Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Rihanna and Chris Brown's fists...

... are the subject of today's column, which can be read on the Daily Mirror website here.

Careful how you go.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Oh! What a lovely war.

IT'S rare you can think of anything nice to say about a war, but the good thing about the conflict in Mali is at least the French are winning something.

They've had a hell of a time of it, militarily speaking, and the fact they've asked for our help again should be magnanimously overlooked for the sake of letting Pierre chalk up a win.

And he is. "We've taken Gao!" they let it be known. "Nous avons libéré Timbuktu!" they announced. Today they've plonked their helicopters in the last major town left, and it was time for the party poppers and a particularly fine cheese.

Well done chaps, we're all very happy for you, especially as you did it after we loaned you some knackered transport planes we found rusting at the back of the hangar and a cross-channel ferry. There's no duty free in Mali, you know.

But alors! There's a problem with this suspiciously rapid and clean military victory, Pierre me old china, which is that you haven't found anybody to fight with.

As French and Malian forces swept through the country, town after town was declared to have "fallen" to them by journalists swept along in their wake and not one of whom seems to have witnessed anything resembling an actual exchange of gunfire, or even some harsh words.

In each town, the insurgents described variously as 'Islamists' and 'jihadists' had disappeared before the French wandered in.

When they 'liberated' the entirely undefended airport at Timbuktu, a disappointed-sounding French colonel said: "There were no shots fired, no blood spilt. Not even passive resistance with traps."

Which, as wars go, probably makes it the nicest one there's ever been. I'm just surprised the French still can't find a beardy bloke to surrender to.

This is the point where I should probably make a cheap joke about the smell of garlic clearing all before it, but I won't. Because the truth about what's going on in Mali is darker and nastier than many of us are giving it credit for.

Those beardy blokes with guns don't give a toss for garlic, the French, or slightly-rubbish British ferries. They're highly-motivated, indoctrinated, under-educated and utterly determined about introducing totalitarian rule, and many of them are thought to be veterans of conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and Libya.

They have, in various countries and as a body of people who believe in one thing, been able to use 20-year-old rifles and home-made explosives to fight the greatest and most technologically-developed military might ever amassed, and whenever it looks like they're going to lose they can melt away before resurfacing somewhere else.

Whether you call them the Taliban or Al Qaeda or jihadis, they don't carry a party membership card, they don't pay subs, and it's impossible to tell them apart from the farmers and peasants they come from and can disappear among.

A few weeks ago they flexed their muscles, and reached down through Mali to seriously threaten the government by trying to take over the former French colony as an Islamic state. Wary of what happened in Afghanistan the last time this happened, the West decided to push them back out again.

And that bit has probably worked, because the people who until recently were lopping off arms and heads for the slightest thing, terrorising women and children, and beating up dissenters have scooted off into the empty desert. Perhaps they've got a hidey hole in Niger, or Algeria, and perhaps they've built a Bond villain-style lair under the dunes with air con and over-large computers. Who knows - they've gone somewhere else, for now.

Which is why neighbouring countries are suddenly getting involved. US surveillance drones are being stationed in Niger, other African nations are sending soldiers under the auspices of the United Nations, and 330 British troops are being stationed in Mali, Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria.

Whatever politicians say about mission creep this is not a conflict in one country any more, and not just because the situation in Mali managed to spark a hostage crisis in Algeria. This is one third of Africa getting involved, the second most-populous continent on Earth, and home to a quarter of the world's Muslims. The worry today may be about the states in west Africa, but there are similar issues stretching right across north and east Africa as well, covering Libya, Egypt, Somalia and stretching into the Middle East.

If things get sticky here - if one state starts fighting over religious niceties with the next one, and remember many of them are young and volatile nations to start with - it will make Afghanistan look like a nice game of tennis.

Added to which, the whole world will get sucked in. China has massive economic interests in Africa whose natural resources are vital to its booming economy, as does Russia. If they start taking sides then America will do the same, and Britain will get involved for the sake of its former colonies.

It would be, in short, messy. And you won't see the French for dust.

But this is nothing new - this has all happened, in slightly different ways, before.

Eighty years ago today, in 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. He promoted and oversaw a totalitarian state which predicated upon people's poverty, resentments and fear in an attempt to make the world a uniform, disciplined, perfect place.

Whatever did not fit with his Aryan ideal was destroyed. Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, intellectuals, opponents, the disabled, Poles, Slavs were gassed, shot, brutalised and killed. Books were burned. Art was destroyed. Thought was outlawed and children were indoctrinated in the Hitler Youth.

We fought a big war, it killed lots of people, and Hitler died. But that was not the end of fascism, because it had taken root in other places like Russia and China where people who claimed to be at the opposite end of the political spectrum behaved much the same as Adolf.

And while some might think modern Nazis can be seen in far-Right groups rising in Greece and eastern Europe, the truth is they're in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan too, calling themselves something different.

They burned ancient texts in Timbuktu. They militarised children in Iraq, the Phillippines, Sudan, Somalia, Thailand, and Yemen. They propagandise, they demonise those who do not fit in with their view, they kill and maim because human life is not as important to them as the promise their leaders make about a better world hereafter.

It is wrong to call them Al Qaeda, because they don't all sign up. It is wrong to call them Islamists, because their actions have as much to do with Islam as having a bacon butty to knock out last night's hangover.

They are fascists, pure and simple. The only thing they are scared of is freedom.

The Prime Minister is visiting Algeria today, presumably to give them a stern talking to about how not to rescue hostages and get them on board with an international effort to root out all the terrorists they can find. Algeria's not on what you might call speaking terms with human rights, so it'll be interesting to see what flavour of jelly Dishface will be able to knit out of it.

But he was entirely right when he told Parliament: "We are in the midst of a generational struggle against an ideology which is an extreme distortion of the Islamic faith, and which holds that mass murder and terror are not only acceptable but necessary.

"We must tackle this poisonous thinking at home and abroad and resist the ideologues’ attempt to divide the world into a clash of civilisations."

The trouble with that is you can't fight a generational struggle against an enemy capable of melting and reforming like a T-1000 when your army is the smallest it's been in about six generations.

It's all very well saying we used to have lots of men with muskets and now it's a few lads with X-Box controls in Apache helicopter gunships, but they haven't stopped Mr Terrorist yet, have they?

So what would? What would make the fascists who drape themselves in the Koran melt away and never return?

Well, calling them fascists would be a start. The more they're referred to as people fighting for a faith the more they can persuade well-intentioned members of that religion to join up in sympathy, and the whole thing about faith is you can't prove it's wrong.

It might seem like a simple PR move, but if we called them what they are - Nazis in a different guise, or Joe Stalin in a kaftan - Muslim nations whose leaders find it hard, politically, to side with the West would find it a lot easier to join the efforts to stamp them out.

And after that, we have to be better than the fascists. We have to provide safe haven to people fleeing their regimes, we need to look after the disabled, not discriminate against gays or Jews, lay off the propaganda and save the books we are destroying every single day.

Because of all the things that can be said to bring an end to war, from atom bombs to running out of cannon fodder, there is one which works better than all the others, and once the wars are over it's the same thing which keeps the peace: Freedom.

No-one fights as long and as hard as someone whose freedom is being taken away. No faith in the world is aimed at stopping people going to school, or walking safely down the street.

That's the battle that's being fought in Mali and everywhere nearby. That's what's happening in east London when people are stopped by militants near mosques and told they must behave differently in "a Muslim area". It's what Afghanistan should always have been about, and Iraq, and it's the fight people have been having since 1933 and earlier.

If there was any point at all in a PR man becoming our Prime Minister, he has to rebrand the war on terror as a fight for freedom - freedom for everyone, whether they're Muslim, Christian, Jewish or can't-be-arsed, from daily terror, constant fear, and unreasoning hatred.

Because if he doesn't do it now, it's going to take a lot of futile deaths and a massive bill - as well as hell of a lot more soldiers - for it to end up like that anyway.

It's always best to fight with something the other guys don't understand.




Friday, 25 January 2013

Some basic maths...

... and other facts it's tricky for Gideon to understand are the topic of today's column for the Daily Mirror which can be read here.

Don't spend it all at once.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

So wonewy.

COMRADES!

This is your beloved leader Kim Jong-un speaking from the Eternal Palace of Spotless Flame on a crystal mountain above our mighty capital Pyongyang where 79 gazillion people live in happy productivity!


I bring you great news of our continuing battle against the capitalist running dog aggressors of the West and their never-ending efforts to destroy our prosperous republic and force our mighty motherland into economic slavery.

Firstly, we have acted to stop the vicious slurs they have made against me, your leader chosen by God who happened to be a personal friend of my father and grandfather, and claims that I have had plastic surgery for propaganda reasons to look more like Grandpops.


These sordid slurs harm the dignity of your heavenly leader and are entirely untrue, as the doctor assured me my bone structure indicated I was Grandpops reincarnated and it was a simple matter of rearranging the skin, tucking the eyelids, repositioning the nose, and wearing his old clothes to bring the truth to the surface. A nurse was on hand at all times to assure me of my inner beauty and was so useful I've kept her on.

In our glorious sunshine capital I have ordered the construction of new apartment blocks, the refurbishment of department stores, and built a new amusement park for my people to enjoy.


In excellent news of our great nation's never-ending technological advances, this one has safety belts on the rides, which the last three did not.

We have also launched an online racing game in which foreign pigs may learn the glorious joy of trundling slowly around Pyongyang in an elderly Lada looking for black market fuel. It will work just as soon as God obeys my instructions to deliver a server, plug socket and keyboard to the programmer I am keeping in an underground cell.

Thanks to my great financial prowess, the cost of a packet of cheese is now a mere £7, a chicken breast is just £8, a pair of trainers will set you back an insignificant £200 and it is £50 to see a doctor; all very achieveable on our national average wage of a whopping £568 a year, I'm sure you'll agree.

All my hard work has created a massive economic boom for you, my grateful people, with many of you moving from the country to the city to work on my great new construction dream, part of which has been to finish the so-called Tower of Doom begun by my holy father 25 years ago.


I grant you the lobby needs some work, but it's really coming on a treat.

Despite vicious and sly claims by the European Chamber of Commerce that its lift shafts are wonky and the concrete liable to disintegrate, this shiny glass victory edifice will open as a hotel for foreign re-education tourists in the next year, bringing many American billions to our booming industries.


I have even had to electrify the barbed wire fence around our beaches to stop any desperate capitalists trying to get in and enjoy the wonderful life of a North Korean.


It has come to your beloved leader's attention, however, that the counter-revolutionary pigs of our warlike and underhand neighbours to the south claim that this process of turning farmers into slightly-rubbish concrete mixers has created a famine in our most profitable farming area, on which we rely to feed our mighty army of one million people as well as me and all my mates.

Your venerable president for life has been accused of directly causing the death by starvation of 20,000 people in this region since coming to power, a typical capitalist smear by those who cannot grasp the ineffable nature of my plans for our nation's long-term independence and prosperity.

I have decided the best way to preserve the amazing world-dominating success of our high-tech industries, construction sector and vital social development is not to go begging cap-in-hand to our aggressors and asking them for food aid.

The overtly militaristic and oppressive regimes of the West will only insist that we dismantle all our scientific space and armed forces projects first, a mistake which would lead to the bloody dismembering of all North Korean peoples by the cannibals who lurk beyond our borders.

Indeed, they were so terrified of our last successful missile launch they said there would be no food aid on offer until we rendered ourselves powerless.


As these enemies of truth are in need of a stern lesson from the excellent military might and indigenous wisdom of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, we have therefore today announced that we will continue our efforts to build a massive castle in space from which I can bare my bottom at the world, as well as continue tests of our powerful and deadly nuclear weapons.

Suggestions that our previous two efforts at nuclear bombs either misfired or produced only a small amount of radiation inside a mountain are slurs by the downtrodden puppets of the US Geological Survey, as our great weapons are more than capable of causing great terror to the Americans.

Reports that they hold 5,113 nuclear warheads many hundreds of times more powerful than ours are entirely false and anyone who repeats them will be struck down by the mighty hand of Kim Jong-un.

The world should quake at our great advances, our economic drive, and world-beating Olympic weight-lifting team. I, Kim Jong-un, assure you, my beloved people whose success and continued development are my sole concern once I've had my six breakfast McMuffins, that our victory over the vicious coyotes of the West is imminent and will be glorious.

While we wait for this moment of destiny, I recommend you all remain quiet and calm, ignoring any selfish and capitalist hunger pangs, while I carry on with my rockets, my space castle, my Tower of Doom and other wonderful plans for your continued happiness and glory.

And do not, at any point, expect the West to do anything useful about all of this or for you to get your hands on anything approaching a lightbulb.

Who feels wonewy now, huh?


Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Don't mention the war.

EUROPE. A word guaranteed to conjure up nothing but a slightly-bored sigh for most of us, and a slightly-irritated roll of the eyes for everyone else.

That's because the idea of a European anything is exciting and interesting only to Americans, Nick Clegg, and other unusuals.

Today the Prime Minister has forced a number of journalists to fight the urge to stab a pen in their own eyes while listening to him talk about Europe in a speech whose contents were leaked so many times in the past few weeks you'd be forgiven for thinking his software had a glitch.

Fundamentally, he said things needed to be talked about, failed to say what those things might be, and promised a national referendum on these unknown things if he won the next election which, seeing as he couldn't win the last one, makes it a fairly unlikely event.

So why bother? Because his party are doing what they always do halfway through a term in office, which is start bitching with each other and complaining the Germans are trying to kick off again. The PM has said enough to shut them up for a bit, while coincidentally making his opponents look silly and threatening the Germans with a pram-exit strategy which they'll find irritating enough to maybe let him win a few points.

That's it, and that's all. But in the meantime there's a bunch of people banging on about federal states, island nations, independent national determination and lots of other words which when used in conjunction with the word Europe turn simple boredom into a building urge to swallow barbiturates.

If the referendum does ever happen half the nation will just expire simply because of the whole year of European argument we'll all have to endure first.

And that's the main reason lots of people don't like the idea of the European Union - it's not exciting. It's depressing. It's grey. It's bureaucratic. It's Belgium incarnate.

In truth the EU was born from blood and horror of such great quantities we can barely imagine it. The people who remember it are dying out, and by definition if they made it this far it's because they didn't see the worst of it.

The wars were one thing. The millions who died, the tommys ordered to run towards machine guns, the sailors who drowned, the air crews shot out of the sky. The children buried under rubble.

The Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, psychiatric patients, Poles and Slavs sent to the gas chambers, worked, starved, shot, brutalised. The people who collaborated to save themselves and their loved ones, the people who fled, who fought, who waited at home for the telegram.

That lasted for years, but what lasted longer was the hate it left behind. The poverty and destruction of the First World War led to the rise of Nazis who blamed Germany's problems on minorities, the disabled, the immigrant. Hitler spent years surfing the wave of growing hate and disaffection, and was in power for six years, militarising, occupying, propagandising schoolchildren, and ghettoising before other nations decided it was time to stop him.

Translation: 60,000 Reich marks. What this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the People’s community during his lifetime. Comrade, that is your money too.
It took another six years to get rid, and afterwards we still had the hate and poverty, the resentment, and it built again in Serbia for another European war where many were killed because of their faith, their background, or because they objected to a totalitarian solution to the world's messier problems.

It's still around today. In times of economic crisis people flail for a culprit, and although we blamed banks in 2008 we can't do without them, so today we are told by the government to blame the sick, the jobless, the disabled who cost us too much. Single parents aren't unfortunate, or better-off-divorced - they're feckless, they're promiscuous.

People forget all this when they talk about the European Union. It comes down, these days, to regulations about sewage outfall pipes, the Common Agricultural Policy and the never-ending dislike for bureaucrats. People forget the blood.

Europe still has hate, and unfortunately it still has Nazis. But it also has a few rules, like clean drinking water and human rights, mature economies and, with 503million people and 20 per cent of the world's GDP, a degree of clout which even Americans need to take notice of.

It is, undeniably, a good thing to have a supreme court capable of keeping member states in reasonable line. It is great that new customs regimes make business a bit easier, and for those that remember having to change Deutschmarks to Francs and then Pesetas, one currency makes life simpler for those as want it.

Because the really good thing about the EU is not that it stops hate, which it plainly can't, nor that it gave Nick Clegg something to do while he was waiting to be ignored by David Cameron. The best thing about it is that it's a mess.

It's not a nation with a single language and culture, like America. It's not a regime like Nazi Germany forcing everyone to do as it wants. It's different countries willingly co-operating on some of the big stuff, to pretty much everyone's benefit and with the main intention of avoiding more blood.

It's got a dozen religions, different tax regimes, languages butting up against one another in ways that don't make any sense. It has history and resentments and only a very rough idea where it's going, which is usually the opposite of what the neighbours want.

The EU is a bit like a plate piled up with a dollop of everything from the buffet. You like bratwurst, but do you really want it on your cannelloni? Paella is great too, but it's sat inside a croissant with a herring in chocolate sauce.

Some people hate that kind of mess, and other people love it. There are inevitable moments when it's not to your taste, like when EU rules mean you can't deport Abu Qatada who's pretty unlikeable but has yet to actually be convicted of any crimes, but the upside of that is those same rules mean suspected rapists can be pursued across borders and sent to answer their accusers, whenever they leave the embassy.

The problem with the EU always comes when people try to sort the mess out. It comes when anyone tries to turn it into a uniform group of states all behaving in the same way, like lending money to Greece and expecting them to pay it back as diligently as Austria.

This week's plans for media councils in all EU states with the power to fire journalists and impose fines might be a handy way to improve press freedom in countries like Romania or France but if they tried it here its only effect would be to make the love lives and expenses of EU bureaucrats of sudden interest to the most usefully-feral Press in the world.

In short, the EU is something that's best to be not quite in, and not quite out, of. It's a pond we dip our toe in, an umbrella we half-heartedly hold over most of our heads. That's not because we're British, or islanders, or lacking in commitment to the European dream - it's because that's the best way to do it.

The EU has changed a lot since it was born of blood, and since we last had a vote on it in 1975. But in or out are not the best options, because it's such a complicated, messy thing that most of us would say 'sod it' and vote no just so we didn't have to endure this same old argument every few years.

Far better to say we'd rather shake it all about, and try very hard not to break something which is and always has been, whatever you think of how it works in practice, a bloody good idea.

Then we can carry on annoying the Germans.



Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Prince Harry...

... and why we need to have a beer and a little chat about things is the topic of today's column over at the Daily Mirror which you can read here.

Cheers!

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Save us.

REMEMBER this?


No, not the airbrushing. The promise - that the greatest social benefit and political achievement of any British government for centuries would, at all costs, be protected.

We had no money, the banks had taken the lot, things were going to be tough, belts needed to be tightened, cloth would be cut to suit and so on. A lot of gruel would be dished up for the masses in times of austerity, but the beloved, vital, life-saving and unbiased National Health Service would be sacrosanct.


The Government said it would "stop the top-down reorganisations of the NHS that have got in the way of patient care", and did this by way of launching a top-down reorganisation of the NHS abolishing health authorities, primary care trusts and the NHS executive and making GPs, whether they like it or not, engage in 'increased competition' and buy in services from private providers.


A document detailing the ways in which patients might suffer was produced, withheld, debated, vetoed and only finally published after being heavily edited as to what, exactly, the suffering might involve.

In September the King's Fund revealed 'trolley waits' as they are known are 'an emerging upward trend' since the time of the 2010 General Election.

Last month the Care Quality Commission revealed a third of patients it polled had spent more than four hours waiting to be treated in Accident & Emergency - the worst figure since 2004.

Yesterday the medical director of the NHS admitted sight-saving cataract operations were being rationed across half the country.

In the House of Commons less than 24 hours ago, health minister Dan Poulter - himself a part-time NHS doctor - was forced to apologise to his Labour oppo after he accused him of lies.

Six thousand nurses have 'disappeared'. Waiting times for treatment have risen. There are 18,000 fewer administrative staff most of whom are not the reviled 'NHS managers' but consist of low-paid receptionists, record-keepers, porters and clerks. Seventeen hospitals are said to have unsafe staff levels and, entirely coincidentally, the whole organisation has been told to save £20billion by 2015.

My local hospital is bankrupt, and another is facing the closure of good A&E and maternity units to pay the debt of its neighbour.


So what are they doing about it? Today in the House of Commons the Prime Minister was told the NHS was "being taken back to the 1980s". He responded: "The NHS is improving every day under this government."

At the same time the Health Secretary, a startled meerkat who goes by the name of Jeremy Hunt, has leaked details of a speech in which he says the NHS should be entirely paperless by 2018 to save £4.4billion.

So that's every doctor and nurse filling in forms on an iPad rather than a bit of paper, in order to save money.

That's every medical record of 66million people stored on a giant database which someone would have to invent, in order to save money.

That's repeating, pretty much, the last failed attempt to digitise the NHS which took 10 years, cost £11.4bn, and ended up being scrapped because it didn't work and was a waste of cash, in order to save money.


It doesn't matter what your politics are, or who you blame for the country's economic woes - we will all need the NHS at some point. Even the fabulously wealthy need it when they have car accidents or their helicopters crash, when their children crack their heads open or the nanny breaks a finger.

Most of us need it now and again, when we're ill, or scared, or just a little bit worried. We need it when our parents need looking after, we need it to help us have our children, patch up our mistakes, and to hold our hands when the whole world comes tumbling down around us.

My local, broken, indebted hospital has for me, in the past four years, dealt with two cancer scares, a skiing injury and an emergency admission.

The National Health Service is not a luxury. It is not an indulgent bit of bubble bath, or organic beef burgers you spend more on in order to be sure they don't contain horse. It's like your backbone - a damn useful thing you'd be pretty stuck without.

Backbones occasionally need surgery, but of a very delicate and careful kind because the slightest slip paralyses the patient for life. One moment of thoughtlessness and suddenly someone perfectly healthy is looking at sixty years of colostomy bags and widened doorways.

Backbones are not something you tinker with. You especially don't tinker with them if you're an idiot, or even worse a large group of idiots.

It's true of course that belts can be tightened a lot more if there is no backbone at all. But what you are left with is a strange, floppy thing which inevitably someone is going to suggest would be better off put out of its misery. And it's not as though we have too much good health and are using hospitals for frivolous things we can do without - cataracts might not kill, but losing your sight can.

Which is a strange place to end up from having promised to protect the NHS at all costs only two years ago, and from people who probably, in all honesty, thought they were doing something helpful and had no intention of breaking the thing they were twiddling with.

But twiddle they have. And break it, one day, they will, for the simple reason that the people concerned look upon the NHS as something which needs to be fixed rather than the thing which can fix them.

They think 'saving' is the same as 'cutting', and it's not.

You promised.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Reform (vb.): Change in order to improve.

IN a few weeks' time there is going to be an election.

You won't have heard about it, which is strange because it is an election to find someone who will argue, amend, or defend legislation which will directly affect your life.

If you're over 18, you have a vote about who to send to Westminster to make your laws. This is a democracy, right?

The vote is for a seat in the House of Lords, something which probably sounds like a great idea. A vote is always a good thing, and if we're electing people to a Parliamentary chamber where all its members used to inherit their seat along with a peerage well, that's fabulous, isn't it?

Not if you look at the small print, it's not.

Because this is a kind of election invented very recently - 1999, in fact - and was called a 'reform'. Reform is a word used to describe a thing you are changing slightly for the worse while making it sound like it's better; it very rarely indicates improvement.

The reform in question is that there is a vote, but not for you.

The House of Lords used to be the most powerful part of Parliament, with the plebeian House of Commons merely being there to offer advice on laws. With time and Civil War the Commons grew stronger and the Lords weaker, and these days laws are set by MPs in the 'lower house' with them being amended or argued over by peers in the 'upper house'.

It is, in theory, a reasonable way of ensuring the government of the day doesn't always get its way. But the Lords remains a place of privilege and entitlement which naturally leans on the conservative side.

So in 1999, with a series of Labour bills thrown back at him, Tony Blair announced a bill to reform the House of Lords. People born to a title were not due a say in legislation, he said, and the upper house should be elected.

Its first clause states: "No-one shall be a member of the House of Lords by virtue of a hereditary peerage."

You can imagine how that went down with the 75th Baron of Lower Diddling, confronted with the prospect of spending his life with the baroness of Lower Diddling rather than snoozing gently on a leather bench and enjoying subsidised claret.

So the Lords threatened to throw back every bill Blair sent their way, so to buy them off he allowed 90-odd hereditary peers to remain, along with 25 Lords Spiritual made up of church bishops and a remaining 700 or so being those given a life peerage.

In theory, this meant most of the people in the upper house were experts after a long career in a chosen field and after much hard work in public life they would be elevated to the Lords where their wisdom could benefit the whole nation.

In practice, we got John Prescott back. We also have the bloke who wrote Downton Abbey and a chap who heard Jimmy Savile rumours when he ran the BBC but didn't do much about them.

So what's this vote for? Well, when a hereditary peer shuffles off to the great big comfy chair in the sky there is a by-election for his place on the red benches.

Who can stand for election? Other hereditary peers - in particular, those already thrown out by Blair's 1999 act.

Who can vote for them? You'll like this - it's other hereditary peers.

So when a person born to a title dies, his place gets taken by a person born to a title who is chosen by other people born to a title. This somehow seems worse, and certainly more expensive, than just letting them sit there without any type of selection beyond that of Mother Nature in the first place.

And it's not just a futile and nationally embarrassing waste of time. In fact, this next vote is working up to be as shocking an example of undemocratic chicanery as you might normally expect from Robert Mugabe, Joe Stalin, or even that old tyrant Tony Blair himself.

Because among the 27 people standing for an election you have no say in is a chap called Viscount Hailsham. It might mean more if I tell you he was known as Douglas Hogg while agriculture minister under John Major and as the disgusting little oinker who wanted us to pay for his moat to be cleared in the 2009 expenses scandal.


At the time he was a backbencher, moonlighting profitably in his second job as a well-paid barrister, but who nevertheless felt it necessary to ask the taxpayer to pay £18,000 for his gardener, £1,000 to mow his lawn, £671 for a mole catcher, £40 to tune his piano, £200 to maintain his Aga and a whopping £2,115 to have the moat around his medieval manor house cleared.

He insisted all was reasonable, of course, but he managed to avoid finding out if the voters felt the same by standing down at the last general election, thereby removing his snout before he could be punched in it by the proles.

Two years on, he reapproaches the trough from another direction and asks his fellow poshos to let him into the Lords, where he can expect a daily allowance of up to £300 plus travel, subsistence, subsidised food and drink, travel expenses for his wife and the occasional paid-for, foreign junket.

And who decides whether he gets the gig? A few dozen other Tory peers, and probably the Tory Prime Minister will be listened to if he quietly asks them to back or drop a candidate. Which makes the whole thing a bit of a farce not much different to the PM just appointing a chum in the first place.

So the 'reforms' we've got involve the rich, white man in charge telling rich, white men who to vote for among a narrow field of rich, white men not one of whom, were he to seek the approval of the people whose laws he will be making, would get many votes.

There was an attempt to reform the Lords last year, but it failed for the simple reason that the people making the decision were MPs and most of them are unlikely to vote for the end of a MPs' retirement home where they hoped to coast to a halt on £300 a day and two-hour lunches.

Plus, the plans were full of holes. Nick Clegg wanted the peers to serve 15-year terms and who in their right mind agrees to do any job for that long? He was also prepared to let a fifth of the Lords be appointed by politicians, which still means the government of the day could sway crucial votes with their placemen.

Unfortunately since then he and David Cameron appointed another 80 life peers - their personal picks of people guaranteed to do as they're told - which means the Lords now has 900 members and is second in size only to the upper chamber of the Chinese parliament.

Most of them do not even bother to turn up to work most days. Lord Coe's spoken only three times since 2009.

There are two ways to reform the House of Lords and ensure oinking viscounts, ex-ministers and celebrities don't get to pollute the national pond of public life long after they last added anything useful to it.

The first is to have the upper house entirely elected, in the middle of a government term so that opposition is at its greatest, and to have those candidates chosen entirely outside the party political system. Every single Lord and Lady would be an independent, voted in by people who thought they'd be good at scrutinising the government rather than toeing anyone's line.

I'd quite happily pay £300 a day for that, plus travel and junkets. Some people reckon the costs would rise, but then again so might the usefulness.

The second is six tons of gunpowder in the basement.

 Let's ask the hogs which they'd prefer.






Friday, 11 January 2013

There's a second...

... column from me today for the Daily Mirror on what the Jimmy Savile reports really ought to say.

You can read it here.

The most bloated...

... scrounging, greedy, shirking bit of the public sector is detailed in full for the Daily Mirror today here.

Have a nice weekend. If you want me, I shall be on the barricades.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Change the blame.

IT is a rule of modern human existence that if there is something you don't like, you must blame someone for it.

There is no thought that the thing you don't like might be a source of joy to others, or that you might be in the wrong. Nor do people stop to think that if they don't like something they ought to do something to change it.

No, it's just pointing the finger, usually while sitting down.

Hence racing presenter John McCririck blames ageism for his contract not being renewed by Channel 4, which he intends to sue for £3m. It's why we have Silvio Berlusconi blaming "feminists and communists" for the fact he has to pay his ex-wife alimony, why freak weather is being blamed in Australia for bush fires and in Britain for it being a bit chilly.

The French are blaming us for a lack of scallops, Tories and Labour are blaming each other for the economic crisis, everyone's blaming Nick Clegg for something and for some reason the only person to escape is Michael McIntyre, who's made £21m out of being bland and is therefore somehow blamed by edgy comedians for being too blameless.

It surely can't be long until someone blames Andrew Marr's stroke on his failed super-injunction, interrogating politicians about their medical history, or the ears.

Well, we've had quite enough of that. It's a fruitless, miserable way to go on for the simple reason that it doesn't make the least bit of difference. Finger pointing gets dismissed a politics, or scare-mongering, or stupidity, and no-one bothers to look at the real reason these things happen and then figure out how to avoid or get used to it next time.

So, John McCririck blames ageism for losing his job. Seeing as it's television and a lot of it depends on being pleasant, the chances are he's lost it because he's an unapologetic pillock with the habits of a farmyard animal and probably the body odour to suit. He refers to his wife as The Booby and the only thing of note he seems to have done is irritate Edwina Currie.

In a showbiz world where image is everything, this fat bemoobed misogynist could only ever lose out to Olympic national treasure Clare Balding. If he wants to blame someone for the end of his career, he should start with whichever idiot thought it was a good idea to show us the real McCririck on Celebrity Big Brother.


There are many things Silvio Berlusconi can blame other people for, not least his bandana advisor, but if he's wondering who's at fault for having to fork out £29m a year to his ex-wife he needs to have a long talk with his crotch.


Hopefully his man junk will have enough residual sense to point out that, as a man worth £5bn whose wife of 11 years is mother to three of his children, he should count himself lucky not to have lost half of everything.

Seeing as many people in his life apparently need paying to endure his company he probably ought to try psychotherapy, and steer clear of the Blairs.

Now to Australia. For the first time weather maps have needed new colours to show temperatures of more than 50 degrees, which have contributed to the bush fires being so widespread and vicious this year.


But you know what? There'd be fires without the freak weather, because this is AUSTRALIA. Bush fires are a natural phenomenon to which its wildlife has not only adapted but now finds vital, and the only shocking bit about it is that humans are surprised by them every year. If terrifying fires jumping between tree tops and rampaging across miles of countryside are not your thing, move.

As for worry about Snowmageddon bringing Britain to its knees - it's JANUARY. It's supposed to be cold. I know we all like discussing the weather because it's much more interesting and do-able than emotions, but in all honesty it will be worth mentioning only when Hogmanay is as hot as hell, and not before.

Next time somebody says "Well, I blame..." or "it's all because of..." listen with both ears rather than just one, and you'll probably notice they're pointing the finger at something which they are incapable of changing. The weather, politics, the bleeding obvious.

They do it because not changing anything thus becomes a reasonable response to a problem, exonerating all of us from having to get off the arses we're sat on while we apportion blame like slices of cake.

Imagine what we could apportion, and achieve, if we blamed the things we could do something about. Why, all humans would live in places protected from flood and fire, the economy might actually get fixed by someone, John McCririck would go away and Nick Clegg's onesie would be burned in a wicker man.

Humanity might just become a slightly more productive and less idiotic species as well.


But probably not.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

We can steal time.

THERE are some things that shouldn't be allowed.

Adding dried fruit to chocolate bars, for example, should be punishable by death. If I wanted manky fruit I'd eat some, but I don't, and worse still you've removed chocolate in order to give me grapes that have been on the floor. To the wall with you quick-smart, and no moaning.

Then there's people who just stand there. Whether they've got a pram or bags of shopping or just nowhere they need to be, they stand in doorways, at the tops of stairs, on the left of escalators and lurk against corners in order to catch people unawares. They have no idea of the people they block, they're having a nice natter or a gaze off into the middle distance oblivious to the bottlenecks they are creating in the normal ebb and flow of life.

These people should firstly be regularly kettled in order to save the human race from the effects of the low-grade frustration and anger they cause, and secondly they should never be allowed to drive.

But even worse than these things is a crime against the soul, such as when you turn on the telly and see Iggy Pop selling car insurance.

The most dangerous, dodgy, dirty, mostly-naked man in the world, the most interesting drummer there has ever been, urging teenagers to spend their savings on insurance? You might as well just give up, change your name back to James Newell Osterberg Junior and admit the whole thing was a farce.

Semi-naked protopunks taking their trousers off while bawling out Lust for Life do not do insurance. The man who said "If I don't terrorise, I am not Pop" does not give an arse for third party, fire and theft.


The angry, insecure and bookish teenager inside me may never have been able to be like Iggy but my adolescence was more bearable because there was an Iggy, somewhere, doing Iggy things that were exciting and edgy and different.

Seeing him sell car insurance is like visiting your childhood home and seeing it's smaller than you remember. It's looking at the massive hill you used to scream down on your bike and realising it's a gentle slope. It's like suddenly being told you were adopted - it makes you wonder what, exactly, you can still hold on to.

The Sex Pistols? Sid's long gone and Johnny sells butter. The Beatles? Best ones have karked it and Macca's done nothing I want to listen to since 1973. The Stones? They want every last penny your possess, but at least they're not flogging stairlifts.

Yet.

It's our fault, of course. As teenagers we invest our hopes and dreams in the people who make the soundtrack of our lives, so that song at the school dance, that hit which keeps playing on the radio while you dither at second base, the star you read about in the music press, becomes part of your personal playlist.

The song might be rubbish, it might have three chord changes and the lyrics were dashed off on the back of an envelope because their A&R man said "you owe your drug dealer", the people behind it might be utterly horrible, but teens don't care about that.

It's about the music, and the moment, and when something years later happens to tarnish that memory we have to face the fact we're grown up now, and if sleeve notes weren't a thing of the past we'd need glasses to read them.

They say don't meet your heroes, but they should add that your heroes should have the grace not to come and find you later. Some things improve with age, like wine (and writers, ha!) but singers always fade, artists run out of ideas, and David Bowie, I'm afraid, has got boring.

Yesterday his birthday coincided with the release of his first single in a decade, an event so momentous it needed to be covered by the Today programme, the BBC 10 o'clock news, and virtually every other bulletin in the Western world.

This is the man who changed the face of pop. He almost invented celebrity, gave the PR rules a good kicking, he had his own cult and just because its members are now, well, older than they were they are no less fervent in their worship of him.


And the song was pants.

The voice is thin, these days. The lyrics are as daft as ever, but for an innovative musician whose every creation is treated with the reverence of tablets of stone carved by God his first song in ages should blast us away, and instead we got a self-indulgent 4mins 34secs of mournful wail about Berlin.

All he has innovated this time is boredom, disappointment, and the sad realisation that he was more interesting when he was off his bonce on coke and smack. The cult won't like anyone saying it, any more than Scientologists let us laugh about lizard people and Tom Cruise, but had that dirge been produced by anyone else it would be laughed out of town.

Still, let's not be down. It's just the first single of a new album and there might be something amazing on the rest of it. There might be a song about frogs, or butter, or car insurance...

And even if that's rubbish too, well, we've still got everything else. All the songs we grew up with, snogged to, argued over, treasured, or turned up louder every time dad yelled at us to turn it down.

When you listen to the music that mattered to you then, you can steal back time and return to your youth, when they were heroes rather than faded old men whose mortality makes you feel cheated out of something.

Heroes simply shouldn't be allowed to get old, or sell out, or produce music that no-one can be bothered to ban any more.

Few people ever point it out, but heroes are just for one day.

 Car insurance lasts longer.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Jyoti Singh Pandey...

... and why India's record on rape is not so different to everywhere else in the world is the topic of today's column, which you can read on the Daily Mirror website here.

Think on.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Dear Argentina...

NOW look. You've been whining about this since 1767 and it's starting to get on my wick.

I've ignored you until now, because you're very silly and your greatest cheerleader is Sean Penn, a man who pretends to be things he is not and once hit his then-wife Madonna with a baseball bat, tied her up for nine hours and abused her.

If he is on your side, it's not a good side to be on.

But today you've written to Prime Minister Dishface demanding he enter negotiations to 'return' the islands we call the Falklands and you call Malvinas, 180 years after we cruelly stole them from you with our jackbooted naval officers of totalitarianism.

You were 'forcibly stripped' of these jewels in the South Atlantic and your people were 'expelled'.


Only, that's not quite what happened, is it Argentina? Someone obviously needs to remind you, and probably Mr Penn too, of the facts.

Allow me to start by saying there are probably things we can all agree on. War is bad, for example, and colonialism - aside from the roads, aqueducts, education, health reforms, economic development, culture, food, integration and innovation - tends to be a bad thing too.

We could probably avoid an argument over the fact that the Falkland Islands, in and of themselves, aren't exactly pretty. There are no hanging gardens, no waterfalls, no exotic wildlife. They're a windy bunch of rocks a long way from anywhere, although I grant they're nearer to you than they are to us.

Which begs the question about why, exactly, you never bothered to settle them.

De facto control over the Falkland Islands

When they were first discovered by a Dutchman in 1600 there was nothing there but seabirds. No people, no cultural heritage for anyone to trample over. Just a windy bunch of rocks.

Ninety years later a British sailor was blown off course and sailed through a bit of water he named Falkland Sound, and 74 years after that the French turned up to form a colony.

WAIT! I hear you cry. The French colonised the Falklands?

Why yes, and 18th century email being what it was the British turned up two years later and built a settlement on another one of the islands and claimed the whole lot for the Crown, unaware the Frenchies were already in residence.

The French sold out to the Spaniards a year after that, who put the colony - containing French people - under control of a governor in Buenos Aires.

Three years later the Spanish picked a fight with the Brits, kicked them out and after a peace treaty let us back in. In 1774 the Brits, overstretched by the Americans kicking off, withdrew and left a plaque behind asserting their claim. Thirty two years later the Spaniards departed too, leaving another plaque, and in 1811 the last settlers threw in the towel.

We were back to empty, windy rocks known only to whalers and sealing ships, and two memorial plaques.

In 1820 an American pirate called David Jewett took shelter there, and finding the place deserted promptly claimed the islands for a union of South American provinces which later became Argentina.

You lot didn't realise this for a year, but still didn't settle the islands. Instead a German who pretended to be French called Luis Vernet came along, asked the Argentines and the Brits politely if they minded, and founded a little colony of his own.

It took him a few goes, but eventually he established a settlement, you named him governor and gave him the right to kill all the seals. This quite hacked off the Brits, who wanted some seals for themselves, but Vernet placated us by asking for our military protection.

It all got a bit hairy in 1831, when Vernet found some American seal ships, arrested their crews and sparked an international incident. The Americans sent a warship, blew up the settlement, and hot-headedly sent the most senior settlers to the mainland for trial for piracy.

The Argentines sent a new governor to establish a penal settlement, but he was killed in a mutiny the day he arrived. The Brits, quite reasonably, decided the whole thing was a dog's breakfast.

And now we get to the bit you're unhappy about Argentina, the invasion and forced expulsion.

The Brits arrived two months after this mutiny, and wrote to the chap in charge of the small Argentine garrison. The letter said:
"I have to direct you that I have received directions from His Excellency and Commander-in-Chief of His Britannic Majesty's ships and vessels of war, South America station, in the name of His Britannic Majesty, to exercise the rights of sovereignty over these Islands.
It is my intention to hoist to-morrow the national flag of Great Britain on shore when I request you will be pleased to haul down your flag on shore and withdraw your force, taking all stores belonging to your Government."

Now, there are many ways people can be oppressed, forced, compelled and abused - just ask Sean Penn - but a polite note is not one of them.

The Argentine in charge thought briefly about resisting, but he didn't have many soldiers and besides, most of them were British mercenaries who refused to fight. So on January 3, 1833 you left, Argentina, with wounded pride and your nose in the air.

You had never settled the islands. Never established a colony of your own. Never guarded it with a garrison of your own soldiers. They had never, ever, been yours.

And now to the matter of that expulsion. The log of an Argentine ship present at the time records the settlers were encouraged to stay, and those that left did so of their own free will and generally because they were fed up with living on some boring, windy rocks.

Eleven people left - four Argentines, three 'foreigners', one prisoner, a Brit and two Americans.

Twenty-two people remained - 12 Argentinians, four Uruguay Indians, two Brits, two Germans, a Frenchman and a Jamaican.

As the imposition of colonial power on an indigenous population goes, that takes some beating. And for the sake of clarity I should point out that a human melting pot like that makes the place about as British as you can be.

A few months later HMS Beagle, taking Charles Darwin to the Galapagos for a long think, popped in and found the settlement half-ruined and the residents lawless. There were several murders, some looting, and in 1834 the exasperated British sent Lieutenant Henry Smith to run the place.

The islands have been ours ever since, and is now home to almost 3,000 people descended from settlers who came from Britain, France, Scandinavia, Gibraltar, St Helena and Chile. At the same time, you went on to fight wars with most of South America and colonise provinces with indigenous populations by killing or pushing them out.

When your government was broke and facing strong opposition in the 1980s, you invaded them to divert attention of the voters with the cost of 907 lives, and it cannot be unrelated to your letter that in a few weeks you face being ejected by the International Monetary Fund for lying over your economic figures.

At around the same time, the people who now live on these boring, windy rocks in the middle of nowhere are having a referendum about who they would like to govern them. You will ignore this, because you believe they do not have a right to make up their own minds and have repeatedly refused to talk to the islanders about your claims.

So allow me to make a couple of things clear. Firstly, the history of these windy rocks is an utter mess but someone had to take charge, and you weren't up to the job. We did it pretty nicely, considering our record in other places.

Secondly, only jackbooted colonial scumbags refuse to listen to the democratic voice of the people who live somewhere, so you really ought to wind your hypocritical warmongering necks in.

And thirdly - well done with the wine, and the beef's pretty good, but if you want to negotiate let's start with you taking back your Total Wipeout, because as cultural imperialism goes it's pretty offensive, and you might want to think about handing Patagonia back to its people as well.

After that we are quite prepared to let you come and holiday on these windy rocks, where you will be invited to pitch a tent anywhere you like within the 13 square kilometres where you left 19,000 landmines last time you visited.

We know they're a long way away. We know there's not much to the rocks, and there might be oil and it might give someone a claim to Antarctica.

But we also know something you don't - which is that a well-run, law-abiding and happy bunch of rocks is the best bunch of rocks you can hope to have. You're no more up to that job now than you have ever been.

In case our position is still not clear, the above could be summed up as: No.


Yours sincerely,

Blighty

PS Can we interest you in Julian Assange?