Saturday, January 31, 2015

Labour's election nightmare

You might have thought that the Syriza victory in Greece would have given Labour a bit of a lift.  After all, here was electoral proof that anti-austerity campaigning worked.  In one of the hardest hit countries of them all too.  Instead, it provoked a debate about Labour's political caution that then lapped over into their heartland topic of the NHS.

The Guardian's Zoe Williams used the syriza victory to ask why Labour wasn't taking a leaf out of their Greek counterparts' playbook and pursuing a more radical line in "standing up to the moneymen".  Must have been music to Ed Miliband's ears.  Or not, perhaps, for as the New Statesman's Anoosh Chakeelian noted, Mr. Miliband was slow and cautious in his own response to the triumph of the Greek left.

Then the NHS reared its head.  Labour have been playing this as a key election winner for them for ages.  Alas, when shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham appeared on Newsnight on Tuesday, it was  to give a disastrous and bad-tempered interview which saw him cornered by Kirsty Wark over the issue of just how much private provision might be acceptable in a Labour run NHS.  This caused the Telegraph's commentator on all things Labour, Dan Hodges, to predict a Cameron victory in May, not least because of Labour's inability to come up with a decent and consistent narrative on the NHS.

And the battle just keeps on raging.  After Alan Milburn attacked the Labour strategy on the NHS, the fight was joined by Roy Hattersely, defending Miliband against Milburn.  Even the Labour's most admired 'lost leader', Alan Johnson, is rumoured to be muttering about the party's dark mood.  Anyway, for a bit of light relief, here's that Burnham interview again, just in case you'd forgotten the clear, lucid and calm defence he offers which is clearly going to see the Tories into the electoral ditch.

Stephen Fry's Acolytes

Stephen Fry is an eloquent, sometimes amusing, and entertaining man.  He undoubtedly has a brain which can move effortlessly amongst a range of topics, but he's neither philosopher nor theologian.  I'm not sure he's ever claimed to be, in fairness.  So his emotional response to a question on an Irish television show about what he would say to God was just that - an emotional response from an atheist who hates the whole construct of God.  It was nothing new, nothing deep and nothing surprising, and it was said for the most part in a remarkably good-humoured fashion.

So what on earth do we make of the vast army of Fry acolytes who have taken to twitter and online media to proclaim his "outburst" the most eloquent thing ever!  The Huffington Post headlined their report "Atheist Stephen Fry Delivers Incredible Answer....", and that was mild compared to some of the facebook comments which proclaimed Fry the most brilliant responder ever to such a question.  Alas, poor lemmings.  Fry offers anger - in a similar vein to that which has been served up many times before - but no thought.  To hear his supporters you'd think he had single-handedly revealed to us the "Problem of Evil".  So bad luck Thomas Aquinas, Epicurus, Augustine of Hippo, Kant, Hume, C.S.Lewis and countless other Christian and non-Christian writers and thinkers alike who have sought to grapple with the problem.

That the problem of evil remains at the heart of much our spiritual thinking is tortuously apparent, but must we really contend with the problem of over-weaning celebrity elevation too?  As for attempts to respond to the God hatred that Fry espoused, I found this piece by Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft to be a clear one.
And this tweet from blogger Archbishop Cranmer be an appropriate one:

Friday, January 30, 2015

Tory Leadership Jostling - Again

They are far from having the next election in the bag, even with Ed Milliband as Labour leader, but that isn't stopping senior Tories spending more time on their possible leadership beauty contest.  Someone should remind them that leadership is a lot more satisfying in government, and they might like to keep half an eye on staying there.

It looks as if one over-exposed potential candidate - Boris of course - and one already over-exposed Cabinet minister - Sajid Javid - are both jostling for the all-important Euro-sceptic vote.  Javid's back story has already made him the darling of  Conservative MPs and the right-wing commentariat, and he's been beefing it up with reminders that he's basically a good Thatcherite ever since he hit the headlines. His 'House' magazine interview also ensures we all know - as if we hadn't already figured it out - that yes, he's a euro-sceptic too.  Boris is consistently all over the place, but he never intentionally misses a populist opportunity, and so has been telling 'Time' magazine that a British exit from Europe would be very manageable indeed - Guido gives the relevant quote here.

The pity about Javid is that he combines an interesting back story with pretty well the whole panoply of right-wing opinions that appeal so much to hard-core Tory members and the Conservative columnists, but so consistently fail to do much to elect Tory governments.  Since John Major, over the course of four Tory leaders, the only one to have been elected - and then on a minority basis - has been David Cameron, also the only one not to have embraced rightist notions in his pre-election period.  The other three, determined euro-sceptics and neo-Thatcherites all, got nowhere near (and one didn't make it to the election).

David Cameron remains far more popular than his party, but while his party is still pretty toxic with the voters, he is pretty toxic with Conservative MPs.  You do sometimes wonder whether Tory MPs and their cheerleaders are existing in some Kafka-esque universe where they will only be happy if they elect the most right-wing of leaders, only to watch him (or her) fail, so that they can begin the "actually he wasn't right-wing enough" post-mortem.   The Tory Party used to be focused on unity behind a leader, and pragmatic centrism towards the electorate.  The defenestration of Margaret Thatcher saw the abandonment of both, and they've never won a majority since.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

How ignoring human rights has moulded today's world crises

There are times when I box "human rights" into a little, separate compartment of my overall fascination with global politics, seeing it as the well-meaning pursuit of a handful of liberals who are banging their noble heads against the brick wall of political realism.  Yes, it would be nice if everyone's rights were respected, but no they can hardly be expected to get in the way of the often unpleasant and dirty business of keeping afloat in the mucky world of international relations.  If I keep failing to make the link between an increasingly volatile, war-strewn world and a general western disinterest in human rights, then yes, go ahead and condemn my superficiality and short-sightedness.  But then reflect on the unhappy fact that it is shared - sometimes cynically so - by most of the western public and its duly elected leaders.

This keynote post by Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth on their World Report 2015 has been a real wake-up call, not least because he has so persuasively rooted the continuing abuse of human rights in the unfolding political tragedies around the world.  And its persuasive because, really, we know that the tragic equation he is articulating is right.  It isn't just blind fundamentalism which is driving ISIS's many followers - look at the world they are escaping from and fighting against.  People do usually act from rational motives, and what can be more rational than the desire to fight for your rights and your well-being against oppressive, murderous states.  Does it really surprise us that ISIS's principal theatre of operations, and success, is in two countries whose regimes have relentlessly and brutally suppressed the rights of their minorities?  That Boko Haram might just be a response to the corruption and abuses of the Nigerian government?  That maybe the pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine have legitimate grievances against abuses from the pro-western militias? 

Roth's article is a must-read for a better, more nuanced, and morally based understanding of world affairs.  And then, when you've done with that - and it's a long, wide-ranging read - have a look at another piece by an HRW operator, this time on the forgotten war that Russia is waging in Dagestan. 

Human rights becomes more than a decent liberal pursuit; it becomes a crucial prism through which to understand the turbulent 21st century world. 

Sullydish Bows Out

One of my favourite blogs has been Andrew Sullivan's "Daily Dish".  It's been running for years, mainly under the auspices of the different publications that Andrew Sullivan has written for - the Atlantic, the Daily Beast - and whichever publication has sponsored it it has always maintained a very individual approach.  And it was exhaustive.  Sullivan updated his thing many times a day; it was pretty exhausting keeping up if you wanted to be a regular reader, but he so often unearthed good stuff elsewhere on the web, or provided his own eloquent arguments and counter-arguments that he was a must-read, whether several times daily, daily, weekly, occasionally - never less than fascinating.

One of the early political bloggers to make a splash, he's finishing up now.  He's been running the Dish as an independent company for the past two years, and while the revenue's been healthy his "note to my readers" talks about the exhausting nature of blogging several times a day, responding, reading, staying abreast of everything......  Reading some of the professional blogger responses to his news,  they join with him in noting how all-consuming their immersion in the digital world has been. 

Is this important?  Well, if you read and rely on Sullivan's Dish then clearly yes.  If you've never come across it, obviously no.  But it has this.  Sullivan was an early pioneer of a digital conversation that grew to include huge numbers of people, who would never have been able to raise their voices in a public forum before and which in a way prefigured the enormous twittersphere and the advance of citizen media.  Sullivan was a journalist and professional writer, but his blog was produced in such a way as to give voice to many diverse readers who were not.  It also directed readers to a host of other articles and posts elsewhere on a rapidly expanding web.  Most of all it was a clear, distinctive voice in the national, and international conversation.

There was a point at which thousands of blogs were being set up daily, many unread except by their authors, many fading quickly into dis-use, because actually blogging requires discipline and commitment.  Many of us who blog do so largely for ourselves, pleased if we garner a handful of readers every so often, but adding more to the noise of the internet ether than to its elucidation and, whilst parading our of course centrally important viewpoints we are probably not extending them very far.  Sullivan's blog added to the noise, certainly, but it became a huge noise that drew people towards it and provoked myriad responses.  That was what blogging could be at its finest, a world which one commentator on the Dish's imminent demise (Buzzfeed editor Ben Smith as it happens) suggests is fast disappearing as new media alters and changes.

But as Sullivan, and several of his responders, notes, the digital life started to take over.  Ridiculously so.  And he has decided to head back into a real world of contemplative reading, responses that don't have to be instant, writing at length and over time, and relating to his human friends again.  In person.  Face to face sort of thing.

I've enjoyed Sullivan's blogging, really appreciated his brilliant and passionate advocacy of Obama's politics and presidency, enjoyed the many views from people's windows that he's published; but I'm looking forward to reading his next stuff, honed over time, and as I read his 'last post' I'm aware of just what a minnow an erratic and small-scale blog like this is (which is sort of humbling), but also how I could never have gone for it in the way he has.  But I'm glad he did.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Greece's Left Turn

It looks as if the Greek left party Syriza is heading for a big win in today's General Election, even if it is not yet clear whether the party headed by putative Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras cna yet gain a majority.  What is clear is that Greek voters have decided to see if they can bluff the EU into easing up on their austerity conditions for the huge bail-out received in the wake of their economic crisis.

Greece's economic crisis was deeper than most other western countries because Greece's feather-bedding of its public servants was so much more generous.  Greek voters, it seems, have had enough of their dalliance with austerity, although in giving their support to Syriza it's difficult to see what they think the party is now going to be able to offer.  Greece remains in hoc to EU bail-out funds, backed by a Germany which is less bothered by the prospect of Greece leaving the eurozone than she once was.

Greek voters have sent a message that says they don't like tough economic measures and want an easier life.  It's hardly a revolutionary stance for an electorate, but it might end up leading to a revolutionary event - the Greek departure from the euro.  Then the lessons really do begin, for if such a departure sees Greece actually benefitting (Abbie Martin posits this possibility in a level-headed analysis of the Greek election result on the Spectator blog here) it could well encourage other resurgent left-wing parties in Europe, also indulging in anti-austerity populism, to believe they can achieve victory and hang the cost to Europe.

It's not often in modern times that election results in Greece are so eagerly pored over, but the consequences of Syriza's victory could be profound, and the European project significantly changed.

The separation of "British Values" from Christian ethos

Is Ofsted trying to wage a campaign against Christian schools, perhaps seeing them as distant cousins to the Islamic schools that have been causing controversy?  It certainly seems like it, if the decisions in the north-east are anything to go by.  One Christian free school has already had to close, while another - Grindon Hall - has been placed in special measures.  I know a little about Grindon Hall, having met teachers and pupils from there and hearing very positive reports from other friends who have visited the school.  It was doing well enough for parents to pay for their children to go there when it was independent, and not unreasonably the head took the opportunity of the free schools programme to offer his clearly popular education brand to a wider range of parents, free of charge.  Enter Ofsted.  With the new "British values" criteria grasped firmly in hand, they have graded the school inadequate, despite its apparent success in public exams.  The key thing about Grindon Hall, of course, is that it is a Christian school, promoting Christian values.

The Spectator's Damian Thompson is in no doubt that the Ofsted campaign can happen because Michael Gove was replaced by Nicky Morgan (author of the "British values" document), but you don't have to be a fully paid up Gove-ite (I'm not) to believe that there is something rather strange about a good-performing Christian school being placed in special measures because it does not adhere to "British" values.

Sarah Palin's speech would be comic relief, only she wants to run for president

Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey used to do a great job spoofing Sarah Palin, although she realised that the best way of doing it was simply to use Palin's own words, unaltered and undoctored.

Well Sarah Palin, the extraordinary choice of John McCain as his running mate in 2008, is at it again.  She has hinted that she might be interested in running for president in 2016, so here she is at a Republican conference in Iowa setting out her stall as one of the star speakers. Apparently her teleprompter froze, so she had to talk from memory and her own intuitive political grasp.  It's a gem, particularly the bit about "a man can only ride you if your back is bent".  Wise words for everyone there I think. *

Oh, and the Democratic National Committee Chairman has issued a one word statement - "Thanks".

* - a kind tweeter brought to my attention the fact that Palin's phrase is actually taken from a Martin Luther King speech.  In her expert hands it has simply become a comedic mess.  She's mangled it a bit, and I think it's fair to say that her oratory falls short of King's, who was of course referring to the need for black Americans to stand tall, whereas Palin is referring to....well,  anyone's guess really.

Friday, January 23, 2015

King Salman's Rapid Succession Declarations

King Salman bin Abdulaziz may have only just become king of  Saudi Arabia, but the new - and seventh of his line - monarch is moving fast to ensure the succession is assured into the next generation.  Taking over from his half-brother, King Abdullah, who died yesterday, the 79 year old King Salman inherits a bulging inbox of problems, but it is clear that the continued smooth rule of the House of Saud is a top priority.  As the kingdom runs out of eligible sons of its founder, King Abdulaziz, to take the throne, there have been questions raised as to how Saudi Arabia might transition its ruling elite into the next generation.  There are something like 7,000 princes directly descended from King Abdulaziz, and it is little wonder that faction struggles feature highly on the list of likely problems to beset the crucial kingdom.

King Salman's crown prince was already known, as predecessor King Abdullah had unprecedentedly appointed a deputy crown prince a few years ago - another half-brother, Prince Muqrin.  Salman has not only confirmed Muqrin - ten years his junior - as the new crown prince, but also filled the deputy crown prince role with his nephew (by one of his full brothers, former Crown Prince Nayef who died before he could assume the throne, thus paving the way in fact for Salman) Mohammad bin Nayef, the hardline Interior Minister.  This would seem to assure the necessary smooth transition to the generation of Abdulaziz's grandsons, and while it might put Salman's own sons out of joint a little, it does interestingly keep the long-term succession in the hands of the so-called "Sudairi faction", the families of that group of seven brothers whose mother was Princess Hassa al-Sudairi.  The new king's own son, Mohammad bin Salman has in turn become defence minister, replacing his father.  Whether this does indeed narrow the future succession to the Sudairis remains to be seen, and there are rumours that that once tight faction is itself subject to some internecine struggling, but it is certainly clear that Crown Prince Muqrin will be the last of the immediate sons of King Abdulaziz to become king in succession to Salman.  Muqrin's own position was controversial, as his mother was a Yemeni concubine rather than a pure Saudi wife, but perhaps a Yemeni connection is no bad thing at a time when the southern arab country is causing so many headaches for Saudi Arabia.

Why does this matter?  Well, apart from the inherent fascination of an almost medieval tableaux of court politics that the kingdom provides, it remains one of the two key regional powers - along with its old enemy Iran - and is a key to American interests in the region.  Its ability to manipulate world oil prices is being seen at the moment as it maintains oil production at the same rate but lower prices without causing undue economic stress to itself.  It is a key ally against Isil, a counter-weight to Iran, and the stable home to two of Islam's holiest shrines.  That Saudi Arabia is in Isil's sights is apparent from a recent attack by that group on Saudi border guards.  Isil have already made it clear that they regard the Saudi control of Mecca and Medina as wholly wrong, and would love to wrest the cities away.  This may seem like a pipe dream but Saudi Arabia takes its border security seriously enough to have initiated the erection of an impressive 600-mile wall along its northern border with Iraq, similar to the 1000-mile one it already has across its southern border with Yemen.

King Salman - by all accounts a shrewd and respected leader, who even established a private jail for misbehaving Saudi princes - will already be familiar with the problems of a Yemeni government that has just fallen (to allegedly Iranian backed guerrillas, the Houthi); a continuing high risk strategy on oil prices and production contrary to the rest of Opec's wishes; the threats from Isil; and the policy to see Bashar al-Assad removed from Syria.  As he juggles these, he also needs to work out just how much reform - if any - the powerful Saudi religious establishment will take (and he appears not to be as personally committed as his older half-brother), as well as keep his increasingly fractious family in line.  He may not have much time either.  Whilst foreign visitors remark that he retains his sharpness in conversation, there are rumours of an onset of either dementia or Parkinson's.  Another reason, perhaps, for the seventh Saudi king to have quickly put the putative numbers 8 and 9 in place so quickly.

Further - Joshua Keating on examines Salman's difficult inbox; Newsweek on Saudi border concerns; and the Washington Post on the generatiom shift in Saudi royal circles.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Lord Chancellor's Worldview

As we live in a parliamentary system, it strikes me as being important that we judge a party, or a government, not just on the merits and de-merits of its leader but also of its various ministers and shadow ministers.  After all, these men and women will be making and executing policy over a wide range of areas, and have a potentially huge impact.  If you consider the present administration, its Conservative character has certainly been partly formed by the attitudes of Michael Gove, Theresa May, Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne.  And Chris Grayling.  Grayling has been a controversial figure at the helm of the Justice Department, the first non-lawyer in 400 years to hold the supreme legal post of Lord Chancellor.  His legal reforms have been widely execrated within the legal profession, and his prisoner book ban was held up as barbarous.  His comments on social issues too form part of the whole character of the Conservative element of the government.

Conservative Home's Andrew Gimson interviewed Grayling, and the lengthy but very readable piece is well worth going to.  He defends his position in his various controversies, and there are some interesting personal insights too.  I found it remarkable that a front-rank politician who studied history at Cambridge was not able to name any political heroes, or even political figures who inspired him.  His approach to politics seems somehow mechanical.  He comments on his brief dalliance with the SDP, and talks of his attitude to grammar schools - definitely pro, but wary of expanding them.

Gimson writes well and interjects a few counters to his subject, but of course the interview piece allows Grayling to state his positions largely unchallenged, so you might also care to go this article by's Ian Dunt, where he takes Grayling's defence of his legal reforms to pieces.  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Obama's State of the Union - Quick Round-Up

More on President Obama's State of the Union later, but a quick round-up here of views from the more supportive commentators of what looks like a reinvigorated president, determined not to go out with a whimper, but to make sure everyone knows he's a liberal and wants to secure a liberal legacy.

British ex-pat Andrew Sullivan has always been a supporter, and his live-blogging of the State of the Union on his blog the Dish is well worth a read through; in particular his early comment here and his round up of other blog reaction here.  On is the view from Jamelle Bouie that Obama is a "liberated Liberal", while John Dickerson on the same site describes the speech as one that was designed to steamroller the Republicans - a thoroughly partisan effort.  Fred Caplan applauds Obama's "wise" foreign policy aims but suggests his execution hasn't been quite so in tune with his aims.

The BBC at last has, in Jon Sopel, a North America editor who seems to understand what makes Obama tick and his view that the speech was an aspirational challenge to his Republican opponents is here.

I've noted before that Obama is not going to go quietly into the sunset of his political career, and his 2015 State of the Union shows what a president with fire in his belly can still do with the executive office, even when he's in his 'lame duck' years with a congress against him.    With his poll ratings rising too, Obama might even be able to dust off FDR's old phrase that "everyone's agin me, except the voters".  

Monday, January 19, 2015

Cameron - The Leader and his Party

Conventional wisdom is that David Cameron is more popular with the public than his party, but that he is a largely disliked figure amongst his own MPs.  Read the different blogs and comments and you find reasons ranging from the personal - they think he's haughty and condescending towards them, when he bothers noticing them at all - to the political - most think he has no principles, and those that do think he steers too much towards the left.

Such is the antipathy towards Cameron that there have not been wanting stories over the past weeks and months detailing how, if he fails to secure a majority for the Tories come May, he's toast.  One of the reasons behind the high-energy undeclared leadership campaign is just this - that the mountain for Cameron to climb to retain his position as leader is simply too high.  After all, plenty of Tory backbenchers still charge him with a failure to properly win last time, and with having rushed into a hated coalition with the Lib Dems.  Now we could spend a lot of time discussing the very tenuous threads that bind many of these backbench complainers with reality, but if the Spectator's Isabel Hardman is to be believed (writing in today's Evening Standard) they may just be marginally re-evaluating their "Cameron must go" attitude.

Hardman notes that Tory MPs generally still don't like Cameron, but they are waking up to the fact that he has more electoral pull than they do as a party.  Which is hardly surprising, given the generally centre-ground position of most voters, and the luminously right-wing position of most Tory MPs.

Giving further credence to the need for Tories to continue sheltering behind the pragmatic fig-leaf offered by Cameron's leadership might be some recent findings about the average Conservative voters' attitude towards immigration.  Here there is a lesson for the panicky out-UKIP UKIP moves being undertaken by Cameron himself too.  The centre-right think tank "Bright Blue" has commissioned a survey which seems to suggest that most Conservative voters (as opposed to activists and MPs) have a moderate approach to immigration, wanting control of illegal immigration but accepting a need to maintain immigration flows otherwise.  The New Statesman's Staggers blog reports on the survey here.

One problem for Cameron is that to appease his backbench bloodhounds he will need to fight the election on pretty right-wing territory, a factor given added impetus by the presence of Lynton Crosby as his campaign manager.  Mr. Crosby's last national campaign for the Tories was the ill-fated "Are you thinking what we're thinking" one for Michael Howard, which revealed that no, we weren't.  But if Cameron loses through having conceded the centre ground to Ed Milliband, no-one in the parliamentary party is going to thank him for running a right-wing campaign.  They'll just tell him it wasn't right-wing enough, and look for someone else.  Ironically, it looks as if his main chance of survival if he doesn't get the coveted majority might lie in another coalition with......the Lib Dems.  

Chuka Umunna's Walk-Out

Chuka Umunna is one of Labour's Great Hopes for the future, so his actions as a mere Shadow Business Secretary are subject to just a little bit more scrutiny than others.  Mind you, even a low profile shadow minister would probably make waves by walking out of a live television interview, and that's what Chuka has done today.  Annoyed at Sky News' Dermot Murnaghan questioning about a letter Eric Pickles has sent to British mosques, Umunna said he hadn't read the letter and wouldn't comment.  Murnaghan pushed the issue, certainly seeming to have some disbelief about whether Umunna had indeed read the letter or not, and as the interview wrapped up, with an admittedly snarky comment from Murnaghan, Mr. Umunna upped and offed.  Angrily.

I guess one of the qualities of a front-line politician is to deal with such fire with equanimity, and humour if possible. Watch the interview and judge for yourselves, but I thought while Murnaghan was edging beyond the merely persistent to the openly contemptuous, it was probably still within Mr. Umunna's grasp to rescue something from the exchange while sticking to his line about not commenting on a letter he hadn't read.  Neither of them looked good by the unhappy end, but Dermot Murnaghan doesn't have to present himself to the British public as a political leader who can cope with some narky questions effectively.  So Umunna has lost overall.

The fair-minded Iain Dale thinks he was right to walk out.  The Spectator's Isabel Hardman understands his situation but notes that he made a mistake in apparently losing his temper.

Ms. Hardman in her post made a great comment about the fact that part of Murnaghan's own frustration may have been due to the fact that the "I haven't read it" line is now so often used by politicians to avoid commenting on contentious issues.  Taking David Cameron as an example, she notes:

David Cameron has a phalanx of media advisers but manages to give the impression he never comes across awkward comments made by members of his own party.

Selective reading - not just something done by A-level students!

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Western News Priorities

Of course western news media are going to focus on their own backyard first and foremost, but in an age when many speak grandiosely of a globalized community and an equally globalized media, there is still a serious dichotomy between the way news in the West is presented against the "news from elsewhere".

There has of course been acres of coverage about the Charlie Hebdo killings and subsequent "three days of terror" in Paris that left 17 dead at the hands of five terrorists, three of whom have now been killed, one of whom is in custody and one on the run.  Yes, it's shocking in a peace-accustomed west that men and women going to work, or going shopping, may be gunned down in the middle of their mundane tasks.

But compare this with the reaction to Boko Haram's latest atrocity in Nigeria.  Battling for control of the town of Baga, 2,000 civilians are feared killed in the latest Boko Haram massacre.  2,000.  2,000 people trying to live normal lives, massacred for standing in the way of an extremist group's political ambitions.  And that figure has to be an estimate, because local agencies stopped trying to count the bodies from the carnage, and many were simply strewn in the nearby bush.  Most of the victims were elderly, or women, or children, apparently because they are the ones who can't run so fast when Boko Haram send their courageous fighters into the town in jeeps, firing rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles on the unarmed citizens.   And just to be clear, this is an organisation that is every bit as ruthless and danegrous as ISIL.

How many headlines did this generate in the same week as 17 people were killed in Paris?  None.  It is reported on some foreign news pages, but it doesn't feature today anywhere on the front page on the BBCs online site, or Al Jazeera's English language site, or Sky News' website.  To their credit, CNN does have it fairly near the top, but the distance between western deaths and 'elsewhere' deaths remains vast.  If our news organisations can't report prominently on the terrible activities of Boko Haram and other, similar groups operating across much of the globe, then we will remain shrouded in a cloud of ignorance about the onslaught of terrorism that occasionally leaks onto the western stage.  Our shock at Charlie Hebdo is partly due to our failure to see and understand the wider world.  Globalization is not noticeably enlarging our world-view it seems.  

The Defenders of the Free Press in Paris today, and their records in office

Daniel Wickham (ex-SGS-er and now LSE student) has been doing an excellent job on twitter today of examining the less than reputable records of many of the world leaders currently portraying their commitment to free speech in Paris.

It's a great list, wonderful evidence of the artifice which many of these leaders are showing, and while there's a sample below, you'll find the fuller twitter exchange, replete with helpful further additions from other tweeters, here.

I thought surviving Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Holtrop was a little harsh when he commented that "we vomit on all these people who suddenly say they are our friends", but as we witness the long line of crocodile tear pouring leaders, taking a break from imprisoning or censoring their own journalists, you can sort of see where he's coming from!

NB: There's an interesting comment here from David Brooks in the New York Times as to why he - and probably most of us - is NOT "Charlie Hebdo".

Do we need another round of leaders' TV debates?

David Cameron is clear that he won't attend any television debates between the party leaders if the Green Party is not invited; Ed Miliband is clear that such debates should go ahead with or without the Prime Minister (and presumably the Greens).  Both, of course, are thoroughly cynical positions.  Cameron has no great interest in ensuring proper representation of all political views and parties; he is using the Greens' exclusion as a possible bargaining chip for avoiding the debates altogether.  He didn't perform notably well last time (despite apparently thinking he would ace them), knows that they benefit opposition leaders more than prime ministers, and is in particular keen, I would imagine, to deny Nigel Farage any sort of television platform at all.

Ed Miliband, meanwhile, is keen to see the debates go ahead because he knows that it has a chance of offering him a better profile than if they don't; his stance on the 'empty chair', meanwhile, is a natural response to try and embarass Cameron.

There is, though, a good question to be asked about whether we should actually have televised leaders' debates at all?  They are not a good fit for a parliamentary system of government; they exacerbate the personality factor in politics (and it is worth remembering that the same media which might decry personality politics is also the institution which encourages it); they were remarkably unilluminating last time and they tend to draw the oxygen of publicity away from more substantive policy issues during the campaign.

The UK's is not a presidential system.  The party leaders are directly responsible only to the voters in their respective constituencies.  Their leadership responsibilities revolve around appointing cabinets or shadow cabinets and co-ordinating policy across their parties.  The party leader who heads his party in government holds a title that denotes his position as 'primus inter pares', not just 'primus'.

Television has its own clear agenda, unrelated to the constitutional niceties of parliamentary elections.  Leaders' debates offer higher ratings and an easier way of channelling reportage of an election campaign via personalities, an easier and more popular process.  Modern political leaders are notorious for allowing media campaigns - especially television ones - to dictate their actions, and it was the commercial determination of Sky News, along with David Cameron's desire to appease its then owner Rupert Murdoch, which played as big a role as any in setting up the debates in 2010.

If television executives are keen for debates - and in themselves these are clearly not bad things - then perhaps they should consider instead holding policy debates, fronted by the respective party spokesmen responsible.  Thus, a debate on health issues with Jeremy Hunt, Andy Burnham and their fellow Health spokesmen.  Education featuring Nicky Morgan, Tristram Hunt etc.  This at least would be a better representation of the parliamentary system we actually have, and strike against the increasing devolving of politics around the personalities of party leaders.  Given Miliband's problems with his own profile, I'm a little surprised he hasn't suggested this himself.

NB: Andrew Rawnsley in today's Observer is very clear that the main impediment to any debates is coming from the Conservatives, and he outlines their reasons for wanting to sabotage them here.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Islam versus Satire = Murder

“Allahu Akbar” was the cry being heard from the gunmen who slaughtered 12 people in their attack on a newspaper’s offices in Paris this morning.  There is something seriously poverty-stricken and sickening about any religion whose adherents respond to the printed word, or image, with a murderous attack.  Their God reveals his smallness, meanness and brutality in the actions of such apostles, but perhaps after all “Allahu Akbar” is the empty slogan of already spiritually dispossessed people. 

I write this as news is still developing about the attack on the Paris offices of satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo”, and much is still unknown about it.   Given that the magazine has lampooned the Prophet Muhammed and radical Islam (along with nearly every other religion as well) it currently seems a fair bet that the attackers were indeed Islamic adherents.  They represent a brand of Islam incapable of rational operation in the modern world.  My own knowledge of the Koran is too limited to allow any comment on whether such action as that taken today can be justified in its pages, or whether it represents an apostasy of Islam.  If it is the latter, of course we look forward to the vigorous denunciations of anyone who uses Islam to further a murderous aim from the leaders of that religion.

In the meantime, the Charlie Hebdo tragedy illustrates the awful problem faced by liberal, western societies.  Journalists, writers and illustrators are in the front-line of maintaining, upholding and simply symbolising that rational liberalism, but as this morning’s events show, such attitudes are red rags to the closed minds of the religious fanatic.  And it is lamentably easy for the fanatic bent on murder to wreak his havoc in a liberal state.  The number of gunmen whose courageous crusade took them to the killing zone of unarmed men and women working at computer screens may only have been two, but the resultant havoc has been immense.  And the danger is that the very thread of liberty itself becomes taut, and in places broken, by the fall-out of such an event.

All credit to President Hollande – not a man who has covered himself in glory during his mishappen presidency so far – for his rapid visit to the Charlie Hebdo offices and his clear reassertion of France’s ‘liberty’.  The deaths caused by the “Allahu Akbar” shouting murderers are tragedies; but I wonder if the response to such senseless hatred may well be a ratcheting up of a determination by writers and publications and others to overtly attack such monstrosity, question the ideas and theology behind it, and vigorously assert the superiority of liberty and rationalism.  In taking their action today, the gunmen have already shown that they have lost.  It is a gaping wound that their defeat is so costly.

UPDATE: French Islamic leaders have been quick to condemn the attacks, saying that "They have hit us all. We are all victims".

UPDATE 2: The Spectator's editorial about this attack quotes Muslim writer Irshid Manji's words in an article last year -  “The Qur’an states that there should ‘no compulsion in religion’. (2:256). Nobody should be forced to treat tradition as untouchable, including traditions that result in the messed-up Muslim habit of equating our very human prophet with an inviolable idol.”

It becomes as imperative as ever that Islamic leaders and followers take a lead in condemning the attacks, in order to make the case for Islam as a religion of tolerance.