Saturday, September 29, 2007

Greens at the Conservative conference

Green events absolutely dominate the Conservative conference fringe. Forty-two events by my count fitted into the four days.

At times there are so many green events that more than one starts at the same time. How will the earnest "Blue-Green" Tory choose between The New Economics Foundation's "Do Good Lives Have To Cost the Earth?" or IPPR's "Positive Energy: How can we harness people power to prevent climate change?" - which I assumme is a call for a giant hamster wheel in every town. Both start at 7.30pm on Sunday.

MTV are pushing the green cause in a big way starting with their a reception on Sunday evening. Blue-greens won't be able to stay out too late, though, in case they miss Vicky Pope discussing "The Latest Science of Climate Change" at 7.30 the following morning. The Energy Saving Trust, the Met Office and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) all have stalls from mid-day till 6 in the evening to explain various climate change issues.

My favourite green event titles are Christian Aid's "Climate Change - A Question of Faith", which is so absurd it defies parody, and the hilariously patronising "Storm in a Teacup: Beauty Care that's better for the Planet" being run by the Women's Environmental Network and the Soil Association.

No other cause is being promoted in such a manner. Even other issues close to the current leadership's heart like family breakdown. At what point does focussing on green issues become obsession?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Earliest Political Memory

I've been tagged by Gracchi and Jackart with this meme. It's a pretty good one so I'll play along.

Thatcher's fall was probably the first, I'd have been 6 - I felt really sorry for her. At Major's win - 8 - I can remember thinking the TV coverage was biased - the Tories didn't seem to be getting much screen time for the winning party. BBC bias has been irritating me ever since.

Institutional Carelessness

The Telegraph reports a study by the Healthcare Commission today showing a shocking series of failures in the NHS' treatment of older people:

"• Only five hospital trusts out of 23 met all of its standards on dignity in care

• 23 per cent of elderly patients said they had to share a room or bay with someone of the opposite sex

• Only 16 per cent said they had all the help they needed to eat

• 25 per cent of recorded patient safety incidents involving food and drink either caused patients harm or put them at risk

• 94 per cent of elderly patients claimed they were never asked their views of their care while in hospital."

The government response is limited to lame assurances that it takes the issue seriously and will make it a priority. While there are broader questions that we should be asking as a society about how vulnerable older people are looked after that isn't the problem here. This is another case of institutional carelessness in the NHS.

A system focussed on responding to political priorities instead of answering to patients is almost pathologically unable to think of the little things. The NHS is too large for anyone, particularly inexperienced politicians, to really understand. To get around that problem politicians use simple statistics. These can't capture intangible basics like patient dignity and care.

Institutional carelessness leads to 84% of staff failing to wash their hands even after contact with an MRSA patient and 99 out of 394 NHS trusts failing to take basic steps to tackle infections like decontaminating reusable medical equipment. This failure to ensure cleanliness kills thousands each year. Now we learn that it leads to negligence, starving patients who need help to eat, and to abuse, the Healthcare Commission found patients are being left in soiled clothes or "forced to use lavatories or bedpans in front of other people".

It is becoming clearer and clearer that the NHS is institutionally careless to the point of brutality. Reform which puts real power in the hands of patients, rather than more political targets as promised by Brown and his Ministers at the Labour party conference, should be an absolute priority.

Cross-posted from the TaxPayers' Alliance blog.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Political Trumps

The TaxPayers' Alliance have produced Political Trumps. 54 major contemporary politicians are rated on a series of criteria: Media Skills, Integrity, Scandal Avoidance, Length of Ministerial Service, Years per Department and Private Sector Experience.

You can play Top Trumps with them, comparing ranks and trying to win the most. Or, you can play ordinary card games with them; they have the required suits and ranks.

Either way is a much more constructive use of your time than playing the real political game: Brag. Politicians with little or no management and subject experience pretend they're able to do what even the most seasoned and expert manager could not: run an organisation the size of a central government department like the NHS, with 1.3 million staff and a budget of billions. Everyone loses unless the public call them on it.

You can order yourself a set of Political Trumps here.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Islamist by Ed Husain

I read The Islamist this Saturday. I'm now somewhat dissapointed with myself for waiting that long. It's a superb exposé of the Islamist movement's development. How British Islamism planted the seeds of terror not just in the UK but internationally. How a British establishment asleep on the job failed to confront them.

I'd recommend it to anyone trying to work out what's happened and where we go from here.

War with Iran

Gracchi suggests that surgical airstrikes against Iran are unlikely to prove particularly... surgical.

I agree with that conclusion but I'm not sure about his evidence. He argues that US bombing of Cambodia targetted at Vietcong bases did not prove very accurate in the seventies. That hardly tells you much about what's possible today. Very little of what was done in the first and second Gulf Wars was possible in the seventies.

However, while our capacity for surgical strikes has certainly grown it still isn't possible to to to war and reliably avoid significant damage to a country's infrastructure and civilian casualties. Even if the hardware makes it theoretically possible mistakes are going to be made and there are going to be targets that aren't neatly separate from civilian populations. There is still very much the possibility of strengthening hardliners. War is still cruel.

That war is cruel does not mean that it is not sometimes necessary. There seem, to me, to be three ways in which Iran is making itself a very real threat to our troops, our interests, our allies and ourselves. None of these are humiliating but inconsequential affairs like the hostage crisis or remote possibilities like a nuclear strike on another Middle Eastern state. I'm talking about concrete ways that Iran is making itself a dangerous and destructive enemy:

1) Killing our troops

The Iranians have been murdering our soldiers in serious numbers. Many of the bombs most effective at killing coalition troops in armoured vehicles are, it is absolutely clear, coming from Iran. Many, from all I've seen at least dozens, of our troops would still be alive were Iran not arming insurgents against our troops trying to create a stable Iraq.

If Iran were so directly responsible for deaths on our streets we would already be at war. Soldiers trying to maintain the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan are less visible and their deaths in combat less unexpected but there is little reason we should regard their murder with such passivity.

2) Fighting a slow, proxy war of annihilation against Israel

Hizbollah and Hamas have been slowly set up to challenge Israel from two directions - South Lebanon and Gaza. Both states are being rapidly Talebanised, to borrow Gideon Rachman's phrase, and turned into platforms for a war of attrition against an Israeli state with huge firepower but a small population.

Israel is our ally and deserves to survive. The long war that Hamas and Hizbollah are setting themselves up for will be hugely destructive and a humanitarian disaster. In its fight for survival Israel will kill a lot of people, and may unfairly become the party that takes the blame. We should not leave an ally in that position.

3) Building up a nuclear programme that will remove a lot of our options

I'm not going to base my case in this post on the possibility of Iran using its nuclear weapons. I don't think that the Iranian leadership are crazy enough, or likely to be replaced by anyone crazy enough, to see their society entirely destroyed. I would caution though, that even if the odds are low it is a truly grave risk to take. In particular, those who usually profess to believe in a precautionary principle should apply it to the possibility of Tel Aviv being destroyed as well as global warming.

For this post, though, let's stick with what's probable. What an Iranian nuclear programme would probably do is remove our ability to deter Iran from doing awful things like those discussed in 1) and 2). So long as the nuclear programme is ongoing we have to control Iran within a strictly limited timeframe.

All this makes Iran our enemy and, I think, justifies us taking serious action against the regime in Tehran. Any pressure would have implications in terms of hearts and minds but at this stage it seems far more important that we limit the extent of the threat emanating from Iran. We have to ensure our basic strategic interests are safeguarded.

If we accept that action needs to be taken the next question is what form that action should take. I'm not convinced that diplomacy is likely to be enough. This isn't like the hostage crisis sideshow where Iran had no fundamental interest at stake.

I can see two options:

1) Shut down the petroleum supplies

This was an idea Gingrich had during the hostages crisis. Iran has already had riots over fuel shortages. It has just one refinery and imports the rest. A combination of a blockade and bombing their refinery would quickly render the Iranian economy utterly unable to operate. They would then face the choice of conceding or facing utter economic ruin. That might shift their interests such that they climb down.

There are a couple of problems with this approach. First, we don't know how effective it would be. The record of economic sanctions is mixed at best and it may not be possible to stop overland supply of Iran. Second, it would necessarily be skewed towards impacting ordinary Iranians compared to other plausible strategies.

2) War

I don't think there is much justification for invasion. We've seen the scale of the challenge that accompanies any taking of cities in Iraq. While I would expect lessons to be learn (they might not be) it wasn't entirely post-war mistakes that made reconstruction hard. Rebuilding a nation following a brutal regime and war just isn't easy. There are too many groups with little interest in co-operation.

Equally, I don't think that surgical strikes at Iran's nuclear facilities would be enough. We don't know we can destroy them and it gives Iran little disincentive not to try again.

If one were to go to war I think the most plausible strategy would be similar to that followed during the Kosovan war. Essentially, bomb the Iranians until they concede. With no ticking bomb about to go off we can keep destroying regime and infrastructure targets until they concede - something significant enough that it is a clear defeat that undermines their credibility, perhaps giving up the components of their nuclear programme. That strategy would also maximise the relevance of our strengths (airpower) while minimising our weaknesses (low tolerance for casualties).

Losing what control we have over Iran's future behaviour should be of concern to all, even if you are unwilling to reflect that concern to the degree of considering military action. It's worth thinking about the hard choices we should be facing.

Back online

A new router has been procured. Things should now be back to normal.

Technical Difficulties

I'm afraid that the Internet router at my flat comprehensively broke down on Saturday afternoon. Should be back in business within the next couple of days.