Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Biden Time?

He clearly wants it.
Hillary Clinton should take nothing for granted.
But she will.
As the Bourbon that she is, she has learned nothing, as surely as she has forgotten nothing.
Joe Biden would be an awful President of the United States.

But at least he is not one of the Clintons.

The Return of The SDLP

From abortion, to austerity (on both sides of the Border), to toasting the Queen and staying in her house, Northern Ireland's green vote is being given plenty of cause to see red again.
Watch out for that third European seat. If the SDLP takes it, then it is well and truly on the way back.

United, Indeed

I make no pretence to following football for its own sake. But I do believe in local patriotism.

The grounds of football and other major sports clubs should be as they are in Italy, owned and run by their respective local councils.

Both parties ought to be in no doubt as to who was in charge, as Newcastle City Council has singularly failed to be in recent years where the very name of St James' Park has been concerned.

While the clubs themselves should be as they are in Spain, proper clubs with the fans as their members who elect the board, and who can decline to re-elect it.

A Hugely Interesting Fact

Peter Hitchens writes:

What would you think if Russia’s spy chief had been discovered last week, roaming round Ukraine?

The British media would have been raging and howling about sinister Kremlin meddling.

Well, as far as I know, no such visit took place.

But something just as astonishing did happen.

John Brennan, Director of the CIA, was, in fact, in Kiev last week, and I do not think he was there for the nightlife.

It is, by any measure, a hugely interesting fact that such a person, who seldom ventures out at all, was in Ukraine at a moment of great tension.

Yet the information was buried by British news media.

Last week, I asked several colleagues whom I know to be assiduous newspaper readers, interested in the world, savvy and alert, if they knew Mr Brennan had been in Kiev.

Not one of them did.

Well, what else don’t we know?

Here’s a hint. About three quarters of what Russia is now doing in Ukraine is a bitter joke at the expense of the ‘West’.

What we attack them for doing is what we have also done, in Yugoslavia and Ukraine.

We snatched Kosovo from Serbia. They have snatched Crimea from Ukraine.

We like referendums which confirm what we wanted to do all along. So do they.

So far, even they haven’t had the nerve to copy the EU habit of rerunning any votes that give the wrong result.

We unleashed armed mobs in Kiev, to overthrow the lawful authority. They have done the same in Donetsk.

Just as I have no doubt that Russian secret services and front organisations have helped, encouraged and equipped the crowds in Donetsk, I have no doubt that the ‘Maidan’ protests in Kiev had what I shall politely call help from outside.

I write as a former Marxist revolutionary who has organized demonstrations and knows how hard it is to mobilise and sustain them.

I think both sides have also shut down broadcasts they do not like.

The simple conclusion we might draw from this, this Eastertide, is that it would be wise to stop being so lofty about what the Russians are doing, and pretending that our side are the nice, law-abiding freedom-lovers.

We should ask instead what this conflict is really about.

I will tell you. It is an old-style territorial clash over a very valuable piece of territory, in which the EU, as Germany used to do, seeks to expand its power and influence into areas long dominated by Moscow.

This can only be resolved through compromise.

Yet, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War that almost ended civilisation, I am amazed by the partisan enthusiasm for conflict and confrontation that has infected so many politicians and journalists.

Why wait for future historians to tell you that you were rushed into a stupid, ruinous war by crude, one-sided propaganda?

Tell these people now that you want no such thing.

Emotion and Motivation

Eileen Shim writes:

The news: Every day, the push toward national legalization of marijuana seems more and more inevitable.

As more and more politicians and noted individuals come out in favor of legalizing or at least decriminalizing different amounts of pot, the mainstream acceptance of the recreational use of the drug seems like a bygone conclusion.

But before we can talk about legalization, have we fully understood the health effects of marijuana?

According to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from Harvard and Northwestern studied the brains of 18- to 25-year-olds, half of whom smoked pot recreationally and half of whom didn't.

What they found was rather shocking: Even those who only smoked few times a week had significant brain abnormalities in the areas that control emotion and motivation.

"There is this general perspective out there that using marijuana recreationally is not a problem — that it is a safe drug," said Anne Blood, a co-author of the study. "We are seeing that this is not the case."

The science: Similar studies have found a correlation between heavy pot use and brain abnormalities, but this is the first study that has found the same link with recreational users.

The 20 people in the "marijuana group" of the study smoked four times a week on average; seven only smoked once a week.

Those in the control group did not smoke at all.

"We looked specifically at people who have no adverse impacts from marijuana — no problems with work, school, the law, relationships, no addiction issues," said Hans Breiter, another co-author of the study.

Using three different neuroimaging techniques, researchers then looked at the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala of the participants.

These areas are responsible for gauging the benefit or loss of doing certain things, and providing feelings of reward for pleasurable activities such as food, sex and social interactions.

"This is a part of the brain that you absolutely never ever want to touch," said Breiter.

"I don't want to say that these are magical parts of the brain — they are all important. But these are fundamental in terms of what people find pleasurable in the world and assessing that against the bad things."

Shockingly, every single person in the marijuana group, including those who only smoked once a week, had noticeable abnormalities, with the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala showing changes in density, volume and shape.

Those who smoked more had more significant variations.

What will happen next? The study's co-authors admit that their sample size was small. Their plan now is to conduct a bigger study that not only looks at the brain abnormalities, but also relates them to functional outcomes.

That would be a major and important step in this science because, as of now, the research indicates that marijuana use may cause alterations to the brain, but it's unclear what that might actually mean for users and their brains.

But for now, they are standing behind their findings.

"People think a little marijuana shouldn't cause a problem if someone is doing OK with work or school," said Breiter.

"Our data directly says this is not so."

Our Morality

Tom Morton writes:

"Their morality," thundersqueaked Nicola Sturgeon at the recent SNP conference in Perth, "is not our morality."
She was talking about the Tories, but as in the much flaunted myth of "civic nationalism", there was an ethnic tinge lurking beneath the rhetoric.
Just as it's open season on "Old Etonian toffs" on the grouse moors of Govan, while the former pupils of Loretto, Glenalmond, Fettes, George Watson's and Merchiston stalk the deer forests of Holyrood in lordly fashion. They're not like "us", "down there".

"Civic nationalism" is the buzzphrase used by the separatist camp to deflect any hint of comparison with the kind of nationalism that led to bloody mayhem in the Balkans.
Or, even more inflammatory, any reminder of the SNP's flirtations with fascism in the 1930s, courtesy of such figures as barrister Andrew Dewar Gibb and the poets Douglas Young and Hugh MacDiarmid.
Civic nationalism defines a community not by its borders or ethnicity, but by a shared set of political values, and the shared democratic visions of its people.
Sort of like, well, Britain.

But for Sturgeon, the sharing of those values stops 10 miles north of Carlisle.
Carlisle, with its English Street, its Botchergate, its quaint 440-year-old law that demands the whipping of any Scotsman "found wandering".
Carlisle, "down there".

I write from Shetland, where "down there" can mean John O'Groats.
Where "us" does not reach further than Sumburgh Head.
Where one local crofter, asked about Scottish independence, allegedly replied: "Well, in London they don't care about us. But in Edinburgh, they hate us."

I am not a Shetlander, having spent most of my life in west central Scotland, and I have an affection for Disneyburgh that extends beyond its nae-knickers poshness and self-satisfied capital cool.
But I can't see why folk from Auld Reekie, Glasgow, that Dear Green Place or any other part of Scotland should be perceived as being somehow morally better, more enlightened, even more leftwing than those across that invisible border.

Much is made, in separatist circles, of the fact that Scotland labours under the yoke of a government it did not vote for.
Scotland, they say, has but a single Conservative MP and is a repository of equality, loving kindness and a fervour for linked-arm semi-socialism.
Those bastards in Carlisle, Durham, Newcastle and suchlike Tory hotbeds: they did this to us.
May they rot in hell with that Maria Swiller and her horrid ilk.

A wee look at history reveals a rather different story.
A fascinating analysis by Graham Cowie, a public law postgraduate at Glasgow University (and avowed Liberal Democrat), of the Westminster vote in Britain since the second world war reveals the following: Scotland has voted for a Labour government at Westminster in every election since 1945, except for 1951 and 1955.
Which means that between 1997 and 2010, the government was one a majority of Scots voted for.
But in 1951 the vote was tied at 37 seats to Labour and 37 to the Conservative and Unionist party, with one Liberal. A tie.
And in 1955 Scotland voted for a Tory government. The year I was born.

Since the war, Scotland's voters have failed to get their government of choice for a total of 34 years and 10 months.
But for the Welsh it's 39 years and three months. Northern Ireland? Fifty-two years and four months.

And as for the English?
Well, there's a lot of "them" "down there".
For 10 years and seven months since the war, including the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, the UK government has not been the one that England voted for.

So it's complicated. It's statistics. ut that's first-past-the-post democracy.
As for Scotland, when we look at votes, how representative is the SNP administration at Holyrood?
There's an overall majority, but they achieved 45% of the constituency vote and 44% on the regional lists.
On a 50% turnout.
Less than half of half the electorate.
That's not "most Scots".
It's not "us".
It's not me.

Here's a thing: I'm from Carlisle.
On 31 December 1955, Hogmanay, my Scots-born parents were in the city. Living there, indeed, not on some desperate antepartum race for the border.
They were back in Glasgow within months, but my birth certificate is English, red-on-cream, and one flourish of it should prevent any horsewhipping incidents. I keep it handy just in case.

Maybe that's why I hate borders.
Why I believe in solidarity with those strange folk who dwell "down there", who wish to work together for a fairer, more equal society.
And why I despise the way issues of health, childcare, justice, fairness, poverty and unemployment have been reduced to nothing more than a line in the land.

Fawning West Wingery

It took me 10 years to keep out of Parliament a person who believed that The West Wing was a documentary, not only about its own country, but about this one, which he thought was the same one, and thus also scripted by Aaron Sorkin.

Marina Hyde writes:

Covering the Beijing Olympics for The Guardian, the hotel that was my home in the Chinese capital was called – in an irony impossible to ignore – The Foreign Experts Building.

Whether that name had lost something in translation would be for the bilingual to say: all I know is that it provided the most chastening of perspectives every time I used my room key.

The Olympics is a vast – and vastly exposing – event, and there is nothing like looking down at the words "Foreign Experts" and thinking: "Christ, what if I get sent to the dressage tomorrow and have to type like I have an iota of a clue of what is going on? Is that a paso doble? Or has it got something in its hoof?"

Had I been less than 180 hours of Linguaphone off being able to order a taxi, I would have requested transfer to The Foreign Frauds Building without delay.

This, I imagine, will not be the daily insecurity of former Obama strategist David Axelrod, once he is fully in situ on these shores and masterminding Ed Miliband's 2015 election plan.

Nor do I picture Aussie Lynton Crosby, his Tory counterpart, suffering any pangs of self-doubt as he sparks up a complimentary fag and ponders which stripe of the native poor he might hammer today.

As for widely respected Canadian Bank of England governor Mark Carney, he probably doesn't pay in shops by apologetically opening a purse of baffling currency and indicating the person at the till should simply take what is required.

And after he'd trousered his gazillion pound kiss-off, you can be sure the former England manager Fabio Capello sauntered off into the sunset thinking: "It's not me, it's you."

The Italian was probably right.

Certainly, there is something exceptional about the news that the England squad are being helped to prepare for penalty shootouts by a native – even if it is Steve Peters, the erstwhile Rampton psychiatrist credited for successes by Ronnie O'Sullivan and the British cycling team.

It's not so much that England football's headspace feels unravelable only by the finest the Viennese psychiatric schools have to offer.

It's more bemusement at the unfashionable idea that there is not a foreigner better equipped to advise us when we have all but given up entrusting any remotely important jobs to one of our own.

Miliband's appointment of Axelrod seems a case in point.

Given that Obama and Miliband are – how to put this delicately? – blessed with varying presentational skills, one might assume they are such different candidates that the Labour leader would have done better to enlist the help of someone with more tailored local expertise.

But then one would be forgetting the fawning West Wingery that has misshapen a generation of British politicians – and ably assisted their real-life White House overlords in misshaping a couple of Middle East countries.

Appointing chiefs of staff, fancying that the spin room after our inaugural election TV debates resembled America's megawatt version of the same, prime ministers looking like they've won a contest to attend White House summits: these are the excruciating affectations of a post-imperial satellite that long ago lost confidence.

At least Axelrod is a real-life Washington man.

When the late John Spencer – who played President Bartlet's chief of staff in Aaron Sorkin's drama – was in town on promotional duties, Tony Blair's own chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, actually invited him to No 10.

I suppose it was a bilateral of sorts.

Yankophilia has passed for strategy for yonks now, and anyway it's hardly a surprise that hiring British has gone the same way as buying British.

The prestige candidate these days is foreign.

David Cameron is frightfully concerned about British jobs for British workers, except on occasions like his recent appointment of another former senior Obama adviser, Jim Messina, to his 2015 campaign team.

No doubt Messina is a super-smart and reasonably priced chap, but the way these appointments are sold as a great coup always feels suspiciously substance-free.

It takes a certain type of self-doubt to insist that we don't just want a guy like that – we want that guy.

That exact one, even if he's going to advise us on key marginals or whatnot from a US base, as Messina is.

Quite why no one from Delaware is helming the campaign against Scottish independence is a puzzle, when convention increasingly demands the English be saved from themselves by a foreigner (as indeed does the independence debate itself – an emotional scene in which I picture myself hanging on to Scotland's leg and screaming: "Please don't leave us! We'll become insanely rightwing without you!").

Then again, perhaps the most significant intervention in the argument thus far has come from the aforementioned Canadian, Carney, who has cast doubt on the possibility of an independent Scotland keeping the pound with any ease.

Huzzah for our foreign experts, then.

I like to imagine them all living in the same hotel – London's version of my Beijing billet – in which Lynton Crosby could be found propping up the bar with whichever American is tipped to be the next director general of the BBC, and whichever South American is soon to turn down the FA's offer of the England job.

As for our elected politicians, do let's hope we're now on the very last generation of homegrown.

Unlike some, we'd love our prime minister to have been born in Kenya, and 2030 aspirants should consider a birth certificate forgery at their earliest convenience.

To Dominate The Eurasian Landmass

John Pilger writes:

I watched Dr Strangelove the other day. I have seen it perhaps a dozen times; it makes sense of senseless news.
When Major TJ "King" Kong goes "toe to toe with the Rooskies" and flies his rogue B52 nuclear bomber to a target in Russia, it's left to General "Buck" Turgidson to reassure the president.
Strike first, says the general, and "you got no more than 10-20 million killed, tops".
President Merkin Muffley: "I will not go down in history as the greatest mass murderer since Adolf Hitler."
General Turgidson: "Perhaps it might be better, Mr President, if you were more concerned with the American people than with your image in the history books."

The genius of Stanley Kubrick's film is that it accurately represents the cold war's lunacy and dangers. ost of the characters are based on real people and real maniacs.
There is no equivalent to Strangelove today because popular culture is directed almost entirely at our interior lives, as if identity is the moral zeitgeist and true satire is redundant, yet the dangers are the same.
The nuclear clock has remained at five minutes to midnight; the same false flags are hoisted above the same targets by the same "invisible government", as Edward Bernays, the inventor of public relations, described modern propaganda.

In 1964, the year Dr Strangelove was made, "the missile gap" was the false flag.
To build more and bigger nuclear weapons and pursue an undeclared policy of domination, President John F Kennedy approved the CIA's propaganda that the Soviet Union was well ahead of the US in the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
This filled front pages as the "Russian threat".
In fact, the Americans were so far ahead in production of the missiles, the Russians never approached them.
The cold war was based largely on this lie.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has ringed Russia with military bases, nuclear warplanes and missiles as part of its Nato enlargement project.
Reneging on a US promise to the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 that Nato would not expand "one inch to the east", Nato has all but taken over eastern Europe.
In the former Soviet Caucasus, Nato's military build-up is the most extensive since the second world war.

In February, the US mounted one of its proxy "colour" coups against the elected government of Ukraine; the shock troops were fascists.
For the first time since 1945, a pro-Nazi, openly antisemitic party controls key areas of state power in a European capital.
No western European leader has condemned this revival of fascism on the border of Russia.
Some 30 million Russians died in the invasion of their country by Hitler's Nazis, who were supported by the infamous Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the UPA) which was responsible for numerous Jewish and Polish massacres.
The Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, of which the UPA was the military wing, inspires today's Svoboda party.

Since Washington's putsch in Kiev – and Moscow's inevitable response in Russian Crimea to protect its Black Sea fleet – the provocation and isolation of Russia have been inverted in the news to the "Russian threat".
This is fossilised propaganda.
The US air force general who runs Nato forces in Europe – General Philip Breedlove, no less – claimed more than two weeks ago to have pictures showing 40,000 Russian troops "massing" on the border with Ukraine.
What is certain is that Barack Obama's rapacious, reckless coup in Ukraine has ignited a civil war and Vladimir Putin is being lured into a trap.

Following a 13-year rampage that began in stricken Afghanistan well after Osama bin Laden had fled, then destroyed Iraq beneath a false flag, invented a "nuclear rogue" in Iran, dispatched Libya to a Hobbesian anarchy and backed jihadists in Syria, the US finally has a new cold war to supplement its worldwide campaign of murder and terror by drone.

A Nato membership action plan – straight from the war room of Dr Strangelove – is General Breedlove's gift to the new dictatorship in Ukraine.
"Rapid Trident" will put US troops on Ukraine's Russian border and "Sea Breeze" will put US warships within sight of Russian ports.
At the same time, Nato war games in eastern Europe are designed to intimidate Russia.
Imagine the response if this madness was reversed and happened on the US's borders. Cue General Turgidson.

And there is China.
On 23 April, Obama will begin a tour of Asia to promote his "pivot" to China.
The aim is to convince his "allies" in the region, principally Japan, to rearm and prepare for the possibility of war with China.
By 2020, almost two-thirds of all US naval forces in the world will be transferred to the Asia-Pacific area. This is the greatest military concentration in that vast region since the second world war.

In an arc extending from Australia to Japan, China will face US missiles and nuclear-armed bombers.
A strategic naval base is being built on the Korean island of Jeju, less than 400 miles from Shanghai and the industrial heartland of the only country whose economic power is likely to surpass that of the US.
Obama's "pivot" is designed to undermine China's influence in its region. It is as if a world war has begun by other means.

This is not a Dr Strangelove fantasy.
Obama's defence secretary, Charles "Chuck" Hagel, was in Beijing last week to deliver a warning that China, like Russia, could face isolation and war if it did not bow to US demands.
He compared the annexation of Crimea to China's complex territorial dispute with Japan over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
"You cannot go around the world," said Hagel with a straight face, "and violate the sovereignty of nations by force, coercion or intimidation."
As for America's massive movement of naval forces and nuclear weapons to Asia, that is "a sign of the humanitarian assistance the US military can provide".

Obama is seeking a bigger budget for nuclear weapons than the historical peak during the cold war, the era of Dr Strangelove.
The US is pursuing its longstanding ambition to dominate the Eurasian landmass, stretching from China to Europe: a "manifest destiny" made right by might.

NATO Belligerence Endangers Us All

Jeremy Corbyn writes:

Tomorrow will see a four-way meeting take place as Russia, the United States, the EU and Ukraine discuss ongoing tensions in the latter country.

But while the endless drama of meetings, lurid statements and predictions and mass demonstrations catches the world's eye, something more significant and fundamental is taking place in international politics.

As the US moves into relative economic decline, China's expansion and Russia's huge energy reserves and location are moving the politics of the world to a different place.

Russia and China have reached a momentous agreement to sell gas and do business in either of their own currencies - but not in dollars.

As with Iraq's 2002 move from dollars to euros, the new means of exchange downgrades the US dollar as the international currency of choice, but now on a far bigger scale.

The broad historical sweep since the end of the Soviet Union showed two decades of unipolar US power.

But now the resurgence of Russia and the enormous economic power of China are ending that.

The history of conflicts since 1990 is grim.

Hot wars took place in the Gulf, in the former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, all involving the US and Nato.

The period saw the European Union cement its relationship with Nato, and more recently the US shift its military focus to the Asia-Pacific region as it now sees China as its main rival.

The EU and Nato have now become the tools of US policy in Europe.

The US remains overwhelmingly the military superpower.

It seized opportunities in 1990 and in 2001 to increase its military spending and develop a global reach of bases unmatched since the second world war.

The expansion of Nato into Poland and the Czech Republic has particularly increased tensions with Russia.

Agreements Gorbachov reached before the final demise of the Soviet Union and subsequent pledges that Ukraine's independence would not see it brought into Nato or any other military alliance appear to have been forgotten by Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen in his increasingly bellicose statements.

Indeed, a huge joint exercise is planned for this July between Nato and Ukrainian forces. This can only make an already dangerous situation even worse.

On Tuesday night the Stop the War Coalition hosted an extraordinarily well-informed public meeting on the crisis at the Wesley Hotel in Euston, London.

Jonathan Steele, a former Guardian Moscow correspondent, outlined the situation expertly, noting that coverage has been dominated by two Hs - hypocrisy and hysteria.

While there were democratic forces in the Maidan protests motivated by falling living standards and corruption, there were also far-right nazi groups involved.

The far-right is now sitting in government in Ukraine.

The origins of the Ukrainian far-right go back to those who welcomed the nazi invasion in 1941 and acted as allies of the invaders.

Stop the War officer and long-term anti-war activist Carol Turner pointed out that the sanctions against Russia are confused and controversial, largely targeting individuals, while the effect on Germany of any broader-reaching economic sanctions would be huge.

And already Gazprom has increased the price of its exports to Ukraine.

The overall issue is still one of the activities and expansionism of the post-1990 United States.

Turner referred to statements made by the US in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse.

In an article in the International Herald Tribune of March 9 1992 Patrick Tyler of the New York Times outlined the new strategy by which US defence secretary Dick Cheney was preparing for expansion - and many future conflicts.

Tyler wrote that "the classified document makes the case for a world dominated by one superpower, whose position can be perpetuated by constructive behaviour and sufficient military might to deter any nation or group of nations from challenging US primacy."

The author of this strategy, Paul Wolfowitz, specifically divested it of any role for the United Nations, which had been used to provide a mandate for the Gulf war of 1990-91 while the Soviets were preoccupied with their state falling apart.

The plan was never to remove nuclear strike aircraft from Europe or reduce the role of Nato, despite the end of the Warsaw Pact.

"We must seek to prevent the emergence of European-only security arrangements which would undermine Nato," Wolfowitz warned.

Wolfowitz wanted to make arrangements in eastern Europe similar to those in the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia had been armed as an ally for regional wars.

Now it is acting as a US ally in the Syrian conflict.

On Ukraine, I would not condone Russian behaviour or expansion.

But it is not unprovoked, and the right of people to seek a federal structure or independence should not be denied.

And there are huge questions around the West's intentions in Ukraine.

The obsession with cold war politics that exercises the Nato and EU leaderships is fuelling the crisis and underlines the case for a whole new approach to foreign policy.

We have allowed Nato to act outside its own area since the Afghan war started.

The Lisbon Treaty binds the EU and Nato together in a mutual alliance of interference and domination reaching ever eastwards.

The long-term effect of the behaviour of US Secretary of State John Kerry, backed by the EU and the British government, is to divide the world.

An ever-growing and more confident Russia-China bloc will increasingly rival Nato and the EU, meaning a new cold war beckons.

Would it not be better if when the four powers sit down together they looked at agreeing on a neutral, nuclear-free Ukraine, the possibility of de-escalating the crisis and cut out the hypocrisy of feigned moral outrage from a country that has invaded many others, has military bases scattered worldwide and whose arms industry has made billions from the death and destruction of so much life in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Peace campaigners in Britain need to look at the dangers of the mutual defence agreement with the US and the way it ties us into all their strategies.

We also need to look at the role of Nato overall.

The Nato summit due in Newport, Wales, in September is a good opportunity for us to express our opposition to the strange notion that expanding a nuclear alliance east makes us safer.

It does not.

It makes the whole world infinitely more dangerous.

Syrian Sovereignty

Peter Oborne writes:

It was a simple three-hour trip from Beirut to Damascus. The border crossing caused no problems, and thereafter the journey was interrupted by only a handful of checkpoints.

My first impression of the Syrian capital, too, was that it is surprisingly safe. I saw no armed men on the streets during the journey to my hotel, and in the city centre life appeared to be continuing as normal.

Residents even claimed that President Assad often drives himself to his office from the relatively modest flat where he lives, and can sometimes be seen stuck in the rush-hour traffic.

When I had lunch at a restaurant with a government minister, there was no visible security at all.

But after only a few hours in this city, it becomes clear that Damascus is not normal in the slightest.

Several of its suburbs are held by rebel fighters, who pound government-held areas with mortars. These do not have the range to reach the city centre, but most people live under the shadow of constant attack.

It is as if the residents of Clapham had conceived a desire to annihilate Wimbledon and Brixton, and Islington had declared war on Camden Town.

As with the Blitz, these attacks appear completely random.

Many of the shells land harmlessly, or do not explode. Others cause mayhem.

On Tuesday, one struck a school in Bab Touma (St Thomas’s Gate), killing one child and wounding roughly 40. And over the past few days the volume of the bombardment has escalated sharply.

An accountant who lives in the affluent suburb of Jaramana told me that his area had been hit almost 15 times before breakfast that morning.

On Palm Sunday, I went to the Old City and walked up Straight Street, following the route taken by St Paul after he had been blinded (Kokab, the scene of his Damascene conversion, is now in rebel hands).

At the Greek Catholic church, I watched ceremonies of breathtaking beauty – in precincts that had been struck twice in the past week, though happily causing no injuries.

n the way back, I passed a man looking dazed next to his ruined car. A mortar had struck it just a few minutes earlier. When I picked up the shell casing, it was still warm.

Over the past few days, I have talked to shopkeepers, students, soldiers, doctors, a dentist, MPs and government ministers (including the minister for tourism, who must have the most thankless job in the world).

On the basis of these conversations, I would judge not just that support for the regime is holding up, but that President Assad could very well win a popular election, even if carried out on a free and fair basis.

Such elections are in fact due: the president must hold a poll before July 17 if he is not to exceed his constitutional term of office. An announcement is expected soon.

Discussing this vote, I found – to my surprise – that even people outside the governing Ba’ath party, including some of Assad’s political opponents, said they would support him.

Maria Saadah, an independent MP for Damascus, told me that her career as an architect had suffered because she did not belong to the Ba’ath, and that she had entered politics at the beginning of the crisis because she wanted to reform the system.

But she added that the middle of a war against what she described as foreign-backed insurgents – which is how the regime ceaselessly depicts its opponents – was not the time for that.

Syrian sovereignty, she said, had to come first.

This argument is very common.

People here see their country as being threatened by foreign powers (above all Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, all backed by the West) who are sponsoring the jihadist groups that make up the opposition.

I was struck by the fact that this argument is not made only by the Alawite coterie around the president.

I also heard it from Sunni Muslims, Christians and members of the various other cultural and religious groups that abound in Syria.

How can this square with the Western narrative that President Assad’s government, with the aid of a handful of tribal followers, is hell-bent on the destruction of the rest of the country?

Consider the facts.

Only a handful of members of Assad’s 30-strong cabinet (I was told two) are Alawite. The prime minister is Sunni, as are the interior minister, the justice minister, the foreign minister, even the defence minister.

The delegation that travelled to Geneva for the failed peace talks several months ago was also almost entirely composed of Sunni Muslims (though they would probably reject sectarian terms, and prefer to think of themselves just as Syrians).

Nor is it merely the political class that thinks in this way.

Last night I had dinner with a young doctor. e showed me a Facebook exchange that he had recently had with a former friend from medical school, who has joined the extremist opposition group al-Nusra.

The doctor had put out a public status aimed at all jihadists asking them: “Please stop shooting at us with your mortars.” He was astonished to receive a reply from his friend: “I will put a bullet in your heads.”

My doctor friend messaged him back: “I am not afraid of you.” This was followed by a horrifying response. “We love death, we drink blood. Our president is dead bodies. Wait for our exploding cars to kill you.”

There the matter rests for the time being.

When I asked whether the doctor was afraid, he shrugged his shoulders and told me: “Of course he can come and kill me any time, just by putting a package in front of my door, or asking someone to come and shoot me.”

When I was in Bab Touma, I was approached by a shopkeeper, who insisted on taking me to his antiques shop.

There, he served me tea and told me without rancour that no customers came to visit any more, and there were no jobs.

He walked me along an alleyway to his home and pointed to a destroyed balcony where his mother had liked to sit.

Two months ago, she had been resting there as usual when she was killed by a direct hit from a mortar.

“Your government,” he told me, “is the worst ever; they want Syria to be a democracy and ally themselves with Saudi Arabia, which has nothing to do with democracy.”

I have only been in Damascus a few days and have been out of the city just once, on a government-sponsored trip to the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, claimed back this week from rebel forces.

I have not spoken to the opposition (travel in rebel-held areas is impossibly hazardous: many journalists have been kidnapped). have been accompanied for much of the time by a government minder.

I am well aware that the government has committed dreadful atrocities, though I suspect that some of the accounts have been exaggerated.

Nevertheless, I do think the words of my shopkeeper friend are worth pondering.

If the insurgents who killed his mother win the war, there will be no Christian churches in Syria any more (just as there aren’t in Saudi Arabia at the moment).

Life will be similarly terrible for many of the ordinary Muslims who make up the great majority of the population.

There are no “good guys” in Syria’s civil war.

But we should not be blind to the fact that there is a project out there to destroy its rich, pluralist and unbelievably intricate culture and replace it with a monochrome version of Wahhabi Islam, of the kind favoured by Saudi mullahs.

And for reasons that history may come to judge very severely, Britain, the United States, and the West have been aiding and abetting this project.

Genuine Conservative Values

London Central Portfolio Ltd, a "Residential Funds and Asset Management" company, predict that small central London flats will cost £36 million by 2050.

Now these people are not seers, nor possessed of great wisdom. Many things can happen in a global economy over a span of 40 years and, besides, their pronouncements are made out of self-interest.

Still, this prediction is by no means inconceivable.

The inflation of London’s house prices of course spreads far beyond Mayfair or Bloomsbury.

Small flats in Plaistow – by no stretch of the imagination the "prime centre" – now sell for close to or more than a quarter of a million pounds – and are likely to be purchased as "buy to let" investments, with high rents and insecure tenancies.

Registered Social Landlords are building or developing properties in London which offer a more secure tenancy, but they are now allowed and indeed encouraged to charge 80 per cent of local market values.

This is called "affordable" housing.

Forty years ago hotel workers and hospital porters could and did work hard, save up and buy houses in inner London.

At last year’s Conservative Party Conference, the Prime Minister referred in his leader’s speech to a young couple who had been able to buy a house thanks to the government’s "Help to Buy" initiative; he noted that they both had jobs which paid a decent wage, but their parents were not wealthy.

In two generations we have come to accept that even a dual-income family with "decent-paying jobs" needs either rich parents or government assistance to buy a house.

How can we speak of the rewards of work and the virtue of self-reliance, when honest, useful work is not enough to put a roof over one’s head, much less offer hope of a better life for one’s children and grandchildren?

Many people confuse all Londoners with "the metropolitan elite".

In fact, London is full of people working hard for minimum wage or little more, who are active in their parish church or mosque or temple, help out with Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, hold jumble sales to raise money for the local community centre, and regularly visit their elderly housebound neighbours (whom often they have known since childhood).

We’re now meant to believe that a wealthy "investor" in Moscow or New York or Kuala Lumpur has more right to own a piece of London than these Londoners have to live in it, including many who have lived here for generations and whose roots in their neighbourhoods are part of a strong social fabric.

There is now a very troubling tendency to think that the rich are in no way indebted to those who repair and clean the streets, drive the buses and the trains, build and work in schools and hospitals and care homes, offices, shops, hotels and restaurants – and that they have no obligation to society.

To believe that those of modest means are not entitled to live in the cities, towns, villages, communities that they also serve, to assert that only wealth confers this "right" is indefensible; to believe that it is of no consequence to society when families are separated, communities and neighbourhoods uprooted and destroyed is frankly insane.

It is also a betrayal of genuine Conservative values.

It is not socialism to suggest that money is not the be-all and the end-all, and that the rich have some responsibility towards – and are always indebted to – society.

Throughout its long history, London has accommodated and derived its strength and vitality from people of all walks of life.

In contrast to many other world capitals, the well-off have not, on the whole, lived in isolation from ordinary working people.

Much of the Victorian terraced housing so characteristic of this world-renowned city was built specifically to accommodate labourers, artisans, clerks, small shopkeepers and the like.

Somewhat larger houses for those of higher status were built in the same neighbourhoods, often on the same roads.

The developers were not altruists, they built to make a profit. But it never occurred to them to build only for the rich, as they understood that the contribution of the rich to society does not suffice.

The same Victorians who built so much of London’s housing built the world’s first underground railway, a sewerage system, and the magnificent Crossness Pumping Station (among many, many other things) – these also were built with private funds and the investors firmly intended to realise a profit. But they understood that the public good served the good of the country.

A similar devastation to that being wrought on London has been visited upon many rural communities since the Eighties, with little fuss in the London-based media, since affluent city-dwellers, many of them Londoners, were largely to blame.

Local people have been priced out of places they’d called home for generations, schools and pubs and post offices obliged to close as houses acquired for the occasional weekend stand mostly empty.

As year-round population drops, bus and rail services are reduced and eventually scrapped, drawing other communities along the route into the downward spiral of social and economic deprivation.

In some parts of the North Cornwall and South Devon coasts, 40 per cent of homes are empty most of the year.

A 2012 report by the National Housing Federation showed a 26 per cent increase in social housing waiting lists across the South West in 2010-2011; in Devon, the numbers rose by 42.4 per cent.

One associates the Cotswolds with Rebekah Brooks and David Cameron, Jeremy Clarkson, Joanna Trollope and the like, but the average salary is £19k per annum.

Average house prices are 18 times that.

It is no coincidence that the number of second (third, fourth, fifth) homes is only slightly less than the number of households on the housing waiting list, but it is puzzling that new holiday homes are being built in lieu of housing for local people.

The sensible, sober Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors pointed out that the latest projected rise in house prices owes more to a shortage of housing than to an increase in "consumer confidence" essential to what we now think of as an economic recovery (people are willing to rack up more debt again! Hurrah!)

However an article in The Guardian adopts a congratulatory tone in reporting that house prices in the City of Manchester (as distinct from Greater Manchester) rose by 21 per cent, "outperforming" every other area in the country.

We are left in the dark as to the percentage by which wages rose.

In Leeds, the average house price is more than eight times the average salary, and private rents are expected to rise by 20 per cent over the next five years.

Manchester and Birmingham were the flagship projects of the Blair government in which between 1998 and 2007 vast amounts of public and private money were splashed out on a neoliberal interpretation of urban regeneration meant to help these cities compete with London and other world capitals in attracting rootless, footloose young professionals, "creatives", and entrepreneurs.

Art galleries, concert halls and the like appeared as landmarks of "iconic" architecture, acres of space were devoted to high-end retail, thousands of "desirable residential units" created in old warehouses and factories or built new above and around the luxury shopping malls which proved so attractive to the dispossessed of these cities in the riots of 2011.

People on low and modest incomes were pushed ever farther from the centre, compulsory purchase orders and demolitions helping to effect the kind of socio-economic cleansing now under way in London.

Ed Miliband did well to raise the "cost of living crisis" as an election issue, but he is largely ignoring the fact that the cost of housing is the biggest part of it.

Unless we address this, we cannot solve the escalating cost of living, nor the widening wealth gap, the stagnant or falling social mobility that deprives Britain of so much talent and ability from amongst its own people, and the destruction of communities within which people learn and practice civic virtue and responsibility.

Last month, nine London local authorities went to the High Court to challenge Boris Johnson’s proposal allowing "affordable homes" to charge up to 80 per cent of the local market rate.

They lost.

They had tactfully suggested that the Mayor was mistaken in thinking of London as a single market. He knows this full well: Londoners who can’t compete with the global elite are a vexing variation on "bed-blockers", and he wants them out.

The Deputy Mayor chided the local authorities for wasting public money at the High Court, although an independent planning inspector had recommended that local authorities should retain the right to define affordability in their own areas.

So much for localism. Buy water cannon instead.

The Deputy Mayor went on to claim that had the councils won, developers would turn away, depriving us of much-needed "investment".

We really must learn to distinguish between investment and pillage.

The complex and various roots of a national housing crisis require different battles in different parts of the country.

But throughout Britain, we need to think long and hard about what we value and why, what sort of society we want to be. We have to stand together on this.

Genuine Conservatives – as distinct from Americans and scions of New Labour – should be less relaxed about unbridled greed and significantly more concerned about the public good.