Friday, January 31, 2014

Sense of Humour failure in Scotland

The debate on Scottish independence grinds inexorably on. 

It is growing ever more poisonous and unpleasant- an army of cybernat trolls will jump upon anyone who dares to criticize the Yes campaign to even the slightest degree. It is obnoxious and nasty- and stupid.

The fact is that Salmond, our prospective "father of the nation" still has a lot of work to do before he can put forward a credible plan for separation. Although at times he strives to suggest that independence is not that big a step, it is damn difficult to judge when he can not answer some critical questions. He has tried to avoid giving details about specifics, and yet the very nub of the question lies in the details that he refuses to give. Having once said that Scotland would adopt the Euro-  a difficult enough prospect for an economy which would be majority state controlled- he now says that Scotland could keep the Pound. Yet in order to do so, Scotland must sacrifice sovereignty to the very government that it is seeking to reject: Westminster. There are vast questions and major uncertainties in this policy, but the reaction of the SNP is simply to ignore them. 

Then there is Europe. Salmond flat-out lied to the Scottish people when he said that his legal advice was that Scotland would automatically be in the EU from day one. He never took such advice and if he had, it would have told him that Scotland would be in limbo until a myriad of transitional arrangements were complete. That's Alex Salmond- never let the facts get in the way of a good story. There are many other questions from pensions to sea borders where the answers are by no means straight forward and every time we are simply told by the Yes campaigners that a solution would be found in due course. I have no doubt that a solution might be found, but when the Scottish government threatens as its first act to default on its share of the common UK debt, but that this will have no impact on the credit rating and interest rates of an independent Scotland, then please forgive my scepticism. The fact is that the case that the SNP is putting forward is fundamentally dishonest.

I was recently interviewed by an Estonian journalist about the national debate and was told that Kenny MacAskill- Scotland's Justice Minister, who has had a flat in Tallinn and knows Estonia reasonably well- had said words to the effect that Scotland and Estonia shared a common history of oppression. I literally could not believe that he could say anything so crass. Within living memory one third of the Estonian population was murdered, sent to Siberia or exiled. Scotland lived under democratic rule- however imperfect- Estonia lived under Soviet tyranny. The idea that Scotland has endured such oppression is an insult to Estonia's dead and Scotland's living. If Kenny MacAskill cannot spot the difference between freedom and oppression, then I wonder if he is best qualified to supervise Scotland's law. 

Yet in a sense all the SNP have the same sense of false grievance as Kenny MacAskill. For them Scotland is a dark and fearful place which can only be lit by the flame of independence. The idea that there might be pluses and minuses on both sides is anathema- so they will not talk about the national debate in any rational way. Their vision is relentless and fanatical. Any lie is worth telling if it brings independence. Anyone who supports independence is friend of Scotland- no matter what their actual agenda for doing so. Whereas anyone who questions the centralizing leadership style of the SNP  or who dares- God forbid- to say that independence carries high costs that might simply not be worth paying, is an Enemy of Scotland.

We could have had a genuine and worthwhile debate about the place of Scotland in Europe and the World. We could have talked about the urgent need to transform the Scottish economy away from its state dependency. Yet none of that has yet been raised- because the implication of at least a decade of pain after independence does not fit the false hopes that the SNP is deluding itself -and us- with. If Kenny MacAskill wants to talk about Estonia as a model, he should also focus on the fact that a whole generation lost their jobs and struggled to catch up. He should focus on the wholesale closure of state businesses that was necessary for Estonia to survive. The brutal truth is that independence carries huge costs, some of which we can not even forecast.

The common state has costs too, of course, but the difference is that the Better Together campaigners do not pretend otherwise. A new reformed UK is what the majority of the No campaign supports- and that is also what the polls say that the majority of Scots (and the majority of the rest of the UK) say they support. Salmond can pretend to some pseudo-Britishness all he likes, but voting Yes takes Britishness off the table forever.

So, after receiving reasonable abuse from the Yes campaigners, let me respond in kind. Yes is a vote for a poorer, narrower, more bigoted and more backward Scotland, dominated by the humourless, fanatical trolls whose abusive dominance of the cyberwaves is making me ever more certain that they must not merely be beaten in September, but turned out of office at the next available opportunity. The dishonest, thuggish, abusive and nasty tone of their comments is a disgrace. Their ignorance of their own proud history- before and after 1707- has made them small minded and mean. Their failure of confidence is the root of their sense of inferiority- and they are trying to drag the rest of us into an angry sense of false grievance. 

They call the No campaigners "fearty"- but the fear is on their side, not on the side of those who work in a spirit of goodwill and internationalism. I have reached out and engaged with Yes supporters, but I think that the level of humourless fanaticism that animates the Yes campaign will strain more friendships than mine before this debate is over. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A new way for Estonia

An article I have written for Estonia's largest national daily:

Estonia is gaining a name for being an open and innovative country.

In the 1920s, the country adopted an open ultra-democratic Parliamentary constitution, and in the 1990’s it followed an open ultra-free market economic policy.  Perhaps these maximalist positions reflect the individualist character of Estonians. Yet since independence was restored, the economic policies of the 1990s have proven far more enduring than the political policies of the 1920s. The rapid reforms initiated in the early 1990s have helped to create an era of growth and general prosperity. The country measured itself against external yardsticks: joining NATO and the European Union, joining the Euro, joining the OECD.  Renewed Estonia has achieved membership of every club that it very well can join- it has become top of the class, lauded for economic freedom and technological innovation.
Yet even as Estonia has grown up into a generally prosperous and successful economy, there is a growing sense that the country is stagnating. Repeated political funding scandals have left the impression that the new multi-party political class, like the single party class before, is focussed on a self-serving agenda; one that only incidentally serves the mass of the population. The dramatic intervention of the NO99 Theatre Company’s “Conference of United Estonia” just before the last general election highlighted serious concerns about the moral foundations of Estonia’s democracy. No party was immune from criticism and the entire political class breathed a sigh of relief when those behind this extraordinary theatrical happening did not follow through with their threats to participate in the elections, after all. Now several figures are competing to create new political parties to “challenge the status quo”, yet to my mind, this tide seems to be born more out of ego than of principle, and perhaps the fact that No99 did not act to enter Parliament is an even more telling criticism than this flurry of party forming.

Yet if there are criticisms to be made of the politicians in this “era of stagnation”, then other questions also need to be asked. The accession to the European Union has taken hundreds, even thousands, of the best educated and most international minds of the country away from Estonia. These are not just the political figures we chose to send to Brussels, but a whole range of others, from translators to lawyers, from civil policy makers to technical specialists. Once in Brussels, many quickly become accustomed to the wider culture and often easier life in the European Capital rather than more Spartan conditions they get in the Estonian capital. It is a brain drain that Estonia can ill afford. Closer to hand EU accession has meant that medical doctors, for example, find far more lucrative opportunities in Finland than in their homeland and it is the Finnish health care system that benefits from their skills, not the less well funded Estonian hospitals. Meanwhile the pressure on the small Estonian labour market- buffeted by recession and emigration- makes it harder for Estonian companies to pay affordable salaries for good quality talent. In fact the pool of talent has dwindled even as salaries are squeezed upwards. Estonia’s dream of Nordic prosperity is being lost- and the overly restrictive immigration policy means that those who leave are not easily replaced. While many Estonians have voted to leave their homeland, few are replacing them, and even those who might choose are often prevented from coming. The fear that a new wave of immigration would swamp Estonian culture, as it threatened to do in Soviet times, remains very strong.

Immigration strikes at the very root of the identity of the Estonian state. Estonia was founded in 1918 as the nation-state of Estonians. With nearly 90% of the population in the 1920s being Estonian speaking, the infant republic could afford to be generous with the German, Swedish, Yiddish (Jewish) and Russian speaking minorities. Cultural autonomy was a proud chapter in the history of Estonia- and a marked contrast with its neighbours, even Latvia. After 1991, state support for cultural autonomy was continued- as the remarkable activity of the Vene Theatre and the Vene Kultuurikeskus, among many others, testifies. Yet, actually, although Estonia has recognised and indeed supported the Russian minority, it remains a point of pain- and a potential threat to the social and political cohesion of the Estonian Republic. Of course those Russians who still reject the idea of the Estonian state, and who still refuse to learn, still less to use, the Estonian language must take their full share of the blame. Yet Estonians too-sometimes for cynical political reasons- have been content to watch Russians leave- albeit mostly for the West, rather than for Russia; or to develop parallel political and social structures that minimise Russian speaking engagement with the Estonian speaking majority. After 22 years, the fact is that too many of those who still live here have not found a satisfied place in society.  Estonians are fearful that such accommodation would expose their beloved homeland to greater influence from the corrupt, undemocratic and hostile regime currently in charge of the Kremlin. Neither are those fears unfounded- so no major attempt by the Estonian state to reconcile the Russian speaking minority to the democratic Estonian state has truly been made. As a result, there is still the possibility that the Kremlin could find fifth columnists to subvert Estonia to their will. In part the sense of stagnation might be that despite all the integration into Western security and economic structures, there is a sense that even membership of NATO might not be enough to ward off the Russian threat. Estonian vulnerability is still keenly felt, despite the nominal security that NATO and EU membership has bestowed.

Yet to my mind, the way that Estonia has chosen to pool her freedom in the European Union has also carried a different cost- the price of mediocrity. In the first 15 years of restored Estonian independence, Estonia strove to adopt best practice: the flat tax revolution and the world’s leading E-government platform were the results. Yet as part of the EU, Estonia is being forced to make uncomfortable compromises: in February the new money transmission regulations for the Eurozone will reduce the speed of payments from ten a day to five a day. Meanwhile much is being made of the multi-billion euro Rail Baltica project. Such multi-country infrastructure projects involve huge financial and political commitments. Yet few are asking the real question: why is Estonia sponsoring 19th century technology, when the proposed “high speed line” will barely be faster than a road. Meanwhile, we can all see that driverless car and truck technology is almost upon us. The Estonia of 15 years ago would be building highways in readiness for the technological leap to driverless vehicles, not investing billions in a clearly inferior technology. Estonia is losing her vision of future excellence, and many of those that might have helped to shape that uniquely Estonian vision are busy learning the grubby system of EU compromises in Brussels.

Yet that is not to say that Estonia should -or even can- turn her back on the European Union. The question is how to combine Estonian culture and - largely English speaking- European culture in a harmonious way that protects both Estonian identity and Estonian prosperity and democracy.  As the bright vision of a European Estonia fades a little in the dawn of the new reality, the question of this new vision for the country grows more urgent.

President Ilves has engaged with a new debate: constitutional changes, social reform and so on. He has also shown a commendable capacity to listen to different points of view. Other politicians have been less willing. I think that President Ilves grasps that the vision for Estonia must be- as it was for figures such as Jaan T├Ánisson- a moral as well as a political, economic and social vision. Yet, the political class as a whole does not recognise the burning sense that the cheap and petty compromises involved in the party funding scandals have let Estonia down badly. The national project that inspired Estonians in the 1990s has faded in the bleak light of local reality as much as European reality.

Of course, power does not rest solely with politicians or even political parties: it also rests on other social interactions and –especially- money. The political discourse in many countries, notably Russia, is almost entirely driven by the corrupt allocation of money to power and vice-versa. So, one might say that some disillusionment was inevitable. Yet, as we await the transition to a new political generation across the political spectrum, there is a fear that this new political generation, who have known nothing except professional politics, are particularly compromised by the system- in short that they may be worse than their predecessors.

When Noor Eesti, a century or so ago, spoke of “more European culture” for Estonia they were not, as today they might, thinking of the functionalist agenda of a European Union, but of European values that stood in opposition to the backward obscurantism of Tsarist Russia.  In a sense Tuglas or Suits were campaigners for universal values, and that is still true of the best of Estonian society today. The international respect for Estonia’s e-government system is rooted in the understanding that it has truly revolutionary potential for changing the way in which the citizen and the state interact. The success of Skype reflects the fact that Estonian skills are competitive, indeed pioneering, within a global market. In the 1920s Estonia wanted to be the best democracy in the world, in the 1990s: the best economy in the world, in the 21st century: to have the best technology in the world. The need for Estonians to be global leaders is perhaps over-compensation for small size, but it is deep rooted, and it is certainly a significant part of national identity and national pride.

However, in my view, in order for Estonia to become the world’s first e-state, there is a need to revisit both the current democratic structures and the current economic policies. In short, Estonian society will need to end the “era of stagnation” by making some new national choices. To a degree Estonians have already made some pragmatic decisions: notably citizens who are resident overseas can still participate in e-elections. This policy- also adopted in Latvia- has ensured that even those who have moved away from the homeland are still part of virtual Estonia. In Lithuania, which has a much larger diaspora, the failure to offer e-voting has meant that overseas participation in domestic politics is a small fraction of Latvian or Estonian participation, which may be a reason why Lithuanian politics looks so much more old-fashioned. More seriously, Lithuanians are losing touch more quickly and more permanently with their homeland. More than 100,000 Lithuanians live in the UK, and many are choosing to become British citizens. Incidentally, the UK’s attitude to citizenship is the opposite to that of Estonia: they actively welcome dual nationality, believing that all residents with even a partial affiliation to Britain should have the opportunity for full civic participation.  Estonian citizens who choose to take British citizenship do not lose their Estonian citizenship, whereas British citizens who might want to become full civic members of Estonian society must give up their British passports.

The fact is that in the globalised e-society, the narrow, nineteenth century, definitions of national identity are beginning to blur. Those who try to hide from this process are unlikely to survive, but cultures, societies and states that develop flexibility may yet thrive- and Estonia has an opportunity to be among the success stories. The rapid growth of e-government services and especially e-voting offers Estonia the possibility of far greater democratic participation and therefore greater supervision of the political class. Tomas Hendrik Ilves has sometimes mused that Estonia might become like classical Greece- the Athenian forerunner to global e-democracy, and it is an inspiring vision. It is, however, not exactly popular with the political class which fears a huge loss of power, and quite possibly a threat to their entire existence. However, the small size of Estonia in this case becomes a source of strength, since neither politicians nor civil servants can act anonymously. Yet if the traditional definitions of citizenship- such as where you live- are beginning to blur, then it must hold that the loyalty of citizens will need to become more values based.

Estonian innovation is surely built around the sense that the future must be better than the past: and thus Estonia in the restored republic has pragmatically selected from the past, without making too much of a fetish of how things were done in the first independence. Given the mistakes of the 1930s era of silence, that is clearly no bad thing. Estonia, despite the national tragedy of occupation, has not- as many other states have- become a prisoner of the past. Neither, in my view, should it become a prisoner of the present. The current “era of stagnation” is an opportunity for the country to debate a new future and to set new national priorities that can be flexible enough to build greater prosperity and yet retain and even build new fundamental values and principles.

The growth of citizens movements and civic initiatives outside the state reflects the growing maturity of Estonian society, and yet, for the time being, these remain outside the narrowly party political Estonian Parliament. We focus much on political personalities, little on political principles. The gossip of politics- who is up, who down- has drowned out a far bigger debate: what is this Estonia that we have created actually for?

As a long-time friend and now resident of Estonia I hesitate to provide an answer, but I do think that the question must be at the root of the national debate that the nation and the state are now undertaking. I believe that e-Democracy can help to enable Estonian democracy and society, but whether or not Estonia chooses the road to a virtual state, it will still need to restate the values and principles that the very name of the Estonian Republic should embody.

In the first independence economic weakness undermined the democratic political experiment. Perhaps in the second independence economic strength might help create the democracy that T├Ánisson and others so profoundly hoped for- but with the addition of technology and enterprise that he could not even guess at. That sounds like a project worthy of the centenary of the Estonian Republic that is now in sight.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Two dead in K'yev... when will sanctions be imposed?

Reports from K'yev overnight suggest that at least one, and probably two people were killed when the police moved in against the protesters.

As I feared, the criminal regime of Yanukovych will stop at nothing to maintain its grip on power, and the strangulation of Ukrainian democracy is now inevitable.

Carl Bildt has suggested that sanctions be imposed against the criminals responsible. It seems like the minimum that we should do. Ukraine should not be left at the mercy of Putinist murderers. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ukraine still matters and is getting very serious

Although the world seems to have accepted the subordination of Ukraine to Putinist Russia, the Ukrainians themselves clearly have not. Protest continues against the illegitimate regime of the utterly discredited "President" Yanukovych.

Although the government has lost all legitimacy, it continues to press ahead with a deliberate subversion of the right to assembly and democratic free speech. If ever there was any doubt as to Yanukovych's credentials, there is none now: his hostile intentions are clear.

The fact that Russia continues to steer and intervene while condemning any other outside involvement suggests that they believe that the situation remains volatile. It is volatile, and there are increasing fears of a massacre.

The violence initiated by the security forces has accelerated and there is the very real fear of the end of any democratic future for this strategically critical country. A real disaster could be in the making, and the West needs to explicitly condemn in the strongest terms the disastrous trajectory that Yanukovych seems to be have adopted.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Power, Principles and Execution

Sometimes we hear the facile argument that principles are nothing without power. It is the justification for most political expediency and it leads directly to political transvestism and the hollow morality of Tony Blair. Yet there is another aspect of politics which is less obvious- that is less obvious to politicians. There is the question of- once having achieved power- how principles might be put into action. Famously, Blair himself suggested that he was just about competent at the political process by the time that he was leaving office. There are just so many obstacles, not least the obstruction of civil servants and other entrenched interests. The execution of government policy is the yardstick of success, yet few politicians at the outset of their time in office are prepared to handle the problems that come with power. 

The fact is that the current generation of political leaders are even less prepared than their predecessors. The likes of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband, with essentially no career outside politics, also have no management experience outside politics, which means no management experience. This is not a small problem, because without genuine executive experience they- like Blair- have to learn on the job, and the result is often a total balls-up. It is an interesting contrast to see Ministers who do have managerial experience, like Ed Davey, or Vince Cable, and those who do not. The fact is that- in the face of entrenched Tory opposition- Ed Davey as Energy and Climate Change Secretary and Vince Cable as Business Secretary have enacted large parts of the Lib Dem agenda, and they can do this because they understand the issues and complexities that are involved in execution. By contrast, the Lord President of the Council has absolutely failed to enact any of the Lib Dem agenda of radical political reform- and although the idea of radically changing British politics is rightly popular in the country few even know that this is such a central part of our agenda. Our leader has principles- often well expressed- he has nominal power, but he has not been able to execute.

Some would say that he faced more difficulties and more hostility than Ed Davey or Vince Cable, and perhaps that is true. However, the Rennard fiasco simply reminds me once more of the lack of managerial experience. Sexual harassment is, alas, still an issue in the workplace and the question of what is and is not appropriate can often be a fine line. Nevertheless there are long established principles which must be followed when complaints are made- as we now know, the party had not kept up with best practice and allowed an unfortunate situation to grow ever more bitter. That is a major failure of leadership in itself. 

Alex Carlile and Chris Davies have behaved in a frankly "extremely unhelpful" way because they do not accept fact that the Webster report, far from vindicating Chris, as they seem to believe, suggests that even if inadvertently, Chris Rennard had a pattern of behaviour that made some women uncomfortable. An apology and an agreement to put the affair behind all concerned is all it takes. The fact that Davies and Carlile maintain a legalistic and truculent support for an unreasonable position is not acceptable.  As leader, Nick Clegg must ensure that on the one hand the Webster Report is fully complied with and on the other that this is the end of the whole unfortunate affair. 

It is infuriating that basic measures to cope with a very common workplace problem have not been  put into place. It is even more infuriating that the leadership, having had months of notice has made such a balls up of this. It is not far short of disgraceful that Davies and Carlile can apply legalese petrol onto the flames. Most of all though it reflects very badly indeed on Nick that things should have got to his stage. Susan Gaszczak told Nick to "man up". I can only echo this- the party is still very frail after the shocks of the past few years, and unless we can get a grip, we will lose our way completely. 

Principles must not be compromised- and that includes respect for women. 

Power can not be retained unless we reiterate what we stand for and to speak up for the real reform our country needs- "stability" is not what we need at all- we need radical change which must be explained and sold to the British people.

In the end, however, power means nothing unless we can deliver- and that is the essence of leadership.

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Empire strikes back

Vladimir Putin is a product of the most ruthless elements of the Soviet era. The KGB and its predecessors took human torment to new levels of barbarity in the name of the relentless will of Marxism. Now VVP- as he is known in most of Russia- chooses to operate these same ruthless dictates in the name of a Conservative, Orthodox world view. Yet, in reality both Marxism and Conservative Orthodoxy are both ideas that do not accept challenge, let alone compromise. In the Russian world view, the Slavophile tradition that has always rejected the freedoms of Western Liberalism and which has been reborn under Putin, has much in common with the anti-Western agenda of Communism. We should not be surprised.

As a student of Marxism-Leninism and as a loyal officer of the KGB, Putin has been well schooled in two other traditions: conspiracy and deception. From the earliest days of his rise to power, one can detect elements of both. There are many unexplained episodes and considerable evidence that the Russian secret police- now no longer called the KGB- has used criminal ends to blacken the name of its enemies. The bombings that took place in 1999, and which cemented the coming to power of Putin, for example, have been convincingly linked to KGB operatives, rather than the putative Dagestan Liberation Army which had never been identified before- or since. Ruthless in nature and determined to achieve his strategic goals, Putin is a formidable foe.

As far as the UK is concerned, there is no doubt that Putin is an implacable enemy. He regards Britain as an historic competitor with Russia for influence and control in Europe. As a nationalist and conservative figure, he regards British traditions of tolerance and openness with something close to contempt: "a small island no one listens to" as one senior Putinist official said last year. David Cameron is known to personally detest Putin, and the feeling is clearly mutual. 

This is why the story that appeared in Scottish newspapers over the weekend, suggesting that David Cameron had asked Putin for help in averting Scottish independence, is both much less and possibly much more than it appears. The source for the story is ITAR-Tass, the Russian state news agency, which, after the closure of RIA Novosti, is little more than a propaganda organ for the Putinist state. This story is then a direct intervention by Russia in the debate over Scottish independence and far from Russia being approached to save the UK, it is an attempt by Putin to discredit the UK Prime Minister. Number 10 have laughed the ITAR-Tass story out of court, and for once their denials have the ring of truth.

The break up of the UK would be a massive strategic victory for Putin- and would be way beyond anything the most Slavophile nineteenth century Russian nationalist could have hoped for. As a good conspirator, Putin knows perfectly well that he is unpopular in much of Western Europe and that an association of David Cameron with Putin would be very damaging to the British Prime Minister- which is of course precisely why ITAR Tass has run the story.

Neither is this the only intervention that Russians have made in Scotland in recent years- the mysterious figure of the supposedly Lithuanian, but actually Russian, banker Vladimir Romanov is alleged to have been a Russian agent of influence. Romanov's 2005 purchase of Hearts, the Edinburgh football club with many well known supporters, including Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond is said to have brought significant connections between Russian interests and senior figures in the SNP. The role of Romanov's bank, Ukio bankas, which had one branch in Edinburgh, is also highly questionable. Clearly after the SNP former publicity vice convener, Colin Weir, won £161 million on the Euro lottery in November 2011, there was certainly no need for covert funding. Ukio bankas in any event went in administration in February 2013.

So, as we digest the news stories of this last weekend, it is as well to think with the eye of a KGB agent and perhaps to think wryly, that "just because I'm paranoid, does not mean they are not out to get me". One thing is sure, it does not pay to underestimate the ruthlessness or the malevolence of VVP. The Russians have a word Disinformattsiya which is rather more than disinformation, it implies aggressively and actively misleading ones protagonist with information which is directly opposite from the truth. In the hands of Tass, the primary source of Russian state propaganda it is hard not to believe that journalists in Scotland have been rather naive. They have not asked the first question of any detective story: "Who benefits?". David Cameron certainly does not. What about Vladimir Putin? He is a student both of conspiracy and disinformattsiya and who would win a massive strategic victory if the UK broke up. 

He is certainly that ruthless, and perhaps there are those in the Yes Camp who would take help from Russia if it were offered. Of course that the story is raised now means that were any stories to come which linked the SNP to Russia would just look like tit-for-tat. Yet the question of who benefits is so much more credible when you look at the story from the other way round. Precisely, in fact, the way a KGB colonel would look at the situation.