Saturday, July 30, 2005

British Blogging

There have been three major events this year in the British blogosphere - the general election, the call for a different electoral system in its immediate aftermath, and the London bombings. All seem to have excited more or less everyone, whilst in the down periods the political bloggers have either returned to their hobbyhorses or just taken breaks entirely.

The comments on this Chicken Yoghurt thread seem to be highly pessimistic. Mr Pastry says "A blogger asked recently - 'can blogging damage your mental health?' - I think he's got a point (seriously!). It's certainly doing my head in." Justin is "tired and it's becoming clear that British blogging is too much like whistling in the dark." I don't want to be so defeatist. Even if I'm not in a position to get the readership of a Tim Worstall or The Sharpener, I still think there is a point to British blogging.

Our national psyche is often said to be one of despondency; we're better at criticising and moaning than we are in actually trying to get something done. Just look at how we react to one (admittedly comprehensive) defeat at cricket against Australia - suddenly all the critics start chiming in advocating wholesale change. Perhaps it is apt that two of the best articles about British blogging, therefore, highlight its limitations very clearly. Both are by Nosemonkey; one criticising groupthink and the adversarial style of blogging, and this one officially denouncing UK blogging as a pointless waste of time.

A determined few, led primarily by Manic over at Bloggerheads via campaigns such as his latest Backing Blair lark are genuinely trying to make a difference. Around 80% of the rest seem to be either single-issue obsessives, vindictive arseholes or nowhere near as educated or clever as they think they are. The remaining 20% is made up of people - like me - who really just want to be columnists on a national newspaper. Why the hell do our opinions matter?


Many of the attempts made at making British blogging more "relevant" or successful have, as yet, been as triumphal as attempts to revive the Tory Party. When the response of the mainstream media to the coverage of the London bombings is a page of cut-and-pasted paragraphs from blogs in The Times, something obviously isn't working quite as it is supposed to. Even the first-class jobs of liveblogging done at Europhobia and Perfect recently didn't make much of an impact - as interesting as it was to have lively discussion in the comments section, we bloggers are still hopelessly reliant upon more conventional news sources for our information. Martin Stabe has his own ideas as to why Britbloggers are failing to make a difference:

Blogging has filled a niche that the particular structure American journalism has left open: partisan reporting. The ideology of journalism that has emerged in the United States since the 19th century is professional “objectivity“. A widely-held norm of objectivity lends itself to criticism based on charges of partisan bias... British mainstream journalism, by contrast, is relatively more diverse... People who read the Daily Mail or the Guardian understand that they are getting a particular point of view.

That's certainly true. Blogs such as Biased BBC often end up being cringeingly embarrassing - so determined are the writers to make their point that the most insignificant evidence of "bias" is trumpeted heavily. There is a valid case to be made against BBC reporting in many cases (I certainly think it has a political line that gets damaged by the fact that it is supposed to be objective). Yet such is the blog's doctrinal libertarian obsession with getting rid of the BBC that their valid points get lost in a sea of irrelevance.

Other vaunted attempts to revive British blogging, or at least rescue it from total despair, are also of somewhat limited value. Whilst I hate to criticse Tim Worstall's BritBlog roundup, not least for the number of additional hits it gives me whenever I manage to make it, it is much more a showcase of good writing rather than politically incisive. That is not of itself a bad thing; we can all learn much from reading other articles, and the growing standard of British blogs must be attributable, in part, to the fact that there is a real incentive in writing well, as well as the fact that only the most ignorant bloggers are not having their attention drawn to good writing. The Sharpener, too, is continually filled with posts of a high standard. Far from achieving the aim of fostering "civilised discussion among people with often vastly different political opinions", however, it often reads much more like a "best of" collection rather than an active debate.

Those two projects highlight one key point. British blogging IS very different from American blogging. The fact that 20% of British bloggers just want to be newspaper columnists has the potential to be its greatest strength. We should make our arguments more developed, more objective, and less hysterical than our American counterparts. Simply denouncing opinions as "self-evidently liberal" or "hopelessly conservative" doesn't get anyone anywhere - and it is a strength of the British realm in the blogosphere that arguments tend to be highly developed.

What it lacks, however, is a sense of interaction. Bloggers may well be known for cross-linking, thus throwing blogs high up search engine rankings (although I still find it hilarious that this post on Gavin Henson seems to be my most reliable source of random hits), but that tends to be where interaction ends. "Go and read this, it's highly incisive" tends to be about the extent of it. Rarely will bloggers genuinely pick apart articles that they disagree with - unless they disagree with the article so strongly that there is almost no point in starting a debate, for no common ground will ever be found.

Certainly, constructive efforts to actually use civilised debate to progress on an issue are few and far between. Comments sections on the most popular blogs may rack up huge numbers of posts, yet are some of the most childish and immature debates possible. Dare to criticise the dominant train of thought on Harry's Place or Samizdata, and often you will be met with cries of "why do you post here if you don't agree with us" or even, in the case of the latter, "he writes for Samizdata, you don't, so shut up" (I may be paraphrasing, but only slightly). Even Chicken Yoghurt's collection of posts on the London bombings failed to bring about a genuine debate on the aftermath, even if it did contribute greatly to my understanding of how the bombings affected us all.

No wonder we feel like we're whistling in the dark. Yet when I consider what the mainstream media is actually like in its coverage of politics, I fail to see how British bloggers can't carve out a niche for themselves. Anyone who watches an edition of Question Time must realise that the exercise is totally pointless. Not only is dashing off to the audience in the spirit of "participation" totally futile; the panelists themselves are chasing a quick soundbite or indulging in rabble-rousing rather than actually engaging in debate. The last time Tony Blair actually answered a question at PMQs is a matter for ancient historians.

In short, we have a political culture that is almost completely devoid of principle and substance. Political debate is geared around the instant news cycle; the quote or two that makes the evening news or generates a headline in the morning papers. TV coverage of politics, in the name of participation, has allowed itself to become dumbed-down to ridiculous extremes. An audience member on Question Time can't possibly make a point in the two sentences that he or she has; that doesn't stop her trying. Instead, we lapse to the reciting of anodyne slogans, where anti-war demonstrators shouting "stop this terrorist war for oil" get more coverage than people opposing the war on decent, well-thought-out grounds; where having a placard is more important than having an intelligent opinion.

British blogs can fill that void. We can reclaim politics from the 24-hour news cycle and actually restore some semblance of proper debate. The difficulty is, it will take time for serious debate to get any proper attention. Those of us who want to be newspaper columnists may have to put our ambitions on hold. Collaborative projects like Once More, which is trying to work out where the Tories should go next, are exactly the sort of projects that can restore life to the Britblog world (although they may need to be somewhat more active than Once More is at present). We don't all have to go creating group projects to succeed, though - we just need to be prepared to think a little more about posts we do or don't like. And then post a detailed and constructive criticism on our own sites - getting involved in proper debate and trying to win a constructive argument, not just seeing who can shout the loudest.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Now I'm Worried

Slugger O'Toole - a fantastic site if you're interested in all things Irish - share my cyncism regarding the IRA statement yesterday:

THE IRA statement is now out, giving volunteers an order to dump arms - which we expected a number of years ago. The rest is the usual IRA-style statement - you could have written it yourself, it's so predictable. As we're watching the breaking news on Sky, there's a collective shrug in this office. Frankly, no-one really cares what the republican movement says any more, because no-one believes it - it's what it does that counts from here on in.

Of course, I'm now getting very worried about this whole thing. BBC News is reporting that the Army is dismantling its security watchtowers in light of yesterday's announcement. Was some sort of deal struck over this? And, more to the point, is it wise to dismantle security towers until we've seen some pretty concrete evidence of weapons being decommissioned beyond use?

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Mixed-up Ethics

God forbid I am ever in a situation like that faced by Leslie Burke. Knowing that your death is imminently inevitable, and that it will occur after your faculties have disappeared, must be one of the most awful things that can happen to anyone. The distress caused must be compounded further when you know you will still be able to think, still be able to feel pain, and yet have no power whatsoever over your own life and death.

Leslie Burke, 45, who has a degenerative brain condition, fears artificial nutrition could be stopped against his wishes when he cannot talk.
Mr Burke, from Lancaster, had won a landmark ruling, supporting his right to artificial nutrition and hydration.
But the GMC appealed, saying doctors could be put in an impossible position.

What happened to the Hippocratic Oath and the need to do all that you could to preserve life?

Perhaps more relevantly, though, why is this sort of action considered acceptable, when voluntary euthanasia is not? I don't have a strong view one way or the other, to be honest, although to be in a position where I was starved to death would scare me greatly. That said, I believe that people should have the right to die with dignity; if they so choose, to avoid a descent into a state of total physical incapacity, there is a compelling argument for living wills allowing for euthanasia and a dignified death.

It is surely totally bizarre that should Mr Burke want to die with dignity now, the law would prevent him from choosing to do so, yet were he to want to stay alive when unable to make his wishes known, the doctors could force the opposite. That, to my mind, is a known killing, and tantamount to murder. Mr Burke has made it clear he does not want to be starved to death; that is surely a fundamental right in a free society?

There is a clear logical inconsistency here. Either knowingly taking action that will kill a person is wrong, or it isn't. If doctors can make that decision when a person is physically incapacitated, why can a person not make that decision for themselves? Or, alternatively, withdrawing food in such a fashion is wrong, and no-one, patient, doctor, or next of kin can give the say-so.

Take them at their word?

There has been much rejoicing at the announcement that the IRA is about to renounce political violence. But forgive me if I'm not going to join in, straight away at least. Let's just think what would happen if, say, Al-Qaeda or Hamas were to publish a similar statement today. We'd want to hang back a little bit to see whether or not they meant it, surely? After all, actions speak louder than words, and we all know that it was storms over decommissioned arms that helped to derail the peace process so much in the first place.

Besides, it isn't as if the IRA aren't known for hypocrisy. The Irish government was saying just at the turn of the year that whilst Sinn Fein were sat at the negotiation table in the peace process, the Northern Bank was being raided. In 1996 a ceasefire was broken by an announcement of a bomb at Canary Wharf. The long term denial of involvement of leading Sinn Fein figures in the IRA, when experts say otherwise, is further proof.

Now, there's a lot to lose if decommissioning isn't transparent. But the falling away of interest in Africa after the events of July 7th show how things can slip from the top of the agenda. I'd be surprised if the IRA didn't stop their political violence now. In fact, I'd be absolutely amazed, as it would destroy the credibility of Sinn Fein. Yet until there is proper, clear evidence, I'm going to keep the champagne on ice.

I Blame The Parents

Ruth Kelly is now proposing enshrining further inequality in our education system - giving the low achievers much closer tuition than our highest achievers. It's a strange education policy that embraces mediocrity; that leaves the best to get on with their own, often unchallenging work, not encouraging them to reach for the moon, whilst the poorest pupils have initiative after initiative directed at them. I'm not arguing that we should leave the low-achieving behind; but something is wrong when we aren't giving our best children the best possible education. Thankfully, it seems like some teachers are beginning to challenge the dangerous and wrong left-wing comprehensive orthodoxy.

The comment I really wanted to pick up on, however, was when Kelly spoke about the gap between rich and poor students, and in particular how she didn't want success being "predetermined by their background". Quite apart from the fact that the current education system does all possible to make sure income inequality is as big a factor as possible in the quality of education provided (catchment areas, Church schools, etc), I think that we are all too often prepared to blame the systems, and not blame parents themselves.

What I am about to say is by no means meant as a blanket criticism. But there is certainly merit to it. When three daughters, all under 16, are now mothers, but their mother blames the school system, something is wrong. When mothers are taking holidays in the sun rather than looking

after their own children, something is wrong. How can a mother who believes it's OK to leave her young children at home like that really take an interest in her child's learning? The other night, I was coming back from the train station at about 11, when a young child was riding around on his bicycle, unsupervised and unlit. I severely doubt whether the parents had any idea what their child was up to. In parks across the town, there will be young teenagers getting drunk silly on White Lightning whilst their parents are down the pub. How can these children be expected to succeed at school when at home they are so thoroughly neglected?

Sure, our school system doesn't help our best children in any case. It is a system where the wealth of the parent, and not educational ability, can often dictate how good their child's education is. Yet to say blindly that it is the background of the poor children that leads to lower rates of success ignores half the problem. A stable home environment where interest is taken in the child, and encouragement towards success is given, is just as vital. For it is not just the socio-economic background of the child that determines future chances - it is the household they were born into.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

BritBlog Roundup

That nice man Tim Worstall has kindly linked to me in amongst a whole host of other good posts from the British blogging world this week. If you're reading this for the first time because of that - welcome, please stick around. If not, go and check it out!

Saturday, July 23, 2005

I Told You I Wanted to Be Wrong

So, it appears the man shot dead wasn't actually connected with the bombings on Thursday. This is the worst possible thing that could have happened both for the police and for us. I wrote yesterday that, given the details, police actions were entirely right. I stand by that, even now. Assuming, of course, that the circumstances that we have been told are actually true, then I don't really see what other options the police had. A man they suspected of being connected with the bombings refused to stop when asked, and, acting very suspiciously, heads straight for a Tube train. In the current circumstances it doesn't make any sense to refuse to stop in such situations, unless you are willing to put yourself in grave danger. I hate myself for saying it, because it seems to fly in the face of so much of what I believe in, but the police were right to shoot first and think later.

The caveat, is, of course, that the information we were given is true. There's already been a large amount of positive disinformation that has been given out regarding the terrorist incidents, starting from the immediate news of the bombings themselves. We now know that it wasn't a power surge; we now know that it was suicide bombers - all things the police had originally denied. This is why the tragic incident yesterday is so dangerous, for it is all grist to the mill of the conspiracy theorists. Muslim communities, already (if wrongly) suspicious of a shoot-to-kill policy against suicide bombers, will now be even less inclined to work with the police. The hard left, opponents of the police at the best of times, will have their fires stoked by this news. Overall public confidence in the police will fall dramatically, at a time when we need to be working together to root out the menace amongst us.

I admit I am normally suspicious of the police. Their actions in situations I have been involved in has bordered on the actively unhelpful, where they seem to avoid apprehending criminals to avoid the paperwork involved. Yet, especially in terms of investigations to stop suicide bombings, I appreciate the work that many of them must do. When dealing with fundamentalist Islam, they are literally putting their bodies on the line. We have to trust them as much as possible. Whilst I await the final outcome of the investigation into the death, I fear the reaction and backlash that will result.

Shoot to Kill 2

On the comments at Nosemonkey, it was suggested by a couple of the commenters that the nature of the shooting suggested that it wasn't police involved, it was special forces. In particular it was reminiscent of anti-IRA operations in Gibraltar (even if the circumstances were considerably different).

Seems like the bloggers weren't the only ones who thought that...

Friday, July 22, 2005


Unsurprisingly, the shooting of the bombing suspect at Stockwell station today has brought about quite a lot of debate about the propriety of the actions of the police. Of course, the wisest comments are those that are calling for more information. The criticism of police actions stems largely from the response of an eyewitness on BBC News, who said that the suspect half-tripped, and was half-pushed to the ground, and was then shot five times. Now, the man was obviously in shock, and police are known to have said that the most unreliable witnesses are eyewitnesses. This can be seen in the OJ Simpson trial - the witnesses were supposed to have been looking at the same thing at the same time, and yet didn't confirm the same story.

Given that the police have now admitted that the man shot dead was not one of the suspected bombers, there are questions as to the intelligence that had caused them to follow him. However, reports of the mans actions leave no doubt in my mind that the police did the right thing. If a man who you have apprehended does a runner, whilst wearing a padded jacket in hot weather, then you give chase to him. And if he is a potential suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his body, as one commenter on Europhobia said, the response must be a warning shot to the head. Behaving as if one is a suicide bomber in this climate is foolhardy in the extreme - and when policemen are expected to react on the scene, on the spur of the moment, safety first is always going to be the reaction. I wonder what the critics would have said if they'd wrestled the man to the floor, got the handcuffs out just as he managed to blow himself, the officers, and 50 other people to pieces?

The situation isn't analogous to shooting IRA suspects in Gibraltar, because the people we are having to watch for now are prepared to blow themselves up. Shoot to kill where there isn't a direct threat can't be justified under any circumstances - it's just a case of abrogating responsibility for a problem. In a situation of a direct threat, conversely, shooting to kill is almost the only justifiable option.

Opponents of the war in Iraq, and others, have been saying that the actions of Blair placed London at the front line in the war on terror. If we accept that, then we have to accept that in incidents like this, the police are our front-line troops. It's tough to accept, because it flies in the face of the image of the smiling bobby. But on split-second decisions like this, where there's a clear public safety case, I think we have to trust them. I talk here having accidentally been caught up in a police chase in Munich last year - right next to the car with the suspect when the armed police piled out. Thankfully he just surrendered straight away (and I was running in the opposite direction anyway). If it was likely that the man would resist arrest before blowing himself up, however, then I'd have wanted him to have been shot - even with the chance of me being shot by accident instead.


Langer's just been run out by Pietersen, which has cheered me up greatly. I must say, I feared the worst this morning. McGrath's bowling yesterday had been superb, and our tail isn't exactly known for its batting prowess. But Jones and Harmison batted very sensibly for tail-enders - pushed the ball for runs and weren't afraid to have a go. Unless we were throwing the bat around we were just chucking an opportunity away. Although it's one of the funny things about cricket that throwing the bat at bowlers can often be more successful than trying to play them in the technically correct manner.

Pietersen's dismissal annoyed me - I hate it when the established batsmen gets out hitting whilst batting with the tail - but then again there were most likely team instructions to get after Warne; and he was a bit unlucky with such a sensational catch from Martyn.

The scene is set for a fascinating passage of cricket. The game really is in the balance, and the session after lunch will be the key session in the Test. I fancy whichever side wins that wins the game.

Developing London Situation Again

At 10 this morning a man was shot on the Tube by plainclothes police officers. It sounds like they had a lot of guts. I've heard two reports - one that the man did a runner from a security check; the other that he ran and cleared a security barrier. In any case, chasing a suicide bomber takes some nerve, and the officers concerned deserve our credit. I've long suspected police have a shoot-to-kill policy in these areas, but when you've trapped a suicide bomber on a train it's the only sensible option.

Anyway, as with yesterday's bombings, Nosemonkey and Perfect are liveblogging on this. As I'm reliant on what they're saying, and the live reports they mix in with the cricket, I may as well link there.

Is A New Europe Possible?

Maybe this is all just blind optimism, and it is at best little other than speculation. In the light of the meeting between Angela Merkel, probably the next Chancellor of Germany, and Nicolas Sarkozy, potentially the future President of France, though, it couldn't help but cross my mind that the new Europe that I would love to see may still be possible.

Why do I say this? Because Merkel (born in 1954) and Sarkozy (born in 1955) represent the next generation of European leaders. Together with Blair (1953), they are all the generation after the current leaders (or in Blair's case, his direct predecessors). In this case, it is particularly relevant, as their formative years were at a very different stage - the starkness of the aftermath of the war wasn't as great; their university years were after the 1968 generation. As a result, the belief behind their vision of Europe won't be the need to avoid another pan-European war.

One thing I certainly noticed travelling around Europe the past three summers was the extreme pro-Europeanism of the youth of Europe today (especially Germany, but France too). In particular, it was far more positive than the attitudes of the older generation. These three may not be the most classically pro-European politicians on the continent; they are, however, considerably more practical, and more willing to engage in liberalising reforms as opposed to a stultifying, reactionary clinging to the social model.

When combined with the willing and economic reform of the Eastern European member states, the thought of Merkel and Sarkozy as leaders does make me somewhat happier. Admittedly, any attempt at reform will prove very difficult indeed in France and Germany. Schroeder's government is only under threat because Hartz IV - the attempt to reform Germany's surprisingly anachronistic unemployment benefit system - met with such severe opposition, even sparking a return to the Monday demonstrations that had been so effective in toppling the East German dictatorship.

What may be most surprising, though, is that Britain may end up being the reactionary member of the trio. I don't doubt Blair's zeal in Europe - although I despise much of his domestic policy, foreign affairs is the one area where I feel he is actually genuine. Yet when Brown takes over, it's quite possible that Britain will possess the leader most committed to a tax-and-spend economy. How ironic.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

This could be Amsterdam or anywhere

I never really said much about my time in Amsterdam, short of reflections on the excellent Dutch resistance museum. I meant to write much more about my time - especially if you go to the right areas, it is a wonderfully picturesque city - but now I'm actually sitting down at the keyboard, I can't. That's because the last part of my trip was totally overshadowed by the news of the first London bombings (how sad that we now order them sequentially).

The internet cafe on the Damrak will now be etched in my memory. It is a strange feature of the human psyche that we remember so clearly where we were at these key moments in time - as if our remembrance of hearing the news somehow lends greater significance to the occasion. I've always viewed the "Where were you when you heard about JFK?" articles with some cynicism, but the strength of emotion that I felt after both 9/11 and the London bombings makes you at least understand the rationale.

Hearing the news did bring to the fore some interesting observations about the information age. My first act on logging on to the Internet was to speak to Richard via instant messenger; his opening words were "sad events", but he just assumed that I would know to what he was referring. It was only much later, once I'd checked my e-mail and logged on to the BBC website, that I finally realised what he was talking about. Now that we live in an era when, with a small amount of Google know-how, almost any information is at our fingertips, we assume that all news has an immediacy that it doesn't when you're map-reading and wandering around the side streets of a foreign city.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the day was the feeling of severe dislocation. I was travelling with a Londoner, and perhaps his shock at seeing places he knew so well reflected on to me. Yet then again, the bus bomb blew up a matter of yards from where I had been staying at Easter. Of course, the terrorists know that in targeting a city like London, almost everyone will have a reaction like this. After 9/11 I remember the fear of realising that I had been on a flight to Los Angeles barely a month earlier. Looking back now, though, the strongest reason for the sense of dislocation was being in a foreign city. I had been to Amsterdam before, but when you hear world-changing news like that, there is a certain comfort to returning to your own home, your own family, your own bed - your own safety network. If all around you are familiar faces, the threat seems far more distant, especially living in a small town as I do.

There were, of course, positive reflections to be made too. The friendliness and solidarity of the strangers at my hostel, and their concern when they found that I was British, is something that I will remember also for a long time. It is important to remember at times like that that the reason the terrorists are able to strike fear is precisely because they are so different to us.

How Quickly Words Become Outdated

Charlie Whitaker at Perfect:

On the train this morning; out of town to attend a meeting, then back again. Things seemed fairly normal. It’ll be good to stop thinking about the bombings so much of the time, and if there’s a consensus forming around responsibilities and consequences, I’ll support it.

"Deferred Success"

The list of crazy euphemisms gets longer and longer. Now a primary school teacher want to do away with the concept of failure, and replace it with the concept of "deferred success". What a load of rubbish.

“Learning should be lifelong and it should be something that everybody knows they can do and knows they can have a bash at. I’d rather tell kids that they have done jolly well. You can then say, ‘Tomorrow we should try that’, rather than just saying, ‘You have failed’.”

Sure, I might agree with the first half of that last sentence. Encouragement and development is a vital part of education, and simply stigmatising people isn't going to help at all. But at the end of the day, if all we give out is praise, then the praise itself becomes worthless. It doesn't become a reward for good work, it just becomes accepted, and encourages self-satisfaction and complacency. At the end of the day, if work isn't good enough, it isn't good enough - and we need to tell our children that. Dressing it up in platitudes won't help.

I've always thought that the argument the Tories use about exams - "there's no point in an exam nobody fails" - to be simplistic and wrong. What matters about exams is that there is an agreed minimum standard, and that it is effectively graded so that whoever needs to use the qualification as a yardstick can take whatever grade he or she wants as a cut-off point. We are wrong to see passing or failing as the be-all and end-all in exams, especially state exams. Different people will, self-evidently, use the exam results for wildly different purposes, and so it is the gradation that is important, because you have a flexible yardstick, of far more utility.

When people try and write off the concept of failure totally, however, something is badly wrong. Yes, we should measure all kinds of achievement - but that doesn't mean that we should equate all kinds of achievement in, for example, a meaningless diploma. Nor should we pretend that people cannot fail. Success is not a guaranteed outcome. I can play cricket as much as I like, and I will never, ever, be as good as Shane Warne. I'll never play the violin like Nigel Kennedy. There's no harm in knowing that. Failure is part of learning our limits.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Bring on the Aussies

Here, ahead of tomorrow's series starting at Lord's, is my preview and prediction for the Ashes series:

The Australians have been, without doubt, the best side in the world for the last ten years. With the exception of a couple of series against India, in India, they have carried all before them, with a mixture of extravagant talent and ruthlessness. As such, for many years the Ashes have been well beyond England. Even when our side has been playing well, it has lacked the world-class performers that are needed to defeat such a strong eleven.

England's performances over the last year and a half or so have been excellent. The West Indies have been destroyed both home and away; New Zealand and South Africa were both defeated. There are few teams in the world that can genuinely compete with England on their day. This is partly a reflection of the great work Duncan Fletcher has done as coach, and the team spirit Michael Vaughan has been able to develop as captain. It is also partly a reflection of a slight lull in the competitiveness of international cricket. For none of the teams England have put to the sword so well are anywhere near the class of Australia - even the South Africans are some way short, and are still getting to grips with the integration of the coloured communities.

That said, England do now have some potentially world-class performers, although they will need to step up to the plate in this series to cement that status. Steve Harmison is a genuinely quick and threatening bowler. Andrew Strauss, if he keeps his discipline, has the potential to make some intimidating scores at the top of the order. Andrew Flintoff is probably the world's best allrounder at the moment - worth selecting for both batting and bowling. The team may also have its matchwinner in Kevin Pietersen, the sort of talent who can undoubtedly turn a game around (although he may also be able to lose games that could be salvaged).

This is a big start, and is helped by the fact that Australia are getting older. Matthew Hayden is no longer as threatening as he once was; Glenn McGrath, whilst still intimidating and a cut above the other pace bowlers around him, seems to have lost his strength. Shane Warne, too, no longer has the vicious spin on the ball - although you write a talent like him off at your peril. That said, their batting line-up is fearsome, and they possess their own match-changing talent in the form of Adam Gilchrist. The team may be growing old together, but they haven't started falling off just yet.

I just don't see England quite having the firepower necessary to win. Our middle order will either post huge scores or nothing at all; given that against a team like Australia the chances are we will have the top order knocked over cheaply once or twice in the series, this could prove to be a severe weakness and place one or two games beyond us in next to no time. On the other hand, it will also turn one or two games around. Thus we may scratch some games that we have absolutely no right to do.

Our other big drawback is that the pitches we have for the series do not help us the most. Why are we not playing at Headingley? Why are we not playing at the Riverside? These are the two pitches which will help our bowlers most, and the Australians the least. We aren't giving ourselves the best chance to win - the Australians have our number at Lord's, and we rarely beat them at Trent Bridge, either (although we may scrape a draw there). In theory, we could win at Old Trafford, although I somewhat suspect we will be defeated there, too. Edgbaston (that hallowed ground!) and The Oval provide the greatest opportunities for a victory. Weather permitting, the series should finish up 3-2. However, with the British weather being ever unpredictable, 3-1 or 2-1 is more likely.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Apologia of an Anti-Terrorist

The King of Jordan has said that it is the British occupation of Iraq that was behind the suicide bombings in London. When will he wake up and face the reality of what is happening? Whether you agree or disagree with the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, one thing is for certain - the 'insurgents' don't care about the Iraqi people. They are outsiders who want to impose their Islamofascist theocracy on ordinary Iraqis, because ultimately they want to impose their Islamofascist theocracy on all of us.

As for those people, such as Michael Moore, who said that there was no terrorist threat posed by Al-Qaeda, they have been proved sadly wrong. Especially when people are prepared to blow themselves up, there is little that we can do to stop terrorist atrocities. If someone is set on it, it isn't hard to kill 50 people and to strike fear into the hearts of many others. A case as simple as the Washington snipers proves this - a few people shot dead, and a whole city was terrified of using petrol stations after dark. It is precisely because the mechanism of terror is so abhorrent to our values, yet in many ways so simple, that it is so effective in spreading fear.

Do people really think that the West would be a less "legitimate" target for these walking timebombs if we weren't in Iraq? The Islamofascists have no respect for our way of life, or our freedoms - they see things such as our tolerance of homosexuality as proof of the unalterable corruptibility of Western freedoms. Fundamentalist Islam is a menace, and it must be stamped out. When people are prepared to get up in front of an audience, blame the Economist for spreading dangerous values and ask "who cares if they lost two towers?" - and this was at the Oxford Union - there isn't much hope for negotiations or reasoning.

The bombers who blew up the Twin Towers and crashed into the Pentagon didn't have Iraq to worry about. Oh, but our policy in the Israeli-Palestine conflict is all wrong, they say. Let's just remember that the PLO was created in 1964, 3 years before the annexation of Palestinian territory. Our record there isn't exactly glowing, but to pretend that the problems are limited to one side is short-sighted, and will ultimately entrench tension and anger, not dissipate it.

Following the blame game is morally corrupt. People who are prepared to blow themselves up, killing as many others as possible, are not worth our time. We cannot continue to appease them by saying "oh, it's Iraq", "oh, it's Palestine", "oh, it's the headscarf law". They are all sideshows compared to the true aim of the terrorists - to subjugate the freedoms we sought so hard to establish. Indeed, to back down as a result of terrorist atrocities is exactly what they want. They want us to go into retreat, to back down - because then they know they can strike fear into our hearts and change our course of action.

We saw how appeasement failed in the 1930s - it failed because we were dealing with a leader set to achieve his goals come what may. In that case, it was sending millions of innocents across Europe to the slaughter. It's not that different now, other than that the balance of power is totally loaded with us. We have to make sure we use our moral superiority most of all, however. We can't try and understand the motivations of the terrorists - we must fundamentally reject their politics and their way of life.

Embracing Mediocrity

I discovered, to my horror, the other day that the government no longer awards Level 6 grades at the SATs sat by 11-year-olds. This bemused me; although I suppose it was faintly embarrassing for the government to have 11-year-olds achieving Level 6 in Maths and English when many 16-year-olds can't achieve the equivalent (grade C) at GCSE. Yet it raises, once again, the point that often the people failed most by our state education system are the truly gifted.

The brightest kids in our system will be capable of going beyond Level 5 at Maths and English long before they come to leave primary school. Especially in the case of Maths, where the brain's capacity for new learning actually diminishes before one reaches the age of 18, it's vital that we stretch our best and brightest as soon as possible.

There are many downsides to kids that are just left alone in the education system. They're encouraged to think that they are better than they are - because they can easily reach the highest standard that the government expects of them, they don't think they need to keep learning. Yet as we all know, the system gets harder and harder. A desire to learn and to keep pushing oneself above and beyond what is expected is the best way of continuing to achieve. Sure, parents, and the children themselves, should be expected to develop that self-motivation - but the system shouldn't just abandon them.

For that is what our system currently does. In the great desire to make sure that government benchmark targets are met, many hours (and much more personal tuition) is expended on the low achievers in the class. Pushing a top student beyond Level 5 doesn't bring any baubles or medals to the teachers, who know, in any case, that the top students can't possibly bring the results down. Instead, it's the people on the Level 3/4 borderline who get all the attention. I can't help but feel we're getting more and more that way in secondary education, too - the C/D borderline at GCSE is far more vital to a school's performance in the league table than whether a student gets an A or an A*. The stigma of a pass or a fail may be important. In certain subjects, however - most notably languages - the step up to A-Level for those even achieving an A grade at GCSE is very difficult indeed. Nurturing at this level is absolutely vital.

If we want to develop the self-motivation of our children, it has to start at a young age, before the other temptations of teenage life kick in. We have to make the case that learning is fun, that there is joy in new discovery, that aspiring to high goals is worthwhile. We don't want to leave them festering in large classes, getting scant attention and never having to push hard to achieve the top level they are allowed to. Capping SATs at Level 5 is utterly, utterly ridiculous. Unless our primary school children take a joy in learning, we have no hope for secondary school.

No child may deserve to be left behind in an education system. In a strange way, however, we are leving our children behind if we do not stretch those at the top end. Teachers of my parents age believe that their generation will be the first in history to teach their children less than they themselves learnt. Whilst we have an education system that embraces mediocrity rather than stretching the brightest, that situation will continue.

Monday, July 18, 2005

How Times Have Changed

I've just been watching BBC2's obituary documentary for Ted Heath. It's remarkable how much times have changed. For example, they remarked about Heath having his first trip on an aeroplane when he was 13; whilst the first time flying may nowadays be of personal significance, I doubt it would be so remarkable a detail in a biography of Tony Blair, for example, and certainly not by the time my generation grows up. The world is a better place in so many ways.

One thing that really shone through, however, was how much Oxford had changed, and how much for the better. One of Heath's contemporaries, very clearly a product of the landed class, mentioned how Heath always spoke with a Cockney accent, "which he still does". The interview evidence with Heath was entirely to the contrary. Talking to a friend who went to Cambridge some years ago, but more recently than Heath, he admitted too that going from a grammar school to what was basically an extension of a private school was a huge shock.

Oxford is different now. Outside of a small minority of bigots - and, sadly you are going to get them anywhere - it's tolerant, and there isn't any of the anti-state school discrimination you hear so much about. Sure, I know some people from public schools who probably weren't up to scratch; I know people from state schools who weren't up to scratch either. With an imperfect admissions system made worse by the complete cock-ups Labour insist on making to our A-Level system, these things are bound to happen.

The rantings of Clarke and co about Oxford needing to shed its "Brideshead" image are total cobblers. They're formed far more out of an old-fashioned class war jealousy than any grounding in fact. Yet they are doing untold damage to the reputation of our top universities. Oxford and Cambridge aren't just the best universities in Britain, they are the best universities in the world. And whilst there may have been problems of class bias, snobbery and inequality in the past, they aren't there now. The tutors have no interest in preserving a class interest; they want the finest minds of their generation to be working hard and with them.The world has changed for the better. Long may it continue that way.

Making Sense

Justin McKeating at Chicken Yoghurt has put together the following page with links to a whole host of opinions regarding the London bombings. It's great stuff, and a very handy resource to a lot of thought-provoking articles, and testament to the strength of the British blogosphere. Go and check it out.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Cricket Tests

Niall Ferguson wrote a typically provocative argument in today's Sunday Telegraph. His conclusions are in the main very sensible - whilst we continue to harbour and tolerate radicals, we encourage a hotbed of extremism to grow up in our communities. And he addresses one of the key points of the whole debate, which is that whilst there shouldn't be an Islamophobic or racist backlash (the two are very different) as a result of the bombings, the Muslim community needs to address the problems in its own communities.

However, when he writes that: Nor, I suspect, would he have failed the "cricket test" famously devised by Lord Tebbit as a test of cultural assimilation. An uncle says he was "proud to be British", he is on much shakier ground. As much as I personally dislike Norman Tebbit's personal politics, the basis of the "cricket test" was sound - if our immigrant communities take to supporting England ahead of India and Pakistan, then we are well on the way to a happily integrated society. One of the most pleasing things, in many ways, about the success of Amir Khan in last year's Olympics was that he came from a Muslim family who were very clearly proud to be British.

Where cricket is concerned, and especially in areas like Beeston and Bradford, however, the "cricket test" is being failed. Not dreadfully; most people will support England after the team of their ancestry. So, when England play Pakistan, the Muslims will bring Pakistan flags and the Hindus will bring England flags (please forgive the crude stereotyping by religion here). When England play India, the Muslims bring the England flags and the Hindus bring Indian ones. And when we're playing Australia, everyone is behind England. If they're barracking the Aussies, they're well on the way to being English!

Yet in 2001, cricket was undoubtedly one of the major factors in the violence of the race riots which spread right across the north of England. Sure, ahead of the election the BNP had been stirring a lot of shit which caused high tension. That's an undoubted background factor, but they stirred shit up in 2005, and in many places got a higher share of the vote, and as yet there haven't been eruptions of violence. Instead, the presence of the Pakistan cricket team, on their tour of England, helped draw strong dividing lines between the two communities. Antagonism over the support of the Pakistan team, I am sure, helped spark the violence - and indeed, crowd invasions and security problems dogged the entireity of the tour; England even conceding one of the matches in the light of crowd trouble.

There were problems on both sides, of that there is no doubt. Whites may have complained about Asian youths creating "no-go areas", but National Front demonstrations do little to help. The point here, however, is that we are far from winning the cricket test. Muslims in many areas (and not just deprived areas) still feel an allegiance to Pakistan ahead of their home country. Interest in your roots is natural; but I think it says something for the state of integration when the ties of loyalty still exist more strongly to a country many "fans" have never even visited. Whilst I may still believe the Muslim community needs to do more to sort out extremism in its midst, that's not the only thing that needs to be done. And, as strange as it may seem, it's trying to win the Tebbit test that's going to be the proof of the pudding.

Goodbye, Jack

This week, the sporting world said goodbye to one of its greatest legends. Jack Nicklaus truly was the greatest champion who ever lived; a true professional in every sense of the world. Glorious in victory, but graceful whether winning or losing; Nicklaus embodied all that we want to see in a top sportsman.

In many ways, I am glad that Nicklaus failed to make the cut this week. Finishing on a Sunday may have been the fairytale story, but it would have distracted from two things: one, the farewell to the Great Bear, and two, the victory of the champion. On Friday, Jack was cheered everywhere he went, and rightly so. For the moment to be his, and his alone, was something that will live in my memory for a long time. And for a champion of Nicklaus's stature, it was only fitting that for the first two days, he was the big show.

There's no disgrace in a 65-year-old shooting 3-over in two days, and only narrowly missing the cut. In fact, it's absolutely amazing that Nicklaus could play to the level that he did at his age. It's no surprise he's the oldest man ever to win a major championship. Yes, Nicklaus was a shadow of the former champion - but a competitive and popular shadow. The memory of him standing on Swilcan Bridge as he walked down the 18th for the last time was something special, and he thoroughly deserved his ovation. Thanks for all the great golf you've given us, Jack, and enjoy your retirement.

Stating the Obvious

This article, about the workings of spies, is actually very interesting. It was listed in Yahoo! News, however, under the heading "Maintaining cover critical for espionage". Wow, really newsworthy.

Friday, July 15, 2005

And Now For Something Completely Different

One other thing that I've been thinking about a lot recently is the England team ahead of the Ashes, and in particular the selection of Kevin Pietersen ahead of Graham Thorpe. I must admit, I'm sceptical about this. Pietersen obviously has the big-match temperament - his baptism of fire, by making his international debut in South Africa, the country he left to play for England, was a test that most cricketers will never have to go through, and he rose to the challenge superbly. Yet his technique leaves much to be desired, and his method of scoring runs is to belt them quickly or not to score them at all.

Thorpe, by contrast, is the master at grinding out a big score when the team is in trouble. At number 5, this is an invaluable skill. Especially when it is considered that Australia still possess the skill to knock out our top order very quickly. Although I think that should Trescothick and Strauss get on top of the bowling early doors we could post some huge scores, we will also find ourselves at 40-2 or 40-3 fairly regularly. And at that point, we need to consolidate, not a huge flash-bang-wallop. The idea of Pietersen, Flintoff, Jones at 5, 6, 7 gives me nightmares. We'll either score 700 in a day, or be rolled over meekly for about 150.

Thorpe may be almost past his sell-by date, but the role he could be playing against the Aussies would be invaluable to the team. It is a role I do not think Pietersen is capable of fulfilling. I would love to be proved wrong, but for now I am casting major doubt on the judgement of Graveney and company.

Further To Yesterday's Post

One of the problems that I think faces the Muslim community in Britain is that when it comes to, for example, suicide bombing in Israel, they are indeed equivocal. I missed the precise question last night on Newsnight, but the head of the Muslim Association of Britain said "what is not acceptable in London and Madrid is acceptable in Palestine"; the young guy on the panel who had previously been criticising imams and communities for losing the Muslim youth agreed wholeheartedly with him.

However, when I read this report on the BBC today, I was much happier. I know that the Muslim Council is more moderate than the Muslim Association, but this is the sort of thing which does need to be said.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Killing In The Name Of

The details of the suicide murderers that have emerged over the last few days are testament to the banality of evil. Perhaps most shockingly, one of the men who blew himself and others apart last week worked as a teaching assistant. What is it that makes a man who looks after and develops young life one week bring so much horror and destruction into the world the next?

The other bombers, too, seem to have lived fairly ordinary lives. One may have been a teenage tearaway, but there are thousands of them up and down the country; only one has thus far blown himself up on a double decker bus. Another worked part-time in a fish-and-chip shop, and apparently spent most of the rest of his time playing cricket for his local side or in the park. Again, how can a young man with such eminent sense be turned into a suicide bomber?

The common thread here, obviously, is Islam. We're not scared of the average man in cricket whites, because he's not engaged in a holy war against the golfing infidel. We're not scared of the average fish-and-chip shop worker, because he's not determined to crush Gordon Ramsay's into the ground. We are scared, however irrationally, of a Muslim, because people who profess to the same faith as him or her are out on a holy war designed to subjugate the rest of the world should they succeed.

Now, I'm not claiming here that all Muslims are about to step on to their nearest form of public transport and blow themselves and all bystanders to pieces. Far from it. Indeed, I broadly accept the arguments that Islam is a peaceful religion and that al-Qaeda and the murderers don't speak for the vast majority of them (although when Muslim academics argue that, for example, the Muslim empire of the 800s was an empire of faith and not of conquest, they're clearly not telling the truth).

Nor am I arguing that there aren't problems facing the Muslim communities in many areas that would cause anger and resentment in people of whatever creed. Social deprivation, poor schooling, seemingly limited opportunities for advancement - all of these are social problems which need to be sorted. But there are some points that need to be made here. Firstly, there are people up and down the country, Muslim or not, who suffer from these problems, and they don't go around blowing themselves up in the name of Allah, or Yahweh, or God. Secondly, in the act of blowing themselves up, they are working for the destruction of society, and not working for its betterment, its improvement.

Chicken Yoghurt wrote yesterday that: "I don't remember similar clarion calls about the "perverted and poisonous misinterpretation" of the the Hippocratic Oath when Shipman was caught or demands to hear the "moderate and true voice" of straight white men during Copeland's rampage. And yet Muslism leaders are to be summoned to Number 10, to discuss their "response" to the bombings."

There is a simple reason why. Harold Shipman wasn't acting as part of a vile organisation proclaiming the supremacy of Doctors, and wanting the rest of the world to submit to the Hippocratic Oath. Copeland was a nutter, not part of an organised anti-gay conspiracy (and let's have it put down here that homosexuality is one of the 'crimes' that the Islamofascists base their hatred of the West upon). Hasib Hussain, Mohammed Sadique Khan and chums were killing as part of an organised terror network, and they were killing in the name of Allah. Whenever we talk about the London bombings and their effect on Islam, we must keep these facts in mind.

These men were harboured in communities. There's obviously going to be disagreement as to how far these men could live with their families, their friends, their mosques, and give off absolutely no indication of the terror that they were planning to cause. I personally find it slightly difficult to believe that there weren't the inklings of doubt amongst neighbours that they were living among extremists, even if the violence of the denouement came as an understandable shock.

Yet even if we accept that the communities were in a state of total ignorance as to what their neighbours were up to, I still think there are questions the Muslim communities need to answer. From what I understand from people in Leeds who I've spoken to, tearaways in certain districts of West Yorkshire try and keep white people out. I don't doubt that the racists of the BNP try and do the same the other way round. When the Times quotes a BNP candidate (who, shockingly, won 17% of the vote) as saying "We have got some very evil people within this community and they need to be got rid of", I think that he is one of them. I'm not slow to condemn the BNP; we shouldn't be slow to condemn those on the other side either.

There are institutions which further serve to cause problems. Here I'm thinking particularly of faith schools. In precisely the same way that teaching Protestant and Catholic children separately in Northern Ireland helps people identify themselves according to their religion, putting barriers to understanding between children rather than breaking them down, faith schools help children to identify themselves as Muslim. And whether or not the suicide bombers attended faith schools themselves, their mere presence is bad enough.

As much as I loathe the term, "political correctness" also helps cause far too many problems. I went through RE teaching at my school, and spent the best part of a year learning about Islam. Never once was the concept of jihad raised. Whether you take the "kill all infidels" line, or the idea that there needs to be a missionary zeal and sincere conversion attempts made, I understand jihad to be an important concept within Islam. And, to be honest, even if it isn't a mainstream concept, it's the sort of thing which should be getting taught. Where there is debate over interpretation in a religion, then teaching a politically correct line is a barrier to understanding.

The security threat that is posed to us in the West today is one that is posed to us by Muslims. Not all Muslims, but the murderers have their own organisation, and they profess the same faith, citing the same sources of religious influence. Why do these men never seem to be met with open debate?

When terror arrests were made in a ring of suburbia last August, I remember an article in the Times complaining about the targeting of Muslims by the police; how there was obvious prejudice in the arrests and how disgraceful it was. Just a couple of months later, there were charges brought - although I am unaware as to how the case progressed thereafter. The problem is that the victims of the London bombings are the victims of radical Islam. If the moderate Muslims wish to show their support for us, then the important thing is that they do all they can to root out the evil from their communities, just as we must deal with the hatemongers in ours. Because unless we can work together to bring about a common understanding, more London-style bombings are inevitable. And part of that working together involves a more strident line from the Muslim leaders in Britain. Whilst Muslims are always the put-upon victims, resentment will grow. The problem of suicide bombing is rooted within the Muslim community, and it's going to be up to them, above all, to help stamp it out.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Shoulder to Shoulder

Some people were angry at the US travel order on Thursday, where army personnel were banned from going within the M25. Apart from the fact that in light of the disinformation given much of the time on Thursday, keeping army personnel out of unnecessary danger was a perfectly reasonable decision to make, it sparked off a lot of comment (since removed) from the BBC website that it was pretty typical of the Americans. Rather than wanting to stand shoulder to shoulder with us, they run at the first sign of trouble.

Last night was the baseball All-Star Game. Coverage of baseball is pretty patriotic at the best of times, even though many of the league's top stars are from outside of America. After 9/11, league authorities decided all caps and uniforms would carry the American flag. The traditional 7th inning song "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" was replaced by a singing of God Bless America. Just last night, commentators were lauding figures for the highest career batting averages from non-American players. There is, suffice to say, a fair amount of nationalism in the Major Leagues.

At the celebration of the best players in the league last night, however, there was another tune to be heard. A minute's silence was held for the victims of the London bombings; then a brass band played the British national anthem. It may not have seemed much, but I can say with certainty that last night, I found that very moving. There wasn't any need for them to do it - indeed, to the vast majority of Britons, it will have passed them by completely. But I know that America does appreciate our support, and at this time they feel our pain.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

In My Name

If one thing is certain following the London bombings, it is that Islamofascists will strike without any regard to whom they are killing. George Galloway may argue that Tony Blair brought these attacks on himself by his support for the war in Iraq; he is, as usual, completely wrong. In the short term, it may be significant that Spain and the UK have been attacked since removing Saddam. In the long term, however, these terrorists will not rest until their jihad is totally over. France found this out when terrorists who kidnapped two French journalists in Iraq demanded the removal of the controversial headscarf law. Neither are Muslims themselves safe.

No-one is safe from these walking time-bombs. Until our women are wearing burkas; until we're all making our yearly hajj; until we believe in the violent persecution of those wishing to express free will - until that day, madmen will be blowing themselves up in cities all over the world.

The fact that people of all colours, all nations, all creeds fall victim to the murderers proves one thing beyond doubt. There is no get-out clause from citizenship. It's the corollary to the freedom we fight for - that we accept the government does speak in our name. And if we don't like it, it is our duty to change it at elections. Saying that you didn't support the Iraq War doesn't stop you being blown to pieces on a bus when you're minding your own business.

Because we're not dealing with rational people. People who can cause that sort of carnage can't be negotiated with. Sure, we don't want to encourage the disaffected to join the ranks of the murderers. But yesterday, in Holland, the man accused of the murder of Theo van Gogh stood before the court and asked not to be defended, because he didn't recognise the authority of the court. This a man born and brought up in Amsterdam.

I actually think this is just about the most offensive thing that can be said. That a man is prepared to live in a society without either accepting its rules, or trying to change them from within - his sole reason for existence is to blow apart the society in which he was born. Those are the people we are dealing with. And unless we all stand together against them, they're going to be able to spread their fear further.

The Bishop's Husband

The Church of England has undoubtedly taken a major step forwards today, as regards the vote of the General Synod. It paves the way for women bishops, although as I understand it the first ordination of female bishops will be a long way away.

Of course, there are threats of renegade priests leaving the Church to join the Roman Catholics. To them, I ask the following question - what sort of God would say that only half the population he placed on the planet are fit to act as interpolators of his guidance? Why would he condemn his own people to such inferior statues?

And to those who believe that leaving the Church of England is the best way forward - why, in an era of greater ecumenicalism, do you think that divisive splits help spread the message of God? Why do you think that presenting the image of an uncaring God helps save more souls? Why can you not set aside your differences and focus on what is the most important message of all - to love your neighbour as yourself?

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Many Is The Time I've Been Mistaken...

I was going to post today about my trip to Amsterdam, but as I logged on to the Internet I heard the news about London. Unsurprisingly my mind has been frequently in a different place since. I cannot, and do not want to, comprehend the mindset that can cause such carnage. These murderers pray on fear, and Richard is exactly right when he says that we have to continue as normal, for otherwise we are allowing the fear-mongers to win.

Having been at the Dutch Resistance Museum today, one point really came home to me. The exhibition starts off with an explanation of the different "pillars" of Dutch society - Catholics, Liberals, Socialists, Protestants - and demonstrates how separated the country was at the outbreak of war. The subtext to the rest of the exhibition was that the fragile unity of the Netherlands helped prevent a more active participation in a resistance movement. People were too scared to take part; even the resistance movements tended to come from individual 'pillars' rather than take on a truly national character in many ways.

There's a message for us all there. Britons may not live in a society that is so obviously divided into antagonistic pillars, but there's dividing lines between all of us. Yes, we have a culture of free opposition, and we must defend it to the hilt. Indeed, it's what we're fighting for. We have to make sure, however, that we stand together in the wake of horrors and atrocities that we saw in London today. We may disagree over Iraq, ID Cards, the G8 - and long may debates on these subjects continue. But we mustn't let disagreements on these issues allow us to flinch in fighting the Islamofascists.

Perhaps another story from the Dutch resistance museum would be instructive. By the end of the war, anyone found carrying a weapon was to be sentenced to death without trial. But they weren't killed immediately. They were held as prisoners until active resistance attempts were made - and were then killed in the streets, in public executions with all forced to watch, as a reprisal. We need only see the media management of the Islamofascists in matters such as the Ken Bigley kidnapping to know that given the chance, they would do exactly the same. We've got to make sure they don't get the chance to prevail.

Streets of London

I'm listening to Ralph McTell's 'Streets of London', which Ken introduced me to a few months ago. I wanted to break my self-imposed break from blogging to offer some thoughts after the blast in London today.

The most moving image of the day, for me, was the BBC interview with an old World War II veteran, who had been on the way to a reunion with other old soldiers, when he was caught up in the attacks. He simply said, nonchalantly, "well, we've been through it before, haven't we?"

The key response of London and the whole of Britain must be to adopt a defiant spirit of the Blitz, and to offer resistance not through acts of wrath but by carrying on our everyday lives, in silent acts of defiance that we won't allow anything to change as a result of the blasts. Dramatic changes in the British way of life would represent a clear victory for terrorism, and invariably serve little actual purpose in reducing the likelihood of attacks.

I realise there is some irony in invoking the spirit of the Blitz, when some civil liberties were curbed during the Second World War, but reflection on these invariably shows they served little practical purpose, and to transplant tactics from a traditional total war to a terrorist attack is probably unhelpful. Indeed, the sterling work of the police, ambulance and fire services today reinforces the fact that these terrorist attacks are so horrific and frightening precisely because they are not warfare in any conventional sense. And while metaphors to Pearl Harbour and the Blitz are certainly apt in communicating shock or defiance, it's important not to extend the metaphors into finding solutions. This is not a "war on terror" in the sense that it cannot be fought as a war, but is an infinitely complicated police operation.

There has never been any hesitation within Britain that international terrorism must be opposed; indeed, the conversion of America to opposing terrorism, after years of equivocation in their relationship with the IRA, was welcome. What is vital now is that a programme of aggressive support for human rights overseas continues. This will mean challenging state sponsors of terrorism, and also the corrupt pro-Western regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where the majority of 9/11 bombers came from. I have no doubt that such a resolve will hold, even if there is healthy debate on the best ways of achieving the fundamental aims of that policy.

What's important now is to take pride in the emergency services' brilliant work, in the deeply competent efforts of the Government, and in the good spirit in which London has reacted. I take great pride in an understated national response, and I very much hope that the best traditions of Britain will be born out in the coming days. It is imperative, even if, as is likely, domestic extremists were involved, there is no back-lash against the law-abiding and peaceful Islamic community in Britain.

The very essence of a British response must be to offer rational and calm defiance, eager that the best way to avenge the dead of London is by living; living normally.

"We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the undergrounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Olympian Spirit

I'm very pleased that London has won the Olympics. Not that I want Britain to bear the cost, or that I am particularly excited that more taxpayers' money will be thrown at the capital when it could be more usefully directed at, say, some of the deprived areas in the North East. But the fact that Chirac deliberately missed the start of the G8 summit, hoping to be able to turn up late and gloat, and that it has now backfired, fills me with a large amount of glee. Chirac has always placed the anti-English/Anglo-Saxon grandstanding ahead of actually using his power as a force for good, and it is nice to see it come back and bite him.

Any allegations, meanwhile, that the French are bad losers, are totally false:

"It is an immense disappointment that I cannot explain, to tell you the truth," he said. "I have met many members of the IOC who told me `We don't understand it'."
Mr Delanoe added: "It is fair play that made us lose," and said that he was not sure "that we have all participated in this contest with exactly the same tools and in the same spirit.
NBA star Tony Parker, who had been part of the Paris delegation in Singapore, was very downbeat after the result.
"I don't know what else we could have done. If we don't have it now, I guess we will never get it," he said.
"The IOC seems to be very pro-Anglo-Saxon. I feel extremely gutted."
Former Olympic judo gold medalist Thierry Rey, who was also an ambassador for the French bid, was also dismayed by the IOC's decision.

A stunned silence greeted the news of London's victory
"This is an enormous disappointment, we don't understand what is happening, this is a massive slap in the face," he said.
"We did all we could, we don't know what else we could have done. We thought our bid was exceptional."

It's quite simple. There was a vote. Paris lost. Maybe London's bid was just better.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Quick Notes

Currently sitting in an internet cafe in Mainz, and don´t really have a huge amount of time for new observations. Will stick to a few comments about Live 8 and sport:

Live 8 - was it really worth all the fuss it seemed to be getting in the British press? I was watching in Germany, and whilst the Philadelphia concert in particular seemed to be amaying, the atmosphere at the other concerts seemed a little tepid - although that may well have been due to the fact that we were forced, through TV coverage, to concert-hop.

I also love the way people think making all this noise will actually make a real chance of changing things at the G8 summit. It may well feel good to get blanket coverage, but the G8 meetings are always at their least effective when they have the most publicity. There are normally at least two people there with conflicting viewpoints - and when negotiations and talks like this are carried out under the glare of the world´s media, then the leaders are less likely to back down and appear weak to their own people.

Cricket - let´s hope our batsmen find form soon! If Harmison and Flintoff keep bowling like they have been doing we have every chance in the Ashes.

Rugby - Well, it looks like picking Gavin Henson and Shane Williams didn´t really make the team that much more successful or exciting - just allowed the All Blacks to take us apart defensively (which, I think, was the point of Woodward´s original team selection).

Friday, July 01, 2005

Change of Plans

Well, today wasn't quite the day I expected it to be, largely as a result of weather-related eventualities. I've still really enjoyed myself pottering around the sights of Berlin, where there is always a lot to do. This afternoon I spent most of my time in the Gemäldegallerie; it's a nice enough gallery, although I think it falls into the usual trap of art galleries everywhere - namely, that art is interesting because it is art, when actually most of the paintings are pretty uninspired. Then again, maybe in most people's eyes my opinions count for nothing because I find many of the great southern European artists of the Renaissance highly boring.

Instead, I have a preference for much Northern European art - far more simple and devotional, in my mind, and as such makes its points far more clearly. There weren't many paintings that caught my eye, but those that did were well worth the entry fee. In particular, the German artists' altar pieces were fascinating. The one of John the Baptist, with the murderer, Salome, and all other onlookers unable to watch the beheading was very telling. Similarly, a triptych with Christ sitting on high, with scenes of extreme violence on one side and the scene of the Garden of Eden on the other was superb in its message - that there is redemption, and the detail demonstrated that even in idyllic scenes there is sin, and in the darkest scenes there is still good.

Cold and Nass-ty

It's hoying it down in Berlin today, which is a shame, as that put paid to my hopes of going to the Olympiastadion guided tour (too much of it would be outside, and it's too far out of the centre). However, I did have the following wonderful exchange in the Starbucks that's just on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate (I love the symbolism):

Barista: "For here or to go?"

(Looks outside)

"Ah... for here"