Sunday, October 31, 2004

Lancet study claims 100,000 extra deaths due to Iraq war: but is it flawed?

The Lancet (free registration required) has published a study of mortality in Iraq before and after the 2003 invasion. This study concluded that 100,000 extra deaths had occurred, mainly due to the violence, a figure that has been widely reported in the media.

However it seems to me the study is seriously flawed.

Take the reported excess of deaths. They estimate roughly 98,000 excess deaths in the post war period. But the 95% confidence interval for this estimate is 8,000 to 194,000 deaths! (See page 5, column 2, second paragraph). That is a huge level of uncertainty. The range of this confidence interval is 186,000, almost twice the stated estimate itself. The actual number of excess deaths could be as low as 8,000, or as high as 194,000, and still be consistent with this study!

Then there is the methodology (from page 2, column 1, second paragraph):

``We obtained January, 2003, population estimates for
each of Iraq’s 18 Governorates from the Ministry of
Health. No attempt was made to adjust these numbers
for recent displacement or immigration.''

Thus we have them using pre war data provided by Saddam Hussein's government, hardly the most trustworthy source, and no attempt to assess whether there was any migration between January and the time of the study.

Moreover, they interviewed 988 households and asked them about deaths. However they only attempted to corroborate the reported number of deaths by asking for a death certificate in 78 households, and only actually obtained a death certificate in 63 of the households. In the vast bulk of households there was no corroboration of the reported deaths. Given that this a population that lived under tyranny for decades and may be wary about what they tell people lest it gets them into trouble, and people may also lie if they have strong (pro or anti) views/feelings about the occupation, the failure to verify the bulk of these deaths is yet another source of error.

Then there is the method of sampling used. They used cluster sampling. According to this critique of the article, this can exaggerate figures if there is a skewed distribution of deaths. Yet most of the violence is concentrated in a few areas such as the so-called "Sunni triangle". Several clusters fell inside the Sunni triangle.

Returning to the pre-war estimates of mortality, the study gives a figure of 29 deaths per 1000 live births for infant mortality, rising to 57 deaths per 1000 births for infant morality. Yet earlier studies of infant mortality in Iraq give higher pre-war levels than this. For example, UNICEF reported a 1999 figure of 108 deaths per 1000 live births for infant mortality, implying that if the study is correct, the post war infant mortality rate is still an improvement on 5 years ago, despite the invasion and continuing violence, damaged infrastructure, etc.

An estimate for 2002, from the CIA world factbook puts the infant mortality rate at 57.1 per 1000 live births, about the same as the post war infant mortality the Lancet study gives. My point here is that the Lancet study appears to have used an optimistic estimate of the pre war Iraqi infant mortality rate. Certainly there's no obvious reason why the infant mortality rate in Iraq would have dropped sharply (from 57 per 1000 down to 29 per 1000) between 2002 and Jan 2003, whilst the country was still under sanctions.

In conclusion, it seems to me this study is pretty worthless. Even taken at face value, the reported figures include such a high degree of uncertainty as to be worthless.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

EU court ends protection of press sources.

As noted by both Samizdata and the EU referendum blog, the Telegraph has reported a disturbing development in EU law, whereby the European Court has made a ruling that will seriously undermine investigative journalism.

The case concerns Hans-Martin Tillack, a journalist whose articles for Germany's Stern magazine have exposed fraud and corruption in the EU, relying on inside testimony. Tillack's computer, address books, telephone records and 1000 pages of notes were obtained by the European Commission, after being seized by Belgian police acting on EU instructions. By perusing the information held by these, the Commission could find out who Mr Tillack's sources were.

Mr Tillack had been arrested in March and held incommunicado for 10 hours, for allegedly bribing an official to obtain internal EU documents. However, according to the Telegraph, leaked EU anti-fraud office documents have since shown the allegation was concocted by two European Commission spokesmen.

Mr Tillack filed a lawsuit at the European Court, backed by the International Federation of Journalists to block commission access to his records on the grounds that it was a flagrant violation of European Convention law for press protection, established over decades.

However the European Court has ruled against Mr Tillack on the grounds that the case was a strictly Belgian matter! Yet the request for the arrest was made by the EU and the European Commission had been shown to have orchestrated the raid from the start.

The bottom line is that the European Court has backed the European Commission in a blatant attempt to seize a journalist's documents in order to find out their sources. For anyone else considering investigating or exposing corruption in the European Commission, or elsewhere in the EU, this is a rather chilling development.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Chip implants

The day when we all have chips implanted under our skin to identify ourselves looks like it is drawing ever closer. The Telegraph reports that implanted medical record chips 'will save lives globally':

The chip is inserted under the skin of a person's upper arm in a 20-minute procedure costing £100. Each device has an identification number, which allows doctors to access individual patient information on centrally stored medical records.

Don Mackechnie, the chairman of the British Medical Association's Accident and Emergency committee, and a consultant at the Rochdale Infirmary, said: "Such a device could prove very useful in a situation where we have an unconscious patient with an unknown medical history. It could reveal serious allergies to medicines, for example."

He said, however, that he had some concerns about the devices. "We would need to see how much it cost to buy the equipment needed to reed the devices," he said.

"There's also the issue of privacy and who would be able to access the information and how. In other words, we need to see what the practicalities will be.

I guess by the time e.g. 80% of the population have these, governments will start making them mandatory.

How the Civil Contingencies Bill might be used

Discussion of this Bill continues in the blogosphere. Over at Airstrip One, Philip Chaston has offered us this scenario for its usage:

An 'emergency' is declared by the government. Who knows what the catalyst may be? It could vary from an outbreak of foot and mouth to a mega-terrorist attack on the United States of America or another European country. The definition of emergency within the Civil Contingencies Bill is so vague that it could be stretched to cover a terrorist attack in a foreign country, and the consequences of any perceived threat on our own shores. My own assumption is that it would have to be an NBC attack. Nothing less could do for the government's subsequent actions.

Following this, a nationwide emergency is declared and all democratic assemblies are prorogued. The Government pushes through a number of authoritarian measures by regulation including a national ID scheme and, possibly, the reintroduction of a limited draft. In oredr to show solidarity with fellow European Union Member States, the government also signs up to the Euro and the Constitution, promising a democratic vote once the national state of emergency has ended.

Regulatory changes include the creation of a list system for parties, the use of postal, mobile and electronic voting, and the prohibition of 'extremists' such as the British National Party and UKIP. Certain opinions and arguments deemed offensive are banned from the media or the public airwaves. After these regulatory changes, introduced as modernisation or democratisation, are embedded, the government calls another election, which Labour wins handsomely, having introduced a 'managed democracy'. This election is cited as a referendum on Europe and the ruling party declares that no further votes are required on membership within Europe.

Tying this in with the EU constitution is not something just plucked out of the air either. The EU constitution lists "civil protection" as one of the "coordinating" powers for the European authorities. Note that the bill enables the creation of arbitrary imprisonable offences and can delegate powers to anyone or confer jurisdiction on any court or tribunal.

The scenario above sounds plausible to me. Certainly, a nuclear, biological or chemical attack (NBC attack) in the US or the EU would engender enough fear, anxiety and panic for the government to declare an emergency with some credibility in the eyes of the public. Taking Britain into the Euro and the EU Constitution would fit with the aims of Tony Blair and many pro-EU politicians in all the major political parties. And the actions taken, whilst falling short of turning Britain into Nazi Germany or even East Germany, would turn it into a state where political views deemed offensive are repressed and elections are easily manipulated. And the possibility of invoking another emergency remains if too much opposition is generated by such actions and needs to be repressed.

A key question here is what if the scenario was modified in one crucial respect. Suppose the emergency is declared, ostensibly in anticipation of a NBC attack? Remember the Bill merely requires that a Minister thinks an emergency has occurred, is ocurring or is about to occur? Would the government get away with it?

If this Bill reaches the statute books in its present form, such questions will have real significance. Since the emergency powers can be invoked so easily and without any real scope for legal challenge, it follows that the main restraint on using this bill is down to what the government (believes it) can get away with.

One thus has to make tricky judgements about whether there'd be a large enough, powerful enough body of resistance, either within or without the UK, to stop the government, and to do so by force if necessary and whether the government is willing to tolerate certain consequences such as being regarded as a pariah state internationally or economic disruption caused by people and companies fleeing the country.

The need to make such judgements, and the gamble living in Britain thereby represents, are the consequences of giving the state a means of suspending democratic politics and assuming absolute power, however temporary the basis is meant to be. This bill provides such means.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Trackback added to blog

Courtesy of Haloscan, I've added trackback to this blog. Please feel free to make use of it when linking to articles in my blog.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

The Civil Contingencies Bill: Safeguards and the scope of emergency regulations

In this article, I shall concentrate on the powers given to Ministers via emergency regulations and on the effect of the safeguards that are in the bill. Already in my first article on this bill I described the powers in some detail.

The key point regarding the powers is that the emergency regulations permit any provision that can be made by an Act of Parliament or by Royal Prerogative.Without any constraint being put on this formulation, this would amount to absolute power. There are, however, some apparent safeguards in the Bill. I contend that these are ineffective and that Ministers will have absolute power under the Bill, despite these safeguards.

Section 23 details the main limitations of emergency regulations. The limitations specified are that (to summarise):

  1. The person making the regulations thinks the regulations are for preventing, controlling or mitigating an aspect or effect of the emergency for which the regulastions are being made and that the effect of the provision is in due proportion to that aspect or effect of the emergency.
  2. The regulations must specify the parts of the UK or regions in which they're to have effect.
  3. The regulations may not require or enable a person to be required to provide military service and may not prohibit or enable the prohibition of strikes or other industrial action.
  4. The regulations may not create an offence other than one of failing to comply with emergency regulations, disobeying an order made under emergency regulations or obstructing a person in the performance of a function under emergency regulations.
  5. The regulations may not create an offence other than one only triable before a magistrate's court (or in Scotland before a sheriff under summary procedure).
  6. The regulations may not create an offence punishable by more than 3 months in prison or a fine exceeding level 5 of the standard scale.
  7. The regulations may not alter procedure in relation to criminal proceedings.

Points 1 & 2 do not limit the power of the regulations in any way.

Point 3 seems significant in apparently preventing conscription or the banning of strikes. However given that Section 22 explicitly allows a regulation to require the performance of an unspecified function on someone, this would merely mean that the person could not be drafted into the Army. Carrying out a function involving pointing guns at people who disobey you need not involve being conscripted. Similarly the banning of strikes might be a limitation, but it is a deeply uncertain one given that emergency regulations can prohibit or require movement to or from a particular place, and can ban assemblies. I submit that any limitation of power due to point 3 is insignificant or nonexistent in practical terms.

Point 4, does not affect the power of the regulations at all and merely affirms the ability to make an offence of disobeying regulations.

Point 5 simply limits the offences to those that can be tried in a magistrate's court. Yet Section 22 explicitly allows jurisdiction to be placed on a court or other tribunal, thus ensuring that the normal system of courts can be by-passed for special courts set up for the purpose of administering emergency regulations.

Point 6 limits the scale of punishment for disobeying regulations. However since regulations can confiscate property without compensation or mandate indefinite detention in one place, I submit it is no real practical limitation on the power of the regulations.

Point 7 preserves criminal procedure but this only matters if a trial takes place. Given that regulations can require indefinite detention in a particular place, with disobedience carrying a 3 month sentence of imprisonment or fine, after which you could be put in indefinite detention again (on pain of 3 months imprisonment), again we have no real limitation.

There are some further safeguards in the bill.
  • Emergency regulations lapse after 30 days (Section 26). However this does not prevent new regulations being issued, and thus enabling permanent renewal of the regulations.
  • Where emergency regulations are issued by a senior Minister of the Crown, the regulations have to be accepted by both Houses of Parliament within 7 days or they lapse. Again this does not prevent new regulations being issued.The government can thus cut Parliament out of the loop by simply reissuing regulations every 7 days. They can thus bully or bribe Parliament via these regulations until Parliament agrees to e.g. make some set of the regulations permanent or make the state of emergency permanent.
  • Section 22(3)(j) prevents regulations amending Part 2 of the Bill (the part that is the subject of these articles). This does at least prevent regulations being used to e.g. extend the lifetimes of regulations, or remove such limitations on regulations as are in the bill. However given that ALL OTHER LEGISLATION could be repealed or modified that's not much of a limitation at all.
It is a common pattern of this Bill that any safeguard that is proposed in one section can be subverted or undone in another, as can be seen with the first two bullet points immediately above. An additional example: Under section 25(1), if the government wish to set up a tribunal under emergency regulations they're supposed to consult the "Council on Tribunals". However section 25(2) enables the tribunal to be set up without such consultation if the government thinks setting the tribunal up is urgent, and also stipulates that failure to consult does not affect the validity of the regulations setting up the tribunal!

Anyway as we can see above, the Bill enables the government to rule by decree and cut Parliament out of the process, with no practical limits on its power. And as an earlier article demonstrated, a Minister need merely claim that in his opinion an emergency is about to occur and existing legislation might not be sufficient to deal with it. And there are no penalties for misuing the powers in the bill.

Can we trust this and all future governments not to abuse such legislation?

I regard it as a Sword of Damocles hanging over British democracy, should it get on the statute books. If the government gets its way, it'll be in force by the end of the year.

Correction made to previous article

When re-reading the article on emergencies in the Civil Contingencies Bill, I spotted an omission. The person making regulations must preface those regulations with a declaration of what the emergency is and their opinion that all the conditions are met to justify making emergency regulations.

I don't regard this requirement as important as it is merely a statement of the maker's opinion on the matter, but I now include it for completeness sake.

"Emergencies" in the Civil Contingencies Bill

After my previous article on the Civil Contingencies Bill, I've decided to cover some aspects of the Bill in more detail to help explain my concerns over it. Those concerns do not just relate to the draconian powers the government acquires upon declaring an emergency, but also relate to the lack of effective safeguards to prevent abuse of the process.

To appreciate the lack of safeguards and the potential for abuse, one needs to consider the following features of the bill:

  • The threshold for lawfully declaring an emergency in the first place.
  • The nature of the powers the government acquires.
  • The intended safeguards against abuse contained in the bill.
This article will consider the first of these, and subsequent articles the remainder. The threshold for lawfully declaring an emergency in the first place is determined by:

  • The definition of an emergency.
  • The conditions that must be met for someone to declare an emergency.
  • How that person can go about declaring an emergency.
Taking the definition an emergency first, Section 19 of the bill provides it. To summarise section 19(1), an emergency is an event or situation that threatens serious damage to human welfare in, the environment of, or the security of the UK or a part or region of the UK.

Sections 19(2) to (4) elaborate on this (to paraphrase and summarise):

An event or situation threatens human welfare if it involves, causes, or may cause loss of human life; human illness or injury; homelessness; damage to property; disruption of supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel; disruption of transport facilities; disruption of a system of communication; disruption of health services.

An event or situation threatens the environment if it involves, causes, or may cause contamination of land, water or air with harmful biological, chemical or radioactive matter or oil; flooding; or disruption or destruction of plant or animal life.

War, armed conflict and terrorism (as defined in the Terrorism Act 2000, section 1) are all deemed to threaten the security of the UK.

Several points are worth noting at this juncture:
  • The situation or event concerned need not be occurring in the UK, e.g. events in the middle east could lead to a reduction in oil production leading to disruption of the supply of this fuel to the UK.
  • The situation or event need not actually have caused damage, it merely needs to threaten "serious" damage.
  • There is no indication how serious "serious" is, in the phrase "serious damage".
  • Many situations that have been handled perfectly well without such draconian powers in the past would fall under this definition of emergency: hurricanes, deep recessions (e.g. that may make some people homeless), oil spills, the fuel protests of 2001, terrorist bombings, accidental explosions and the oil crises of the 1970s.
  • Many forms of civil disobedience and protest could fall under this definition, e.g. strikes by medical staff in the NHS (note however that the bill protects the right to strike), anti-GM crops campaigners tearing up GM crops (damage/disruption to plant life).
  • The above definition is very broad and quite vague.
The conditions that must be met for someone to declare an emergency are set out in Section 20 and Section 21. These conditions are that:
  • The person is the Queen (by an Order in Council), or (without an Order in Council) a senior Minister of the Crown (a cabinet minister or commissioners of the Treasury, this latter including government Whips).
  • A "senior Minister of the Crown" can make emergency regulations without an "Order in Council" if they are satisfied that conditions in section 21 are met and that arranging for an "Order in Council" would cause a delay that might cause serious damage or seriously obstruct the prevention control of mitigation of serious damage.
  • The conditions in section 21 that need to be met include that the emergency is occurring, has occurred or is about to occur; it is necessary to make provision for the purpose of preventing controlling or mitigating the emergency or an aspect or an effect of it; and the need for the provision is urgent. It is necessary to make provision if existing legislation cannot be relied on without risk of serious delay; it isn't possible without risk of serious delay to ascertain of existing legislation can be relied upon; or the existing legislation might be insufficiently effective.
  • The person making the regulations must preface the regulations with a statement specifiying the nature of the emergency and declaring that they are satisfied the conditions in section 21 are met, they are satisfied the regulations only contain provision for the purpose of mitigating, controlling or preventing the emergency or an aspect/effect of it, they are satisfied the effect of the regulation is in due proportion to the emergency or the aspect/effect of it, that they are satisified the regulations are compatible with the Human Rights Act and they are satisfied that arranging for an Order in Council would risk serious delay.
Note that the final requirement is simply to produce a declaration of the opinion of the person making regulations that the required conditions are met.

Putting this all together, we can summarise the weakest set of conditions that suffice: A senior Minister of the Crown may make emergency regulations if in their opinion an emergency (which could just be a flood) is about to occur and existing legislation might be insufficiently effective at tackling the emergency.

Thus all that's required is for a cabinet minister or government whip to state that they personally believe an emergency is about to happen and that the existing legislation might not be effective enough, and the power to make emergency regulations is thereby acquired.

There is no requirement in the Bill that their belief be reasonable, thus making the possibility of legal challenge remote.

And note that it is ANY cabinet minister or government whip who could do this on their own authority, where previously the agreement of Parliament was required.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Is Britain headed for dictatorship?

In 1933, Adolf Hitler managed to get his Enabling Act through the German parliament, which gave him absolute power over Germany in the event of an emergency. Once this Act was in place, Hitler declared an emergency and the rest is, as they say, history.

Over on Samizdata, David Carr is worried that the British government is pushing through its very own Enabling Act in the form of the Civil Contingencies Bill.

Having read the Bill myself in detail now, it seems to me Carr's concerns are entirely justified. I find myself wishing I'd paid more attention to this earlier. So what is the cause for concern?

Under this Bill, Cabinet Ministers (and government Whips!) can declare a state of emergency in the UK, or any part of it, orally.

An emergency is defined in a very loose manner that would cover, e.g. the fuel protests of 2001. The conditions for making such a declaration are that an emergency has occurred, is occurring or is about to occur, that it is necessary to make provision to mitigate, control or prevent the emergency or an aspect of it and that the need for the provision is urgent[see Sections 19 to 21].

Note that a Minister merely needs to be "satisfied" (i.e. believes/thinks that) the conditions apply. There is no test of "reasonableness" that might enable, e.g. a court challenge.

Furthermore, as notes, there is no provision for authentication of Ministers' orders or for punishing the false declaration of an emergency and there is no punishment for abusing emergency powers.

On declaring such an emergency, Ministers acquire the power to make regulations for any of the following purposes [Section 22(2)]:

  • protecting human life, health or safety,
  • treating human illness or injury,
  • protecting or restoring property,
  • protecting or restoring a supply of money, food, water, energy or fuel,
  • protecting or restoring an electronic or other system of communication,
  • protecting or restoring facilities for transport,
  • protecting or restoring the provision of services relating to health,
  • protecting or restoring the activities of banks or other financial institutions,
  • preventing, containing or reducing the contamination of land, water or
  • preventing, or mitigating the effects of, flooding,
  • preventing, reducing or mitigating the effects of disruption or
    destruction of plant life or animal life,
  • protecting or restoring activities of Parliament, of the Scottish
    Parliament, of the Northern Ireland Assembly or of the National
    Assembly for Wales, or
  • protecting or restoring the performance of public functions.
I.e. just about any purpose imaginable.

Furthermore, the Act explicitly states that regulations may make provision of any kind that could be made by Act of Parliament or by Royal Prerogative[Section 22(3)]. Under the British system of government, this is absolute power.

The Act reinforces this by explicitly listing the making of provisions[Section22(3)] to:
  • (a) confer a function on a Minister of the Crown, on the Scottish Ministers,
    on the National Assembly for Wales, on a Northern Ireland
    department, on a coordinator appointed under section 24 or on any
    other specified person (and a function conferred may, in particular,
    • (i) a power, or duty, to exercise a discretion;
    • (ii) a power to give directions or orders, whether written or oral);
  • (b) provide for or enable the requisition or confiscation of property (with
    or without compensation);[i.e. everything you or your business owns could be confiscated without compensation]
  • (c) provide for or enable the destruction of property, animal life or plant
    life (with or without compensation);[i.e. everything you or your business owns could be destroyed without compensation]
  • (d) prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, movement to or from a specified
    place;[i.e. you could be indefinitely imprisonened]
  • (e) require, or enable the requirement of, movement to or from a specified
  • (f) prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, assemblies of specified kinds, at
    specified places or at specified times;[i.e. banning all forms of protest, but also note that Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly are all assemblies!]
  • (g) prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, travel at specified times;
  • (h) prohibit, or enable the prohibition of, other specified activities;[i.e. banning anything at all!]
  • (i) create an offence of—
    • (i) failing to comply with a provision of the regulations;
    • (ii) failing to comply with a direction or order given or made under
    • the regulations;
    • (iii) obstructing a person in the performance of a function under or
    • by virtue of the regulations;
  • (j) disapply or modify an enactment (other than a provision of this Part) or
    a provision made under or by virtue of an enactment;
  • (k) require a person or body to act in performance of a function (whether
    the function is conferred by the regulations or otherwise and whether
    or not the regulations also make provision for remuneration or
  • (l) enable the Defence Council to authorise the deployment of Her
    Majesty’s armed forces;
  • (m) make provision (which may include conferring powers in relation to
    property) for facilitating any deployment of Her Majesty’s armed
  • (n) confer jurisdiction on a court or tribunal (which may include a tribunal
    established by the regulations);[i.e. set up courts/tribunals that bypass the normal legal system!]
  • (o) make provision which has effect in relation to, or to anything done in—
    • (i) an area of the territorial sea,
    • (ii) an area within British fishery limits, or
    • (iii) an area of the continental shelf;
  • (p) make provision which applies generally or only in specified
    circumstances or for a specified purpose;
  • (q) make different provision for different circumstances or purposes.

I.e. just about any provision imaginable.

Note that under existing laws, as I understand it, Parliament has to agree a state of emergency, whereas under this Bill it is the senior members of the executive, along with the Queen, who hold the power to declare an emergency without Parliament getting a look in. Once this is done, they have absolute power over us.

This Bill is currently in the Lords and was rushed through Parliament with the third reading "guillotined" so that opposition amendments were not debated and the Bill was passed "on the nod". The government want it on the statute books before the next Queen's Speech in November.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Young Muslims downloading and distributing militants' snuff movies

What is one to make of this disturbing story? The Times reports that young British Muslims are downloading, watching and distributing videos of the be-headings being carried out by militants in Iraq using their mobile phones.

The article claims that an Algerian who lives in London, and who is an al-Qaeda sympathiser, has saved every available video of hostages being killed in Iraq. But it's not just the militants who are doing this:

Even Muslims opposed to the beheadings have used the new phones to look at them. Outside an Iraqi café on Edgware Road in London yesterday, Mais Ahmed, whose family are from Basra, stood holding his Nokia 6600 phone as he chattted to friends. He was one of a dozen young men in the area who admitted watching videos of the killings on mobile phones, including the beheading of the American contractor Nick Berg in May, the film of which Mr Ahmed had saved on his phone. It was common among his Arab friends, he said.

Mr Ahmed, 23, of Islington, who came to Britain five years ago, said: “It’s very common to see this, so many people are watching them on phones. I know people who have been sitting in a café and have got the film sent to them, without asking. It happened to me.”

Mr Ahmed is against the beheadings. “I don’t think what the kidnappers are doing is good: it is against our religion. The hostages never did anything to anyone,” he said.

Another man, an unemployed Iraqi Kurd, 19, admitted having watched the beheading of the two Americans captured with Kenneth Bigley. “I felt like crying,”he said.

Militants aside, can this just be put down to "morbid fascination" or is there something more disturbing driving the young Muslims featured above to do this?

Are we seeing the development of a culture that deems the viewing and distribution of such videos to be acceptable?

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Blair's announcement on his retirement

Blair's announcement that he will seek and, if elected, serve a full third term but not a fourth one must go down as one of the most extraordinary declarations of an incumbent leader about his or her future in the job. Blair has told us how long we can expect him to be around for assuming the electorate, his party, his family and his health let him.

I'm guessing his intention was to end speculation about when/if he'll hand over to Gordon Brown, and to prevent it being an issue during the forthcoming election campaign. He may also have done it to spike Gordon's chances of being PM. However it seems to me that this may well turn out to be a turning point in British politics which could have quite unexpected consequences. I say this for several reasons.

Firstly, Blair has ensured that Labour's historic third term in government, should they get it, will involve a struggle for the succession, starting openly probably no later than mid term. From day one, ministers' pronouncements and activities will be scrutinised by both media and opposition for any hints at ambition for the PM's job or support or otherwise for those considered to be in the race. As we saw with both Thatcher and Major, such jockeying for position can do a lot to undermine a sitting government.

Secondly, Blair has given anyone within the government who is in a position to oppose a policy an ideal means of doing so -- delay it until the PM resigns. The policy's future thereafter will be uncertain and making political alliances for the succession could then kill it.

Thirdly, this will give the opposition parties a reason to do everything they can to delay government bills and provide opportunities for them to exploit the tensions within the government and the Labour party for their own advantage or at least the government's disadvantage.

Fourthly, in foreign policy, anyone who doesn't like Blair can simply hold on for someone new. Blair's ability to push forward his own policies in e.g. the EU will thus be considerably weakened -- the EU leaders will know he'll stand down by a certain point and can adopt delaying tactics on policies they dislike and policies that Tony likes.

Whilst Blair's announcement may help to keep Labour disciplined in the run up to the next election, ISTM he has considerably weakened his ability to govern thereafter with this announcement, both on domestic policy and on the international stage. He has also made it more difficult for Gordon Brown to ensure that he's the one to succeed Blair, whilst making it more likely that the struggle for the succession will see a level of infighting in the Labour party not seen since the 1980s.

At any rate, the PM's annoucement has ensured that what happens in the post-Blair era is likely to be a dominant theme of Britain's political discourse after the next election, as both the government, the media and the political parties gradually take on board the reality that Blair's days have now been numbered by none other than Blair himself.

Mark Steyn on John Kerry and Iraq

Mark Steyn in the Telegraph has this to say about Kerry's position on Iraq:

If John Kerry is so polished and eloquent and forceful and mellifluous, how come nobody has a clue what his policy on Iraq is? As he made clear on Thursday, Saddam was a growing threat so he had to be disarmed so Kerry voted for war in order to authorise Bush to go to the UN but Bush failed to pass "the global test" so we shouldn't have disarmed Saddam because he wasn't a threat so the war was a mistake so Kerry will bring the troops home by persuading France and Germany to send their troops instead because he's so much better at building alliances so he'll have no trouble talking France and Germany into sending their boys to be the last men to die for Bush's mistake.

That just about sums up my impression of Kerry, who's got a different position on the Iraq war depending on his poll ratings, whether things are going well or badly (according to the press) in Iraq and what audience he is talking to.