The Kabul conference and David Cameron’s pilgrimage to Washington have generated plenty of articles and interviews agonising about Afghanistan. Ministers are asked what would happen in that country if “we” withdrew “our” forces next week [approved answer: the Taliban take over the country again, invite al-Qaeda back, bombs explode all over London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast]. This, though, suggests a confusion over who “we” are. If it means we the UK, the correct answer is presumably that either American or some other NATO country’s troops would replace ours, and the war would continue without missing a beat. But questioners and those answering them seem to assume that without the British contingent, the whole NATO effort would collapse, surely an improbable scenario: or alternatively that if the British pull out, the Americans would give up and pull out too – an even more improbable assumption. Perhaps it’s just a case of everyone identifying “us” and the Americans as inseparable twins, joined at the hip: whatever “we” decide to do about Afghanistan, the Americans will have to do whatever we do – a self-evidently ludicrous proposition, when you think about it. We’ve done more than our share in Afghanistan, and suffered many more than our share of deaths and maimings there. Someone else’s turn, surely? As for the timing of and necessary conditions for the end of the whole western intervention in Afghanistan, the Americans will decide those, whatever we think and whether or not we’re still there. However, our coalition ministers clearly want out, and soon, which is something to be grateful for.
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Cameron’s visit to Washington collided with the resurrection by some American Senators of the controversy over the release in August 2009 on compassionate grounds by the Scottish government’s Justice Secretary of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi, the Libyan convicted (quite possibly wrongly) of responsibility for the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. Many, not all, American relatives of Lockerbie victims, and their Senators, are furious, not only that al-Megrahi was released, but also that he’s still alive, 11 months after being released on the grounds that he had only three months to live. This seems to strengthen suspicion that the mass murderer was actually released in exchange for a lucrative Libyan oil drilling contract being awarded to BP (BP! All together now: ‘Booooo!’). Herein lies one of several Lockerbie mysteries. In 2007 the then British government agreed that al-Megrahi should not be excluded from the scope of the Prisoner Transfer Agreement (PTA) being negotiated with Libya, as the UK side had originally demanded. Jack Straw, then UK Justice minister, publicly acknowledged that this ‘concession’ (which implied that al-Megrahi could be transferred to serve the rest of his prison sentence in Libya) was motivated by British commercial interests in Libya, including the BP contract. But it was part of the original UN-approved agreement on the management of the Lockerbie suspects that if either of them was convicted, as al-Megrahi was, he would serve his sentence in the UK (in practice meaning in Scotland, as the whole process was to be conducted under Scottish law). Question: when Blair and Straw made their concession to the Libyans under which al-Megrahi was not after all to be excluded from the PTA, did they know, and remind the Libyans, that whatever the PTA said, under the original agreement approved by the UN, al-Megrahi couldn’t be transferred to serve the rest of his sentence in Libya? There are plenty of other murky questions still to be answered about the whole affair, but this must surely be one of them.
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Still on al-Megrahi: I was sorry to hear Messrs Obama and Cameron at their White House news conference today (20 July) vehemently denouncing the Scottish Justice Secretary’s decision to release Megrahi on compassionate grounds after independent medical opinion had declared that he was dying of terminal prostate cancer and would probably be dead within three months. Under Scottish law that prognosis provided clear grounds for compassionate release. Obama and Cameron are decent humane people and it’s hard to believe that they really disapprove so strongly of such an obviously humane decision by the Scots. Presumably they both think it expedient to condemn the release in order to placate the grieving Lockerbie relatives and, especially, the indignant Senators. I doubt whether we’ll ever know whether the decision was really based solely on compassion for a dying man, or whether it was influenced, even subliminally, by pressure from London not to let al-Megrahi die in prison for fear of the effects of that on UK commercial interests with Libya, or (perhaps more likely) by fear of what might be revealed if al-Megrahi’s appeal against conviction was allowed to proceed. Several well informed people believe there are skeletons in this cupboard which powerful people in the UK and the US want to keep securely and permanently locked away right where they are.
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Another issue in a politically exciting but depressing month has been the proposed Graduate Tax, under which the escalating cost of university tuition (in England? England and Wales?) would be funded by university graduates who would pay a special tax once their earnings rose to levels that enabled them to pay it. Coalition LibDem minister St Vincent Cable floated the idea and four of the five aspirants to the Labour party’s leadership have endorsed it. None of these worthies has explained how it could be fair to pick out graduates to be made to pay income tax twice on the same income, given that if their university degrees were responsible for increasing their incomes, they would automatically pay more tax on the additional earnings anyway. Nor was it obvious that this specific one of the many factors causing above-average earnings should be singled out for a special tax. There seems no more reason to make graduates pay retrospectively for their university education than to make those who learned their three Rs at state schools pay for their school education, or to impose a special extra tax on those who owe their health or even their lives (and consequently their earning power) to their treatment under the National Health Service. If extra revenue has to be raised to pay for our universities, it should surely be paid mainly by the richest in our society, by definition those best able to pay for it. Graduates in their first few years after leaving university won’t usually be among the richest, nor qualify as those best able to pay more tax. These simple principles really shouldn’t have to be spelled out to those with aspirations to lead HM Loyal Opposition and ultimately our government.
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There has been extensive discussion in recent days of the manifest injustice, even suffering, caused by the system of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection, or IPPs, introduced by David Blunkett when home secretary as a form of preventive detention. Several thousands of people on IPPs who have served the ‘punishment’ element of their prison sentences (by no means only for serious offences) are kept in prison until they can demonstrate to a parole board that they won’t re-offend if released – something that it’s inherently impossible to prove. As a result, already grossly overcrowded prisons are even more overcrowded by prisoners who’ve done their bird but whom the parole boards won’t release. The Kafka-esque character of this monstrous regime has been emphasised in a major report on IPPs issued during the month by the Prison Reform Trust and in reports by the head of the Parole Board and prison governors, among several others. Yet in the hour-long oral questions to Justice Ministers on 20 July in the house of commons, the last before the long summer recess, not a single question about IPPs was asked. Let’s hope that notwithstanding this apparent lack of interest in the issue on the part of our MPs, IPPs will be subjected to rigorous reappraisal as part of the coalition’s welcome review of sentencing policy, due to report in the autumn. Those IPP prisoners who have served their tariffs but who are being made to wait for years to attend the behaviour management courses effectively required by parole boards as evidence of reform and rehabilitation, and then for years more while they wait for the parole board to consider their cases, and then for an indefinite period of years after that when the parole board has not dared to risk releasing them, should clearly be released without further ado. Some will reoffend, but that’s just a risk we have to accept as a cost of living in what ought to be a free society. Even more IPPers would not reoffend if released, and those are being indefinitely incarcerated for no reason whatever.
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As I pounded the treadmill in the gym while listening to Mahler on my iPod and reading some familiar Keats to relieve the boredom (licks finger and chalks an imaginary figure 1 on imaginary blackboard), it occurred to me that there are four discrete propositions in the famous couplet —
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
— and that all four propositions are not only untrue, but actually absurd.