Archive for May, 2013

Syria: A Change in Dynamics

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

The floundering Foreign Office has come up with a new idea to halt the violence in Syria; pump more arms into the conflict.

Ever since the lunatic policies of the Bush/Blair neo-con partnership, the Foreign Office has lost the one skill such an institution must have. That skill is statecraft. Essentially this is a blend of strategic analysis, tactical application and realistic goals. It recognises that the ideal is rarely a viable option and the least damaging compromise is one which will protect human life without harming British national interests or those of its friends and allies.

There are a number of red lines. One of the special group of cardinal red lines concerns civil wars. A civil war is a civil war; it is a war in which civilians and militias take up arms against each other. Sometimes there are pro and anti government forces; sometimes there are two governments. Whatever the situation, outside powers must not intervene beyond humanitarian aid. Neither must they take sides. The idea is to contain the civil war within its borders, aid the suffering and discourage the fighting by promoting dialogue. Simple rules to remember are these. Ring fence the conflict, feed the people and starve the military of both sides of weapons and ammunition.

Russia and China looked at the chaos of Iraq and the failure of Afghanistan and agreed that they would in future oppose regime change by force imposed by the West. Then came the Arab spring. The West rubbed its hands, deserted its ally Mubarak and took up arms in support of the anti-Gaddafi forces in Libya. The results are that both fell but have been replaced with uncertainty and ineffectual government, leading to ethnic, tribal and religious tensions which tend to get worse rather than better. The Arab Spring has not turned to summer. In Syria it has turned into Hell.

When Mubark and Gaddafi went, the West, in particular Britain and France, thought Assad would be a pushover. They made the fool’s mistake, which became general Western policy, of insisting there could be no negotiations with Assad and his cronies and they must take off to a human rights trial before any talks could begin. At this point violence was sporadic and localised. The West tried to get its policy adopted by the UN Security Council, but here it was blocked by Russia and China, who regarded Assad as a useful client, ally is not the right word, and the least bad of a bad bunch of options. In particular Russia warned such a policy would lead to civil war. It has.

The West is left with an extraordinary agglomeration of factions with the common aim of toppling Assad but very different views of who and what should happen thereafter. Within this grouping Al Qaeda is a strong, perhaps the strongest, player. What a pickle. Hague then proposes sending arms to the rebels, but only to the rebels we like. The beleaguered French, whose government is in trouble at home, go along with this reckless proposal which is only  a touch short of barmy.

The EU has reined the plan back to a more nuanced lifting of the arms embargo without actually endorsing the supply of arms. This at least prevents the sabotaging of the joint US/Russia plan for a peace conference. Meanwhile some things are plain about this war. There is no end in sight. It is getting worse. The suffering has reached the scale of a humanitarian disaster. Syria is being wrecked and the means of  civilised daily life destroyed. Only a minority are engaged in the fighting on either side. The vast majority just want the fighting to stop.

From the West’s viewpoint there is another unwelcome outcome. The majority of the suffering civilians and especially the Christian community in whom the West should take an interest, agree that life under Assad was not all bad, parts of it were actually good, especially the secular nature of the State and the protection of religious minorities, and getting rid of him is no way worth the mayhem.

Tory Activists: A Message for You

Friday, May 24th, 2013

The moment has come for Tory activists and those MPs in thrall to their concerns, to pause and reflect about where they are, what they are doing and where they are headed. In particular they should reflect upon the fate of the Callaghan premiership.

He was a well liked and popular Prime minister, who tried to do the sensible thing for his country which was stricken with economic woes arising out of the boom and bust progression of the predecessor Tory government.

Callaghan was thwarted at every turn by a rampant left wing in the Labour movement which thought itself the solution, when in fact it was the problem. It led to electoral defeat and the  emergence as leader of the Labour party that champion of the left who believed in every dot and dash of the Left’s economic and social agenda, Michael Foot. There followed eighteen years of Labour opposition and the crushing of the power for ever of the trade union movement, which had been the engine of the Left’s advance.

The average age of members of the Tory party is around sixty and the membership is now well below 150,000. Activists have given up on the future and, like the Foot soldiers before them, are looking backwards. They are obsessed with gay marriage and Europe, not because they wish to promote either but because they want to stop both. They may as well try and stop the march of time. Put another way, they are out of touch with the instincts of the rising generation. For a political party this is electorally fatal.

They appear to show no compassion, nor do they engage. They cry shrilly about the ‘institution of marriage’. They extol ‘Brutishness’. What they mean to each other is comfort for their blinkered, reactionary and ill informed views. What they mean to everybody else is that they are nasty conceited old bigots who think they know what’s best for everyone else and who think they have a right to moralise about issues of which they either know nothing or in hypocrisy deny. This is why someone who knows them well described them as swivel eyed loons.

Their eyes should now be swivelled to regard the real issues. Among them are a centrepiece budget proposal to guarantee 95% mortgages, which has now been criticised by almost all responsible economic commentators as well as the IMF and the Bank of England. This blog is proud of the fact that it was among the first to shout out (The Budget: An Astonishing Howler March 21st).

There are clearly mounting problems in the NHS. Having reorganised the structure for the umpteenth time they have failed to grapple with the one thing which would transform the outcomes. You cannot have an efficient health service when the GPs are self employed providing a 1950s retail hours type service at huge cost to the taxpayers who pay all their bills while they work on the main job four days per week and never at weekends or after hours. Neither can you have the surgeons and consultants working the equivalent of two days a week making big money out of private practice, treating patients who cannot get it for free on the NHS in a timely fashion, precisely because these senior doctors are not there often enough to empty the waiting lists. Simply put, having engineered the problem at taxpayers expense, they make private fortunes providing the remedy. Surely the medical profession is approaching its Scargill moment? If not, why not?

Why is is that these activists do not take time off from their obsessions with sex, gender and Europe to urge confrontation with these vested interests? Is it because they perceive them to be Tory voters? The estate agents and the doctors? Maybe these and other problems in our country which are derived from exploitation by vested interests of the Right, are red lines for the swivel eyed loons. But unless they cross them they can kiss good bye to any connection with government for a generation to come.

This blog is is politically neutral. Its eyes swivel in all directions. It reports what it sees.

Europe: Britain and Germany

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

According to polls the latest group to get fed up with Europe are the Europeans. More precisely all the spendthrift economies of the south, to whose cause the ill-starred French President is allying himself as his disillusioned voters drag him further from Germany. It is his own fault. He made idiotic promises in his election campaign, which were bound to lead to disappointment. Disappointed voters are angry voters likely to turn their backs, so for Hollande it is urgent that he find something to please them. Cozying up to the borrow and spend brigade might do this.

Curiously it may also be good for Cameron, who has made a clever ally of Angela Merkel. She was born and brought up in the communist east and prizes freedom higher than even the Euro. She sees in Britain a bastion of freedom and a powerful ally in her quest for fiscal discipline, which is causing her such  trouble in the happy go lucky countries to the south.

Germany wants to keep Britain in Europe. France is more than happy for Britain to leave. Without Britain in Europe Germany will be exposed to the charge of hegemony over the other members. Britain inside as Germany’s ally would look a lot better. The outcome for the borrow and spenders would be the same. But Germany and Britain together would be an irresistible force. This is why Merkel may be on Cameron’s side in the upcoming re-negotiation of Britain’s deal in Europe. Angela may fix a deal for Dave that is much more substantial than expected. That would put Britain’s far right, which includes most Tory activists, on the back foot.

By 2018 we may be remarking on how the nationalist surge petered out, with Scotland still in the Union and the United Kingdom still in Europe. It is not impossible that we may instead be asking how it was that England found itself out of Europe, its Union with Scotland dissolved and its Empire long gone. Germans may be remarking that while Germany reunited, the seemingly impregnable Great Britain finally broke up.

The English need to think carefully. They could, within just a few years, be back where they started out in Tudor times.

UKIP in Scotland

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

A wheel seems to have come off the UKIP bandwagon north of the border. Describing student protesters as Fascist Scum will not sound right to many democratic ears. It is, of course, a feature of nationalist parties that their leaders tend to go for inflammatory rhetoric, although the other nationalist active in British politics, the much more successful Alex Salmond, has always been powerful in argument though restrained in rhetoric. That is part of the charisma of his leadership.

The electoral duel between these two in Scotland is something of his mis-match, not only in political weight but also in objectives. One wants to take Scotland out of England and the other wants to take England out of Europe. Farage talks about Scottish racism against the English. That is clearly piffle.

In fact the impact of Farage’s imbroglio will, in Scotland, be small. In England it could be bigger. It may reveal a side of UKIP that shocks even the Tory right. Activists and MPs should take note. The British en masse will never vote on any scale for this kind of stuff. If Nigel Farage is not to follow other far right leaders in British politics to oblivion he will have to change his tune.

Europe: Will Britain Quit?

Saturday, May 11th, 2013

Hitherto Euro sceptics have been somewhat detached from the political mainstream, mostly on the far right of the Tory party. Suddenly, post UKIP’s triumph at the local polls and riding high enough in all opinion polls to put paid to any hope of a Tory victory in 2015, some big names have begun to back unilateral withdrawal. It is impossible to say whether this will make a difference. It is also not certain that, even if UKIP did very well in 2015, when it came to the crunch, the majority in the country would vote to withdraw, any more that it is certain that Scots will vote for independence having elected a Scottish Nationalist government.

Whatever the outcome this Blog is of the view that the impact will be greater for Europe than for Britain. Britain, with or without Scotland, will make a go of it one way or another within Europe or outside. It has had an historic interest in keeping Europe balanced and has traditionally sided with the weaker combination of powers against the strong, opposing Spain, France and Germany in  turn. All Europe knows that Britain is no more than a neighbour who takes a friendly interest; she is not part of the European family. Following the introduction of the Euro, that family must, in order to save it, draw ever closer together, pooling sovereignty and surrendering independence.

Europe likes government by regulation and its history tends to confirm that. European governments are not always effective and are sometimes very bad. Curbing their power so that they become less important as actual government is in the hands of impartial civil servants, who just want to make things work is an attractive prospect. On the other hand Britain, like the US, dislikes any form of government but considers democracy with full sovereignty the best option, and collective government by pan-continental regulation the very worst.

So on the face of it the introduction of the Euro and especially the pickle it is now in and what will have to be done to rescue it, makes Britain’s exit in everyone’s interests. Or does it? Or does the old issue of the balance of power once more loom? Because without Britain muttering in the corner, the EU will be dominated by its own super-power, Germany. If the French et al are happy with that they will refuse to negotiate meaningful terms and let Britain go. If they are not and they want to continue to enjoy the support and protection of the good neighbour across the channel, they will come up with a package the Brits will vote for.


Syria: Hope At Last?

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

The talks in Moscow yesterday between John Kerry, Sergey Lavrov and President Putin are a potential game changer. At last it has dawned on Washington that Western policy over Syria is futile and that whilst not ideal, the Russian position was the more realistic. Yesterday represented a gracious shift in US policy, cloaked in diplomatic language and could  herald not only the beginning of a process of finding a solution to the agony of the Syrian people, but also to a more fruitful period in relations between Washington and Moscow.

Much of the credit for this goes to John Kerry, the new Secretary of State. Clinton was good but Kerry is already better. He did well in the Korean crisis recently, a diplomatic hand in which the wildest card of all was in play. We remember Kerry wanted to be President himself and ran unsuccessfully against the discredited Bush junior. Maybe he will decide to have another go in 2016. Meanwhile he is a considerable asset to the Obama administration. The FCO will have to up its game. It needs to stop singing from the old hymn sheet and start composing a few verses of its own.

Israel: A New Perspective.

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

This blog has not thus far been one of Israel’s friends because it is opposed to the settlement policy pursued in the face of world opposition, UN censure and disregard foe international law. Teachings from Torah are articles of faith, but they are not a licence to go it alone internationally, against whomever, no matter what.

However as regular readers will know this blog is neither partisan nor ideological. It sees things as they are and proposes reactions or solutions. It is not on a mission to achieve a pre-conceived goal. It is here to make comment which can make sense. It does, with reason, change its opinion and thus its position. It is about to do so over Israel.

The reasons are quite straightforward. Western foreign policy is dysfunctional and ineffective. It is based on a range of misguided assumptions and upon ideals which no longer apply. It has failed in organising a really productive relationship with Russia post the cold war.It has failed in Iraq. It is failing with increasing momentum as it withdraws from Afghanistan; it is weak in Africa where China dominates increasingly; it has failed in Palestine; it is not succeeding with Iran and it is the worst of every world in Syria. It claims success in Libya, yet here all is not well, with no proper central government and a collection of quasi-independent localities ruled by militias.

The middle East remains the number one hot-spot of the world. The difference is that post the Arab Spring, Israel has been one step ahead of the West in its foreign policy and this means that Israel is no longer part of an entirely new set of problems. It may well end up part of the solution but meanwhile it is very much part of stopping things getting out of hand. It all changed with the Arab uprisings. Because instead of leading to a new era of democracy and secular inclusion, it has led to polarisation, tribal friction and government dysfunction. Egypt, where it all started has an economy in free-fall, a government which clearly does not speak for any kind of consensus and a population divided and getting more so.

It is still possible that the Arab Spring, which has turned to something nearing autumn, without any summer in between, may yet come good and the high summer days arrive. But until it does somebody has to stop things getting out of hand and that someone is the military super-power of the region and the only fully functioning established democracy – Israel. Israel knows that what matters first is effective government. Its style comes second and whether it is a democracy is neither here nor there.

Because what matters in the department of human suffering is whether there is a government which can provide security for  its people and a functioning economy offering  health care, eduction, housing and employment, even if at the price of demanding adherence to the party line and support of the regime, with dissent repressed by imprisonment and even death. Israel also knows that, unless there can be a smooth change from a bad regime to a good one,  the alternative is the mayhem and human suffering which is Syria today.

To achieve that peaceful transition, or one with minimal violence and displacement, you have to work with parts of the old regime out of which the new regime is built, before it is possible to cast out all of the old. That is why, like Russia, Israel did not call for Assad’s end. Indeed they had a good working relationship with him. But they saw chaos in his aftermath in which all manner of wild cards would be in play. They determined to act to preserve the integrity of Israel and against any perceived strengthening of potential threats to Israel’s survival. Who can blame them? Not this blog. If it had been down to Russia and Israel there would have been no civil war in Syria.

Think about that and worry about the deaths of the innocent. Especially the little children.

Labour Is The Loser

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

Following the local election success of UKIP the Tory party is in some confusion, while the media speculates on whether Nigel Farage is a credible alternative Prime minister. Mr. Farage, evidently a modest man, with exceptional communication skills and the ability to connect with disgruntled voters, says he is not ambitious for the top job.  Of course. Indeed. Quite so.

However, the real story is Labour’s failure. They were expected to win at least 300 seats, based on swing factors and polling which consistently show the party well ahead, which do not give special weight to UKIP. If you factor in UKIP, Labour should win many more, because so many more votes were going from the Tories to Nigel Farage’s party than from Labour. In the end Miliband’s lot won 295, so we can assume without UKIP it would have been many fewer.

The reason for this is the Labour’s determination not to disclose its own policies too soon before the general election, because traditionally it is bad politics to do so. The problem is voters no longer do political tradition. They do not do politicians either and they barely do politics. Above all they do not do people who criticise but have no plan of their own. Thus Farage, with clear cut policies of simplistic one liners does well; Europe? Get out. Immigration? Stop it. Economy? Cut taxes.

Labour are vague on all these things to some extent, but are worst on the economy, where there is confusion and lack of grasp. Ed Milliband was mauled on the World at One when he tried to explain how Labour would cut VAT but not increase borrowing. Harriet Harman is reported to have admitted somewhere else that borrowing under Labour would rise. Ed Balls has earned points by being right about the potential failure of Osborne’s plan, but lost all of them and has gone into deficit because his own plan has no credibility either.

This is the main problem for Labour. The country remains in the grip of an economic crisis. The main opposition is all over the shop over what to do about it. Ed Miliband, whose stature has risen significantly in the last twelve months on the back of some outstanding parliamentary performances, has to grasp this nettle, not in 2015, but now. There does not have to be a fully fledged policy but there has to be a framework. Borrowing more till it all comes good is unsaleable.