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.
I’m still recovering from a blow to my emotional solar plexus delivered by a new movie, Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013) by the French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche (born in Tunis, moved with his parents to Nice at the age of six).
Almost everyone knows two things about this film, one of them significant, the other not: that the film and both its leading actresses won the highest award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or (a prima facie indication of its quality): and that it depicts a Lesbian love affair which includes lengthy and startlingly detailed sex scenes enacted by the two leading ladies (not particularly significant, because the sex is essential and integral to the story, and the fact that it depicts sex between two women is almost, but not entirely, coincidental – the story would not be radically changed if it concerned a love affair between a man and a woman, or even between two men). It is emphatically not pornographic; the sex scenes are beautiful and erotic but not titillating. In contrast with the rest of the film, the sex is more stylised than realistic. Some critics have argued that this small but noticeable stylistic difference between the sex scenes and the remainder of the film shows that the sex is superfluous, interpolated for box office purposes. I don’t think anyone who watches all three hours of this film (yes, it’s long) at all attentively could agree, but that’s necessarily a subjective judgement.
There’s one other departure from realism in the film as a whole: both the leading actresses, one or both of whom are on screen for almost the entire film, are strikingly attractive, with and without their clothes: real head-turners both. They can perhaps be forgiven their good looks since both are consummate actresses, the intense emotional realism of their performances allegedly enhanced by obsessiveness, verging on bullying, on the part of the director during shooting. The two women are Léa Seydoux (Emma), playing the older and more sexually experienced of the two, and Adèle Exarchopoulos (Adèle), French with a Greek grandfather, playing the younger character, a convincing 17 years old at the beginning of the saga. The start, development and climax of their affair are portrayed with exceptional tenderness; its effective termination is almost too violently terrible to watch, although life goes on beyond that point, if on a lower emotional level. The temptation to resort to melodrama is resolutely resisted. The ending is sad but wholly true to life.
An incidental charm is the location of the film in Lille, with many effective street scenes, one in the Grand’ Place, and another memorable sequence in the glorious swimming-pool art gallery, La Piscine Museum, at Roubaix, just outside Lille.
In addition to the Palme d’Or for the film and the two actresses at Cannes, the FIPRESCI Prize went to the director, Abdellatif Kechiche. The film has won a raft of other international prizes, awards and nominations: it will be astonishing if more are not on the way.
Only time will tell whether Blue Is the Warmest Colour deserves to be rated a great film. Whether or not it’s great, it’s certainly exceptional, and packs a tremendous punch. Don’t miss it.
 Enlightened modern usage is to describe actors of both genders as actors, and to shun the word actress as implicitly sexist. I have consciously disobeyed that rule in this post, because to describe the two leading players as actors looks hopelessly odd, when the fact of their femininity is such an important ingredient in the story, despite not being (in my perhaps eccentric view) absolutely central to it.
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.
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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.
The savage rise in household energy prices must be a worry for almost everyone in Britain, apart from the super-rich. Ed Miliband has clearly scored a popular bull’s-eye with his promise to freeze them (the prices, not the Britons, although…) if and when Labour comes back into office, and to use the moratorium to reform the dysfunctional market in gas and electricity. But I don’t understand why he hasn’t also promised to end the indefensible system whereby the cost of developing green, renewable energy sources to replace carbons is funded by a flat-rate addition to all energy bills, which is part of the reason for energy being so expensive. I know there’s supposed to be a vital principle that “the polluter pays”, but since ordinary users of gas and electricity have almost no choice of energy source, the imposition of what is effectively a tax on fuel bills which falls most heavily on the poorest seems iniquitous. Transferring to renewables is clearly a social good which should be funded out of progressive general taxation, with the richest paying the most and the poorest nothing. That would bring down energy bills quickly, as well as being much fairer. Labour should promise to end this impost before the Tories (or their junior partners) think of it.
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Talking of rising energy prices, I was amused to hear the energy minister (whose name escapes me) claiming to “wear a jumper in the house” to reduce his central heating bill. Not only did this seem a wonderful example of the “let them eat cake” school of public relations: it also jarred on those of us who refer to the garment in question, when worn by a man, as a sweater, not a jumper. Perhaps the minister was brought up in a home full of women.
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Fresh developments in the “Plebgate” saga continue to unfold before our wondering eyes. Andrew Mitchell, accused by the cops more than a year ago of repeatedly swearing at the policepersons (f. as well as m.) on duty in Downing Street and calling them ‘plebs’ when they wouldn’t let him cycle through the main gates, much later had a meeting in his constituency office with three senior policemen which had been billed as ‘private’. As soon as the meeting ended, the three coppers came out and told the press that Mitchell had refused to give them his own account of what had happened and what, according to him, he had really said. For this alleged failure they said he should resign from his government post (as he was subsequently forced to do). Fortunately Mitchell had had the foresight clandestinely to record the whole meeting, the transcript of which showed that the coppers’ accusation was completely false.
We should add to this the discovery by Channel Four News that the email to another Tory MP from someone purporting to be an ordinary member of the public who claimed to have heard Mitchell utter the fatal p-word and several f-words from outside the gates, turned out to be from a serving policeman who had been nowhere near Downing Street on the day in question: and the evidence of the CCTV cameras that Mitchell’s verbal exchange with the police had lasted only a few seconds, almost certainly too short a time for delivery of the extended tirade reported by the police. There’s more: the police report had alleged that Mitchell’s outburst had visibly shocked several passers-by in Whitehall who had overheard it, whereas the same CCTV cameras showed clearly that Whitehall had been completely deserted at the time, apart from one pedestrian who didn’t even pause or look round as he walked past. Questions began to be asked about the doubtful propriety of giving the Sun newspaper the police’s account of what had happened, and shortly afterwards actually copying the confidential official police log of the episode to the Daily Telegraph. The whole police case begins to look distinctly moth-eaten. No wonder the investigation into what really took place in Downing Street on that night of 19 September 2012, more than a year ago, is still not ready to report while the Director of Public Prosecutions scrutinises the evidence to see whether there’s a case for anyone to be prosecuted.
No-one wins friends by saying “I told you so.” But on 24 September, 2012, just five days after the altercation in Downing Street, and several weeks before the police case began to unravel, I wrote a post on this blog expressing scepticism about the proposition that a man with Mitchell’s background and education would ever use the kind of language attributed to him by the Downing Street police. “Indeed,” I wrote then,
the whole script given (or sold?) to the Sun newspaper (presumably by the police or someone acting for them) reads very strangely, looking much more like a police approximation in imagined toff-ese than what a toff is actually likely to have said. Clearly he swore, doesn’t deny it, and has apologised for it; and anyway ‘pleb’ is hardly the most insulting word in the language, especially as it so obviously says more about the speaker than the person spoken to.
Luckily my apparent prescience is on the record at http://www.barder.com/3739. Not many people were questioning the police account at that early stage. Now not many believe a word of it – least of all the p-word.
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Another (this time minor) mystery about ‘Plebgate’: why does the commentariat continue to talk about Andrew Mitchell having lost his “Cabinet post” as a result of the dispute? Mitchell had been a member of the Cabinet earlier, as International Development Secretary; but at the time of his tiff with the Downing Street police, as Government Chief Whip, he wasn’t. It seems that not many people know that.
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My main excuse for neglecting this blog for so long is that I’ve been busy writing a book – my first, and pretty certainly my last. It’s a funny time to be writing one’s first book in one’s 80th year and I am finding that the actual writing of the book is the least arduous part of the exercise: managing relations with the publisher and the editor in charge of getting the thing published, persuading experts in the field to read your manuscript and warn you of errors – and with luck to provide you with a glowing comment for use as blurb and for marketing purposes, wrestling with the unintelligible forms devised by the US tax authorities to be filled in (or out) to enable them to tax any royalties arising from American book sales, getting advice on which expenses can be set against UK tax on UK royalties, preparing to write the Acknowledgements and compile an index when the page proofs arrive, negotiating the contract with the publishers and trying to persuade them to let you have a few more free copies for distribution to family and friends – all this takes up more time, and sets more booby-traps, than writing the book in the first place.
Fortunately my publishers’ editor is a delightful, patient and unerringly helpful lady, and comments from experts who have read the manuscript (if 15 Word files can be called a manuscript) have been uniformly constructive and positive. In case you’re interested, the book is definitely not a memoir or autobiography, diplomatic or otherwise, nor is it a novel or other work of fiction, although it has superficial elements of both. I shall be reporting progress from time to time on this blog and I may put extracts from it on my website in due course: watch this space! In the meantime, there’s already a lot of information about it on my publishers’ website, at https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442226357 (click all four tabs there, “Description”, “Author[s]“, “Table of Contents” and especially “Reviews“). That web page still shows the publication date as next July, but in fact the scheduled publication date has been brought forward to the spring of next year, since I transmitted the finished product to the publishers earlier than they had expected. Start saving up for a copy now! End of commercial.
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.
We all — well, some of us, anyway — hope that Labour will win an overall majority in the house of commons at the next election, probably not before 2015. But to do so after Labour’s defeat on such a scale in 2010 would be a feat unprecedented in modern times. Realistically, the likelier outcome, and therefore the scenario for which advance planning is essential, is that Labour will win more seats than any other party but not an overall majority.
Unaccustomed to hung parliaments and mesmerised by what happened in 2010, British (or rather English) commentators tend to assume that if Labour’s the biggest party but without an overall majority, it will have to form a coalition government with the party likeliest to hold the balance of power, and ideologically the most plausible ally, namely the LibDems. But there are two strong arguments against this, and there exists a much preferable alternative to it, described in my letter in today’s Guardian (26 Aug 2013):
Both you (Editorial, 21 August) and Martin Kettle (Comment, 22 August) urge or imply encouragement for Labour to declare, before the 2015 election, its willingness to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats if there’s another hung parliament and Labour is the biggest party. But neither of you tackles the two chief drawbacks of a 2010-type coalition: voters can’t know what they’re voting for (or against) because coalition policy emerges from inter-party horse-trading only after the polls have closed; and coalition implies that whichever main party wins, the Lib Dems will always be in government.
The solution, failing an overall majority, is surely a Labour minority government with a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Lib Dems, announced before the election. Labour could then implement its pre-election manifesto promises subject to its ability to get parliamentary approval for them, measure by measure.
Other parties responsible for blocking measures for which Labour had a manifesto mandate would have to accept the consequences at any fresh election. This would not preclude a published pre-election agreement with the Lib Dems on the main elements of a reform programme that both parties would promise to support in the next parliament, whether or not Labour had an overall majority. Otherwise the electorate has to vote blindfolded for a pig in a poke.
The arguments against LibDem participation in another coalition government, this time of the centre-left, immediately after having been the junior partners in a coalition of the far right, are surely compelling. By allying and identifying itself so closely with an unpopular Tory-led régime of the extreme right, characterised by a frontal assault on the NHS and the welfare state and on the living standards of the least well-off in society, the Liberal Democratic party has sunk to a dismally low point in the opinion polls and is threatened (like Liberal parties of old that went for a ride on the back of the Tory tiger and finished up inside it) with near-extinction unless it takes urgent steps to re-position itself on the centre-left. But apparent willingness to contemplate a coalition with Labour after its catastrophic marriage to David Cameron and George Osborne would confirm the impression that the LibDems have no core principles or values and will happily embrace any policies, left or right, that will keep them in government, regardless of election results. They could pay a high price in lost votes for giving that impression.
Many good Labour people would rejoice at the virtual annihilation of the LibDems at the polls. But that would be extremely short-sighted. If the LibDems are almost wiped out in 2015, the next biggest party in the Commons after the Tories is likely to be UKIP. The prospect of a Labour minority government forced to depend on UKIP permission to carry out a progressive programme is deeply disturbing. Worse still, it might hold out the possibility of a Tory-UKIP alliance or even coalition, able to outvote Labour and thus form a, or another, government of the extreme right, this time with the junior partner vigorously dragging the government to the far Europhobic, xenophobic right instead of gently pushing in a vaguely liberal direction as the LibDems have periodically tried to do.
The only likely obstacle to such a nightmare is a revival of the LibDems; and the key to such a revival is a public understanding with Labour, before the election, that whatever the outcome in 2015 Labour and the LibDems will both promise to support certain agreed objectives in a progressive reform programme after the election, although not in a formal coalition. Both parties would publish separate and different election manifestos but they would include in both the key elements agreed beforehand with each other. The LibDems would also promise publicly that in the event of Labour emerging as the biggest party but without an overall majority, they would enter into a “confidence and supply” agreement with Labour under which they would be free to oppose specific measures proposed by a minority Labour government but would normally support that government in votes of confidence and in measures to ensure that funds are available to keep government going. This would enable Labour to accept defeat on individual measures without being forced to resign as a result of the defeat and call fresh elections. The LibDems would be able to preserve their freedom of political choice — their political purity — without having to identify themselves with every detail of the minority Labour government’s programme. Labour would benefit by not having to accept a LibDem monitor in every department quibbling over every point of detail and objecting to its more radical reforms for fear of seeming to disown the baggage they have accumulated from the years of marriage to the Tories.
If the Labour leadership can bring itself to understand this reality, it follows that it must put a stop to the malicious (if understandable) sniping by Labour at the LibDems. However feebly they have behaved since being outsmarted by the Tories in 2010, the LibDems remain, with a handful of Greens and a few leftish nationalists, Labour’s only credible friends in an otherwise hostile political jungle. The alternative to the LibDems looks increasingly likely to be UKIP, perhaps in a working partnership with the Tories. We should be careful about what we wish for.
Above all, the nation would benefit from a loose working arrangement, short of coalition, between Labour and the LibDems. Instead of being forced to vote without any idea of what a future Lab-LibDem (or Tory-LibDem or Tory-UKIP) coalition might come up with after the election, voters would have a good idea of what a Labour government would do, whether with or without an overall majority in parliament, and also a reasonably full idea of what kind of reform programme the LibDems would support in parliament, whatever the election result. The politicians might not like to have their hands tied in this way before the election — but that’s democracy, folks. No more coalitions, unless they are formally set up with a joint agreed programme for government published in full before the election. Even then, a minority Labour government in a limited confidence and supply arrangement with the LibDems would be the next best thing, if Labour fails to win an overall majority. It’s not defeatist to plan now for such a contingency and to start now to discuss it with the progressive wing of the LibDems. It’s just common sense. And not to do it would amount to culpable negligence, at the expense of both Labour and the country. Let’s get on with it.