Archive for the 'General' Category


Austria, Serbia and George W Bush

Saturday, July 26th, 2014

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The descent into WWI is a 21st Century story

Sepia-toned silent images of black-coated or feather-hatted diplomats lend a reassuring distance to the events that plunged the world into war a hundred years ago this week.  It looks like a world long since vanished and in one sense, it is.  However, like much of that story, it is an illusion; all the more dangerous for the complacency that false reassurance breeds.

    Far from being a different age, the threats posed by rogue governments, state-sponsored (or at least, state-cloaked) terrorism and extremist violence are more relevant now than at just about any time since 1914. 

Indeed, when George W Bush had to respond to the Twin Towers attacks, he was placed in a very similar position to the Austrians after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

Both outrages were direct attacks against not just the soil and people of the respective great power but represented a symbolic attack too.  Equally, both were carried out by terrorist organisations that enjoyed the tacit patronage of their host governments to the extent that the line dividing them was distinctly porous: they shared objectives and beliefs, and not infrequently, personnel.

Understanding that is crucial to understanding both why the Austrian government sent such a harsh ultimatum, demanding that Serbia allow Austria to conduct its own inquiry.  Quite simply, there was no way a Serbian inquiry could be trusted to investigate properly as if it did, it would implicate itself.  Refusing the Austrian demand that Sebia cede its sovereignty might have given the Serbs a little cover under international law but as the initial act could easily be regarded as a casus belli of itself, only a little.

Here, the parallel switches to Iraq.  Most would now agree that the Iraq War was a monumental blunder on any number of levels.  Many thought it would be at the time, though we should distinguish between those who believed in managing the risk Saddam presented and the views of those who would bury their heads in the sand and try to wish the situation away.  Bush’s problem, like the Austrians’, was that the weapons inspectors were being given the run around in exactly the same way that Pasic’s Serbian government would have given the Austrians had they allowed them in.  Just as Saddam was trying to strike a balance between providing no evidence to the West that he had WMD’s and retaining the belief among his local opponents that he had, so Pasic could not afford to give an outright no to Austria but nor could he allow them to find anything incriminating.  Both countries could sustain the contradictory policies only until the terrorism of 1914 and 2001 changed the game.  A that point, both the Austrian and American administrations decided that a government that couldn’t be trusted on such matters was by definition a sufficient threat to justify war.

Of course, one principal difference between Serbia in 1914 and either Iraq or Afghanistan this century is that neither of those two had any meaningful international support whereas Serbia could rely on Russia, and by extension, France and probably Britain.  That, however, is more a distinction of detail than consequence given the breadth of international sympathy and strength of US feeling in the days following 11 September 2001.  Unlike Nicholas II (or more accurately, his ministers), no modern leader is likely to commit to the suicide of their regime and country on behalf of a bunch of fanatics (not that the tsar meant to either, but foresight of the consequences of a major war is clearer now than then).

Where do these lessons leave policy today?  That’s a much more difficult question.  It’s worth noting that after all the slaughter, it was the Serb nationalists who achieved their aim in 1918-9, not the Austrians; that after years of occupation, Afghanistan is by no means free of extremists even if Al Qaida is much reduced; that the downfall of Saddam has merely replaced one uncertainty with others in the Middle East; that Israel’s policy towards Hamas veers between scratching the sore and sticking a plaster on it but that the sore remains all the same.

Even so, it’s only when the fanaticism of terrorists is allied with the resources and prerogatives of a state that there develops a really serious threat.  The ideal solution is to prevent that alliance in the first place but even that asks difficult questions about external interference in sovereign states, ones that can only really be answered if there’s agreement on both principles and practices among the major powers.  If that fails, it follows that regime change should be a legitimate reason for military action in certain circumstance, even before a threat is made real.  Yet that too is dangerous: many initially extreme governments mellow with power, while war brings the chaos and pain in which extremism thrives.

It’s said that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it.  The problem is knowing which lessons to learn and heed.

David Herdson

David will not be able to respond to comments today as he’s getting married.


David Herdson says: “Time for Britain’s greatest county to stand up”

Saturday, July 5th, 2014


Whatever it is that makes a nation, Yorkshire has it

The folk of God’s Own County tend to be a reticent bunch, not much given to singing their own praises (or indeed, anyone else’s), but as cycling’s greatest race speeds spectacularly over the Broad Acres this weekend – an event the locals have greeted with characteristic enthusiasm and humour – it’s a good occasion to ask whether it should be the next nation within the UK to gain devolved powers.

I write ‘nation’ deliberately.  While recognising that few would regard it as their primary nationality, never mind their sole one, we’re not talking about some simple fondness for a mere administrative division but that genuine sense of identity, otherness and shared cultural inheritance that makes a nation.  And while size is not everything – Cornwall could make equivalent claims of self-identity – Yorkshire’s population is well within the range of the other areas of the UK that have devolved powers: less than London, about the same as Scotland, but more than Wales or Northern Ireland.

Does any of that imply a need or demand for a Yorkshire parliament or government?  Not exactly, but if England suffers a democratic deficit via the West Lothian Question, then the areas outside London suffer twice over: to take one example, the government’s national infrastructure plan (for England), allocates sixteen[1] pounds per person for transport spending in London for every one pound per person spent in Yorkshire.  London may have special needs but sixteen times as much?  Wales and Scotland protect their fair share via devolution.  Does Yorkshire deserve any less?  More relevantly, will Yorkshire folk start demanding no less?

As yet, no.  At the European elections, the Yorkshire First party – campaigning for devolved parliament – secured just 1.5% of the vote.  That was its first election and so voter recognition was probably just about nil, particularly as they didn’t distribute their free mail post and they weren’t entitled to a party political broadcast.  That said, the very fact that the party exists is itself telling, though whether it should be a political party, having to work against the existing parties, rather than a campaign group seeking support including from those already active in the system, is a different question.

Critics will argue that we’ve been here before.  John Prescott was keen on assemblies for Yorkshire, the North East and other regions; plans that were dropped after a referendum in the North East kicked the idea out with a 78% No vote.  Those proposals, however, were a pig in a poke.  There was no suggestion as to what the bodies would do, just what they would cost.  It’s unsurprising that they weren’t a hit.  Had they been accompanied by real powers, it might have been a different story.

I do wonder whether the Tour de France Grand Depart this year, and the proposed future Tour of Yorkshire for future ones, might do for England’s largest county what the London marathon did for its largest city, namely to demonstrate what can be achieved by a high profile sporting event when component boroughs work together.  There is a political mirror to that; one that ultimately led to the recreation of a high profile voice for London in its mayor (though rather like the marathon route, it was hardly a direct path).  A well-conducted campaign, building on the experience in Scotland, London and Wales, could deliver a Yorkshire parliament in far less time than it took there.

David Herdson

p.s. A quick note on the Tour itself.  Stage One today shouldn’t present too many difficulties for the riders, except for the narrow, weaving roads and tight turns.  If all goes smoothly, the sprinters should dominate the race to the line and Cavendish has made no secret of how much he wants to win in his mother’s home town, though Peter Sagan stands an excellent chance too.  Stage Two, by contrast, is a real test; a stage that could easily be a Spring Classic in its own right.  The 3000m of climbing is not far off a big mountain stage but rather than three or four huge ascents as in the Alps or Pyrenees, here there’ll be a relentless series of twenty or so climbs (only nine of which are categorised), constantly forcing a change of rhythm.  They’re steep too, passing 10% frequently and the final climb within Sheffield itself hitting in excess of 30% at one point.  This is a stage that could shake up the field and while the race can’t be won on Sunday, it could easily be lost, particularly given the dicey weather forecast.  The stage winner is far harder to predict and is unlikely to be any of the favourites for any jersey.


Multiculturalism was buried this week, un-noticed

Saturday, June 14th, 2014

The reaction to Trojan Horse has major implications for social policy

Most of the reaction and comment to the fallout from the Birmingham schools Trojan Horse affair has centred on the spat between Theresa May and Michael Gove (and their respective departments), on what ‘British values’ means, and on to what extent – if they can be defined – they should be promoted.  That’s all fair enough but it misses the implicit step already taken: that not only are the values that were sought to be imposed in the schools not British but that neither is there a place for them in a parallel system within the country.

That may sound obvious now but not that long ago there would have been a lot of noise both from the left-of-centre and from groups purporting to represent ethnic minorities if a politician asserted that some cultures are better than others, or even if they’d said that some cultures are better in this country than others.  Yet this week cabinet ministers have effectively said precisely that and it’s simply gone practically unchallenged.  Multiculturalism – the idea that many cultures, each of equal value, can and should live side by side, celebrating and retaining their differences – is dead and buried.

The implications run far beyond education; questioning what is acceptable behaviour, what imported traditions and behaviours can be accepted, tolerated or celebrated – and what cannot – in any field of life.  While that could apply to any immigrant community (or, for that matter, any indigenous communities that lead sufficiently different and separate lives), there’s little doubt the majority of the focus will centre on muslim communities.

In some ways, that’s unfair.  Apart from the point about other communities, a culture is as much about secular habits as religious teaching.  However, when culture and religion become deeply intertwined, trying to separate them is both a fruitless and pointless task: the habit reinforces the belief and vice-versa.  This becomes really tricky territory because it then follows that an attack on one (behaviour) is easily seen and/or represented by those criticised as an attack on the other (their religion).

And yet that’s precisely where the British Values debate leads, whether the politicians have realised it or not.  The previous mainstream strategy was to place the divide between ‘extreme’ Islam and ‘conservative’ Islam.  Accepting the British Values premise renders that division irrelevant: it says that the social attitudes of conservative Islam are at best inferior and at worst illegitimate, whether ‘extreme’ or otherwise.  It also says that an honest, devout religious belief is still no justification for rejecting the values on which British society is based.

How all that translates into practical policy is the big question.  It’s all very well to talk in generalities, or ideals, rights, duties, values and traditions but how are schools to promote those values, and what are they, precisely?  For that matter, if schools are to have a duty to promote British values, then why not other parts of the state?  What does it mean for policing policy and priorities, for immigration policy, or for when social services departments should intervene, for example?  Virtually no area of public policy would be untouched.

At its heart the debate is a revised version of an extremely old question about the conflicts of loyalty and values between state and religion and how to handle those who dissent, especially when there is a violent fringe associated with the dissenters.  A community that feels persecuted may be more likely to protect their own, especially if they had little confidence in (or need for) the state to start with, producing a situation that leads all too easily where all sides see ‘them and us’ and the creation of parallel, pseudo-institutions in the state’s place.  Integration is the only real answer but for that to happen there has to be a desire for it on the one side and a welcoming and open acceptance on the other.  What the Trojan Horse episode tells us – and it’s by no means an isolated incident – is that we’re a long way from such a position.

So far, the proposal’s received a remarkable lack of criticism.  Perhaps that’s because it’s difficult to knock the principle without upsetting many other people; far easier to wait for the detail.  Whether that’s sustainable as we head into an election year is another matter.

David Herdson


How British politics might have been different If Gordon Banks had not had a bug before the 1970 West Germany match

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Check out this great counter-factual by UKPR’s Anthony Wells

The opening of the 2014 World Cup is a good peg to hang one of the great counter-factuals of politics and football written and created by YouGov’s Anthony Wells and the man who runs UKPollingReport.

The basic premise is that the outcome of the 1970 General Election, when the Tories were returned to power, could have been different if England had not been knocked out in the Quarter Final by West Germany.

This is how it starts:-

“The Conservative victory in the 1970 election was far from inevitable. The Tories entered the campaign trailing Labour in the opinion polls. Prime Minister Harold Wilson didn’t need to call an election until April 1971, but he feared that the tide was turning away from the Labour Party and, with decimalisation happening in January 1971, delay would have left him without room for maneouvre. Despite warnings against going to the country in June 1970, not least because the election would fall in the middle of the football World Cup, in the end he insisted on the date of 17th June.

England entered the 1970 World Cup as defending champions and, if anything, with a stronger squad than in 1966. After meeting Brazil in the first round Pele famously said to Bobby Moore that he would see him again in the final. It was not to be. In the event England’s goalkeeper Gordon Banks was taken ill on the coach journey to their quarter-final match against West Germany. Banks was replaced by Peter Bonetti – but to no avail. Bonetti dived over a lacklustre shot from Franz Beckenbauer and Seeler headed in a second goal while Bonetti was off
his line.

Germany scored a third goal in extra time and England were out of the World Cup. Three days later Labour lost the general election. There have been various explanations for Labour’s defeat. Wilson blamed the BBC, others blamed unexpectedly low balance of trade figures, others the knock-on effect of England’s defeat – in the words of one cabinet minster “the bug in Banks tummy”.

It could have been so different…

Read the archived version of Anthony’s work here.

Mike Smithson


One Year To Go: How do Dave and Ed compare to their predecessors

Friday, May 30th, 2014

With one year to go, I thought it would be useful to track how Ed and Dave compare to their predecessors one year before a General Election. I’ve been using the ratings from Ipsos-Mori that go back nearly forty years and are considered to be the Gold Standards of leader ratings.



Looking at the Leader of the Opposition net ratings, sometimes the figures speak for themselves. Only Leaders of the Opposition  with net positive ratings one year have gone onto become Prime Minister and only Michael Foot, generally regarded as the worst Leader of the Opposition since the war, polls worse than Ed while William Hague, Michael Howard and Neil Kinnock had better ratings than Ed and didn’t become Prime Minister.

Whilst we do live in a more cynical, anti-politician era, so that may explain Ed’s ratings, that said, in the same point of the electoral cycle, David Cameron was polling a net plus 23, nearly 50 points ahead of where Ed is today, and that was only five years ago.

Moving onto Prime Ministers ratings, it is a bit harder to discern a pattern.

The most amusing thing I found was Dave’s rating was exactly the same as Tony Blair’s rating in his first term,both in net terms, and the individual figures, 39 positive, 52 negative, David Cameron truly is the heir to Blair.

Looking at the leads the PM enjoys over the Leader of the Opposition, the longer a PM stays in power, ultimately they become less popular, but even then they do recover. The fact Jim Callaghan had a lead over Margaret Thatcher should give Ed some succour, but will there be an equivalent to the Winter of Discontent?

Before Labour supporters get too despondent, Ed does enjoy some advantages that his predecessors do not, such as the electoral geography favouring Labour, and the great known unknown of UKIP which could make the 2015 General Election like no other.



As most of the results are now in, the papers begin to give their take

Friday, May 23rd, 2014



Returning to the Holy Land after a gap of 46 years – and still no sign of peace

Sunday, May 4th, 2014

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An anti-semite is someone who hates us more than is necessary”

The above comment, made over dinner at the Jerusalem Press Club by a prominent Israeli journalist in mid-February to me and five other UK-based journalists, in a nutshell explained why we were there. The state of Israel, created by the United Nations in 1948, has an ongoing PR problem and needs if not friends people in the outside world who at least understand it.

The six of us had been invited to visit Israel and Palestine by BICOM – the British Israel Information and Research Centre which regularly takes small groups to the country. For me it was the first time in the 10 years of running PB that I’d received such an offer and I had a very special reason why I jumped at the opportunity

    For 46 years ago, in 1968, I was part of a group of student leaders on a similar sponsored visit just over a year after the Six Day War. On our first day we went into the centre of Gaza – territory that had been “acquired” in the war. We got out of the coach to walk round and immediately faced a hostile crowd. My reaction was to move to safety as soon as possible and was first back behind the line of Israeli army vehicles and into the bus. The second person into the bus was Jacky who a year later became my wife. That was how we met.

Then the country was exuberant and still excited by the military successes and the sheer scale of the territories that they had acquired fourteen months earlier.

Forty-six years later on my return a lot of those territories have gone, it is a much smaller country, and is growing weary of the constant effort to survive as a Jewish state. In its eyes it has given up land for peace but still peace never comes.

The trouble with the land for peace concept is that Israel has a huge political problem with settlers who have set up illegal settlements in what is now Palestinian territory.

    These Israelis, there are about a third of a million of them, not only fuel constant international condemnation but are a major impediment to the country’s bargaining position. If the state cannot control them then how can deals be done?

During the visit the Kerry peace initiative was still in play and all sorts of solutions were being discussed.

The one positive feature which I hadn’t appreciated is that a large segment of the settlers are not doing it for ideological reasons – they just want somewhere affordable to live. As a senior Israeli Labour party official told us the answer with this group is just money.

But even taking them out of the equation there are a lot of settlers who will fight, even against their own country, to remain.

For me the stand out, though most discomforting, part of the trip was meeting one of the uncompromising settlers’ leaders. How anyone could reach a deal with him seemed beyond the bounds of possibilities. He turned on me with a ferocious attack when I asked a simple question about the legalities of land ownership.

The Israelis have the resourcefulness for their country to survive but it is always going to be difficult. It is hard to see a political solution in the short or even medium team.

  • A nice moment on my last morning was at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv where I was told that Politicalbetting has “legendary status” in the press office.
  • Mike Smithson


    The other story that’s getting people excited this Easter Sunday

    Sunday, April 20th, 2014

    A mistake or great investigative journalism?