Archive for June, 2013

Egypt’s Difficulties

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Revolutions are never as straightforward as at first they appear. There was an excessive expectation that the fall of Mubarak was the opening of a fresh dawn and that a vibrant new Egypt was about to burst onto the world scene as both one of the oldest civilisations and newest democracies.

It is now clear that something else has happened. There have been elections, the first in Egypt’s very long history. The one for the new Parliament, has been declared invalid, although this is disputed, leaving it paralysed. The one for the presidency has produced a well intentioned President who seems unable to govern. The economy has gone into free-fall and the country is splitting down the familiar fault of religious and secular discord. There are protests and clashes in which citizens die.

All may yet come good with the onset of greater political direction and more inclusive social harmony. But if it does not do so soon, very soon, the Army will return to power. If it does, the most surprising thing of all will be that the majority of  ordinary Egyptians will breath a sigh of relief.

Labour’s Challenge

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

This is a difficult time to be in Government, as the trailing Tories can testify from their opinion poll ratings. It is also a difficult time to be the Opposition, as the narrowing lead enjoyed by Labour also testifies. The government is boxed in by political and financial possibilities and has the responsibility to deliver. The opposition is free not only to oppose for the sake of argument, but free to promote policy which is not subject to practical testing. Although almost everything is running Labour’s way, something is not quite right. Their big lead in the opinion polls is shrinking and although they did well in the local elections in May, they did not do spectacularly well. Those who care about these things blame their leader.

It is not the leader’s gravitas, nor the quality of his leadership which fall short; it is Ed Milliband’s unwillingness to allow a coherent economic policy to be presented, or the inability of his shadow chancellor, the other Ed, to devise one. Either way something has to be done about it and it is the leader’s job to do it. The excuse that it is not possible to devise a policy in advance of the election in 2015 is as unconvincing as a Captain refusing to chart a course for his vessel in advance of it setting sail.

This is giving the Tories the potential of remaining the largest party after 2015, or if defeated by Labour, without the victors gaining an overall majority either, leaving the Lib Dems the potential of perpetual power. The various piecemeal offerings from the two Eds lack any joined up theme and do not paint any picture which voters can recognise, let alone be motivated to vote for.

Then 2015 election may be beyond the reach of the Tories to win, but it is well within the reach of Labour to lose.

Syria: Time To Re-Think

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

This Blog has been a persistent critic of the foreign policy of the West, post the Arab Spring. Coming on top of the clear failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab Spring provided an  opportunity to show a less ideological and partisan approach to affairs in the Middle East.

At the beginning the Americans held back from condemning either Mubarak or Gadaffi, so Britain and France took the lead. Many thought involvement in Libya a mistake because it is a cardinal rule of statecraft to stand clear of civil wars. Nevertheless, when France and Britain eventually persuaded a majority in NATO to support military action, made lawful by a somewhat ambiguous UN resolution, the resultant No Fly Zone and general air support for the rebels needed American logistical help and it was given. When Gadaffi fell, Britain, with its allies, hailed a gleeful victory. Unfortunately this tactical success turned out to be, like so much else of recent years, a strategic blunder.

Politically Russia and China felt NATO had extended the UN mandate beyond its remit as another excuse for regime change, which post cold war, has become a NATO speciality. This powerful combination of a former super-power and a rising mega-power determined that such a thing would not happen again. This would have far reaching consequences.

Meanwhile as the Arab spring spread to Syria, an enthusiastic France and Britain mis-calculated that the Assad regime was about to topple. They anticipated another Libya. Unfortunately so did the militant elements opposed to Assad. They fuelled the temper of an autocratic and politically brutal regime, confident that when violence became widespread NATO planes would be in the sky above. They did not appear, so the violence escalated in the sure knowledge that now NATO would have to take to the air. Still they did not. So the skirmishes and bombings became a full scale civil war. NATO has not come and Assad is now winning.

Meanwhile Britain and France blame the Russians. When you have nothing useful to say in international crises, this is always a clever thing to do. Unfortunately with the ending of the stand-off between capitalism and communism these simplistic nostrums are now quite futile. Russia and China asserted from the beginning that there was a danger of turning the protests into violence and then into civil war. They blocked UN authorisation of anything which could be construed as a licence to intervene militarily.

More recently Russia has forestalled clamour from the pro-rebel hawks for a no fly zone by upgrading Syria’s already formidable air defence system. Even our incompetent Foreign office can see that two or three RAF Typhoons shot down at £200 million a piece,  with the crews either dead or taken prisoner, is a price the war weary, austerity suffering British electorate (we have now been fighting for over ten years) simply will not stomach.

Meanwhile the scale and intensity of the fighting in Syria is creating areas of Stalingrad style ruins and unimaginable suffering and displacement of innocent civilians. Not only has the western policy demonstrably made matters worse, but it finds itself locked in to supporting a rag tag and bobtail mixture of competing groupings who would likely turn on each other if Assad did fall, and, worst of all, in which the best organised equipped and disciplined units are those affiliated to Al Quaeda.

Enough is now enough. The time has come for the consumption of a good deal of humble pie. First, maximum weight must be thrown behind the conference initiative launched by John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov and nothing silly, like supplying arms to rebel groups, should be done to sabotage it. Second, renewed efforts must be made to achieve a unified position in the UN between the Western powers and Russia and China. This will have to face the embarrassing reality that while Assad may have once been the source of the problem, he is now an indispensable part of the solution. At all costs this must be aimed to stop the fighting rather than to fuel it.

Finally and most important there will then be required an international effort on an unprecedented scale to help clear up the mess and restore some human decency and quality to the lives of ordinary citizens of Syria, whose attitude can best be summed up by the words of a ten year old girl interviewed for TV by a western commentator. She pleaded for the fighting to stop.

‘I spit on both sides’ she said with feeling.

Labour: An Economic Watershed

Friday, June 7th, 2013

Recent speeches by the two Eds, Milliband and Balls are exposing Labour to a potential electoral crisis. It is not too late to correct what appears to be going wrong, but it is getting late nevertheless.

The 2015 General Election will be won or lost in 2013. Three years into a fixed five year parliament voters will either feel that the Government is moving slowly in the right direction and should be allowed to finish the job, or that it cannot get to grips with the issues effectively and should be kicked out. Voters will also form an opinion about the Opposition. Either it looks as if it could govern better, or it cannot be trusted to deliver.

One of the problems for Labour has been that the impact of a fixed term parliament, the UK’s first, is greater upon the Opposition than the Government. The nature of our adversarial system is that those who rule must be harried by those who would like to; the latter driven forward by the motivation that they can force the government into an election at a point of disadvantage to it. The tension thus generated between the two sides is thought to be an essential feature of the British system, or was until 2010. Without it, the Opposition is a good deal less important and its function a good deal less well defined.

It is now becoming clear that the Tory led Coalition is not achieving the pace of economic recovery it promised. There are some positive signs, but while they show some progress here and there, they do not add up to a surge on all economic fronts. Up till now it has been enough for Labour just to point this out. But now people are losing faith in the Coalition’s ability to solve the financial difficulties comprehensively, so they are turning to look at Labour to ask how, exactly, it plans to deliver a better outcome. The response has been far short of the expectation. The Labour lead in the polls has slipped to single figures.

What Labour has offered is a weird mixture of trivia and confusion which appears to show little worth voting for and a lot to question.  One Ed says he will stop winter fuel payments to the rich, while the other Ed says he will cap welfare benefits for the poor. Coming on top of wisdoms like reducing rents ‘by giving local councils powers to negotiate’ and reducing vat without any, even temporary increase in borrowing, and even their own supporters are beginning to fear that there may be some truth in the widely held suspicion that when it comes to the economy these two Eds haven’t a clue.

Moreover there appears to be a weakness in the foundation upon which their thinking stands. Labour had a default position as the party which invented the welfare state and the national health service, based on the principle of universal entitlement, funded by a taxation regime in which the rich paid a good deal more both in rates and volume, and were thus equally entitled to the benefits. We are now hearing stuff about bigger welfare payouts for bigger contributors and rumours that child benefit will continue to be denied higher rate taxpayers if Labour gets back to power.

This all may be part of some radical plan which hangs together when viewed from the perspective of the left, but to this core constituency the fragments now on offer to them from their Labour party are quite alarming, and to those floating voters whose support Labour must win in order to govern, very unappealing. This may explain a peculiar leak from Labour to UKIP. Perhaps some disillusioned supporters feel that instead of stepping forward into murky confusion, it might be better to chance a leap in the dark.