Category Archives: debate

Angry protestors attack Royal Coach… dateline 1795…

There have been a lot of historionics recently about the student protests, and in particular about the incident in which the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall were caught up in ‘the mob’ in Regent Street. This interesting article in the Guardian got me thinking, as well as this one on the BBC website.

One correspondent in my local newspaper even suggested that the protestors who harrangued the royal couple’s car were committing a treasonable act. Please… I thought we’d dispensed with the divine rights of Kings when we cut off Charles I’s head. Assault? possibly. Treason? no chance.

In fact, I would quite like to know what Charlie boy thinks, as the father of an ex-student, and another son who did so badly at A-Level he could never have got into Uni (even though he did make an officer in the Household Cavalry, but that is another class-based story for another day). Charles himself managed to get to Cambridge with very dubious A-Levels results, and hardly distinguished himself when he was there, so it would be interesting to know what his thoughts are – he’s got something to say about everything else that seems to happen in society.

Even well-thought-of national figures are by no means immune to protests. The Duke of Wellington, who ‘in retirement’ turned to politics, was more than once the target of the mob, including when the windows of his Apsley House residence were smashed by angry protestors while he was Prime Minister. It didn’t mean that they were ‘desecrating’ the Duke – many of the same protestors no doubt revelled in his victories and were tearful at his death – they were just mightily pissed off at that moment in time.

And for all the hysteria about students urinating on statues of Winston Churchill, it was the same kind of conservative Government that brought in the national curriculum years ago, which pretty much erased meaningful british history from education. No wonder people of my generation know so little about Churchill and the World Wars, they’ve not been allowed to learn about it. And… on a more biological level, if the Police cordon people off for hours at a time with no toilets, then maybe they might just go against anything that they can? Just a thought.

I’ve even read the usual opinions that we should ‘bring back national service’ to teach the wayward students a lesson in discipline. National Service was never about discipline, it was viewed as a necessary evil to plug a chronic manpower shortage while Britain slowly withdrew from its imperial commitments after the Second World War. It was unpopular, with the Government, with the armed forces, and with society. All it seems to have taught was how to drink and how to smoke, and a conscript military does not equal a professional military, which the modern age calls for. Britain has never really ‘done’ conscription, and an overblown moral panic is no reason to start now.

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Government advisor resigns after recession remarks

Literally hours on from my previous post about class in British society and its effect on the recession, a Government advisor resigned after making inappopriate remarks about the current economic downturn.

Lord Young, a businessman, former Thatcher Government minister and Tory peer, echoed Harold Macmillan’s famous remarks from the 1950’s that Briton’s had ‘never had it so good’. He also referred to the recent downturn as a ‘so-called recession’. Amusingly, his wikipedia entry states that he has ‘not yet’ resigned from his position as Government enterprise advisor. We can only wait and hope.

Lord Young went on to say:

“So, you know, I have a feeling and a hope that when this goes through, people will wonder what all the fuss was about… Of course, there will be people who complain, but these are people who think they have a right for the state to support them.”

These kind of comments show just how removed some sections of society are from reality. The funny thing is, I can sense what Lord Young was trying to say, but he went completely the wrong way about it. They are insulting to people who are struggling, and even more so coming from somebody who quite clearly does not have to worry about where the next meal is coming from, or whether he is going to be laid off. It’s up there with Barbara Bush saying ‘this has worked out quite well for some people’ after Hurricane Katrina, or even Marie Antoinette’s ‘let them eat cake’.

What’s worse for me is that Cameron hired somebody like Young in the first place, it shows either a breathtaking lack of judgement, or it belies the fact that maybe deep down our Dave agrees with Young. It’s all very well for Young to say that he should have chosen his words better, but this is a smokescreen – these are the fundamental thoughts of a whole section of society and the party that represent it. Even if he hadn’t said it, its still what he was thinking deep down. And this naivetey, snobbery and selfishness is what the programme of cuts are based on.

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The poor: deserving or not?

This post on the BBC website got me thinking. The latest recession has re-polarised talk about class in British Society. In particular, emphasis has fallen upon one particular section of society: ‘the poor’. The semantics are important – the proletariat, the plebians, the working class, and so on are all names for the lower rung on the ladder of society. Most of them constructed and imposed from above. But do the poor deserve to be poor? Do the deserve help? Are the rich undeservedly rich? I spent three years at Uni looking at ideas of class, and what were are hearing now is all too familiar.

I don’t think it would be remiss of me to state that of the population at large, the poorest have the most to lose in any recession. Their jobs are always the first to go. People who generally make ends meet without any luxury will suffer the most from losing their jobs – mortgages unpaid, food and fuel bills struggling to be met, etc. The working class are also the kind of people who have the most to lose when services are cut – such as state education, healthcare and social services – because in most cases they lack the resources to go private. Middle and upper classes, however, can well afford to pay for private education, private healthcare, etc etc. And why should they care if other people cannot look after themselves? Now, more than any time since the Second World War, our senior Ministers are made up of people who know nothing of how the majority of the population life from day to day.

Most of these services, provided by the state, are still relatively modern. State education for all only developed in the very late Nineteenth Century, while the modern welfare state was born out of the Beveridge report during Second World War. So, state help for those in society who are struggling is a relatively modern theory. And I cannot help but think that there are plenty of people – namely those who are doing very well for themselves – who would be quite happy to take things back to the Nineteenth Century way of doing things, the ‘fuck you I’m alright Jack’ approach. For hundreds of years the upper classes held the view that the poor being poor was their own fault. I’ve never read a satisfactory explanation as to why this should have been – after all, until perhaps the Twentieth Century the opportunities for poor people to advance themselves were virtually nil, class barriers being all but impermeable. One of the most important ways that poorer people can get on life is via a University Education. Until soon, when the ConDem‘s policies will restore Higher Education to being a privilege of the few.

Talking about class, is class as a term still relevant in modern society? I think so, its just slightly different to our old ‘working-middle-upper’ constructions. You could almost argue that there is a ‘non-working’ class, of people who, for whatever reason, do not work. Either they are long-term unemployed, disabled, or haver simply made a life choice to not bother. In my experience, working people tend to have more disdain for non-working people than anyone else. Why should they have the same standard of living as me, they might wonder, if I work and pay taxes, and they don’t work and receive everything for free?

This brings up the theme of ‘work’. Work does seem to be the gold standard for whether somebody is deserving of help from the state. I find it hard to argue with the idea that somebody who loses their job through no fault of their own deserves help. Also, people who have worked, but become ill or for whatever reason cannot work. Or people who cannot work at all, through no fault of their own. But I cannot help but feel that all the time working people are being squeezed for taxes and facing the threat of redundancy, it is not quite right for people who have no intention of contributing anything to society to take out of society. The problem is, those looking on the lower classes from above tend to lump everyone in this bracket. But does the working class exist now as it did 60 or so years ago? I feel not, as work itself is such a different term, what used to be the working class is now so much more fracturous.

Norman Tebbitt famously said that the unemployed should ‘get on their bikes and find a job’. Expect to hear more patronising headlines like that in the next few months. Whilst there are plenty of people out there who are content to sit on their arse at home doing nothing and getting paid for it, many thousands of people are going to find themselves out of work, looking hard for work, but finding nothing. Telling them to ‘get on their bikes’ when there arent any jobs to pedal after in the first place shows how out of touch some politicians are. The phrases might be different, but the mindset is the same.

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The student protest: a historical perspective

I’ve found it quite amusing watching and reading some of the historyonics regarding Wednesdays student protests in London. Witness the howls in the blue-rinse broadsheets, and one newspaper even launching a name-and-shame the students campaign. At the risk of marking myself out as Brother Daly, or Red Jim, these are my thoughts.

Lets get this in perspective. Out of 50,000 students, about a hundred kicked off. And even then, I doubt many of them were actually students, more like rent-a-mob. Look at the film of the incident at Tory Party HQ – more photographers than protesters and police put together. Funny that, isn’t it? An angry mob always makes for good pictures and definitely sells papers.

A few windows got kicked in, the reception got trashed. We’re talking tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage – nothing to somebody like Lord Ashcroft. The damage being wreaked to this country – higher education, education in general, the nhs, the armed forces, welfare – goes way way beyond any sum of money. We’re talking about society, and peoples lives here. The problem is, the Tory party love to claim the moral high ground when it comes to angry mobs of erks rampaging. But if they weren’t hell-bent on wrecking British society from every direction, there would be nothing to protest about in the first place.

The problem is, nowadays protest-inspired damage is pretty alien to us. Yet hundreds of years ago – particularly in class-fraught periods such as the Nineteenth Centuryworking class people would routinely protest if they felt wronged. In the early Nineteenth Century the Luddites protested against the introduction of machinery by smashing it up. By and large, protests were against the wage labour system, and the class control system in particular. Property has always been one of the most visible symbols of class – think in terms of the haves and the have nots – so damaging property has always been a primal way of normal people making their feelings obvious.

Its funny also how the establishment is more concerned about damage to property than to people. This is almost a medieval, victorian attitude – one peasant can murder another peasant and nobody cares, but if a peasant steals a loaf of bread from a rich persons kitchen, then there’s hell to pay. So as well as working class people feeling a need to protest by damaging the property of the middle and upper classes, those classes in turn are ultra-sensitive about their class-symbolism being challenged. The fear of ‘the mob’ after the French revolution was electrifying.

So essentially, what we have seen this week is a return to early Nineteenth Century society – an embattled working class, and a middle class attempting to exert its control. Its all very well complaining about people protesting and getting angry, but think about WHY they are protesting, and WHY they are angry. If you try and shaft people, limit their options in life, restrict their social mobility and condemm them to a life of debt, you shouldn’t be surprised if they’re not too happy about it.

Forget taking us back to the 1980’s, this Government is taking us back to the 1800’s. ‘Tory scum’ is an ancient cry in British class struggle; right back to the Duke of Wellington and the Corn Laws. And as much as I admire the Iron Duke as the greatest British field commander in history, do we really want to go back to that archaic age?

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Admirals urge re-think on Harrier axing

A group of former senior Royal Navy officers have today urged the Government to rethink its plans to scrap HMS Ark Royal and the Harrier fleet. In an open letter to The Times Admiral Lord West of Spithead, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Julian Oswald, Vice-Admiral Sir Jeremy Blackham, Vice-Admiral John McAnally and Major-General Julian Thompson argue that the recently announced defence cuts “practically invite” Argentina to re-invade the Falklands, and that such an invasion would be a national humiliation on the level of the fall of Singapore during the Second World War. Julian Thompson and Lord West in particular have got more of an insight into this matter than most, having been the commander of 3 Commando Brigade and HMS Ardent respectively in 1982.

Building on Lord West’s recent speech in the House of Lords, the letter goes on to explain that the Tornado fleet will need re-engining in 2014, at a cost of £1.4bn – roughly the savings expected from scrapping the Harrier. They are quite right too that the Harrier can take off from much shorter airstrips, has a much quicker response time, is better at providing close air support, and can remain in service until 2023 with little investment. At risk of sounding like a broken record, the Harrier vs. Tornado face-off clearly had more sinister agendas going on behind the scenes than mere defence and cost-cutting.

Finally – and most pertinently, in my view – the Admirals point out that the last Treasury-driven Defence ’10-year-rule’ came in the inter-war period (prompted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a certain Winston Churchill), and history tells us the folly of that particular policy. I wrote some time ago about the historical parallels between the current Government’s 10 year naval aviation gap and the catastrophic 10-year assumption between the wars. Any aggressor almost always has the initiative; take for instance the Falklands invasion in 1982, and to a lesser extent Germany in 1939. If you leave your defence planning dormant until a threat emerges, the threat has the initiative and will already be on top of you before you have any chance to respond.

There are two kinds of threat: an immediate unidentified threat (such as the Falklands), or the looming threat which is prone to being ignored by weak politicians (such as Hitler in the 1930’s). There’s never much you can do specifically about an unidentified threat specifically, apart from making sure your forces are flexible enough to react quickly if needs must. But wilfully ignoring clear and looming threats is at beat folly, and at worst treasonable.

And the comments from the Defence Minister Nick Harvey are naive in the extreme. Four Eurofighters, an infantry company and an obsolete Destroyer are not a defence against invasion. They’re a better tripwire than in 1982, but a tripwire none the less. The potential for reinforcing British forces in the Falklands is minimal now, and will be non-existent after the SDSR’s effects have hit home. That is the key point that Harvey fails to grasp – if anything were to happen in the South Atlantic, we could do virtually nothing beyond what we already have there.

And while we’re talking about naive politicians, how about the Defence Secretary’s comments recently about how Argentina is a vibrant peace-loving country playing a full role on the international scene – hasn’t he heard any of Mrs. Kirchner’s rants over the past few years? Has he not heard about Argentina’s plans to acquire a landing ship from France? Its the same country, with the same kind of Malvinas complex and social problems as in 1982. Sure, Argentina may not be governed by a military junta, but can you take seriously any ‘democracy’ where the President is the last President’s wife? South America is clearly an un-predictable and volatile part of the world.

A Government getting its military history from the Janet and John books whilst wearing rose tinted glasses. And its policy from an ideology that places swingeing cuts over protecting its citizens. Will Dave and Boy George backtrack? Somehow I doubt it…

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Anglo-French alliance – does history matter?

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill (in his a...

Churchill and de Gaulle: the uneasiest of allies (Image via Wikipedia)

Not many of you might know this, but the Anglo-French Defence Agreement was due to be signed onboard HMS Ark Royal in Portsmouth. Until she was hatcheted in the Strategic Defence Review, cue a new plan to spare Dave C any embarassment. Even though the SDSR itself was one big embarassment.

Anyhow, on to my main point. When it comes to the UK and France working more closely together, does history matter? As one of my lecturers told us at Uni, ‘we spent most of the eighteenth century at war with the  French, one – because they deserved it, and two – because they needed the practice’. Even though in recent times Britain has been allied with France and Germany has been the more recent enemy, you cannot help but feel that the man on the street has very little time for our cheese-eating cousins across La Manche.

Anglo-French rivalry begins in earnest in 1066, with the arrival of William the Conqueror. After his death his realms in France and England were divided amongst his sons, sparking a rivalry that led to frequent wars between English Kings and various French Kings, nobles and other factions for hundreds of years. The Plantagenets in particular built up an impressive cross-Channel Angevin Empire, through dynastic marriages and conquest. Battles such as Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt heralded British military superiority during the Hundred Years War.

During the reign of Henry VIII we once again gain of feeling of Henry trying to outdo his French ‘cousin’ King Francis, both in war and in chivalry. The Field of Cloth of Gold was nothing more than an elaborate attempt to outwrestle each other, literally at one point. Early modern international politics saw Kings one moment allying with each other, the next trying to attack each other. Later, after the English Reformation and the coming to the throne of Charles I, his French – and Catholic – Queen was the source of much suspicion, particularly for Puritans who suspected a French-backed scheme to re-impose Catholicism. After the accession of the house of Hanover, attempts to re-install Stuart Pretenders to the throne were more often than not launched from France.

Things really hot up during the eighteenth century. Increasingly Imperial rivals – especially in India – Britain found herself at war with France in the middle of the eighteenth century during the thirty years war, and then in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between 1787 and 1815. This ‘War of wars’ defined modern European, and really was a titanic struggle between a France buoyed firstly by revolutionary fervour and then by Napoleon Bonaparte; and on the other hand a number of coalitions of European nations, bankrolled by British finance. Rather cleverly, Britain refrained from using her land forces in Europe for much of the period, preferring instead to rely on a naval blockade of European ports which strangled French trade. Although Napoleon marched all through Europe, he could not defeat the Wooden Walls bearing the White Ensign.

After co-operation during the Crimean War, the mid to late nineteenth century was again hallmarked by suspicion, with a min-arms race, involving ironclad warships such as HMS Warrior, and the new rifled, breech loading guns requiring whole new lines of fortifications, such as Palmerston’s Folly’s around Portsmouth. Therefore the Entente Cordial, signed in 1904, came as something of an oddity in Anglo-French relations. Forced into an alliance by German expansionism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Britain and France have none the less been uneasy bedfellows since.

Although nominally on the same side in the Second World War, there was much acrimony between both sides. After the fall of France many felt that the BEF had turned tail and ran. I’m not sure quite what else they expected Gort to do; he was following French strategy after all, which had caused the problem in the first place. Even the free French who fought under allied patronage were prickly, particularly de Gaulle, who only really thought of himself, let alone France. In 1940 the Royal Navy was forced to bombard the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in order to prevent it falling into German hands. The incident still causes high feelings even today. Whilst the French might have promised not to let their ships fall to the Germans, this was a promise they were unable to make. I’m not sure what else they expected us to do.

Even after being liberated in 1944, the French had a bizarre way of showing gratitude. Gaullism brought about a fiercely independent outlook, which vetoed UK entry into the EEC for many years, and also withdrew France from NATO – a nonsensical decision during the Cold War, which left the western world highly vulnerable, all for the sake of French pride. During one famous argument, the French Foreign Minister ordered that all US troops were to leave French soil at once. Quick as a flash, his American counterpart enquired whether that included those that were buried there. In a funny kind of way, Gaullism is an example of how a sovereign state should look after its own interests, but its belligerent manner – personified by one Jacques Chirac – has probably caused France more problems than anything else.

So, co-operation with France is very much against the historical grain. Even in recent history where France has nominally been an ally, relations have been uneasy. It will probably take a lot of effort on behalf of the Sarkozy Government to change French domestic thinking in favour of closer military co-operation. Put crudely, the French will have to show more ‘backbone’, and stop building walls between themselves and the rest of the world. During the Cold War France was not part of the military structure of NATO, although French forces were in Germany facing the Warsaw Pact, and also in Berlin. These units were not allowed to plan with their NATO colleagues, meaning that if the balloon went up allied planning would have been in a vacuum. Lunacy indeed, dictated by French selfishness.

Personally, I am more in favour of European military co-operation being on a ‘cluster’ basis. Take for example the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. Britain is the framework nation, providing the Headquarters, signals units, etc. When required, NATO state will assign Divisions to the Corps. Several nations have units designated for quick allocation, and this took place in Kosovo in 1999. Britain has long had a fruitful link-up with the Dutch amphibious forces, with Dutch ships and Marine Battalions operating in an integrated manner with the British Commando Brigade. In this case the synergy is definitely there. During the Cold War, the commander of the British Army of the Rhine also served as NATO’s Commander of the Northern Army Group, with Dutch and German troops under command. Again, the synergy was there, as it had to be. But is that synergy there with the French? Does it make sense for two of the largest militaries in Europe to spontaneously and bilaterally tie themselves together with no planning regarding other states?

Before I finish off this post, let me share something that I found on a well-known British forces discussion website, which gives an idea of how the French military is regarded…

 

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Lord West: Decision to scrap Harrier ‘bonkers’

A former Naval Chief and Government Minister has described the decision to retire the Harrier in favour of keeping the Tornado as ‘bonkers’.

Admiral Lord West, a former First Sea Lord and Labour Security Minister, was speaking in the House of Lords. West was also the commander of the Type 21 Frigate HMS Ardent during the Falklands War, when she was sunk under overwhelming air attack in San Carlos Water.

“The decision to get rid of the Harriers and not the Tornados is, I have to say, bizarre and wrong. It is the most bonkers decision that I have come across in my 45 years in the military and I assure you I have been privy to some pretty bonkers decisions in that time. In terms of cost if we remove the Tornado force we are looking at £7.5bn by 2018. With the Harriers we are looking at less than £1bn. So in cost terms that does not make sense.”

If his figures are right, West’s argument does seem to suggest that the decision to retire the Harrier and retain the Tornado is about much more than savings. The RAF clearly lobbied to retire the Harrier -an aircraft the junior service has never been overly keen on – knowing full well that its retirement meant scrapping the Aircraft Carriers that carry them, and thus undermining the Navy. Land-based and naval aviation have never been easy bedfellows. A prime example would be the oft-quoted case where the RAF ‘moved’ Australia on the map to show that they could provide land based air cover anywhere in the world.

The decision to retire the Harrier was supported by Lord Craig, a former Chief of Defence Staff and Chief of the Air Staff:

“No one would wish to see them go, but under the circumstances where a decision has to be made between Tornado and Harrier and more Tornado, Tornado surely produces the better result particularly bearing in mind how many aircraft are needed to be supportive in Afghanistan.”

Craig’s argument is entirely in keeping with the RAF’s policy of maintaining its fleet of fast jets at any cost. There is no evidence to suggest that the Tornado produces better results, particularly when it is due to be replaced by the Eurofighter Typhoon soon in any case. The Harrier was designed specifically for the job of close air support for troops on the ground, such as in Afghanistan. The Tornado was designed as a Cold War fast interceptor, with the GR variant having a role in ground attack, particularly in attacking airfields. The Harrier on the other hand is more flexible, and can take off from much shorter runways. By ‘produces better results’, does Lord Craig mean that its speedometer goes slightly higher? Another example of defence chiefs looking for gold plated de luxe options when a cheaper turbo-prop counter insurgency aircraft would do the job.

The decision does seem to me to be akin to scrapping a hard-working and reliable Fiesta in order to save a few pounds to keep running an expensive Veyron. It’s amazing how we have come from a few months ago debating ‘what is the point of the RAF?’ to the present where the Royal Navy has been butchered to keep the light blue virtually intact.  Inter-service politics and single-mindedness at their worst.

Elsewhere, a survey of defence experts by the Royal United Services Institute suggests that 90% felt that the Strategic Defence and Security Review was a ‘lost opportunity’, and that Britain’s global role is now undefined and in a vacuum. The RUSI produced a wealth of research material prior to the review, most of which was completely ignored by the coalition Government. There is something bizarre about a Defence Review conducted by a couple of old Etonians (who give the impression of being as rich as Croesus but as thick as shit)  and their ‘special’ advisors, while defence analysts watch from the sidelines with dismay.

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