Saturday, 8 September 2012

Political reshuffles

There were two government reshuffles last week – one that took the Tory-led UK administration even further to the right of the political spectrum (and ever further from the people of Scotland) and the other involving the SNP Scottish Government.

By promoting right-wingers - such as Chris Grayling and Owen Paterson – Prime Minister David Cameron signalled the direction his government will take, which involves a steep rightward lurch to a position not visited since the dark days of unbridled Thatcherism. The reshuffle also showed-up the spineless nature of the Liberal Democrats. Nick Clegg and his party are now propping-up one of the most right-wing governments ever seen in the UK - a government dismantling the Health Service in England and Wales, a government slashing essential benefit payments to some of the most vulnerable people in the country, a government that has hiked university tuition fees in England and Wales, a government that has privatised much of our public services, a government that has savaged service budgets to pay for the actions of private bankers, a government that pays modern apprentices just £2.60 an hour and believes anyone under the age of 24 who finds themselves unemployed should be forced to work for no pay. Maybe its time the Liberal Democrats invested in a dictionary and looked up the meaning of the words ‘liberal’ and ‘democrat’.

The actions listed above have already been taken by the Tory-led Coalition Government in London and, with the promotion of rabid right-wingers, things are about to get much worse. The new UK Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, previously the Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, was the man responsible for handing contracts worth around £3bn to ATOS, a French-owned private company, including one that involves carrying out ‘work capability’ assessments on ill and disabled people who claim Employment and Support Allowance. Despite medical reports from doctors, ATOS staff have passed ‘fit for work’ people suffering chronic illnesses or with severe disabilities. Figures show that 1,100 people assessed by ATOS as being fit for work were actually so ill they died within 12-months.

Between 2001 and 2009 – in other words, until the point the Daily Telegraph published MPs expenses claims – Chris Grayling claimed public money for a flat in London, despite his constituency home being just 17 miles from the House of Commons. While making these claims, Mr Grayling also owned two flats in Wimbledon, from which he received rental income. This man is now in charge of Justice, including many areas where UK-wide legislation affects Scotland.

In Owen Paterson, the UK Government now has the most ‘un-green’ Environment Secretary ever. Mr Paterson is on record as being opposed to renewable energy and, in the past, has championed the aviation industry, one of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas polluters. Most worryingly, though, is the fact the new Environment Secretary is a climate change sceptic. Despite scientific data showing the temperature of Earth’s atmosphere is rising, not to mention clear evidence of drastic changes to observable weather patterns, including in the UK, Owen Paterson thinks it’s all made up. This man is now in charge of Environment, including many areas where UK-wide legislation affects Scotland.

Grayling and Paterson are just two of the right-wingers in Cameron’s Cabinet of millionaires, people so remote from the reality the rest of us live that they cannot begin to imagine the hardship their policies are causing: what is worse, they don’t care. Against that background, it is all the more astonishing that Labour politicians are currently telling Scots we are better off under a London-based, right-wing Tory Government than running our own affairs in an independent Scotland.

To their eternal shame, members of the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party are campaigning shoulder-to-shoulder with Tories (and their Lib Dem lapdogs), attempting to prevent Scots from ending Tory rule and electing our own government to run our own country. Let’s be absolutely clear about what the ‘Scottish’ Labour Party is saying: they would rather see Scotland continue to be governed by David Cameron and his Thatcherite Tory Party than have a Labour First Minister and a Labour Government in an independent Scotland.

This brings us to the other re-shuffle that took place last week. First Minister Alex Salmond made a few changes to his team of ministers, most significantly moving Nicola Sturgeon from Health to Infrastructure, with the new brief to include constitutional matters.

Nicola Sturgeon, also the country’s Deputy First Minister, is regarded as having been a success as Health Secretary, which is one of the most difficult jobs in politics. While the Health Service in Scotland is not without its problems, Ms Sturgeon stood firm against the disastrous privatisation agenda being implemented by the Tory-Lib Dem Government in England, and leaves the post with praise from both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing. Alex Neil, the new Health Secretary, has a hard act to follow but is a very able politician and probably the SNP frontbencher most capable of picking-up where Nicola Sturgeon left off.

Of course, the British Unionist alliance of Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrats immediately criticised the appointment of Nicola Sturgeon to a position that will see her take the lead for the Scottish Government in negotiations with the UK administration regarding the 2014 Independence Referendum. Their assertion, apparently, is that Ms Sturgeon should not be receiving a ministerial salary for advancing the cause of an independent Scotland. In fact, they are simply scared of her.

Setting aside the small matter of a whole range of UK Government Ministers and civil servants being paid to, as they see it, protect the British Union, holding a referendum on independence was an SNP Manifesto commitment at the 2011 Scottish Parliament Election, and appointing a senior Minister to take that issue forward (in other words, to deliver on a Manifesto commitment) is something that should be praised not criticised.

The British Unionist side in subsequent negotiations will find Nicola Sturgeon a much tougher proposition than her predecessor, Bruce Crawford, which can only be good for Scotland.

The two reshuffles of last week showed us the clear choice we have when we are asked our opinion on independence in two years time. Either we can stick with the British Union – supported by the ‘Bitter Together’ campaign colleagues of Tory, Labour and Lib Dems – which will see Scotland continue to have right-wing Tory Governments imposed us, even after we have rejected them at the ballot box, or we can re-take our independence, become a normal nation, elect our own government and run our own country.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Young men are still dying in Afghanistan

A three-part documentary, Our War, currently showing on BBC3, has been described as “powerful” and “shocking”. To be honest, those words don’t do it justice.

The programme graphically tells the story of British soldiers serving in Afghanistan and uses uncensored footage filmed by the soldiers themselves using helmet cameras and mobile phones. The first in the series centred on an operation called Kick Hornet’s Nest, in which the young soldiers were sent into hostile territory with the explicit intention of drawing attacks from the Taliban. The reason given by the military top brass for putting the young men in such danger was that the Taliban had to be diverted from another area so repairs could be carried out to a road.

Two soldiers, both in their twenties, died while taking part in operation Kick Hornet’s Nest – still, the road was repaired.

The two soldiers who gave their lives for a stretch of dusty road would have been at primary school when the conflict in Afghanistan started in October 2001. Before being sent to the country, it is unlikely they or their fellow soldiers could have pointed to Afghanistan on a map. Be honest, could you?

In the 11 years since Britain formed part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the invasion of Afghanistan, 385 members of our armed services have been killed by enemy action. A further 35 people have died as a result of illness, non-combat injuries or accidents, taking the total loss of life to 425 (so far).

On our news bulletins we also regularly hear of soldiers being injured in action. If ever a word was entirely inappropriate it is the use of ‘injured’ to describe what can happen to soldiers in a fire-fight or rocket attack. A footballer twisting his ankle might be injured, but the word doesn’t come close to describing the aftermath of a soldier taking the impact of a grenade. Even ‘wounded’ does not tell the full story. In addition to the 425 young service personnel who have lost their lives in Afghanistan, 46 have had limbs amputated in the past year, with 18 of them requiring multiple amputations.

So, remind me, why are we there? What is the reason so many young British men are paying such a heavy price?

The ‘official’ reason for the invasion of Afghanistan, primarily by the United States of America and the United Kingdom, in October 2001 was to dismantle al Qaeda terrorist training camps, which were blamed for the previous month’s attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, and to remove from power the Taliban regime, which imposed strict laws on the population, based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic teaching. The Americans and British prefer to describe it as bringing democracy to Afghanistan.

In reality, the military action in Afghanistan is to pave the way for the creation of a Central Asian pipeline, bringing oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to the west. Young British soldiers are giving their lives and limbs so American oil companies can exploit the mineral wealth of the Caspian basin and rack-up billions-of-dollars in profit.

Think that is just another conspiracy theory? Okay, let’s look at the facts.

By the time the invasion of Afghanistan was launched in October 2001, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists had already moved across the border into Pakistan. It was in Pakistan he was finally tracked down and killed by the Americans.

Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers of planes that took part in the 911 attacks were Saudi Arabian and had no links to Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden was also a Saudi Arabian national. After he was killed by the Americans, three of bin Laden’s wives and their children left Pakistan and were granted residence in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Kingdom is ruled by an absolute monarch imposing Sharia, strict Islamic law. Since the country’s creation, no elections have ever been held and no political parties are permitted.

Two former US Senators who led inquiries into the 911 attacks have issued sworn statements indicating their belief that the government of Saudi Arabia may have been involved. Senator Bob Graham (Democrat – Florida) said, “I am convinced that there was a direct line between at least some of the terrorists who carried out the September 11th attacks and the government of Saudi Arabia.” Bob Kerrey (Democrat – Nebraska) added, “Evidence relating to the plausible involvement of possible Saudi government agents in the September 11th attacks has never been fully pursued.”

Saudi Arabia has the world’s second-largest oil reserves and the sixth-largest gas reserves. Crucially, the country is happy to sell its oil to America and Britain.

The same seemed to be the case with Afghanistan back in the period of 1997 to 2001. The Taliban regime was apparently prepared to allow an American oil company, UNOCAL (now part of Chevron), to run a pipeline across Afghanistan to take Caspian oil to the west. So far developed was the plan that, in December 1997, representatives of the ‘terrorist’ Taliban regime enjoyed an all-expenses paid trip to Texas, home state of UNOCAL. The Governor of Texas at the time was former oil company executive George W Bush. The company in line to win the contract to actually build the pipeline across Afghanistan was American giant Haliburton. At the time, the Chief Executive Officer of Haliburton Corporation was Dick Cheney, later to be Vice President of America under George W Bush.

However, the great friendship between American corporate interest and the ‘terrorist’ regime of the Taliban began to break down, and by the time Bush and Cheney were in power in Washington, US officials were using the Pakistani secret service to relay messages to Afghanistan threatening military action. Following such a meeting in July 2001 – two-months before the 911 attacks - former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Niaz Naik is on record stating American officials had discussed military action to overthrow the Taliban, which would “take place before the snows started falling in Afghanistan, by the middle of October at the latest.”

In August 2001, Christina Rocca, Director of Asian Affairs at the US State Department, is reported to have met with the Taliban ambassador in Islamabad, Pakistan, apparently in a last-ditch attempt to secure a pipeline deal. The meeting proved unsuccessful.

On September 11 2001 attacks were launched against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Virginia. In response, the US administration of George W Bush and Dick Cheney launched the ‘war on terror’ by invading Afghanistan.

In March 2002, the Chicago Tribune reported an opinion piece from the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv, which read, “If one looks at the map of the big American bases created [in the Afghan war], one is struck by the fact that they are completely identical to the route of the projected oil pipeline to the Indian Ocean.”

Ma'ariv continued, “Osama bin Laden did not comprehend that his actions serve American interests… If I were a believer in conspiracy theory, I would think that bin Laden is an American agent. Not being one, I can only wonder at the coincidence.”

Afghanistan is not, and never has been, about democracy or waging a war on terror – it is solely about the capitalist pursuit of wealth. There should be no more young British men killed or maimed in the interests of American oil corporations.

Bring our troops home.