Thursday, 29 October 2015

Failing the Intelligence Test

What links the now-discredited charity Kids Company, the English FA's failed bid to host the 2018 World Cup, and the warning by the head of MI5 that we face a "three-dimensional threat" from foreign, domestic and online terrorism? The answer is intelligence. That Labour and Conservative ministers ignored repeated warnings over Kids Company tells us that intelligence is easily dismissed or undervalued if it fails to fit our prior assumptions or current preferences. I suspect the long-awaited Chilcot report, which we are told may appear next summer, will make similar observations in respect of the non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

It is now clear that government ministers, dating back a decade, were aware that Kids Company was badly run and delivering a poor return for public money. It is also clear that the charity's founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, was a skilled manipulator who was able to use the threat of bad media coverage to secure renewed funding. It would be easy to lay the blame fully on Batmanghelidjh, implying that ministers were incapable of standing up to her "bullying" - and no doubt some politicians will delight in monstering Alan Yentob, the chairman of the charity's board of governors, as a way of ensuring collateral damage to the BBC - but this would be to ignore why the government was willing to go along with the charade for so long.

This was not just the Tories commitment to "the big society" blowing up in their faces, or even further evidence of David Cameron's now well-established personal weakness for chancers and media-tarts. New Labour were equally culpable in encouraging and indulging Batmanghelidjh, and the root cause of that appears to have been a combination of her early success in securing sponsorship by City institutions, including Morgan Stanley and Credit Suisse, and a belief in "early intervention" that chimed with New Labour's Sure Start programme. Though Batmanghelidjh was an absurd figure, prone to spouting pseudoscience and claiming to be a practising psychotherapist, she was in tune with the dominant ideology of self-help and business philanthropy, and her egomania probably didn't seem out of place in the circles she frequented.

The apparent admission by Sepp Blatter that Fifa had planned to give the 2018 World Cup finals to Russia all along, and that the English FA therefore wasted millions on its fruitless campaign, might appear a more ridiculous example of self-delusion. Many will no doubt use this as a stick with which to beat Greg Dyke and the FA, but this would be to ignore the wider failure by anyone in the intelligence community to pre-warn the organisation. Remember the "three lions" who went as supplicants to FIFA's Swiss lair? James Bond may be a fiction, but SIS (aka MI6) does exist and is meant to be alert to the UK's foreign interests in all their dimensions, including "national embarrassment". Given the contemporary rumours of a stitch-up and FIFA's track record of corruption, the decision to involve the PM and a royal in the bid was nothing if not a massive intelligence failure.

Which brings us neatly to MI5. Andrew "Nosey" Parker, the head of the outfit, tells us that Islamic State is planning a mass attack on Britain and that the level of the "terror threat" is now greater than at any point in his career. Somewhat more soberly, Ewan MacAskill in the Guardian notes that this, along with some recent PR for GCHQ in the Times, comes ahead of the expected publication of the government’s investigatory powers bill which will indirectly determine remits and budgets. While Parker's plea is little more than a traditional scare, moderated by some typically ambiguous language ("there should be no more MI5 than is necessary to keep the country safe"), the emphasis on the online threat plays to continuing media gullibility on the subject, recently boosted by the "cybercrime" hyperbole around the TalkTalk hack.

MacAskill proposes a judicious approach to the competing claims: "Few suggest that GCHQ and its sister agencies are some sort of Dark Tower, its staff intent on routinely abusing human rights. But there is still a debate to be had over where the line should be drawn between total security and total privacy." The definition of the line assumes the capability to fully exploit the resources on one side of it, but the examples of Kids Company and the 2018 World Cup bid should surely prompt the question of whether the security services (and their political masters) are actually competent in exercising this capability. This is the real "third dimension": there's what we know, what we don't know, and what we choose to unknow.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Walking The TalkTalk

We don't really know that much about the TalkTalk hack, despite lots of speculation and frequent (though often misleading) media utterances by the CEO, Dido Harding. A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack has been cited, along with a failure to encrypt sensitive data, both in transit and storage, plus a SQL (pronounced "sequel") injection attack that would allow a hacker to rummage around a database by manipulating Website URLs. But this in itself tells us little, and some of the issues may be red herrings. Together with the company's inability to get its story straight, this suggests chaos round the back, and that is likely to be down to the organisation and culture of the business rather than specific failings in its IT. 
The initial response to the news of the breach went big on cyber-terrorism, possibly as a result of SPECTRE being in the air, but I doubt this was a highly-professional job. Incompetent businesses tend to get hacked by incompetent hackers: like attracts like. Hazel Blears' idiotic claim that cybercrime was "probably the biggest threat to our economy" rather makes the point. One blatantly self-interested claim was that hackers may "case the joint" using a a DDoS attack: "More frequently, theft of personal data comes on the heels of a DDoS attack, as this activity can be used to map or profile a network's existing security defences, pinpointing holes in security or vulnerabilities to capitalise on".
This is dubious, to say the least. A DDoS attack cannot bring a SQL injection vulnerability to light because by definition it prevents the Web server responding (it's a blockade). The idea of a "distraction" only makes sense if hackers were able to bypass the Web servers (which were gummed up) and attack a database server that was not isolated by a firewall (i.e. logging into the database server directly). This is a possibility, but if the hackers already knew of this vulnerability then they wouldn't need a distraction. It would be like having a spare key to a house and arranging for a game of knocky-nine-doors before attempting entry.
The headline vulnerability (i.e. the one the ordinary punter might understand) was in plain sight, namely the lack of any SSL encryption for IDs and passwords submitted via the Web (you can tell this from URLs that start http instead of https - modern browsers automatically highlight the latter). Though this appears to have been addressed a year ago, the investigation at the time by Paul Moore, an independent security expert, revealed not only TalkTalk's casual and dismissive attitude to security but, inter alia, that their website was running on Apache 2.2.22, suggesting that their Web server had not been updated since 2012.
It is pure speculation on my part, but this could mean that their front-end is built on LAMP, a common suite of technologies used to power transactional websites: Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP. As the middleware (PHP, which handles the to-and-fro with the user, and MySQL, which stores the data) is less likely to have been updated than the operating system (Linux) and Web server (Apache), the vulnerability that led to the data theft could relate to software that is much older than 2012. This could be the case even with other middleware, such as ASP and IIS. This is an issue both because patching/updating will fix vulnerabilities as they come to light, and because the required periodic integration testing gives you an opportunity to uncover weaknesses.
I'd hazard a guess that there hasn't been a root-and-branch review of the front-end since 2010, when TalkTalk was spun off from Carphone Warehouse and floated, following its purchase of Tiscali in 2009. The absence of SSL and the choice of LAMP suggests that, like many B2C companies, Talk Talk are suffering from the legacy of the early 00s when front-end development was often outsourced to web design agencies that lacked proper IT knowledge about data and security (particularly the need to encrypt sensitive data stored in the database, which is trivial to do if you plan it from the off). Many will have used opensource freeware like LAMP to keep costs down, and not bothered to update thereafter.
Another organisational dimension to consider is that TalkTalk has grown as a business through 6 acquisitions over the last decade: Tele2, One.Tel, AOL's UK business, Tiscali, Virgin Media's ADSL business and most recently Tesco/Blinkbox. As anyone who has experienced this will know, it can take a couple of years to fully work through all system integration issues for a single merger, and that assumes you have full boardroom backing for the necessary expenditure and procedural reorganisation. TalkTalk bear all the hallmarks of a business struggling to absorb change and manage the growth in customer numbers. That they also consider themselves "an asset-light business" does not inspire confidence.
One of the most obvious signs of this is a tendency to cling to legacy systems – i.e. hard-pressed staff focus on gaps that need to be plugged and shore up what already works. Combine this with a front-end that may have been bought as a "black box", and limited software infratructure upgrades, and you have an obvious risk. Another sign that this was a disaster waiting to happen would be disaffection among senior IT staff. There are grounds to believe that this was the case at TalkTalk. Their last annual report (June 2015) suggests that they have recognised some of the issues and are taking steps to rectify them, but the hopeful talk of an "IT change agenda" in 2016 (i.e. not yet) and the outsourcing of security to BAE Systems (when data security should be a core competence, even a USP) doesn't suggest a board that really gets it.
As a company, TalkTalk has a track-record of being cavalier about customer service and security, while being overly intrusive in terms of commercial surveillance (see Phorm) and government initiatives around parental controls. In other words, this is a business driven by stock market priorities (i.e. acquisitions as a way of securing growth in market-share), opportunistic about customer exploitation, with a political CEO (she is a Tory peer and longstanding chum of Cameron's), and a disdain for technology. The revelation that Dido Harding thinks the data-theft was due to a "sequential injection" puts her in the same category of idiocy as Hazel Blears. The root cause of the problem is to be found in the boardroom, not the IT department.

[Update 31-Oct: As suspected, the hackers look to have been unsophisticated script-kiddies, not the criminal masterminds of PR lore. It is also looking increasingly clear that the board of TalkTalk were negligent in their approach. They didn't prioritise data security, presumably because they neither understood it nor valued it. There are grounds to suspect that they have avoided investment in their IT infrastructure to meet stock market expectations in respect of short-term profitability.]

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Bitter Tears of Michelle Dorrell

It came too late for Ed Miliband, but the realisation that the Tories are deceitful and venal appears to be spreading among the wider public, witness Michelle Dorrell's now famous tears of rage on Question Time and the unease over the visit of Xi Jinping and the ensuing frottage. The timing shouldn't surprise us. An election campaign will always produce promises that are not kept, for two simple reasons. First, governments look to enact unpopular policies early in their term of office, hoping that inevitable disappointment can be eased by the passage of time. The cuts to family tax credits fall into this category, and they also show the extent to which the Tories remain scarred by the botched implementation of the Poll Tax, which was rolled out to England and Wales late in the final Thatcher term after the bonkers decision to trial it in Scotland first (Cameron was a Tory HQ worker at the time).

Second, circumstances change. Many promises are worthless because government's have far less control over future events than the ideological frame of the media allows. If the last parliament was marked by the Tories' success in blaming Labour for the deficit, it was equally marked by Labour's inability to nail Osborne's repeated failures to meet his own fiscal targets. Paradoxically, the ideological frame also allows the government to plead powerlessness in the face of "market forces", e.g. the steel industry (I'd argue that the writing has been on the wall for steelmaking since the dismantling of the coal industry in the 1980s, which was nothing if not government intervention). To take a current example, the Tories' fiscal charter is absurd because the future is unpredictable, but the media have accepted it on Osborne's gestural terms, essentially as an article of faith.

The ideological frame of the media (and its origin in religious pamphleteering) is most clearly revealed when it oscillates between demands for politicians to prophesy future events and calls for protestations of belief. The early grilling of John McDonnell was a classic example of this, flipping between an insistence that he detail the priorities of a government taking office in 2020 and accusations that he was a capitalism-hater. This mix of clairvoyance and auto da fé means that the media too often fail to ask the necessary questions about motivation and intent. For example, the government's desire for a "golden decade" of mutually-beneficial relations with China has been discussed in terms of mercantilism (is the nation getting a good deal out of Chinese investment in Hinkley Point and HS2?) and realpolitik (will this upset the Americans?) As ever, the real question should be about who in the UK benefits, i.e. which particular interests are obscured by the cloak of "the national interest".

You don't have to be a genius to see that the emerging "Osborne Doctrine" centres on a belief (shared by neoliberals in the Labour party) that Chinese growth levels will remain relatively high by Western standards even as they decline in absolute terms, so hitching a ride makes sense; that the Chinese economy will shift more towards consumption and therefore imports; that the UK has the potential to sell a lot of services to the Chinese, matching Germany's role in manufacturing and engineering; and that offering a quid pro quo of fat profits on UK infrastructure investment greases the wheels, replaces public debt with private rents (e.g. higher electricity prices), and provides political capital to keep both the media and regional politicians on side. Osborne has made no secret of the fact that it is the City of London that will be the chief beneficiary of all this.

The City will take a cut on Chinese money coming in, both in the form of foreign direct investment and foreign exchange to buy British goods and services; it will sell its financial, legal and corporate services directly into an expanding market; and it will seek to act as the chief broker for international financial dealings with China (i.e. everybody else's forex and FDI trade), hence its alacrity in joining the new Beijing-inspired Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Chinese money will fan out beyond the City, but this will be heavily-weighted to the South East (property, education, culture, shopping etc). This represents a reversal of roles from the 18th and 19th centuries when we bought Chinese luxury goods, such as tea, silk and porcelain. What remains consistent is their balance of payments surplus; then the result of their unwillingness to buy British goods in return, and now the result of volume commodities that they manufacture for the world.

Back in the day, we addressed this by (among other things) getting them hooked on opium and using military might to force British goods into the Chinese market. Now we offer to recycle their surplus by providing them with investment opportunities (and thus future income hedges) as they seek to divert domestic infrastructure and property investment to consumption. At each stage the City thrives: it provided the merchant financing (essentially silver) for Chinese imports to Britain in the 18th century; it provided the capital investment and export finance for Indian tea, textiles and opium in the 19th (the first domestic Indian stock exchanges didn't open till late in the century); and it seeks to mediate the recycling of the Chinese savings glut today. That Cameron and Osborne (and Johnson et al) are looking after their own should be obvious, but the media seem reluctant to join the dots, accepting the adage that what's good for the City is good for Britain.

This confusion over motivation and intent is also evident in the response to the bitter tears of Michelle Dorrell. The central issue of tax credits is not that government incompetence in foreseeing the impact will harm the hardworking, or that the cuts are just a spiteful way of getting the poor to pay for the bailout of the banks, but that we have an economy in which an increasing proportion of the employed aren't even worth the replacement cost of their labour in the open market. Her personal circumstances also show the extent to which the self-employed and small businesses are dependent on state benefits, both directly through their own income support and indirectly through the purchasing power of their similarly-constrained customers. This is more a matter of "national interest" than the kowtowing to the Chinese, but the media and most politicians have treated it as a sentimental interlude.

While some "compassionate Conservatives" have held Dorrell up as an example of the hardworking voter that the party should instinctively protect, some on the left have berated her as a dupe who deserves her fate for having been stupid enough to vote Tory. Both positions focus on just desserts - the calibre of the individual - rather than the structural context of the policy. The first suggests that the targeting is awry, not that it is wrong to punish the poor. In other words, Dorrell is simply a victim of friendly fire. The second suggests that voting is self-interested and that she has therefore shot herself in the foot. This fails to recognise that some people vote for what they consider to be the wider interests of the nation, or their self-ascribed class, even when these may conflict with their personal interest. To believe that all voters are selfish is to accept the ideology of calculating utility maximisers.

The Conservatives have shown with their commitment to a "National Living Wage" that they are quite happy to play fast and loose with British businesses outside the City (where the wage is perceived as a trivial issue, not least because the cleaners are outsourced). Though some see this as a quid pro quo for historic and promised corporation tax cuts, this clearly doesn't stand up in the case of SMEs and the self-employed who don't make enough profit to pay tax. From the perspective of the City, a steelworks in Redcar and a nail-bar in Folkestone are of an ilk. There is no strategic dimension, no "national interest" in one or the other. The only interest that matters is the profitability of the City itself, and that has been an international interest for a very long time.

Cameron and Osborne won't reverse the tax credit cuts, though they'll no doubt trumpet various modifications to satisfy the backbench demand for ameliorative gestures, possibly including an increase in the NIC lower threshold (but not the removal of the upper). They've got four years to sit this out and can be confident the media will tire of the issue long before then. The harping on about the offset of the NMW and increased tax-free allowances is clearly meant to obfuscate rather than provide a genuine rationale. By 2020 we will be halfway through the "golden decade" and the hymn-sheet will major on the boomtime to be seen in the City and the ever-greater prospects of Chinese sales and inward investment. Neither Redcar nor Folkestone will figure.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Suffering Suffragettes

Sarah Gavron's Suffragette, from a screenplay by Abi Morgan, is a curiously vague film. By that I mean it's central interest, what it is really about, never fully comes into focus. Is it an attempt to rescue the Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU) from historical neglect, a celebration of democracy, or a paean to female activism? There are gestures towards each, but ultimately the film fails to settle. This isn't to say that it's not an interesting work, but that it has a strangely abstracted air, a bit like a graphic novel. If there is a theme, it is - to borrow the style of Batman and Robin - suffering suffragettes. There's even a scene of police brutality where the Foley sound effects (thud, kapow) definitely cross over into the realm of the cartoonish.

The story revoles around a young working-class mother, Maud Watts, who through a series of coincidences and accidents becomes an activist, jeopardising both her job in a laundry and her family. Played by Carey Mulligan, Maud is a Zelig-like character who is interweaved with actual events such as the firebombing of Lloyd George's country house and the death of Emily Wilding Davis in 1913. While many have praised the film for centring on working-class "footsoldiers" rather than being a hagiography of Emmeline Pankhurst, this is a misleading representation of a movement that was in many ways hostile to working women. Meryl Streep's appearance as "the leader" is little more than a cameo, presumably necessary to raise funding (and perhaps a favour held over from The Iron Lady).

Founded in 1903 to pursue a more militant campaign than the non-violent National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies, the WSPU was a middle-class organisation that wanted the vote extended to women, but on the same property-qualification basis as men. Though it initially sought common ground with the newly-formed Labour Party, it soon diverged over the latter's commitment to universal suffrage, in the process becoming increasingly autocratic under the leadership of Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel (there are interesting parallels with UKIP, and not just in the choice of the colour purple and the leader's fondness for a "bodyguard").

This anti-democratic stance led to repeated expulsions of its more left-leaning members, culminating in the 1914 split of the East London Federation, which had been formed as an explicitly socialist branch by Sylvia Pankhurst, now at loggerheads with her mother and sister. Though this was contemporaneous, there is no mention of it in the film. Instead, we are led to believe that the suffrage movement in the East End was a loyal redoubt of the WSPU. The strategic arguments over the extent of the franchise are sidelined in the film by tactical worries over the risks posed by bombing. Likewise, the impression is given that the suffrage movement had few friends in politics beyond the wives of Liberal MPs. Neither Keir Hardie nor George Lansbury (who fought a by-election on the issue in 1912) get a mention.

The WSPU would become increasingly conservative and patriotic after the outbreak of war. Many of its activists, who only months earlier had been breaking shop windows, took to handing out white feathers to working-class men who still didn't have the vote, demanding that they defend King and country (the film shows Maud's husband and young son saluting a photo of George V at bedtime). One bizarre dialogue between Maud and her hubby, played by Ben Whishaw, implied that he already had the vote. Given that the poorest 40% of all men were denied it until 1918 by the property qualification, and that the Watts family appeared to be living in a single room in an East London tenement, this was improbable to say the least.

The central female characters are shown as motivated by personal suffering rather than reason, much as Maud's introduction to the suffragettes is accidental rather than a matter of choice. She had been repeatedly sexually abused by Mr Taylor, the manager of the laundry, after she started work as a naive teenager; her new workmate Violet (Anne-Marie Duff) suffers a drunken, violent husband and too many pregnancies; while the middle-class pharmacist Edith (Helena Bonham Carter) was denied an education by her father, and thus the chance to become a doctor. This makes them victims whom we root for, which is dramatically compelling, but it also dilutes their personal agency. You'll note the implied ambition for working-class women was an end to abuse, while for middle-class women it was university.

These back-stories fail to illuminate the casual, structural prejudice that fuelled the resistance to democracy. Most people who objected to an extended franchise were neither cruel nor stupid: they were more likely to be merely self-interested or just unthinking, and often subject to the sort of sentimentality that the film employs (that Maud ends up losing her son to a forced adoption can be read both as a rebuke to society and to activism). Similarly, the politicians are shown to be shifty and hypocritical, rather than men of their class and era who simply couldn't envisage a world in which the vote would be considered a right rather than a privilege. This is a highly ideological film precisely because it fails to recognise the role of ideology.

The film's best scenes are interrogations. First, when Maud gives testimony before a Parliamentary committee: "Laundry work is a short life if you’re a woman". The second occasion, and arguably the heart of the film, is when she is confronted in prison by the cynical Inspector Steed, played by Brendan Gleeson, who talks of her being groomed and having her working-class anger exploited by a middle-class leadership. As well as drawing parallels with contemporary tropes of radicalisation, this calls to mind Steve McQueen's Hunger, both because Steed has been drafted in due to his experience in combating the Fenians and because of the suffragettes' hunger strike. It also indirectly echoes Dostoyevsky's parable, The Grand Inquisitor, and thus the original temptation of Christ. I was actually disappointed, if not surprised, when she turned down his offer to become an informant.

Abi Morgan co-wrote Shame with Steve McQueen, a film that also featured Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender (Bobby Sands in Hunger), suggesting that there was the opportunity for a more interesting story than a selective history of the WSPU's "capers". Mulligan is most effective when Maud's habitual docility gives way to anger, specifically because her anger is representative of both her class and gender. Paradoxically, Gleeson is the binding thread of the film as a man determined to break the suffragettes yet sufficiently intelligent to know he is merely delaying the inevitable. Outside of this pair, the characters are schematic at best (Duff and Whishaw are both wasted) or solipsistic at worst (Bonham Carter, Asquith's great-granddaughter, is her usual unsympathetic self, while Streep verges on a comedy turn - I'm hoping for a French and Saunders skit).

Though the film climaxes with the martyrdom of Emily Wilding Davis, knocked down by the king's horse in the Epsom Derby, it's narrative resolution sees Maud rescue Violet's daughter from Taylor's abusive clutches at the laundry by placing her as a servant with the wife of a Liberal MP, played by Romola Garai. A social movement is thereby reduced to individual charity and the classes are reconciled. This is in keeping with a film about politics that manages to be apolitical, and which treats exploitation as a moral failing in the manner of Dickens. I can't help feeling that there was a better film to be made around the confrontation of Maud and Steed. Perhaps someone will commission Morgan and McQueen to do a Stakeknife biopic.

The closing credits include a list of the dates when women got the vote in various countries, which includes the surprise of Switzerland (1971) and the no-surprise of Saudi Arabia (under consideration). The "some women" qualification for the UK's given date of 1918 coyly avoids mentioning the property threshold. Working class women would have to wait until 1928 before they were enfranchised. Emmeline Pankhurst, who died just before this latter milestone, but who considered her goal achieved in 1918, spent her later years warning of the dangers of Bolshevism, joining the Conservative Party in 1926.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Meat and Potatoes

Ridley Scott's The Martian is essentially a corporate video for NASA, which has ambitions to put a human on the Red Planet sometime in the next twenty years or so. Since the Challenger disaster in 1986, films about feasible space exploration (as opposed to fantasies based on wormholes, like Contact or Interstellar) have struggled with the dilemma that chucking meat into space is costly and dangerous, compared to the use of probes and unmanned vehicles, but that without human interest there is unlikely to be sufficient political support to ensure adequate funding. This has given rise to a guilty fascination with jeopardy and sacrifice, from Apollo 13 to Gravity, where the focus is on safe recovery rather than exploration. This new film follows the same outline, but it presents a more gung-ho attitude, arguing that human ingenuity will overcome most problems so let's take the risk. Given that by 2030 we will have even better explorer-bots, The Martian is a plea for the flexibility and endurance of the hardworking meat-based astronaut. Jeremy Hunt would be impressed, and not just because of the Chinese angle.

The film opens with a prologue in which the Ares III mission members confirm their humanity through workplace sarcasm (you wouldn't get that with a robot), before a sudden, violent storm obliges them to abandon the planet. Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, is hit by debris and presumed lost, probably dead. Commander Lewis, played by Jessica Chastain, is obliged to abandon him to save the rest of the crew. Once Watney awakes to find himself injured and marooned, we move to one of Scott's favourite SF tropes: the violent opening of the stomach. Following the "chestburster" of Alien, and the self-administered Caesarian of Prometheus, Watney has to surgically remove shrapnel from his own belly, having been punctured by a detached antenna. This heralds the Robinson Crusoe section of the film in which our lonely Martian improvises survival while vlogging his endeavours "for the record". After taking stock of his supplies and realising he cannot hold out till the next scheduled mission arrives, he decides to grow his own food by creating an indoor greenhouse. He then turns his attention to communication, recovering the handily-proximate 1997 Pathfinder from the sand and using it to beam back a mayday to Earth.

The central section of the film transfers the themes of utilitarian calculation and improvisation back to Earth, where NASA must decide what to do (and publicly say) and nerds must use their ingenuity to solve problems against the clock, which rather obviously echoes Apollo 13. Watney's "science the shit out of it" strategy is actually more about technology than science, as is made clear by the heavy use of power tools both on Mars and back at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. Some of Watney's key technology is surprisingly antique, such as his fondness for inventories with paper and pen and his reliance on a written table to translate hexadecimal values (they sent a mission to Mars without calculators?) His skills range from shit-stirring to code-hacking. Though the technological improvisations are credible, there are some scientific implausibilities: the Martian storm would be far less destructive due to the lower atmospheric pressure (it wouldn't be able to topple a heavy rocket); the gravity appears to be little different to Earth (it's actually about 0.4g); and much of the surface of Mars is permafrost so extracting water would be trivial (just put dirt in a microwave and strain the results).

The third section sees the rest of the Ares III mission crew - now on their way back to Earth on board the spaceship Hermes and recently informed that Watney is alive - take control after their boss (Sean Bean) ignores the big boss (Jeff Daniels) and reveals a way that their buddy can be saved at risk to them and thus the mission as a whole. This powers through a series of can-do scenes that echo 2001: A Space Odyssey (including temporarily cutting communications to privately discuss their plan - one of a number of nerd in-jokes) and Gravity (playing tag in space, flirting etc). As is now traditional, the ship includes a rotating torus that allows for the simulation of Earth-like gravity, though as per the stately waltz convention established by Stanley Kubrick, it rotates at a much slower rpm than would be required to simulate 1g given it's modest diameter (and that's without worrying about dizziness, deep-vein thrombosis and other problems). The advantage of this conceit is that the crew can lounge around a big white table and have a "count me in" meeting.

The characters are two-dimensional, which is not necessarily a problem given a plot centred on situational puzzles. Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jessica Chastain and even Sean Bean try to invest them with some nuance, but the exposition-heavy dialogue (which bizarrely includes deleting expletives in text transmissions) gives them little to work with. Michael Pena reprises his driver role from Fury, which had me mentally substituting Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf's characters from that film (that would have been a great mashup). Matt Damon's Watney is both relentless and chirpy: Jason Bourne with a sense of humour. There is no dark night of the soul, and emotional tensions are limited to the conflicting loyalties of immediate team and wider organisation. Society is just a media-coordinated chorus. The "folks back home" interludes are perfunctory, as if NASA were downplaying the ramifications of a possible personal tragedy, with Watney's non-existent beyond a verbal reference to his parents. This is a highly institutionalised story.

The choice of the Massachusetts-born Damon in the role of the stranded astronaut, and his character's English name, had me thinking of the seventeenth century settlers of New England. This is reinforced by Watney's salvation through potatoes, that iconic New World vegetable, which were part of the special Thanksgiving dinner included in the mission's supplies. I thought I might be reading too much into this until Watney started to talk of colonial theory in the language of John Locke: it is only by growing crops that you can lay claim to (and thus colonise) the land. Locke believed that native Americans did not "mix their labour" with the soil, hence they had no claim to it, unlike industrious white settlers (I presume this argument comes from the original book by Andy Weir, who is on record as cleaving to the Bay Area mix of social liberalism and fiscal conservativism). The use of Martian soil and its mixing with the crew's dried shit is emblematic of this territorial claim. It's also redundant: you'd think a botanist like Watney would be familiar with hydroponics, particularly as it's already been tried for real on the International Space Station.

Watney goes out of his way to justify appropriating the personal property left behind by the other crew members, from audio tapes to a crucifix that he uses for kindling (religious belief gets a couple of polite nods). He even expounds on international law in respect of piracy when planning to commandeer the rocket ship handily left in anticipation of the future Ares IV mission many miles distant (no, that didn't make sense to me either). During the trek to the ship, Mars looks like a roseate Monument Valley, all sand and heat (the average temperature is actually well below freezing), while Watney's rover vehicle looks like a covered wagon and he takes on the look of a Protestant patriarch with his now unkempt beard. This echo of the Old West reminds us that the one danger Watney knew he would not have to face would be "hostiles", which makes the obsession with the legality of dispossession all the more striking. This is not the inhabited planet of Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, or Philp K Dick's Martian Time-Slip, so the proprietorial concerns must be directed elsewhere.

The Martian is a film nostalgic for the New Frontier of the 70s, after the first lunar landing but before the Challenger disaster, when NASA was at the height of its influence, hence not only the Kubrickian stylings but a soundtrack featuring disco, ABBA and David Bowie's Starman. As a PR exercise, it understandably skips the Space Shuttle years, though it can't help suggesting that cutting corners on safety is the result of budget constraints and unreasonable media pressure rather than institutional hubris and groupthink. Though NASA is obliged to seek the assistance of the Chinese, and one of the Hermes' crew is a German, the agency always asserts its primacy, at one point putting the Chinese in their place by telling them: "we haven't done that since Apollo". Ouch. If anyone is going to Mars, NASA intends to be in the lead. As a piece of bid-candy it is impressive, but I can't help thinking that it's focus on meat and potatoes - astronauts and territorial claims - is already history.

Monday, 12 October 2015


We're a little short of a quarter of the way through the season and Arsenal are in second place in the Premier League table, 2 points behind Citeh. Objectively, that is a healthy position, but it hasn't felt like good times until the recent 3-0 blitz of Manure. In truth, most teams have been inconsistent, hence only 4 points separate the top six. Last season, the comparable spread was 10 points and Arsenal were 11 behind the leaders, lurking in 7th place. Together with Citeh, Palace, the Spuds and Watford, we have conceded the least number of goals, 7, which is 1 fewer than Chelski as table-toppers had conceded after 8 games last year. No one is talking about a golden age of defending. I'm going to stick my neck out and predict that we will get over 80 points by season-end, for the first time since 2008, though it's impossible to tell whether that will be enough to clinch the title. I suspect 2nd is a more likely outcome. Of the competition, Citeh look best equipped to finish as champions, and Manure have rediscovered the knack of collecting points through modest performances against modest opponents. I suspect a "newbie" may end up in the final top-four, if only because I really want to see Chelski finish 5th or lower, with a frothing Mourinho blaming "dark forces".

On the pitch, the gradual improvement in Arsenal's form has owed much to Sanchez finding his groove, not so much in scoring goals but in being more judicious and effective in his dribbling. In early games, with both Sanchez and Oxlade-Chamberlain in the side, we tried too many dribbles in unpromising positions, which slowed the game down and compressed space in the opposition penalty area. As the victory over Manure showed, we are most potent when we pass quickly and out-manoeuvre the opposition defence, creating space in the area for a pass or shot (that the first two goals were both passed into the net was noteworthy). The relegation of both the Ox and Giroud to the subs bench, in favour of Ramsey and Walcott, shows that Wenger is trying to release the handbrake. The Ox is capable of playing a faster game, so he will get more appearances, but the increasingly-forlorn Giroud looks like a player whose peak may have come and gone as opponents counter his aerial ability with two centre-backs (one jumping early to block his leap), safe in the knowledge that he can't turn away and beat them both for pace if the ball breaks.

One of the persistent criticisms of Arsenal under Wenger is that the team is too predictable, which is variant on the ever-popular "no plan B" trope. Zoran Mamic, the Dinamo Zagreb manager, was the latest to air the criticism after the Croatian side's victory in the Champions League, stating "they did exactly what we agreed they would do". Of course, knowing what your opponent will do is not necessarily an achievement in itself. All teams are predictable: the issue is whether you can counter what you know they will do. I'm sure Gordon Strachan and Martin O'Neill warned their players that Robert Lewandowski would be Poland's danger-man. Arsenal's problem is not that they do what is expected, but that they too often don't do it well enough, sometimes even going so far as to indulge in self-sabotage, e.g. Giroud's red card in the Zagreb game. That said, the players' naivety against Monaco last season and Olympiakos this was reminiscent of Benfica in 1991, which should remind us that a glass jaw is not a speciality of the Wenger era.

The most successful teams are those that can improvise a solution when they are initially thwarted, and who can also pace the game to prevent the opponent building up a head of steam. Wenger's modus operandi has been to improve what individual players are good at, instill trust and "belief", and encourage that improvisation, rather than stick to a rigid game plan or specific tactics. This is arguably an approach more suited to a club that buys "galacticos", capable of individual game-changing interventions, yet Wenger has made it work with more limited players during the years when money was tight, largely through an emphasis on ball-retention as a way of regulating the match. The purchase in recent years of players like Ozil and Sanchez is clearly geared to adding spontaneity, but it has also led to a reduction in ball possession. I think this is deliberate, and I think it throws light onto Wenger's decision to not re-sign Fabregas, who has always been more suited to slower build-ups. Similarly, Welbeck appears to have been bought more for his speed in transitions than his strength in holding-up the ball.

Having reached a peak in the 2011/12 season of 60.1%, our possession has been steadily dropping since and was down to 55.7% last season (the 3rd highest in the league). I'm not suggesting that the atypical 38% at home to Manure this season will be a new norm, as that obviously owed everything to racing into a 3-0 lead, but there are signs that we are reverting to a more counter-attacking style for periods of the game, which was perhaps best exemplified this season in the 2-1 away victory at Tottenham in the League Cup. Subsequent to the home defeat by Benfica, George Graham took Arsenal to two European finals (and one trophy) playing a more defensive game reliant on breakaway goals by Ian Wright. Wenger has also employed a more counter-attacking style in the past, notably in the run to the Champions League final in 2006. The current incarnation appears to be more counter-attacking by design, rather than the product of circumstance, which is why the fast passing and improvisation of Ozil and Sanchez is key to the team's makeup.

The theme of the summer for the Premier League as a whole was "big money, small names". Wenger clearly wants to buy top-quality, and I'm sure another centre-forward is still part of his plans, but is probably right that the very best simply aren't available at present. Brendan Rogers departure has been accompanied by much chuntering about the large sums spent on players who failed to replace Suarez, Gerrard and Sterling, but the lesson from this surely is that players are over-priced in the EPL, not that Rogers (or the now-infamous Liverpool transfer committee) is a poor judge of a footballer. Talking of the new fella, I've never understood the attraction of Jurgen Klopp for many Arsenal fans, beyond the air of continental sophistication and the charming patter. His pressing game and "heavy metal" attacking looks remarkably like the sort of gung-ho that Arsenal are criticised for when they concede a late breakaway goal in Europe after turning the dial up to 11 in the closing stages of a must-win match. The worry for Liverpool fans must be that he is a one-trick pony whose game-plan now lacks the element of surprise.

The story of the season's first quarter has been Chelski's travails. Mourinho's "specialist in failure" barb has rebounded as he has shown himself to be paranoid and petulant when confronted with a failing situation: he is the opposite of a specialist in failure, but not in the way he meant. As will no doubt be proven at Sunderland, the English league's current top specialist in failure is Sam Allardyce. It could be argued that Mourinho doesn't stick around clubs for very long precisely because he is unable to handle setbacks. He can only do one thing well (squeeze the life out of a match and bully a goal) and denied the right circumstances he is adrift. Over the years when funds were being diverted to the new stadium, Wenger showed himself to be a specialist in avoiding failure by meeting minimum reasonable expectations - i.e. a top-four finish. "A specialist in modest success" is perhaps too subtle a dig to expect from the Portugeezer, but his binary worldview - you either succeed completely or you fail utterly - appears to reflect his own anxieties more than a reasoned opinion of others.

After a setback, Wenger looks like a disappointed prune, whereas Mourinho looks like a man about to go postal. Thank heavens Ashley Cole took his air-rifle to Rome with him. Wenger's selective vision is a standing joke, but (as with Ferguson) it shows a determination not to be mastered by events but to instead retain his strategic independence. This is not denial (you can be sure he will see the event from multiple angles when he pores over the video) but resistance to the agenda of others. In contrast, Mourinho grapples with the event to the point of embarrassed silence as he tries to refashion reality - e.g. his absurd defence of Diego Costa. I expect Chelski to sort themselves out and start to climb the table. However, I also expect them to remain vulnerable to defeat, because their defence is shallow in quality and both Terry and Ivanovic look like they're entering a swift decline, so I suspect (or hope) that they will fall short of the redemption of a top-four finish, which may be sufficient to launch the special one on his next adventure.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Loosening the Girdle

The London green belt was originally envisaged in the late 19th century as an amenity for city-dwellers rather than a cordon sanitaire to protect the rural. Though the Ringstrasse of Vienna and the parkways of Washington are sometimes cited as inspirations, the "green girdle" proposed for London was to be placed much further out, beyond the working class districts, rather than between the elite-dominated centre and the peripheral industrial areas. The aim was to improve the health of the working classes, rather than isolate them, through access to fresh-air and exercise, and was given political impetus when recruitment during the Boer War revealed poor levels of fitness among the urban poor, prompting a Parliamentary Committee on Physical Deterioration in 1903. This reinforced existing concerns over national decline (arising from the advance of the USA and Germany) and would provide a background hum to the Liberal government's welfare reforms after 1906, including the Housing, Town Planning, &c. Act 1909, which banned "back-to-backs" and required local authorities to draw up town plans.

The green belt was a progressive cause, but one more influenced by the eugenic concerns of the Fabians (improve labour) than the bucolic socialism of William Morris (improve life). It also found common cause with conservatives worried more about "racial decay" than rural preservation. As a practical policy it went hand-in-hand with slum clearance and quality public housing, hence it was championed by the likes of Herbert Morrison's LCC in the interwar years, leading to the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act 1938, which empowered local authorities to buy land to be kept free from development. This public health focus was reinforced in the 1940s by a renewed desire, occasioned by wartime rationing, to maintain agricultural land close to the city to provide fresh food. However, this also marks the transition in the concept of the green belt from an urban resource to a strategic resource in its own right. Green belts were formalised nationally in  the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, which also provided the foundation for the modern system of planning controls.

From the 50s through the 70s, urban populations were partially decanted to new towns as the old city slums were cleared, with the green belt providing a way of ensuring that the likes of Harlow and Stevenage developed as distinct centres rather than just exurban sprawl in the US manner. It is during this postwar period that the idea of the green belt as a restraint, rather than an urban amenity, takes hold, both in the sense of containing the social ills of inner-cities (increasingly associated in the popular imagination with Commonwealth immigrants) and isolating the decanted working classes in the often under-equipped new towns. The implementation of green belts became government policy (i.e. a central push rather than a local authority pull) in 1955 under the Conservatives, marking the inflexion point in attitude. The era also saw a significant improvement in urban health, due to the clean air acts and the spread of indoor plumbing, while mechanisation reduced the population of farm-workers. These developments replaced the old social dichotomy of unhealthy city and healthy countryside, embodied in the pasty-faced street urchin and the ruddy-cheeked farmer's child, with an aesthetic distinction of the built environment: the glass and concrete city and the increasingly faux-rural exurbs.

In the 1980s, the value of the green belt as an urban "lung" continued to decline as deindustrialisation reduced pollution, while the growth of imported foodstuffs reduced the land's agricultural utility (if not its market value). As the health and recreational justifications of old lost their weight, the cause of environmental protection gained prominence, encouraging the idea that as the green belt was a good in itself it should be expanded where possible. In fact, much green belt land is of no more ecological value than an urban brownfield site (and sometimes less). The consequence is that the land designated as green belt has more than doubled in size since 1979 and now accounts for 13% of the total land in England. In contrast, only 10% of land is developed (which includes roads and urban green spaces), while national parks account for 9%. That the last 30 years have seen persistent political pressure to expand the green belt (and simultaneously improve transport links) indicates that its main purpose had become that of a low-density housing zone for wealthier urban workers and the site of a growing professional services economy.

The London green belt is now over 5,000 square kilometres in size, which means that it is three times as big as the urban area it surrounds. This is enough space to build as many homes as already exist in the entirety of the UK at current densities: around 27 million. 7% of the London green belt is made up of golf courses, which means that surrendering half of them would provide enough land for 1 million new homes. It is estimated that there is enough developable land within 1 mile of existing railway and Tube stations, and within 60 minutes journey time of Central London (a radius of 90km), to build 2.5 million new homes. 22% of the land within the GLA boundaries is green belt, which constitutes an area large enough to support 1.4 million additional homes. Having declined from 8.2 million to 6.6 million between 1951 and 1981, the population of the capital bounced back to 8.2 million in 2011 and is expected to exceed 9 million by the time of the next census in 2021.

The idea of the green belt as an "interzone" between city and country has long gone. Improvements in transport have pushed the commutable boundary much further afield (Crossrail is designed to serve the green belt as much as the metropolis). At the same time, improvements in communication have amplified the value of agglomeration in city centres, leading to the growth of global hubs, such as the City. The consequence in London is the emergence of concentric rings of wealth, the inner boroughs and the green belt, sandwiching a ring of outer boroughs with an increasingly low-paid "service" population. The Tory plan to extend right-to-buy to housing associations, and require further council sales to fund the promised discounts, will exacerbate this by reducing the remaining pockets of social housing in the inner boroughs. The inner city is increasingly the inner-outer city, to be found in Mitcham and Leyton rather than Brixton or Bethnal Green. Gradually, London is replicating the social geography seen in New York and Paris.

The historic irony is that a legacy of early nineteenth century pro-social reform and mid-century central planning became a key tool for the protection of class interests antagonistic to the poor and the state. This is nowhere more obvious than west of London, specifically the area bounded by Reading, Slough, Heathrow and Bracknell. One objection to the expansion of Heathrow Airport is that it would take a nibble out of the green belt. A more ambitious plan would see the entire area developed, centring on the corridor of the M4. Of course, this would mean development around Windsor and Eton, which appears to be a no-go for some strange reason (maybe something to do with Legoland). Compare and contrast with the long-standing government encouragement for development east of London, the so-called Thames Gateway, which covers an area of significantly greater ecological value along the banks of the Thames estuary.

The obvious conclusion is that not all parts of the green belt are equal, which appears to be the position of its modern defenders to judge by their willingness to countenance land-swaps. According to Simon Jenkins: "Those of minimal amenity value would be released in favour of belt extension elsewhere. It is stupid to guard a muddy suburban field while building over the flanks of the Pennines". Despite the reference to ancient limestone, this attitude clearly reflects on the social value of land as a commodity rather than the intrinsic value of the natural environment, hence the paradigm of trade and stock management. By "amenity" I suspect Jenkins means the outdoor pursuits of the middle-classes, though he probably has fell-walking and horse-riding in mind rather than paint-balling or golf, which is an echo of the "improving" visions of the Edwardians who rhapsodised about Sunday school trips to a bluebell wood.

Jenkins has long insisted that the UK's housing crisis is a problem of poor urban resource management, and thus implicitly of selfish townees. There is some truth in this, however it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that the solution to an urban problem lies within the urban area, and to in turn assume that "urban" and "green belt" are mutually-exclusive. This is to continue the thinking of the late twentieth century and see the green belt as a check on the ill-discipline of the city. For example, under-occupancy is often discussed as a urban issue, in the context of the bedroom tax and foreign investors, but empty rooms are more common in owner-occupied properties in the green belt. The structural causes of the under-provision of housing are not limited to cities, let alone London: regressive property and inheritance taxation; high land prices and no penalties on under-use (which leads to land-banking); and a cartel of private builders with insufficient competition from local authorities.

The solution to the housing crisis, particularly in London, requires us to return to a view of the green belt as a resource for the city, not a restraint. This doesn't mean throwing up a couple of million homes willy-nilly around the M25, but expansion along the axial transport corridors that already exist to Reading, Crawley, Luton and Southend. This would be a return to the development pattern that predated the postwar green belt, with houses and light industry following first the railways and then the new arterial roads. The green belt also provides the opportunity to build a high-speed orbital rail line linking London's airports and reducing traffic through the city centre, but given the political trouble that relatively small-scale incursions into the green belt like Heathrow and HS2 have produced, the suspicion is that wholesale reform will continue to nestle in the long grass. That both leading candidates for the London mayoralty, Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith, are on record as considering the green belt "sacrosanct" is not encouraging. We're not protecting nature, we're merely privileging property.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Big Red Button

It is a cliché that the UK's independent nuclear deterrent is neither independent nor a deterrent. It is de facto a part of the US nuclear arsenal and a symbol of the UK's status as a protectorate, which has been obvious since the commitment to Polaris in 1962. The deterrent to any possible enemies today or in the future is not Trident but the likelihood that an attack will prompt immediate retaliation by the US. This effectively puts us in the same category as those states who "share" American nuclear weapons as part of NATO's operational deployment (i.e. they possess missiles and bombs that can only be armed by the US), namely Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy and Turkey. We could not unilaterally use our nuclear weapons, for fear of an American countermand that would reveal our dependence (i.e. Suez all over again), while the idea of taking a raincheck in the event of a nuclear war involving the US is ruled out by membership of NATO. This means that Trident is militarily worthless - we can't use it when we wish and when we do it will be marginal to a larger conflict - which is why some of the system's most trenchant critics are to be found among the upper echelons of the army and airforce.

Any debate about Trident renewal or the prospect of unilateral nuclear disarmament is therefore a political debate, not a technical argument about the best way of ensuring national security. Just as weapons systems have always been ideological, from the property qualifications of hoplites to the concentration of capital of aircraft carriers, they also reflect the historically-conditioned concerns of elites. The maritime nature of the UK's nuclear strikeforce is a case in point. The fact that we are the only nuclear state wholly dependent on a submarine-based missile system is the product of a fear of the people rather than an eccentric belief that we should "rule the waves". Britain has traditionally minimised its standing army at "home", reflecting a suspicion of agitators and a fear of coups that originated in the seventeenth century. Periodic crises, such as the Napoleonic Wars, would be met by the recruitment of volunteer units (yeomanry, fencibles etc) under gentry control - which produced its own problems in Ireland and America - culminating in Kitchener's Army.

In contrast, the Royal Navy grew proportionately in scale and importance with the expansion of empire, accounting for 60% of defence spending by 1912. The need to "patrol the seas", the frequency of small conflicts across the globe, and the lead times involved in commissioning capital ships meant a permanent commitment of funds that created its own institutional momentum (e.g. the way that naval estimates in parliamentary debate became excuses for jingoism). The modern-day "jobs argument" in respect of Barrow-in-Furness et al has a long pedigree, reflecting the extent to which the political management of the British military has predominantly been a matter of iron rather than blood, with the armaments industry having a significant influence on policy. Over the course of the twentieth century, the navy's role declined as the empire was dismantled, mirroring a parallel decline in the merchant marine and domestic shipbuilding. With the RAF taking on the main role in home defence, and the army maintaining its position through NATO deployments in Germany after WW2, the senior service might have expected to become the poor relation.

In the event, it secured control of our nuclear capability through the submarine fleet (the last airborne nuclear missiles were retired in 1998). This was not merely adroit inter-service manoeuvring, but a reflection of the elite preference for the nuclear deterrent to be independent of possible domestic interference, which could be better guaranteed at sea, particularly in a submarine cut off from the outside world for months at a time. In other words, the Radio 4 anecdote (that its absence from the airwaves would justify a nuclear strike), like the armed forces formal loyalty to the monarch, tells us that power ultimately lies beyond democratic control. For this reason, the question asked of Jeremy Corbyn is otiose: no British PM has ever had his or her finger exclusively on the button, so their ethical preferences are irrelevant. The decision to deploy a Trident missile would actually require the approval of both the US President and the UK Chief of the Defence Staff (who is appointed by the monarch); and if the PM refused a US request to fire British missiles, he or she could expect to be bypassed through an appeal to the head of state.

One of the chief arguments for retention of the bomb is that without it we couldn't justify our permanent seat on the UN Security Council, though it is obvious that what would really jeopardise our membership would not be unilateral nuclear disarmament but the insistence on pursuing an independent line from the US. Given the persistent (and growing) demands for the permanent membership to reflect current realities in terms of the possession of nuclear weapons (e.g. India) and geopolitical significance (e.g. Japan and Germany), we cannot assume that the UK will always have a seat, particularly if a Brexit left France as the default EU representative and expansion brought on more US allies. Even if we did retain a seat in an enlarged council, we might find ourselves marginalised: reduced to merely echoing the opinion of others and largely ignored (so no change there then). Trident represents a determination to keep us at the "top table", but largely to satisfy the egos of government and diplomatic elites, rather than to provide a lever for policy.

The media coverage of the military - from the sentimentality of sacrifice, through the nostalgia of cap-badges, to minor royals roleplaying Top-Gun - reflects an ambivalence over elite pretensions that can be traced all the way back to the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (i.e. the era of actual and potential military dictators, from Cromwell to Marlborough). On the one hand there's an admiration for near-feudal levels of fealty, dressed up in the romanticism by which Walter Scott subsequently recuperated rebellion as a conservative virtue; while on the other hand there is a suspicion of authority (assumed to be heartless) and a belief that the only soldier worth celebrating is a cripple (because both harmless and deserving). This ambivalence is often diverted into the trope of military madness, particularly in post-WW2 cinema (e.g. The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Dr. Strangelove - the last as much a British as an American vision). In what other country would an anonymous general threatening a coup be laughed off as mere blimpishness? Indeed, in what other country would Colonel Blimp be an object of both derision and affection.

That Corbyn's honesty has been so quickly spun as evidence of his unfitness for office tells you much about the way that elite priorities have been internalised by the media. While overt threats of coups will be dismissed as infra dig - the sort of silliness that only hot-blooded Latin-types get up to - the reality is that Corbyn wouldn't be allowed anywhere near the "button", simply because there isn't one. The power of the deep state (i.e. those permanent interests in Whitehall and the military-industrial complex), and the power of the shallow state (i.e. those temporary interests in political parties and the media), depends not on the emperor's new clothes of the independent nuclear deterrent but on the belief in an emperor: the assumption that whether we do or don't have nuclear weapons we can still throw our weight around. The truth is that Britain only just managed to beat an incompetent Argentina in 1982 (a fight that we would almost certainly lose if it were re-run today) and since then have limited our military prowess to either playing Tonto to the US, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, or face-punching collapsing states, like Libya.

Ironically, in saying that he wouldn't press the button, Jeremy Corbyn is insisting on the independence of the UK's nuclear arsenal and thus the exclusive control of it by the head of a democratically elected government. That makes him potentially the most belligerent British Leader, from a transatlantic perspective, since Churchill in 1945. His statement is a clear signal to the US that a Corbyn-led government would pursue a more independent foreign policy, however we shouldn't automatically assume that this will cause furrowed brows in Washington. Given the gradual pivot in US focus away from Eurasia towards the Pacific, and the emergence of a Germany-dominated EU, this is something that future US administrations might well contemplate with equanimity, particularly if the membership of the Security Council is revised. The reality is that the UK's nuclear missiles neither significantly add to nor subtract from the global balance of power, and the US's future interests in Europe may be better served by a special relationship with Germany than with "Airstrip One". The threat that Corbyn poses to our elites is that he takes the myth of British military power seriously.