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Two gems from the weekend:

  • “[The World Bank’s] most recent reforms of voting rights were remarkable only for their temerity.”
    The glimmer of a possibility of change at the World Bank, Peter Chowla, Guardian, 14 April 2012.
    Who has the temerity to suggest that it might have been timidity that characterised the reforms?
  • “I doubt [sc. ‘if’] you will ever find a politician more desperate to believe Nietzsche’s aphorism that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger than Mitt Romney.”
    Mitt Romney’s erratic judgment is already undermining his candidacy, Michael Cohen, The Observer, 15 April 2012 (opening sentence!).
    Amazing prescience on Nietzsche’s part.

And from a little longer ago on the Web:

  • “I also recall an interesting essay, More than one English question, … which reveals the diverse political and cultural drivers underpinning the rising tide of English self-consciousness over the last 20 years or so.”
    Please draw a picture of a driver underpinning a rising tide.
  • “The initially small but revolutionary collection literally explodes.”
    About Olaf Benz – Men’s Swimwear …
    Blowing the unfortunate swimmer out of the water, I suppose.

And a late addition from an email circular from Cunard:

  • “We wanted to remind you that as a loyal Cunarder our exciting new 2013 voyages are available for you to book from 8am on 24 April. “


While we are on the subject of the Scottish referendum, I should announce the result of the competition for the most obtuse, confused and misleading contribution to the analysis of the possible consequences of a Scottish referendum vote for full independence. The winning entry is from the Sunday Times of 15 January 2012 (yesterday), in a ‘Focus’ article on page 18 headed “Scot Free”.  So, [tearing open the envelope], THE WINNERS ARE: Nicholas Hellen and Jason Allardyce!

Nicolas and Jason, your entry came out on top because of the almost unique way in which it confused England, the United Kingdom, and what would be left of the United Kingdom if Scotland were to secede from it.  I am confident that in the coming months many more commentators south of the border will try to live up to the standard you have set.

Here is your winning entry:

At stake is much more than England’s alleged appropriation of North Sea oil revenues. If Scotland went its own way more than three centuries after the 1707 Act of Union, it could raise questions over England’s status in Europe, its claims at the United Nations to be one of the great powers and its relationship with other members of the United Kingdom.


Update, 17 January 2012:  For a stark contrast with the sloppy journalism quoted above, you should read an excellent article in today’s Scotsman by Professor Gavin McCrone, a distinguished Scottish former public servant, academic and economist (full disclosure: also one of my oldest friends). After describing some of the complex issues that will have to be negotiated either for Scotland to become independent or for it to achieve devo max, McCrone concludes that –

Sorting out all of these issues and ensuring that they are fully understood by those who will vote is going to take time, so that whatever Mr Cameron says, I do not expect the referendum to take place any earlier than October 2014, the date chosen by Alex Salmond. What worries me most is that as the debate continues, it could become not only increasingly intense but acrimonious. I give politicians the credit on both sides of not wanting that to happen, but they might find it difficult to control. There are plenty of people both in England and in Scotland who might make it so.

All those of us who comment on Scotland’s future, from north or south of the border, in the conventional media or on the blogosphere, have a duty to heed Professor McCrone’s warning. Fortunately, it’s not a zero-sum game: if all concerned play fair, both Scotland and the rest of the UK can benefit equally from whatever constitutional changes emerge from the referendum process. Let’s all go easy on the acrimony, keep the temperature down, and treat each other like friends and neighbours, not as rivals or enemies.


Oh, no, not that wedding again? Calm down, dear, it’s only a footnote.  According to the tabloids and the internet, Pippa Middleton, sister of the new Princess William formerly known as Kate, stole the show yesterday for many viewers, not only more than rivalling her sister’s good looks but prompting excited comments about a particular aspect of her figure.  A Daily Mirror headline, for example, screams:

Pippa Middleton bridesmaid dress sparks Facebook fan page for her bottom

and sure enough, there’s the facebook page in question, already marked as ‘liked’ by more than 44,000 connoisseurs of the anatomical feature in question.  But on a more elevated level, the catapulting to national celebrity status of the lovely Pippa must have sent at least some of us to our collected poetry of the now much neglected Robert Browning:

from Pippa Passes

The year’s at the spring
And day’s at the morn;
Morning’s at seven;
The hillside’s dew-pearled;
The lark’s on the wing;
The snail’s on the thorn:
God’s in His heaven—
All’s right with the world!

— of which the last couplet at least has achieved immortality, if the rest of the long narrative poem hasn’t.

SRD GIRL. [To PIPPA who approaches.] Oh, you may come closer: we shall not eat you! Why, you seem the very person that the great rich handsome Englishman has fallen so violently in love with! I’ll tell you all about it.

Here Browning evidently foresees the impression that some observers claim to have got from the proceedings yesterday that Prince Harry, brother of the groom, sharing responsibility for the young bridesmaids and page boys with Pippa, the sister of the bride, appeared somewhat smitten by her, being overheard (or lip-read) to whisper to her a gallant tribute to her beauty, although whether Browning’s description of young Harry as “the great rich handsome Englishman” fits the bill is for others to judge.  Anyway, I doubt if Harry’s long-time girlfriend Chelsy Davy has anything to worry about.

Cole Porter also obviously had a premonition, putting words into the mouth of the groom on the red-quilted palace balcony (only confusing the prince’s nickname with his Dad’s):


So, kiss me, Kate, thou lovely loon,
‘Ere we start on our honeymoon.
So kiss me, Kate, darling devil divine,
For now thou shall ever be mine.

But let Shakespeare have the last word, even if he also gets a little confused over who would be speaking — William, obviously, not Harry, still on the balcony:

Kate, I cannot look greenly nor gasp out my eloquence, nor I have no cunning in protestation; only downright oaths, which I never use till urged, nor never break for urging. If thou canst love a fellow of this temper, Kate, whose face is not worth sun-burning, that never looks in his glass for love of any thing he sees there, let thine eye be thy cook. I speak to thee plain soldier: If thou canst love me for this, take me: if not, to say to thee that I shall die, is true; but for thy love, by the Lord, no; yet I love thee too…

Now, welcome, Kate: and bear me witness all,
That here I kiss her as my sovereign queen.

Well, his queen-to-be, anyway.


Congratulations to Alex Smith and Mark Ferguson of the Labour List blog on coming first in the list of 100 best Labour blogs — the latest results of a poll conducted by the (right-of-centre) Total Politics website of the well-known Conservative blogger  and television commentator, Iain Dale.  The full list is here:   those with sufficient stamina and spare time may even spot the present Ephems blog blinking shyly at No. 77.  In the words of Total Politics,

This list is the result of more than 2,200 people who voted in the Total Politics Annual Blog Poll during the second half of July.  Click on [any blog in the list] to visit it.

At the rate of one blog a day, starting at No. 1, you’d get to Ephems in 11 weeks’ time, and by then we’ll all know who has won the election for the new leader of the Labour Party.

As a fairly frequent contributor to Labour List, I’m delighted to see it promoted from No. 3 last year to the top slot in 2010.  There’s only one problem with Labour List:  there’s so much first-rate material on it that it’s impossible to read it all, and if you’re not careful you end up not reading any of it, like the donkey which, being equidistant from two identical bales of straw, starved to death.  Not yet a problem with Ephems!


According to a report in the Guardian of 16 April, ‘Gordon Brown apologised for any disruption caused by the eruption [of the Icelandic volcano] but said, “safety is the first and predominant consideration.”‘   A spokesman for David Cameron immediately welcomed this admission by the prime minister of his responsibility for the eruption of the volcano but said his apology was completely inadequate:  “Since Gordon Brown has acknowledged that he is to blame for causing the greatest disaster in European aviation history, he should resign forthwith instead of keeping us all waiting until the 6th of May.  He should let Dave take over immediately — only Dave has the skills and imagination required to suppress the eruption of the volcano and to change the direction of the winds to blow away Labour’s ash clouds over Britain.”  A Conservative government would act within a week of taking office to get our planes flying again.

Sources close to Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader, were saying last night that the closure of all British airports and the uncertainty over when they would reopen demonstrated the failure over the last 65 years of both the tired old parties that had been taking it in turns to govern the country.  “Neither Conservative nor Labour governments bothered to do anything to prevent this disaster and it will now be up to a new, fresh, Liberal Democratic government headed by Nick to sort out the mess.”  Nick The sources added that Nick Clegg had been the clear winner in the leaders’ debate and looked forward to his invitation from the Queen to form a LibDem majority government.   St Vincent Cabling, the LibDem shadow Chancellor, told Jeremy Paxman last night on Newsnight that he had predicted the volcanic eruption as long ago as 1942 and had warned then that the prevailing winds would blow the ash over our airports, forcing them to close, unless we moved the airports to northern Spain while there was still time.  Unfortunately his warning had been ignored by the government of the day, as usually happened with his premonitions of assorted impending disasters.

In the same Newsnight programme last night, the Conservative shadow aviation minister, Henry ‘Jumbo’ Bumbleberry pointed out that when Labour came to power in 1997, they had inherited from the Tories a situation in which every single UK airport was open and functioning normally.  Now, after 13 years of Labour government, not a single plane was flying in or out of a British airport.   For 10 of those years Mr Brown had been responsible for the economy as Chancellor, yet in all that time he had done nothing to prepare the country for the crisis that had hit us last Wednesday.  He could not escape responsibility for the sufferings of British familes stranded in dangerous foreign countries such as the US or Australia, or whose binge holidays on the Costa Bravo had been ruined.  Who was to blame for “Labour’s ash-cloud” if not the Labour leader?  In reply, the prime minister pointed out that for years he had been trying to persuade the G20 to take collective action against Icelandic volcanoes but unfortunately the greedy investment bankers had refused to provide the credit to European governments that would have been needed for firm resolute action to be taken.  Mr Brown had himself been firm and resolute and had indeed been recognised as the world’s leader in the struggle against volcanic eruptions, but the rest of the world had lacked both the courage and the credits needed to follow him.  However, he had accepted his responsibility for what had happened and had apologised to the nation.

This morning a Liberal Democratic Party spokesperson issued a statement claiming that Nick Clegg had been the winner of the leaders’ television debate.  She added that “my Nick’s ready to be prime minister whenever that Gordon realises that with the airports all closed the game’s up and he will have to resign.  Gordon was right to apologise, though.”

A spokesman for UKIP blamed the EU for ordering Britain to close its airports so that other European countries could steal business from British airlines.  “Britain should get out of this cowardly European Union and order our aeroplanes to start flying again immediately.  Our brave British pilots aren’t afraid of a bit of harmless dust even if the faint-hearts across the Channel are.”   The BNP said immigration was out of control and that this was to blame for the airport crisis.  It was Nature’s wonderful way of preventing yet more immigrants flying in to take away jobs from Englishmen.

In a new up-date at 2am this morning, the Civil Aviation Authority announced that in view of the Met Office’s latest forecasts, all flights in and out of UK airports would remain suspended until 4am on 31 January 2011 at the earliest.  A further statement would be issued in the middle of the night on 25 December 2010.

In the latest MeGov opinion poll in the Son newspaper, the LibDems were on 95%, the Tories on 4% and Labour on 1.  Experts predicted that if this was still the position on polling day, Labour would be the biggest party in a hung parliament.

[Note: The first sentence above is true.]


On 4 March 2010 I described in a blog post how a misleading radio programme, broadcast that day in the BBC World Service, and the BBC’s even more misleading advance publicity for it, had predictably been almost universally misunderstood by the world’s media as evidence that a huge proportion — 95 per cent was even mentioned — of the relief aid given for famine victims in Ethiopia in the 1980s had been diverted for buying arms and ammunition for a Tigrayan rebel army then fighting the Ethiopian government in the north of the country.  (In fact the allegations reported in the radio programme referred only to the aid channelled into a small area of Tigray then controlled by the rebels, and not to the huge international relief operation in the rest of Ethiopia.)  In my blog post I expressed incomprehension of the BBC’s failure to issue an immediate and authoritative clarification as soon as it became clear that the programme and the BBC’s publicty for it was being generally portrayed as discrediting and denigrating the entire international relief effort in Ethiopia which in reality had saved many millions of lives, and which was anyway not the target of the allegations reported in the BBC programme.

Since then the controversy has continued to rage, with Bob Geldof angrily rebutting any suggestion that money raised by Band Aid and Live Aid for Ethiopia had been diverted in the way being reported all over the media (as a result of the impression given by the BBC, although no such allegation against Band Aid had been made in the original programme).  A couple of half-hearted clarifications were issued by the BBC, at least one of them almost as misleading as the original programme and its publicity.  But these were barely noticed in the media storm.

I have now tried to bring the story up to date in a new web page, here.  I have included a number of quotations to illustrate the way the wrong impression conveyed by the BBC’s original material,  never effectively clarified or corrected, spiralled out of control, the world’s media repeating their own misconceptions with further misinterpretations added at every stage, until it’s being confidently asserted in print, on radio and television, and in the blogosphere, that hardly any of the money given in response to Bob Geldof’s historic campaigns, and by numerous governments and other relief organisations for famine relief, ever reached the starving people whom it was meant for. 

It’s probably too late now to set the record straight, or to rescue the good name of one of the most successful and effective international disaster relief operations ever mounted.  The misconceptions are now in the clippings files of a thousand news desks around the world, and will be trotted out again whenever Ethiopian famine is mentioned.  But it seems worth while to make a record of what really happened, how limited in scope and questionable in substance the allegations reported by the BBC really are, and how a seriously misleading story, backed by the good name of the BBC, became what is by now little better than fiction.   So I hope that Googlers of the future will notice and have a look at

— or just click this:


Ephems will shortly be intermittently AFK* for a variety of reasons so please don’t expect any blog posts or responses to comments for a while.

Meanwhile we sit and shiver in sub-zero London and wonder whether our daughter in snow-bound New York is going to make it onto her flight to Heathrow.  Global warming?  Pah, humbug.  Lord Lawson must know something that we don’t.

Many thanks to all those of you who have contributed to lively debates on this blog during the year, and especially those who have challenged my more opinionated and partisan posts.  No-one has so far convinced me that our peculiarly British form of preventive detention (Indeterminate sentences for Public Protection or IPPs) can be justified under any civilised system of justice;  or that Tony Blair didn’t mean it when he appeared to say that if he had known that there were no WMD he would have had to think of a different, equally bogus, reason for attacking Iraq;  or that we’re doing more good than harm in Afghanistan or that if we withdrew all British forces tomorrow, the Pakistan régime would collapse, handing over its hydrogen bombs to al-Qaeda (I don’t see the Americans pulling out just because the British did); or that if we all try hard enough we can prevent the planet warming up to more than 2 deg.C;  or that Tony Blair is a middle east peace envoy when he very obviously isn’t;  or that Labour promised a referendum on the Lisbon treaty (or, even if it did, that any government of sound mind would have dared to hold one); or that when government spending is keeping the economy alive (just) pending the long awaited renaissance of demand and supply in the private sector, cutting government spending is a jolly wizard idea — don’t they teach them economics at Eton?;  or that Britain will sink beneath the waves if we don’t pay off our national debt within three weeks of the next election;  or that al-Megrahi should have been left to rot in his Scottish prison until he died — or that there’s no room for doubt about his share of guilt for the Lockerbie bombing;  or that Tony Blair — why do I keep coming back to the old rogue? — would have made an absolutely spiffing President of Europe, even if such a job existed, which it doesn’t;  or that if we keep on fighting the War on Drugs, we’ll eventually win it, any more than we did in Iraq or will in Afghanistan; or that everyone in the country watches a programme called, weirdly, “Strictly”, or that anyone I know watches ‘the X Factor’.  But on all these great matters, Ephems’s meat and drink in the past year, I readily acknowledge that I could be wrong, and on some of them I hope I am.

So I wish a happy Christmas to those visitors to this site who are of a religious disposition and members of the appropriate sect, and jolly holidays to the rest: and to everyone, my best wishes for a much better year in almost every respect than 2009 has been.  It’s a relief to say goodbye to this low dishonest decade (no, I know 2010, not 2009, will officially be the end of the decade, but at least 2009 marks the end of the Noughties.  Good riddance to it!).

*AFK: Away from Keyboard (but you knew that really).


27 October 2009:  Me to Guardian Letters: submitted for publication


I enjoyed George Monbiot’s proposals for Tony Blair’s future (Making this ruthless liar EU president is a crazy plan. But I’ll be backing Blair, October 27), but was sorry that Monbiot joined the many commentators who erroneously describe Blair as the “Middle East peace envoy”.  According to the statement of June 27, 2007 by the Quartet — the US, Russia, the EU, and the UN — on Blair’s appointment,   “As Quartet Representative, he will:

  • Mobilize international assistance to the Palestinians, working closely with donors and existing coordination bodies;
  • Help to identify, and secure appropriate international support in addressing, the institutional governance needs of the Palestinian state, focusing as a matter of urgency on the rule of law;
  • Develop plans to promote Palestinian economic development, including private sector partnerships, building on previously agreed frameworks, especially concerning access and movement; and
  • Liaise with other countries as appropriate in support of the agreed Quartet objectives.”

How much if any success Mr Blair has achieved in these challenging but specific tasks since June 2007 I don’t know, but  as the Americans stressed publicly at the time, it’s a strictly limited mandate almost entirely unconnected with the peace process — just as it’s a bit of an exaggeration to describe as “President of Europe” an appointment as President (or more accurately in English, Chair or Chairperson) of the EU Council of Ministers, whoever gets the job.

Yours sincerely
Brian Barder


28 Oct 09:  Me to Guardian letters


Yesterday I submitted to you a letter for publication (copy below) pointing out that George Monbiot, in his article in yesterday’s Guardian, had wrongly described Tony Blair as the “Middle East peace envoy” whereas the Quartet’s statement of his appointment, which I quoted, showed that his mandate was to encourage foreign investment in Palestine and related matters — nothing to do with the ‘peace’ process.

You haven’t published my letter in today’s Guardian, as of course is your right, and I don’t complain about that.  But instead you have published a letter from a Jonathan Smith which describes Mr Blair as “UN envoy in the Middle East” and accuses him of not understanding “that the basic requirement for a mediator is a transparent neutrality…”, etc.  Had you published my own letter, it would have been clear that Mr Blair is the envoy of the Quartet, not of the UN, and that he is not in any sense a ‘mediator’.  Thus a large part of Mr Jonathan Smith’s letter is beside the point, being based on mistaken assumptions about Tony Blair’s role.  I am baffled by your choice of such an obviously flawed letter for publication, especially as you had the origin and exact text of Blair’s terms of reference in front of you in the letter which I had submitted, but which you chose not to publish.  (Perhaps you chose not to read it, either?)

I hope that you or the Readers’ Editor, to whom I am copying this, will now publish in the Corrections and Clarifications column corrections to George Monbiot’s reference yesterday to Tony Blair as a ‘peace envoy’ and to Jonathan Smith’s letter’s references to him as a ‘UN envoy’ and a ‘mediator’, since all three descriptions are wrong and misleading.  The fact that the ‘peace envoy’ error is so common right across the media surely makes a correction all the more desirable, especially as it has a bearing on current discussion of Mr Blair’s candidature for President of the EU Council of Ministers?

I may put a copy of this message on my blog for the amusement of its readers, but I’ll defer doing so until either I have your response, or else the errors concerned are corrected in the Guardian’s Corrections column, in which case I’ll acknowledge that in my blog.

Brian Barder


8 Nov 2009:  me to Guardian letters and the Guardian readers’ Editor

Dear Guardian Letters and Readers’ Editors,

With reference to my message below, to which I have had no reply, and the relevant corrections not (I think) having been published, please now see

If you didn’t copy my original message to George Monbiot when you received it, I would be obliged if you would forward this one to him now.

But I still remain inexplicably loyal to the Guardian!

Best wishes,
Brian Barder


11 November 2009:  Guardian Readers’ Editor’s office’s researcher to me

to         Brian Barder
date      11 November 2009 17:22
subject Re: Tony Blair: not a ‘peace’ envoy

Dear Sir Brian,

Many thanks for your email and your request for correction.

The announcement by the Quartet of the appointment of Tony Blair as Middle East envoy placed his role directly in the context of “advancing the search for peace in the Middle East”. His remit does not include negotiation between the parties, but it is intended to move the region toward peace in line with the Quartet’s aims: “As representative, Tony Blair will bring continuity and intensity of focus to the work of the Quartet in support of the Palestinians, within the broader framework of the Quartet’s efforts to promote an end to the conflict in conformity with the roadmap.”  The means are described in the passages you quote, but the ultimate aim is (explicitly) broader.  Therefore I do not think the reference to Blair as “peace envoy” in George Monbiot’s column requires correction.

On your second point, Tony Blair is not “UN envoy” and I will pursue a correction on that point.

With best wishes,
Charlotte Dewar
Researcher, readers’ editor’s office


12 November 2009:  me to researcher, Readers’ Editor’s office

For Ms Charlotte Dewar, Readers’ Editor’s office, from Sir Brian Barder

Dear Charlotte,

Thank you for your ingenious defence, in your email of yesterday (below), of George Monbiot’s description of Tony Blair as a, or the, “Middle East peace envoy”.  I’m afraid, however, that I don’t buy it.  Of course the appointment, like any appointment by the Quartet, was by definition “in the context of” or “within the broader framework of” the Quartet’s overall objective of bringing peace to the region:  but to say that this makes Blair a ‘peace envoy’ is a bit like saying that when my butcher sells me a leg of lamb “in the context of” the preparations for a dinner party tomorrow, that makes the butcher my cook, or, even more improbably, my wife.  In any case, it’s unnecessary to engage in minute textual analysis and interpretation of the Quartet’s announcement of the appointment when its scope has been publicly (and brutally) defined by the leading member of the Quartet with the explicit agreement of at least two of the other three members:

MR. MCCORMACK:  …The urgency of recent events has reinforced the need for the international community, bearing in mind the obligations of the parties, to help the Palestinians as they build institutions and economy of a viable state in Gaza and the West Bank, able to take its place as a peaceful and prosperous partner to Israel and its other neighbors.

To facilitate efforts to these ends, following discussions among the Principals, today the Quartet announces the appointment of Tony Blair as the Quartet Representative. Mr. Blair, who is stepping down from office this week, has long demonstrated his commitment on these issues.

As Quartet Representative, he will mobilize international assistance to the Palestinians, working closely with donors and existing coordination bodies; help to identify and secure appropriate international support in addressing the institutional governance needs of the Palestinian state, focusing as a matter of urgency on the rule of law; develop plans to promote Palestinian economic development, including private sector partnerships, building on previously agreed frameworks, especially concerning access and movement; and liaise with other countries, as appropriate, in support of the agreed Quartet objectives.

As representative, Tony Blair will bring continuity and intensity of focus to the work of the Quartet in support of the Palestinians within the broader framework of the Quartet’s efforts to promote an end to the conflict in conformity with the Roadmap. He will spend a significant time in the region working with the parties and others to help create viable and lasting government institutions representing all Palestinians, a robust economy and a climate of law and order for the Palestinian people. Tony Blair will be supported in this work by a small team of experts based in Jerusalem to be seconded by partner countries and institutions. The Quartet representative will report to and consult regularly with the Quartet and be guided by it, as necessary….

QUESTION: Tony Blair’s mandate is apparently limited to this institution building. Does he have any authority to do actual political negotiating for a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, Mr. Blair’s focus will be on building those Palestinian institutions which will form the basis of a Palestinian state. And I would say that without those institutions and without those institutions being developed, you’re not going to have a Palestinian state. So the idea of the political negotiations and the building of the institutions within the Palestinian state are really of almost equal importance as you’re not going to have a Palestinian state in the absence of one of those two, success in one of those two areas.

So Secretary Rice and President Bush are going to focus on the political negotiations, as they have, and Mr. Blair is going to focus his considerable talents and his efforts on building those Palestinian institutions. I daresay that that is going to be a — take as much time as he is ready to devote to the issue, and I know that he is ready to devote a considerable amount of time to building those institutions.

So I would expect that you can — you would continue to see the same basic breakdown or division of labor in trying to bring about a more peaceful Middle East, bring about a Palestinian state. And Secretary Rice will focus intensely and President Bush will focus intensely on those political negotiations, advancing the Israeli-Palestinian track, advancing the Israeli-Arab track in those negotiations. I’m sure that Secretary Rice and Mr. Blair are going to talk. Of course, they’re going to need to communicate very closely not only though the formal mechanism of the Quartet, but I would also expect on a more informal basis as well.

[State Department press briefing, Sean McCormack, Spokesman, June 27, 2007[ (Emphasis added)


US to keep Blair out of Middle East
By Tim Butcher in Jerusalem Daily Telegraph: 12:01AM BST 20 Jul 2007

Tony Blair was told by the United States yesterday that he had no authority to tackle political negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians as he spent his first full day as special envoy to the Middle East.  Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, insisted that America would retain leadership of the “political track” while Mr Blair would work on raising funds for the Palestinians, as well as building their economy and infrastructure.

It was the clearest account yet of the former prime minister’s role in the Middle East on behalf of the international Quartet – the European Union, United Nations, the United States and Russia. He will be more an envoy to the Palestinians than a peace envoy.

“I think his mandate was made clear by the Quartet when they issued the statement,” said Miss Rice.  “There is also a political track that for a variety of reasons the United States is committed to lead in co-ordination with the Quartet.”

Mr Blair’s role “is something that is completely complementary and if we all work together, and there is plenty to do, perhaps we can finally deliver,” she said.

While she couched her comments amid lavish praise for Mr Blair, it amounted to a diplomatic snub after his representatives had earlier made clear he wanted to play a key role in peace negotiations.

Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, who is understood to have been put out by Mr Blair’s appointment, backed Miss Rice, saying Mr Blair’s mandate is to “build the Palestinian institutions”.

Miss Rice was speaking before Mr Blair attended his first full meeting of the Quartet in Lisbon.  “I know that Tony Blair is an experienced, capable, historic figure and he’s going to bring an energy to the international commitment to a Palestinian state that is capable for its own people,” she told Sky News. “There is a very good sense that his dedication now to helping the Palestinians build the institutions of statehood, to move forward on economic development and to press forward on helping to create a strong Palestinian partner is very well timed as we try to move forward toward the establishment of a state.”  (Emphasis added)

The same remarks are reported similarly at


[Former Russian prime minister] Mr Primakov’s remarks added to the controversy over Mr Blair’s new job which has turned out to be a lot less ambitious than first forecast. Instead of a Middle East envoy empowered to negotiate peace terms between Israelis and Palestinians, the mandate was trimmed to one in which the former prime minister would be the Quartet’s representative to help to build the economy and institutions of the Palestinians. At the time of the appointment last month, Mr Blair’s people made clear he was itching to extend the scope of the mandate to include peace building. But following his first meetings this week with officials from the Quartet, as well as Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, Mr Blair now appears to have accepted the mandate in spite of its limitations.  “Mr Blair is happy with the mandate as it will allow him to do the job that he wants to do,” a spokesman for his office said.  (Emphasis added.)
[Daily Telegraph, 12 Jul 2007

It’s superfluous, after quoting such unambiguous textual evidence, for me to recall watching on CNN television a press conference on the middle east at the UN at which Condoleezza Rice, then US Secretary of State, presided at a long table on the platform, flanked on both sides by about 14 or 15 officials of various kinds, each a specialist in some specific aspect of the negotiations.  Tony Blair was at the far end of the table on Ms Rice’s right.  Various reporters tried to ask Blair questions relating to the peace process but in every case Condoleezza Rice deflected the question to herself and answered it.  It was more than half an hour into the press conference before someone at last asked a question about institution-building in Palestine and Ms Rice finally allowed Mr Blair to answer it — the first time Blair had been permitted to utter a single word.  Throughout this time Tony Blair’s face, occasionally shown in close-up, looked unmistakeably grim.

You’ll know that the new US administration, having inherited the lead role in the Quartet with responsibility for the middle east peace process, has actually appointed a “peace envoy” for the middle east, in the person of former Senator George Mitchell.  It’s not easy to explain how this could have been done without an obvious conflict with Tony Blair’s role if Blair was already the Quartet’s “peace envoy”.    Indeed, in September when President Obama met the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Abbas, and then held his first trilateral meeting with the two leaders, he was “joined by Secretary Clinton, General Jones, Tom Donilon, and [George Mitchell]. For the trilateral meeting, the President was joined by Secretary Clinton, General Jones, and [George Mitchell]. In their meetings, Prime Minister Netanyahu was joined by Foreign Minister Lieberman, Defense Minister Barak, and National Security Advisor Arad. President Abbas was joined by Secretary General Yasser Abed Rabbo, Negotiations Affairs Department Director Saeb Erekat, and Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki.”  If it had been the case that Tony Blair was the Quartet’s “peace envoy”, how could he have been excluded from these key meetings?  Clearly he’s not, and never has been.  I’m astonished that the Guardian, with all the expertise on the middle east that’s available to it, should have even considered contesting the point.

In the light of all this irrefutable evidence, would the Guardian now care to reconsider its decision not to publish a correction of Mr Monbiot’s reference to Tony Blair as a “peace envoy”?  In view of the direct bearing that all this has on the choice of a President (Chairperson) of the EU Council of Ministers, it would seem obviously desirable to publish that correction without further delay.  When you’re in a hole….

Until I hear further from you, I shall postpone putting an addendum to on my website to take account of your email of yesterday and this reply.

Brian (Barder)
12 November 2009


Corrections and clarifications:  Corrections editor

The Guardian, Wednesday 25 November 2009

A letter (Outraged by the Blair pitch project, 28 October, page 33) said that Tony Blair had been proclaimed United Nations envoy in the Middle East. Mr Blair acts on behalf of the “Quartet” comprising the UN, the United States, Russia and the European Union.

12 November 2009:  me to Guardian Readers’ Editor

from     Brian Barder
to         Siobhain Butterworth <>
date      12 November 2009 12:47

subject Re: Tony Blair: not a ‘peace’ envoy
12 Nov 2009

Dear Siobhain Butterworth,

My reply (below) to Charlotte Dewar, addressed to the email address given in her message (, has been returned as undeliverable (“Google tried to deliver your message, but it was rejected by the recipient domain. We recommend contacting the other email provider for further information about the cause of this error. The error that the other server returned was: 550 550 No such user“).

Might I ask you to pass the message on to Charlotte — or, better still, deal with it yourself?

Brian Barder
12 November 2009

23 November 2009:  me to Guardian Readers’ Editor

from     Brian Barder
to         Siobhain Butterworth <>
date      23 November 2009 18:04 subject Re: Tony Blair: not a ‘peace’ envoy
From Sir Brian Barder for the Guardian Readers’ Editor

Dear Siobhain Butterworth,

Please refer to my exchange of emails with your colleague Charlotte Dewar, and my messages addressed to yourself, reproduced below.

As I have still had no reply to either of my messages of 12 November, and since to the best of my knowledge you have still not corrected the Guardian’s erroneous descriptions of Tony Blair’s middle east role to which I have alerted you, with extensive supporting evidence, I now propose to place the document attached to this message, comprising copies of the principal messages to and (in one case) from your office, on my website (  I shall also make a suitable comment on our exchanges with a link to the texts of our emails in my blog, as a follow-up to my blog post at

If there is any further comment you would like me to include in addition to the text of Ms Dewar’s brief email of 11 November, I shall of course be glad to add it.  In that case, I would appreciate an early reply with any text you want me to add.  If I hear nothing from you by, say, the start of working hours on Friday, 27 November, I shall take it that you have nothing further to say and I’ll then go ahead and put the attachment to this on my website.

Whether you choose to reply or not, I assure you that I have no intention of stopping either my subscription to the Guardian or my flow of letters submitted, with fluctuating degrees of success, for publication in it!

Brian Barder

23 Nov 2009

23 November 2009:  Do Not Reply at to me

to         Brian Barder
date      23 November 2009 18:04

subject Thank you for your email:
Re: Tony Blair: not a ‘peace’ envoy

Thank you for emailing the office of the Guardian’s readers’ editor, Siobhain Butterworth.  We can’t reply to every email but we do read them all.

Please excuse the automated response but we want to let you know what happens when we hear from you.

Corrections: it is the Guardian’s policy to correct significant errors as soon as possible, other errors may be corrected at our discretion. It helps us work quickly if you identify the article by providing the date, headline and page number or a link to it. If you have emailed us with a request for a correction we will not usually send you a response unless the article directly affects you. Corrections generally appear in the paper’s daily Corrections and clarifications column and/or online within a few days. A full archive of corrections printed in the paper is available online:

Complaints: if you have written with a complaint or comment about the Guardian’s journalism I will reply to you if I intend to review it or plan to write about it in my weekly column.

Other queries and requests:  if you have written to us about an advertisement, a missing section, an issue relating to the circulation of the newspaper, a technical problem you are having with the website, a reader offer, a competition, or if you have a general query, we will pass your email to the relevant department.

Please note that this mailbox is open to all Guardian journalists.

Best wishes
Siobhain Butterworth
Readers’ editor  The Guardian
T +44 (0)20 7713 4736

This email has been automatically generated. Please do not reply to this email


All right, Ms Butterworth.  I can take a hint.


A new post on LabourList provides a useful summary of the various alternatives to our current system of First Past the Post (FPTP) for elections to the house of commons currently being hawked around in much of the vaguely left-of-centre press, especially in the Guardian and the Observer.  Polly Toynbee in particular seems quite unable to write a column without including a commercial for Proportional Representation.  However, the advantages and drawbacks of each of the systems discussed in LabourList seem to me (and to at least one other reader of LabourList who has commented on it) to be somewhat skewed in favour of a change in the electoral system, over-stating some of the arguments in favour and omitting some of those against.

I have appended the following rather lengthy comment to the LabourList post in an effort, probably doomed, to help correct any imbalance.  This can usefully be read, if anyone’s interested, in conjunction with what I have written previously on the subject:

This otherwise useful summary of the various options omits any mention of a (to my mind) crippling defect in all the systems which involve transferring votes: in AV, the only votes that get to be transferred are the second preferences of those whose first preference went to a candidate who has been eliminated (because he/she has come bottom of the list at the first or subsequent recount). In many (most?) cases, the candidates who come bottom of the poll and are eliminated in the early counts are frivolous egotists and exhibitionists, other weirdos, or candidates of far-out extremist parties or causes. It’s not clear why those who give such no-hoper candidates their first preference votes should have their second preferences given so much more weight in the eventual result than those who gave their first preference votes to mainstream candidates, and whose second preferences will never even be counted if their candidate is never eliminated. Votes cast are thus treated unequally, those for eliminated candidates given more weight (by virtue of the redistribution of their second preferences) than those cast for candidates not eliminated. This hardly qualifies as ‘fair’. The same unequal weight objection applies, mutatis mutandis, to the Single Transferable Vote system.

There are in addition serious drawbacks to having more than one MP for each constituency (as STV would entail), notably that it breaks the invaluable convention that a single MP, once elected, represents the interests of all his constituents, not just those who voted for him (or her).

There is also the obvious illogicality in all preference vote redistribution systems of pretending that first and second (or even third) preference votes are of equal weight, simply in order to be able to claim that the winning candidate has had the ‘support’ of the majority of the votes cast, whereas (unless he or she won more than 50% of the votes at the first count, in which case no second preferences need to be redistributed other than to the other candidates in multi-member constituencies) it’s obvious that on the first preference count, which is the only one that accurately reflects voter choice, a majority of the votes were actually cast against the eventual winner. The fact is that nationally, and in most individual constituencies, no single party ever commands the support of 50% or more of the electorate, and this is inevitably reflected in votes cast at elections. Fiddling around with redistributions of votes from one candidate to another can’t magically transform this reality into an apparent overall majority for a particular candidate. A voter who has cast a first preference vote for candidate A can’t meaningfully be said to have voted ‘for’ candidate B, even if B is eventually given his second preference vote when preferences are redistributed. Thus the principal argument generally advanced in favour of redistribution systems such as AV and STV, namely that they ensure that every MP has had the support of a majority of the votes cast in the relevant constituency, is bogus.

The objections to any party list system, an essential element in the horrendous proposals by Roy Jenkins and his Commission, are obvious. They put even more power into the hands of the party apparatchiks than they already have, enabling them alone to decide which politicians are included in the list and which are excluded from it. Guess which independent-minded, maverick members of each party’s awkward squad are going to make it onto the list! The electorate has no say in the matter, even if the list is an ‘open’ one in which voters are allowed to express preferences as between the various names on the party list. This objectionable system is one of the many reasons for the abysmal turnout at elections in the UK to the European parliament, conducted inexplicably under the party list system. The last thing we should want is to introduce it as part of the system for electing members of the house of commons, and thus for electing governments.

But above all the objections to any system that will always deliver coalition governments (as true PR always will) are surely decisive. It will always empower a party which has won fewer seats and votes than either of the two main parties to decide which of those two main parties is to get the keys to No. 10 Downing Street. Both the parties which come in first and second will have to bargain, after the voting has finished, with the minor parties in order to negotiate changes or additions to their election manifestos sufficient to guarantee enough support from one or more of the minority parties to secure a majority for the coalition (whether formal or informal) in the house of commons. Thus the government taking office will have a programme that has been drawn up or finalised only after the election has taken place and for which not a single voter can have voted. The majority partner in the resulting coalition is then permanently at the mercy of its minority partner(s), who can bring the government down at any time, on a whim or following a personality clash, and put the other main party into office instead, without a single voter having any say in the change of government. It’s no good saying this doesn’t happen in practice: it has happened at least once in Germany since the war and is a permanent feature of the system in Israel, where moderate centrist governments are constantly held to ransom by right-wing extremist minority parties on whom they depend for their continuing majority support in parliament.

Finally, a change in the present electoral system (tendentiously referred to as ‘electoral reform’!) is far too momentous a constitutional change to be introduced, or even to be submitted to a national referendum, without the broad agreement of all the main parties across the political spectrum. It certainly should not be imposed by one party on the rest without their agreement, for the temporary political advantage of the party in power. If a referendum is to be held, it should be preceded by a lengthy period of consultation and information in which the pros and cons, especially the cons, of each of the options can be extensively debated and publicised. Simply to ask if one is in favour of electoral ‘reform’ is almost to guarantee a Yes vote, and that’s liable to land us in an even worse mess than we’re in already.

It’s easy to pick holes in First Past the Post, but few commentators in the current febrile atmosphere seem to be willing to point out the even bigger holes in every one of the alternatives. As Churchill said of democracy, FPTP is a terrible system; it’s just that all the others are even worse.

Apologies for the length of this.


J and I are still reeling from the effects of the film Katyn, the latest product of the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda, and indisputably a masterpiece.  Watching it is a gruelling experience, but a hugely rewarding one.  Although theoretically on general release in the UK, it’s not easy to track down any of the few cinemas currently showing it; some Googling may be required for British movie-goers.

The film follows the impact on four fictional Polish families of the all-too-real tragedy in the Katyn forest in Russia of the —

mass murder of thousands of Polish military officers, policemen, intellectuals and civilian prisoners of war by Soviet NKVD, based on a proposal from Lavrentiy Beria to execute all members of the Polish Officer Corps. Dated March 5, 1940, this official document was then approved (signed) by the entire Soviet Politburo including Joseph Stalin and Beria.  The number of victims is estimated at about 22,000, the most commonly cited number being 21,768.  [Wikipedia]

For years during and after the second world war the official Soviet (and therefore also the Polish Communist party) line was that the massacre had been perpetrated in 1941 by the German SS when the Katyn forest area was under German occupation.  It was however widely known in Poland and in the west that in fact this had been a Soviet NKVD crime, committed in 1940 when the Katyn area of Russia was still under Soviet control.  During the war western governments refrained from placing the blame for the massacre where it belonged, on their war-time ally the Soviet Union, for fear of the consequences for the war-time alliance against Hitler in which the Russians were playing such a vital part.  After the war, with Poland under effective Soviet domination, the fiction was maintained for a long time, and in communist-governed Poland it was a serious, potentially capital, offence to allege that the murder of the flower of the Polish intelligentsia and its officer corps at Katyn had been the work of the Russians, not the Germans.  During my own time in Poland (1986-88, just before the collapse of Soviet communism in Europe) we would visit the Warsaw cemetery to see the officially-erected Katyn memorial where the reference engraved on the memorial to the Hitlerite fascists as the perpetrators of the massacre  was constantly defaced or gouged out by Polish patriots and the correct (and damning) date ‘1940’ inscribed or painted in its place, thus indicting the Russians.  On All Souls Day the Poles would gather at the memorial and hold a candle-light vigil, softly singing patriotic Polish songs and hymns; they probably still do:

In 1981, [the] Polish trade union Solidarity erected a memorial with the simple inscription “Katyn, 1940″ but it was confiscated by the police, to be replaced with an official monument “To the Polish soldiers – victims of Hitlerite fascism – reposing in the soil of Katyn”. Nevertheless, every year on Zaduszki, similar memorial crosses were erected at Powazki cemetery and numerous other places in Poland, only to be dismantled by the police overnight. Katyn remained a political taboo in communist Poland until the fall of the Eastern bloc in 1989.  [Wikipedia]

The name Katyn thus has a terrible resonance in the minds of all Poles.

Wajda’s intensely moving film won’t always be easy to follow for those unfamiliar with the Katyn story or with Polish geography, requiring especially a rough understanding of the areas of Poland occupied in the early part of the war by the Germans and the Russians respectively.  There are of course many accounts of the Katyn massacre on the web and I would recommend refreshing one’s memory of the principal facts and dates before seeing the film by reading one or other of them, unless you’re already fully au fait with them.  The Wikipedia account is probably as good as any.  But on no account miss this moving and gripping movie by one of the great masters of the cinema.  (Watch out for sign-posts in the film to some of its tragic themes:  the theatre to which a young woman sells her hair for use in a stage wig, in order to pay for a memorial stone honouring her Katyn victim brother, is staging ‘Antigone‘, as we learn from a poster glimpsed in the foyer:  the young woman, we suddenly realise, is re-enacting Antigone’s tragic role but in real life.)

Wajda is now 83, so there may not be too many more masterpieces from him.