Wednesday 16 July 2008

SNP show their true colours

The Scottish National Party is attempting to diffuse accusations of duplicity following comments made yesterday by a candidate. John Mason, SNP candidate for Glasgow East, suggested that the party would keep on holding referendums on Scottish independence until consent was given for the split.

"When you ask someone to marry you, sometimes you have to persist" said Mason, Leader of the Opposition on Glasgow City Council, before hurriedly adding that if such a referendum was lost, the SNP would not hold a further one “the following day”.

Of course, what the SNP are proposing is not marriage but political divorce (and like many divorces, participants can occasionally indulge in exaggeration, speculation and occasionally outright deception). But the Nationalists should be cautious – on an appearance on BBC1’s Question Time earlier this month SNP Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was jeered by the Musselburgh audience over her party’s refusal to hold the promised referendum due to fears over the result – i.e. that the majority of Scottish people do not support breaking up the Union. Confirmation that the party is really not that interested in representation so much as using the parliamentary process to reinforce private hobbyhorses is unlikely to go down well at the ballot box.

Still, refreshing to see the SNP show their true duplicitous colours for once.

Monday 14 July 2008

Let’s face it – waterboarding IS torture

Despite disagreeing with him on virtually any subject you could mention, I must confess to being a fan of the contrarian author/journalist Christopher Hitchens. No matter how controversial the subject of his polemics, I regularly find it impossible not to be challenged by his arguments. Perhaps most impressively of all, he is also one of the few journalists who are prepared to put their own convictions to the test – an all-too-rare quality in the champagne socialist world of journalism dominated by the likes of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Polly Toynbee. In my opinion, it is this exact quality that is the reason that Hitchens’ latest article for Vanity Fair has caused such a stir amongst all sides of the media.

Writing in the online American journal Slate at the end of last year, Hitchens made the suggestion that “extreme interrogation” does not necessarily constitute “outright torture”. On publication of these comments, the former member of SWP pre-runner International Socialism and now apologist-in-chief for the war and current occupation of Iraq was accused of supporting the use of “waterboarding” as a means of interrogating suspects of terrorism. Challenged by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter to be put through the experience himself, Hitchens agreed to be placed in the hands of the elite U.S. Special Forces team skilled in the advanced form of training SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape).

So on a May afternoon at an undisclosed location in North Carolina, the experience began: hooded and handcuffed, Hitchens was led to a darkened room where loud techno music was being played and short sharp lights pierced the veil of his hood, before being “turned around a few times” for disorientation purposes. The journalist was then tied to sloped wooden board, facing upwards but with the head positioned lower than the heart, and several additional layers were applied over his face. A slow jet of water was then poured over this padding, tightening the damp cloths against the face to produce the stifling drowning effect, a feeling further exacerbated by the attempts of the prisoner to breathe through this layered mask. A feeling? Perhaps a more accurate description would be the drowning experience – as Hitchens himself argues, the "official lie" about waterboarding is that it "simulates the feeling of drowning", whereas in reality “you are drowning - or rather, being drowned". In the event, Hitchens managed to withstand the experience for all of eleven seconds before panic set in (a video his experience is here), a record which reads slightly more impressively when considered that trained CIA officers subjecting themselves to the same technique have lasted an average of fourteen seconds before caving in.

While the instant reaction of many to the “dunking” of the likes of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (referred to by the U.S. National Commission’s report as "the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks") would be one of disdainful brush-off, the practice by the U.S. of this procedure upon prisoners suspected of terrorism raises a number of uncomfortable questions. Quite apart from natural objections on the grounds of human dignity, this procedure has been accused of producing flimsy and unreliable “confessions” from suspects, an objection which is common to procedures more generally accepted as torturous. In demonstrating this point, Hitchens recounts the case of one such suspect being so panic-stricken by the ongoing procedure that he eventually “confessed” to being a hermaphrodite. Such accounts raise the uneasy spectre of the genuinely innocent detainee, equipped with no form of resistance training from Al-Qaeda or any other, literally being “dunked” until he provides information which he simply does not hold.

Accusations have also arisen that support for this practice – tacit or otherwise – has allowed terrorists to claim both provocation and justification for the use of (admittedly more extreme forms of) torture when dealing with Western hostages. After all, if countries which claim to be bound by Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are seen to endorse or employ such methods, what hope do coalition forces have when taken prisoner by those pariah regimes, fed on a diet of anti-Westernism? This point is brought home all the more forcefully when reminded that waterboarding was first employed by America in training Special Forces to resist such methods if taken prisoner by such an enemy – not to inflict this themselves.

As well as the obvious immediate and long-term consequences to physical health, the mental affects of a torture experience are rarely erased. To illustrate this point, Dr. Allen Keller, Director of the Bellevue/New York University Programme for Survivors of Torture, offered the following example in an interview with the New Yorker magazine of one such patient who had been waterboarded years before: “He couldn't take showers, and panicked when it rained. The fear of being killed is a terrifying experience”. As in the case of capital punishment, there is often no way back from a torture experience – a far cry from the inalienable human right against torture and cruel or unusual punishment, a definition which I find it hard not to apply to this practice. When confronted by the arguments of the anti-abolitionist movement, Abraham Lincoln once stated that “if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong”. Hitchens takes up the same moral test by arguing that “if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture. On this evidence, it is difficult not to agree.

William Hague has previously pledged to put human rights at the heart of the Conservative Party’s foreign policy. In implementing this laudable objective, a Conservative Government must be seen to provide a significantly better alternative to the hypocrisy of New Labour’s “ethical foreign policy”. Perhaps placing pressure on our American allies to discontinue this method of torture would send out the best message on the seriousness with which we as a Party and as a nation take human rights, as well as providing the starkest contrast to Labour’s record both domestically and internationally.

Monday 2 June 2008

Hillary expected to concede tomorrow

Reports from across the Atlantic have suggested that the US Primary could soon be over, with Hillary Clinton finally ready to concede the Democrat nomination to Barack Obama. The New York Senator is expected to give her formal concession following the results of the two remaining states of South Dakota and Montana who vote tomorrow. Politico reports that Hillary’s campaign team, currently spread over South Dakota, Montana and Puerto Rico, have already been informed that their roles are now effectively redundant, with staffers being given the option of either returning home or travelling to New York for her official announcement and probable endorsement of the Illinois Senator.

Senator Clinton’s withdrawal has been expected for some time, with many – including several of her own former campaign staff, plus members of her husband’s former White House team – expressing their dismay that she has continued a fight the result of which has long been considered a foregone conclusion. The final nail in Hillary’s campaign coffin appears to have been delivered by the Democrat party rules committee’s compromise agreement to split the previously inadmissible votes of Florida and Michigan, with the New York Times quoting two members of Hillary’s campaign staff that she has “come to terms with the near certainty” that she will lose out on the nomination for November’s Presidential election, following the decision. Reports had indicated that the Clinton camp were expecting as much as the full quota of the available votes.

However, while victory appears to be within Obama’s sight, it may yet prove a tainted one – despite his gaining seventeen delegates yesterday in Puerto Rico as well as widely being expected to take both remaining states, the thirty-one combined available votes will not be enough to finally carry him over the threshold of 2,118 needed to finally secure the nomination outright, and the support of superdelegates will be required to make up his current shortfall of forty seven. In addition to a long and sometimes bruising battle for both Clinton and Obama, this result must be music to the ears of Republicans, who will now point to the latter’s inability to win a clear elected majority among his own party, let alone the country. For this reason, both Harry Reid (Democrat Senate Majority Leader) and Nancy Pelosi (Speaker of the House of Representatives), are reported to have been contacting as-yet uncommitted superdelegates to support Obama as soon as the results have been declared, if only to avoid accusations of a wounded candidate before the election proper has even begun.

As for Clinton, the nature of the contest appears to rule out any prospect of a “dream ticket” with her running alongside Obama for VP, for the reason that the two contenders sharing a platform would provide a regular public reminder of both the often bitter campaign between pair, and the extremely narrow margin of his victory. In addition, Clinton is not known for playing a happy second-fiddle, and her recent comments appearing to allude to an assassination may have given Team Obama the perfect excuse for Clinton to be passed over a second time. Instead, this author expects her to retreat back to New York where she will gracefully endorse the Illinois Senator, before ploughing herself back into her Senatorial career – probably picking up Ted Kennedy’s mantle as the party’s all-star liberal lion. In doing so, this could place her in prime position for a second run at the prize in 2012 should Obama fall to McCain in November’s election, or in 2016 should he prove successful.

So the Clinton story continues, with the only question that remains is whether Obama can overcome the slings and arrows sustained during the most closely fought Primary in recent memory, or if such previous attacks have presented John McCain with a crucial advantage in the fight for the White House.

The battle is over, let war commence.

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Hillary ready to concede?

According to two separate sources, Hillary Clinton is currently preparing her concession speech.

Hopelessly behind Barack Obama following a series of disappointing results in a campaign which was supposedly due to conclude in her favour back in February, Ms Rodham/Clinton has remained in the contest in the hope of persuading a majority of the unelected (and unaccountable) superdelegates over to her cause at the Democrat convention in Denver.

However accusations from several senior Democrats that her continuation in a lost contest is causing only further division in an already fraught contest, jeopardising the party’s chances at the Presidential race in November, have not helped her cause. It also seems that her gaffe last week, in which she suggested that a reason fro her to remain in the contest was in case of Obama’s assassination, appears to have proved the final nail in her campaign coffin.

It now appears that Hillary will return to New York to prepare for a run either in 2016 (if Obama wins the Presidency), or 2012 (if he is unsuccessful).

More details to follow.

Friday 23 May 2008

A leadership challenge to Brown?

News just in – following Labour’s dismal collapse in the Crewe and Natwich by-election, Graham Stringer MP has called for a leadership challenge to Gordon Brown to prevent a "disastrous" election in 2010.

"Is it more damaging for the party to change the leader or cross our fingers and hope that things get better?" the Manchester MP told BBC Online.

Alan Simpson MP has also weighed in, warning Brown that he has until the end of the year to turn things around, or face deposition.

This development follows soundings from within Westminster that either Charles Clarke or Alan Milburn, both uber-Blairites with Cabinet experience, could make a stalking horse challenge to encourage a more heavyweight challenger such as David Miliband, Alan Johnson or even Brown’s first lieutenant Ed Balls, to enter the fray.

This blogger has consistently held that Brown would be safe, at least until the next election, on the basis that seventy MPs would need to sign a motion calling for a challenge – a considerable hurdle deliberately placed to reduce damaging contests – and the fact that Labour would look ridiculous deposing its leader less than a year after unanimously electing him.

However, with tumbling polls and this latest humiliating by-election defeat, it’s no wonder that Labour MPs with less than secure majorities are beginning to get tetchy.

This could get messy…

Friday 16 May 2008

Fixed term Parliaments due to fail at Second Reading

You’ve just got to love them, don’t you? Possibly taking advantage of Gordon Brown’s willingness to return many of the executive powers so freely exercised by his predecessor, the Liberal Democrats have tabled a Bill to remove the sitting Prime Minister’s right to call an election at any point within his term, and replacing this with fixed four-year term Parliaments.

Strange that the Dim Lebs of all people should have decided they oppose the current system – if Brown had stuck to his guns and called the election last Autumn, it would have most likely spelt electoral meltdown for the Yellow Streak, led by the hopelessly ineffectual and charisma-free Menzies Campbell. Now with the more voter friendly (though as yet, barely more effective) Nick Clegg at the helm, Britain’s fourth party may at least plug the gaps and live to fight another election.

The Conservative Party have not altogether ruled out looking at fixed-term elections in the future, but have highlighted that early elections are at times appropriate. For example, “in the case of a prime minister who says he's going to serve a full third term and then doesn't I think it's appropriate to hold an election, because the people voted for one thing and then got something completely different" suggested Teresa May.

Yet the current system is “unfair and inefficient” said the party’s Justice spokesman, David Howarth. Unfair possibly, since this clearly gives the Government party the opportunity to assess the electoral winds for the most favourable time, but inefficient? The UK has not proportionally had any greater or fewer elections than any other democratic state in the EU since the Second World War, save the dual-election year of 1976 – and given the strikes and civil strife taking place that year, this was surely such an example of where a renewed mandate was necessary.

The likelihood of this Bill to pass to Third Reading is pretty remote in any case, but you would think that a party with aspirations of Government would have higher priorities at this time.

Tuesday 29 April 2008

Kate Backs Boris

Following last week’s piece on Kate Hoey’s last minute withdrawal from a “Back Boris” event in her constituency of Vauxhall, Boris Johnson announced this morning on LBC Radio that Ms Hoey would join his mayoral administration as a non-executive Director with the responsibility for promoting competitive sport and monitoring preparations for the 2012 Olympics.

As a former Minister for Sport, this could be the perfect role for quintessential Londoner Ms Hoey, though the ramifications for her amongst Labour colleagues could be huge. Under usual circumstances, such collaboration with an Opposition candidate would immediately result in a withdrawal of the party whip. However, with Labour flagging in the polls, a Prime Minister out of touch even to his own MPs, and the only clear policy announcements being a stubborn persistence with the very policies which have alienated the party from its core vote, Labour might well need Ms Hoey more than she needs them.

Rumours have persisted that she has previously come close to crossing the Rubicon and joining the Conservatives, though has never quite made the full jump. But with Brown’s administration going into meltdown, Ms Hoey may well feel that now is the time to walk.

(Hat tip: Iain Dale)