Monthly Archives: August 2014

The All new Barça – A winning team?

The new La Liga seasons starts this weekend and Barcelona play their first match this evening. So time for a bit of reflection on the summer’s transfer activity.  It is not quite all change at the club, but this time around they have gone for more of a revolution than evolution. Luis Enrique, the new head coach, does have extensive Barcelona connections as a player and as B team coach. However he has been brought in to oversee some radical changes. Not so much in the way the team plays, which is expected to only show slight changes from previous years, but more in terms of discipline and fitness.

As regards the squad this had changed significantly, with a high turnover of comings and goings. Starting with the goalkeeper, both Valdés and his deputy José Manuel Pinto, have left the club. Two new keepers have been signed, Marc-André Ter Stegen and Claudio Bravo, while Jordi Masip has been promoted from the B team. Barça now have three very good goalkeepers, but we will have to wait to see if any of the three can reach the consistently high standard set by Valdés.

Finally we get to see some new faces in the centre of the defence. Two experienced and tall centre backs have been signed – Jeremy Mathieu and Thomas Vermaelen. The team now has four recognised centre backs, the two newcomers plus Piqué and Bartra. This may turn out to be five as Javier Mascherano has played in defence in most of the pre-season matches. Mathieu and Vermaelen will add much needed experience and solidity to the defence. But it has to be doubted whether either can reach the levels of commitment and leadership of the sadly departed Carles Puyol.

In midfield at first sight it looks like a straight swap of Ivan Rakitic for Cesc Fàbregas. But as Cesc was more often used in attack it looks like Rakitic has come to replace Xavi in the first team. At one stage it looked like Xavi was going to leave the club during the summer, but he has decided to stay and fight for a place in the first team. Presumably Rakitic has been bought to add a bit of physical presence to the midfield as well as his undoubted skill. Still it will be a very different Barça without Xavi controlling the midfield. Sergi Roberto is the fourth midfielder, but he as yet has shown little sign that he can become a first choice player. Sergi Busquets remains the first choice for the defensive midfield organiser. Everyone assumed that Alexandre Song would leave the club and that Mascherano would offer competition to Busquets in this role, but as yet this has not happened.

Quite a few changes in attack for this season. Alexis has gone to Arsenal, while Luis Suarez has come in. If he keeps his cool, Suarez with his prolific scoring record should provide Barça with a potent attacking trio, alongside Messi and Neymar. However Suarez is not available for another two months, which should provide another opportunity for Pedro to shine. Luis Enrique welcomed back two loan players, Deulofeu and Rafinha. Somewhat surprisingly Deulofeu has already been loaned out again, this time to Sevilla. Rafinha, the younger brother of Thiago Alcántara looks likely to become the fifth option for the attack. The biggest surprise of the pre-season has probably been the youngster Munir, who ended up the leading goal scorer. He is also likely get an opportunity or two to demonstrate his talents.

All in all, the squad has gained in experience and solidity compared to last season. Once Suarez is available the attack looks very exciting. However both Neymar and Messi missed lots of matches last season due to injury. If either or both succumb again, the cover is not very deep. The midfield should be at least as good as recent years, with Rakitic to provide fresh legs and Xavi still around to provide that extra touch of class. The defence including the goalkeeper is where most uncertainty lies. We do not as yet know who will be first choice either as keeper or as the two centre backs. This is the area of the team that most needs continuity of selection to build up the mutual understanding that is crucial to any title winning team.

Once again we should see lots of goals from this team, but it may take more than one season to build a team that can win titles. Much will depend on whether the midfield and defence can settle into a pattern and how quickly this can be achieved. Whatever happens it will not be easy to win anything either in Spain or in Europe. Both Real and Atlético remain formidable teams, while the challenges from England and Germany are getting even stronger. Let the games begin!

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No campaign in denial over NHS

Do I detect a slight whiff of panic in the air from Alistair Darling and the No campaign? This as a result of polling that suggests that the threat of further privatisation of the NHS in England is swaying undecided voters into voting Yes. The rush with which spokespeople for the No campaign have bombarded the media to try and counter these claims has all the hallmarks of panic to me.

Kate Higgins at Burdzeyeview has a very good summary, here, of the facts behind the story. As usual the No side tries to steer the discussion away from the key issue, which is how the NHS is funded. So we have the unedifying spectacle of Alistair Darling and other Labour party members publicly stating that the NHS is safe in the hands of the Tories! Which must come as news to Andy Burnham, the Shadow Health Secretary at Westminster. Not to mention Mark Drakeford from the Welsh Labour party. Mr Drakeford who is the Health Minister at Cardiff is on record as saying that the NHS could become unsustainable in Wales if there is a Conservative victory at the next general election.

So we have Labour in England and Wales saying the NHS is at risk from the Tories, while Labour in Scotland is saying everything is hunky dory with the Tories. Panic stations anyone!

What is at stake here is not the degree of privatisation of the NHS in England, but the overall funding of the block grant that comes to Scotland. For this is the key issue – who and how is the Scottish block grant funded? The who part is very simple – the government of the day at Westminster. Scotland has no say whatsoever in how much of our money the UK government deigns to send back to us. The how is a bit more complicated. But basically the total sum goes up or down according to what the UK government decides to spend in England. As a matter of principle this seems to me to be a very unsatisfactory and demeaning way to go about such an important matter.

At the moment this total is going down as a result of the Tory/LibDem coalition’s austerity measures. This trend will definitely continue if there is a No vote in the referendum. All of the three main UK parties are committed to further austerity and cuts to public spending. Remember it is the total spending that matters. So spending on the NHS may be protected in England, but cuts elsewhere means that overall public spending has declined, which in turn leads to a reduction in the money available for us in Scotland. A reduction in which we have had no say whatsoever!

This is the long term threat to our NHS in Scotland from a No vote, irrespective of who wins the 2015 UK election. Even a Labour victory will not prevent further cuts to the Scottish block grant. These cuts will continue for at least a further five years and almost certainly longer, especially if the Tories win in 2015. This in turn will put considerable pressure on our NHS budget, pressure which could lead to our NHS in Scotland becoming unsustainable, as predicted by the Labour party in Wales.
The only way to sustain and improve the NHS in Scotland is to ensure that we are in control of its funding. And the only way to ensure that is to vote Yes for independence. Only independence will give us full control over all of our rich resources.

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Who are We?

Radio Scotland’s Crossfire this morning provided an interesting and in many ways revelatory intervention from the Unionist of the day on the programme. Didn’t catch her name, but her interjection came when Andrew Wilson was discussing how independence would mean that in Scotland we would be able to take political action on our own behalf. At this point the Unionist interrupted to make clear that for her when she talks about “we”, she means the people across the whole of the UK and not Scotland.

I congratulate her for this intervention and the clarity she has brought to the independence debate. For despite the best or worst attempts by Unionists to divert media attention to other issues, e.g. currency, EU etc, this is what the referendum is all about. Who gets to vote and thus decide on the political issues that will determine, for better or worse, the future of Scotland?

I remember many, many years ago studying for a course on Politics with the Open University. Part of the course covered the conditions for the emergence of democracy. One of the more memorable quotes from this section was something like: Before the “people” can decide, there has to be agreement on who are the “people”. This it seems to me to get to the heart of the referendum. It is not about oil, currency or any of the other faux issues that Unionists would have us talk about. It is instead all about who are “We“?

For Unionists “We” are the people who live across the UK. On the other hand for those of us in favour of independence, “We” are the people who live in Scotland. It is after all the future of Scotland that is at stake. Why should people who do not live in Scotland have a vote in our future? The only reason one could vote no, is if you felt that the UK was more important to you than Scotland. Which is what the guest on Crossfire openly admitted this morning.

If only the rest of the Unionist campaign was so open and honest! The trouble for Unionists is that for the overwhelming majority of people living in Scotland, it is Scotland and its future which matters most. The UK comes a far second. This again is not surprising. For most of us living in Scotland it is the areas of differences that most affect our daily lives. Whether it is education, health, the law, local government, police, social work, transport or whatever, just about everything that matters most to us is already different in Scotland. In most cases it has always been different and since the inception of the Scottish Parliament the differences with the rest of the UK have become even more pronounced. Added to this the fact that in many other important areas of life, religion and sports or example, Scotland again has and always has had its own independent identity.

So for most of us living in Scotland, our natural allegiance is to Scotland, irrespective of where we originally came from. Allegiance to the UK has been on a steep decline over decades. Which is why Unionists try to avoid the democracy question – Who runs Scotland? We need to keep focussing on this simple question – who do you want to decide the future of Scotland? The people who live in Scotland or the people who live in the whole of the UK? If this is what voters have in their mind when they vote, then we will win with a very big Yes majority.

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In defence of Hamas

It can be all too easy, wrapped up as many of us are in the warm glow of the Commonwealth Games and the referendum campaign, to ignore the terrible slaughter that is continuing in Gaza. For weeks now the Israelis have been pounding that tiny enclave with all kinds of bombs and missiles. That brave, moral army of Israel has by now succeeded in killing over 1,600 Palestinians, nearly all of them civilians, including women and children. Not quite sure what the legal definition of terrorism is, but this kind of wholesale slaughter must come pretty close to it. Yet our governments and most of our media still praise Israel for its restraint and its self-defence.

All the very serious people continue the refrain – Israel has the right to defend itself. But hardly any bother to ask, self-defence against what? The standard Israeli response if ever asked, is self-defence against Hamas. And of course Hamas is always qualified as a terrorist organization. And Israelis then plead, who in their right mind would negotiate with a terrorist organization?  Well just about every government in the world as it happens. Including the Israeli, when it suits them, which is very rare, to be true.

But is Hamas a terrorist organization? A little bit of history here. Hamas is a Palestinian organization. It is not just limited to Gaza. Indeed Hamas won a majority at the last Palestinian parliamentary election across the whole of Palestine, including the West Bank. This was in 2006. Israel responded to this democratic election by refusing to recognize the new government and instead launched a series of raids in Gaza and the West Bank and arrested 33 of newly elected Hamas MPs. The USA and the EU supported Israel in this and imposed sanctions on Palestine.  As a result Hamas was effectively restricted to Gaza. However Hamas remains popular across Palestine.

Secondly, Hamas is primarily a religious organization and was founded in 1987 as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. As part of its religious work, Hamas provides most of the social, health, welfare, cultural and educational services in Gaza. This in large part explains its continuing popularity. Hamas workers are also regarded as generally honest and free of corruption.

Thirdly, Hamas is a resistance organization. This of course is the bit that Israel does not like one little bit. The USA, the UK and the EU also do not like all this resistance. While Israel has the absolute right to self-defence, this right it seems does not apply to Palestinians. Palestinians obviously have no rights, only duties. And that duty above all is to know their place and to do everything to please and appease Israel. However, no matter what the Palestinians do in terms of recognising Israel, maintaining the peace, Israel never finds this enough. In the West Bank for example, Fatah has done just about everything that Israel has asked of it, yet this has not stopped the Occupation and its continuing encroachment into the West Bank. Appeasing Israel brings no rewards, only further humiliation and loss of territory. Resistance, it would seem, is the only option remaining to Palestinians.

Resistance of course does not have to be violent. Gandhi in India led a non violent resistance to British rule. But let us be clear, resistance to Occupation is natural and enshrined in International Law. People living under occupation are entitled to resist, using any and all means at their disposal. This includes military resistance, using home made rockets and anything else at hand. People who resist occupation are always regarded as terrorists by the occupiers. The British have centuries of experience of this. Most of the now independent countries currently participating in the friendly Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, were once upon a time led by resistance fighters whom the British were quite happy to condemn as terrorists. Even when it was not directly involved, Britain was more than willing to regard just about all resistance fighters as terrorists. Remember Nelson Mandela anyone – that well known terrorist who was part of the military wing of the ANC and who never renounced the right of Black South Africans to use violence as part of their struggle for freedom.

In many countries in Europe, the popular memory of the 2nd World War is heavily dominated by recollection of the various resistance or partisan movements that engaged in some very bloody actions against their German occupiers. At the time the Germans regarded these actions as terrorism and enacted even bloodier reprisals, often against the civilian population. Now these resistance fighters are national heroes.

Palestine now is no different. Palestinians are living under a brutal occupation which continues to confiscate their land and which controls almost all aspects of their lives.  Palestinians have the right to resistance this occupation. They have the right to use whatever means they deem appropriate and at hand. Hamas is not a terrorist organization, it is a legitimate resistance movement and we should support all those who bravely resist the Israeli occupation, including Hamas. Just take a look at the numbers of civilians who have been killed and maimed during this recent onslaught and work out who is indulging in a bit of terrorism.

It is important to remember that not all Israelis or all Jewish people support the current Israeli onslaught. Here is a very good example of reporting and analysis from Noam Sheizaf, an Israeli journalist, who points out to his fellow Israelis just what this fighting is all about – Freedom for Palestine. Finally here is a beautiful poem, based on the Jewish Lamentations, written by Rabbi Brant Rosen. Remember, if you want peace, work for justice.

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