Tuesday, 31 March 2015

End of an Era

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I wouldn't call Magnus Linklater a fan of the SNP, but even he seems to sense that the political mood of Scotland is changing and that we may well be witnessing the end of an era at Westminster.

I believe this to be true and if the Westminster Parliament does not reinvent itself after the May 2015 general election, I suspect Scotland will vote to become an independent country within the next ten years.

Triumphalist thousands wake up to their nationalist calling

Delegates during the SNP conference at the SECC in Glasgow - PA:Press Association

By Magnus Linklater - The Times

One should never judge the national mood from a party conference. They are exercises in self-congratulation that exist in a bubble of their own making and are a false barometer of public opinion.

This one may be different. For one thing the SNP conference in Glasgow was, by a mile, the biggest that Scotland has ever seen. Never has the SNP witnessed crowds like it. The SECC can house 3,000 delegates, and, for the big speeches, every seat was taken. Outside, in the corridors and the bars, members poured through in a torrent of yellow ribbons and beaming smiles. The SNP is in triumphalist mode; this is more than just a political party — it is becoming a cult.

“Even I am a bit overwhelmed by it,” admitted the former education secretary Mike Russell. He remembered his first conference, some 20 years ago, when the delegates could have fitted into a corner of the hall, and you measured attendance by the number of faded kilts and moth-eaten sporrans. This, he said, was different. “Scotland has woken up,” he pronounced.

It has certainly woken up to Nicola Sturgeon. The party leader’s appearances on the platform yesterday were greeted with pop-star ecstasy and standing ovations. She wore red: red dress, red lipstick, red shoes. She will not, I hope, mind me mentioning it. It was, after all, as much a political statement as an exercise in fashion. Her every pronouncement was greeted with whoops and cheers. The message that she and every speaker wanted to convey was that this moment in Scotland’s political history marked the point at which the SNP broke out of its Scottish enclave and became a big player on the UK stage. With poll predictions suggesting that it could win as many as 40 or even 50 seats at the general election, the party intends to hold the balance of power at Westminster.

Does this, however, mark a genuine shift in the mood of the country, or is it just a spurt of hyper-nationalism? Alex Salmond is probably not the best man to answer this. His role was intended as loyal acolyte to the new leader. It didn’t quite work that way. A question-and-answer session to help to sell his book, The Dream Shall Never Die, was intended to take place in a modest space to the side of the main stage. The crowd was not having it and insisted that he move centre stage. “This,” he announced from there, “is a real change in the psyche of our fellow citizens. It has changed the nation.”

It was time to try out that proposition on the citizens themselves. One thing is true — there is no lack of strong opinions. They fell into three categories: that the Yes campaign lost because of the hostility of the national media, and in particular the BBC; that political debate since the referendum has energised the country; and that the SNP is now seen as the pre-eminent social democratic party in Scotland and not just as the party of independence.

“There is an umbilical link between independence and social democracy,” said Christine Grahame, the Nationalist MSP.

Tommy Sheppard, a lapsed Labour member and now an SNP candidate, said he thought the SNP was now more than just a political party, it was a movement. “We have to show some humility,” he said, “because now we are carrying a torch for the majority of people.”

“We are not a political party, we are a community of interests,” said Pete Wishart, MP for Perth & North Perthshire. “It consists of people who have never been involved in politics before but who see us as a home for aspirations.” Among women, the election of Ms Sturgeon as leader is a plus for a party previously seen as male-dominated. “She’s not only a woman, she speaks our language,” Sheila Irvine said. “I feel I could sit down with her and have nice cup of tea and a chat.”

Ms Sturgeon showed not only that she had stepped out of the shadow of her predecessor but that she was taking the party into territory that he had never contemplated. If the SNP does become a commanding presence, not just in Scotland but in the corridors of Westminster power, the credit will be hers.

Tackling Inequality

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Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), is one of the few people left unimpressed at Jeremy Paxman's performance as inquisitor-in-chief at the recent party leaders debate.

In particular, Johnson wished to know more about Labour's tax and spending plans and who Ed Miliband is going to 'clobber' if he were to become Prime Minister after the general election on 7 May.  

The fight for equal pay has been about tackling inequality, of course, and that was the intention behind the 1999 Single Status (Equal Pay) Agreement introduced by the Scottish employers and trade unions all of 16 years ago.

Yet the employers and trade unions failed to deliver on their promises for the low paid while middle earning teachers in Scotland benefited from a landmark 'McCrone' pay agreement which increased pay in the teaching profession by an eye watering 23.5% in the year 2000.

To govern is to choose, so they say.   

We need to know who Ed is going to clobber

By Paul Johnson - The Times

Before 2010 Labour spent billions redistributing money to the poor, but it’s a mystery how it plans to hit the rich now

For me perhaps the most fascinating moment from Jeremy Paxman’s grilling of Messrs Cameron and Miliband last week came when he asked what regrets Mr Miliband had over the last Labour government’s record. “We were too relaxed about inequality; I think the gap got bigger,” came the response.

It was an egregious failure of the interviewer not to follow up on that. It is important to know what the Labour leader had in mind, in what way he thinks too little was done to reduce inequality, and what he would do about it if he won on May 7.

It was also a surprising mea culpa. The previous Labour government was strongly redistributive. It introduced a minimum wage. It hugely increased the generosity of the benefits system, especially for low-income families with children and low-income pensioners. Spending on child tax credits rose by more than £25 billion.

Across most of the distribution, income inequality actually fell. Labour policy certainly reduced income inequality below what it otherwise would have been. Those concerned with redistribution would also be harsh to fault much of what happened with public service provision. For example, the Labour government significantly increased redistribution in the school system, which the current government has extended with its pupil premium. Schools with poorer intakes receive about £1.50 in funding per pupil for every £1 received by schools with more affluent pupils.

Given this, my guess is that what was at the forefront of Mr Miliband’s mind was a concern about the way in which the very richest pulled further away from the rest of us. That was the main sense in which inequality rose between 1997 and 2010. The incomes of the top 1 or 2 per cent, and in particular of the top 0.1 or 0.2 per cent raced away from the rest, driven in large part by growing rewards for those working in financial services, notably in the City of London. There is no doubt that “the rich” have been taking a larger and larger share of the national cake.

Tony Blair was pretty clear about where he stood on this. In an interview, also with Jeremy Paxman, he said “justice for me is concentrated on lifting incomes of those who don’t have a decent income. It’s not a burning ambition for me to make sure that David Beckham earns less money.” That is consistent with the actions of his government, which did little to rein in the incomes of the richest.

Perhaps more surprisingly it implemented at least one policy that served actively to increase the incomes of the very rich — the reduction in capital gains tax to 10 per cent for most assets. This allowed hedge fund millionaires to point out that they paid a lower rate of tax than their cleaners. CGT rates were raised by Alistair Darling and then again by Mr Osborne. In another odd piece of political cross-dressing we saw the Labour government implementing a big cut in inheritance tax while a Conservative-led coalition has increased it — albeit rather furtively — through a failure to index the threshold at which the tax becomes payable.

So what of the future? We have already seen a mixed bag of policy announcements from Labour. The reintroduction of the 50 per cent rate of income tax for those with incomes over £150,000 is the most obvious statement of intent. It is best understood as an instrument for reducing inequality, for hitting the very rich. As an instrument for deficit reduction it is of (at best) extremely uncertain effectiveness.

Other policies already announced that would hit the better-off include the “mansion tax” on properties worth more than £2 million, and further substantial reductions in the value of pension tax relief. But which rich does Mr Miliband really want to redistribute away from, if indeed that is his aspiration? Is it the three quarters of a million or so with pre-tax incomes of over £100,000 a year? Perhaps it’s just the 350,000 with incomes over £150,000. Or the 40-50,000 incredibly fortunate individuals with pre-tax incomes above half a million pounds a year.

It matters which. Many of the policies implemented in Mr Darling’s last budget, and indeed by this government, have hit those in the £100-£150,000 range proportionately the hardest — the introduction of a 60 per cent income tax rate on incomes between £100,000 and £120,000 and the latest restrictions on pension tax relief, for example.

In principle returning the top rate of income tax to 50 per cent would hit those with the very highest incomes the hardest. But they may have more opportunities to avoid its effects than those on salaries at the lower end of the range.

Of course, tackling inequality is about much more than the tax and welfare system. Mr Miliband has talked about “pre-distribution”, in other words doing more to ensure that pre-tax earnings are more equal. In the long run that would probably be the surest route to a more equal society. But it is easier to tweak the tax and benefit system than to impact on what people earn.

There appears to be a significant difference between the two main parties in their philosophies and policies with respect to inequality. We know that Labour wants to reduce it, and a little about how. We have much less sense of the extent to which the Conservatives think there is an issue to be addressed, let alone how they might go about doing it.

Let’s quiz them on these issues, try to elicit some real information. Then I, for one, might actually be able to sit through an entire interview.

Fink Smaller

Daniel Finkelstein made me laugh with this honest and amusing tale of how he lost three stone in 37 weeks, but the Times columnist also made a very valid point that the only way to lose weight is to burn more calories that you eat.
There are no short cuts which is why gastric bands on the NHS should be banned, if you ask me.  

Fat boy slim(mer) –– How I lost three stone in 37 weeks

Daniel Finkelstein before and after his diet
Chris McAndrew, John Angerson

By Daniel Finkelstein - The Times

How Daniel Finkelstein lost three stone in 37 weeks. (Clue: he ate less. A lot less)

I need you to help solve a mystery. When people say that they forgot to have lunch, how does that happen?

I have lived for 19,167 days and I have never, not once, forgotten to have lunch. The number of lunches I have had will be bouncing around the 19,162 mark. And the missing ones, well, I am sure there was a reason, but I can tell you that the omission wasn’t the result of a lapse of memory.

Actually, I don’t think the whole thing is quite as mysterious as I am pretending it is. The truth is that other people – the lunch forgetters, my friends, pretty much anybody, really – just don’t care about lunch as much as I do. Which isn’t hard, because I care about lunch a lot.

I am not sure when I first realised this. I think it was actually relatively recently. Certainly within the last decade. But I don’t eat like other people eat. I start and I just keep going. I’m like a sentence without a full stop

At a party with canap├ęs, I began to notice that the number I ate didn’t correspond to the number consumed by everyone else. Now, I am sure that some of you are nodding and thinking, “Yes, I know what he means. I do that too.” You don’t. You don’t do that too. Without wishing to sound like I am a schoolboy in a competition, I do it more than you.

It’s like when people say to me, “It’s really odd. I eat whatever I want and I don’t get fat.” That is because eating whatever you want doesn’t involve eating enough to make you fat. You, my friend, for all your boasting about eating whatever you want, are a classic lunch forgetter.

I ate whatever I wanted and I got fat. It’s embarrassing to write that, but I may as well, since everybody who has seen me knows it anyway. At my fattest I was 17st 1lb, maybe a little more. And I am only 5ft 10in, maybe a little less.

I knew it was happening, but other things were happening, too, and they always seemed more important. I’ve got a lot of work on; I will do something about my weight after that. I am going on holiday; I’ve spent a fortune on it; I don’t want to spoil it by cutting back on food. I am going to a dinner to give a speech; it’s humiliating to tell the host I am watching the calories.

So on I went, until one day someone took a picture. It was me, on holiday, photographed side on, playing tennis with my seven-year-old. Wearing a polo shirt and a pair of shorts. I looked – I was – unbelievably fat. You know those people who can’t quite fit in one seat on a train? I looked like one of those or, perhaps being slightly less hysterical, I looked like I was about to become one of those. Any moment.

The picture that made Daniel go on a diet

Because my son looked cute in the photo, everyone kept looking at it. And each time they did, I flushed with shame.

I knew I was overweight. But not as bad as that. I realised then that something would have to be done. That I couldn’t put things off any longer.

Now, I have never regarded my weight as being a moral issue. Or anyone else’s business. Nothing is ruder or smugger, in my view, than saying to someone in a pointed way, “Goodness, you are looking prosperous.” A surprisingly large number of people take it into their heads to do this. They can’t possibly appreciate how unwelcome it is.

Yet at the same time, other people’s opinions were definitely mixed up with my feelings. I didn’t like being judged as a “fat person”, however much I might regard that judgment as being intrusive and rather pathetic. A bit of me was infuriated by people thinking their waistline made them morally superior, while a bit of me shared the view that it did. I realise this is a muddled explanation, but it’s the best you are going to get.

It provided me – or at least I think it did – with a small insight into how women feel, while recognising that for women the experience is more intense.

It’s not true that people only notice women’s appearance and weight. George Osborne is a good friend of mine, and people more often ask me about his 5:2 diet and his haircut than they do about his economic policy. Seriously. They do.

Yet it is undoubtedly worse for women. The comments about them are made more openly and more often.

The flip side of this is that, as a man, you feel entirely ridiculous talking to others about your weight, or admitting that you are worried about it. So you feel uncomfortable about it, physically and mentally, but you keep it in.

These feelings were particularly strong when buying clothes. When you have a waist that is bigger than 44 inches, it becomes very hard to find anything to buy. And asking for a bigger size is agonising. For my oldest son’s bar mitzvah I had a suit made, which circumvented the problem. But an informal jacket and trousers? I had to go to the outsize clothiers, High and Mighty.

I’m not high. And mighty? I think we all know what that really means. I can’t believe I am telling you this but, oh well, here goes. Before I left the shop, I turned the plastic bag inside out so that it didn’t read High and Mighty as I walked down Oxford Street.

And then there was the health issue. My father was diabetic. Being 17st 1lb was basically killing me.

So what should I do? Almost every day there is a new diet in the paper. You can eat as much protein as you like, but don’t eat any fat or carbohydrates. You can eat as much carbohydrate as you like, but don’t eat any fat or protein. You can eat all these things without limit, but not on the same day. I used to joke that I was on all these diets at the same time.

Really, my starting point was quite different. The idea that I can eat as much of anything as I like is a fraud. What had made me fat was eating as much as I liked, and that very thing was what I had to stop.

I wasn’t fat as a child. Not at all, really. I have a Jewish mother, but the stereotype about stuffing the kids with food doesn’t hold. Both my parents had experienced starvation as children, in both cases almost to the point of death. They didn’t like any of their children to claim to be “starving”, since, as they correctly (but also, I should say, mildly) pointed out, we didn’t understand what that was.

Aside from that, our relationship with food was perfectly normal. Well, I say that. Of course, we didn’t eat quite what other children did. We are an immigrant family. We ate things like goulash and pierogi and, on weekly Friday night dinners, challah and chicken soup with matzo balls. Not in particularly remarkable quantities, though. And while I still ate at home, I wasn’t overweight.

Then I got my first job as a journalist, working in a magazine company in Soho, and I moved out of home and I started eating. And eating. And eating.

I worked on the edge of Chinatown and I can tell you exactly where I first became fat. It was in the Wong Kei restaurant in Wardour Street. I ate there almost every day. Occasionally, I ate there more than once a day. The fact that I had eaten a large lunch never stopped me having a large dinner.

There is probably a genetic element to my eating, but even so it is something I could have controlled. The size of my appetite, bigger than most people’s by far, makes control more difficult. But it doesn’t make it impossible by any means.

I would try from time to time, but not very hard. Sometimes hard enough to lose a few pounds before gaining it again. More often, hard enough to remain stable for a while. But never hard enough to shift a lot of weight and keep it off. And my weight drifted up and up until I found myself playing tennis while looking like Bernard Manning.

So my diet plan was unsophisticated. I would just stop overeating. And that, in one tiny sentence, is it.

Here’s what I did.

I don’t drink anything except Diet Coke, which is calorie free. And, oddly enough, I have never really had much of a thing for dessert either, which also helps. At home as I grew up, we hardly ate dessert, and I am perfectly happy without it. Nor am I a big one for sweets.

I don’t do much exercise, although I try to walk 10,000 paces a day. I don’t think that is about to change. I find it too boring.

All of which tells you that I managed to become more than 17 stone just by eating very large main courses. And I have shed a large amount of it just by stopping doing that.

I find a lot of diet advice too fussy – just have this, weigh that, don’t touch the other. So I just use common sense. I have a rough idea what is fattening and what isn’t – who doesn’t? – and I don’t eat those things, in general.

I start the day with a plain sandwich – perhaps with chicken in, bought from the place across the road from the office – or a scrambled egg, if I have more time. And at lunch, I might have a plate of smoked salmon and a bit of salad with a banana.

My aim is, very broadly, to keep below 1,300 calories a day. That isn’t much at all, so I often find that by the time supper comes, I can’t really eat anything. If I can eat at all, I still try to keep it very light. A particular favourite is a Jewish dish called matzah brei – basically, water biscuits soaked in order to soften them and then cooked with scrambled egg.

This, and I drink a lot of Diet Coke.

I am embarrassed by how banal this advice is. I can say that it does work, as you might imagine that it would. I am on week 37 of this regime and I am now 14st 6lb. I intend to keep going until I am about 12st 7lb.

There is quite a way to go, but I feel much better and look much better.

Perhaps slightly less banal is that my diet isn’t based on any eating tricks. It is based – as I think, in the end, all successful diets must be – on willpower.

To start with, I had to decide that dieting was more important than anything else. That nothing – important meetings, a holiday, a family event – was an excuse to forget about the whole thing and eat. My wife was critical in making me understand the centrality of this, and it helps a huge amount to have that sort of support.

I weigh myself at least once a day (sometimes once in the morning and again at night). I realise this isn’t accurate, because it fluctuates randomly, but it forces me to remember my diet and not to run away from it. Once a week, on a Friday, I write down my weight, to be sure I am not fooling myself about progress.

You have to tell others you are dieting. If you don’t, you end up overeating just to avoid your fellow diners questioning you. I think this admission is quite hard for men, because we are embarrassed to admit that we struggle with our weight. The whole thing makes me feel deeply silly, but I do it anyway.

Instead of allowing other people – unbeknown to them – to embarrass me into breaking my diet, I use them – again without their knowledge – to help me keep on track. By telling people that you are on a diet, you are committing yourself to it publicly. That helps increase your resolve. This commitment, and the desire not to break it, is what makes you return to your diet at dinner, when you broke it at lunch.

In fact, this article isn’t about my diet at all. It is my diet. That’s why I put the goal weight in. Once this article appears I will have no choice but to keep going and then to stay thinner once I arrive at my destination.

You, I’m afraid, have been used.

Incredible Shrinking Man

The Guido Fawkes web site has come up with another great scoop which suggests that Labour MP Toby Perkins has become the 'incredible shrinking man' or that Ed Miliband has been staging some of his photo calls. 

Now that is funny and deserves to be on prime time TV because it's revealing about the way  that politicians behave when they think no one is looking. 


As Guido revealed this morning, Labour MPs were invited to Miliband’s office last week for photos with their leader. One of the few to take up this vote-repelling offer was loyal Toby Perkins:

Though something is not quite right here.

Toby Perkins is 6 foot 6 inches, yet Miliband appears to be almost the same height as him. Other photos of the pair more accurately reflect their height difference:

Is Miliband standing on something?

No, say his people, boldly:

“Ed is over 6 foot and he isn’t standing on a box.”

Yet they went very quiet when Guido asked them to explain the lack of height difference. Toby Perkins has also refused the opportunity to explain what is going on:

Despite the box ‘denial’, in other photographs taken that day – such as this one with Graeme Morris – Ed’s eye line is at a significantly lower level when compared to the panes of the window:

Let’s remember what Ed said last year:

“If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don’t vote for me. Because I don’t. But here’s the thing: I believe that people would quite like somebody to stand up and say there is more to politics than the photo op.”

Standing up on a phone book more like…

Saudi Laws

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The Independent reports that the authorities in Saudi Arabia have been forced to respond to criticism of its treatment of Raif Badawi who has essentially been convicted of a 'thought crime' for daring to question aspects of the Islamic religion.

Now this has been dressed up as 'apostasy' as if the mere used of the word apostasy shuts down all further debate - it's like something out of a Monty Python sketch in which the Spanish Inquisition declare that it's blasphemous to even talk about blasphemy.

So I take my hat off to the German vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, for raising the issue with the Saudis because this is not an attack on the country's sovereignty but simply part of an ongoing debate about applying religious laws from the Dark Ages many hundreds of years later in the 21st century.  

For example, why should Saudi women be prevented from driving a car yet be trusted to operate a dishwasher of washing machine since none of these modern machines existed in the time of the Prophet?

The real problem is that such a statement would probably be considered as apostasy or blasphemy in Saudi Arabia. 

Raif Badawi: Saudi Arabia accuses western media of attacking its sovereignty

Liberal blogger faces possible execution for apostasy

By CHRIS GREEN - The Independent

Saudi Arabia has finally responded to the international outcry over the treatment of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, accusing the western media of launching an unjustified attack on its sovereignty under the “pretext of human rights”.

In its first official statement on the case, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it would not allow outside interference with Saudi Arabia’s judicial system and that pressure from the media and human rights groups would have no impact on his punishment.

Mr Badawi has been sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes – of which so far only 50 have been carried out – for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. Judges in the country’s criminal court want him to undergo a retrial for apostasy, which carries the death sentence.

“The Kingdom cannot believe and strongly disapproves what has been addressed in some media outlets about the case of Citizen [Badawi] and the judicial sentence he has received,” the statement read.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been one of the first States to promote and support human rights. Though these commitments are more than obvious, some international quarters and some media, regrettably, have emptied human rights of their sublime meanings,” it added.

“Instead, such quarters and media deviated towards politicising and abusing those rights to serve aggressions against the right of States to sovereignty. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will most certainly disallow such matter.”

The Ministry also said the Saudi constitution “originates from the Islamic Sharia which enshrines one’s sacred rights to life, property, honour, and dignity”. Under its interpretation of Sharia law, rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery and drug trafficking are all punishable by death. According to Amnesty International, the use of torture is “common and widespread” and domestic violence against women is “endemic”.

Mr Badawi’s case has prompted protests across the world and has been raised by several governments, including the UK. Over the weekend Germany’s economic affairs minister and vice-chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, became the latest diplomat to raise the subject with King Salman.

Ahead of a meeting with the Saudi monarch in Riyadh on Sunday, Mr Gabriel said: “The harshness of this sentence, especially the corporal punishment, is something unimaginable for us and of course it weighs on our relations.”

Asked for her view on the Saudi statement, Mr Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar told The Independent: “I don’t know what to say. I repeat my appeal to His Majesty King Salman to pardon Raif, and I thank Mr Gabriel for talking publicly about his case in Saudi Arabia.”

Human rights groups described Saudi Arabia’s official position as “deeply unconvincing”, pointing out that in the vast majority of countries around the world Mr Badawi would not even be in jail.

Allan Hogarth, Amnesty’s UK’s head of policy and government affairs, said: “Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is utterly terrible. With a record of publicly beheading scores of people every year, imposing flogging and amputation sentences, banning protests and locking up peaceful activists – Saudi Arabia’s supposed ‘promotion’ of human rights is anything but.

“It should be pretty obvious that any aggression in the Raif Badawi case is coming from the Saudi authorities themselves, not least with their jaw-dropping sentence of 1,000 lashes for a blogger who dared to question the governance of the country.”

An FCO spokesperson said the UK government was "seriously concerned" by the case.

"The UK condemns the use of cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment in all circumstances. The Foreign Secretary has raised the matter with the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of the Interior Mohammed bin Naif, and with the Saudi Ambassador.

“The UK is a strong supporter of freedom of expression around the world. We believe that people must be allowed to freely discuss and debate issues, peacefully challenge their governments, exercise the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and speak out against violations of human rights wherever they occur.”

David Mepham, the UK director of Human Rights Watch, said it was “preposterous” for the Saudis to complain about the behaviour of the media. “Raif Badawi’s case has attracted massive global attention due to the cruelty of his sentence and because it illustrates the wider injustice of the Saudi system,” he said.

“Rather than railing against their critics, the Saudi authorities should overturn the sentence against Badawi, pardon and release him and end the routine use of corporal punishment, as well as court processes that flout basic international standards.”

Russia Today

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Here's an interesting report from MediaZona via The Guardian which tells the story of strange and unexplained deaths in Russian police custody.

Now it's not a highly political story, in the party sense at least, just a call for public authorities to be held to account yet it's not something you would expect to here about on Russia Today   which is keen to report on controversial issues all across the globe - except in Russia.

Under suspicion: death in a Siberian cell

After their experiences at the hands of Russian authorities, punk activists Pussy Riot set up a news organisation to investigate the police and prison system. Here MediaZona shines a light on unexplained deaths in custody in a remote region

The Trans Siberian train station in Chita. Photograph: Alamy

By Nikita Sologub for MediaZona - The Guardian

The town of Shilka lies on the banks of a river in the forest steppe of the Zabaikalsky Krai, a remote region of Russia on the border with Mongolia. Shilka is home to 13,000 people, and lies more than 120 miles from the regional capital Chita. Most residents moved here in the 1930s when the Soviet government increased the capacity of the local section of the Trans-Siberian railway.

Russian punk band Pussy Riot release I Can't Breathe, inspired by Eric Garner

Nowadays, though, the service to Chita is limited to three trains a day.

The town is surrounded by three villages — Bogomyagkovo, Kazanovo and Kholbon — with a total population of around 5,000 and a shared local police department. In September 2014, a criminal case was opened against the police, and the departmental leaders all lost their jobs.

The details of this case remain unclear, but MediaZona has learned that between 2012 and 2014 the corpses of at least two detainees, showing signs of torture, were found in the police station building. In Shilka there is talk of a third victim, although no evidence has yet surfaced.

Human rights groups regularly accuse Russian police of brutality and using excessive force against suspects, claiming that many are tortured to extract false confessions so as to meet the required quota for solving crimes. These allegations are extremely hard to prove, but a MediaZona investigation reveals many unanswered questions about the deaths.


The first corpse was found on 24 November 2012. Early that morning, Vitaly Tortoyev, a 20-year-old resident of Bogomyakovo, was delivered, drunk, to a temporary holding cell. Another detainee, named Khadzhiev, was already in the cell. Less than an hour later, Tortoyev was dead.

The young man had been brought up by his grandmother, Lyudmilla Sheveleva, after his parents died of alcohol abuse. After graduating from school he was prevented from joining the army by a heart condition, and had no official place of work.

Like his parents he often hit the bottle, but he had no criminal record. A few months before his death Tortoyev had married a local girl and moved in with her.

The police told his grandmother that Tortoyev had hung himself; but she finds this difficult to believe.

“When we spoke to his relatives,” said Roman Sukachev, a Zabaikalsky Human Rights Centre lawyer representing Sheveleva, “they said he had a ligature mark [around his neck], and his hands were clenched as if he’d been pulling the rope loose. His grandmother says they never managed to unclench his hands and had to bury him as he was. In my opinion this was murder. Whether it was his cellmates or the police, someone had a hand in this.”

How exactly the young man died is uncertain. Investigators did not look into the case at first, and no autopsy was conducted.

“A few days after the funeral, I was told [by police] that Vitaly had hung himself, but they didn’t say where exactly,” Sheveleva told police investigators. “Prior to that I’d never heard Vitaly make any mention of suicide. […] I now know that Vitaly died at the police station and that he was killed.”

Second body

Two years later, another body was discovered in that same cell for administrative detainees.

On 9 September 2014, Alexander Lekhanov, a 42-year-old resident of Shilka, was found hanged. According to the deceased’s mother, Nadezhda Sokolova, he’d gone to meet his wife that after her shift at the grocery shop finished at 11pm.

“They must’ve been arguing,” says Sokolova. “Police were driving by and saw him standing in the road, shouting, waving his arms about, and they took him in. In the morning they called my grandson. He came round and told me, ‘Dad hanged himself in his cell’.”

In the morning Sokolova went to Shilkinsky police station to find out how her son had died. The police log book noted that Lekhanov had been taken in at 23.30pm, following a call from his wife.

According to Sokolova, a young investigator who took part in the man’s arrest reported that he’d conducted himself calmly and didn’t utter a single word on the way to the station. “I found this strange,” she says, “because the shop assistants said he’d been arguing and when he drinks he gets really short-tempered – I just don’t get how he could’ve stayed calm if they arrested him at night and took him away.”

The funeral took place a few days later. Sokolova says her son’s face looked unnatural – “all black and blue and swollen, and his lips looked as if they’d been glued together”. “I looked at him and couldn’t understand what was going on with his mouth. It was only later that I realised – they must’ve knocked his teeth out and then glued his mouth shut afterwards, that’s the reason for his unnatural expression. We’ve buried so many friends and relatives – no end to funerals – but I’ve never seen an expression like that.

“And his wounds were all strange, as if he’d been jabbed in the face with a sharp little knife. I was sitting there, crying over his coffin, wailing on about this knife. His mates were standing close by. ‘Who’d start jabbing him like that,’ they asked, ‘where’d they get a knife like that from?

“The ligature on his neck was really strange too. If he’d hung himself it would’ve been an even mark, but it was actually all over the place – wonky and crooked. They must’ve been pulling him from behind, the noose went wonky and made a second ligature.”

Sokolova believes that her son was killed. Because of the nature of the wounds on his body, she fears that he mayhave provoked the police. After the funeral, however, an official, whose name Sokolova cannot remember, showed her an excerpt from a cell surveillance video which appears to show Lekhanov taking his own life.

Lekhanov’s mother believes the video was manipulated. “I don’t believe it,” she says. “I saw the video, but they can manipulate it. And even if he did hang himself, why is he all battered, why is his face covered in burns? And what about those bruises? No one hit him on the video, did they?”

Internal review

Sokolova returned to Shilkinsky police station soon after Lekhanov’s death and asked for her son’s clothes before his body was taken to the morgue. She was told that his personal possessions had been sent to the “investigative committee” for analysis.

It was the first she’d heard of an investigation into her son’s death, but when MediaZona tried to get further details, the police department failed to confirm than any investigation was underway.

“This is the second son I’ve buried in a year,” said Sokkolova. “There’s no one to feed the family. They could at least return his things. He had a good windbreaker, his little lad could’ve done with having that," she says.

Pussy Riot members Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina established the news organisation Media Zona after their own experiences inside the Russian prison system. Photograph: Andrew Cowie/AFP/Getty Images

Sukachev, the lawyer, believes Lekhanov’s death and his mother’s informal inquiries resulted in an unplanned internal review of both cases. Five officials were sacked because of its findings, and later a criminal case was opened against them under a part of the law that covers “actions transcending the limits of an official’s power with the infliction of grave consequences”.

Violation of this article carries a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

MediaZona has seen a copy of the paperwork setting up the case, dated 19 September 2014, in which an investigator known as Prapkov says suspicions had been raised over the circumstances of the first death, that of Tortoyev, which the local officials tried to conceal.

The report reveals that police were instructed to remove the body from the station and take it to the morgue, where a policeman fabricated the inspection report by claiming that Tortoyev had been found hanged in a residential building.

The duty officer, meanwhile, amended an entry in the official records, changing the time that the detainee was brought in from 20:45 to 16:15. MediaZona also has independent corroboration of thee claims.

According to Sukachev, after proceedings were initiated only one official – who gave the orders to conceal the evidence of a crime – was taken into custody, while others merely lost their jobs. After two months on remand, and with the investigation period drawing to a close, the court decided to release the official and give him a non-custodial order. “They deemed it sufficient punishment,” says the lawyer. “Here in Zabaikalsky Krai police are almost never kept in prison before sentencing – the maximum they get is two months in custody.”

A murder case was opened into Tortoyev’s death on 15 November 2014. It is as yet unknown whether it has been consolidated with the initial case, and whether it bears any relation to the death of Lekhanov. Sukachev, who represents Tortoyev’s grandmother, has not been given access to the documentation of this case, and police say they are unaware of its existence.

'Violence breeds violence': one woman's story of 16 years inside a Russian jail

Called to account

Meanwhile, Shilka residents maintain that Lekhanov and Tortoyev are not the only detainees to have died in Shilkinsky police station, and Sukachev is trying to track down relatives of a third potential victim.

Anastasia Kopteyeva, head of the Zabaikalsky Human Rights Centre, told MediaZona that over the course of a decade’s work the organisation had managed to bring a total of 45 regional officials to trial. “In the last three years alone, criminal cases involving as many as 11 officers from the Mogochisnsky district department of internal affairs and the Zabaikalsky office of internal affairs have been opened through the efforts of Zabaikalsky Krai’s human rights activists,” she says.

A version of this article first appeared in Russian on MediaZona. It was translated by The Open Russia Foundation.

Lightness of Being

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In this opinion piece for The Times David Aaronovitch describes Boris Johnson as having a 'lightness of being' and by seeming not to act as a normal politician, there's no doubt that the London Mayor cuts through the widespread anti-politics mood of the nation.

Depending what happens at the general election Boris could have all to play for after May 7th 2015, but it's interesting that, for the moment at least, many of the the most successful politicians are distancing themselves from their parties.

Nigel Farage is still relatively popular despite the almost daily gaffes of his fellow Ukippers and David Cameron regularly outpolls the Conservative Party; only Ed Miliband seems to less popular than the party he leads.

Perhaps the only exception is in Scotland where the SNP have been in power since 2007, yet still manage to confound their political rivals by donning the clothes of an opposition party when it comes to dealing with the Westminster Parliament.

Boris is winning over even old sceptics like me

By David Aaronovitch - The Times
No one – even Ukip voters – seems immune to the London mayor’s charisma which could catapult him into No 10

I have been dreaming about Boris. Not often, but then politicians rarely feature in my dreams — Tony Blair once did and that was about it. The mayor and I are usually hanging out somewhere and exchanging jokes. Anyway these Boris-shaped visitations from my unconscious are perfectly pleasant and make a nice change from anxious reveries about being stranded on a crumbling mountain ledge or finding myself on stage having forgotten my lines.

The dreams remind me that I have been thinking about Boris too. And the thing that I have been thinking is: “God Almighty, it may just happen. He may make it to the very top after all. How absolutely extraordinary!”

I have known Boris for two decades — not intimately but almost well enough for me to be able to call him by his surname. In that time I had imagined, in Yeats’s words, that he and I both “lived where motley is worn”. I saw him mostly as another scribbler, if a droll one, whose political ambitions were not to be taken too seriously. Boris making a speech about Latin in schools? By all means. Boris negotiating with Vladimir Putin? Give me a one-way ticket to Patagonia.

In 2008, I backed Ken Livingstone’s bid to be re-elected as London mayor. I was impressed by the positive things he’d done and concerned at the shortcomings of his admittedly charming opponent. I wrote at the time: “The man is chaotic. The notion that a Boris administration will, as his website promises every few lines, subject London’s finances and procedures to the most rigorous of scrutinies, is beyond parody.” I thought his manifesto was silly and that if he got in he’d soon be out again.

Instead in 2012, in a bad year for the Tories, Boris was re-elected, his own vote substantially above that indicated by polling for his party. And, though he had been lucky in his inheritance (the Boris bikes, for example, were already on their way when he was first elected, as were the Olympics), the fact was that he colonised every initiative with a vigour Cecil Rhodes would have admired.

All the same, London mayor is one thing; party leadership (and the premiership) is quite another. That requires, does it not, gravitas and a grasp of the great complexities of state? It also requires an appeal that goes beyond the Eton-tolerating south and into the old puritan mill towns of the north. Once exposed to the winter of hard choices, the blond butterfly would ice over.

Expecting Boris to implode has turned out to be like expecting Ed Miliband to win over the voters. It just hasn’t happened and it shows no sign of happening. In fact the reverse phenomenon has occurred. People have started off with a liking for Boris and have — almost counter-intuitively — implied a competence from that affection.

A colleague of mine found himself with a polling company talking to a focus group in Bromley, south London, in 2012. They were representative of London voters, including working-class people and people of all colours. What did they think of Cameron? That he was posh and didn’t understand the ordinary person. And Boris? Yes, he was a guy you could have a pint with. But, said the pollster, what about the fact that Boris went to the same school and same university as Cameron? Some of the group didn’t care and several said it wasn’t true.

Neil Kinnock’s momentary soaking on Brighton beach in 1983 was used against him for a decade to demonstrate his haplessness. Boris suspended, close up, from a zip wire, his legs dangling helplessly, for a full five minutes, on the contrary represents what could happen to any of us. He’s a sport. He is the hero of the age of the ice-bucket challenge.

A recent opinion poll showed how Londoners intend to vote at the general election. Labour was well ahead. But one statistic jumped out, grabbed me by the credulities and wrestled me to the floor. You have to remember that Ukip supporters are generally the most disenchanted and cynical voters of all. They tend to believe that they’re getting shafted, that all politicians are the same and that no one is even vaguely competent. And yet 60 per cent of them thought Boris was doing a good job!

Despite everything I have thought and predicted, the fact is that now, in a year of decision, voters like Boris, regard him as somehow qualitatively different from the normal politicians and, in all probability, would “give him a chance”. And who — apart from me — cares if he is breaking his promise to the London voters not to become an MP during his term of office? He’s like a man who breaks wind in a lift and everyone wonders what smells so good.

Boris transcends party and gives the voter something political to relate to that has nothing to do with manifestos, spending commitments and other tedious electoral fictions. Meanwhile inside he is — and has always been — a man with a very serious sense of purpose. Being able to disguise the unusual intensity of your ambition under a very bearable lightness of being is a great and hyper-modern gift.

I have now begun to realise that the question is not “could Boris lead his party?” but rather, “who could stop him?”. If David Cameron were to step down, for whatever reason, who would bet on Theresa May or George Osborne out-polling Boris among the Tory grassroots?

In fact, in the event of a parliament so badly hung that no party could assemble a majority, I could even imagine a scenario where Boris, like the Roman aristocrat Cincinnatus, might be called in to save the state. After all, just because David Cameron or Ed Miliband couldn’t form a government, why shouldn’t someone else try? Someone who could bring together people from several parties in a government of all the talents? Someone who had the charm and the steeliness to get very different people to work together? Except, unlike Cincinnatus and more like the hero of his most recent book, Winston Churchill, Boris would — in effect — send for himself.

This fantasy of mine will turn out to be wrong too. But if it happened, a very large number of British voters who don’t care much for the Tories or even for politicians, would probably — like the people on Channel 4’s Gogglebox — turn to each other on the sofa and say: “That’s all right. I quite like him.”

Monday, 30 March 2015

Breaking Barriers

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The A4ES blog site crashed through another big barrier the other day and has now recorded 1.5 million visitors.

Intriguingly this happened on the same day that North Lanarkshire Council finally agreed to face up to its obligations over equal pay.  

Which is very appropriate, don't you think?

Red Letter Days (26 March 2014)

I came across this post from the blog site while looking for something else, but it's interesting to note that the first 500,000 visitors to the A4ES blog site took five years - whereas the next 500,000 took less than six months.

As of March 2014 the number of visitors to the blog site is 1.03 million - and counting.

Red Letter Day (27 March 2012)

Today is a Red Letter Day.

Because later today sometime the number of visitors to the blog site will crash through the 500,000 barrier.

Now I don't know if I'll still be writing the blog site long enough to reach another big milestone of let's say 1 million visitors.

But it has been a very interesting and rewarding experience, so far.

Because without Action 4 Equality Scotland I think it's fair to say that equal pay would still be dead in the water.

To my mind the all too cosy relationship between the council employers and the trade unions had managed to stifle and strangle the fight for equal pay to such an extent that nothing was happening.

Despite all kinds of promises the 1999 Single Status (Equal Pay) Agreement in Scotland had not been implemented - vital deadlines came and went without a fuss on either side.

The council employers and the trade unions just turned a blind eye to the big and ongoing pay gap - between traditional male and female jobs.

No one struck a blow in anger, threatened industrial action or forced the issue by taking legal action in the Employment Tribunals.

Until Action 4 Equality Scotland came along in 2005 that is - then things finally started to change.

To my mind the council employers and the trade unions should both be ashamed of their behaviour, not least because council budgets in Scotland doubled in size during the ten years up to 2007.

So the truth is that what really thwarted the 1999 Single Status (Equal Pay) Agreement in Scotland's councils was not a lack of money or resources.

But a lack of political will on the part of the council employers and the trade unions some of whom are still joined at the hip, politically speaking.