Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Time for the Sun to set on the Murdoch Empire

The fall of the News of the World was a curious affair. It seemed to me at the time to be something of an over reaction to close the newspaper, even in the face of public outcry over the phone hacking scandal. It only made sense in the context of launching a seven-day version of The Sun, the NoTW's daily stable-mate. Of course that is now what has happened.

However the "sacrifice" of the NoTW begins to make far greater sense now that we understand the seemingly far greater level of corruption that was going on at The Sun itself. In now seems quite clear that the closure of the NoTW was a diversionary tactic by Rupert  Murdoch in order to protect his most popular title and even extend its franchise to seven day publishing.

However it is now not just Vince Cable who is on the warpath against Murdoch.

Every new revelation makes it quite clear that Murdoch has presided over a totally corrupt system. He has relied on corrupt payments to public officials and covert pressure that does not stop short of blackmail. Bribery and Blackmail were not -it seems- occasional exceptions, but the normal way that News International has conducted its business.

Given the extremely tepid support that Rupert Murdoch has offered the current government, and his continuing flirtation with the SNP, demonstrated in his rather ill advised tweet on the subject of Alex Salmond, which seems to have resulted in the leak of the SNP's proposed referendum date to the Scottish Sun, David Cameron and Nick Clegg neither owe Rupurt Murdoch any favours, nor
are they his prisoners.

As these revelations mount, it seems self evident that should the criminal investigations lead to prosecution, then the entire question of whether Rupert Murdoch is a fit and proper person to have such control over any media outlet in Britain needs to be investigated.

James Murdoch already faces the real prospect of serious charges under the foreign corrupt practices act in the United States. A wide range of charges against News International employees is now under investigation in the UK too and several key NI executives are apparently set to face trial.

The scandal of Parliamentary expenses over the past years now looks like pretty small beer against the almost mafia-like racketeering that seems to have been going on at the UK's largest media group.

If these prosecutions result in guilty verdicts, then the reaction of the British regulatory authorities should be swift and total: the complete expulsion of any firm controlled or influenced by the Murdoch family interest in the UK. 

It seems more than time to clean the stables- and the black heart of Murdoch's twisted and corrupt empire would certainly be the best place to start.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Putin = Mugabe

Yet another demonstration in Moscow has attracted tens of thousands of people to take a stand against the idea that Vladimir Putin can return to the Presidency of Russia that he only vacated in 2008.

The fact is that whatever the expressed will of the Russian people, it has already been overruled by the will of Vladimir Putin himself. Mr. Putin is determined to maintain his power, even in the face of determined protest.

Some, including the gaoled tycoon, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, suggest that change is inevitable in Russia, but to me this underestimates the tenacity of Putin- a man who glories in the name of "Chekist" and continues to lament the fall of the USSR.

The Cheka was the extraordinarily brutal secret police established after the Bolshevik seizure of power which inflicted mass murder upon the population of Russia and beyond in order to impose the will of Lenin and Stalin. The founder of the Cheka, a Polish nobleman, Feliks Dzierzynski, was a man of twisted integrity who utter subsumed his personality to the will of the murderous ideology he served. It is this barbarian for whom Putin expresses the greatest of admiration. The subsequent incarnations of the Cheka: OGPU, NKVD, MVD, MGB, KGB as well as the Cheka itself, committed crimes on an industrial scale, untramelled by the slightest scruple, let alone a single shred of decency. As feared and hated as the Nazi Gestapo and with even more blood on its hands, the Soviet organs of state security remain unpunished, and under Vladimir Putin they are even praised for their despicable and vile crimes.

I do not think that we can trust to the tender mercies of a man formed by such a criminal organisation as the KGB, and one who, moreover, continues to use the same methods, as the astonishing death toll among Russian journalists and the public murder of Aleksander Litvinenko in London, amongst others, testifies all too starkly.

Even the supposed "assassination plot" against Putin- conveniently discovered a week before the election- smacks more of a KGB plot than of any genuine conspiracy.

So Vladimir Putin will, continue in office and will continue to cozy up to the enemies of the West, like Hugo Chavez or Bashar Al-Assad- funded by the high price of oil that his political meddling in the middle east conveniently supports. 

Meanwhile, unless the Russian people can take responsibility for their own affairs, the despair that is fueling a mass exit of the young from the Russian Kleptocracy will only grow. The failure of the past is not the solution of the future- and maybe eventually there will be a real conspiracy.

As with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, it seems that the only way to remove the Chekist-inspired leader in Russia will indeed be when he eventually dies- he will never leave office willingly. 

Tragically, the damage he can do to Russia and the world before this will be profound and long lasting. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Low IQ of American Politics

In the United Sates as much as in Britain, the idea of a political elite attracts fear and loathing in equal measure. "Elitist" is a political insult in both political cultures. It is important for aspiring politicians that they sell themselves as normal plain folks. So it is that we get the uncomfortable spectacle of various politicians trying unconvincingly to mix it with the proles.

Yet what are we to make of the latest twists in the bizarre saga of Sarah Palin?

It becomes clear that as candidate for the second highest office in the United States, she knew so little about international affairs, even of the closest ally of the US, that she proposed talking to the Queen in order to ensure continued British presence in Iraq. This doltish woman could have been a heartbeat away from supreme power in the United States- the worlds most powerful state!

Now of course we can say that she was an exception- but she isn't. Stupidity seems to be no hurdle to gaining political power, indeed it seems to be becoming part of the job description- after all plenty of plain folks are a bit stupid- "hey, he/she is just like me... at least he is not part of one of those elites... ".

The good fairy seems to have given the United States huge gifts to maintain its intellectual and financial lead in vast areas of human endevour, but unfortunately the bad fairy seems to be gifting the United States the most dysfunctional politicians of any democratic state, bar Italy. 

Mitt Romney is an asset stripper who avoids taxes. Newt Gingrich is a self regarding puff-ball. Rick Santorum is a close minded and fanatical bigot. Ron Paul is a geriatric odd ball.

Compared to the Republican field even the distinctly sub-par Barack Obama looks good- and he has added yet more regulation into the mire created by George W. Bush. 

You can hardly blame the Republicans for hoping that Jeb Bush will come to their rescue

Yet that is not going to happen. The Republicans have a choice between certain losers- and that is pretty unhealthy at a time of relentless crisis. 

The determination of voters to avoid any whisper of elitism has eliminated any candidates of distinction.  Meanwhile the financial war reaches new heights of absurdity as the Super PACS crush all before them.

The fact is that the political class in the United States is now more isolated, more insular and more stupid than it has ever been. I hesitate to call such low grade individuals an "elite", but they are certainly apart from the rest of America- and in grave danger of destroying all the success beyond the Washington Beltway.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Speaking for a Federal Britain

The past two years have been brutal for the Liberal Democrat brand. 

It is understandable. 

Liberalism is rooted in a clear set of principles, and yet as the coalition has become established we have discovered that we have either been forced to abandon key elements of our agenda- such as the tuition fees fiasco- or have discovered that we have not sold our ideas well enough to the electorate- the fiasco of the AV referendum. The result is that we have lost about half of the voters who supported the party in 2010.

The party has assumed a grimly determined approach to repeated setbacks. It has been the only realistic response to the battering that we have taken. Yet we have also lost many fellow travellers and and long term supporters. The party is clearly weaker than we were. 

Only the creation of a proportionally elected House of Lords may keep the Liberal Democrats in a position to retain influence at the national level. That is clearly why the party leadership is investing so much into the process of House of Lords reform- it may prove to be a lifeboat for the Liberal Democrats at the national level- ans as a result it will come under renewed challenge from our political opponents, who would dearly like to return to the old two-party system.

Yet while much or our agenda- Europe, Human Rights- remains scornfully rejected by the mainstream of both left and right, there is an area where the party should now be speaking up, since our ideas seem set to become the basis for a major reform. That area is the solution to the crisis of Scotland.

The Liberal Democrats has always supported Home Rule for Scotland- it still does so today. Yet that support was also bound up in a vision of  wider reform of the whole of the British State. We argued that all of the people of Britain should be able to get control of their own affairs. Increasingly as the implications of the Scottish referendum sink in across the rest of the United Kingdom,  it is becoming clear that a Federal reform of Britain is now a critical part of a solution that will keep the four nations of the common state together.

We have argued for a flexible system- similar to that of Spain- where different areas take on the decisions that are right for them. This goes well beyond the simple creation of a unified English Parliament, which Conservatives now advocate, and to be honest the creation of such a Parliament renders the British State simply Greater England rather than Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The time has come to inject the decades of Liberal discussion on the subject into the national debate.

Constitutional reform, for the Liberal Democrats, is not just about electoral reform, it is about addressing the increasingly real concerns of the different nations and regions of the UK- and the Liberal Democrats have a well-thought out agenda for change. The legislation that Tony Blair enacted for devolution for Wales and Scotland (and later, Northern Ireland) was always going to be destabilising if the issue of English government was not address as part of a wider British settlement too- and we said so at the time.

If Nick Clegg and the Ministerial team want to recover distinctive Liberal Democrat ground- then they would be best putting forward the Lords reforms as part of a wider settlement of the British constitution. 

Not only is Right, Not only is it Liberal, it may even be popular.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Freedom and the meaning of Latvia

The three Eastern Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are relatively new constructs. Their languages are among the most ancient spoken in Europe, but their national identity was only slowly constructed, culminating in the late nineteenth century. Their political identity might have remained bound up in the Russian Empire had not that entity collapsed into murderous barbarism under the hammer blows of the evil of Lenin and Stalin.

As a result of the collapse and the simultaneous fall of the German Empire in 1918, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania together with Finland and Poland were able to construct independent states- in the case of the Baltic three, for the first time in 700 years.  Yet within twenty years of their creation they were subject to a monstrous conspiracy between a Russia under the rule of the psychopath Stalin and a German under the rule of the no less wicked Adolf Hitler.

The first consequence of the Nazi-Soviet pact was their joint attack on Poland. The second consequence was the invasion of Finland and the diktat to Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania by the Soviet Union. Within a few days of the Soviet occupation, life in the Baltic had already become cheap. From a prosperous bourgeois existence, the Baltic descended into a charnel house. All of the government and civil service, teachers, ministers of religion, army officers, even boy scouts were arrested and most were shot. Before the end of the first occupation in June 1941, the death toll as the result of Soviet occupation already stood at several thousand.

Of course the first Soviet occupation was brought to an end not by peace, but by the German invasion. The consequence was the genocide of the entire Jewish community in the region. over 100,000 were murdered in the local concentration camps or sent to the killing fields of Poland. 

Then the Soviets fought their way back in. The countries were devastated- half of the old city of Tallinn was leveled by a Soviet air raid- even though the German troops had already fled the city. In reoccupying the Baltic, the Soviet troops displayed the barbarity for which they would become infamous in Germany: pillage and mass rape of the local population was commonplace. The Soviet troops returned not as liberators but as harbingers of yet greater terror.  Over 150,000 Balts fled the onslaught and were scattered through the displaced persons camps and the wider world after the war was over.

In 1949 the largest of a series of purges and deportations sent yet furthers hundreds of thousands into Siberia with no preparation or even notice. The cattle trucks and forced marches took weeks- the conditions were so severe that those few who ever returned were physically and mentally shattered.

Still the Balts resisted- a  hopeless guerilla war continued until the mid 1950s. 

By the time the resistance was broken, even with the trickle of returnees, the Baltic has lost about a third of the population. The Soviet response was to create huge new industrial and military combines and invite the Russian industrial proletariat to settle in the "Baltic Republics"- which even despite the devastation wrecked on them were wealthier than the Russian heartland. Russian became compulsory- the local languages were to be forgotten. Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians were second class citizens in their own countries- forbidden to travel without permits and not permitted to settle in large areas. Even visiting the country districts or the Estonian islands required much paperwork- which could and was denied on any pretext. The Baltic populations settled down to life in prison.

Yet the fact was that the Baltic occupation let a bacterium into the Soviet system. As Anne Applebaum explains in her masterwork, Gulag. After the occupation, it became yet clearer that so-called finest system in the world was a squalid sham- that far from being advanced, the Soviet Union was backward. The growing realization that all of the monstrous bloodshed of Stalinism had been for nothing destroyed the ideological impetus of Communism. Though the system lingered on in bureaucratic inertia, the dream had already died long before.

The Occupation of Latvia had been as brutal as elsewhere, with the added grief that Riga, and its surburb, Jurmala, were particularly attractive places for senior army and party leaders to retire to. Riga became a 60% Russian speaking city. Latvia was also more penetrated by Communist fellow travelers, since a cadre of Latvians had chosen to leave Latvia after independence in 1918 and become loyal servants of the Bolsheviks- sufficient numbers of them survived the Great Terror to return and act as a fifth column for the occupation.

Nevertheless, Latvia, as the other two Baltic countries, followed a path to freedom and independence from the USSR that made an accommodation with the Russian population. The Russian speakers largely supported the restoration of Latvian independence. Although the vexed question of citizenship has left several thousand either stateless or with no claim to Latvian citizenship, the fact is that their condition is not of oppression in the sense the Latvians knew it , but subject to some relatively minor inconveniences.

Yet tensions remain. Latvian nationalists still resent the presence of so many recent immigrants- particularly if they make no attempt to assimilate. Yet the majority have been happy to create a social contract that works for both language groups in the interests of creating a stable and prosperous Latvia. Of course the economic crisis has hurt the country severely: Latvia has, however achieved the kind of fiscal discipline in one year that the government of Greece, for example, is still unlikely to deliver in the next five years. Latvia is a success.

The country has returned to growth, but the political structures remain a work in progress. That attempt by the Latvian nationalists to force Russians to use Latvian backfired badly since they could not get a sufficient number of signatures to force a constitutional referendum on the subject. By contrast the substantially Russian speaking party- Harmony Centre- was able to gain enough signatures to force a referendum on whether Russian should become an official language. It is this referendum that has just taken place.

At present the Russian speaking population is about 30% of the population- which is down from the 45% in the 1980s. That fall reflects the death of the Russian retirees and the relatively higher emigration of Latvian Russians- both to Russia, but also to Western Europe. The referendum result looks like being 75% against making Russian the official language- which suggests that even a substantial proportion of Russian speakers have opposed the change too. Although the referendum has been divisive, it underlines that- despite pressure from Vladimir Putin- the local Russian population has accepted the reality of the Latvian state- they have after all voted in the referendum, even though it was clear that the status quo would remain, rather than boycotting the process. The Russian speakers, on a high turn out, have got used to exercising their democratic rights.

The impact of the vote will be to reawaken the Latvian national debate- to refine the definition of Latvia as a political construct. It will remind both Latvian and Russian speaking populations that the process of politics is a dialogue not a monologue. Government service in Russian will continue to be offered in Russian- there can be no crack down against the Russian language. Perhaps however, the dialogue will be made in a more positive way- and especially important will be the growing understanding of the benefits of greater bilingualism- among the Latvian as well as the Russian speaking populations.

The unspeakable horrors of the twentieth century are gradually receding. Perhaps the best memorial would be a stable, prosperous and democratic Latvia- for all the citizens of that country.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Putin... *shakes head in disbelief*

After the huge demonstrations in Moscow over the weekend against the rule of Vladimir Putin, it is clear that the regime is plotting a come back. Although the bused-in supporters of the regime were heavily outnumbered by the spontaneous opposition, it is clear that the supporters of the regime are trying to respond to the growing contempt for the current government with manufactured anger against "outsiders"- chiefly Americans- who they profess to believe are seeking to undermine the return of Vladimir Putin.

Given the assistance that Moscow is offering to the brutal and discredited regime in Damascus, one could hardly blame the Americans if they did not feel well disposed towards the nihilist regime in the Kremlin, however, if anything the US appears to be desperately downplaying the challenge to the Putinista regime. Despite the veto that Russia placed on action by the United Nations, the Americans have expressed little stronger than disappointment.

Yet increasingly the government in Moscow seems to live in a twisted world of its own devising. The explosion of anger at the blatant ballot rigging in the Russian Parliamentary elections is still dismissed as the minority actions of those misguided by foreign propaganda. Putin continues to offer minimal concessions- the possibility of the return of elected governors for example- while failing to understand that the demand for greater political freedom in Russia is not simply a function of the political calculations of his -growing list- of enemies. In a series of columns in Kommersant, the Russian Prime Minister puts forward the view that Russia needs greater democracy, but that "true democracy" is essentially whatever he and his henchmen in United Russia say it is. His newly minted concern for democracy is rather undermined by his actions in undermining Russian freedom by almost every measure ever since he came to power over a decade ago.

Meanwhile the regime has opened a new front with the bizarre persecution of the dead, by reopening charges against Sergei Magnitsky - the lawyer who died in government custody. This Kafkaesque spectacle is yet another sign that the government is in complete denial about its own criminal failings.

The folly of the regime in their complete misjudgement of the national mood is ever more apparent. Although the Kremlin is set to prevent any serious rival to Putin appearing on the ballot paper next month, there is little doubt that this regime is now well past its best days. All the oil-fired prosperity is not pacifying the Russian people, indeed if anything the emergence of a new middle class is seeing yet greater demands for an end to the restrictions on political and economic freedom that have been the hallmark of the Siloviki regime. 

Vladimir Putin remains too much a child of the KGB to understand- still less respond to- the growing sense of anger directed at his regime's pitiful attempts to present lies as truth. Although there is every chance that he will be returned as President, the rhetoric from the Kremlin suggests that he simply lacks the vision to be able to pilot his government through the rocky years ahead. His return to the Presidency is likely to be the beginning of even greater instability in Russia. 

Monday, February 06, 2012

A Salmond Summer of Sport

Alex Salmond is not a man to stand on dignity. Despite rumours that he would restore the title of "High Excellency" to the sovereign's first minister in Scotland, it would be unfair to accuse our corpulent chief of taking himself too seriously.

So surely there must be more to the story that he accused a BBC producer of being a "gauleiter" when he refused to allow our dear leader to participate in a debate between Rugby pundits.

Personally I wasn't aware that the first minister had so much interest in the game that he could comment on the technical bravura of the Scottish loose forwards or the (alas too strong) skills of the English back line. However since we all know that Mr. Salmond has a great enthusiasm for the turf, perhaps his skill in picking horseflesh could be extended to the flowing game of Rugby (though, alas, last Saturday's game did not provide a good example).

Well, just shows how wrong can you be. I mean who knew that a First minister tipping the scales at 150 KG was actually so committed to non-equine sport? It would not have looked in any way absurd to have our Burly Brutus sitting next to the comparatively sylph-like Jeremy Guscott or Andy Nicol. Quite obviously the BBC producer must have been some kind of Nazi not to recognize that a jowly politician must be equal in rugby standing to those many capped internationalists who usually bore us with their ignorance.

So more please Alex! We are looking forward to your discussions on the off-side rule over the Euro 2012 football tournament, in which, alas Scotland will not be playing; or some exposition of javelin throwing at the Olympics. I am also quite sure that we will see you with Sue Barker discussing the niceties of Andy Murray's passing shots come Wimbledon.

An exciting summer of sport awaits with our -oh so sporty- First Minister.

On the other hand he might just be an arrogant jerk with an ego complex the size of Texas, who accused the BBC of Nazi tactics because he had lost the argument and was making a fool of himself.

Tricky one that.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Wislawa Szymborska 1923-2012 RIP

On Death, Without Exaggeration

It can't take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge.
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.
In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.
It can't even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.
Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
As though each of us were its first kill.
Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
missed blows,
and repeat attempts!
Sometimes it isn't strong enough
to swat a fly from the air.
Many are the caterpillars
that have outcrawled it.
All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, tracheae,
nuptial plumage, and winter fur
show that it has fallen behind
with its halfhearted work.
Ill will won't help
and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d'etat
is so far not enough.
Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies' skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees fall away.
Whoever claims that it's omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it's not.
There's no life
that couldn't be immortal
if only for a moment.
always arrives by that very moment too late.
In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you've come
can't be undone