Diplomacy is the art of giving all parties in a conflict what they need, if not what they want. Right now, the underpaid, mismanaged FCO staff are getting neither what they need nor what they want. Britain is weaker and less safe as a result.
So writes the Editor of The Independent, Amol Rajan, in Thursday’s London Evening Standard, in a stinging account of the marginalisation of a once great department of state (full disclosure: for which I worked for 30 years).
In her resignation letter of 5 August, Baroness Warsi, a former Co-Chair of the Conservative Party and Foreign Office minister, denounced the government’s policy on Gaza as —
[in]consistent with our values, specifically our commitment to the rule of law and our long history of support for International Justice. In many ways the absence of the experience and expertise of colleagues like Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve has over the last few weeks become very apparent… William Hague was probably one of the finest Foreign Secretaries this country has seen… He dismantled foreign policy making by sofa government and restored decision making and dignity to the Foreign Office. There is however great unease across the Foreign Office, amongst both Minister[s] and senior officials, in the way recent decisions are being made.
The two greatest disasters in British post-war foreign policy, Suez (1956) and UK participation in the illegal attack on Iraq (2003), were at least partly attributable to the failure, indeed deliberate refusal, of the responsible prime ministers, Sir Anthony Eden and Tony Blair, to listen to the advice and warnings of the professional foreign affairs experts, including the legal advisers, in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.
As Rajan’s article points out, one consequence of the steady devaluation of the FCO over many decades, as its resources have been mindlessly reduced while its responsibilities have been relentlessly increased, has been the absence of any coherent identifiable British foreign policy. Successive governments have constantly over-estimated British influence in world affairs, endlessly boasting about Britain’s ‘leadership role’, blind to the evidence of relative decline and indeed often explicitly denying it, while actually accelerating it by an extraordinary failure to play an active, constructive and cooperative role in Europe. Neither party has an identifiable policy on military intervention in the affairs of other states: in the weird muddle over the abortive proposal to join in air attacks on Syria, neither Labour nor the Conservatives felt able to declare unequivocally that such intervention without the prior authority of the UN Security Council (and other than in self-defence) would be in clear breach of the UN Charter and thus of international law — therefore an act of aggression and a war crime. No British government in recent times has laid down a coherent policy on the middle east, on China (threat? opportunity? who knows?), on reform of the Security Council (is Britain willing to give up or share its permanent seat and veto?) or on nuclear disarmament and the scandalous distortion of UK defence policy by the irrational refusal to scrap Trident, a so-called independent nuclear deterrent which is not independent and has no-one to deter, as crisply demonstrated by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian of 15 August. In a crisis, why do our prime ministers instinctively rush first across the Atlantic, not across the English Channel? It’s too late to reverse NATO’s reckless expansion eastwards or Putin’s reactive retrieval of Crimea, but why are we intent on punishing Russia instead of discussing a Ukraine settlement that will respect the interests of all parties to the conflict?
Amol Rajan tells us that —
Cameron’s close circle of foreign policy advisers in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office has explained in closed-door meetings to the diplomats in the FCO that the Prime Minister does not really think about strategy at all. Moreover, the feeling in King Charles Street and some of our missions is that many of these advisers owe their positions to old school ties rather than ability.
This persistent legacy of failure offers Ed Miliband and his colleagues an enormous opportunity to set out a coherent, rational and law-abiding foreign policy, rooted in and executed by the FCO, for an incoming Labour government. This will call for a degree of courage that has been conspicuously missing from our political leaders of all political colours in recent years: courage to take on the puerile sabre-rattling of the tabloids and the Murdoch press; courage to attack such shibboleths as Trident, the burned-out ‘two-state solution’ in the middle east, and the indefensible current composition of the Security Council; not least, courage to acknowledge the foreign affairs blunders of the Blair government, some of whose senior members still insist on defending their flawed records in parliament and the media. Labour’s motto in these and many other matters should be Danton’s: “il nous faut de l’audace, et encore de l’audace, et toujours de l’audace!” If Labour dared to adopt it, Mr Miliband’s fate might be happier than Danton’s: not the guillotine, but the keys to Downing Street.
As of now (6 August 2014) the best guess must be that Scotland will vote to reject independence in the referendum on the 18th of next month. But there are still many undecided voters and most pundits predict a closer result than the opinion polls currently suggest. The possibility of a narrow majority for independence can’t be ruled out, and politicians and media analysts alike should be doing much more contingency planning and discussion against that possibility than seems to be happening. Among the major issues in the event of a majority Yes vote that ought to be actively considered by all the UK parties between now and the referendum is whether the coalition government should resign at once if defeated in the referendum, with fresh elections before the end of this year to elect a new government with a mandate to conduct the independence negotiations with Scotland. In my view it would be a constitutional outrage if Cameron and his coalition government refused to resign in such circumstances, for the reasons (among others) set out in my letter published in today’s Guardian:
A vote for Scottish independence is a vote for a pig in a poke
• The Guardian, Wednesday 6 August 2014
Martin Kettle’s dystopian and all too credible prediction of the disastrous consequences of a majority for independence in the Scottish referendum in September (Remember 2014, the last summer of the old Britain, 31 July) suggests two possible variants of his scenario. First, David Cameron’s coalition government would surely have to resign immediately following such a catastrophic defeat. The incumbent government that had presided over the disintegration of our country as a direct result of its failure to offer Scotland a credible alternative to independence could hardly carry on as if nothing terrible had happened; and anyway there would be a pressing need for a new government with an electoral mandate to open and lead the negotiations with Edinburgh on the detailed terms of Scotland’s secession.
Second, the negotiations between Scotland and the rest of the UK (rUK) on the terms of secession would be quite likely to get bogged down in failure to agree on some key issues. If the best terms that the government at Holyrood was able to extract fell significantly short of the SNP’s demands, there might well be justified pressure from the Scottish people for a fresh referendum to establish whether those who had voted in 2014 for independence still favoured it on the only terms on offer following the negotiations. Come September, Scots will have to decide whether to buy a pig in a poke. They may well find that they don’t like the pig when it eventually emerges. However, it would be risky for Scots considering a yes vote in September to assume that they will have an opportunity later to change their minds if they don’t like whatever may emerge from negotiations with rUK.
On the second point in my Guardian letter, there seems to be some doubt about whether ministers have allowed Whitehall to start planning for the consequences of a possible vote for independence on 18 September. Such an outcome would launch several years of intricate and often deeply divisive negotiations between a Scottish team, led by or perhaps comprising the SNP, on the one hand, and a team representing the rest of the UK (rUK), probably representing all the mainstream UK parties, on the other. Does the main steering brief for the rUK team in the negotiations already exist in Whitehall, setting out the rUK’s main aims in the negotiations, including its red lines on an independent Scotland’s currency; the future of rUK naval and military bases in Scotland (including HM Naval Base Clyde); and the allocation as between Scotland and rUK of North Sea oil revenues, the national debt, the armed forces, and a host of other assets and liabilities? Have the three main UK parties worked out agreed or differing policies on each of these vital issues? If they differ, how are the differences to be reconciled in conducting the negotiations if not by a mandate from the rUK electorate — which would mean publicly disclosing the rUK’s negotiating positions in advance? Perhaps most important of all: what will happen if, after perhaps several years of difficult and stormy negotiations, the two sides simply fail to reach agreement? In the last resort the rUK side can lay down the terms on which the UK parliament will be prepared to grant independence to Scotland, whether or not the Scottish side — almost certainly after fresh elections in Scotland — has agreed to them. What if the majority of Scots who will have voted Yes in 2014 don’t wish to become independent on the terms laid down by rUK following a breakdown or deadlock in the negotiations? In that perfectly plausible situation, is rUK prepared to force independence on Scotland even if a majority of Scots don’t want it on the rUK’s terms?
All these issues urgently need to be publicly aired and debated in the next six weeks if Scottish voters are to have even a hazy understanding of the likely consequences of their votes on 18 September. Have ministers and their officials, and the Labour leadership separately, thought them through and arrived at firm decisions on how to handle them in the negotiations with the Scots if the Yes vote wins? Are any of the three main UK parties ready for an October or November general election fought on the issue of the terms of separation to be offered to Scotland after a Yes vote on 18 September? I rather doubt it.
This information is for university teachers of diplomacy or international affairs, and for editors and book reviewers. It supplements the information about What Diplomats Do, Brian Barder’s new book, now available at the publishers’ (Rowman & Littlefield) website, at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442226357; on my previous blog post at http://www.barder.com/4229; and in a new section on my website, starting at http://www.barder.com/wdd/.
University teachers who are considering whether to include What Diplomats Do in their students’ recommended or required course reading lists, or who have decided to do so, can request a free copy (“desk copy”, “inspection copy” or “exam copy”) from the publishers in order to assess it.
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This blogger is the author of a book published by Rowman & Littlefield last week, What Diplomats Do: the life and work of diplomats. This is precisely what it says on the tin; it’s not another ex-diplomat’s thinly disguised, self-published memoirs. After writing millions of words in blog posts, articles, emails and letters, I have at last got round to writing a book. I shan’t do it again, so buy it now before the 20% discount offer lapses.
There’s more information about the book at http://www.barder.com/wdd/ (and pages to which it links — hat-tip: my IT guru, Owen), including: the full texts of two sample chapters (one of them the explanatory Introduction); extracts from some flattering pre-publication reviews by eminent academic teachers of diplomacy and international affairs and by some equally eminent former ambassadors; and an order form that you can download, fill in and send off if you want to get that 20% discount while it lasts.
What do diplomats actually do, not according to academic theory but as a matter of day-to-day reality? That is the question that this book seeks to answer by describing the various stages of a typical diplomat’s career. The book follows a genuinely fictional diplomat — no, he’s not me thinly disguised — from his application to join the national diplomatic service, through varied postings at home and overseas, culminating in his appointment as an ambassador, and eventually his retirement. Each chapter contains illustrative factual anecdotes, some more serious than others, drawn from the author’s 30 years’ experience as a diplomat, ending with postings in four countries in three continents as an ambassador and high commissioner.
What Diplomats Do examines various aspects of the life of a diplomat, contrasting his or her work in an affluent, friendly country with that in a developing country and one with a hostile government, describing the impact on personal and family life and personal security, as well as the privileges and drawbacks of serving as an ambassador. The writer discusses the potential influence of the individual diplomat in helping to formulate and carry out his government’s foreign policy decisions.
Rowman & Littlefield, the book’s publishers, say of What Diplomats Do:
Rigorously academic in its coverage yet extremely lively and engaging, this unique work will serve as a primer to any students and junior diplomats wishing to grasp what the practice of diplomacy is actually like.
Sir Ivor Roberts, a distinguished former British ambassador and currently President (Master) of Trinity College, Oxford University, contributed a generous foreword to the book, writing —
With that [diplomatic] experience and as the editor of the new edition of the classic diplomatic textbook Satow’s Diplomatic Practice, I hope that I can be considered capable of distinguishing a diplomatic hawk from a handsaw. So while books on diplomacy and diplomatic life are not a rarity, Brian’s offering fills a real gap in the market. It is neither a manual, though it offers excellent practical advice, nor is it a memoir though the text is interspersed with often entertaining and illuminating anecdotes. It does instead what it promises: it tells you exactly what it’s like to be a diplomat and what sort of challenges you face on an every-day basis.
The Lee E. Dirks Professor of the History of Diplomacy at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, wrote about the book:
Barder’s account is informative, humanly sympathetic, distinctly British, and thoroughly engaging. I found reading its chapters irresistible, like eating peanuts.
I know of no other book on diplomacy which is so instructive as to procedure, entertaining in its examples, vivid and engaging in its style, massively authoritative, and original in its structure. A few passages dealing with real events are also gripping, notably that describing Sir Brian Barder’s recommendation – in the event momentous in its significance – to recommend a green light for RAF relief flights to Addis Ababa during the great Ethiopian famine in 1984. I think it is a brilliant book…
More information about What Diplomats Do is on the website of the publishers, Rowman & Littlefield, at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442226357.
University and college teachers of diplomacy and international affairs can request an inspection or exam copy of the book from the publishers by clicking the relevant tab in the left-hand panel of the relevant web-page. Editors or reviewers at learned — or indeed unlearned — journals and newspapers can similarly ask Rowman & Littlefield for a review copy in the same way. Academic teachers in the field who have already read the book are unanimous — so far! — in saying that they will use What Diplomats Do as a teaching tool and will include it in their students’ recommended or required reading lists.
But What Diplomats Do is not formally a text-book, although it can serve as one; it is written just as much for the general reader with an interest in current affairs, who knows about diplomacy in general terms but who may be curious to know the kinds of things that individual diplomats — junior as well as senior, third secretaries as well as ambassadors — actually do between getting up in the morning, and slumping back into bed early the following morning, after a long day’s unglamorous work and (probably) a spectacularly tedious diplomatic dinner party that has dragged on into the small hours. What Diplomats Do fills in the gaps and aims to be an enjoyable as well as an informative read.
Britain has belonged to the European Union and its predecessors for the past 42 years. Yet some of our leaders, Conservative and Labour, apparently have little idea about the way it works. Iain Duncan-Smith, the Tory Work and Pensions Secretary, and Douglas Alexander, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, have both complained, in terms that suggest a surprising ignorance of EU realities, about the possibility of Jean-Claude Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, becoming President of the European Commission in the face of David Cameron’s ferocious opposition to him.
According to Nicholas Watt in today’s (23 June 2014) Guardian, Mr Duncan-Smith, a former leader of the Conservative party, said yesterday:
If they give Jean-Claude Juncker a job this is like literally [sic] flicking two fingers at the rest of Europe and saying to all the people out there, ‘We know that you voted the way you did but you are wrong and we are just going to show you how wrong you are by carrying on as though nothing happened.’
And Mr Alexander, for Labour, who according to Mr Watt “has instructed Labour MEPs not to support Juncker” [what, even if he’s unanimously nominated for the job by all the EU governments?], spoke in equally revealing terms:
There can be no excuses. David Cameron has a clear mandate from political parties here in the UK – including Labour – to build consensus across Europe for an alternative candidate for president of the commission.
Mr Duncan-Smith seems to think that the majority of the EU electorate has just voted to reject Mr Juncker for the post of Commission President. In fact, Mr Juncker was the preferred candidate of the EPP, the main centre-right group in the EU parliament, which won the most seats in last month’s election. So if the EU elections are any guide (which is debatable), Mr Juncker has a better claim on the job than anyone else.
It’s also meaningless to suggest, as Mr Alexander seems to have done, that at least the UK voters voted at the European elections in support of Mr Cameron’s opposition to Mr Juncker. Because of Mr Cameron’s eccentric and ill-judged decision, before becoming UK prime minister, to pull the UK Conservative party out of the EPP group to which its main natural allies in Europe belong, and to form a new group which he thought could be made more Euro-sceptic, there is now no UK party that belongs to the EPP group, and it was therefore impossible for any UK voter to vote either for or against Mr Juncker for the Commission Presidency. Where Mr Alexander’s “clear mandate” for Mr Cameron’s opposition to Mr Juncker comes from remains a mystery. If all he means is that he, Ed Miliband and Clegg have all agreed to oppose Juncker and to support Cameron’s reckless campaign against him, that hardly amounts to a ‘mandate': it’s more of a joint misjudgement.
It’s just as bizarre for Duncan-Smith and Alexander to speak as if the elections to the European parliament effectively equated to elections to the Presidency of the European Commission. The parallel with elections to the UK parliament, where the leader of the party winning the most seats in the House of Commons will normally become prime minister, is seriously misleading. In the case of the EU, it’s the European Council of Ministers – i.e. the EU heads of government – who have the duty and right to ‘nominate’ their preferred candidate for the Presidency of the Commission, who is then ‘elected’ – or rejected – by the European parliament. Of course in deciding whom to nominate to the EU parliament for the Commission Presidency, the EU governments will take account of opinion in the elected EU parliament, the biggest group in which campaigned last month for Mr Juncker as Commission President. If Mr Cameron somehow persuades his fellow members of the Council of Ministers to nominate a candidate other than Mr Juncker, the EU parliament might well refuse to elect him or her, and go on rejecting the EU governments’ nominees until they consent to nominate Mr Juncker. But the idea that in electing Tory, LibDem, Labour or UKIP MEPs to Brussels and Strasberg, British voters were expressing an opinion about Mr Juncker’s – or anyone else’s – suitability for the Commission Presidency is frankly fatuous. I doubt if as many as 1 percent of UK voters had ever heard of Mr Juncker.
Iain Duncan-Smith and Douglas Alexander might usefully be reminded of two further points.
First, last month’s EU elections in the UK can’t by any stretch of the imagination be regarded as an indication of the British people’s views on the best candidate for the Commission Presidency. No UK party campaigned at those elections for any particular candidate for that post, no UK party putting up candidates for the European parliament belonged to the EPP group which, elsewhere in Europe, was championing Mr Juncker for the job, and since the UK is unrepresented in the EPP group which won the elections, the UK’s MEPs will have little or no influence in the decision of the EU parliament on whether to elect or reject whoever is eventually nominated by the EU governments. This sorry situation results directly from David Cameron’s decision to pull his party out of the EPP group, ignoring the pleas of a bewildered Mrs Merkel and other European leaders who might otherwise have had some sympathy with Mr Cameron’s problems.
Secondly, our party leaders might be reminded that there is no consensus in Britain about the kind of EU reforms that Mr Cameron and his Euro-sceptic party are demanding. Just because all three of the main political parties in Britain, and indeed in many other European countries, recognise the need for “reform” of the EU, it doesn’t mean that they agree on which reforms they want. The UK Tories, for example, want to weaken the power of the EU to regulate safeguards for employees’ work conditions throughout the Union. They resent this EU power in the name of what they euphemistically refer to as “flexible labour laws”. Our UK Tories want to be relieved of EU constraints on their right to make our workers work longer hours, for lower rates of pay, with fewer rights to maternity, paternity and other holidays, and generally in worse conditions, than those in our more enlightened EU partner countries. We need a promise that this is one of many Cameron ‘reforms’ that Labour will never support.
Nor should Labour support the Tories’ demand for limits to be imposed on the free movement of people within the EU, or for abandonment of the principle that all EU citizens, in whichever EU country they live, work or visit, are equally entitled to health and other social benefits. We all favour ‘reform’, as we all favour motherhood, but one party’s reforms are another’s erosion of the basic principles underlying the EU. The Union, that institution to which we belong, and from which we derive such enormous benefits, is one which many people all over our continent still, despite all the disappointments and disillusionments, find genuinely inspiring. Labour should never compromise its European credentials in order to try to appease the Euro-sceptics of the Murdoch press and the wilder reaches of the Conservative back benches. We can leave that doomed attempt at appeasing ignorance and reaction to Mr Cameron and Mr Duncan-Smith.
Our prime minister has embarked on another of his wild gambles. If he pulls it off and our partner governments are blackmailed into dispensing with Mr Juncker’s services, David Cameron’s and other Tories’ triumphalist gloating will be hard to endure, and Britain will incur the odium of widespread opinion throughout the EU for depriving them of their favourite candidate. If he fails, Britain will have to cope for five years or more with a powerful President of the Commission who’ll bear an entirely understandable grudge against all three of the UK’s political parties for having tried so hard, for so little reason, to prevent his selection for the job. It’s a lose-lose situation, as usual.
Footnote (27 June 2014): An abbreviated version of this post has been published by LabourList: please see http://labourlist.org/2014/06/on-foolishly-trying-to-junk-mr-juncker/. It has attracted some very interesting comments there, to some of which I have tried to respond with a number of additional points on various aspects of the issue.
I lay no claim to expertise on the subject of opera, although there are several operas that I very much enjoy, notably those of Mozart and Richard Strauss, and of the latter Der Rosenkavalier most of all. I can’t afford to go and see, or hear, the current production of Rosenkavalier at Glyndbourne, but I’ve been fascinated by the fracas over the reviews in some of the UK broadsheet newspapers which have made unpleasantly personal remarks about the young Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught, playing Octavian in Strauss’s masterpiece. All the critics have been full of praise for Ms Erraught’s beautiful voice and brilliant singing, but the praise has been marginalised by several distinguished critics’ ungentlemanly allusions to the her figure and stature (or lack of it), calling her “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing” (The [London] Times) “dumpy” (The Independent) and with an “intractable physique” (The Daily Telegraph). Andrew Clark in the Financial Times wrote: “Tara Erraught’s Octavian is a chubby bundle of puppy-fat.” The Guardian described her as “stocky”.
For the sake of the operatically challenged who are not familiar with Rosenkavalier, Octavian, the character being played by Tara Erraught at Glyndbourne, is a handsome youth (written for and played by a woman) who’s having an affair with an older woman — and who at a certain point in the action has to be disguised as (guess what) a girl. (The McGuffin of a girl playing the part of a boy who gets dressed up as a girl is of course familiar from Shakespeare through many other operas down to pantomime.) In modern times Octavian is generally played by a tall and athletic young woman singer who can reasonably plausibly pass herself off as a teen-age boy.
Other opera singers, mostly female, have sprung to Ms Erraught’s defence, denouncing her critics’ references to her physique as sexist, offensive, irrelevant to what they say should have been their sole concern (the quality of her singing), and on all these gounds illegitimate. One of the offending critics has apologised; others have rejected the charges against them on the grounds that the unsuitabilty of an actor (whether male or female, singer or not) for his or her role represents poor casting and thus a proper subject of discussion by professional critics.
Rarely without an opinion on current controversies, I expressed mine in my usual manner, namely a letter to the Guardian, which published it on 24 May:
Cruel aspersions cast by music critics on the physical appearance of an opera singer are contemptible, like any other cruelty (Disgust in opera world at ‘sexist’ criticisms of soprano star, 21 May). But some singers who have denounced the critics overstate their case, claiming for example that opera’s magic “is not about lights, it is not about costumes, it’s not about sets, it’s not even about sex or stature … It is all about the human voice … opera is all about the voice” (open letter by Alice Coote).
If that were so, there would be no point in training opera singers to act as well as sing, or in mounting productions in which not only the music and singing but also the acting, sets, costumes, lighting, and the audience’s ability to identify the performers with the characters they play, all contribute to the impact of the event. If those other ingredients really counted for nothing, an audio CD or a concert performance would be just as satisfying as a staged production, which they obviously are not.
All these ingredients are legitimate subjects of comment and criticism by music critics, provided that they express themselves in civil language not calculated to leave lasting scars on the object of their remarks. If the (fictitious) one-legged Dudley Moore had been successful in his famous audition for the part of Tarzan, his physical unsuitability for that part would surely have been a legitimate subject of comment, regardless of the film’s merits.
The controversy rages on. I wonder whether it is causing a spike or a slump in demand for tickets to Glyndbourne?
The Sunday Times magazine of 27 April 2014 carries a wonderfully illuminating interview with Nick Clegg, the leader of the LibDems and deputy prime minister in the Tory-led coalition government which no-one intentionally elected in 2010. The interview, by Anne McElvoy, public policy editor of The Economist, perhaps inadvertently makes a powerful case for Labour, if it wins more seats than anyone else in a hung parliament, to govern without a coalition with the LibDems or anyone else, ideally under a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement in which the LibDems, or any other party holding the balance of power in another hung parliament, would support the minority government in its budget legislation and in votes of confidence, but would be free to help to defeat it in the House of Commons on individual issues without such defeats requiring the government to resign. (This is a more accurate description of ‘confidence and supply’ than Ms McElvoy’s definition in her article.)
Because of the difficulty of reading this revealing article online, and because it includes such charmingly naive declarations of Mr Clegg’s earnest desire to go on being deputy prime minister, election after election, regardless of which of the bigger parties wins the most seats in the election, I am reproducing below extensive passages from Ms McElvoy’s pitiless deconstruction of Mr Clegg:
On the way up to [Nick Clegg’s] Sheffield seat, he wants to get something off his chest, which could well play a decisive role in the aftermath of the 2015 election, should no party emerge with a clear majority. In the event of a hung parliament ,which many pollsters consider likely, he says: “My party would not be interested in propping up a minority government without coalition. It isn’t a role I would see as right for myself or the Liberal Democrats.” …. In other words, the deputy PM will only settle for full coalition – which means he intends to remain in the job, if no party wins an overall majority in next May’s general election.
For the first time, Clegg is explicitly ruling out any kind of loose pact arrangement, like the short-lived Lib-Lab one in the 1970s or variants on “confidence and supply” arrangements, a political anoraks’ phrase., whereby a smaller party provides support in parliamentary votes for one of the main parties, but without any official deal on ministerial jobs or influence. No, says Clegg: if they want his party, they need to put up with coalition influence – and, by implication, him in a big role. “I want to remain in government. We’ve only just got started and a 10-year period for us in government means we could make a major contribution. The last thing I want to do is give up this job .”
It’s the kind of chutzpah that plays straight to his detractors’ view of Clegg as a self-aggrandising type. He says he objects to Labour and the Tories assuming that they have “a monopoly on power”. Lib Dems should be “a political force in the life of this county – not just a think-tank”. The charge that he is “power-hungry”, he adds, “tends to come from people with no qualms about seeking it for their own side”.
Ten years of Deputy Clegg is not a prospect that will gladden the hearts of Tories, who blame him for watering down Conservative rule. Meanwhile, seasoned Labour figures mutter that having seen Clegg hold his coalition partner hostage in some areas, a minority Labour government would be a better option than an alliance with Clegg if they fall just short of outright victory next May. Clegg snorts derisively that this is “swashbuckling stuff, but when it comes down to it a minority government would be unstable”. This may be true—but, unsurprisingly, the Tories and Labour deem it presumptuous that he assumes they can only make it work with him in tow.
…One of [Michael] Gove’s main advisers until his departure at the end of last year was the combative Dominic Cummings. He told the BBC’s World at One last month that Clegg’s plan to extend free school meals had been a chaotic policy, announced on the hoof, solely for political gain with his left-leaning base…. When I contact Cummings, he unleashes a far more personal attack. “Nick Clegg is the worst kind of modern MP,” he says via email. “He is self-obsessed, sanctimonious and so dishonest he finds the words truth and lies have ceased to have any objective meaning, and he treats taxpayers’ money with contempt. He won’t do the hard work to get policy right – all he cares about is his image. He is a revolting character. And I say that after spending 15 years at Westminster.”
As putdowns go, this must be a contender for the Malcolm Tucker memorial prize. “Whenever Clegg gave a speech, he’d demand that we spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money for his latest absurd gimmick,” Cummings continues. … “We thwarted Clegg as much as we could,” Cummings says cheerfully. “We ignored his appalling Home Affairs Committee which he abuses for his own personal ends. We kept the Free Schools process and exam reform out of his hands, so he couldn’t subvert them too.”
… It’s not a world [Nick Clegg] wants to give up. ”I’d very much like to continue in government,” he says emphatically, comparing coalition to a “fascinating laboratory” of mixed ideas. Ultimately, the random forces of the electorate will determine whether Clegg is a one-term deputy PM or a fixture in British politics: grumbled about, but tolerated.
Perhaps the men in grey sandals will get him first. If Clegg has one combination of assets that could save his skin, it is a mixture of self-belief and a stubborn refusal to give way. Coalition, he muses, “is full of bumps and scrapes”. He’s had more than a few of those – the Third Man of British politics, who wants to stick around. [Emphasis added.]
In the course of the article, Anne McElvoy usefully reminds us of the democratic credentials of this claimant to a permanent place in government for his party and permanent occupation of the post of deputy prime minister for himself:
[In the 2010 general election] the Lib Dems won 57 seats with 23% of the vote… Clegg’s poll ratings in mid-April  were between 9 and 11%, un-boosted by the publicity of two televised LBC debate clashes with Ukip’s Farage.
Mr Clegg is not by a long chalk the only UK politician who enjoys being a government minister and who would like to remain one for a long time, without the inconvenience of his party first needing to win a majority or plurality in the House of Commons at a general election. But his claim to be able to force whichever of the main parties wins the most seats in a hung parliament next year into a coalition with the LibDems under his leadership is a transparent bluff. First, there’s no guarantee that the LibDems, led by a deeply unpopular Nick Clegg and tarnished by five years propping up the most reactionary and incompetent Tory or Tory-led administration for a generation, will win enough seats in the new House of Commons to hold the balance of power and thus to be able to decide whether Ed Miliband or David Cameron gets the keys to Number 10 Downing Street. Secondly, if the LibDems do hold the balance of power in the 2015 election, the only sanction available to Mr Clegg against a refusal by a minority Labour or Tory government to include the LibDems in a new coalition will be to threaten to defeat the minority government on the floor of the House of Commons and to demand fresh elections. But there is no constitutional requirement that the Queen should agree to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections just because Mr Clegg wants her to. There might be another combination of parties able to command the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons without the cost and annoyance of another election soon after the first. Or, even if a dissolution and fresh elections are granted, there is every likelihood that the electorate, cross with the LibDems and (probably) the Tories for defeating Labour before it had had a chance to show how its manifesto promises would work, would desert them in droves and vote to give Labour an overall majority in the new parliament, in which the LibDems would at once revert to well deserved obscurity. Would Nick Clegg really be prepared to hold this gun to his own head and bravely pull the trigger?
Whatever Mr Clegg’s preference in the matter, much the best option for Labour as the biggest party in another hung parliament will be to carry out as much as it can of its election manifesto programme as a minority government, accepting defeat where necessary on some measures but pressing on regardless with the rest. A coalition with the LibDems, assuming that they had enough seats to make up a majority in the House, would be constantly paralysed by LibDem refusal to accept the reversal of the reactionary and counter-productive coalition policies and laws of which they have been joint sponsors during the years of the present Conservative-led coalition government. Progressive Labour policies would have to be repeatedly watered down to satisfy LibDem objections in a string of unsatisfactory horse trades. A Labour minority government would be well placed to dare the opposition parties to frustrate a progressive and potentially popular programme: if they did, they could expect to pay a heavy electoral price when it became clear that the business of government could not be effectively carried out and that the only escape from deadlock would be a dissolution and an early second election. In such an election the electorate might, with luck, be relied on to punish the opposition parties for frustrating necessary Labour measures and for wishing on it another wearisome and unnecessary election, from which Labour could reasonably hope to emerge this time with an overall majority.
So a Labour minority government and resistance to demands for another coalition are clearly Labour’s least bad option if Labour wins the most seats in another hung parliament. Mr Clegg would miss his ministerial car and driver, his red boxes and his seat on the government front bench. If so, tough.
 Footnote: I assume for the sake of argument that David Cameron will still be leader of the Conservative party in May 2015 when the next general election is due to take place. However, if Scotland votes for independence in September 2014, it’s difficult to see how a prime minister who will have presided over the dissolution of the United Kingdom as a direct result of his personal complacency, ignorance, failure of judgement and incompetence could remain in office for another eight fraught post-referendum months. In such circumstances Mr Cameron’s resignation would seem inevitable. When the prime minister resigns, the rest of the government automatically resigns with him, although it doesn’t necessarily follow that there is a new general election for a new government. In that case would George Osborne or Boris Johnson have replaced Mr Cameron as prime minister by May of next year? Or would Ed Miliband have moved into Number 10 following the resignation of the Cameron-Clegg coalition and a fresh general election in October or November of 2014? That question goes well beyond the scope of this post, and is not directly relevant to its argument. But it certainly deserves to be discussed and debated nevertheless, and with some urgency — elsewhere.
I hasten to make it clear that I would emphatically not regard the loss of Scotland as a price worth paying for the collapse of the Cameron-Clegg coalition eight months earlier than scheduled, much as I would welcome the latter. Scottish secession would be a catastrophe for Britain (and probably, although not necessarily, for Scotland). Another eight months of the Tory-led coalition after the referendum would be a heavy burden, but Britain would survive it, and even recover from it eventually.
Uopdate (8 May 2014): A lively debate on the main issues discussed here is going on in comments on a shortened version of this post on LabourList: see http://bit.ly/1jkkfTT.
Please urge your MP to sign the following excellent Early Day Motion (EDM 1254) tabled in the House of Commons. It sets out very clearly the appalling situation that the thousands of remaining prisoners serving IPPs (“indeterminate sentences for public protection”) find themselves in despite the abolition by the present government of the IPP system as unjust and ineffective, and calls for additional funding for the Parole Board to enable it to speed up the processing of IPP prisoners who have served the punishment part of their sentences (their tariffs) with a view to releasing most of them without further intolerable delay. This delay is a blot on our society, as was the original IPP sentence introduced by the last government.
Grateful thanks to Mr Elfyn Llwyd MP for his initiative in tabling this motion, and to its other sponsors. And a hat-tip to Shirley Debono for alerting me to it.
You can find out the name of your MP and send him or her a message from https://www.writetothem.com/. I suggest that you include in your message the website address of the Early Day Motion: http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2013-14/1254.
Here is the text of the Motion:
RELEASE OF PRISONERS SERVING INDETERMINATE SENTENCES FOR PUBLIC PROTECTION
- Session: 2013-14
- Date tabled: 02.04.2014
- Primary sponsor: Llwyd, Elfyn
That this House notes that at the end of January 2014, 5,335 prisoners in the UK were still serving indeterminate sentences for public protection, which were abolished by the Government in 2012; further notes that 3,561 of these prisoners had already passed their tariff and that, since the Parole Board releases roughly 400 inmates every year, it will take nine years for the Board to clear this backlog of cases; further notes with dismay that many prisoners serving indeterminate sentences fail to gain places on appropriate courses which would progress their rehabilitation and that as a result such prisoners have little hope of release; recognises that 24 prisoners serving indeterminate sentences have committed suicide whilst in custody; further notes that each prison place costs £40,000 every year, making indeterminate sentences highly costly; and calls on the Government to increase funding to the Parole Board to clear the backlog of indeterminate prisoners, starting with those given initial tariffs of two years or less.
The more MPs who sign this EDM, the more notice the government (and the Parole Board) will have to take of it. It probably won’t ever be debated or passed, but it’s a very useful form of pressure.
For more information about IPPs and the scandalous abandonment of thousands of IPP prisoners long after they have paid their debt to society, please see http://www.barder.com/4119.
Since I wrote about Ukraine in my blog post of 2 March, provoking a vigorous and mostly healthy debate, the role of the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine has looked increasingly significant. The UK media – those parts of them that I see and hear, anyway – have been curiously reticent about this agreement and what it says about the west’s intentions as regards relations with Ukraine. I wrote to the Guardian about it.
[Letter to the Guardian letters editor, 21 March 2014:]
The EU has reportedly carried out its threat [on 21 March 2014] to sign the ‘political parts’ of its inflammatory and divisive association agreement with Ukraine’s interim (and dubiously legal) government, as forecast in [the Guardian’s] report under the sadly inappropriate heading “EU showing reluctance to escalate Crimea backlash” (p2, 20 March). This deserves much more attention and indeed alarm than it has so far received. It was the then elected Ukrainian president Yanukovych’s refusal to sign this agreement that triggered his unconstitutional deposition and the installation of the current western-backed interim régime in Kiev.
The agreement requires Ukraine steadily to “approximate” its legislation to that of the EU, a process to be monitored and even enforced by the EU, and sets up a political dialogue designed explicitly to “promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area”. It’s difficult for Moscow or anyone else to interpret these proposed commitments otherwise than as steps leading to eventual Ukrainian membership of the EU and subsequently of NATO (“the European security area”). For the EU now to sign such an agreement with the unelected interim Kiev régime, months ahead of the election of a new government and president, is bound to escalate the crisis. It will intensify Russia’s understandable suspicions of western intentions and fears of encirclement. If the EU genuinely wants de-escalation, it should seek to allay, not intensify, Russia’s suspicions by declaring that Ukrainian membership of either the EU or NATO is not on the cards and never will be, leaving the political elements of the ill-conceived association agreement permanently in the Pending tray. We hear plenty about the stick, but where’s the carrot?
A sharp western response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea is plainly required, but we need much more clarity about whether current and proposed sanctions are meant to be a punishment or a deterrent (quite different things), and about the exit strategy that western governments have in mind, given that annexation of Crimea now seems a fait accompli.
21 March, 2014
My letter was not published. No complaint: it was rather dry.
Ten days later the following Parliamentary Question and (written) Reply appeared in Hansard:
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion, Green)
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether the commitment in the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement signed by the EU and the interim Ukraine administration on 21 March 2014 to a political dialogue designed to promote gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of Ukraine’s ever-deeper involvement in the European security area reflects an EU policy objective of Ukraine eventually joining NATO; and if he will make a statement.
David Lidington (The Minister for Europe; Aylesbury, Conservative)
While NATO and the EU play complementary and mutually reinforcing roles in supporting international peace and security, they are separate organisations. There is no connection between the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and NATO membership.
Ukraine, has a long standing relationship with NATO and is a valued contributor to a number of NATO operations. The UK Government continues to support defence reform in Ukraine and hopes that its Government will continue to work with NATO in the future.
Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 31 March 2014, c433W)
Caroline Lucas MP (Green) asked an excellent question. The minister’s reply is not however satisfactory, because it doesn’t answer the question (does the passage quoted from the EU-Ukraine agreement reflect an EU objective of Ukraine eventually joining NATO?), and the Russians will have their work cut out parsing the carefully worded statement that “There is no connection between the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and NATO membership.”
Why did Russia act with such blatant disregard for international law and with such haste to annex Crimea? It’s no excuse for President Putin to say, as he does, that the west has behaved with far more contempt for international law with their bloody attacks on or military interventions in Yugoslavia (over Kosovo), Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya (in the last two there was UN authority for a limited intervention but the limitations imposed by the Security Council’s mandate were ignored). As for Russia’s unseemly haste to grab back Crimea, why was the EU in such a hurry to sign the EU Association Agreement with an unelected interim administration in Kiev, headed by an unelected interim President and blatantly unrepresentative of the Ukrainian people, when the previous democratically elected President had been deposed, with western encouragement, for refusing to sign the agreement and when democratic elections for a new President and a new government of Ukraine are to take place in just a few weeks’ time?
Perhaps the Russian policy analysts in Moscow had taken the trouble to read the EU-Ukraine agreement signed on 21 March (unlike most of the commentariat servicing the UK media, apparently). Perhaps they had spotted the passages in the agreement highlighted in my unpublished letter to the Guardian and in Caroline Lucas’s parliamentary question. Perhaps they, like some of us in the west, wondered whether the EU was in such a hurry to get the agreement signed because they planned to act quickly to link the whole of Ukraine, including Crimea with its vital Russian naval base, so tightly to the EU and then to NATO that it would become impossible for Crimea to continue to act as host to a major Russian naval base. Immediate action by Russia to re-detach Crimea from Ukraine and re-integrate it with Russia might have seemed a prudent way to pre-empt any such western intention with a minimum of bloodshed and international fuss. From Moscow’s point of view a policy of wait-and-see may have seemed simply too risky, with so much at stake.
And perhaps, after Crimea had been unceremoniously re-attached to Russia, those Moscow policy wonks might have read the British government’s non-reply to Ms Lucas’s pointed question, and concluded that they were probably right to interpret the EU agreement in the way they did, and right to recommend securing Crimea and the vital base in Sevastopol for Russia in the way the Russian government did, before it was too late.
It’s time for the west – the EU and NATO – to decide what it wants in its future relations with Ukraine, and whether to treat Russia as a competitor or an associate in those relations. The west currently adopts a nakedly adversarial attitude towards Moscow, apparently aiming to subvert Russia’s influence with its near neighbour and to replace it with Ukraine’s “gradual convergence on foreign and security matters with the aim of … ever-deeper involvement in the European security area” – in the words of the EU-Ukraine agreement. Such a policy risks widening the divisions within Ukraine in a way that can only destabilise the country to the point where Russian intervention may become inevitable. Ukraine is far more important to Russia, both psychologically and in terms of security, than it is to the EU or NATO: so if competition for influence becomes a game of chicken, the west is bound to blink first. But the consequences of a competition culminating in Russian physical intervention in Ukraine would be disastrous, both for Russia and for the west. Such a crisis could well wreck any chance of a constructive relationship between Russia and the west for a generation. Russia would be driven back into xenophobic autocracy; any lingering hopes of a recognisable Russian liberal democracy would be crushed.
There’s an obvious alternative: instead of seeking to supplant Russian interests in Ukraine, the west could actively seek Russian cooperation in stabilising the area and jointly promoting its economic and political recovery. Two acts in particular would signal a constructive change of course. First, the west should declare that Ukrainian membership of the EU and NATO is not on the cards, since Ukraine’s geography and history alike point to the need for its neutrality between east and west. Since neither the US, the UK or France would in any conceivable circumstances go to war with Russia over Ukraine, its admission to NATO would constitute a betrayal in waiting, so ruling it out in advance would cost nothing and could potentially represent a major advance as a reassurance to Russia, as well as forcing the Ukrainians to face up to the reality of their geography. Secondly, the west should endorse Russia’s proposal for a federal system within Ukraine and offer its practical help, in collaboration with Moscow, in bringing it about. Greater autonomy for eastern Ukraine within a federal state would satisfy the ambitions of many Russian-speaking Ukrainians. It’s hard to understand why the west has so far ignored this constructive proposal from Moscow.
Time is short. Small pro-Russian groups are occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine and declaring themselves independent, arousing suspicions that Russia is encouraging them to create a pretext for intervention, when the reality might be that these groups are acting independently of Moscow in the hope of forcing the Russians to step in. Current four-power talks at official level have a great deal hanging on them: not just the future of Ukraine, which is important enough, but also the future of Russia and its role in the world, which is incomparably more so.
[Footnote: Much of this blog post goes over ground partly covered by an earlier post at http://www.barder.com/4126. That attracted a good many comments, some hostile and vigorously expressed, some strongly supportive. The authors of all such comments on that earlier post can take it that their comments apply equally to this one, and that there is no need to repeat them here, unless of course they have something new to say or new information to supply.]
Last month I wrote yet again about the national scandal of Indeterminate Sentences “for Public Protection”, or IPPs. Long after IPPs have been abolished and can no longer be imposed, literally thousands of people who were given IPP sentences before abolition are still in what amounts to preventive detention in the harshly punitive conditions of our prisons. The majority of them have completed the punishment part of their sentences and are now warehoused behind bars because men (and women) in suits are frightened that if released they might re-offend. The criteria for agreeing to release them are so Kafkaesque, so heavily weighted against even the most innocuous IPP prisoner, that those still incarcerated and their families begin to fear that they will never be released. Parliament has given the Justice Secretary (the government minister responsible) powers to reform the criteria for releasing IPPs unless they clearly pose a serious threat to public safety, but the Justice Secretary refuses to exercise them.
Those concerned about this monstrous situation should watch the BBC2 television programme Newsnight tomorrow, starting at 10:30pm on Thursday, 13 March. Watch it live on television or on your PC or laptop, live or later. Please record it if you can and ask your friends round to watch it later. Then persuade them to write furiously angry letters to their MPs — again — demanding long overdue action to remedy this grotesque injustice by the man now responsible for it: Mr Chris Grayling, the Tory Secretary of State for Justice. Justice!