Tuesday, 8 November 2016

On Liars, Bigots and Politicians

The establishment is the enemy of the day, the big bad that can be blamed for everything that goes wrong in your life. Politicians and the rich are in union to oppress the people and maintain their power. They're all the same, what's the point of voting? It's nothing but picking the lesser or two evils. If you're on the left then the government is in the pocket of big business and is leaving the poor to starve, if you're on the right then it is crushing business under regulation and taxes whilst funding the lifestyles of scroungers and immigrants. They all lie, they're all corrupt. Everyone is in league together to keep you down.

The definition of "The Establishment" is so broad and vague that it covers almost anyone with any power or wealth at all. Because of this ideological puritanism is inevitable. No one can cross the picket line and do any kind of negotiations or compromising with the establishment because this would make them part of the establishment themselves. Any kind of acknowledgement of a centre ground or agreement on issues can be painted swiftly as a betrayal of the movement. It's how experienced left wing campaigners can suddenly find themselves branded "red Tories" or "corporate stooges" as the populist movement behind them jostles to occupy the purest anti-establishment territory. It's how respected judges are branded "enemies of the people" by wealthy non-dom media tycoons who gleefully coat their front pages with savage condemnation of the people they suddenly care so much about.

This inability to compromise isn't necessarily as self-destructive as you would think, because it leads to acceptance of figures with a myriad of abhorrent positions and personalities as long as they can stay pure on the anti-establishment front. It's how a serial-lying, serial-sexual harasser like Trump can be embraced by women because he "tells it like it is". It's how Stop The War can maintain support whilst refusing to condemn the bombing of Aleppo by Putin's Russia and Jeremy Corbyn can stand at rallies hosted by rape apologists. Julian Assange is surprisingly insistent on transparency for someone dodging legal proceedings to uncover the truth of rape allegations against him. Their failings are seen as minor as long as they continue to rage against "the machine". The greater evil somehow isn't rape, murder and genuine tyrannical oppression, it's being part of the cogs of power and not saying loudly enough just how awful every cog around you is.

Because, being honest, none of the chosen figureheads of the alt-left and alt-right are anything but members of the establishment they oppose to build their support. Trump is an inheritance-made Billionaire who has avoided tax, milked government laxity on big business to crush the little man and uses his power to get away with systematic sexism and racism. Corbyn is a middle-class lifetime politician who has collected his high wages for decades whilst achieving absolutely nothing of note in three decades before being elected Labour leader. Nigel Farage is a millionaire ex-financier career politician who rides the EU gravy train whilst shirking work. These are not profiles of the downtrodden and disenfranchised, they're exactly those of the establishment their supporters protest against so much.

So how do they have that support? Because as long as they stand against the "establishment" as the source of all wrongs they will never be held to the same standard those who remain part of the machine. They will be praised as telling it like it is and speaking for the people even as bare faced untruths become the currency of their support, praised for their character even as personal failings are swept under the rug. All whilst the desperate defences of their colleagues are scrutinised to the bone for anything that may smell even slightly of dishonesty or a lack of integrity.

This double-standard is reinforced by the echo chambers their supporters are provided by social media. In the old days of anti-establishment figures erupting to power before the internet they did so by dominating traditional media and squashing free speech. Today, online, their supporters do so by inhabiting carefully curated online worlds that do not challenge their biases and instead confirm them over and over again. They cherry pick their news sources from the most partisan papers available to them. Almost everyone is guilty of some degree of this kind of cherry picking but the purist attitudes of the anti-establishment has turned entire realms of the internet no-go areas for dissent or exclusive chambers for support of their opinions. The result is that any lie can be justified, any level of bigotry hand-waved away, all whilst any minor failing of those seen as part of the mechanisms of power is pounced on and dragged up again and again. In this bizarre world of alt-truth the BBC, one of the most respected media organisations in the world, is condemned as biased and corrupt (somehow towards both the left and the right). Instead they share, with praise, the work of government-controlled propaganda channel Russia Today with absolutely no sense of the irony involved doing so.

Even worse, the conviction that the entire population of political figures are liars and corrupt in doing this is a self-fulfilling prophesy. It rewards those who embrace the judgement as being "honest" (despite being an honest liar seeming a little oxymoronic) whilst condemning those who try and keep genuinely honest as being two-faced and as bad as all the rest. Where there is no reward for good behaviour what is the benefit to being an honest politician outside of personal integrity? As the abuse piles higher it is unsurprising that so many throw in the towel and embrace the characteristics so many have decided they already have.

Throughout the 2016 US election the cries of "they're just the same" and "lesser of two evils" have been common among those of anti-establishment sentiment. This position should not be dignified with the respect of a carefully considered political stance. It cannot be pretended that Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are on an equal playing field. Clinton is one of the most successful and productive politicians of our time with a single security failing brought up on a daily basis to paint her as dishonest. Trump is a sexually abusive, racist billionaire who lies more often than should be tolerated in our political leaders. The fact that the race between them is even competitive should be inconceivable. The Brexit campaign was not dissimilar - The Leave campaign lying on almost every front of their platform but still somehow leading the remain campaign to be hypocritically branded "project fear" and seen as dishonest. There was no real comparison on the levels of dishonesty between the experts of remain and the populists of leave.

The condemnation of the expert and the "lying politician" leaves the idea of truth as meaningless. When the people whose jobs it is to present reality as it is are condemned as corrupt liars who is left to turn to? The ranting keyboard warrior and tabloid columnist suddenly have an equal say in complex issues as the academic specialist and the experienced political analyst. There is no real equal footing between these two groups, but in the social media echo chambers of anti-establishment activists and politicised papers every opinion has the chance to present its own reality. The death of objective truth is a failing of our democracy that lies squarely at the feet of the creators of post-truth politics - the alt-left and alt-right who see anti-establishment credentials as the absolute deciders of both moral righteousness and the gatekeepers of the real "truth".

But the real world does not match up to the conspiratorial themes of the internet and tabloids. In the internet melting pot of every opinion in the world, whether scientists, politicians, economists or Joe Bloggs, they all get an equal say on our timelines. But they're not "all the same". With time each conspiracy falls away as another round of nonsense, even as their backers avoid learning from those experiences and leap on the next anti-establishment conspiracy to come like an especially stubborn doomsday preacher. Maybe it will take the hard reality of Brexit and the election of morally bankrupt incompetents such as Donald Trump to wake up the alt-truth activists from the dream of their online realities to the real world around them.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Who Created Tommy Mair?

On Thursday 23rd June 2016 Britain voted in a referendum to leave the EU. An incredibly tight 4% margin separated the two sides in a vote that went right up to the wire, odds swinging one way to the other throughout the campaign and even on the night.

No one could say it was a good fight. The campaign was bitter, spiteful and scary. As Remain piled on reasons to fear an exit and the list of organisations warning of economic catastrophe mounted, Leave pivoted towards immigration. It made sense. UKIP, on a foundation almost entirely built on opposition to what they see as overwhelming migration to the UK, claimed 13% of the national vote share in 2015. On a foreign policy issue such as this where Remain had to rely on complex arguments on a complex issue, campaigning on something simple and concrete, that struck a chord with a broad swathe of the electorate, made campaigning sense.

The result of this move, however, was potentially far worse than the economic consequences of Brexit. Despite branding the Remain campaign “project fear”, Vote Leave and Leave.EU went on to paint immigration as the scariest thing to happen to Britain this century. Immigrants are coming for your jobs, refugees from Syria are going to overwhelm our services, the NHS and our schools will collapse under their weight, the entire population of Turkey will move here at any moment!

Immigrants became the cause of every major political problem of today. Every publicly funded department hobbled by austerity cuts suddenly was now dragged down by the weight of immigration. Millions of immigrants flooding our hospitals, schools and reaping riches from our gratuitous benefits system. Every area where the politics of austerity and cuts could possibly feel blame had been shifted by the new enemy of the day – anyone foreign. A full month of campaigning was dedicated to making demons of immigrants, especially non-British Europeans. The country was at “breaking point”, we were being “overwhelmed”, Britain is “full”.

The campaign grew so extreme, so intent on demonising anyone seen as foreign to the UK, that Leave.EU's “Breaking Point” advertisement seemed to take direct inspiration from Nazi propaganda (given for comparison in the central image above). Even their own allies in the Brexit campaign were shocked, but this was the extent to which the conversation had fallen.

It takes very little research to see what the hateful and divisive campaign of Vote Leave created in our society. A blank slate and justification for racism targeted at innocent members of our society, from children at school to lone women in the street. In just two days following the vote we were awash with examples of the deeply disturbing vision of society inspired by the rhetoric and focus of Vote Leave and Leave.EU.

But the consequences of public sentiment stoked against those different from those seen as genuinely “British” were felt far earlier than this. On the 16th June, just a week before the vote, Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by an extreme right terrorist. Tommy Mair, her murderer, gave his name as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” in court, and allegedly shouted “Britain first” as he carried out the killing.

As many sped to paint Mair as a deranged loner with mental health problems many saw him for what he was – A terrorist acting on behalf of his far-right ideals to murder someone he saw as a threat to his country. Jo Cox was not a random target but a specific one, a women who dedicated her life to aiding others was targeted for that very reason. She was judged a traitor for daring to help those in need, for offering Britain as a refuge. She was murdered for her political beliefs, in a terrorist act intended as a warning to all those who wished to invite foreigners to our country.

How could this happen? How could a political campaign based on membership of a political and economic trading block end up being about immigrants? How could such a campaign prosper as millions set out to vote to block anyone seen as foreign from coming to the country? How could Jo Cox, one of the best examples of a politician our country should be proud of, become seen as a traitor to it? How did immigrants, who contribute more to our economy than they take, make up over 30% of our doctors and nurses with the NHS, over a quarter of our academic workforce in our world-class universities, end up being blamed for our country's problems?

It didn't start with the referendum. UKIP has been running on this platform for years. The BNP was once big news before UKIP stole the scene. How did it all get here?

The answer is easy to find, and its clear as day.

Walk into any corner store in the United Kingdom and you will see shelves of it. Tabloid papers cover all sorts of issues, but whenever they turn to politics there's a good chance immigrants are at fault for something. That something is probably demonstratively untrue, hyperbolic and/or stripped of all available context, but it will be plastered across the front pages nonetheless.

Between them the Express, the Mail, the Star and the Sun, in both their daily and Sunday versions, have launched a barrage at the British people telling them over and over again that immigrants are the reason for every problem they face. Is the NHS struggling under an ageing population, mismanagement and underfunding? It's clearly due to immigrants. Is the jobs market stuttering following a global recession, decade-long austerity and under-investment? It's the immigrants. Is your school overcrowded due to lack of infrastructure spending, teachers being driven out of the profession and ideological campaigns that overwork staff whilst failing to increase capacity? Immigrants.

Despite bolstering government funding, proving a huge proportion of the national workforce in education, health and infrastructure, the struggles faced by all of these areas are blamed on them. It's blamed on them on a daily basis, by half the newspapers crowding the shelves of every convenience store. Immigrants have become the undeserved scapegoats of a consistent and long-term campaign of fear and lies waged by half the mainstream media. That same group of media empires that had the nerve to call any other campaign group “project fear”.

Paul Dacre, Hugh Whittow, Tony Gallagher, Dawn Neesom. These are the names of the most powerful editors of this campaign of hate that has been building for decades to tear our society apart. Fear is good business, it sells papers, people want to know who has “stolen all our jobs”, how their “invasion” is ending the NHS, corrupting our schools and even killing Christmas.

But all actions have consequences. This time, that consequence was Tommy Mair. Anti-terrorist agencies have for years tried to track down the radicalising elements of Islamic terrorism in Britain, but as a right-wing terrorist strikes against the evil he sees as taking his country from him they do not have to look very far. How much does it really take to convince a mentally unstable individual, cut off from society, that he is under attack? What about daily reminders, headlines in all caps every time he walks to pick up the milk, blaring warnings that the enemy are flooding in, that they're hurting our country, that they're stealing it from us, that everything going wrong is their fault. You're out of a job because of them, your family can't see their doctors because of them, your kids have to share a class with 40 other students because of them, the economy is tanking because of them, the government won't invest in anything because of them, your wages are stagnating because of them. They're in the streets raping your sisters and daughters, they're ending your religion, killing off your language. You saw the papers say they're in armed gangs now, imposing foreign religious laws in your streets and murdering those who disagree.

They told you so, they told you every day, for years. Again, and again, and again.

How much does it really take?

Dacre, Whittow, Gallagher, Neesom. The roots of radicalisation are sitting on the shelves of your local cornershop, and they're campaigning every day. It's amazing that we can spend years hunting down the creators of extremists in our society in community Mosques and on social media but no one ever questions the instigators who preach hate in our living rooms every day. Even when a member of parliament is gunned down in the street. Even when racism becomes acceptable political campaign strategy. Even when Islamic terrorist groups openly declare that they target alienated youths who feel like they are demonised by Western society in order to recruit them.

When the preachers of hate are mainstream, is it really so surprising that violence follows in their wake? For years they worked to turn the United Kingdom towards hate and paranoia. Now they have reaped the consequence of that effort.

In the months since, have the papers learned their lessons? Of course not.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Shadow of Iraq - The Chilcot Report

People love a scapegoat - But it obscures the lessons to be learned

The Chilcot Report has been seven years in the making. The last decade has had thousands, even millions, chomping at the bit to lay blame at the feet of the easiest scapegoats they can find. Tony Blair, George Bush, Dick Cheney. Political leaders who became almost cartoon, two-dimensional villains of the tale of Iraq. They lied to the world, they did it for oil money, they killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, they created ISIS. Every grand conspiracy of the last two decades can be dragged back to the war criminals who dragged their nations to an illegal war.

To the vast number taken in by the tale of national treachery by a demonic political leader with blood on his hands the Iraq Inquiry will be disappointing. A scathing report that eviscerated two political establishments that utterly failed to adequately prepare for the war and its aftermath, or to even come close to required examination of intelligence that then provided the basis for their arguments for war - will not come close to satisfying the demands of those demanding justice.

The reason? The black and white analysis of the anti-war movement was so shallow, so limited and focused on their chosen scapegoats that it makes even the failures of the Blair and Bush administrations seem thorough and carefully considered by contrast. In their reality that paints Tony Blair in Britain as both omniscient enough to have known all the possible consequences and possible intelligence of the middle east, omnipotent enough to control all the decisions made and implemented during the entire war and the occupation that follows, and malicious enough to do all of this completely intending to see the war drag on for a decade and hundreds of thousands dead - He is essentially the antichrist with the powers of a God but a bizarrely self-destructive and legacy-ruining drive to use those powers.

The reality is complex, filled with people with human flaws and a muddled and layered hierarchy of responsibilities and powers that together resulted in the post-invasion chaos of the Iraqi insurgency. An insurgency that can, at a push, be considered a direct causation factor to the rise of ISIS but far from a dominant one among the almost incomprehensible conflict dynamics of the sectarian and Arab Spring conflicts ravaging the Middle East.

Tony Blair made the decision to go to war in Iraq. He did so fully believing the removal of Saddam Hussein was of vital importance. The decision was made following his successes with other, smaller-scale interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone. The report sets out plenty of errors in his decision. He made this decision with flawed intelligence shaped by his confirmation bias with inadequate cross-examination and review, lack of responsibility taken by other ministers and poor recommendations on legal and military impact.

The military forces were under-prepared, the aftermath lacked real planning and warnings were not taken seriously. The Prime Minister grossly overestimated the power of Britain to influence American policy in the invasion and management of the post-intervention state. Tony Blair made an enormous error in personal judgement that will stain his legacy, and, as seen in his shaken, if combative, response on the day of publication of the Chilcot Report, has broken him.

But that he deliberately accepted flawed intelligence or ignored contradictions? The case that Blair deliberately lied to the British people and went into war on bad faith? The belief that he personally created the insurgency that followed (a legacy of American nation-building policy, not British decision to join the intervention)? The conspiracy theory that the entire war was motivated by oil? All of these claims lie in as much tatters following the report as Blair's own claims that the war was a vital move to excise WMDs from the grips of Saddam Hussein.

Like the vast majority of historical conflicts of major global significance, the 2003 Iraq war is painted across the world in shades of grey. The horrible legacy of years of insurgency, of hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, of the rise of ISIS that blights Iraq today, all of these have blame that is spread across dozens of actors from various different states with a catalogue of errors longer still than the scope of the Chilcot Report.

No one walks away from this report looking stronger. Blair is a broken man who, despite his continued insistence that the removal of Saddam was the right decision, is fully aware that the public will never see him as anything but stained in blood by the conflict that followed. The Stop the War movement, for all their compulsive cries of "War Criminal", are faced with a report that presents a real analysis with real diffusion of blame that does not come close to satisfying their own preconceptions of evildoing. A series of decision makers and operators in the conflict whose names have flown under the radar for a decade must see their names brought forward as major players in the worst catastrophe in interventionism since the failure to intervene in Rwanda.

Months will be spent by various publications leafing through the most massive report they will have ever dealt with. The vast majority of analyses will be painted with the confirmation bias of a decade of certainty everyone engaged with politics will have held since the build up to war in 2003. This one, like those others, cannot escape that perfectly valid criticism.

Beware the response that points the finger at any one person, or engages in the rhetoric of good and evil. If there's any conclusion that can be drawn from the vastness of the Chilcot Report, it's that anything that simple is far from the truth.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

UK Election 2015 – A Rundown

It is an exciting time for politics in the United Kingdom, however disenchanted the population may be with the state of affairs at Westminster. In under a month comes an election which is due to be closer than any in living memory, with more participants able to shift the balance of power than ever before in Britain’s democratic history.

With a coalition now splitting rapidly along ideological lines, an opposition only just finding its feet behind a newly emboldened leader, a local party sweeping the polls north of the border and radical left and right wing parties stealing the limelight voters are, for once, spoiled for choice. Cries of “they’re all the same” and populists railing against the political elite continue to be a staple of society, but in truth no other nation can boast the breadth and depth in choice British voters are presented with next month. Every point of the political compass is accounted for, the usual breed of financiers and career politicians are joined by grassroots campaigners and activists, local campaigning has re-emerged as a dominant force even as social media takes on a new importance.

So, what is the choice on May 7th? How are the choices faring with under a month to go till the polls open? Here is a run-down.


The Tories are, to all intents and purposes, the ruling party of the last five years. Their political clout and PR engine so drastically overpowered their coalition partner as to make the definition of “coalition” very weak. The last five years can best be described as a Tory Britain held at gunpoint by Liberal activists they didn't want to humour but could not survive without. The result is a deeply divided party.

On the right George Osborne stands not far from being the true successor to Margaret Thatcher, dedicated to sweeping cuts that would fundamentally alter the British state. The welfare state will vanish before the might of private enterprise, the motto is independence of the few from the many. It is his economic plan which drives the party, a useful buffer for the far more liberal party leader David Cameron away from the “Tory Taliban” of extreme-conservatism.

A conservative government promises economic competency, in exchange for the end of liberal Britain. Their vision is to turn the UK into something resembling the United States, rather than Europe, and that vision has its fans aplenty.


Labour brought us the economic crisis. They brought us the illegal war in Iraq. They brought us the  devil incarnate of Tony Blair. They’re led by a muppet. Or at least that is what message the Conservatives have been hammering home for five years. The truth is that it was US mismanagement that created the crisis, that the UK population were almost evenly divided on Tony Blair’s handling of the Iraq war at the time and that Ed Miliband is far more accomplished than he first appears.

That last point was raised to the surface in the first leader’s “debate”, with Jeremy Paxman grilling both Cameron and Miliband. Cameron wilted before the onslaught where Miliband fought back, and gave the British electorate good cause for a rethink. Cameron has been running scared from facing Miliband one-on-one and with good reason. Miliband is likeable and honest, two traits which play very well with a population switched-off from politics.

The problem is that the Labour Party has no real position. They’re outflanked as true socialists by the Greens and SNP. They've failed to seize the centre liberal ground from the Liberal Democrats when they should have been able to wipe them out. They are “austerity-light”. Maybe given a couple more years they would have been able to shrug off the burden of New Labour and settle under a newly confident party leader able to change the public perception of dishonestly in mainstream politics. However, in a desperate effort just to appear competent as a party they've lost sight of their ideals and missed the opportunity to create a new message for the electorate, a mistake which may yet cost them the largest share of seats in May.

Liberal Democrats

It is difficult not to feel sorry for the Liberal Democrats. After the sweeping “Cleggmania” of 2010 they made possibly the most disastrous PR mistake of any party in living memory by signing the pledge not to raise tuition fees. They followed up by fading into the background of a coalition government for five years and then running the most patronisingly pandering electoral campaign in decades. If there is any party identified by good intentions ruined by bad PR, it’s the Liberal Democrats.

The truth is that the Lib Dems have been outrageously successful in government. They secured a better deal for poorer students on tuition fees. They brought equal marriage to the table and forced it through. They hamstrung the Tories when they threatened to push austerity too far and were active in stamping their mark across UK legislation. For a party of their size they punched far, far, above their weight.

But no amount of competence beats good PR, see Nigel Farage for reference. The Liberal Democrats sacrificed themselves to prevent the Conservatives creating a Thatcherite Britain and in doing so look set to lose half their seats. For the simple reason that they were unable to completely overrule their far-stronger coalition “partner” they are reviled by the radical liberal left which was once their home ground. The Liberal Democrats are presently running the worst, most poorly envisaged and out-of-touch national campaigns in the country. Their one solace is their famous local election engine, hundreds of earnest volunteers knocking on doors and campaigning local issues. Where most parties would be wiped out the Liberals look more likely to hold seats in government after May than any other party. With their brand of pragmatism and hard work over populism, the UK may be the better for it.


Where the Liberal Democrats are a feat in sacrificing PR for competence, UKIP are the opposite. The undisputed masters of populist politics are the theme of the day, led by by-far the most charismatic of all the party leaders. Nigel Farage, an ex-corporate banker career politician, has somehow convinced Britain that he is different than the establishment and will bring true change.

The truth is UKIP is a shambles. It loses elected councillors on an almost monthly basis to scandals and champions politics so populist that they change from speech to speech. The party is in such disarray that Mark Reckless, one of the most effective of its politicians, clearly doesn't even share his party leader’s politics.

As is the case with all protest parties, success in EU and local elections never translates when it comes to the electorate choosing who will run Britain. UKIP support is starting to fade and Farage himself may not win his constituency election. Where the Liberal Democrats will survive on the success of its local candidates, UKIP will fail for the same reason. Without Farage the party has very little, and Farage is struggling against the reality that he is an establishment politician open to the same scrutiny as any other. UKIP may yet shape the election with stolen votes and brazen policies, but it will not be to their own benefit.


Where UKIP threatens the Conservatives, the Greens threaten Labour. The Green party, once known as the tree-huggers of Britain, is now the most prominent socialist party in Britain. Their concept of the citizen’s wage and people power support the claim that this is a “watermelon” party, environmentalist branding surrounding a very communist policy foundation.

The Greens, when it comes to judgements on policies alone, are actually the most popular party in Britain. Downtrodden by thieving investment bankers of the City of London and the age of neoliberalism the population really associate closely with a message of equality for all and redistribution of wealth on a grand scale.

Unfortunately the Green surge was doomed from the start. A combination of a stumbling party leader clearly out of her depth in national politics and policies that, although inspiring, are clearly economic nonsense, has resulted in the party’s popularity fading alongside that of UKIP. Populism can only carry a party so far, in national elections the electorate have a habit of switching from voting with their heart to voting with their head. The emotional and passionate activism of the Greens suffers against the relative perception of competence in the three ruling parties.

It is possible the Greens just need time to mature in national politics and will be a force to be reckoned with come 2020. But 2015 will not be their year.

Scottish National Party

No one expected the SNP to be a force ten years ago. Scotland was Labour territory at its very roots, driven by a visceral hatred of the Conservatives. Where the population did wish a focus on local, rural interests it voted Liberal Democrat. No longer. With a message more communitarian and left-wing than Labour, driven by patriotic passion and the 45% of the independence referendum the SNP look set to lead the greatest political coup since the rise of the Labour party a century ago.

Mixing a message of equality with populist fervour the party has matured under Nicola Sturgeon, a politician so down-to-earth and confident that her debate performances have the English population rooting for her. The party looks set to wipe Labour out next month in Scotland and to jostle with the Liberal Democrats for the position of king-maker come the inevitable hung parliament.

Look deeper at the party and voters could see a distinctly authoritarian seam in their nationalism, one the Scottish Liberal Democrats have fought against for a decade, unable to convince voters that the SNP is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Next month the SNP will wield more power over the UK than the Scots have held in centuries and Britain will experience for themselves the reality behind the populist rhetoric.


Plaid Cymru – The poor Welsh Nationalists. They are very much a local party lost on a national stage, unable to distinguish themselves effectively from the Greens and Labour. Welsh Nationalism does not run as strongly as that of the Scots, they tend to get on significantly better with their English neighbours, and they will not be swayed by a party which has yet to work out what its message really is. Being dragged onto the national stage in the last debate shone a spotlight on their party, one they were not really prepared for.

Northern Irish Parties – Very little seems set to change in Northern Ireland, in a significant difference from the rest of the UK only one or two seats are likely to change hands. However, their impact on the rest of the UK will change. The Democratic Unionists are the only party who really have an impact here, with Sinn Fein refusing to take their seats in parliament. The DUP could well give either the Tories or Labour a 10-seat boost in coalition, with the former more likely given the DUP’s right-wing politics. Should they join the Tories very little would change, but if they join Labour expect a few Tory-esque policies to emerge in the first year of government.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Charlie Hebdo - Ever Sharper

It is time to redouble our efforts

Yesterday a shooting in Paris killed ten journalists and injured many others at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical paper. The attackers escaped, shouting that they had avenged their prophet and glory to their God. In their wake, as France begins a day of mourning, the grief is punctuated by a return of a furious debate over the right to free speech and the politics of offence.

This is not the first time that Islamic extremists have responded to offence with violence and death. In 1989 author Salman Rushdie was left fearing for his life in the wake of his novel The Satanic Verses, an order for his assassination issued by the Supreme Leader of Iran and swarms of death threats. In 2005 the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten posted cartoons of Mohammed which resulted in violent protests worldwide and over 200 deaths. In 2012, in the wake of the the film Innocence of Muslims there were protests and deaths across the Middle East, one of which was used as cover for the deadly destruction of the US embassy in Benghazi.

The response to the deaths has been overwhelmingly supportive. Celebrities and politicians have spoken out condemning the attack and underlining the vital part free speech and satire plays in a healthy society. However, two very different responses have also raised their head. From the right there have been revenge shootings and bombings of Muslim areas in France, thankfully with no casualties. The far-right have sought to use the shootings as an excuse to turn away immigrants and clamp down on the freedom of religion. On the opposite side various left-wing groups have condemned Charlie Hebdo for their often deliberately offensive and even racist materials and demanding others stop praising a paper which revelled in offending minority groups.

Both of these are entirely the wrong approach to take. On the former - engaging in an increasingly aggressive eye-for-an-eye fight with Islamic extremism is playing into its hands, it is fighting exactly the battle they want to fight. They can keep radicalising youths, arming them, and sowing discord and violence more easily the more those people feel the targets of an oppressive western regime and culture. Better to deny them their battle completely, force them to take on the role of the oppressive regime themselves and turn potential recruits away. Deny them the position of martyr and justice warrior and force them to remain what they are - fanatical monsters.

On the later - Yes, Charlie Hebdo was offensive, almost aggressively so. In fact it was often racist. But, vitally, it was universally offensive so as well. Charlie Hebdo revelled in offending literally every group and public figure which touched the news. It mocked any issue which had the gall to take itself seriously. The paper never unfairly targeted any group. Yet, no other group nor person ever took it upon themselves to walk into their offices with automatic weapons and commit murder.

By changing the debate to focus on what the cartoonists did we are justifying the acts of murder in the minds of the killers. The killers learn that murder ignites debate condemning offensive acts and supporting limiting blasphemy. The get what they wanted, they learn that killing people works.

Steven Fry, one of the figureheads of modern satire, once said:
“It's now very common to hear people say, 'I'm rather offended by that.' As if that gives them certain rights. It's actually nothing more... than a whine. 'I find that offensive.' It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. 'I am offended by that.' Well, so fucking what."
Offence is not a reason for anything. The vast majority of any laws in Europe which limit free speech do so because of tangible risks to life and law. They limit hate speech to reduce violence against minorities. They limit holocaust denial to limit the capabilities of still active anti-Semite groups. They limit libel and slander to reduce the ability of anyone to hurt others with falsehoods. None of these are founded on the intangible and vague notion of "offence". Offence is not an issue of life-and-death, it is an issue of getting on with people. Charlie Hebdo had no desire to get on with anyone, but never should that be a case of risking their lives or liberty to do so.

Recently Islam has been the only group to take violence as the chosen path in response to offence in Europe. Though the numbers who do so are small, they are backed by far too many. In the wake of the Danish cartoons 60% of Egyptians considered Denmark their national enemy. Salman Rushdie's protection was enforced by a direct demand for his death by the leader of the Islamic faith in Iran.

The inability to handle offence with any semblance of reason is a dangerous problem within Islam, which is shaping the risk of Islamophobia in the west and driving the killings like those in Paris. It is one which needs to be tackled head-on within the faith. Thankfully, in the wake of tragedy, Muslim leaders in France have responded in the best possible manner:

Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, of Drancy mosque in the north of Paris:
"I am extremely angry. These are criminals, barbarians. They have sold their soul to hell. This is not freedom. This is not Islam and I hope the French will come out united at the end of this."
The correct response to these deaths is not holding back on offence and satire, it is to redouble it. Not targeting Islam, but against all political and religious creeds and public figures. No cause nor force, no matter how revered, should be spared mockery. At no point can the murderers who struck in Paris be under any impression that their killings did anything but the opposite of what they hoped. They must be told, in no uncertain terms, and with the support of the entirety of society, that what they have done is cement the strength of a tradition of satire in Europe.

With that in mind: Buzzfeed

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Taliban - You Reap What You Sow

The Taliban has hurt the only power to protect it for decades

Today, on 16th December 2014, the Taliban made the most tragic and devastating error since 21st September 2001. On that date thirteen years ago their representatives chose to defy the US rather than enforce the eviction of 9/11-planner and Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. They did so in the face of international condemnation and a hostile UN Security Council, the first and last time the Americans would be written a blank military cheque by the international community.

Thirteen years ago their error in judgement resulted in the end of their control over Afghanistan and loss of the Afghan civil war. A war that, until that point, they were winning. Despite expressing their regret and sadness for those killed in the twin towers attacks and wish for Bin Laden to leave their borders they responded to an aggressive United States with defiance and threats.

Only one thing saved them from eradication in the years following, the protective shield of the Afghan border with Pakistan. The Taliban was created by Pakistan and they were protected by it. In the lawless wilderness of the federal North West, alongside the border with Afghanistan, they thrived. From their safe haven they launched an insurgency across Afghanistan, less intense and violent than that in Iraq but no less resilient and eroding.

As the US continued to turn its back on Palestine, invaded Iraq, let loose their Private Military firms and left Guantanamo Bay open, they were losing the war of hearts and minds. The ranks of the Taliban swelled, branches such as the Haqqani Network became deadly and influential forces in their own right. As Al Qaeda faded from the world stage the Taliban lost nothing of their grip over the border regions. They thrived under the lacklustre eye of the Pakistani military and a political elite torn between control over their state and the important strategic shield the Taliban represented against a NATO and Iranian-dominated Afghanistan and a bargaining chip against the West.

This shield has shifted very little in the last decade. The military has grown less tolerant, more aggressive in its attempt to stamp out the Taliban's stronghold in the mountainous regions. But every time they took territory the Taliban took it back, every time they killed scores of militants scores more joined them. Nothing changed.

That changes today.

Today the Taliban carried out an attack barbarous even by their standards, a horrific display of debased morals and desperate violence. This month the Pakistani military has killed hundreds of their number in a concerted campaign, and their response has been to massacre children. Over a hundred school children slaughtered in an attack the militant group has attempted to explain as revenge.

No attempt at denial, no sympathy or sorrow. Nothing of the moderation which tampered their response to 9/11. They have committed a grave error, one which may well lead to their end.

The children they have killed are the children of soldiers, of the local community. They are not westerners, they are not members of another religious group. They are Pakistani Muslims of the very groups that the Taliban draws its recruits. The impact of this tragedy will be widespread:
  • They will feel the unrestrained fury of the Pakistan armed forces. There have always been links between Pakistan's security services and the Taliban, but in targeting the children of soldiers the Taliban has abandoned what remains of these links. The military response will be swift and overwhelming, bearing none of the restraint it once had.
  • The political elite will be forced to abandon their sympathy for the group. They will not hold back the will of the part-independent military in its revenge, and will lose public backing for expressing sympathy for the fight of the Taliban against western oppressors. Their condemnation will release the military to act as it wishes.
  • Anti-US sentiment will drop, if only moderately, as backing for the Taliban drops with it. Both these shifts will be small publicly, as those who back the group generally despise the military. However, both will be enough to hurt the Taliban's recruitment efforts. As they lose hundreds more in the military response to come their operational numbers will fall dramatically.
  • Pakistan-Afghan-US military cooperation may increase for the first time. Should this happen the Taliban's days as a military force are numbered. They have been saved by their ability to operate cross-borders whilst their opponents do not. If this balance shifts they will be incapable of holding on to their mountainous territories.
The Taliban has been waging a war won not with guns, but with minds. By winning the moral high ground over the imperialistic oppressors of the West they have recruited young men in their thousands, a never-ending stream of new members which has made them impossible to beat.

In today's massacre they have abandoned that high ground. They have betrayed the people who defend them, they have targeted the innocent and challenged the military to strike back with force they have never before wielded. Today's tragedy is the most significant mistake made by any Islamist militant force in over a decade. In sowing nothing but sorrow to Pakistan they will in turn reap their own.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Why Everyone is Wrong About Scottish Independence

The biggest shift in three hundred years could be just around the corner.

In just one month we will know whether the three-hundred year old British Union will remain as it is or be broken by will of the people. Will Scotland stand once again an independent state, or will it remain part of an increasingly federal union of the Isles? Right now, Union seems more likely, but the race remains so close that a single twist of a key issue could swing the vote the other way. With such uncertainty it is important to know what will happen next.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in such political campaigns, it is very, very difficult to know who is telling the truth. The “Naw” and “Aye” campaigns know full well that the majority of the public do not care to fact check, or if they do they normally do not have the means to do so thoroughly enough. As such it is easy enough to say whatever you want and leave flimsy “truth” in the corner for the time being.

With this being the state of affairs, it is hardly surprising that both sides have taken the approach of “you can trust us, but you cannot trust them! Why? Because they are wrong!” The fact of the matter is, everyone is wrong, on every topic where the truth does not serve their purposes very well. For the sake of clarity, and with a bit of research, A Third Opinion looks at the key issues (including the BBC's five unanswered questions), ready to be a third party in declaring both sides wrong.

The Pound

The Pound Sterling is gone. It does not matter how long and enthusiastically Scottish First Minister Salmond declares it the “Scottish Pound”, there is simply no chance that Britain will permit an independent state, with its own fiscal policy, to force its liabilities onto the back of the Bank of England. Scotland, independence secured, will not permit Britain to have any control over its fiscal affairs. Scotland will also not be able to hold debt as leverage. Any attempt to reject their share of United Kingdom debt will be seen as a default and ensure a rock-bottom credit rating following independence – making everyone a good deal poorer.

Plan B for independence is a separate Scottish Pound pegged to the Sterling. This is done in Panama as well as many other states. However, this is not a perfect idea, and could leave Scotland spending years struggling to stay balanced with a currency value held at the whim of a much larger state.

All of this debate is for naught however. Following independence the first thing on Scotland's mind will be membership of the EU. In this situation the EU holds all the cards. Unlike the UK, Denmark and Sweden, Scotland has absolutely no leverage against the EU for which to trade having its own currency. Scotland will be set on course to join the Eurozone like every other joining member, and any discussion of which Pound to have will be a distant memory. However, this is not an uncertain future. The Euro continues to become stronger under the European Central Bank. This may not be Plan A, but it is certainly not a bad Plan B.

The Border

Given that Scotland will likely be looking at its own brand of Euro, it could also seem likely that it will join the EU free-movement area, like all other member states. However, unlike Scotland, the UK still holds a lot of clout in these negotiations and building a wall across its northern border is not high on its priorities. Scotland will likely remain part of the UK free-movement area and avoid being strong-armed into Schengen.

The Oil

Oil will not be divided according to populations. According to international law division of sea areas is geographical. Scotland will retain ownership of its coastline and with it all North Sea territory north of its border with England, all 90% of it.

The key debate is not about ownership now though, it is all about how much is left. The truth is, no one knows. Estimates have ranged from a collapse within two years to well over one hundred years of reserves left. On average 15-30 years seems to be the best estimate, but that remains uncertain.

What is key here is that the debate is very narrow-minded. It is all about the next couple of years, or even the next few decades, not the centuries of future an independent Scotland is looking at. North Sea Oil is a short-term solution, but in the long term Scotland will be looking elsewhere, the length of that term being a relatively minor issue.

Scotland is a more socialist state than England, and it will follow dramatically more left-wing policies than its southern neighbour following independence. Regardless of the status of oil, this will involve hikes in tax, almost across the board, but especially hitting the rich and large corporations. This is an inevitability, the question is not about “if” the oil stops propping up low taxes, but “when”.

But then again, oil across Europe is becoming less of an issue. As tensions rise with Russia and Green movements grow renewable energies are coming to the fore. Scotland is in a prime position to take advantage in this shift, and may well grow to be one of the largest producers of renewable energy in Europe. That alone could replace a good deal of lost oil revenue. There is a lot of ifs involved here, but the key message is – Scottish taxes will rise, but the poor will not be getting poorer.

The Debt

When the crunch occurs post-independence the biggest challenge the new Scottish government will face is their negotiations with Westminster dividing services and debt in the split. Realistically, faced with the challenge of renegotiating every treaty required for their future, including membership of the EU, the Scottish government will have no leverage to ensure a strong end to these negotiations. The UK, by contrast, can drag out the talks as long as they like.

The result of this imbalance is that Salmond's claims that being frozen out of the Pound would allow them to ditch their share of the debt is at the very best political deceit and the very worst naive. Following independence Scotland will play by the terms of the states they are negotiating with, not their own. Independence does not mean doing whatever you like, it means having the freedom to make independent decisions within the abilities of a new, small, European state. Repeatedly clamoring, as he did in the last debate, that this is the "sovereign will" is a meaningless soundbite. The people do not control the pound, the Bank of England does.

Scotland will take their share of the UK's debt (regardless of currency issues) and will lose all support of the UK's credit rating and central bank. Interest rates for borrowing will rise and, in the short-term at least, national and average wealth will suffer for it. However, this vote is not about the short-term. Scotland is capable of becoming a success, but at least a decade of a slightly more difficult financial climate will be the price of this opportunity.

The EU

The Yes camp has declared that the EU negotiations will be no problem, ready for competition pretty much as soon as they click their fingers. The No camp has pointed by statements by high-ranking EU officials and Spanish leaders that Scotland would be lucky to get in at all, let alone within the decade.

As with most other matters both sides are saying what they think you want to hear, not what they think is actually true. But uniquely this has little to do with Scotland at all.

The Yes camp is right that EU membership is essentially a certainty. The EU would be very uncomfortable with the idea of any state, even a breakaway one, falling out of the EU. It sets a dangerous precedent for other states who are feeling uncertain about their membership, including the UK. They will do everything necessary to bring Scotland into the fold, within reason. This includes overruling the Spanish, paranoid nationalists who overreact to anything which could possibly look like vindication to their separatist regions, such as Catalonia and Basque Country. The Spanish never have, and will not have, any real power in the direction of major EU decisions such as national membership. Those decisions lie with the centrist alliance of France and Germany. They will force the Spanish into line and ensure Scotland's continued membership.

However, the EU does hold all the cards in these negotiations. Scotland needs the EU a great deal more than the EU needs Scotland, and both sides know it. The EU will dictate the terms of membership, including stripping Scotland of the opt-outs that the UK has enjoyed (such as remaining outside the Euro), and may well support the Scandinavian states in any disagreements over the North Sea.

EU membership is inevitable. But it will not be under the terms of the Scots.

The Nukes

This is possibly the most difficult question to answer, as it is simply a bargaining piece amongst other far more important issues of the independence. It could go several ways. The Scottish government could demand a heavy rent for the facility housing the trident fleet from the UK government to bolster their early government, promising the Scottish people a later departure. They could force trident out of their waters (which, regardless, could take years to complete). It could be the force needed to push the UK towards disarmament or nuclear alternatives as a significantly cheaper option.

Whatever the result, it is unlikely to be influenced by NATO. Nuclear weapons have long ceased to be anything but a status symbol for world powers, and NATO will be relatively uninterested by the UK's changing situation whilst the US and France remain nuclear powers. Trident is an important post-independence bargaining chip, no more.


The United Kingdom is heading towards the status of a federal state. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are gaining increasing powers which will increase through time. Individual regions within England alone are gaining their own powers, especially the Celtic nation of Cornwall. However, the rate at which this will happen is uncertain and it will never entirely readdress the imbalance where the comparatively large nation of England, and especially its enormous capital of London, hold a far greater control over United Kingdom, including Scotland.


Flag – Scotland will take St. Andrew's Saltire. The UK will likely keep the Union Jack as it is.

Pandas – The Pandas will remain in Edinburgh Zoo for their full 10 years.

Passport – Dual citizenship is possible in the UK. It is likely most inhabitants of Scotland will be able to have both Scottish and British citizenship.


It seems inevitable that Scotland will face a period where they suffer economically compared to its status as part of the United Kingdom. How long this period will be is uncertain, and in which direction the Scottish economy will head after this term is impossible to determine.
In the end this referendum is not about the next decade, it is about the next century and longer. Regardless of falls in income and revenue Scotland will have a remit to step dramatically further left than the United Kingdom. They will be able to develop a fairer state with more support for the poor and disadvantaged, more tolerant and liberal than its southern neighbour. The question then simply becomes – is that worth everyone being an unknown amount worse off in at least the near future? It is that simple.

Next month, Scotland decides.