Monday, March 28, 2011

You Couldn't Make It Up - But Littlejohn Does, Every Week!

I must confess I've never bothered to read the Richard Littlejohn column in the Daily Mail that's enjoyed by millions, and this excellent defenestration of one of his pieces about the recent Japanese Tsunami not only confirms that it's right to give the man's malicious mutterings a wide berth, but also begs the question of how on earth he manages to continue drawing a salary for this crap. Oh, but wait a minute. His employers are the Daily Mail. Well, next time they sign his cheque, they might want to chew on these wise words of his about the appalling Rwandan genocide:

'Does anyone really give a monkey's about what happens in Rwanda? If the Mbongo tribe wants to wipe out the Mbingo tribe then as far as I am concerned that is entirely a matter for them.'

Also worth checking out this passionate, angry piece by the Independent's Johann Hari.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Does Intervention in Libya Help Al-Qaeda?

The forthright left-wing commentator Alexander Cockburn says that western intervention has never had a positive result. He may well be right. So poor is western awareness of the complexities of middle-east politics in particular that it is no wonder the interventionist tendencies of both left and right in government are more likely to come a cropper than not. Iraq was not exactly a model invasion plan, and while there may have been some self-defence justification for Afghanistan, you'd be hard put to suggest that it was an unalloyed success. So now we have Libya. It was understandable that western politicians, under pressure from their respective medias and the loud voices of interventionism, would start to see Libya as a classic case for more benevolent western military force. Gadaffi is a caricature lunatic with markedly vicious tendencies, while the besieged citizens of Benghazi are the classic heroic 'little people'. What doesn't work in this scenario?

Well, the little fact that eastern Libya is a prolific recruiting ground for al-Qaeda for one. Cockburn, in his First Post column, reports some of the alarming statistics about the closeness of Benghazi and Dernah to al-Qaeda, and concludes that Osama Bin Laden must be thinking he's living in a parallel universe as Cameron, Sarkozy, Obama et al leap to his defence.

This is the problem with rash decision making on middle-eastern politics. We may find one side unpalatable, but we know nothing about the other sides either. Libya's conflict is a civil war, and for all the tragedy of it, should have been left as such. Quite apart from the financial implications of western involvement at a time of government belt-tightening, the intervention of disliked western countries merely muddies the already murky waters of middle-eastern power struggles. And, of course, there is no exit strategy here. How could there be? We don't really know what we are fighting for. No wonder President Obama was so cautious about intervention. No wonder the US military establishment, fronted by Defence Secretary Robert Gates, was so opposed. We will see soon enough just how awkward this most recent example of western egoism is going to turn out, but the chances of this sending some lessons towards the politicians of either left or right seem slim indeed.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Cameron Fails the Palmerston Test!

Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish is on the money as usual, although I think he under-states the genuine difficulty faced by Barack Obama. Sullivan has been blogging consistently against intervention in Libya, and here uses a historical parallel with Palmerston's refusal to take action to support the put-upon Hungarians in 1848. Sullivan uses Obama as the contemporary foil, but it works as well with the current holder of Palmerston's former office. Cameron has decided not to resist the pull of interventionism. Palmerston, the successful practitioner of 'gunboat diplomacy', did. Palmerston's historical reputation is assured. It'll be a while before the verdict on Cameron can start to be formed!

Voting For War - It's What MPs Do!

Tonight's vote in the House of Commons in favour of military action to maintain a no-fly zone over Libya was overwhelming. 557 MPs voted in favour with only 13 abstainers. It's certainly far more crushing a majority than the Iraq War vote managed back in 2003, but even that one achieved 412 to 149 in favour of action. We didn't hear a lot from the mighty 412 subsequently, and it does perhaps serve as a useful reminder that when it comes to war, MPs seem to regularly give it the benefit of the doubt. Somehow, the heartache and problems that arise from western military action can always be deferred to another day. Gaddafi's war against his rebels is a savage and unpleasant one, but the remarkable inconsistency of western foreign policy 'actions' continue to open such votes as today's to be branded as hypocritical, to say nothing of the way in which western action tends to act like quicksand on its own forces, and dimension changers on the conflicts they are designed to stop.

It is very difficult to watch Gaddafi move against the rebels without wanting to see the tables turned against him. It is also difficult to stomach Robert Mugabe pulverising, bullying and starving his own people while he remains cosseted in a lap of ill-gotten luxury. It isn't easy to hear about the violent, authoritarian action of Royal Wedding guest the King of Bahrain either, or to continue reading the gut-wrenching tales from Russia's savage, dirty war against the Chechens. When it comes to three of the afore-mentioned international calamities, the western nations appear to have tacitly - and correctly - determined that they cannot intervene. But Libya, somehow, is different. Just as Iraq was different it seems. Perhaps the presence of oil makes them different. Maybe it's simply the high media profile and the belief among so many legislators that nothing is worse than not acting upon the media's preferred crisis. There is, possibly, a strategic dimension. But whatever it is that determines the difficult to defend inconsistency of western action, nothing can disguise the continuing problem that liberal interventionism presents to a western world struggling to escape the charges of ideological imperialism that tarnishes it so badly, and the human and financial costs it so willingly incurs each time it flies in to an alien conflict.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Farron's Furrow

Whether the Lib Dem president Tim Farron is ploughing a determined furrow towards eventual leadership we can't know, but he does provide an alternative source of authority to the current beleaguered leader, Nick Clegg, and was far more rapturously received at the Lib Dem conference, as the Telegraph's Peter Oborne points out. If Clegg is doomed by the Coalition, then it is Farron who is most likely to reap the party rewards, as a leader untainted by membership of the government. Mind you, Oborne does contend that, mindful of his difficult position, Clegg is starting to re-evaluate his public stance on the Coalition by being more open about his differences.

Whether that can make up for so signally failing to ring-fence the notorious Lib Dem pledge about student tuition fees remains to be seen. I still suspect Clegg has no future outside the Coalition any more - that may prove to have been his ultimate sacrifice in the pursuit of power.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lib Dem Dramas

It's all go at this weekend's exciting Lib Dem conference in Sheffield. The invaluable scoop-meisters tweeting to EyeSpyMP have already noted that Rochdale MP Paul Rowen is drunk - at 4pm! - and that ex-Tory MEP Edward MacMillan-Scott has been shouted at as "Tory Scum" - whether he's scum or not is debatable, but he's no longer a Tory! What next - Nick Clegg yelled out for being a Lib Dem sell-out merchant?!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Jamie's 'Dream' School

I'm not sure it's a good idea for teachers to watch Jamie Oliver's new series, "Jamie's Dream School", but it has proved too compelling not to. This isn't because it is showcasing particularly good teaching that would make us all feel inferior, but because it is indulging 20 GCSE drop-outs in the belief that formal education still has something to offer them. On the evidence of the first two programmes - it hasn't.

I know I'm privileged as a teacher, teaching motivated, decent, interesting and generally well behaved students whose worst offence is usually a bit of over the top banter or mis-placed comedy. I've a real fear that the 20 students in this programme might, however, be more representative of the average school student. They are a disaster area - so totally self-obsessed that they are unable to sit for a moment without resort to mobile phones, incessant chat, computer games and a general refusal to acknowledge that they need to listen to anyone other than their own banal selves. They can't surely be real - they must be actors, mustn't they?!

The man who tried to provide the most formal lesson, historian David Starkey, had a nightmare, admittedly due in part to an ill-judged comment about one boy's 'fatness'. When he returned to the classroom, his most successful gambit was to show them a video of themselves trying to joust. Significantly, the most successful lesson in the programme so far appears to have been the artist Rankin giving them the project of creating a self-portrait. So let's continue to indulge their already overweening belief that the world revolves around them and their remarkaby limited ideas. There isn't much evidence for Jamie Oliver's assertion that they're all 'bright as buttons'. If they were wouldn't they have already recognised the value of at least some of their education in previous schools?

The students have even been given a role-model in self-obsession. Their politics teacher is none other than Alastair Campbell, who helpfully showed them the video of his own ill-tempered exchange with Adam Boulton on Sky last election, and then promoted a valueless but aggressive discussion between two teenagers that eventually resulted in a minor physical stand-off outside the classroom. Al's definitely teaching them politics the New Labour way!

It's bad education and tells us little about how to engage determinedly disaffected youths, but it's good television and perhaps reminds us that knowledge is very different from entertainment and is hard won by a bit of sacrificial grind. I doubt that's going to feature in any of their lessons.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Liberal Humiliation in Barnsley

If the Liberal Democrats about managed to save face in the earlier by-election of Oldham, the same ccannot, alas, be said for Barnsley. A dismal sixth place, behind even UKIP and the BNP, can only have put the jitters up the Coalition's junior partner. That said, anyone hoping to take comfort from the Liberals' misfortune should do so quickly - few real lessons can be drawn from this by-election. Hardly a typical seat, a northern Labour stronghold, and a pathetic turnout - merely 37%. UKIP's 2,000 odd votes will always look rather better against a turnout of only a few thousand in total than it will when all the normal electors come out to vote! The victorious Labour candidate, meanwhile, should prove an interesting addition to the Commons, as a former paratroop major who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.