Friday, 1 August 2014

North Lanarkshire Update



As the summer holiday season in Scotland begins to draw to a close, I think this is probably a good time to post a brief update about the the ongoing fight for equal pay in North Lanarkshire.

As regular readers know a series of meetings has been arranged during August to pursue settlement talks with the Council, but if these discussions do not result in real progress towards resolving all the outstanding equal pay claims, then all the cases will return immediately to the Employment Tribunal in Glasgow.

For obvious reasons, there will not be a 'running commentary' on the settlement discussions with the Council, but as soon as there is any news to report (one way or the other) the details will be published here on the A4ES blog site.

Lots of people will have been on holiday during July and so I plan to re-post various articles from the blog site about North Lanarkshire, which have been published over the past month or so, to bring everyone bang up to date.

I have been as active as ever on the Freedom of Information (FoI) front and there are some very interesting developments to share with readers from North Lanarkshire.

So watch this space.  

The 'V' Word



I have to say I have no idea why someone would want to engrave the word 'vagina' onto their iPad, but I take the wider point that Janey Stephenson is making in this interesting and thought provoking piece from The Independent.

If guys are dumb enough to inscribe their Apple products with words like 'dick' and 'penis', then what's the big deal about a woman using the word 'vagina' to describe her latest IT purchase?

But what is actually much more ridiculous is the revelation that America's House of Representatives actually banned the use of the 'V' word back in 2012 for being 'vile and disgusting' at the instigation of Mike Calton, Republican Senator for the state of Michigan.  

Now I suspect that Mike Calton grew up in a very traditional, conservative household where the use of all kinds of everyday words were frowned upon or even banned - period!

So I agree with Janey Stephenson, this whole business of stigmatising and shaming women's bodies is like something out of the Victorian era and it ought to be ridiculed out of existence. 

Apple doesn't like vaginas, and they're not alone


By JANEY STEPHENSON - The Independent

Not being allowed to engrave the word 'vagina' onto an iPad may seem farcical, but it's all part of a much wider problem facing women around the world

This week, under somewhat unique circumstances, an American woman discovered that Apple wouldn't engrave the word "vagina" onto her iPad. The reason? The word is considered “inappropriate language” by the company.

However, the female customer soon discovered that "penis" and "dick" were acceptable. This strange breed of sexism isn’t new to Apple — it has already been discovered that its autocorrect function would rather assume you’re talking about bacon or cabins rather than vaginas.

All of this would be laughable, maybe even trivial, if it didn’t belong to a wider trend of people who are so uncomfortable with the word "vagina" that they want to censor it.

Back in 2012, US State Representative Lisa Brown was banned from speaking in the Michigan House of Representatives because she used the word during a debate on abortion.

Mike Callton, a Republican State Rep for Michigan, said that Brown’s use of vagina was so vile and disgusting that he would never mention it in front of women or “mixed company”.

In 2013, a biology teacher said "vagina" during a tenth-grade high school science lesson in the US. Upon hearing that their children had learned the correct anatomical term for female genitalia, numerous parents pushed for an investigation into the teacher’s conduct.

So what’s wrong with the word "vagina"? Is it the pronunciation? Do the three syllables and long vowel sounds make people cringe? Or is it more the fact that vaginas are often attached to women and linked with sexual shame and disgust?

Apple’s decision to class the word "vagina" as "inappropriate" makes no sense. But at the same time, such an attitude has become sadly predictable. We live in a world that holds women’s bodies in high disregard, and a dislike towards the word ‘vagina’ is a hateful product of this. Especially after the recent Hobby Lobby ruling, a multinational corporation’s choice to censor this word is alarming.

Apple’s restriction displays an indisputable gender bias that is completely unacceptable. Silencing and prohibiting use of the word "vagina" but permitting "penis" is one of the clearest examples of phallocentrism anyone could imagine. Doesn't Apple’s sleek branding suggest that they're a bit more forward-thinking than this?

Women’s reproductive rights are under huge threat from governments, who treat vaginas like public property, as well as schools, who refuse to teach children about family planning. Global sexual violence against women has reached epidemic levels. Somehow, female genital mutilation still exists.

In order to combat all of these issues, we need to stop stigmatising and shaming women’s bodies. Everyone — individuals, governments and companies alike — has a part to play in this.

We need to be talking about vaginas much more. We need to do so candidly, intelligently, with respect and without censorship. Most importantly, we need to be talking about the rights of the humans that they belong to.

No part of anyone’s body is intrinsically offensive or inappropriate. For global corporations to say it is is not just disrespectful, but dangerous.

Ed Ain't No Tony Blair



The nub of this opinion piece by Daniel Finkelstein is that 'Ed Miliband ain't no Tony Blair' which is a play on the put down used by Lloyd Bentsen who famously told his political rival, Dan Quayle, in a vice-presidential TV debate:  

"Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." 

Ouch!

Blairism worked – but we can’t go back to it


By Daniel Finkelstein - The Times

The famous ‘third way’ was possible because there was money in the kitty. Now, 20 years on, Labour must reinvent itself

Just after I wrote my very first piece for The Times, the comment editor took me to lunch to explain what the paper was after. It was the middle of the 1980s and I was still a member of the SDP. The paper wanted someone who wasn’t a Tory, he said.

Labour was boycotting The Times because of the Wapping dispute, and the comment editor explained that the columnist they had wanted had been forced to withdraw because he was a Labour MP. This, despite the fact that the junior MP in question was apparently quite frank that he thought that the Wapping dispute was wrong, believed the print unions needed to be defeated and regarded the Labour boycott as bonkers.

And that was how I first heard the name: Tony Blair.

Monday was the 20th anniversary of Mr Blair’s accession to the leadership of the Labour party, and to mark the occasion he gave a speech to supporters on the principles of his third way and how they were for life and not just for Christmas. But only two days earlier, the current Labour leader, Ed Miliband, had announced that his party would be “moving on from new Labour”.

There’s no doubt which speech I found more attractive. Mr Blair’s was much better in tone and content. Yet on the question of a return to new Labour, I’m equally in no doubt. Mr Miliband was right. There is no going back to Tony Blair.

The core insights of the Blairites were well summarised in Mr Blair’s speech. They recognised that the electorate had changed. Class barriers had eroded and prosperity had changed relationships with the state. Voters were much less interested in collective rights and more interested in individual ones. And they were much less attached to parties, no longer regarding it so much as part of their class identity.

To respond to this, Labour had to move away from traditional socialist ideas and programmes. Instead it should defend Labour values (vaguely defined as caring about poor people and being “progressive”) but be endlessly flexible about methods. It should embrace free markets, be tough on crime, keep taxes down and reform public services.

Mr Blair was emphatic on Monday that this flexibility did not require him to abandon his principles, and I think he was correct. It didn’t. Yet in this lies the first clue as to why there will be and can be no return.

Mr Blair was able to accommodate a more individualistic electorate and the views of Middle England because, as I discovered that very first time I heard about him, he shared these views. When I read his memoirs I realised that everything that had been said about him really being on the centre right was true. The extent of it is quite striking.

He didn’t have to abandon his principles to woo Conservatives because he agreed with the Tories on a vast range of issues.

The unique nature of Tony Blair, a centre-right politician leading a centre-left party, is not the only reason that the Blair years would be impossible for anyone else to replicate. The other big reason is the money.

The money made the “third way” possible and now there isn’t any.

With the economy growing strongly, and a relatively relaxed attitude to borrowing, it was possible for Labour to spend more on public services without penal rates of tax. It was possible to pay public sector workers more, keeping them relatively content, even while the government spoke about reform. It was possible to raise welfare budgets and keep welfare advocates onside while talking about reducing fraud. And it was possible to boost the wages of low-paid workers with tax credits, no matter how expensive.

The trick pulled off by Mr Blair — to keep both public sector and private sector, both low paid and well paid, both consumer and producer onside — was not a magic one. It wasn’t the result of his (admittedly strong) charisma. And it wasn’t the result of a hitherto undiscovered strategy that somehow dissolved all political differences and reconciled all interests. It was done by the money.

It isn’t necessary to resolve the contentious question of whether Labour borrowed more than it should have in order to make this simple observation — what Labour did after 1997 cannot be done again. This fact alone would make a new third way almost impossible.

Without money, governments cannot buy off both sides in a clash of interest. They have to cut services or increase tax, or both. If they reform the public sector, they will do so when workers are already being paid less and are less willing to accept change. It will be decades before the lessons of the massive deficit disappear altogether. Until then a “big tent” in which everyone is on the same side and borrowing keeps them that way, cannot be erected.

Money is the biggest reason why Mr Miliband will have to look — is being forced to look— beyond new Labour, but it is not the only reason. Other compromises will not be possible to return to either.

Mr Blair’s insistence, for instance, that joining the euro has no political implications, and is purely a question of practical economics, is also now impossible to sustain. The constitutional issues have become obvious. It would not be possible for an integrationist prime minister (as Mr Blair was) to avoid arguing with mainstream opinion about integration (as, in the main, Mr Blair did).

The new Labour formula wouldn’t work on Europe. Just as it wouldn’t work on immigration. It is no longer possible with any political success to respond to popular concern about immigration merely by making the right sounds while letting the numbers rise rapidly.

What happened over Iraq showed the limits of the third way. In the end, here was a question that couldn’t be avoided, rephrased, dissolved with money, smothered by charisma. It had to be answered — act or don’t act. And he had to make friends (me) and enemies (everyone else). The new Labour “big tent” approach didn’t even see out Tony Blair.

In other words, Ed Miliband cannot repeat what Tony Blair did because even Tony Blair couldn’t. And because Ed Miliband isn’t Tony Blair. And because the conditions won’t allow it. New Labour is the party’s past, but it can’t be its future.

New Formula



Here's an intelligent article from The Scotsman on the much abused Barnett Formula written by Brian Monteith a former Member of the Scottish Parliament (MSP).

Now Brian is absolutely correct about the intention behind the Barnett Formula which was to base future increases in public spending on population, so that over time Scotland's share would gradually converge with the rest of the UK.

The only thing that has stopped this happening is that UK Governments, of all kinds over the years, have made political decisions which dilute the 'converging' effects of the Barnett Formula, but that does not affect its underlying logic and raison d'être, so to speak.

I wrote about this very issue for Business am all of 13 years ago now, so it's good to see other commentators finally catching up and isn't it good to see a former Tory politician like Brian Monteith supporting the principle that the Scottish Parliament should raise directly most, if not all, of the money it spends.

Brian Monteith: Taking Barnett’s name in vain

Joel Barnett, the Labour chief secretary to the treasury from 1974-79, came up with the formula. Picture: Contributed

by BRIAN MONTEITH - The Scotsman

New formula needed, mostly to stop nationalists being economical with the truth, writes Brian Monteith

Whither the Barnett Formula? Or should I say, wither the Barnett Formula. Apologies in advance for those who think that discussing what appears an esoteric topic unrelated to the cut and thrust of real politics and the blood, sweat and tears of everyday modern living is a distraction from the referendum.

Nevertheless, I am moved to write about the Barnett Formula for there is much being said about it in this campaign that is either ignorant nonsense or mendacious partisan spinning intent on deceiving the public to vote one way or the other. The Barnett Formula’s name is being taken in vain and it requires some healing antiseptic.

First the history: the Barnett formula is named after Joel Barnett, the Labour chief secretary to the treasury from 1974-79 – the position that Danny Alexander now holds in our coalition government. It replaced the previous formula, called Goschen, named after George Goschen who was chancellor of the exchequer in 1888. The formula is used to obtain the amounts that will accrue to the Scottish block grant deriving from any changes to UK public spending.

To identify the nonsenses being uttered over the last year or two and in particular last week (about NHS spending) it is important to be clear about what the Barnett Formula is designed to achieve (so long as politicians do not undermine it by not adhering to it).

In 1979 the public spending per head on Scots was some 22 per cent greater than for the UK average. To maintain that advantage would require that every time the UK treasury announced its public spending, the same ratio would have had to be maintained. The Barnett Formula set out that spending on Scottish Office responsibilities (broadly those covered by the Scottish Parliament today) would be set at a share proportionate to the Scottish share of the UK population. This would mean that over time the spending per head of population would converge so that both averages were about the same.

In other words the Barnett Formula must mean a gradual but noticeable public spending squeeze that most Scottish politicians would find abhorrent, such is their addiction to ever greater spending from higher taxes and higher public debt.

It is important to appreciate that the Scottish block grant and Barnett Formula are not the same thing – they are entirely separate – for public spending by the UK treasury can be added to the block grant outwith Barnett, which contrary to the mythological perceptions of Nationalists, happened a great deal during the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher. This of course worked against Barnett’s purpose of convergence, but she was never thanked for this spending as it worked against Labour’s pseudo-nationalist narrative.

The result was that by 1997 the per capita spending in Scotland had increased to 25 per cent of the average of that in the United Kingdom. Scotland was hardly a nation under the yoke of English subjugation.

But that was then and this is now. We have devolution and the arrangement has changed. Initially there was just the straight block grant with the adjustments made through the Barnett Formula as spending in the UK increased, but soon will come the changes brought through the Calman Commission that has resulted in the Scotland Act of 2012. And now we have further constitutional and financial arrangements proposed by all three unionist parties if Scotland votes No. What then does that mean for the Barnett Formula?

We constantly hear Nationalists attack supporters of the union with the allegation that if we stay in the United Kingdom the Barnett Formula will be cut by something like £4bn a year. Either these people are ignorant of public finances or they are being intentionally mendacious. I suspect both. The Barnett Formula is and always has been designed to cut public expenditure in Scotland – that is its raison d’être! Given that all nationalist propaganda advocates ever-more public spending from the bottomless public purse, one might expect Nationalists to object to the Barnett Formula. But instead they confuse it with the Scottish block grant and seek to defend it as beyond criticism. And these people wish us to give them our trust in all of the nation’s finances?

Meanwhile, the Unionists wish to rearrange the financial arrangements (to varying degrees depending which party you listen to) so that more of the Scottish Parliament’s budget is raised from taxes that it commands – making it more accountable – which must mean that in turn the Barnett Formula must change. It follows logically that if Westminster is granting a smaller share towards the spending then there is less reason to direct the convergence of funding by the UK treasury.

In other words if there is greater devolution of the funding arrangements that makes the Scottish Parliament more self-financing we should celebrate the end of the Barnett Formula. We shall need a new formula, but there is little point in retaining the name.

What we require is greater honesty from our politicians, especially the Nationalists. The Barnett Formula has nothing to do with the survival of the NHS in Scotland. As a former convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s public audit committee for four years I am well aware of how the NHS is financed and budget lines are directed. It is entirely a matter for the Scottish Parliament at what level the NHS is given a financial priority – indeed I recall many a time when funding from Barnett consequentials from increased English spending on, say, education was directed entirely to health in Scotland.

So let’s not fall for the delusion that what happens in England must result in changes in Scotland. The point of devolution is that different options are available – an outcome that is of course anathema to Nationalists as it kills their Westminster bogeyman.

With the new proposals of even greater devolution by all three Unionist parties, the future of Barnett must be stated and they need to be frank – it should be abolished. It is time for a new formula, one where the Scottish Parliament raises most of what it spends and the difference is topped up. Maybe we could call it the Alexander Formula after the current chief secretary. Either way, Barnett will be no more and we should rejoice! I expect Lord Barnett will too.



Give To The Needy (7 April 2013)

The Barnett Formula has been back in the news recently - with Scottish Labour MPs (socialists one and all) threatening mutiny if Scotland's share of the UK's spending is affected - adversely of course - if income tax raising powers are transferred north of the border to the Holyrood Parliament.

Now it seems to me that these Labour MPs don't quite understand how the Barnett Formula works - even though we pay them large sums of money to go to a big palace in Westminster - to swot up on these things.

Because the Barnett Formula which some MPs say they will defend while there's still breath in their bodies - is actually achieving convergence as we speak. 

In other words, these numpties know not of what they speak - with such ferocity and certainty - and deserve to be wearing the dunce's hat or at least put on the naughty step for not paying attention - until the end of this parliamentary term.

By which time Scotland will be free - or not - as the case may be once we have the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

In the meantime I can't see how anyone can describe themself as a 'socialist' - if a main plank in their politic outlook is the dogged defence of historical spending patterns - because this is essentially a conservative philosophy and has nothing to do with needs based public spending.

Here's something I wrote on the subject in 2001 for the Business am newspaper and if I had things my way - I would make it essential reading for all Scottish MPs, especially those in the Labour Party.

Give to the needy!
Scotland has around 10% of the UK population though for many years the nation enjoyed more than its people based share of public spending, more than 12% according to official statistics. Scotland’s 20% higher spending was intended to create a level playing field. Additional resources were allocated for two reasons: the higher cost of providing public services in a geographically diverse area (compare Scotland with, say, London) and the greater levels of perceived need, evidenced by various health and poverty indicators.

Many UK organisations have similar arrangements for dividing up their budget cake. Targeting extra resources on key areas or problems is not unusual. But in 1978 all this changed with the introduction of the Barnett formula, devised by an English Labour MP, Joel Barnett. Westminster politicians took the view that Scotland’s higher share of public spending could not be expected to continue forever especially with its population declining compared to the rest of the UK.

So, Barnett was born with the intention of bringing Scotland’s spending back into line. Convergence would be achieved by linking future spending increases to population, and the old percentage share would wither slowly on the vine.

The underlying issues are clear, but politicians of all parties are getting their knickers in a twist over the impact of the so-called Barnett squeeze. Some say it’s a storm in a teacup and that convergence is not actually taking place. Others that Barnett will rob Scotland of £1 billion of much needed investment over the next three years. Academics are wheeled out to reinforce or rubbish the competing claims of both sides.

The Scottish Parliament is in exactly the same position as Westminster when it comes to dividing up the spending cake for public services. Local government uses a formula to distribute money between urban, rural and islands councils. A formula is the only way of deciding what share of spending Glasgow should get compared to rural Angus or the Western Isles. The key is that the distribution formula should be widely understood and reviewed regularly to take account of new developments.

Glasgow also has a declining population. City council leaders complained bitterly that the latest financial settlement from the Scottish executive did not take enough account of the Glasgow’s needs. The row rumbles on, as it should in a modern democracy, all sides pressing their case vigorously at times. Glasgow believes the current formula places too much emphasis on population and not enough on wider social needs. Glasgow’s citizens die much younger and lead more unhealthy lives than the average Scot.

Scotland’s NHS recently introduced a new scheme for distributing resources devised by Professor Sir John Arbuthnott, principal and vice chancellor of Strathclyde University. His review team was set up by Scotland’s first minister (Donald Dewar) and charged with producing a fair and equitable system for allocating funds to hospitals, community services and GP’s.

Just in time because Scotland’s health services are due to receive an extra £400 million for each of the next three years. Arbuthnott’s formula is needs based and is designed to address Scotland’s shocking inequalities in health. The scheme has been welcomed universally, no doubt because of its independence from government. Glasgow city council believes it should be adapted for use by Scottish local authorities.

Barnett on the other hand is an arbitrary formula, scribbled out on the back of an envelope for all anyone knows, completely unsuited for the task of modern government. What’s the point of Holyrood developing a sophisticated, needs-based model that targets resources effectively and is seen to be fair? Westminster is effectively standing this approach on its head by using population share as the key measure for devolved and non-devolved spending. By employing two directly contradictory methods in the Scottish and UK parliaments the government is making a rod for its back in the run up to the Holyrood elections in 2003.

Barnett matters because it is the exact opposite of modern management, an insult to the efficient use of scarce resources. As part of the UK club, the rest of Britain is entitled to ask Scotland what results it achieves with any extra money. Why are health inequalities in Scotland increasing when for decades additional funds were targeted on the problem? How does anyone tell whether more money will be better spent in future?

Barnett is an intellectually bankrupt policy that can only be defended with smoke and mirrors. Many politicians seem unaware of its real effect and speak about defending Barnett as though it’s a good thing. Changes in the NHS have shown e Scotland the way ahead; Arbuthnott, or something similar, should replace Barnett to make all areas of public spending transparent and more easily understood, including non-devolved areas of spending.

Mind you, scary how these people all have names that end in two t’s.

Mark Irvine

June 2001

Scottish Labour Overruled



The Scottish Labour leader, Johan Lamont, loses the plot in this interview on the Daily Politics programme with Andrew Neil, if you ask me.

After a bright start, Johann stumbles over questions about Ed Miliband's leadership before falling apart altogether on the question of extra powers for the Scottish Parliament, as the exchange with Andrew Neil which confirms that Ed Balls and the UK Labour Party overruled Scottish Labour's proposals for full devolution of income tax powers to Holyrood.

Next thing you know, Alex Massie (another journalist) makes mincemeat of Labour's devolution proposals before Johann gets into an unseemly defensive argument with another journalist, Lesley Riddoch, over whether the political culture of Scotland is distinctly different.

Which it clearly is because that is the only reason we are having a referendum on Scottish independence on 18 September 2014.      

Five Years On



Howard Jacobson wrote the following essay about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East all of five years ago.

What jumps out to me is that while the violence and loss of life in Gaza continues to attract a great deal of political attention, and rightly so, events in next-door Syria fail to ignite anything like the same level of protest, outrage and indignation.

Even though many more people are being killed, most of them Muslim, including many thousands of women and children.     

Now I'm not Israeli or Jewish, but if I were I think it would be fair too ask how Israel is expected to live in peace with its Muslim neighbours - when Sunni and Shia Muslims seem completely unable to live peacefully alongside each other.  

 
Howard Jacobson: Let's see the 'criticism' of Israel for what it really is


By Howard Jacobson - The Independent

Emotions have run high over recent events in Gaza. And in this impassioned and searching essay, our writer argues that just below the surface runs a vicious strain of ancient prejudice


I was once in Melbourne when bush fires were raging 20 or 30 miles north of the city. Even from that distance you could smell the burning. Fine fragments of ash, like slivers of charcoal confetti, covered the pavements. The very air was charred. It has been the same here these past couple of months with the fighting in Gaza. Only the air has been charred not with devastation but with hatred. And I don’t mean the hatred of the warring parties for each other. I mean the hatred of Israel expressed in our streets, on our campuses, in our newspapers, on our radios and televisions, and now in our theatres.

A discriminatory, over-and-above hatred, inexplicable in its hysteria and virulence whatever justification is adduced for it; an unreasoning, deranged and as far as I can see irreversible revulsion that is poisoning everything we are supposed to believe in here – the free exchange of opinions, the clear-headedness of thinkers and teachers, the fine tracery of social interdependence we call community relations, modernity of outlook, tolerance, truth. You can taste the toxins on your tongue.

But I am not allowed to ascribe any of this to anti-Semitism. It is, I am assured, “criticism” of Israel, pure and simple. In the matter of Israel and the Palestinians this country has been heading towards a dictatorship of the one-minded for a long time; we seem now to have attained it. Deviate a fraction of a moral millimetre from the prevailing othodoxy and you are either not listened to or you are jeered at and abused, your reading of history trashed, your humanity itself called into question. I don’t say that self-pityingly. As always with dictatorships of the mind, the worst harmed are not the ones not listened to, but the ones not listening. So leave them to it, has essentially been my philosophy. A life spent singing anti-Zionist carols in the company of Ken Livingstone and George Galloway is its own punishment.

But responses to the fighting in Gaza have been such as to drive even the most quiescent of English Jews – whether quiescent because we have learnt to expect nothing else, or because we are desperate to avoid trouble, or because we have our own frustrations with Israel to deal with – out of our usual stoical reserve. Some things cannot any longer go unchallenged.

My first challenge is implicit in the phrase “the fighting in Gaza”, which more justly describes the event than the words “Massacre” and “Slaughter” which anti-Israel demonstrators carry on their placards. This is not a linguistic ploy on my part to play down the horror of Gaza or to minimise the loss of life. In an article in this newspaper last week, Robert Fisk argued that “a Palestinian woman and her child are as worthy of life as a Jewish woman and her child on the back of a lorry in Auschwitz”. I am not sure who he was arguing with, but it certainly isn’t me.

I do not differentiate between the worth of lives and no more wish to harm or see harmed the hair of a single Palestinian than do those who make cause, here in safe cosy old easy-come easy-go England, with Hamas. Indeed, given Hamas’s record of violence to its own people – read the latest report from Amnesty if you doubt it – it’s possible I wish to harm the hair of a single Palestinian less. But that might be rhetoric in which case I apologise for it.

Rhetoric is precisely what has warped report and analysis these past months, and in the process made life fraught for most English Jews who, like me, do not differentiate between the worth of Jewish and Palestinian lives, though the imputation – loud and clear in a new hate-fuelled little chamber-piece by Caryl Churchill – is that Jews do. “Massacre” and “Slaughter” are rhetorical terms. They determine the issue before it can begin to be discussed. Are you for massacre or are you not? When did you stop slaughtering your wife?

I watched demonstrators approach members of the public with their petitions. “Do you want an end to the slaughter in Gaza?” What were those approached expected to reply? – “No, I want it to continue unabated.” If “Massacre” presumes indiscriminate, “Slaughter” presumes innocence. There is no dodging the second of those. In Gaza the innocent have suffered unbearably. But it is in the nature of modern war, where soldiers no longer toss grenades at one another from their trenches, that the innocent pay.

Live television pictures of civilian fatalities rightly distress and anger us. Similar pictures of the damage this country did to the innocent of Berlin would have distressed and angered us no less. The outrage we feel does credit to our humanity, but says nothing about the justice of a particular war. Insist that all wars are too cruel ever to be called just, argue that any discharge of weapons in the vicinity of the innocent is murderous, and you will meet no resistance from me; but you will have in the same breath to implicate Hamas who make a virtue of endangering their own civilian population, and who, as everyone knows but many choose to discount, have been firing rockets into Israeli towns for years.

The inefficiency of those rockets, landing God knows where and upon God knows whom, is often cited to minimise the offence. As though murderous intention can be mitigated by the obsolescence of the weaponry. In fact the inefficiency only exacerbates the crime. How much more indiscriminate can you be than to lob unstable rockets into civilian areas and hope for a hit? Massacre manqué, we might call it – slaughter in all but a good aim. And this not from some disaffected group we might liken to the IRA, but the legitimately elected government of Gaza.

If it is a war crime for one government to fire on civilians, it is a war crime for another. But when a protester joined a demonstration at Sheffield University recently, calling on both sides to desist, her placard was seized and trampled underfoot, while the young in their liberation scarves and embryo compassion looked on and said not one word.

And Israel? Well, speaking on BBC television at the height of the fighting, Richard Kemp, former commander of British Troops in Afghanistan and a senior military adviser to the British government, said the following: “I don’t think there has ever been a time in the history of warfare where any army has made more efforts to reduce civilian casualties and deaths of civilians than the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) is doing today in Gaza.” A judgement I can no more corroborate than those who think very differently can disprove.

Right or wrong, it was a contribution to the argument from someone who is more informed on military matters than most of us, but did it make a blind bit of difference to the tone of popular execration? It did not. When it comes to Israel we hear no good, see no good, speak no good. We turn our backsides to what we do not want to know about and bury it in distaste, like our own ordure. We did it and go on doing it with all official contestation of the mortality figures provided by Hamas. We do it with Hamas’s own private executions and their policy of deploying human shields. We do it with the sotto voce admission by the UN that “a clerical error” caused it to mis-describe the bombing of that UN school which at the time was all the proof we needed of Israel’s savagery. It now turns out that Israel did not bomb the school at all. But there’s no emotional mileage in a correction. The libel sticks, the retraction goes unnoticed.

But I am not allowed to ascribe any of this to anti-Semitism. It is criticism of Israel, pure and simple.

A laughably benign locution, “criticism”, for what is in fact – what has in recent years become – a desire to word a country not just out of the commonwealth of nations but out of physical existence altogether. Richard Ingrams daydreams of the time when Israel will no longer be, an after-dinner sleep which is more than an old man’s idle prophesying. It is for him a consummation devoutly to be wished. This week Bruce Anderson also looked to such a time, but in his case with profound regret. Israel has missed and goes on missing chances to be magnanimous, he argued, as no victor has ever been before. That’s a high expectation, but I am in sympathy with it, and it is an expectation in line with what Israel’s greatest writers and peace campaigners – Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman – have been saying for years. Though it is interesting that not a one of those believed such magnanimity included allowing Hamas’s rockets to go on falling unhindered into Israel.

Was not the original withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of the rightly detested settlements a sufficient signal of peaceful intent, and a sufficient opportunity for it to be reciprocated? Magnanimity is by definition unilateral, but it takes two for it to be more than a suicidal gesture. And the question has to be asked whether a Jewish state, however magnanimous and conciliatory, will ever be accepted in the Middle East.

But my argument is not with the Palestinians or even with Hamas. People in the thick of it pursue their own agenda as best they can. But what’s our agenda? What do we, in the cosy safety of tolerant old England, think we are doing when we call the Israelis Nazis and liken Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto? Do those who blithely make these comparisons know anything whereof they speak?

In the early 1940s some 100,000 Jews and Romanis died of engineered starvation and disease in the Warsaw Ghetto, another quarter of a million were transported to the death camps, and when the Ghetto rose up it was liquidated, the last 50,000 residents being either shot on the spot or sent to be murdered more hygienically in Treblinka. Don’t mistake me: every Palestinian killed in Gaza is a Palestinian too many, but there is not the remotest similarity, either in intention or in deed – even in the most grossly mis-reported deed – between Gaza and Warsaw.

Given the number of besieged and battered cities there have been in however many thousands of years of pitiless warfare there is only one explanation for this invocation of Warsaw before any of those – it is to wound Jews in their recent and most anguished history and to punish them with their own grief. Its aim is a sort of retrospective retribution, cancelling out all debts of guilt and sorrow. It is as though, by a reversal of the usual laws of cause and effect, Jewish actions of today prove that Jews had it coming to them yesterday.

Berating Jews with their own history, disinheriting them of pity, as though pity is negotiable or has a sell-by date, is the latest species of Holocaust denial, infinitely more subtle than the David Irving version with its clunking body counts and quibbles over gas-chamber capability and chimney sizes. Instead of saying the Holocaust didn’t happen, the modern sophisticated denier accepts the event in all its terrible enormity, only to accuse the Jews of trying to profit from it, either in the form of moral blackmail or downright territorial theft. According to this thinking, the Jews have betrayed the Holocaust and become unworthy of it, the true heirs to their suffering being the Palestinians. Thus, here and there throughout the world this year, Holocaust day was temporarily annulled or boycotted on account of Gaza, dead Jews being found guilty of the sins of live ones.

Anti-Semitism? Absolutely not. It is “criticism” of Israel, pure and simple. A number of variations on the above sophistical nastiness have been fermenting in the more febrile of our campuses for some time. One particularly popular version, pseudo-scientific in tone, understands Zionism as a political form given to a psychological condition – Jews visiting upon others the traumas suffered by themselves, with Israel figuring as the torture room in which they do it. This is is pretty well the thesis of Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, an audacious 10-minute encapsulation of Israel’s moral collapse – the audacity residing in its ignorance or its dishonesty – currently playing at the Royal Court. The play is conceived in the form of a family roundelay, with different voices chiming in with suggestions as to the best way to bring up, protect, inform, and ultimately inflame into animality an unseen child in each of the chosen seven periods of contemporary Jewish history. It begins with the Holocaust, partly to establish the playwright’s sympathetic bona fides (“Tell her not to come out even if she hears shouting”), partly to explain what has befallen Palestine, because no sooner are the Jews out of the hell of Hitler’s Europe than they are constructing a parallel hell for Palestinians.

Anyone with scant knowledge of the history of Israeli-Palestinian relations – that is to say, judging from what they chant, the majority of anti-Israel demonstrators – would assume from this that Jews descended on the country as from a clear blue sky; that they had no prior association with the land other than in religious fantasy and through some scarce remembered genealogical affiliation: “Tell her it’s the land God gave us/... Tell her her great great great great lots of greats grandad lived there” – the latter line garnering much knowing laughter in the theatre the night I was there, by virtue of the predatiousness lurking behind the childlike vagueness.

You cannot of course tell the whole story of anywhere in 10 minutes, but then why would you want to unless you conceive it to be simple and one-sided? The staccato form of the piece – every line beginning “Tell her” or “Don’t tell her” – is skilfully contrived to suggest a people not just forever fraught and frightened but forever covert and deceitful. Nothing is true. Boasts are denials and denials are boasts. Everything is mediated through the desire to put the best face, first on fear, then on devious appropriation, and finally on evil.

That being the case, it is hard to be certain what the playwright knows and what she doesn’t, what she, in her turn, means deliberately to twist or just unthinkingly helps herself to from the poor box of leftist propaganda. The overall impression, nonetheless, is of a narrative slavishly in line with the familiar rhetoric, making little or nothing of the Jews’ unbroken connection with the country going back to the Arab conquest more than a thousand years before, the piety felt for the land, the respect for its non-Jewish inhabitants (their rights must “be guarded and honoured punctiliously,” Ben Gurion wrote in 1918), the waves of idealistic immigration which long predated the post-Holocaust influx with its twisted psychology, and the hopes of peaceful co-existence, for the tragic dashing of which Arab countries in their own obduracy and intolerance bear no less responsibility.

Quite simply, in this wantonly inflammatory piece, the Jews drop in on somewhere they have no right to be, despise, conquer, and at last revel in the spilling of Palestinian blood. There is a one-line equivocal mention of a suicide bomber, and ditto of rockets, both compromised by the “Tell her” device, otherwise no Arab lifts a finger against a Jew. “Tell her about Jerusalem,” but no one tells her, for example, that the Jewish population of East Jersusalem was expelled at about the time our survivors turn up, that it was cleansed from the city and its sacred places desecrated or destroyed. Only in the crazed brains of Israelis can the motives for any of their subsequent actions be found.

Thus lie follows lie, omission follows omission, until, in the tenth and final minute, we have a stage populated by monsters who kill babies by design – “Tell her we killed the babies by mistake,” one says, meaning don’t tell her what we really did – who laugh when they see a dead Palestinian policeman (“Tell her they’re animals... Tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out”), who consider themselves the “chosen people”, and who admit to feeling happy when they see Palestinian “children covered in blood”.

Anti-Semitic? No, no. Just criticism of Israel.

Only imagine this as Seven Muslim Children and we know that the Royal Court would never have had the courage or the foolhardiness to stage it. I say that with no malice towards Muslims. I do not approve of censorship but I admire their unwillingness to be traduced. It would seem that we Jews, however, for all our ingrained brutality – we English Jews at least – are considered a soft touch. You can say what you like about us, safe in the knowledge that while we slaughter babies and laugh at murdered policemen (“Tell her we’re the iron fist now”) we will squeak no louder than a mouse when we are abused.

Caryl Churchill will argue that her play is about Israelis not Jews, but once you venture on to “chosen people” territory – feeding all the ancient prejudice against that miscomprehended phrase – once you repeat in another form the medieval blood-libel of Jews rejoicing in the murder of little children, you have crossed over. This is the old stuff. Jew-hating pure and simple – Jew-hating which the haters don’t even recognise in themselves, so acculturated is it – the Jew-hating which many of us have always suspected was the only explanation for the disgust that contorts and disfigures faces when the mere word Israel crops up in conversation. So for that we are grateful. At last that mystery is solved and that lie finally nailed. No, you don’t have to be an anti-Semite to criticise Israel. It just so happens that you are.

If one could simply leave them to it one would. It’s a hell of its own making, hating Jews for a living. Only think of the company you must keep. But these things are catching. Take Michael Billington’s somnolent review of the play in the Guardian. I would imagine that any accusation of anti-Semitism would horrify Michael Billington. And I certainly don’t make it. But if you wanted an example of how language itself can sleepwalk the most innocent towards racism, then here it is. “Churchill shows us,” he writes, “how Jewish children are bred to believe in the ‘otherness’ of Palestinians...”

It is not just the adopted elision of Israeli children into Jewish children that is alarming, or the unquestioning acceptance of Caryl Churchill’s offered insider knowledge of Israeli child-rearing, what’s most chilling is that lazy use of the word “bred”, so rich in eugenic and bestial connotations, but inadvertently slipped back into the conversation now, as truth. Fact: Jews breed children in order to deny Palestinians their humanity. Watching another play in the same week, Billington complains about its manipulation of racial stereotypes. He doesn’t, you see, even notice the inconsistency.

And so it happens. Without one’s being aware of it, it happens. A gradual habituation to the language of loathing. Passed from the culpable to the unwary and back again. And soon, before you know it...

Not here, though. Not in cosy old lazy old easy-come easy-go England.

Thinking Big


The BBC reports on a proposal I've always found very attractive - creating a major new hub airport, possibly in the Thames Estuary, and replacing Heathrow with a new mini city within London that would result in the building almost 200,000 new homes.

But the prospect of London increasing in size by a further 20% over the next 15 years is very worrying because the capital is clearly distorting the UK economy, sucking investment towards the south east of England and as far as house prices are concerned, making London an impossible place for many people to live.  

So the stakes are high and something needs to give although the UK has a poor track record of managing these big infrastructure projects, as the High Speed Rail plans show, and the years it took for the Government to build the Channel Tunnel in a joint project with France.  


'Heathrow City' designs unveiled by architects

A technology campus along with new homes isproposed by architects Maccreanor Lavington

About 190,000 new homes, parkland or even a factory could replace Heathrow Airport in west London if it closes, designs unveiled by architects show.

'Heathrow City' designs have been commissioned by Transport for London and backed by Mayor Boris Johnson who wants a Thames Estuary hub airport.

Mr Johnson said Heathrow redevelopment was needed given the demand for homes.

The government-appointed Airports Commission will decide in 2015 on whether an estuary airport is feasible.

The Heathrow City plan envisions the future if the commission rejects plans for a third runway and selects the Thames Estuary option.

Architects Hawkins Brown envisages a factory for self-build modular homes on the Heathrow site where people could order homes to their own specifications.

Rick Mather Architects' proposal would see the Heathrow site becoming a new hub city by using the existing runways and terminals to define the structure of the city and connect 10 local centres.

Maccreanor Lavington's vision for Heathrow City aims to "develop a fully functioning city within the capital" and large tracts of woodland would be planted.

Hawkins Brown envisages a factory for self-build modular homes where Londoners could order homes to their own specifications

Rick Mather Architects' proposal would see a research, technology and manufacturing hub

A technology campus would be built to the east of the current site along with new housing, and the Terminal 2 building would be renovated to become a civic centre and retail hub that would form the heart of the new community.

Mr Johnson said: "The demand for new homes and jobs in the capital is such that we must be ready to start redeveloping Heathrow the moment it moves to its new site. And the sooner we start planning the better.

"However the key point is that all these scenarios would potentially create some of the many thousands of new jobs and homes this city will require given London is expected to increase in size by a fifth within the next 15 years."

The Airports Commission will decide next year whether the mayor's estuary plan will join plans to expand Heathrow and Gatwick runway schemes on the shortlist.