Saturday, September 01, 2007

In England Now

Little blogging this week, mainly because I have been doing my accounts for the tax man. This is the task that I hate the most. I suppose I should do them as I go, then I wouldn't have to try and remember what exactly that item 'Staples £3-98' actually was.

I won't comment more about the task except to say it might have been worse; I could be an accountant.

This has been the worst summer in England since 1956, though that did have some redeeming features. We retained the Ashes against Australia and Jim Laker took 19-90 at Old Trafford. No sporting redemption this year; the cricketers have lost to India, the rugby players have lost to France, the footballers have been struggling, the tennis players are out of form, and the only athlete to win a gold medal at the IAAF World Championships is someone who missed three off-season drug-testing appointments.

Blair has gone and we gave had a summer of Brown. What is it like in England now?

We have had a lot of floods. Brown has handled the press well; he hasn't fallen into the traps set for Bush over Katrina. He was helped by David Cameron fulfilling a long planned foreign trip while his own constituency was under water. The reasons for the floods - too much house building without the necessary infrastructure - can hardly be laid at the feet of an incoming prime minister.

The economy remains strong; although the 'footsie' fell with the American sub-prime crisis, it seems to have recovered and stabilized. The cash-for-honors crisis seems to have gone quiet - I suppose it is regarded as Tony Blair's dirty washing. John Prescott, the boorish Deputy Prime Minister and constant source of embarrassment has gone too. There have been no financial or sexual scandals surrounding Brown.

The big test, of course, remains Iraq. He packed his cabinet with Bush-haters, yet seemed amiable enough when he visited Camp David, pledging friendship and support. While the surge seems to be showing some benefit in the north, the carnage has got worse in Basra. There has been criticism of the British forces in the south from some of the American armchair generals (I suppose in Patrick O'Brien's world they would be Admirals of the Yellow). In the press today are rejoinders by retired British Generals blaming Rumsfeld for the whole sorry mess.

Of course, the situation in Iraq is more complex than we are told. The success of the surge is related to the war against Al-Qaeda. The Americans have successfully separated Sunni leaders from the Sunni Al-Qaeda and have begun to undo the mistake of assuming that all Saddam supporters were fervent Baathists. They were careerists backing the winning horse. In the south Al-Qaeda is not a factor; they are all Shi'ites. The question there is how much influence Iran will have over their fellow Shi'ites. The anti-Iran conflict is a particularly American one that the British have never fully bought in to. I can understand that Americans still want pay-back for the hostage crisis of the 1970s and don't trust the Ayatollahs but in the real world you have to deal with things as they are, not how you would like them to be.

The truth is that politics in Basra is unlike anything in the West since Al Capone was defeated in Chicago. Unless there is a serious intention of recreating the Untouchables, and there is no political mandate or will to do that, we are better off out of there.

We hear of a six-month truce from the Mahdi army. Presumably some sort of deal has been done between Muqtada al Sadr and the British Foreign Office. You want us to leave and we want to leave. We can't go if there are IEDs going off every day. Give us some peace and quiet and we will declare that we have successfully handed over to Iraqi forces, which, as you know, are largely manned by your militia. Why would he demur?

Afghanistan is also a problem. There are criticisms that the government has sent men out to fight with inadequate equipment - a charge that can be laid at Brown's door since the ex-chancellor may well have penny-pinched on the Army budget. The poppy harvest has not been reduced. Again, I see the hand of the Foreign Office here. There is a worldwide shortage of morphine, so it makes no sense to reduce the source of the raw material. Winning the battle against the Taliban means winning hearts and minds. You hardly deny the Taliban a sanctuary by making the farmers who could hide them penniless.

At home there is a crisis in the prisons. Because they are overflowing they are letting prisoners out two weeks earlier than they should. One newspaper is keeping a record of new crimes committed by prisoners so-released. 59 so far. Crime statistics are so easily manipulated as to be meaningless. The government spins them to put themselves in the best light. Concealed in the current figures is a fourfold increase in the numbers of killings and injury from guns. One Chief Constable defends the figures because they are nothing like as bad as in American cities. But owning guns is illegal in the UK and legal in America. Of course, it is not as bad, but it's not comparing like with like. With the police so defeatist what can you expect?

Brown has a 10 point lead in the polls and might call an early election apart from one thing - Europe. The European Constitution was defeated by referenda in France and Holland. Tony Blair had promised a referendum, but didn't have to deliver because the whole thing was hit into the long grass by the French and Dutch defeats. The European leaders had a second go and produced a 'Treaty' that is 95% the same as the Constitution. This does not require a referendum they said it can be agreed by local parliaments. Brown has told us we won't have a referendum, but a large majority of the public want one and a large majority would vote against. If he were to call an election now, it would become in effect a referendum on Europe, which he would certainly lose despite his lead in the Opinion Polls. So no election yet, I think.

Oh, and Barclays are in trouble since I took my money out and transferred it to teh Halifax.

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