When John Reid, as Defence Secretary, sent British troops to Afghanistan in 2006, he said that “I hope not a shot is fired”. QED.
On 27 Jul 2011 William Hague officially recognised the Libyan opposition as the legitimate government and pronounced upon” the national transitional council's increasing legitimacy, competence and success in reaching out to Libyans across the country.” Two day later Abdel Fatah Younis, the military chief in the rebel Transitional National Government, was shot dead in murky circumstances. Just what evidence was there for this “increasing legitimacy, competence and success”?
When John Reid, as Defence Secretary, sent British troops to Afghanistan in 2006, he said that “I hope not a shot is fired”. QED.
One aspect of the Murdoch crisis hasn’t yet been aired. The episode is the logical outcome of the monster Murdoch helped to create: Tabloidrealitysoapsvillesleaze. In this subculture the unremittingly crude and incontinent story lines of soap operas become the fodder for news stories in the tabloids. Then the private lives of the actors in these dramas get the same treatment: reality and the storylines become deliberately confused in the papers. Add in footballers, instant reality TV stars, pop stars (now created through hysterical and gormless talent shows), politicians and celebrities with their pants down, real tragedies in which the victims must always be caught weeping on camera, hack into the phone messages of all of them, spread the whole filthy tableau across the media and rake in the money. When a certain critical mass was reached this hideous brew was bound to explode, drenching everyone in ordure. That moment has come.
One of the most revealing insights into Tabloidrealitysoapsvillesleaze emerged early in Rebekah Wade’s (as she then was) rise to fame. She married the soap star Ross Kemp of EastEnders. Kemp’s behaviour meant that besides his weekly TV slot he often made the front pages of the tabloids. Wade was once arrested for hitting Kemp and of course also made the front pages. Where in this was the dividing line between the soapworld, the tabloid press and reality? At the end of Animal Farm, the animals watching their drunken piggy masters with their new human friends could no longer tell which were pigs and which were men.
There seem to be two wars in Libya: the one you know about and another one between the USA and NATO. When the US handed over control to NATO and withdrew most of its active forces, Senator John McCain pointed out that NATO did not have the right hardware for the operation. They lacked ground attack planes such as the A10 tankbuster and the Hercules gunship.
Now, several months later, NATO is indeed struggling for lack of the right equipment. Robert Gates, in Brussels the retiring US Secretary of State for Defense was publicly derisive of NATO. He said that NATO was only delivering 150 sorties a day instead of the 300 planned for. The British forces have expressed their frustration with the Americans for withdrawing the A10 tankbusters.
So what is going on? The USA seems to be trying to make a point. By withdrawing and then publicly criticising the European efforts they seem to trying to press home an old political point: that Europe should shoulder more of the burden in Nato. But it seems a particularly distasteful way to do it: whilst the war is being prolonged and people are dying.
But Europe doesn’t come out of it much better. Why is their equipment so inadequate? It has been obvious for at least 20 years (since Gulf War I) that this kind of operation was the most likely combat European forces would see in future. But there is a severe lack of ground-attack capability. The Eurofighter Typhoon has had to be clumsily converted to a ground-attack role. All of the planes involved are firing expensive missiles such as the Paveway to destroy individual tanks, a ridiculously expensive overkill. As for the Navy’s Tomahawks cruise missiles at £½ million a wasted shot….So expensive is it that the operation cannot continue for much longer, according to the British forces (stat: the UK has the 4th largest defence budget in the world). When complete air superiority is obtained, cruder and less expensive anti-armour weapons can be used (if you’ve got any). The whole affair is an embarrassment to us and a tragedy for the Libyans.
There’s a stopped clock on my local tube station with a notice pasted over it, saying “This asset has been decommissioned”. It’s been there for months, waiting for the operative who hung this asinine notice to come and do the deed and put the dead clock out of its misery.
Then there was Senator John McCain saying of the US military’s backseat role in Libya: "It's too bad and I would love to see our assets back in the fight." He wasn’t talking about stopped clocks but from NATO’s pathetic performance since that US step-back he might as well have.
Why would anybody call an A10 tank buster plane an asset? Partly, for the same reason passengers on trains are now called “customers” or hospital patients “clients”. It is managerialism run riot. In military matters, the reason is creepier: it is to obscure the fact that these weapons kill people (“collateral damage” comes from the same stable). But what earthly purpose is served by a doctor calling an expectant mother by the dehumanizing appellation “client”?
Civilization progresses by way of finer and finer distinctions. If you start to reduce the distinctions between different things, there is a loss of sensitivity of understanding. There are perhaps 2-30 million living species on the plant but, hey, why bother with names, let’s just call them all “bioforms”.
Again, perhaps the rise of the “asset” reflects a society dominated by bean-counters. Whatever the reason, it should be resisted. These “assets” are dead liabilities.
Christopher Lloyd is a historian for the big picture, believing that history should now include our relationship with the natural and material worlds. Now, he's followed his large illustrated books What on Earth Happened? and What on Earth Evolved? with a Wallbook that opens out to tell the human story from the Big Bang to now. Cunningly arranged, with more information than you'd think possible in such a span, it's a great way of taking your bearings on how we got to this point. The text on the reverse of the chart also does a brilliant job of topic selection. It is particularly good on the emergence of our culture, picking up techniques along the way, especially domesticating crops and animals. The What on Earth? Wallbook is currently available at £15 from the What on Earth? website or call 01443 828811.
Since the global financial crisis everyone has been singing from the same songsheet: we must get back to making things. Decades of trusting to financial wizardry and celebrity culture, and the concomitant abuse of anything that involves so-called “metal bashing” must end. Global warming, declining oil reserves and financial meltdown might be scary problems but they also present an opportunity. The jobs lost through financial collapse will be replaced by jobs in the new green energy and infrastructure industries, thus solving three problems at once. So far, there hasn’t been much sense of what it might take to achieve this.
But now the BBC, hitherto a major player in the world of celerity culture is running as series on BBC2 celebrating cutting edge engineering in Britain. The second programme, How to Build a Jumbo Jet Engine, BBC2, 4 July, still available on iPlayer, is essential viewing.
Roll Royce built the Merlin engines that powered the WW2 Spitfire. They are now one of only three major aero engine manufacturers in the world. What emerges from the programme is how brilliantly Rolls Royce has combined hi-tech materials science with traditional craft engineering.
The amazing material science includes fan blades made from three bonded layers of titanium that are then expanded at high temperature for hours (a week?) to create a light and strong internal matrix.
The 96 turbine blades are made from single crystal of titanium alloy which have to operate at 300 degrees over the melting point. It is cooled by air forced through an array of cooling holes.
The big mystery of Rolls Royce is: how has this company remained at the cutting edge whilst almost the entire British manufacturing industry has collapsed around it? The programme is absolutely inspirational.
The sale of Cadbury to Kraft in the middle of a recession, following the loss over many years of a good proportion of our industrial companies, has prompted much hand-wringing but one crucial consequence of these sales has not entered the debate.
We are about hold national elections. This country is a democratic nation state: the assumption being that the nation is a unit that has some control over its own destiny and that the political parties will compete to offer their vision for the future direction of this entity.
But, more than any other country, Britain has largely give up control of its industrial companies, preferring to let foreign companies to own them and to make the big decisions on investment and hiring and firing. Allied to this, financial deregulation in the 1980s resulted in a massive loss of control over the financial sector, something starkly highlighted by the ongoing crisis in which billions of private sector debt (caused by banking incompetence) have been loaded onto the state.
The democratic nation state used to have a clear identity and purpose: it had the monopoly of force within its borders and the right to defend the country from external threats also by force. These powers were buttressed by the ability to raise sufficient taxation and to exert, if necessary, some leverage over industrial activity, without which the means to fight are compromised. The Labour Party for decades made public ownership of "the commanding heights of the economy" a principal plank of its policy. That clause went of course and the old commanding heights have disappeared. But it is a strange course to have given up control of almost all parts of the economy, commanding or not.
Just before the recession the government on its website crowed: “The UK was the number one destination for inward investment in Europe in 2007”. Globally, it was second only to the USA. Why was this a boast? As the government admitted, this represented mostly foreign companies buying British ones. This is selling the family silver and should not be equated with real investment, ie new economic endeavours or products that are seeking to create or fulfil a new market.
Surely, a nation state that goes to war as often as Britain has done in recent years, on the back of a dwindling industrial base, is a shell of a country? China is thought to be potentially militarily powerful because it has become economically powerful. This rule has held throughout history. Britain once understood this better than any other country but is now standing the rule on its head. The awful thought occurs that the British nation state goes to war so often because that is one of the few traditional powers it has not yet relinquished.
When we vote in May our votes may, if we are lucky, influence events in Afghanistan but they can have no effect on Kraft, Santander, Tata Steel, Nippon Sheet Glass Co (owner of Pilkington), EDF, Nissan, Alstom, AkzoNobel (who bought ICI), and all the other once-British companies. It has been said, by the City Minister, Lord Myners, among others, that it is easier for foreign firms to buy a company in Britain than anywhere else in the world. Why? Who let this happen and why isn’t this gap being plugged as an urgent priority? Unless we recover some control of the industries in which British people earn their livelihood, the Election will be a hollow charade. How can a country go to war as a supposedly sovereign nation when it is fact largely owned by other countries? The dirty word for the condition we are approaching is helotry.
I have been wondering what the global-warming-deniers would have made of Watson and Crick and Nature in 1953 if they had known how they acquired Rosalind Franklin’s data; if Watson's outrageously politically incorrect views had been outed in hacked emails; if their Central Dogma had been exposed as strictly not true by the discovery of reverse transcriptase in the full glare of the modern media? As for the magazine, this appears in Nature's Wikipedia entry: “John Maddox, Nature's editor, stated that 'the Watson and Crick’s paper was not peer-reviewed by Nature... the paper could not have been refereed: its correctness is self-evident. No referee working in the field ... could have kept his mouth shut once he saw the structure'."
So DNA might have become “nothing but a hoax and scare tactic" as the lobbyists’ blogs put it. Molecular Biology might have been set back or killed off for a generation. But of course this was pure science and didn't threaten global economic interests.
Science in every aspect is now in the sights of Right-Wing deny-everything lobby. I was horrified by Newsnight last night. Nature magazine is now under attack, as well as the East Anglian climate unit, and there is a whiff of McCarthyism or even Lysenkoism in the air. The scientists don't deliver the results the powers would like: let the science and the scientists be changed. Of course, the politicians have officially been on message on climate change but the right wing lobbies are scenting triumph now. Neither the BBC's Science nor Environment editor has tried to explain the process of science in all this and I haven't heard any message from the Royal Society or the international scientific community.
There is no need for an “inquiry” into the East Anglian Climate Unit. Every scientific paper published in a journal like Nature is subject to criticism by the work and the papers that follow it. That is what science consists of: an ongoing criticism of all previous work. Science doesn’t do inquiries: science already IS one big inquiry. Unfortunately, the science community needs to learn that the rest of the world works in an entirely different, sly and deceitful, way. Science has got to lose its innocence and learn to play streetwise in public; if not it’s going to lose everything.
In 1984 there is always an enemy but it can change overnight. In the real world, post 1989 there was a brief moment in which the Manichaean tendency seemed to have broken down. The communist bogey had lain down and died; Western capitalism was triumphant. Not being totalitarian, it took the West a little while to find a new enemy. In 2001, Nine Eleven ushered in the War on Terror and we were back with a dualist system of antagonistic ideologies. But now I fear a different battle is shaping up: science is sliding into the frame as the demon of the ultra right, especially in America where the tendency towards witch hunts against international “conspiracies” is most highly developed.
It now appears that in the two key subjects – global warming and evolutionary biology – science is assuming the role in the eyes of the Fox-News, liberal-baiting culture of an Un-American international conspiracy. In its eyes, Copenhagen is an attempt to introduce world government by a sinister band of, probably communist, unelected meddling fraudsters. Evolutionary biology is similarly a global conspiracy against their simple old-time religion.
It would be easy to pooh pooh this threat. Almost all of the world’s governments and most reputable scientists agree on the broad outlines of the global warming problem. The problem is what to do about it. Similarly, all reputable scientists know that evolutionary biology is the only system of knowledge that makes sense of the vast array of biological data we possess.
But I’m not so sure we can rest easy. The meme for hatred of any international body interfering with the right of Americans to pursue their traditional way of life is very deep-seated. Conspiracy theories can make a lot of headway even when the conspiracy is non-existent and the fear of it mere paranoia. Climate change is different. There really is an international consensus for action. All you need to turn consensus into conspiracy is to convince yourself that the science is fake and that the scientists are fraudsters intent on world domination. Scientific literacy in the western world is now so low that it only takes a few emails to convince a largeish section of the population that their worst fears are true: scientists have bent the data to fit their theory; global warming caused by man-made emissions is a scam dreamed up by power-hungry scientists. QED.
In the modern world, opinion is shaped by gesture politics – a president bowing on U Tube, the words “Nature trick” in an email, count for more than the thought-through, considered policies of Barack Obama or their entire edifice of Western science, on which the ultra-right depend for disseminating their poisonous blogs. Science now needs an Orwell in the face of this new assault on reason.
I'm a writer whose interests include the biological revolution happening now, the relationship between art and science, jazz, and the state of the planet