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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”.

tara_erraughtFor 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.
Brian Barder

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 [2014] 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[1] 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.

[1] 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




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  I suggest that you include in your message the website address of the Early Day Motion:

Here is the text of the Motion:


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


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.

Brian Barder
London SW18
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:

Parliamentary Question:
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.

Written reply:
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  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 Chris Grayling, Justice Secretaryshould 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!


Solemn British commentators on the Ukraine crisis are wringing their hands over the west’s alleged inability to do anything to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine in the face of alarming Russian military activity, including powerlessness to persuade the Russians to pull back from their militaristic moves before the tension breaks out into war.  They are wrong.  There is one move that the west can and should make that would help to undo the consequences of recent western policy blunders, reassure Moscow about Russia’s legitimate strategic and security interests in its own region, and compel Ukraine’s leaders of all communities to adopt a more realistic attitude to its geopolitical situation and the limits which that imposes on its options.  The west needs urgently to give a clear and unconditional assurance that there can be no question of Ukraine, or any part of Ukraine, ever becoming a member of either the EU or NATO.

This would be no more than a recognition of reality.  Russia’s interests in Ukraine – strategic, cultural and historical, and personal (a third of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language, nearly a fifth are Russian citizens[1]) – are such that no government in Moscow could passively stand by while the closest of its neighbours is being drawn into the west’s orbit.  The west’s reckless dangling of an unfulfillable promise of EU and even NATO membership in front of successive incompetent and corrupt Ukrainian regimes, contemptuously ignoring Russian concerns, bears a large part of the responsibility for the mess we’re all now in.

The dangerous crisis in Ukraine, and especially in Crimea, will not be resolved by pompous condemnation of Russia’s aggression or by unconvincing warnings of high but undefined costs for Russia if it continues to violate Ukraine’s integrity – warnings that sound especially hypocritical coming from politicians (not, incidentally, including Barack Obama) who vociferously supported western illegal aggression against Yugoslavia in 1999 and against Iraq in 2003.  The grandstanding rush by our foreign secretary, William Hague, to Kiev today is misconceived.  It will be interpreted as implying a renewed commitment of some kind to UK support for the revolutionaries in Kiev, many of whom are still dreaming of eventual membership of the EU, if not also of NATO.  Is that interpretation what Mr Hague intends?  If so, he should not be in charge of UK foreign policy.

If anyone should be rushing overseas in search of de-escalation, it should be to Brussels to agree without more delay on declarations by the EU and NATO of the impossibility of Ukrainian membership of either.  Meanwhile western leaders should be telling the Russians that we are working towards such a declaration; that it is no part of EU or NATO policies to threaten Russia’s legitimate interests in Crimea or the rest of Ukraine: that it is in Russia’s, the west’s, and Ukraine’s interests that stability, prosperity and uncorrupt government should be promoted in Ukraine;  and that the EU and the US wish to discuss with Moscow institutional arrangements for cooperation in economic support for Ukraine once a stable, representative and democratically legitimate régime has been installed in Kiev.

The basis for such a peacemaking initiative by the west as an alternative to the spear-waving bluster advocated by, for example, Sir Malcolm Rifkind (among many others), is set out in eloquent and scholarly terms by one of the greatest British diplomats of our time, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a former British ambassador to Moscow, in an article in today’s Independent on Sunday which should be required reading for all those who are indulging their out-dated cold war prejudices by sanctimoniously denouncing Mr Putin for doing what any great power leader in his position would be bound to do. Selectively quoting Sir Rodric, —

Much recent comment on Ukraine in the British press has been marked by a barely forgivable ignorance about its history and politics, an overhasty willingness to put the blame for all its troubles on Vladimir Putin, and an almost total inability to suggest practical ways of bringing effective Western influence to bear on a solution….

Today 77 per cent of the country’s population is Ukrainian. But 17 per cent is Russian, a third of the population speak Russian and many of these people have strong family ties with Russia. Only the Ukrainians from Galicia look unequivocally to the West.

Meanwhile, most Russians feel strong emotional links to Ukraine as the cradle of their civilisation. Even the most open minded feel its loss like an amputated limb. …

… Putin arrived in 2000, ambitious to strengthen Russia’s influence with its neighbours. And the West began its ill-judged attempts to draw Ukraine into its orbit regardless of Russian sensitivities.

… The first is respectable but merely rhetorical: Ukraine is entitled to decide its future for itself, and Russia has no legitimate claim to a voice. The second is a piece of old-fashioned geopolitics: Russia can never again become an imperial threat if Ukraine is incorporated into Nato and the European Union. This part of the policy is impractical to the point of irresponsibility. It ignores four things. The members of Nato and the EU have lost their appetite for further enlargement. Most Ukrainians do not want their country to join Nato, though they would be happy to join the EU. A majority want to remain on good terms with Russia.  Above all, the West does not have the instruments to impose its will.  …

The alternative is for the West to talk to the Russians and to whoever can speak with authority for Ukraine. So far the Americans have been ineffective on the sidelines, the British seem to have given up doing foreign policy altogether, and only the Germans, the Poles and the French have shown any capacity for action.

An eventual deal would doubtless have to include verifiable agreement by the West as well as the Russians to abandon meddling in Ukrainian affairs, a credible assurance that Nato will not try to recruit Ukraine and arrangements for the both the Russians and the West to prop up Ukraine’s disastrous economy….

Further obligatory background reading is a piece for Chatham House by another distinguished former British diplomat, former British ambassador in Moscow, and current member of the Chilcot Iraq Inquiry, the Rt Hon Sir Roderic Lyne.

And, finally, a comment by yet another equally distinguished British diplomat and former ambassador to Moscow, Sir Bryan Cartledge:

The key point, I believe, which the media largely overlook, is that the revolution in the Ukraine is primarily a protest against domestic corruption and misrule, not a vote for the EU or against Russia. The EU issue provided the occasion but was not the cause. In converting an internal protest into an East-West issue, the EU is making a huge mistake — Putin, of course, has been bound to follow suit. And quite apart from all this, the last thing the EU needs now is responsibility for an almost bankrupt and almost failed state.

These three know whereof they speak.  Our noisy and belligerent political leaders and their media cheer-leaders with their crude and counter-productive posturing would do well to listen to them.

[Full disclosure:  both Bryan Cartledge and Roderic Lyne are friends and my former Diplomatic Service colleagues.  All three of us served together many years ago in the British embassy in Moscow.]


[1] Postscript and correction: as Roland Smith has helpfully pointed out in his comment below, I should not have written that nearly a fifth of the Ukrainian population are Russian “citizens”: i should have written “ethnic Russians” or “Russian speakers”.  Of course the Russian habit of issuing passports to Russian speakers in neighbouring countries and then claiming the right to intervene to protect their ‘citizens’ across the border tends to blur the distinction between ‘Russians’ living abroad who are citizens of Russia, and those who are not.


In 2012, nearly two years ago, parliament passed legislation abolishing the infamous system of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs), introduced in 2005 by a Labour home secretary, David Blunkett, an indefensible move but obstinately defended by ministers for the rest of the life of the Blair and Brown governments.  It fell to a small-l liberal Tory Justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, to declare the system iniquitous and unjust, and to introduce the legislation that abolished it.  Stubborn and illiberal to the end, the Labour opposition complained that abolition posed a threat to public security.  So much for traditional Labour principles.

Ken_ClarkeAlas!  Abolition has not turned out to be the end of this shabby story.  As Justice Secretary Clarke had recognised that the criteria for deciding whether IPP prisoners should  be released after serving their ‘tariffs’ (the punishment element of their IPP sentences) were grossly tilted against the prisoners – and against basic principles of justice – by effectively requiring IPPs to prove to the parole board that if released they would not re-offend:  an inherently impossible requirement.  As a result, barely 4 to 5 percent of IPPs have been released under these Kafkaesque criteria.  Clarke indicated publicly that he aimed to use the powers granted to him under the abolition law to change the release criteria so that an IPP prisoner should be released on completion of his tariff unless the parole board could show that there were specified grounds for believing that his release would pose a serious risk to public safety – thus reversing the onus of proof to where it belonged.

But before Clarke could follow through on IPP abolition by making this long overdue reform of the release criteria for IPPs still in prison, Clarke was sacked from his position at the Ministry of Justice and replaced by another Tory, this time a hard-line right-winger, Chris Grayling. Grayling, to his shame, has so far shown no interest in exercising his powers under the Act to reform, or even to improve, the release criteria.  As a result thousands of IPPs languish in prison to this day,  with very little hope of release in the foreseeable future, nearly two years after the present coalition government abolished IPPs.

All this has passed with little or no public concern or debate, until now.    Next Tuesday, 4 March 2014, there is to be a public panel discussion, with very distinguished participants, on the subject “The Prisoners Left Behind: Imprisonment for Public Protection After Its Abolition“.  The event is open to all and attendance is free.  It is organised by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law together with Lord Lloyd of Berwick, the former Appeal Court judge, who is to be one of the panel members.  The other speakers will be:

  • Lord Faulks QC, Minister of State, Ministry of Justice
  • Sir David Calvert-Smith, Chairman of the Parole Board
  • Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust
  • Pete Weatherby QC, barrister, Garden Court North Chambers

The Chair will be

  • Sir Sydney Kentridge QC.

(You can Google  all these for their backgrounds and qualifications.)

Details of the time and venue of this important and encouraging event can be found at
and,_4_mar_2014.pdf  (PDF).

The flier for the meeting provides the following damning facts:

More than 5,000 prisoners remain in indefinite detention under sentences  of imprisonment imposed for  public protection (IPP) between 2005 and 2012.  More than half have exceeded their tariff and are waiting to come before the Parole Board.

In the case of 773 prisoners the tariff was two years or less.  But IPP was imposed because until 2008 the sentence was mandatory.  350 of these  prisoners have exceeded their tariff by four years or more.

• Parliament abolished the IPP sentence in 2012. Ken Clarke, the Minister who introduced this amendment, said  that IPPs were ‘unclear, inconsistent and have been used far more than was ever intended…  That is unjust to the people in question and completely inconsistent with the policy of  punishment, reform and  rehabilitation’.

• In 2012 Parliament made specific provision for handling the backlog.  The Justice Secretary [Chris Grayling] was given power to vary the release test.  But he has so far declined to exercise that power, even though at the current rate of release it will be nine years before the backlog is cleared.

In several cases the  ECtHR [European Court of Human Rights] has found that the continued  detention of IPP prisoners was arbitrary and in breach  of their  Convention rights .  There are  more [ECtHR] cases in the pipeline.   [My emphasis – BLB]

It will be interesting to see whether, and if so how, the Justice Ministry participant in the discussion, Lord Faulks, contrives to defend and justify this scandalous and shameful state of affairs.

Important footnote

Thursday 13 March is to be a Day of Action against the continued detention of the thousands of IPPs still behind bars. That evening the BBC 2 television programme Newsnight  is scheduling a segment on this issue. This should be well worth watching.  I’m told that there are also plans for a public meeting of protest on Thursday 13 March about the continued imprisonment of IPPs, to hand in a letter to No. 10 Downing Street and then to move to the Houses of Parliament for meetings with Ministers, peers and MPs.  Details of timing, etc., can be seen by Facebook members (and possibly others) at  The organisers are very welcome to supply details in comments at the end of this post of how to take part in these events: where and when to go and what to do beforehand in preparation.  [Later: there are now several ‘comments’ on this post, below, with information and a warning about this ‘Day of Action’ on IPPs:  please read them before you decide whether to turn up for any particular event.]

*   *   *   *   *

So at last enlightened opinion is beginning to wake up to what is going on, and to the evident failure of the Justice Secretary to do anything about it, even though the power to resolve the problem has been given to him by an Act of Parliament passed under the government of which he is a member.  It’s surely time that Mr Chris Grayling is called to account for a failure which continues to bring such (mostly quite undeserved and wholly unnecessary) misery and fear to so many thousands of people.  Keeping thousands of citizens in prison not as punishment for what they have done but out of fear of what they might conceivably do in the future is the mark of a barbarous society which has lost its moral bearings and forgotten the most elementary principles of justice.  Enough!


In recent years no scholarly article about diplomacy or report on the subject in the toffs’ press has been complete without a knowing reference to “soft power” – the deployment of cultural and other peaceful assets as means of persuasion.  It is often contrasted with “hard power”, persuasion by use of bombs, drones, Special Forces, blackmail, threats, and the like.  Now the term soft power has been comprehensively discredited by the person best qualified to torpedo it, Emeritus Professor G R Berridge, the guru of diplomatic studies and author of their classic text, Diplomacy: Theory and Practice, among many other books and articles. In a few witty and pithy paragraphs on the home page of his website, Professor Berridge expertly deconstructs the definition of “soft power” rashly recorded by its inventor, the distinguished American scholar “Joseph S. Nye, Jnr., a Harvard University Distinguished Service Professor and former senior member of the US military-intelligence complex”.  Berridge castigates Nye’s definition as “cluttered with redundant words”, and for describing  “something for which we have long had a more elegant term: influence. Removing the clutter makes this obvious.”  He thereupon surgically excises the clutter, exposing what remains as nothing more than a perfectly satisfactory definition of “influence”.

Berridge offers three possible reasons for the virus-like spread of this “silly and inelegant synonym for influence”:  first, that it’s easy to grasp, whereas ‘influence’ is hard to define even though not hard to understand;  secondly, because of “the influence, sorry, soft power, of the leading American universities, the US International Relations establishment … and major American publishers, reinforced by the pull of the English language”; and thirdly because the enthusiasts for soft power (and for its originator) have yielded to the temptation to describe it as a concept, rather than simply a term, “thereby suggesting the discovery of something new”, even though Nye himself is on record as admitting that “the behaviour it denotes is as old as human history”.

Practising diplomats, especially typically pragmatic British practitioners, as distinct from academic teachers and students of the theory and history of diplomacy, are sometimes bewildered by theoretical expositions of what they are supposed to be up to and why they are up to it.  Here is a refreshing example of the reverse: a leading academic demonstrates that the soft power emperor is sartorially challenged, that calling influence “soft power” adds precisely nothing to our understanding of it, and that the exercise of non-coercive influence has been one of the principal  features of diplomacy, among several others, since the first human tried to persuade the second human to have a bite of the first apple.  Diplomats need no longer feel uneasy about their activities being defined as the deployment of soft power, when what they do is largely simple common sense.  Influence is the diplomat’s primary tool, almost always preferable to the use or threat of force as a means of getting others to behave in the way you want them to.  Calling it soft power is neither here nor there.

(Full disclosure:  Geoff Berridge is an old friend.  I was privileged to be invited to read an early draft of his short essay on soft power and to encourage him to publish it on his website.  If his piece succeeds in killing off this superfluous and pretentious term, I shall have to plead guilty as a minor but enthusiastic accessory to the assassination.)


This is a post-script to my previous post (, “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.

Linda ColleyAmen 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.