Tag Archives: UK

Adorable newborn twins hold each other while receiving first bath – video

If any one image ever sent out out a message that some things are more important than football, politics, economics, anything at all, then this one is IT. Just watch and wonder and feel the warmth and love. These are two new human beings, two blank slates that life is yet to write on. But they well know how important they are to each other, and it shows – just click on the “read more” link, look and marvel at it. Fantastic.

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Thatcher Day? No Thanks – Let’s Have a “Heroes Day” Late August Bank Holiday We Can ALL Support

British Heroes Day

British Heroes Day

Britain woke up on Wimbledon Men’s Semi-Final day to one of the dafter ideas of the year – the proposed re-naming of the late August bank holiday as “Margaret Thatcher Day” – shook its collective head incredulously and gaped in frank disbelief that anyone could suggest anything quite so stupidly divisive. Then it sighed with relief as it realised this was just another attention-seeking ploy by one Peter Bone – simply another of those tiresome so-called politicians who define their function by just how best they can publicise their tragically unremarkable careers – and fell instead to wondering whether to have toast or cornflakes for breakfast.

There was never anything to get really upset about, or to take too seriously.  Peter Bone MP has form for this sort of thing, after all.  His record reads a bit like a litany of gibbering lunacy and reactionary stances on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty and conscription. He clearly subscribes to the maxim of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”, and sallies forth on a regular basis, seemingly with one solitary thought in his head: how best to get Peter Bone MP in the news. He’s regularly one of the most enthusiastic expenses claimants, pays his wife top dollar for “secretarial duties” (so he’s big on nepotism too) and has a string of failed businesses and other ventures to his name. He also boasts a consistent record of losing supposedly safe seats in elections, sometimes bucking a national swing to the Tories by actually reducing their vote in the constituency he’s fighting.  All in all – not the sharpest or most useful tool in the box.

So those of us who do not inhabit the lunatic hinterland of the Tory Right can dispose of the latest Bone rant with a derisive sneer and a muffled chortle, and leave the Daily Heil readers to linger lovingly over what is a dead-in-the-water idea right from the start. But it does perhaps raise a legitimate question of the potential dedication of that anonymous late August holiday – many other countries use such occasions to pay tribute to their notable figures, so is it such a bad idea in principle?  Maybe not – so long as we manage to disregard the blithering of Bone and his ilk, and consider instead ideas from the saner end of the spectrum. The fact is that, whoever one might select as a deserving recipient of an honour such as becoming an eponymous bank holiday, the tribute is likely to be divisive to a greater or lesser degree. If you put forward the seemingly obvious name of Winston Churchill, you will hear voices raised by those with an awareness of his role in the General Strike in 1926. Those who espouse a free-market philosophy and howl in horror at the full-employment strategy that underpinned British politics until 1979 will not take kindly to any suggestion that Clement Attlee should be honoured by such a dedication. We’re a nation of many threads – and you can’t please all the people, all the time.

Why not then have a day when people of diverse views and differing affiliations can define their own tributes and make their own dedications – either singly or in smaller or larger groups?  It could be called “Heroes Day” and it would be an occasion for everyone to think of the person who means most to them personally, and commemorate that life and its achievements in the way they consider most fitting. Those who can gather like-minded people together could perhaps organise groups in tribute to a favourite hero or heroine. One group might have their Florence Nightingale Day, another might wish to raise a flag for Arthur Scargill.  Any or all of them could use their hero or heroine to create a local event, or maybe even something on a wider geographical scale.  They could raise funds for an allied cause, and generally do a lot of good.

Heroes Day.  It has a certain ring to it; the inclusive context tends towards the subjective nature of hero-worship, yet there is a patriotic flavour to it as well.  There might of course be a down-side: there will always be individuals or groups who will seek to ignite strife by seeking to glorify the names of those who most would feel are unfit to be remembered or revered.  That could be a knotty problem; the whole concept of a Heroes Day would be for self-expression to have its head and for people to be able to pay tribute as they see fit, and the introduction of any form of censorship would strike a jarringly flat note in that symphony of personal freedom.  It almost brings us back to the ridiculous idea which prompted this article.  Clearly, some careful thought would be needed.

On the whole, though, the idea of a Heroes Day has much to recommend it, and is no more open to abuse than any other such suggestion might be.  To a certain degree, you just have to accept that grown-up people have to be given the latitude to express their views and celebrate their beliefs as they see fit, and the existing laws and by-laws are after all in place already to deal with any extreme manifestations which might crop up.  On the positive side, there could be great benefits which might arise out of the events which could be organised nationwide to celebrate a Heroes Day.  Fund-raising and education spring to mind, cultural events and perhaps even job-creation could be possibilities.  And in these times of gloom, with austerity piling up all about us and threatening to drown us all under it’s murky incoming tide, don’t we need something positive to focus our attention and creativity?  A national holiday, with thousands of individual events dedicated to the whole panoply of heroes, both past and present, a source of pride perhaps comparable to last year’s Olympics and Paralympics, a surge of national well-being in the recognition of who we are and who we have been.  Heroes Day.  I really do think it’s worth considering.  Who would your August Bank Holiday hero or heroine be?

Shaker Aamer: Prisoner 239 and the Ongoing Scandal of Guantánamo Bay

Shaker Aamer's children in 2009

Shaker Aamer’s children in 2009

On 14th February 2002 Shaker Aamer became a father for the fourth time, his British wife Zin Siddique bearing him a son, Faris. On the same day, Aamer was incarcerated in Guantánamo Bay detention camp, where he has remained ever since. He has never met his youngest son, now aged 11. There has been no trial. He has never been convicted of, nor even charged with, any crime.

Shaker Aamer had been working for an Islamic charity in Afghanistan in 2001 when he was captured in Jalalabad and handed over to US officials. He was interrogated and then transported to Guantánamo Bay. Based on the evidence of a fellow detainee, Aamer was believed to have been working as a “recruiter, financier, and facilitator” for al-Qaeda. He has consistently denied all such allegations, and it was argued on his behalf by Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve that the evidence against him was unsafe, being inherently incredible and the product of false promises and even torture.

The Bush administration acknowledged that it had no evidence against Aamer and cleared him for release in 2007. The Obama administration cleared him for release in 2009. Four years on and Shaker Aamer continues to languish in the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, no charges preferred against him, no apparent bar to his release, his physical and mental health declining as he maintains a hunger strike – a glaring example of the most scandalous abuse of natural justice it is possible to imagine.

It has been speculated that Aamer “knows too much” about the goings-on inside the detention camp; allegations of torture have been made over the years, and Aamer himself has referred to instances where he has had his head beaten against a wall, and on one occasion waking from a severe beating to find a pistol on the table in his cell. It may be felt by some that it is the potential embarrassment to the authorities, consequent upon Aamer being free to speak out, that is the reason behind his continuing imprisonment – not any outstanding issue of national security.

Aamer is a charismatic and eloquent man, sometimes described as the “unofficial spokesman of the detainees”, so it may well be that there is something for some people to fear in what he might have to say when he is fully at liberty to speak. Clive Stafford Smith again: “I have known Shaker for some time; because he is so eloquent and outspoken about the injustices of Guantánamo he is very definitely viewed as a threat by the US. Not in the sense of being an extremist but in the sense of being someone who can rather eloquently criticise the nightmare that happened there.” Whatever the reason, there can be no excuse. The governments of the UK and the US agree that Aamer should be released: there is no charge against him; there is no evidence against him. And yet there he remains having already served longer, and in the harshest of prison regimes, than many a convicted murderer.

The US stands accused in the light of this scandalous situation of behaviour it would roundly condemn if perpetrated by a regime in a third-world country. The UK in its ineffectual stance over efforts to release Aamer, stands complicit in such a charge. Neither country emerges with any credit intact over such a blatant injustice, maintained over such a long period of time. The situation demeans both nations, and casts into a dubious light their mantra of “freedom over fundamentalism, democracy over dictatorship”. In allowing the incarceration of Shaker Aamer to continue, along with that of his fellow detainees who are also imprisoned without charge or trial, the leading lights of the western world are in danger of having their credibility shredded by their failure to act where the dictates of justice and the principles of democracy clearly indicate that urgent action is required.

The viewpoint of some of the public in this country, hearing of Shaker Aamed’s plight on national radio, is perhaps predictable in the climate since 9/11 and particularly this past week since the Woolwich atrocity. But it is nevertheless cause for head-shaking despair at the ease with which people are hoodwinked into ignorant bigotry. “Why are you running this item?” demanded one irate texter. “I am white, British and proud.” Others cited pearls of wisdom such as: “no smoke without fire”, or “well he’s not even a British citizen.” Yet this is a human being, acknowledged by successive political leaders of the nation that has deprived him of liberty and family life for eleven years as “clear to be freed”. That has been his status for the last five years. And yet still he rots away in his prison cell, subjected to daily humiliation and ill-treatment, missing his family growing up. It’s difficult to imagine a more appalling Human Rights abuse, and yet this is being condoned and allowed to continue by the self-styled “Leader of the Free World”. And there are people who applaud this, and recoil in apparent disgust at attempts to stand up for the rights of those detained without trial. It’s almost too depressing for words.

It’s not just the US either. Up to 90 Afghans are held without charge at Camp Bastion by UK forces, allegedly “for their own safety”. This has been described as a “mini Guantánamo Bay” – and when the name of a detention camp is used as a byword for all that is wrong with the legal process and principles behind such imprisonment, you know that there is something fundamentally wrong. Guantánamo Bay may not have the genocidally evil resonance of Auschwitz, Dachau or Belsen, but the metaphorical application is not a million miles away.

Shaker Aamer’s family now live in Battersea in South London. His wife has been ill since he was incarcerated eleven years ago; she has suffered from depression and other episodes of mental health disorder. Aamer himself is worried about how things will be when he finally is released, a prospect he views with touching confidence that it will actually happen; yet with some trepidation too. “I may find it difficult to respond to being called Dad,” he says. “Maybe my kids will have to call me Prisoner 239”. In January 2010, his 12-year-old daughter Johina wrote a letter to then UK Premier Gordon Brown asking for his release. This was three years after President Bush cleared him for freedom and one year after Obama did the same thing. In 2011, Aamer’s father-in-law Saeed Siddique commented, “When he was captured, Shaker offered to let my daughter divorce him, but she said, ‘No, I will wait for you.’ She is still waiting.”

Unity, Not Division – The Lessons Of The London Olympics.

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…

Charles Dickens’ summing up of one particular period in history could serve very well as an epitaph for many years in this century, or any other – but few more so, surely, than 2012 – a time of unity, yet a time of division.

This was a year of high peaks and deep troughs. From a United Kingdom perspective, we can look back with pride on a triumphant staging of the Olympic Games and the Paralympics in London last summer. Rarely can a sporting spectacle have so united people; many who would normally fail to show a flicker of interest in sport were swept along on the wave of enthusiasm generated by the performances and achievements of our gallant competitors.

Sport in a wider sense came to the fore as a catalyst for optimism and togetherness. Andy Murray had his best Wimbledon ever, won over cynical hearts with his tears after narrowly losing in the Final, and then swept to Olympic gold and – at last – won a Grand Slam event, the U.S. Open. The Ryder Cup golf team, having dug themselves into a frightful hole, emerged gloriously as winners in the end, a comeback as miraculous as any other in that competition’s history. Even the Test Cricket team, having started the year poorly, ended it victoriously, winning in India for the first time since 1984.

As we are always being told, though, sport isn’t everything. In a wider sense, the news has not been so good. Austerity continues to cast a shadow over all of us – though that shadow appears to be significantly longer for some than for others. The mantra chanted by our rulers is “we’re all in it together”. But the question of just what we’re in, and to what depth, is left open.

What seems undeniable is that there are unsettling signs of division being created in society as a matter of policy. Divide and rule, as the old saw has it. The arithmetic of recovery seems to dictate that the way forward is belt-tightening all round. But some sections of the population are in danger of ending up so emaciated, that however much tighter they might fasten their belts, they’re still liable to be caught with their pants down when the bills fall due.

People claiming benefits – even the majority who claim in-work benefits – are being cast as the villains of the piece when culprits are sought for the mess we’re in. The marginal effect of cuts to income at this end of the scale is far greater than could be perceived by – to pluck an example out of thin air – a City banker. But such cuts are proving to be a popular measure, and this is due largely to the rhetoric directed against those whose circumstances force their reliance on state benefits. And let’s not forget that many of these citizens are just as industrious as anybody else, but are forced by low pay to seek financial assistance from the benefits system. Then of course there are the genuinely disabled. Who’s the real villain here?

Benjamin Franklin, prior to signing the U.S. Declaration of Independence, memorably stated “Gentlemen, we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”. The message that no group of people can succeed and prosper who are divided against themselves, applies equally to society at large. We must beware the toxicity of creating schisms among our populace, however pragmatic an approach this might appear in Whitehall or Fleet Street when harsh measures need to be justified.

The feel-good factor of 2012 was all about unity and pride in the nation and its achievements; anybody who witnessed the Olympics, or Wimbledon, or indeed the traditional Last Night of the Proms could bear witness to that. The contrast with this current process of division is stark, and telling. Any policy that promotes whispering campaigns, suspicion and dislike of any group of people, merely to popularise draconian financial sanctions, is negative and unjust in the extreme. We must surely look to the good of last year, to unity and positivity, as embodied when the nation as a whole got behind our athletes and parathletes. This is the ethos that should drive any programme of recovery, not a selective demonising of a whole, hapless section of society.

If we really are all in it together, then we have to stick together, and succeed together. Surely that is the best lesson 2012 has for this New Year.