Some brief thoughts on Snowden in historical perspective

I’d just like to point out a few parallels and contrasts between the current case of whistleblowing CIA hacker Edward Snowden and some examples from my milieu of research, mid-C20 Mexico. Snowden is currently attempting to find a state which will offer him political asylum having had his passport suspended by the U.S. government following his leaking of revelations about the NSA’s spying activities (both domestic and foreign).

Snowden had, among his initial flurry of asylum applications, included Russia. Like many other examples from the list, this was curious since his asylum is a result of his (apparent) commitment to open, popular scrutiny of government, something Russia has very little of. Understandable, though – he is backed into a corner and cannot afford to be choosy at this point. This application was withdrawn by Snowden, however, when Vladimir Putin stipulated that his asylum would be dependent on his cessation of human rights-based campaigning. Incidentally, Henrik Hertzberg has written here about the brilliance of Putin’s multi-layered statement on the matter.

This condition of exile naturally brought to my mind that placed upon (first) Leon Trotsky and (later) Republican refugees from the Spanish Civil War in Mexico. In both cases, those negotiating on behalf of the asylum seeker conceded that they would not partake in political activity in their place of exile. This meant domestic political activity – for example, when Pablo Neruda arrived in post-WWII Mexico he was free to criticise the Chilean government. Similarly, Trotsky continued his life as an international revolutionary, but practically-speaking his international map suddenly had a Mexico-shaped hole in it. Hence, when his initial closest allies the LCI called for sabotage and direct action against businesses to protest against the high cost of living in 1937, Trotsky disowned them, describing their methods as “stupid”. (Note that this debate has barely evolved since 1937 and lives on in the Trotskyist and anarchist divergence in current methods to oppose the coalition government in the UK). Nor could Trotsky comment on the manner in which the railroads were (in all likelihood) handed over to workers’ control deliberately in order to fail in 1938.

When the Spanish exiles began to arrive fleeing the Francoist advance, they too were obliged to keep to non-Mexican affairs in their political discussion. In the case of the Republican government in exile this was not too taxing since they spent much of their time engaged in bitter personal recriminations. For those lower down the political hierarchy, though, the safety and opportunity Mexico afforded meant having to put their passions and energies into (usually) cultural – rather than political – affairs. When many of their children became involved in the 1968 student movement and more generalised opposition, the first generation of immigrants panicked, fearful that the political ‘sins’ of the children would be revisited upon them and all would find themselves once again without a home.

I suppose what I am trying to convey is that asylum is a tool for the state which offers it too. It can be used as a fig leaf for domestic authoritarianism, as it was in post-Revolutionary Mexico and (rather honestly, it seems) would have been in Putin’s Russia. Just as the Mexican government could trumpet its fraternal attitude to the Republican refugees while muting them politically, it would later proudly boast of a revolutionary brotherhood with Cuba while providing the U.S. government with lists of passengers travelling there from Mexico and supposedly allowing the C.I.A. to use the Mexican embassy in Havana as a listening post. While we ought to be appalled at the actions of the United States government in twisting arms across the globe to deny Snowden political asylum, we must not forget that states which receive exiles do so for their own politically-expedient reasons – even if they are nominally left-wing.

Published in: on July 3, 2013 at 10:16 am  Leave a Comment  
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Hunt & Windsor: A Synthpop Phenomenon?

Don’t know why I thought of doing this, but it seemed very fitting when presented with this photo.

The artist formerly known as Prince Harry, and some right hunt.


Published in: on August 3, 2012 at 7:46 am  Leave a Comment  

Sod the Olympics

There’s too much wrong with the London Olympics to go into in any detail at the moment – the categories of ‘commercial rapaciousness’ and ‘egregious authoritarianism’ are full to bursting point. One particularly illustrative example has, though, been today publicised by Ben Goldacre and Cory Doctorow – that LOCOG don’t want you linking to their site unless you are saying nice things about them. Well, like many others, I think they are the scum of the earth, selling out (alongside the IOC) any remaining integrity or romance in sport (not unlike FIFA and UEFA of course) for the benefit of an extractive, undemocratic and self-serving elite. So I’m linking to the Olympics site on that basis.

Published in: on July 16, 2012 at 10:16 am  Leave a Comment  

The Literal Collapse of Social Democracy: Robin Hood is (Nearly) Dead

I wanted to write a long and probably boring piece on this, but I don’t have time, so thank your lucky stars. The basic points I wished to convey were as follows, in shameful brevity:

1) Robin Hood Gardens, the Smithsons’ (subjectively) beautiful but (objectively) run-down social housing development in Blackwall, east London, is due for demolition. Built for ‘the socialist dream’ and now, in classic neoliberal fashion, a public good which has quite intentionally been allowed to malfunction and decay in order that a private alternative would seem attractive. See also, for example, inner city state schools, and, shortly, the NHS. When Jonathan Glancey went to visit in 2009, he took a rather skeptical view, but almost all of the documented complaints refer to maintenance, not architecture. When I visited, the streets in the sky concept – which I love – was in full swing, with groups of kids playing football and cycling up and down.

2) Social democracy and the welfare state as a linked pair of historical phenomena seem to be just as run down (or to have been run down just as much!) as Robin Hood Gardens. In the cases of Italy and Greece elected governments were earmarked by the EU for demolition and replacement with private-finance friendly technocratic post-states. In Britain we are consensually daydreaming our way to something similar. Here was a physical representation in east London of the grand political shift of our era.

3) But wasn’t the social democratic ideal always like the Robin Hood of legend? Couldn’t a capitalist welfare state only ever survive as long as there was money coming in, strongarmed from the rich in times when there was gold sloshing around to be thrown at foreign wars and other follies? What happens when Robin Hood is dead? Weren’t such handouts always dependent on the goodwill of an enlightened member of the nobility (the mythical Loxley, the actual Beveridge) to sweep crumbs from the table into our grateful paws? Where do we go next?

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(Note, there are two photos of nearby, more modern buildings – hopefully it’s obvious which ones!)

So I went to look around and take some pictures before it is gone. A few things struck me. In relation to the surrounding monstrosities of Canary Wharf (and other faux-marble or glass-and-steel yawnfests slightly further north), Robin Hood Gardens is a fine piece of architecture. It is elegant, sweeping and open, with its deck access ‘streets in the sky’ and setting around a shared garden. It’s not too high so even in early spring (when I went) the sun comfortably enters the communal space. The ratio of windows to wall is extraordinary compared with most more recent mass housing (whether social or yuppie). Even in its decrepit, boarded-up state, there is something friendly and hopeful about it. It’s a great shame that it has been deliberately run into the ground. I really liked it.

Published in: on May 15, 2012 at 3:04 pm  Comments (3)  

Pro-Choice Rally

Some pictures from the  Bloomsbury Pro Choice Alliance demo earlier tonight against 40 Days for Life and their hateful, insidious obsession with women’s reproductive organs.

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Published in: on March 30, 2012 at 8:00 pm  Leave a Comment  

Protest at the Syrian Embassy

Here are some pictures from the beginning of the afternoon protest at the Syrian Embassy today. You can see the scene-of-crime police paying a great deal of attention to the paint splashes and broken windows. We never got that much help when our garage got broken into. But then we’re not a Middle Eastern dictatorship… I missed out on the later part (which is still going on I think) as I had another appointment so this is more a snapshot of the protestors setting up (and praying).

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Published in: on February 4, 2012 at 5:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

Another modest proposal…

A bit of useful infrastructure that could be done relatively quickly (in the case of the Seven Sisters to Edmonton Green bit) and would provide all sorts of handy linkages in the case of the other sections: three extensions to the Victoria Line. Apologies for poor rendering again, it’s down and dirty Paintbrush rather than anything fancier.

Northern extensions to the Victoria Line

Two northern extensions could be added – one from Seven Sisters platform 4, continuing through the depot with a station at Northumberland Park serving White Hart Lane football ground, then Angel Road before going underground again under the cemetery and terminating at Edmonton Green; another continuing from Walthamstow to Whipps Cross and then meeting the Central Line at Leytonstone, thus linking the Essex and East London suburbs with North London.

ADDENDUM: The line could run underground from Angel Road to Edmonton Green as a cut and cover (i.e. shallow) line as there is what seems to be a disused railroad track along the edge of the cemetery already.

Victoria Line Southern Extension

A southern loop could be added from Brixton, calling at Herne Hill, Streatham Common and Streatham Hill, serving a big chunk of south London currently off the tube network and also enabling trains to turn around without waiting.

Published in: on December 2, 2011 at 11:43 am  Comments (1)  


Not those Sparks, of this town ain’t big enough for the both of us fame, but sparks and other construction workers protesting at King’s Cross this morning against the swingeing pay cuts.

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We began at King’s Cross, walked up to the site entrance behind the station, round past the Guardian offices on York Way and ended up at the offices of one of the electrical workers’ contractors.

Published in: on November 23, 2011 at 9:36 am  Leave a Comment  

#Nov9 PROTEST #9Nov

Yeah, tagtastic. Here’s some pics from today’s march.

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Published in: on November 9, 2011 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

High Speed 2: Alternative Proposal

Now the HS2 line has been in front of the Transport Select Committee we can judge a little better the appetite for such a project. I personally think the current route doesn’t justify the massive expenditure and upheaval, but equally I think a substantial h/s network is highly desirable as well as providing massively increased nighttime freight capacity.


So, where to begin? At Euston, with the removal of the grim, faceless black towers which (appallingly) mark the public face of the station. In their place, a new facade worthy of the gateway to the north should be built, receiving trains on three levels – two at/just below the surface for conventional trains running on existing lines (perhaps divided between suburban and long-distance), and one far below the surface (as with Crossrail), a new terminus for the high speed line. Eight high-speed platforms should be enough to provide capacity for sixteen to twenty four trains per hour, though the limiting factor here is tunnel section described in the next paragraph. The lines for the high speed trains would need to start west of the Northern Line tunnels I think, running parallel until somewhere around Chalk Farm at which point they could cross (underground, at different depths).

There would, for capacity to be anything like sensible, need to be four lines running in tunnels for around six miles, from Euston to a suitable point between Finchley and Mill Hill. This is probably the biggest civil engineering challenge but has some intrinsic benefits: it points the line north as it runs out of London, avoiding the big western (indeed southwestern) detour currently needed to get into Euston; it pushes the line into land much cheaper for development (once beyond the satellite towns at least); and it causes the least disruption on the surface in London (which both reduces inconvenience and, perhaps more importantly, other costs).

Emerging on the far side of Hampstead Heath near (or indeed at) Finchley Golf Club – sorry chaps! – the line would continue north between Mill Hill and Totteridge, then onward bisecting Borehamwood to the west and Barnet to the east. It would skirt St. Albans to its east, then proceed north, passing Harpenden and Luton (again, to the east). I think these towns are adequately served and the marginal benefit of high speed to those journey times is minimal, hence bypassing is sensible. The first stop, under my scheme would be Bedford. I haven’t seen a single plan which suggests this, and it may strike you as daft, but I think there are plenty of benefits.

You may think there is a glaring inefficiency, as to get to Birmingham you are taking a bit of a detour – 115 miles in an L-shape instead of 100 in a shallow S-shape. But, as others (including Evan Davis) have pointed out, the London to Birmingham section is the least important in terms of development (though not in terms of capacity). Hence HS3 (see below) could be developed concurrently. It only takes an hour and a half now, and even via Bedford would only be around 57 minutes instead of the government-proposed 49 minutes. This still makes enough of a difference to make it an attractive option for some of the London-Birmingham traffic. Yet the main benefits of taking a more easterly route initially are as follows:

1) Shorter times further north (i.e. on the non-Birmingham spur)

2) The bulk of a high-capacity Birmingham to Felixstowe trunk freight line would be made as part of this scheme (only Bedford to Ipswich/ports would need to be upgraded)

3) Bedford is on the route of the proposed Didcot-Oxford-Bicester-Milton Keynes-Bedford-Cambridge line, a reopening project not only linking those towns but also linking many of the main routes which run into London

4) Bedford is less crowded than other candidates – Milton Keynes and Luton – for intermediate stops in this vicinity

So, if you’ll bear with me…

At Bedford the line would divide (hence Bedford would be the location of a large interchange station for HS2, Bedford to Ipswich/Ports, and Didcot to Cambridge). The main line would continue northwest to Leicester (48m to London) and then on to a new station (and possible location for a new sustainable urban development) in Erewash Dale (60m to London) between Derby and Nottingham where it would link with a new fast light rail system serving those cities and their suburbs. While HS2b (see below) pares off to the northwest, the main line continues north to Sheffield (75m, currently 130m) and Leeds (90m, currently 135m). Leeds would act as a third hub (along with Erewash Dale and Bedford) as the final split happens here.

The main HS2 would continue north from Leeds, terminating at Newcastle. The latter city could be reached in 125m from London, a big improvement on the current 170m, while intermediate times are improved further still: Leeds to Newcastle in around 35m instead of a pedestrian 90m at the moment; Leicester or Derby to Newcastle in 77m (170m currently) and 65m (135m currently) respectively. Edinburgh to London via Newcastle would be cut from four and half hours to three and a half. These intermediate benefits are, I feel, the great positive associated with a trunk and branch scheme as opposed to a Y-shaped point-to-point system. In fact, while I describe it as trunk (HS2 London to Newcastle) and branch (a to Birmingham, b to Liverpool, and c to Oxenholme) what I think the integrated idea proposes (see bottom of post) is a double Y shape, one beginning in London with Newcastle and Scotland as the tips of the Y, but acting as a trunk for branches to Birmingham and Liverpool, while another Y begins in Birmingham running up to the Northwest but also on to Scotland.

HS2 & branches a, b and c

(click picture to enlarge) – also, maps clearly not to scale!


At Bedford, HS2a would head off west-northwest, calling at Northampton and Coventry before arriving at Birmingham. Times from London would be (approximately) Bedford 25m, Northampton 35m, Coventry 48m and Birmingham 57m. A separate (though integrated) line (HS3) could continue from Birmingham to Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and further north, though I don’t believe this should be the route by which pressure is taken off the West Coast Main Line, i.e. this should be seen as a separate Birmingham-Northwest line.


Following Erewash Dale, the line would divide again. HS2b would shear off south of the Peak District, bearing round east of Leek, and heading north parallel to the Stockport-Macclesfield line perhaps three miles to the east. It could enter Manchester through the southeast (again, some golf courses are going to have to take a hike) between Stockport and Bredbury and through Reddish. There is a huge car auction site where HS2b could meet the West Coast Main Line, briefly, for the last couple of miles before the station. And the replacement of a car auction lot with a high speed rail line has a nice common sense ring to it, doesn’t it?

There is a fine candidate for a high-speed station extension beside Manchester Piccadilly at Mayfield – only two platforms would be needed for through to trains to Liverpool (probably two an hour) and these tracks could wend their way back over that strange car park and rusty shed to meet an improved and widened Piccadilly-Liverpool line. That would leave room for around four terminal platforms at Manchester and alleviate some of the pressure on Piccadilly itself. Arguably a new terminus at Liverpool would be better than attempting to wedge the bulk of high speed trains and lines into the existing (largely culverted) infrastructure. This would presumably be most welcome from a local development and jobs perspective, but would need careful thought in terms of linkage with local transport.

Because of the large-ish diversion around the Peak District, this branch of the high speed line sees the least time shaved off current journeys, but the improvements are significant: 90m from London to Manchester (rather than 130m now) and 105m from London to Liverpool (as opposed to 130m now). The eye-watering benefits are in the intermediate sections though – Liverpool to Manchester in under 20m (currently around 45m), Liverpool to Nottingham or Derby in around 50m (currently around three hours!), Manchester to Leicester in 45m (currently over two hours!) etc.


HS2c would be an entirely new line, and probably quite controversial, arcing off to the northwest across the moors following, more or less, the A65 to Oxenholme (115m to London, currently 160m)where it would join the West Coast Main Line, feeding in traffic from Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Glasgow and Edinburgh would both therefore benefit from a 45m reduction in time to London (and much more to points in between where services are currently limited), helping along the transition away from domestic flight as the go-to mode of transport. This isn’t envisaged as the end of the line though; by improving the Oxenholme to Glasgow/Edinburgh section of the line (HS4) these times would be further reduced, maybe quite dramatically. Edinburgh would benefit separately from the Newcastle h/s link too.


An HS3 would run from Birmingham to Oxenholme, allowing faster link ups with Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland from the Midlands. As many have pointed out, it makes sense to begin building the regional sections of the project at the same time. There is no reason why the Birmingham-Manchester/Liverpool section couldn’t be built at the same time as London-Leeds-Newcastle, their linking done as and when the sections are ready.

HS3, Birmingham to the North


Just a pictorial idea at this stage… the ‘central airport’ idea was mooted in my last post.

Possible HS4

However, all of this needs to be tied in to other projects. The Thames airport-freight-highspeed hub discussed in the last post is one such possibility. (Crucially, this h/s network should allow direct through services to Europe from all major termini). Another would be a continuation of the Liverpool-Manchester highspeed line under the Pennines to Leeds and on to Hull, providing vastly improved passenger linkage by day and new freight benefits at night (and taking pressure off the M62). The Didcot-Ipswich/Ports link-line is important too, both for freight and passengers. Most importantly of all, some might feel, HS4 – the Oxenholme to Edinburgh via Glasgow (or Glasgow and Edinburgh via a parkway somewhere halfway) section mentioned above – which makes this a genuinely national project. Joined-up planning on a ten or fifteen year scale is critical to getting us out of the many transport jams we are finding ourselves in – and, as a final aside, the twenty to twenty five year projected timeline for this scheme is ridiculous. While we shouldn’t cut corners – the Chinese rush to highspeed has shown the danger in that – there’s no good reason why we shouldn’t aim to have this network running within a decade. In fact, with our current network creaking and road traffic needing to be curbed, it is essential.

The whole caboodle

Published in: on November 8, 2011 at 11:41 am  Comments (4)  
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