Oi! Nick! No!

You know, I always liked Nick Cohen, and even now sometimes hope that he’ll pull his finger out and get back to the sort of journalism he used to do so well. But increasingly, he does just make me bury my head in my hands. Notably with this tired and emotional performace at the Orwell Prize shortlist debate, whereat Nick goes in to bat for his mate Martin Bright whilst wrapping himself in St George’s aura. Suffice to say, giving Peter Hitchens room to scold you is not a desirable outcome, and this could serve as a cautionary tale for anyone tempted to appear at a public debate with a bottle of wine in hand. There but for the grace of God would many of us find ourselves.

Big Sister is watching you

Yesterday I was listening to British home secretary Wacky Jacqui Smith unveil New Labour’s spanking new comprehensive anti-terrorism strategy. And, as usual, when politicians start strategising, it’s time to run for cover. The front end was Wacky Jacqui telling us all to be afraid, be very afraid. And, having established that we’re all doomed, it was then time to wheel out some half-baked proposals. The most eyecatching of these was the plan to recruit a Dad’s Army of 60,000 curtain-twitching amateur spooks to help defeat that rotter Osama. And perhaps there are still some of those old “Careless Talk Costs Lives” posters gathering dust in the Home Office basement.

It was also notable that Wacky Jacqui, who has quite a track record of demanding the moon on a stick from technology, is still hell-bent on reading all our emails. Not only that, she also wants to know who our Facebook friends are as well. Perhaps the government could get Tim Berners-Lee to sit down with Jacqui and spend half an hour explaining how the internet works.

But what interested me more was the “tough on the causes” bit, where the report went into the issue of how young Muslim men can get radicalised. There was, to be fair, some mention of overseas conflicts, but it remains absolutely verboten to suggest that British government policy, in Iraq for instance, or in terms of New Labour’s pusillanimous response to the destruction of Gaza, might come into the equation. So the weight of the thing remains with vague talk about intolerant ideologies.

This is where the government’s Preventing Violent Extremism programme comes into play. First you have to realise that New Labour likes to solve social problems on the cheap. One reason why this government has been so gay-friendly is that passing legislation on gay rights costs virtually nothing. If you’re talking about alienated Muslims in Tower Hamlets or Sparkbrook, it would take far too much time, money and attention to detail to, for instance, provide young men with meaningful job prospects, or clean up rat-infested estates, or deal with decades of structural inequality. It’s much easier and cheaper to pay off some community elders. Hence the PVE programme, which basically means Hazel Blears is charged with disbursing a big massive slush fund to compliant Muslim groups.

Then the question arises of who you pay off. For a long time, the cornerstone of this sort of thing was the Muslim Council of Britain. Now, the MCB is a bit traditionalist and conservative for many people’s tastes, but it aims to be a broadly representative umbrella body, in many ways modelled after the Jewish Board of Deputies. It consciously, even ostentatiously, seeks respectability. But it does have some disadvantages from Wee Hazel’s point of view, not least that it tends to go off message on foreign policy and put out strong statements on things like Gaza. One could object that this is necessary for the MCB to have any sort of constituency. One could also point out the Board of Deputies’ role in organising the pro-IDF rallies in London and Manchester, without any cabinet minister pontificating on the need for moderate leadership in the Jewish community. But this is to miss the point. The point is that the MCB, however much they crave acceptance by the establishment, just aren’t pliable enough.

So the MCB have been cast into exterior darkness, at least until they meet a series of ideological tests we may as well call Hazel’s Hoops. So who’s left as a partner for your PVE strategy? Well, the official downfall of the MCB has been welcomed by lots of liberal Muslims in academic and media circles. But, although these liberal Muslims may be more like your or my personal cup of tea, they tend to be individuals without much social traction. Often good people, yes, but not much of a force.

So we’re left with a situation where Wee Hazel is reduced to, effectively, appealing for Muslim groups to come forward, endorse New Labour policy, and get a handout. Some of these groups, needless to say, are a bit dodgy. Many are two-men-and-a-dog outfits. A few are rather obvious neocon fronts. Some are just plain weird. The canonical example here is the “Sufi Muslim Council”, a body that doesn’t seem to have any actual members, but has lots of money, lots of media access and lots of political connections. On a somewhat higher level you would have Ed Husain’s Quilliam Foundation, which got a lot of sympathetic coverage but, since Ed showed a bit of independence over Gaza, had better look over its shoulder.

Effectively, New Labour is saying that it doesn’t have a Muslim leadership willing to play the allotted role, so it’s going to select some small groups and individuals and fund them into a position of leadership. The apparent target is to have the sort of state-sponsored “moderate Islam” you used to have in the Soviet Union, and still do in China and Uzbekistan, only created by patronage rather than corruption.

This basically corrupt setup won’t work, of course. Not that the Useless Tories could make that basic point, as Chris Grayling’s main beef seemed to be that the government wasn’t having enough of a populist crackdown on Preachers of Hate. This raises the prospect that Tory policy is being determined by headlines in the Daily Express. Bring back David Davies, I say.

And maybe, as an example of where this can lead you, it’s worth mentioning the case of Hassan Butt, who enjoyed some low-level notoriety as a preacher of hate in the 1990s. A couple of years back, Hassan re-emerged to tell hair-raising stories of his life in al-Qaeda, and warned of the dangers of appeasing Muslim radicals. This was just what lots of people wanted to hear, and so Hassan got acres of press coverage, and enjoyed sit-downs with New Labour ministers. Then, some weeks ago, Hassan admitted in court that he was a professional liar and had made the whole thing up for profit.

This example of journalistic and political gullibility, of course, should have been all over Private Eye‘s Street of Shame, but strangely the Eye seems not to have run a word on the story. Could this perhaps be connected to Nick Cohen having been one of Butt’s most enthusiastic boosters? I think we should be told.

Charlotte brings home the silverware

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And so it was that normal service was resumed in Guyana last night. You have an England cricket team that goes six months without winning a competitive match, then gets gifted one thanks to Duckworth, Lewis and John Dyson’s dodgy maths. (Although you can’t be too hard on him, bearing in mind that you virtually need a PhD in advanced calculus to read a Duckworth/Lewis chart.) Not surprising, then, that they were beaten fairly and squarely in the next match.

But let’s not talk about that. Let’s talk about the other England cricket team. The good team. The successful team. You know, the women’s team.

That was quite a feat, lifting the World Cup – a feat the women’s team have now achieved three times, as opposed to zero for the men’s team. And totally deserved by their performance throughout the tournament, with Claire Taylor as the outstanding batsman, Laura Marsh as the outstanding bowler, and a good all-round performance from everyone concerned. Not to mention that, in Charlotte Edwards, you’ve got as experienced and astute a captain as you could want.

Let’s not forget, either, that the women’s team also hold the Ashes, and in recent years have won a whole slew of series. I’m tempted to think that, if you put the England women’s team up against the England men’s team, Straussy and the boys would find it tough going.

None of this success, of course, has come out of the blue. The ECB has actually done quite well by the women’s game. Quite a lot of money has gone into it, and the lack of powerful vested interests has meant they have been able to experiment with structures. Moreover, you’ve got the appointment of Clare Connor, a highly successful England captain in her own right, to take charge of the setup – and, having put Clare in place, she’s been more or less left to get on with it, without being unduly hampered by board politicking. This is a recipe that’s actually worked.

So why was it that, unless you were a total cricket obsessive willing to get your coverage online, that it was almost impossible to follow the tournament? I don’t usually agree with Andy Burnham, one of New Labour’s more absurd ministers, but he did have a point when he was complaining about the lack of media coverage of women’s sport. If you broaden it out to include, for instance, the high proportion of women among the successful Olympians, yeah, it begins to look scandalous. And when you do get coverage, well, the male-dominated sports media aren’t very good at handling it. Women’s tennis, which I suppose is an exception in that it gets plenty of coverage, has got terribly bogged down in the marketing of its performers based more on their sex appeal than their athletic prowess. With the notable exception of Jeca Janković, it’s hard to think of any engaging personalities on the circuit – or if they are there, they aren’t coming through.

One would hope that, on the back of a big win in the World Cup, you’d see a sudden upsurge of young women interested in trying out cricket, the way clubs sprang up all over England after the 2005 Ashes. But what’s the point of a successful team if they remain virtually invisible?

Medice, cura teipsum!

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A little gem today from Sean Matgamna, proprietor of the Alliance for Workers Liberty. As part of the AWL’s recycling policy, which has the happy outcome of putting more of the tendency’s older material into the public domain, we have a 15-year-old critique of the late Gerry Healy. Why Sean feels this to be relevant at this moment in time is a mystery to me, but it does contain a few notable hostages to fortune.

Official “Trotskyism” since Trotsky has been an unstable amalgam of Trotsky’s hostility to Stalinism and reluctant endorsements of Mao, Castro, Ho Chi Minh, and Tito’s versions of Stalinism as deformed expressions of “the world socialist revolution.” Everywhere this “Trotskyism” has been inherently unstable.

There’s something to that, although I don’t think embracing Zionism marks any great ideological progress.

Healy was a highly volatile fellow who tended to believe what he wanted to believe, and ever more so as he got old at the heart of an organisation where his every whim was law. At the centre of a machine where no-one could make him take account of anything he wanted to ignore, Healy slowly went mad — or, if you like, retreated into such a childish, me-centred solipsistic view of the world that it came to the same thing.

Ahem. Well, we’ve seen that more than once…

For example, by the late 1960s the SLL was turning up at 100,000-strong anti-Vietnam-war demonstrations with leaflets asserting that the marches were a conspiracy by the press to boost the march organisers at the expense of great Marxists like Healy!

This is true, the famous “Why the Socialist Labour League is not marching” leaflet has gone down in legend. Nowadays, of course, the British left is much more mature, and pulling off such a madcap stunt – the equivalent, I suppose, would be turning up at a pro-Palestinian rally waving an Israeli flag – would be unthinkable.

Healy concentrated more and more on expounding a pseudo-Marxist, pseudo-Hegelian gobbledygook reminiscent, despite its verbiage about “dialectics” and so on, of nothing so much as L Ron Hubbard’s dianetics, around which the Church of Scientology has been constructed. This stuff mixed oddly with his continuing “political” concerns and the lines were often crossed: it was not unknown for the WRP press to denounce someone as both a police agent and a “philosophical idealist.”

Somewhere on my bookshelf I have a copy of Whither Thornett? by Mike Banda, a small classic of the genre. But again, this sort of thing was never exclusive to the Healy movement although it took a particularly sharp form there.

They churned out crude Arab-chauvinist propaganda lauding Saddam Hussein and Libya’s ruler Colonel Gaddafi and denouncing Israel and “Zionism.”

It’s just as well no current British left group would stoop to producing hasbara for a Middle Eastern government.

He dominated his organisation by uninhibited brute force. The ‘cadre’ of the group came to be the product of ‘selection’— survival— through a never-ending serious of savage sado-masochistic rituals, involving the pillorying, hounding, denouncing, then self-denouncing and self-prostrating at one time or another of most of the hard core. In this way Healy built a machine that was essentially depoliticised, ready like the Stalinist parties for any “turn.” It was a farcical caricature of Stalinism despite its verbal “Trotskyism.”

The sex and violence really is where Healyism was sui generis. But that’s not to say that the content, as opposed to the form, was unique. There is a man on the British left who was once a serial expellee from left groups and later, having accumulated some disciples, became a serial expeller; despite claiming that his group had only a soupçon of centralism leavening its democracy, he turned out to have a pretty short way with dissident comrades. I wish I could remember his name, or that of his group.

Still, it’s all good fun. Takes a swami to critique a swami.

Department of the bleeding obvious

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Last night, as per usual, I was watching Channel 4 News when something quite striking happens. There was a little discussion of Pope Benny’s current visit to Africa. But that in itself wasn’t what interested me, or Jon Snow. What Snow wanted to talk about was Benny’s restatement of official Catholic doctrine on condom use. So, in the studio discussion, some Catholic woman whose name escapes me was brought in to be harangued. Cue Snow banging on about how millions of Africans were going to die of Aids, and it was all the Pope’s fault.

Then it got entertaining, as the Catholic woman, getting visibly more annoyed by the second, put in a vigorous defence of Catholic development policy as it’s operated in the Philippines, and made a spirited attack on condom-centric development programmes. So aggressive was she, in fact, that Snow was taken quite aback, and switched his interrogatory mode for one of trying to get the Catholic woman to calm down. Evidently she hadn’t understood that her function on the programme was to be shamefaced and apologetic.

But why should she be? And, more to the point, why should any experienced journalist feign shock and horror when Benny goes around defending the official positions of the Catholic Church? The guy is, after all, the head of the Catholic Church. And, though I don’t agree with Benny on this question, I am more than a little queasy at secular liberals, who aren’t under any obligation to pay the slightest attention to Catholic doctrine, campaigning for the Church to change its doctrine. It’s a bit like a football team campaigning to change the laws of cricket.

In other dog-bites-man news, yesterday was St Drunkard’s Day. I’ll get onto the local Paddy’s Day celebrations in a second, but it was striking how far the cringe towards the States has gone. Of course Biffo Cowen was in Washington, presenting his fellow Offaly man Barack O’Bama with the traditional bowl of shamrock, although what you’re supposed to do with a bowl of shamrock beats me. And of course our own Dynamic Duo, Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, were also at the White House. Indeed, so many of our political class, from both sides of the border, were stateside begging for change, that it’s possible the government of Ireland might momentarily have devolved on a dog-catcher in Cavan, or worse still, Sammy Wilson.

Although there were lots of very sizeable parades around Ireland, for most of the day they took a poor second place on the news to New York and Chicago. One can understand the London media choosing to report Paddy’s Day celebrations from America rather than those from, er, Ireland. (Next year, expect Burns Night from Australia – and, incidentally, it happened in Scotland as well.) For our local news outlets to do the same, though, tells you something about priorities.

But hey, all that was changed by the Holylands riot. Again, totally predictable. In fact, the peelers had predicted trouble the day before. So why the shock-horror at something we all knew would happen? You know what the Holylands is like. Specifically, you know the behaviour patterns of the Tyrone farmboys. I’m sure that wheelie-bin races at two in the morning are deadly crack for the students, but they aren’t much fun for anybody who wants to get some sleep in.

And now the call goes up for Queens and the NUU to take action against their riotous students. To be honest, I think it would be better for the colleges to just use the occasion to declare half-term every spring. That might minimise the presence of drunken culchies, who would be enjoying their revels in the depopulated backwaters where they’re used to doing whatever they like. It’s called managing your environment.

The trouble with emotionalism

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Emotion. I was thinking of this apropos of last week’s NIC-ICTU peace rally at City Hall. I was wondering how, since it was a silent protest, you would characterise it. It’s easier to gauge these things if there are speeches, and if the platform is getting applause or heckling. But in an atmosphere of silence… the only thing I could fall back on was that, whatever the agendas of some people who were there, the bulk of those in attendance were motivated by basic human sympathy.

And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Sympathy is a fundamental part of the human condition, and if you can’t feel it then you’ve lost something very important. Even in a time of war – and we’re not in a time of war – the taking of human life is a very very serious business, and should always be a matter of deep regret. It’s those who actually glory in the killing of the designated enemy – no matter that they may theoretically be on your side – who you have to watch out for.

The question arises, though, of whether you can stop at sympathy, whether it’s sufficient. You know, I feel a basic human sympathy for Jade Goody. That doesn’t mean I’m going to commit intellectual suicide by saying I believe Jade is the greatest human being on earth, and her death will mean a huge amount to me. There is the question of going beyond the immediate emotional response and towards the rational, despite the danger that that may leave you looking a little cold-blooded. But that’s no worse, and in my opinion a lot better, than having emotionally driven politics.

Take as a case in point the killings in the north over the past week. These are dramatic events, and you’d be surprised if they didn’t evoke some sort of emotional response – which, despite all the axe-grinding, was entirely sincere on the part of many thousands of ordinary people. But one difficulty is that, if you’re relying on moods, the mood can change in an instant. Let’s say that there’s a riot in Craigavon and the police shoot three teenagers. That would change the mood massively in that community. We’ve seen this before. After Bloody Sunday, you couldn’t get a hearing if you weren’t in favour of armed struggle. After Omagh, you couldn’t get a hearing if you were opposed to the peace process.

There’s also the use of emotion in an oppressive way, in the sort of post-Diana, why-aren’t-you-griefstricken way. Again, look at the pressure that was put on republicans last week, republicans who had nothing to do with the killings in Antrim and Craigavon. You may assume there was bad faith involved, and you’d be right, but look at the form. Adams came under attack because his statement was too cold, impersonal, emotionless. That’s what I would expect from Adams, it’s his style. Martin McGuinness, although I think he was ill-advised to deploy the T-word, was always going to make a stronger statement in that he’s always been more of a heart-on-his-sleeve character. (Apart from his anger, I also suspect there’s something of a guilty conscience involved. You don’t have to be a mad unionist to realise that the Provisionals did plenty of completely unjustifiable things.)

So, in the emotionally charged atmosphere, McGuinness’s statement seemed to be what the punters wanted. It certainly mollified Jackie McDonald, although the Belfast Telegraph’s posse of unionist columnists may prove a harder sell than the UDA emperor. Then the spotlight was turned on éirígí, who are one of the few republican groups without an armed wing, but who nonetheless were put under intense pressure to dissociate themselves from something that other people had done. And so it was found that Breandán Mac Cionnaith’s statement, identical in form to what any Sinn Féin spokesperson would have said a few years back, did not contain the requisite amount of outrage. Saying that the conditions did not exist to justify armed struggle was not enough – you needed denunciation and obloquy.

This sort of hectoring really doesn’t serve much purpose in clarifying matters, but it can be a great tool for rhetorical bullying. That’s why I object so strongly to the Decent Left and their condemnathons. If you want to have a rational discussion, it really doesn’t help to have some loudmouth demanding that you prove you don’t support the Khmer Rouge.

And a Mr Angry act doesn’t really convince. I’ve been working my way up to a review of Richard Seymour’s book. (Not the American football player, of course, but the nice wee man who runs Lenin’s Tomb.) If I compare it to, say Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?, it’s not just a matter of me agreeing more with Richard than Nick – although I do. It’s also a matter of Richard, notwithstanding that he feels strongly on many issues, adopting a cool and rational style, while Nick’s book is just brimming over with rage and bile, which does nothing for his accuracy but does serve to devalue whatever valid points he may have to make.

And here’s another example, in the al-Muhajiroun demo against the army parade in Luton last week. You have to ask why these parades are being held in the first place, and the answer is that it’s part of Gordon Brown’s campaign to make the Afghanistan adventure a popular patriotic war, by giving the punters flags to wave. But I’m interested in what Anjem Chaudary was playing at. On Radio Galloway this weekend, George was very good on this point, arguing that al-Muhaj had made their case in a way that would alienate the maximum number and win over the minimum. But I’m afraid that George misses the point.

Why do Anjem Chaudary and his dozen or so mates go around behaving like assholes. The answer is precisely to provoke a response. It gets Anjem on the telly, where he can justify behaving like an asshole, outrage white suburbanites and maybe spark the interest of one or two young and impressionable Muslims. So after the Luton demo, Anjem got not one but two appearances on GMTV the next morning, introduced as a “Muslim leader” despite his lack of followers. And so good an outraged response did he provoke that they had him on again the next morning.

At this point Muslim leaders who are infinitely more representative and have more rational things to say will bury their head in their hands and wonder who they have to bribe to get on Newsnight. It’s partly lazy journalism, which likes to set up easy oppositions instead of complex discussions. It’s partly because an unrepresentative rentaquote will be permanently available for interview. (One notices Haris Rafique of the bogus “Sufi Muslim Council” playing the same game, except he’s telling the kufaar what they want to hear. Indeed, Haris and Anjem were sitting side by side on a discussion show the other week.) But it’s mainly because the easy thing to do is provoke an emotional response – Look at the scary mad mullah! Fear him! Hate him!

And, with all this overwrought emotionalism, it becomes harder and harder to have an actual rational discussion.

Postman Pat

You know, I never realised Spitting Image was still running in France. But it’s nice to see Olivier Besancenot keeping the old profile up.

Brief thoughts on the dissident campaign

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I’ve just come back from the NIC-ICTU peace rally, and I suppose it’s worth jotting down some thoughts on the deadly dissident attacks of the past few days. But there really isn’t much that can be said about the killings themselves, except on a human level. The depressing jolt back to what we used to hear on the news on a weekly basis, but had become accustomed to not hearing in recent years. Then you’re struck by the sheer futility of it, and the stupidity of any idea that rerunning the Provo campaign on a micro scale is a worthwhile exercise. How, if you aren’t part of that small milieu that values militarism in and of itself, this is completely insupportable.

That’s just in terms of immediate, subjective responses, and as I say, there’s not much more to be said about the events. There is plenty, though, to be said about the context and the responses. There are some useful points made by Liam, some more by Richard, plenty of intelligent discussion as usual on Cedar Lounge, and if you’re so minded you can read Eamonn McCann’s take on the situation, although Eamo does seem a little disingenuous to me.

So I want to offer a few thoughts on things. The first is that, while the dissidents obviously pose a physical threat to whoever they choose to target – and, if they’re claiming pizza delivery men as legitimate targets, that’s distressingly large – the dissident “threat” that’s being talked up is not an existential threat to society at large or the peace process or whatever. Even on the micro level, it’s very unlikely that their strategy of tension is going to have many tangible effects – increased security at barracks, and that should be about it.

It’s true that there is a fair amount of discontent in the republican heartlands, but much of that centres around the explosion of crime and anti-social behaviour, and the lack of a robust response to the hoods. It’s also true that there is a smallish but still significant layer of republicans who reject the peace process and all its works, but a large proportion of them – quite likely a majority – are not in favour of a return to armed struggle but of a political opposition, even if they can’t say what that should be. The militarists, at this point, are a minority of a minority of a minority.

At this point, armed dissidence remains a Mickey Mouse concern. Not only are the four or five organisations tiny, but they’re so divided that there are factions within the factions. They are riddled with agents, which is how Hugh Orde knew there was an attack in the offing even though he didn’t know what it would be. And there has been no shift of support towards them – you might say that they aren’t trying to be popular, which is true, but they are actually managing to isolate themselves even more. This is a movement that is not stronger but weaker than five years ago. And they have been trying, and failing, to kill uniforms for quite some time – that they eventually succeeded has been due not to strength on their part but simply to the law of averages.

There’s also the question here of grinding axes. And, I’m sorry to say, it’s hard not to be a little cynical in a few cases. Gordon Brown was over here in a flash. It’s quite likely that he genuinely felt what he was saying, but you can’t help noticing that most days now you hear of one, or two, or four British soldiers being killed in Afghanistan, and he isn’t so keen to flag that up.

There were also the callers on Talk Back, which is usually a good barometer of unionist opinion. What was striking was hearing some punters actually arguing along the lines that the IRA should be brought back for the purpose of wiping out the dissidents. This was a minority position – more of the punters wanted the SAS deployed in West Belfast, which is predictable – but interesting nonetheless.

I’m also interested in how this was turned so quickly into an exercise in Provo-bashing. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with having a go at Gerry Adams, but it should be for what he’s said or done, and not for stuff he has no control over. I think, from Gerry’s point of view and bearing in mind his tortuous use of language, that his statement after the Massereene attack was as straightforward as anything you’ll ever get from Gerry. And his argument that the dissident campaign was counterproductive was a perfectly reasonable thing for him to say, bearing in mind that not too long ago his own movement was doing the same thing. For him to have taken a high moral tone would just have made him look like a hypocrite.

But immediately we had the chorus from the media and the unionists that Gerry’s statement was too cold and impersonal, didn’t have enough emotional adjectives, had too much politics in it. And there was, and this is still continuing, a smeary campaign to try and make the Provos responsible for what they haven’t done. A fairly typical example is the inimitable Gail Walker, doing her Skibbereen Eagle turn in the Belfast Telegraph:

If there’s any hedge-trimming by Sinn Fein people will rightly conclude the peace process is just a sham.

I suppose their leaders have just about passed the first hurdle and kept the show on the road. Still, while their condemnation may have satisfied all the legalistic necessities many will feel it has more to do with the political logic of the situation than any deeply felt revulsion.

And many will be waiting for SF backwoodsmen to tip the wink to their natural constituency by humming and hawing, calling for ever more ‘confidence building measures’ or rambles down republican memory lane, droning on about how there can be no purely military solutions to armed republican resistance.

See how this works? The thing is, the unionists know what the dissidents know, that this is a serious pressure point, that it’s very difficult for republicans to side with the state against other republicans, no matter how reprehensible you think their actions are. Now, Martin McGuinness’s photo-op yesterday with Peter Robinson and Chief Constable Orde should have definitively shown what side he is on – his statement was so strong I almost expected Orde to grab his shoulder and say “Steady on mate, don’t go over the top.” And yet, it’s still proving hard to mollify the unionists.

Yes, the dissidents are strategically bankrupt. But they aren’t the only republicans facing serious questions about their strategy.

High stakes poker in Euskadi

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I’m sort of playing catch-up to events here, and have a few things on the back burner that I’ve been meaning to get around to, so please bear with me for a little while. One thing I had been meaning to take a look at was last week’s devolved election in the Basque Autonomous Region. This has some importance because, as has been flagged up in the reports, there’s a possibility that the devolved government might not be led by the Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ) for the first time since the autonomy regime was set up in 1980.

A couple of things have brought this possibility about. One is a vagary of the Autonomous Region’s electoral system that over-represents the sparsely populated (and mostly Spanish-speaking) province of Araba at the expense of the more populous (and more culturally Basque) Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa. This means that, although the EAJ and its allies scored 53% to 46% for the Spanish parties (PSOE, PP and the small UPyD), the Spanish parties ended up with 38 seats to the Basques’ 37. The other factor was the banning of two radical nationalist parties and consequent annulment of 100,000 votes that would have returned six deputies for the radicals. I’ll have a little more to say about that below.

One thing that struck me was that the coverage in the British media was much of a muchness. The consistent line was that the Spanish socialists (PSOE) had scored a huge victory due to running a serious campaign centred on the economic crisis, as opposed to the EAJ who were faffing about with nationalist symbolism and grandiose plans for independence. This interpretation fell down even on the detail in the articles, notably the fact that, as President Ibarretxe never ceased to remind the electorate, the Basque autonomous government has a better credit rating than the Spanish government, and unemployment running at half the Spanish rate. Say what you like about the conservative businessmen who lead the Basque Nationalist Party, but they know a thing or two about running an economy. I suspect this media received wisdom is mostly down to Madrid-based correspondents, who don’t have much of a track record of understanding the Basques, just recycling talking points from PSOE spin doctors. There may also be an element of analogy with the deep hatred much of the British press pack feels for Scottish nationalism – Alex Salmond (a banking economist by profession) has been talking much more sense about the crisis than Gordon Brown (a history lecturer by profession), but you’d never know it to read the London papers.

Anyway, this electoral configuration opens up a number of scenarios. Ibarretxe, as leader of the biggest party, has a few things he can do:

  • He can reach an accommodation with the Socialists, either in coalition or toleration of a nationalist minority government.
  • He can go into opposition and let the Socialists try their hand at running an unstable government in the middle of an economic crisis. The chances are, they wouldn’t last very long before the Nationalists were back in the saddle.
  • He can use all the blandishments available to pressurise at least one Socialist representative to defect. This is of course compatible with either one of the first two options.

As for the Socialists, what can they do?

  • The option offering most stability would be a grand coalition with the Nationalists. But then they would be in the junior position, and Patxi López really really wants a shot at the presidency.
  • They could form a government of the Spanish parties. It’s mathematically possible, but fraught with dangers. The formation of a government consisting entirely of Spanish parties, including the post-Francoist PP, with only a minority of the popular vote and with a strong españolista bias, could quite easily lead to mayhem on the streets. It could also put pressure on the PSOE’s more Bascophile wing and, as noted, it would only take one defection to bring them down. What’s more, there could be serious knock-on effects for the national PSOE, whose majority in the Madrid parliament depends on Basque votes, or for their alliances with nationalists in Catalunya and Galicia.
  • The option the PSOE leadership seem to be pursuing at the minute is for a minority government that would be tolerated by the PP without actually bringing the PP into government. This, to be frank, is neither fish nor fowl, and looks even less like lasting a four-year term.

So there will be some interesting horse-trading ahead. But as already noted, there was also the banning of the radical nationalists from the poll, which brings to five the number of nationalist parties banned in recent years. The legal argument is based on these various formations’ links to ETA, but it’s carried out under a political parties law so broadly written that even a non-violent pro-independence party like Aralar could quite conceivably be banned on the sole grounds that its political programme has similarities to that of ETA.

There’s a strong feeling among Basque nationalists that this has been a crude gerrymander aimed at benefiting the Socialists. There may be something to that, but I think there’s much more to it, in terms of how the Basques fit – or rather don’t – into the Spanish body politic. You could, if you were historically minded enough, go way back to the Carlist Wars, and note that the Carlist rebels drew their strongest popular base from Euskadi, Catalunya and Aragón – that is, regions that had both a tradition of feudal autonomy and cultural abstand vis-à-vis the dominant Castilian nationality. Or you could note the emergence of modern Basque and Catalan nationalisms as mass movements after the Disaster of 1898, with the consequence that the other nationalists – the Spanish nationalists – have never really forgiven the Basques or Catalans for “insulting the nation.” Hence the extreme repression in Euskadi under the Franco regime.

Some of this, it is true, has been ameliorated by decentralising reforms dating from the post-Franco transition, but the beefs haven’t been eliminated. It is frequently pointed out that the 1978 constitution, passed without a Basque majority, is the only constitution in the history of the Spanish state that declared Castilian the sole official language. Nor that the army was given the constitutional duty to intervene in the case of a threat to the unity of the kingdom. The reactions from Madrid in recent years to proposed reforms of the Basque and Catalan autonomy statutes – falling well short of independence – show that the national issue is a long way from being resolved.

So, how does this tie in to Madrid’s current politic? The persistent outlawing of nationalist parties, associations and publications betray a desire to make the Basque national issue into a security issue pure and simple. This isn’t just for propaganda purposes, but also because the Spanish state reckons that an armed ETA campaign can be contained fairly easily, even if the organisation can’t be definitively defeated. What’s more, casting the national question as a terrorism problem heads off criticism from abroad. That’s how the 1980s PSOE government of Felipe González orchestrated kidnapping, torture and murder on an epic scale without a peep of protest from the UN or the Council of Europe.

By contrast, look at what happened when ETA declared a ceasefire in 1998. Of course, Madrid wouldn’t open up talks with Herri Batasuna, but the then government did agree to talk to the constitutional Basque parties. To their horror, the constitutional nationalists started placing nationalist demands on the Spanish. What was even worse was the Catalan and Galician nationalists, sniffing a constitutional revision, trying to get in on the action. This is Madrid’s real nightmare – not the disruption and occasional death caused by a small armed group, but a political movement amongst the minority nationalities that might unravel the entire state.

Which is why this small corner of the state still has the potential to strike real fear into the central government.

It’s a flipping travesty, that’s what it is…

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I am not inconsiderably annoyed at Dancing On Ice. Oh yes. This is shaping up to be Strictly: The Revenge, with Coleen Nolan in the Sarge’s role.

Mind you, it’s hard to stay annoyed, because there are enough ridiculous things about DOI that would really annoy you if you took it seriously. Schofield’s decibel level, for one. Tony Gubba’s overwrought commentary, for another. An unfeasibly rowdy audience that boos any score below a 4.5 and on occasion has been known to actually shout the judges down. And Holly. Oh God, Holly. Normally you’re left wondering how she can wear so little while stood next to an ice rink, but at least advanced pregnancy has curtailed that. But we still get the “Jaaason, why only a three?” Which is a silly question – as he’s the low-scoring judge, if I were a contestant, he’s the one whose points I’d value the most.

Oh, and I still can’t figure out what Ruthie Henshall is doing there, except that she replaces that Russian woman with the thick accent. I understood what the Russian woman was saying, but Holly evidently didn’t, and the one thing you don’t want is for Holly to be just stood there grinning vacantly. At least any more than she does in the normal course of things.

All right, so last night our local standard-bearer Zoe Salmon got eliminated. I’m a little scundered about this, partly because she’s one of the very few people on TV who talks like me, but mainly because she was one of the really good performers. I stress here, I don’t blame the judges for their final decision, because Jessica gave the better performance in the skate-off, and our girl was very gracious in bowing out. The fault, if there is any, belongs to the Great British Public for putting two of the top three in the bottom two. With only five in the field, one of the top three in the skate-off was always likely, but two leaves you wondering what the electorate is playing at. But not wondering for long, as it basically boils down to women who fancy Donal McIntyre and women who identify with Coleen Nolan.

There have been a couple of things this year that have left me a little uneasy. One is that wee lad from X Factor who looks like Eddie Munster and who, with his ballet training and his rollerblading, has been so far ahead of the field from day one that it isn’t even funny. I’ll allow that the Eddie Munster kid has put on a good show, although I’ve not warmed to him, mainly because he gives the impression that he’d be happier leaving the partner behind and just skating solo. The other thing is that you’ve had Coleen appearing on Loose Women five days a week and essentially using it as a platform to appeal for votes. I don’t blame her for availing of the opportunity, I just note that it’s an advantage no other competitor has.

But, leaving aside the suspicion that the weakest contestant keeps getting put through at the expense of better performers because of her popularity on another show, there is something here redolent of the Sarge’s run on Strictly. One thing that was brought up then was that this scenario would be unimaginable on Dancing With The Stars in the States. Over there, if you put in a bad performance, you’re off. I think this has something to do with a cultural difference that you often see reflected in sports, which is that America doesn’t really have this identification with the plucky underdog. There is a very strong theme in American culture of celebrating excellence; there is a very strong theme in British culture of celebrating the endearingly crap, which sometimes goes as far as actually putting down achievement.

But then, I have this purist streak where I like to be entertained by good performances, and I find limited entertainment in a middle-aged woman struggling to stay upright when good performers are going out. She seems nice, and she’s trying hard, and you do feel the urge to give her a big hug for her efforts, but I still wouldn’t vote for her. But, although I think it’s a shame that these things are turned into personality contests, we have to face the fact that that’s what they are for the majority of voters.

To be honest, on that basis, I think Coleen should win the show outright. When you make the public the final arbiters, there’s a populist logic that kicks in – the same as those TV awards where the public used to vote David Jason the best actor every year, whether he’d done anything or not. The show’s producers are surely aware of this, and one assumes that Coleen was invited on in the first place because of her appeal to women of a certain age. If that’s where they are starting off, I’d like her to win just to see those guys can put her victory in their pipe and smoke it.

But I’m only saying that because I don’t take it seriously. If I did take it seriously, I really would be annoyed.

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