Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

The Blair Years Part Six

Colman's Column3Sleaze and Achievements

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Formula for Sleaze

bernie-ecclestone-and-slavica-ecclestone

Much of the reason for the voters’ distaste for the Major administration was because of the “sleaze factor” but the new administration itself became besmirched in its very first year. Labour had pledged to ban tobacco advertising. Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone had donated a million pounds to the Labour Party and this came to look like a bribe when health minister Tessa Jowell, who was fiercely anti-tobacco, was forced to argue the case for exempting Formula One from tobacco advertising restrictions. Blair apologized and the money was returned but it was later proved that he lied about the timing of decisions in this matter.

tessa

The Hinduja Foundation is back in the news after promising to contribute £3.5m to the Duke of Edinburgh Award. Back in 2000 the Hinduja Brothers donated £ one million to the Millennium Project and brought about the resignation of Peter Mandelson in their quest for British citizenship. The Hinduja passport applications also affected Keith Vaz, a junior minister for Europe, whose wife ran a company that advised on applications for British citizenship, which had received money from the Hinduja Foundation.

Elizabeth Filkin, who was Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards between February 1999 and 2002, was subject to a venomous whispering campaign and one political reporter was told she was a “mad alcoholic”. Filkin resigned in December 2002, complaining about the “quite remarkable” vitriol from the Labour MPs she investigated, including Geoffrey Robinson and Keith Vaz.  Vaz is known to Sri Lankans as an LTTE sympathiser and is, as I write, again under a cloud following allegations relating to rent boys and drugs.

Lord Cashpoint

One of the consequences of Blair’s “success” in getting rid of Clause IV was that the trade unions, who had once been the mainstay of Labour Party finances, were no longer inclined to be so generous with funding. New Labour had an enduring problem raising enough cash with which to fight elections. It was alleged that Lord Levy (formerly a pop music entrepreneur whose stable included Alvin Stardust and Chris Rea) was tasked with raising funds for the party and was offering knighthoods and peerages in return. Levy became known as Lord Cashpoint.

levy-eye

Blair himself was interviewed by police. He and the Labour party were not exonerated from acting illegally. The decision of the Crown Prosecution Service not to proceed was made solely on the basis of a lack of evidence and an assessment of the likelihood of a conviction. Some of the police officers involved in the inquiry claim there was political pressure applied to them and that some of the politicians interviewed were less than helpful.

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Messiah, Mafia and Porn King

Broken Vows is a recent illuminating (although not beyond criticism) biography of Tony Blair by Tom Bower. Bower also wrote a biography of someone whose support Blair sought – Richard Desmond, proprietor of the Daily Express newspaper.  In 1982, Desmond’s company, Northern & Shell, began to publish the UK edition of the soft-porn magazine Penthouse, including Forum (for which Alistair Campbell once wrote). The company soon moved on to publishing a range of adult (sic) titles, including Asian BabesBig Ones, Eros, Horny Housewives, Only 18 and Mothers-in-Law.

John Sweeney wrote in the London Observer in May 2001 that Desmond had made a deal in 1991 for running advertisements in his “adult” titles for telephone sex lines run by Richard Martino of the Gambino crime family. In October 1992, Desmond’s then managing director, Philip Bailey, had a Taser applied to his testicles in New York as an explicit threat to Desmond himself. Desmond hired James Brown, a convicted criminal, as his bodyguard. An associate of Brown’s has claimed that bags containing £2 million were delivered to an Italian restaurant in Soho, London, to settle the issue with the Gambinos

Blair’s interest in this model citizen was sparked by Desmond’s acquisition of the Express. Blair invited Desmond to meet him at Number 10.  Desmond claimed to be a socialist and donated £100,000 to the Labour Party. Blair did not know that Desmond had also contributed to the Conservative Party and had ordered the editor of his pornographic magazine Readers’ Wives to “put Cherie Blair on the front cover”. Stupidly, Labour spent £120,000 (more than the size of Desmond’s donation) on buying campaign adverts in Desmond’s papers.

 

desmond-eye

Mandelson, Blunkett

Peter Mandelson was renowned for his manipulative Machiavellian skills but had a tin ear about his own actions. He bought a home in 1996, partly with an interest-free loan of £373,000 from Geoffrey Robinson, a cabinet colleague and millionaire whose business dealings were subject to an inquiry by Mandelson’s own department. Mandelson failed to declare the loan in the Register of Members’ Interests, or to his building society. He did not believe he had done anything wrong but his evasions embarrassed the prime minister who persuaded him to resign in in December 1998.  He came back to the Cabinet after ten months. In October 1999, he was appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. On 24 January 2001, Mandelson resigned for a second time, following his involvement in the Hinduja passport scandal.

David Blunkett resigned as Home Secretary on 15 December 2004 after allegations that he helped fast-track the renewal of a work permit for his ex-lover’s nanny. Following the 2005 general election Blunkett was returned to the cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He was ousted again because of a directorship in a company proposing to bid for government contracts to provide paternity tests to the Child Support Agency (CSA) – part of his department.

Caplingate

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Although Blair used the media relentlessly for his own ends, Mrs Blair resented intrusions of privacy and did not try to hide her contempt, which was reciprocated by the press. Cherie had asked her “lifestyle advisor”, Carole Caplin, to find her property in which to invest in Bristol where her son was going to university.

chercaplin

Caplin’s boyfriend, Peter Foster, helped to find two flats and got a discount of £40,000 by mentioning the Blairs. Foster had been convicted in Australia of fraud. Cherie lied to Blair about this and the lies were passed on to the press, causing the prime minister great embarrassment.

Carole Caplin and Peter Foster in grabs from BBC documnetary called " The Conman, his Lover and the Prime Minister's Wife " 15/02/03 for paul

Carole Caplin and Peter Foster 

Achievements

Despite the sleaze and the disappointments, Blair did transform the Labour Party and presided over three consecutive general election victories, a feat which had eluded every previous Labour leader. The UK did generally become a more comfortable place to be after ten years of Blair. New Labour adopted the EU social chapter, introduced a minimum wage, reduced child poverty, shifted state aid from the middleclass, increased taxes on the better-off, concentrated considerable resources into deprived areas and used windfall profits from the privatised utilities to create job and training opportunities. A five-year homelessness strategy was effective. Government figures published in 2005 showed homelessness acceptances had fallen by nearly 7,000 on the previous year.

I cannot do justice here to Blair’s impressive achievement on Northern Ireland. I recommend two books by people who followed the process step by painful step. Deaglán de Bréadún was Political Correspondent with the Irish Times. His daily coverage of the negotiations leading to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland was published in a book, The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland which is essential reading. In Great Hatred, Little Room, Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, gives an insider’s account.

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Blair’s success with Northern Ireland was due to his faults as well as his strengths. He was determined to look at Northern Ireland afresh, free from the received wisdom of his predecessors. Ignorance and naivete were assets in this case, helping him to resolve a situation that history seemed to have made intractable. It was a tribute to Blair’s doggedness, communication skills, resilience and creativity that he persuaded Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness not only to govern together but even to become friends. McGuinness wept when Paisley died.

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Michael Burleigh adds the caveat about the Northern Ireland triumph: “Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell … were surely influenced by their triumph amid the steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone to scale up to the mosques of Basra, Baghdad and Ramadi?”

 

 

Next week – Blair’s later career.

 

 

The Blair Years Part Five

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday 17 November 2016 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=9430

 

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The War with Gordon Brown

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While journalists and biographers have done much to illuminate the strange psyche of Gordon Brown, there is only one writer who could have done him justice- William Shakespeare. There are countless anecdotes about Brown’s rages during which he hurled expletives and inanimate objects. Tessa Jowell, one of the more placid members of the Cabinet, was provoked into shouting at Brown: “Don’t you ever f****ing speak to me like that again.” Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon groaned, “Why can’t he behave like a human being?”

 

“From day one, it was terrible,” says Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Chief of Staff. In the early days of the new government, one of the most senior figures in Number 10 (not Peter Mandelson) said, “You know Gordon. He feels so vulnerable and so insecure. He has these psychological flaws.”  Peter Mandelson once remarked to Blair that he should put a sign up on his desk with the inscription: “Remember: The Chancellor is mad”.

 

Blair’s team of advisors and Brown’s were in a constant state of warfare. According to Jonathan Powell, “Gordon had a very strong field of gravity. People became infected by his paranoia. Working for Gordon did something to people”. A senior civil servant commented: “The people around Brown were pretty ruthless”.

 

Blair and Brown

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I was in the House of Commons on July 27 1983, to hear Gordon Brown’s maiden speech. The speech was impressive in a dour kind of way, showing a great deal of sympathy for the downtrodden in his constituency. He shared a Westminster office with a newly-elected MP from the Sedgefield constituency, Tony Blair. When Labour leader John Smith died in 1994, Blair was shadow home secretary and Brown shadow chancellor. The legend has it that on 31 May, Blair and Brown met at the Granita restaurant in Islington, where Brown is said to have agreed to step aside on the understanding that Blair would one day stand down in favour of Brown. Throughout Blair’s premiership, Brown would shout at Blair: “When are you going to f*** off!”

smithblair

 

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Financial Wizard

 

Brown liked to portray himself as more socialist than Blair. His record as Chancellor does not support this. Soon after taking office in 1997, the new administration announced, with Brown’s agreement, that it would be continuing Conservative economic policies. Brown wrote: “I wanted to preserve Thatcher’s competitive tax rates. I wanted wealthy people to feel welcomed in the UK”. The Chancellor’s new tax rates favoured speculators, tax-avoiders and the super-rich. According to Tom Bower: “Blair’s grasp on the effect of Brown’s policies on British industry, the City or the economy was indiscernible”. However, Blair realised that whatever about Brown’s self-image as “prudent”, he was spending too much. Blair did not realise how ignorant Brown was about markets and balance sheets or warnings about the property bubble and the effects of deregulation.

 

 

Obstruction

 

Brown, like a sulky child, hindered many policy initiatives, not because he had any rational case against them, but simply because Blair wanted them. Andrew Rawnsley comments, “Brown did not offer much by way of an alternative vision or theory of reform. He just knew what he didn’t like. What he didn’t like was anything coming from Blair”. A Treasury minister commented that “Gordon thought that Tony was shallow. By definition, any idea coming from Tony had to be reckless and unworkable because it was Tony’s idea”. Brown said “Tony doesn’t think more than an inch deep”. There countless stories of Brown refusing to attend important meetings. When he did attend, he would not contribute, spending the whole time working on his own papers.

 

There are also countless tales of Brown interfering in the remit of other ministers. The NHS will serve as the prime example. Alan Milburn, the Health Secretary, was incandescent when Brown, without consultation, announced his own NHS review and made critical remarks about the health service’s performance. Milburn complained to Blair that Brown “saw it as his right to trample on everyone else’s territory”.  On health and education, the chancellor adamantly opposed creeping privatisation of services at the same time as being a fervent proponent of public private finance initiatives (PFI) to fund the building of NHS hospitals. Let the sewage flooding the operating theatres at the brand-new Carlisle hospital stand as a telling symbol of PFI.

 

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/the-healthcare-business-in-the-uk/

 

My Indecision is Final

 

Cabinet Secretary Richard Wilson said, “I had Permanent Secretaries wanting decisions and we couldn’t give them because Blair and Brown were in a row. Issues stacked up like aircraft over Heathrow”. Like so many others, Wilson found it difficult to decide what Blair wanted because there was no defined objective, only generalities like “reforming the public services”. Wilson’s request for Blair to explain his message received at best idealistic verbiage.

Sir Richard Wilson

Sir Richard Wilson

Rawnsley quotes one of Blair’s closest advisors: “Tony sits there at the Monday morning strategy meetings screaming: ‘What are we doing about health? What are we doing about crime? What are we doing about transport? And nothing happening.’”

 

Blair put on a good public performance after the London bombings but someone who saw his performance at the Cobra meetings said, “He didn’t understand the machine of which he was the master, so he got in the way of getting what he needed.”

 

New Ways of Governing

 

In 1997, Blair was a complete novice to government, as also was Gordon Brown. Neither of them had managed anything except a political party. The prime minister’s apathy about organisation and management was incurable.  Officials at Number 10 had a set ritual for welcoming a new prime minister. Blair was presented with a thick blue folder, entitled “The Precedent Book”, which set out how previous governments had handled major events, such as the Queen’s Speech and Prime Ministerial statements. Blair pointedly did not open it. The Cabinet was not consulted about Brown’s decision to grant independence to the Bank of England. The Cabinet Secretary was concerned that major decisions were not discussed in Cabinet. “I’m sure they’ll agree,” responded Blair. The Cabinet Secretary persisted: “shouldn’t the Cabinet at least be informed?” “They’ll all agree,” repeated Blair, more emphatically.

 

Cabinet meetings were not held as frequently as under previous prime ministers; they did not last long; there was little substantive discussion. A joke became popular among ministers. “Why does the tea trolley serve only half the Cabinet? Because the meetings are over before it can reach the other side.”

 

Blair was happy for the government to interfere in all the interstices of citizens’ lives. The nation and its administrators became weary with initiative fatigue. According to Andrew Rawnsley: “Units, task forces and review groups, commissars of modernisation on every subject from silicone breast implants to social exclusion, proliferated … councils were instructed on the annual gross weight of dog turds they were expected to collect”.

 

The deficiencies of Blair’s style of governance is shown starkly by his handling of the invasion of Iraq. One of Blair’s reasons for avoiding formal discussions about Iraq was that he wanted to exclude Brown. In the past, a military intervention of this nature would have involved discussion of thick red files in the Cabinet room by ministers and officials and senior military officers covering the background and options.  Blair kept decisions to himself but subsequently did not give them his full attention. Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon discovered that conversations with Blair about Iraq were invariably undermined by the prime minister’s attention shifting elsewhere.

 

Conclusion

The number of Whitehall press officers had expanded to 1,100. The tally of special advisers –

spin doctors – had more than doubled since May 1997. Millionaire novelist Ken Follett was once a generous supporter of the Labour Party but became disillusioned. He predicted that Blair would be remembered “as the Prime Minister who made malicious gossip an everyday tool of government”. It was an ironic result of the efforts of New Labour’s propagandists that they undermined the public perception of the character of the Prime Minister and obscured his government’s real successes.

 

Next week – what were the successes?

 

The Blair Years Part Four

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday, November 10 2016

 

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The Moral Imperialist Messiah

 

 

Kosovo

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When Blair visited Pristina in 2010, he appeared onstage with nine boys who were named after him. Tonibler Sahiti’s mother said: “I hope to God that he grows up to be like Tony Blair or just a fraction like him.” The NATO intervention in Kosovo, which owed much to Blair’s advocacy, is often seen as protecting Kosovo Albanians from genocide. However, SNP leader Alex Salmond called it “an unpardonable folly”.  General Mike Jackson exhorted the troops, “with God on our side” “to protect the Albanian good guys from the murdering Serbs”. Days after Blair’s visit to Pristina, Albanian thugs began murdering Serbs.

Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull sees the apparent success in Kosovo as the beginning of Blair’s Messiah complex. “He is saving the world from evil”. While intervening in Kosovo, Blair declared during a speech in Chicago, (partly drafted by Lawrence Freedman, who was later a member of the Chilcot Inquiry) his “Doctrine of the International Community”. Blair advocated the use of foreign troops to protect a civilian population. This doctrine could have been used to intervene in Sri Lanka.

Sierra Leone

The civil war in Sierra Leone began on 23 March 1991 when the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) attempted to overthrow the elected government.  Families were gunned down in the street, children and adults had their limbs hacked and women were raped.

Unarmed UN observers, including a small number of officers from the British Army and Royal Marines, were expected to monitor the Lomé Peace Accord signed in July 1999. The RUF did not honour the peace agreement, kidnapped UN personnel and seemed set to take over the whole country. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he expected the UK as the former colonial power, to intervene in Sierra Leone directly, rather than relying on the international community.

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Blair described the Sierra Leone operation as one of the things of which he is most proud. Most of the inhabitants of Sierra Leone welcomed it. The motivation was altruistic and there was no strategic or commercial interest in the adventure. The proportionality of 5,000 troops and naval force being sent to deal with a small group of brutal drug dealers was not questioned at the time. Unfortunately, the Sierra Leone adventure was cited by Blair in his rationale for later deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Afghanistan

Immediately after 9/11, Blair was very supportive of GW Bush. Although anxious to prevent the US taking precipitate and inappropriate action, Blair was also puzzled and frustrated by Bush’s initial invisibility and lack of response. Those in the know thought the 9/11 perpetrators might be hiding in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban. At the first meeting of intelligence chiefs in the den at Number 10, Blair had looked a little ‘fuzzy’ at the mention of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. One official said, “I don’t think Blair knew much about al-Qaeda at this point. It was clear to me that he had not taken in earlier warnings”.

 

On October 7, 2001, the US, supported by allies, began an invasion of Afghanistan. A small contingent of British SAS soldiers supported American special forces who were guiding the US air force’s bombing raids. The Pentagon initially rejected Blair’s offer to send 6,000 troops. Tom Bower comments “Blair’s commitment was driven entirely by an untested philosophy, and he could not provide a definition of ‘victory’ that would end the war.” Six weeks after the bombing had begun, the Taliban were driven out of Kabul but they were not finished.

karzai

At the 2001 Labour Party Conference, Blair gave an impassioned speech in which he stated his case for moral imperialism and made a firm commitment to fighting alongside the US, whatever the cost. One Cabinet member described it as “the inaugural speech of the President of the World”. Andrew Rawnsley commented: “There was a disjunction between his admission that they couldn’t get the trains to run on time at home and his vaulting claim that they could heal the world of conflict, poverty and disease.”

 

 

Waiting for Chilcot

Basra, IRAQ: (FILES) -- File picture dated 29 May 2003 shows British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressing troops in Basra, Iraq.Blair announced 10 May 2007 his resignation after a decade in powerr, saying he will stand down at the end of June. He told party suporters in his constituency of Sedgefield that he would step down as Labour leader, and therefore as prime minister on June 27. AFP PHOTO POOL Stefan ROUSSEAU (Photo credit should read STEFAN ROUSSEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

29 May 2003  British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressing troops in Basra

 

The entire 12-volume, 2.6million-word Chilcot Report into the invasion of Iraq is available online.   I recommend readers to look at the report’s executive summary.

 

http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/media/247921/the-report-of-the-iraq-inquiry_executive-summary.pdf

 

It was widely expected that the report would be a whitewash and the long delay (the process took seven years) in publishing the report caused suspicions. Previous inquiries related to Iraq – Hutton in 2003 and Butler in 2004 (of which Chilcot had been a member) – had been disappointing.

 

The five appointees who were tasked with disentangling events since 1998 did not inspire confidence. Tom Bower described one of them, Baroness Usha Prashar, as “an untalented quangoist, [who] fulfilled the requirement of diversity.” I worked with her when she was a member of the Social Security Advisory Committee in 1983 and do not recall ever hearing her contribute to a SSAC discussion. On the Chilcot panel she asked Blair questions about post-war Iraq but failed to follow up on his evasions, inaccuracies and contradictions.

 

Nevertheless, the Chilcot report was not a whitewash. It found that military action was not the last resort and that policy on Iraq was made on the basis of flawed intelligence. The severity of the threat posed by Iraq, particularly the existence of weapons of mass destruction, was grossly overstated, and presented with a certainty that was not justified. Furthermore, the UK, which did not achieve its stated objectives in Iraq, did not prepare or plan for a post-Saddam Iraq.

Gerard Russell is an author and a former British and UN diplomat who spent 14 years representing Britain in the Middle East and served as a political officer in Afghanistan. He speaks fluent Arabic and Dari and assisted Iraq’s first elected prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, in 2005. He recently commented on the Chilcot Report in the New York Review of Books: “Perhaps there were no quick solutions to be had, but only the slow rebuilding of an abused and shattered state. If so, the most important lesson for us is that we should be doubly and triply cautious about breaking something that is so hard to reassemble.” Russell concludes:” … occupying and trying to run a foreign country is a doomed endeavour.”

 

How not to Fight a War

 

David Manning, who was the British Ambassador to the US from 2003 to 2007, described to the Chilcot committee “a ring of secrecy” that Blair constructed. Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull realised that Blair and his chief of staff’s passion for speed and secrecy “was not a bad habit he and Powell had slipped into, but how they wanted to operate from the start”.

 

Turnbull was excluded from any discussions about Iraq as was Kevin Tebbitt the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence. David Omand, the former head of GCHQ, who had been specifically appointed as the coordinator of security and intelligence in the Cabinet Office could not get Blair to talk, or listen, to him. In his book, Broken Vows, Tom Bower commented: “By excluding the MoD – and Tebbit’s background included seventeen years in the Foreign Office, then [Director of] GCHQ –Blair denied himself direct advice about the movement of manpower and the supply of equipment before and after the invasion.”

 

According to Andrew Turnbull, Blair was “less and less interested in hearing contrary opinions.” Cabinet meetings were desultory. During twenty-five meetings about the war, no official was summoned to write the minutes, and the papers submitted by the Cabinet Office outlining the options were not read. Blair did not enjoy a good relationship with senior military men upon whom he relied to implement his plans for Iraq. Michael Boyce, was succeeded as Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in 2003 by Michael Walker. When military leaders asked for more manpower or equipment he said, “Go and ask Gordon”.  Walker tried to get more helicopters but found Blair “inattentive”.

 

War with Brown

 

Officials were astonished that Blair “spent more time and effort managing the relationship with his Chancellor than on any other issue”. More on Gordon Brown next week.

 

The Blair Years Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday, November 3 2016. The title given was Privatisation’s Disastrous Route.

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We have seen in previous articles how Blair failed to put in place structures that would make a practical reality out of the grand visions he hoped would be his legacy. New Labour did nothing to reverse the disruption caused by Tory privatisation of public utilities and transport. Blair’s own lack of attention to detail led to failures in the areas of energy policy, transport and agriculture.

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Transport

The New Labour manifesto for the 1997 election promised “an effective and integrated transport policy at national, regional and local level …” However, According to Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull, “no-one ever really looked after transport. It was a very low priority in the first term.”

John Major is remembered fondly by some, but I will always remember him for doing to the British rail network what he did to Edwina Currie. Conscious of being in the shadow of Thatcher, he wanted his share of the privatisation glory. Rail was the only major area left so Major was determined to privatise it, even though it led to fragmentation, chaos and death. Operations were broken up and sold off, with regulatory functions transferred to the Rail Regulator. Railtrack took over the infrastructure and track maintenance became the responsibility of 13 different companies. Three rolling stock operating companies (ROSCOs) took over passenger trains with the stock being leased out to passenger train operating companies (TOCs) which were awarded contracts through rail franchising.

Nobody wanted rail privatisation except Tory ideologues and those who stood to make a fat profit at the taxpayers’ expense. After a series of rail disasters with many fatalities, there was a growing consensus that maintenance work was not being done properly and splitting of the railways into 25 different companies was a horrendous mistake. After the Paddington rail crash, in October 1999, a Guardian/ICM poll found that 73% of all voters would support re-nationalizing Railtrack. Blair did not accede to the people’s wishes.

Privatisation was meant to bring business savvy into public utilities, but, in reality, it allowed foreign governments and their state-owned operators to make vast profits out of the UK. In one two-year period, Dutch company Abellio took dividends of £20 million from their UK operations; French company Keolis made £37.9 million; German company Arriva made £15 million.

Hatfield, the morning after the train crash. Investigators and Police at the scene of the crash. The remains of the crash. New parts of the track waiting to be put on the tracy which was used by the Kings Cross to Leeds train yesterday which crashed. October 20, 2012. Photo by Andrew Parsons/i-Images.

Hatfield, the morning after the train crash. 

The Hatfield rail crash in 2000 led to severe financial difficulties for Railtrack which was put into a special kind of insolvency by the British High Court. On October 17 2000, four passengers died and dozens were injured because a faulty rail hadn’t been replaced: the rail crumbled under the friction of the 12.10 from King’s Cross to Leeds and threw the train from the tracks. Blair did not take the opportunity to re-nationalise the railways but nevertheless pumped in taxpayers’ money. In 2002 a new organisation, Network Rail, bought Railtrack PLC. Network Rail had no shareholders but was nominally in the private sector but its borrowing was guaranteed by the government. In 2004, Network Rail took back direct control of the maintenance of the track, signalling and overhead lines.

Instead of sorting out the chaos in the national rail network, the Blair government went ahead with plans to mess up the Tube. Although chancellor Gordon Brown was resolutely opposed to any hint of privatisation in the NHS (except in building hospitals) and banned use of the word ‘choice’, he was obsessed with using PFI (Private Finance Initiative) to revitalise the underground network. In practice, PFI is a bad deal for taxpayers and involves a hidden privatisation of public services. The UK Accounting Standards Board called PFI an “an off-balance-sheet fiddle” because the government can move the cost of public works out of the public sector borrowing requirement and by sleight of hand reduce the deficit. PFI can only be implemented through an anti-competitive process which inevitably leads to corruption. The big corporations would not be interested if it were otherwise. For a small investment, companies can be sure of long-term profit guaranteed by the taxpayer.

The government announced in February 2002 that it was going ahead with plans for part-privatisation of the London Underground despite wide-spread opposition. Opponents insisted that the plan was fundamentally flawed on both financial and safety grounds. Brown and Blair left the detail to deputy prime minister John Prescott who soon lost control to a group of businessmen, lawyers and consultants whose fees reached £1 billion. The final bill for the project was about £30 billion. Blair supported his chancellor’s hubristic scheme “as the only way to get massive investment into the ailing network”.

Energy and Fuel

Energy provides another example of Blair’s inability to maintain a consistent position and to trust his ministers to implement a policy. As a means of reducing energy costs and the incidence of fuel poverty, a new programme of grants for cavity wall and loft insulation and for draught proofing was quickly launched, with some 670,000 homes taking up the scheme. This scheme was later abandoned and the number of those suffering from the cold increased. Steep price rises and possible power blackouts, that we are so familiar with in Sri Lanka, were a grim possibility.

Germany was driving the EU to increase the proportion of energy supplied by renewables to 20%. Only 1.6 of Britain’s energy needs was being generated by renewables and Merkel’s policy would cost Britain’s consumers £7.9 billion extra every year and would wreck its energy market. Industry representatives doubted whether the prime minister and his advisers understood either the costs or the complications. When Alistair Darling told Blair that he was mad to agree to Merkel’s plans, Blair said “I got confused”.  In Broken Vows, Tom Bower writes: “As so often, although their conversation lasted only a few seconds, his eyes wandered.”  William Rickett, an energy expert working in the Cabinet Office, commented: “That’s not the sort of behaviour you expect from a prime minister. He’s wasted eighteen months of work and it’s delayed anything happening on the ground while we go back to the drawing board”.

 

Petrol Revolt

gbrown2p

An avoidable crisis brought the UK to the brink of anarchy and almost toppled the government. “The great petrol revolt of 2000” led to hospitals cancelling non-vital surgery and funeral directors warned that they would not be able to bury the dead. It reminded me of James Callaghan’s winter of discontent when I sat in a Manchester cinema with rats running over my feet because the local authority could not collect the garbage. By 2000, fuel prices in the UK had risen from being amongst the cheapest in Europe to being the most expensive. By 2000, tax accounted for 81.5% of the total cost of petrol, up from 72.8% in 1993.  Because of demonstrations against increased fuel tax, a stage was reached where nine out of ten petrol stations had no fuel to sell. There was panic buying and supermarket shelves were empty. One minister warned: “There would be no food. The health service was going to collapse. We were twenty-four hours away from meltdown”.

 

After being initially slow to focus on the problem, Blair went energetically into action, working the phones to influential people in the oil and haulage businesses. He was not successful and shouted “For f***’s sake, they gave me assurances”. One of the oil executives resented Blair’s attitude.  “We are not nationalised industries. We are globalised companies with, on the whole, more influence around the world than the British Government”. Blair said, “I have to show I am leading”. Sending in the army was considered but the generals were reluctant. Polls showed that as many as 94% supported the protesters. As Andrew Rawnsley put it: “The petrol shortages might be a pain, but the people seemed ready to endure them so long as the torture inflicted on the Prime Minister was greater”.

 

Foot in Mouth

burning-cows

The army was called upon to help in another crisis which Blair mishandled – the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001. With up to 93,000 animals per week being slaughtered, Agriculture Ministry officials were assisted by units from the British Army. The bureaucracy failed abysmally, politicians were unfocused, then panicked and scientists and self-interested farmers issued confused predictions. Thousands of farmers faced financial devastation because the Rural Payments Agency had collapsed. The Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, would be officially criticised for contributing to a blunder that cost over £1 billion in compensation but was rewarded with promotion to the Foreign Office. Blair admitted: “We were mired by scandal and controversy and then I did a reshuffle which was the worst of all worlds”.

 

Next week, Blair goes to war – in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq – and with the Treasury.

 

The Blair Years Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday October 27 2016

Colman's Column3

Tony Blair has announced that he may return to British politics. Britain needs a saviour and Blair always saw himself as a Messiah. How did his vision work when he had a chance to make substantial changes in British society as prime minister from 1997 to 2007? The triumph of style and spin over substance, lack of concentration, poor management of human resources and avoidance of confrontation were common themes in Blair’s approach to all the major issues that he had intended to tackle.

Tony Blair

Education

Education was a big factor in Blair’s “vision thing”. “Our top priority was, is and always will be education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people.” Blair significantly increased public spending in absolute terms on education but was hampered by a lack of focus (despite his addiction to focus groups). David Blunkett, when Education Secretary, believed that the NHS was a black hole which was permanently in crisis and was likely to suck away what he believed should be available for education. In 2001, Labour spent less on education as a percentage of GDP than John Major had in 1995.

blunkett

After eight years of Labour government, illiteracy was increasing. Eleven-year-olds were entering secondary school damaged by Whitehall’s pressure on local authorities and schools to “teach to the test” – not to create better human beings who could make a valid contribution to society, but to churn out pupils who could pass tests so that schools could hit targets. As with the NHS, there were frequent complaints of “initiative fatigue”.  Head teachers felt overwhelmed with paperwork and bureaucracy. Constant testing, targets and inspections were detracting from learning and encouraging teachers to be dishonest. Scores were being manipulated. To satisfy the target of five GCSEs and a rise in the GCSE pass rate to 76 per cent, many head teachers had directed pupils to take easy courses. It looked good that more GCSEs were being achieved but 21.7 per cent of pupils who got what counted in the revised system as five ‘good’ GCSEs left school without demonstrating a reasonable knowledge of maths or English. Grades were inflated to please the government. In 2005, AQA, one of the country’s largest examining boards, awarded an A* in business studies for marks of 47 per cent. That was typical of grade inflation.

 

The promotion of privately sponsored academies did not improve real standards. A National Audit Office (NAO) report showed that the exam results of academy pupils were below average and some academies were wasteful, weak and financially irresponsible. Blair used inaccurate 2005 statistics to bolster his own supposed achievements. He ignored the NAO report and poorer results which were published in later years.

 

Blair’s first Education Secretary, Estelle Morris, said the prime minister was always willing to discuss problems. His style of leadership meant that there was no guarantee that anything happened afterwards.

 

Welfare Reform

Just as he was unable to implement a grand vision for the NHS and for education Blair found welfare reform beyond his powers of imagination and perseverance. He failed to get across to ministers and civil servants what he wanted and failed to get his ministers to work productively together. Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, was an acknowledged guru on welfare benefits. An ascetic, monk-like creature, he had accumulated a vast amount of knowledge and ideas from his study at university of economics and his time at the CPAG (Child Poverty Action Group) and the Low Pay Unit. His parents were Tories “who believed in character and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps”. When Blair appointed him in 1997 as the Minister of Welfare Reform, Field took this to mean that he had licence for “thinking the unthinkable”.  Blair wrote that: “the problem was not so much that his thoughts were unthinkable as unfathomable”. Field clashed with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and the Secretary of State for Social Security, Harriet Harman.

field

There was a serious personality clash between Harman and Field. Andrew Rawnsley reports that Harman, “pinking with anger”, shouted “I can’t work with someone who thinks I’m a liar”. White with fury, Field shouted back: ‘And I can’t work with someone who is a f****ing liar.

harman

I worked in social security local offices, visiting claimants in their homes, in Manchester in the 1970s and moved to London in 1982 to work for Sir Arthur Armitage, chairman of SSAC (the Social Security Advisory Committee). When Field was Director of the CPAG, we saw him as an advocate for benefit recipients and a man of the left.  Today he looks more like a radical conservative. He certainly did not favour a dependency culture. The Blair government was quite intentionally trying to make Britain a fairer society and Downing Street’s task groups encouraged the disadvantaged to expect an equal stake in society. According to Rawnsley: “Not only was work made less attractive than government handouts, but with the government’s blessing, a new majority of Britons classified themselves as victims”.

 

When I worked at SSAC, I had many entertaining conversations with the forthright Ann Bowtell, before she became a Dame or a Permanent Secretary. When Alistair Darling took over from Harriet Harman at the Department of Social Security he asked Dame Ann Bowtell if he could read all the briefing material on work in progress on welfare reform. “Oh,” replied the Permanent Secretary. “That shouldn’t take you long.”

 

Rawnsley comments, “This was the moral for Tony Blair. Announcing a Big Idea was not the same as having one.”

 

Dome – Doh!

The Millennium Dome provided an apt symbol for the bad aspects of the Blair years.  Blair brought humiliation on himself by claiming that the Dome would be “a triumph of confidence over cynicism, boldness over blandness, excellence over mediocrity”. The Dome project was conceived, on a smaller scale, under John Major’s Conservative government, as a Festival of Britain kind of showcase to celebrate the third millennium. Blair greatly expanded the size, scope and funding of the project and significantly increased expectations of what would be delivered. Psychogeographer Iain Sinclair correctly prophesied doom for the project. “The peninsula was where the nightstuff was handled: foul-smelling industries, the manufacture of ordnance, brewing, confectionery, black smoke palls and sickly-sweet perfumes. … In a sense, it was very perceptive of the Millennium Experience promoters to settle on Bugsby’s Marshes as the site for their monumentally expensive folly. Where better to greet the millennium (even if the nominated date is meaningless) than this ravished swamp with its history of plague, pestilence and pillage?”

Blair committed too much of himself and New Labour to this folly. The Dome was designed by Richard Rogers, New Labour’s favourite architect; the company chairman was New Labour supporter Bob Ayling; the Prime Minister’s friends, Peter Mandelson and then Charlie Falconer were the main front men. Most of the Cabinet, the media and the public did not want the Dome but that did not matter. How could this government transform Britain’s public services, which were already consuming nearly 35 per cent of the nation’s revenues, and still waste money on this nonsense? Andrew Rawnsley comments: “What the people wanted was not a vacuous temple to political vanity but a health service that worked.” The Dome was commissioned without any further discussion among Blair’s ministers.

 

The opening night was an excruciating fiasco which severely displeased the Queen and Prince Philip who were forced to endure a dance troupe of near-naked dancers, one of whom flaunted a three-foot spikey penis at the audience. The organisers were not even able to supply the Prime Minister’s wife with a glass of water. The Tesco house champagne was served in self-assembly plastic flutes and ran out. The heart in the Body Zone had developed an irregular beat and its brain was broken. Lord Blyth, of Boots, who had been a generous donor to the party, barked: “New Labour can bloody well wait for their £12 million.”

domequeen

Andrew Rawnsley wrote that the enterprise “embodied the most meretricious features of the consumer age which New Labour had absorbed too well. The Dome was the vapid glorification of marketing”.

 

Next week, I will show how New Labour did nothing to reverse the fragmentation and disruption caused by Tory privatisation of public utilities and transport.

 

 

The Blair Years Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday October 20 2016 where it was given the title Saviour or Serpent.

Colman's Column3

Tony Blair has announced that he may return to British politics. This is somewhat surprising considering the universal loathing that is today felt for the man following the repercussions of the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003 and his more recent sordid quest for riches, a quest which has led him to consort with many dodgy dictators.

 

An examination of Blair’s rule may be enlightening for those masochistic Sri Lankans who believe that this island nation’s polity is supreme in its incompetence, inefficiency and corruption and its politicians unrivalled in their practice of the dark arts of Machiavellian manipulation.

 

Euphoria

 

I for one have not forgotten the euphoria which greeted Blair’s election. On the bright morning of 2 May 1997, I wandered down to the Imperial War Museum. A complete stranger, a very tall man conducting a poll for MORI, embraced me, shouting “Isn’t it great”. I was as enthralled as he was. I even got a job with MORI. This was like a new dawn after 18 years of Tory rule. Blair introduced the longest-lasting non-Tory government since 1762.

blair1

 

Dysphoria

 

In 2006, when Blair made his final speech to a Labour Party conference, a MORI poll put the public’s ‘satisfaction’ rating of Blair at 20 per cent, lower than Thatcher on the eve of her fall. There had been a time during Blair’s premiership when approval ratings surged to levels of surpassing those conjured up in totalitarian regimes.

 

I voted for Labour in that 1997 election and felt that I had personally achieved something. Many of us were drunk with joy. It was a sobering experience to walk around the Imperial War Museum and to see the remembrance of so many lost lives. My grandfather had fought in the First World War. I wonder if my father’s experience in the Second World War had truncated his life so cruelly. Little did I suspect on that morning at the museum that Blair would be complicit in so many needless deaths.

 

Dawn and Disillusion

 

Professor Anthony King described the Labour landslide, as being akin to “an asteroid hitting the planet and destroying practically all life on Earth”. Blair entered Downing Street on a wave of optimism and good will, promising to restore trust in politics and breathe new life into Britain’s tired institutions.

blair2

Much of the reason for the voters’ distaste for the Major administration was because of what became known as the “sleaze factor”. There was what seemed like an endless succession of sex scandals. It was later revealed that boring old Major himself had had a four-year affair with health minister Edwina Currie. During Blair’s stewardship sleaze continued and the tired institutions continued to languish.

blairnewlab

“Our mission will be the renewal of our public services. There is nothing more important to making Britain a fairer and stronger country.” Did he succeed?

Health

I was working as a management consultant in the NHS when Conservative Health Secretary Kenneth Clarke introduced his “reforms”. The “internal market” introduced in 1991 split health authorities (which commission care for their local population) from hospital trusts (which compete to provide care). GP fundholding gave some family doctors budgets to buy care on their patients’ behalf.

Critics saw this as creeping privatisation but Clarke claimed that his reforms prevented Margaret Thatcher from abandoning the NHS. Nevertheless, he brought in many people from the business world and the giant accountancy firms. My boss was the redoubtable Sheila Masters (now Baroness Noakes), a foul-mouthed gorgon imported from Peat-Marwick. Trade journal Accountancy Age described her as “the country’s most high profile accountant”. I had a report published by HM Stationery Office which showed that the reforms seemed to require an army of accountants and managers to implement them. Doctors and nurses felt that money that should be going towards patient care was being wasted on management.

Old Structures, New Labour Words

The Labour victory encouraged hope that the internal market would be abandoned. However, the key element, the purchaser/provider split – was retained, but, typical of New Labour, words were spun: purchasing became commissioning; contracts became service agreements. GP Fundholders became Primary Care Trusts. Hospital Trusts were allowed to continue.

dobson

The public and NHS staff had high expectations that things would improve quickly. When that did not happen there was anger and despair. Blair’s first Health Secretary was Frank Dobson (his successors were Alan Milburn, John Reid, Patricia Hewitt and Alan Johnson). Dobson was allowed to stay in such a high profile job, for which he was poorly qualified, as a sop to old Labour. In those early days, the spin meisters were careful to avoid words like “competition” and “choice”. which might alienate ant socialists still lurking in the party, preferring to stick with the vague concept of “modernisation”.

Dobson was eventually forced to become Labour’s candidate for Mayor of London and was replaced at Health by Alan Milburn, an old Trot who became converted to the market in health and today makes a good living from private health care. Initially, Milburn called for extra money to resolve the NHS crisis, but rejected using the private sector. “That”, Milburn declared, “would be a Trojan horse for privatisation.” Later, he resurrected competition and advocated reintroducing the Tories’ internal market. Blair did not understand Milburn’s reorganisation.

alan-milburn

The government persisted with PFI (Private Finance Initiative) as a method of financing building in the NHS and other public services despite repeated demonstrations of its costliness and other disadvantages.

 

Muddlehead

 

Civil servants did not dare mention their foreboding. Milburn’s successor Patricia Hewitt knew that Blair “did not do detail”, but she was unprepared for quite how patchy his knowledge was.

hewitt

Nigel Crisp was appointed as Chief Executive of the NHS and Permanent Secretary at the Department of Health on 1 November 2000. He was the only person so far to combine these posts. Blair was described as “muddleheaded” –  he could not describe a coherent and complete model of what he wanted to achieve. So he could not explicitly tell Nigel Crisp what to do.

crisp

 

Expensive Poor Outcomes

 

By 2005, the NHS was costing £43 billion a year more than in 1997. The country’s health had improved but, in terms of the number of doctors, the use of technical equipment, the number of patients being treated and the cure rates for cancer and heart disease, Britain still ranked near the bottom of the international league tables. Compared to other European countries, Britain’s premature death rates were higher and clinical outcomes worse. The government was embarrassed when Robert Winston, IVF pioneer, medical doctor, scientist, television presenter, said: “We gave categorical promises that we would abolish the internal market. We have not done that. Our reorganisation of the health service was . . . very bad. We have made medical care deeply unsatisfactory for a lot of people.” Funding, he said, was “not as good as Poland’s”. Note that he said “we”. Winston was a staunch believer in New Labour, a Labour peer and the chair of the Lords’ select committee on science and technology. His This Is Your Life on TV had featured a guest of honour appearance by Tony Blair. At the 2006 BMA conference, not only the nurses but also the doctors damned Labour for causing “a real and imminent danger to the NHS”.

winston

Hyperactive Lack of Substance

The incoming government had made a pledge to stick with Conservative spending plans and not raise income tax levels. Even when large amounts of money were promised, Chancellor Gordon Brown refused to release them because of his feud with Blair. There is no space here to go into the detail of the new government’s twists and turns and changes of mind about what to do about the NHS. There was a plethora of new initiatives, the government appearing hyperactive, unable to allow one new scheme to settle down and produce some results before introducing a new one.

brown-no

The triumph of style over substance, lack of concentration, poor management of human resources and avoidance of confrontation is common to Blair’s approach to all the major issues that he had intended to tackle. The war between Blair and Brown cast a gloomy cloud over the entire Blair premiership. More on that next week.

 

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2013/10/19/dawn-and-disillusion-the-bathetic-blair-and-brown-era/

 

Identity Crisis Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday October 13 2016 under the title Licence of Anonymity

Colman's Column3

My G-Mail accounts were hacked at the end of July. The hacker, pretending to be me, sent out messages to my contacts asking for money and prevented me accessing my own accounts. He did the same with my Facebook account.

 

Who?

 

One real-life friend decided to test the hacker out by introducing false information. PH (my Personal Hacker) responded to the testing by becoming petulant: “I am surprised with the way you have been making a joke of a very serious situation.” My friend knew that I would not write like this, especially if I were asking him for help. He speculated that PH was “not a native English speaker.” Another real-life friend came to the same conclusion after receiving a nasty message from the PH saying “mind your business”. “I reckon the person is someone who speaks English as a second language.”

 

I had wondered if PH was a Sri Lankan.  To one real-life friend he wrote: “I want to ask if you can len­d me a­bout €850 to make up the little mo­ney lef­t with me so that i will be able ­to sort out a­ few bills and make the nec­essary arrange­ments to return home. I wi­ll r­efund ­you­­ the money in full as­ s­oon as i get b­ack.”  He makes the point that it is difficult to transfer money abroad from Sri Lanka – which is true. My wife believes the English in some of his messages is too good for a Sri Lankan but in those he has been copying from my e-mails.

 

PH showed his character when he approached someone I have never met in real life but whom I have known online since 2008. She showed the goodness of her heart by immediately offering to help ‘me’. She thought he wanted 50 euro and asked how she could send it. He suggested MoneyGram but stressed it was 850 euro that he wanted. She said she was struggling on a severely limited income and it would cause her hardship even to send 50 but she would try. He said “can you send 400”? What kind of person is this?

 

The inimitable Donald Trump imagined a typical hacker as “someone sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds.” A comment from a real-life friend about my PH was more succinct: “A vindictive little shit”.

 

Remote Control Valour

Way back in the last century, I studied Balzac’s Le Père Goriot for my French ‘O’ Level. A small passage from that has stuck in my mind ever since. Rastignac and Bianchon are discussing Rousseau, “Do you remember that he asks the reader somewhere what he would do if he could make a fortune by killing an old mandarin somewhere in China by mere force of wishing it, and without stirring from Paris? …  Pshaw! I am at my thirty-third mandarin”.

orson

In the 1949 film The Third Man, Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, is at the top of the Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel looking down: “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man.” This displays Lime’s amorality, his lack of interest in the children who are victims of his diluted penicillin, brain-damaged as a result of meningitis.

I have always been uncomfortable about the way movies glamorise snipers and professional hit-men. Snipers certainly have to develop an impressive skill, as do hackers. Snipers are shooting at people a long distance away. The longest shot ever was over 2400 meters; snipers are shooting at people who are hit before the sound of the shot even reaches them. Navy Seal Sniper Chris Kyle had over 150 confirmed kills. He was himself killed on a firing range by a former Marine with PTSD. Is it moral or ethical to shoot somebody from over a mile away? Somebody who has no warning, can’t even see you or have any chance to shoot back?

kyle

 

Keyboard Warriors

Drones, killing machines that can be operated from thousands of miles away from a keyboard with no danger to the killer, have killed far more people under Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama than under GW Bush.

police-eagle-drone-hunting

The anonymity of the internet allows PH to bully with impunity total strangers who have never done him any harm, and are in no position to kick him in the nuts. Tough guy!  In Plato’s Republic, there is the tale of a shepherd named Gyges who finds a ring that makes him invisible. He has sex with a queen, kills her king, and takes his throne. The impunity of invisibility is corrupting. Physical invisibility only occurs in fiction but the internet has granted the license of anonymity and trolls and hackers operate under a cloak of invisibility to behave in a way they would not contemplate if they were visible in the real world. They are unaccountable.

Digital Savvy versus Wisdom

PH dropped all pretence of BEING ME when he wrote TO ME! Signing himself as “Fishbird” he wrote: “I am sorry for all the problems i have caused you this past few days. However, i want you to know the follwing (sic): I don’t know you nor have any particular personal motivation for taking over your mailbox other than looking for little money to survive on. I am willing to hand you all i have taken from you if you will help me with very little money to enable me settle my school bills. I know i have wronged you but please i need your help. I will let you know how to prevent future hacks as creating new emails is not the best line of action.”

If he is clever enough to cause so much disruption and unpleasantness, surely it would have been more intelligent to just send me an e-mail in the first place asking for my help. As he has been grubbing through my personal correspondence he will have gathered that I am an elderly person surviving on a modest pension. He will also have seen that am always giving money away, so I probably would have helped him. How often do these scams bring in any money?

Why?

Mat Honan is digital savvy enough to write regularly for Wired magazine. “In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my Apple ID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.”

Matt Honan managed to establish some contact with his hacker and asked him why he did it: “His answer wasn’t satisfying. He says he likes to publicize security weaknesses, so companies will fix them.” Pull the other one!

 

I readily admit that PH is much cleverer than me when it comes to the intricacies of IT. He is sadly deficient when it comes to moral or ethical intelligence. Why is PH going to all this trouble? There is a strong sense of cognitive dissonance. He is lying to himself. He seems to be angry with me just because I am trying to get on with my life, in which I try to do good rather than harm. Somehow I seem to have failed him because he is being frustrated in his project of doing harm rather than good. How does he sleep at night?

 

 

Identity Crisis Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday October 6 2016

Colman's Column3

Someone is begging for money using my name. Some people really believe he is me. On several occasions, I have had to answer some testing questions from people I have known for a long time in real life. This is reasonable enough and I could easily convince them that I am the man they know.

It is not so easy to convince Facebook and on 27 September I was expelled from that community. Dealing with Facebook and Google one enters the world of Kafka.

lw435-mc-escher-ascending-and-descending-19601

Der Prozess

In The Trial by Franz Kafka, Joseph K is arrested by two warders “one fine morning,” although he has done nothing wrong. The German title, Der Prozess, connotes both a “trial” and a “process”: the machinery has been set in motion, and the process will grind toward conclusion. The examining magistrate tells K that he has seriously damaged his own case by his behaviour. Everyone who knows K also knows about his trial. From his point of view, the entire universe finds him guilty. He is taken to a quarry by two men who stab him to death. At least my unfair trial by Facebook only led to this: “We’ll get in touch with you at the email address you provided after we’ve reviewed your ID. You will now be logged out of Facebook.”

 

I am grateful that, on this “fine morning”, I am not a corpse in a quarry, merely a live one in a quandary.

 

kafka-the-trial

 

Positive and Negative

The experience of having a faceless stranger’s grubby fingers rifling through one’s life is very distasteful. There have been some positive aspects, however. I have reestablished contact with a lot of real-life friends from whom I had not heard for a long time. Thank you for that Mr  PH (Personal Hacker). Soon after I was alerted that I had been hacked, I started receiving many supportive phone calls – from Ireland, Thailand, Sri Lanka, the US and the UK. Two different bank managers called me. One real-life friend in Sri Lanka telephoned and was surprised when I answered the phone. She really though I was stranded in Cyprus and had been making arrangements for her daughter in the UK to send ‘me’ a payment. I was touched by this but puzzled that an astute professional could be so gullible. When I met her last week she showed me the e-mails the hacker had sent.

I understood why she had believed the hacker. One e-mail said “Dear B, Can I call you on this line (he quoted her office phone number) X (that’s my wife) extends her sincere greetings and gratitude for all your concern and assistance”. Another e-mail to B gave details of our attempt to purchase a property and to dispose of our current home. There were enough errors in his e-mails to indicate that the writer was not me. Nevertheless, it is creepy to be aware that he is obviously ploughing through my personal correspondence and putting together a faux persona that convinces some.

 

Customer Service

My real-life and virtual friends responded sympathetically to my plight but many were far too optimistic about how easy it is to deal with such a situation. People told me that the first thing to do was to report the breach to Facebook and Google because those organisations have solid systems in place to handle account hacking. I would certainly expect them to have solid systems in place but I was not able to utilise them.

If my credit card were stolen I would be expected to notify the provider immediately. I have found it impossible to notify Google or Facebook that my identity has been stolen. I have attempted the cumbersome recovery procedure several times. I am told it has been successful but then I have to enter a verification code sent to my mobile phone. I cannot do this because my friendly neighbourhood PH has replaced my mobile phone number with his.

Horse Bolted. Lock the Stable Door

The Google and Facebook help pages confine themselves to giving useless advice about preventing future hacks rather than dealing with the specific hack that has already happened. I had anyway followed the advice. I never share my passwords with anyone, even my wife. I had recently changed my passwords several times. There is nothing personal in the passwords. They are rated as ‘strong’ because they are totally random and contain mixtures of letters, digits and symbols. I could not hope to remember them myself, so I do not understand how anyone else could guess them.

Who Cares about Customers?

This kind of scam has been going on for many years. I have received many such messages myself. The modus operandi is to send an e-mail to my contacts asking why the hacker posing as me has not received a reply to a previous (non-existent) e-mail. He has got my friends’ addresses from my G-Mail accounts which he has hacked. However, he does not use my G-mail  addresses to write to my contacts. He has set up new accounts with addresses that differ from my addresses by just one character.  The recipient generally does not realise the discrepancy and even if they do they dismiss it as an error.

One friend wrote to me: “Surely G-Mail have some idea who he is and where he is from these newly created accounts?” I would have thought so but experts advise me that Google would not seek such information without a court order. The perpetrator’s human rights get more protection than the victim’s. It is impossible for me to report this to G-Mail. I just get sent around in a loop and fail at the end. I am reminded of those so-called “impossible constructions” by MC Escher, such as Ascending and Descending and Relativity. There appears to be a lot of information on the G-Mail and Facebook help pages but there is no e-mail address or telephone number. There is at Google or Facebook no human being with whom to discuss the identity theft. This kind of scam has been the subject of numerous articles over the years and the boffins at Google and Facebook must be clever enough to stop it. They haven’t stopped it because they don’t care. It is not harming profits.

lw389-mc-escher-relativity-19531

You Are Who?

While many pooh-poohed the idea, I wondered from the outset whether this hacker had some personal grudge against me. Like the pooh-poohers, I had seen many examples of this kind of scam before. Nevertheless, I was surprised at his persistence. The messages have been going out for three months and, at the time of writing, show no signs of stopping.

 

A real-life friend tried to engage with my PH and got a threatening response. All pretence of being me was dropped: Using the name “Spitfire” he sent this message: “Maybe you should just mind your business because your email might be next.PS: tell your friend that this is what happens when he tries to recover the email i already hacked into. If he tries recovering it with any other email then he looses that one too!”

In the first debate with Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump visualised a stereotypical hacker: “It could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs four hundred pounds.” One of the hackers who recently intruded on President Sirisena’s official website was a seventeen-year-old boy. Mat Honan is digital savvy enough to write regularly for Wired magazine-  but he still got hacked: “In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed”. Honan managed to establish some contact with his hacker whom he calls Phobia. Phobia was 19 years old.

A real-life friend speculated about the identity of my PH: “This smacks of an IT support type person who has had an opportunity to either get third party access to your hardware or even direct access during a mend or upgrade.” I followed up on this line of thinking. My desktop PC was indeed in a shop being repaired when the hacking occurred. It would have been easy for one of the technicians to log into my G-Mail accounts because the system remembered the passwords. Once in, he could change my passwords because he knew my mobile phone number. He could then use two-step authentication to override my mobile phone number.

I went to the shop and explained to one of the managers and a technician what had happened. They said it could not have happened there. Three brothers have been running the business for 15 years (they have always been helpful to me and are often reluctant to charge for their service) and they said they had never experienced anything like this before. Their technicians have been with them a long time and are completely trustworthy – they would say that wouldn’t they? The technician showed no sign of guilt and told us about a CID unit that investigated this kind of hacking. We had expected the messages to stop after letting the shop know that we knew. In fact, incidents gathered pace.

Next week I explore the psychopathology of the hacker. Why on earth do they do it? What kind of moral universe do they inhabit?

Identity Crisis Part 1

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday September 29 2016

Colman's Column3

There has been some peculiar activity on my G-Mail and Facebook accounts.

 

hoody

 

 

Burgled

Have you ever been burgled? It has happened to me on three separate occasions. Twice in Manchester, and once in London. The first time in Manchester, I was actually in my home when it happened, shut up in my room suffering a terrible bout of flu. My flatmate, who had helpfully left the kitchen window on the ground floor open, had nothing stolen. I lost a jacket and an overcoat. Dealing with the police was not a pleasure. I was also close by for the second Manchester break-in, although I had been away in India, Nepal and Thailand for three weeks. We arrived home by taxi to find the front door open and a wind blowing through the house. There was a photo on the front room window ledge. The burglars were in the house when we arrived and watching out for us. When they saw us they escaped through the back door. Again, the police were not helpful. They went through the house taking fingerprints but one sensed that it was futile. A constable stared at me philosophically for a long time before saying :”If nothing appears to be missing, sir, how do you know you have been burgled”. I reminded him that we had returned home after three weeks abroad to find the front an d back doors open. My Wimbledon house was broken into when I was working away and my wife was in Paris with her mother. The intruder may have thought he had found drugs, because scattered about were chunks of Moroccan Mud, a shampoo that could have been mistaken for cannabis resin. He would have been very disappointed if he tried to smoke it.

Hacked!

On July 24, 2016, Gazala Anver, editor of Roar.LK, the Sri Lankan on-line news site, contacted me to warn me that I had been hacked. My G-Mail account was being used to send a message that I was stranded in Cyprus and in urgent need of funds to get back to Sri Lanka. I have never been to Cyprus in my life and have not set foot outside Sri Lanka for ten years. This is a very common sort of scam that has been going on for years. Over the years, I have received many similar messages purporting to be from my friends. Many articles have been published in the press about it. I was inclined to ignore it, thinking nobody would take it seriously, and move on but my own PH (Personal Hacker) seems to be prepared to go that extra mile to discommode me.

One of the many downsides of G-Mail is that it tries to organise one’s e-mail experience to suit Google rather than the individual punter. One of the most annoying things it does is to remember the e-mail address of every entity that one has ever corresponded with. My PH  was using this unwanted-by-me facility to annoy everyone in the world who had ever communicated with me online. My immediate reaction was to contact all my friends and family to let them know that I was OK and not in need of funds. This proved impossible because the hacker was sending his lying message to hundreds of people and had blocked my access to my own G-Mail account. The address book I had compiled for myself contained only a small proportion of the addresses he was targeting. He proceeded to do the same with my second G-Mail account. Then he moved on to my Facebook account.

As I write, he is still sending out that Cyprus scam to my Facebook friends and I cannot access my FB account.

Violation

People who received the scam message reacted in a variety of ways. I have to this day avoided engaging with the PH although he has written directly to me as well asking for money. Some did engage with him. Most people saw that it was a scam and knew that the message did not come from me. Some chided him, some teased him. Some thought the whole thing was amusing.

It was hard for me to see the funny side. I had used G-Mail for my work, for managing my finances and for communicating with friends and family all over the world. I used it to collect and store a lot of material. All this is now lost to me because my PH somehow got past my Gmail passwords (which had been classified by Google as ‘very strong’) and proceeded to deny me access to my own accounts. I have recent evidence that he has been carefully studying my e-mail correspondence.

Returning to the burglary analogy – the break-ins I experienced did not result in major financial loss or damage to property, but that did not mean they can be treated lightly. Scholarly studies have indicated that in some cases the after-effects of burglary are similar to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Emotional problems can include: feeling guilty for not preventing becoming the victim of a crime; a loss of faith in a society where such crimes could occur; feelings of mistrust, isolation, fear and vulnerability; fear of a repeat burglary; an obsession with home security.

In my case, the strongest feeling was of violation – an uninvited and malicious stranger had contaminated the sanctum of my home and had been rifling through my personal possessions. I am not talking about property, materialism or commercialism. The intruder had scattered around disrespectfully things that had personal value to me, including a collection of postcards that my grandfather had sent to my grandmother during the First World War.

This hacking aroused similar emotions. A malevolent stranger is, as I write, for no discernible rational purpose, rifling through my personal correspondence on G-Mail and using the information gathered to try to convince people that he is me. How hilarious is that!

 
Victim as Perpetrator

My Wimbledon burglar did not employ a very subtle technique. He gained ingress to the back garden from an alleyway that runs between the rears of the parallel terraces of houses. He then proceeded to batter down the kitchen door and go about his business. I was surprised that no-one heard him and called the police. When I asked the old lady next door about this, she said she had indeed heard it and it was a terrible noise. She did not think of calling the police but was, in effect, blaming me for the inconvenience she had suffered.

I detected something similar in responses from some of my virtual acquaintances. One Facebook friend, to whom I had thought I had explained the situation, still seemed to think I was asking her for money and said, “I wasn’t born yesterday!” Someone who had been an online friend since 2008 wrote to me recently saying, “Hope you were able to find the help you needed the other day. I’m truly sorry I couldn’t help.” I responded that I had sent her an e-mail explaining that I was not in Cyprus but had been hacked. She said, “I genuinely thought it was you needing help.  It was over Facebook messenger so I did think it was you.  The idea of a hack or scam occurred to me briefly, but because it was a live conversation, I really did think you needed help. His story was really rather believable.”

 

Doppelgängers

 

unknown_poster

There have been a number of movies about mistaken identity and identity theft. Unknown (2011), starring Liam Neeson and January Jones, is about Martin Harris (Neeson) waking from a coma to find his passport missing, his wife (Jones) denying knowing him and Aidan Quinn claiming to be him. Nobody believes Harris is who he says he is. In John Boorman’s The Tiger’s Tail (2006), Liam O’Leary (Brendan Gleeson), is an Irish property developer of humble origins who has become rich and powerful during the “Celtic Tiger” Irish economic boom. The Irish bubble burst and O’Leary is under stress as his overreaching seems to be leading him to his ruin. He begins to be haunted by his own Double who is sighted around Dublin, ordering suits and flash cars on Liam’s credit card and behaving in a scandalous manner. Liam’s mental condition is not helped by having to convince people he is Liam and the doppelgänger isn’t.

 

tigers-tail

There is something particularly nightmarish about trying to convince sceptics that you are you, when a doppelgänger about whom you know nothing is trying to convince them that he is you.

 

More about doppelgänger nightmares next week.

 

 

 

 

 

Islington Child Abuse Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday September 22 2016.

Colman's Column3

 

 

In previous articles I tried to address the conundrum of why the UK media are taking so little current interest in Jeremy Corbyn’s dereliction of duty during the Islington care homes saga. I worry at the question further in this article.

 

 

corbyn-1998

 

Derek Sawyer

 

 

sawyer

 

Derek Sawyer was a Labour Islington councillor until 2006 and was council leader at the time of the inquiries into allegations of sexual abuse of children in care homes in the borough. These allegations had been brought to light by social workers, particularly Liz Davies.  Dr Davies is now Emeritus Reader in Social Work at London Metropolitan University.  At one time, Sawyer served as Corbyn’s constituency agent. Sawyer was a friend from university days and business partner of Derek Slade, who received a 21-year prison sentence in 2010 for brutally abusing twelve boys at St George’s, a military boarding school, in Norfolk, which Sawyer helped him found. Slade wrote English language school text books, under the name “Dr Edward Marsh”, which were published by a company which he set up with Sawyer.

 

sawyercorbyn

 

Derek Slade

slade

In 1986, Slade was convicted of brutally beating a boy at a Sussex prep school. Sawyer provided the character evidence that kept Slade out of prison. Four days before the Ian White Report on sexual abuse in Islington care homes was published, Sawyer and Slade co-founded a company, IBEP, to set up schools and orphanages in India and Africa. Slade left them all under a cloud.  The Daily Mail published a story on this but dropped it from the paper’s website after a libel threat. However, Roger Cook was not sued when he did a BBC programme on it, Abuse of Trust.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylZrq4ClrZo

Abuse survivors at the Indian orphanage were planning to sue him in London’s High Court but the case was mysteriously dropped.

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-19808336

Journalists have been careful not to accuse Sawyer of taking part in abuse or of knowing what Slade was up to.

Sawyer Today

Sawyer achieved key positions on bodies running London’s police, magistrates and probation services. He represented all London’s councils on the Metropolitan Police’s Public Safety Board. He was chair of the London Region Courts Board. He was made trustee of two crime prevention youth charities. He was recently community representative on Islington SNB (Safer Neighbourhood Board).

The difficulties of squeezing information from Islington council are described in detail here: https://cathyfox.wordpress.com/?s=Islington

Corbyn Was Told

 

No one is accusing Corbyn of perpetrating child abuse himself, but why did he do nothing? If he was such a good constituency MP, (I am a former civil servant who worked in many government departments and can vouch that he was an assiduous letter writer on behalf of his constituents), it beggars belief that he could have been unaware of the horrors that were going on in Islington on his watch.

 

https://spotlightonabuse.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/what-became-of-the-children-24-5-95/

 

In fact, we have the testimony of several people that Corbyn was informed of the horrors going on in his constituency. Five social workers visited him and journalist Eileen Fairweather contacted him separately. Some of the victims said that they told Corbyn what was going on and that he promised to do something but didn’t. At the time of the allegations, I was a ministerial advisor on child protection at the Department of Health and saw files which indicated that Corbyn had been told of the abuse.

 

Matthew Collings asked why the mainstream media were not covering Corbyn’s lack of action on the child abuse. I shared the most recent article I could find. It was published on 31 July 2015 and written by Guy Adams. It gave an excellent summary of the situation and allowed Liz Davies and Eileen Fairweather to state quite categorically that they had told Corbyn “everything” about the child abuse in 1992. Corbyn had said that he had heard similar things from constituents and promised to take action. Davies recalls, “There was no letter. No phone call. I never, ever saw him speak about it.”

 

Because the article was published in the Daily Mail, Corbyn supporters, some of whom proudly boasted that they had not actually read the Mail article or my article, aggressively and abusively asserted that it must be lies.

 

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3181783/Did-Jeremy-Corbyn-try-protect-fellow-Left-wingers-implicated-paedophile-scandal.html

 

These people were, in effect calling Liz Davies, Eileen Fairweather, former victim Demetrious Panton and myself liars for claiming that Corbyn had been told about the abuse and did nothing about it.

 

Just because You’re Paranoid…

 

I am not a fan of conspiracy theories. However, there are times when people really do conspire to cover up evil deeds. Particular areas which are prone to this are paedophile rings, military intelligence and Northern Ireland. All those ingredients are mixed up in this brew together with the peculiarities of Labour politics of the 1970s, which shaped the Corbyn we have today. Labour politics at that time allowed PIE (Paedophile Information Exchange, which advocated making sex with four-year-olds legal) to infiltrate the bien pensant community. It is difficult to avoid speculation when the perpetrators are indeed involved in a conspiracy to do horrible things and cover them up. It is unlikely that the establishment is protecting Corbyn himself. However, knowledge of what happened to Colin Wallace (who served six years in prison on a cooked-up manslaughter charge) may induce caution among journalists. I have been in communication with five different journalists who continue to take an interest in this issue. Let us see if they publish anything.

 

Brick Wall
I have heard speculation that Corbyn may have been stopped from pursuing the matter by people more powerful than himself. I have been told that attempts were made to get stories about the Islington abuse “into the mainstream press last year and earlier this but hit that curious Islington brick wall…. again.” Islington has had more coverage than some other scandals but little is being said about Corbyn’s role.

 

It is unlikely that the media will take up this story again if there are no new developments. There is not much to add to the Mail article.  Is there a sense of child abuse fatigue? All of the media right now is obsessed with Brexit, terrorism, and the migrant crisis. The Islington embarrassment began over 30 years ago. People felt guilty about letting Jimmy Savile get away with such horrors and then the authorities went too far in the other direction and seemed to be persecuting elderly national treasures. Many allegations turned out to be false.

There are so many worrying aspects to the Corbyn situation that the media has an uphill task covering them all. John Mann MP issued an open letter to Corbyn on July 23 2015, in which he said: “The extent of the abuse was only uncovered through the tenacity and bravery of whistle-blowers, journalists and survivors which led to a number of independent inquiries and the damning Ian White report in 1995”. The gist of John Mann’s argument is that Corbyn is not fit to lead the Labour Party at a time when much attention in Parliament and the media will be generated by the inquiry into historic sexual abuse of children.

 

http://www.mann4bassetlaw.com/an_open_letter_to_jeremy_corbyn_on_child_abuse

No one, except John Mann (who was called an opportunistic fascist pig for bringing it up) seems to care that Corbyn effectively lied to the House of Commons.

mann3

“Perhaps most worrying of all are the implications of your question to the Home Secretary on November 3rd 2014. You stated that ‘Finally in my own borough of Islington there have been complaints about Islington children’s homes in the past and the council has investigated them.’  This statement at first glance is non-contentious. However, on reflection it is an extraordinary statement considering the representations made to you in the past that the council was in fact covering up abuse and not listening to the survivors, issues you were challenged on at the time.”

“Your carefully worded excusing of Islington Council in the House of Commons equally demonstrates why it is inappropriate for you to attempt to lead the Labour Party at the critical time of the Goddard Enquiry, as child abuse is the issue that will haunt this Parliament.”

Liz Davies does not agree with everything I write. She does not want conflict with Jeremy Corbyn and would hope to work with him to improve the lot of today’s children and of those now adult survivor of Islington. She told me that what she feels is important right now is assisting survivors in looking for their files, most of which are completely missing, piecing together some of their histories from other evidence, and seeing if any action legal or criminal can be taken or if current children need protection. Let us hope that Jeremy Corbyn does not disappoint her.

 

 

 

 

 

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