Archive for April, 2011

The People’s Duchess

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

There was an element of fairytale in Friday’s events, as many have said. There was a spontaneous warmth for  William and Kate, not just because of the pageantry of Royalty. He is the daughter of the People’s Princess, whose death left an unfilled void in the hearts of so many. She is of an aspirational middle class family with working class roots. Both have university degrees, which is how they met. They symbolise in their marriage the fusion of crown and people. They make real the gradual modernisation of the monarchy. They are bang up to date. They show the monarchy is able to bypass  government and parliament and appeal directly to the people. What politician could draw a crowd, let alone crowds, on the scale of yesterday?

Once we were all subjects of the monarch. When we reach King William V and Queen Catherine, he will be our King and she our Queen. That is the significance of the relationship, begun today, between the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the now citizens of the United Kingdom. This young couple will more than anything ensure that it remains a kingdom and does not become a republic.

It was a very good day for the Queen and Prince Philip. If they had worries about Charles and Camilla, they now have less to fear. In the long term, the future for the House of Windsor looks a lot brighter. Because, when it comes to it, Britain may choose to govern itself by a surprisingly limited form of democracy, but at its heart it is a proud and willing monarchy. In an age of brands and celebrity the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are at the top rank of both. When it comes to public ceremony, Britain remains in a class of its own. All may envy, but none can match.

A Constitutional Blunder

Thursday, April 28th, 2011

The Queen has been very badly advised. It matters not whether Blair was indiscreet in his book or Brown blew up the economy. It does not matter if Her Majesty hates them both. This is unlikely, but she is in the end, human. What matters is that both are former Prime Ministers and it is the custom in our unwritten Constitution, a strange agglomeration of practices, precedents and statutes, to include living former PMs on big occasions, especially those where other politicians and diplomats are invited. To leave out these two is error enough, but it gets worse. Two others are invited, Thatcher and Major. Neither was without issues at the Palace during their Premierships. The point is they are both Tory. The excluded two are Labour. Oh dear.

Even the Daily Mail, which despises Blair and Brown, has sprung to their defence. In a futile attempt to assuage what appears a childish and gratuitous insult, the Palace is spinning stuff about neither being garter or thistle knights (whose fault is that?) and the Royal Wedding  not being a State occasion. No, but is is certainly a Royal one. We are back to the silly nonsense of Diana’s funeral being a ‘private matter’ and no cause to interrupt the Royal holiday at Balmoral. From that potential calamity the Queen was rescued by her then Prime Minister, Tony Blair.

There is a lesson for the Palace in this sorry little episode. It is this. In an absolute Monarchy, the State is the property of the Monarch. In a Constitutional Monarchy (whether written or not) the Monarchy is the property of the State. This includes persons, titles, privileges, property, garters, thistles, weddings;  the whole works. That idea was challenged by Charles I, James II and Edward VIII. All lost their crowns. Charles also lost his head. In matters Royal, nothing is private.

Growth. But Not At Any Price

Wednesday, April 27th, 2011

The GDP figures today are very good news if you want re-assurance that the economy is re-modeling, debt is being paid down privately and by corporations and banks are contracting. It is good that construction is weak and house prices flat. It is very good that manufacturing and high tec service industries are expanding at near record rates. This is because they are the driver of future economic recovery and prosperity.

This blog has argued time and again that without remodelling, an economy set to recover on the old lend and spend blueprint would be one on the road to calamity. I have also argued that you cannot re-model an economy without contracting it. To cut the burden of too big a public sector, you have to contract sharply that segment of the economy, in order to release resources to enable the private sector to expand. This cannot be done simultaneously any more than you can send a bus round a bend at full speed.

To allow a large public sector to consume excessive proportions of GDP leads to decline and collapse. The Soviet Union was in many respects extraordinarily successful, but was brought down by financial collapse, because its economic philosophy and model was shot.  China, in contrast, grows faster than any other county on earth with its evolved system of State capitalism. It has a healthy private sector. In fact China’s public expenditure is about half that of the UK as a percentage of GDP. Moreover far too much of Labour’s spending was on government and quasi-government and too little on wealth creating investment. This increased the millstone round the economy’s neck and has led the Coalition to cut worthy projects like school rebuilding, in its drive to reduce the deficit.

Labour may feel happy that things are difficult for the Coalition as this re-balancing proceeds. So far their economic plans do not add up, simply because they love big government and worse they would pay for it by borrowing more. However more attractive that road looks and, as a journey plan it is much easier to sell, it does in the end lead to only one destination. Ireland, Greece and Portugal have already arrived there.

Civilian Deaths

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011

There appears to be a notion developing that somehow it is possible to have a war, even a civil war, without putting innocent civilians at risk. This may have been possible once upon a time when armies met on the field in set piece battles, but all that came to an end before the start of the twentieth century. In recent times Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Libya and now Syria underscore this.

It is therefore unrealistic to launch military action to simply protect civilian lives. It sounds good, appears impartial and avoids those engaged having to take sides. It works to some extent, but not enough. We see this in Libya. While the NATO mission is not yet classed as a failure, it is failing in its mission overall. Observers in Misrata report increasing casualties among innocent civilians and disappointment at how little NATO is doing to help. It has probably done what it can, but the government forces are getting good at improvising protection and concealment of heavy weapons from air attack.

The West must stop encouraging uprisings, if it is, as it should be, unwilling to join in on the side of the protesters. Sanctions are meaningless to a cowering family under fire. Air campaigns to protect civilians have some effect but not enough and may even increase casualties by encouraging rebels to fight without real prospects of victory. All this is beginning to dawn even in the hottest heads. That is why there will be no intervention in Syria.

Meanwhile Libya continues in stalemate. A ceasefire is essential. NATO may soon have to bite the bullet and talk to Gaddafi. Unless the Americans drone him first.

Afghanistan: The Forgotten War

Monday, April 25th, 2011

The media hardly reports on this war any more. As stalemates go the conflict is stale to the point of putrefaction. News breaks today of a well planned mass breakout from the highest security Kandaha prison. Actually the escape tunnel was dug from outside in, so it can be classed as a rescue by the Taliban of nearly five hundred of their people, including many commanders. This is a serious setback to those still in the dreamland of handing over security to the corrupt and inept Afghan Government and coming home in triumph from a pacified, democratised and stable Afghanistan. This was never going to happen.

There is now a choice. Either negotiate with the Taliban to get a compromise settlement which they are willing to back, at least in the interim. Some kind of power sharing government, Iraq style, may be possible, though I suspect may not last for ever. The other is to step up military operations and training of Afghan Government forces, so that on the face of it, it is possible to hand over security to the Khazi government and for all foreign troops to withdraw. That is what will most likely happen.

What will then follow, this can be predicted with confidence, is a civil war which the Taliban will win, with most of the so called security forces swithching sides to join them. We shall then be back to square one, with all the years of effort, expenditure and sacrifice of lives entirely wasted. Maybe lessons will have been learned in the West. Then again, maybe not.

Nick Clegg Hits Back

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

It is impossible to have a referendum without a campaign, as the Coalition has discovered. The NO campaign has made Nick Clegg the reason for voting NO. An emboldened Cameron claimed he was happy with ‘help my friend’ internships after his deputy said they were unfair. The NO leaflet which came through my door gave over the whole back page to rubbishing the Deputy PM. This may not have been wise. As predicted in an earlier post, Nick Clegg is becoming a big hitter, a bruiser even. So today he talks of a right wing clique wanting to keep things in a way which they can control. He is, of course, correct, with the proviso that there are many left wingers opposed to any sort of change about anything progressive.

I suspect the YES campaign may now get into its stride and the NO campaign, with its very simple message, may have shot its bolt. We shall see. This is not an easy contest to call. Easier are the local elections. Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems are heading for losses. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the message from the voters to the coalition parties will be stop bickering, hang in together, or go under.

Libya: Time for a Ceasefire

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

It is now universally accepted that there is stalemate all round in Libya. NATO cannot tip the balance in favour of a rebel win, neither can it stop Gaddafi altogether. Gaddafi cannot stop the rebels. They cannot break through to Tripoli.There may also be stalemate in the support for either side. Not all Libya backs the rebels and their support may have peaked. The outward flow from the Gaddafi side seems to have ebbed.This is not what NATO intended, but it is what many expected, some of them, Germany in particular, in NATO itself.

The common factor of all civil wars is that they cost many innocent lives and cause much suffering. The longer they go on the greater the suffering, the more the deaths. It behoves the international community to end this if it can. The UN must now take ceasefire negotiations seriously, the Arab League must become proactive and NATO must lean on the rebels. This does not mean the quarrel will be settled, nor that Gaddafi will certainly go. It will mean that the killing stops (even if the ceasefire has to be policed on the ground). The arguments may go on with two Libyas being de facto, if not formally in being. It will also mean that the UK will have extricated itself from an open ended military commitment which it cannot at present afford. The US will be able to concentrate on getting fully out of Iraq and slowly out of Afghanistan. Only the French military will be sorry to lose their limelight moment.

AV: A Better Way

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

One poll has significantly narrowed the NO lead to 2%. It may be a rogue or it may be the start of a trend. There do seem to be signs that the YES campaign is picking up speed. I had thought they had lost it, but maybe not. We have little to no experience of national referenda in the UK, so comparison with ordinary elections may not work. It is after all a simple question; it does not involve trusting people to lead you. Once you have grasped the issue, choice is easy to match with your inclination. Perhaps this is done as easily at the last minute as early in the campaign.

I have friends who want change, but will vote NO because they think AV is a bad system. I have sympathy with that view. I do think it is important to ensure that all MPs go the Commons only if they have a majority of the votes cast. I argued this in my book 2010 Blueprint For Change. I also argued for a second ballot, or run off , as it is sometimes called. The snag is two elections within one campaign. The advantage is absolute clarity and total voter support for the result.

Those old enough to remember the Fourth Republic after WWII in France will recall a chaotic election structure based on proportional representation, which produced a Chamber of Deputies more akin to a fractious mob than a means of government. Indeed the Prime Minister in office when you sat down to breakfast, was generally gone by afternoon tea. All but the most obscure politicians had enjoyed a spell as Prime Minister;  a few survived for months, most only for weeks and some for just hours. Needles to say, this was not France’s golden age. Then came De Gaulle. He produced a new Constitution and a different electoral system. The Fifth Republic has made France one of the best governed and most successful countries in Europe and in the world. The run off second ballot is at the core of their electoral process.

This is what we should be voting for on May 5th. It remains to be seen what we think of the cheap option on offer.

Libya: Drones Deployed

Friday, April 22nd, 2011

As predicted in this Blog (post 16 April), the Pentagon was moving to this decision. As yet, I suspect, Gaddafi is not a target. Precision strikes at urban concentrations of government armour will be the most likely start. Nevertheless in addition to known deficiencies of  this adventure (no clear objective, no exit strategy) we now have mission creep. This is because, as so many warned, the NATO mission is not working. It may even be prolonging the war. Cameron, Sarkozy and Obama claim it is saving civilian lives. Maybe, but if it prolongs the war, maybe, or even certainly, not. 

Meanwhile the suffering among civilians in the contested areas, in particular besieged Misrata, this human suffering, especially among the innocent, is beginning to make headlines and shock. A ceasefire is essential, but the Rebels refuse, because they think with NATO they may win, or at worst they cannot lose their gains thus far. The Big Three have boxed everybody in with their declarations that Gaddafi has to go. They offer no deal. Worse, they declare an outcome excluded from the military mission.

This is becoming as bad a military mess as the others. As things stand today there are only two strategies which will halt the fighting. The first is to point the drones at the Gaddafi government in defiance of UN1973. The other is to tell the Rebels they either agree a ceasefire or the NATO mission will stop. Otherwise, as Gaddafi said at the beginning, this will be a long war. A long war, for civilians, is the worst option of all.

AV Referendum; The Hidden Meaning

Thursday, April 21st, 2011

The NO campaign is doing very well. It is pulling into an unstoppable lead in the opinion polls. This does not mean it cannot be stopped, but it will be difficult. It is by far the better campaign with the clearest message. Yet a year ago, the YES campaign would have won easily. As it is an issue not related to government unpopularity over cuts, it is not at first clear what has happened. Is it all to do with Nick Clegg and tuition fees? No, but that is part of it, because it exposed the difficulty of being part of a coalition, especially if the junior partner. It is not even about the potential change in the voting system. It is about change itself.

It is very interesting that opinion polls are also showing a Tory advance at Labour’ expense. One or two show them  neck and neck. It is even more interesting that all conservatives are against the proposed change and that most conservatives (note the small c) are Tory though a good few, especially in the unions, are Labour. Conservatives are traditionally against change for change’s sake. Cameron’s mistake last May was to talk about the Big Society, educational reform and so forth. Had he talked about getting the economy sorted out and making everything else work properly, he would have had a workable majority. Since then the voters support the cuts and the pain, but worry about free schools, too many academies, messing with the NHS, elected police chiefs and futile wars. The British, but especially the English, dislike change.

Because of the MPs’ expense scandal, the voters last May distrusted all politicians and put a plague on all their houses. They did not want any party to have a majority. They wanted compromise. Compromise has happened, but its handmaiden has been, for Lib Dem idealists (most Lib Dems are idealists), betrayal. Betrayal attends all coalition politics. Parties have to eat their words to govern. Most European countries are happy with that. The English (this is about the English), having tasted this fare, do not.

If they vote NO on May 5th, they will be voting NO not just to AV (it is cheaper but very inferior to the much more decisive run-off second round), but to multi party politics. It will be a disaster to the Lib Dems, but also the Greens and UKIP. None will stand a chance in government unless Labour and Tory seats are very closely matched. It will not be a statement against coalition , but it will be a statement that coalition must take place within the political parties before they are elected. On election day the people then know what they are voting for and what is promised.

They do not have to tolerate broken promises and especially not broken, signed, pledges. The price is wild bust ups at party conferences between elections, with rows, defections and dramas. Remember the Bennites? Or Scargill? Or the Eurosceptics? Or the Wets? Much blood flows. But come the day the nation votes, they all have to agree a manifesto and stand in line to be counted. Just once. Hitherto that is how the nation has preferred the dynamic of its politics in elections to the Mother of Parliaments. Soon we shall know if this is how it wishes to continue.