The Police need to be routinely armed

PC Keith Palmer had a split second decision to make on the afternoon of 22 March 2017.  A big man with a shaven head and a ‘Hand of Allah’ beard was running towards him, waving at least one knife.  Did he run and hide; or did he confront him?  Heroically, PC Palmer tried to stop Khalid Masood.  In the struggle that followed, Keith Palmer received multiple stab injuries and subsequently died; Khalid Massood was shot three times by a ministerial close protection officer, who happened to be standing nearby, and also died.

Keith Palmer was one of the police officers on duty at the perimeter of the Palace of Westminster – the British Parliament – in effect the first obstacle to anyone attempting to gain entry to the parliamentary estate.  He was not armed, neither was any police officer normally stationed there who was close enough to intervene.  Had it not happened to be a Wednesday, when ministers converge on the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions, there would have been no armed response within reach.  As it was, an armed officer happened to be standing by the Secretary of State for Defence’s car and moved in.  Keith Palmer still died.

Any infantryman or sapper – in fact any soldier – will tell you that an obstacle that is not covered by both observation and fire is not an obstacle.  Keith Palmer was not an obstacle to anyone attempting to make a forced entry into the Palace of Westminster, although in his hi-viz jacket he might have looked like one to his complacent commanders.

It is no longer good enough to look like an obstacle. Islamist terrorists are, by and large, expecting to die during their attacks.  They are hoping to inflict as much damage as possible during the course of their attack. They are unlikely to be deterred by an unarmed copper in a hi-viz vest. They will try to kill him or her and carry on with their business until someone actually does physically stop them.  Had an armed officer not been – coincidentally – present, we can only imagine what further carnage might have been inflicted.

Our police need to be able to stop attacks and ultimately the only way they can do that is by killing (or, I suppose, incapacitating) the terrorists.  Realistically, the only way they can do that is by shooting them.  They cannot shoot them if they are not armed.

And it isn’t just the once-in-a-blue-moon terrorist scenarios we need to be worrying about.  This is no longer the 1930s.  British society has changed. Many criminals operating in the UK today come from places where armed criminal violence is commonplace.  And to add to this, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact has created a glut of illegal guns in Europe.

What this means is that police officers in the inner cities are regularly going in to potentially armed situations with no means to resolve them.  Of course we have armed response vehicles circulating around but they are rarely likely to be the first responders. Instead it will usually be unarmed coppers, like Keith Palmer, who have to put themselves in harm’s way.  That means that some of them, like Keith Palmer, will be killed or seriously injured.

92% of Metropolitan Police officers are not routinely armed.  Many, of course, do not need to be because they are not in roles where they are likely to confront armed criminals but the fact is that police officers who may find themselves in a situation in which they are confronting terrorists or armed criminals should be able to defend both themselves and the public.  To do that, they must be able to deploy more than a truncheon, a pepper spray and harsh language.

Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Tunisian Islamist terrorist who killed 86 people and injured more than 400 by driving a truck along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice on 14 July 2016 was eventually stopped by ordinary French Police shooting at him with their sidearms.  Khalid Masood ran down three unarmed police officers as he crossed Westminster Bridge.  We don’t know if they were trying to stop him but if they were, they would have had a better chance if they had been able to shoot at him.

This is no longer a hypothetical situation.  The threat of Islamist terrorism in the UK, and particularly in our major cities, has been assessed as ‘severe’ for some time and is likely to remain so.  It is not unreasonable to suppose that Masood’s actions will inspire other terrorist self-starters to have a go.  The list of potential targets is more or less infinite.  Putting more armed officers around the Palace of Westminster won’t help much if an attack takes place in Cardiff, Glasgow or Coventry.  We cannot afford this level of complacency; police patrols need to be routinely armed.



Sebastian Gorka and the Vitézi Rend


In my last blog I wrote about how Sebastian Gorka, Deputy Assistant to President Donald Trump, appears to have tried to suggest that a short period in a British Army reserve intelligence unit in the early 1990s adds to his credibility as an ‘expert’ in counter-terrorism.  In fact it seems extremely unlikely that Gorka would have gained any operational experience during his service and in reality the unit that he was a member of had no counter-terrorist role  – in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain or anywhere else –  at that time.

Perhaps more troublingly, recent reports have highlighted Gorka’s habit of wearing the insignia of the Vitézi Rend, a hereditary order of military merit created by the Hungarian ruler Admiral Miklós Horthy in 1920. In 1941, Horthy took Hungary into the Second World War on the side of Nazi Germany and was still Head of State in the summer of 1944 when Adolf Eichmann began deporting Hungary’s Jewish minority to Auschwitz for extermination. Membership of the  Vitézi Rend continued to be awarded until Horthy was deposed, at gunpoint, by Nazi German intelligence and special forces personnel in October 1944.

At the end of the war, the Vitézi Rend was abolished along with a number of other organisations and political parties  which had been entangled with both Admiral Horthy’s government and the subsequent fascist ‘Arrow Cross’ puppet government of Ferenc Szálasi.  At this time it was listed by the US State Department as an organisation linked with Nazi Germany.  The Vitézi Rend has not been reconstituted by the Hungarian state and nowadays exists in the form of a number of competing private associations of a broadly right-wing, nationalist – and in some cases anti-semitic –  character which seek to claim the heritage of the order, and the prestige, if that is the right term, of the Horthy era.


Miklós Horthy (left) and friend.

Admiral Miklós Horthy (1868-1957) was appointed Commander in Chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in February 1918 and led it until the defeat of the Central Powers in Europe and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the autumn of 1918.  In 1919, Horthy was asked by the government of Hungary to take command of a counter-revolutionary army to help put down a Bolshevik coup, led by the revolutionary Bela Kun.  This was accomplished, with the help of Romanian forces, by the autumn of 1919 and Hungary was re-established as a parliamentary monarchy, with the odd proviso that it had no monarch, as the victorious allies would not allow the King – the former Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Emperor Karl IV – to return to the country to take up the throne.  Consequently, the Hungarian parliament elected Horthy as Regent and Head of State.  A position that he held until he was deposed by the Nazis who were unhappy that he was trying to extricate Hungary from the war against the Soviet Union.

Doubtless, Miklós Horthy was not a nice man by current standards.  He allied Hungary – albeit reluctantly – with Nazi Germany, instituted anti-semitic laws and did far less than he could and should have done when the Nazis began to deport Hungary’s Jewish population to Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.  But he was neither a fascist nor a Nazi, except in the rather crass sense that the modern left applies to right-wing people whose views or actions they particularly dislike.  Instead he was a reactionary, irredentist, monarchist, nationalist conservative whose primary motivation in co-operating with Hitler and Nazi Germany was to recover territory lost by Hungary at the Treaty of Trianon in 1920.  He was certainly personally anti-Semitic but his record suggests that he made efforts from time to time to protect Hungary’s Jewish minority from the worst excesses of the Hungarian radical right.  It was nowhere near enough of course and he shamefully failed to prevent the Nazi extermination of Hungarian Jews in 1944 but his relationship with Nazi Germany was sufficiently ambiguous that he was not prosecuted by the Allies at the end of the war and died in retirement in Portugal in 1957.

So does Gorka’s wearing of the medal and use of the title ‘vitéz’ imply that he has neo-Nazi or anti-semitic links as some commentary has suggested?  Well possibly.  Gorka certainly has links to the Hungarian nationalist right and within that spectrum there are some more or less open anti-semites and neo-Nazis.  Although Gorka has denied any connection with the extremist right it doesn’t seem too far-fetched to suppose that he came into contact with them, but that certainly doesn’t mean he shared their views and I don’t think there is any actual evidence to suggest that Gorka is a fascist or Nazi.  On the other hand, Gorka’s own explanation suggests that a different interpretation of the significance of his wearing the Vitézi Rend might be a better fit.

Gorka told the London Daily Telegraph that: “My father was nine years old when the Second World War started… I was born in 1970. Neither of us could be guilty of what they’re stating.”

Which is perfectly true.  Realistically, neither can be associated with the crimes of the Horthy era.  Equally however, neither can be associated with the actual Vitézi Rend, which was abolished in 1945.  At best, the medal that Gorka wears is something that he (or his father, as the award is supposedly hereditary) was either awarded by one of the several competing non-state groups which claim to be able to award the medal, or he simply awarded it to himself.

Naive soul that I am, I was unaware, until a few years ago, that there is a thriving market in bogus titles of chivalry and nobility.  The scales were lifted from my eyes when I followed the unmasking – on the British ‘Army Rumour Service‘ website (a raucous and very unofficial discussion forum for serving and ex-members of the British Army) – of James Shortt, an ex-nurse and martial arts instructor who constructed a glorious military history for himself and then seems to have spent much of the 1990s selling military training to the newly emerging democracies of Eastern Europe. Shortt claimed, amongst other things, to have been awarded a Papal knighthood for his contribution to bringing the Cold War to an end and also, surprise, surprise, to be a Vitézi Rend. Further poking around the grubby recesses of the internet throws up all kinds of examples of people who have awarded themselves titles of nobility and knighthoods, whilst the fraudulent wearing of military decorations with the intent to obtain tangible benefits led the US Congress to pass the Stolen Valor act in 2013 (a British version is also under discussion).

Why do people award themselves medals and titles?  Ironically, I suspect, it’s to gain respect which they wouldn’t otherwise receive and which they don’t deserve.  A bit like claiming operational counter-terrorist experience.  Oddly enough, soon after I published my first blog on Gorka, I was contacted by a former schoolmate of Gorka’s from St Benedict’s in Ealing.  He told me that Gorka hadn’t played ‘Number 8’ for the school rugby XV as he’d claimed in one interview.  It does all seem to fit into a pattern.

Sebastian Gorka and his distinguished military career.


Sebastian Gorka is on the right.. badoom-tish!

One of the curious paradoxes of the Trump administration is that, at the very top, there is a mixture of supremely competent professionals – James Mattis and HR McMaster spring to mind – working in the same national security space as quirky ideological warriors like Stephen Bannon.  Sebastian Gorka, the British-born commentator of Hungarian extraction, who was named as a Deputy Assistant to President Donald Trump in January 2017, seemed to straddle this divide:  an academic specialist in counter-terrorism with some radical ideas about how to defeat Jihadi Islamism.

I took a mild interest in Gorka because he had apparently served in an Intelligence Corps unit of the British Territorial Army (TA) in the early 1990s.  For non-British readers, the Territorial Army* was the name of the part-time British Army reserve established in the early years of the 20th century primarily for home defence but which became, during the Cold War, an integral part of the British orbat in our plans to defend western Europe from Soviet aggression as part of NATO; it was and is similar to the US National Guard in many respects.  As it happens, I was commissioned as a regular army Intelligence Corps officer in 1985 and it’s always nice to see chaps from the Corps doing well for themselves.

Last month, someone on twitter posted a link to this profile of Gorka in the Washington Post and my ‘spidey senses’ immediately began to tingle.  It’s a throwaway sentence:  “He went to college in London and spent three years as a reserve intelligence soldier in the British army, focused on the conflict in Northern Ireland”.  This struck me as extremely unlikely: no part of the TA, to my knowledge, was ever committed to the conflict in Northern Ireland.  The only part-time soldiers to be directly involved were members of the Ulster Defence Regiment and their successors in the Home Service battalions of the Royal Irish Regiment, who had a different legal status to the TA.

A little digging revealed that Gorka had actually been a member of 22 Intelligence Company, of the Intelligence and Security Group (Volunteers) between 1990 and 1992, as he told a Hungarian newspaper.  22 Company was a unit I knew well from my own service. Back then, in the dying days of the Cold War, it was a specialist unit of interrogators and ‘tactical questioners’ with a NATO role.  It was an eclectic group of people, recruited largely on the basis of their language skills, who were trained under the auspices of the Joint Service Interrogation Wing at Ashford in Kent.  As the son of Hungarian exile parents and a Hungarian speaker, Gorka would have been a good fit.  But it had nothing to do with Northern Ireland, so if Gorka was claiming this in the US, he was being somewhat economical with the truth.

In itself, this is kinda, sorta understandable.  Gorka took a first degree in Theology and Philosophy at a theological college of London University and his subsequent transformation into a counter-terrorism theorist seems to have taken place whilst he was studying for a Master’s degree, and subsequently a PhD, in Budapest which might be seen by some to lack the credibility of equivalent qualifications from, say, Harvard or Cambridge.  I can see why he might want to have credentials as an operational counter-terrorism specialist from one of the world’s leading armies.  It doesn’t make it true though.

A week or so back I asked a friend, who was in 22 Company at that time, whether he remembered him.  “I don’t recall Gorka immediately, but that’s not to suggest that we may not have collided at some time in the great Venn diagram of life”, was his response.

As it happens, Gorka was profiled (paywalled) today by the Sunday Times in London.  It’s a soft piece, written as a kind of ‘hometown boy makes good’ story, but interestingly, it presents a new version of his military service.  According to the Sunday Times:  “Gorka spent three years from 1990 as a part-time soldier with the Territorial Army. Part of 22 Military Intelligence Company, he used his language skills (he speaks German and some French as well as Hungarian) to collect evidence for the war crimes tribunal set up after the collapse of Yugoslavia”.

Once again, the spidey senses twitched.  Would members of 22 Company really have been collecting war crimes evidence between 1990 and 1992 when Gorka was a member?  It seems unlikely to me: their role was collecting intelligence, a very different task to collecting evidence that could be used in a court.  A couple of other easily checkable facts also seem to suggest this isn’t true: firstly, there were no significant deployments of British military personnel to the former Yugoslavia until September 1992 when 1 Cheshires Battlegroup deployed under the command of Lt Col Bob Stewart (now a Conservative MP) on Operation GRAPPLE as part of UNPROFOR; secondly, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia wasn’t actually set up until May of 1993.

It seems to me possible that Gorka might have been employed interviewing – ‘debriefing’ in intelligence jargon – individuals returning from the former Yugoslavia to gain snippets of information from them.  Members of 22 Company certainly did this with returnees from Iraq and Kuwait at the start of the Gulf War in 1990 (I know this because I was one of the people who organised it) and I’m told the ‘Defence Debriefing Team’ was put on a more formal footing thereafter (by which time I’d moved on).  Even so, at this stage it wasn’t about acquiring war crimes evidence but rather basic situational awareness, so he is evidently dramatising his role, if indeed he ever did this work.

So what?  In the grand scheme of life an individual exaggerating his military service is no big deal. It’s kind of distasteful, I suppose, but it happens an awful lot and most military veterans I know find it funny, more than anything else.  But there are special circumstances in Gorka’s case.  He is a senior advisor to the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful armed forces that have ever existed.  Gorka’s views appear to have been formed by his studies at a university that is not renowned as a centre for the study of counter-terrorism and, despite his attempts to suggest otherwise, he has never been an operational practitioner of counter-terrorism.  By all accounts that I have read, Gorka has never done any academic fieldwork in counter-terrorism either.  His real expertise seems to be in getting gigs as a ‘talking head’ on right wing news media, the rest is pretty much flim-flam.

It’s up to President Trump to decide who he wants to advise him, of course, but my experience over the years has been that proven bullshitters are rarely a good choice.

*Now renamed the ‘Army Reserve’

The ‘Special Relationship’

Theresa May is off for a chat with President Donald Trump today – the first foreign leader to get a face-to-face with him since he was inaugurated – and, as usual, we are faced with the usual slightly embarrassing discussion about whether there is, in fact, a ‘special relationship’ between the US and the UK.  It always goes the same way: the left and the ‘futilitarians’ of the right and centre – sneeringly crow that the UK is nothing more than a supplicant for whatever largesse the US is prepared to hand out; the ‘Atlanticists’ of the right argue that the UK has a vital role in guiding the US Government through the choppy waters of international affairs, as if the State Department was entirely staffed by second-year humanities undergrads in need of a bit of mentoring.  There’s an assumption that if such a relationship does exist, it’s based on some kind of informal mutual admiration.

It’s all a bit ‘cringe’, as my daughter would say.

The reality is that there is a ‘special relationship’ between the UK and US which is both well-defined and formal.  The truth is that, since the Second World War, by formal agreement, secret  intelligence collected by US and UK agencies has been shared to an extent that many would find surprising.  In fact, it isn’t too far fetched to claim that the NSA and GCHQ, for example, effectively operate as two branches of the same organisation.

So what?  Well, it means that to a large extent, US and UK policy is informed by the same basic intelligence information.  Interpretations of what this shared intelligence means can and do differ, but there is always that background awareness and mutual understanding between the two governments.

So yes, British blather about the ‘special relationship’ does get a bit embarrassing and does make us seem more than a little needy, but it is nevertheless a real thing, and it’s a relationship that many of our western allies would give their eye-teeth to be a part of.

Kids today…


Dido, not wearing a home-made shirt

There’s a discussion ongoing on Twitter this morning between @janemerrick23, @VictoriaPeckham and @gabyhinsliff about making one’s own clothes which reminded me of a discussion I had with my 14-year old daughter recently.

Dido is very sensible in all respects but like most kids of her age, or so it seems to me, fashion is quite important in her life and much of the allowance we give her is hoarded and spent on achingly fashionable clobber designed to impress her friends (or at least, persuade them that she isn’t a total klutz).

Anyway, the point is that I was explaining to her how things had changed.  When I was growing up in the 1970s, most of the clothes I had until I was probably about 14 or so were made by my mum.  School uniform as well as vests, pants and socks came from M&S or BHS, but ‘casual’ stuff – trousers, shorts, jeans and jumpers – were generally knocked up on her old Singer or hand knitted by her.

We weren’t poor: my dad was a fairly senior university lecturer and my mum worked as a school secretary, but somehow the idea of actually buying clothes for her children was anathema.  Maybe it was growing up in wartime and post-war austerity?

But the thing was, she wasn’t actually very good at it.  The trousers generally didn’t have pockets or flies, because they were too difficult, and the jumpers usually looked like they had been made-to-measure for Quasimodo.  When they wore out they were patched; and when we grew, they were extended with odd bits of cloth in exciting contrasting colours. My brother and I must have looked like Fagin’s street urchins.

I told Dido this and she flat-out didn’t believe me, but it’s true and my recollection is that it was true of a lot of my contemporaries as well.  My ‘allowance’ as a teenager peaked at £5 a month, when I was 15, and after that I had to find evening and Saturday jobs which finally allowed me to buy my own jeans (cheap ‘grey import’ Levi’s from Dickie Dirt’s in Fulham), t-shirts and other basic stuff.

Anyway, the idea of wearing home-made clothes was treated by Dido with absolute derision and threats that she would call Childline if we ever tried it on with her and that was that.  Kids today eh?  They don’t know they’re born.

President Trump, WTF!



It’s Happened!

Well, were I a US Citizen, I wouldn’t have voted for Donald Trump but, having said that, I somewhat doubt whether any of the apocalyptic predictions being made in the wake of his victory will come to pass.  He is quite clearly an egotist of gigantic proportions (although which politician isn’t?) but that may not be a bad thing.  After all, he is far too arrogant to subscribe to any particular political ideology: I suspect the hard (and ‘Alt-‘) right will wind up just as disappointed in him as the left.  So now that the campaign is over, it’s worth cutting away at the hyperbole and taking a more realistic look at a few issues.

Trump as a person and what that means.

Yes, he’s arrogant.  His attitude towards women and minorities sucks.  He is rude, threatening and unpleasant towards rivals, competitors and critics.  But we all meet people like him every day. At the risk of being accused of ‘whataboutery’, the fact is that he has character traits shared by rich, powerful men everywhere and plenty of others too.  Let’s be honest:  Bill Clinton and even the sainted JFK were both partial to a bit of ‘pussy grabbing’; Nixon and, I suspect, a huge majority of his predecessors were demonstrably racist.  Nevertheless, for many US Presidents, being in office brings out the best in them.  Lyndon Johnson was a mean, vengeful, nasty, racist machine-politician but it didn’t stop him launching the ‘Great Society’.  Taking a more recent European example, Silvio Berlusconi was and is a thoroughly reprehensible figure yet a not ineffective Prime Minister of Italy.  With Trump, we’ll have to wait and see.  Remember, the US Constitution has checks and balances built in by design.  Even a conservative Supreme Court is unlikely to row significantly back on protections for minorities and, in any case, there will be another Presidential election in four years and Congressional elections in two.  For all the hyperbolic bullshit about Trump’s ‘Fascism’, he remains accountable under the US Constitution and nothing he can realistically do will change that.

But personally, I doubt whether he’s really all that interested in diminishing women’s or minority rights, as the left would have us believe.  He’s made racist remarks which presumably reflect his attitudes and these aren’t pretty, but they aren’t uncommon either.  My hunch is that Trump will be far too preoccupied by the other concerns of his office to make any real effort to attack women’s or ethnic minority rights whatever hopes the hard right are pinning on him.

And let’s not forget:  Trump is not an ideologue but a businessman.  In reality he’s supported Democrats in the past, he has worked with and promoted women and ethnic minorities within his businesses and he doesn’t seem particularly uncomfortable with issues like gay marriage.  He has said things during the campaign to reinforce his support from the right without, so far as I can tell, making too many explicit promises about what, exactly, he will do.  We may see in the US what we saw after the Brexit vote in the UK: an upsurge of racist incidents from individuals and groups emboldened by the fantasy that their ideas have somehow been popularly endorsed; but will it make race relations worse in the US?  From the outside, things appear pretty bad now despite having had a black President in office for nearly eight years and that leads me to think that it’s a systemic issue which Trump is unlikely to be able to affect much, one way or the other.

So how bad is he really?  In his acceptance speech, he has just paid tribute to Hillary Clinton, a complete reversal of his ‘lock her up’ rhetoric of a few weeks ago.  The realities of his office, the law and the US Constitution will most likely cause him to row back quietly  from many of the extreme positions he has apparently adopted. I hope so anyway.

Defence and Foreign Policy

There is one thing that Trump is absolutely on the money about.  Most members of NATO have been free-riding on America’s coat-tails since the end of the Cold War and, for some, long before.  The UK, France, some of the newly joined former Eastern Bloc states and, possibly, Germany, are the only members who punch remotely near their weight.  I’ve recently returned from an operational tour in Afghanistan serving with, but not as part of, the NATO ‘Resolute Support’ mission.  The base where I was living was dripping with NATO personnel but, when it came down to it, it was hard to tell what a lot of them were actually doing beyond showing the flag.  For all the talk of an EU Army, the best we’re going to see for years to come is an ineffectual fudge dependent on US (and perhaps, to a much lesser extent, UK) logistics and strategic lift.  One reason why many European states can afford such generous, and apparently irrevocable, welfare provision is because their defence forces are chronically underfunded and little more than symbolic.  They can provide a militarised diversity monitoring team here and there, but the idea of a European state other than the UK or France actually deploying combat formations in the field is laughable.  We are living in an increasingly unstable and uncertain world and this needs to change.

Having said that, Trump has made a lot of undeniably stupid defence and foreign policy comments during the campaign.  Will he get serious?  I’m comforted by the fact that government is not a one man band and that Trump will need to bring some serious people on board but it remains to be seen who these will be.  With a moderately sensible team on side, maybe the loose-cannon Trump can be reined in?

And while were at it, it isn’t like Obama’s foreign policy has been a runaway success, Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding.  Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Russia, China, Venezuela, the Philippines and North Korea have all given the finger in one way or another to US foreign policy imperatives since Obama has been in office so maybe a different approach is needed.

In any case, there are a number of realities that are unavoidable.

Building a Wall with Mexico. Last time I checked, the writ of the President of the United States of America was not valid in Mexico, so if Trump wants Mexico to agree to this (and pay for it – right), he’s going to have to negotiate an agreement.  That isn’t going to happen overnight, if ever, so don’t wait up.  Even if, by some miracle, Mexico agrees, don’t expect it to happen quickly: the logistics alone make that impossible.  Could he get it built in four years?  I doubt it.  Could he do it in eight? Maybe if he lasts that long in office.  Maybe.

Russia.  Some disturbing things have emerged in recent months about Trump’s links with Russia and the Putin government.  I have no special insight into the truth of these and it remains to be seen what evidence can be found but notwithstanding this, there is certainly an argument for re-setting the US-Russian relationship which was profoundly damaged by the acceptance of former Warsaw Pact states into NATO.  In my view, this was a good thing but it took place against the backdrop of what Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s predecessor, thought was a promise that it wouldn’t happen.  Russia’s interference in neighbouring countries, cyber warfare against the west, the Russian annexation of the Crimea and invasion of the Ukraine and Georgia is at least partly explicable in this context.  An increased military presence in eastern Europe is absolutely necessary at the moment but it needs to be followed by negotiations and an agreement to prevent matters from deteriorating further.  Maybe Trump can do this. He’s a businessman and at root, I suspect, a pragmatist: Obama couldn’t and I doubt if Hillary would have been able either; it isn’t just American voters who don’t trust her.

Afghanistan.  Afghanistan is a generations-spanning problem.  Afghan governments cannot survive without significant outside support and haven’t done so since the British got ensnared there in the 1830s.  Why not?  Because they can’t raise revenue in a country which has a distinct national identity but is, at the same time, comprised of a collection of mutually hostile ethnic, tribal and clan fiefdoms.  The British footed the bills for a hundred years or so; then a broader group of international actors; then the Soviets; then Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; and now, primarily, the US and its ‘western’ partners.  If Trump pulls the plug on US involvement in Afghanistan and support for the National Unity Government, it will not take long for the Taleban to re-establish themselves as de facto rulers of the southern half of the country whilst other factions strive for control in the rest.  It’s worth noting that these factions will include both Al Qa’eda, who have never been completely eliminated there, as well as Islamic State, in the form of ‘Islamic State in Khorasan Province'(ISKP), who have been steadily increasing their strength for several years.  This will not be good for anyone.  The Central Asian republics and China fear the rise of Islamism – as does Russia to the north – and even Pakistan, which harbours the Taleban leadership, but has its own problems with the Pakistani Taleban, its offshoot ISKP and AQ, not to mention Baluchi separatists in the west.  A disintegrated and ungoverned Afghanistan without an effective counter-terrorist presence – and none of the local actors would be inclined, or probably able, to provide one – gives rise to similar conditions that led to 9/11.  So what?  In the short to medium term, at least, the US is stuck there, no matter what President Trump might want.  In the much longer term it’s possible to envisage a settlement in which the Taleban return to participate in government in Afghanistan on the basis that they will keep a lid on AQ and ISKP but that will require the US to give up a number of liberal ‘red-lines’ – full-on women’s rights springs to mind – as well as ramping up the pressure – in co-operation with regional players – on Pakistan to to bring the Taleban to the table.  I don’t think this would be possible for Hillary Clinton but may be for a President unencumbered by liberal baggage.

Syria and Iraq.  Aside from the humanitarian imperative, which is stark, the Syrian civil war risks developing into a much larger regional conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam which would have unknowable impacts globally.  The Obama Presidency sloped its shoulders and allowed others, notably Iran and Russia, to make the running.  IS is the first priority and needs to be defeated, although that will take time if it is not to morph into a different but equally unpleasant threat.  Trump has an opportunity here to make a break with his predecessor and adopt a more forward looking policy and co-operative policy which might actually be a game changer: if he listens to the right people at least.

So What?

‘The people have spoken – the bastards!’.  Trump is going to be President and things are likely to change.  I don’t doubt that he isn’t a particularly nice man who has said and done bad things in the past but equally, I doubt he’s an idiot either.  It’s easy for western liberals to imagine that he’s going to impose some kind of authoritarian reign of terror but somewhat less easy to work out how he might do that for real.  If we are being honest with ourselves, the Obama Administration has failed to achieve almost everything it set out to do not least because a significant – and now decisive – proportion of the US population was not ready for the kind of progressivism that was on on offer.  Trump is a pretty clear break with the past and with a Republican House and Senate, may be able to de-stagnate the American political process and make the kind of changes that a lot of American voters evidently want.  Whining about his character doesn’t change the fact that the US is a democracy and has just elected him to do a job.  Strategic forecasting is a mug’s game and I’m not going to indulge in predicting how things will turn out, but believing ones own side’s propaganda is equally silly.  What’s Trump going to do?  We don’t know yet; we’ve heard the rhetoric from the heat of the campaign, now we will see the reality.

As I said above, I wouldn’t have voted for Trump, but nor am I going to lose any sleep now that he’s been elected.  Rather than wetting our pants about our imagined fears, let’s wait and see what he actually does.

Nature, Nurture and Oxbridge Entry.


Blimey, two blog posts in a day!

I’ve been reading some of the coverage this morning of the Cambridge Union debate on the question: “This House Believes Oxbridge is a Finishing School for the Privileged” which featured, amongst others, the writer, journalist and former Tory MP Louise Mensch – a person I rather admire, as it happens.

Part of the debate apparently focused on the unlikely proposition that 40% of children intelligent enough to gain entry to Oxbridge should have parents rich enough to pay for them to have attended fee-paying schools. On the face of it that does seem pretty daft.  The Independent Schools Council website claims that 6.5% of children are educated in the independent sector so that figure of 40% of Oxbridge entrants coming from the private sector does suggest something odd is going on, not least because anyone with any experience of independent schools, as a pupil or teacher, will tell you that they certainly have their share of the dim-witted and doziest pupils.

So what is the advantage?

In my day job, I’m a member of a team that assesses and selects candidates for a large, well-established and – indeed – world-renowned professional educational establishment (I won’t bore you with the details).  This means that – week in, week out – for the past three-and-a-half years I’ve been scrutinising groups of young men and women as they undertake a range of tasks and tests over a four day selection board.  The basic educational standard for entry is pretty low: 180 UCAS points, which is equivalent to three grade ‘D’ A-levels; but the overwhelming majority are actually graduates (or on their way to earning a first degree) and a significant minority also have postgraduate degrees.

Along with essays, practical tests and so on, all the candidates complete a mental aptitude profile (MAP) – in effect, a refined IQ test.  The raw MAP is then weighted against their educational attainment (for example, a 2:1 or better degree provides a little uplift), performance in the written tests that we administer and observed performance in the practical tasks, to produce a score which we call ‘Intellectual Potential’ (IP).  This is their potential to cope with the intellectual demands of the professional training they’re applying for.

MAP and IP are scored by us on a scale from 0-9.  In the final selection process, those with an IP of 0, 1 and 2 cannot pass the process; those on a 3 can get through if they do particularly well in other aspects of testing; those on 4 and above will normally pass if they reach the required standard.  In effect, an IP 3 is regarded as ‘borderline’ ability to cope with training, 4 and 5 as ‘average’, 6 and above as ‘above average’ to ‘superior’.

The interesting thing is that most of the Oxbridge (and other top universities’) undergrads and graduates that I have seen have been more or less indistinguishable from the others in terms of their raw MAP.  We see the normal range coming through with most, as you would expect, in the 4-6 range.  There are some who score higher, but equally, some who are in the borderline and below category.

What distinguishes the candidates from Oxbridge (and, to be fair, most Russell Group universities) is their consistently high educational attainment.  It’s rare to see a Cambridge or Oxford graduate or undergraduate who hasn’t achieved pretty much all ‘A’ or ‘A*’ grades at both GCSE and A level examinations.  The slightly odd thing which I have noticed is that a significant number have achieved these excellent results with intellectual equipment which is, at best, average and sometimes below.

Which is where the privilege bit comes in.  What is clear to me is that there are a number of schools out there which can take a fairly ordinary child – in terms of intellect at least – and take him or her a very long way.  At a school like Eton, for example, the system for ‘Specialists’ (thats 6th formers to you and me) is actually very similar to a university tutorial system, and many of the teachers wouldn’t be at all out of place teaching at a university if they chose to.  Intellectual stimulation at this level can have a huge impact.

As well as the nurturing aspect of the way that some schools operate, there’s a degree of compulsion too.  Many top independent schools simply boot out children who don’t get sufficiently good GCSE grades and don’t let them enter the 6th form for A Levels.  It’s a harsh but effective way of keeping schools at the top end of the A Level league tables, if nothing else.

On it’s own though, this twin-pronged approach isn’t necessarily enough: it only works if the child goes along with the process.  And that’s quite a big ‘if’, in my view, because we also occasionally see super-bright (so MAP 8 and 9) candidates who have been at supposedly good schools who haven’t done at all well educationally, just scraping the qualifications necessary to get them through our door: they certainly hadn’t been bothering any Oxbridge admissions tutors.

On the other hand, it isn’t so unusual to see pupils from what Alistair Campbell memorably called ‘bog standard comprehensives’ who have managed to get the A grades that have got them into Oxbridge.  It’s a myth that the best teachers are all in the independent school sector – many of the best-motivated, best-qualified choose to remain in the State sector from pure idealism.  But it is unarguable that State-sector schools do not have access to the same resources as the top independent schools (Eton has a palazzo in Florence, for f**** sake!) and I suspect it’s fair to say that the learning environment will rarely be as encouraging.  Family and home environment strikes me as hugely important here, and many of the candidates I interview cite it as an important factor.  Even so, in my view the children who do well in these circumstances are genuinely truly extraordinary.

So what?  Well privilege clearly plays a part in filling Oxbridge.  Top independent schools have the resources, time and space to get a lot out of pupils who, in other circumstances, might not achieve very much (which is what parents are hoping when they stump up the extortionate fees).  Intelligence, on the other hand, may not be as crucial as most would think, an average IQ is fine.  But what strikes me as crucial is motivation, ambition and drive; and the ability to channel that into an effective work ethic from an early age.  This is something that the independent schools can, and do, nurture but they aren’t the only route.  My personal take is that the best candidates I see, and the ones who, I suspect, will achieve most in their lives, are the ones who have somehow dug it out for themselves.