Britain has gone from God-fearing to God-jeering

Last September, in the final weeks of his life, the New Labour strategist Philip Gould gave a moving interview to The Guardian. Dying of throat cancer at the age of 61, Lord Gould had done a lot of thinking about the meaning of life in a short time. The interviewer mentioned, in passing, that his subject had found religion, lost it briefly when he had witnessed terrible pain in intensive care, and then rediscovered his faith.

That was all. They moved on swiftly to politics. I found that article so frustrating. Here was a highly intelligent, worldly man, a superb operator in a party which famously “didn’t do God”, who had chosen to become a believer. It was a position I knew Philip Gould would not have arrived at fearfully or lazily, but, rather, spiritedly, and maybe even full of hope. For Christ’s sake, if one of our leading pollsters had cast his vote for the life to come, then why didn’t he get the chance to tell us about his Christianity?

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Scots safer in Union, says David Cameron

In his first visit to Scotland since official discussions over the referendum on independence began, the Prime Minister will say that the ongoing union is “stronger, safer, richer and fairer”.

Mr Cameron will indicate that Scotland may be more at risk of a terrorist attack and that a vote for independence could undermine the economy.

Last night, speaking ahead of the visit, he said: “We’re stronger, because together we count for more in the world, with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, real clout in Nato and Europe and unique influence with allies all over the world.

“We’re safer, because in an increasingly dangerous world we have the fourth largest defence budget on the planet, superb armed forces and anti-terrorist and security capabilities that stretch across the globe and are feared by our enemies and admired by our friends.”

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China to send senior envoy for talks in Syria

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun will be in Syria on Friday and Saturday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said at a news briefing. Zhai met a Syrian opposition delegation in Beijing last week.

China and Russia drew the wrath of the United States, Europe and much of the Arab world earlier this month for vetoing a UN Security Council resolution aimed at pressuring Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. China says the council vote was called before differences over the proposal were bridged.

Eleven months of bloodshed in Syria have left more than 5,000 dead as the regime has cracked down on protesters and rebels.

Liu said Zhai’s schedule was still being arranged and he had no information on whom he would meet.

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Hamid Karzai says talks under way between US, Afghans and Taliban

The Afghan president said he believed the majority of Taliban fighters were “definitively willing to seek peace”.

Mr Karzai also restated he would not stand for re-election in 2014 and would counsel his brother Qayyum, who has been touted as a potential candidate, not to run either.

“There have been contacts between the US government and the Taliban, there have been contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and there have been some contacts that we have made, all of us together, including the Taliban,” Mr Karzai told the Wall Street Journal.

The Taliban movement has publicly refused to talk with Mr Karzai’s government, denouncing him as a foreign puppet.

Mr Karzai said such refusals were only “statements” and his government was in fact “talking to the senior-most of them. Contacts at different levels, official, personal, all sorts.”

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Tax avoidance among Government workers is a ‘shambles’

Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the First Division Association (FDA) which represents senior civil servants, said pay among the highest-ranking staff needed to be more “transparent”.

His comments come after it was disclosed that more than 25 senior Department of Health officials have had their salaries paid to limited companies, enabling them to reduce their tax bill.

However, Mr Baume said he believed such arrangements had allowed the Government to pay senior figures less and that cleaning up the system would mean salaries would have to rise.

He said the problem stemmed from the last years of the Labour government when ministers wanted to attract top individuals working in the private sector but could not offer them salaries which compared favourably.

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Iranian bombers ‘targeted Israelis’ in Bangkok bombing

The men were specifically targeting Israel diplomats and planned to plant “sticky” bombs on their vehicles, the same method used in attack on an Israeli diplomat in New Delhi and a foiled plot in Tibilisi on Monday.

Police General Prewpan Dhamapong said Thai authorities “know for certain that [the intended target] was Israeli diplomats. The issue was about individuals and the targets were specific. This was something personal.”

Thailand is to seek the extradition from Malaysia of an Iranian man who was part of the plot.

Immigration authorities in Kuala Lumpur arrested the man Masoud Sedaghat Zadeh, 31, on unspecified charges on Wednesday as he tried to board a flight to Iran.

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