Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: May, 2016

Beware of beetles and radicals especially in Hexham

The real star of the film ‘Eye in the Sky’ is the lifelike surveillance beetle that flies into the terrorists’ lair. It upstages the redoubtable Helen Mirren who plays a steely military commander  in charge of a Coalition drone strike against terrorist leaders.

So I was not surprised when Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor  was killed by  a drone  in Pakistan ten days ago. These are now everyday operations. It was unusual for the U S military to disclose details of a top secret mission over sovereign airspace. There was no mention of a beetle but I now regard anything flying around my head with great suspicion.

This is the irregular warfare of the future according to Paul Rogers,  Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and the darling of the Hexham Debates, where he was back lecturing  by popular demand a fortnight ago.

In the wake of the Iraqi and Afghan wars, the United Sates is developing ‘remote control’  techniques that avoid putting ‘boots on the ground’. They include special forces, private armies, cyber warfare and drones. 60 countries are developing armed drones and 15 exporting them, said Rodgers, so it is only a matter of time before they fall into the arms of ISIS and other extremist groups. Shoulder launched versions are now available using off the shelf components and possibly beetles too.

One day soon, enemy drones could pick off generals, politicians and innocent bystanders in this sceptred isle. We will have no right to scream and shout with indignation. ‘Eye in the Sky’ highlights the moral dilemma of so called ‘collateral damage’ from pin point bombing. There have been about 500 civilian deaths from Coalition airstrikes in the last two years.

In a compelling world view, Paul Rogers coupled the failures of the world economic system and the increasing effects of climate change to explain the attraction of terrorist activity.   He talked of the  indifference of the western world to the  2008 financial crash and the failure  to deal with widening economic divisions especially in countries where young people were excluded from increased prosperity.   This “revolution of frustrated expectations” of an educated minority was behind the Arab awakening. Tunisia has 140,000 unemployed graduates and is the greatest recruiting ground for ISIS.

In 2003 President Bush gave his triumphant “mission accomplished” speech , aboard the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln  but 13 years later  the United States is still fighting  the axis of evil whether the Taliban, Al Qaeda or ISIS.   The attempts to supress a series of insurgencies, what  Rodgers called  ‘lid-ism’,  plainly has not worked. The West needs to radically change its understanding of security.

The world will also be faced with the mass migration of desperate people in search of their fair share of food and water.  Wild fires in Canada are increasingly common even if they have only come to our attention since Fort McMurray was evacuated . The boreal forests of North America and Russia are the great carbon sinks of the world and their destruction speeds up global warming.

Climate change is asymmetric, Rogers claims, having a much greater impact in the near arctic and the sub tropics and reducing the capacity of the land to produce crops and feed the hungry who will be liable to take extreme action.

The Rodgers thesis, to be developed in his forthcoming book ‘Irregular War’, is that “the fundamental problem for the future is not a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West  but a revolt from the margins in an increasingly divided and constrained world”. We will continue to be faced by insurgents, Rogers maintained, unless we can address the underlying problems and find an economic and an ecological route to a fairer world.

Not for the first time at a Hexham Debate, I ended  up feeling very gloomy about the future. But Paul Rogers said that, even  after 35 years work, he is still optimistic.  He pointed to increasing interest from the military to find an alternative approach to  tackling terrorism; to initiatives elsewhere in the world like the growth of co operatives and mutuals, advances in alternative technology  and  the rapid development of  solar batteries in Africa. He encouraged the audience to spread the word. Listen to his talk, gentle reader, at

Three years ago I was invited to chair the Hexham Debates on justice, peace  and democracy. To my surprise, this did not involve finding the speakers, cooking the scones or putting out the chairs. All these jobs are brilliantly undertaken by the highly committed organising group, mainly drawn from the Hexham Quaker Meeting.  I just turn up to handle the torrent of questions that are unleashed as soon as the speaker sits down.

My term as jocular front man came to an end with the Paul Rodgers debate. Just like Doctor Who,  I give way to a younger incarnation. There is one more debate in this series on Saturday 25th June when the speaker is Maurice Wren, Chief Executive, British Refuge Cuoncil. If you thought Hexham was a sleepy market town, discover the depth of radicalism for yourself.  The debates take place at St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Hencotes, Hexham at 11am.

Published in Newcastle Journal Tues 31st May


Fantastic Your Majesty: Corruption starts at Home

Of three short conversations with Her Majesty the Queen in the course of my working life, two  have been complete disasters that have left me traumatised to this day.

Fortunately they were not recorded on a microphone and paraded on the national news. Before anyone rushes  me off to The Tower of London, I confess my sole culpability for poor communication. The Queen could not have been more attentive or gracious. The sense of occasion overcame me.

If you find yourself in the position of the Monarch bearing down on you, I can only suggest that you apply the normal courtesy of conversation. Stick to subjects on which the other person is interested and has some knowledge like, in this case, corgis, horse racing and the Chinese.

This may go some way towards explaining why David Cameron made such a fool of himself at the Palace last week. He must have had hundreds of conversations with the Queen but perhaps liegefright never leaves you.

In a real Boys Own moment, Cameron said that he has some of the “most fantastically corrupt countries”  were attending his anti corruption summit held last Thursday, naming Nigeria and Afghanistan .  The Archbishop of Canterbury jumped in to explain that the President of Nigeria was trying very hard to tackle corruption.  He has worked there and should know.

The Queen herself appeared to agree with the Archbishop  and The Speaker had to intervene with a derogatory  aside about foreign guests paying their own fares. This from a man who claimed nearly £1000 for a taxi from Halifax to London last year and whose party is  being investigated for election expenses fraud.

In what sense is corruption ‘ fantastic’?   David Cameron appeared to revel in the dastardly deeds of darkest Africa and be all set to send Biggles to sort them out. His curious grandstanding summit appears at best a limited success and achieved fewer column inches than  the BBC White Paper, the Brexit campaign and the Queen  winning Tesco vouchers in a horse race. Another  further topic for those royal conversations: “ You might be more at home in Waitrose, Maam, where the vegetables come from the Duchy of Cornwall ”

The proposed register of ultimate owners may be a sensible step forward in exposing the way that corruptly gained money is used to buy houses in London.  Top end estate agents are already warning that the super rich will sell their mansions.  With London facing a housing crisis, it will not be difficult to find new tenants. As with the Paris climate change conference, I was left downhearted that fine words from the  summit  would not be matched by  effective action.

For a start,  the Prime Minister could end  the tax haven status  in British dependencies .  Oxfam estimates that a third of the trillions hiding offshore are sitting in places like Jersey, Guernsey and the  British Virgin Islands  placed by banks in the City of London who receive generous fees. The Tax Justice Network estimates that half the world’s dirty money passes through London which it dubs as the ”tax haven capital of the world”.

It is all very well poking fun at African leaders. But corruption no longer has a black face. The President of Nigeria came to London to get his assets back and to stop the white face of money laundering   which takes twice as much money  out of Africa as  Britain puts back in aid.

To put corruption into context, read written Clare Short’s essay, published in Open Democracy and available online,  which she was invited to write  as a contribution to a goodie bag  for the  summit delegates.  David Cameron decided  to leave her essay  out of the published volume.

Clare Short writes about how corruption breeds in countries with weak governments and ineffective controls simply because it can. She talks of public services  in which minor officials are so poorly paid that they depend upon backhanders to keep life and limb together.  She recounts the efforts of some western governments to help build stronger institutions in developing countries that can control a buckshee economy.  The last time I was in Bangalore, there were posters all over the passport office declaring that bribes would not be taken in return for visas.

The bulk of the essay catalogues the way in which major companies have bribed their way into gaining contracts abroad with the connivance of the British government. Bribery is rife in the armaments  industry to sell military systems that are often not fit to purpose  and in the mining sector to gain permission to extract minerals and oil.  It takes two to corrupt.

Look at the way that HSBC was fined £1.9bn in the United States for money laundering and how no one seemed to mind. It was like a biff on the chin to a hardened boxer and did not stop Chief Executive Stephen Green  becoming a member of the government or non executive Director Rona Fairhead being appointed to chair the BBC Trust.

Remember how the Blair government  stopped  a serious fraud  investigation into the £20m slush fund to bribe Saudi officials to buy British arms and  the way that the Cameron government quietly dropped the proposed inquiry into the banking culture on New Years Day. The trouble is that neo liberal economics and corruption go hand in hand.  Is that what you call  fantastic?

Published in Newcastle Journal on 17th May 2016





Why Scotland did not end up with Noty McNoteface

It seemed obvious to me that  Boaty McBoatface would  feature on the new  Scottish banknotes. I imagine him looking like Captain Birds Eye but all we know for sure is that McBoat, male or female,  must be Scottish and is by definition a ‘face’.

Thankfully, I had not taken into account the calm good sense, imagination and deft political touch of the modern Scottish nation. They have chosen two women to grace their notes of whom you may well never have heard.

The author and nature lover Nan Shepherd gets the nod on the £5 note. She lived all her life on the edge of the Cairngorms  and wrote  ‘The Living Mountain’  about walking in the their wilderness.  The slender book might have passed out of circulation were in not for Robert McFarlane reviving interest in her work through his writing and  television documentary. He describes Shepherd as a woman of “ fierce independence and inspiring vision” and  he probably secured her place on the five pound note.

In envy corner, I ask myself how this handsome young man can spend weeks on end lost in the mountains gathering material for beautifully written books; chair the Booker jury and hold down his job as a Cambridge don. Can it be bottled?

I love the way that Nan Shepherd, who was not celebrated in her lifetime, will now pass through everyones hands. What’s more, Royal  Bank of Scotland has chosen a picture of Shepherd as an attractive young student in a headband, looking slightly Bohemian and putting  fellow notearian Jane Austin in the shade.

There is another woman on the £10 note, countering the accusation that bank notes are male dominated. She is Mary Somerville, a self taught scientist and astronomer from the days that  educated women were scorned. She gave her name to an Oxford college and a crater on the Moon and played a part in discovering Neptune. Brilliant choices. The Scots get it right again.

Somerville was even elected by a public poll  from a short list of carefully vetted candidates. In the primer of community consultation, the golden rule is to let the public choose from your own nominees so you can live with their choice.

Back in London, the Bank of England  has gone for Timothy Spall on the new £20 note  and so surely Dennis, Neville  and Oz cannot be far behind. Is this a similar attempt to honour indigenous artisans and restore the reputation of migrant manual labourers? On a closer look, it turns out to be Spall in his recent film role at JMW Turner; a good if safe choice of a major long dead artist.

In this case, the election process was overseen by the newly formed and snappily named ‘Banknote Character Advisory Committee’ who invited public nomination in their chosen field of artists, held focus groups and then presented their recommendation to the Governor for his final decision.

In the past, the Bank has opted for establishment figures like Christopher Wren, Duke of Wellington and Charles Darwin.  With Winston Churchill and Jane Austen to come, do not expect any surprises. The public nominations of David Beckham, Terry Wogan and Princess Diana have not found favour but the Bank should note that a limited edition of George Best in Northern Ireland sold out in ten days.

Lets be a bit more adventurous and reclaim our more radical past. Where is Tom Paine,  Mary Wollstonecraft or William Morris? As a man who engraved banknotes and much besides, Thomas Bewick would cut a fine figure too.

I bet the Natural Environmental Research Council must be looking at the laborious selection of bank note celebrities with envy. It was a brave move to allow the great British public to nominate names for their new £200m polar research vessel  but it was ill thought out.

The names put forward are testimony to the wicked humour  of social media hams. With 124,109  votes, McBoatface was the runaway winner but I also chuckled at ‘Usian Boat’, ‘What Iceberg?’ and ‘Its bloody cold out here’. The Chief Executive will make a ‘lose lose’ final decision, with the minister over his shoulder already saying it is ‘unlikely’ that Boaty will be painted on the prow.

What does it say about the irreverent, kick across the traces, mood on social media?  Somehow the phone and tablet encourages this kind of flippancy and allows a bright idea to gather support in seconds. The man who dreamed up McBoatface is said to now regret it in just the same way as Margaret Becket is supposed to rue the day she let Jeremy Corbyn get into the leadership poll. A rolling stone gains momentum like never before with no chance for second thoughts.

Perhaps it is as well that the voter still has make the way to the polling booth to mark a cross with a pencil on a ballot paper. It seems a ludicrously antiquated way to proceed that cannot last much longer but it allows for some reflection and sobriety in making a decision. It doesn’t however attract young people.  Lets hope for some serious thinking and cool heads on June 23rd.

What will this shiny new ice breaker eventually be called?  I’d go for David Attenborough, who came in fifth with 10,000 votes. No one could object to a national treasure or be embarrassed to sail in  him. It is surprising that he is not already on a banknote.

Published in Newcastle Journal on 3rd May 2016