Thursday, September 19, 2002

Liberty and Livelihood *yawn*

Well, this Sunday will see the heaviest concentration of tweed in British history. Britain's Barbour surplus will be on full display. No, it's not te annual Carlton Club dinner, it's the Countryside alliance march. Just to be sure that I do not stick to the easy stereotypes, I fully expect that there will be workers, poor farmers, people who have really sufered from BSE, Foot and Mouth, and the CAP, There might also be a few earls. Not important. It will not matter one jot.

People forget that this Government is relatively relaxed about demonstrations. Why? Because many of them know from long hard personal experience how ineffective they are. Go through picture archives and you'll see youthful minister after minister striding forwards, banner in hand to glorious failure. There is an unspoken truth that haunts ministers. You take to the streets not to show your power, but to acknowledge your weakness.

There are exceptions of course. The Poll Tax, for one. The key there wasn't the demonstration, it was the unpopularity of the tax. Same for the Fuel protests. The problem the country sport and alliance lobby have is not that they are not numerous, nor strong in will, it's that the vast majority of their compatriots will view their march with tolerant disinterest. I remember recently seeing a Pro hunting demonstration for a visit by a government minister. The Minister had yet to arrive, but his adviser was aready there. As the mounted, scarlet coated protest leader tootled on his horn, the adviser looked up, lit a cigarette and ambled away, entirely unconcerned.

So, since their sectional interest excites no passions amngst the populace, some are attracted by more radical measures. Simon Heffer talks through a few of them in the Spectator.

Does anyone really think there will be great outcry if the Duke of Devonshire or Simon Heffer is prosecuted for anything? Does anyone think that there will be a surge of sympathy for the farmers and hunters if people can't get to work?

Even more, do commentators think that a Labour party whose base remains scarred by the Miners strike will regard such a campaign as anything other than slightly ludicrous. While party insiders might whisper snide comments about the "enemy within", the party, as opposed to the government, will simply not give a damn.

Now, ths might be a great shame, but it points to two things. First of all, the government will try and work with the reasonable "middle ground" in the rural movement, but working from a position of strength. Second, the extremist will get nothing for their efforts, not even the extra leverage for the moderates they might privately hope for.

One final point, why is it that Law and order authoritarians suddenly feel entitled to break laws they don't like? Suddenly they turn libertarian. Let a union declare that it wishes to take Secondary action in an industrial dispute and it is a disgrace. Let hunters practise civil disobedience and it is a sign of the strength of old england. This dichotomy has always puzzled me. Can anyone explain it?

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Macintyre uncovers

I'm not going to comment excessively on this article by Donald Macintyre. It's an interesting, cogent and relevant piece on the positioning of Labour and the mindset of the PM following his speech on poverty yesterday.

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A level shuffle

I'll admit it. This A level scandal. I don't understand it. Set me a gobbet on todays reports, ask me a essay question and I'd flunk it. Perhaps I've been spending too much time thinking about imperial overstretch.

What's happened? The Exam quango, Whatever it's called, has been accused of teling Exam boards that their grades were too high. The Tories were saying on TV yesterday that we needed an independent enquiry into whether Minister's were depressing exam results (which raises the question, why would they want to do that? minister salutes thicker pupils?). There are hints that this disproportionately affects independent schools but no evidence.

Nope, no-one really understands it. You can tell because of the way it's being reported. I've no idea whether there's a real political scandal here, or just an attempt to maintain similar standards across exam boards.

The real significance is being played out across all the family breakfast tables, as feckless youths who have failed their exams turn to their ever loving parents and say.. "see, I told you that it wasn't my fault" This kind of thing will raise cold fury in the hearts of every parent confronted with it, and I fear for Estelle Morris.

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Wednesday, September 18, 2002

Of History, Alliance, Iraq and Rhetoric

Porphyrogenitus, over at Ranting Screeds, graciously decides to give me attention and by implication, readers. I thank him.

Porphyrogenitus claims I think we shouldn’t take European leaders at their word. Well, sort of. In fact I claim that Politicians trim and choose words carefully in order to advance many interests, such as to win elections, to defend their right to be consulted, to get a deal on other issues or a whole host of other reasons. It’s not that I think that is terrible. It is a fact of political life and has been for generations, a style of behaviour that has applied to American and European politicians in similar ways.

I’m not saying that American commentators aren’t right to speak out. Unlike Iraqi’s, we both live in Democracies. I just think that when they do speak out, they’re not exactly right, a rather different point. I also think that what Schroeder is saying is stupid in terms of Geo-political priorities.

Now, I can understand why some Americans are exasperated with these reactions, but I also think that exasperation, while, as Clemenceau demonstrated so well, can be witty, pithy and memorable, it doesn’t really help understand and manage the political process.

As I write, Donald Rumsfield is quoting the example of Hitler to show that the risks of not acting are greater than the risk of acting. Exactly so, but I return to the political pressures that kept America out of that war until Hitler declared war on America, at that time, the frustration of the British at American lateness was generally kept quiet, not because they didn’t have a point but because it wasn’t helpful.

Now, as we get into Roosevelt, I readily concede that FDR was trying to promote the importance of action against Germany. Quite right, no question about it. However, this process was not clear or definite. It was marked in public by a succession of speeches in which FDR made clear that he did not want to intervene in “Foreign wars”.

(As an aside, Britain wasn’t acting unilaterally, it’s just all our allies got beat very quickly! Doesn’t really matter, but any chance I get to refer to our “Finest hour” I’ll take. We had an ofer to settle, to give Germany Europe and keep the Empire. It was probably in our narrow national interest. We didn’t take it, and sacrificed the Empire. Best thing we ever did)

The fact that FDR was travelling in a different direction to Schroeder, I grant. but I just don’t think it matters. It’s the trimming that matters, not the direction of travel. If FDR had done what we seem to be asking the Germans to do, it would have been to commit electoral suicide by admitting publicly what he really thought. OK, so perhaps Stoiber is more supportive of action, but even so, he's limited by the massive unpopularity of war in Iraq. as long as that remains no-ones going to get out ahead of it, just as FDR didn't.

As for Lend Lease, Granted it was a boon, but it wasn’t exactly a great act of charity. Why not? because of the provisions of the Neutrality acts, which FDR had signed, that prevented America from even selling arms, never mind give aid and support to combatants, no matter who was right.

The point I continually make is, forget the direction of travel. Forget the hindsight we have. Politicians are responsive to public opinion when elections come up. Especially when they need to win a close race. If we don’t understand this, we’ve not got much chance of changing the lines they take. Public opinion is what matters here, because that defines the boundaries in which politicians act. So forget worrying about the Chancelleries of Europe, talk directly with the people. If you can persuade them that action is needed, you’ll get the leaders you want.

However, interesting as this debate is Porphy widens the question to an even bigger one. What value is there in the alliance, from an American point of view?

There seems to be a perception that Europe is trying to “stick it” to the US. I think this is wrong, but certainly, there is a danger tat Europe sees it's geo-political interests diverging from America's.

First let’s grant that it is in narrow European interests for the US to bear the costs of Global security, just as it was in America’s interest to allow the Royal Navy to keeps the seas safe. Being able to keep your defence spending as low as possible is generally speaking a good thing for your citizens in the long run (well, at least until you get invaded. I know Porphy plays civ, so he’ll know what I mean). It’s just guns and butter.

So, conversely, it is in US interests to get the European nations to share more of the burden. A strong European Military would be good thing for America, because it would lessen the pressure on US spending, and also increase the armed forces of the democratic, liberal nations.

America could, right now, easily go its own way as my interlocutor suggests. It’s right that they consider that option. The freedom of action it gives must be attractive. But there are risks there too.

If Europe is allowed, or sees the possibility of Free riding on the American military over the long term, the costs to America will increase over the long term. Why? Because the US military will have to grow ever larger to respond to these threats on it’s own and because being the only possible target of the angry makes the world a more dangerous place.

Many US conservatives regard the European military as inadequate. They are right. Surely then, the desired outcome for US policy is to increase the size of the European military and tie it closer to america, not to leave? Whatever the tensions in any friendship, I don’t think that Europe is regarded as a military threat to the US, but a prosperous, strong and free Europe would be a partner who can share the burden of Global security.

Let’s put it another way, If the greatest danger to American hegemony is Imperial overstretch, then the key long term objective for US policy is to identify allies who are able to shoulder a portion of that burden. European powers on the only democracies that are friendly enough, rich enough and free enough to fit the bill.

Secondly, the alternatives are not all that great. While Turkey, Pakistan and Qatar are handily placed and important to deal with, none have a great record for liberty and democracy.

Strong bases in Eastern Europe would upset the Russians, and require the paying of more Danegeld to that wounded bear. The Czech republic, so praised by Porphy, is about to join the EU, so not much change there (as are Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Rumania, etc etc etc). You'd end up out of the European frying pan into the European fire.

The pretended justification for Osama Bin Laden was the presence of Bases in Saudi Arabia and one day the same may be true of Bahrain and Qatar . Bases are less than usefull when you always have to watch out for explosives laden dinghies.

Finally, why throw over an occassionally annoying but smpathetic ally for one that really doen’t agree with you on anything? For an example, check out
The New Republic on Qatar

“Qatar may not be Iraq, but Norquist's arguments are still laughable. Freedom House, which monitors religious liberty, rates Qatar "not free." Among countries in the Middle East--a region hardly known for its liberalism--Qatar finished in the bottom half of a Heritage Foundation "Index of Economic Freedom." Two days after Norquist's op-ed, The Washington Post reported on Qatar's refusal to support a widening of the war on terrorism to include Islamic Jihad, Hamas, or Hezbollah. And, just two weeks later, the foreign minister of Qatar--our "reliable ally"--announced that "[t]he attacks against Afghanistan are unacceptable and we have condemned them. It is our clear position."

Makes France look good!

Third, what would be the European reaction to a move of this nature? It would be to retreat into insularity, maintain minimal defence, try to bind Eastern Europe closer economically and allow itself to be the 19th century America- protecting its hemisphere, and trying not to get involved in wars on terror, drugs or what have you. I think this is foolish, but economically it would make sense. The calculation would be that Europe would be unlikely to be atacked while the Us was in the world, o if the US gives Europe litle, why not make it clear that America is nothing to do with us?

Net, the outcome of this policy would be to expose America to greater military risk, endanger relationships with tetchy, hyper sensitive Russia, allow Europe to free ride on American military might even more and force America into the role of Global Policeman it has never wanted to take on.

So, I don’t think it is in American interests to leave the partnership, and as such I don’t accept the premise put forward. Instead I think it is Amerca’s interest to get Europe to take on more responsibility for the world, to be a partner and a true ally. I expect that Europe will be reluctant to do this, as lets be blunt here, military strength costs and you pay in luxuries and fripperies. America’s strategic interest is in turning this Situation around.

To this I expect to hear snorts of derision. Persuade the French and Germans to pay their share? Impossible! The distaste for European politicians that Porphyrogenitus expresses is all to familiar, but I would say this. Clinton was getting there. The internal self disgust provoked by the Kosovo conflict, was edging Europe to consider precisely that. The trouble is, by refusing to stroke the Europeans, the Bush adminstration has led European leaders and their populace to believe that since they have no stake in America’s policy, why bind themselves to its risks?

It was America’s willingness to bail out Europe that led Europe to feel guilty about its inaction and limitations. A more unilateral approach, (whether it had been isolationist or interventionist) would have caused Europe to retreat further into its shell.

So on a succession of issues, from Kyoto, to steel, to Farms, and now on foreign policy, (until Sept 12th) America has rebuffed Europe. In a sense, it doesn’t matter who’s right. It is the rebuff that counts. It creates resentment, encourages isolationism and creates division. when the engagement process is taken, America gets broadly what it wants (as it has from the UN), but has to listen to others.

There is one country where this resentment has not affected political decisionmanking. Britain. Why? Because Britain has a leader who believes in interdependence. A leader who has been zealous in promoting it and who argues again and again that Europe needs to be involved because our risk s your risk. He’s my leader, and on this I am with him entirely. It is an argument that convinces Europeans, both the public and their leaders, as it says that they are needed. It is not an argument that appeals to the current leadership of America, as it suggests restraint. Blair can make it because he is not perceived as dragging his feet. When they do make it, as in September, the world rallies to them, when they decide they should act alone, things spiral out of control. If America makes the case to the leaders and peoples of Europe that we are all in hs together, that our battles are your battles and fundamentally, Europe and America need each other Europe will support America. If America acts as if it does not need support, (which on the short term, it does not) Europe will wonder why they need to share the risks of hegemony without its rewards. See Anatol Lieven for an interesting consideration of this.

I believe America needs Europe, as a trading partner, as an ally and as a sharer of burdens, because fundamentally we share the same values and the same priorities. Europe needs America for it’s military might, trade and world leadership. America also need Europe because the fate of empires that stand alone is simply that they do not last very long. Better to bring allies with you then stride off alone and find yourself exposed a long way down the road.

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Tuesday, September 17, 2002

Blogger's Glossary

Samizdata have a good glossary of Blogging terms. To which I propose to add..

Blogget (alt: Globbet): noun, derived from Gobbet, an archaic term used in University examinations, in which a student has to comment on a short quotation from an original text. A post which focuses attention on a single paragraph or short quotation from another article.

As in "British Politics shows what an idiot the author is when s/he makes the following stupid comment. "I am an unutterable moron with the brain levels of a retarded golfish and the foresight of a deaf bat."

PS. If you don't know what a Gobbet is, what university did you go to?

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Imperial Overstretch

OK, Here's a scary game. All empire's in history have reched a point in which their military and economic obligations outran their resources. It didn't mean the end of the empire, just the reaisation that bundaries had to be observed.

Is there a overstretch point in sight for the American empire? If so what might it consist of?

Here's a scenario, just thrown out there. War in Iraq, insurgency in Afghanistan, tension in the Middle East. And then China invades Taiwan.

Would America be able to act? Would it want to?

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What to make of Saddam's gambit?

So Saddam has said he will let in weapons inspectors. Cue flurry of excitement and diplomatic activity.

This is a good thing. First, because it shows that Iraq is not completely insane. Anyone who thinks that Iraq can take down America, should have a little more confidence now. This is the reaction to Iraq realising that they'd be on there own if they rejected inspections. Iraq needs allies, and the UN route meant it had none.

Iraq's regime has only one strategy to avoid destruction. Get allies. Divide and rule. Put other states in a position where they cannot support an Invasion. The more pressure is put on Iraq by the much derided "International Community", the more they will fold.

As I write, The US, UN, EU and Russia are holding a joint press conference. The challenge for the re-bonded international community is to make sure it's demands are implemented, and secondly extended in a reasonable way. The further we can go the better. Inspectors in ASAP, in force. No compromise on sanctions, ny resistance to be met by a deadline for complaince, forces ready to go, at any time. The key is to always give the Iraqi's an out, but an out that would mean the de-facto destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime, in it's political and economic format, even if the leaders remain the same in name. The possibility of force always there to ensure compliance. In the end, this will be too much and they'l try to get out of an obligation. The key is resolve. My advice to America? Be prepared to fight this thing in six months time.

When I started this post, I got a little message from Blogger, saying "Congratulations, You are the one millionth blogger to have addressed this subject, You have won the right not to bother linking to everyone who got there first"

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Sometimes you despair...

Cheeky mayor Ken Livingstone has decided he knows hw much a war would cost London. Eh? This is a war that a) isn't declared b) could take any amount of time and c) will happen in the Middle East, So how can Ken be so certain?

Of course, we can deduce from the theory of suspiciously round numbers* (trademark this author), that the Mayor is talking out of his hat, but why?

Oh, because he want's to placate the anti-war left that elected him, while doing nothing to get Ministers really mad at him. Really, what a waste of time. What's the point of covering this farrago? One can only hope that Wednesday's Telegraph will contain a report along the lines of "Nuclear bomb exploding on London will cost Capital £140 billion".

*The Theory of Suspiciously round numbers states that whenever a politician claims that a policy will cost a rounded amount of money (for example "one meeeellllion dollars") and that this number helps support their case, then that person is talking eyewash.

The corrollory is the "Theory of suspiciously exact numbers" , in which any report that quotes a very exact number as a cost for some nebulous future event indicates the report's author is also talking out of his or her hat. EG "This Tax increase will cost British business 237,624,500 pounds over the next 5 fiscal years"

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Donor stiffed!

It felels a bit like a dog bites man story now.. donor gives money to party, donor has a contract with government. No proof that two are linked, but headlines from our sceptical media. Remember powderject?

So it's nice to see a donor get royally stiffed in a planning application. Let us raise a small cheer for this.

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Mystic Spin

What I said last night, the Times says today. Yesterday Alice Mahon was talking about 160 rebels in any vote in Parliament. Ho Ho Ho, I said, Don't believe a word of it. More like 50 MP's, if that.

Lo and behold. The Times today says the rebels are hastily revising their figures down. No surprise there. The number 50 reduces the ranks of the rebels to those who can be safely dismissed as the usual suspects.

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Monday, September 16, 2002

a vote on Iraq?

The independent says that "Rebel MP's" will call for a vote on adjournment, in order to express their disgust with plans to attack Iraq.

I predict that excluding minor parties and LibDems, less than 50 MP's will back them. Why throw your standing with the whips away for nothing? The 160 figure was compiled when most MP's thought the US was going to go alone. Now it's clear that the UN will be the route, that Saudi Arabia will be on board and even the French won't oppose the action, Opposition will melt away, especially since no war will be proposed by Mr Blair. Go agead Alice, give te whips a hit list. They'd love to take the opportunity to publicly humiliate you, especially as you've given them the present of a number to hit.

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Has Anne Applebaum read my posts?

It's highly unlikely, I admit. But great minds do think alike, and this article in Slate, while not so sympathetic of the poor embattled european leaders as I am, starts off by talking about the TUC's Iraqi obsession as a facet of more general disquiet with the Labour government (as I kind of did here) then goes on to describe European political leaders weakness on Iraq as a factor of their domestic political considerations (as I did here). Indeed her final paragraph is one I would whole heartedly endorse.

"In the end, all politics are local. In democracies, politicians—European politicians, American politicians—have always used international issues for domestic purposes."

Mind you, even though I agree with her, her article proves she is a far better writer than I am, which is annoying.

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Larry Elliot gives the Euro a going over

Each time I read Larry Elliott I become more and more convinced there's not going to be a Euro referendum in this Parliament. Note the telling little details that suggest he's been having a chat with senior Brown aides, the gold standard reference, the bad economics leads to bad politics line.

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The Tory Culture wars break out again...

Who would have thought that Section 28 of a rather redious Local Government act would become the fulcrum on which the furture of the conservative party will rest.

This story could be complete tat. It does after all, manage to get David Davis's job title wrong*. However it does indicate what a warped world the Conservative party is living in. The real issue here is that Iain Smith was elected by a combination of the authoritarian and the anti-european right of the Conservative party. Since his election he's coprehensively ignored them. If this had produced a shift in the polls, he would look like a good leader. Since it's made absolutely no difference at all, it leaves a vacuum to his right, which is crying out for someone to fill.

Any halfway intelligent politician can spot this, and whether or not someone is actualy going to audition for the role of leader in exile, it's pretty easy to stoke the Leader's paranoia about a challenge from that direction.

The story is oddly worded, indicating that someone is briefing against Davis in order to get Iain Smith nervous about a possible challnge.

"Tory MPs said yesterday that they feared Mr Davis was planning to use the issue as a way of challenging Mr Duncan Smith, who wants to look again at Section 28 as a way of showing voters that the Conservatives have changed."

Reporting on the Conservative Party feels less like journalism, more like kremlinology.

(* footnote for the obsessed only: DD is not the Shadow Deputy Prime Minister, he is the gloriously titled Shadow Secretary of State to the Offie of the deputy Prime Minister. Strangely, the paper Times manages to get his title wrong in a different way, calling him the Shad Sec of State for Local Gov and the regions, which matters 'cause you have to wonder where the story was sourced from.)

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Sunday, September 15, 2002

Hague's view

In the Telegraph today, William Hague explains how the ERM debacle haunted the Conservative party up to and beyond his time as leader. It's instructive that the memory of ERM still sears Hague.

It also still informs the parties euro-scepticism. More importantly, the whole episode stay's in the public memory. I don't know how best it could be used, but the most pro-euro voters in the country are the property owning classes in the South-East. Precisiely the people who suffered most under the ERM. If these people get into , the Euro campaign become even more difficult to win.

Hague also warns that if Labour does not deliver on public services, they will suffer a slower, yet similar fate. I'm not sure this is quite right. In order for Labour to take advantage of ERM they had to develop a reputation for economic competence. The Tories need to do something similar- a pledge to match Labour's spending on Schools and Hospitals perhaps?

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A strategy for the Tories?

Minette Marin, in the Sunday Times, outlines a credible political strategy for the Tories, one based on freedom. The only problem is that their traditional supporters will dislike much of it and it won't help the Tories make up ground with the lower middleclass vote that sustained them for a generation.

The advantage of this "party of freedom" approach is that it marks a clear break from the past, it provides a clear context in which policy development can take place and can change the terms of political debate. The downside is that it nibbles away at the conservatives authoritarian, hang em and flog em base.

I've wondered in the past if the conservatives wouldn't actually be better off under PR. That would allow the party to split along the Freedom/Authoritarian line, brought together by a low tax agenda, and allow the seperate parties to target different parts of the Labour and LibDem base.

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