18 August 2014

Week 34 2014

Tendring Topics……on line

Sleep Walking…….into war!

           Just before 5 p.m on every day from 28th June 1914, the centenary of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo, until  4th August,  the centenary of the date on which the UK declared war on Germany,  BBC’s Radio 4 gave listeners a brief account of that day’s events one hundred years earlier, as recorded in contemporary newspapers and official documents.

            I found the account fascinating. It seems clear that it was several weeks before it occurred to anyone in Britain that that assassination could possibly have anything to do with us.  ‘An assassination in Sarajevo, where’s that? In the Balkans? That’s the sort of thing that they do there isn’t it? An Archduke?  I thought they were to be found only in comic operas. These foreigners!  There’s really no accounting for their ways.

            Besides, there were lots of much more worrying things happening nearer home; in Ireland for instance.  Ireland was an important part of the British Empire. There was a serious and imminent risk of civil war there over the question of Home Rule.  Most Irish people were Roman Catholics and wanted Home Rule but in the north there was a Protestant majority who would resist any move in that direction. Ulster will fight – and Ulster will be right! was a slogan of the day.

            Then there were the militant suffragettes; women demanding the right to vote in elections and breaking windows, chaining themselves to railings and throwing themselves in front of race horses to draw attention to their cause.  Arrested, they refused to eat and were cruelly force-fed. 

            There was also labour unrest and the threat of a general strike.  There were plenty of things to worry about at home without having to give thought to foreigners murdering each other in, to quote a more recent Prime Minister, ‘a faraway country of which we know very little’.

            Meanwhile, the ripples from that murder began to spread.  It had occurred in Bosnia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The perpetrator was a Serb who wanted Bosnia, many of whose population were ethnic Serbs, to be free of Austrian rule.  The Austrian government, which would have liked to add Serbia to its empire, was quite convinced (or convinced itself) that the Serbian government had orchestrated the assassination.  They presented Serbia with a very strongly worded ultimatum that would, in effect, have robbed the Serbs of their national sovereignty.

            Serbia however, had a very powerful ally in Imperial Russia. Austria-Hungary also had a very powerful ally in Germany, and Russia had another powerful ally in France.  Just outside this system of alliances was the United Kingdom and its great Empire.  Close friends though we were with France and Russia, we had no treaty obligations to join with them in case of conflict.

            The Serbs agreed to all but one clause of the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum.  That wasn’t enough for the Austro-Hungarians.  They declared war on Serbia and ordered their army to invade and attack Belgrade.  Like falling dominoes, the alliances came into effect.   Serbia asked for Russian support.  Austria then asked Germany and Russia asked France to honour their treaty obligations.   We don’t generally think of the German Kaiser as a peace-maker but, perhaps sensing what was to come, he asked his cousin, the Tsar of Russia, to cease mobilisation of his army.  It was too late.  The major powers of Europe were at war with each other.

            Only the UK remained at peace – and there was a strong peace movement in Britain.  We might well have remained neutral had the German High Command not decided that they must avoid a war on two fronts. They could best achieve this by quickly defeating France and then turning, with all their strength, on Russia.  This, they thought, could be done by attacking France through Belgium.   And that brought Britain into the war.  We were bound, by a treaty dating back almost to the Battle of Waterloo, to defend the neutrality of Belgium.   Thus began World War I. In the 1920s and ‘30s we called it ‘The Great War’.  Millions were killed, millions more were maimed.  It was supposed to be ‘the war to end wars’ but, in fact, the peace treaty imposed by the victors made World War II, just 21 years later, inevitable.

 All of this would have been solely of historical interest were it not for the fact that some events today are uncomfortably similar to those in 1914.  We have a rebellious faction in Eastern Ukraine who have taken up arms against a new government in Kiev.  The ‘west’ is quite sure that the rebels are supported and provided with arms by Russia – just as the Austro-Hungarians were quite sure that the rebels in Bosnia who were responsible for the assassination of their Arch-Duke were puppets of the Serbian Government.

            Ukrainian Government Forces are mercilessly shelling and bombing towns and villages in the rebel held areas, killing civilians on a similar scale to the much-more-publicised shelling and bombing of the Palestinians in Gaza, and preventing the proper inspection of the wreck of the air-liner that the rebels are accused of shooting down.   To help the victims of this bombing and shelling the Russian Government is, with the knowledge of the International Red Cross, sending a convoy of lorries bringing humanitarian aid. The President of the Kiev Ukrainian Government says that this convoy will be refused admission to Ukraine.  What will happen then?  If his troops attempt to stop the convoy by force does he really think that NATO will support him – and risk a third world war?  If so, I sincerely hope he is wrong.

            This possibility though, does illustrate the dangers of ringing Russia with small potentially hostile, NATO states – and declaring that an attack on any one of them is an attack on NATO, which will respond appropriately.  It was a system of military alliances that led to World War I.  I hope (though I’m far from confident!) that the world’s governments are not so stupid as to allow a similar system to lead them into World War III.

Recent and still breaking news

            The news about that Russian convoy of lorries bearing humanitarian aid to the homeless and shell-shocked folk of Eastern Ukraine is mixed.  A solution to the problem of the delivery of that aid appears to have been solved in an extremely sensible manner, and one that is a credit to both the Russian and the Ukrainian negotiators.  The contents of each vehicle are to be inspected by  Ukrainian Government officials and then driven, by their Russian drivers to a destination in eastern Ukraine. There the humanitarian aid will be distributed by representatives of the International Red Cross.  That should quell Ukrainian fears that the lorries might prove to be ‘Trojan horses’ loaded with weaponry for rebel fighters. TV cameras have brought to viewers images of the contents of two lorries, selected at random. They were filled with food for  the hungry and tents for the homeless.

            Rather more worrying is the fact that reliable witnesses have seen one or more Russian armoured vehicles crossing the border from Russia to Ukraine.  This, needless to say, is causing David Cameron ‘serious concern’ and making him talk threateningly about ‘further consequences’.   It should, I think, be remembered that the areas each side of that particular part of the frontier are populated by the same ethnically Russian people, many of them probably related, and all on the Russian side shocked by the way rebel cities and towns are being ruthlessly shelled by the Ukrainian army.  The rebels, for all their small-arms and captured tanks and armoured vehicles, have no artillery with which to respond to that relentless bombardment and no air force with which to attack their enemies. I don’t think it would need the prompting of Vladimir Putin, hundreds of miles away in Moscow, to make some of those on the Russian side of the border decide to go to the assistance of their embattled brethren. 

              More encouraging is the news that Russians, Ukrainians and representatives of the Ukrainian rebels are meeting in Berlin in a day or two's time to try to find a peaceful solution to this terrible civil war.  I hope they succeed.

The latest news - this morning 18th August.

I do not believe that a single aid vehicle has yet been allowed to enter east Ukraine.  The Kiev Government insists that they are carrying arms, despite the fact that their officials have been invited to inspect them.  I really believe that the Kiev government is deliberately provoking Russia in the hope that their reaction will bring NATO to the rescue! 

 This is today’s news…….

          One day last week IS (Islamic State) terrorists had driven thousands of Christian and other non-Muslims from their homes in northern Iraq and compelled them to seek temporary shelter in barren mountains – devoid of water, food or shelter.  The USA had carried out air strikes on IS forces that were claimed to have slowed down (but not halted) their advance.  There was an uneasy truce in the Holy Land between Israel and the people of the Yemen.  The World Health Organisation had authorised the use of drugs that have not yet been rigorously tested, in a last-ditch attempt to stem the pandemic of Ebola that was currently rampant in parts of West Africa.  Ebola in a potentially fatal infectious disease for which there is, so far, no vaccination and no effective treatment.  Which of these, I wondered, would be the lead story on BBC tv’s news bulletin at 6.00 pm?

No, it was nothing to do with any of the above.  The lead story, that took up at least one third of the half-hour news bulletin, was about an American entertainer, an alcoholic and a drug addict, who had taken his own life during a period of depression.  We had a résumé of his life, his film and other successes, comments on his struggle with drink, drugs and depression and a few words of adulation from Barak Obama President of the USA.

There's no doubt that Robbie Williams was a very gifted entertainer with fans world-wide  – but I would have expected his decease to have deserved a mention only towards the end of a British news bulletin on a day in which nothing much else was happening either in the UK or the world!

11 August 2014

Week 33 2014

Tendring Topics…….on line

It wasn’t ‘too good to be true’

          Regular blog readers will know that I have been concerned about the fate of Meriem Ibrahim, the young North Sudanese mother who had been convicted of the ‘heinous crime’ of abandoning Islam for Christianity (she had, in fact, been brought up by her Christian mother and had never been a Muslim) and sentenced to death by hanging.  Before being hanged she was to be flogged with 100 lashes for marrying a Christian and having a child by him.  Such marriages are forbidden by Sharia law and are condemned as ‘adulterous’! At the time of her condemnation she was heavily pregnant with her second child – a baby girl who was born while her mother was shackled to the floor of her cell.

            Following world-wide protests an appeal against the sentence was successful but she was prevented from flying with her family to her husband’s home in the USA on the pretext of a faulty passport. A fortnight ago a report on BBC tv announced that the whole family had been allowed to fly to Italy where they had met the Pope who had congratulated Meriem on her steadfast refusal to abandon her Christian faith, a course of action that could have earned her freedom.  Sadly this report was never confirmed or taken up by the media – and a search on line by Google discovered no news of Meriem later than her re-arrest at Khartoum airport when she had tried to leave the country.  I concluded that the news of the family’s flight to Italy was ‘too good to be true’ and this gloomy opinion was reinforced by a news report that the family had taken refuge in the United States Embassy in Khartoum and that her father (who had left her mother to bring up her baby alone!) was urging the reinstatement of the death sentence.

 Home – at last.  The Ibrahim family re-united in the USA.  Baby Maya, born in a Sudanese prison cell, is in her mother’s arms and her toddler son in the care of his Grandpa.   

 It has now become clear that that early BBC report was true.  The whole family had clandestinely flown to Italy with an Italian government minister.  They had met the Pope and Meriem had been congratulated on her refusal to renounce her faith despite the dire consequences that could have followed that refusal.  It seems too that that hasty departure from the American Embassy and from North Sudan, was not a moment too soon.  A lynch mob had been threatening to storm the Embassy and seize its prey!  At a time of bloodshed and violence and of the persecution of Christians throughout much of the Middle East and large areas of northern Africa, the Meriem Ibrahim story is one that has a happy ending!  Latest news reports confirm that Meriem, her husband and two children have flown to her husband’s home in the USA where they have been given a heroes’ welcome.  It was one story that wasn’t too good to be true!

Still living with Mum at 21? - and 31?

          Members and supporters of the present government never tire of complaining about the ‘terrible mess that the previous Labour government left us to clear up’. Well, I was never an enthusiast for New Labour but the Governor of the Bank of England who has recently retired always insisted that it was the Bankers and money-lenders, not the politicians, who were to blame for that mess.

            One of the messes that the New Labour government inherited from the Thatcher years – and failed to address – was the iniquitous right to buy legislation that compelled local authorities, but not private landlords, to sell their council owned houses at a fraction of their market value to sitting tenants  Inevitably council houses in pleasant rural areas were quickly bought up and sold on - often at an enormous profit – directly this legally became possible.  Equally inevitably, since councils were unable to build houses for letting ­to replace them, there were no properties for letting at reasonable rents in many rural villages.   Young couples, whose forbears had lived in that village for generations, found themselves compelled to move away.  Many villages consequently became ‘dormitories’, with their inhabitants commuting daily to the nearest town, doing much of their shopping there, and taking no interest in local life and local affairs.

            Mrs Thatcher and her successors, in pursuit of their dream of home ownership for all changed public attitudes so that, as Paul Honeywood, Tendring Council’s ‘housing boss’ told a Clacton Gazette reporter ‘Council homes are often looked at as a last resort for the unemployed and people in financial trouble but’ he added, ‘we are trying to change that perception and offer it as an alternative for those wanting to set up on their own or start a family’. What Mr Honeywood is urging is in fact, a return to the system that existed and worked satisfactorily for a century before the advent of Thatcherism – when local authorities, without interference from national politicians, built houses for letting and allocated them to those in need.  There was then no stigma attached to ‘living in a council house’.  When I was appointed as a Public Health Inspector by Clacton Council in 1956, my family and I were happy to live in a Council House in Holland-on-Sea until, after a few months, we purchased and moved into the bungalow in which I am living today.

            Clacton, and the Tendring District generally, is particularly in need of social housing available for letting at a reasonable rent.  The housing charity Shelter has discovered that one third of Tendring’s 20 to 34 year olds, despite being in work, continue to live in the family home with mum and dad.   They simply can’t afford ‘to get their feet on the housing ladder’ with house properties at their present level – and there are no longer, as there once were, council houses available for letting.

            Tendring’s position is worse than that of other neighbouring local authority areas.   In Colchester 6,064 (22 percent) of 20 to 34 year old are still living in the family home, in Braintree 5,770 (28 percent) and in Tendring 4,801 (37 percent) Typical of such a ‘stay-at-home’ is 22 year old Natasha Fuller of St Osyth who works full-time as a hairdresser.  She told a Gazette reporter, ‘I still live at home with my parents even though I have a full-time job.  I don’t earn enough to save for a mortgage or rent on my own home while running a car at the same time’.

Shelter representative Campbell Robb told the Gazette ’The clipped-wing generation are finding themselves with no choice but to remain living with mum and dad well into adulthood.  And those who aren’t lucky enough to have this option face a lifetime of unstable, expensive, private renting.  The government knows that the only way to turn the tide of the housing shortage is to fill the gap between the homes we have and the homes we need’.

And the only effective way of doing that is to repeal the ‘right to buy’ legislation and – as in the pre-Thatcher past – encourage local authorities to build the homes their district needs, and to let them to local people who need a home, without interference from ‘Nanny knows best, dear’ politicians!
ISIS is still with us!

          The blood bath in Gaza, the downing of the Malaysian air liner over eastern Ukraine and the centenary commemoration of World War I have driven ISIS and its determination to establish an extremist Islamic Caliphate throughout Syria and Iraq (and that’s just for a start!) from the news headlines during the past week or so.  They’re still there though and although they don’t seem to have made any progress towards taking Baghdad, they’re consolidating their strict Islamic rule over the territories that they have taken and are edging forward whenever they have the opportunity to do so.

            A recent effect of this has been to drive tens of thousands of Christian Iraqis from their homes in areas where the Christian faith has flourished for centuries.  Many in northern Iraq had been protected by the semi-independent Kurds but their protectors have now been driven out and the new extreme Islamic regime has offered the choice of death, conversion to their own extreme version of Islam, or a crippling tax payable by all non-Muslims. nearly one hundred thousand have fled and are now trapped on a barren mountain without shelter, food or water..  They urgently need the help of their Christian brothers and sisters in Europe and elsewhere. ISIS has changed its name and now likes to be called simply IS, standing for Islamic State.  Its members haven’t changed their nature though.

            Successive British governments’ no-doubt-well-intentioned meddling in Iraq, Libya and Syria has prepared the ground and earned recruits for extremists like IS and Al Qaeda.The Christian faith is being eradicated from the very area that gave it birth, and the whole of the Middle East and large areas of Africa, are now areas in which Britons visit, live and work in danger of their lives!  

            I wonder if Tony Blair and his successors are proud of the results of their activities?

Later News

         Since I wrote the above, only a day or two ago, events have moved quickly.  The USA and the UK governments have heeded the call for help of the thousands of Christian Iraqi civilians in their barren mountain refuge.   We are co-operating with the Americans in dropping water, food and the means of providing shelter to those refugees and the USA is also carrying out air strikes on the IS forces, though both governments insist that there will be no ground forces involved.

I applaud wholeheartedly the provision of humanitarian aid though, quite apart from the morality of the action, I doubt very much whether air strikes alone can be expected either to make it possible for the refugees to go peacefully to their former home free from persecution, or to pass through territory IS holds to a place of safety. Obviously the present situation cannot continue.  We can't supply those refugees indefinitely - and winter is approaching.  I wish that I could envisage a happy non-violent ending to the present situation.  I can't and, if I'm to be absolutely honest, I can't  imagine a violent one either.

I hope and pray that someone can! 


04 August 2014

Week 32 2014

Tendring Topics…….on line

Nick Clegg

          Do you remember the televised debates of the Party leaders prior to our last parliamentary General Election?  I don’t usually listen to politicians sounding off – but I did watch those debates, and thought that I learned from them. 

 I had for many years considered myself to be an internationalist and a democratic socialist. More recently though I had come to the conclusion that the most important task any new British government needed to undertake was the reduction of the yawning gap between the incomes of country’s wealthiest and poorest citizens. I had been impressed by The Spirit Level by Quakers Kate Picket and Richard Wilkinson which demonstrated that reducing that gap benefited the whole community and not just the poor. I had become a modest supporter of the Equality Trust* and had come to realize that public ownership of the means of manufacture and distribution (whether by local or national government) was only one of the means by which greater economic justice could be secured.  .

During the decade of New Labour rule the gap between the incomes of the rich and poor had actually widened!  Lord Mandelson, a creator of New Labour had publicly declared that he had no problem with billionaires.  Well, I believe that while there are families that are homeless, ill-clad, and don’t know where the next meal is coming from, he should have a problem with them! 

Despite being well into my eighties at the time of the last election I was one of those ‘floating voters’ that politicians are eager to persuade. I intended to vote for the candidate of the Party most likely at least to attempt to reduce that ever-widening gap.

           I have to confess it.  I was taken in by Nick Clegg.  He I thought was the most inspiring of the three speakers, and the one with the most radical ideas.  He appeared to have a ‘fire within’ that reminded me of some of the early twentieth century Labour Movement pioneers  Because of this, for the first time in my life, his party received my vote and although with our system of voting it would have made no difference which way I voted, I have since deeply regretted it.

            Tony Blair, although he abandoned many of the purposes for which the Labour Party was created, did at least win elections for his New Labour.  Nick Clegg didn’t.  His party did quite well – but not well enough.  He went into an unequal coalition with the Conservatives and began to drop the principles on which he had been elected.  I had hoped that he might work towards a more equal society.  He supported the new Chancellor’s early gift to the super-rich, the reduction of the highest rate of income tax, thus benefiting those with a taxable income in excess of £150,000 a year – while beginning an austerity programme that particularly affected the poor and disadvantaged!  In his election campaign he had tried for the student vote – promising not to raise tuition fees.  In coalition this was one of the first promises that he abandoned.

            He would no doubt claim that by membership of the coalition he had been able to modify his Conservative partners more objectionable policies in a way that would have been impossible had he been in opposition.  In the world of British politics today, I don’t believe that that is true.  When a government doesn’t command the majority of votes in the House of Commons a determined opposition party can support the government on matters about which they agree or at least find acceptable, and join (or threaten to join) with other parties to defeat legislation that they find unacceptable.  Thus, in modifying the policies of a ‘minority’ government  a determined opposition party can exert more effective influence than a coalition partner.

            Nigel Farage’s UKIP has an increased representation in the European Parliament - where the Ukippers revealed themselves as an ill-mannered rabble, insulting their fellow parliamentarians by ostentatiously turning their backs on the European Anthem!. In the European and local government elections UKIP have shown themselves capable of appealing to the xenophobia, greed and fear of a great many electors and of taking votes, particularly from Conservative candidates.  They haven’t yet any Westminster MPs and they haven’t gained control of any local authority, but they have gained many Council Chamber seats and, again and again, have driven representatives of the Conservative, Lib.Dem. and Labour parties into ‘third place’ in the polls.

            Anybody surveying the UK political scene today can see that it is the Ukippers rather than the Lib.Dems. who pose the greater threat to an overall  Conservative Majority at next year’s General Election. Ukippers themselves are becoming increasingly confident.  I have always regarded our own Conservative MP Douglas Carswell as a Crypto-Ukipper.  He has the essential qualification of acute Europhobia and has even been singled out for praise by Nigel Farage.  Yet UKIP has selected a candidate to oppose him in the forthcoming General Election.  That candidate probably won't win – but he could take enough Conservative votes to ensure that Douglas Carswell doesn’t win either.  It isn’t surprising that David Cameron is much more concerned with out-flanking Nigel Farage with ever-more Europhobic measures to halt the flow of EU visitors and immigrants, than he is with the concerns of his own Lib.Dem. ‘deputy’.

   I think it likely that Nick Clegg will be remembered in history as the man who finally destroyed the once-great Liberal Party.

*For further information about the Equality Trust and ‘The Spirit Level’ contact www.equalitytrust.org.uk or Equality Trust, 18 Victoria Park Square, London E2 9PF   Email – info@equalitytrust.org.uk

The Slaughter of the Innocents!

          Last week the CIA announced that it had found no evidence of Russia being directly involved in the destruction of that Malaysian air liner.  That, I am sure, was not what their political bosses had wanted them to report and I am equally sure that, had the Russians been directly involved, the CIA would have found evidence of it.

            On 28th July,  a spokesman for the Kiev Ukrainian Government declared that the aircraft’s ‘black boxes’ had revealed that the air liner had been destroyed by a ground-to-air missile as had been surmised.  That was surely extraordinary.  We had been told that the ‘black boxes’ had been handed over intact by the pro-Russian insurgents to representatives of the Malaysian Airline and that they were being sent to the UK to be opened and have their contents analysed.  How, I wonder, did those boxes fall into the hands of the Kiev government and had they tampered with them in any way?

It was a fortnight before international inspectors were able to secure the site of the crash and begin to make a proper inspection of the remains of the plane and even now their situation is far from safe and secure.  This has not been because of lack of co-operation from the insurgent authorities (they, after all, found and secured the ‘black boxes’ and handed them over untouched to the Malaysian air line). The reason the inspectors can't get on with their work is continued shelling by the artillery of the Kiev Government and the refusal of that government’s forces to cease their attacks while inspection is going on. 

In fact, we still don’t know for certain how that air disaster took place.  We don’t know if it was shot down by a missile and, if it was, who fired that missile, why they fired it and from where.   This hasn’t prevented the leaders of the EU from deciding that it was all the result of Russia’s support of the Ukrainian rebels – and they have imposed a further set of economic and political sanctions on Russia.  Meanwhile, NATO is holding a series of naval exercises in the Baltic Sea and the UK is sending troops to take part in military exercises in Poland. Both actions are surely quite uncalled for and dangerously provocative.  Can we really have already forgotten the horrors of the two twentieth century world wars?  The few of us who still remember World War II certainly haven’t.

Meanwhile in the ‘Holy Land', Israel is conducting a bloody and destructive campaign in Gaza which has so far resulted in the deaths of nearly 2,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians and many of them women and children. A fragile temporary cease-fire lasted only a matter of hours and the Israeli Prime Minister has suggested that the campaign may go on for much longer. Yes, they have been provoked.  HAMAS too bears some responsibility for the slaughter – but the Israeli response has been and is totally disproportionate.  The situation is made worse by the fact that Israel exerts a tight blockade on Gaza which means that the unfortunate victims haven’t even the choice of fleeing their country and becoming refugees. Twice at least, Israeli forces have bombed or shelled United Nations buildings in which hapless civilians have sought safety.  ISIS, Al Qaeda and the like must be delighted by the extra recruits that the situation is producing!

Why is there not even talk of sanctions and dire ‘consequences’ for Israel and those who support her and supply her with the weapons of death?  Israel is responsible for many more deaths and much more destruction than those east Ukrainian insurgents.  Are the lives of Middle Eastern women and children less sacred than those of European countries?  Or is it, as I suggested in this blog a fortnight ago: It’s not what is done, it’s who it is does it, that really matters?  How much more strident and belligerent the voices from 'the west' would have been if only it were the 'Russians’ who were slaughtering innocent women and children in Gaza! 

28 July 2014

Week 31 2014

Tendring Topics

Pots and Kettles

            Nowadays, of course, both cooking pots and kettles gleam on the kitchen shelf and their contents are cooked or heated by gas or electricity.  This wasn’t always the case.  I can remember a time, in the 1920s and ‘30s, when much cooking and water heating was carried out over a coal fire or on a coal fired cooking range.  It didn’t take long for both saucepans and kettles to acquire a black, sooty coating.  Hence came the expression ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ when a critic of someone else’s behaviour showed the same defect as the subject of his (or her) criticism.

            It was a thought that must have recently been in the minds of a great many people with memories as long as mine. Our Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, has been revealed as the head of a government that has approved the export of arms and military equipment to the Russians, shortly after he had publicly criticised the French for honouring a contract for providing the Russians with battleships.  The embargo had been imposed because of Russian support, and alleged supply of arms, to the pro-Russian separatist rebels in Eastern Ukraine.

            It could, in fact, be argued that ‘our offence’ was rather more serious than that of the French.  I don’t think any one seriously imagines that the pro-Russian rebels have any ambition to acquire a navy, whereas they most certainly can use rifles, missile parts and other military equipment that we have been sending to Russia.  I don’t find the excuse that rifles can be used for hunting and that some of the other equipment was to be sold on to the Brazilian Navy, very convincing. Is it, I wonder, quite OK to supply arms to the Kiev government?   I reckon that those tanks that we see the rebels using don’t come from Russia but have either been captured, or acquired as a result of the defection to the rebels of some of the government’s forces.
The fact is that no-one can be certain of the actual use to which exported arms may be put.   I don’t suppose that when the French sold exocet missiles to the Argentines, they imagined for one moment that the Argentines would use them to sink British warships engaged in the liberation of the Falklands.  I have little doubt that Colonel Gaddafi used weapons and ammunition that we had sold to him against us, when we helped Libyan rebels to overthrow his government.  Some of the weapons used by the Taliban to kill ‘our boys’ in Afghanistan were undoubtedly provided clandestinely by ‘the west’ to help their grandfathers kill Russians!  We have also sold weaponry to such autocracies as Saudi Arabia and Qatar some of which, I have little doubt, have  found their way into the hands of ISIS and Al Qaeda. I hope too, that the governments of both the USA and the UK have recently felt  just a little uneasy about the use of weaponry that we have sold to Israel.

 The manufacture and sale of weapons of war is an evil comparable with the slave trade.  It thrives on international discord and those who hold shares in the companies involved grow wealthy on the death and maiming of their fellow men and women; on violent death, the destruction of homes, and the creation of innocent and helpless refugees.

A world-wide ban on the manufacture and sale of weapons of war would be a positive answer to our prayer, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven’.

 Two young heroines!

At a time when the news seemed to be going from bad to even worse, with three air liners downed in a week, an Israeli armed incursion into Gaza with the shelling of a United Nations school used as a shelter for refugees, and a total of some 1,000, mostly civilian, Palestinian dead, on 24th July there came some really good news on a BBC news bulletin.. Meriem Ibrahim had been allowed to leave North Sudan and, with her husband and two children and accompanied by an Italian government minister, had flown to Rome where she had met the Pope who had commended her faithfulness and courage.
Sadly there was no confirmation of this the next day and I very much fear that it may be yet another example of the  truth of the cynical comment that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is!

Blog readers will recall that Meriem Ibrahim was the young Sudanese mother who was sentenced to being flogged followed by hanging for allegedly converting from Islam to Christianity and for marrying a Christian - which, since a Muslim woman is forbidden by Sharia law from making such a marriage, was regarded as adultery!  She could have escaped those penalties had she abandoned her Christian faith for Islam – but that she resolutely refused to do.  She gave birth to a daughter while shackled to the floor of her prison cell.

World-wide protests resulted in her being freed but then at Khartoum airport where she, her husband and her two children were about to depart for her husband’s home in the USA, they were prevented from departing on the pretext that her passport was invalid – and in North Sudan, so it seems, she remains.

No less deserving, but more fortunate, is Malala Yousafazai the teenage Muslim girl from Pakistan who was shot and left for dead by the Taliban for the crime of attending school and promoting education for other girls.  At death’s door, she was flown to Britain for urgent surgery and, almost miraculously, has been restored to health.  However Malala isn’t one to seek safety from further Taliban activity in obscurity..  She has inspired others to campaign, and is campaigning herself, for education for girls throughout the world and has recently been to Nigeria where she urged the President to redouble his government’s efforts to find and liberate the teenage girls who have been abducted by jihadist extremists and threatened with slavery or a forced marriage.

A sad, bad world has reason to be thankful that there are young women of the calibre of Meriem and Malala!    I wish I could claim to have, or ever to have had, their faith and their courage.  The thousands of us, and the governments, who rescued Meriem from a cruel and totally unjust punishment must  again urge the North Sudan government to allow her to return home.

Late News

I have just read in the ‘Church Times’ that Meriem and her family have taken refuge in the United States Embassy in Khartoum.  Well, at least they’ll be safe there until the North Sudan government can be persuaded, or coerced, into allowing them all to travel to the USA.

Assisted Suicide

          One of my most horrifying nightmares is of being trapped in a totally paralysed body, praying for death, but being incapable of doing anything about it; incapable in fact of doing anything at all.

            It might have been thought that that recurring bad dream would make me a keen supporter of the ‘assisted suicide’ bill that was recently debated in the House of Lords.  It wouldn’t have helped 'the me' of my nightmare in the least!. No doctor would have been able to declare that I had six months or less to live, or that I had a necessarily terminal illness.  Nor, I think, would it have been possible for me to give the informed consent required by the bill.

            I don’t think it possible to solve this problem by means of legislation.  The present situation is, I believe, that it remains a criminal act to assist a suicide – but that the Public Prosecutor does not press charges if he or she is persuaded that the person giving the assistance was acting out of love and did not have some ulterior motive. That is probably the best that we shall get.  If the Public Prosecutor can’t make up his mind then a jury can decide.

           After sixty years of marriage  my wife’s life came to an end eight years ago, in her sleep  in her own bed at home, and after several days of unconsciousness.  I do not believe that she suffered any pain.  I can’t say with absolute certainty what I would have done had she been suffering unbearable pain that our doctor was unable to alleviate, and had begged me to help her end her life.  I hope that I would have agreed and tried to do so.  One thing I do know. The possibility of my being prosecuted for manslaughter or even murder would not have had the very least influence on my decision!  I doubt if I would have given it a moment's thought.

21 July 2014

Week 30 2014

Tendring Topics………on Line

The Day of the Assassin

            I think that I may have referred before in this blog to the story that at the very beginning of the Battle of Waterloo a gunner officer reported to the Duke of Wellington that Napoleon himself was squarely in the sights of one of his cannon.  ‘Should he open fire?’ ‘Certainly not!’ the Duke is said to have replied, ‘We’re soldiers, not assassins’.  Yet if that cannon had been fired and had hit its target, thousands of lives would possibly have been saved.  Without its charismatic leader the French Army would surely have crumbled and the Battle of Waterloo would have been won and lost before it had even started.  Perhaps – but no-one can be quite sure of that.  The final effect of acts of violence is rarely predictable.

            Who for instance, in 1914 would have imagined that an assassin’s bullet fired in Sarajevo would trigger the activation of a series of alliances that would lead to the mass slaughter of World War I?  In the 19th Century a Russian aristocrat declared that the Russian system of government was autocracy tempered by assassination. American President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.  So was John F. Kennedy, one of his successors. Not one of those assassinations made any progress towards the end for which the perpetrator had hoped.  In her autobiography Hons and Rebels Jessica Mitford expresses regret that she didn’t seize her opportunity to assassinate Hitler – her sister Unity was in love with him and her father, the Earl of Redesdale, was a pre-war sympathiser.   It wouldn’t have been too difficult to have contrived a meeting.  Perhaps in the late 1930s the assassination of Hitler would have changed the course of history.  But there would have been others eager to step into his shoes.  No-one can be sure of what would have happened.  When in 1944 an attempt was made on Hitler’s life, the attempt failed and scores of suspects were cruelly executed or, as in the case of folk-hero Field-Marshal Irwin Rommel, forced to commit suicide.

            Do governments arrange assassinations of those they consider to be their enemies? Until recently they have always denied it but, if there is any truth at all in the popular James Bond novels, during the ‘cold war’ both the Soviet Union and ‘the West’ did assassinate or attempt to assassinate individuals among their opponents.

            In recent years though, the US government at least has admitted – declared triumphantly in fact – that it has used and is using a form of assassination to eliminate known terrorists and terrorist leaders. Unmanned, but lethally armed drones – robotic pilotless and crew-less aircraft – can be directed from a control room thousands of miles away to hit a human target.  It’s true, of course, that as well as ‘taking out’ their intended target they may also accidentally kill a few innocent civilians standing nearby but that’s just unavoidable collateral damage.  Drones offer a means of assassination without risk to the assassin, who is sitting safely in a control room far from the scene of action..

            During World War I battle-weary soldiers in the trenches would say fatalistically that if a bullet’s got your number on it (or a shell has your name on it) it’ll get you, no matter what you do.  The number was, of course, the army number engraved on the identity discs that every soldier wore round his neck. It is a number that, so it is said, is never forgotten. That may well be true.  It’s nearly 70 years since I marched out of the army into ‘civvy street’ but, although I’ve forgotten most other things, I have never forgotten my army number – 912411, or my POW identity number 229456!  The ‘shell’ would, of course, have had room on it for several names!
                That, of course, was nonsense. It does seem possible though that assassins of the future may, in effect, be able to put the identity of their victim on their bullets and fire their weapons with a certainty that they’ll find their target!  A US military agency has conducted its first successful tests of guided bullets which can track a target regardless of external factors or even where the sniper rifle is aimed. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an arm of the Department of Defence, is developing a smart .50-calibre bullet which can hit a moving target, rather like a guided missile.   The agency, which researches new technologies for use by the US military, announced its fruitful trials with a YouTube video demonstrating the in-flight guidance of the bullets.

It is being developed as part of the organisation’s Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) project, a programme tasked with improving “sniper effectiveness and troop safety” and to “revolutionise rifle accuracy and range by developing the first ever guided small-calibre bullet,” the government department says.  The bullets have fins and on-board computers to direct them towards laser-marked targets as far away as 1.2 miles.  The work is being carried out by a subsidiary of Maryland-based private defence firm Lockheed Martin and Teledyne Scientific & Imaging.   In 2010 Teledyn received $25.5 million in funding from the US government.
        I suppose that I ought to be pleased at a development that should reduce the ‘collateral damage’ of the slaughter of the innocent when a government has decided, without any pretence of a trial, that some individual is an ‘enemy of the state’ and have ordered their assassins to ‘take him out’.  It saddens me though, to see so much effort, intelligence and money devoted to finding more efficient means of killing our fellow humans.   If only the same amount of effort and finance could be devoted to the prevention of war and conflict!

‘A plague on both your houses!’

            So said the dying Mercutio, of the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  I sometimes feel much the same about the one-sided struggle that is going on between the Israelis and the residents of Gaza.

It is one-sided because the Israelis have overwhelming fire power, a disciplined and well equipped army, navy and air force at their disposal and the knowledge that, no matter how blatantly they ignore the pleas and injunctions of the United Nations, the USA will always support them.  Their missiles, their air raids, their bombardments from the sea, and now the invasion of their army, are reducing the towns of Gaza to rubble and the land to shell-scarred desert.  The toll of the dead – men, women and little children – rises daily.

Instinctively, I think, we support the underdog and the Palestinians clearly are the underdogs.  I am sure that the tragic civilian population of Gaza do need and deserve our support but I am beginning to think that they need protection from their own HAMAS government as well as from the Israelis.

It is clear to me that the present Israeli offensive is a violent and disproportionate response to continual rocket attacks from HAMAS.  If the constant hail of rockets towards Israeli targets ceased, the Israeli bombardment would cease too.  This wouldn’t solve all Gaza’s problems but it would put a halt to the daily toll of civilian deaths.  That would surely be a start.

HAMAS knows this but persists with its futile rocket attacks.  Militarily they are a total failure.  Something like half the rockets are intercepted by the Israeli defences and the rest, for the most part, explode harmlessly.  They are not, in any case, properly targeted.  The sole Israeli civilian casualty in the current flare-up was killed by an ‘old fashioned’ mortar bomb.  I reckon that the ordinary Israeli civilian going about his daily business, is more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than by being struck by a rocket from Gaza!      

Why then, does HAMAS persist in firing them on Israel?  The only explanation that occurs to me is that those deciding HAMAS policy are jihadist fanatics of the same nature as those who are ravaging parts of Syria and Iraq, are kidnapping schoolgirls and murdering Christians and anyone who does not subscribe to their own perversion of Islam, in Nigeria.  They provoke the Israelis into violent, disproportionate – and all too effective – reprisals because they know that Israeli slaughter of the innocent will persuade angry young Muslims round the world to enlist in or support ISIS, Al Qaeda or whatever local jihadist movement exists in their area, and will swing world-wide public opinion to their support.

They’re no doubt sorry about the civilians, women and children who die in the Israeli onslaughts but can console themselves with the thought that, as Muslim martyrs, they’ll go straight to Heaven – as, so they believe, will those who provide the Israelis with an excuse for their murderous reprisals.  Those who hope to bring peace and security to Israel and peace and justice to the Palestinians, must cast away the conviction that because one side in the dispute is clearly in the wrong – their opponents must be ‘in the right and deserving of our support’.  Both sides need to cast aside thoughts of vengeance, of exacting ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, and heed the message of the local boy who, as an adult, taught that we should love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and do good to those who seek to do us evil.

It’s about the only option that hasn’t yet been tried!

That Airliner

Like everyone else, I am appalled at the loss of that Malaysian Air Liner and all its passengers and crew.  I think though that I'll wait till a little more is known before deciding who was to blame. One thing that is quite certain (unless it was the work of a jiihadist suicide bomber) is that it was an accident.  Not one of the groups involved, not the Ukrainian separatist rebels, not the Kiev government, nor the Russians, could possibly have intended to destroy a airliner loaded with passengers.

The separatist rebels and/or the Russians are being blamed - and they may well be guilty of an appalling misjudgement.  The rebels had succeeded in bringing down lower flying Kiev government military aircraft and may possibly have imagined that that government was sending in a high altitude bomber to attack them.

I don't understand the current furore about the international inspectors being denied access to the crash site.  I have seen on tv pictures of lots of foreign (to the Ukraine) press and tv folk examining and taking pictures of the site.  Why can't those international inspectors get there?  Could it possibly be that it's because they insist on coming via Kiev and the Kiev Government - despite the crisis - continues to shell rebel-held towns and villages?

The site has been unsecured?  Reports say that the airliner's wreckage is strewn over a corridor a mile wide and several miles long.  Securing that, in the middle of a civil war, would surely be an impossible task.  The rebels are in possession of the 'black box''?   We should surely be pleased that it has been removed from the site and is, presumably, being kept safely. It will be time to protest when the separatist rebels decline to hand it over.

Already 'the west' has passed judgement and is busily deciding what extra sanctions it will impose on Russia.  In the meantime Israel has invaded Gaza and the civilian casualties - men, women and little children already outnumber those on the airliner.   The 'west's reaction' - they've asked for a cease-fire!

Years ago, there was a popular song; 'It ain't what you do - it's the way that you do it'.  Perhaps nowadays that should be changed to, It ain't what's done - it's who it is does it!.  





14 July 2014

Week 29 2014

Tendring Topics……on Line

First – the Bad News

            For years the UK has had nuclear Trident submarines roaming the world’s oceans as a so-called Independent Ultimate Deterrent to aggressors. Like NATO it is a relic of the cold war and of the ‘defence policy’ aptly described as Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD); ‘You dare to threaten me with your nuclear missiles – and I’ll threaten you with mine. If you dare to attack me with them, then I’ll attack you.  We’ll both be totally destroyed and (it's unfortunate about the collateral damage) large areas, perhaps the whole, of planet Earth will be made uninhabitable.

            Well, neither the Soviet Union nor NATO were stupid enough to use nuclear weapons.  The ‘cold war’ ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The UK ran down its full-time professional army, navy and air force in response to our economic situation – but Trident remained sacrosanct, untouchable.  In the meantime acts of aggression took place and it became abundantly clear that our ‘ultimate deterrent’ deterred no-one at all in the real world.  It didn’t deter Argentina from invading the Falklands.  It didn’t deter Turkey from invading Cyprus.  It didn’t deter the USA and its Caribbean allies from invading Grenada.  When, quite recently, Russia annexed and recovered its lost province of Crimea ‘the west’ blustered and threatened but – thanks to God and common sense – nobody even mentioned that ‘ultimate deterrent’.

            In the meantime the real threat to us all comes not from aggressive sovereign nations but from terrorists who have been inspired by a perversion of Islam to believe that they’re fighting God’s battles for him on earth.  They don’t yet possess nuclear weapons but the danger of their acquiring them is a natural consequence (or perhaps God’s punishment!) for our continuing to develop them, instead of banning their manufacture world-wide and destroying every single exiting nuclear weapon.  We have learned recently that chemical weapons can and have been banned world-wide.  It must be possible to do the same with nuclear weapons.

  I believe that much more dangerous than the possibility that Iran may develop a nuclear armoury, is the very real possibility that the nuclear weapons that we know Pakistan possesses should fall into the hands of terrorists.  NATO sent forces to Afghanistan to destroy the bases of Al Qaeda that had been protected by the Taliban government.   All they succeeded in doing was persuading Al Qaeda to move its bases elsewhere, notably the tribal areas of northern Pakistan, and Yemen in the Arabian peninsula. In those tribal areas of Pakistan, Al Qaeda, the Taliban and those who sympathise with them, are a considerable force possibly with a ‘fifth column’ in the Pakistan armed forces.  It is by no means impossible that they may one day overthrow the present Pakistani Government, acquire those nuclear weapons and threaten to use them

            Would our ‘independent ultimate deterrent’ then reveal its true value?  I doubt it.  Are people who tie explosives round their bodies and blow themselves up in crowded market places in the conviction that thereby they’ll go straight to Heaven as holy martyrs, likely to be deterred by the possibility that the victims of their nuclear weapon may respond in kind?

            And the bad news?  The independent cross-party Trident Commission, set up by the British American Security Information Council, has decided that there is no credible alternative to Trident.  I’m glad to note that British Quakers – but there are so few of us – are opposing this decision.  Here’s a copy of a report in The Friend, an independent Quaker weekly:

 The assertion that ‘these are weapons of mass destruction……….which have proved to be a poor deterrent against acts of terror or against recent political events’ must be an example of Quaker fear of making exaggerated statements.  They haven’t proved to be a poor deterrent, but have been no deterrent whatsoever!

…..and the not-quite-so-bad news!

          When I first heard it, in fact, I had thought that it was really good news.  It all began a few months ago when we learned that, to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, the Royal Mint was going to strike a memorial £2.00 coin with an image of Lord Kitchener on it.  The image was taken from an army recruiting poster in which the general (the hero of Corporal Jones in Dad's Army!) was assuring anyone viewing the poster that  Your Country needs YOU!

            I was one of thousands who felt that a war that had cost millions of British, French, Russian, Austrian and German lives, fought for reasons that were far from clear, and which had led to another bloody world-wide conflict  only twenty-one years later, was not best remembered by an image of a  luxuriously   moustached General urging young men to become cannon-fodder.  We petitioned the Royal Mint and the government to use instead an image of Nurse Edith Cavell.  The daughter of a Norfolk parson, she had been nursing the wounded of every country in a hospital in German-occupied Belgium.  She also helped two hundred wounded and captured British service-men escape to neutral Holland.  She was detected and arrested by the Germans, court-martialled and shot.

            In 1947 I worked briefly as a Public Health Inspector for the city of Westminster.  Quite near the office was a statue of Edith Cavell.  It bore the words for which she is best remembered.  ‘Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone’, which she said to the pastor who visited and prayed with her on the eve of her execution.    She was obviously a much more appropriate image for a memorial coin than that of a past-his-best general beckoning other men to their deaths.

            Last week I was elated when I learned that there would be a Nurse Edith Cavell coin struck in commemoration of the World War I centenary.  We had won!   Or so I thought until I read the ‘small print’ of the news item.   The Nurse Cavell coin is not to be struck instead of, but as well as, the Lord Kitchener one.   What’s more the Kitchener coin is to be a £2.00 one for general use – apart from the image it’ll be exactly like the £2.00 coins in use today.  The Nurse Cavell coin, on the other hand, will have a nominal value of £5.00 and is intended for coin collectors.  Unlike the Kitchener coin, they won't be in daily use.  Most of us will probably never see one.



 Here are enlarged pictures of the two coins.  It is likely to be all that most of us will ever see of the Nurse Edith Cavell coin!