Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Are Thatcherite Attitudes Beginning to Fade?

I am not a regular reader of right-wing or tabloid newspapers, in fact I have little time for newspapers anyway as I drive around so much. When I lived in London I used to make a point of picking up newspapers of a different political slant to my own so that I was in touch with how other people saw the World. Travelling on the underground for two hours every day as I did, there were always abandoned newspapers around. Of course the bulk of the British population has always been conservative, and at times even Conservative, though even Margaret Thatcher only ever won a minority of the percentage of the votes, but because of the weird electoral system the UK has this often gave her a large majority of the seats in parliament. The bulk of the UK population is apolitical, often actually anti-political. However, this does not stop most people 'knowing what is right' and often having a far more right-wing list of policies (especially on capital punishment and immigration) than anyone in the Conservative Party would ever dare voice. As a campaign to encourage people to vote a couple of years ago, these people say 'I don't do politics', but in fact spend a lot of time ramming their political message down people's throats, yet because they see it as 'common sense' or 'simply what is right', they do not want it tarred with the brush of 'politics'. I always cringe when someone starts a sentence with 'I'm not a racist but ...' because you know a whole list of racist attitudes will follow.

The right-wing tabloid press, notably 'The Sun' and 'Daily Star' as well as the middle-ranking right-wing newspapers particularly 'Daily Mail' and 'Daily Express' have had an important role in shifting electoral behaviour especially in the 1980s-90s. When Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party he visited Rupert Murdoch who owns 'The Sun' and the higher-ranking right-wing newspaper, 'The Times' to win his backing before trying to win public support. He knew that Murdoch's scare campaigns especially about the level of taxation that Labour would introduce had severely undermined the party's electoral chances and most certainly lost them the 1992 election which it had, up to the end, appeared that they would win.

We are now in a different world, though politically not that different. The Blair Party, which effectively was what New Labour was, stuck carefully to the Thatcher Consensus, not altering the economic pattern of little public social housing and privatised utilities and transport. The only alteration in this was the minimum wage which was set at a pretty low level, so that even those bosses who whined about it, actually found their pay bill rise minimally and because of the stimulus to consumption in so many households in the UK, domestic demand rose for certain low cost items, notably food, cheap clothing and cheap electrical goods, especially mobile phones. Gordon Brown who built his economic reputation on economic prudence did not move radically from the Thatcherite/Blairite policy, but the economic crisis of late 2008 shook the whole system up. Thatcher would have just let unemployment rocket. As I noted last year, various employers were eager to see the return of the 'whip of unemployment' and their wishes have been granted. Ironically, however, the collapse of banks notably Northern Rock and HBOS led the state to nationalise banks on a scale that would have even startled Clement Attlee the Labour prime minister 1945-51 who oversaw nationalisation of about 20% of the UK economy following the Second World War.

Through the 1990s and 2000s there were complaints about the huge bonuses and large salaries that many bosses were awarding themselves but these tended to be short-lived complaints that led to nothing. The bulk of the UK population clung to the Thatcher illusion that 'everyone can be a millionaire, so everyone's got to try' even though the bulk of the wealthy were a very narrow slice from privileged backgrounds to start off with. The assumption that long persisted was that any constraint on money making was a bad thing. Such an attitude was still around until last year. Fortunately things have changed. People realise that if the state had not stepped in then their mortgage lender in many cases would have simply folded. We have not experienced the recall of debts in the UK in the way we know from the Depression era of the UK, but widespread repossession and forced sales because the bank had collapsed rather than because the borrower had defaulted, would have been an immense trauma in the UK, a country with a society that believes its whole economic stability is based on housing. The arrogant, persistent greed of leading bankers even when they have had to be baled out by the state has slowly penetrated the strong adherence to Thatcherite values.

With house repossessions reaching 40,000 in 2008 and expected to exceed 75,000 in 2009 people have a sense, in contrast to the 1980s, that this was not 'necessary' and actually that with less greed from leading bankers and companies, they could be retaining their houses. For once the blame is being aportioned properly. I think this is due, in part, to this shock coming after years of stability since the end of the last UK economic problems ending in about 1994. When mass unemployment hit in the early 1980s, people had already had a decade of seeing heavy industry finding it hard to adapt to the move to a service economy, which became the dominant form of industry in Britain from 1974 onwards. Combined with that they had seen the impact of rising oil prices and saw an easy scapegoat in the Arab oil-producing countries. The 'War on Terror' including the invasion of Iraq had no impact on the average UK citizen and certainly nothing even approaching the scale of the collapse of the US subprime mortgage market has done.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, as 'The Guardian' highlighted this week that the British public is slowly beginning to shake off the Thatcherite mindset, or at least question some of its easy assumptions. In the budget a new top rate of 50% tax was announced for people earning over £150,000 (€166,500; US$217,500). Currently we have 40% if you earn over £37,400 and 20% for income below that with a varying amount depending on your circumstances but around £6,300 which you can earn tax free. In Sir Geoffrey Howe's first budget in 1979 the standard level of tax was reduced from 33% to 30% and the upper rate from 83% to 60% but he raised VAT (Value Added Tax, tax on purchases) from between 8-12.5% to 15% and petrol duty from 45% to 60% to compensate. Of course the monetarists believed lower taxes would stimulate the economy, though by raising indirect taxes Howe probably helped to accelerate the onset of the 1980s recession by further reducing consumption, though he would have seen such steps as anti-inflationary and one thing monetarists loathe is inflation. So, the introduction of the 50% band is hardly 'a 70s-style raid' as the 'Daily Express' portrayed it nor 'a return to the politics of envy' as the 'Daily Mail' said.

Gordon Brown did try a 'windfall' tax last year on power companies, who as I noted at the time, were making ever larger profits simply by raising prices and blaming the rise in oil prices. The reduction in their charges were very slow and piecemeal when the oil price came down. However, Brown, possibly thinking back to the windfall tax of 1949 introduced by Sir Stafford Cripps. He was unable to pull it off. Cripps and the rest of the Attlee government found they were unable to shift British industry the extent to which the country needed it moved, but they certainly had greater power in altering the economy than Brown has. He was told bluntly that any such tax would simply be passed on to the consumers he was trying to help. Thatcher delivered all power over our energy and its price into the hands of wealthy business people most of whom are from outside the UK, and of course, the French government who own most of EDF.

What is interesting is that surveys show that the right-wing press have got it wrong. You have to be well over 40 to even have a dim memory of the 1970s and a lot has happened in the economy since then. Of course business people always complain tax is too high having no memory for when it was much higher and yet businesses still prospered. There have always been very rich people in the UK even when taxes were far higher than now. Greed persists. However, the public tolerance of it seems to be waning and even readers of the right-wing newspapers that have condemned this move, are actually behind it. To some degree people see it as a fair punitive measure. The economic historian E.P. Thompson (1924-93) despite being a Marxist noted that through history the British people have not sought revolution, but the 'moral economy', i.e. what they see as 'fairness' in terms of prices and pay. He shows examples of bread riots in which the people did not take the bread home and eat it, but set up stalls to sell the looted bread at a fair price. Despite Thatcherism, this basic attitude continues even though it is hidden among all the extreme right-wing complaints about immigrants being to blame for everything. The other thing is how far away the wealthy and ultra-wealthy are from the general public.

Back in 2003, 'The Times' defined a 'Middle Englander' also known as the British yeomanry, and other such phrases as someone earning £60,000 (€66,600; US$87,000 at current exchange rates) per year. Interestingly, 80% of the UK population earns less than the average annual salary which is now around £26,000 (€28,800; US$37,700) the average in London is about £31,000 and that is the highest paid area of the UK. For single people (many of whom are retired), the average is only £16,000 (10.6% of the salary that will get this new level of tax). So this suggests that the 'middle' ranked person of 'The Times' is actually in an elite of around a sixth or seventh of the population. I earn £39,000 now, so I am in the elite of a fifth of the population, but I end the month with £100 in my bank account, minimal savings, a 12-year old car and will probably have my 3-bedroomed semi-detached house repossessed when I am made redundant this Summer. So, even among the broader elite, economic times are hard. There are 350,000 people in the UK earning over £150,000, so it is unsurprising that the 'Daily Mail' has been told despite all its whining that there is not going to be a strong Conservative Party response to the new tax band, though that does not stop buffoons like Boris Johnson, Conservative mayor of London being indignant about it.

For all the assumptions that the Conservatives are easily going to win the next election, they ought to be careful no to be seen as too associated with big business and greedy bankers and opposing the 'fair' penalties imposed on them. I think the assumption of Labour's fall is very lazy and has been being talked up since Brown became prime minister, based on very little. Brown has worked hard to minimise the impact of the recession on ordinary people and it seems they are beginning to notice that. In addition, despite me commenting on this for the past year or so, the Conservatives still have not come forward with any clear policies and certainly no clear way of doing anything about the impact of the recession. Many people are likely to fear they will simply repeat Thatcher's attitude of holding up their hands, saying they can do nothing about it, and even worse, that it is 'good' for the population to go through this. As we have seen since 1873 and 1931 the Conservatives always struggle with any ideas when hard economic times come and ironically, as later Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillan did in the 1930s start flirting with state-backed initiatives of greater control over the economy.

I am heartened that the British public, in part, is beginning to shake off the easy, nasty assumptions from Thatcherism. Of course, the right-wing elements remain. Driving through rural Dorset recently I heard how antagonism to migrant labourers is rising as unemployment increases. We can expect that alongside the desite for a moral economy will be the less moral attitudes of hunting out scapegoats too.

Just to wrap up, I am always stunned when I start doing research for a posting the extent of madly extreme views I come across, for example someone arguing that the British tax system is far too complex with its different bands and that there should be a single flat percentage of tax for income tax! This is illogical as all of us have to spend a large chunk of our money on the basics like housing and food, so if we become very wealthy we may have a larger house or more houses and more cars, etc., but all of us only actually need one house, so the wealthier have a great deal more 'slack' in their income that morally they should give back to the society they are draining from in order to make their wealth. However, ideas such as a single band of tax show that clearly there are some corners where Thatcherism continues to thrive.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Insidious Oppression of England's SATs

As regular readers will know in my house lives a woman and her 7-year old son. Yesterday evening the woman was ill and it was the evening when the boy's school was going to give a briefing about the SATs (Standard Assessment Tests) that the boy has to do this May and June. As I have commented before, the UK, particularly England (Wales dropped SATs 2002-5; Scotland and Northern Ireland have different sorts of tests), is obssessed with setting targets and testing children at many levels. I have commented on the government's attainment targets for babies, which open us to ridicule from other member states of the EU. However, more oppressive is the SATs system which sets tests at ages 7, 11 and 16. The results are used to create league tables of schools' achievement that take little consideration of the ability of the children when they entered the school (no I am not suggesting a test at 4 as well, but just pointing out that every school is treated the same whether it is in the poorest or the wealthiest district or has a majority or a minority of pupiles whose first language is English). The SATs for 11 year olds (Key Stage 2) were almost ended last year because the examining company could not cope. Such regular and stringent testing is not healthy and creates lots of pressures for children and divisions.

Erratically from the late 1960s through the 1970s, county-by-country most of the UK abandoned the 11+ exam which divided children at that age into two types of school: grammar schools and secondary modern schools. There was supposed to be a third strand, mimicking the West German model, with technical schools too, but as is always the case in the UK there very, very few of these. This system persists in the counties of Kent and Buckinghamshire and some state schools have mutated into grammar schools meaning they can have a selection test for entry. The 11+ system was very unfair. As girls are often more intelligent than boys at the age of 11, if you were an 'average' girl you were far less likely than a boy of the same ability to get into grammar school as there set gender quotas. Availability of places at grammar school also varied considerably from district to district. Near where my parents lived there were three grammar schools within 5 Km, in other towns there would often be one. So if you took the test in one town and got a particular grade you would easily get a place at grammar school but if you got the same grade and happened to live in the next town along then you might have to settle with a secondary modern school.

Not only was the system erratic, being a lottery based on child's gender and residence, it was very divisive. The curriculum at grammar schools was quite different from that at secondary modern schools. In particular foreign languages were not taught at secondary modern schools and the emphasis tended to be on technical skills rather than any opportunity to do science. So children put into secondary modern schools, the majority, were excluded from subjects which they may have excelled in. In addition, we know that children change in ability quickly through their teenage years, their interest in school fluctuates and they may become excited by a subject area, yet they were locked into a particular curriculum at the age of 11 and had not chance to break out of that. In addition, it made it very clear that the majority of children were being labelled 'second class' and effectively excluded from the chance to get 'A' levels or access university. Of course things have changed, the bulk of the UK has a comprehensive school system in which all children are exposed to the full range of the curriculum and with the National Curriculum introduced in 1992 they all have to teach the same subjects (with some regional variations such as Welsh language).

At one stage it seemed that with the growth of selective schools as if the SATs at 11 would mutate into a new 11+ exam and I am glad they are collapsing. However, even though that nasty development has been halted, I remain concerned about the amount and nature of testing of children in Britain. The briefing yesterday evening was presumably supposed to calm the nerves of parents but I must say I came away feeling utterly alarmed for the future of the boy in my house. The teachers said that we should not use the term 'SATs' around the children so as not to frighten them. However, in this media savvy era (the 7-year old told me why we needed CIF cream cleaner and Bounty kitchen tissue in the house the other day) children pick up on this and you cannot censor what older siblings who have been through the process will say. I have already seen the 7-year old crying over the huge list of spellings he has to master. The teachers madly spoke of 'spelling patterns' in English and I felt like leaping up and asking her about: 'here', 'near', 'weir', 'pier', 'peer' and 'kir', which all rhyme in British English and 'bough', 'cough', 'though', 'through' and 'nought' which all have different sounds (given the use of phonetics in spelling in Britain nowadays these are real challenges).

Here I am only talking about the Key Stage 1 tests which cover 7 year olds. There is loads of stuff on the higher level SATs which you can find all over the internet. At 7, the pupils can attain Levels 1, 2A, 2B, 2C and 3. With the usual bell curve patten the 'norm' is 2B. We were shown examples of Levels 1, 2B and 3 work and I was stunned at the levels expected. Of course they had a brief statement at the end that they 'celebrate' the achievements of children at all levels but it was clear that any child falling below Level 2B would be seen as 'falling behind'. Children working at Level 1 get 'tasks' rather than 'tests' so that they can give oral rather than written responses. However, this clearly will open them up to stigma from the children doing the 'proper' tests. The assessment is done by the teachers who are clearly sympathetic to the children, but it did seem very clearly, that they were being compelled to begin dividing children up on a very 'Brave New World' basis (in the novel people are categorised as things like Alphas, Betas, Epsilons, etc. by intelligence and physical nature and have access to various opportunities accordingly), they might as well go the whole hog and give the childen a big badge to wear saying '1' or '2B' or whatever. Societies, including children's classrooms, are harsh places when you provide even more tools for them to discriminate.

These children are expected to write for a total of 2 x 30-45 minutes in two sessions, not only developing stories or reports and writing postcards but spelling complex words correctly. Words like 'tantrum', 'suspicious' and 'suggestion' were shown to be expected to be in their level. They should use punctuation like question marks and exclamation marks as well as commas. Many adults I meet in professional life have challenges with this. The testing is not only about writing, but they have to read books of many pages on complex subjects (West African culture was one book we were shown) and then complete a long set of questions about the book. The children also have to make presentations which are assessed and be able to use complex phrases to explain things and respond to questions from the audience. This is a test of not being shy and again I see adults in business who find these things a real challenge and yet the government expects 7-year olds to achieve what many 27-year olds find hard.

The mathematics at first seemed more down to Earth with addition, subtraction, handling money, etc. Then we were told they had to use times tables (I did not even start learning times tables until I was 8 and not tested on them formally until I was 11, not 7) and applying mathematics to problem solving. They also have to discuss three dimensional shapes. In science they have to record results from experiments and also understand what makes a 'fair', i.e. consistent test with only one variable. Again, if you stopped a lot of adults in the street they would find this a challenge.

I felt as if I had seen a presentation about the Key Stage 2 SATs for 11-year olds rather than anything appropriate for 7-year olds most of whom find sitting still for more than 10 minutes hard and who write and draw things that we find almost impossible to recognise without explanation. It is no wonder that British children start school at 4 compared to aged 6 in Sweden. It seems impossible for the bulk of children in the UK to pack in all that the government expects them to know by the time they turn 7. This is not education it is a mechanisation of childhood with no clear need in sight. Despite such methods over the past two decades, we seem to have no improvement in Britain's competitiveness in the world and certainly none in ability to speak foreign languages. Instead we are creating very stressed children and that is very apparent. You just have to look at the Japanese system which comes closest to the current British approach to education to see how many suicides of young people it ends up in. The rise of teenage suicide in the UK cannot be divorced from the type of education system the country is running.

Reporting back afterwards the mother of the child was incensed. This came less from the expected level her son is supposed to be reaching for, as she pointed out, he cannot 'fail', the worst he gets is Level 1. What angered her was the list of work the school expects the parent(s) to do with the child ahead of the SATs. There is a long list of writing, speaking, reading, mathematics and science exercises (all of which need some (or a lot of) internet input, so creating a social divide immediately) that the parent is directed to do with the child. Already I have witnessed how much stress the spelling list is causing and that is without getting the child to presentations and experiments. Most households in the UK have two working parents who lack the energy, time and often intelligence to engineer the things the school is suddenly demanding. They are putting huge moral pressure on the parents that if they do not do these things they are failing their child. The woman in my house asked why, if she was expected to do all this at home, did she bother to send the child to school and that she might as well home tutor him. She asked why was the school not teaching to the SATs. Of course the trouble for the school is that they are compelled by the National Curriculum to teach a full spectrum of subjects including as diverse as ICT, PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education), religious education, geography, history, art, physical education and add extras like foreign languages as well as the English (which encompasses literacy, public speaking and writing), mathematics and science. By default the parents have to fill the SATs training that the school cannot jam into the day.

It is clear I should never have attended the briefing evening because the stress on mother and child has been immediate. There is three months of this, with the half-term break, until the SATs saga is over and clearly a lot more tears from mother and child along the way. It is clear that in this household and I am sure hundreds of thousands of others, it is in fact going to be detrimental to the child's development in terms of learning, let alone emotionally. The mother asked me why the government inflicted SATs on children and I said it was clear that at age 7 it was simply to enculturate them into the incessant testing that they are going to experience for the following 11 years (as with the school leaving age rising to 18, there are exams at 17 and 18 too). Abstractly I thought SATs were a bad thing in principle. What I have come to recognise this week, is that expected levels are totally unrealistic and put immense pressure on parents, teachers and children which is detrimental to all of them. Even if SATs are not abolished they need to be set at a level appropriate to 7-year olds, not trying to force them all to be geniuses at that age and attain levels which many adults find challenging (and yet function perfectly well in society). My father argued that the benefit of SATs is assure that teachers are working hard enough (he has a very negative view of anyone involved in education), but in fact they do not do that, they actually disrupt teaching immensely and sap the moral of teachers and their pupils.

I was stunned by what I saw is expected of 7-year olds. We need people to speak out not only about the unsuitability of all of this testing but also how dangerously inappropriate the levels of expectation for young children are. We are rapidly screwing up the rising generations of British people and all of us will pay the price in the years to come.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Need for Nuremberg-style Trials for the USA

We all knew that the US forces and officials under the George W. Bush regime were torturing people not only at Guantanamo Bay but at other secret camps across the World. We knew that torture was used at the US-run Abu Ghraib in Iraq. We know now that the British Security Service, MI5 and even the Greater Manchester Constabulary were involved in driving torture in Pakistan. In recent days confirmation of what we believed and has been corroborated by released prisoners, has come in the form of high-level memos about torture techniques used by the US security services, notably the CIA. I have discussed before how the 11th September 2001 attacks on the USA gave its government the feeling that it had a free hand to carry out any activity it deemed as necessary, going far beyond the acceptable bounds of behaviour for any government let alone that of a democracy and self-vaunted 'Land of the Free'. It led the US government to criticise those countries it felt was not going far enough in violating civil liberties and so has damaged them not just in the USA but more widely across the World. In looking at George W. Bush's regime we must see that his the policy which has had most impact in the World has been to make abduction and torture acceptable. Did Bush never realise that he had lost the War on Terror the moment he made the USA a terror state? What is the point of fighting to defend liberty if you have already killed it in your own country?

It is good that the new US President Barack Obama has had the courage to make public the memos which expose how far the previous regime, and no doubt so many of the agents and officials still in power, went in adopting totalitarian, terrorist techniques. One important thing is that it vindicates those people who have been released and have spoken of torture. Many people remained sceptical, feeling these former detainees (they were not convicts as they were never convicted of a crime) had reasons to condemn the US and perhaps exaggerate their treatment. We now know that they had no need to exaggerate anything; the USA was constantly torturing people. I was stunned by a radio report today that said it had been revealed one detainee had been 'water boarded' effectively brought to the edge of drowning (the detainee is tied down and has cloth placed over their mouth and nose which is then soaked making it almost impossible to breath), far more times than had so far been revealed and in fact it had happened 186 times in one month. On my calculations that is 6-7 times every day. Try and imagine almost being killed repeatedly, many times per day, every day. In addition, this was just one among a wide repertoire of psychological and physical torture inflicted on the detainees. This is factory torture, it is a process that goes beyond what we know of many totalitarian regimes and a world that has had the Soviet system, Idi Amin's regime, the Nazis, China today, Pol Pot's regime, that is a difficult league to get into let alone to reach the top.

It is clear the torture was not being done to gain information, it was simply for Americans to exercise their fury at those they saw as responsible for daring to violate US society by terrorist activity. The rest of the World was rather sickened by the Americans whining on about how the 11th September 2001 attacks were so horrific and so exceptional. Many people across the World, including here in the UK, have been living with terrorism for over 30 years, what made the Americans so special? The constant torturing of detainees stems from the delusion that the Bush administration suffered from that across the World was this vast organisation called Al-Qaeda, with Osama bin-Laden sitting at the centre like Ernst Stavro Blofeld of SPECTRE in the James Bond novels. We know George W. Bush is not intelligent and it is clear that he was easily led to believe that fiction had become reality. There are Al-Qaeda operatives out there, but more than that the word 'Al-Qaeda' is a banner which lots of local Islamist terror groups use to scare people. These are at best cells and more likely, just disparate groups adhering to a title which they know will make them appear bigger than they actually are. You can torture detainees as much as you like but they are going to be unable to tell you details of Al-Qaeda because it has never existed in the form the US administration persists in believing. Al-Qaeda followers (and I use that word to distinguish from 'members') did have connections with the Taliban but certainly none with Saddam Hussain's regime in Iraq.

Now, unsurprisingly, Barack Obama has done the right thing in bringing all of this to light. He knows that the USA can never be safe if it is not seen to be a state that does not engage in terrorist activity itself. It will take many years to restore people's faith in the USA, and Obama is right to start by coming clean as early as possible. Of course it puts him in a difficult position as it has generated hostility from his own intelligence/security bodies. I hope Obama checked who was loyal to him among these bodies as it would be to the entire World's detriment if he happens to be assassinated by a 'rogue' US agent, probably an Arabic one in order to scare the US public back into fearing the 'threat' to their country. The officials are unrepentant, Obama was advised not to reveal the memos and former head of the CIA General Michael Hayden and Michael Mukasey, Attorney General 2007-9 said it would undermine the moral of the intelligence services, invite scorn of the USA's enemies (whereas they have invited the scorn of the USA's friends) and certainly stimulate a 'faux outrage' about what had happened. This insults the World, there is nothing 'faux' i.e. forced or false about our outrage, believe me it is genuine, so much so it is painful. It is painful to see a country which lauds liberty and democracy not only pursuing terrorist tactics but also having shifted the sense of what is 'normal', let alone what is right, to the extent that they cannot understand why people are offended by such horrific behaviour.

Obama was told by Leon Panetta, Director of the CIA not to release the memos because they would give away techniques that the CIA might want to use again in the future. This echoes statements by Hayden and Mukasey. That in itself is scary, that the CIA is not only willing to draw a line at using torture but will not rule out using it again in the future. It also betrays an ignorance of the public. Anyone who wants to know torture techniques, as I have noted before, only has to watch popular television programmes. If you want to know more Amnesty International has been producing information on what governments have been doing for decades now. Panetta's concern is that the memos end the speculation, they show high-level approval for things we only suspected before were being used. Despite the popular perception that intelligence services have all the highest level high-tech equipment, they are very attached to old fashioned methods. I remember MI5 being unwilling in the late 1990s to allow documents produced in 1895 to come into the public domain because they said that the techniques mentioned were still relevant over 100 years later. How do they expect to apprehend anyone if they are using methods developed before aeroplanes and when the car and telephone were novelties and a mobile phone that that fitted your palm was a video camera and could send information to the whole world in seconds. The historian M.R.D. Foot pointed out that during the late 1980s he had been able to go to a small regional museum in the USSR and find many of the documents MI5 was unwilling to reveal to its own population.

The US administration under Bush under went that shift of perceptions that we see in all dictatorships. What is acceptable is altered. For example, in Nazi Germany, it became accepted that Jews were not people but vermin and so needed to be exterminated. In Stalin's USSR it became accepted that anyone could be suspect and deserved to be killed or sent to a gulag. In modern day China it became accepted that anyone who was deemed to be a landowner or an intellectual should be abused and nowadays that anyone from particular religious groups or asking for independence for Tibet or East Turkistan or for some freedom of speech should be suppressed and tortured. In these countries under those regimes, 'normal' shifted to what the bulk of the World sees as abnormal and horrific. The fact that the officials believe Obama only acted in order to garner media plaudits shows how far away they have got from normality. Obama did it because the memos revealed how evil agents of his own country had been and he felt that had to cease and not be done again.

With Abu Gharib, there was the excuse that low-level troops got out of hand and that though there was a permissive atmosphere from senior officers, there was no clear direction to use torture. With these memos we see that John Yoo and Jay Bybee were writing torture policy for Bush. Bybee, a Mormon, was Assistant Attorney General 2001-03; John Yoo was an assistant to the Attorney General and a law professor. Quotations from him about the legality of torture make you sick. On 1st December 2005 at a debate at Notre Dame University, Chicago, he even condoned the theoretical crushing of the testicles of the child of a detainee if that was felt necessary by the President to secure the information desired. Yoo wanted to have US forces exempt for war crimes prosecutions. Quite rightly given that he provided the so-called legal 'golden shield' for US officials carrying out torture the Spanish government is looking into trying him for war crimes. Yoo, of course, all along has believed that the USA is exempt from things like the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners. He also believes that the US government is exempt from its own constitution for example in regard to the 4th Amendment preventing surveillance of US citizens in the USA. With such people at the top of the administration actively embracing torture it is unsurprising that it was used vigorously by lower level officers/officials. Yoo is one of the 'Bush Six' which includes Bybee, former Attorney General, Alberto Gonzalez; Douglas J. Feith, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; William J. Haynes II, former General Counsel to the Department of Defense and David S. Addington, former chief of staff and legal counsel to former Vice-President Dick Cheney and the man seen as co-ordinating the clear policy of adopting torture. Cheney has asked the CIA to declassify material showing the 'success' of torturing as if this will justify and excuse it. As Obama has noted this shows how far the US administration had lost its 'moral bearings'.

Since the 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the USA and China are among the signatories), it has been possible for any state to try someone for torture even if the activity has been carried out in another country. This is why Spain was looking to prosecute the Bush Six. These men have warned that if they travel outside the USA they are likely to be arrested on war crimes charges. Of course unlike the Guantanamo Bay detainees they will not find themselves abducted and turn up in a camp in Canada or Mexico or Spain to be tortured something of course their victims were not spared. I just hope they are extradited to the The Hague as happened to the war crimes perpetrators from the Yugoslav War. This will be an important step for the World to show the USA that it cannot simply behave how it wishes. Obama has said that the officers who actually carried out the torture will not be prosecuted, but Spain challenged this on the basis of the principle of 'just obeying orders' which was thrown out at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials 1945-6. Obama will find it very difficult to fight off criticism within the USA and so has sought to minimise the impact, tackling the men who drove the action rather than the men who carried it out.

The Nuremberg Trials were an international court which tried leading members of the Nazi regime who had not escaped or committed suicide before hand, including Albert Speer and Herman Göring who did kill himself subsequently. The trials gave body to the concepts of war crimes and crimes against humanity and so established the basis on which these things are still judged sixty years later. In addition, they removed the excuse 'just obeying orders' which many German officers had felt was a stronger imperative than being humane. These principles not just in the West but across the world have remained basically unchallenged, though some dictatorships such as Soviet USSR argued many of these issues are internal affairs and not an international concern and China has argued that the principles are embedded in a Western perception of ethics which is inappropriate to societies from outside that tradition. Interestingly, though it is argued that the Bush Six could find refuge in Israel (or Saudia Arabia), in the 1960s, the Israelis were most vigorous in applying the international nature of war crimes charges, most famously abducting Adolf Eichmann a leading SS officer and so called 'architect of the Holocaust' from Argentina in 1960 and putting him on trial for war crimes and executing him in 1962. On one hand this shows Israel's vigorous application of such indictments, but also that their methodology was similar to that used by the USA against suspects in Afghanistan. Of course Israel had the correct information about their suspect whereas in many (not all) cases the USA has abducted people with little or no connection to terrorism.

I am sceptical that we will ever see the trial of anyone over the US torture programme. However, in my idea world, we would see the Bush Six brought to a war crimes trial in The Hague. As the Nazi leaders, Saddam Hussain and Slobodan Milosevic all said, they will claim it has no jurisdiction over them and that somehow they are exempt from justice because of how important they once were. I think a minimum of 25 years imprisonment for creating a regime that promoted abduction and torture just in the way Nazi Germany did, is the starting point. It is ironic that anyone entering the USA has to declare that they were never a member of the Nazi regime or its agencies and yet you were entering a country where the attitudes of many of the government's leading lawyers were based on the same assumptions as those of Nazi Germany.

As for the frontline officers who carried out the torture, again we can draw on the pattern from the late 1940s. Between 1945-8 there was the process of Denazification. The Nuremberg Trials were part of this, but the process was also aimed at lower-ranking Nazis. They were graded after being investigated and received a range of penalties from terms of imprisonment to fines to being restricted to holding only manual labouring jobs and all were barred from holding any public office, most usually for 20 years. Certainly any officer who has been involved in torture needs to be expelled immediately from any of the intelligence or security services or the military and be barred from working in private security companies and from holding public office. There needs to be a root and branch exorcising of this evil which has penetrated right to the heart of the US government. If not it will infect US society for decades to come and give succour to those that the USA professes to be opposing.

The USA has severely lost credibility in the free world, because it has removed itself from that company by its actions and yet expects the world to back it actively or suffer its wrath. There needs to be a real understanding in the USA that 'freedom', 'liberty' and 'democracy' are not just terms that you define for yourself, they are objective standards that you must strive to attain. Civil liberties are not luxuries that only some nationalities are permitted to have.

I have been stunned by the number of online discussion groups in the USA dismissing the 'faux outrage' especially from abroad and also seeking to define what is torture. They have very strict discussions of what is torture and keep ruling certain practices as insufficiently horrific to be called torture. Even being locked in the boot (trunk for Americans) of a car is something most of us cannot bear and yet that is seen as one of the mildest forms of treatment being meted out to detainees. I suggest if they claim that then they should experience these practices for themselves, even for just an hour, let alone a month or months, then I know their definitions would change immediately. We have to admire the strength of spirit of those detainees to have withstood such horrific treatment. Henri Alleg was tortured by water boarding in 1957 by French forces and in his book 'The Question' (in English 2008) gives a graphic account of it. Malcolm Nance, advisor to the Department of Homeland Security has also been exposed to it and terms it torture. I do not advise anyone to try it, but simply believe from these men who know that it is torture and that the USA has been carrying out an extensive torture programme, only some of which has come to light so far.The USA has certainly lost its moral bearings and in so doing has made the World a far worse place. It cannot stand and criticise the other torturing regimes of this planet when it simply uses many of the same techniques, many of which originate from the Middle Ages not the 21st century. The hypocrisy is stunning. The inability of millions of US citizens to accept even that their government has behaved in an immoral, cruel manner is shocking. In these circumstances it does seem we are blighted with a new Dark Age. The only hope of washing away this evil is to have thorough trials. This has been done before and needs to be done again as quickly as possible.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Beating and Killing by Police Returns to the UK

People have been talking recently about the legacy of the Miners' Strike of 1984-5 and one aspect that we have been reminded of in the past fortnight is how it made it seem permissible that the police behave as if they were putting down a peasants' revolt when suppressing legitimate protest. Though we have moved on 25 years the attitude seems to have reawoken. The police have better surveillance equipment and a whole host of weaponry to suppress protests but they do not seem to have learned how to keep their tempers any better than they did in the 1980s.

Perhaps it is the new generation who feel they missed out on the exciting riots of the 1980s. It is always incredible when you talk to the children of police officers or immigration officers thinking of following their parents into the force at how already they are inculcated with the bigoted attitudes. I suppose we all learn from our parents, but never have I been so startled at how ingrained negative, violent attitudes are in these people. There is no reference to serving the public or protecting society, just to the chance to suppress people. In other contexts, such as those moving to football hooliganism it is condemned, but somehow violent police are exempt from such censure.

Commentators used to speak of how the television series, 'The Sweeney' (1975-8) encouraged police to drive fast and smoke and drink heavily and 'The Bill' (since 1983) police series has tried to encourage more responsible policing as you know every police officer and his/her family watch it religiously. However, it is clear that a culture is still running deep with in the police service which sees any protest no matter how peaceful as illegitimate and in need of being put down violently. If there is no violence present, the police try to provoke it, if they fail in doing that they simply wade in and beat people.

We have a new legitimacy for attacking protestors which was given to the world by the USA following the 11th September 2001 terrorist attacks in that country. The Bush government built up an attitude that we are in constant and sustained danger which permits them to do anything (as anyone who has had their suitcase opened when it was being loaded on to an aircraft out of the USA knows, they leave a nice slip of smiley people saying how necessary it was to break into your luggage and how you must understand this), notably abductions and torture. Such attitudes foisted repeatedly on the UK by its US ally which often feels we are not sufficiently paranoid, spread widely throughout society. In the USA people were even beaten up attending the celebrations are around Barack Obama's inaugural ceremony, because despite the change at the top, the hostile attitudes lower down the hierarchy have not changed an iota yet. In this kind of attitude, the UK police, feel as they have not done since the 1980s, that they have a green light to be violent and that they will get away with it.

In the weeks leading up to the G20 protests we were told how they were going to be violent and the police would have to act forcefully. As it turned out, of course, the violence came from the police, frustrated that they had not got the battle their bosses had promised. Of course the knock-on effect and presumably the one desired by broader government was to scare off legitimate peaceful protestors from doing anything of this kind again. Stamping on legal protest is accelerating very quickly in the UK. Yesterday 114 people were arrested before they even began protesting and were 16 Km away from the Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station. They were said to represent a 'serious threat' to the power station. Anyone who, like me, has been inside power stations, knows they are not that easy either to get into (certainly beyond the reception) or to damage. If they were that vulnerable to protest, surely the security should be look at.

What these police do not understand is that real terrorists, not the part-time protestors they try to portray as terrorists, real terrorists would be in there and blowing up the place while the police were mucking around arresting middle-aged protestors many kilometres away. Real terrorists would not be as ineffectual as these protestors and it is alarming that the police do not recognise this. Of course, their real agenda is not really that bothered about protecting power stations, it is more about fostering a society in which there is no protest and we meekly accept all that the government and big private companies tell us, no matter how damaging it is to us and the wider world. Police officers and their families are just as prone to suffering from the consequences of global warming, the collapse of banks that have behave recklessly, GM crops, nuclear weapons and so on, as the rest of us.

The stepping up of the suppression of protesting in the UK has come in the past fortnight. As the days pass more and more evidence has come to light of how violent the police were at the G20 summit protests. Despite their predictions the most virulent assault by protestors was on a branch of the RBS bank which was broken into and ransacked. However, only a few out of the 124 people arrested were associated with that incident and it looks like charges will not be pressed against the rest. So why did the police go on the hunt around the different protestor encampments on 1st April and simply beating up people who had generally stopped their protests by the time the police had arrived?

I know the police like football hooligans get very excitable and are looking for 'action'. They had been telling protestors this throughout the day, clearly in a desire to raise the tension and hoping to provoke a reaction which of course did not come. As no full-scale riot had manifested despite what their seniors had promised, they had to work out their desire for beating people with truncheons. Certain units were even throwing people men and women through the air. At least 120 people have made complaints about the violence by the police. The units were involved were from the Metropolitan Police (which covers almost all of London), the City of London police (which is a weird tiny unit that only covers the financial district of London) and the British Transport Police (a new departure for them, they are not usually known for such violence but clearly wanted to get a look in at how to break arms with truncheons).

The police tried to keep journalists away and even detained six press photographers. What they forgot is that these days all of us have cameras and so there is stacks of footage and stills of the police brutality. This almost immediately showed how the police were lying about the murder of Ian Tomlinson. They said he had collapsed from a heart attack and that medics were prevented by people throwing bottles from attending to him. In fact video evidence shows he was clubbed and thrown to the ground by police and lay at their feet while he died. There is photographic evidence of a whole series of truncheon wounds and police dog bites. Ironically it is likely to be the legal system and its tariff of compensation for such injuries that is going to rein in police behaviour or at least bring them to account. The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is moving very slowly on these cases but at least the officer who murdered Ian Tomlinson has been suspended.

While I have been speaking on and off about the creeping authoritarian state in the UK, I remain an eternal optimist that these things are isolated, that people will realise they have gone too far and will rein back in their or their officers' behaviour. However, we keep seeing incidents like the ones outlined here which show how quickly civil liberties are decaying. It is ironic when the media of China, so renowned for its suppression of civil liberties and any protest, starts reporting our behaviour in that direction. How can we complain of Chinese government behaviour when they can simply turn round and say 'well, we are only behaving as you did at the G20 summit'. Such behaviour as we are seeing from the British police has an impact far beyond the UK and leads to suffering not just of British citizens. Of course the bulk of police officers, feeling empowered in their bigotry by the paranoia around Islamist terrorists, have no concern for 'foreign types'.

We must only hope that the police involved in the violence of 1st April are suspended and their constabularies have to pay out again and again compensation for the injuries and the murder that their officers inflicted. Of course, I fear more likely that simply police will investigate police and will come back with 'no case to answer'. Whatever happens, the police and those others who want to choke off any protest will have won a great victory. In the future most protestors no matter how mild their protest is going to be, will think twice before setting off to make a legal protest for fear that they will be beaten, thrown about like a rugby ball or beaten to death by British police officers. Democracy in the UK suffered a terrible blow on 1st April 2009 from which it is unlikely to recover in the short term.

P.P. 19/04/2009 - Other things are coming to light connected with these two incidents that highlight further worrying trends. Ian Tomlinson was not a protestor, he was a newspaper seller who worked in the area of the demonstration and happened to have his hands in his pockets while walking home. This apparently was a defiant gesture sufficient in the minds of the police to warrant him being clubbed to death. You do not have to be a protestor to be killed by the British police, just happen to be going about your business when the police are in a mood to carry out a killing. Employers should withdraw all employees from areas where such activity is going on, they have a moral obligation to keep their workers safe. I am pleased to hear that the policeman who murdered Ian Tomlinson may be charged with manslaughter. I do not use the word 'murder' lightly, it was clear that there was predmeditation, the police went out to kill someone and so are little different to an American teenager driving through town shooting at people. I accept that they did not target Ian Tomlinson until the last murder, but they had a 'mind to murder' from the start.

We must watch this carefully to see he is brought to court. I feel we are at a real crossroads. If this incident is swept under the carpet then the police will feel they have a green light to do this sort of thing again; protests will be choked off because people will fear being killed by the police at them. If the police are at least called to order then hopefully they will think twice before going on the rampage as they clearly did at the start of this month.

The other alarming development is around the power station protest arrests. The 114 people were arrested over a period of 36 hours. This sounds very much like a Gestapo round up of the 1930s or 1940s. Again, I do not use the word 'Gestapo' lightly. The sweeping down on people, handcuffing, forcing them to face the wall and bringing no charges against them is very like the behaviour of an authoritarian police force. Interestingly one of the people arrested was asked if they were 'proud to be a terrorist'. Clearly the definition of terrorism has now become a catch-all term and can be used in any way people choose to define those they seek to eliminate. This is very like what Adolf Hitler said, 'I decide who is a Jew', i.e. that there was no set criteria, he could simply define a person as someone he wanted removed. It is clear that the police now feel in that position too. Of course we have long seen this at airports where anyone who makes a complaint is deemed to be acting in a manner like a terrorist. This suppression of complaint and protest is clearly now being widened throughout society. As I have noted, in this atmosphere, all of us have been empowered to cause trouble for neighbours who annoy us by simply reporting them as 'hoarding' chemicals such as common garden products or rotting kidney beans, that could be used as a bomb or biological weapon. There is an easy equation: 'people we do not like = terrorist'.

I have no sympathy with the Conservative Party at all but agree that the arrest of Shadow Home Affairs Spokesperson, Damian Green was again very authoritarian. What complicates the matter is that Boris Johnson, Mayor of London was trying to tip off Green about his imminent arrest anyway, because of knowledge Johnson had got through overseeing the Metropolitan Police. I suppose it is not surprise that as the state moves further and further away from accountability and democracy that people will increasingly use influence and corruption to protect themselves from state power, so exacerbating the spiral of the collapse of a healthy civil society until it becomes a 'gangster-style' society. This term is often applied to corrupt military regimes such as that of Chiang Kai-Shek in China before the Second World War. The Blarite party fostered nepotism and favouritism so helping to create a structure which is now coming to fruition.

We are at a crossroads and I just hope UK society takes the correct road.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

The Bitter Legacy of Margaret Thatcher

As the economy is moving rapidly into the kind of situation we experienced in the 1980s with mass unemployment, the disappearance of numerous businesses and repossessions of houses, it is unsurprising that people's thoughts turn back to that era. Many, including myself hoped we would never experience anything like it again in my lifetime and until the middle of 2008 it seemed that possibly we never would. It is terrible that the greed of bankers has brought back this situation that causes so much misery to millions of people. Fortunately this time we seem to have governments in power who rather than saying that there is nothing they can do, or even worse, as was said in the UK by its government in the 1980s, this kind of suffering is somehow 'good' for us, they are now trying to rein in the reckless bankers and keep the economy stimulate rather than facing huge contraction.

Okay, so this is old news now. However, what brought it back to mind this weekend was the references to the anniversary of Margaret Thatcher coming to power 4th May 1979. She held office until 28th November 1990 so bracketing the 1980s and the evils of that decade will always be associated with her. I saw an article in 'The Guardian' about the anniversary and worried that it would begin to rehabilitate Thatcher (who unfortunately still lives, she was born 1925). I was heartened to see that it was written by Germaine Greer and that she has charged at Thatcher's record with full force. There are very accurate descriptions: she '... had scant regard for democracy and no scruples whatsoever.' Greer is right that Thatcher did not have a systematic plan to smash British society (though she had a very clear plan to smash trades unions especially the coalminers' NUM), but like Hitler she was an opportunist who took advantage of things like the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands Islands to advance her wrecking of UK society and industry. Unlike George W. Bush, she did not do this because she particularly favoured the very wealthy, though they clearly benefited from her policies, but because of the twisted ideology that she subscribed to, part based in a misunderstanding of Hayekian attitudes mixed in with New Right economic and social thinking from the USA and above all an incredible arrogance that what she did was right. Perhaps people can only become politicians if they have that focus, but Thatcher's was untempered by anything like reference to God or democracy and in fact was simply reinforced by her clear contempt for almost everyone she dealt with.

Though we did not know it at the time, increasing evidence has come to light about how corrupt she was, especially in arms deals which in particular benefited her son, the buffoon and attempted coup creator, Sir Mark Thatcher, Bart. He made £20 million from the arms deal his mother did with the Saudis in 1985. Thatcher tried to overthrow the government of Equiatorial Guinea in 2004 but as with many of this incompetent's projects it failed. Back to his mother. Like the US President with which she shared most affinity, Ronald Reagan (president 1981-9) she believed in supporting right-wing dictatorships across the world notably President Suharto of Indonesia (dictator 1967-98) and especially General Pinochet dictator of Chile 1974-90. With Reagan she adopted a harsh line towards the USSR and helped bring the world closer to nuclear war 1979-83 than it had been for almost two decades. I remember the terror of waking up to loud bangs in the early Eighties, thinking that the nuclear war that Thatcher so clearly wanted had come. Thatcher was harsh in personality and terribly patronising (and her use of the pronoun 'we' when referring to herself, something usually reserved for royalty), but worse than that, as many people observed to me at the time, she seem to revel in blood letting. This is most obvious when you saw coverage of her at the time of the Falklands Conflict, though she referred to the loss of British forces, it appears in her face as if she was energised by the recognition of those deaths. Perhaps she could not suppress the impact of the knowledge of how it would benefit her election campaign, perhaps she did simply enjoy conflicts; she seemed happiest atop a tank.

In the international sphere, Thatcher directly contributed to the deaths of thousands of people through permitting arms sales to dictators. However, a lot of this was oblivious to the British public. The more immediate suffering was how she wrecked the economy and thrust unemployment above 4 million (though never admitted this through using skewed statistics). Industry was changing in the UK as across the world. As early as 1974 service industry had outstripped manufacturing in terms of contribution to the economy and of course this was going to continue. However, there were many different ways to handle this change. Thatcher adopted the one which was to cause most misery to the most people in the UK (and I will throttle the next person who tells me 'well, of course we knew it was necessary', I wish I could send them back to 1983 and make them someone with a family, thrown out of their jobs, humiliated by being told they were a 'dole scrounger' and to 'get on their bike' to search for the work that was not there). She adhered to a strongly monetarist policies and shut down the coal industry and sold off the nationalised sector to greedy exploiters who have made millions in profits (and personal income) and left us with a fragmented far worse set of utility and transport companies (I will also punch the next person who tells me that the railway system, which they never use, must be better than it was when first privatised [I know that was under John Major but it was part of the flow of Thatcherite policy]), whose greed simply fuel the inflation Thatcher was so supposedly against. Of course, none of this mattered to Thatcher, she did not really believe society existed, she just saw 'families and individuals'. Thus, schools and hospitals were forced to make cut-backs from which many have still not really recovered. The privatisation of hospital cleaning under Thatcher has directly led to the various 'super-bugs' infections which infect thousands of people across the UK and kill many. Poor literacy and numeracy levels and still too high levels of people leaving school without qualifications goes back to Thatcher.

The worst legacy of Thatcher's regime is the myth of getting rich quick. 'Everyone can be a millionaire so everyone has to try' was how the The sung it in 1986. The implication was that it was only the lazy who were unemployed and if you worked hard you would always succeed in Thatcher's Britain and yet it was a lie right from the start. Those people who were seen being successful, notably the City of London financiers and stockbrokers were in most cases privileged to start with. People bought into the myth, partly as a way to escape the gloom and yet in fact they just got into debt through over consumption to try to buy the glamorous 1980s lifestyle and in particular to try to buy their council house many of which were to be repossessed 1990-3 as the bubble burst and people had to count the cost. As unemployment figures of the 1960s showed, there are some people who cannot work, probably 50,000 in the UK population. However, the bulk of the population is keen to have a job. No-one should feel guilty at being thrown out by an employer who sees cutting labour costs as the easy option and less personally painful that cutting their salary or bonuses. It is this culture established and lauded under Thatcher that has led us into a repeat of the unpleasant days of the 1980s once again.

Thatcher fuelled an attitude that divided British society against itself. British communities have probably never been as strong or amenable as people have believed, but they certainly were not as hostile and vigilante focused as they became following Thatcher's policies. The division of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' is one we are still haunted by and so many people can be dumped into the 'undeserving' category notably asylum seekers, immigrants, students, people from other regions. There has always been North-South tension in the UK, but it was sharpened by the Thatcher years and it seems only now that it has began to reduce, but perhaps the recession will make it worse. Thatcher spoke of the 'enemy within' referring to anyone with left-wing or trade union connections and she gave a free rein to the police and security service in a way that has never been recaptured. She established a sound foundation for the steps we continue to take towards authoritarianism in the UK even today. That 'enemy within' mentality of course extends into communities especially since it received the jolt of anti-Islamic propaganda in the 2000s. However, without Thatcher's legacy such tendencies would not have fallen on such fertile ground.

The perverse attitude of Thatcher which has done so much harm to the UK (and its spread was her greatest success) was the 'community charge', better known as the poll tax, which was charged at the same rate on people no matter what their income was. Some of the poorest got reductions, but a millionaire would pay the same as someone earning less than the average wage (and of course in those pre-minimum wage days, low wages were ridiculously low, the figures mean nothing now but on the eve of the introduction of the minimum wage in 1999 at £3.60 per hour for people over 21, I knew people working at £1.90-2.00 per hour, which shows how much the jump was). This was Thatcherite 'equality' and how perverse this was led to the poll tax riots of 1990. Of course, you can tell the severity of the regime by how often there was rioting under Thatcher. The UK is not a country particularly known for forceful political protest, but the 1980s saw a lot of it. Even riots sparked by local tensions such as the St. Paul's (Bristol) Riot of 1980 and the Brixton Riot of 1981 were in part caused by the police feeling they had Thatcher's backing to using harsh and often racist measures. If you think of the Handsworth riots (1981 and 1985), riots in Leeds, Liverpool (Toxteth), Broadwater Farm in 1985 (at which a policeman was beheaded) and riots connected with the Miners' Strike 1984-5 only apartheid South Africa and Sri Lanka experiencing a civil war faced anything similar at the time. The level of fury at what was being done to the people of Britain was immense. This in a country in which such protest has always been less common than elsewhere in Europe, except during the Thatcher years.

Thatcher was anti-intellectual. Again, education needed reform, but she thrust universities back into the elitist system and fostered the hostility to students that I see very visibly in my own neighbourhood even today. No other country in Europe has such hostility to learning as the UK. Somehow it is seen as a 'luxury' and again students are condemned as 'lazy'. In other countries people are proud not only to see their own children go to university, but proud to see other children in the same street, district, town go. Through the 1980s studying was dismissed as taking you away from the getting rich quick which was your duty; all successful entrepreneurs bragged that they 'went to the university of life' not noticing how the UK was slipping further and further behind rivals where even waiters are trained. The UK has only kept its head above water by importing intelligent, skilled, qualified people from across the world, notably Asia. If every doctor of Asian background (and I mean immediate background, not children of Asians who had settled in the UK in previous decades) was suddenly removed from the UK then the health service would collapse immediately. Look at successful businesses in the UK and you will find a huge number are led by 'outsiders' because too few indigenous British people, no matter what their race, has been encouraged to study or had the funding to continue to the levels needed to make a successful business and intellectual country.

Some people will regret that Margaret Thatcher was not killed in the bombing of the Grand Hotel where she was staying in October 1984. I will look at the implications of that incident in a counter-factual soon. However much I wish Margaret Thatcher had been eliminated from the UK I know that the response would have effectively made the UK a police state immediately and democracy (which Thatcher was no fan of, she disliked even working with ministerial colleagues, she was Gaullist, almost dictatorial, in wanting to dominate all aspects of politics) would have been suspended. I wish her corrupt arms dealings could have brought her and the Thatcherites of the time down and humiliated them for a generation in the way Nixon was removed from office and shunned because of his corrupt actions. Margaret Thatcher damaged the UK in so many different ways, some that were immediately obvious, some that we are only now seeing the consequences of. There are very few politicians that you cannot find one good thing that they have done for the country they dominated, but Thatcher is certainly one of them and the UK would have been a far better place if she had never been born.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Memories of Wensleydale

This posting is not about cheese. I know Wensleydale cheese has experienced a boom since 'A Grand Day Out' (1989), the first Wallace and Gromit movie came to our screens. I have long been a big fan of the cheese which has a really distinctive white colour, crumbly texture and sharp flavour. However, this posting is about the valley of Wensleydale in Yorkshire, where the cheese is now made. Following enjoying writing a posting about the small town of Sables d'Or in France that I visited twice as a child I began thinking of other holidays that I had and the locations that I been to. Of course with time the memories tend to get smoothed out and you do forget all the tensions and the arguments in the car, plus the boredom of being on holiday when you were a child in the 1970s because you would be missing your friends and your regular television programmes as holiday homes rarely had televisions and there was nothing like videos or DVDs to watch or computers to play on let alone handheld games consoles and ipods that even primary school children seem to have these days; the highlight was listening to the very old-fashioned children's programme on Radio 4. So holidays in the 1970s were no different to much of life in general in the 1970s, for the bulk of the time, very tedious. Despite this I have fond memories of Wensleydale.

Wensleydale is an East-West running 'u'-shaped valley created by a glacier, which lies in the National Park of the Yorkshire Dales. For some reason I remember these facts from having done a project on the valley in 1974; in those days schools seemed hostile to parents even taking their children away out of term time, though ironically I know in those days it was in fact far easier than now to take them away during term time, perhaps it was the quirkiness of the schools I attended, which as I have acknowledged in previous posts, were peculiar even as schools in suburban southern England go and I have had corroborating opinions from outsiders to this. Anyway, you were always meant to feel that even when on holiday you should be working and so you ended up producing these 'projects' about where you had gone and sticking in every ticket you could.

Anyway, Wensleydale, now as then, is an unspoilt environment with nice green scenery and renowed for its waterfalls. Attention was first drawn to the region by the novels/memoirs of James Herriot, the pen name of James Alfred Wight (1916-95). Wight had been a veterinary surgeon in the area 1939-42 before serving in the Royal Airforce. He lived in Thirsk. The novels are written in the first person and are effectively fictional as the character comes to the fictional town of Darrowby in 1937 straight from veterinary college whereas Wight came three years later and having worked in Sunderland first. In the novels the narrator is given a partnership in the Farenon practice as a wedding gift whereas Wight had to wait eight years after his marriage in 1941 before he became a partner. The six main novels were published 1969-77 though Wight kept publishing until his death. There were two movies 'All Creatures Great and Small' (1974) and 'It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet' (1975) with different casts, and a television series with yet more actors which ran 1978-90, 'All Creatures Great and Small'. So through the 1970s-80s the region was constantly in the public view. These programmes were seen as comfy Sunday viewing.

Wensleydale remains a rural area with cow and sheep rearing. There is one town, Hawes and a number of small villages. Hawes has quite a few more facilities than when we stayed near there in 1974 and 1976. At that time there were two general stores and a single-room fish and chip shop was the only food outlet. Now there are a couple of cafes, a gallery, some solicitors, a sweet shop, a nic-nac shop and various wood craftsmen. I remember a fete happening in the village and the queue afterwards to the fish and chip shop ran right up the street. All they sold was 'fish' without saying what fish it was and of course deep fried chips. They may have had some pickled eggs too, but that was it. I remember one of the small shops right by the river as you entered the village had the river water lapping at its wall constantly and even in the heat wave of 1976 they had to have their heating on because it was so dark and cold inside. I remember there was a little park just before the main street of the town. In 1974 it looked quite run down and the wooden gates were dull and the slide and everything else was sticky from buds; I think the roundabout was broken. In 1976 I was not eager to return, remembering how desultory it was, but was persuaded to do so and to my delight it had all been tidied up, repainted and revived.

For both of our visits to Wensleydale we stayed in a large house half-way up the valley side on the South side of the valley, just East of Hawes. However, I used to think of the valley as running North-South with Hawes at the North end rather than at the West end as it is in reality. The house was 1.2 Km from the nearest surfaced road and you had to bump along a track to reach it. When we first went there in 1974 you had to jump out and open numerous gates along the way, by 1976 these had been replace by cattle grids, which made life easier for us but I remember a hedgehog trapped in one.

The house had apparently been built in Norman times (11th-12th centuries CE; the valley has had settlement at least since Roman times, probably longer) and you could see this in the shape. It was like a large rectangular block of dark grey stone with a slate roof and chimneys. In fact it was two houses welded together as there was two of everything: two kitchens, two lounges, two dining rooms and so on, presumably so it could be let to two families at once. It was nice to have the space and in the afternoons I would go into the spare lounge and sit in the window seat and pull the curtains closed to make my hideyhole. I would sit looking through the back issues of 'Punch' magazine that were stored there, reading all the cartoons, though given I was 7 and 9 on our two visits I do not expect I got much of the political humour, though the weekly caption competition at times seemed to produce funny material.

I also remember that incongrously there was a stone table for chopping up crabs by the front door. Wensleydale is in the middle of the country so it was unlikely to be a place where you would be preparing crabs. We needed this type of equipment some years later when my parents bought a crab for lunch when staying at a house in western France.

At the back was a yard with a huge quagmire of rotting cow dung that we used to throw stones into. I also remember sheep skulls everywhere which spooked us as we had never seen animal bones like that and to have them simply left around was rather eerie. We used to gather up the scraps of wool sheep left snagged on fences. One night my parents were awoken by a banging at the front door and thought it might be a lost hiker given that the weather was wet and windy. However, when they went to open the door they found it was two sheep huddling in the lee of the door against the bad weather. Another creature encounter came when a homing pigeon (it was a popular sport in the region at the time, we would see lorries carrying the pigeons on the road) had somehow mistaken the partially open window in the bathroom for the entrance to its pigeon loft and had flown in and was rather too scared by its surroundings to fly out again. This suggests it was not a particuarly good homing pigeon. It took quite a while for my parents to coax it back out.

Further up the hill side from the platform on which the house sat, and over a dry-stone wall was a stream which had cut a channel into the hill side as it went Eastwards from the valley rim to the floor. Me and my brother used to go there and sail sticks down the stream and bombard them with stones. One day I picked up a cube shaped stone of a yellowy colour and was about to throw it when I noticed it was literally covered in fossils of sea creatures, presumably brought from another region by the glacier. We also used to sit on the dry stone wall (these are walls famous in Yorkshire as they are not mortared and simply consist of large flat stones laid on each other to build a rough wall) and blowing the horn my mother's father, I think, had brought back from the French town of Carcasonne (renowed for its hunting festival) and doing this one day we caused the cattle in the field leading to the stream to all charge down the hill as if stampeding. Fortunately they stopped at the stream. Ironically in Norman times when the valley was heavily forested (there are few trees in it now, it is all just meadow) a man would blow a horn in Bainbridge every evening as a guide huntsmen and travellers.

If you continued up the valley side you eventually came to an exposed Roman road. We drove up there one day, the only traffic I remember was a single tractor. We stopped in what looked like the middle of nowhere and set up the table in the back of the camper van my father was driving and had our picnic with the scenery all around us. I remember it being windy up there though it was sunny. I also remember walking on a cloudy day along the valley to a village which I think must have been Bainbridge (though it may have been Burtersett), for a fete there. We won a goldfish and fed it for the remainder of the holiday in a bucket on bread. Not only did it survive that, but also the journey back home about 430 Km and a stop at my grandparents' house for lunch. The fish survived nine years, it must have been one of the toughest goldfish ever.

The thing that the area is famous for is its waterfalls. There is the triple set of Aysgarth (which featured in the 'Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves' (1991) movie and the even more impressive Hardraw Force which falls 33m and you can walk along a rock shelf that goes behind it, which as children we thought was great; this waterfall also features in the movie, despite it being over 210 Km from Nottingham. Of course in 1976 with the nationwide water shortage brought on by the incessant hot weather, these waterfalls were a shadow of what they had been in 1974. The other thing I remember about travelling around the area in 1976 was that the temperature was so hold the tar on the roads was melting and climbing out of the valleys in a 12-year old van was difficult. One day my father had to let us roll back down the hill and take a different route as we had insufficient power to climb the incline when the road was so loose.

I also remember making a number of visits to Bolton Castle (which like Leeds Castle in Kent, is not near the town it shares a name with) near Leyburn. It is was built in 1399 and is a very rectangular castle with square towers. It has remained in the hands of the same family since then, quite rare for British castles. It was a little ramshackle when we went there, I remember a pile of rubble left in the bottom of one of the towers. However, the outer shell was intact and there were bits you could go up and down. For some reason I remember we bought a book about the Ice Ages in Yorkshire from the castle shop. There was also an small, old disused artillery piece looking like it came from the 1940s, perhaps to defend Leyburn against German invasion. The shots of the interior show that in the past 33 years a lot of work has gone into smartening it up and it is now a venue for weddings and photo shoots. There were no gardens there when we went and I see they were restored in 1994 following archaeological evidence being uncovered about them and how they were there in the 16th century. I imagine they must have fallen into disuse by the 19th century when getting servants proved harder. There is a maze and even a vineyard there now.

On other days we travelled as far as Skipton where I remember the guide sheet for the castle which to me seemed to have immensely thick walls and to York where the castle on the mound and the railway museum stick in my mind and eating in a Chinese restaurant where they were suprised we did not want chips with the meal (saying that I encountered the same thing when in Ormskirk, Lancashire just recently and when I ordered a curry was asked if I wanted chips with it. I forewent the cooked breakfast at the hotel and they gave me a discount on my bill; you can see the impact of such policies in many of the locals and despite my open-minded approach to people, I found stereotypes of Yorkshire/Lancashire seeming to be real). The other trip out I remember was in 1976 walking from from Keld (the one near Richmond rather than Penrith) to Muker which is 5.1 Km by road but a couple of Km longer by footpath. It is very picturesque along the valley, but I remember it being so hot that the whole family stripped naked and went swimming in the splashpool of a waterfall along the way. You would probably get a fine these days if you tried that. I also remember the pub in Muker not letting children even come through the door so we had to sit outside in the baking sunshine at a wooden picnic table without even an umbrella while my father fetched food from inside. Of course family-friendly pubs were an invention 15-20 years away from then.

Anyway, this was another of my nostalgic postings. Wensleydale still looks like a nice place to visit on holiday and though it is clearly rather busier than back in the mid-1970s it does not seem to have been ruined. Given the availability of technology (cafes in Hawes have wi-fi) it is probably even nice if you are a child taken there for a fortnight as the technology will lighten the rainy days. Looking back I realise now that I have an ambivalent attitude to holidays there, but that is probably has more to do with the boredom factor than the location. However, in contrast to many postings I have made about trips I have organised as an adult, I realise that the two visits were far more successful than any holiday I have tried in the past decade, so for that reason it is worthwhile digging into the memories.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Perspective on James Bond Movie Villains: Part 3 - Freelancers of the Dalton and Brosnan Years

Of course, if I had written this before seeing 'Quantum of Solace' (2008) I might have put Mr. White into this category, but now I know that he is not freelance, but working for SPECTRE's 21st century equivalent, Quantum. I have already put in Mikkelsen's Le Chiffre, which is really the only freelancer Craig's Bond has met in Part 2, in order to compare him to the Welles version, so I will have to wait until the third Craig Bond movie (assuming there is one, look what happened to Dalton after a second dour Bond movie in a row) to add more.

For now, though, I have more than enough decent villains from the Dalton and Brosnan years (1987-2002) to keep me occupied. After years of speculation, going back to 1969, Timothy Dalton (born 1944), finally got to play James Bond but only for two movies, 1987-9. They were unpopular with the mainstream audience but kept the franchise alive and showed that it could be properly grounded after the excesses of the later Moore years.  It is simply a shame Dalton was not selected six years earlier, though ironically that may have meant no Bond movies today.

Major Brad Whitaker played by Joe Don Baker

Major Brad Whitaker
In 'The Living Daylights' (1987) we do not know a great deal about the arms dealer Brad Whitaker, except that he is a novelty for a Bond movie as he is an American and not a recently naturalised one at that. As with Charles Gray who played baddie Blofeld and good guy Henderson in different Bond movies, the actor who played Whitaker, Joe Don Baker (born 1936), gets to switch sides.  He went on to play Bond's CIA contact, Jack Wade, in 'GoldenEye' (1995).  Sometimes you do wonder if there is such a shortage of actors that so many have to keep turning up in the franchise in different roles. We know Whitaker's motive is disappointment in his military career and he seeks consolation in making a private army. Like Katanga/Mr. Big he wants to flood the USA with opiates, but he uses Soviet money funnelled to him by his ally General Koskov to fund this. He also has SPECTRE-like plans to provoke conflicts between East and West and sell the two sides high-tech conventional arms.

Whitaker also wants the British to assassinate General Leonid Pushkin played by Briton, John Rhys-Davies (born 1944) (he has played everything from the dwarf Gimli in the 'The Lord of the Rings' triology of movies (2001-3) to Italian Leonardo Da Vinci in 'Star Trek: Voyager' (1997) to an Egyptian, Sallah, in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' (1981) and 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade' (1989)) by suggesting, with the aid of Koskov, that the KGB has revived the SMERSH programme.  The evidence for this is the attempt at eliminating three British agents at the start of the movie on Gibraltar; 004 is killed. For a Bond villain, Whitaker is uniquely brash and self-confident, sneering rather than patronising. Like many Bond villains, however, it is clear that he is affected by disappointment in his past though that does not seem to have left him brooding like Dr. No or Blofeld. The closest to Whitaker previously has been Zorin and yet Whitaker is free of that psychopath element. He simply wants to be rich and thumb his nose at people who have looked down upon him. Baker's best villain role had come a couple of years earlier in the television series 'Edge of Darkness' (1985) in which he played arrogant Darius Jedburgh who seems to encapsulate all that was bad about Reaganite America.

General Georgi Koskov played by Jeroen Krabbé

General Georgi Koskov
Koskov played by Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbé (born 1944) is sometimes treated as a henchman of Whitaker's, but I think that is inaccurate. It is Koskov who provides the funds for Whitaker's drug purchases; sources the opium in Afghanistan and makes the re-appearance of SMERSH appear effective. Bond helps him defect and Koskov fakes his own recapture by the KGB in order to go freelance and work with Whitaker. Perhaps Koskov is not seen as a genuine villain as Bond does not kill him, he is simply returned for trial in the USSR. Like Whitaker, Koskov is a different kind of villain to the ones we have come to know.  He is jocular, playing almost naive when defecting with Bond. He does not really seem that sinister. His main nasty aspect is to portray his girlfriend, Czech cellist Kara Milovy, as a KGB assassin so that she will be killed by Bond. Her incompetence at this is what rouses Bond's suspicion that MI6 is being duped by Koskov.

There are some similarities to 'Octopussy' in that MI6 works with calm-headed elements in the KGB to bring another renegade Soviet general back into line. Renegade Soviet generals were a common theme of TV thrillers of the time. The alliance between a Soviet official and a US businessman was also a feature of the very successful novel 'Gorky Park' (1981; movie 1983) and in terms of criminal gangs, and with more humour, in 'Red Heat' (1988). 'The Living Daylights' was released two years into Mikhail Gorbachev's time at the head of the USSR and when Ronald Reagan only had one year left as US President. The Cold War seemed to be coming to a clear end and the threat of nuclear war, apparent at the time of 'Octopussy' six years earlier, had gone. In this less certain context there was room for a more old-fashioned kind of spy movie. Yet, 'The Living Daylights' is really the next step in the sequence begun by 'For Your Eyes Only' which eventually brings us to 'Casino Royale'.

Despite these changes 'The Living Daylights' does reflect lingering elements of the Second Cold War which was coming to an end. In particular, there is the jaunt to Afghanistan where Bond ironically finds an ally in another Afghan prince and Etonian, Kamran Shah (played by Briton Art Malik) who fights with the Mujahadeen against Soviet forces. Of course the Mujahadeen were the people who put the Taliban into power in 1996 until they were removed by the US invasion of 2001.  In the movie they are shown as ambivalent allies of the Snow Leopard bandits who are involved in drug smuggling for Koskov.

Neither Whitaker or Koskov are terribly frightening, but perhaps in the low-key Bond movie that would be excessive and their manners actually lift the tone. Even with a more brooding style, there is irritation for viewers with the key ring that responds to a whistle to trigger an explosion or tear gas.  However, the car is probably the best since 'Goldfinger'. Fighting Koskov and Whitaker, Bond seems like the 'policeman' he is sometimes characterised as.

Franz Sanchez played by Robert Davi

Franz Sanchez
In 'Licence to Kill' (1989) Sanchez played by American Robert Davi (born 1951) was simply a Panamanian drugs dealer aiming to expand his market through the use of technology, i.e. smuggling cocaine dissolved in petrol. Again Bond is acting as policeman. Sanchez is like any drug smuggler, shown as being callous and greedy. The feeding of Felix Leiter (now working for the Drugs Enforcement Authority) to sharks on the day of his wedding and Sanchez's killing of his assistant by exploding him in a depressurisation chamber show us how unpleasant he is.  This moves us from the jocular nature of Whitaker and Koskov. Bond gets closer to Sanchez than any of his opponents since Scaramanga and similarly is welcomed into the criminal's home.
In some ways Sanchez reminds us of General Manuel Noriega, dictator of Panama 1984-90. Sanchez has US Stinger missiles of the kind supplied to the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan by the US. Sanchez has bought two from the right-wing Contra rebels of Nicaragua who were well supplied by Reagan's USA during the 1980s. Sanchez threatens to use one to bring down a US airliner if the Americans do not stop trying to disrupt his business. Korean airline KAL007 was shot down in September 1983 by Soviet warplanes and Iran Air IR655 airliner had been shot down by US forces in July 1988, so attacks destroying civilian passenger aircraft were a current fear at the time.
We know that Noriega and other right-wing dictators and guerrillas in Central America received backing during the Reagan years because of the US fear of the encroachment of liberal regimes in that region. Noriega was a favourite of the USA until his time was done and he was removed when US forces invaded the country in 1990. Perhaps the similarity between real life politics and events in the movie explain its unpopularity. Maybe it is because people saw no global threat. Sanchez, like Mr. Big, seems only about to step up the drugs trade to the detriment of the USA. Drugs play a part in both Dalton's Bond movies, which reflects the growing focus of the time. Between the end of the Cold War around 1985/7/91 and before the perceived rise of Islamist terrorism in 2001 (though it dated back at least 7 years by then) intelligence agencies, notably the UK's MI5, saw organised crime, especially drugs trafficking as their new focus.
Another aspect, as in the recent 'Quantum of Solace', is that in 'Licence to Kill' Bond is working outside MI6 authority on a mission of personal revenge. The role of Pam Bouvier, an ex-CIA pilot is very much like that of Bolivian secret service agent Camille in 'Quantum of Solace'.  This is part of the legacy of female agents working with Bond certainly from 'The Spy Who Love Me' onwards, if not 'Live and Let Die'. The front used by the drug dealer of Professor Joe Butcher's study centre could have been a nice dig at the televangelists of the time (something else that would have made it unpopular in 1980s USA which was still enamoured by such men).  However, having him played by Las Vegas singer Wayne Newton makes him far too pleasant and missing the necessary focus and sinister nature.  Consequently it makes this an embarrassing element of the movie. The portrayal of a drug lord's base in 'xXx' (2002) or even, for Heaven's sake, 'Bedazzled' (2000) was far more credible.

Sanchez is a threat but we see him as evil more for personal reasons than for the larger scale activities he is carrying out. Perhaps with the news of battles with drug lords in Colombia at the time, this approach seemed nothing special.

Alec Trevelyan played by Sean Bean
Alec Trevelyan/Janus
'GoldenEye' (1995) represented a return for Bond after six years caused by a combination of legal wranglings and the uneasy reception of the two Dalton movies. Though the critics like more serious Bonds, the cinema-ticket buying public, and, increasingly, the DVD-buying public want romps. 'GoldenEye' managed to straddle both camps. It had a current focus, reflecting on the changing face of the USSR as it had become the Russian Federation and other states.  This charted the next stage of a development which had been mapped in Bond movies certainly since 1981 and especially 1987. Interestingly, the motives of Alec Trevelyan played by British actor Sean Bean (born 1959 [sporting an upper class rather than the northern English working class accent he is typically directed to use]) go back to the end of the Second World War as his parents were Lienz Cossacks. Owing to the creation the 1st and Cossack Divisions that fought alongside the Germans, units drawn from this people had been part of the SS from 1944 onwards. These Cossack divisions surrendered in the British zone of Austria in 1945 but were returned to the USSR in line with the agreement between the British and Soviets. Josef Stalin had already been persecuting the Cossacks before the war and naturally killed all of those who had collaborated with the Germans and their families. Cossacks fought on both sides of the Soviet-German front and were always portrayed by their opponents as brutal.

Trevelyan seeks revenge for what he sees as the betrayal of his parents by the British, and, having been a successful Russian gangster for the previous six years, aims to secure hundreds of millions of pounds from British bank accounts by using the GoldenEye satellite to fire an EMP blast on London knocking out its computers. As noted throughout these postings, a lot of Fleming's villains had unresolved issues from the Second World War, notably Hugo Drax. We can also recall that in the movies Max Zorin was bred by the Nazis at the end of the Second World War.  He developed silicon chips immune to EMP just like the French Tiger helicopter that Trevelyan's agents steal.
Xenia Onatopp played by Famke Janssen

Trevelyan is many things, first he is 006, supposedly killed and certainly scarred in a raid on a Soviet chemical weapons factory in 1989.  He is also Janus, head of the Russian mafia body of the same name, chosen presumably because of the looking forward/looking back nature of the Roman mythological Janus and Trevelyan's facial scarring. Like Kamal and Whitaker before him, Trevelyan uses a Russian general with a desire to make money, this time (Colonel in 1989) General Grigorivich Ourumov (played by German actor Gottfried John (born 1942) who looks suitably like a lanky version of Russia's Vladmir Putin, prime minister of Russia 1999-2000; 2008- and president 2000-08) head of the space division of the Russian forces. The fear of Russian generals going their own way is an enduring one, despite Russia's political changes. Ourumov also has the best female assassin since May Day: Xenia Zigavna Onatopp (played by Dutch actress Famke Janssen (born 1964)), a former KGB assassin, though we never learn her rank. Just contrast Famke Janssen's portrayal of Onatopp with her roles in the 'X-Men' trilogy (2000-06) and even as another spy in 'I Spy' (2002) to see her range of acting ability.
Trevelyan, like Grant in 'From Russia With Love', is portrayed as a mirror image of Bond and himself questions Bond's motivations, excuses even, for behaving how he does, especially when it causes so many deaths to innocent people. The battle with Trevelyan is unsurprisingly very physical, like that with Grant and to some extent, Katanga/Big's bodyguard Tee Hee. We are not really given a satisfactory explanation of why Bond's behaviour is any more excusable than Trevelyan's, but I suppose that the bulk of movie goers have no doubts.  Yet, it is interesting to see the issue raised. Trevelyan is an excellent villain. Like Goldfinger and Zorin he combines a large scale plot with personal gain.  Like Blofeld, and to some extent Stromberg and Drax, he seeks revenge too and he has the strength, unlike so many Bond villains, to actually fight fist-to-fist with Bond. It is no wonder that 'GoldenEye' made such an impact and remains a credible movie even 14 years on. This longevity is helped to some extent by the fact that after six years of abrupt change 1985-91, Russia has remained pretty much the same since.
Eliot Carver played by Jonathan Pryce

Elliot Carver
The problem with Elliot Carver is that he is acted by Jonathan Pryce (born 1947) who is terribly over-rated. He was alright in 'Brazil' (1985) and even in the two 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies he appeared in, in 2003 and 2006, but no better than alright. He is hopeless as a villain. He is bad in 'Tomorrow Never Dies' (1997) though far worse in 'Ronin' (1998) playing Irish terrorist Seamus O'Rourke (Sean Bean also appears in that movie as a man pretending to be formerly in the SAS). 'Ronin' is a good thriller and has one of the best car chases seen in movies; with Pryce's role taken by another actor it could have played a larger part in redefining thrillers at the end of the 1990s. In both of these movies Pryce's poor portrayals really bring down the movie and counterbalance excellent acting from his co-stars. The trouble with Pryce is that he seems so devoid of passion, not in a cold clinical way, but it is almost as if he is rather embarrassed to be there and/or weary of the role he is playing. As a villain, his Carver is reminiscent of Savalas's Blofeld, equally lacking in life or conviction. The best bit about Pryce's performance is Carver's death.
Pryce was terribly miscast in this role and it is a shame. Teri Hatcher (born 1964) as his wife and Bond's former girlfriend does not do much better. However, they are over-shadowed by Dr. Kaufman played by Italian Vincent Schiavelli (born 1948) whose appearance on screen is fortunately brief. His portrayal of a supposed expert torturer is painfully embarrassing.  It is so much trying to be a comic turn that you are utterly lost and are begging Bond to kill him. Why he could not have played it more seriously, I do not know. He has appeared in many comedy things, hundreds of TV series, but also more serious stuff too, like 'The X Files' and 'Amadeus' (1984). If that is his real voice then he should have been dubbed as have many other actors in Bond movies been. Myself, I would have recast his role, along with those of Pryce and Hatcher.
Carver is portrayed as a media villain suited to the 21st century. He has white-grey hair but no disability or peculiarity or beard, but yes, he wears an almost Nehru-collared jacket to his launch party. His newspaper 'Tomorrow' harks back to Eddie Shah and his 'Today' newspaper which led the way in the smashing of trade unions in the UK newspaper industry in 1982. The kind of ruthless behaviour Shah used is clearly seen in Carver.

Carver also has elements of Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates as we hear references to deliberately putting bugs into software in order to make customers come back for patches (have you ever tried using Vista? my employers will not go near it with a bargepole) and, of course, to multi-media tycoon Rupert Murdoch (born 1931) who has sought control of different media in Australia, the UK and USA and was very involved in keeping the Thatcherite regime in power 1979-97, especially at the 1992 election. Tony Blair personally went to gain Murdoch's support before winning the 1997 election and that kow-towing probably bought him some millions of votes.

As commentators pointed out at the time of the release of 'Tomorrow Never Dies', Murdoch had already won the kind of media rights in China that Carver is seeking in the movie, to some extent aided by his third wife, from 1999, Wendy Deng. In addition, the announcement of Carver's death echoes that of another newspaper mogul, Captain Robert Maxwell, MC (born Ján Ludvík Hoch; lived 1923-91), who could have been a model for many of Fleming's villains.  There were rumours he had been a Mossad agent. Surrounded with debts and questions over his misuse of the Mirror Group newspapers pension fund, he committed suicide by swimming away from his luxury yacht, off the Canary Islands.
Carver's plot is to provoke a war between Britain and China by misleading a British naval vessel into Chinese territorial waters (a challenging thing to define anyway given how many islands China claims) by altering the global satellite positioning signals coming into the British ship. To some degree this warns us against over-dependence on technological solutions. A similar way of causing disaster is used in 'Die Hard 2' (1990) in which the level that an aircraft perceives the ground as being due to beacons, is intentionally altered, causing it to crash. Carver is happy to kill a ship's crew (he uses a stealth ship [like a stealth aeroplane, but a ship] and an undersea drilling device to achieve this). He also has his wife murdered (why are these women always left draped on beds?) when she betrays him to Bond. He is sneering, but despite these activities, due to Pryce's inabilities, there is no real credibility in his manner. Carver might have been appropriate for current affairs, but needed a more effective actor to play him, instead we are left with someone as lacking in impact as Savalas and Gray.
Colonel Wai Lin played by Michelle Yeoh

The only other thing to mention in a movie which is good despite having such a weak villain, is that as with the Soviets in 'The Spy Who Loved Me', in 'Tomorrow Never Dies' we have a Chinese secret agent, Colonel Wai Lin (very well played by Michelle Yeoh [born 1962 in Malaysia]) who is actually more competent than Bond, especially in the early investigation parts of the movie. Yeoh has had a successful martial arts movie career behind her and often played police or military characters such as Inspector Ng in 'Huang Jia Shi Jie' [I am using Mandarin titles as despite being Hong Kong movies I do not have the Cantonese titles; 'In the Line of Duty'] (1985), Inspector Jessica Yang, a Director of Interpol (though she turns out to be a Colonel in the Communist Chinese police, presumably the Ministry of Public Security, most likely the People's Armed Police, formed in 1983) in 'Jing Cha Gu Shi III: Chao Ji Jing Cha' ['Police Story 3'] and is best known in the West for 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon' (2003) and 'Memoirs of a Geisha' (2005). Interestingly the Guoanbu (contraction of Guojia Anquan Bu, the Chinese Ministry of State Security) is shown as having bases in Vietnam, a country with which China has had fraught relations not least since China's defeat there in 1979.

The actress and the character, certainly have the abilities to be more than credible assistance to Bond, excelling Major Amasova, though still not being able to avoid being seduced by Bond. With him having saved her life, I suppose she felt obliged to show her gratitude. This is Bond's first close encounter with an Oriental woman since 'You Only Live Twice', thirty years earlier.

Elektra King played by Sophie Marceau

Elektra King
Elektra King, so far, is the only female head villain Bond has encountered and director Michael Apted says she is the main villain.  Some commentators view her as an assistant of anarchist Viktor 'Renard' Zokas, but they clearly have not been watching 'The World is Not Enough' (1999) closely enough. King (played by French actress Sophie Marceau, born 1966) is half-Azeri whose family fled Azerbaijan when it was absorbed into the USSR in 1920. Her mother married Sir Robert King and, because, accordingly to Azeri custom, with her maternal grandfather having no male heirs, King inherits Elektra's family's rights. With the independence of Azerbaijan from the USSR in 1991 the region has been opened up to economic development and King's company is exploiting oil there. Elektra was kidnapped by terrorist Viktor Zokas known as 'Renard' (also a fictional name for a fox in medieval Franco-German stories). Head of MI6, M adhered to the British governmental policy of not dealing with terrorists, something which angered Elektra and she seeks to kills both her father (which she succeeds in doing) and M.

Elektra has subverted Zokas who demanded a ransom that Elektra could use. She mutilated her ear (so, given the fact she does not wear Nehru collared jackets, this shows us she is a Bond villain as it gives her a physical peculiarity) for him to send to demand the ransom. Elektra has Zokas steal a nuclear device and uses part of it to damage her own company's pipeline so that she appears under threat and can fool Bond and M into travelling to western Asia to protect her. She plans to have Zokas use the rest to blow up a Russian submarine in the Bosporus (part of the straits between the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea) through which all the other new supplies of oil coming from the Caspian Sea region, bar her own (as her pipeline comes on the southern side of Turkey) will be transported, so giving her a monopoly for her pipeline.
Of course, if anyone had read their classical mythology they would know that Electra, daughter of King Agamemnon was terribly scheming. The Electra complex would suggest that she had an unhealthy sexual attraction for her father. Perhaps she did and that is why she loathes him so strongly when he refused to pay the ransom for her. Elektra plays the victim very effectively, though is incredibly manipulative getting MI6, Zokas and the crew of a Russian nuclear submarine, among others, to work for her. She can wield a gun efficiently and enjoys using a torture device on Bond. Her plot would kill millions of people in Turkey and Greece and contaminate the region for centuries. Elektra's manipulation of Zokas reminded me of Dr. Esther Martin's (played by Harriet Walter (born 1950)) manipulation of a prisoner to make him think she was the embodiment of a demon queen to get him to carry out murders in 'The Day of the Devil' episode of 'Inspector Morse' shown in January 1993.
Elektra does have another trait and that is a patriotism for the Azeris and she enjoys the acclaim when she has the pipeline diverted around an ancient Azeri church. This is a blunder as 96% of the Azeri population is Muslim. The suggestion must be that these people are in fact Armenians (Armenia neighbours Azerbaijan and there is an Armenian enclave, Nagorno-Karabakh, within Azerbaijan), but, for some reason, they are not portrayed that way, presumably because Turkey has bad relations with Armenia going back to the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915. Azerbaijan is antagonistic because of the enclave.  Alternatively, Elektra may be half-Georgian. Georgians are Christian, but if they started referring to Georgians and Georgia in a movie shown in the USA, it would have caused immense confusion for the American audience because of their own state of Georgia. The British audience might think it was about the Georgian period of their history (1714-1830/7).

Viktor 'Renard' Zokas played by Robert Carlyle

Zokas is a dying man. He was trained (like Scaramanga) as a KGB assassin but was let go for being mentally unstable. He was shot in the head by 009 which did not kill him but the bullet has removed all feelings from the man.  This means he has increasing endurance and no ability to feel pain, but has a limited life expectancy as the bullet moves through his skull. He is killed trying to explode the reactor in a Soviet nuclear submarine in the Bosporus. Elektra seduced Zokas when he had kidnapped her and held her on Cyprus.
We know little about Zokas's past. Zokas is a Lithuanian surname. This fits, given that Lithuania was part of the USSR 1940-90 so he could have been recruited direct into the KGB. We can guess Zokas is the same age as the Scottish actor, Robert Carlyle (born 1961) who played him, so aged 38 in 1999, and, having grown up in the Soviet system, has seen it dissolve in the previous eight years. His nihilist, anarchist attitude is very much like the Anarchy 99 Russian criminal group in 'xXx' (2002), who seek to eliminate the world population through a binary chemical weapon from a mini-submarine, rather like a combination of Stromberg's and Drax's plot. Seeing little point in life of the early 2000s they seek to take the rest of the world with them. Of course, this is the populist view of 'anarchist' and it is more accurate to portray Zokas and Anarchy 99 as nihilists.
Zokas is reminiscent more of a protagonist in 'The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale' (1907) by Polish-born Joseph Conrad (born Teodor Józef Konrad Korzeniowski in what is now the Ukraine; lived 1857-1924) which features a Adolf Veloc a nihilist agent in Edwardian London. Given we know Zokas has been in the eastern Mediterranean (Cyprus and Syria) this suggests it was where he was assigned. Renard means 'counsel hard' or 'to be made hard by the gods' which would seem a suitable interpretation for the injured Zokas in this movie. That spelling of the name is of Germanic origin (the French name is 'Reynard'; Germans settled in Lithuania in the middle ages), though interestingly a few Renard families lived in northern Scotland in the 19th century.
King and Zokas are two excellent villains that weave a complex double-plot for this movie. Both are portrayed by very strong actors. The story has reach, but is believable: not about the end of the world, but a serious enough threat to need Bond on the case. It is current given the persistent upheaval in the Cis-Caucasus, Caucasus and Trans-Caucasus regions since 1986, notably in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Abkhazia, North and South Ossetia and Chechnya.

Colonel Tan-Sun Moon played by Will Yun Lee

Gustav Graves played by Toby Stevens

Colonel Tan-Sun Moon/Gustav Graves
When 'Tomorrow Never Dies' (2002) was released there did not seem to be a great number of dangerous countries left in the world. Eschewing the easy option of Islamist terrorists which were being portrayed in other thrillers, the writer went for North Korea, which remains a true Communist state (unlike capitalist China ruled by the CCP) and, with its developments in nuclear weapons, seems a genuine threat to the world. I am waiting for a movie featuring the regime of Burma/Myanamar which had the suitably Bondesque name of SLORC from 1988-97, but of course it is not a nuclear power.

Featuring the North Korean officer, Colonel Tan-Sun Moon (played by American Will Yun Lee, born 1971) allows nods in many directions: back to the Cold War as he is seeking to reverse the outcome of the Korean War 1950-3 and reunite the two parts, plus to the business-orientated villains we have seen in the Bond movies since 1981 and especially since 1985. Even while in the North Korean Army, Moon is behaving corruptly, dealing in conflict diamonds, i.e. ones being sold from regions in conflict, notably in central Africa, which, in an attempt to reduce chances of such fighting should not be traded officially, but are smuggled. His behaviour shames his father, General Sun.

Sun disappears after a battle with Bond and, 14 months later, in which time Bond has been being tortured by North Korean forces, (as seen graphically across the credit sequence), Colonel Moon has undergone plastic surgery and reinvented himself as Gustav Graves (played by Briton Toby Stephens, born 1969) a billionaire who is being knighted. Graves has built his wealth using conflict diamonds and, like Blofeld in 'Diamonds Are Forever', constructs a satellite which can focus intense light on to the Earth. Though we know such a device using diamonds would not work, this kind of satellite has received increased credibility since 1971, as there were plans announced by Russia in the 1990s to use a huge reflector to bring greater sunlight to Siberia, though naturally there were concerns about the environmental impact. Graves aims simply to use it to explode the land mines which separate South Korea from North Korea to permit an invasion by North Korean forces to win the war. In this way, like Elektra King, patriotism remains a strong motive for Sun/Graves. Given that defending one's country has often been a motive for Bond's action it is naturally interesting when he comes up against patriots of other countries whose interests conflict with those of the UK.

Zao played Rick Yune

In both incarnations Sun/Graves is handsome and it is up to his assistant, Zao, who is exchanged for Bond's release, to carry the physical peculiarities that mark out a Bond villain. First he has diamonds embedded in his face from the explosion that Bond triggers at the start of the movie. Second, his features are altered at the plastic surgery clinic (which uses gene therapy and some form of benign brainwashing that leaves the patient unable to sleep) in Cuba, as a precursor to transforming him into a German businessman. Zao is provided with a car by Graves which is even better equipped than anything Bond can take into the field (though Bond's can turn invisible, but let us sweep that embarrassing aspect aside). Neither Graves or Zao inflict the usual killing of an innocent or a naif that one expects in a Bond movie, but I assume it was thought we had seen enough cruelty in the credit sequence. Both seek to fight Bond. Graves is almost an archetype of the gallant villain especially in the fight scene at Verity's (played by Madonna as a lesbian) fencing club.

Zao played by Rick Yune showing effects of explosion and preparation for plastic surgery

The other interesting thing is the range of strong women characters. Aside from Verity we have Giacinta 'Jinx' Johnson, played by Halle Berry (born 1966), an NSA (makes a change from the CIA) agent who assists Bond in Cuba, Iceland and aboard Graves's aircraft and is a strong fighter who kills Miranda Frost with a dagger. Johnson is in the style of quite a long list of female US agents who are tough and assist Bond. Frost, played by Rosamund Pike (born 1979), is an MI6 agent working undercover as Graves's publicist. She comes across as an uber-public school girl, in fact very much like many leading women in the British civil service. She is in fact a double agent and her loyalties lie with Graves who she has known since being on the fencing team with Sun in the USA as a student. M's mistaken impression of Frost is the second example of her making a dangerous blunder.  Previously we have seen her bending over backwards to help Elektra King when she wanted revenge on M; was the killer of Sir Robert King, M's friend, and behind the nuclear explosion plot seen in 'The World is Not Enough'. This suggests M is not a good judge of character. Thinking of that, her bodyguard, Mitchell, also turns out to be a traitor in 'Quantum of Solace'.
Miranda Frost played by Rosamund Pike

Frost seems to sum up the self-focused, arrogant, terse, devious, greedy, treacherous, at times aggressive, women you find in the UK public school system producing (in the UK public schools are elite fee-paying schools), much to the detriment of UK society. (I know: I have worked with women like Frost; one called Tiffany, who represented all of those traits painfully remains in my mind). I can see why she was a popular character in the UK and I understand why so many teenage public school girls see her as a heroine rather than a villain, because her traits are those their schools are fostering. Though no fan of the US intelligence services, I am glad that Jinx rids the world of yet another of these despicable women.

As the last Brosnan-Bond villain, Sun/Graves is pretty good. He is acted in a sneering yet charismatic way and his motives seem credible and genuine. For Europeans and Americans his focus on the Korean peninsula seems very parochial, yet, that reinforces our belief in him as a villain. He does not show his cruelty either, which perhaps is a mistake. His business focus that means he is willing to go outside the rules, is something we are familiar with coming from business people for many decades, but especially in the 2000s.

Post-Brosnan Villains
I have spoken a little about these already and I think the extent and nature of Quantum has yet to be revealed. As has been a recent trend in Bond movies, we have a mix of business-based plots with a desire to control much of the world as possible. Sensibly, not too much has been revealed too quickly. Keeping things secretive is always the best as with the early portrayal of SPECTRE. The Craig-Bond movies, eschewing any silliness, have a very adult feel about them akin to that of the Bourne movies and I hope that that nature does not slide.

Having reflected on all these Bond villains, I started dreaming about them, and awaking the other morning came up with my own James Bond plot, which I share here for what it is worth. I envisaged a plot to drain China's huge savings reserves, currently US$4.8 trillion (£3.3 trillion; €3.6 trillion) (compared to only US$215 billion held in India) which is sufficient to buy every bank in the USA outright.

In the story, Quantum's agent, Madame Brune (or 'Marron' or even 'Châtain'; 'Noire' would be too obvious, anyway, played by Grace Jones perhaps as May Day survived the blast, perhaps scarred to show she is a villain) is operating from a palace outside Samarkand in Uzbekistan, has subverted leading financial officials in China to funnel millions of dollars into Quantum accounts with the objective of buying a new lease for Hong Kong to control this very prosperous part of China as the British once did. However, when one official (played by Chow Yun Fat) begins siphoning off funds himself, Brune employs freelance assassin Francesca Scaramanga (born in 1973 to Francisco Scaramanga and a Khmer or a Filippino woman) to kill him (the golden gun was never seen to be retrieved from Scaramanga's base. Perhaps Nick Nack has come out of prison in UK or Thailand and allowed Francesca access to her father's legacy). He tries to flee to the West via Hong Kong (where MI6 retains a base), attracting the attention of MI6 which assigns Bond to find out what is happening.

Whilst doing this, however, alerted by Dame Dr. Melina Havelock, European Maritime Commissioner (aged 52 now), suspicious about certain petrol shipments into China, Bond stumbles across a plot by a high-ranking PLA (Chinese Army) official (played by Jet Li). Li's character is actually a double-agent long working for the Taiwanese Political Warfare General Bureau but has gone off the rails. He borrowed from Fat's character to fund his plan. Working with Karl Sanchez (brother of late Franz Sanchez) and his nephew (born to Franz's lover Lupe Lamora after Franz's death), he intends to flood China with cocaine using the solution in petroleum method neglected since the late 1980s. This way he hopes to weaken China and allow a reconquest by Nationalist GMD forces who have held Taiwan since losing the Chinese Civil War in 1950.

Bond works with Brigadier Wai Lin (promoted after 'Tomorrow Never Dies') to prevent the smuggling through Shanghai. Given the US long-term involvement in Taiwan, a US agent (Jinx?) may be involved too, or, more interestingly, a Russian spy, say Captain Anna Dmitriova of the FSB. Dmitry is the Russian equivalent of 'James'. The Amasova in Major Anya Amasova was her middle name, her patrynimic (i.e. formed from adding '-ova' to her father's first name); we never find out her surname. Anna would be the daughter born to Major Anna Amasova in 1980 after her encounter with Bond. Of course, with Daniel Craig only being born in 1968, it cannot be his Bond's child so we presume Anna will have been the child of another British agent named James.

Of course, the reappearance of descendants of previous villains will mess with the chronology, but Judi Dench as M has overseen two Bonds just as Bernard Lee's oversaw three without any narrative upset. The plot is both current yet refers back to the Bond legacy and allows the reappearance of some of my favourite villains or their children.