The Curmudgeon


Friday, March 31, 2006

Two More Holes in Blackburn, Lancashire

The grey thing that serves Tony as stand-in groveller when Tony is out of the country and members of the Bush gang are in it was in Blackburn, Lancashire today, squiring the US Secretary of State around a school, a football club and an arms factory. Learning, leisure and lucre in the provinces - it must have been an enlightening experience for all concerned, especially the shade of John Lennon.

Dr Rice and her colleagues "recognise that we are fighting a cunning enemy and our citizens will judge us harshly if we release a captured terrorist before we are absolutely certain that he does not possess information that could prevent a further attack or, even worse, commit terrorism again." Given the competence of the Bush administration in other areas, of course, any citizen would be reassured nowadays if the White House was "absolutely certain". Well, practically any citizen, more or less.

Despite present levels of public confidence in her master, Dr Rice admitted to "tactical errors, thousands of them I am sure," in Iraq, while informing us that the actions of the US and its little helpers will ultimately be judged on their "strategic" value. This is, of course, the old Small Mistakes in Pursuit of Noble Goals line, Vietnam-vintage, and how good to see it again. In Vietnam, the goal was to democratise South-east Asia, the strategy was the extermination of the South Vietnamese peasantry, and the tactical error was letting cameras into My Lai. In Iraq, the goal is to bring civilisation to the Middle East, the strategy is the extermination of the Iraqi resistance, and Dr Rice is no doubt correct in implying that the tactical errors have attained considerable numerosity. Iraq Body Count records over thirty thousand, and those are just the ones that have been reported in the media.

Nevertheless, the US will stay the course: Dr Rice thinks "it would be wrong to somehow leave Iraq to the mercies of the Zarqawis of the world or the former Ba'athists who really do want to unravel the political process", just as it would have been wrong to leave Saddam Hussein in power when the next expected evidence of his secret WMD programme might have been a mushroom cloud over New York. No matter what we do, things would always have been worse had we not done so. That's what being the Good Guys means.

Speaking of our moral character, the US does not "tolerate either at home or abroad engagement in acts of torture", at least according to Dr Rice's definition of torture. If you can get what you want without actually bursting someone's organs, though, I understand Condi will find you pretty tolerable. The US also has "no desire to be the world's jailer"; but then, duty often requires that one become what one does not desire to be. The US wants "the terrorists that have been captured to stand trial for their crimes", but despite the wishes of the US, the administration has had to spend its time keeping meddling civil liberties lawyers off the beneficiaries of the Guantánamo funhouse. Virtue is no easy matter.

The grey thing described Blackburn as the "centre of the universe". Blackburn is the grey thing's constituency. Oh how they laughed, I am sure. Dr Rice "joked that made the pitch at Ewood Park 'the centre of the centre of the universe'." It must have been an enlightening experience for all concerned.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Tony's Moral Symposium

It seems that the last of the Vicar of Downing Street's sermons on foreigners, freedom and truth may be destined for the United States after all. It is clearly too good for Indonesia, where his reverence enhanced his natural self-contentment by promoting better links with business leaders. He also dispensed comfort to those suffering the effects of recent wars and natural disasters, doubtless by informing them of his personal position in the war between progress and reaction, and of the competence and compassion of his allies, George W Bush and John Howard, whose respective records in the face of natural disaster and refugee crises are tolerably well known.

Downing Street said that the Reverend's visit was "'the right time' to repair relations" with Indonesia. Relations have apparently suffered since Britain's ally Suharto was deposed in 1998; or possibly our arms trade with the country has fallen off a little since we sold them the wherewithal to kill several thousand Timorese around the time of the vote on independence. Nowadays, the country is "not only committed to democracy but also to clean up corruption and put in place a proper judicial system"; but in return for favourable business links I'm sure Downing Street can forgive it for that.

His reverence also encountered "five moderate Islamic leaders" who seem to have a discomfiting number of opinions in common with the ex-Ba'athist, extremist Iranian meddlers currently despoiling Iraq: they "urged him to withdraw British troops from Iraq and talk to the recently elected Hamas government in Palestine". It's a good thing the moderates in Iraq are more moderate than that, otherwise the place could really be in trouble. Still, the Reverend agrees that "there's no more important issue than to bring peace between Israel and Palestine" and has promised to try and do his best. Given his successes over Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, poverty, counter-terrorism and global warming, this is certainly encouraging.

The Reverend suffered a few high-schoolers to come unto him and gain the benefit of his moral guidance. He informed them that "people of different faiths can live together in harmony and peace", so long as those of the inferior faith do as they're told. Displaying a healthy grasp of the relationship between primate and poodle, one student referred to George W Bush as the Reverend's "best friend" and asked whether the doggie would use his plaintive brown eyes and wagging tail to persuade his master to stop the war in Iraq. His reverence replied that "there is a process now in Iraq for the people to vote their government in", at least for parts of Baghdad. He added that "whatever we thought about the original decision to remove Saddam", it was all a long time ago, we should draw a line under it and "work with the United Nations and other countries to make sure people have the same rights as the people in the UK and you have here." Some day, the whole world will be run like Britain and Indonesia. There's a vision worth fighting for.

Asked how he would feel if he were an Iraqi civilian whose relatives had been collaterally detrimented, the Reverend stressed the importance of understanding the other fellow's point of view (in this case, presumably, that of the bomber crews and the white phosphorous fans). He also mentioned, again, that people in Iraq and Afghanistan can vote nowadays; as Muslims, the students were perhaps in need of a little extra emphasis on this point. His reverence also noted that he did not share the students' view of America, and advocated building "a bridge of understanding between the West and the Muslim world", so that, even when disagreements arose, for example about thousands of people killed over fictitious weapons, "we never distrust or hate each other."

There isn't a bereaved Iraqi civilian who would say different. Not a moderate one, anyway.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

News 2020

Immigrant's death helps bury island quarrel

A man thought to be one of the last remaining natives to be born on the island of Diego Chagarcia has died in the UK, it was announced today.

The island was abandoned by its immigrant inhabitants in the 1960s. Many explanations, both economic and cultural, have been advanced for the natives' action, but the one most generally accepted by the Foreign Office is that many of them failed to understand the difference between a single and a return ticket.

Many of the natives ended up in nearby Mauritius, but others in search of more favourable economic prospects came to Britain and, despite a generally low level of literacy, engaged in litigation against the Government.

Successive British governments have consistently denied that the Diego Chagarcians have any cause for grievance against the people of the UK, and have referred the litigants to the United States, which owns the airbase which the island now comprises.

Asked whether he thought the Americans were at fault, the Prime Minister replied, "I do not always agree with the US. They are sometimes difficult friends to have. But anti-Americanism is sheer madness."

The man who died has not been named, but it is understood that his biometric record printed out "Chagossian" (sic) on two of the five national identity databases, which gives it the legal status of fact unless overruled in good conscience by a minister of state.

In a prepared statement, Foreign Office vice-under-secretary Bungo Crawley said, "We extend our condolences to the family and friends of the deceased and hope that time's healing balm will continue to salve the memory of this unfortunate episode in Mauritian history."

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Satanic Supplement

Adaptable,adj. Hypocritical in a manner useful to oneself.

Cold-blooded,adj. Unduly dispassionate about a subject over which your own mature consideration obliges you to emote.

Eyeball,n. A spheroid which is rarely welcome outside its own orbit.
Drusilla is wont to evince
A fanatical mistrust of mince;
For in one shepherd's pie
She discovered an eye,
And has never been quite the same since.
Rev. Wibley Beamish

Flying Saucer,n. The brain-pan of a Scientologist.

Greed,n. The consuming passion of the poor and deprived. A similar but virtuous passion exists among the rich and privileged, and is known as business acumen.

Libertarianism,n. The belief that the strong have a right to do as they please to the weak, and that the weak have a right to enjoy their oppression insofar as it pleases them to do so.

Octifongulate,v.i. To branch out simultaneously in eight directions like an electrified tarantula.
She had a more-than-patriotic adoration of the Union Jack, its superimposed crosses and tricoloured octifongulation.
Gribberton Phlorke

Pretentious,adj. A work of art which lacks sufficient modesty to titillate the consumer's modest capacity for understanding.

Sin,n. Any activity which the pious find it expedient to deplore.

Tact,n. Pacification by dissimulation.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Tony on Saving Civilisation Together

The Vicar of Downing Street has delivered the second of his three sermons on foreigners, Islam and his proposed Grand Alliance to save civilisation. This instalment, vouchsafed in Australia, includes some touching childhood reminiscences which show that the Reverend's speechwriters are familiar with his biography, and a disquisition on human rights which revealingly points up the Reverend's concern at Australia's treatment of its aborigines.

Contrary to previous reports, the third instalment will be delivered in Indonesia, not in the United States. Having admitted that the Americans are sometimes "difficult friends to have", perhaps the Reverend is having trouble getting a visa; or perhaps it's just that George is having his golf clubs recalibrated that day and can't spare the time.

A slightly rendered version of the Reverend's sermon is presented herewith. The full text is available here, although you can probably, if you really must, fill in the gaps for yourself.

Mr Speaker, I am grateful ... this superb chamber ... good to see my old friend ... at whose feet I used to sit ... leading the Labor party ... a privilege to be in the company of prime minister John Howard ... steadfast leadership ... firmness as an ally and friend ... given me cause to be deeply grateful. Australia may not be in my blood; but it surely is in my spirit ... my earliest memories ... age of two till five, I lived ... I remember returning from the hospital ... my sister Sarah had just been born ... back of the old Austin we drove ... errands for our neighbour ... taking showers under the garden hose ... the heat on the lawn ... visiting friends up country ... chased by magpies as I ran across the open ground near our home ... later skirmishes with the media ... reintroduced to religion ... introduced to politics ... dear friends to this day ... back many times ... love the people; love the place; always have and always will ... a very special place to be ... shared history ... shared sporting passion ... English victory in the Ashes ... carnival of celebration ... Commonwealth Games ... showed the world ... exuberance and sheer style... modern Australia ... more than the rest of us ... I wrote a speech once ... Britain ... Australia ... I like to think ... share a lot more ... history and endeavour on the playing fields ... outlook to life ... confident, outward bound, and "up for it" type of nations ... a world in the course of choosing ... daily tumult ... stories of strife and sensation ... blast their way into our consciousness ... struggle of a more profound kind ... globalisation is a fact ... values that govern it are a choice ... the values we believe in ... democracy and the rule of law ... justice ... simple conviction ... a fair go ... human beings ... better themselves ... world around them ... values our two countries live by... we believe ... we believe ... more integrated ... re-shapes our lives ... an opportunity as much as a risk ... open societies ... enriched by diversity ... welcome dynamism ... tolerant of difference ... defining division ... open or closed ... the menace of it not the possibility ... age of the interconnected ... struggle in our world today ... about values and about modernity ... battle of values ... values ... values ... common ownership of humanity ... universal values ... right of the global citizen ... challenge ... people who hate us ... question our motives, our good faith, our even-handedness ... values ... support them selectively ... justice and fairness ... security and prosperity ... truth ... prosperity ... security ... security ... justice ... inter-connected world ... open society ... markets ... justice ... poorest of the world ... peace to the Middle East ... Israel and Palestine ... freedom ... millions in Africa ... basics of life ... our way of life ... there is no alternative ... fight for it ... values ... our own country ... the world over ... global alliance ... values ... Islamist extremism ... victims ... victims ... September 11 ... terrorism ... victims ... recent history ... Russia ... India ... Algeria, Pakistan, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Indonesia, Kenya ... cadres of terrorists ... sense of alienation ... Arab and Muslim world ... defeat this terror ... face up to the fact ... roots are deep, ... global ideology at war with us and our way of life ... democracy ... Islam ... danger ... as we speak ... Iraq and Afghanistan ... our troops ... alongside each other ... we are all deeply proud ... commitment, dedication and bravery of our armed forces ... titanic struggle ... free ... legacy of oppression, stagnation and servitude ... a choice to vote ... obstacles we can scarcely imagine ... symbol of hope ... belief ... values ... forces of reaction ... most evil of means ... terrorism ... the slaughter ... innocent ... innocent ... hope ... full UN support ... UN authority ... full support ... democratically elected governments ... reactionary element ... lined up to fight us ... if they lose ... Muslim world ... strikes at the heart ... their ideology ... fighting hard ... must not hesitate ... battle utterly decisive ... values ... believe ... triumph or fail ... democracy ... struggle is our struggle ... if the going is tough we tough it out ... not a time to walk away ... courage to see it through ... battle is most fierce ... wherever people live in fear ... solidarity with them ... Sudan, Zimbabwe, Burma, North Korea ... process of democratic development ... extend a helping hand ... engagement not isolation ... strong alliance ... America ... central ... I do not always agree with the US ... difficult friends to have ... anti-American feeling ... madness ... against the long-term interests ... world we believe in ... America today ... pull up the drawbridge ... need ... want ... reality ... problems that press in on us ... our task is to ensure ... security ... security ... values ... values ... justice ... fairness ... freedom from fear ... security ... alliance ... America ... Israeli election ... redouble our efforts ... only solution ... secure state of Israel ... viable, independent Palestinian state ... mobilise the resources ... turn the commitments ... action to combat ... ravages of conflict ... Africa ... literally millions ... climate change ... energy supply ... strongly support Kyoto ... look to the future ... dialogue ... UN process ... bring it all together ... resolution ... clear, disciplined framework for action ... measurable outcomes ... our planet ... world trade round ... open or closed ... protectionist sentiment ... we have the opportunity ... commitment on world poverty ... very idea of multilateral action ... long-term national interest ... wider interests of the world ... born of another age ... America ... Japan ... development package ... market access ... aid for trade ... prosperity ... open markets ... justice ... stand on their own two feet ... markets ... self-interest ... fight for our values ... waves of migration ... migration is fair ... different ethnic groups ... pride in our diversity ... tolerance ... democratic freedoms ... did not turn on Muslims ... united against terrorists ... signal of belief ... action on all fronts ... insidious and persuasive voices ... comfort zone ... watch the field of play ... get stuck in ... 1939 ... Britain ... war on the Nazi tyranny ... war ... no ifs, no buts ... solidly with the world ... we can win.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

We Thank Thee, O Lord, for our Beloved Leader

In a delightful article in today's Observer, Will Hutton leaps to the defence of his beloved, beleaguered Vicar of Downing Street. He starts, on the question of the lordships for loans enterprise, by advocating the presumption of innocence with which the Reverend is so eager to do away - "no presumption of the innocence or integrity of the lenders is entertained for a nano-second". The truth, apparently, is "a cash-strapped party looking for support where it could get it, using similar ruses to its opponents and, by American or European standards, offering precious little back in return". New Labour is marginally less corrupt than Berlusconi or the Republicrats; therefore let it go in peace. "The rules should have been different"; the Reverend and his chums have had only nine years to change them, and they have, after all, been busy.

The altar-boy next proceeds to the dire and disgusting motives of those who impugn the Reverend's "astonishing political success story". He pillories Jack Dromey and the National Executive Committee for claiming they were not told about the lordships-for-loans business. "In the autumn of 2004, the Labour party was £16m in debt and traded at a loss. In 2005 it spent £18m fighting the general election. Yet not one person, we are invited to believe, thought to ask where this largesse had come from." It follows, then, that if the Reverend is a crook, then so are Dromey and the NEC. "Found out, there is a choice. You make the argument, however unpalatable; or you run for cover". We all know what Dromey and the NEC did. The argument, which they ought to have made instead, follows in short order. There is the ethical dimension: "Money had to be raised"; the need to be responsible: "All parties exploited the loans loophole"; and, of course, the urgent, ever-present Blairite concern for open government: "business donors have wanted privacy".

Despite the Reverend's characteristic moralising impassionedness, the choirboy does admit that "Blair cocked up ... There should have been more transparency". Some of us find him transparent enough and more; but love is blind, and so inevitably, as the Reverend grinned and slicked his way around the matter, the choirboy found himself "grudgingly admiring him. He took the criticism on the chin, made the argument, and fought back. Amid a Cabinet of rabbits and a party collectively blame-shifting, here at least was somebody prepared to lead from the front." The real issue, you see, had nothing to do with ethics, responsibility or good government at all: "Talk about recovering moral authority, purpose and good government is waffle". The issue, "as always in politics, is about winning the argument". The Reverend's critics, "riven by lack of intellectual rigour", have failed to see that Blair's talk about recovering moral authority, purpose and good government, while conspicuously failing to resign, is the unassailable argument of a genuinely rigorous intellect.

Besides, as the altar-boy correctly argues, the alternative is hardly more appetising: Gordon Brown is "New Labour through and through." But he has gained the admiration of Rupert Murdoch's economic guru, which certainly speaks volumes for his credentials in social responsibility. Brown is proving the thesis that "high social spending, high taxation and high spending on the public infrastructure leads to more rather than less growth", which is a wonderful thing so long as the spending is public and the growth is in private profits. David Cameron's Conservative party is thus "fortified in its belief that it can maintain New Labour's social spending and take on its right - constructing a new consensus in British politics" in which everyone who matters can participate and from which the voters are increasingly opting out. Democracy, it appears, is waffle too.

There follows the ex cathedra pronouncement that the Reverend is right (presumably in the sense of "correct") about "the need to personalise public services and to argue for plural delivery of them." If there is one thing we need, it is a wide choice of call centre workers to tell us their first names. The Reverend is also correct in embracing free-market capitalism "warts and all", like Deng Xiaoping, because "only then can you start to debate how to make capitalism more honest". Only by embracing the horrors of a system to the full can we even begin to debate how to make that system more efficient. By this brilliant logic, only when the ozone layer has completely disappeared and half of London has sunk beneath the sea can we begin to debate how to make the planet more livable.

Is the Reverend correct to demolish civil liberties in the name of counter-terrorism? "No - but with a qualification. The kind of terrorism we have experienced is different; some pre-emptive capacity to limit it must be right." In short: no, but on the other hand, yes. No wonder the Reverend inspires such adulation in his followers; it seems he can be right even when he is wrong.

And so, last and least, to the matter of the war crimes. Iraq is a "millstone" for the Reverend, but the choirboy is "beginning to revolt against the certainty with which apocalypse is now universally predicted." It seems that from where Will Hutton is sitting, at some considerable distance from Iraq, a few tens of thousands of deaths and the destruction of the country are not apocalyptic enough. The West "cannot be blamed for the murderous enmity between Shia and Sunni", which is causing so much trouble that most Iraqis apparently don't even notice the occupation any more. "Democracy may be the best way to mediate" these barbaric squabbles, as in Vietnam: "Today it is becoming obvious that American strategy in Asia from 1945 - seeking communist containment while encouraging democratic capitalism - was right." Thanks to the strategy of encouraging capitalist democracies like Suharto's Indonesia and Ngo Dinh Diem's Vietnam, the latter country "bought a crucial fifteen years", whatever that may mean, at a cost of a mere few million lives. This led to the election of Deng Xiaoping "on a prospectus that China had to follow the success demonstrated by the Asian tigers between 1960 and 1975", while the Vietnamese were being bombed and the Indonesians butchered. "As a result, 400 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty" because "History is littered with unintended and unexpected consequences." Thus, in Iraq, either because we intend it or because we do not intend it, "today's gloom may prove to be as overdone as yesterday's optimism". This is certainly encouraging, not to mention intellectually rigorous.

The "central truth", to which the altar-boy now returns us, is that the Reverend "has overseen a fundamental shifting in British politics to the benefit of ordinary people" such as Will Hutton and the editor of the Observer. The "serial rebels who hold their seats in the House of Commons off the back of a New Labour manifesto", in which pledges on tuition fees and identity cards are serially broken, "need to examine their motives and conscience." Also, "media critics from the left need to ask themselves precisely why they make common cause with the left's enemies" and the enemies of the Reverend, who "created the new coalition" with the Conservatives. If Britain's very own Deng Xiaoping is prepared to "carry on soaking up the punishment" - remember, it's a lonely life at the top - then "the liberal left should be grateful". Let us pray.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Freedom in Iraq

The Christian peace activist Norman Kember, who has been rescued from a relatively short period of detention without trial, was "well treated throughout", according to an anonymous but informative source "close to the rescue operation".

The gang holding Kember and his Canadian colleagues apparently got nervous after the murder of his fellow hostage Tom Fox: although an Islamist group was involved, "the guards holding Mr Kember and his colleagues were part of a cell motivated by money rather than politics", much like professional soldiers. The anonymous but informative source considers it "a bit absurd" that such people should consider themselves innocent, "even though they were looking for money". Indeed, it seems that a tip-off from the guards "played a significant role in allowing the authorities to find the hostages" and opening the way for the heroic storming of an unguarded house by which the heroic SAS rescued the men. No British soldier or "military civilian" could ever be capable of such a ridiculous degree of moral turpitude.

In illustration of the fact, a prominent war activist has expressed regret that the peace activist did not evince "a note of gratitude for the soldiers who risked their lives to save those lives". Alas, such behaviour is prevalent almost everywhere these days. Even in New Orleans, after the levees were breached, it seems that some people who had floated to safety failed to thank the flood-waters.

Friday, March 24, 2006

The Hutton Work Ethic

The Department of Work and Pensions-crisis has decided to "transform the life chances of some of our most disadvantaged people and communities" outside the House of Lords. At a Guardian-sponsored conference called Managing New Realities, John Hutton unveiled a scheme to give financial rewards to city councils which reduce benefit claims. This transformation in the life chances of city councils is intended as a contribution towards meeting the Government's target of reducing claims of incapacity benefits by one million in the next ten years. City councils will be "allowed to keep the money saved by reducing benefit claims", which will be achieved by "setting up local partnerships with public, private and voluntary agencies". Quite aside from the extra money which will then be available for city councils to spend on PFI projects, Hutton claimed that the scheme will "incentivise" (yes, apparently he did use that word) the councils to reduce people on benefits in inner cities. Reduce them to something deeply fulfilled and communitifying, no doubt.

If this sounds familiar, that's only because it is. A couple of months ago, a possibly related John Hutton unveiled a scheme to give financial rewards to doctors who "encourage" sick people to keep working. It all reminds me of this recently-published book, somehow. I can't imagine why.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Wellsprings of Charity

As everyone knows, it is the business of private companies and their investors to help people less fortunate than themselves. Multinational water companies, according to the Guardian's environment editor John Vidal, are a case in point. Their multi-million-pound schemes were "intended to end the cycle of drought and death that has afflicted many countries" and at present kills about six thousand children a day; but ungrateful natives have caused these philanthropic enterprises to founder: there are "growing doubts about privatisation projects" and "political and consumer unease".

The reason for this is clear. "In many settings," particularly the less civilised ones, "privatisation is a heavily politicised issue that is creating social and political discontent and sometimes outright violence," according to a United Nations report. Many companies, says John Vidal, have met "intense political resistance" after "having to raise prices significantly". Many companies, despite their intentions to help their fellow men by raising prices significantly, "have not been able to make money" and have gone back to "less risky markets in Europe and North America", where ingratitude is less prevalent.

Those who have benefited from water privatisation in developing countries tend to be "those living in relatively affluent urban pockets ... the very poor sections normally tend to be excluded," according to the UN report. "Sub-Saharan Africa has received less than 1% of all the money invested in water supplies by private companies in the last 10 years." Ending the cycle of drought and death is all very well, but if the country is hot and dry and the consumers too poor to pay, what is one to do? The chief executive of Suez Environment, which is privatising water in Haiti and South America, said, "We are not a political organisation, but how can we do our job if the political system in countries changes its mind so often? Private funding runs into ideological problems," while those who cannot pay merely run into biological ones.

It could all have been so different. "Some privatisations have been successful", though John Vidal tactfully refrains from saying whether they were successful for the companies or for the people whose water was being turned from a necessity into a commodity. In the 1990s, "privatisation was seen by the World Bank and G8 countries as the most effective way to bring clean water to large numbers of poor countries" which, after the usual fashion of poor countries, did not know what was good for them. Between 1990 and 1997, fourteen thousand million pounds were invested. In spite of this level of investment by people who presumably had a good deal of money and expected to make more, "the rich have mostly benefited at the expense of the poor". Well, fancy that.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Tony on Saving Civilisation

The Vicar of Downing Street has commenced a trilogy of sermons in which he apparently plans to tell us all about foreign policy. The next two instalments will be delivered in Australia and the United States, presumably because John Howard, George W Bush and their cronies are among the select few who still believe the Reverend's idea of foreign policy has anything constructive to offer.

The first instalment, delivered at Canary Wharf today, castigated Iran for "meddl[ing] so furiously in the stability of Iraq", which the Reverend's foreign policy has done so much to bring about. In a slightly esoteric excursion into theology, the Reverend claimed that Muslims who committed acts of terrorism were not being true to their faith, and then went on to say that a "strain of extremism" within that faith had given rise to the terrorists' motives. It follows, then, that religious extremists are being true to a strain within their faith which is also not part of their faith. The Reverend's logical faculty remains as healthy as ever, it seems.

He informed Islam that it had started out reasonably well - inclusive, practical and "way ahead of its time in attitudes to marriage, women and governance" and "extolling science and knowledge". Indeed, he made Islam at its birth sound virtually British. However, by the early twentieth century, with the British Empire in retreat, the Muslim world was "uncertain, insecure and on the defensive". Clearly, Islam needs to pull its socks up.

Accordingly, the Reverend's policy of starving and bombing people until they vote for what is good for them is "not a clash between civilisations". The Reverend's enemies are, by definition, not civilised; indeed, those who persist in their errors can end up de-urbanised, too. The battle in which the Reverend is engaged is "a clash about civilisation. It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction". Bombing countries back to mediaeval conditions is not a reactionary policy, presumably thanks to all that state-of-the-art radiation.

The Reverend said that opponents of the war were supporters of "a doctrine of benign inactivity" who felt that we should "Leave it all alone or at least treat it with sensitivity and it would all resolve itself in time; 'it' never quite being defined, but just generally felt as anything that causes disruption." The objections to such a doctrine should be immediately obvious. For one thing, George W Bush does not believe in leaving things alone or in treating them with sensitivity. For another, neither does the Reverend. For a third, the disruption which has been caused by the Iraq war would have been far outweighed by the possible disruption potentially arising out of the non-existent policy of not doing anything which was not pursued before, had such a policy been pursued as opponents of the war advised.

According to these rather vague people, "the policy of America since 9/11 has been a gross overreaction" rather than a calculated oil grab; "George Bush is as much if not more of a threat to world peace as Osama bin Laden", as if it were not perfectly clear who has killed the most people since 2001; "and what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan or anywhere else in the Middle East, is an entirely understandable consequence of US/UK imperialism or worse, of just plain stupidity", a charge which does not even need answering. Blaming the US for its own actions is "profoundly, fundamentally wrong". Although mistakes have been made in Iraq, such as dissolving Saddam Hussein's army before it could be used to democratise the populace, the Reverend appears frustrated that these are not the mistakes for which he is being castigated. "Opponents will say Iraq was never a threat; there were no WMD; the drug trade in Afghanistan continues," he observed with his usual uncanny prescience. He then pointed out that "Iraq was indeed a threat as two regional wars, 14 UN resolutions and the final report of the Iraq Survey Group show". Tony says it, so it must be true.

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Satanic Supplement

Chronic,adj.(Medical) Consistently profitable.

Economist,n. Commercial theologian, who exploits the ever-expanding market for justifications of the ways of markets.

Famine,n. Emotive term for an economic situation in which consumer demand outweighs commercial opportunity.

Gift,n. A sale with no price-tag and unpredictable credit.

Human Rights, Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, insofar as these are not incompatible with the convenience of our rulers.

Mind-reader,n. An illiterate.

Parent,n. One half of a child's problems.

Sprocular,adj. Bouncily alive at entirely the wrong hour of the day.
At four in the morning he was still the life and soul, leaping and laughing among the snores with horrifying sprocularity.
Willoughby Flodgett III

Unscrupulous,adj. Not visibly deterred by your threats, thus forcing you to take the riskier step of committing actual atrocity.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Werckmeister Harmonies

Béla Tarr 2000

The first image is of flames behind a black grate, whose iron rays suggest a black, rectangular sun eclipsing the fire. The grate is opened, the flames doused from a beer mug, and the barman calls time. One burly drunk calls the others to order - "It's time for Valuska to show us!" They clear a space in the centre of the room. Valuska (Lars Rudolph), the youngest and least powerful-looking man in the place, choreographs a demonstration of the workings of the solar system, using three men to represent the sun, the earth and the moon. At one point, the moon passes directly between the sun and the earth, and Valuska halts the harmony of the spheres to tell how darkness gradually falls across the world, confusing even the birds, which go off to roost. Then at last, Valuska says, the moon moves away, a sliver of light is seen, and the daylight returns. The drunks break orbit and the barman opens the door and orders them out. All this takes place within the film's first shot, which is ten minutes long. I am told there are thirty-nine takes in Werckmeister Harmonies' hundred and forty minutes, but I have not counted them myself.

The Hungarian director Béla Tarr, whose name takes equal credit with those of his partner and editor Ágnes Hranitzky and writer László Krasznahorkai, has joked that the ten-minute limit on a reel of Kodak film is a form of censorship. Tarr's early features were apparently fairly conventional works of kitchen-sink social realism, but his television version of Macbeth in 1982 consisted of two takes, the first five minutes long and the second sixty-seven. The longer take apparently consists largely of close-ups of faces, a feature Werckmeister Harmonies uses to moving effect. Tarr's 1987 feature Damnation, also scripted by Krasznahorkai, has a conventional thriller plot - a man, thoroughly alienated and obsessed with a married singer, becomes involved in a smuggling operation - but spreads it over two hours of long, stunningly composed black and white takes in which very little, in any conventional sense, happens. "A film is not a spectacle," Robert Bresson once pronounced; "it is in the first place a style." It says something for Tarr's style that the plot of Damnation, on first viewing, seems not much more than a distraction. He has been compared to Tarkovsky, whom he admires for Andrei Rublev and Stalker, but whose later, non-Russian work he deprecates - a judgement in which I can only concur. Tarr resembles Tarkovsky mostly in his use of long takes and his metaphysical concerns; but he is wittier, less self-indulgent and far less interested in redemption. He has also expressed admiration for Bresson, Ozu, some of Fassbinder, and John Cassavetes, with whose work as a director I am still unfamiliar.

In Werckmeister Harmonies Tarr and his collaborators dispense with plot almost entirely, and instead construct a weird and fabulous poetry of music, idea and lustrous black and white imagery, based loosely on a novel by Krasznahorkai called The Melancholy of Resistance. After the collapse of his human orrery in the bar, Valuska walks down a deserted street as the camera reverses away from him into the shadows ahead, leaving him a silhouette dropping slowly into darkness. Light creeps silently along the blank face of a terrace of ugly buildings as a tractor slowly tows into town a huge corrugated metal box containing the body of a huge whale - a "fantastic attraction", according to a publicity poster, with "special guest star, The Prince".

Valuska lives with the shoemaker and his wife in a small Hungarian town, where he delivers newspapers and looks after Mr Eszter (Peter Fitz), who is working on a theory that the conventional system of musical harmonies, as worked out by Andreas Werckmeister among others, is based upon a fraudulent premise. As Eszter softly dictates his notes into a microphone, with Valuska observing behind him, the camera slowly orbits Eszter's head, first in one direction, then in the other. One of the women in the post office, in the course of a monologue about the world going generally to pieces, mentions "that horrible whale" and his special guest star, the Prince, who is rumoured to cause disorder wherever he goes. Throughout the early part of the film we hear that windows have been broken and fires set in other parts of the town; and although whenever Valuska goes out of doors the streets seem virtually deserted, silent crowds of men gather ominously in the square, where the great metal box is parked.

Valuska is approached by Eszter's wife, Tünde (a beady-eyed Hanna Schygulla), who claims to have made the supreme sacrifice by walking out and leaving Eszter to his work. Tünde and the chief of police have formed a committee for "cleanliness and order", and she wants Eszter to chair it and use his influence to get funds. If Eszter doesn't agree, Tünde will move back in with him, and she gives Valuska her suitcase as proof that she is serious. A single shot follows Valuska and the disgusted Eszter along the street as they set about Tünde's errand; aside from some brief talk between Eszter and Valuska at the start, and between Eszter and the men whom they meet some minutes later, it is entirely without dialogue, and consists of a close-up, in profile, of Eszter's and Valuska's faces - the former tight-lipped and staring straight ahead, the latter with knitted brow, casting occasional anxious glances at the older man - coming to rest, at last, on the dog-headed handle of Eszter's cane as he tries to reassure the anxious local worthies in accordance with Tünde's ultimatum. Later, Valuska finds Tünde waltzing in her nightclothes with the drunken police chief and himself ordered to the police chief's own house to put his riotous sons to bed. Valuska is unable to manage this; in a bedroom whose wall is decorated with pistols and a sword, one of the little beasts uses a toy sword to whack, in alternation, Valuska and a drum, and screams "I'll be hard on you" into an improvised microphone, while his brother bounces on the bed and accompanies with clashing cymbals a wobbly version of the waltz to which Tünde and the police chief were dancing. So much for order and cleanliness.

Valuska goes twice to see the whale - in fact, he is the first to pay to see it, after the corrugated metal box lets down its grating door. He walks once around it in the dark, staring into its unblinking eye, while the silent crowds begin to gather in the square. Later, with the crowds growing ever larger, he sneaks in through the side of the box and witnesses an argument between the exhibit's manager and the special guest star, the Prince, who speaks (possibly in Russian, though I can't tell for sure) through a burly interpreter and is seen only as a shadow on the wall, its head thrown back. The manager dislikes the violence which accompanies the Prince's appearances and wishes him to remain silent while on exhibition. The Prince, through his interpreter, responds with threats to leave, interspersed with pronouncements on the folly and degradation of mankind and calls to slaughter and riot. Asked about the Prince, Tarr stated, in effect, that he saw the same thing as everybody else - a shadow on the wall.

The riot takes place over the space of two shots: the first showing, from above, a seemingly endless stream of expressionless, implacable men marching down a dark street; the second gliding coldly round a battered, echoing clinic as the mob moves in and patients are dragged from their beds, kicked and beaten with clubs, until a final, shocking image of abject helplessness causes the rioters to stop and walk out. In an extraordinary, brutally effective touch, both the march and the destruction of the clinic take place without a single voice being heard; the only sounds are the heavy footfalls of the mob, the blows and the scuffles, and the noise of things being smashed. Concealed inside a cupboard, Valuska watches from the dark; later, in a vandalised store surrounded by broken washing machines, he reads what apparently is the written confession (or perhaps testament) of one of the rioters, detailing other atrocities.

When Valuska makes his way home, he finds tanks in the streets, with Tünde pointing the way for the soldiers. The shoemaker has been killed in the rioting, and his wife tells Valuska he's in danger. "I haven't done anything," he says. "That doesn't matter to them," is the reply; "they recognise neither man nor god." On her advice, he makes for the railway, hurrying along the tracks; but he is detected by a helicopter, which circles him and then hovers interminably, the cockpit towards the camera, blank-eyed. Valuska is next seen sitting on a bed in hospital, drugged or catatonic, while Eszter tells him about developments at home: Tünde and the police chief have taken over Eszter's house, and Eszter himself has moved out and has re-tuned his piano. Valuska will be welcome, Eszter says, if he comes out. As Eszter makes his way home (carrying his own lunch pail, now Valuska cannot do it for him), he passes through the silent square, where the dead whale - "an evolutionary stage at which I would gladly have stopped," he told Valuska earlier - now lies exposed on its platform. Eszter looks into its eye, walks on, looks back, walks away; and then only the whale, and the wreckage, remain.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Last of the Family Silver

It appears that the Vicar of Downing Street and those extra-special best chums of his who knew about the matter are in for some small embarrassment over the Lordships for loans enterprise. The health secretary has said that the secrecy surrounding the business was "unwise", since, as usual, New Labour has nothing to hide. Ms Hewitt "denied the party had been selling seats in the Lords or acting illegally". Technically, of course, if you exchange a seat in the Lords for the loan of some money, that is not a sale. New Labour has promised to reveal the identities of future lenders, but refuses to disclose the identities of those already in the Lords because the loans were "given on the basis of confidentiality". Those nice money people must certainly be proud to do business with Tony and his chums, especially if they have not done anything illegal.

Personally, I find it difficult to see what the fuss is about. If the parliamentary Labour party has not realised yet that the business of democracy is best left to Tony and his very best chums, it seems doubtful that anything short of a surgical operation will get the message in. The Reverend is in the process of handing over Britain's education system to priests and salesmen; he has sold its workers to the CBI, its soldiers to George W Bush and its National Health Service for scrap. Why does the deregulation of democracy come as such a shock? There is, after all, precious little else left to profit from.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Balancing Fairness, Disputing Circumstances

The Vicar of Downing Street has informed journalists that he thinks "it would be better" if the anomaly at Guantánamo Bay were closed. Unfortunately, no one seems to have asked him whether it should be closed after the fashion of the similar anomaly at Abu Ghraib, whose luckless residents will simply be transferred to other anomalies for further edification.

Reassuringly, there is one thing the Reverend always does to balance it out. "The only thing I always do to balance it out," the Reverend said, "is remind people that it arose out of the circumstances of 9/11". Three thousand dead stockbrokers plus extensive property damage justifies pretty much anything, it seems. Again, the journalists do not seem to have questioned the Reverend on how this ethical rigour translates into other contexts. Brutal warlords may arise out of the circumstances in Africa; suicide bombers may arise out of those in the Middle East; yet it is rare for the Reverend to balance his condemnations of the activities of such people with the thundering moral fervour he displays on behalf of the Bush administration.

Still, "In fairness to the Americans, they dispute many of these claims that are made", which obviously must count in their favour. The Iranians dispute the claim that they are building a nuclear bomb, and Saddam Hussein disputed the claim that he had weapons of mass destruction; and we all know how fair and balanced is the Reverend's judgement on both of those issues. Besides, there are things he has read: "there are things, certainly, that I have read about the circumstances of some of the British who were in Guantánamo that are strongly disputed in certain quarters." This is certainly convincing. Indeed, given the manifold justifications of which the Reverend has read and reminded us, it is hard to see what he considers wrong with having the anomaly remain precisely as it is.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Gung Ho One More Time

Those volatile Samarrans are to be re-democratised again. The town, which is sixty miles north of Baghdad, was captured by insurgents in 2004, no doubt against the wishes of its inhabitants. US troops then re-took it and, for reasons unknown, "the area has again become unstable". Accordingly, Iraqi forces, backed up by their obedient US allies, are mounting "the biggest air offensive launched by the Americans in Iraq since the 2003 invasion". It is possible that bigger air offensives have been launched by other powers in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, but I doubt it. The re-freedomising process, going this time by the insectile monicker of Operation Swarmer, is expected to last several days and involves "more than 50 US warplanes" with "some 1,500 Iraqi and US troops and 200 tactical vehicles", according to the US military, which presumably relayed the message from the sovereign, independent Iraqi government for the benefit of the English-speaking peoples. By the end of the first day, according to the US military, speaking for the sovereign, independent Iraqi government, "a number of enemy weapons caches had been captured", including "artillery shells, explosives, [improvised explosive devices] IED-making materials, and military uniforms". I thought the insurgents tended to wear civilian uniforms, but apparently the fiends cannot even be relied on to do that. The insurgents in Samarra, of course, are a very special breed. Samarra is "a key city in the Salahuddin province, which is a major part of the so-called Sunni triangle where insurgents have been active since shortly after the US-led invasion three years ago", the rest of the country being as quiet as anyone could wish. The reason for Salahuddin's intransigence is not hard to find: "Saddam Hussein was captured in the province, not far from its capital, Tikrit". Last month, the fiends even "stoked sectarian tensions ... by destroying a major Shia shrine, the Golden Mosque". It must have been the insurgents who did it, because obviously anyone else, particularly the occupation forces, would have claimed responsibility by now. In any case, no doubt the province will soon be re-pacificated by those US warplanes, US troops, US tactical vehicles, US troops and their independent, sovereign Iraqi co-democratisers-in-arms, using just the same tactics which have been working so well up to now.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

News 2020

Arguments smoulder over urban firewalls

The Prime Minister will today unveil new enforcerising measures designed to contribute extra additionality to the various packages of measures already emplaced in the war on criminality.

Last week the Home Secretary announced that the Government was investigating the possibility of "urban firewalls" to enhance crime preventability in Britain's inner cities. The firewalls would constitute "an impenetrable and not prohibitively expensive barrier to criminal mobility", he said.

Each firewall would be comprised of a "decorative but durable fencing installation", similar in design to the Israeli-Palestinian child safety barrier erected in the early 2000s, which would totally surround each conurblightation and ensure that law-disobeying elements could be properly contained.

The firewalls would be equipped with regularly-spaced instant and utter crimino-incapacitatory crew modules, referred to as "machine gun nests" by the scheme's detractors. Law-abiding citizens would be permitted through the firewall once they had proved that they were not about to commit a crime, the Home Secretary said.

Today's announcement from the Prime Minister is expected to include an even more preventive measure involving total isolation for crimino-potential human resources from birth until the age of eighteen, when they will be able to choose between military service and a community penalty for harbouring evil thoughts.

The leader of the opposition, Boris Johnson, said that the Government had presided over "an unprecedented rise in criminality" which would not be solved by "crypto-Stakhanovite half-measures", while the Home Secretary responded that the present wave of criminality was a legacy of the 1979 proto-NuLibCon government.

Mr Johnson condemned the Prime Minister's "petty politicking" and said that the NuConLib Alliance would either support or oppose the new measure-packaging scheme, depending on how many NuLibLab rebels could be expected to vote against it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Stubborn Realities

The Archbishop of Canterbury, whose objections to the bombing of Muslims clearly stop rather short of resigning his Government post, and who famously prefers a large and bigoted congregation to a smaller one with gay bishops, is delivering a speech to the National Church Schools conference today, arguing that faith schools are not divisive, exclusive or irrational.

"The often forgotten fact that church schools are the main educational presences in some of our most deprived communities means that it simply cannot be said that these schools somehow have a policy of sanitising or segregating," Dr Williams will say. In Tony's Choice Emporium, of course, even our most deprived communities can choose between a faith school and something else; and although "faith schools should adopt national criteria for admissions", none of them would ever dream of trying to claw its way up anything so worldly and sordid as a league table.

Church schools, according to Dr Williams, "are among the relatively few public institutions generally regarded with trust by minority religious communities" such as the Church of England. It is this fact which "gives the lie to any idea that faith schools are automatically nurseries of bigotry." No doubt schools run by corporations will be among the public institutions generally regarded with trust by shareholders; and doubtless this will have nothing whatever to do with their ability to turn out good little consumers.

"In our present context," says Dr Williams, "an education system which conveys some sense of what religious motivation is actually like is more helpful in avoiding communal suspicion or violence and avoiding 'ghettoisation' than one which rigorously refuses to engage with any religious practice on its own terms." So faith schools will be more interested in "conveying a sense" of religious experience than in promulgating the religion of those who set them up. It would certainly be refreshing to hear from William James and Mircea Eliade at morning assembly, but I don't think that is quite what the National Church Schools conference has in mind.

Dr Williams apparently favours "universal principles of teaching about other faiths", whatever that may mean, as well as "exchanges between schools of different faiths". The Archbishop will also argue that "Far from cementing religious believers more firmly into their inherited framework, educational partnership with public authorities should have the effect of engaging religious groups with the stubborn realities of a wider world and making what they say and do in some ways accountable to that wider context, its language and its standards." Last month, it appears, religious leaders from various faiths signed a declaration "backing the teaching not only of their own religion but an awareness of the 'tenets' of other faiths in schools". This hardly seems necessary. Few religions have anything against their adherents being aware of rival religions, so long as the rival religions are properly excoriated.

"Now, children, this is a Muslim school. This is a Muslim child. George, stop sniggering and put that aeroplane away before I confiscate it. Pay attention, everyone; this Muslim child is a stubborn reality of your wider world, to the language and standards of which you must be accountable in a wider context. No, Rowan, of course the wider context is not more important than God. Now listen. The tenets of the Muslim religion include the idea that Jesus did not die on the cross, that the Resurrection did not take place, and that an Arab merchant with lots of wives was a greater prophet than Christ. Yes, Anthony, I know what Jesus said about false prophets. Yes, Ruth, I know what Jesus said about those who deny him. George, leave that alone, please..." It does make a pretty scene.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Its Own Reward

Though I bestow all the poor's goods, and though I give the bodies of a hundred thousand and more to be burned, if it profiteth me nothing I am become as a non-functioning landmine or a dud DU shell. Why, then, do the profits of British business interests in Iraq still lag behind those of their American counterparts, despite specialising in two high-growth fields - "private security" and "advising on the creation of state institutions" for government by business?

A report by Corporate Watch and the Independent newspaper identifies sixty-one British companies including private security services for the pacification of the antifreedomites; banks for the feeding and clothing of the poor and deprived; PR consultancies so that Iraqis can be cogently and comprehensively informed of how much better off they are; urban planning consortiums to rebuild the homes of the bombed and napalmed now that the occupying authorities have decided not to bother; and, of course, oil companies and energy advisory bodies because the war was Not About Oil.

According to Corporate Watch's estimate, twenty to thirty thousand "security personnel" are working as non-mercenaries in Iraq, half of them "employed by companies run by retired senior British officers and at least two former defence ministers". How nice to know that past defenders of our realm are being saved from a pauper's grave. As one would expect in a newly independent, sovereign Iraqi state, Britons are also involved in "restructuring Iraqi ministries" and have "advised on the 2004 elections and a campaign to promote reconstruction" in case Iraqis are unaware of the possibility that reconstruction might do some genuine good to British businesses. The campaign also promoted "support for the army and police, minority rights and public probity", presumably in that order.

Between them, these sixty-one companies have obtained at least £1,100 million (£1.1 billion, in Newspeak) worth of contracts and investments; probably much more, according to Corporate Watch, as "many companies prefer to keep their interests secret" and Charles Clarke has not yet decided that corporate privacy is conducive to international terrorism.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

All Wet

Of the past sixteen months, only one month has had average rainfall. Although it has rained in London over the weekend, causing drains to overflow and showcasing admirably the water retention capacity of our roads and pavements, tomorrow Thames Water will probably announce the first hosepipe ban of the year. On behalf of the water companies, the shadow environment secretary said that they did not know "whether we're seeing a long-term trend influenced by climate change, or it's just a one in a hundred [year event]." A spokesman for Thames Water delivered the usual homily about turning off the tap while you brush your teeth, which is "a step away" from the nightmare scenario of turning off supplies. In order to encourage people in taking such humble steps, Thames Water denied that the shortages were "solely due" to leakages from the pipe system, which lose a third of the supply between the reservoir and the taps. Thames Water "is spending £1bn over five years replacing and fixing pipes" - at great personal sacrifice from its Board of Directors, no doubt.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

A Trusted Brand

British Gas, which recently raised its prices by several times the rate of inflation, has branched out into the insurance business, selling peace of mind and "expert boiler care" for between £200 and £300 a year. Expert boiler care and peace of mind not being part of British Gas' standard service, the insurance package is particularly popular with the elderly. The managing director of British Gas Services is confident that British Gas delivers "among the highest levels of service in the industry". With the executive dynamism we have come to expect of what used to be known as the utilities, the managing director of British Gas Services informs us that, while "there is always room for improvement", British Gas customers "have come to accept nothing but the best from a trusted brand like British Gas."

Internal documents leaked by an embittered and probably sexually inadequate call centre worker at British Gas note that "We are experiencing extreme difficulties in meeting our customer requirements". According to the tale-tattler, "a significant number of 80-year-olds were left without heating for several days during the recent cold spell, possibly putting lives at risk". Staff "regularly come across pensioners being left several days without heat" and, presumably as a result of some distortion in service-competitivising market forces, "every third or fourth call into British Gas's four customer service centres is currently from someone complaining about poor service".

One must make allowances, of course. The recent winter, which took British Gas unawares by arriving at the end of the year, has been "the coldest in nine years", with "the highest number of breakdowns on record". British boilers work best in the summer. Nevertheless, the vast majority of customers are "very satisfied with the company's response to fixing breakdowns". Sixty per cent of customers were "offered an appointment the same day", which is to say that only forty per cent of customers had to spend one or more winter nights without any heating.

As part of the improvement for which there is always room, call centre staff were told in November that customers without heat and/or hot water "should have appointments booked on a non-urgent basis". This lasted for about eight weeks - in other words, well into January. Also, during the past two months, "customers have had to wait up to six days for an engineer to come out. If parts were needed, it would often be several more days before a boiler was repaired" and "jobs are regularly cancelled without informing the customer, who may be waiting for the engineer in a cold house". In a shocking indication of the company's cavalier attitude to the things that really matter, shareholder requirements don't even seem to have been mentioned.

Friday, March 10, 2006

News 2020

International concern at spread of Iranian insidiosity

The international community has once again called upon the Iranian government-in-exile to come forward and face a trial which will be fair insofar as is compatible with US interests in the region.

Although the mullahs are thought to have fled Iran during the country's initial democratisation period, the international community is still concerned at the destabilisation potentialities for other underdeveloped countries.

In Venezuela, where the US has intervened to protect indigenous Indians from interference by drug dealing Somalian warlords, recent signs of instabilitisation have been traced to Islamic influence, an intelligence source said.

As happened tragically in Iraq and other rogue states whose rehabilitation is ongoing, violence is breaking out almost every time a new Venezuelan city is pacified. The parallels with newly democratised Islamic fundamentalist terror states are "spooky", an intelligence source said.

Iran was democratised from the air to prevent it developing a nuclear weapon with which to threaten the Middle East. The international community used state-of-the-art weeny-nuke "bunker-buggerer" technology to give Iranians a face-saving option which would not include occupation by ground troops.

The US Commander-in-Chief has repeatedly stated that the international community has no quarrel with the Iranian people, but mullah-supporting elements continue to protest the collateral detrimentalisations which a more advanced culture would take in good part.

If they come forward, the fugitive mullahs will have an opportunity to defend themselves and prove, if they are able, that they do not know how to assemble a nuclear weapon, said a US Homeland Security spokesman, who remained anonymous for security reasons.

From its offices in Whitehall, the rest of the international community agreed.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Slow Day in Seoul

The correspondent for Associated Press is becoming a little bored, it seems. North Korea has "reportedly fired two surface-to-air missiles near its border with China". The Kyodo news agency in Japan cited a Chinese "security source" as saying the missiles were fired towards China by mistake, and a "western military source" as saying they were fired towards the Sea of Japan. At least one of the missiles landed in the sea. Although a few fish are probably somewhat disgruntled, neither China nor Japan appears to have taken offence at the error. Nevertheless, the mistake, assuming it took place at all, is "a reminder of the communist regime's ability to foment instability in the region, amid the ongoing standoff over its nuclear weapons programme." What a pity North Korea can't make mistakes like ours, which, while they may cause sufficient instability to kill tens of thousands of fish, cannot possibly be accused of fomenting it - at least, not by the Associated Press.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Sweet Land of Liberty

Motherhood, of course, is a sacred thing. Were it not for motherhood, we wouldn't have investors, entrepreneurs, marketing executives or consumers. Accordingly, the more heaven-progressive parts of the greatest country in the world are racing to put themselves on a par with the likes of El Salvador, Burkina Faso and Chad by mounting a direct frontal assault on motherhood avoidance. The governor of South Dakota has signed a bill to criminalise abortion except as a measure to save the woman for further breeding. "Emergency contraception" will be available in cases of rape or incest, at least for those who have paid attention in South Dakota's doubtless comprehensive sex education classes.

The Republican senator Bill Napoli went on television to show just how comprehensive such classes can be. Noting that most abortions are carried out for "convenience", he proceeded to depict the circumstances in which he would consider a woman sufficiently inconvenienced to be justified in seeking one: "A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged," he said. "The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalised and raped, sodomised as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life."

So there. Even Republicans from South Dakota can sympathise with an occasional rape victim, just so long as she's a beat-up religious virgin with a superstitious reverence for the marriage vows and fallopian tubes up her rectum.

Monday, March 06, 2006

News 2020

Bowell defends dumping

The Secretary for Post-Olympic Real Estate Trauma, Isa Bowell, has angrily refuted claims that his marital separation is a result of allegations about his wife's financial dealings.

Mr Bowell's wife, Millie Stone-Davey, is under investigation for various alleged financial irregularities, but not for having saluted anybody's indefatigability.

Mr Bowell, whom friends today described as "shaken but bearing up well" after the Prime Minister telephoned to offer his "unequivocal support", has always denied knowing anything about the alleged irregularities.

"I never knew anything about any irregularities which I'm certain did not happen and will be found to have been totally innocent, and I'm filing for divorce anyway," Mr Bowell told MPs yesterday.

The minister, who emerged smiling from today's session with the Parliamentary Standards Ombudsperson, was quick to deny that his marital separation was simply one of "convenience".

"This is a true separation, an honest separation, a separation which is the very definition of open government," he said. "It is firm yet friendly, comprehensive without being extremist, irrevocable yet not irrecoverable, private yet also deeply public."

Mr Bowell went on to denounce the "smear tactics of guilt by association" which he said had been used by "certain Islamo-single-mother sections of the media" and to call for a return to "the honest political style of Old New Labour, where 'I will not resign' wasn't treated as a dirty word".

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Hoon's Harmonious Houses

Now that their majority in the Commons has been cut down to size, New Labour have belatedly rediscovered electoral reform. An article by Bomber Hoon in the Independent on Sunday notes that "The make-up of the Lords is irrational", and that "the primacy of the Commons", where a government can gain an absolute majority on forty per cent of the vote, "is of paramount importance."

Still, the insanity of the Lords has brought benefits. "It has prevented serious conflict between the two Houses", serious disagreement having no place in a New Labour democracy. The powers of the Lords are also strictly circumscribed, and until recently the Lords have voluntarily limited their powers via the Salisbury Convention, which means that manifesto commitments are neither rejected nor changed beyond recognition. "Recently, however," fulminates the righteous Hoon, "Liberal Democrat peers have decided, for reasons of their own, that they can abandon such conventions at will." This is certainly shocking behaviour. The last thing one expects of a voluntary commitment is that it should be abandoned at will for reasons of one's own.

Thanks to this dereliction of voluntariness by the Liberal Democrats, "we are in uncharted constitutional waters". As seems to happen rather often these days, the rules of the game have changed. Hereditary peers are out of date: "there are few today who support the hereditary principle as a way of deciding who should make our laws". Appointed peers are better, as they can be appointed by the right people: "other party leaders and the House of Lords Appointments Commission," an independent public body whose independence is "sponsored" by the Prime Minister. At the moment, the Lords is a mix of hereditary and appointed peers in which, as Hoon perspicaciously observes, "without the hereditary peers we would have an all-appointed chamber".

This is obviously not a satisfactory arrangement, but it is at least better than the suggested alternative, which would involve having elected members in the Second Chamber. In a modern democracy, this would obviously be the worst choice of all. A "hybrid House" with a mix of appointed and elected members could lead to Westminster members behaving like members of the Scottish parliament, "where some are elected from constituencies and some come from a party list," and who, in a development of apocalyptic gravity, "complain about the difficulty of reconciling their different status." As for the possibility of an all-elected upper chamber, the less said the better: "We only have to look to other nations, such as Italy," though not the United States, "to see there are real dangers in having two rival elected chambers at permanent loggerheads."

What, then, is the solution? "The debate on powers could be resolved by making established conventions, such as the Salisbury Convention, legally binding to ensure the primacy of the Commons". This would certainly ensure that Tony's legacy of faith schools, ID cards and house arrest for speaking out of turn will be subject to no further delays; how it would resolve "the debate on powers" is another matter. Still, if nothing else, "one thing is quite clear from the perspective of Members of the House of Commons. We must clarify and circumscribe the powers of the Second Chamber before deciding its composition". The Commons is quite capable of deciding for itself what checks and balances should be applied to the Commons, thank you very much.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Just Another Celebrity

The Reverend Blair's public relations department has apparently informed him that, in between redeeming smokers and protecting God from slander, he could do with exercising the personal touch; so, having nothing more important to do, he has duly become the first prime minister to be interviewed by Michael Parkinson while still in office.

The Reverend had a gush about Bill Clinton, calling him "the best politician I've ever come across". George W Bush he called "extremely straightforward to deal with" which, from one politician to another, does not seem particularly respectful. The Reverend also said of Bush that "what he says, he does" which, since Bush's Oath of Office includes the handy disclaimer "to the best of my ability", may well be true.

The Reverend also spoke about a Good Turn he did for a mother whose daughter was facing a heart operation. "She said her daughter was terrified about it, and the only person she knew that had had it was me. So would I speak to her about it? I did, I gave her a call: 'It's not so bad, you know.'" Besides helping to explain why the Reverend has so little time for the relatives of British soldiers killed in Iraq, this incident also shows his interesting, if hardly unique, interpretation of Matthew VI i-iii.

It seems that the "24/7 media is one of the toughest parts" of the prime minister's job although, as with the war crimes, it does not deprive him of sleep. Presumably, then, the interview is a reluctant addition to the legacy list; all the more so as, in the judgement of Labour MP Stephen Pound, who evidently ought to know, the Reverend was "excruciatingly honest". The Reverend was commenting about the political decision to invade Iraq, so Pound assured Newsnight that "his comments should be taken as apolitical".

Friday, March 03, 2006

Wind and Wicks

The Government has taken further dynamic action on climate change, rejecting a plan to build wind turbines on a ridge near the eastern boundary of the Lake District national park. An inspector concluded that "the need to protect the landscape outweighed the benefits of securing a source of renewable energy". Malcolm Wicks, the energy minister, said: "Tackling global warming is critical but we must also nurture the immediate environment and wildlife", as with the plans to expand Heathrow Airport. Supporters of wind power said they "feared the balance would now tip towards nuclear energy" of which Britain, with its soon-to-be-upgraded Trident toy collection, is perforce a peaceful generator. But Wicks was adamant: "On this occasion ... the impact [of the wind turbines] on landscape and recreation would outweigh the benefits in terms of reducing carbon emissions". The director of Friends of the Lake District professed his organisation "delighted". The district's friends had feared, you see, that the "requirement for renewable energy" would outweigh questions of "the damage caused to the site and Cumbria in general". Translated, this means that they feared that considerations of keeping the planet habitable would outweigh those of whether the view might stay the same; and when the problem is framed in those terms, no one should be surprised at the New Labour solution. The landscape may soon be parched; it may be made radioactive; it may, one day, be picked barren by refugees from power-starved cities where nothing remains to eat except each other's children; but at least there won't be any windmills to frighten away the tourist trade.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Lengthening the Poodle's Leash

The greatest country in the world is reconfiguring its diplomatic profile, sending fifteen more diplomats to China, the same to Latin America and a dozen to India. Full and frank discussions will doubtless be facilitated. The enhancement of the Voice of Freedom in China is an acknowledgement of "its possible military threat to US interests in the Pacific Rim countries and elsewhere in Asia", not to mention "the danger posed by unresolved territorial issues such as Taiwan". In the eighties it was Nicaragua; in the nineties it was Libya; now, besides digging in for the long haul in the war on the abstract noun, America, the greatest country in the world, must ensure that it is not overwhelmed by the Taiwanese threat.

America's other priority is India, which during the war on communism had the bad grace to be non-aligned and now, during the war on terror, retains "strong leftwing opposition in the government coalition and among the public". George W Bush, with Condi in tow, today begins a visit to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, perhaps to show those excitable little brown guys that, compared with some guests, twelve to fifteen John Bolton clones might not be such a bad thing to put up with.

Rather uncharitably, Arundhati Roy has already registered a sour note, observing that Bush will be visiting Gandhi's memorial and claiming that "millions of Indians will wince" at the sight. This seems a bit churlish. I am sure George merely wants to thank Mohandas for naming his party after the United States House of Representatives. Also, since five per cent of the planet's population belongs to the greatest country in the world, it follows that Bush shares 95% of Gandhi's commitment to non-violence.

The Bush administration's various diplomatic invasions will mean, of course, a certain thinning of resources elsewhere. The American embassy in Britain will be reduced by one diplomat, indicating the extent to which we are trusted by our most major ally, the greatest country in the world.