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!.  





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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!


                                                                          

07 July 2014

Week 28 2014

Tendring Topics……..on line

A prophetic blog reader!

            A fortnight ago I published in this blog an email received from a regular reader on the subject of the jihadist extremists in the Middle East, the Indian Subcontinent and Africa.   It contained the following sentence:

The day surely cannot be far away when they succeed in overthrowing the government of a major country, or carve out a completely new country by annexing bits of other countries.

            Today it seems that that is happening.  The Isis invaders of Iraq and Syria have declared the areas that they have occupied to be a new Islamic Caliphate under their control in which ‘Sharia Law’ will be enforced.  The Shia Iraqi President desperately needs western help but apparently is not quite desperate enough to be prepared to widen his government to represent a truly united Iraqi nation.  That, he says, would be a negation of democracy – that word again.  It clearly means whatever its user wants it to mean!

            We have seen the inspiring spectacle of hundreds of young Iraqi Shia militia volunteers marching up and down with automatic rifles on their shoulders shouting words of defiance against the fighters of Isis.  I’m afraid they’ll discover that there’s a big difference between posturing at patriotic gatherings safe in the middle of Baghdad and actually facing a resolute enemy, with mortars and shells bursting all around you, comrades killed and wounded, and machine-gun fire sweeping the battlefield.

            I think it unlikely that 300 American troops can train an Iraqi army to a standard in which they can defeat those Isis fighters in the few weeks – or perhaps only days – available to them.  It would surely be disastrous for the UK or the USA to become more involved in this conflict than they already are. When we and the Americans withdrew our forces from Iraq after that disastrous and illegal invasion, I wrote in this blog that I thought it likely that within a few years Iraq would be divided into three separate states; an independent Kurdistan in the north, Shia Muslim with close ties to Iran in the south and a Sunni Muslim state in the centre.  It really took someone as ruthless as Saddam Hussein to hold those three opposing factions together.  Already there is virtually an independent Kurdistan in the north and it seems apparent that Sunni and Shia Muslims can’t and won’t live together in peace.  They’ll learn eventually (just as Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians in Europe eventually learned to live together) but we can’t, and shouldn’t try to, hasten the process by force of arms. 

            I wasn’t surprised to learn that very few members of this Isis Army that is trying to take over Syria and Iraq are actually either Syrians or Iraqis.  They are a hotchpotch of fanatics convinced that they’ve got God on their side, from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kosovo, Chechnia and, to our shame, from the United Kingdom and, no doubt, from wherever else there are Muslim communities with a few fervent jihadists or malcontents among them.

            But just as the members of Isis are from a number of different countries there is quite a surprising array of countries opposing them. I remember that when during World War II the Fascist government of Italy was overthrown and the Italians changed sides – we couldn’t bring ourselves to call them ‘allies’ – they were co-belligerents.  Perhaps we’ll have to use that expression again, though most of those concerned aren’t actually fighting yet.

            One that definitely is, is the army of President Assad in Syria.  We seem to have conveniently forgotten that Isis had its origins in Syria and was one of the groups that we were supporting in their efforts to topple President Assad.  The Syrian army is no doubt grateful that Isis has transferred its main attention to Iraq, but Isis definitely intends Syria to be part of its new Islamic Caliphate! 

Then, of course, there’s Iran.  It seems but yesterday that Iran was considered by ‘the west’ to be the centre of all evil in the Middle East.  'We' were quite sure they were  trying to make weapons of mass destruction (just as 'we' had been sure Saddam Hussein had been doing the same in Iraq!) and had to be stopped at all costs.  However Iran is now definitely keen to support Iraq’s Shia government against a Sunni invasion – and we’re welcoming that support.

Finally, Russia has supplied the Iraqi government with some second-hand jet fighter aircraft!   Who knows?  If Iraq has the trained pilots to fly them they could make the air strikes on Isis targets that Barak Obama is so reluctant to authorise, unnecessary.      

            What a muddle!  And most of it brought about by the interference of foreigners in the affairs of both Syria and Iraq.  I think it likely that if all those in Syria and Iraq who are not citizens of those benighted countries were to go home, the natives – those who haven’t yet either fled or been killed – would find a way of resolving their differences and living at peace with each other.

A footnote

Reviewing, in the Radio Times a tv programme about the 'Bay of Pigs' episode in 1961 that ended in total disaster, when the USA sponsored an armed attempt by Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and oust Fidel Castro, Gill Crawford quotes an unnamed US academic as saying: 'Every country has a right to figure out its own destiny......every time we intervene........we produce consequences that are ugly and resonate for generations'.

 If I may quote the Book of Common Prayer, I'd like every American President and every British Prime Minister, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest, that quotation.


The Idol with Feet of  Clay!

            A recent story-line in Holby City  BBC 1’s popular hospital ‘soap’ related to a terminally ill man in his nineties who came into Holby City Hospital accompanied by his granddaughter in her late twenties or early thirties.  She obviously loved him dearly and was very proud of his Polish origins and of the fact that, after coming to England in the immediate aftermath of World War II he had worked in the Fire Service, saving the lives of others at the risk of his own.  He was brave, loving, kind and generous. He was admired, not only by his grand-daughter, but by all who knew him.

            Except - that research revealed that he wasn’t Polish at all but German, and as a young man during World War I he had been a member of Hitler’s dreaded Waffen SS.  He had been a guard at a concentration camp, where he had been feared by all for his cruelty and disregard for human life.  At the end of the war he had stolen the identity of a dead Polish prisoner, in whose name he had come to England and found work in the Fire Service.  Neither his English wife nor his grand-daughter had known anything of his Nazi past and that he was, in fact, a still-wanted war criminal.

            I felt something like the shock and horror and – in the first instance – disbelief, that the grand-daughter felt on learning of her well-loved grandfather’s past, when I realized that Rolf Harris, a tv personality for whom I had felt warm and sincere admiration, had for decades been an abuser of any personable young girl who had the misfortune to make his acquaintance.

            Somehow, although I was shocked at the endless string of offences of which Jimmy Savile is  said to have been guilty, I really didn’t feel the same about him.  My early 20th century sensibilities had been suspicious of his hairstyle and his very professional showbizzy manner.  Although I watched several of his ‘Jim’ll fix it’ programmes  and had felt admiration at his apparent working as a hospital porter, I wasn’t all that surprised when he was revealed as having been a predatory paedophile.

            I really had been taken in by Rolf Harris though. He was just as much part of the ‘showbiz’ scene as Jimmy Savile but somehow he always managed to give the impression of being an extremely gifted amateur.  And he certainly was gifted, both as an artist (he wouldn’t have had the opportunity of painting the Queen had he not been) and as an entertainer.  He gave hours of innocent pleasure to thousands of viewers and listeners and, like Jimmy Saville, did a great deal of work for thoroughly deserving charities. He had even played a leading role in a film warning children of the danger of paedophiles!

            All of that though counts as nothing compared with the now-revealed activities that have led to his downfall and exposure as an abuser of young women and girls.  I feel desperately sad and sorry for Rolf Harris’ victims, and for the thousands who have seen their idol shattered. Was Rolf Harris' prison sentence too lenient?  I reckon that he found his very public shame and disgrace, after years of adulation, a harsher punishment than any number of years in prison.  There's a couple of lines from Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol that may come to his mind:

All that we know who lie in gaol is that the walls are strong,
And every day is like a year - a year whose days are long!



Supporting Clacton’s Tourist Industry

          It isn’t very often that I find myself eye to eye with our MP, Mr Douglas Carswell – a right-wing, climate-change-denying Europhobe; a Crypto-Ukipper if there ever was one!  However I am right behind him in his support of a campaign for the reduction of VAT payable on such tourist-specific items as accommodation in hotels, guest houses and caravan sites and on, for instance, the attractions on Clacton Pier, from the current 20 percent to 5 percent.               

            I believe that the Chancellor could recover the cost of this from income tax – perhaps by making all ‘state benefits’ (including the Attendance Allowance I get because of my very limited mobility!) subject to that tax.  It is the nature of income tax that no-one is ever asked for more than they can afford to pay, whereas VAT hits the poorest the hardest and the very richest the least because, of course, the VAT on any purchased goods or services is a much smaller proportion of the income of the wealthy purchaser.

            Clacton-on-Sea does not attract the very wealthy.  In fact it attracts precisely those whom the government claims to support – the hardworking man or woman who can just afford to take his or her family for a seaside holiday on Britain’s sunny east coast but for whom a few extra pounds one way or the other make all the difference. 
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27 June 2014

Week 27 2014

Tendring Topics……..on line

A democratic choice?

         Democracy;  rule by the people;  is such a wonderful idea and so obviously (to us) a very desirable form of government.  It is said to have originated in ancient Greece, where every individual city claimed to be a democracy. They weren’t democratic by our standards. It never even occurred to anyone that women should have a vote, and there was a large slave population who were excluded from any role in decision making, though they did all the hard work that made those city-states habitable.

            In Europe, including of course the United Kingdom, democracy as we know it today has a fairly short history.  Even the Chartists, the ‘loony lefties’ of the 19th century only demanded universal male suffrage*. It wasn’t until  the twentieth century (within my lifetime!) that, in this country, all women over 21 had the same voting rights as men.  Most people alive today can remember the voting age being reduced from 21 to 18 – and there are those nowadays who campaign for the voting age to be further reduced to 16.  There are also those (and I am among them!) who believe that we should change our ‘first past the post’ voting system, which makes it possible for a candidate to be elected even if his votes were less than the total received by other candidates, to ‘proportional representation’ by which the number of candidates elected is proportional to the number of votes cast for his or her party.  That would mean that every vote would count, smaller parties would be likely to get some representation in parliament, and it would be impossible for a party to form a government despite having a minority of votes in the country. This has happened in the past.

            One of the criticisms constantly levelled against the European Union is that it is ‘undemocratic’.  Decisions are made by the European Commission, the members of which haven’t been elected by anybody, and by the Council of Ministers – all senior Ministers of the member states of the EU.  Well, they have all been elected as MPs, but were elected to seniority only by members of their own party and are members of the Council of Ministers simply by reason of their office – hardly democratically put there by the European electorate.

            There is one European institution whose members are unquestionably democratically elected – and that is the European Parliament.  It was more democratically elected than our Parliament in Westminster since a system of proportional representation was used in the election.  The UKs representatives pretty accurately reflect changes in our national political thinking.  The Lib.Dems. once a force to be reckoned with, have all but disappeared;  the Ukippers (who want to see the end of the institution to which they have been elected!) have increased in numbers and so have the members of the Green Party – it’s true only from two to three but, of course, they’ll strengthen the voice of other European Greens on relevant issues.

            Now comes the question of who is to be President of the all-powerful European Commission.   The largest single political grouping in the European Parliament is that of the ‘Centre-Right’ – hardly the grouping that I’d normally be keen to support, but I’d have thought they’d be just the lot that would appeal to David Cameron, George Osborne and Co.  Not on this occasion as it happens.  The Centre-Right (and therefore the European Parliament’s) preferred candidate is Mr Jean Claude Juncker. A former Prime Minister of Luxemburg, Mr Juncker is ‘a federalist’ who believes that the EU’s best way forward lies in closer political union.  As such he is anathema to our Prime Minister Mr Cameron who is hoping to achieve the reverse, a looser union. He is trying hard, without much success, to gain support for his insistence that the democratic way forward is to ignore the expressed opinion of the democratically elected parliament, and to leave the appointment of the Commission’s President to the Political Heads of the EU member states.

            I don’t think he’ll succeed but, if he does, I’m inclined think that his fellow top politicians will make the same choice of Mr Juncker!  And so they did - when those top politicians voted on 27th June. David Cameron found just one supporter. Europe's best future does lie in closer integration.  If the UK doesn't think so it'll probably be better for Europe if we left the EU - but I think it will prove disastrous for us!

* It is interesting to note that all but one of the Chartists demands, considered dangerously revolutionary during the 19th century, have since been met without the dire consequences predicted.  The one exception was the demand for annual Parliaments.  Thank goodness that wasn’t met – who nowadays would want all the hassle, all the false promises and all the lies of a General Election every year?

Almost, some Good News

            It isn’t very often that I have the opportunity to comment on a piece of unequivocally good news.  This isn’t because plenty of good things, resulting from the kindness of good and compassionate people, aren’t happening all around us every day.  But it is the bad things, the cruel, selfish, greedy and stupid actions of a minority of us that make the headlines.  Never forget that It’s the exception that makes the news. 

Meriem with her toddler son                                           
           
I really thought though that this week I'd be able to comment on the unquestionably good news that Meriem Ibrahim about whom I wrote the week before last, had been freed by North Sudan's Court of Appeal. She would, I thought, shortly be going home with her American husband, her toddler son, and her new baby daughter, born in a prison cell. You'll recall that she had been sentenced to be flogged and hanged after being wrongly convicted of adultery and apostasy.The report of her home-going  was too good to be true.  She was released, rejoined her family and was at Khartoum.Airport en route for the USA, when she was re-arrested for attempting to travel on a false passport and is currently, I believe, languishing in a police cell.

It appears that she had only a South Sudanese passport.  It was surely the sort of problem that, given good will, could have been solved within hours - but the good will wasn't there.  The Sudanese Police? Religious Authorities? were no doubt angry that their chosen victim had escaped from their clutches. They might not be able to flog and hang her but they could prevent her going home.

Meriem mustn't be forgotten.  The governments, and the thousands of those who petitioned for her release, must keep up the pressure until this latter-day Christian martyr is free to go home with her family.

The WAR CRY!

          Have you ever had a copy of ‘The War Cry’ thrust at you in the street by an eager individual wearing Salvation Army uniform.  If so, it’s quite possible that you fumbled in pockets or handbag for some small change and took the proffered magazine, quite intending to deposit it in a litter bin at the earliest opportunity.

            If you did that recently, you made a sad mistake.  Today’s War Cry is an attractive, ecumenical and very readable journal far removed from the fundamentalist, evangelical and sectarian publication I remember from the distant past.  I have the 14th June issue in front of me.  The cover is a ‘still’ from a recently released historical film ‘Belle’ while inside, on page 3, is a review of the film that left me  eager to see it!    There’s also a well-written article about ‘People Trafficking’ a modern scourge with which the Salvation Army is particularly concerned, in which young people (particularly young girls seeking a better life) are tricked into what amounts to modern slavery

             Nor is today’s War Cry narrowly sectarian.  There’s a news story about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent visit to Nigeria in which he prayed with Nigeria’s President and expressed his sympathy and concern about the recent terrorist attacks to which Nigeria has been subjected.  There’s also news of the Methodist Church of Sierre Leone’s campaign against Ebola, a deadly infectious disease that has recently reached theirea from Guinea.

            The Salvation Army has been active in the provision and management of Food Banks (our local Clacton-on-Sea Food Bank is run by them) and War Cry reports on the findings on this subject of Oxfam and Christian-based groups ‘Church Action on Poverty’ and the Trussell Trust.

            Food Banks and food aid charities gave more than 20 million meals to the needy last year and there was a 54 percent increase in the number of people seeking food help.  It was pointed out that food prices rose by 43.5 percent in the eight years prior to July 2013 and during the same period household energy prices rose by 37 percent.  Meanwhile, ‘low and stagnant wages and insecure and zero-hour contracts mean that for many low-income households the income is less every month than their essential outgoings’

            It was good to see that the Salvation Army continues its success in finding people who had lost touch with their relatives.  During May 2014 The Salvation Army’s Tracing Service found 121 such people.  Over the course of the month the service concluded 134 cases, with a 90 percent success rate.

Note to Blog readers.  I have a problem with sending and receiving emails and my laptop will be with a computer specialist till Monday at the earliest.  I am therefore publishing this blog two days early.   I hope to be back to normal next week.   Ernest Hall













23 June 2014

Week 26 2014

Tendring Topics……..on line

Middle East Maelstrom

          A recent email from a regular blog reader sums up the current situation relating to Islam and its neighbours in the Middle East, a considerable part of central Africa and the Indian sub-continent:

Well, I said the militant Islam thing was going to come to a head, and almost immediately the Pakistan Taliban come very close to capturing Karachi main airport, and ISIS are getting close to taking Baghdad. And still the Nigerian school girls haven't been returned.  The day surely cannot be far away when they succeed in overthrowing the government of a major country, or carve out a completely new country by annexing bits of other countries.  Would have been better to have left Saddam Hussain in Iraq, but I see Tony Blair is very sensitive to that obvious criticism and has tried to pre-empt it. Likewise, it is crystal clear the west should have given no support to those trying to overthrow Assad. These dictators may be bad and use their powers arbitrarily and brutally, but an ultra orthodox religious regime is ten times worse because it so deeply affects the lives of ordinary people; especially women, who make up 50% of the population and gays who make up 7%, and anyone else of a different religion, or of a more moderate version of Islam.

I couldn’t have put it better or more succinctly myself – though he’s missed out the second batch of schoolgirls who have been abducted by jihadist militants in Nigeria, or the massacres that have recently taken place there.  Nor did he mention the atrocities that have taken place after ISIS victories.  Perhaps, as a former POW, I am particularly affected by tv images of Iraqi soldiers being cold-bloodedly shot en masse by these ‘religious zealots’ after capture. In North Africa in 1941/’42 we on one side and the Germans and Italians on the other tried to kill each other – but we did all adhere to ‘the rules of war’.  Many years later, when my family and I were on holiday in Austria, we encountered a German family remarkably similar to ourselves.  We discovered that the father, like me, had been taken prisoner in Tobruk in 1942 – I, by Rommel in June, and he by ‘Monty’ in November!  Because, all those years ago, both sides had adhered to those rules, we had both survived to look each-other in the face and shake hands as friends.

I was fascinated by Tony Blair’ attempts to suggest that the current conflict has nothing to do with the invasion of Iraq into which he and George Bush lured us.   It is, so he says, the clear result of our failure to intervene in the Syrian Civil War. On which side does he think we should have intervened?  It is possible that, early in the conflict, many of the rebels did seek a more democratic Syria.  It has for some time though been clear that the current rebellion is led and dominated by Islamist zealots of the same breed as those who perpetrated 9/11, were responsible for the subsequent bomb outrages in London, who kidnapped those Nigerian teenagers, and who are now fighting their murderous way through Iraq.  Does Tony Blair really suggest that we should have helped them overthrow Hassad?

When David Cameron expresses concern about British radicalised Muslims returning from Syria to the UK after learning the terrorist arts he doesn’t, for one moment, imagine that they’ll have learned those arts from President Hassad’s supporters. Their teachers will have been those anti-Hassad activists that we have been supporting but, according to Tony Blair, not supporting strongly enough!

I suppose that one good thing that can be said to have come out of the present crisis is a more friendly relationship with Iran.  I heard a Conservative MP in the House of Commons warning the government that this might damage relations between ourselves and our present Middle East allies.  Could he possibly have been referring to such ‘allies’ as Saudi Arabia and Qatar?  These countries, to which we blithely sell arms, are the source of the jihadists bloodthirsty inspiration.  They are the patrons and supporters of Sunni Muslims as Iran is the inspiration, patron and supporter of the Shia.   I have little doubt that these wonderful Middle East allies of ours have been supplying the Syrian rebels with arms (probably some that we have sold them!) and funds to keep them going.  I wouldn’t wish to live either in Saudi Arabia or Iran but, if I were compelled to make a choice, I would certainly settle for Iran, as being the less restrictive and the lesser offender against what I (and I think, Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband) regard as inalienable human rights.  But, of course, human rights are all very well - but business is business! And the manufacture and sale of the weapons of war (the instruments of death) is very big business indeed.

Now we, with the Americans as our ‘senior partners’, are considering intervention to halt the progress of ISIS and prevent the downfall of the present Iraqi government.  We’re not going to put troops on the ground, but we’ll possibly bomb ISIS troop concentrations and so on.  Unmanned ‘drones’ may be used to ‘take out’ some of the ISIS commanders and political leaders.   Inevitably, in doing so innocent civilians – men, women and children will be killed and maimed.  Whatever might be the conclusion of the current fighting it will certainly result with Middle Eastern Muslims – Sunni and Shia alike – uniting in their hatred of the western infidels who inflicted even more death and destruction on their benighted countries. History demonstrates that foreign intervention in civil conflicts always makes them bloodier and more protracted

Twenty-five years ago Christians were a tolerated minority in many Muslim majority countries though not, of course, in Saudi Arabia. In Iraq and Syria in particular there were thriving and long-established Christian Communities.  They set an example of tolerance in an increasingly intolerant world. Today, Christians have been a target of extremists in both those countries.  Christian lives are in daily danger throughout the Middle East and those who can get out have done so.  Our Christian faith is in danger of becoming extinct in the very area of the world in which it was born.

That is the true and lasting legacy of the policies of George W. Bush junior and Tony Blair.  I wonder if they’re proud of it?

Spoiling for a fight?

I have just been listening to an interview with the Secretary-General of NATO about Iraq and the state of the world generally. Perhaps we need reminding that NATO was created during the Cold War specifically to deal with the perceived military threat from the Soviet Union.  The United Kingdom is a member and, unlike our membership of the European Union, joining NATO was taken on quite arbitrarily by the government without any referendum or consultation with the British people.  It is now concerning itself with matters far beyond its original purpose.

The Afghan war for example, is now coming to a less-than-victorious end, after a decade long struggle.  It was a war in which, theoretically at least, NATO was attempting to combat jihadist terrorism at its source.  This was considered to be in Afghanistan, where Al Qaida was protected by the fundamentalist Taliban Government.  All that has happened is that Al Qaida has moved its bases elsewhere, what has been portrayed as ‘western aggression’ has gained recruits for the terrorists, and the Taliban remain undefeated. Meanwhile the conflict has cost the UK and, of course, the USA hundreds of lives and millions of pounds and dollars.  The best place to combat terrorism is in the western countries in which acts of terrorism are threatened or are taking place.  The only role that NATO should take is ensuring the dissemination of intelligence about terrorist groups, and experience of foiling their activities – a field in which, if official sources are to be believed, the UK has been very successful.

That however is not the way Anders Rasmussen. NATO’s Secretary General sees it.   In his Radio interview  he gave the impression of a man spoiling for a fight.  ISIS aggression against Iraq, he averred, was a threat to all of us – it was imperative that firm action be taken against them.  Fortunately for us all, American President Barak Obama (without whose OK, NATO certainly won’t act!) is a great deal more cautious.  He has reinforced the defence of the US Embassy in Baghdad and is sending 300 ‘advisers’ to help organise defence against ISIS but not to get directly involved in conflict.  He doesn’t rule out air strikes against carefully selected targets, but they are not to be taken for granted.  He does not want ‘mission creep’ dragging the USA deeper and deeper into the conflict. 

Mr Rasmussen hasn’t forgotten the Ukraine.  There’s Russia’s virtually bloodless ‘annexation’ of the Crimea, to the satisfaction of the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants! There’s the ‘provocation’ of military exercises near Ukraine’s borders, and Mr Rasmussen is sure that Russia is encouraging the armed separatists in Eastern Ukraine. I’d have thought that much more provocative were NATO’s naval exercises in the Baltic and Black Sea and the reinforcement of NATO troops in Poland and the Baltic states.  As for encouraging the armed separatists, we do know that they have asked Russia to send troops over the border to assist them – and that Russia has declined.  Russia has had more experience than any other country at opposing jihadist terrorism. They were fighting it in Afghanistan when we and the Americans were supporting the fathers and grandfathers of today's Taliban fighters. Instead of thinking up more and stronger sanctions – which affect us as much as they do them – we should be co-operating with them in combating this world-wide scourge.  Goodness knows, we were happy enough to co-operate with a much less amiable Russia to defeat Hitler and the Nazis.  But, of course, neither Mr Rasmussen nor any of the world’s statesmen are old enough to remember that!






































16 June 2014

week 25, 2014



Tendring Topics…….on line



A Modern Martyr

          Folk of my generation were brought up in the belief that in our wonderful 20th Century, the age of Christian martyrs, like the ‘age of miracles’ was over.  Martyrs were those who were ‘butchered to make a Roman holiday – thrown to the lions in the arena in the reign of the Emperor Nero or slaughtered in some other agonising way for their refusal to renounce their Christian faith. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the protestant half of Christendom honoured as saints and martyrs their co-religionists who were tortured and burned alive by zealous Catholic monarchs like Queen Mary Tudor (‘bloody Mary’),.  The Catholic half gave similar honour (observed in the Church of Rome to this day) to recusant priests hung, drawn and quartered by her half-sister Queen Elizabeth I.

            There have, of course, been martyrs since those days – in the wake of the French and Russian revolutions for instance, though much of the anti-clericalism of those times resulted from the perceived support of the established churches for the tyrannical former regimes in those countries, and the contrast between the splendour and riches of the ‘princes’ of the Church and the abject poverty and squalor of the people.  The fate of the Jews in the Nazi regime was different (and worse) than martyrdom. Martyrs could often save themselves by repudiating their faith. In the holocaust the victims were condemned not by their faith but by their ethnicity.  None of us can change or repudiate that.

Suicide bombers, unlike their victims, are not martyrs.  They are cold-blooded murderers who compound their crime by killing themselves as well, thereby evading human retribution for their crime.

Meriem Ibrahim (an attractive 21st century young woman threatened with a medieval punishment. She could be ‘that friendly and helpful young woman next door’ to you – or me)

A modern martyr (who may yet be saved from martyrdom) is Meriam Ibrahim of North Sudan.  She had a Muslim father, who deserted the family, and a Christian mother who brought her up as a Christian.  She married an American Christian man and has a young son and a daughter, the latter born in prison while she was shackled to the floor of her cell.  She has been condemned to death for having converted from Islam to Christianity and, before being hanged, is to be flogged with one hundred lashes for her ‘adultery’.

She is deemed to have been a Muslim because her father was Muslim. Sharia Law as interpreted in Sudan declares that death is the punishment for conversion from Islam to atheism or any other faith.  Since that same law also forbids a Muslim woman to marry a Christian man, her relationship with her Christian husband is ‘adulteus’; hence the flogging before the hanging!

‘Humanely’ (well, Islam does claim to be compassionate and merciful) they won’t hang her for two years (presumably to allow the new baby to become less dependent on her mother) and they won’t hang her at all, if only she’ll repudiate her Christian faith and return to Islam.  This she refuses to do.  She can’t in any case ‘return’ to a faith that she has never embraced.

Baby Maya, Meriam’s daughter born in prison to a mother condemned to death.  Her name is the same (though spelt differently) as that of my little German ‘adopted niece’ who was featured in this blog two weeks ago.

Meriam’s case is so outrageous to western minds that it has attracted world-wide condemnation.  Barak Obama (Meriam is married to a US citizen and that baby, born to a mother in shackles, and her brother, are half Americans) has expressed his outrage, as have David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband.  A petition, of which I am one of the 800,000 (so far) signatories, is to be presented to the Sudanese authorities.

Sadly, I have heard nothing of British Muslims making their voices heard, yet apart from Meriam and her family, it is they who are likely to suffer most from Meriam’s martyrdom.  Incidents such as these, and the wholesale murder and abduction of Christians by militant Islamists in Nigeria, lend fuel to the intolerance and prejudice of such neo-fascist and anti-Islamic  groups as the English Defence League, the BNP and at least a minority of the Ukippers.

            I very much hope that the Sudanese government will bend to world-wide anger and release Meriam and her children unscathed to join her husband, the children’s father, in the USA.  Already one Sudanese government spokesman has said that she would be released within a few days – but that was quickly denied.  Sadly, those who are convinced that Meriam was convicted in accordance with a law laid down directly by God to his prophet nearly a millennium and a half ago, are unlikely to be impressed by an appeal to ‘Universal Human Rights’ in 2014.

Better or Worse? – or just Different?

          Writing about Islam and Sharia law has brought to my mind the fuss that there has been about the accusation that the governing bodies of a number of Birmingham Schools had been infiltrated by Muslim extremists who were changing the schools’ characters and possibly using them to ‘radicalise’ the younger generation and possibly make them recruits for terrorism.   I think that we’ll probably hear a lot more about this in the days to come. 



My knowledge of the situation has been gained entirely from tv news bulletins and broadcast interviews with parents, governors and – of course - national politicians.   It must be said that Muslim parents seemed for the most part to be thoroughly approving of the very schools that have been causing most concern. Some of the practices of these schools reminded me of my own schooldays – now some eighty years ago!

Our school day began with an assembly and an act of worship; Christian worship of course.  Throughout my eleven years (5 to 16) of full-time education I never even met anyone with any other religious faith.  There was a hymn, a prayer and a reading from the New Testament. The handful of Roman Catholic pupils were excused this part of the assembly.  They joined us to hear the Head Master give out any notices and dismiss us to our classes.

In the 1930s.  Boys’ School on the right, Girls’ School on the left.  Utility block, shared but at different times, in the middle.  Note the fence between the two playing fields.

There was a Boys’ School and Girls’ School.  Ours were adjacent but quite separate.  There were separate playing fields with a high wooden fence separating them.  There was even a ‘trip wire’ a few feet from the fence over which we were forbidden to tread - to stop our watching the girls play hockey through the occasional ‘knot hole’!

There were no ‘sex education classes’ and certainly no contraceptive advice!  There were a few co-educational secondary schools.  As a schoolgirl my wife went to one, but they were the same in that respect. The very thought of mixed classes in such subjects would have provoked embarrassed shock and horror among even the most ‘progressive’ parents!   I am sorry that my school wasn’t co-educational.   It would probably have made me less agonisingly shy and ill-at-ease with the opposite sex than I was during my late teenage years.  I’m not so sure about the sex and contraceptive classes though – I really don’t believe that teaching these things to ever younger children is the best way to reduce premature sexual activity and teenage pregnancies.

            I am sure that there are lots of things about educating children and fitting them for the world of the 21 century that Muslims can and should learn from the ‘western world’ – but we shouldn’t be so reluctant to admit that there are one or two things that we can learn from them.