Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Picture Of The Day

117 Full Moons

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Prince Carlos Hugo (RIP)

Prince Carlos Hugo de Bourbon-Parma, who has died aged 80 of prostate cancer, was the last remotely plausible alternative wearer of the Spanish crown. When that cause failed, he became the high-profile leader of a centre-left political party, but that cause failed, too.

In 1957 Carlos Hugo accepted from his ageing father, Xavier, Duke of Parma, the leadership of the Carlist movement. Xavier had received it from his relative Alfonso Carlos, the grandson of Prince Carlos, who believed he should have become King Carlos V in 1830. He had been displaced when his brother, Ferdinand VII, had ensured that the succession would go to any child of his, male or female, shortly before the birth of his daughter, who became Isabella II. The Carlists' dynastic claim, based on an uneasy blend of absolute orthodox monarchism and Catholicism with regionalist populism, gave rise to three civil wars in the 19th century.

Carlism survived in the northern and eastern regions of Spain, and found a natural ally in General Francisco Franco's National movement. This was established in 1937, the year following the start of the civil war, and united the Carlists – who took an active part in the conflict – with other Catholic conservatives and monarchists, and with the Falangists. Once the nationalists had prevailed over the republicans in 1939, the Carlists retained a voice in the leadership, and Franco became the regent for an absent, unappointed monarch.

Young, dynamic and industrious, Carlos Hugo soon showed himself a worthy contender for that post. He embarked on an almost frenetic programme of activity, conferring with the country's leaders and rallying the movement's faithful. His marriage in 1964 to Princess Irene of the Netherlands, sister of the present Queen Beatrix, boosted his chances a little further. The constitutional crisis this caused in the Netherlands, a Protestant marrying a Catholic from a fascist country, only added to the publicity surrounding the event.

But his regal hopes came to nothing. In 1969 Franco designated Juan Carlos de Bourbon, grandson of the last reigning monarch, as the next king, and Carlos Hugo changed tactic. Ably assisted by two of his sisters and progressive Carlists, he began to adopt a critical approach to the regime and to gradually steer Carlism from the far right towards social democracy. By the time Franco died, in 1975, this Bourbon prince was openly propounding socialist policies.

The following year, two of his supporters were killed by gunmen who had teamed up with some of the dwindling band of diehards on the Carlist far right, and the need for democratic electioneering in 1977 and 1979 exposed the dreamland of Carlist politics. Carlos Hugo then abandoned his claim and his party, and went to live in the US, where his friend the economist John Kenneth Galbraith had invited him to teach and research at Harvard University, Massachusetts.

Hugues de Bourbon-Parma was born in Paris, the elder son of Don Xavier and Madeleine de Bourbon-Busset. He studied law at the Sorbonne in Paris, and economics at Oxford University. In 1957, his father declared him Prince of Asturias, and he was rebaptised as Carlos Hugo.

At first he tried to occupy a diplomatic middle ground between stubborn traditionalists, forever harking about Carlist feats in the civil war, and progressive liberals who looked forward to the end of the dictatorship. But Franco would not help him to the throne. As he told his cabinet, "I am fond of him, he is courteous and likable, but he does not seem to me to the right person to be king of Spain."

In 1968, as his hopes dimmed and opposition to the regime become more overt and widespread, Carlos Hugo took the calculated risk of becoming more openly critical, and was exiled.

After establishing himself across the border in south-west France, he developed the Carlist policy of socialismo autogestionario (self-managing socialism). According to this programme, post-Franco Spain would be a socialist confederation of self-governing regions, with the country headed by a popular monarch. The monarch had to act as a moral exemplar for all Spaniards and would have to stand down if citizens thought him or her failing in their regal duties.

Though the Carlist party was regarded by many as a serious contender for regional power in the dying years of the dictatorship, the subsequent elections showed it to be but one of the many small parties that failed to win mass support. The idea of the transgenerational "Carlist people", who quietly kept the faith but would declare their allegiance when needed, proved to be a myth.

In 2003, unexpectedly, Carlos Hugo reasserted his claim to the throne and declared his eldest son, Carlos Javier, head of the dynasty. But while a small Carlist party persists, it now bears witness to a historical memory: the days of real Carlist pretenders have gone.

Carlos Hugo's marriage ended in divorce, and he is survived by two sons and two daughters.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

In diplomatic parlance, the term "frozen conflict" generally refers to unresolved disputes affecting countries of the Black Sea region. But in the post-ideological, non-interventionist age that dawned with the fall of George Bush and Tony Blair and the rise of new, ruthlessly pragmatic, self-interested great powers such as China and India, a widening range of intractable conflicts, from Somalia, Kashmir and Kurdistan to Kyrgyzstan, Burma and Tibet might fairly be described as frozen, too.

In many if not most of such cases, external conflict-resolution efforts are underpowered, stalled, failing, or nonexistent. The appeals of pressure groups, thinktanks and activists increasingly fall on deaf ears. The US and its junior partner, Britain, no longer actively seek to spread freedom and democracy across the globe. Instead, Washington has "reset" relations with authoritarian Russia, sought a strategic accommodation with communist China, moved to cut its losses in still shambolic Iraq and Afghanistan, and is aggressively arming Middle East autocrats.

What George Bush Sr called the "vision thing", exemplified by his bid to build a post-Soviet, post-cold war "new world order", is almost wholly lacking now. Today's more blinkered emphasis is on trade, oil and security, not self-determination or human rights. Diplomacy, in its highest form of independent, impartial mediation, is out of fashion. Only the current American-led peace efforts in Israel-Palestine contradict the overall trend. Even there, Barack Obama was obliged to justify his intervention by redefining the conflict as a threat to US national interests.

The UN, ever a convenient scapegoat, is blamed more often than not for failures in tackling outrages such as the murderous treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka or Tibetans in China. But, as always, it is the member states, and particularly the security council's veto-wielding permanent five, that carry prime responsibility for collective action or, more commonly, inaction. Thus, for example, the major powers have put expediency before principle in tacitly agreeing not to pursue Sudan's indicted president, Omar al-Bashir, for alleged war crimes, at least until the looming issue of southern Sudan's secession is settled. Likewise, the Darfur peace talks are on the backburner.

Muhammad Farooq Rehmani, chairman of the Jammu and Kashmir People's Freedom League and former convenor of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference opposition coalition, bears eloquent witness to the invidious consequences of such neglect. A journalist, author and political activist, he has spent nearly 10 years in jail, on and off, since first being arrested by Indian security forces in 1968. Kashmiris want the withdrawal of the Indian army and a plebiscite on self-determination, as promised repeatedly by the UN since 1947, he said. They are still waiting.

"If the killing of innocents continues, the violence could get worse," Rehmani, who lives in exile in Islamabad, said in London this week. This summer's clashes, curfews and security crackdowns in the state capital Srinagar and elsewhere might only be termed an "uprising" that could be exploited by Islamist jihadis. Yet powers such as the US and Britain were reluctant to pressure a newly important India for a deal, he said. There was no peace process, no peace, and no prospect of it.

Sadly, Kashmir's plight is unexceptional. Attempts by Turkey's Kurds to win greater autonomy have stalled in the past year, mirroring the bigger problems facing an unrecognised Kurdish nation straddling Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. But there is zero international appetite for tackling the Kurdish question. Despite years of western hand-wringing over terrorism, piracy and immigration, Somalia remains a de facto no-go area for international diplomacy; likewise long-suffering Zimbabwe; likewise Thailand's disadvantaged southern Malay minority; the much put-upon Uighurs of China's Xinjiang province; and the Muslim peoples of the Russian Caucasus.

Even where the international community has stepped in, lack of leadership, selfish calculation, and a craven reluctance to make a stand increasingly characterise much of what is happening now. Georgia's South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions remain under Russian occupation, despite the French-brokered 2008 deal for a troop withdrawal; Burma's criminal generals carry on regardless of international sanctions; and even Kosovo, that great test-bed of liberal humanitarian interventionism, is still too weak and divided to leave to its own devices, more than 10 years after its "liberation".

It may be this apparent diplomatic drift, this reluctance of individual governments and collectives such as the EU to risk new international entanglements or enforce existing rules and standards, comes in reaction to the ideologically driven excesses of the Bush years. Perhaps it is linked to the economic downturn in the west, with falling business confidence matched by falling diplomatic and political confidence. But perhaps, more than anything, it is the product of a new, narrow, self-serving national self-interestedness – a sort of Tea Party philosophy writ large in which charity begins at home, the weak go to the wall, and the devil take the hindmost. Whatever the reason, it's all very short-sighted, and dangerous, too.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

Modern Inquisitions

SINCE January 2009 The Economist has been banned or censored in 12 of the 190-odd countries in which it is sold, with news-stand (as opposed to subscription) copies particularly at risk. India, the only democracy on our list, has censored 31 issues and at first glance might look like the worst culprit. However its censorship consists of stamping “Illegal” on maps of Kashmir because it disputes the borders shown. China is more proscriptive. Distributors destroy copies or remove articles that contain contentious political content, and maps of Taiwan are usually blacked out. In Sri Lanka both news-stand and subscription copies with coverage of the country may be confiscated at customs. They are then released a couple of weeks later (sometimes sooner if the story is also reported by another news outlet). In Malaysia the information ministry blacks out some stories that it judges may offend Muslims, among other things. And in Libya, four consecutive editions were confiscated in late August/early September 2009, the first of which featured a piece critical of Muammar Qaddafi.

Images can also prompt action. The cover of last year's Christmas issue showing Adam and Eve was censored in five countries. Malaysian officials covered up Eve's breasts. Pakistan objected to the depiction of Adam, which it said broke a prohibition on depicting Koranic figures.

Tom Bingham (RIP)

BY GENERAL agreement, he was the greatest English judge since the second world war: the only man in the modern age to be, in short order, Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice (head of the judiciary in England and Wales) and senior law lord in the House of Lords. But to himself, as he strode out at weekends across the brooding hills of the Welsh borders, Tom Bingham was just a small, jobbing figure adding another grey stone or two to the ancient, intricate web of walls known as English common law. As a passionate historian, his subject at Balliol, he liked to put himself in a procession of judicial folk: 12th-century judges touring the shires to set up the royal writ, 17th-century lawyers wrestling over the rights of king and Parliament. But the most interesting era of all, he thought, for a judge devoted to defending liberty, was the age he lived and worked in.

His years at the apex of English justice involved coping with a government that tended, in the name of national security, to take the law into its own hands. But the rule of law was Tom Bingham’s speciality. A centre for the study of it, named after him, opens next month. However loosely others defined it, for him its core was this: “that all persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly made…and publicly administered in the courts.”

This meant not only that citizens should be spared the midnight knock on the door, the show trial and the gas chamber, but also that the nine foreign men held at Belmarsh prison in London, kept there indefinitely by the Home Office on suspicion of terrorism and with no prospect of a trial, had been detained illegally. This ruling, in 2004, stunned the government. In 2005 came another Bingham bombshell: evidence obtained by torture, no matter what the pretext, was unreliable, offensive and inadmissible in court. It was clear to him too that the invasion of Iraq, based on no hard evidence of Saddam’s evil intent and unauthorised by the Security Council acting collectively, was a serious breach of international law; but his opinion was neither sought, nor volunteered, at the time.

After the Belmarsh ruling, the Guardian cried that he was “a radical…leading a new English revolution”. Lord Bingham didn’t dislike that; it raised one of his wry smiles; but nor did he think it “at all apt”. He was politically neutral, as judges had to be. He did not consider himself at odds with the Blair government; it had achieved one of the things he had fought hardest for, the incorporation into English law in the 1998 Human Rights Act of the European Convention on Human Rights. But his very passion for those rights brought him bounding to their defence at any sign of erosion: rumours of torture, arrests of hecklers, carelessness for habeas corpus. Vigilance was vital.

No legal island

It was necessary, too, to keep judges independent. He mused on how constrained they were: unable to initiate or annul anything, and subject to the sovereignty of Parliament. But he did pretty well, considering. At the head of public inquiries, he delivered stinging verdicts against oil companies and compliant civil servants for contravening sanctions on Rhodesia, and against the “deficient” Bank of England for failing to foresee the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Only once did he disappoint liberals, when in 2008 the law lords ruled that the Serious Fraud Office was right, in view of Saudi threats, to ditch its inquiry into BAE Systems’ arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

At the Bar he was a fine judge, dexterous in argument and scrupulously fair in his rulings. He became a QC at 38, and was made Lord Chief Justice, exceptionally, when his background was in commercial rather than criminal law. All through his career he was curious about, and open to, other legal systems. He relished the internationalising of the law, hoped for an “enjoyable courtship” with European civil codes, and was pleased to work in an age when England was less and less a legal island. But he kept a judge’s liking for precedent. The new way of appointing judges, through the Judicial Appointments Commission, raised for him the risk of political lines of questioning in the American style. (“They are not going to ask them if they are fond of cats”.) He thought the old system, whereby the Lord Chancellor tapped you on the shoulder and invited you to apply, had worked pretty well.

He also disliked fixed sentences, insisting that judges should be able to exercise flexibility and discretion—especially in murder cases, where he campaigned against the mandatory life term. On the other hand, talking of American influences, England’s new Supreme Court delighted him, because it removed the law lords from the possible taint of politics at Westminster. He should have led them into the new court in 2009, but had left just a little too soon for his cottage in Wales.

For all his high positions, his face was never familiar. He preferred to work behind the scenes. “Cornhill” referred to his Welsh hamlet, not the eminence in the City of London. You would not have noticed him as he strolled round the literary festival at Hay-on-Wye every year, or even in the Strand. But on the ancient field-walls, his stones remain.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

End Of A Dream?

The Swedish Social Democrats are no ordinary party. If Mona Sahlin, their leader, loses tomorrow's election, as seems almost certain, she will become the first leader in the party's history never to have been prime minister. The party has been in government for 65 of the last 78 years, and in that time no non-socialist government has ever been re-elected. But today a far-right party that blames Muslim immigration for almost all the country's ills is poised to enter parliament and hold the balance of power. It already has members in local government across more than half the country. The local paper in Malmö, the country's third-largest city, publishes a Google Map marking all the shootings in the city – there have been 46 this year, though no one has been killed. What on earth is going on in this tranquil, ordered and progressive country?

If you believe the international rightwing press, the answer is simple, and has been since 2004, when Fox News made a special report on the subject: Sweden, and especially Malmö, has become a laboratory for the creeping Islamisation of Europe. The most common child's name there is now Muhammad; police dare not go into immigrant districts, where only sharia law is respected; and soon all the Jews will be driven from the city. All this, flecked with varying amounts of spittle, is recounted as fact on the net and in US papers.

Paulina Neuding, a neoliberal Swedish commentator, wrote in Rupert Murdoch's Weekly Standard, "Too many of the country's Arab immigrants have brought anti-democratic values from their home countries; values that neither 'dialogue police' nor the world's most generous welfare system has been able to cure. And [Sweden] is also becoming a symbol of a western country that is prepared to compromise with those values."

The centre for all this fear is the Rosengård estate in Malmö. It is the nearest Sweden gets to a slum. "It doesn't feel like Sweden at all," said a horrified sociologist in a nearby university. "There are cockroaches there! People live 12 to a two-room flat. No one should have to live like that." In early September, police searched the bedroom of a local teenager who had been acting drugged in public, and found a submachine gun. Then they let him go, because he was only 15.

About 25,000 of Malmö's 300,000 people live on the estate; the actual figure is unknown because of overcrowding in the worst section, Herrgården, where adult unemployment runs at 90% (it is 30% on the estate as a whole). Thousands of new immigrants arrive every year. Of the 1,200 students in the secondary school, eight are native Swedes.

Like almost everywhere else that immigrants live in Sweden, Rosengård was built in the late 60s and early 70s as model housing for workers. But whereas most of these new settlements were located five or 10 miles outside the cities they served, and separated from them by belts of forest or farmland, Rosengård is an integral part of Malmö. It lies within the inner ring road. You can cycle there in 15 minutes from the station.

A 2008 government report, which drew entirely on the experiences of teachers, police and social workers, described a place where Islamic orthodoxy was enforced by young thugs; women were forced to wear headscarves and children segregated in religious free schools. There was a small riot after one of the 20 or 30 unofficial mosques in cellars was closed when its lease was not renewed, and nastier riots when the Israeli tennis team played a Davis Cup match in the city last summer.

But this isn't Beirut or Baltimore. It isn't even Tower Hamlets. I was told at Lund University that a foreign graduate student who lived in Rosengård for a couple of years couldn't understand why anyone would call it a ghetto. He came from Liverpool. Certainly, I can't think of another slum in Europe that has broad, well-signposted cycle paths on which stately middle-aged women in headscarves pedal their groceries home.

The houses are for the most part low blocks arranged in squares around playgrounds, on a familiar Swedish model. Even in Herrgården, where there are a few boarded-up windows, the play areas are clean and well-maintained.

The shops have Arabic signage as often as Swedish. The greengrocer's has a huge Ramadan calendar outside, but in the middle of a bright afternoon there are a great many people eating and drinking in public. In the middle of the estate is a shopping centre where a headscarfed woman is collecting for orphans in Iraq, Gaza and Pakistan. She came to Rosengård 16 years ago and says her children are happy on the estate, too. Her stall is an interesting mixture of Swedish and Islamic charity: the language is all Swedish, but the money referred to as zakat. All the distribution, the signs explain, will be handled by the Nordic aid organisation, which will guarantee the money ends up being used peacefully and responsibly.

The Islamology department at Lund University reckons the number of active Muslims in Rosengård and Sweden generally is greatly overestimated. "Most Muslims in Sweden are as unobservant as the Christians," says department head Leif Stenberg. "If you count the number of worshippers in the mosques, there are seldom more than 300 in the big ones, even at Friday prayers. The smaller ones will have 100, if that."

No one in Sweden believes there is any serious terrorist threat there, but Islam has become the symbol of all that is strange and menacing and un-Swedish about immigration. There is a film on YouTube that sums it up perfectly. In an industrial-looking warehouse, an old woman pushes her walking frame bravely across the floor towards two bureaucrats dispensing piles of cash. The camera cuts back to show that alongside her in the gloom are other figures – but these are swathed in burkas, pushing prams. You realise the old woman and the Muslims are all racing to reach red handles that hang from the ceiling, like the emergency brakes on trains. One is marked "Immigration", the other "Pensions". "You have a choice," says a woman's voice. "On September 19 you can slam the brakes on pensions or slam the brakes on immigration. Vote for the Sweden Democrats."

This is the banned party political broadcast for the Sweden Democrats, which the commercial television channel refused to show on the grounds that it was illegal to stand for election and be so flagrantly against ideals of equality. Instead, the Sweden Democrats may show an ad that directs people to their YouTube site. It's typical of the way in which this deeply conservative party has used new media to circumvent the old.

In another publicity stunt, the party released a report claiming to prove, from government statistics, that immigrants were five times more likely than native Swedes to be convicted of rape. What the statistics actually show is that they are five times as likely to be investigated for rape, but experts point out that this may be due in part to racism in the criminal justice system, and that the absolute numbers are very small: when the Sweden Democrats claimed that 10% of the rapists convicted in their survey were Iraqi, they were talking about 12 men. If 0.04% of native Swedes are investigated for rape in one year, the corresponding figure for immigrants is 0.22%."

Though rural Nazis are a staple of Swedish crime fiction, a few do, in fact, exist. Some years ago, one was pointed out to me on the island of Tjörn: "Look," my friend Rolf said as we passed an old man pushing his bicycle uphill, "there's the only Nazi on the island." The day was very hot, but the old man was wearing a heavy black suit, white collar and tie. "He really believes it," Rolf said. "He can argue it all out logically, though I have got him to admit Hitler went a little far with the Jews."

There has always been a streak of romantic nationalism in Swedish life. For most of the Social Democratic years, it took a paradoxical form: people here believed Sweden was the best country in the world because it was the most internationalist. This led to a fantastically generous policy on asylum and integration. Nearly a third of Sweden's population today are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. There are more Iranians living in Sweden than there are Danes. In 2007, one small town outside Stockholm took in more Iraqi refugees than the whole of the US. Professor Jan Ekberg at Linné University has calculated that unemployment among immigrants means the excess cost of their welfare payments over the tax they pay is at least as high as the defence budget, and possibly 50% higher. Although all measurements show that Swedish tolerance towards immigrants is increasing, it's not surprising that there has been a backlash.

Thirty years ago, the Sweden Democrats were a tiny fringe group of straightforward fascists – openly racist skinheads and a few old ideological Nazis. Anti-immigrant sentiment then was concentrated on a short-lived but successful protest party that entered parliament with nearly 7% of the vote in 1991 and soon after imploded and disappeared in the 1994 election.

Two years later, a group of four nationalist students at Lund University joined the Sweden Democrats. They all came from the backwoods of the province of Skåne, the country's southern tip – in Sweden, "backwoods" is a literal term. "There are really three countries here," says Peter Ekelund, a Stockholm businessman. "There is the region around here, with companies like mine where everyone speaks English in the office all the time. There is an international region around Malmö, and another around Gothenburg. And then there are the elk – that's all the rest."

The forest and farmland goes on for hundreds of kilometres in the interior, broken occasionally by farms and small towns. I lived in such towns myself for five years as a young man, and the sense of isolation from the outside world was very deep. Stockholm seemed like a foreign country, in some ways farther than small-town America.

This is the background from which the new Sweden Democrats emerged. The young men from Lund had taken over the party entirely within 10 years. By 2005, one of them, Jimmie Åkesson, had become the party leader at the age of 26. He moved the party away from Nazism and some forms of racism, but they were still pariahs. "No one would vote for them because they were seen as fascist yokels," says Niklas Orrenius, a journalist who has studied the movement for years. To be a known member was to risk sacking from any kind of job. Far-left activists beat them up, on one occasion breaking into a party gathering with iron bars. Last Friday two masked men attacked David von Arnold, a party candidate in Malmö, outside his flat and carved a swastika into his forehead. The respectable media largely ignored this as it ignores the party as a whole.

"Most journalists detest them, so they don't write about them seriously," Orrenius says. Sweden is still an extremely conformist, authoritarian society, where opinion formers and politicians move together like a shoal of herring. The whole shoal can change direction in a flash, but not one herring dares swim anywhere on its own.

In the elections of 2008, opinion polls gave the party only about 1.8% of the national vote. In the event, it got 2.9%, which represented a huge breakthrough, because any party above 2.5% is eligible for state funding. In Skåne, it became the fourth largest party, and part of local government in many towns, but it was still well below the magic 4% threshold that would get it into parliament. Today it is now above that level in all the polls.

The party owes its success to an appeal that seems to cross political boundaries. Hostility to immigrants, especially to Muslims, is certainly a very large part of it, but its slogan for this election, "Tradition and Security", represents two things the Social Democrats once delivered (they always carried the Swedish flag in their May Day parades), but that no party has been able to offer convincingly since the economic storms of the mid-80s when the "Swedish model" went bankrupt.

None of the people who runs Sweden thinks these things will ever come back. All the herring agree the free market is the way forward. The result can be bewildering to English ears: Swedish Conservatives sounding to the left of New Labour when they talk about social mobility, Swedish Social Democrats sounding to the right of Cameron's Conservatives when they talk about the benefits of competition.

Ekelund speaks with unusual frankness, but his views are common: "Sweden is an export-dependent economy, and that is why it is the most successful in Europe. A company like Ericsson does business in 180 countries. It's unthinkable for them to go along with a politics of prejudice. Actually, we need far more immigration, not less."

A few hundred metres from his offices in central Stockholm, the Sweden Democrats have set out their stall. It's an electioneering tradition: all the parties set little wooden huts in the city's central square, where they hand out sweets and leaflets, and talk to voters. Most are as ignored as chuggers, but the Sweden Democrats usually have an angry group of schoolchildren around them.

Ulf Oscarsson, a sturdy man in his late 60s, is minding the stall when I enter. Why has he joined the party? "My daughter was the victim of a serious attempted rape by a Muslim minicab driver. Here, in the centre of the city. He was a married man with three children. When it came to trial, he got a two-month suspended sentence and a £700 fine. They told us we needed to have a certain sympathy for his culture. Well, shit on that."

Behind him, a poster asks, "Which do you want: bigger locks on your front door or bigger locks on the prison doors?"

Oscarsson doesn't want new laws; he just wants the laws that exist to be enforced. Nor is he racist, he says, and I believe him. It's obviously not true of all party members, but the belief that everyone should play by the rules is fundamental to the Swedish sense of justice. He is just as angry about a scandal in provincial local government that did not involve immigrants. Oscarsson claims 20% of the party's membership are immigrants, and while this seems improbable, they certainly have some. I saw a young Indian man running the stall when I passed it on the way to Ekelund's office.

Outside the hut, a group of teenagers in from the suburbs for the day are arguing with the Sweden Democrat on duty. Parand Saumloo, a 17-year-old Swede with one Iranian parent and one Bulgarian, is furious. "Of course you're racists," she says. "This country is full of it." Jabbing her finger, she asks, "When did you ever see a Swede behind the counter of a pizza joint? The country absolutely depends on immigrants. It's lunacy to cut down immigration."

But later it becomes clear she doesn't see herself as a pizza seller: her father is a psychologist, and that is the profession towards which she is studying. "I can even understand that we have to do something about the ones who just live on benefits," she says.

The respectable parties have all said they will not cooperate with the Sweden Democrats should they get into parliament. But if, or when, they do, the party will almost certainly hold the balance of power between the centre-right parties and the opposing bloc of Social Democrats, Greens and former communists. If they are kept out, perhaps by the defection of the Greens to the centre-right, they can convincingly portray themselves as the only real opposition in the country.

But they have no real policies, only longings. A friend who works in Ystad on what would be Wallander's local paper sums up the Sweden Democrats' programme: "They want to move to a country where there aren't any immigrants."

I doubt they will even manage to drag Swedish politics towards xenophobia the way their Danish counterparts, who now sit in government, have done. A tougher sentencing policy is possible. Better enforcement of existing rules on immigration, coupled with measures to ensure immigrant mothers go out to work and don't just live on child benefit, is already the policy of the Burundi-born minister of integration, Nyamko Sabuni. But, in the end, the Sweden Democrats' dream of a world of "tradition and security" cannot be fulfilled. It is a longing for an illusory past to replace the illusory future of endless prosperity and justice into which the Social Democrats seemed for years to be leading their country.

Pope? Nope...

(Un)Social Networks

It is perhaps inevitable given the rise of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter that the number of places blocking access to them is also growing. Burma, China, Iran, Harrisburg in Pennsylvania, the roll-call goes on and on.

Harrisburg in Pennsylvania? Can that be true? Can a town better known for its steel industry and agriculture than for internet censorship really have joined the list? For the past week the private Harrisburg University has instigated what it calls a "blackout" of all social networking sites. It has removed from its central server the channels that pipe social media, cutting off access to Twitter and Facebook, instant messaging services and video chat through Skype.

To be fair to the university, its action cannot be equated to those of the Burmese military junta or the ayatollahs of Iran. This is, after all, a modern science and technology college, opened to students five years ago, that offers specialist courses in use of the internet.

Rather, the idea was to undertake an experiment to find out what impact social media and multitasking were having on college life, its students and faculty alike. It was dreamed up by the university's provost, Eric Darr, who became intrigued when he observed his 16-year-old daughter at home one night. "She had Facebook open on her laptop, was listening to music on iTunes, had apps open on her iPhone and three different conversations going on instant messaging – all simultaneously," he said. "It struck me how overpowering all this was, not in a negative way, and it made me wonder what would happen if all that wasn't there."

On Monday morning the university closed channels to the social networking sites so no access could be gained via the university's central wireless system. The reaction of the 800 or so students ranged from curious to puzzled to outraged.

Darr was in the room when one student moaned that without Facebook on his laptop in class he didn't know what to do. Darr said: "I was standing right there, and said to him there's always the novel idea of paying attention to your professor." Alexis Rivera, an 18-year-old student of internet security, said she had been surprised by the effect of being deprived of her beloved instant messaging and Facebook. "It's a lot better," she said. "I can pay attention much better now."

As it is a laptop university, students have computers open at most lectures. In an average class, Rivera would have AOL, Yahoo, MSN and Skype instant messaging running, with up to seven chats going at the same time. "Normally I'd be chatting to other people in the class about how boring it was," she said. This week, without the distractions, she has found herself taking more notes and following the tutor with greater understanding. She has been doing more homework, as in the past she often missed assignments because she was so busy messaging she didn't hear them. And she's also become more outgoing. "I'm a lot more social," she said. "I talk to a lot more people, face to face, rather than sitting there typing away."

Others have been less enthusiastic. Several of the college's computer geeks have rerouted internet access through Canada or Norway or used proxy websites to break through the firewall. Some students have nipped to the nearby Hilton hotel to use its wireless access.

Giovanni Acosta, 21, knows how to overcome the blackout but decided against it, as he wanted to see the outcome of the experiment. At first he said he was twitchy. "I had to log on to Facebook even though I knew it was blocked, and I did that every 10 minutes or so, again and again," he said. "But now the itch has gone. I've learnt how much I was being distracted."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Pictures Of The Day

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Nutty Bloke In White

This week the pope is in London. You will have your own views on the discrimination against women, the homophobia, and the international criminal conspiracy to cover up for mass child rape. My special interest is his role in the 2 million people who die of Aids each year.

In May 2005, shortly after taking office, the pope made his first pronouncement on Aids, and came out against condoms. He was addressing bishops from South Africa, where somebody dies of Aids every two minutes; Botswana, where 23.9% of adults between 15 and 49 are HIV positive; Swaziland, where 26.1% of adults have HIV; Namibia (a trifling 15%); and Lesotho, 23%.

This is continuing. In March 2009, on his flight to Cameroon (where 540,000 people have HIV), Pope Benedict XVI explained that Aids is a tragedy "that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems". In May 2009, the Congolese bishops conference made a happy announcement: "In all truth, the pope's message which we received with joy has confirmed us in our fight against HIV/Aids. We say no to condoms!"

His stance has been supported, in the past year alone, by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster. "It is quite ridiculous to go on about Aids in Africa and condoms, and the Catholic Church," says O'Connor.

"I talk to priests who say, 'My diocese is flooded with condoms and there is more Aids because of them.'"

Some have been more imaginative in their quest to spread the message against condoms. In 2007, Archbishop Francisco Chimoio of Mozambique announced that European condom manufacturers are deliberately infecting condoms with HIV to spread Aids in Africa. Out of every 8 people in Mozambique, one has HIV.

It was Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo of Colombia who most famously claimed that the HIV virus can pass through tiny holes in the rubber of condoms. Again, he was not alone. "The condom is a cork," said Bishop Demetrio Fernandez of Spain, "and not always effective."

In 2005 Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, explained that scientific research has never proven that condoms "immunise against infection".

He's right, they don't. They stop the virus which kills you from being transmitted during sex.

How effective are they? It's wise not to overstate your case. The current systematic review of the literature on this question published by Cochrane found 14 observational studies (because it's unethical to do a randomised trial where you actively stop people using condoms, since you know that they work but just want to find out how well).

These studies generally looked at HIV transmission in stable couples where one partner had HIV.

Many of them looked at transfusion patients and haemophiliacs. Overall, rates of HIV infection were 80% lower in the partners who reported always using a condom, compared to those who said they never did. 80% is pretty good.

There is no single perfect solution to the problem of Aids: if things were that easy, it wouldn't be killing 2 million people every year.

ABC is a widely used prevention acronym in Africa: abstain, be [faithful], [use a] condom. Picking out one effective measure and actively campaigning against it is plainly destructive, just as telling people to abstain doesn't make everyone abstain, and telling people to use condoms won't make everyone use them. But Ratzinger has proclaimed: "The most effective presence on the front in the battle against HIV/Aids is the Catholic church and her institutions."

This is ludicrous. You, the Catholic church, is the only major influential international political organisation that actively tells people not to do something that works – on a huge scale. Your own figures show that your numbers are growing in Africa, even faster than the population does.

I'm happy for you to suggest abstention. But sabotaging an effective intervention which prevents a disease that kills 2 million people a year makes you a serious global public health problem.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Where Were You That Day?

Big Boys: Consumer Goods

Co-Op is The Future?

The owner of the Blackwell specialist books chain is handing ownership of the business to its staff because he is determined to prevent it ever being taken over and is "passionate" about keeping the family name on the company founded by his great-grandfather.

Toby Blackwell, 81, told the Guardian there were two reasons behind his decision to convert the chain into a John Lewis-style staff-owned group: "I have seen all sorts of awful takeovers. I joined the business 55 years ago, I own 100% of the votes and I want the name to stay over the door. I am passionate about that."

Blackwell said he is drawing up a new constitution for the chain – which has 37 permanent shops and 40 that open temporarily on campuses – and it would be based on the John Lewis partnership, which controls the eponymous department store chain and Waitrose supermarkets.

He and two long-standing associates will retain control of Blackwell's A shares – the voting shares, which have no dividends attached. They will be placed in a trust. The B shares, or wealth shares, will go into another, employee, trust.

"No one will own shares," said Blackwell. "There will be an annual bonus, paid out of profits, and the chairman will get the same percentage [payout] as the part-time lady on the till in a store."

He said the bookseller's staff were "very, very important" to its future success and was convinced that employees of John Lewis-style businesses performed better. "My wife loves Waitrose. The staff there smile, because they own it, and because they want to sell you more."

The John Lewis partnership has proved more resilient than many of its rivals in the recession and research by the Cass business school says there is evidence that staff-owned firms performed far better than shareholder-owned firms.

Charlie Mayfield, chairman of John Lewis, said the structure meant "a happier workforce, more accountable management, a closer alignment of risk and reward and a fairer distribution of profit".

Blackwell's decision comes after several years of losses and at a time when booksellers are facing mounting competition from supermarkets, the internet and e-books. Borders has closed down in the UK and HMV is facing shareholder pressure to sell its underperforming Waterstone's chain. But Blackwell expects to move back into profit this year and its owner said he was convinced his chain had a bright future: "We must concentrate on being a specialist. We have some of the best specialists in the world. As long as there are people who want to speak to a specialist, we will stay in business."

He said he was doing much of the work on the new constitution himself because "I don't want to hire a lot of consultants".

The Blackwell business traces its roots back to the 19th century, when it was founded as a small bookseller on Broad Street in Oxford. It expanded on to the internet and to London in the 1990s and also had a publishing arm until it was sold to rival John Wiley in 2007. Control has been handed down through the family.

Blackwell said his own children – two sons and a daughter who runs a book store in Scotland – approved of the move to employee ownership: "When we sold publishing I gave them a lot of money. They are all right about this."

He first got the idea of transferring ownership when he sat next to John Neill, the boss of employee-owned car parts supplier Unipart, at a meeting of a local training and enterprise council. He said his conversation with Neill was "an education".

As part of a bid to cut costs and reshape the business, Blackwell announced earlier this week that it is closing its head office and sending staff to work in its stores. However, 25 are to be made redundant.

Big Boys: Utilities

Men Of Science

Big Boys: Oil

Friday, September 10, 2010

Lou "NYC" Reed

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Gap Yeah 2: Afterparty

Gap Yeah!

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Sweet 80s - Still Of The Night

Big Boys: Insurance

Need A Ride?

CAR clubs, whose members pay an annual fee and then rent a car by the hour on a pay-as-you-go basis, are moving from a fringe fad for greens to a big global business. Carmakers have no choice but to pay attention: one rental car can take the place of 15 owned vehicles.

Car-sharing started in Europe and spread to America in the late 1990s, when the first venture opened in Portland, Oregon, a traditional hangout of tree-huggers. For years it was organised by small co-operatives, often supported by local government. It still has a green tinge. One in five new cars added to club fleets is electric; such cars are good for short-range, urban use. But sharing is no longer small.

Frost & Sullivan, a market-research firm, estimates that by 2016 the market will be worth $6 billion a year, half of that in America, with a total of some 10m users. Outside America, most of the growth is in Britain and other north European countries such as Germany. The market leader is a company called Zipcar, founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is now headed for a public listing. Zipcar already has 400,000 members, mostly in America where it is thought to have 80% of the market. It recently bought Streetcar, the market leader in London, though competition authorities are still scrutinising that deal.

Zipsters, as members are called, book their car by phone or online, pick it up from a nearby parking bay and unlock it with their Zipcard. When they finish, they leave it in a neighbourhood parking bay, rather than having to return it to a central depot. Hertz and Avis, two conventional car-hire firms, are trying something similar, fearful that their daily and weekly rental business will suffer if they ignore the new trend.

Carmakers are interested, too. Daimler launched its car2go with a pilot scheme in Ulm, in Germany, where it now has 19,000 members nationwide. It has also set up a scheme in Austin, Texas, where members can pick up the car in one place, leave it in another and pay by the minute. Such car-sharing schemes have been boosted by American university campuses banning student cars to ease congestion. Daimler, which makes Mercedes cars and trucks, uses its tiny smart fortwo cars for the service. In Germany the market leader in car-sharing is a company owned by Deutsche Bahn, a railway giant, based around railway stations. In France, Peugeot is experimenting with its own scheme.

Frost & Sullivan calculates that a car owner doing 12,000 miles (19,000km) a year can save $1,834 by shifting to a car-sharing service. So car-sharing will stimulate short-term demand for new cars while threatening a proportion of carmakers’ longer-term sales. There is one way that car-sharing might actually help carmakers, however. The main car-sharing firms are keen to promote electric vehicles, since that fits with their green ethos. So they could become a reliable source of demand for such cars, which carmakers feel they ought to make but are unsure if they can sell. And if sharers like their electric vehicles, they may even go on to buy them.

OMG, What - No God???

Big Boys: Telecos

Anyway... Happy Birthday!

Friday, September 03, 2010

Earthquake in Aotearoa

That Tuesday morning...

Last week, the website WikiLeaks released half a million pager messages that were sent on Sept. 11, 2001. These messages provide a fascinating glimpse back at how people responded in real-time to the terrifying events of that Tuesday morning. While many of the messages are either unrelated to the attacks or simply the incomprehensible techno-babble of automated telecommunications, many others capture the raw emotional flavour of the chaos following the tragedy. People reach out to family and friends to see if they're safe, exchange "I love you" s, inform others who may not have heard about the terrorist acts and express -- often in colourful terms -- their shock and outrage.

The texts make for fascinating reading, and provoke some good discussions of the cliched, "Where were you when it happened?" variety. But a source I've found even more interesting, if chilling, is the Sept. 11 Television Archive (, you can watch television coverage of the event as it happened, starting even before the attacks began. The videos cover the major American broadcasters -- CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox --as well as the BBC. The passage of time has not dulled the horror. It's still as much a kick in the gut as it was eight years ago. Indeed, watching the coverage again this morning, my eyes were glued to the handy little clocks the networks insert into their broadcasts alongside their corporate logos. A literal countdown. It's like watching a tragedy from afar, knowing it's going to happen, but being helpless to stop it. The feeling of dread is still overpowering.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Picture Of The Day

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

An Enigma

Digested Read:

I wanted this book to be different from the traditional political memoir. Most, I have found, are rather easy to put down. So what you will read here is not a conventional account of whom I met. There are events and politicians who are absent, not because they don't matter, but because they are part of a different story to the self-serving one I want to tell!

No, seriously guys, this is going to be well different. How many other world leaders use so many exclamation marks! And it is as a world leader that I'm writing for you about my journey. And what a journey! When I started in politics I was just an ordinary kind of guy. And you know what? I'm still an ordinary kind of guy – albeit one who has become a multi-millionaire and completely destabilised the Middle East!

You know, I had a tear in my eye when I entered No10 for the first time in 1997, though it wasn't, as the Daily Mail tried to claim, because I was choked with emotion at how far I had come since I was a young, ordinary boy standing on the terraces of St James' Park, watching Jackie Milburn play for Newcastle. It was because Gordon had hit me. Ah, Gordon! He meant well, I suppose, in his funny little emotionally inarticulate way.

I guess some of you will find it hard to believe, but I never really wanted to be a politician. But sometimes courage is about taking the difficult decisions and when Cherie said, "God is calling you to fulfil your destiny", I knew I had to listen. So it was with a heavy heart that I outmanoeuvred Gordon over the leadership of the party after John's death – and whatever Gordo says there was never a deal struck at Granita where he could take definitely take over after my second term. Because I had my fingers crossed!

The first year in office was pretty exciting and it was great fun having my old mates like Anji in the office. (I'd tried to get in to her sleeping bag once when I was 16 but she kicked me out! Her loss!) The death of the People's Princess came as a blow – I always found the Royal Family a bit freaky! – but I had a real sense the public were willing me to succeed. A pity the same couldn't be said for the media who were only too willing to see the worst in the Bernie Ecclestone and Peter Mandelson affairs. Looking back, I feel bad about forcing Peter to resign. But at the time it was him or me. So what the hell!

I find also that Mo Mowlam's part in the Northern Ireland peace process has been rather overstated. So to put the record straight, it was all down to me. The talks had reached an impasse and I said to Gerry and David, "Look guys, we're on a journey," and they said, "Cool Tony, We're with you."

If only Iraq had been that simple. I know there are some of you out there who want me to apologise, but life isn't that simple when there's a war crimes indictment at stake. Look, I feel the deaths of our servicemen every bit as keenly as if the bullets had pierced me like stigmata, but sometimes one has to just stand up and do the right thing even if the evidence isn't there. OK, I will admit I did have a bit of a wobbly – Cherie had to give me big cuddles, know what I mean! – when it turned out Saddam didn't have WMD, but I honestly never lied about them. It was just one, small, teeny mistake and everyone tore me to pieces! Give us a break! And for the record I didn't always have a plan to go to war. The first I heard of it was when Statesman George – Top bloke! Top thinker! – phoned to say US troops were going in!

I was pretty fed up when everyone failed to see what we had achieved in Iraq, but an audience with the Pope, who said, "It is you who should be baptising me", soon cheered me up. And I felt a sense of duty to protect the country from Gordon's incompetence. "You're just waiting until everything's about to go pear-shaped," he would yell. As if! It was only my darling John Prescott's desire to be out of the limelight as my deputy that prompted my resignation. Selfless little old moi!

Yet, though I feel proud of my achievements and sad at the direction the Labour party is now taking, my journey is not over. It continues ever onwards into farce. May my blessings rain upon the Middle East!

Digested read, digested A journey . . . along the path of self-righteousness.