Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Wikileaks latest: North Korea irritates Chinese

The latest revelation from the ongoing Wikileaks 'scandal' - quite who is being scandalised is, of course, open to debate - is that the Chinese government is consistently 'frustrated' by North Korea's belligerent regime, alleging that it has on occasion behaved like a "spoiled child".

The revelation - stemming from a Chinese foreign ministry official - is interestingly timed, given that Pyongyang recently shelled a South Korean island that killed two and which has threatened to reignite hostilities in the peninsula.

The reason why this Chinese ambivalence towards North Korea is particularly interesting is that the 'rogue state's' leader Kim Jong-il has often relied on apparent Chinese backing to dissuade any potential attack by Seoul or the United States. That the Korean War never officially concluded with a peace treaty after the 1953 armistice has meant that this last vestige of the Cold War has never really cooled down completely.

The rest of the international community, too, has long pressed China to take more action over North Korea and its isolationist leader whenever Pyongyang is giving particular cause of concern. This 'leak' appears to suggest that the Supreme Leader is not as close to Beijing as he might like to think...

Monday, 29 November 2010

Gritters come under attack

Given that it's the third year in a row that we've had particularly heavy snowfall right across the UK the most surprising thing about this latest bout is not that it's happened but that it's happened so early. Familiar stories of chaos in our transport infrastructure have already appeared, and it’s become fashionable to moan about our seeming inability to keep roads and railways open.

So you’d think that gritters would be a welcome sight; indeed, the apparent shortage of salt last year created something of a mini-scandal among those hard pressed councils forced to restrict gritting to major routes.

But as is so often the case things in Northern Ireland are different, at least in part. In Londonderry several gritters have come under attack by youths and the council have been unable to clear several roads in the city as a result. For a place soon to become the UK’s first ever City of Culture in 2013 it’s something of a reminder that respect for local authority –even over something as mundane as keeping roads open – is not absolute.

I personally find it a little odd that we live in a world where road gritters are regarded by some as agents of government oppression, but then this cold weather can do some strange things to people. At least Stroke City should now have plenty of grit for those areas that actually want it…

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Punch me...

You have to hand it to those New Yoikers from across The Pond. Last week inhabitants of the Big Apple were given the option of taking their pent up stress out on a giant panda – or rather an actor dressed up as one.

Performance artist Nate Hill’s Punch a Panda is exactly that; on his website he explains that "If you find yourself angry, frustrated, or just had a bad day, I will come to your house, and you can punch me." Not content with visiting the homes of the angry, Hill has now taken his creation to the streets and actively seeks out pedestrians who are feeling in need of hitting something.

I’m wondering if such an obvious community commodity would find itself in high demand here in the UK; it would certainly fit in with ‘call me Dave’ Cameron’s Big Society agenda and I imagine it might prove extremely popular should some of our Members volunteer for the role. How about it Nate?

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Stalin was responsible for Katyn

It's amazing how diverse interpretations of the same historical events can be, a subject I've mentioned before. Politics is often to blame, with opinions dictated as much by ideological beliefs as by any sense of objective reality. Historians continue to debate the meaning and significance of prominent events - and sometimes subject them to controversial revisionism - and will no doubt continue to do so for many years to come.

The latest such development has been in Russia, where the State Duma has declared former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to have been responsible for the horrific World War II Katyn Massacre. The notorious episode witnessed the deaths of some 22,000 Polish officers, doctors, lawyers, police officers and other members of the intelligentsia.

The event has always been a controversial one, with the USSR denying responsibility right up until its dissolution in the early 1990s. The discovery of mass graves in Katyn - near the Russian town of Smolensk - by occupying Nazi German forces in 1943 soon led to their use as a propaganda tool in the fight against Soviet barbarism. That it has taken another 20 long years for the reluctant Russian authorities to fully acknowledge the role of its wartime leadership in ordering the killings at Katyn is testament to the frequent reluctance with which governments will admit to colluding in war crimes.

And yet the Duma's declaration is a welcome one, and not just for the Memorial human rights association which has long demanded formal posthumous rehabilitation for the victims at Katyn. Other governments around the world continue to deny their involvement in historical crimes against humanity, most notably the morally repugnant Turkish denial of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. That Russia can find it in itself to condemn Stalin - himself reportedly the subject of substantial reverence in today's Russia - shows that it is never too late to acknowledge a wrong.

Friday, 26 November 2010

It's snow time...!

Every year Britain seems to experience disruptive amounts of snowfall in the cold Winter months. Last year was particularly bad; there were genuine worries that some councils would run out of grit for the roads and I had the pleasure of several days off work as so many staff made the understandable claim that they were unable to get to the office on the dangerously slippery roads.

Now it appears that it might happen all over again. Heavy snowfall has hit parts of the country and meteorologists are predicting that it'll stay that way for some time to come. No doubt cynics will also be bracing themselves for the almost inevitable chaos that this annual event.would have us experience; expect apocalyptic news reports, angry commuters, gridlocked roads, references to 'white Christmases' and some good old fashioned Blitz-era spirit.

Up until today it's all felt pretty remote from this part of Yorkshire, with no snow to be seen. Now, however, the flakes are starting to fall - and now we too must prepare for the inevitable worst...

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Tory laments "breeding" poor

Another day, another senior Conservative is forced to apologise after making casual reactionary remarks in the public sphere. First we had the Prime Minister's enterprise adviser suggesting that Britons had "never had it so good" despite the "so-called recession". Now Tory peer Howard Flight has claimed that child benefit changes would encourage the poor to "breed".

Flight told the London Evening Standard that "We're going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it's jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that's not very sensible." He has since apologised, although it is not clear how much of this is genuine contrition and how much is owed to pressure from a party hierarchy horrified at yet another substantial PR gaffe from a man owing his current position to David Cameron.

Flight's comments have caused understandable offence and don't make a great deal of sense, either. The suggestion that a family could hope to earn more in child support then a 'middle-class job' - whatever that means - will fail to ring true with anyone who currently claims the £20.30 a week that child benefit brings. If he's referring to the recent decision to cut child benefit for families where one individual earns more than £43,000 a year his total divorce from reality seems assured.

But where Flight has really hit a nerve is his suggestion that those children born to poorer families should be considered undesirables. For a presumably 'middle class' former banker his horror at the potential for society's economic Untermenschen to be free to procreate is indicative of an odious ideology that continues to permeate the Conservative's ranks despite their leader's protestations to the contrary.

Flight probably intended to make the well-worn observation that families should not have children that they themselves cannot afford to support, and it is certainly a point worth discussing. But by phrasing the argument in the context of class he has betrayed his real belief that it is not the duty of the well-off to support those less fortunate then themselves. Instead of eliminating poverty Flight would rather eliminate the poor themselves.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Students revolt - but who's listening?

More angry scenes today of students protesting against higher tuition fees - the very fees the Lib Dems campaigned against in their manifesto but have since helped the Conservative to implement - and cuts to university funding. In addition to large scale protests in various cities across England there have also been a series of campus sit-ins in around a dozen universities.

Yet I'm not convinced that this particular aspect of the anti-fee and anti-Lib Dem campaign is really all that effective. The protests have not been peaceful; video footage shows widespread damage to property and clashes with police - themselves out en masse at great cost to the public purse and away from other duties - on a par with London earlier this month. This sort of wanton destruction may seem a little, well, recreational for those in power and the rest of the electorate at large. Is there a danger that public sympathy will start to evaporate?

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Another stereotypical experience...

A while back I mused on the ease of making casual stereotypes; I spoke about an experience at an airport but the principle can be applied to almost any situation anyplace and anywhere. I'd even go as far to say that it's all too easy for people to stereotype others but then that might be stereotyping, too. In short, it's a very hard thing to define and to say how much of a stereotype is prejudice and how much is a reflection of reality, if indeed they have any grounding in fact at all.

A had another similar experience today. I took a bus into Leeds and after a few stops a hooded male youth wearing a tracksuit boarded and proceeded to the back seat. He then started to play loud and rhythmically repetitive music from his mobile and did so until a friend also got on board; after that they had a conspicuously loud conversation about how the original chap was on his way to the local police station but that "they couldn't prove it was me 'cos they don't have enough evidence". The second male was older and proceeded to compare their respective solicitors and regale his associate with how the easy the former would find prison. The whole affair was like some sort of parody of a Daily Mail reader's worst nightmare.

It's also the sort of image that has essentially fuelled much of our political debate around antisocial behaviour, an issue which various polls consistently suggest is one of the electorate's primary concerns. The image of the tracksuit and hoody wearing ASBO youth - the Chav - is for some people one of the defining characteristics of modern Britain. There are evern websites devoted to documenting 'chav' culture, although any initial efforts at satire have long been abandoned for sheer snobbery.

One of the problems with stereotyping is that it takes the perceived notions of a group of people with similar characteristics and apply them to an individual, a process which will almost always produce a skewed result no matter how accurate an initial observation is. When those characteristics are negative - which they always are - one can see the problem they immediately pose.

The liberal in me likes to think that negative stereotypes are the result of prejudice and I suspect that in the most part they are. The sorts of lazy characatures that we see cropping up in the tabloid press time and time again - Muslims, asylum seekersforeigners, homosexuals, gippos and, yes, chavs too - are all clearly conforming to a predetermined agenda with prejudice at its heart.

So I hate it when someone conforms to one of these insidious stereotypes, because it plays straight into the hands of the likes of the Daily Mail and the Express. A bit like the youth on the bus earlier today. If only they'd insist on playing something good on their phone's loudspeakers...

Monday, 22 November 2010

What a difference four years makes...

George Osborne on announcing a £7 billion rescue package for the Republic of Ireland, November 2010:
"Ireland is our very closest economic neighbour so I judged it in our national interest to be part of the international efforts to help the Irish"
George Osborne on praising the Republic of Ireland's economic policies, February 2006:
"Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking"
It's worth taking a look at the full article Osborne wrote for the Sunday Times, which commanded us to "look and learn from across the Irish Sea." I wonder if he still feels the same now the Celtic bubble has well and truly burst...

Sunday, 21 November 2010

A new look...

As you may or may not have noticed The Daily Rant has a new look; Blogger released a set of new templates a little while back but I'd not got round to trying them out until today. Any thoughts and opinions you might have on how it looks will be greatly appreciated.,.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Sudan prepares to split in two

Sudan is the largest country in Africa, but that might soon change; in the new year a referendum will take place which may well see the south secede and form its own independent state. The two halves of the country have just reached an agreed framework aimed to ease some of the tensions surrounding the vote, including guaranteed rights for its mutual citizens and the freedom for people to choose which nation to be a part of.

If you think that it sounds as if the referendum's result is already being taken for granted then you'd be right; most commentators cannot see anything but a resounding endorsement for separation. Decades of conflict between the Arab Muslim north - which dominates Sudanese political life - and the Black Christian and Animist south resulted in a peace deal in 2005; since then independence for the south has realistically been a matter of when, not if.

Sudan has long been a country in trouble, with accusations of genocide in its western Darfur province dominating media coverage in recent years; current president Omar al-Bashir holds the dubious distinction of being the first sitting head of state to be indicted for crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court. But should the South secede there are very real fears that - framework or otherwise - violence will engulf the new neighbours. It's no wonder that for observers and participants alike this referendum is an immense cause for concern.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Tories and coal mining: finishing what they started?

Not long after I started this blog up at the beginning of last year I paid a visit to the National Coal Mining Museum near Wakefield, a former working pit that now houses an exhibition dedicated to remembering the lives and conditions of the communities that the industry once supported. One of the NCM's main attractions is to go down a shaft, something I missed out because I arrived too late in the day. I said to myself at the time that I would return - the museum is free - but for various reasons I just haven't managed to get round to it.

I might have to hurry. It turns out that the current Conservative government - for the coalition cannot accurately be described as anything else - has decided to halt funding, meaning that the museum now needs a new sponsor to stay open. Whilst the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has claimed that no museum will be cut adrift without external funding in place it hasn't been clear where exactly this money will come from; local MP Mary Creagh has described the move as akin to "cultural vandalism".

It's grimly appropriate that an industry cruelly demolished by an uncaring Tory administration is now being attacked by another intent on doing its very best in ensuring that the memories of those times are forgotten as well. Mining in this part of the country was not merely some fringe activity; it supported whole communities and was not just an occupation but a way of life for those who worked the pits. It is a living and vivid example of social history which the Conservatives should never be allowed to sweep under the carpet; their complicity in causing lasting deprivation and social breakdown across the North of England and elsewhere must not be forgotten.
Keep the NCM open!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Ireland in trouble

When I was a lad studying geography at school in the late 1990s the Republic of Ireland was held as a shining beacon of financial success, its 'Celtic Tiger' economy bringing unimaginable increases to standards of living of the sort that we in the UK could only dream of. Ireland was, according to the teachers, a real success story.

Indeed, when I first visited the Republic in 2001 and more extensively in 2004 the economic miracle was still in full swing, with many of the people I met testifying to the extraordinary pace of change that had taken place in Ireland over the course of the last two decades. Indeed, as recently as 2006 current Chancellor George Osborne wrote in The Times that "Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking", a statement which - in the light of a possible financial rescue package including a substantial UK contribution - now seems incredibly naive.

So why did it all go wrong? Put simply, the financial woes afflicting Dublin can essentially be put down to rampant property speculation, made feasible by low tax rates and cheap borrowing post-Eurozone. The housing market crash in 2008 caused serious damage to the nation's banks, requiring a multi-billion euro government bail out and creating a massive hole in state finances. In hindsight it's surprising that no-one with any influence failed to see the potential for such a vast bubble to eventually burst.

Irish ministers have so far been resisting any such bail out whilst the EU is adamant that they do, and already many are suggesting that Irish sovereignty has been permanently eroded. After all, any such handout would be seen not only as a big loss of face but it would ensure that its survival and solvency were reliant on Brussels.

All this seems rather ironic to me. Back in the classroom I learnt that the Irish boom owed much to EU assistance in the form of aid designed to stimulate the economy, and it wasn't surprising that enthusiasm for the Euro was much higher there than here in the UK. Now that economy is faltering Ireland has seen its dedication to Europe sorely tested; there were the unexpected difficulties in passing the Lisbon Treaty a while back and now there are those bitterly opposed to assistance from the European Financial Stability Mechanism. It would appear that now the good times are definitely over Irish loyalty to European institutions is not as strong as it once was.

But Ireland's enthusiastic adoption of the Euro a decade ago does place an extra responsibility on those responsible for the country's economic programme, as the potential for adversely influencing others that use the same currency is immense. It's curious to see the doomsayers now crying that the Republic is no longer a sovereign nation, for their voices were audible by their absence when the coffers were full. Nor do national economies work in isolation, either; after all, we live in a globalised world.

A rescue package may be a bitter pill to swallow, but pride should not be allowed to cloud judgement any more than it already is.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A right royal fawning

From the look of many of today's news websites you'd have thought that the most important event of the century had just been announced, which - if you're an ardent monarchist - it probably has. Prince William, son of the late and much idolised Princess Diana and second in line to the throne, is to marry his girlfriend Kate Middleton.

Normally I couldn't and wouldn't have cared less because people get married all the time, even incredibly rich ones; needless to say both Wills and Kate are millionaires. But media coverage has thus far been utterly fawning, with little or no room allowed for dissent. And it's not just online, either; every national newspaper - bar the Independent, which relegated the story to page 3 - features the beaming couple on the front page. Anti-monarchy group Republic have made the not-unreasonable demand that the Windsors meet the cost of the event rather than the taxpayer - who is hardly flush with cash at the moment anyway - but otherwise reaction has been consistently and sickeningly gushing. Expect more of the same right up until the big day.

At a time of economic austerity where the government demands that we must all work more whilst at the same time slashing welfare because the money is supposedly unavailable to finance it it's saddening to see that the prospect of the unimaginably wealthy offspring of an unelected head of state getting hitched at the public's expense stimulates very little debate beyond adulation. This wedding must not be allowed to descend into a vast PR exercise on behalf of the royals; instead it could provide a platform on which to question whether a medieval-style genetic lottery of the sort that decides who shall rule over us is really the best choice for a supposedly democratic 21st century nation.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Contacting uncontactables...

The Natural History Museum in London has just announced that it will be suspending an expedition to a remote part of Paraguay after concerns that it might disturb one of the world's last uncontacted tribes. Campaigners had warned that the Ayoreo people could be particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases carried by the team, who were planning to travel to South America to catalogue new species of plants and insects.

It might come as a bit of a surprise that here in the 21st century there are still indigenous groups who have virtually no contact with the outside world. To say they are 'uncontacted' is not strictly true; the tribes in question know there are people with advanced technology outside of their own immediate cultures. It's just that they choose to remain in isolation.

It's perhaps less surprising that these people are located in some of the most remote regions of the planet, with parts of South America - in particular Brazil - and the island of New Guinea accounting for the vast majority of uncontacted tribes. But perhaps the most famous are the Sentinelese, who live in a remote part of India's Anadman Islands. The islanders violently reject any attempts from outsiders to contact them, famously firing arrows at a helicopter surveying their island in the aftermath of 2004's Boxing Day Tsunami.

The risk posed by disease to uncontacted peoples is not as fanciful as it seems; an estimated 60% of Colombia's Nukak tribe have died from disease since contact in 1988. Now, just as the Aztec and Inca empires of the 16th century collided with likes of Cortés and Pizarro, the lack of immunity among the indigenous peoples of South America to modern illnesses is a major obstacle to their survival.

Given this alarming fact it's understandable that such groups continue to refuse contact with what most of us would think of as civilisation. The experiences of similar cultures that have since undergone assimilation have not always been happy ones; indeed, many would argue that - like the aforementioned Nukak - these tribes would have been far better off being left alone.

The fact that so many of these peoples live in isolated locations should not be lost on conservationists, either. Brazil is a good case in point; most of the pressure on uncontacted tribes comes from the economic exploitation of the Amazon rainforest that has caused so much ecological damage. Campaigning to preserve the Amazonians will do much to preserve the environment in which they live.

Ultimately it is unrealistic to continually avoid all contact with groups of people who wish to be left alone. But there is also a responsibility to not only respect their wishes as much as is feasibly possible but to also ensure that they are not inadvertently wiped out by preventable diseases. The NHM will no doubt eventually head into Paraguay - there is a moral responsibility to document wildlife before it disappears - but better planning in relations to the people they may meet will ensure that the expedition is all the more successful and safer for all.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Remembrance Sunday

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Today is Remembrance Sunday, the day when services are held around the world to mark the loss of life in war. It famously started as a commemoration of the First World War - the poppy coming from Flanders' ubiquitous red flowers - but has since come to represent all modern global conflicts. The above poem by Siegfried Sassoon is as stark a reminder of the senselessness of war as it was when it was first written over 90 years ago.

In Northern Ireland the issue of poppy wearing has not been as straightforward as the rest of the United Kingdom; Irish nationalists, in particular, have long had a problem with an emblem they regard as a symbol of British imperialism. A long-running campaign by some Republicans to afford the Easter lily the same recognition has been the subject of much debate.

So it's refreshing to see the SDLP's Margaret Ritchie becoming the first nationalist leader to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day. Not only is it a recognition of the fact that the poppy is not a partisan symbol but also that it does not celebrate the causes behind the deaths of so many service men and women from both sides of Ireland's cultural divide but rather mourns their loss. As one SDLP councillor put it: "If we talk about sharing this island, we have to remember those people who died in conflicts across the world were from the whole island of Ireland, not just a small section of that island. If we are to share the future, we have to share the history."

No doubt some on the more extreme end of Irish Republicanism will see Ritchie's actions as nothing short of collusion with the British establishment in the Occupied Six Counties, but that is to willfully ignore the poppy's true meaning. Opposing the remembrance of both Protestant and Catholic dead smacks of deliberate and disproportionate intransigence out of step with modern progressive politics.

For Ritchie, on the other hand, the move makes sound political and moral sense; post-Good Friday and St Andrew Agreements it has been established beyond doubt that Northern Ireland's constitutional status will only change with a majority consent of the Province's population. Given the failure of the IRA to achieve unity through violence it's reasonable to assume that the more inclusive version of Irish nationalism espoused by the SDLP will be far more palatable to Unionists then that which continues to denounce anything and everything perceived to be connected with Ulster's continued membership of the United Kingdom.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Burma releases Aung San Suu Kyi

Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest. The Nobel prizewinner, who has been under detention for the best part of two decades, has been freed less than a week after a heavily disputed election essentially returned the ruling military junta to power.

It’s a curious move; no doubt the authorities will be keeping a watchful eye on their most vociferous opponent but it’s highly doubtful that the move will usher in any real democratic change. Even if Suu Kyi does manage to unify Burma’s disparate opposition groups it’s unlikely that the military will relinquish their grip on power. Indeed, one wonders if Suu Kyi’s release is actually a show of confidence on behalf of a junta who no longer fear the daughter of Burma’s foremost architect of independence.

General Than Shwe’s government may also have another reason to be happy. Recent events elsewhere – most notably Zimbabwe – have demonstrated that a vibrant opposition can be effectively neutered once they are co-opted into government. Should Suu Kyi ever enjoy success at the ballot box – and even that is far from guaranteed – it’s a distinct possibility that the junta will only have to partly moderate their behaviour.

But her release does give at least some cause for optimism, not least among those global leaders who long for a new regime in Naypyidaw. Yes, the odds are stacked against change, but this development might just give the democracy movement the lift it needs in its fight against state oppression.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

When Tweeting goes wrong...

It's a well known fact that online social networking sites can exert a surprising amount of influence in the real world; recruiters warn against posting drunken photos on Facebook, or claiming to be sick at the same time as telling virtual friends of the effects of the booze binge the previous night. The lack of privacy inherent in posting such information online means that control over who exactly sees it can never really be guaranteed.

Twitter is a shining example of this process in action; whilst seemingly innocuous, a message of 140 characters or less can wield surprising power. This is a good example; Doncaster man Paul Chambers was convicted of sending a menacing electronic communication back in May and has just lost his subsequent appeal. His crime? Tweeting to his followers that "Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!" He now faces a legal bill of around £3,000, a sum actor Stephen Fry has offered - via Twitter, of coure - to meet.

Elsewhere, a Tory councillor in Birmingham has been arrested after announcing via Twitter:"Could someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan't tell Amnesty if you don't. It would be a blessing, really." Gareth Compton has been suspended indefinitely by the Conservative party and is now on bail pending investigation.

So what can we learn from these two examples? That free speech has its limits? That 'Big Brother' really is watching us all? Or that the unwritten rules that decide whether something is socially acceptable or not apply just as much on the internet as they do back in the real world? It's certainly something to ponder next time your finger hovers over the 'send' key...

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Students take to the streets

Could education become the coalition's undoing? Quite possibly, if today's scenes at Tory HQ and elsewhere are anything to go by.

Thousands of people have protested across the country at the planned trebling of tuition fees in England and cuts to university funding, some violently; demonstrators stormed Conservative Party headquarters, smashing windows and hurling missiles. It will all seem a little too much like Paris '68 for those at the centre of the students' wrath.

Student leaders, for their part, have condemned the violence as "despicable" and I’m inclined to agree with them. It’s pleasing so see so many want to voice their disagreement to the unfair policies of the Con-Dem regime, but by doing so in a violent manner they risk overshadowing their core message. For instead of headlines highlighting the protesters’ cause we will instead see images of the mob running amok – and the very education cuts they oppose may well pass unnoticed and unopposed.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

England 2018

For some reason unbeknown to me I receive promotional emails from the team behind England's 2018 world cup bid; it could be that I once mentioned Leeds' own small part in the process or (perhaps more likely) my name is on a mailing list along with others with a passing interest in sport.

Interestingly the email failed to mention recent allegations of corruption levelled at FIFA by The Sunday Times which - despite having nothing to do with the Football Association's bid other than being based in the same country - is threatening to derail the whole process. Even though the fact that two of FIFA's committee members have been provisionally suspended - thereby adding weight to the accusations - many are openly suggesting that England's bid has been irrevocably damaged. The possibility of a BBC Panorama investigation to be aired at the same time as the winning hosts are announced is also the cause of great concern.

Quite frankly the whole affair stinks. The bidding process for holding global sporting events is almost never transparent, with competing hosts falling over themselves to outdo their rivals in wining and dining a select cabal of committee members who hold the keys of power. It's surprising that the accusations dogging this latest fiasco do not surface more regularly; whether it'll become another Salt Lake City remains to be seen.

For their part England 2018 have distanced themselves from the accusations, anxious not to suffer as a result. One can understand their concern but it's also saddening to see that neither they nor FIFA have openly condemned any potential abuse of position in the bidding process. That the latter is now threatening to penalise England shows that their primary concern is not to investigate these accusations but to scare the media into not making them at all.

Monday, 8 November 2010

A Roman exodus?

A while back the Pope offered Anglicans disgruntled with liberal developments within the greater communion - in particular the ordination of women and the church's stance towards homosexuality - the option of easy conversion to the Catholic faith whilst allowing them to retain a distinct identity. It prompted a heated exchange of words between Rome and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the latter rightly perceiving it to be an opportunistic attempt by the Papal authorities to gain followers from a rival at risk of schism despite itself being mired in an arguably much more serious and institutionalised global child abuse scandal.

Five Anglican bishops have now declared that they intend to take Benedict up on his offer and become Roman Catholics. All five had been known for their conservative religious sympathies - three are currently serving as 'flying bishops', ministering to Church of England parishes where congregations voted not to allow a woman priest to preside at services - and as a result their conversion has not caused great surprise. That none of them are in charge of a diocese has also minimised the immediate short-term impact.

But there are fears that this could form merely the preamble to a larger exodus of High Church Anglo-Catholics dissatisfied with Anglican liberalisation. Rowan Williams has already expressed 'regret' at the resignations and he will no doubt be concerned at this latest development in the ongoing saga that is seemingly the Anglican Communion's permanent state of affairs.

What is perhaps most surprising, however, is that such a conservative brand of religious belief - one that argues that women are incapable of leading congregations, that homosexuals are inherently evil and that has seemingly done everything in its power to cover up the abuse of children in its care all over the world - can be so attractive to nominal protestants. One wonders why they were ever a part of the Church of England in the first place.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

A busy few days in politics...

Well, it has, hasn't it? We've had shadow immigration minister Phil Woolas' election victory earlier this year declared void after it was ruled that he deliberately made misleading comments about a rival. A by-election must now be contested in the Oldham East and Saddleworth seat which Woolas had originally won by a wafer-thin 103 votes over Liberal Democrat Elwyn Watkins. Woolas has also been suspended by Labour but it's worrying that such a high profile candidate was able to make such comments in the first place.

Then there's the news that Prime Minister David Cameron's communications director Andy Coulson has been interviewed by police - again - over the News of the World 'phone hacking scandal. Coulson was the paper's editor at the time but claimed to have no knowledge of the endemic hacking that eventually led to a journalist receiving a custodial sentence, leading commentators to suggest that either Coulson was woefully inept - where did he think his stories were coming from? - or is a liar. In either case, Cameron's decision to employ him as a government lackey is a peculiar one and one that he might just be starting to regret.

And now it transpires that Nigel Farage - the man who was dramatically injured in an airplane crash on election day - has been reelected as leader of UKIP less than a year after stepping down from the top job. It's amazing to think what can happen in just a week away...

Friday, 5 November 2010

Should prisoners be given the vote?

One of the things I missed whilst away was that the debate over prisoners' right to vote has suddenly reemerged, almost as if from nowhere. It transpires that the coalition is now set to introduce the franchise to those currently residing at her majesty's pleasure, a surprise move which almost certainly will not tally with many of David Cameron's core Conservative supporters. So why bother, and why now?

It transpires that ever since a 2005 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights first the Labour government at the time and now the Con-Dem alliance had been trying its hardest to stay the issue. That there appears to be little political mileage to be gained for such a move - there has certainly not been any real perceivable public demand for prisoner voting rights - might well have something to do with it. Indeed, given Cameron's problems with the Eurosceptic wing of his party - Lisbon referendum, anyone? - this announcement couldn't have come at a worse time.

The arguments for and against prisoner votes are fairly simple; those that are against suggest that by breaking the law convicts have renounced their civil right to have their say in how the country is governed, whilst those in favour argue that this very process dehumanises those behind bars and renders them personae non gratae. There are also concerns that those areas with large prison populations may find their newly-enfranchised residents holding considerable political clout at the local level.

Whilst the UK is not alone in Europe in denying prisoners the vote, many other countries do albeit with varying restrictions. There is certainly no blanket right to the ballot box for all felons and those opposed to this measure may find heart in the fact this will certainly be the case here.

Ultimately, the question revolves around what a person must be deprived of when they are sent to prison. Liberty is the most obvious; incarceration provides the ultimate restriction on freedom of movement and prevents prisoners from doing many of the things that most of us take for granted. But by suggesting that the right to have a say on how a country is run is dependent on good behaviour is, I think, perhaps a step too far. It's a good thing that this issue has been forced; it's just a shame that it's taken five years of dallying after a European Court judgement to get us there.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

An eye on the 'i'

During a brief stop in Glasgow during yesterday's train journey I picked up a copy of the oh-so-trendily lower-case i, a new paper from the publishers of the Independent. It's already been around for a couple of weeks but with my attention squarely focused on the Knoydart trip I hadn't got round to having a look at it.

And at first glance it doesn't seem that bad. The idea of the i is to present a slimmed down version of its 'broadsheet' cousin aimed squarely at the commuter and youngish adult demographic; it contains many of the stories and comment that you might expect to find in a more up-market newspaper but at just over 50 pages is a lot easier to read on the train. Perhaps its greatest attraction, however, is the cover price; at only 20 pence it's the only paper of its kind to compete with the cheap-to-buy tabloids.

But i is clearly still a work in progress. Some of its commentary pieces will not appeal to all whilst its target readership is obvious from the house style, and I doubt that this title will seriously dent the circulation figures of the Independent's rivals. But the fact that it does have a narrowly-defined demographic in mind might also be its greatest strength, with cash-strapped students and travellers ever more mindful of value for money.

A few years ago I attended a media conference which confidently predicted that the printed press as we know it will cease to exist within a decade. It'll be interesting to see how this latest attempt fares; if anything it's definitely worth keeping an eye on...

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

From Knoydart to Leeds

I've always liked train journeys, and if it weren't for the bizarre and often illogical ticket pricing system we have here in the UK I'd make a lot more of them. Whilst long-distance coaches continue to undercut train fares by a substantial degree I'll stick to them despite the longer and less comfortable ride that they usually offer.

So I had been looking forward to today's journey from Mallaig to Leeds even before setting off for Knoydart, knowing that the kind people at Gore-Tex were able to pick up the tab. Even the fact that it would take over 10 hours and require four changes wouldn't stop me enjoying what must be one of the most scenic routes in the British Isles.

The highlight, of course, takes place early on, with the section between Mallaig and Glasgow following much of the famous West Highland Railway. The unusual names of many of the stations on this line - Ardlui, Crianlarich, Arrochar - suggest a time when English was not the first language for the original inhabitants in this corner of Scotland.

And so it proved. The line passes some stunning scenery, and some notable places to boot; at Arisaig a sign informed me that I was at the the Westernmost station in Britain, whilst coming into Fort William the train passed the famous Neptune's Staircase, the longest staircase lock in the United Kingdom and a marvel of industrial engineering. Going over the famous curved viaduct at Glenfinnan was also a fun experience even if I'm not a bona fide Harry Potter fan.

But the most impressive section of the railway traverses Rannoch Moor, a vast wild expanse of desolation that must have proved a particularly difficult task for the navvies working this route at the end of the 19th century. Our train took us through Corrour - the highest mainland railway station in the UK a full 10 miles from the nearest road - and stopped briefly at Rannoch, allowing us to explore the station and get a feel for the isolation of the area.

Having left Mallaig at a shade after 10 in the morning - we'd left Doune on the western tip of Knoydart by boat an hour earlier - the fourth and final train pulled into Leeds at 9pm. I've always thought it strange how travelling can be so tiring when all you have to do is sit there and let the train do its job, and by the time we neared our final destination I was pretty exhausted. But I'd also had a fantastic experience exploring part of Britain by rail and was immensely pleased that I was able to; the cost of the one-way ticket was over £100. I just wish that it was a bit cheaper to do so more often...

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Is a 2:2 worth the paper it's printed on?

Edith Piaf aside, it's all too easy in life to have regrets. One of my biggest has to be my poor performance at university the first time round; I graduated with a 2:2, and at the time I had the suspicion that achieving a Desmond was akin to failing the course altogether. My reasoning was based on the fact that virtually all graduate recruitment schemes demand a 2:1 or higher from their applicants, and after three years of hard work and financial hardship it was a particularly galling result knowing that I might as well not have bothered.

In order to make up for what has always felt like a very real blot on my CV I subsequently completed an MSc in the same field and duly received a 2:1, hoping that that would be that. Since then I've not had the opportunity to use either qualification but now that I'm faring particularly poorly at my efforts to become a journalist I've once again been looking at some of the graduate opportunities available at various companies and organisations.

One of those that recently launched its latest graduate schemes is Transport for London, which - like so many others - requires all its applicants to have attained a 2:1 at undergraduate level. I applied anyway, hoping that with my postgraduate qualification I might still be considered. Sadly not; a few days later I received an automated email to say that my application was being withdrawn. No reason was given, nor were any contact details provided so that I might discuss the matter further. A lengthy trawl of their website also failed to provide any method of telephoning or emailing the department responsible for recruitment.

I eventually had to use the generic complaints form and a few days later this did elicit a response, confirming that my 2:2 was the reason I was summarily rejected. I replied, pointing out that I had a 2:1 at masters level and that this was a more advanced qualification, and asked whether this would prove sufficient in demonstrating my academic ability. In private I couldn't help thinking that such a system is akin to basing university entry on GCSE results rather than A levels; I received another response almost immediately:
"For our graduate schemes we only require candidates to meet the minimum criteria. Although a major asset, we use years of work experience or a Masters degree to determine their eligibility if they have not met the minimum criteria, and this is due to the fact that our graduate schemes are designed to assist them in developing various skills."
I might not have a 2:1, but even I know that that doesn't really make a lot of sense. I think they're telling me that I still don't make the grade, which is a shame; TfL's graduate schemes are varied and offer an opportunity to enter competitive management in a large and busy organisation. No doubt their strict adherence to the requirements they have set is due in part to the presumably large number of applications they receive.

But I can't help thinking that by weeding out those like myself who didn't fare brilliantly the first time they went to university but subsequently acquitted themselves academically is really a fair way to recruit. I'm still wondering whether that BSc certificate really is worth the paper it's printed on...

Monday, 1 November 2010

New Daily Rant poll: is climate change a reality?

Another month passes, another Daily Rant poll comes to a close. 53% of respondents believe that 'Red Ed' Miliband will one day become Prime Minister, whilst the rest think that he will never succeed where Gordon Brown Brown failed and defeat David Cameron come election day. I personally believe that he could, but it's hard to say yet whether Labour will emulate the years the Tories spent in the political wilderness post-1997. The ad hoc nature of the coalition and Cameron's failure to replicate Tony Blair's formidable mandate after the collapse of the last Conservative administration means that Miliband Junior must certainly fancy his chances.

On to the next poll, and a change of scenery; this time it would be interesting to know whether people believe that artificial climate change - in other words, the alteration of our global climate as a direct result of human activity - is in fact a myth or reality. All will be revealed at the end of the month...