Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Knowing when to quit

2 August 2004

In 1997 the British people wanted a new politics, but the failed gestures of the intervening seven years have brought them back to precisely the disillusioned state from which they sought to escape at that time.

It was argued here, a fortnight ago, that the artificially adversarial nature of two-party politics created by the first-past-the-post electoral system does not reflect society, which is neither bi-polar nor adversarial, but essentially co-operative in nature. The adversarial system is sustained by the desire of both main political parties to gain and exercise uninhibited power.

But although parties are the vehicles travelling the road towards power, it is not the parties themselves that wield it. The vehicles convey the political leadership, which, having reached their destination, leave the conveyance in the garage while taking possession of the smart mansion for themselves. So ministers wield power while their party foot soldiers, chafing at their own impotence, have nothing to do but to file through the lobbies to keep their leaders in office. This is frustrating for the foot-soldiers, while giving ministers - and particularly prime ministers - an inflated sense of status and invulnerability.

Because of this, a British prime minister with a healthy majority is a type of elected dictator. He or she knows this, and plays upon the responsibility to good effect. The constant refrain of Tony Blair as he has sought to defend himself against criticism of his policy in relation to Iraq has been the almost plaintive reminder that he was the one in the hot seat - the one who had to use his judgement and make the call. Right or wrong, he had no choice: he had to decide.

But did he? The question turns on the importance of decisions in the evolution of events. To listen to the prime minister defending his decision to go to war with Iraq one might imagine that he had found himself at a fork in the road, with one way signposted to chemical, biological and nuclear terrorism and the other to freedom, liberal democracy and the rule of law. After the events of September 2001 Mr Blair clearly felt that he had a choice, a right/wrong decision to make of precisely this nature. The choice he made was to back America, his decision to do so reflecting the polarisation of those times in endorsing, by implication, President Bush's "Those who are not with us are against us".

For a politician this is all part of the game. To pitch the rhetoric towards leadership and decisiveness, to associate oneself with the policy most likely to bring the appearance of authority and success, is good for a politician’s reputation and his hold on power. But the true test of a politician is the ability to go beyond the rhetorical gesture into effective management of the governmental issues that affect people’s lives.

For government, management is the administration of the state, the machinery of government, the what-makes-it-happen; it engages millions of people as consumers and administrators of government activity. It needs stable conditions to function effectively, making changes only incrementally and responding to challenges in an evolutionary way. For a citizen, or consumer of government, the experience of it rarely changes overnight. When change happens it is slow, disconnected and often only to be recognised some time after the event. Compare this with the blizzard of policy statements, restructurings, targets, innovations and reviews that pour out of the political side of government every week of the parliamentary year and it can easily be seen that the ambition of politicians in government and the capacity of the administrative machine to make sense of them are not easily reconciled.

It is clear that many more things are "decided" or initiated by politicians than are ever achieved. So the question as to whether the prime minister did need to make a policy decision in relation to Iraq by committing himself to the U.S. government's desire for "regime change" in that country is a real one. Was the aftermath of 9/11 the moment for a "big decision" or would a series of small, incremental decisions have served both Britain and the Middle East better? To put it another way, was the prime minister right to see himself as a custodian of geo-political destiny, or would a closer management of the detailed picture relating to international terrorism and Iraq's weapons programmes have been a more useful and effective rôle.

For prime minister and president merely to decide that war against Iraq would be a good thing did not make it so. But after the prime minister took the decision in 2002 to join in the overthrow of the Iraqi government every subsequent action and decision had to be tailored to that object, whether it fitted or not. One big, strategic decision that turned out to be wrong took away his freedom to decide in many smaller matters. He would have done better to emulate Harold Wilson's approach to the Vietnam War, which was to keep his options open until the situation became clearer. When the situation became clear in Vietnam it was evident that there was nothing to be gained from Britain taking part in the adventure.

Were these Wilsonian wiles a "cop-out" in the terms of the Blairite political lexicon? Only if it could feasibly be argued that British participation in that war would have left to a different - and better - outcome. Such an argument would be difficult to sustain, and yet Blair’s determination to decide and dictate is undimmed with, on the domestic front, a policy blizzard of five year plans for essential services that are calculated to create the impression of semi-permanent Blairite revolution - that the prime minister is a fixture at number 10 until the happy day arrives when everything is finally sorted, and that his departure before the arrival of this state of nirvana would unravel all the progress that had been made up to that point.

For Blair, this has become an object of faith, justifying an important feature of his political philosophy, which is the importance of staying in power. Like all benign dictators he sees this in pure and selfless terms, believing it to be a service to the country that he carry on. In reality, however, he has attached so much importance to the decisive gestures of politics that he has failed to get much done in the meantime. It has been justly noted that most of the lasting achievements of the Labour government since 1997 have been in the redistributive fiscal and investment policies of the Treasury. This department is superintended by Gordon Brown as a semi-independent fiefdom, and this master of micro-detail has fully grasped the incremental principle of doing good by stealth and in unremarkable stages. So effectively has he set a ball rolling that he is no longer indispensable to its continuing momentum. That is his lasting achievement, and when he is gone from public life his monument will be in the alleviation of poverty and the improved public services that no successor government will wish to undo.

By contrast, Mr Blair's belief in his own indispensability has much to do with his need for a big political achievement that may never happen. By neglecting incrementalism he has presided over the biggest missed opportunity in British politics there has possibly ever been. In 1997 the British people wanted a new politics, but the failed gestures of the intervening seven years have brought them back to precisely the disillusioned state from which they sought to escape at that time. It is Blair’s good fortune that there is now no opposition to displace him, but that does not make him worth keeping. He has made himself part of the problem, but like a losing gambler he holds on for the next throw. It is time to quit the game, and in some part of him he knows it. But just because he knows it, that doesn’t mean to say that he will...


Out of all proportion

19 July 2004

Society is complicated, and a legislature split between two dominant parties presents a bogus polarity in which those complications are unrepresented.

As Tony Blair passes the ten year mark as Labour leader there can be little doubt that, from the electoral point of view, he is damaged goods. For a man who came to the leadership pledging to restore trust to politics it is, perhaps, ironic that he should have failed so spectacularly in this area. Or maybe all politicians do this - trumpeting as a virtue their own area of weakness, presumably to protect themselves from what it might do to them. John Major with his "family values" is a case in point.

But, despite the harm the Iraq war has done to his political reputation, the Prime Minister still carries at least one strong electoral card. To understand how strong it is one merely has to ask "What's the alternative?", at which point a vast swathe of the disgruntled but otherwise moderate left immediately swings back into line. If the choice is between Blair's New Labour and Howard's Conservatives, the only issue for voters even slightly to the left of centre is whether to vote Labour or not vote at all.

The idea of an unelectable opposition is nothing new. Labour suffered from this problem through four consecutive elections up to 1992, having to re-invent itself completely before it could take power in 1997. After eighteen years of government the Conservatives were burned out, and the excitement and optimism of the Labour victory was palpable. The boot was firmly on the other foot; the Conservatives could neither work out what had gone wrong nor what to do about it, with the consequence that they've meandered about in the political wilderness for a parliament and a half and look like finding their way out of it no time soon.

The fallacy of "win-win"

5 July 2004

Whether a society can be built in Iraq that works both for the Iraqis and the U.S. must be doubtful, to put it mildly. One side or other is likely to be disappointed.

For a dozen years or so after the end of the second world war there was an enlightened, optimistic air in British political circles in relation to "the colonies" - that collection of possessions mostly in sub-Saharan Africa or on islands dotted through the oceans that comprised the rump of the empire once the Indian sub-continent had detached itself. Official policy was "to guide the colonial territories to responsible self-government within the Commonwealth in conditions that ensure to the people concerned both a fair standard of living and freedom from aggression from any quarter."

This was not anticipated to be the task of anything but many decades. The winds of change had not yet penetrated deep into Whitehall and a vast, magnificent new Colonial Office in the palazzo style was planned for the site now occupied by the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre by Parliament Square. It was, of course, never built. By the late 1950s it was clear that colonialism had had its day and the subsequent decade saw a rapid divesting of the remaining British possessions.

During this brief experiment in enlightened colonialism Britain poured money she could not afford into high-minded administrations charged with tutoring and shaping these territories into the sort of daughter-nations of which she could be proud. Ambitious social and economic projects were attempted, such as the infamous ground nut scheme in what is now Tanzania. Education, health, infrastructure, social and political enlightenment and economic development were all the focus of substantial investment. This was nation-building on an ambitious scale, and yet, for all this money and effort, the only return on investment projected for Britain was the reflected glow of her social and cultural benevolence. [read on here]


Squeezing the nation

28 June 2004

Mr Blunkett's ill-judged decision to try to bounce Humberside Police Authority into suspending their chief constable is a symptom of a deeper malaise at the national tier of government.

Subsidiarity is an unusual word. It popped into the English language almost directly from the original German during the later part of the last century to describe a political concept to which, until that time, little attention had been given in British government circles. After Britain joined what is now the European Union the concept came in handy as successive governments strove to limit Europe's centralising tendencies.

More recently, however, government at the national level has found itself increasingly squeezed between higher and lower administrative tiers as the logic of subsidiarity has begun to take hold. Being squeezed is not something that government ministers take kindly to, so perhaps it's not surprising there's been some friction of late.

The principle - to remind ourselves - is this. Political power should be exercised by the smallest possible unit of government. The power to make decisions is passed to the next (subsidiary) level until the appropriate level is reached. Appropriateness has something to do with relevance; the decision-making body should be that which is closest to the group of people likely to be affected by the decision.

It is easy to see the significance of subsidiarity in the context of German federalism. It helps to establish the relative competence of the federal and state governments. The extension of that to cover the powers of nations states vis à vis the E.U. is also straightforward. But for the majority of those nation states that have strong, centralised governments, their "relevance" to their national populations is generally self-fulfilling. If a government is making decisions at a national level that affect everybody it becomes, by definition, the "appropriate" level for those decisions to be taken. The question whether decisions in a given policy area should affect everybody, or whether different decisions for different groups of people would be appropriate, tends not to get asked. [read on here]


The problem with "no"

21 June 2004

Saying "no" is not enough. When people start to question UKIP's alternative they will find the answers to be pretty thin.

De Gaulle famously did it; Margaret Thatcher and John Major both did it from time to time; now Tony Blair has been up to it and the United Kingdom Independence Party has just won a large slice of the British seats in the European Parliament by doing it. Saying "No" to British engagement with Europe is a popular and enduring political pastime.

With the battleground being staked out for the referendum on the new European constitution, the crude polarisation of "yes" and "no" is now a fixed feature of the political landscape. Up until now the "no"-sayers have made most of the running. But Tony Blair has been canny in projecting a long time-frame for this engagement, for as time wears on the seductive simplicity of the "no" will start to look less seductive and more simple. Too simple and too thin.

Perhaps de Gaulle was right; certainly if the original six had stuck to their federalist project a truly united Germany, France, Italy and Benelux would now be a serious power in the world. But saying "no" is hard work; de Gaulle had his reasons but his successors, lacking his wartime experience of British political methods, were less wary. Looked at like this, there is a case for seeing Britain's belated determination to join the Common Market as a classic nineteenth century power play, a move intended to destroy an alliance which, if it did not actually threaten Great Britain, at least threatened to render it irrelevant. Did Britain join Europe only to start saying "no" as soon as it was let in? If so, it was a masterpiece of Foreign Office skulduggery that raises the question: did Ted Heath know? [read more here]


Calling "time" on prohibition

14 June 2004

John Reid's remarks about smoking are a timely reminder that behavioural change depends upon providing attractive alternatives. Mere enforcement is not enough.

The Health Secretary's suggestion, at a conference last week, that middle class reformers should lay off people on sink estates for whom smoking might be their only pleasure, makes an important point about political process. It acknowledges that people do the things that they do because they want to. It is not the job of government to try to prevent them.

What government can and should do is to steer people away from behaviour that is bad for themselves and society by providing them with a real choice. If a person is so placed that a cigarette is really the highlight of their day, the only thing that is going to help is social improvement to put other, healthier pleasures on the menu.

This is presumably what Dr Reid meant when he qualified his remarks with the New Labour formula "Tough on smoking; tough on the causes of smoking". The cause of smoking is, the theory goes, social deprivation (which was also the cause of crime in Tony Blair's original coinage), so getting rid of deprivation will do much to solve the problem.

Social improvement is something everyone will cheer for, but the toughness on smoking bit requires more care. It may, perhaps, make sense to discourage advertising, although here we are still with the causes rather than the act of smoking. But measures to make smoking invisible have definite drawbacks. A child is better off in the street or park with a mother who is smoking than they would be cooped up with her in a smoked-filled home. And a practice that is out of sight may be out of mind, too. Once banished from public places, the issue of smoking may drop down the agenda. If this happens, that promised social improvement on the sink estates may be forgotten, too. [read on here]



Time to say "yes"

7 June 2004

Public attitudes are so poisoned that for British governments there can be no such thing as a successful policy on Europe.

Start with something technical-sounding. Call it the European Coal and Steel and Community. Then call it - because it's easier - the Common Market. Then how about the European Economic Community (EEC for short)? But that word "economic" in the middle doesn't have quite the right feel. European Community sound better; it's chummier, somehow. But if a community's good, surely a union is better? European Union: now that has just the right ring.

Has nobody in Great Britain spotted what is going on? The original Coal and Steel Community treaty of 1951 contained in its preamble several choice phrases, including:

For an organisation intended to manage coal and steel production, principally in the borderlands of France, Belgium and Germany, these were ambitious words. But they echoed with some clarity the sentiments of the Schuman declaration of the previous year, in which the French foreign minister stated:

"By pooling basic production and by instituting a new High Authority ...this proposal will lead to the realisation of the first concrete foundation of a European federation indispensable to the preservation of peace."

[read on more]



The cherry on the stick

31 May 2004

A "calorie tax" is not coercive; it does not force people into certain choices. Rather, it gives self-interest an opportunity that social and economic pressures might otherwise deny.

Heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, cannabis, tobacco, alcohol... food!!? Well, perhaps not all food, exactly, but food of the sort and quantity that makes you fat has joined the list of consumables that are harmful to you and damaging to society. Britain is experiencing a rapid rise in obesity, with a wave of associated illness the cost of which has only just begun to dawn.

Look at the figures. It was reported last week that, in the first half of 2003, the number of deaths in the U.K. related to cocaine use was double that for the same period a year earlier. There were 87 deaths; say 175 for the full year out of 642,000 estimated users. That's 2.7 deaths per ten thousand users. To put that in context, annual road deaths are about 0.6 deaths per ten thousand of the whole population. So cocaine users are about four times more likely to die from their habit than from involvement in a road accident.

So what about food? The House of Commons Health Committee report on obesity published last week suggests that 8.7 per cent of deaths in the U.K. are attributable to excess weight. That is about 53,000 deaths a year - about 15 per ten thousand of the 60 per cent of the population said to be overweight. So over-eating is over five times more dangerous than snorting cocaine. How come high fat, high sugar, high salt foods aren't illegal?

Of course, like all statistics, it's not quite a simple as that. Life is dangerous, and everyone is going to die of something. Smoking is still a more serious killer than fatty food. But smoking has declined, whereas obesity is, to coin a phrase, ballooning; and the real issue for society is not death but illness, and the cost of it that comes from the public purse. [read on here]

With all due respect

24 May 2004

Al Qaida and Fathers 4 Justice may be a very far cry indeed from one another, but they occupy, nonetheless, two places in a continuum of political failure.

In 1989 the ugly baronial black gates that dominate the entrance to Downing Street were erected to protect Margaret Thatcher from the IRA. Londoners were denied a shortcut into St James' Park past the door of number 10 and the closing of the street became a powerful symbol of the then Prime Minister's increasing isolation and detachment.

The intention was to stop a bomb attack, but one consequence was a subtle erosion of the mutual respectfulness of government and people. The small groups of well-behaved protestors that would occasionally assemble outside the famous front door became larger, noisier, more urgent and more frustrated as, corralled outside the gates, they were obliged to address themselves to the shiny bullet-proof windows of the prime ministerial limousine.

The gates may have prevented an attack on Downing Street, but they could not have prevented the Brighton bomb of 1984 and they did not prevent the string of bombings in Kent, London, Manchester and elsewhere that took place between 1989 and 1996. So, if the IRA had contemplated Downing Street as a target before 1989 the most that can be said for the gates is that they caused attacks to be redirected. Whether fewer or more people were injured and killed as a result of the hardening of Downing Street's defences is a moot point. What the gates certainly did not do is to reduce the violence of the IRA's campaign.

Fast forward fifteen years, to a set of expensive and similarly alienating screens in the public gallery of the House of Commons. Like Downing Street's gates, these screens can prevent attacks of a certain sort; although, like the Maginot Line, they failed rather spectacularly at their first test because the attackers turned out to be on the wrong side of them. Now, presumably, more screens will be built, and government ministers are already wringing their hands at the "inevitable" restriction in access arrangements between the public and their MPs. [read on here]


Clever, modest and misunderstood

17 May 2004

The development of the European Union has been a quiet, understated exercise in compromise which Britons might be expected to appreciate if they were permitted the political head space to reflect upon it.

Flanders and Swann once unforgettably wrote:

The English are moral, the English are good;

And clever and modest and misunderstood!

Quite what the late, great song-writing duo would have made of the European Union is less certain. There is a single reference in the recorded canon to de Gaulle's efforts to exclude Britain from the Common Market in the early 'sixties ("This old man, he played six; France and England, they won't mix!"), and that's about it. Were they to be writing a song about the E.U. today it seems unlikely that the words " clever and modest and misunderstood" would feature. But perhaps they should.

Donald Swann was a conscientious objector who spent the war in the ambulance service in Greece and the Middle East; Michael Flanders was torpedoed while serving in the Royal Navy. Their repertoire included powerful anti-war songs (one of which, "Twenty tons of TNT" was based on a calculation of the amount of explosive weaponry in the world, per person). So they would certainly have appreciated the defining achievement of the E.U. and its precursors, which is sixty years of peace between its ever expanding membership.

This achievement should not be underestimated. European countries were either at war with one another or preparing for it through an endless succession of shifting alliances for as long as nation states have existed. The twentieth century wars were therefore far from unprecedented; it was simply the industrial capacity to wage total war that made them so appalling. The founders of the European project sought not, therefore, just to say "never again" to the Second World War, but to substitute co-operation for rivalry as the "default" mode in which countries dealt with one another. Given the historic legacy, this showed some ambition. [read on here]


Abuse, but in good faith

10 May 2004

Politicians who wring their hands at the abuse practised by their forces in Iraq should remember where the abuse started - with a false prospectus for war created out of spinning and deception.

The English speaking world does not, in general, do guilt. Instead it does apology, and is inclined to think itself magnanimous in that respect. Even the genocidal policies whereby the indigenous societies of North America and Australasia were displaced left few scars on the settler societies that carried them out. Britain, and her colonial daughters, genuinely believed that the civilisation that swept all before them was a good thing. If the process was messy, it wasn't intended to be so. And the result was certainly worth it.

That's one way of looking at it: history on a grand scale that doesn't trouble itself about the details. According to this, fundamental human rights are so deeply rooted in the Anglo-Saxon body politic, which never really bought into the repressive feudal structure of the Norman invaders, that one doesn't have to worry about them. They may, at times, have been slow - painfully slow - to be asserted. In America it wanted a civil war to abolish finally the institution of slavery. But the rights of an Englishman (and his global inheritors) stand higher in the eyes of the state than the collective interest or security of the public in this respect, no matter what excesses individuals may commit.

So that's alright, then. When it comes to torture, killings and abuse of prisoners in Iraq, it is an article of faith that, whereas Saddam's abuses were state-orchestrated, those of American and British forces are individual, out of character, unacceptable, not widespread and definitely not state-sanctioned. Responsibility is kept at the lowest possible level, for fear that contamination might spread to commanders, or even, horror of horrors, to the political executive of whom it is axiomatic that they always act "in good faith". When generals and politicians are asked about these matters they are always "investigating the allegations". They are never being investigated themselves. [read on here]

Inconsequential opinions

3 May 2004

David Blunkett and Tony Blair think that identity cards are a good thing. And opinion pollsters tells us that maybe 80 per cent of adult Britons think so too. But is this good enough reason for a policy for which the practical benefits seem remarkably thin?

The part played by mere opinion in politics is far greater that it is in other areas, such as business, or science, or the arts. Mere opinion causes governments to rise or fall; people cast their ballots on the basis of personal feelings that may or may not be substantiated by facts, and governments live or die by their ability to tap into the popular view.

What is distinctive about this is the way in which democracy measures opinion. It does so by asking voters to select candidates from a list, a selection that may reflect the personal impression created by the candidates but that is largely influenced by the impression the voter has of the political parties, their personnel and policies. Parties wishing to maintain a good impression need to monitor continually how they are doing, so the electorate is constantly being asked by opinion pollsters their opinion both on the parties and the political issues of the day. The effect is a sort of permanent, rolling election in which parties frequently adjust their position in the hope of being the one in the lead when the day of real voting comes.

In other words, part of having the "right" policy is to have a popular policy, since the common measure of political success is to remain in power. A bad policy that is popular may prosper initially while a good but unpopular policy never gets off the ground. The problem is that the popular but bad policy is likely to become unpopular when its ultimate failure becomes clear. The trick is to ride the initial popularity and hope that the failure will be hidden by the new, popular initiatives that have come along. In this way government becomes a succession of popular initiatives of which the long term consequences are of secondary political importance.

Compare this with the way that a supermarket goes about its business. Opinion is hugely important to them, too, but they do not rely upon anything so insubstantial as what people say that their opinion is. Success for a supermarket lies not in people saying that they like them, but in their opening their wallets to prove that it is so. [read on here]

Not insular, but everywhere

26 April 2004

In agreeing to hold a referendum on Europe, Tony Blair has set himself the ambitious task of re-writing powerful British myths about themselves and their neighbours.

The issue of Europe has long had a toxic effect on British politics. Governments come unstuck on it for no good reason, because the way in which the subject plays in the national political debate defies reason at every turn. Why this should be so is a complicated issue, but that it brings out the most peculiar aspects of people is beyond doubt, as two unrelated by similar incidents from last week show.

The first, of course, is the extraordinary behaviour of Express owner Richard Desmond at a meeting with executives from the Daily Telegraph. In apparent reference to the possible take-over of the Telegraph titles by the German Axel Springer Group, Mr Desmond is reported to have given vent to an anti-German tirade, including the remark that all Germans are Nazis. According to witnesses he also went goose-stepping about the room in a parody of Hitler and required his executives to sing Deutschland Uber Alles.

Meanwhile, in Bradford, the Conservative deputy leader of the Council resigned after he made a Nazi-style salute and said "Sieg Heil" to a German-born councillor following a speech she made on community safety. Apparently incidents of this nature among Britons are rather common, and Germans with British connections are well inured to them.

Such childish repudiation of all things that lie beyond the English Channel is part of the currency of a certain section of British society, and it receives a strong echo in certain sections of the media. The chief targets for abuse are Germany and France, Britain's historic competitors who act in this relationship as a proxy for the whole of Europe, and with whom the culture of rivalry appears deeply ingrained. And for every buffoon that grotesquely oversteps the mark of good taste, there are plenty of serious people for whom any issue in politics, the media, law or business with a European perspective automatically acquires a cultural aspect. Disagreement gives rise to a sort of "what do you expect" attitude illustrated by that American characterisation of the French as "cheese-eating surrender monkeys". It seems impossible to look past such cultural assumptions and examine the real issues that lie beyond. [read on here]

The old realities of history

19 April 2004

The endorsement by George Bush of Ariel Sharon's self-serving plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip while retaining substantial sections of the West Bank is pure politics and will have little if any influence on whatever settlement is eventually reached in that region.

Politics is one thing, and history another. Generally speaking the two don't mix. Any settlement that sticks between the Palestinians and the Israelis will reflect the historical realities of the situation, and not simply what Mr Bush called the "new realities on the ground". This is because the historical realities are immutable, whereas the realities on the ground are relatively easy to change.

But that something is fixed does not mean that it is easy to read. To get a sense of the historical realities it is necessary to look at comparable cases, and the points of similarity and difference that they present. As a clash between two ethnically and culturally distinct peoples over the occupation of a piece of land, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has many precedents from which insight can be drawn.

A good starting point lies in the gross mechanics of what brings populations together and forces them apart. Identification, both ethnic and cultural, is the principle motor for this. It is easy to forget, for example, how recently Germany and Italy were loose assemblages of small states and principalities rather than distinctive nations. The sense of German-ness or Italian-ness pre-dated and helped to form the national identities that brought these nations into being.

Fissuring occurs when a group has been forced into such an assemblage without really belonging. The Basques and the Kurds are examples of such trans-national people who are not comfortable in any of the countries they find themselves part of. Places such as the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia fissured off from the Soviet Union when they got the chance because their relationship with it had always been a shotgun affair. Czechoslovakia worked out a broadly amicable separation reflecting the two parts of its name. Belgium, a diplomatic creation of the early nineteenth century with two distinct populations, has retained its notional unity by celebrating its diversity and splitting, for most purposes, into two units.[read on here]


Fanatically opposed to fanatics

12 April 2004

The coalition is just as inflexible as its opponents about the political outcome it is willing to allow in Iraq. But, if it wants peace, it is going to have to learn to let go.

When something goes horribly wrong there is only a limited satisfaction to be gained from saying "I told you so." That is why people who opposed the war in Iraq a year ago do not now advocate unilateral withdrawal by the coalition forces. Governments such as the French and German, and the Liberal Democrats in Britain, all now embrace continued engagement in Iraq to complete a process that they believed ought not to have been started. As always where events are concerned, it is necessary to make one's decisions in circumstances as they are, not as one would like them to be.

For all that, there is an aspect to "I told you so" from which historical reassurance can legitimately be drawn. When a prediction is born out by events the satisfaction lies not in the smugness of the predictor but in the testing of the methodology from which the prediction was drawn. In other words, "I told you so" is not shorthand for "I was right and you were wrong" but a way of pointing out that there are reliable historical methods of weighing the consequences of certain actions. If politicians ignore the warnings of these methods they are likely to come unstuck.

The article posted here on 14 July last year concluded as follows:

"There can be only two outcomes. If Blair didn't tell Bush this then he should have done.

"Either: the American display of military force continues, suffers casualties and becomes entrenched in a lengthy stalemate against mounting, disparate opposition united only in its antipathy to the allied occupation

"or: the house of cards stays up long enough for the Americans and their allies to make a dignified departure. In which case what happens next may remain within American influence but is beyond American control.

"It may nor be a palatable choice, but it is a choice of sorts. With a presidential election coming up one would have thought the or was preferable to the either. But whether the backroom geo-strategists of the White House will so readily abandon their ambitions is uncertain. And Mr Blair's army is tied to the tails of their coats."

Events of the past fortnight demonstrate that the house of cards has not stayed up long enough; or, more accurately, that the coalition did not make its exit is time. By default the United States has chosen the either outcome, its declared hand-over of power in June merely a fig leaf intended to cover up a continued occupation. This decision has been forced upon it because its actions so far in Iraq have not matched a coherent strategy. [read on here]

Immigration tango

5 April 2004

The government's immigration policy is collapsing because it is trying to do one thing while saying another.

The fashionable political nostrum of "what works" and the more traditional, civil service style approach of "by the book" sit decidedly ill with one another. They are two different flavours for deciding policy and they approach their business from opposite ends of the methodological spectrum.

"By the book" emphasises precedent and procedure. You look at how something is normally done, or how it was done last time, or - failing a close precedent - how something similar has been done in the past. This approach minimises risk and builds on experience, but it is closed to innovation and permits the errors of the past to be replicated.

"What works" eschews precedent in favour of innovation and success. It looks for a positive result by searching beyond received wisdom. Its weakness lies in its lack of rootedness. By avoiding dogma it is in danger of losing touch with principle, so that the thing that works is not always harmonious with the underlying pattern.

The tension that stretches between these approaches is strikingly evident in the immigration rumpus that claimed a government scalp last week. At its centre was a spat between officials who care how things are done and a government that wants to (appear to) get things done.

As always with policy, it is necessary to define the problem, and with immigration this can be done in several ways. According the The Guardian, it is "the single most volatile issue in British electoral politics today, the one that causes most concern to most people and the one that swings most votes." From a democratic point of view, therefore, the problem is how to satisfy those concerns. This requires either establishing or making assumptions about what the concerns are. [read on here]


Constitutional crumble

29 March 2004

A bizarre confrontation between the Commons and the Lords over an obscure bill has wide implications for the way that legislation is reviewed. How much longer can Britain's creaking constitution cope with a government so determined to get its way?

At issue are the government's plans for all-postal voting trials in elections for the European Parliament and local authorities in June. The European Parliament and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill introduces these trials in four Euro-constituencies in England: the East Midlands, the North East, the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber.

The government's proposals are at odds with the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, who originally proposed two trial regions, namely the North East and the East Midlands. Although four other regions were found to be potentially suitable, the commission felt "unable to make a positive recommendation in respect of [them]". Faced with government proposals to trial four regions, the commission commented:

"...pilots that cover over a third of the English electorate in June go further than we think necessary ... especially in the absence of the underlying legislative changes we think necessary. There is also in our view increased risk ... in running on such a large scale and we are not persuaded that the risk is outweighed by what we might learn from four regional pilots as opposed to two."

That is pretty clear, and might be felt to be conclusive coming from a body established by parliament to advise on such matters. Indeed, the bill as introduced had covered only the two regions recommended. But in January the government announced that it wanted to add two more regions, namely Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West. To cut a long story short, the bill as so amended passed the Commons but has been rejected four times by the Lords. Last week the Lords proposed a compromise which would include Yorkshire and the Humber in the trials, which is a position that the electoral Commission appear now willing to endorse. This has so far been rejected. [read on here]

The bomb and the ballot - continued

22 March 2004

The Spanish people were always against the war in Iraq, and they still are, but their consistency has not stopped U.S. Republican Congressman Dennis Hastert accusing them of appeasing terrorists. He could not be more wrong.

Views similar to the congressman's had already been widely aired.They have prospered because they are easy to grasp whereas the contrary view is complicated. Even commentators who celebrated, on principle, the arrival of a government of the left in Spain still seemed slightly embarrassed by the means of its coming to power.

So the argument still needs to be made as to why the result did not give comfort to the terrorists or further their objectives. To understand this it is necessary to consider why al-Qaida-linked groups might have wished to place these bombs in Madrid in the first place.

Although it is possible to construct a conspiracy theory according to which the bombs were designed to cause precisely the sequence of events that actually occurred, such an approach is both implausible and unnecessary. An attack like this does not depend for its "success" upon a specific, calculated outcome. The success lies in the strength of the political reaction, both domestically and, more importantly, in the international sphere. [read on here]


The bomb and the ballot

15 March 2004

The outcome of the Spanish election is not a victory for the terrorists but a recognition that international terrorism is a symptom of a global political and social malaise that the rich, western world has the primary responsibility to address.

One thing everybody agrees upon in the aftermath of an act of terrorism is that the terrorists must not be allowed to win. When the attack takes place in a democracy the concern is to avoid surrendering democratic values in the face of the outrage. Measures designed to combat terrorism that have the effect of compromising human rights or political freedoms play in to the hands of the terrorist's anti-democratic agendas, so the argument goes.

A simple solution is to clear up the mess, bury the dead and carry on as before. Like extortionists whose targets refuse to pay up, terrorists whose provocations elicit no response will eventually be forced to find another way. The IRA's bombing campaign on the UK mainland had something of this character. Appalling as the consequences were for the individual victims, the population at large declined to be stirred. This could be a testament to British stoicism, or it could be that the number of deaths caused by any single attack was never sufficient for the situation to become politically critical.

The pattern was similar through a string of international terrorist actions in the 'seventies, 'eighties and 'nineties. Each hijacking or bombing was a big news story, but when it was over the world had only changed for those who were directly involved. Even an airliner blown up over Lockerbie was a "manageable" event, reduced in historical terms to a painstaking criminal investigation that inched forward to the closure of a trial and (ultimately) financial compensation to the victims from the government of Libya. Events like this were manageable because there were perceived as strictly the exceptions to the general experience. Normally they did not happen. [read on here]


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