Showing posts with label Historical Commentary. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Historical Commentary. Show all posts

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Thatcher's Children

Margaret Thatcher had stopped being "Margaret Thatcher" a long time ago. Most of her confidantes suggest that the death of her husband Denis was a blow that left her shattered and from which she never recovered. In a way, of course such loyalty and love was only to be expected in a woman who embodied so many of the virtues and the vices of a suburban house wife. 

She had suffered increasingly from poor health after a series of strokes and it was a more or less open secret that "her mental powers were not what they were": she had dementia. Her friend and close political ally, Norman Tebbit, described her death as "a release", and perhaps it was. Yet the passions that her passing have unleashed are so extreme- both of condemnation and adulation- that it seems that Britain has still not yet come to terms with the tumultuous decade when "The Leaderene", "Attila the Hen" or "The Great She-Elephant", all terms bestowed by her own side, with greater or lesser affection, was the pre-eminent political leader in the UK and possibly the world.

It is easy to forget the context of her rise to power- the breakdown of the British economy and the emasculation of the political class in the face of Trade Union arrogance that took place in the late 1960s and 1970s. The militancy, which we now know was funded, at least in part, by the Soviet Union had destroyed the governments of Ted Heath in 1973-4 and Jim Callaghan in 1978-9. In the face of the breakdown of the "winter of discontent", the electorate gave the untested and even mildly derided Margaret Thatcher the biggest Parliamentary majority in over a decade. Though a government majority of 43 was not as large as the 96 enjoyed by Harold Wilson in 1966, is was comfortable enough after the long agony of the small majorities endured over much of the 1970s.

Although now remembered as a ideologue, for much of her first government, 1979-83, she pursued policies that would now today be seen as moderately Statist. In this she reflected a political pragmatism that mistrusted practical radicalism, even while she enthusiastically promoted the seemingly coherent thread of radical economic Monetarism as mediated by Sir Keith Joseph. Yet during her early years in office, she was always a more cautious policymaker than her abrasive manner and grating voice might have suggested. She was not- could not- be as certain as her friends believed and her enemies feared. The result is that her legacy is far more of a patchwork of economic radicalism and social conservatism than her boosters have made out. Though she made much of challenging vested interests, there were as many battles that she did not fight- in law, in politics- as those she did- in finance, Privatisation and of course in the weakening of the control of the trade unions.

The apotheosis of Margaret Thatcher was the extraordinary blunder of the Falklands War. The diplomatic and intelligence debacle of the Argentinian invasion left her government in tatters- with the resignation of her foreign minister, Lord Carrington. In hindsight there is a curious inevitability about the dispatch of the Task Force and the retaking of South Georgia, and eventually the Argentinian surrender. In fact the whole enterprise was a massive gamble that at various points: the loss of HMS Sheffield, the landings at San Carlos and the Battle of Goose Green could have become a humiliating catastrophe. Yet, from the ashes of disastrous incompetence the spectacular recovery allowed the Conservatives to romp to a triumphant electoral victory in 1983, with a majority of 144.

In part, of course, the scale of her success can be put down to the luck of her choice of enemies. In Leopoldo Galtieri, the Argentinian dictator, she found a pantomime villain who could not even get his South American neighbours to back him, and whose reckless all-or-nothing policy allowed her to pull off a rare thing in diplomacy or in war: a complete victory. In 1983 she faced a virulently left wing Labour party that had driven out many of its core voters- including many members who created the new SDP in 1981- with a commitment to neo-Communism that seemed to serve the Kremlin more than Britain.

The 1983 electoral victory- albeit against divided opposition- unleashed the period of high-Thatcherism. The government returned to Westminster with radical energy and over the next four years wholesale changes were made: the 1986 "big bang" which for better and for worse ended the restrictive practices deemed to be holding back the British financial sector; the sale of state companies: each on larger than the next: Amersham International, British Telecom, British Gas, British Petroleum. Firstly, however, the Tories had some unfinished business with the trade unions. The 1984 Miners strike took place on ground that had been carefully prepared- and once again the Prime Minister was lucky in her choice of foe. There was almost no mistake that that the unflinching arrogance of NUM leader Arthur Scargill did not make. In the end the spectacle of the large scale violence and the disruption of the flying pickets undermined support for Scargill even among the Miners themselves. The NUM split and the dream of class solidarity with the Miners as the vanguard of the proletariat, which dated back a good hundred years, was gone.

Yet if the strike might have been managed no other way, the aftermath certainly could. The loss of the national asset of coal and the resulting breakdown of the communities that was the direct result of the strike was echoed in the failure of entire regions. The excessive interest rates that were the result of monetarism in the recession of 1981 were so severe that over half of the UK's manufacturing sector was lost and the de-industrialisation of whole areas carried a huge social cost. It is a matter of great bitterness that every one of the otherwise deluded Scargill's most extreme predictions on pit closures has been fulfilled. Though industrial strife was largely eliminated from Britain, the Conservatives had "created a wasteland and called it peace".

Meanwhile the apotheosis of Margaret Thatcher created tensions in her own side. The 1986 Westland affair, where she lost two of her ministers, revealed her weakness in her relations with her ministers, and for the remaining years she had in power, she faced continuing pressure- she insisted that all her victories, in Cabinet as well as outside, should be as complete as that of Port Stanley, and in doing so she began to see her control of the Conservative Party itself unravel. It was an erosion that would lead to her defenestration in 1991.

Yet late Thatcherism saw renewed victories, not least in foreign affairs. After the Falklands the Americans developed a respect for Thatcher as a leader and as an ally, and the ideological closeness between Ronald Reagan and the Prime Minister was mirrored in strategic co-operation that was deeper than ever. The response to Soviet re-armament and the Soviet war in Afghanistan was to renew NATO, and while the nuclear arms race accelerated through the mid 1980s, amid huge protests in the West, the pressure was causing the USSR to buckle. It was Margaret Thatcher who first recognised the new direction that Mikhail Gorbachev intended for the USSR and she who inspired many in the East to aspire for Western freedoms and values, at a time when the Left in Britain remained either blind to the reality of the evils of Communism and or were indeed complicit in those evils- as we now know some were. 

In the end her international stature- not even in the run up to the Gulf War of 1991- could save her from the wrath of her enemies on her own side. Growing misgivings over such policy mistakes as the Poll tax- imposed disastrously in Scotland in 1989 and in England and Wales in 1990- and the intrusive and downright nasty Section 28 which harassed and victimised gay people, led many Tories to fear for the survival of their party. She might have resisted but by that time she was isolated and out of touch and the list of those irritated or outraged was far longer than those inspired or grateful.

On the announcement of her death riots took place once again in Brixton- the seedbed of the riots of 1981. Now Brixton is gentrified and relatively wealthy and it was hard to have sympathy for those who took part. Few, if any, of them had direct experience of the reign of Britain's first female Prime Minister, yet the name of Margaret Thatcher has become a bogeyman. Equally it was hard to sympathise with the flowers and tears in Belgravia. The fact that Margaret Thatcher had drawn her last breath at a suite in the Ritz was a reminder not merely that she had been a rich widow as well as a wealthy wife, but was as almost typically tactless in death as in life. 

The country that she leaves behind is deeply troubled. The social forces that she helped to unleash have increased the wealth of the rich- in recent years to a truly astonishing degree- but have left the bulk of the population behind. Only a privileged few now know real job security, and those, she would caustically note, are mostly in the state sector. Social payments are at record highs, social mobility and social justice are at record lows. The rage that her early imposition of the poll tax created in Scotland has, a political generation later, led to the real prospect of the end of the UK. The triumph of German manufacturing and the growing repatriation of industry back from China to the USA are a bitter reminder of the British capacity that has been lost- and the legacy of the big bang in financial services is tarnished since the crisis of 2008. Britons today are uncertain and fearful- the sense of decline and failure is palpable.

Margaret Thatcher recognised the declinism that had set in in the 1970s and sought to challenge it. Her message was that with energy and leadership, Britain might retain its place as a global leader. Her patriotism was based on doing just that, and if she later turned against the EU, her choice of EU commissioner- Arthur Cockfield- in 1984 proved decisive in showing the value of a single market and freer economics to an organisation that had become increasingly weak. For a brief moment she made the UK the leading power in Europe and almost a co-partner with the USA in NATO. Yet in the end her political career failed because, whatever the power of her strategic vision, she lacked the self knowledge to empathise with her friends as well as her enemies.

As Britain contemplates its further decline, perhaps what we find hard to forgive is that her failures have left our position still in the balance. Some may say she brought hope, but in the end the venom which besmirches British politics is a product of her era.  Although she beat so many of her enemies- Communism in the USSR and in the UK, Galtieri in the Falklands, in the end she could not forge more than a grudging political consensus- it was against the very nature of her personality. Meanwhile the insincerity and charlatanism of Tony Blair's occasional forays into being a Margaret Thatcher tribute act revealed the same weakness in him too. Britain has not arrested its long fall from number one. For all the sturm und drang of the 1980s, her career in retrospect seems a blip and not a turning point.

The 2011 film, "The Iron Lady" may have been a fantasy, yet in the end the brilliant performance of Meryl Streep captured the spirit of a prim suburban housewife who by force of personality put on the armour of ideological certainty and personal will to become the political force of nature that was seen as Margaret Thatcher. In the end the film also showed how the loss of power and, most of all, the loss of her husband, ended the journey of that legendary figure, leaving not an icon, but a frail human being. 

Monday, February 04, 2013

Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain

"Jockey of Norfolk, be not too bold, for Dickon, thy master, is bought and sold". 

When I was a small boy, I went to Arundel castle, the home of the Premier Dukes of England, the Howard Dukes of Norfolk. It left me with a life-long interest in Heraldry and Flags, but as fascinating as the castle is there is one thing- a simple piece of paper- that left a stronger impression upon me. On that paper were the words above, and the letter was delivered into the hands of the then Duke of Norfolk on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field: the 21st August 1485.

The words were ominous, and as it turned out, true. Richard III was betrayed. The defection of the Stanley family, who were lured into backing Henry Tudor by a mixture of bribery and blackmail was the primary cause for the defeat of King Richard III and the accession of Henry VII. Richard was killed in battle and, famously, the crown of England was found on a hawthorn bush, before becoming the property of the second king to claim the throne of England by right of conquest-  the first, of course was the Conqueror in 1066. 

In many ways the changes that followed the fall of the House of Plantagenet and the accession of the House of Tudor were just as radical as the Norman conquest itself. Certainly, for all his bluster of legitimacy, the new Henry VII and his even more blood-thirsty son, Henry VIII, had anyone with the merest hint of Plantagenet blood put to death. Always after then, the constant fear of the House of Tudor was the threat to their dynasty- and sure enough after 118 years it did fail, and all of Henry VIII's dynastic hopes passed away with his daughter. By that time England had undergone a religious as well as a political revolution. In retrospect Henry VII seems to be the first post medieval King.

Yet what of Richard III?

He is -of course- Shakespeare's pantomime villain: "I can smile and murder while I smile".  Yet evidence is growing that many of the crimes laid at Richard's door- including the alleged murder of the infant sons of his brother, Edward IV, the "Princes in the Tower" - may not have been carried out by Richard at all, but by Henry.  Far from being the proto-Fascist of contemporary history, Richard III left a legacy of reform, fair dealing and military bravery that seems at odds with the crimes alleged against him. Indeed the Richard III society, whose patron is a member of the modern Royal family, Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester, suggest that far from being a villain, Richard was the first modern monarch: recognizing rule of law and accepting that Royal power could not be untrammeled- a position that would not be accepted by his successors until the Glorious revolution over 200 years after Bosworth Field.

It is now easier to admire the achievements of a man who ruled for only two years and was still only 32 when he was killed. Even more so, since we now understand his severe physical ailments- scoliosis- as it is revealed that his body has been rediscovered.

Richard III, whether guilty of some or all of the crimes laid against him, did not lose his throne through his own weakness, but because he was utterly betrayed- and the scale of the conspiracy is shown by a simple piece of paper in Arundel castle. 

For many, he was the last King of the true line, and the fact that the Tudors were so determined to wipe out the rest of the Plantagenet family, suggests that the little matter of the Princes in the Tower might more easily put down to Henry VII than Richard III. In which case, although history is written by the victors, it might be time to set the record straight, exonerate Richard Plantagenet and indict Henry Tudor.

Richard of York may have given battle in vain, but his reign is one of the great might-have-beens of history, it deserves more attention, if only so we understand that the so-called glory of the Tudors was built on very shaky foundations.   

Monday, December 19, 2011

Vaclav Havel: Pravda Vitezi

The motto of the Czechs- the truth shall prevail- has been used since the time of Jan Hus


Yet for much of that time, the ancient lands of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia have been subjugated to other Crowns. The Czech sensibility- cynical, non conformist and intellectual- is well captured in the English word "Bohemian" and is shaped by resistance to authority. 


Since the fall of the Winter King after the battle of the White Mountain in 1620, Czech leaders have often combined these rebellious qualities. Hus himself had previously embodied some of them, and so did the nineteenth century Czech nationalist, Frantisek Palacky. The writer, Jaroslav Hasek, completely captures the Czech sensibility in his immortal character, the Good Soldier Svejk


All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that most international mourners of Vaclav Havel have not mentioned just how Czech he was. From his gruff, slightly woodwind voice with its strong Prague accent, to his complete determination to use peaceful means to speak to his enemies, Vaclav Havel was in the rich tradition of his Czech predecessors, and especially Tomas Masaryk, the beloved founder of Czechoslovakia.


As a teenager, at the bitter height of the cold war, I read his essays and letters that were smuggled past the Czechoslovak secret police- the StB- with a growing personal awareness that the Communist system was a totalitarian obscenity, if it denied such humane and wise voices. The Power of the Powerless remains a powerful testament to the moral force of the individual, both in totalitarian and democratic systems. Not for the last time, it pointed out the failings of his fellow citizens, as they mouthed the empty ritual of Communist propaganda. For Havel, feted as he later became, was not a comfortable hero. His vision of "the truth shall prevail" was rooted in an uncompromising political morality. 


As the Czechs and Slovaks bent the knee to the system, in the terrible years of "normalisation", after the crushing of the reformer Alexander Dubcek's attempts to lead the country into a more open direction during the Prague Spring, those who chose to dissent from the totalitarian norms- including Dubcek himself- were severely punished. After 1977, those who signed the Charter 77 dissident manifesto, were subjected to the full panoply of informers, harassment, imprisonment and torture. Havel, for all his international fame, was no exception. Only a few hundred signed the document, and dissidents were small in number and isolated by the full weight of Communist oppression. Havel and his friends got to know the inside of Czech prisons all too well. His letters from prison to his first wife Olga, published as Letters to Olga, are a testament to the strength of an extraordinary man- and an extraordinary woman. During his increasingly long and harsh stays in prison, he was regularly beaten, and developed TB, which was untreated for some time- a source of much of the lung problems that beset his later life, of course not mitigated by his Bohemian smoking habit. Others, with whom he was in contact, such as the journalist Ervin Motl, were treated even more harshly, and their lives were shortened even more by the torture they endured..


Even at the beginning of 1989, Vasek remained in gaol, and Olga was under the close surveillance of the StB. Yet the miracle of 1989 saw the revolution, which although nicknamed "velvet" was no less complete for all that. I had stayed in touch with support groups for Charter 77, and it still seemed, that for all the gathering tumult in Hungary and Poland that Czechoslovakia would still remain firmly under the control of the apparat. The reality, as we now know, was far sweeter.


As the demonstrations in East Germany, moved from wir sind das volk -we are the people- to wir sind EIN volk -we are ONE people- the missteps of the StB began to undermine the hated regime of Gustav Husak. The Charter 77 dissidents transmuted themselves into the Civic Forum- an echo, perhaps, of the East German New Forum- and set themselves up in the Laterna Magika theatre, a stone's throw from Vaclavske namesti- Wenceslas Square. In the course of an astonishing couple weeks, Dubcek and Havel appeared on a balcony in the square, the crowds grew beyond the capacity of the square to hold them, and finally the Communist government collapsed. Through it all came the call "Havel na Hrad"- Havel to the castle- a call for him to assume power in Prague Castle as the free leader of a free people.


It was at this time that many chose to view Havel as a kind of secular saint- an attitude which irritated him. At that time, in the inevitable cloud of tobacco smoke, he still preferred to seek out the company of those he knew he could trust, and that remained a fairly small number of people. I met him at the house of one of the Chartists in 1990, where we celebrated in beer and songs- and the inevitable cigarettes- a party that was truly Bohemian. Marta Kubisova, a singer who had been banned under normalisation, sang the song she was best known for in 1968- the prayer for Marta- with its quote from the Czech philosopher Komensky. Havel's eyes were as bright as mine as the timeless words of Czech national yearning held us spellbound in the small room.


Olga Havlova became an unconventional first lady, her office full of her throaty laughter, and she and Vasek sought to place the rapidly changing politics of Czechoslovakia within a broader moral context- not always successfully. Neither could Havel or Dubcek resist the growing divorce between the political lives of Czechs and Slovaks within the increasingly fractious Czecho-Slovak Federation. The illness and death of Olga isolated him, and though he had never wanted for female company, the Czechs were mildly shocked when he remarried relatively soon after Olga's death- and Dagmar, the actress who become his second wife, was forced to endure considerable misunderstanding and even abuse. Despite the break up of the Federation, Havel was offered and accepted the Presidency of the Czech Republic, yet to many Czechs by then his virtues were more symbolic than practically political. His own health, from this time was never sure- cancer of the lung was diagnosed, and he was forced into unpleasant and radical surgery. 


A connoisseur of "Absurdistan", Havel's humour was part of his qualities of endurance and as a writer he appreciated the absurd situations that his position and sudden fame had catapulted him into. He continued to write, and his memoirs - To the Castle and Back- contain many dryly humourous vignettes. For some years, he traveled between his homes in Bohemia and Portugal, and his large and airy flat in Prague,though this year he was clearly increasingly unwell.


In office he revelled in taking dignitaries to the various Czech pivnice which he liked in Prague- and the sense of puckish rebellion which that implied, was not the least of his Bohemian qualities. He appointed Frank Zappa as a cultural ambassador, and continued to be scornful of those who were conformist and narrow minded. For Vaclav Havel, bourgeois appearance was not necessarily the truth, and he had no need for pretence or pretension.


For, whether punished as a dissident or feted as a President, he remained entirely a writer and thinker committed to living in truth- for him, as the quintessential Czech, that ultimately the truth would indeed prevail was not a matter for debate: it was simply a question of what kind of truth it would be.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Mistakes of Margaret Thatcher

As Lady Thatcher emerges from hospital, she must have been somewhat buoyed by a poll that suggests that she remains the most influential woman in the World. However her influence rests with a period of office that came to an end nearly twenty years ago.

With the benefit of the hindsight given by those twenty years I think its is possible to begin to make a judgement on the eleven years that she served as Prime Minister. Certainly for all the adulation that the Conservatives offer her now, she was not generally popular either in the country at large or in her own party for large periods of her time in office. The confrontational way she addressed the challenges that the post war decline of the UK created for the country was never going to make her a healing figure- despite her quotation of St. Francis when she entered office.

There are two, sharply polarised, positions of conventional wisdom concerning the Thatcher government. The first is the adulation of the Conservatives- and not just in the UK- Margaret Thatcher defeated the Communist funded Unions at home and the Communist governments of the Warsaw Pact and ushered in a new more energetic spirit of entrepreneurship into a UK that had grown tired of the tepid failure of post war "Butskillism". The second is the view of the Left, which has been forcefully -and offensively- expressed in the past couple of weeks: that Thatcher was evil, that she knowingly destroyed entire communities and inflicted unnecessary damage on the productive capacity of the UK.

I have met Lady Thatcher in recent years, and if her health is now very poor, it is still possible to get a spark of the combative personality that she once was. However when she asked "is he one of us?", she was, remember asking it of members of her own party. The habits of compromise were deeply ingrained into the Conservative Party and partly as a result, the Thatcherite revolution remained incomplete at the time of her defenestration in 1991. I think Margaret Thatcher did not understand that, against all her most conservative instincts, the only way to secure her move to free markets in the economy was to open up the political system too. It was her failure to understand the need for a free market in politics that condemned Britain to the bathos of the Major years and the dead end of Blair. It was a failure that destroyed the Conservative Party in Scotland- once one of the strongest Tory heartlands- and created a constitutional crisis that remains unresolved to this day.

As for the critique of the left- that her policies inflicted unnecessary damage on the British industrial base- I think that there is indeed much evidence that this is the case. Despite the global migration of industry to China, Germany has not seen the kinds of declines that the UK has, and is a far stronger economy as a result. While the 1986 "Big Bang" unleashed a tide of creative destruction in finance, the long term consequences remain unproven, but the destruction of manufacturing has permanently impoverished large areas of the Kingdom. Defenders of the Thatcher legacy argue that she had little choice given the dependency of much of this industry on the state and the Communist penetration of the Unions in enterprises such as British Shipbuilding, British Leyland and of course British Coal. Certainly, now we have been able to read the KGB archive, there is little doubt that many Union leaders, directly or indirectly, were dancing to Moscow's tune.

If the economic legacy of Thatcherism is highly controversial, her foreign policy is far less so. Her determination to forge a stronger resistance to the USSR in the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan and the crushing of the Polish Solidarity movement, at times made her seem at least the equal partner of her political soul mate, Ronald Reagan, who was elected eighteen months after she had come to power. The deployment of short range nuclear missiles to match the Soviet deployment of the SS-20 in the early 1980s was hugely controversial at the time, but in retrospect it was the only way to reinforce NATO in the face of a concerted attempt to subvert it by the Soviet leadership. Yet, as soon as Mikhail Gorbachev emerged from the senile pack of the CPSU leadership, she recognised his value. In the end it was not her resistance that undermined the USSR, it was the fact that she was willing to "do business" with the Soviets that accelerated the pace of change in the moribund Soviet state.

Arguably, had the Thatcher government understood the need for a wider revolution - a constitutional one- then the UK would have been able to transform itself far more radically. In the end she could not transcend her own conservatism in order to complete the liberal revolution that she aspired to. She had a wider vision internationally than she had domestically. Figures such as Arthur Scargill or Jack Jones- self declared militant Socialists- prevented any engagement with the government that could have addressed the problems of British industry pragmatically. Then- as now- the loathing of Margaret Thatcher by the Left did not allow them to engage with or even understand her: the polarisation of politics that resulted (and remains) is at least the result of the vituperation of the defeated Left as the inflexibility of Margaret Thatcher herself.

Even today the language of the Labour Party refuses to accept that Conservatives or Liberal Democrats are motivated by good motives. Labour then, as now, ascribes the basest motives to their political opponents, failing to recognise that they are at least as idealistic as themselves. It is this wilful blindness that allowed people on the left to behave so disgracefully: talking of parties to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher when she entered hospital. This visceral hatred from the left is now being turned on the Liberal Democrats, who are routinely pilloried as "traitors", as though Socialism had any greater moral force than the Liberal ideal of freedom. The hatred of the left is a fearful thing, but it has allowed Liberal Democrats to finally understand the fact that it rests on the fear of the Left that Socialism has failed.

Indeed Socialism has failed, and it was not just the years of Margaret Thatcher that demonstrated this failure. The Blair-Brown years have ultimately been as economically catastrophic as the 1970s, and if the legacy of John Smith forced Labour to at least begin to address constitutional reform, the advent of the coalition should now allow that work to be completed. Freer votes, an elected House of Lords, local government reform, a transfer of powers from Whitehall to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and English local government, and a wholesale slimming of the state may only gain the partial approval of Lady Thatcher, but they are at least as necessary as the radical economic changes that she brought about.

I think it interesting how little today's politicians claim the mantle of Margaret Thatcher, and the reason is that her legacy is not an unalloyed success. If in foreign policy her instincts were almost always right, this was far less true domestically. Although the mistakes of her political enemies allowed her the victory of the Miner's Strike in 1984, in fact British manufacturing was not renewed: it was replaced by the more intangible benefits from the success of the City. That such success was questionable was evident even as early as the crash of 1987, which forced a bargain price onto the BP privatisation, and it is even more questionable today.

So although I wish Margaret Thatcher well on her recovery, I would also say that as a historical figure she made many mistakes and that her lasting impact may be that she may inspire greater change than she herself was able to achieve in office. She does indeed remain influential.

She does not leave an unblemished legacy, but at least she recognised the scale of the problems and made attempts to address them. If we compare her demonstrable sincerity with the charlatanism and personal greed of Tony Blair, she certainly looks better by personal comparison. In the end, if the coalition can continue to deliver a structured programme of economic and political reform, then perhaps the mistakes of the 1980s may not be repeated.

That would not be a dishonourable legacy.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

So what can we "still" do in the UK?

Britain was once the biggest economy in the world. Britons invented a spectacular array of the most important inventions of the nineteenth and twentieth century. From the steam railway to television; telephones to the jet engine, British creativity provided the foundation for enormous economic power. On the back of this, the country rose to become by far the most powerful state the world has ever seen. Amassing an empire that comprises one sixth of the planet's land and resources and one quarter of its people, it nevertheless took most pride in a democratic system that was substantially in advance of virtually all of its contemporaries. While the United States had bitter arguments over slavery that led to a vicious civil war in 1861, the British Empire had already abolished all slavery a generation before, and on the British mainland it is arguable as to whether slavery had ever legally existed at all. The disparate citizens of the Empire were united in a common purpose, a manifest destiny that gloried in its richness and diversity.

It is fashionable to say that the British Empire was already in decline before the opening of the twentieth century: The thirty years after the German state was created in 1871 saw a spectacular leap forward in German technology, and German speaking science, from Einstein and Freud to Robert Bosch, was rapidly taking the lead. The huge market of the the newly open American Frontier was driving the massive wealth of the gilded age. The Russian Empire then, as now, despite the mass of its down trodden people, was producing legendary levels of wealth for its elite of princes and industrialists.

Yet despite this, the Royal Navy continued to rule the waves, and British technology was creating the largest car making and ship building industries in the world.

Then came 1914.

The weakness of the British economy was that the education system remained very narrowly focused. Twenty or thirty public schools provided the aristocratic elite with an education that was detached from the rest of society. Imbued with the traditions of Sparta, these public schoolboys were amongst the first to volunteer in 1914. One million men were killed, and they were disproportionately amongst the best educated. This was why the political generation that led the country between the 1930s and the 1960s were so old: the generation that would have been the leaders were buried on Flanders fields.

The First World War devastated Britain. With the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the United Kingdom ended up losing more territory after the war than Germany did. Even the Empire began to loosen its ties with the homeland. Appalled by the incompetence and brutality of British leadership at ANZAC Cove and Vimy Ridge, Australia, New Zealand and Canada had found new national identities forged in the fires of the Western Front. In 1931, the Dominions essentially became independent, and it was clear that the debate on the future of India, the largest possession of the Empire, could not be stilled forever. Furthermore, the economic policy mistakes of the 1920s undermined investment in British industry, and the country endured a drastic loss of competitiveness. To add to the country's woes, it continued to abjure debt restructuring, and paid its debts to the United States in full- when all others could not or did not.

The exhaustion and the missing generation made the British certain that virtually nothing could be worse than fighting another war, and the result was fatal. In the face of the challenge of the deranged megalomaniac, Adolf Hitler, the British initially chose appeasement. Yet it was a policy which made the eventual war, when it finally did come, a struggle for the very survival of the Nation. Between June 1940 and June 1941, when Hitler attacked his erstwhile Soviet Ally, Britain and its Empire did indeed stand alone- assisted only by some very conditional and limited US lend-lease. Churchill spoke of the "finest hour" of the British Empire and people, but the price of the finest hour was the very Empire itself. It was not until 1942 that the United States fully joined the Second World War. Two and a half years later, at Yalta, Roosevelt had a choice between the Soviet Empire and the British Empire, and astonishingly he chose Stalin. Yet by that time, the British Empire could not have been sustained without the assistance of the United States anyway. Although by 1949, the Americans realised their mistake, it was already too late. The British economy was on its knees- with food rationing to continue into the 1950s.

In the face of the challenge of the murderous Soviet system, Britain- shorn of virtually every last one of its colonial outposts, no matter how small- locked its fate together with that of the United States. While Macmillan hoped the country would become "Greece to America's Rome", the partnership was in fact far more one sided. Although it was at least as much British know-how as American that contributed to the Manhattan Project, the United Kingdom was not given access to nuclear secrets, and the end of the Blue Streak ballistic missile project was also the end of any deterrent that did not rely on American missile technology. The special relationship meant that the United States based tens of thousands of military personnel in the UK, and was integrated to a certain degree into the military and intelligence decision making process in Washington D.C. but there was- and is- no question about who was the junior partner.

By the 1970s, the Soviet involvement in the British Trade Union movement had contributed to the catastrophic decline of the British economy. Despite the renewal of the special relationship, between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, US support for Britain in for example, the Falklands war, was as vital to Britain as it was conditional- for example extending the terms of the American lease on Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean territory.

I make this historical excursion because David Cameron's mistake in suggesting that Britain was America's junior ally in 1940 is reflective of a mindset that struggles to see Britain in an independent way. As the coolness in US-UK relationships continues, based perhaps on President Obama's contempt for an Empire that was actively resisted by his own father, the other point that Mr. Cameron made- that the special relationship can only be based on special interests is obviously valid. It also underlines a potential new national debate.

The fall of the Soviet system has created new challenges: the rise of China and India in particular could well mark the relative eclipse of the United States as a global hegemony. Yet it is the politics of British decline that concerns me here. To quote Dean Acheson once again: "Great Britain has lost an Empire and has yet to find a role". The problem is, I think, one of National ideology. The United States continues to think in terms of American exceptionalism- in precisely the way that the British imperialists once thought of themselves. Yet as British decline has continued, the country has struggled to identify what makes it special or even what makes it itself.

We are confronted with decline on a daily basis. One of the most common sentences when we describe our country is that we can "still" do something. We can still show the world pomp and circumstance, military efficiency, good quality products and so on. The problem is that when in the past you have been number one at virtually everything, it all seems a bit lack lustre. It also makes it difficult to decide where to focus our efforts in the modern world. We don't know who we are.

In fact the country can barely decide what to call itself. The official name of The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is absurdly too long. "Great Britain" or Britain , does not include the Irish component of the State, while "The United Kingdom" or "UK" simply describes the political structure, with no mention of geography. Other countries don't know what to call us either: "England" is most usual- though I did hear an American use Great Britain when he meant England- "we will go to Great Britain and to Scotland". This failure to even describe who we are reflects the fact of separatism in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but it also blurs our identity.

How can we know who we are, if we don't even know what to call ourselves?

If we are going to undergo a process of national renewal, we need to understand what our goals are, and what our agenda is: in short, Britain needs a national ideology. It is time to accept the old ways of doing things, from an unsustainable and unfair welfare state, to maintaining an unreformed political system with an only partially democratic Parliament, is holding us back. We need to open up our society to renewal.

The question then is to accept the things we need to change and to change them, and to maintain the things we should maintain- including our armed forces. The question is whether our political leaders have the wisdom to tell the difference.

It is time to turn the page on our long history of decline and to establish new ground rules that will allow us to recover a sense of national self respect- a process that is now long overdue.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Faraway Countries

Apologies for the hiatus in blogging- caused by total lack of time.

To restart the thread I wanted to move away from UK politics- I have much to say, but I am still considering the best way to express my thoughts on the future direction of the Liberal Democrats. In any event the coalition is running smoothly for the time being, and there are more urgent issues to address overseas.

Political upheaval in the newly independent states of Central Asia do seem to make much impact in the minds of Western newspaper readers, but occasionally, the five Republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan do make occasional news, albeit in a rather tangential way. The average person may have heard of Kazakhstan, if only because Sacha Baron Cohen chose to make his generic East European a Kazakh- even though most Kazakhs are not European, but rather east Asian in appearance. Perhaps others may have heard of Uzbekistan because of the campaigns of Craig Murray who, when British Ambassador in Tashkent, denounced the brutal torture and murder of opposition figures by the regime of President Islam Karimov. However, I think that over the course of the next few years we are all going to be hearing a lot more about the region- since I fear that it is becoming a geopolitical crush point that will lead to extremely dangerous instability that will threaten the security of both the West and of China.

So how can these "faraway countries of which we know nothing" (copyright Neville Chamberlain) create such difficulties? After all, they are mostly extremely poor, landlocked (in the case of Uzbekistan, double-landlocked) and indeed are very far away. Of course the same could be said of neighbouring Afghanistan- and indeed that is the root of the problem. The ethnic composition of Afghanistan includes Tajiks (Ahmad Shah Massoud, the stalwart of the Anti Soviet resistance, was a Tajik) Turkmens and Uzbeks as well as Pashto, Hazara, Baluchis and other ethnic groups.

The mosaic of ethnic groups in Afghanistan is mirrored across the rest of central Asia: Uzbekistan has several cities, including fabled Samarkand, that are majority Tajik. Kyrgyzstan has a near 20% Uzbek minority, as does Turkmenistan, while there are Russian minorities across the entire region, including nearly a quarter of the population of Kazakhstan. In fact Stalin deliberately constructed the borders of his Asian satraps so that they did not coincide with actual ethnic boundaries: particularly in the Fergana valley, which is shared between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The result is that when the former republics of the Soviet Union became independent, they were pretty fragile political units at best.

The politically fragile countries faced a series of challenges: extreme poverty, as the market of the former Soviet Union disappeared, and a flight of Russians back to the Russian Federation- many well educated workers, which the local economies could ill afford to lose. In Tajikistan, the country initially disintegrated into civil war, which was only ended with the emergence of a Russian backed strongman, Emmamoli Rahmon. Early hopes for the emergence of democratic states were dashed as the Soviet Nomenklatura stayed in power. All of the regional leaders, with the exception of Kyrgyzstan, had their roots inside the Communist Party, and the leaders of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan made the transition form First Secretary of the local Party into Presidents of independent states almost seamlessly. The political culture has remained rooted in the corruption and brutality of the Communist era.

In fact the corruption in the region was fed by significant energy discoveries. The vast oil reserves of Kazakhstan have allowed the regime to build from scratch a new capital, Astana, in the middle of the huge land mass. Yet despite this wealth, the majority of Kazakhs remain dirt poor. In Turkmenistan, the wealth is based on giant gas fields- and the corruption of the regime reached truly baroque proportions. The President declared himself the "Turkmenbashi", the father of the nation, and renamed months of the year after himself and his mother. Perhaps fortunately he later succumbed to a massive heart attack and was replaced with a more conventionally authoritarian and corrupt regime. Uzbekistan has few resources, but is by far the most populous state in the region: and with significant Uzbek minorities in all its neighbours. Even still, there is a significant Tajik minority, which has been the subject of repression by the ruthless and brutal regime.

Overall, then the situation in Central Asia, poor, corrupt, and unstable is not a happy one. However there are yet further pressures which are undermining the already fairly grim outlook for the region. The impact of the "War on terror" as it applies to Afghanistan has only added to the political pressures on these unstable societies. Although the first President of Kyrgyzstan was not a Communist, indeed was regarded as a Liberal when first elected, he soon lapsed into the same authoritarian format as his neighbours. Eventually he was overthrown in the so-called Tulip revolution- which led to hopes that the other dictators might be forced to concede ground. However when a similar Liberal movement was formed in Uzbekistan, Karimov snuffed it out with ruthless brutality: a brutality that drew protests across the world. In Kyrgyzstan the domestic political turmoil became an arena for a struggle between the United States and Russia. The US needed a forward support base for its operations in Afghanistan, and the new government was happy to provide it. As the political pendulum swung against the Liberals, however, the Russians too demanded a base in the former Soviet Republic. The result is that the two countries both have bases within about sixty miles of each other. Neither claims to be interfering in the internal affairs of the host country, but the spies and spooks of both are much in evidence.

China is the immediate neighbour of the region, and has significant interests- not least reopening the old silk road trading route between China and Europe that existed for centuries and which the Chinese would like to develop as a faster way to access the markets of Europe.

Meanwhile individuals and groups loyal to Islamic fanaticism have also been using the region to wage a proxy struggle with both the West and the oppressive local dictatorships. The Fergana Valley, split so uncomfortably between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekstan, has been a hotbed of groups which support the agenda of Al-Qaida. Now, as unrest grips Kyrgyzstan, the Uzbeks on the Kirghiz side of the border have come under attack by forces opposed to the new leadership in the Kirghiz capital, Bishkek.

So what can we conclude from this brief tour d'horizon?

That several great Power interests: The US, Russia and China, all have interests that collide in the region- as does India, which is wary of Pakistani influence anywhere. That the dire poverty- despite the potentially huge oil and gas wealth available- and oppressive politics are creating the conditions for a major radicalization of society- possibly in the direction of Islamic fanaticism. That the impact of the war in Afghanistan, including the lucrative heroin trade, is eroding the rule of law across the region.

In short, Central Asia now resembles the Balkan peninsula at the turn of the twentieth century: a hot bed of violent instability that could create the conditions for Great Power rivalry to lead to something worse.

I fear that until we know and understand the conditions in these far away countries, we will have learn our lesson the hard way: it is not just in Afghanistan that central Asia has the power to disrupt on a global scale.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Lost an Empire... did not find a role

Harry Truman's last Secretary of State was the extremely talented Dean Acheson, and it was Acheson who has had the last word on the role of Britain in the later part of the twentieth century.

"Great Britain" he declared "has lost an Empire, and has yet to find a role".

Yet Britain eventually did find a role: the most loyal lieutenant of the Pax Americana. Despite a progressively declining economy, Britain maintained relatively large armed forces and typically integrated their operations with those of the United States. A good example is the fact that the UK does not have full size aircraft carriers, but much smaller vessels that were designed as a forward anti-submarine screen for the North Atlantic- effectively placing them subordinate to the much larger US carriers which could only be placed further back.

In the 1960's Britain chose to abandon its separate fighter-bomber programme, the TSR 2, and missile programme, the Blue Streak, and buy American equipment instead. As a result Britain dropped out of the space race and allowed France to develop its own military, missile and space programme independently. The costs of these programmes were obviously very large, and thus the decision to work more closely with the United States was as much a pragmatic decision as it was a political one.

Yet there has been a price for our close alliance with the United States. In many ways the USA has claimed the British tradition of liberty as part of its own inheritance and the British have become trapped in a world view that is backward looking. Unlike America or even France, Britain has lost a clear sense of itself and its purpose. Always cynical about grand ideas, Britain now seems to have lost any big idea about itself. As our politics has declined into pragmatic managerialism it has also become increasingly isolated from the principles that should underpin the exercise of power.

Now it becomes clear that the special relationship has ended. British disgust at the arrogance and incompetence of the Bush years is now being matched by the growing sense of hostility in the US towards Britain. British institutions, such as the NHS or the Monarchy, are held up to ridicule, while there was general revulsion at the cynical deal that Britain appears to have made with Gaddafi's Libya- a deal that is seen as being paid for by American blood. Open condemnation of the decision to free Al- Magrahi reflects profound anger at an attempt by Britain to gain commercial advantage from this tragic and disturbing affair. That calls for a boycott of British goods are still being made suggests that this a storm that has changed American perception of the UK from that of a loyal partner to that of a duplicitous and cynical freeloader on American goodwill.

In truth, the "Special Relationship" has been a complex and nebulous arrangement, but as- inevitably- the United States develops a broader range of alliances in the multi-polar world its diminution now leaves Britain even more lost. No Empire, no special relationship with the leading power: what is Britain for exactly?

I think the time has come for a radical reappraisal for what we as citizens want to get from our society and our government. I do not believe- and I don't think Margaret Thatcher did either- that "there is no such thing as society", it is just that "society" is not the same thing as government, and indeed not much to do with government either. As a classical Liberal I have always argued that the role and power of government must be limited as far as possible, and that the citizen is very unwise to offer government a blank cheque for its activities. The fact that our administration is largely conducted in secrecy I regard as dangerous, and that the democratic will is now largely conducted by professional politicians I consider profoundly wrong.

The aggregation of power to the centre has created a sense that the government are our masters, when it seems to me that they should be our servants. The very debate on Liberty, conducted in Britain from John Locke to Isiah Berlin is being subverted into cynical and unprincipled managerialism by politicians of all parties.

If Acheson's aphorism was primarily speaking of British foreign policy, I believe that the malaise that he identified was a more general failure of will- and it is a failure that we have still not rectified.

Our country faces profound challenges- even existential challenges- it is now essential that we abandon politics conducted by hype and Public Relations and focus on a new vision for our society. Ideology may have become a curse word in the past few decades, but I am increasingly certain the Britain needs an ideology- a set of principles that define us and inspire us.

Without the renewal of national purpose that this debate could engender, I fear that the UK faces a bleak and diminishing future: and will deserve to.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The payback for short termism

As the last of the building-society-turned-banks loses its independence it seems only right to ask whether the policy of demutualisation pursued by the Conservatives when last in office was anything more than an expensive failure. It is certainly interesting to note the symmetry between that policy an the other great Conservative housing policy- "the right to buy", i.e. that those living in Council owned social housing could buy their homes at a big discount. Indeed it is pretty clear that this policy lies at the root of the British obsession with property. The move from right-to-buy to buy-to-let seems almost inevitable given the way in which the banking system of the UK was deregulated.

It was a classic case of short-termism. The prices that Council tenants paid did not reflect the sunk costs that the state had put into the social housing in the Post Second World War period and the prices were therefore highly attractive- the incentive to buy was substantial. Likewise in the process of demutualisation of the building societies, the prospect of large profits from the launch of these new banks onto the stock exchange proved too much for the deposit holders. Meanwhile, the managements of these new banks, rooted in the housing market, offered greater competition for housing based lending products. The was a significant contributor to the house price bubble, as well as helping to create a culture of property ownership not dissimilar to the share price bubble of the 1920s. In the same way as a stock tip from a shoe-shine boy persuaded Joe Kennedy to exit the stock exchange in 1929, the endless TV shows promising profits from property should have told us what we needed to know about the market: that it was way over heated.

Now the party is over. There is little or no social housing available in most parts of the country and the available private rented sector is not tightly regulated. Insecurity of tenure and rapidly escalating rents seem set to create a major problem of homelessness once again- a problem that had seemed to have become a marginal question in recent years. The regulation of the housing market, before the 1979-97 government, may have gone too far in favour of the tenants, but we must remember that Rachmann was no isolated figure. The criminal actions of Nicholas Van Hoogstraten underline the ruthlessness that evil people are prepared to show- even without the pressures of a property crash.

I remain a believer in the rights of the individual. I do not want the state to take on direct roles in the free market, but to remain a referee and not a player. Nevertheless, in order to preserve liberty there must be a system of law and of justice. In the end, the market has punished those who lost sight of the long term. However, it was a failure of regulation to offer only short term benefits- both to ex-council tenants and to building society shareholders- that has helped to create the mess we are in. The crisis in Britain at least is rooted in a failure of regulation- in political short-termism. Therefore the price of this failure is the large bail-out that we have now seen.

In my view, the British banking system has now largely been secured. However the failure of the US to devote comparable resources to its own problems is now an existential crisis. A failure to secure the American banking system has global consequences- including in the UK.

The Bush administration must now truly go down in history as the most abject failure. Even if Hank Paulson can get a modified bill through the Congress on Thursday, it is quite clear that the Administration should stand down as soon as possible after the election. The crisis can not wait through the prolonged interregnum until January 20th.

The reckless and self serving choice by John MacCain of a wholly unqualified running mate now makes it highly likely that - as I have suggested previously- the next administration will be headed by President Barack Obama. It would be the final insult from the disastrous President Bush if he refuses to stand aside quickly on purely partisan grounds.

The Bush Bust stands as the legacy of this foolish, arrogant and incompetent President.

Meanwhile in Britain we can now only watch and wait and hope that the US Congress will address the crisis with an attitude of greater responsibility than it did yesterday.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The past and the future of Kosova

The declaration of independence that the Parliament of Kosova approved on February 16th has been greeted by the international community with a certain weary resignation. The seventh country to have been carved out of the wreckage of Yugoslavia now takes its first toddler steps in the face of a certain amount of international dismay.

We are told that Serbia has lost the core of its history- yet, how true is this?

The province is named after the word for a blackbird in Serbian- Kos- in fact it is named after one particular battlefield: Kosovo Polje-the field of the Blackbirds. The battle took place on June 28th 1389. The battle took place at a key time for South East Europe, with the Ottoman Sultan Murad seeking to surround the declining Byzantine State and advancing into Europe. The army that faced the Ottomans was led by a Serbian princling, Lazar Hrebljanovic, and the various rulers of the petty states that emerged from the Serbian Empire of Stefan Dusan who had died in 1355. The Serbian army, like that of the Ottomans was a mixture of various of the peoples of the region, including speakers of Albanian- indeed it is conjectured that perhaps a third of the Serbian army was actually Albanian. In the end the battle closed with Ottoman Sultan and Serbian Prince dead. Although recorded as an Ottoman victory, it was still only in 1459 that the last Serbian kingdom finally fell to the Turks.

Meanwhile, the Kingdom of England lost control of Calais only in 1553, yet there is no serious attempt to "reclaim" Normandy or even Anjou, where even today one can find the graves of English Kings such as Richard the Lionheart and Henry II.

So why does any of this matter?

Firstly, during their years under the Turkish yoke, the Serbs began to create a series of myths surrounding the battle, with the day of the battle itself, known in Serbian as Vidovdan, becoming a holy festival to the Orthodox church. Indeed in several uprisings at the beginning of the 19th century, the spirit of the battle was invoked. Achieving firstly autonomy with the Ottoman Empire in 1815, Serbia finally gained full independence in 1878. Yet over all this time, in as far as evidence exists, the Turkish Vilayet of Kosovo was mostly Albanian speaking. Indeed in the same year as Serbia gained international recognition, Albanians gathered in the Kosovo city of Prizren and made their own case for autonomy.

In 1912, Albania became legally independent, and a year later Serbia had consolidated its victory in the Balkan wars-and with it control over Kosovo. In other words Serbian rule over Kosovo does not go back to "time immemorial" but actually only to 1913. Even then, there was the little matter of the First World war, so effective Serbian control in the province only dates to the 1920s.

All of this helps to explain why there are so few Serbs in to nominal cradle of the country- if they were ever the majority, which is dubious, those days were long past even centuries ago. Yet Serbs have claimed the province based on the national myths and the monasteries that were built to honour those myths during Turkish rule. Thus things stood through the creation of firstly the Kingdom and then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Indeed Tito might have included all of Albania within his state, had not the split in Comintern taken place in 1948.

On Vidovdan 1986, a little known apparatchik in the Serbian League of Communists was visiting Kosovo. At the site of the battle, a nationalist Serbian demonstration took place. The Communist Police, mostly local Albanian speakers, took a dim view of this anti-Communist protest. Yet the Apparatchik from Belgrade took the side of the demonstrators. This fatal decision to ride the Serbian nationalist tiger ultimately led to the destruction of the very idea of Yugoslavia- the apparatchik was, of course Slobodan Milosevic.

In the end Milosevic, created by Kosovo as a political force, was destroyed by it too. His decision to inflict the violence on Kosovo that he had already unleashed on Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and drive all the nearly 2 million Albanians out of the province was a catastrophy. The attempt at ethnic cleansing came on top of prolonged oppression of the Albanians, and in the end the international community resisted and ended Serbian rule.

The fact is that by attempting to destroy Kosovo, Milosevic forfited Serbia's legitimacy- perhaps always a little tenuous- as the ruler of the province. In the end it has become totally unrealistic to expect the people of Kosova to accept any kind of rule from Belgrade.

The myths of Serbian history may be strong, but the realty of brutality and oppression is stronger.

The new Republic of Kosova has made solemn declarations of protection to all citizens, irrespective of language, religion and culture. The international community must hold the newly independent government in Prishtina to its solemn promises. The governments in Prishtina and Tirana reject the idea of greater Albania- they argue that what is needed is a European solution to South East Europe, where borders become much less powerful. If Serbia is ready to engage with the new state, then there is much to gain.

Serbia will gain nothing by truculence and resentment - but positive engagement with the new state will finally end the cycle of myth and sacrifice that has characterised the history of the country since 1815.

In that spirit, I welcome the creation of this new European state. Europe has little to fear and much to hope for in a democratic, tolerant and open Republic of Kosova. We should insist that they keep the promises that they have made to their minorities, especially to the Serbian minority, but we should also give the new state our blessing and our recognition.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Alternative Futures II : The United States

The United States remains the key economic and political player on the Planet. Nevertheless, we can see a series of changes that, if continued, could have very profound effects. In some senses the United States seems almost caught in a perfect storm: the economic, political and military preponderance that the end of the cold war seemed to have allowed to the US was challenged within a very short period.

The dramatic economic growth of China, coupled with a drive for ever greater military and technological strength has already eroded the American military advantage. However the relationship between the largest country and the largest economy has been linked by the relentless purchase of American securities by Chinese institutions. However, repeated bubbles have failed to increase the economic efficiency of the America, and the consequence has been that cheaper money merely fuelled a consumer credit boom. One of the most dramatic changes in the global economy over the past 30 years is the switch from the United States being the world's creditor to becoming the world's largest debtor.

The consumer bubble was masked by the erroneous idea that housing was a true asset - since the price of property detached from any potential economic yield, the busting of the US housing market, as a result of the sub-prime crisis has created extremely challenging conditions for the US consumer, with a sharp fall in the price of loan collateral- houses- leading to a massive growth in loan defaults. Now, the bursting of the housing bubble has created a series of large outflows from US securities, with over $52 billion being sold by Asian investors in August 2007 alone. The gradual drift in the price of the Dollar is leading to something more sinister: the repeated rise of the price of oil in US Dollar terms- now hitting a new record of $87 a bbl. This is sinister in that in non US$ terms, the price is stable. Commodities are decoupling from the US$ as a reserve currency.

So there is now a very real threat that the US could enter a deep recession, with the Fed either unable to stabilise the Dollar against global commodities prices or forced to raise rates to the point where domestic economic activity is shut down.

Partly this reflects a breakdown in confidence in the US political system. It is hard to argue that the USA has an open political system when the President is the son of a previous President, while the leading contender to replace him is the wife of a different previous President. Meanwhile the reputation of the Congress is extremely low. the combination of pork barrel politics and a gerrymandered electorate seems to have created a political system that neither engages nor attracts the citizen. Although Paul Kennedy, in the Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, speaks of "Imperial overstretch"- briefly overspending on military power, as a prime cause of political decline- the relative economic decline of the US is obvious. In a sense we can draw parallels between the US and the Roman Republic, from where much of the language of American politics is drawn from ("The Senate"). The dominance of a narrow power elite proves to be too inflexible to cope with the problems that face the Republic.

The challenge that the US faced from Al-Qaida has provoked a series of major miscalculations by the power elite. The flawed decision to invade Iraq, while still engaged in Afghanistan, has cost the United States massively: politically, militarily, financially and also, perhaps especially, morally. The disgrace of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Graib is an indictment even to those who regard the United States as a benign, non hegemonic power.

So my fear is that the state that was in the vanguard of liberal and democratic values in the twentieth century now faces severe challenges, and even- to a degree- an existential threat. The relative position of the US has weakened and the challengers- primarily China, but to a much lesser degree Russia, truly are hegemonic, anti-liberal, and indeed tyrannical states.

Yet as I shall point out in later blogs, the threat to global stability is not merely from a weaker United States. The US has much structural flexibility and were it to embrace genuine economic and especially political reform, there would still be much to hope for.

The imponderable, is whether Americans are aware of their predicament, and if they are able to address it.

Alternative Futures I Introduction

As any student of the ideas of Nassim Nicolas Taleb would know, the idea that we can accurately predict the future is laughable. Randomness is built in to the structure of the Universe, and certainly into the structure of society. This is not to say that we have no data about how some effects may come from specific causes. However, any prediction must be tenuous and solely made in broadest outline- the more detailed a forecast, the more inaccurate it tends to be. In addition, most systems, even on a planetary scale, are open- so that, for example an ill-timed asteroid could render all forecasts at any but the most macro scale completely irrelevant.

Nevertheless, futurology can be at least interesting- if not truly informative- provided that you accept that, in Peter Snow's words; "it's just a bit of fun". The truth is, most assuredly, not "out there".

So, accepting all of the limitations that I describe, and at some risk of being drummed out of the Taleb fan club, let us think not so much about how the future might turn out, but what the implications might be, based on current events and trends. Although I shall be expressing myself in my usual opinionated way, in this new series of "crystal ball blogs" the reader should not take anything as being a particular definite statement, but something rather more tentative- a set of fears or hopes depending on the circumstances.

These necessary disclaimers having been made, I can now express a series of ideas that are giving me some cause for disquiet. There seem to be a series of global macro patterns that have the potential to change the reality and the perceptions of global power.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The political pendulum

If I was happy with the state of British politics I would not want to change it.

There has been a long history of two party politics in Britain. whether it was the "King's Party" versus the Puritans or the Whigs and the Tories, Liberals and Conservatives, and later Labour and Conservative, the tradition, indeed the very structure of the British Parliament is based on a division into two groups: Aye versus No.

The result was that British political parties have had to be large coalitions. Blairites and Communists coexist in Labour and Social Conservatives and Libertarians coexist amongst the Tories. Power alternates between two parties and they survive in power depending on the irritation factor of the electorate.

The pendulum of politics swings, and no one group achieves dominance- it was not a bad way to protect democracy. The problem is that the political duopoly has smothered ideas and genuine debate. The parties are afraid of dissent and can expel members who will not conform. There is no other way to take a direct role in the political process except through a party- there is but one independent in the House of Commons (though- as cross-benchers- more in the House of Lords).

Increasingly few people are prepared to accept the political compromises that the bi-party system requires. Membership of all political parties has fallen, and increasingly citizens have chosen to participate through single issue groups. For example, membership of the RSPB is greater than the combined membership of all political parties. Electoral participation rates have been in long term decline for decades.

So, the swing of the political pendulum, if that is what the recovery in the Conservatives turns out to be, may not be of such dramatic significance. The convergence of Labour and the Conservatives has created a bland homogeneity, where no voter feels threatened and neither Labour nor the Conservatives step to far away from the bland marketing bromides that pass for political slogans these days. So the replacement of Blair with Brown or even Cameron will not change that much.

The problem is that this gentle decay of politics is a threat to our freedoms. Democracy is under threat not yet from tyranny, but from indifference- and indifference which suits the party duopoly.

The electorate are not stupid: they know that much of the posturing of politicians is empty, and that they are powerless in the face of much that occurs. We listen to statements that demand action on a range of issues where politicians can not do anything, but no one points out that the Emperor has no clothes, they just don't bother to vote.

Liberal Democrats should not simply aim to replace on or another of the two parties on the pendulum. Our view of politics is in opposition to the zero-sum game of the two party system. We accept that there is greater diversity in political opinion than is allowed for in a straight Yes-No question. We believe that a coalition of different parties is no worse than the coalitions within parties and does at least have the advantage of honesty.

It is not enough to change the government, we must change the system of government, and unless we do then the political class - increasingly professionalised and based on marketing rather than philosophy- will become divorced from the citizens that it is supposed, ostensibly, to represent.

Liberal Democrats have got to speak out: our creed remains, "Trust in the people, tempered with prudence". Our political system now excludes the majority of citizens and can easily fall into decay- and in the vacuum irresponsible and dangerous demagogues may lurk.

The pendulum is no longer a sufficient guarantee of our liberties.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Tradition and Memory

On Sunday I went to attend the remembrance day service in Ely Cathedral. It was a wonderful reminder of my own school days and the continuation of traditions. The wonderful cathedral rises like an ocean liner above the bleak and rather wintry fens. It may be me, but I have never felt warm in the Fenlands.

The Cathedral was completely full, so I stood at the back with a few other late-comers. The banners of the British Legion, Sea Cadets, Scouts, Guides, Cubs and Brownies were marched in, with a military band playing cheerful airs- although the pealing of the church bells-as is proper- were muffled. The national anthem was played- though noticeably few seemed to know the second verse- and I have always liked the "May she protect our laws" bit. Although there were not enough orders of service to go around, I found myself remembering the hymns unbidden. I suppose they were so familiar- particularly the Crimmond setting of Psalm 23.

The two minutes silence- well, given the number of babies the two minutes mostly silence- was proceeded and ended by military trumpeters. Then a beautiful anthem and the sermon. All wonderfully unchanged and strangely comforting.

Yet as the Scouts, Brownies and so forth followed the march out from the Cathedral of three hundred soldiers from the local garrison, I was strangely troubled. I suppose Baden Powell would have entirely approved of the idea that Scouts were training boys in certain military skills, but it gave me pause. Given the way of the modern world we have lived mostly in peace. Despite the idea of a "war against terrorism" the reality is that even with MI5's questionable belief in over 30 conspiracies, very few of us are likely to face anything at all in our daily life comparable in any way to the two world wars. Though our soldiers are fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, the scale of these wars is rather less than a typical colonial war of the nineteenth century- the century that we conventionally think of as the Pax Britannica.

As I watched the parade with banners fluttering, I wondered if I was watching something real- rooted in the traditions of centuries, or whether we cling to the forms, but forget the real sacrifices that warfare insists upon. Is our fear of terrorism making us throw away the freedoms that make our society what it is? Are we decadent, or do we truly match up to the generations that understood the burdens and price of being a free country?

I have no answer, but pray that we are not to be tested.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

In Flanders Fields

In Britain and the Commonwealth the symbol of war remembrance is the Red Poppy. However I see that a Christian Group, Ekklesia suggests that we should actually wear the pacifist white poppy to avoid glorification of war that the Red Poppy might represent.

I have no quarrel with those who choose to wear white poppies, but I find it hard to equate John Macrae's poem with the glorification of war. I attended University on John Macrae's home town of Guelph, Ontario- yes Macrae was a Canadian- so perhaps I feel a bit closer to the poem.

I still think the message that the poem sends is a message of humanity amidst the slaughter and the death. I leave it for you to judge for yourselves:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place;
and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead.
Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.