Thursday, February 11, 2016

Putin shows the West how you do Mid-East policy

The devastating impact of bombing and renewed fighting upon Aleppo in Syria is being brought home to us via news reports and tales of ever increasing numbers of refugees.  It also places a spotlight once again upon the imperturbable Russian president, Vladimir Putin's, Middle East strategy.  Briefly hailed as a joint step forward with western interests, it is in fact clear that Putin - unsurprisingly - has no interest in western aims and is methodically, and successfully, pursuing a Russia First policy in his dealings in Syria.

The BBC's diplomatic correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, gives a cogent and clear assessment here of just how Mr. Putin is winning his own war in Syria.  And, as Marcus points out, it includes an abject lesson to western governments mired in confusion as to how to carry out middle-eastern policy.  Marcus notes that Russia chose a credible side to back in the civil war, one that had sufficient forces on the ground; set herself achievable goals (in this instance to back the Syrian government and bolster its control of a clear area); and committed sufficient forces herself to achieve her limited aims.  She is succeeding admirably.  The West by contrast, as Mr. Marcus notes, is struggling even to work out what its aims are.

Nothing will come out of the present round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva and it is unlikely that Syria will ever revert to its original borders in a single, unified state.  With Libya heading the same way - see another BBC correspondent, Frank Gardner's report here -there is an urgent need for the key western governments to work out a viable response, especially since Libya's mess, unlike Syria's, emerged directly out of a proudly trumpeted interventionist policy from Mr. Cameron and the then French president Nikolas Sarkozy.  Getting rid of dictators seems easy.  Filling the vacuum is, as ever, a nightmare.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

America's Wind of Change

As I noted below, I don't think New Hampshire can give us any clear indications as to the future roll-out of this extraordinary 2016 presidential campaign.  But it has at least confirmed that 2016 is the year of the anti-establishment iconoclast.  That the insurgencies in both parties were well advanced was clear before New Hampshire, and the vote there has given it a bit of real-poll traction.  The key thing, as must have been noted a zillion times already today, is whether those odd insurgencies can be maintained away from the rarefied atmospheres of Iowa and New Hampshire.  If there is a consensus wisdom it seems to be that Trump has the better chance of taking it all the way to the convention floor in what is a significantly more disrupted party, and of course he has reliable deep pockets where Sanders needs the regular mass contributions of his punters.

The poll tracking from Real Clear Politics currently has Trump comfortably leading Cruz in South Carolina (36 to 19.7 polling points), with Rubio still in third.  I guess that still awaits the wash from New Hampshire mind you, so the next few days' polls will be particularly keenly watched for any signs of a Rubio depression.

On the Democratic side, Clinton has a still more comfortable lead over Sanders of 62 to 32.  Even less accurate but nonetheless interesting, the national match-up polls have Clinton losing to both Rubio and Cruz, but just beating Trump, whilst Sanders loses only to Rubio, beating Cruz (just) and Trump.

While both insurgencies suggest a real sense of alienation from the body politics, it is the Democrat race that merits perhaps some closer attention.  Trump has been sucking a lot of the oxygen from the campaign coverage recently, because he provides more outrageous, media-friendly outbursts.  The Sanders rebellion is more considered, and based around a rising grassroots anger amongst Democrats at the failure of their leaders, and the political establishment generally, to tackle the over-weening influence of big corporate money - specifically banking money - in their national politics.  In the storm created by this anger Hillary is proving especially vulnerable, which is why Sanders has stolen a state she once won from under her nose, and edged ahead in nearly all of the voter gender and age demographics.

If you don't quite get the anger of Democrats - and I must confess I didn't - then this Slate piece from H.A.Goodman really digs into the anti-Hillary anger and exposes her frailty as an old-style political chieftain mouthing grassroots friendly platitudes which her funding simply doesn't square with.  The old adage of "follow the money" is further explored in this Atlantic piece from Conor Friedersdorf which looks at the extraordinary links between the Clintons and the giant Swiss bank UBS.

If the Democrat yearning is for a clean candidate who can repair their liberal credentials then Sanders is the man.  The problem then, of course, becomes the growing polarisation of America.  A Sanders-Trump or Sanders-Cruz face-off in the autumn takes to the national stage what has been going on in Washington for some years now - a complete, binary approach to politics that has no room for the once shaded area of the middle where compromise used to take place.

This is still a Democrat-Republican race mind you.  Michael Bloomberg may offer the media a decent story and a veneer of honest broker between the two extremes, but the reality is that he is probably as redundant as the old Republican establishment, thrashing around trying to find people to support them.  Bloomberg's a maverick and combines business savvy with progressive social views, but he's no iconoclast and divided America may be looking for a whirlwind to clean it out, not a gentle breeze.

New Hampshire's Lessons

What does New Hampshire tell us about the likely future course of the US presidential nominations?   Nothing.  Seriously.  There will be no lack of important commentary on Rubio's struggle to finish third, and how that means he is falling back/still very much in the race.  How Sanders' win is 2008 again for Hillary/is no real concern to Hillary.  How Trump is clearly headed for the Republican nomination/is still a joker leading a pack ready to devour him.

Iowa and New Hampshire are fascinating states, and their early primaries give some actual voting figures to a race that has had to rely on polls since last summer.  Momentum in those states has traditionally allowed candidates to move ahead with more funding into the sunlit uplands of the south and west.  But the reality is that these lily-white states are not very representative of the immense diversity that is America's demographic,  and while providing excitement they have not fundamentally changed the contours of the nomination race.  These remain a likely Clinton win for the Democrats, after which her real struggle, to convince a divided America of her credentials for the presidency, begins.  And a Trump/Cruz/Rubio fight for the Republican nomination, with Trump and Cruz vying for the loony vote whilst Rubio seeks to stack up the Establishment.  Current wisdom is that Rubio would be much the most dangerous candidate in a Clinton fight, but if there is any takeaway from these early votes it is that Trump is no longer a joke.  He's a serious - and currently front-running - contender who could yet upset all previous political calculations.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Bloomberg's Candidacy?

Michael Bloomberg has hinted that he may stand as an Independent in the forthcoming presidential race.  One of my students, preternaturally informed about politics, had suggested this scenario to me last week and I had airily dismissed it, with the assured, patronising air that only years in teaching can perfect.  So it is personally annoying to find the former New York mayor making his candidacy mutterings again.

However, he's not yet declared, and Bloomberg does have a habit of flying his balloons and then retreating back as if they were a blue touch-paper.  And it is difficult to see what he gains from an independent candidacy, unless it is a manoeuvre to further de-stabilise the Republicans by dragging their moderates (there are still a few) into his camp.  So I may yet be right.  God, I hope so.  It's humiliating to find a 16 year old has a more prescient grasp of political outcomes than I do!

Cameron has more trouble with the opposition (that'd be the newspapers)

With the Labour party mired in their own internal squabbles, of which yesterday's fractious meeting with shadow Defence Secretary Emily Thornberry was the latest example, David Cameron's opposition is centered elsewhere.  And where better than those responsible denizens of principled opposition than the print media.

The press leapt into over-drive again today to condemn Cameron's suggestion yesterday that France might consider moving the UK border back to Dover in the event of a British exit from the EU.  Their headlines and commentaries trumpeted a major mis-step on Cameron's part, with the Telegraph headlining France's response as being opposed to any such movement.  The sources for this strong assertion were strangely limited and anonymous, with the most credible reference being a speech by French Internal Affairs minister Bernard Cazenove - made last October.

In fact, Cameron's suggestion has rather more credibility than the average Telegraph headline.  Former ambassador to Paris Sir Peter Ricketts pointed out on the "Today" programme this morning that the main French opposition, led by Nikolas Sarkozy, has already suggested they want to move the border, and they are not alone amongst the opposition parties.  The biggest block to moving it at the moment is indeed Britain's co-membership of the EU with France.  They're in this together.  But not if Britain leaves.

The Britain Out campaign may lack a decent figurehead at the moment, but they have no lack of propaganda in the form of the majority of the national press, and no "Stay" campaign will be easily able to match that.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Cameron's problem is less the EU and more a hostile media

David Cameron undertook a considerable gamble when he promised to try and get some reform of the EU in Britain's interests, in order to then pursue a referendum on continued membership.  Both elements of the same strategy, they were designed to lance the most lethal boil on the Tory body politic, Europe.

The country at large is not particularly bothered about Europe.  It's there, we're members, it's probably corrupt like most political institutions but hey, what can you do.  That's the broad line of thought - if any exists - that the majority probably have towards Europe.  It is completely at odds with the Tory world's utter obsession with the project.  The Telegraph's usually reliable sketch writer, Michael Deacon, tries to have a pop at Cameron's new deal by picking out its most obscure element and sarcastically suggesting it'll be the talk of the pubs (“Oh, well that changes everything. If Cameron’s won a declaration on the subsidiarity implementation mechanism and a burden reduction implementation mechanism, I’m definitely voting to stay in.")  

But the joke is surely on him, and the legion of other vein bursting commentators in today's papers.  People aren't talking about anything to do with Europe, subsidiarity implementation mechanism or otherwise.  This has always been about a Tory war in which the Prime Minister commands much the more depleted army.

Mr. Cameron has probably done as well - or better - as any leader of a single country within a large regional organisation could hope.  One Belgian MEP quickly ran through the gains Cameron had made on the Today programme, and it would be difficult to suggest that nothing has happened as a result of his intensive lobbying.

Whatever the Prime Minister has secured, he must always have known that it would be roundly and vigorously criticised by the die-hard Euro-scpetic establishment.  Herein will lie his most significant and dangerous battle.  Not in Brussels, amongst well-meaning diplomats and fellow politicos who are seeking some sort of helpful compromise that can keep Britain inside the EU.  It will be out in the newspapers of Britain.  Mr. Cameron will follow in John Major's footsteps in unleashing the full fury of the print press on him.  A glance at today's front pages gives you the general gist, and that's before you open up to read the splenetic outpourings of a legion of sclerotic right-wing iconoclasts.

British press owners are relentlessly anti-Europe for relentlessly commercial reasons.  With barely a single British taxpayer among this largely foreign domiciled elite, they can all see that a Britain freed from the market regulating restrictions of the EU is a country in which their commercial interests can thrive and survive with far less intrusive inspection than if she stays in.  It's good for their business to come out, even if that might not be the case for British business at large.  A Murdoch or a Barclay would much rather deal with the looser UK system than the prying eyes of EU commissioners.

The happy press owners are thus keen to give full leeway to their EU-hating writers, editors and pontificators.  This will be Cameron's battle.  He may be Prime Minister, but in this war he and his small band of supporters are going to be very much the David to the British media's mighty Goliath.  Every single news item about Europe, every apparently objective report on Cameron's negotiations and deals, will have to be read through the all-pervading anti-EU filter.  It will be a war of attrition - which started years ago - and the surprise will be if, at the end of the referendum process, the British people remain inured to their newspapers' injunctions and vote to stay in.  If they do, it will be one of the biggest blows to the power of the press ever struck.  The EU is almost a bystander.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Iowa in perspective

Excellent piece in the New York Times from Nate Cohn on the Iowa caucuses.  He pushes down into the figures and comes up with some shrewd analysis.  As someone concerned by the Cruz strength, I was particularly interested in this gutting of the Republican front-runner's figures:

But his path to the nomination is still not an easy one. He will face full-throated opposition from many prominent Republicans, as was the case here in Iowa. And Mr. Cruz’s narrow victory was not especially impressive. It depended almost exclusively on strength among “very conservative” voters, who are vastly overrepresented in the Iowa caucuses. There was no primary state where “very conservative” voters represented a larger share of the electorate in 2012 than they did in Iowa. He won just 19 percent among “somewhat conservative” voters and a mere 9 percent of the “moderate” vote.

Like many commentators today, Cohn considers Rubio to be the real winner in the Republican stakes; a last-minute headwind of support put him within biting distance of Trump and could build up to make him the establishment candidate to take on - and beat - Cruz.

The Washington Post, of course, also has excellent coverage (as does Slate) with this piece by Chris Cillizza offering a quick tally of losers and winners.  He sees Hillary breathing a sigh of relief in avoiding a major loss; she may have won or she may have tied or she may even have lost very marginally - but it was a win in that she has kept up her momentum and continues to look like a much better and stronger campaigner than in 2008.

The American papers obviously offer more informed commentary than much of the British media, although the BBC's Jon Sopel and  the Times' Tim Montgomerie are prescient observers, as is Today's James Naughtie whose enthusiasm for the process combines with his customary insight to make thoroughly worthwhile listening (scroll to around 35:10 here for example).  I was disappointed with the Spectator Coffee House's simplistic and uninformative piece, especially given their excellence in the field of British politics, but you can't have everything.

The Iowa Storm

You can see why Iowa has a state law mandating that it be the first state to hold caucuses in presidential election years.  If she wasn't, few candidates would do much listening to this small Mid-Western state.  As it is, every four years she gets huge amounts of love and attention lavished on her and it must feel good.

How much the Iowa caucuses can determine the course of presidential nominations remains moot of course.  In 2008 the Democrat race took a new and irrevocable turn when Barack Obama beat the "unbeatable" Hillary Clinton.  In 2012, however, Rick Santorum was victorious in the Republican race - and now he is merely a footnote in presidential election history.

So we should be wary of predicting long-term trends from the informal votes of a small but committed Iowa population.  That said, this is at least the first time real people have committed themselves to different candidates, and whatever lies ahead it's the first indication we have of how much or little these candidates appeal to ordinary voters.

The Democrat race - still neck and neck as I write - represents something of a success for Bernie Sanders.  The small-time senator from Vermont is giving the big-time former Secretary of State and First Lady a real run for her money.  She's not been buried, and the Sanders insurgency hasn't got the steam - it appears - of the Obama one eight years ago.  But by pipping or equalling Hillary in the final count, Bernie is keeping his race alive and the Democratic party benefits in consequence.  Hillary does too.  The Sanders campaign keeps her both grounded and sharp, and the whole party gets energised, as Slate notes here.

There are few similarly positive gains for the Republicans, even with the much vaunted Rubio third place showing.

Trumps' bubble hasn't been burst, but it has been pricked, by Ted Cruz's victory and that will send moderate Republicans into a tailspin every bit as bad as would a Trump victory.  Worse, possibly.  Where Trump makes outrageous noises to gain attention, he is in fact a pragmatic businessman-turned-politician who would probably show some executive competence and, when it came to real-time decision making, would be unlikely to take stupid risks.  The same cannot be said for Cruz.  He's a flip-flopper, certainly, and has all the sincerity of Lucifer, but you get the impression that this snake oil salesman par excellence would be just the man to take America down a disastrous ideological path because his base demanded it.

Cruz is the preferred candidate of the evangelical vote.  This is a potentially huge vote, and the last Republican to really energise it effectively was George W Bush.  Take from that what you will.

There is an episode of the popular American TV series "Supernatural", made in 2008, when one of the demon-hunting Winchester brothers is catapulted into the future to see what the apocalypse would be like once it's run its course.  He goes just 6 years ahead - to 2014 - and one of the most horrific indications that the world was indeed doomed was a newspaper headline proclaiming "President Palin Bombs Houston"!  It undoubtedly spoke to the real fears of 2008 liberal America about the then fiery - if monumentally inarticulate - Republican vice-presidential candidate, even if it now comes across as a piece of nostalgic whimsy.  Well, look again, because the idea of a President Cruz is ten times scarier than the (even then) unlikely prospect of President Palin.

Then there's Marco Rubio.  His strong third place finish is giving rise to comments which suggest that he is now the establishment candidate poised to take down the Trump/Cruz rising.  Rubio is more polished than either of his rabble rousing rivals, but only in this Republican race could he possibly be seen as a moderate influence.

Iowa has shown us trends that may or may not continue as the primary season lengthens, but it already shows us the depths to which US Republicanism has fallen, and heightened the need for the Democrats to be as battle-fit as possible in the autumn.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Have we been here before? Clinton versus an insurgent

She was meant to have had a lock on the Democratic Party nomination, in a year that looked good for a Democratic presidential candidate.  Hillary Clinton had the sort of star power few could hope to emulate, and she was one half of a couple who virtually embodied the term "power couple" in a party that was firmly in hoc to their machine.  And then came Iowa, and an insurgency that proved to be her undoing.  Barack Obama's soaring rhetoric and hope for change undid Hillary's hopes of breaking the glass ceiling for women in 2008.

And here she is again.  Her machine is intact, her supporters well motivated, she's captured the endorsement of one of the country's leading liberal newspapers, the New York Times; yet once again this once impregnable candidate faces a grassroots insurgency that could de-rail her second attempt at the presidency.

Of course it's not quite the same as 2008.  Hillary is a wiser person and a better candidate.  Her debate performances - under-reported at a time when everyone is obsessing over the Donald's wrecking of the Republican debates - have been far sparkier and effective than before.  Plus, she does have eight more years of hard won experience behind her, four of them as the former insurgent, Barack Obama's Secretary of State.  Bernie, meanwhile, has mobilised extraordinary support, and could certainly provide an upset in Iowa before what looks like a big win in New Hampshire (bordering his own Vermont state).  But Bernie can't match Obama's rhetoric, and he can motivate liberals but arguably not the mainstream who will there to be grabbed in the event of a very rightist Republican nomination.

It can, in fact, only be good for Clinton and the Democratic Party to have a race come much closer.  It would not have benefited Clinton at all to go through a coronation before the rough passage of the main election in autumn.  This way, she has to really hone her campaigning instincts, and she has to work out why so many Democrats and previously uncommitted voters are flocking to Bernie.  This Washington Post piece, and the turning of a sceptic noted here by Cody Gough, shows why "the Bern" is whirling up such a wind, and Hillary would be foolish to discount this.  She runs as an establishment candidate - her experience is a key selling point - at a time when many American voters seem dead set against that amorphous entity.  Capture some of the Sanders insurgency and Hillary really could have a winning formula.

This BBC report brilliantly captures the difference between the Clinton and Sanders rallies in Iowa and in so doing points up much of the distinction between these two seasoned politicians.

Hillary is no shoo-in any more.  Bernie Sanders has done the Democratic party a considerable service for that.  Whether the Senator from Vermont can provide the political weight to balance the excitement of his campaign, against a candidate who has weight aplenty, will ultimately determine who really is the most credible candidate to go against what will likely be one of the most dangerous Republicans in over a generation.  The Democrats should enjoy their primary season.  But they need to get this choice right.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Tory Feuds with Osborne in firing line

Political reputations rise and fall with the ease and frequency of hot and cold winters.  George Osborne has been riding high for months now - ever since the last election really.  Forgotten were his earlier strategic errors, such as the "omni-shambles" budget with its tax on hot pasties.  In vogue were his Commons socials and the near universal expectation that he would succeed David Cameron.
Well George kindly reminded everyone that his political antenna is not always as well attuned as it should be, when he ill-advisedly tweeted about his distinctly less than overwhelming tax deal with Google at the beginning of this week.

Now the knives are back out, as this Sun piece suggests today.  They've managed to get two ministers to provide them with some juicy quotes about Osborne - he's a social cripple, "just like Gordon Brown"; he's weird "like Milliband".  Osborne must be reeling this morning.  The last two Labour leaders aren't people that Labour politicians want to be compared to, never mind a high flying Tory chancellor.

We shouldn't expect too much from this scuffle.  It's an early shot, a quick hit and run at a time when the Chancellor is particularly vulnerable.  Osborne still controls considerable patronage, and most Tory MPs won't want to be seen to oppose him while he remains the favourite to succeed Cameron.  The Westminster village, as we see time and time again, doesn't operate with the rationality of anywhere else.  That's arguably one of the real messages about today's criticisms.  They may have more than a kernel of truth - Osborne can hardly claim ordinary bloke persona, and he does make egregious strategic errors.  But if he looks like a winner in two years' time, he'll be a winner regardless of his competence.  How do you think Gordon Brown managed it?  The stories of his lethal rages, paranoid rants and social awkwardness were legion well before he was PM.

It's diverting for us when one of the political tribes descends into civil war, and we're a bit bored with it just being the Labour party at the moment.  But the Conservatives aren't exactly bringing up exciting alternatives to the wounded front runner either.  I suspect we haven't heard the name of the next Tory leader in that context yet.  After all, two years is a long time......

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Trump, Palin and not understanding America

We didn't understand America back in 1776 and we're not very good at it now.  If gun laws are clear evidence of that, the popularity of Sarah Palin is even better evidence.

The woman who did more than anyone else, apart from Barack Obama, to ruin John McCain's chances of the presidency in 2008 is back as a political cheerleader-cum-would-be-office-holder.  And for Donald Trump, possibly the nearest male equivalent to her own brand of populist, anti-establishment, celebrity-seeking, not always sense-making political showmanship.

Trump's campaign is still largely focussed on outmanouevring his closest and most sinister rival for the Republican nomination, Ted Cruz, a man hated equally by everyone who he works with, whether left or right.  And he's done it again.  Trump's original anti-Muslim comment was designed to outflank Cruz, and receiving the endorsement of Palin is another humdinger that must be rankling with the Texas senator.  (In fact, we know it does because a Cruz staffer had a go at Palin hours before her much anticipated endorsement of Trump, causing a minor twitterstorm generated by Bristol Palin who attacked Cruz back. It's all fun and games and mutual love in the Christian vote-seeking Republican camp).

Palin is still a crowd-puller amongst Tea Party conservatives and the fundamentalist Christian base which Cruz appeals to so much, as the Telegraph's David Lawlor shows in his rolling pieces on the Iowa meeting.  It speaks volumes about Republican grassroots' political sensibilities that she is.  After torpedoing the McCain bid in 2008 she promptly left elective politics, resigning as Governor of Alaska (from where you can see Russia, as she memorably reminded everyone when asked to give evidence of her foreign policy expertise) to pursue a more lucrative career as a media celebrity.  She must still rank as one of the most proudly stupid and ignorant people to ever seek elective office, and her rambling endorsement of Trump was filled again with her own string of bizarre and meaningless catch-phrases ("We're not gonna chill, we're gonna drill, baby, drill"; they're replacing the safety nets with hammocks"; and lots of "Doggone....").

But Palin has energised the Trump campaign as the Iowa vote approaches on Feb 1st., and if her endorsement swings enough of that mid-western state's conservative base towards the Donald such that he beats the hitherto-favourite Cruz, well then his bid for the eventual Republican nomination is looking stronger than anyone - including probably Donald himself - might have ever believed.

I love the Republican race.  I just don't want any of them to be president.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

MPs forget how uninterested America is in Britain

Bless them.  MPs gathered in numbers not usually seen for debates to discuss the pressing issue of whether Donald Trump, who hasn't got any immediate plans to visit Britain, should be banned just in case he ever does.  As they earnestly debated the ins and outs of an essentially trivial petition, you almost felt that they believed America was watching and listening.  The full range of faux outrage was on display, with one MP dramatically declaring that Donald Trump had insulted her personally.

Oh dear.  Never mind the fact that this debate effectively took Trump at his own valuation.  Never mind that MPs were debating something they themselves couldn't actually affect (the power to ban is the Home Secretary's).  Never mind that there must have been 101 other ways for MPs to spend their time that might actually have had an impact on their constituents.  The key thing about this debate was the continued suffering British politicians have that somehow, in a mind somewhere across the Atlantic, Britain actually matters.

She doesn't, and hasn't since 1812 when British troops burned down the executive mansion in a sort of last hurrah.  The Americans repainted it and had a place they could now call the White House, which was nice.  But the feeling in Britain, ever since America started becoming the No 1 Nation, has long been that somehow we are tied together in a uniquely special relationship.  Alas, reality shows us a rather different picture, as a quick historical gander through the distinctly unspecial relationship will show.  Here are its principal lowlights, which I set out some time ago, when David Cameron was in the first throes of his infatuation with Barack Obama.

Roosevelt and Churchill.
This is where it was meant to have started. FDR moved heaven and earth to get US aid to brave little Britain, and he and Churchill bestrode the post-war world stage like conquering colossi joined at the hip. Yes?

Er, well not quite. Roosevelt was a thoroughly reluctant interventionist. He gave short shrift to the pro-interventionist Century Group, deferring instead to advisers like Sumner Welles, who in January 1940 was still determined to get Hitler and Mussolini to talk peace. When help did come, Roosevelt extracted everything he could from Britain and then tried to make sure the Atlantic War was firmly eastern focused, which suited American interests better. Neville Chamberlain had always believed that the cost of American help would be too high – he wasn’t wrong. Military bases, trading concessions and considerable regional influence was all ceded to the USA. The Roosevelt-Churchill relationship existed mainly in the mind of Churchill himself, who did so much to propagate it. Which is surprising, given the way FDR himself sought to undermine Churchill in front of Stalin at Yalta.

Truman and Attlee
Well, Attlee didn’t speak much anyway, but his Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin did, and it was Bevin who felt so downtrodden by Truman’s Secretary of State that he advocated British ownership of nuclear weapons, if only so that “no foreign secretary gets spoken to by an American Secretary of State like that again”. It was another Truman Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, who caustically remarked that “Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role”. Thanks for the support Dean.

One word really. Suez. When Anthony Eden tried to protect British interests in the Suez Canal, Eisenhower was the first and most important statesman out of the blocks to condemn him. And then begin a run on the pound. Never mind that Khrushchev was slaughtering Hungarian rebels at the time – Britain was Enemy No. 1! Oh, and lest we forget, it was Eisenhower as US Supreme Commander who stymied Churchill and Montgomery’s plan to beat the Russians to Berlin. The Russians weren’t a threat you see.

Nixon and Heath
Possibly the only really effective working relationship between a US President and a British Prime minister, because it was based on an understanding that there wasn’t actually a Special Relationship at all. Both Heath and Nixon believed that America’s real focus in Europe was never going to be a single country, but a united European organization. Nixon, in any case, was very clearly identifying the East as the true arena for US activity.

Reagan and Thatcher
This is where it’s meant to really go into overdrive. If the lovebirds Maggie and Ron didn’t have a special relationship, then who did? But, alas, for all their cooing to each other in public, Reagan not only proved notoriously slow to throw support behind Britain in the Falklands crisis, but then didn’t let Thatcher know when he invaded the Commonwealth country of Grenada. Britain had to content herself by joining 108 other nations in condemning the invasion at the UN. Tellingly, Reagan later recollected than when Thatcher phoned him to say he shouldn’t go ahead, "She was very adamant and continued to insist that we cancel our landings on Grenada. I couldn't tell her that it had already begun." Special Relationship indeed.

Bush and Blair
No world leader was more determined to show his support for the US than Tony Blair. No other world leader was greeted familiarly as “Yo, Blair”. But for all the support he gave to George W. Bush’s strategy of middle east invasion, Blair’s voice was heard as tinnily as anyone else’s when it came to trying to influence US foreign policy. It was one of the supreme, defining failures of his premiership.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Hillary's Debating Win

Attention in the US presidential primaries is focusing more on the Republican race than the Democratic one, not least because there actually is a Republican race, whereas whatever the enthusiasm of Bernie Sanders' supporters, no-one is yet thinking in terms of Hillary not winning the Democratic nomination.

Republican debates are offering some great moments as they fight lack rats in a sack, but it is worth turning to look at Hillary in the more measured Democrat debates too.  Sanders has at least offered some useful challenge to Clinton, absorbing the zeitgeist of the liberal left in her party and forcing her to recognise and deal with it.  And, the debates are a measure of what Hillary might be able to offer in the main presidential run-off after summer.

The evidence from the latest Democratic debate - at least according to Slate - is that she is one classy and effective debater; a better debater than campaigner says Isaac Chotiner.  And that means whoever wins the Republican race, they are going to have their wacky political offerings put under a sharp, forensic and public spotlight.  Which could well see them melt as the vast army of mid-term non-voters turns out to ensure the White House stays centrist.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Republican bitching

It says a lot about the Republican party that it looks as if it will spend the next few months deciding whether Donald Trump or Ted Cruz should be the standard bearer for all of its hopes and aspirations in November's presidential elections.

Of course much can change - and probably will - by then, but in the meantime we have weeks' worth of hard-right posturing on the part of those two lead candidates to get through.  And it's taken some doing, but Ted Cruz is managing to make Trump look like a decent, compassionate, upstanding and moderate man of great political wisdom.  Cruz is an unprincipled flip-flopper (see this detailed take-down of his various immigration positions) whose pronouncements and rallies carry the deep whiff of sulphur, but the recent Republican debate exchange at least showed him being verbally out-manouevred by the Donald.

Cruz took a swipe - as he has done previously - at what he calls "New York values".  Now "New York values" can often be used as shorthand in America for a variety of unseemly accusations.  The very first episode of the seminal political drama "West Wing" saw this sharp exchange on the subject between liberal Toby and a hard-right Christian activist:

But Cruz meant social liberal.  When he referred to "New York values" he was addressing his fundamentalist Christian base and attacking such anathema as same-sex tolerance, diversity and liberal ethics.  And he might have meant Donald Trump, whose outsize personality is certainly very definitely of New York.  Cruz' unpleasant insinuations could have been left hanging, but Trump rose to the occasion for once, and gave a great take-down.

Trump may lose out to Cruz in Iowa - due Feb 1st - while Cruz may lose out to Trump in New Hampshire.  But if they keep the top two spots as the primary season goes on, the whole Republican party is going to be the one that loses out.  Yet you get the impression that for many members losing out on the White House is an acceptable consequence of keeping the Republican brand tea-party pure.  What a party.

Writers' Woes

The world of print is over and will be overtaken and then replaced by its digital oppressor.  This has been declared for so long - a bit like Nostradamus' many and varied predictions for the end of the world - that we have probably ceased listening to it.  But the world of print is suffering, and in particular there exists a small but growing debate about the rewarding of writers.

One thing that the online world has done is to allow vast numbers of amateur writers to publish themselves and their meandering thoughts.  This blog, and this writer, is one example.  Such openness, so the argument runs, has led to a serious under-rewarding of professional writers.  With so much free stuff available, why pay?  The Huffington Post, a big online news affair, generates loads of its stuff by getting desperate people to write for it for free, and it is not alone.

I'm not sure I wholly agree that this should lead to the undermining of proper, good writers however.  Nick Cohen, an excellent, stimulating, readable journalist and author, has a great pop at the Oxford Literary Festival for refusing to pay its authorial speakers, in an online piece for the Spectator here.

Now let's be clear.  I think Cohen is a superb writer.  I willingly fork out for his books and I would buy magazines for his articles without a backward glance at my ever-decreasing bank account.  But I can also access him for free.  See above.  So why would I pay?  His perfectly just argument is a little undermined by the willingness of his employer to give so much of his stuff away.

The internet grew up with a mantra that it should all be free, but of course by "all" we really only mean the unedited commentary and news part of it.  Newspapers and magazines have done themselves no favours by hawking so much of their material for free, and it is perhaps not surprising that cheese-paring literary festivals like Oxford have followed suit and tried to extract writers to speak for free whilst paying for pretty everyone else who works at the festival.

Writers should absolutely be able to charge for their appearances.  Writers with confidence in the quality and marketability of their work should vigorously protect their right to be read on payment of an appropriate sum.   It would be a decent and affirming nod to the validity of the knowledge economy if that were the case.  Meanwhile, the rather less edified grafters on widely unread blogs should also be allowed to luxuriate in the illusion that people might also read our less elevated free offerings.  See.  The market at work.

Emoting about the EU

Tory MP Nick Herbert is leading the EU "Stay" campaign - or one of them at any rate - and not before time if a poll in the Mail is to be believed.  According to the Survation poll the "Leave" option now leads by 6%, given impetus it would seem, by concerns over terrorist attacks and a migrant influx that would clearly not exist if we weren't in the EU.

The Telegraph describes this as a "war", although quite why the preparation to debate an important referendum issue should be a "war" is puzzling in itself.  The Telegraph lost a lot of its news credibility some time ago when its cozy relationship with HSBC was revealed, but still.  A war?

Nick Herbert is effectively leading what will be the minority view within the Tory party about Europe.  Sceptics in the Tory party - up to and including the cabinet - are so plentiful that David Cameron has almost seemed besieged by his desire to secure a deal which could persuade people to vote to stay in.  As Nick Clegg - resurfacing on today's Marr show - remarked, it is going to be important to remember that the EU referendum extends rather further than the broiling civil war amongst the Tories.

Another salvo in the right-wing exchanges was fired in the Telegraph as well.  "Historians for Britain", a fantastically named group presumably suggesting that other historians are not at all committed to Britain, has dished the notion that the EU has had any role in preserving peace since the war.  And in this, I have to cautiously agree.  I think the EU has been a remarkable development in a continent which little over half a century ago was used to tearing itself to bits every few years on the battlefield, but yes I think NATO more than the EU can claim the credit for actually helping to preserve the very peace from which the EU has emerged and flourished.  The EU's forays into foreign policy have not been particularly effective - witness eastern Ukraine, a crisis begun at least in part by heavy handed EU overtures to pro-western Ukrainian politicians - and they struggle to speak with a single voice over such things as migration or the middle eastern conflict.  But still.  At least they do speak. And meet. And negotiate. And hold summits and things.  I doubt there's a person alive in the war-tortured middle east - outside the gun-toting, violence-inflicting, morally abandoned psycho loons of ISIS and their associates - who wouldn't rather have an EU type approach to inter-state affairs than the military machisma currently prevailing.

The referendum will hopefully be based on rational pro and anti arguments, but in amongst it I have to confess that there is a wholly emotive endorsement on my part of the whole EU experiment, and what it is meant to represent.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Will Oldham change the Labour narrative?

Until yesterday, the media narrative for the Labour party since the general election has been one of unparalleled disaster.  This only increased with the election of the very left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, a man whose main political work was as a serial rebel and protest march speaker.  Wholly unelectable, rejoiced the largely right-wing media in mock-sepulchral tones.  And he didn't do the things that politicians should do, like pander to the media march - this is a leader who committed the cardinal sin of failing to turn up to an Andrew Marr interview.  Honestly, where were his priorities?

Corbyn hasn't been much of a hit in the Commons, the place where the Westminster village gathers, and has rather annoyed regular Westminster watchers by taking the sting out of Prime Minister's Questions.   He doesn't even seem very interested in Westminster occasions, as if somehow they don't really impact upon his own supporters and voters in the constituencies.

Then, of course, there came the disaster of the Syrian air strikes debate - or more accurately ISIS air strikes debate (or Daesh, or IS, or whatever acronym we choose in the fond belief that they're really very interested in what we call them).  Corbyn, a man of principle even if he does look eternally miserable on television, remained opposed to strikes and wanted his parliamentary party to join him.  An undeniably inexperienced leader, he failed to properly bring his colleagues on side by largely ignoring them, and his media management remains atrocious. He gave a poor if honest speech in the debate, was eclipsed by his own shadow Foreign Secretary but helped by David Cameron's ludicrous mis-step in having spoken about terrorism's fellow travellers.

Yet while the largely hostile media revelled in Mr. Benn's fine speech (most OTT love letter was probably that of Labour refusenik Dan Hodges in the Telegraph) the voters in Oldham West were preparing to deliver a more significant verdict - that of Labour's heartland voters.

Oldham is an early test of Mr. Corbyn's electoral potency.  This may be a man who won a huge grassroots majority in his election as Labour leader, but the depreciation of his image and apparently hopeless attributes as leader have been consistently trumpeted by a hostile media.  Even yesterday, there were serious hopes that Labour would be cuckolded by UKIP in Oldham - take this piece by the Spectator's Sebastian Payne (soon to move to the FT).  Payne even visited Oldham, escaping the Westminster bubble for a day, and his finely tuned village antenna revealed these truths.  That "Corbyn's leadership appears to be dragging the party towards electoral oblivion", that there were signs on the ground that "all is not well for Labour", that UKIP's John Bickley could be the party's second MP and believes "he has struck gold with Jeremy Corbyn".  On it went.  Despite visiting Labour headquarters in Oldham young Mr. Payne still reported that UKIP could win the seat, Corbyn was a disaster on the doorstep, every time John McDonnell spoke he turned more voters towards UKIP.

But who can blame the Spectator's correspondent?  He was hardly alone in his assessment or in his Westminster assumptions that Corbyn was simply not proving up to the task, and a single visit north was not going to alter that.

Then the voters had their say.  It wasn't a big turnout, but at around 40% it was not disastrously small either.  Labour won, and won handily with a 10,000 majority.  And Labour's share of the vote actually increased.  So Jeremy Corbyn, the man who won the Labour leadership with the largest popular vote ever granted a party leader, can actually win parliamentary elections too it seems.  It's almost as if he might actually be in tune with the thinking of supporters of a left-wing party.

The vote on air strikes, too, was instructive.  While there were some headline Labour figures opposing their leader's stance, and much of the media narratvie has been about a wretchedly divided party, only 8 of Labour's 53 new MPs supported air strikes.  The vast majority agreed with Corbyn.

Labour is undoubtedly a party in turmoil.  But their new leader's key attribute is that he reaches well beyond the confines of an insular Westminster village, and the civil war on his parliamentary benches may well be more of an indication of how out of touch the more traditional, or mainstream, MPs are than any suggestion of Corbyn's own isolation.  A Corbyn led party has won a by-election that the common narrative said would be very close or potentially a disastrous loss.  He has won it well.  He keeps the loyalty of his newly elected MPs - and the majority of his shadow cabinet, and the majority of his other MPS - in a highly divisive vote.  When we next read about Jeremy Corbyn in the press, if the narrative doesn't change as a result of Oldham we should at least be highly sceptical of any stories projecting him as an inevitably election losing catastrophe.

And the Tories should sit up and take notice.  While their party gets deeper into revelations of bullying leading to suicide in their retrograde youth movement, they cannot take any comfort from the complacently driven canard that the next general election is theirs for the taking.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

As Paris faces terror again, has liberalism failed?

The western world is full of the distractions that our prosperity and liberal values allow.  So much so, that for the most part we forget that we are at war.  Then along comes a tragedy like the Paris attacks yesterday night, and for a few days – sometimes even weeks – we remember again about our war.

It is a war like no others before it.  It doesn’t often come onto our soil, but it pervades our governments’ and security forces’ actions almost in total. Our military forces are nearly exclusively engaged in military action in the middle east; our security services dedicate the majority of their attention to threats from that same middle east. 

But this isn’t just a one-sided military war.  It is a culture war too.  It is a war of liberalism versus fundamentalism, and the hinterland of this cultural dimension is at the heart of fears about the refugee crisis dominating Europe.

There is no clear resolution.  Well, there is no clear resolution that commands political support.  On our own domestic front – thrown into stark relief once again by the killing of over 120 innocent Parisians doing nothing more warlike than enjoying the leisure offered by a liberal society – it is an obvious misnomer to equate the killers with a single religion.  Their creed is a more nihilistic brand of fundamentalism, and that exists across all religions.  These particular fundamentalists are more militarised because their immediate counterparts in the middle east are militarised, but their core opposition to the values of liberalism are not much different from the opposition of any fundamentalist to the values of an individualist, free-thinking society.

So how did liberalism get here?  How has a western society, drawing its guiding principles from an ideology which elevates tolerance and individual freedom get to a point where it is in a terrible, almost underground war on its own soil against those who want to dismantle it?

Perhaps the problem originated with the inability of western governments to divorce themselves from an interventionism that has also been part of liberalism.  Liberalism shouldn’t be interventionist – or expansionist – but the foreign policies of liberal governments have never quite subscribed to that view.  Inevitably perhaps, since governments are the least able to protect themselves against a corruption of power which demands your aggressive defence against known and unknown enemies.

Thus, in the name of defending liberal values, western governments have found themselves at war. And they are finding what true liberals could have told them all along – war is fundamentally destructive of liberal values, both internally and externally.

Externally, in the ways we have seen.  The enemies the war has created do come after you, and if they themselves are weak then they come after your weakest element too.  IS are a brutal, murderous group governed by an abominable fundamentalist mentality, but compared to the military complexes of the liberal nations they are weak.  They win on the ground because our governments have started to hesitate in their use of their own military power.  Hesitated too late, alas.  So IS attacks in a way that their weakness finds most effective.  By taking aim at the ‘soft underbelly’ of western society. 

Internally, the threat to liberalism exists because each time an attack takes place, more credibility is given to the idea that governments and their forces should increase their own domestic power.

So has liberalism failed?  How do we escape this desperate cycle?  There will not be wanting voices to call for greater action in Syria; more bombings of sometimes military and sometimes civilian targets.  More boots on the ground.  More action in Iraq too perhaps.  Maybe Afghanistan.  But consider this.  The only real path for military success is to engage in a full, total and continuous war until we have utterly decimated and destroyed all the forces arraigned against us; and then to maintain a full military presence to suppress any resurgence of that fundamentalism which militates against us for as long as such feelings might exist.

Read that last bit again and see if it has any likelihood to it whatsoever.  Of course it doesn’t.  Not even war-based empires like Rome succeeded in such a path for any length of time.  But it is the only way of operating if you want to go down the path of military success.

Alternatively, we could try and rescue liberalism and the societies which embrace it by beginning the slow, painful retreat from interventionism.  It won’t be easy.  The seeds of terrorist opposition that have already been sown are still growing and being harvested, and will be a long time before that soil can finally dry up.  There is still a long slog ahead for governments and security services as they seek to protect their societies without reducing them to illiberal states.  But if we really want to escape from the cycle of mindless, fundamentalist, random attacks on the innocent of our societies, then we have understand where it has come from.  And it came from the failure of liberal governments to fully embrace an ideology that should never have allowed them to send half-hearted military forces into areas they barely understood.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

President Rubio?

When Marco Rubio scored his attack hit against former mentor Jeb Bush in the recent Republican debate, he may have been signalling that he was running against the old families of both parties.  For a long time observers and commentators have worried that the presidential election of the world's first democracy might end up being a slug-fest between two names who have come up before - Bush v Clinton.  What would it say about the nature of the American democracy if its two parties' best options were to produce the wife and son/brother of former presidents?  Well, Hillary may be sleeping easier at the moment as she continues to sail through the Democratic campaign, but Jeb Bush has never been a front-runner in the Republican one and the hot money is already gathering around Marco Rubio.

Rubio does well in debates, and his put-down of Jeb Bush - "someone convinced you attacking me is going to help you" - was further evidence that, unlike the senior politico, he can actually do politics and is an articulate candidate to boot.  Yes, the Republican race at the moment remains dominated by the extraordinary - as in extraordinarily ridiculous - Donald Trump, with retired neuro-surgeon Ben Carson in second place.  But there still exists a sense that when the votes start being cast, Trump might flounder, while Carson's lack of political experience is already causing him problems.  Then the Republicans will start looking for their serious, Hilalry-beating candidate. And at the moment that is looking like the senator from Florida.

Rubio is young, fresh, runs to the Republican conservative base without sounding or appearing overly wacky, and as the son of Cuban immigrants has a Latin appeal that is electorally powerful.

The Bushes deride him as a "GOP Obama", but that might seem to those outside the Republican bubble as a positively good thing.  Just as the fresh young senator from Illinois dispatched a member of his party's political aristocracy, it looks as if Rubio might just do the same.  If he does, Hillary really should be worried.  After all, her track record against dynamic incomers is hardly encouraging.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Lessons for Cameron from Denis Healey's "Greatness"

David Cameron could be forgiven if he enters the Tory Conference week thinking about his place in history.  This, after all, is a man who doesn’t have to win another election, since he’s given himself a final term firewall against any future electoral catastrophes.  Not only that, but he’s been able to witness Big Bad Jezza Corbyn’s utter catastrophe of a party conference over the past week, with possibly only a few hours off to mull over the deteriorating quality of western foreign policy (currently sub-contracted out to the country formerly known as the Soviet Union).

Corbyn is a delight in many ways.  He’s not quite as different as a party leader as some hopefuls are suggesting, admittedly.  George Lansbury and Michael Foot were also bizarre lefty true-believers with a lofty disdain for practical politics, and both proved electorally disastrous for the Labour party, albeit from a better intellectual vantage point than the fuzzy minded Corbyn.  But Corbyn is the first of that mould to appear in the age of constant media, and his disdain for the “media commentariat”, coupled with his notoriously badly structured, dull black holes of speeches have all gone to contribute to the carefully spun image of a man who is “authentic”. 

Corbyn’s conference was a sheer joy for David Cameron.  The Labour leader’s select-a-policy style, and his refusal – or inability – to have his shadow cabinet speaking from anything like a single song-sheet, must all be making the current leasee of No. 10 Downing Street giddy with the prospects of his future greatness.  And Cameron has to think about his future greatness as he has no more general elections to win.

What he does have, though, is a referendum to win and if he is to finally rest on the front bench of Great Tory Leaders (Andrew Roberts examines the competition in this piece for the Spectator this week) he will need to ensure that he persuades the country – and much of his own party – to stay in Europe.  Whatever the Euro-sceptics say, Cameron doesn’t see leaving Europe as much of a triumph for his avowedly internationalist approach.

Musing on possible future greatness might have led Cameron to read more carefully the obituaries of Denis Healey this weekend.  Whether great or not – there is plenty of scope for debate – Healey was one of the best known politicians of his era.  He was an early example of the “celebrity” politician who could probably be recognised by the average don’t-care-about-politics-they’re-all-liars voter in the street.  Bushy eyebrows may have helped, and the fact that he was thus easily caricatured by the greatest performing impressionist of his day, Mike Yarwood, but Healey was also well known because he was trenchant.  He rarely expressed modest views and wasn’t shy about condemning his opponents.  His reference to Geoffrey Howe having all the savagery of a dead sheep in his parliamentary attacks has been well recorded.  Less often noted, and more scathing, was his outraged condemnation of Margaret Thatcher as a prime minister who “gloried in slaughter” during the Falklands War.

The problem for Denis Healey – who has received universally positive obituaries – is that his greatest achievement was born out of disaster.  As Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer during the awful 70s he had to advise a recalcitrant party that the days of ambitious spending were over.  He began – in the teeth of massive Labour opposition – a sharp programme of austerity.  It was forced upon him by the fact that he was the first – and to date the only – Chancellor to ask for a loan from the IMF to tide the tanking British economy over. 

I doubt that, when he entered politics after a heroic military career during World War II, Healey envisaged his claim to greatness resting on such a terrible reversal of fortunes.  He spent the rest of his active political career trying to persuade the Labour lefties of the need for responsible policies and a need to appeal to centrist voters.  He failed in this. 

Perhaps that is the lesson from Denis Healey’s career.   Cameron can muse that even if the worst happens, and the country votes to come out of the Union he thinks we should maintain membership of, if he should live long enough afterwards even his failure might be perversely turned into some sort of triumph.