Thoughts of a fly on the bar wall

It is 50 years since I started visiting bars, since then I have sat in more bars, in more places than I want to remember. I have worked behind, cooked in, served in, and managed pubs. I have conversed and argued with painters, Pakis (Ladies and Gentleman from Pakistan if you must), parasites, Parisians, parliamentarians, peers of the realm , perverts, players, pleaders, plebs, plumbers, Poles, poofters, prime ministers and prostitutes. I have written and broadcast about far cities, elegant restaurants, bordellos and mismanaged disasters.
I have heard absolute rubbish, absurd claims, downright duplicity as well as much good sense and enormous doses of reality.
Put it all these conversations together with my last few years thinking, reading and writing about the way we live, about our governance, our mistakes and our future and you get to this blog.

Sam Worthington

Monday, 15 December 2014

Defining torture.

The report on the CIA enhanced interrogation techniques has evoked a storm of mainly negative comments. Some of the most unlikely people have suggested the CIA were torture and this criminal: among them Russia and China – unbelievable to many cold war warriors who know all about Russian interrogation. I remember talking to Greville Wynne - who was held in Lubyanka prison for a number of months  – I suspect he would have concluded what the CIA did was mild!
The other day I was talking to an ex British officer who was in the SAS for a while and his conclusion was that most of the interrogation were not far off normal. And needless to say when compared to medieval interrogation practices they were positively mild. The inquisitors of the Holy Roman Empire did not hold back when it came to getting people to confess their sins – but of course they were religious fanatics.
The trouble with modern liberal democrats is they somehow believe in the best of people. I thought communism had laid that myth to rest but modern politically correctness rules western politics. Their creed is ‘thou shalt not do nasty things to anybody and if you are nice to them they will be nice to you.’ They believe if you give people free health and free welfare only the odd very bad few will abuse the system. The same goes for terrorists – respect their human rights and they will respect yours!
I was reading this article in the UK Telegraph in which a respected former officer bemoans the new rules regarding interrogation stating “we have lost our operational capability to do tactical questioning. That in itself brings risks to the lives of the people we deploy.”
I fully understand the conundrum – if we allow advanced interrogation techniques for terrorists suspects how long before driving too fast will imply the suspect has something to hide – and could therefore be a terrorist! And the same thing applies to monitoring electronic traffic and other surveillance. The gravity of an offence changes – when I was young we were all drunk drivers and even if a person was caught most of the police, and the magistrates, had the view ‘there but for the grace of God go I,” and the offender was treated accordingly. Now it is a heinous crime.
But what exactly do you do when confronted with a man who you believe has vital information. Stephen Leather raised this challenge in his book Cold Kill – in that case the intelligence services knew that there was an attack coming, they knew it was imminent and they knew who was behind it – so how far should they go when questioning the man who had set the attack up? Some would argue that given those circumstances all options should be on the table – certainly questioning somebody with a lawyer present and two hour breaks would seem to be a criminal dereliction of duty – but that is what our law now demands.
There is a lot of talk about taking the moral high ground – I personally am not convinced that makes a blind bit of difference. I understand hearts and minds – yes we need to get people on our side if we are going to defeat terrorism but in my opinion strength and fear are strong coercive elements (as ISIS have proved). There is an argument that the main driver of the likes of ISIS and Al Qaeda is the fact the west, is winning the cultural war. People are more impressed with Big Macs, Western films and chewing gum than the Koran. Mammon has proved to be far more popular than God. Western brands truly do rule the world. So we are being attacked for our success in the world of business – the only place we can lose is on the battle field; because our politicians are obsessed with fairness and perception.
When the battle fields are the streets of New York, London, Madrid etc. then even the most obdurate politician cannot ignore it. But he can insist upon checks and balances that no general, throughout the ages, could have accepted and won the war. Sun Tzu must be concluding that the art of the politician is to make certain their generals do not win the war.
What the terrorist have done very successfully is made us look fools by playing to our weakness for fair play. I have no idea why the Americans thought washing their dirty linen in public was such a good idea and yes there are some aspects of what the CIA did which I would not support.  Shipping people off to the likes of Gadhafi so he can torture them or to some not so squeamish regime does not seem right. Maybe a line has to be drawn somewhere: but when it comes to enemies of our country, who want to destroy us, the options have to be rough enough to work. And I am not ignoring the possibility that the wrong information can be coerced out of a frightened prisoner.
One thing we do know is the guys we – the west are fighting – have no scruples. They are changing our life style for the worse and they are costing our countries billions we cannot afford. But we seem unprepared to smash them as we have smashed enemies in the past. Frankly if some bastard is trying the kill me; I am not going to apologise for killing them. And why should I not be triumphant when I have done so. Somewhere the west has got all its priorities wrong – if they really do not want to be nasty to terrorist – try surrendering – at least that might wake the voters up!
The Geneva Convention sets out the rules on the treatment of soldiers in uniform – out of uniform a soldier is a terrorist or spy. As such he has no rights. And if in flagrante delicto that is all well and good but what if he is a suspect and there is some evidence but not enough? That is where the problems arise. In some ways, it does not matter if the person is a common criminal or a terrorist – those questioning have to stick to the same rules and still try an elicit the truth. If it is possible to robustly question terrorists, but not do the same for common criminals, then there are two big issues – who gets to decide who is a terrorist and why should common criminals be protected?This is an argument which is as old as law enforcement – to me the worst point is so few politicians are defending the interrogators who simple thought they were doing their duty. Many commentators are good at criticising but what would they do in situation as in Cold Kill?

Saturday, 29 November 2014

It is a corporatist world: or is it?

I was reading an article by Douglas Carswell – the UKIP MP for Clacton – in which he was saying that one of the main problems with the UK is that it now a corporatist country. I have for a long time talked about the power of the global corporations who have more economic power than most countries – but he was not just talking about that. I looked up corporatist and got a number of meanings. Wikipedia had the most comprehensive list of variations which suggested the corporatist idea is not a new one – in fact Plato started the idea and Aristotle expanded on it – essentially their concept was each class, or sector of society was represented in government; so groups of worked to protect their own interests. According to wiki ‘Neo-corporatism favours economic tripartism which involved strong labour unions, employers' unions, and governments that cooperated as "social partners" to negotiate and manage a national economy.’ So that is my definition debunked – or is it?
Carswell was suggesting that government institutions have become so powerful that they are power centres in themselves and are as protective of self-interest as a private corporation would be. Carswell goes on to write “slowly but surely Britain has shifted from being a free-market economy to a corporatist economy.” I do not think he is strictly right but he is certainly not wholly wrong. Europe has always been much more corporatist than the UK. Germany is much stricter society when it gets to rules and we all know the French create bureaucracy just to confuse themselves. Part of what Carswell is saying is that there is too much control from the top – he wants to decentralise. Undoubtedly there is compelling evidence to suggest that large operations lose the ability to change – innovation is not appreciated so they get stuck in a rut. That is double so if it is a government controlled operation.
It is worth considering why the head has become so powerful – some will blame it on rules – particularly EU regulations;  others will simple say it is the natural progression as those as the top cling on to power. But you can only micro manage what happens, in a large organisation, if you have good communications; and in the last 25 years the ability of the top to know what is happening at the bottom has changed diametrically. The backbone of middle management was the branch manager who had sensible autonomy to make decision about his branch and his branches problems. Now mobile phones and the internet have removed the need for virtually any local decision making. More than that communications can exert total control – any changes or anomalies are picked up in seconds. Many complain about CEO pay but the modern CEO does not have a relaxed evening – he is reading emails and reports on line which 25 years ago he would have received through the post in the morning. He can no longer say I did not know what was happening – because somebody probable told him in an email he did not have time to read. Anyway with all the modern aids and comms why did he not know?
Trying to decentralise will not be that easy because as long as the top can supervise – it will.
Maybe the more important issue is the influence of the modern global company – as countries hassle to get inward investment, which will create jobs, they inevitable have to deal with the global behemoths. Countries wanting investment in jobs often have to give away all kinds of incentives – normally tax breaks. Not only does that limit the tax raising power of a country but is inevitable unfair to home grown companies who do not get the same breaks. All too often an incoming global investor will then buy up the local competition – whose business they have compromised. Thus my view of corporatist – is a world that is run by big business for big business.
I maybe splitting hairs over the meaning of a word but I do essentially agree with Carswell and I suspect many others will agree as well. The problem is how exactly does a country break the power of both vested interest and global companies. The backbone of local and regional businesses was the family run concern – but they have been trampled by not just big business but by avaricious tax men – what with capital gains tax and inheritance tax it is very difficult to keep control. That is one area UKIP should consider. Another, maybe more immediate issues, are employment laws, regulations and most important of all financing. What the UK needs a spate of small companies growing into medium size companies which stay regional and manufacture and employ locally. That would almost certainly require a protectionist government that discourages imports and gives preferential treatment to UK companies. However that is going back to the dark ages in terms of world trade and is likely to cause as many problems as it solves.
If UKIP are seriously going to battle with corporatist system they are going to have to start with big state corporations – health service, education and infrastructure. They are also going to have to work out how to get back well-paid jobs – that almost certainly means manufacturing. A lot more jobs could be created in the hospitality industry if tourism was worked on – but concreting over SE England to accommodate our rising population does not help that cause and dare I mention an airport?
So Carswell may be right – we need to decentralise and get rid of a corporatist culture. The aspiration is admirable; the execution will be considerable more challenging!

Monday, 24 November 2014

The adversarial system

Am I the only one who wonders about the adversarial system that so much of our politics and jurisprudence is dependent upon? Anybody who has been involved in debates will understand how it works and how it can on one side be good – because it allows for a thorough examination of the subject – but it can equally introduce deviousness and irrelevance to what can be a very serious matter.
Of course in a court there is a judge to make certain the rules are observed, and in parliament there is a speaker with much the same role. But when passions are running high the invigilator can be manipulated along with anything else. This is double so in an age where instant communication and all kinds of new media from tweets to Facebook can be used to neuter the arbitrator.
In Europe new – some would say extreme - political parties are making significant inroads into the established parties and, in the USA, the president has now lost control of both the congress and the senate. But there seems to be little appetite for anybody to form a consensus.  On the global stage there are often calls for co-operation between states; that appears hypocritical when political parties in the country making the suggestion cannot even agree among themselves.
A few times in my life I have been involved in a public debates – in all cases I was co-opted on the basis of my debating skills not just my belief in the subject to be discussed. In practice I could have argued either side of the debate. Barristers in the UK can be a prosecutor one week and arguing for a defendant the next. In civil law that is even more likely; in fact all lawyers will be involved in cases as both plaintiff and defendant. Needless to say, in order to be a good lawyer, it is necessary to understand both the case for, and defence against, the argument. And in a court before a judge the proceedings are controlled and the judge can intervene if a spurious argument is put forward. But in a political debate who is to say what is irrelevant? I remember one debate I was in - I had to oppose a proposal I generally agreed with – and was party policy -  and for some reason I hit on a line that had the audience laughing – and I managed to play up on this line. As a result of my knock about speech the Chelsea Conservative Club voted against a key policy of the then Conservative GLC (long time ago) – I was not a popular bunny but surely my jobs was to win the debate – by any means fair of foul – or was it? And that was a friendly affair for only a few people in an era when it was unlikely to be reported. If that had happened now people would have been tweeting and bragging on Facebook.
For a while politics was less about an idea and more about ideology – the debate was between left and right or between the state and private ownership. That debate has generally moved on and among the established parties it has become more about pleasing the electors with one party claiming to be offering more than the other. There is little or no real debate about core issues as there is a ‘sort of’ consensus. And that has been aided and abetted by political correctness which deems certain ideas, and even thoughts, as risible.
Political correctness must surely be against the concept of advocacy politics but it is defended as a way to stop extremism. The biggest forbidden subject is discussing race and, as most immigrants are of another race, possible the most sensitive issue to ordinary people - mass immigration – has been banished from main stream politics. But surely this is a subject that should be discussed sensible and without with usual adversarial attitude. Instead it has led to the rise of new parties who openly question the desirability of mass immigration. There is no better example of the divisiveness of immigration than Obama’s recent edict on long term illegal immigrants – in a way I have to sympathise, with the president, as the matter has got bogged down by petty politics but trying go round the road block has infuriated those who have constructed the block. And the block is because of the adversarial system!
Unfortunately an adversarial political system does not guarantee good governance, quite the reverse in my experience. In the UK as we pay the leader of the opposition as it is an official function. I understand that and yes the job of the opposition is to oppose in a public gallery – the Houses of Parliament. (Personally I would prefer a good lunch to discuss the matter - but I cannot have it all my way.)
So it is worth thinking about the alternatives to our argumentative system. But maybe the issue is not the system but the people – the politicians – operating the system. Or is it simple politics itself? The worst part of the adversarial system is the challenging of something simple because it has been proposed – it is one thing to have a debate and lose; another thing to keep using every trick – legal and not so legal – to stop something happening. So at what point should the opposition accept what has been agreed – I suppose that should be dependent upon how significant the change is. And who makes that judgement?
So the problem with the adversarial system is not the concept but the way it works. Or maybe it would be better to say the way it has evolved, or has been allowed to evolve. Court cases that take 20 years are a travesty of justice to at least one party, and governments that get deadlock are no good for anybody.
I must therefore presume - as Winston Churchill said about democracy – the adversarial system is not perfect but it is much better than any alternative!