An English proposal

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We don’t yet know if  the devolution dash that followed the tightening of the Independence referendum polls  has done enough to prevent Scottish independence. At the same time, the prospect of a further extension of powers to a Scottish parliament, including greater tax raising powers and control over the structure of welfare benefits has raised, perhaps for the last time, the old West Lothian question.

I half suspect that resistance to devo-max among Westminster parties has more to do with England than with Scotland. The main benefit of leaving the devolution settlement in Scotland more or less as it was, is that it did not make it necessary to poke the inconsistencies and contradictions of that settlement with a sharp stick.

It’s superfluous to revisit the details of these inconsistencies. I’m more interested in why there’s such a reluctance.

It’s an English problem. The basic issues is that England entirely dominates the Union. It’s as if the United States was only New York State, West Virginia and Alaska. In such a situation it almost becomes nonsensical to allow New York to have its own policy setting bodies, as almost all the time it would get the President and Congress it voted for, and on devolved issues, the size and economic power of the largest state means any decision it made would have huge repercussions for the other states.

Imagine if an English parliament decide to cut income tax and corporation tax below that paid in Scotland, while temporarily increasing public spending above levels in Scotland. It would decimate the Scottish economy, without Scotland having any kind of say in the matter. The same is not true in reverse.  What if English public services became substantially worse than Scottish ones and we started seeing major population transfer?

So though it doesn’t make much constitutional sense, there’s a good political reason for England to show a little restraint. Exploiting England’s dominant position in the Union to create a ‘differentiated’ England without the consent of other nations would be destructive, and the cost of allowing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland an unequal voice over English services is usually relatively low.

Next, there is absolutely no English consensus on how to deal with devolution. So if Scotland gets more powers, for example, Yougov has 29% saying ‘English votes for English laws’ 26% for things staying the same as now, 21% with no opinion, and slivers of support for either regional assemblies or an English parliament.

For political parties too, every option for more ‘English’ power is problematic.

The Tories have good reason to distrust regions, as they’d likely lose the north for a generation, while the South-West, and South-East, which they’d probably win, would be unwieldy, unpopular and posses little great regional or political identity.

An English parliament or ‘English votes’ might seem more attractive to Tories, but the reality is that a division between ‘British’ and ‘English’ governments would be practically (and emotionally) difficult for such an English party. Imagine a Tory leader who was simultaneously in coalition in ‘England’ while in opposition in ‘Westminster’. Further, A ‘federal’ Tory party would be an odd creature indeed, – could there even be a separate ‘English’ leader without simmering division?

Equally, Labour would find an English parliament or ‘English votes’ regularly problematic for a ‘national’ government. English voters would be asked to elect a Labour Westminster government, but if there were ‘English votes’ that government might not ever be able to deliver their agenda.

British Federalisation for England is therefore more attractive in theory than in practice.

So it’s tempting to devolve power in other ways. Yet neither Labour or Conservatives have been able to convince local communities that they are enthusiastic about city mayors, police commissioners, school boards or so on. There are always more scemes (City Regions are the latest, and have their strengths – but what are City regions but rebranded Metropolitan County Councils, and they were hardly a devolution settlement)

So what can politics offer England, if we are to offering Scotland more power?

We need to find a new way to rub along nonsensically. One that doesn’t feel overly disruptive, but reflects the changing distribution of authority within the UK.

One option might be to worry less about constitutional coherence and more about shared national consent.

How about a UK Commons, as now, which forms the national government, accompanied by a largely elected English House of Lords, with the consent of both bodies needed for any English only policies proposed by the former? There could even by Scottish, Welsh and Irish Lords, nominated by their parliaments to consider ‘all UK’ legislation proposed by the Commons.

If the English Lords were elected by PR, there would rarely be a single party majority in England, and all potential British governments would be able to build alliances of consent for their English policies, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Irish voters would not have to fear a dominant England indifferent to their needs.

It’s messy of course, but the Union is messy. We shouldn’t be afraid of that, we should welcome it.

 

Trust, Politics and Pie Crusts

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On Monday the Liberal Democrats launched their pre-manifesto.

One little noticed part of the package was an attempt to outbid Labour on housebuilding. Now, I take a small interest in housing policy, so I was interested.

Labour is promising to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2020. As of last week, the Liberal Democrats are promising 300,000, with a large part of this to be delivered by “Publishing a plan for at least ten new ‘Garden Cities’ in England, in areas where there is local support, providing tens of thousands of high quality new homes, with gardens and shared green space, jobs, schools and public transport”

I had a few reactions to this promise. I had a bit of a laugh at the nakedness of the ‘big round number’ bidding war. Labour promise 200k? Let’s promise 300k!

I also admired the artful construction of the ratholes in the promise. There’s no date by which the 300,000 target is to be met. The only firm commitment is to ‘publish a plan’. Finally, I liked the candidate insurance – The new towns will only be built where there’s ‘local support’. That means no opponent can campaign against the concreting over of Bigggleswade-on-the-wold, and I guess a local Lib Dem could oppose a new Town if locals didn’t want it, like these guys did.

Oh, and I remembered when the Lib Dems opposed building new eco-towns.

In other words, I didn’t take the promise seriously.  I didn’t believe it.

My reaction to this promise can be summed up as follows: Yeah, right. Chinny. Reck. On.

I’m sure the Lib Dems would like to build more homes, but 300,000 at some indefinite point in the future, through a mechanism they don’t really commit to and were loudly opposed to in the past?

But this isn’t really a Lib Dem problem. Sure, I’m sceptical of them, but I would be, wouldn’t I? It’s a broader political problem.

Just because I don’t believe the Lib Dems have a hope in hell of really getting 300,000 homes a year built by that mechanism, doesn’t mean I’m more convinced by other targets, even Labour’s own.

The Lyons’ review looks like it has good stuff in it, don’t get me wrong, but so did the Barker review, and we didn’t even come close to delivering the 250,000 homes we promised back then1.

Today, a Populus poll for the Institute of Government revealed that only 15% of us believe political promises. I’m surprised it’s that high.

This means that the politics of promises is a strategic mistake.

Why get into a bidding war on targets, promises, and objectives when few believe you know how to deliver them?

It is entirely counter-productive – you promise things, yet despite people desiring the ends you promise, they remain unmoved.

You conclude you have been insufficiently motivating, so offer even people more (300,000 homes, not 200,000!). This makes you even more incredible, and your promise becomes even less meaningful.

Instead, we need a politics of trust. A focus on making the case that you do know how to achieve the goals you set out.

That might mean a bit of modesty, because whatever your politics the goals you know we can achieve are probably significantly smaller than the ones you would like to offer. On the left especially, this cuts against an ingrained self-image of radical boldness that regards such modesty as somehow a betrayal of values.

But if no-one believes your promises, what’s exactly is the point of a bold, brave promise?

After all, if you believed in bold promises, and you wanted more houses built, you’d vote Lib Dem now.

Are you?

I thought not.

  1. Now the housing shortage is apparently greater, we’re promising fewer homes than we used to and boasting of our bold radicalism in so doing. So we’re being more realistic, but refuse to accept the credit for this modesty because we want to sound like we’re attempting the near impossible. Politics is a funny old game []

This is England ’14

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I haven’t written on Scotland, because I’m not Scottish and I know little of Scottish politics, other than occasionally coming up against the fierce hatreds of the Scottish Labour party and the resultant regular fissures in machine politics.

I want the Union to be preserved, naturally, out of a vague sense of British identity and a more sharply defined dislike of political nationalism, its resultant populism and the inevitable economic and social adventurism that follows.

Still, I can’t imagine my voice is needed in Scotland’s debate on their future.

Instead, I’ve been thinking about England and the left.

One of the strangest elements of the referendum campaign has been the exposure of the nervous, fearful reaction among a broad spectrum of the British left over the meaning of an independent Scotland, not for Scotland, but for England.

We look at what England might be, and tremble.

The obvious sorties are from the wilder shores. George Monbiot, for example, believes that Union with England represents

“a political system that sustains one of the rich world’s highest levels of inequality and deprivation. This is a system in which all major parties are complicit, which offers no obvious exit from a model that privileges neoliberal economics over other aspirations. It treats the natural world, civic life, equality, public health and effective public services as dispensable luxuries, and the freedom of the rich to exploit the poor as non-negotiable.

Gosh, and I thought the SNP wanted to cut Corporation tax, that Alex Salmond was Rupert Murdoch’s closest friend in British politics and the First Minister has enlisted Donald Trump to his causes.

Owen Jones takes the argument a little further. For him, the problem is not merely national, but ideological.

Scotland has been oppressed by thirty years of Thatcherism and New Labour social democracy.  (So oppressed and alienated by New Labour was Scotland that in 2010, Labour’s share of the vote was 42%, a terrifying decline from, um, 45% in 1997 and still an increase on the 39% of 1992. False consciousness is a terrible thing).

Now, understandably they wish to flee this ideological charnel house for the early days of a better nation.

Jones claims, somewhat implausibly, that this is not only a Scottish desire, arguing that if Northern England was a nation, it too would seek to flee Westminster. As someone who worked on the North-East assembly referendum campaign a decade ago, this elicited rather a grim smile.

For this argument to work, you have to assume that somewhere vaguely in the South of England there exists a stable majority for the kind of politics Owen Jones despises, a majority that has for thirty years bound the rest of Britain to its harsh cruelties. It is this he seeks to overturn, though how his brand of neo-Bennism will achieve this end is not made entirely clear.

Nick Cohen too sees the Union as a restraint on the savagery of England, arguing that “English nationalism, a beast the union kept in its cage, will prowl the land after the Scottish vote“. Cohen doesn’t say what that Nationalism would be, beyond a constitutional reworking, but he and I agree that it would be ugly. Still though, if we are talking about an effulgence of ultra-nationalism, I can’t help comparing England with France, and rather favourably.

Even Phil Collins is at it, though he tempers his warnings with a sense that perhaps a Labour party recalibrated to win England might not be so terrible a prospect. Still, his picture of England alone is pretty grim.

Imagine if the Tories had won the 1964 general election and, from that platform, proceeded to win again in 1966. Liberal laws on censorship, abortion, divorce and homosexuality and the abolition of capital punishment would all either not have happened or, more likely, be the crowning achievement of the Tory home secretary Quintin Hogg.1

The English left sings with little faith in Jerusalem. Closed minded on social issues, economically neo-liberal and hard-hearted on welfare and inequality, a beast to be contained.

Clearly, the left has an English problem2.

To an extent, I think this is founded on a certain false romanticism about non-Englishness.

For all English conservatism is decried, Britain’s politics on abortion and gay rights were far ahead of independent Ireland’s. (Was I really an adult when homosexuality was legalised there? Astonishing).

The horror of Ireland’s abortion policy is well-known, but I would also remind Phil Collins that the Sexual offences act 1967 applied only to England and Wales. It is not hard to grasp why the scope of this liberalisation was limited to Southern Britain, though we tend not to talk about it.

Indeed Homosexuality was not decriminalised in Scotland until the Thatcher government (Robin Cook playing a major role, though intriguingly the unlikely figure of Nicholas Fairbairn was an early supporter of Scottish gay rights. Sadly he seemed to have become more prejudiced with age).

Although criminal prosecutions largely stopped in 1971, the continuing illegality of homosexuality left gay men and women wide open to extortion and discrimination. No wonder then, as one history of Scottish Gay rights says, the Scottish LGB movement was hampered by “by emigration of lesbians and gay men to the freer atmosphere of London and other English cities“.

The same applies on Economics. If any establishment in Europe was in thrall to a low tax, boom and bust ‘neo-liberalism’, it was Dublin. So right-wing was Ireland, that George Osborne reproved laggardly social-democratic England with the Celts tiggerish successes.

Today, Alex Salmond wants lower business taxes, presumably so Scotland will become a sort of Delaware of the EU.

So perhaps some of the idealisation of Non-Englishness is projection, a righteous hunger for England to be better than it is, and a hopeful imagining of that possibility in other national alternatives.

I think this definition of English political identity is self-defeating. Do we insist that Englishness is bound up with closed mindedness, with prejudice, with a cold-hearted and cruel economic policy, or at least that Englishness is more bound up with these things than other nationalities? This seems neither true nor fair.

If England wants anything, it seems to be a sort of gradual, pottering, forward progress, with a large degree of concern for those left behind by economic and social dislocation, whether they be the residents of Clacton or Carlisle. I don’t always agree with this – I find it too anti-immigrant, too small-c Conservative, too willing to subsidise tradition at the expense of innovation (How I look longingly at Farming subsidies!), but it doesn’t strike me as the sort of ravening anti-progressive chill painted in the articles I quote above.

In fact, it doesn’t seem to me to be too awful a national identity, as such nonsense goes.

As a political project it certainly seems rather more attractive than the various degrees of nationalistic hubris that surround it. I can imagine an English Social Democracy, generally liberal, socially broad-minded, industrially and technologically innovative, internationalist (if cautious about sharing sovereignty), passionate about good public services and social mobility.

I can imagine it because we’ve had it many times before, not only from Labour governments but from Liberal and moderate Tory ones too, from Asquith to Macmillan. It’s been pretty good when we’ve let it be. Would that be such an awful aspect to present to the world?

Whether Scotland votes Yes or No, the whole British left will need to win in England. Even if Scotland goes alone, it will want a social-democratic partner, not a chiseling rival.

If we are to win England’s people to our cause, perhaps we should appreciate its virtues as often as we decry its many flaws, and realise that England is there to be won, so long as we’re not busy hating it?

  1. The ‘more likely’ is revealing. Collins is far too smart to think that the Conservative party would have been as unthinkingly prejudiced in the sixties and seventies as it was in the forties and fifties. I expect he’s also far too aware that the Labour party was subject to the same pressures, with some pretty hardline immigration policies []
  2. Not just the left though. Because if there’s one thing astonishing about these pictures of England, it’s how closely they’re replicated on the right. After all, what is Matthew Parris’s recent Clacton missive, but a reflection of left views of the lumpen English right. It is the “static caravans and holiday villages, and the people and places that for no fault of their own are not getting where a 21st-century Britain needs to be going” who create the monster the British left shrinks from.  Liberal Tories turn away for them, while Labour can’t understand why they flirt with populist nationalism not popular socialism. []

Shut up and take my money

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I want to pay for good writing. I really do. The problem is, no-one seems to have worked out how to do it. Luckily I have.

As Matthew Sinclair points out, for a standard punter to pay for their media is prohibitively expensive. We can all agree that journalists deserve paying for their labours, but if you chose to buy subscriptions to reasonable range of digital news media, you’re looking at an annual bill of almost one and a half thousand pounds.

That’s a lot. Worse, Matthew’s estimate is only his preferred news media – he’s paying for the Spectator, but not the New Statesman, for example. Want access to everything and you’re talking even more.

Even then, Matthew’s money doesn’t give him what he wants. Say there’s an interesting article in a foreign publication he rarely reads. He’s not going to pay for a subscription, but he can’t read it unless he does. Boo!

So what can we do?

One answer is to make everything free to view, and pay for content advertising. There are three problems with this. First, the’yre not generating enough income to keep writers and editors out of poverty. Second, as a result, adverts are increasingly awful and intrusive and finally and entirely relatedly, I now have adblock plus installed.

So some media have decided to go for paywalls – hard, soft or moated.

A hard paywall says you don’t get anything unless you buy the package. Problem with this is that you have to really like David Aaronovitch and Caitlin Moran to pay £26 a month to vault over the wall cash in hand to get at their opinionated goodies. (News stories too of course, but ragging on opinion writers is far more enjoyable).

A soft paywall gives you a few articles a month to read, the most articles you’re most excited by intended to lure you inside like the scantily clad woman at the door of a Soho clip joint. (Traumatic experience when Seventeen. £30 for a lemonade. Lost father’s scarf intended to make me appear adult). This solves the casual browsing problem. But there are issues here too. It’s trivially easy, but a bit annoying to get round such soft paywalls1. It’s also quite annoying because you forget. Is there a word for the moment of disappointment when you click on a link, only to be confronted by the dull shading out of a webpage that presages an pop-up inviting you to hand over money?

Then there’s the moat. You guard your core content like a lioness, but throw tasty morsels- blogs, gossip, hilarious gags to the populace, hoping the will beg for admission to the cultural nirvana that surely waits inside, if these are but the offcuts. Trouble is, no-one know what’s an offcut and what’s prime beef. Plus, these are journalists, notoriously shy and unambitious individuals. Won’t they put their best stuff in the offcuts, where more people will see them? The scoundrels!

There’s a final option too. Let’s just not pay people while we feast on the revenue streams they create!

To this I say: Fuck you Huffington Post. Fuck you everywhere and in every place. I will see your ‘business model’ dead, buried and pissed upon by writers with actual paychecks and royalties.

From this we conclude that this market is not working very well. It needs a bit of intervention.

Matthew, being a libertarian, free market kind of fellow, suggests a micropayments system. You pay a fee per article, with the payments system integrated into most media networks. It’s effectively an extension of what’s happening with e-books. I have some experience of this, because my partner makes her living this way now. I’ve seen how the e-book market has driven down the cost of books, while giving a much broader range of authors a steady income (and some, untold wealth).

It’s done this by absolutely shafting publishers. How would this work in news media? Who gets screwed: the curators and the quality controllers: The editors who challenge writers and the subs who tidy them up. My partner can choose whether to pay for a sub and an editor  who’ll pull her up on her mistakes. I’m not sure that choice is a good thing when you’re dealing with facts.

Consider another example: Today, I get nothing from this blog, and Polly Toynbee works for the Guardian. Fair enough.

Now imagine a market with deep micropayment integration. In this market, I might get a few thousand purchases a day, Polly a few hundred thousand. I’m over the moon, naturally, because I’m getting a hundred quid a day where before I’m getting nothing. Polly, on the other hand, might not be so happy. Sure, she’s still working for the Guardian, but she’s their biggest draw, she can see the money flow towards her articles: Where’s that money going? To pay for Seumas Bloody Milne’s odes to Stalin! Why shouldn’t she decamp to PollyandPals.com and keep that money for herself? Glenn Greenwald knows how it goes.

There’s another problem too. The Phillips/Young conundrum.  I don’t like Melanie Phillips much. I’m no fan of Toby Young’s politics. But I accept that as they toil, so should they reap, or whatever. But if I’m giving them 5p, I will hesitate at the door. Do I really want to read this? I will ask myself. This is bad, because I will gravitate only to views with which I agree. This is bad for me. It will also encourage ever more flagrant attention-seeking by writers. Just think of all those pennies flying towards the most extreme end of the opinion freak show. In the end, we will all be Snooki.

So, while I like the idea of paying for content more seamlessly, choosing individual articles feels too atomistic. It feels like a pre-broken market.

So how about a more social-democratic interventionist approach?

What did people do back in the day, when everything was made of paper, and paper was expensive? They formed Subscription Libraries! So why can’t we create something similar now?

Carl Gardner suggested something like this:

Here, publishers and even no-mark bloggers would get a fee from a central body – let’s call it Newsify. Newsify would guarantee its members unlimited access to all content. So once you were inside the wall, you’d get access to everything. Melanie Phillips, Seumas Milne, That American woman you keep meaning to read more often, Me, everyone.  The fee the publisher gets is correlated to their readership, obviously.

Now the interesting thing is that Spotify can put an independent album up next to a megastar on a major label. They give both 70% of their ad/subscription revenue. A self-produced indy might get a larger slice of the pie – no label to pay, but the major label might get a far bigger piw – marketing, A&R etc etc. THis is similar to kindle, too. A self published author can get a bigger slice of their ebook revenue, but Lee Child gets more readers. The same probably applies to news and opinion.

A blogger might get a larger share of a smaller revenue pot than a traditional ‘name’ columnist or journalist. However, it would still be the interest of Aaronovitch to stay at the Times – because they would invest in promoting him, would offer him a stability of income, and would edit and curate his work to a high standard. No shoddy bedroom production for David!

Would this make money for anyone? Spotify is losing money hand over fist. For Musicians, it can be a bad deal too. Spotify hands out less than a cent a stream. So you’d need more than a thousand listeners an hour to make any more than minimum wage2.  Translate that to articles read, and you can see the pot of gold might not be so good. At this blog I’d be generating between a tenner and twenty quid a day. On a good a day.  Still, I get nowt now, so I wouldn’t be unhappy.

But it’d surely reresent a massive increase in revenue over current models. You’re paying Toynbee and Aaronovitch and Moran and losing money now. Plus it’s not like any other model is working, right? May as well see if this one stands a chance of succeeding where all the others miserably failed.3

There’s one other benefit too. It’s a huge hidden pool of loveliness waiting for consumers to dive in. Archives. News media has the most fantastic long tail imaginable, and it pisses it right up against the wall, because Newspaper Editors are idiots trained to think only today’s news  matters to readers. What a news subscription library could really add value is by creating better links between content themes.

An example: I was reading the other day about this absorbing murder case. Now, it turns out, that over the intervening decades, all sorts of articles have been written, many brilliant. But are these links anywhere except google and wikipedia? Is anyone in media thinking that these articles are an asset?

To bring it to my own interests – Can I find a set of lovingly curated articles on British Social Housing in the Fifties as easily as I can find Jump blues playlists on Spotify? Can I balls. News organisations: You don’t even need to pay archivists to make the links- Put it all together, and pale wobblies like me will do it for love.

The core truth is that the news media business right now is making it harder, not easier for me to know stuff because they’re trying to find a way to make their business model work.

Make it easier for me to find stuff out, to learn new things, and make unexpected connections and I will bash you over the head with my eagerness to give you my money and you’ll have a business model that works without you quite understanding why.

So off you go. Make this thing happen. I just want a 1% of it, as commission.

 

 

 

 

  1. One day I shall convince my partner that I am using privacy windows and clearing my cookie cache to read the Telegraph, not hide my porn habit. Sad thing is, it’s true []
  2. I wonder if some enterprising musicians have their own music on all the time on spotify []
  3. OK, one problem. The sidebar of shame might make money. Maybe. £41 million in revenue isn’t that fantastic for a business that is piggybacking a lot of costs on the Print version. Still, you could put a branded sidebar on any subscription library content if you wanted to drive traffic to your other stories about the Kardashians []

The Stop the World Coalition

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The most dominant movement in British foreign policy is not either of the main parties, or any major campaigning group. It is the Stop the World coalition. This is a broad alliance, encompassing Andrew Murray, Lindsey German of the far left to to Matthew Parris and Peter Oborne of the heterodox right and points inbetween.

The stop the world coalition has broad appeal because it proceeds from a number of reasonable positions, a number of truths held to be self-evident.

First, that while tragedy and genocide are awful and regrettable, it is primarily the responsibility of someone else to offer a solution. This might be the actors themselves, other regional powers, the United Nations, or any other group you wish to identify.

It follows we should rely on such partnerships to resolve the crisis with a minimum of activity on our part. It may be that those partners have strategic interests or repressive behaviours that are entirely opposed to our objectives. However, they are better placed to act than we are without them.

From this it is concluded that we should restrict ourselves to pursuing policy aims that are entirely blameless (humanitarian aid, calling for talks, accepting a smattering of refugees and so on).

Finally, if neither international partnerships nor humanitarian support are proving effective in preventing terrible outcomes, we should oppose any military intervention. As Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition put it in the aftermath of the decision not to strike Assad last yearthere is hardly a problem in the Middle East (or elsewhere) that Anglo-US military intervention cannot make worse”.  (Murray believed, with many others, that a corner was turned in Western policy last year. He was right. We have since seen what lay on the other side.)

This scepticism is a reasonable challenge to any proposed military action, whether against genocide, chemical weapons use, or to protect a civilian population.

No such actions should be taken lightly and you would surely want to explore all alternatives, ensure a broad consensus, and have stable relationships with significant regional players before commiting to any warfare, with all its awful consequences.

You’d also want a high bar challenge for likely ‘success’, well-defined immediate objectives, and a clear understanding of the longer-term consequences of any action, in human lives most importantly, but also of time, money and ongoing commitment1.

The problem comes when this set of reasonable scepticisms becomes rigid opposition to all action. Instead of being an appropriate constraint against over-optimism and self-regard, this position becomes entirely negative, ruling out all options not described above as likely to lead to disaster.

Why is this problematic when the risks of any intervention are entirely real?

Because it envisions a world in which other actors do nothing. To be successful as policy it relies on a situation where the world has stopped, and  there are few or no negative consequences for inaction.

This is a crucial point, because you can only accept that ‘our intervention can only make things worse‘ if you do not account for the possible actions of others. The binary choice is not ‘the current situation‘ versus ‘the situation after western action‘ but ‘a range of future situations in which Western military action has been pursued‘ and ‘a future where they have not – and others have responded‘.

In that future we find the choices of others, whether the choice of Assad to use barrel bombs, Iran to supply him or ‘ISIS’ to terrorise Shi’a, Christian and Kurds. Those futures are not all within our control2.

If we look at Syria, there was, and remains, a strong case against Western Military intervention from the beginning of the rebellion. Perhaps the Assad regime would fall without our involvement. Perhaps a diplomatic peace could be reached. Supporting the FSA with airstrikes would have been very unlikely to get UN approval with Russia at the security council. Acting against Assad, especially if half-heartedly, might lengthen the war, giving him recourse to secure arms imports from states that would see his fall as a strategic defeat. Finally, if, as in Libya, we intervened and then left, we might see Syria become a quagmire from which we were absent. So we chose not to act.

However, even though we did not act, and so cannot have caused these possible negative outcomes, things still got very much worse. Those articles and published this time last year saying that the ‘rush to war’ had been halted ring hollow now.

They ring hollow because while we were passive Iran and Russia were willing to support Assad. They ring hollow because international inaction and (in all probability) regime collusion created the conditions in which ultra-extremist groups could prosper. They ring hollow because from Qatar to Iran, allies and opponents behaved in ways we had no control over.

They ring hollow because the world did not stop simply because we wished it to.

As a result even greater instability was created – one driven largely by actions of those – Russia, Iran, Assad, Hizbollah, Islamist extremists- over whom the ‘west’ had no control, and facilitated by the choices of actors (Maliki, Syrian rebels, and so on) whose options were affected by an absence of Western (really American) presence.3

This is why the Stop the World coalition has a problem.

It is not that it is wrong to oppose Western action. The starting tenets – a humility in foreign affairs,  an acceptance of the importance of partnership, a preference for peaceful means over military, a recognition of the limits of Western influence are all valuable qualities.

The problem is that it is wrong to assume Western action is the only significant wellspring of negative consequences.

By assuming a world in which the actions of others impact barely at all, they minimise the dangers and risks of inaction. Their policy invites not stillness, but a space into which others can, and will rush, creating further instability.

You end up with a policy agenda that is helpless in the face of profound challenges. All options are bad, and all choices are ruled out, and all you have is a repeated plea for others to behave in a way in which you would like them to behave..

Worse, you end up with a circle in which whatever imperfect choice is made becomes the sole cause of future misery. If it is only ‘our’ actions that appear significant, and things continue to get worse, then any choice made can be blamed for that worsening. The role of others becomes insignificant.

Contain Assad through sanctions and overflight- and be blamed for the death of innocent children and global radicalisation.

Do not constrain Assad – and be blamed for regional instability and collude in likely genocide, leading to global radicalisation.

Take military action to overthrow Assad  – and be responsible for all that flows from his fall, including global radicalisation.

Or let Syria turn into a grinder of souls, with all that entails.

We have seen each of those options played out before.

Why does such a position appeal? For some, I suspect it is a consequence of realpolitik – Here we find ‘realists’ who see it being of limited concern to us if a dictator slaughters his people so long as he does not bother us, or who hold that a policy of masterly inactivity will have few negative consequences at home, while the costs abroad are no great concern of ours.

For others, there seems to be a sense in which Liberal Democracy is the source of global injustice, not the best approximation of a remedy. This can either appeal to either left or right, creating a strange admiration for the likes of Putin or Ba’athist regimes from the Galloways and the Obornes, who see them standing up against very different oppressions, no matter who they themselves oppress.

However, this seems to me to be a minority. Most of those who are doubtful are doubtful for good reasons. The objections raised above to western actions are reasonable, coherent ones. Unfortunately, though, the world is not going to stop. Others are going to act whether we wish them too or not.

To go from the grand to the risible, it seems likely that at least some British Jihadi’s were influenced by Anjem Choudary. Anjem Choudary and his tiny band of extremists hated Britain and the west before Iraq, before Afghanistan, before September 11.

They would have hated us whatever we said, did or failed to do. They would have sought outrage after outrage. If we had not invaded Iraq, perhaps even now, some radicalised young Jihadi from Welling would be fighting outside Baghdad because the West had betrayed Islam by colluding in Saddam’s brutal post 9/11 oppression of Islamism.

Intervention is not always right. But because others will still intervene whatever the UK and the US does, dogmatic non-intervention contains its own contradiction. The Stop the World coalition is doomed to fail.

 

  1. I suspect a significant proportion of readers will be asking how this relates to Israel. Fair question. From my perspective, the prospect of outside intervention fails on a number of points. First, I doubt Hamas would welcome a ‘peacekeeping force’ that limited their ability to fire rockets at Israel. Without that commitment any such presence would become an unwelcome occupation force very rapidly. Second, there is a pretty clear diplomatic solution available right now, which both parties are engaged in. So in that case, the prospect of intervention falls on precisely the sorts of grounds outlined. As for issues like arms sales, blockades and so on, this relates directly to the main thrust of the article – it is reasonable to be concerned by arms export licenses, but a bit odd to be concerned about them while being indifferent to Hamas’s importing rockets and tunnel building materials from Iran []
  2. To draw an extreme analogy: The US withdraws our military presence from South Korea and North Korea launches an assault on Seoul. To judge the humanitarian consequences of any US response without considering what a North Korean takeover of the peninsula would mean is plainly ludicrous. However, if you accept ‘our intervention only makes things worse’ as a governing principle that would have to be your conclusion. The question that is sidestepped is ‘Worse than what, exactly?’ []
  3. ISIS apparently took Taqba military base from the Syrian Army last night, securing MANPADS and Missiles and even a fighter jet. These were all Russian imports intended to bolster Assad. Intervention happened without us []

A small Summer for politics

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Last week Danny Finkelstein said the following about this here blog.

This is a much appreciated compliment, and most kind of him. Inevitably, receiving such kind words coincided with a period in which I had almost nothing useful to say about British politics.

International politics, certainly. Gaza? Most definitely. Israel, naturally. ISIS, Syria, Iran and Iraq? I am only constrained by my awareness of ignorance. The domestic repercussions of tragic events elsewhere? These are issues of import.

Yet British politics? The very stuff I am supposed to know about, to care about, to be excited and thrilled by?

It palls. It bores. It seems irrelevant and childish and somewhat pathetic. Nine Months to go before a historic election and I was… lethargic.

Nor can I blame the politicians for this. They are doing their part.

They want me to know how significant a choice this election will be, how much difference it will make.

Both Labour and Tory summer campaigns are predicated on the significance of ‘the choice’ the electorate face next year. The Tories say a Labour government would destroy jobs by raising taxes, and wave a death tax at me over Labour paying for Social care, while wasting billions on welfare payments. In response, Labour promise tough action on Energy companies and limiting Rail fares, while as if in rebuttal to the Tory campaigns on health and jobs Liz Kendall makes considered speeches about the challenges facing the NHS and Social care and Chuka Umunna edits an entire well researched book about new Industrial policy and broadening growth.

Some of this is merely aggressive tackling, the political equivalent of a knowing, but not violent, foul on your opponents. The Tories are not going to ‘privatise the NHS’. Labour won’t introduce a death tax, or destroy job growth, while similarities are quietly downplayed1. Mostly though, these are real issues. The differences between the parties mean something important.

Unfortunately, they also feel incomplete. For all the significance of these issues, Their prominence in our political debate suggests that our politics finds it hard to offer a coherent, popular response to the three much larger problems the next government will be faced with, and so is attempting to turn significant, second order issues into far bigger divisions2.

The huge challenges are muted because they cause problems for both sides.

First, there’s the deficit. The Tories find it hard to talk about beyond the level of sloganeering. They proclaim “We’ve Cut the deficit” but neglect to add “Just nowhere near as far, or as fast as we thought we would” because that would involve admitting the persistence of the deficit means their projections for post-election budgets require laughably optimistic reductions in Welfare spending. They would like us to think this is a simple matter of cracking down on scroungers, but this money is in fact largely paid to precisely the sort of aspirational families they seek to represent. Labour on the other hand, is sharply aware that reducing such benefits would hurt hard-working families, but has little political will to promise to put up taxes or reduce departmental spending to make up the difference.

So both say little about the future. The forward projections are so ugly however, it is almost inevitable therefore that after the next election there will be some sort of fudge of these choices, with a tax increase, some welfare and departmental spending reductions, and a gentler glide path of deficit reduction.

The significant difference between the Parties will be about the precise make up of the fudge. This will be real, significant and make a difference to hundreds of thousands of families and jobs.

Unfortunately, we can only guess at how these decisions would be made, because the first party to admit it would have to make these particular tough choices would be absolutely slaughtered for so doing. So, we have to try and guess where the taxes would rise, and where the spending would fall and when we’d meet our deficit targets.3

Directly related to this vagueness is the believability of our positive promises. Since the constraints on the next government will be so tight, it is hard to imagine that in any particular area there will be a large surplus to be devoted to desirable ends. Whether that’s a tax cut for the low paid, or a huge increase in innovation and research spending, or funding to smooth the integration of Health and Social care, every promise elicits the sceptical reaction ‘So how will you pay for it’? In response, there is a tendency to identify waste to eliminate, or fat to be trimmed by localising, or future rewards to resolve current commitments.

Well, maybe. But it’s easier to say there’s wastage to save or promise returns to come than it is to find one or be certain of the other.

This means that even when politicians do make big, bold, promises, they seem rather presumptuous. A long-term economic plan? Higher wages? Lower Taxes? An NHS with neither rationing nor markets? A booming export led economy with top quality science and innovation? Houses being built as if it was the Thirties (or the fifties and sixties, if you prefer council flats to private houses). There’ll all desirable, but not easy to do with no new money.

Finally, then, there’s our foreign incoherence.  Whether Europe or the Middle East, our basic position seems always to be that we know how we would like the world to be, and to be clear that we are very much against it not being that way now, but to have no particular plan for moving from position A to position B.

The government may want a reformed Europe, and the opposition may be very keen on a diplomatic solution to Syria, but neither seems to willing to embrace a plan that might deliver either.

On Europe, to get reforms, we’d probably have to give something back, and that is off the table for much of the Conservative party. In the Middle East, making a deal with Iran and Syria on the one hand, or the Saudi’s and Egyptians on the other is unattractive in its brutal Realpolitik, because the consequences would be murderous, likely akin to Saddam’s post 1991 repression of Kurdish and Shi’a rebellions. Yet the obvious alternative, of taking action ourselves to support those who do request our alliance, whether the FSA or Kurdish, involves a risky commitment most in politics no longer wish to make for the sake of a problematic, imperfect shift in the Middle East.

So instead, we ineffectually call for peaceful resolutions, hoping that aid drops and handwringing will solve a problem they show no sign of stopping.

Three big issues then: The persistent deficit, the consequences of this for our services and spending, and the gap between our desires for the world and our ability to achieve the same.

Three issues on which opposition and government feel united in their desire to leave off the political battleground, to focus instead on rail caps and death taxes, personalities and slogans. Perhaps they’re right to do so.  After all, there’s not much political benefit to being the person saying that the next government will be a grind, not a Cockaigne.

However, while we take this approach, our politics will feel small and tentative and reactive, as it has throughout this summer.

  1. all parties find it easy, for example, to praise Transport infrastructure in general, and damnably hard to justify it in particular []
  2. There is one other huge issue, too, of course, Scottish independence, but other than occasional doe eyed entreaty to stay, and thinking up bizarre stunts like piles of stones and hand holding, there’s little the English political parties can do about this. Which I suppose underlines the smallness of our political debate, though I can’t imagine going on and on about it would have been much good to anyone []
  3. For example, we might assume that Labour would invest in capital budgets, not current spending, because this is implied by the no larger current deficit pledge. However, if the suspicion lurks that we do this by calling as much as we can as capital spending, then we really just take ourselves back to the same place. It’s a workaround, not an answer []

Complicity

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What is it to be complicit in the actions of another state?

It is a question raised by those speaking loudly against Israel, but not against Russia, or Syria, who argue that the reason their voice is loud in one case, but muted in another is to reflect Britain’s complicity in Israel’s attacks on Gaza. The same argument is made about Egypt.

The argument runs that we back Israel, or at least affect a lopsided neutrality, while we stridently oppose Russia’s provocations in Ukraine, and the murderous barbarity of the Syrian regime. Therefore the efforts of those who oppose atrocity and violence have a primary responsibility to speak out about those instances that we are complicit in.

One response would be to point out that complicity is not an on-off switch.

Take Russia. We sell Russia arms. Last year about £86 million worth of export licenses were granted. In terms of specific arms sales, we sell about as much to Russia as to Israel, according to the Campaign against the Arms Trade.

Perhaps in France, where helicopter carriers are on order western complicity is clearer, but even in Britain, the arms trade continues apace. Russian firms were still at the Farnborough airshow, for example, despite a delicate diplomatic dance in which we pretended they weren’t wanted and the Russians pretended not to go.

One of the leading suppliers of Russian arms to Syria, the state-owned Rosboronexport used the opportunity to pitch their arms exports to middle eastern and Latin American countries.

I doubt Russian policy would be affected much if we stopped arming Russia entirely and ended our complicity in the Russian arms trade. They’d just invite people to Russia and get their sniper rifles and night vision goggles from China.

Our complicity with Russia isn’t really in arms, but in being be a safe haven for their elite’s money and, possibly, to be an insurance policy for a future repression, a need expressed in the desperate acquisition of prestige assets, whether football clubs, art collections, newspapers, seats at party fundraisers or central London property. (more…)

Not in my name?

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It is hard to express my feelings about the gulf that has emerged between my views on the terrible, catastrophic situation in the Middle East and most of ‘leftish’ opinion1.

I feel further adrift from my domestic friends than I ever have. Adrift, not just due the divide between what many of my sympathetic elected representatives, newspapers, journalists and erstwhile political allies seem to believe and what I instinctively grasp for2, but adrift in my own ignorance and ineffectiveness.

After all, I sit in sunny London, with opinions that cost me nothing, but could cost others much.

Yet it feels cautious silence is also a way of hiding, because that silence is exploited by the confidently certain. Yes, I am an armchair general, but so is an MP, so is an editor, so is a fashionable columnist who argues for the opposite view to mine3. If Russell Brand dares to share his opinion, perhaps I should too4.

So if what follows offends, or is stupid, or over-generalises, I apologise. I recognise these flaws, have half-choked on them myself, but feel the need to try -somehow- to splutter my ignorance into the world nonetheless.

Today, Stop the War have organised a great demonstration calling for an end to the attack on Gaza.

This is not merely a call for peace; for the end of bloodshed. It cannot be. After all, the cautious truce agreed last week ended not with an attack on Gaza, but an attack on Israel.

Instead, the demonstration is something more than just a call to an end to violence. It is a call for a particular solution.

Fair enough. The roots of this conflict are difficult, and complex, the flaws on all sides apparent. Yet the stated aims of the demonstration would not produce the desired peace.

If Hamas remains committed to the destruction of the entire Israeli state, then to propose an unconditional end to restrictions on Gaza, when Hamas rule Gaza and use imported concrete to build tunnels to attack Israel, imported metal to build rockets to bomb Israel, and at the same time demand a boycott of Israel; then you effectively demand, not unconditional peace, but a tilt in the battle to Hamas. To Hamas, note, not to the Palestinian Legislature, or Fatah, or the people of Gaza, all of whom want an immediate ceasefire, then talks and negotiations and a permanent peace with Israel, but to Hamas, who want no such thing.

Still, I sympathise with those marching, because I think most marchers are not making a cold  calculus of the interests of factions, but instead expressing human sympathy for the victims of violence.

It is the tragedy of Gaza that demands sympathy, and rightly so. It is the dying children of Gaza, the insanity of war that brings people out on the streets in their thousands. If you were at that demonstration, and if that was your aim, I salute and admire you motivation. It is why I donated to the Disaster Emergency Committee appeal today. (For Gaza, and to their three year old appeal for Syria)

Those deaths ask us: Have Israeli forces committed crimes? No supporter of the British Government and troops during the Troubles can deny it is extremely likely, even certain.  Any Crime should outrage us, and we should demand they be investigated and punished, but they do not require assent to a proposed solution that is no peaceful solution at all.

So, today’s marchers, I too want peace and justice.

But I cannot march with you.

Yes, I think the solution the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, and George Galloway, and Stop the War offer for the Middle East is misguided and wrong.

But it goes further than that.

I can’t march with you because I don’t really understand what it means to march for this single peace in the Middle East, when the whole Middle East is engulfed in war. I don’t understand how the principles inter-relate, how the causes link.

For the broader left, too, I don’t really understand how we can, over the last year, oppose military action in Syria, support military action in Iraq, and propose a kind of half-neutrality in Gaza. What is this approach, what is its purpose or aim or strategic justification5?

I understand the motive. I think it’s decent and kind, and well-intentioned of our leaders. I support the motive. It’s just I don’t think it will work, I don’t think it makes sense, and I don’t think it will end well.

Almost a year ago, the same people marching today to demand a halt to Israeli attacks on Gazan civilians marched to halt an attack on Assad’s regime in Syria after it committed one of the worst atrocities imaginable against Syrian civilians.

Almost all the left ended up agreeing with that stance. Almost by accident. We argued for caution. We got inaction. We congratulated ourselves  for ‘preventing a rush to war’.

We had done no such thing. The Syrian war already existed. We simply chose to do almost nothing about it.

Certainly the action proposed last year – limited airstrikes against a regime that had committed chemical weapons attacks- was limited and insufficient to conclude the wider conflict, but we opposed it anyway. So the Syrian regime made a concession on using chemical weapons, switching to barrel bombs and chlorine gas instead, safely certain no consequences would follow.

Those barrel bombs, those chlorine gas attacks, those regime atrocities all came after we ‘stopped the rush to war’.

That war has raged further and faster and wider and wilder, and now many of the same voices that opposed intervention in Syria because the situation was too complex, we had no clear national interest at stake, and action risked making things worse, while there was no clear exit strategy, stand ready to intervene in the consequential conflict in Iraq, a conflict that has mutated and become more malevolent, but is surely no less complex, no less incendiary and offers the west no clearer an exit strategy6.

A year later, military action has become humanitarian. We have to act to prevent atrocity.

Forgive me for wondering, but what have we been standing aside from in Syria, these past three years, but a humanitarian crisis, full of preventable atrocities?

We had alternatives.

We could have done more, militarily to support the civil, more or less secular opposition when they rebelled against Assad. Such action would have had consequences. It would have cheered Hamas, perhaps, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Not that I think demonstrating that the west can defend muslims from murderous regimes should be abandoned for such a small reason. Might even have helped, in some way.

Perhaps our actions would have been presented as imperialist. More seriously, we might have dropped a bomb on a civilian facility and killed innocents. After all, Amnesty international, no less, accused NATO of War Crimes for our attack on a Serbian TV station.

Alternatively, we could, like Russia7 have cynically argued that Assad is a monster, but he is a known monster. Let him slaughter the rebels, as we allowed Saddam to slaughter, and at least Syria will be a peaceful graveyard. That too, would have been a decision. This too would have had consequences. Terrible ones.

Instead, we did effectively nothing. We did nothing for understandable reasons. We had become leary of consequence of our choices in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Somalia and Sudan.

But it turns out that our avoidance of consequence also has consequences. Money flowed to the most extreme, sometimes from our supposed allies. Iran and Hizbollah operated in Syria, even though the west did not. Consciously or not, Assad helped create an enemy that would bring him allies and secure his foreign supporters. That extremist Sunni enemy grew rich and ambitious on an illicit oil trade, perhaps selling energy to the very Syrian regime it intends to destroy. Our policy of inaction had consequences. Genocidal ones. The Islamic State we will attack today grew strong in the brutal chaos of a Syria we were indifferent to.

For me, the same applies in Libya: Here, we acted to prevent an atrocity, then effectively walked away, fearing the consequences of sustained presence. As we looked away, things fell apart to the extent the Libyan government is now pleading for for greater western commitment, and getting little. Maybe we’ll end up supporting another strongman, who will murderously solve the problems for us while enriching his cronies, whether directly or through Egypt’s own de facto dictator.

Perhaps then we should have made the decision we made a decade ago, when Libya renounced terrorism – that though Gaddafi was a monster, he was at least agreeing only to be a monster to his own people, and might even stop being that one day? I think not, because standing aside from his 2011 military campaign would have been inhumane. If we hadn’t acted, there would have been a disaster too. Just a different, and probably worse, disaster.

Instead, we intervened, patted ourselves on the back, then stood aside. Is that better or worse than a sustained intervention?

I haven’t even begun to mention the destruction in Congo, which we seem to have just decided was too difficult to worry about.

The truth is I don’t understand what it is to be a progressive in foreign policy these days. I know the mood is against liberal intervention, but I don’t know what it has been replaced with.

I do know what we would like.

We would like the Israelis and Hamas to stop fighting and find a mutually acceptable peace. We would like Assad to reach a diplomatic solution with the Syrian National Congress. We would like the Libyan government to act against Islamists. We would like Egypt to be less intolerant and brutal. We would like Iran to stop supporting Assad, and backing Maliki, and supplying Hamas. We would like Russia to not invade Eastern Ukraine. We would like a broad alliance against the Islamic State. We would like various Arab ruling families to stop funding extremism abroad and repressing human rights at home.

That is a noble and great agenda to advance, but without ever being prepared to accept responsibility for achieving it, or accepting the consequences of acting and falling short, it is also meaningless. A pose, not a policy.

These aims are wonderful aims, but in a multi-polar world, achieving them will be extremely difficult. The consequences of almost all choices will be dangerous and fraught.

Is being a progressive in foreign policy merely to will peace and loathe destruction, but to shrink from any proposed action for achieving this, fearing it will breach peace and promote destruction?

If all we offer is a series of wishes, but no guarantees, no consequences, no commitment for the long-term, then our aims are destined to fail, and we will find ourselves in a world far worse than one we acted in, however imperfectly.

Without the willingness to risk our own standing, or to follow-up on our declared principles, we look ridiculous.

Better to not advance high principles of morality, than to advance them then by constant inaction mock them.

Often not to act will be the right decision, horrifying though this can be. At the extreme, there is no question that military escalation in North Korea would be a terrible mistake, even if that means condemning millions to a terrifying half-existence.

In every case I have mentioned, there is a strong, sensible, rational case for western inaction, as well as a case for action.

Yet I don’t understand  on what basis we are making this calculus today. What weight of regrets do we pile up, assess and say, “sorry, we cannot”.

For the Stop the War leadership, the argument is simple. Whatever the west does is wrong. If it sends ground troops, it is imperialist. If it uses sanctions and no-fly zones, it is cruel. If it does nothing, it is complicit.

For the traditional right, perhaps it is equally simple. Whatever affects our national interest dictates our actions. If Syrians want to slaughter each other, that’s their affair. If Israel and Gaza attack each other, we side with our ally. If Russia attacks Ukraine, we ask how much the City would suffer.

For those of us who do not oppose an expanded global liberal democracy on principle, nor are indifferent to the impact of the  rejection of liberal principles by the brutal or the theocratic, there should be an alternative.

One that says that where we can act to support our principles, we should, and that while we should be cautious of over-confidence and sharply aware of our own conceit, the burden of inaction should weigh just as heavy in our accounting as the burden of action.

If Liberal Intervention overreached, we should say so, and why, and on what basis we will intervene more modestly and humbly.

Yet instead there seems a mere absence. Just marches for peace, when there is already a war. Demands for peace that are not really demands for peace, but posture or platitude. An instinctive opposition to military action, when that may be the only thing that prevents far worse.

It is easy here, in safe, warm London, to say such things and not live with the consequences of saying it. I accept that. The charge is admitted.

But it is just as easy to march against a choice, or to issue a press release against a policy, and not live with the consequences of that marching, or that refusal.

  1. Yes, ‘leftish opinion’ is a terrible generalisation. I suppose I mean the ‘liberal consensus’, the broad estuary of opinion and instinct that takes in the leadership of the Labour party, a large chunk of columnists, broadcasters and journalists, the political leadership of the Trade Union movement, and a whole army of others. Like any estuary, its course and content is ever-changing, its tide low or high, but feel part of it, and you know you are part of something great and supportive and meaningful, while strand yourself on a bank or get caught in some creek or eddy, and you become very aware of your separation, of being -apart-. I sometimes wonder whether the anger of so many progressive recidivists springs from their sudden sharp isolation from this great, mutually supportive, uplifting, immersive, instinctive flow. To be cut off is a strange and terrible thing, especially when you see who is still carried along in the stream – a bigot, say, or a fraud, or a patsy []
  2. Nor is this some internal party point scoring, or a coded critique of the current leadership. A small example: The other day I got into a slight spat with a former Labour cabinet minister who was saying that the only reason he could think of for David Cameron’s policy on Gaza was that Donor influence had been bought to bear on the PM. Challenged on this by me, he argued that other than donor influence, he could conceive of no plausible reason Cameron would not simply echo Obama. Two things troubled me about this. First, that the idea that shadowy, presumably Jewish, donors could buy a British Prime Minister was seen as a perfectly acceptable charge to make against both parties, but also that it was impossible to believe that Cameron simply thought criticising Israel equally to criticising Hamas was a mistake was not even a plausible possibility. No, it had to be the ‘Donors’. This former minister is, and remains a proud Blairite []
  3. And if anyone wants me in Kurdistan, well, they only have to ask. I’ve been asking to go for years []
  4. To put it another way, I don’t hold that my view should have much weight, but it should still be expressed, and tested, and rebuffed []
  5. For the record, my position on outside intervention in Gaza is that I would welcome an outside military presence in Gaza, subject to three conditions. First, the Gazan authorities should desire it, so it is not an ‘occupation’. Second, the role would be both to prevent external military incursions and to prevent attacks being launched on Israel and Egypt from Gaza. Third, to prevent the military presence being sucked into a guerilla war, the same body would have to have control over trade routes into Gaza, at least until there is no prospect of same being used to turn the UN forces themselves into human shields or targets. However, I doubt there would be much enthusiasm for this without a wider peace established first. Without such, an outside force would rapidly become an occupier, at least to someone []
  6. I want to be fair here, because there is an argument I respect that tells me I’m wrong. If the action we proposed was inadequate to preventing the Assad regime attacking civilians, would such attacks have been a mere waste. They might have been, but I think they would have forced greater caution. However, I agree both that this is uncertain and that a wider political solution was needed. I just think we would have been more likely to get one if we had acted more firmly and earlier against Assad. However, the action proposed was so limited and late, perhaps it may indeed have done very little good []
  7. or an eighties Rumsfeld []

Personalities, Promises and Policies

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When Ed Miliband stood up to decry a political and media that places image above policy, it was easy to both agree with his argument and note the inconsistency in any politician making it.

There was Miliband, in front of a carefully selected human backdrop, speaking without notes or written text, about the importance of substance over style.

Inevitably, the speech prompted thoughts of earlier speeches, earlier moments. Hugo Rifkind and Andrew Rawnsley recalled the leadership election slogan handwritten on posters by his campaign team: ‘Ed speaks Human’. Iain Martin noted the the Labour leader had just returned from a White House visit apparently constructed to make him look ‘Prime Ministerial’.

I was most reminded of the exultant reaction to Ed’s Conference speeches, when he has spoke fluently, and well, and passionately, without notes. There was little rejection of ‘image’ back then by Labour advisers or supporters. As Polly Toynbee said, it was Ed Miliband “Honest, at ease in his skin, without pretence, he turned a moving story of his immigrant parents into the reason why he is drawn to give back to British society some of what its welcome gave to all of them.” .

Image has meaning. As Polly Toynbee also said then, ‘Subtlety is Miliband’s style“. The medium can be the message.

Miliband acknowledged all this – the fact that as a politician he cannot afford not to care about his image, can’t afford not to care about how his enemies seek to define him. He knows that you cannot govern through policy papers, tracts and pledges alone. He would like, as we all would, I think, a more mature, reflective, less ‘image based’ politics.

The problem is that, as a politician, he cannot make that happen, as seen in the fact that a speech about the irrelevance of image became a speech about image.

A politician can’t make such a speech, without projecting an image – and  contrasting their own self-defined persona with that of an opponent. “I am serious and thoughtful and caring” carries with it the implication: “While he is cynical and lightweight and callous.” Whether you say it out loud or not is irrelevant. Your quality is their failing.

This seems to make Miliband’s case. An obsession with style, and persona, and image consumes any debate – even one clearly seeking to reject the importance of these issues, perhaps even especially one intended to do that.

To adapt Bill Hicks, we say to any politician who makes such a point: “Ah, I see you’re going for the anti-image vote. Smart move. There’s a big vote in sincerity and depth“. Worse, any deviation or inconsistency can be painted as typical political hypocrisy.

The question we need to ask before rejecting a politics of image is why image matters so much. Is it media conspiracy, the triviality or the political class, the shortening of attention spans in the 24 hour, internet enable age?

A little bit of each I guess, but behind it all is a bigger issue. We use image of politicians as a shorthand, a signal, as a heuristic.

Nor is it merely those who don’t pay attention who use such a shorthand. Recent Research on the AV referendum by Clarke, Sanders, Stewart and Whitely suggests that the more knowledgeable voters were, the more they use leadership as a heuristic for their votes.

Think about that: Perhaps the more you know about politics,  the more you rely on your perception of a leader to guide you.

Why might this be a smart approach to politics?

Gerd Gigerenzer argues that such Heuristics are a ‘fast and frugal’ way of assessing complex problems.  In this light, an obsession with image begins to make more sense. If there is much we can’t know about the future,  then our assessment of how a party leader ‘projects’ themselves may be a better guide to what they will do in office than what pledges or promises they offer.

For example, I have no rational basis for knowing how David Cameron or Ed Miliband would react if in 2016  Russia cut off energy supplies to Western Europe. However, their image might work as a useful shorthand. If I think one is ‘Aggressive’ and another ‘Diplomatic’, I can begin to feel a preference emerging.

This preference might become even more important if I don’t really place much weight on ‘official’ promises. If I doubt that any political party can achieve all or most of its stated agenda -again because the world is complex and unpredictable- then perhaps I will regard the image of the leader as a useful guide on what they will ‘really’ attempt to do.

In this analysis, image is not at all ‘beside the point’. Rather, it is the point, because it might be a better guide to how a government will act than any rational statement of policy aims, or another blizzard of piecrust promises.

Imagine David Cameron tomorrow told us that he would increase spending on the NHS significantly. How many of us would believe him, and how many would apply our accumulated perspective of his leadership and be doubtful?

I believe the debate over ‘image’ is in the wrong place. Voters are not being stupid, but being very smart to care about political personalities.

The challenge is not to stop caring about ‘image’ but to focus on what clues voters seek for their most significant preferences.

If voters want a leader who is intelligent, humble, compassionate and brave then how do they conclude those qualities are possessed? How do voters make that assessment – by what is said, or what is done? How do politicians demonstrate such qualities, and how not?

Looked at it this way, the problem with a politics of image is not that we think about it too much, but that we think it is not meaningful enough.

We see ‘image politics’ as a mere mask, a soundbite, a photo-opp and a pose, when instead it is a shorthand for everything you are and all that you seek to do.

Your image is not a thing you can move about by a briefing or a speech or the deployment of a partner – indeed thinking that it is shows you don’t understand what your image means to voters, and how they form their views.

This might, ironically, give politicians a way out of the trap that obsession with ‘surface image’ puts a politician in – that in the attempt to portray themselves as something, anything positive in the short term, they neglect to consistently focus on what really signals to a voter that you are the leader they seek.1

Turn that thinking around, and place your political personality consistently at the core of everything you do, and you might well reap the electoral rewards. Image is deeper than you think.

 

  1. Or perhaps, the problem is that people don’t believe your promises, in which case, you need to carefully consider the believability and attractiveness of those promises – and of course, your image might affect their believability, as with the Cameron example I gave earlier []

The long overdue death of the ‘Progressive moment’?

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There are many default responses in British politics, reactions to occurrences that don’t require much thought. A good Tory one is the desire to lower regulation in the face of any downturn.

One of my favourites on the left is to declare that whatever has just happened, it is evidence that we live in a ‘progressive moment’ and represents a chance to unite the ‘progressive majority’.

No matter how bad things are politically, events can always be interpreted to vindicate our philosophy. Gordon Brown thought the aftermath of the Crash was a sign we were living in a ‘profoundly progressive moment’. Peter Mandelson said the same. Unfortunately, the electorate strongly disagreed.

It’s not hard to see why this is tempting. If we believe that we live in a time that calls for progressive ideas (which is, of course, all the time), then we live in a ‘progressive moment’, and further, if people want the nice things that we want, (which naturally, they always do) this always creates the conditions for a ‘progressive majority’, a majority whose wishes are only frustrated by misfortunes of following the wrong leaders, or having the wrong electoral system, or the left being divided.1

No surprise then that over the last few years, we’ve heard a surprising amount about how 2015 could be a progressive moment for the progressive majority. (more…)

  1. Even Tony Blair recently said he thought there was a progressive majority in the country. Though being the cut above politician he is, he did hint that it was a question of a progressive majority for something subtly different to what the party traditionally offers. []