Archive for the 'General' Category


Political cross-dressing

Monday, January 20th, 2020

One of the oddest political developments is how certain concerns are seen as the exclusive property of one side or other of the Left/Right political divide, almost regardless of the nature of the issue or the reality of a party’s record.

Green issues, for instance. The general assumption is that being concerned about these puts you on the left side of the axis. Take this quote. 

“…..consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world.”

Who might the author be?(*) George Monbiot? David Attenborough? Caroline Lucas, perhaps? It is certainly a sentiment with which they would agree. The belief that the selfishness or indifference of existing (and past) generations has damaged (perhaps ruined) the next generation’s prospects and the planet is one widely felt amongst many in the Green movement. It is summed up in the description of our “contemporary lifestyle” (a consumer capitalist lifestyle naturally) as “unsustainable”. Implicit in it is the belief that only state action can put matters right.  

Both assumptions have a great deal of truth in them but need a rather more critical eye than they generally get. Some of the worst environmental damage has occurred in countries where the collective was considered far more important than the  individual, where a consumer lifestyle was an unattainable dream. The Soviet Union – in its determination to industrialise and exploit its natural resources – was a perfect example. Its consequences affect Russia and surrounding countries to this day: some of the worst air pollution in the world, contamination of the earth and groundwater in Dzerzhinsk, a former chemical weapons production centre, Lake Karachay now radioactive, having being used as a dump for nuclear waste, rivers so full of chemical pollutants that they cannot freeze even in sub-zero temperatures, the loss of 90% of Lake Aral etc. Resources may have been owned and managed by the state for the People (in theory) but the interests of actual people in having clean water, clean air and not being poisoned by harmful substances dumped where they lived were, in reality, ignored. All this has incalculable, long-lasting and harmful consequences for the natural environment, current inhabitants and the unborn. Nor is there much chance of this changing, despite Communism’s disappearance. Putin thinks climate change a Western theory invented to hold back Russia’s development.

No economic model has a monopoly on selfishness and unsustainability, it seems. But too often some in the Green movement give the impression that only Western capitalism is at fault, that punishment, blame and attacking the bad guys are almost more important than finding workable solutions to put matters right. The real criticism of groups like Extinction Rebellion is that their irritatingly stupid attempts to disrupt public transport, their desire to make people feel strongly about the issue (“Emotionality is the only way you can get people to do something” as one of their co-founders has said) risk provoking an equally emotional and opposite reaction in response. If being green is seen as a desire to impose a sort of ascetic hairshirt mortification on people, rather than a genuine attempt to find workable solutions, it will likely repel those whose support is needed if effective measures are to succeed.

Still, the similarity between Putin’s views and Trump’s determination to ignore scientific evidence about climate change and environmental harm, to view it as a conspiracy against American economic interests, is striking. It is one shared by a number of right-wing / conservative governments who seem to view green issues as a pretext for an attack on capitalism, growth and individual liberty, an excuse for state control over both economy and people. Hence the description of Greens as “watermelons”: ostensibly green but really reds under the bed (or your car) itching to ban your holiday flight.

If so, this is perhaps in part because conservatives have not as seriously engaged in the debate as they should (Mrs Thatcher’s 1990 UN speech notwithstanding) some preferring ad hominem attacks on the messengers demanding action or pointing out the undoubted hypocrisies of the “Do as I say not as I do” brigade.  Time has been spent contesting the science rather than on R&D. Or they have presented the argument as one between those wanting economic growth to help the poor and those rich enough not to worry grandly telling others what to do. It is a false – if superficially attractive – choice. An unsustainable economic model or lifestyle risks short-term growth followed by bust, which rarely benefits the poor. (Cynics might wonder at the remarkably convenient focus on the poor by those wanting no change to a system which suits them very well indeed.) 

On one reading, it is very unconservative to think that only economic growth, regardless of the consequences, matters, that only financial inheritances count. Edmund Burke described society as “a contract between the dead, the living and those yet to be born”. This beautifully encapsulates why we should want to preserve the best of the past, both man-made and natural, why we should consider ourselves temporary guardians of our world holding it in trust for the future, why we have an obligation to sustain it so that it can be passed on in good order, why we should not be so arrogant as to think we can use it as we want or so selfish as to ignore the considerations of future generations. Our politics should reflect the “democracy of the living world” (to misquote G.K. Chesterton) and not just the people currently in it.  

Conservation – of buildings, natural habitats, plant and animal species, ways of life, traditions and activities rooted in a love and understanding of place and our dependence on nature, developing sustainable – rather than wasteful – ways of living  – should not be seen as “Green crap” to be discarded when it all becomes too politically difficult or inconvenient. Being green is not just about saving polar bears or stopping fires and floods in faraway countries. It is about, for instance: housing developments at home being intelligently designed and built with sustainable community and transport infrastructure; people living in well built energy efficient homes; sustainable farming using natural processes producing high quality food (rather than Monbiot’s latest idiotic idea to put the Googles of this world in control of providing us with artificial food); discouraging waste – and not just bad stuff like plastics but material which could be used (why, for instance, don’t we value and use the magnificent wool from Herdwick sheep here rather than importing pashminas from thousands of miles away or using foam insulation?) and much else besides. Being green involves changes in attitude (less waste, repair not throwing away), individual daily actions and collective action by individual states, acting on their own and with others. It involves making some difficult political and economic choices – taxing air travel, for instance.

The dangers of appearing to be a (possibly reluctant) latecomer to an issue which now appears to be higher up the public’s agenda than before is that you are fighting on ground which has been defined by others. The issue is seen as a cause. Intensity of belief matters more than coming up with practical solutions. Criticisms may be viewed as arising from a lack of commitment rather than from evidence-based objections. You risk having no alternative practical solutions to put forward. Your conversion to such policies may be seen as a gimmick (“Vote Blue, Go Green”), inconsistent or as good intentions to be abandoned at the slightest political pressure. (How confident can anyone be that, if the price of an FTA with the US is to reduce UK environmental standards, that price would not be paid.) 

It need not be like this. The sustainability and fairness of our economic model, what growth means, whether it is possible to develop without despoiling, how to come up with practical action on climate change and the environment – not merely talk – are key political issues and ones on which the intelligent (small “c”) conservative voice should be heard.

(*) Pope Francis.



Let’s talk about Islamophobia

Monday, December 9th, 2019

Vladimir Bukovsky died recently, in the country he called home after his 1976 expulsion from Russia. He was one of the last Russian dissidents from a time when concerns about Russia related not to its interference in Western elections or its financial links with Western leaders but about the spread of its Communist ideology, its brutal control of Eastern Europe, its appalling treatment of those who protested (incarceration as “insane” in psychiatric jails) or those who wanted to leave (Russian Jews – Anatoly Sharansky, for instance). All a very long time ago now, from a period when the Berlin Wall was standing, a structure exemplifying the brutal reality that Communist states were prisons: to try and escape meant death. It is history now, unimaginable to the generations since, even if there are some, even in the West, who still mourn its passing.

One of the many facets of the Cold War which is largely forgotten is how the West fought the war on the ideological front – help to dissidents (often by brave private individuals), pressure on the authorities to let people go, exposure of what was happening, formal pressure on the Soviets to live up to the ideals they proclaimed and the agreements they signed. The most successful of these were the 1975 Helsinki Accords, containing a chapter on human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Soviet Union signed up, little imagining that this would be used by protestors and dissidents to hold it to account, embarrass it, give hope of a better future. Charter 77 was based on it; one of its most prominent signatories, Vaclav Havel, became a symbol of resistance, writing that – even in a totalitarian state – man should try to live “as if” one were free, a liberation of the mind, a private free space. Eastern Europe seized its freedom 30 years ago now, Havel becoming President of Czechoslovakia. Charter 77 was dissolved in 1992. But its influence lives on – in Charter 08, a manifesto signed by Chinese dissidents and human rights activists in December 2008, 60 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A tricky word that: “Universal“. Whatever the original intentions, human rights have not been universal in practice and, signatures on treaties notwithstanding, not even accepted in theory in many countries, including China. China’s treatment of its citizens has been as brutal and murderous as the Soviet Union (at least 45 million murdered by Mao). Even after its opening up to the West and its enthusiastic embrace of capitalism (Chinese-style, along with extreme wealth and corruption), its treatment of dissidents and protestors or those who will not conform has continued to be brutal, harsh, often deadly.

And no group is suffering more than the Uighur Muslims, a people who have lived in this region for centuries and been Muslim since the 10th, as shown in this Panorama documentary. Or set out here. A million people forcibly detained in camps; children separated (perhaps permanently) from their parents; organs harvested; torture, rape, medical experiments; destruction of mosques and burial grounds. Why? For “re-education” in order to deal with people “influenced by extremism” and terrorism, according to the Chinese authorities. In reality, it is a regime of incalculable cruelty: a deliberate attempt to wipe out a religion, a language, a history, a culture, a memory. For what is a people – even if they live – if their history, their way of doing things, their culture, their beliefs, their language, their buildings, their religion – are obliterated?

Arguably it may even fall within the UN definition of genocide: “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or on part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: ……. causing serious ….. mental harm to members of the group….”. But set aside legalities: what is happening is revolting, not very different in its cruelty and effects to other acts of annihilation of groups committed by totalitarian or aggressive regimes in the 20th century.

If China succeeds in its “re-education”, an ancient Islamic people will, to all intents and purposes, disappear. If anything deserves the moniker “Islamophobia” surely this does?

How should the Western world react? Exposure of what is happening has been recent; UN reports are being written; the US may raise it with the Chinese authorities; the US Congress has passed a bill and 22 UN countries have condemned it. (More than double that number have supported China.) Will anything else be done? There is little pressure for more. So far anyway. Why? Well, some reasons suggest themselves:-

  • The Uighur are a faraway people of whom little is known. Perhaps, to misquote Regis Debray, these victims are “too Muslim to interest the Right, the wrong sort of foreign to excite the Left”.
  • The Muslim world has not spoken up for them, a striking contrast to how it behaves when some perceived offence against Muslim sensibilities occurs in Western countries. Indeed, when the UN raised the issue, some leading Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt) spoke up for China. Where is the Muslim ummah when you need it most?
  • Perhaps there is some truth in the “terrorism” charge the Chinese level at the Uighur, though no evidence of this has been provided. More likely, the Chinese have cynically used fear of Islamic terrorism as a justification, knowing that this fear is shared (not without some reason) by many countries and that this may inhibit condemnation, let alone action.
  • Chinese markets, money, business and trade matter to the West, far more than the fate of a people whose name is hard to spell. Unlike the Soviet Union, which had few economic goodies to offer the West, China’s economy matters.
  • China is ruthless enough to ignore any measures taken and take counter-measures of its own. And – unlike Soviet Russia – it will likely not sign up to anything inhibiting its freedom of manoeuvre. The Helsinki Accords were the first step in bringing Russia and the West closer. The same need does not apply to China.
  • The West appears to have lost some confidence in projecting its own values. The US has a leader unconcerned by such matters who has sought to challenge China only for the US’s economic benefit rather than out of any particular concern for Western values.

So little may be done beyond statements, reports and, maybe, some token gestures. There are plenty of other issues which the West has to consider in its relationship with China: Hong Kong, Taiwan, trade, the strength of its economy and how this will affect |Western economies, its relationships with emerging African countries, its Belt and Road initiative, use of Chinese telecommunications and so on. Realpolitik will rule the day, no matter how personally appalled Western politicians may be at what they learn. ‘Twas ever thus.

Still, one lesson to be learnt from the disappearance of Soviet Russia and its satellites 3 decades ago, is that apparently permanent and impregnable and strong polities are not necessarily as permanent and impregnable and strong as everyone had supposed. Staying silent, doing nothing for those seeking freedom in such states is noticed by them. As the Polish writer and Nobel prize winner, Czeslaw Milosz, put it to Pablo Picasso in 1956 in relation to his support for Stalin: “During the years when painting was systematically destroyed in the USSR….. you lent your name to statements glorifying Stalin’s regime….  Your weight counted in the balance, and took away hope from those in the East who wanted not to submit….. No one knows what consequences a categorical protest from you might have had…. If your support helped the terror, your indignation would also have mattered.”

So what can the West do? What should it do? What will it do?



The Tyranny of Low Expectations

Sunday, October 13th, 2019

It is generally a good idea, when facing severe criticism from an inquiry, to concede with as much good grace as possible, to keep your immediate thoughts about the idiocy of the judge to yourself and not to try and justify the behaviour which has been criticised. No good will come of it: you will look like someone paying lip service to the findings who really thinks you’ve done nothing wrong.

It is advice which the Metropolitan Police singularly failed to follow in their response to the report by Sir Richard Henriques on Operation Midland, the now notorious investigation into alleged child abuse. The day of its publication the Met’s response focused on why no senior officer had done anything wrong despite the long list of failings catalogued: 43 in total, including that, in obtaining search warrants without being fully transparent about the evidence they had, the police had broken the law. This is about as serious a failure as it is possible to have by public servants whose primary and most important duty is to uphold it. Not break it. The Met’s apology for the upset caused by the searches seemed to be quite unequal to the failure – the sort of apology you might make if you’d inadvertently interrupted someone having a bath – rather than a realisation of the very great damage done to policing and the administration of justice if those tasked with it cannot be bothered to behave lawfully.

The report by the IOPC the following day adopted the same self-justifying tone to explain why there was no basis for disciplining any of the officers involved despite its comprehensive investigation, one so comprehensive that none of the officers involved had been interviewed. What would the IOPC consider an inadequate investigation to be?

One of the critical failings was the police deciding – and publicly announcing – that allegations were true and believable before they had been investigated, as a result of an obligation to believe a victim and, indeed, to call them a victim rather than a complainant. Paragraphs 1.11-1.35 of the report on why these two practices are so seriously prejudicial to proper investigation, the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof (the foundations of our entire criminal justice system) are very well worth reading. In consequence, one of the judge’s most important recommendations was for the police not automatically to believe complainants: “If one policy decision results from this review I trust that the instruction to ‘believe’ a victim’s account will cease.”  The police seem disinclined to follow this advice. Even Vera Baird, the Victims’ Commissioner, despite being a QC, seems not to understand that belief in an allegation is not necessary to investigate it properly.

The belief that victims must be believed without question did not come from nowhere. It arose in part in response to previous police failings. In 1982 Roger Graef’s documentary series about Thames Valley Police caused a stir when the episode entitled “A Complaint of Rape” showed male policemen treating a female rape victim with harsh dismissiveness. This led to important and valuable changes in how the police investigated this most serious and sensitive of crimes. Similar changes have been made with regard to how child victims of sexual abuse are treated, both by the police and by the courts when they give evidence. All of this is welcome: old-fashioned assumptions (that women are asking for it, that children are liars) are no basis on which to investigate crimes.

Some old-fashioned attitudes still persist though: young troubled girls in care are seen as not “nice” and in effect asking to be abused by their attackers, the assumption this time being wrapped up in the mistaken and nonsensical notion that an underage child has given “consent”. At the other end, the police have veered from ignoring crimes alleged against the famous (Savile) to pursuing them with unseemly malice and a misguided focus on making media headlines (Cliff Richard).  (If there is one thing to be regretted from the decision to abandon the second half of the Leveson Inquiry is that there was no examination of the police’s relationship with the press and whether this is compatible with their policing role. It is something which needs much more scrutiny than it is, for obvious reasons, ever likely now to get.) It as if the police veer from one position to another in response to the scandal du jour without any understanding of – or firm attachment to – the long-standing principles underlying the criminal justice system

Now the police have adopted the spuriously sentimental assumption that a victim should be believed without question. To do so is fatally to confuse therapy and care with investigation. The former is laudable but not the role of the police. The latter is.

For investigators to do their job properly they need two skills above all: emotional intelligence – empathy, an ability to understand human behaviour and motivation and build a relationship with both (alleged) criminal and victim. The second is to have what Graham Greene described as the “splinter of ice in the heart”, the judgment and analysis that makes them look coolly and dispassionately at the facts, to base their opinions on what they have found and not what they would like to believe to be true, that makes them remember that they need to find and test the evidence and ensure that it is good enough to convict someone to the standard required.

As the report put it:

“Any process that imposes an artificial state of mind upon an investigator is, necessarily, a flawed process. An investigator, in any reputable system of justice, must be impartial. The imposed ‘obligation to believe’ removes that impartiality.”

If the police allow sentimental beliefs, preconceived opinions and assumptions, pressure from the media or politicians to override the judgments they need to make, they are doing a profound disservice – to the victims (who need their complaints taken seriously and investigated properly, a crucially important difference to simply being believed), to the defendants (who are entitled not to be accused publicly – or at all – on the basis of opinion unsupported by any evidence), to the public’s faith in policing, to the administration of justice itself.

What was so dismaying about the police’s response to the Henriques report was not just the rush to protect their own, the desire to explain why disciplinary action was unjustified, the belief that incompetence and negligence were not sufficient to merit any kind of action.  The approach was that the police had broken no disciplinary rules; they did not intend to cause harm and there was no evidence of criminal behaviour so that was that.  The level of incompetence and negligence on display, the failures in basic investigative tradecraft were simply to be ignored. No: what’s worse is the assumption that nothing more than this can or should be expected.

The police had passed the low bar expected of them.  43 failings in one inquiry can happen but no-one need take any responsibility.

It is a stunning failure to understand what leadership means.  Leadership means, in essence, taking responsibility for what happens in your watch – even if you are not personally to blame.  Those senior officers who were in position when this lamentable series of failures occurred were the leaders in charge.  If leadership is to mean anything, if setting an example to all those in the police service matters, if an apology is to be meaningful, if learning lessons is to be something other than a cliché to be trotted out, if integrity at the top of policing is to have substance, then those in charge of this inquiry should, in all honour, take responsibility and resign.  Not seek to evade it with self-serving justifications and remorseful cries of “Oh, if only I’d done something different.

The Home Secretary (not noted for either her empathy or integrity or, indeed, her understanding of the criminal justice system – as her latest spat with the Attorney-General suggests) has apparently asked for a further inquiry to be carried out – though since it is to be carried out by the very body which has come up with the practices roundly criticised by the Henriques report, don’t build your hopes too high. In the meanwhile, the Prime Minister has made great play of his intention to fund 20,000 more police for our streets.  Without wishing to downplay the work of ordinary policemen or, indeed the need for effective policing, with this sort of inadequate leadership and incompetence on show, it is worth asking whether this really is the best use of public money?  Maybe fixing the problems identified by Sir Richard Henriques and implementing his recommendations might come before spaffing money on more police. It can’t, after all, cost that much to remind police leaders of that well-known saying: “The buck stops here.



Jared O’Mara’s likely resignation should prompt another look at extending proxy voting in the Commons

Sunday, July 28th, 2019

The current restrictions help neither the public nor MPs

Parliament is – and is meant to be – a tough arena. MPs and ministers take critically-important decisions and need to be accountable for them. Ideas and arguments need to tested and pitted against one another. Failures (and perceived failures) will be pounced on, often ruthlessly. Unfortunate ministers and shadow ministers who make the wrong mistake at the wrong time find themselves at the centre of a political storm often out of all proportion to the event itself, and often resulting in an unjust resignation – a storm made all the more intense these days by social media and 24-hour news reporting.

As such, it was clearly a high-risk decision from Labour to nominate Jared O’Mara for a very winnable seat – and one that was only ever going to end in disaster once he didn’t receive the proper support his autism necessitated to transition into, and survive in, such an environment. Clearly, he has to take his own share of responsibility for his failings but they are not his alone.

One question that the Commons should be asking itself is what more can be done to support MPs who are suffering from mental health disorders (indeed, what more can be done to help them acknowledge that they are suffering from these disorders in the first place)? Even more than many other jobs, the incentives are to keep their heads down and get on with it.

Instead, parliament should looks to extend the scheme it introduced last year, when it voted without opposition to allow MPs who are new parents to nominate a colleague to cast proxy votes on their behalf, meaning that they can more meaningfully take maternity or paternity leave without having to worry too much about the effect that doing so would have on the government’s majority.

Some might argue that MPs occupy an unusual position that’s not comparable to normal jobs; that they are elected by their public and have not only a mandate but also a duty to represent their constituents. As such, giving their vote to a colleague abdicates that responsibility and undermines democracy.

There is a little in that argument but surely the stronger point is that parliament should ideally represent the country at large. Two very under-represented groups are women and the under-35s and making Westminster more family-friendly might address some of the structural reasons that produce those imbalances.

However, if parliament is going to consider the principle that someone who wasn’t elected to represent a given constituency can cast votes on behalf of the MP who was, why limit it just to sitting MPs? After all, much of an MP’s job is done outside the voting lobbies – receiving and responding to constituency mail; tabling questions, amendments, EDMs and so on; speaking in the Chamber; serving on Select and other Committees. These jobs still need doing just as much when the MP is on leave. Some of those roles could be filled by either the MP’s office acting on an understanding of what the member would want, and for the larger parties, many points that a given MP might make could likely be made by a colleague but that needn’t be true for smaller parties, for example.

More relevantly, given the O’Mara situation, why limit the proxy system to just parental leave? Why not introduce it for MPs on long-term sick (which also would mean that they’d be less stressed about letting constituents down by their absence)? It’s far from unknown for MPs to function at far below the normal capacity due to illness, particularly where it’s a terminal one but also when the MP might be recovering from a serious accident, illness or other medical event. In these cases, their constituents still need and deserve representation.

Some might argue that MPs in such positions should resign and let someone who can do the work take over but that ignores both a basic humanity and also practical politics. MPs are unlikely to resign where they think their party might lose the seat – especially when the numbers in parliament are poised as the currently are. Also, where the MP recovers, or expects to, it’s both unrealistic and unreasonable to expect him or her to resign.

It’s not unreasonable, however, for the voters to expect their voice to be heard in Westminster. How to square the circle? I’d suggest that it ought to be possible for an MP to nominate a substitute to act as a proxy, with full powers and for up to 12 months between elections, and with the nominated substitute subject to a confirmatory vote in the Commons. During that time, the MP on leave would be barred from acting in any formal capacity as the MP to avoid conflicts.

The limited introduction of parental leave is a good baby step in the right direction but the principle could, and should, go a lot further.

David Herdson


Lazy Summers but politics can go on

Saturday, July 27th, 2019

In An Italian Education, Tim Parks describes the wonderfully languorous routine of an Italian summer: the shutting down of all but essential services in hot, humid cities leaving them to tourists, the departure for the coast, the gathering of the extended family, the early mornings to enjoy an espresso outside when the day is cool, the encampment at the same spot on the beach amongst the ombrelloni, neatly and beautifully laid out, la bella figura being quite as important when little is worn as at every other time, lunch followed by siesta, the late afternoon passeggiata before evening entertainment.  Day in, day out, the rythym is much the same, punctuated by religious festivals: Sant’ Andrea in Amalfi in late June, for instance, or Ferragosto everywhere.  Then the gentle return home in September, with weekend visits to the coast for those lucky enough to live nearby.  It is a time to breathe, relax, close off the pressing problems of life, which can – for now – wait.

Yet summer has often been when horrible crises and unexpected events have impolitely intruded into this idyll.  Consider:-

  1. 1980: Solidarity’s emergency in Poland – at the end of August following weeks of unrest at the Gdansk shipyard and the Pope’s undermining of the regime’s credibility with his “Do not be afraid” message during his visit the previous year.  It was also possibly one of the first times when right-wingers in the West, normally allergic to collective action and solidarity when practised by workers in their countries, unreservedly welcomed the creation of a trade union not enamoured of socialism, communism or the Soviet Union.  For precisely the opposite reasons, some on the Left in the West were wary of these particular workers.  The butterfly wings flapped in Gdansk that summer led – eventually – to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.  Few in the West (beyond obscure bearded backbenchers and over-privileged Guardian columnists) mourned its loss  But it took another summer event finally to set the wheels in motion.
  2. 1989: East German holiday makers in Hungary – over that summer East Germans holidaying there, noticing that the border fence with its Western neighbours had been removed, refused to go home.  They sprinted past border guards, slipped across the border in woods, slowly at first in small numbers and then more boldly, more and more of them until camps had to be created to house them and the West German Embassy in Budapest found itself the holiday home of choice of hundreds of East Germans desperate to escape.  Eventually, the pressure became too much.  They were allowed to leave, the delighted refugees contemptuously throwing their East German papers out of the windows of the trains as they fled.  It was only a matter of time before the chants in Dresden of protesters: “Wir sind das Volk.” (a reminder to their masters of who the People really were) became a cry of: “Wir sind ein Volk”.  The reunification of Germany, the release of Eastern Europe from its grim oppression, Europe becoming whole again was an event of geopolitical importance, yes, but above all an expression of hope and freedom and longing for a better world, of people taking back control of their lives in the most meaningful way possible.  An Ode to Joy to celebrate.
  3. 1990: Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August – possibly the last time when – in relation to the Middle East anyway – the world agreed who the aggressor was, who the victim, what had to be done and then did it.  The expulsion of Iraq from its ill-gotten gains was executed with masterly precision.  Its aftermath (Saddam staying in power, his crushing of the revolt against him, the horrors inflicted on the Marsh Arabs) led, in part, to another less well-executed, less justified invasion 13 years later, whose consequences reverberate today and likely for decades more.
  4. 1991: The failed coup against Gorbachev – the trembling heads of the plotters as they announced their coup that August betrayed their nerves.  Yeltsin seized the moment, stood on tanks outside the Russian Parliament and dared them to do their worst.  The Soviet Union crumbled, bringing down with it Gorbachev who had, whether intending to or not, done so much to show up its failing and rotten core.  It was a moment when the world held its breath and a US President, not known for his linguistic fluency, musing about whether the coup would succeed, gave encouragement to those resisting it.
  5. 1997: the Asian financial crisis – starting in July with capital flight as the Thai currency was floated, spreading to other Asian countries and Japan and resulting in IMF support to the troubled region.  A portent of trouble ahead.
  6. 1998: a Russian financial crisis  – in August when Russia devalued its currency and defaulted on its debt.  One of the high-profile victims was Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund set up by ex-Salomon Brothers traders and boasting two Economics Nobel Prize winners on its Board.  Their claim to fame was having devised a brilliant new way of valuing derivatives.  Despite such brainpower, LCTM managed to lose $4.6 billion in less than 4 months that summer, was bailed out by the Federal Reserve and closed 18 months later.  Alas, the two obvious lessons to be learnt: (1) when clever people talk about “a new paradigm” in finance, it is time to put your money under the mattress; (2) there is a sort of stupidity that only clever people are capable of – was not learnt by anyone important at the time.  Hence …..
  7. 2007: The financial crisis – starting with a French bank, in August, blocking withdrawals from two of its funds because it no longer knew what they were worth (a sign they were probably worthless) and leading, via increasing worries amongst policymakers, central banks, regulators about the state of the financial system, to the UK’s first bank run as Northern Rock depositors decided the mattress was indeed safer.  The signs had been there for some time but had been ignored.  In July, Citigroup’s CEO, a lawyer-turned-banker, gave his own inimitable account of the Greater Fool theory – not realising the fool was him – when he said: “When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated.  But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.  We’re still dancing.”  Whoever thought that putting lawyers in charge of a bank would be a good idea?  They turned out to be every bit as bad as bankers at running them.  The crisis went on and on and on.  We are now in the pause between that one and the next.
  8. 2008: Civil unrest in South Ossetia, Georgia – the Georgian President’s decision to send in troops into the rebellious province that August gave Putin the excuse he needed to send in his troops.  The West huffed and puffed but did nothing.  What could it do?  Those hopeful days of 1991 had given way to a defensively proud and aggressive Russia, one easily recognisable to 19th century leaders.  Was the Soviet Union’s fall an opportunity missed?  Dutch holidaymakers in flight MH17 shot down in July 2014, Ukrainians and Crimeans would like to know.
  9. June – August 2016: Greece and the Euro – A charismatic politician comes to power vowing to renegotiate terms with the EU, to end his country’s humiliation and even gets his electorate to support his showdown.  It is all of no avail.  He is forced to back down.  His party is split.  Terms are agreed – or rather – dictated by the powerful neighbour.  There is no more talk of boldness.  The politician hangs onto power being finally ejected three years later by someone promising boring economic competence.  Perhaps Greece, having provided a template for democracy, is providing another one.
  10. Summer 2019: Britain – our PM tells the EU, which has said for months that negotiations are at an end, that he will not negotiate with them unless they give him what he asks for first.  The EU is now trying to understand what sort of a threat it is to say that you will not do something which the other party has also said they are not doing.

Perhaps it will take until October for all this to come to a crisis.  Perhaps.  But MPs heading off for their holidays might just pack an emergency bag for returning at short notice.  Just in case.  You never know what summer might bring.



At this critical time reflections on “Cultivating Democracy”

Sunday, July 21st, 2019

Occasionally I have planted a gorgeous looking plant; it has flowered briefly then died.  On digging it up I find the dreaded wine weevil or roots which have made no attempt to spread into the soil and find nutrition.  It is a reminder that nourishing the hidden roots is by far a gardener’s most important task.  A plant not strong and well anchored will be blown away by the winds, destroyed by frost or succumb to malicious bugs and parasites.

As with plants, so with democracy.  The assumption these days is that its most important aspect is the ability to vote.  Elections are the visible, exuberant expression of a democracy, its flowers if you will.  These days scarcely a day goes by without some politician referring to the 2016 referendum as the biggest democratic exercise in Britain’s history, as if this were an unprecedented event, of such preciousness that nothing else should come close.  Of course voting is essential or, rather, obtaining people’s consent to their government is.  But elections, on their own, are not sufficient to make a democracy.  Iran has elections.  But even its most fervent admirer would be hard pressed to call it that.  For democracy to flourish, something more is needed: what might be termed a democratic cast of mind and approach and culture informing how the various institutions in a state and everyone from voters to political parties and politicians behave.

What does this mean?

  • An understanding that state and government are not the same.  State institutions are there to serve but are independent and impartial and not party political.  The civil service, for instance, enacts government policy but also exists to warn, improve and advise.  Blind obedience is not necessary for good policy-making and implementation; indeed, it may hinder it.
  • Winning does not mean winner takes all.  The state is not there to be plundered, stuffed with your placemen and used for your own ends.
  • Understanding that the ends do not justify the means.  How one exercises power is, in a democracy, as important as what one is trying to achieve.  A party which comes to power is – for a time – custodian of the powers and institutions of the state and has a duty to pass these on in a workable state for the next government.  The rules of the game, the constitution, the conventions, the protocols, the implicit understandings of the limits of power may be of little interest to most voters, may indeed be seen as old-fashioned, out-dated, incomprehensible folderols but they exist in all democracies and are there to ensure that power is obtained and exercised fairly and in a way which does not place such excessive strains on the system that it breaks (or comes close to doing so).
  • Realising that your time in power will be not be for ever.  One day you will be in opposition and will need the tools which can be so irritating to governments facing challenge.  If you accrete more and more power to yourself, your opponents can use it against you when are in opposition.  It is, therefore, wise to ask yourself whether you would be happy to have the worst possible opponent in government with the same powers (that you, of course, are only ever going to use wisely) at their disposal.  Perhaps those in power could remind themselves of Lord Acton’s aperçu about power and corruption.
  • Accepting the concept and reality of opposition, that the very fact of opposition or a different point of view is legitimate and that this forces you to raise your game, to justify what you are doing, to think again, to take account of different viewpoints, to modify, to realise that you may not have all the answers, to understand that the tension inherent in having to reach agreement with those who disagree can often lead to a better, more long-lasting outcome.
  • Independent institutions who have their own role to play in ensuring good governance, proper scrutiny and a properly democratic culture: the press, the judiciary, all sorts of bodies from Burke’s little platoons to bodies set up by government to scrutinise and challenge and review.
  • Leaders who understand that they are and should be open to challenge and scrutiny and MPs and others who are unafraid to challenge and scrutinise.
  • A realisation that while it is parties which win elections, once in government your primary duty is to the country.  The interests of the party are separate from the interests of the country, however much parties like to pretend otherwise.  Of course, governments make choices about who their policies will benefit and about what is electorally popular.  But only a government in the grip of hubris should claim that it represents the British people as a whole or that the winning side in a vote is somehow the Will of the People as if anyone who opposes or disagrees is somehow unBritish and to be ignored.  A difference of opinion does not make one a traitor or even misguided.  There is more than one way of analysing a problem, thinking about an issue, devising a solution.

And as in government, so for political parties.  Parties have always tended to be broad groupings with a range of opinions.  A narrow purist approach to what it means to be Labour or Conservative or Liberal or Liberal Democrat has never really taken hold.  In part, this has been because the electoral system has forced internal coalitions on parties while, at least until recently, making actual coalition governments less likely than in other European countries.  (One of today’s ironies is that just as parties become ever narrower and purist the more likely it is that they will not gain a majority but be forced into coalition with others.)  Whatever the reasons, this has reinforced an understanding that a democratic culture within parties – as well as within the country – encompasses negotiation, compromise, accommodation.   Compromise and barter are the essence of democratic politics.  They are at the heart of how differing interests and viewpoints are managed, of how trust and tolerance and respect for others are lived rather than merely asserted in speeches.

As Burke put it, it is: “a very great mistake to imagine that mankind follows up practically any speculative principle, either of government or of freedom, as far as it will go in actual argument or logical illation.”  Politicians would do well to remember this.

Idealistic: yes.  Naive: almost certainly.  In practice, politicians have not always paid attention to these principles or not as much as they ought.  But better to aim for ideals and fall short than ignore them altogether and undermine them.  And the latter seems to be happening now.  The travails of the Labour Party over anti-semitism and of the Tories over Brexit show us politicians with little implicit understanding of what a democratic culture really means:-

And so miserably on.  Implementing a referendum result should not mean taking a sledgehammer to the very democracy which made it possible.  Wanting a radical set of policies to help the less well off need not mean behaving like a nasty spiteful sect lashing out at anyone outside the charmed circle.  Perhaps the Brexit referendum caused this.  Maybe these tendencies were always there and were exacerbated by it.  It scarcely matters.  What matters now is that politicians try to remember that their biggest duty is to nurture our democracy, to make sure it lasts and flourishes and is handed on to future generations in good order.  For all the talk of Votes and Mandates, their actions are those of destructive parasites.  If not checked, they will end up killing what they claim to love.





This unique feel good moment has the potential to change our politics. The questions are will it and how

Monday, July 15th, 2019

Probably the most significant decision by a media organisation in decades was that by Sky to allow yesterday’s Lords final of the cricket World Cup to be broadcast on free to air television. This meant that many more people were sitting gripped to their TVs as Stokes faced that “Super over” that clinched it. This made it a truly national England and Wales event.

In Scotland things will be looked at very differently but that’s another story and and likely next LD leader, the Scottish Jo Swinson, will have to be careful with her words on this.

I’m old enough to remember the Football World Cup victory at Wembley in July 1966. Even many of those who weren’t even alive at the time can recite Kenneth Wolstenhome’s final commentary line as extra time came to an end “They think its all over – it is now”. In many ways yesterday was even more dramatic.

Already some politicians have tried to seize the extraordinary victory to make political capital. Moggsy put out a Tweet saying “We don’t need Europe to win” something which he is already under fire for. Coming as it does at a time of incredible political change we can expect a lot more of this.  There is a danger in the Rees-Mogg approach because it looks too exploitative – just the sort of thing you would expect a Brexit obsessed politician to do. The Guardian reported:

Rees-Mogg’s fellow Conservative MP Ed Vaizey said that his colleague was guilty of “slightly misjudging the mood”, before adding that “while you’re on, the English captain is Irish”. Alastair Campbell suggested that “perhaps instead of making a silly Brextremist point, offer congratulations to the Irish captain, the NZ-born man of the match, and the Barbadian bowler who got it over the line”.

It was good that Theresa May was there at Lords to enjoy something in the final ten days of her troubled Premiership. At least her presence was genuine. She is a long-standing cricket fan. This wasn’t like Cameron’s shallow claims to be a West Ham or was it an Aston Villa supporter.

Whatever as we move to a new, uncertain and potentially dangerous political era there is something to feel good about.

Mike Smithson


What is there to say after a sporting day like this one?

Sunday, July 14th, 2019

I’d focused on the tennis and have just watched the final hour of the cricket on C4+1.

Totally amazing.

Mike Smithson