Wednesday, 30 June 2010
A large statue of Stalin has been removed from its public plinth in the Georgian city of Gori, the Soviet dictator's home town. The six metre bronze - taken from its plinth in the dead of night - had stood in the centre of town since the early 1950s; it will now be housed in a local museum. It was thought to be the last large-scale statue of Stalin still standing in its original position in the whole of the former Soviet Union.
The toppling of statues as a result of changing political tastes - or, as with Stalin, a reappraisal of an historical legacy - is, of course, nothing new; many former leaders once immortalised in grandiose public works of art have undergone a fall from grace, often spectacularly so. Some of the more famous recent examples include not only the USSR but the entire Eastern bloc, where the Communist penchant for the cult of personality once littered the region with monuments to the party's senior apparatus.
But many of these statues were destroyed in the rash euphoria that swept the Warsaw Pact nations after the reintroduction of democracy some twenty years ago. Some, however, were saved, left to gather dust in storage or kept in museums. In some places, such as Budapest, the monuments were collected and displayed in an open-air park, an acknowledgment that although times had changed the historical significance of the communist years could not be overstated. When I visited in 2005 it was already an extremely popular spot for tourists and locals alike.
On other occasions not even regime change would be needed for an individual to fall out of favour. Take Trotsky, for example, or Dzerzhinsky; both were senior figures in the Bolshevik party and both had their reputations ruined long before the regime fell, in part the result of deliberate efforts to blacken their names.
And yet, paradoxically, the very failure to remove these same statues can make a statement just as profound as that made by their destruction elsewhere. In the Belarussian capital of Minsk, for example, Lenin still stands proud in front of the parliament buildings and a statue of hated Dzerzhinsky - founder of the Cheka, the secret Soviet police - graces a tree-lined avenue. Hammer and sickles can be seen everywhere, in a country that voted to secede from the Soviet Union less than two decades ago. The fact that these monuments still exist in situ tells us that in independent Belarus memories of the USSR's glory years are very much there for all to see.
So it might have been something of a surprise that in Georgia a statue of Stalin still existed in a public place well into the 21st century at all, despite the Man of Steel's Georgian ancestry evident in his real surname of Dzhugashvili. Georgia, after all, was far more forthright than Belarus in its quest for nationhood and has enjoyed an often antagonistic relationship with Moscow ever since. But respect for the local boy that would go on to rule the largest country on earth with an iron fist has long outlasted any affections for Russian rule. So why now, in 2010, has Stalin finally vanished from Georgian public life? The answer, as always, lies in politics.
The relationship with the large neighbour to the North is key. Relations between Russia and Georgia deteriorated into open war in 2008 and Moscow's diplomatic recognition of the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have meant that a return to something resembling normalcy any time soon is extremely unlikely. Georgia has also made overtures to the West, its application for NATO membership proving particularly antagonistic to Moscow. Georgia has also left the Commonwealth of Independent States as a direct result.
And so to Stalin. Despite being a Georgian Dzhugashvili spent his political life in the Soviet Union and had no interest in independence for his homeland. Stalin was not a Georgian nationalist, instead ruling over the very state that would throttle the quest for autonomy for the Union's individual republics. His story does not fit with the Georgian nationalist narrative, nor aid that cause's promotion.
So Stalin - and the whiff of Russia - must go. As is so often the case the presence - or absence - of historical monuments is dictated not by that history but rather the political mood of the present; it would seem that the glorification of those who are deemed no longer worthy of it simply will not do.
Tuesday, 29 June 2010
One of the strange things about the World Cup is that it can turn even the most disinterested member of the public into a bona fide football expert, with an opinion on everything from match tactics to WAGS. Take this blog, for example; before the start of the tournament in South Africa footy hardly made an appearance. Now - a bit like the World Cup itself - it's pretty hard to avoid.
So you'll be pleased to know that you can now read this blog as if you were actually at the tournament, vuvuzelas and all. Who needs expensive airfares, long queues and packed out bars when you can experience the World Cup in the comfort of your own home? Precisely.
Monday, 28 June 2010
For those those of you who thought - or hoped - that England's tortuous exit from the World Cup would mean that football would no longer dominate domestic media schedules, look away now; Conservative Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been forced to offer a grovelling apology after suggesting that hooliganism was partly to blame for the Hillsborough football disaster. Some 96 supporters were crushed to death in the Sheffield stadium at the start of an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in 1989; a subsequent investigation found no evidence of violence and placed the blame squarely at the South Yorkshire police who were marshaling the game.
Hillsborough was a seminal event in English football, and remains to date the deadliest football accidents ever to take place in the UK. The 96 killed - all Liverpool fans - were crushed as thousands flooded into overcrowded pens, with no escape route for those trapped at the front behind the barriers fronting the pitch that - at that time - was common in British football grounds. The recommendations of the subsequent Taylor report have guided the construction of new stadia ever since, most noticeably in the absence of the standing-only terraces that still exist in other sports grounds and the removal of the barriers that prevented escape for so many.
It wasn't just the police that came in for criticism that day. The Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper famously ran a headline proclaiming "THE TRUTH" alongside claims that Liverpool fans "picked pockets of victims" , "urinated on the brave cops" and "beat up PC giving kiss of life", in complete contradiction of reports alleging that members of the public helped the emergency services. The Sun's editor at the time, Kelvin MacKenzie, has been openly unapologetic since the report was run and sales of the paper in Liverpool remain extremely low to this day.
Hunt, meanwhile, actually made his original remarks in a television interview where he praised the behaviour of England fans in South Africa, adding that the "terrible problems" of "Heysel and Hillsborough in the 1980s seem now to be behind us". The minister has since apologised unreservedly, stating that "I know that fan unrest played no part in the terrible events of April 1989."
It's perhaps unfortunate timing that after a wait of some two decades the authorities have recently agreed to release more than 30,000 documents relating to the disaster, to be overseen by the Hillsborough Independent Panel. MP Derek Twigg's suggestion that relatives of the victims may lose faith in the current administration's commitment to seeing the release of files "given the view held in high parts of the Government" seems entirely plausible.
Almost a hundred people planning to watch a football match over twenty years ago lost their lives through a deadly and unfortunate series of unrelated events. In some respects those that died were the victims of hooliganism, in that the barriers that separated spectators from the pitch had become standard only after years of violent behaviour from fans. But to label those that died as the victims of hooliganism on the day itself is to misrepent the facts, deliberate or otherwise. Jeremy Hunt is probably just beginning to realise that.
Sunday, 27 June 2010
So the inevitable has come to pass; England have limped out of the World Cup, losing to Germany 4-1 and failing to reach the quarter-final stage for the first time since 1998. To rub salt in the wound the loss is also the biggest English defeat in World Cup history, and marks the culmination of a particularly lacklustre run in the tournament.
I watched the game on a big screen in Leeds' Millennium Square, along with several thousand others hoping to witness revenge for previous defeats at German hands at Italia '90 and Euro '96. Unfortunately it was not to be, and despite the sunny weather the mood of the crowd became increasingly downbeat as the final result became more and more obvious.
The match itself was not much of a contest; Germany thoroughly deserved their victory, despite a perfectly legal Frank Lampard effort that was incorrectly disallowed which would have brought the game level at 2-2. Those with a long memory will remember a similar - if even less conclusive - goal scored in a certain game at Wembley in 1966 against West Germany, and some may even suggest that justice has finally been done. The demand for FIFA to implement at least some form of goal-line technology will surely become more vocal than ever.
For England there is much to ponder, in particular why a team of such talented individuals - like so many times before - has played distinctly less than the sum of its parts might otherwise suggest. Expect the inquests and the soul-searching to run long into the night...
Saturday, 26 June 2010
Germany's interior minister has strongly criticised the UK's tabloid press ahead of this weekend's World Cup clash between the Bundesrepublik and England. Thomas de Maizière - who is also the minister for sport - has been particularly scathing of frequent references to the Second World War, arguing that such journalism belongs in the past whilst also urging Germans to ignore what he believes to be deliberately provocative language.
And he might well have a point. Particularly notable is a headline from today's front page of the Daily Star which declares "It's war - we will fight jeering Jerries on the pitches" and featuring striker Wayne Rooney in a 'Tommy' style tin helmet. And it's not just the press which seizes on the strong footballing rivalry between the two nations to relive the war either, the Hampshire pub pictured above unlikely to win an award for services to friendship from the German government any time soon.
Those who might think this a recent development would, of course, be wrong. In a build up to a confrontation between the two sides at the European Championships in 1996 - held in England -the Daily Mirror famously declared that "For you, Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over." Germany would subsequently win that match on penalties and went on to take the title for the third time.
And it's been noted by many observers that frequent references to World War II have been endemic in popular British culture ever since the end of hostilities in 1945, and documentaries on the subject are still a regular feature in the television schedules. Sport, and in particular football, is merely the most obvious time when this interest - some would say obsession - comes to the surface. But whatever the reason it behind it would be churlish to suggest that this might not prove irritating to a nation that we have been allied to ever since.
Perhaps, though, the last laugh will belong to Germany. Ever since England's sole World Cup victory in 1966 a German team has won it twice, in addition to a 1954 win - The Miracle of Bern - that came less than a decade after the fall of Berlin. Germany have also conquered the European Championships more times than any other nation whilst England has yet to progress past the semifinals. Given England's dismal performance thus far in this latest World Cup it's hard to feel optimistic about the upcoming clash between the countries.
And this is a major reason why the English press should show some restraint when it comes to war-related metaphors. Yes, it's childish; yes, it's a damning indictment of a distinctly British subculture that looks to the past rather than the future. But perhaps worst of all it simply serves to make your opponents want to win all the more. Don't be surprised if team England ends up with sauerkraut all over its face on Sunday.
Friday, 25 June 2010
A little while back I wrote a letter to the new MP in this part of Leeds asking if she supported the retention of the 2004 Hunting Act which famously – and some would say controversially - banned the hunting of foxes with dogs. Promises made by the Conservatives to scrap the act in the run up to the general election have thrown its continued existence in doubt, a potential development which those with an interest in animal welfare have long viewed with great alarm. My own opposition to any such move is likely to be well known to regular DR readers.
Rachel Reeves responded extremely quickly; she stated that "I am in favour of the Hunting Act 2004, and indeed see it as a big success under the last Labour government. If the 2004 Act comes up for repeal I will vote strongly to keep it on the statute book."
She also pointed out that as a parliamentary representative for an urban constituency her work in the House has been mainly focused on purely local issues – "public transport, asbestos and the potential impact of cuts" imposed by the Con-Dem coalition government – in the two months or so since the general election, a not unreasonable position for a new Member to take. That the MP for nearby Leeds Central spearheaded the campaign to raise awareness of the threat to the Hunting Act before the election shows that rural affairs can and do interest our urban parliamentarians.
And it’s vital that MPs of all backgrounds take an interest in this issue. It’s perfectly natural and right to focus on matters of the economy given the current financial climate, large cuts in public expenditure and imminent rises in unemployment. But that must not mean that legislation should be introduced – or scrapped – whilst attention is focused elsewhere. Law by stealth is not healthy for anyone.
Thursday, 24 June 2010
If Irish prime minister Brian Cowen is to be believed the Queen may become the first British monarch to visit the Irish Republic since the partition of the island in 1921. The comments come after a meeting between himself and David Cameron and arrangements between officials in London and Dublin are apparently under discusion; the Queen has been to Northern Ireland on several occasions but has never ventured across the border.
So far reactions in Ireland have been mixed, which is perhaps not surprising given the at-times acrimonious relationship between that state and the rest of the United Kingdom and the matter of an independent Irish nation comprised of just 26 counties. Cowen has has said that he believes that "the importance of an exchange of state visits says a lot about the modern bilateral relationships we now have" but Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has condemned the move, instead arguing that "until there is complete withdrawal of the British military and the British administration from Ireland, and until there is justice and truth for victims of collusion, no official welcome should be accorded to any officer of the British armed forces of any rank." This is despite Northern Ireland's democratically expressed wish to remain a part of the United Kingdom, the Queen's position as constitutional head of that territory and the end of the army's Operation Banner in 2007.
My own opposition to the principle of monarchy - constitutional or otherwise - has been longstanding; I believe that there is no place for an unelected individual to become the head of a country via the genetic and nepotistic lottery of birth. Political equality within the UK will be one step closer to reality when such a position is abolished.
But Ó Caoláin's opposition to a Royal visit is not motivated by any real adherence to republican ideals but rather from the resentment that a large section of the population within Northern Ireland do not wish to become a part of an independent Irish state. That the Queen lost members of her own family in an IRA attack off the coast of Sligo in 1979 shows that the search for "truth and justice" is not one-sided.
It's difficult to say whether royal visits are worthwhile, or whether the relatively ceremonial position the monarchy occupies means that their foreign excursions really do carry more weight than those made by elected politicians. But Britain's relationship with Ireland has, since the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, approached diplomatic normalcy. The symbolic nature of an official visit to Dublin by a British monarch may in itself be good enough cause to have one in the first place.
Wednesday, 23 June 2010
It's funny how some promises made by our politicians can come back to haunt them. Yesterday's announcement by Chancellor George Osborne that VAT will be increased to 20% from January of next year is not particularly surprising, given that such a move was widely predicted by all those across the political spectrum. And which party sought to bring Tory tax plans to the attention of the electorate during the election campaign earlier this year, thereby offering themselves as an alternative? The above poster reveals all...
It's also probably even less surprising that a large section of the Lib Dem grassroots is becoming increasingly unamused by their leadership's collusion in plans that they themselves made a point of opposing in the run up to May 6th. That some parliamentarians may in part owe their election to such campaigning may find Osborne's latest pronouncements even more uncomfortable than most.
Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Belarus is set to halt the transit of gas from Russia to customers in Europe across its territory, the latest development in a growing spat over debts. Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko said the close neighbours were facing a "gas war" and he would resume supplies only when Belarus got £176 million in outstanding transit fees.
EU energy chiefs are not overly worried; it's thought that the dispute will only affect just over 6% of gas consumption Union-wide. The news will certainly as a relief for those in Europe who shivered without electricity in January last year after a similar row between Russia and Ukraine resulted in severe shortages in supply.
It's a far cry from the days when Lukashenko - President since 1994 - actively courted the Russian leadership for closer economic and political links between Belarus and Russia; the embryonic Union State between the two countries now appears to even further from reality than ever before. One wonders if Putin's reluctance to agree to a formal merger between Minsk and Moscow a decade ago has anything to do with the present autocratic leader's bullish belligerence that now typifies the former Soviet Republics' contemporary relationship with each other.
It's unlikely that this spat on the fringes of Europe will register much with those who do not have a direct interest in energy supplies or East European politics. But Belarus and Russia do have an impact on the continent and energy is a major contributor to that influence. Whilst we continue to rely on fossil fuels to power our homes we must keep an eye on the East, lest that reliance become our undoing.
Monday, 21 June 2010
Today is the Summer solstice, the day when the the Earth's axial tilt is most inclined towards the sun at its maximum of 23° 26'. More prosaically the solstice is the day when we in the Northern hemisphere receive the longest hours of sunlight, apart from those shivering souls within the Arctic Circle who have been enjoying continuous sunshine for some time now. The day is, of course, transposed with the Winter solstice in the Southern hemisphere; eagle-eyed World Cup watchers will have noticed the visibly shorter days that have typified the tournament's evening matches.
It's also a day which has long had something of an esoteric and quasi-religious significance, and not just for sunseekers either. In particular ancient pagan faiths celebrated the year's longest day and this may go some way to explaining why the Feast Day of John the Baptist is marked at around this time in many Catholic countries; historically many Christian festivals were purposely timed to coincide with pre-existing celebrations. Here in the UK many revellers chose to watch the sun come up at the iconic Stonehenge monument in Wiltshire, a ceremony allegedly stretching back thousands of years.
Whatever the day means to you, though, it's certainly been graced with some lovely weather. Just enjoy it whilst it lasts...
Sunday, 20 June 2010
The contest for the leadership of the Labour party will be a long and lengthy one, and as yet there is no clear frontrunner even if the brothers Miliband enjoy a higher public profile than the rest of their opponents.
Each has already been engaged in lobbying the party membership, and already I've received several emails from various candidates both putting forward their core beliefs and appealing for support. It's hard to know who or how to choose; as committed Labour party supporters our core aims - and how these are achieved - are going to be broadly similar; the ends and the means to achieve them will not be radically different.
Which essentially means that the contest will almost certainly be dictated in part by public image and general all-round persona. Sheer popularity will dictate the outcome of this test of the sort of media skills so well-honed under Tony Blair's premiership and so lacking under that of Gordon Brown.
It makes for a curious spectacle to see those who work so close together jockey for the top position and - no matter how much is implied or otherwise - suggest that their opponents are not fit for the task at hand.
There is also the possibility, of course, that such leadership battles can prove to be as divisive for a party as they potentially provide a fresh start and a clean slate. It took the Tories several tries before finding a leader that brought that party back from the political wilderness and it could be that the same will be true for Labour.
But one feels that this may be different. The Conservatives, far from replicating the landslide victories of Labour's three-term hegemony, are senior partners in a coalition that is by its very nature susceptible to conflict and compromise. One also feels that the Liberal Democrats' decision to enter into parliament may cost them some of the support that got them there in the first place. It's an exciting time for any hopeful to lead Labour and the party has definitely got the chance to mount a successful comeback, whenever that opportunity should present itself. It's really all a matter of timing...
Saturday, 19 June 2010
I've just received a flier for year's West Leeds Arts Festival, which is set to run over most of July and features a busy schedule of some 40 different events. Some of the treats on offer include an outdoor photography exhibition, an invasion of colourful hippos just down the road here in Armley, and a 'touring magical caravan' promising to bring fun and frolics throughout the locality. Top of the bill, however, goes to a free festival day with more activities than you could shake a proverbial stick at.
This is the sixth consecutive year that the Festival has run in West Leeds, and the fact that virtually all its events are free makes it fantastically inclusive. This part of the city is typically blue collar and much of it is given over to the Victorian back-to-back housing that has been demolished in most other parts of the country. Hosting a large arts festival is not only an excellent way to provide interest and entertainment over what will hopefully be a warm and sunny summer holiday but also shifts the focus away from the centre of town and onto an area that has so much to offer. I wish the Festival every success.
Friday, 18 June 2010
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been in London to mark the 70th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle's defiant radio broadcast which urged France to resist German occupation in World War II. His call from the BBC studios in London would help intiate the formation of the so-called Free French forces from those soldiers and officers who were deployed outside France and in her colonies and for his efforts would earn him a death sentence in absentia from the collaborationist Vichy regime. In a ceremony Sarkozy awarded the Legion d'Honneur to six veterans - three of them British - of the Operation Dragoon landings in Provence in August 1944; he also expressed his "eternal gratitude" for Britain's war effort.
De Gaulle, if he were still alive, might not have expressed similar sentiments; despite hosting his government-in-exile for much of the war the French leader made little secret of his distrust of his British hosts - "France has no friends, only interests" - and as President in the 1960s twice vetoed the United Kingdom's entry in the European Economic Community. De Gaulle's relationship with Britain during his time in government was fractious at best.
The man from Lille was also a controversial figure in his home country and once held the dubious distinction of surviving more assassination attempts, real or imagined, than any other leader in modern history. The Day of the Jackal is a well-known fictional account of one such attempt, which - as with many of the real-life plots - was inspired by the granting of independence to Algeria in 1962. Perhaps most famous among his domestic spats, however, were the May 1968 demonstrations and strikes which threatened to bring the country to its knees.
De Gaulle also had the knack of rubbing up the leaders of other nations the wrong way as well; notable was his rallying cry of "Vive le Québec libre!" to a large crowd of Québécois in Montreal which distinctly failed to impress Canada's ruling elite, who pointed out that le Président failed to show similar enthusiasm for secessionist movements in his own country, particularly that existent in Britanny.
But whatever the legacy of Charles de Gaulle there is no denying his claim to being one of the most influential leaders in the history of modern France, as well as one of the most controversial. His words on the airwaves 70 years ago inspired many to take the cause of libération against fascism, even as de Gaulle would go on to become arguably the most autocratic leader the French Republic would ever see. His legacy is a paradox; despite his Gallic ambivalence towards Britain our shared wartime experience and close physical link have in some ways strengthened the Anglo-French relationship. And good things happen when we work together; witness successful collaborations such as Concorde and the Channel Tunnel. One hopes that Sarkozy's recent visit helps cement that relationship further.
Thursday, 17 June 2010
Quelle surprise. The coalition government has pulled the plug on 12 projects originally agreed upon by the previous Labour administration in a bid to save around £2 billion on the public books. Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander - a Liberal Democrat - told MPs that the cuts were necessary to tackle the budget deficit and would be done in a "fair" way.
Some of the biggest losers in this announcement include various schemes to help the long-term jobless back into work, reduce dependence on benefits, encourage tourism, build a hospital and promote general healthy living. In justifying the cuts the government has claimed that Labour under Gordon Brown had embarked on a pre-election "scorched earth" spending policy safe in the knowledge that it would not be in a position to deliver on them; in response an angry shadow chief secretary in the guise of Liam Byrne accused Alexander of reversing "three years of Liberal Democratic policy of which you were the principal author. What a moment of abject humiliation." Whatever one's opinion on the nature of the Con-Dem coalition's conspiracy theories it's hard not to read down the list and wince.
Locally it's Sheffield - location of Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's constituency - which has been left reeling; the Outukumpu project intended to develop an industrial park has been mothballed, as has the £12 million Retail Quarter with its 100 shops and 200 apartments. But it's the cancellation of an £80 million loan to local firm Forgemasters which has really caused a store in South Yorkshire and beyond. The loan would have enabled the company to build parts for nuclear power stations and compete for international contracts. Whilst no losses to current jobs have been announced at Forgemasters scores more that would have been created are now unlikely to see the light of day.
It's a similar story with many of the other schemes facing the axe, and one wonders if the current administration's desire to plug the national financial deficit is not driven as much by ideology - which certainly has played a part - as by a chronic short-term approach and a desire for instantaneous results. Projects like the ditched Forgemasters loan had the potential to provide long-term economic growth via job creation, whilst others such as the soon-to-be-scrapped free swimming in England for children and pensioners have spillover health benefits which could save money elsewhere, notably the NHS. These projects cannot simply be measured in terms of raw monetary cost.
There are those who will argue that such rigorous belt-tightening is not only desirable but absolutely essential, and that spending pledges by the former government were simply not feasible. But those who stand to lose will no doubt disagree, and many - myself included - will see this as an irresponsible way to govern. There is no surprise that the Conservatives are at the forefront of this financial recklessness - they have always promised to behave as such - and their prior opposition in the run up to the election to alternative sources of funding such as national insurance increases was total. But to see the Liberal Democrats dancing to the Tory fiddle and betray their centre-left roots leaves an especially sour taste in the mouth; it could be that their first ever spell in government could well be their last. Based on this performance I wouldn't find that particularly upsetting.
Wednesday, 16 June 2010
If you glance at a map of Central Asia you'll find a collection of countries that, in the days before the collapse of the Soviet Union, most people had never really heard of. Exotic names like Samarkand and the mysteries of the Old Silk Road may have evoked images of faraway places but I doubt that few could have pointed them out on a map. I also suspect that today, almost 20 years after independence, the region is still something of a metaphorical blank for most people from elsewhere.
Take a slightly closer look at that map and you'll see that many of the countries fit together much like a jigsaw puzzle, with tiny enclaves dotting the border regions. Many of these cartographic oddities were the result of Soviet meddling in the Stalin era - when, it has to be said, internal boundaries were arguably less significant than the national borders that they were to become - and have since independence taken on a fundamentally important role in the region's politics. For these boundaries take no account of local ethnic populations, with the result that populations find themselves in other states that - whilst not inherently hostile to them - are themselves defined by a particular cultural identity different to their own.
These differences have on occasion flared over into violence. Back in 1990 the Soviet authorities had to act to quell ethnic tensions between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in and around the city of Osh, in the multiethnic and multinational Fergana Valley. Now new tensions have erupted - in the same area - in what some are describing as akin to a 'pogrom' against ethnic Uzbeks by their Kyrgyz neighbours; official figures state that around 150 have been killed but it is believed that many more are feared dead. Thousands more have fled their homes - some have claimed that they were forced - and are making for the border with Uzbekistan in what is certainly a growing humanitarian crisis. Efforts by the government of Kyrgyzstan to stem the violence seem to be having little effect; there are also conspiratorial claims that the former administration is using the strife to wreck the passage of a new constitution later this month, an accusation that is flatly denied.
Whilst this region may be relatively obscure to the British general public the same cannot be said for those with an interest in strategic geopolitics; Kyrgyzstan is the only country in the world to host both American and Russian military bases and constitutes a vital link in the former's operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The current chaos gripping the west of the country will be of grave concern to not just those immediately preoccupied with human rights abuses.
But the fact that Kyrgyztan is virtually anonymous on the international radar must not be used as an excuse to ignore what is said to be a rapidly deteriorating situation. The background to this particular conflict is as complex as the national boundaries that defines it and, indeed, propagates it; the wider world must now show that these borders cannot be used to hide the killing of a people.
Tuesday, 15 June 2010
After twelve long years and at an estimated cost of £195 million the findings of the Saville report - the most expensive enquiry in British legal history - into the events of Londonderry's Bloody Sunday has found that all 14 people killed or mortally wounded by the British army on 30th January 1972 were innocent victims. The report was severely critical of the actions of the Parachute Regiment and found that not only had no warning been issued but that they fired on unarmed civilians - some fleeing, some tending to the wounded - without provocation. Prime Minister David Cameron has declared the killings to be "unjustified and unjustifiable", an unprecedented apology from the leader of a British government and a recognition that on that day the British army acted shamefully. Any fears that Saville would repeat the so-called 'whitewash' of the Widgery Tribunal - which largely exhonerated the actions of the army - have been truly laid to rest.
Now that the enquiry has finally reached its conclusions the next step is the matter of prosecution, with some advocating that those soldiers who took part in Bloody Sunday should stand trial. This will be difficult; despite Saville's findings providing enough evidence for a criminal conviction will be difficult after 38 long years. And many of those who were themselves convicted of similar crimes have since been granted amnesty and released under the terms of the Good Friday agreement. That some of those people now hold public office in government institutions in Northern Ireland is testament to just how thorny this scenario could be.
There is also the issue of just why Bloody Sunday, of all the events in The Troubles, has been afforded so much attention to the exclusion of virtually all the other atrocities that took place. True, Bloody Sunday had a galvanising effect on militant Irish Republicanism and has long taken on mythical proportions in the movement's ideology. It's also true that - thanks to Saville - it can be said with certainty that fourteen innocents lost their lives.
But other episodes in Northern Ireland's recent past were certainly just as horrific and with a greater loss of life. Prioritising Bloody Sunday over all these other events these could look even to the casual viewer as displaying a political bias.
And then there is the curious question of why those in the militant IRA - who killed more people in the course of the Troubles than the army, RUC, loyalist paramilitaries and even other Republican terror groups put together - should hold their sworn enemies to a higher moral standard than they would themselves. Bombs planted in public places were just as indiscriminate in those they killed as the army was on that cold day in 1972 and yet there is no similar condemnation nor such a large campaign to find the truth. And more soldiers were killed in that conflict than those killed in turn by the army. No wonder there are fears that Saville could inflame resentment among Northern Ireland's population.
But whatever the political machinations that surround the release of this report there is a chance at least for the families of those 14 to sleep easy safe in the knowledge that their quest for justice and for an explanation is finally at an end. That, at the very least, is something to be thankful for.
On a personal level it's been strange seeing former army head General Sir Mike Jackson in the media, arguing that the majority of the soldiers who served in Northern Ireland behaved admirably and often in the face of severe provocation; as a Parachute Regiment captain he was present in Londonderry during the shootings and some have since accused him of conspiracy to cover up the truth. Jackson went to the same school that I later would, and would return in his capacity as army head for our annual CCF inspections. One year I led him around our particular unit, completely oblivious to his role in Northern Ireland over a decade before I was born.
Monday, 14 June 2010
A Flemish nationalist party has become the largest force in the Belgian parliament. The New Flemish Alliance, or NVA, took 27 of 150 seats in national elections and are now set to start lengthy coalition talks in a process which could overshadow the country's upcoming EU presidency.
In many ways Belgium has long suffered from an inherent political instability caused by its cultural, linguistic and religious dichotomy; Northern Dutch speakers in Flanders and Southern French speakers in Wallonia have chafed side-by-side ever since the state's creation in 1830. In some quarters here in the UK a rather dismissive attitude towards the country has been allowed to develop, most recently articulated by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage who described Belgium as "pretty much a non-country."
Such an epithet seems rather unfair; 'plucky' Belgium, after all, has survived the trauma of two world wars and today enjoys a standard of living that has consistently ranked higher than the United Kingdom on the Human Development Index. It appears that recent economic difficulties have done more to fuel the popularity of nationalist politics in both Flanders and Wallonia than as any real indication of the nation's imminent demise.
There is also an obvious parallel with nationalist politics closer to home, and indeed Plaid Cymru and the SNP partner the NVA in the Free Alliance grouping in the European parliament. That both the Welsh and Scottish nationalists share essentially the same aim as the NVA - that of secession from a larger united political body - has not been lost on some observers, even if it not always recognised as such by the UK media.
I have a feeling that Belgium's territorial integrity is more stable than some might think, and as host to the de facto capital of the European Union in the guise of bilingual Brussels there is a symbolism of unity that carries substantial weight. For those who would celebrate a nation fracturing along ethno-linguistic lines the partying may be just a little bit premature.
Sunday, 13 June 2010
The Yorkshire Dales is a particularly attractive area of the United Kingdom, and was recognised as such when National Park status was granted in 1954. It's only a proverbial stone's throw from the major urban centres of the West Riding and combines with it beautiful Pennine scenery and twee villages made from the local warm yellow limestone.
The small market town of Grassington is one such settlement, sitting pretty in Wharfedale and itself constituting a major tourist honeypot right in the centre of the Park. In high season it's an immensely popular spot, replete with cafes and gift shops.
Now - and to great local consternation - Grassington is set to become the target of a reality television show, to be broadcast on Channel 4. The station that brought us the questionable delights of Big Brother has devised an eight-part programme called The Village which will pit 12 families, couples and individuals against each other. Each must persuade the good folk of Grassington that they would make worthy local residents; the winner will get the keys to a £300,000 cottage in the village's heart. Prospective contestants must currently reside in an urban area and be unable to afford a place on Britain's exclusive property ladder, which has already given your very own Leeds-based privately-renting DR pause for thought.
There is a fear that such a show may not necessarily paint Grassington and the surrounding Dales in their best light, which may not be unreasonable given that the production company behind the scheme was also responsible for Wife Swap. Some have suggested that the boost to local trade and tourism that the show may provide might simply not be worth it.
I have to admit I'm not a particular fan of the reality genre and I'm not sure I'll be tuning into The Village, even if it is being filmed on home turf. But the very nature of the format means that the cooperation of the people of Grassington is absolutely essential for success. If local dissatisfaction with the programme makers' choice of setting is translated into a collective policy of civil disobedience it might inadvertently produce television worth watching.
Saturday, 12 June 2010
And so England have drawn the first game of this year's World Cup with the United States, a goal apiece failing to settle a scrappy contest. And whilst the Americans' goal had a hint of good fortune in it - English goalkeeper Robert Green let a seemingly straightforward save spill into the net - few can argue that a draw was not an entirely unfair outcome of the match.
Numerous media commentators - and yes, there are many - have pointed out that in England's World Cup-winning 1966 campaign the team drew their first match, against Uruguay. And the result is not quite as calamitous as the two sides' meeting in 1950 where the USA inflicted a shock 1-0 defeat against their fellow English-speaking relations from across the Atlantic.
Perhaps the greatest upset was actually endured by those watching the game on ITV's High Definition channel instead. In the moments before England's opener the action inexplicably cut to an advert for sponsors Hyundai; when the game returned an estimated 1.5 million people saw scorer Steven Gerrard wheeling away in celebration from burying a strike home. Many fans have been understandably irate, perhaps even more so given that ITV were guilty of a similar cock-up in a dramatic FA cup tie between arch-rivals Liverpool and Everton last year.
For supporters of England today's result will be disappointing, particularly as winning the group will almost certainly guarantee an easier first match in the knock-out stages. But it is only one game, and as a certain football tournament demonstrated so many years ago a triumphant team does not have to conquer all to achieve glory. The bandwagon hasn't come completely off the wheels just yet.
Friday, 11 June 2010
The 2010 football World Cup has begun in South Africa, the first time the tournament has been held in the continent. 32 teams from across the globe will do battle to get their hands on the ultimate prize in the footballing world, the World Cup Trophy. Already two games have been played, with the hosts and France drawing with Mexico and Uruguay respectively.
If you're not a fan of footy - or sport in general for that matter - then the wall-to-wall coverage on terrestrial and the endless promotional tie-ins with products with no obvious connection to the game will be exceedingly tiresome over the days to come, if indeed they haven't already.
The unpredictability of the team ensures that supporting England is never an easy job and one that is apparently rendered almost impossible if you do not hail from the home of the oldest football league. Fortunately I've drawn South Korea, Paraguay and Cameroon in my various jobs' tournament sweepstakes so I've effectively quadrupled my chances of celebrating my chosen team's World Cup win. Or then again, perhaps not...
Thursday, 10 June 2010
There are some conflicts around the world which are well-known and well-documented, with nightly television bulletins giving us a regular dose of misery and reminding the rest of us that we really are very lucky to live in a relatively peaceful and stable country.
But other wars, for whatever reason, do not register with the media or in the public consciousness despite - or perhaps because of - their isolation and barbarity. Take the Second Congo War, for example; in this five year conflict spanning the turn of the millennium over 5 million people lost their lives. It was the most lethal since the end of World War II, and yet even now remains virtually unknown to the general public. It took great efforts on the behalf of humanitarian organisations to ensure that a similar ignorance did not develop as an ongoing crisis in the Sudanese region of Darfur gathered pace at around the same time as that in the Congo subsided.
In Mexico an ongoing conflict has claimed the lives of some 23,000 people in just under four years, roughly equivalent to the population of the town I went to school in. By comparison the recent strife in Northern Ireland killed just over 3,000 over a thirty year period and yet in Britain the war has barely registered.
The cause of Mexico's own Troubles are not ethnic or political but rather the direct product of crime, more precisely drug trafficking. Ever since President Felipe Calderón declared "war" - his words - on the lucrative drug cartels virtually running certain parts of the country the presence of large numbers of heavily armed state troops have not quelled the violence. Now people are openly starting to question whether Calderón's shock and awe policy is failing.
And the conflict is proving to be particularly unpleasant; abductions, beatings, beheadings, torture and shootings are all-too-common. Recently an abandoned silver mine near the picturesque southern city of Taxco was found to contain over 50 bodies dumped there by drug gangs, including the director of a local prison. The influence of the cartels pervades nearly every aspect of Mexican life.
There are two dominant themes that serve to propagate Mexico's drug wars. The first is economic; many of those tempted into trafficking are from socially deprived backgrounds and who live in abject poverty. Critics of Calderón's war argue that not enough has been done to tackle the economic woes which have made working with drugs so attractive.
The other factor is external, coming from beyond Mexico's borders. Demand for Mexican drugs - mainly marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin - is particularly acute in the United States, with an estimated 70% of its supply coming from across its southern border. Many of those 23,000 deaths have been as much due to the confrontation over the control of lucrative trafficking routes into the US by rival gangs as they have with heavy-handed government tactics.
It's this latter issue which is largely beyond the influence of Calderón and his cabinet colleagues. The consumption of drugs around the world and particularly that in the more developed Global North - read North America and Europe - directly fuels the grip of drugs in countries like Mexico and Afghanistan and elsewhere. Those bloody deaths on Mexico's streets owe as much to the casual use of so-called 'recreational' drugs at American house parties as they do to government militias back in the home country. Drug consumption here in the UK is just as profoundly damaging to other countries around the world.
And yet the reason drugs are so profitable is not purely because the demand for them is so high but also the fact that they are illegal. The legalisation and subsequent opportunities for regulation afforded by decriminalisation might not only result in a safer product but also the ending of the lethal grip of gangs on so many peoples' lives. That it could end another forgotten conflict certainly makes it a solution worth considering.
Wednesday, 9 June 2010
So we have it; the names of the five brave souls who will battle it out for leadership of the Labour party, currently in opposition for the first time in 13 years. Joining brothers David and Ed Miliband are Andy Burnham and local Yorkshire MP Ed Balls, whilst popular backbencher Diane Abbott makes something of a surprise late addition. The contest itself is set to last around three months; each of those bidding for leadership will now need to make a convincing case that they have the qualities necessary to lead a party that has not quite imploded as the Tories did in 1997 but still needs to rediscover favour among the electorate. That Labour is not yet in the political wilderness is a promising platform with which to attack the Con-Dem coalition.
Local Leeds West MP Rachel Reeves cast her lot behind Shadow Energy Secretary Ed Miliband early on in the campaign, being one of Ed's colleagues to sign his nomination papers. That two brothers are among the candidates has already put this leadership contest firmly in the media spotlight and will hopefully promote awareness among the party faithful.
At this moment in time I've no real idea who to vote for, and I'm treating the whole event with a degree of caution. As a BME female - and still something of an underdog - it is tempting to go with Diane simply because this would be a rapid departure from previous incarnations and may even demonstrate Labour's commitment to equality, but then this would contradict my believe that issues of gender and race should have no influence on any individual's chances of success whether that be in politics or life in general. No, let this competition be based purely on merit. Electing who could potentially one day become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom should be decided on nothing else.
Tuesday, 8 June 2010
Chancellor George Osborne has pledged to consult the public on the depth and breadth of public spending cuts that the coalition government has pledged to make over a four year period from 2011. In a "fundamental reassessment" of how government works Osborne says he wants the "best people in their fields" involved and a "wider public engagement exercise" over the summer. He was also accused Labour of having a "centre knows best approach" and criticised their record of borrowing under Gordon Brown and Tony Blair.
It's an interesting concept, with the potential for a greater say for the general public over how and where their taxes are spent even if the way in which this will be achieved has not yet been realised. But critics have already pointed out that this could make for some uncomfortable scenes as departments battle it out to justify their funding - SDLP MP Mark Durkan described it as an "axe factor approach to government" - but one also wonders who these "best people" may also be. If they come in the form of expensive consultants with their own vested interests the entire enterprise will become distinctly unsavoury.
But the government has already outlined plans for £6.2 billion of cuts this financial year. If they are to happen then planning for their eventuality is no bad thing. A chance to protest at their implementation is not one to be sniffed at lightly.
Monday, 7 June 2010
These are difficult times in which we live; the government is already outlining wholesale cuts in public expenditure amid signs that belt-tightening is the order of the day and many people - particularly those employed in the public sector so detested by the Conservatives - have a very real fear of losing their jobs and their livelihoods. So it might seem rather odd that one entirely unelected body demanding an increase in the amount of public funds it receives has resulted in fawning praise from a Tory MP.
The Queen has asked for an increase in the amount of money she receives from the taxpayer. Funding for the Civil List - which pays for the running of the royal household - was frozen at £7.9 million in 2000 to compensate for a decade of overpayments. Now that discussions are underway for the negotiation of a new sum the monarchy has made a bid for an increase and have claimed that an emergency fund set up in the surplus years is nearing its end.
Labour parliamentarian Ian Davidson has - not unreasonably - declared that it would be "inappropriate" to pay "vast sums of additional money" to the royal household in the current economic climate and with a government preaching prudence in public finance. And Davidson should know; as a former member of the public accounts committee he argues that "we (were) always seeking more information to justify the amount of money that the royals got." His demands that any such increase be accompanied by a far greater transparency in royal finances surely hold some merit.
Conservative MP Edward Leigh, on the other hand, thinks otherwise. In an article in the Daily Telegraph he stated that the Queen's finances were "exceptionally well run" and that "the Queen, without any shadow of a doubt, needs substantially more money to carry out her duties and responsibilities." And to make the point even clearer? "The boost to tourism, to tradition and to the country is enormous. They should be given a lot more money so they can do their job properly."
One has to wonder whether, in the midst of virtually the greatest recession in living memory, it really is wise to demand more cash from the public purse to keep an institution perpetuated by a medievalesque genetic lottery in the manner to which they are accustomed. Those about to feel the bite - and that means virtually all of us - will almost certainly beg to differ.
Sunday, 6 June 2010
My best music experience to date has been without doubt seeing Beirut play live at Leeds Irish Centre a couple of years ago. The place was packed and the music first-rate, a performance made even more impressive given the band's intensive European schedule and demanding playlist. I'm thoroughly glad I went.
But not long after I first moved to Leeds I missed out on a gig by Simon Green, better known by his on-stage persona Bonobo. Whilst the name may not be familiar to everyone his music may well be; uncomfortably wedged between electronica and chillout, Green's melodies have graced adverts and films. That is because each song is often at the same time superbly expressive and mournful and uplifting, even if - as with all music- it is not to everyone’s' taste.
One of the more thoughtful of Bonobo's tracks is Silver, from his decade-old debut album Animal Magic. It's a lovely piece, and extremely evocative; several user-made videos can be found over on Youtube, making their mark with - it has to be said - varying degrees of success.
And yet there are times when I wish I could make or direct a music video, so strong and inspirational are the images that they weave. Silver for me is no different, and were I to create a visual accompaniment it would follow a particular storyline, contrived or otherwise.
It starts with an old man in a cafe, seemingly dozing. Silver comes on the radio, and as we slowly focus and zoom in on the man he seems to stir slightly, as if he is remembering. And indeed he is; the image changes to black and white, and we see the man many years younger dancing with a female companion and both of them are dressed in 1930s or 40s outfits. They dance to the song and are joyful and happy. They both wear stars on their arms.
All of a sudden soldiers burst through the door. They snatch the couple apart, ripping them away from each other. They are both terrified, knowing that they will almost certainly never see each other again.
We come back the man, in the present day. He looks sad, a tear welling in his eye as he remembers those tragic events of so many years ago. He's tired and weary.
And then a hand appears and rests on his, old as well but distinctly feminine. He looks up and smiles; it's the woman from his memories, smiling back at him. She takes him by the hand and leads him into a dance, just the same as they did - and just as happy as they were - back when they were young.
For me that is what Silver suggests to me, and what I think would make for an appropriate film short. True, it's the sort of thing that might have been done before and it isn't exactly Oscar-winning material, but then music is a personal experience that conjures up different images for every individual that listens to it. This just happens to be one of mine.
Saturday, 5 June 2010
I'm moving house next week, although not particularly far away; I'm ditching the high life of Bramley in West Leeds to next-door-neighbour Armley, a district of of the city chiefly famous for the large and brooding prison that sits fortress-like on a hill not a million miles from the centre of town. Quite by coincidence the new place is virtually on the same road as the one I first lived on when I came to Leeds just over three years ago.
There's been quite a lot of investment in Armley in the time I've been here; the high street has been dug up and repaved and the decaying leisure centre replaced with a brand-spanking new one. Now proposals for a 90,000 square foot supermarket complex has been submitted to council planning chiefs in a development that would create an estimated 400 new jobs.
Often these sorts of schemes arouse mixed feelings; some say the economic benefit they bring is tempered by the adverse impact on local businesses and the aesthetic qualities they bring to a neighbourhood are a matter of debate. And this one is a biggie, too; the megastore would sit above a car park and include a petrol station to boot in what the developers are calling a 'major regeneration project.' As yet no supermarket chain has announced their participation.
But where the scheme may win hearts and minds is that the area which will have to be cleared to make way for it is currently home to heavy industrial units, although what will happen to those businesses is less clear. The construction of a Tesco store in Bramley shopping centre 18 months ago also appears to have considerably boosted footfall in the area and boosted local business, rather than destroyed it. A similar 'honeypot' effect would be most welcome in a part of Leeds that has long suffered from unemployment and deprivation even before recession bit.
So it is with a cautious optimism that I and others will await the outcome of the decision which - if it goes ahead - will see development start next year. It could just be that my move to Armley will coincide with an exciting time to be there.
Friday, 4 June 2010
I almost missed this one; last month the University of Leeds - an institution which claims that it "is committed to promoting and positively encouraging free debate, enquiry and, indeed, protest" - announced a new code of practice prohibiting criticism of the establishment by staff and students alike on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Perhaps unsurprisingly this hasn't gone down too well with those who believe that 'free debate' is something worth fighting for. The lecturers' union UCU quickly pointed out that the decree contradicts Leeds' own protocol on freedom of speech, as did various bloggers and - no doubt - those very users of Twitters and Facebook facing censure. The University has since withdrawn the diktat, claiming that "due to a breakdown in communication, the draft code was released without having gone through the usual approval process." A new policy has since been promised.
This has been an embarrassing episode all-round for an educational establishment that only recently fended off a strike by academics over £35 million of cutbacks. The nurturing of reasoned argument and opinion are fundamentally inherent aspects of the learning process and any academic institution worth its salt should think carefully before questioning that. True, there is a possibility of spurious and sometimes libellous claims that can be made on social networking sites, but there is no reason why disciplinary procedures cannot be used against those that would seek to unreasonably defame. To ban dissent altogether appears oversensitive, totalitarian - and completely unworkable.
Thursday, 3 June 2010
Prime Minister David Cameron has warned against any sudden changes to UK gun laws in the light of yesterday's shooting spree in Cumbria which left twelve dead. Speaking at a press conference he said that "we shouldn't make any knee-jerk reaction to think that there is some instant legislative or regulatory answer" and that "you can't legislate to stop a switch flicking in someone's head and for this dreadful sort of action to take place."
Such a statement is, of course, ludicrous, for it is not just intent but actual access to firearms that has resulted in the needless deaths of a dozen innocent people in England's north-west. Wanting to kill people at random and on a large scale simply isn't enough; the ends cannot possibly take place without the means to do so.
Over on the Guardian website columnist Michael White appears to be on Cameron's side, arguing that "there is a balance to be struck between sensible precaution and draconian state interference with individual liberties", as if public ownership of lethal weaponry is somehow evidence of a healthy democratic society. I'd have thought the complete opposite would ring more true, with the complete absence of such weapons being far more conducive to a happy and healthy place in which to live.
There is no real pressing need for for guns to be kept in the home, and those keen to use firearms recreationally could do so on licensed premises where such weapons could be stored permanently. By all means do not rush through legislation before it is properly thought out, but that should not serve as an excuse to avoid considering such a move altogether; the civil liberty of life, after all, is much greater than the civil liberty of taking it.
Wednesday, 2 June 2010
At least 12 people have been murdered in Cumbria in the deadliest shooting spree in the UK since the 1996 Dunblane massacre.
Taxi driver Derrick Bird drove through various parts of the county shooting passers by apparently at random; his body was later found in a wooded area in the Lake District and although no firm details have been released it is almost certainly suicide. Some 25 other people have also been injured, some critically.
One of the first questions the authorities will be asking in the ensuing investigation is just how Bird got hold of his arsenal and whether any guns and ammunition in his possession were legally held. Immediately after the aforementioned shootings in Dunblane and the earlier Hungerford massacre in 1987 gun laws - particularly those relating to hand weapons - were considerably tightened. It could fall to the Con-Dem coalition to strengthen them even further.
And such a move, if it were to happen, would be most welcome; that a person is able to take up a weapon and use it to deadly effect in a public place should not - must not - be able to happen. Fortunately the appetite for guns in this country is rightly considered low compared to countries which have also experienced similar massacres in recent years; this latest needless loss of life may help to sour that appetite just a little bit more.
Tuesday, 1 June 2010
It seems that the majority of visitors here are broadly supportive of the European Union and the UK's continued membership of it - a whole 76% of you, in fact, if the results of the latest DR poll are anything to go by. 19 people declared that the United Kingdom should remain 'in' whilst only 6 - 24% - wanted out. Needless to say I find myself in the former camp and it's interesting to see that others out there share the same view.
Which brings us neatly to the next poll. Under discussion: the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and more specifically the length of time it'll last. Is it destined to crash and burn in a matter of weeks or months, or will it survive to serve a full term? Answers at the top right of the page, please...