Category Archives: Bit of politics

This little thing? Oh, it doesn’t matter; here you go

Via Tim, I find a very cool article on the Aussies who worked in Melbourne under Bletchley Park’s command, breaking the Pacific Axis’s codes during WWII [*]. Very cool, and – unlike the (shamefully underfunded, GIVE THEM MONEY) museum at Bletchley, not even remembered at all. Should be.

This obviously gets me onto the history of the computer: so the calculator invented by a Victorian lady and her partner; was ignored. Almost a hundred years later, a very hardcore calculator invented by Polish geniuses to try and not be invaded by the Germans AGAIN was the genesis of the proper modern computer.

So we set up Bletchley for Polish, UK and general Commonwealth geniuses and a supporting cast to work together on similar grounds. And it was aces, and we cracked a bunch of codes, and a vast quantity of moral dilemmas were created for governments (‘do we save the people of Coventry when doing so would risk blowing the D-Day landings, as it would let the Germans know that we know their codes?’ – while there are some aspects of the conduct of Mr Churchill and Mr Harris that I question, anyone who could answer that question with the correct answer, rather than turning into a blubbing wreck at the horribleness of the thing they’d just chosen, is a better man than me), and we started turning the direction of the war, and it was the first time ELECTRONICS WAS FUCKING ACES.

At roughly this point, a gay English genius invented the first electronic computer. Which was even better at doing sums than the electro-mechanical ones that had been going down before. At roughly the same point, the war was won. This was not a coincidence: it’s how WWII went down: we lost at actual battles, then we broke the Nazi and Japanese codes, then we stopped losing, because we knew where they were going to be, and they didn’t always know that we knew this. Both sides had highly skilled coders. Well, the Commonwealth, Germany and Japan had highly skilled coders [**]. But the Commonwealth chaps did better, largely thanks to Poles, geeks and queers. Meanwhile, the USSR won its battles for for, erm, nastier reasons.

Then the war ended, following the USA’s scientific contribution and the USSR’s entry into the War in the East. The USA’s manpower and materiel contribution to the war was unequivocal and without it, the outcome would have been terrible. Its scientific contribution meant that the USSR was scared off occupying Japan, which probably worked out best for even the people of Japan. Hurrah! Brief John & Yoko moment.

So. To recap, the Commonwealth diverted her finest scientific brains and vast resources to Bletchley and its satellites. This secured an extra advantage in close-matched battles, that made the Normandy landings feasible and won the Pacific naval war. After that, everything was bloody, grinding and attrition-y, but history, and WE INVENTED THE FUCKING ELECTRONIC COMPUTER.

You might assume, at this point, as an impartial sane reader from Mars, that you’d be reading this on a computer that ran on Turing-OS, or perhaps on something cutely named for Oxfordshire.

As if. Guess what the British government did at the end of WWII? Set up an endowment of millions of pounds to develop computers for civilian ends? Said to the brilliant scientists who won the war ‘sorry, we’re broke, but why don’t you develop these for civilian ends and you’ll share the money’? Probably the latter, right? The British government was fucking broke at the end of WWII, and it might be a struggle to show the benefits of new technology, so pass on the rights to the folks who sorted it out and let them make money…?


So the USA took this in the intended spirit, right? (fuck knows what the UK’s intended spirit here was, other than the spirit of ‘technological & industrial suicide’) Well, guess which company which was THE KEY TECHNOLOGICAL ENABLER OF THE FUCKING HOLOCAUST they passed the details onto, almost straight away, so they could market their Business Machines Internationally [CHALLENGING ANAGRAMS]. Whilst, just as a reminder, anyone in the UK would have been jailed or hanged for using any of the Bletchley computer secrets in any kind of industrial work.

I don’t blame the US government for this. If I were PM of anywhere, and someone gave me blueprints to THE MOST AMAZING TECHNOLOGY THERE WAS, then I’d immediately give it to every industrial company in my territory. But fuck, it changes one’s take on Attlee somewhat, doesn’t it? Yes, land fit for heroes, NHS, pensions, great, it is well fair. But you didn’t really need to TAKE THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION OF THE FOLLOWING 100 YEARS AND FUCKING GIVE IT TO THE AMERICANS AND THEN FUCKING MAKE IT ILLEGAL FOR YOUR OWN CITIZENS TO DO ANYTHING WITH IT AT ALL, did you? I mean, really, that wasn’t necessary.

So yeah. End of UK as anything important is exactly equal to the point when the idiots in charge decided that the computer was so irrelevant we might as well give it to the colonial cousins, they understand that sort of thing don’t you know. And the miserable, horrific hounding to death of the one man who did the most to save civilisation in WWII, Mr Turing, was hardly a surprise after that – once the computer had gone to America, what use is someone who invents something that nobody in your own land believes to be worth the square root of fuck all?

[*] That quite good war, before we returned to the pre-1939 model of only fighting wars that were pointless and stupid (apart from the one in 1982, which is only opposed by scumbags who hate democratic self-determination. And yes, I otherwise hate Madame T).

[**] The only USA code that remained unbroken during the war was the Navajo code. This is unsurprising, given the tale of the US Senator who toured the Melbourne coding facilities and then “went back home and told American newspapers how American ingenuity had cracked the Japanese codes”. Whichever member of the Australian government let a FOREIGN BLOODY POLITICIAN tour the facilities really should have been horsewhipped.

It’s another exciting British constitutional history post. Hurrah!

Just because people seem confused on all this (for some reason).

Before 1535, England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland were legally separate countries. Following the English conquest of Ireland in the 12th century and of Wales in the 13th, England, Ireland and Wales had a single ruler, who was styled King of England and Lord of Ireland, but were administered as separate countries. Scotland had a completely separate king.

However, Henry VIII is often seen as a chap who shook things up a bit, and relations between the Home Nations were no exception.

Between 1535 and 1543, the Laws in Wales Acts extended English law to Wales, replaced Welsh local government with an English model, and gave Welsh constituencies representation in the English parliament. After 1543, Wales was effectively part of England from a legal/administrative point of view.

In 1542, the Irish Parliament’s Crown of Ireland Act made the King of England, whoever he might be, the king of Ireland; but unlike Wales, Ireland remained administered separately.

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland also became King of England (and hence, Ireland), as Elizabeth I’s nearest heir. Although James liked the idea of unifying his territories, both the English and Scottish aristocracy and parliaments told him roundly to piss off. So at this point, James was king of the independent states of England (including Wales), Ireland and Scotland, in much the same constitutional way that Elizabeth II is queen of the independent states of the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Although obviously, he had rather more power then than she does now…

By 1706, following failed attempts throughout the 17th century, the Scottish aristocracy eventually accepted the concept of union between the two countries (largely because Scotland was bankrupt following its disastrous colonial adventures in central America). In 1707, each country’s parliament passed an Act of Union, creating a united kingdom of England and Scotland – referred to as Great Britain – with a single parliament, a free trade area and a single currency, although Scotland retained its unique and separate legal system, and the established Church of Scotland was not integrated into the Church of England or fully controlled by the UK monarch or parliament [see Chris in comments]. All laws of either nation that were incompatible with the Act were repealed by the Act. At this point, Queen Anne became Queen of Great Britain and Queen of Ireland.

In 1800, the parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland each passed another Act of Union, creating a united kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, referred to imaginatively as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a single parliament, a customs union, and a single currency – a similar drill to 1707. Part of the deal to gain Irish acceptance was that Catholics would be given the right to vote in and stand for the UK parliament (previously, only Protestants were eligible to stand for either parliament) – although this was later vetoed by King George III, much to the ire of the (posh, Catholic segment of the) Irish.

Unlike the 1707 Act, which was legitimately voted for by the Scottish parliament, the passage of the 1800 Act in the Irish parliament was driven by epic bribery, as well as by the lies about Catholic emancipation. The Catholic Relief Act was eventually passed in 1829 – too late to stop the Irish from being deeply and fairly pissed off about the whole event.

A few years after (most of – see Thumb in comments and my reply) Ireland effectively seceded from the Union in 1921 to form the Irish Free State and hence lost its representation in Westminster, the legal name of the remaining entity was changed to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1927. King George V became King of the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) and King of (most of) Ireland.

(Most of) Ireland declared itself a republic in 1948, at which point King George VI ceased to be King of (most of) Ireland – although bizarrely, the Republic of Ireland parliament didn’t repeal the Act of Union until 1962.

The recent devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although massively important in practice, hasn’t changed the overall legal status of of the above – we’re still in the same position as in 1948. The state of which Elizabeth II is queen is still the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the UK Parliament is still sovereign over the four nations that make up the state.

Sources: Laws in Wales Acts (1535, 1543), Crown of Ireland Act, 1707 Acts (England, Scotland), 1800 Acts (Great Britain, Ireland), Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921, Royal & Parliamentary Titles Act 1927, Republic of Ireland Act 1948, Statute Law Revision (Pre-Union Irish Statutes) Act 1962.

Riot strategy, or ‘why calls for tougher cops are missing the point’

I’m not going to do a hand-wringing riots piece. We’ve seen a million of them, whether from a cartoonish ‘make them less poor’ point of view, an authoritarian ‘hell in a handbasket, we’re doomed’ point of view, or a bigoted ‘rivers of blood’ point of view. It’s dull.

However, following on from Jamie’s post about how the riots went down in Manchester, and a question on Tim’s blog about Liverpool and Manchester cops making more arrests more rapidly than London cops, I do have a few thoughts on police tactics.

First up, the police did an excellent job at preventing loss of life and serious injury. Obviously, the deaths in Birmingham are terribly sad – and if the initial eyewitness statements prove to be correct, about as cowardly and evil as it gets. But the fact that in London, nobody was killed and few bystanders were seriously hurt is amazing, and not what anyone would have expected from news footage on Sunday/Monday. “People not being killed” is more important than “Currys not being robbed”.

But while the police did well on that basic front, the disorder in London lasted longer than the public could reasonably be expected to tolerate – hence the myriad of calls throughout the week to send in the Army, and/or to use water-cannons, rubber bullets and CS gas. The problem is that none of these would actually have helped. In short, policing in London on Sunday/Monday didn’t fail due to lack of force, or due to political correctness preventing officers from beating thugs up (plenty of beating up of thugs was done). Rather, it was due to a lack of understanding of what was going on – and, to some extent, a lack of absolute manpower.

The looters this time round flashmobbed. Digressionally, this is why BlackBerry Messaging is important to how the riots worked, not just an irrelevant detail like Twitter and Facebook. For example, the mass of reinforcements 30 seconds into this looters-push-back-cops video has to be pre-arranged, not random. Throughout London, mobs turned up at a co-ordinated time, looted, ran away, and regrouped. That isn’t how riots have historically happened: normally, the mob is trying to claim a specific territory, and the authorities are trying to stop them. Like a traditional war, with a front line.

These riots are the difference between WWII and Vietnam: the insurgents didn’t have a front line, but tried to appear, attack and disappear – and the authorities just didn’t know how to handle the new kind of conflict. Adding water cannons and CS gas into the mix wouldn’t have done anything to stop the looters, and I’m sceptical that rubber bullets would have achieved much. Live automatic weaponry would’ve done the job, but if you think that’s an acceptable solution to teenagers robbing shops, then you’re a dangerous lunatic who shouldn’t be allowed out in public.

The only alternative to mass slaughter is to adopt standard counterinsurgency measures. You learn the looters’ tactics, how they’re organised, you disrupt and intercept their communications, you try and infiltrate their groups, you arrest known looters when they’re at home in bed rather than out looting – and you use all the above measures to ensure that looters can’t get to their targets, and that if they do get to a target, then they can’t escape again.

In London, once the cops worked this all this out and managed to mobilise extra troops, the rioting stopped almost immediately (presumably because the looters either got arrested fairly rapidly, or worked out that they would get arrested if they didn’t stop). When the looting began in Manchester and Liverpool, the police had the benefit of a three-day London case study to work into their own plans, so it’s no massive surprise that they were able to end everything in a night.

Politically speaking, the wider mob of angry non-looting citizenry needs to be placated – so completely useless draconian measures seem likely to be introduced. If they are, they’re certain to be used when more-or-less peaceful demonstrations like UKuncut get rowdy, because those are the crowd dynamics in which CS gas and water cannons ‘work’ (if you class quelling the violent thugs slightly more rapidly, while also injuring far more non-violent protestors than would otherwise be the case, as ‘working’). So that’s a bit depressing for those of us who support the right to political protests.

But the good news (at least, for people who don’t like their house being on fire) is that the things the authorities have clearly learned over the last few days make it unlikely that the perceived total breakdown of law and order seen in London will be repeated. At least, not until the next new kind of rioting strategy emerges…

Tesco Academy

I went to a state primary school; admittedly, one in a fairly posh part of the world (Christchurch School in Ware, Hertfordshire, for the morbidly curious). It was the 1980s; education was OKish; there were about 30 people in my class, and the ones who properly dribbled on themselves were removed for maths and English lessons.

I discovered Sue Townsend when I was about 10 and therefore managed to get the entire class of Year 6es singing anti-Thatcher songs loudly in assembly, until the deputy head told me that if I didn’t stop doing that they’d tell my nan on me.

I was in the choir. I know that’s a remarkable concept for those who know me these days, but I somehow lost my ability to sing whenever my voice broke. Oh well, it probably saved me some abuse or other. We were a good choir. We went to Cambridge to enter the Best Year 6 Primary School Choir Competition. We lost. It was probably because I couldn’t sing. Also, our song was bloody lame.

But the other thing we did as a choir – and I’m still in awe this happened in 1989 – was to sponsor Tesco’s. There was a walking-running challenge from Newcastle to London sponsored by Tesco, and alongside their computers (or, possibly in those days, typewriters) for schools vouchers, some of my classmates’ mums, aunties and sisters were participating in this challenge. So we were nominated, as a Leading Choir, to record the theme for the Tesco North To South Run Song. What we sang was, to the tune of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In”:

Tesco is here!
Tesco is here!
So can we have a great big cheer!

…the rest of that verse is sadly lost, apart from the soul of Tesco’s then ad agency and then marketing director, where it’s permanently etched in the blood of innocent children.

They’re setting forth right in the North
Collecting money all the way
[repeat first bit]

We were eventually rejected, presumably because one of the choirs on the route from Newcastle to London kicked our arses. Which is probably, again, my fault. Or, reflecting on the scenario 21 years later, the fault of the satanic bastards who set the challenge up in the first place.

This weird occurrence is something I’ve been meaning to blog for ages, mostly in the sense of “marketing to kids is more insidious than when I were a lad? Fuck off”, and also just in the sense of “that happened. No, that actually happened. A choir of kids sang ‘Tesco is here, so can we have a great big cheer’. That happened.”

So yeah. Now that my mates are parents, and angry about marketing, I still can’t think of anything more insanely blatant than that one. If Tesco did it today, they’d be keelhauled, and possibly hanged at the yard-arm.

A defence of royalty

My lack of interest in the forthcoming Royal nuptials is about as total as it gets. However, people will keep writing about it, and I don’t always look away from their articles in time…

So Johann Hari has written a fairly boilerplate piece about the monarchy, and why the UK shouldn’t have one. He sensibly and rapidly deals with the fatuous points that monarchists make about tourism and ‘defenders of democracy’.

But there’s also this:

In most countries, parents can tell their kids that if they work hard and do everything right, they could grow up to be the head of state and symbol of their nation. Not us. Our head of state is decided by one factor, and one factor alone: did he pass through the womb of one aristocratic Windsor woman living in a golden palace? The US head of state grew up with a mother on food stamps. The British head of state grew up with a mother on postage stamps. Is that a contrast that fills you with pride?

Not pride exactly, no: but I prefer the honesty of the UK’s system. In order to be President of the USA, you have to be immensely wealthy, successful and lucky. In order to be immensely wealthy and successful in the USA, you pretty much have to be born to a wealthy and successful family. President Obama is no exception: his parents both had postgraduate degrees, and his maternal grandmother was Vice President of a bank. Obama’s mum did technically live on food stamps while finishing her PhD, but he was living with his banker grandma at the time. His is not a rags-to-riches American Dream story.

The pretence of meritocracy in the US, based on the belief that anyone can become President, breeds a society in which people who end up poor are treated incredibly badly, because they are perceived as having failed. I’d far rather a system that’s honest, under which we accept that someone who’s born in a slum will never have the same chances in life as someone born with a silver spoon, but try and narrow the inequalities in outcome that this creates as much as we possibly can.

Despite the Thatcherites’ and post-Thatcherites’ best efforts, the UK is far better than the US at doing this. I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the countries which are best at equality overall (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands) also tend to be monarchies. The monarch is a permanent symbol that life is unfair, and that if you take credit for your own success – rather than accepting that it’s primarily down to luck and that you owe a duty of care to the less fortunate in society – then you’re an arrogant prick.

Facebook discussions with an old socialist

My dad’s friend Martin is an old-school Labour man. I’m his friend on Facebook. It’s nice being in touch with such people. Whilst they’re not always right, sometimes they are.

[Martin R]: The poor are dangerous.

Some people: “this is patronising”. Me:

The poor *are* dangerous. This is clear from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Western liberal-ish states were built on understanding that, understanding that Marx wasn’t wrong, and transferring enough of the money to the working class to stop the poor being actively dangerous. Note the extent to which governments started serious wealth-transfer schemes after WWI, once the USSR had emerged as a serious threat.

Enough Republicanism/Conservatism, and the poor will become dangerous again. There’s only so far things can go before revolutions start happening.

Other chap, who’s not wrong:

The poor can also be wrong. They are most dangerous when they resort to fascist ideologies


…and they’re most likely to resort to fascist ideologies when living in deeply unequal and unfair societies, where fascists lie that they’re poor because of [Jews/Blacks/Muslims] and that’s the reason why they’re poor. And most likely to be engaged with society when the benefits of economic growth are shared with everyone across the income scale.


Arguments about fairness are different. And I don’t suggest that people are right because they are poor. But poor people have little to lose. They can rise up if pushed hard enough. They may not vote, or participate in the political process, but guarding against the possibility of revolt is and undercurrent in every political system. This government seems to have forgotten it.

Sometimes, I think that those of us on the liberal/libertarian side of things forget this. Liberal politics is fundamentally borne out of the desire of both the upper class and the wealthier classes to not have our heads cut off. Yes, if you’re a computer programmer, or an accountant, or any kind of middle-class private sector job that’s going, you pay some tax, and people who are poorer than you don’t, and many people who are poorer than you even get paid benefits from the tax that you pay – but do bear in mind that as a result, they aren’t marching through the town with your head on a spike.

Which, if you take the sheer “fittest will survive, others will fail” creed of right-libertarianism at its word, is what will happen.

I’m quite happy to have a well-paid job and pay a sizeable amount of tax. Not only for the sheer, base point that in Somalia, I’d be unlikely to have an internet connection and sell anyone business advice [*] but also for the extra “non-scary” points that living in a Western country buys you.

I respect the US position of taxing you on your global income (minus taxes already levied in non-hostile countries) on the grounds that it’s the difference between “fair tax” and “danger money cos we’re gonna get you out when you’re in trouble”. The way I’d modify that, were I in charge of taxation for anywhere, is “tax is on your global income ignoring anywhere you’re a citizen of”, given that anywhere you’re a citizen of, you don’t get any help defending you from.

So in Libya – we had a bunch of people with British passports out of there. Awesome; skills. They were being paid US$100k+ tax-free, meanwhile, the average UK taxpayer earns less than GBP25k per year. Should we have left them to die? Hell, no. Is it reasonable that the operation was subsidised by the average UK taxpayer and they paid nothing towards it? Hmm.

This piece is a giant ramble; I’m aware of that. But I have a blog and that’s what Having A Blog is for. And whatever the state may be for, I’m pretty convinced it’s not about ensuring that people who mostly don’t believe in The State can go to foreign places, dodge tax, and then be rescued by gunships at The State’s expense.

[*] I live in Australia, but the taxation regime is very similar to the UK’s and I spent the previous 10 years paying a fair amount of UK tax, and will happily defend any points based on difference to the death.