Torture: And Who Are We?

From my Newsweek/Daily Beast coverage today of a major report detailing what happened to 15 Libyan opponents of Col. Gaddafi when they fell into the hands of the CIA:

“One former detainee alleged he was water-boarded while held at a CIA-controlled prison in Afghanistan and another described to HRW undergoing water torture but without a board being used. The testimony contradicts claims by Bush administration officials, who told Congress only three men had ever been water-boarded while in U.S. custody. The two Libyans were not among those named by Michael Hayden to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on February 5, 2008, raising questions about whether the then CIA director misled Congress or was lied to by his subordinates.”

Labour Turns The Clock Back

Well, if the election of Forrest Gump (err, sorry, Ed Miliband) as the new Labour leader isn’t enough to have put paid to the British electorate embracing Alternative Voting – that is when the country is asked in a referendum whether it wants it to replace the current first-past-the-post system for general elections — then nothing will.

“Red Ed” owes his election entirely to Labour’s skewed AV system, one that saw his brother, David Miliband, win on first preference votes and secure the backing of party members and MPs. Ed can thank a gaggle of militant union chiefs for his victory. It is a turning of the clock back for the Labour Party, which only after the herculean efforts of New Labour and a succession of leaders – John Smith, Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair – escaped the grip of union chieftains.

“I’m nobody’s man. I’m my own man and I’m very, very clear about that,” Ed Miliband claimed yesterday in a BBC interview. His insistence with the inclusion of “I’m very, very clear about that” seemed a little as though he were trying to convince himself.

For all his talk that he won’t be in the thrall of the unions and lurch the party to the left under his leadership there was little in the way of details to support this in the policies he has been trotting out. He wants new taxes for higher paid workers, an assault on City bankers and new trade union rights for employees. And he will oppose Coalition plans to reform extravagant  public sector pensions. He wants deficit reduction to be slower than is currently the plan of the Coalition government.

Max Hastings nailed what Ed’s election means in his column today in the Daily Mail. “The party Ed Miliband’s supporters expect him to lead wants to address how taxpayers’ money is spent – not how it is earned. It esteems fairness above excellence and care of the disadvantaged minority above the interests of the majority. It values the protection of perceived losers above the advancement of strivers and winners. It is, in other words, the old party of Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock.”

And Max is right, I think, when he maintains that Ed’s pledge to fight for the “squeezed Middle” is meanginless until “Labour discovers the honesty to acknowledge publicly that Britain is broke because the Blair-Brown governments saddled it with wholly unaffordable – as well as inefficient and wasteful – public services.”

Blair Memoirs, Hague Denies — The UK Media

The British media is just getting sillier. I wasn’t sure it was possible but after watching and reading the coverage this week of Tony Blair’s memoirs and of the gay rumors swirling around the Foreign Secretary William Hague that is the only conclusion I can reach.

On Blair, the U.K. media has been focused mainly on the former Prime Minister’s disclosures about how poor his relationship was with the dour and obsessed Gordon Brown, his grim-faced Chancellor of the Exchequer. Poor old Tony had to put up with constant conpsiring by Brown and his gang – allegedly Brown even triggered the party investigation into the money-for-honors scandal that dogged 18 months of Blair’s premiership. Some commentators rightly castigated Blair for his playing the victim in his memoirs – ye Gods, he was the Prime Minister and should have sacked Brown.

But the news pages have been taken the Blair claims far too seriously instead of questioning far more strongly whether the former Prime Minister should be writing in the vein he does. Virtually all politeness and conventional form have been thrown out in the book by Blair – he dishes on former colleagues, reveals private conversations with members of the Royal family, etc. One expects this kind of thing from Labour’s gosipy “prince of darkness” Peter Mandelson but should a former Prime Minister be writing in this way?

Blair has produced a “soap book” — not a serious, substantial tome. His chapter on Iraq – and his refusal to accept that he and Bush made any mistakes – should have been the media focus and not the “Brown was mean to me” stuff.

And Hague? After putting up with weeks of a semi-public media whispering campaign, Hague decided earlier this week to rebut blog-launched allegations that he had slept with a male aide. To add credence to his rebutal he went into detail about the difficulties he and his wife have been facing in trying to conceive a child. Now the poor man has to put up with claims that his denial is a public relations blunder – too much information, according to The Times.

The BBC has been running the Hague story as its second lead most of the day with news anchors questioning public relations “experts” and spin-doctors. Sheila Gunn, a former colleague on The Times and now a political consultant, argued that Hague has just prolonged the story by “giving it oxygen.”

Well, it didn’t need any external oxygen before – the blogger Guido just carried on making the allegations with nothing to go on except a photograph showing the aide and Hague walking along the street dressed GQ casual and smiling and the fact – not connected with the picture — that during the election campaign they shared a room with twin beds in it. And with nothing to go on now, the media is keeping the gay allegations going by questioning the public relations efficacy of his denial. And this is journalism?

Hague was utterly right to issue a denial and I don’t see how disclosing the problems he and his wife are facing in trying to create a family will do him any harm with the public. As the newspapers watch their circulations decline — and as the BBC watches its standing fall — maybe they should all rethink how they cover the news.

Closing the Gap

Why should the British middle-class instantly reach for their wallets whenever they hear a British politician talk about closing the gap between the rich and the poor? Nick Clegg, the U.K.’s deputy Prime Minister, demonstrated exactly why in London today with his speech on creating a more socially mobile society. The rich quickly morph into the middle class, and so what he really means is closing the gap between the middle-class and the working-class. The real rich, as we all know, will just move overseas, if there is too much redistribution out of their pockets.

Of course, Clegg can’t say that, especially as he is in coalition with the Conservatives, but that is what he means.

I am all for greater social mobility – that is one of the driving reasons I, British-born, embraced the United States – but “wealth” redistribution is not the way to do it, or shouldn’t be the main driving force. Britain has been trying that since the Welfare State was established in the wake of the Second World War and as studies have shown it hasn’t been so successful. The increased redistribution primarily from the middle-class to the working-class and tremendous subsidies to geographically poorer areas of the UK under the Brown government failed dramatically to close the gaps dividing north from south or the one separating the middle-class from the working-class.

The review the Coalition government is undertaking now of the universal benefits system is a good thing – the well off surely should not be receiving subsidies in the form of child credits and heating allowances they don’t need. But how much is going to get taken from the middle-class at the same time as they are facing higher taxes before they decide either that they have had enough of the Coalition government or decide to trigger a 1970s-style brain drain?

Social mobility comes with providing fine schools, access to excellent higher education and the economic, commercial and regulatory circumstances that encourage entrepreneurialism, wealth creation and prosperity. And as history has shown, countries that declare war on their middle-class tend not to do so well when it comes to economic growth.

Arguably, Margaret Thatcher did more than Brown or Blair for social mobility and encouraging working-class aspirations. She did it by allowing council houses to be bought by their occupants at below market value – a policy fought tooth-and-nail by the left and center-left in British politics. She did it by welcoming success, encouraging entrepreneurism, keeping taxes low, reducing public expenditure and ceasing the British industrial habit of propping up lamb-ducks. She was also more heavy-handed with high-blown, snooty and traditional institutions than many Labour ministers were before her and have been since. And aspiring working-class voters loved her for it – that’s why she was re-elected.

Obviously, it was good to hear Clegg saying that the Coalition government aims to assist social mobility by improving people’s lives rather than by providing hand-outs, but sadly missing from the Clegg speech was anything about lower taxes — just more stuff about “fairer taxes”, in short more taxes on the middle class.

And this on the day when an excellent economist, Danny Blanchflower, a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, urged the Coalition government to cut taxes or face another recession.