Monday, 12 January 2015

Je Suis A Pencil Sharpener

Amidst the chorus of righteous indignation and pithy cartoons which poured scorn in a fairly safe way on the attacks in Paris last week, this simple yet quite powerful image by the French artist Lucille Clerc (and not by Banksy, as many originally thought.)

The painfully obvious message is that you can't shoot freedom of expression, and we will come back stronger. The less obvious point, perhaps made inadvertently is that between the tragic breaking of the pencil last week and the coming back stronger someone has actually made a conscious decision to get a pencil sharpener out and sharpen the broken end. They haven't put an eraser on it, or forbidden that pencil ever be used to mock Islam, or even included guidelines on cultural understanding. They have sharpened the broken part so that the resulting two pencils can draw twice as much of whatever it was that offended in the first place. This is not so much a message of passive resilience to violent attack as it is a message of an aggressive and active response to an assault on our way of life.

So what should that pencil sharpener be? It's hard to imagine the sorry morass of faux "defiance" offered by most of the world's media, or retweeting "Je Suis Charlie" to a bunch of keyboard warriors is much help. This sort of weakness has been a defining feature of our supposed war on terror at home, and it has failed miserably. 

Terrorist spokesman Anjem Choudary, improbably writing for USA Today, made it very clear why the pencils are being broken: because the French government "allowed" the cartoonists to insult his prophet. This passage in particular leaves the reader in no doubt whatsoever that Choudary is on the side of the shooters:

Muslims consider the honor of the Prophet Muhammad to be dearer to them than that of their parents or even themselves. To defend it is considered to be an obligation upon them. The strict punishment if found guilty of this crime under sharia (Islamic law) is capital punishment implementable by an Islamic State. This is because the Messenger Muhammad said, "Whoever insults a Prophet kill him."

Muslims, according to Choudary are obligated to defend Muhammad, and the punishment for mocking him is death. 

This view is, needless to say, simply incompatible with life in a liberal western democracy. There's no compromise to be reached and no qualifications needed. If you believe that, then you are placing yourself firmly on the side of terrorism. 

The idea that it is prosperous and stable western democracies who ought to change our way of life and centuries old political traditions to accommodate the views of maniacs like Choudary is absurd. These views are widely held in Nigeria and Afghanistan, in Somalia and Syria and they bring misery, poverty and violence to each of these places, on a scale which thankfully remains extremely rare in the western world. But not rare enough.

The sharpening of pencils needed is to stamp such behaviour out entirely and decisively. There is no room for compromise on this. Freedom of expression must be non-negotiable, leaving the only logical course of action for Choudary to move to a country where he is comfortable with the laws. Any yielding, any restraint or compromise of this principle is as good as a total surrender. It will simply make them stronger and more determined.

Choudary, like most of his ilk has been arrested on several occasions and given the usual meaningless fines and discharges, and carried on with his mission of trying to stir up a religious war in the west. In France last week they basically succeeded, briefly. In huge swathes of Africa and Asia they have succeeded already and the result is horrific. Consider that "in other news" last week some 2,000 people were feared dead in the town of Baga in northern Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram. We absolutely can not and should not tolerate it happening here on any scale.

When people are prosecuted for terrorist offences they must be viewed not simply as misguided fools who have gone off the rails but as enemy combatants who are a very real and immediate threat to the peace and freedom of the western world. Releasing them to continue in their holy war is utter madness and will only reinforce the notion that we lack the moral courage to stand for the beliefs and laws which have served us so well. 

Our pencil sharpener must shave away the vague and pathetic notions of tolerance, and the limp wristed folly that dictates that we ought to respect people's religious beliefs, however absurd and violent they are, down to a fine and focused tip unashamedly highlighting the superiority of an open and uninhibited society over the orgy of violence and destruction which fundamentalist Islam seeks to replace it with. 

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Religion of Peace Strikes Again

In Paris this time, with a savage attack on a satirical newspaper, killing 12 and leaving 4 more fighting for their lives. This was a very different attack from the shambolic siege in Sydney last month. A very organised and apparently professional assault on a specific target that was known to lampoon Islam.

The similarity is that once again a western government could have prevented this earlier if only they would take the threat of Islamic militants seriously at home before they start running around the world trying to solve problems they have no control over.

The gunmen have now been identified as Said Kouachi, born in 1980, Cherif Kouachi, born in 1982, both from Paris, and Hamyd Mourad, born in 1996. All French nationals, the younger man Hamyd Mourad has handed himself in to police in northern France. The brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi are still on the run, presumably armed and in no hurry to help police with their enquiries.

Already at this early stage it's known that Cherif was arrested in 2005 and imprisoned in 2008 for recruiting French nationals to go to Iraq and join the holy war against the Americans from his mosque in Paris, and was apprehended on route to Iraq to join them. He was arrested and charged again in 2010 in connection with a plot to break Algerian Islamist Smain Ait Ali Belkacem out of prison, where he is held for an earlier attack on a Paris commuter station.

Much less is known about the elder brother Said, except that he was living with Cherif at the time of his arrest, so at the very least can be presumed to have known about his brother's activities. What appaers to be his Facebook page here doesn't really paint him in a favourable light. And since this will inevitably disappear in the next few days, here is a screenshot

Remember that France has had two incidents in the last month of Islamist lunatics attacking the public, so you would think that they would be on their guard a bit.

So how on earth were these two allowed to drive into central Paris with assault rifles and carry out this awful attack? If I can find this information out in just an hour or so on Google how on earth can one of the world's most advanced nations with a formidable military and intelligence service and a history of Islamic terrorism that pre-dates the "war on terror" by some decades, be so utterly inept? And being this inept while the French military is busily engaged across Africa and the Middle East in conflicts that have little if anything to do with France is unforgivable. 

To be very clear about this, the blame lies only with those who perpetrated this atrocity, but the responsibility of the French government to protect it's citizens and maintain the peace was woefully neglected. 

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Ernest Maples and Grand Scale Corruption

If you have taken any interest at all in British transport policy in recent years then there's a good chance you will know of Dr Beeching, and his infamous cuts which amputated thousands of miles of track and over 2,000 stations from Britain's railway system. Even today the name is synonymous with the decline and destruction of our railway network. However if you haven't studied it closely, or are not old enough to remember it, then there's a good chance you have not heard Ernest Maples, the Minister of Transport at the time.

Beeching was a physicist by training with a PhD, appointed as an advisor to the British Transport Commission. A worthy technocrat to improve a failing system but not the man to make judgements about the social and wider economic impacts of his proposals. That should have been the role of the Minister of Transport. Beeching however was an ideal scapegoat.

Marples was an altogether different animal. An ambitious, not to say ruthless man he rose very quickly in both his political and business careers. The son of a Manchester Labour campaigner and himself already active in the Labour movement by the age of 14 he had numerous jobs before joining the army in 1941. He became a Conservative MP immediately after the war and was also a Director of Kirk & Kirk, a major construction company. Here he met Reginald Ridgeway and the two went into partnership, taking over one of their former employers contracts. The company continued to do well largely out of government contracts for power stations, roads and other infrastructure projects.
He cut a dash in the stuffy Conservative party of the 1950s with his blue suits and orange shoes, and a flamboyant showmanship that was out of character for the time.

Despite this he became a junior minister in Harold MacMillan's Department of Housing & Local Government in 1951 and was instrumental in helping that government meet it's ambitious housing targets. MacMillan would later credit this as instrumental in making him Prime Minister following the departure of Anthony Eden.

MacMillan repaid this in 1957 by making Marples Postmaster General. Marples busily set about introducing postcodes, STD dialing codes and Premium Bonds. He was then Minister of Transport from 1959 until the Conservative party lost the 1964 general election and was even more active with such wonderful innovations as parking meters and traffic wardens, and of course an extensive road building programme from which the company he now owned 80% of profited handsomely.

This didn't go unnoticed and as early as 1951 he resigned as Managing Director of Marples Ridgeway but retained an 80% shareholding. In 1959 when he took over the transport role he undertook to sell the shares, but constructed the deal in such a way as to be able to buy them back later at preferential rates. This was blocked by the Attorney General, but somehow he managed to sell them to his wife.
At the same time he skirted the edge of the Profumo affair in a rather brazen fashion - knowing that Lord Denning had set a cut off dat, when called to the enquiry and introduced to one of the working girls, he greeted her as an old friend and remarked "Why it must he ten years since I've seen you!" While it's hard to imagine anyone was truly fooled by this it served to keep him out of the final report and in the government.

Throughout this time he built a strong property portfolio and amassed considerable wealth in a web of holding companies in Britain, France and Liechtenstein.

He remained an MP until 1974 when he became Baron Marples. In early 1975 he fled the UK, leaving a huge tax bill, alleged law suits with former employees and tenants and a mess of his home in Belgravia. Following this he split his time between Monaco and a chateau in the Beaujolais region of France, owned by a holding company of his.

Richard Stott tracked him down here shortly before his death in 1975 for a fractious interview which Stott would later describe as being characterised by "charm, aggression and a great deal of wine" and during which Marples told Stott he was the worst journalist and the most aggressive person he had ever met.

There's no doubt that Marples was an energetic and productive individual but reading the bald facts 50 years later it's hard to see that his actions were anything other than the sort of blatant corruption you'd normally associate with Africa or Latin America than with Britain in the 1950s and 60s.
And while his behaviour is probably less shocking now the relative ease with which he was able to behave in this way shows something innocent and indeed na├»ve about the time in which he did it. Blinded by it's love of big government,  post war Britain forgot to ask the basic questions which should always be asked of those in positions of power, and especially the power to spend huge sums of our money - what's in it for them?

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Drink Driving and Lesser Crimes

There is a curious logic applied to drink driving as compared with other crimes. It's a logic that has been spectacularly successful at making the practice both legally very risky and socially unacceptable over recent decades,  and it's the generally effective "broken windows" strategy of clamping down hard on even minor offenders to make it not worth the risk. With a 12 month ban, hefty fines and an extended driving test the standard sanction for even a mild case, along with the very real prospect of losing your job, years of higher insurance premiums and a considerable social stigma. If there is an accident, regardless of fault, or a previous conviction for drink driving then you will be lucky to escape prison. Only a fool would even contemplate driving home after more than a small drink with a meal, and many like myself wouldn't even take the small drink as the pleasure is not worth the risk.

Interestingly this has been achieved without going to the lengths some other countries have gone to in things like road blocks randomly testing every passing car, and with a relatively high limit compared with other countries.

So far so good then - effective policing and strong legislation have made a dangerous practice much less common without inconveniencing law abiding members of the public.

The curious thing is that this logic so rigorously and effectively applied to driving a car while inebriated is almost universally dismissed as outdated, ineffective and even counterproductive when applied to almost every other act of criminal behaviour. It is a well hackneyed piece of liberal dogma that prisons make people more likely to offend, and that there is no correlation between stiffer sentences and a reduction in crime, yet in the case of drink driving this has been completely at odds with our experience.

If a 21 year old man (the demographic most likely to offend) were to be caught driving home from the pub with a blood alcohol level that was "double the limit" - which can be achieved with a relatively modest amount of alcohol - then most people would say he deserved his punishment,  the 12 or more months of bus travel, the hefty fine, even the loss of his livelihood, because he did an irresponsible thing which he knew to have severe negative consequences and was caught. And count himself lucky he didn't kill someone.

However if you were to suggest a similar sanction against a 21 year old man who was caught shoplifting,  brawling in a nightclub or in possession of illegal drugs you would be derided as a cruel and reactionary conservative. A hang 'em and flog 'em right winger too blinkered to see that this course of action would increase the chances of recidivism by labelling him a criminal and hampering his chances of productive employment. Instead these offenders are given cautions,  ASBOs and meaningless slaps on the wrist time after time until their offending leads to more serious harm.

Why should this be? Why would something that has been effective for one criminal act not even be attempted with others? Why has a raft of snooping powers and intrusive legislation been brought in to prevent and punish related activities and so undermine the liberties of the whole population, when no serious attempt has been made to actually punish "petty" crime so that it doesn't become commonplace and acceptable in the way that driving home from the pub used to be but isn't now?

Following the money usually casts an interesting light on such mysteries, and one feature of drink drivers, like speeding motorists, is that they typically have something to lose, and the ability to pay the fines. Something that many people convicted of other crimes often do not. With over 50,000 people convicted in the UK annually and fines regularly over £1000 there certainly is money to be had. True it's a drop in the vast wasteful ocean of our government but enough for some mini empires to be built.

Of course the fact that most potential drink drivers have more to lose points us to question whether people who commit other crimes won't respond rationally to the disincentive of losing their liberty, or they don't believe they face this sanction.

The former is an impossible proposition for a justice system. The only possible answer to someone with that outlook is to remove from them the opportunity to cause harm.

If, as seems much more probable,  they simply don't believe our justice system will ever hand down a meaningful sanction for their behaviour then the answer to seriously reducing crime is staring us in the face: robust and meaningful penalties consistently applied to make an example of the hardcore who will offend regardless and make sure that those who do take a rational approach to such decisions are never tempted to think it's worth the risk.