Solemn British commentators on the Ukraine crisis are wringing their hands over the west’s alleged inability to do anything to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine in the face of alarming Russian military activity, including powerlessness to persuade the Russians to pull back from their militaristic moves before the tension breaks out into war. They are wrong. There is one move that the west can and should make that would help to undo the consequences of recent western policy blunders, reassure Moscow about Russia’s legitimate strategic and security interests in its own region, and compel Ukraine’s leaders of all communities to adopt a more realistic attitude to its geopolitical situation and the limits which that imposes on its options. The west needs urgently to give a clear and unconditional assurance that there can be no question of Ukraine, or any part of Ukraine, ever becoming a member of either the EU or NATO.
This would be no more than a recognition of reality. Russia’s interests in Ukraine – strategic, cultural and historical, and personal (a third of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language, nearly a fifth are Russian citizens) – are such that no government in Moscow could passively stand by while the closest of its neighbours is being drawn into the west’s orbit. The west’s reckless dangling of an unfulfillable promise of EU and even NATO membership in front of successive incompetent and corrupt Ukrainian regimes, contemptuously ignoring Russian concerns, bears a large part of the responsibility for the mess we’re all now in.
The dangerous crisis in Ukraine, and especially in Crimea, will not be resolved by pompous condemnation of Russia’s aggression or by unconvincing warnings of high but undefined costs for Russia if it continues to violate Ukraine’s integrity – warnings that sound especially hypocritical coming from politicians (not, incidentally, including Barack Obama) who vociferously supported western illegal aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999 and against Iraq in 2003. The grandstanding rush by our foreign secretary, William Hague, to Kiev today is misconceived. It will be interpreted as implying a renewed commitment of some kind to UK support for the revolutionaries in Kiev, many of whom are still dreaming of eventual membership of the EU, if not also of NATO. Is that interpretation what Mr Hague intends? If so, he should not be in charge of UK foreign policy.
If anyone should be rushing overseas in search of de-escalation, it should be to Brussels to agree without more delay on declarations by the EU and NATO of the impossibility of Ukrainian membership of either. Meanwhile western leaders should be telling the Russians that we are working towards such a declaration; that it is no part of EU or NATO policies to threaten Russia’s legitimate interests in Crimea or the rest of Ukraine: that it is in Russia’s, the west’s, and Ukraine’s interests that stability, prosperity and uncorrupt government should be promoted in Ukraine; and that the EU and the US wish to discuss with Moscow institutional arrangements for cooperation in economic support for Ukraine once a stable, representative and democratically legitimate régime has been installed in Kiev.
The basis for such a peacemaking initiative by the west as an alternative to the spear-waving bluster advocated by, for example, Sir Malcolm Rifkind (among many others), is set out in eloquent and scholarly terms by one of the greatest British diplomats of our time, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, in an article in today’s Independent on Sunday which should be required reading for all those who are indulging their out-dated cold war prejudices by sanctimoniously denouncing Mr Putin for doing what any great power leader in his position would be bound to do. Selectively quoting Sir Rodric, –
Much recent comment on Ukraine in the British press has been marked by a barely forgivable ignorance about its history and politics, an overhasty willingness to put the blame for all its troubles on Vladimir Putin, and an almost total inability to suggest practical ways of bringing effective Western influence to bear on a solution….
Today 77 per cent of the country’s population is Ukrainian. But 17 per cent is Russian, a third of the population speak Russian and many of these people have strong family ties with Russia. Only the Ukrainians from Galicia look unequivocally to the West.
Meanwhile, most Russians feel strong emotional links to Ukraine as the cradle of their civilisation. Even the most open minded feel its loss like an amputated limb. …
… Putin arrived in 2000, ambitious to strengthen Russia’s influence with its neighbours. And the West began its ill-judged attempts to draw Ukraine into its orbit regardless of Russian sensitivities.
… The first is respectable but merely rhetorical: Ukraine is entitled to decide its future for itself, and Russia has no legitimate claim to a voice. The second is a piece of old-fashioned geopolitics: Russia can never again become an imperial threat if Ukraine is incorporated into Nato and the European Union. This part of the policy is impractical to the point of irresponsibility. It ignores four things. The members of Nato and the EU have lost their appetite for further enlargement. Most Ukrainians do not want their country to join Nato, though they would be happy to join the EU. A majority want to remain on good terms with Russia. Above all, the West does not have the instruments to impose its will. …
The alternative is for the West to talk to the Russians and to whoever can speak with authority for Ukraine. So far the Americans have been ineffective on the sidelines, the British seem to have given up doing foreign policy altogether, and only the Germans, the Poles and the French have shown any capacity for action.
An eventual deal would doubtless have to include verifiable agreement by the West as well as the Russians to abandon meddling in Ukrainian affairs, a credible assurance that Nato will not try to recruit Ukraine and arrangements for the both the Russians and the West to prop up Ukraine’s disastrous economy….
Further obligatory background reading is a piece for Chatham House by another distinguished former British diplomat, former British ambassador in Moscow, and current member of the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry, the Rt Hon Sir Roderic Lyne.
And, finally, a comment by yet another equally distinguished British diplomat and former ambassador to Moscow, Sir Bryan Cartledge:
The key point, I believe, which the media largely overlook, is that the revolution in the Ukraine is primarily a protest against domestic corruption and misrule, not a vote for the EU or against Russia. The EU issue provided the occasion but was not the cause. In converting an internal protest into an East-West issue, the EU is making a huge mistake — Putin, of course, has been bound to follow suit. And quite apart from all this, the last thing the EU needs now is responsibility for an almost bankrupt and almost failed state.
These three know whereof they speak. Our noisy and belligerent political leaders and their media cheer-leaders with their crude and counter-productive posturing would do well to listen to them.
[Full disclosure: both Bryan Cartledge and Roderic Lyne are friends and my former Diplomatic Service colleagues. All three of us served together many years ago in the British embassy in Moscow.]
 Postscript and correction: as Roland Smith has helpfully pointed out in his comment below, I should not have written that nearly a fifth of the Ukrainian population are Russian “citizens”: i should have written “ethnic Russians” or “Russian speakers”. Of course the Russian habit of issuing passports to Russian speakers in neighbouring countries and then claiming the right to intervene to protect their ‘citizens’ across the border tends to blur the distinction between ‘Russians’ living abroad who are citizens of Russia, and those who are not.
In recent years no scholarly article about diplomacy or report on the subject in the toffs’ press has been complete without a knowing reference to “soft power” – the deployment of cultural and other peaceful assets as means of persuasion. It is often contrasted with “hard power”, persuasion by use of bombs, drones, Special Forces, blackmail, threats, and the like. Now the term soft power has been comprehensively discredited by the person best qualified to torpedo it, Emeritus Professor G R Berridge, the guru of diplomatic studies and author of their classic text, Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, among many other books and articles. In a few witty and pithy paragraphs on the home page of his website, Professor Berridge expertly deconstructs the definition of “soft power” rashly recorded by its inventor, the distinguished American scholar “Joseph S. Nye, Jnr., a Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and former senior member of the US military-intelligence complex”. Berridge castigates Nye’s definition as “cluttered with redundant words”, and for describing “something for which we have long had a more elegant term: influence. Removing the clutter makes this obvious.” He thereupon surgically excises the clutter, exposing what remains as nothing more than a perfectly satisfactory definition of “influence”.
Berridge offers three possible reasons for the virus-like spread of this “silly and inelegant synonym for influence”: first, that it’s easy to grasp, whereas ‘influence’ is hard to define even though not hard to understand; secondly, because of “the influence, sorry, soft power, of the leading American universities, the US International Relations establishment … and major American publishers, reinforced by the pull of the English language”; and thirdly because the enthusiasts for soft power (and for its originator) have yielded to the temptation to describe it as a concept, rather than simply a term, “thereby suggesting the discovery of something new”, even though Nye himself is on record as admitting that “the behaviour it denotes is as old as human history”.
Practising diplomats, especially typically pragmatic British practitioners, as distinct from academic teachers and students of the theory and history of diplomacy, are sometimes bewildered by theoretical expositions of what they are supposed to be up to and why they are up to it. Here is a refreshing example of the reverse: a leading academic demonstrates that the soft power emperor is sartorially challenged, that calling influence “soft power” adds precisely nothing to our understanding of it, and that the exercise of non-coercive influence has been one of the principal features of diplomacy, among several others, since the first human tried to persuade the second human to have a bite of the first apple. Diplomats need no longer feel uneasy about their activities being defined as the deployment of soft power, when what they do is largely simple common sense. Influence is the diplomat’s primary tool, almost always preferable to the use or threat of force as a means of getting others to behave in the way you want them to. Calling it soft power is neither here nor there.
(Full disclosure: Geoff Berridge is an old friend. I was privileged to be invited to read an early draft of his short essay on soft power and to encourage him to publish it on his website. If his piece succeeds in killing off this superfluous and pretentious term, I shall have to plead guilty as a minor but enthusiastic accessory to the assassination.)
This is a post-script to my previous post (http://www.barder.com/4101), “Denying the Scots the option most of them legitimately want puts our country’s future in danger“. The eminent historian and commentator Professor Linda Colley has just published an important book, “Acts of Union and Disunion“, telling the story of changes in the relationships between the constituent nations of the present United Kingdom over the centuries, including the various proposals at different times for a formal federation of the four nations. These have been supported in one form or another by such powerful former leaders as Churchill and Lloyd George. It is legitimate to ask why none of our present political leaders apparently has the imagination or courage to espouse such a radical cause.
According to the Profile Books website,
One of our most distinguished historians, Linda Colley is Shelby M.C.Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton and a Fellow of the British Academy. She has previously taught at Cambridge, Yale and LSE. Her earlier books include Wolfson Prize-winning Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837; Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600-1850 and The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History.
Her new book is based on a series of talks on BBC Radio 4, starting today (6 January 2014) at 13:45 and continuing for the next two weeks.
The relevance of Professor Colley’s books and talks to the issues arising from next September’s referendum on independence for Scotland is amply demonstrated by the following extract from her fascinating article in today’s Guardian:
One of the notable features of present-day debates on possible Scottish independence has been the lack of imagination and creativity thus far displayed by most of those seeking to make the unionist case. The assumption appears to be that appeals to economic individualism and fostered fears of the unknown will by themselves be sufficient to make Scots hesitate about opting for independence. This strategy may or may not prove effective, but it shortchanges the public, and not just in Scotland. Scots are being offered arguments in support of independence, and warnings against it. Neither they, nor anyone else in the UK, are being provided with alternative visions of what an amended, re-imagined union might conceivably be like, or what it might be for.
This is very different from the quality of debate out of which the Government of Ireland Act of 1914 emerged. The late 19th century saw all sorts of federal solutions being proposed for the UK’s many fault lines, sometimes at a high level.
Amen to that! It’s tempting to wonder whether the professor has been reading my latest blog post on the subject and its many predecessors, all making exactly the same point about “the lack of imagination and creativity thus far displayed by most of those seeking to make the unionist case“, were it not for the fact that Linda Colley has been deploying the same arguments in her books and other writings for many years, and basing them on her encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of constitutional relations between the constituent parts of the British Isles – a knowledge not, alas, shared by the present blogger. I shall try to remedy at least a part of my regrettable ignorance of that history by ordering and reading “Acts of Union and Disunion“, and by recording and listening to Professor Colley’s Radio 4 talks, starting this afternoon. I urge readers of this blog post to do the same.
An article in the Financial Times by Janan Ganesh on Christmas eve, 2013, identified three main challenges to David Cameron during 2014: the European parliament elections, in which the right-wing, anti-EU party UKIP is widely expected (not necessarily rightly) to come top, ahead of Labour and the Tories; the coming round of bankers’ bonuses, popularly regarded as unacceptable, and for which the government is likely to be blamed; and the widespread (but wholly unfounded) fear of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants ‘flooding’ into the country, ‘stealing jobs from British workers and driving down their wages’, now that the ban on their unrestricted right to come here has been lifted, something that will also be blamed on the government in the unlikely event that it happens.
This forecast seemed to me to omit a fourth looming challenge, potentially even more damaging — to Britain as well as to Mr Cameron — than the three listed by Mr Ganesh. The FT published the following letter from me on 2 January 2014:
Financial Times, letters, January 2, 2014
An even bigger menace for Cameron in 2014
From Sir Brian Barder.
Sir, Janan Ganesh, in an otherwise characteristically perceptive article (“Labour’s agonies will prove hazardous for Cameron”, December 24) identifies May’s European parliament elections as “the most menacing event the government faces next year”, but he overlooks an equally hazardous prospect: the referendum on Scottish independence in September. Although current polling suggests a probable vote against independence, the negligent failure of the UK government to offer the Scots a constructive alternative to independence other than the status quo, with which very many Scots are clearly dissatisfied, risks a steady shift of opinion in Scotland in the next nine months that could easily result in a vote spelling the early disintegration of the UK.
There is no respectable reason not to offer what a majority of Scots obviously want, namely full internal self-government within an already semi-federal UK (admittedly implying eventual changes, long overdue, for non-self-governing England). The Liberal Democrats have hinted at support for such a policy but both Labour and the Conservatives seem too timid to risk even gingerly touching the nettle, still less grasping it. If the UK falls apart on David Cameron’s watch, he will surely pay a higher electoral price in 2015 for his delinquency than Ed Miliband, and that must represent a menace to the Tories at least as great as the European parliament elections, bankers’ bonuses or unfounded fear of Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants.
Brian Barder, HM Diplomatic Service (Rtd), London SW18, UK
The referendum to decide for or against Scottish independence is to take place on Thursday, 18 September, in less than nine months’ time. If the Scots vote to break up the UK and go their own way, the lion’s share of the blame should fall on the government at Westminster, headed by Mr Cameron, for his failure to provide Scotland with an alternative to both independence and the status quo, neither of which is wanted by most Scots (as argued in my FT letter), simply because the government of the day, which alone can act as well as talk, bears the primary responsibility for that failure to act in time to avert the disintegration of our country.
But an almost equal burden of responsibility rests on the shoulders of Ed Miliband and the Labour party as the only party of the two with a significant presence in all three of Scotland, England and Wales. If the three main unionist parties can’t agree on a promise of full internal self-government for Scotland in the event that the Scots reject the independence option, there’s no reason why Mr Miliband should not commit himself and his party to that promise, to be honoured if and when there’s another Labour, or Labour-led, government. Such a policy might well meet stiff opposition from the Scottish Labour party, with its visceral hatred of the SNP in general and The Two Fishes, Salmond and Sturgeon, in particular. But the stakes are too high to allow Scottish Labour to stand in the way of what may well be a necessary condition for the survival of the UK as a single sovereign country – especially when an offer of full internal self-government within an eventually fully federal UK is strongly desirable in its own right, and not just as a short-term gimmick to head off the independistas.
The temptation for Mr Miliband and his colleagues to do nothing, and hope for the best on 18 September, is clearly very strong. But on the lowest level of electoral prospects alone, the consequences for the UK Labour party if Scotland secedes will be very serious. It’s not true, as often asserted, that without its safe Scottish seats Labour would never again be able to form a government in the rest of the UK: Labour would be better placed than the Tories to take a lead in forging a new constitutional future for England in a new union with Wales and Northern Ireland, but it would require a huge effort to transform itself into a primarily English party.
Meanwhile doing nothing, which seems to be the posture of both the Labour and the Conservative parties, is just as much a policy option, with predictable potential consequences, as adopting the one brave and radical policy which stands a fighting chance of satisfying the legitimate ambitions of a majority of Scottish people, and which might thereby save the United Kingdom for our children and our children’s children. Over to you, Mr Miliband. Mr Cameron lacks the authority, imagination and courage to do what needs to be done. That leaves you.
In the Scottish independence referendum in less than a year’s time, on 18 September 2014, Scots will have to choose between two alternatives, neither of which the majority of Scots seem to want: (1) separation from the UK on terms that will become clear only after the referendum, or (2) the status quo, which means limited devolution as defined by the Scotland Act, 2012, and thus only limited control over their own affairs. It doesn’t have to be like this. The unionist parties, Labour, the Conservatives and the LibDems (especially the Labour party which alone has a significant presence in England, Scotland and Wales) have an obvious duty to offer Scotland an alternative to independence and secession from the UK which represents an improvement on the status quo and which corresponds to what, according to the polls, most Scottish people want – much more control over their own affairs. It’s a sad betrayal of the campaign to save the United Kingdom from disintegration that none of the unionist parties (with the honourable exception of the LibDems) has had the courage or vision to commit itself to such an offer in time to influence the outcome of the referendum.
The Guardian of 28 November 2013 publishes the following letter from me (I have re-inserted in the text below a couple of minor things unhelpfully edited out by the Guardian in the published version):
Simon Jenkins (Don’t lecture Scots. They want freedom, not wealth, 27 November) is clearly right to advocate an offer to Scotland of a status somewhere between full independence (which would be a tragedy for the whole UK) and the current degree of devolution. The polls suggest that a clear majority of Scots at present want neither independence nor the status quo, but much greater control of their own affairs within the UK. The continuing failure of the Labour and Conservative parties to promise Scotland full internal self-government (perhaps modelled on that enjoyed by, e.g., Massachusetts and New South Wales within their federations) as an attractive alternative to independence is both incomprehensible and unforgivable. There’s still time, but not much.
The failure of the No campaign, headed by the generally admirable Alistair Darling, to come up with an offer of full internal self-government for Scotland if the Scots reject the option of independence is probably attributable to two factors, neither of which is valid: first, the difficulty or impossibility of reaching agreement between Labour and the Conservatives on how much additional devolution should be offered to Scotland if the Scots reject independence, and secondly, the fear that if Scotland is offered what ought to amount to full internal self-government, this will intensify resentment in England of England’s complete lack of any self-government at all, and demands for the same full internal self-government for England as that to be offered to Scotland.
The first of these objections won’t wash: there’s nothing to stop Labour from promising full internal self-government for Scotland under the next Labour government, whether the Tories agree with it or not (and it would be difficult for the Tories to devise a convincing or reputable argument against it). The second objection is actually an argument in favour: if an offer of full internal self-government for Scotland reinforces the already growing demand for the same status for England, so much the better. The eventual achievement, over several years, of full internal self-government by Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland would bring forward the happy day when the UK becomes a fully-fledged federation, the logical and inevitable culmination of the devolution process and the sole serious answer to the West Lothian Question.
It’s depressing that parliamentary committees responsible for holding to account such powerful institutions and individuals as the intelligence and security services, the bankers and the police are often either far too soft or far too aggressive. Some inspire little confidence in their efficacy as watchdogs to ensure that the intelligence and security agencies respect our civil liberties as well as working to protect us. Others appear to be constrained by no procedural rules governing their powers and objectives, nor by any safeguards to protect those summoned to appear before them to be aggressively interrogated.
After the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) hearing on 7 November at which the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ testified in public for the first time, an e-correspondent asked:
Did you watch ‘M’, ‘C’ and the man from GCHQ (he must resent not having a single-letter nom de guerre!) yesterday? I thought it was embarrassingly supine questioning. And if the MI6 man presents his intelligence material [to ministers and officials] with the same hyperbole as he does when he gives evidence, it must be very difficult to distinguish reality from imagination.
I very much agree. The committee was deeply unimpressive — conveying the impression, anyway to congenital sceptics, of being in a too-cosy relationship with the official eavesdroppers, sleuths and burglars, too respectful of them to say the softest boo to an elderly goose. Michael White in the following day’s Guardian was spot on when he said that the three top honchos seemed to have summoned the ISC to meet them, not vice versa. Obviously in an ideal world we should judge people by what they do and say, not by their physical appearance or even by the impression they convey on our television screens. But what these three powerful officials do and say is almost entirely secret: we have no basis for judging them apart from how they strike us on their rare public appearances. Did the three men seem roughly like ordinary sensible people, sharing ordinary citizens’ instincts and concerns (and sense of humour)? Did they show evidence of understanding the importance of balancing the demands of national security against the pressing need to protect our fundamental right to freedom from disproportionate state intrusion into our private lives? Or did they seem dogmatically committed to the principle that security by definition trumps civil liberties whenever and wherever the two collide? For those who watched the whole hearing last Thursday, those questions answer themselves.
The claim that these people are better equipped than the editors of the Guardian and the New York Times to judge (after extensive consultations and redactions) which bits of the various whistle-blowers’ leaked materials can safely be published seems plainly untenable; indeed laughable.
At the ISC hearing none of them was asked, or explained, why their “opponents” (those who threaten our security) were so pleased by the revelation that in order to identify the odd terrorist needle in their gigantic haystack, the intelligence services were obliged to collect such mindless quantities of hay in the form of all your and my emails and telephone calls and other private records, including access to their content. None of the three was asked or explained why we should consent to trust them not to read our emails and records or transcripts of our phone calls, so long as we hadn’t been communicating with the enemy — a kind of variant of William Hague’s deeply objectionable “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear” riff. None was asked or explained whether the security services were evading bans on eavesdropping on their own nationals by swapping data on other nationals, such as Americans, with sister services, such as the NSA, the US equivalent of our GCHQ. None was asked or confirmed whether our calendars, address books, or medical and bank records are being collected along with our emails and telephone transcripts. None was asked or explained how we can be confident that the scale of the surveillance they conduct is not just convenient and helpful to them but also (in the words of Human Rights Watch) “necessary, proportionate, and subject to adequate safeguards against abuse”. None was even asked to comment on the cause of the immense leaks that have occurred in recent months — namely the American practice of giving access to colossal quantities of highly classified material to literally hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians, including contractors not even in the public service, without a thought for the basic principle of the “need to know”. None was asked or volunteered to acknowledge that these leaks had revealed deeply disturbing and gaping holes in the whole system, that the scale of surveillance had got out of hand, and that drastic remedial action was self-evidently and urgently required.
It’s true that if I were a terrorist (which I assure you I’m not), I would be rather reassured to discover that in order to identify a dodgy email I had sent or an indiscreet telephone call I had made, the lads and lasses at Cheltenham would have to sift through billions upon billions of communications that they had inexplicably lumbered themselves with, of which 99.99% would be by definition utterly useless to them (although around 50% might come in handy one day to an aspiring blackmailer, I suppose). Perhaps that’s why the head of the secret intelligence service was so outraged by the Snowden revelations and so sure that al-Qaeda would be “rubbing their hands with glee”.
The salient point that should have emerged from the ISC hearing, but didn’t, is surely this. It is utterly unacceptable that any state organ — or any other institution, come to that — should be allowed secretly to collect and store and be able to read the contents of the personal electronic communications of entire national populations. Knowledge is power, and no conceivable institution should be allowed to possess and potentially to exercise such overwhelming power over a whole population and more. Sooner or later, if this industrial-scale intrusion is permitted to continue, that colossal power will be abused, and by then it will be too late to stop it. As far as I could tell, watching the proceedings live, not one of the three witnesses at the ISC hearing, and none of the committee’s members, showed the slightest sign of awareness of that monstrous problem with which the latest revelations confront us. That is seriously frightening.
Oversight of these power-hungry characters’ activities by a parliamentary committee manifestly unwilling to ask hard questions is clearly of questionable value. Even allowing for the constraints imposed by holding the hearing in public and on television, it’s very difficult to imagine any of the ISC members, hand-picked by the prime minister, seriously challenging the spooks even in their closed and secret sessions. A senior judge also has investigatory and supervisory powers over the three security and intelligence agencies but he or she reports in secret to the prime minister, so we aren’t allowed to know what malpractices the judge may have unearthed and what, if anything, the prime minister is doing about them. I don’t know how else these largely unaccountable officials can be brought under control, and restrained from stealing and storing everything just because they can, at mind-blowing public expense. Any independent invigilator, even a suitably sceptical judge, is liable to be immediately co-opted into the cosy magic circle of those who are, or who are encouraged to believe they are, in the know. The security services charm, intimidate and control those tasked with supervising them by sharing a careful selection of their secrets with them, thus in effect gagging them as well as flattering them. Somehow, though, these scandalous practices have got to be stopped, or we can say goodbye to some of our most fundamental liberties. Remember the Stasi!
The basic jobs of the security service, the secret intelligence service and GCHQ are unquestionably vital and indispensable. There’s no serious doubt that a huge majority of those who work in them are honest and committed, and often brave. Much (but not all) of what they do obviously has to be kept secret. But it is now clear that secrecy has come to mask abuse of power on a vast scale. The Americans and other democracies are taking this seriously and debating possible remedies. President Obama is trying to overcome NSA resistance to his plan to rein in their ability to harvest Americans’ data without any constraint. Other democracies are overhauling their oversight systems. It’s time we in Britain did the same, instead of furiously denouncing Mr Snowden and threatening the Guardian for telling us what we were entitled to know all along.
* * * * *
At the other end of the scale, power is being abused in a different way. We need to pay more attention to the growing habit of chairs (and some members) of certain parliamentary select committees — you know the ones I mean — of bullying and humiliating those summoned to appear before them as if conducting the Grand Inquisition, giving their defendants absolutely none of the protections and safeguards, such as the right to be legally represented, demanded by due process and the rule of law – in a word, by justice. At some of these hearings there are apparently no rules of admissible or inadmissible evidence, no Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer if the answer might tend to incriminate the accused, no protection from an impartial presiding judge or defence counsel against bullying by the prosecution, no right to receive, before the hearing, full details of the prosecution’s case. The Grand Inquisitor is judge, jury and prosecutor rolled into one: the defendant is on his own.
A hearing like this is not just an aggressive probing interview of the kind we watch on the BBC Newsnight programme or hear on the BBC Today programme. It is much more like a kangaroo court mated with a show trial, and on national television into the bargain: wonderful entertainment, but at a shocking price Lawyers respect the principle of Equality of Arms in a proper trial, but in these virtual trials by parliamentary committee there’s no such thing. Justice is not served by such one-sided proceedings and it’s deeply distasteful, however unsavoury some of the victims might be.
Some of our MPs are beginning to act like pit bull terriers and rottweilers. Others behave like neutered pussy-cats. There really needs to be a middle way.
Grateful acknowledgements to the Huffington Post for the (slightly doctored) picture, which bears no resemblance to any real persons living or dead.
For a fascinating account of the events leading up to this morning’s US-Russian framework agreement on Syrian chemical weapons disarmament, please see the excellent fact-based article in today’s Financial Times (14/15 September) by James Blitz and others: the FT makes it difficult to quote a URL but if you click on this: A long week: Putin’s diplomatic gambit and then exit from the invitation to sign up for some kind of subscription to the FT, you should get the article (but nb: the heading given to the article gets it perversely wrong). It shows that only four hours elapsed between what some commentators obstinately continue to call Kerry’s ‘off-the-cuff gaffe’, suggesting that Assad could avert a military strike by turning over his chemical weapons to international control, and Lavrov’s public embrace of that proposal. It’s obvious, to me anyway, that Russia could not have announced its support for this idea without having forcefully pressured Assad into submitting to it first; and even the Russians would have needed more than four hours to do that. In fact the idea seems to have had its genesis in US-Russian off-piste exchanges at the G20 summit in Mexico in June 2012, and to have been firmed up between Obama and Putin in St Petersburg at the G20 this year, on 5 and 6 September. I think even Blitz’s article probably underestimates the amount of detailed work on it that both sides would have done during that time, before Russia discreetly gave the green light to Washingtom: “Mission accomplished: we have squared Assad: go ahead and make the proposal, as casually as you like, and we’ll grab it, as agreed.” (I’m guessing, of course, but….) Did the Americans insist that the proposal must appear to have come from them in the first place, and not from the Russians? Perhaps it did, anyway.
I even wonder whether Obama’s otherwise strange decision to seek Congressional approval for a strike against Syria might have been designed to buy just enough extra time for the Russians to complete the softening up of Assad so that the agreed joint exercise could go ahead. Perhaps he’s had a strategy all along after all. He’s unlikely simply to have been copying Cameron, especially when Cameron’s ploy in the British parliament had turned into such a disaster — for Cameron, anyway, if not for peace.
So unless it all goes horribly wrong (and I doubt if either Putin or Obama can allow it to do that), we have a near repetition of the events of 1999 when Blair was cheer-leading NATO to bomb the hell out of Yugoslavia to bring the Serbs to heel, and getting nowhere: a shrewder US President (Clinton) eventually realised that only Russia had the necessary hold over Milosevic and that accordingly the west would have to give up trying to exclude Russia from the exercise. Clinton accordingly told Yeltsin that Russian participation was indispensable (as confirmed in Clinton’s memoirs), and sent a joint US-Russian-Finnish delegation to Milisovic to present completely new settlement proposals and to tell him that the game was up. Result: a largely peaceful negotiated settlement under UN auspices; end, and utter failure, of NATO bombing.
The great difference with Syria 2013 is that Obama was quicker than Clinton to realise that the key to success was to work with, not against, the Russians, thus opening up the possibility of a peaceful settlement approved by the UN before, not after, the air bombardment had begun. And it was heartening to hear Kerry and Lavrov at their press conference this morning (14 Sept.) expressing the hope that their collaboration over the international destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons might pave the way to continuing collaboration in the search for an eventual diplomatic and political solution to the overall Syrian conflict, not a military one.
Under pressure from a questioner, Kerry was forced to repeat the American myth that any US President has the right to order the use of military force to protect United States interests even if necessary without the approval of the UN (he was referring of course to the US Constitution, not the UN Charter or international law). But his emphasis throughout was on the need for diplomatic/political solutions, not military ones, and for all problems over compliance or delays to be referred, under the new agreement, to the United Nations Security Council for decisions on what to do about them, specifically under Chapter VII of the Charter. Apart from anything else, this development gives the lie to the parrot-cry of the Stupid Tendency: “If you’re opposed to the use of military force to deter further chemical weapon attacks, you’re saying we must stand idly by and do nothing.”
It’s just rather sad that in both cases the prime minister in office in Britain at the time – Blair then, Cameron now — was still rattling his rusty old sabre long after the Americans had seen the light and quietly organised a deal with the Russians to do the job peacefully. The Russians had legitimate interests in the Balkans, especially Serbia, then, and in the Mediterranean, especially Syria, now. Russian and western interests in stopping the use of chemical weapons in Syria and in an eventual settlement of the conflict broadly coincide, despite some important differences. There’s ample common ground to permit a fruitful collaboration in search of mutually agreed peaceful solutions, however difficult the Russians may often be as partners. We need to grow up and recognise that the cold war’s over. Let us hope that the Labour party leadership has learned the right lessons from these events, even if the Tories have not.
Following the defeat of both the Labour amendment and the government’s motion on Syria in the house of commons last night, the prime minister has rightly decided that the UK will not now take part in any military action against Syria. This seems to me an excellent outcome, which reflects and respects UK majority public opinion, and averts a foreign policy blunder of significant proportions.
But I am shocked by the views widely expressed in the blogosphere and by MPs on both sides of the house of commons according to which it would have been perfectly all right to go ahead and use force against Syria even if we had failed to get the authority of the Security Council for it. This careless willingness to subvert the whole basis of the UN Charter and the central provisions in international law governing the use of force in international relations is deplorable and disreputable. The existence of a doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”, as a justification for military action without Security Council authority, and asserted by the Attorney-General in his legal advice to the government, is hotly and rightly disputed. If accepted, it makes the whole UN Charter system in chapters VI and VII redundant, and we’re back to the law of the jungle. The international community has indeed accepted that there may in certain circumstances need to be ‘humanitarian intervention’ to protect civilians from their own governments, by unanimously endorsing the new norm called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005 at a special summit of heads of state and government at the UN: but it explicitly requires that action under it must be in accordance with the Charter and that the use of force under R2P must be authorised by the Security Council in accordance with the relevant chapters of the Charter (see http://www.barder.com/4043). It’s sad to see Dominic Grieve dredging up the discredited notion of a separate ‘doctrine of humanitarian intervention’, needlessly duplicating R2P, simply to enable the government to escape from the inconvenient requirements of international law.
Several MPs and bloggers are complaining that it would be ‘madness’ to abandon our plans for a strike against Syria to deter further use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people just because one or two members of the Security Council (Russia and China) would veto any resolution authorising that action. Some go so far as to say that we should ignore such vetoes as obviously self-interested and unwarranted — an echo of Tony Blair’s ludicrous proposition in the Iraq context that “an unreasonable veto” could legally be ignored. There’s room for debate about the usefulness or otherwise of the veto provision in the UN Charter. But the fact is that the veto power exists: and had it not been included in the Charter, there’s a real possibility that either the United States or the Soviet Union (succeeded by Russia), or both, would not have become members of the United Nations, which would have rendered the UN virtually powerless and irrelevant. The proper response to a frustrating and unwelcome veto is to sit down with the government that has cast it and try to work out an alternative course of action that both (and a majority in the Security Council) can agree to. It is nonsense to say that the alternative to using force, if that is blocked by a veto, is to do nothing.
However, in any case, had the UK-US resolution to authorise a strike against Syria come to a vote in the Security Council, it’s extremely unlikely that there would have been Russian or Chinese vetoes, because in the light of the present composition of the Council, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the necessary minimum of nine affirmative votes would have been cast in favour of authorising the US, UK and France (or anyone else) to use force against Syria. Our resolution would virtually certainly have been defeated by our failure to win the required majority. In that situation negative votes by Russia and China would not have been vetoes. Russia and China might even have abstained, in order to rub in the fact that it was not their vetoes that denied us the permission to use force that we had asked for, but the fact that the majority of the Council disagreed with us. So it’s no good bleating about it being crazy to let a country like Putin’s Russia stop us doing what we wanted by threatening to use its veto. It would have been a representative selection of the international community that would have refused us the permission that we had sought. This accurately mirrors our failure to secure UN authority for the attack on Iraq in 2003: we never managed to get the required majority of Security Council members to support our attempt to get that UN authority, and had to withdraw our draft resolution for that reason. It was never a question of a Russian or French veto, as Blair falsely claimed afterwards.
Of course all this is now hypothetical, as far as the UK and Syria are concerned. But anyone who disagrees with the scenario outlined above needs to list the nine members of the present Security Council who might be open to persuasion to vote for us to bomb and rocket Syria. I can’t see it.
I am massively relieved that this marks the end of any idea of Britain joining in a foolish, counter-productive, pointless, dangerous military enterprise which would almost certainly be illegal under international law, undermine the authority of the UN and the Charter, kill innocent people for no discernible reason, and fail to deter future use of chemical weapons by the Assad government. We’re well out of it. Enough MPs reflected a sane and humane public opinion that was strongly against yet another intervention in a middle east country which poses no conceivable threat to British interests, to make it impossible for Cameron to commit this major blunder. It’s just a huge pity that Ed Miliband, as leader of the Labour Party, didn’t say loud and clear that there was no case for our military intervention in Syria and above all that such intervention would be illegal and insupportable without the authority of the UN Security Council. He had the perfect opportunity to say precisely that; but he failed to take it, perhaps because of the hot breaths of the New Labour perpetrators of the Iraq disaster down his neck. Still, by insisting (presumably under pressure from his own MPs who were rightly opposed to a strike against Syria in any circumstances) on increasingly stringent conditions for Labour to support military action, Miliband forced the government to retreat further and further from its original intention of launching a virtually immediate attack on Syria, and helped to create a space for MPs of all parties to ask devastating questions about the government’s plans to which ministers had no answers. MPs of all parties accurately reflected public opinion, and forced a delusional government to bow to it. A victory for all of us.
There have been increasingly frequent references by politicians and commentators, including some lawyers, to the internationally accepted principle of governments’ “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) their own citizens from humanitarian disasters and the responsibility (not ‘right’) of the international community to intervene to protect people who are so threatened if their own governments are unable or unwilling to do so. It’s being suggested, quite wrongly, that the R2P allows us and the Americans and others to attack Syria to punish its government for its alleged use of chemical weapons against its own citizens, or to deter it from doing it again, without the need for the UN Security Council to give its approval in advance. In the hope of squelching this dangerous error, I sent the following letter to the Guardian, which published it as the lead letter in its issue of 27 August 2013, in time (I hope) to be read by MPs and others before the Syria debate this afternoon:
According to your report (Kerry: US will act against Assad, 27 August), “the UK and US have both signalled that they are prepared to act [against Syria] without a UN mandate. International law experts say intervention could be legally justified without a security council resolution under the UN’s ‘responsibility to protect’”. According to another report, Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, “did not rule out Labour giving its backing to military intervention without a UN resolution”.
But the 2005 World Summit outcome document in which the heads of state unanimously approved the new international norm of the “responsibility to protect”, subsequently approved by UN security council resolution 1674, states that:
“The international community, through the United Nations, also has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with chapters VI and VII of the charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. In this context, we are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the security council, in accordance with the charter … on a case-by-case basis…” [my italics].
Former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former US presidential special envoy to Sudan Richard Williamson, who co-chaired a working group on the responsibility to protect (R2P), stressed in the group’s report that “R2P’s implementation is to be done in accordance with the UN charter, which means that the central decision-making authority is the UN security council”.
I wonder who are these “international law experts” who advise, absolutely wrongly, that military action against a sovereign state (other than in self-defence) without the authority of the security council can be justified under R2P? According to another report, “Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, warned that any attack on Syria without security council sanction would be ‘a crude violation of international law’. He compared the situation to the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003″. Lavrov was right on both counts.
Attorney-general Dominic Grieve should act immediately and above all publicly to nip in the bud this dangerous misconception that R2P allows any country to evade the plain requirements of international law as laid down in chapters VI and VII of the UN charter, before its constant repetition is wrongly assumed to legitimise another US-UK act of aggression like that committed against Iraq in 2003.
It seems that Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who refers in his column in today’s Guardian to R2P as if it provided an alternative to Security Council authority for attacking Syria, had not read my letter in yesterday’s Guardian, or the key R2P documents either. This seems a little lax on his part, since he’s a lawyer and Chair of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee as well as a Conservative MP and a former foreign and defence secretary. I hope MPs who contribute to the debate this afternoon will have done their homework more thoroughly.
Footnote: “All Members [of the United Nations] shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” UN Charter, Article 2.4.
Of all the many opportunities now being missed by the Labour party for a vigorous, radical campaign to win over solid popular support, one of the saddest is Labour’s silence on the real possibility that in barely a year’s time, on Thursday, 18 September 2014, our fellow-citizens in Scotland may vote to leave the United Kingdom to become an independent state. Current polls show a clear majority of Scots opposed to independence, but much can change in a year, and not that many Scots seem content with the status quo. A Tory-led government at Westminster, with virtually no Conservative party support in Scotland, is waging a class war against the poorest and most vulnerable in the country, outraging widespread progressive opinion in Scotland. The Tories are appeasing their own loopiest supporters by increasingly putting British membership of the European Union — much more valued in Scotland than in England — at risk. The independence campaign is led by probably the most skilful and charismatic politician in the UK, Alex Salmond. Blandly assuming that the referendum due next year will come down against independence, and doing nothing at all to persuade the Scots to vote accordingly apart from nit-picking over the small print of the independence campaign, is a reckless gamble with the future of our country.
Yet there’s no sign of a Labour strategy aimed at offering Scotland a worth-while alternative to independence that could command support both in Scotland and in the RUK (rest of the UK). The Tories have clearly written off Scotland and have no policy for its future apart from complacently assuming that Salmond will lose his referendum and that the Scots will be content with the minor improvements to Scottish devolution in the Scotland Act 2012. The LibDems have a radical and forward-looking policy for Scotland and for the constitutional future of the UK, but no-one else seems to take any notice of it or to take it seriously. A bold Labour policy, supported by the LibDems and offering a brighter constitutional future for the UK, including for Scotland, would fill a yawning vacuum. It could form one of the key elements in an imaginative Labour programme offering an optimistic long-term alternative to the break-up of the UK, leaving a sadly diminished little England searching for a role with Wales and Northern Ireland in tow, as envisaged in a striking recent Observer article by Henry Porter. Deferring the unveiling of such a programme until the eve of a May 2015 general election will be too late: by then the Scots will have had their referendum and the die may have been irrevocably cast. The need is for a brave Labour initiative within at most a few weeks.
English lethargy in the face of the threat to the integrity of our country ought to have been brutally shaken by the publication of an important new book, Scottish Independence: Weighing up the Economics, by Professor Gavin McCrone, a distinguished former public servant and academic economist (full disclosure: Gavin McCrone is one of my oldest friends). This book is an invaluable guide to the main issues, political as well as economic, arising from the choice facing Scots next year. Short, pithy, commendably cheap, available as an e-book or paperback, written in clear English, accessible to the ordinary reader as well as to trained economists, amply supported by facts, figures and statistics, Scottish Independence could well have been published in a well-known series of handbooks and re-named Scottish Independence for Dummies. It ought to be required reading, not only for Scottish voters before their referendum next year, but also for everyone in England (and the other two UK nations) with an interest in the future of the United Kingdom. It has been widely discussed in the Scottish print and electronic media but, inexplicably, it has so far barely been noticed at all in England.
Professor McCrone, who sensibly refuses to disclose his own referendum voting intentions and remains resolutely impartial throughout his book, discusses the numerous questions that would need to be answered before Scotland could become independent, if that’s what the Scots vote for in 2014: could an independent Scotland continue to use the pound sterling and if so how much influence could it have on its own monetary and fiscal policies? on what basis would Scotland take on a fair share of the UK’s income from North Sea oil and of the UK’s national debt? could an independent Scotland afford to bail out its very large banks if they were to fail again in future? what would be the implications for both Scotland and England of Scotland going it alone on renewal energy policy? would Scotland need to apply for EU membership as a new state? what if England voted to leave the EU in the in-or-out referendum threatened by Mr Cameron, but Scotland, having voted to remain part of the UK, voted massively to remain in the EU? if Scotland applied for EU membership as a new state, would other EU member states with their own internal secessionist movements (Spain and Belgium, for example) be tempted to veto the Scottish application for fear of setting an awkward precedent? would Scottish EU membership require a new EU treaty whose ratification would trigger referendums in some EU countries, referendums that might well go against Scotland? would Scotland, if admitted as a new member to the EU, inherit a share of the UK’s EU rebate? would Scotland, as a new member, be required by current EU doctrine to join the Euro and the Eurozone, and/or the Schengen Agreement – which would mean immigration controls on the border with England?
Professor McCrone suggests possible answers to all these questions, stressing that if the Scots vote for independence, many of the most vital questions would have to be negotiated with the government at Westminster before independence could be achieved, and and that it’s impossible to predict what the outcome of those negotiations would be; and that others would fall to be negotiated with the whole of the EU, including the RUK, both before and after independence, the outcomes in each case similarly unpredictable. Professor McCrone notes that some of the principal questions have apparently not been discussed, even in a preliminary way, between Edinburgh and London or between Edinburgh and Brussels. It looks as if Scottish voters will have to make their decisions for or against independence in just a few months’ time without having the slightest idea how these questions, fundamental to their own future welfare and security, are likely to be answered. A pig in a poke indeed.
In a striking passage in his book, McCrone warns that
If independence is rejected, … there is a real danger that politicians at Westminster and officials in Whitehall may think that they can put away the files and not worry about Scotland any more. Proposals for increased devolution might then be shelved. That is quite a likely outcome but it would be a huge mistake. It would probably mean that the next time there was a big surge in support for independence for Scotland, maybe in ten or twenty years’ time [Note by BLB: I predict that it would occur much sooner], it would carry the day in a second referendum. That has been the pattern in the past over devolution. [Scottish Independence: Weighing up the Economics, Birlinn, p.147]
Here are five key elements for an urgently needed Labour strategy for the future of Scotland and the whole United Kingdom:
1. Labour should promise that if the 2014 referendum goes against independence, a future Labour government will negotiate a further significant expansion of devolution for Scotland. According to the polls, more Scots want this than want independence or the status quo, and there’s no conceivable reason not to agree to it. Why should Scotland have less control of its own internal affairs than California or Rhode Island in the US or New South Wales in Australia?
2. Labour should recognise that full self-government for Scotland will prompt pressure for the same status for England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and should agree to make this its long-term aim (and to work tirelessly for a national consensus in favour of it).
3. This would result eventually in a fully federal constitution for the UK and its four nations, and would entail, eventually, a separate parliament and government for England, probably sited in the midlands or north of England.
4. The transfer of further extensive powers to the parliaments and governments of the four UK nations will greatly reduce the functions and powers of the federal parliament at Westminster, justifying a radical reduction in the size of the (already semi-federal) House of Commons and especially of the House of Lords, the latter from nearly 800 at present to a maximum of 100 in the new elected federal Senate, in which (as in the US and Australia) all four nations would have equal representation, an essential protection for the smaller nations against domination by the biggest. The creation of a new modest-sized parliament for England would thus be consistent with a sharp net reduction in the total number of UK politicians.
5. There is no other durable or feasible answer to the West Lothian question than a gradual move, over 15 to 20 years, to a federal UK constitution as proposed, supported by a broad consensus across the whole political spectrum. It would create a lasting, democratic relationship between the four UK nations and between them and the federal centre, satisfy the legitimate aspirations of the Scottish and increasingly the English (and Welsh and Northern Ireland) peoples, and complete the long interrupted devolution process of which Labour is, or should be, the proud godfather.