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Category Archives: AIM Extra

Proxy Jailor: Denying Assange Bail

History, while not always a telling guide, can be useful. But in moments of flushed confidence, it is not consulted and Cleo is forgotten. A crisp new dawn can negate a glance to the past. Having received the unexpected news that Julian Assange’s extradition to the United States for charges of breaching the Espionage Act of 1917 and computer intrusion had been blocked by Justice Vanessa Baraitser, his legal team and supporters were confident. All that was left was to apply for bail, see Assange safely to the arms of his family, and await the next move by wounded US authorities.

Former UK ambassador Craig Murray, human rights activist and veteran reporter on the Assange case, was initially buoyant in his column. “I fully expect Julian will be released on bail this week, pending a possible US appeal against the blocking of his extradition.” He further got “the strong impression that Baraitser was minded to grant bail and wanted the decision to be fireproof.”

That fireproofing never came. On Wednesday, January 6, the application for bail by Assange’s legal team was rejected. Counsel for the US government, Clair Dobbin, built the prosecution’s case around the strong possibility that the publisher might flee the clutches of UK authorities even as the US was gathering its wits for an appeal to the High Court. “His history shows he will go to any lengths to get away.”

Forums would welcome this disreputable character: Mexico, for instance, had offered to “protect Assange with political asylum.” The defence might well say that he would not flee due to poor health, but could they be sure? A “flight risk” had little to do with mental wellbeing. Remember, she pressed, what he did during the Swedish proceedings, how he “ruthlessly” breached the trust of those who fronted the bail money. Those who had offered surety for him, such as the Duchess of Beaufort, Tracy Worcester, had also failed in ensuring that Assange presented in court in 2012. Beware, warned Dobbin, of sinister networks of operatives he could call upon to aid him vanish. WikiLeaks had, after all, facilitated the escape of Edward Snowden.

Dobbin’s tone and manner – gloomy and Presbyterian, as Murray described it – was all judgment. She insisted to the court that, “any idea that moral or principled reasons would bear on Mr Assange’s conscience turned out to be ill-founded indeed.” And she had much to go on, as Baraitser’s own judgment had essentially accepted virtually everything the prosecution had submitted bar grounds of mental health and the risk posed to him in US prison facilities.

As for the basis of whether an appeal would succeed, Dobbin was convinced the prosecution were onto something. The judge, she respectfully submitted, had erred on a point of law in applying the incorrect test on the prison conditions awaiting Assange. The test was not whether measures taken by US prison authorities would make suicide impossible; the only issue was for authorities to put measures in place to lessen its prospects. Reprising her role in attacking various defence witnesses who had put together a picture of grotesque danger awaiting Assange, including the ADX supermax prison in Colorado, Dobbin was convinced that the US system stood the test.

Sidestepping the defence evidence on this, more thorough than anything supplied by the likes of US Assistant US Attorney Gordon Kromberg during the trial, Dobbin argued that no thorough assessment of the facilities for treatment and prison conditions had taken place.

Baraitser proved accommodating to Dobbin’s whipping submission. “Notwithstanding the package offered by the defence, I am satisfied he might abscond.” Having discharged Assange, she promptly repudiated her own ruling in a fit of Dickensian jurisprudence. “The history of this case is well known… Assange skipped bail and remained in the Ecuadorian Embassy to avoid extradition to the US.” Assange would remain in Belmarsh prison pending the US appeal.

In her Monday judgment, Baraitser had acknowledged the signs of potential suicide shown by Assange during his stay in Belmarsh. The prison adjudication report confirmed that, on May 5, 2019 “during a routine search of the cell solely occupied by Mr Assange, inside a cupboard and concealed under some underwear, a prison officer found ‘half a razor blade’.” Baraitser even went so far as to accept, based on the assessment of defence witness Professor Michael Kopelman, that the finding of the razor was not merely a “disciplinary infraction” but one of the “very many factors indicating Mr Assange’s depression and risk of suicide.”

On Wednesday, her tune was indifferent to the consequences of sending Assange back to a maximum security prison stocked with Britain’s most notorious inmates. Continuing her long spell of denial on the seriousness of COVID-19 in the UK prison system, she swatted the submission by defence counsel Edward Fitzgerald QC that there had been 59 cases specific to Belmarsh before Christmas and that the prison remained locked down. Dobbin demurred on this point, showing an email sent by prison authorities at 10.49 pm the previous night claiming that only 3 positive tests for COVID for Belmarsh had been returned.

The result is that Assange continues to be punished, facing brutal carceral conditions while he awaits the next move by US prosecutors, despite having already served his sentence of skipping bail. As a dejected Murray wrote, “Julian is living his life in conditions both torturous and tortuous.”

Amidst the banal cruelties of Wednesday’s proceedings came a smidgen of hope for Assange. G. Zachary Terwilliger, the US attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia handling the prosecution, had to admit to being uncertain about what a Biden administration would do. Speaking to NPR, Terwilliger suggested that any decision taken on Assange would “come down to resources and where you’re going to focus your energies.” But he is not waiting to find out: a position at the law firm Vinson & Elkins awaits.

The UK, having adopted a position as Washington’s proxy jailor, is not about to quit its sordid role. Assange’s wellbeing and health continue to be jeopardised by his stay in Britain’s most notorious prison, where determined despair, as Baraitser herself has acknowledged, can take their toll.

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In Diversity We Trust: Joe Biden’s Cabinet Choices

Perfumed and tailored for a certain brand of folksy, identity politics, Pete Buttigieg hoped to blast his way to the White House having run a community of 102,000 constituents in South Bend, Indiana. Mayor Pete was hoping for the best, though his effort did not so much stall as fall over early on before the somnambulist who eventually won both his party’s nomination and the Presidency.

With President-elect Joe Biden hoping to give the impression of full-blooded diversity in his Cabinet, Buttigieg was a natural choice for transport secretary. At least New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and the US Conference of Mayors thought so. He spoke well, much like a textbook Rotarian who wishes to justify the club fee. He comes across as tutored, yet to be jaded. And there was that wonderful bonus thrown in: his sexual politics.

Biden has gone where many a US president has gone before, pushing up the hill of exceptionalism, proudly claiming that he has gotten his appointments the way no other president before has. “This Cabinet will be the most representative of any Cabinet in American history.” Meretriciously, he claimed it would be a “Cabinet of barrier breakers, a Cabinet of firsts.”

Buttergieg had been his ninth “precedent-busting” pick. To keep him company was, of course, the Vice President-elect herself, Kamala Harris; Alejandro Mayorkas (Department of Homeland Security) – the first Latino to occupy that position and defense secretary appointee Army Gen. Lloyd Austin – the first Black American for the role. Avril Haines is pencilled in as chief of the US intelligence committee – the first woman to take the reins. The world’s citizenry can rest assured that they will be monitored, bombed and tortured by a most inclusive set of Cabinet appointees.

Biden’s choices are certainly brimming with the rehearsed lines and testimonials. Haines, to take but one example, claims to “have never shied away from speaking truth to power… I’ve worked for you for a long time and I accept this nomination knowing that you would never want me to do otherwise.” Former CIA director John Brennan is also taken by her “willingness to speak up and speak out if she sees something that needs to be said, so she is not somebody who hesitates to be contrarian as necessary.”

This barely squares with her approval of an “accountability board” that exonerated CIA personnel from conducing espionage on investigators charged by the US Senate for investigating claims of torture. Far from speaking truth to power, she took a shovel and sought to bury it. Haines also threw in her lot in backing Gina Haspel for the role of CIA director, despite Haspel’s torture speckled resume.

The appointments have certainly propitiated the devotees of diversity across a number of publications and fora. The New Republic, making specific reference to court appointments, suggested that it “may actually be an essential move […] to make after the Trump era.” Biden’s “diversity promises” were “identity politics at their best.”

Jodi Enda of the Center for American Progress wrote glowingly of the president-elect’s appointment of an all-female communications team. It was “a particularly stunning move”; women, for the first time in history, would “have the chance to weigh in on every important White House decision. Women will be advising the president and speaking for him.” Making much of this, the network had to justify the soggy praise. Having such a team was good because women’s priorities were “different” from men. “In general, women are more often focused on issues such as healthcare, pay equity and education, which directly affect their families, and are more concerned about equality for immigrants and people of color.”

Such a vulgar politicisation of multiculturalism and identity also serves another function. Not only is it meant to convince the multicultis and identitarians that they are onto a good thing with Biden; they can also scorn those voters who backed the soon-to-be-exiting Donald Trump. That’s a huge number to scorn, suggesting that change is something bound to be left in cold storage. As conservative commentator Daniel Henninger has suggested, “diversity in practice is preponderantly political, which is to say, divisive.”

The diversity drive has become a creature of itself, a lobbying tool, pressing Biden into making appointments to satisfy investors. Asian American and Pacific Islander lawmakers, for instance, wish for their share of the diversity pie and would be deeply disappointed “if several AAPIs are not nominated.” Texas Rep. Vicente González has demanded no less than five Latinos to occupy Cabinet positions.

Consolation prizes are being doled out to candidates with neither the expertise nor the interest. Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge had hoped to head the Department of Agriculture but instead got the call to fill the role of secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ironically enough, it was Fudge who toldPolitico in November that, “You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the Black person in labor or HUD.”

The racial-gender-sexual arithmetic has entailed ensuring a plastering and splash of shallowness, a squeezing of rhetoric that, on closer inspection, fractures with the clichés. In such cases, history suddenly has eyes and is looking at Biden. “The eyes of history,” he insists, “are gazing at my diversity inclusion.” This does not necessarily do him any favours. This is fashion show politics, not substantive thinking about how best to ameliorate a fatigued, broken state. We await the achievements of the appointees in due course, but a good number of the ills of the US Republic will continue to be ignored by the practices of the establishment.

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2020: The Top 5

Welcome to our annual Top 5.

2020 had it all as far as articles on The AIMN, but it was the incompetence and distrust of the prime minister and his government that stirred the senses, dominating our Top 5 list.

There was one exception, as you will soon see.

But to cut to the chase, here are The AIMN’s five most popular posts in 2020:

(The Top 5 is based on the number of views only. It does not take into account the number of comments or the post’s popularity with other online media sites such as Facebook or Twitter).

Number One: Downfall. Bunker Boy starts his run for the big house, by Grumpy Geezer.

Grumpy came from nowhere to grab top spot – with the help of tens of thousands of Americans who Grumpy’s bite and humour appealed to. Not since Roswell’s Dear America, please don’t make Donald Trump your president in January 2016 has an article on The AIMN attracted so much interest from beyond our borders. If you haven’t read Grumpy’s post then you’re in for a New Year’s treat.

The opening sentences set the scene for a few good belly laughs.

Excerpt:

No grace, no dignity, no humility, no magnanimity, no class, no morals, no empathy, no soul.

He has no friends, not even a dog.

His wife can’t bear his touch, his daughter can’t avoid it.

Devoid of humour he doesn’t make jokes, he doesn’t laugh. Not ever. An occasional dismal rictus, a necrotic gash in his ochre-lacquered face-bladder signifies nothing more than his satisfaction in transacting another con.

He’s a loathsome coagulation of every human failing with no compensating virtues.

 

 

Number Two: Some Of Us Owe Scott Morrison A Big Apology! by By Rossleigh.

Rossleigh can say “I woz robbed!” Holding top spot from mid-January until mid-December he would have felt quite comfortable that he’d take the crown, but he’ll have to take the issue up with Grumpy Geezer.

Rossleigh’s article proved one thing: don’t judge an article by its title. If so, you could miss out on a satirical masterpiece.

Excerpt:

Morrison had a natural advantage in that he was boring even before he was made Treasurer. Once he was made leader after Dutton’s aborted coup, Morrison managed to keep people in their semi-hypnotic state throughout the election campaign by talking about such things as curries and a fair go. Somehow he managed to have various people think that they were back in the fifties and it was a bonza country, but he was just a little bit alternative because he embraced these curry things, while Jen could whip up a mean salad…

All of which brings me to the apology…

Given his total and absolute inability to demonstrate empathy or competence in any job he’d ever held, and his ascent has only been through bastardry and nastiness, why on earth would we expect any better once he became our PM. Really, it’s our fault for electing him to a position far beyond his capabilities. He’s possibly doing the best that he can.

And so, on behalf of the Australian people, I’d just like to say, “Sorry, Scottie. We’ve expected far too much of you.”

 

Number Three: What a competent government would have done …, by Michael Taylor

This article was essentially a re-post of a Bill Shorten media release (LABOR’S NATIONAL FIRE FIGHTING FLEET) just days prior to the 2019 federal election. Compared to Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s incompetence in handling the bushfires that raged in January, one was left with a feeling of “if only”.

Excerpt:

Who said there’s no difference between Labor and the LNP? I thank Henry Johnston for pointing me to this media release by Bill Shorten (on 17 March, 2019) which provides us with one glaring difference. Read on, and be the judge:

A Shorten Labor Government will boost Australia’s firefighting capabilities with a national fleet of aircraft and dedicated smokejumper units to keep Australians safe from bushfires.

All Australians understand the devastating impact that bushfires have. Lives are lost, homes destroyed and communities shattered.

Our firefighters and emergency services personnel are among the best in the world, and they do a tremendous job, often putting their own lives at risk. But they need more support from government.

 

Number Four: The Liar from the Shire, caught out again, by Kaye Lee.

Kaye Lee – as only she can do – called out Scott Morrison’s “bullshit” about bushfire management. It’s a short article, but it has plenty of sting.

Excerpt:

In May 2016, when Scott Morrison was Treasurer, the National Aerial Firefighting Centre called for a “national large air-tanker” fleet to confront a growing bushfire threat. Despite a Senate inquiry backing the proposal, the government rejected it in September 2017, “noting that bushfire responsibility is a matter for each state and territory.”

Are firetrucks or planes to come to a screeching halt at the border? Do we ignore another state’s need to keep our resources in case we need them?

Smoko has defended his decision not to meet with former fire chiefs last year, who were also calling for more aerial firefighting capability, saying he chooses to listen to those ‘in their jobs now’.

Then up pops NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons who says the federal government has sat on a business case for a boosted national aerial firefighting fleet for at least 18 months.

 

Number Five: Asking Peter Dutton, by John Lord.

John showed as the value of asking questions and digging for answers.

Excerpt:

A couple of days ago I received this message from a Facebook friend:

“Hi John, Part of the bloated Dutton budget is spent on this group [AIDR]. Young Peter has been strangely silent of late so may be an appropriate time to highlight his expertise.”

A Google search and it tells me that:

The Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience (AIDR) develops, maintains and shares knowledge and learning to support a disaster resilient Australia.

So why haven’t we heard about this institute before or during the course of this ongoing disaster? What is the reason for its existence, and why does it come under the umbrella of Peter Dutton’s department?

What is their total funding and what is it spent on? With a bit of checking I find out that it is funded by the by the Attorneys General’s Department

 

Special mention must go to Steve Davies, whose article Pentecostalism – The decline, infiltration and fall of Australian Democracy finished a not-too-distant sixth.

And special mention must also go to RosemaryJ36 and Dr Jennifer Wilson whose articlesScott Morrison should resign, and Where is Scott Morrison and why is it a secret? (respectively) – that were both Top 5 finishers in 2019 – also scored highly in 2020.

And a big special mention must also to every author who published articles on The AIMN in 2020. Anyone of those could have been, and deserved to be, in the Top 5.

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Tinkering with National Anthems: Australia’s Patriotic Song for Children

It was a New Year gimmick that would have warmed advertising executives across the country. For the first time since it was proclaimed as Australia’s national anthem on April 19, 1984, Advance Australia Fair has been tinkered with. The jarring words from the second line, “For we are young and free” have been amended to “For we are one and free.”

Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, beamed with smugness at his first press conference for 2021. “We live in a timeless land of ancient First Nations peoples, and we draw together the stories of more than 300 national ancestries and language groups.” Rhetorically, he asked, “How good is Australia?” The change to the anthem “simply reflects the realities of how we understand our country and who we will always hope to be and the values that we will always live by.”

This change put Morrison in the good books of Indigenous singer Deborah Cheetham, a Yorta Yorta woman. “It is an important acknowledgment. The word young underestimated the lives that have lived on this continent for some millennia.” First Nations Foundation chairman and Yorta Yorta man Ian Hamm was also warmed by the change. “In terms of culture, society, and population, we go back 60,000 years. We’re very definitely not young.”

It was also encouraged by New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, who suggested the altered wording last November. “I think it’s about time we recognise the tens of thousands of years of the First Nations people of this continent.”

Spending time in Australia is an experience, not with strapping youth but extended age. The continent exudes the severity of the critically worn and experienced. It suffers surly changes of mood: punishing droughts overcome by vengeful flood; fires that burn with incandescent fury. But in human and cultural terms, age has become a fetish of mourning in Australia. The words “continuous, uninterrupted civilisation” is a grieving statement, commemorating a past rudely disrupted by European invasion.

In keeping with anthems that are skim reads rather than deep evocations of national character, Advance Australia Fair fails to impress. The work of Scottish-born composer Peter Dodds McCormick, it was first performed in the late 1870s. A short note heralding its arrival on the music scene can be found in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate. “The song is in the key of C, is simple in its accompaniment, and has a fairly decided air. The words are essentially patriotic, and are well selected.”

The original version is unmistakably Britannic, colonial and childish. It features rejoicing sons (daughters are secondary and absent) and golden soil (that was a bit off the mark) and wealth for toil; it mentions James Cook’s voyages, the raising of “Old England’s flag, The standard of the brave.” The fourth verse suggests that, however distant Australia might be, Britannia’s outpost will “rouse to arms like sires of yore, To guard our native strand”.

There is no mention of the horrors of penal servitude, the fatal shore and such, no hint that the land was populated. If one is to believe a descendant of McCormick, one G. Murrow, it was never intended as a national anthem but “a simple melody for children.”

It was certainly no competition for that more accurate telling of Australian character found in Waltzing Matilda (1895), featuring an outlaw swagman, theft of livestock, and eventual, drowning suicide. It is also apt that the consumed sheep is itself the property of a squatter, that great symbol of frontier appropriation. Thieving comes in degrees. “I put it to you,” asserts writer Patrick Marlborough, “that Banjo Patterson’s banger and monster-mash, about an outlaw swagman gone troppo, epitomises the madness that haunts the Australian psyche.” But a plebiscite in 1977 favoured the less revealing version of McCormick, replacing God Save the Queen.

Australia’s current anthem sounds like the outcome of a committee process marred by endless meetings of crushing dullness. It is a statement of underachievement, saying little. What little it does say is disingenuous. The old “golden soil and wealth for toil” remains. Australia’s home is “girt by sea.” Disquietingly, “For those who’ve come across the seas/ We’ve boundless plains to share.” A dedicated concentration camp system to deter boat arrivals suggests other emendations are in order.

Prosaic and hardly inspiring for school ground parades, the national anthem has struck such songwriters as Shane Howard as “racist on so many levels, written for a white Australia that is irrelevant, or should be. Apologies to the writer but it’s also poorly crafted lyrically, is largely meaningless sentimentality and is a substandard melody.”

Howard’s views came in response to the very public refusal of a then nine-year-old schoolgirl Harper Nielsen in September 2018 to stand to the anthem. “When it says ‘we are young’ it completely disregards the Indigenous people,” she explained. As school children are discouraged from having strong opinions, Harper was given detention for “blatant disrespect” in refusing to participate in the anthem ritual with classmates at Brisbane’s Kenmore South State School. One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson preferred even harsher treatment. “We have a kid that has been brainwashed and I tell you what, I would give her a kick up the backside.”

Defenders of the anthem include such former public servants as Frank Cassidy. In a letter to the Canberra Times last November, Cassidy insisted on the uniqueness of Australia’s anthem (they always do) and praised the revision of the lyrics, which “were rewritten in 1982 to make them politically correct, totally inclusive and widely reflective of the modern nation Australia was then and still is today.” Only a bureaucrat softened by lengthy meetings could express such satisfaction.

In the anthem debates, Morrison has economised. The change is cosmetic, the timing fine. The prime minister has even gone so far as to admit that it “takes away nothing… but adds much.” In truth, it adds very little to an anthem best confined to a substandard reliquary of colonial knickknacks.

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Will the Biden Administration Develop More Even-Handed Middle Eastern Agendas?

By Denis Bright

The arrival of the New Year is an appropriate time to check the prospects for greater stability across the Middle East Region. The strength of the Morrison Government’s strategic ties with Israel adds an added layer to Middle East politics with the opening of Australia’s Defence and Trade Office at 20 King George Street, Jerusalem.

New layers have been added to strategic ties between the US and Israel since President Trump lost office on 3 November 2020.

The evolving game plan seems to offer a shared hegemony between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia over the Middle East Region. Including Turkey in the game plan at the last minute is still a fond hope. This inclusion could be sold to the world by President Biden as a recipe for change from old conflicts.

In the meantime, the US Congressional Research Service (16 November 2020) has updated the extent of foreign military aid by the US to Israel. This surpasses any other theatre of military assistance. Israel has a network of new age missile equipped fighter planes, stealth bombers and elaborate missile defence systems. The Middle East Eye (15 June 2020) adds the weapons of mass destruction which are not on Australia’s current shopping list:

Israel may have increased its nuclear stockpile from 80 warheads in 2019 to 90 in 2020, according to a new report by a leading global arms watchdog.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) said in its annual report on Monday that Israel, one of the world’s nine nuclear powers, could be in possession of up to 90 nuclear warheads.

The watchdog said that the true number could be higher as Israel does not officially comment on its nuclear capabilities.

“There is significant uncertainty about the size of Israel’s nuclear arsenal and its warhead capabilities,” it said.

“Israel continues to maintain its long-standing policy of nuclear opacity: it neither officially confirms nor denies that it possesses nuclear weapons.”

Israel is one of only three countries, along with India and Pakistan, not to sign the 1968 non-proliferation treaty (NPT), and is widely assumed to have the Middle East’s only atomic arsenal.

Sipri said that it believes Israel has around 30 gravity bombs that can be delivered by F-16I aircraft, and up to 50 warheads that can be delivered by land-based ballistic missiles such as the Jericho III – which, according to foreign reports, has a range of 5,500 km.

“It is possible that some of Israel’s F-15 aircraft may also serve a nuclear strike role, but this is unconfirmed,” Sipri said.

The report also said that the locations of the storage sites for Israel’s warheads, “which are thought to be stored partially unassembled,” are also unknown.

Declassified government documents from both Israel and the United States indicate that Israel began building a stockpile of nuclear weapons in the early 1960s, likely with the assistance of the US, Sipri said.

Israel’s own breaches with security protocols within the US Global Alliance are also conveniently overlooked by apologists for Israel.

Israel’s German built Dolphin-class submarine fleet is equipped with nuclear weapons in Israel.

Just recently, there was a high profile meet and greet at Ben Gurion Airport for ex-US Navy analyst Jonathan Pollard arrived in Israel after 35 years in prison in the USA for the sale of US intelligence protocols to Israel (Times of Israel 30 December 2020).

However, Israel’s insider status within the US Global Alliance soon excuses such breaches of protocol and this has contributed to the contemporary state of geopolitics across the Middle East Region.

Israel wants to reinforce this privileged influence by new strategic tries with neoconservative Arab countries from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. With a nod from Israel and leaders in the Biden Administration, Turkey is keen to support the new diplomacy with overtures to key sources of strategic tensions such as Russia. President Trump team has even offered financial incentives to Indonesia to establish last-minute diplomatic ties with Israel through new assistance from the US International Development Finance Corporation (Times of Israel 23 December 2020).

The pro-NATO Atlantic Council has offered an update on the current security situation in Syria (5 November 2020):

 

 

The reopening of key roadways between Iraq and the Syrian coast probably assisted in giving momentum from Iraq for a new focus on development in besieged Syria which is a logical outlet for oil and gas exports from both countries and even from Iran.

Search for new allies is also a positive Israeli initiative for Israel’s strategic stability. Overreaching with the sectional Israeli-Arab accord invites avoidable future conflicts across the region. Some softeners are always needed.

A federated Iraq offers a homeland to those Kurds who choose to leave both Turkey and Syria. The idea is popular in Israel which offered support to the Kurds during Saddam Hussein’s years.

This support for the Kurds in Iraq is good news for the Turkish government with its long standing-separatist problem from the Turkish Workers’ Party.

 

Image: Times of Israel Showing Support for Israel as Protector of Iraqi Kurds 27 November 2020

 

However, the grim statistics from Syria are also sources of instability.

 

 

The flight of millions from Syria to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and countries across Europe is embedded in the continuation of Syria’s economic malaise. US sanctions on Syria’s allies in Iran and Russia are not assisting the partial recovery which was apparent in 2019 from the most recent data available from the UN development agency, UNCTAD.

Sanctions against Syria have eliminated major capital investment flows and only personal remittances to families at home and assistance from NGOs remain in the latest UNCTAD data.

Even minor initiatives in Syria during 2020 were not enough to turn around the economic malaise imposed by international isolation.

The approach of New Year brought an ISIL attack on a passenger bus in Homs province which killed 28 civilians (Times of Israel 31 December 2020).

Southern Syria is also under siege from Israeli militia units in the Golan Heights. True to form, Israeli missile attacks were reported in Syria to counter support offered by Iranian militias to the Assad Government near Masyaf (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 25 December 2020).

The Golan Heights is on the disputed frontier between Israel and Syria as shown by the BBC News map. Retaining this territory is unlikely to be achieved by decades of Israeli control since the 1967 ceasefire in the regional Arab-Israeli war.

Once the highest mountain on the border of Lebanon and Syria, Mount Hermon (2,814 metres in elevation) is now a popular snowfield for Israelis beyond the 1967 DMZ line left by the Arab Israeli war.

Real estate projects abound on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee in former Syrian territory (Times of Israel, 14 June 2020):

An Israeli cabinet minister on Sunday said the government approved plans to build a new village on the Golan Heights named after US President Donald Trump.

Settlements Minister Tzipi Hotovely wrote on Facebook that her ministry will start preparations for Ramat Trump — Hebrew for “Trump Heights” — to house 300 families.

These locations are popularized by Israeli tourist promotions showing Mount Hermann, Israeli settler developments, busy roadways and peaceful fields which were once Syrian farmlands.

 

Image: Land of the Bible-Israeli Tourism

 

Amidst this real estate hype, BBC News (16 June 2019) noted the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the naming ceremony for the Trump Heights subdivision:

At a naming ceremony on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu said Trump Heights honoured Mr Trump for his decision to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the territory.

Building work has yet to begin but a sign bearing Mr Trump’s name and US and Israeli flags was unveiled.

Critics called the move a publicity stunt with no legal authority.

Israel seized the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. In March, the US became the first country to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the area since Israel effectively annexed it in 1981.

“This is a historic day,” said Mr Netanyahu, hailing President Trump as “a friend of Israel”.

US Ambassador David Friedman, who attended the ceremony, called the move “well deserved, but much appreciated”.

Despite the presence of these settlements in the Golan Heights, Israel objects to similar annexations by Turkish militias in contested areas in Northern Syria. The competing insurgent mix of militias in Syria is based largely on outside support from Turkey, Kurdish separatists, Saudi Arabia and Israel as the US winds back its presence to the protection of oil fields in North eastern Syria with pipeline links into Iraq.

In the year after most US troops were withdrawn from Northern Syria, there had been anticipations of better times with the arrival of tourism in localities under the control of the Assad government. The historic water wheels were restored at Hama during 2020:

 

Image: Arab Weekly 8 July 2020

 

Prior to the Syrian Civil War in 2011, tourism was a major source of foreign currency with the arrival of 8.5 million tourists in 2010.

COVID-19 has added to Syria’s domestic woes and to displaced people from a range of conflicts across the Middle East Region (Red Cross Media).

As might be expected, Syria is opting for the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine (Middle East Monitor, 22 December 2020) as Syria struggles with its own COVID-19 challenges:

 

 

Pragmatic initiative can be reactivated. Land routes for travel across the Middle East Region are likely to assist in breaking the isolation of Syria. Syria has had success with the restoration of motorways which foster better ties with a more independent Iraq (SANA, 27 December 2020):

 

 

Such proactive images conceal the continued isolation of Syria when the winter sun could be attracting millions of expatriates and tourists.

 

 

Time will tell just what happens out of all this Machiavellian intrigue. The latest rocket attacks in Yemen against the arrival of a new Saudi backed Yemeni Government show up the fragility of old-time balance of power diplomacy (SBS 31 December 2020).

Hopefully, the Biden Administration can bring some predictability to US policies for the Middle East Region. Adding a loyalty award for Australia’s loyalty to the US Global Alliance should not be a badge of honour as hoped for by the US Embassy in Canberra, 10 November 2020:

 

 

A multicultural nation which claims to be now One and Free should be above such partisan diplomatic politics which stoke up the international tensions as covered in the risk and opportunity assessments from the pro-NATO Atlantic Council.

 

Denis Bright is a member of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA). Denis is committed to citizen’s journalism from a critical structuralist perspective. Comments from insiders with a specialist knowledge of the topics covered are particularly welcome.

 

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2020 is over! And it’s about time, too!

Oh what a miserable year!

Bush fires, recession, a pandemic causing death and economic destruction, social upheaval, the country being run by a hopelessly incompetent government… 2020 had it all.

The AIMN has written widely on all of these disasters – as have all media and news sites – so I see no need to revisit them here. Let’s look forward, not in the rear-view mirror.

What might 2021 bring? I like to believe it will bring hope. Hope that our governments and our people have learnt from the disasters of 2020 and that we can all be better prepared for when disasters might strike again, be it 2021 or the years beyond.

Yes, the pandemic will still be with us but we all hope that in 2021 we can defeat it. 2020 has been a wasted year, but let’s not waste what we have learnt from it.

I feel for our friends in lands beyond, though, who will enter 2021 in turmoil. In the USA it is apparent that Donald Trump will not depart from the the White House willingly or peacefully, and he has stirred his base up to the point where violence may erupt. All will be revealed in the next couple of weeks as we see which path the country takes. And in the UK the Brexit deal will have the member countries in a state of confusion. Boris is a master at that.

Moving on…

In 2019 the readership of The AIMN increased by 8 per cent over 2018, and in 2020 it grew by another 6 per cent. Clearly we have had much to write about! It would be different in a perfect world – what would we have to say? It is ironic that our two consecutive years of growth have been driven by the wrongs of the world, the disasters that have befallen us, and poor governance.

Whatever path 2021 takes you on we hope it is filled with good health and happiness. After the miserable year just passed, it can only get better.

We look forward to seeing you all again in 2021. We always enjoy and treasure your good company and the contribution you make to The AIMN.

Michael and Carol.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Same Procedure as Every Year: The Story of ‘Dinner for One’

Memories are thick of this: the respectful, even reverential German introduction of a comedy sketch; the scratchy string orchestral music that adds a layering of anticipation. Black-and-white film. Dining room, white tablecloth, silver chandeliers. The names Freddy Frinton and May Warden. An English show broadcast on German public TV networks without subtitles. Family members, perched, sprawled, slumped, comfortable, lightly sozzled, eyes glued to an 18-minute sketch with only two actors: the attentive butler by the name of James, played by the roguish Frinton; the spinster lady of the birthday moment, Miss Sophie, played by Warden.

This 90th birthday is characterised by notable absences. After nine decades, mortality has done its bit of gathering. The venerable lady has been left the sole survivor of a circle of beloved friends. The bawdy subtext here is that they are all males and must have been a rather naughty crew at that. She misses them, and longs for their company.

The task for James seems, at least initially, innocuous. The table, with Miss Sophie at the head, is set for the spectral guests: Admiral von Schneider, Mr Pomeroy, Sir Toby and Mr Winterbottom. James assumes the role of each of the departed, standing before each empty seat for each course that will be served. “They are all here, Miss Sophie,” begins James. But his task is not merely to mimic them and assume their persona with conviction; he is also required to drink their share. The task is formidable, challenging both sobriety and liver. A different set of drinks must accompany the servings for the phantom guests: sherry with the mulligatawny soup; white wine with the fish; champagne with the bird; port with the fruit.

Through the course of the sketch, there are the tireless favourites for the audience. James trips over the head of a tiger skin rug with stubborn, unfailing regularity. Drinks are poured and drunk with gusto. Drinks are spilled. There is slurring. Before each course, the butler always inquires with increasing desperation: “The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” The insistent reply follows: “The same procedure as every year, James.”

Dinner for One, or the 90th Birthday, was recorded in 1963 and found a ceremonial home across Germany’s regional public TV channels. Scribbled by Lauri Wylie in the 1920s, it had its London premier in 1948, making its way to Broadway in 1953. Frinton secured the rights in the 1950s. Both he and May had been performing it as a routine seaside resort gig, very much a music hall staple destined for modest obscurity. In 1963, German TV presenter Peter Frankenfeld, on a mission of cultural reconnaissance, was in one of those audiences in Blackpool. He fell in love. Frinton and May were invited to perform on his program Guten Abend before a live Hamburg audience at the Theater am Besenbinderhof, where it was recorded by NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk). In 1972, the ritual of showing the program as a New Year’s Eve special was established.

The date, Dinner for One retains the Guinness World Record for the most repeated program in history. It has created a commemorative industry in Germany. It spurs drinking competitions and inspires cookery. It has even inspired productions in various dialects: Hessian and Kölsch.

In 2017, more than 12 million Germans saw the show. But it remains unknown, for the most part, to audiences in the US and UK. Of the Anglophone states, Australia has had a decent, smattering acquaintance. Northern European states in Scandinavia and the Baltic are also familiar. It took till December 31, 2018 for the production to be shown in Britain.

Dinner for One has managed to emerge from its subcultural cocoon in music hall entertainment and heavy German consumption. Netflix took interest in it in 2016, if only to promote its own programs with a parody. The imaginary guests, on that occasion, were Saul Goodman (Michael Pan in Better Call Saul); Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey in House of Cards), Pablo Escobar (Wagner Moura in Nacros) and Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba in Orange in the New Black).

As with all rituals, viewing Dinner for One comes with its presumptive historical and cultural baggage. For German audiences, this is a British museum piece with perennial relevance. There is more than a tang of hierarchy to it. Frinton and May converse in a setting of nostalgia and the whiff of a departed empire. Stefanie Bolzen, the UK and Ireland correspondent for Die Welt, was not wrong to wonder if the sketch had re-enforced such assumptions celebrated by the staunchest Brexiteers. The UK is leaving the European Union, but this little jewel of British slapstick remains the emotional preserve of German audiences, so much so it has become indigenous.

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The Julian Assange Pardon Drive

The odds are stacked against Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks publisher who faces the grimmest of prospects come January 4. On that day, the unsympathetic judicial head of District Judge Vanessa Baraitser will reveal her decision on the Old Bailey proceedings that took place between September and October this year. Despite Assange’s team being able to marshal an impressive, even astonishing array of sources and witnesses demolishing the prosecution’s case for extradition to the United States, power can be blindly vengeful.

Such blindness is much in evidence in a co-authored contribution to The Daily Signal from this month. The authors are insipidly predictable: national security and technology types with comic strip names (Charles “Cully” Stimson; Klon Kitchen) and rule of law advocates who seemingly campaign against their own brief (John G. Malcolm). Having not bothered to read the evidence submitted at the extradition trial, the authors are obedient to a fictitious record. This includes allegations that WikiLeaks harmed US diplomatic relations; the stubborn libel that Assange’s actions, far from exposing US atrocities, led to a loss of life; and the disruption of essential “intelligence sources and methods.” (Accountability can be expensive.)

The authors fail to appreciate the dangers of the Assange case to the First Amendment, free speech and the publication of national security information. They merely claim to be free speech defenders, only to neatly hive Assange’s activities off from its protections. Free speech is a fine thing as long as it is innocuous and inconsequential. “Suppression of speech, in a free society, is wrong. But Assange is not a free-speech hero.”

By internationalising the reach of the Espionage Act, the indictment against Assange threatens the global documentation and reporting of classified information in the public interest. To put it in elementary terms for the legions of ignorant security hacks, granting the request will legitimise the targeting of US citizens. Bruce D. Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, summarises the implications. “If the UK grants the request to deliver Assange, UK prosecutors could make similar arguments in an effort to extradite a journalist in the US for violations of its Official Secrets Act, which explicitly criminalizes the publication of leaked military or intelligence information.”

Of central importance in the Assange pardon drive is the cultivation of vanity and, it follows, the appeal to posterity. “We write to request that you put a defining stamp to your presidential legacy by pardoning Julian Assange or stopping his tradition,” urge the signatories of yet another letter to Trump on the subject. The heavy artillery is impressive, including five Nobel Prize laureates: Northern Irish peace activist Mairead Maguire, human rights activist Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, Iranian political activist and lawyer Shirin Ebadi, feminist campaigner Rigoberta Menchú Tum and Austrian novelist Peter Handke.

Appropriately, the signatories impress upon Trump that the case “threatens the constitutional protections that Americans hold dear” and suggest that history will be kind should he show sound judgment in the case. “By offering a pardon, to put a stop to the prosecution of Assange, your presidency will be remembered for having saved First Amendment protections for all Americans.”

The approach taken by the UN Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment is more expansive and detailed. In his appeal to Trump on December 22, Nils Melzer outlines the high price Assange has paid “for the courage to publish true information about government misconduct throughout the world.” The deteriorating health condition of the publisher is noted, including the risks posed to him by the COVID-19 pandemic at Belmarsh prison in London.

The relevant pointers are there: that Assange is not an enemy of the American people; his work and that of WikiLeaks “fights secrecy and corruption throughout the world and, therefore, acts in the public interest of the American people and of humanity as a whole.” He had not hacked or pilfered the information he published, having “obtained it from authentic documents and sources in the same way as any other serious and independent investigative journalists conduct their work.”

Melzer then seeks to appeal to Trump the man, pleading for Assange’s release as the president had “vowed… to pursue an agenda of fighting government corruption and misconduct; and because allowing the prosecution of Mr Assange to continue would mean that, under your legacy, telling the truth about such corruption and misconduct has become a crime.”

Finally, the personal touch is being fashioned for the president, spearheaded by Assange’s fiancée Stella Moris. Her appearance on Fox News with host Tucker Carlson was primed for Trump’s hearty consumption, laden with hooks of catchy lingo. This made perfectly good sense; there is still some time to go before the world’s first Fox News president vacates the White House. “Once he [Assange] gets to the US,” feared Moris, “he will be in the hands of the Deep State. That’s why I pleaded with the President to show the mercy the Deep State will not show Julian if he is extradited.”

Carlson was certainly convinced, taking a position at odds with various national security wonks that pullulate the US airwaves. “Whatever you think of Julian Assange and what he did, he is effectively a journalist. He took information and he put it in a place the public could read it.” The Australian was spending time in prison for releasing documents “he did not steal,” merely providing a platform for their dissemination, showing that “the US government was illegally spying on me, and everybody else in this country.”

The seeds for a stinging provocation against the US imperium have been sown. Whether they take firm root and grow in the self-absorbed mind of the commander-in-chief is another matter.

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The NDAA, Trump and Vetoing the Military Industrial Complex

For decades, the National Defense Authorization Act has been the lifeblood of the US imperium, guaranteeing a flow of money across the military. A better term for such a bill would use the word offence in it, but lawmakers and industry lobbyists find that granting reserves of cash is better justified when one is constantly threatened and vulnerable. Be it midget adversaries, deviant non-state actors or an enemy yet to be born, defence will have its share of funding provided the threat is sufficiently inflated.

Mindful of this cardinal principle, Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Warden toldDefense News last month that defence spending was “largely threat-driven and today’s threat environment warrants strong defense.” It would come as little surprise that Warden sees threats everywhere, “intensifying” in nature. Peace is distinctly not her business.

The NDAA for 2021 allocates $740 billion for national defence spending. Congress passed it without much fuss this month, the House favouring it by 335-78-1, and the Senate 84-13. On December 11, it wound its way to the desk of President Donald Trump.

Trump proved moody. In another swansong act of defiance, the president stroppily vetoed the bill. “My administration recognizes the importance of the Act to our national security,” he outlined in a message to Congress. “Unfortunately, the Act fails to include critical national security measures, includes provisions that fail to respect our veterans and our military’s history, and contradicts efforts by my Administration to put America first in our national security and foreign policy actions.”

The substantive reasons are various, not all of them focused on shrinking the imperium’s waistline. They are mixed with spite and personal irritation and prove to be, at points, typically erratic. Consider his objection regarding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, left untouched by the NDAA. That this provision, providing legal immunity to social media platforms for hosting the content of users, should have ever arisen in a defence bill suggests a mind gone awry. But relations between the president and social media platforms have been icy of late.

Hoping for a blow to be struck, the NDAA would have been Trump’s sock to the jaw of Silicon Valley. “Your failure to terminate the very dangerous national security risk of Section 230,” he scolded lawmakers, “will make our intelligence virtually impossible to conduct without everyone knowing what we are doing at every step.” He also took issue with the section for facilitating “the spread of foreign disinformation online, which is a serious threat to our national security and election integrity.”

On other matters, Trump is already mounting the stump and hollering to voters. He called the bill “a ‘gift’ to China and Russia.” The NDAA also included “language that would require the renaming of certain military installations.” Names from the Confederacy era are set for the scrubbing in a moral fit of historical erasure, because militarism has to keep up with the trends.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was the key figure behind the provision, extolling the fetish of the mystical Union while denigrating the separatists for their dubious moral code. On the Senate floor, she claimed that it was “time to put the names of those leaders who fought and killed US soldiers in defence of a perverted version of America where they belong, as footnotes in our history books, not plastered on our nation’s most significant military installations.” Ten military bases are up for the cleansing, among them Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Fort Lee in Virginia, Ford Hood in Texas and Fort Polk in Louisiana.

Trump, for his part, was against “politically motivated efforts like this to wash away history and to dishonour the immense progress our country has fought for in realising our founding principles.” Up to a point, he is right. The US imperium, as with other empires, was most principled in devastating indigenous populations while appropriating and buying land along the way.

While reserving the most important reason for vetoing the NDAA for last, Trump at least takes the position of opposing those “endless wars, as does the American public.” In his reading of the bill, the president’s discretion in reducing garrison numbers across the globe would effectively be stymied by a consultative process. It was not for Congress to say “many troops to deploy and where.”

While US presidents tend to be the permissible and public face of the military industrial complex, Trump has been unwilling to play the role consistently. Troop reductions have been promised in Afghanistan, South Korea and Germany. The Pentagon is both nervous and agitated. So is Congress, which wishes to keep its oar in when it comes to international military engagements.

Restating the imperial orthodoxy, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) wished for all his fellow lawmakers to keep the empire running on gas. “The NDAA has become law every year for 59 years straight because it’s absolutely vital to our national security and our troops.” He hoped that all his “colleagues in Congress will join me in making sure our troops have the resources and equipment they need to defend this nation.”

The House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is also keen to keep the machine moving, trumpeting a familiar militarist theme. “By choosing to veto the NDAA,” claimed Smith in a statement, “President Trump has made it clear that he does not care about the needs of our military personnel and their families.” Smith has become something of a golden boy for the military industrial complex, raking in donations from such defence contractors as Textron, a leading producer of cluster bombs.

Trump’s reasons for vetoing the bill are not philosophically rigorous or cerebrally hefty. But those opposing greater and deeper funds for the military industrial complex should always find some room to salute a commander-in-chief willing to obstruct the passage of bills that foster aggression and feed a complex that serves to hinder, rather than advance, security. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is happy to go along with delaying and blocking the NDAA. “I very much am opposed to the Afghan war, and I’ve told them [fellow senators] I’ll come back to try to prevent them from easily overriding the president’s veto.”

Congress, in the main, has no such wish. The bill is in step with the incoming Biden administration’s promise of a more meddlesome brand of US interventionism. Suitably bribed, the respective chambers have till before noon on January 3, 2021 to override the presidential veto, prior to the 117th Congress being sworn in. The House is already considering overriding the veto. Devotees of endless wars will be lobbying with determination and intent that this takes place.

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Never Belonging: George Blake’s Spy Exploits

Filling the espionage ranks with legions of the non-belonging comes with its share of risk. The process is counter-intuitive, putting stock in skill and aptitude above the potential compromise of loyalty and divergence. Eventually, such a recruit might find a set of closely guarded principles.

The son of a Sephardic Jew and Dutch Protestant might well count as excellent material for British intelligence but George Behar ended up condemned in Britain and the toast of the now defunct Soviet Union. George Blake, as he came to be known, along with that other great British export of betrayal, Kim Philby, was always convinced that to authentically betray, you had to belong. That belonging came in loyalty to the Soviet Union. As Russian President Vladimir Putin declared solemnly on Blake’s passing this month, “The memory of this legendary person will be preserved forever in our hearts.”

The clandestine world of the Rotterdam-born Blake began early. He joined the Dutch resistance during World War II, serving as a courier after obtaining a set of forged papers. Under British instruction, he travelled through Brussels and Paris to unoccupied France, and made his way through neutral Spain, enduring a three-month period of imprisonment before making it to Britain via Gibraltar in January 1943. A spell with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve led to his enlistment into the ranks of British intelligence in 1944. There, he was charged with deciphering coded messages from the Dutch resistance.

After the war, his intelligence brief followed the pattern that would lead to his imminent conversion. He was tasked with keeping an eye on the Soviet forces in occupation of East Germany, a task he excelled at. He undertook courses in Russian at Cambridge. Then came the Communist states to the east: North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and the Soviet Far East. Stationed in South Korea just before the outbreak of the Korean War in November 1948, he was given the herculean mission of creating networks within North Korea itself. In June 1950, he was captured by forces of the DPRK and interned with a coterie of diplomats and missionaries.

The internment period of 34 months proved critical. Blake claimed that his push towards the communist cause came during this time, a reaction to particularly brutal war methods, notably those used by the US Air Force. “It made me feel ashamed of belonging to these overpowering technical superior countries fighting against what seemed to be quite defenceless people.” The destruction of Korean villages, and a reading diet of Karl Marx, granted him alibis for the cause. “I felt it better for humanity if the communist system prevailed, that it would put an end to war.”

The credulous might think this to be the case, but Rebecca West, in her eminently interesting study of treachery in The Meaning of Treason, suggests a conversion during his time in the Dutch underground. Blake himself remained cryptic in his later days. “It is no longer of particular importance to me whether my motivations are generally understood or not,” he told the BBC’s Gordon Corera a decade before his death.

On his return to England in 1953 as a free man, Blake had already been recruited as a Soviet agent. His status as a full-blooded double agent was affirmed from his time in Berlin, where he was sent in 1955 with the mission of recruiting Soviet double agents.

For almost a decade Blake passed on information to his KGB handlers both bountiful and rich. According to a US estimate, 4,720 pages of documentary material made its way into Soviet hands between April 1953 and April 1961. It unmasked 40 MI6 agents in Eastern Europe. Highly placed agents working for Western agencies such as General Robert Bialek, Inspector General of the People’s Police in East Germany, were captured, suffering death or imprisonment.

Image from pressreader.com

Blake’s work also enabled the Soviets to score successes against the US Central Intelligence Agency. The late CIA case officer William Hood is convinced that Blake played a salient role in unmasking Peter Popov, an officer of the GRU, the Soviet Union’s military intelligence service and, it so happens, a CIA agent.

The greatest of blows, however, came in the exposure of the CIA Berlin Tunnel, which featured the tapping of three Soviet communications cables, an operation lasting 11 months and 11 days over 1955-6. Conducted jointly with British intelligence, Operation Gold involved the digging of a 1,476 feet tunnel six feet in diameter from West Berlin into the communist eastern sector of the city. Blake had foreknowledge of the tunnel, but a decision was made by the Soviets to prevent its initial exposure so as not to draw suspicion to their valuable mole. The discovery of the project was duly engineered as an accident; British and US intelligence were left out of pocket, furnished with a trove of useless disinformation.

Blake’s undoing came with the defection of Polish secret service officer, Michael Goleniewski. On his recall to London, he was arrested and pleaded guilty to five counts of passing information to the Soviet Union, breaching the Official Secrets Act. The case proved exceptional in a few respects. There was the severity of the sentence: 42 years. There was the breach of convention: the call made by the Lord Chief Justice Hubert Parker, to the then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to discuss the case. Even Macmillan was shocked by the decision. “The LCJ has passed a savage sentence – 42 years!” The Lord Chief Justice thought the time fitting, as Blake had, in his opinion, rendered much of the best efforts by British intelligence useless.

The sentencing came as a rude shock to Blake, having expected a term of 14 years. It also served to inspire support for his cause. “As a result, I found a lot of people who were willing to help me for the reason they thought it was inhuman.”

He would not be disappointed. In 1966, with the assistance of two anti-nuclear campaigners, Michael Randle and Pat Pottle, aided by Sean Burke, a colourful Irish petty criminal, Blake made his escape from London’s Wormwood Scrubs. Both Bourke and Blake were smuggled out of Britain and to East Germany. Blake’s final destination would be the Soviet Union, where a colonel’s rank with the KGB, awards and belonging awaited.

The British establishment was left reeling. Randle and Pottle went on to justify their actions to save Blake from a sentence “vicious and indefensible, reflecting no credit on British justice but rather the obsessions of the Cold War, and the hypocrisy and double standards over espionage by ‘our’ side and ‘theirs’.” To have spied for the Soviet Union was “no more reprehensible, morally or politically, than much of the activity of Western Intelligence Agencies.”

One CIA note on Blake’s escape is sour. “The facts of the escape demonstrated beyond doubt that it was engineered by the Soviets. The buoying effect upon the morale of Soviet spies everywhere can be easily imagined.” Once in the business of espionage, everything must have a sinister design, an architectural base upon which to reap success and failure. One could always blame those other worthy agents of history, incompetence and complacence. The journalist Philip Knightley, an accomplished student on the subject of espionage, points to a third: opportunity.

The exploits of the Cambridge set – Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, John Cairncross and Philby – soiled British intelligence. But Blake proved more devastating than all of them, though measuring that contribution is a near impossible task. Britain’s secret services, as Andrew Boyle concludes, were embarrassed for both the harsh judicial sentence against Blake and the fact that his case “made, and still makes, the SIS the laughing-stock of the world.” The skilled spy outwitted the SIS and CIA; the KGB gave him deserved recognition. Had it not been for Blake’s own confession – the SIS having authorised him to maintain close connections with the Soviets – he might never have been nabbed.

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Endings for Beginnings: Reaching a Brexit Deal

It was a hurried dash and came just before the end of the transition period. The UK and the European Union have reached an agreement on the torturously long road of Brexit. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson can take the deal back to his constituents and Parliament, claiming he achieved something less horrendous than a no-deal Brexit. EU diplomats can claim to have also chalked up some vital concessions.

Johnson’s lectern mood was stubbornly confident. On December 24, he reiterated the reclaiming of British sovereignty, making the dubious assertion that “we left on Jan 31 with that oven-ready deal.” (The ingredients for the meal still had yet to be gathered.) Now, he could boast that, “we have completed the biggest trade deal yet, worth £660 billion,” likening it to a “Canada style free trade deal between the UK and the EU” that would preserve jobs in the country.

UK goods and components could continue being sold without tariffs and quotas within the EU market. There would “be no palisade of tariffs on Jan 1. And there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade.” But even better, praised Johnson, the deal “should allow our companies and our exporters to do even more business with our European friends.” Keeping in mind his Brexit audience, he insisted that Britain had “taken back control of laws” and “of every jot and tittle of our regulation.” British laws would not be subjected to EU scrutiny; the European Court of Justice would no longer be an irritating final arbiter of UK cases. British standards – from the biosciences to financial services – would be British and British alone.

From the start, the negotiating strategy of the Johnson team was askew. Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya underlined the point in an interview with Politico earlier this month. At its heart, Brexit had revealed “the illusion of independence and the need to manage interdependence.” Trade agreements, to that end, were designed to shore up the latter, not assert the former.

The concept of interdependence, that great evil of the harder Brexiter line, survives. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen emphasised the point in her remarks on the deal. While the debate had “always been about sovereignty,” the substantive question to ask was what sovereignty meant in the twenty-first century. Little Englander types would have found her thoughts on this disconcerting, even menacing. “For me, [sovereignty] is about being able to seamlessly do work, travel, study and do business in 27 countries.” It entailed a collective voice and “pulling each other up – instead of trying to get back to your feet alone.” The deal had not altered that reality. “We are one of the giants.”

When it comes to the level playing field argument, the European Commission could also claim that fair competition would endure, and that “effective tools” were on hand to deal with market distortions. Cooperation with the UK would continue “in the fields of climate change, energy, security and transport.” But the equivalence arrangement will be problematic for that most vital of UK exports, the financial services industry. Matters of data protection and other financial standards will have to fall into line with the EU. On such matters, the UK can hardly claim to have embraced total, unadulterated freedom.

The same goes for the European Court of Justice, which will continue to retain a small foothold in the UK. The ECJ will be the highest tribunal of appeal for Northern Ireland, which has been given special status in the agreement. That trouble plagued province will also continue to be subject to EU single market and customs union rules.

In cases where the EU and the UK have disagreements – for instance, on the issue of harmful divergence from common standards as they stand on December 31, 2020 – a dispute resolution mechanism will be triggered. A binding arbitration system will come into play. This dampens the sovereign mad enthusiasts in Britain. Yes, the agreement speaks against tariffs, but they can still be used and will link the EU and Britain for years to come.

On the nagging point of fishing rights, UK negotiators had to relent. The value of fish caught by EU vessels in UK waters will be reduced by a more modest 25%. Von der Leyen expressed satisfaction, as well she might: “We have secured a five and a half years of full predictability for our fishing communities and strong tools to incentivise it to remain so.” Johnson could only call the period “a reasonable transition period,” and assure “great fish fanatics in this country that we will as a result of this deal be able to catch and eat quite prodigious quantities of extra fish.”

In reality, this means that the spirited message of taking back control of the seas has failed, at least for the period when adjustments will have to be made. This caused considerable displeasure to Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, who accused British diplomats of dropping “the ball before the line” in a “fisheries sell-out.”

While the deal is unlikely to be sabotaged when Parliament is reconvened, members will only have the shortest of time to consider a bulky document. As one MP told Fraser Nelson of The Spectator, the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost “might have missed something. He’s a good negotiator but he’s not Einstein.” The EU also had the better legal eagles; those from the UK had never wanted Britain to leave the EU in the first place.

Staunch remainers such as Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon see little to merit the arrangements, positioning her nation for the spring. “Before the spin starts, it’s worth remembering that Brexit is happening against Scotland’s will.” No deal would be able to “ever make up for what Brexit takes away from us. It’s time to chart our own future as an independent, European nation.”

 

 

In concluding her statement, von der Leyen drew upon T.S. Eliot: “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning.” Johnson preferred a rather less profound formulation. “That’s the good news from Brussels, now for the sprouts.”

 

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All I want for Christmas is a New Year

Despite it being a slow, cruel, tortuous year, Christmas seems to have came at us in a rush.

Christmas is but one day a year, and in 2020 perhaps it can be the one day of the year that we can draw breath.

Many of us will be celebrating Christmas at home, just as we’ve spent most of the year since the pandemic wrecked 2020. At home, but of course, with thoughts of our loved ones who cannot be with us. Some of our team at The AIMN family have suffered tragic losses during the year and our thoughts are also with them, as Christmas is the day – more than most others – that these losses are felt the deepest.

But we wish not to speak of sadness.

Christmas, by all traditions, should be a day of joy. And this is what we wish for you.

To all who share our dreams for a better world – our writers, admin, readers, commenters and those who donate to this site – we wish a wonderful Christmas. Please stay safe, and enjoy this day. Your day.

And maybe if we ask nicely, Santa will bring us all the perfect present; a better year next year.

Michael and Carol.

 

BTW, here’s one little lady from the Taylor household who couldn’t wait for Christmas:

 

 

PS: Please, if you have a chance, visit one of our sister sites, The Political Sword for their Christmas message.

 

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Trump’s Pardons for the Festive Season

A flurry of them has been expected, and just prior to Christmas, US President Donald Trump waved his wand of pardon with vigour. On December 22, the president issued fifteen pardons and five commutations. The choices so far have been, to put it mildly, problematic.

The power to pardon can be found in Article II, Section 2, Clause 1 of the US Constitution, a provision, which states, in part, that the President “shall have Power to grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.” That most eminent of judicial heads Chief Justice Marshall described a pardon as “an act of grace, proceeding from the power entrusted with the execution of the laws, which exempts the individual, on whom it is bestowed, from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed.”

Those of curious legal mind will detect the residue of the monarchical prerogative in all of this. The great synthesising authority of English law, William Blackstone, praised the monarchy for having a distinct advantage: “there is a magistrate, who has it in his power to extend mercy, wherever he thinks it is deserved: holding a court of equity in his own breast, to soften the rigour of the general law, in such criminal cases as merit an exemption from punishment.” Justifying the mirroring of this power in the US Constitution, Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist 74 argues that, “Humanity and good policy conspire to dictate, that the benign prerogative of pardoning should be as little as possible fettered or embarrassed.”

The Supreme Court has not been blind to the potential abuse of the power, noting in the prohibition case of Ex Parte Grossman that exercising it “to the extent of destroying the deterrent effect of judicial punishment would be to pervert it.” But Chief Justice William Howard Taft, having himself been a president, thought it unseemly to limit the presidential prerogative. “Our Constitution confers this discretion on the highest officer in the Nation in confidence that he will not abuse it.”

The quality of mercy in Trump’s decisions has been peculiar and personal. Jack Goldsmith and Matt Gluck go so far as to claim that “no president in American history comes close to matching Trump’s systematically self-serving use of the pardon power.” In doing so, the president has also managed to circumvent the 125-year-old Justice Department office of the Pardon Attorney. The pardon attorney acts as sage and counsel in preparing a recommendation on the particular pardon or commutation, conveyed through the Deputy Attorney General. By July 2020, Trump had made 29 of his 34 pardons without the tempering involvement of the pardon attorney.

Consistent to form, his latest round is heavy with the personal. There is Alex van der Zwaan, who was charged with one count of making false statements in connection with the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller on possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. There is George Papadopoulos, also of false statement fame in connection to the Mueller investigation. “Notably,” goes the White House statement, “Mueller stated in his report that he found no evidence of collusion in connection with Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election. Nonetheless, the Special Counsel’s team still charged Mr Papadopoulos with the process-related crime.”

Former Republican lawmakers Chris Collins and Duncan Hunter could also count themselves fortunate. Collins, a firm backer of Trump, pleaded guilty in 2019 to insider trading and was serving a 26-month prison sentence. Such an offence was never going to trouble Trump too much. More interesting was his “particular focus on the wellbeing of small businesses, agriculture, and sciences.” For his part, Hunter was found guilty of one count of misusing campaign funds. This “could have been handled as a civil case via the Federal Election Commission, according to former FEC Commissioner Bradley Smith.”

By any moral or ethical stretch of the imagination, the most execrable use of the pardon power would have to be those issued for the four security guards of the private military firm Blackwater, convicted for the killing of 14 Iraqi civilians in 2007. The butchering took place at Baghdad’s Nisour Square, when the contractors deployed sniper fire, machine guns and grenade launchers at a busy traffic circle. The justification by Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty, and Dustin Heard was crudely predictable: they opened fire only after being ambushed by Iraqi insurgents. The slain and injured women and children, some with hands in the air as they fled the scene, suggested a different account.

Rather banally, the White House statement praises their record: they were inspired to serve their country; they did so in various capacities in Iraq. As security contractors tasked with protecting US personnel, they were merely responsible for “the unfortunate deaths and injuries of Iraqi civilians.” The reputation of the lead Iraqi investigator is also impugned, as he “may have had ties to insurgent groups himself.”

The murderous feats of the four did much to point a finger at how the military security complex had been outsourced to private security firms more concerned with pay packages than the enfeebling irritations of international law. Their convictions were considered by Paul Dickinson, a legal representative for the Nisour Square families “significant” for showing “that paramilitary contractors who commit crimes abroad can be held accountable for their criminal actions.”

But the lobbyists had been busy bringing out the white wash, making the point that the four were sacrificial lambs for appeasement. A website dedicated to defending their cause dubbed them “The Biden Four,” who “were sacrificed for politics and convicted by lies.” Brian Heberlig, lawyer for Slough, was convinced by his brief. “Paul Slough and his colleagues didn’t deserve to spend one minute in prison.” Heard’s attorney, David Schertler, babbled on about honour and his client’s “well-deserved freedom.”

Such softening in the rigour of the general law seemed like a grand reversal in jurisprudence. Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union was quick off the mark in condemning the pardons. The actions of these men had “caused devastation in Iraq, shame and horror in the United States, and a worldwide scandal.” As if it was possible, the office of the president had been further degraded.

Marta Hurtado, spokeswoman for the UN Human Rights Office, was more extensive in her criticism. “Pardoning them contributes to impunity and has the effect of emboldening others to commit such crimes in the future.” The victims of such egregious human rights violations and violations of humanitarian law also had “the right to a remedy. This includes the right to see perpetrators serve punishments proportionate to the seriousness of their conduct.” Taft’s confidence in the probity of executive restraint seems comically quaint.

Consideration for the victims was conspicuously absent in Trump’s reasoning. The Blackwater Pardons are yet another effort on his part to look good with gun toting personnel who served the United States and erred. In the gesture, a faint electoral message could be detected.

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Yuletide Lockdowns and Cancelling Christmas

The mind changer in Downing Street has struck again. With UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the helm, changes of direction are compulsive, natural and sudden. The U-Turn has become the prosaic expectation. “Too often it looks like this government licks its finger and sticks it in the air to see which way the wind is blowing,” Tory MP Charles Walker, deputy chair of the 1922 Committee, lamented in August. “This is not a sustainable way to approach the business of governing and government.”

As unsustainable as it might be, the UK was treated to another round of vigorous U-turning ahead of Christmas by a leader who radiates buffoonery and steady incompetence. On December 16, a decision was taken to ease COVID-19 restrictions over the festive period, a view distinctly at odds with a good number in the scientific establishment.

In November, submissions by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to the government warned that mixing over the Christmas period could well lead to greater spread in the event restrictions were eased. According to a paper by the operational subgroup of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M-O), a relaxation “over the festive period will result in increased transmission and increased prevalence, potentially by a large amount.” The group also warned that, “SARS-Cov-19 has demonstrated high secondary attack rates in households (with estimates of up to 50% in one household infected from one infected member).”

The analysis also warned that the “bubble” policy – one where a certain number of households would be permitted to mix over a set number of days over the Christmas period – was still burdened by risk. “Allowing households to ‘bubble’ (i.e. effectively form a single, larger, isolated household) reduces the risks, but is very susceptible to small numbers of links between bubbles.”

Despite this, Johnson was adamant in his Wednesday press gathering: the festive season would be an exception. “I want to be clear we don’t want to, as I say, to ban Christmas, to cancel it.” To do so “would be frankly inhuman and against the instincts of many in this country.” This was a pointed reference to opponents sceptical about his epidemiological grasp of the dangers. Labour leader Keir Starmer had previously pressed him during Parliament Minister’s Questions about any existing assessments on the impact “on infection rates and increased pressure on the NHS.”

Johnson’s response was far from helpful and, given the circumstances, ill conceived. “I wish he had the guts to say what he really wants to do, which is to cancel the plans people have made and to cancel Christmas. I think that’s what he’s driving at, Mr Speaker.” But even conservative forums such as The Spectatorhad to admit that the prime minister was taking an awful gamble: “that people will suddenly start adhering to government guidance and severely restrict their contact with their families, even though the law does not force them to do so.”

In his December 16 speech, Johnson praised the rollout of the vaccination programme. With 138,000 recipients of the first dose, he felt there was “no doubt we are winning and we will win our long struggle against the virus.” The reproduction rate of the virus had been brought below 1. But Britons had to hold their nerve. Infections were still rising in parts of the country. London had moved into Tier 3 restrictions.

An appeal was made to those in the UK “to think hard and in detail about the days ahead and whether you can do more to protect yourself and others.” Never tiring of confusing the citizenry, such regulations were to involve limits of three households meeting over five days. “I want to stress that these are maximums, not targets to aim for.” Think, he pleaded, of having a smaller and shorter Christmas.

On December 19, the mind changer was again in full flow. The very idea of holding Christmas was challenged and Johnson found himself doing exactly what he had accused the Labour leader of wishing. “I am sorry that the situation has deteriorated since I last spoke to you three days ago.” The reason given by Johnson in his address was ominous. Data from the advisory group on New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats (NERVTAG) had revealed the emergence of a new variant of the virus. “NERVTAG’s early analysis suggests the new variant could increase R [the reproduction number] by 0.4 or greater. Although there is considerable uncertainty, it may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant.”

This new variant had been skipping at speed through London, the South East and East of England. As things stood, it was seemingly not more lethal or causing illness of greater severity. This new incarnation was also unlikely to blunt the effect of the vaccines. But it was clear to Johnson that not taking immediate steps would lead to soaring infections, straining the NHS and causing the deaths of “many thousands more.”

The consequence: London, the South East and the East of England were to move into tier 4. These have become generally familiar: the necessity of staying at home and working from home; the closure of non-essential services in retail, indoor gyms and leisure facilities. People are not permitted to enter or leave Tier 4 areas; and residents in such designated zones cannot stay overnight away from home. Exemptions apply for exercise, childcare and those who cannot work from home.

The corollary of such restrictions was that Britons could not “continue with Christmas as planned.” Tier 4 restrictions meant that households were to be self-contained, “though support bubbles will remain in place for those at risk of loneliness or isolation.” To add just another sliver of confusion, household mixing would be confined to Christmas Day for those in Tier 3 zones.

Not all gloom, Johnson unfurled the metaphorical flag. “The UK was the first country in the western world to start using a clinically approved vaccine.” Nothing, however, could take away from the fact that Johnson had again been outmanoeuvred by facts and circumstance.

In the scathing opinion of The Observer, it was a decision taken too late, causing grief to families “who have been encouraged to look forward to Christmas for weeks by a prime minister who, in characteristic form, foolishly over-promised in an attempt to avoid being the bearer of bad news.”

In the meantime, Johnson will have to deal with an increasing number of irate Tory backbenchers keen to recall parliament. Walker is one them, increasingly suspicious of the government’s motives. “The Government, in my view, knew on Thursday, possibly even Wednesday, that they were going to pull the plug on Christmas but they waited till Parliament had gone.” A Johnson tactic, through and through.

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Brexit, Billionaires and the Little People

Capitalism and patriotism do not share the same stable. When those in the business of accumulating profits suggest a love for flag and country, be wary. Wars might take place and trade agreements struck by governments, but the capitalist will go for the market that matters, whatever the flag.

A recent exponent of this proposition is Sir Jim Ratcliffe, a billionaire who was a strong advocate for Britain leaving the European Union. In approaching negotiations with the EU after the referendum result, he had an instruction to Britain’s diplomats: “We must listen, we must be unwaveringly polite and retain our charm. But there is no room for weakness or crumpling at 3am when the going gets tough and when most points are won or lost.” He praised Britain’s “decent set of cards”: London as a key financial centre; companies such as Mercedes continuing to sell cars in the country.

This sentiment was echoed by other wealthy British billionaires who simply assumed that the consequences of a UK exit from the EU were going to be minor ripples rather than a massive shake. It was the sort of advice given by occupants of mansions and gilded penthouses, gradually ossifying with time. Lord Anthony Bamford, Chairman of JCB and Construction Equipment, claimed from his summit of comfort that “European markets are important to many UK businesses, including JCB, and this will not change.” The UK, being the “world’s fifth largest trading nation” had “little to fear from leaving the EU.”

Ditto the Barclay twins Sir David and Sir Frederick and John Caudwell, founder of Phones4u. Caudwell remains dogmatically convinced that the EU was thieving from Britons, claiming that the “Brussels Bully Boys” had benefited “by £80 billion in trade benefit in trading with Britain,” plundered the UK’s fishing waters and obtained “£8 billion in net value from the country.”

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote in 2016, Ratcliffe’s business mind initially turned to the Union Jack and all matters Britannic. He had hoped to build the Grenadier off-roader, inspired by the original Land Rover Defender, at a new plant at Bridgend in south Wales. To do so showed, according to Ratcliffe, “a significant expression of confidence in British manufacturing.” It also showed a leap of faith on his part, given how he had made his previous fortune. As he told the Times in September 2017, “Maybe it’s a little bit arrogant for a chemical company to think it can produce a world class 4×4 but I think we can have confidence we can manufacture things.”

But Sir Jim, with fine arrogance, was sniffing for other options, as have many firms who have been relocating, closing, and hacking through staff. In July, Ratcliffe’s Ineos Automotive began negotiations to purchase Mercedes-Benz’s Hambach site in Moselle. He was all praise for the facility and the workforce, which he considered “world-class”. His company had “set out a vision to build the world’s best utilitarian 4×4, and at our new home in Hambach, we will do just that.”

Sir Jim Ratcliffe (Image from thesun.co.uk)

The Welsh Labour MP for Ogmore, Chris Elmore, was unimpressed by the extolling of French expertise at the expense of a British workforce. “The highly-skilled and dedicated workforce in Ogmore, Bridgend and surrounding areas would have risen to the challenge.”

Sir James Dyson, despite being warm for his country’s EU departure, has also given Brexiteers a false sense of Making Britain Great Again. In September 2017, the inventor revealed his dreams to employees that “we’ve begun work on a battery electric vehicle, due to launch in 2020.” In immodest terms, this would become something like a European Tesla.

Such optimism began to sour. First came an epiphany on where the cars would be manufactured. In October 2018, Dyson abandoned RAF Hullavington as a production site for the proposed cars, preferring Singapore. Twelve months later, staff were informed that, despite developing “a fantastic electric car,” the project had not proved to be “commercially viable.” That same year, it became clear to all that Singapore was his new love, with reports that Dyson had spent $54.24 million on purchasing the small state’s most expensive penthouse at Guoco Tower.

Dyson had also taken a shine to Singapore’s company tax arrangements. Chief executive for Dyson’s company Jim Rowan suggested that the decision had little to with Brexit or even that thorny issue of tax. He preferred using a hideous term to cover the obvious: “future-proofing”. The billionaire was merely being prudent. But Rowan also tellingly revealed that Dyson should not be considered a British entity so much as a “global technology company.” Patriotism could sod it.

Not to be outdone on the issue of tax, Ratcliffe has also made a critical move on preserving his earnings. Just to show how bound up he feels to his fellow Britons, the Ineos boss has also changed his tax domicile. Brexit Britain will no longer be receiving tax revenue from a man whose wealth is valued at £17.5 billion. His move to Monaco will save him, and lose the UK government, £4 billion. Patriotic he might claim to be, but certainly not when it comes to his wallet. As Jonathan Freedland caustically observes, such figures are part of “a Brexiteer elite who believe that the pain of Brexit is for the little people.”

See also: BREXIT: The Billionaires Coup

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