Turkey’s new ally?

So call-me-Dave has turned up in Ankara chummily vowing to ‘fight’ for Turkey’s membership of the EU.

Well, good on you – at least on the face of it (though comments as to the wider geo-political interests, with regard to Turkey’s ability to act as a restraint on Iranian nuclear ambitions, are no doubt also on the mark as to why this support was offered). It’s right that Turkey can play a bridging role between east and west, and provide a greater understanding of Islam within the EU, and this is the sort of role that Turkey, which applied for EU membership as far back as 50 years ago, has long sought for itself. In principle, and subject to meeting the demands of EU membership, including over EU member Cyprus and a better domestic human rights commitment, Turkey should be in the EU.

But: fine words butter no parsnips – and, aside of Cameron’s ability to say one thing to one audience when circumstances demand and another to a different audience (like here, for instance, over the Building Schools for the Future Fund; over the scrapping of the NHS central database; and over the continuing uncertainties over the establishment of the Green Investment Bank which, as the TUC’s Philip Pearson argues, are indeed stalling the coalition’s green ambitions), he also has policy inconsistences which mean that ‘fighting’ for the rights of Turkey may not, in the end, come to much. As Denis MacShane pointed out in yesterday’s ‘Comment Is Free’ bit of the The Guardian, these would include:

– leaving the mainstream of the European Parliament

– allying with the trenchant right-wing in the EU for which Cameron’s entirely legitimate desire for a greater understanding of Islam is not a policy priority

– a policy promise of a domestic referendum on any new EU treaties, endorsement of which is likely to be a tough ask in the context of domestic politics encompassing the UK Independence Party (though Cameron is not exactly a stranger to retreating from promises of an EU referendum).

It will be interesting to see whether Cameron’s self-portrayal as a friend of Turkey actually means anything in the tough battles to which these issues point, or whether his growing reputation as someone who backs down in the face of adversity will continue to find endorsement in, as I suspect, the eventual dropping of Turkey somewhere down the line.

Action: Iraqi electrical trade unions

LabourStart is currently running an action campaign on the seizure of the assets and closure of the offices of Iraqi electricity unions following a decree from the Electricity Ministry. The decree may also lead to action being taken against trade union leaders under the 2005 Terrorism Act.

The order has received international condemnation, including from the International Trade Union Confederation, and Brendan Barber, General Secretary of the TUC, has written to William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, seeking intervention against these ‘draconian actions’ and for unions to be allowed to operate freely, underpinned by fair, just and internationally-compliant labour standards. Iraq is a member of the International Labour Organization.

As Barber says:

Unions in Iraq have a vital role to play in rebuilding the country. They are one of the few forces that unite people regardless of tribal, ethnic or religious boundaries, in striving for a peaceful, prosperous and democratic Iraq.

The LabourStart petition can be found here. If you haven’t yet signed it, do so and support the right of Iraqi trade unionists to free and independent action.

BitTorrents and illegal downloading

Interesting piece in The Australian last Friday quoting research from the Internet Commerce Security Laboratory that shows that nine out of ten BitTorrent files are illegal copies – and that most of the rest was porn. Given that the same story quotes that half of all net traffic is file sharing, this confirms not only that copyright theft is the major issue we all suspect it to be, but that the expansion of bandwidth via high-speed broadband links needs definitively to proceed hand-in-hand with measures to deal with the issue of copyright theft.

The research is evidently controversial since Village Roadshow, which has funded it, is a member of the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft, which is currently engaged in what is, in the Australian court system, a landmark case against an ISP which, if the Federal Court comes out in favour of AFACT, would see ISPs liable for their customers’ copyright infringements. Evidently, the case sets no precedence in other legislatures, but it is likely to provide succour to other similar organisations to AFACT seeking to preserve copyright in other countries elsewhere, as well as to set alarm bells ringing amongst ISPs which have sought to distance themselves from activities taking place on their networks.

The analogy which ISPs use is the postal service – which is not liable for illegal material it ends up distributing. This is fair enough, up to the point that ISPs can, and arguably should, play an important role in the detection and control of copyright infringers. In the UK, we’ve ended up with a somewhat illiberal and incredibly controversial measure in the Digital Economy Act (see the campaigning conducted by the Open Rights Group) which may well not tackle particularly well the issue it seeks to address. Regular readers will be aware that I’m generally in no rush to defend the rights of big business – but copyright is a different issue affecting individuals too and the principle that copyrighted material needs to remain protected is an important one to preserve, not least when bit torrents facilitate file sharing between people who’ve never met and who may never know the identities of those with whom material on their computer has been shared. Copyright exists for a reason and loss and damage to the creative arts industry does accrue when it is abused – copyright theft is not a victimless crime. I understand, and support, the arguments that (big business) organisations need to come up with different models for creative content for the internet age – but this doesn’t excuse copyright infringement.

Provided that forms of deep packet inspection are not used, I’m generally in favour of ISPs taking responsibility for monitoring net traffic and pointing out to copyright holders where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that copyright infringements might be taking place. I don’t mean liable, and enforcement must remain within the prerogative of copyright holders – but there must be some role for ISPs if copyright infringement on the scale identified by ICSL in Australia is to be addressed, tackled and brought under control.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

David Mitchell‘s fifth book is a historical romance which, while displaying some of the narrative tricks, symbolism and motifs for which the author is renowned, nevertheless resists the structural virtuosities of his earliest novels. The Thousand Autumns – a phrase referring to Japan itself – of Jacob de Zoet is quite literally the Japan of the central character as set at the turn of the (western) eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a Japan desirous of closing itself from external eyes and influence and which yet still makes its mark on those it allows to engage with it.

The novel commences with a powerful opening drama which not so much sets the scene for the novel but whose purpose is to set out its theme: the conundrum of modernisation: to live and thrive, Japan must open itself up to the outside world; the comforts of isolation and of primitive belief can only hold it back. Even so, those are choices that may not necessarily be those which are taken.

This tale is told in three actually quite distinct, but narratively linked parts, recalling the structural innovations of the earlier novels, and with two final codas bringing the story to a close and wrapping up loose ends both as relating to the characters and to the novel’s theme. The ending is beautiful at the level of the characters, as well as ultimately hopeful with regard to the novel’s central theme.

Outside the novel, tiny, claustrophobic and cacophonous Dejima was a genuine place, while its third section is based on a real life incident – the incursion of HMS Phaeton into Nagasaki Bay, and for similar geo-political purposes, which took place eight years after the events described in the book, adding relevance to the novel and to the historical narrative.

Mitchell’s writing style is engaging, drawing the reader in to the action both by the interplay between the characters and the description of the action. The novel is profoundly researched, influenced by Mitchell’s clear love for the country in which he has spent a considerable amount of time – yet is never showy about its learning. It is written with startling confidence, with great wit and humour, a visceral vivacity, and yet is also deeply moving. One innovatory device that Mitchell uses well is to halt the dialogue, or the action, to describe in one line what is happening elsewhere, tangentially. The effect is to heighten the dramatic tension, to bring a scene alive with a Bhuddist (or Japanese) sensitivity to nature, or otherwise simply to make time freeze. The scenes between the eponymous hero and his Japanese love interest describe an exquisite tenderness.

In a historical novel, good characterisation is essential to the credibility of the tale and of the events re-created in and by it. From the ribald drunkenness of the Dutch traders at play to the sisterly concern of the nuns at the shrine, to the cold villainy of the Abbot and the casual racism of the western characters both on land and at sea, and to the stubborn, gentlemanly honour of de Zoet himself and the courteous authority of the English Captain, Mitchell’s characters leap off the page at you: they are alive and convincingly have their own lives separate from the whims of the author.

There are a couple of problems: would a woman with a facial disfigurement really have been able to be a midwife in the 18th century – or would people’s fears and superstitions have precluded that? And the usual spelling of this temple (p. 237/238; hardback edition) is Sanjusangendo. And the polymath Marinus, despite his talents, is surely not gifted with insight into novels only written later. But these are minor gripes: Mitchell’s reputation as one of the most distinct and accomplished story-tellers of his generation is absolutely enhanced by this work.

[Edit 27 July: And now long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker as well, along with the new Andrea Levy, which is also in my reading pile, and the Rose Tremain, which might yet be…]

ICJ says Kosovan independence ‘not illegal’

In a rather surprising move, the International Court of Justice has ruled that Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 did not violate international law or UN Resolution 1244. But the decision was an interestingly split one: nine of the fourteen judges agreed with the advisory opinion, plus the president, while four votes against and there was one abstention: see the Balkan Insight report.

The decision is non-binding and is likely, as Florian Bieber argued earlier this week, also on Balkan Insight, to have its major importance not as a golden bullet but in the form of continued diplomatic negotiations towards establishing a working relationship between Kosovo and Serbia. Nevertheless, it seems likely to give added emphasis to the former, whose President was – rightly – calling for a ‘dignified celebration’ of the decision (since the two sides do need to work together on their common future, and avoiding a backlash both in Serbia as well as amongst Serbian citizens living in Kosovo is a fundamentally important means to achieve that). Serbia, which had brought the case to the ICJ, may well not in the short-term change its position of non-recognition of an independent Kosovo, but the long-term future of both within the European Union will essentially make such a perspective redundant as well as, potentially, providing for the means by which it can be dealt with – even if that is something to which the EU itself needs to adjust.

States which have refused to recognise Kosovo pending the ICJ’s decision may well not be that numerous, since many have actually, or potentially, secessionist movements already in existence on their territories (chiefly, Georgia, Moldova and Bosnia, but also encompassing Romania and Slovakia, not least given the background of the stridently nationalist noises coming from a right-wing Hungary [subscription required]). The full ICJ decision needs to be digested as regards precisely how much succour it might give to such movements, or grounds for fear amongst countries hosting them – but, as I argued last week, the practical circumstances in the background of Kosovan independence do provide hopes that this particular ICJ decision can be distinguished on its facts without paving the way for secessions and unilateral, unagreed border ‘adjustments’ elsewhere.

Made in Dagenham

Watching Sandie Shaw on the One Show last night (at about 12:33 this compilation version), she reported that she is singing the theme song for Made in Dagenham, the film due for release at the start of October about the sewing machinists’ strike at Ford’s Dagenham factory – a landmark dispute in the fight against sex discrimination at work.

Shaw is, apparently, an ex-Ford’s Dagenham worker herself, while the lyrics for the song have been written by the inestimable Bard of Barking.

Nice to see a (mostly) positive story about workers taking action on prime time TV, even if the initial reference to the ‘infamous’ strike was a little unfortunate – symptomatic, I guess, of the loss from the collective memory of the principle of the logic of collective action associated with the decline in such activity and its replacement with a belief in the primacy of the individual. By itself, this is a healthy reminder that rights at work and advances for workers must be fought for and that’s as true today as it was in 1968, and as it was in 1868.

Abuse of the language: Cameron

On top of the revelations about Gripper Stebson being a role model – apparently some sort of in-joke which went completely over the top of my head, anyway – now we have the following quote from the Prime Minister on his jaunt to America:

In my view that man should have died in jail. Full stop. End of.

Leaving aside the merits of the case – he’s probably right, though MacAskill no doubt would not have released al-Megrahi on compassionate grounds had he known he was going to live another eleven months plus – it’s the ‘End of.’ I’m most bothered about here. Aside of the garbage it represents in terms of syntax, it’s completely tautologous coming after the end of the previous ‘sentence’.

Look, ‘call me Dave’ or iDave or whoever it is you are this week, we know you’re a Tory toff. You can’t escape it and no amount of disguising it by speaking like a pleb gets you away from it any more than making popular references is going to give you the common touch. I’m not particularly bothered, since I don’t want you in the job anyway, but you’d do well to find that this electorate prefers a bit of gravitas in its Prime Ministers – something which your new mate in Washington DC has in buckets. Hope you learned at least that while you were out there swapping art and falling over yourself in the attempt to portray Britain as historically the junior partner in the relationship…