Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Snow job

Skiinfo reports that snow has been falling on almost every continent on earth over the past week. Meanwhile, the Met Office is telling us that Britain will have a mild winter.

Break out the woollies and get the central heating checked.


Siren voices

Is this the message to which Mr Cameron is listening on the constitutional Lisbon treaty?

... That is what David Cameron and his highly Eurosceptic Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, will need to face up to — immediately, at their party conference next week. To threaten to reopen the whole thing when they enter government would be pointless. Worse than pointless, it would be destructive both to British and to Conservative interests.


Mr Cameron, we are told, has repeatedly refused to say what he will do if he comes to power with the constitutional Lisbon treaty ratified, saying only that he will "not let matters rest."

Now, in an LBC radio interview, the Tory leader said that if the treaty is ratified, "new circumstances" will apply, suggesting a new Tory policy will be needed.

"If this treaty is still alive," he says, "if it is still being discussed and debated anywhere in Europe, then we will give you that referendum, we will name the date during the election campaign, we'll hold that referendum straight away and I will lead the campaign for a No."

But, he says, "if those circumstances change, if the Germans ratify, if the Poles ratify, if the Czechs ratify, if the Irish vote Yes to the treaty, then a new set of circumstances [apply], and I will address those at the time." He went on to signal that he would not consider a move that could lead to Britain leaving the EU.

He thus declares: "I want us to be in the European Union. We are a trading nation, we should be co-operating with our allies and friends in Europe over things like the environment and crime, of course we should."

It is interesting here to see a man on top of his brief. Germany, as my co-editor observes ratified on 25 September.

That aside, this makes things very difficult for us. The inference, headlined by The Daily Telegraph is: "David Cameron hints Tories would not hold referendum on ratified Lisbon Treaty". The Times has come to the same conclusion. In fact, it is very clear to anyone with two brain cells to rub together that Mr Cameron is not going to hold a referendum if the treaty has been ratified by the time he takes over the administration.

What precisely Mr Cameron intends to do, he himself probably does not know. He will most likely make a decision when he has to – when he is absolutely forced to make one – and not before. And what precisely he decides will be guided by calculations as to what he can get away with, and what is least damaging to his standing and the electability of his party.

Mr Cameron cannot be blamed for this. He is a politician with aspirations to become prime minister, and he is not going to let discord over the EU interfere with his ambition. Therefore, his will be a political calculus, untainted by principle or higher motivation. He will do what he has to do to get his party elected.

Those lukewarm sceptics – who put party before principle – rest on the hopes that, once elected, the "real" Cameron will emerge, to become the terror of the EU, ripping into the "colleagues" and dragging powers back from Brussels.

Any such hopes lie in the realms of fantasy. Mr Cameron, in telling us that "we should be co-operating with our allies and friends in Europe" is speaking the language of the Europhile. And that is what he is.

Co-operation is not, and never has been on the table. Membership of the EU requires the subordination of our parliament to the diktats of the unelected commission and the tyranny of qualified majority voting. Our "co-operation" in that is the same as the co-operation of the handcuffed prisoner told to enter a cell by his jailers.

In terms, Mr Cameron is probably calculating that the popular desire to relieve Gordon Brown of his command will overwhelm any doubts or concerns over his intentions towards the EU. He will know that the electorate is not going to promote the EU to the top of the political agenda. He will not lose the election because he does not promise a referendum.

Therefore, his strategy will be to offer something vaguely credible - the so-called slither-out clause - enough to give hope to the lukewarm eurosceptics that something might be on offer when he gets elected, abandoning the irreconcilables whose votes, he has calculated, he does not need in order to win.

What would make the difference is a decisive caucus of voters who support Cameron but who are not prepared to back him unless he takes a firm line on the EU. There are probably enough out there to damage him, but not enough to cost him the election. And winning is all that matters. They can be and have to be ignored.

We are thus in a situation where the leader of the opposition party has, quite deliberately, set about to reject our aspirations in order to pursue his own. The only offer on the table is that we should abandon ours in order that he can achieve his, with no promise that any concessions will be made at a later date. That is not an attractive offer.

The consequence of rejecting it, however, is that Labour might just retain power. Mr Cameron is perhaps confident that there are enough people not prepared to take that risk and will thus vote for him in spite of and not because of his policy on the EU.

That calculation is for Mr Cameron to make. Equally, a sophisticated electorate will make its own calculations. Only a fool would take them for granted.


Entertainment value

The real story of the Labour years is one of under-achievement, rank failure and a vast expansion of wasteful government interference in everyone's lives. So says The Sun which, at the tail end of the Labour party conference, has ostentatiously switched sides and is now supporting the Conservatives.

Labour, in the persona of Lord Mandelson, has been quick to respond. He says: "The proprietor might have changed his mind but I don't think the readers want The Sun to set on New Labour. The last thing Sun readers want is to see their newspaper turned into a Tory fanzine. They want a newspaper, not a propaganda sheet."

One cannot resist the temptation of remarking that, if the readers wanted a newspaper, they wouldn't be buying The Sun. But then, given what is generally on offer, they would have trouble buying anything which conformed with that description.

One wonders, though, quite how much traction a tabloid rag of the nature of The Sun really has. Rather than leading opinion, as it would have us believe, the paper is more likely simply following the herd sentiment. Sensing change in the wind – which is not exactly a stunning feat – it has nailed its colours to what it perceives to be the winner's mast. This is indeed followership rather than leadership.

No one, however, will be at all deceived into thinking that The Sun's change of heart is anything to do with a new-found yearning for good government, truth, justice, apple pie and free beer on Sundays. Mandelson puts his finger on the proximate cause for the change – Mr Rupert Murdoch, the proprietor of The Sun and owner of the loss-making News International group.

With his larger business empire reputed to have lost £2 billion last year and with reports of his flagship newspaper, The Times, losing £2 million a week, Murdoch is locked in battle with the BBC over plans to charge for online web content, plans which are jeopardised by the BBC's torrent of "free" content on its taxpayer-funded websites.

No doubt, by allying himself to what appears to be the winning side, Murdoch hopes that vague Conservative ideas on curtailing the ambitions of the BBC might firm up, to his own financial advantage – with the aid of one or two Faustian deals done in the remote corners of smoke-free rooms.

Therefore, what The Sun thinks or says about which party should form our new administration should be irrelevant. What is not irrelevant is that a rich and powerful man can use his products in an attempt to shape public opinion, to his own financial advantage.

However, while his intervention might have an effect, what is going to happen would have probably happened anyway. Most people will make up their own minds. For those people, The Sun's endorsement offers a certain entertainment value, but very little else. For the rest, those who allow their opinions to be shaped by The Sun deserve exactly what they get. The pity of it is that the rest of us do not.


Bought and paid for

Michael O'Leary, the boss of Ryanair, has admitted in a television interview that one of the reasons he was campaigning for a "yes" vote in the Irish referendum was that the government was "incompetent". Yet he says, "I needed to persuade them to sell me Aer Lingus."

I think we knew that , but it is good to have it confirmed.

O'Leary had in fact said that it would be undemocratic to make the Irish vote again on the treaty after it had been rejected last June. He has now spent €500,000 (£460,000) on advertisements and free flights to support the "yes" camp. A better advertisement for voting "no" is hard to imagine.


Ought I be flattered?

An e-mail arrived today from Gallup-Europe, inviting me to share my expertise. Hmm, I thought. I do make quite a good loaf of bread, even though I say so myself and my apple chutney is quite popular. But really and truly my expertise lies in making cabbage pie.

None of that, alas. Gallup-Europe and Friends of Europe want me to participate in a questionnaire that will eventually feed into a report on how the EU can best communicate with member states.

As encouragement they told me:
In October 2004, Friends of Europe, together with partners from the communication sector, launched its "Can EU Hear Me?" report to the then-incoming European Commission and European Parliament. This influential report can still be downloaded here. This previous report, which integrated useful suggestions from many high-level communication officials, is still used as a reference by the Commission.
Well, goodness me, I thought. If I fill in the questionnaire my opinions might be used as a reference by the Commission. Worth a go, I thought. Then I read the next paragraph:
Now, five years later, with the lowest turnout for the European elections in history and the troubled Lisbon Treaty ratification process, the need still exists for a better communication policy from the EU.
So, that communication exercise was a huge success. I wonder how low the turn-out for the European elections would have been if the report had not been produced.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

There was a time ...

... when we were interested in headlines such as Fishermen despair at 'crippling' EU rules. There was even a time when the fishermens' plight would make the front pages of the national dailies, with tense debates in the House of Commons.

And plight it is. John Buchan, a "top north-east skipper" is warning that the white fish fleet is facing its biggest crisis for 30 years and has called for urgent action to stop boats being forced out of business.

But his plea only gets as far as the Aberdeen Press and Journal. It will get no further. It is not that people don't care. Many do – passionately. But the issue is bound up in a sense of futility, hopelessness and despair.

It does not matter what we think. There is nothing we can do about this. There is nothing our MPs can do about it. And Mr Cameron's Tories have set their face against doing anything, having abandoned Howard's pledge to repatriate fishing policy.

So, we stop writing about it. People stop discussing it. There is no point in either. You might just as well complain about the colour of the moon. And therein lies the victory of the EU – it has worn us down with its own inertia and we have given up.

Except we haven't. Our resolve has never wavered. When or if the Irish roll over on Friday and bow to the pressure of the "colleagues", our resolve will not waver. But we have no illusions. Getting the UK out of the EU is going to take some time. And, by the time we succeed, there will be no fishing industry left, worth talking about.

Call it a casualty of war. And there will be more before we prevail.



It may be a deceptively simple question, but why do we have to find about this from the official Chinese news agency?

From this source, we learn that The EU "defence ministers" met in Gothenburg yesterday, and agreed "that better cooperation between civilian and military actors would contribute to improved maritime surveillance and more effective peace support operations."

We also learn that ministers have agreed "to cooperate in training, risk assessment, intelligence, information sharing, evacuation, logistic support and strategic transport." The formal blueprint will be discussed again in November.

This is, apparently, a "two day informal meeting" and the ministers will continue to discuss "usability and flexibility of the battle group and the Afghan issue".

Elsewhere, we read that Spain is "very optimistic" that a deal will be reached to rescue Europe's largest defence project, the delayed Airbus A-400M military transport aircraft. This came from Spanish defence minister Carme Chacon on Monday, with a Reuters dateline from er ... Gothenburg. So a deal has been made, has it?

Meanwhile, back in the lil ol' UK, we are in the early stages of embarking on the process of a strategic defence review, and one would have thought that issues such as the "usability and flexibility of the battle group" – to which the UK is committed, might have a bearing on the discussions.

But, once again, we have hole-in-the-corner discussions, unreported by the UK media, which almost certainly will have significant effects on our future defence policy – to say nothing of our strategic airlift capabilities. And yet, we are told nothing.


Conflicting concerns

Which is more important? On the one hand, we have the devastating personal tragedy of Fiona Pilkington, driven to the unlawful killing of her daughter and her own suicide, acts of desperation in response to the lack of police and official support against a regime of bullying from local thugs.

On the other, we have Afghanistan. By common accord, the war is at a "decisive" state, with a very real risk of failure, made worse by strategic stasis in the White House. There, in what is being seen as a "remarkable parallel" with a turning point in the Vietnam War 44 years ago, Obama is to preside over a series of meetings that will determine whether the US will proceed with an escalation of the war or reduce the US military commitment there.

The question is, of course, absurd. Both issues are important – but of a different order. No more can you rank them in importance than you can rank the myriad of other issues that assail us daily – whether Iran is serious about building the Bomb, which way the Irish will vote on Friday, whether the apparent economic recovery is real or simply a precursor to a "double-dip" recession ... and so on.

Dealing with them - all of them - though, is the stuff of politics. That is what politics is all about. It is the art of giving due attention to the competing and conflicting demands on time and resources, affording enough to each without becoming obsessed or trapped by any one issue or event, however intrinsically important it might be.

And that is where the Conservative Party – and its membership – seems to have a problem. Dealing with the growing crisis in Afghanistan, we had yesterday the shadow defence secretary Liam Fox talking to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, apparently oblivious to developments the other side of the Atlantic, delivering a speech which failed in any way to acknowledge the depths of the political crisis which is taking shape in Washington.

But as instructive was the reaction of the website Tory Diary. If it can be taken as a weather-vane, representing a certain sector of Conservative thought, it is instructive that it chose to feature Fox's speech in advance of delivery, focusing only on his narrow – and largely misplaced – attack on the Labour government.

It did not revisit the speech after the event, to discuss the content and the wider issues raised. It did not thus address the manifest limitations of the shadow defence secretary, and his failure to explore the broader strategic and political implications of the events in Washington, in what is a fast-moving and worrying situation. Equally instructive is that fact that, from the Leader, on the whole issue of Afghanistan and recent developments, comment there is none. This is a matter which can be left to the minions.

Then compare and contrast David Cameron's response to the Pilkington affair. He is out in front this morning, with a storming indictment of Labour Party policy, and – to the obvious approval of Tory Dairy - tells us "everything will done be differently by a Conservative government".

This is not intended as criticism. It is an observation, one that reveals where the priorities of the Conservatives and some of their supporters lie, and possibly gives us a clue as to how a future Conservative government might perform. Great international issues are lower down the ranking of importance than the "social agenda" which the new "caring" Conservatives have made their central platform.

What is disturbing is that we expect more of a government than a narrow focus on a limited range of preferred issues. We do not expect it to "park" the rest of the agenda, or leave it to the minions to deal with. Government is more than delivering just enough to keep the faithful happy and – more particularly – making sure awkward issues do not intrude on the areas where the party has chosen to devote its attention.

In short, we expect a government to be able to deal with the multiplicity of issues which demand attention, giving to each the necessary thought and prominence, coming up with considered and appropriate responses in line with the seriousness that the situations demand. We do not expect a government to pick and chose issues it will deal with, and "park" the rest because they do not fit with its political agenda.

Looking at the disparate treatment of the Pilkington affair and Afghanistan, it is not possible to determine that, in "power", we will have a Conservative government which is capable of properly ordering its priorities. There is more to running a government than putting on a "caring" face.


Climate illiteracy

"America's lack of knowledge on climate change could prevent the world from reaching an agreement to stop catastrophic global warming, scientists said in an attack on the country's environmental policy."

This is the latest effluvia from the world's favourite newspaper, retailing the opinion of Professor John Schellnhuber, "one of the world's leading global warming experts."

Schellnhuber is a leading member of the Potsdam institute, one of the temples of the warmist religion and he expressed his views to "more than 100 scientists" who are meeting at Oxford University "to discuss the dangers of climate change causing droughts, floods and mass extinctions around the world."

His little conference is but one part of the hype as the warmists desperately try to fan the flames of public concern as a prelude to the Copenhagen conference at the end of the year.

But if Schellnhuber was at all honest – and tell me one warmist that is – he would also have to admit that there were some Americans who were very "climate literate", and had just shot his fox, totally destroying the iconic "hockey stick".

The trouble is that not only are the warmists fundamentally dishonest, so are the media. We are looking here at what I would have no difficulty in describing as scientific fraud on an industrial scale – striking at the very heart of the claims on global warming. Yet, apart from Booker, you will struggle to find any criticism of this fraud in the MSM – and nothing at all about the latest developments.

Methinks it is not "climate illiteracy" about which Schellnhuber should be concerned, but the "moral illiteracy" amongst his own kind ... before their lies catch up with them.


Monday, September 28, 2009


The greenies score again.

Behind the curve

Those interested in the Afghan issue are doubtless aware of the recent McChrystal assessment report, and most will have either read the redacted copy or, at the very least, read one or more of the numerous media reviews of it.

Those who have done neither could, if they so wished, read the speech delivered today by Liam Fox to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

With the working title, "Beyond the Smoke: Making Progress in Afghanistan", its substantive parts are unashamedly lifted from the McChrystal assessment report, comprising an evaluation of "three areas in the current struggle in Afghanistan". These are the role of the Afghan population in the war, capacity building of the Afghan Security Forces and the need to improve governance across Afghanistan.

Fox even admits the source, stating that they have been identified as priorities by the General, then somewhat rashly declaring that they form the basis of future strategy in Afghanistan.

Whether McChrystal was defining a strategy or simply a new (as applied to Afghanistan) tactical approach is moot, but the strategy comprises in essence the implementation of the "Integrated civil-military campaign plan", which goes well beyond the three areas enumerated by Fox.

Crucially though, Fox seems to have fallen into the trap (one of many) of assuming that the McChrystal assessment is a done deal. He is behind the curve, seemingly unaware that president Obama has not acted on it and, instead, has commissioned his own strategic review. Whether McChrystal's recommendations will become policy, therefore, remains a matter of speculation. They certainly cannot be taken as read.

The "game changer", of course, was the Afghan presidential election. It is recognised that any successful counterinsurgency requires a stable and legitimate political partner in the host country and, whether Karzai manages to cling on to power or not, there is general agreement that he will be weakened and that his administration will lack legitimacy.

On that basis, there are serious doubts as to whether the classic counterinsurgency strategy, advocated by McChrysal, can actually work. It was that which led Obama to commission his new review, from which an entirely different strategy might emerge.

Apparently completely oblivious to this development, Fox – in his only substantive reference to the election - states that it is "crucial" that it "must be seen to be credible and reflect the wishes of the Afghan people." This is wishful thinking beyond peradventure.

Thus, we are left with what amounts to a slavish adherence to the McChrystal creed, with not one scintilla of critical exploration. Fox's only concern is to ensure that the "strategy" is properly resourced. That much is picked up by The Times, which provocatively headlines: "Tories would send 2,500 more troops to Afghanistan, says Liam Fox".

The paper then reports that the shadow defence secretary had "indicated" that a Conservative government would increase British troop numbers in Afghanistan by up to 2,500 and deliver more helicopters, armoured vehicles and "other key battlefield enablers".

In what could have been an opportunity to set out a new direction for what is evidently a failing campaign, Fox has therefore sold the pass. Like so many before him, he pays lip-service to the received wisdom that the campaign cannot be resolved by a "military victory", but he then defines success as securing security – which of course he seeks to achieve by military means.

No one, it seems, can see the logical absurdity in this approach – least of all Fox. A military solution is not possible ... therefore we must seek a military solution. "The reconstruction will follow," says Fox. "The factors of prosperity, individual freedoms, and free markets ... may someday come to Afghanistan. We should do all we can to help this to happen but it will not happen overnight," he adds.

It does not dawn on him, the simple precept that the order might be reversed. Focus on economic reconstruction, build prosperity, and protect a people who then have a stake in their society and something to lose. Security will follow. In the final analysis, security comes not from the barrel of a gun – it comes from the will of the people. But then, that is probably too difficult for Fox to understand.


Commission breaks European law - shock!

I am shocked, I tell you, shocked. I hear from Anthony Coughlan of The National Platform that the European Commission has, in defiance of European legislation, which makes the ratification of a treaty a purely national matter, intervened in the Irish campaign.

This Sunday there was a
16-page propaganda Supplement on the EU being inserted in every Irish Sunday newspaper today. This must have cost several million euros - using European and Irish taxpayers' money to influence Irish voters to ratify the Lisbon Treaty and in the process expand the power and functions of the Brussels Commission itself.
Who could have believed that the Commission would act so cynically?

Presumably, the argument is that they are merely spreading information and not interfering in Irish domestic politics while telling tales of porcine aviation.

It would appear (more shocks to the system) that the information is not entirely accurate. Jens Peter Bonde has fisked the document.


Germany, elections and that treaty

Over on Your Freedom and Ours.

Descent into madness

An update on Afghanistan, pulling together some of the latest developments, over on Defence of the Realm.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ooooo ... er!

What, then, of the opposition? Surely it has managed to hit a few of the easy targets with which the government has so thoughtfully supplied it?

No words of mine can adequately convey the contempt in which the Conservatives are now, rightly, held by almost everyone. I do not recall meeting anyone who thinks that David Cameron, their leader, is anything other than a careerist in the mould of Tony Blair. The most that anyone allows himself to hope is that, beneath the thin veneer of opportunism, there beats a heart of oak.

But the auguries are not good: Not only was Mr. Cameron's only pre-political job in public relations, hardly a school for intellectual and moral probity, but he has subscribed to every fashionable policy nostrum from environmentalism to large, indeed profligate, government expenditure. Not truth, but the latest poll, has guided him—at a time when only truth will serve. However, he will be truly representative as prime minister. Like his country, he is quite without substance.

Written by Theodore Dalrymple for the Wall Street Journal via A view from the wasteland. I wonder if they will publish it on Conservative Home?


Garbled in transmission?

It is always unwise to take any official statement at face value – but the same might be said of any statement by the media. Healthy scepticism should be the default mode. So what does one believe when the media charges the government with misconduct, and the government flatly denies the charge?

That is the conundrum presented by a piece in The Sunday Times today. Written by a reputable journalist, Stephen Grey, under the headline: "No 10 asked army to delay Afghan attack until after Gordon Brown's visit", it makes a very serious charge.

Specifically, Grey alleges that during the recapture of the Musa Qala in December 2007, General Andrew Mackay – commanding the operation - "was furious to be asked by Downing Street if he could delay the operation and spare potential embarrassment to Brown." Mackay refused.

The scenario is plausible enough, and the background is set out in Grey's book, Operation Snakebite.

If the operation had been successful – as was anticipated – Brown could have been accused of "political opportunism", attempting to bask in reflected glory. If the operation failed, or there had been a high number of civilian casualties (the greater fear), this could have proved embarrassing for Brown when he met president Karzai.

As to the accusation that No 10 sought to interfere, this is indeed flatly denied. A Downing Street spokesman states: "The suggestion that Downing Street asked for a delay, or indeed any change, to military plans in Afghanistan before the Prime Minister visited at the end of 2007 is utterly untrue."

So, who do we believe? Well, in his book, Grey publishes details of a meeting of "generals and civil servants" at the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall on 4 December 2007, when the attempt to interfere with the operation was supposedly made. With it due to start in three days time, he refers to an "official" (no more detail is given) asking: "Does it have to be so soon? Can't it all be delayed?"

There then appears to be a general discussion about the political implications of the coincidence of the operation with the prime minister's visit. Addressing the meeting via an intercom was General Nick Houghton, based at Joint Operations HQ in west London. He, according to Grey, was asked to "check back" with theatre and "see if there could be any slippage." But, Grey adds, "few expected anything to change".

From this narrative, several points emerge. Firstly, the "official" initially asking whether there could be a delay was not identified. Secondly, there was no mention of No 10 – in this or any other context. Third, there seems to have been a general discussion on the proposition, from which it can be inferred that a consensus was reached. Fourth, this "consensus" was translated into a request that Houghton "check back", couched in terms of "see if". This implies that this was an exploratory question – a query - and by no means a demand.

Finally, and crucially, Houghton was not at the meeting. He was communicating via the intercom from another location. He then – or perhaps even someone delegated by him - communicated with "theatre", although Grey does not specifically assert that anyone talked to or communicated directly with MacKay.

MacKay, of course, was in Afghanistan (as indeed was Grey at the time). If he was contacted directly or indirectly by Houghton or someone deputed to do so, how did MacKay know that the query came from No 10? This is not specified, all in the context of Grey himself making no mention of No 10.

Herein lies perhaps the crux. Most people are familiar with the joke of First World War vintage, recalling a message saying: "send reinforcements, we're going to advance." Garbled in transmission, it comes out as: "send three and fourpence (old money), we're going to a dance". A similar dynamic might be at play.

Deconstructing the key parts of the narrative, we have in London an unidentified official, a general discussion and a somewhat ambiguous "request" which could be construed as asking for information on options. What precisely was conveyed to MacKay in Afghanistan, by whom and in what circumstances, is not specified.

At the receiving end, however, it is quite possible – perhaps aided by ambiguous wording or even some embellishments – that MacKay believed he was being asked to delay the operation and the source of the request was No 10. But a belief does not make it so. MacKay could have been misled, or simply misunderstood what was being asked of him.

As to the meeting in Whitehall, it is quite possible that the issues discussed reflected concerns that political fall-out would reflect badly on the officials, and they would be blamed for not taking measures to mitigate potential problems.

Rather than being directed by No 10, therefore – and Grey makes no accusation as to Gordon Brown being aware of what went on - the officials could simply have been covering their own backs. What we know of the narrative is entirely compatible with officials seeking to establish that options had been considered, and for good reasons had been discarded.

In the event, Grey in his book does not record MacKay's (or anyone else's) response to any query. That the operation went ahead as planned is testament to the fact that the response to the Whitehall query was "no". In fact, Houghton need not have referred it to MacKay - he had the authority to say "no" then and there.

If he did refer what amounted to a "request for information" back to theatre, it would have been as a matter of "form", in full expectation that the answer would be "no". If MacKay, against all expectations, had said "yes", most likely Houghton would have told him to stop being a bloody fool and get on with it.

On that basis, although Grey asserts that MacKay was "furious to be asked by Downing Street if he could delay the operation", we have no context. And whatever message MacKay did receive, Grey relies on his recall, some time after the operation had finished.

Interestingly, nothing Grey asserts in relation to MacKay's actions and reaction is in quotes. The narrative is unsupported by direct (or any) evidence. Rather, it is based on hearsay and ex post facto recollections, relying heavily on a particular interpretation of what could be an ambiguous request, delivered via a fragmented communication system.

Yet there can be no disputing the seriousness of the charge made by The Sunday Times - that attempts were made to interfere with a military operation for political purposes. That is serious, a breach of the long-standing constitutional principle that politicians do not interfere with the conduct of military operations.

On the other hand, the newspaper seems to offer very slender grounds on which such a serious accusation is made. For one of such gravity, more would be expected. Without more evidence, healthy scepticism should apply.

What is so alarming though - to judge from the comments on the Sunday Times piece - is the willingness of readers, uncritically, to believe the paper's account and to pass judgement. How many people tell you that they never believe anything they read in the papers? The evidence would indicate otherwise. We, the people, are our own worst enemies.


A nation of yes-men?

That is the question put by The Independent, reflecting on the possible outcome of the Irish referendum, now less than a week away.

Certainly, if the latest poll is to be believed, the Irish are about to become yes-men. According to a Red C/Sunday Business Post poll, 55 percent of voters back the constitutional Lisbon treaty, compared with 27 percent against, and 18 percent undecided.

Excluding the "undecided" that equates to a 67 percent score for the "yes" side, with the "no" campaign trailing on 33 percent. There is still a huge – some say unbridgeable – gap to close.

Earlier last week, the Irish Times, under the headline "Relief for Yes side but opponents can take heart too", was parading the results of an Irish Times/TNS mrbi poll.

Here, the result – again excluding the "undecided" – came out at 59 percent for the "yes" side with 41 percent for the "no" campaign, compared with 61 percent and 39 percent at the beginning of the month.

With three polls in the bag, therefore – although not necessarily comparable – we see the "yes" side scoring 61, 59 and now 67 percent, against 39, 41 and 33 percent for the "no" campaign. This does not seem to make sense, as the report on the Red C/Sunday Business Post poll talks of the "yes" side having dropped seven points since "the last poll two weeks ago" as against the "no" side having increased by four points.

Whatever the precise situation, though, it looks as if the "yes" vote is holding firm, offering a gloomy prognosis for next Friday. The situation is even more gloomy when one appreciates that, at a similar stage coming to the end of the first referendum campaign, the "no" side had gone into the lead by 35 percent to 30 percent, with 35 percent still undecided.

Enter then Christopher Booker into the lists, with his column headed "Ireland's EU referendum is the last stand against the 'project'". On the basis of the polling, it looks more like Custer's last stand, the dwindling band of naysayers surrounded by the Sioux, on the verge of defeat.

If we do see an EU-inspired version of Little Bighorn, however, it will come as no surprise. Short of Karzai-style stuffing of the ballot boxes, Booker observes, the European and Irish political establishments could scarcely have done more to push this referendum in the way they want. He writes:

To ensure a "yes" vote, all the normal rules governing balanced media coverage were suspended. The European Commission has poured €1.5 million into an unprecedented advertising blitz. EU commissioners, led by President Jose-Manuel Barroso, MEPs and officials have been flooding in to promote the cause. However, when one or two British outsiders – including Nigel Farage, leader of a group in the European Parliament, and Lorraine Mullally, director of the think-tank Open Europe, and of good Irish stock – came over to campaign for a "No" vote, their "foreign intervention" was greeted by orchestrated howls of abuse.
From thereon, Booker deals with the reasons why the political class of "Europe" has been so desperate to get its way over this treaty. His story, straight out of The Great Deception tells of a "hugely cumbersome, inefficient, corrupt and remote form of government, riddled with dishonesty and wholly undemocratic," which the people of Europe could never again call to account.

When the voters of Ireland go to their polling booths this week, they will be the last in Europe with a chance to say "no" to the political class which now rules over us – thanks to what has amounted to the most extraordinary slow-motion coup d'état in history. And, sadly, it looks as if the yes-men might have it.

But, if this is to be Custer's last stand, the eventual outcome for Sitting Bull wasn't that happy either. Barroso beware!


Saturday, September 26, 2009

Time for a rant

About cabbages and kings. No, sorry, about the death of kings. No, that's wrong as well. OK it is about the Shadow Foreign Secretary, the Conservative Party and the Daily Telegraph. King Lear makes an appearance (one of my least favourite plays but there are some good lines). Over on Your Freedom and Ours. Enjoy.

The narrative prevails

The "shock resignation" Maj-Gen Andrew MacKay has triggered intense speculation as to the reasons for his departure, with the media deciding that the main factor was his disillusionment over the Afghan strategy – or variations on that theme.

Our "take" on his resignation is over on Defence of the Realm.

Stop pretending

Probably the main reason why the debate on the European Union does not progress is the wilful refusal of the political classes to come to terms with the reality of what the EU is, and where its ambitions lie.

No better is this illustrated than by the current Telegraph leader which closes its dire, ill-informed series on "The State of Europe".

In one short paragraph, it tells us that, "the EU's origins lay in the rubble of the Second World War and in a laudable desire to develop an association in which free people could trade and thrive together after centuries of political tensions and catastrophic warfare."

Notwithstanding that the intellectual genesis lay in the aftermath of the First World War, the central myth which this newspaper perpetuates is that the ambitions of the founding fathers were limited and benign. Thus do we get the: "... laudable desire to develop an association in which free people could trade and thrive together ... ".

This ignores the very essence of the "project" which was to achieve political integration through economic means. This was the so-called "Monnet method", which recognised that the "peoples of Europe" would not accept the overt imposition of a unified European government. Therefore, the process had to be carried out step-by-step, each step leading to another in a mechanism which came to be called engrenage.

Ignoring this reality, though, the Telegraph goes on to say: "But the EU has become a vast, bureaucratic, unaccountable empire whose remit runs way beyond policing the common market." By this means, we are invited to believe that this current state is an unintended consequence and that, from its "laudable" beginnings, the EU has somehow gone off the rails.

We are therefore supposed to lament the fact that: "Its policies are made in secret, then insufficiently scrutinised in Brussels or national capitals. Yet its directives and regulations affect the lives of half a billion people." What is (deliberately) not acknowledged is that the system was designed to be secretive and opaque, otherwise it could never have achieved its aims.

Nevertheless, the newspaper, having indulged in its turgid exercise of woolly thinking about the EU, then exhibits a stunning lack of self-awareness by declaring: "It is time we were asked what we think about it."

But the fact is that the "project" is a deliberate attempt to create a supreme government of Europe, subordinating the national governments and imposing its rule of the peoples of Europe – whether they like it or not. If the newspaper had been at all honest in its treatment of the subject in the last weeks, it would have said precisely that – and there would be no need to ask us "what we think about it".

Hence, of course, the newspaper fudges the issue and offers faux euroscepticism, pretending that there is something to think about, something to consider, something to weigh up. There isn't. Membership of the EU is a one-way street to political integration and a government of Europe. If you want that, go for it. If you don't, we need to get out. But, for goodness sake, stop pretending there are any other options.


Is nothing sacred?

One of those icons of British engineering and inventiveness is the Bailey bridge. Nothing stands still, of course, and the design has been updated and improved, now called the Mabey logistic support bridge (pictured in Afghanistan) - but it remains recognisably the same basic design as its predecessor.

Sadly now, that icon is irredeemably tarnished as its current manufacturer, the Reading-based Mabey & Johnson, has just been convicted of bribery and, according to The Independent, fined £3.5 million plus costs. It has also been forced to give an undertaking to repay some of its bribes, the whole package of fines and costs setting the company back over £5 million.

The company has admitted to parting with so-called "white man's handshakes" totalling £1 million, thought to have helped it harvest contracts worth £60 million, mainly in Africa, Bangladesh and Jamaica. It also pleaded guilty to "making funds available" - more than £365,000 - to Iraq between May 1, 2001, and November 1, the following year, breaching the UN sanctions against Iraq, securing a £2.56 million contract.

There is one mitigating factor, in that the company reported its own transgressions to the Serious Fraud Office, triggering an investigation and the prosecution, but only after it had left a paper trail of incriminating documents, leaving no doubt of its criminality. One wonders whether the confessions were simply to pre-empt action which would have happened anyway.

That apart, the warm glow of pride one feels when seeing a Bailey bridge in use is no more. Like so many things, this feat of engineering will forever be associated with the stench of corruption.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Watchdog of the watchdog

Israeli government press office director Daniel Seaman tells The Jerusalem Post: "I think it's for the benefit of professional journalism. Bloggers have become the watchdog of the watchdog - they fulfil an important role in ensuring that the media adhere to their roles."

To put the quote in context, Seaman is talking about the work bloggers do "in defending Israel and uncovering fraudulent claims against the Jewish state". But the sentiment has a wider application – watching the watchdog is something which many bloggers do well. It is a very necessary job.


The naming of names

Michael Yon is back with an excoriating condemnation of the MoD publicity machine in Helmand, lifting the lid on a little-discussed but vitally important aspect of the conduct of the war there.

Speaking with a defence correspondent this morning about it, he could not conceal his delight that Yon had done the deed, with a long account of the behaviour of one particular officer running "Media Ops" in Camp Bastion.

Yon states the behaviour of this officer has been "particularly problematic" – but fights shy of naming him, "so as not to tar and feather someone for his entire life when he still has a chance to change his behaviour".

Others, who have had the misfortune to suffer his ministrations are less optimistic – or charitable, and have no difficulty in recognising Major Ric Cole (pictured) as the man who, single-handedly, seems intent on destroying the reputation of the British Army.

Yon readily acknowledges that many soldiers in the British Media Ops are true professionals who strive constantly to improve at their tasks and work very well with correspondents. Their professionalism and understanding of the larger mission - ultimate victory - provide an invaluable service to the war effort. But, he says, there are a few who should not be in uniform and it takes only one roach leg to spoil a perfect soup. And that "roach" is Major Ric Cole.

Yon recounts how the Major and he were driving in Camp Bastion around midday when it was very hot. A British soldier ran by wearing a rucksack. He was drenched in sweat under the blazing, dusty desert. Yon smiled because it was great to see so many soldiers who work and train hard.

Yet the Major cut fun at the soldier, saying he was dumb to be running in that heat. Writes Yon, "I nearly growled at the Major, but instead asked if he ever goes into combat. The answer was no. And, in fact, the Major does not leave the safety of Camp Bastion." He continues:

That a military officer would share a foul word about a combat soldier who was prepping for battle was offensive. Especially an officer who lives in an air-conditioned tent with a refrigerator stocked with chilled soft drinks. Just outside his tent are nice hot and cold showers. Five minutes away is a little Pizza Hut trailer, a coffee shop, stores, and a cookhouse.

This very Major had earned a foul reputation among his own kind for spending too much time on his Facebook page. I personally saw him being gratuitously rude to correspondents. Some correspondents - all were British - complained to me that when they wanted to interview senior British officers, they were told by this Major to submit written questions. The Major said they would receive videotaped answers that they could edit as if they were talking with the interviewee.
This behaviour is not only gratuitous, it is dangerously harmful. Yon rightly states that it is essential to underscore the importance of the "Media Ops" in the war. When Media Ops fails to help correspondents report from the front, the public misses necessary information to make informed decisions about the war.

But if Cole is the "roach" leg, the king roach is the boss of Media Ops in Afghanistan, Lt-Col. Richardson. Says Yon, Richardson is doing more damage to the war effort than the Taliban media machine. By perpetrating falsehoods that undermine our combat capacity, Richardson has helped the enemy. He thus writes:

Some of the smokescreens are less important but they are demonstrative of the pattern: On 20 August a, CH-47 helicopter was shot down by a Taleban RPG during a British Special Forces mission. Richardson reported that the aircraft landed due to an engine fire. Some hours later, while I was on a mission nearby, the Taleban were singing over the radios about shooting it down. I heard the rumble when the helicopter was destroyed by airstrikes. The Taleban knew they hit the helicopter. So who is Richardson lying to? Not the enemy … unless the enemy is the British public.
We have met some of the efforts of Lt-Col Richardson before – defending Panther's Claw and the Viking, always touting the approved line.

Quite how serious this is Yon himself points out. The British people are demanding truth and they deserve accountability. They aren't getting it from Camp Bastion, he writes. Given the importance of the home front, it is impossible to stress how important it is that we are able to judge what is going on out in Helmand. For a long time, we have known that we are not being told the full story – or even part of it. For its contribution to that failure, "Media Ops" – with Major Cole and Lt-Col Richardson in particular - is losing us the war.


Yellow journalism

I had an impassioned telephone conversation with Mrs EU Referendum last night, who is staying with her elderly mother recovering from an operation on her eyesight.

The proximate cause of her ire was the juxtaposition of two events. Earlier that day, she had read in one of the tabloids of a toerag who had been treated to a £7,000 safari holiday at the taxpayers' expense, on the grounds that his social worker thought it might help sort out his criminal behaviour – only to have the scum get caught within days of his return doing some nefarious act.

Later that day, Mrs EU Referendum had been confronted with a distressed young lady at the door of the residence, her clothes smeared in human excrement, apologising that she could not come in as she had to go home to change her clothes and bathe.

The young lady in question was a peripatetic care worker, charged with visiting elderly mother. On her previous call, however, her charge, a very elderly confused man living on his own, had managed for reasons unknown to soil himself very badly. Perforce, the young lady took it upon herself to clean him up as best she could, unaided, thus transferring some of the substance to herself.

For this, the lady in question – doing a task for which most of us would require a king's ransom – was paid the minimum wage. How was it, demanded Mrs EU Referendum, that public money could be lavished on the dregs, yet people who were doing such important jobs, of such great value to society, were rewarded so poorly?

While agreeing with both propositions, I somehow sensed that I was not going to get anywhere pointing out that if we stopped lavishing amounts sending the dregs on safari holidays, care workers were not necessarily going to get increased wages. Public finances simply don't work that way.

Similarly, I am not going to get anywhere pointing out that the linkage made today by The Daily Telegraph - giving the "duck house" an airing again - between the lavish pay and expenses of MPs and the "failure to equip troops on the front line" is also flawed. Reducing the emoluments of our parliamentary representatives would not in any way resolve the defence equipment issue. And any money thus released, even if it found its way into the defence budget, would be a drop in the ocean.

However, in many respects, the Daily Telegraph linkage is not only deeply flawed, it is fundamentally dishonest. Saying that isn't going to get me anywhere either – once the yellow press is in full flow, the baying crowd takes over and nothing will shift the narrative.

Having spent a lifetime in pursuit of lost causes, though, I might as well persevere, and thus have the dubious pleasure of watching my hit-rate drain into the sand, confirming the obvious – that the reason yellow journalism is so prevalent is because it is popular. People like being shocked and mortified and, especially, to have their prejudices reinforced. Truth is always the first casualty.

Rehearsing the issues, firstly, the MPs expenses issue was and is a crock. As we wearily pointed out, the expenses system was part of the overall pay package, calculated in exactly the same way many commercial packages are devised, total remuneration being a combination of "pay and perks".

That it was dishonest and hypocritical is not disputed, but the system goes back to the 70s and was well know to the journalistic fraternity. Its existence stems as much from the political cowardice of successive governments, which have avoided confronting the highly-charged subject of MPs' pay, and our own hypocrisy, at one demanding untold virtue from our representatives, yet refusing to consider what levels of reward were appropriate.

As to the "failure to equip our troops on the front line", time and again we have pointed out, with innumerable examples, that this is not a question of finance. The big problem, put at its most inelegant, is that the MoD is pissing money against the wall, buying the wrong equipment, at inordinate cost, with huge wastage and inefficiency, compounded by gross incompetence.

When it comes to the linkage, therefore, the reality is totally skewed. Our troops are not badly equipped because MPs are drawing excessive expenses. In many respects, our troops are badly equipped because MPs are not doing their jobs properly – which is an altogether different proposition.

On this, we drew an unfortunate but appropriate parallel, pointing out that the total annual cost of MPs' emoluments was approximately £100 million – almost exactly the same amount that the Army had spent on the dangerously useless Pinzgauer Vectors, the unsuitability of which was obvious before even the order had been placed.

Yet that same purchase had been applauded by the cross-party group of MPs on the Defence Committee – a group which has routinely failed adequately to question defence expenditure and bring it in check. One intervention, to block this insane purchase, could have saved the entire amount expended on MPs in a whole year – and there are many more examples of where MPs could and should be saving us a fortune by holding the executive to account.

In other words, the real issue is not what MPs are paid, but what they do for their money. In many respects, it is their failure to do the job for which they are paid which has led to the general dissatisfaction with them. But, in focusing on pay rather than performance, the wrong issue has been tackled and the outcome has left parliament weakened, less able to do the job for which it supposedly exists.

Here, therefore, the media have no cause for self-congratulation. The yellow press has consistently failed to address the equipment issue in an intelligent and adult fashion, running its own narrative which bears no relation to the situation on the ground. And here we go again, with the media going for the cheap shots, missing the point again.

Meanwhile, young ladies on minimum wages are daily performing unspeakable tasks in our name, and toerags are being sent on taxpayer-funded jollies. Oh! And did I say that this young lady was a Ukranian immigrant, a qualified nurse in her own country, whose qualifications are not recognised here? Where do you start on trying to make things better?


Carbon chaos

The European Court of Justice has come up with a delicious ruling that rather throws into confusion the EU commission's plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions pollution through its Emissions Trading Scheme.

Under the scheme set out in Directive 2003/87/EC (as amended), individual member states were required to set quotas for their national emissions. However, so loose were the rules that some member states, Poland and Estonia amongst them, were rather more generous with their quotas than the commission thought fit – entirely defeating the object of the exercise, which was to force industry to reduce its CO2 output.

Fortified by righteous indignation, the commission thus issued a direction to the errant member states, in the form of a Commission Decision on 26 March 2007, instructing them to cut back their quotas. Although they reluctantly complied, Poland and Estonia, supported by Hungary, Lithuania and the Slovak Republic, lodged an appeal with the ECJ against their enforced 27 and 48 percent cuts.

This was, of course, defended by the commission, and – at some great cost to its long-suffering taxpayers – the goody two-shoes United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. And to the dismay of both, on Wednesday the court found in favour of Poland and Estonia, annulling the commission decision – in its entirety.

Interestingly, Poland's complaint had been that data on which it had based its calculations to determine its allowances had been rejected by the commission, which had then replaced it with its own in order to come up with a lower allowance. This the court ruled, the commission was not entitled to do, and had exceeded its powers. It was only entitled to review the calculations to ensure that they had been drawn up in accordance with the directive.

Despite that, the news has had the BBC twittering, with its environment correspondent lamenting that the court ruling is another setback for the EU carbon markets. It certainly does not bode well for the EU's effort to persuade the US into a global carbon market, he says.

Fearful that the carbon market will now be swamped by excess allowances issued by the Poles and Estonians, driving down the price still further – and with appeals pending from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania - the commission has decided on a rearguard action.

Plucking from the judgement something which, on first sight does not appear to be there, environment commissioner Stavros Dimas claims that the court ruling requires the commission to re-evaluate its decision on Poland and Estonia. That it was going to do and, in the meantime, he declared, "those countries are not allowed to issue any additional allowances beyond those created in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme."

On the basis that the commission is never wrong even when it is wrong, Dimas is suggesting that its re-evaluation was unlikely to lead to any major change in the quotas already imposed for 2008. Nonetheless, there are four more disputed years, up to 2012, so the game is far from over.

And, just to add further entertainment, Berlusconi has sent a letter to Barroso seeking to renegotiate Italy's quotas. With the commission considering whether to appeal against the current ECJ judgement, he is likely to get short-shrift, but this cannot but help add to the "carbon chaos" which is dragging the EU's attempts to save the planet down into the mire.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

A deadly delay

Gradually, the British media is absorbing the implications of the McChrystal assessment, and the political ramifications surrounding it, and we are beginning to see some in-depth reports.

The Times for instance, is running a six-part series on Afghanistan, the latest dealing with the battle for "hearts and minds" on the home front, picking up on a theme it rehearsed in July.

The biggest challenge for the government, says this paper, is not how to beat the Taleban but how to keep the public at home onside. People tend to support the Armed Forces whatever they do but if there is any perception that British troops are dying in Afghanistan for no good reason the tide of opinion will turn.

Keeping people "onside" requires, at its most basis, a government which is able to offer a clear strategic direction and an indication that progress is being made, at an acceptable cost, with some prospect of an end in sight.

Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth, agrees that the government has to make clear the real reason why we need to be in Afghanistan. First and foremost, he then says, we must get security right so that we can prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a haven for terrorism.

Only then does he moves on to tell us that building the Afghan state - its education and health services, alternative livelihoods to drugs and a strong legal system - will give the people a better future than the one offered by the Taleban.

The problem with that is that Ainsworth does not make a clear causal link between his assertions. A "secure" Afghanistan, he asserts, is necessary to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists. He then asserts that building the Afghan state will give people a "better future" than the one offered by the Taleban, but he does not tell us that this condition is necessary to defeat the Taleban. We are left to assume that, as indeed we have to assume that achieving this desirable condition is conditional on achieving security.

The sequential relationship between establishing security and then building the Afghan state, however, seems to have lodged as the prevailing paradigm, with the greater problem that we appear to be stuck in stage one, as yet unable to establish the security on which everything else depends.

However, it is now readily acknowledged that defeating the insurgent – in this case the Taleban – and thus achieving security, depends entirely on gaining the support of the people. Yet, to gain the support of the people, it is necessary to give people a "better future" which, under the prevailing paradigm, demands that security is first achieved.

Expressed thus, this is something of a self-defeating task, unless overwhelming force can be brought to bear over a very short period of time, thus to secure an area and allow rapid improvements to be implemented, all with the aim of convincing Afghans that there is a prospect of a "better future".

This, presumably – and, in fact, almost certainly – is what McChrystal aims to achieve through his assessment. And, while he has not yet formally asked for more troops, we learn from The Washington Post that he is about to do so. That request, though, will be made to the Department of Defense, which has indicated that it will not immediately forward it to the White House, pending the current strategic review which is being conducted by the president.

Here, one can understand the dilemma in the White House. There is absolutely no guarantee that the McChrystal plan – such that it is – will actually work, or indeed any indication that it has any chance of working. Based on the Iraqi "surge" concept, there is in fact every chance that it will not.

Thus, one can see the attractions of trimming back the ambitions, turning away from a counterinsurgency strategy, where the focus is on the people, to a counterterrorism strategy where the focus is on killing the enemy – in this case al Qaeda. Unfortunately, as Captain's Journal makes abundantly clear, that strategy is unlikely to work either.

Torn between two equally unattractive prospects, therefore, the response of the White House has been delay. Since late August when McChrystal delivered his report to the president, there has been no progress. No decisions have been made and there is no indication that one is forthcoming. A dangerous strategic vacuum is building up, where troops on the ground are marking time, waiting for a decision – and action – that they believe will enable them to make progress.

That delay is the worst of all possible worlds, and it is being noticed. Richard Norton-Taylor of The Guardian writes that Gordon Brown and, "less characteristically" (his words, not mine), Barack Obama appear irresponsibly indecisive. US and UK military chiefs are tearing their hair out at the inability of their political masters and civil agencies to get a grip on the Afghan conflict.

If the home front needs signs of direction, firm leadership and progress, this indecision simply reinforces the sense of drift. As casualties mount – as they doubtless will – the frustration and uncertainty may yet spill over into outright hostility to the war, culminating in demands for complete withdrawal.

We are, in effect, on the road to nowhere and while, generally – in road safety terms – we are told that "speed kills", on this particular road the greater danger might be delay. But if the wrong decision is also likely to have fatal consequences, there is a problem building up of alarming proportions. An immediate decision might rebuild public confidence in the short-term but the longer-term cost might be strategic failure, with catastrophic effects on public sentiment.

Perhaps the real problem is, in fact, the focus on strategy without due consideration for tactics. We will have a look at this in the next post.


One might have thought ...

The Irish Times is carrying a report headed: "French minister urges EU defence budget." referring to the European affairs, Pierre Lellouche, who has proposed setting up an EU defence budget similar to the Common Agricultural Policy.

One can immediately see why the Irish press finds this interesting enough to publish. EU defence ambitions are an issue in the forthcoming referendum, where the charge is that the militarisation of the EU through the constitutional Lisbon treaty will affect Ireland's neutrality.

However, one might have thought that a French minister making such alarming proposals would excite a wider interest. The man is, after all, suggesting that defence spending should be dealt with like spending on other EU priorities such as agriculture, technology or the environment.

Lellouche holds that there is little point in creating the external action force envisaged in the constitutional Lisbon treaty if "Europe" as an entity was not prepared to pay for its own defence.

Paris, the Irish Times reminds us, has set the goal of building EU common defence as one of its strategic priorities for the union. And, although there is no legal base in existing treaties or in the constitutional Lisbon treaty for the EU budget to be used for defence or military spending, there is the mid-term review of the EU budget looming. This could be an opportunity to open discussions on the issue.

In fact, the chances of anything firm emerging are slight, as any proposal to use the EU budget for defence spending would require unanimous approval from all member states. Ireland and Austria would most certainly oppose any such move.

However, as with the European Defence Agency, there is nothing to stop an inner group setting up their own fund, on an "intergovernmental" basis, and asking the EU to administer it. By these means do we see the steady encroachment of the EU into areas formerly reserved for member states.

Our problem is that these statements by obscure continental politicians so often have a habit of coming to pass, so we ignore them at our peril. By the time we actually take notice, it is often too late. The antidote is to scream loudly and early, before such proposals have a chance to take root. But that presupposes the media is on the ball. And, Irish Times apart, it is clear that it is not.


Good point - sort of

Lord Tebbit – always a reservoir of good sense – writes today that the calls for Baroness Scotland to resign are misconceived. She did as much as any reasonable person could be expected to do to check whether her housekeeper was here legally.

The charge against the Baroness should not be that she wrongfully employed an illegal immigrant, but that she shares responsibility for designing the web of legislation that snares respectable citizens, and for the failure of the government to protect the country against illegal immigration.

A similar point is made by Dr Butler of the Adam Smith Institute and reflects exactly the line we were taking yesterday.

Tebbit and Butler though are surely missing the point. The media is part of the entertainment industry, the game here being to notch up another ministerial resignation. Both these writers seem to be under the impression that it is interested in the issues.


One step closer

It was very nearly a year ago, with the first phase of the financial crisis in full flow that I observed: "If, by the end of this crisis – if it ever ends – the EU is not a smouldering wreck, it will emerge stronger, more powerful and more arrogant than before. It will destroy the City of London and what remains of our prosperity with it. It will regulate it to death."

The crisis is not over – just in temporary abeyance - with rumours of a currency crisis building ... and hotly denied.

But, if the financial system is weaker, the EU is not a smouldering wreck (yet) and has thus emerged stronger, taking advantage of the beneficial crisis by launching a major new tranche of financial regulation.

This it did yesterday, to no great fanfare, and with media coverage confined to the financial pages, thus lacking any serious political input that would draw attention to yet another – and very major – EU power grab. On the table is what even the EU commission calls an "important package" of draft legislation, which it tells us "significantly strengthen the supervision of the financial sector in Europe."

The legislation will create a raft new EU institutions, comprising a European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB), which will "detect risks to the financial system as a whole with a critical function to issue early risk warnings to be rapidly acted on", a European System of Financial Supervisors (ESFS), composed of national supervisors, and three new European Supervisory Authorities for the banking, securities and insurance and occupational pensions sectors.

At this stage no one can even begin to assess the long-term effect of these institutions on our financial sector, but what is very clear is that they do involve a substantial transfer of power from national authorities to the EU – the results of which, as history tells us, are bound to be malign.

The system is based on the Larosière report, about which we wrote earlier this year, but so technical and arcane are the provisions that few people will understand their significance and they will thus pass into our legislative system with little comment and no political controversy. And when they do, the UK government will have lost that much more power and will be weaker as a result.

The "colleagues", of course, are gift-wrapping this and giving us a good spiel, with Barroso telling us the aim of the benevolent commission is "to protect European taxpayers from a repeat of the dark days of autumn 2008, when governments had to pour billions of euros into the banks."

Furthermore, says Barroso, this European system "can also inspire a global one and we will argue for that in Pittsburgh". Global governance is about to take another lurch into our lives.

Nothing can disguise the nature of this power-grab, but then the "colleagues" do not need to. The deed has already been agreed in principle by the European Council in June when we reported that, in the couloirs of Brussels and beyond, one of our most important wealth generating activities had been "stitched-up, kippered and delivered to the enemy."

We then forecast that as the EU exerted its malign grip, its depredations would not be reported and that which escaped into the public domain would not be understood. The only thing certain, we said, is that we will pay, directly and indirectly, and keep on paying ... until such time as we are forced to leave the EU or go bankrupt.

Nothing has changed. We are just that bit closer to the final outcome – whatever it might be.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Leaving it a bit late

It is the New York Times that is now telling us that Obama is exploring alternatives to a major troop increase in Afghanistan. The process includes considering a plan advocated by vice president Biden to scale back American forces and focus more on rooting out al Qaeda there and in Pakistan.

This amounts to a "wholesale reconsideration" of a strategy the president announced with fanfare just six months ago, helpfully summarised by Newsweek. That strategy involved defeating the insurgents, preventing Al Qaeda from re-establishing a sanctuary and working to set up a democratic and effective government.

Crucially, it also involved training Afghan forces to take over from US troops and coaxing the international community to give more help. There was also an added element, focusing on Pakistan - "assisting efforts to enhance civilian control and stable constitutional government in Pakistan and a vibrant economy that provides opportunities for the people of Pakistan."

In pursuit of the Afghan end of what became known as the AFPAK strategy, Obama agreed to despatch an additional 17,000 troops to the theatre and then another 4,000 to help train Afghan security forces. And it was that strategy which Gen McChrystal took as his brief, working to produce his "assessment" of how it should be implemented.

What has actually confused the issue is that McChrystal writes extensively about needing a new strategy. In fact, the strategy had already been determined. What he has offered is a "significant change in ... the way we think and operate."

As we know, the essence of this "significant change" is defined as "take, hold and build", the first step having been achieved in part with the 17,000 extra troops. But now the coalition forces have taken more territory, McChrystal finds – as he always would – that he needs more troops to hold it. The figure of 30-40,000 has been mentioned.

Now – or so it would seem – Obama is having to confront the inevitable consequence of a strategy defined last March, which effectively rubber-stamped what Bush had put in place, and is now having second thoughts. Thus do we learn that Obama met with his top advisers on 13 September to "begin chewing over the problem", only to find no consensus – in fact, quite the reverse. "There are a lot of competing views," said one official.

Major factors which have prompted the second thoughts, though, are deteriorating conditions on the ground, the messy and still unsettled outcome of the Afghan elections and McChrystal's own report. However, there is view that Obama might just be testing assumptions — and assuring liberals in his own party that he was not rushing into a further expansion of the war — before ultimately agreeing to additional troops.

This notwithstanding, the debate seems to have polarised into two separate camps, on the one hand a counterinsurgency strategy – on which basis McChrystal has been working - and, on the other, a focus on counterterrorism. The latter is not dissimilar to that advocated by George F. Will known as "offshore balancing" which, as the New York Times observes, "would turn the administration's current theory on its head'.

Given that in May, Gen David D McKiernan was replaced by Gen McChrystal, who was empowered to carry out the "new" strategy, McChrystal can perhaps feel aggrieved by now having his assessment second-guessed at this late stage, after so much effort and energy has gone into responding to the original brief and the strategy has been partially implemented.

The "game changer" though appears to have been the Afghan presidential election, which has undermined the administration's confidence that it had a reliable partner in Karzai. As Bruce O. Riedel – the man who led the AFPAK strategy review – observes, "A counterinsurgency strategy can only work if you have a credible and legitimate Afghan partner. That's in doubt now."

Obama, says the NYT, now has to reconcile past statements and policy with his current situation. And, says former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, "The longer you wait, the harder it will be to reverse it." In fact, Obama has left it a bit late now to question the very basis on which McChrystal was working, when strategy issues should have been settled from the outset – as indeed they appeared to have been.