Archive for May, 2007

OK, part three of the Falklands 25th anniversary series. The others are here, dealing with command, and here, dealing with Margaret Thatcher.

It’s been quite a common idea since the war that the Falklands represented some sort of throwback to the empire, or alternatively a rejection of Europe in favour of it. This is usually coded as being an atavistic endeavour, trying to return to an imperial past associated with warmongering and jingoism, which the people who say this implicitly romanticise in a nice paradox, or else a return to an organic tradition. The determining factor is, as usual, partisanship – the left, especially the pro-European bits, assign values of modernity, realism, and pacifism to “Europe”, and irrationality and warmongering to not-Europe. The Right, meanwhile, seems to conflate the Falklands War with the maritime tradition and the Atlantic alliance (we’ll come to this in part 4, by the way).

It’s a question of meta-narratives, clearly. One of the enduring ones of British politics is the tension between Europe and America, with the Commonwealth being shared between the American side (as leftover empire) and the European side (as the object of internationalist concern). This overlies Basil Liddell-Hart’s notion that British military and political strategy fluctuates between “continental commitments” and “blue water”. He strongly favoured the latter.

After 1968, when the decision was taken to withdraw from the Singapore base, British defence policy swung sharply towards European NATO (even though the Heath government reversed the decision and British forces stayed in Singapore and Malta up to 1976), and a role centred on the British Army of the Rhine, nukes, and the NATO Northern Flank for the Marines and Navy. Theoretically, a world-wide reach was still envisaged under various promises extended to Australia, Malaysia, and the UAE, but nobody took it seriously.

Much of the big navy had been decommissioned by 1982, and this didn’t change with the Conservative government – which resumed Navy deployments out-of-area, but wanted to cut one of the carriers and both the Fearless-class assault ships, thus ending the amphibious capability. The Falklands war caused some changes in this, reversing these decisions and leading to some upgrades in Naval equipment, although no new ships.

It must have felt pretty imperial, though. Canberra and Elk refuelled at the Queen Elizabeth wharf in Freetown on the way south, where they were met by bumboats trying to sell things aboard. The task force took its drinking water south aboard a Canadian Pacific Line tanker, Fort Toronto. New Zealand lent the UK a frigate to cover a NATO task. The RFA’s six Landing Ships Logistics had Hong Kong Chinese civilian crews, aboard ships that had been operated up to 1970 not by the RFA but by the British India Steam Navigation Company. In a broader sense, the Argentine invasion was certainly the sort of frontier crisis John Gallagher noted could cause dramatic political shifts at the centre.

But what was the political-strategic upshot? Even if the Navy was essentially saved, there was no great reorientation of total strategy. The next 20 years, in fact, would turn out to be the most European ever. A lot of people didn’t think so – François Mitterand, for example, thought this showed Britain would always choose its “vieux comptoirs du Commonwealth” over Europe. The Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty, the ERM episode, the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, the Saint-Malo agreement on European defence cooperation, the Convention – it was all in the future, as was the Conservative Party’s collective breakdown over the issue, and the 1987 Labour Party Policy Review that flipped their position on the EU under pressure from the unions. Only the rush to war with Iraq in 2002 would stop this trend. (Remember that Tony Blair had called the Laeken conference as late as the autumn of 2001.)

As far as the armed forces went, cold-war status went on right up to 1997/8. The Conservative government carried out two major defence reviews, neither of which altered very much except for cutting the whole establishment. The first new amphibious-warfare ship post-Falklands was delivered in 1996. The explanation is of course structural. The persistence of the Cold War, very simply, entrained a north European and North Atlantic strategy, next to which anywhere else was an extra tour, only to be considered in so far as the Soviet Union moved that way under the influence of Admiral Gorshkov.

Today, nothing seems more anachronistic about the Falklands than the notion that Soviet long-range aircraft were once based in Conakry.

Coming soon: part four, an American war?

OK, part three of the Falklands 25th anniversary series. The others are here, dealing with command, and here, dealing with Margaret Thatcher.

It’s been quite a common idea since the war that the Falklands represented some sort of throwback to the empire, or alternatively a rejection of Europe in favour of it. This is usually coded as being an atavistic endeavour, trying to return to an imperial past associated with warmongering and jingoism, which the people who say this implicitly romanticise in a nice paradox, or else a return to an organic tradition. The determining factor is, as usual, partisanship – the left, especially the pro-European bits, assign values of modernity, realism, and pacifism to “Europe”, and irrationality and warmongering to not-Europe. The Right, meanwhile, seems to conflate the Falklands War with the maritime tradition and the Atlantic alliance (we’ll come to this in part 4, by the way).

It’s a question of meta-narratives, clearly. One of the enduring ones of British politics is the tension between Europe and America, with the Commonwealth being shared between the American side (as leftover empire) and the European side (as the object of internationalist concern). This overlies Basil Liddell-Hart’s notion that British military and political strategy fluctuates between “continental commitments” and “blue water”. He strongly favoured the latter.

After 1968, when the decision was taken to withdraw from the Singapore base, British defence policy swung sharply towards European NATO (even though the Heath government reversed the decision and British forces stayed in Singapore and Malta up to 1976), and a role centred on the British Army of the Rhine, nukes, and the NATO Northern Flank for the Marines and Navy. Theoretically, a world-wide reach was still envisaged under various promises extended to Australia, Malaysia, and the UAE, but nobody took it seriously.

Much of the big navy had been decommissioned by 1982, and this didn’t change with the Conservative government – which resumed Navy deployments out-of-area, but wanted to cut one of the carriers and both the Fearless-class assault ships, thus ending the amphibious capability. The Falklands war caused some changes in this, reversing these decisions and leading to some upgrades in Naval equipment, although no new ships.

It must have felt pretty imperial, though. Canberra and Elk refuelled at the Queen Elizabeth wharf in Freetown on the way south, where they were met by bumboats trying to sell things aboard. The task force took its drinking water south aboard a Canadian Pacific Line tanker, Fort Toronto. New Zealand lent the UK a frigate to cover a NATO task. The RFA’s six Landing Ships Logistics had Hong Kong Chinese civilian crews, aboard ships that had been operated up to 1970 not by the RFA but by the British India Steam Navigation Company. In a broader sense, the Argentine invasion was certainly the sort of frontier crisis John Gallagher noted could cause dramatic political shifts at the centre.

But what was the political-strategic upshot? Even if the Navy was essentially saved, there was no great reorientation of total strategy. The next 20 years, in fact, would turn out to be the most European ever. A lot of people didn’t think so – François Mitterand, for example, thought this showed Britain would always choose its “vieux comptoirs du Commonwealth” over Europe. The Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty, the ERM episode, the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, the Saint-Malo agreement on European defence cooperation, the Convention – it was all in the future, as was the Conservative Party’s collective breakdown over the issue, and the 1987 Labour Party Policy Review that flipped their position on the EU under pressure from the unions. Only the rush to war with Iraq in 2002 would stop this trend. (Remember that Tony Blair had called the Laeken conference as late as the autumn of 2001.)

As far as the armed forces went, cold-war status went on right up to 1997/8. The Conservative government carried out two major defence reviews, neither of which altered very much except for cutting the whole establishment. The first new amphibious-warfare ship post-Falklands was delivered in 1996. The explanation is of course structural. The persistence of the Cold War, very simply, entrained a north European and North Atlantic strategy, next to which anywhere else was an extra tour, only to be considered in so far as the Soviet Union moved that way under the influence of Admiral Gorshkov.

Today, nothing seems more anachronistic about the Falklands than the notion that Soviet long-range aircraft were once based in Conakry.

Coming soon: part four, an American war?

Dead Pool

The Ministry is doing a ministerial dead pool for the post-Blair era. Strange concept. I have to say I’m not that impressed by his pre-resignation. Not only do I have the feeling it won’t be over until something like the Czech joke about Bilak’s widow going to visit Husak in jail to tell him how Jakes was murdered at the funeral of some other dinosaur whose name I forget, what really matters is the Blairite continuity or lack of it.

But here goes, anyway:

Douglas Alexander, Alistair Darling, Des Browne, Alan Johnson, Hilary Benn: in line for promotion, clearly. Amos, Hain, John Hutton, Jack Straw and “World’s Boringest Man” Mike O’Brien: dull, useful placemen, in line for a sideways move. God, this is going to be a boring government, isn’t it? No wonder Brown is talking coalitions and “governments of all the talents”. David Miliband, Hazel Blears – difficult to see whether to use one of them to square the Special Republican Guard survivors, or crush them. Hewitt – strong Brownite/Kinnockite credentials, but if Brown goes for the idea of pulling the NHS out of ministerial line management, it’ll be indistinguishable from a demotion.

Lord Falconer – no, can’t see a future for him, whack him on the list. Ruth Kelly: the unions despise her, so does the press, and it’s only a matter of time until some council or planning issue goes pop. Jowell – whatever she’s got on Blair can’t harm Brown, surely? Hoon – much the same.

Goldsmith – that bastard would survive a nuclear holocaust, and turn up perfectly pressed in the smouldering aftermath to justify it. Chief Whips – for a start, who are these people? Simply a tactical issue, anyway – does the benefit of having your own thugs outweigh the risk of offending the last ones?

Beckett – might survive for the sake of credentialism, but her seat is probably wanted for Miliband or someone.

I’ll go with Falconer, Beckett (if Miliband is saved, else Blears), Jowell, Hoon, and Hewitt with the proviso that the Department of Health will be reduced enough to count as a demotion.

Tories, meanwhile…

Andrew Lansley – numskull, associated with Hague’s 2001 campaign. Gotta go. Francis Maude – doesn’t have a department to shadow, so can’t get very much wrong, and anyway has managed to survive from 1997. David Davis, William Hague – needed to prop up Dave from PR, like a drunk’s less pissed friends. Oliver Letwin – the tribal right hate him, but more importantly he’s bound to fuck up epically at least once. Might make it to the first reshuffle. The rest – really, I’ve no idea. Who are these nonentities?

Out of sheer schadenfreude, I’ll list Philip Hammond, my MP, because he’s a slimy old git. But I suspect he’s really going to shadow Pensions until he draws his pension. I suspect George Osborne might crash at some point.

So…Lansley, Letwin, Duncan (bright, but flaky), Osborne as a long-range target, who else? Liam Fox is a thin layer of sane over an abyss of right-wing crazy, and there’s always the chance he’ll plunge through.

“Whoever dared paint markings on a plane’s wing was a swine,” said one of Pierre Clostermann’s comrades the night of the 8th of May, 1945. Latest reports from Sudan suggest you can do pretty well painting them out, too. The Sudanese government has been caught using various Antonov-26 aircraft to bomb villages in Darfur, having repainted them to look like the UN’s food airlift.

This raises the question, of course, of whether some of the “UN” aircraft are actually UN-registry ones, that is to say Kazakhstan. Viktor Bout’s airlines have relied on this coincidence before, taking advantage of the fact the UN World Food Programme is often operating in the same places with the same rugged Soviet planes, chartered from similarly dubious owners.

So far, none of these have been spotted. The UNSC report, for example, mentions one with a Sudanese civil registration ST-ZZZ, a fake. The plane is probably serial no. 57303506, which used to be registered in Russia as RA-26563 before its sale to Sudan. It has occasionally been reported as “UN-26563” masquerading as a UN aircraft. (That registration does not exist either.) There’s a photo, as well as a copy of the report , here.)

It’s the stuff. Sudan has been a significant market for both Viktor Bout and Britain’s own friendly local warzone airline Avient, and here’s something interesting. In the photograph of a gaggle of Mi24 (Hind) attack helicopters on the flight line at El Fasher, you can see the nose of an aircraft in Air West colours. Air West (ICAO: AWZ) is also known as East-West Cargo, and is a company on the UN Security Council asset freeze list. A scan of its aircraft roster shows planes swapping in and out with Irbis Air Co, GST Air Co, and BGIA, including a Yak-42 that was also caught operating into Iraq from Dubai in mid-2004.

Frustratingly, the UN also took photos of an Il-76 unloading armed Land Cruisers there, but it’s impossible to make out the registration. It doesn’t look like any of the Airwest ones, though, nor GST, neither is it Avient’s Z-WTV.

From my hometown newspaper’s 75 years ago column, last week:

There was the most hilarious party in Ilkley on Saturday night. It was described as a “poverty party” and a gathering of about 20 people assembled in a well-known house with their shabbiest garments, sat about on orange boxes and chairs without backs, with tallow candles as the only illumination, and for refreshments ate fish and chips without knives and forks, cheese, and bread and water.

Everyone declared it had been one of the jolliest gatherings they had known.

In 1932.

The next big miscarriage of justice makes it to the BBC. Great.

But this is impressively dishonest from Jim Gamble, former supercop and head of the Home Office’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre:

He also defended the record of the operation and told the Radio 4 programme that more than 90% of the individuals tracked by police had pleaded guilty.

“That’s not about credit card fraud,” he said.

“That’s people who – the allegation has been levelled against them, the evidence has been collected and they, at court or through accepting an adult caution, which 600-plus of them did, have said I am guilty of this offence.”

Ah, police logic. We got a conviction, so they’re guilty. They must be guilty, because we got them. This is why they accepted cautions – because they were offered them as an alternative to being raped or stabbed in jail.

I’ve no idea why anyone would think being falsely accused would be less frightening than being accused of something you actually did, especially when it was based on “evidence” that was given out as near-infallible and was incomprehensible to most jurors. Gamble, of course, is not going to rock the boat now he has his own little budgetivorous organism.

The Independent appears to have repented of its indulgence of Martin Durkan’s quackery, publishing a report on various scientists usually considered to be “climate sceptics” whose work Durkan misrepresented or even falsified.

Dr Friiss-Christensen said that a graph he had produced some years ago showing the link between fluctuations in global temperatures and changes in solar activity – sunspot cycles – over the past 400 years had been doctored. The documentary used the graph to pour scorn on the idea that the global warming in recent decades is the result of man-made emissions of carbon dioxide. Solar activity, the programme stated, is the cause of global warming in the late 20th century.

However, Dr Friiss-Christensen has issued a statement with Nathan Rive, a climate researcher at Imperial College London and the Centre for Climate Research in Oslo, distancing himself from the C4 graph. He said there was a gap in the historical record on solar cycles from about 1610 to 1710 but the film-makers made up this break with fabricated data that made it appear as if temperatures and solar cycles had followed one another very closely for the entire 400-year period.

“We have reason to believe that parts of the graph were made up of fabricated data that were presented as genuine. The inclusion of the artificial data is both misleading and pointless,” Dr Friis-Christensen said.

“Secondly, although the commentary during the presentation of the graph is consistent with the conclusions of the paper from which the figure originates, it incorrectly rules out a contribution by anthropogenic [man-made] greenhouse gases to 20th century global warming,” he said.

It’s a start, I suppose. Meanwhile, their response to criticism on the radio-kills-bees fairy story remains nonexistent – perhaps they are a little embarrassed that the German researchers involved are publicly displeased in much the same way Friiss-Christensen is.

Last weekend, for the first time in years. A couple of things – first of all, they’re knocking down the first attempts at regeneration now, whilst a lot of the empty sites that used to be mills are still empty. The whole 60s grey tickytacky city centre is gone, leaving half a mile of rubble. Oddly, the remaining Victorian buildings seem to reassert themselves in the power vacuum, the sight lines being recreated onto the Wool Exchange and others. The changes to the street plan also have this effect – Market Street, Priestley’s favourite, is a major road again. (Bet it’s shit on a weekday, though.)

How did I not notice how many weird religious entities there are in town before? Not just the Muslims (although I saw tract-pushers in the city centre, something I don’t remember seeing very often before), but the Scientologists and weirdo yank Christian sects. The Abundant Life people have had their supermarket-size hangar for years, but it’s the first time I saw it as a religious building rather than an unusual B&Q.

What does it mean? Yorkshire has a tradition of sects, and I suppose the lag between Bradford and Leeds in the last twenty years doesn’t help. I can’t help seeing it as worrying, though.

Everyone’s vexed (h/t to Dan Hardie) about the spankin’ new city academy in Peterborough that, courtesy of Perkins Engines, will be offering education with a total ban on “unstructured play”. It’s the most expensive state school ever built at £46.4 million, but hey! Perkins put up all of £2 million out of that, always assuming that (unlike most City Academy sponsors) they didn’t get a sweetener from the DFES and actually bothered to pay. Well, it’s impressive that they managed to come up with a form of schooling that will punish the sporty kids and the geeks alike – no mass football, and no sneaking off to the library either. Do they even have a library, I wonder?

The obvious reference is Dickens, and Dsquared mounts a defence of Mr Gradgrind in the comments. But this is wrong. This isn’t Victorian, it’s 18th-century – panopticon-a-gogo. I’m surprised they haven’t promised to isolate a newborn to see if they speak Blairite by default. But if you think that’s nightmarish, cheer up. The worst is yet to come.

Teh Grauniad’s education diary reports on Hylton Red House School in Sunderland, which has got its very own call centre that will apparently

raise aspirations, develop career paths and help youngsters to develop skills

Raise aspirations from what? And which skills will it develop exactly? I think I can guess – mindless obedience to a script, tolerance for management-by-fear, and therapy-babble sales motivation. (I was once fired from a call-centre job for hanging my jacket on the back of my chair.) Ideological state apparatus, anyone? You’ll be glad to know that this exercise in regimentation is brought to you by the private sector. Or not really. The corporate sponsor is actually a nationalised industry, EDF Energy. That’s EDF as in the French state electricity company, the biggest generator of power in the world. I wonder what their French workforce, mostly communist, would make of it.

This is doubly depressing because it’s pointless. I recall when call centres were touted as The Future for Yorkshire in about 1996. It was already clear that this was not going to last, because the cost of telecommunications was falling fast. Therefore, it was going to get outsourced, and sharpish. It’s a special case of a more general principle, which is that it only makes sense to specialise in a low-margin, labour-intensive commodity product if your comparative advantage is cheap labour. And that ain’t going to happen so long as we share a planet with Bangladesh.

In the same issue of Educashon Grauniad, Blairite poohbah David Puttnam pleads for schoolchildren to be allowed more freedom to fiddle with the computers, pointing out quite rightly that there is a big gap between setting up a LAN party for your mates and school IT lessons on PowerPoint. Pity about that. Meanwhile, we’ve got a call-rate to keep up.

I strongly object to a society where suggesting that schools should have playgrounds makes me feel like a deranged idealist.

PS: Note that the Crooked Timber thread also shows that Dan Hardie and Dsquared are gradually heading closer and closer to a genuinely explosive blogwar, like Britain and Germany in 1911..