Category Archives: terrorism

Cars reveal us for what we are

We wouldn’t find Mr Bean so funny if he actually shared the road with us.

Except in America, the state goes to considerable lengths to keep weapons under control – particularly those of mass destruction. It fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to that end. Yet each of us is weaponised in a user-friendly way that cannot be controlled.

The moment we slam the door shut on half a ton of metal and hurtle off at who-knows-what breakneck speed, we are weaponised to an extraordinary degree. Never was this more dramatically rammed home than at Nice last year when over eighty people were crushed to death and untold numbers of others crippled and scarred for life.

Suddenly both we, and our enemies, realised that all around us were ready means of destruction on a massive scale. Worse was the knowledge that the state was powerless in the situation and that you didn’t need bomb factories, ingredients and planning, all of which it did have a chance of monitoring. You simply could step out one morning and kill a hundred people if your vehicle was sufficiently beefy. It was a terrifying realisation.

The car has been a hugely liberating and empowering development in the human story. Up to the eighteenth century, people rarely travelled more than eight miles from the place they were born. Suddenly, their territory was covered in asphalted roads which enabled them to reach the furthest corner of their homeland in incredible time. Journeys of weeks were reduced to hours. Moreover, those freezing weeks of bone-shaking boredom in horse-drawn carriage on rutted, unmade roads were now reduced to hours of warmth and comfort in which people didn’t need to listen to the inane witterings of strangers. Within a short time, we could enrich the airwaves with the finest music our species has created or hear the intelligent musings of the more articulate and entertaining of our people.

Nothing, I suggest, of all the wondrous technological achievements of recent times, including television and the Internet, has been embraced with such enthusiasm. It does, however – as most things do – have a downside. It is partly responsible, I feel, for our failure to engage with our neighbours. Where once our walk to work or the shops brought us into contact, we now take five paces out from our front door into the car and race off. Another downside, which has taken us a hundred years to experience, is that in the hands of a sick fanatic a vehicle can be as devastating as a machine gun. Yet another, and one to which we blissfully give insufficient thought, is that among the myriad things we humans get up to – and in this I include adrenaline sports – nothing puts us at greater risk of killing ourselves. Those same said comforts lull us into a false sense of security. Our constant search for ergonomic improvements has led to ever quieter engines which, when combined with superior suspension systems, can find the car having magicked its speed up to 100 mph with us barely noticing. Not only does this ‘improvement’ bring greater danger to ourselves, but to pedestrians as well. The virtually noiseless electric car is already upon us.

It is a rare person who regards himself as being anything other than a good, safe driver. Most of us regard our skills to be greater than they are. Next to our home and, much more so than our workplace, the car excels as our number two comfort zone. That very factor should give us pause for thought. You are much more at risk of complacency when you’re relaxed in your comfort zone.

We set out each day confident in the belief that our skills will protect us and steadfastly imagine that our safety is almost wholly in our own hands. This, however, completely misses the elephant in the room. Our safety is actually in the hands of strangers. Every time we embark on a journey we rely utterly on every other driver to do the right thing. Hundreds – or even thousands on a long journey – of other drivers whiz by us; if just one of them makes a misjudgement or is distracted, particularly on a bend, we become another statistic – one of over 5,000 who die annually on our roads.

It is a sobering thought that while so many of us are scared of flying, we are many, many thousands of times more likely to die in your nice, comfortable runabout. Just as astonishing is the blind faith we place in strangers to ensure that this does not happen. But having said all this, and despite these undoubtedly serious caveats, the car remains a wonderful thing.

Getting around was once the preserve of the rich: those who had a horse. It stayed that way during the early years of motoring. Then along came Henry Ford with his Model T and the masses joined in the fun. Even a Caesar would have envied what was now available to the least of what would have been his subjects.

Crazy, over-confident drivers are not the only people we should fear on the road. There are those afraid of their own shadow. While we have gained protection to a degree by applying tests both to ourselves and our vehicles, we cannot shield ourselves from the motorist who insists on driving super-cautiously, often well below the permitted speed limit. He or she can so drive fellow motorists up the wall that even the most forgiving can do the unthinkable and precipitate an accident. Nonchalantly blind to the stress levels building up in the queue stretching away to their rear, the slow-coach Sunday driver is a true menace. But hope is on the horizon. Within a generation, most of our journeys will be driverless. Even the slow-coach will have been speeded up. Fatalities on the road will plummet. That should be welcome news to all of us, but think how that prospect will cheer the Greeks and, indeed, all the nations with horrendously worse records than our own. Worldwide, over a decade, millions will live to see old age.

It is often difficult to know what sort of person an individual is. But here again this chariot of the common man excels. Spend half an hour behind anyone, especially in an urban area, and you will have many of the answers which even daily concourse can fail to provide. The way we drive reveals so much about ourselves. Cars expose our true selves in a way so few activities can. They expose show-offs, bullies and chancers. They show whether you’re considerate and polite or, God forbid, indecisive like that slowcoach. And what about the personalised number plate man (as he almost always is a man)? Unthinkingly, he reveals to the world that he’s a narcissist, a man in love with himself.  Life is a cabaret and people are supremely adept at hiding their true personality. But put them in charge of a car and all will be revealed, for better or worse.

Turkey should be embraced, not scorned

Kilis, a refugee camp in Turkey near the Syrian border.

I wrote some time ago that the EU was making a big mistake by playing hardball with Turkey’s application to become a member. They fear that the entry of a major Muslim country will have a destabilising effect.

They fear a possible Trojan Horse whose admission could immerse our continent in many of the horrors currently being visited on Turkey’s neighbours, Syria and Iraq. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Turkey is the obvious Muslim country which stands any chance of enabling Europe to gain acceptance throughout the Muslim world as a friend. As a member of the EU, it would send a signal to all Muslims that Europe is not irredeemably prejudiced and could happily work with them to build a better and more secure future. Once a member, you could be sure that Turkey would go after the nihilist maniacs with a sure-footedness that is not open to the rest of us.

Remember that Turkey single-handedly kept order throughout the Near East and North Africa for 500 years right up to modern times. Millions of Turks headed for Germany by invitation during the post-war years of the economic miracle to help rebuild that country’s shattered industries and infrastructure. They were known as ‘Guest Workers’ and the understanding was that, in due course, they would return to their homeland. They were not meant to stay.

So little did they offend their German hosts, however, that they were never asked to leave. Theirs proved to be the face of Islam that Europe never needed to fear. Even with the recent controversial admission of the huge refugee influx triggered by Chancellor Merkel’s off the cuff offer, there is not in Germany the festering resentment among Muslims and, indeed, Germans that exists in France. Two reasons account for this. In Germany, there is not the ghettoisation and lack of jobs as in France. Also, France’s Muslims are, for the most part, of Algerian origin and are the legacy of a bitterly savage colonial war of independence. Neither side fully forgave the other.

All of us can agree that Europe is at a crossroad in its relationship with the Muslim world. An implacable death cult has cast a shadow over all the continent’s urban conurbations and the crowd-gathering events which are staged there. Messaging each other in the new Wild West of the internet in an encryption form harder than Enigma to crack, they can operate in cells or as ‘lone wolves’ with manuals provided to allow them online to acquire and assemble deadly bombs. How the zealots of the IRA must regret that they never had such tools.

The result of it all is that people increasingly live in a fear they have never known before. They know the authorities have no answer, and never can, to the lone operator who can drive a truck or buy a knife across a supermarket counter. Even if we succeed, as we very well might, in taking back the land which Isis has claimed for its new Caliphate, its fighters will disperse throughout Muslim lands and perhaps our own and reappear hydra-headed to continue the mayhem. It is a depressing prospect and one to which we can envisage no end.

My own regular visits to London, its museums and places of interest, have lost their appeal. On a recent visit, I found that the dear old British Museum, an endless source of wonderment to me, had a half-hour long queue for semi airport-like security checks. I took one look and went on my way. In a long life, I had hitherto been able to wander up unmolested and pass through its hallowed portals unchallenged. That soon will become a distant memory. Security everywhere has become the order of the day.

We must resist. Turkey can help us for only it, as a Muslim nation closely allied to the West with NATO’s second largest army, can help us confront the threat ideologically. And that is the only way this death cult can be beaten.

Followers of their own faith must turn on them en masse. Their communities and their own families must place them beyond the pale.

The cowardly recruiters and dissemblers who encourage disaffected youngsters whose lives have gone off the rails to make an end of themselves and carry as many as they can into oblivion with them must be taken out of circulation and denied any platform to propagate their poison. Theirs should be a special place in perdition.

Turkey has already won the hearts, as well as plaudits, from the millions driven from their homes in Syria. Their efforts to provide a refuge from Assad’s killing machine dwarf those of any other nation, including Germany. The camps they have set up are a model of humanitarianism; they provide every conceivable facility and resemble more villages more than camps. Turkey receives scant recognition for her huge efforts and, needless to say, massive expense. And this from a nation which, unlike those in the West, cannot be described as rich.

For all the frequently ill-informed criticisms of Turkey’s president, he has proved himself a man with a heart which is more than can be said of many of the rest who weep crocodile tears. With 14 years of enlightened economic policies, he has also achieved growth rates the envy of all but China and India. In short, until these terrible troubles on his border, Turkey was booming.

My own message is clear: Turkey should be embraced, not scorned. If we continue to reject her overtures she will turn her back on us, and rightly so, with dire consequences for any last hope of getting back to normal and putting terrorism back in the malign box where it belongs.

Gay schools aren’t the answer

If you remove certain sections of society from the mainstream you risk encouraging the majority to believe that they really don’t want to belong to the mainstream.

If you remove certain sections of society from the mainstream you risk encouraging the majority to believe that they really don’t want to belong to the mainstream.

I was taken aback recently to learn of a serious proposal to set up a school for Gays. While a firm supporter of not stigmatising minorities – as a child of an unmarried mother at a time such things were scandalous, I know just what that means – I felt that this was simply a bridge too far. In fact I believe it could be counter-productive, harming the very people it was designed to protect; a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. Humans across the world belong to a single family. If you remove certain sections of society from the mainstream and create an environment in which they circulate for substantial and formative periods only among people of their own preferences you risk encouraging the majority to believe that they really don’t want to belong to the mainstream. We know the aims of Gays in making this proposal are laudable; they wish to experience and benefit from an education free from the slings and arrows of a taunting minority. But the answer, I fear, is not to remove them from the orbit of the bullies but to bear down and educate bullies into accepting that it is they – the bully – not their victim, who is the problem. It was never more clear to me than during my army service in Northern Ireland that if people are ghettoed from their fellows they will not relate to them and, as a consequence, would be capable of doing terrible things. And there, job discrimination was total – in schools, churches, policing, pubs, town halls, housing and just about anything else you could think of. The first question that any employer asked of you was, “are you Catholic or Protestant?” We saw in blood where that led.

Social attitudes can be turned full circle. We know this from things we have already achieved. Do you remember that ‘Carry On’ film in which a partying group of young medics came out and piled into an open-topped sports car and roared off? The noisy, raucous group were all the worse for drink. We thought, at the time, it very funny and so did the producer. Neither he nor we would think that now. In fact we are appalled that we ever thought it so. In similar vein was the ubiquitous glamorising of smoking on the silver screen. Also, look at our previous indifference to the disabled; we never bothered to put wheelchair access into anything. Then, just let a landlord – as happened when I first lived and worked in London – try putting in his window a sign reading ‘No Blacks, Irish or Dogs’. All hell would break loose. Women’s prospects have improved immeasurably from what they were and so have peoples’ of other races. I could go on. Indeed, some might argue that in today’s Britain your life chances might be improved if you were not of Caucasian stock. Racial, religious, gender and disabled abuse have all joined the bonfire of the unacceptable, as has hate language. Also that pernicious culture of being able to touch women up and, worse, and get away with it is thankfully at an end, though I do wonder if we are right in pursuing old men to the grave. But I acknowledge that justice must trump everything and you could argue that they were lucky to have got away with it for as long as they did before justice finally caught up with them. Finally, while we’re at it, let’s remember that poor unmarried mother whose family once turfed her out. That was not a million miles removed from stoning her.

My point in highlighting all this is to show that Europe in times past – often with us as flag-bearer – has had very backward attitudes. In addition to this we have been exceptionally cruel, physically as well as emotionally. It therefore ill behoves us, as we make progress, to lambast the Muslim world for its tardiness. The whole world hardly needs to take lessons from us in this area. There was a time, which lasted for seven hundred years, when Muslim Spain led the world in virtually all the sciences. While it was rescuing and translating almost all the Greek classics, we were transporting ourselves across the Mediterranean Sea and despoiling their prosperous, peaceable lands in Palestine. Our ‘great’ King Richard (The Lionheart) – who spoke no English and spent only a few months out of his eleven-year reign in England, bankrupting it in the process – wrought such cruelty on Crusade that even today Muslim mothers will quieten their little ones by saying “shhh… King Richard is coming”. He once decapitated 5,000 prisoners on the beach at Acre. Strange it is then that of all our many illustrious monarchs he is the only one honoured with a statue outside Parliament. An unfathomable people we are for making such a judgement. And in terms of cruelty, no Muslim country that I am aware of ever matched our grisly hanging, drawing and quartering routine, nor Bloody Mary’s 300+ burnings at the stake in a five year period, nor Vlad the Impailer’s bestial cruelties, nor the horrors of the 30 Years’ War.

It is very true that we have today a terrible problem – to put it mildly – with certain crazy Muslim men, but we have had our share of crazy men, even if they have not specialised in running wild on the streets with butchers’ knives and Kalashnikovs. The sheer magnitude and level of depraved brutality which our own continent has exhibited throughout the recent century should humble us considerably in our dealings with the rest of humanity. It certainly does not qualify us to hand out advice as though it is coming from on high, and as though we approach the world’s problems with clean hands. However, it is my belief that it is this very barbarism which has made Europe determined to do things differently in the future.

It may not seem so but we are moving into a kinder, more caring world. Not only have we such institutions now as the International Criminal Court, whereby previously unchecked rulers can be held to account, but we show concern and provide help when manmade or natural catastrophe overwhelms one of our brother countries. This is new. Every country now acknowledges that it has a duty to work towards some sort of a welfare state for its people. This, too, is new. Making war without United Nations authorisation is an option becoming increasingly difficult for sovereign states.

Social networking, Skype, emails and the instant availability of facts and information – as well as the next day delivery of goods on eBay and Amazon – makes ours a more joined-up world than it has ever been. And we are only at the beginning. Within three generations, virtually the entire human race will be able to communicate with each other in a universal language. What incredible good fortune that it happens to be our own which will be that medium – and what business opportunities that should present us with if we have the wit to seize them!

Meantime we must hold our nerve as we navigate through what undoubtedly will be treacherous waters, finding ways of containing and then rolling back the bone-headed fanatics who seek excitement on foreign battlefields as well as at home in the misplaced belief that their warped vision is the future. Yet we must do so without compromising our essential liberties and bring our Muslim brothers and sisters on board. Their thinking, young people, in particular, want all the same things we have, including democracy.  We must find ways of getting them to prevail over their rogue elements and bring them on board too.

Oh, for the certainties of the Cold War

Europe has shirked its responsibilities and find itself powerless to intervene with overwhelming force when a bunch of wild jihadists – too wild even for Al Qaeda – set up a terrorist state in the most volatile region of the world, from which we gain most of our energy supplies.

Europe has shirked its responsibilities and find itself powerless to intervene with overwhelming force when a bunch of wild jihadists – too wild even for Al Qaeda – set up a terrorist state in the most volatile region of the world, from which we gain most of our energy supplies.

Today we long for the certainties of the Cold War, when the prospect of nuclear Armageddon kept us all in order and expulsions from embassies of so-called ‘trade envoys’ and exchanges of spies at Checkpoint Charlie was pretty much all there was to get excited about. The enemy lay over there, just behind the Iron Curtain and he wore a uniform.

He had got as much of the world as he could persuade to side with him and we did the same. Those who cried ‘a plague on both your houses’ liked to call themselves the non-aligned. Among our cheer leaders, we had some real bastards (outright tyrants like Saddam Hussein during the Iran/Iraq war) but – as one American famously said – they were, at least, our bastards.

In that halcyon, far-off time, an old man like me could pass through airport controls without being ritually humiliated and he had no fear of being blown out of the skies by a Ukrainian nutter or taken on a one way flight into the Shard. These, I am sure, are the thoughts of many people – and some of these same people will even think further back to a time when the whole world was kept in a form of order by the great European empires.

“What fool,” they are now asking themselves, “said at the collapse of Communism that it was the ‘end of history’”? But foolishness was not confined to him. The so called ‘Peace Dividend’ was lauded by almost all and caused developed nations around the world to think that they could safely slash their defence budgets. Now those same nations find themselves powerless to intervene with overwhelming force when a bunch of wild jihadists – too wild even for Al Qaeda – set up a terrorist state in the most volatile region of the world, from which we gain most of our energy supplies. They even taunt us with their social networking and media skills by flashing up images of their barbarities, virtually in real time.

The truth of the matter is that the ‘good guy’ always needed to keep up his guard, As President Theodore (‘Teddy’ of Teddy bear fame) Roosevelt said: “Walk softly but carry a big stick”. My complaint is not that Uncle Sam is not pulling his weight, but that his collectively richer European partners are not pulling theirs. Had they not scrambled to save pennies on their defence budgets – preferring, self-indulgently, to leave it all to him – they would have been in a position to buttress him and not leave him the lone, isolated figure he is today, carrying the burdens of the world. We, more than anyone, know how thankless and onerous a task it is being the world’s policeman. No wonder, after Korea (which he still shoulders), Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan he is now weary of it all and contemplates increasingly withdrawing into isolationism. God helps us all if he does.

My argument is that if you are rich you carry responsibilities. Europe, in my view, shirks its. This is an area where the EU really could do something useful. That something is to get all member states to agree a percentage of their GDP to defence and hold them to it. Furthermore, it could make a portion of that defence capability available to the UN to give it teeth to deploy forces to troubled areas as and when the need arises. Peace keeping may then move forward to peace making so that, eventually, when enough other countries have pledged similar support, the world’s only legitimate superpower will be the UN.

Right now an arc of terror embraces huge swathes of Africa – right on Europe’s doorstep – and extends thousands of miles eastwards to the major oil producing countries of the world. It may soon extend thousands more if Afghanistan, as seems likely, falls once more into terrorism when NATO leaves next year. Adjacent Pakistan – always a perennially unstable country – may quickly follow suit and that is a state with a nuclear armoury which may very well fall into hostile hands.

To say that the unfolding situation is worrying is to put it mildly. The very first step is to give the well organised and heroic Kurds the capability to smash the ten thousand or so ISIS fanatics. If the new government of Iraq can get its act together, so much the batter. It too can help, so long as they don’t run away again and leave more state-of-the-art stockpiles of weapons to their opponents.

After that, Palestine – the kernel of all Middle East problems – must be addressed. Israel, the one shining light of openness and democracy in a darkening region, must shine that light throughout the troubled Middle East. Unlike the Red Indians, the Maoris, the Incas, Aztecs and so many others, Israelis have at least got their ancestral land back. The rest never will, even though they lost them just a few hundred years ago, never mind two thousand. They should be happy for that and we can take some credit for that happening with our 1917 Balfour Declaration.

But Israel should avoid the deadly sin of greed by being thirsty for more land, personified by the never-ending building of fresh settlements on land they acknowledge not to be theirs. They should show pity for the dispossessed as they themselves were so mercilessly dispossessed down the centuries. The price the Palestinians have paid for Israel regaining its historic land which had been Palestinian for two millennia has been a heart-breaking one. Surely Israel, of all countries, can see that.

Only the victor is in a position to show magnanimity and in all the terrible circumstances now prevailing let Israel show just that. It might be surprised at the response such action elicits. Included in any settlement must be the lifting of the awful siege of Gaza. If a settlement can be achieved between Jew and Arab – who are, after all, ethnically the same people and who both through their holy books revere the same prophets – then much of the ground will have been cut from beneath the feet of the Muslim extremists. Gaza has shown what the alternative is: a legacy of bitterness and hatred which will fester into a new generation.

What we’ve seen these last few days has not been pretty. It has been the very antithesis of the bible story in which little Israel in the form of the boyish David took on the monstrous brute, Goliath. Now in the most disheartening of role reversals, Goliath has become the mighty, clanking war machine which is Israel and David, little, smashed-up Gaza. Interestingly, Goliath did actually come from Gaza, then known as Phoenicia.

Better the devil you know

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub, has become a key battleground in the country’s protracted civil war as bombings continue day and night.

Bombings continue in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and commercial hub, which has become a key battleground in the country’s protracted civil war.

It begins to look as if the dreadful Assad may yet go on to win the Syrian civil war. Why is this? The quagmire which is Syria is about as complicated as ever it gets in politics and religion, and with the latter playing the dominant part I will not attempt to explain – even if I were up to it – all the competing factors at work in that benighted area. Suffice it to say that it was and is a devil’s brew which we were wise not to get drawn into, even though our prime minister was up for it. Parliament said no and that was the end of it.

It was this vote, I believe, which saved an always-cagey Obama from being swept into the affair and commencing air strikes. Incautiously (if he never meant what he said) he spoke of ‘Red Lines’. Luckily the Commons vote caused Congress to take stock. It values its British ally’s diplomatic cover around the world as it demonstrates that it is not a bully acting alone in the world; there are two of us. This cover it considers more important than its military contribution, welcome as that nevertheless is. They are not anxious to stand alone nowadays and feel much more comfortable when their old mate is there to take its share (if needs be) of the flak. Although France indicated that it would join them – perhaps anxious to lay President George W. Bush’s “Surrender Monkeys” insult from the Iraq war to rest – it was not the same as having reliable old Blighty. You could at least go into a huddle with him and talk to him in your own lingo.

Would that intervention have changed things on the ground and stopped Assad gaining the upper hand as he has now? I believe not. So long as Hezbollah – the bain of Israel – was willing to throw its considerable military weight behind Assad and as long as Iran kept training its operatives and providing them with hardware and the Russians replacing Assad’s equipment losses there was never going to be an easy or quick solution. And even if the West – assuming it had begun bombing – then proceeded to up the ante to the point where Assad could take no more, what then?

Were we going to allow a fragmented, at-each-other’s-throats band of brothers with no clear agenda of what to do with their newly liberated country take control? I think not. Especially when their ranks had been hugely swollen by fanatical Jihadists, many of them affiliated to Al Qaeda.

All of this now brings us to the most cynical piece of realpolitik since America armed Saddam Hussein to help him stave off defeat by Iran during the Iraq-Iran war during the early ’80s. Have you noticed that government pronouncements, and even media reporting on the Syrian civil war, have gone strangely quiet compared with what it was – and this despite the horrendous losses now put at over 150,000 dead?

It is my belief that, so worried is the West as to who would take over in the event of the fall of Assad, it has decided that the ‘man of blood’ who gassed hundreds of his own people is now preferable to those who would take over and plunge Syria – the cockpit of the Arab world – into even an even greater mess than that which the former London dentist, Assad, has plunged it into.

The nightmare which the West’s security forces face in a pivotal land – one which hates and shares a common border with Israel – is a country that becomes a hotbed of fanatical Jihadists with perhaps Al Qaeda taking the lead. Because of these terrible concerns I fear we are now willing – even preferring – Assad to consolidate his recent considerable gains and go on to win the civil war.

It seems almost inconceivable that a man we have so recently labeled a war criminal and threatened to send to the International Criminal Court at The Haguemay now be let off the hook. ‘Better the devil you know’ now seems to go the thinking. An ordered Syria – even one soaked in innocent blood – is now held to be a better solution than one defying a solution.

So get ready, all of us! Assad may yet triumph against a divided opposition and a befuddled, humiliated West may feel its only course is to settle down to a business as usual arrangement. Given the passage of time, and bearing in mind his own and his wife’s former London connections, the Syrian despot might even be asked, like the executed Romanian dictator, to pay a state visit to London and sup with her Maj.

So here, in a nutshell, is the world we are compelled to live in: a complicated, compromised, infinitely bewildering world in which there are few easy answers nor many quick fixes and certainly no ethical foreign policy such as the late, naïve foreign secretary, Robin Cook, thought he could operate.

Get down to the gym boys, and don’t bother bringing your body armour

Very soon now we are going to be asked to vote for civilian police commissioners – a controversial proposal not much liked by plod.

SOURCE: Rex Features

It has got off to a bad start because of the calibre of some of the applicants, many of whom one suspects view it as an excellent chance to climb aboard the gravy train as well as throw their weight around. One of these applicants, the clownish buffoon and former deputy prime minister, John Prescott, has indeed a lot of that to throw around. Nonetheless, I believe that the concept is sound and as the years pass we will get genuine public-spirited men and women of stature and proven track record to oversee their force.

The reason I feel that the concept is good is that I believe that certain elements of the police are close to being out of control and act as though they are a law unto themselves: look at the incredible Hillsborough cover-up; the striking down of that poor man Ian Tomlinson who died in London and was going about his business with no thought of joining a demonstration. Then there was the shooting dead of a young, deeply disturbed barrister Mark Saunders, also in London, and the seven-bullets-to-the-head execution of the hapless Brazilian young man, Charles de Menezes on the underground – as well as many, many other incidents which have caused deep disquiet among the public. Accusations of thuggish behaviour on an increasing scale are levelled at the police.

The advent of jihadist terrorism appears to have provided an unarguable cover for the issue of more and more firearms and a tipping point seems not far off where every Bobby will have a pistol at his hip. More guns will, inevitably, lead to a greater use of them. Terrorism seems to have provided a ‘catch all’ excuse to usher in a whole range of repressive measures. Tony Blair, as with so many things which came back to bite him – such as devolution – embraced the whole scaremongering agenda. And yet, more than anyone, we were familiar with terrorism – a very competent form. We had thirty years of it with the IRA but yet, despite all the carnage such as the Brighton bombing which almost killed Margaret Thatcher and much more, we kept our nerve. We did not move towards arming our police.

Since Robert Peel set up the police, one of the glories of our country – one that has amazed the rest of the world – is that we have been able to maintain law and order without recourse to firearms. So the police know there is deep disquiet at the way things are developing.

‘If we cannot have guns’, seems to be their new mantra, ‘then let us have tasers’. And what do we see? A 43 per cent rise in their use in one year. We see a blind 61-year-old architect, who has already had a stroke, felled with 50,000 volts of excruciating pain.

In all the many instances of police malpractice there are precious few  instances of officers going to gaol. They investigate themselves and produce what – predictably and in too many cases – the public perceive as a less than fair outcome. One of the useful actions that the new commissioners could address themselves to is to civilianise these investigations. That is a much needed measure and one that should be applied to each and every professional body. By all means let them have representation on that body, but not enough to determine an investigation’s outcome.

Once upon a time the police would go about their business – as the military is wont to say – in shirt sleeve order during the summer. Today they parade like Robocop, festooned with all manner of silly gadgets. Every new device that comes on the market they are fair game for; it rapidly becomes must-have. Soon they will be weighted down to such an extent that it becomes impossible for them to give chase. In any case, too many of them are out of condition and overweight that it would be impossible anyway. That too is a subject that the new commissioners could address: annual fitness checkups.(By the way, I don’t recall seeing many overweight soldiers locking horns with the Taliban. As an ex-health club owner I would be happy to advise on what needs to be done. Get down to the gym boys! I’ll meet you there, but don’t bother bringing your body armour.)

N.B.  I was stopped by the police the other day after collecting my son from the railway station as I forgot to put my lights on. My car was given the once over; I was breathalysed; the works. They were a couple of fine young men – polite, fit and a credit to the force. All is not lost.

A heavy price for insurrection

Everyone will have heaved a sigh of relief that the preacher of death, Abu Hamza, and four of his associates have failed in their bid to avoid extradition to the US.

Of course, the European Court of Human Rights would have caused outrage had they failed to bring in any other verdict. It would have been saying our closest ally was no different than the likes of Jordan, Morocco or Pakistan and that it could not be trusted not to torture or apply inhumane conditions – when in fact the conditions are likely to be even more over the top than our own 3.5-star gaols.

So the result, in truth, was a foregone conclusion and would, had it been otherwise, have represented a gross insult to the world’s greatest democracy.

Interestingly, the extradition is of exactly the kind that the controversial UK-US Extradition Treaty was designed to cover (i.e. terrorism). Had we reminded the US of this in many of the disputed cases where a clear terrorism link could not be established, we could have avoided much of the acrimony that has been thrown up.

But the fact remains that the treaty is flawed: the legal requirements in each case are not the same, making it easier for Uncle Sam to get his hands on our people than for us to get our hands on his. What incompetent treaty drafter thought it was in order to produce a document of this kind? He should be kicked sideways into oblivion as should the several other jobsworths who must have perused it before it was enacted into law.

This refusal to punish people who make monumental cock ups in the public sector is an affront to all of us; I believe it is at the root of so many of the outrages about which we throw up our arms and say ‘never again’ or ‘lessons will be learned’, but where they never seem to be.

In industry or commerce, it is clearly understood that either you do the job for which you are being paid or you will go. Only an equal sanction for those paid from the public purse is likely to do the trick.

Nothing, as they say, concentrates the mind like a good hanging.

What enrages the public so much is that salt is so often rubbed into the wound by either rewarding the miscreant with a promotion or allowing early retirement with the most mouth-watering of financial packages.

Police, for instance, can often avoid investigation into alleged irregularities by the simple expedient of taking early retirement. And that brings me to the ex-policeman, Brian Paddick, the no-hoper would-be mayor of London.

What a lovely set-up – naturally facilitated by money-bags Joe Public – that allows a perfectly fit and able copper to retire at the age of 49 on a pension of £65,000 a year!

This nice little nugget of information was thrown up as a result of the recent live BBC Newsnight debate between the mayoral contestants when, unwittingly, they stumbled into a pledge of total transparency in financial matters.

The issue has snowballed to the point where every senior holder of public office can now expect to be required to come clean. Get ready for more revelations about where all our money is going and how much.

But I started this article on prisons, and it seems right to finish on the same note.

The eleven and a half year sentence meted out to the London riot arsonist may have struck some as a bit over the top. But remember this: it was so very nearly murder and the offender gave not a thought to the fact that there could well have been many people trapped on an upstairs level.

As it was, a woman had to leap for her life to avoid being incinerated.

The law has always taken a very hard line where arson is concerned, and not just because it concerns property. Whole cities have been destroyed by conflagrations, including our own capital and large numbers of lives are lost to this day in fires. It is, perhaps, the most terrible way for a life to end.

Remember also that the authorities felt, rightly or wrongly – and, in this case, I think rightly – that they had to dish our exemplary sentences where the authority of the state was under threat.

For a moment during those terrible scenes of last August there was a widespread feeling that Armageddon had arrived: that if it escalates, the next thing we’ll see is the Prime Minister’s head being paraded down Whitehall on a pike, and that the dark underbelly of the disaffected underclass was taking over and was about to take revenge on the ‘haves’.

A message had to go out that if you indulge in acts of what amounted to insurrection, you can expect to pay a heavy price.

In those particular circumstances it would have seemed nonsensical to apply the normal slap-on-the-wrist for a bit of shoplifting.

And as for the recipient of the eleven and a half year sentence, also remember this: he turned out to be a career criminal with violence a part of his repertoire; and that the eleven and a half years is something of a joke anyway since he will be back on the streets in 2016 having served only half of his sentence.

Degrade the Taliban to the max

More tears for our brave boys in Afghanistan last week. The sorrow was exacerbated by the knowledge that the ‘soft underbelly’ problem in armoured vehicles was identified more than four years ago and remains unfixed. We fought World War One in that time span.

Had our boys been in an American vehicle, there is every likelihood they would be alive today.

On a cost-benefit basis, both Afghanistan and Iraq have been a disaster. The Romans were more savvy when they built Hadrian’s Wall. They could have crushed the Scots had they wished. But what did Scotland have to offer them? A miserable climate – especially for an Italian – a constantly restive and warlike people (just like some others on the north bank of the Rhine – the Germans) and next to no natural resources.

As a pragmatic people they decided to leave them both to stew. So both missed out on a whole range of benefits which a more advanced civilisation had to offer. The whole of this can be said to apply to Afghanistan today.

Much of America’s financial woes can be traced back to the horrendous cost of the Vietnam war. After all, it was then that it was forced off the Gold Standard. Does anybody doubt that if the untold billions spent on the Iraq and Afghan wars had been sitting in the US treasury today that things would be looking very different? Yet exactly the same could be said about us.

Wars are expensive. From a position of incredible wealth as a country, it took just two of them to ruin us and rob us of our leading position in the world by 1945.

Afghanistan was always said to be the ‘graveyard of empires’, and no one knew this better than we did. We launched no fewer than three ill-fated forays into that country in the days of the Raj. In one of them, an entire column of 16,000 perished in the snows of the Hindu Kush on the retreat back from Kabul to the Indian frontier.

Prime Minister David Cameron would spend a long time reading out their names in the Commons. So, more than anyone else, we should have known better.

Of course it was right to go into that country to flush out Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban for harbouring them, but having done so we should have got out and stayed out. We, in our heyday, were never defeated in the field by the Afghans any more than NATO has been, or, for that matter, the Russians.

But the Afghans do not heed good advice to mend their medieval ways (especially when that advice comes from foreigners) so they must be left to marinate. Just be thankful that you are not a woman in that benighted country.

It is unlikely that if the Taliban return to power after NATO’s exit – which is probable – they will ever again allow Al Qaeda to set up training camps. They are canny enough not to go down that road a second time, helped by Bin Laden’s death. While he was their guest, there was never a snowball’s chance that they would have handed him over, even when we threatened to invade. Muslim law on hospitality absolutely forbade that.

It is always important to have an exit strategy. But it is equally important to keep the date of exit to yourself. Had we held to our original statements that ‘we are here until the job is done’ – even if you had a date in mind – then there is every likelihood that the same weariness which brought the IRA to the negotiating table would have done so in the case of the Taliban.

Why hold on, they would have said to themselves, and stay a fugitive forever and as likely not die in the struggle? Let’s do a deal.

The Afghans have always been known as the world’s greatest wheeler-dealers. Now they are going around saying ‘the West have the watches, but we have the time’. So now that we have revealed our hand, we must make every effort to equip and train the home-grown Afghan forces to look after themselves when we are gone.

Who knows, they might even pull it off, despite everything. And our boys, in the interim, must degrade the Taliban to the maximum extent possible. A weakened force might just be more amenable to a greatly strengthened home army. But the deeply corrupt Afghan government will make this an uphill struggle. We can only hope our fears are misplaced.

Hey, look to!

What a turnabout from last year! In the Christmas week of 2010 we were in the deep freeze, with snow and ice which had bedeviled us since late November and would not yield till January. But replacing the rigours of the weather that year have been worries and gloom concerning the economy and global instability. What has given the whole business an extra edge of frustration is that we had started to believe the worst was over.

But the Autumn Statement put us right on that. To add to the three we’ve already had, we have six years more of belt tightening – a period as long as the Second World War – before we can expect to see the ‘sunny uplands’. Seldom have we looked at a future so bleak and protracted.

And compounding it all is the worry that, despite all our best endeavours, the whole Europe house, and with it very possibly the world economy, will come crashing down about our ears. We can, however, take some comfort from the fact that we have battened down the hatches in good time and so can hope to weather the storm better than most.

Yet hard times encourage new, or should I say resurrected, values to take hold again. What passes today as hardship would be regarded as luxury living by those who lived through the late ’40s and early ’50s. So perhaps we should not feel too sorry for ourselves. Earlier generations knew much worse. Today we have an overarching, cradle-to-the-grave Welfare State which has, in my opinion, got out of hand and is now arguably very much part of the problem. No one needs to go to bed hungry, have no roof over their head or worry about medical bills.

But at least we have upon us that special time of year which is sure to bring some cheer! As I write this the weather is supremely benign – with primroses coming out – and Christmas only a few days away.

I personally have been amazed at how people have been determined to cock a snoot at the recession by putting out their Christmas lights, with certain regulars still trying to outdo the Vegas Strip. Some will have done so because, although they are suffering financially, their pride will not allow them to advertise the fact to their neighbours. But most will have done it because they love a good display, perhaps accompanied by a harmless desire for a bit of showing off.

All in their own way, including those of us who have put a modest wreath on our door or a little display of lights on our shrubs or windows, we are sending out a message of good cheer. And sad, indeed, it is to walk past a string of houses where not one has made any concession to this very special time.

We would all like to be better than we are: less selfish, more caring and forgiving. Christmas appeals to our better angels and for a few precious days we declare an armistice and genuinely feel a greater warmth toward our fellow man than we do in the rat-race that passes for normal living. It is a spirit wholly to be commended and encouraged.

The fact that it is a Christian festival is almost beside the point; whether you are from another faith, Agnostic or an Atheist, I defy you not to be swept up a little in the euphoria of the celebrations to come. Even most of the criminal classes desist, I suspect, from many of their activities.

What is important in this great coming together of people and families is that we do not forget that there are a great many people out there who, for whatever reason, are alone. The very nature of the goodwill directed everywhere except to them serves only to reinforce their sense of loneliness.

We cannot know what 2012 will bring; no forthcoming year in living memory has had so many questions marks hanging over it.

The ‘Arab Spring’ which promised so much may yet turn into a nightmare: Syria is already that. Iran’s pursuit of the bomb can only be galvanised by the attention paid by the world to the tuppenny-halfpenny basket-case of a state of twenty-two million which is North Korea. The Iranians will say to themselves: ‘Look what respect you get if you’ve got the bomb!’ But Israel is unlikely to stand idly by while the final touches are put to a bomb which could enable the barmy Ahmajinedad to carry out his threat to ‘wipe it off the map’. And if they do strike first, then the Iranians will close down the Straits of Hormuz through which 25pc of the world’s oil passes.

Nuclear-armed N. Korea is now in the hands of an inexperienced boy ruler who only last year ordered the unprovoked sinking of a S. Korean warship and the equally unprovoked shelling of S. Korean installations, all with substantial loss of life.

And as if all this is not enough, the West faces economic meltdown if the euro crisis achieves critical mass.

But hey, look to! Humankind will always bounce back: we’re hardwired to do that. It has even been suggested this year that our very intelligence came about entirely due to climate change which forced us to seek out solutions to survive. So who knows, maybe a little climate change will stimulate our little grey cells some more. But meantime, let’s all party and remind ourselves that there is much that is decent and uplifting in our aspirations.

Finally, to my readers: my heartfelt thanks for allowing me the privilege of sharing my thoughts with you here and in The Herald.

Merry Christmas!

Norwegian killings

The recent shocking events in Norway have affected us in a particularly unusual way, as we have long come to view the Scandinavian family in a special light. Although they may once have been among the most violent people ever to walk the earth, that was a very long time ago; like so many others whose characteristics have changed beyond all recognition – think Romans, Germans, Japanese – we now regard the Norsemen as paragons of virtuous and peaceful living. If such an event can occur in such a region then it can occur anywhere. But perhaps I miss a vital factor here; perhaps I should restrict my comments to the developed world. Why do I say this? I say it because we have not yet heard of an outrage of this sort in Africa, Latin America or the East. And we have not heard of it in the countries of the Mediterranean basin.

A common feature of all the perpertrators of these crimes is that they are loners. They do not come from integrated and loving families; they have chips on their shoulders because they feel themselves neglected and unwanted. Their parents, in pursuit of notions of equality and a right to continue the hedonistic lifestyle of youth, even after they have ‘committed’ and produced children, do not want to be burdened with the sacrifices of parenthood. Forget the cover which hatred of the outsider provides – in this case Muslims. If they didn’t exist it would be the Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, or other such minority groups. The loner has to have something to hang his grievances on.

One factor which distinguishes this atrocity from the others is that the killer had no wish to kill himself. For a start – with his warped thinking – he believes he is acting in a righteous cause and need have no bad conscience. To him, the end justifies the means or, as Stalin put it: ‘A single death is a tragedy, but a million is a statistic.’ And in that respect he is no different from the Jehadists. What’s more, he is young and will, due to Norway’s 21-year maximum jail term, be walking the streets again in his early fifties (during this time he will be enjoying some of the cushiest prison conditions in the entire world). Also what is different is that he has left us a veritable mountain of his private thoughts via the internet. He has spent years cataloguing everything. His ‘manifesto’ alone runs to an astonishing 1,430 pages, the majority of which will no doubt be rambling nonsense. We shall further have a chance to analyse his twisted logic in minute detail in one-to-ones during the months and years ahead.

What this sad and tragic tale seems to say to me is that government policies throughout the developed world must be skewed to resurrect the values associated with strong and stable families. Parents must be brought to understand that if they produce children they must stand by them; that they must make sacrifices to ensure that they have happy memories of their childhood to draw on and to know that they were loved and cherished. It is a bitter harvest indeed that we are reaping as a result of the decades following the fifties, when adults were free to be as promiscuous as they pleased – thank you, pill – and to pursue a ‘me, me lifestyle’. And don’t tell these people about duties; they only want to hear about rights.

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