More blood for oil!

Illegal invasions by imperialist armies are fine, so long they’re committed by Russia plus the commo

Tblisi or not Tblisi

The Beatles assured us in their crap 1968 song ‘Back in the USSR’ that Georgia was on their mind. Oddly though, you don’t hear Paul McCartney commenting much on South Ossetia nowadays.

The war in the Caucuses has inflamed the passions of bellicose and half-witted bloggers from here to Vladikavkaz. Fortunately, a few are actually worth reading. Donald Rayfield on Open Democracy did readers a service by lending context to a conflict that to many outsiders, appears baffling. Noting Russian priming of the area through the issuing of passports, and integration into state welfare, Rayfield dubbed Russian tactics “salami slicing,” explaining that it:

“…amounted to a covert process of assimilating first the population, and then the actual country, into the Russian federation.”

Russian claims of ethnic cleansing were set out on Russia Today - watch out for analyst Evgeny Khruschev informing viewers that they “probably have a short attention span”. While any Georgian crimes against the rebel region seemed hard to verify, the First Post’s Shaun Walker reported that:

“On Tuesday, as the war came to a close, there were reports of massacres in Georgian villages inside the conflict zone Ossetian militias checking the ethnicity of residents and treating all Georgians to a bullet in the head.”

It seems that whatever the perceived or actual crimes by Georgia against its Ossetian citizens, Georgians are paying a weighty price.

Meanwhile Voices from Russia pointed out that many well-respected democracies, including, er, China and Iran, backed Russia’s actions. But Cicero’s Songs, a blog that assiduously monitors developments in the former USSR, observed that Russia will face consequences for its aggression:

“Planned joint exercises have been cancelled, and Russia's exclusion from the G8 appears all but inevitable. As the fighting continues, those who have advocated a softly-softly approach to Russia- such as Germany- are reluctantly facing the need for a tough response.”

The role of the US (and yes folks, if you want to keep your narrative simple to the point of pig-headed myopia, even Israel) have come under scrutiny from bloggers. Meanwhile, John Rees of the Respect party (SWP faction) appeared on BBC Radio 2 to remind Britain that illegal invasions by imperialist armies are fine, so long they’re committed by Russia.

As the week came to an end, the invading tanks remained in Georgia; while in Britain, so-called socialists met to work out how to apportion blame solely to America. Just for the Trots, let’s freshen up the old slogans. All together now:
More blood for oil!
Don’t stop the war!
Putin, Medvedev, FSB – How many kids can you kill for me?

What have we learned this Week?

The Stop the War Coalition blog helpfully explained that Russia was upset because its “interests” were “directly challenged” – which is why it was forced to drive its military might into the heart of a sovereign neighbour, displacing swathes of the country’s population. Some of us might not have realised before that economic and strategic concerns were a legitimate premise for such violent incursions – thanks to STWC for clarifying.

Across the Pond

The Dalai Lama. Mahmoud Abbas. Elvis Presley. What do they have in common? Alongside social security in the US – they are all 73 (except Elvis, who is definitely dead). Roosevelt’s reforms were celebrating their birthday this week, as noted by many bloggers. John Quinterno’s finger was firmly on the Progressive Pulse, as he blogged a passionate defence of American welfare, while accepting that the system could do with a tweak:

“Most importantly, the system is financed in a regressive way that that imposes a heavier responsibility on low-income wage earners.”

A lesson in fiscal fairness that ought to resonate on this side of the Atlantic.

Videos of the Week

Katie Melua, the doe-eyed Georgian songstress who left Tblisi as an eight year-old, recently sang ‘If the Lights go Out’. In the country of her birth, they now have.

This song was written by Mike Batt, who also gave us ‘Heartlands’, the Conservative party’s theme for the 2001 election - perhaps the most pointless piece of the music ever composed.

Quote of the Week

“Surely a no-brainer for every anti-imperialist in town“?

Gauche’s Paul Anderson rattles the Georgia hornet’s nest.

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era