J’accuse… the Muslims


With the recent events in Beirut and Paris, I find these thoughts from almost a year ago to still be relevant.

Originally posted on Ali Abbas:

Riddle me this, oh apologists for the Muslims: where do the terrorists go to pray? Where, in the holy month of Ramadan do they make their nightly observances. The Salafist/ Wahabi root to the many branches of terror (ISIS , Al Qaida, Lashkar e Jhangvi, Sipah e Sahaba, Boko Haram) places great store in religiosity, in the keeping of prayer times. It is appallingly unique in the way that prayer hardens their hearts, rather than softening it with compassion and understanding, but the question remains: Where do they pray?

When I originally wrote this the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles wrote out to religious leaders asking them to be vigilant in their communities. Now David Cameron has also waded in on the causes of radicalisation. The Pickles letter elicited a backlash of hurt responses, with those leaders and others claiming the move was divisive, that it painted the Muslim as…

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Tridents Into Ploughshares

Trident Submarine from the Defense Archive

Trident Submarine from the Defense Archive

I am not a pacifist. Tragic and traumatic though it may be, there are times when only the threat of force or its application will bring miscreants to justice, or preserve our liberty.

Today we remember the fallen. We remember the wars that we consider just and moral, and those who died with no less courage and obedience in wars of questionable legality and purpose. Questions do not diminish the sacrifices made and hardships endured by those following orders. I salute them all.

They died so we can ask questions and hold those giving the orders to account, which makes today a good day to ask questions.

One question live in the political air is around Trident, the UK’s nuclear deterrent. On one side of the debate is the established view: retaining a deterrent is an essential part of our role as a global power, a bulwark against an increasingly muscular Russia, and future threats unknown.

On the other side is a view championed by the left wing lunatics and bleeding hearts: the deterrent is a relic of a war we are no longer fighting, and a weapon we would never countenance using.

So here’s my first question: would we ever use our nuclear arsenal? Under what circumstances would the arcane procedures be enacted, leading to the launch of indiscriminate weapons of mass destruction, when the deaths of non combatants must be taken as a given?

Pre-emptively surely that is an emphatic no. At no stage would we ever launch first, no matter the degree of threat.

Then in response? What if London were a smoking ruin? Cardiff levelled, nuclear winds howling across the Highlands? What then. Would we launch then?

I hope not. I am not one for mindless retribution. Would it ever right to avenge our innocents with the blood of non combatants, be they in the streets of their own cities, baying for our blood? No. Not even then.

And if it is my children and all the light and joy of my life sucked into the maelstrom? I hope, even then, I would say no. Let no other father have to contemplate it.

Don’t misunderstand me. Should they land their troops on our shores I would take my pitchfork and man the barricades and take a bullet. I’d swing whatever weapon I was given to stall the aggressor. But I could not kill his children. Even with his knife at my throat, even with the blood of my children on his hands I hope I would never stoop to threaten his children. God willing I can be that man.

I also hope I am not alone in this. I hope there are others who draw some line of absolute morality, of absolute humanity, and would hold fast to it irrespective of the inhumanity they face.

If you have stayed with me thus far, and even if you disagree, please follow through with the thought experiment. The second question is: if the deterrent will never be used, and the moral position is communicated, what purpose does it serve?

A couple of subordinate questions flow from that:

First does the presence of the deterrent increase our risk, or diminish it? Again there are two schools of thought. From the establishment: we won’t use it, but we have it. Back off.

And those same hand wringing bleeding hearts whinge: if we’d never use it, it serves no purpose. Let it go.

Second, does Trident deter any of the actual risks we face today? Our greatest threat is from international terrorism. It is a clear and present danger. Madness and insanity rooted in Salafism has brought death and destruction to our country, and threatens to do so again. The disaffection and poison is here on our own shores. But will we in response turn Riyadh or Doha to glass, as they are the source of the evil? We will not. Will we level the mountains of Afghanistan or send the scorching winds across the Syrian desert?  We will not.

And yet this is not the only risk. Although ISIS and its progenitors are a common enemy we are appalled to the point of inaction by Russia’s presence in Ukraine, jealous of its robust action in Syria and concerned for our newly minted allies in the Balkans and Baltics.

So would Russia ever launch its vast arsenal against us?

The answer I think lies just one move ahead in the geo political chess game. A commitment not to use a measure can be questioned and derided in the court of an aggressor nation’s public opinion. While we retain the means the commitment is just words.

Remember we went to war on the strength of a fictional dossier that put Saddam Hussein within 45 minutes of landing weapons of mass destruction on British soil. Do we think Putin is above lying to his populace as Blair lied to us? He would spew the lie in a heartbeat and use it as a pretext for a pre-emptive strike.

The only way to make the moral position credible is to relinquish the means. Perhaps it would stall the finger on the big red button knowing the target had no means of retaliation. Would even the bruised and battered national pride of the Russian people allow a strike against the unarmed? I fear that the degree of suspicion and mistrust is such that we cannot answer the question with certainty.

Be in no doubt we would be weaker. Even a sword never taken from the wall confers a sense of security. At best relinquishing Trident would leave our chances of facing devastation unchanged.

It sounds like a bad deal; lose a sense of protection for no diminution in risk. Which brings me to the third question: what’s the alternative?

The best place to start is money. In round numbers we’re talking about a procurement cost of £20bn and then running costs of about £2bn per year. (Source) That’s before we let military procurement botch it, more on that later.

What could that money buy that would be a better bet?

The first is a credible defence that inspires caution and respect in others. Our armed forces have faced cuts and criminal mismanagement for decades. Military procurement is synonymous with incompetence.

We should reinvest some of the billions that would be poured into the bottomless well of Trident into complement, capability and competence.  The last step means buying in some of the skilled, ruthless and relentless procurement specialists it has been my mixed blessing to work with over the years. It means the emotionless sacking of those who lack the skill to manage suppliers or complex contracts, and to hold those suppliers to account. We’re already deep in the hole on Eurofighter. Each additional one costs about £70m. That’s a lot extra airborne defence you can buy and leave a lot left over.

To be honest if the better procurement doesn’t pay for itself then its being done wrong.

We need a well manned, well armed and well supported military relevant to the threat of global terrorism. Part of the money saved will buy that.

As for the threat of global thermonuclear war, that also means investing in the technological advancements that would take down missiles in flight. There’s no point in launching them if they can’t reach the target. It is also a more pertinent approach when nuclear capability rests in increasingly unreliable hands. It would be an advancement worth the cost of developing it.

There will still be cash left over and we should pump that generously into research. Medical, social, life giving research which we share with an open hand with all the world. Better than bombs and boots on the ground is a small Union flag on the cure for malaria, or the water pumps that save lives among those people who would be radicalized against us.

At the same time the world’s best scientists would come back here. Drawn by the funding and support, they would also teach our youth and begin the essential rebuilding of our sick economy that makes little and sells much.

And there is the real unasked question of Trident: not what does it give us, but what does it prevent us from having: genuine security, investment in progress and the chance of a peaceful future. I think those are the things the brave people we remember died for.


Update 11/11/15: Article by Major-General Patrick Cordingley (who commanded the Desert Rats in the 1991 Gulf War) in The Times today: Trident is not a deterrent so let’s get rid of it

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Jaw Jaw and the Censure


The Hindustan Times reports that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to address the senate of the University of Cambridge during his three-day visit to Britain in November. This has caused considerable consternation among those currently attending the University, whatever their capacity, and among alumni. The letter at the end of this link is addressed to the Vice Chancellor of the University requesting that he withdraw the invitation. It cites the reasons why such a person should not address the University, among which are his complicity in mass murder, and his systematic silencing of dissenting voices. As an alumnus I have signed the letter. I urge any fellow Cantabrigians reading this blog to consider doing so also.

When I promoted the letter on Facebook it drew two interesting observations from two friends of mine, both men of letters and learning, and in friendships that persist and thrive despite significant differences in our political leanings. The first observation was on whether this action constitutes an act of censorship. This friend is unwavering in his belief that freedom of speech should never be constrained, no matter how hateful the message, or the messenger, as this is a route to, and symptom of a more insidious tyranny. My other friend brought a considered tone of both treating a foreign dignitary with respect, and tempered this with a healthy dose of real politik. Alienating India, a key regional ally, and economic power would be damaging to our self interest. My friend and I learned the phrase “jaw jaw not war war” from the same history teacher decades ago. He went on to argue that by engaging with Mr Modi we have the opportunity to extend our influence over him, and over time draw him closer to our standards of openness and democracy.

I responded to both thus:

In the first instance the stance we are taking is not one of censorship, but censure. I admit though to relishing the irony of not letting a man who suppresses voices air his own. But as PM of India Modi does not lack for platforms from which he can spread his messages. The action is not to silence, but to withhold the cachet and implicit acceptance that goes with speaking at Cambridge when the speaker’s mores are so horribly at odds with the tolerance and intellectual freedom we so value.

Modi will undoubtedly speak at dinners hosted by Cameron and will be toasted by business leaders. The ballrooms and convention centres of Southall and Birmingham will be filled with Indian diaspora hanging off his every word, blind or willfully ignoring the atrocities in which he is complicit and hate mongering of which he is culpable.

Nor are the freedoms we love so cheap that we will hawk them in the bazaar to whoever passes with a purse full of copper. Have you been to India? The inequality there is of a scale you cannot comprehend if all you have seen is the local tragedy of the western homeless, sleeping in the rain shadow of skyscrapers. There an abject, withering poverty sits beside wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. Is it to those vaults of hoarded rupees we should sell our self respect.

Are we the world’s penniless drunk, sitting at the bar hoping the brash new money that walks in will buy a round for everyone? Are we the dissolute master returning to his suddenly wealthy manumitted slave with a shy smile, saying “I raised you up and only flogged you gently, and see how well you learned my lessons of violence and entitlement. Take me to lunch and tell me how you did it”?

I am not so readily bought. My Alma mater’s most precious asset is the ennoblement of mind it confers on those who pass through its halls and cloisters. People come to speak there to bask in its reflection. I hope the institution listens to the voices it has nurtured and withholds its light from this murderer of masses, from this silencer of voices.

And yet should we not hold him close? Talk to him rather than shun him, allow our sensibilities to seep into his own? It is a sentiment so self evidently true and right that it should immediately raise the hackles of suspicion. Look carefully at those who eschew estrangement from the things we despise and argue that we should bring our influence to bear. And then follow the sickly sweet scent of the money. It is as self serving a position to take in this instance as it is in our Prime Minister’s toadying with Saudi Arabia, and it is just as fruitless. I have not seen any evidence of influence bringing lasting political change to bear. More than that I think our influence in Britain is a myth we have spun to fill the emotional chasm caused by the loss of an empire. We keep close to other nations to pick their pockets or sell them our silver. Hard money and the consumption of things talks louder than the abstraction of influence. I suspect Churchill knew that in 1954 and his famous quote is just another pillar in his personal myth creation. Perhaps if he had been truthful he would have said, “more, more, not war war”.


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River City Change

Albert Dock Panorama

The city of Liverpool is dear to my heart, and in twenty years of visits there I have seen the impact of investment and development. Between the modernism and feats of architecture there are still traces of the city’s seafaring past.

On my most recent visit I went to the central library, and there I found a glorious transformation. The stairwell is visually stunning, and the place was packed out – so much for mean spirited prejudices against scousers.

Stairwell - Liverpool Central Library

Stairwell – Liverpool Central Library

And as Liverpool has changed, so has society. I couldn’t resist the lovers on the roof: