The perils of intervention, new prospects Down Under and snow in Essex

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

The two most significant dates in recent history, I sometimes think, were 11 September 2001 and 15 October 1987. The latter was the night of the great British (or, more precisely, southern English) hurricane, which the BBC weather forecaster Michael Fish failed to predict. Ever since, the Met Office has issued a bewildering array of “alerts” whenever a stiff breeze or, as in recent days, a flurry of snow is in prospect. Forecasters dare not be caught out again. Likewise, since the unpredicted attack of 9/11, no western politician dares to hang back when anybody utters the words “Islamic militants”.

So it is with the French bombing of Mali, supported by British transport planes. Laurent Fabius, France’s foreign minister, says it will be over in “a matter of weeks” and, in London, ministers say British involvement will last just one week – but we’ve heard that sort of talk before.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is vicious and fanatical (though scarcely more so than the Malian military it opposes) but it has chosen to advance its cause through smuggling and kidnapping in the Sahel, rather than bombing in Paris or London. Western intervention invariably has destabilising consequences. America’s war in Vietnam spread to the neighbouring Cambodia and led to the rise of the murderous Pol Pot. The invasion of Afghanistan turned parts of Pakistan into Taliban strongholds, leading to US drone attacks and Islamist bombings of cities. Now, in Mali, we see the consequences of active British, American and French support for rebels against Muammar Gaddafi in neighbouring Libya. The Tuaregs of northern Mali were prominent in Gaddafi’s army. After his overthrow, they returned home, bristling with weapons, to resume their long separatist struggle. AQIM has capitalised on the growing instability.

That is an oversimplified account, perhaps. Yet the narrative used to explain the French and British interventions – undertaken without a pretence at democratic consultation – is just as oversimplified and more likely to have lethal results.

Going south

At the Guardian, a terrible reckoning is at hand. To stem company losses, the management wants 100 editorial staff to leave. The great liberal organ may need, for the first time, to make compulsory redundancies. Hacks are told that, even if they accept a 5 per cent pay cut and relinquish their treasured sabbaticals (four weeks off every four years for “intellectual refreshment”), some will still be axed. As I write, a strike ballot is imminent.

Meanwhile, the Guardian, which already has a substantial presence in the US, has announced a digital edition in Australia, with several staff, headed by the deputy editor Katharine Viner, seconded to Sydney. Is the company planning a more dramatic version of Rupert Murdoch’s flight to Wapping? Will it abandon London printing and relocate its cyberspace operations to former colonial outposts? That’s a joke, of course. But just in case it happens, you read it here first.

A lot of hot air

Talking of Murdoch, the old man has started to tweet climate-change scepticism, referring to “useless renewable energy”. Is he reverting to type? Murdoch, influenced by his son James, went green in 2006. His UK papers followed in unison. The Sun, announcing that evidence for global warming “is now irresistible”, devoted a week to urging readers to think green. The planet deserved “the benefit of the doubt”, the Times ruled. However, after the phone-hacking scandal, James Murdoch’s star is falling and he has been evacuated to New York. In the Murdoch papers, I fear, normal climate-change denial service will shortly be resumed.

Loss leaders

The government’s proposal for a single, flatrate weekly pension of £144 has led to much discussion of winners and losers. All analyses I have seen miss one simple point: the poor will be the biggest losers from this or any other contributory pension scheme. That is because the life expectancy of poor people is significantly lower than that of the more affluent. They are less likely, therefore, to get out what they’ve put in.

Homeward bound

The other day, central London was drenched with rain and sleet and, as I travelled back to Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, it continued to pour. As I crossed the Greater London border, it all turned to snow and, while it did not lie deep and crisp and even, the pretty scene was a striking contrast to the swirling puddles of London’s streets. Loughton struggles to repel the capital’s advance though, in a rare reversal, we reclaimed our constabulary fromthe Metropolitan Police some years ago. The government’s hostility to the green belt won’t help. So it is good to know the weather gods are on our side and recognise county boundaries.