Friday, May 20, 2016

Sanders, Trump and the challenge to parties

A month or so ago it looked as if the Republican convention would be the best spectacle for those who love a bit of political anarchy.  With Donald Trump marauding his way through the Republican primaries, faced by establishment opponents who clearly loathe him, what would have been better than a convention which tried to overturn the popular vote and insinuate a more acceptable candidate.  This would be a better spectacle even than Ronald Reagan's attempt to usurp the nomination of sitting president Gerald Ford in 1976.

Yet in such a short space of time the Republican conflict appears to have died down in the face of a pretty well invulnerable Trump candidacy and it's the Democrats who look like hosting at least a fractious, if not fully contested convention.  While Republican leaders accept the inevitable and start looking to make their peace with the candidate they desperately didn't want, the Sanders campaign for the Democratic nomination strides on, now even bringing violence and chaos in its wake.

The difference would seem to be party loyalty.  Trump himself may not be particularly loyal to his newly acquired Republican brand, but he's holding the good hand.  He's the presumptive nominee.  Those old establishment Republicans - or, to be more accurate, those new establishment Republicans like Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio - are going to hold their noses and endorse Trump, because they need their party to win in November.  And win not just the White House but Congress as well. Trump can corral the Republican party because the party needs him.

The Democratic party, meanwhile, neither needs nor wants Bernie Sanders.  The problem is that Sanders will fail to get the Democratic nomination but will still need to create the maximum disruption against the party in order to gain any traction.  Like his fellow insurrectionist, Sanders has no loyalty to the party whose label he recently adopted.  In a two-party system, both he and Trump saw their only chance for presidential success as being to take a major party hostage rather than run as a failed Independent.  Trump's gamble has succeeded, Sanders' has failed.  But Sanders' momentum is such that he can at least keep going, and since he's not really a Democrat that party's leadership appeals to him will have no impact.  Any more than Republican appeals had any impact on Trump.

Effectively what we are seeing are the attempts of two maverick insurrectionists to turn the party system against itself.  It is arguably the logical consequence of a political system which forces everyone to adapt to the two-party system.  If that's all you can use, then it is hardly surprising that the parties themselves become a target for otherwise independent, or socialist, or Green, or whatever other type of candidate who might be out there.

As it stands, then, the Democratic convention is going to be the most exciting.  Sanders is looking to gain traction in the California primary and has made no bones about taking his fight all the way to the convention floor.  The cries from the Clinton camp, and the establishment Democrats, will fall on deaf ears because Sanders has no use for party unity.  The slightly maudlin calls for Sanders to accept his defeat graciously so that Clinton can look to the general election battle against Trump are mis-directed and misconceived.  There would be no need to make appeals to Sanders if Clinton had managed to effectively dispatch his candidacy via the primary vote.  His continued campaign is as much an indication of her serious electoral difficulties as it is his own stubbornness.

2016 will not mark the end of the two-party system in American politics, but it has shown just how it is possible to subvert the parties in the interests of outsider campaigns.  The establishment - in either party - rules no more.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

"We're nicer than you" - the Leave campaign's misleading siren shout

It’s always interesting to see how groups regard themselves.  It is not unusual for any sort of group to take a rather positive view of itself and, by contrast, demean other groups.  Nowhere is this more likely than in the tribal bear-pit of politics.  Political parties have long had a rather favourable view of themselves which doesn’t seem to have been readily passed on to anyone outside their nicely insular organisations, and now the two sides of the European referendum campaign are at it too. 

The loudest bleaters seem to be the Out campaign.  Barely a week of the campaign goes by without a slew of Outers complaining about the tone and attitude of everyone else.  There was a particularly concerted campaign today to claim that they themselves were all lovely, decent people while the mean old Remainers are unpleasantly attacking them.  In particular, various Leave partisans professed to be wounded and upset by the terrible attacks launched against their de facto leader, Boris Johnson.

We should certainly take these with a hefty shovelful of salt.  Firstly, Mr. Johnson’s incendiary comments are deliberately aimed to provoke mass outrage and they succeed wonderfully.  His most recent invocation of Hitler as a sort of pre-cursor to the EU is precisely the sort of ludicrous, over-the-top assertion that Mr. Johnson has made his stock in trade for years.  As a historical observation, it is panders to the outer fringes of myopic lunacy.  Whatever Mr. Johnson’s intelligence, it is certainly great enough to understand that there is no comparison between the dictators and monarchs of history trying to subjugate Europe, and the rather more collegiate endeavour – no matter how flawed – of the European Union.   Also, barely a week after his mayoral predecessor, Ken Livingstone caused such outrage with his own Hitler comments, it is inconceivable that Boris didn’t know that using the H word would do the same for him.

Boris wanted us to talk about him, and about Europe, probably in that order, and he succeeded admirably.  He is also perfectly capable of throwing brick-bats towards the Remain campaign, and especially the Prime Minister, who he accused of deviously planning to sell Britain to the corporate backers of the EU campaign during his battlebus tour.  It was Boris, also, who described David Cameron as “demented” for suggesting that leaving the EU would lead to “bubonic plague and world war three”, neither of which Cameron had in fact specifically mentioned in his speech. (The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland penned an interesting piece associating Boris with Trump as one of what he called the "post-truth politicians".)

As for the Leave campaigners themselves, they have emerged from one of the most vicious training schools of fratricidal politics that Britain has ever seen – the Euro-sceptic wing of the Tory party.  Nothing has ever been too extreme for the sceptics, and we saw some of their parliamentary ilk seek yesterday to try and sabotage their own government’s Queen’s Speech as they apparently plotted to defeat it in an unholy alliance with Jeremy Corbyn.  Last week they unloaded shed-loads of venom on the governor of the Bank of England for having the temerity to suggest that there might be economic consequences if we leave.  Before that, Barack Obama was their target - an unprincipled president who had dared to remove a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.  And ITV, of course, has been threatened with reprisals for not doing the Leave campaign's bidding, with a sinister reminder that the present lot in No. 10 won't be there for very long.  Not exactly a litany of loveliness and politeness I'd say.  

Euro-sceptics, and now the Leave campaign at large, have always portrayed themselves as plucky little mavericks fighting against the fascistic vested interests of the state and the EU.  If you want to stick with misbegotten historical analogies, that’s about as accurate as suggesting Hitler was simply a brave German freedom fighter. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

An evening at the asylum

I went with at least a partially open mind when I attended the premier of “Brexit: The Movie” with friends last night.  Whilst believing that a vote to remain in the EU is probably best for the UK’s future, I’m nonetheless familiar enough with arguments about a democratic deficit and trade strangulation to be swayable on the crucial issue of our continuing membership of that flawed body.  So I was attending the IEA sponsored movie in the hope of hearing some of the rational arguments that appeared to have been missing from the campaign trail so far.

Alas, such optimism was terribly mis-placed.  First of all, it was apparent that what we were attending was less a general audience viewing of a carefully established case, and more a sort of rally for the committed Brexiteers.  There they all were, bow-tied up to the nines, greedily clutching champagne glasses on entry, double chins wagging away in righteous sympathy with each other at the Odeon Leicester Square.  I hadn’t come across such a very distinctive gathering since my days in the Young Conservative movement, or that time I went to the South African embassy to hear why apartheid was really quite a pragmatic idea back in the 80s.

But each to their own.  So what if the audience was a caricature of the metropolitan Brexit supporter, wanting not so much to leave the EU as leave the twenty first century.  They were perfectly entitled to gain solace by watching a film that helped articulate their wildest dreams and ambitions.
So we settled back in the cheap seats and waited for our intellectual Brexit fare to materialise on screen.  After all, the side that so regularly scolded the Remainers for their emotive “Project Fear” would hardly play the same trick themselves.  Would they?

Turned out they would, and more.  As the film began, there was little effort to drop us into the argument gently.  The first minutes were occupied with a selection of outraged middle-class tones competing with each other to screech out the worst offences of the EU.  After this political ice-plunge, the film’s presenter, Martin Durkin, took us on the sort of guided tour of the Bad EU that you might find in animated educational films for children.  His tone remained relentlessly patronising and light-weight throughout, as if we were somehow too stupid to be given any serious evidential meat.

Durkin’s potted history of the downfall of Europe included a paean of praise to post-war Germany, condemnation of over-regulated 1970s Britain, and some hilarious racial stereotypes, like Italian factory workers downing tools to snog a curvaceous woman, or eager-beaver Asian lab assistants exhibiting their maths skills.  In between the cheap animations and terrible sketch-show attempts we kept cutting to some talking heads.   Although the film’s case appeared to be that Brexit was on the side of the entrepreneur and the small businessman, all of the talking heads appeared to belong to rather inconsequential and definitely unproductive journalists and think tank authors.  It’s not that I don’t think Janet Daley or James Delingpole have a right to be heard.  It’s just that I don’t think penning “Why oh Why” columns for the Telegraph, or selling “My not very interesting memories of Dave Cameron at uni” to the  highest bidder qualifies them as particularly good spokespeople for the plucky industrial spirit the film seemed to want to identify itself with.   

The most egregious talking head, though, was Kelvin Mackenzie.   You’d have thought by now that Kelvin would be willing to spare the world his carefully manufactured down to earth “say it as I see it” salty wisdom.  Not a bit of it.  There’s still plenty of unfathomable rage waiting to find its inarticulate way out of Mackenzie.  What’s worse is the sheer hypocrisy of the man.  There he was, praising the “little man” and piously harping on about the awful abuse of power without a moment’s reflection that one of the worst abuses of power conducted in the modern age was by one K. Mackenzie.  No-one has ever managed to shit so relentlessly on an already ground down mass of people than Mackenzie as editor of the Sun, when he savaged the reputations of the dead and the friends of the dead Liverpool fans at Hillsborough, following as he did the dictates of one of the most corrupt police forces to have operated in the UK.  Abuse of power?  Lack of accountability?  Never were both more in evidence than in that wretched man’s tenure at the top of Murdoch’s calamitous empire.

By contrast, Simon Heffer’s faintly ludicrous comment in the film that if his whole family had to eat stewed grass as a result of leaving the EU it would still be worth it was merely barking rather than mendacious.

Heffer’s comment was loudly applauded by the audience of Brexit true-believers, but they applauded a lot.  Whenever Farage, or Dan Hannan, or Douglas Carswell appeared on screen to give us their well-cut middle-class faux outrage about the EU, the applause rippled around the auditorium.  There was some irony in these champagne quaffing, bow-tie clad Brexiteers clapping the regular mentions of the mythical “little man”, but then the evening seemed to be about fantasy for the most part in any case.  A cinema was an entirely appropriate venue.  And we had the bad guys to boo at too.  Edward Heath of course, although that other election-winning Tory, David Cameron, just about made it through unscathed, even if the tension when he appeared on screen was palpable.  Oh, if he would just leave office and let Boris or Michael take over, then all would be well with the world.

There was some meat buried in the film.  There were some genuinely strong points to be made about the collapse of the British fishing industry, or the struggles faced by Tate and Lyle.  It’s just that they seemed smuggled in amongst the more satisfying polemic, or the lengthy section on the wonders of Switzerland. 

With the end credits rolling, as the chant to “Leave, leave” started to gather pace amongst the committed, we took their advice, and left.  It had been an interesting evening.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Is Hillary's lack of the "vision thing" a real problem?

There is an interesting article up on Politico, strikingly headlined "How Hillary could win the election and lose the country".  Writer Todd Purdum considers the problem of a centrist, status-quo candidate becoming president (Hillary) in a year when all of the drive and momentum has been on the side of the radical, change-politics-now candidates.  Not unreasonably, he points out Hillary Clinton's lack of a clearly articulated vision and essentially postulates the idea that she might win the election by default - in that the Republicans will choose a virtually unelectable candidate in either Trump or, less likely, Cruz - but then fail to appease a country seething with discontent once she's in office.

It is an alarming thesis but one that may also be giving too much credence to the noise coming from the energised masses of left and right.  It is in the nature of democracies to go through regular convulsions, and for the reporting media to announce these as the critical convulsions of an era.  Such is modern democratic politics.  But it is also worth noting that the majority of people vote for little more than a relative competence in governance and stability on the home front.  These are unexciting attributes that are hardly going to rouse great audiences or inspire click-baiting readerships, but they are the greater part of a country's polity.

It may well be that Hillary Clinton's advantage as a candidate is that she does not arouse unreachable levels of expectation, and that she offers instead a rational, pragmatic competence in governing.  Yes she does have her guiding principles - the traditional Democratic ones of greater fairness, positive but non-confrontational diplomacy, a broad liberal belief in the beneficial impact of wise but not over-reaching government.  Certainly it's true that, set against the moral certainties of a Sanders or a Trump these are significantly less exciting attributes.  But there is an argument that Clinton is winning the Democratic nomination - and is odds-on favourite to win the November election - because most Americans prefer to embrace the less exciting, but likely more productive, option.

Donald Trump is generating enormous publicity with his campaign, and can claim to be providing a voice for the voiceless in his brash comments, but in so doing he is also turning many Americans away from him.  The elderly Sanders has managed to tap in to the holy grail of youth support, but youth is ever fickle and unrealistic, unmatured by the wisdom of years which show that compromise and realism offer better paths forward amongst diverse and contradictory humans than the apparently clear-sighted vision of idealistic politics.

It is noteworthy that in Mr. Purdom's vigorous article, he devotes a paragraph to re-living the exalted rhetoric of previous presidents.  Observing that the key power of the presidency is the power of persuasion, he cites again Kennedy's words about passing the torch to a new generation of Americans, or Reagan's "morning in America".  These were powerful pieces of rhetoric, but they were just that, and neither Kennedy - cut off too early but already arguably in the throes of seriously under-performing to the high-blown tones of his inaugural speech - or Reagan, who ended his years enmeshed in the Iran-Contra scandal, were able to translate their flights of rhetoric into reality.

More recently, it is often stated that one of President Obama's persistent problems throughout his eight year presidency has been that no achievement or policy could ever match the soaring heights of his first election's rhetoric.  A brilliant candidate became a troubled president whose achievements live consistently under the shadow of the expectations he aroused.  More notably, possibly, is the fact that Obama's popularity is growing as he works out his last year because his rational, reasoned speeches stand in such stark contrast to the populist and unrealistic rhetoric of some of his would-be successors.

Hillary Clinton is not a great candidate.  She is a work-horse determined to be a realistic president.  She has produced thought-through positions on many areas of policy but can't easily translate this into neat, visionary sound-bites.  Yet it would be a mistake to assume that her failure to be a rabble rouser means that she has somehow missed the mood.  If her presidency begins with a sense of realism rather than over-articulated optimism, she may in fact have hit just the right spot and be in a position to tackle America's problems with the effectiveness of a political pro, rather than doom herself to disappointing her supporters because she raised up a whole level of unattainable aspirations.

The politicians we deserve

We are a democracy, and so we get the politicians we deserve.

If we derive our news from personality-obsessed newspapers who fail to do even basic grunt-work to hold our representatives to account, well so be it.

If we look out onto the world of politics and simply sigh that they're all corrupt, and politics is boring in any case, well that's our right but don't then complain that nothing better is available.

If we are angry or annoyed that the campaign on one of the most important issues in a generation - the EU referendum - is being somehow trashed on both sides by outrageous, emotive, headline-hunting rhetoric, well we might just want to reflect on who the well-paid campaign leaders and researchers are aiming at.  Us, the voting public.  And they've mastered enough polling and marketing material to believe that their campaign is the very one we respond most to.  Had they bombarded us with information, boring but rational argument, a careful consideration of the volume of detail available to understand the pros and cons of EU membership; well then we probably wouldn't have listened.

If we think that the election to run one of the biggest cities in the world has become mired in name-calling, sleaze and racism, and seems moreover to be conducted by seriously uninspiring candidates fit possibly to become the middle-managers of a small business enterprise rather than visionary leaders of a great and complex city, well that too is due to the latitude we've extended to the current comedy occupant.

That's the thing about democracy.  It is about us.  We, the people.  We, the people who have the right to hire and fire our law-makers, hold them to account, reward the good ones and consign the bad ones to Trotsky's dustbin of history.  Instead of which, bored by real politics and by the necessity of being properly informed on issues of the day so that we can use our democratic right in a duly informed manner, we allow our politics to be become neglected and then subsumed by the same misshapen characteristics that prevail on those venal curses of modern entertainment, the reality television shows.  After all, that's what politics has really become.  A nationwide reality show, without the same level of viewers or attention afforded to the Saturday night versions.  Our politicians even talk with the same verbal incontinence of reality TV performers, as witness Ken Livingstone's current strife.

Of course some people recognise the situation we're in.  The Times lambasted Jeremy Corbyn as being a leader of "incompetence and nugatory intellect" in a striking indictment of his record and abilities.  The Guardian's Sonia Purnell penned a withering critique of outgoing London Mayor Boris Johnson, a man allowed to get away with promoting himself exhaustively over eight years when he should have been applying himself to running London.

The occasional philippic railing against our leaders and our current status is not, however, enough to force any sort of change.  Neither is racing to the nearest and loudest "anti-politician", who usually turns out to be simply another politician with a more raucous tone.

If we want to change our democracy, and the calibre of our representatives and leaders, then we, the people have to change it.  We have to interest ourselves in more than the personalities of the contest.  We have to search out real information, and demand accountability from it.  We should be joining parties to understand and influence them from the inside.  And dare I say it, as a teacher of politics, we need our schools to be more pro-active in the education of all our students in politics and civic responsibilities, not just the motivated few who choose to pursue the subject at A-level.

Maintaining a healthy and effective democratic state is not just the prerogative of the few who gain election to office.  It is the duty of all of a democracy's citizens; a deep duty that is more than the occasional shouting in support of a media bandwagon.  When we vote in our various elections on Thursday, or in the referendum on June 23rd., we might just want to ask, as we consider the choices in front of us, whether the act of voting is merely the first step in our democratic engagement.  If the choices before us this year so appall or scare us that we think about being more than just voters on the end of a process, then our democracy might be renewed after all.  Because as a democracy, we get the politicians we deserve.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Right-wing hatred of Obama is deep and irrational

Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal pulls no punches in the opening lines of its opinion column attacking President Obama.

"Britons now know how Americans feel. The most politically polarizing U.S. President in modern history decided on Friday to inject himself into the British debate over the June referendum to leave the European Union, as ever leading with a dubious political threat."

Wow. Really?  The most politically polarising president of modern times?  Leaving Nixon in the shade?  Clinton?  Johnson?  That's some claim.  But it is very much the right-wing mantra.  Take a UK observer, Tim Montgomerie.  Normally a man of moderation and common sense, Montgomerie lets go of his moorings when he writes about Obama.  He started his Spectator attack piece by comparing Obama negatively against Donald Trump, suggesting Trump was a bit of a shrinking violet when stood against Obama's over-weening self-confidence.  "King Barack" Montgomerie called him, presumably to distinguish him from non-imperial presidents like Nixon, Johnson, Reagan et al.

The trans-Atlantic right's hatred of Obama merits serious academic study at some point (and Alex Massie pens a vigorous current assessment here), but for the moment it is worth just noting that his main sin is to be an articulate spokesman for liberalism, and that the facts on the ground point as much, if not more, to a laager-retreating Republican Party than a dementedly dividing president when it comes to polarising American politics.  Obama, after all, continues to enjoy buoyant and improving ratings as this election year goes on.  Every time a right-wing spokesman demonizes the president they manage to do it in such a way as to invite serious questions about their mental stability.  Which explains a lot about the current rosta of Republican leaders and presidential contenders.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

That Special Relationship - or not

I have blogged before on the one-sided nature of America and Britain's alleged "special relationship".  With President Obama's visit this week, it has once more come under the spotlight, with the president and David Cameron using the phrase many times during their press conference.  Others - notably Brexiters - have been decidedly sniffy about the relationship, while for the president himself it has been clear that he enjoys visiting members of the royal family if nothing else.

As to where it really stands in a modern world of powerful regional unions and multi-country trading alliances, it probably isn't a surprise to learn that strong though the emotional resonance may be, the reality is not terribly significant.  Michael Crowley on Politico analyses where the special relationship stands today, and suggests that other European countries (quelle surprise) such as France and Germany enjoy a more influential role than the one-time ruler of the thirteen colonies.  But Obama does love the Queen.

Big Bad Bozza - just the tip of the Leave iceberg

It's difficult for the Leave campaign.  Faced with using high profile spokesmen to get their message across they often end up having to choose between Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.   The campaign hasn't really been kind to either man, although this might of course be the consequence of their well-embedded political personas which have now been unfairly exposed to harsh public glare.  Boris' once-cheery schtick of being a bumbling but well-meaning chap is increasingly seen as the incompetent antics of a jobbing journalist looking for headlines but uninterested in the grunt work of analysing detail.  Farage, meanwhile, is fulminating at what seems to be his increasing irrelevance in the very campaign he fought so hard to have, and spent much of his time today and yesterday excitedly pointing out that President Obama used the word "queue" and not "line" - clear evidence that his statement was written up by the Englishmen in Downing Street.

It's good to see the Leave campaign focus on the important issues.  The word "queue" for Farage, and the right of the US President to have a bust of an American civil rights icon rather than a British PM in his office for Johnson.

The Leave campaign's intellectual heft is meanwhile provided by Michael Gove, an undeniably intelligent (and apparently, in person, thoroughly nice) man but whose public persona suffered badly from his rather bombastic performance as Education Secretary.  Meanwhile, the chief bureacrat of the Leave movement is Dominic Cummings, arguably Gove's most wacky adviser at Education and now a man so steeped in his own importance that he begun his Commons select committee appearance with the announcement that he really couldn't give them much time as he had to be elsewhere.  By the end he had come off distinctly worse from committee chairman Andrew Tyrie's methodical and relentless grilling.

It seems like only a few weeks ago that Boris Johnson was being heralded as the likely next Tory leader, as George Osborne imploded and the British right-wing press went to war for Brexit.  Alas, poor Boris.  Even his champions are publishing articles suggesting his PM ambitions are simply the end-point of an extended political car crash.  Let's just hope the EU referendum doesn't go the same way, even as Leave do their level best to hand victory to the Remainers.

The importance of regionalism - A2 Global Politics

Observer commentator Andrew Rawnsley goes on holiday to Vietnam to celebrate his significant wedding anniversary and ends up ruminating on the EU referendum.  Which may have been trying for his wife, but is good news for us, as he produces a fascinating consideration of the nature of regionalism and why the eastern experience may be one which offers a guide to the British voters on the EU.

Vietnam is well entrenched in our historical memory largely because of the "Vietnam War" which still features on our GCSE history specifications, and has a cultural pull through a range of well known films in particular.  Some of which carefully discriminating teachers like myself show in class when it's really, really relevant and instructive to do so (say, Friday afternoons, end of terms, times when other pressures have pushed out the lesson planning, afternoons when you just want an easy life, an undue confluence between me and my students' lack of desire for anything more than thoroughly passive learning.....).  It is also increasingly popular on the student gap year trail - those years when teenagers can "find themselves" and realise they never lost themselves in the first place.

Anyway, the admirable Mr. Rawnsley provides us with a few useful pointers about the strengths of encasing a nation's future within helpful regional structures, and he does so by looking at the Vietnam situation.  He notes, in particular, that:

Two millenniums of resisting a succession of foreign invaders have forged a tremendous sense of national pride in the Vietnamese. At the same time, this is a country that has become an ardent joiner of multinational organisations and economic partnerships. “Deep international integration” is now its lodestar. Membership of Asean (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is seen as crucial to its security and prosperity. It takes pride in hosting summits of Apec (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). It has signed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which seeks to create a single market from 12 countries with a combined population of around 800 million commanding 40% of world trade. Modern Vietnam has grasped what its feudal emperors did not: you can’t wall yourself up against the world.

Any aspiring A2 Global politics student might find the point about the benefits of Asean particularly relevant to their exam preparation, while the rest of us may consider it a prescient warning about Brexit.  Rawnsley went on to note the contrast between the country's communist rule and its capitalist pretensions, with Prada, Gucci, Chanel and Cartier occupying city centre space just metres away from monuments to Ho Chi Minh, the country's communist founder.  And, of course, the west wants in, but Britain's best route is via the EU.

A Britain that wants to maximise its future prosperity will seek to be part of the future of coming countries such as Vietnam. There is Vietnamese interest in aspects of Britain, particularly a perceived British expertise in insurance, banking, science and technology. But compared with other global actors, we are not that significant in the Vietnamese scheme of things. Certainly not as important as its complex relations with the US and its Asian neighbours, especially the historic enemy and one-time occupier to the north. In so much as the UK matters to a country such as Vietnam, our influence is leveraged through membership of the EU. After three and a half years of negotiation, the EU and Vietnam recently signed a free trade agreement (FTA). When Mr Hammond came visiting, getting the FTA ratified was the main point of the talks from the perspective of his hosts.

Take or leave Mr. Rawnsley's conclusions as you wish - I prefer to take them if I'm honest - but the lessons from the far east about the importance and impact of regionalisation in a globalised world seem thoroughly on point.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The blind fury of the Euro-sceptic Tories

Iain Duncan Smith was not one of those ministers we heard serial encomiums about when he was actually in office.  A former backbench rebel against John Major, he was thrust unprepared into the leadership of the Tory party, from which role he was ignominiously ousted by his fellow MPs a couple of years later.  He is now, of course, the best Work and Pensions Secretary we've ever had, a reformer of remarkable quality who has sacrificed his career in order to warn the Tory party of the dangers it faces under its current evil, election winning leader.

Mr. Duncan Smith's past and present are useful fables on the wider problem of the Conservative party as a whole.  He was elected as a leader in what became a two-way contest against Kenneth Clarke.  Clarke was by  far the most experienced of the two, as well as having a popularity in the world outside the Tory party.  He may have been a consummate politician,  but he also had character and an appeal as a "regular" guy who spoke sense in politics.  He was, however, a pro-European and this proved toxic in his various leadership bids, including the one against Mr. Duncan Smith.  The Tories showed that they preferred an unknown, untried serial rebel to allowing a Europhile anywhere near the leadership, and much good did it do them. Within two years IDS had become such a liability as an opposition leader that he was gracelessly ejected by his own parliamentary colleagues.

As leader IDS had proved a poor speaker and a poor tactician.  He failed to fulfill the function of an Opposition Leader when it came to the Iraq war, which he supported (and which Clarke opposed) and found it difficult to identify any strategic vision to help the Tories overcome their trenchant unpopularity.  He was succeeded by the more experienced Michael Howard, who went on to show that an initially poor public profile didn't need to be a handicap for an accomplished and intelligent political operator.  Howard stabilised the Tories and while he didn't win the 2005 election in the UK, he shored up his party's position and won the most votes in the populous but electorally under-represented England.

It was Howard who mentored David Cameron, his successor as leader who went on to bring the Tories back into government in coalition in 2010 and on their own in 2015.  Cameron is thus the most electorally successful Tory leader since Thatcher, and has proved a less divisive figure nationally.  He is also a pragmatist and has most recently, of course, come out as a pro-European, leading the Remain camp in a referendum that had only one political aim, which was to try and appease the Euro-sceptics in his ranks.

To hear the wild stories now circulating, and provoked by the resignation of Mr. Duncan Smith, is to see again the full lunacy of the Tory Euro-sceptic right.  There is talk of backbench rebellions whatever the outcome of the referendum, a desire to see the back of Mr. Cameron, serious allegations against his dictatorial leadership style and even condemnations of just how closely he and his Chancellor work together.  Nearly all of these criticisms lack merit.  Cameron's "dictatorial" leadership style is nowhere near as domineering as the late, sainted Margaret Thatcher, while his closeness to George Osborne has delivered remarkably harmonious government.  This has been in stark contrast to the thirteen year trauma of the Blair-Brown years.

None of this matters to the Euro-sceptics though. As their hysterical interventions in the current referendum campaign indicate, there is no fury equivalent to that of the Tory Euro hater against anyone who suggests there might be another side to the European debate.  Mr. Duncan Smith himself was the author of one of these polemics recently, railing against the fact that the Remainers were, er, putting their case.

The Tory sceptics will never accept a referendum vote to stay in the EU and they will continue to push the self-destruct button in their own party long after the referendum is past.  Much of their campaign at the moment is dedicated to the idea that Remainers are somehow cheating in the debate.  This includes the notion that the Prime Minister himself shouldn't really be campaigning at all and that Downing Street should stay above the fray.  The Outers are worried that they will lose and are setting up the next stage of the campaign.  For there will be a next stage.  As in Scotland, the referendum won't end the debate and it won't silence the sceptics.  If they lose they will seek the first opportunity to oust the most successful Tory leader in decades and neuter as many of his supporters as they can.  Like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the Labour party, they will have the majority of the Tory grassroots with them and it will be this populist endorsement that powers their attempt to re-take control of the leadership of the Tory party.

Mr. Duncan Smith is an unlikely political martyr, but the sound and fury accompanying his self-imposed departure from government has far less to do with the issue at hand than he might protest.  He may indeed be passionately committed to the social welfare reform he feels has been undermined by Mr. Osborne and the rest of the government.  But his resignation storm is not about that.  It is about the undying hatred of the Euro-sceptics towards a successful leader who refuses to share their views on Europe, and might even take those views to a substantial public endorsement in June.  But that won't matter.  The right have already shown they prefer purity in opposition to electoral success that depends on compromise.  It was what propelled them to choose Mr. Duncan Smith as their leader back in 2001, and it's why they are so vociferously using his resignation now as a wedge against their current leader.  Mr. Duncan Smith proved a useful fool when they adopted him in the leadership contest before and is alas proving so again now.  Such is the madness of the modern Tory party.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

A land where they punch people at political rallies

Look I don't want to go too far with this analogy.  It's flawed and there really are many variables, but you know, as someone who teaches the morphing of Weimar Germany into the Third Reich, the whole violence at political rallies thing obviously raises a few disconsonant tremors.

The Trump rally in Chicago had to be cancelled because protestors violently disrupted it.  Not Trump's fault you might say.  And you'd be wrong.  A couple of days earlier, at another Trump rally in North Carolina, one of his supporters socked a protestor firmly in the face.  And wasn't it Trump who calmly noted that "I'd like to punch them in the face, I really would" when referring to protestors who dared disrupt his meetings?

It's no great surprise that if you deal in the politics of populist hate and demonise whole sections of the population, then you might get throw-back in your political meetings.  Hate isn't easily contained. And what starts in a campaign can easily go on to infect a whole nation.  Political leaders have a responsibility for the way in which a nation's discourse is conducted, and it's one which Trump is failing mightily.

EU Remainers need to take Tony Blair's advice

He’s the subject of a new, savagely attacking book by TomBower, but sometimes it is worth remembering Tony Blair’s strong points.  The most obvious of these is that he was one of the twentieth century’s most successful electoral politicians, the Labour Party’s most successful ever leader, and an undoubted driver of social liberalisation.

It is his election winning expertise that is most pertinent when we consider his recent intervention about the EU referendum debate.  In an interview with Nick Robinson on Friday’s “Today” programme, Blair urged the pro-EU (or “Remain”) campaign to adopt a far more positive and enthusiastic stand.  Implicitly criticising the emphasis on negative results if we leave (what the “Out-ers” have dubbed “Project Fear”), Blair said that he wanted to see “passion” on the side of those campaigning to stay.  Indeed, in his interview he showed once again how well he can articulate his cases, outlining a cogent and clearly heart-felt belief in the positive benefits of the European cause.

Blair is right.  While the Remain side appear to have had the best of the arguments up to now, they are going to have to make out a case that inspires people as well as one that injects fear of the unknown.  For all its flaws there is much that inspires about the EU project and the Remainers shouldn’t ignore its capacity to hold the voters’ imagination.  One of the great errors of political leaders supporting the EU over the years has been both a failure to properly articulate that belief and a reluctance to challenge some of the developments of the EU lest they be seen as undermining the whole project.

The referendum should be welcome to pro-EU supporters as a chance to gain proper public approval for the whole extraordinary project and to stop skulking around in the shadows of bureaucratic torpor.  That the Out campaigners, with their recourse to almost the whole of the British print media, should be able to pain themselves as plucky insurrectionists is partly a damning indictment of the failure of leading pro-EU politicians to do more than assume the rightness of their cause. 

Well, the EU campaign is, for the moment, the “Remainers” to lose.   They have a credible case, more credible leaders and a single campaign compared to the scrabbling between three different “Out” campaign for the electoral commission’s money.  Boris Johnson may be emerging as the face of the anti-EU protagonists, but his shtick is becoming old and less potent with voters outside of the Tory party.  Set alongside him is a group of largely grumpy and unappealing politicos who look and sound as if they are seeking refugee status in the 1950s.

As for Tony Blair, he has not only given the In team a prodding to more urgent and positive action, but has shown an often unrecognised level of self-awareness in his own precluding of himself from the campaign proper.  Cameron and co may be happy with that, but they at least need to imbibe some of his electoral elixir if they are to assure themselves of victory on June 23rd.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Re-Defining the western consensus

Donald Trump's startling success in the current Republican primaries is starting to hit home and spark a tranche of "we could have a president Trump" articles.  None of them make for happy reading and they're not intended to.  Trump is the horror story that most liberal observers of politics - whether that be liberal-right or liberal-left - hoped they wouldn't have to witness.  Could it be that the "pax occidentalis" that has held since the end of the Second World War is about to come apart?

Trump is an easy to recognise trope of the populist nationalist variety.  He shares none of the internationalism of any of his post-war predecessors.  His candidature hearkens back to the days of Warren Harding, but with an added nastiness.  His victory would bring to the White House a man who is perfectly capable of bringing the old international, American protected consensus crashing down.  Anne Applebaum considers this disaster in her Washington Post column, and adds a potential Marine Le Pen presidency of France with a British exit from the EU to the mix, just for good measure.  It's a pretty depressing vision.

Comparisons with Hitler are over-used and inaccurate, but what is apposite is the comparison between the frustrated, politically dislocated electorate of Weimar Germany in 1933 and the current frustrated, politically dislocated electorate of America in 2016.  The Spectator's Freddy Gray has provided a fascinating and cogent analysis of both what it is that Trump is tapping into in America, and how it is likely to play out in America's world role (worth buying this week's edition for, an online preview is here).  Gray writes that  "an ever larger number of Americans feel angry at the system.  The Donald embodies their rage and multiplies it as in a hall of mirrors".  Yes.  Exactly.  That's what populist demagogues do, and when a nation feels uneasy about itself and its manifest destiny, an electorate can turn quite nasty.  Nasty electorates produce nasty leaders.

Gray is particularly good, later in his piece, at acknowledging the huge impact America has had on the nature of the post-war world, and the democratic security that western nations have rather taken for granted, even as much of the rest of the planet disintegrates into strife and savagery.  A president uncommitted to such a role is more concerning than we might think.  As Applebaum notes, Trump has little time for modest democratic politicians and their compromising, negotiated positions, but he does express admiration for Vladimir Putin.  Putin is arguably the most sinister and dangerous man to govern Russia since the late Josef Stalin.  He seems to combine similar levels of paranoia about the non-Russian world with an opaqueness that makes him impossible to read.  (He is, incidentally, superbly portrayed in Netflix series "House of Cards", as fictional Russian president Petrov.)

Of course, much of this is speculative.  Trump is not only not president, the odds are still against that possibility.  Marine Le Pen is not yet president of France and could suffer the same fate as her once popular father.  But electorates are not bound to elect moderate, reasonable men and women, and we may just have reached a time in the affairs of liberal nations when de Tocqueville's fear of democracy may prove wholly justified. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Trump and Sanders

That sign - the one pointing in the direction of the White House - is looking ever closer to the truth.  Trump hasn't just won South Carolina, he's once again swamped his opponents.  While Jeb Bush finally acknowledges that his lame and unconvincing campaign really isn't going anywhere, Ted Cruz must also be feeling anything but glorious as he contemplates the failure of his vote to go beyond the already tied-in evangelicals.  As for Rubio, he's made it big - for the first time - by coming in second a bare few percentage points above Cruz.  Not exactly the aura of an invincible challenger to the galloping maverick in front of him.

It's still difficult to see how the Republican race might coalesce around a serious challenger to Trump, and in the meantime the Donald should start thinking about possible VP picks.  And here's a mould-busting thought.  Given that Hillary Clinton may finally have consigned her own opponent to the position of supporting act in the Democrat race, through a decent - though hardly mind-bending - victory in Nevada, there is an appealing insurgent available for other political duties. 

Bernie Sanders is as much a maverick in his way as Trump, and his political positions are more nuanced than the campaign has really let on.  Trump, meanwhile, picked up plenty of moderates and independents in the South Carolina vote.  What about the power of a doubly insurgent campaign to clear up on American voters' detestation of "politics as normal"?  With this being the year of the challenger, could a Trump-Sanders ticket be either unbelievable or beatable?

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Trump comes to Washington

Donald Trump's presence is already clear in Washington DC.  A couple of blocks down from the White House a large placard announces that Trump is coming here in 2016.  Whether or not his company's renovation of the old Post Office building into its latest hotel (with what will be "Washington's largest ballroom" - just right for an inaugural ball) is a sign of a more serious presence in the nation's federal capital is yet to be seen, but as South Carolina's primary enters its closing phase as I write, Trump is starting to look like an unstoppable force.

If New Hampshire proclaimed Trump's ability to transcend the largely hostile coverage from the mainstream media, and his clear political potency after having been seen initially as a national joke, then South Carolina could be the primary that makes him the almost unbeatable front-runner.  Trump as president is not looking quite such a remote prospect today.

Of course, this extraordinary and unpredictable race still has many curves to navigate, but Trump as stayer and possible victor is shaping up as a clear line in the primary sands.  Cruz is his closest runner, and that is one of the reasons South Carolina is so significant.  Win there, and Trump shows that he is more than capable of winning the evangelical vote on which Cruz's run so much depends.  Cruz's appeal is narrow compared to the more iconoclastic Trump. 

As for Rubio, as one MSNBC commentator noted today, coming 3rd., 5th., and 3rd does not constitute front-runner status.  He needs to win somewhere!

If South Carolina goes for Trump today, he may not need the swanky new hotel he's building.  There's a nice residence just down Pennsylvania Avenue just waiting for the New York billionaire to move in.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Justice Obama? McConnell's blocking strategy could be fantastic news

Well it's a thought anyway.  If conservative Justice Antonin Scalia's death has plunged America into a potential constitutional crisis and more crie de coeurs about whether its system of government is fit for purpose, there is still some mileage to be made by beleaguered Democrats.

In short, Scalia was a conservative Justice - rigorously conservative actually - whose replacement by anyone even marginally to his left could initiate a change in the political direction of the Court.  And make no mistake, political direction is what it is all about.  This court has long been political, whether it was as an activist liberal court under Earl Warren, or the Republican leaning Court that appointed its political fellow traveller, George W Bush, as president in Bush v Gore in 2000.

So its opinions may be beautifully worded and legally argued to the nth degree, but they have a huge political impact and the Justices all know it.

So does President Obama, the appointee to date of two Justices - each of whom replaced a retiring liberal.  In his reflections on what makes a good Justice, one of Obama's least legal but most impressive citations was that of empathy. As Slate writer Dahlia Lithwick notes in a fascinating article, Obama understood that justice is not some remote, detached concept but actually affects people's lives.  The former law professor commented that:

I want my justice to understand that part of the role of the court is to look out for the people who don’t have political power. The people who are on the outside. The people who aren’t represented. The people who don’t have a lot of money; who don’t have connections. That’s the role of the court.

Not something, as Lithwick points out, that could ever have been considered the abiding value of the late Justice Scalia.

The battle to replace Scalia is potentially undermining for America's system of government, and showcases the level of polarisation that country's politics are now delivering.  Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is quite clear that he doesn't see any need to appoint a new Justice until America has a new president.  He is way out of line constitutionally, but well in line in a party that is so rigorously partisan that it has no memory of what it was once like to legislate and govern in the national interest.  McConnell and his allies on the Hill make Richard Nixon look like a model of bi-partisan leadership.

But could the Republicans' determination to co-opt the Supreme Court into their political battles backfire?  Suppose - no mean supposition this - that the Republicans do not win back the white House and it goes to either Clinton or, more dangerously for them, Sanders?  Suppose the larger than usual number of voters who always tend to come out for presidential elections take against the Republicans enough to push the Senate back into Democratic hands?  It's not unusual for it to change hands in the presidential election years after all.

What price then Senator McConnell's bullish strategy?  A Democratic president, and a recently out of work law professor who has just served the nation as president.  Could Obama be the retaliatory nominee for the Supreme Court under a President Clinton or Sanders?  After all, former president William Howard Taft went on to serve with distinction as a Justice.  And Clinton, no matter how spontaneously, embraced the idea when a voter in Iowa suggested it.

It would be poetic justice indeed if president Obama became Justice Obama because the Republicans chose to delay appointing a Supreme Court replacement for a year after a vacancy arose.  Oh please make it happen!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Putin shows the West how you do Mid-East policy

The devastating impact of bombing and renewed fighting upon Aleppo in Syria is being brought home to us via news reports and tales of ever increasing numbers of refugees.  It also places a spotlight once again upon the imperturbable Russian president, Vladimir Putin's, Middle East strategy.  Briefly hailed as a joint step forward with western interests, it is in fact clear that Putin - unsurprisingly - has no interest in western aims and is methodically, and successfully, pursuing a Russia First policy in his dealings in Syria.

The BBC's diplomatic correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, gives a cogent and clear assessment here of just how Mr. Putin is winning his own war in Syria.  And, as Marcus points out, it includes an abject lesson to western governments mired in confusion as to how to carry out middle-eastern policy.  Marcus notes that Russia chose a credible side to back in the civil war, one that had sufficient forces on the ground; set herself achievable goals (in this instance to back the Syrian government and bolster its control of a clear area); and committed sufficient forces herself to achieve her limited aims.  She is succeeding admirably.  The West by contrast, as Mr. Marcus notes, is struggling even to work out what its aims are.

Nothing will come out of the present round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva and it is unlikely that Syria will ever revert to its original borders in a single, unified state.  With Libya heading the same way - see another BBC correspondent, Frank Gardner's report here -there is an urgent need for the key western governments to work out a viable response, especially since Libya's mess, unlike Syria's, emerged directly out of a proudly trumpeted interventionist policy from Mr. Cameron and the then French president Nikolas Sarkozy.  Getting rid of dictators seems easy.  Filling the vacuum is, as ever, a nightmare.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

America's Wind of Change

As I noted below, I don't think New Hampshire can give us any clear indications as to the future roll-out of this extraordinary 2016 presidential campaign.  But it has at least confirmed that 2016 is the year of the anti-establishment iconoclast.  That the insurgencies in both parties were well advanced was clear before New Hampshire, and the vote there has given it a bit of real-poll traction.  The key thing, as must have been noted a zillion times already today, is whether those odd insurgencies can be maintained away from the rarefied atmospheres of Iowa and New Hampshire.  If there is a consensus wisdom it seems to be that Trump has the better chance of taking it all the way to the convention floor in what is a significantly more disrupted party, and of course he has reliable deep pockets where Sanders needs the regular mass contributions of his punters.

The poll tracking from Real Clear Politics currently has Trump comfortably leading Cruz in South Carolina (36 to 19.7 polling points), with Rubio still in third.  I guess that still awaits the wash from New Hampshire mind you, so the next few days' polls will be particularly keenly watched for any signs of a Rubio depression.

On the Democratic side, Clinton has a still more comfortable lead over Sanders of 62 to 32.  Even less accurate but nonetheless interesting, the national match-up polls have Clinton losing to both Rubio and Cruz, but just beating Trump, whilst Sanders loses only to Rubio, beating Cruz (just) and Trump.

While both insurgencies suggest a real sense of alienation from the body politics, it is the Democrat race that merits perhaps some closer attention.  Trump has been sucking a lot of the oxygen from the campaign coverage recently, because he provides more outrageous, media-friendly outbursts.  The Sanders rebellion is more considered, and based around a rising grassroots anger amongst Democrats at the failure of their leaders, and the political establishment generally, to tackle the over-weening influence of big corporate money - specifically banking money - in their national politics.  In the storm created by this anger Hillary is proving especially vulnerable, which is why Sanders has stolen a state she once won from under her nose, and edged ahead in nearly all of the voter gender and age demographics.

If you don't quite get the anger of Democrats - and I must confess I didn't - then this Slate piece from H.A.Goodman really digs into the anti-Hillary anger and exposes her frailty as an old-style political chieftain mouthing grassroots friendly platitudes which her funding simply doesn't square with.  The old adage of "follow the money" is further explored in this Atlantic piece from Conor Friedersdorf which looks at the extraordinary links between the Clintons and the giant Swiss bank UBS.

If the Democrat yearning is for a clean candidate who can repair their liberal credentials then Sanders is the man.  The problem then, of course, becomes the growing polarisation of America.  A Sanders-Trump or Sanders-Cruz face-off in the autumn takes to the national stage what has been going on in Washington for some years now - a complete, binary approach to politics that has no room for the once shaded area of the middle where compromise used to take place.

This is still a Democrat-Republican race mind you.  Michael Bloomberg may offer the media a decent story and a veneer of honest broker between the two extremes, but the reality is that he is probably as redundant as the old Republican establishment, thrashing around trying to find people to support them.  Bloomberg's a maverick and combines business savvy with progressive social views, but he's no iconoclast and divided America may be looking for a whirlwind to clean it out, not a gentle breeze.

New Hampshire's Lessons

What does New Hampshire tell us about the likely future course of the US presidential nominations?   Nothing.  Seriously.  There will be no lack of important commentary on Rubio's struggle to finish third, and how that means he is falling back/still very much in the race.  How Sanders' win is 2008 again for Hillary/is no real concern to Hillary.  How Trump is clearly headed for the Republican nomination/is still a joker leading a pack ready to devour him.

Iowa and New Hampshire are fascinating states, and their early primaries give some actual voting figures to a race that has had to rely on polls since last summer.  Momentum in those states has traditionally allowed candidates to move ahead with more funding into the sunlit uplands of the south and west.  But the reality is that these lily-white states are not very representative of the immense diversity that is America's demographic,  and while providing excitement they have not fundamentally changed the contours of the nomination race.  These remain a likely Clinton win for the Democrats, after which her real struggle, to convince a divided America of her credentials for the presidency, begins.  And a Trump/Cruz/Rubio fight for the Republican nomination, with Trump and Cruz vying for the loony vote whilst Rubio seeks to stack up the Establishment.  Current wisdom is that Rubio would be much the most dangerous candidate in a Clinton fight, but if there is any takeaway from these early votes it is that Trump is no longer a joke.  He's a serious - and currently front-running - contender who could yet upset all previous political calculations.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Bloomberg's Candidacy?

Michael Bloomberg has hinted that he may stand as an Independent in the forthcoming presidential race.  One of my students, preternaturally informed about politics, had suggested this scenario to me last week and I had airily dismissed it, with the assured, patronising air that only years in teaching can perfect.  So it is personally annoying to find the former New York mayor making his candidacy mutterings again.

However, he's not yet declared, and Bloomberg does have a habit of flying his balloons and then retreating back as if they were a blue touch-paper.  And it is difficult to see what he gains from an independent candidacy, unless it is a manoeuvre to further de-stabilise the Republicans by dragging their moderates (there are still a few) into his camp.  So I may yet be right.  God, I hope so.  It's humiliating to find a 16 year old has a more prescient grasp of political outcomes than I do!