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Monday, October 09, 2006
I DON’T LIKE IT JIM, IT’S TOO QUIET…..
I’ve been quietly pursuing a course of reading. I went back and had a look at all I could find on Gertrude Bell and Mesopotamia 1916 onwards, read Anthony Sampson’s ‘The Seven Sisters’ again, then Robert Baer, ‘See No Evil’ and now I’m chugging through Bob Woodward’s two books ‘Bush at War’ and ‘Plan of attack’. I shall get his new one ‘State of Denial’ as soon as it comes up on Amazon. (I find Bob Woodward hard to read but I think there is little doubt he gets his facts right and God knows he includes enough detail!)
So why bother….. What has British colonial policy and the machinations of the oil companies in the 20th century got to do with anything? I blame Bob Bliss and Steve Constantine. They taught me to dig for evidence and make the effort to collate and assess it. BB would argue that I am a bit shy when it comes to conclusions but in this case I don’t think it’s a valid comment, I’ve been pretty consistent over the last three years with opinions, conclusions and predictions about what was happening in the Middle East. I don’t think I have been far wrong……
There isn’t any trigger for this NOP. That’s the point of it. It’s too quiet.
What’s going on? We have seen little snippets of reports ‘slipping out’, leaks of confidential papers from both the US and UK governments which collectively say that Iraq is heading for chaos and we have bitten off more than we can chew in Afghanistan. Official comment has been restricted to ‘steady as you go’ and ‘we will support our brave lads’ type pronouncements. Against this must be set the increasing flow of comment on websites and blogs posted by all ranks who are at the sharp end. These are universally critical of every aspect of the two theatres. Throw into the mix the imminent sell-by date of Bush and Blair and the American elections this month and you have an interesting topic of debate…… So let’s try to read the entrails.
Shakespeare used an idiom in The Merchant of Venice (2:2): "But in the end truth will out." This is probably the only reassuring fact in the whole episode and I think that what we are watching is truth prevailing over the fog of half-truths and downright lies which were used as the justification for the incursions into the Middle East. There isn’t a lot of point detailing these, let’s just agree that Iraq is in chaos and in Afghanistan we are seeing a rerun of the disasters suffered by the Empire and the Russians. It is becoming increasingly likely that the end game is going to be withdrawal from both countries leaving them to sort themselves out.
There are two major problems here. The first is that yet again, we have poked a stick into a hornet’s nest, stirred up forces we don’t fully understand and can’t control and finished up with a worse situation than existed when we started. The convenient handles ‘Taliban’ and ‘Al Q’eedah’ are used as shorthand for public consumption. They cover a wide spectrum of fundamentalist Muslim antagonism towards the West in general and the US and UK in particular. Leaving aside the basic differences in belief systems this conflict has been exacerbated by our treatment of these people over the centuries. Remember that one of the initial flash-points was when Bush used the word ‘crusade’ to describe his initiative against global terrorism. If the Christian wars of the 11th century onwards still have resonance, how much more so for later exploitation.
The second problem is the fact that the worst-practiced skill of heads of state is to admit they were wrong. There is no way Bush or Blair is going to stand up and say ‘We cocked up’. This will have to leach out slowly over the years as positions are adjusted, alliances re-arranged and attempts made to right some of the wrongs. None of us will live to see the end of the threat, the only thing I can envisage that can speed any rapprochement is the advent of a more immediate threat, perhaps global warming or the rise of another power.
So why is it so quiet? I believe that the evidence the US and UK governments are digesting is gaining ascendancy over the spin and prevarication. The public is obviously not qualified to be party to this process and so we are being manipulated by keeping us in the dark and every now and again throwing an intelligence leak at us. [Remember the mushroom farm?] The one thing that they will never leak because it will never be committed to paper is the search for ‘an honourable way out’. This is how it will eventually be presented to us, that despite our pure intentions and measured actions we are in a situation where the only option is to withdraw and allow matters to take their course.
The bald truth is that Iraq was more stable under Saddam Hussein and the use of Pakistan to empower the Taliban as a counterweight to the power of the Afghan warlords was a disaster. Think back to the days when Saddam was running rings round the diplomats of the west. I often reflect that if he hadn’t triggered off Desert Storm by invading Kuwait he would still be in power. The restraint shown by the Coalition in not going on to Baghdad rankled and in the end was the irritant that triggered his overthrow. The neo-cons were angry, something had to be done. We shall have to live with this mistake for a hundred years…… SNAFU as they say…….
SCG/08 October 2006
Saturday, August 26, 2006
GEOFF (‘BUFFOON’) HOON.
[Geoffrey William "Geoff" Hoon is Labour MP for Ashfield and currently Minister of State for Europe.]
I have to start by admitting that the main trigger which sparked this piece is sheer exasperation brought on by the effort of trying to concentrate on the substance of an interview on R4 this morning in which Hoon was being questioned about various matters, the main one was what his opinion was on the subject of Tony Blair actually setting a date for his departure from the post of leader of the party.
The problem is that Hoon, throughout a fairly undistinguished career as a lawyer and a barrister for two years, has perfectly honed the skill of avoiding direct questions and beating his audience into submission by sheer droning boredom. Indeed, I am not sure whether the point of the interview was to elucidate answers, it seems to have been more successful in reinforcing the perception that, as a politician, he is as incisive and direct as a spoonful of treacle.
Exasperation alone isn’t enough to trigger me. Despite the dreadful quality of the responses extracted from him by Jim Naughtie, there was one nugget that I thought was worth concentrating on. Asked whether Tony Blair should give a definite date for retirement as leader at the party conference coming up at the end of September, Hoon launched into a PR exercise which attempted to prove that the present dreadful position of the Labour Party in the polls and public opinion would be rectified by the advent of Gordon Brown as the new party leader. He would scupper the Tories as he would be a ‘formidable opponent’.
The way his response was formulated betrayed three things to me; first, Hoon thinks that Brown should be a shoo-in. Second, that he believes that the leader of the party is the fount of all policy and that it is the duty of the members to support him. Third, and perhaps most worrying, he seems to believe that the primary aim of the party is to fight off a Tory challenge in the next general election. Let’s take these one by one.
The transfer of leadership of the party is not within the gift of the incumbent. It should be effected by a process starting within the party structure, at National Executive Council level, followed by debate at full conference and ending in a voting process. It is by no means certain that Brown would emerge as a clear choice. My own view of Brown is that he is more accountant than politician. He is obsessed by control and has shown that he is quite prepared to ditch principle and common sense to achieve it. I see him as a super-competent apparatchik rather than a charismatic politician. I don’t doubt that he has more principle and moral base than Blair but I do doubt his ability to overcome his personal failings and place these above pragmatism and short-term advantage. In short, my ideal would be an amalgam of Atlee and Bevan, not Major and Thatcher.
The leader of the party is exactly that, someone who leads. Leadership of a political party demands clear principles, the ability to identify and promote the ideals and policies of the members and the political skills to take the party forwards along lines which command the support of the majority. Over the last twenty years the ideal of cabinet government has been transmuted into a semi-presidential system but crucially, lacking the checks and balances of a written constitution designed to control such absolute power. The result has been more akin to dictatorship than presidency. Blair’s objective throughout his leadership has been to find mechanisms for effecting his own policies. These have been more to do with personal power than collective responsibility. The mechanisms he has employed are best described collectively as manipulation of the process and the public. I do not see any clear signs that Brown would eschew the same methods to achieve whatever his ends are.
The third concept worries me most. The main objective of the ruling party should be to govern the country according to clear principles and in pursuit of well-understood and accepted political and social policies. The 1945 Labour government identified the mood of the country, decided what the major flaws in society were and pursued policies designed to rectify specific ills and bring about a more just and equable view of society by lifting some of the burdens from the poorest people in our country. The last thing in their minds was to start fighting the next election. As Hartley Shawcross put it at the time; "We are the masters at the moment". We can take this literally, he used words precisely, his message was to sieze the opportunity and affect change in the window of history afforded to them. He was not advocating the raw exercise of power but the use of the political system to improve society.
This view of the use of power is to my mind the only justification for a system in which power is temporarily given to one political party. Once it is polluted by the exercise of power either for personal ends or as a mechanism for prolonging a majority, it has failed. Just and properly constituted reform will echo down the years long after the government that instituted the reforms has given way to another party. This is the only true legacy, the one Blair talks about is his personal place in history. Most people in Britain have forgotten Attlee and the 1945/51 government but the reforms they made have transformed the lives of all of us. Which lasts the longest? Which is the most laudable and effective?
I’ve arrived at my beef. My problem with Hoon this morning was that he, and the breed of politicians he represents, have lost sight of the goal, if indeed they ever knew where it was.
SCG/August 26, 2006
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
PITFALLS IN THE GROVES OF ACADEME.
Historical research is a fascinating journey. There is so much material out there and the only way I have ever found to get the material down to a manageable size is to reduce the area of interest. That’s why local history fascinates me.
One of the big problems in England is the absence of any written record until the Roman Occupation and beyond. So it was nice the other day to come across a transcription published by the Yorkshire Archaeological Society of the Bolton Priory Compotus and accounts (basically the business papers of the Augustine Priory) for 1286-1325 plus the accounts for 1377-78. I know that these papers contain fascinating insights into how the monasteries operated in general and the Priory’s connections with Barnoldswick. It was published in 2000 at £50 for non-members and I found a mint copy for £34 on Bookfinder. Yippee!
It arrived yesterday and is a magnificently produced volume of 650 pages, nicely bound with gold leaf embellishments and weighing in at three and a half pounds of solid scholarly research material, all prime source. Only one problem, it’s in Latin……..
A quick flip through proved that the preface, footnotes and index are in English but the rest is in Latin. Time for a rethink. I rang the YAS at Leeds and spoke to a very nice man called Mark in the library who promised not to laugh at me. He said I wasn’t the first to voice the query ‘Is there a translation?’. The answer is no and he said that he had never been able to understand why, when the authors were transcribing the original Latin, they hadn’t translated at the same time as they are both experts in Medieval Latin.
I asked him for advice and he has pointed me at a book ‘Latin for Local History’ by Eileen Gooder which he says has been his stand-by aid for years. So I went out onto the Tinternet web thingy and found a copy plus a Latin/English dictionary and a primer which is the idiot’s guide to Latin.
Someone asked me if I could get a refund but I told them I was made of sterner stuff than that. Because of the common roots of Latin and English you can almost see sense in the Latin even though you can’t read it. I reckon that with a bit of application I shall soon become competent enough to read the text because it isn’t literary Latin, it is more like a list with prices.
Isn’t life funny….. I didn’t think I would ever decide to, in effect, teach myself to understand Latin. I may be over-estimating my ability to learn but at the very least it’s going to be a good anti-Alzheimer’s strategy. Onward and Upward!
SCG/23 August 2006