This is NOT the official weblog of Mark Thomas; this is a place to post his articles and news to bring them to a wider audience. This blog is in no way endorsed by the activist/comedian Mark Thomas. Most of the posts appeared on - hopefully they won't object to them being republished here.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Illiberal New Labour

A friend of mine named his toilet “the Hezza”, after Michael Heseltine, back in the darker days of the Thatcher years. I don’t know if it is a common habit for people to rename household items after politicians, but for some years now I have called our bidet “Prescott”, because I don’t know what that’s for either. His sex life is unimportant – politicians can shag manhole covers, for all I care, and frankly the passing image of Prescott’s four chins juddering in flushed passion is not one that most people would wish to dwell on. The significant thing about Prescott and his dead career is that he embodies all that is wrong with the new Labour state: out of touch, useless and beginning to stink.

Consider Patricia Hewitt. Booed by the Royal College of Nursing, this is her WI moment. To be booed by the RCN is equivalent to a children’s entertainer being bottled off. So as peerages get offered out of the back of three-wheelers with “Trotter Trading” on the side of them, and Brown lurks, waiting to mug Blair with all the finesse of a released prison rapist, it has all gone a bit Frank Spencer. “Labour seem a bit like the last lot,” folk are saying, remembering John Major’s incompetent government of gun-runners, liars and corrupt grasping filth. However, this is not just a case of the electorate not trusting politicians; in truth, the politicians have never trusted the people, especially when it comes to civil liberties. For all the many lawyers in new Labour’s ranks, the party has never been a lover of these rights.

Consider the tale of Brian Haw, who has been staging an anti-war vigil outside parliament since July 2001. Haw is Britain’s best-known demonstrator. He has camped out in Parliament Square, in all weathers and despite harassment, to protest first against sanctions on Iraq and then against the invasion. During his time there, he has amassed enough banners and placards to keep a small recycling company in business, should they ever come down. Not everyone, however, has viewed his peaceful presence with tolerance; Westminster Council made a cack-handed attempt to evict him on the grounds that he was obstructing the pavement, and the government went so far as to include Clauses 132-138 in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Socpa) specifically to bring an end to Haw’s protest.

The question is: why did they go to such lengths? What was so awful about a man protesting outside parliament? So what if he sleeps outside? What threat does he pose? Do the police and security forces perhaps believe he could be a closet Qaeda cell playing the long game? Do his placards bring parliament into disrepute any more than the behaviour of most of the MPs who work in the place does?

David Blunkett, when he was home secretary, explained the government’s case as follows: “It is a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but he is a nut.” Yet if we are talking about disrespecting parliament, surely fast-tracking a nanny’s visa is a slightly graver offence.

Even changing the law, however, could not remove Haw from his vigil, as our nation’s fine and august lawmakers managed to... er... "fuck it up". The law stated that people must have permission from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner before they “start” a demonstration. As Haw’s demonstration had been going on for years before the law was introduced, his lawyers argued that Socpa could not apply to him. This argument found favour with the judges last October and the protest was deemed to be legal – leaving new Labour lawmakers with more egg on their face than a Salvador Dalí painting.

On 8 May, however, three Court of Appeal judges overturned that decision, arguing that “parliament intended to include demonstrations whenever they started”. And just to make sure that Haw didn’t try to do anything silly and provocative such as challenge their decision, the judges refused him permission to appeal to the House of Lords. Whether Haw will contest that ruling is not yet known, so there is still a chance that this wonderful specimen of human cussedness will have another day in court.

For some people, Brian Haw’s experience epitomises new Labour’s illiberal inclinations. From the new offence of “glorifying acts of terrorism” through to “stop and search” for demonstrators, new Labour has made citizens more accountable to the state but not the other way around, which is the preferable path in a democracy. The government has never felt happy handing power or rights over to the people who elect them. Yes, the Human Rights Act came through, but so did detention without trial and the right for courts to use evidence extracted under torture (before that was thrown out by the law lords) and an ID card scheme.

All of which makes Labour appear petty, vindictive and inept – much like the last lot. So I shall leave you with this happy thought: the government created a law and wasted thousands of pounds and countless man-hours trying to enforce it, all because one peaceful demonstrator spoils the view and supposedly brings parliament into disrepute. If those are what pass for good reasons these days, it can surely be only a matter of weeks before new Labour introduces a law that forbids ministers from shagging in their offices. The mere thought of that spoils a lot more than a view.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Dangerous Widgets

It seems like only yesterday that Tony Blair was invading Iraq and lecturing us about how sometimes in government you have to do what is right rather than what is popular. This week it seems it is important to do what is popular. (If only he could manage to be both right and popular and get lost... ) But if “popular concerns” were the guiding force behind political action, MPs would have slashed their own wages and strung themselves up from lamp-posts long ago. And if Blair really wants to be popular he should reintroduce the death penalty and, on a bad sporting day for England, nuke France into the bargain.

This week, according to the Prime Minister, anyone who is against ID cards is a Hamza-hook-fondling liberal. Possibly a kiddie-bender, too. So, not wishing to appear out of step with the law-and-order agenda, this column takes as its topic antisocial behaviour... and the arms industry.

Globalisation has affected every sector, and arms manufacturing is no exception. Rather than selling whole fighter planes, companies may find it easier to license production to countries with cheaper labour costs, such as Pakistan or Egypt, shipping out the component parts for assembly. Britain appears to be carving out a role in this globalised arms trade as a maker and supplier of widgets, the components that make the arms work. A growing number of British widgets are ending up in machines that go bang or bump, and increasingly they do so in places where they shouldn’t. Arms control is keeping pace with neither technology nor globalisation.

The massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan, in May last year, saw about 500 civilians murdered by the Uzbek authorities, which even by Blair’s standards has to count as antisocial behaviour, perhaps beyond even the restraining powers of Asbos. News pictures showed Uzbek soldiers taking cover by military vehicles and training their guns on the fleeing men, women and children. To some the vehicles looked strangely familiar, and so they should have: they were Land-Rovers, exported to a state that likes to boil its political opponents to death.

“But they are only Land-Rovers,” you may cry. No, they are military vehicles, and without them soldiers would have to rely on the Uzbek Oyster card to travel to and from a massacre (making slaughter cheaper but dependent on track-repair programmes). How did they get there? Land-Rover had exported “civilian” component parts to Otokar, a Turkish company, which assembled “military” vehicles before passing them on to Uzbekistan. In all, 70 per cent of the vehicle comes from Solihull, and this valuable trade (of which Land-Rover says it knows nothing) requires no arms-export licence.

It is not an isolated case. The CIA has used pilotless drone planes, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to carry out attacks in countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan. Called the Predator, the agency’s UAV can be controlled from hundreds of miles away via satellite and a joystick – the ultimate PlayStation game. In 2002 the CIA launched a Hellfire missile from a Predator plane over Yemen, killing six men including a Qaeda suspect. The popular response might be: “Bollocks to them, al-Qaeda innit?” But Amnesty International said: “To the extent that the US authorities deliberately decided to kill, rather than attempt to arrest these men, their killing would amount to extrajudicial executions.” Extrajudicial killings tend to be frowned on by Britain, unless we are talking about Brazilian electricians and blokes carrying chair legs wrapped in paper.

On 13 January this year the CIA again used a Predator to launch a missile strike, this time on the village of Damadola in Pakistan. There appears to be no evidence that the target, the Qaeda second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was among the dead, but reportedly 18 others were, among them five women and five children.

The Predator’s technology comes from Towcester in Northamptonshire, where a company called Radstone Technology produces single-board computers for the Predator’s US makers, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems. A Radstone spokesman has been reported as describing the technology as the “brain” of the Predator, without which the plane would not be able to fly.

As with Land-Rover and military vehicles in Uzbekistan, Radstone does not need a licence to export the “brains” of a pilotless drone that goes around firing missiles for the CIA. This is odd. In fact, it is more than odd. The main instrument of British arms-trade control is licensing – you need a licence to export anything from body armour to missiles – and under the rules UAVs are regarded as “long-range missiles”, placing them in the same “restricted goods” class as WMDs and some torture equipment. Jane’s Defence Weekly, the arms industry trade journal, has to get a licence just to publish adverts for UAVs. That’s right: you need a licence to advertise an unmanned aerial vehicle, but you don’t need one to export the computer that makes it work.

As industrial production fragments around the globe, we will see more examples of British technology playing a part in extrajudicial killings and massacres. So, if arms-trade control is to have any meaningful impact in protecting lives worldwide, we have to catch the widgets in the net, too.