Bombing, burgling and banking

Some US presidents and British prime ministers would be well described as "fanatics"

The attempted bombing of a US plane by a young Nigerian exposes once more the absurdity of the claim that troops in Afghanistan are keeping us safe. How many countries are the western powers supposed to invade before we can enjoy a peaceful night's sleep or a trouble-free transatlantic flight? First the threat came from Afghanistan, then Iraq, then Afghanistan again and now, increasingly, Pakistan - to say nothing of Iran. After the latest terrorist attack, attention switches to Yemen - where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab says he was trained and instructed to carry out his mission - and its neighbour across the Gulf of Aden: Somalia.

The latter is a marvellous example of almost comically inept western policies. The US armed Somalia 20 years ago to counter Soviet support for Ethiopia. Then warlords used the arms to overthrow the government and, when the elder President Bush intervened, to see off US troops, before resuming their violent internal quarrels.

When the Union of Islamic Courts stabilised the country a few years ago, the US decided that Somalia might turn into another Afghanistan, backed an Ethiopian invasion and allowed the warlords to return. Now the Courts are back, and they have become our allies, receiving arms so they can defeat an even more Islamist and pro-jihadist movement which controls most of the country.

Against that background, terrorists such as Abdulmutallab do not seem much madder or more dangerous than the leaders of western governments. We are told that he and his like are fanatics who will find reasons for bombing and killing regardless of provocation. Might the same be said of some US presidents and British prime ministers?

Steal away to Jesus

I have some sympathy with the priest who, in a pre-Christmas sermon, advised the poor to go shoplifting rather than indulging in burglary. Shoplifting is the more egalitarian crime. While burglary, mugging and so on hit individuals in a cruel and arbitrary way, and the victims are often as poor as the perpetrator, we all share, through higher prices, the costs of goods stolen from shops. However, social security fraud is surely a better option. Father Tim Jones asked thieves to spare small shopkeepers, but failed to identify a clear threshold of business size. Moreover, the costs of shoplifting may fall on ill-paid employees, not customers. Cheating the welfare gets round these problems. The costs will be distributed fairly among taxpayers (in principle, that is; we don't at present have a fair taxation system), and the work may mostly be done from home, upsetting only right-wing newspaper editors.

Although I am an atheist, Father Jones reinforces my view that, with the left sadly diminished, the only truly radical and imaginative social thinking now comes from the clergy.

Dead loss

The Copenhagen summit failure wasn't much of a Christmas present for the world. But who cares? Only a small minority (of whom, I fear, I am not one) are sufficiently exercised about the threat of global warming to welcome the prospect of profound lifestyle changes and put real pressure on politicians. It is not just that, even if we are intellectually convinced by scientific evidence, we feel in no immediate or tangible danger from a warmer climate, particularly when slithering around in snow. It is also that the best causes allow us to look forward to the day we can say "told you so".

Global warming, of which the effects won't be demonstrated conclusively before 2050 at the earliest, offers no such prospect to anyone much over 40. Besides, Melanie Phillips, Nigel Lawson, Peter Hitchens and other deniers will by then be dead or senile and no longer able to give us the satisfaction of a public retraction.

Mils on wheels

Meanwhile, politicians make dramatic pledges to try to satisfy those who care about global warming, avoid commitments to action that might upset the majority who don't care, and note that 2050 is about ten general elections away. If they genuinely wish to galvanise us, perhaps they should be more imaginative.

For example, Ed Miliband could have sailed, walked and bicycled to Copenhagen, emitting zero carbon, and then announced a principled resignation (which I have urged on him before). He would then have found himself carried to the Labour leadership on a wave of acclamation, with no need to involve himself in sordid behind-the-scenes party manoeuvres.

Cheque out

As usual, my wife and I wrote several cheques for younger family members, sometimes in addition to other Christmas presents, sometimes not. A cheque is a perfectly acceptable gift from the old to the young, given the intergenerational difficulties of choosing appropriate clothes or technological accessories. Presumably, if banks go ahead with abolishing cheques, the recipient have to bring us a chip-and-pin machine or provide bank account details.

We are told fewer and fewer people now use cheques. So why do cheques need to be "phased out"? What happened to "consumer choice"? The real reason for the banks dropping cheques is rarely mentioned. Following rules introduced in 2007, they are no longer permitted to take a week "transferring" money from one account to another, allowing them to make millions in interest while the money is in limbo. The obvious answer is for banks to levy a small fixed charge for each cheque written. But that would be too honest and transparent.

Banks are semi-criminal institutions that prefer to rob us while we're not looking. Rather like Father Jones's shoplifters, in fact; but at least shoplifters don't usually pretend they are pillars of respectability.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: one year on