The awkward war of words over Gibraltar between Spain and the UK has been escalating from strong words to fishing-boat broadsides to bureaucratic barrages. There’s even been reports of real gunfire. It’s not hard to see why the Spanish government has upped the ante after the issue has been smouldering quietly in the background for years. When a nation’s economy is struggling, nationalism has always been a useful distraction for a populace facing tough times. Directing hate and fear at a manufactured threat is a sleight of hand trick that has been used by unscrupulous politicians since, well, forever. Here in the UK all of the main political parties regularly deploy hate propaganda as a tool to attain their goals. New (relatively so) kid on the block UKIP has learned that lesson particularly well, and has made xenophobia their war cry, albeit dressed up in a spiffing suit and tie.
It’s a sad personality trait of our species that the instinctual tug of tribalism can motivate people more than compassion and rational discourse.
So why is the UK so keen to keep Gibraltar out of Spanish hands? Is it because of the tactical location of Gibraltar, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, is an ideal position for the UK to continue to project a last vestige of military power to protect UK interests abroad? Could it be because Gibraltar is home to some UK firms who wish to benefit from Gibraltar’s flexible tax regime? Or is it because some Gibraltarian residents have access to the highest levels of power? Or could it be, like David Cameron has claimed, to “stand up for the people of Gibraltar”?
If you are a Chagossian from the Chagos islands, this claim will leave a bitter taste.
The Chagos islands are a string of small atolls in the Indian Ocean, south of India, halfway between Africa and Indonesia. These little dots of green are part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). But the Queen won’t visit these islands to be showered with petals and receive flowers from excited children waving flags. No proud British citizens will greet the Queen here with praise and gifts.
Because the people of the Chagos islands aren’t there.
The Chagossians were ‘displaced’ from the islands in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the UK government to make way for a huge US military base on the largest of the Chagos Islands, Diego Garcia. The location of the islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean makes it a nice launching point for military adventures in the Middle East and Asia. You may remember Diego Garcia from such japes as extraordinary rendition (i.e. kidnap), torture and bombing raids.
The US military personnel stationed on the island call it ‘Fantasy Island’, such is it’s beauty, surrounded by a warm blue Indian Ocean teeming with marine life. The UK government has classified it as uninhabitable.
I used the word ‘displaced’ above. It’s one of those bureaucratic euphemisms that doesn’t really convey what happened, as euphemisms are meant to do. Not even the word ‘evicted’ does what happened any justice. It doesn’t paint a picture of people rounded up, taken from their homes with only what they could carry and dumped in foreign lands with no support. Their livestock and pets killed. Their homes and boats destroyed. It doesn’t tell the story of the anguish, pain and tears of losing everything, having a huge part of your identity and culture taken away, a casualty of the continuing great game between nations. It turns human beings subsequently blighted by poverty, addiction and suicides into un-people. Such is the cruel reality of an empire which treats other people’s homes as its own assets to take and sell as it pleases.
Many of the Chagos people want to go home. However, successive British governments, Labour and Conservative, have sought to continue this injustice and refused their return using the courts, Royal Prerogative and even the cynical establishment of a marine protection zone around the islands to ensure that any return would be unsustainable. Even South Shields’ last MP, David Miliband, couldn’t dredge an ounce of humanity to allow these people back home to rebuild their communities when he served as Foreign Secretary.
The theft of the home of the Chagossians was a crime against humanity, and one of the most shameful episodes in recent British colonial history, along with the abandonment of the Palestinian people to the UN-sanctioned Israel land-grab. The lease to the Chagos Archipelago ends in 2016, and if the US wants to extend the lease an agreement must be made by the end of 2014. If David Cameron was really sincere about standing up for people, like those on Gibraltar and the Falklands, then he should be similarly passionate about standing up for the Chagos people, and return them to their home.
Jumping on the South Shields by-election bandwagon, UKIP have set up shop, in a shop, on King Street. It’s tastefully decked out in posters and a couple of baloons. Classy. The shop was formerly a branch of Bay Biscuit Co, a now defunct Newcastle retailer specialising in broken and bargain biscuits.
Let’s ignore that UKIP’s position on climate change ignores the science. Let’s ignore that UKIP’s position on equal marriage is as libertarian as the Pope’s. Let’s ignore that UKIP representatives have a bad habit of failing to keep their promises.
The real question which voters should ponder in their analysis of the by-election candidate should be: if UKIP were a biscuit, what biscuit would it be?
Not Hobnobs, clearly that’s for the Tories, a party run by toffs. Jammie Dodgers is more of Lib Dem biscuit, given their dodging tough decisions, their commitments and their principles. Drifter seems designed for Labour, the party continually drifting from it’s original purpose.
No doubt a UKIP representative would consider a biscuit like a Breakaway, reflecting their desire to tear the UK from Europe. Maybe Party Rings in a nod to South Tyneside UKIP councillor David Pott’s love for Bunga Bunga parties. Or perhaps McVitie’s Gold bars for UKIP’s nonsensical attachment to the gold standard. I think maybe Jacob’s Odditities would be the most appropriate. Or Jacob’s Crackers.
Or something with nuts in.
So, the MP for South Shields, David Miliband, has shuffled off to pastures new.
The media has concentrated on the alleged loss to the Labour project and British politics as a whole. I suppose it’s a narrative you would expect from a Westminster centric media, where the universe ends at the M25. I watched an interview on BBC News last week, where the BBC political editor talked to David Miliband and covered his career and his new job at the International Rescue Committee. The highs, the lows, the bad haircuts. South Shields was not mentioned once.
In the past I have had what best could be described as a mixed opinion of our MP here in South Shields. Sometimes I’ve been extremely critical, other times praising him. I’ve tried to sit down and objectively consider his impact as an MP for South Shields. It’s not easy.
I’ve never needed to rely on his assistance in his capacity as the Member of Parliament for South Shields. Those who I know who have gone to David Miliband for help have found him to be attentive and sympathetic, and willing to lend a hand if he could. When I’ve written to him with an enquiry, I have, apart from one instance, received a clear and timely response from his office. I don’t think I ever liked his answers, but at least he answered.
A criticism often raised is that he didn’t spend a lot of time in South Shields, but then again few MPs do. At least the time he has spent here has been well planned, with a full diary of events. He’s been in the right places (mostly) and said the right things.
As an ambassador for South Shields he has, I think, played a positive role. When he was minister at DEFRA he listened to the concerns of local environmental activists, and sought to bring local government together with environmental groups to exchange ideas. He did this by holding a conference, here in South Shields, not in London.
He has championed local business and with the likes of Colman’s fish shop, help put them on the map, and deservedly so. He has supported local charities and social initiatives like South Tyneside Credit Union (now Bridges Credit Union).
Although I’ve never attended the South Shields Lectures (except in a demonstration outside the event), I think they were an inspired idea by Miliband, bringing (albeit Labour) celebrities from politics and entertainment to the town to speak. I hope whoever is the next MP for South Shields will continue this.
And at least he timed his departure to the favour of the South Shields Labour Party. The previous incumbent, David Clark, deserted South Shields with such timing that the national Labour Party could parachute Miliband into one of the safest seats in the UK, sidestepping local party wishes. Reading the comments of South Shields councillor John Anglin, it’s clear that the 2001 fait accompli still rankles:
“We want to make sure we are allowed to choose our own MP, something we have not done in living memory.”
His voting record has been what you would have expected from an architect of New Labour and someone who had served most of his time in government as a minister – loyal. There have been times when he showed some heart, like his recent speech at the bedroom tax debate, and his liberal voting record on LGBT rights.
But those hints of a bigger person with a genuine vision were sparse. The loyalty mentioned above has meant he has voted for some of the most shameful policies for a British government in my lifetime. His support for the war in Iraq, the erosion of civil rights in the ‘War on Terror’. His voting silence on the NHS devolution risk assessment and Workfare. There is no way you could convincingly argue that he voted for the interests of the people of South Shields first and foremost.
In education, he championed the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) project and has often cited this as a Labour legacy. Because BSF was a PFI project, it’s the kind of legacy that brings with it a debt to the people of South Tyneside that will haunt our children, with several decades of payments to the corporations that run the schools. As we’ve seen recently with hospitals close to closing because of PFI debt, we can expect the same to come to our education system unless someone intervenes.
As Environment Secretary, he behind the publishing of the Climate Change Bill, which was what at the time looked like a remarkable and historic achievement: setting targets for the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. Sadly, those good intentions have now dissipated in offsetting and corporate compromise. The last ten years have shown that none of the three main political parties really take climate change seriously.
But in his role as Foreign Secretary is where I have the most concern, or rather, disgust. The treatment of the Chagossian people at his ministerial hands is nothing less than shameful, playing his sordid part in a long government injustice in keeping the people of the Chagos Islands from returning to their homeland. He was at the helm during extraordinary rendition and torture by our allies, and what admissions he made about the practices were imcomplete. At least he suspended some arms export licences to Israel during the Operation Cast Lead attacks on Palestine. Arguably though, those licences should never have been granted in the first place to prop up Israel’s military occupation of Palestine and accompanying land theft. Nevertheless, you’ve got to admire Miliband’s gall for resigning from Sunderland over the club’s appointment of Paulo Di Canio. Some lofty principles eh?
Miliband’s stint as Foreign Secretary should have been enough for a humanitarian charity like the International Rescue Committee to think twice about even shaking his soiled hands, not to mention consider him for their top job. I’m wondering where the ethical compass for IRC is really pointing.
So it’s a bit of a mixed bag; some good stuff, some bad. Very bad. Is there a definitive conclusion?
Prior to skipping town, David Miliband didn’t do a bad job for South Shields, and his impact was probably a net positive. And probably more so than his predecessor, who sat during one of the worst periods of South Shields’ history. As a government minister, it’s not so rosy. I’m not sure if I could have done those things, and then try to justify them to my children. From here it seems that ethics came second to his ambition. It’s the reason he came to South Shields, and the reason he left. Maybe that one word, ambition, could define his tenure.
South Tyneside councillor David Potts has thrown his hat in the ring for the job of Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner. His candidate statement is here on the TopOfTheCops.com blog, and it makes for interesting reading.
“I will clean up the streets of our region, make people feel safe in their homes, and tackle drug dealers and other scumbags with a firm hand”
Very commendable ambitions, but the ‘firm hand’ seems out of tune with the David Potts who exhibited a less than firm anti-crime stance when he offered himself as a character witness for a man who assaulted his ex-partner and her new partner. One of the victims of the assault was less than satisfied after the conviction:
“I think the sentence is a bit lenient”
It seems odd that David Potts thinks he has the kind of character to handle the job. On Twitter, he’s a bit of a maverick, to put it kindly. He put South Shields in the national press after calling MP David Miliband a wanker. A couple of weeks ago he hit the local press again after offering to meet up with a constituent at a ‘bunga bunga‘ party. And he hasn’t been shy in offering his very low opinion of public sector workers, despite being classified as a council employee himself to justify the wodges of council tax-payers cash being thrown at the hunt for the elusive Mr Monkey.
And he’s no stranger to the Police himself either. In March he was on the receiving end of a police caution for the unauthorised disclosure of personal data, an incident which may see him in front of South Tyneside Council’s Standards Committee.
But to be fair to him, he has some thrilling ideas for beating crime. He proposes setting up a special task force called the ‘Rangers’, which will do all kinds of busting and suchlike. Whether this branding idea was inspired by the Texas Rangers or the US Rangers is unknown. It all sounds very exciting and dynamic.
It is quaint to note that despite the tools of 21st Century policing – high tech equipment, helicopters, fast cars and weaponry, Potts still sees a role for traditional policing; one of his key proposals is more mounted officers. No doubt they’ll prove invaluable when the Mongols descend from the Mongolian steppe to pillage the streets of the North East.
One of our MPs is missing
A couple of weeks ago I talked about the petition for the Drop The Bill motion to be debated in Parliament. Despite the petition breaching the 100,000 limit for the motion to be discussed, the committee deciding on Commons business, loaded with Tories and Lib Dems, refused to let the motion pass into debate. There’s democracy for you, and a clear illustration that the government e-Petitions scheme favours public motions which fit the Tory agenda.
So the battle to save the NHS continues. Next up, was last week’s debate on the motion to publish a report into the risks the NHS is facing as a result of Lansley’s slash and burn plans. Rather than publish the risk report, which is usual, the government has decided to keep it secret. That should be enough to get the cynic gland pumping away.
This debate to demand the publishing of the risk report was an opportunity for the opposition to get behind the defence of the NHS and build a momentum for the fight. The motion to publish the report was beaten by the government 299 to 246. That’s not a surprise. The usual opposition faces were there; Andy Burnham, Ed Miliband, Diane Abbott and Jarrow MP Stephen Hepburn. Green MP Caroline Lucas was there too. It wasn’t until later though, that I found out through the excellent 38 Degrees, that one local MP was missing:
That’s right, South Shields MP David Miliband didn’t vote, which was confirmed by Hansard.
It’s disappointing that a Labour MP, working in a constituency like South Shields with more than it’s fair share of poverty, one which would feel the full force of Lansley’s demolition of the NHS, couldn’t turn up on behalf of the people who voted him in.
You know we’re in for interesting times when the South Tyneside Labour councillor with the education portfolio, Councillor Jim Foreman, disagrees with Labour’s flagship schools privatisation programme. The plans to transfer several South Tyneside schools into academy status has ruffled some feathers. Coun Foreman said:
We do not believe it is in the long-term interests of children across the borough to have two-tier schooling, and fear it will lead to fragmentation of the education system.
I don’t know who this ‘we’ is, but I agree with Councillor Foreman, but I’d bet that South Shield’s MP David Miliband doesn’t. This is what he said about Labour’s academies:
Academies are leading the reforms that will radically improve secondary education in this country.
Academies were never about raising standards in education. Standards can be raised without a second tier system, as performing schools like Harton Technology College have proven. Academy schools were an ideologically motivated project, moving schools out of local authority control and into the hands of third parties in an attempt to leverage improvements through market forces with the added competitive advantage of extra investment (they should really be called subsidies) over non academy schools.
So far, there’s little evidence that academies have improved education.
Now we are facing the ConDem government’s blue rebrand of the academies concept and the introduction of Free Schools.
Under Gove’s plans to encourage more schools to convert to academy status, schools will be allowed to set their own criteria for admissions outside of local authority control. In high demand schools like Harton Technology College, this will allow them to cherry pick the best students. Those better performing students will more likely be from households not reliant on some kind of welfare benefit. This will split schools into income class ghettos where academic aspiration will be difficult to inspire.
So academy status will not only fragment education provision, it will prove divisive.
It will also exacerbate admissions problems for a local authority like South Tyneside already struggling to provide a coherent and satisfactory admissions system. Ironically, despite the free market ideology behind academies, with their own selection criteria they can actually lead to a reduction in choice for parents.
However, it’s not as if a form of fragmentation and division isn’t already in place in South Tyneside school’s admissions policies: we aleady have a well established two tier system in the borough and no-one bats an eye. Some schools can already apply their own selection criteria, and those like St Joseph’s filter their admissions depending upon which god pupils and parents bow their heads to. The state funded religious school system has grown under Labour, and with Gove’s academy expansion and the introduction of Free Schools, the number of state funded schools constituted upon deity worship is likely to grow.
If Jim Foreman or David Miliband are really concerned about fragmentation in state education, stopping state funded sectarian education should be on their agenda.