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.