vouchers. It is something like fifty years since the idea of universal vouchers as a way of countering state control of education and reversing falling standards was propounded by Milton and Rose Friedman. Yet it remains the great bogey of politics.

We have another initiative from the Government, one that has already been lambasted by the unions as being "elitist", the worst epithet they can think of.

Lord Adonis, who, we are told, himself benefited from a grant to Kingham Hill school, is trying to push through a scheme that will help "gifted" children who would not, otherwise, have access to good education. I assume that the noble peer understands that this scheme is completely inadequate but is trying to get round the problem of his colleagues who will never agree to selection or vouchers (such as Diane Abbott who sends her son to the excellent private City of London School) as well as hoping not to antagonize the teaching unions too much. He has failed in the latter but one could argue that anything the teaching unions bitterly oppose must be good for their pupils.

So what is this scheme that is getting everyone so worked up? Vouchers for education it ain't.
The brightest 800,000 pupils in England are to have vouchers to spend on extra lessons as part of a national talent search that starts next week.

Every secondary and primary school will be told to supply the names of 10 per cent of their pupils who best meet the new criteria for the gifted and talented programme when they fill in the January schools census.

Each pupil on the scheme will be given "credits" to buy a range of additional courses designed to push them further. This includes weekend or summer schools at universities, in which academics are paid to provide master-classes in particular subjects.
As was immediately noted by educational psychologists, the criterion of "gifted" can be defined only according to a few, highly professional tests and the chances are that many will be left out.

Then there is the problem that these are vouchers to be spent by pupils and their parents in the children's free time. In other words, they will get strenuous training in the week-end, only to go back to their useless, ill-disciplined, sub-educational classrooms during the week. There are a few problems with that scheme.

Should they not be in better run classrooms all the time? We the taxpayers are already ploughing billions of pounds into the educational system. Now we are told that more money has to be added in order to provide certain children with extra lessons. Why not provide as many children as possible with appropriate lessons? Ah, but that would mean handing those vouchers over to the parents and let individual children apply to individual schools with decisions to be taken at that level. Can't have that. The gentleman (and lady) in Whitehall (and town hall) knows best.

What makes this scheme completely unworkable as was its predecessor, the National Academy of Gifted and Talented Youth, is that it leaves the decision in the hands of the educational establishment. The Centre for British Teachers (CfBT) may be a non-profit education company but I can foresee layers and layers of bureaucracy and quangocracy being created in order to run the scheme.

Then there are the schools themselves. Many of them proved to be recalcitrant in the matter of that National Academy. When I recall the difficulties primary school heads used to raise whenever any parent wanted to know about assisted places, I fail to be surprised. They will not supply names of likely children, unless the parents create mayhem, getting round those instructions somehow.

The whole scheme smacks of socialist planning. Every school will have to provide names of "gifted" children that will make up ten per cent of its pupil numbers. What if there are no ten per cent? What if there are more? What if there are numerous children who are not classified as "gifted" according to those tightly drawn criteria but are bright and able, who would benefit from a rigorous education? And so on, and so on.

In the end, there is only one question: why not accept that centralized, state run (either on national or local level) education has failed in this country? Let the government take on the teaching unions and the festering educational establishment and introduce a full voucher system. Then we shall have education, education, education.


A bunch of festering amateurs

We went to great lengths to dissect the Qana pictures, alleging that the news agencies – and Associated Press in particular – were working to their own agendas.

But, in the above picture issued by AP, datelined 28 December, we have evidence of a darker, more disturbing secret, borne out by the caption which reads: "Old Bradley fighting vehicles line the grounds around the BAE systems plant in Lemont Furnace, Pa."

This and the picture here refer to a Sharewatch story, the lead paragraph opening:

The Bradley Fighting Vehicles, stripped of their treads, scarred and simply worn down from being driven long miles in harsh desert conditions, are the latest of hundreds refurbished or upgraded annually by their maker, BAE Systems -- one of many defense contractors whose business has grown throughout five years of fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For reference, this is a picture of a Bradley, and here are details of something else.

What the pictures demonstrate is that, in AP, we have a bunch of festering amateurs. And, if they can't get simple, glaringly obvious details right, how on earth can we trust them with more politically sensitive information where the interpretation of a picture might rest entirely on the text of a caption?

The answer is given partly by Michelle Malkin, who is also having some fun with some photographs, partly by Little Green Footballs, and by others. And, if you need it spelling out, the answer is dead simple - you cannot trust anything the agencies produce unless the veracity is self evident from what is offered, or the detail can be independently verified.


The pictures are still up but there have been "silent edits". One caption now reads: "Piles of treads (tracks, shurely? - ed) are stacked on pallets around old military equipment that line the grounds around the BAE Systems plant in Lemont Furnace, Pa." The other is below:

Click on each picture, to show the "before" and "after".


Thursday, December 28, 2006

Surrendering we will go

Our readers might recall that some time ago this blog had a mild run-in with Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that even according to the Observer "campaigns for Britain to become a caliphate - a country subject to Islamic law". It is also an organization that is banned in a number of countries, including, at different ends of the political spectrum, Canada and Pakistan.

Soon after the 7/7 bombings in London, Tony Blair announced that, as part of the fight against terrorism, he would seek the banning of the group. Furthermore,
On a trip to Pakistan last month, he is understood to have given personal assurances to President Pervez Musharraf that the ban would go ahead. Musharraf made clear to him that outlawing the group - banned in Pakistan since 2003 - must be a priority for Britain.
Well, President Musharraf can go whistle for that ban. After "intense discussions" between Number 10 and legal experts it was decided not to ban the group. Our counter-terrorism experts, who spent the past 15 years turning this country into "Londonistan" have, once again brought their moderation into play:

Despite public concerns about Hizb ut-Tahrir's perceived extremism, Home Office lawyers, the Foreign Office and representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers have quietly lobbied against outlawing the group and have, for now, won the argument.

"If there was evidence for proscribing Hizb ut-Tahrir, we would support a move to proscribe it," said Rob Beckley, Acpo lead for communities and counter-terrorism. "But we think such a move would be counter-productive and not in the spirit of the government's [anti-terrorism] legislation. It is not an offence to hold extreme views."
Good to know that this country is well looked after by its guardians. Shall we hear anything from Her Majesty's Opposition?


Gerald Ford - longest living American President

As my colleague abandons his Christmas cheer and wallows in toy stories – past and, above all, present – I shall turn attention very quickly to the man, whose death was announced yesterday, Gerald Ford, the 38th President of the United States.

Until now there were two things one always remembered about Ford; one is that he was the only President who had not been elected either to the presidency or the vice-presidency and the other is LBJ's comment about him. There are two versions of the latter, both indicating LBJ's low opinion of Ford's intelligence. Either he said that Ford was so dumb he could not walk and chew gum at the same time or, and this is much more likely, that he could not fart and chew gum at the same time.

Now we have a third piece of information: as of last month he was the longest living American President.

All of which is a little unfair on a decent, upright, reasonably able man who did the best he could in difficult circumstances. Becoming Vice-President after Spiro Agnew's resignation in October 1973, he took over as President when Nixon decided not to face probable impeachment and resigned in August 1974.

Taking over after Watergate, Ford did a creditable job of moving the country back more or less onto a steady course, though the hysteria generated by Nixon has survived and poisoned American politics to this day.

And that is about all one can say in Ford’s favour. While I can grasp that Gerald Ford is still remembered with a good deal of personal respect, I cannot understand the mawkishness of the blog entry on Hot Air and the comments on it. A good man does not a good president make.

His appointment of the ultra left Nelson Rockefeller as Vice-President was a disaster. The economy under him continued to lurch between inflation and recession with the government trying to counter the problems caused by OPEC-raised oil prices by ever more taxes and controls.

When it came to foreign policy, Ford was definitely of the "let us be nice to the Soviets and maybe they will be nice to us" persuasion (though one could never doubt his patriotism). Of course, neither the Soviets nor the Chinese had the slightest intention of tickling the West's tummy if it rolled over. A swift kick where it hurts most was the usual response.

SALT talks resulted in the Soviets constructing SS20s in Eastern Europe. On the other hand, the Helsinki Accords, intended to be another surrender to the Communist world view, unexpectedly proved to be a useful weapon against oppression in that world and, consequently, aided its destabilization.

Helsinki Watch strengthened the dissident movement in the oppressed countries by making the plight of individuals who had courageously stood up for basic rights and liberties public in the West and giving politicians like Reagan and Thatcher weapons in their fight. Its successor, Human Rights Watch, is a considerably less useful organization.

Above all, however, Ford’s presidency is linked to the most appalling event in the West’s fight against Communism: the betrayal of South Vietnam and Cambodia. In 1974 the American troops began evacuating from South-East Asia. The Thieu regime was given strong promises of military aid if it continued the fight. The aid did not materialize.

North Vietnam, having effectively lost the war previously, now overran South Vietnam and at the end of April, 1975 Saigon fell. The "realists" and the media, which had induced the "Vietnam war" hysteria, had triumphed. Vietnam and Cambodia entered years of totalitarian oppression and genocide, while in the rest of the world the West and its ideas of freedom and democracy seemed in retreat.

To be fair to Ford, his narrow defeat by Jimmy Carter in 1976 turned out to be an even bigger disaster. Now there is a man about whom one might say many things but one will suffice: the worst and least successful president in the history of the United States.

Furthermore, unlike Carter, Ford retreated into private life and did not spend his time pretending to re-fight old battles, this time being victorious. In other words, he did not spend his time passing ignorant judgement about his successors' policies. Carter's obituaries are unlikely to be as respectful as Ford's.


What does it matter?

According to the MoD, another soldier has been killed in Afghanistan. So far unnamed, he was on a reconnaissance mission in the desert to the south of Garmsir, when his vehicle was involved in an explosion. As well as one fatality, there was one serious injury and two minor injuries.

At this stage, says the MoD, it is too early to say what caused the explosion but there were no Taliban in the vicinity and there was no follow-on contact. The thinking is that it could possibly have been a "legacy mine" left over from one of the earlier wars, which the troops were unfortunate enough to have hit. Lieutenant Colonel Andy Price, of the Royal Marines, suggested that a deliberate attack was unlikely, as the explosion "was in the middle of the desert."

No details have been given by the MoD of the type of vehicle involved. But, with that number of troops involved, it was most likely either a Land Rover or a Pinzgauer (pictured right).

Even if it was an unarmoured Land Rover, though, a mine strike is survivable – evidenced by the remarkable photograph of a Land Rover Wolf (above left), after being hit by an anti-tank mine just north of Basra, in June 2004. In a Pinzgauer, however, the chances of the driver and/or front seat passenger surviving are significantly reduced as they are seated immediately over the wheels and, therefore, take the full brunt of the blast.

In this incident, it seems that the blast caused a loss of control, whence the vehicle crashed, that being responsible for the death. On that basis, the vehicle involved may well have been a Land Rover, possibly a "Snatch", which often carries a crew of four.

To guarantee survival, though, the troops would have to be equipped with a mine protected vehicle, such as this Cougar (now deployed by the US in Afghanistan), from which the crew emerged unscathed. And which vehicles are being supplied to British troops in Afghanistan, to replace the Land Rovers?

Given that we are talking about the MoD, the answer should be obvious. They are sending out lightly armoured Pinzgauer Vectors. But then, does it really matter if a few more soldiers are killed? Gerald Howarth thinks Pinzgauers are "superb".


Panting in the rear

It should actually have been the other way round, with the politicians complaining long and loud about how badly the Army has been treated. But, as we have observed before, such a poor job have they been doing that it has been left to serving officers to make the running.

This time it is Major General Richard Shirreff, commander of UK land forces in southern Iraq this summer, who told the BBC today that the Army was feeling the effects of a decade of underfunding.

He reminded listeners that soldiers put their "bodies and lives on the line" but, in return, they needed the nation's support. There was, he said, a weakening of the bond between the nation and its military and the covenant was "seriously out of kilter".

Shirreff's words, in some respects, echo that of CGS, General Sir Richard Dannatt although the two generals are not singing from the same hymn-sheet. While Dannatt was suggesting that the Army would have to pull out of Iraq, Shirreff declares that we are not in the business of cutting and running. "We are going to maintain a brigade or thereabouts in this part of Iraq for some time to come," he says.

Shirreff wants increased resources and support for the armed forces, both on the battlefield and at home. He is particularly concerned about the care given to wounded military personnel on their return to the UK. He adds that "The nation needs to understand that the quality work done by these courageous men and women out here only happens and can only continue if ... our soldiers are properly supported back home in terms of the support for training, infrastructure, barracks, accommodation."

And, of course, we have also had Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge, Chief of the Defence Staff until 1997, having a go, as well as General Jackson, the recently retired CGS.

All of this is leaving opposition politicians flat-footed. Our pictures show Conservative leader David Cameron talking to Shirreff during his visit to Basra at the end of last month, but it looks like the Boy could have spent a little more time listening.

He should also have listened to this blog (although he is far too grand for that) as it was then that we made it very clear that the military issue was one to go for. But, after the visit, Cameron did not even bother with a statement on the Conservative website.

This time, Liam Fox gets to respond to Shirreff, saying that it was time for the government to say "something resembling the truth" about the military's resources. "The PM repeatedly assures our troops that they can have what they want, assures the public that the troops have what they need, but we are continuingly told by our military commanders that shortages remain," goes his statement. As always, though, it lacks detail and, therefore, conviction.

Just supposing the Tories had produced their own wish list, think how much more powerful any statement from Fox would have been. But time and time again, Fox and his partner in crime, Gerald Howarth, have had an open goal in front of them and have dropped the ball. And now, they are left panting in the rear.


Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The year of the blog

In the grand tradition of the MSM - which we see no harm in emulating - in the next few days, while (we hope) the news agenda is light, we will be revisiting some of the stories we looked at during the year, updating them and adding new material.

The first, as you might have guessed, is going to be the "Snatch" Land Rover issue, one that is still very much live. Even to this day, troops are being put at risk in these inadequate vehicles and one, at least, of the proposed replacements is no better. Meanwhile, L'Ombre de l'Olivier discusses the implications of 2nd Lt H Windsor patrolling in inadequate equipment.

The post is now complete and can be read here.


Looking for Gordon

It is so rare that EU Referendum gets a police patrol down our cul-de-sac - except when they come to arrest yours truly - that it's a really noteworthy occasion.

But, we learned from our neighbour opposite, they were not patrolling at all. they were looking for a chap called "Gordon", who had had his garden shed broken into. The constable had no second name for the man, no address and was knocking on doors to find out if anyone knew of him.

I suppose we ought to be grateful that someone will turn out on a Boxing Day afternoon to investigate a crime - but you do wonder what you are paying your taxes for. Thus, when you read reports that Britain spends more of its national wealth on law and order than any other industrialised country yet still has a higher crime rate than most, this does not come as a surprise.

Furthermore, this isn't the first time we've had this sort of time-wasting farce. About six months ago, they were here mob-handed, blue lights flashing, to check out a report of a man being beaten up. They had the address that time, but had come to the wrong street.

You can perhaps see why we think the Army would be better employed over here. Blowing up a few police stations could hardly lead to an increase in crime, and it would certainly save a great deal of money. We'd also see more policemen on the beat, as they would have nowhere else to go.


Tuesday, December 26, 2006

God rest ye merry, gentlemen...

And soldiers complain about being underpaid? Well, some do, but look at the perks of the job – they get to blow up police stations. Pity though they have to go to Iraq to do it.

That, of course, is the lighter side of the story, but the engineers would not be human if they had not got a tremendous boost from successfully completing this particular piece of work.

The darker side is that this was the headquarters of the 400-strong serious crimes unit in Basra, the al-Jameat police station and prison. And it was there, in the early hours of yesterday morning, that the Army launched another of its mass raids – the third one that we know about – meeting resistance on the way in and killing seven "gunmen".

The raid came a mere three days after Friday's operation - which was said to be the first stage of moves to disrupt and disband the serious crime unit – when a "significant" member of the unit was captured.

The action was taken on Christmas Day after it had been learned that some of the 127 prisoners held at al-Jameat faced imminent execution (the police station is pictured here - the photograph taken in August 2005, one month before major riots). They were found crowded into a small cell, living in "appalling conditions." A number had crushed feet or hands and gunshot wounds to the knee, compatible with their having been tortured. They were transferred to another police station.

The explosives have been used, says the Army, "to put the building beyond use so it can no longer be used by the criminal enterprise." And, as television footage showed most of the building reduced to rubble with at least one police vehicle crushed and one lying upside down, the Army spokesman, Major Burbridge said - with not a trace of understatement: "The serious crimes unit has now been disbanded."

The dissolution has, apparently been approved by prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and the Basra governor, Mohammed Waili. Interestingly, Basra's police chief, Brigadier Mohammed al-Musawi, said he had not been told of the raid beforehand, and accused the British of trying to "stir up trouble". On the other hand, the Iraqi defence ministry in Baghdad said it had consented to the operation.

It is, we are told, no coincidence that al-Jameat was targeted. It was at the centre of the kidnapping in September last year of two SAS soldiers, the rescue of whom triggered major riots, producing the now famous pictures of soldiers leaping from a burning Warrior - and a breakdown of relations between the Army and the Basra police.

It was then, that September, when Times journalist Anthony Loyd wrote a piece headed, "Murder, violence and politics: how rogue police can live outside law in Basra".

According to Lloyd, the activities of the Jameat gang had been brought to the attention of the Iraqi government six months previously. Yet, even though allegedly funded by Iran and responsible for attacks on British forces, it was allowed to carry on with impunity. Its members remained at large and in uniform until yesterday – over 20 months after the problem had been recognised. Thus, while we must applaud this Christmas Day action, there is a real question as to why it took so long to do something of this nature.

One indication might be that while, in September year last - when the Army broke into the compound to rescue the SAS men - major riots erupted, current reports from Basra indicate that the city is quiet. It is too early thus to infer that the action has the general support (or acceptance) of the population, but the signs so far are encouraging.

So, following the raid, as they tucked into their well-deserved Christmas dinners and were then able to rest, we hope, merry, the troops concerned might have pondered over the words of the carol, which reminds us that the baby Jesus was born "to save us all from Satan's power when we were gone astray." Their rest will be well-deserved.

* * * *

In other developments, the US military has admitted it is holding at least four Iranians in Iraq, including men seized in raids last week. This is according to Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the US National Security Council, who confirmed that two diplomats were among those initially detained in the raids. They were turned over to Iraqi authorities and released.

However, Iraq's Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani, has protested about the arrest of the diplomats, even though US officials say they were suspected of planning attacks on security forces. Nevertheless, we are told, "The president is unhappy." This is because the diplomats came to Iraq at the invitation of the president, "as part of an agreement to build better security links between the countries".

In Tehran, the Foreign Ministry said the "move is not compatible with any international regulations and will provoke unpleasant repercussions." And, as we all know, Iran is very familiar with "international regulations", which it applied with rigour during the US embassy siege in Tehran.


Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas

There is hope for us yet. The picture shows a scene in downtown Kabul - one of several shops that have been selling fully decorated Christmas trees in a predominantly Muslim community - making a fascinating contrast with the lady fully kitted out in the Burka. But was it staged - or did the lady just happen past as the AP photographer took the snap?

That apart, if there is a message here, it is that the human spirit will surely prevail. But perhaps the real message is that, despite the wails and laments about the commercialisation of Christmas, it is surely commercial activity which actually brings the festive cheer. In other words, only because there's brass is there Christmas - you simply cannot keep free enterprise down.

Much the same surely has to be said of this market - in downtown Baghdad, selling Christmas toys. And, if there is a potent symbol of the US occupation, it just has to be the Humvee... so what do we see but a toy Humvee on sale. Once again, free enterprise knows no boundaries.

That said, I don't know whether there is a hidden message in the toy soldier manning the machine gun. Whatever, else, he is not American, so, I suppose, insurgents can always pretend it is a captured Humvee and honour is satisfied.

One thing for certain though - there is no uncertainty about our message from myself and my colleague. That is quite simply, Merry Christmas. We'll think about the New Year a little closer to time.

Actually, nothing is that simple. With all the people who voted us best UK blog, the congratulations flowing in, the incredibly nice e-mails we've been having of late and the best wishes and other pleasant comments on the forum, it is getting incredibly difficult to keep up our standards of obnoxiousness (if that is a word) and aggression that people have come to expect.

Nevertheless, Helen managed to utter a "bah Humbug!" just as she went off-line. In the brief period left to me before I am overtaken by the spirit of Christmas - and before the antidote kicks in - I guess I could echo that.

Christmas Day is the one day in my year when Mrs EU Referendum - who is the secret power behind the throne - insists, on pain of death, that the computer does not go on. So that will have to do for now. Normal hostilities will be resumed after the break.


Sunday, December 24, 2006

Sir bono?

Words almost fail us, but it occurred that the Mail on Sunday headline almost got it right. All you need to do is take the "i" out of one of the words.

Seeing as it's Christmas, we'll give you three clues: it is not the "hi", nor the "it's" and not the "sir".

If you really want to help impoverished Africans, read the Booker Column and then contact Intercare.


State secrets?

There has been some interest expressed in the fact that Mario Scaramella, who had met the late Alexander Litvinenko in that famous sushi bar in Piccadilly just before the latter was taken ill, has been arrested in Italy - taken off the aeroplane as he returned from London to Naples. He is being accused of arms trafficking and disclosing state secrets.

There is, as it happens, another aspect to this case:

Scaramella has been gathering information for Italian Sen. Paolo Guzzanti - the former chair of a parliamentary commission that examined cases of past KGB infiltration in Italy. Guzzanti said the Italian accusations against Scaramella appeared unrelated to the poisoning.
It seems that the two men had discussed whether Romano Prodi had been a KGB agent and whether there was any evidence for this. Prodi has threatened to sue anyone who defamed his character but this may be a more certain way of silencing people.

"We should not fool ourselves"

Not us, guv... the words come from our old friend, el presidente Jos̩ Manuel Barroso. He has told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the abortive EU constitution does not have any chance of coming into effect Рa more or less direct attack on the obsessive navel-gazing of the colleagues.

All that can be salvaged from it are "its values, principles and substance", says the commission president. He believes that the German presidency could take "important steps" quickly to improve the union's ability to make decisions but when it comes to the Angela Merkel's much touted ambition to resurrect the constitution, Barroso is blunt.

I give you an honest answer, he says. The EU constitution in its current form will not come into effect. "We should not fool ourselves. It's important now to maintain its values, its principles and its substance. Above all, we have to improve the decision-making mechanism, and we need to do that as quickly as possible."

This will not, of course, stop media speculation about Merkel’s intentions. If a little thing like the German constitutional court can’t do that, then the words of the commission president are hardly likely to do it.

The fact remains, though, that it has become a recent tradition for incoming presidencies to "talk up" the constitution, only to slide out six months later with the Community no further forward.

Thus did we have the Austrian presidency in 2005, with chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel spelling out Austria's ambition to "breath back some life" into the constitution. Remember his "Sound of Europe"? And before that, Schuessel was saying: "We have promised ourselves that we will restart the negotiations on the constitution," only to pass on the baton to the UK and thence to Finland.

For once, therefore, this blog and the commission president are at one. Much as we would like it to be otherwise – with the opportunity for a referendum that it affords - there is going to be no EU constitution. Take it from the horse's mouth."


Me like...

If this report is true, and Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani is really dead, then it is a good day for Afghanistan, Nato and the UK.

Interestingly, it is said to be a Nimrod R1 which picked up a signal from the man's satellite phone, which enabled a US aircraft to launch a bombing strike. The R1 is a specific variant of the Nimrod MR2 maritime surveillance aircraft, fitted with a suite of highly sensitive electronic detectors. The main visual difference is, rather appropriately, the absence of the MAD boom.

Osmani, an associate of Osama Bin Laden, was the Taliban treasurer and has been the most senior member of the group's leadership to die in the war on terror, according to US officials. A Taliban spokesman, however, claims he is still alive and we have not seen any confirmation, as with Zarqawi's death.

We would prefer that the kill had been achieved without putting British lives at risk in antiquated aircraft, but now is not the time to be churlish. Congratulations appear to be due for a job well done.


Saturday, December 23, 2006

Wind towers

Like the tower blocks before them, the wind towers are another mass delusion. A letter in The Telegraph tells us why:

Sir – Once again the public are being misled by the wind industry. These windfarms, which are going to cover over 100 square miles of the approaches to the Thames Estuary, will never power one third of London homes.

If as suggested the installed capacity of the 400-plus turbines is 1.3 Gw (1300Mw) then even with a generous load factor of 30 per cent the average output will only be 390Mw. This would in fact be enough to provide 5Kw to 78,000 homes, about enough to power an electric kettle and a toaster. If, as there frequently is, a high pressure system is sitting over south-east England, then there will be zero output from these windfarms. The claims about carbon dioxide savings are equally dishonest. Using widely accepted data the annual, theoretical savings of CO2 for these turbines would be approximately 1.46 Mt and would reduce global levels by a farcical 0.005 per cent.

What your readers really need to know is that these windfarms will receive approximately £160 million per year in subsidies, paid for by them. This windfarm scandal has gone on long enough and needs to be exposed for what is. We are destroying our landscapes and now our seascapes for nothing more than green tokenism, and are being expected to pay for it as well.

Bob Graham, Chairman, Highlands Against Windfarms, Orton, Moray
The tragedy of it all is that, had we not been lumbered with the Green Moron, the Conservatives could have exposed the stupidity for what it is, and gained some real political brownie (instead of greenie) points.

Much of the "green agenda" is a bubble, waiting to burst. Cameron has got on the bandwagon – to mix metaphors – just at a time when the wheels are about to fall off.



It is quite difficult to work out which is more scary – that the capital's police are led by a man who has no history, or a man who is so stupid that he hasn't the sense to keep his mouth closed when he doesn't know what he is talking about.

My colleague explains, over on her One London blog.

The fog of war

The British Army has launched yet another huge raid in Basra but, with the city still far too dangerous for independent Western journalists, details are sparse, unlike the raid on 8 December, when the MoD was more forthcoming.

Even then, we were only being told what the Army wanted us to know and, currently, much of the detail is being channelled through a favoured and therefore untrustworthy source. All we can be certain of, therefore, is that a raid happened.

The bare details seem to be that hundreds of troops were involved – the figure varies from 800 to "over a thousand" – backed, we are told, by tanks. The troops are said to have seized seven Iraqi police officers suspected of corruption and leading a death squad in the city.

The operation, carried out at dawn yesterday, is said to be the first stage of moves to disrupt and disband the southern city's Serious Crime Unit. The British military spokesman, Major Charlie Burbridge, claims a "significant" member of the unit was captured. No shots were fired and there were no casualties, he adds. Some damage was done to property (see above picture) but, again, details are sketchy.

Burbridge says the police officer was suspected of links to an incident in October, when gunmen ambushed a minibus carrying police translators, trainers and cleaning workers from a police academy to Basra. The Telegraph also claims links with the capture of two SAS soldiers last year.

Despite this, it is difficult to assess what is going on in the city. This article from Arab News gives some background, from which one senses a powder keg waiting to explode.

All we can do is watch and wait, trying to unravel what little information is forthcoming. But this is not a satisfactory way of trying to understand something that is so important to our national interest. We really do need better sources of information – the "fog of war", it seems, is thicker than that at Heathrow.


Friday, December 22, 2006

Nothing to worry about chaps...'s a ceasefire.


Questions to ask

As we approach the entry of Romania and Bulgaria into the European Union (boy, is that going to be fun!), some people are turning their attention to Turkey. As it happens, Turkey's possible entry has been pushed even further into the future with the Commission part-freezing the negotiations, allegedly because of Turkey's refusal to deal with the question of Cyprus but, really, because the EU is getting cold feet about that country.

Though, as we have said before, if the EU wants its own army, it has to have Turkey in. Who else has enough well-trained, well-equipped soldiers? Poland and Turkey can form the backbone of the European defence force. There's a wonderful historic irony for you.

Yesterday evening I was in 18 Doughty Street, waiting for my turn. I was about to take part in a discussion about counterfactual history with several other contributors to "Prime Minister Portillo and Other Things that Never Happened" and "President Gore and Other Things that Never Happened". Well, since you ask, the two essays I had written were: "What if Lenin's train had never reached Petrograd" and "What if the Czechoslovak army had fought in 1938".

While waiting for our programme I listened to the discussion before it, mostly about newspaper stories, that involved the presenter and two others: Russell Walters of the Democracy Movement and Greg Clark MP (he of the Polly Toynbee idea).

What intrigued me was the efforts made by both discusants to demonstrate that taking in Turkey would be a good idea because it would prevent any further integration and would make the EU shallower. To be fair to the presenter, he did remind them of the same comments and promises being made before the East European countries came in and none of that had materialized. In fact, it is the East Europeans who have to adjust their hitherto reasonably successful economies to our own high-tax, high-regulation ones. And, as some of us predicted at the time, those adjustments are playing havoc with the economies there.

In fact, what we said at the time was that each enlargement was accompanied by greater integration as it was impossible to run ever more and ever more diverse member states together without centralizing more powers. The big one into Eastern Europe was used for huge steps forward with integration in the Treaties of Amsterdam and Nice and even bigger ones attempted with the Constitution for Europe.

All of this seems to have passed by a number of the commentators, who are known as eurosceptics. The truth is that it is not enough to be called a eurosceptic. One also has to have some knowledge on the subject.

So, next time somebody says that taking in more countries, particularly Turkey would result in a shallower European Union, here are a few questions to ask;

Does this mean that the leaders will call another IGC and change the treaties to restore a number of the existing EU competences to the member states? In particular, will they rescind the Social Chapter, a subject apparently dear to the Boy King's heart?

Does this mean that there will be a change to the treaties (through an IGC, which is the only way to do it) and vetoes will be reintroduced in a number of areas that are now legislated on according to qualified majority voting?

Does this mean that the ECJ decision in the Van Gend & Loos case of February 1963, which determined that European legislation is superior to national, something that has been written into the European Communities Act 1972?

Will there be a change to the treaties (through an IGC etc etc) and the Commission's role as the sole initiator of legislation within Pillar I will be changed?

I have an odd suspicion that the answer to all those questions will be firstly a blank stare, secondly a number of throat clearances and stammered nothings and, thirdly, a reluctant no. Well, in that case, how is the European Union going to become shallower?