I won an award!

Tuesday night was the Student Radio Awards, and I won Gold in the Interview of the Year category. I have to say thanks to everyone at University Radio York who has helped me out – especially Robin J L Fisher for his technical wizardry.

As part of the prize, I’ve been commissioned to do an interview for 6 Music, who sponsored the award. Here’s me on Steve Lamacq’s 6 Music Show talking about the ceremony and the interview that won it for me. Listen in at 2 hours 21 minutes!

Vodpod videos no longer available.



Let’s face it, we’re not shocked by torture anymore.

Week on week we hear another sordid tale that seems to confirm that Britain colluded in the torture of prisoners. Perhaps we (it was in our name) carried out these wretched acts ourselves or perhaps we pretended that standing by watching, encouraging and aiding others do our dirty work for us absolved us of our sins. These are not the realities of foreign policy, don’t just look away.

As far as I can tell, this stripping away any pretence of an ethical foreign policy was in response to 9/11. It’s the great, sad irony of our times that in fighting this insurgency determined to rid us of our rights and freedoms, we voluntary stripped them away to get revenge. And this only made things worse.

Today the Independent published a photograph on its front page, which the Armed Forces have held since 2004, that is claimed to show British soldiers in breach of the Geneva Convention. The Americans certainly were¹, and given that we hung on their every command, it’s most likely we did too – whether this photo and the evidence lawyers for the men photographed have shows that or not.

This photo has been around since 2004, yet only today is Bob Ainsworth announcing an investigation into the abuses of Iraqi civilians. It’s worth asking why, even though we can guess. It was probably deemed that the realities of war meant that we’d have endangered our troops’ lives if we’d have uncovered this whilst still fighting in Iraq. Yet once again, this shows that in our pursuit of this insurgency – which wasn’t really in Iraq – we threw away what it was that we had and they didn’t: basic human rights.

The photo published today shows men with their faces covered and their hands bound behind their backs – which is a breach of the Geneva Convention. If we sign up to these rules, and expect to be treated according to them, we should follow them to the hilt. This photo may well be false, as when the Mirror published shots back in 2004, but the more evidence we piece together of our foreign policy over the last eight years, the worse it looks – be it the actions of our troops or our spooks.

These are not the realities of war but for some reason, it’s argued that we should look away. Certainly there’s no clamour for something to be done. As the Chilcot inquiry begins its investigations into our invasion of Iraq, we should hold a concurrent inquiry into our actions in the “war on terror”, although more and more it appears to have been just as much a war of terror.

Only an inquiry will bring the facts to light, it’s our actions in the first place not the publication of them that puts our national security at risk. Hey, it may even, in time, become attractive to our allies to know that they can work with a country that follows the international laws and values it signs up for.

¹ The New York Review of Books have been publishing some excellent pieces on this, especially those by Mark Danner.

Dear ConHome, there was merit to the Ahmadinejad visit

I was studying at Columbia University in 2007 when it extended an invitation to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  Despite Conservative Home suggesting otherwise, the merits of the visit were perfectly plain to me.

I will always remember President Ahmadinejad saying “we do not have homosexuals like you do in your country”. That was a real, clear political dividing line and it struck us all as we poured into the quadrangles in front of the library to watch the proceedings on giant tv screens.

How anyone could suggest that Columbia University somehow was being influenced by these views is plain fantasy, and goes against the facts of the Ahmadinejad visit. I thought Columbia’s President Bollinger was too agressive in his critique of the Iranian regime. Just before he gave the podium to President Ahmadinejad he had called him a “petty and cruel dictator”. He also challenged him on his previous quotes on Israel, the holocaust, homosexuality and women’s rights.

I was then in his law class immediately afterwards, where he justified his forceful attack of the Ahmadinejad by telling us that free speech was a two way dialogue, and that whilst President Ahmadinejad was entitled to instruct us in his views, were were entitled to express our own values.

“That such a forum could not take place on a university campus in Iran today sharpens the point of what we do here. To commit oneself to a life—and a civil society—prepared to examine critically all ideas arises from a deep faith in the myriad benefits of a long-term process of meeting bad beliefs with better beliefs and hateful words with wiser words. That faith in freedom has always been and remains today our nation’s most potent weapon against repressive regimes everywhere in the world. This is America at its best.” He said this in his address, I am sure most Atlanticists would agree.

As a reporter for the college newspaper I badgered him straight after that class, following him home questioning him on why he refused to shake the Iranian President’s hand, and whether he should have been so critical of the Iranian President. “I did not want to risk blandness, which would have given the wrong message about how dialogue should work,” he told me. He had said in his address that “it is a critical premise of freedom of speech that we do not honor the dishonorable when we open the public forum to their voices. To hold otherwise would make vigorous debate impossible.”

It’s clear to me, crystal clear, that hearing President Ahmadinejad address me and the assembled throng – from protestors outside the railings to easily influenced undergrads like me on campus, there was merit to hearing him speak. If Columbia received $100,000 funding (piecemeal in comparison to it’s endowment at that time of $6bn) to propagandise on behalf of Iran, it certainly wasn’t obvious on hearing President Bollinger’s introduction to the speech.

Everybody loves trains now, but where’s the money coming from?

I remember reading a leader in the Economist a few years ago calling for a revolution in British public transport and calling for investment for high speed trains. I thought this was a brilliant idea – it is a brilliant idea in principle – and everybody wants a piece of it.

Andrew Adonis, who is seen as doing such a good job that the Tories have said they’d like to give him a job too, is championing the government’s commitment to this. Just this morning, Brown announced plans to have a high speed rail link with Amsterdam.

Straight away, the Tories said that they were championing it first, as though high speed rail has only just started to exist.

Why now? Well, it appears to be more environmentally friendly than cars, makes a party look ambitious and forward thinking, and doesn’t draw the same hostility that investing in new roads does.

But it does rather raise the question why hasn’t anyone seriously been proposing this earlier? Even building Britain’s part of the Channel Tunnel infrastructure took years longer than it did for the French, partly because of our planning laws. Crossrail’s been trying to get done since the ’70s, and then was proposed again in the ’90s, but was dropped agin. Suddenly the Tories think trains can alieviate the need for a third runway at Heathrow, this new found zeal for rail travel doesn’t fit in with either party’s previous priorities.

Perhaps this is because railways are very expensive to maintain and require constant investment. Politicians are united on the need for spending cuts just as they are on the marvels of high speed rail – how will that play out I wonder? Last time around, Britain’s rail future bit the dust, and if we choose train travel what else will have to give?

Would an election be a panacea to the expenses problem?

Whenever any MP announces an intention to stand down, my first thought is always “I wonder what their expenses were like”. Actually, it’s not even just when one announces that, it’s whenever any MP comes on the telly or the radio or even are mentioned online.

The more productive thing to think about would be where they stand on Cameron’s new Europe policy if they’re a Tory, or whether they’re a plotter if Labour. Usually if a Lib Dem’s making a media appearance, it’s Chris Huhne and I wonder whether he’s going to say something bold this time, or sorta make bold sounding noises but seek to clarify his position.

Would an election change this (my focus on expenses, not Chris Huhne)? I’m sure this has been a burning question in the minds of many MPs for some time. How long are they going to be tainted by the expenses scandal, and even if an election removes many of the worst offenders from Parliament, will the reputation of the profession – being an honourable member – recover?


Pana Cotta

We’re at the fag end of polar ideology

We have reached the fag-end of polar ideology, and it appears that Parliament is ready to kick the habit. We have turned instead, not into an era devoid of ideas, but devoid of big plans and big disappointments. With the eventual felling of this rotten Parliament should come consensual, liberal, piecemeal reform – from all parties and outside. MPs look concerned with good governance, and not before time.

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Is electing police chiefs in keeping with conservatism?

A few weeks ago there was a kerfuffle in the Tory party over whether there should be all women shortlists for selecting election candidates. This idea appears to have been quashed by a backbench and grassroots rebellion – it was deemed unconservative to select on anything but the basis of merit.

Now surely this means that electing police chiefs is unconservative, but it too is a Tory party policy. If people vote for police chiefs, they will vote for those they like the most, or those able to present their message the most. Likability and eloquence are not necessarily the most salient things we should look for in choosing the best police chief, but in elections, they are vital.

Now, before you say that I’m writing off democracy, I’m not. It’s very important – and obviously an election is the best way to select an MP on merit. Key characteristics of MPs are their ability to engage with the public, to present and explain their parties policies and to be able to win the trust of others.

We don’t want untrustworthy, introverted mumblers as police chiefs but that is not their most important quality. Their most important quality is to be able to manage and run a police force, to command the respect of their seniors and juniors, and to be able to quickly assess and respond to situations according to their training (and improvise if needs be). I’m sure there are other characteristics too, but I don’t know them because I’ve not got the experience and carefully honed training of those in our professional police forces who currently determine and advise on who should get what job.

If police chiefs are struggling to engage with the local community, then there needs to be a change of attitude in those police forces and a change of strategy. But elections are not the only method that police chiefs can engage with communities, and certainly not the best. We vote for politicians who set the priorities and parameters of the police, but the police themselves select those who have proven through their careers that they are able to take on the job.