Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: April, 2014

Clever forms of war may save lives, but do not sort out our divisions

When George W Bush proclaimed the mission was accomplished on the deck of USS Abraham Lincoln eleven years ago next week, he could not have foreseen the troubles ahead. At this point, Saddam Hussain was toppled and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan subdued but stabilising the Iraqi nation was to prove far more difficult that the President realised. Another war was still to be fought in Afghanistan which is only now about ignominiously concluding.

The President had spoken too early. The hopes of defeating the Al – Qa’ida movement and winning the war on terror were misplaced. Terrorists attacks have increased in the last eleven years in places as far apart in London, Madrid, Istanbul and Bali.

In the latest Hexham Debate, Prof Paul Rogers explained that the lessons of two ‘bad wars’ for the American people have been to accelerate a trend already apparent in military thinking before 9/11; of replacing ‘boots on the ground’ with smart warfare dubbed as ‘war lite’.

Having slain the dragon of the Soviet bloc, the West faced, as James Woolsey, President Clinton’s Director of Intelligence, told the Senate, a world akin to a jungle full of poisonous snakes. To face the threat of unpredictable uprisings in far flung parts of the world, Rodgers explained that the American forces have been reconfigured so they can be swiftly deployed and special forces have been expanded for ‘small footprint’ operations like the assassination of Osama bin Laden and to provide military support ‘beneath the radar’ in countries including Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Mali. In the United Kingdom, the SAS and SBS have also been reinforced.

The other key weapon in waging war by remote control has been the use of drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The United States flew over 1000 missions up to 2012 and the United Kingdom over 350 from a base at RAF Waddington near Lincoln. Originally reconnaissance weapons, drones were quickly equipped with missiles to assassinate Al Qa’ida leaders.

The Allies claim that the pilotless aircraft are highly accurate and avoid civilian casualties although this is disputed by the peace groups like Amnesty International. Drone operations are shrouded in secrecy, criticised by the United Nations and open to accusations of violating human rights and constituting war crimes.

These clever forms of warfare and subterfuge may save American lives and dollars but are unlikely to solve the global divisions between the rich and the poor which give rise to well educated but marginalised extremist groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Naxalites in India. They will not avoid the civil wars predicted to follow from climate change.

Sadly the solutions to the worlds troubles seem unlikely to be found by an American government so influenced by military minds and defence contractors and which does not address these underlying problems of global inequality and climate change. ( go to for a video of Paul Rogers talk)

A Mystery, poorly understood, in the morning mist

The prescribed passage in church yesterday was from St John’s gospel which describes the events of Easter morning. According to the Journal poll on Thursday, 87% of you were not in church this Easter but still may find this story as inspiring as I do.

Very early in the morning, Mary Magdalene goes to the cave where Jesus’s body was laid to rest after his crucifixion. She plans to anoint his body but discovers the tomb is empty. The body has gone.

Mary runs back to summon the senior disciples. The headstrong Peter rushes into the tomb and looks around. The more reflective John follows and gets some hankering of what has happened.

The disciples are utterly dejected. They have spent the previous three years following Jesus all over the country in the belief that he was the Messiah who would liberate the Jews from Roman occupation. Only a week ago, Jesus had been cheered into Jerusalem by the crowd.

Within a few days, the crowd had turned against Jesus and he was crucified by the Romans with the connivance of the Jews. The whole dream had gone terribly wrong and the disciples were, with good reason, in fear of their lives.

The disciples leave in confusion and Mary, alone and in tears, sees a man she takes to be the gardener. She thinks the Romans have removed the body – as Americans did with the bodies of Hussain and Bin Laden – and asks him where the body of Jesus has been taken.It is only when the man speaks her name that Mary recognises him to be Jesus.

Why is it such a moving story? The two male disciples, perhaps full of their self importance or just plain petrified, run off to do the business and raise the alarm. It is only Mary who hangs around and allows herself to enter into all the emotions of what has happened and so has the revelation of the risen Christ.

Although there were clues in the writings of the prophets, and hints from Jesus himself, no one expected the Messiah to be killed and to rise again. The victory over death was not in the script and it shows how victory can come from defeat in mysterious ways that we cannot fully understand.

In the series of ‘Barefoot Prayers’ that Stephen Cherry, Canon of Durham Cathedral, has written for Lent and Easter, he acknowledges the mystery of the resurrection on Easter morning.

Help me to be clear about this at least:

that I know little;

that I miss more than I see;

that I am surprised more often.

Far more often, than I ever admit”

The tale of Easter morning is about how the least important person is quietly and privately shown a vision that gives her hope and unexpectedly transforms her view of the world. It challenges us to allow ourselves to be surprised, to have our expectations overturned and to accept that some mysteries may only ever be poorly understood in the morning mist. Amongst others, American generals should take note.

Do we care more for our cup of coffee than for starving workers?

Coffee was not an indigenous drink in my parents house. A bottle of Camp coffee was always kept for visitors at the back of the cupboard  but rarely called on.


I only started drinking coffee in the lower sixth year at school. I spent most of my days playing bridge in the prefects den and drinking large amounts of instant Nescafe. If ever asked by Mr Gove, I would defend my behaviour and argue for today’s pupils to have a year without the pressure of exams . The skills of bridge playing have stood me in good stead ever after.  


On my first day at work, I  was introduced to a succession of  new  colleagues who with exception pressed another cup of coffee on me. Social workers kept their adrenalin flowing on the stuff and so my social addiction was born.


I adopted fair trade coffee some years ago and  last year graduated to black coffee.  I was challenged by the proprietor of Pink Lane Coffee to try one of his many varieties of fine coffee without milk. “Milk ruins the taste of my coffee”, he told me, and he was right.


But  I may have to face life without the taste of coffee and the shot of caffeine.  If the predictions in the  latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change come to pass, the temperate climate required in coffee plantations will disappear.  The price of coffee will go sky high. Starbucks is so worried that it is lobbying the White House.


Even now extreme weather is causing world shortages of coffee beans. The drought in Brazil earlier this year saw wholesale price double. Rising temperatures have caused an outbreak of leaf rust which destroys coffee plants and an invasion of  berry borer beetle, who  thrive in warmer temperatures,  and decimate the coffee crop.


In Nicaragua, nearly one third of the working population depends on coffee production, directly or indirectly. By 2050  most of the coffee plantations will be unusable because of falling rainfall and rising temperatures.


Mauricio Galindo of the International Coffee Organisation says that climate change is the biggest threat to the industry. “If we don’t prepare ourselves, we are heading for a big disaster. In the worse case scenario, we will only have a few places producing coffee.”


It is sad fact of life that we  press the panic button much sooner after a small amount of pain close at home rather  than for devastation further away. The crisis rating is in inverse proportion to  pain times proximity.


 I should be more worried about the livelihood of 25m rural households in the poorer countries of the world whose hard work for little pay provides the 2bn cups of coffee consumed each day. But  it will be lack of coffee that will bring me up with a shock. Life will not be the same without it.


In the most authoritative survey yet on the likely effect of climate change, compiled and agreed by over 400 scientists,  the United Kingdom gets off lightly. Food prices will rise, deaths from heat waves will increase and the precious coastal landscapes on the west coast of Scotland -‘the machairs’ – will disappear. Grouse moors will wither and coffee will become a delicacy.


There is still much we could do to alter the odds of rising temperatures. The huge amounts of food wasted in supermarkets and in our own larders becomes daily more obscene. The apparent indifference of most politicians is something we should challenge in the run up  to elections this year and next.


In the rest of the world, and predominantly in poorer countries, the yield of  wheat , maize and rice will steadily decrease in the face of rising demand for those commodities. Hundreds of millions of people will be displaced through rising coastlines and lack of fresh water. Most of Bangladesh is likely to be underwater. The gloomy report concludes that “the world is not ready for climate change” 


Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank, believes we will see fights over water and food as a direct impacts of climate change in the next ten years. He asked last week whether there is a plan capable of tackling this challenge. He  implied  that the World Bank  would throw money at a solution.  My feeble and selfish plan is to sneak an extra packet of coffee into the trolley every time I go to the supermarket and stow it away.


Cliff? Is that You?


Am I alone in thinking that Nick Clegg looks and sounds a lot like a young Cliff Richard. Are they related? I think we should be told.


What would I have advised Nick, admittedly now with the wisdom of hindsight, if I had been on his team as he prepared for the invidious task of debating with Nigel Farage last week on our membership of the European Union.?


First, don’t ridicule your opponent and try to make him into a figure of fun. Take him seriously. Derision of Nick or Alex only diminishes you and gains them public sympathy.


Second, dont keep referring to UKIP policies and beliefs. It allows their arguments to dominate the debate.


Third, try and avoid statistics. Eyes glaze over and you end up in a blind alley. ( I still have no idea how many of our laws are determined in Brussels).


Finally, and most important, don’t apologise for making your case. Sing the praises of membership of the European Union.  Proclaim the benefits loud and clear.  That is the best way to persuade the undecided.


The closing  lines from the late Tony Judt’s enlightening  history of Post War Europe might be worth mentioning.   “In spite of the horrors of their recent past – and in large measure because of them – it was the Europeans who were now uniquely placed to offer the world some modest advice on how to avoid repeating their own mistakes. Few would have predicted it sixty years before, but the twenty-first century might yet belong to Europe.”