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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Losing a Free Thinking Conservative

Douglas Carswell's announcement that he has defected from the Conservatives to join UKIP is a matter of no small moment for the Tory party.  First, Carswell - currently the MP for Clacton - has, entirely consistently with the principles he has always proclaimed in speeches and writings, chosen to resign his seat and re-fight it as a UKIP candidate.  Given his effectiveness as a local MP, and the prominence of his announcement, there must be a high chance that he will win it back under his new colours.  I would have thought he is likely to retain it through a general election as well, firmly embedding him as UKIP's first MP.  Headache number one for the Tories.

Second, this is bad news for David Cameron on two fronts.  The first front is the reaction of his own party.  If the Conservatives cannot accommodate an MP of the calibre of Mr Carswell on the grounds of its European approach, it might be reasonable to conclude that it may have trouble with the large number of members - parliamentary and grassroots - who broadly share Mr Carswell's views. Mark Wallace on Conservative Home has a useful analysis of the wider implications of the Carswell resignation here.

The second front is more personal.  Douglas Carswell rapidly carved out a position as one of the Tory Party's most interesting thinkers, not just on Europe, but on broader issues of constitutionalism and ways to make politics work better in the modern age.  Douglas Carswell won't stop thinking and making important contributions to the debate on politics and its application in the UK, but what a blow it is to have that mind outside the Tory Party and not in it.  We always knew the Tory faultline on Europe was unlikely to be sealed by the promise of a referendum.  Mr. Carswell's defection appears to have illuminated this in spectacular fashion.

For a comment on how Carswell's defection will not fundamentally alter the political water, read Dan Hodges' commentary here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ice, Ice....

There was a point last night on my facebook pages where if I pressed refresh every few minutes, I would be greeted with a slew of new, yet very similar, video clips.  People in various states of undress stood, talked, and were then doused in water.  Yes, the Ice Bucket Challenge hit its viral high as pretty well everyone got in on the act.  Now before I go any further, and land myself in hot water rather than shower under charitable streams of ice cold water, I should acknowledge that the friends I watched – or whose video selfies I rapidly skimmed through – are pleasant, charitably minded, humane individuals who undeniably want to do something more than simply mind their own business.  And all credit to them for that.  But did it, over the past few days, really have to be in the uniform style of a single, unvarying challenge for one clever charity?

There is an obvious danger in pricking the bubble of mass charitable giving that one comes across too readily as some sort of grinch who wants to steal charity.  And it goes without saying that that is absolutely not my aim.  Nor is it my aim to cast snide, superior verbal brickbats towards those who have enough humanity in them to bother to respond to a charitable call, no matter how universal the call appears to have become.  But it is worth considering for a moment what the Ice Bucket Challenge tells us about ourselves, and the impact of the social media which has made it so quickly, and hugely, successful.

First, the ‘viral’ nature of the challenge reveals much about our herd instinct, and the impressive ability of facebook and twitter to manipulate it.  If you’ve been in any sort of a crowd at any sort of event, you know just how easy it is to get drawn in to following the mass movement of your fellow crowd members, physically or emotionally.  It really doesn’t matter who starts it, once a move gets going it is very difficult to stand in its way.  The Ice Bucket Challenge has undoubtedly achieved this status.

Second, it reveals our desire to belong, to reconfirm our membership of the tribe.  Getting nominated becomes a welcome thing, since it shows us that other people are willing to include us in this mass act of self-saturation.  There comes a point where we really don’t want to be on the outside of this activity that everyone else is getting involved with.  We need our own video to put alongside everyone else’s.

Third, it appeals to our sense of egoistic exhibitionism.  No matter how retiring we may normally be, the Ice Bucket Challenge gives us an excuse to parade ourselves before our peers in a happily dramatic, fun and apparently altruistic way.  We may endure a little bit of discomfort as the ice water cascades down our bodies, but even the discomfort is all part and parcel of this collective routine.  The videos become just that little bit more ‘likeable’ if we do the screwed up face thing.

Finally, it suggests that we lack discrimination in the face of mass action.  ALS appears to be a thoroughly worthy charity, but some might be discomfited by its promotion of stem cell research, and others might consider that its needs are not as great as other charities.  Our charitable giving should be based on more secure understandings than a successful viral campaign which requires little more of us than to follow the herd by standing under a bucket of water.

In the case of the Ice Bucket Challenge it would be difficult to argue that the results of the herd instinct engendered by its social media campaign will be anything other than positive.  Even if it means other charities are left in the shade, one area of important medical research will have benefited and in consequence the lives of those afflicted by this tragic condition may be significantly improved.  There is, nonetheless, an element of ‘charity fascism’ about all of this which could too easily be translated into other, less salubrious activities.  We have seen how witch-hunts can quickly develop on twitter (witness the lamentable hounding of Alastair McAlpine, who at least had the resources to push back such twitter hounds as Sally Bercow) and it is iniquitous to see the impact of social media on promoting the jihad in Syria and Northern Iraq.

Perhaps we should be alarmed, too, at how easily we are coerced into something if it can be marketed ably enough.  This comment from Scott Gilmore, writing in “Macleans” magazine , sums up the concern about the successful marketing of the ALS campaign –

The marketing gimmick is very clever. It is short, immediately understandable, and like the most popular forms of slacktivism, it is easy to do, entertaining to watch, and narcissistically self-promoting. Every screen on our desks, on our walls, and in our hands is filled with celebrities, neighbours, porn stars, and politicians showing off their earnest compassion and occasional humour.

Instead of being thinking, evaluative individuals, the Ice Bucket Challenge suggests we simply succumb to the latest fad, and no matter what its good intentions, that really should concern us.

[The Gilmore article, by the way, includes an excellent analysis of how we should be conducting our charitable giving, which is well worth reading].

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Cameron's non-interventionist policy against IS is a potential disaster

By Chris Schofield

Barack Obama recently ordered the fourth round of air strikes against the Islamic State, which began last week in a frantic attempt to prevent the predicted genocide of 40,000 Yazidis and other minorities. These refugees had fled in desperation to the arid slopes of Mount Sinjar, fearing extermination at the hands of extremist fighters carrying the haunting black flag of ISIL. Also high on the President’s agenda was the protection of vulnerable US intelligence personnel and other military assets currently stationed in northern Iraq.

The targeted strikes by the US Navy came too late, however, to prevent the mass slaughter of over 500 Yazidis, with horrific accounts emerging of women and children being buried alive by ISIL militants and a further 300 Yazidi women reportedly kidnapped into slavery. This is in addition to the barbarous actions of ISIL militants across Iraq and Syria in the past weeks during their sweeping territorial gains made in a rapid advance southwards, which at times brought them uncomfortably close to Baghdad.

Obama has been clear that the US military is not willing to perform the role of a substitute Iraqi air force and has declared outright that “there is not going to be an American military solution to this problem.” With the mass surrender of Iraqi security forces to ISIL in June, however, it remains difficult to see how the country can fend off the advances of the Islamic State without external military assistance.

Across the Atlantic, David Cameron has publicly announced that the UK will only commit to a limited humanitarian role, assisting persecuted minorities via a handful of RAF aid drops to exposed Yazidis still trapped on Mount Sinjar. Alarmingly, both the Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond have made the unprecedented decision to rule out any military action in Iraq.
This is despite having recognised the grave threat that an expanding Islamic State poses to both civilians across the Levant and to the geo-strategic interests and security of Britons. As prominent analysts like Ian Bremmer have noted, there is now more reason to confront ISIL than there ever was to remove Saddam Hussein from power in 2003.

It begs the important question as to why Cameron has chosen to refuse the use of UK combat forces in what is perhaps the most pivotal change in the political landscape of the region since Sykes-Picot.
There are a number of possible explanations:

1.) Cameron has underestimated the threat
This is possible but unlikely. Since their sweeping advance across Iraq in late June, ISIL have been incredibly effective militarily. With years of hardened experience fighting Assad’s forces in Syria and after the seizure of US-supplied Iraqi military assets, the Islamic State represents a potent challenge to Iraqi state security forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters. It is unlikely that British intelligence had not briefed the Prime Minister on the risks of ISIL making huge strategic gains, such as the seizure of the Mosul Dam last week and its profitable capture of Iraqi oil-fields (revenues from which are returning $100 million to the Islamic State every month). Aware of these grave threats, as well as the jihadists’ wish to exterminate minorities and even “to attack us here at home”, Cameron knows that the severity of the crisis can not now be neglected by Britain.

2.) Public opinion
So why not attempt to halt ISIL’s advances with targeted military action? The last thing the Prime Minister wants in the run-up to a general election is dead British troops returning from an all-too familiar war-zone. After years of prolonged conflict in both Afghanistan and Iraq, the electorate is reluctant to face the costs of yet another Middle Eastern war, with no clear objectives or foreseeable ending. However, Cameron’s decision to join a NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 was not met with the wave of public criticism one might expect — British voters supported the military action by 45% to 36%.

The option of dramatically slowing ISIL without putting British boots on the ground is very much an attainable objective, as Cameron knows and as the effective air campaign against Gaddafi’s forces demonstrated. Such a limited response would also minimise the risk to British personnel — ISIL as of yet have no operational air assets.

3.) Parliament
If the Prime Minister had decided that action against ISIL would be electorally permissible, his next obstacle would be convincing MPs. Cameron would likely seek cross-party approval for any combat operations in Iraq, knowing the risks of bypassing the legislature when sending young men and women to fight abroad. However, last summer he erroneously conflated Labour’s demand for UN evidence before potential action in Syria with a lack of parliamentary support for military intervention altogether. This experience might be critical in dissuading Cameron from going through the process of recalling parliament from recess and securing cross-bench support all over again.

4.) The US is already doing it for us, so why bother?
A more likely reason for ruling out military action against ISIL is Cameron’s knowledge that Obama will do so anyway. In times of fiscal restraint and with just months to go before an election, why run all the risks cited above if the US will stop the Islamic State for us? Because Obama is not stupid. The US has in recent years ramped up its rhetoric about Europe needing to do its part in securing global stability. For decades, America has all but guaranteed the security of European states, at a hugely disproportionate cost.

The President knows that as long as British interests are at stake in Iraq — be it from disrupted economic and resource flows or domestic terrorism — then the country should play its part in securing them. Cameron may be playing a game of ‘how much can we get away with not doing’, but he also knows the anger felt across the pond at a seemingly lacklustre commitment to international security in Europe. The pressure on European leaders from the White House to commit operationally in Iraq is likely to be significant.

5.) The UK lacks the military capacity
Even if Cameron did understand the threat posed by ISIL, decided he could weather public opinion, muster support from MPs and agreed that Britain has a global responsibility to play its part in Iraq, he may have simply doubted that the UK has the military capacity. In an era of defence cuts and stretched resources, Britain is no longer seen as the world power it once was. Indeed, as the former Chief of the General Staff has warned, we could not even reclaim the Falklands were they to be invaded again, due to lack of military assets and dwindling personnel numbers.

But as stated above, the current repertoire of action available to Cameron in Iraq is wide. His deployment on Monday of Tornado jets to the region signals a ramped-up effort to involve British forces. Though strictly for “surveillance” purposes and reserved for the humanitarian purpose of assisting other aircraft with aid-drops, these jets can easily be armed for ground attack, as they were in Libya. The targeted use of these assets against ISIL forces are likely what President Obama hopes his European allies will commit to.

There is no immediate solution to the crisis unfolding in Iraq and beyond. Western military action will not eradicate ISIL and will certainly not solve the age-old problem of divisive sectarianism and arbitrary colonial borders. Targeted air strikes can, however, slow the advance of militants where they pose a deadly threat to civilians.

The reasoning behind Cameron’s outright refusal to engage in combat operations against the Islamic State is thus unclear, and if lived up to, will likely be remembered as an extremely irresponsible foreign policy decision in the face of a grave security threat.

What is clear is that both the US and UK will regret leaving the fight against ISIL to the hollowed-out Iraqi military. The strategic landscape could be radically altered, either by a crushing ISIL victory in Iraq or by the military intervention of other regional stakeholders such as Iran.

In the meantime, thousands of Iraqis, Syrians and Kurds will continue to be displaced or massacred by the horrific onslaught of ISIL and their agenda of annihilation.

Chris Schofield studies International Relations at Exeter University.  This post first appeared on "Medium".

A Black President Has Not Led to Black Equality

I mentioned in the previous post the disappointment felt by many black Americans that Barack Obama's election, whilst it may have shattered a glass ceiling in one instance, has not led to demonstrably better relations between black American citizens and large swathes of government and law enforcement agencies.  Well, right on cue, I just came across this Newsweek piece by Pema Levy, who quotes Harvard Law graduate Ryan Hatten:

“In order to understand what happened in Ferguson, one need only know that Mike Brown was black, Darren Wilson is white and Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown numerous times while Brown was unarmed and, according to eyewitnesses, surrendering.”

 Ferguson is not just about Missouri, it seems.

The Democrats' Liberal Siren

When Barack Obama became president in November 2008 he embodied both the hopes of liberal Democrats looking for a more assertive leadership after the Clinton years, and of black Americans who saw it as a major step forward in the realisation of full civil rights.  Six years on, both groups have to some extent been disappointed.  The current riots inFerguson, Missouri may have specific local causes but they also represent an on-going, wider disconnection that exists in much of America between black communities and law enforcement agencies.  The Ferguson riots are still playing out, so any conclusions from them must wait.  Liberal Democrats, however, may already consider that six years of unrequited love from the Obama White House make a new political direction imperative.  Step forward Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

For those disappointed with the political tenor of the Obama administration as a liberal government, Elizabeth Warren provides an admirable lightning conductor.  She ousted Republican Scott Brown from what had been Ted Kennedy’s senate seat, and she says the things about taxes and poor families that many ordinary Democrats firmly identify with. 

Take this clear challenge to that standard right-wing notion that self-made people get where they are without the help of the state:

"There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. . . . Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless! Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along."

Given that President Obama has proved relatively Clintonian on fiscal issues then, Elizabeth Warren represents a useful counterpoint who may not be a presidential candidate herself – she has publicly declared for Hilary Clinton – but who could act as a liberal counter-weight to a Hilary candidacy, and a rallying point for the Democrat liberals.

Michael Tomasky provides a cogent assessment of Warren’s position in his review of her autobiography in the current edition of “Foreign Affairs”, and while he concludes that the Democrats are not as ideologically riven as the Republicans, the policy debate is out there and Warren’s presence gives it fire.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Last One Nation Champion

There's much talk in the airwaves of this Cabinet reshuffle being a "massacre of the moderates", but this is nonsense.  The moderates in the Tory Party were massacred years ago, not so much by any specific leader or reshuffle, but more by the gradual erosion wrought by an off the leash grassroots party which has been selecting Thatcherite true believers to replace retiring One Nationers.  The only real remnant of the creed in the Cameron cabinet was Ken Clarke, and now age has brought him down too.

The retirement of Mr. Clarke is occasioning much comment, amongst the most useful and perceptive of which is this piece by Alex Massie for the Spectator.  He has been a little out on a limb recently, despite his illustrious career, but it is worth reflecting on what the Conservatives have lost from their front line.  Ken Clarke was, first and foremost, one of the very few leading Tories with a positive appeal amongst an overwhelmingly sceptical electorate.  He was, of course, very far from ordinary, this man who went to Cambridge and was elected an MP age 30, but he still managed to exude a character of 'blokeishness'.  His love of jazz, his broad laziness, his fondness for cigars, his refusal to be spun or to engage in political speak; these are the characteristics that made him a formidable politician and one with election appeal.  He was also thoroughly pragmatic, taking on the public sector when necessary - during his stints at Health and Education for instance - but also advocating a working welfare state over tax cuts as a broad principle, contrary to the current majority Conservative obsession with ever trimming of public services.  Clarke, a bit like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, but more moderately than both, also managed to stand out amongst politicians as a fully fledged, if flawed, member of the human race.  All three of those characters speak to the public's willingness to hear politicians "unspun", and are an object lesson to the new generation of not reverting to anaemic political speak whenever they're asked awakward questions.

It was the Conservative Party's loss that it failed to elect Clarke to the leadership on three occasions.  He lost out to William Hague after the 1997 massacre, and many might judge that he would have had his most significant impact at that time.  When he lost again to Iain Duncan Smith after the 2001 election, in the first leadership election to be decided by party members, it was clear this time that the party grassroots had turned in a distinctively right-wing direction, and Europe was the key to both Clarke's political persona and the party membership's.  Sadly, they were keys to two vastly different locks, and Clarke's fate was effectively sealed.  His appointment to the Cabinet by David cameron - apparently at George Osborne's suggestion - was a wise one, and his term as Justice Secretary looks rather good when set against the somewhat hamfisted tenure of his successor.  But he was increasingly out of step with the Conservatives, derided as the fifth Lib Dem member of the cabinet, and his brand of Conservative appeal was no longer popular with the party at large, even if it would always prove more popular amongst the electorate than any alternative.

Ken Clarke may be confined to that "one of the best prime ministers we never had" list, but his contribution to British politics and public service has been immense, and stands comparison with any modern politician of whatever office.  When the Tories discover Clarke-ite Conservatism again, they may also discover an election winning streak that has eluded them for roughly the same period that Clarke has been out of favour!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Infamy of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Bremer

It is difficult to under-rate the catastrophic incompetence and malignant arrogance shown by the US neocons in their wanton destruction of Iraq, and creation of its disastrous situation today.  Whilst we in Britain have once again been served up the self-righteous image of Tony Blair, telling us all that more war and more intervention is the only correct way to deal with Syria and Iraq today, we should at least console ourselves, once we’ve finished throwing whatever items lie to hand at the television set, with the knowledge that Blair, ignorant, deluded and narcissistically absorbed in the exercise of war as he was, did not in fact have any huge impact on the conduct of peace operations in Iraq once it had been invaded.  If any individuals merit the opprobrium of creating the anarchic mess that is currently ruining the lives of Iraqis, it is Donald Rumsfeld and his creature, Paul Bremer.

The manifold failings of the worst man to hold the office of American Secretary of defence are documented in many places elsewhere.  Suffice it to say here that this was the man who – in pure neo-con fashion – was the strongest advocate of a war against Iraq in the counsels of the Bush presidency, and the strongest advocate of doing so with minimum men on the ground.  Having scythed through Baghdad, Rumsfeld’s forces were then confronted with a horrendous security operation, and faced with the Secretary’s unyielding demand that this too be undertaken with the most underwhelming force possible.  Rumsfeld, indeed, even stopped one division from going to Baghdad at all, in the belief that it was an unnecessary expenditure. 

The man in the Pentagon thus hamstrung the very forces he had sent into Iraq right from the start.  There was worse to come, though, in the form of his sweeping aside of the cautious but politically aware team of American reconstructionists who were in Baghdad and headed by Jay Garner, in favour of the brash, arrogant and wholly unsuited Paul Bremer.  Bremer, a man of supreme egoism who likened himself to General MacArthur, insisted on complete authority to run Iraq.  It couldn’t have gone to a less qualified individual.  Bremer had no knowledge whatever of the Middle East – unlike Garner and his team, or the Iraqi originally slated to be a co-leader, Zalmay Khalilzad.  His foreign experience had been as a chief of staff to Henry Kissinger, and an ambassador to the Netherlands.  It was this lack of any prior involvement in Mid East affairs that endeared him to the ever cretinous Rumsfeld. 

Bremer arrived in May 2003 to an urgent need to establish some sort of authority in Baghdad.  His predecessors, Garner and Khalilzad, had been making some useful moves to incorporate previous Iraqi civil servants and military commanders into a new governing authority.  Bremer swept this aside, since he had arrived determined to stamp his authority on Baghdad by dismissing the whole of Saddam Hussein’s political and military structure.  His first order was thus to bar the top four levels of Saddam’s Baath Party from holding any government office.  As the CIA station chief in Baghdad noted, Bremer had just disenfranchised 30,000 people.

Bremer’s Order No 2 was even more catastrophic.  Despite the talks that had been going on between Garner and Khalilzad and potentially sympathetic Iraqi army commanders, Bremer’s order – drafted by former Clinton aide Walter Slocombe – removed the entire military structure that had existed under Saddam.  The reaction in Iraq was furious, with angry demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities; sixteen US soldiers were wounded by violent protests in Mosul, a matter of particular annoyance to General Petraeus whose forces had up to that point been making some headway in winning over the city’s population.  And if Order No 1 had sent 30,000 officials to unexpected unemployment, Order No 2 did the same for 300,000 well armed soldiers.  It is no surprise to discover that many of those soldiers formed the nucleus of the Islamic Army of Iraq and Syria that is causing so much grief today.

Bremer’s orders, confirmed by Rumsfeld, were ill considered and destructive, but even the logic on which they were based was flawed, not least because Bremer failed to make even the most cursory investigation of the country he had come to rule.  Had he done so, he would have discovered that the Iraqi army’s top ranks had far fewer Baathists than he had thought.  A mere half of the generals,  and only 8,000 of the 140,000 officers and NCO’s were committed Baath Party members.  The Iraqi officers who had been in discussions with Garner and Khalilzad knew this, but Bremer had dismissed their contribution out of hand.  He ended up pursuing de-Baathification of a military that hadn’t needed it. 

There is a final indication – and perhaps an appropriate one – of Paul Bremer’s mendacious ignorance of Iraq and Arab culture.  He and Slocombe had devised a scheme to replace the Iraqi military with a ‘New Iraqi Corps’.  NIC, when pronounced in Arabic, sounds very much like “fuck”.  It is a fitting commentary on a man who has retired into a peaceful life of painting and lecturing in the bucolic countryside of Vermont while the reverberations of his ill-thought out and gung-ho policies continue to condemn thousands of Iraqis to death, torture, or – often at best – a wretched existence carved out in the midst of slaughter.  Truly, war criminals come in many different types.

The book “Cobra II” by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor (chapter 24) provides much of the narrative detail referred to above.
This article by Michael Jansen on “The Gulf Today” website provides an excellent analysis of the results of George W Bush on today’s insurgency.

There's a World Cup - and what else is happening in the world?

According to the Economist's report on the tournament in last week's print edition, half of humanity will watch some part of the World Cup.  Yes, around three and a half billion people on the planet will tune in to watch 22 men run, feint and dive after a ball; many will tune in several times.  Which, of course, still leaves three and a half billion or so who won't including, it seems, the bulk of the populations of the globe's three most populated countries - China, India and the United States.

World Cup fever in England has been slightly suppressed by the relatively modest expectations fans have of England's eventual performance, and their 2-1 loss to Italy will have done nothing to uplift those, even if one assumes she was always going to be outclassed by Italy anyway.  Brazil, however, has offered a far more interesting picture in the run-up to the competition she is hosting.  World Cup fever in the football mad nation has been severely tempered by high levels of anger and opposition to the government's expenditure of so much money on the contest, the continuing levels of vast inequality in the country at large, and not helped either by the wretched corruption of Sepp Blatter's organising FIFA.  Blatter is surely a figure from a cartoonist's mind, so ridiculous and out of touch is he now.  A sort of blinkered, hugely corrupt, madly delusional Mr Magoo type character, he could yet win a fifth term as FIFA president and then preside, I guess, over the immense nonsense that is the staging of the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

Outside of the World Cup, a competition designed to bring us all together but which, in reality, simply exacerbates our divisions, the world seems to have entered a yet more dangerous and unpredictable phase, even though President Obama can see some case for suggesting that the world is less violent than it has ever been, taken as a whole.

Iraq dominates global news as the insurgent group ISIS seeks to dismember that unhappy nation, and shows some signs of success in so doing.  This chapter of the Middle East story still has a long way to go, combining as it does the Syrian civil war with the ambitions of Iran to be the regional superpower, and you get the impression sometimes that, for all the weaponry and technology at his disposal, the American president may just be a bit-part player in this unfolding scenario, as much by choice incidentally as by circumstance.

The tragedy of the Syrian civil war continues on its murderous course, despite the macabre election victory of President Assad the other week, and though the Assad regime seems to be gaining the upper hand, that is still a far cry from being able to bring any sort of resolution to the crisis.  Especially with ISIS on its roll in neighbouring Iraq (and ISIS stands, of course, for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria - or the Levant).

Pakistan - whose prime minister Nawaz Sharif unprecedentedly attended the swearing in of Indian Prime Minister Nahendra Modi recently - suffered a terrorist attack at Karachi airport, but is now striking back, having announced a bomb drop on North Waziristan, the presumed home of the Taliban, which Pakistani authorities say killed some 50 Taliban fighters.

Brazil may be trying to reconcile the joys of hosting the World Cup with the undercurrent of protest, but its fellow South American mega state, Columbia, is itself in the final days of a presidential election which will determine how it approaches its ongoing problem with FARC guerrillas.  Incumbent president Juan Santos has been engaging in peace negotiations with FARC which he says could soon bear fruit.  His opponent, Oscar Zuluaga (backed by popular former president Uribe) says a hard line is the only way to deal with FARC.  Colombia decides which way it wants to go on Sunday.

Israel is gripped by the news of three teenagers who have been allegedly kidnapped in the West Bank, and although no group has claimed any responsibility, prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, in his customarily emollient way, has pointed the finger squarely at the Hamas group, about to enter government in the Palestinian state alongside Mahmoud Abbas.  The teenagers - whose fate is dominating Israeli news - went missing in Israeli controlled territory however.

Meanwhile, is President Obama in the closing stages of an unsuccessful presidency?  Breitbart commentator Mike Flynn thinks so, as he considers the dipping of the president's personal ratings in the latest polls.  Maybe Obama was oppressed from the word go by the enormous weight of expectation that greeted his election; maybe a man who inherited both an unpopular war and a deep recession, and had a far-reaching liberal healthcare reform to pursue, was always going to have a difficult job maintaining any sort of high level of popularity.

So, there's a World Cup on.  But as that white ball gets kicked around half a dozen stadiums in the fetid heat of a Brazilian summer, the world continues to turn in a rather less happy manner.

Tony Blair and Iraq

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair's fightback on Iraq is clear.  The actions of his government, in joining the USA's war on Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, are absolutely not responsible for the current unrest there.  Instead, it is the failure of the present British and American governments to have engaged in Syria - to counter terrorism hard - that has led to the current ISIS insurgency in Iraq's northern cities.

It is easy to understand why Mr. Blair has felt the need to hit the news sites again.  Every time a problem occurs in Iraq, or in that immediate Middle East region, the analysis must inevitably turn back to the 2003 war.  Should it have been fought?  Would it have been better to leave Saddam Hussein in power?  Was it responsible for spreading such instability across the region that the murderous problems afflicting it now are the consequence.  No wonder Mr. Blair doesn't like what he calls a "re-running" of the 2003 war.

One of Mr. Blair's key points is that even if Saddam Hussein had been left in power by the West, under his and George Bush's leadership, we would still be looking at insurgency today.  Saddam Hussein, he points out, had been responsible for two wars in the region before he was toppled, and the Syrian civil war points up what happens when you allow a dictator to stay in power in all his repressive glory.

So is Tony Blair right? Is the constant harking back to his deeply unpopular war a misnomer?

What we can never know is how the political shape of the Middle East would have differed if there had been no western invasion of Iraq.  It has, without doubt, cast its shadow across the entire development of that region since 2003, and there is every reason for believing that much of that development has been far more malign than it would have been without the invasion.

The removal of Hussein plunged Iraq into a chaos from which it has still not emerged.  It unleashed a nightmare array of sectarian and divisive forces that have been impossible to control.  Sir Christopher Meyer, British ambassador in Iraq from 1997 to 2003, notes that even at the time it was clear to see what the result of removing a dictator such as Hussein would be, especially with no clear game plan for his succession in sight.  Saddam's removal was exacerbated by the malign incompetence of the administration of Iraq by US official Paul Bremer in the aftermath of victory.  He dismantled the Baathist state, and dismissed all of the Baathist soldiers and policeman who manned it, leaving a power vacuum that no replacement could possibly fill.  The fracturing of Iraq is indeed the direct consequence of both the war fought by Britain and the US and the "peace" which they imposed.

The destruction of Iraq, and the condemnation of multitudes of Iraqi citizens to death, poverty, injury and constant danger, is the most obvious consequence of Saddam's forced removal.  While Tony Blair is right to note Saddam's dismal record as a dictator and his previous war record, he fails to note how the Iraqi dictator had been significantly weakened by the first Gulf War, how the Kurdish regimes had been protected by no-fly zones and allowed to develop a quasi-autonomy free from Saddam, and how a weakened Saddam in fact meant a far more tolerable situation than anything which followed from the war.  There are likely to be few Iraqis today who would consider the strife of present-day Iraq to be somehow preferable to the dictator's rule.

Mr. Blair's war, however, had consequences well beyond the abysmal dismemberment of Iraq.  By creating a power vacuum at the heart of the Middle East he provided a training ground for all manner of extremist forces to gather and pursue their goals; the war itself had indeed caused the unleashing of such forces, of which ISIS has emerged as the most successful.  By destabilising the region, Mr. Blair's war provided the template for the wretched development of the briefly hopeful looking Arab Spring of 2011.  Many of the dangerous and fanatic elements who have moved in on Libya and Syria since then, have been able to do so because Iraq first offered the chance to group their forces together, and gave them a training ground and a call to arms that powered their genesis.

It is also Mr. Blair's war which has ensured that, when a threat really has emerged - as it has in Syria and Libya - the West no longer has the will to get engaged.  The war-weariness which caused the British House of Commons and the American Congress to vote decisively against involvement has seriously hamstrung any western attempts to defend moderates against extremists.  Mr. Blair is calling for involvement in Syria, but he and Mr. Bush are the reason why we cannot be involved. 

Mr. Blair bemoans the fate of Iraq and Syria today, and the unwillingness of the West to involve itself.  His unwillingness to re-run the war of 2003 must surely be due to the fact that, every time you consider it, you cannot escape the reality that nothing is more responsible than that ill-considered,  ill-advised, ill-planned and ill-executed war for creating the dire situation in the Middle East which continues to elude any positive resolution.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Was Prince Charles Merely Guilty of Telling the Truth?

Oh dear. Prince Charles has hit the headlines again - at least in Britain - by speaking his mind.  There is no such thing as a private conversation when you're the heir to the British throne - and starting to take on more quasi-monarchical duties to boot - but His Royal Highness sometimes seems to forget that.  Nevertheless, it would be difficult to take exception to his comments regarding Vladimir Putin and that gentleman's similarities to Adolf Hitler in his approach to Ukraine.

Mr. Putin's actions in the Crimea and eastern Ukraine could have come straight out of the Hitler Handbook to Foreign Policy.  In 1938, as any fule kno, the Austrian Nazis started to cause trouble for the regime of Chancellor Schuschnigg.  Hitler demanded that the rights of Austrian Germans be respected, and then upped the ante to demand a full union of Austria and Germany, Anschluss, as befitted two nations with a common German speaking heritage.  Schuschnigg at first tried to resist the German leader's demands, but eventually, fearful of the bombings and political violence being promoted by Hitler's supporters in Austria, and knowing that there would be no western help on offer for him, he eventually gave in and agreed to a plebiscite on Anschluss.  He had avoided the prospect of a civil war on the same scale as Spain's - a sinister threat made by Hitler at the time - but at the cost of his country's sovereignty.

GCSE students have recently been scribing these very factors in the exams, and may also have touched on the even more alarmingly similar Sudetenland Crisis.  Using Czech Germans in the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia, Hitler encouraged first violence in the region, then claimed that Germans were being harassed by the non-compliant Czech government, then demanded that to make things right the German speaking areas should be allowed to join with Germany.  He was surprised when Chamberlain and Daladier, the western leaders, agreed to pretty well everything, but there is little doubt that he'd have gone on to take it anyway, using his German 'fifth column' in Czechoslovakia to justify it.

So to say that Putin is acting like Hitler is hardly an exaggeration, even if it might seem impolitic.  There is sometimes a lack of honest accounting in the murky world of diplomacy, so calling a spade a spade, or likening a Putin to a Hitler, can sometimes be refreshingly open and honest.  Not that one would take the analogy too far of course.  Hitler's early foreign policy may be the handbook for Mr. Putin's Crimean seizure and eastern Ukraine manouevrings, but it would be wrong to carelessly tarnish his whole approach as Hitlerian.  Hitler, in addition to taking his 'near abroad', was also guilty of seeking to establish a one-party state by censoring and banning opposition parties and media, imprisoning and even killing political opponents and generally establishing reign of authoritarian terror which began with populist support.

On a separate note, five men have been convicted of killing the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in 2006.  The issue of who actually ordered the killing remains an open one.  Politkovskaya was a noted opponent of Vladimir Putin, writing regularly against the encroaching authoritarianism and corruption of his rule.  As the Guardian reports:

Politkovskaya's killing drew attention to the risks faced by Russians who challenge the authorities and deepened Western concerns for the rule of law under President Vladimir Putin, who was then serving his second term.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Eurovision Fall-Out

It was not just a high-camp evening of dubious musical ability.  Last night's Eurovision Song Contest was also thoroughly political, with the western liberal audience of Copenhagen booing everytime Russia gained points, and a thorough victory for the ultimate symbol of western sexual tolerance, a bearded transvestite of ambiguous sexuality. 

Some right-wing British commentators are noting that the people's phone-in vote has been shafted by the vote of the euro-appointed professional jury - apparently the British people wanted Poland's saucy milkmaids to win, but the euro-elite took it on themselves to award our big points to the Austrian bearded one.  Meanwhile, the Russians are furious, and our old friend the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a man who makes Vladimir Putin look like a particularly weak human incarnation of a wilting violet, has been calling down vengeance on Europe.  He has also suggested that the Soviets should never have bothered freeing Austria at the end of the Second World War.  Freeing?  That's what they call the Soviet action now is it?

Nevertheless, there was one organisation determined to maintain political decorum throughout the evening, as they tweeted useful political insights throughout.  Yes, @NottsPolitics, the twitter account of the Nottingham University politics department (whose admirable blog is here), kept us going with tweets of this ilk:

And if that doesn't persuade sixth formers to seriously consider Nottingham for their politics degrees, I don't know what will.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Missing Paxo

After a series of fairly terse - if perfectly polite - exchanges of letters, Jeremy Paxman came and spoke to the students at Sutton Grammar at the beginning of the January term.  He did seem a little world-weary if I'm honest, but was an interesting conversationalist, cutting to the quick of topics, using a vast reservoir of knowledge to inform his comments and questions.  I asked him to speak on politics and journalism , although I got the impression he might have preferred the historical topic of World War 1, with which he was very clearly engaged.  He gave, as expected, a masterly survey of politics, spicing it with his own sceptical view (but not cynical I should add), and seemed to enjoy his question and answer session with the students.  His answers were vigorous, but why should anyone expect anything less, and he was himself never less than polite and interested in each student's question.  Perhaps one of the comments he made, in answer to a question about journalism (with which he still expressed a fascination) was reflective of the fact that - as we now know - he knew his time on Newsnight was coming to an end.  He noted that he was by far the oldest member of the Newsnight team, and you almost wondered whether he was himself starting to feel a little weary with it all.  Perhaps he was aware that he hadn't quite got the youthful excitement that must have first propelled him into journalism.

I enjoyed meeting him.  He was a rare figure, a political journalist known to pretty well every student in the school, who could bring celebrity (which he probably abhors) to the old fashioned task of political inquisition, and spark interest in youthful audiences that are themselves rather switched off from politics (Paxman in fact used his interview with Russell Brand as a hook for his talk, urging involvement in the political process to his student audience).  I had been keen for him to visit not just because of his television prominence, but also because many years previously I had seen him deliver a talk to a packed Methodist Central Hall of several thousand students, and belie his aggressive image with a down to earth assessment of politics and the politicians he interviewed and a real engagement with the students who asked questions.  Even then, he clearly liked students, rather more than the politicians who have been his daily fare.

I have long been a fan of Jeremy Paxman's anchoring and interviewing.  In particular his interviewing.  I think the heart of his interviewing technique has been his view of himself as a voice of the people, the man able to ask those difficult questions we want to ask ourselves.  He has been successful, and attained his fame, because he has never seen himself as part of the political class, challenging that class robustly and directly instead.  His questions have become 'aggressive' because he has come across so many politicians who have lost the ability to make answers for themselves as they cling to their adviser-prepared crib sheets.  His 'cynicism' is surely more just weariness with the failure to answer a direct question.  That was certainly the case with Michael Howard, who knew he'd been skewered.  It was the case with the over-promoted Chloe Smith, who floundered mightily when instead she might have got away with a more honest "you know what, we've messed up here and I am indeed too junior to have been told of the decision much in advance".  But politicians have lost the capacity for honesty, replacing it with ever more elaborate renditions of obfuscation.

I will miss the Paxman interview.  I will miss the sense that here, confronting this or that politician, is someone who won't allow them to hide behind their meaningless dialogue.  The sense that the political interview should be an honest dialogue, and that politicians who want to govern us should also be willing to engage in robust exchanges.  Politics should be robust after all.  Paxman has never been weary when confronted with someone genuinely interested in debate, in providing answers, in pursuing an intelligent dialogue.  He has been weary with the self-serving and the frankly just anodyne.  I'm not surprised he's now decided to focus on questioning students instead.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Death Comes to a School

A teacher helping a student in a busy, focused classroom.  A normal scene in schools up and down the land, barely worth a mention.  Then the whole scene becomes tortured into something violently, scarily different, as a boy approaches the teacher from behind, thrusts a knife into her back and then does it again and again, until the teacher collapses in a pool of blood, and later dies.  No wonder the appalling murder of Mrs. Maguire in her school classroom has drawn so much attention.

It is an exceptional incident, and the multiple coverage of it sticks to the pathos and tragedy of the story itself, rather than suggesting there are some wider lessons here.  But there may be one or two, and both are drawn out by a former pupil of Mrs. Maguire's, novelist Anthony McGowan.  In a powerful article for the Daily Telegraph, McGowan both remembers why Mrs. Maguire was such an important teacher for him, and combines it with reflections on the difference that has passed in schools between his time and now, the time in fact that Ann Maguire has been teaching.

The article as a whole is worth reading, as McGowan employs his novelist's eye and personal memory to reach a little further into this tragedy.  But a couple of his observations should be noted by educationalists and politicians who fancy themselves as such.  The first is his comment - as a novelist who visits many state schools - that schools now (and they are mainly comprehensives of course), whatever their rating on the Ofsted system, are gentler, more welcoming places than he remembers Corpus Christi being.  The violence has been giving way to greater tolerance.  This is a welcome and positive message, a sign that liberal ideas on the teaching and care of pupils in school are indeed having an impact.  Talk about indiscipline and taking on authority if you must, but remember that when corporal punishment reigned in the corridors, so did pupil violence on a wider scale.

McGowan's second observation is that while violence seems generally to have become less, where it happens it has the potential - as on Monday at Corpus - to be utterly lethal.  Knives have become too commonplace.  And a knife can end a struggle before it's even begun.

I don't know what wider lesson we might draw from that latter observation.  McGowan sensibly doesn't seek to do so.  But the liberal battle for a stay of violence seems as urgent now as ever, as a new front has opened up over the past decade.

As for Mrs. Maguire, the testaments to her are humbling indeed for anyone to read, but especially teachers.  I hope they were being made during her life as well, I really do.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Bashing Blair, Cabinet Confusion and Other Stories

A quick round-up of some recent commentaries, starting with the Economist's Bagehot on Tony Blair and his Middle-East speech.  Blair has never been the most profound political thinker in the world, and his observation that radical Islam poses a global problem was a little akin to a modern scientist reminding us that the world is round.  Nonetheless, Bagehot begins with the harsh statement that "One of the most hated men in Britain gave a speech on 23rd. April...." Admittedly, the Economist columnist's point was to suggest that while Blair's stock remains low - almost down at banker levels - we should be reminded that he was a giant of his times.  In fact, Bagehot is trying a rather schizophrenic approach to Blair in his column, spending the first half eloquently reminding us why the man is such a political millstone these days, but then trying to recant that view with a less convincing call to recognise his real greatness.  The worst part of Bagehot's contorted approach is at the end, when he seems to suggest that David Cameron is a mere minnow in foreign policy terms because he focuses too relentlessly on pragmatic stuff like trade, while at least Blair had a vision that took him marching dementedly into other countries.  It was at least 'ambitious'.  Er, yes.  I bet the Iraqis, the Afghans, and the countless victims of Blair-Bush Middle-East interventionism are over the moon about the scale of Blair's misconceived and even worse executed 'ambition'.  Cameron?  Wouldn't even send a few planes and troops into Syria, damn his timidity.

Less weightily, but indicative of confusion at the heart of government when faced with the unexpected resignation of a cabinet minister who had been under intense media pressure for days, is a piece that recounts the farcical tale of Nicky Morgan's brief Cabinet career.  30 minutes long, it seems.  Politics Home reports on how the need to replace Maria Miller with a man - Sajid Javid - led to confusion about the "Women's Minister" role.

Incidentally, while Miller showed poor judgement and worse morality in both her initial expenses scam and then her attempted recovery, the whole affair did at least seem to prove that there's no beast bigger or more fearsome in the political jungle than the press.  They may have wittered and whinged about how the Leveson Inquiry was going to damage freedom of the press, consign us to being an authoritarian dictatorship, send us back to the Dark Ages etc., but in fact their ability to handily dispatch a minister still seems pretty potent.  And her replacement is a man who is certainly not going to be putting regulatory bodies in place over the only institution that matters in the body politic.  Which is good news for a free press, and bad news for anyone who happens to get in the way of the next sleazy-but-inaccurate story they choose to print.

Two thoughtful pieces on the Tory and Labour strategies in the last year before an election are printed in the Telegraph and New Statesman respectively.  Benedict Brogan, who appears to have survived the Telegraph cull of real journalists, has an excellent commentary on the fractured nature of current politics, and the opportunity this offers to Cameron to finally reinvent himself successfully.  His comparison of the populist demagogues Farage and Salmond, with their weird mutual love of Vladimir Putin, is particularly apposite, but his conclusion on Cameron is one that should be read with care in No. 10.  Meanwhile, Nick Faith in the New Statesman looks at the difficulties facing American strategist David Axelrod, as he tries to weave some Obama magic around Ed Miliband.  The main problem being that Miliband isn't Obama.  Or anywhere close.  More sort of Jar-Jar Binks without the silly accent.

And on the subject of Jar-Jar, the really big news comes from Deadline Hollywood with their revelation that Harrison Ford could be playing a 'gigantic' role as Han Solo in the new Star Wars film.  Because you wouldn't want to leave anything to chance like, say, a new character or plot-line.

Oh, and if any historians get this far, I've put a little piece with links about the Hungarian Rising on the history blog.  It's worth looking at, really.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Democracy Deficit and a Participation Crisis? AS Politics

The powerpoint for AS politics students on political participation and the democracy deficit is here.  The quote, or slogan, that starts it is suggested by Roger Scruton in his "Dictionary of Political Thought", while an article by Rowena Hammell for "Politics Review" provided much of the substantive evidence for the 'democracy deficit'.

I mention at the end an article by Sebastian Payne for the Spectator, which suggested that elected mayors is where it's at, if you want to get things done as an elected politician.  He summarises some of his key findings here on the Spectator website.  His article had extolled the virtues of Bristol's George Ferguson, amongst others, where he noted that the officially Independent mayor had, in the space of 17 months, banished cyclist-unfriendly bendy buses, revoked Sunday parking charges and signed off on several new primary schools.  The broader thrust of his article noted that mayors were not only able to take city-level action far more effectively than national governments and leaders could in their current ossified state, but that mayors also picked up new ideas from different cities around the world.  Payne ends his blog post by acknowledging that directly elected mayors have not really taken off in Britain, and that the jury is still out in those areas where they exist (including London of course).  Nevertheless, in a time of apparent institutional decay and political ennui, powerful, individually elected mayors may still be a possible answer to the crisis of political participation in Britain.  As Payne says:

But with ever-decreasing turnouts and the rapid rise of Ukip, our mainstream parties, politicians and institutions are no longer catering to the needs of voters. Powerful mayors may well be the solution Britain is waiting for.

[Incidentally, even Payne's example of a successful activist mayor, George Ferguson, has some serious down-sides, according to a letter on the Spectator site from one disgruntled Bristol resident ("The man in red trousers") who points out that Ferguson was elected on a mere 28% turnout and has pursued a rigorous anti-motorist agenda.]

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Punch and Judy Never Really Left PMQs

The headline on the BBC News site was about air pollution reaching new levels, and I did wonder for a moment if this wasn't an appositely titled heading to a report about today's Prime Minister's Questions, which seemed to be a particularly hopeless round of personal abuse even by current standards.

If we get the politicians we deserve then we should be genuinely concerned about the state of the body politic in the UK.  Not so much because of sex scandals or expenses shenanigans - though these things hardly encourage us in our attitude to our would-be masters - but because of the dismal calibre of our political leaders.  At least, if Prime Minister's Questions is anything to go by.  No-one expects this weekly parliamentary jousting to be a masterclass in political education - although it would be no bad thing if that were an appropriate expectation - but neither should the most regularly broadcast piece of parliamentary theatre be such a depressing collapse into unimaginative and uninformative playground name-calling.  One of the key participants holds the highest office in the land, and the other aspires to it.  You might reasonably expect some sense of gravitas, or dignity, from each man.  And yet Cameron and Miliband both perform appallingly badly at their weekly verbal battles.

Whatever the virtues of each leader - and their own parties interestingly remain distinctly divided on these - they have manifestly failed to reach anything approaching an admirable standard at the despatch box.  Cameron is a poor advert for Eton's debating tradition, as he stands shouting at his opponent, mock indignation and a constantly high volume his only verbal props; primary school level insults his stock-in-trade.  Miliband, meanwhile, responds in kind, laboriously shoe-horning his own carefully learned insult (today it was "not so much the Wolf of Wall Street as the Dunce of Downing Street") into his monotonously outraged attacks.

It isn't just the lack of any substantive political debate that so depresses.  If either man had a scintilla of genuine wit, or a slight appreciation of voice modulation, we might have a better impression of the farrago of nonsense that they bombard us with every week.  This is their showpiece, every week, to the British public, the public that elects them.  They are hopeless and inadequate representatives of their craft, but the real tragedy is that we so signally fail to bring them to book for their uselessness at the ballot box.  Perhaps it's because we're offered such a mean choice in the first place.


Monday, March 31, 2014

News of the Screws - is the traditional Sunday scoop returning?

It was as if a time-shift had occurred yesterday, with several tabloids leading their Sunday morning coverage with a classic kiss-and-tell sex scandal concerning one of the Great and the Good - in this instance, a Tory MP who was, perhaps, not so very great or so very good, but tabloids can't be choosers.

One of the great pressure group successes of recent years has been the Hacked Off campaign's targeting of the tabloid press, which some argue has led to a 'fear factor' amongst the papers that has denuded them of the classic sex scandal story.  Alex Wickham on Breitbart suggests that the climate of fear is gradually disappearing, and that the Sundays in particular may be resorting to type.  He also suggests, more tantalisingly, that there are more sex scandals still to come, although that these should concern primarily gay MPs could be an issue of concern.  Are they scandals because of the sexual orientation of the MP, or because there is a legitimate public interest to be served?  The recent Menzies case hasn't yielded a huge public interest case it has to be said - the story seemed in many respects to be a rather desperate one (a bit like the MP it reported on).

Nevertheless, if Wickham is correct, then the success of Hacked Off - whose activities are extensively reported by their principal mainstream media supporter, the Guardian, here - may indeed prove to have been merely temporary.  It takes more than a well organised, celebrity headed pressure group to stop the tabloids doing what they do best it seems - raking the muck.

UnBanning Books and Labour Party Faultlines - AS update on pressure groups and parties

The Howard League for Prison Reform has once again managed to raise the profile of a key issue in the conduct of our prisons management, and this time it's a reaction to a recent change proposed by the seemingly besieged Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling.

Mr. Grayling signed off on a policy last November to stop prisoners receiving, amongst other restriction, books.  His intention was to provide a more rigorous incentives policy within prisons to encourage good behaviour, and at first the policy passed with little notice.  Then, the Howard League for Prison Reform's director, Frances Crook, wrote a piece for online site criticising the policy, and a storm ensued. raised a petition about it, and a range of prominent authors joined in the chorus of opprobrium towards the policy.  The Guardian's Lindsay Mackie goes through the events and their possible consequences here.  As yet, Mr. Grayling has not offered to make any changes, but with a far higher profile accorded to his hitherto unnoticed ban, he may yet feel forced to bow to public pressure.  After all, stopping prisoners from reading does seem to be a particularly harsh and retrograde step.

Meanwhile, the Observer's seasoned political commentator Andrew Rawnsley has sought to identify the faultlines underlying Ed Miliband's Labour Party.  What is interesting is his assessment that most of these faultlines relate to strategic positions held by senior figures rather than substantive policy differences.  Indeed, the main area of specific policy mentioned in his piece is that of devolution versus centralisation.  So as an explanation of the party's current policy position, it is perhaps of less value than a raw political assessment of how a party looks at winning power.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Pressure Groups Update for AS Students

38 Degrees – A very modern pressure group

One of the most active pressure groups in Britain at the moment is 38 Degrees, who are not limited to a single issue, and are thus a multi-cause group.  Their over-riding principle could probably be described as “people power”, and the desire to allow ordinary people the right to influence policy over a range of issues.  They have thus taken up a range of such issues.  Recent campaigns have included lobbying against the so-called Gagging Bill (more officially, the Lobbying Bill, designed to limit groups’ spending in elections by regulating such expenditure); gathering thousands of signatures to support MP Paul Burstow’s Commons amendment on hospital closures (which he then withdrew, to much criticism); action on flooding in the UK and data protection.  Success is varied – on the Lobbying Bill, for instance, they did not in the end gain the demise of the bill that they wanted. 

The 38 Degrees website is a comprehensive one, describing campaigns, blogging on their progress (good or bad) and giving a good overview of the group’s actions.  Nevertheless, they are in danger of being seen more as a centre-left political action group than a genuine pressure group, especially given the multi-faceted nature of their issue coverage which differentiates them from most single-issue pressure groups.  The website carries a podcast which questions the basis on which 38 degrees selects its campaigns.  The podcast acknowledges 38 Degrees’ success in mobilizing public support, but asks whether it is simply focusing on left-wing causes, and thus even acting as a left-wing spamming organization?  One of the reasons for this latter accusation is that 38 Degrees stands as a strong example of internet activism, in that they claim over a million supporters, not least through internet and social media mobilization.  They are, perhaps, the epitome of a very modern pressure group.

High Speed Rail

The government’s High Speed Rail project (HS2) continues to make news.  Today, its new chairman, David  Higgins, is reported as urging speedier action on getting HS2 into the North.  His comments, extensively reported here, (with responses being followed here), are undoubtedly a response to the strong support being given to HS2’s opponents.  The HS2 Action Alliance has been very successful in getting news coverage and opinion formers to articulate opposition to the HS2 plan, with Peter Mandelson leading the current charge against it that it will not benefit the North as its proponents claim.  To date, however, the Conservatives remain committed to the project, although Labour’s Ed Balls has indicated they would thing again if elected.

When Businesses Collide

Chancellor George Osborne is facing the problem of strong influence from two competing sectors of the energy industry over his plan to curb his proposed carbon tax.  This government came to power committed to green taxes, and their coalition partners are equally supportive.  Nevertheless, the non-‘green’ companies have a significant advantage in the battle against taxes – they control consumer bills.  What is currently persuading Osborne to back down on his carbon tax pledge is the prospect of increased consumer bills.  The Renewable Energy Association may hate the fact that this could imperil the development of green energy sources, but the fact is that nothing concentrates the mind of a politician as much as the electorate’s spending costs – and few leaders want to increase those.

Spreading the Message

Pressure Groups and trade associations will use any method they can to spread their message, and one opportunity is to use the burgeoning number of websites to do so.  Internet democracy is also a free noticeboard for organisations, and one example is the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union, who have taken the opportunity of the website’s ‘Opinion Formers’ page to advertise their concerns about cheaper bread.  Their article and video are here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mourning Bob Crow

It is always difficult to know how to treat the death of a controversial public figure, especially when it is someone who provoked strong reactions, and often adverse ones.  This was not a difficulty that particularly afflicted Bob Crow on Margaret Thatcher's death.  He hoped, he mused publicly, that she would rot in hell for what she had done to Britain.  No humbug in death there then.

So although Mr. Crow's death has come rather more unexpectedly, and thus rather shockingly, than the late Prime Minister's, it would be good to think we might apply the same principles to him that he so happily applied to Thatcher.  There is, in fact, rather less to say about Mr. Crow as it happens.  That he is a far less significant figure than Mrs. Thatcher is beyond question, and much of the prominence of his obituaries and tributes stems from the fact that he was a current union leader, very much in the driving seat of tube drivers' militancy in London at the moment.  Had he died, as he might reasonably have expected, some time after his retirement, it is unlikely it would have been such headline news.

Bob Crow was immensely irritating to those who used the tube, and utterly impervious to the needs of thousands of ordinary Londoners if the convenience of their travel got in the way of his own hard bargaining with tube bosses or the mayor.  In this instance he was indeed a classic union leader.  His priorities were the pay and welfare of his members, and he pursued them with a bloody-mindedness that certainly seeemed to work. It didn't, to be honest, take much political skill to do this.  Crow led a group of workers who controlled a monopoly system of transport in London.  They themselves did little to promote the wealth and prosperity of the city they depended on, using its growth as a bargaining chip for better pay and perks, and yet they were instrumental in its smooth running.  It is difficult to begrudge Crow his success in exploiting that simple dynamic.  He identified the fact that his workers controlled a key artery of the city and - good communist that he may have been - used the iron law of the market to bring munificence to his drivers.  It was not his fault that tube drivers were all gathered into one union, and he was entirely justified in using that situation to his and his members' advantage.  There are many who might argue that £44,000 a year for tube drivers remains cheap at the price in a city where so many bankers and attendant capitalist blood-suckers - whose positive impact on their society is dubious at best - can command hundreds of thousands, and even millions of pounds.

Crow may be the last of the successful union militants.  He recognised, as his successors surely will too, that the ongoing automation of the tube will eventually undermine the RMT's ability to hold Londonders to ransom for their own advantage.  That's obviously bad news for tube workers, but good news for Londoners generally, and Bob Crow's brand of union leadership, successful as a last gasp of bull-headed worker militancy, will be consigned to the dustbin.  Not everyone will be cheering that London can be left to the whims of the rich, wealthy and profligate with no recognition of the poor bloody worker.