Mexico bears the brunt of our failed war on drugs

February 28, 2009 at 8:20 pm | Posted in Drugs, International | 5 Comments

For a politician, I’m not sure there’s anything more humiliating than defending your own failures. A few days ago the President of Mexico was forced to deny that he was presiding over a failed state. As his country prepared to send two thousand more troops into the troubled city of Ciudad Juarez, Felipe Calderon insisted that he wasn’t losing control of his country and that victory was just around the corner – contrary to growing fears in the United States that their neighbour is close to becoming a narco-state.

In a technical sense, Mr Calderon is correct that Mexico isn’t yet a failed state, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t failing. Since assuming office in December 2006 and immediately escalating the doomed ‘war on drugs’, there have been over 8,000 drug-related executions. Thanks to the wealthy, powerful and vengeful cartels, there are towns and cities plagued by corrupt police forces, widespread extortion and untramelled violence. Just a week ago, gunmen killed a police officer and prison guard and left a note by their bodies promising to kill an officer every two days until the police chief resigned. He quit before they ever had the chance to carry out their threat.

This is what the war on drugs buys you. In its long and undignified history, Presidents have come and gone; cartels have risen and fallen; street dealers have become rich, been shot or imprisoned; millions of addicts have killed themselves and many millions more have been exploited at every stage of the supply chain. Meanwhile, cartels have infested the law enforcement of Latin America; West Africa has become a vital part of the illegal trade route and the people of Afghanistan are caught up in a war where both the sale and destruction of opium crops can help strengthen Taliban insurgents. All these millions dead, all these billions spent, and both supply and demand remain as strong as ever.

Earlier this month a commission led by three former Latin American heads of state called prohibition the failure it is and suggested that the continent should treat narcotics as a public health problem, rather than a problem for law enforcement. But even if Mexico, Columbia & Brazil were to legalise drugs overnight, it still wouldn’t diminish the power of cartels to erode civil society, as they would still have to break national & international law to smuggle their products to overseas markets. No, the only way we could effectively end this cycle of violence, corruption and exploitation would be for the drug cartels’ biggest export markets – the U.S. and Europe – to agree to some kind of controlled legalisation. The drugs trade is only filled with such violence because it’s illegal, and whilst decriminalising wouldn’t exactly bring immediate peace, it would at least make it possible for that peace to emerge.

If the bloody, anarchic events in Mexico and throughout South America were instead happening in Britain, ending prohibition would be the great moral & political cause of our time. For decades these countries have been waging a futile war on our behalf, and only when we call a truce will they be able to mend their fractured societies.

Image by Flickr user Latin Snake (Creative Commons)

The politics of poverty

February 26, 2009 at 10:09 pm | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

Over at CentreRight, Jill Kirby eviscerates the ‘shamelessly cheerful’ Harriet Harman for attending the launch of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report into poverty, inequality & government policy. She interprets the report like so:

Put briefly: as Labour poured money into welfare spending during its first term, the resultant redistribution shrank (modestly) the numbers of pensioners and children in relative poverty; by 2004 child and pensioner poverty started rising again, and wages were stalling. And as we already know, a plethora of expensive intitiatives made no impact whatosever on the NEETS (16-18 year olds not in education, employment or training) – despite a buoyant economy with no lack of of jobs.

As we stare into the pit of a plunging labour market, there is not much for the Government to be proud of. While she wages war on Mandy, staking out her place as the true champion of equality, Hattie would do well to apologise – on behalf of all her colleagues and especially her erstwhile friend and mentor Gordon Brown – for the wasted years, the wasted billions and the wasted opportunities. Opportunites to create a pro-work, pro-family welfare system with reduced dependency and genuine (not grade-inflated) educational opportunities for all. It’s no good telling us you cared, or asking us to let you try more of the same. You had your chance (and our money) and you blew it. You might at least say sorry.

There’s a little too much tubthumping here for this to be a fair analysis. It’s certainly true that when you consider the expenditure over the last decade, the government’s successes seem meagre and their failures seem egregious, and the fact that progress seems to have stopped dead after 2004 should be a real cause for concern. And yes, this being central government, I’m sure money has been wasted, and that there were schemes which never worked or which should’ve been ditched when they reached their sell-by date.

But what renders this criticism slightly mute is that we don’t actually know how much it costs to lift a person out of poverty, short of introducing a fairly generous citizen’s allowance. One of the key conclusions in the JRF’s report is that the ‘trickle down’ approach of the 1980’s and ’90’s didn’t work, and whilst three Labour governments have had some qualified successes in reducing poverty, the immediate effect of its ‘pump up’ approach has merely been to enrich the ‘low-hanging fruit’ who were able to find work during a decade of economic growth, and who had their income supplemented by tax credits. Even during our days of plenty, we still had long-term unemployment, and as a result we had entrenched, immovable poverty.

For Kirby, this probably points to dependence on an overly-generous, overly-lenient welfare state. For me, it shows that the welfare state isn’t really the problem. Those who were unemployed during the boom years aren’t suddenly going to find employment in our days of scarcity, no matter how many sanctions you throw at them; many simply don’t possess the skills required by employers, and they are competing with experienced & driven immigrant workers on one hand, and a next generation of younger, more skilled and experienced workers on the other. One of the consequences of the 80’s and 90’s was that it created a lost generation of would-be workers, and the least we can do is keep a roof over their heads.

To prevent there from being further lost generations, we must look at the results of our education system, and in this area it still isn’t possible to determine whether the government’s been a success or failure. Kids who entered school in 1997 are only just beginning to revise for their GCSEs, and government reforms to schools didn’t even begin until after 2000. As the report notes, it won’t be possible to know what effect Labour’s education reforms have had on the poverty rate for another 5-10 years, by which point it’ll probably be a Tory government claiming credit/taking the blame for the results.

To conclude: no, the JRF’s report doesn’t make the government’s record on poverty & inequality look great, but nor does it lend itself to the same old Tory assumptions about the evils of the welfare state. We really need to get past that.

Selected reading

February 25, 2009 at 9:28 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

Some bits & bobs:

  • The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports on poverty, inequality & policy since ’97.
  • Compass co-authors an open letter protesting against Peter Mandleson’s apparent plans to axe new equality laws.
  • Chris Davies wonders if social networking sites are ruining our children’s minds.
  • Here’s something you don’t read everyday: someone defending Bono.
  • Stephen M. Walt wonders what advice Winston Churchill offers in the enduring debate about how and when to use military force.
  • Tenured Radical offers a very strong pro-peace critique of the movement to boycott Israeli universities
  • At The F Word, Louise Livesey has a good take on Gail Trimble, the woman who was ‘too smart’ and womanly for University Challenge.
  • Rape is cheaper than bullets: Heather Harvey on how rape is used as a weapon of war. (Also here)
  • And Melanie Phillips The Daily Show on Obama: The Antichrist

About today

February 25, 2009 at 7:52 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging | 6 Comments

Orwell Blog Prize Longlist 1

Loathe as I am to disprove the rule that bloggers are armed with opinions about everything, I’m not quite sure what to say about this apart from some banality like “oh my!” or “that’s a turn up for the books”. I should really never write anything without an encyclopedia of cliches…

People blog about politics for any number of reasons. Some use it as a chance to vent; others as a chance to debate. Some like to specialise in one specific area; others offer a more general commentary. Some proselytize for their party, their ideology, their faith or their atheism. Some scrutinise the tabloids, some interpret the world through academia, and some type pithy, witty put-downs to those who deserve a good fisking. Even now I’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

But where blogs might differ in their motivations, ideology, tone and voice, the one unifying thread which runs through this huge, diffuse blogsophere is that they’re all written by people who believe this country can be made better than it is today. In an age which is supposed to be more apathetic than those which have gone before, that’s something pretty special.

For that reason, no matter how many links they recieve, how many hits they boast or whether or not they’re nominated for a prize, all of them – regardless of party or creed – are of great value to our understanding of the world, and of each other.

So just for the record, the submissions I made for the Orwell Prize can be found here, but before you do that, I’d ask anyone with an interest in entering the kingdom of blogs to first read the other submissions, especially by those writers you haven’t heard of or think you won’t agree with. And once you’ve done that, perhaps you might want to check out what else is out there. It will be worth your time.

Only our schools will reduce youth crime

February 24, 2009 at 10:21 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, Education | 2 Comments

I don’t want to dwell for too long on the many shades of wrong in Chris Grayling’s big speech – not least because you’ve probably read septicisle’s strong critique and nodded/grimaced in all the right places – but I do think there are aspects of his fondness for child curfews which need addressing.

First, we should remember that the child curfew already has a long and undistinguished history as a tool for cutting crime. In 1998, Labour made it possible for courts & councils to impose curfews on children under the age of 10, but just a year later it was clear the measures were a flop and even Jack Straw admitted it was a mistake. Undeterred by the failure and apparently oblivious to all the voices who insisted it was a bad policy, the government extended the measures in 2001, this time including children up to the age of 15. They returned again in 2008 as the panic over gun crime saw Labour scrambling for more tough-sounding measures to stuff in its Youth Crime Action Plan. So Grayling’s idea would be – by my count – the fourth attempt by a government to use curfews as an effective crime deterrant. There’s a word for people who try the same thing over and over again, but expect a different result.

The child curfew always strikes me as the modern day equivalent of the ‘clip ’round the ear’; an easy newsbite which is eulogised as a means of keeping the streets safe and disciplining tearaway teens (in spite of evidence to the contrary) but completely ignorant of the economic, emotional and educational aspects which underlies their behaviour. It’s true that there are kids in this country who are troubled and who make trouble for the rest of us. Their numbers are exaggerated – even amongst working class children – but they do exist, they’re difficult to reason with and even harder to control. But one thing Early Intervention has found is that at-risk children start exhibiting signs of being in trouble when they’re in primary school, and if those warning signs aren’t detected and treated as easly as possible, then disruptive and ‘anti-social’ behaviour is much more likely later on in life. Your ability to alter a child’s behaviour and life chances at age 5 or 6 is much greater than at 14 or 15.

So if you want to be seen as serious about reducing youth crime, stop bringing out the Shadow Home Secretary to announce a few feeble, second-hand measures. Instead, bring us a Shadow Education Secretary to explain how he’ll rig the school system so that kids who exhibit signs of trouble can get the kind of help which might save them.

Nut of the week

February 22, 2009 at 6:38 pm | Posted in Barack Obama | 4 Comments

Okay, so it isn’t exactly news that Alan Keyes is clinging onto reality by his fingernails, and our hours are much better spent pointing and laughing rather than frothing with outrage, but this quite mesmerising rant does raise a fairly serious question: at what point do your efforts to villify your political opponents cross the looney bin threshold and become plain, unvarnished incitement? Keyes certainly treads a very thin line here: the talk of Obama proving himself to be a radical communist, of beginning the destruction of America, of not even being a real American, of military officers wanting to disobey their Commander-in-Chief, and “we are either going to stop him or the United States of America is going to cease to exist.” All of this stuff is straight out of the rhetorical playbook of the far-right, and whilst it might be a rather extreme example of Obamanoia from a man who’s a walking joke even in some Republican circles, it also wouldn’t sound out of place on Stormfront.

Just as an aside, does anyone care to guess what Keyes did for a living before he morphed into a wandering rant-merchant and would-be theocrat? Yep, he was a diplomat. It’s a wonder we’re all still alive.

Prisons on the cheap

February 21, 2009 at 10:12 pm | Posted in British Politics, Prison Reform | 6 Comments

I suppose there have been worse custodians in its history, but if you were to rank government ministers of the past ten years according to the harm they’ve inflicted on the prison service, Jack Straw would come out on top. Since assuming the role just two years ago, Straw has overseen dangerous overcrowding, planned to solve it by building a series of megajails which every reform group in the country has condemned, and then attacked his critics with the old lie that they don’t care about victims of crime.

He’s refused to give prisoners the right to vote despite being legally obliged to do so, he’s produced policies of pure populist junk (having the public vote on a criminal’s punishment or publicly humiliating offenders) and has run his department like a pandering control freak, eager to interfere in any aspect of the criminal justice system which the Tory tabloids are upset about. But perhaps the most damaging legacy of Straw’s time as Justice Minister has been his continuation of the government’s mad delusion that the prison service can be run on the cheap.

This week, the 25,000 members who make up the Prison Officers Association rejected a new pay deal from the government. Under Labour’s proposed ‘workforce modernisation programme’, existing prison officers would’ve recieved a 4.75% pay rise, but the plans would’ve also created a new tier of prison officers, who would’ve been paid less and given fewer responsibilities. The POA’s members rejected the government’s offer because at a time when they are already overstretched and undervalued, they could not accede to a plan which would open the door for the deskilling of a profession where skilled, experienced officers are essential. Prisons would become more dangerous, prisoners would be less safe and the public would be exposed to greater risk when they’re eventually released.

Responding to the prison officers’ discontent, Straw threatened to make them irrelevant by giving a greater role in managing prisons to the private sector, where officers are already paid less, have fewer responsibilities and less experience, leading to pretty ugly consequences. In this pay deal, as with the policy of creating Titan prisons and the part privatisation of the system, the government’s guiding principle seems to be ‘how cheaply can prisons be run?’, when it should be asking ‘how can they be run most effectively?’

Prisons should be expensive to run. They should be full of well-trained and well-paid wardens, medics, mental health professionals and educators. They should be able to stop the smuggling of drugs, reduce cases of suicide and self-harm and generally give prisoners enough opportunities to rehabilitate themselves that they have no excuse for returning to the crime which put them in jail in the first place. By rejecting this pay deal, the Prison Officer’s Association are sticking to that principle; it’s just a shame that they seem to be fighting a losing battle.

Selected reading

February 19, 2009 at 10:38 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A few bits & pieces from here & there:

  • Jim Cust asks whether 2009 could be the year of Africa’s internet revolution
  • Andrew Sullivan has a fantastic short article on torture
  • Josh Marshall wonders whether Sir Allen Stanford was also into drugs (cartels, that is)
  • Ezra Klein on Blue Dog Democrats & Red Cat Republicans
  • Marc Lynch has some more must-read reporting on the Middle East
  • At Feministing, Courtney asks ‘What do women in Afghanistan want?
  • Neil McCormick discusses David Cameron’s love of Morrissey
  • The Lib Dems have some audacious proposals for housing the homeless
  • Mike McNabb wonders whether our efforts against poverty have gone as far as they can
  • The Vatican may have readmitted a society which openly propogates anti-semitism
  • And the great Haruki Murakami writes from Israel on peace and… eggs.

Rewording the recession

February 19, 2009 at 10:28 pm | Posted in Misc. | Leave a comment

You might not have noticed, but I generally like to put a bit of preparation into my blog posts. Normally it just takes the form of googling, or trawling through RSS feeds to see what my peers are writing about, or (if I’m feeling particularly inspired) just plagiarising the Guardian’s Society website. Anything to add a bit more value for money in these austere times.

But because this Clusterf#@k to the Poor House Global Financial Crisis is in the realm of economics, and because economics is a rigorous and exact science which produces perfect results every time, I decided to prepare for this post by spending an hour with an abacus, a ouija board, a bottle of De Kuyper and an episode of Most Haunted Live.*

What did I learn? Well, not much beyond ‘we’re all completely screwed’, ‘damn, that’s some good brandy’ and ‘why don’t these idiots realise this show’s a fraud?’, but I did come to the conclusion that if we’re living in a world where avid Randists can break bread with revolutionary Marxists, perhaps we should just discard all the old ways of talking about the economy and start a whole new language.

Luckily, help is at hand. Via comrade Cust – gentleman, scholar and newbie blogger – I discover that someone’s already begun fashioning a new vocabulary for the End of Capitalism. So without further ado, this is the new lingo you’ll need to learn for this scared new world. You can thank me when you’ve received your first big bank bonuses:


Broadly, attempts to explain why trillions of dollars in the world economy suddenly ceased to exist in the fall of 2008.

Specifically, any attempt to explain an economic principle, process, or effect that fails to follow the linguistic conventions of syntax and sense. Example: credit default swaps.

ayn randyism

Irrational, herd-like erotomania for the work of Ayn Rand among laissez faire economists.


A condition, sometimes priaponomic, of desiring to read and hear more bad news about the economy. Synonymous with moving to Alaska for fear of social unrest in urban areas, and/or buying large quantities of tuna, beans, and semi-automatic weaponry

doodoo economics

Successor to voodoo economics


The perfection of economic modeling through hindsight


A situation where the taxpayer buys an industry but not its product.


Fictitious assets, for example – the money we never *really* had in our 401k accounts

quantitative teasing

Economic frottage: repeated suggestions that the Fed/Central bank will buy your fassets

More here. I’m sure the dictionary will be out in time for Christmas.

*Disclaimer: none of this actually happened.

Writing in the Age of Distraction

February 18, 2009 at 11:52 pm | Posted in Blogging about blogging, Misc. | 1 Comment

This is about a month old now, but since most of the people who visit this establishment have blogs of their own, I reckoned it might be of some interest. This is an article by Cory Doctorow on how to discipline yourself to write, when all the internet seems to be conspiring to distract you:

Short, regular work schedule

When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it. It’s not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it’s entirely possible to make it all shut up for 20 minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there’s always 20 minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn’t become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day’s page between sessions. Try to find one or two vivid sensory details to work into the next page, or a bon mot, so that you’ve already got some material when you sit down at the keyboard.

Leave yourself a rough edge

When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day’s knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the “hint.” Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it’s hard to build on a smooth edge.

Don’t research

Researching isn’t writing and vice-versa. When you come to a factual matter that you could google in a matter of seconds, don’t. Don’t give in and look up the length of the Brooklyn Bridge, the population of Rhode Island, or the distance to the Sun. That way lies distraction — an endless click-trance that will turn your 20 minutes of composing into a half-day’s idyll through the web. Instead, do what journalists do: type “TK” where your fact should go, as in “The Brooklyn bridge, all TK feet of it, sailed into the air like a kite.” “TK” appears in very few English words (the one I get tripped up on is “Atkins”) so a quick search through your document for “TK” will tell you whether you have any fact-checking to do afterwards. And your editor and copyeditor will recognize it if you miss it and bring it to your attention.

Don’t be ceremonious

Forget advice about finding the right atmosphere to coax your muse into the room. Forget candles, music, silence, a good chair, a cigarette, or putting the kids to sleep. It’s nice to have all your physical needs met before you write, but if you convince yourself that you can only write in a perfect world, you compound the problem of finding 20 free minutes with the problem of finding the right environment at the same time. When the time is available, just put fingers to keyboard and write. You can put up with noise/silence/kids/discomfort/hunger for 20 minutes.

Kill your word-processor

Word, Google Office and OpenOffice all come with a bewildering array of typesetting and automation settings that you can play with forever. Forget it. All that stuff is distraction, and the last thing you want is your tool second-guessing you, “correcting” your spelling, criticizing your sentence structure, and so on. The programmers who wrote your word processor type all day long, every day, and they have the power to buy or acquire any tool they can imagine for entering text into a computer. They don’t write their software with Word. They use a text-editor, like vi, Emacs, TextPad, BBEdit, Gedit, or any of a host of editors. These are some of the most venerable, reliable, powerful tools in the history of software (since they’re at the core of all other software) and they have almost no distracting features — but they do have powerful search-and-replace functions. Best of all, the humble .txt file can be read by practically every application on your computer, can be pasted directly into an email, and can’t transmit a virus.

Realtime communications tools are deadly

The biggest impediment to concentration is your computer’s ecosystem of interruption technologies: IM, email alerts, RSS alerts, Skype rings, etc. Anything that requires you to wait for a response, even subconsciously, occupies your attention. Anything that leaps up on your screen to announce something new, occupies your attention. The more you can train your friends and family to use email, message boards, and similar technologies that allow you to save up your conversation for planned sessions instead of demanding your attention right now helps you carve out your 20 minutes. By all means, schedule a chat — voice, text, or video — when it’s needed, but leaving your IM running is like sitting down to work after hanging a giant “DISTRACT ME” sign over your desk, one that shines brightly enough to be seen by the entire world.

Good advice, and if I ever decided to take any of it, I suspect I’d be a much better blogger…

Pakistan’s Taliban

February 18, 2009 at 11:41 pm | Posted in International | 2 Comments

According to Fund for Peace, there are 12 different indicators of a failed state. They include an inability to provide basic public services, massive displacement of the country’s population, widespread corruption, sharp economic decline, and, most importantly, a state’s failure to control its own territory and maintain a monopoly on the use of violence. In its 2008 assessment, the D.C.-based think tank ranked Pakistan as the 9th most failed state in the world, and only two months into 2009, there doesn’t seem much chance of the situation improving.

A few days ago, in an attempt to establish a ceasefire in a long-running war against militant Islamists, Pakistan agreed to the abolition of rational, secular law in the Swat Valley. Once renowned for such outstanding natural beauty that it was often described as the ‘Switzerland of Pakistan’, the valley’s recent history has been plagued by the violence and repressive fundamentalism of a group of Taliban thugs led by Maulana Fazlullah.

Fazlullah is a prime example of why we should save the word ‘fascist’ for those who really deserve it: his battle to exterminate all things sinful and ‘un-Islamic’ extends to music, dancing, shaving, the polio vaccine and women receiving either an education or employment. Under his reign of tyranny, over a quarter of a million people are reported to have left Swat to escape the violence, hundreds of schools have been torched or bombed, militants have set up ‘parallel governments’ for the imposition of Sharia law and well over a thousand people have been killed.

Pakistan’s military has been fighting the enemy within since Musharraf’s time, but lacks the capability to defeat an insurgency built on fear, local grievance and repression, and has evidently concluded that it just can’t win. As a result of this agreement, the government has essentially conceded that it can’t control its borders, doesn’t have a monopoly on the use of violence and can’t even impose law upon the country as a whole. This leaves a largely autonomous, Taliban-run district with good access to Afghanistan and which lies just 80 miles from the capital of the most fragile nuclear power in the region. Not a happy thought, is it?

All of this just underscores, I think, the dangers which await the Obama administration following the announcement of more troop deployments to Afghanistan and the ongoing review of American policy in the region. If the Taliban can continue to maintain supply lines of munitions and manpower, then NATO’s efforts will surely fail, and so the success or failure of whatever new strategy emerges will depend on what happens in Pakistan.

The U.S. has been sending unmanned aircraft into the region since August, and though the government has publically condemned the military strikes as a breach of sovereignty, there is also some suggestion that their intelligence service has been privately passing on intelligence about which targets to hit. Could it be that by trying to isolate Swat from the rest of the country, Pakistan is privately inviting the Americans to be much more proactive in rooting-out the terrorists within? Possibly, but bombing raids also have the effect of enraging a public, stoking nationalism and radicalisation. In this part of the world, each victim of American aggression is seen as a martyr, even if not all the victims of Fazlullah and his clan are.

Bottom line: it’s awful, complicated, and each possible course of action seems to contain ominous but unknowable consequences. There’s no easy way out of this mess we’re in, and Obama might just discover that this is one conflict where hope goes to die.

Why Chavez should go gracefully

February 17, 2009 at 11:27 am | Posted in International | 2 Comments

There’s not much to like about term limits . Originally intended to protect democracy from abuse and guard against dictatorships, the rule that a state’s citizens can’t re-elect an incumbent only serves to cheapen the very thing it’s meant to protect. It reflects a deep insecurity over the strength of democratic institutions and a paranoia that without strict limits, the public will eventually elect a despot who does away with democracy altogether.

The term limit embeds two very negative consequences in a political system, through the way it diminishes both the rewards for success and penalties for failure. It is (or should be) the public who pass the ultimate judgement on elected officials, and a politician can only retain power by demonstrating why they deserve their vote. The best way of achieving that is by fulfilling campaign promises and practicing good governance, but since a re-elected President no longer has any elections to fight, they can spend the rest of their term free from the powerful accountability of the ballot box.

For example, most of us would agree that George W. Bush left office as a failure, but if he’d had the option of campaigning for a third term, he might well have been a more responsible and responsive President in his second term, rather than the abject bum who seemed to have given up by 2006. Likewise, I suspect that both America and the rest of the world would’ve been much better off had President Clinton been allowed to persue a third term of his own.

But whilst the decision by 54% of Venezuelans to do away with this glass ceiling is the right one, it’s still caused a creeping unease that its President, Hugo Chavez, is using it as a means to achieve that which term limits are meant to prevent; ruling the country for life, like his old friend and mentor, Fidel Castro. We should remember that Venezuelans already rejected this idea less than two years ago, and you’re hardly abiding by the will of the people if you return with the same question – worded a little differently – every 14 months, in hope of a different answer.

Whilst I can find no public statement that Chavez intends to rule for life, history tells us that those who do harbour that dark desire will eventually consider ever more desperate – and undemocratic – measures to get their wish. If that happens and each passing year brings greater autocracy, then all the good he will have done in his time as President (for he has done some good), will be undone.

If Chavez truly wishes to leave Venezuelans with a democratic socialist inheritance that people in his own country and beyond would want to aspire to and emulate, he should set the precedent that reform shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of one strongman leader, that governments require frequent renewal to govern well and that the history of autocracy and instability which has so stifled Latin America belongs buried in the last century.

So when 2012 comes around and Chavez will have spent 13 years as President, he should decline the option of running for another term, throw his arms around someone who might continue his legacy and retire as a man who, for all his many, many flaws, established stability, a democratic transfer of power, and – most importantly – a better deal for impoverished Venezuelans. Anything less will ruin his reputation, his political beliefs, and probably his country.

Last orders in Grimethorpe

February 15, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | 3 Comments

Earlier this month, a pub in Barnsley caused quite a stir when it ran a ‘penny for a pint’ promotion. For a limited time, anyone who ordered a measure of spirits could have a pint of Tetley’s bitter for just 1p – which, rather conveniently, is the most I’d want to pay for the stuff anyway.

Inevitably, the news was picked up by the local and national press, who all called MPs, council leaders and health experts and had them condemn how Barnsley’s boozers were being led astray to binge on dodgy bitter. No doubt it furrowed the brows of ministers anxious to tax or legislate the nation into sobriety, and it surely gave the permanently smug Keith Vaz reason to think that his idea of banning drinks promotions was even more necessary than before. But as the newspapers churned out comment and TV crews filmed bemused locals sluping the demon broth, just seven miles down the road, there was a much bigger scandal brewing; the quiet death of yet another pub at the heart of a working class community.

Last week, Grimethorpe Miners’ Welfare was forced into administration. Although its name harks back to a contentious and bygone era, there was nothing antiquated or irrelevant about this social club; all the profits from the bar were put towards funding those activities for young people which everyone agrees are needed, but nobody ever wants to pay for. There are football, rugby and cricket teams, a boxing club, first aid club, majorettes and – most importantly – a junior brass band. All provide a positive outlet for kids’ physical and mental energy, all offer a much better alternative to congregating outside corner shops, collecting ASBOS, and all were possible thanks to the club.

But, as I’ve noted twice before, today’s Britain is not a good place to try to make a living from serving alcohol. Thanks to the smoking ban, the constant tax hikes, the rise of cheap supermarket booze, the increases in energy prices and one wrecking ball of a recession, there weren’t enough profits for the club to keep itself going, let alone all the other groups which relied on its premises. We could argue into eternity over which of these factors had the most impact, but it certainly doesn’t reflect well on this decade that a club which survived the winter of discontent, the strike of ’84 and the unforgiveable consequences of the pit closures couldn’t survive in the current climate.

If there is a wider point which can be dragged out of this story, it would be this: if the state wants to crack down on alcohol consumption because of the contribution to ill health and social evils, those decisions will also make life difficult for establishments which are the cause of genuine social good. The same policies which restrict nationwide pub chains interested only in the bottom line will also restrict those clubs which run evenings for pensioners or activities for children. Is the hope that more tax will force Wetherspoons to charge more for a pint really worth it if it also contributes to the demise of places like this? I suspect not.

In Grimethorpe, the community has lost a focal point, a bridge between its past and its future, and a place where kids can use all their spare time and energy to do something positive. They’ll survive, of course, just as they’ve survived far worse in the past, but a place which has endured so many low blows over the years has just lost something precious, and which might well prove irreplaceable.

“You can fly to Holland”

February 13, 2009 at 11:13 pm | Posted in British Politics | Leave a comment

I’ve watched this debate on the Geert Wilders farce twice now and I still can’t decide whether Keith Vaz was so ill-prepared for it that he completely self-destructed, or whether he was just obliterated by the other members of the panel. Either way, his performance in trying to defend the government’s decision is pretty pathetic:

David Howarth on the criminal justice system

February 13, 2009 at 10:48 pm | Posted in British Politics, Crime, New Labour, Prison Reform | 3 Comments

Give this man a medal:

There is a crisis in the criminal justice system of staggering proportions. The prison population is at a record high, and is eating up £ billions in public expenditure. 70% of prisoners suffer from two or more recognised mental illnesses. Vast numbers are addicted to alcohol or drugs. Prisoners are shunted around the country at an alarming rate in a desperate attempt to find places. Constructive activities for prisoners are becoming increasingly difficult to complete. Thousands of prisoners are threatened with the Catch 22 that they have been sentenced to an indeterminate sentence so that they can only obtain release if they complete certain courses, but no such courses exist at the prisons where they find themselves. Meanwhile, community sentences are underfunded and non-custodial sentences we know are effective in reducing re-offending, such as restorative justice, are left on the shelf.

We need to stick to what works to reduce reoffending, and, within what works, we need to concentrate effort on offenders who are likely to commit the most new crimes and the most serious new crimes. The government and the Tories are obsessed with placating the Daily Mail with talk of punishment and deterrence, but that approach, because it fails to concentrate on what really works to reduce reoffending, effectively causes more crime. If existing resources were moved from programmes that do not work – such as short-term prison sentences that have vast failure rates – to programmes that do, such as restorative justice and drug and alcohol treatment, the crime rate would be lower. By refusing to follow such an approach, and instead indulging their more atavistic tendencies, both Labour and the Tories are permitting more crime than should be happening. That is why they are the pro-crime parties.

There are a number of things about this piece which make me happy. In 2005, Howarth was the recipient of my first ever vote, and whilst it was nice enough just to see the back of the rather useless Anne Campbell, that’s since been superceded by an admiration for how well he articulates the causes of civil liberties and social justice.

Second, what’s striking about the section above is not just that he understands the myriad wrongs in the criminal justice system, but that he’s able to frame them within a ‘tough on crime’ narrative which contends that Labour is actually contributing to crime, not tackling it. Whilst he only briefly alludes to the solutions, the suggestion that his Ministry of Justice would be more nuanced, pragmatic and results-based is more than enough to earn him a spot in my fantasy cabinet.

Lastly, it’s heartening to see him talking about this issue within the broader context of civil liberties and constitutional reform. One of the frustrations I have with the ‘civil liberties movement’ is that its focus is overwhelmingly on the restrictions Labour has imposed (or would like to impose) on those whom the law presumes to be innocent (42 day detention, DNA databases, ID cards etc etc). Those policies obviously need smart & vigorous opposition, but it often seems like there’s then little room for discussion about safeguarding the rights of people the law knows to be guilty. I’ve always thought that people who argue for reform of our criminal justice system were natural bedfellows for civil libertarians, but that’s not a sense I get when traipsing around the blogosphere. In this piece, Howarth ties the two together, and for that he deserves great credit.

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