Archive for December, 2016

Putin Masterclass

Saturday, December 31st, 2016

Putin will look back on 2016 with some satisfaction. The Syrian cease-fire, little more than a year after Russia engaged itself directly, is an outcome which took the West completely by surprise. It was even excluded from the negotiations, whilst a NATO member, Turkey has turned east, and allied itself with Russia. The awkward moment of the Clinton hacking has been finessed and Obama made to look a fool. His protégé Trump is about to enter the White House; Crimea is securely back in the Russian Federation; Ukraine has gone quiet with the East firmly under ethnic Russian control and Russia is back on the world stage where power is played.

And this is the nub. Yes Russia hacks, although probably not more than many others as most of it can be done by teenagers from their bedrooms. America seems peculiarly vulnerable to hackers, especially the Pentagon which has been hacked from more than one bedroom in the UK. Russia uses its military with some skill to achieve outcomes which, at much lower levels of engaged assets than the West, are much better than equivalent efforts led by America. This leads everybody to get excited about a Russian threat. Aside from the fact that it is the only military with the capacity to destroy the United States, it spends a fraction of the US on defence and is a much weaker military power at all levels.

The real objective in which the Kremlin has committed much thought, is to become an alternative diplomatic power which can get things done and challenge the post cold war dominance of the US, which Moscow sees as a disaster by any measure. Flawed intelligence and miscalculations have led to chaos in the Middle East, migration on an unprecedented scale which has destabilized Europe and threatens the very fabric of the EU, from which GB is withdrawing, and an economic globalization model which has created more disaffection and uncertainty than at any time since the nineteen thirties. Millions thirst for a better way. Brexit and Trump are just the beginning of a new era. An America good at starting wars which never stop may find itself in diplomatic competition with a Russia which can end them. No guessing who will be the popular kid on the global block. That is Trump’s challenge. Of one thing we can be sure. Trump will surprise everyone. Except Putin.

Obama’s Exit: Going Downhill?

Friday, December 30th, 2016

There appears to have been a breakdown in the notion of smooth transition of the Presidency in the US that is quite surprising and for which Obama appears more to blame than Trump. The Kerry speech over Israel was pointless from a Secretary of State with his bags packed and should have been made three years ago, when it might have done some good. Made now it gives the Israel is always right lobby the perfect opportunity to hijack Trump. The latest spat with Russia is a glaring mismanagement of a delicate situation which will not achieve anything useful. The issue is not that the emails were hacked and by whom, but that they were written and on a private server to keep them secret from the US disclosure provisions. If some Russian set up hacked them, many would regard their alleged interference as a public service. Obama is claiming that the Democrats have a licence to mislead and conceal and anything done to expose the felony is un-American. But surely the un-American bit is the concealment?

There is more to this. The Democrats have for decades been more anti-Russian than the Republicans. It is doubtful if a Democrat in the White House would have seized the Gorbachev opportunity which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. There is no doubt that Bush II, whom this blog regards as a disaster, was nevertheless much more adept at dealing with Putin. Obama has, through a series of blunders across the middle east and Ukraine (backing the neo-Fascist Kiev was madness) including sanctions and exclusions, elevated Russia from humble fallen Empire to assertive World Power. Whilst this blog has no problems with that, since I believe a world with a single power is as unsatisfactory as a democracy with one party,  the point is this outcome was the opposite of the Obama intention.

So having been a strong supporter of Obama throughout his term of office and forgiving of his failures, this blog now feels he leaves office a much diminished figure, still the darling of the liberal establishment, but a disappointment to everyone else and outsmarted by a much more astute Putin and likely to be humiliated by an incoming angry Trump. As for the hacked election drama and in spite of the unprecedented campaign of support from the incumbent, the democrats lost fair and square because they had failed in too many areas that affect the people who normally support them. As for Hilary getting more votes, you only need to look at the map. The glittering prosperity of  the highly populated west and east coasts is blue, but most everywhere else, the beating heart of the American dream, turned red. To assert that this is all because of Russian hackers is to confirm that the Democrats have completely lost the plot.

However Trump is left with a problem. The naturally hawkish Republican party appears to back Obama’s expulsions, while Trump rejects Russian intervention, although he appeared at one stage in his campaign to invite it. The American intelligence services have shown themselves, especially over weapons of mass destruction, to be a lot less sure footed handling what we can call political intelligence, rather than terror or espionage assessments. Trump wants to square up to China mostly on trade issues because he has promised to repatriate jobs and that will be a good deal easier if he is able to exploit his hero status in Moscow and mend fences with Putin. So his first day in the Oval Office will test his ability to use the levers of power deftly and with a positive outcome for America. The whole world will be watching (twitter mostly) and so will this blog.

Putin Breakthrough

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

Starting with the caveat that no agreement of whatever type in Syria has so far had a shelf life which can be counted even in hours, this does look like a game changer. It is a triumph for Putin, who has stepped in to fill the vacuum caused by the chaotic state of western diplomacy in the Middle East. It is also a success for the modernized Russian military doctrine of fighting wars smart, hard and fast. It took them just over a year. America, Britain and bits of NATO are blundering about still, 15 years after going into Iraq. It puts Russia firmly in the driving seat and is politically astonishing because Turkey is a NATO member. Unlike the West which has an agglomeration of so called allies who defy every standard of human rights it holds dear and covertly work against its interests, Russia has just two, Turkey and Iran. Even more interesting is that Turkey wants to overthrow Assad while Russia supports him.

So where does this leave the West?  Hopefully humbly rejoicing that at least the worst bloodshed may be over, trying now to get a combined approach with these new power brokers to deal with IS and watching Twitter to see what happens next.

Where’s Boris?

Corbyn On May

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

There is emerging a much more strident Jeremy Corbyn. His Commons performance has been upgraded to a more combative style and his interview in the Guardian demonstrates a willingness to attack much more vigorously the issues of the day. Apparently this is a deliberate move to transfer his popularity among his core supporters into recognition and acceptance across the wider electorate. To win an election, the majority of voters must see the Labour leader as the agent of change, because that is why they vote Labour, but that change has to be both credible and supportable. Above all it has to be the kind of change which millions who feel ignored connect to, because it is in those legions of non voters, or fringe party protest votes, that any major victory lies.

His quip that Theresa May is not Henry VIII and that she has to bring the final terms of the Brexit negotiations (if it all happens) to Parliament for approval is very much to the point. The deal has to be approved by the European parliament so you would expect even Brexiteers would support our own parliament exercising the very sovereignty they campaigned to repatriate. Corbyn is onto a winner here.  Maybe these changes of style are why there is a hint of Labour advancing in the latest polls.

A Time To Reflect?

Wednesday, December 28th, 2016

Everyone can see the world is going through the biggest political and economic change of weather since the end of the Cold War and the advance of globalization. But nobody is sure what this means or where we are headed. There is now more uncertainty out there than I can recall, ever. So I am not, as the year draws to its close, willing to predict what 2017 may bring. What I will do is look back and see where we thought we were going in 2016.

As the New Year received its ecstatic welcome all across the globe (more or less) Cameron was safe in Downing Street for the duration of this Parliament, Trump was a nutter who was unlikely to survive the early primaries, the In Out Referendum to finally put to rest the wild notion that we could leave the EU was set for mid-year, Corbyn was settling in as the unexpected Labour leader and in Europe the main preoccupation was the never ending diaspora of the hopeful streaming up from the south.

Well it did not quite happen as expected. The referendum was lost and cost Cameron his job. There was a rebellion against Corbyn which failed very badly. Trump was elected US President. The Italian government lost its own reform referendum and the EU’s most reformist national leader, prime minister Renzi resigned. Hollande threw in the towel and announced he would not stand for a second term as president of France. Merkel will stand in 2017 but may not win.

Trump is, in a year of big ticket items, probably the biggest ticket, for 2017. This is because he is undoubtedly the biggest wild card the Americans have elected since Abraham Lincoln and he will set about changing the very essence of the United States, just as Lincoln did. But how, in what direction and with what result is far from clear. It is also unclear whether Americans will let him deliver his vision of a greater America. It is also unclear how the world will react.

The next biggest ticket is Brexit. Here it is difficult to know where to begin. So I will just plunge in. We do not yet know by what constitutional process Article 50 will be triggered and await the Supreme Court. We do not know for sure if Article 50 is reversible (it is supposed not to be) as this is now about to be challenged in the Irish courts and will end up at the European Supreme Court. We do not know whether on leaving the EU we are actually in or out of the European free market and this is subject to another legal challenge. We do not know what the government plan is, perhaps because it does not have one.

There is talk of hard Brexit, soft Brexit, clean Brexit and no Brexit. The last is a no, no. So on current form it may very well happen, not least because the whole legal spider’s web was never meant to be unpicked and the only way might be to shut down the whole thing and start again with something less prescriptive which we would be happy to remain in. With the political uncertainty in both America and Europe we will have to wait until the middle of the year, before we can even get an inkling of what comes next, both politically and economically.

If you ask me to predict whether the May government will survive the year I cannot. If you ask me what might come after, if she falls, I would once have answered Boris. But now I am not sure about even that.

Strikes: A Christmas of Discontent?

Monday, December 19th, 2016

Suddenly we seem to be engulfed in strikes designed to disrupt lives at the height of the festive season. What began on the railways and with the junior doctors, is now spreading. Baggage handlers, cabin crew, post offices, perhaps postmen. Why? Because there is anger out there that too many are not sharing in the bounty of the few, too many bosses are saying no to their workers’ demands, whilst upping their own money many times above the inflation rate. Too many are working long hours, the product of which  is gobbled up by excessive housing costs. Everywhere anger is building, yet the government does nothing meaningful to resolve accumulating issues; a soundbite here and a platitude there no longer works.

The Conservatives are ahead in the polls, but this should bring them little comfort. With the rise of populism the political group destined to topple the Tories from power may not even yet exist. Sooner or later, if that anger continues to build, it will become a powerful political force. Meanwhile Labour recognises that it has no alternative but to support the strikers and heap the blame for it all on the government. Union politics is not straightforward. Thatcher won her battles, but that was at the end of massive industrial unrest which saw about 28 million working days lost in 1979 alone. People had had enough. But  so far this year less than 300,000 days have been lost to strikes and, important this, people have had enough of austerity. When Heath asked ‘who governs Britain?‘ in 1974, the voters replied ‘not you!’  And the reason for that was that they had lost faith in Heath’s failing economic policies.

There will be a lot of political noise in 2017. But keep an ear to the pulse of the economy. That is the heartbeat of power. If it begins to fibrillate, the May government will need intensive care.


The Javid Oath: Is This A Good Idea?

Sunday, December 18th, 2016

No. An important feature of the British way of life is that its citizens are not required to swear pointless oaths. Certain professions are sworn into full membership, as are MPs and members of the armed services. New citizens are sworn in. That is enough.

The present ruptures in society, first foretold in my book 2010 A Blueprint for Change, arise from the unfair elements of globalization, seven years of austerity, cuts to the financial support of public services to the point that most of them are breaking down, a failure to provide housing at affordable cost and also the advent of single faith schools.

In a secular society faith schools do more harm than good. Faith can be nurtured through religious institutions but not as an education stream. What would help, since we do not have a written constitution, is at least a written summary of how the unwritten one works, so that the freedoms, rights and obligations which form the basis of our country can be taught in schools. As it is even the government does not know how it works. It is doubtful if there are fifty people in the country who do. As for the oath, this is a pointless gesture to resolve issues which demand proper attention. Like social care for the elderly, for which the inadequate proposals, mostly robbing Peter to pay Paul, put forward by Javid last week will do very little good.

The only thing one can say about this minister is that, in this do nothing government, at least he tries to do something.

The Train Strike: Labour Moves In.

Friday, December 16th, 2016

Labour has now come out in full support of this ruinous strike. Perversely this is a smart move. Because it is now a major political issue in the south and neither the government (or the company) nor the unions have put their case with any coherence, leading to a complete breakdown in public confidence and patience. This morning the Labour Transport Shadow explained the dispute with great clarity on Today. The issue involving safety is about the very high volume of passengers on these lines in the rush hour and the length, twelve coaches, of the trains. As a regular user of the Southern service, when it is running, I can vouch for that. Not only do the trains become crowded, but so do the platforms. So whilst it is perfectly safe to have driver operation of the doors on many lines, I can vouch for the fact that on this line it most likely is not.

It is unfortunate that this has not been made clear before. Labour now having entered the fray, must bring it to a head with a big political challenge about putting cash before the safety of passengers (an historic problem on these lines which has caused many deaths in the past). It must demand a moratorium on the current dispute and the cancelling of this idiotic franchise, with full public ownership of this segment now. We can then have joined up management of both the track and the trains. The travelling public has had more than enough.

This does not alter the fact that the unions have articulated their case with great clumsiness and that strikes to modern industrial relations are as lynching is to justice. There is a better way. Always.

Obama And The Russian Hack

Friday, December 16th, 2016

Surely the issue is not that these emails were allegedly hacked, but that they were actually written?

Obama should think about that. The American people already did. That is why his friend lost.

Rail Dispute: A Meeting Gives Hope.

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016

It is good to hear that ACAS is now involved in this power struggle between the government and the RMT/ASLV combination making life impossible for huge numbers of commuters in the south-east. Although the government pretends it is just a bystander, it is in fact the key player. This is because the Southern is a semi- nationalized franchise in which the company are paid a fee to employ the staff and run the service and the government collects the proceeds of the fares. If this dispute, which is not really a dispute at all but an attempt to block a modernization programme, continues without resolution, it must make sense for the government to take back the franchise and sort the mess out. That is what government is for.

I should add to my virulent attack on the train unions yesterday by pointing out that the vast majority of unions do not strike and are model examples of responsible trade unionism. This gives us industrial relations which are both productive and profitable to everyone and among the best in the world. All the more reason to bring an end to this blot on the national record. This is not the right use of union power. Equally the pretense of the government that it is just an innocent bystander is utter rubbish. At some level it is the author of the crisis and it is certainly in it right up to its neck.