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Cameron did not hire Coulson despite his questionable past, but because of it

June 24, 2014

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I wrote the following precisely three years ago, on the Cameron/Coulson thing. It is worth repeating…

And here is the biggest pork-pie of them all:

  • It is unfair to tarnish David Cameron for doing the thoroughly decent thing and giving a man a second chance.

The image of Cameron desperately pushed by Tory politicians and right-wing commentators is that of a trusting, wide-eyed, Bambi-like figure who asked for assurances from Andy Coulson and then, believing the apparently reformed chap at his word, gave the old bean a second chance. Turns out the chap was a scamp! Oh no!

I find this utterly unpalatable. We are talking about the Prime Minister, not Red Fucking Riding Hood. He is a savvy politician, the leader of the Tory party, and an ex PR man himself. It now emerges that he was warned about Coulson by senior Tory and LibDem colleagues. He dismissed concerns over Coulson’s involvement in the scandal as “a political stunt”. Boris Johnson went further, calling assertions regarding the extent of the hacking scandal “a load of codswallop cooked up by the Labour Party”.

Add to this, that Mr Coulson was not on his second chance – he was on his third one. During the period of Coulson’s tenure as Cameron’s right-hand-man, he was heavily implicated in an industrial tribunal which involved horrific bullying and ended up costing his old employer £800k. The tribunal found in December 2008 that the claimant had fallen victim to “a consistent pattern of bullying behaviour… The original source of the hostility towards the claimant was Mr Coulson, the editor; although other senior managers either took their lead from Mr Coulson and continued with his motivation after Mr Coulson’s departure; or shared his views themselves. Mr Coulson did not attend the tribunal to explain why he wanted the claimant dismissed.”

Is keeping this man on staff consistent with a Cameron who has constantly declared himself to be vehemently opposed to bullying? Or is it more consistent with the Flashman who is frequently accused of behaving like a bully in the House of Commons? The bully who dismisses experienced female politicians with “calm down dear”? It is precisely this duality, this inconsistency between the government’s rhetoric and its actions that is at the core of the Coulson appointment.

It has become increasingly clear to many over the last year that this government was elected on a platform of lies; student fees, VAT, reorganisation of the Health Service, EMAs – they are but a smattering of examples; U-turns, broken promises, misleading of the House of Commons and stretching the truth to its limits.

At the centre of this campaign, Andy Coulson – described by George Osborne as “an incredibly talented, dedicated and patriotic servant of this country”; described by David Cameron as “a hugely experienced journalist [who] will make a formidable contribution as a senior member of my team in building the most effective strategy and operation to win the next general election.”

He did make a formidable contribution. And Cameron did win – ish – the general election. Why deny this, just because the true nature of his contribution is now revealed?

Coulson was not hired despite his questionable pedigree. He was hired because of it.

Golden Dawn definitely not Nazis, photos confirm

June 23, 2014

The leaders of Greece’s Golden Dawn, who are charged with running a criminal organisation, said to prosecutors today:

We are not Nazis. We are proud Greek Nationalists.

Today the Editor’s Newspaper (Εφημερίδα των Συντακτών) published the following material.

Here is the party’s leader Nikos Mihaloliakos not being a Nazi.

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Here is Golden Dawn MP, Christos Pappas, not being a Nazi.

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Here is Christos Pappas again, in front of the German cemetery, where allegedly he held an all-night vigil every year with other Golden Dawn members on the 20th of April, Hitler’s birthday, not being a Nazi.

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Here is leader Mihaloliakos and Pappas, not being Nazis together.

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Here is a selection of the material from today’s paper, including Golden Dawn MPs definitely not being Nazis at Golden Dawn meetings, definitely not wearing Nazi insignia, definitely not displaying pictures of Hitler or SS flags and definitely not saluting Mussolini’s mausoleum in Rome.

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Golden Dawn have issued a statement saying these were youthful mistakes. Here is Pappas inside Mussolini’s mausoleum again in 2009, at the age of 47, being youthfully mistaken.

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Here is Golden Dawn MP and, recently, Athens Mayoral candidate Ilias Kasidiaris, after a winter solstice all-nighter during which new Golden Dawn members were sworn in, not being a Nazi. This was in December 2012, while he was already an MP.

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BONUS: SHORTS.

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WEEKLY RANT: A politician, a columnist, another columnist and the language of misogyny

June 21, 2014

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I was not going to comment on the whole Alibhai-Brown/Fabricant/Delingpole thing. Truly, I wasn’t. I have kept my gob shut for days and my fingers away from the keyboard. But there is something about Delingpole’s defence of Fabricant – about any logical fallacy, dressed up to be so reasonable looking – that sends me into a sort of intellectual anaphylactic shock.

The bulk of the argument, in his imaginatively and tastefully titled piece “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to punch Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the throat”, is essentially that this is not about all women, but about a particular woman. This woman, he argues, is herself responsible for the anger she causes and, therefore, violent fantasies are just dandy. His point is severely undercut by language laced with sexism both in his piece, his Channel 4 News appearance and many of the comments in support. Language which seems to contain a drummer-like repetition of “screeching”, “screaming”, “hysterical”, “harridan”, “harpy” and related sentiments.

The other part of Delingpole’s argument is semantic and insidious:

It’s immediately obvious when you read the tweet that Fabricant is outlining a hypothetical scenario. Hypothetical scenarios, by definition, may never happen. And in this case… Fabricant has ruled out it ever happening. So it seems bizarre, to say the least, that Fabricant should be censured or forced to apologise for something he hasn’t done and will never do, but merely for something he thought and then rejected… Far from being censured, Fabricant ought surely to be praised for illustrating in his tweet the wise restraint which forms the basis of civilisation.

This superficially attractive approach is more problematic, because it tries to dress up one thing as another and possibly, if no further thought is given, succeeds. What if I tweeted: “I could never appear on a discussion prog with [a specific woman] I would either end up with a brain haemorrhage or by raping her on the way out”? What if I tweeted “I could never appear on a discussion prog with [a specific person of Jewish ethnicity] I would either end up with a brain haemorrhage or by putting them in a gas chamber”? Going by Delingpole’s logic these scenarios are just as hypothetical, just as innocent. I ought, indeed, to be praised for “the wise restraint which forms the basis of civilisation”.

Which is, of course, utter bollocks.

When people like Fabricant, Delingpole, Liddle – and countless threatened little men – get into trouble for crap like this, they run to the temple of Context and yell “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” at the altar of Free Speech. But free speech does not only enshrine your right to say every cockamamie thing that pops up like a weed in the fallow field of your imagination. It also includes everyone else’s right to tell you they find it objectionable and why. What Delingpole is really asking for is not freedom of speech, but freedom from criticism. And freedom from context.

Because context does not only go as wide as you want it; one can always find a convenient rung along the ladder from the specific to the abstract, to justify just about anything. Context in this case includes a man in California shooting half a dozen girls because they wouldn’t fuck him. It includes a schoolgirl in Pakistan being shot in the face because she had the temerity to want an education. It includes two teenagers being gangraped and hung from a mango tree in India. Whether you like it or not, this is the context within which your grotty little fantasy about violently shutting up women fits. In this context, for a man in a position of power to express – and by extension perpetuate and embolden – misogynist fantasies is plainly vile.

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WEEKLY RANT: Bullying Charities into Silence

June 12, 2014

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I came across a pair of absolutely outrageous stories last night.

The first is that Chris Mould, chair of the Trussell Trust, giving evidence to the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector yesterday, said that the charity decided to tone down its criticisms of the benefit system after they were threatened by officials. He said that in a face-to-face conversation in March 2013 with “someone in power”, he was told that he must think more carefully otherwise “the government might try to shut you down”.

He gave a second example. In 2011 he received a phone call on his day off “from someone in the Secretary of State’s office which was basically to tell me that the boss was very angry with us because we were publicising the concerns we have over the rising number of people who were struggling as a consequence of delays and inefficiencies in the benefits system”.

The Trussell Trust has long been a thorn in the government’s side, what with their insistence on gathering data on food bank use and then having the temerity to publish it. Their reports are a boil on the nose of the heavily airbrushed front cover model on the Coalition’s “Things Are Getting Better” weekly gossip magazine. The government’s counter-argument, that food banks generate demand for free food, is proved manifestly absurd by the fact that a referral is needed to use one and a voucher is used which records the reasons for the referral.

According to the shadow Employment Minister, Iain Duncan Smith has already forbidden Jobcentres from referring to the Trussell Trust by using their voucher scheme, because they contain a questionnaire on the back which records the reason for the referral. They now use their own vouchers which do not record the reason. What other possible justification could there be for this but the suppression of the true statistics?

Also yesterday, Conservative MP Conor Burns, reported Oxfam to the Charities Commission for its new campaign, which draws attention to poverty and homelessness. He says it is overtly political. The charity refutes the claims. Burns is right, of course. Pointing out inequality, the disgrace of people living in poverty in the world’s sixth richest country, is political. But it is not party political – or it shouldn’t be.

Burns’s complaint quite simply means that highlighting the plight of this country’s poor – which is not only Oxfam’s right, but its duty – is tantamount to anti-Tory rhetoric. His gripe, therefore, contains the implicit admission that the Conservative Party are neither dealing with the underlying issues, nor do they intend to. Otherwise, the response to such a campaign, would be “yes, we know; it’s unacceptable; we will do anything we can to deal with it”. But such a response would be very tricky, considering that charities now openly criticise this government’s policies for, not only ignoring the issues, but exacerbating them.

Iain Duncan Smith already refuses to meet the Trussell Trust, claiming it has a political agenda. Four years on from Cameron’s Big Idea: the Big Society, the thing he was going to spend 100% of his five years in power making a reality, of government working with the charitable sector to redress inequality, they instead find themselves at war with it.

This is totalitarian tactics, pure and simple – ironically resulting from the coalition of the UK’s two, ostensibly, “libertarian” parties. Any evidence which goes against the propaganda the government wishes to project, this offensive and mendacious narrative of perfect recovery, is threatened and bullied away. It is the political equivalent of installing spikes in front of buildings: an unwillingness to deal with any root causes; just a cruel, violent attempt to make the resulting misery invisible.

As many of suspected, Cameron’s Big Society has turned out to be precisely what its initials suggested. A load of BS.

Dried butter bean, tomato and garlic casserole

June 5, 2014

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Some of you expressed a wish to know how this is made. So, here goes. It is really easy, but has a couple of preparatory steps, which mean you have to plan for it. It’s a great source of nutrients like potassium, magnesium and iron, one of the most protein-packed legumes, a very slow-release carbohydrate, ideal for people controlling their blood sugar, vegan, gluten-free and very, very tasty. It can be eaten hot or cold. It is also cheap.

500g dried butter beans
(you can get them in most Turkish markets, large supermarkets and health food shops)
1 tomato
1 onion
4 cl. garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cups sieved tomato
1 cup hot water
dill or parsley
salt
pepper
sugar

Soak the beans in water overnight. Then rinse them, put them in a pot with cold water and bring to the boil. Boil for 20 minutes and drain.

In your multi or blender (or chopping everything finely) make a rough chunky paste of the tomato, onion, garlic and olive oil. Add the beans to a casserole dish with a lid, add the paste, the sieved tomato, water, chopped up dill or parsley (whichever you prefer, both work well and give a different slant to the dish), salt and pepper to taste, and a pinch of sugar and stir to evenly distribute.

Pop in a preheated oven (between 180° and 200°C depending on your oven) and cook for 1 and 1/2 hour. Unless your casserole lid is tight-fitting or you seal it (see below), check halfway through and add a bit of hot water if it looks like it’s getting dry.

Enjoy!

TIPS TO ELEVATE IT

1. Make a plain pastry from flour and water and seal the casserole lid around the edges, cook on a lower heat (150°C) for two and a half hours. Melts in the mouth.

2. Add a handful of sundried tomatoes and a small chilli to the blender when you make the paste. They really give the dish a zing.

3. Chop some good quality, gamey sausage into the casserole for a more carnivore-pleasing result.

4. Crumble some feta on top after serving. There are good vegan alternatives available.

Dried butter beans look like this. The recipe works equally well with dried lima beans or fagioli, but adjust cooking time for smaller varieties.

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WEEKLY RANT: Ukip and the dangers of sophistication

May 29, 2014

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There has been much in the media about why Ukip did well in last week’s elections elsewhere, but not in London. “London is out of touch with the rest of the country” is the claim. As if elections are not an aggregate result which consists of individual decisions capable of being affected by different circumstances in different areas.

Adjectives are being advanced to explain the conundrum: London is “sophisticated”, “cosmopolitan”, “media-savvy”, “bohemian”. They often drip with a venom that would suggest that these are all bad things to be. Someone even suggested during a papers review the next day that Londoners are “overeducated” – presumably this is what happens where one who had aimed for “just educated enough”, overshoots into some thoroughly ghastly state of being too well informed. Well, replacing The Crucible on the schools curriculum with Run For Your Wives should soon take care of that.

All these hypotheses ignore two important factors: First, if Ukip’s policies were thorough, well argued and coherent, presumably they would have been even more successful with the sophisticated and media-savvy. Second, Ukip achieved results below its national average in many other cities and also Scotland.

Another popular theory is that London is doing better in the economic recovery, so of course Londoners are less worried and selfish about it in the bargain. This is also misconceived. Recovery is an average. Kensington and The City may be doing incredibly well, but areas like Tottenham, Hackney or Ealing have some of the highest unemployment rates in the country. And, since London is much more expensive, poor people in London are suffering a much more dramatic squeeze than anyone else. The idea that the electorate in Tottenham rejected Ukip because they are more well-to-do than leafy villages in Oxfordshire where Ukip did well, is manifestly absurd.

The most obvious reason of all has been almost completely ignored. People who live in areas where those of different races, religions, nationalities and cultures live together in, broadly, mutually beneficial harmony, are more likely to see Ukip’s apocalyptic warnings for what they really are: an enormous pile of alarmist xenophobic horseshit.

The following statistic was mentioned during the BBC’s election night coverage: in areas where more than 75% all-white households, Ukip experienced a notably higher uplift. This is because fear as motivator works best when amorphous and diffuse. And people are much more likely to vote for measures which propose to victimise a general, anonymous group, rather than one which includes friends, colleagues, partners and neighbours whom they know and respect.

I am reminded of what Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis said:

“Nazism, fascism, racism and every other anti-social and anti-human mode of behavior are not products of ideology, do not contain ideology and neither do they constitute ideology. They’re the expression of the beast within all of us growing unchecked, when its barbaric and inhuman presence is aided, enhanced or facilitated by sociopolitical circumstance.
“The only antibiotic against this beast within, is education. I am talking about real education and not the irresponsible education of indiscriminate information which actually supresses restless and critical thinking. I am talking about education which does not rest on its laurels and does not create complacency in the student, but instead propagates questions and insecurity. This kind of education is not favored by political parties and governments, because it produces free-thinking and unruly citizens, who are of no use in the lowly game of politics.”

Perhaps that is what they mean by “overeducated”.

Anywhere I go, I long for someone

May 24, 2014

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This piece first appeared in the New Statesman.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Welcome to Easyjet flight 5156 from Mykonos to London Gatwick. My name is…” I zone out. Meaningless information I have heard five dozen times before, about the flight duration, the cabin crew and the weather back home.

The weather back home is what it is. Knowing about it after boarding is pretty pointless. It’s not as if I could magically produce an umbrella, a cagoule and a pair of galoshes from the matchbox hand luggage, which their rules allow as a carry-on. What are the current rules, anyway? Smaller and lighter than the average adult Madagascar marmoset, after a light meal, I think. The inexorable journey towards a dystopian future in which, if you choose a budget airline, all you will be allowed is a G-string made out of your passport – everything else attracts a small charge.

The weather back home… Is London now officially “back home”? Or is Greece, still? I am suddenly steeped in the duality of existence that plagues all immigrants. “Every time we say goodbye, I die a little”, muses Ella in my mind’s iPod. I have been dying a little, regularly, for twenty-three years now. Every time I leave each place I call home, the excitement of seeing family is marred by the anticipation of missing friends and vice-versa. I am never truly fully present in either place. Anywhere I go, I long for someone.

A woman who looks like Sue Pollard is showing me how to fasten a seatbelt. The illusion is helped by the bright uniform and the Nottingham accent. You pull the strap to tighten it, do you, Sue? Thanks. I flash back to that first flight to London Gatwick, in 1990. A continent of possibilities stretched before me. Granted, some of the possibilities were terrifying, but you don’t think about those when you’re nineteen. A neat little, multilingual, cocky bundle produced by the European Project. A proud European citizen, who travelled around and chose the UK to study and make a life for himself.

Why did I choose the UK? London seemed to me so supremely civilised; so fabulously cosmopolitan. You could wear and do whatever you wanted and nobody batted an eyelid. Later, I discovered this also meant you could get mugged in the street and nobody batted an eyelid. As my English improved it allowed me to strip away veneers of civility and recognise they occasionally hid thoughts that were ugly, imperial, patronising, racist, snobbish; it allowed me to know the difference between politeness and politesse. But you take the rough with the smooth and, on the whole, I remain convinced that the UK is, at least to me, the best country in the world. Although, lately, I find myself adding “just about” to that statement.

I remember that first night in the tiny, squalid bedsit on the Seven Sisters road. I remember how astonishingly bold I felt. I was the imperialist now. I would conquer this city. But I also remember my instant shock at the price of food, accommodation and transport. The realisation that the money I had believed would last three months, would stretch to maybe four weeks. If I was really careful, which I wasn’t. I remember the predictive ache of how much I would miss Greece – condemned, as I was, to stay away for nine cruel years, by a brutal army service that did not recognise objectors. What would I do without the sand, the rock, the fig and prickly pear, the way the sunlight turned the sea to blood at sunset, my mother’s cooking?

I do the cooking for my mother these days. That gift was one of the first things Alzheimer’s stole from her. All she has left now is the love she put into every meal, but none of the knowledge. The knowledge survives in me. Every grain of salt and cumin, every clove of garlic, every sliver of octopus, every silly superstition that will prevent a bèchamel from curdling; they live on like squatters of my soul. My mother’s condition has complicated things considerably. It has added to every trip the feeling that I am abandoning her, vulnerable and confused.

“Please stow away your emotional baggage in the overhead compartment”, says Sue. Soon, Easyjet will be charging for that, too.

The plane is rattling down the runway now; the fillings in my teeth are shaking loose, it feels like. As a “seasoned flyer”, I consider it my duty to play cool, in order to counterbalance the adrenaline of fellow, infrequent passengers freaking out. I put on an air of calm, maybe even yawn a little – that’s how blasé I am about all this. Inside me, meanwhile, a little child is screaming: “PLEASE GOD MAKE IT FLY”. The adult in me (it is crowded in my head) silently responds: “stop dithering, you prat; you’re an atheist”. This is what it means to be a seasoned flyer. You’re still just as petrified, but you are vastly more experienced at covering it.

The little child, I should explain, is me on my first flight, at the age of six. Mykonos to Athens on a little 30-seater with massive propellers – was it a Cessna or a Saab? – terrified but also excited. Why are my ears hurting? Free orange juice? And a boiled sweet? Wow. Then, from Athens to Patra by car and on to the ferry to Ancona. A two-week family Christmas road trip through Italy and France beckoned. My first taste of travel. My first taste of Europe. My first realisation that a border is just a line – you cross it and nothing changes. No, everything changes. You are in another world, which is both exactly the same and entirely different.

And I find that “terrified but also excited” is still the mingle I experience, each time I leave home to go home. Only, each time for different reasons. Will I get that West End part I’m up for? Yes. It was a good audition. Will my father still be alive the next time I return? No. Pancreatic cancer is swift like a scythe. I won’t even make the funeral. Will people think I gained weight or lost weight, during my absence? Probably both. Will this feeling of duality ever subside? Never.

The only certainty which remains inside me, unshakeable like a granite monolith, is that I am a product of both countries now and I am a richer man for it. And, if I may eschew my British humility and embrace my Greek boldness for a moment, both my countries are richer for it, too.

Sue interrupts my daze. “Do you require a landing card, Sir?” I don’t know. Do I? I recently read that a Home Office spokesman said: “We are focusing on cutting out the abuse of free movement between EU member states”. I wonder what that means. How can I abuse my legal right? I wonder where that leaves me. Whether in six months, or a year, or five, I will be asked to pack a life’s worth of belongings and leave the country in which I have lived and worked and fallen in love and watched cricket and gone on marches and got drunk and cooked my mother’s recipes and helped make what it is, for twenty-three years.

I wonder if those who delight in dehumanising immigrants realise how much more of a conscious choice it is for someone like me to love this country and see it as my home. And at what personal cost.

Sweet heaven, I think it is Sue Pollard!

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