Sunday, December 31, 2006

An important milestone on the road to losing any vestigial moral high ground

Upon hearing yesterday morning that Saddam Hussein had been executed, I was surprised at my main emotional response to the news. I was partly surprised, as I had not expected that the sentence would be carried out so promptly. After all, I had expected that he would actually be present at the ongoing trial surrounding events at Al-Anfal. Not that there’s much doubt that he was indeed responsible for the death of 180,000 Kurds in 1987-88, it’s just that surely the point of such a trial is to make the guilty party face up to his crimes, and to send out the message that such behaviour will not be tolerated or go unpunished. There’s nothing much the court can do to redress the situation, and in my mind and that of many others, it’s not the business of the courts to facilitate revenge. Obviously, not everyone shares that view.

I had rather expected that my first thought would be “Well done, it couldn’t have happened to a nastier chap”, or something along those lines. Only it wasn’t. The emotions that the news of Saddam’s demise stirred up were anger mixed with shame. The two often go hand in hand. The anger comes from the fact that the entire process leading to Saddam Hussein’s arrest, trial and execution has been a complete travesty. I don’t want to once again bring up a topic that never fails to lead to an intractable argument, so let’s say that the circumstances leading to his arrest were at the very least of dubious legality. What is beyond doubt is that the arrest warrant, if you will, was for being under suspicion of possessing weapons of mass destruction, which has proved to be a trumped-up charge on the part of the UK government. Alternately, as far as the US government is concerned, it was for being an accomplice to Al-Qaeda and associates, which was also utter tripe. It isn’t as if there weren’t any other charges that they could have made stick.

Of course, because of the uncertainty over the legal standing of the circumstances leading to Hussein’s arrest, he had to be tried in a “special Iraqi court”, not by an international one as are other suspected war criminals and their illustrious brethren such as Slobodan Milosevic. No matter how nasty a man Saddam was, he deserved a fair trial as much as anyone else, and there was no chance at all of such a thing happening in Iraq. Of course, that was his own fault for having given just about everyone in Iraq a reason to want to see him dangling, but the desire for revenge is different from justice, even if the practical end result is arguably the same. To be fair, the Iraqi court did a remarkable job given the almost impossible circumstances in which the trial took place: several of Saddam’s lawyers were assassinated for example.

But the fact remains that the outcome of it all was that Saddam was sentenced to death and executed with the complicity of the US and UK governments. All the talk of letting the Iraqi people judge Saddam as they see fit without outside intervention is transparent nonsense. It’s just George Bush and Tony Blair washing their hands of the situation unconvincingly. Of course, George Bush doesn’t have to care quite so much about this. He governs the only real democracy in the world to regularly execute so many of its’ citizens. Capital punishment isn’t so much of a political hot potato in the US as it is in Europe. But here, it’s anathema, at least it’s meant to be. The EU makes it a requirement for membership that capital punishment should be abolished. It’s just a fundamental human right. But it would seem that it’s only a human right for people like us, a group of which membership is subject to fluctuating criteria. Margaret Beckett, on behalf of the British government, said that “the British government does not support the use of the death penalty, in Iraq or anywhere else. We advocate an end to the death penalty worldwide, regardless of the individual or the crime. ‘We have made our position very clear to the Iraqi authorities, but we respect their decision as that of a sovereign nation.’”

This is quite obviously a cop-out. You have to be singularly naïve to believe that the Iraqi government can’t be influenced by the US or the UK.

The main problem with the outcome of this miserable mini-epic is not that Saddam’s dead, or that he didn’t deserve it. No one much regrets his passing. This will have no discernible impact on what people still amusingly refer to as “the security situation” in Iraq. Saddam Hussein hasn’t mattered in this conflict since he went into hiding in April 2003. The problem is that this is the schematic version of events leading up to this: The US and the UK invade Iraq and arrest Saddam on trumped-up charges. He is then tried by a kangaroo rat court with the collusion of the US and the UK who unconvincingly claim that it’s nothing to do with them. He is then sentenced to death and executed with the complicity of at least on government that opposes the death penalty. Where’s the moral high ground that it supposed to provide us with the justification for using violence against countries when we oppose it when used by anyone else? Why on earth would anyone listen to a word we say any more? Why would they pay lip service to all our admonestations on human rights and democracy?

George Bush says of Saddam’s death that “it is an important milestone on Iraq's course to becoming a democracy”. Well I suppose that’s one interpretation of what democracy is supposed to be. It’s not one that the Militant Pine Marten shares though.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Why not make ID cards out of sew-on fabric, in the shape of stars?

In the past couple of months, those of us who flatter ourselves that we are members of the group disparagingly referred to as “the Liberati” by the now – possibly temporarily - retired David Blunkett, then Home Secretary, have been tempted to delude ourselves into believing rumours that the National Identity Register project was suffocating under its’ own weight. Leaks from Whitehall suggested that the word on the Civil Service street was that spiralling costs and technical difficulties, combined with the Government’s ongoing ineptitude when it comes to implementing large IT projects would result in the whole wretched endeavour being shelved. It was tempting to heave a tentative sigh of relief, to take a step back and think that we’d won, the whole scheme was being sunk by the Government’s hubris. However at a speech at the Institute of Public Policy research, Home Office Minister Liam Byrne reassured us that there has been no such change of tack. The scheme may be more expensive than expected (well, not really expected so much as wishful costed) and experience some teething problems, but it’s still going ahead, albeit maybe in little baby steps rather than in leaps and bounds.

As of last week, anyone over 16 years of age applying for their first UK passport will still be summoned to an “interview centre” and have all their details recorded on the National Identity Register, which is the iceberg under the cards, even if ID cards themselves are not due to make an appearance until 2008. Initially, they won’t be carried by UK citizens but by people that are either resented by the natives, or ignored, namely foreigners. The Pine Marten associates with a motley collection of these rogues, and although they are generally sympathetic to its’ opposition to the scheme, they do tend to think that at the end of the day, they’re not actually affected by all this. Thanks to Liam Byrne, the Pine Marten has the distinctly unpleasant task of telling them that they are in fact, completely wrong. As of April 2008, all foreign nationals wishing to live in the UK for more than three months, including EU nationals, will have the pleasure of being the first UK residents to be "interviewed”, fingerprinted, scanned and issued with ID Cards. Welcome to the UK!

Singling out foreign nationals as guinea pigs is politically pretty astute. First of all, most people arriving in the UK will not realise that this isn’t normal, that UK residents do not carry ID cards, and therefore they probably won’t make a fuss. As they’re all from different places rather than a single hazy "abroad", they probably won’t discuss it amongst themselves much. From UK citizens’ perspective well, most probably won’t care, so the scheme will be tested in a low-key sort of way, to make sure that it’s ready to go live on a bigger scale. Many of those who do care about such things don’t really like foreigners coming to the UK anyway, and if they’re not sure, they can always be told that this will keep out benefit scroungers, health tourists, illegal immigrants, asylum seekers or whatever other savages the Home Office, the media or UKIP and their ilk decide are the unpalatable flavour of the month.

(Incidentally, has anyone else noticed that the United Kingdom Passport Service is now called the United Kingdom Identity and Passport Service or UKIPs? Coincidence probably, but also maybe a deliberate clue left by an understatedly dissident civil servant).

There are three main points that flow from this in addition to the standard arguments surrounding the scheme. The first is admittedly paranoid, but it does seem that the Home Office is particularly adept at giving everyone a false sense of security about the National Identity Register. It’s not beyond the realm of fantasy to think that leaks regarding the possible landing in the long grass of the scheme were not entirely unplanned. What is more certain is that the singling out of foreign nationals as an ideal test group for the introduction of ID cards is underhanded and manipulative. The second point is of a more symbolic significance: singling out an unpopular minority with neither the means nor the knowledge to defend itself on a tide of popular scapegoating is practice with a long and despicable history. It is deeply worrying that UK citizens live in a state that has no qualms about using such means. This is callous and morally repulsive both to UK citizens and to foreign nationals, hundreds of thousands of which have lived in the country for many years, mostly without being treated as second-rate residents. Finally, the shrill voices that make such a deception on behalf of government effective are always loud and forceful, their arguments as simple as they are flawed. But they’re not the majority. The majority are those who do not oppose ID cards actively because they do not think it will affect them, and so they don’t speak up, they don’t act. And if they don’t, they’ll find themselves wearing metaphorical sew-on stars on their metaphorical lapels before they can say “police state”.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Darius Cameron stalks Blairshazzar’s throne, Iznogoud prepares his bid for the Caliphate.

It’s been a while since the Militant Pine Marten last piped up, but since it is mostly concerned with politics, and that for the duration of the summer the politicians have by and large been more concerned with their suntans, it decided to take a leaf out of their forest and do very much the same. Besides, since any theoretical readers will mostly have been enjoying their holidays rather than scanning these pixels at their office desks, there was really very little incentive to engage with the wider world. However, it is now September, and as millions of children endure the collective annual trauma of returning to school after a season of freedom, and as we return from attempting to recapture the feeling that they have just lost albeit for a shorter period and with a much lower likelihood of success, so have the politicians also resumed their posts. And so once again, the Militant Pine Marten must prick its’ little mustelid ears and hold forth on what it hears.

On both sides of the Channel, jostling for position as inevitably the tenures of two political heavyweights come to an end, although these two face the inevitable differently. The chief difference in the current situations of Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair is that whereas the date of the former’s retirement is set by the French Constitution, the latter does not seem to have yet come to terms with what must come to pass. But then, the current Prime Minister has never shown any inclination towards relinquishing any sort of power, and it was always quite clear that he would never leave Downing Street with good grace. Indeed, the alleged pact between Blair and Brown for an eventual orderly transfer of power has always struck the Pine Marten as self-delusion on the part of the Brown camp and Blairophobes. And so Blair desperately seeks to avoid the topic, like countless children last Sunday evening, who upon being told to prepare their satchels and go to bed early covered their ears and shouted “La-la-la! I’m not listening!”, and as the volume of their parents’ voices rose, so did their cries to drown out this new intruding, unwanted sound. “I’M NOT GOING! I’M NOT GOING! I still have other very important things to do!”. Only Tony isn’t referring to one last game or one last cartoon, what he has in mind is, in now typical, self-caricaturing style, one last paranoid, sinister plan to rid Britain of the scourge of yet-unborn juvenile delinquents. But the writing’s on the wall for Tony Blair, he just refuses to ask for a translation.

Outside the walls of Babylon, Darius Cameron may well be poised to set his Patrician behind on Blairshazzar’s vacated throne. He comes not at the head of a mighty host, but armed with pleasant sounding platitudes, vague proposals, and chubby shiny glowing cheeks. In fact, he’s really quite reminiscent of the Old King in an earlier incarnation. This is the new Tory house style: smiles, cheerios and sweetly scented hot air. Perhaps the finest illustration of the new prevailing mood was young Georgy Porgy Osborne’s rather disarmingly charming boyish enthusiasm for magnetic levitation railways. Frankly, maglev trains and scrapping ID cards is starting to look like quite an attractive set of policies. In fact, if the Tories are serious about this, and we have no reason to suspect this of course, it almost makes sense. Take the money earmarked for universal State surveillance, and use it for maglev railways! There are far worse ways of spanking away enormous sums of taxpayer’s money. Just make sure to bring over some Japanese and Chinese engineers to design and build the network.

That last suggestion would no doubt not be very palatable to some of Nicolas Sarkozy’s young supporters who appear to have confused his address to the UMP’s Youth organisation with a rock concert. Indeed, the event was blessed with the hallowed presence of Johnny Halliday himself, and even the rapper Doc Gynéco. Serious street cred there. Although it’s going to take all of the good doctor’s lyrical expertise to convert to Sarko’s cause those that the Great Pretender wished so famously to hose into the gutter.

The content of Sarkozy’s harangue was disappointing. Part of his appeal has always been that he was seen as a man of innovation, indeed he himself never tires of claiming that he would be the candidate of “rupture”, or fresh beginnings (and there’s Blair’s legacy by the way: all that “sweeping away the ashes of past”, “moving boldly into a Brave New World”, “a modern, forward-looking country”, that’s what will remain, together with the utter vacuity of such rhetoric). The problem is that what he has outlined in his speech is a simple old-fashioned backward-looking rightwing, nationalistic programme: “no” to gay weddings and adoption, strict immigration controls, compulsory “civic service”, and repeated invocations of the Heroic Youth of 14-18, the Heroic Resistance, and other venerated ancestor spirits. Finally, on the one area that really requires a little vision, a little daring, not to say a little sensitivity, that of cultural integration of the French of immigrant origins, he resorted to old-fashioned monolithic Republican dogma. “France is your Fatherland and you have no other, even if your parents and grandparents came from elsewhere”. The Militant Pine Marten happens to be in a position to claim authoritatively that it is perfectly possible to have two “fatherlands”, to have two cultures, to be not without solid roots, but to have two sets of them, each as strong as the other. Arguably, it makes for a healthier tree. But it does not appear that Sarkozy is a great one for multiculturalism. In today’s France, a president with that degree of shortsightedness would be positively dangerous.

One way or another, it’s going to be an interesting political year on both sides of the Channel, although the calibre of those that would replace those currently in power is not particularly reassuring. Hopefully, by the time all the aforementioned schoolchildren come to vote, we will have left them with some worthier candidates.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Forget Prescott’s free houses: what about the free Hawses?

There is a story that although given coverage in the media over the past week or so has been covered in a semi-jocular style, the sort of news story that one might expect to be dug up to fill up sparsely filled columns during the proto-silly season. Although it is indeed amusing in the sense that it’s barely believable, it is in fact not funny at all, it’s deadly serious and rather frightening. At least, it should worry you if you stop to consider its’ implications. The Militant Pine Marten refers of course to the forced removal of Brian Haw’s one-man protest from Parliament Square. Briefly, for anyone who missed it, Brian Haw has been camping in Parliament Square since June 2001, protesting against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Irrespective of your position on these, he’s pretty harmless. He’s just a tenacious pacifist who wants to share his views. Last week, 70 police officers descended on Parliament Square at the unsociable hour of about 2.30am and removed his display, citing new powers emanating from the brand new Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005.

Now one could argue that a one-man pacifist protest does not constitute Serious Organised Crime, or indeed crime of any form as we understand it, and it doesn’t seem particularly organised, although the “perpetrator” and the subject of his protest, war, are pretty serious. I’ve been through the Act, and it does singularly fail to define what ”serious organised crime” is exactly, something that could turn out to be a bit of an oversight. The corporate body in charge of fighting serious organised crime that is created by this bill is called SOCA, and its’ functions are:

(a) preventing and detecting serious organised crime, and

(b) contributing to the reduction of such crime in other ways and to the mitigation of its consequences.

All reasonable enough, after all most non-gangsters aren’t particularly in favour of kidnapping, drug trafficking and so on, which one would presume to be the beef of what SOCA will be fighting against. However this is not necessarily the case as the Act also stipulates that:

(3) Despite the references to serious organised crime in section 2(1), SOCA may carry on activities in relation to other crime if they are carried on for the purposes of any of the functions conferred on SOCA by section 2 or 3.

I’m not a lawyer, but it seems to me that what this means is that SOCA can pretty decide what constitutes “serious organised crime”. Those are pretty sweeping powers there.

To be fair, this act is not only about serious organised crime, it also has an entire section of general new police powers tacked onto the end of it, and this is where we find the bits that allowed them to demolish Brian Haw’s camping site, under PART 4 - PUBLIC ORDER AND CONDUCT IN PUBLIC PLACES ETC. - Demonstrations in vicinity of Parliament. However this entire section was included as an afterthought in the Act because essentially, Tony Blair didn’t like having to drive past a reminder that many in the UK disapproved of his handling of Iraq, and as Peter Hain, that onetime Leftwing firebrand said, the placards and Haw himself are a bit of an “eyesore”. Last October, after heckler Walter Wolfgang was ejected from the Labour Party conference for heckling Tony Blair over the war, the Prime Minister comforted him as he was being manhandled out of the room by shouting that he could make his protest, and should be jolly grateful for that. He flashed one of his famous winning smiles while he said. Why was he in such a good mood? After all the famous Bambi look has rather faded away in recent years and been replaced with Shere Khan’s menacing grin. Well because he knew that pretty soon, people like old Walter Wolfgang would find it rather harder to make their protest heard. Not anywhere near anyone who mattered anyway.

Now this all seems hilariously unlikely. These events are dismissed as slip-ups, officials reacting in a somewhat over-the-top way from time to time. After all, Tony apologised to Mr Wolfgang. But these aren’t one-off events, these are just high-profile events in an ongoing pattern of stifling dissent, curbing free speech, increasing the police’s repressive powers. The ID cards scheme is a part of this, and the many people who claim that it really doesn’t worry them because they’re not planning on breaking the law should remember that the law changes. One minute you think you’re heckling, the next you’re being arrested under the Terrorism Act. You may be exercising your proud right to free speech outside the Mother of All Parliaments one night when a load of policemen turn up and inform you that you may well be engaged in “Serious Organised Crime”.

Gordon Brown has of late been championing a National British Day and has kindly asked the People which day they’re most proud of, and it turns out to be the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. A frankly excellent choice. But coming from a government that brazenly takes such excessive measures to silence its’ citizens, this is like the worst kind of hypocrisy.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Year of the Pine Marten

It’s been just over a year since I started this blog, with no particular aim in mind. There had just been a lot of people who had asked me if I wrote one, or said that I should, and since blogging had become the new rock’n’roll, I thought that I might as well try it. I didn’t really have in mind any specific agenda, although I did and obviously still have a few axes to grind or simply areas that I find interesting and may well seem absolutely pointless to everyone else. One year later, I thought I’d take stock of where the Militant Pine Marten has arrived, what trees it’s climbed, what areas it has recolonised, how many birds’ nests it has devastated.

A quick scan of the archives reveals what this site has turned out to be about. Of thirty-seven published articles, about a dozen have been about civil liberties and terrorism, and more to the point the assault on the former under the pretence of fighting the latter. Three have been on the Byzantine manoeuvring on both sides of the channel as political vipers slither for position around moribund administrations on both sides of the Channel. That hasn’t been an edifying spectacle. So far, I think that France has the edge on the UK in this regard, but current events suggests that the Skulduggery Cup may change hands very shortly indeed. A further three articles have been on the EU and Europe in general, although admittedly there may be some who thought that the last one was about mushroom hunting. Which it was. Amongst other things.

Casual racism masquerading as common sense has faced a couple of mustelid denunciations, but I admit that it may have seemed to some that one of those was about bears. Other topics have included religion, education, capital punishment, the Iranian situation, civil disobedience, the Queen and her choice of newspapers, and recently a greater focus on what some term the social fracture, particularly in France where they’re more given to discussing things in such grandiloquent terms.

So I suppose that a year on, if someone asks me what the Militant Pine Marten is about, I might have to say that it centres on civil liberties, comparative Franco-British and European politics, with to some degree a thread of idealistic altruism throughout. I might also add that maybe what gives the Pine Marten a distinctive flavour is a dusting of whimsy. That’s what I might say. One of my artist friends however just says that “it’s quite an anarchistic website”, a comment that highlights the gap between my own perception and intention and that of the (thinly spread) world at large.

I have bothered to write over the past year for several reasons. An important one is that it has forced me to structure my thoughts in order to be able to convey them in pixels. In this way my ideas have grown clearer if not necessarily any better, and how they have evolved even over such a short time has become apparent. I also think that in years to come, I may be glad of a written record of what I used to think of some the salient and not-so-salient issues of the time. This will be useful, as it should stop me from lecturing younger people about how daft and wishy-washy they are. Finally, I don’t think that I would bother with this if I didn’t think that from time to time, someone would read what I had to say and possibly even like it (I’ll take the opportunity to thank all the people who bothered to argue about the death penalty). I suspect that vanity is an inherent part of any creative activity, and the Militant Pine Marten certainly isn’t above a little light narcissism.

This is the thirty-seventh post on this site, and by the standards of most blogs, that’s really not very many at all. Partly as a result of this, this blog isn’t exactly one of the great cybercrowd-pullers. On the other hand, most blogs don’t survive more than six months as the authors discover that it requires commitment, that it’s pretty thankless, and that maybe they don’t have that much to say. In this respect I have been very fortunate in that, if the Militant Pine Marten’s Blogotov Cocktail hasn’t exactly set the Blogosphere ablaze, there have been a couple of bright candle stubs. Very early on, attention was drawn to this site by the now sadly defunct Shot-by-Both-Sides (although John B is back in the saddle here!), and two articles were included in Tim Worstall’s excellent Britblog Roundup (first here, then here. I am also grateful to Tim for including my second ever article in his anthology of 2005 British Blogs (still available through the link to the left), which gave the Pine Marten a confidence boost. More recently, the Militant Pine Marten took its first tentative steps out of the online forest and was quoted in print on the second page of the Guardian (“Today on the web – The Queen at 80”, Friday April 21st 2006).

Utterly chuffed by these small triumphs, the Militant Pine Marten is now convinced that it’s well worth continuing with this exercise. If anyone is still reading this, thanks for taking the time. We’ll see how this has evolved in May 2007!

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Royals are a bunch of Plebs

For a long time, the Militant Pine Marten has refrained from discussing the Monarchy, whether as a political institution, or with regards to the individuals that compose the current Royal Family. I’ve been happy to leave them alone, and they’ve presumably been quite happy being totally oblivious of this. There are two reasons for which I haven’t said anything on the topic. The first is that I’m not very interested, the second is that I’ve always considered that it didn’t really matter what we call a head of state who has been stripped of any real political power. There are moral arguments against having a hereditary head of state that are solid, but in terms of any real impact, it doesn’t matter if you call a powerless figurehead a queen, a Lord Protector or a president. The financial argument is to all intents and purposes nonsense. The Queen cost the UK government £36.6m in 2004-2005 which is approximately five minutes of government spending. Probably. Anyway, I don’t believe for one second that if they abolished the Monarchy, they wouldn’t squander the money immediately on some other ill-advised scheme. It’s a drop in the budgetary ocean. So I came to the conclusion some years ago that if people want a queen, they should have a queen, and if somehow that does create some sense of cultural identity, then so much the better. My God, I even said that to David Dimbleby on live television for the Golden Jubilee. I actually told the Masses that I was in favour of the Monarchy for reasons of cultural identity. I was going to develop the point but some loud Scottish girl who wanted to become famous by shouting on TV interrupted my flow (incidentally if you’re ever on some live TV “debate”, make sure beforehand that you can put your point across in four seconds or less, otherwise it won’t happen).

So why have I suddenly changed my little mustelid mind? Well in today’s Le Monde, I discovered something that just blew the seal that was keeping a lid on any hostile feelings I may have had against the Monarchy: every day, the Queen reads The Daily Mail. The Daily Mail, for God’s sake. I can understand that the Monarch is quite likely to hold quite conservative views. You can hardly expect Elisabeth II to be a member of the Socialist Worker’s Party, but then I also expect my heads of state to be a little more enlightened than the 25% of British voters who would consider voting for the BNP. I would at least expect Her Majesty to make an effort to compare and contrast a few different sources. In fact, I’m sure that there are a lot of civil servants whose job it is to make sure that she knows everything that she needs to know. But when left to her own devices, she obtains her news from The Daily Mail.

On the other hand, why should we expect even-handedness and a healthy appetite for a little regular intellectual curiosity from Mrs Windsor? If we take a step back from the current monarch for a second to take in the entire Saxe-Coburg-Gotha tribe, why on earth would we expect anything else? Because if you take away the carriages, the ermine lining, the clipped speech, the pomp and the circumstance, something very remarkable becomes apparent: the Royals are just a load of very rich and very posh chavs. They are in fact the poshest chavs in Britain, probably also Europe, arguably the world. You may think that this is an oxymoron, but it isn’t. Consider the following. The Queen does in fact read one other paper: The Racing Post. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it just shows that one of her main preoccupations is really just the same as all the people who check their lottery numbers or football pools regularly.

The Queen and her ancestors for the past few generations have paid people to add to the Royal Collection on their behalf because essentially, they don’t know anything about art, and I suspect are very much of the school of thought that admits this but also insists that they know what they like. And what they like is having a great big art collection because that’s what people like them should do. For goodness’ sake, how nouveau riche is paying someone to demonstrate taste on your behalf? I don’t wish to sound snobbish, but then if you accuse me of snobbery for deriding the Windsors, you expose yourself to ridicule.

The Royal Collection may be the most onerous and flagrant demonstration of Royal chavery, but there are plenty of others. There’s the appalling schooling record of these people for a start. I’ll let Elisabeth off the hook on this one because in her day, well-brought up young ladies weren’t necessarily encouraged by their parents to become what they disparagingly called “blue stockings”, but the men have no excuse, particularly the little Waleses. Andrew had to switch courses from History of Art while at university. Harry at least had the honesty to admit that he was a bit of a donkey by joining the Army (incidentally I rather approve of this: it seems to me that the whole point of aristocracy originally was to selectively breed people to fight, and in the light of that, Harry may actually have made a sensible choice).

To summarise, the Royals are ignorant and vulgar and the Queen is open to the suggestion that Captain Euro will eat her corgis. Still, I’ve always considered that beyond the age of 80 years, people should be allowed to say whatever they like no matter how offensive or ridiculous. This pine marten certainly intends to be outrageously cantankerous and embarrassing in old age. With that in mind, and particularly because for her entire life the Queen has scrupulously avoided expressing an opinion on anything of any consequence, I would like to wish Her Majesty a very happy 80th birthday. And as of Friday morning, I want to hear regular outpourings of pent-up rightwing bile. Albeit beautifully pronounced.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

French youth has been cheated, excluded from the "Republican Dream"

There has been quite a shocking amount of inkletting in the wake of the ongoing events both on the streets and in the circles of power around the proposed introduction of the Contrat de Premier Embauche (CPE) in France. In the French press, this has mostly been in the form of agonised soul-searching, except where it’s been a lot of vitriol, from both sides it has to be said. In the English-speaking press, there’s been quite a bit of commentary of the " condemns French strike action and calls for lazy frogs to get back to work!", but that’s only to be expected. Obviously not all analysis has been that simplistic, but there has been a certain degree of perplexity expressed as to why French youth and trade unions have been so steadfastedly and sometimes violently opposed a measure that purports to improve their chances of employment.

If all that French youth wants is a fair chance of a career, retirement and a decent pension like their parents, why the rejection of the CPE? Well in a nutshell, because it doesn’t offer them anything like a fair chance, and perhaps above that, because of near-universal fury at the high-handed way in which Dominique de Villepin set about implementing this pet project of his, at least partly to further his own political machinations. The CPE was foisted on France with no consultation of any interested parties, de Villepin having chosen to disregard the advice of just about all of his entourage and to go back on his earlier promise that no changes to employment legislation would be made without a preliminary dialogue. There was no real case for it. A similar and more measured new contract, the Contrat Nouvelle Embauche (CNE) was introduced in late 2005 and it is too early to measure its impact. For all that anyone knows, that may yet achieve just as much as any legal tinkering is ever likely to without attempting to address the underlying causes of the problem. The only explanations for this extraordinary lapse in political judgements are personal and of course basely political. Politically, this fits into the ongoing rivalry between the Prime Minister and Nicolas Sarkozy to secure the UMP candidacy for the 2007 Presidential elections. Sarkozy is always presenting himself as an energetic man of action with the drive and tenacity to push through tough reforms. “Qu’à cela ne tienne!” says de Villepin. He can be an unflinching strong man too, and he will make his stand on the CPE. On a more personal level, de Villepin is a great admirer of Napoleon (you have a choice in France if you’re in right-wing politics: Napoleon or De Gaulle, who in turn both thought that they were Louis XIVth), an Enarque, a technocrat. He’s not really a politician, he was appointed to the job from where he belongs, which is the Civil Service. He isn’t used to having to please anyone, and certainly not to have to account to the Street, let alone when it’s full of layabout students and Pinkos. He certainly never expected to have to pay much attention to the whining of “les Jeunes”. It’s not that he doesn’t care about their plight, it’s just that he wishes that they’d just recognise that it would be much better if they’d just let clever people like him decide what’s best for them because decisions like this are better left to grown-ups. And frankly, to people like him who went through the gruelling French Republican cursus honorum that has been delivering technocrats to run the country for a couple of centuries now. Which is an understandable opinion to have if you’re a civil servant, but not if you’re a Prime Minister. When you’re the Prime Minister you keep opinions like that to yourself and ask for guidance on how to handle the Masses from all the real politicians around you.

Out on the streets, the collective attitudinal landscape shapes behaviour. Essentially, the French young feel they’ve been lied to, stitched up and that the Government doesn’t care, so they have to make them care. There’s a long and illustrious history of effective people power in France (something to be proud of I think), there’s a strong tendency to default Bolshiness and there is undeniably an unfortunate tradition of political street violence (whatever you think of that, it’s ingrained in people’s minds, both the CRS – “On va casser du Bougnoule!/du Communiste!/de l’étudiant!” etc. – and the demonstrators – “CRS! SS!” and so on). The Lie is what they have been told since they were born, and it’s a part of Republican Dogma, France’s substitute state religion. This is how Republican life is supposed to pan out: wherever you are born and in whatever background, the Republic will ensure that every generation goes a few floors higher on the social lift. The Laic, Free and Compulsory School will give everyone the same opportunities. All you need to do is work hard at education for as long as you need to. This is why French teenagers hear the expression “Passe ton Bac d’abord” as a mantra to stop them from falling off the Republican bandwagon. And why the Baccalauréat results are posted in public places in July, deciding whether your parents will bore everyone they meet during the summer senseless boasting of your results, or whether shame will descend on the family. Baccalauréat results will determine where you stand in the pecking order of Grandes Ecoles which will produce the Republic’s elite for those who can stay the course. Entrance is by competitive examinations seemingly inspired by Imperial China. It’s pretty much identical to the Japanese system. When you’ve been through all that, you will have arrived in Republican Nirvana and you can relax. You see, paradoxically, the Republican Dream is both properly egalitarian and democratic, and yet totally elitist. And most importantly, it’s no longer real. The belief has gone, and everyone is undergoing a crisis of secular faith, be it the youths on the Street or the Prime Minister. It’s quite possible that Jacques Chirac’s spectacular and rapid loss of political mojo is due to the equivalent of a priest losing his belief in God.

The results of all this upheaval surrounding the CPE is that it’s been kicked into touch: Chirac’s intervention may have enabled de Villepin to just about save face, but his project’s dead in the water, and has been in effect taken out of his hands. Sarkozy, who is a proper political player, discreetly put the word out that he had nothing to do with the CPE. In a particularly skilful and understated display of political skulduggery, once the outcome was all but know, he unctuously pledged his support to de Villepin’s idea, the vindictive little snake. The Street has prevented the implementation of a measure which would essentially have amounted to institutionalised discrimination against the young, with which there would have been precious little Fraternité, Absolutely no Egalité, and without those prerequisites there isn’t much Liberté to do very much.

A poor attempt at patching over some cracks may have been avoided, but no one has seriously attempted to deal with the problem. Without a doubt, unemployment and particularly youth unemployment is France’s biggest problem, and some flexibility in the labour market would certainly help. But it has to be flexibility for everyone, not just flexibility for the under 26s. De Villepin’s attempt to preserve the economic security of the older electorate by taking hostage the under 26s is frankly despicable, and he will be punished for it. Unfortunately, at the moment, the only real beneficiary appears to be Sarkozy, and he’s not one of the world’s great listeners either.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

A nuclear Iran may be peace for our time

There is an unpalatable truth that we in general and Washington in particular have to swallow, and it's that if Iran wants nuclear weapons, it's going to acquire them. In an ideal world, it would be better that Iran didn't have nuclear capability, or at least it would reassuring, but that's no longer a realistic option, always assuming that Iran's claims to want only civilian nuclear installations is hokum. Frankly, if you were in the Iranian government, you'd want nukes too. Iran is now surrounded by American bases in Central Asia, Turkey and now of course Iraq. The USA is quite clearly hostile to Tehran and the two countries haven't even been civil to each other for twenty-seven years. Admittedly Iran started it by taking the US embassy's staff hostage in 1979, but nevertheless, the two countries are no longer on speaking terms and they won't be until something changes radically in the political landscape. The USA is also a demonstrably bellicose power that will tolerate no threat to its desired hegemony. Iran is a permanent thorn in the US' side in this respect since it is the most influential power in the USA's petrol station and its influence has only been increased by the Iraqi adventure. But in the aftermath of the Cold War, there is one constant in geopolitics: no-one tries it on with a nuclear-armed country: just look at North Korea. Therefore from a Iranian strategic point of view, it makes sense to acquire nukes, or at least to make others believe that they might have them. The real power of nuclear weapons is their value as a deterrent after all. No-one has anything to gain from actually using them.

The West is unanimous in its demand that Iran should desist from giving itself the means to produce nuclear weapons. Even France agrees with the US on this one, and everyone has tried to prevent this from happening. The EU, or rather the joint efforts of France, Germany and the UK, had a valiant attempt at a diplomatic solution, and obtained from Tehran that Iran stopped enriching uranium in 2003. However since then, the reformist (by Iranian standards) government of Rafsanjani was replaced by Ahmadinejad and his hardliners. It's fair to say that these chaps are by and large not very diplomatically inclined. In fact, the Militant Pine Marten suspects that Ahmadinejad is a posturing loud-mouthed idiot. In different circumstances he would probably be enjoying an all-expenses paid holiday at the Bush ranch in Texas, since both presidents share an interest in ill-advised macho soundbites, big guns, moral absolutism and not drinking. No matter. Unfortunately, the current Iranian government isn't interested in arriving at some form of agreement with Europe. It was always going to be difficult discussion anyway, as the arguments as to why exactly Iran shouldn't have the means to enrich uranium are questionable. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has never been a very convincing one, since in effect it stipulates that no-one is allowed nuclear weapons except for those who already have them. Strictly speaking that would exclude Israel, but the Israel has never really admitted to having nukes. At the same time, Iran has never admitted to wanting them. And since the Iraq business, our claims to have intelligence on middle-eastern countries' secret weapons programmes are devoid of any credibility whatsoever. You can see how the Iranian government isn't too impressed with our explanations as to why they shouldn't have nuclear weapons.

We tried nicely and it didn't work. So now we're going to take them to the UN Security Council, whose main means of action is economic sanctions, however those didn't work in Iraq and there's no reason to expect a different outcome in Iran. It will create a sense of national unity, of defiance, it will rally the more liberal Iranians to the theocracy, and any hardship will be blamed on the West and specifically the US (and probably Israel too for good measure). But they won't back down. You have to hand them that: they're a tenacious nation, the Persians. And so it remains for the USA to make not-very-veiled threats to physically prevent Iran from building nukes. This is also useless as Iran won't give in to such threats. They have more stomach for a fight than we do by a long way. The USA can't really invade Iran. Its forces are massively overstretched already, they have two wars on their hands in the region already, and Iran isn't as delapidated as Iraq was. So it would probably use air strikes to destroy nuclear facilities and kill scientific personel. However they also know that Iran will retaliate with low-tech means such as sabotage (sabotage is really easy when targeting oil infrastructure too given the combustible nature of the target), blocking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, unleashing Hizbollah in Lebanon and generally creating a guerrilla warfare zone that stretches from Gaza to Afghanistan. And if that happened, you'd have to wonder if it wouldn't have been better to let them have a couple of nukes. After all, when it comes down to it, we have hundreds if not thousands of them.

If we can't convince them, scare them or fight them, how exactly can we stop them from acquiring nuclear weapons? We can't. The solution would be a lot worse than the problem. More generally, the technology is fifty years old now. Everyone knows how to make simple nuclear weapons so eventually, we'll have to choose between a world where everyone can have nukes, or where no-one can. Hopefully we'll choose the latter. In the meantime, we will have to accept that Iran is an important regional power, and we have to treat them as such and stop ignoring them as we have done for 27 years now. They won't do as they're told and we can't make them. Iran has won this round, as fairly and squarely as anyone in the game of geopolitical chess.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Liberticidal Hat Trick

A fair proportion of the Militant Pine Marten's readers land here while looking for information on actual pine martens, only to be disappointed by the lack of focus on mustelid natural history. Just this once, I'm going to give make their visit worthwhile by giving them a world exclusive on the UK's population of pine martens. Here's the scoop: they're all going to leave this Sceptred Isle. They're not going to be eradicated by pollution or persecution, and although loss of habitat doesn't make life any easier for British pine martens, there's enough old pine forest left for a population to survive here if they want to. But pine martens don't just need suitable habitat, food and indulgent gamekeepers, they need freedom too. They don't take kindly to being caged up and they're bolshie animals. So they could survive here if they wanted to, but the word on the forest floor is that they're not actually certain that they want to any more, and they're considering emigrating to Canada where all the material conditions for mustelid happiness are met and the government isn't quite so zealous on curtailing individual freedoms.

In the past two days, the House of Commons has passed two liberticidal bills, and they'll be trying for a hat trick today. On Monday, appeased by what must be one of the weakest government concessions to avert a defeat in the Commons ever, MPs voted in favour of the introduction of ID Cards but more importantly of the associated database's creation. Many MPs were opposed to making ID cards compulsory, but were apparently fooled by the sop that they would only be compulsory for people who wanted passports. Since about 90% of the UK population have passports, this "concession" still makes ID cards pretty close to compulsory. Even MPs aren't by and large so stupid as to not realise this, which suggests that amongst potential Labour rebels, they were glad of the opportunity to claim to have made a stand for civil liberties whilst simultaneously not antagonising the government. There's a place for that sort of face-saving ploy, and it's not when voting on bills that will fundamentally redefine the balance of power between the Citizen and the State. This was a shameful display of collective spinelessness.

Possibly to reward MPs for their compliance, yesterday the government allowed a free vote on its' proposal to outlaw smoking in public places. Now obviously telling people that the entire country has become a no smoking area isn't on the same level as recording everyone's fingerprints and iris patterns, but it does fit well within the Blair government's well-established predilection for generally forbidding people from doing things that they took for granted before. The MPs' choice was really quite remarkable. They could have chosen to allow people to light up in a few selected smokers' reservations such as pubs that don't serve food and private members' clubs (surely the whole reason for the existence of a private members' club is that you can choose who joins and make up your own arcane rules?), but no, they thought it would be better for us all if no-one could light up anywhere outside their homes any more. That's indicative not merely of a justifiable concern for public health, but also of a level of puritanical authoritarianism and haughty disregard for people's ability to make informed choices for themselves. There are after all greater evils that having a smoke in the pub.

One such evil is, according to Gordon Brown, "glorifying terrorism". Now the Militant Pine Marten has already covered this in some detail back when the idea was first mooted just under a year ago. To summarise, it's a bad idea because "glorifying terrorism" is legally very similar to "openly approving of people, organisations or movements that the government doesn't", or put more succinctly "sedition". The Lords have already rejected this new offence for this very reason, so why is it suddenly back on the table? Because Gordon Brown is doing a Sarkozy and is preparing to become Caliph instead of the Caliph, and so he has decided that he too needs to engage in some macho political one-upmanship, and at the moment that means being even tougher on terrorism while draping himself in the rhetorical Union Jack. Obviously there must still be people out there who believe that terrorism is legal in the UK.

Blair and his government started on this path in 1997 by showing a blatant disregard for parliament, for due process, for the so-called gentlemen's agreement that passes for a British constitution. This led to systematic small abuses of power, loss of accountability, institutionalised contempt for anyone outside Blair's inner circle. Blair's growing messianic zeal and personal belief that if he thinks that something is right, it is, and therefore those who disagree are in effect political blasphemers, has led us into the Iraq war and now seriously threatens our liberties, and we're finding that there isn't much that we can do about it. But what's even worse is that most of the electorate doesn't even seem to care. On Monday, only 70 people demonstrated against ID cards outside Parliament (some distance away because the government banned protests outside parliament following the messy looking protests against the foxhunting ban, which just projected the wrong image or something). Now I know that people are at work on Mondays but where for example are all the politically-minded students? And I'm prepared to bet that the Tories, who are finally shaping up to look like a real opposition party, won't include anything about repealing ID cards in their manifesto because there are no votes to be won in civil liberties. Let's hope that it all turns out to have been worth it. In exchange for all this, let's hope that we really are very safe indeed. In fact we'd better be invulnerable to any harm. Because otherwise we'll be no better off than the Syrians, and at least they have good weather and can have a cigarette where they choose.

So long, and thanks for all the bird's eggs.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cathartic cartoons

There exists an amateur film made in 1978 of a spectacular landslide that took place in town named Rissa in Norway. The town was built on a deposit of a particular kind of clay that is held together by salt ions. When too high a proportion of the salt ions are washed out by for instance heavy rainfall, the clay particles lose their cohesion, and a quickclay is formed, or in other words, the soil liquefies, and a rapid landslide results. In this particular case, a man was digging the foundations of a barn, and by doing so happened to just tip the chemical balance of the soil, with catastrophic consequences. The film shows the liquefaction phenomenon spreading up the valley from the digging site, and the entire valley down to the bedrock flowing like a river, carrying houses, cars, roads, absolutely everything at speeds of up to 60 km/h down to the fjord. Obviously Rissa was flushed off the map, and the resulting small tsunami in the fjord caused serious flood damage to the town on the opposite shore. In one of those strange ironies of fate, the man who dug the whole and started the whole catastrophe in the first place was one of the very few people whose house was left standing. He was also almost certainly the most unpopular man in Rissa. It occurs to the Militant Pine Marten that the chaps who ran the ill-advised cartoon competition in the Danish newspaper the Jyllands-Posten must feel a bit like him.

At this stage, the general consensus is that the current wave of violent reaction to the now notorious set of a dozen cartoons is as disproportionate considering the offence as the 8 million cubic metres of clay that flowed through Rissa were given that all that the poor chap who set it all in motion had done was dig a one metre deep hole in his garden. Clearly, taking offence at foreigners deriding one's culture through heavy-handed, crude stereotyping is fair enough. Lacking a sense of humour to the extent of taking it out on an entire nation and burning their embassies is something more than a simple sense of humour failure. It's tempting of course to put down the scenes of violence that we are now witnessing in the Middle-East mainly but also in Europe to a clash of civilisations, or to an Enlightenment conflict between secularism and religious obscurantism. Or if you're inclined to think that way, just to fall back on the opinion that Muslims are all a bunch of backward savages anyway. But none of these are an adequate explanation for current events. An entire people doesn't suddenly go on the rampage against a small faraway country with little or no influence over their lives because of what is essentially a collection of bad jokes.

What we're seeing here is an extraordinary manifestation of collective catharsis. By and large, since September 2001, being a Muslim has been quite uncomfortable, both in the West and in the Islamic world. In the West, there's an unpleasant climate of suspicion against Muslims. Look around you, and you'll see the apprehension in commuters' eyes when a chap with a long, thick beard steps onto the train. It isn't fair, it isn't rational, but it happens all the time and Muslims feel it. If you live in the Middle-East or Central Asia, all hell has been let loose, and that's in addition to the problems that appear endemic in the region to do with essentially awful governments, whether secular or religious. All the time, people are being permanently assured that it's all mainly America's fault, and admittedly, the USA hasn't really been helping much in this respect. So in the West, Muslims have to live with the undercurrent of hostility and try and be gracious about it, and in the Middle-East they have to watch bombs falling and their lives fall down around them while being powerless to do anything about it. In those circumstances, it's understandable that you may want to vent some frustration, blow off some steam, maybe burn the Stars and Stripes, shout very loud and break something. Noisily. What you want to break is the US Marine Corps or Ariel Sharon's neck, but Sharon's already broken and the Marines shoot back. But a couple of Danish embassies, well, what are they going to do about it? Denmark may not matter much to you, but it's Western and one of their newspaper editors was clueless enough to commission those cartoons. The Danes will do as scapegoats.

Maybe when the landslide has stabilised and the waves from the impact have settled down, we'll have a clearer view of the underlying problem. It may release some tensions, and clearly show who and what is really to blame for this insane situation, and it's probably going to turn out to be widespread paranoia on both sides of the divide, combined with (mostly) American heavy-handedness, ignorance and therefore contempt of each others' cultures, with an entrenched and erroneous belief in the Middle-East that all local problems are someone else's fault. And when everyone acknowledges that, then maybe we can stabilise some slopes and adopt a more informed approach to digging foundations for sheds in unstable areas.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Hopes and the Hope-nots

For the last couple of years, the Militant Pine Marten has been conscious of a growing climate of fear or at least of anxiety in the West. This is possibly true elsewhere also, but as I have no real first hand knowledge of the collective emotional state of the developing world (and even that statement assumes that such a tremendously sweeping generalisation could ever have any value), I'll leave it aside for the purposes of this discussion. At first glance, it would appear that a high proportion of some of the most important problems facing our societies at the moment are to a great extent due to variations on the theme of fear being played in the background. I'm not referring here to intestine-knotting terror of course, just to the low-intensity highly pervasive forms of this most primal and debilitating of emotions. A good example would be what happens when you're walking down the street at dusk and a bunch of swaggering teenage boys in hoodies are walking down the same pavement towards you. Maybe you cross the road. Maybe you just avoid eye contact. Maybe you just decide to put on a blank facial expression, gird up your loins and walk through them. Whatever your reaction, you're slightly scared that their intentions are hostile, and you perceive a threat to some degree. Meanwhile, despite your best efforts to conceal it, the boys in question have perceived that you perceive them as a threat, which makes them feel that maybe they should be a threat, even if it isn't clear why, and anyway since you're clearly hostile to them, the chances are that they should indeed be hostile towards you. Suddenly, collective paranoia and prejudice has spawned a real antipathy. It's irrational, it comes out of nowhere, but the thought that there could be a threat leads to fear, that fear leads to suspicion, and in turn that generates a threat that has no logical reason to exist.

That example happens in some form a million times every day, in Tube stations on London, outside Virgin Megastore on the Champs Elysées, everywhere, and it may seem innocuous enough, but it's one of the main causes of the much larger problem that in France is termed "l'insécurité", the widespread fear of crime, which is generally far greater than the actual prevalence of crime justifies. But this pervasive climate of fear is too tempting not to be exploited by politicians such as the Militant Pine Marten's betes noires Charles Clarke and Nicolas Sarkozy to introduce rafts of illiberal legislation to protect us or rather alleviate our collective fears, and of course on a larger scale it provided Bush and Blair with the means to persuade their electorates that they should be allowed to start a war. Exploiting collective fears in order to further one's agenda is hardly a new political trick. Indeed, just talking about it fuels the fear, which affords the Powers That Be greater freedom to pursue their goals, and the process is self-perpetuating.

However great tides of fear come and go, they can be dispelled quite easily, people can stand back, take stock, shake their heads and wake up. Underlying all that there remains, I think, a more discreet and yet powerful collective emotion that leads to division, apathy, hostility, and of course fear and violence: increasingly, people lack hope, and without hope it is almost impossible to try and improve anything either for oneself or for society and the world at large. Not believing that things are likely to improve leads to entrenchment and withdrawal. Returning to a theme dear to my mustelid heart, I believe that this is why the French electorate rejected to draft EU constitution last year. Surveys show that better off voters were professionally, and the higher their level of education, the more likely they were to vote in favour of the Constitution. Conversely, those lower in the pecking order tended to oppose it. However this had nothing to do with traditional divisions between Right and Left, Europhiles and Anti-Europeans. This was a difference of opinion between the Hopes and Hope Nots. People are worried by the fact that the EU opens up its member states with uncertain consequences. and whereas those in higher socio-professional groups feel ready to deal with whatever this form of globalisation may bring, those lower down want to protect their current status by turning inwards (these are generalisations of course). For the same reason, successive French governments have found it impossible to introduce meaningful reforms to the welfare system and employment legislation: most of the electorate has no expectation that the risks will lead to any improvements so they cling on to what they have.

This immobilism through loss of hope is by no means unique to France. In the UK for example, it's behind the fact that most younger members of the electorate don't bother to turn up at the polling station: they don't believe that they can change anything. If you're in the habit of not bothering to dispose of glass bottles in the recycling bin provided by the council because you think "what difference will I make on my own?", it's the same thing. Some of the worst culprits are the environmental miserabilists who have set about convincing us all that we're all going to die poisoned by radiation and drowned in melted ice caps, starved because we've eaten all the cod and bonobos. Their attitude indicates that for all their pious pontificating, they've actually given up any real hope of doing anything about it, making it all more likely that theirs are self-fulfilling prophecies. They've left all the hope to those who think that we can carry strip-mining Creation and that it will all turn out fine in the end (which it might, but it's unlikely).

What we need now is to break out of the cycle of hopelessness, despondency and self-fulfilling miserable predictions. It may be quite likely that things will end badly, but it's absolutely certain that they will be awful if no one tries to make a difference because they've given up believing that they can. Social justice isn't just about giving to the Have-nots. It's just as important to return hope to the Hope-nots.

"On aura une maison
Avec des tas d'fenetres
Et si c'est pas sur
C'est quand meme peut-etre"
Jacques Brel

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

In which we learn where the Militant Pine Marten has been of late

As happened back in August, the Militant Pine Marten has been back to the woods to gather its thoughts for the best part of a month. I'm going to allow myself to be sufficiently presumptuous to assume that a couple of people somewhere out there have been wondering if I'd gone into hibernation or just moved on. I thought that after this long wait you may like to see where I've been.

This is the view from the woods just before sunset. As you can see, it was pretty cold.

After night falls, the woods are left to the roe deer and the pine martens, although most of them aren't very militant at all.

Here's a rare picture of some humans out early the next morning for some contemplation of their own. And a little hunting, just like me.

Eventually, the light started to fall, the humans went back inside, and the pine martens were once again given the run of the place.

And so now you see why the Militant Pine Marten couldn't bring itself to think of the world's troubles. That's what the trips to the woods are for: a little contemplation, a little hunting, a little unadulterated simple joy at the beauty of the world.

Merry Mustelid 2006!

Weightier matters will now return to the fore.

Non-civilian disobedience

It was with a degree of astonishment that I was jolted out of my slumber on Monday morning by General Sir Michael Rose calling for Tony Blair to be impeached on the Today programme. You may remember the general from back in the Nineties where he was in charge of operations in the former Yugoslavia for a while, and in that capacity used to appear on the news with some regularity, although I personally can't remember whether he was any good. I don't think that anyone was really very effective in that sorry episode, but that's not relevant here. What surprised me wasn't the call for Tony Blair to be held accountable for conning the UK into the Iraq war, that sort of demand has been quite common over the past three years. No, the interesting part was when he said that he would have refused command of such an operation, although he is now retired, and that active commanders should do the same by resigning, if not by simply refusing to follow orders.

Refusing to obey governments for ethical reasons is nothing new, it's just civil disobedience, but in the military this has traditionally been called insubordination, desertion or even mutiny. They used to shoot people for it. Civil disobedience is a vallid means to reassert the electorate's power over the State, but in a democracy it's generally assumed that the military is subservient to elected politicians, doesn't express opinions, it just acts as a tool of the State to defend its' citizens or implement various aspects of foreign policy. The military is the means by which the State exercises its' monopoly on violence. It's not supposed to do politics, that's what happens in countries with the sort of regimes that we don't approve of.

But at a more shall we say philosophical level, what Sir Michael proposes makes sense. After all, the military is composed of a lot of men and women who are expected to get themselves killed if the government asks them to. Let's also not forget that by and large, before this happens, they will have killed a lot more people on the other side, and these days those are mostly civilians rather than enemy combatants. So one way or another, democratically elected governments distribute a lot of death all round when they send the military to war. The same democratically elected governments wouldn't usually openly consider so much as giving one of their citizens a mild kicking, and that includes members of the armed forces, until such time as they are sent into a conflict.

The usual justification that is given is that members of the armed forces have volunteered to expose themselves to mortal danger whenever they are told to by their government. Which strictly speaking is true. But I think that in return, it's only fair to make sure that governments don't do that without a damned good reason, which doesn't include made-up scare stories about WMDs. So although it's often held as an incontrovertible truth that normal assumptions about the rights of the individual don't apply to the armed forces, actually, why shouldn't they? What's the worst that can happen if soldiers say no? People won't be killed? Damn. Since the Nuremberg trials, soldiers have no longer been able to use the fact that they were following orders as a defence against accusations of war crimes. They have a duty to disobey immoral orders, to act according to their conscience. Well since their supreme commander is in effect an elected politician, there's no reason why a soldier should have to put his life and that of the "enemy" in danger if he or she doesn't consider the justification compelling enough. I'm not actually calling for all the armed forces in the world to operate independently of their governments, there are after all plenty of examples of that being a pretty undesirable thing, but generally trouble results from armies doing things that they haven't been told to do, rather than not doing things. For instance, imagine of in July 1914, the Czar's heads of staff had just said "You know what, Nick? I don't think so. Niet. We're off for a think about agrarian reform instead".

The Militant Pine Marten is no great fan of the military: it's the whole suppression of the individual, unquestioning obedience, authoritarian killing machine aspect of the military that doesn't agree with me. To the extent that I refused to join the Mustelid Scouts when I was just a martenet - why on earth would anyone want to spend their spare time in a uniform doing what the older kids tell you? But if the military are going to openly recognise their duty not only to obey their political masters, but also to subject orders to the judgement of their consciences and to act on it, then I think that things are looking up.

During the enquiry following the sinking of the Titanic, most of the surviving steerage passengers testified that the scarce places in the lifeboats had been given to First Class passengers in priority. Amazingly, because of the society in which they lived, they found this to be perfectly normal. Hopefully in the near future, the idea of unquestioningly killing others and allowing yourself to be killed unquestioningly on the instructions of someone else will come to be seen as just as absurd.