Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The 2015 UK election... Full of Sound and Fury

I have held off commenting on the UK general election in too much detail. Partly because I have found it so disappointingly provincial that it has been a challenge to sort between the electoral shallowness of each of the pitiful manifestos.

At a time when the UK faces existential challenges: the threat of another European war; a global economy whose life-support is fading by the day; a failing and spectacularly expensive public sector; and any of another thirty or forty serious problems, it is shocking how weak the response of the politicians has been. Yet in truth I do not blame the political talking heads themselves- in the end it is the ignorance of the voters that is driving the most dumbed-down election that I can ever remember. The sophistication of the parties' voter ID systems has already eliminated the most egregious points of debate, and 90% of the electoral resources of the political parties are now focused on the 20% of seats that will actually decide the outcome, and here the messages are in simple primary colours. The necessary nuances are lost to cheap populism and all the sophistication of a reality TV show.

Only the Liberal Democrats have put out a consistent and coherent manifesto, and their reasonable costed programme has been drowned out by Conservatives pitching to estate agents -allowing social housing tenants to sell their houses at a guaranteed profit to large corporations- or Labour economic illiteracy- imposing rent controls guaranteed to turn entire districts into slums. This and the creepy weirdness of UKIP is now unaccountably more popular than a grown up programme for Liberal government. 

In the face of the contempt of the media and the intolerance of the electorate it has been impressive, even moving to see so many Liberal Democrats carrying out the campaign with cheerful good humour, even in places where it is incredibly hard even to get a hearing.  Yet the polls have not moved too much, and the hoped-for recovery is still looking pretty elusive. Despite heroic efforts, the party is facing a very difficult election indeed.

One week out from the general election, and with many votes already cast, it remains to be seen what will happen. Yet one thing is now clear. The need for constitutional change is now more urgent than ever- again not a theme of the general election campaign, but then so far despite the crisis the UK faces, it seems that the voters want to talk about anything except the very real mess that they are in.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Election Choices

The achievements of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats in government have been remarkable. In the face of an economic crisis where many commentators were predicting the economic collapse of the UK, the coalition has taken decisions which have left the country in far better shape than they found it. Britain has performed better than almost all its peers, and there is little doubt, that in raising the tax threshold and defeating the SNP referendum to break up the UK, it has been Liberal Democrats who have been the first out of the trenches. Liberal Democrat ministers, from Ed Davey to Steve Webb, to David Laws, have proven to be better informed, better prepared and far more effective than their Conservative colleagues. From the point of view of managerial efficiency, the Liberal Democrats have undoubtedly proven that they have all the requisite skills and more to deliver effective government of this country.

So it is more than a little frustrating to see the party continue to languish at single figures in the opinion polls. Even more so when one considers the contrasting support for UKIP and the Greens. The astonishingly cavalier approach of UKIP MEPs shows a profound contempt for the voters who pay them. The number cases of outright corruption, even criminality that has afflicted UKIP suggests that the party is completely unqualified for elected office, and their major policy- withdrawal from the European Union- is now supported by an ever dwindling bunch of fruit cakes. As for the Greens, their declared anti-growth politics are simply Luddite and would lead to social and economic chaos- and wouldn't even achieve the protection of the environment that they say they want.

As for the Conservatives and Labour, the shouting match over such issues as the NHS is simply dishonest. The Health Service may well be entering a crisis, but it is not an issue of "Tory cuts", as Labour would have you believe: the crisis is structural and very long term. The solutions are not merely financial, they are highly complex and will involve taking difficult decisions- perhaps charging for hospital food, for example, or major restructuring of primary care- including changing the way we train GPs, to take another example. The campaign attempts at scaremongering so cheapens the debate as to make it irrelevant to the future of the NHS or anything else for that matter.

Meanwhile the elephant in the living room remains the urgent need to rearm in the face of the aggression of Putin's Russia. Not one politician has admitted the implications of Putin's war in Ukraine must include preparing to defend ourselves and our NATO allies from attack by the criminal in the Kremlin. The impact of this necessary- indeed critical- expenditure has been minimized or ignored completely- a truly appalling dereliction of duty, especially when in private all sides admit that there is a serious problem.

The tax crisis in the UK is also simply ignored- at a time when HMRC employs more people than our entire armed forces and when the costs of tax administration are approaching £50 billion, and when the rules are simply too complicated to be fairly enforced, it is absurd that the subject is not even being tackled. The whole catastrophic  situation is reduced to "scrounger vs tax dodger", and the real issues are ignored. The system is so broken that inevitably more and more are seeking to opt out- and this crisis of legitimacy will get worse. When even the HMRC itself uses tax sheltering schemes, you know the crisis has arrived.

So the election campaign has started in a cloud of delusion. The so-called leaders debates were irrelevant beauty contests, which have taken place so early in the campaign precisely in order to limit their impact. In any event it is hard to believe that such an over-rehearsed and stilted media event could have any impact at all. The politicians seem so scared of putting a foot wrong, that they lack all conviction.

Yet I know that Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats- for all their now vaunted managerial efficiency- do not lack conviction. The conviction to continue to press for major constitutional reform remains at the heart of the party; the conviction to press for a fairer tax system, and the courage to face down Putin- all of this I know that Nick Clegg possesses. I just want to hear the Liberal Democrats articulate their distinctive vision of freedom and fairness in a way that connects- because the consequences of the eclipse of the Liberal Democrats will be far more serious for Britain than all but the most prescient commentators now suggest. 

So in my brief trip back to the UK over Easter I am now off to deliver some leaflets on behalf of Martin Horwood, and I hope that the British people can recover their faith in the Liberal Democrats sufficiently to recognize that they have been and remain a force for good in British politics.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Russia loses it

On a day when Vladimir Putin threatens nuclear war to try to break up NATO, the painful and unnecessary deaths of at least 54 Russian sailors just emphasizes how cheap human life is in a country where people are simply giving up hope.

It is a contemptible display from a government that is rapidly losing its grip on reality.

Meanwhile a small glimpse of the nature of Russian propaganda has been given by former workers in Russia's "Troll's House".

The struggles within the regime are now increasingly open: the Russian chauvinism of some significant elements in the FSB versus the corruption of the Chechens. Ostensibly this is a struggle that pits ethnic Russians versus non-ethnic Russians, but in reality it is a straight forward battle for power. Putin may have found a modus vivendi for the time being, but the army is increasingly unhappy about the Ukrainian adventure- which according to some sources has now cost nearly 6000 Russian soldiers their lives, with significant casualties on top of this. The Ukrainian army, despite deficits in both men an material has been able to create major problems for the Russian invaders, and international observers have been surprised by the poor Russian command tactics and equipment that the invasion has revealed. 

As Putin grows ever more shrill, there is almost a sense not of fear but of pity, even faint amusement. Any use of nuclear force is a gamble that could simply destroy the user. Although the threats were denied by Dimitri Peskov, Putin's grim-faced Goebbels, the fact is that there are more than sufficient witnesses to prove Peskov to be a liar, yet again.

I myself merely smiled when Peskov said that Putin still had "a bone crushing  handshake". I have actually shaken Putin's hand, and it was like shaking hands with a rather unpleasant fish. 

The dead Russian sailors in the Sea of Okhotsk and the dead Russian soldiers in Ukraine merely show how dangerous the Criminal in the Kremlin is... to the Russian people.    

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Putin tries a judo throw

Since Vladimir Putin "resurfaced" on Monday, the most feverish speculation has died down. He has not been actually overthrown. However there is little doubt that his regime is facing serious problems.

In a sense we can know this by the renewed blizzard of propaganda and misinformation being put out by the Kremlin lie machine: reporting and exaggerating splits between EU and NATO partners about the current Russian sanctions regime, for example. Then there is the report that Putin was prepared to use nuclear weapons over Crimea. Meanwhile the entire Russian northern fleet has gone on alert. The message is clear "I am dangerous, don't mess with me".

Yet as some sources report that the Russian death toll in Ukraine now significantly exceeds the initial estimates, the fact that it is the Northern fleet is significant- threatening to the NATO exercise in the Baltic, but not a further threat to Ukraine. More to the point it is a distraction for a force which is rumoured to be more disaffected with the current regime.

The split between the Chechens and the FSB is clearly real, and some forces that might be persuaded to take sides- including the armed forces- are being given jobs to do while the struggle continues.

Sooner or later Putin will have to take sides, and when he does, his regime will be in serious peril.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Putinism faces another crisis

The murder of Boris Nemtsov is beginning to look like a catalyst for some significant upheaval in Russia. 

The arrest of Chechen suspects initially looked like a lazy round up of the "usual suspects". 

However it quickly became clear that the individuals detained by the FSB were not just ordinary Chechens but significant figures, very close to the Chechen strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, who has enjoyed special privileges both in his home patch, but also across Russia, including Moscow. Privileges which were, of course, granted by Putin.

The fact that the head of the FSB personally announced the arrests -a very unusual thing for him to do- suggests a major split between two of the critical pillars of Putinism: The FSB and Kadyrov's Chechens.

This is now a major headache for Putin.

At other crisis points -the Kursk disaster springs to mind- he has dropped out of sight and then returned, usually with increasing levels of ruthlessness, and, amid swirling rumours, that seems to be what he is doing now: he has not been seen in public for several days.

However, Andrei Ilarionov, who has a track record of being a very well informed Kremlinologist, suggests that Putin is facing a direct and personal challenge to his authority, and that even a Palace coup is now a real prospect, with the ouster of Dimitri Medvedev as Prime Minister and his replacement by a figure closer to the FSB. This would matter intensely, since the PM is the designated successor if the President steps down or is removed from office.   

Clearly the removal of Medvedev has been a possibility for some time now, but Putin knows he must tread exceptionally carefully in his choice of successor, and even more carefully if the FSB and the Chechens are now on a collision course.

So in addition to the international pressure on the Russian leader, it now seems that internal pressure from the regime itself is making itself felt.

Late stage Putinism is at a crossroads this weekend. It may be that Putin is indeed facing real pressure from the hardline Russian nationalist tinged FSB leadership. Yet to concede to their demands could destroy the delicate balance that has been struck, not only with the Chechens, but also the many other nationalities of Russia, such as the Tartars, which risks destroying Russia as we have known it. On the other hand, failing to deal with the murder of Nemtsov could lead to a St Valentine's Day Massacre of the leadership as the different oligarchs panic over their own position. Wild rumours of the arrest of Sechin seem wide of the mark, but there are any number of strange stories in Moscow these days- and not just the tosh put out by Dimitri- the "Mouth of Sauron"- Peshkov.

Clearly Putin is in a very real mess, it is no wonder he has gone to ground. He must resurface to meet the Krygyz President on Monday- and a failure to do so could create a rumour firestorm. By that time he must have worked out a new domestic balance, and a failure to do that could make his life very dangerous indeed. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Boris Nemtsov

When I first met Boris Nemtsov -he was then in his mid thirties- in addition to his obvious intelligence, he also possessed a glamour, which was not just a function of good looks, but also the determined way he had become anti-Soviet. He had begun by leading protests in his home town of Sochi and had steadily progressed so that by the last years of Boris Yeltsin, he had become mayor of Nizhni Novgorod and was in the process of being brought into the Kremlin. As such he might have become part of the corrupt cabal that ultimately- and disastrously- led to the emergence of the Putin regime. Instead, he chose a path that was both more principled and as his tragic assassination today has proven, more dangerous.

Nemtsov spoke for the Western Russia, as opposed to the Scythian one of Stalin and Putin. He believed in rule of law and rule of the people and he held in contempt those who have subverted and stolen Russia for their own personal greed. Nemtsov was not merely a political critic of Vladmir Putin's regime, he was a moral rebuke to it.

His murder today is a tragedy for Russia. 

As always, the "mouth of Sauron", Vladimir Putin's dishonest and highly unsavory press spokesman, Dimitri Peshkov was quick to try to find some angle that might mitigate the damage to his boss, declaring that the murder was a "provocation" and that Putin himself would take charge of the investigation. I suppose that it is a bit like having a fox investigate a murder in the hen house, because the ease with which the assassins were able to escape in a place swarming with police is already pretty suggestive. Even if Putin himself is not individually involved, someone with significant pull in the security services of Russia very likely is.

Tomorrow, March 1st, Boris Nemtsov was scheduled to address a demonstration against the Russian war in Ukraine. he had been blistering in his condemnation of "Putin's war" in the Donbas. His assassination on the eve of the demonstration is significant timing.

Shooting the only major Russian opposition leader still at liberty in the back is clearly intended to underline the danger that liberal, western minded people now face in the dark and paranoid political ghost train of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Yet in a sense Peshkov is right- the murder of Nemtsov is a political message: that the regime is fearful and increasingly divided.

I fear that this cowardly, barbaric act is just another note in the symphonie fantastique of the economic, social and political crack-up of Russia. The damage of Putin's rule is now eroding every part of the state and the nation. The nihilism of the Mafia state may not stop with the opposition, but eventually, and sometime soon, the regime will start to feast on its own children.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The UK stirs...

After the Hollande-Merkel "peace" mission and Michael Fallon's "infelicitous" choice of words about the Russian threat to the Baltic, it seemed that British detachment from both its allies, including the US, and the burgeoning Putin crisis was growing. In fact, the lack of involvement by the UK in the Minsk-2 debacle now looks prescient. Meanwhile the British decision to provide direct military assistance to the Ukrainian government is controversial, but the in face of the dumb insolence of the Putin government it is a pretty small step, albeit one with potentially momentous consequences for the endgame of the crisis.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the pressure of the Putinist lie machine and the further persecution of Navalny, it is becoming clear that the situation in Russia is deteriorating fast. Russia has chosen a direct challenge to the West, nuclear threats and all. However, the reaction from Washington and it now seems in London, is increasingly to call Putin's bluff. 

There has been cold fury in London to the overflight by Russian bear nuclear bombers, but in a way what is interesting is how understated the reaction has been, Cameron's comment, That the Russians were trying to "make some sort of point" was withering and came with the further comment that more sanctions were likely. Now of course the UK is set to provide the first  military assistance to Ukraine. The British have moved beyond sanctions and are now accepting that the breech with Putin's mafia state is probably irrecoverable for as long as the tyrant stays in the Kremlin.

Some will react with great concern at the potential for an acceleration in the conflict, yet the failure of the Russians to take any of the off ramps of the crisis, indeed to exacerbate the crisis at every turn with propaganda as well as with all out military aggression has ended global patience with Putin. It is the direct aggression of the Kremlin that is solely responsible for this war, and the laughable denials of Russian involvement have not altered the truth: this is a Russian war against Ukraine launched at the express order of Putin himself as an act of revenge against the Ukrainians who dared throw out a thieving and criminal tyrant.

The intervention of the United Kingdom is a drop in the bucket compared to the roughly 9000 Russian troops and all the equipment that Putin has sent into Eastern Ukraine, plus the troops he has used in Crimea. However it signals quite clearly that this is not now about sanctions. It seems likely that sanctions against Putin will indeed be tightened- and that prospective Putin allies, such as Viktor Orban in Hungary will also not be treated gently, witness the American comments about the current government in Budapest

Putin has acted in bad faith throughout this entire crisis, and the repeated lies now longer make him look like a strategic master, but a bare faced liar and untrustworthy negotiator. The UK is recognising that Russia will not abide by any agreement unless it is made to do so. Putin's honour is gone, and his campaign in Ukraine- including the bomb attacks in Kharkiv, that his agents orchestrated- now make him look despicable. 

The deployment of British military advisers is the beginning of a ramp up in pressure against Putin. In my view his regime is fragile and his position increasingly unstable. Time will tell, but by taking Putin's threats seriously for the first time, there is now the potential for them to be countered and ultimately ended.