Book Review: The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves

Lord Mountbatten in naval uniform. Pic Credit: Allan Warren and Wikipedia

This is an extraordinary biography. It is a story of one of the leading figures in Royal circles, friend of Edward VIII and mentor to Prince Charles, whose life was cut short when he and some of his closest relatives were murdered by the IRA in 1979.

But it is no eulogy for a Royal figure whose Christian name lives on in the names of two of the Duke of Cambridge’s children. As Mountbatten himself once said ” No biography has any value unless it is written with warts and all.”

This biography written by historian Andrew Lownie is full of warts as well as some startling disclosures. It draws on previously unknown information – despite many previous biographies – and still does not present a complete picture because of decisions by the British government, the United States government and his own estate at Broadlands not to release all the documents relevant to his life.

What emerges is a complicated man who is full of hubris, self importance, a natural risk taker whose life was privileged, setting himself,apart from the rest of society with his retinue of household staff. He was also extraordinarily methodical.

It goes into detail of the love life of his wife, Edwina, a wealthy socialite, whose adventurous affairs took in Hollywood film stars and India’s first leader, Nehru when Lord Mountbatten was the last governor general of India. Until World War II she lived the life of a bored heiress making exotic trips to remote places before finding an amazing drive to help with the war effort organising and looking after the interests of the troops injured in action.

The book describes his loves which in their ” open marriage” and reveals that he was also bisexual after tracing one of his gay lovers. It also contains an extraordinary chapter entitled ” Rumours” which goes on to suggest that he may also have been a paedophile, It describes claims by a former boy , Richard Kerr who was in the notorious Kincora children’s home in Belfast , where it is proven that boys were subject to child sexual abuse, that MountBatten abused him.

Interestingly the Northern Ireland Office still hasn’t released all the documents about this home even though the events took place over 50 years ago.

The book is fascinating in its description of their wealthy life style – which might sound dated – but in fact due to the growing inequality in the UK could well be replicated today by some of the uber wealthy from Russian oligarchs, Hong Kong billionaires, tech billionaires rather than Royalty.

There are some extraordinary revelations particularly during his career in the Royal Navy. His hubris and risk taking, and a habit of not necessarily following orders, was responsible for a disaster early in World War II When he ignored orders to pick up 600 captured seamen and chase a German battleship with the result the seamen spent the war in internment camps.

The book to an extent exonerates him from the failed raid on Dieppe during the war but it shows that because of his connections to King George V and Churchill he would never be taken to task for his failures.

This hubris actually led to his assassination in 1979 when he ignored repeated advice from the security services and the Irish embassy not to go his country home in the Republic during August. They knew he was an IRA target.

The book contains a remarkable disclosure of how one young corporal, Graham Yuill, responsible for the Mountabatten’s security, spotted a car near his yacht Shadow 5 which was identified as a vehicle used by the IRA for gun running and carrying bombs. His report was ignored and not taken into account when the Garda took over security. The yacht was then blown up killing Mountbatten, his 83 year old mother, his daughter,Patricia and husband John; two 14 year old twins and a 15 year old friend.

The report has been subject to a 40 year old gagging order which was only lifted two years ago. This is just one remarkable disclosure in this fascinating book. Well worth a read.

The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves by Andrew Lownie. Bonnier Books. £20

How you will soon be paying for Trident on your electricity bill

Whether you support or oppose Britain’s very costly renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent  you  would expect to pay for it through general taxation.

You wouldn’t expect to have to subsidise it by paying even higher prices for essential and already expensive electricity to light and heat your home.

Yet this exactly what is going to happen following a  disclosure this month after a very short exchange between MPs and senior civil servants at a  hearing of the Commons Public Accounts Committee this month. And you won’t be seeing this spelt out in your bills.

The hearing was not into Trident but into the rapidly increasing costs and management of Britain’s first nuclear power station for decades at Hinkley Point.

But the issue was raised from a paper submitted to the committee by the Sussex University Social Science Policy Research Unit from Prof. Andy Stirling, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and Dr Phil Johnstone.

Its key words were: ” an undetermined part of the full costs of this expensive, controversial – but officially highly-prioritised [3] – military infrastructure are in effect (without clear public acknowledgement or justification), being loaded into electricity prices. With costs of alternative large-scale domestic low-carbon energy resources like offshore wind power confirmed as significantly more favourable than HPC [4], it seems a hidden subsidy is being imposed on electricity consumers.”

“If a UK withdrawal from civil nuclear power on grounds of uncompetitive economics were to leave these shared costs borne entirely on the military side, then UK military nuclear infrastructures would be significantly more expensive.

“If civil nuclear commitments are being maintained (despite adverse economics) in order to help cover these shared costs, then it is this that amounts to a cross-subsidy.”

The problem was that these academics could only speculate they have no proof. Until now.

Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the committee, without referring  to all this detail from Sussex University got an admission. She questioned Stephen Lovegrove, former Permanent Secretary, Department for Energy and Climate Change, on the issue.

This is the exchange:

“ Mr Lovegrove, there has been an argument put forward by Sussex University that Hinkley is a great opportunity to maintain our nuclear skills base. With your hat on at the Ministry of Defence, are you having discussions with the business Department about this?

Mr Lovegrove: “We are, yes. In my last year at DECC, I was in regular discussion with Jon Thompson, former Permanent Secretary at the MOD, to say that as a nation we are going into a fairly intense period of nuclear activity…. We are building the new SSBNs (nuclear armed nuclear submarines) and completing the Astutes.

…We are completing the build of the nuclear submarines which carry conventional weaponry. We have at some point to renew the warheads, so there is very definitely an opportunity here for the nation to grasp in terms of building up its nuclear skills.

“I do not think that that is going to happen by accident; it is going to require concerted Government action to make it happen. We are speaking to colleagues at BEIS ( Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) fairly repeatedly about it, and have a number of forums in which we are doing that.”

So it is true. The two programmes ARE linked. And with  the cost of nuclear powered electricity at £92.50  per unit compared to £57 from other sources including renewable energy you are going to pay substantially more.

One company that is publicly delighted by this is Rolls Royce.  They are quoted saying : “that “expansion of a nuclear-capable skilled workforce through a civil nuclear UK programme would relieve the Ministry of Defence of the burden of developing and retaining skills and capability. This would free up valuable resources for other investments”.

Well Rolls Royce got £100m out of the submarine order and are happy for you to pay for the nuclear research. So it is more profit for them, higher bills for you.

The original article is published in Tribune magazine this week.

 

 

 

Revealed: Boris’s Imperialist dream: £3 billion for military adventures ” East of Suez”

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Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson

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The row over Boris’s clumsy intervention over ” proxy  wars ” and ” puppeteering ” by  Saudi Arabia in the brutal war in Yemen has somewhat obscured what Britain is really up to in the Middle East.

The full text of Boris Johnson’s speech to his Arab audience in Bahrain released by the Foreign Office at the weekend reveals that we are going to be spending vast sums of public money propping up the  undemocratic and inhumane regimes run by wealthy Arab Sheikhs  in return for their investment in Britain. We are reviving plans for a world military role ” East of Suez”.

All this at a  time when Theresa May is committed to retaining austerity at home well after 2020 with  all that entails in cuts to disabled benefits, social care,public services and restricting the growth of the NHS.

Boris began his speech by boasting how his new foreign policy overturned Harold Wilson’s 1968  Labour Cabinet decision to withdraw Britain’s troops from Borneo,Singapore and the Middle East. He showed extraordinary affinity for the then foreign secretary, George Brown, who like Boris, was a very colourful figure once found in the gutter after a particularly hard night’s drinking..

He described his decision as ” a triumphant vindication” for  the ” brilliant “George Brown over  Europhile Roy Jenkins  who with a ” frog like beam ” was determined to get Britain into Europe ( how Brexiteers love to damn Europhiles even way back to 1968!).

But it was the picture he drew for Britain’s future role for” centuries to come ” that was the most revealing.

He pledged that Britain would be involved in any future crisis in Gulf – which given the present volatile situation is no mean commitment.

As he put it “:any crisis in the Gulf is a crisis for Britain – from day one; that your security is our security ” and that ” your interests military, economic, political – are intertwined with our own..”

He goes on to cite  the billions Britain is spending for new military engagements in the Middle East.

This includes:Reopening HMS Jufair, a naval support facility  in Bahrain, which His Majesty the King of Bahrain,Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa said he remembered from his childhood before our disengagement.

Basing  Britain’s Gulf Defence Staff in Dubai.

Developing the Al-Minhad air base in the United Arab Emirates providing a hub for the RAF.

Establishing a Regional Land Training centre for the British army – one of only four in the world.

As Boris put it : “Britain has in total 1,500 military personnel in the region and 7 warships, more than any other Western nation apart from the US.  We are spending £3 billion on our military commitments in the Gulf over the next 10 years and that is deepening a partnership that is stronger than with any other group of nations in the world outside NATO.”

So what is the pay back.?So much Arab money is pouring into London that the city is becoming a Gulf owned state. Boris named the capital as the 8th Emirate.

As he put it : “London is sometimes called the eighth Emirate. I think I may have made that up myself, but we’re proud of it.”

And he detailed how much retail estate is owned by Gulf states in London.

The Qataris own The Shard, Olympic Village,Harrods, and Chelsea Barracks.

The UAE owns the Excel exhibition centre in Docklands and the Tidal Array in the Thames Estuary . And there is the Emirates cable car across the Thames.

The Gulf states own the DP World Port. which has replaced London Docklands.

And even City Hall the seat of London government is owned by Kuwait.

 

As Boris said :” I didn’t know it until today but I’m stunned to find out.”.

Of course the foreign secretary stated that Britain gains from exports to the Middle East – from Marks and Spencer to military equipment and even sand for golf bunkers.

However after Britain’s bruising encounter in Iraq it seems the Tories are rapidly becoming the main defenders of a group of very wealthy Arabs – all of whom ( it has happened already) could face uprisings in the future from their own people.

Britain would have to defend them or see large swathes of the capital being owned by the very people who have overthrown them or if there is war – by another country.

I am not sure how keen the British people will be to get involved – but for the Tories ( although they were careful not to say it) it has smacks of returning to the glory days of Empire and Rule Britannia. That could be a very big mistake.

 

 

 

 

Bumped by Trump: How Whitehall used the US elections as cover for £1 billion military spending blunders

donald-trump-pic-credit-cnn

Donald Trump Pic credit: CNN

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One of the oldest tricks in the Whitehall playbook is to use a major event as cover to publish unpalatable or embarrassing news.

It means the media are diverted by the event and don’t notice the announcement or report.

It worked an absolute treat for the Ministry of Defence and the Treasury over the US elections to hide two very bad news stories for them. They couldn’t believe their luck when Trump unexpectedly won.

The Ministry of Defence took advantage on polling day to slip a very embarrassing announcement about money for war veterans pensions and disability payments. Evidently the previous July the Treasury, believe it or not, forgot to include in its spending statement the proper  money to pay them this year. As a result they will have to raid the contingency reserve for emergency payments to make sure these veterans have the money.

Mark Lancaster, parliamentary secretary to the ministry, admitted the error in a written statement to the Commons just as Parliament rose on November 8  describing the failure to disclose it as an “inadvertent publishing error”.  It involved a staggering £438,193,000 in the Armed Forces Pensions and Compensation scheme which is available to serving and former personnel who are injured in military service including in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The second cover up by the Ministry of Defence came on results day. This was an embarrassment to the image of the Ministry of Defence. For years they have endured criticisms on cost overruns on equipment, bad spending decisions and lack of control.

Last year this was all meant to change. A new agency the Defence Equipment and Support, was supposed to take control  and rein in all these errors. It describes itself as a bespoke agency in charge of equipment and projects for the armed forces.

Well it seems to have deliberately chosen  the US election day to publish its first report. The reason I suspect is that the National Audit Office has qualified its accounts and made a stinging attack on its performance. The NAO can only release this when the report is published and the agency chose election day to do it.

The report by Amyas Morse, the Comptroller and auditor General is damning.Some £499 million of public expenditure cannot be properly accounted for.

“I have qualified my opinion on the financial statements due to a limitation on the scope of my audit because DE&S has been unable to provide me with adequate evidence to enable me to confirm whether or not the private sector support costs, other programme costs and the related trade and other payables balance shown in the financial statements are free from material misstatement.

“I believe this situation has arisen because the Agency’s financial management systems, processes and controls for these transactions and balances are not yet sufficiently well developed to meet the Agency’s needs.”

Examples include having to manually insert some 100,000 changes into the computer programme because it had not  been drawn up properly. And reporting money for the wrong year.

Luckily in both cases MPs are not going to let the matter rest- and come back to the issues

Nia Griffith, the shadow Defence  Secretary has attacked the government for putting at risk funding to help military veterans warning that they must be given an urgent reassurance that they will not lose money.

Anne Marie Trevelyan, Conservative MP for Berwick on Tweed and a member of the  Public Accounts Committtee, said :“At a time when we are seeing a lot of change in the Ministry of Defence, causing a great deal of anxiety for those who are serving, it is very disappointing to see Defence Equipment & Support has not got to grips with financial management.

“At the same time there are serious issues with service family accommodation, highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee which would benefit from a much smaller investment.

“This points to a lack of joined-up financial planning in the Ministry and raises concerns about whether the department is delivering value for money across the board.”

Quite right. Whitehall must not get away with playing games with how it discloses it is spending our money. I have written a news article for Tribune magazine on this.

 

My views on Exaro,the Middle East and Jeremy Corbyn before MPs resigned en masse from his Shadow Cabinet

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This interview with the Lebanon based Arab News Network was about to be put up on the Exaro News  website just before it abruptly  closed. Arranged through Tim Pendry. then a director of Exaro, it puts the case for Exaro’s investigative journalism. It also discusses events in the Middle East and why Jeremy Corbyn became popular with the rank and file membership of the Labour Party. It took some time from the date of the original interview which took place at the end of March before it was put up on YouTube in June. It is rather long so I don’t expect you to listen to the lot.

Expect a sequel to this as  I am planning to do an interview with Fabrice Bardsley on The Bunker Show for Dark City Radio on what happened since for both Exaro and Jeremy Corbyn and my hopes for the future. The broadcast is scheduled to go out on August 10.

 

 

 

The mystery of the secret discovery of chemical WMD in Iraq which poses more questions than answers

Sir John Chilcot

Sir John Chiilcot: Pic Credit: BBC

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It could be from the pages of a novel. But my colleague and co author Nick Kochan has an extraordinary story on the Exaro website this week just as the damning Chilcot report on the Iraq War has been published.

The essence of the story is a large cache of  chemical weapons  shells containing the nerve gas sarin were discovered and destroyed  by the Americans and British in a remote British area of Iraq in 2005 and 2006 long after the UN weapons inspectors had disappeared.

The source for the story has told Exaro about how the CIA using a front company purchased thousands of shells many containing the nerve gas sarin from an Iraqi war lord and then destroyed all the weapons.

Incredible as this may seem this story is stood up by information released in the United States under the US Freedom of Information Act and in the UK  to a lesser extent by the Ministry of Defence.

The US info which named the clandestine operation as Avarice  and the British operations were known as  Bedouin 1 and 2..

In 2015, the New York Times reported details of covert operations that involved the CIA, US military intelligence and the British Army.

The International Business Times, a US-based website, later revealed details of the British-led Bedouin missions.

What is curious is that neither  revelation made much of a stir at the time – even though it meant that chemical WMD had been discovered.

And this week’s Chilcot report makes no mention of the clandestine operations though it does reveal that later discoveries of chemical weapons was reported to the Joint Intelligence Committee.

This  raises loads of unanswered questions. The discovery in 2006 would have been very useful to Tony Blair’s case that  Iraq still possessed chemical weapons and you would have expected Alistair Campbell to have shouted it from the rooftops. But this information was either never used or never reached either of them.

The other question is more sinister. What was the use made by the warlords of the CIA money?

For soon after many British and US troops were killed by IED’s planted by war lords to get the UK and US out of Iraq. Exaro’s source is fearful that the money paid by the CIA may have been used to buy these weapons and to kill British and American soldiers.

Given Chilcot’s strong criticism of the inadequacy of equipment for the troops including snatch landrovers this is a highly damaging allegation.

“It is possible that western forces were killed by Mahdi army funded by the CIA. Nobody ever identified what happened to the [US] money and what it was used for,” the source claimed.

“The only people who could have moved those sorts of things around that area were involved in many nefarious activities.”

So far  even with Chilcot we are none the wiser.

IRAQI FREEDOM

As Coalition Forces respond to a car bombing in South Baghdad, Iraq (IRQ), a second car bomb is detonated, targeting those responding to the initial incident. The attack, aimed at the Iraqi police force, resulted in 18 casualties, two of which were police officers, during Operation IRAQI FREEDOM. pic credit:bbc

A rare accolade to ” Lawrence of Arabia “

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Lawrence of Arabia – a painting by his friend, Augustus John.

Lawrence of Arabia pic Credit BBC

Lawrence of Arabia: Pic credit:BBC

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While the press has been inundated by flooding stories and fears of terrorist attacks  by Islamic State in the run up to Christmas , the government slipped out a genuine good news announcement  for fans of ” Lawrence of Arabia “.

The heritage minister, Tracey Crouch, announced that Clouds Hill, the tiny home of T E Lawrence , near Wareham in Dorset has been given Grade II * status – an Historic England  accolade given to only a few hundred buildings in England. The ruling gives its special protection.

The decision  taken 80 years after Lawrence’s death has been given no coverage by the press but is a piece of living history for anyone interested in the complex life of Lawrence – an archaeologist, manic motorcyclist, writer, Arabist, military strategist and a First World War hero.

For the tiny cottage as The National Trust site  tells you is just as exactly Lawrence left it when he died in a tragic motorcycle accident in 1935. It has no electric light, the rooms are simple and austere.

As Deborah Williams, Listing Team Leader, West at Historic England, said in the press release:

“Clouds Hill deserved to be upgraded to Grade II* in recognition of the importance of Lawrence’s life and the particular place which the cottage held in his heart. In 1923 he rebuilt the once-derelict cottage dating from 1808, making the fittings and furnishings himself, so it is very evocative of his personality and interests.”

The cottage served as Lawrence’s retreat from barrack life where he would entertain his friends and wrote most of his famous books. Famous visitors included Lady Nancy Astor, Siegfried Sassoon and Augustus John.

There is an irony given the timing of the announcement when the Middle East is in flames and Syria a hell hole. For it was Lawrence with the British government’s blessing who stirred up the Arab revolt in 1916 against the Ottoman Turks, committing terrorist attacks on their rail line across Arabia. His story was immortalised in David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia.

It was Lawrence who championed the Arab cause only to be betrayed by the French and British in a secret agreement that set up the current artificial boundaries between Iraq and Syria now straddled by Islamic State.

One wonders whether history will repeat itself in 2016 when Russia, the US, Britain, Turkey and no doubt France decide the fate of Syria.

For those interested in Lawrence in the year of the centenary of the Arab Revolt there is a website  run by The T E Lawrence Society. Events next year include a symposium at St John’s College, Oxford, looking back at the Great Arab revolt in September. And there is an exhibition on the revolt next October at the National Civil War Centre in Newark, Nottinghamshire.

The cottage itself is currently closed but re-opens on March 8.