April 2009 Archives
A Royal Protection Officer has just resigned for posting the following callous and unpleasant comment on Facebook after the death of Ian Tomlinson:
"I see my lot have murdered someone again. Oh well, shit happens."
I can't imagine where he picked up these liberal attitudes from, although he's probably spent a fair amount of time hanging around Princes Phillip and Harry. The Met's incoherent response included the following line:
"The Metropolitan Police Service makes its position clear on employee's (sic) use of blogging sites within its standard operating procedures."
So, get caught out on Facebook, which ain't a blog incidentally, and you've got to go. Get caught on camera committing actual violence? A late suspension, so far, but you'd be brave to bet on conviction or dismissal, or even on an actual charge being brought.
Serial gaffer Siôn Simon has done it again. Today's new faux pas is to accuse Susan Boyle of starting swine flu, based on her appearance. Nice.
He's somehow clung to office despite, amongst other things, having produced an extraordinarily offensive Webcameron spoof in which the Tory leader offered up his wife and kids. He makes his own embarrassing defence here (Youtube, seriously worth a watch).
But why on earth would such an indefensible muppet, surely the model for the vacuous but thrusting Ministerial moderniser in In The Loop, be allowed to stay in Brown's Government? Oh yes, I see.
Just over two years ago Bulgaria joined the EU, and a year later ЗЕЛЕНИТЕ (Zelenite) was founded, part of the global spread of Greens which brings such cheer to my heart. They're well organised, and now have an impressive 7000 members.
The other parties have finally taken notice, and just a few months before the election a law was pushed through to try and restrict access to the ballot.
A deposit of €7,500 (already one of the highest in Europe) to participate was bumped up in March to €25,000, more than twice the level anywhere else in the EU. Bear in mind Bulgaria is Europe's poorest country, with an income little more than a third of the Union average, and the differential is even higher.
The Bulgarian government's track record on corruption is pretty poor, and it now looks like their commitment to democracy is also limited. Our Bulgarian colleagues already have to gather 15,000 signatures to vouch for their legitimacy: that should be more than sufficient in a democracy.
Update: anyone wishing to help who is permitted to do so under Bulgarian electoral law, please donate here.
Those of you still missing the drama of the US election season, head back over to your favourite sources and follow the switch of Arlen Specter to the Democrats.
What difference might his new party affiliation make? Nate Silver at 538 does what he does best - numbercrunching, while Wonkette has the top headline (plus the pic).
Politico on the demise of the Republicans is also recommended if you like that sort of thing, and there's Metafilter for smart discussion.
Remember, it's just 552 days to those crucial mid-terms. Going back to 538, there's definitely a gap in the UK market for some good statistical wonkery (aside, of course, from betting analysis, which is definitely covered). Anyone?
Having spent years campaigning against nuclear power stations, it was odd to find ourselves inside one today (left), taking a tour and discussing energy policy with the team at Hunterston.
The place itself is extraordinary: a layer of 1950s technology (including the control stations), a layer of 1970s technology, then laptops and the odd bit of more recent cruft. No doughnuts, though.
For all the complex arguments to and fro about nuclear, it's pretty clear when you go round that this is the most complicated and risky way yet invented to make power, however many layers of safety procedures they put in.
The good news for the nice people we met today, though, is that we'll need all their skills to help us decommission these beasts when their life extensions run out. The sooner the better.
We've long said Trident was utterly useless, a weapon we can't afford, and one we certainly can't afford to fire. I'm sure retired general Sir Hugh Beach doesn't see eye-to-eye with the Greens on some other stuff, but we can't argue with:
It's not just that he's against buying a new one: he thinks we should decommission the existing system right now too.
The classic argument against nukes as a deterrent is made here:
Whatever the police should be doing, it's not this: trying to bribe environmentalists with secret bank accounts (clue: it usually won't work, we're pretty committed), threaten their job prospects, suggest they'll be sent to brutal violent prisons and generally intimidate them.
Campaigners against climate change aren't terrorists, they aren't extremists, and they're more clever than the plod (which is why the Guardian have the tapes).
It'd be funny if it wasn't so sinister, and it's got to stop. Imagine activists trying to bribe, infiltrate and intimidate the police. And that wouldn't even be public money for the bribes.
I don't have it in for the police, I really don't. I can only give a 100% endorsement to the Chicken Yoghurt view on this.
It strikes me as odd that the Middle Englander type opposed to Google's Street View are often the same people yammering for more CCTV in their areas. To give one tangential illustration, for the Mail, Street View is a 'burglar's charter', yet the paper objects to the removal of CCTV from 'crime-ridden areas' on some supposedly spurious human rights grounds.
Surely it's less oppressive if you know what's there and you can complain if you've been spotted coming out of a sex shop, as with Street View? And at least Google doesn't lecture you if you're spotted drunk.
Anyway, as the Home Office has admitted, CCTV doesn't work:
"Assessed on the evidence presented in this report, CCTV cannot be deemed a success. It has cost a lot of money and it has not produced the anticipated benefits." (p.120, this pdf)
Google Street View, on the other hand, does work. It's free, and it allows you to see what your mates' new houses look like, take a virtual walk through places you used to live, or any other sort of sight-seeing.
They'll also blur your face out, even if you died on hunger strike many years ago (above). Come to think of it, perhaps we should consider letting Google do our CCTV. It'd be free too, presumably, and open to all of us, but they'd better not give us any hot air about not filming coppers. In fact, they could probably provide helpful contextual adverts as hover-overs: "Being beaten up on a protest? Click here for a good lawyer."
Hamish Macdonell has a scurrilous tale on the Steamie about a supposed plan to attack Salmond's waist size at FMQs.
One party leader, who really shouldn't be named, was mulling over the following line for FMQs.
"Why is it, Mr Salmond," they planned to ask,"that you are the only person in Scotland who is refusing to tighten his - rather large - belt?"
It's a tacky approach even to consider, so let's try to work out who it is. Here's a starter: it wasn't Patrick. For one thing, I know it wasn't. For another, it's not our style. Finally, it's a special occasion these days when we get taken at FMQs.
Next, I think we can rule out Iain Gray. Given how sensitive Labour are to the "£500m of Westminster cuts" line, this would be what the Americans call a Hail Mary pass to say the least.
That leaves just two contenders: Tavish Scott and Annabel Goldie. Both seem at least plausible. Tavish was arguing just recently for fierce tax cuts and, by implication, the kind of budgetary belt tightening a boa constrictor would understand.
Conversely, while cuts cuts cuts is a more popular Tory approach in Westminster, Annabel does specialise in this odd mix of direct assault and Carry On Matron banter. As one example, how about the occasion she compared the Maximum Eck to a haggis?
So, which of the two was it? Hamish has been scrupulously gender-neutral, which perhaps suggests Annabel, but that's pretty tenuous. Suggestions, or even denials from the advisers who apparently squashed the idea, would be welcome.
(incidentally, heaven knows why the Scotsman can't get proper URLs arranged for the Steamie: it's all they need to make it Scotland's best media blog)
It's been a slow-burn issue, but gradually Scottish politics has come to be dominated by a single question: what is twenty-four divided by zero?
The crisis began five days ago when Frances Campbell asked the BBC's Brian Taylor to put The Question to First Minister Alex Salmond. His reported answer was:
"Twenty-four divided by zero would be infinity - because you can't divide by zero."
It was a pretty contradictory response from the First Minister, who perhaps was seeking to hedge his bets. Is the real answer actually infinity? Or can one in fact not divide by zero, which would make the first answer incorrect?
Brian Taylor ignored this problem, and blundered in with a different line of attack:
"I think the answer is zero, actually, but never mind."
A classic schoolboy error from BT, who appeared to confuse multiplication with division. The teachers got excited, and the leading light of the SNP blogosphere (non-cybernat division) demanded an apology. It took some time, but it was properly forthcoming.
However, the truth is, as Scottish Unionist pointed out, that Salmond is wrong too, or at least his first answer is: it's undefined, even if the graph tends to either a positive or negative infinity. The question can be rephrased as follows: how many times do you have to subtract zero from 24 to get to zero? There is no sensible answer to that, obviously, not even infinity. Here's another way of getting to the same answer.
Given this mathematical quagmire, why on earth would the LOLITSP have led with accusations of arithmetical impropriety against the FM today to try and attack his budget figures? And why didn't the FM simply give him the answer above? At least they didn't get dragged into the even more fraught issue of imaginary numbers, though...
There are some excellent people amongst the 50 entries on the Green Heroes list, run by the SDC and the Scotsman, with the final 10 being named at a very enjoyable "round up the usual suspects" event last night.
I was particularly proud to see my friend and party colleague Abbie Marland (left) in at number 4 (and, declaration of interest, yes, I did put her name forward).
The aim of the list was to identify people who have inspired others, and she certainly does exactly that, having worked exceptionally hard on climate change, ecology and a range of community campaigns, notably on ship-to-ship oil transfer.
Funniest moment? My predecessor George Baxter accepted an award on behalf of his boss, who couldn't be there last night. As the Scotsman's snapper got with the Minister he was clearly heard to recommend just Photoshopping Ian Marchant into the picture. I'm sure nothing could go wrong with that approach.
The papers love to get over-excited about scientific research, turning two and two into about nineteen, but the idea that the centre of the Milky Way has something marginally in common with a raspberry daiquiri is too good to ignore.
It might be nonsense, but Douglas Adams would approve. Cocktails all round! (recipe here)
Also on a additional Forth crossing theme, while watching some BBC coverage of the SNP conference I heard a couple of very bizarre comments.
First, the BBC appear oblivious to the fact that there's any opposition to the scheme. Their reporter said (about a sixth through that long clip):
".. that would have a big impact on projects like the new Forth Road Bridge. Everyone agrees it's key to Scotland's economic prosperity, but Westminster and Holyrood have locked horns over how it should be paid for."
Er, no. They don't all agree. Here are just some of those opposed to the scheme. And even the City of Edinburgh Council, led by the SNP and the Liberals, has come out against.
Next, more disingenuously, the clip includes this section from Shirley-Anne Somerville's speech to SNP conference, discussing borrowing powers:
"It's about building Scotland's future, and that includes the Forth Crossing. It is of strategic importance to the Scottish economy, not just of Fife and the Lothians, not just to the east of Scotland, but to our whole country. No other country would have a debate about whether this bridge should be built or not, it is so important."
So, let me get this straight. A democratic politician doesn't think there should be a public debate about £2,300m - £4,200m of public spending? Even though it's supposedly to replace a bridge which is still operational and which is currently estimated to cost £122m, absolute tops, to fix? That's logic which would appeal to Kim Jong-Il.
Unfortunately for the likes of Shirley-Anne and other regular opponents of public transport, there is a debate, and it's not going away.
On one side of it is a cynical attempt by the SNP and the other parties here at Holyrood to fish for votes in Fife, cynical because they've misled local people into believing that the new bridge is necessary and won't cause massive cuts in public transport expenditure, that it won't cause massive disruption during construction, and that it won't blow carbon reductions out of the water.
On the other side are the local residents, radical environmentalists like the National Trust and RSPB, SERA (Labour's environmental ginger group), the transport campaigners, and the Scottish Green Party.
If this bridge does get built, which I doubt, it's not going to be plain sailing for its unquestioning supporters. It's going to be a hard battle, and it's one we'll fight all the way.
The news tonight was dominated by three stories: the dangerous foolishness of Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick in revealing anti-terror raids, the lethal recklessness of PC John Dougal who killed a girl doing 94 miles an hour in a 30 zone in pursuit of an out-of-date record in a numberplate database, and the decision by an unnamed officer to turn himself in having probably caused the death of Ian Tomlinson during last week's G20.
Although it's just coincidence, it's hard to resist the idea of a police force out of control, high on power and convinced it's above the law. Like any other public servant, the police are supposed to be on the side of the public, especially innocent bystanders. This seems to have been forgotten pretty widely - although I know plenty of good police will be just as distraught about these cases, just as disappointed in the organisation they work for.
Imagine the ruckus in the right-wing press if three social work catastrophes had come together on the same day. The calls for a Royal Commission or similar would be raucous. And, as one libertarian blog asked today, on the subject of Ian Tomlinson:
"What if the situation was reversed? What if a protestor had run up to a policeman minding his own business, knocked him to the ground and the policeman had later died?
"I think we all know that such a protestor would unquestionably (and rightly) be subjected to the full force of the law. We also know that not only the person involved but his or her organisation and probably the G20 protestors as a whole would be villified."
Five days ago I asked a series of open questions about the role of the police in the death of Ian Tomlinson during the G20 protests. Were they involved? Or even responsible? There was no evidence one way or the other, but few were even asking the questions.
The Guardian has now been given footage, provided by a fund manager, not a protester, which shows him being struck by a baton and then brutally shoved to the ground.
A freelance photographer gave this account:
"It was the force of the impact. He bounced on the floor. It was a very forceful knocking down from behind. The officer hit him twice with a baton when he was lying on the floor."
This may be less direct, less obvious, than the murder of Carlo Giuliani at the 2001 G8 conference in Genoa, but it would be an extraordinary to imagine that the assault captured on camera was unrelated to his collapse just three minutes later and his death shortly thereafter.
Everyone has a camera in their pocket, most have a video camera, and the age when the police could pretend they were the victims in a situation like this is over forever. How long ago did the Met know the dead man had been thrown to the ground and beaten, given their obsession with filming every step we all take?
This death is the legacy of Brown's vanity summit, the true face of Labour's attitude to criticism, and the masks and balaclavas of the police that day were cover for real violence, not the cartoon violence of hyped-up pseudo-anarchists breaking a window for the cameras. This is a government like Berlusconi's own, a government which deserves to be hounded from power and tried for its crimes.
Monbiot returns to form today with a scathing piece about Labour's PFI scheme to widen the M25. The way this £5bn-sized slice of insanity works appears to be as follows: as usual, the Government pretends to externalise the risk to a consortium, but in this case it then lends them £400m of the £1,300m required to build the project.
£500m more comes from European taxpayers via the European Investment Bank, and the remainder is being loaned by the Royal Bank of Scotland (i.e. us) and then underwritten by the Treasury (i.e. us again).
The contracts are also so long and so perverse that if some future government actually tried to reduce our dependence on oil, we taxpayers would then have to compensate the PFI consortium for the reduced traffic. It's hard to imagine a more incompetent and venal financial scheme, and all for a project which is as useless as the second Forth Road Bridge itself.
Remember this next time Labour complain that the SNP have abandoned PFI. And also remember that John Swinney has admitted that the Scottish Futures Trust is from the same family.
Nate Silver from 538 has an interesting and related piece on General Motors, their pension plans and their relationship with the unions. Between the 1950s and the 1980s they made some very generous retirement benefit deals with their employees, deals which weren't even on their balance sheets until 1992. Now those deals are paying out, and the company is on the verge of bankruptcy.
"This issue is wrongly portrayed by both the liberal and the conservative media as one of management versus labor, when really it is a battle between General Motors past and General Motors present. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, everyone benefited: GM and its shareholders got the benefit of higher profit margins, and meanwhile, its employees benefited from GM's willingness to cut a bad deal -- for every dollar they were giving up in salary, those employees were getting a dollar and change back in retirement benefits. But now, everyone is hurting." (thanks, Aaron)
PFI and the SFT work on a similar basis. The Labour and SNP approaches to public spending are not about making savings, they're a battle between current Ministers on one side, keen to deliver shiny photo-ops transport projects but not to pay for them, and on the other side, future taxpayers, who neither government seems to give a monkey's about. Future Ministers are, to a lesser extent, losing out: they will have less money to spend on public services while having to tax harder to get there.
In 2030 those taxpayers will find themselves still paying for shabby hospitals long pulled down and roads schemes which sit unloved and barely used as we (hopefully) make that transition to a low carbon economy. Meanwhile the architects of their problems - Brown, Swinney, Major and the like - will all be retired and writing volume four of their memoirs.
Perhaps we can surcharge them and reclaim a bit of our money from their advances. It won't cover the bills they're leaving behind, but it'll make us feel a lot better about it all.
I've become increasingly concerned about the risk to journalism posed by the slow death of the dead-trees-and-adverts model.
The New York Times has a fascinating graphic on the problem here, part of that paper's web efforts, which are extraordinary but don't currently seem to be halting their own decline, as that shows.
There's more in the magnificent Nation, including some controversial ideas on government support. I'm not convinced but it's certainly worth a read.
This isn't some academic concern, nor is it just because I have a lot of friends who work in the media. Increasing evidence is coming out about the substantial real-world costs of these failures. Stumbling and Mumbling quotes a research exercise done into the demise of the Cincinatti Post (via Slugger):
".. fewer candidates ran for municipal office in the suburbs most reliant on the Post, incumbents became more likely to win re-election, and voter turnout fell."
There's your democratic deficit right there. Worried now?
Police used a familiar tactic known as "kettling" during yesterday's protests in London, blocking protesters in and refusing to allow anyone out for any reason.
It's presumably called kettling because you keep the hot water in a tightly confined space. This does, of course, make it less likely you'll get boiling water on your hob, but it also keeps the temperature high, and kettles do boil over.
One young man reported the experience thus: "I just remember shields coming down on us. The police were stamping and kicking. I asked them to let me through the line for medical treatment, but they said 'no'."
Yesterday's demo was different. A man died, and although the police did try to treat him on the scene, we may never find out if his death was related to the tactics deployed by the Met. Had he tried to get help earlier, or to get out of a "kettle"? Had he been baton-charged?
The BBC, extraordinarily, have this incident as a passing reference in paragraph six of a story which says that world leaders are arriving (I think we knew that). You can visit the front page of their news site and see nothing of this - I will update this if it changes - but are we really quite so blasé about casualties outside the Bank of England?
Patrick pointed me to a terrific article in today's Daily Mail, written by the original Thatcherite skinhead himself. It's titled "A Nation of Haves and Have-Nots", and illustrated with a picture of protesting under-paid teachers.
It would be magnificent enough if the joke was Tebbit pretending for the first time to care about the poor he and his colleagues marginalised so successfully.
But no, that would be too easy. Instead he's taken it to the next level, and the magnitude and complexity of his sense of humour is jaw-dropping.
The poor struggling have-nots, in this hilarious piece, are in the private sector, "victims of market forces and the deepening recession", while the feather-bedded haves are in the public sector, "wallowing in the privilege of having their pay and pensions guaranteed by the Government".
It's pretty funny to imagine that Tebbit could believe anyone could be a victim of market forces: it'd be like Arthur Scargill believing there could be too much state control. But the topsy-turvy comparison is the most exquisite part: this is, after all, the public sector which keeps on giving billions of our money to support Normo's favourite bit of the private sector, the bankers.
In case anyone doesn't think he's joking, Polly Toynbee had a great piece last week about public sector vs private sector pay.
Today's G20 has been built up by the Prime Minister into the most important event of the decade, the point at which the world's most important political leaders come together and fix the world economy.
It's starting to look like a sequel to the 2005 G8 summit, where we were told that debt across the developing world would be lifted and a new era of international equity would dawn.
Hundreds of thousands marched, bands played, while the churches and the NGOs got us all wearing white. Of the $375bn to $2,900bn in bad debt, just $88bn has been cancelled, $43.5bn through the G8 process.
These big events get Gordon as giddy as a three-year-old about to host a really big tea party. He's the centre of attention, and that weird half-smile plays over his lips as he thinks about how important he'll look. He'll have the big plastic teapot in his hand, and he'll be able to say who gets more trifle and who doesn't. It's brilliant, even if some tantrums look inevitable from the usual suspects.
At the end, all his guests will stand up and say what a wonderful time they had, whether it's true or not, and how they're going to be good boys and girls over the coming year. You can call it a communique, but in real life it's just a longer press release, devoid of any actual commitments, leaving nothing but disappointment.