Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Do We Love Our MPs?

Apparently not, is the conclusion from a recent British Election Study survey which Philip Cowley uses for a fascinating piece of analysis.  I'd recommend any politics student to make a regular point of visiting the Nottingham University Politics department blog (Ballots and Bullets) on which Cowley and his colleagues post for just this sort of interesting, slightly off the beaten path form of analysis.

I won't repeat all of Cowley's points here - you can after all go and read it yourself - but suffice it to note that MPs individually don't seem to score that much more highly in the public's esteem than MPs as a whole, who as we know are generally (and yes, unfairly) despised.  There is also a small crumb of comfort for the Lib Dems in the survey, suggesting that Lib Dem MPs are both more familiar in terms of name recognition n their seats, and that they score slightly higher positive ratings individually than MPs from other parties.  Those of us who believe the Lib Dems will do badly but not go into meltdown at the next election are basing much of that expectation on this very factor - that a decent number of Lib Dem MPs are well enough bedded in to their constituencies to buck the national trend.  This may not, however, apply to prominent government office holders such as Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, who may find themselves more favourable to an unreformed House of Lords than ever after May 2015.

Also on the subject of the next election blogger and radio presenter Iain Dale is currently going through every Westminster seat with a prediction as to how they will go in May - an immense but very thorough task.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Obama has no intention of letting Republicans write his political legacy

President Obama shouldn't by rights be entering 2015 with much political joy in his heart. He may still have two full years as chief executive to run, but the set-back of the mid-term Republican gains, which saw that party gain control of the Senate and keep control of the House of Representatives, meant that his chances of any satisfactory legislation in the remainder of his presidency are precisely zilch.

If anything, though, the Republican win seems to have fired the president up to make sure he finishes his final term on a high.  He clearly has no intention of letting the Republicans dictate his political legacy and, as this New Republic article suggests, he may also be seeking to ensure that any Democratic successor - most people think Hillary Clinton at the moment -  has something to fight for and preserve in 2016.

Obama made an impact when, not long after his party's mid-term defeat, he went on the offensive over deferring deportation of illegal immigrants, using the executive order to do so.  He's been at it again in his bid to normalise relations with Cuba.  Clearly, the executive office is going to be the source of much pro-active agenda-setting, and the essentially negative Republicans in the elgislature may find themselves on the wrong end of the Obama executive presidency.

As Brian Beutler suggests in New Republic, Obama will have to be wary of over-using executive orders, but there are ways in which he can stake out his legacy and give Hillary something to fight for by appealing to his still very large political base.  After all, he has the largest electoral mandate of any politician in the country.

Obama has already done much to re-shape America, and rescue international affairs from the disasters of his predecessor's foreign policy.  It looks as if he is far from finished and that the next two years might even see a liberated president, with no more elections to fight, pursue some of his most distinctive policies yet.  The Obama story is far from over.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Decline of Military Force?

Global Politics students discussing the future of war and military force could do worse than visit this article by BBC correspondent Jonathan Marcus.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Global Politics and Conservative Traitors

A quick round-up of some useful reading for students, not to mention the interested reader.

On Global Politics (A2 students):

Andrew Bacevich in the Spectator wonders about the usefulness of an American army that no longer wins wars.

In another edition of the Spectator the same author reviews an interesting new book on America's foreign policy in its post-Iraq era; has the age of unipolarity ended?

Gideon Rachman, meanwhile, in the Financial Times sees an alarming nuclear shadow behind Russia's new bellicosity (you need to register to read this).

UK Politics and the Conservative Problem:

Peter Oborne has been trenchant in his criticism of UKIP fifth columnists within the Conservative PArty, originally in this article, and then on the eve of the Rochester by-election in this one where he memorably describes the new UKIP MP Mark Reckless as "brutish" and "low-grade", a man whose leaving of the Conseravtive Party undoubtedly made it a better place.  But Oborne's real ire is reserved for the treacherous Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, who acts every bit as a UKIP MEP but has so far not needed to leave the party he now acts against.  Fascinating stuff.

Finally, an education interlude, as the Spectator's Fraser Nelson examines the failure of the state system in upwardly mobilising the poor.

Obama Shows How You Do Leadership

President Obama has issued an instructive lesson to any weak-minded British politicians who might be minded to try and follow the UKIP line on immigration in order to appease the voters.  Don't.

After having received a drubbing - or at any rate watching his party receive one - in the mid-term elections, you might expect the president, faced with a Congress now wholly controlled by his opponents, to lie low.  Not a bit of it.  Believing in the justice - even morality - of his cause, President Obama has shown how you do leadership.  You stay fighting for your principles, and you do so in a way no-one can possibly misinterpret you.

The immigration issue is as toxic in America as it is over here, but at least in America they have a leader willing to tack against the simple bigotry of hating immigrants.  That is not so clear in the UK.  Where Obama has used his executive power to protect some 4 million "illegal" immigrants, the Conservatives' most recent pronouncements suggest they might be keen to deal with the paranoia surrounding UK immigration by, er, embracing it.

Away from the specific issue, the president's move throws the issue of executive power into the spotlight, helps to secure a huge Hispanic vote for the Democrats, and almost begs the Republican hard liners to come out fighting and opposing it.  Now that is sublime politics.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Evolution of 'Soft Power'

We've got to discussing 'soft' and 'hard' power in our A2 Global politics lessons, and I must confess that the concept of 'soft power' having much traction seemed to be away with the fairies.  Challenged to name a successful instance of where soft power had a significant impact, I fell back upon the example of western culture having influenced - in some degree - the people power which brought down the Berlin Wall 25 years ago.  There are others I know, but they are undoubtedly disparate and similarly highly contentious.

Just to be clear, soft power is that power which is essentially persuasive; it stands in contrast to the exercise of hard power via military or economic means.  Now, if I were to look at how the use of hard power might be graduating from military to economic dimensions in a more successful way, as for instance with regards to Russia and the Ukraine, I might be getting somewhere.  But soft power?  Come on.  Is American culture or western materialism really what is going to win the current war of ideologies raging in the Middle East?  Even worse, for the West at any rate, its own soft power alternatives are being turned very effectively against it.  Look at how Russia has expanded its global news organisation, Russia Today (for a searing indictment of Russia Today as a news organisation read this article by Nick Cohen for the Observer).  Look at how IS are using twitter and other social media outlets to advertise their brutality and their cause, and attract similarly minded westerners in the process.

The term 'soft power' was coined by Professor Joseph Nye, and the BBC have just published an interesting assessment of its use by their reporter Ritula Shah on the BBC News site.  A2 Global Politics students should certainly read it, note from it and use its lessons as they seek to assess the importance of soft power in relation to its more quantifiable cousin, hard power.  Ms Shah looks at both the vaunted 'successes' of soft power use by the West (and notably America), and how it is now changing to favour other nations and organisations.  She examines Chinese use of soft power in particular, and notes that the term's originator, Joseph Nye, now prefers to talk of 'smart power', as an evolutionary concept.  For now, concludes Shah, America remains pre-eminent in soft power use.  Others may argue that soft power does little more than reflect the international contours put in place by hard power.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Obama - Still the Best Bet

If the 2010 mid-term election results delivered a “shellacking” to President Obama, the 2014 ones probably go beyond the reach of the standard dictionary of slang.  Barack Obama now governs – as Bill Clinton did before him – without his party controlling either the senate or the House.  Worse, the Republicans who are now in charge have a clear agenda to overturn and stop any reform that featured on the Obama agenda.   And if politics was polarised under the Clinton-Gingrich axis, it is far more polarised now, with McConnell and Boehner unable to control their reddest, most reactionary members, even if they wanted to.

There’s a danger with election results such as these that they warp our view of the man in charge.  After all, as we’ve been so regularly told, these were a verdict on the president himself.  The election was as much about Obama as anything.  Well, if it was, only about a third of the electorate took part.  And as for Obama being the focus, he was focused through a lens expertly distorted by the Republican campaign. 

Obama is a fine speaker – one of the best orators to inhabit the White House – but he is a relatively poor communicator in all other respects.  His team, whilst efficient, have failed to make the inroads into the national political psyche that they need to, partly because they academicise things too much, partly because they sometimes don’t realise that everything – every single action, every single defence, every single policy – needs to be relentlessly simplified, broadcast and repeated until everyone “gets it”.  Mass democracies are not marketplaces for complex theoretical reasoning.  They are harsh, simple, fickle places and the Obama team has been poor at realising this.  The Republicans suddenly became pre-eminent in this game – not least because they have a natural yen towards negative advertising and campaigning.

Thus the fact is that, despite the odd and perverse verdict of the electorate, Obama remains the best bet for Americans, and the world community which depends so much upon competence and rationalism in the White House.

This is a man who took the presidency in the most unpropitious circumstances – possibly the worst ever inherited by a president since Lincoln -  but who has yet managed to pass significant reforms and re-balance what was becoming an irrational and dangerous foreign policy.  Andrew Sullivan, as so often is the case in commentating upon Obama, provides one of the most vigorous and persuasive defences of the president in his post-election Dish piece.  After assessing the responsibility that the president needed to take for failures in 2013, Sullivan goes on to say this:

The truth is: the Obama team subsequently achieved a near-miraculous rescue of Obamacare, achieved real success in enrollment, and have seen core healthcare costs slow down in such a way that could yet shift our long-term fiscal liabilities for the better. Obamacare is almost certainly here to stay – surviving one pitched battle after the next. As for Syria, Obama turned that crisis into opportunity, by seizing a compromise brokered by Russia which managed to locate, transport and destroy all but a few traces of Assad’s chemical stockpile. This remains a huge, and hugely under-appreciated achievement – and if you think I’m exaggerating, imagine what the stakes would now be in that region (and the world) if ISIS had a chance to get its hands on that stuff.
The same can be said of the economy. No other developed country has achieved the growth that the US has after the stimulus – including austerity-bound Germany. No other administration has presided over a steeper fall in the deficit.

Sullivan’s piece is worth reading in its entirety, but I finish with this thought.  Obama may have received another electoral punishing, but when we start to eye up the sort of leadership and vision offered by his successful opponents in the Republican Party, it really does beg the question of whether electors are capable of voting properly in their own interests.  A few months down the line, with McConnell besieged on the right by the likes of Ted Cruz, and trying to obstruct everything the Obama White House does, and proper reform stalled endlessly, who then will the fickle electors blame?  It should be themselves.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

MP Resigns Seat and Gets Elected Again For Same Seat

In some respects that really is it.  Clacton has re-elected its old MP to continue being its MP.  Douglas Carswell had always been an active and energetic constituency MP with a high profile, and the recent by-election has proved it.  He is also too well versed in constitutional and parliamentary lore not to be aware that voters essentially are meant to select the man and not the party.  There was in fact no real reason for him to resign at all, but then where would have been the splash, and the fun, in that?

Of course the UKIP factor is important, but it would be foolish to deny the impact that Carswell the ex-MP, candidate, and new MP, had on the by-election in Clacton.  He himself acknowledged that the result in Labour Heywood and Middleton represented a much more significant achievement for UKIP - though not, it should be added, one that actually brought them a seat. Again.  It will be interesting to see if the less well-entrenched  Mark Reckless can pull off a similar feat in Rochester and Strood.  If he does, it might start to look like a UKIP bandwagon, and it will certainly look like one that deals more hammer blows at the Tories than it does at Labour.

But by-election mania is nothing new.  Nick Robinson, in his prescient blog post on the Clacton result and the "Rise of UKIP", references the SDP of the 1980s, and he might have gone on to note that - like UKIP today - the SDP won huge by-election victories, which unlike UKIP took seats from both parties, but like UKIP relied quite heavily on personality politics to do so.

 UKIP - and more particularly Carswell - have done well.  They have made history.  Whatever the panicked reactions of the main parties though (and Scotland showed us how good they are at panicking at every polling opportunity) UKIP isn't yet on a roll, and their speciality does seem to be victory on low turn-outs (the European elections, a 51.2% turnout in Clacton and a mere 36% in Heywood).  They make a lot of noise, cause weak leaders to worry, and fill a lot of space in the 24-hour news cycle.  But they're not a mould-breaking phenomenon yet, any more than the SDP were.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

How bad was the Labour Conference?

Maybe not quite as bad as the commentators have suggested.  Certainly, it was no political lighting storm, but then we've just had one of those in the form of the Scottish referendum, and it was rather bad luck for Labour that their conference should come by just as the majority of the British public have had their annual politics fix.  Most people - including the 'ordinary people' name checked by Ed Miliband in his widely panned conference speech - simply aren't engaged with politics.  The chance of creating or rejecting a new nation seems to get them out, but a bog standard party conference isn't going to do the trick, so it would be unfair to be too condemning towards Labour on that front.

Nevertheless, this is an Opposition party that could form the next government heading towards another close election battle, so it is a failure on their part that they didn't even seem able to energise their own supporters. The most admired speech was from an elderly World War Two veteran, while the international guest speaker, Bill De Blasio, mayor of New York, failed to alight the passions of his fellow social democrats.  The two shadow cabinet ministers who seemed to energise their audiences the most were probably Health shadow Andy Burnham (a not very secret contender for the leadership vacancy that most observers think will be sooner rather than later) and Yvette Cooper, shadow Home Secretary.

Miliband's own speech was a seriously uninteresting ragbag of anecdote and under the wire policy ruminations.  His forgotten sections were all the more newsworthy for the remembered bits having been so dull.  His party trick of seeking to memorise the speech probably tells us more about the disconnection of policy-wonks-turned-leaders who think memorising a speech is more important than its content, than it does about his actual policy priorities.

The excellent Spectator Coffee House blog, currently on very good form with several pithy, readable and shrewd updates each day, carries this analysis by Isabel Hardman of what was wrong with the Labour conference.  Politics.co.uk meanwhile is more positive about Ed Miliband generally, but damning about this year's his speech.  

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Has Scotland shown us how to reinvigorate democray?

There hasn't been wanting commentators and ordinary joes to tell us that the extraordinary turnout in the Scottish referendum has shown us the way to a better, more invigorated democratic system.

Janet Street Porter, one of the more emotional of these, says in her paean of praise to the Scottish people that "You showed us what commitment and passion are all about and given the rest of the UK a wake-up call."  Mind you, Janet also noted how wonderful it was that "people who don’t agree can accept a result and move forward together", suggesting she hasn't been watching events in Glasgow too closely.

The reality, though, is that this is an exceptional rather than indicative democratic event.  Rarely will people get to vote on the very nature of their country, or to bring a new country into existence, so it is hardly surprising that the interest and turnout should have been high.  Scotland has hardly been a shining example of democratic activism in any of its other elections however.  Turnout for their own parliamentary elections in 2011 was a mere 50% (it's on this miserable turnout that the SNP won their victory).  It was slightly up for the apparently hated Westminster elections in 2010 at 63.8%, and even for the first ever elections to a Scottish Parliament in 1999 it was only 58%.  So let's rest on praising the Scots as great democrats and consider that this was an exceptional circumstance.  

The referendum offers us no answers about the participation crisis in British democracy.  Indeed, it is instructive to note, as politicians start discussing regionalism as a way forward for a more balanced UK polity, that even in Scotland, where bile towards Westminster was at its height, voters have still preferred to turn out and vote for a parliament that no longer runs their domestic services than they do for their own home-grown assembly. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

After 'No', What?

First detailed reaction to the No vote in Scotland comes from the Spectator's team of Fraser Nelson and James Forsyth.  Their article here is a thorough examination of the campaign, and the problems it now poses.  "This morning, the United Kingdom wakes up to one of the biggest constitutional messes in its history" they begin, and who could argue with that?

Key points:

- The referendum has failed to settle the issue of devolution, as it was supposed to, because David Cameron changed the terms of engagement at the last minute
- The Egnlish Question is now writ large on the political agenda, with most Tory MPs determined to pursue it (and, incidentally, furious with Cameron for his ill considered 'Vow')
- Ed Balls is angry at Miliband's commitment to this 'Vow' too as it hamstrings Labour's ability to pass a budget for England
- Today's mess is the consequence of the original, and disastrous, New Labour devolution settlement
- All the main Westminster parties are frankly in a mess in Scotland; in Labour's case they have a B-list of politicians active at Holyrood, easily outmanouevred by Salmond and Sturgeon
- Salmond remains in charge in Scotland - he will use any failure to pass the pledges of the 'Vow' as an excuse to reignite the independence question
- The referendum question was poorly worded as far as the Unionist side were concerned; nstead of asking whether to vote for an independent Scotland, it should have asked whether Scotland wanted to remain part of the UK, giving the Union campaign the advantage of a positive 'Yes'.
- The leadership of the Better Together campaign was fraught, with Darling unequal to the street-fighting nature of the Yes campaign
- The rejection of a currency union was done in a way that made it look like a Westminster diktat - grist to the nationalist mill
- "A mixture of Labour squeamishness and Tory uselessness ensured that the battle for Britain was never properly fought. The case for the Union was reduced to a series of dire and sometimes implausible warnings."

Nelson and Forsyth conclude:

The unionist campaign was designed to achieve a victory clear enough to end the independence question for a generation. Instead, it found itself taking support for separation to levels never seen, or anticipated. Scotland is now a divided country, after a debate that has split families and damaged friendships. The healing process will begin, but no one can claim the country is stronger for all of this. It would have been bad enough for the combination of Cameron, Miliband and Clegg to have had no impact in saving the Union — but in many ways they managed to make things worse. This weekend, all three party leaders have a lot to answer for.

Yes. One hundred per cent spot on. Sadly.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

David Cameron's Leadership Flaws

As we await the results of the Scottish referendum - and with the No vote sounding more confident than they have done for the past fortnight - reflections are obviously turning towards the post-vote fall-out.  There has been a widespread belief that David Cameron would not have survived a Yes vote.  The question is whether he can survive a No vote.  His credibility is at an all time low with his backbenchers, who believe he has ill-advisedly offered the Scots too much on the devolution front in his panicky attempts to ensure the Union stays together. 

Gaby Hinsliff, in the Guardian, has provided a very effective analysis of the Cameron leadership and its flaws.  One prescient passage notes this:

It’s become a bit of a cliche to accuse the prime minister of treating government like it’s an undergraduate essay crisis, with everything tackled at 10 minutes to midnight in a caffeine-fuelled blur. Cameron is neither so dim nor so thoughtless as he’s sometimes painted, and nor is he the only senior politician ever secretly reduced to crossing fingers and hoping for the best. But he has now flown so often by the seat of his pants that they’re getting worryingly threadbare. Too often he has either busked his way to the “right” result for all the wrong reasons, or got the wrong result for what were frankly good reasons – namely that he didn’t deserve to win.

She provides evidence of his leadership style throughout her piece, but he can be effectively summed up as the  threadbare prime minister.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

A Yes Vote for Scotland is the best possible result for Scotland; and England too.

I want Scotland to vote Yes tomorrow.  Not just by a small margin, but by an utterly convincing majority.  Had you asked me a few weeks ago I would have been far less convinced of this; might even have been a little agnostic on the issue.  But the events of the past couple of weeks have convinced me that Scotland needs to vote Yes, not just for her sake, but for England’s too.

I have watched all three Westminster party leaders be panicked by opinion polls into making rash and self-serving promises that will simply serve to send the Union into meltdown.  Promises which they may not even be able to deliver on.  Promises on behalf of other nations – England, Wales and Northern Ireland – which they have barely deigned to consult. 

I have watched three Westminster party leaders scurry up to Scotland in the last couple of weeks of a campaign that has lasted for some eighteen months to deliver from their southern redoubt a plea for Scotland to vote No that has no basis at all in the real interests of the Scottish people who they have ignored for so long.

I have watched a Prime Minister who, eighteen months ago, was so dismissive of the idea of further devolution that he refused to countenance it as a referendum option, now embrace it fully and quickly offer it to the Scottish people.

I have watched a Labour leader muddle his way through his English leadership, ignoring his Scottish heartland and finally wake up to the realisation that his party’s vote is collapsing north of the border.

And is there anything still to say about a Liberal leader whose last unbreakable pledge was reduced to nothing within months of taking office?

There is no doubt in my mind that the Scots should vote Yes if for no other reason than that the referendum campaign, in its last two weeks, has found the Westminster leadership of the Union utterly wanting.  Should they do so, the English parties may well each carry out a coup and install new, fresher, more creative leaders who will be forced to face the challenge of re-casting English politics.  Scotland voting Yes not only gives the Scots a chance to form their own nation, but gives the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish too chances to re-mould theirs.  It is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it is in the hands of our northern neighbours.  Please, please give us all the chance.  Scotland is not just giving themselves the chance of freedom and a brave new world.  If she can make the leap, she offers it to all the other parts of the United Kingdom too, and boy do we need it.

I love Scotland and I think the Scots people are inventive, down to earth, witty and wonderful.  It is not much surprise that so many Scots have made their way south and then dominated.  But my question to them would be why?  Why haven’t you stayed to infuse your own nation with your wit and your cleverness and your articulate genius?  And the answer surely lies in the fact that the Scots haven’t felt they truly have a nation.  They have an adjunct province to a ‘united’ kingdom dominated by one of its constituent parts.

Well, now is the chance for Scots genius and Scots creativity to have a future in its own home.  I hope the Scottish people ignore the fear-mongering that has been the only really substantive part of the No campaign.  I hope they accept that the creating of a re-born nation is fraught with challenges, but that seizing those challenges with alacrity will offer a far greater opportunity than the reluctant acceptance of the status quo.  Nothing worthwhile comes without difficulty, and that is as true of nation-building as anything.  As the Scots have watched cynical English politicians troop north at the last minute with hastily cobbled together pledges they should ask whether they really want to vote to keep those same politicians as their leaders.  Because that is what a No vote will do. 

And as for England, what happens to us if Scotland chooses to go her own way?  I have listened with fascination as well meaning English men and women have spoken up about the importance of Scotland and the Scots to the United Kingdom, and wondered where on earth their own sense of English pride has gone.  If nothing else, Scottish independence will free the English to rediscover their own national virtues and character. 

But there would be more.  We would also gain a proudly independent northern neighbour with whom our relations should be able to remain cordial and arguably stronger than they have been before.  No longer will Scotland see herself as subject to England, or England view Scotland wearily as a complaining drain on her resources.  Two equal and independent kingdoms – united, perhaps, by a common monarch and probably (whisper it quietly) a common currency – will now be able to pursue their relationship in far greater harmony than will be the result from a whimpering No vote.

England will also get the opportunity to re-cast her own politics.  The weak, visionless leadership of the parties that has been thrown into stark relief by the referendum campaign is ripe for removal – a Yes vote may just engineer that. We can talk of an English parliament.  We may even start to see the flowering of a regionalism that might finally be able to break free of its overpoweringly mediocre leadership.  The Welsh and the Northern Irish, too, can breathe new life into their countries either through independence or at the very least a far greater autonomy within a new federation of the island nations.

The United Kingdom is broken.  Where once the referendum had the possibility of it continuing as before in the event of a No vote, the sudden U-turns of Cameron and Milliband have now removed that.  A No vote plunges us all into the mire of constitutional chaos wrought by inadequate and poll-driven politicians with the political depth of half-filled paddling pools.  A Yes vote provides a clear and fresh beginning.  Not just for the Scots, but for all of us.  For the sake of Scotland, and for the sake of the UK as a whole, I hope the Scots vote Yes tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Leaders of Chaos

The calamitous descent of the Westminster party leaders into ignominy over the Scottish referendum is now complete.  Panicked by opinion polls, lacking any confidence in the Union as it stands, failing to provide leadership of any sort and exhibiting an extraordinary level of short-term political cowardice, the Cameron-Miliband-Clegg bandwagon has finally hit the buffers with the issuing of an unprecedented 'Vow' to the Scottish people.  What makes it even more ironic is that the vow in question has been largely crafted by the much-maligned previous Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.  Yes, so bereft of ideas and political clout is David Cameron that he has simply allowed Brown's agenda to prevail.

The "Vow" essentially promises everything short of outright independence.  Alex Salmond wins whatever the vote on Thursday.  The inequitable Barnett formula for funding Scotland's excessive public spending regime is to continue.  The Scottish parliament is to gain yet more powers (whilst Scottish MPs presumably remain at Westminster, merrily legislating on English issues because they haven't the capacity to legislate on their own home ones).  And, most astonishingly of all, they've promised that the Scottish Parliament will be a "permanent and irreversible part of the British Constitution."  The most constitutionally illiterate leaders in British political history have promised to codify just one part of our constitution to embed one assembly, with blithe disregard for the mayhem that must follow as they find themselves patching up tear after tear.

When Mr. Cameron first agreed a Scottish referendum, it was on the understanding that it would provide a decisive and permanent answer to the devolution issue.  Either Scotland was out, or she was in the UK as it stands.  That was the point of not having "devo-max" on the ballot paper.  Now, as part of his typically short-termist political approach Cameron has U-turned again, but this one will prove the most costly and damaging U-turn of all.  He failed to appreciate the significance of the Scottish issue until an opinion poll woke him up.  How long will it be before he's looking at opinion polls that demand English, or Welsh, or Northern Irish restitution for the huge boons rashly promised to Scotland?  Cameron and his equally culpable fellow party leaders have just lit the blue touchpaper which will lead to constitutional chaos in the UK for a long time to come, and none of them have the vision or creativity to deal with it.  It'll almost be easier if the Scots vote 'Yes' on Thursday.

Rallying for Scotland - in England

The “Let’s Stay Together” rally in Trafalgar Square this evening was a decent, worthy and ultimately pointless affair.  It took a while to get going.  By 6pm, the advertised start time, the square was definitely less than crowded, perhaps indicative of the shrug that many English people seem to be giving about the referendum.  Eventually, around 6.30, things started happening, and the crowd had certainly got larger.  It was a perfectly nice crowd, with lots of very upper middle-class accents from English people who are probably a bit concerned about their Scottish holiday homes ending up in a foreign land.

Television historian Dan Snow kicked proceedings off with a litany of great Scots achievements; everything from Nelson to victory in the Battle of Britain.  Listening to his paean of praise I began to wonder whether the English could claim credit for anything good.  The United Kingdom, unbeknown to most of us in the southern kingdom, has been almost completely crafted, created and moulded by geniuses from Scotland.  No wonder they want to go independent.  They’ve been giving far too much of their unmatchable talent to England all this time and we’ve forgotten to thank them enough.

After a brief interlude where we were obscurely asked to applaud the NHS (they weren’t trying to imply that was essentially Scottish too by any chance?), writer Jenny Colgan took to the podium to explain her commitment to the UK, which she broadly did by listing lots of memories from her childhood, including the Swap Shop telephone number.  Not sure memories of Noel Edmonds are really going to persuade Scots to stay in the UK.

By this time the theme of love-bombing the Scots from the southern safety of Trafalgar Square was pretty well established, although Bob Geldof struck a more discordant note with his claim that we all hate effing Westminster politicians (I’ve anaesthatised his principal comment here).  If we do, we only have ourselves to blame for constantly voting them back in, and the Scots are every bit as responsible for that as the English.

As I wandered away from the rally I reflected that it was an essentially English thing to do – nice, well-meaning, utterly worthy and probably useless.  But with nice English people gathering round to say lots of nice things about Scotland, I’m beginning to wonder whether we aren’t suffering a bit of an identity crisis ourselves, which could lead to bigger things.  The rumblings are already starting.  That’s the thing about nationalism.  Spark one bit off and it lights another, and the English response isn’t always going to be the fundamentally decent one it was in Trafalgar Square today. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Union on Our Minds

What a difference one short week is making.  Alarmed by the advantage of the 'yes' vote in polls at the end of the last week, the English have finally been showing an interest in the northern country of their joint kingdom, while the Scots too have been on the receiving end of an at-last invigorated 'No' campaign.

The most recent polls are too close to call in real electoral terms, but the fact that the 'No' vote is coming back may add some crumbs of comfort to those north and south of the Tweed who would prefer to see the Union maintained.

Spectator editor Fraser Nelson, a Highland Scot now working and living in London, has put a perceptive and useful post up on the Spectator's blog.  Analysing the return of the 'No' vote, he also comments quite personally on his own perspective as a UK Scot living and then working in radically different parts of the kingdom where he can nonetheless feel equally at home.  It is all his country after all.  I feel a little similar in reverse, though only for brief periods admittedly as I don't work in Scotland, but on our regular CCF visits to the Cairngorms it still feels good to consider that remarkable area of the country a part of our joint home.  Our journey from Aviemore to a rafting centre just near Forres is one of the finest you can travel, and it is a journey we take in our own united kingdom.  Emotionalism such as this should have an equal - if opposite - impact upon unionists as it does on nationalists.

Nelson also notes the alarming rise of the 'dark side' of nationalism, which he acknowledges Alex Salmond has sought to carefully avoid in his own leadership of the 'Yes' campaign.  But nationalism will always have a dark side, and it rears its head every time this most febrile of ideologies drives an agenda.  It isn't just in Scotland.  The current debate on Scottish independence, with Westminster politicians promising the earth to Scotland if it will only stay in the Union, is seriously in danger of promoting a more fervent form of English nationalism that can only rebound to the detriment of both countries.  The vote on Thursday might just be able to head this darker side of the debate off before it gains too much headway.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Should we really be bribing the Scots to stay in the UK?

George Osborne doesn’t strike me as a particularly emotive or soft-headed politician, but even he – in fact, especially he – was falling over himself today to promise the Scots whatever they wanted short of full devolution if they voted no in eleven days time.

The realisation that Scotland might just vote to leave the Union – and thus effectively bring it to an end – seems to have concentrated a large number of English political minds, all bent on seeking to persuade the Scots to stay at almost any price. 

But should the English really be working so hard to keep Scotland? 

If Scotland were to decide for independence, we might perhaps expect the following consequences:

1.     The removal of the estimated £3,150 per head subsidy that the rest of the UK currently pays to Scotland

2.     The removal of the 41 Labour MPs who can vote on English matters such as health, education and transport, but have no say on those issues in their own Scottish constituencies

3.     The stemming of the flow of Scots men and women into English jobs, as they presumably fall foul of the same rigorous immigration restrictions applied to other European countries.

4.     A final cessation of the constant Scots whinging about how all their problems are the fault of the English

5.     The excitement of a new constitutional experiment

6.     More jobs in the north of England as we man the northern border with shiny new customs points

7.     The need to re-think – and possibly abolish – the hugely expensive and largely useless nuclear submarine deterrent, on the grounds that we’ve nowhere to put them

8.     The departure of Scottish politicians like Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander from English politics (although we are sadly doomed to keep George Galloway, who cannily moved to English constituencies – but see point 3 above as a promise of no more similar Scots’ politicians in England)

9.     A boom in English business and financial industries as firms exit Scotland and relocate to England

10. An end to Sean Connery’s persistent witterings about Scottish independence.

Quite a few positives there, I’m sure you’ll admit, and a full blooded ‘Yes’ vote would also have the advantage of at least providing a clear solution – something an anaemic ‘No’ vote absolutely wouldn’t.  So perhaps we should stop promising the earth, and just wait on the Scots to make their own decision about a brave new world; one which perhaps might benefit England too.

Scottish Tremors Finally Hit England

Alex Salmond has a few things in common with his English nationalist counterpart Nigel Farage.  They both admire Vladimir Putin, for example, and despise what they call the ‘Westminster elite”.  They both appear to be electorally very shrewd politicians, but if Salmond has his way in a couple of weeks time he will make the title of Farage’s insurrectionist party look a little redundant.  For of the United Kingdom there will be no more.

This debate has failed to properly permeate English consciousness, perhaps one indication that the Scots may not be wrong when they claim that England exudes a general stand-offishness towards its northern neighbour.  This weekend, however, appears to have changed that.  A poll from Yougov shows the ‘Yes’ campaigners (i.e. ‘Yes’ to an independent Scotland, for those whose failure to follow the referendum includes ignorance of the question being asked!) ahead of the ‘No’s” for the first time in the campaign.  Given the substantial lead that the No team had at the start of the campaign, that’s a pretty bad blow.  And a shocking indictment of the way the “Better Together” campaign has been run.

The momentum is now with Salmond and the independence advocates, and it might just succeed.  Momentum counts for much, and two weeks or so before the vote it might be enough to take them over the finish line, while two weeks represents a very short window for the complacent and unimaginative No campaigners to get their act together again.

It is in some ways astonishing how little attention this campaign has had south of the border, given that it is one of the most significant constitutional challenges since….well, since thirteen colonies on the eastern seaboard of America chose to go their own way.  Perhaps it was because no-one ever really believed Scotland would possibly want to go independent.  I’ve lost count of the number of English friends who have no possible ground-connection with Scotland but who have cheerfully asserted that Scotland will clearly not vote ‘Yes’.  Hmmm.  Maybe we should have paid more attention to, er, the Scots themselves on this one?  The Scots may have a natural wariness of the dangers of independence but they also appear to be warming to the high-risk strategy that says whatever the downside, at least we are our own nation again.  We are Scots, and we don’t have to live under the yoke of English government ever again.  I suspect that if that is the case, it could be a dangerous delusion.  The Economics Editor of the Sunday Times is just one of the several voices suddenly raised today warning that an independent Scotland is doomed to fail (his article is behind the paywall, so I haven’t bothered linking here, but probably worth begging or buying a copy of the Sunday Times for today). 

The shock of the poll has prompted unrest in Tory ranks – never very far away to be honest.  Several un-named ‘senior’ Tory backbenchers have given voice to the idea – gaining momentum on much the same trajectory as the move towards a Scottish Yes – that David Cameron, the Englishman with the Scots name, might be forced to do a Lord North and resign if he presides over the loss of Scotland.  Quite apart from the fact that it is a remarkable feature of modern British politics that Tory MPs cannot bear to stay united behind a Prime Minister for more than a week or so, the ‘Cameron must go” brigade is making much of the advantage given to Salmond in allowing him the upper hand when negotiating the date, franchise and question of the referendum.  But their real issue probably remains a belief that Cameron still represents a marginally more constructive attitude towards Europe than most of his party wants, and a triumphant ‘Yes’ vote offers them the opportunity to get rid of him.  The Tory responses to the Scottish campaign, and their continuing travails as an utterly dysfunctional party are worth a separate post, but it does indicate how the referendum north of the border is finally making its tentacles felt in all aspects of the British body politic.  Perhaps it should have done so earlier.  

Whatever the tremors in the Tory Party, they should be as nothing compared to what might happen in Labour’s ranks.  “Better Together” is as much a Labour campaign as anything, and while Scottish Tories remain solidly pro-Union (and over 400,000 Scots voted Tory in the 2010 election, a mere 80,000 fewer than the SNP) the key to the campaign lies with wavering Labour voters seduced by Alex Salmond’s promises of a state with pretty well free everything.  Labour have 41 Westminster seats in Scotland, and a Yes vote could traduce them as a governing party in Westminster.  It isn’t just Cameron who might fear for his position if Scotland votes to go it alone.

The Sunday papers are awash with the sort of articles about Scottish independence that could usefully have been part of their warp and weft for many months prior to this weekend, but what we have is fascinating.  The single best analysis, in my view, in that it takes a broad look at all of the implications behind the vote without reducing itself to a particular partisan view, is Andrew Rawnsley's commentary in the Obsever.  Will Hutton, in the same paper, offers a crie de coeur against breaking the Union, while Dominic Lawson over in the Sunday Times suggests that an independent Scotland would soon become a low-tax, right-wing haven.  There is also the interesting notion being raised of an independent Scotland seeing a revival of a centre-right party, once the Tories have been freed from the hated English link.  In the Telegraph, Iain Martin writes a more viscerally anti-Salmond piece under the giveaway headline “The final push for Alex Salmond’s land of fantasy”.

The Scots have been arguing about independence for months without us taking much interest.  Time now to sit up and notice, for an earthquake might be coming.

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".