Sunday, 20 September 2009


Over the weekend, I was accidentally exposed to coverage of the Lib Dem conference. Instead of falling into the stupor this usually induces, I spotted some classic West Midlands slang getting a national airing. Bostin, "superlative usually substituted for great, similar to crackin" was broadcast to the nation thanks to a Clegg cheerleader later identified as Birmingham councillor Karen Hamilton. That's well bostin.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Should Brown blunder more?

While John Major was under pressure as Prime Minister (pretty much any time between 1990 and 1997), he once said: "When your back's to the wall, it's time to turn around and fight." This line gives a flavour of why, as his government lurched from sleaze to sniping to occasional outright criminality, Major was never hated. Pitied, yes, seen as shy, dull , aloof, even incompetent by some, but always as fundamentally decent. Even his defiance seemed inept.

To me, a child at the time, he seemed nice, in the way that an absent-minded distant relative is nice. No matter how many revelations emerge about him as Thatcher's silent assassin, he will always be seen by a large chunk of the population as a decent man. Perhaps there is a lesson for Gordon Brown here.

Quite simply, Labour stands a cat in hell's chance of winning the next election. Favourable election boundaries will soften the blow, but nowhere near enough to stop 2010 being a mirror image of 1997. The problem for Labour is that is faces threats Major's Conservatives never faced: its base is either apathetic or deserting. to the Tories, the Lib Dems, even the BNP. The threat is to Labour's very existence as a major force.

Against this background, the only real focus can be damage limitation. One painless way to help preserve the Labour brand would be for Gordon Brown to abandon any hope of appearing charming, easy-going, even, hardest if all, fully in control. Out with the awkward mistimed smiles that punctuate sentences at random intervals, out with the voice coaching and the choreographed activist extras. Even with the super-smooth Tony Blair, there came a point when slick presentation became a greasy sheen. With Brown, the impression is that he is concentrating so hard on being comfortable in his own skin that what he is saying comes a distant second.

Allowing presentation to slip a little might actually help matters. Most people find public speaking as excruciating as Brown clearly does, and would run a mile to avoid that strained, cringeworthy YouTube appearance. It might even, if done well, convey an austere getting-on-with-the-job vibe.

However, the likelihood is that it won't help Brown much - he'd still bear all the current ridicule, and there's no hope of his transforming into a BoJo-esque charming bungler. It probably won't help Labour much next year. But being nice, a little inept and overwhelmed could just uncouple the mess of the current administration from the Labour brand in some people's minds. Labour are clutching at straws, after all, and this one looks stronger than most.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Seumas Milne tries to rehabilitate Stalin

I'd like to draw your attention to this piece by the Guardian's Seumas Milne, in which he attempts to absolve Stalin's USSR of all guilt for the Second World War. To be blunt, I find it offensive. Much as I am tempted to, I'll avoid going through the article to knock every claim down point-by-point (although given the treatment usually meted out to Milne's pieces, someone will doubtless do this elsewhere).

Milne's central argument is that the Soviet Union cannot be blamed in any way for the start of the war, despite signing a deal with the Nazis that gave them complete freedom to invade Poland and to do what they wanted there. He also believes that this pact was in no way aggressive, despite the fact that it handed the Soviets large chunks of Poland, which they invaded a mere 16 days after the Nazis. Worst of all, he argues that no Soviet atrocity can ever be compared to a Nazi atrocity.

In his desperate attempt to show that no comparison can be drawn between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Milne is drawn into a contorted intellectual game of limbo, supporting his case with comparisons and claims that range from the merely spurious to the downright disgraceful. I feel I should add at this point that I am in no way seeking to excuse any Nazi action, and that I believe that war would have broken out in Europe regardless of the pact, simply because Hitler was an insane man with monstrous views. I also have the greatest respect for the many millions of Soviet war dead, but merely object to attempts to rehabilitate Stalin, another insane man with monstrous views.

However, I feel it is absurd to pretend that having a guarantee of non-aggression in the east did not make the Nazi invasion of Poland easier, or that Hitler did not use the extra time he gained in Poland to act more brutally. To claim that a pact to carve a country in two was "an instrument of defence, not aggression" is simply absurd. Whereas the Munich Agreement was an act of cowardice and misjudgement and Poland's own 1934 non-aggression treaty an attempt at self-defence, ideologically-driven expansionism - the imperialism Milne claims to hate so much - was an essential part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact from the very beginning.

The part of Milne's piece that really sticks in my throat is his refusal to acknowledge that Communist atrocities count quite as much as Nazi ones. Since someone killed for being Jewish is just as dead as someone killed for being a 'class enemy', and in both cases these killings occurred as part of vast, precisely brutal programmes of state repression, the only remaining conclusion is that Milne believes that Soviet repression was somehow more justifiable (incidentally, this also ignores Communism's own spasms of anti-Semitism - thinly-disguised pogroms occurred throughout Stalin's reign, and there was a major purge of Jewish party members in Poland in the 1950s and 60s).

Here Milne comes up with his most ridiculous denial of logic - that the "acknowledgements" in Russia of that country's part in Soviet crimes go further than "apologies" for the crimes of colonialism in Britain and France. This is true, but only in the narrow sense that the British and French governments haven't issued formal apologies for these crimes, although they fully acknowledge they took place. The Russian Ministry of Defence, however, still occassionally publishes denials of Second World War atrocities on its website, especially the Katyn massacre of Polish officers. Apologies are rarely more than brief statements of 'regret' or a 'mistake' and a Kremlin initiative to make 'falsifying history' a crime has recently become law.

To wind up his increasingly farcical article, Milne attacks the Baltic states, all independent before World War II, for not accepting their post-war annexation by the Soviet Union with complete good grace. Almost in passing, he does make a valid point that the countries need to confront the issue of their Nazi collaborators, but omits to mention that their hostility towards the Soviets might be somewhat fuelled by the mass deportations of hundreds of thousands of Balts to Siberia in the late 1940s.

Seumas Milne is absolutely right that the full horror of Nazism must not be downplayed. However, this horror is not diluted by acknowledging other horrific events that took place elsewhere. The sacrifices made ordinary Soviet citizens to defeat Nazism were huge, but we cannot and should not ignore the aggressive deals and murderous programmes of oppression ordered by the Soviet leadership. Wilful blindness to Red repression is offensive, absurd and wrong.

- To demonstrate that the Left certainly don't have a monopoly on offensive historical revisionism, US commentator Pat Buchanan has had this article pulled from conservative sites for claiming that Hitler didn't want war and that his territorial desires were reasonable. Read at your peril.

- Mikhail Bulgakov's 'The Master and Margarita' is one of the great Russian novels, offering an unforgettable take on Stalinism, religion and love. The acclaimed 2005 Russian miniseries is available on a video-sharing website near you and is highly recommended.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Why one teenager from Lens matters so much

This piece started off as a comment on Rob Marrs' excellent Left Back In The Changing Room blog, before growing something of a life of its own. It basically boils down to: why trading in child football players is wrong, and why the football transfer system is basically a good thing.

Commenting on the transfer ban Chelsea have been hit with for illegally signing French prodigy Gael Kakuta, Rob usefully clears up the distinction between bog-standard tapping-up (essentially testing the water for a possible transfer and encouraging the player to ask for one) and what Chelsea appear to have done in the Kakuta case - encouraging a minor to break an existing contract. He then goes on to argue that the entire transfer system is "massively unjust and possibly illegal" in that it restricts players' choice of employer in a way that isn't found in any other walk of life.

Firstly, Rob is absolutely right in saying that watching clubs trading in minors is unedifying. Few people want to see multinational corporations offering kids, usually from poor backgrounds, eye-watering financial inducements to move to a country where they are unhappy, don't speak the language and fall behind in their studies. All of these seem to have happened in the case of Kakuta, who admits he regularly went back to Lens on the Eurostar to watch his old team-mates.

The reason that Chelsea are the first high-profile case of a club being punished for this is not a sign that governing bodies such as Fifa and UEFA consider this trade above-board, just that the rules are pretty unclear but Chelsea have broken one of the few clear ones. Clubs aren't supposed to sign minors, but there are all sorts of loopholes. Manchester United allegedly arranged a job in Manchester for the father of young Italian Federico Macheda so his family could claim they had moved for 'non-footballing reasons', which is perfectly legal.

A ban on transfers for all under-18s, as Fifa and players' representatives are now seeking, would prevent kids being involved in deals they can barely understand, as well as clear up the rules. Clubs would have fewer opportunities to give dodgy deals a fig-leaf of legitimacy, and those breaking the rules could be hit with proportional punishments. Rob points out that Chelsea have been fined over 20 times more than the Ivory Coast FA were for the crushing to death of 19 fans in a stampede, and argues that this shows Fifa have skewed priorities. The problem here is the same as for any fine - ability to pay. £682,000 is a drop in the ocean for Roman Abramovich, who have only really been affected by the signings ban, but the same sum would cripple a small national FA. Since an FA is responsible for everything from discipline to schools football, this would be in nobody's interests.

Where I really do differ from Rob, though, is the question of whether the transfer system as a whole is as unjust as he thinks. The key point is that you just can't compare football to plumbing - sport is a unique business because it makes its money solely from competition. There could never be a sporting monopoly because there would be nothing to see. Sport therefore requires uniquely sensitive regulation to ensure competition remains healthy, and preventing players from moving clubs at will while under contract is part of that.

Allowing completely free movement of players doesn't really compare to the Bosman ruling, which just abolished cartoonishly unjust restrictions that prevented a player from leaving a club even after his contract had expired. Fixed term contracts allow clubs, financially unstable as so many of them are, at least a chance to plan for the future. The first result of any 'new Bosman ruling' would be a rash of bankruptcies which could make Leeds' fall from grace look small.

The money in the game - the result of rich old men wanting to buy adoration (see Blackburn's Premiership title, Silvio Berlusconi at Milan, even poor old Mike Ashley) - would simply move into wages, propelling footballers into circles of wealth even further beyond fans' imagination. If Real Madrid had been able to nab Cristiano Ronaldo for nothing, he might easily have become the world's first £500,000 a week player, outstripping even brand Beckham.

The most disturbing consequence of allowing players to break contracts prematurely, however, would be the complete and immediate evisceration of domestic football in large parts of the world. Earlier this year, a small drop in the number of transfers resulted in a bankruptcy crisis for Argentinian football clubs so severe that many received state aid to prevent the national league collapsing. The fact is that all South American football is heavily dependent on European clubs buying up young talent at high prices, and an end to this would destroy some of the world's oldest and most respected teams. Closer to home, Serbian and Croatian football works in a similar way (think of the money Man U paid for two Partizan Belgrade starlets in January), while Portuguese clubs are a massive import warehouse for Brazilian talent. That's an awful lot of wrecked clubs and disenfranchised fans without even looking at the English lower leagues. The reality is that without transfer fees, there's nothing to stop European Champions League clubs simply setting up harvesting operations around the world and bypassing local fans entirely except to sell them merchandise.

Of course the transfer system isn't perfect and never will be, although a ban on transfers for under-18s would make it better. All sport, especially the highly commercial game of football, occupies a unique niche and needs special regulation to reflect that. The irony is that giving players more freedom to move clubs could easily end up restricting fans' choice drastically.

Finally, here a few things I found while scratching around the internet researching this post:

- an excellent article on Sampdoria's only Serie A title

- a pretty good compilation of goal celebrations, but what makes it is Aylesbury United's appearance about three minutes in. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Toilet humour

Found in a BBC article about Aeroflot's aging fleet:

"If you are unlucky enough to be allocated the seats placed in two strange alcoves at the back of the plane, it feels and smells like you are actually sitting in the toilet."

I can understand the use of 'smells', but 'feels' opens up a whole new tactile world.

Donkey business in Azerbaijan

It was reported today that two Azerbaijani bloggers have been arrested shortly after posting a video of a spoof press conference starring a donkey as a protest against the country's unaccountable politicians and timid state-controlled media. The video is pretty funny, so here it is, with subtitles:

Andjan Hajizade and Emin Milli have been charged with 'hooliganism', a catch-all law found in most post-Soviet countries and a favourite of state officials, since it is usually vague enough to make the tiresome job of proving anything much easier and attracts fairly heavy penalties (up to five years in jail in this case). Hajizade and Milli claim they were attacked in a restaurant and promptly arrested for starting a brawl. As a result of what could well be a ham-fisted state reprisal, their video has gone global.

Since Azerbaijani politics and interviewing tactics are hardly common knowledge, here's a quick guide. The country's president since 2003 is Ilham Aliyev, who succeeded his dad Heydar, a former KGB and Politburo man. Father and son share a habit of winning around 80% of the vote in elections (often after the opposition have either boycotted the vote or alleged large-scale fraud) and have attracted repeated claims of massive corruption involving the country's huge oil revenues. The bloggers' video has been widely seen as a satire of the unchallenging treatment the country's media gives politicians - asking visiting dignitaries about their flight can and does happen.

What makes the video's popularity so much of a headache for the Azerbaijani government is its nailing of many of the cliches of the servile state-controlled (either directly or via pliant tycoons) TV news found in many post-Soviet countries. A common feature is footage of press conferences where reporters ask questions as a pre-planned springboard for the speaker to spout forth on his subject of choice, often run as a lead item. Here's Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko demonstrating the principle in faintly ludicrous military get-up. Incidentally, last week he admitted rigging the 2006 election, but only to reduce his share from the 'actual' 93% to a more believable and "European" 80%. The other major component of many shows tends to be interminably dull footage of staged 'meetings' between leaders and their underlings, designed to convey a macho getting-on-with-the job vibe, as capably shown here by Russia's then-president Vladimir Putin and prime minister Mikhail Fradkov.

In short, the main aim of much TV news in the former Soviet Union is to show leaders going about their daily business and looking in control, instead of dealing with the annoyance of discussing how the country should be run. Unsurprisingly, this does nothing to stimulate debate and everything to render opposition invisible in every way short of street protest. If a violin-playing Azerbaijani donkey can get people to ask the inconvenient questions, then he has my full support.

Small-town values

I live in a small town. I don't mean this in a Hockey Mom and Joe Six-Pack sense, which just puts me in mind of Jon Stewart's comment that he must surely be both, since he's "an alcoholic who picks kids up from school". Home for me, when not at university, is a small and rather unimportant place. So I felt a small flash of pride when I came across this piece in the local paper:

"Felice Tocchini, who works at Fusion brasserie in Stoulton, will launch his new biscuit, which can be dunked for more than a minute, at the opening ceremony of Worcester Feast tomorrow."

My warm glow at rural Worcestershire's innovation faded slightly with two thoughts. Firstly, the article makes no mention of taste, which could mean that the Mayor has to undergo one of those grin-and-bear-it moments familiar to the innocent victims of TV chefs when he tries the first one. Secondly, we already have a biscuit that screams 'Dunk me!' - the mighty Hobnob.