Thursday, 28 July 2011

The Dead Chicken Party

Zombie is a term used to denote an animated corpse brought back to life by mystical means such as witchcraft. The term is often figuratively applied to describe a hypnotised person bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli.

According to the tenets of Vodou a dead person can be revived by a bokor, or sorcerer. Zombies remain under the control of the bokor since they have no will of their own.

Zombie fiction is now a sizeable sub-genre of horror, usually describing a breakdown of civilization occurring when most of the population become flesh-eating zombies – a zombie apocalypse.

The monsters are usually hungry for human flesh, often specifically brains.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011


The world is full of incentives. Work hard, study and your chances of personal success improve dramatically. Give workers a target and a bonus scheme and you will be surprised (or not) at the results.

The state, whether it admits it publicly or not, creates a leviathan minefield of incentives or disincentives. It also does not admit to doing this gob-smackingly badly. Take the banks. They were told, implicitly or not, that the state would bail them out, regardless of how egregiously reckless they were with their landing, watched over by the FSA regulator. The result? A housing boom based on reckless lending and taxpayers money stolen to bail them out.

This creation of "moral hazards" brings me on to the topic of today's rant - the benefit system. This blog has already dealt with the subject of the minimum wage and how it increases joblessness by dis-incentivising employers from taking on people. The other side of the coin is the overgenerous welfare state allowing people to make the rational decision to stay at home rather than take a tough, low paid, taxed job.

People are not stupid. They make the decision that is best for them, despite the wailing of protest from the left, who believe human nature to be other than what it is. Take the BBC analysis of the ESA (the replacement for disability allowance)

"ESA is the successor to Incapacity Benefit and claimants are required to go through a series of tests to judge their fitness for work.

The department has released the results from 1.3 million tests over a period of more than two years which showed:

  • 7% were incapable of any work
  • 17% were able to do some sort of work given the correct support
  • 39% were deemed to be fit for work and were moved onto jobseeker's allowance
  • 36% dropped out of the application process
  • 1% of applications were still in progress"
36% of the claimants dropped out before they were tested - "it's a fair cop guv" and almost 40% were found to be fit for work. These individuals knew that they would be better off "on the sick" and went for it. These are smart people and should have no problem holding down a job.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Coongate Cover Up

Daz has written here before about the loathsome Andrew Withers, who, it appears, has single handedly brought down the Libertarian Party of the UK.

For those of you not aware of the story, Withers was the Treasurer, then Party Leader, who was outed earlier this year on the Anna Raccoon blog as a crook and a conman. When investigations began into his party activities it became clear that, following his stewardship, there was 16p in the bank account, a loan outstanding, and most of the money had been withdrawn by Withers himself as "expenses". How much he took is unclear as, to this day, he has refused to allow anyone access to the relevant bank accounts.

The situation would have been recoverable except that, in order to effect a cover up, it was necessary for Withers to destroy the evidence and, to do that, he believed he had to destroy the party. His familiar tactics were to bully and threaten the other party officials with legal action and this proved effective as he turned the heat on one after another.

A sample of the style

"Fuck impatience by others we do this legimately not by mob rule. He either talks to me or my lawyers I don' t care. I either get an apology for this shit this morning in writing not email or I place this with lawyers monday

In the meantime one more email this weekend on this subject and you will not know what hit any of you. Just fuck off and leave me alone."

And of course threats like this were effective- because legal action for libel (however unlikely it was from someone who required to withdraw party funds when he went to Tesco) was potentially ruinous for the individual threatened.

Why take such a risk?

Withers succeeded in getting the Party Chairman and many others on the NCC to resign and tried to have the party de-registered with the Electoral Commission. Having failed in this, he turned his attention to the website, not targeting those members brave enough to publicly call him out for what he had done, but threatening the person in whose name the domain was registered. This resulted in comments and posts being closed down and the website was mothballed.

Earlier this week it seems Withers was unhappy that new membership subscriptions were apparently being diverted from the party bank account that remains under his control.

"Unfortunately the repeat advertising of 'unofficial' bank details
means that I have to report this matter to the Electoral Commission as
it is not part of the approved financial scheme, and I have to report
the same to the Information Commissioner as I am the Data Protection
Officer for the Party.

I cannot understand why some people are continually trying to break
the law. I am faced with no other option to place this matter in the
hands of the legal authorities to deal with."

The above was the final straw for the host and, yesterday, the website came down.

The point of detailing the above is to demonstrate that with Coongate, as with Watergate, it was not the original action itself that caused the devastation but the necessity to cover it up. Because no single individual had contributed a great sum of money to the Libertarian Party- a large number of people had each given small sums, along with their time and effort, in pursuit of a belief in the right to greater individual freedom.

That is what has been lost.

Avon and Somerset police are currently investigating the conduct of Andrew P Withers and anyone with any direct knowledge relating to this matter should contact them.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Mayhem At The Met

The resignation of Paul Stephenson, the boss of the Met Police, opens up the question of police corruption in the criminal journalism affair. We already know from Rebekah Brooks and other sources that police officers were taking money for information. With Stephenson unable to hang on to his job after taking freebies and hiring a journalist under suspicion at the pleasant rate of £1,000 a day there must now be a full scale investigation into the extent of police corruption.

It is not likely to be only the News of the World handing cash to the plod. We need to uncover all of the crooked dealings and cleanse the police as well as the press.

Now John Yates has gone as well. Unsurprising after his discomfort at the Select Committee last week and his invitation to return tomorrow. Apparently the London Police Authority were about to suspend him pending an investigation. What they must ensure is that the police who were actually taking money from the press are identified, prosecuted and disciplined.

No police service is ever completely free of corruption, but chances to root out entrenched graft do not come very often. This is one of those occasions and it must be pursued all the way.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has said that she is asking HM Inspectorate of Police (HMIC) to investigate the possibility of corrupt relationships between police officers and the press in the light of revelations about payments for information and the sale of sensitive security data about the royal family and their friends.
The HMIC might seem a logical place to go. After all it needs to be somebody outside of the Met Police and it really ought to be done by an organisation that understands policing. The problem is that the people who work in the inspectorate are retired police officers, police who are on detachment from the own force to gain career development experience or provide some specific skill for a special job or, worst of all, people who got themselves into a bit of a mess in their police job and they have been shunted off to the Inspectorate as an easier way of handling them than any other that is available.

All the instincts of the HMIC will be to get a nice tidy report together, after a very long enquiry, that will be just about good enough to avoid criticism and boring enough to put the nasty matter to bed with as few casualties as possible. Apart from the fact that they are police who will instinctively try to look after their own, the people at the HMIC lack any motivation at all. They are, with only one or two exceptions, either at the end of their careers due to age and they are looking forward to a very comfortable retirement or their career has stalled anyway.

To get to the bottom of police/press corruption it will be necessary to set up a judicial enquiry with the power to subpoena witnesses and require them to answer questions under oath. Under our present system, it will be necessary for such an enquiry to be headed by a judge, but it is essential that the judge takes advice from people with extensive experience of policing and journalism, but without connections current to the police service or the UK media. Much though it would go against the grain, the best way of doing this would be to buy in expertise from the USA, Canada, Australia or Europe.

It is slowly dawning on many people that matters have now gone way beyond hacking of celebrity phones. Some of the rot at the heart of our society is starting to be exposed. To avoid a major constitutional crisis which threatens the stability of government at a time when our economy is on its knees, there must be serious action to root out the disease and apply a radical cure.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Thoughts on two of the MOD’s contentious rules of engagement in Afghanistan

Fighting a war against an adequately mobile and frequently invisible insurgent force must be immensely frustrating for any regular soldier. You are constantly being harassed when at your most vulnerable, perhaps when only a couple of you are on sentry duty. You may find yourself exposed to sniper fire or a roadside bomb on a routine supply drop, or you might even tell yourself that the bearded goat herder-cum-insurgent who attacked your company last week has now shaved it off and is posing as a trader in the local bazaar. The enemy is clever and knows that they cannot possibly win a pitched battle, but hope that their attritional strategy of wearing you down by picking off your soldiers in grisly ambushes and crude bombings will weaken your morale and, eventually, your resolve to fight.

Furthermore, the neighbouring sovereign territory of your ally is being used as a porous border for thousands of enemy combatants to come and go as they please, where they can find sanctuary and an operational base to plan future attacks. You thank your lucky stars that your military has the monopoly of the skies and superior intelligence gathering and, if needed, missiles to strike at discrete enemy troop formations behind enemy lines. And then there is the civilian population to try and win over. They are war weary, unused to anything but internecine strife and bitter civil war, and their hostility towards foreigners has been exacerbated by two external military occupations in the last thirty years. Sometimes unable to subsist from day to day, and constantly in danger of having their property destroyed, a family member killed, or their children forcibly conscripted into the resistance, these people will willingly back the side that can guarantee a modicum of security and bring back even a semblance of law and order. Noble aims to provide these people with electricity generators, steel bridges, shiny new schools and hospitals now look like a distant utopia, and public support back home is on the wane. Will the enemy have to be included in a negotiated political settlement, or can the recently created state institutions hold together and contain the insurgency?

These types of considerations must be at the back of every soldiers’ mind as they contemplate the future in Afghanistan; but a couple of recent revelations about the rules of engagement in this theatre will only add to their concerns, for the MOD seem to have tied one hand behinds their backs just as the summer fighting season gets underway.

First we learn in The Sunday Times on 19 June that a British Special Forces soldier is due to be hauled before a Military Tribunal for punching a Taliban combatant in the face, after the latter had just ambushed his company and was trying to flee in a customary hit and run assault. The soldier has resigned in disgust at the prospect of getting a court martial for engaging in hand-to-hand combat – something he is surely expected to do now and then when he comes face-to-face with the enemy. Secondly, it has now also come to light in the recent inquest into the death of Sgt Peter Raynor that it is MOD policy not to shoot insurgents planting roadside bombs because (a) they are not considered an immediate threat and (b) it could endanger civilian lives. Instead soldiers are instructed to observe the position of the bomb and can only fire if the insurgent refuses to surrender (see The Daily Telegraph, 8 July 2011). Gone is the element of surprise that is crucial in combat and gone, so it seems, is a vital opportunity to reduce the number of British casualties in Afghanistan.

But without knowing the full facts of the first case one can still guess why a British serviceman has been ignominiously placed in such an absurd position and why, in the second case, soldiers are being ordered by their superiors to refrain from firing on enemy combatants planting IEDs. The question is where do we draw the line between common sense and dispassionately enforcing legally binding rules of engagement.

The attempts to regulate the rules of war on land and sea have been a noble aim of European nations since the nineteenth century, starting with the 1864 Geneva Convention, where the International Committee of the Red Cross, appalled at the carnage of the Franco-Austrian War of 1859, successfully lobbied fourteen European nations (Britain not being one of the signatories) to convene a conference to agree upon an international agreement for the rules of war concerning ‘the amelioration of the condition of the wounded on the field of battle.’ However, no attempt was made to regulate the conduct of soldiers on the battlefield until the First Hague Convention of 1899. By this time the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 had raised some awkward questions about who should be considered a combatant and who should be dealt with outside this definition, not least because of the partially successful resistance of the Francs-tireurs. This irregular, plain-clothed militia continued to fight on against the occupying German army throughout 1871 even though Napoleon III had abdicated and the French regular army had been put out of action at Sedan a year before. Their harassment strategy of blowing up bridges, derailing trains and ambushing the occupying garrisons perplexed the victorious Prussian army, and the Francs-tireurs were subsequently treated as highwaymen, saboteurs and spies, rather than as regular soldiers. Consequently, village mayors and other prominent people were taken as hostages on military trains to prevent attacks on supply lines; whole villages were ‘pacified’ with collective punishment in response to attacks on German soldiers; and many suspected irregulars were executed without trial.

Article 50, Section 11 of the 1899 Hague Convention tried to address the dilemmas generated by the novel Francs-tireurs resistance and clearly anticipated that guerrilla war would need to be brought within the orbit of international law. No longer could collective punishment be used as a reprisal for the acts of individual saboteurs and Article 2, Chapter 1 granted legitimacy to those who took up arms spontaneously against an invading force so long as they respected the laws and customs of war. However, the bitter experiences of the British Empire armies in the Boer War of 1899-1902 showed that irregulars could wreak havoc on an occupying army through various subterfuges of civilian disguise, espionage and abusing the white flag of surrender. The Second Hague Convention of 1907 subsequently altered Article 2 so that irregular belligerents not only had to follow the laws and customs of war, but also had to carry arms openly. Many an officer breathed a sigh of relief after this, knowing that it could place tens of thousands of enemy fighters outside of military law in the event of war.

The horrors of World War One in which more than 8.2 million mobilised soldiers lost their lives between 1914 and 1918 understandably led to more moves to regulate war, indeed the 1928 Kellog-Briand Pact even sought to outlaw war as a means of settling disputes between nations states. But the Great War had also left a legacy of poison gas, tanks, flame-throwers, fighter planes and racial hatred. The rise of Nazism and Hitler’s widespread belief that nations were like belligerent animals locked in a fight to the death for the privilege of existence lent a novel exterminatory impulse to warfare that had not been seen in Europe since the Roman Emperor Trajan destroyed Dacia (modern Romania) in 106AD.

Carl von Clausewitz, the much-revered nineteenth-century Prussian war theorist who believed war to be a continuation of politics by other means, continued to cast a shadow over the interwar years, and his assertion on page 6 of On War that ‘to introduce into the philosophy of war itself a principle of moderation would be an absurdity’ was certainly born out in Hitler’s instructions to Albert Forster and Arthur Greiser to Germanise Poland by whatever means necessary, with no questions asked. This was the type of warfare that could be described as a race to the bottom in which the more morally scrupulous adversary would eventually be defeated. The consequences were horrendous and rightly shook the entire western world into placing human rights at the cornerstone of their civilisations.

Clausewitz famously warned that ‘in such dangerous things as war, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst (p.6).’ But the post-WW2 age has seen an unprecedented attempt by the world’s liberal democracies to place benevolence, magnanimity and moderation above all other considerations in the conduct of modern war. The United Nations and the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 have gone to great lengths to legally protect civilian persons in time of war, but this grandiose achievement has masked the real anxieties beneath the rhetoric – the pace of scientific innovation has far outstripped our notions of morality, to the extent that the latter can hardly keep up with the changing dynamics of war.

Britain’s most famous war theorist Basil Liddell-Hart was partially right to proclaim that the invention of the atomic bomb changed the nature of war irrevocably. In his view, scientists would ultimately win future wars between powerful states, thus rendering war as a means of measuring racial strength redundant as a concept. Battles would no longer be dependent on the number of bayonets in the field, but by the best concentration of intellectual minds available. The Stuxnet virus used to infect Iran’s uranium enrichment plants last year, presumably coded by either the Pentagon or Mossad, is only the most recent example of how fixed notions of morality are constantly being upended by unforeseen developments. Are the ingenious minds behind the execution of Stuxnet to be classed as combatants responsible for causing mass damage to a nation’s infrastructure without an official declaration of war? Or are the Generals issuing the orders to be liable? The response from Iran suggests that it is tacitly acceptable as a means of prosecuting war, for there have been few threats to retaliate or to report the suspected agency behind it for destruction of property.

All of this is even more prescient with regards to Afghanistan and the war against the Taliban, for this savage organisation is about as far removed from the post-war scientific era of war envisaged by Liddell-Hart as one can imagine. Their brief rule between 1996 and 2001 was arguably the most extreme attempt at ruling an internationally recognised sovereign nation-state (albeit a multi-ethnic, fractured one despoiled by continuous war from 1979 to 1994) in the last three hundred years. Women were reduced to the status of chattel, without any political rights, denied any form of education, barred from the workplace, and forbidden from leaving the house unless accompanied by a male relative. The consequences of this bizarre fixation with micromanaging the daily lives of the entire female population were lethal. Women could only see a male doctor if fully clothed (useless for a lot of diagnosis) and the employment restrictions meant that only an infinitesimal number of female doctors and surgeons were allowed to operate all-women clinics. If this was not bad enough, any woman brave enough to travel alone without a male relative could expect to be severely reprimanded, possibly shot, even if she found herself nursing a feverish child desperately in need of immediate medical attention down the road. Those women who had survived their male relatives during twenty years of conflict in which tens of thousands of men died were practically non-people; they had no means of leaving the house unless they married into another family and aligned themselves to the males of their new kin.

Freedom of assembly, freedom of employment, freedom of religion – all these were ruthlessly suppressed under Mullah Omar and his underlings, as the Shiite Hazara population in the north of the country found out when conquered by the expansionist Pushtun Taliban in August 1998. Avenging a military defeat to the Hazaras in May 1997 in which 600 Taliban soldiers were killed and over 1,000 taken prisoner, the Taliban’s response a year later was predictably furious and remorselessly savage. Anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 men, women and children are estimated to have died in a two-day orgy of genocidal ferocity in which the dead were left to rot in the streets for six days. Naturally, the Shiite heretics were not entitled to a burial under Islamic custom because they were no better than infidels to the Deobandi-Islamist Taliban. Neutral charities like the Red Cross, concerned solely with providing succour to the victims of Taliban brutality, were also regularly attacked in what is only one of many grave violations of the internationally recognised customs of war to which the Pushtun Jihadists have never given any continence.

Three years later in March 2001 the magnificent Buddhas of Bamiyan statues ingeniously carved into the valley cliffs of Hazarajat in the sixth century were dynamited on the orders of Mullah Omar. A more flagrant act of cultural terrorism has probably not been seen since the Christian Roman General Stilicho destroyed the Sibylline Books of ancient Rome in 405AD. Yet the Taliban curiously attempted something that was at odds with their anti-modern weltanschauung – they tried to create a more centralised state by eliminating the power of village elders and subjugating the various warlords who had run their own feudal provinces since the exit of the Soviet Union in 1989. Intellectual opinion is still divided as to whether the Taliban was at this time an ethnic nationalist movement, but in theory Islam permits no such factionalism, for the (alleged) Prophet Mohammed ordered that the whole world be brought under the Dar al Islam, with no exceptions made for race, tribe or kin.

Clearly, the Taliban regime of the 1990s would have been identified as spectacularly barbaric in the age of Charlemagne, never mind at the beginning of the twentieth century when the Heads of State of the various Christian superpowers signed up to the Hague Convention. The international rules of engagement for fighting an irregular militia or guerrilla army are still ambivalent, but the protection of civilians remains paramount. Presumably there are two reasons why the two cases mentioned at the beginning of this blog have come about.

  1. Because the ambivalence of international law on fighting irregular insurgents has created the need for the British Army, like all national military institutions, to create its own rules of engagement in addition to the regulations laid down in Geneva and Hague.
  2. The MOD’s counter-insurgency strategy to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population takes, as its priority, the protection of civilians rather than the killing of enemy combatants.

Article 23, Section 11 of the 1899 Hague Convention states that ‘It is especially prohibited… to kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion.’ However, as Dave Grossman pointed out in his excellent study On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995) this regulation is open to a wide margin of interpretation. A lone sniper devoid of any support, his comrades having been killed off, has plenty of opportunities to surrender and lay down arms to an advancing platoon of soldiers. But he cannot abuse his right to surrender unharmed if he only pleads for mercy after completely exhausting the last of his ammunition supply. By this time he and his dead comrades might have killed 20 people in the opposing platoon, despite being surrounded, and having numerous assurances that they would be guaranteed safe conduct by laying down their arms. It would be dishonourable and indeed insulting if he, the last lone survivor, offered to surrender only at the last moment before the bayonets were on to him. This is a case of ‘Sorry, mate, but you had your chance to wave the white flag long ago and you can’t have your cake and eat it.’

Likewise, any soldier caught during both world wars with a flame-thrower could expect no quarter to be given because of the gruesome method of killing he had used on his opponents. Presumably no body has ever been prosecuted for killing a surrendering feurwerfer because a defence under international law can easily be produced in Article 22, Section 11 of the 1899 Hague Convention where it stipulates that ‘The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited.’ This says to me that the unfortunate Special Forces soldier subjected to a court martial is not the victim of international law; even worse, the grounds for his prosecution lay in the rules of engagement of his own army. The notion of military honour between soldiers, that unspoken code of conduct that can be found in most theatres of war between adversaries, has not been taken into account by an MOD overzealous in its caution. I strongly doubt that the Taliban fighter instigated a complaint against his opponent and I am reasonably confident in predicting that he probably accepted the punch as a legitimate action in response to him attacking the British soldier.

Instead, a witness to the fracas has probably brought a complaint against a British officer because he was either present or heard about the incident later. The ultimate tragedy in this is that the British rulebook probably does not anticipate such a complaint, but cannot remain obviously impervious to one when it is brought before a Military Tribunal for consideration. The pedantic idiocy of a British soldier concerned with the rules of war, momentarily ignorant to military honour and the time-honoured unspoken rules of combat between adversaries, is probably the real villain in this case and not the clumsy attempts of the MOD to further define the rules of close combat. Either way, a member of the Special Forces feel rightly victimised for something so trivial, and the temptation is to see the ‘grass’ as an alarming symptom of our politically-correct, morally-relativist, multi-cultural society which no body seems to like but which continues to splutter along in the name of higher morality and progress.

With regard to the MOD’s instructions to soldiers to refrain from shooting at Taliban fighters caught planting IEDS, there is nothing in international law that would make it illegal. Any insurgent observed burying various components of a home-made fertiliser bomb is presumably identifiable as a belligerent under Article 2 of the 1907 Hague Convention for carrying arms openly. If anything, he could be treated as outside of the law because he fights for an organisation that has never at any point observed the laws and customs of war. Let us not forget that the Taliban post-2002 have brought warfare to a new moral low point not seen since the Nazi occupation of Eastern Europe. Trying to govern a shadow administration in the south they have retained their customary enthusiasm for terrorising villages, even going as far as beheading Abdul Habib, of the Sheikh Mathi Baba School in Zabul province in January 2006. His crime was continuing to teach girls despite being warned of his immoral conduct on a number of occasions. (See NY Times, 4 January 2006.)

The IEDs that now litter the barren lands of Afghanistan may be occasionally successful in killing NATO soldiers; but they are far more effective in killing Afghan civilians, for the Taliban killed a total of 1,859 civilians in 2010, up 132% on 2009. (See for a full rundown of independently verified statistics.) Revelations from June 10 2010 in a Daily Mail report that Taliban bomb operatives sometimes bury contaminated needles beneath their bombs to infect British disposal experts with HIV are almost as inhumane as the recent images of Uyghur Children as young as five being trained for suicide attacks on NATO soldiers from a base in North Waziristan (see The Daily Mirror, 10 July 2011). Yet despite this, the rules of engagement do not need to be abandoned for the anything-goes strategy of eliminating the enemy, and it would be barbaric and counter-productive if they did.

Mao Ze Dong may be remembered in the west for reunifying China, imposing communism on the country and leaving more than 10 million of his fellow comrades dead through starvation and forced collectivisation of agriculture, but he also wrote a masterful account of how to prosecute guerrilla war efficaciously. One of his key strategies was never to torture captured soldiers, for it would be less likely to induce the enemy to surrender or defect. This is quite a remarkable sentiment considering that the Japanese inflicted unspeakable atrocities on Chinese soldiers and civilians during the Second World War. It would be disastrous for British counter-insurgency policy if British soldiers were allowed to let their emotions and moral repugnance at the treacherous behaviour of their opponents dictate their conduct in battle, yet allowing the soldiers to do their job properly by killing enemy bomb operatives is hardly likely to lose the goodwill of innocent civilians.

I doubt whether this would even be an issue if the Taliban had not cleverly resorted to paying farmers to dig holes for their explosive devices. It is also customary for some Pushtuns to dig holes at the side of riverbanks to store meat because of a lack of refrigeration. The death of a helpless peasant is a propaganda victory for the Taliban and the British rules of engagement are right to insist that, if unsure, soldiers should approach the suspect to establish that he is only digging a hole and not planting a bomb. However, the confusion lies in what to do when an enemy fighter is observed 100 yards away burying an IED. Quite why this confusion exists is ridiculous. It is legal under international law and it is common sense to eliminate an armed adversary if no civilians are endangered.

My guess is that in the majority of cases the British soldier will fire once he has definitely established that the combatant in the line of fire is laying down an IED and is not a helpless peasant coerced into digging a hole. This is not immoral, nor should he expect to be punished for killing a man without prior warning who seeks to attack his fellow soldiers. Furthermore, there is a higher chance that the IED will kill civilians rather than combatants, as the statistics for 2010, quoted earlier in this blog, make perfectly clear. And what is the coerced farmer to make of things if he is allowed to dig holes for Taliban bombs, simply because he was forced into doing it? He is highly unlikely to think about resisting the Taliban in the future if he knows that his actions will go unpunished. He may even find it more convenient to offer his allegiance to the Taliban knowing that they are more likely to provide him with the security he craves, but which the secular state builders occupying his country cannot guarantee.

Including the Neanderthal Taliban in a political settlement is going to be near impossible, but it is important that we do not make our soldiers expendable now that the politics have taken over and an exit strategy appears on the horizon. There is nothing to suggest that prosecuting British soldiers for fighting hand-to-hand with enemy fighters will become more frequent in the future, and the case examined here seems to be the result of a misguided compliant, perhaps even brought by a soldier with a personal axe to grind against a rival. We can only hope that the spirit of military honour and common sense persists in situations where those caught red-handed planting bombs are to be confronted, even if that includes ignoring a contentious rule of engagement and shooting the adversary without warning. Perhaps the officers will not see it as mendacity, but as a correction to an absurd regulation. If so, it raises the classic moral dilemma: is it ever acceptable to cover up the truth?

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Are We All War Criminals?

Following our current intervention in Libya, a polarised argument has developed between those who favour intervention by the major powers in local and intra-state conflicts and those who argue that the consequences of such interventions are rarely beneficial.

One of the examples of a successful intervention frequently posited by those on the first side of the argument is the UN intervention in the Balkans. However a couple of developments in the last week have refocussed attention on what has become a somewhat tarnished narrative. Firstly, there was the beginning of the war crimes trial of Ratko Mladlic and this was then followed by the decision of a Dutch court that their own state was responsible for the deaths of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.

The UN tactics in Bosnia were to intervene with as light a touch as possible and when the Bosnian Muslims began to flee the onslaught of the Serb army, the appalling initial humanitarian response of the neighbouring EU Countries was…… to close their borders. At the time Sadako Ogata, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, pointed out to them that “if you take these people, you are an accomplice to ethnic cleansing. If you don’t, you are an accomplice to murder”.

The “solution” to this conundrum was to establish six “safe havens” within Bosnia- areas in which the UN guaranteed the Muslims would be secure. A few troops with blue helmets were put on the ground and the hope was that the Serbian army would decide that there was no need to pick a fight with the UN, who had superior air power, and would pass by the enclaves.

That hope was dashed in Srebrenica.

The Commander of UN troops, General Bernard Janvier had been openly hostile to the enclaves policy and there is strong suspicion that he personally decided to allow Srebrenica to be overrun in order to make his case. He repeatedly denied requests from the Dutchbat commander Thom Karremens for air strikes against the advancing Serb forces. Unbelievably, on one occasion, the request was denied because it had been submitted on the “wrong form”. When the Serbs arrived in Srebrenica around 15,000 Bosnian Muslims fled through the mountains but many stayed, assured by the UN statements that they were safe, and more than 20,000 refugees fled to the main Dutch base at Potocari.

When Mladic arrived at Potocari he was accompanied by Serb camera crews. He summoned Colonel Karremans to a meeting at which he delivered an ultimatum that the Muslims must hand over their weapons to guarantee their lives. The Dutch peacekeepers were subsequently ordered to hand over all the Potocari refugees and the beatings began even before they had all cleared the compound. In return, the Serbs released fourteen UN troops they had previously taken hostage and Mladic sent leaving gifts to Karremans. The women and children were bussed to Muslim territory and the killings of all males over twelve years of age began.

Mladic is clearly a criminal but he is now joined in the dock by the Dutch state and there is an argument that the United Nations, itself, should be there too. Because the massacre at Srebrenica was both the foreseeable consequence of a mass of geo-political factors and a demonstration of cowardly and unprincipled behaviour by the individuals involved.

So my point is that the Balkan conflict was not, as has been alleged, a great advertisement for interventionism and the notion that there is a moral high ground to justify such action is disingenuous. Like individuals, nation states tend to act in their own economic and security interests, so let's be honest with ourselves,- Mladic is only in the Hague because Serbia wants to join the EU and we are currently bombing Libya for our own purposes.

And the dead of Srebrenica should continue to haunt the consciences of us all.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Wirral First

Although libertarians are instinctively distrustful of any organisation seeking to make decisions that will affect their lives, it is obvious to most that all kinds of communal decisions do need to be made and the authority to make them has to be invested in someone. What is important is that decision making should happen at the lowest possible level and most of the worst decisions occur because they are made in the wrong place.

A decision at EU level as to what shape of bananas my be sold is clearly ridiculous as is a Parish Council voting to free the citizens of Gaza. But how do we determine the correct place for each type of decision?

Well, this is currently decided by the Government of each nation state. They may delegate some of these decision making powers upwards, to supra-national institutions, or downwards, to local government, but the authority as to where decisions are made ultimately rests with them. The national government has control of the means of violence within its borders.

I have argued elsewhere that we can never hope to have a UK government that is libertarian but one of the ways in which I believe libertarianism can progress is to understand that fact and work for change from below. It is much easier, for example, to influence a local council and it's policies than it is to effect national change. And in the UK there have recently been examples of Local Authorities who have proposed the complete dismantlement of the local Council bureaucracy and the outsourcing of all services.

Highly libertarian.

Of course the impact of such on our individual freedom can only ever be limited- the real power remains with Westminster who can tax and threaten us with impunity.

Except that......

their mandate to govern is notionally based on democracy- they have the right to oppress us because we voted for them to do so.

And this apparent strength may also be their weakness. Because, when the recent SNP successes suggested the possibility that the majority of Scots might wish to govern themselves, the UK government had to agree that, if that happened, they would be allowed to do so.

So what would happen if the majority of citizens in another location demanded to be able to govern themselves? Would the stated belief in the infallibility of democracy not dictate that they should be also be allowed to do so?

But how could this ever happen? Why would people ever vote to leave the relative safety of the UK state? There are, after all, many more statists than libertarians.

There is a simple answer to the above. It could happen if the voters in a region could be shown, clearly and unequivocally, that to vote to secede from the UK was indisputably and massively in their personal economic interest.

And it would be.

The rest of the story is at

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Supporting a Libertarian Candidate

I took a day off work yesterday, but I resisted the temptation to stay in bed. Instead, I got in my car and drove down to Uttoxeter, to help Gavin Webb in his campaign to be elected to the town council. Gavin is one of the best people I've met since I joined the Libertarian Party. He used to be a Lib Dem councillor in Stoke on Trent, but was always very open about his libertarian principles, and extremely good at getting into the local press. He eventually defected to us, becoming the Libertarian Party's first councillor. His seat in Stoke was abolished by boundary changes earlier next year, but when a by-election was called in his home town of Uttoxeter, he decided to stand. Because of the internal problems that the Libertarian Party is having at the moment, he was unable to stand as an official LP candidate, so he's describing himself as "The candidate with libertarian principles". That's good enough for me, a lib's a lib as far as I'm concerned, whatever flag they fly under - and by adopting the word "libertarian" in his description, he's brought the basic concept to the attention of local residents.

And this is the kind of activity that libertarians need to support. Some libs take the attitude that if you ignore the state it will go away - it won't. We'll always have governments, or at least for the forseeable future. Should we let them be dominated by statists who don't see any limit to a government's legitimate powers? I don't think so. We need libertarians in positions of authority so they can moderate the state - keep it as much as possible to its legitimate functions (basically protecting people from aggression) and away from poking its nose into our private business.

So when I found out that Gavin was standing, I didn't hesitate to volunteer. I donated a bit of money to his campaign - not much, but what I could afford - and managed to get down to Uttoxeter yesterday to help him with leafletting for a few hours. This was hard graft, especially as the weather was hot for a while, but I'm glad I did it. We delivered a good few hundred leaflets between us, and it felt good to be doing something practical for a change, instead of sitting at a computer keyboard moaning about the state of the world. This kind of real world activity is one of the things that's needed to gain some traction for libertarianism.

What are Gavin's chances of getting a decent result? I don't know, though Gavin seems optimistic. Even if he doesn't get elected he's brought libertarianism to the attention of thousands of people - that in itself is a victory. Polling day's tomorrow (Thursday) so we won't have long to wait to see how he's done. In the meantime, if you'd like to support Gavin, why don't you go along to his website and make a donation via Paypal? He's mostly financed his campaign himself, so I'm sure he'd appreciate whatever you can donate. If you really believe in libertarianism, show some solidarity for a man who's shown more than willing to get up off his backside to promote it in the real world.

Orient for a Fiver - the Greatest Sports Documentary of All Time

The football documentary as a genre possesses the hit and miss record that one could also attribute to the autobiographies of players. Many such tombs fall down as works of literature because they fail to offer any insight beyond the already known results of important matches besides the predictable foray into clichedom, "we won the semi-final 1-0. I scored with a diving header in extra time - we were on our way to Wembley and the gaffer was over the moon". Nauseatingly tiresome stuff...

The most compelling football stories are invariably those which transcend mere sporting fortunes and paint a deeper picture of their protagonists. Easily my favourite football book of all time, 'Back from the Brink', the autobiography of Paul McGrath, creates a captivating juxtaposition between the man's alcoholism, coupled with his inner fragility and the player's imperious performances at the centre of defence for Aston Villa and the Republic of Ireland. It is these forays into often dark territory which clearly separate it from the standard player-fodder that is frequently churned out just in time for Christmas. The dynamism given to the character that is McGrath in his own book is the principal reason for which 'Back from the Brink' is as compelling a read as it is even to those not especially fond of the sport itself.

In the same way, 1995's 'Orient - club for a Fiver' (first screened by Channel Four) is so much more than a football documentary, although this may owe itself more to fault than design. While there is detail of the O's traumatic and disastrous 1994/95 league campaign and occasional snapshots of the Division Two table, the main plot of the story if you will is that of a man's gradual and incremental slide from passionate and committed former player turned manager, through frustrated coach, onto threatening seargant major, and finally into the realms of outright insanity. John Sitton never worked in professional football again after this programme, and subsequently complained that the footage of his team talks had been carefully edited to show only the worst (or best) moments of his joint spell in the dugout with Chris Turner. There is likely to be some truth in this, but I fail to see how some of the material here could not have made the cut - I've attached the link to part one at the bottom and you'll be able to follow it from there.

Ok - the boring bit for any non-football follower. Between October 1993 and September 1995, Leyton Orient failed to win a single league game away from their Brisbane Road ground. In the 1994/95 season in which Sitton and Turner were at the helm, the O's record on their travels was a mightily consistent P23 W0 D2 L21. Were it not for a reasonable start to the campaign on their own patch, they would no doubt have collected even less than the pretty pathetic 26 points which were amassed through the 46 game season. With chairman Tony Wood's business interests ravaged by the Rwandan civil war, players were sold, the club slid further into debt and their very existence appeared to be in jeopardy until current owner Barry Hearn stepped in, by which point the on-field battle had already been lost.

It was a season which began badly and got gradually worse, partly due to distractions beyond the control of players and staff, but also no doubt as a result of Sitton's 'inspirational' and unique line in personal motivation. Under their arrangement, which has rarely if ever truly worked in an environment where the accountability of 'the gaffer' is everything, both men had the opportunity to address their charges before the game, at half-time, and then once the destiny of the points had been decided. The presence of Turner, undeniably the 'good cop' in the relationship but by no means a pussycat himself, only serves to magnify the extent to which his colleague approaches and then hovers over the abyss, eventually plunging beyond the point of no return.

Sitton starts the campaign solidly enough, although it is quite clear at an early stage that he is not the type to to take prisoners or gladly suffer the presence of anyone he believes to be taking him for a ride. After one of Orient's rare successes, a 1-3 victory at non-league Tiverton in the FA Cup, he describes the efforts of his players as "naive" and warns defender Terry Howard that "you're going a long way towards playing your way out of this side...that is not good enough". Here, he makes his first crucial mistake by opening another outburst with the words, "if you think you can mess with my fuckin' career", displaying a lack of awareness of the growth of 'player power' and in all likelihood losing many of his personnel as a consequence. Subsequent results would suggest that this was indeed the case.

It is in a match at Brentford where the first signs emerge that marbles are being lost. After Turner's positive pre-match rally (to which Sitton said he could offer no more), an altogether different atmosphere awaited a group of players who found themselves 3-0 down at half time. While his co-manager delivers a forthright critique of the first 45 minutes, Sitton's pre-meditated rant divulges sensitive information such as players' salaries and then wanders off into fantasy island as he announces that prospective buyer of the club, Phil Wallace, "wants players on 250 quid a week...he wants a wage bill of five grand a week". Quite how he would know the intentions of a man who had not yet decided to make a bid (and ultimately didn't) is beyond anyone who thinks about his 'team talk' for more than a second, and they sound more like the desparate words of a manager who knows deep down that he has 'lost the dressing room'.

And things somehow get significantly worse - after coming in a goal down during a February match at home to Blackpool (managed by a rookie coach named Sam Allardyce), the same players get a clear instruction from Turner to "pull your socks up...they're gonna beat us". Now it's Sitton's time to shine - he sacks fans' favourite Howard for a lacklustre performance that he describes as "the fuckin' straw that broke the camel's back...that will not be tolerated in this dressing room". This is worth repeating - not substituted, dropped or even transfer listed, but given a fortnight's notice - at half time. Not content with firing one player, he then challenges two more to a fight (yes a fight) there and then:-

"So you, you little cunt, when I tell you to do something - and you, you fuckin' big cunt - when I tell you to do something, do it. And if you come back at me we can have a right sort out in here, all right? And yer can pair up if yer like, and you can fuckin' pick someone to help yer, and yer can bring yer dinner n' all. Cos by the time I've finished with yer, you'll fuckin' need it. Do you fuckin' hear what I'm saying or not? (pointing to Howard) - you, see me in the morning".

The impression one gets is that were you to get involved in such an altercation with Sitton, most meals in the weeks that followed could only be eaten with the aid of a straw. This was a team talk in which he also referred to Orient supporters as "a bunch of fuckin' cockroaches" and then the club's board of directors as "the fuckin' circus upstairs". To the viewer, this can be regarded as the point at which he lost whatever remained of his sanity, at least in his dealings with the players he would then ask to run through brick walls on the field of play. Orient won only two of their last 31 league fixtures in that season, so it is safe to suggest that these attempts to fire up his team during matches had at best no effect at all, and quite probably a highly counter-productive one.

Yet despite all this, I walked away with the firmly held view that John Sitton is by no means a bad guy. Yes, he may have lost control with what he later described as "a bunch of overpaid under-achievers", while also bullying, threatening and abusing them to the point where they appeared visibly terrified in his presence - little wonder in those circumstances that they found themselves unable to perform where it mattered. However, this was clearly a man who had three significant loves in his life - his family, of whom he keeps a photograph on his desk, and provides a touching moment when his son enters the dressing room before a training session, the game of football itself, from which he had made a living by "not giving up" and Leyton Orient FC in particular. Sitton had served the club with distinction in over 200 appearances between 1985 and 1991, as a committed and motivated defender who made the most of (by his own admission) limited natural ability.

All things Brisbane Road were a massive part of his life, and so it must have been soul-destroying to see the O's spiralling into further debt, on-field embarrassment and slowly towards utter extinction. When Barry Hearn arrives after Wallace's on-off takeover, this appears to be the death knell for Sitton and Turner's time in the dugout, though I had to keep reminding myself that they were supposed to be, at least on paper, a partnership of equals. Throughout the programme the impression grows that in reality they are manager and sidekick, with Turner himself not appearing too keen to incur the wrath of his boss. Yet away from the dressing room, Sitton is an amiable enough man, reflecting after his sacking, "you start off with the best of intentions, of being a good human being...the game has got this uncanny knack of making you very cynical".

It is that game at Brentford, where the first cracks started to show, that perhaps provided the greatest insight into the source of his sense of angst as he screamed, "I wanna be out there - I wanna say, "I'll take care of you", immediately after delivering a damning verdict on the breed that is the modern footballer, "there are no fucking players anymore". Here he was, watching his side struggle on a weekly basis and plummeting towards the trapdoor both on and off the field, while finding himself powerless to do anything about it. Determined to do whatever he could to help save a club he loved, he found that those charged with carrying out his plan for points were either failing to absorb or ignoring his instructions, or simply did not care about the cause as much as he did. Reading at the end of the documentary that Sitton had been banned from the club may have made sense given some of his comments, but it must have struck like a stake through the heart of the man himself.

While Turner continued in professional football, with his most high-profile role an unsuccessful stint at Sheffield Wednesday in the previous decade, Sitton coached non-league Enfield and Leyton FC, while also working for a period as a black cab driver. There is a Facebook campaign to get him a job in the Football League again, and I appreciate that there are some who will have no problem at all with his telling of a few 'home truths' to a bunch of 'prima donnas'. I would of course ask if you would tolerate being addressed this way in your place of work, and it might also be worth adding that Sitton's league record of W6 D8 L29 was, to put it mildly, dreadful. It is clear from the outset here that he cared deeply about the fortunes of Leyton Orient - perhaps the subsequent losses of control over his environment and then himself were signs of a man who loved something too much?

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Political Thought of Francis Fukuyama, Part III: Why the foundations of modern democracy were created in Anglo-Saxon England

In my last blog I examined why China had never developed a rule of law that could constrain its leaders so that those wielding executive power were not above it. As a result of the Qin Dynasty’s ambitious attempts to create the first centralised governing state in 221BC, no rival political institution could consistently hold the Emperor to account. The competing ideologies of Confucianism (more of a philosophy than a religion) and Legalism (making it easier for China’s rulers to govern in their own interests) held sway depending on who was in power over the next twenty two centuries, but at no point was an autonomous feudal nobility able to successfully extinguish central authority and govern through a small blood-related elite until the Warlord era, c.1916-1928. The political evolution of England is a far cry from the Sinic world and Fukuyama endeavours to explain in The Origins of Political Order why it is that this former Roman colony conquered by German barbarians in the fifth century AD would eventually become the epicentre of liberty and lay the foundations for modern democracy. But what was unique about England?

Fukuyama makes it quite clear that England by the time of the 1688 Glorious Revolution had in place three features that would come to define modern democracy.

1) Political accountability

2) The rule of law

3) A strong and efficient central state

No other country in the world or, indeed, in history, before 1688 could ever claim to have all three of these attributes, and England differed from her Christian European neighbours in important ways. To assess England’s special path we should look at England’s Anglo-Saxon heyday beginning with the issue of political accountability. However, I should point out here that I use my own definition of political accountability, meaning that those who hold executive power over subordinate people and political institutions must be subject to some form of constraint that can prevent them riding roughshod over the rights of others. This does not have to be formally enshrined in law, but can exist in an unwritten constitutional convention that political actors recognise as inviolable.

Of course there was no written constitution or a bill of rights in Anglo-Saxon England, but the highly developed social hierarchy of the ninth century was capable of holding the King to account and could also restrain the potential tyranny of provincial Lords in the distant parts of the country. One reason for this was undoubtedly the unique system of local government that existed in Anglo-Saxon England, whereby the country was divided up into Shires in the era preceding the reign of Alfred the Great (871-899). Under this system, the King appointed his own agent, the Ealdorman (from which we get the word Alderman), to oversee justice in each Shire, and was ably assisted by a Shire Reeve (from which we get the word Sheriff). The latter conveniently answered directly to the monarch and eventually took over the day-to-day political functions of the office while remaining a social inferior to the Ealdorman. Anglo-Saxon Kings were all too aware that there would need to be a fine balance between successfully delegating plenary authority to Earls - as was needed in any expansionary and centralising polity - whilst preventing them from becoming too powerful in their own right. As we shall see later on, this proved to be crucial when the Barons forced King John into signing the Magna Carta in 1215.

More importantly, the Shires were further sub-divided into Hundred courts (or folk moots) where peasants acquainted with the law of the land would meet every four weeks in the open air to keep the peace, pronounce judgement on local tax adjustments, and settle local pleas. The court was presided over by the Shire Reeve, but he could only guide and not control the peasant judges, making it impossible for local magnates to use executive power to their own advantage at the expense of their social inferiors. Fukuyama is right to point out that in no other European country did the peasants and their Lords sit together in court as equals. As a further check on the potential tyranny of powerful Nobles, the gentry and peasantry could also make an appeal to the King’s court against a sentence that appeared unjust. This helped the King to centralise his power more firmly and keep his Nobility in line.

As we can see, the King could make common cause with other power groups against the Nobility, and England also had a substantial burgher class of merchants (known as the burgesses), mainly comprised of Ceorls (free peasants). Adam Smith famously points out on pages 507/8 in The Wealth of Nations that the nobility of the countryside always felt threatened by the merchant class of the towns because they formed their own magistrate courts and collected their own taxes. The last two chapters of Book III go on to give an excellent account of how liberty gradually evolved amongst the people of England after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and it is no surprise that Fukuyama, himself, has used Smith to vindicate his theory.

However, it is not entirely true to say that the King and his burgesses formed an alliance of convenience to deliberately antagonise the rural feudal barons. For a start there was little uniformity in the organisation of an English burh (from which the word borough derives) and it is probable that not all of them had their own separate burhgemot (borough court), despite an ambiguously worded law of King Edgar (reign c.959-975) that the county courts should meet twice a year and the burhgemot three times. It is correct to extrapolate from the sources that the burgesses were dependent on the King and paid him a land rent for the tenements he granted them for trading purposes. All of the burhs created in Alfred’s time were originally built as defensible citadels against Danish warbands and were created by an explicit act of state. Most were built on land owned by the King, and the traders who migrated there were his freemen with obligations to provide a number of logistical services. Furthermore they also paid a toll to the King on all their commercial transactions and were sometimes required to contribute to the maintenance of the forts out of their own pocket.

Clearly these men owed nothing to any Lord other than the King and were an unusually empowered class of people that existed outside the ranks of the aristocracy. However, the Earl (or Lord) was not always a frustrated and jealous bystander unable to interfere in this Monarchical-Burgess alliance. Far from being excluded, there were a minority of cases where the King would allow one of his Earls to take all of the public revenue (tolls) generated in his boroughs that had formerly accrued to him. Indeed, the mass construction of fortifications following Alfred the Great’s victory over the Danes at Edington in 878 eventually led to the ‘Earl’s Third Penny’, whereby he was entitled by public law (not Royal favour) to one-third of the tolls paid on commercial transactions in the boroughs of his province. It is doubtful whether he would seek to undermine the burgess class of his boroughs if they were a valuable source of income, whatever his views might have been on social inferiors. On the contrary, we might actually disagree with Fukuyama and still arrive at the same conclusion in this regard: the alliance between the King and the burgesses was not antagonistic to an excluded nobility, but an unwritten constitutional agreement based on consensus between all three institutions, in which all stood to benefit through compromise, led to a state of equilibrium in which tyranny could not gain the upper hand.

This form of political accountability in which burgesses and ceorls knew their rights and responsibilities and had recourse to justice could easily have been swept away if a majority of Earls and their Fyrds (Shire Armies) agreed to overthrow the King. However, the King could call upon the clergy and the burgesses for support, and by co-opting the Earls as recipients of the borough revenue streams (the Third Penny) in addition to the customs and dues that they already received as powerful Shire magnates, he had a means of keeping them on his side and maintaining a semblance of harmony. But why did the Earls and Shire Reeves accept their nominal role as presidents of local justice rather than as executive judges? Fukuyama does not ask this question but it is worth looking at the Germanic routes of our ancestors for an answer.

The Anglo-Saxon Hundreds have their origins in ancient Germania, where Tacitus observed in the first century AD that the whole community decided all major political decisions. He goes on to say in his classic work Germania: ‘In these assemblies they also elect the chiefs to administer justice in the districts and villages. Each is assisted by a hundred assessors chosen from the people, as an advisory body, and at the same time to increase his authority.’ Eight hundred years later these same institutions had been exported to England, and the hundred assessors were still thought necessary to give credibility to the authority of the peasant judges. It certainly makes it easier to understand why the Earls and Shire Reeves would not have seen anything unnatural or alien in this arrangement.

Fukuyama’s second point of discussion concerns the development of the rule of law in England. One of the most famous examples of this entering the thought of European constitutional history is manifest in the 1215 Magna Carta, where King John of England was forced by his feudal barons to concede that he could not rule arbitrarily, by issuing a charter protecting the rights of all freemen under the law of the land. However, few people are aware that King Andrew II of Hungary issued a similar edict in 1222 in which the nobility were able to guarantee their liberty and freedom from the King’s arbitrary coercion. Fukuyama ponders why the Golden Bull edict is not celebrated in Hungary as the Magna Carta is in England; the answer is in the nature of the relations between the feudal barons and their peasant subjects.

The Golden Bull of 1222 granted privileges to the nobility and clergy that were not extended to the English barons under the Magna Carta. In Hungary the edict exempted the land-owning elite from taxation and removed any obligation to fund the King’s future wars. By contrast the English Lords had grown accustomed to paying the majority of the Danegeld (tribute) to stave off Viking invaders in the ninth and tenth centuries, thus sharing a heavy burden with their impoverished peasant subjects. The Magyar barons may have secured their own liberties but they came at the expense of the peasantry, who would now be expected to pay heavy taxes. Indeed, most people see the Golden Bull as an attempt by a small elite to have the freedom to subjugate their serfs more intensely and without interference from the King. Consequently, the Hungarian monarch did not have any power to protect the peasantry; he did not have a court of justice to which hard-done peasants could appeal; he had no control over the way his Nobles ruled their territories; he received no taxation from them; and the peasants were locked into servitude to their feudal masters, lacking any necessity or incentive to support a centralising state-building project against their Lords.

The rule of law was enshrined in Hungary to such an extent that the Nobles who benefited from it as a check on the monarch’s power were not inclined to extend it to any other power group, least of all the gentry, and of course not to the peasantry, a notion that would have been spectacularly radical anywhere in the world at the time, especially in England. This raises an interesting question about the rule of law: number one being that our modern notions of equality before the law for every person born within a sovereign territory, no matter what their ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation, is of no use to us here. The rule of law in medieval Europe has a more limited meaning and can be applied to situations where a small elite secured liberties and legal guarantees that they could disobey the Head of State if he acted contrary to the written law.

Anglo-Saxon England did not produce anything that could be considered a milestone in constituting a body of law that subjected the King to a form of social contract with his people, but the later Magna Carta definitely offered a precedent for the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century, who legitimised the uneasy concept that Christian rulers could be overthrown if they governed without consideration for the liberty of their subjects.

The lesson that Fukuyama draws from the fate of Hungary, annexed by the Ottomans in 1541, is that the power of the nobles was too strong, both to the detriment of the puppet King, and as an obstacle to reform for the masses of peasants clamouring for change. The country avoided being a tyrannical, absolute monarchy only to become an equally oppressive client state ruled by a few noble families with a ferocious determination to maintain the status quo, even in the face of invasion. The lasting legacy of the Anglo-Saxons was its sophisticated division of power in which everybody below the nobility to the lowliest ceorl had recourse to justice free from the ruling of their Lords. Furthermore the ancient Germanic emphasis on the loyalty between a Lord and his subjects had an element of reciprocity about it that was rarely violated, but had been broken in thirteenth century Hungary. As Frank Stenton points out on page 302 of his masterful study, Anglo-Saxon England: ‘The sanctity of the bond between lord and man, the duty of defending and avenging a lord, the disgrace of surviving him, gave rise to situations in which English listeners were always interested until new literary fashions of Romance origin had displaced the ancient stories.’

Yet parallel to the development of the Hundreds, the Shires, and the Boroughs, England had also developed the most advanced central state in Western Europe. Fukuyama concentrates on the development of the English central bureaucracy during the seventeenth century and rightly observes that the country was unique in that the elite were happy to pay more taxes to fund ship building and foreign expeditions, as long as they had representation and the veto of Parliament to block unaffordable demands from the monarch. Yet a few notable achievements of the Anglo-Saxon period are worth mentioning, not least the fact that in 973 King Edgar introduced a single currency into the country at a time when no less than 30 different currencies were circulating in the Frankish lands across the North Sea.

The obvious example of state development in the England of the first millennium is Alfred’s landmark fortifications, or burhs, that appeared in the years immediately after 878. The crash-course in town-planning, brought on by the existential threat of the Danish invaders, set a precedent for political organisation that the former Mercian King Offa, (the Overlord of all other Anglo-Saxon Kings in the eighth century) could only have dreamed of. Perhaps the Earls’ entitlement to a third of the burgesses’ toll payments was a reward for the heavy burden they shouldered in funding these enclosed boroughs. If so, it goes to show that the nobility were willing to accept an unusually high degree of interference from their King, something that would have been anathema anywhere else in Western Europe at the time.

Fukuyama makes it quite clear in The Origins of Political Order that a strong central state can only emerge when kinship has ceased to be the criteria for selecting holders of political office and has been replaced or, at least, heavily infused with, a determination to have non-hereditary agents serve the central state on behalf of the executive. By the mid tenth century even the formerly independent Kingdom of Northumbria had fallen under the vassalage of Wessex, where the Earl was one of the King’s appointed agents without any automatic rights to pass on the title to his sons.

In contrast the landscapes of West Francia (modern France) were dotted with castles, where powerful Dukes ruled their own provinces with an iron fist. Surprisingly, Fukuyama does not mention that England from Alfred (c.871-899) up until King Harthacnut (c.1040-42) never had the equivalent of a Count of Anjou, as in France, where a noble such as the formidable Fulk Nerra (972-1040) effectively ruled his feudal subjects without interference from the monarch.

The phenomenon of the Castellans in modern France - the nobles that built castles to enclose whole villages of peasants into a subordinate class of rent-paying dependents owing personal service to their Lords - did not materialise in Anglo-Saxon England, despite the widespread existence of feudalism, because the state was too strong and invested with too much authority to tolerate rival autonomous bureaucracies. Edward the Confessor’s decision to award the Earldom of Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire to his Norman brother-in-law, Ralf, in 1053, seems to have been the first and only successful attempt to build an impregnable castle in England before William the Conqueror arrived in 1066. It survived, despite its unpopularity amongst an understandably nervous peasantry, only because it acted as a useful bulwark against the Welsh threat on the frontier; but no English Lord would have dared to insult his ceorls with such an outrageous provocation.

Nevertheless, all historians are taught to avoid a rose-tinted view of the past without consideration for inconvenient truths and it is necessary to stress in these final paragraphs that, for all of its wonderful achievements in the realm of political organisation, the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom was subject to regular raiding and large-scale settlement from the Danish Vikings from 793 up until 1066. Northumbria, Lincoln, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Stamford, East Anglia and the south east Midlands were all governed under the Danelaw throughout the latter half of the ninth century up until the Norman Conquest. The local courts were known as the Wapentake and were very similar to the Anglo-Saxon Hundredal system of local justice, although punishments for disturbing the peace were more draconian and often levied collectively. Constitutionally they differed from the Hundred in that the twelve leading Thegns (Royal or Noble companions) of the district were required to swear on relics that they would never accuse an innocent person or protect a guilty one. They kept these arrangements even after the successes of Edward the Elder and King Athelstan in unifying the English and Danelaw provinces of the country in the tenth century; and the ‘Twelve Sworn Jury’ was to become the first political body to introduce the notion into England that majority opinion must prevail in council, where a majority of eight was needed for a decision to be legally binding.

The peasants living under the Danelaw were also freer than their English counterparts, with a peasant aristocracy emerging, known as the Sokemen, which was more or less exempt from the back-breaking labour and service that the English ceorls were obliged to offer their Lords. It is understandable why Fukuyama has missed this out, for it is nothing more than a footnote in what is a monumental book spanning from ancient China up until the French Revolution. The ultimate irony, though, is that the English ceorls, the free peasants that formed the bedrock of Anglo-Saxon society in the first two hundred years of settlement, had become progressively enserfed in the long period of the Danish invasions. Their property was constantly under threat in this era, their livelihood never rose above subsistence levels, and their services were increasingly needed in the Fyrd to keep out the Vikings. It became more expedient to place themselves under the protection of a Lord rather than eke out a precarious living on their own, and the manorial economy that had previously existed in Roman Britain slowly resurfaced. Consequently, the Norman victors inherited a well-governed, feudal state that needed little changing except from the transfer of property from one elite to another.

Of course the dimension of Christianity has not even been explored in this blog and religion would go on to play a decisive role in the English Civil War, as Anglicans and Puritans fought each other and Scottish Presbyterians revolted against the imposition of the English Common Prayer Book. In earlier Anglo-Saxon times, Archbishops could give legitimacy to usurpers and constituted another power group that could not be ignored or taken for granted, their landholdings and tax base often being on a par with the Earls. Thankfully Fukuyama goes on to consider the impact of the Reformation on England’s political development, but I shall leave that for another time. Nevertheless, his analysis of the lands that were settled by the Angles, Saxons and Jutes after the fall of the Western Roman Empire is remarkably prescient and stands up well to independent historical study.

Nanny will protect your inheritance

Every so often (ok, daily) something comes along that makes me feather-spittingly angry. Today it is the constant bleating on the MSM about Dilnot's proposals for the funding of long term care and support for the elderly. The Times claims that "he has done his homework well"

After months of work did he:

A) Suggest that people pay for their own care and from a young age make preparations through saving and insurance to meet what will be an inevitable need for many in their lives.


B) Calm middle class childrens' fears that their "birthright" to an inheritance might have to be spent on caring for their parents.

The £35k contribution limit can only be seen as a sop to the middle class. The poor already have mountains of other peoples' thrown at them in direct proportion to their own fecklessness so the policy is irrelevant to them.

Where does the £35k limit come from? Is it a small enough percentage of the average house to sound reasonable? Nobody has any view on future inflation, none more that the Bank of England, so how do we know what the exposure to the taxpayer is of such a cap? We don't, and in a nation rapidly approaching a national debt of £1,000,000,000,000, it is reckless to promise a millionaire that potentially hundreds of thousands of pounds of their costs, will be pushed onto the working poor, so that their children will not lose too much of the money to which they feel entitled.